Why The Russos Are The Best Thing to Happen to the MCU Since Joss Whedon
“What’s so amazing / That keeps us stargazing / And what do we think we might see”
Archer & Armstrong volume 3: Far Faraway by David Baron (colorist), Simon Bowland (letterer), Clayton Henry (artist), Dave Lanphear (letterer), Pere Pérez (artist), Fred van Lente (writer), Josh Johns (editor), and Warren Simons (executive editor). $14.99, 124 pgs, FC, Valiant. Archer and Armstrong created by Jim Shooter, Bob Layton, and Barry Windsor-Smith.
Archer & Armstrong continues to be a pretty good book, as van Lente continues to write it with his well-honed wit and timing and sense of the absurd – at this point, van Lente can probably write stuff like this in his sleep, and as I like it, I tend to like his work. In the first issue collected in this book, he rewrites the Epic of Gilgamesh so that Armstrong was there (of course), and while it’s a “zero issue” and therefore stands on its own, van Lente then weaves the basics of the story into the main plot of the rest of the book, which has to do with Area 51 and the Bermuda Triangle – pretty standard “everything you knew is wrong!” stuff about American history, but with van Lente, the plot doesn’t matter as much as the character interactions, and he does a nice job with it. Archer is slowly becoming more of his own man, and he learns stuff in this arc that makes him grow up even faster. Meanwhile, Armstrong is his own self, and it’s interesting to see, not that he changes, but how Archer starts to react differently to his sameness. Archer still needs to grow up a bit, but van Lente is doing some interesting stuff with his character. There’s also a Douglas MacArthur parody and the actual Ambrose Bierce, because why wouldn’t he still be alive in the Valiant Universe? Van Lente has gotten very good at balancing absurd humor, dry wit, and good action, and that’s what he gives us in Archer & Armstrong. That’s cool with me!
I don’t have a lot to say about the art, unfortunately. Henry is solid enough, but his work always seems a bit sterile – he doesn’t do great work with faces, and his dinosaurs, for instance (yes, there are dinosaurs in this comic) seem animatronic. Pérez has a clean line, too, but his work is a bit more fluid and he adds a bit more nuance to the characters’ faces, so when Archer gets angry at the end of the book, it’s more believable than Henry’s expressions. The artists don’t get in the way of the story, which is fine, although they don’t enhance it too much either.
I enjoy this title – it’s not the best book out there, but it’s entertaining and fun to read. That’s always good!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Action Comics volume 2: Bulletproof by Brad Anderson (colorist), Patrick Brosseau (letterer), Rick Bryant (inker), CAFU (artist), Gabe Eltaeb (colorist), Sholly Fisch (writer), Gene Ha (artist), Andrew Hennessy (inker), Cully Hamner (artist), Max Landis (writer), Art Lyon (colorist), Carlos M. Mangual (letterer), Dave McCaig (colorist), Bob McLeod (inker), Rags Morales (penciller), Grant “Man, Alan Moore really hates me, doesn’t he?” Morrison (writer), Ben Oliver (artist), Jay David Ramos (colorist), Brian Reber (colorist), Dezi Sienty (letterer), Ryan Sook (artist/colorist), Val Staples (colorist), Brad Walker (artist), Steve Wands (letterer), and Peter Hamboussi (editor). $16.99, 184 pgs, FC, DC. Superman, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Lex Luthor, and Perry White created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Batman created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston. Hal Jordan created by John Broome and Gil Kane. Barry Allen created by Robert Kaniger, John Broome, and Carmine Infantino. Cyborg created by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez. General Sam Lane created by Robert Bernstein and Kurt Schaffenberger.
