torsdag 24 juli 2014

Yves Sente & André Juillard: Blake & Mortimer – The Oath of the Five Lords

Are you familiar with those classic British detective series on TV – Midsomer Murders, Poirot, Inspector Lynley etc? Of course you are. (And if you aren't, that doesn't really matter; it was more of a rhetorical question.)

The standard plot for one of these whodunits starts out with introducing the main protagonists or the problem the detective has to solve – or a very old event that sets the stage for what is to follow. If the latter case, it is usually not entirely clear exactly how this will affect the present-day crime riddle, but solving that riddle is often dependent on the detective realizing how those old events are connected to it.

We then have a crime, usually a murder, which gets the detective(s) involved in the case. While trying to  understand that case, and perhaps feeling that he/she/they is/are getting a grip on it, another murder is committed, which makes it obvious that that is not the case at all. Digging deeper, the detective(s) a) encounter some red herring(s), b) find a crucial bit of evidence that is frequently not understood properly. Suddenly, perhaps from a comment by his/her partner, the detective realizes exactly what has happened and why, and who the guilty party is, and rushes to – in the very nick of time – stop the murderer from killing another victim.

The end.

This is a rather stereotypical way of structuring your plot, and the reason it is so stereotypical is of course that it works. People – readers and viewers of criminal fiction – love it, and faithfully follow well constructed series in the genre. It offers tension, the challenge of oneself making sense of the various bits of information revealed during the investigation, some "aha!" moments, and the satisfaction of seeing justice enacted. Who could complain? As long as it's well done, of course. Stereotypical plots enacted badly are just terrible, whether in book or film/TV format.

(As you may already have guessed, the plot of Blake & Mortimer – The Oath of the Five Lords conforms to this basic structure.)

Blake & Mortimer is a comics series created by writer-artist (and Hergé collaborator/assistant) Edgar P. Jacobs, combining elements from detective stories and science fiction. Several albums were published in Swedish when I was a kid – and I would dearly like to know where the hell the albums I bought then have gotten to, because I can't bloody well find them today. 

From what I recall, though, the panels were usually a bit too text-heavy and the storytelling a bit too cumbersome for me to really appreciate it. Much later, however, something happened. First, in the nineties French publishing giant Dargaud decided to revive the series, with some top contemporary comics creators doing the honors as Jacobs passed away in 1987. Second, British Cinebook started translating all B&M albums, publishing them in English.

(Now, I can read French, but I do need to have a dictionary on hand, so it's easier for me to read the stories in English. Also, I can buy them cheaper and easier via my comics dealer. Thus, I'm thankful to Cinebook for making these and many other French/Belgian comics easily available as there are very little French-language comics published in Swedish these days. The notable exception, small-press publisher Albumförlaget, can only publish so much.)

Anyway, this particular story starts out in 1919, depicting how some MI5 spook with a grudge against Lawrence of Arabia has a manuscript stolen from the war hero. We are then transferred to the fifties, when a masked figure burglarizes a museum to steal a violin. Coincidentally, scientist Philip Mortimer – half of Blake & Mortimer – has been invited to that very museum to hold a seminar on science and archaeology. Meanwhile, his old friend Francis Blake, head of the MI5, hurries off to the funeral of an old Oxford chum. Turns out the old friend was murdered… And some other old friends from that Oxford circle are then murdered, one by one…

From there on, it's basic traditional British whodunit; following leads, some of them red herrings, and gradually discovering how the two cases are connected – and how they are connected to the scene depicted in the prologue. Both Sente and Juillard are old hands, so they know their craft, and they do it well. I'm a bit annoyed at the way Captions are handled, as they sometimes give redundant information and are lettered in all caps while the speech balloons are in lower case, giving the impression of a narrator speaking in a RATHER LOUD VOICE. But the overall work is solid, with a complicated plot that is gradually revealed to the reader, skillfully weaving in some real-life connections and an interesting episode from Francis Blake's past, adding some dimension to the character and a reason for him to take a special interest in the case. 

There are also some nice bits of characterization showing the reader what incredibly Britishly polite people Messieurs Blake and Mortimer are. As an example of that, please listen to the head of the MI5 asking the person at the front desk of a hospital to make a life-or-death phone call: "I don't want to impose on you, miss, but could you place another call for me?" 

Overall, the positive aspects of the story compensates for the actual solution to the case being not all that special and somewhat predictable. (Only "somewhat", though, because if you're familiar with the genre, you're not particularly surprised by it, but Sente does keep his options for tying the whole thing together open for most of the album.)

Also, occasionally it becomes almost a bit too "let's do a really, really British whodunit", but overall, it's enjoyable like a good Midsomer Murders or Lewis episode. Worth your time.

Here's an enthusiastic review with some art samples.

måndag 14 juli 2014

Azzarello, Jones & Bermejo: Before Watchmen – Comedian, Rorschach

Count me among those who felt it was a bit silly of Alan Moore to have a hissy fit about other people doing Watchmen prequels when he's made a whole career out of taking characters created by others and remaking them.

However, even though I still feel that way, I also feel that Brian Azzarello botched his takes on Comedian and Rorschach; these stories do not add positive value to the Watchmen saga.

The problem with the Rorschach story is that Moore's ruthless, efficient, crazy-but-cunning character here has been transformed into, basically, a sadistic but well-meaning klutz. He starts out torturing a drug dealer/user to learn where a drug gang's HQ is, goes there and is promptly defeated by the gang and beaten to death. No, wait – the drug lord has cooked up a grand scheme to catch and kill Rorschach, but doesn't bother with actually killing him. Instead, he's beaten to within an inch of his life and left for dead in the sewers. Right there, the gritty "realism" (actually "detailed, sadistic depictions of violence") of the story loses its believability.

Meanwhile, a serial killer called "The Bard" is mutilating and murdering women in the city. Also, a kind waitress befriends Rorschach's secret identity, the down-and-out loser Walter Kovacs, and tries to help him. (You just know, reading it, that it's not going to end well.)

Anyway, Rorschach searches out one of the gang members who nearly killed him, and tortures him (in graphic detail) for information – anybody recognize a pattern here? – and then barley escapes with is life as the rest of the gang turns up. Opting for an ironic twist to end the story, Azzarello then has bad things happen to the waitress in connection with the aforementioned serial killer, and has Rorschach murder "The Bard", who gets off on some unexplained technicality, three years later. The end.

This story reminded me of Tamburini and Liberatore's RanXerox – violent to the point of being sadistic, with excellent art and a not particularly good writing. Azzarello gets lost in his own violence-feast, and even Bermejo's brilliant art can't save him. Tamp down the sadism, and you'd have a story that would work with the ironic ending, but not with Rorschach. Moore's Rorschach simply doesn't work in this story – in fact, it's hard to understand how a Rorschach this bumbling would have survived long enough to even be a part of Watchmen.

The Comedian story in this volume is somewhat better, in that it doesn't do too much damage to the character. However, it delves way too deeply into conspiracy theory territory for my tastes – having a cold-hearted Jackie Kennedy conspire with Eddie Blake (the Comedian) to murder Marilyn Monroe, FBI higher-ups conspire to keep Eddie from Dallas to save President Kennedy from being murdered, the army conspires to smuggle drugs to fund the nascent Vietnam War, and the CIA conspiring to assassinate Robert Kennedy. It gets somewhat tiresome.

