Saturday, July 31, 2010



Tom Strong's Terrific Tales Volume 1
by Alan Moore, Steve Moore, Paul Rivoche, Alan Weiss, Art Adams and others (2002-2003):This anthology title puts Tom Strong, his family and friends, and far-future crime-fighter Jonni Future through a variety of adventures. Highlights include the tales of Tom Strong as an orphan growing up on tropical island Attabar Teru with the helpful Otu tribe, pretty much Moore's homage to the youthful Tarzan flashback book Jungle Tales of Tarzan (or if you want to go back to Tarzan's inspiration, Mowgli in The Jungle Book). Jonni Future, a 20th-century woman, uses the Time Bridge to battle evil 4 billion years in the future with the help of her leopard-like Paraman companion, a spaceship shaped like a Coelacanth, and a pair of the largest breasts in comic-book history.

Tom Strong's Terrific Tales Volume 2 Alan Moore, Steve Moore, Alan Weiss, Art Adams and others (2003-2005): The anthology title draws to a close with this collection of issues 7-12. Probably only Alan Moore could get artists like Peter Kuper, Jaime Hernandez, Peter Bagge and Sergio Aragones all working on what amounts to a superhero title, which is why Alan Moore is God. Maybe not the God, but definitely a God. Jaunty and fizzy, but with a surprising hit of poignance at the end as Tom leaves Attabar Teru (and, unbeknownst to him, future wife Dhalua) for Millennium City in the early 1920's in the final tale. But he'll be back. Highly recommended.

Legion of Superheroes: Enemy Rising by Jim Shooter and Francis Manapul and others (2007): Jim Shooter is one of the two most celebrated writers DC's 30th/31st-century super-hero teen team the Legion of Superheroes ever had (the other is longtime LSH scripter Paul Levitz), having helped make the Legion a cult favourite back in the 1960's, when Shooter became the youngest writer of a mainstream comic-book in, probably, ever (he was 13 (!)). Those 60's Shooter-scripted stories are still a delight today. Here, DC tries to catch lightning in a bottle again, bringing Shooter back to the book for the first time since a brief stint in the mid-1970's.

The result is actually pretty enjoyable, especially with the revelation in a whole other, later miniseries (Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds by Geoff Johns and George Perez) that this Legion is not the 'classic' Legion that once had Superboy as a member. No, this Legion, somewhat bizarrely, is the Legion of what is nominally 'our' world in the DC Universe, Earth-Prime. This at least explains all the Silver Age DC Comics Phantom Girl keeps reading.

Shooter develops an epic main plot (mysterious aliens attacking worlds throughout the galaxy) and copious melodramatic subplots with flair, though the results are a bit busy at times. Manapul's art is a bit too manga-influenced for me, but it goes down relatively smoothly, if occasionally a bit cutesy. Recommended.

Legion of Superheroes: Enemy Manifest by Jim Shooter and Francis Manapul and others (2008): Jim Shooter and the most-recent-until-three-months-ago Legion title go out together as the year-long "Enemy" storyline wraps up (and a bunch of subplots, like Princess Projectra's secret perfidy, do not). The ending seems a bit rushed, probably due to that whole cancellation problem, but overall it's a pretty nice ride. Recommended.

Doctor Who Classics Volume 3 by Dave Gibbons, Grant Morrison, Steve Moore, Steve Parkhouse, Bryan Hitch, John Ridgway and others (1981-89): A nice selection of original stories of the 4th, 6th and 7th Doctors from the B&W British Doctor Who magazines of the 1980's by some of the leading lights of British comic books. Nothing too fancy, though one possible origin story for the Cybermen is offered almost as a throwaway. Recommended.

Tom Strong Book 4 by Alan Moore, Geoff Johns, Chris Sprouse, Peter Hogan, Jerry Ordway and others (2003-2004): The alternate universe 'Tom Stone' three-parter is the centerpiece of this collection, as Moore's Doc Savage/Tarzan/Superman mash-up is shown a glimpse of a universe where he never was -- and where things initially seem to be much better than in the universe he lives in. The other stories in the volume are a bit more light-hearted. In the alternate universe in which Alan Moore never had his falling out with DC Comics, one imagines this is what Moore might have ultimately tried to do with Superman. Highly recommended.

