BOOK REVIEW: The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected NonfictionThe View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Not every writer—not even many literary greats—could pull off a book like this. It’s a collection of random speeches, front matter from books (not his own), liner notes, and the occasional eulogy for individuals living and dead. While the book is organized into sections on topics like other authors, comic books, films, and music, it seems that organization derives organically from the topics on which Neil Gaiman is asked to comment–rather than a desire to tighten the book’s theme.

If you’re a Neil Gaiman fanboy/girl, you’ll need no excuse to read anything that he puts out (even though–if that is the case–you’ll probably have read much of this before in separate outings.) So the question is why the rest of us—who may enjoy Gaiman’s writing tremendously but who don’t qualify as fanboys / fangirls—should read this. The reason that it’s worth reading is that Neil Gaiman is funny, has a way of framing ideas that makes them thought-provoking and interesting, and frequently writes quotable bits of text that are essentially brain candy.

The book’s title comes from an essay on Gaiman’s experience attending the Oscars from the upper balcony. As mentioned, the book is divided into thematic sections–ten of them to be precise. The book starts with “Some Things I Believe,” which presents speeches on the virtue of reading, libraries, books, and bookstores. The next section discusses people he has known and worked with—largely writers and graphic artists. Then Gaiman offers thoughts on the nature of science fiction, again mostly through book forwards on seminal works from the genre. There is a section on films and Gaiman’s experience with them—several of his works have been made into films and many others have been considered. The next part is on comic books and the works and artists that influenced Gaiman. The next section bears the title “Introductions and Contradictions” and it offers introductions for various books (not Gaiman’s but those written for other writers.) There’s a musical section about a few recording artists including They Might be Giants, Lou Reed, and—of course—Gaiman’s wife Amanda Palmer. Next, Gaiman presents some introductions and forwards for works of fantasy. One section includes only a solitary entry–a commencement speech entitled “Make Good Art.” The final section is sort of a catchall of essays that includes the title piece and one on events in Syria.

I’d recommend this book for those who enjoy reading (or writing) in the genres for which Gaiman is known. His comments offer interesting insight, and you may learn about some books and authors that you’d never heard of before.

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BOOK REVIEW: Captain America: Civil War by Ed Brubaker

Civil War: Captain AmericaCivil War: Captain America by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Captain America has gone rogue. In the wake of the passing of a law that requires heroes to be registered and regulated, Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America) leads a resistance movement. The arc conveyed in this four-book collection tells a story of the resistance at once battling S.H.E.I.L.D. Cape-Killers on the one hand and a HYDRA plot on the other. It should be noted that it’s at least as much a Winter Soldier collection as a Captain America one. In fact, the third book in the collection is the only one in which Steve Rogers / Captain America can be said to be the lead.

The books included are: “Captain America #22 [Civil War / The Drums of War, pt. 1],” “Captain America #23 [Civil War / The Drums of War, pt. 2],” “Captain America #24 [Civil War / The Drums of War, pt. 3],” and “Winter Soldier #1: Winter Kills.”

The first issue features Sharon Carter meeting with a S.H.E.I.L.D. psychiatrist, or so she thinks. Carter is the agency’s liaison with Captain America, and has developed a close relationship with him. While S.H.E.I.L.D. is trying to get her to exploit the relationship to bring in the Captain, others are manipulating Carter for their own nefarious purposes.

In the next issue, Bucky Barnes (i.e. the Winter Soldier) breaks into a secret facility at the behest of a disembodied Nick Fury in order tap into a fake robotic Nick Fury. Next, Winter Soldier takes on a group of “Cape Killers” (i.e. agents of the government working to bring down Captain America’s resistance forces using Tony Stark technology) in order to capture some of their technology.

In the third issue, Captain America breaks into a HYDRA facility on a mission that goes bad. When he’s discovered by Cape Killers, he’s “rescued” by Sharon Carter. During his infiltration, he learns something that will help him in his mission to defeat the Red Skull, if only he can succeed before the Red Skull destroys him.