Anyway, Eddie Blake comes off as a somewhat more fully-developed character here than in Watchmen (as well he should, of course, having a whole mini-series to himself). He's a close friend to the Kennedy family, and he takes President Kennedy's murder very hard. Lyndon B Johnson's administration then sends him off to the budding Vietnam war where he's supposed to be merely a PR figure, but instead he infuses a fighting spirit into the lackluster American soldiers he encounters. (Of course, the notion propagated in this comic that all you need to win battles is to be sufficiently bad-ass is something I sorely doubt; but perhaps things like fire, movement and cover aren't as visually exciting as standing upright in full view of the enemy dressed in a gaudy costume and going full rock'n'roll with your machine gun.)

The war and the politicking back in the US takes its toll on Blake, and he gets more and more unhinged and cruel, until nobody wants to have anything to with him anymore – including his old friend Bobby Kennedy who decides that enough is enough, and America needs a leader who'll say no to war crimes and massacres, and Eddie Blake needs to be held accountable for his crimes. Of course, Eddie Blake can't allow that… Exactly how he goes about to try and stop it, I won't reveal, as I try to stay away from spoilers as much as possible.

This is a better-written story than the Rorschach one, but like I said, I'm tired of Kennedy conspiracies. I also think that the Vietnam war has been somewhat overused as an excuse for craziness. If you feel your story needs somewhere where there's no rules and you can do anything, no matter how crazy, the Vietnam war is always there, waiting for you. But even if your story is a well-crafted one, I'm likely to have read or seen it before, just because it's so easy to put people into that environment and go "anything goes, and look how this drives ordinary men crazy".

So even though this is a better story than the Rorschach one, it still doesn't get me very emotionally involved, because I've already seen so much of it before. Had Azzarello concentrated more on Blake's  relationship with the Kennedys, or on actual politics instead of conspiracy theories, or the actual Vietnam war instead of the readily-available stereotypes, I might have been more interested. OTOH, if you haven't already seen or read too many Vietnam movies, documentaries, stories or books, you might get more out of this story than I did.

Not recommended, even though J. G. Jones does a credible job on the art. Alan Moore made his career – heck, his superstardom – taking characters others created and doing something special with them, so it's perfectly reasonable that "his" characters should also be available to others. But do something special with them then, for crying out loud!

lördag 12 juli 2014

Batgirl: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Well, this is quite the mix of well-known – even classic – comics creators, starting with Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino (and inker Sid Greene) for the very first Batgirl story (from 1967). Barbara Gordon, prim librarian daughter of Commissioner James Gordon, creates a tight-fitting, bat-themed masquerade outfit that'll show everybody that she's more than just a brilliant brain, but on the way to the big party encounters a crime in progress and decides to break it up. With her brown belt judo skills, she accounts herself well, attracting the interest of Batman himself. Accidentally interfering in Batman and Robin's handling of a case, she nevertheless perseveres and proves herself to be a crime-fighting force to be reckoned with. (I will mention, however, my disappointment with scriptwriter Fox for his apparent belief that a laser beam works much like a jet engine.)

The excellent (of course) Alex Ross cover.
Then follows a couple of stories penned by Frank Robbins; typically for his bat-stories, they're pretty decent detective yarns. The first Robbins story, from 1970, is drawn by Gil Kane with inks by Murphy Anderson. While I don't think Anderson is the best inker for Kane, he's competent enough and Kane's dramatic storytelling still comes through. Don Heck's the artist for the next couple of stories (from 1972), and I was unfortunately never much of a fan of his art. The scripts are weaker, as well, with Robbins trying to put some social significance into them by having Barbara go into politics to improve society.

That sad trend continues in an Elliot S! Maggin-Mike Grell overly patriotic and fantastic story from 1975 celebrating the US bicentennial, marred by Maggin's use of magic, the Devil (yes, sadly), and a syrupy sentimental speech before Congress by Rep. Barbara Gordon in his script. Grell's art is also weak; illustrating the story but adding neither elegance nor power to it. Next, an apparently intended-to-be-in-good-fun 1977 Bob Rozakis story about Two-Face's daughter pretending to be the daughters of the Penguin, the Riddler, the Scarecrow and the Joker which doesn't work either, partly because too much focus is on Robin instead of Batgirl, but mainly because it's just pointless. Instead of whimsy, we get dull. Old pro Irv Novick does the art but wasn't really suitable for something so light-weight – especially not with the inks of Vince Colletta.

These two stories shouldn't have been in this volume; they're just not good enough to deserve it – especially in a book called "The Greatest Stories Ever Told".

Then things start looking up again. In a post-Crisis story from 1997, Devin Grayson and Duncan Fegredo depict Robin and Batgirl's new first meeting, two kids who're trying to learn the ropes of superheroing and who also have to learn how to work together as a team on the fly as they pursue a hostage-taking burglar. It's a cute story where Grayson's fun, lively script works well and establishes a pleasant but not rivalry-free relation between the two. Fegredo's elegant and dynamic art makes the story even better.

And speaking of elegant, the last story (from 1998) is inked by Kevin Nowlan, who has one of the most beautiful ink lines ever. (Script is by Kelley Puckett, and pencils by Terry Dodson.) "Folie A Deux" nicely tells of how Commissioner Gordon took care of Barbara after her biological parents died in a car crash, and how a newly minted Batgirl blackmails Batman into training her when he tries to stop her from risking her life fighting crime. It uses some advanced storytelling, but loses a bit when it tries too hard to be clever when depicting Gordon being saved by Batgirl after trying to stop a robbery – if you can't get your point over without making too-improbable jumps in logic, perhaps you should rethink how you intend to make it. But the inks are by Kevin Nowlan, and the Barbara-Gordon relationship is very well depicted, so this is still worth your while.

I'm rather disappointed with DC for including those two weak Maggin and Rozakis stories; they've both done better, and certainly there are better Batgirl stories around that could have used. In fact, there's a whole Batgirl Showcase volume chock-full of Batgirl stories, most of them better than that (and many of them drawn by Gil Kane). This collection is still worth reading for getting a sense of the character's history, some beautiful art and decent-to-good stories, but it's not a must-read.

söndag 29 juni 2014

Sage Stossel: Starling

Well, I've been busy.

Work, other stuff, and I've been reading a bunch of comics that have been just filling out shelf space as I didn't quite  have the time and energy to read them when I bought them. (There's a lot of those, I'm sorry to say.) And since I'm currently on "DC: B", ploughing through a big pile of pre-52 Batman TPB's, there hasn't been much that has been interesting enough to want to blog about -- DC killed a lot of the energy inherent in the Batman character when they a) made him way too one-dimensional, b) started having the plots run through all the various bat-titles; the synchronization necessary always seems to take a big toll on the creativity of the writers.

Oh, and c) replaced the "detective" part in "the  world's greatest detective" with "will torture people to get information whenever the writer can't think of actually interesting and not disgusting ways to move the plot forward".