Tom Strong Book 5 by Alan Moore, Mark Schultz, Brian K. Vaughan, Ed Brubaker, Shawn McManus, Duncan Fegredo and others (2004-2005): "The Terrible True Life of Tom Strong" by Brubaker and Fegredo is the high point of this collection. It almost out Alan-Moores Alan Moore as Tom Strong realizes that the dismal reality he thinks he exists in is an illusion because nothing could be as awful as, well, something that looks a lot like our world. Which is one of those points Moore makes from time to time. Tom's real, real world, a high-tech, lost-jungle-city wonderland comprising pretty much every comic book and pulp story ever written, is the sunshiney yin to the broody yang of Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Highly recommended.

What If? Secret Wars by various (2008-2009): A bunch of up-and-coming writers and artists create new endings for a variety of Marvel Event Books, including The Death of Captain America and the 1980's Secret Wars miniseries. About as good as the What If? titles ever were, which is to say interesting, uneven, and prone to kneejerk bleakness.Sort of recommended, sort of not.

Supreme: Story of the Year by Alan Moore, Joe Bennett, Rick Veitch and Alex Ross (1995-96): Supreme, a Superman knock-off created by the much-reviled Rob Liefeld for his portion of Image Comics, gets the superduper metafictional treatment here from Alan Moore and a number of artists, including Rick Veitch in full homage/parody mode. Supreme discovers that his universe is prone to periodic revisions, revisions which mimic the changing styles of comic books from the 1930's to the 1990's. In the 'present' he tries to adjust to the Earth after having been away for decades; to do so, he reminisces about the 'past', rendered by Veitch and written by Moore to resemble various eras and genres throughout the history of comic books.

The lines between homage, parody, commentary and plagiarism are often razor-thin here, as a number of the flashback stories are modelled on specific stories from Superman's past (one which riffs on a late 1970's/early 1980's Jim Starlin Superman/Spectre team-up from DC Comics Presents is especially jarring in this regard -- it might as well BE the original story). One gets the feeling Moore was trying to write Superman out of his system. The result is enjoyable and occasionally frustrating, but now looks like a necessary transitional book between Moore's work for DC and his much later metafictional epics in Tom Strong and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Recommended.

DC vs. Marvel by Ron Marz, Peter David, Dan Jurgens, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, Kevin Nowlan and others (1996): Continuity is the great ball-and-chain dragging down this 'epic' DC-Marvel crossover event from the mid-1990's. Fans voted on how various confrontations would turn out (Superman vs. Hulk, Batman vs. Captain America, and so on, and so forth), but the unwieldy machinery of the plot makes the various battles an afterthought. The book huffs and puffs to get the two universes together. Frankly, the 'crossover Earth' of earlier DC/Marvel events was a lot less unwieldy and had the added advantage of explaining why so few DC superheroes live in New York (because that's where the lion's share of Marvel superheroes live!).

The secondary miniseries spawned by this crossover -- The Amalgam Age of Comics, in which various heroes and villains were 'amalmagated' into new configurations (Captain America + Superman = Super-Soldier; Batman + Wolverine = Dark Claw) -- was a lot more interesting than the main event. Kurt Busiek and George Perez would later do this sort of epic mishmash a whole lot better in JLA/Avengers. For completists only, though the combination of Garcia Lopez on pencils and Nowlan on inks on Dr. Strangefate is surprisingly lovely: those two should team up a lot more often. Not recommended.

Porno for Pomos


Lost Girls
, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Melinda Gebbie (2006): Moore and partner Gebbie worked on Lost Girls for over a decade. The end result might be the oddest book of Moore's career. It's certainly the most pornographic, though 'meta-pornographic' might be a better word -- this is an extremely graphic book of pornography that's about pornography, why people consume pornography, and the inter-relationship of fantasy and reality. I use the word 'pornography' rather than 'erotica' because it seems as if that's what Moore is aiming for here -- even the poetic sections are pushed so far into the explicit and the purple of prose that the whole enterprise really seems to be about What Gets People Off.

