The Biggest Superhero Films That Didn't Happen, Part 2
Comic Books, Film
Last month, I didn’t get a chance to finish all of these before I went to the convention in Seattle, and then I was busy when I got back. So this month, we get a double dose of trades and books I’ve read and such. That means this is really long, and I apologize for that!
Planet of the Apes volume 4: The Half Man by Daryl Gregory (writer), Carlos Magno (artist), Darrin Moore (colorist), and Travis Lanham (letterer); “The First and Last Days” by Daryl Gregory (writer), Carlos Magno (artist), Darrin Moore (colorist), and Ed Dukeshire (letterer); “A Boy and His Human” by Corinna Bechko (writer), John Lucas (artist), Studio Parlapá (colorist), and Ed Dukeshire (letterer); “Old World Order” by Jeff Parker (writer), Benjamin Dewey (artist), Nolan Woodard (colorist), and Ed Dukeshire (letterer); “The Scroll” by Gabriel Hardman (writer/artist), Matthew Wilson (colorist), and Ed Dukeshire (letterer); and Dafna Pleban (editor). $19.99, 122 pgs, FC, Boom! Studios. Planet of the Apes created by Pierre Boulle.
This is the final volume of Planet of the Apes, which is kind of a shame. Boom! has a new PotA series going right now, subtitled “Cataclysm,” but that doesn’t appear to have too much to do with this series (I’m trade-waiting on that, too, so I don’t know). Gregory and Magno don’t really finish their story in this volume, although this would be a perfectly fine ending of an arc. So I’m not sure if the book just wasn’t selling enough or if Gregory just didn’t want to write it anymore. Either way, it’s slightly disappointing, as this has been a really good book and it ends with a lot of unanswered questions.
The plot is perfectly fine – it’s ten years (or so) after the events of most of the series (we jumped ahead at the end of the third trade) and Sullivan is leading the resistance while her son is raised by Alaya, the ape who runs Mak and who was Sullivan’s childhood friend. The boy, Julian, is kidnapped by humans, who want to show him that the apes are just as evil as humans are, because he’s been taught for years that humans are vicious killers. Sullivan continues to build an army, while there’s a conspiracy against Alaya in the city, and it all comes to a violent resolution, as it must.
It’s a thrilling story, and Magno’s art is as good as ever. The back-up stories are pretty good, too, as other writers and artists give us some interesting short stories about ape/human society before the humans lost the ability to speak. Parker and Dewey’s is pretty creepy, and Hardman’s links this series to the new series, and it’s always nice to see Hardman’s art. It’s nice that Boom! got these stories, because it’s always fun to see what people can do when they get to work on a franchise like this.
I don’t like this as much as the other trades, mainly because it ends so abruptly. It appears there’s a “Special” on Boom!’s web site, but that’s not in this trade and I don’t know if it’s going to be collected. Boom! usually does a good job collecting its stuff, so I’m a bit surprised that didn’t make it into this trade. I don’t know if it completely wraps up Gregory’s story or if Boom! is planning to bring the series back, but it’s kind of weird. Oh well. This trade, like the other three, is pretty darned good. That’s all I have to say!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
King Conan: The Phoenix on the Sword by Timothy Truman (writer), Tomás Giorello (artist), José Villarrubia (colorist), Richard Starkings (letterer), Jimmy Betancourt (letterer), Everett Patterson (associate editor), Patrick Thorpe (assistant editor), and Philip R. Simon (editor). $14.99, 111 pgs FC, Dark Horse. Conan created by Robert E. Howard.
I missed the first volume of “King Conan,” but it doesn’t seem to matter – Truman and Giorello are adapting a single Howard story, so there’s really nothing you need to know except that Conan is the king and he still kicks ass. At the beginning of this story, Conan is an old man, secure on the throne of Aquilonia, and as he talks to a scribe, he sees a statue of a poet whom Conan calls a “thrice-damned traitor.” He then tells the scribe about a story of when he first gained the throne and wasn’t quite as secure. A group of high-born men conspire against him, and they employ Thoth-Amon, Conan’s old foe, to help them. Of course, he has designs of his own – all the conspirators do – but they’re all willing to work together to take out Conan. So they attack him in his bedchamber. Yeah, that’s a bad idea.
This is the very first published Conan story, and it’s odd to think that it tells a story after so many of Conan’s adventures. It’s still a good story, but if the prose story is anything like the comics version, it’s interesting to see how raw this is and how much more sophisticated later Conan stories are. “Sophisticated” will probably never be a good adjective for Conan stories, but the later stories actually show quite a bit of nuance, whereas “The Phoenix on the Sword” is basically about bad guys trying to take out Conan and Conan reacting violently. Truman does a nice job making Conan a somewhat conflicted new king, and then in issue #4, he lets Giorello take over, and the artist does not disappoint. The final issue of this trade is one of the bloodiest you’re going to see for a while, and Giorello is fantastic at it. I’m not sure what’s different about his art here as compared to his earlier Conan stories, but it’s definitely better. His Conan work has always been good, but this feels more powerful and primal, and there are some tremendously beautiful pages (the double-page spread where Conan reminisces about the North is a highlight). His inks seem heavier, and Villarrubia colors it all wonderfully, so that the mystical stuff that shows up in every Conan story feels a bit more grounded. It’s a superb book, art-wise, and Truman’s adaptation is pretty darned cool, too.
Dark Horse’s Conan series have been almost uniformly good (the weakest has been “The Road of Kings,” which bridged the gap to Wood’s new series), and this is no exception. It’s definitely a brutal comic, but it shows why Conan is able to hold onto the throne of a supposedly “civilized” kingdom – obviously, no one in a Conan story is really all that civilized, so Conan is able to adapt. This is a nice, quick Conan story that doesn’t tie into anything else, so you can pick it up without worrying that you’re going to need to get something else to make it complete!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Hicks is a tremendous cartoonist, so it’s not surprising that this collection is excellent. She gives us Superhero Girl – who remains nameless throughout the book – and puts her in various dramatic and not-so-dramatic situations. So while she fights – sort of – King Ninja, she also gets in an argument with a bystander about whether she’s a real superhero because she doesn’t have a tragic backstory. Hicks is very good at this kind of comic – where she puts outlandish characters in “realistic” situations, and she has a good time with this. Obviously, Superhero Girl isn’t a “realistic” comic, but she does have to worry about paying bills and she does get into embarrassing social situations, which is something that Hicks does very well. Her comic timing is spot on, and she thinks of things that a neophyte superhero might do – like forget to take off her mask for a job interview – and feel – Superhero Girl is jealous of her big brother, Kevin, who’s a famous and rich superhero. Hicks’s wonderful artwork makes the jokes work very well, too – there’s an innocence to the characters that helps make this oddball world more charming that dangerous. Yes, there’s a monster from outer space, but it has kitten whiskers, so even as it’s breathing fire, it’s still adorable. Yes, a tragedy turns the Superhero Girl of the future into Supervillain Girl, but the tragedy is so goofy that it’s hard to take too seriously. This is a very fun comic.
