Saturday, December 31, 2005

Some Stories Benefit From A Second Telling

Wonder Woman #224
Get out your handkerchiefs.

(Spoilers abound, here. Consider yourself forewarned.)

With Infinite Crisis #3 out for a week, the story in this issue was something of a chronicle foretold. In four well-wrought pages of IC we were shown the Amazons' deployment of the Purple Ray of Death (PRD), and Diana's realization that using the weapon to annihilate the OMACs would simply convince the rest of the world that her sisters were, to a woman, the crazy-eyed killers the world now thought her to be. Acknowledging that her mission had failed, Diana called upon Athena to move Paradise Island to another plane. After Diana takes leave of Phillipus and Artemis, Athena does the trick and the Island disappears. Our final glimpse of Wonder Woman is of a very small figure framed against the vastness of the ocean.

WW #224 provides an internal narration from the Amazon named Io to these events. Io is the Amazon's ironwright and weapon-maker, and it was she who built the dreaded PRD (after considerable coaxing, since she knew that Diana would disapprove). Io's voice is distinctive for several reasons, probably the most important being that she's carrying a torch for Diana that's larger than the one held aloft by the Statue of Liberty.

So the issue provides this human element to the cosmic events already described. IC #3 had a lot of ground to cover, and provided a macroscopic view of what happened, kind of like a breathless aunt or uncle telling a relative-packed, multi-generation story to you. WW #224, on the other hand, is like someone you know telling you what it meant for them to have taken part in a single important event. (With the event being a small portion of the breathless aunt's big-ass story, if you get what I mean).

I've been following a friendly exchange (and difference of opinion) about the nature of Wonder Woman between Ragnell and Zombie Mallet with interest. I agree with R. on this; my feeling is that it's misguided for us to think of Wonder Woman as an "everywoman" character. Diana's anything but ordinary. And what struck me about WW #224 was how hard (and successfully) the writer, Greg Rucka, worked to have the reader see Diana through the eyes of another Amazon. Here's how Io (no slouch herself) describes Diana:
She is the best of us in every way that matters.
She embodies every one of our ideals.
Wisdom, intelligence, compassion, and determination.
Strength and beauty and grace and devotion.
She is the best of us, and we gave her to the patriarch's world, so that they might learn.

In addition to this needed perspective, the issue also depicts Diana's farewell as something that carried more of an emotional punch for those involved. Diana's final moments with her sisters in IC #3 were kind of antisceptic-- imagine Casablanca ending with a close-in shot of Claude Rains' face as he delivered a spoken description of how Bogie took his leave of Ingrid Bergman!

Here are Io's thoughts at the close of WW #224:
Our princess, our most precious gift to the world ... Lost to us ...

Though I didn't care for the art in WW #224, several panels near the close of the issue are spot on. The penciller nails the moment that Diana actually recognizes what the effects of her separation from the Amazons will be. There's also a panel showing the reader that Diana "gets" how Io feels towards her. (For those of you who've read it, I'm specifically thinking about the panel prior to the one showing Diana's farewell peck to Io's cheek).

I've come to the point of view that it's actually a writer's job to manipulate and manage the reactions and emotions of her readers. (The nastiest epithet I could hurl at a book or movie in ye olden days was that it was manipulative crap. Don't get me wrong, I still call crap crap, but I don't judge things solely on the basis of their manipulative-ness.) Rucka plays his readers like a violin here, delivering a farewell that's emotionally satisfying (without being too maudin). With that behind me, I now look forward to seeing how Wonder Woman handles those menacing OMACs.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Now, It's Personal

Catwoman #50

(Spoilers abound, here. Consider yourself forewarned.)

Given the speculation on various message boards, fairly detailed advanced solicitations, and DC's use of and Wizard magazine as conduits of information, I pretty much already knew what would happen in this comic book before I purchased it. That it greatly entertained me in spite of this important fact is a testament to how well the comic's being written.

