Reviews from Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #23
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Trafford, pb, 256pp
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve read this novel (a fantasy, self-published by a young man of seventeen) all the way through. I’ve done nothing but skim the pdf, and read passages here and there that caught my eye. So I shouldn’t really write a review, and indeed I haven’t.
If I were to write a review, my focus would inevitably be drawn to the disclaimer at the beginning of the book where the author carefully advises the reader that his book is not seeking “to supplant the true Creator of the universe”. I’m fairly sure that the author didn’t mean it as a joke, but I found it hilarious nevertheless.
It’s funny however you look at it. If you believe that a god of some kind created the universe, how could it be supplanted from that position by someone writing a book about an alternative theory of creation? All such a book could supplant (at best) is a theory of that god’s existence, not the fact of it. And there’s part of the humour – implicit in the disclaimer is the idea that his true Creator is just a theory, and one that could easily be supplanted if the author of Ælnäthän forgot to add a disclaimer!
It also raises the question: if the author is a Christian (it’s not spelled out in the foreword, so I shouldn’t jump to conclusions – he could just as easily be a Muslim, or a Hindu, or so on), why create alternative gods at all to create his fantasy world? Surely it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which whatever all-powerful Creator he believes in decided to create an Earth that’s different from our own? (After all, as everyone knows, on the seventh day, God created Narnia…)
And if you don’t believe that a god of some kind created the universe, the disclaimer seems presumptuous and laughably pompous (and I know all about being laughably pompous – just read a few of my editorials).
I have nothing against self-publishing – as this magazine demonstrates all too incapably! – but if I were writing a review I’d go on to say that the book’s self-published nature gives itself away in the way the author explains in the foreword that the beginning of the book (a condensed history of his world) is boring but it gets better. If he knows it’s boring he should really have taken it out – an editor would have removed it without a second’s thought, or at least relegated it to an appendix.
But when we publish our own stuff we don’t want to throw away any of our work, however much it might benefit the finished product. (There are many similar passages in my own self-published work – not necessarily into which I have put a lot of work, since I haven’t put a significant amount of work into anything I’ve ever written, but certainly my writing is rife with indulgences that an editor would not hesitate to excise.) To be honest, I found those early pages totally unreadable, though I imagine the author put a lot of work into them.
Finally, in my hypothetical review, I’d say that if the author continues to put as much work into his writing as he obviously has here, who knows where he might end up. But the important thing is to keep working at the writing. I’d say to bear in mind that, for a writer, writing is much more important than publishing.
Publishing oneself can easily be a distraction to a writer, a dangerously easy way to dissipate creative energy. The important thing is to keep writing, and see how it goes.
And then, at the end of the review which I have not written, I would wish the author good luck with his book and sign off! – SWT
Panther (1970), pb, 256pp
I hope readers will indulge me in reviewing a rather older book than we would normally discuss in these pages, because this was one of the best anthologies of science fiction I’ve ever read. To be honest it’s been far too long since I read such an anthology at all. I thought I’d run out of new worlds to discover, and it was wonderful to discover that I have not; to realise how short-sighted I had been was a pleasure.
If there’s a movie producer in your life, you could do a lot worse than pressing a copy of this book into her hands.
Some of the stories, like Fredric Brown’s “Arena” and The War of the Worlds (represented here by the script of Orson Welles’ radio version) have already made it to the large or small screens, while William Tenn’s “The Deserter” seems to be the missing link between the Starship Troopers (the hawkish book) and Starship Troopers (the satirical film) (complete with brain-sucking alien bugs). Frank Herbert’s “Greenslaves” perhaps has too much in common with Mimic to make adapting it worthwhile. Others, though, as far as I know, are still pristine, unspoilt, and ready for exploitation!
AE van Vogt’s “Not Only Dead Men”, in which a World War II-era whaling ship encounters alien life at sea, would make a stunning movie – preferably starring Tom Hanks as the captain. In fact, it would almost certainly be one of the best films of all time! Sadly I can also easily imagine it as a cheap direct-to-DVD movie, which would be a shocking waste of its potential. I can only dream of how good it would have been as a black and white film made in the 1950s.
Pixar and Brad Bird could do much worse than adapt “Surface Tension” by James Blish. I say that because the premise, of tiny people living in a puddle, although brilliant, might be a hard sell to adults, as I’ve found when trying to explain to my wife and friends why it was such a superb story. Children would love it, though.
