Saturday, May 31, 2008

Spaceknight Saturdays Encyclopedia Bonus

Encyclopedia Week is winding down, but I couldn't let Spaceknight Saturday pass without a non-spoiler look at Rom's Marvel Universe entries. Sadly, he didn't make it into Marvel Universe Deluxe #11's cover, and his Ditko-drawn picture is heavy on the Rom, and low on the Spaceknight.Hinting at a happy ending for our man in silver? I'm not reading the entry to find out.

I don't have all the issues of the original MU series, so I don't know what Rom's pic looked there, but he did make it into the really groovy Book of Weapons!
Rom's Neutralizer, Translator and Analyzer get no diagrams, but his armor does. Check it out!
Wow, dude's working on "brain remnants". I'm also enjoying the idea that his skin is actually a stasis field for his innards and may explain how the armor can be bonded to a person without anyone having to perform complicated surgery. Best issue of Marvel Universe EVER.

Spaceknight Saturdays: Dog Day Afternoon

My first thought: Are those Dire Wraiths on the cover? Is this how they were originally envisioned? But no, don't worry, they're not. In Rom #6, we do find out a little more about our story's villains, but not their true appearance. Not yet. We're not ready. Not by a long shot. Maybe we never will be.

Much like the world wasn't ready for a Rom television series. And yet, Bill Mantlo reveals in the letters page that there has been "interest" though no definite plans. Wow, imagine that. Who would have voiced him? (Because animation or live action, Rom would principally have been a voice.) But let's not get ahead of ourselves, how did #6 work out?

Well, we pick up where we left off as Rom, Brandy and Steve hide out in the latter's garage. Steve gets take-out, but there was no need. Rom can eat lightbulbs.
Wattage makes him feel logy, so he dozes off while Steve wonders how he'll pay the 200,000$ electric bill that's soon coming to his mailbox. Meanwhile, back at the Keyhole Building, the Wraiths are making decisions about Archie "Firefall" Stryker. Now that he knows the truth AND sports the worst headpiece of any Spaceknight, he's not use to them. Sister Sweet drills a tranquilizer into his arm and puts him to sleep (for now).
Interestingly, we learn that the Wraiths have a caste system divided into "first-born" who are colder and more ruthless and "second-born" who were spawned on Earth and are thus lower on the totem pole. Cut to the high council looking for a scapegoat. How about... you, SHIELD guy?
The mysterious Wraith with the blue hand (oh my, they've infiltrated Atlantis!) has made his choice. Together, the Wraiths summon Darkwing, a demonic being who could be the Phoenix Force's evil (more evil?) twin and makes them sweat profusely.
Meanwhile, those blind hellhounds are still sniffing around for Rom, and being techno-magic dogs, they have a few tricks up their collars:
Rrrroooo indeed! You know you've got quite the menace when their name might as well be a swear:
Makes me pine for a story where Superman fights Great Rao or Robin gets trounced by a Holy something-or-other. In case the Dire Wraiths' evil isn't pure enough, here's how they make those "dogs":
So they're not REALLY from the Dark Nebula, are they. Still, that's gonna get the ire of the SPCA up. Oh, and Rom's, of course. The hounds do have a strategy though. They make him drop his Neutralizer and encase it in a force field.
Then, they drop a car on him. Silly Hellhounds, haven't you been paying attention? You're just giving him his second-favorite weapon.
Hey, maybe it's time for Steve to prove his usefulness! As Rom and a hound tangle each other up in power cables (Steve's bill now up to 450,000$), he douses the other with premium unleaded. And taking a page from Die Hard 2...
...burns the poor creature alive! Too violent? Well, when you consider that the next page features electrocution in the biggest and most conveniently-placed barrel of water ever, it's all par for the course.
Do not **** with Rom! But Rom's not feeling too well. Could be that Sylvania he had for lunch or could be the dark, dark magics of Wraithkind, but we won't find out until next week. Be there for THE DEATH OF ROM!!! (Exaggeration mine.)

Star Trek 540: Mortal Coil

540. Mortal Coil

FORMULA: Phage + Ethics + The Loss

WHY WE LIKE IT: The crew in civvies.

WHY WE DON'T: Emo Neelix.

REVIEW: There are a lot of things wrong with Mortal Coil, but the one thing that works is how they show Neelix's importance to the crew. Or maybe I should say, to the family. There's the usual overview of his duties, but seeing the crew relaxing out of their uniforms (poor Seven isn't very good at it) somehow makes us believe in the community he's helped build. A new role for him is as godfather to Naomi Wildman who's gotten big at incredible speeds (though perhaps not as much as her mom's hair), though not yet mature enough to be played by Scarlett Pomers. At least it's explained, this time (unlike Alexander's maturation process). And Chakotay quoting Seven's robotic assessment of Neelix's importance as the Talaxian is about to commit suicide has real heart...

