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.

Jonny Ambrius: Sällsamheter i Södra Sverige ("Strange Occurrences in Southern Sweden")

So, in Sweden, early every Christmas morning, there is service at the Church. This is called the julotta (jul = Christmas, otta = early morning), and in the olden days, you had better be there. Nowadays, it's a nice tradition for many. However, it wasn't so nice for the woman in Vallby, a village in southern Sweden, who woke up early, misread the clock, and went to the church several hours too early.

When she approached the church, nothing seemed amiss. Lights were lit, and the sound of psalms being sung with great conviction carried far. So she went inside, but when the priest turned away from the altar to face the congregation, she recognized to her horror that it was a priest who'd been dead for several years. She looked out over the congregation, and realized that it consisted only of people who'd been dead for years.

One of the dead women, who'd been her godmother, rose from her seat to to tell her to leave quickly if she valued her life, because this was the julotta of the dead, and no living people were allowed to attend it. The woman hurried towards the exit, but other dead people, annoyed at her intrusion, rose as well and tried to grab her. She just barely made it out the church doors – one of the dead got ahold of her coat and almost managed to stop her. The next morning, pieces of cloth from her coat were found on several of the graves in the churchyard.

This is just one of the many Scanian legends presented by Jonny Ambrius in his book Sällsamheter i Södra Sverige, but it certainly is one of the better. A few are classical stories about trolls trying to stop the expansion of civilization and Christianity, by sabotaging the building of churches or throwing large rocks att already-built churches (the latter sort of legends are used to explain how large rocks came to rest where they happen to rest). Many are ghost stories, some of them tied to particular castles or manors, other to certain environments – like the drowned sailors trying to work their way up from the beach to the church and cemetery so that they may rest in hallowed ground. Unfortunately for them, they need the help of a living human to get over the high wall surrounding the cemetery, and their semi-decomposed state isn't likely to gain them any immediate friends and helpers. They're also going to have to contend with the Church Grim, the guardian of the burial grounds that is the spirit of an animal sacrificed when the church was built and buried beneath it to protect it against the Devil and/or to placate the site's spirit.

Anyway, it's always amusing to read this sort of stories, and I keep wondering why Swedish comics creators don't harvest these old legends much more for story ideas – a lot of them are ready-built for comics adaptation, and already adhere to the "ironic twist" story model that was the hallmark of the old EC comics as well as the Eerie and Creepy magazines and many, many others.

Worth the read; recommended.

onsdag 18 december 2013

Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Moritat: All-Star Western Vol 1: Guns and Gotham

Jag har börjat ett nytt projekt: att läsa igenom mina ännu olästa DC-trade paperbacks i bokstavsordning – det är lättare att då och då smyga in några sidor sådant mellan allt som "måste" göras än att försöka hinna med att beta av det nyinköpta.

All-Star Western Vol 1: Guns and Gotham.
Fantastisk omslagsbild av Moritat.

Tyvärr började jag med Gray & Palmiottis All-Star Western: Guns and Gotham, som visserligen har Jonah Hex i det korrupta 1800-tals-Gotham, men som bygger upp sina historier genom att stapla klichéer på varann. Exempel på hur intrigerna byggs upp: korrupta politiker + någon sorts koppling till nånting = de är de skyldiga, så de kommer att skicka sitt gäng på oss om vi bara går dit och bråkar lite, och sedan kan Jonah skjuta ner ett tjog män sittande oskyddad ute på verandan utan att någon av dem ens kommer i närheten av att träffa honom. Eller så startar han ett saloonbråk och slår ner ett tjog män utan att nån knappt ens kan lägga hand på honom.

Hallå. Jonah Hex är inte Batman eller Green Lantern, han är en vanlig men ovanlig människa – det är bland annat det som gör John Albanos tidiga, mästerliga historier om honom så bra. Och varför ska det vara så omöjligt att skapa ens rimligt kompetenta mästerskurkar? Det är litet svårt att tro på att de verkligen är några masterminds som dominerar staden när de skildras som helt inkompetenta som ledare av sin organisation.

Samlingen avrundas av en trist El Diablo-historia som försöker rida på zombie-vågen men som lider av samma problem som Jonah-historierna: den har ingen egentlig poäng, och synnerligen ytlig personskildring, samt The Barbary Ghost, berättelsen om en ung kinesisk-amerikansk kvinna som på något magiskt sätt förvandlas till världens skickligaste hämnare när hennes familj mördas i ett beskyddarkrig med en gangsterboss. Egentligen är det samma problem här som i de övriga historien i samlingen: Gray och Palmiotti koncentrerar sig likt en B-actionthriller på de "coola" men tämligen uttjatade actionsituationerna – man har som läsare sett dem mängder av gånger förut och de görs inte på något exceptionellt sätt den här gången heller, samtidigt som allt annat som krävs för att man ska bry sig om vad som egentligen händer, som till exempel personskildring och skapandet av en fungerande, trovärdig fiktiv värld för allting att utspela sig i, negligeras.

Phil Winslade har ritat The Barbary Ghost, så den är i alla fall rätt snygg, Jordi Bernet har ritat El Diablo-historien kompetent men kanske en aning skissartat, och Moritat har ritat/målat Jonah-historierna – ibland mycket tjusigt, enstaka gånger till synas jäktat och hafsigt. Han har också gjort omslagen till de numren, All-Star Western # 1-6, som reproduceras i samlingen, och de är det bästa i hela boken. Underbart fina, speciellt den bild som också är hela samlingens framsida.