When reading “Stranger Station” by Damon Knight I couldn’t help mentally repurposing shots from films like Solaris and Sunshine – it might make quite a short film, but like James H Schmitz’s “Balanced Ecology”, Terry Carr’s “The Dance of the Changer and the Three” and Philip Jose Farmer’s “Mother” it would make for an amazing episode of The Outer Limits, if some version of that programme ever gains the budget to match its ideas.
Of course, even if no one ever makes a movie out of any of these stories, it won’t lessen them one bit. That I’ve taken that angle in this review is just an illustration of how exciting I found the concepts. That’s what really marks this out as an exceptional collection of science fiction – every story has an utterly different and astonishing premise. And of course, no film could ever be this perfectly executed as these stories are – on screen there’s always some flaw, however tiny, something that doesn’t quite work. That’s not the case here. Antony Cheetham did a marvellous job of bringing together a superb range of stories, by an immensely talented group of writers. The book’s only arguable flaw is its title, which makes it sound rather sillier than it really is, but even that can be excused, given that it was what made me buy the book in the first place. – SWT
Elder Signs Press, pb, 272pp
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890–1937) scraped a living from selling short stories to Weird Tales magazine and ghostwriting for the less talented. Despite the fact that he never had a novel or anthology published in his lifetime, Stephen King considers him to be the most influential horror writer of the twentieth century. Mr King is not alone and many of today’s most proficient and commercially successful speculative fiction authors freely acknowledge their debt to Lovecraft. The contrast is typical of the controversy inextricable from both Lovecraft’s life and legacy. At the Mountains of Madness was one of his few novellas, first published in 1936, and concerned an expedition to Antarctica. Hive is billed as the first of a series of three sequels.
The tale is presented in such a way that it is both a sequel and a standalone novel. Newcomers to Lovecraft and his mythos will enjoy the story as is, while aficionados will delight in recognising the references to the original. The events described by Lovecraft are very neatly summarised, along with all relevant further exploration in the Antarctic. Mr Curran shows particularly good judgement when it comes to finding the balance between old and new, and this is reflected in the perfect equilibrium between retrospective explication and plot development: the pace is fast and furious, and the narrative takes on a life of its own.
Protagonist Jimmy Hayes is an electrician based at Kharkov Station in the Antarctic, making preparations for the five months of impending winter isolation. The station is a base for a scientific expedition led by Dr Gates, who has found the mummified remains of the Old Ones unearthed by Misaktonic University in 1930; and a NASA-sponsored attempt to drill through the ice cap into Lake Vordog, a subterranean lake as vast as it is pristine. Shortly after Gates returns with the mummies, one of the support staff goes mad and attempts suicide – the first indication that all is not well. Gates confirms that the Old Ones are aliens, predating humankind by millennia, and discloses that their discovery is likely to have huge implications for the whole human race. A day later, the drillers break through the ice canopy above Lake Vordog; a probe sent down into the water reveals a submarine city inhabited by living Old Ones – completing the ingredients for one hell of a winter.
Sequels are always something of a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, the author and publisher can increase their readership by promoting a book as a sequel to a popular story; on the other, the more popular the original, the more likely the sequel is to disappoint. This element of reciprocity leads to the only criticism of Hive. While the novel is in most respects a very satisfying continuation of one of Lovecraft’s best stories, the conclusion is at odds with his particular style of horror: there is too much action and too little damnation. It is a minor point, however, and doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the tale.
This is a very promising start to the series, and one can only hope the second instalment appears soon; if it is anything like Hive, it will be worth the wait. Mr Curran’s writing is atmospheric, exciting, and – most important of all – highly entertaining. – Rafe McGregor
Odd and the Frost Giants
Bloomsbury, pb, 80pp
I enjoyed The Sandman, though I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of it. Since then, though, I’ve enjoyed everything Neil Gaiman has been involved with more and more, from the Neverwhere tv series to his children’s books and his adult novel American Gods. He reminds me a bit of Damon Albarn, in that he seems to move from a brilliant success in one area to a brilliant success in another over and over again, through hard work and a lot of talent. This book continues the trend. It was specially written for World Book Day 2008, and, since I couldn’t persuade my daughter to spend her World Book Day voucher on it I had to buy it myself… It was well worth the pound, being a sweet little story about a half-Scottish Viking boy and his encounter with the gods. – SWT
World War Z
Duckworth, pb, 344pp
Subtitled “An oral history of the zombie war”, World War Z tells the story from the initial outbreaks to the ongoing aftermath. Brooks wastes no time trying to reimagine or justify the existence of zombies. There’s no scientific analysis of why their bite conveys the infection, or how their dead bodies can move. They are the zombies from Night of the Living Dead, plain and simple, with just the one difference. Here, only the infected rise from the dead; the previously dead stay where they are. The book is not about how a real world zombie apocalypse might happen, but instead about how the real world would respond to Romero’s zombies.