...But it's how we get there that doesn't work. I could believe a person would be disturbed by there seeming to be no afterlife after a near-death experience, but driving Neelix to the brink of suicide? The pep squad leader? The positive imp who takes Tuvok's scorn in stride daily? It just doesn't seem like him. There's also the fact that the Great Forest has never been mentioned before, so it's a faith they just made up for him so it could be in crisis, essentially. Imagine such a story starring Kira or Worf, whose faiths have been well established. That might have been something. And the episode is quite pointless, since Neelix's major character shift isn't taken into the next episodes (aside from one reference somewhere in the next season). The suicide storyline worked for O'Brien because 1) he already was a tormented, wounded character and 2) later episodes didn't seem to completely ignore Hard Time.

There's also a problem with his resurrection per se. It's never a good idea to write in miracle cures that then beg the question as to why it was never used again. If Borg nanoprobes from Seven's blood can revive a character 18-72 hours after their death, and it seems to work on Neelix fine (though there are complications, he stays alive through the whole of the series), and no one ever says it was a bad or unethical idea to do this, why is it never attempted again? Maybe Neelix IS soulless after this - it's at least an interesting thought - but again, never followed up on. As it is, it just makes him seem limited in his inability to recognize that perhaps he just doesn't remember the Great Forest or that the Almighty knew he wasn't really to die this day so didn't send him there. Basically, we haven't gotten this much wallowing in self-pity since Troi lost her powers.

Chakotay comes off well as the spiritual guide, though the vision quest Neelix has is entirely cynical and a reflection of his current state of mind, though built like a visit from the Prophets. There's also a mention of the Kazon as unfit for assimilation (they would detract from perfection). I'm all for being able to laugh at yourself, but it's still negative legacy building when you admit that your main enemy for 2 years sucked.

LESSON: Don't question miracles.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium-Low: Neelix annoys some people, but how is emo any better than peppy? The wrong idea implemented the wrong way on the wrong character for the wrong reasons.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Free Comic Book Day Friday Night Fight

Free Comic Book Day has wrought black and white fighting goodness from the strangest parts of comicdom... GUMBY!Don't worry, he'll be fine. That's not where his brain is.

Not sure where his brain is.

This TWUNCH brought to you by Bahlactus, of course.

Encyclopedias Can Be Silly

DIRECTORY TO A NONEXISTENT UNIVERSE #1, Independent Comics Group, December 1987
This is a comic I first saw on D&D night in the hands of my good friend Robert Tam. Loved it. Took me a couple years to track down my own copy. This one's dedicated to Rob...

Directory to a Nonexistent Universe

Full title: Kerry Callan's Directory to a Nonexistent Universe

Strengths: Funny as hell.

Weaknesses: There wasn't a second issue.

Kerry Callan's Directory is basically a parody of Marvel Universe or Who's Who, starring characters of his own devising, in a clean, black and white, illustration style, each character usually accompanied by one-panel art. The characters are either funny takes on other comic book characters (The Envelope) or terrible puns (Here's-Looking-At-You Kid).

I don't want to spoil the whole thing for you, but the Directory includes the Black & Blue Panther, a masochist who loves to be beaten up and has clearly marked and unprotected the painful areas of his body on his costume (no special groin area though).

Remember how Bruce Wayne was inspired by a bat that flew through his window, frightening him? Well the Envelope has a similar origin... Can you guess what it is? Of course, the Envelope wasn't traumatized by anything so extreme as his parents being shot in front of him. He was pretty angry that he forgot his checkbook one day and couldn't pay for his groceries though. The Directory also has an entry for the totally average Mark!
Callan's superhero world is one where heroes are more likely to team up for group therapy than to catch criminals. Characters have prestigious jobs like working in coat hanger factories and while some don't have any super-powers, they might still be darn good athletes. "Probably better than you are."
After the encyclopedia entries, you get a short and ridiculous comic book story that includes them all. I think this is probably their only appearance, but I guess it justifies the need for an encyclopedia. It's a simple tale of characters being whisked off by a Beyonder-like being and forced to endure each other for 8 pages. Stupid-Man gets taken while he's trying to eat soup with a knife, and so on. Almost everyone makes it, but the Missing Lynx is conspicuously absent (from the Directory too). It's rather light on plot, but heavy on bad puns.

I suppose this is a winner only if, like me, you think puns are the height of wit...

Star Trek 539: Concerning Flight

539. Concerning Flight

FORMULA: Future's End + A Matter of Time - all the time

WHY WE LIKE IT: John Rhys-Davies.