This is yet another odd collection of comics, as Morrison gives us an “alternate reality” story of the black Superman from Final Crisis, a story about Nimrod the Hunter, and then one about that dude on the cover, who claims to be a better version of humanity and is trying to save Lois’s niece, who is also a better version of humanity. He finishes his part of the book with the story about the boy who stole Superman’s cape, and then Fisch takes over with stories about the black Superman and Kryptonite Man, with a few shorter tales sprinkled in. Along the way, Morrison continues to delve into those themes that interest him – the idea of transformative powers changing the world, the idea of alternate realities – and while he still does it quite well, he doesn’t appear to have much new to say about it. I mean, it’s novel that Calvin Ellis is not only black but the president, and Morrison obviously is using him to show what the “real” Superman could do about his own world, but it doesn’t go much further than that. Morrison “kills” Clark Kent, but the fact that Clark has only been around for 10 issues makes the death and the characters’ reactions to it rather forced. It’s also hard to make us believe that Clark and Lois are such great writers when we never see any examples of their writing, just other characters talking about how great the writing is. So Clark’s “death” doesn’t really have the impact it could. Like too much of Morrison’s recent work, the ideas take over and the character development is left behind a bit, so while we can marvel at the way he brings Calvin Ellis into the story (issue #9 is the best one in the book), it’s tough to care about Lois and her predicament in the same story. Even “The Boy Who Stole Superman’s Cape,” which is a clear appeal to readers’ heartstrings, doesn’t really hit home too much, as it’s far too simplistic a story. This collection is a bit more interesting than volume 1, but it’s not significantly better.
Morrison, as is often the case, isn’t helped by his artists. Gene Ha is very good on “The Curse of Superman,” but regular artist Rags Morales manages to draw only one complete issue before needing help. Brad Walker and CAFU are perfectly fine replacements, but the shift in artists is always jarring. There’s also a section of issue #11 when it’s not clear if part of the book is taking place in the past or if Morales simply forgot that Superman should be wearing his godawful costume instead of his godawful jeans and boots. It’s kind of annoying. Ben Oliver’s art in issue #0 is typical of Oliver, and it’s so not my thing that I tried very hard not to look at it too much. It’s so sterile and static, and it leaches what little humanity is in the story right out of it. Cully Hamner draws Fisch’s story from the Annual, and his art is much better than Morales/Walker/CAFU/Oliver, so that it’s a shame he couldn’t draw more of the book.
Finally, the book is presented out of order, and for some reason, that really bugged me. Here’s the order of the book: Main Story Issue #9, Main Story Issue #10, Main Story Issue #11, Main Story Issue #12, Back-Up Story Issue #9, Back-Up Story Issue #10, Back-Up Story Issue #11, Back-Up Story Issue #0 (Issue #12 didn’t have a back-up story), Main Story Annual #1, Back-Up Story Annual #1. It’s consistent, but here’s the thing: the back-up story in issue #9 goes well with the main story, as does the back-up story in issue #10. The back-up in issue #9 is about President Ellis, while the back-up in issue #10 is about people eulogizing Clark Kent. The mixed-up order simply makes reading the book somewhat disjointed, and there’s really no reason for it. DC did this in the first trade, but that was because Morrison simply stopped writing one story and started another (to accommodate slow artists, maybe, or just because he’s kooky?). There’s really no reason to do it here.
Anyway, Morrison’s Action Comics continues to be a weird animal. I suppose I’m committed to the third trade, where we’ll see how he pulls it all together. I know everyone else already knows how he does it, but I’m still curious!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Conan volume 14: The Death by Jimmy Betancourt (letterer), Becky Cloonan (artist), Vasilis Lolos (artist), Declan Shalvey (artist), Richard Starkings (letterer), Dave Stewart (colorist), Brian Wood (writer), Brendan Wright (associate editor), and Dave Marshall (editor). Conan created by Robert E. Howard.
Wood remains an odd choice to write Conan, because he’s much more comfortable, it seems, writing stories like the ones in this volume, which are remarkably short on bloody swordplay, and less comfortable writing actual Conan stories. Howard created Bêlit, of course, and Wood is ostensibly adapting his tales, but I don’t think these stories were part of Howard’s original canon, or at least I can’t find references to them, so I imagine Wood stretched out the Conan-Bêlit romance a bit to include this stuff. It’s not that it’s bad, per se, it’s just weird that Wood, who writes introspective characters very well, would be the person to write Conan, who’s not terribly introspective. Both of the stories in this collection rely far more on Conan’s emotions than his actions, and they’re just a bit weird. It’s disconcerting reading about Conan feeling even slightly bad about needling a childhood friend or trying to figure out what to do about the disease ravaging the crew of the Tigress. It doesn’t quite work – the Cimmerian story, with its racist undertones, is not bad, although the idea of a kid running off and whining about how Conan treats him seems fairly modern and not keeping with the way this world works, while the disease story is perfectly fine, although Wood doesn’t care about the randomness of it all – Conan remains unaffected, for instance, for no reason other than he’s so awesome he even scares viruses – because he’s more interested in writing about the effect it has on the romance. It’s a very strange comic, and while it’s interesting to read, I’m not sure if it’s a good Conan comic. Wood seems to force upon Conan and Bêlit attitudes that they wouldn’t have, especially when it comes to the end of the story. The death knell of the romance has possibly been struck, but it makes very little sense. Why would either character feel the way they do? Neither Conan nor Bêlit seem like the type of character who would allow the events of the second story interfere with their romance, so while Wood has done a pretty decent job showing how different they are when Conan returns to Cimmeria, it still feels a bit odd that they would react to the events of “The Death” in such a way. But maybe that’s just me.