Moore's over-riding conceit here is that three women whose adventures resemble 'real-world' versions of the fictional adventures of Wendy from Peter Pan, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, meet as adults at a sexually exotic resort in Europe in the days leading up to World War One and proceed to have a variety of sexual adventures while also recounting their sexual histories, which themselves vaguely resemble the adventures of the fictional heroines, only without magic and with an awful lot of sex.

A couple of hundred pages of sex, primarily rendered in Gebbie's art-nouveau-influenced art, with periodic side-trips into imitations of various other illustrative styles. In the event you somehow miss the connections between 'real life' and fiction, most of the 30 or so chapters contain a full-page spread which makes the parallels between a sexual incident and an incident from the fictional adventures of one of the characters explicit in pretty much every meaning of that word.

Much of the hardcore material is somewhat undercut (or, to use a crappy lit-crit word, 'problematized') by several discussions of the relationship of pornography to the real world (fantasy, one character suggests, is in many cases never meant to be enacted in real life, and cannot thus be judged as if it were an idea about a 'real' incident. This commentary occurs during an orgy scene intercut with a particularly filthy bit of incest-pornography). In many ways, Moore has succeeded in doing for pornography what he did for superhero battles in Miracleman: he's pushed them logically to the point of fictional apocalypse while at the same time maintaining distance as a commentator throughout. Or, 'If this is what you like, what happens when we push it all the way to its logical conclusion?'

While it sometimes seems as if Moore has succeeded in creating the world's longest and most expensive Tijiuana Bible (and in a way he has), the super-saturation of sex scenes and the sheer wackiness of much of the conversation in the book makes it hard to take this seriously: it really seems more like a joke, despite the somewhat ham-handed epilogue that attempts to ground the book in the horrors of war. Or is that some sort of joke as well? Moore's such a cheeky bugger that it's impossible to figure him out sometimes. In any event, not for the squeamish or easily offended. Recommended.


The Cleft and Other Odd Tales
by Gahan Wilson (1998): Gahan Wilson was the natural inheritor of Charles Addams' title as "world's most macabre popular cartoonist", and he wore that title well for decades. He was also a writer of short stories and an occasional movie reviewer; it's products of the former occupation that The Cleft collects. It's a dandy bunch of short stories, reminiscent of the sort of droll horror of writers like John Collier or Roald Dahl, with the added bonus of illustrations by Wilson for each story. The collection spans more than 30 years, but Wilson's narrative tone remains remarkably consistent throughout. You may not be scared by any of the offerings here, but as with Wilson's best cartoons, you will be disturbed even as you laugh or at least chuckle. Recommended.


2012, starring John Cusack, Amanda Peet, some cute kids, two fat kids and a cute dog, directed by Roland Emmerich (2009): 2012 takes place in a magical alternate universe where the harmless neutrinos emitted by the sun suddenly decide to turn en masse into particles that cause the Earth's core to get even hotter than it already is. Yes, it's another heart-warming romantic comedy from the team of producer Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, Independence Day).

Given that the Earth's core is composed primarily of nickel and iron, you'd think these particles would affect nickel and iron on the surface of the Earth, and perhaps even on other planets and asteroids in the Solar System, most notably Venus and Mars, which would be getting an even denser bombardment of nu-neutrinos. Apparently, the nu-neutrinos do not affect anything else, however, because the various governments of the world manage to keep impending global catastrophe hidden from the public until approximately five minutes before the Earth's plate tectonics and magnetic field go completely haywire, killing several billion people and relocating the South Pole to Wisconsin. But happily, throughout this process, nickel and iron not located in the Earth's core remain completely benign and non-reactive. Apparently, the sun just has it in for Earth's core.

Much is made of the fact that the only way to survive the end of the world is in one of the humungous super-liners being built in the Himalayas by the G-8. Yes, the fate of the world rests in the hands of the G-8. Canada even gets a couple shout-outs. Yay! As long as Ben Mulroney survives the end of the world, everything will be fine.

Our hero is John Cusack, a down-on-his-luck science-fiction writer working as a limo driver for a rich Russian guy who, having given $1 billion to the makers of the super-liners, has a ticket on-board for himself and his two fat kids but not, alas, for his hot blonde mistress. Various plot shenanigans result in John Cusack realizing that the world is going to end, not least of which is the world ACTUALLY STARTING TO END.