WHY WE DON'T: Where's the tension?

REVIEW: Concerning Flight attempts to give a bigger role to John Rhys-Davies, unfortunately cast as a non-sentient hologram, and manages it by having the mobile emitter and the program simultaneously stolen by thieves unknown. His Leonardo spends the rest of the episode viewing an alien colony through his Renaissance lens - he's in America, a land of wonders and strange peoples. There are, of course, the requisite shenanigans with his inventions, and the glider in particular, but more interesting is his meditation on the limits of any given point of view. He pretty much steals any scene he's in. I guess his new point of view "breaks" his program, because he's never seen again.

Where the episode fails is in its presentation of its main dilemma. Having its computer core stolen should have a lot more consequences than this. We hear about it limping at low speeds, but everyone's tapping on consoles, taking turbolifts, using the astrometrics lab, etc. as if nothing really happened. Heck, the Doctor's turned on enough to having cabin fever in the absence of his emitter. The Voyager novel Violations had the same premise and handled it better, frankly, and that's really sad.

The ship affords little tension, but the away mission does a bit better. However, it all comes crashing to a halt with a climax in which the villains stand under a tree while Janeway and Leonardo make their very slow escape. I will say this, however: There's some great location work in this episode from rolling hills to industrial parks. Matte paintings provide support, but the production values are higher than normal thanks to those locations.

One last note on Leonardo in Star Trek: Janeway mentions Flint from Requiem for Methuselah here (looks like Kirk didn't honor his promise to the immortal who claimed to have been Leonardo, among others). It's actually a small dig at the believability of Flint's claim, but to me, it's paying lip service yet again to one of the preceding stories. There seems to be a call-back to TOS or TNG every episode around this time, and it's really annoying. I find overdoing continuity as annoying as ignoring it completely (which Voyager often vacillates between).

LESSON: Seven is not the right person to go to for gossip.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium: The danger is undersold in favor of screen time for a guest star with great presence.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Jeff Rovin's Super-Encyclopedias

You know, encyclopedic series are all well and good, but sometimes it's nice to have an outsider's eye, one that isn't tied to a specific era, company or editorial agenda. For example, Jeff Rovin's Encyclopedia of Super-Heroes (1985) has served me well as a reference despite being more than 20 years out of date. Covering super-heroes from every company, era, country and medium, Rovin's book can't show illustrations for every character, but does describe their costumes textually. There's an efficient biography, basic details like alter ego, first appearance and occupation, a quote from the character, and a brief comment that might cross-reference the character with another, or what it owed its popularity to. Black and white covers are sometimes reproduced and there are colors inserts as well. For example, this is how I first met Fatman the Human Flying Saucer, Super Green Beret and indy hero Captain Guts who apparently has the power to ejaculate with the "force of 10 fire hydrants".
There are characters from tv, movies, pulps, advertising, toys, folklore... everywhere. There are separate appendices to cover teams, obscure Golden Age heroes, minor superheroes (like seat belt safety advocate Beltman) and even the superheroes featured in Dial H for Hero. For today's readers, it may prove useful to get a peek at Golden Age characters either fallen into the public domain (Project Superpowers, Next Issue) or whose owners are desperate not to allow to (The Twelve). See the Green Llama BEFORE Alex Ross screwed him up!

Two years later, Rovin (former editor-in-chief of the Weekly World News, wow) came up with the Encyclopedia of Super Villains. This one I never did read cover to cover (it's pretty minty, in fact), but it's in the same style as the first one. Of course, at roughly the same size, it can't possibly be as complete. Most heroes have spawned a great number of recurring and one-shot villains, so a real survey would be huge. This Encyclopedia doesn't try to be bite off more than it can chew. There isn't even an appendix of obscure villains, for example. Instead, it tries to give a little bit of everything, including one-hit-wonders, Disney villains and mean-looking action figures.
Rovin later published Encyclopedias of Monsters and Cartoon Animals, but the subject matter didn't interest me as much and I never got them. Did anyone?

The One You Didn't Think I Had

G.I. JOE YEARBOOK #1, Marvel Comics, March 1985
This may beg the question "what the hell is that doing in your collection, Siskoid?" and the answer is "it's something I inherited from my kid brother". See, all he ever bought were comics related to the toy lines he collected. And since he really didn't care about comics, all his Transformers and G.I. Joes wound up in one of my boxes. So it's fair game, isn't it?

G.I. Joe Yearbook

Full title: That's the full title.

Strengths: Lots of death and mayhem.

Weaknesses: Like, maybe two pages of original material?

