In Which I am Surprised to Be Reading Several Series

Ack!  This is the obligatory oh-dear-I-haven’t-posted-for-more-than-a-month post.  I’ve been traveling near non-stop for work for the past couple of months, including a few not-fun episodes of being stranded in airports past 4 am.  This lifestyle has not been conducive to active participation in the blogosphere.

However (seamless transition), it has been conducive to a fair amount of reading.  To my surprise I’ve been reading several series.  Normally, I’m not one to read series, especially long series of thick books.  I look at a series like, say, George R.R. Martin’s epicly fat books of fantasy, and I think, “I really do want to read those, OR I could read, say, six unrelated books by six different authors in six different genres and learn lots of different tricks from all of them.”  And I invariably choose the later, because, well, basically, I’m a dilettante when it comes to my reading habits.

Yet, faced with epic multi-state journeys, somehow epic sagas seemed both appropriate and comforting.  These are the books that have been keeping me company in my travels:

  • C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series: A ship full of thousands of humans is stranded on an alien world, and after a devastating war between humans and the alien atevi, a fragile peace is made and a single human is appointed as the sole ambassador between the two species.  The series follows Bren, that sole ambassador, as he navigates between human and  atevi cultures–the latter of which has no concepts of friendship or love in the sense that humans understand them, but rather manchi, a feeling of devotion and loyalty to a leader and to certain associations.  This series is fascinating to me because it routinely breaks any number of writing 101 rules: the exposition is endless, the action often feels slow, and a number of character details and plot developments are “told” instead of “shown.”  And yet I find it utterly riveting.  I think it all works because (1) we’re so deeply in Bren’s head that it all flows naturally; (2) the alien culture is so rich and interesting I have no problem spending many pages exploring its most subtle nuances; and (3) Cherryh is just a master.
  • David Wellington’s Vampire series:  Wellington’s vampires are the antithesis of Laurell K Hamilton or Twilight vampires.  They are scary, vicious monsters and they most certainly do not sparkle.  The series follows Laura Caxton, a state trooper turned ersatz vampire hunter.  Wellington’s pacing and plot are brilliant, and the characters also evolve over the course of the series in interesting and unexpected ways.  (Full disclosure: Dave is a member of my NYC writing group.  I’ve gotten a taste of the upcoming fifth book, the final confrontation with the Big Bad, and am eagerly awaiting the chance to read the whole thing!)
  • Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series: I’m a bit of a latecomer to this one, but am now a total convert. Scott Pilgrim is a young 20something doing many of those early 20somethings things–living with a roommate, dating, trying to make it in a band, navigating the world of landlords and jobs, etc. When he starts dating Ramona, he discovers he must fight her seven evil exes in order to continue dating her.  Fun fight scenes ensue, interspersed with soap operatic romantic drama.  O’Malley has basically invited a new sub-genre with this graphic series – superhero surrealism, perhaps? – and there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.  And his ability to convey complex and intense emotions with only a few strokes of the pencil is mind-blowing.  Eagerly awaiting the final volume and the movie.

More travels coming up, but will try to at least pop in and say hi here with some regularity…

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I Already Miss the Bad Guys Being in Charge

Siege #4, the last issue of Marvel’s latest crossover, came out yesterday.  For those not keeping score, Norman Osborn, aka the Green Goblin, has been the “top cop” in the Marvel Universe for a while now, basically running everything with the help of a secret cabal that included Dr. Doom, Loki, and some other baddies.  Siege brought all that to an end, with Osborn overreaching the limits of his power by invading Asgard (home of the Norse Gods and what-not), leading to his inevitable downfall.

The Siege storyline was fun, a bit different from the usual crossover, though the end was somewhat anti-climactic. But then crossover endings are almost always anti-climactic, and writer Brian Michael Bendis’s strength has always been small, funny, and sometimes poignant moments of (super)human interaction, much more so than the big battles.

Maybe it’s the geek purist in me, but I do wish there had been a bit more of a role for Spidey in this one.  The Green Goblin *did* come to us from Spidey’s rogue’s gallery, after all.  One of my favorite things about Dark Reign has been that Cap and Ms. Marvel and all these big-shot Avengers are all, “OMG, the villains are in charge of everything in our lives, this is the worst thing EVAH!” And Spidey basically says (1) Welcome to my world; and (2) Don’t worry, Osborn will shoot himself in the foot eventually, trust me, he always does.  It was really fun watching Spidey school the other super-heroes on how to handle being the underdog, and a big part of me wanted him to have a moment of standing over a defeated Osborn saying, “See, told you so.”  Maybe that’ll happen in the first issue of the New New Avengers re-launch or whatever they’re calling it.