Thanks to the kindness of the people at the excellent Uppsala English Bookshop, I recently got a copy of Sage Stossel's Starling, which tells the story of Amy Sturgess, marketing person and superhero, and which is far more compelling than tired superhero stories trying to replace actual drama and quality storytelling with big "events" like earthquakes etc. So here's Starling:

Amy discovered her powers while a kid in school, and in her teens gets recruited into the government's superhero program. Whenever there's a crime for her to stop, she gets a text message, and has to make up some excuse to leave whatever she's doing to change into her superhero garb and fly to wherever she is needed. To explain her many and sudden disappearances, she has to pretend having an embarrassing medical condition, which does not help her already somewhat awkward social situation.

Anyway, Amy's already somewhat hectic and unpredictable life becomes even more hectic and unpredictable as a quick succession of events occur:
- She gets responsibility for a big contract at the bureau where she works – actually, her boss was supposed to fire her for her unpredictability and absences, but he's completely exhausted from having a newborn baby at home, so he gives her one last chance – she gets to take over the contract he should have been doing;
- Some creep at the company where she works is ripping off her work, and she's not assertive enough to put a stop to it;
- She meets an old college sweetheart who wants to rekindle the romance, which she would like to do as well, but he's engaged to a very nice woman who, it turns out, is very helpful to Amy in her work;
- Her ex-druggie brother turns up at her doorstep, in big trouble.

Watching Amy/Starling juggle all these problems – along with her regular superhero/secret identity troubles and tribulations – is like reading a very well written and charming Spider-Man adventure. Stossel's art style is cartoony, but the writing is, well… I could call it "realistic-ish", I guess. Part of it is actually about "real" problems, like Amy's romantic and work problems, and some is a pretty good take on what problems actual super heroics would entail in the real world. Like I said, a good Spider-Man story, minus some of the melodrama.

Finally, all threads converge. Amy has her big presentation at work (and since her focus group was sabotaged by the guy angling for her work, she's had to make do with asking guards, police officers etc. at various crime scenes what they would like in the finished product) but at the same time has to save her brother and make right a crime he committed without getting him implicated. She also gets shot with an assault rifle (and she is not invulnerable), and since she's running late, the presentation is taken over by the guy looking to steal the contract from her…

This is a funny, intelligent and engaging superhero story, and I'll repeat the word that I think symbolizes it best: charming.

In fact, utterly charming. Warmly recommended.

Here's an interview with Stossel. And here is an excerpt (which I don't think does the story full justice, actually).

lördag 15 mars 2014

Aquaman: Death of a Prince

There is a certain plot structure in superhero comics that can be taken as a pretty certain indicator that you're reading hack work. …All right, there are several, but the one I'm thinking of right now is this one: The hero has a confrontation with a villain, and loses. Basically having the hero at his mercy, the villain then retreats, shouting a threat – something like "you stopped me this time, but next time I'll finally succeed in killing you!". Subsequently, the hero searches out the villain and defeats him. The end.

There's plenty of that in Aquaman: Death of a Prince. To be honest, the whole collection sort of sucks.

Plenty of creators worked on the stories in this collection – mainly Mike Grell, Jim Aparo and Don Newton & Dave Hunt on the art and Steve Skeates, Paul Levitz, Paul Kupperberg and David Micheliene on the writing. The Grell part seems to be very early in his career and the figure drawing and inking fell a bit awkward IMHO; the Don Newton chapters suffer from him not being really suited to action stories, he was far better at mood, and the Dave Hunt inking doesn't convey the elegance of Newton's shading that I've seen in some of his Batman stories; and the Jim Aparo chapters (the main part of the book) are gorgeous, and practically the one redeeming feature of this collection.

The writing, as hinted at above, is pretty terrible. Apart from the villain-has-hero-at-his-mercy-and-flees scenario, there's also plenty of that perennial favorite, the-supposedly-inescapable-trap-that-the-villain-leaves-the-hero-in-and-leaves-because-he-has-"better"-things-to-do. Finally, the writers also kill off Aquaman's son in more or less a throwaway story arc, which ticks me off in more ways than one.

First of all, I think it's a sign of lack of respect towards one's characters to casually throw enormous tragedies their way. They're not real people, I'm well aware of that, but just using them as playthings still rubs me the wrong way. If you don't have any respect for your characters, why should the reader? Second, if you do subject them to horrible tragedies, you owe it to the reader to explore the consequences of that. Here, Aquaman looks sad for a couple of panels, then goes back to fighting bad guys with just occasional thoughts about how sad it is to have lost his child and occasional stereotypically depicted outbursts of anger. The deep grief displayed on the (Jim Aparo) cover? Well, that's the sort of characterization writers like Michelinie or Kupperberg are really capable of; they're better at glib dialogue and stock plots. (Yeah, that's kinda harsh, but that is basically all they deliver here, as in most other stories I've read by them.)

Oh, and I don't like the depiction of Mera, Aquaman's super-powered wife, either; she's way too much of the stereotypical, wide-eyed, near-helpless girl. (Until her son is killed and she starts hating Aquaman in a sort of crazy manner, of course, but that's not really an improvement.)

So is this a terrible book? No, not entirely, and that is all thanks to one man: Jim Aparo. His very clear, very strong and muscular (I almost typed "virile", which still wouldn't have been wrong) artwork saves this from being a total disaster. He can't save it from being bad, but he can actually make it worth your while to suffer through the bad writing, just to marvel at the power and clarity of his art. This is Aparo at the top of his game. Much like another old pro, Joe Kubert, he could make bad stories – well, not good, but let's call it aesthetically enjoyable. And plenty of today's comics artists could learn a thing or two from guys like Aparo on how to combine power, excitement and clarity of storytelling in one fine package.

So, not recommended. This is not good comics. But if you want to enjoy some very good comics artwork, you can get this one just for Jim Bloody Amazing Aparo.

(Second opinion: A far more positive review than mine can be found here.)

tisdag 11 mars 2014

OK, so I created this comic, see…

Art by the excellent Carlos Pedrazzini.
Mildh & Fromm © Göran Semb, artwork © Carlos Pedrazzini.

… and it took a while. I'm not exactly what you'd call a professional comics creator – I make roughly half my living from the comics business, but that's mainly as a translator – so I've never been pushed to produce comics on a regular basis. (Well, except for during a rather cash-depleted period around the year 2000, when I wrote one or two 91:an stories per month because I absolutely had to. Fortunately, I got a job that eliminated that need just about when I ran out of ideas.)

Anyway, several years ago, I had this idea for a comics character after a run-in with a bunch of, shall we say, somewhat intoxicated youths. It didn't turn violent, but it felt like it easily could have, so I – being something of a neurotic – started thinking of what I could have done had it actually turned violent.

The answer I reached was, not a whole lot.

But my imagination had been kick-started, so I started thinking of things you could do if you were, well, the sort of person who could do those things. And then, having grown up on a steady diet of adventure comics (and similar stories in the film and TV series formats), I let my imagination run with the concept. Turned out I felt I had a potential hero in the works, and it also turned out there were more situations I could imagine him in. However, only delivering his tough-guy lines to crooks and the occasional police contact started getting tiresome pretty quickly, so I teamed him up with an older, more experienced partner so's he'd have somebody to talk to – which would also help me with exposition.  As it turned out, the older agent was a natural choice for those cynical lines, leaving the original hero as more of a straight man in their banter.