If you were a fan of G.I. Joe and absolutely had to have everything Joe-esque, then the Yearbook must've been a real rip-off. It reprints G.I. Joe #1, then gives you a recap of the next year's worth of issues using selected panels as well as a recap of the cartoon mini-series we all know and love, and finally offers some short character file dossiers that I'm pretty sure were on the back of the action figures. If you still have Cutter in the original packaging, check it out for me, will you?*
*This is extremely doubtful, since no one I know ever felt the need to buy the Cutter action figure.

So what you're left with is a two-page spread of the G.I. Joe secret bunker (if indeed, this spread never appeared before). . That makes it 82¢ a page, and if that's not military spending in action, I don't know what is. If you're NOT a major fan of G.I. Joe, then it's all new to you! (But you're not a fan, so would you really care?)

The layman knows G.I. Joe as 1) an action figure that does the dirty with Barbie when your sister's not looking; and 2) that cartoon with all the military specialists and WWF wrestlers that shoot their guns directly at the ground and never hit a goddamn Cobra goon. And given the training shown in this issue, it's not wonder they can't hit the broad side of a barn:
I mean, how close does a Joe have to be to hit his mark? But good news! The comics are not like the cartoon. There is an excessive amount of killing in this issue. No one with a name ever bites it, but goons? Yes. A whole fishing village, every man, woman and child? Yes. Some of it pretty harsh, like when Zap bazookas a couple of Cobra guys firing at his tank:
Those two guys weren't just killed. They were pulverized. The plot deals with the rescue of a scientist who has been trashing the military. Several Joes actually think about putting a bullet through her traitorous head and call it a day(!), but in the end they manage it, though Cobra Commander escapes with nothing more than a broken wrist (read into this what you will). The scientist learns a good lesson too: the military is actually a force for good. Go Military Complex Agenda!

Then there's the huge recap, which is interesting in its own right. It's got an "Eskimo mercenary", a love hexagon between all the Cobra folks, and Cobra holing up in Springfield. That first year of G.I. Joe might actually make an interesting (i.e. kitsch) read. When you go in with no expectations, you tend to enjoy it more than you should. I'm not deluding myself though...

A note on the copyright listing for this comic: I find it a hoot that Hasbro thinks it can defend a copyright for the name "Flash". Or for that matter, Copperhead, Deep Six, Hawk and Firefly. Seems like they didn't just steal their super-terrorist's name from DC Comics (Kobra is awfully close too, don't you think?).

Star Trek 538: Random Thoughts

538. Random Thoughts

FORMULA: Justice + Prime Factors + Meld

WHY WE LIKE IT: The last sighting of the old Janeway.

WHY WE DON'T: Gwynyth Walsh wasted.

REVIEW: The Voyager crew gets in trouble with the law while innocently trading with aliens?! Business as usual, I'd say. The fun twist is that Seven calls them on it, but unfortunately, they brush her off in the name of exploration. Yeah, ok, but what she was actually saying was "you don't do your homework before making footfall". Of course, it doesn't help that the Mari's legal system is run like a bad role-playing game where, no matter what you do, you can't win.

The Mari are one of those literary utopias that looks good on paper, but are a little ridiculous on film, a society where you can be arrested for THINKING. A Spanish Inquisition (I know you weren't expecting them) who can actually enforce this law with telepathy. Of course, if you outlaw something, it'll pop up on the black market, so despite everyone being a mind reader, a seamy underground manages to survive undetected by the authorities until Tuvok sheds the light of day on it. At times, it almost seems like an argument for Legalization, and certainly, B'Elanna is considered a "pusher" because she had a bad thought. But that's muddled at best.

Sadly, the Mari characters aren't very interesting. The evil Guill is creepy from the thought go, so there's not much mystery there. Neelix's date is pretty, but is basically there just to provide a victim. And Police Commissioner Nimira, though played by Gwynyth Walsh of B'Etor fame, is tedious at best. None of her scenes speak to me. At all. The supposedly clever multi-interview scene has been done better by both previous series (in Conspiracy and Inquisition). She has a strange mental conversation with Tuvok that miscasts Vulcans as broadcast telepaths who only speak to deal with non-telepaths. And everywhere else, she's quick to lobotomize and slow to do her job.

Tuvok has a much better role, going undercover and releasing some powerful Vulcan emotions on the emotionally primitive Mari. The violent images he conjures are surprising though. Who knew Tuvok had a bad experience with dogs, or that he watched Event Horizon? (Scenes from this Paramount Studios movie made it into his clip-o-rama before it came out... They're pretty gruesome for teatime viewing.) We might also wonder what footage from First Contact is doing in there (how does Tuvok know about the gray uniforms?). So not a great editing job, but it's quick enough that you don't notice. Speaking of editing, the pacing's a bit off in this one. There are back to back scenes that give out the same information (a post-climax recap, if you will), then a couple more epilogues. Running short?