Jag gillar ju Jonah Hex, men jag kan inte rekommendera den här; läs Showcase-samlingen med honom i stället – men bara de första äventyren av John Albano och Tony DeZuniga; så fort författandet tas över av Michael Fleisher så dyker kvalitén minst ett par-tre snäpp och det blir stereotypt, förutsägbart brödskrivande för hela slanten.

fredag 6 december 2013

Waid, Indro & Freire: The Green Hornet Volume One: Bully Pulpit

I didn't go to see the Green Hornet movie because I had heard too many signals that it really, really sucked. Now, I'll buy it on dvd and watch it despite that, because the Hornet is a comics (not just, but still) hero and I feel, well, obligated to collect the films depicting those. However, I'll gladly buy a comics collection of the Hornet's adventures if it's written by Mark Waid. So I did.

The Green Hornet Volume One: Bully Pulpit collects The Green Hornet #1-6. The story art is by Daniel Indro (first half) and Ronilson Freire (second half). The best part of the book, however, is Paolo Rivera's covers. They're crisp, and strong in composition and posing; he reminds me a bit of sort of a combination of Lee Weeks and David Mazzucchelli.

It's not good news when the covers are the best part of a collection, and while I am a Waid fan, I think he stumbles here. The basic idea is to show the Hornet – also newspaper publisher Britt Reid – getting a bit too full of himself and going a bit too far, both as the Hornet and as Reid.

The Hornet has a habit of corrupting criminals, making them his own employees so that he can use them in his own business, which unknown to the underworld is actually fighting crime, not enriching himself from it. Here, he and his crime-fighting companion – martial arts expert Kato – are chasing saboteurs who're targeting armament manufacturers' shipments, thus endangering America's effort to prepare itself for the looming war. At the same time, those captains of industry whose shipments are targeted are attempting to enlist Britt Reid as a political candidate for their Prosperity Party. His successes make Reid/the Hornet overconfident and sloppy, however, and as a result, he makes some grave errors – like falsely accusing an innocent man of being behind the bombings in Reid's newspaper, corrupting a heretofore clean cop as the Hornet.

Now, I don't think this sort of hubris/downfall story is all that unique in comics, but judging by his introduction, Waid seems to think so (unless he's being ironic). Either way, the story's not all that elegantly told. The interior art is passable, but it lacks the clean design of Rivera's covers, as well as the strong, elegant ink line that can make art interesting anyway. The fight scenes convey the action, but doesn't do so with any real sense of action, if you know what I mean. The figure drawing isn't dynamic enough, especially in the latter half of the collection with art by Freire, who also doesn't succeed with the main characters' faces – they basically look like they're not-quite out of school yet.

But it's not the art that sinks the book for me – well, great art could have saved it, but Waid can't escape blame for the story's ultimate failure. The basic narrative is easy enough to recognize: hero gets lured into a bad crowd and leaves his values and real friends behind for a while, until he wakes up and sets about making things right. Here, this is complicated by the hero both running a muckraking newspaper and running around beating up crooks – and also, distastefully, torturing them to get the information he wants. (It's actually pretty shameful that Abu Ghraib and "enhanced interrogations" haven't cured Waid – and others – from using this lazy writer's crutch. You really don't want to be on the same side as someone like Jonah Goldberg on this.) Nevertheless, the basic structure is pretty standard, and could have used some bells and whistles that it doesn't get, neither in the art nor the writing department.

Also, the real crooks behind the bombings (I won't reveal who they are here, but you'd be hard to put not to recognize them by the second chapter) have been given the same super power as the Joker in a certain overrated Batman movie: the ability to place bombs wherever they want to without anybody noticing them or the bombs, and also with the added bonus of being able to do so without anybody even bothering with following up on evidence pointing in their direction. In other words, Waid shirks on important plot points in a way that you can get away with in a superhero story because you can cover it up with dazzling superhero deeds; the Hornet, however, is supposed to be working within a somewhat more realistic universe, so this oversight damages the story's credibility.

And then, towards the end, the reader receives what is really a direct insult: a cliffhanger. The collection actually ends on a cliffhanger.

I mean, come on! A cliffhanger? In a trade paperback? That's just rude, plain and simple.

I can't recommend this book; it's readable, but it has too many flaws. Check out for example Waid's old Flash and JLA stories instead, or his Daredevil. Me, I'll be checking out the movie when it comes to my fave second-hand dvd/cd shop – again, out of a sense of obligation – but I won't feel obliged to check out the second volume of this series.

lördag 31 augusti 2013

Tim Pilcher and Brad Brooks: The Essential Guide to World Comics

This book is essentially what it (nearly) claims to be, a bare-essentials guide to comics all over the world. It splits the world into ten "comics regions" – the US, Great Britain, Japan, the-rest-of-Asia-except-India, France-Belgium, other-Europe, Latin America, Fennoscandinavia, Australia-New Zeeland, and India-Africa-the Middle East – and gives us brief historical overviews over how the comics scene has evolved in various countries, important creators and comics, and what the comics scene looks like today (or rather, in 2005, when the book was written). And Pilcher nad Brooks do this in 300 pages. As you might surmise, it's a bit of a whirlwind tour.