Wood also gets interesting artists to draw the book. Cloonan and Lolos give us hipster Conan and Bêlit, and while we’re told that Conan isn’t 25 yet, they both look far too young and pretty, especially Conan, who we know has lived a hard life. Shalvey’s rougher style works a bit better for the characters, and he gives Conan some muscles, which works better than Cloonan’s and Lolos’s almost frail Conan. Cloonan and Lolos are excellent artists, to be sure, and Cloonan’s Cimmeria, especially, is a cold, bleak place, while Lolos’s Cimmeria is downright eerie, but the way they draw the two main characters turns their story into almost a teenager drama, and it’s a very weird tone. It goes along with the central conceit of the story, that a kid from Cimmeria would whine a lot when he gets picked on – it just doesn’t feel like Conan. Shalvey is a better choice for the comic – his Conan still looks young but much more battle-hardened, and his Bêlit is a mature, sexy woman rather than a somewhat bewildered teenager. Much like Wood’s writing itself, Cloonan and Lolos are drawing a good comic, but not necessarily a Conan comic.
It’s frustrating, because it’s a good book and it’s interesting how Wood is writing it. He seems to get the character well in some ways and miss the point in other ways. While I’m always in favor of a writer putting his own stamp on characters, even ones that other writers have worked on, the character of Conan is so singular that it feels weird to read this version. It’s a good-looking comic, and you could certainly pick it up and read it without ever having read a Conan comic before, and maybe it would work better because you wouldn’t come in knowing anything about the character. I’m curious to see where Wood goes with this, so I’m on board with the next trade, but this one still feels a bit disjointed.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
I enjoyed King City, Graham’s last big epic, so I was looking forward to Multiple Warheads, and while it treads in the same territory as King City and isn’t as sprawling, it doesn’t work as well. When Graham is doing his own thing (as opposed to Prophet, which features some of the same tics as these books), it seems like he’s far less concerned with plot and more with simply creating a world and turning characters loose in them to meander around. That’s fine to a point, but it does get frustrating because that’s really all it is – he doesn’t seem to be making any other points. Multiple Warheads features about 2½ plots, none of which resolve in this trade, and while Graham is working on more of the story, I kind of wish he’d gotten to some point in this collection.
It’s a beautiful book, to be sure – Graham’s loopy, cartoony, intensely detailed work is absolutely stunning. His world is fully formed, with so many side distractions that it’s a pleasure to simply sit and examine each panel carefully, ignoring whatever might actually be going on. I can’t even begin to describe all the wide and wild stuff that Graham throws into the comic – magnificent cities on cliffs; odd creatures, both huge and tiny; all sorts of graffiti; and the biggest collection of puns you might ever see in a comic. All the characters, from the main ones to the ones that show up for one page or panel, are unique and fascinating, and Graham obviously took his time rifling through his imagination to make this world a feast for the eyes. Some of his lettering is too idiosyncratic for me, because I can’t read a few of the more stylistic imaginings, but for the most part, it’s a wonderful book.