Having said that, Brooks does come up with a number of new (to me, at least) twists on the way the zombie plague spreads, none of which I’ll mention here for fear of spoiling someone else’s enjoyment of the book. I’ll just say that the best such story, for me, is told in Brazil.
World War Z has a lot in common with James Herbert’s Rats trilogy, though where Herbert has an onmiscient narrator floating around to take us to the most interesting bits, everything here is reported first hand by the survivors. That might be thought to lessen the suspense, since we know they survive, but that’s far from the truth – there’s a very real sense that surviving this war was much harder than dying in it. Hearing the stories straight from the survivors is what gives the book its power and purpose, dragging us right in amongst the moaning hordes.
I had a few small issues with it. For one thing, it’s a bit irksome to have the old nonsense about “no atheists in foxholes” getting trotted out, even in a first person narrative. The American soldiers in the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, for example, get very angry when people say things like that. It’s also amusing to see how often people from around the world say things along the lines of “As your great American writer once said…”, which often makes it seem as if the quotes were in place first and the character saying them came later. And I’m not convinced by how safe any safe zones could possibly have been, especially early in the war. I enjoy the odd zombie movie here and there, but I find them very depressing, because there’s no way anyone would survive (unless, as in 28 Days Later, the zombies would eventually run out of steam). Given the horrifying way that things play out in the early sections of this book, I’m not convinced that anyone at all would have made it out alive.
But those are minor quibbles with regard to a powerful book. It’s so full of fascinating and terrifying episodes that everyone reading it will have their own favourite moment – for me it was the fleeting mention of the Queen and her castle. I’m far from being a monarchist, but that was cool. Also, Brooks is to be commended for fitting the whole saga into a mere 340 pages. I’ve no doubt that the resulting insensity has contributed to the book’s success.
I’m definitely looking forward to the movie. – SWT
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Long Way Home
Dark Horse, tpb, 136pp
For the seven years that it was on television Buffy the Vampire Slayer was my absolute favourite programme. Apart from loving the writing, the fighting and the biting, I think I really, truly fell in love with Buffy herself. (I think it was her incredibly sad eyes that did it.) Whenever I see Sarah Michelle Gellar in other roles now I’m filled with a huge sadness, as if I’d actually had a romantic relationship with Buffy, one that ended amicably, maybe because we moved to different cities. And now I see a doppelganger of her appearing in Scooby Doo and The Grudge. It’s a bizarre feeling!
I’d heard about the Season Eight comic being published by Dark Horse, and that it was being written by Joss Whedon, the creator of the original show. I’d held off from buying it, partly because I’ve given up on collecting individual comics, but also from a reluctance to spoil the old memories. So I waited for the trade paperback, put that on my wishlist when it came out, and waited for someone to buy it for me. I was easing myself back into it.
I should have pre-ordered it myself! This is a fab book, continuing the story from season seven and moving it forward. Things can happen! Things can change! Tie-ins are nearly always much more exciting when the programme is off the air or when they aren’t forced to maintain a strict continuity – see the Doctor Who New Adventures or the Star Trek New Frontier books, for example, and compare them to the stultified dullness of most Star Trek comics (at least those with which Peter David is not involved) – but with the original creator on board this takes that principle to a new level. Everything really counts. It seems stupid that that makes a difference – after all, like Alan Moore wrote in Whatever Happened to the Man of Steel?, they are all imaginary stories – but it does.
And the stories are great. It’s quite easy to imagine these stories as they might have looked on television, but here they are portrayed with the budget of a movie – while still being paced perfectly for a comic book. It’s wonderful to see Buffy, Xander and Willow interacting again, in a way that was often quite rarely seen in later seasons of the programme, and it’s fascinating to see the reactions of those in power to the multitude of female heroes now in their midst. It’s also nice to see some payoff on Xander losing his eye, which seemed a bit random onscreen.
Huge credit must also go to the artist, Georges Jeanty, who achieves the remarkable and rare feat of capturing the likenesses of the cast members while sacrificing nothing in expression, movement or character.
