Quick and Dirty Review; R-S, excepting Scott Pilgrim.

February 24, 2011

Rocketeer: 1st trade paperback.

Remember the film, with Jennifer Connolly and Timothy Dalton? This is its basis.

This is pulp, plain and simple. Ingeniously in-depth, it is clear the author knows his period. The characters are period – Cliff Secord IS the idiot hero; sleeping-in, pulling pranks and who, finding a rocket pack can only think to use it to make some cash to win over his girl Betty, about whom he is insanely jealous. Betty (Betty Paige, in pastels), who lets a guy called Marco take ‘art-photos’ of her, of course says money isn’t an issue – while Betty’s thought bubbles, meanwhile, reveal that pretty much is and thinks it is odd that “it doesn’t seem to matter to Cliff that he is getting more than anyone else”.

In short, they’re idiots together in their world – with what would be considered the modern-type heroes (qualified, in authority and in the know) tracking down the rocket pack – featuring a pastiche of pulp characters from Doc Savage and the airplane-pulps. But the reversal works, and not just in a laugh-at-the-fools way. Trying to compare to this film is problematic – the film’s characters were pretty heroic and reasonably methodical, and therefore more likeable, more admirable. But these characters are interesting characters on their own terms – and you can laugh, because they’re idiots.

Runaways: First 2 volumes

I’ll spoil one thing – the central premise – and then stick to commentary:

SPOILER: The first issue reveals – to us and the kids alike – that the twelve parents of the six children are supervillains.

Moving on: Brian K Vaughn – Y the Last Man, Ex Machina. I think that this is a very well written story. Really well written. I think the dialogue works well, I think the characters work very well and I think the plot works very well. I think this is an achievement to have something like this, not only on its own terms, but also the fact that it works within the larger Marvel Universe. Millar’s Civil War Run is the only Marvel-ous thing on my shelf at the moment. Runaways is something that could make me revisit this state of affairs. It uses the universe – both exploiting the holes and celebrating the triumphs – to best advantage without being hampered by it. It isn’t mired in inextricable continuity, puts other members of that universe in the picture without letting them block out the camera. Everything has been worked out and compliments each other wonderfully.

So what do I say about what happens? This: There is a reveal – one amongst many, but a particularly big one. And it is one of the few reveals in my reading that I worked out ahead of time that wasn’t because of foreshadowing, or an off-hand clue, or a good guess, but because something didn’t fit with the character and nothing else. So yeah, that is the league Vaughn is in at this point. Also: Molly. Molly is hilarious. And Gert is witty. And Alex is clever. And Chase is messed up. And Nico is delightful. And Karolina needs a hug, and maybe a ham sandwich.

Scarlet Traces

So – H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; After all that was over, with all the alien tripods, heat rays, spaceships and terraformed land lying around, did it just stop? Or did heat rays become the weapons of choice of the British Empire? Did Arachnid-Hansom cabs become the favoured method of transportation? Did all the technology take a jump to modern levels – and sometimes beyond? Captain Autumn and Sergeant Major Currie – something of a north-and-south, upper-and-lower take on Holmes and Watson, with some Bob Morane throw in there – are looking into the disappearance of Currie’s niece – along with the disappearance of a great many other young women. Their investigation is a tour through the modified Britain, from the mechanised, ghetto-ised North and its suddenly unemployed population, to the cold heart of the Empire itself. Steampunk detective story, in so many words, with the requisite references to everything from Varney the Vampire to the Jack the Ripper murders, this is good read, particularly if you’re into the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ethic.

Starman: Robinson’s run 1-80.

Starman – Ted Knight. Golden Age superhero. Uses Cosmic Rod, powered by ‘Cosmic Energy’, to fight crime. Contemporaries include Sandman, Hourman, The Spectre, Wildcat, the Jay Garrick Flash, the Alan Scott Green Lantern and the rest of the Justice Society of America. Had two boys – one, David, a real clean cut scientist-superhero, the other, Jack, a rebellious young sot with a thing for vintage memorabilia and antiques. Obvious, really which one took up the mantle. And David was shot, first few weeks out, first mission, by the new Mist, son of one of Starman’s old enemy of the same name. And that was just the start of the rampage of chaos the new Mist was set to start. So, yeah, this is the story of how Jack Knight became Starman.

And yet, not quite.

Because we’ve heard that story before, and unoriginality isn’t the name of James Robinson’s game. No. Sure, we’re with Jack on his hero’s journey for eighty issues, but this isn’t the story of one Starman. This is the story of all of them. Ted, and David and Jack – but also Mikaal, the Starman of the seventies, named after the David Bowie song, the mystery Starman of the fifties and the brief, super-powered Starman of the nineties. There are Starman-for-a-day types, and Starman-from-the-future types. This would be tired retconning and needless justification except for the natural flow with which we look back at the Starman lineage and with the obvious love and respect and … hope? with which it is done. This is Batcave-Giant-Penny/Robot-Dinosaur country, people.