But, more than anything, some part of me is sad that the super-villains aren’t in charge anymore.  It’s just so much more fun when the villains are on top.  (See also the original Star Wars trilogy, Lex Luthor’s tenure as president of the United States in the DC Universe, or the many Cylon victories in BSG.)  I suspect there are several reasons why it’s appealing when the villains have the upper hand, among them, (1) it gives the heroes a bigger and more interesting challenge, almost always a good way to go; and (2) at some level, don’t all of us occasionally, secretly identify with the villains, and want their crazy schemes for world conquest to succeed?  Who wouldn’t love for poor Brain *just once* to succeed when he tells his friend their plans for the evening: “The same thing we do every night, Pinky.  Try to take over the world.”  Seriously, I’d pay a lot of money to see an episode where Brain succeeds.  Among other things, I’d like to know, What would Brain do next?  How would humanity feel about their rodentia overlord?  What would Pinky’s role be in a Brain dictatorship? Etc.  With stories like Dark Reign, we get to see both heroes and villains react to situations we haven’t normally seen them in before – especially refreshing in the comic book sphere, where so many stories and battles get recycled.

(Minor spoilers below the fold.)

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Five Signs a Superhero Movie Franchise Has Jumped the Shark

I didn’t catch the opening of Iron Man 2 yet, but several things I’ve read about the movie have got me worried.  I have no expectation that it will be as good as the first one; I’d be happy with merely decent.  My worry is that the Iron Man movie franchise has already completely jumped the shark.  To assess the situation, I’ve identified five signs that a superhero sequel has gone to very bad places.

(Note: My main focus here is on superhero movie series that start out at least decent and become quite indecent.  So there is no place for, say, Fantastic Four in this analysis, since that series had nowhere to go but up after its frightful start.)

1. Supervillain Proliferation

As a franchise goes on for one or more sequels, some brilliant producer inevitably gets the idea, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if there were two supervillains in this movie?”  Alas, it is rarely cool.  Mostly it just leads to a crowded cast and a crowded script, and lots of cornball moments.  An early example is Batman Forever, when the Riddler finds Two-Face in his lair and basically says, “Hey, we’re both supervillians with weird fetishes and a shared hatred of Batman.  Let’s team up!”  Jim Carey’s over-the-top humor almost makes it work.

More recently, Spider-Man 3 had a major supervillain overdose, with Sandman, a new Green Goblin (Harry Osborn), and Venom all crammed into one plot.

There are notable exceptions to the rule, of course. Batman Begins worked perfectly fine with both the Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul – but in that case, Scarecrow was working for Ra’s al Ghul from the start – very different from an awkward team-up or a jigsaw puzzle of disparate plots.  And, of course, at least two X-movies did okay with a team of super-villains.

Things don’t look great for Iron Man 2 on this count, with both Justin Hammer and Blacklash/Crimson Dynamo taking the stage.

2. The Hero Goes Bad, Often for Silly Reasons

The superhero going bad seems to be a low-hanging fruit for comic-book sequels, often for fairly contrived reasons, and almost always with disastrous results.  The first superhero sequel to go this route was probably Superman 3, wherein Supes goes bad after exposure to faulty kryptonite mixed with cigarette tar. But, without a doubt, the most painfully egregious offender on this score is Spider-Man 3, in which possession by the black suit makes Spidey go evil, exposing millions of unsuspecting fans to Tobey Maguire dancing awkwardly to disco music.  A lesser offender is X3: the Last Stand, with Jean Grey transforming into the evil Phoenix.

Also of note are the clever visual cues directors use to indicate the hero’s new, evil-fied persona:  evil Phoenix’s veins pop out of her skin; evil Superman is unshaven, has a tan, and a costume that looks like it hasn’t been laundered in a while; and, most frighteningly of all, evil Peter Parker has bangs.

I’m not sure how they’d depict an evil Iron Man, since Tony Stark already has a beard and what-not, but it does sound like Stark is a bit of a jerk in Iron Man 2, but far from full-on evil.

3. The More Plots the Merrier

This one is a close corollary of indicator #1.  As villains proliferate, so too do the number of plot convolutions.  Many storylines are crammed together – some of them even interesting! – but none are explored in-depth because the script is just too crowded.  Witness Wikipedia’s sad attempt to briefly summarize the premise of Spider-Man 3:

The film begins with Peter Parker basking in his success as Spider-Man, while Mary Jane Watson continues her Broadway career. Harry Osborn still seeks vengeance for his father’s death, and an escaped convict, Flint Marko, falls into a particle accelerator and is transformed into a shape-shifting sand manipulator. An extraterrestrial symbiote crashes to Earth and bonds with Peter, influencing his behavior for the worse. When Peter abandons the symbiote, it finds refuge in Eddie Brock, a rival photographer, causing Peter to face his greatest challenge.

Yikes.  A more distressing example was X-Men: The Last Stand, which took two awesome storylines directly from the pages of the comic books (Chris Claremont’s classic Dark Phoenix Saga and Joss Whedon’s more recent “mutant cure” story), and then put them in a blender to make one awful mess of a movie.

No one seems able to summarize the plot of Iron Man 2 in three sentences or less, which has me worried.