Highly recommended! – SWT
Minx, digest, 176p
Minx is a new line of graphic novels from DC, but until reading this one, I’d got the wrong end of the stick and thought they were American manga. In fact they are more DC-does-Oni. This is a slight but entertaining story of dark deeds in the country, as investigated by a cute goth girl drawn in a nice funky style. I was about to say that the title is a bit misleading, but typing that made me realise why it wasn’t (the story takes place around a golf club – duh). I can’t imagine this changing anyone’s life, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. I tried to avoid saying that it’s a distaff Hot Fuzz… but didn’t. Finally, watch out at the end for Lottie’s Lexicon, which will provide much hilarity to British readers.
If for no other reason (I’ll leave the reader to discover whether there is another reason), this publication is suitable for review in this magazine thanks to a lead male character by the name of Howard Phillips… – SWT
Doctor Who: Voyager
Panini, tpb, 172p
Previous volumes in this series – the Tom Baker and Peter Davison ones – hit me like hammer blows from the past, but this first Colin Baker collection is even better: like the Paul McGann volumes this was all brand new to me. Before I get onto saying why it was brilliant, I should cover the two things that are slightly annoying about it. Like all of these Doctor Who books from Panini it has the words “Graphic Novel” on the front cover, when it patently isn’t. A graphic novel is a lengthy comic book conceived as a single piece of fiction. At a push it might cover a single storyline pulled out of an ongoing series, but this is a collection of short serials. The other thing is that on the back it says “The Complete Sixth Doctor Comic Strips”, when the Colin Baker-penned special, “The Age of Chaos”, doesn’t appear in this volume and isn’t scheduled for the next either (maybe they’d argue that as a graphic novel itself it doesn’t qualify as a comic strip).
Those minor niggles aside, this is a glorious book. John Ridgway’s art is magnificent (and reproduced beautifully) – pages 26 and 51 being particular examples of his talents being given free rein – and the storytelling retains the cosmic scope of the Fifth Doctor stories while reining in the more confusing elements. None of the television stories in which the Sixth Doctor appeared could stand even the slightest comparison to these stories, and it isn’t often you can say that about a tie-in. – SWT
Marvel, tpb, 440pp
The first series of Godzilla films ended in 1975 (with Terror of Mechagodzilla) and the second began in 1984 with the Godzilla remake. This Marvel series fits neatly into the gap, being published between 1977 and 1979.
The story itself was ever so slightly dull, for me; the main interest comes from the unusual decision to integrate Godzilla into the Marvel Universe. (Imagine if Marvel had done the same thing with Star Wars? They did it with Doctor Who, though not to the same extent as this.) There are no dimension-hopping hijinks here – Godzilla has always been part of the Marvel Universe, and the heroes are vaguely aware of his existence, but until now he has confined his activities to Japan.
Unfortunately, though, given the opportunities available, for most of the comic’s run the only sign that this is the Marvel universe comes from the presence of Nick Fury’s supporting cast, who chase Godzilla around in a helicarrier, filling in for similiar monster hunters in the original films.
That’s a shame. For example, the most interesting part of the comic comes when Ant-Man’s shrinking gas is used to shrink Godzilla down to the size of a rat (this sequence seemed interestingly prescient of Masashi Tanaka’s Gon, a fierce little dinosaur). (It beggars belief that SHIELD don’t destroy him at that point, while they have the chance.)
The Avengers and Fantastic Four turn up for an ineffective brawl towards the end, but I would have liked to have seen more of the ways in which existing in the Marvel universe would have affected Godzilla.
Professor X could have taken us on a trip inside Godzilla’s psyche. We could have seen Namor’s reaction to Godzilla swimming through his territory. Godzilla could have gone to the Savage Land.
Maybe Doug Moench made the right decision for the time, avoiding such gimmicks on the whole and just telling a straightforward Godzilla story (especially since no movies were being made at the time), but it doesn’t really give us what we want to see now!
Still, it’s a decent, if undemanding, read. It was obviously pitched at a very young audience, but it’s still worth the time of any Godzilla fan. – SWT
Green Lantern: Revenge of the Green Lanterns
DC, hb, 164pp
I received this book as a birthday present, and I was very grateful for it, so it seems a bit churlish to give it a less than enthusiastic review. I guess I’m a churl!
It’s not a terrible book, by any means. It’s well-written, the art is pretty good, and the production values are excellent. It just all seems a bit pointless and slightly dull, and it lacks pace and wit. Its constant focus on the past is reminiscent of John Nathan Turner’s tenure as producer on Doctor Who, where endless stories depended for their interest upon the programme’s history, rather than pulling it forward in new directions. It gives every indication of being written to squeeze into the gap between various company events rather than being a story in itself, especially given that it has a one year break in the middle for the Infinite Crisis and its aftermath to take place. Why on Earth would you bring a character back from the dead and then skip over his first year of being alive again? The creative integrity of this title clearly wasn’t the first thing on anyone’s mind.