That last epilogue has a good Seven-Janeway scene that pretty much represents the old Janeway's last hurrah (I may yet be proven wrong on this though). Not only did she uphold the Prime Directive in this episode, but her attitude with Seven isn't that of the petty despot who's been possessing her body lately. She takes things with humor and welcomes disagreements! And this despite her having a terrible hair day. Hopefully, this Janeway isn't completely forgotten in the coming seasons, but my recollection is that she mostly is.

LESSON: Thinking about violence can lead to acting violently. Well duh!

REWATCHABILITY - Medium: This kind of plot is nothing new, but the main characters are watchable enough. Not the guest stars though.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Countdown to Ambush Bug Gets Encyclopedic

8 weeks to go... In the meantime, how about we respect Encyclopedia Week?

AMBUSH BUG #3, DC Comics, August 1985
After you've read all of Who's Who and Secret Files, what's left? Well, how about the stuff that the fine folks at DC want you to forget about? In the last few months of pre-Crisis continuity, Ambush Bug made sure we didn't forget.

Full title: The Ambush Bug History of the DC Universe

Strengths: Funny as hell. Peers into the hidden corners of the DCU. Bizarro Ambush Bug.

Weaknesses: Considering I laughed so hard, I broke all my furniture, I can't say a bad thing about this comic.

Ambush Bug is a personal favorite of mine because he's so totally crazy. Part of his insanity is that he believes he lives in a comic book and everything we know to be true behind the scenes is part of his delusion. It should probably be no coincidence that the late, great Julius Schwartz edited this project. He was one of the masterminds of the Silver Age, and oversaw the creation of such concepts as the multiple Earths, and breaking the fourth wall (usually by way of Superman winking at the reader). This issue of Ambush Bug is all about that.

Through the book, he tracks down a number of DC characters that have disappeared. All signs point to a mysterious continuity-obsessed woman who would have all done them in. Sometimes we get a hand-written entry, as with Ace the Bat-Hound:
He's one of many super-pets DC would have rather forgotten about. Super-Turtle, Itty and the Legion of Super-Pets are here too. You'll also find such bad ideas as Mopee, who was a magic imp responsible for all the heroes' origins; the infant Wonder Woman, Wonder Tot; Archie rip-off Binky; the sentient glue that fought the fab Teen Titans as Glop ("he's not a mop"); and more. At times, we'll get Ambush Bug in a trench coat, investigating things. My personal favorite is where he interviews an aged Richie Rich about the Green Team, a club of wealthy teens (except for their token black member who was dirt poor). And then there's Bat-Mite's explanation as to why he doesn't plague Batman with his magic pranks anymore:
Of course, a lot of this stuff DID eventually make it into post-Crisis continuity: Egg Fu, the House of Mystery, the Inferior Five, Itty, and even Ace the Bat-Hound. But you know what? Ambush Bug #3 may be single-handedly responsible for those. After all, are we to believe a writer was inspired to bring back some old lamo because of November 1965's Wonder Woman #157 or whatever? Or the 20-years-younger Ambush Bug #3? It's at least a reminder!

Since this is Ambush Bug, it's also got its share of stupid jokes, continuity references, digs at other writers and artists, fake ads, lollipops with kryptonite centers and letters answered by the Bug himself. Speaking of which, you'll find a letter by none other than 90s writer extraordinaire, Mark Waid, back when he was working on that Amazing Heroes fanzine.

In the final analysis, I'll be damned if this isn't the granddaddy of the comic book blog genre. It takes the same loving potshots at the absurdity of superhero comics we do daily.

Star Trek 537: Year of Hell, Part II

537. Year of Hell, Part II

FORMULA: Yesterday's Enterprise + The Search for Spock + Distant Origin

WHY WE LIKE IT: Same reasons as Part I.

WHY WE DON'T: Crazy Janeway. Crazy Chakotay.

REVIEW: Voyager continues to deteriorate, but for one I apply this sentence to the ship and not the show. Nebula smoke seeping in, meteor storms putting the ship at risk, and the bridge blind without a viewscreen. And it's only Day 133! Victims until now, the crew is given a new purpose in tracking down Annorax's timeship to recover Tom and Chakotay, taken as "samples". On the offensive, but without a working ship, they have to gather allies while the two samples work something out from the inside.