Hicks is so good at this sort of thing (everyone remembers her Wolverine story, right?) that I would just love to see one of the Big Two give her a two-page strip in the back of one of their comics where the heroes in that comic could decompress. Marvel and DC wouldn’t do that in a million years, but Hicks doing the Justice League at a backyard barbecue would be awesome. In lieu of that, I would definitely recommend you go check out this comic. You need more smiles in your life!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
The Manara Library volume 4 by Milo Manara (writer/artist), Kim Thompson (translator), Tom Orzechowski (letterer), Lois Buhalis (letterer), Diana Schutz (collection editor), Dave Marshall (consulting editor), and Brendan Wright (associate editor). $59.99, 218 pgs, BW, Dark Horse.
I was reading a post by David Brothers over at 4thLetter!, and Brothers makes an interesting point about Manara that seems self-evident, but perhaps isn’t. He writes that Manara is “very good at one specific thing and really good at a few other things, but he got so good at that first thing that the rest of the work sometimes suffers.” He means, of course, Manara’s women, which have become, for many people, the only reason to buy a Manara comic. That’s one of the reasons why I appreciate Dark Horse bringing these volumes out, as overpriced as they are (and they are overpriced). It’s not necessarily that these are great comics – I’m going to assume that the language and cultural chasm that exists between European comics and American comics keep me from loving these stories, although some of them are certainly very interesting – it’s that with such an output, we can see how good Manara is at everything else. I haven’t seen enough of Manara’s more recent work to know if Brothers is right – that the “rest of the work suffers” because of his fixation on sexy women – but for this older work, it’s clear that he’s still an incredible draftsman even as he’s drawing sexy women. His work is suffused with sex, naturally, but Manara isn’t necessarily being exploitative. In this volume, for instance, he explores a bit more of the darker underside of sex, so while he’s drawing naked women, he’s also turning the spotlight on the reader and exposing our complicity in the plight of the women. It’s a more visceral book in that regard – in some of the other volumes of this series, Manara was drawing for other writers, and perhaps they wanted him to draw sexy women just because he could do it very well. In this volume, Manara decides to challenge himself, and the readers, a bit more.
The two stories in this volume star Giuseppe Bergman, a dissolute wastrel who hates his life but gets a chance to go on an “adventure” when a mysterious producer seems to cast him in a movie or television show about Bergman going on an adventure. Bergman is told to seek out “HP,” Manara’s stand-in for Hugo Pratt, who will help him on his adventure, but the adventure begins long before Bergman finds HP. Manara turns the traditional adventure narrative on its head in these two stories, as Bergman is very much aware that he has an audience (he speaks to the reader a few times), and his adventure doesn’t follow any kind of narrative arc – he simply moves from one strange vignette to another. It makes no sense, but Manara is breaking down the essence of adventure stories, and every character becomes an actor who may or may not break out of their role. There’s a disturbing scene of a woman being dragged away, presumably to be raped, and Bergman simply wonders if that’s the obligatory sex scene. Bergman achieves nothing and learns very little. It’s an “anti-adventure,” almost. In the second story, Bergman is still around, but the star is Signora Fosca, who is tasked by a film production to track down the crew on a movie. The film is a medieval quest, and the production company doesn’t have a lot of footage, and the crew has disappeared in Asia. Fosca and three others – including Bergman – head off and find themselves in their own quest, as the film footage miraculously reappears whenever they visit a location where the filming occurred. It’s another very self-aware adventure, and Manara gradually blends the two adventures – the movie one and the “real” one – into a narrative, all the while reminding us that some country’s army is planning on detonating a nuclear bomb in the area and is trying to evacuate everyone before they do so. Manara does an interesting job with the “Orientalist” version of Asia, as it’s clear that this story, much like the first one, is not meant to be “real” but a commentary on what readers expect from such an adventure. It’s even more disturbing than the first one, in fact, as the threat of death is more imminent.
These Manara volumes are beautifully produced and packed with content, so even though they’re a bit overpriced, it’s not like Dark Horse is gouging consumers. This particular volume is very interesting, and might be my favorite one yet (they get a bit jumbled in my head, so I’d have to go back and look to make sure). It shows a mature storyteller engaging his readers and making them complicit in his artwork, which is a rather curious position to take. If you’re interested in Manara’s work, this volume is a pretty keen place to start reading.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
I will probably buy Moore and O’Neill’s LoEG comics until they stop making them, but it’s kind of weird – it feels like Moore is phoning them in a bit, which is odd as it’s not a Wildstorm comic from the mid-1990s. I loved the first series, thought the second was okay, and then came The Black Dossier, about which the less said the better. Century started strong before turning into whatever the hell it turned into, and now Moore is back with a stand-alone story about Captain Nemo’s daughter, Janni. It turns out to be a fairly straight-forward adventure story, with Janni yearning for something more than plunder and leading a group deep into Antarctica, where she’s pursued by three inventors (including “Tom Swift”) tasked by Charles Foster Kane with finding her and bringing her back. She stole from an ally of Kane’s, and he’s not happy. So they chase her across a nightmare Antarctic landscape, where bad things happen to everyone.
At this point, Moore is just writing Boys’ Own Adventures, adding on all those fictional characters that keep Jess Nevins busy. That’s fine, but it’s nothing terribly stunning, and while not everything from Moore has to be revolutionary, it does feel like he’s settled into this storytelling format fairly comfortably and he has no interest in breaking out of it. Again, the story is fine – there’s a brilliant bit in the middle in the “Land of Present” where Moore and O’Neill mix the panels so that everything appears to be taking place at the same time, and when Moore does stuff like that, there’s no one better – and the artwork is tremendous, but there’s definitely a feeling of “been there, done that” with these comics. Once the initial surprise about how well Moore is able to integrate hundreds of fictional characters into his world wears off, there has to be more to the story. That’s why The Black Dossier was so bad, and this is nowhere near as bad as that book. But it is less than excellent. And honestly, I’m beginning to wish that Moore and other comic book writers had never heard of H. P. Fucking Lovecraft. Jeebus, writers, use a different source once in a while!
Anyway, it’s an Alan Moore/Kevin O’Neill comic, so it’s going to be pretty good. It’s just a shame it’s not a bit more challenging. Oh well.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Spider-Man: The Death of Jean DeWolff by Peter David (writer), Rick Buckler (penciler), Sal Buscema (penciler), Brett Breeding (inker), Vince Colletta (inker), Josef Rubinstein (inker), Kyle Baker (inker), Pat Redding (inker), Bob Sharen (colorist), George Roussos (colorist), Nel Yomtov (colorist), Janet Jackson (colorist), Phil Felix (letterer), Rick Parker (letterer), Nelson Ribeiro (collection editor). $19.99, 167 pgs, FC, Marvel. Spider-Man and Electro created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Jean DeWolff created by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema.
The story that put Peter David on the map has been reprinted before, and I’ve even owned it before. It was a shabby copy of only Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #107-110 (good times when Marvel published a book that was abbreviated PPtSSM) and not the sequel, issues #134-136. So I didn’t get the whole story, about what happened when the Sin-Eater was released from prison. The second story is about as good as the first, which is nice.