The title makes the book sound very dramatic, but in fact is totally misleading – there are only two occasions and ten pages in total on which Green Lanterns (other than the title character himself) could be said to be out for revenge, and in both cases they are quickly mopped up or reasoned with and largely irrelevant to the storyline.
The principle preoccupation of the stories here is to undo the consequences of issues 46 to 50 of the previous Green Lantern series, in which Hal Jordan, Green Lantern, went mad with grief after the destruction of his home city (as part of the Return of Superman storyline) and went on the rampage, fighting other Green Lanterns, taking their rings, and trying to recreate Coast City. After that he went full-on evil, calling himself Parallax and trying to recreate the entire universe in Zero Hour. Eventually, he died saving the Earth in The Final Night, and his ghost became the new Spectre (DC’s spirit of vengeance), of all things.
Now, while I might agree that the character took a couple of wrong turns there (Parallax’s costume in particular was pretty lame), and I can understand why some fans would want all that undone, it’s worth bearing in mind that the initial story of Hal Jordan’s descent into madness came after 45 of the dullest comics ever created.
So for this series they seem (I haven’t read the previous two volumes of new Hal Jordan stories) to have undone or explained away all of the interesting things that have happened to him, and now, instead of Kyle Rayner, artist, wisecracker, heartthrob and amusing irritant to the older members of the JLA, we’re back with steady, stubborn fifties throwback Hal Jordan. That is to say: your dad is the new Green Lantern.
(Are they planning on casting Kevin Costner as Green Lantern in an upcoming movie or something?)
He’s a totally empty character, who never had anything to him. He did appear in some marvellous Silver Age stories, of course, and his powers were some of the most imaginative ever given to a superhero, but the man himself was a typically blank pre-Marvel fuddy-duddy.
Now he has nothing to him other than a vague regret at having murdered loads of people (though half the comic is spent on people telling him it’s alright, it wasn’t really his fault), and a constant look of irritation at the world not playing to his rules.
It’s ironic that while his transgressions have been retconned, they now seem less out of character than ever!
One final note: if I ever read another DC comic where someone is forced into a dream of their perfect life, I think I’ll scream.
I’ve got a feeling that I’ll be doing a lot of screaming! – SWT
DC/Wildstorm, hb, 240pp
Despite what it says on the cover, this is not really a graphic novel – though the sections about Hana Gitelman might just about add up to one, taken apart from the rest. It’s a series of slices-of-life from the unusual lives of the Heroes (and villains), which won’t make very much sense to anyone who hasn’t watched the TV show.
But for anyone who has watched the programme this will be an entertaining read. As well as giving us the chance to see a bit more of little-seen characters (such as Claude, ho-ho), the creators have been pretty generous in letting the comic have a few big reveals, ones that they would have been fully justified in reserving for the programme itself. – SWT
JLA: Ultramarine Corps
DC, tpb, 144pp
It seems to me that the pace of many mainstream comics has dropped to the extent where an eight-page Jimmy Olsen story from 1958 will often have as much going on as an entire issue of a modern comic or even a trade paperback.
An exception to that rule is the work of Grant Morrison. He writes modern day comics that have as much packed into each panel as those eight-page stories did. The effect is exponential, moment piling upon moment to spin the reader up in a whirlwind: in his superhero comics that creates action adventures with as many beats as the RZA (who has a lot of beats), while in his more leftfield adventures it can come as a dizzying flurry of blows to the mind.
For comparison, try boiling each issue of, say, the Revenge of the Green Lanterns book down to 8pp – it’s pretty easy. Try doing it with this book and you’d be left with an incoherent jumble. Morrison tells his stories with incredible economy, often skating absolutely on the line of the minimum information that the reader needs to be told, and flattering the reader with faith in his or her intelligence. Remarkably, too, for such a writerly writer, and one who reportedly has very little direct contact with his artists, he always gives his collaborators plenty of space to shine – or to fall on their face, as has happened from time to time, though not here. Ed McGuiness’s art is a bit inconsistent (the Flash always looks a bit weird), but has many spectacular moments.
