Thursday, March 31, 2011

Gone for the Day!

Our book today is Gone for the Day, a collection of the columns Ned Smith did for the Pennsylvania Game News magazine from 1966 to 1969. As near as I can tell, the magazine included the book as a subscription gift one year and it became so popular they reprinted it several times - but still only for their subscribers. If this is true, those were lucky subscribers, and the original readers of these columns must have been luckier still, since there's nothing quite like the low-simmer enjoyable sense of possession that comes from finding a really good regular column and following it religiously (I guess the closest equivalent these days would be finding a really good blog and subscribing to it, but as with all things on the Internet, it just doesn't feel the same). The vagaries of magazine budget and space being what they are - and passion being, as always, unpredictable - you never know where you're likely to find such a column, and the ones that manage to stay very good for years at a stretch are rare. One thinks of Stephen Jay Gould's "This View of Life" column in Natural History, or Katherine Powers' A Reading Life that was lately and shamefully cut from the Boston Globe (and picked up, in a move so thick with ironies you can barely count them, by the Barnes & Noble Review). How I would have loved to be one of those readers catching Ned Smiths' "Gone for the Day" columns as they were originally appearing, always under their neat little banner (enviably double-talented, he did all his own illustrations):

Smith was a lifelong walker in woods and fields (and, thankfully for the rest of us, a "lifelong writer-downer"), tracking through wooded hills and mountains of Pennsylvania for most of his life, in all seasons and weathers, carrying a battered notebook and a camera and noting the comings and goings, the tracks and passages of the multitude of living creatures he encounters - or just misses encountering:
February 7: A rabbit that hangs out on the edge of a neighborhood woods left an easily read account of last night's activities inscribed in the snow. Near the fencerow he had bitten off a number of greenbriar vines and eaten large portions of each. The mark of where he had been sitting, and the vines bobbing as he nibbled, left an arc of gashes in the snow. The tendrils and formidable thorns had been neatly nipped off, and lay scattered about on the snow.

That quiet gift for detailed observation runs through this entire book - Gone for the Day easily accomplishes what all the best books of nature-writing do: it puts the reader right there in the woods (or swamps, or arctic wastes, or what have you) with our guide, seeing what he sees:
February 6 [the following year]: Red squirrels are natural-born clowns, and when they don't know they are being observed they are absolutely hilarious. This afternoon I watched the antics of three of them from a blind at the feeder. Where they came from, I don't know, but they exploded onto the scene like a troupe of vaudeville acrobats. It was impossible to be sure who was chasing whom as they streaked over fallen logs, up and down trees, and over the snow in blurry, intertwining circles. Occasionally they tangled, squealing and churring in real or simulated anger, then they broke apart, only to resume the dizzy chase.

(There's even a winning quality of innocence, as that last quote makes abundantly clear: as should be obvious to any less cheery observer, those squirrels weren't happily clowning around with each other right there on the doorstep of the breeding season - they were ruthlessly trying to bite each other's balls of and then rip each other's throats out)

Smith has that wonderful facility for disappearing, melting into the scenery so thoroughly that time and again he catches animals just being themselves, totally unaware that they're being watched. The animals almost always sense him eventually and then do their own disappearing acts, but before they do, we get many marvellous glimpses from the Pennsylvania woods and meadows and stream banks:
March 14 - A muskrat feeding on the roots of some unidentified weeds from the breast of our dam proved to be a surprisingly fastidious diner. Each time he dug up a root he carried it to the water three feet beneath him, where he carefully washed and ate it. Climbing back up the steep earthen breast he then dug up another and repeated the entire process. Not before he had laboriously washed and eaten half a dozen roots did he notice me sitting on the far bank observing his table manners. Without an upward glance he plunged off the bank and into the water like an overgrown frog.

And the book tries for more than such camera-glimpses - and it very often succeeds. Like most people who consciously make roaming around in nature a part of their days, Smith quickly came to appreciate and gently preach the restorative powers of spending time with animals in their world. Even after fifty years, Gone for the Day still breathes that restorative power - it's the next best thing to going out wandering yourself. It might prove a bit tough to find a copy, but I urge you to try: this is a nature book to keep and re-read for the rest of your life.

Comics! The passing of the Torch

Marvel's two flagship comics continue to deal with the aftershocks of the death of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, a couple of issues ago in "The Fantastic Four." Nobody this side of Aunt Petunia believes the Torch is really, permanently dead (since a revived and all-growed-up Bucky Barnes is now on the Avengers as Captain America, my old ironclad Marvel Comics rule "Nobody dies but Bucky" has now been amended to "Nobody dies, period"), but these long-arc storylines where a major character seems to be dead allows writers at Marvel and DC to pretend it was all true and put all the related characters through all the Kubler-Ross stages of grieving, kind of like Tom and Huck getting to watch their own funeral.

Such a gambit can be flubbed, of course - DC dropped the ball big-time twenty years ago with its "Death of Superman" arc, and then, not to be outdone, they dropped the ball again last year when Batman allegedly died. But Marvel tends to do it right, as was seen in their recent headline-grabbing "Death of Captain America" story. And the approach they're taking this time is low-key and entirely believable.

The stress is on family, and Dan Slott's writing captures something of the tone of that quite nicely. The current issue of "Spider-Man" (lamentably titled "Torch Song") features nothing more than Spider-Man going to the Baxter Building late at night to share the company of the remaining members of the Fantastic Four (we're treated to a neat little homage to Spidey's first visit to the team, when he's accidentally caught in a pneumatic intruder-tube). It's all very quiet and sad and real-seeming, just four old friends talking about a loved one who's died. Gruff Ben Grimm matter-of-factly tells Peter Parker that he's a member of the family, and Sue Richards seconds it. They're sitting in the kitchen talking - no super-villains erupt through the walls, no surprises explode in splash panels.