Still, I think they do a pretty good job of it. It's a bit too much to really take in all of it on the first reading, but it's still interesting to read about how the various comics industries have developed and what their main characteristics are. For example, if you didn't know about comics' history in Sweden – which you likely didn't if you don't live here – you'll learn about our long and storied love affair with Disney ducks and Lee Falk's Phantom, as well as get brief overviews of some Swedish comics creators. The drawback is that it's still bare-bones histories, so if you want more depth you'll have to go elsewhere and read something that concentrates on one country or region, but I'm still kind of impressed that they pull the whole thing off – which they do.

I have a couple of complaints (I wouldn't be me if I didn't), though. First, Britain is treated like it's practically the second-most important country in the world, and I just can't agree with that; it's gotten the second chapter, after the US, and also the second-largest page count of the single countries. I can buy that for the authors being Brits, but I don't agree with it.

Second, I'm not entirely happy with the choices they've made for illustrations – especially when they get to the less-known comics scenes, there's a tendency for a lot of illustrations to move towards stamp size, making it hard to discern the artist's style or even the actual content of the strip depicted. I realize that it's an editorial choice one might make to offer more space to pictures from certain creators/countries and to use full-page illustrations to make the work more visually interesting/an easier read, but I personally think you're wasting quite a bit of space that could instead be used to showcase less well-known creators and comics.

Finally, after a while, the job of writing snappy descriptions of the comics they like becomes a bit too much; as a reader, I can get a bit tired of the "the [insert praising adjective here] [insert comic's name here] by the [insert adjective here] [insert creator's name here]" formula used for a bit too many of the illustrations.


It is a whirlwind tour of the world of comics, and it includes a lot of comics scenes and creators you're not likely to know pretty much anything about. And it's worth your while.

So yes, worth reading. (Eminent comics scholar Paul Gravette agrees; his review of it is here.)

måndag 12 augusti 2013

Maximilien Le Roy & Michel Onfray: Nietzsche

As a rule, I'm not a huge fan of biographies in comics format – they're usually easy to read, which is a plus, but they tend towards the anecdotal, due to space constraints. Thus, they leave out so many aspects of somebody's life and so much context, as well as the commentary and interpretation that you'll usually find in a biography in book format, that you'll usually learn more from reading a good Wikipedia article on the subject instead. It'll be somewhat drier reading, and you won't have the aesthetic component that a good artist can provide, but you'll be better off information-wise.

That said, Nietzsche. Se créer liberté (Swedish title: Nietzsche. Att skapa sig frihet) by Maximilien Le Roy based on a film script by philosopher Michel Onfray isn't bad. It gives you the some brief glimpses of what formed his life and opinions, and some dialogues presenting his views, and as far as I can tell does a decent job of that. While I don't think Le Roy's art is particularly elegant, he tells the story well, and the dialogue is well-written – despite being relatively brief (you'll find far more text in for example a Blake and Mortimer album, even though this one about an important philosopher) it works very well to present (some of) Nietzsche's views, and what could have been rather boring pages of talking heads works pretty decently.

So, important (or at least well-known) episodes of Nietzsche's life are covered, you get a few glimpses of his philosophy and thinking, and Le Roy and Infray come down solidly on the side of those who think his sister falsified the works he edited to make the impression of an anti-semitism that wasn't Nietzsche's own at all. You can't really demand more of a biography in comics format, and this the creators deliver.

Worth reading. (No, I'm not providing much detail about the actual plot of the book. You want that, you can get it and more here.)

Published in Swedish by Agerings Bokförlag.

tisdag 6 augusti 2013

Kurt Busiek, Peter Vale, Jesús Merino, Renato Guedes: Superman – Shadows Linger

OK, I've gushed about Kurt Busiek's Superman before, so I won't do it again.

Seriously, I won't, because this isn't all that good.

Now, I'll wager that's not entirely Busiek's fault, because these are stories from the Superman comic book, issues 671-675 (published in 2008, if I understand things correctly), so he's likely under editorial control and forced to stick with some overall storylines that aren't entirely conducive to great stories. For example, Clark Kent and Lois Lane now have a kid they have to take care of. Not only does this kid have superpowers, which makes for a subplot that needs to be addressed in each issue (or chapter), substantially slowing down the narrative without really contributing anything. Also, having a kid around makes for sentimental breaks in the story when the kid has to be told regularly that Clark and Lois really do care for him and aren't going to send him away for being a nuisance. It's the sort of soap opera-ish subplot that can help keep people returning to a series and also make for interesting stories when it's concluded, but in a collection like this, where it is still far from its resolution, it really doesn't contribute anything positive.

Also, the art, while passable, doesn't add much excitement to the stories, so it's basically up to Busiek to carry the whole burden of making this a worthwhile read, and saddled with not only the limitations mentioned above but also a couple of non-original storylines, he doesn't fully deliver.

First comes a three-issue storyline about an insect creature who's made a deal with Lex Luthor before he went down in flames and Lana Lang had to take over Lexcorp. Since Luthor can't be found, the insect queen's minions kidnap Lana instead, taking her to their secret base on the moon. Superman follows, is initially defeated and imprisoned, and has to escape and defeat the creatures who have already defeated him once – a familiar enough plot, right?