Yellowstone Park turns into a supervolcano with a hard-on for Woody Harrelson, a tidal wave engulfs the entire world all the way to the top of the Himalayas, most of the Earth's surface falls about 5000 feet into oceans of lava, an aircraft carrier lands on President Danny Glover, the Washington Monument kills the Lincoln Memorial, St. Peter's Basilica crushes several hundred praying Roman Catholics, and so on, and so forth.

Luckily, John Cusack is The Best Driver in the World and manages to outrun the destruction of California all the way to an airplane, where he passes the baton to his ex-wife's new boyfriend, who turns out to be the Best Pilot in the World despite having had only one flying lesson. Whee!

Many scenes of mass destruction ensue, but throughout all the solar-induced mayhem, Earth's satellite and cellphone network remains working. I told you this was an alternate universe. Eventually, most of the good people we've been following survive and the bad people die various terrible and/or suddenly heroic deaths. The hilarious escape scenes almost make the movie worth it -- the escapes from death by land and air have all the realistic heft of a Roadrunner cartoon.

Saturday, July 24, 2010



The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezzi (2008-9): 'The Monster of Florence' was the name given to an Italian serial killer who murdered at least 16 people in the countryside around Florence in the 1970's and 1980's. Spezzi is the veteran Italian journalist who covered the story from its beginning, while popular American suspense novelist Preston got interested in the case after he discovered the villa he'd rented in 2000 was beside one of the Monster's murder sites and subsequently met with Spezzi to discuss the case. Ultimately, though, this isn't so much a non-fiction book about a serial killer as it is an indictment of the Italian legal system, from the polizia and carabinieri all the way to the prosecutors and judges operating at the national level.

Much of the pleasure of the book lies in the twists and turns of the real-life events, and so I won't give too much away. Florence itself becomes a major character, as Preston documents his own learning experience both about the city -- the centre of the Renaissance -- and about the Italian mindset both regionally and nationally. From the distant viewpoint of North America, it's easy to view Italy as a homogeneous state, rather than a collection of hundreds of tiny states that weren't joined as a nation until after Canada's own Confederation, and which used a wide variety of dialects (500 or more) which still linger in the individual regions. Besides Florence, Sardinia and its history plays a major role in the history of the Monster of Florence.

This is a very sad story in many ways, but the doggedness of Spezzi -- and the decency of at least some police officers and bureaucrats -- give one a little hope. The epilogue, written especially for the trade paperback edition, casts grave doubt on the rightness of the recent conviction of American student Amanda Knox for the murder of her room-mate. The Monster of Florence reads like a primer on how NOT to do police work: prosecutorial conspiracy theories, misconduct and child-like tantrums abound while a real killer remains unarrested and uncharged to this day. Highly recommended.

The Survivor by James Herbert (1977): A short, tense early horror novel from the writer most likely to be referred to as "England's answer to Stephen King." A horrific airplane crash in Eton leaves behind one survivor, the co-pilot, who can't remember the events leading up to the crash. People start dying. A medium shows up to try to help the co-pilot solve the supernatural mystery of how he survived and what's happening now. Shenanigans ensue. In the 'negative' column, Herbert gives us one of the ten clumsiest passages in literary history in the sub-sub category of 'Subtly establishing a person's race or ethnicity.' It's seriously hilarious. Recommended.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Those Crazy Nazis


Enemy Ace: War in Heaven, written by Garth Ennis and Robert Kanigher, illustrated by Chris Weston, Russ Heath and Joe Kubert: Hans Von Hammer, the WWI German "Enemy Ace" of 1960's DC war comics, gets a WWII send-off here, first on the Russian front and then in the Western European theatre as the Allies advance after D-Day. Ennis is fairly restrained here -- there is graphic violence, but for the most part this reads like an updated version of the Kanigher/Kubert stories from the 1960's (one of which is reprinted here). Like some members of the real Prussian military aristocracy, Von Hammer despises Hitler and the Nazi Party, but nonetheless feels obligated to fight for his country again after two decades of seclusion in his ancestral castle. There's plenty of airplane talk, not to mention a cameo from Sergeant Rock. Recommended.