In the final issue, the Winter Soldier is sent by a disembodied Nick Fury to interrupt a group of Young Avengers who think they are about to attack one of Tony Stark’s facilities when, in fact, it’s a HYDRA base. After a brief skirmish, the Winter Soldier succeeds in talking these young heroes out of their mission, only to be discovered. As a result, Bucky and his new group of young comrades are forced to take down the facility. The setting of the story on Christmas Eve, with flash backs to Christmas Eve 1944, are used to make the story more poignant.

As a collection, I didn’t care for this book. It didn’t provide a satisfying narrative arc. Though I’d say the individual issues were worth reading, and if the collection went a little further, it’d have something. But nothing is resolved at the end, and the jumping between Captain America and the Winter Soldier stories doesn’t provide the makings of character development. It’s a series of missions with varying objectives. The collection does offer quite a bit of action, much more than the “Iron Man: Civil War” collection that I recently reviewed. However, it doesn’t provide nearly as much of a story as that book, and is not as artfully grouped as the Iron Man collection. In summary, the tone setting and action are good, but it’s a collection of action that doesn’t go anywhere.

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BOOK REVIEW: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol. 1) by Alan Moore

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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For those unfamiliar with this series or the movie featuring Sean Connery, this graphic novel assembles a team of heroes from 19th century science fiction and adventure novels. Specifically, the team includes: Mina Harker (of Bram Stroker’s Dracula), Allan Quatermain (of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mine series), Captain Nemo (of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and other Jules Verne novels), Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel featuring their names), and Hawley Griffin (of the H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man.) The team’s principle nemesis is Professor James Moriarty of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series.

Interestingly, this book follows the same general plot progression as the movie, but is much different in tone, settings, and character details. The plot progression of which I refer is that the team is assembled (with no small amount of mutual animosity) and they bond into a team as they face a grandiose threat of steampunk industrialization run amok. That plot progression aside, you’ll find an entirely different story otherwise. First, those who favor gender equality will appreciated that Mina Harker is in a leadership role in this volume, the role played by Quatermain in the movie. (That being said, this isn’t a group of individuals who take readily to being led.) Second, those who like darker, grittier tales will find this book more appealing than the movies. Allan Quatermain is found by Harker wasted in an opium den. Griffin is captured after having moved into a girl’s school to use his invisibility to lecherous advantage and the head mistress of said school is decidedly dominatrix like. I generally liked the grittier tone better, though it was hard to reconcile Griffin’s abhorrent behavior with heroism—anti-heroes are a challenge, particularly one who can disappear at will. Third, the team in the book is smaller and more manageable, with the movie having taken on two more characters (Dorian Gray and Tom Sawyer.) Finally, the book doesn’t get around so much. The movie features at least four major settings—not counting the high seas, but the book takes place mostly in Victorian London.

You don’t have to have read all the classic works from which the characters derive to get the story, but it does make it a little more fun. (Yes, I realize that I’m using “classic” for books–some of which–were considered the pulp fiction of their day. However, if your book is still in print after 100 years, I’d say you deserve the status and respect.) Those who’ve read the books will get some subtleties that aren’t critical to the story but are kind of nifty. That being said, don’t expect the characters to match their originals perfectly. The novels covered are wide-ranging, some rely on supernatural elements and others are more realistic, some are futuristic while others reflect the times more accurately. One can’t bring all these individuals into one world and have them be exactly as they were in their original domains.

There are some extra features at the end including a short story featuring a time traveling Allan Quatermain and some art from the series.

I’d recommend this book for those who read comics and graphic novels—especially if they’ve read the stories of at least a few of the 19th century characters. (If you haven’t read any of the novels, you should probably go back and hit some classics before you read anything else. Just my opinion.) It’s an intriguing concept, and it’s done well.

The movie trailer is here.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison

Batman: Arkham Asylum - A Serious House on Serious EarthBatman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the third, and probably last, installment in my “Happy 75th Anniversary, Batman” series of reviews. Batman: Arkham Asylum is an attempt to convey a nightmare on the page, and it succeeds both graphically and narratively. It’s quite different from other Batman comics in style and content. It takes the dark nature of the Dark Knight’s mythology to the extreme.