Also contemporary to Jack, we have the O’Dares, the police-filled family, scions of the original Starman’s ‘Comissioner Gordon’ liason. Except this isn’t Gordon-lite. Apart from the eldest, all of the O’Dares are beat cops. This, paired with Jack’s young-hero status keep them firmly out of of the sidekick or sideline setups. I love the balance presented in the interactions between them and Jack and the rest of the cast. It breathes a real life into a police of what would otherwise be disposable uniforms. Over the course of 80 issues all five O’Dares become fleshed out characters, real to us in the same way Jack is. They mix the mundane and fantastic best, I think – they’re as willing to risk their lives to everyday threats as to raging monsters from beyond the hell dimensions.

On the other side of this is The Shade. Now, I will recuse myself from writing overlong on the Shade, because we’re all well aware that when it comes to clever, witty, top-hat-cane-spectacles rogues with Dickensian diction and refined values, I have no reserve. Suffice to say – The Shade is one of the handful of old-villains-turned-antihero I buy as a good story. He is still a shadow-demon-holding immortally-ageless-snatchthief. He will kill you. But he loves Opal City. He has lived there and loved it for a century or so. He likes its heroes because they protect and enrich his beloved. He liked the Golden Age heroes of other cities, and had some sport with them. And if you hurt his Opal, with bombs and terror and panic, shadowy demon wolves will tear you limb from limb … from limb.

And why shouldn’t he? Opal city is her own character too. This is the town where everyone knows that Ted Knight was Starman, that Jack Knight is the current one. That would be special enoughon its own, I think, to merit the attention Opal gets. Starman, here, is not the enigmatic alien god or mysterious demoniac avenger of other towns. At the same time, Robinson avoids making Starman Opal’s rubber-stamped tourist-attraction. This is a city that is throughly aware that this is a crazy world, and yet still stands, proud. Bringing this idea to life is Tony Harris’ wonderful art. Here is the beautiful masonry of Gotham, but as well lit as it would be in Metropolis. The layering of history, with the diverse architecture and beautiful landscapes, makes this a fabula one could truly visit in the mind.

So – this is an ensemble piece. These are the main cast, but they aren’t the half of the recurring cast introduced throughout the run. And I love them. Just one example,or I’ll be here all night – I love Wesley Dodds, the Golden Age Sandman, as a contented elderly man who is even more decrepit than his contemporaries, and yet filled with a light of heroism free of the angsty-loss that plagues all the other heroes, on one level or another – and I love Jack being happy to meet Wesley, but also being overjoyed to meet Wesley’s partner Dian Belmont, who is also Jack’s favourite author. I love Ted being a little fidgety, telling Jack that he really didn’t know Sandman that well, that they hit off with an ordinary uncomfortableness when they first met -i.e. something that can happen to anyone – and then that Sandman saved his life once …

I’ll come clean and admit to not knowing that much about Starman before this, and definitely not the minutiae of his universe. Not only has Robinson’s run corrected this deficit, but I really see a depth to it all that is in few mythos – Batman, Superman, Wonderwoman, Green Lantern perhaps. Not say it can’t all get a bit much, sometimes. Jack’s Odyssey into Space does run on for a while, and does pretty much meet everyone you could in DC space at the time – as well as several figures from the DC timeline’s past and future. It gets very timey-wimey at points and, while I was always interested, my mind was wandering back to Opal. This is a wonderfully planned out series, and every single issue is put to good use, but at 80, even the best story will have weakpoints. Of such a large arc though, I have to say I’ve seen far more flaws in many a 10-issue than the whole of this run.

So yeah. I put forward a theory – To inculcate the love we, the reader, have of Superman or Batman, at an adult level, takes about a minimum of 80 comics read, or their demonstrative-equivalent in movies, tv shows, cartoons. 80 issues of Superman opening the Fortress of Solitude with that big-ass key, feeding the animals in his menagerie and watching Firefly season 2 on his ‘What If’ machine. Usually that ’80 issues’ is by a great many writers, in a great many different formats, with a thousand takes on the character and perspectives on the classic elements. Robinson makes it through on 80, all by himself, for me at least. Ah well.

The Shadow – Coils of the Leviathan

A dark little story, very much a piece of the time it is set and the time it was written. Not a must read exactly, but a piece with some wonderful art and delicate look at a pulp hero that doesn’t feel compelled to be an origin, a reimagining, an update or modernisation. This could easily be a comic book of one of the novels – though the most I know about the character comes from the radio plays. This is grit before they had to explain to us that there was another way, a gun-wielding hero before we played nice with tasers, batarangs and karate chops.