Chakotay's function on the show seems to be to interact with the aliens, and he's quickly incorporated into the timeship's crew. It's through him that we learn more about Annorax, the reasons for his obsession made clear. Kurtwood Smith plays the role with pathos, giving meaning to the final scene in which he never got around to finishing the weapon in a new timeline. For the length of the show, however, he may seem well-meaning, but he's ruthless and dangerous, still Ahab, but with strong ties to Captain Nemo (especially in the collection of lost foods). Chakotay comes to share his obsession, thinking he can restore Voyager's health somehow, but in an unseen strand, Tom organizes a mutiny that'll actually help matters. Oh, Chakotay, you have to stop empathizing with these aliens!

Meanwhile, back on the ship, Janeway's gone over the deep end. Sure, she's entitled. These are desperate times and an alternate reality, so no consequences later, but it's still makes her look reckless and irrational. Like Chakotay and Annorax, she's obsessive and refuses to rest, even when injured. The Doctor calls her on it and relieves her from duty for fear that her judgment is impaired. Her reaction proves it. Her threat to deactivate the EMH and "you and what army?" attitude really show her as unstable. Am I the only one who likes his Starfleet captains with a little more moral fiber? Alternate reality or not, this is how she would react to such a situation if it were to "really" come up. Petty as well as unreasonable.

Perhaps they thought she needed to be completely crazy to ram Voyager into the timeship. In any case, she goes down with the ship as a resolute machine. No one ever utters the words "it's been an honor serving with you", though she does Tuvok the indignity of a hug. The story ends the only way it could, with the destruction of the timeship, and thus the removal of the only element that could reset the timeline properly. And it's all done in a big satisfying crash. Watch your eyes when the bright Voyager bridge comes back on screen.

LESSON: Gifts are meant to be enjoyed, not recycled into the replicator for a pair of life-saving boots.

REWATCHABILITY - High: Despite seeing worrying sides to some of the key characters, Year of Hell is still a satisfying action story, with a strong guest-star and lots if cool set pieces.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Atlases of Impossible Places

Middle Earth. Flatland. Narnia. Lilliput. Oz. Earthsea. These are places that don't exist except in our imaginations thanks to great writers through the ages. And yet, here's a book that not only describes those places as if they were real, but also shows maps for a number of them: The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi.

Manguel (History of Reading, The Library at Night) is to my mind the foremost expert on the reading experience currently living, so his compilation of places from utopian literature is a real gem. If these places can inhabit the reader's mind, are they not as real as all the places you've never visited but only read about? Isn't Hong Kong or Paris as mysterious to me as Wonderland or Treasure Island? Maybe more so, because I've read everything there is about the latter two.
As with Barlowe's Guides, there are rules to be observed here, or else the project would truly be endless. There are no heavens or hells, no places you couldn't walk to, no alien planets and nowhere in the future. And still, there are more places here than any Gulliver could ever hope to visit in a 10 lifetimes, from Borges' Library in Babel Library to Lovecraft's Arkham, going through Gondor, Merlin's Tomb and Wilde's Happy Prince City to get there. Beautiful illustrations and maps will make you believe these places have existed.
In a similar vein, Brian Stableford compiled the Dictionary of Science Fiction Places. Mostly interested in other planets from SF literature (you won't find Tatouine here), though other dimensions, advanced lab facilities and interesting space objects also get some copy. Where the book excels is in its indices (by author, work and entry) and cross-referencing (if you want to find alien artifacts like Clarke's Rama, check out Asgard, Orbitsville and the Thisledown). Where it doesn't is in the artwork. Very few maps, even for things that could be mapped, and while there are many illustrations, they're what you would expect from role-playing game rush jobs (think most of the early GURPS books).
Further, Stableford's criteria are indistinct. It's obvious it would be impossible to catalogue every place and planet in more than 100 years of science fiction, but only one entry (Ringworld) to represent Larry Niven's Known Space? (And no Dream Park, a personal favorite.) Yet there are at least three entries on Alan Dean Foster's Humanx series. More of a fun read than a complete reference work then, in which you'll find many SF gems that you'll want to read or read again. Some of the entries that strike me include Bradbury's Fire Station, Ballard's Vermillion Sands, Farmer's Riverworld, Well's Garden of the Eloi, Wolfe's Urth, Aldous Huxley's Hatchery, Harlan Ellison's Medea, and Herbert's Arrakis.

And yet, why choose Harry Harrison's Helior (from Bill the Galactic Hero), but not the alternate Earth from West of Eden? Why Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, but nothing by Olaf Stapledon? Why so many entries based on Poul Anderson's work, but so few on Isaac Asimov's? Not saying those choices are wrong, just that there's no clear process at work here.

And perhaps these kinds of books will always leave out one of your favorites. Perhaps you'll even be inspired to try to complete the project as these fine people have with the Dictionary of Imaginary Places.

90s Comics Encyclopedia: We Need Stories!