There are two story-lines woven together in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The main line involves Batman entering an Arkham Asylum being run by the inmates. There he finds himself pitted against his foes: the Joker, Two-Face, Scarecrow, and others. The other is the 19th century tale of Amadeus Arkham’s descent into madness.

As is common in the Batman mythology, psychiatrists are portrayed as walking the razor’s edge between sanity and insanity. For those who don’t read comic books, this is most readily exemplified by the character of Dr. Crane / Scarecrow in the first film of the Nolan trilogy, Batman Begins. I’m not sure whether the point is to create enemies that are so strong they can bend doctors to their will, or if there is a general disdain for psychiatrists—as one might see a dislike of lawyers in other stories.

Among the nightmarish elements of this work is the fact that Batman’s face is never seen clearly. The Dark Knight is always a vaguely and/or surrealistically silhouetted. There’s a mix of sharpness and haziness in the graphics. The Joker gets his own crazy scrawl font. The graphics are as creepy and strange as can be. On my low-end Kindle, the work was in black and white, which worked well. I did look at the sample pages, and the color version uses a lot of sepia and crimson.

Batman: Arkham Asylum asks us to consider whether Bruce Wayne / Batman is sane or just a lunatic with a moral code.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Batman: The Dark Knight ReturnsBatman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A couple of reviews ago, I covered Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, which imagined the first year of the Dark Knight’s venture into crime fighting. The Dark Knight Returns is Miller’s take on the other end of the Caped Crusader’s career. It begins ten years after the last sighting of the Batman. Commissioner Gordon is on the verge of retirement, and there’s a mix of new and old threats rising.

There are four parts to this work. The first, also entitled The Dark Knight Returns shows the rise of a powerful gang of thugs called “The Mutants.” The way this gang’s leader is drawn makes him look like he truly is an altogether different species, but it’s his filed teeth and his bulky physique that account for his appearance. The main battle is with the “rehabilitated” Harvey Dent (a.k.a. “Two-Face,” an inappropriate moniker as his face has been fixed and his flighty psychiatrist ensures the community that Dent’s mind is fixed as well.) We see Bruce Wayne’s concern about the deteriorating state of Gotham and his eventual return to crime fighting, which is instigated by a freakish bat flying through his [closed] window. Wayne takes the bat as a sign from the universe that the Batman is indeed needed. Dent engages in a terroristic plot which the Dark Knight must try to foil.

As was the case in Batman: Year One, the story of Commissioner Gordon plays out in parallel with that of Bruce Wayne / Batman. However, in the third book, Gordon has retired and it’s the new Commissioner, Ellen Yendel, who shares the spotlight. Yendel, unlike Gordon, promptly issues an arrest warrant for Batman.

Book Two is called, The Dark Knight Triumphant, and it’s in this episode that Batman comes up against the leader of the Mutants. As in Batman: Year One, Batman arrives to the fight as an underdog. However, as would be expected, the nature of his underdog status is completely different. In Year One, Batman is a supreme physical specimen, but is green to crime fighting. In The Dark Knight Returns we see a battle-hardened veteran Batman who is a spry geriatric, not up to fighting young, mutant thugs. However, as with the former comic, the Dark Knight does redeem himself. Many of the Mutants, being fair-weather friends to their leader, form a cult of Batman in the wake of the Dark Knight’s victory over their former boss.

Besides broadening the readership demographic to retirement community dwellers, another new demographic is appealed to with Carrie Kelley, the new Robin. There are references early in the book to the profound effect that the death of Jason Todd had on Bruce Wayne. Be that as it may, Batman seems quick to bring this young girl into harm’s way given the lingering wound of Jason Todd.

Book Three, Hunt the Dark Knight, pits Batman against his ultimate nemesis, the Joker—who like Dent—has been sprung in no small part due to his lunatic psychiatrist. Miller continues the popular Batman comic disdain for psychiatrists, who are portrayed as a small nudge away from becoming bat-shit crazy (pun intended.) While the battle against the Joker provides this chapter’s crime fight, Commissioner Yendel’s war on Batman is a major part of the storyline. We also discover that time has not been as kind to Selina Kyle as it was to the men of this series. (i.e. Gordon is old but distinguished, and Batman has pretty much the same preternatural physique that he did as the young batman.)