Graham’s basic plots aren’t bad. The main character is a young woman named Sexica, who with her boyfriend Nik leaves their town and heads out for a supposed paradise. Sexica smuggles boutique organs (a stomach that turns waste into gold; eyes that let you see yourself as other see you) and Nik is a mechanic, but they both want to leave and make their lives something better. So they hit the road, but when they reach one of the stops along the road, Sexica gets involved in thievery with some old acquaintances. Meanwhile, a woman named Nura is tracking down a head that has some sort of strange organ-generating ability. She wanders near and far, killing quite a number of people to get to her goal. Graham takes his time with both plots and resolves neither, and while I’m sure he’ll continue to bring things together in subsequent volumes, it just seems like he’s spending so much time creating the world and being clever that he forgot that story matters, too. It doesn’t help that he’s spent so much time with the characters and they’re not that interesting. Nura is probably the most interesting of the three, but that’s partly because of her single-minded determination to get the job done. Nik is fairly interesting, but it’s clear that Sexica is the main character of the book, and I don’t find her all that well developed. She seems more like a stereotype than a real character, and so the fact that her plot is very much focused on her and not as much as Nik is problematic, to me at least. She just seems like a clichéd tough, sexy, hip chick, and that’s kind of boring. She does sew a werewolf penis onto Nik so that their sex life gets spiced up a bit (Graham used to create quite a few porn comics, so there’s a little bit of some very explicit stuff in here), so there’s that. But Sexica just isn’t that interesting, unfortunately.
Multiple Warheads is worth a look for the amazing artwork and some of the clever world-building, but its incompleteness and aimlessness keeps it from being stronger. I’ll have to think about it before picking up the next volume – maybe Graham will get to a point in that one!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Amala’s Blade: Spirits of Naamaron by Michael Dialynas (artist/colorist), Steve Horton (writer/letterer), Shantal LaRocque (assistant editor), and Chris Warner (editor). $18.99, 142 pgs, FC, Dark Horse.
I liked the Amala story in Dark Horse Presents a while back (it’s reprinted in this trade), so when Dark Horse published the mini-series, I figured I’d do what I do when a story goes from DHP to a mini – wait for the trade! That way, if the parts in DHP feed into the main story, I can have them all in one place. The story about Amala in DHP doesn’t quite lead into the main story, but it’s handy to have, plus Horton and Dialynas include their pitch story to Dark Horse, which is pretty neat. So the trade is a pretty nifty package.
This is an interesting take on a fantasy story, because Horton makes it about more than just fantasy tropes. He splits his kingdom, Naamaron, into two warring factions – the Purifiers and Modifiers. This allows him to play around with both fantasy tropes and science fiction tropes, as the Purifiers live in a somewhat medieval/steampunk society – the buildings and clothing look medieval, but they have some cool machines – while the Modifiers, who enjoy modifying their bodies with SCIENCE!, live in a more hard-boiled sci-fi setting. It’s a bit of an odd contrast – we don’t see the Modifier area until almost the end of issue #2, by which time we’re used to the Purifiers’ setting – but it’s still pretty cool. One way to make your setting a bit more interesting is to contrast with another, and the creators do a good job with both aspects of Naamaron.
Amala is an assassin who is hated by both sides, as she works for a mysterious “vizier” who lives in the neutral zone between the two sides. The Purifiers and Modifiers have been through a long war, and they now keep a tenuous peace, but the vizier doesn’t seem interested in that. He sends her on a mission that he believes she won’t complete – he, in fact, hopes she dies in the attempt. I don’t want to give too much away, but the target turns out to be someone that Amala will, indeed, have a hard time killing, and it ties in with her “true destiny” – she’s supposed to bring peace to the kingdom … somehow. She ends up in a big battle between Purifiers and Modifiers, but it doesn’t go quite as anyone expected.
The big plot is actually the weakest part of the story, because unless I missed some things, it’s not explained terribly well. Amala’s past is a bit mysterious, and while it’s not that big a deal that it’s not filled in, some crucial things are left out. Horton writes Amala and the other characters pretty well, so the little things work well. Amala is haunted by the ghosts of people she’s either killed or was close to – hence the title of the collection – and she can talk to them and they can even assist her occasionally. So we learn a bit about some of the people from their ghosts and how they talk to Amala. Horton has a pretty good sense of humor, so while the book does get a bit dark in some places, the overall tone is fairly light, and it comes across as more adventurous than brutal. There’s some fun stuff in the book, too – a giant mechanical dog/snake, a ghost monkey – and the scene early in the book at the tavern is quite humorous. The little things in the book work well, so why the bigger plot seems a bit sloppy is a mystery. I imagine that Horton and Dialynas might have more stories to tell, which would be a reason to leave things a bit mysterious, but it does feel like this tells a complete story, and it would have been nice to get some more answers about Amala’s past and her place in the war.
