2013年7月31日 星期三

"Red Hulk" by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness

I've never understood the appeal of the Red Hulk.  In a way I get it - he's big, he's red, he's angry, and he's smart - but in another way he doesn't seem all that different from the "intelligent" or even "funny" hulks seen before.  Back when Peter David was giving us a whole pantheon of hulks, the Red Hulk would have been beside the point.  He would have been irrelevant.

Times change I guess.  After the conclusion of "World War Hulk" (a great smashup), this Red Hulk appears, and heroes such as Iron Man, She-Hulk, and Thor must contend with the threat he poses.  By the end of this TPB, the good ol' Green Hulk inevitably appears, the predictable occurs, and everyone goes on about their business as if the world hadn't almost ended (again).

Wikipedia tells me that Marvel also created a Red She-Hulk, and that this Red She-Hulk squared off against the original Green She-Hulk, who was not originally green but rather pink.  I suppose that in time we'll see a Blue Hulk, or maybe an Orange Hulk, to compliment the Grey, Green, and Red Hulks already in existence.  Perhaps Marvel could build the whole thing up into a gigantic "Battle of the Rainbow Hulk" event, thus giving the comic book world its first homosexual monster superhero.

That would be cool.  I think.

"Catwoman: When in Rome" by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Brought to you by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, the creative team behind "Batman: the Long Halloween," this TPB details Catwoman's exploits in Italy.

The story is minimal, but nuanced in a way that most comic books aren't.  The art is great, but this will come as no surprise to anyone who's seen Sale's artwork elsewhere.  And while not as good as "Long Halloween," it's nice to see someone other than Batman get the spotlight for a while.  Catwoman is a great character, and I enjoyed the way in which she employs both sex and violence to achieve her ends.

"Countdown to Final Crisis Volume 4" by Paul Dini and Many Others

The fourth and final volume of "Countdown" sets the stage for Grant Morrison's "Final Crisis."  The artwork ranges from decent to pretty good, and all of the story threads are brought together nicely in the end.

Darkseid and one of the Monitors (I forget his name) continue their chess game, manipulating events in each of the 52 multiverses.  Karate Kid dies, but his corpse infects one of the multiverses with the "morticoccus" virus and wipes out almost everyone on Earth.  Mary Marvel gets her sexier black costume, and Darkseid attempts to reclaim the energies he stole from the rest of the New Gods.  It's all very, very confusing and hard to follow, but the conclusion is satisfying and I guess that was the whole point.

As said elsewhere, I'm not a fan of Grant Morrison's "Final Crisis," and I think that "Countdown" communicates more of the grandiosity one would expect from the company that gave us comics like "Watchmen" and "Crisis on Infinite Earths."  It's not perfect, but it's worth a read.

"Aztek: the Ultimate Man" by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Others

Grant Morrison AND Mark Millar wrote this one.  Yeah, the art inside is pretty bad, but I was hoping that the story made up for it.

I'm not up on Aztek's backstory, but apparently it has something to do with some secret, South American society that trains warriors for a coming showdown with an evil god.  Every so often they elect a champion, and this champion wears a special helmet that allows him or her to use some kind of "fourth dimensional power."  The power accessed is non-chronological in nature, so I'm thinking that the fourth dimension accessed must be something other than time.

Anyway, it's probably not worth thinking about.

Aztek spends this TPB adjusting to modern life, and having somewhat amusing conversations with other superheroes.  It's not nearly as good as anything Morrison did with Animal Man, and light years away from Millar's work on The Ultimates.  If it's not quite boring, it's not quite interesting either.

2013年7月22日 星期一

The DC Cinematic Univerise - July 2013

I'll begin by referring you to this article in The Huffington Post, which is just reiterating an earlier article in The Hollywood Reporter.

Thanks to the phenomenal success of "Man of Steel", it looks like plans for the DC Cinematic Universe are well underway.

Warner Bros. is now planning to feature Batman in the 2015 sequel to "Man of Steel".  As to whether the two heroes will be friends or adversaries remains to be seen, but Zack Snyder's use of a quote from Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns" leads one to believe that the relationship between the two will be an ambiguous one.  While "World's Finest" is often mentioned as a possible title for this Superman/Batman sequel, I really hope the studio goes with something a bit more understated.