Morrison writes the members of the JLA with a surefootedness that must be the envy of every other writer working in comics right now. For example, his Batman has all the moodiness you would expect of the Dark Knight, and yet Morrison gives him hilarious dialogue without it seeming at all out of character. What’s more, this is a Batman who clearly lives in and could survive in the DC universe. He has access to DC super-science, and uses it when necessary to meet the threats that the JLA faces. He just doesn’t choose to use this stuff in his day to day work – doubtlessly because criminals are more afraid of bats than they are of boom tubes.
It’s a shame that we’re back here with a cleanshaven Aquaman – with what appears to be a hand made of water (crazy – the harpoon on his wrist was both practical and unbelievably cool) – and that Kyle Raynor, Green Lantern during Morrison’s classic JLA run, is AWOL, but as always Morrison makes the best of what he has.
What’s remarkable about Morrison’s JLA is that he has clearly put a lot of thought into the role each character plays in the team. When he was on the main title (this collects issues from the JLA: Classified spinoff series), he talked about (in Wizard’s JLA Special, for example) building a pantheon similar to that of the Greek gods, something that could be seen most clearly in his brilliant recasting (sorry…) of Steel as Hephaestus. He thought very carefully about how each hero slots into the whole to create a unit, whether that’s the Martian Manhunter as a telepathic switchboard, or the Flash on crowd control, and that thought shows through in every JLA story he writes.
Finally getting onto this story in particular: although I enjoyed it very much, my feelings were mixed. It deals with the fate of Superbia, a city founded by the Ultramarines in the story beginning in Morrison’s JLA #24. Now, I’m not as widely read in the DC universe as I used to be, but I can’t help having the feeling that Morrison, having created this cool super-city, and then seen no one use it, felt a bit embarrassed about it hanging around in the air over Montevideo and decided to clear it up. For all I know that could be a totally erroneous conclusion, but either way it seems a shame to have created this place and then… well, no spoilers in this review.
This book also includes the JLA/WildCATs crossover, which was okay, but not as much fun as I remembered it being at the time. It is of interest for one thing, though, and that’s the way Morrison said at the time of its publication that in his mind he had had to work out a way for the two teams to meet, despite their living in different universes, and that in theory his idea could be used to link the DC universe with other worlds of superheroes – presumably he was talking about what came to be called Hypertime. So you could call this story the “Flash of Two Worlds” of the modern age. – SWT
Showcase Presents Superman Family: Volume 2
DC, tpb, 520pp
During the fifties the Superman comic was so successful that spin-offs were launched to meet demand. Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane went on to rack up over a hundred issues each, before the titles were merged into Superman Family, the title DC has used for these books collecting the two titles. The first volume was almost all Jimmy Olsen, his comic having launched earlier, but in this one Lois Lane issues enter the mix.
Reading this book, it’s surprising that Jimmy Olsen has never had his own tv series. The structure of the Jimmy Olsen stories in this huge collection is remarkably similar to that of programmes like Sabrina the Teenage Witch or The Wizards of Waverley Place: Jimmy wants to get ahead in some way (usually he’s after a scoop, or sometimes a pay rise), takes an unnecessary risk or makes an error of judgment, and then runs into trouble, often undergoing a startling transformation of some kind, before either learning his lesson, or finally making the right decision. One difference here, of course, is that while Sabrina or, say, Hannah Montana (someone who shares Superman’s secret identity woes and pleasures) are usually the authors of their own misfortune, here Lois and Jimmy are the ones causing trouble – for Superman – which often casts them in an interesting dual role, as both hero and villain in the same story.
(If my knowledge of current children’s television seems oddly extensive, put it down to how difficult it is to find anything for my little daughter to watch that doesn’t put me in danger of falling asleep at the childcare wheel! Undemanding tweenie sitcoms are better than the alternative!)
In Sabrina and Waverley Place magic tends to play a karmic role, punishing vanity and rewarding selflessness, providing the virtuous lessons deemed necessary for children’s entertainment. In Jimmy Olsen’s adventures, that role is taken on by Superman, who seems to spend as much time teaching Jimmy (and Lois) lessons as he does saving them from danger. He’s a kind of karmic avenger! (On the other hand, if he is as Grant Morrison has said, a typical dad from the 1950s, he could less charitably be seen as a patriarch just doing his best to keep everyone in their right and proper place!)
Anyway, if Krypto can get his own cartoon, I think Jimmy and his many alter-egos deserve a run on Nickolodeon. Almost any one of these stories would form the basis of a wonderful tv episode (see below for one horrifying exception). In many ways they are magnificent. There are few limits on the imagination of the writers – the status quo must be restored within eight pages, but on pages two to seven anything can happen, and often does, usually at the same time as something else that’s equally remarkable! Jimmy himself is cheerful and irrepressible, always ready to be the guinea pig in any scientific experiment, ready to try every strange potion he’s offered by his friend Professor Potter, and always looking for the upside of the disasters that regularly befall him.
