O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
I realize everything is about Wolverine and the Marvel movies this weekend, but I’ve missed all of that. I’ve been buried in a project that requires a lot of research into the 1930s and 40s… and as a side effect of that, lately I’ve been reading a lot of stuff set in the Golden Age. Pulps, comics, novels.
Part of it’s research for the project I’m working on, and part of it’s just that because I’m ordering those particular books, Amazon suggests other similar volumes I might like and sometimes I say yes. Especially if they’re cheap. Some are new and some have been around for a while, but they’re all new to me– this is the stuff I’ve been occupied with for the last month or so.
Anyway, I thought enough of them were worth mentioning here that I decided I’d do another capsule-review roundup. So here we go.
The Shadow/Green Hornet – Dark Nights #1 by Michael Uslan and Keith Burns.
The blurb: A threat so titanic that it forces The Shadow to team-up with The Green Hornet! A plot so deadly that it involves real events in history and such famous and infamous people as Woodrow Wilson, Rasputin, J. Edgar Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Nikola Tesla! An unstoppable power will plunge the world into darkness… and no one but our two crime-fighting icons can stop it!
What I Thought: Well, really, I knew I was in for this comic as soon as I saw the cover solicits three months ago. Dynamite has a good track record with me on both the Shadow and the Green Hornet, and I loved their other pulp team-up venture, Masks. So I was good for the first issue at least.
The one small reservation I had was the writer. I only had very vague memories of reading other comics by Michael Uslan– I remembered some issues he’d done on DC’s 1970s version of The Shadow, and he also was a Batman writer on Detective for ten minutes or so back then. And of course, the craziness that was Beowulf. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Which Uslan would show up? The solid journeyman writer who did those done-in-one mysteries starring Batman and the Shadow, or the gleefully deranged adrenaline junkie that birthed Beowulf, Dragon Slayer?
Turns out it’s someone better than either, that combines the best of both. This story manages to incorporate a lot of real history as well as pulp lore, and it’s obvious Mr. Uslan is well up on his Wold Newton mythology as well.
The weak point is the art. Keith Burns is just okay, and though he’s got a good eye for storytelling and page construction, he makes a mistake that a lot of artists do when they work on ‘night-time’ characters like The Shadow or Batman. He makes everything so dark, and uses so many spot blacks, that sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s going on.
But that’s really my only gripe and it’s not a deal-breaker by any means. The first issue is all about setting everything up, and since most of the plot turns on a Shadow trademark– the fire opal ring he wears– and a Shadow villain, Shiwan Khan, it’s much more Shadow than Hornet. But there was plenty there to keep me hanging in there and Mr. Uslan hasn’t forgotten how to pack 22 pages with story. A promising start to what looks like a solid pulpy adventure. It’s very old-school, but GOOD old-school. Totally my kind of thing.
The Twelve by J. Michael Straczynski and Chris Weston.
The blurb: Yesterday’s men of tomorrow – today! The Phantom Reporter. Electro. The Black Widow. The Laughing Mask. The Blue Blade. Dynamic Man. Master Mind Excello. Mister E. The Fiery Mask. The Witness. Rockman. Captain Wonder. Laying dormant for sixty years, they awaken in a tormented world that needs them more than ever. But has the world grown beyond their brand of old-fashioned heroism? Writer J. Michael Stracyzynski (Babylon 5, The Amazing Spider-Man) and artist Chris Weston (The Invisibles, Fantastic Four: The First Family) present a post-modernist tale of sacrifice, betrayal, and human nature. Plus: Journey into the past to follow the death-defying exploits of the Phantom Reporter on the front lines of World War II – and witness his first encounter with history’s greatest super heroes!
What I Thought: For years I ignored this because I thought it was part of a different project that Straczynski was doing, and all anyone ever seemed to say about it was that it was unfinished, so I thought, why bother?