Anyway, this changed the dynamic of the situations I imagined my by now two heroes in. One concerned gaining entry into an apartment when two armed bad guys tried to stop them – first by subterfuge and then, when that doesn't work, through violent means. (Fortunately, there wasn't a large window by my door, so the neighbors couldn't see me when I acted out the scene by myself to check that it actually worked.) The experienced agent immediately took the lead, leaving the "junior" partner somewhat shocked by his capacity for rather ruthless violence.

So I now had one working action scene. What was missing was a story to put it in. I started thinking about reasons why the pair of heroes would need to gain immediate entry to the apartment, and picking from a wide range of stock situations from the world of action/thriller/adventure stories that exist in the world of fiction, I picked "kidnapping". From there, I had to work out who was kidnapped, why, by whom, how my team of heroes got involved and how they found the place where the kidnap victim was held, and how it all would end. Somewhere along the road, my original hero had a sex change.

See, looking over the story, I suddenly realized that I had exactly one (1) woman in the story, and that was the kidnap victim. Now, I'm not a fan of the Bechdel rule; I think a work of narrative art stands on its own merits regardless of the genders of the characters, but I'm also not a fan of too stereotypical story structure, so I made a few changes. I could have made the older, more experienced agent female, of course, but I felt it more likely that the more experienced agent would be male; after all, traditionally, women have not participated in actual fighting to the same extent as men – and as the adventures of my heroes, Monica Mildh and Erik Fromm, will involve quite a bit of, shall we say… probability-bending, I think it's important to base as much as possible of it in an at least seemingly-realistic world, not straining the reader's credulity except when you really have to. (And yes, Erik's name is indeed inspired by the late, great psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm. It is also a pun, though: "mild" means mild in Swedish, just as in English, and "from" means pious.)

Anyway, to cut to the chase, I solved the various problems that had to be solved to make the story work (which doesn't make it a great story, of course; it just means that it doesn't fall apart at first glance like a standard Hollywood action movie) and wrote a script, and set about finding an artist. That wasn't exactly easy, and in the end, I had to go outside of Sweden's borders to find the skillful and very professional Carlos Pedrazzini. I sent him the script, he sent me his pencilled preliminary pages, I put in the text so's he'd know how much space the speech balloons would need (and occasionally asked him to change something) and he produced inked and colored finished pages. Finally, I lettered the whole thing in Swedish and sent it over to the Swedish Fantomen (The Phantom) comic book, where it is just now being published, in issue #6-7/2014.

Now, my hope is that Mildh & Fromm will be sufficiently favorably received by the readers that the editor will buy more of their adventures, as I have 6-10 more stories about them in various stages of readiness, from finished script to rough plot, but you never know. Nevertheless, it has been exciting to try and create my own comic, and I'm grateful to Carlos Pedrazzini for partnering with me to make it a reality.

onsdag 12 februari 2014

Aquaman: Time and Tide by Peter David, Kirk Jarvinen & Brad Vancata

I've always liked Peter David's stuff, ever since he burst on the Marvel scene with some brilliant Spider-Man stories way back when I was still buying single issues. He started out funny (extremely funny, in fact) and then went on to prove (in The Death of Jean DeWolff) that he could do the serious stuff as well, so I had high hopes for him. Time passed, and he turned into (for me) a reliable-but-not-quite-brilliant superhero scribe who didn't get the greatest characters and artists, but still turned out solid material – if not as brilliantly funny as those earliest efforts that, for example, placed Spidey in the high-rise-less suburbs for one memorable issue with beautiful inks by, IIRC, Bob McCleod.

Anyway, apparently David has an affinity for the Aquaman character and did not only a massive history of it called The Atlantis Chronicles, but followed it up with a 1993 four-issue mini-series, Aquaman: Time and Tide, which details Aquaman's personal history. It is also the title of this collection of those four issues.

In the first chapter, we witness Aquaman's first encounter with surface-dwelling super-heroes (the Flash) and -criminals (the Trickster), eventually making him a hero with the surface world, as well as making him realize he doesn't like the surface world. Next chapter, David shows us how Aquaman grew up with a herd of dolphins (well, they're really called "pods", but I'm not going to pretend that I knew that without checking on Wikipedia), although they're initially reluctant to take him in. (Yes, there's a bit of a Tarzan vibe to this part of the origin.) Third chapter details his first solid, teenage encounter with the surface world, including a love story with a young Eskimo (Inupiat) girl which ends badly because, well, Arthur is fundamentally bad luck for people getting close to him – a theme developed in earlier series with the death of his son, resultant insanity of his wife, and alienation of his young pal Aqualad, and now solidified by David.

The fourth chapter of the collection is a bit of a letdown as a finish to the series, actually, as it's mainly the Ocean Master turning up to do battle with him and being defeated, plus dark hinting about much worse things to come. Basically, it's a cliffhanger that doesn't really have you all that acutely worried; it's more depressing than actually tense or exciting. The Jarvinen-Vancata art team shares a bit of the blame with David for the lack of drama. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a 1993-94 comic, there is a strong hint of Image Comics in the art, mainly of the Erik Larsen - Rob Liefield variety – as in "cartoony but not elegantly cartoony", which doesn't lend itself easily to either exciting action or strong drama.

There are a couple of strong points in the script, though. Many think that it defined the character, and I guess it probably did, but it doit in a way that really drew me into the story. Like The Atlantis Chronicles, it comes of a bit too much like a, well, "history" rather than "story". The best chapter is the second one, where we can observe how important "the Way" is to the various denizens of the ocean. If something is a good thing or not to do is very much decided by whether it's their "Way" or not. Different species have different Ways, and, as the young Arthur learns in this story of love and death, if you want others to respect your Way, you're going to have to respect their Way as well. It's a very solid, well-crafted story – and it would have been more poignant with more theme-relevant artwork IMO.

Anyway, with only four chapters it's not a thick collection and it only costs ten dollars (or did when it was published in 1996), so it's worth a read even though I wouldn't call it a major work. Like I said above about much of Peter David's other work, it's certainly competently told and with some good bits, but never really exciting – at least not to me.

Sorta so-so recommended.

tisdag 31 december 2013

What have I done?, 2013 edition

Well, not as much as I wanted. I probably took on a bit too much work this year, but I do have a new house to pay for. Anyway, here's this year's book list, unfortunately only about two-thirds of what it should have been at a minimum – I hope to rectify that in 2014, but we'll see.

Eva-Lis Bjurman: Barnen på gatan ("The children on the street") 
Been a while since I read this one. Basically, IIRC, in the 1800s-early 1900s, workers'  kids not getting sufficiently civilized by culture etc was seen as a problem by the finer strata of society, and efforts were made to socialize them into a more proper, bourgeois model of how children should be, and the book depicts the debate and methods for this. (IIRC, that is.)

Peter Olausson: Tredje rikets myter ("The myths of the Third Reich")
As you're probably well aware, the Nazis built quite the mythology to underpin their rule – myths about various sorts of "untermenschen", and a whole mythology about the so-called Aryans and their background and glorious future, etc. This book is about those sorts of myths, including Holocaust denial. I remember it as worth the read; it was an easy-going, pretty fast read.