I don’t know what to say about the story, except that David really goes out of his way to keep Peter from bashing the Sin-Eater really quickly and ending the suspense. This is a common theme in Spider-Man comics – Peter really has rage issues – and David works with that, as Peter is so blinded by anger at what happened to Jean DeWolff and the others the Sin-Eater kills that he can barely see straight, so it takes him a lot longer to stop the guy’s killing spree than it usually would. Plus, this is when Daredevil learns Peter’s secret identity and tells Peter his, so it’s momentous in that way. The second story is notable, perhaps, because Max Dillon (Electro) figures out that he can commit crimes more effectively if he doesn’t wear a bright green-and-yellow costume with lightning bolts coming out of the mask. Funny, that.
Both Buckler and Buscema do solid work – they’re both good draftsman if not spectacular artists. I’ve always been a fan of Buscema’s harsher and more jagged lines, but at least in this book, Buckler’s art looks a bit lusher than his 1970s work. I’m not as familiar with him as I am with Buscema (and I’m not even that familiar with Buscema), but they make the book look nice.
If you have never read this, it’s a nice collection to check out. There’s a reason why it’s famous – sure, David’s subsequent celebrity in the comics world has something to do with it, but it’s also an interesting and powerful story. Give it a read!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
All Star Western volume 2: War of Lords and Owls by Jimmy Palmiotti (writer), Justin Gray (writer), Moritat (artist), Patrick Scherberger (penciller, “Nighthawk & Cinnamon”), Dan Green (inker, “Nighthawk & Cinnamon”), Terry Austin (inker, “Nighthawk & Cinnamon”), José Luís Garcia-López (artist, “Bat Lash”), Scott Kolins (artist, “Dr. Terrence Thirteen”), Gabriel Bautista (colorist), Mike Atiyeh (colorist), Patricia Mulvihill (colorist, “Bat Lash”), Rob Leigh (letterer), and Rowena Yow (editor). $16.99, 166 pgs, FC, DC. Jonah Hex created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga. Amadeus Arkham created by Len Wein. Kate Mansur (Cinnamon) created by Roger McKenzie, Dick Ayers, and Dan Bulanadi. Hannibal Hawkes (Nighthawk) created by Robert Kanigher and Charles Paris. Bat Lash created by Joe Orlando, Carmine Infantino, Sheldon Mayer, and Sergio Aragonés. Alan Wayne created by Devin Grayson and Staz Johnson.
It’s a reflection on how much DC has missed the mark with their relaunch that this is the only comic I felt I wanted to keep reading after volume 1, even with critical successes like Swamp Thing or Animal Man. This isn’t really a great comic, but it feels like because it’s set 130 years before the events of the rest of the DCnU, Editorial pretty much leaves Palmiotti and Gray alone so they can tell stories. That’s not to say Editorial doesn’t step in – witness the Court of Owls and the Crime Bible crap in the series – but it’s not the complete focus of the comic. Palmiotti and Gray just keep doing what they’re doing – putting Jonah Hex in crappy situations that he feels like he needs to fix before he can grumpily talk about lighting out for the territories and leaving civilization behind, except he never does. It’s a formula, sure, but the writers keep it relatively fresh, and that’s not bad.
It helps that Gray and Palmiotti do a nice job with the characters – they have assembled an interesting cast, so Hex and Amadeus Arkham’s “mismatched buddy cop” thing doesn’t overwhelm the comic, but is placed nicely alongside a cast of unusual people, both good and bad. It also helps that they have a sense of humor about everything – it’s a bit dark and occasionally morbid, but it’s still there. So Arkham can try to psychoanalyze a criminal while he passes the time in jail, and Hex and Tallulah Black can rut like bunnies right in front of Arkham and not care what he thinks. It’s still a brutal comic, but Palmiotti and Gray add just enough levity to keep it from being as dark as a lot of the DCnU. They traffic in clichés occasionally – the mayor, Cobblepot, doesn’t have to be malformed just because his descendant is, and do I really believe that Selina Kyle’s family has been thieving for the last century? – but they usually make them work for them. The humor is a bit more evident in the back-up stories, and it’s nice that even though they’re charging 4 bucks for this comic, DC does put something extra into the issues. The back-ups are nice little slices of this world, and it’s always cool to see different artists doing their thing. Justin Norman’s artwork on the main story does look rushed in a few places, but for the most part, it’s his usual solid stuff.
As usual, it’s worth noting that the DCnU books that seem to be doing the best are the ones with stable creative teams. I don’t know how this one is selling, but obviously it’s just trucking along, and it’s stunning that DC doesn’t learn the lesson: Leave creators alone, and they’ll tell good stories. I mean, duh. So other than Batman, Inc. (which I don’t really count) and Batwoman (which is almost solely due to Williams’s art), All Star Western is my favorite of the new DC titles. As long as DC leaves Palmiotti, Gray, and Moritat alone, I’ll keep buying!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Archer & Armstrong volume 1: The Michelangelo Code by Fred van Lente (writer), Clayton Henry (artist), Pere Pérez (artist), Matt Milla (colorist), Dave Lanphear (letterer), Josh Johns (assistant editor), Jody LeHeup (editor), and Warren Simons (executive editor). $9.99, 109 pgs, FC, Valiant. Archer and Armstrong created by Jim Shooter, Bob Layton, and Barry Windsor-Smith.
I haven’t been overly impressed with the nuValiant stuff – it’s been perfectly fine, and I’m going to get the second volumes of some of their titles, but I wish they would do a bit more with the clean slate. Generally, they’ve been fair-to-middling adventure stories, and I’m not that swept away by them. However, volume 1 of Archer & Armstrong is by far the best comic they’ve published so far, and if you haven’t made up your mind yet where to jump into the nuValiant Universe and you’re just waiting for someone like me to tell you, I’m here to tell you to get this trade. It’s quite good.
Van Lente takes the basic premise of the concept – a young, highly trained martial artist teaming up with a 10,000-year-old immortal – and has some fun with it. Armstrong is still a drunken libertine, and Archer is still a naïve fool (to a degree), and they’re still fighting bad guys. In this new version, Archer is a foster kid who is part of a large group of foster kids, all trained in combat skills by their foster parents. They send him out into the world to find the pieces of a machine that will grant them immortality – just like it did to Armstrong in ancient Mesopotamia. Archer thinks Armstrong is totally evil, but he soon figures out that his parents really are the bad guys, so he teams up with Armstrong to stop them. It doesn’t go as smoothly as they’d like, although they do prevent Archer’s parents from destroying the world. So, yay.
Obviously, Armageddon is serious stuff, but van Lente keeps it light, as we know the world’s probably not going to end. Therefore this is much more about how Archer and Armstrong get to know each other and trust each other, even though they’re very different. Archer becomes a bit more cynical by the end, and Armstrong doesn’t exactly believe in stuff he can’t see, but he does learn to trust Archer a bit. There are still people getting killed, including one whose death is both ridiculous and which spurs on the next story arc, but van Lente never lets it become gloomy. His crisp dialogue has always been able to keep his comics from becoming too clichéd, so while the situation in which Archer and Armstrong find themselves isn’t exactly the newest thing around (and yes, van Lente puts Nazis into the comic, because he seems to do that a lot), the actual writing more than makes up for it.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Henry – he’s perfectly fine, but not great – but his work here is really good. He always seemed a bit stiff, but in this book his work flows more, and that’s a good thing, as van Lente keeps the action moving. Pérez’s art is slightly different – his inking lines are a bit heavier – but their styles work perfectly well together, and it’s not easy to see where the breaks are. Henry’s art won’t set the world on fire or anything, but he keeps up with the script, gives us nice characters, and makes the story easy to read. That’s all we can really ask for, right?