Better still, The Flash is set to appear in his own feature film in 2016.  I am very excited about this development, and I am eager to see what a (hopefully) good director and a good script can do for this character.  It is somewhat unfortunate that Quicksilver (Marvel's Flash clone) is likely to appear in Marvel's "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and the next X-men film, but I'll take what I can get.  If Warner Bros. is on the ball, they will avoid making The Flash too similar to whatever Joss Whedon will be doing.

Then, in 2017, we should finally see the Justice League hit the big screen.  It seems a bit strange to do this in the absence of at least a Wonder Woman film, but I can understand their hurry.  Marvel Studios is already one film into its "Phase 2", and DC has only just started their own cinematic universe.

2013年7月17日 星期三

"All Flesh is Grass" by Clifford D. Simak

"All Flesh is Grass" first appeared in 1965, when the author was already several decades into a career that spanned more than 50 years.  Simak was also the author of "City," which has also been reviewed here.

The story begins in Millville, a small Midwestern town where Simak was born.  Much of this novel seems to be autobiographical in nature, with the protagonist frequently digressing into meditations on small town life, the loss of personal acquaintances, and the changing pace of life in places like Millville.  

About a fourth of the way through, this novel turns into a science fiction story, with less than satisfying results.  The sci-fi elements seem rather unnecessary, and one wonders why Simak didn't just write a book about small town America.  While annoyingly folksy, it is only the sections of this book that discuss his hometown life that really seem authentic, and the remainder seems borrowed from other sources.

The protagonist's thought processes also seem disjointed, and sometimes his actions just don't make any sense.  I had trouble following his reasoning, and there were many points where I imagined myself in similar situations, coming to opposite conclusions.  I still can't figure out why he would accept an envelope of cash and not have any idea what the money was for, regardless of how desperate he was.

"City" was a much better book, though that novel also had serious flaws.  I would only recommend Simak if you've been through all of the more notable novels from sci-fi's golden age.  If you haven't, I would suggest "Foundation," "Childhood's End," "Dune," or any of the other books from that period.  All of them are much more fully realized than "All Flesh is Grass," and all of those books are novels in which the science fiction elements are more than an afterthought.

2013年7月13日 星期六

"Childhood's End" by Arthur C. Clarke

"...however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods.  Not necessarily through any deliberate act, but in a subtler fashion.  Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets.  No one ever demonstrated, as far as I am aware, the non-existence of Zeus or Thor, but they have few followers now.  The Wainwrights fear, too, that we know the truth about the origins of their faiths.  How long, they wonder, have we been observing humanity?  Have we watched Mohammed begin the Hegira, or Moses giving the Jews their laws?  Do we know all that is false in the stories they believe?"

"Childhood's End" was first published in 1953, though parts of it were published as a short story, "Guardian Angel," as early as 1945.  This novel, in various forms, would be roughly contemporary with Isaac Asimov's first "Foundation" stories, and would predate Frank Herbert's "Dune" novels by two decades.

The novel details the arrival of an alien race, the Overlords, in the year 1975.  The Overlords assume stewardship over the Earth and its peoples, ushering in a golden age of peace and prosperity.  Humanity, at first straining against the controls imposed by the Overlords, learns to live in harmony with the aliens, and to eventually evolve beyond the aliens' technological superiority.

All of which will sound very familiar to anyone who's read 2001, or any of its three sequels.  The difference being that the Overlords of "Childhood's End" endeavor to establish a dialogue between humankind and themselves, to the mutual advantage of both species.  The "aliens" (if they can be called that) of the 2001 series are much further removed in terms of time, space, and intelligence, and the mysteries they guard over are only ever glimpsed - much less understood -by the feeble minds of Man.

While I loved the 2001 novels for their scientific accuracy, their prognostication, and the questions they posed, I found "Childhood's End" to be a far more human novel, and in a way far more wide-ranging. "Childhood's End" is rather like the corollary of the 2001 novels, in that it explores many of the same questions from the opposite point of view.  Where 2001 begins from "What does it mean to be alien?", "Childhood's End" begins from "What does it mean to be human?"  Both questions are, of course, equally valid, but the center of "Childhood's End" is our own, living selves, and this is a much easier place to start from.

Another great thing about this novel is the way in which it seems to anticipate later works, by other authors.  As stated above, Asimov was already writing the "Foundation" novels at about the same time, and the following quote from Clarke's work brought those novels immediately to mind.