But when it did finally get finished, it promptly got collected. And Amazon offered me the collections for an absurdly low price– probably because it’s recently been reprinted in a single-volume hardcover edition– and so I picked it up on a whim. Mine’s the original two-volume hardcover set, discounted down to practically nothing. I have to admit, getting it that cheap probably affected my feelings about it; if I’d been buying it monthly and had it sputter to a stop halfway through the story, and then been made to wait four years or whatever it was, I’d probably have been as annoyed as so many others were, no matter what the content was.
But I got to read it for very cheap, all at once, and that tends to leave me feeling considerably more kindly disposed towards it. Even so, I had mixed feelings.
I like the premise a great deal. It’s the story of twelve of Marvel’s Golden Age costumed heroes being put into suspended animation for decades and then waking up in the here and now– well, the Marvel Universe here and now, anyway– and having to adapt to a changing world.
That’s a very cool idea for a limited series, and as it was described in interviews, each issue would focus on a different cast member. To me that sounds great. If Mr. Straczynski had followed all the way through on that premise, and made each issue a done-in-one character study of each of his cast members dealing with the culture clash of the 1940s versus the 2000s, it would have been awesome. But that’s not what happened.
What we got was a murder mystery of sorts, and a systematic deconstruction of each of the characters revealing all their various flaws. It feels like Straczynski is making sure that no one gets to look very heroic at all. So despite all the various protests in interviews that this was going to be nothing like Watchmen, it is in fact almost exactly like Watchmen in its approach, structure, and execution. What’s more, the art from Chris Weston makes everyone appear very pedestrian and even a bit creepy most of the time– more mundane even than Dave Gibbons made Nite Owl look in the aforementioned Watchmen. No one in this story looks like a superhero, not even Dynamic Man.
This isn’t to say that it’s BAD, because it’s not, but praising The Twelve feels like complimenting a shoplifter on his good taste. There’s an air of déjà vu that hangs over the whole endeavor that’s hard to shake; there’s nothing new here, it’s all of a piece with Bratpack and Identity Crisis and all the other vaguely depressing superhero-deconstruction pieces built on a barely-there whodunit plot that we’ve seen since Watchmen first did it in 1986. But if you can get it as cheap as I did, it’s one of the better ones in that genre, and worth having.
Mystery Men by David Liss and Patrick Zircher.
The blurb: Introducing Marvel’s all-new, never-before-seen heroes of the 1930s! With a new evil washing over an unsuspecting New York City, the Operative, the Aviatrix, the Surgeon, the Revenant and Achilles blast through dangers from blood-soaked mob warehouses to monster-infested mansions, and fight to blow the lid off a conspiracy that could bring the nation itself to its knees! Award-winning historical thriller novelist David Liss (Black Panther: The Man Without Fear) and acclaimed artist Patrick Zircher (Spider-Man Noir) weave an edge-of-your-seat and in-continuity adventure intertwined with America’s most scandalous crimes! Before the Invaders…before the Twelve…who were the Mystery Men?
What I Thought: I picked this up on a whim because, for one thing, I am swooningly in love with what Mr. Liss is doing over on The Spider, and for another, again, it was ridiculously cheap. And I quite like Patrick Zircher’s art, too, so it seemed like a good bet.
And it was. What this really is, more than anything else, is a ‘new pulp’ story, done for comics. I’m a big fan of that stuff, as regular readers know, and this walks, talks, and sheds water like the new anthology books from Airship27 or Pro Se Press. Mystery Men is working the same turf as the Pulptress and the Black Stiletto and Lazarus Gray, except it’s from Marvel and done as a comic. A very cool comic.
The story takes a bunch of standard pulp archetypes– the tough-talking street shamus, the magician detective, the aviator hero, etc., and mixes and matches them to create new characters depicted with a modern sophistication and sensibility. It’s not deconstructive so much as re-constructive, taking what was great about characters like G-8 or the Green Lama and building new stuff from the ground up around those ideas.
I just purely enjoyed the hell out of it. There’s a lot to be said for a traditional story told well, and this one is great.