All the nuValiant books have been decent, but van Lente gives this just enough of a sense of humor that it becomes just a bit better than the others. I’m definitely looking forward to the next volume from this team.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
The Shade by James Robinson (writer), Cully Hamner (artist), Javier Pulido (artist), Frazer Irving (artist/colorist), Darwyn Cooke (artist), J. Bone (artist), Jill Thompson (artist), Gene Ha (artist), Dave McCaig (colorist), Hilary Sycamore (colorist), Dave Stewart (colorist), Trish Mulvihill (colorist), Art Lyon (colorist), Todd Klein (letterer), and Rowena Yow (editor). $19.99, 245 pgs, FC, DC. The Shade created by E. E. Hibbard. Deathstroke created by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez. The Vigilante created by Mort Weisinger and Mort Meskin. Madam Fatal created by Art Pinajian.
As many people have mentioned, one thing the Great DC Reboot of 2011 did was instantly cut off the company from its ridiculously rich history, a history that is far more varied and deep than Marvel’s. One writer who mined this territory extremely well was James Robinson in his masterpiece, Starman, so when Robinson began work on The Shade, a 12-issue series about a major character from that comic (he wasn’t exactly a villain, although he had been created as one in the 1940s), people were curious how he would fit this into the DCnU. Well, after a brief appearance by the revamped Deathstroke the Terminator in issue #1, Robinson provided us with the answer: He simply ignored it. He used some of his characters from his Action Comics run right before the reboot, he used some characters from DC’s past (some of which were not created for DC, but were later bought by the company), and wrote his comic exactly how he would have if the reboot had never occurred. The result is not quite as good as Starman, but still a very good comic.
There is, unfortunately, a gigantic flaw in Robinson’s story, but I’ll get to that. For the most part, it’s a grand adventure, as the Shade leaves Opal City, fights against assassins sent to kill him, fights a Lizard God, finds out some crucial information from his great-grandson, assists his “daughter” (he helped revive her as a baby after a vampire bit her, so she believes he’s her father) to fight an evil villain in Barcelona, and ends up in London, where he battles against extra-dimensional beings who were worshiped as gods by the ancient Egyptians. It’s all very exciting. And then, for good measure, Robinson ends the book with the “secret origin” of the Shade, where he first met Simon Culp (one of the villains from Starman) and gained his weird powers. Robinson shows us once again why he’s such a good writer – he does a very good job getting a lot of action into the book, but he also does a very nice job developing the characters, and the Shade’s arch dialogue is as clever as ever. This is a fairly dense comic, but it never feels bogged down.
Robinson also has a bunch of superb artists working with him, which is nice. Hamner gets thing started with his fairly straight-forward superhero style, which sets a nice mood for the comic. Cooke’s issue takes place in the 1940s, so his style suits that era perfectly. Pulido draws the “Shade in Barcelona” issues (#5-7), and he does his usual nice job with it. Thompson’s single issue takes place in 1901, and she’s another good choice for that kind of story. Irving’s 3-part arc works very well, too, because he gets to draw giant Egyptian-esque god-beings and weird architecture, and Irving is really good at that. Gene Ha’s fine, precise lines work pretty well in the last issue, which takes place in 1838. He gives us a lot of late Georgian/early Victorian details that contrast nicely with the weird stuff that occurs when Richard Swift becomes the Shade. With so many artists, it seems like it would be difficult to maintain consistency, but because each artist has a specific part to draw, it fits much better in the overall comic.
The unfortunate flaw in the book is that the bad guys could easily get away with what they’re doing if they don’t send Deathstroke to kill the Shade in issue #1. There’s absolutely no reason to try to kill the Shade, yet they do, which pisses him off and piques his interest, something the bad guys should have avoided at all costs. Robinson even alludes to the fact that they have no good reason to make the attempt, which is very odd. William von Hammer might have gotten the Shade involved when he told him what he knows, but the Shade is notoriously fickle, so who knows what he might have done if he himself hadn’t been threatened? The only thing that could have gotten the Shade involved is an insult to his person, and of course the bad guys choose just that. It doesn’t ruin the comic, but it does make it slightly less fulfilling.
Still, it’s nice to see Robinson rebound after some years of writing crappy comics and making us forget that he was ever great. This is a very good series, and it will fit nicely alongside those Starman trades I’m sure you all own. Right?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Batman volume 1: The Court of Owls by Scott Snyder (writer), Greg Capullo (penciller), Jonathan Glapion (inker), Fco Plascencia (colorist), Richard Starkings (letterer), Jimmy Betancourt (letterer), Katie Kubert (assistant editor), and Peter Hamboussi (editor). $16.99, 144 pgs, FC, DC. Batman and James Gordon created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Dick Grayson created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson. Alfred Pennyworth created by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. Tim Drake created by Marv Wolfman and Pat Broderick. Damina Wayne created by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert. Alan Wayne created by Devin Grayson and Staz Johnson.
After many, many months, DC finally got around to releasing Batman in softcover trade format, which was awfully nice of them. Were they waiting until the hardcover sold out? I know that comics companies do that, which … blech. Anyway, next up: a softcover trade of The Flash. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Anyway, this is a Big Deal around the comics blogaxy (and in the real world, too, apparently), because … you know, I’m not sure why it is. Is it because Capullo draws such giant chins? Is it because Snyder is the flavor of the month and everyone really wants to like his stuff? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Snyder isn’t a bad writer by any means. I’ve read most of his stuff, and none of it is great, mainly because he’s lousy at ending something. The only thing he hasn’t screwed up is American Vampire, because he hasn’t actually, you know, ended anything – every ending simply leads into the next arc. It’s the same thing with this volume of Batman – he doesn’t actually end it, because this is the first part of a super-story (as many of these DCnU books have been), so Snyder just uses these 7 issues as a prelude. It’s kind of interminable.
A few years ago, when we first moved to CBR, I wrote a review of the first trade of Astonishing X-Men where I argued that a series of “awesome” moments doesn’t really make a good comic. Had I known that you don’t poke the Whedonite Bear, maybe I wouldn’t have written it … oh, who am I kidding, I would have been more obnoxious about it! But my point stands, and with Batman, it seems that Snyder is going for “awesome” moments without worrying about the underlying storytelling principles. So we get the end of issue #1, where it seems like Dick Grayson might be a murderer … except we know he’s not, and Snyder barely alludes to it after that except to dismiss it. Then, of course, there are the most ridiculous issues in the arc – issues #4-6, in which Batman gets blown up yet survives, and is later deprived of food for eight (8) days, is stabbed right through the gut in brutal fashion, yet has enough strength to defeat a highly-trained and well-rested assassin. Snyder turns Batman into a simpering weakling only so that when he fights back, fanboys can pump their fists and say “AWESOME!” Well, it’s not awesome. The fact that Batman is beaten so easily is stupid, as is the fact that Snyder turns him into a superhuman. Yes, Batman has always been slightly more than a man, but he’s still a human being. So Snyder breaks him thoroughly, which happens instantly (yes, we skip 8 days of hell for him, but still – Jeebus, I’m a total wuss and I could probably survive 8 days in the Owls’ labyrinth without my brain being turned to tapioca) and then makes him recover from that and, you know, the gaping hole in his guts just because he gets mad. You know, people make fun of The Cult because Batman broke so easily, but that comic was “The Yellow Wallpaper” compared to this.