The timing is off a bit in terms of titles shipping to stores - readers already know Spider-Man will join the team - but that doesn't dull the enjoyment of the last bit, where Reed Richards reveals that Johnny left one last holographic video message for Peter Parker:
Pete? If you're hearing this, I'm sorry, pal. Sorry that I'm gone, 'cause ... well, I know how you feel when it comes to losing family. And that's what you are to me. Family. So ... if you're thinking of this as my last will and all ... I'm not leaving you my sports cars or stuff like that ... I'm leaving you the best thing I ever had ... my spot on this team. A place in this family. The best sister, two brothers, niece, and nephew a guy could ask for.

Slott hits all the right notes in these scenes (including the hokey-but-effective signature FF hand-pile), but for my money, the single best evocation of what this whole story means is Marcos Martin's wonderful, understated, incredibly sad cover illustration. The combination of elements - the Empire State Building, the old-style water tower, the '4' signal-flare that will never now mean what it once did, and a small-looking Spider-Man looking up at it - makes this the best Marvel cover I've seen this year.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On the Wings of a Bird!

Our book today is H.R.Sass' modest 1929 hit On the Wings of a Bird, which was reprinted a handful of times back in the days before paperbacks, when almost all a book's sales were generated the old-fashioned way, through word of mouth. This book started out as one essay and grew through that demand, mainly because Sass is so poetically winning about what he calls the 'enchanted kingdoms' that all those who walk in the wild world manage to find. His are in the Carolinas, mostly, in the cypress-shaded lagoons and hot-wind beaches with their seal-shadowed sand bars, although such enchanted kingdoms can exist virtually anywhere, as we saw with dear old Nauset Marsh.  "You cannot trace upon any map the frontiers of your enchanted kingdom," he tells us. "It is remote and yet near at hand; you were far from it five seconds ago - oh, ten thousand miles away - yet now, in the twinkling of an eye, you are in its very heart." Aided by minimalist, winsome sketches by Herman Palmer, he guides us.

As Sass readily admits, this is mostly a book about birds. They certainly haunt these pages right from the start:
Sitting on the piazza on cool evenings in late September, I hear the voices of the feathered hosts that I cannot see. In hundreds and thousands and, it may be, in hundreds of thousands, they are streaming over my head, up in the black infinity between earth and stars. The whole air is full of them; now here, now there, now elsewhere, there various voices call to me out of the darkness. Some of the sounds I know well - the guttural "quok" of the black-crowned night heron, the high-pitched "skeow" of the green heron, the metallic chirp of the ricebird that travels in company with the larger wayfarers in the gloom. Others are sounds that I have never heard at any other time - that probably I shall never hear except on these autumnal nights when the far-called armes of the migrating birds are fleeing southward before the intangible, irresistible might of approaching winter.

But this is no monograph: plenty of other creatures wander in and out of these pages - deer in the woods, foxes, rabbits, and the two apex predators that were once ubiquitous all along the low-lying Carolina coastland, alligators and sharks. Alligators feature in our author's memories most fondly:
I like alligators. I like to see them and hear them; the bellowing of a big bull dragon, by the way, is one of the most impressive sounds in the American woods, an eloquent reminder of those colorful early days when a man could scarcely sleep near one of the great swamps because of the unearthly chorus of the wild beasts.

Because Sass was an avid surf-fisherman, sharks aren't quite as welcome in his recollections:
When there are sharks about, the surf-fisherman, if he has any sense, is constrained to stick to the shallows. In the easy chair at home he will laugh to scorn the tales that are told of sharks that attacked anglers, but in the surf slues, with a tall black fin showing above the foam-flecked water, he is apt to regard those tales more seriously.

And whether he's talking about menaces or marvels, Sass strikes one note entirely in common with all other good nature-writers - because he loves the places where he has wandered, because he wants them to be there for future generations, he cares most about stewardship. He cites it as the central theme of his book:
The utmost that can be hoped for is that it may help in some small measure to bring nearer the day when man shall cease to be a destroyer and shall become instead the friend and protector of his lesser kinsmen - the guardian and preserver of that marvellous life of earth and air over which, in the course of long ages, he has achieved almost absolute power. If it can give even the slightest aid to that good cause, its faults may be forgiven.

Whatever faults On the Wings of a Bird may have can certainly be forgiven - this is a gently spellbinding book, long out of print. It's doubtful Sass would have liked the many changes to his beloved Carolina coast since he put down his pen. Reading and smiling over this book, I just have to hope he'd somehow find enchantment there even so.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ring of Bright Water!

Our book today is Gavin Maxwell's immortal 1960 nature classic, Ring of Bright Water, the story of his life in the West Highlands of Scotland in a picturesque little house he calls Camusfearna in the book - and more than just the story of that life: of course, as millions of readers have discovered to their delight over years, it's the story of the friendships Maxwell forms with first one remarkable otter, Mijdil, and then a second, Edal. So memorable is the impression the book leaves of these two remarkable animals that the returning reader is surprised to find that Mij doesn't even appear until 80 pages have passed - you remember it as his book from first to last, but Maxwell actually sets the stage for many pages before his acquires his friend in Iraq and brings him half-way around the world to the cold lakes and waterfalls of Scotland. We get many beautiful descriptions of the majestic bleakness of that part of the world - a bleakness that's ultimately impossible to capture in words, although Maxwell comes closer to doing it than any other author I've ever read. Even when he's in haste to tell an unconnected story, his descriptions are wonderful:
It was a cloudy night with a freshening wind and a big moon that swam muzzily through black rags of vapour. By eleven o'clock it was blowing strong to gale from the south, and on the windward side of the islands there was a heavy sea beginning to pile up.