Dialynas is very good, and he does a very nice job with both aspects of Naamaron. His Amala is a tough young lady, and he does a very nice job with her facial expressions, as she’s not very impassive. Horton puts her in harm’s way quite a bit, and Dialynas is good at showing how hurt she gets, which humanizes her a lot. He does a nice job with the action scenes – Amala is the best assassin around, so she’s very brutal, but because so many people are bigger than she is, occasionally it takes a while to achieve her objectives, and Dialynas does a good job showing how hard it can be for her. He creates a really interesting world – the Purifier part of Naamaron is a bit rustic, and Dialynas colors it with warm tones, while the Modifiers’ area is more urban, with a lot of hard lines and deep blues. There’s some nice humor in the artwork, too, which matches Horton’s tone for the comic.
Amala’s Blade is a pretty fun adventure, although I get the feeling it could have had more depth and been a better read. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and if the creators want to continue with Amala’s story, I will certainly read more about her. I’m just a bit conflicted. That’s just how I roll!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Wolverine by Larry Hama and Marc Silvestri volume 2 by Pat Brosseau (letterer), Steve Buccellato (colorist), Mark Chiarello (colorist), Peter David (writer), Dan Green (inker/finisher), Larry Hama (writer), Andy Kubert (artist), Al Milgrom (inker), Jim Novak (letterer), Glynis Oliver (colorist), Marc Silvestri (penciler/breakdowner), Larry Stroman (penciler), Sherilyn van Vaulkenburgh [sic] (colorist), Alex Starbuck (assistant editor), Nelson Ribeiro (assistant editor), and Mark D. Beazley (editor). $29.99, 264 pgs, FC, Marvel. Wolverine created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita Sr., and Chris Claremont just for the heck of it. Lady Deathstrike created by Denny O’Neil, Larry Hama, Bill Mantlo, Sal Buscema, Chris Claremont, and Barry Windsor-Smith. Donald Pierce, Sabretooth created by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Storm created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum. Forge created by Chris Claremont and John Romita Jr. Jubilee created by Chris Claremont and Marc Silvestri. Cable created by Louise Simonson and Rob Liefeld. Masque created by Chris Claremont and Paul Smith. Nick Fury and Magneto created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Wolfsbane, Cannonball, and Sunspot created by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod. Boom Boom created by Jim Shooter and Al Milgrom. Rictor created by Louise Simonson and Walt Simonson.
The second trade collecting Hama and Silvestri’s run on Wolverine focuses almost exclusively on Elsie-Dee and Albert, the two androids built by Donald Pierce to kill Wolverine. Elsie-Dee, who looks like a five-year-old girl, and Albert, who looks like Wolverine, commit a bunch of robberies in Los Angeles in order to lure Logan out, as Elsie-Dee is basically a walking bomb and once Wolverine gets close enough she’ll explode. She manages to overcome her programming, however, and stops the bomb from going off. Logan, being the softie that he is, takes her to New York to help disarm the bomb, but Albert follows, believing that he can only stop Elsie-Dee from exploding by killing Logan. This leads to a rousing adventure under the streets of New York, in which Logan fights Sabretooth and Cable. Later, Lady Deathstrike and a strange creature from the wilds of Canada get involved, too. It’s quite the free-for-all. In the middle of it all, Hama writes a flashback story drawn by Larry Stroman in which Logan fights some strange creature on a cruise ship, and it ends on a very messianic cliffhanger. I wonder if Hama ever went back to the story?
This comic is as pre-XTREEEEEM! 1990s as it gets, which is kind of awesome. Hama doesn’t pause very often before sending Logan into yet another fight, and the book careens along at a breakneck pace. Like a lot of comics from back in the day, Hama doesn’t take everything so seriously, so there are big lunks with terrible accents, bikini-clad babes drooling over Logan, and a crazed, gap-toothed animal killer who gets his comeuppance from a real wolverine. Hama puts to rest the idea that Sabretooth is Logan’s father (although, for all I know, it could have been revived later – my timeline is a bit screwed up and I don’t know the status of their relationship right now), which is nice. The whole thing is pretty insane, from the fact that Pierce built Elsie-Dee in the first place (and, in another touch of humor, the fact that Bone-Breaker, one of Pierce’s Reavers, screwed up and made her far smarter than a five-year-old, which is why she’s able to overcome her programming) to Albert flying a stealth bomber into Logan to take him out (in an unintentionally depressing scene – Logan is on top of the World Trade Center and Albert flies a plane toward it). It’s always fun re-reading comics from this time period, because they’re ridiculous in so many ways but hugely entertaining in ways that today’s mainstream comics aren’t. Hama wouldn’t know what “decompressed” means if you handed him a dictionary, so he just keeps piling on stuff – it’s crazy and not as nuanced as the best superhero comics of today are, but it’s certainly attention-grabbing. Rahne of Terra is reprinted in this volume as well (Peter David, with his love of puns, must have had that in his back pocket for years before he wrote this), and while it’s a bit less crazy, it’s still about a wizard in another dimension switching Rahne’s consciousness with a princess’s so that the princess won’t die on her 16th birthday, so “crazy” is all relative, I guess.