Look, this isn’t a terrible comic book. It’s ridiculous, sure, but a lot of superhero comics are ridiculous. Snyder plots the book pretty well – ideas and plotting to set things up have never been his problem – and at least he pays lip service to the fact that the Court of Owls is ridiculous, even though he eventually goes all in with the idea. Giant chins notwithstanding, Capullo’s art is serviceable – he doesn’t need to do too much with facial expressions and body language, so it’s fine that he’s not very good at that – and he does a nice job with issue #5, the famed “Let’s turn the book upside down!” issue. Realistically, Batman would have ditched the cape when he was stuck inside the labyrinth, but that wouldn’t have been visually kewl, and Capullo’s artwork has to have as many “awesome” moments as Snyder’s script, so Bruce drags that damned thing around with him the entire time. Like a lot of superhero comics by people who actually know what they’re doing, this is entertaining in the moment but almost instantly forgettable. I’m sure someone can explain to me why it gets so much love. I don’t see it.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Daredevil volume 3 by Mark Waid (writer), Greg Rucka (writer), Marco Checchetto (artist), Chris Samnee (artist), Khoi Pham (penciler), Tom Palmer (inker), Matt Hollingsworth (colorist), Javier Rodriguez (colorist), Joe Caramagna (letterer), Alex Starbuck (assistant editor), Nelson Ribeiro (assistant editor), and Cory Levine (editor). $16.99, 140 pgs, FC, Marvel. Daredevil and Foggy Nelson created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett. Spider-Man created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Frank Castle created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr., and Ross Andru. Reed Richards, A.I.M., HYDRA, and the Secret Empire created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Speaking of another critical darling, Daredevil reaches volume 3, where we get a weird conclusion to the really drawn out “Omega Drive” story and a really weird Latverian adventure. Seriously, this is a weird collection. I guess this comes at the tail end of the “weak” part of Waid’s DD, after the first, what, 7 issues and before this current stuff, which is apparently quite good, and it’s clear that Waid is floundering a bit. It’s not that these are bad comics, but they don’t stand out. I didn’t love the first few issues as much as some, but they were far ahead of these, not because these are terrible, but because they just feel like wheel-spinning. Rucka and Waid spend three issues setting up a “final solution” for the Omega Drive problem, and then … it doesn’t work. So Matt is still left with the damned thing. Then, in the best issue in the collection (issue #12), he goes on a date with Kirsten McDuffie and tells her a story about Foggy in college and why they’re such good friends. Then it’s back to the Omega Drive, which finally gets resolved, and then Matt gets kidnapped by the Latverian Chancellor Exchequer, who takes away his radar senses. He does for a ridiculous reason (it’s so ridiculous I don’t even want to get into it), but Samnee’s art is nice and Waid makes it work.
There’s nothing really wrong with this volume, although it’s frustrating that Waid either feels the need or is being told to cross over with other titles. In volume 2, there was a brief crossover with Spider-Man, and now we get one with Spider-Man and the Punisher. They can be fun, but because nothing actually gets resolved in this crossover, it feels a bit more annoying. Checchetto’s “realistic” art is pretty good, so there’s that, but it’s still odd. Khoi Pham once again doesn’t do the book any favors with his one issue, and that’s coming from someone who actually likes Pham’s art. Samnee’s art before and after it is just so much better. Ultimately, this entire collection could have been done in about 3 issues. Waid isn’t the King of Decompression, and his work usually gets to the point, but it doesn’t in this trade. Which makes it frustrating.
With all that being said, the book hasn’t done anything to make me completely drop it, and if volume 4 has the issues that everyone seems to think signal a return to form, I’ll be happy to keep getting it. I don’t know, though – I’m dangerously close to losing interest in the series. Oh well.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Channel Evil by Alan Grant (writer), Shane Oakley (artist), Suzanne O’Brien (inking assistant), D’Israeli (artist, back-up story), Jamie Grant (letterer), Jim Campbell (letterer), and Alexander Finbow (editor). $19.99, 104 pgs, BW, Renegade Arts Entertainment.
The only printed issue of Channel Evil came out in June 2009, after which it disappeared. Apparently Shane Oakley got very sick right after finishing issue #1, and the management at Renegade Arts decided to wait for him to recover instead of bringing in a different artist. So, years later, they released the rest of the book digitally and then printed a trade. I enjoyed the first issue, and I’ve been looking forward to reading the rest of it for almost 4 years. I’m glad it’s finally done!
We’re introduced to Jez Manson, a local TV host in Blackpool who happens to be a grade-A douchebag. He’s looking to move up in the world, so he does “shock” interviews that make people tune in. One night his girlfriend, a hot young model, takes him to a woman who claims to channel spirits, and Jez smells a good show, so he invites her on. She tells him that anyone can channel, so he tries it on live television … and opens himself up to Ba’al (yes, that Ba’al), who isn’t a particularly happy spirit. He quickly takes over Jez’s body for certain periods of time (time that Jez knows nothing about) and wreaks havoc, killing several people. Unfortunately, Jez’s stunt was wildly popular, and his show goes big-time, so his agent, Mick, keeps pushing him to call on Ba’al again. Of course, Mick soon discovers that Jez (or Ba’al) has been killing people, but that can’t stand in the way of his fame, right?
Grant takes this opportunity to poke fun at celebrity culture, naturally, as the audience loves Jez-as-Ba’al even as the demon/spirit tells them he’s going to “grind [their] fucking bones and suck [their] marrow through a tube!” And, of course, Mick knows that Jez is killing people, but he covers it up because Jez is making money and getting more famous. Jez knows that things are going pear-shaped, but he turns out to be a bit too weak-willed to stop it. Grant isn’t terribly subtle about it, but that’s kind of the point – he’s ridiculously over the top, as is the celebrity culture.
Oakley’s art is really excellent, and it’s very cool that Renegade waited until he could finish the series. His art is a bit reminiscent of Darwyn Cooke, but it’s a lot more angular in many places. Oakley’s art is all sharp edges, which makes the horror feel more visceral, while he often gets rid of holding lines to contrast with the precision of the lines. He does a really good job with the horrific parts – this is a fairly gory book – and he is very comfortably with the action scenes. He also does some nice work with the layouts to create a real sense of vertigo when Jez is his most evil. It’s really nice work, and it helps make Grant’s decent story much more powerful. D’Israeli draws a back-up story in which Ba’al is interviewed by a television host, and Grant gives us some background about the spirit and his relationship to the god of the Israelites (which is from where most people know Ba’al). It’s always nice to see D’Israeli’s work, and it’s a nice treat.
Channel Evil is a pretty cool comic. Grant’s not the most subtle writer, but he writes with good verve and he always has interesting ideas. Oakley’s art is very good, and I’d love to see more of it. So yeah – if you’re in the mood for some horror, check this out!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
The Assassination Chronicles: Inquest, Counterplot, and Legend by Edward Jay Epstein. 702 pgs, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1992.