But the real story here is Mij the otter, who takes immediately to domestic life and displays an abundantly energetic affection for Maxwell from the start. The reader is given scene after scene of Mij wandering the lakeside and hills, fishing and exploring, and coming back faithfully each night to the warmth of the fireside. The gentle nature of his curiosity about everything around him certainly clashes with my own face-to-muzzle experience with otters, but the passion of Maxwell's account is irresistible, and as in the best books of this kind, he gradually learns to un-learn his previous, inevitably parochial conceptions of what love is. When Mij disappears for a day, Maxwell is frantic with worry, and it moves him to self-examination (as he puts it, writers are duty-bound to a certain visceral honesty):
I knew by that time that Mij meant more to me than most human beings of my acquaintance, that I should miss his physical presence more than theirs, and I was not ashamed of it. In the penultimate analysis, perhaps, I knew that Mij trusted me more utterly than did any of my own kind, and so supplied a need that we are slow to admit.

And when Mij finally leaves the book forever (after only a year with his human friend), the sense of desolation that fills the pages before the arrival of Edal is suffocating:
I missed Mij desperately, so much that it was a year before I could bring myself to go to Camusfearna again. I mourned for my fallen sparrow; he had filled that landscape so completely, had made so much his own every yard of the ring of bright water I loved, that it seemed, after he had gone from it, hollow and insufficient; for the first time all the familiar things in which I had taken joy appeared as a stage backcloth against which no player moved.

But these quotes, though often foremost in my mind, are in a way misleading: Ring of Bright Water isn't a sad book - it has sadness in it, yes, but no reader will frown when they remember it. It's full of joy and communication and nature gloriously described, and the two pudgy, opinionated, stubby-legged creatures who star in its pages give no end of delight, which Maxwell has captured perfectly throughout. This author's career has long been a puzzle to me - it's absolutely strewn with some of the most poorly-chosen writing projects imaginable. This book is his only real masterpiece, despite the fact that he had talent enough for six or seven books this good. But at least we have this gem of an account - like Maxwell in this book, we must, I suppose, be grateful for whatever pure marvels come our way, for however long.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Aunts, Taunts, and Old Haunts in the Penny Press!

The 17 March London Review of Books (fully enjoyable, like green eggs and ham, on a train or in the rain) is a typically diverse and involving issue of that typically wonderful publication. I've praised the LRB often enough here - In the Penny Press would be a poorer place indeed without it - as being a kind of necessary adjunct to the mighty Times Literary Supplement; I go to the TLS to breathe the pure mountain air of erudition, and to be blasted by that air, article after article, three times the number of articles in any given issue of the LRB.

In the London Review, the reviews are longer, fewer, and in some measures designed to be more accessible - no less intelligent and probing, but with a broader issue-base in mind, and no 4000-word discourses on the latest annotated historiography of late 17th century conversos memoranda. Don't get me wrong: the sheer, bristling brilliance of the TLS' bookishness is one of the wonders of the modern world, gloriously anachronistic in our age of mini-tweets (they'll have my subscription, paid faithfully every year, until the sun goes cold in the sky). But one also likes a slightly more street-level intellectual stimulation, and for that, nothing currently being published (with one possible exception!) beats the LRB.

This 17 March issue is a perfect case-in-point: 15 pieces (plus juicy extra bits, like poetry or short columns) covering as wide a spectrum of subjects as any reading public could want. Even the political stuff is so well-written I very often actually read it, when corresponding piece in The New Yorker get skipped so I can watch David Denby mud-sling semiotics all over the new Angelina Jolie car-chase. But the literary matter is what really shines. The TLS regularly prints the Introductions various authors have written to forthcoming new editions of classics, but those are finished things just showing up in print early - when something similar happens in the LRB, you get the impression more of a workshop than a shop window, and it's nice.

Take the fantastic "The Importance of Aunts" in this issue, by the great Colm Toibin (I'm sitting here trying to remember the last thing he wrote that I didn't like - needless to say, this is not a process that takes a long time, with most authors - and I'm stumped; perhaps I'll consult my own archives): I'm sure

[caption id="attachment_2535" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="the mighty elizabeth spriggs as aunt agatha"][/caption]

this piece was conceived, written, and commissioned elsewhere and for other purposes (is there an Oxford Book of Aunts coming out? If there isn't, there should be - I'd buy a copy), but it still has a convivial air about it that makes it invigorating reading. Toibin looks at the function of aunts in the 19th century novel - his readings don't take him as far as the 20th century and Bertie Wooster, so he doesn't deal with those twin titans of menace, Aunt Dahlia and Aunt Agatha - and he throws off idea after fascinating idea about the pseudo-maternal role aunts play in the fiction of the time. As you'd expect from Toibin, there's a great deal here about Henry James, as when we're told that he "followed the serialisation of Daniel Deronda. He read the book carefully, disapproved of it, and then took what he needed from it." Hee.

His essay wanders around quite a bit, which is what should happen in a piece by an extremely well-read Irishman, and it says lots of really interesting things about the various ways aunts are employed to make things happen, as opposed to the rarer mothers in the period's fiction, whose function is (or would be, if they were around to exercise it) to stop things from happening. Some wag once summarized all British fiction with the single word "aunts," and reading Toibin's essay here almost makes you believe it - I wanted more from him on the subject, which is, curiously, just what you want your readers to be feeling when they finish a piece like this.

Of course, leaving the reader wanting more isn't always - or even usually - a good thing in other kinds of pieces. In straight-up book reviews, for instance, if your reader ends the review by saying "but what about THIS? Or THAT?" then you've done an incomplete job, allowed your personal fixations to block or cramp your review. If you yourself are a high-profile professional book reviewer reading these words right now (I know quite a few of you are regular readers of Stevereads - although unaccountably bashful!), you'll know the many and powerful temptations to let your review be blocked and cramped, to give your personal hobby-horses a little gambol in print. We've all done it, and in essence there's no shame in it (provided you're interesting, the sine qua non of all writing) - the key is to do justice to the book under review, regardless of whatever else you decide to spool on about.