Silvestri draws eight of the nine issues in this collection, which is pretty impressive given his speed these days, and his work is as scratchy and insane as ever. In some of the issues, he’s simply credited with “breakdowns” while Green finishes, but there doesn’t seem to be a ton of difference in the artwork when that happens, and I wonder if Silvestri was just doing breakdowns for most of these issues. He’s definitely becoming more abstract as he works, with big, scratchy lines and a lot of superfluous hatching, but there’s a manic energy to his and Green’s work that matches the pace of the writing. This is Silvestri at his peak – I’m sure he’d say that his work is always getting better, but in recent years, he seems to take more time with his art, and that highlights his weaknesses – his cheesecakiest elements, I would say. In this collection, he’s almost sketching, and the “sloppiness” of the work gives it its charm. Even his bikini-clad bimbos, who are supposed to look a bit plastic, aren’t quite as mannequin-esque as his figures in recent years. Silvestri, of course, became too big a star to keep doing this book, but his art is a lot of fun in this collection. Stroman’s more formalized work is a bit too rigid, while Kubert’s art on Rahne of Terra is quite good, helped, no doubt, by the time allowed him and van Valkenburgh’s rich coloring work.
Much like volume 1 of this “series,” I’m not sure how essential these comics are and you can probably find them fairly cheaply in dollar bins across the country. But Marvel puts together a very nice package, and they’re wildly fun comics to read, so if you’re feeling nostalgic, track this down. Even if they’re not great comics, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
I’ve read at least two of Peter Brown’s books, and used several others countless times as sources in research papers; he’s a magisterial presence in the historiography of the Late Antique/Early Medieval period, so if you study anything in Europe during that time period, you’re going to come across his work. When I saw he had written a new book, I decided to read it. Simple, right? Well, sure, except this book is 530 pages of dense text, so it took me a little over a month to read. Yeah, I’m slow, and it was December, and I had other things to do. But man, it took me a while. Luckily, this is a tremendous book that, I hope, will shape the conversation about the late Roman Empire and the early years of the Germanic successor kingdoms moving forward. Brown is that good a historian and that dominating a presence.
It’s hard to summarize the book, because it’s so sprawling. Brown’s main focus in the way wealth was used in the Roman Empire for the common good and how Christianity changed the attitude of the Romans toward the distribution of wealth. But he also focuses on how Rome fell and how the elite of the empire transitioned to the new world of the Gothic, Vandal, and Frankish kingdoms. Brown’s major early point is that Rome did not become a Christian empire with the conversion of Constantine in 312. Constantine removed the onus of persecution from Christians and gave them power, but he did not give them money, and Christianity remained a fringe religion for the first two generations or so after Constantine. Only in the 370s, Brown argues, did rich elites begin to convert to Christianity, and the bishops of that age suddenly had to figure out what to do with these incredibly wealthy people entering the church, given that Jesus preached against wealth. He upends some of the stereotypes about pagan Romans, as their attitudes toward the poor were different than those of Christians but not in an absolute way. The Romans looked after the poor Romans, as they considered all citizens as part of a grand tapestry, but they didn’t care all that much about non-citizens or even mixing with the poor that much. They also believed in a government that would take care of the poor, and that government was run by elites such as themselves. Christian bishops encouraged their converts to think of the poor as “brothers,” directly assisting them, and giving money to the Church instead of the government. One reason early Christians were persecuted was not because they didn’t worship the correct gods but because they undercut Rome’s ability to collect taxes, and if there’s one thing the Romans took seriously, it’s taxes. Once Christianity became more accepted and Rome’s government gradually weakened, that wasn’t as big a concern anymore. Augustine of Hippo was a pioneer in the idea of giving wealth directly to the church in the area and devoting yourself to the church forever – many Romans who divested themselves of their wealth prior to that would set up a shrine where they would live, staying largely in control of their finances but devoting it to that shrine. Augustine went a step further, which makes him a crucial figure in the development of Christianity.