I have never been as obsessed with the Kennedy assassination as some people, because my question is always: How can the government be so inept at almost everything but it’s managed to keep a conspiracy of this magnitude secret for decades? I know there are unanswered questions about the assassination, but that’s the way life is – it’s not fiction, and there are always loose ends that tantalize conspiracy nuts for years. There are questions about the assassination, but I don’t believe there’s a secret faction inside the government that is controlling things and wanted Kennedy out of the way because he was so awesome. That’s a bit silly.
Epstein does a marvelous job with these three books – published in 1966, 1968, and 1978 – in comprehensively digging through the case to answer almost all of the questions anyone might have. Unfortunately, even he admits there are two questions that will probably never be answered, and those are probably the two most important ones. But he does go over the evidence very well. In Inquest, he digs through the Warren Commission Report and explains why it might sound like a cover-up. The Warren Commission had very little time and very little money to get the report done, so it’s rather shoddy in its research and conclusions. President Johnson wanted it finished before the 1964 elections, but not for any conspiratorial reasons, but because he didn’t want it to dominate the campaign. The government wanted the members of the Commission to hurry so they could prove that the United States was interested in full disclosure and to cut off any rumors surrounding the assassination. Epstein makes the point that the FBI bungled both the surveillance of Oswald (which comes later, in Legend) and some of the post-assassination investigating, but there’s nothing sinister about that, either – in a huge bureaucracy, things always get shuffled and lost, and after the president’s death, J. Edgar Hoover was desperate to maintain his bureau’s reputation, so he was uncooperative. Knowing what we know about Hoover, that makes far more sense than that he was part of a conspiracy. Hoover was a petty dictator, and any slight on the FBI was a slight on his character.
The Commission had less than a year to investigate the mountains of evidence regarding the assassination, and Epstein argues they didn’t have a clear purpose in mind. On the one hand, the members were supposed to ascertain the facts of the case, but they were also supposed to dispel rumors. For the most part, these two objectives coincided, but when they didn’t, the Commission favored the latter rather than the former. In the case of whether Oswald could have conceivably fired three shots in the time allotted, several experts testified that is was possible but not probable. As the Commission had neither the time nor the money to figure out whether Oswald was the sole shooter, they chose to dispel the rumor that he didn’t act alone by publishing that he was the lone gunman. It’s certainly possible that he was the only shooter, so the Commission chose to emphasize that. In the case of Arlen Specter and his “magic bullet theory,” Epstein makes the point that Specter was the only investigator on the Commission looking into the sequence of shots, and he had very little money and only about ten days in Dallas to track down everything he needed to know about the way Kennedy and Governor Connally of Texas were shot. Some experts testified that the way Specter claimed the bullet hit several places in Kennedy and Connally could have happened, so the Commission didn’t investigate any further. We have seen, throughout history, several investigations bungled in the same way. Just because this was an investigation into the assassination of a president doesn’t mean it would go more smoothly, unfortunately.
In Counterplot, Epstein examines Jim Garrison’s case against Clay Shaw. I won’t go into it too much, but it’s by far the most entertaining of the three books, mainly because Epstein absolutely eviscerates Garrison and, in an epilogue, Oliver Stone’s JFK. It’s fairly shocking that anyone took Garrison or Stone seriously, because Garrison’s case was so full of holes and Stone’s movie was largely fictional, but I guess it speaks to the desperate longing for certain people to believe in conspiracies rather than random, unfocused, or individualized violence. It’s distressing to think that Garrison didn’t care about ruining people’s lives just to feed his ego, but that’s the way a lot of people are, unfortunately.
Legend is the longest and most interesting and intricate of the three books. It’s also the most tantalizing, because Epstein basically writes a biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, and it’s here the two most crucial questions about the assassination are asked but unanswered. Oswald, of course, famously defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and then returned to the U.S. in 1961. Epstein points out that he knew quite a bit about the U-2 plane, and it’s inconceivable that the Russians wouldn’t have debriefed him about his experience in the Marines, but Oswald claimed they never did. When he returned to the States, the government kept an eye on him, but it’s here that the FBI screwed up and later tried to shirk the responsibility for it – they didn’t watch him as closely as they should have, and Hoover was extremely embarrassed and desperate to keep it quiet. Meanwhile, Epstein examines the case of a Soviet defector to the U.S. in 1964 who claimed to know that Oswald was NOT working for the Soviets, but he was proven to be an inveterate liar, yet no one ever followed up on his story. In the mid-1970s, the CIA went through a bureaucratic housecleaning, and the old agents who did not trust the defector were kicked out while the new bosses thought he was credible. Again, it’s just the kind of government bungling we expect, but because it deals with the Kennedy assassination, we ascribe sinister motives to everyone. Epstein does bring up the two major questions about Oswald, though: While there’s very little doubt that Oswald fired a gun at the president and probably hit him, there’s a lot of evidence that someone else was next to him at the time, so was that another assassin? And why did Oswald do it? He was very interested in defecting to Cuba, and Epstein wonders if he was actually hired or at least encouraged to shoot Kennedy by some pro-Castro person or group, but there’s absolutely no evidence for it. His motivations will remain forever a mystery.
Epstein’s research is very well done, and if you have any questions about the Kennedy assassination, he probably answers them in these three books. Yes, the two major questions are probably always going to be unanswered, but that’s the way it is, isn’t it? With the 50th anniversary of the assassination coming up, perhaps it’s time you got caught up on everything you need to know about the last American president to be killed in office. It’s your patriotic duty!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
As you can tell by the title, this book is about the French settlers of Nova Scotia (before it was called Nova Scotia, of course), who called their land l’Acadie, or Acadia. In 1755, the British – mostly colonists from Massachusetts – began a process of “ethnic cleansing” – it was before the term was coined, of course, but it fits the definition perfectly – because … well, because they wanted the land. Sure, there were other reasons, but whenever something like this happens, it’s usually over money, and Acadia was remarkably fertile land, thanks to the efforts of the settlers. Over a three-year period, the colonists rounded up about half of the Acadians and shipped them off to a lot of other places, as they didn’t want to concentrate them anywhere and fuel thoughts of organized revenge. Many of them ended up in Louisiana and became known as Cajuns. Many of them managed to hang on in Nova Scotia or return there, where they became indentured servants to the new settlers.
Faragher gives us a fairly straight history of the area from the early 1600s, when the French first arrived, through the displacement and beyond. The settlers in Acadia were unusual in North America, as they quickly learned to work with the natives – usually the Mikmaw Indians – who lived there. Faragher writes at great length about the intermarriage between the French and the Mikmaw, which quickly created a unique culture, not wholly French and often not very European, either. The cooperation was very practical, of course, as the French desperately needed to be friends with the Indians, as early on, the settlement – now called Annapolis Royal, it was then called Port Royal – was in dire straits and the French couldn’t have survived without the Mikmaw. During the course of the 17th century, the Acadians – as they were increasingly called – created their own political traditions and a vast system of dikes to farm the land. It was this process, as well as the Indians’ knowledge of the land, that made Acadia such a fertile place, and why it became the envy of those around it.