Naturally, in the case of this LRB issue, I'm talking about David Haglund's piece on James Franco's Palo Alto. Because it isn't a piece on Palo Alto, Franco's debut short story collection, even though it's billed as that. Instead, it's a piece on Franco's fraught public persona, with a couple of distracted paragraphs on Palo Alto tacked on. Unless you've allowed your subscription to USWeekly to lapse and are thus Franco-starved, this piece will certainly leave you wanting more, since in the place of Haglund devoting any kind of serious attention to the collection of short stories, we get Haglund drizzling baffled condescension all over Franco's non-writing career. What little there is about Palo Alto is more sizzle than steak, with pat little bits of plate-spinning like this:
But Franco's irony regarding his fame shouldn't lead anyone to underestimate the remarkable earnestness of his artistic ambitions, whether he's able to realise them or not. Indeed, that earnestness may be an obstacle to their achievement, if Palo Alto is any indication.

It's not that I'm expecting reviewers to ignore the fact of Franco's celebrity when discussing his book; authorship is a legitimate component of writership, after all. And I'm not equating Palo Alto with Franco's beloved Turgenev, not by a long shot. But it's a serious book nonetheless, some of its stories written in innumerable drafts to get them just so, and many of its effects genuinely heartfelt. It deserves more than a couple of dismissive paragraphs; Haglund should have resisted his urge to digress at such length about Franco's acting antics, especially since under different circumstances I'd have loved to read his take on those antics. Reading this piece, all I kept thinking was how disappointing Franco himself would find it - not disappointed that the critic didn't like his book (any writer has to be ready for that), but disappointed at how badly distracted the critic let himself be.

Fortunately, focus was in ample supply elsewhere in the issue, including my favorite piece, the redoubtable Tom Shippey's magnificent review of Robin Fleming's Britain After Rome, her great, endlessly entertaining, and beautifully written entry in Penguin's ongoing History of Britain. Shippy wasn't as taken with the book as I was, but he certainly does it justice with a thorough reading - and in the process he crafts an essay that's enjoyable to read all by itself, the true mark of first-rate literary journalism. It's no easy thing to write a knowledgeable 2000-word piece on a historical subject and keep things interesting the whole time - most professional historians, for example, would be helplessly stymied by such an assignment (even though they regularly give such assignments to their students), but Shippey never disappoints (well, until he eventually does, at which point Stevereads will dutifully whack him for it). Here he is on the wealth of pre-Conquest England:
No wonder William the Conqueror thought that England was worth a serious gamble. The country, with its rich estates, centralised bureaucracy, effeciently run coinage and - something at last that Roman Britain didn't have - its hundreds of watermills (a new technology), looked as if it were going to skip the Middle Ages altogether and move on to a new level of prosperity. But it took a long time to get there...

He somewhat snidely mentions how "In every TV programme about Anglo-Saxon England someone is always wheeled on to say, in effect: 'Dark Ages? How can anyone call these the Dark Ages? Just look at the amazing jewellery/magnificent artwork/superb illumination' and then offers a sparklingly pithy correction:
Nails, pots, tiles, bronze and copper coins: it's the absence of useful low-cost items in bulk that make a Dark Age, and their loss is not compensated by the ability to manufacture elite bling.

Marvellous. Couldn't have put it better myself.

There was lots else in this issue of the LRB, as there is in virtually every issue - 'something for everybody' as the useful old tag-line goes. At the risk of sounding boosterish, I'll go ahead and urge you all: take the plunge for a year's subscription, and see if you don't cheerfully renew when that time is up.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Comics! Timber Wolf in the Legion!

In yesterday's stack of comics was "Legion of Super-Heroes" #11, written by the legendary Paul Levitz and drawn by someone (something?) called Daniel HDR. It's called "False Start," and it's one of the early chapters in what's promising to be an epic return of the Legion of Super-Villains (only a promise, at this point - DC could always decide to fire Levitz precipitously in mid-story, or else he himself could decide to get himself fired in mid-story), and as you can tell from the cover, the centerpiece of the issue is a fight between the solar-powered Sun Emperor and the super-feral Legionnaire Timber Wolf.

So: the sort of thing that'll be incomprehensible to outsiders and catnip to Legion fans, who've loved Timber Wolf since his original appearance forty years ago (he was doing the whole savage-good-guy-with-claws-who-heals-real-fast a long time before Wolverine showed up over at Marvel). The match is also drastically uneven on its face: Sun Emperor is a 'big' villain, and typically in Legion history 'big' villains are fought by many team mates acting in concert. When that doesn't happen - when a writer intentionally sends out a hero alone against a villain who outclasses him - it tends to bode ill for the hero (one thinks of Chemical King, the original Invisible Kid, the original Karate Kid), so when I saw that wonderful cover, I wondered if Levitz was going to start off this big Legion of Super-Villains story with first blood going to the bad guys.

The mis-match comes from the fact that Timber Wolf isn't a 'big' Legionnaire. He's one of those above-the-middle superheroes without whom no team can function and be interesting (over at Marvel, think of how the Vision held the Avengers together for so many issues), but he's never been a Legion heavy-hitter on the level of Mon-el or Ultra Boy or Element Lad. Timber Wolf his mid-range super strength and agility, and he's got a bad temper. None of that should prevent a villain like Sun Emperor from melting his eyes and ending the fight in about five seconds.

But Levitz is a canny writer (and here he's very ably assisted by the pencils of this mysterious Daniel HDR-bot - this is some very good artwork, and it shows every sign of becoming fan-favorite classic stuff in about five more years of steady pencilling), and Timber Wolf is too popular with Legion fanatics to simply kill - this issue has something else in mind: reclaiming the character a bit. Timber Wolf faces off against Sun Emperor in Japan and simply refuses to let the fact that he's getting char-broiled stop him from beating the stuffing out of his foe (who has, I belatedly realized as I was reading, only normal human strength underneath all those flames). Levitz' scripting always has a curiously enjoyable bare-bones quality about it - in his "Legion," the universe is a tough place where bad things happen, and the good guys are always understaffed and overcommitted - and he enjoys a little poking around inside his readers' preconceptions, as when he has a defiant Timber Wolf object when Sun Emperor calls him an "animal" (always a touchy spot with this particular Legionnaire). "I'm not an animal," he says, "I'm human" - but he says it while he's charging, fangs bared, wild-eyed, whole head on fire, playfully subverting the moment.