I scanned any interviews or articles with Will Pfeifer, Catwoman's writer, before reading them carefully, hoping to avoid definitive statments as to whether Catwoman/Selina Kyle had been mindwiped by the Justice League. However, in a seemingly innocuous article in Wizard #172 about the future line-up of the JLA, Brad Meltzer came out and spilled it. When asked if Catwoman would be up for membership in the reborn JLA, Meltzer's simple reply was: "Not after they messed with her brain."

My thinking on mind-wipes has changed. I had no problem when Dr. Light was mindwiped after raping Sue Dibny in Identity Crisis. I thought this was a questionable, though understandable move. Light was, after all, a raping bastard who had learned the JLA's secret identities, and was itching to do even more damage. When Batman's memory was altered to assure that Light's mind-wipe would occur, I thought, this is clearly not ideal, but if you want to eat an omelette you're going to have to break a few eggs. I did flinch upon learning in "Crisis of Conscience" that Zatanna's mindwipe of Star Sapphire had left the super-villainess comatose, and in the care of warders who ominously discussed the tempatation to peek under her bedsheets (viewers of Kill Bill vol. 1 will get the full implications of this reference). I actually cheered for Despero (an intergalactic telepathic super-tyrant!) when he appeared at Sapphire's bedside to revive her.

So I knew prior to reading the issue that Selina Kyle had been mindwiped. (I'll save a discussion over whether this is a welcome or problematic plot development for the series for another post.) And, as I've said, I knew what I thought about the JLA's resorting to the procedure. What I didn't expect was how seeing a character I like and identify with subjected to the process would really piss me off.

CW #50 makes clear that Zatanna is pretty much carrying out the will of stronger characters (with Hawkman being the main heavy) in mind-wiping Selina. However, what makes it difficult to excuse Zatanna's part in this is the fact that she clearly recognizes that the mind-wipe is at its core a violent and damaging act. It's all made even worse because Zatanna inflicts this violent mojo on someone who has already been subdued and captured. Now, I'm not saying that Zatanna beat Selina with a rubber hose until she promised to be good. But something similar in principle (though different in scale) did happen. Zatanna believed that the end (a "good" Selina) justified the means (using magic to fry parts of Selina's brain), and the writers of CW and Identity Crisis have definitely forced us to deal with an unsavory side of Zatanna's character.

To her credit, the last thing Zatanna says to Selina before inflicting the backwards-spoken mojo on her is "And believe it or not ... I'm sorry." I like Zatanna. Coming clean to Selina and undoing the mind-wipe is a step towards redemption for her. However, I also couldn't help thinking that Selina's throwing her out of the nearest window once the spell was removed was the absolute right thing to happen. Pfeifer lets us see Selina's thoughts, here:
I don't know who I am. I don't know what to do.

But that's not what scares me.

What scares me is what I do know. I know what a villain would do.

The stakes are high all 'round: Zatanna survives her fall, but Selina didn't know this would happen when she threw her out the window. The "good" Selina was made privy to all sorts of juicy secret knowledge about Batman and the JLA; will she keep these secrets? What's more, several other plot developments moved forward in the issue, assuring that reading Catwoman will be interesting in the months to come.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Recently Acquired

Excalibur: Weird War III, Marvel TPB
Gen13: Ordinary Heroes, Wildstorm TPB
Don Hudson, Gunpowder Girl and the Outlaw Squaw, Active Images TPB
Wolfman and Pérez, History of the DC Universe, Book Two, DC TPB, 1986
JLA/Withblade, DC/Top Cow TPB, 2000
Gail Simone and Lea Hernandez, Killer Princesses, Oni TPB, 2004
Daniels, Wonder Woman: The Complete History, Chronicle Books, 2000

JLA/Witchblade is good crazy fun. (Oracle, Huntress, and Wonder Woman must come to terms with the mysterious power of the Witchblade!) Without continuity to constrain him, Len Kaminski pulls out all of the stops, running us through what would happen if a gravely wounded Sara Pezzini made her way to Gotham City seeking the assistance of her aquaintance, Barbara Gordon.