Sara Arrhenius: En riktig kvinna. Om biologism och könsskillnad ("A real woman. About biologism and gender differences")
A feminist who isn't happy with the theories of gender differences coming from evolutionary psychology and such, attacking theses about gender differences in our society being based on actual biological differences between the sexes.

Anne Banér: Uppkäftiga ungar och oförargliga barn. Barn i svensk skämtpress 1894-1924 ("Sassy kids and well-behaved children. Children in Swedish humor magazines 1894-1924")
A look at how children were depicted in Swedish humor magazines at the turn of the century. Worth the read, partly to get a look at the cartoons by some excellent artists, partly for the cultural history aspect.

Bruce Grenvill et al: Krazy! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art 
This is an exhibition catalog, and as such laboring under certain constraints. First, the pictures are going to have primacy, and not all of them deserve that primacy IMO. Second, the text isn't (usually) going to be allowed the space needed for real depth and breadth on the subject. IIRC, it's three examples of each art form along with introductory texts. I thought it was kind of interesting to see examples of stuff I don't usually get in contact with, and peer into what goes on in art forms I don't usually get into. Still, I prefer more traditional books on subjects I want to learn more about; for an exhibition I want works that'll keep my attention longer than the usual comics etc fare – in other words, while I certainly think comics, for example, deserve to be put on display in exhibits, like traditional art, they need to be pretty damn well-crafted to keep my attention, and most comics just aren't that well done, art-wise.

Matthew M. Hurley, Dnaiel C. Dennett & Reginald B. Adams, Jr.: Inside Jokes. Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind
Heavy on the philosophical and speculative side. A tough slough language-wise if you're not used to that sort of reading, not really offering enough insight to be worth the effort unless you're quite interested in the subject.

Niklas Zetterling & Anders Frankson: Hitlers första nederlag. Anfallet mot Moskva ("Hitler's first defeat. The attack on Moscow")
How the Nazi onslaught ground to a halt in without reaching Moscow (although they came way too close for comfort). Pretty (high-)standard military history, well done and well worth the read.

John Steinberg: Humanistiskt ledarskap lönar sig ("Humanistic leadership pays") 
Steinberg argues that if you treat the people working for and with you decently and care about what they want to get out of life and work, you'll have a better-functioning workplace, which'll not only be a better place to work in, bt ultimately a more efficient one as well. Pretty standard management (self-help-ish) handbook; not bad. Worth the read.

Patrick Lencioni: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: a Leadership Fable ("Fem felfunktioner i en grupp och hur man skapar en fungerande arbetsgemenskap")
See Steinberg above, pretty much.

Sulo Huovinen, red.: Finland i det svenska riket ("Finland in the Swedish state") 
Finland basically wasn't a "part" of Sweden until we lost it to Russia through utterly stupid "statesmanship" from a couple of kings (notably Gustav III and Gustav IV); Finland and Sweden were one nation. This book explores some of the historical ties between Finland and Sweden – I think; it's a collection of historical essays and a bit on the dry side, so it didn't leave a huge impression on my memory.

Goodin, Headey, Muffels & Dirven: The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism
Compares the United States free-market liberalism-driven system, the German corporate and the Netherlands social democratic (sor social liberal) models by looking at statistics for the countries over a ten-year period of time. They compare reams of data to evaluate which welfare model is the best. For equality, that seems to be the social democratic model; for social integration, the corporatist regime seems to hold the upper hand. However, the social democratic model seems to be better at not just promoting equality but also at reducing poverty, and it does pretty much as well as the corporatist model at promoting stability and social integration, so it is declared the winner.
I have no truck with that; being a social liberal myself, that is pretty much the model I prefer myself – however, unlike people to the left of me, I think we need to adjust that model to avoid curbing initiative and work force participation, because without a sufficiently hard-working and enterprising population, the social democratic welfare state will collapse under costs it cannot afford in the long run. (Basically, that is at the core of the current Swedish political debate on these issues, even though that is frequently hidden underneath over-the-top rhetoric. Anyway and conveniently enough, you can read the book for yourself here. 

Peter Santesson: Reformpolitikens strategier ("Strategies of reform politics")
IIRC, this one would have been more honestly titled "Strategies for implementing neo-liberalist policies", but I'm a bit hazy on it. I remember it as having a clear ideological tendency, but nevertheless delivering a worthwhile overview of the tools available for effecting policy change – basically negotiation, persuasion and coercion, according to one review.

Francis Spufford: Red Plenty. Inside the Fifties' Soviet Dream
Excellent history of the failure of the Soviet economical model, written as a decades-spanning novel. Well written, captivating and highly recommended.

Kalle Holmqvist & Anders Roth (ed): Kuba på riktigt ("Cuba for real")
A (kinda thin) collection of essays and articles by Swedish leftists who've visited Cuba and believe themselves to have seen the "true" Cuba. Basically, they're all making various excuses for the Castro dictatorship, showing themselves to be dictator-huggers with little concern for oppressed people as long as the oppressor professes to be a socialist. Pretty disgusting.

Thomas Gustafsson: Kuba ("Cuba")
The opposite of the above. A thick book giving a highly readable history and analysis of Cuba. Gustafsson is highly knowledgeable and doesn't believe that being a tourist in Cuba for not-quite a week makes one an expert; instead, hes spent a considerable part of his adult life reporting from and learning about the country, and it shows. Highly readable, with depth. He doesn't excuse the dictatorship, notes the comparatively high standard of social and medical services – for a long time paid for with extensive economic support from the Soviet Union – the inefficient economy, the lack of freedom, and the stupidity of the U.S. economic boycott. Highly recommended.

Robert Service: Lenin. A Biography
Basically, there seems to have been something wrong with Lenin. Seriously. 
This book goes deep into details, which makes it a bit less-than-readable. OTOH, it possibly helped the readability of the two other Lenin bios I read this summer that I'd already gotten so much biographical info about him from this one. Anyway, not the Lenin bio to start with, I'd have to say.

Andrew Taylor: Books That Changed the World ("Böcker som förändrade världen. De 50 viktigaste böckerna genom tiderna")
Taylor lists the 50 most important books in history in his opinion – and you can make many such lists, of course. This one is well-argued and gives brief overviews of the books and their importance. Worth the read.

Tom DeFalco: Comics Creators On Fantastic Four
Tom DeFalco: Comics Creators On Spider-Man
I thought DeFalco was a terrible comics writer, doing shallow, formulaic stuff, and overall Marvel quality took a dive under his editorial hand. However, he turns out to be a really good interviewer, so this is well worth reading. However, I can't agree with the self-congratulatory tone of some of the people he interviews. (Like for example Ralph Macchio, who was very much a part of the declining editorial standards of Marvel in those days.) 
Amusing observation: Stan Lee is among the people interviewed, and of course he wouldn't be Stan Lee if he didn't spend part of the interview doing the hard sell for a book he's newly written… Anyway, recommended.

Madeleine von Heland: Gudar, makt och massmedia – en odyssé med Pinocchio till Superman ("Gods, power and mass media – an odyssey with Pinocchio to Superman")
Over-interprets certain movies (like Pinocchio) to make them fit a thesis. Not worth the read, really.