This issue isn't meant to be big shakes - we're still in classic Levitz-style 'prelude' issues as his big storyline gears up - but even so it has half a dozen sub-plots percolating along, so there's something for virtually every picky Legion fan, and a real treat at the center for Timber Wolf fans. And the rest of us (what can I say? It's tough to get excited about 'feral' characters when you were one for the first third of your life) can take pleasure in the feel of a big story playing out so confidently - and in the HDR-bot's really good artwork (especially the fun background characters, in time-honored Steve Rude fasion).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fly Away Free!

Our book today is a slim little natural history title called Fly Away Free from 1981 by Joan Hewett, with some absolutely remarkable black-and-white photos by Richard Hewett. It's the story of a California veterinarian named Joel who loves to surf and who one day while out on the water finds a lone young pelican just idling there on the surface. Joel suspects something might be wrong, and his suspicions are confirmed when the bird makes no attempt to fly away from him.

Joel suspects the bird might be injured or disoriented somehow, so he brings it back to his animal hospital, names it Rusty (because his wings don't seem to work and so might be rusty), and sets in motion a quick but fascinating story of the animal world intersecting with the human world.

Rusty submits to the care Joel gives him - the feeding tube, the crate, the baths under a hose - with complete meekness. Reading the book, you can't avoid the impression - mistaken though it might well be - that Rusty knows he needs help and gratefully accepts it. Joel is certainly happy to offer it, although once Rusty starts to feel better and begins bossing around everybody at the animal hospital, the feeling is perhaps not shared equally by all. The hospital's cat, for instance, might not like being snapped at, and the hospital staff might not enjoy being squawked at (Hewett says the squawking wasn't very loud, pointing out that pelicans have very small voices).

In a few days Rusty is strong enough to go surfing with Joel, tethered to him by a leash. He clearly enjoys it as much as Joel does, and he grows very much stronger. He grows ready, as Joel knows despite not completely wanting to admit it. And eventually the day comes when they go to the beach without the tether and Joel releases Rusty into the free air. The vet stands on the beach watching while the bird flies away, and neither he nor anybody will ever know how Rusty himself thought of this weird, not entirely unenjoyable interlude in the human world.

The moral of the story? Sometimes the weird-looking bossy smelly ungainly creatures we find out in the world are only with us for a short time, regaining their strength, before they disappear back into the world again.

And sometimes they stay, perhaps because the world doesn't want them back.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Thor: The Mangog Saga!

Our story today is "The Mangog Saga," but it wasn't written down by Snorri Sturluson a thousand years ago - it's of much fresher vintage. This is a four-part tale that ran in "The Mighty Thor" back in 1968, a grand, rip-snortingly epic tale brought to life by writer Stan Lee, penciller Jack Kirby, inker Vince Colletta, and colorist Sam Rosen.

Obviously, I was nudged to revisit this story by that last comics entry, where I mentioned that the revamped "Kid Thor" hero Thunderstrike faced off in his latest issue against a Thor super-villain named Mangog, a gigantic claw-fisted creature with a long tail, troubling teeth, and ... the strength of a billion billion beings. Some of you wrote in (some taking advantage of the snazzy new 'write to me' box the right-hand margin; more such improvements to follow!) curious about my all-too-obvious eagerness to talk about this particular villain, but honestly, when it comes to all things Thor-related, I probably didn't need the urging. I've read the four-issue run I'm dubbing "The Mangog Saga" many, many times in the forty-something years since it first appeared - indeed, I read it first as it was appearing, traipsing with my beagles to the town variety store month after nail-biting month. It's something of an Asgardian miracle my issues haven't disintegrated completely.

Our story starts in "The Mighty Thor" #154, a chapter called "To Wake the Mangog!" - and that chapter starts where pretty much every Thor story starts: in the middle of a fight between him and his scheming half-brother Loki. This fight is interrupted by an abrupt call from Asgard, the home of the Norse gods - a call from Odin, Thor's irascible father, the king of the gods. Odin has sensed a menace looming in Asgard's future, and he's calling all his people back home to face it. While Thor stands at rapt attention listening to this warning, Loki takes the opportunity to flee - but then the warning stops, no further details forthcoming, and when Thor realizes Loki has escaped, he flies to the hospital where his immortal beloved, the goddess Sif, lies recovering from wounds she suffered at Loki's hands. Thor finds her sleeping peacefully ("Thought the eyes of the thunder god now peruse my lady's medical report," he muses, "'twill require the brain of Dr. Donald Blake to comprehend what it doth signify" - an interesting indication that in Stan Lee's original conception, Thor and his mortal alter ego Dr. Blake are entirely separate entities - they don't even share the same knowledge - which is a far cry from how things are nowadays).

It's always in hospitals that we're most aware of how close 'resting peacefully' is to 'rest in peace' - and we're not the only ones! While Thor is standing there fumbling with Sif's chart, Hela, the Norse goddess of death, suddenly appears in the room. Thor draws the natural conclusion and speaks up immediately, barring Sif's bed: "She did but suffer wound in battle! I vow she shall recover!"

But Hela's not there to claim Sif - she's there, for some inexplicable reason, to tempt Thor (that 'inexplicable reason' bit crops up more than once in this issue, reinforcing my theory - and longstanding gripe - that unlike so many writers, Lee always found the beginnings of big stories more difficult than any other part). She can't simply kill him until he's once again mortally wounded - a point of etiquette she's going to forget in only ten years, as we've seen in a previous Thor post - but she can show him the wonders that await him: "Now come I to show what thou hast but postponed! Behold - the promised glory of Valhalla! Do but say the word, and everlasting battle can be thine!" She gestures, and Thor sees a hilly vista covered in armies with banners flying - it's here that we get our first real taste of the great job Rosen will do in these four issues, masterfully playing somber deep-blues against garish bright yellows.