Gunpowder Girl and the Outlaw Squaw has "labor of love" written all over it, and it's always fun to read projects like this. There are some impressive panels in the book: the fight scenes are expertly drawn, and the sequence depicting Jill's imprisonment is particularly affecting. A book about three strong women relying upon one another to survive as outlaws in the Wild West will always get my attention, and will keep it when the writer deploys his references to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou so well. However, I was left with a nagging need to understand what exactly drew these particular women together. I'm looking forward to a prequel TPB or a separately published issue #0 to the series.

As you might imagine, I was immediately drawn to both the Wonder Woman text and the DC History; I realize that their general appeal might be limited. However I will say that in this time of Infinite Crisis, the History was instrumental in helping me fully de-code parts of issue #3.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Feeding the Meme of Four

I was tagged by Will Pfeifer's blog X-Ray Spex, and must obey. (Bloggers who read this, consider yourselves likewise compelled.) Here are my quartets of answers:

Four jobs you’ve had in your life: indentured xeroxer (law firm); lab technician; assistant librarian; college history prof.

Four movies you could watch over and over: Vertigo (Hitchcock); M (Fritz Lang); The Godfather, Parts 1 & 2 (Coppola; counts as one); Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr.

Four places you’ve lived: Jersey City, NJ; New York City; Princeton, NJ; Philadelphia, PA.

Four TV shows you love to watch: Seinfeld; The Simpsons, The Honeymooners; Law and Order.

Four places you’ve been on vacation (if research trips count as vacations): Edinburgh, Scotland; London; San Francisco; Seville, Spain.

Four websites you visit daily:;;; wikipedia.

Four of your favorite foods: steak (esp. a filet mignon prepared rare); risotto; grilled eggplant; swordfish curry.

Four places you’d rather be: Chennai (Madras), India; Edinburgh, Scotland; Madrid, Spain; New York City.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


My wife asked me for a run-down on what happened in Infinite Crisis #3 this morning. I started by telling her that I believe the writers and artists continue to move forward in an impressive fashion, and that I really meant this, even though she thinks I'm into this stuff too deep to be objective about it. Though I gave her a fairly detailed run-down of all the story points, I succeeded in doing so without (I think) leading her to doubt my sanity. Anyone who has tried to describe occurrences in a comic book that they've followed for a long time to someone who is (at best) indifferent or (at worst) hostile knows what I'm talking about, here.

I've been heartily enjoying revisiting Peter David's run on Supergirl, and especially enjoyed a moment near the close of issue 35. It's kind of a re-cap issue, aimed at bringing new readers up to speed on the character, her powers, and what's going on in general. (Something that contributors to the "letters page" had been clamoring for since issue 16 or so.) There's a lot of fairly turgid exposition, and, to be frank, the art by Leonard Kirk is not all that inspired. Nonetheless, the comic does end with a big "reveal." But, for my money, the issue is redeemed by a single memorable and nicely written passage.

Supergirl has just decisively defeated The Parasite in Paris, to the great acclaim of the locals. Here are her thoughts:
Wow. Standing in triumph on top of the arch of triumph. It just doesn't get better than this.

Cape's flapping and everything. God, I look cool.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Comics: Good News, Bad News

First, the good:
(1) The release date for Infinite Crisis #3 has been bumped up to today. Spider-Woman: Origin, with art by the Luna brothers, will also be in the shop this afternoon. (Not to mention Birds of Prey #89, X-Men: Deadly Genesis #2, and Justice #3.)

(2) Chris Claremont, who penned the classic X-Men run spanning issues 94-142 (Death of Jane Grey [1]; Phoenix; Dark Phoenix; Days of Future Past) seems to have regained his stride. New Excalibur #1-2 and Uncanny X-Men #466-7 have been something of a return to form, and I look forward, for the first time in years, to future issues he's written.

The bad:
Ed Brubaker's Catwoman and Bendis' Alias were the two titles that drew me back into comic books after 2000. They each headlined a complex woman who was facing problems that (though embedded in their respective comic book universes) were recognizably real. Brubaker took Selina Kyle on a journey from arch-villain and B-list player to symapthetic and flawed heroine; she went from a supporting figure to someone who could carry her own title. I know it's going to sound arrogant, but it seemed to me that Brubaker's Catwoman was a comic for grown-ups, and I enjoyed it immensely and proselytized about it to my wife, friends, colleagues, and extended family.