Johan Hakelius: Döda vita män ("Dead white men")
Johan Hakelius is sort of the lazy neo-liberal; he gave up on trying to change Swedish politics and settled for making a comfortable living writing columns and books; for this book he seems to have gotten a stipend for writing some sort of analytical book, and instead read up on a bunch of British eccentrics and made a book out of a huge number of anecdotes about them.
It works, but it's kind of light fare.

Dmitri Volkogonov: Trotsky. The Eternal Revolutionary
Volkogonov is the loyal official Red Army historian who got access to the archives, read what the Communist leaders and founders of the Soviet Union actually did, and became an anti-communist. That is, if you believe him; if you're a left-winger who wants to keep his faith in Lenin, Trotsky et al, you can always claim that he just adjusted his opinions to fit the new Russian leaders (like Boris Jeltsin). Me, I tend to not trust the judgement of people who actually think Lenin et al were on to something good, since the result of their efforts was a totalitarian, murderous and soul-crushing dictatorship, but what do I know?
Anyway, recommended. Like Lenin, there seems to have been something wrong with Trotsky as well.

Louisiana Revy, 49. årgång nr. 2, oktober 2008: MANGA! Japanske billeder 
Another exhibit catalog; not really worth your time. Read a couple of proper introductory handbooks instead; it'll take longer but ultimately be more rewarding.

Jessica Abel & Matt Madden: Drawing Words and Writing Pictures. A Definitive Course from Concept to Comic in 15 Lessons
How to do comics. Not bad, though not quite the "definite" course, I'd say.

Tom Holland: Millennium: the end of the world and the forging of Christendom ("Tusenårsstriden. Hur kristendomen segrade i Västeuropa")
Well, Tom Holland knows his craft, which is to make old history readable to the modern reader. This period is a bit messy, but Holland makes an effort to create a readable narrative out of it. To quote from the Telegraph review: "Holland's broad sweep takes in all the major wars and political upheavals over a 200-year period, starting with the great shift of power from Carolingians to Saxon 'Ottonians' in the early 10th century, and ending with the Norman conquest of Sicily in the late 11th century and the astonishing capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099."
One power struggle Holland concentrates on is that between the German-Roman emperor and the Pope, but ultimately, he bites off more than he can chew – or rather, make a functioning narrative of. The book is still interesting, because there's so much that is happening during this time and it's well worth your time to learn about it, but Millennium isn't quite the book it should have been to help the reader understand these events. I'll go with those reviewers who've recommended reading Holland's Rubicon instead.

Rickard Berghorn & Annika Johansson: Mörkrets mästare. Skräcklitteraturen genom tiderna ("Masters of darkness. Horror literature through the ages")
Now this is how you write about so-called subculture. You start out by being very knowledgeable about the subject, give a historical overview highlighting import ant developments, and finish it off by offering the reader a bunch biographical essays presenting important creators and their works in more detail. Excellent stuff, highly recommended.

Hélène Carrère d'Encausse: Lenin
An excellent, highly readable biography of somebody who doesn't quite seem to have been quite right in the head, but who nevertheless managed to impose his view of what society should be on a great nation, creating a great f***ing disaster.
Recommended. My choice if you only have time to read one of the three Lenin bios I read this summer.

Tim Pilcher & Brad Brooks: The Essential Guide to World Comics
If you only have 300 or so pages to present all the world's comics, you're going to have to keep a pretty brisk tempo (especially if you waste some of that space on full-page illustrations that possibly, at least some of them, didn't quite warrant that kind of exposure). Still, you get a pretty decent overview of several countries and regions for the space the writers had to work with. A good interest-whetter; recommended.

Kristian Gerner: Ryssland. En europeisk civilisationshistoria ("Russia. History of a European civilization")
Gerner is a historian who knows Russia well, and feels that the Communist disaster din't have to happen to a great country and its people. Nevertheless, it did, and it had consequences. Worth reading; Gerner knows his stuff. Recommended.

Scott Adams: God's Debris. A Thought Experiment ("Tankeexperimentet eller Den Gamle och De Stora Frågorna")
Well, I like Dilbert. This seems to be a book written by Adams to get people thinking about various things, but it has too little in the way of an actual author's viewpoint to agree or disagree with to be worth it to me.

Amid Amidi: Cartoon Modern. Style and Design in Fifties Animation
An excellent history of the stylized animation produced during, well, mainly the fifties – Gerald McBoing-Boing, or Jules Feiffer's absolutely brilliant Munro, for example. Amidi is unnecessarily haughty towards the classical animation of Disney and others, but apart from that, this is very good stuff, giving the reader an overview of the animation studios producing the new-style films as well as important creators – animators, designers, directors. Highly recommended.

Susanne Pettersson & Göran Persson: Dra åt samma håll! ("Pull in the same direction!")
Another "humanistic management" book; apart from the annoying format – it's supposedly told by an employee learning how to create a good, creative and productive working-place environment from his new boss, much like Lencioni's book – it contains decent advice.

Dmitri Volkogonov: Stalin. Triumph and Tragedy
Stalin's rise to power, and what he did with it. 
Not. Right. In. The. Head.

Gus Martin: Understanding Terrorism. Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues
A basic introductory text for university courses, I'm guessing. A bit too basic for my tastes, but if you want an introduction, it can work. A bit too much "summarizing complex issues in 4-5 bullet points" for my tastes, though.

Dmitri Volkogonov: Lenin. A New Biography
Volkogonov seems to really despise Lenin, in the manner one might expect from someone who's trusted somebody and then been heavily betrayed by him, but it sometimes gets in the way of the narrative about Lenin's actual deeds. A lot of stuff from the archives about how Lenin actually ruled. Basically, Volkogonov's thesis is that while Stalin took the communist dictatorship to the next level, most of the levers of power and oppression he used had already been installed under Lenin. Recommended.

Richard Stoneman: Legends of Alexander the Great
See, Alexander the Great met strange people in his travels. Some of them were kind of hippies, living in peace on a basic level, taking what they needed from nature and not aspiring to wordily power over others, and they either a) taught him how useless it was to try and gain the world but lose one's soul, or b) showed by contrast how accomplished he was. Which lesson these legends were trying to impose on the listener/reader seems to have depended on who told them (and where Christianity was in its historical development; contemplative or, well, not-so-contemplative). Worth reading half of it; the legends get a bit repetitive and predictable after a while.

Lillian S. Robinson: Wonder Women. Feminisms and Superheroes
Cultural studies and feminism takes on superheroes. Superheroes lose, ideology wins. Plus inordinate amounts of commas and subclauses Robinson's sentences. Has some worthwhile observations, but isn't overall worth the effort.

Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett: The Spirit Level ("Jämlikhetsanden. Därför är mer jämlika samhällen nästan alltid bättre samhällen")
Reading this, it seemed to me that Wilkinson and Pickett were sort of cherry-picking their statistics to enhance their thesis and to expand its applicability. Turns out that's a very common and strong criticism against the book. (I thought it was very odd that they only did bivariate analyses, for example, instead of trying to tease out what the really important factors in various issues are. Also, they seem to sometimes exclude or include certain countries from their analyses as it befits their thesis.)
As could be predicted, various leftists writing for Swedish newspapers' cultural pages happily latched on to the book's conclusion: that by eradicating inequality, society is basically going to solve most of its ills (that's in fact only a very small exaggeration on my part), instead of looking critically at how it reaches that conclusion (well, practically that conclusion).
If Wilkinson and Pickett had instead concentrated on showing the negative consequences of high levels of inequality instead of offering equality as the cure-all for society's ills, this would have been a book to recommend. As it is, it isn't.

Anu Mai Kõll (ed.): Kommunismens ansikten ("The faces of communism")
Some very good history and analysis of the consequences of communism; it's academic rather than polemic, which makes it far mrs interesting than it would otherwise have been. Recommended.

Stefan Olsson: Handbok i konservatism ("Manual for conservatism")
An apologia for conservatism that isn't uninteresting, but which ultimately glosses over too many of its problems to be convincing.

Hanna Miodrag: Comics and Language. Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form
Too combative against those views the author disagrees with; it gets a bit repetitive after a while and that becomes more problematic than it would have been in a book not so heavily-invested in big-words academic language – it's already not an easy read if you're not into that sort of writing, so you don't want to spend time rehashing basically the same attacks as you read in the last chapter. That said, Miodrag's own views, that comics can't be analyzed as an overall language, but instead you have to read each comic in its own context and interpret it from that viewpoint, is very much valid (and mirrors my own).
Worth reading, could have been more worth reading.

Ella Odstedt: Varulven i svensk folktradition ("The werewolf in Swedish folk tradition")
Odstedt collected a lot of folklore in the first half of the 1900s. This is the standard book about Swedish werewolf folklore: how pregnant women's magical rituals for ensuring pain-free childbirth would entail the child becoming a werewolf, how magically-skilled Finns or Samis could turn themselves  "regular" people into werewolves or werebears – as evidenced by the dead bear having a belt with a knife in it under its fur when you skinned it – and how pregnant women needed to be escorted by a male, even a boy, when moving about outside the safe confines of the home to avoid being attacked by a werewolf who wanted to tear out the fetus from her womb and eat it in order to be cured from his werewolf affliction.
Excellent stuff. Some modern essays commenting on the issues are also included, and they are not up to the quality of Odstedt's stuff. For example, a feminist writer jumps on the obvious interpretations of the above, telling us how it's obviously an attempt to constrain women that they needed to be accompanied by a male everywhere and how targeting their magical rituals for pain-free childbirth as creating a werewolf out of the child makes them nothing more than vehicles for child production. She doesn't make the effort to actually problematize the issue, looking at alternative interpretations – for example, a pregnant woman might need help and assistance in other ways than warding off werewolves, and obliging somebody to accompany her might also be seen as giving her support; also, the Church's attempts to eradicate old-fashioned folk magic (or: superstition) cannot IMO be so easily brushed off as simply trying to control women – after all, the Church certainly looked quite askance at "magic" used by males as well. In my view, you should put in commenting essays in a book like this to offer depth and complicate or explain things, not just to offer ideological boilerplate.

Johnny Ambrius: Sällsamheter i Södra Sverige
Well, I recently reviewed this one, so you can jolly well go back and read the review.

Christian Peters: 100 mästare och deras bästa verk. 10 tio-i-top-listor i odödlig litteratur ("100 masters and their best works. 10 top ten lists of immortal literature")
The author comes of as somewhat officious, but basically, the works and authors he presents are well worth canonical status.

Albert O. Hirschman: The Rhetoric of Reaction. Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy ("Den reaktionära retoriken. Konsten att argumentera mot alla samhällsförändringar")

Hirschman looks at how all reforms have been met with the same kind of arguments from people defending the status quo: "It'll just have the opposite effect", It won't change anything", "It risks to hurt what we've already accomplished", regardless of their applicability on the actual situation.
I've met the same kind of argumentation from (mainly) right-wing reactionaries, something that has gradually strengthened my conviction that you always have to demand that people offer more constructive criticism than this sort of – again – boilerplate. Recommended.

Bengt Nilsson: Sveriges afrikanska krig ("Sweden's African wars")
Nilsson is (rightly, IMO) furious that Sweden's international aid to a way-too-large extent has been spent propping up undemocratically regimes. The book's title alludes to aid money often can either be used directly for war purposes, or to replace money for social welfare and actual infrastructure development in a country's budget, leaving the rulers free tu use all the more money to enrich themselves and to fight wars against other countries or parts of their own population instead.

Blake W. Mobley: Terrorism and Counterintelligence: How Terrorist Groups Elude Detection
Scroll up a bit to read the actual review of this one.

Well, that's it. I was going to do a similar post about the comics I've read this year as well, but this was exhausting enough that I'll probably forego that. I'll try to use the energy saved to post more reviews next year instead.

onsdag 25 december 2013

Blake W. Mobley: Terrorism and Counterintelligence: How Terrorist Groups Elude Detection

Blake Mobley is a former CIA analyst now working at RAND. Terrorism and Counterintelligence: How Terrorist Groups Elude Detection looks at how a number of terrorist organizations have approached the important task of counter-intelligence, and how different key factors shape the challenges and efficiency of their counter-intelligence work.

This is a book that really didn't need to be a whole book for the conclusions it draws, as they're pretty easily summarized in three sentences or less, but I still found it worth reading not just for the discussion of exactly how these factors shape the counter-intelligence work, but also for the general discussion of principles of counter-intelligence work, and the terrorist group histories – the  case studies, so to speak – which illustrate Mobley's points. There are four chapters on the Provisional IRA, Fatah & Black September, Al Qaida, and the Egyptian Islamic Group, respectively, as well as a chapter on a number of embryonic terrorist groups who failed to meet the counter-intelligence challenges their situations entailed, and who consequently were eliminated.

I won't rehash the histories of the various groups here; there's Wikipedia and Mobley's book (and others) for those sufficiently interested, and I'm a bit short on time. Instead, I'll present the major theoretical findings of the book – or, the three key factors that "shape how and how well a group identifies and mitigates (…) counterintelligence threats".

The job of counter-intelligence is to defend the organization against human spies, technical collection of various forms of communication, direct observation of the organization's activities in its area of operations and/or controlled territory, passive observation of the group's members moving in/through hostile territory, and exposure in the media.

Organizational structure – more specifically, whether the organizations is strongly controlled top-down or its control functions are decentralized, determines whether there'll be strong, standardized procedures in place to deny the enemy's attempts to penetrate the organization. Standard operating procedures will greatly improve counter-intelligence capabilities – but it also entails a risk: if the enemy knows what your organization is doing to prevent penetration, it can adapt to counter those specific standards and procedures. If, instead, the counter-intelligence methods used depend on who the local commander is, it becomes much harder for the enemy to predict.

Popular support makes it harder for the group's enemies to find informants, and to move among the group's supportive populations undetected and/or unreported. However, if you spend too much time and energy on gaining the population's support – for example, through frequent media appearances – you risk accidentally offering information that your enemies will use to get at you (Mobley offers Yassir Arafat's many media appearances as an example of this).