And Hela has an extra spokesman: Harokin! "God of Thunder - join us!! 'Tis they once and former foe Harokin who calls thee! Eagerly we await thee - for thou art surely the mightiest of all!" As we've seen here at Stevereads, Lee introduced Harokin in his "Tales of Asgard" backup feature (a feature that had been all but shelved by the time of this issue) - that storyline was immensely popular with readers, hence the nod to Harokin here. It's a very nice little gesture, but Thor declines the invitation, and Hela and her infomercial vanish. Lee shifts the scene to a far outlying district of Asgard, where the troll Ulik encounters a mysterious door inscribed "Let No Living Being Disturb What Lies Within." As any fan of old Bugs Bunny cartoons will attest, there is only one moral thing to do when confronted with a door that says "Don't Open Me" - and Ulik promptly does it. Thereby releasing the Mangog, who's very big, very ugly, and very ticked off: "Let the Universe tremble! The Mangog Lives Again! I have one goal - one aim - one destiny: to destroy him who crushed the invasion of my race!"

But like so many of Thor's villains, Mangog isn't exactly well-stocked in the brains department; only one panel later, he tells Ulik "Mangog is the foe of all who live!" ... not just Odin and Asgard. And he goes on to prove that point, but first, we cut back to Thor, who changes back to Dr. Blake and sits vigil at Sif's bedside. Once she wakes up and he's fairly certain she's out of danger, he turns back into Thor and resumes his search for Loki, who in the meantime has fled to Asgard. There he finds turmoil - the city's defenses are in hurried preparation, because they're aware that Mangog's chamber has at long last been opened and that one of the greatest evils of the city's past is now free again. Loki's nonplussed by all this - Odin jailed Mangog originally, after all, can't Odin just re-jail him? Then Loki learns that Odin is sleeping the Odin-sleep: a deep regenerative trance from which he can't be awoken. Lee introduced this rather homely plot device - an old guy who's naps absolutely can't be interrupted - and future writers would make great use of it, for obvious reasons: it takes the deus out of the machina long enough to make things interesting. Naturally, Loki only sees it in selfish terms - with Odin sleeping and Thor still on Earth, he himself is in charge: "Know you all that Loki now doth rule! Asgard at last is mine!"

Lee then temporizes again, putting Thor through some fairly mundane adventures - he stops a robbery and gives a pep-talk to some hippies (for you youngsters out there, 'hippie' was our word for 'hipster' - but the revolting, pretentious, unwashed phenomenon itself was completely the same) - before shifting to one last plot-strand: Balder the Brave, who's dallying with Karnilla, the Queen of the Norns, when he suddenly senses the danger facing Asgard and tries to take his leave. This angers Karnilla, who's hopelessly in love with Balder, and she shows him the price of defying her: there stands the Legion of the Lost, a small group of long-missing Asgardian warriors who now stand like statues on display in Karnilla's hall.

It's an odd, disjointed start, but things pick up pace considerably in the next chapter, "Now Ends the Universe." The sense of menace has increased a dozenfold, and Balder's not the only Asgardian who can sense it: Thor now grimly flies back to Lady Sif's hospital room, where a nurse is sitting reading by her bedside. She's startled when Sif suddenly sits bolt upright, and she's terrified when Thor shows up in the room. Kirby and his inker and colorist do a very effective job here - by throwing Thor's face entirely into shadow, they make this day-glo colored good guy suddenly alien and menacing. The technique works so well that David Mazzucchelli would use it forty years later in the great story "Daredevil: Born Again," shrouding Thor in shadow to maximize the mystery and power of his one-panel-only appearance:

Thor is here on business this time: "Thou hast seen the omens! Thou hast heard the silent call!" He transports them both to Asgard, where they find the same chaos Loki found before them: the city in arms, dire reports already coming back from outlying garrisons .... and they find Loki himself on the throne.

At which point, characteristically, Lee pauses to check on his sub-plots! First he takes us back to Karnilla's stand-off with Balder, as she reveals the "The Legion of the Lost" aren't just a collection of statues - they're the warriors themselves, which she now brings out of suspended animation and unleashes on the man who spurned her love. Balder is more annoyed by this than anything else - he can sense that Asgard is in danger, and he longs to answer the call, not fight some brainwashed minions. The second sub-plot Lee invents on the spot, again for no discernible reason: he shows us the far-distant Colonizers of Rigel dispatching the robot Recorder to investigate the source of the energy-waves they sense coming from Asgard. How they can sense energy-wave disturbances that haven't happened yet - much less how the Recorder can simply fly to the mystical dimension where Asgard is located - isn't explained, but this is something of a habit of Lee's, this invoking an impartial witness to comics events he's writing on a grand scale (the Watcher serves the same purpose in that first great Galactus story over in "The Fantastic Four")

In any case, Loki shrilly defends his right to the throne and sends Thor and the Warriors Three - Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg - out to face Mangog, whose rampage through the outlying districts of Asgard we see in some typically rollicking action-panels by Kirby. During this rampage, Mangog begins hinting at why he's such a bad-ass: an evil race, in a final act of defiance against Odin, distilled their entire population's life-essence into the creature called Mangog: all their hate, all their thirst for revenge, and all their physical power. The result? You only have to listen to Mangog for about five seconds to know the result, because from this point out he repeats it whenever he opens his mouth: he has the strength of a billion billion beings! In other words, incalculable power - just as Doctor Strange can't possibly defeat Eternity, just as the Fantastic Four can't possibly defeat Galactus, just as the Silver Surfer can't possibly defeat Mephisto, so even Thor can't defeat a being with incalculable physical power. As one fallen Asgardian croaks out before he dies, "Not all the fabled strength of Thor - nor a thousand such - can make him cancel half a step!"