Then comes a two-issue tale about how some reactionary and fanatical priests from Daxam come to Earth to fetch the "heretic" Mon-El for punishment. Naturally, Superman can't hand him over, as he'd die of lead poisoning as soon as he was brought out of the Phantom Zone. Superman tries to explain this to the priests, and also to warn them of the danger they run of lead poisoning here on Earth. In a nice enough portrait of fanatics of all kinds, the Daxamites don't listen to reason. Things are also complicated by the presence of super-villain Paragon, who's trying to kill Superman so he can become ruler of the Earth – until he's insulted by the Daxamite priests and decides that they need to be taught a lesson first. So he shoots them, which leads to lead poisoning, but even then they're too damn stupid, sullen and stubborn to see reason or even accept Superman's help.

Overall, the stories aren't all that bad, but they're not exactly original, so they need to be told with a lot more verve than they are to become exciting. I'll give Busiek props for some nice touches – like Lana Lang not being one bit worried as Superman takes on the insect queen in final battle: "Where've you been, Anders? He's Superman -- of course he's going to win." – but it's not enough to make this collection genuinely interesting.

Not a waste of time as it's still competently done, but ultimately not recommended.

söndag 21 juli 2013

Kurt Busiek & Stuart Immonen: Superman – Secret Identity

I always liked Kurt Busiek. I first encountered his work in a couple of eighties filler stories for Marvel – I think one was an issue of Marvel Team-Up and the other Captain America (or possibly Daredevil) – and was struck by how well he did human interest stories.

(As opposed to how Marvel generally did human interest stories in the late eighties-early nineties, which was bloody terribly. They had J.M. DeMatteis, who was very good if a bit on the sentimental side, and Denny O'Neil did a couple of Iron Man stories, and Chris Claremont was bearable even if too talky and over-obvious – but other than that, when the Marvel of that era did "human interest", it generally fell flat.) (And I do mean really flat.)

I just couldn't understand why they didn't give this guy a regular series. I mean, they gave Peter David that – and totally deservedly so! – after he'd shown his chops in a couple of single issue-stories. Now I read on Busiek's Wikipedia page that he had health problems in the nineties after mercury poisoning, and I wonder if that contributed. (I also wonder what the hell happened that he got mercury poisoning in the first place, but the Wikipedia entry doesn't say.)

The first regular series of Busiek's that I recall reading is Astro City which you definitely ought to read, too, if you aren't already. It's very strong superhero/human interest stories in a roman à clef – or, rather, comics à clef – setting, with some exquisite art by Brent Anderson. Basically, it's DC's superheroes getting a more naturalistic treatment. "Superman" spends most of his time saving people, so that when he finally falls asleep, he dreams about just flying and enjoying the feeling of freedom that he never ever has while awake. In another story, almost every superhero there is promises to just work his/her butt off on a particular evening. Why? So that "Superman" and "Wonder Woman" can take the night off and go on a date... Astro City is great, and I especially recommend the collections Life in the Big City and Confession (the latter being a powerful Batman story, far better than what DC was putting out at the time – post-Dark Knight and post-Alan Grant).

But. Secret Identity.

This is the story of a guy named Clark Kent living in the real world, where everybody knows that Superman is a comics character with superpowers and the secret identity of Clark Kent. So naturally, this real-world Clark Kent gets hassled a lot for his name. And then, suddenly, inexplicably, in his mid-to-late teens he gets super powers.

This is actually one of only two weaknesses with the story. Where the hell does he get superpowers from? And why? Apparently, a miracle occurs, just to tie together a good idea that Busiek had, of a guy named Clark Kent being razzed about his name, with another good idea he had, namely to do a Superman story as if he really existed in the real world. Connecting those two good ideas, however, wasn't a good idea, as it stretches the reader's suspension of disbelief a bit on the thin side. But I'll forgive Busiek that mistake, because the rest of the book is simply so damn good.

Young Clark now has to find a way to start using his newly-arrived powers for good without revealing who he is. He almost fails, and the authorities start looking into his history, but as he has a medical history clearly indicating that he's not invulnerable, they write him off as "superboy" candidate. (Clever plotting by Busiek, there. Tip o' the hat.)

Anyway, Clark grows up, and gets into the reporting/writing business. He gets set up with a date named Lois by his colleagues. He falls in love. Wants to start a family... but the government is hard on his heels. How to protect a family, if he starts one?

Here, roughly in the middle of the story, the narrative bogs down a bit, as Clark obsesses just a bit too much about these issues while playing hide-and-seek with government agents and the military… and this is the second weakness with the book. It has me worried for a bit, but then Busiek gets things moving again and gives us a what is basically a tale about a life well lived, and how kindness and goodness isn't the worst path to choose for yourself. Maybe he gets a bit sentimental somewhere along the way, but if he does, I don't really notice it, because Clark Kent really is such an interesting acquaintance to make, and the problems he has to deal with ring true. This is a story about people – you know, what all those superhero writers claim to want to write and what quite a substantial percentage of them fail to accomplish. Busiek succeeds.

And so does artist Stuart Immonen, because the art is gorgeous. It is clear and very readable, conveys emotion and is beautiful to look at. Action scenes are depicted without emanata and sound effects, giving them a sort of slow motion quality that goes well with the story's emphasis on people and their emotional reactions to events. A story like this hinges on credibility, and Immonen's art, with its many believable portraits of ordinary people, provides that in spades.

And, as I said and as the sample page above clearly shows, it's gorgeous. Nearest description I cam make is that it's as if Gene Colan pencils from the height of his ability had been magically turned into colors and ink while retaining their original subtlety. Yes, Immonen is that good, and it really bolsters the story.