While I know the DC Universe is being turned inside out by Infinite Crisis, with much-beloved characters like Ted Kord/Blue Beetle and the Freedom Fighters being murdered by their foes, I have been troubled by what I've been learning about changes coming up for Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Although she's going to survive the crisis, Selina will be forced to change her identity, leave Gotham City, and, in consequence, another woman will take up the mantle of Catwoman. I'm fine with these developments; Ed Brubaker wrote several effective "road trip" storylines during his marvelous run on the title, and I'm even open to a temporary replacement, as long as this is all written well. However, an additional problematic change suggests that these developments may be permanent. Selina Kyle, it's been confirmed, will be pregnant in the year following the crisis. While I'm in favor of women attaining pregnancy and having children, this will mark a major and, presumably, permanent transformation to the character. And, in the context of how this character has developed over the decades (and especially in recent years), this represents a change with ramifications as momentous as death.

Now, I'm not planning to break all of my toys and turn my back on the book and all other DC titles. I'm actually looking forward to seeing how the writer, Will Pfeifer, handles all of these changes. I must admit that it will, however, take me some time to get used to a DC universe that contains a Catwoman who is no longer Selina Kyle.

Update (12.22.05; 8:45AM): Will Pfeifer comments on Catwoman's new directions here. It sounds like he gets it. (Thank goodness.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Man-Ape Hybrid Soldiers

1926. It was a dangerous world. A nascent Soviet state beset by internal and external enemies bent upon its destruction. Consequently, Stalin and the Politburo requested an army of super-strong, hunger-resistant, easy to mass-produce man-ape killing machines from the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

The details are available here.

You see, comic books are not that far from reality.

(Via Wonkette.)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Recent Finds

One of the second-hand bookstores in my neighborhood keeps a crate of old comics; turnover isn't high, but new things do appear there now and then. (Come to think of it, I'm probably the only one buying anything from this stash.) This afternoon I purchased:

6 issues from Peter David's Supergirl run: numbers 16, 35, 54, 64, 66 and 67. There were actually two copies of #54, and, since they were so cheap, I bought them both; if anyone collects this title and wants it, please let me know.

I've read the final issues in David's run, which appeared in a TPB titled Many Happy Returns, and enjoyed them very much. I'll definitely be on the lookout for more issues.

Anyone who hasn't read (or bought) David's X-Factor #1 should run to their comic shop and do so as soon as they can.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


A number of factors have come together to create a perfect storm of new book acquisitions here at Mortlake. Since I plan to begin celebrating my birthday as soon as I finish typing this post, here's a lightly annotated list:

(1) Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, (Viking Press, 1971).
(2) Russell Hoban, A Bargain For Frances, (Scholastic Books Services, 1971).
(3) Igort, 5 is the Perfect Number, Drawn and Quarterly, 2003.

Two by Jonathan Lethem:
(4) Men and Cartoons: Stories, (Doubleday, 2004)
(5) The Dissappointment Artist: Essays, (Doubleday, 2005)
I highly recommend "The Vision" (from M&C) and "Identifying With Your Parents" (from DA).

(6) Ted Naifeh and Tristan Crane, How Loathsome, (nbm Comics Lit, 2004).
(7) David Sim, Swords of Cerebus, volumes 1-6, (Aardvark Vanaheim, Inc, 1981-2).
(8) William Steig, Dominic, (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1972).

Comics Trade Paperbacks:
(1) Day Of Vengeance, DC Comics, 2005.
(2) Claremont/Davis, Excalibur: The Sword is Drawn, Marvel, 1988.
(3) Showcase Presents: Superman, DC Comics, 2005.
(4) Will Eisner, The Best of The Spirit, DC Comics, 2005.
(5) Mike Allred, The Superman Madman Hullabaloo! Dark Horse/DC Comics, 1997.
(6) Essential Spider-Woman, volume 1, Marvel Comics, 2005.