JLA SECRET FILES #1, DC Comics, September 1997
In the 90s, DC's Who's Who series evolved into a loose-leaf format, and then merged with Secret Origins to become a series of one-shots that had both encyclopedic entries and a secret origin story... among other things. Let me do a blurb on the entire line before diving into the glory that is JLA Secret File #1.

(insert full title here) Secret Files

Full title: (insert full title here) Secret Files and Origins

Strengths: Full-length stories, "missing pages", and bonus features like faux magazine articles and posters, usually by the featured title's own creators.

Weaknesses: If you thought Who's Who didn't go into enough detail as to history and powers, Secret Files pairs them down even more.

That said, this is Grant Morrison's JLA, and he and his protégé Young Mark Millar (not to be confused with the current incarnation) are doing the honors. For the featured secret origin story, Morrison takes his cue from the original Justice League of America's first story which had them fighting Starro, a giant starfish from outer space. Starro's not in this one, but the alien enemy is starfish-shaped. When its ship appears in the middle of small-town Blue Valley, USA, the Flash responds to the threat with disastrous results:
These face-huggers would have us believe that we only use 10% of our brains because the other 90 was not our own to begin with. That's Grant Morrison for you, always scaring you shitless with trivia. In the wake of the United Nations having disbanded the awful Justice League of the time, the new "temporary" JLA will have to take care of it. Except the Spectre appears and shows them what happens if they do, and it's not pretty. They get taken over too, and then every hero falls the same way, followed by every planet in the DC universe. The plan, then, is to have the Spectre remove all of the JLA's powers, and they go in as mortals.

They're basically just a four-color diversion while Batman really saves the day, but you know what? In Morrison's JLA, it's often like that even when they DO have powers. He does it by figuring out that the alien ship's computer is networking the whole deal, sabotaging the air conditioning so that the temperature drops dramatically, turning the whole damn thing into a superconductor and short-circuiting it. The guy's just smarter than a starfish, y'know?

This story alone would be worth the price of admission, but there's more. "The Lost Pages" bring us two stories, the first being a fun enough exploration of the electric Superman's powers, the other showing 24 hours in the life of the Martian Manhunter. Wow, this is the real highlight for me. It presents the idea that our favorite shape-shifting Martian has many secret identities around the world, each with his "own habits, tastes and circle of friends." He considers them works of art in their own right. I wish this had been explored more in his own series, cuz it's a great, mind-blowing idea. I also love that he isn't attached to a single big city, but has rather made a name for himself in the parts of the world that don't really have super-heroes. He's a household name in Africa, Asia and Australia, more so than Superman! (It's true, cuz I didn't notice Clark Kent in the back of "Johann Johnson"'s cab until this very second.)
As for the encyclopedic entries, I was gonna say they're the weakest part of the comic, but that's not really true in JLA's case. The format is a bit thrifty, yes, with histories reading more like "story bibles" that tell writers why a character is part of the cast and what his or her personality is, while powers and abilities are simply pasted on top of the art in short, pithy phrases. But then I reread them, and it's pure gold.

Batman's described agenda is "to heal his city and hang up his cowl forever in the Batcave when the job is done. This is not a dream, but a plan." His relationship with Wonder Woman is strained "as is common when Royalty meets Wealth." I don't think I've ever read a Who's Who-style entry that actually gave us interesting characterization. Awesome.

And so we learn that the Flash "is at his most relaxed having ultrasonic conversations with other super-fast members," that the Martian Manhunter's accent is "deep and indescribable" and that "Green Lantern is his favorite." Aquaman is apparently a great storyteller, and Green Arrow was accused of nepotism by those who failed the membership drive. And there are a few villains in these pages too, such as the Lord of Time whose next attack "might take place tomorrow" or "on the warmest afternoon of your childhood". Excellent stuff, iconic in its poetry. Not all Secret Files are like this, but I'd say JLA's should be what they aim for.

Geek Moment: In a Playboy-style interview (not that I would ever read that for the articles), the Martian Manhunter mentions Gregory Reed as the actor playing him in a Martian Manhunter movie. Gregory Reed is the guy who played Superman in the pre-Crisis Hollywood! I'm glad to see he has a job in the new continuity! When I finally noticed this, it totally freaked me out.

Finally, the whole package is filled out by some kickass 2-page spreads by master of detail Phil Jimenez starring everyone that's ever even thought about becoming a member of the JLA, and a second one with all of the JLA's villains. That latter is the most impressive (127 characters), but the JLA's roster is probably more interesting to you:
95 characters are in there, including Power Girl's mangy cat, so it's safe to say it's fairly complete up to 1997. Just beautiful. You'll just have to track down the comic if you want the handy key that tells you who's who.