"A society consists of human beings whose behavior as individuals is unpredictable.  But if one takes enough of the basic units, then certain laws begin to appear - as was discovered long ago by life insurance companies.  No one can tell what individuals will die within a given time - yet the total number of deaths can be predicted with considerable accuracy.

"There are other, subtler laws, first glimpsed in the early twentieth century by mathematicians such as Weiner and Rashavesky.  They had argued that such events as economic depressions, the results of armament races, the stability of social groups, political elections, and so on, could be analyzed by the correct mathematical techniques."

Thus we have something very similar to Asimov's idea of Psychohistory, explained in less obtuse terms.  Even Asimov's prescient character, The Mule, is foreshadowed in "Childhood's End," as humanity begins to evolve abilities that put them beyond the Overlords' control.  And whereas Asimov spends three volumes (the original "Foundation Trilogy") working through these ideas, for Clarke they are issues of secondary importance, outside the main narrative thrust of "Childhood's End."

There is also this passage, which brought to mind Frank Herbert's "Dune":

"Yet your mystics, though they were lost in their own delusions, had seen part of the truth.  There are powers of the mind, and powers beyond the mind, which your science could have never brought within its framework without shattering it entirely. "

In this we have some intimation of a messianic quality within the human race, which will place it beyond the reach of interlopers.  The novel even goes on to state that there is an element of prescience involved with the quality, in that mythical archetypes within our human culture have predicted the coming of the Overlords.  Seen in this light, humanity's rapid evolution under the Overlords comes to resemble the kind of genetic manipulation seen in "Dune," with the result being a messiah or messiahs who will free humankind from bondage.  While Herbert certainly added a host of other ideas to this central concept, it is clear that it had origins at least as old as "Childhood's End."

I could go further, and point out all the other novels that "Childhood's End" seems to anticipate, but if you've read this far you're probably sufficiently interested to read it yourself, and draw your own conclusions.  I highly recommend this book, and I'm sure that any fan of the more intellectual science fiction novels will love it.

2013年7月5日 星期五

"Lord of Light" by Roger Zelazny

"It is because I am what I am, demon," said Siddhartha, hurling his energies back at him.  "It is because I am a man who occasionally aspires to things beyond the belly and the phallus.  I am not the saint the Buddhists think me to be, and I am not the hero out of legend.  I am a man who knows much fear, and who occasionally feels guilt.  Mainly, though, I am a man who has set out to do a thing, and you are now blocking my way.  Thus you inherit my curse - whether I win or whether I lose now, Taraka, your destiny has already been altered.  This is the curse of the Buddha - you will never again be the same as once you were."

"Lord of Light" was first published in 1967, and it later received the Hugo Award.  They tried and failed to make a movie out of it, and it may interest you to know that some of the props for this failed attempt at a film were later appropriated by the CIA, as part of their plan to repatriate several American citizens held hostage in Iran.  This plan was the basis for the movie "Argo," which received the Academy Award for Best Picture.  It is funny to think that "Lord of Light," a book now so obscure and so far removed from current trends in science fiction, continues - albeit secondhand - to exercise a hold on our culture.

"Lord of Light" is about the Buddha, translating his exploits into a science fiction context.  Recently reincarnated, he takes up arms (often literally) against the gods of the Hindu pantheon, on a world very similar to our own.  At times this fusion of the ancient and "modern" works, and at times reading "Lord of Light" can be a jarring experience.  It's hard to identify with a Buddha that resembles a character from an Asimov novel, and it's hard to digest the intrusion of sci-fi gadgetry into this story of gods going to war against a new faith.  There were moments when I wasn't sure where the author stood in relation to the events he was describing, whether phenomena such as reincarnation were ultimately attributable to scientific causes, or whether the "gods" in this story were truly gods at all.  There is an ambiguity to "Lord of Light" that can be frustrating, and it remains an open question as to whether much of this ambiguity was intentional, or the result of sloppy writing.

I'm sure that "Lord of Light" blew people's minds when it first appeared in the late 60s.  I cannot think of a book better suited to the time in which it was released.  Even so, this exploration of Eastern philosophy will seem a bit dated to modern readers, even if the author is to be applauded for his ambition.  He, like the Siddhartha he describes, was a man aspiring to something.  This, I think, is the point that ultimately recommends "Lord of Light."  If it occasionally fails, its originality more than makes up for its failings.