4. Awkward Love Sub-Plots

At some point in any superhero series, the standard superhero love interest gets boring, and convoluted love sub-plots often ensue.  And so we have Lana Lang attempting to fill in for Lois Lane’s absence in Superman 3, Cyclops getting killed off so that Wolverine and Jean Grey can have more sexy screen time in X3, and a lazily undeveloped love triangle between Peter Parker, Mary Jane, and Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man 3.

With both the Black Widow and Pepper in Iron Man 2, this may be yet another sign of danger…

5. The Title Has a “3” in it

As you may have noticed, I’ve picked quite a lot on Batman Forever, Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Superman 3.  All four represented turns for the worse in series that, up until that point, had produced movies that were at least decent, if not excellent.  One final thing they all have in common is that they were all the third in the series.  So perhaps there’s still hope for Iron Man 2!

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is More than Fun

For Christmas, my fab sister gave me Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. (Okay, she gave it to Hassan, but she knew I’d read it too.)  Bechdel is the author/artist behind the successful and hilarious comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and Fun Home is her autobiography in graphic form. 

The main thrust of the story focuses on her relationship with her father, an English teacher who is obsessed with the historic restoration of their gothic revival home.  His hobby makes the family’s home a bit like a museum – both in its archaic beauty and its stifling atmosphere.  Dad seems more interested in restoring the shingles to their former glory than he is in showing any affection for his kids.  In college, Alison comes out to her parents.  She prepares herself for rejection but gets something possibly even more overwhelming: she learns her father has had affairs with men, including her former babysitter.  A few months later, as she’s still processing this new understanding of her family history, her father dies in what may have been suicide.

It mean some like these are spoilers, but all of this is clear within the first few pages.  Alison unfolds the narrative of her family not-quite-chronologically, going back and forth in time, creating a picture that grows more complex and fascinating with each new detail.  At some point, I think I may haveto re-read the book just to get a better understanding of how she structured it. 

Bechdel is an exceptional master at using the combination of words and pictures, for maximum, astoundingly efficient effect, as in the image below.  She tells her story with honesty and skill, and along the way draws on everything from the Icarus-Daedalus myth to Stonewall and James Joyce.  And on the final page she manages to bring her non-linear narratives together in a way that added yet another layer of complexity to her story and was also deeply moving.  Go forth and read it – you won’t be disappointed!

Comic Book Crossovers Do Battle at Fantasy

finalcrisis-deathofbatman02-smFantasy Magazine has published my latest column, “Battle of the Comic Book Mega-Crossovers: Final Crisis vs. Secret Invasion.”  It’s a fun look at the galaxy-spanning crossovers that Marvel and DC put out over the past year, including some nice visuals.

Check it out, and while you’re there, check out some of their other awesome stuff, including stories by Michael Greenhut and Peter Ball, which made Fantasy’s top five stories for 2008 as voted on by readers.

On a More Optimistic Note

After a long conversation about ROF, Hassan forwarded me this recent article in the Telegraph, which has a surprisingly optimistic view of how the recession (downturn? crisis?) will affect the publishing industry.  Here’s an excerpt:

While Breedt acknowledges that the recession is sure to dent sales, he has one area of hope. “The most spectacular area of growth in recent years has been in manga and graphic novels, which were non-existent in 2001. But sales have increased by almost 100 per cent year-on-year ever since. In 2008, 114,000 units were sold making £1.5 million. What’s great about this is that it’s a genre bought primarily by young people, which implies there’s a real future for the market.”

Publishers and literary agents are also staying on the sober side of upbeat. They all feel that, for true readers, books are not a “discretionary spend”. As Katharine Fullerton Gerould wrote in the Twenties: “If we have a dollar to spend on some wild excess, we shall spend it on a book, not on asparagus out of season.” But what sorts of books will we be buying through a recession? Most publishers agree we’re likely to turn away from the grimmer stuff. Misery memoirs will take a nosedive, as will “suicidally bleak” literary fiction. We’ll seek comfort between the covers of romances and murder mysteries.

The level of optimism from some of those quoted seems more spin than anything else, but it does make sense to me that some genres will do the same or better while others will take the hardest hit. In spec fic, I imagine YA, high fantasy, and light space opera won’t do too badly…. perhaps the darker subgenres may suffer more?  Of course, this doesn’t really have much to do with the print magazines, which were struggling even before the economy went kerplunk. 

The graphic novel upswing as evidence for optimism seems especially odd.  I don’t know a lot about it, but it seems like that’s really just about the big companies finally figuring out they could take nearly everything they put out and repackage it as trade paperbacks for distribution through book stores – not sure if it’s evidence of any trend beyond that.

More interview meme-ing fun to come later …

Secret Invasion: The “Wha-huh?” Moments

secret_invasion_2_p1So Marvel Comics has just wrapped up Secret Invasion,  its mega-crossover for 2008.  Shape-changing alien skrulls secretly invade earth, taking the place of many of your favorite superheroes.  You can’t trust anybody anymore.  An old but fun premise with lots of potential, especially in the hands of talented writer Brian Michael Bendis.  Sadly, it concluded with a whole bunch of Whahuh? moments.  Spoiler-filled, highly editorial discussion below the fold.

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