Lee likes this gambit - it allows him to throw the sheer courage of his heroes into sharp relief. Mangog can't be stopped, yet all of Asgard (with the exception of Odin, who's still sleeping, Balder, who's still battling the brainwashed Legion of the Lost, and Loki, who's still under the impression he'll have a kingdom left to rule when Mangog's finished) marshals in a desperate attempt to do just that. As this chapter ends, Asgard's defenses lie in ruins, the Warriors Three are trapped under boulders, and Thor himself is in pitched, losing combat with Mangog.

The next issue, "The Hammer and the Holocaust," that battle is fought in earnest, and here's where a novice reader might expect Lee to pull back from his own premise, to make the give-and-take between hero and villain more even - but it doesn't happen: Thor is completely and hopelessly outclassed from the beginning. The most he can do is slow Mangog down a bit with storm and wind and rain (Colletta and especially Rosen do fantastic work in these sequences), all the while rousing his comrades: "Are we not warriors born? Are we not Asgardians all? Are we not akin to gods? Not for such as we the pale cast of surrender! Whilst we live, we fight! And as we dare - so shall we win!"

Winning isn't an option, however, and in very short order our heroes retreat to Asgard just ahead of Mangog. In the center of the city itself, Thor joins the final knot of resistance, the last line of defense before the main palace. Everybody now knows - because Mangog has been repeating it every few seconds, that the monster's goal is now to pull from its scabbard the gigantic Odin-sword, which will release shock-waves of such ferocious power that they'll destroy the entire universe. Why Odin would forge such a device and then leave it lying around like a Ming vase in the front foyer is yet another journey into mystery - and I'm also more than a little curious how in the dickens Mangog even knows the thing exists. Maybe he became a fan of Marvel comics during all those eons he was imprisoned behind that warning door (and as for why a monster with the strength of a billion billion beings couldn't break down that door but scruffy old Ulik the troll could, well, it's not all that clear to me either).

However he came by the knowledge, Mangog is in the home-stretch when our fourth chapter, "Behind Him - Ragnarok!" opens. He's wading through the cream of Asgard's defenders with no trouble at all when suddenly a wave of reinforcements arrives - Balder, leading Odin's reserves, headed by the Legion of the Lost, who've been freed from their brainwashing by the sight of his bravery! This four-part saga is liberal with full-page shots, and all the artwork is quintessential Kirby, a bludgeoning symphony of action, but this panel, with Balder leading one last desperate charge of mounted warriors, is a hum-dinger (it's the kind of thing a modern artist would ostentatiously sign and sell at conventions).

It's all for naught, however - Balder and his reinforcements are brushed aside just as every other defense has been. Thor races to the palace of sleeping Odin (there's a wonderfully understated moment where he encounters Loki in the chaos - the one brother hurrying to the center of the danger, the other fleeing from it - neither has any use for the other, and they part with harsh, dismissive words), where he finds the Lady Sif and the robotic Recorder standing lonely vigil by the Odin-Sword. Lee gives us a perfect cinematic counterpoint, slowing down all the action to a single moment, which Kirby captures with an extreme close-up: "The very walls begin to crumble," Thor marvels. "Art thou frightened, most fair Sif?" Sif answers serenely: "Whilst I stand with thee, my lord? Nay - whatever befalls, my heart is calm ... and ever thine!" Then the moment is shattered in a classic Kirby panel of explosive movement, as Mangog breaches the final wall and sees the Odin-Sword at last.

This is yet another point where you might expect Lee to side with his embattled heroes even at the cost of his own premise - last-ditch efforts and characters shiningly out-doing themselves are, after all, stables of his comic book writing, especially when the end of the world is at stake. But again, it doesn't happen - Mangog is simply too powerful to be inconvenienced. He swats aside all last-minute opposition and seizes the Odin-Sword. The Recorder observes, "And now begins the ultimate end ... already the cosmic shock waves start to form." But still Thor doesn't yield - he summons a raging thunderstorm, and at the very last minute, it becomes clear why: he's trying to wake up Odin - and it works. Odin halts Mangog, re-sheathes the Odin-Sword, and then undoes the process by which Mangog was created: we see an image of a billion billion beings repopulating distant planets. Odin implies that these are now a peaceful people, and he declares that the crisis is passed (he also implies that it was he himself who bottled up their collective essence in the form of Mangog, whereas earlier Mangog states categorically that 'his people' created him themselves). It's an abrupt ending to a rousing Lee-Kirby cosmic saga, a four-issue gasp of sharp air before Thor inevitably returns to Earth and resumes battling with armed gangsters and giant robots. Lee was never truly able to reconcile the two worlds of his mightiest hero; when Thor's on Earth fighting super-villains, he ridiculously over-matches his opponents - but Lee feared that if he spent all his time in Asgard fighting cosmic menaces like Mangog, he'd lose his super-hero appeal. Personally, I never believed this (and most of the fans who wrote in to the magazine during those years didn't believe it either - "Tales of Asgard" arose in part from those letters imploring Lee to give readers more of super-heroic Asgard), although taking Thor entirely out of his more mundane story lines would have deprived readers of some peachy moments.

Shall we deal with one of those Earthbound story-arcs next time we examine Thor in Marvel Comics? Or shall we pick another mega-saga instead? Only the spinning Norns know for sure! In the meantime, here's an image to cut-and-paste into your Christmas cards next winter:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Comics! Manflesh, Manhug, Mangog!

A varied and astoundingly good haul of comics this week, from "Book of the Skull," the prologue to Marvel's upcoming "Fear Itself" crossover event (the prologue has some great gritty moments and also boasts the week's best cover) to some fantastic scripting on "Thunderbolts" and "Spider-Man" and especially "Avengers Academy" to the artwork of the always-amazing Alan Davis on "Young Avengers." But even with such an outstanding batch of comics, every reader will have his, er, preoccupations (there's a less kind word that's often used with comics fans, but we need not sling it around here) - certainly I found that to be true.