Shade the Changing Man Volume 3: Scream Time, written by Peter Milligan, illustrated by Chris Bachalo, Bryan Talbot, Mark Pennington and Rick Bryant (1990-91; collected 2010): This third collected volume of early Vertigo hero Shade, revamped from his 1970's Steve Ditko creation with way more sex and violence, finally explains where the free-floating madness-generating American Scream actually came from, while also more fully explaining Shade's origins, Kathy's personal problems, and just what exactly Shade's solid-illusion-generating M-Vest is made of. Hint: it's not polyester. Heady, enjoyable stuff if you've read the first two volumes, and Jamie Hewlett's covers are as trippy as previous cover artist Brendan MacCarthy's. Recommended.

The Life Eaters, written by David Brin, illustrated by Scott Hampton (2003): Brin's aptly titled 1980's novella "Thor Versus Captain America" is the basis for this graphic novel; neither the novella nor this book are set in the Marvel Universe. Adapted for the first part of the graphic novel, the novella posits a world where the Nazis are on the brink of conquering the entire world in the early 1960's. The Holocaust was necromancy on an industrial scale, and it succeeded -- the Nazis summoned the Norse Gods on the eve of D-Day. The Normandy Invasion failed, the Allies were defeated again and again, and now the invasion of North America is imminent -- all because the Nazis now have Odin, Thor, the other Norse gods and various other Norse mythological creatures to call upon. Only Loki of all the gods stands with the Allies, and while his purposes are mysterious and probably self-serving, he did manage to evacuate the concentration camps and ghettos of Europe before the Final Solution had been entirely carried out.

Are the Norse Gods really Norse Gods? That's one of the first questions the novel tackles, before moving on to larger philosophical issues set against an escalating series of cataclysms. Humanity's hope ultimately lies in science and technology, something the mystical and increasingly addled servants of the gods just aren't good at, along with an alliance of the various world religions that refuse to practice the blood sacrifice which summons the gods and then sustains them: on this world, the Holocaust never ends because the gods live on human death in mass quantities. Other cultures summon their own pantheons in response to the Nazi threat, and things get worse and worse once we shift to the main action of the novel, in the 1980's.

This later segment could almost be called "Hulk and Iron Man Versus All the Gods in the World", as human ingenuity and self-sacrifice and, indeed, humility finally start to turn the tide of war even as Loki's true plan -- even more horrifying than those of his man-eating brethren -- is finally revealed. There's certainly action and adventure here, all in service to quite a serious-minded premise -- can humanity outgrow its tribal-minded, bloodthirsty nature before it's too late? Highly recommended.


A Treasury of Modern Fantasy, edited by Terry Carr (1980): It's actually taken me thirty years to finish off this survey anthology that spans fantasy from the advent of fantasy-specific pulp magazine Weird Tales in the 1920's to 1979. Most of the major writers are here, though Carr's selection criteria can be pretty wonky at times (I'm not sure I'd even put "The Rats in the Walls" on a top-20 list of all the stories H.P. Lovecraft wrote, but here it is in all its clunky glory). This volume never caught on as an academic tome, even though its selection, odd as it is sometimes, is nonetheless more wide-ranging and useful than such academy-oriented anthologies as Fantastic Worlds.

The sheer scope of the work that Carr wanted to survey must have driven him bonkers at times -- it's not all that easy to cover 60 years of high fantasy, dark fantasy, light fantasy, sword and sorcery, horror and the cryptozoological in one volume, and I'm not sure why that last (represented by the solid but unspectacular "Longtooth" by Edgar Pangporn) is even included, as it's more properly science fiction, a genre not folded into this anthology. Recommended.

The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty (1971): William Friedkin's blockbuster film adaptation of Blatty's best-selling novel was remarkably faithful to the book, partially because Blatty -- a screenwriter before becoming a novelist -- wrote the screenplay. Some things were, of course, left out, though a few such scenes made their way into the 1990's Director's Cut, while others were recycled by Blatty in the sequel he both wrote and directed, 1990's underrated Exorcist III: Legion.