The Dark Knight Falls is the last section, and it’s the most famous for the battle between Batman and Superman. Earlier in the book there’s a foreshadowing call from Clark Kent to let Batman know that the Superman will be out-of-town for a while. Appropriate to the 1986 issue date of this comic, a Cold War crisis is the event consuming Superman’s time. These Cold War tensions result in a nuclear missile launch that Superman diverts, but the Man of Steel hasn’t read up on the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) effect. [Incidentally, Miller didn’t read up on the use of nuclear weapons as an EMP either, or—at least—he gets it completely wrong. Perhaps, he just figured that his readers wouldn’t know the difference–and he’s probably right. At any rate, I’m not deducting stars for bad science.] The power outage caused by the EMP results in looting and societal chaos. Batman quells this with the help of the cult of Batman mentioned previously. However, this doesn’t go over smoothly with some, which results in Superman’s invasion of Batman’s Gotham turf, and the ultimate battle.

I enjoyed this work more than Batman: Year One in part owing to the serious enemies that the Dark Knight must vanquish. I’d agree with the common view that this is a must-read for those interested in the canon of the Caped Crusader.

Also, if you aren’t a comics fan but are wondering how Batman and Superman could end up fighting–as per the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie–this might give you some insight. [Though I wouldn’t expect that movie to follow this work in any of the vaguest ways.] Also, there are other Caped Crusader versus Man of Steel interpretations out there, though this is probably the most famous.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: Year One by Frank Miller, et. al.

Batman: Year OneBatman: Year One by Frank Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Amazon recently had a sale on classic Batman collections in celebration of the Caped Crusader’s 75th anniversary. I bought a few titles, including this one.

Batman: Year One is Frank Miller’s vision of the hero’s first year of crime fighting. Unlike the first movie in the Nolan trilogy, Batman Begins, there’s no backstory about Bruce Wayne’s training. The comic begins with Bruce Wayne beginning to go on the equivalent of self-sanctioned “neighborhood watch” rounds in Gotham’s seedy underbelly. He’s in his planning and research phase, and only quasi-reluctantly gets into brawls with street thugs. His goal is, ostensibly, intelligence gathering.

Miller’s work isn’t aimed at a boyish market. From the intimation of underage prostitution to themes of marital infidelity to the unsubtle homage to Edward Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks, this book is directed at a more mature reader. It’s grittier, but Batman hasn’t yet become so sophisticated as to abandon wearing his underwear outside his pants.

The four chapters that make up this graphic novel parallel and twist together the stories of Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne as they each begin their Gotham crime fighting careers. In many versions of the Batman mythology, Gordon is a young cop who helps boyhood Bruce Wayne on the night his parents are killed. This is one of the ways in which the Miller version differs. In Batman: Year One Gordon is a detective who moves to Gotham from Chicago at about the same time Bruce Wayne is sticking his toe in the waters of Gotham crime. This comes in handy for Miller later in works like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in which he is able to have a geriatric Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon coexisting.

The interests of Gordon and Batman only align at the very end of the last chapter. Until then, Gordon is trying to find and apprehend Batman like all the other cops. In fact, Gordon is leading the crusade against the Dark Knight when his bosses still have little interest in it—until Batman crashes their ball.

There are no supervillains yet—only corrupt cops and organized crime. Bruce Wayne, who adopts the guise of Batman only after a bat flies through his window (never heard of that happening), gets off to a rough start. He isn’t yet the phantom nightmare that he will later become, and is still learning his lessons. In his early encounters with criminals, he prevails mostly by being able to take a punch.

Besides Bruce Wayne’s inner monologue being a bit ham-handed, I enjoyed this work. The ham-handed inner monologue is—no doubt–intended to convey that Wayne is a man of thought as well as a man of action, but it’s hard to believe that someone who could transform himself into the Batman would be that riddled with doubt. That said, the dialogue is better written than the typical comic. There’s not a lot of the “As-you-know-Bob” dialogue that often plagues this genre.