Highly recommended.

Edit: Another blogger reviewed this book here.

lördag 20 juli 2013

Dimitri Volkogonov: Trotsky, the Eternal Revolutionary

Some people really have an impact on the world. Maybe they discover the cure for a terrible disease, become great leaders of men and nations, or write fantastic books that are read and loved long after they themselves are gone.

Or maybe they help crush a nascent democracy and bring about an inhuman dictatorship that kills millions. Leon Trotsky is in this latter category.

Author Dimitri Volkogonov's career is interesting – a high official in the Soviet military and a loyal communist, he couldn't reconcile what he found in the historical archives with his ideological stance, so he renounced Communism. His severe criticism of Stalin, first in a biography, then in a WWII history, earned him enemies and he lost his high position within the military. He then went on to pen biographies of both Lenin and Trotsky. Leon Trotsky's career is also interesting, but for pretty much the opposite reasons. He jumps on Lenin's anti-democratic, dictatorship train at a time when Russia had the chance to solidify its democracy and then just digs deeper into the ideology he's chosen for himself (and, tragically, Russia). Even though the predictions he makes based on that ideology keep failing, he sticks with it – like his "Theory of Permanent Revolution", which led him to not only argue that the Communist revolution had to be spread to the rest of the world, but to keep predicting it, regardless of how that prediction kept on failing.

(It is interesting to note how Marxism tends to consider itself "scientific", and yet so many of its foremost proponents choose to disregard the fundamentals of science – like the idea that you need to take empirical outcomes into consideration and be prepared to adjust your theory accordingly.)

Trotsky was undoubtedly highly competent, not just as a theorist (and by the term "competent theorist" in the context of revolutionary Marxists, I refer not mainly to any actual deeper political insights, but to an ability to interpret and adjust the writings of Marx to make them seem to be applicable to the tactics the revolutionary movement wants to apply in any given political situation, and to do so in a manner that finds approval with the leaders of said revolutionary movement) but at actually making the revolution happen and survive – by holding speeches to fire the up masses, by building up an army making use of actually competent military men, regardless of whether they've served in the tsarist army before, and by waging utterly ruthless war on the revolutions enemies. (Note: the October Revolution was really more of a coup than a revolution, but I'll stick with established terminology and call it "the revolution".)

Anyway, much thanks to Trotsky's leadership of the army as People's Commissar of Army and Navy Affairs in the Russian Civil War (where the White forces certainly committed their unfair share of atrocities), the Bolsheviks were victorious. Unfortunately for Trotsky, he not only had to deal with the outright war against the White forces and the intervening Western armies; he also had to do bureaucratic battle, or turf war, with Stalin. That would not end with the war. Instead, due to a curious, seeming inability to fight a bureaucratic turf war – as well as a severe underestimation of Stalin – Trotsky was outmaneuvered and defeated, stripped of his position of power and even his Party membership, and exiled. This likely saved his life, as he thus was largely out of reach for Stalin's brutal reign of terror that would claim the lives of so many – including those relatives of Trotsky who remained in the USSR. On the other hand, in the long run, it wouldn't save his life at all, as a vengeful Stalin (all the more vengeful as Trotsky kept up a steady stream of criticism in the form of books and articles from his exile; you can find a huge archive of his writings here) ordered his security apparatus to have Trotsky killed. Meanwhile, a huge propaganda effort was also expended to blacken Trotsky's name as a capitalist lackey.

Finding refuge in Mexico after problematic stays in Turkey, France and Norway, Trotsky lived to see almost all of his relatives killed off by the vengeful Stalin and also experienced severe health problems. He seems to have gotten quite depressed – even contemplating suicide, but refraining from it because he didn't want to stain his legacy as a revolutionary, and possibly because he just didn't want to give Stalin the satisfaction. (That last part is my private speculation, not Volgokonov's.) Anyway, Stalin's murderers finally got to him in 1940. The end.

I read Robert Service's Lenin biography and found it rather dull, but I couldn't decide whether it was because of the way it was written, because I wasn't really in the mood to read it, or because Lenin simply was an incredibly dull person. You won't be bored in the company of Volgokonov's Trotsky, though; the only thing I was a bit put off by was the occasional somewhat repetitive editorializing, but I'll grant the author that right for his hard work not just bringing Trotsky's life history to light, but also overcoming his own personal history of being socialized into an inhuman state ideology.

Possibly what made the Lenin biography so boring was that he never really did anything worthwhile. He spent his life in exile mainly writing theoretical works of little scientific value or intellectual stringency, all the time building a case for revolution on whatever seemed the currently most likely theoretical basis for it. Then other people actually went through with a revolution, not according to his (somewhat variable) principles, so he rushed over there and ruined it. Then he died. The end. Trotsky, on the other hand, didn't just help Lenin and the other Bolsheviks wreck Russia, his military leadership was instrumental in keeping them in power, and he also experienced what he had put others through: the full force of the dictatorship's enmity. That makes him a more tragic and hence more interesting figure. It's hard to feel any grief over his death; he was all for murder and mayhem as long as he was part of the ruling "elite" dishing it out. His relatives, however, had no part in his crimes against the Russian people, so it's not hard to pity them their miserable fate – a fate in no small part due to Trotsky's hard work installing the regime that would kill them and consider itself justified in doing so.