Interestingly enough, the Acadians quickly became estranged from France. They spoke a dialect of French, but of course it became more and more influenced by Mikmaq (the language of the Indians; “Mikmaw” is plural, while “Mikmaq” is singular) and the settlers thought of themselves less and less as “French.” This became the crux of their later history – in 1710, during the War of the Spanish Succession (also known as Queen Anne’s War), the British conquered the area and got themselves a whole mess of problems. The Acadians turned out to be skilled politicians who mainly wanted to be left alone – they told their new overlords that they would swear an oath to the British crown but they would not take up arms against Britain’s enemies, which was the same oath they swore to the French crown. The presence of Catholic non-combatants in their empire was vexing to a succession of British governments, but they rarely had troops to enforce a more binding oath (one that did away with the Acadians’ desire for neutrality) and the Acadians were able to extract this concession from more than one British governor. The Acadians had no interest in returning to France, but in the charged atmosphere of the 18th century (when Britain and France contended for global domination), neutrality stuck in the craw of the British. They used this excuse to expel the Acadians in 1755, but it was flimsy at best. In reality, businessmen from Massachusetts coveted the land. They used the Catholicism of the Acadians and their close relationship with “hostile” natives – who were rarely hostile, in any case – and by the time of the expulsion, they could count on stronger military support from the home country. The Acadians were toast.
Faragher has an excellent overview of the expulsion, as the Acadians were rounded up, their families split up (Acadians had vast familial networks, so this was more traumatic even than we might think), and they were shipped off to various colonies on the eastern seaboard and points south and east. Some were sent back to France, some to the Indies, but most were sent to the various American colonies, who didn’t want them. Many of the ships were lost at sea, and the appalling conditions on board meant that many of them died of disease and malnutrition. It’s a horrific story, and it’s unfortunately all to familiar to students of history and people who pay attention to current events.
The book is well written and well researched, even if Faragher admits that it’s difficult to tell the story of the Acadians in their own words because so many of them were illiterate. We have quite a bit from the British and the priests who administered to the colony, but not too much from the people themselves. Faragher devotes some time to the oral traditions of the people, which is fascinating but, he admits, often molded by later circumstances. It’s still a gripping read, though, about a chapter in American history that not many people from the United States know about (I can’t speak for Canadians, so I don’t know if this tale is part of their history). Faragher points out that many of the Massachusetts settlers didn’t keep many records of the period even though they usually did, implying that even they were ashamed of their actions in this campaign. If you’re at all interested in colonial American history, this is a must-read. Even if you’re not, it’s a powerful book about something that happens far too often in our world, something we should know more about.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
A Treasury of Great American Scandals: Tantalizing True Tales of Historic Misbehavior by the Founding Fathers and Others Who Let Freedom Swing by Michael Farquhar. 321 pgs, Penguin Books, 2003.
Farquhar’s book is a pithy collection of bad behavior by famous Americans. It’s fun if shallow, and Farquhar digs up some nice tidbits about various people. He breaks it down into categories: First up are family squabbles, such as Ben Franklin’s acrimonious relationship with his son, who remained a royalist during the Revolutionary War; next we get standard rivalries – John Adams was not a fan of George Washington, for instance, while Alice Roosevelt, Teddy’s daughter, claimed that she would “rather vote for Hitler” than Franklin D. Roosevelt; third is a listing of the worst presidents in history, including Franklin Pierce, a notorious drunkard; he writes about various Congressional foibles, from ridiculous and occasional fatal sex scandals and the famous Charles Sumner beating by Preston Brooks; horrible campaigns; a “Hall of Shame,” which includes Roger Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for the Dred Scott trial; some oddball stuff, where we find the curious case of Lord Cornbury, the New York governor from 1702-1708 who liked to dress like Queen Anne; and finally, stories about the strange journeys some famous corpses have taken. Most of the stories are only a page or two, but Farquhar does give some of the stranger stories more pages, and it’s obvious he’s a good historian. The book is fun to read, but it’s more for the trivia than anything else. If it leads you to learn more about these various figures, that’s groovy, isn’t it?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Farwell pulls back the curtain on a largely forgotten section of World War I, and it’s a pretty entertaining look – yes, there was a war on, but unlike the horror shows of the Western Front and Gallipoli, the war in Africa was far less awful. That doesn’t mean lots of people didn’t die – mostly from disease and starvation, which always tends to kill more people in war than enemy combatants – but because the armies weren’t bogged down in trenches, there’s more of a sense of adventure in the tales of battle. There’s also the opportunity for oddities – the longest naval battle in history, bees attacking soldiers – and larger-than-life characters. Farwell’s book has its problems (which I’ll mention below), but it’s still entertaining.
There were four German colonies in Africa, and when the war began, no one was sure if the Central Powers and Allies were going to actually fight each other. There was an understanding that the Congo basin – a giant area in mid-continent – was neutral, but both sides quickly violated that neutrality, and it became clear that there would be a war. The reason neither side was all that enthusiastic about the war was that it was simply assumed that whichever side won in Europe, the defeated side’s colonies would go over to the winner. What would be the point? But in the days after the war began, the British decided that the German colonies possessed powerful wireless stations that could transmit messages across the continent and into the Indian Ocean, and the British were very concerned about India. So the decision was made to attack the Germans. In fact, the first shots fired by British soldiers at Germans in the entire war was in German Togoland, where the British invaded (and conquered with speedy ease). The second campaign was against the Cameroons (Kamerun auf Deutsch), another relatively quick campaign (although contested a bit more by the Germans). It became clear that Germany wasn’t terribly interested in fighting the British tooth and nail in Africa, because they did believe that when they won the war, they would regain all the territory they might lose during it. But soon enough they decided that fighting the British in Africa would take at least some troops away from the Western Front, so they began to fight a bit more vigorously.
The two other campaigns were in German South-West Africa (which is now Namibia), where a bulk of the fighting was done by South African troops, which less than 20 years earlier were fighting against the British in the Boer War. Louis Botha, a Boer War hero and also the first prime minister of South Africa, had to deal with a revolution of still-bitter Boers at home before he could lead his troops against the Germans, but once he did, the conquest proceeded apace. The final theater of war in Africa was in German East Africa (now Tanzania), which was the most heavily populated of the German colonies. Much of Farwell’s book is about that campaign, which dragged on for the entire war and ended with a still undefeated German army in the field. This is where the war takes on its weirdly “romantic” nature, as the soldiers had to endure terrible disease and starvation but also fought in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, through crocodile-infested swamps, and on vast savannas. There’s also a scheme to drag boats from South Africa to Lake Tanganyika to fight the Germans there, an epic journey that Werner Herzog ought to have made into a movie. This scheme brings Lieutenant Geoffrey Spicer-Simson into the war, and he becomes one of the stars of the book. At the beginning of the conflict, Spicer-Simson was a mid-level naval bureaucrat, deskbound because he just wasn’t a very good officer. The war gave him an opportunity, and from the way Farwell writes it, he became almost a real-life Colonel Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, except, you know, more lucky than good. Spicer-Simson took all the credit for anything that happened on the campaign, whether he had anything to do with it or not, and he took to wearing a skirt instead of trousers, presumably to relieve the heat. He was also liberally tattooed, and he used his peculiar appearance and dominant personality to dazzle the natives, who followed his every move, including turning his bath time into a bizarre ritual. Spicer-Simson did have quite a lot of success, but back in the “real world,” he was shoved behind a desk once again. Someone should be begging to make a movie about him.