Blatty's novel is long on dialogue at points, befitting a novel by a screenwriter, though there are also lengthy internal monologues which were essentially unfilmable. Coming to the novel after having seen the movie, one finds out more about the significance of the Iraq-set prologue of the movie, and more about the ins and outs of exorcism itself (though the latter needs to be taken with a grain of salt, actual Roman Catholic exorcisms being few and far between in the West).

Tortured, doubting priest Damien Karras comes even more to the fore in the novel, while details of the past of both possessed Regan and her actress mother explain at least some of the murkier details of the possession and its possible origins -- though ultimately the possession is less about getting Regan and more about forcing a second exorcism battle with ageing, ailing Father Merrin, played by Max Von Sydow in the movie. Some of the philosophical and theological speculation is awfully wonky at times, and the scientific aspects of the novel when the characters speculate on how the brain works are even wonkier. Still, a gripping read after all these years, though it's worth noting that the "true case" the novel is "inspired by" bears almost no resemblance to the novel. Caveat lector! Recommended.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bruce Willis vs. The Moon


Moon, starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey, written by Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker, directed by Duncan Jones (2009): While it's no 2001, Moon is an intelligent and enjoyable science-fiction movie, an increasingly rare thing in these heady days of overwrought CGI and underwrought writing.

Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the only worker on a Lunar Industries moonbase on the far side of the moon tasked with mining Helium3 and shipping it back to Earth to power Earth's fusion reactors. Sam is only weeks away from the end of his three-year contract -- and a return to his wife and child on Earth -- when an accident leaves him wondering just what is really going on. The result is a tightly plotted science-fiction thriller with several surprises and a refreshing air of scientific verisimilitude.

Rockwell is fast becoming one of my favourite, slightly offbeat actors -- his Sam Bell is sympathetic and a bit wiggy, the latter perfectly understandable given his three-year isolation. Kevin Spacey lends his voice to GERTY, the base computer which knows...something. Spacey pitches his voice in HAL territory, leaving one wondering until the final scenes whether or not we have another homicidal computer on our hands. If you enjoyed the old Twilight Zone or the 1960's Outer Limits, you'll enjoy Moon's combination of existential dread, hope, and the joys of plot twists. David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones, does a nice job of directing. Here's hoping he continues to make movies as enjoyable as this, and doesn't get sucked up into the Hollywood crap-making machine. Highly recommended.

Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Ving Rhames and James Cromwell, written by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato from the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, directed by Jonathan Mostow (2009): I'm not sure I'd call this a good movie, but it is fun. In a future world, cybernetics has advanced to the point that a person never has to leave his or her home -- a robotic surrogate, usually better looking than the original person, can do everything for you while you lie in a control chair, directing the surrogate's movements and experiencing whatever it experiences safely away from any possible harm. But then someone manages to murder a person by destroying his surrogate, and FBI agents Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell are called in to investigate. Ving Rhames shows up in a ridiculous dreadlock wig.

Bruce Willis's surrogate makes for some droll moments -- CGI de-ages Willis's face and gives him a full-head of somewhat ridiculous-looking blonde hair. The future society isn't drawn with enough care to be fully believeable (obviously, not everyone would be able to afford these things as they apparently do in the movie), but the metaphoric commentary on people and their avatars, whether those avatars are computerized or simply the fake faces we put on when we go out the door, is interesting and sometimes somewhat poignant. If you could live through a nigh-indestructible, better-looking version of yourself, would you? And would it be fair to criticize people who do so because of mental or physical problems? Recommended.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

And Rex Harrison as Abraham Lincoln


Essential Daredevil Volume 1, written by Stan Lee, illustrated by Bill Everett, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood, Gene Colan, John Romita Sr. and others (1964-66): Of all the heroes created during the early years of Marvel Comics in the 1960's -- Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Doctor Strange, Thor, the Hulk and many others -- Daredevil had the distinction of having the worst costume, and perhaps one of the worst costumes ever visited upon a hero carrying his own book. This was primarily because of the yellow/red colour scheme, though a later, very brief addition of a hood and a backpack just made things worse. Thankfully, veteran comic-book artist Wally Wood would redesign the costume about a year into Daredevil's existence, giving us the all-red, streamlined version that persists to this day with only minor modifications.