There’s good character stuff, the story is engaging, it’s a period piece without being out-and-out pastiche. It incorporates real history– the Lindbergh kidnapping is a plot point– but it’s not done in an oppressive schoolbooky way like Roy Thomas used to do it in The Invaders. (I love the Invaders, but Thomas really did get carried away with the history lessons every so often.)
Mystery Men doesn’t seem to be on too many fans’ radar– at least I haven’t seen very many people talking about it, and though everyone who reviewed it seemed to like it a lot, I don’t think it set the world on fire sales-wise. Which is probably why I got the remaindered hardcover for pennies on the dollar. Shame really, because it’s left open-ended enough that you can tell Liss was going to do more. But even if we don’t get any more stories about these folks, this volume is well worth getting hold of and chances are it won’t set you back much.
And finally, one that’s not a comic but it’s too cool not to mention here.
MATT HELM: The War Years by Keith Wease.
The blurb: Matt Helm is a government assassin, working for a super-secret agency first formed during WWII to carry out assassinations in support of the war effort in Europe, and later continued against America’s enemies. He is the star of 27 novels written by Donald Hamilton from 1960 through the 1990s. Although a cold-blooded killer, Matt Helm has a superb sense of humor, a sharp opinion on just about everything, and is quite capable of falling in love (or lust) during his missions. This book is about his WWII experiences, from his initial recruitment into the agency, his training, and his missions during the war. Matt Helm fans will know the ending, but it would be a “spoiler” to mention it here. I have been a Donald Hamilton fan since the 1960s and, when he died, decided to write the prequel. Having read the Matt Helm series several times, I researched everything Donald Hamilton wrote about Matt Helm’s wartime experiences and his pre-war life. Incorporating direct quotes from the books, and my own imagination, I filled in many of his mission details (including, of course, the one featuring Tina, who shows up in the first Matt Helm novel, Death of a Citizen) and added several of my own, trying to keep the narrative authentic to Donald Hamilton’s style. The book was approved by Donald Hamilton’s son (who is CEO of the company holding the rights), who told me that I had “captured Don’s voice quite successfully” and that it was “All in all, a quite good read!” I hope all you Matt Helm fans will enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed writing it.
What I Thought: As I always feel I have to point out when I talk about Matt Helm, forget the movies. The Matt Helm books, the original paperbacks by Donald Hamilton, are among my favorite adventure series ever done.
They are a magnificent blend of Ian Fleming’s superspy genre plotting, told in the first person in the style of Mickey Spillane. It’s Mike Hammer as James Bond. Wonderfully escapist and at the same time incredibly hard-hitting and, if not realistic, certainly plausible. Donald Hamilton knew the hell of a lot more about guns and marksmanship and hunting and sailing than Ian Fleming ever did, and it came through in his books.
Normally I’m not a purist about the original author– I like Roy Thomas and Kurt Busiek’s version of Conan as much as Robert E. Howard’s most of the time, and I’m completely fine with Joe Gores writing a Sam Spade novel or Max Allan Collins completing Spillane’s unfinished manuscripts. Hamilton’s Helm, though, strikes me as such a singular voice that I would have thought it was impossible to get right.
But Wease is really damn good at it. He even incorporates flashback scenes Hamilton actually wrote into this manuscript, and he does it so seamlessly that I couldn’t tell where Hamilton left off and Wease began. It’s just a great book. Recommended.
But first you should go read a few of the originals by Hamilton, because then you’ll really appreciate what Keith Wease did here. As it happens Titan Books is putting them out in nice new editions.
I have them all here already, but I love that Titan’s putting them back in print. I kind of wish they’d done it through Hard Case Crime so we could get cool cover illos, but perhaps that’s just being greedy. Mostly I’m just glad to see these books back again so new readers can find them, and Wease’s prequel novel about Helm in World War II is a great addition to the canon.
And there you go. That’s the lot.
Next week I hope to get caught up enough to attack the review pile, so we’ll probably do this again with that stack o’stuff. See you then.
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