The other great character in the latter part of the book is Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the German commander of the troops in East Africa. Lettow-Vorbeck is one of those classic old-school Junker-types, and he indeed found Hitler and Nazism distasteful later in his life. He charmed Isak Dinesen as they traveled to Africa on the same ship, and he turned the African Schutztruppe (colonial army) into a formidable force. Lettow-Vorbeck knew that he was outnumbered vastly and couldn’t really defeat the British in Africa, but he was such a brilliant commander he was able to hold off the giant British army for over four years. Jan Smuts, another former British foe during the Boer War, was the general in charge of the British army in East Africa for most of the war, and he simply could not defeat the Germans, although he conquered vast swaths of colonial territory. Farwell’s admiration for Lettow-Vorbeck comes through whenever he writes about him, and it’s clear that Lettow-Vorbeck, although occasionally using stereotypes about the Africans in his writing, was far more open-minded about different races than the British. His army was almost completely native, and he treated his soldiers (askaris) far better and with far more respect than the British did. It’s part of how he was able to keep fighting for so long – the askaris wanted to fight for him much more than they wanted to fight for the British. By November 1918, his army was greatly reduced, but it was still fighting, and the armistice came as something of a shock to the Germans in Africa. They had been overtaken by events elsewhere.
Farwell is a bit too British-centric – we get very little from the German point of view, but that may be because they either didn’t keep or lost copious records. Farwell is a bit harsh even on Lettow-Vorbeck at the end, writing:
He succeeded in what he set out to do, yet what he did was in the end worse than useless, for he could not prevent the victory of his country’s enemies; he cost the lives of thousands and the health of tens of thousands more. He tore the social fabric of hundreds of communities and wrecked the economy of three countries. His splendid military virtues were devoted to an unworthy cause and his loyalty given to a bad monarch.
No mention is made of the fact that the British began the war in Africa – the Germans were the aggressors in Europe, true, but they were perfectly happy to sit out the war in Africa – nor that Jan Smuts did far worse damage to the countryside and social structure than Lettow-Vorbeck. And there’s no mention of the fact that the British engaged in plenty of wars with “unworthy causes” for a “bad monarch,” yet Farwell doesn’t condemn them. Usually he’s able to temper his Anglophilia, but not in this final summation of Lettow-Vorbeck.
Despite that, The Great War in Africa is a fine book about a part of the war that many people ignore. It might not have been crucial to the final decision of the war, but it was a fascinating part of the conflict, and interesting in that we can read it as the beginning of the end of imperialism in Africa. Lettow-Vorbeck may had torn “the social fabric” of Africa, but perhaps, ultimately, that was a good thing. That’s something to argue about, right?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Death to Spies by Quinn Fawcett. 397 pgs, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2002.
Fawcett brings us a spy story in which the star is Ian Fleming, who hasn’t yet written a James Bond story (the book is set in 1949). He’s living in Jamaica, retired from the spy game and working as a journalist, when a government official visits him and tells him that they have a problem. Apparently someone is selling atomic secrets to parties unknown, and the dude from Whitehall believes that the people selling the secrets may be British. He wants Fleming to figure out what’s going on because Fleming is no longer involved in MI5, so people won’t suspect him even if they know who he is. As a newspaperman, he can zip around asking questions without raising any red flags. After some convincing, Fleming agrees to undertake the mission. Of course, bad things start happening almost immediately. Fleming ends up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, tracking down people who worked there during the war, and he zips all over the American Southwest tracking down leads. Of course, people are after him, but Fawcett does a pretty good job and keeping the readers on their toes, because he’s somewhat coy about whether certain people Fleming meets are really bad guys or just, you know, people. Eventually, of course, Fleming returns to Jamaica, where he has a final confrontation with the bad guys. Surprisingly, it’s a somewhat anticlimactic ending, but that’s the way it is, I suppose.
This is a perfectly fine spy novel, although it doesn’t approach the masters of the genre like Le Carré or even Ludlum. Fawcett uses dialogue a lot, which is almost always a weakness as it turns expository far too easily, but he does manage to keep things moving along pretty well. He writes in third person omniscient, which is fine, but because he focuses so much on Fleming, when he transitions away from his protagonist for brief asides, it feels forced and unnatural even though his narrative mode should make it easier. Like a lot of lesser writers, Fawcett spends a lot of time relying on details, from exactly what everyone is wearing to various brand names of products. There’s no reason to use the word “Players” when you can just say “cigarettes,” but maybe I’m in the minority in that opinion. It makes it feel like he’s trying too hard, though.
The book is still a fun read, especially because Fawcett seeds it with little nods to Fleming’s future creation. Fleming is a male chauvinist in the book, although he’s not quite as woman-hating as Bond can be. He’s somewhat (but only somewhat; see below) enlightened when he deals with the black population of Jamaica, and while Fawcett does hint at some racial unrest in the form of Fleming’s house-servant’s nephew, he never goes anywhere with it. The scheme that Fleming uncovers could be straight out of a Bond novel except Fawcett makes sure it’s a bit more grounded in reality, and there are plenty of times when Fleming wishes he had some kind of device that could get him out of trouble, much like his creation would later utilize. It’s a fun little theme running through the entire book, and it makes the book a bit more enjoyable to read.
I like spy novels, so I’m probably a bit more likely to enjoy something minor like this than someone who doesn’t like them. It has plenty of flaws, but it zips along and gives us an interesting mystery. I guess that’s all I have to say!
First three paragraphs:
“Oh no,” said Ian Fleming, stretching out his long legs and crossing his ankles. “I’m retired. No more of that snoop-and-mischief business for me. Talk to my brother. He’s still in the game.” He lifted his drink to his visitor. “Chin-chin.”
“I’m not asking you to do anything official, Fleming,” said his visitor, looking uncomfortable in his Bond Street pin-striped wool suit and waistcoat on this tropical afternoon; the sun was flooding the island with warmth and light as opalescent as Bombay gin. Even his signet ring, a massive knot of gold with a couchant wyvern cut into it, was too heavy for the tropics, suggesting Tudor or Victorian architecture and over-stuffed chairs under baronial displays. “That would be the point of it, old son. Nothing on the books. The essence of covert. No one would know. You’d be quite safe.”
“Perfect deniability, you mean,” said Fleming with a quick, hard smile as he reached for the packet of Players on the table and proceeded to light up. “No. I don’t see how I can do it, not without knowing a great deal more. I’m sorry, but I have other work to do.” He was wearing a light linen shirt and khaki trousers, more in accord with the warm, humid weather than what his guest had on. He was limber and lean, a good-looking man in his late thirties, well-mannered, properly educated, charming, perfectly at home in his Jamaica estate down a narrow private road on the edge of this cove that gave privacy as well as a spectacular view. “I have a great deal to do around here, as you are undoubtedly aware. I can’t leave the island johnnies to tend to it themselves – you know what they are; well-meaning but lazy, most of them, and needing supervision. I can’t walk away and hope for the best. You can see the place needs –“
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Well, that was a long post this time around. That’s what happens when you have to combine two months into one post. I won’t do that again!
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