Brown also gives us a relatively novel portrait of late Roman society. According to him, Rome was still a flourishing society almost up to the “sack” of Rome in 410 CE by the Goths, and he has dug through writings and archaeology to prove it. He also makes the point that the later Roman world was much more connected than we think – the myth of vast estates isolated from each other, which led to the ease with which the “barbarians” destroyed Rome is shown to be simple boasting by writers who wanted to show off, but is not backed up by the archaeological record. He spends a great deal of time in North Africa, where Augustine lived, as that became the “breadbasket” of the West after Egypt began to be dominated by the Eastern Empire, and he delves deeply into the way North Africa was a thriving, dense society, with local landowners dominating local politics but also remaining connected to the wider world through economic and social contacts. Rome was never broken up into isolated sections, and some sections remained “imperial” far longer than many people have thought before. Brown goes over it all.
Obviously, there was a crisis in the fifth century, as the Germanic invaders came in to stay, but while Brown acknowledges that it was a traumatic event, he also makes the point that the Church by this time was strong enough to shift from accommodating the Romans to living with the new rulers. It’s not new to say that the invaders wanted to be as “Roman” as the rulers they replaced, and the Church was able to ease the transition. Brown makes the point that the locals were able to narrow their focus from an empire-wide society, as wealth shrank but the need for wealth remained, so local elites could remain on top of a smaller pyramid. As traumatic as the fifth century was, Brown argues that the nobility was able to move quickly to a more localized power base, and the Church was able to help with this, as it continued to grow in wealth and often became a major landowner in its own right. The stability of the Church was a key component in the transition. He also makes the point that the trauma of Rome’s fall changed the way the Church viewed itself, as it became more introspective and more interested in encouraging the wealthy to give money directly to the institution. In many ways, Augustine’s vision had won out, but that opened up a new can of worms – the Church became incredibly rich. How to deal with this conundrum is still an issue today, and Brown goes over how bishops in the sixth century dealt with it.
I’m not doing the book very much justice with this description, because the arguments Brown makes are so much more nuanced and fascinating than I can summarize. This is a very well researched book, and Brown uses many “real-life” examples of Romans using their wealth in many different ways, from the great pagan Symmachus, whose sense of civic responsibility is indicative of the way Rome was run in the late fourth century, to Paulinus of Nola, a wealthy Christian who founded a shrine to St. Felix near Naples and became another example of how to disperse wealth. Brown offers new explanations of the writings of both Christians and pagans, and he creates a very interesting portrait of this rather murky time. This book is a magnificent achievement, and I hope it will begin to change our ideas about the transition from Roman rule to Germanic rule and the way Christianity changed after Constantine’s conversion. That would be keen.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents by Alex Butterworth. 482 pgs, Pantheon Books, 2010.
Butterworth’s book begins in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian War and the establishment of the Commune and runs through the First World War, with some events of the Russian Civil War thrown in. He’s writing about the development of anarchism in Europe and the way the nations in which it sprang up – notably Russia, France, and England – dealt with it. It’s a time period I love to read about, and a political philosophy I’m on board with, and it’s all about espionage, as one main character is the head of the Russian Okhrana in Paris, a man who spent decades figuring out ways to thwart the anarchists. But I didn’t love the book, unfortunately.
I’m not sure why. I couldn’t really get into it, and when that happens with a subject I ought to love, I wonder if it’s something to do with me or if it’s with the writing. I read books at night before I go to sleep and very rarely at other times during the day – usually during the day I’m busy reading comics or writing on this blog, and I don’t find much time to sit down with a book. So I read 10-30 pages a night if I’m reading nonfiction, which is why it takes me so long to get through some books (as I mentioned above). For some reason, I just couldn’t get into this book, and I don’t know if it’s because of the way I read. Maybe if I had sat down in the middle of the day and plowed through bigger chunks of it, I would have liked it more. But then I think I wasn’t getting into it because of the way Butterworth writes. The book is laid out generally chronologically, but often he spends a few years in one location – Russia or Switzerland, for instance – before moving to a different location and writing about some of the same years in that place. So it’s chronological and locational. I’m not sure how else he could have written the book, and I don’t really have that big a problem with that. However, this means that characters leave for long stretches and then reappear, and that’s part of the problem. This book has a huge cast, and while Butterworth provides a handy dramatis personae at the beginning of the book, it’s still hard to keep track of them. So when I’m not reading large chunks of the book at a time, it becomes harder to remember who’s who.