New Excalibur #1-2
New X-Men #21
Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve #10
Sea of Red #7
Spider-Girl #93
Uncanny X-Men #466-7
X-Factor #1

From the 25c bin:
Excalibur, #12, #13, and #15
Wonder Woman: Legends of the DC Universe #4

Finally, a piece of very good comics-related news (that I discovered yesterday when Marvel Comics released their March solicitations). A hardcover, oversized Alias Omnibus of 700+ pages will be published. In my opinion Alias is Bendis' best work, and Jessica Jones is a wonderful character. This title was rumored to be in the offing for some time, and seeing it solicited was a nice birthday present from Marvel.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

All's Well That Ends Well

A good ending can really change how you consider a book or movie. In fact, if it's good enough, a fine ending can make you smooth over problems that might have annoyed you as you experienced them in the text or film. It's kind of like instant nostalgia (or magic).

Inspired by Ragnell's list of last lines from comics, here's a description of two extraordinary endings.

(1) Charles Burns' Black Hole, Pantheon, 2005.
(Those of you seeking a full review of the text can look here and here. I'm going to provide my impressions of the book's conclusion.) Black Hole's final chapter adroitly ties several important things together, as the author revisits several recurring images, scenes, and lines of dialogue. One young woman tells her lover that "I knew you'd come back," repeating it as a small mantra, and we learn why she particularly needed for this to be true. Chris, the novel's central figure, accepts a painful reality, admitting to herself what the reader knows, that her lover is indeed "gone forever." The book closes with several forceful panels. One is headed by the following thought balloon: "Eliza sitting naked on a pink towel, so beautiful I could die." (This panel is reproduced at the review of the book.) Another conveys the novel's final thought: Chris, after all she's been through, finds some peace, and says, "I'd stay out here forever if I could." While the roads facing these characters are by no means straight or clear, their futures have both positive and negative possibilities. (A lesser novelist would have highlighted one over the other.) Burns worked on this book for more than a decade, and I'm glad that he put in those years. Black Hole comes to a wise and mature conclusion, evincing a wisdom and maturity lacking from so many other graphic novels.

(2) William Steig's Abel's Island, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1976.
Abel (a mouse) is separated from his family, and his recent bride Amanda, by a storm and flood which carries him to an island, where he must learn to survive in the wild. While his previous urban existence has been quite refined and comfortable, Abel now has to secure shelter, defend himself from an owl and a cat, and come to terms with his fear and loneliness. Steig's book isn't a graphic novel, it's actually an illustrated text. However, it ends with four drawn panels; no words are added. The first drawing shows Abel finally at home, having changed into his regular clothes, and lounging on his couch with his legs crossed and his hands behind his head. The next drawing shows his wife arriving at home, and she's overjoyed because she has seen Abel's scarf on a side-table. In the third drawing Amanda drops her bag and calls for her husband. The two end the book in each other's arms, eyes closed, with Amanda's hat having fallen to the ground in her rush to embrace her returned husband. In the remarkable final picture Steig perfectly captures the movement, excited emotion, and the sense of repose and contentment that are a part of the moment.

This is the first installment to an ongoing list; let me know of books and movies that you think nailed their endings.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

An Eventful Week

Various things came to a head recently at Mortlake, forcing the light posting.

Yesterday, after visiting with my mother, my wife and I made the traffic-clogged trip into New York City to recover. It was great to be back in the city, and even falling on my back on a sheet of ice couldn't crap on the lovely experience. I visited the Strand Book Store, which has now fully completed its transformation into a well-lit, well-appointed, ably-ventilated retail establishment. I must admit, I don't like what's happened to it. I know I'm going to sound like an annoying old bastard who hates change, but, back in the day, if you entered the Strand on a hot and humid August afternoon you couldn't actually predict that you'd make it out of the unventilated store alive. For most of us bibliophiles, that's as close to an Indiana Jones experience you're likely to get, and now that's been taken from us.

On Tuesday morning I received the final proofs for my forthcoming book, and after carefully reviewing them, I'm happy to say that I approved them. After five months of laborious back and forth, (with the Press actually introducing errors that were not present in the previous galleys on several occasions), the text is now out of my hands.