One thing that’s very striking about these stories is the lack of supervillains (partly because Superman is so diligent in making sure that no one else can get any powers, or loses them quickly if they do). It’s refreshing to read stories about Superman that don’t just involve him trading mighty punches with flying alien trolls and the like. Most stories revolve around petty gangsters who attempt to kill Superman or disable him long enough to rob a bank or two. The tension almost always stems from the constant rule bounding Superman’s behaviour – he must save the day and restore the clockwork of his life without giving away his secret identity.
The downside of this is that as a result he can be rather a wriggling, shifty and devious Superman, always looking for a way to worm out of awkward situations through sophistry, semantics, technicalities and flat-out lies! Anything to avoid giving the game away.
This is particularly the case in the Lois Lane stories. (If I haven’t said as much about those so far, it’s because they can be a bit dull in comparison to the wild imagination on display in the Olsen tales.) Superman’s stubborn refusal to countenance marriage with Lois, while still wanting to keep her on the hook, always seems odd, despite his protestations that it’s for her own good, especially given the lengths to which he goes to avoid marriage, and the callousness with which he repeatedly ruins her dreams. Should we read him as closeted and gay, keeping Lois around as a beard? Or as an ageing playboy, with Lois as his respectable, chaste girlfriend? I don’t really think he’s either – he’s an eight-year-old boy. He doesn’t want to spend all day around girls, but he still wants them to think he’s the coolest boy in town.
When it comes to showing Superman at his worst, though, one Jimmy Olsen story here really stands out: “The Son of Superman”, by Otto Binder. In it, we learn that Jimmy is an orphan. Out of the blue (literally – he flies down from the sky to make the announcement), Superman offers to adopt Jimmy. The court approves the adoption, and the two of them begin to share a house. At this point Superman starts to be very unpleasant to his new son – for example he incinerates Jimmy’s father’s day gift with his x-ray vision. In the end, a sobbing, heartbroken Jimmy asks the judge to rescind the adoption order, to which Superman says, “If Jimmy wants to call it quits, that goes double for me.” Afterwards, Superman reveals that he was being deliberately rude to drive Jimmy away, because of a misunderstood prediction by his super-computer. Everything sorted out, Superman says he feels terrible that the judge won’t reinstate the adoption order, but they can still be pals…
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could at all admire the cold and cruel Superman of that story! He’s like someone who takes a puppy home at Christmas, finds the poop and hairs a bit inconvenient, and chucks the poor thing in the river!
Luckily the charmlessness of that tale is very much the exception to the rule. In general, Superman’s foibles in these stories are comical, more than anything else, and if they date the stories a bit, that only increases the period appeal. Taken as a whole, this is one of the most charming and delightful collections of comics it is possible to read. – SWT
The Terminator Omnibus: Volume 1
Dark Horse, tpb, 352pp
This book came out at just the right time – I finally watched T3 last year, and found out it wasn’t half as bad as I’d feared, and then this year watched and adored the Terminator tv series, which finished all too soon as a result of the writers’ strike.
Luckily this collection of Terminator comics from the early nineties is available to step into the breach. The weird thing is, almost everything that’s in the tv series turns up in here too, from human hit squads going after Cyberdyne people to cops slowly putting the pieces together to fleshless Terminators wearing motorcycle helmets.