If you’re a fan of the Dark Knight, this is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Injustice: Gods Among Us by Tom Taylor

Injustice: Gods Among Us #1Injustice: Gods Among Us #1 by Tom Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re among those who were distraught over Superman’s uncharacteristic behavior at the climax of the Man of Steel movie, this graphic novel isn’t for you. However, the author and illustrator do know how to build tension and keep it rolling. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they achieve this via a mountain of corpses. If you’re good with that, you’ll likely enjoy this work. If not, you may find it a tad dark and / or gratuitous in its violence.

With the movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice filming for a summer of 2016 release date, many are wondering how a Batman versus Superman battle might occur (and how the Caped Crusader could credibly avoid being smashed to pulp 30 seconds into the movie.) This comic offers one possible approach—though it’s exceedingly unlikely to be the tack portrayed in the movie. (This book is ancillary to a video game, and wouldn’t necessarily be seen as core canon of the Justice League.)

This book consists of six parts. In part I, the Joker outwits Superman, tricking him into an act that is so horrendous that it will shake the Man of Steel’s core values. In part II, Superman takes a proactive stance against global conflict. In part III, the U.S. government supports a covert action designed to give them leverage against Superman, and to dissuade him from enforcing his previously announced ceasefire. Aquaman and his nautical army oppose Superman in the fourth part because the former is displeased with a dictator setting rules in the maritime domain—even if it is a largely benevolent dictator. In the penultimate part, Batman and Nightwing resist Superman’s attempt to clear out Arkham Asylum and to put the lunatics somewhere where they can’t keep breaking out and causing trouble (as the Joker caused for Superman.) In the final part Batman is exposed to a life-altering event (as Superman had been at the book’s beginning), but the bulk of this section is just picking teams for the epic game of superhero dodgeball that is presumably to unfold in later volumes.

What worked? The setup in which the Joker bests Superman is well-played. The Joker’s willingness to die for the ultimate prank, his perfect psychopathy, and his love of sowing the seeds of chaos make him the perfect man for the job. Harley Quinn gets a few laughs in this otherwise morose book. There’s a lot to think about in terms of the morality of a benevolent dictator. If a god-like creature, i.e. Superman, were to exist on Earth, what should he/she/it take on and what should he leave alone? That’s a question that’s at the core of this book. As in many good storylines, there’s a blurring of the lines between good and evil, a blurring which is essential to have a Batman versus Superman battle make sense.

What doesn’t work? We come into the middle of the Joker’s plot and are supposed to accept that he and Harley Quinn could pull off the phenomenally complex plan in a manner in which it seems easy. It involves hijacking a nuclear sub, successfully taking control of and reprogramming a nuclear weapon, and not only giving Superman a hallucination but controlling the nature of the hallucination. For these events to play out, the Joker needs more than his usual complete lack of moral compass; he needs access to far greater intellectual ability than he usually has to display. And that’s not the only point at which events seem a little too easy. (However, yes, I do realize we are talking about a world in which there are people who can fly under their own locomotion and make complex constructs out of thin air. I didn’t say it was a deal breaker. I’m just saying there were some opportunities for tension missed.)

There is also a death that should have a profound impact on Batman, but which he seems to shrug off pretty well after a couple of hours of bereavement—and possibly some behind-the-scenes Catwoman nookie. I assume the effects of said death will play out in later volumes, but it seemed gratuitous given its lack of effect within the volume. Unlike the death that fundamentally alters Superman’s course, Batman seems to remain unchanged. I’m presuming that the death wasn’t just to create an excuse to bring Selina Kyle (Catwoman) into the storyline, and addition of mixed outcomes. Kyle’s left-of-Marx preachiness will grate on the nerves of politically conservative readers. (Not that it should, regardless of one’s views, one should be able to accept that realistic character development will include individuals with extreme views—just as one sees such individuals in real life… or on Facebook. I’m just saying that, sadly, in our world people don’t want to hear opposing views unless they are being lampooned, and so some will stay away just to avoid hearing characters spouting views contrary to their own. I don’t know how we got there, but…)

I enjoyed this comic overall. Like most entries in its genre, it’s a quick read, and it’s better written than most.

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