Finally, I have been devoting myself to two writing and research projects, one creative, one academic, with renewed vigor, and I also answered Brain Cronin's call to contribute to his blog Snark Free Waters, where I posted some comics-related thoughts.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

More Pauline Kael

Essential quotes from "Trash, Art, and the Movies." Everywhere the word "movie," "movies," or "movie-going" appears, please substitute "comic," "comics," or "comics-reading":

(1) A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theater; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact ... If somewhere in the ... entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn't all corruption. The movie doesn't have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy of a good line. An actor's scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense. (pp. 106-7)

(2) Perhaps the single most intense pleasure of movie-going is this non-aesthetic one of escaping from the responsibilites of having the proper responses of us in our official (school) culture. ... Far from the supervision and official culture ... the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses. (pp. 126-7)

(3) If we go back and think over the movies we've enjoyed --even the ones we knew were terrible movies while we enjoyed them-- what we enjoyed in them, the little part that was good, had, in some rudimentary way, some freshness, some hint of style, some trace of beauty, some audacity, some craziness. (p. 131)

(4) I don't trust anyone who doesn't admit having at some time in his life enjoyed trashy American movies; I don't trust any of the tastes of people who were born with such good taste that they didn't need to find their way through trash. (p. 140)

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Quote of the Week

Jules Feiffer, discussing his book The Great Comic Book Heroes (in Comic Book Artist v. 2 #6, p. 121):

"Well, nobody had ever written about the form except to denigrate it and treat it condescendingly as trash, though there were those trying to say it was really not trash at all. But I wanted to say, "Yes, it is trash, and this is the value of such trash. We need trash."

For a smart, insightful, and inspiring exploration of popular culture, no one has yet topped Pauline Kael's, "Trash, Art, and the Movies," reprinted in her collection titled For Keeps, (Dutton, 1994), p. 200. The piece was originally printed in Harper's Magazine in 1969, and was first collected in Kael's Going Steady, (Little Brown, 1970).

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Week's Comics

New Avengers #13
Strange Girl #5
Witchblade #92
Wonder Woman #223
Comic Book Artist v. 2 #6, "Will Eisner Tribute"

What a week: each comic has much to praise. I look forward to the Spider-Woman story arc coming up in New Avengers; loved the layers of history and mythology added to the Witchblade; think Strange Girl is getting more and more interesting with each issue; and have found that Wonder Woman is my favorite DC title, at this point.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


From today's LA Times:

Martin "Amok" Thomas is jabbing a right, but Frank "so-cool-he-doesn't-need-a-nickname" Stoldt is as elusive as a ribbon in the wind. He can't be hit.


The gloves come off, and the men hurry across the canvas to the chessboard. (You heard it right.) Amok took a couple of body shots, and he's breathing hard, but he'd better focus. That Stoldt, though, everyone in the gym knows he's this warrior-thinker, slamming the speed clock, cunningly moving his queen amid unraveling bandages and dripping sweat, daring Amok to leave him a sliver of opportunity.


Velcro rips. Amok slides back into his Everlast gloves, bites down on his mouthpiece, dances along the ropes. His king's in trouble, and his punches couldn't knock lint off a jacket. Stoldt floats toward him like a cloud of big hurt.

Such is the bewildering beauty of chessboxing, alternating rounds of four minutes of chess followed by two minutes of boxing. Victory is claimed in a number of ways, some of them tedious, but the most thrilling are by checkmate and knockout.

The sport's godfather, Iepe "the Joker" Rubingh, believes that chessboxing, like that contest in which frostbitten Scandinavians ski around with rifles, is destined for the Olympics.

"It has enormous potential," says the Joker, 31, a taut Dutchman with an undamaged chin and wire-rimmed glasses.

If chess-boxing gets picked up as a sport in our nation's high schools, the walls protecting one of the last possible refuges for future generations of geeks (such as I was) will have been breached.

The development of the sport was inspired by a scene in a Euro-comic.

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