Naturally, I found myself concentrating on the Legion, for instance. Not the ongoing "Legion of Super-Heroes," but the concurrent ongoing "Adventure Comics," which also features the Legion (those of you who are now rolling your eyes can instead count your blessings - as often as I've written how overjoyed I am that the Legion is appearing in two monthly titles, I've spoken about it far, far more often, to those poor unfortunate souls close enough to hear me - you're getting it easy, here at Stevereads).

This current run in "Adventure Comics" is written by the great Paul Levitz and features the Legion Academy, where brash new potential recruits are taught the basics of being super-heroes in the 31st century. Artist Phil Jimenez gives us some finely-detailed panels of these youngsters in action - getting their overly-ambitious tails kicked in a very satisfactory manner by an amped-up bad guy only Legion fans will remember.

But the part of the issue I found most interesting (Levitz always has many balls in the air, except when he's writing one of his firing-on-all-cylinders mega-epics, which he most definitely has my permission to do sometime soon) was one scene taking place back at the Academy on Montauk Point, where Cosmic Boy and Duplicate Girl are talking with four potential recruits - Lamprey, Nightwind, Crystal Kid, and Power Boy (the latter being both purple and, in classic Jimenez fashion, easy on the eyes; the Legion should always have a purple member on principle, so he gets my vote) - about what happens when the selection process is over. "You've got options," Duplicate Girl tells them. "We've prepared you well, so after the finals, you might get the opportunity to try out for the Legion, or join the Science Police, or even go solo on an outerworld." Cosmic Boy makes it even plainer: "Don't lock in too much on Legion membership. It's not for everyone. The risks are high, the tension incredible, and even if you don't get killed, you have to give up your life to the team." I submit that only a Legion writer as experienced as Levitz (Keith Giffen, say, or the mighty Jim Shooter) could have given one of the team's founding members such a sharp, knowing assessment to make. Although even I'm just a little confused: these kids spend years in Legion Academy for the chance to try out for the team? Isn't that like spending a whole hitch at West Point for the chance to graduate?

Even more iconic goings-on over in "Superman," a title that's been ailing in the excitement department for quite some time now - despite writer J. Michael Straczynski pursuing a potentially great story-line: in the wake of losing an entire planet-full of Kryptonians, Superman, feeling mighty depressed, decides to forego his iconic flying and walk across America. What could have been a really good device for looking inside the character's head turned rather quickly into an entire comic book about the kind of douchey guy who constantly talks on his cellphone while he's walking down the street.

I would have avoided the latest issue of this run, #709, completely, but my attention was drawn by the nifty John Cassaday cover (the genius stroke of having it set against a starry night instead of bright daylight is the thing that does it for me), so I read it. The main plot is just about the dumbest thing I've ever seen this writer come up with - and that's saying something - but the interstitial moments in and around that plot were worth the cover price. At one point, in order to stop a Flash who's running out of control, Superman super-hugs him, which was funny (one can only speculate how much more ... intense ... Jiminez would have made the payoff panel), and at another point Superman tells the Flash a story of his boyhood in Smallville, a story in which a young Clark Kent shares detention with a young Lex Luthor - only Straczynski never has Superman identify Lex to the Flash, making me wonder if in this present state of DC continuity the other heroes don't know that the world's greatest hero and the world's greatest villain went to high school together. I'll have to remember to toodle on over to the relevant Wikipedia pages and see what I can learn about that.

My final, um, preoccupation this time around was the fourth issue of the five-issue "Thunderstrike" mini-series, in which Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz wonderfully revisit their signature joint creation, the Thor-knockoff character Thunderstrike. Only it's not Eric Masterson, who was their original Thunderstrike and died, but rather his teenage son, who's now trying to wield his father's enchanted hammer and perhaps become a superhero in his own right. DeFalco and Frenz have quite pointedly made this series both dramatic and funny - there are quick quips in every issue worthy of Stan Lee himself (in this latest issue, the funniest ones involve some clueless motorists who mistake the series villain for Iron Man, until he starts ranting about killing people, at which point we get: "You know, I don't think that is Iron Man" ... hee). The 'dramatic' part is taken one enchanted hammer too far, however, in this issue, in which the old Thor super-villain Mangog returns, swiftly (and rather unhygienically) deals with the series villain, and then goes on his own rampage into the heart of New York City, looking for Thor.

Thor fans (of which I count myself among the foremost, alas) will recognize Mangog as the H-bomb of Thor villains - not Thor's defining villain (that would be Loki, his evil half-brother), but his ultimate villain, the Galactus to his Fantastic Four, the Morlun to his Spider-Man, the Destiny to his Doctor Strange. Mangog is an artificial creation imbued with - as he himself was originally fond of saying every ten seconds - the strength of a billion billion beings: i.e. physically unstoppable, even physically unchallengeable. When Stan Lee introduced him back in the late '60s, Mangog was meant to represent a foe Thor had no chance whatsoever of defeating.

So hauling him onstage to validate the revamping of a new teen hero is probably a bad idea. DeFalco doesn't usually have bad ideas, so I'm willing to wait and see how the fifth and final issue of the mini-series plays out, but this issue's concluding two-page spread, in which Punkerstrike - or Kid Thor, if you will - shows up with the Avengers and makes some bad-ass comment designed to raise expectations for a massive fight in the next instalment - doesn't exactly make me hopeful. If this is the real Mangog, he once trashed the entire realm of Asgard - including Thor - without breaking a sweat. This current team of Avengers are pretty much pantywaists (I don't even see Iron Man in that two-page spread) and should be smeared like tapioca on Page 1 of the next issue. I'm hoping it ends up not being the real Mangog - or that some Ultimate Nullifier is pulled out of a hat on the last page.

No matter what, I'll be reading! Comics this good will always get me to come back.