Controlled territory makes it a lot easier for a terrorist group to train and plan activities, and makes it a problem for its enemies to get close to observe and penetrate it. However, at the same time, it offers those enemies a clear and obvious target for their intelligence operations – and it can also make the terrorist organization overly confident, leading to laxer standards and thus increased opportunities for its enemies.

Anyway, recommended. A negative review on Amazon lists a number of details supposedly wrong with the PIRA chapter, but they're all just that; details that don't seem to affect the general narrative in any major way, nor the theoretical conclusions.

(Unfortunately, I've been unable to verify whether this is the same Blake Mobley who's apparently written a number of Dungeons and Dragons stuff.)

måndag 23 december 2013

Gray, Palmiotti & DeZuniga: Jonah Hex: No Way back

You know how in old movies, they have the bad guys do something really bad, like beat up or kill somebody, to show how bad they are? And how in old-but-not-that-old movies, say from the seventies-eighties, they have the bad guys do something really bad, like torture or kill somebody? And how in films from the nineties-onwards, they show how bad the bad guys are by having them do something really bad, like rape somebody or commit mass murder?

This evil-deeds inflation is something that bugs me; it seems the violence keeps getting nastier and gorier even in mainstream, big-studio movies, and it's real unpleasant to watch – and it also, IMO, shows a lack of respect for the characters in the story to so casually and cruelly use and abuse them just to paint the bad guys as sufficient monsters to justify all the vicious violence the hero will use against them. Yes, I know, those characters aren't really real, but it still bugs me, even apart from the aspect that I don't think it's a good thing to normalize really nasty acts of violence. It's just lazy – "we can't be bothered to spend time and energy to do actual characterization, because we'd rather use that time for explosions and overlong action/fight scenes". Bleah.

Anyway, let's leave the big-budget, well-crafted (if not necessarily good) movies and move to the done-more-on-the-cheap B and C movie fare that can be seen so frequently on television and in the dvd rental shops. Here, the same technique for establishing the bad guys' badness is used, but it's done even more slapdash, with even more clichéd situations and dialogue. They can't be bothered to use a writer who writes dialogue that actually sonds like something real people might conceivably say. Also, the same laziness and recourse to stereotypes can be seen in the way the setting for the film is established. You know how John Ford would use the landscape not just to establish the setting, but also to create a mood, in his movies? Well, nowadays, in the B fare, you'll see a couple of standard scenes to establish the setting and basic premise of the story, and then the moviemakers'll go straight to the trite fight scenes – which is, after all, what their audience is there to see.

This can be done very swiftly. For a western, you can have a stranger riding into a town dragging three dead bodies behind his horse. Scared women peak through their windows and then quickly draw the curtains. A rich fat cat observes from his office on the second floor above the saloon; then nods to his (ugly) henchman: "Check out who this guy is." A couple of prostitutes hanging out outside the saloon come on to the stranger with some lewd suggestions. Another, better-looking prostitute recognizes the stranger, greets him by name and is rewarded with a crooked grin and a promise to look her up later. Hard-looking men walking down the street pause, look at the stranger, then on the corpses he's dragging along, and spit at them. Finally, the stranger reins in his horse in front of the sheriff's office, and a frightened-looking, not particularly athletic or young sheriff comes out from his office and asks why the stranger had to come with the Holder boys to his town; he has enough problems as it is.

Now, I'd be the first to admit that the above isn't any great writing, but I'm betting you already know how that film would play out. That's because we've already seen basically the same story again and again – and sometimes the film is actually good, because it is well made, has some good dialogue, and good acting. Mostly, however, it's not very good; in fact, usually, it kind of sucks, because everything seems done by rote and nothing is original, not even – or rather, especially – the sadistic, sociopathic depredations of the bad guys. And it still "works", at some level, because even though very little care goes into crafting how the story unfolds, because we already know the story so well, we still know what's going on – leaving the moviemakers free to concentrate on the stock confrontational scenes that is the film's real raison d'être.

And that brings me to Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Tony DeZuniga's Jonah Hex: No Way Back.

The previous, Swedish-language, review was basically a lament that All-Star Western: Guns And Gotham was basically Jonah jumping from situation to situation where he could shoot-shoot-shoot and punch-punch-punch more-more-more than anybody else; not winning his battles through any cleverness but just the incompetence of his multitudes of enemies, who can't seem to hit him even though they're two dozens and he's basically standing unprotected out in the open while he's gunning them down by the, well, dozens. So I wasn't happy with it.

Anyway, I figured I'd give them one more chance, as I'd already bought this book quite a while ago, and it had the art of good ol' Tony DeZuniga, the original Jonah artist, whom I've always appreciated.

Anyway, in No Way Back we are told the story of how Jonah was left by his mother in the uncaring hands of his vicious beast of a father, and how he many years later happens to find his mother, an alcoholic prostitute with tuberculosis, and learns from her – through basically torturing her by withholding booze from her until she tells him what he wants to know – that he has a half-brother. Then she dies. Jonah takes the coffin with his dead (and now rather smelly) mother to the peaceful town where the brother lives and works as a sheriff and preacher. Meanwhile, he also finds time to use a beautiful young woman who's turned on by this merciless killer for sex, and to casually kill a very large bunch of Mexican criminals who've murdered a bunch of innocent indians for the bounty the government has put on Apache scalps. As it happens, the leader of the gang they belong to very much wants to hurt and kill Jonah, so he follows in his tracks, casually torturing, murdering and raping the people Jonah's been in contact with.

I won't give away the final battle and its ending; instead I'll just note two things:
a) How well the story conforms to the stereotyped generic story I outlined above; you've seen all these elements before, and you don't get much more than just the bare basics of characterization, because, well, you know, you already know all the elements of tis story anyway, don't you?
b) It's not really the fact that the story is clichéd that annoys me, it's how it's done with so little flair. Jonah being abused by his father, his relationship with his mother, the contrast between himself and his goody-two-shoes brother – all this is stuff that could have made for really interesting reading if Gray and Palmiotti had bothered to delve a bit more deeply into it instead of concentrating on "boy, Jonah is one tough, bad hombre, delivering casually cruel and hard lines with inerrant reliability, doesn't he?" and "boy, Jonah sure guns down bad guys casually and brutally efficiently, without a scintilla of emotion, doesn't he?".

I doesn't help that DeZuniga's art isn't really up to his old standards; in fairness, he was an old man when he drew this, and perhaps already marked by illness, but it's still too sketchy, anatomically weak and stiff in the movements of the characters at times to be really enjoyable; at times it reminded me of sort of a Gene Colan who'd lost his elegance and was inked by some awkward, not-very good inker. At basically 4-to-6 panels per page, the individual pictures are so large that they really need an artist that's on his toes. Sadly DeZuniga wasn't here, despite his long history of excellent art, especially as an inker.

So this book suffers from a combination of unoriginal content and execution without flair. Not recommended. I recommend the first John Albano-written parts of Showcase Presents: Jonah Hex Vol 1 instead – and if the second volume, coming out very soon, includes the Michael Fleisher-scripted, Russ Heath-drawn story about Jonah's ultimate death and taxidermy (yes, you read that one correctly), I'll recommend that as well. But Jonah Hex: No Way Back is just a B movie.