Bad costume design perhaps made sense within the book -- Daredevil is, after all, blind, relying on super-senses to "see" the world around him, senses so acute that at times his blindness seems irrelevant. Radiation both blinded Matt Murdock as a child and gave him his heightened senses; the tragic death of his boxer father at the hands of mobsters caused him to become Daredevil when he wasn't defence attorney Matt Murdock.

Daredevil burned through artists at an unprecedented rate early on -- even Wood would only stay on the book for a handful of issues -- before settling on Gene Colan for much of the late 1960's and early 1970's. The unsettled art situation actually makes this first volume sort of charming, as it goes hand-in-hand with what seems like an unsettled editorial stance on what sort of book Daredevil should be. Early Spider-man-type heroics give way to an increasingly loopy set of villains (The Matador, anyone? Stilt-Man? The Purple Man? How about The Organizer? Tri-Man?) and world-threatening scenarios that would seem to be more suited to The Avengers or The Fantastic Four, including the near-destruction of all life on Earth by a Doctor Doom knock-off and his really big Cobalt Bomb.

The overall effect of this volume reminds me most of the Flaming Carrot: this isn't a parody of super-heroes, but it is a super-hero book served up with a lot of dead-serious absurdity. The grim-and-gritty Frank Miller Daredevil, he of Elektra and the Kingpin, is still fifteen years away. Recommended.

Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters: Brave New World, written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, illustrated by Renato Arlem (2008): Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters are one of those great C-List superhero teams with a pedigree dating back to the 1940's, when most of them fought evil for Quality Comics long before they were acquired by DC Comics. They had their moments individually in the 1940's, as they were mostly handled by the Eisner studio, but since then they've mostly sucked, even as supporting characters. Indeed, their most memorable moment probably came in 2005-2006's Infinite Crisis crossover, when they were almost all killed by Bizarro Superman. When your roster has included the living embodiment of America, a guy who commands trained bees, and a man the size of an action figure, maybe you're always going to lack a certain amount of respect.

Writers Gray and Palmiotti revived the (mostly) new Freedom Fighters in a miniseries after Infinite Crisis, breaking the trend by having these heroes appear in something that didn't suck. That miniseries was probably the greatest Grant Morrison comic book ever not written by Grant Morrison, with the writers putting the heroes through various super-scientific threats, including giant aliens on the Moon and an evil robotic President.

Here, the team fights amongst itself and against outside threats, including corrupted member Red Bee, who's been turned into a dangerous human-insect hybrid by alien super-insects. Meanwhile, a city of doll-sized men in the basement of the Pentagon takes the Vice-President hostage, and a bunch of other crazy stuff happens. Highly recommended.

Tom Strong Volume 2, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Chris Sprouse, Al Gordon, Paul Chadwick, Gary Gianni, Hilary Barta, Russ Heath and others (2000): Tom Strong, Alan Moore's homage to Doc Savage, pulp adventure and whatever else he feels like paying tribute to from issue to issue, is about as jolly a metafictional romp through comics and pulps as one could want. One adventure may play out like a Tintin pastiche; the next may be written and drawn like an old Mad magazine parody by Wally Wood; the third may be a two-parter harking back to the first Justice League/Justice Society crossovers of the 1960's.

Whatever the case, the series seemed to be the lighter, sunnier side of the metafictional polyglot that is Moore and Kevin O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentleman. I'm not sure how much fun this enterprise would be if you don't have much background in the comics and pulps Moore, Sprouse and company play around with in every issue, but I think it's pretty darned witty and fun. Especially the Captain Marvel Family homage, perfectly apt and ridiculously specific in its riffs on one particular Captain Marvel Family adventure from the Golden Age of Comics. Highly recommended.

4 X 2


The Shimmer by David Morrell (2009): Technically speaking, Morrell is a Canadian writer, though he hasn't lived here since he was in his 20's. Since leaving Canada, he's managed to become both a university literature professor (now retired) and a best-selling thriller writer. Oh, and he created Rambo in the 1972 thriller First Blood. Quite a resume. Morrell is an almost preternaturally gifted writer of thrillers -- his prose is smooth, his characters are sympathetic when they need to be, his plots are tight, his pace relentless without seeming forced, and his research lends both interest and verisimilitude to even his most outrageous scenarios.