This book paints a fascinating portrait of not only the man himself, but also of the anti-democratic ideology he helped make such an important part of the 20th century. So I'll end this review with a couple of illuminating quotes from Trotsky himself:

"From the historical point of view, European capitalism has run its course. It has not developed significantly productive forces. It has no further progressive role to play. It cannot open any new horizons. If this were not so, then any thought of the proletarian revolution in our age would be tilting at windmills (...) History is challenging the workers, as if it were saying to them: you must know that if you do not overthrow the bourgeoisie, you will perish beneath the ruins of civilization."
(Editorial comment: Yeah, right.)

"Violent revolution was necessary precisely because the urgent demands of history were powerless to cut a path for themselves through the apparatus of parliamentary democracy." 
"The form of repression or its degree is of course not a question of principle. It is a pragmatic question" 
(Editorial comment: Is it any wonder that a movement led by people like this would create a thoroughly inhuman, repressive and stagnant society? The greatest question raised by this book isn't what went wrong with Trotsky to make him the ruthless ideologue he became, but why on Earth some people – even today – would want to call themselves "Trotskyists".)


torsdag 27 juni 2013

Chester Brown: Paying for It. A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John

Chester Brown caused a bit of a (positive) stir with his rather anarchistic Ed the Happy Clown, which was, well, weird and disorganized and seemed to me a lot like Brown was letting out a lot of steam and pent-up emotions and frustrations. Whether that is correct or not, I of course don't know. Anyway, it certainly made him a household name in the alternative comics biz.

Paying for It is Brown's account of how his girlfriend drifted away from him, and he drifted into getting sex from prostitutes instead. The storytelling is not flashy, it's an eight-panels-per-page grid, separated in chapters where he tells the readers about his encounters with a particular prostitute, his musings about her and the whole prostitution thing, and his conversations with his friends about it. He does make the impression of being almost obsessively upfront about the whole thing, not just to his readers but to his friends as well.

And that makes it an interesting read, actually. Brown's initial fears about being robbed, his masturbation before encounters in order not to ejaculate too quickly, his debates with his friends on whether he's exploiting these women, his musings about the women he's with and his conversations with them... It sort of drags you in, partly because it concerns a subject that's a bit forbidden, secret and shameful to most of us – no, not sex; prostitution – partly because it's also sort of a dissection of Brown's own thinking and rationalizations. (Those rationalizations aren't always high-quality, I have to say.) He also finishes the book with an afterword with a more formal discussion of his pro-prostitution thoughts, which have a pretty strong libertarian slant.

Brown doesn't want to make unreasonable demands on the girls, and always tips.

Myself, I have a somewhat conflicted view of prostitution; we as a society have pretty much established that a woman's sexuality is her own, to do with as she pleases... except if she chooses to rent it out to a man for money. That is a bit of a double standard, in my opinion. On the other hand, I have no doubt that there's also a whole lot of exploitation going on in that business – like in a whole lot of other businesses, that's true, but somehow a business involving people's sexuality seems to get a lot closer to our cores as human beings, which makes it more problematic that just your employer screwing you out of your overtime money, as unacceptable as that is. And then comes that whole "forced into sex" angle, which includes selling your body not just because somebody's threatening and/or manipulating you, but also if you're doing it for the money you (and/or, perhaps, your family) need to get by, and trafficking, and… So I'm still not going to join Chester Brown in his defense of prostitution and the right to rent a person's body. Mind you, Brown's own account doesn't always help his case – like when he keeps on having sex with a girl even though she does seem to be in pain... Still, it's an interesting sneak peek into the mindset of a not entirely unlikable – but not exactly likable, either – john, and strangely compelling.

Rationalizations. Turns out the girl doesn't even speak English.

It's worth reading. It's also worth thinking about, and I would be interested in reading some non-slanted-either-way actual research on the issue – but not interested enough to actually go out of my way to look for that research, unfortunately, as my slate is currently pretty much sufficiently full as it is without adding that to it, thank you very much.

Anyway, recommended, for its honesty about Brown's own behavior and thoughts – but perhaps not for his own conclusions.

onsdag 19 juni 2013

François Schuiten & Benoît Peeters: Cities of the Fantastic: The Invisible Frontier, Vol 1 & 2

If you like gorgeous art, François Schuiten is your man. His soft colors and skillful rendering, especially of architecture and interiors, make Cities of the Fantastic: The Invisible Frontier (original title: Les Cités obscures: La Frontière invisible)very pleasing to the eye. I'm less impressed with the story, however... but we'll get to that momentarily.


Schuiten and script collaborator Benoît Peeters have published eleven albums in the Obscure Cities series, and these are albums 8 and 9. They tell the story of the young, freshly-minted cartographer Roland de Cremer arriving at the great cartography center of Sodrovno-Voldachie. At first, he's somewhat lost, not just having difficulties finding and entering the center, but also in finding his place there. He does learn the ropes of his job pretty soon, though, but exactly what that job is remains somewhat unclear to the reader. The end product of the center's work, however, seems to be to produce a pretty large-scale model of the country.

… But at the same time, new technology is making its entrance into the world of cartography. Another new arrival, Ismail Djunov, works with computers, the future of cartography, to hear him tell it. Roland's boss, "Mister Paul", is suspicious of the new technology and prefers the old, more craft-like, ways – and reminisces about the days when the cartography center was bustling with people and activity.

