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".)