Star Trek 536: Year of Hell

536. Year of Hell

FORMULA: Yesterday's Enterprise + Starship Down + Before and After

WHY WE LIKE IT: Kurtwood Smith. Beat-up Voyager.

WHY WE DON'T: Just who survives.

REVIEW: As a one-shot villain, the Krenim are pretty wicked. That time weapon is really cool, the instant history-changing gimmick works well, and Kurtwood Smith is never boring as Annorax, a sort of temporal Ahab. His quest to attain a perfect 100% restoration of his perfect timeline, one including the elusive Kyana Prime makes him seem at once insane and sympathetic. We'll find out more in due course, but for now, the mysteries are intriguing and the effects sheer eye candy.

Heralded in Before and After, though much changed because of Kes' departure, the Year of Hell starts out amusingly as the Week of Hell. Things might have gone better, but the temporal shielding they develop first saves, then dooms them, as they remain in the "damaged" history after the Krenim lose their empire again. It's all set up to be reset, of course, but I certainly would have liked to see a whole year go by in a couple of episodes like this. It would knock a year off the journey, and it's certainly great to see Voyager actually suffer damage it cannot recover from quickly (something I cried out for back in the Kazon days). But I understand why they wouldn't do it, since it would impair character arcs.

And while this IS an alternate reality episode, there are still a lot of character moments. The Doctor's torment at leaving crew members to die. Kim and B'Elanna passing the time with a friendly quiz. Neelix trying to pick new intruder alert voice-overs ("Danger! Intruder among us!"). It's not all bizarro destruction. And among the new features that are part of the true continuity, the Astrometrics lab is unveiled, and pretty cool too, and Janeway gets a new, shorter haircut, one she'll sport to the end of the series.

In the bizarro destruction section, we find Tuvok and Seven caught in a temporal torpedo blast (the same torpedo Kes found in Before and After). Tuvok is blinded (no inner eyelid support, Tuvok? at least you have a braille console), but he should count himself lucky. How the torpedo didn't vaporize the two of them is the episode's greatest weakness. In Kes' alternate future, the death toll was high. Here, because they must survive to Part II, none of the bridge crew do. In fact, I really have to question the cliffhanger where Janeway sends everyone but the bridge crew out on shuttles and escape pods to hopefully make it through Krenim space (downsized at this point, but still) alone. Wouldn't bridge crew be the very best resource these people could have? No, sorry, promised myself I'd keep this family together, but cool kids stay, everyone else take a hike. We should expect this kind of manipulation, but it still strains credulity.

LESSON: Don't let a bad day become a bad week. Or a bad month. Or a bad...

REWATCHABILITY - High: An engaging alternate reality episode that balances action, thrills and characterization well enough. You can see the reset button looming, but in this case, that's fine. It's fun to see how far the characters can go in their most desperate hour without having to worry about long-term consequences.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Barlowe's Guides to Peoples Not From Here

Encyclopedia Week is about more than comics. I have a number of fictional atlases, guides, compendiums, dictionaries and encyclopedias on my shelves. Anything not to live in the real world, I guess. Such are the ways of geekery.

One particular gem in my collection is magazine and book cover illustrator Wayne Barlowe's Guide to Extratrerrestrials. A gorgeous picture book in which Barlowe brings to life 150 alien races from the world's best science fiction books. The criteria are well-defined: Each alien species included are described in detail by their respective authors and each must be logically and scientifically conceived (according to our current knowledge). Barlowe also tends towards races that have never or rarely been illustrated before, and gives examples of as many types of life-form as possible. Each creature is not only rendered in Barlowe's hyper-real style (with special details on the side), but also given a physical description, habitat and culture.

Here we find Arthur C. Clarke's Overlords, H.P. Lovecraft's Old Ones, Frank Herbert's Guild Steersmen and Larry Niven's Puppeteers.
Barlowe's Guide to Fantasy is far less interesting to me, only in part because there isn't the same sense of verisimilitude. While the SF creatures in the first Guide don't all come from the same "universe", they could. Space is a big place. The fantasy creatures might come from sword&sorcery novels, fantastic literature or folklore, all from different "worlds". The other thing is that there are an awful lot of specific characters in this book, many of them human or human-like: Morgaine, the White Lady, Terry Pratchett's Mort... That last one is still a nice surprise. My favorite is probably Lovecraft's Gug...
...but I also like his Grendel. On the flip side, I'm not sure I needed a unicorn, golem or a griffin.

Each book also has sketches at the end, most not for either project. Padding, but pretty padding. And each has a nifty size comparison chart. My scanner can't do the detailed artwork justice, so do track at least the first one down. At the very least, it'll make you want to read those books! And who knew Jack Chalker's Czill looked so much like Gumby?