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.