Ismail takes Roland to "the club", a place where cartographers can relax after a hard day's work, being waited upon by semi-clad young women who apparently also are supposed to have sex with any cartographer who so desires. Roland is smitten by one of the girls, Shkodra, and starts a relationship of sorts with her. It turns out that Shkodra has some sort of map-like markings on her lower back and buttocks, but they can't be clearly made out… Yet.

Then comes a visit from the leader of the country, Marshal Radisic, where he takes an interest in the cartography institute's work – because he needs the map to show that he is entitled to do what he's planning to do, attack and assimilate a neighboring country. Turns out the map that disproves his claims  is exactly like the markings on Shkodra's bottom; and Roland realizes he has to do something to protect her...

I won't reveal more about the plot; it seems inspired by the tragedy of former Yugoslavia, and the story's clear distaste for expansionism and ruthless disregard for history and people in order to further one's political ambitions is something I think is shared by all decent people. I have a few problems with the story that prevents me from recommending the albums, though.

First of all, for me to enjoy science fiction, it generally needs to get the credibility right. The cartography center seems to be set right out in the desert, with no apparent means of getting food and other necessities to its occupants. Now, the setting is probably intended to reinforce the reader's experience of Roland's feelings of isolation and abandonment, but it detracts from the credibility of the story for me, undermining instead of enhancing it.

Second, I get somewhat annoyed with having those women like Shkodra put there to service the researchers sexually – it can be a valid part of the plot, intended to anger the reader at such exploitation, but that point is weakened by the way the women are depicted, beautiful and frequently in various stages of undress/nudity. IMO, Schuiten and Peeters are exploiting those women's bodies no less than their fictional characters do. (And notably, the beautiful Shkoda doesn't seem to have very much say in her own destiny no matter what; it's not like Roland, when he decides something needs to be done to protect her, doesn't pretty much decide what she should do for her.)

I also find the albums' depicted conflict between modern methods and Mister Paul's more craftmanship-oriented approach to be a false dichotomy. Of course really old maps are cool, but there's no need to romanticize them – modern maps, done digitally, are far more accurate and informative. This goes beyond cartography, of course – which in this case is to a large extent a metaphor, anyway, if I understand the albums correctly.

Finally, while Schuiten is a great artist for depicting environments and the human body (both dressed and undressed, his faces are usually not very expressive – though as it adds to the perceived slowness of the storytelling, perhaps it is intentional.

So, a couple of beautiful books, but in the end not for me. I'll probably read the rest of the albums in the series when I get across them, but I won't be actively seeking them out.

tisdag 18 juni 2013

Tom DeFalco: Comics Creators On Fantastic Four & Comics Creators On Spider-Man

In the late eighties-early nineties, I was getting more and more disillusioned with Marvel Comics. The stories were sort of losing heart, and an increased output of books was accompanied with what seemed to be laxer standards for writing as well as art.

Well, perhaps "laxer standards" isn't the right word for it – there seemed to be tighter editorial reins than in the seventies, which were sort of a golden age for the company in my opinion. I wasn't old enough to get and read the books until the late last couple of years of the decade, when I started ordering back issues from a couple of Swedish collectors and traders and got lots of old comic books delivered home via mail (to my delight and my mother's consternation), but digging into those piles of comics by the likes of Gene Colan, Roger Stern, Frank Miller, Jim Shooter (who wrote some great Avengers stories IMO – I still have fond memories of one where there are so many flightless Avengers that they have to commandeer a bus to take them to the final confrontation with a cosmic enemy hiding out in the suburbs), Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber. Let me just repeat the (to me) most important name of those: Steve Gerber.

Steve Gerber was one of those writers who could be used to define the term "offbeat". He wrote stories not quite like anybody else's, stories about outsidership that emphasized the characters, not the action. They were brilliant – and usually flawed, but still brilliant. Think a seventies Grant Morrison. Or, for that matter, a seventies J. M. DeMatteis, a writer who exploded on the scene in the eighties. (Well, OK, he didn't really explode on the scene, I don't think he had a sufficiently huge mainstream impact for that, but he did for me. I loved his stories, with their flawed protagonists and the forgiving, even loving, perspective he had on those flawed people.)

Anyway, Gerber not only created Howard the Duck and wrote some absolutely terrific stories about this duck trapped on a world not his own (not that his own world was ever really his own, either, but I digress), he also wrote stories that told the reader that you could never be entirely certain about anything, in the Marvel universe or, by extension, in your own universe.

And that characterized the seventies Marvel universe for me. Gerber was just the creator who was most explicit about it.

We talk about the "revisionist" comics creators revitalizing the DC universe in the eighties-onwards – the "British invasion", Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, to a certain extent Alan Grant, Grant Morrison, etc. But we tend to forget that "revisionism", or rather, "chucking everything out the window and starting anew" was not uncommon in the seventies Marvel universe. "Hey, all those memories you have about your youth and origin? They're false, implanted under hypnosis by the Red Skull" wasn't quite the order of the day, but it wasn't uncommon for new writers to drastically remake characters and storylines (and introducing some pretty outrageous stuff like having President Nixon being the head of a plot to enslave America and killing himself when defeated by Cap). This made for a somewhat unstable but very interesting universe. With greater editorial control came a better ability to make deadlines and a more coherent Marvel universe, but also a somewhat less interesting one.