That’s a “me” problem, to be sure, but I think part of why it’s hard to get into the book is because Butterworth isn’t the greatest writer. He writes in the introduction that the sources on the time period are very hard to find, as the police forces of the countries wanted to keep their intrigues secret and many of the files disappeared as revolution swept across Russia and then the Nazis swept across Europe. He makes the point that even when sources exist, the very foundation of espionage is lying, so the sources themselves are more untrustworthy than standard sources (which have biases, true, but aren’t necessarily flat-out lies). Part of the official record of anarchists’ movements, culled from newspapers that recoiled with middle-class pearl clutching at some of the ideas of the anarchists, much less the bombings carried out by some of the more extreme members (and, of course, by agents provocatuers sent by the police), are ridiculously unreliable, as they simply reiterate what the government claimed about the “enemies of the state.” Butterworth readily admits to the problems, but he tries to create a “narrative” instead of an “analysis” in order to “capture something of the subjective experience of those involved,” which doesn’t always work. He veers a bit too wildly between a more analytical approach and a more “fictional” structure, and this makes the book a bit disjointed. When he’s writing about something for which there is a great deal of source material, such as the Paris Commune, he can blend the historical with the “subjective” far better, and his account of that odd and completely doomed experiment is one of the best parts of the book, perhaps because it involves far less subterfuge than the rest of it. This world that he enters into is extremely murky, and Butterworth, unfortunately, doesn’t make it much clearer.
The “stars” of the book, such as they are, include Louise Michel, who helped sparked the revolution that led to the Commune and remained an iconic figure in the anarchist movement for the next 30 years; Peter Kropotkin, a Russian aristocrat and descendant of the royal Rurik dynasty who was a promising scientist before he decided to become an anarchist, giving up his wealthy life in Russia to become an exile before returning to his homeland after the Bolshevik Revolution, which he then condemned; Elisée Reclus, a famed geographer and prodigious anarchist writer; and Peter Rachkovsky, the head of the Okhrana in Paris, who was a giant spider at the center of an espionage web that stretched across Europe. For brief stretches in the book, Butterworth makes these characters come alive, and we get a good sense of the struggles the anarchists encountered as they tried to change human nature and the insidious way Rachkovsky made himself indispensible and feared before he was finally brought down. But then the book gets mired in far too much minutiae and too many characters, who eventually start to blur together. He takes far too long to focus on Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who turned out to be the real threat to the bourgeoisie and the lurching Russian government and who eventually turned on anarchists as harshly as the government they replaced did. Butterworth, it seems, can’t decide if he wants to write a straight-forward history or more of a hagiographical quasi-memoir. He’s obviously on the anarchists’ side, but not too egregiously, so when he does slip into that mode, it seems strange. I’m not sure if tightening the focus of the book would have been better – he writes that he’s already tightened it, as Spain and Germany had their own anarchist movements and he largely ignores those – but it just feels like something is not quite right with the book.
I suppose the book is useful because it brings to light a pretty good-sized movement from a time when differing political philosophies were debated on a wider scale than they are today. Butterworth points out that the 1890s – a decade of terror bombings – can be seen reflected in our current War on Terror, and the book is interesting for the parallels we can draw to what’s going on in the world today. Butterworth mentions a few Joseph Conrad works, including The Secret Agent, which many people assume is based on several real people about whom Butterworth writes. I wonder if Conrad’s book (which is quite good) is a better guide to anarchists and the police who tried to stop them than this book. Sometimes fiction is the way to go. Oh well.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Well, that’s it for this month. It’s weird – I skipped December because I didn’t get a lot of trades, but in January, I still didn’t get a lot, so this ends up being a somewhat normal-length post. Will I have more trades in February? Beats me! You’ll just have to wait and see!
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