Whether that’s a sign that story options are a bit limited in the Terminator universe, or whether it’s just comics, in their usual way, acting as pathfinders for other media, I don’t know. Either way, I had a terrible night of nightmares after starting to read this book. (You try protecting your family from a Terminator with nothing but a corkscrew…)
The book contains four lengthy stories. “Tempest”, “Secondary Objectives” and “The Enemy Within” form one continuous narrative, while “One Shot” is a side-story (with beautiful Matt Wagner artwork) of a Terminator going after a Sarah Connor who didn’t get into the phone book quick enough for Arnold to find her in the first film. – SWT
Tom Strong: Book 5
ABC Comics, tpb, 144pp
An all-star cast of writers fill in for Alan Moore in this one – Mark Schultz (of Xenozoic Tales), Brian K Vaughan (of Y: The Last Man and Lost), Ed Brubaker and Steve Aylett – and while the artwork and production values are up to the title’s usual superb standard, the stories aren’t quite as glittering as before. It’s no fault of the writers – they obviously worked hard (I seem to remember reading that one of them would throw up due to the self-imposed pressure that came from working on an Alan Moore title) and they’ve produced highly readable entertainments. But one of Alan Moore’s many incredible talents is to make the flimsiest of tales seem rich with significance. The stories in this volume remain whimsical, but lack a little magic. And there were things Alan Moore wanted to say and do with these characters – he had reasons for wanting to publish these comics – whereas the great talents working on this volume are reduced, if that’s at all the right word, to simply writing good stories about interesting characters. – SWT
Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest #12
As ever, Apex looks great, and, as usual, I didn’t find the time to read it! I’ve got over a thousand unread books in the house, you know… However, I always thoroughly enjoy looking at the adverts, which constantly surprise me with things I’ve never heard of before. Will I ever buy and read a copy of John Dies at the End? Probably not, but it’s a great title. – SWT
GUD #2 (Greatest Uncommon Denominator)
The title of this magazine seems clever – it’s a play on the word “good” and it is obviously meant to be the opposite of the lowest common denominator. I could understand the greatest common denominator; that would be the best thing we all have in common – our love of panda bears, perhaps, or our capacity for compassion.
However, what exactly is the greatest uncommon denominator? (I could of course look on the magazine’s website to find out, but what would that leave me to speculate upon? I would actually have to read the issue in order to write a review!) I would think that it was the greatest thing that we don’t have in common. But no, this is not a magazine relating to Sid Meier’s unique balancing of strategic gameplay, Lee Ranaldo’s way with a detuned guitar, Michael Caine’s ability to act without blinking, or any of the other amazing things that we don’t have in common with each other. It’s more about the things that some people have in common, but others don’t – for me the title is a sign that we’re in “happy few” territory.
Happily the magazine isn’t anywhere near as precious as that might make you think, and is actually rather funny, charming and welcoming.
The stories in this issue (which I won’t pretend I’ve got around to reading) include: “El Alebrije”, by D Richard Pearce; “Four Torments and a Judgment” by Erik Williams; “Painlessness” by Kirstyn McDermott; “Watching the Playoffs” by Jim Kacian; “Offworld Friends Are Best” by Neal Blaikie; “Monkeyshine” by Hugh Fox; “Jamie Hawkins’ Muse” by Vanessa Gebbie; “Freight” by Joseph Love; “The Salivary Reflex” by Tina Connolly; “Nan” by Scott Christian Carr; “By Zombies; Eaten” by Christopher Buecheler; “The Festival of Colour” by Paul Haines; “Thou Shalt” by Hugh Fox; and “Closer in My Heart to Thee” by Jeff Somers. John Walters has some typographical fun in “The Disappearance of Juliana”, which is always nice to see. “Baby Edward” is by Jeremy C Shipp, a writer who unfortunately I know best from being the only person to issue more bulletins on MySpace than Warren Ellis. (Though Ellis too sends plenty that say “read my book”, at least it’s not for the same book every single day!)
Also, there is some poetry. I am not qualified to review poetry, because I don’t really get it. If it’s a long poem telling a story it always seems like a very roundabout way of doing it, whereas if it’s short it feels like reading a CD inlay when the CD has been lost. The poetry in this issue is: “Subtlety” by Lucy A Snyder, which surprises with a bit of swearing in the middle; “Hepatocellular Carcinoma, Stage IV” by Samantha Henderson; “Dolls” by Kristine Ong Muslim; and “Under the Flowers a Carcass Waits” by Rusty Barnes.
The magazine features some superb artwork from Jamie Dee Galey, Cameron Gray and especially Newel Anderson, reminiscent of Jae Lee at his best, plus a collaborative piece by Mike Capp, Justin Hillgrove, and Shana Marcoullier. Oddly, though, unless I’ve missed something while flipping through the issue so carelessly, none of the artwork seems to relate to any of the stories. It seems a shame, but perhaps the editors see the artwork as being the equal of the stories, something to be presented in its own right, rather than as something subservient to the text.
The magazine also features a very entertaining Contributors page. Maybe it’s just me, knowing the fun we had cooking up pseudonyms for New Words (and occasionally since), but the more outré the biography, the less I believe the contributor to be a real person. One or two of the biographies in this section fall into that category, but if they turn out to be real people, so much the better!
So not so much a review as a contents page with uninformed ruminations, but I hope these few words will repay the kindness the editors did by sending me an advance pdf copy. By now the issue is downloadable from the website given at the top of the review. – SWT