And then came the real downturn. Titles were turned over to people who knew how to tell stories that sold, but who didn't know how to tell stories with real heart in them (and in some cases didn't even seem to know how to write). The art went similarly downhill; competent artists cranking out so many pages that they simply didn't have time to do a proper job, or doing breakdowns turned into final art by inkers who weren't able to provide the magic that full, beautiful pencils can create, new artist being brought in that weren't up to scratch – not everybody can be a John Buscema, or a Gene Colan, or a Mike Zeck, but when you've been spoiled by reading their stuff, you won't be happy with art that just isn't up to snuff.

I'll refrain from naming any names here, as it wouldn't serve any real purpose; suffice to say, I wasn't happy with the art on quite a few of my former favorite titles. I'll give you an example, though: Captain America. After a brief but beautiful run on the title by Roger Stern, John Byrne and Joe Rubinstein – top-notch creators all – the book was taken over by J. M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck (I don't quite remember the inker, but it may have been Bob McLeod). Now, this was a move from an excellent creative team to another excellent creative team. DeMatteis crafted stories of subtlety, love, drama and melodrama, and the art was beautiful and action-packed. In fact, my favorite Cap moment occurred during this run – a monster has kidnapped Cap's girlfriend Bernie, and Cap comes to rescue her. The monster promptly beats him to a pulp. As the monster prepares to kill Cap, Bernie (who has made quite an impression on the monster) tries to stop him. This makes the monster stop, and think, and he decides that maybe Cap isn't his enemy at all. The monster takes off in order to sit on a mountaintop to think things through properly as Bernie cradles the unconscious Cap's head in her lap. Cap slowly wakes up, and wearily looks up to see Bernie's face, saying:

"Bernie… Are you okay…?"

That scene, more than any other, defines Captain America – and Steve Rogers – for me.

DeMatteis then proceeded to, among other things, tell a multiple-issue story about Cap's gay childhood friend, who protected him from bullies, contacting him again after all these years. (This was way before gay was considered OK in mainstream comics, movies and television.) And then he was replaced by a writer who was more interested in telling stories about terrorists and cleaning up Marvel continuity by having some dark menace kill off marginal Marvel crooks, and who completely lacked DeMatteis' subtle and deeply humanistic sensitivities, as well as his dramatic flair as a writer. The art chores were handled by an artist who similarly lacked subtleness and elegance. The book just died to me.

The same happened to many other Marvel books during what I think may have been called the "Marvel explosion". Writers were brought in who wrote stories superficially dramatic, but lacking all subtlety, and coordinating a lot of titles became more important than actually producing interesting stories with depth. By the early nineties, Marvel was pretty much a mess. DC wasn't a whole lot better, either; Frank Miller had ruined Batman with his brilliant Dark Knight Returns and Year One – his violent, driven Batman was so exceedingly well done and popular that it infected all the Batman stories produced by DC… and those other writers generall weren't good enough to do Miller's Batman without turning him into merely another monomaniacal and brutal action hero. (In fact, even Miller himself wasn't, as shown by his follow-up, The Dark Knight Strikes Again.)

Anyway, that was a pretty long-winded run-up to Tom DeFalco's excellent interview books Comics Creators On Fantastic Four and Comics Creators On Spider-Man, but the reason for it is that I hold DeFalco and several of his interviewees to be among those responsible for Marvel's downhill slide, both as writers and editors. But nevertheless, it's very interesting to read their takes on the characters who have very much defined the Marvel universe, the Fantastic Four and Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Also, DeFalco turns out to be a very good interviewer, asking about the creators' backgrounds, how they got into comics and how they view the characters and the creative process. You also get some interesting snapshots of how Marvel worked in the early days, as well as later on.

All in all, this is very interesting reading but hard to summarize as the creators involved (not just writers but also artists) have such diverse views. Many want to go back to the characters' roots, but they don't always agree on what those roots are. For instance, going back the Lee-Kirby roots of the FF doesn't necessarily mean using their old villains, because they were all about creating new ones, and thus "going back to the roots" could also mean doing just that, expanding the vistas explored as well as the villains roster. (Mark Waid, one of the better writers in the business, makes that point rather explicitly. I found that slightly ironic as I remembered reading his and Carlos Pacheco's Resurrection of Galactus story, and halfway through it realizing why I thought it was merely a decent story but not a great one even though it was so well told: I'd read basically the same story by Lee & Kirby, if not quite so expertly crafted. Just to be on the safe side, I searched that book out in my collection – fortunately, as it turns out, because Waid had nothing to do with it. Never trust your memory.)

Everybody also seems to agree that Fantastic Four is about family, with the exploration theme also being mentioned by several creators.

For Spider-Man, I thought Paul Jenkins had the most interesting take on the character – Peter is a hero because he cares enough to keep fighting, unlike the villains who've chosen to take the easier, lesser path instead. (And if you doubt that that is true, go buy Kraven's Last Hunt by DeMatteis-Zeck-McLeod, arguably the best Spider-Man tale ever told.)

Finally, a partial roster of the creators interviewed: Stan Lee, Brian Michael Bendis, J. M. DeMatteis, Todd McFarlane, John Romita, Gerry Conway, Roger Stern, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, John Byrne, Howard Mackie, Ralph Macchio, Walter Simonson, Doug Moench, Joe Sinnot and Jim Lee. Some really big names in there.

Highly recommended.

(Note to Swedish readers: I borrowed these books from the Serieteket library in Stockholm, a great resource for comics lovers.)