Here, Morrell gives us a small Texas town with an open secret: weird lights appear outside the town on a mostly nightly basis, and have been doing so for as long as people have lived in the area. This aspect of the novel is pretty much true -- there is a small Texas town outside which weird lights, not yet satisfactorily explained by science, put on a nightly show for residents and tourists alike. Morrell combines elements of the supernatural thriller, the military-operation-gone-wrong and the historical into a pleasing melange. Our protagonists -- a nearly burned out LA cop and his wife -- are drawn to the town, she by some force emanating from the lights, he in pursuit of her. Others are also drawn there. A secret governmental installation registers an increase in the lights' energy levels which may portend a disaster on par with previous incidents dotted over the decades, incidents of mass hysteria. Inevitably, all hell breaks loose.

As I noted, Morrell shines when it comes to pace and versimilitude: what happens in The Shimmer is probably hooey, but it's convincing hooey. There's even a weird, thinly disguised (really thinly -- Morrell explains it all in the afterword) historical section devoted to the filming of the James Dean/Rock Hudson film Giant, though it's not called that here. But Giant was filmed near 'our' world's version of the lights, and Dean was fascinated by them. Weird stuff indeed. Highly recommended.

The Protector by David Morrell (2004): Don't call them bodyguards. They're personal security experts. And one of them is about to lose almost everything while trying to protect a scientist who says he's fleeing from Colombian drug gangs, but really isn't. Morrell's attention to detail drives a lot of the appeal of this book, as he explains (or, for safety's sake, explains with necessary omissions of detail) the ins and outs of car chases, exploding cars, proper handgun maintenance, surveillance techniques and witness protection over the course of this long but taut thriller. One of the appealing things about Morrell's tough and competent hero is his care in relation to innocent bystanders -- he actually works to avoid getting them hurt in the middle of his own adventures, something a lot of movie and TV heroes no longer seem to find necessary. Highly recommended.

Fireworks by James A. Moore (2001): Moore's horror-thriller shares certain elements with Stephen King's later Under the Dome (2009) -- the small Georgia town of Collier becomes isolated because of the incursion of an apparently extraterrestrial threat, though in this case a shadowy government agency called ONYX does the isolating after a UFO crashlands in the lake near the town during the fireworks celebration on the evening of July 4. The crash kills hundreds, and ONYX moves in almost before the emergency vehicles have started ferrying casualties to the local hospital. Cut off from the rest of the world, Collier begins to simmer as ONYX suspends basic rights while it tries to dig the UFO out of the lake. Some people behave well; other people behave badly.

And then...well, and then things just sorta sputter out. I don't know if the lack of a climax came about because of editorial interference or authorial choice (the novel's structure initially suggests a much longer work, as we spend nearly half the novel focused on Collier's police chief, move to much shorter sections focused on an abused woman and one of the soldiers with an underwhelming secret, and then shudder to a halt with unlimited 3rd-person narration). In any case, while Moore is a skilled writer of characters, overall the novel seems frustratingly unfinished. Not recommended.

Possessed by James A. Moore (2004): This supernatural thriller seems almost like a structural apology for Fireworks: this novel is almost ALL climax, the last couple of hundred pages spent in an interconnected series of scenes of escape and battle, capture and escape. I enjoyed the vaguely Lovecraftian shenanigans (actually, this is almost H.P. Lovecraft's The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew in the Mystery of the Magical Necklace, albeit rated PG-13), though I was a tad exhausted by the time things wrapped up in a series of explosions and monsters and baleful extradimensional entities.

The 18-year-old male protagonist's mother dies at the start of the novel, setting off a wacky chain of events centered around a necklace the mother was hiding from forces serving Something Awful. Hilarity ensues. And indeed certain elements are hilarious, mostly intentionally -- the main character takes more physical punishment than Ash in the Evil Dead movies but keeps getting off the mat to Save the Universe. Or something. The whole thing almost seems written with more than one eye on a Hollywood treatment. So it goes. Recommended.