Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's a Hell of a Town

Some guy named Frank Oscar Larson took some pretty nice pictures of NYC during the 1950s, and his family has been putting them up online. You could even buy a print, were you so inclined.

(via Mark Evanier)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore and various artists

If you know this story at all, you know the quote: "This is an imaginary story...aren't they all?" That would be true but trite if it weren't for the fanatical identification of the superhero reader with his favorite characters -- and, even more so, with the continuity of their stories. When "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" first appeared, in the then-last issues of Action Comics and Superman in the fall of 1986, as the decks were being cleared for what still looked then like a fresh start for DC Comics's characters in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, continuity was still something in large part built by the fans, a collective work of imagination linking the most interesting and resonant parts of a thousand stories told over five decades.

Now continuity is just another commodity: carefully spooned out, measured by drops and pints and liters, controlled almost day-by-day by the two big comics companies, as they alternate shocking reveals with the inevitable returns to the fan-preferred status quo ante. Continuity, these days, is just the name of another dead comics company -- Marvel and DC tell you what the past is today, and they'll tell you differently tomorrow, and if you don't like it, well, where else can you get your stories of Superman and Spider-Man?

Alan Moore isn't part of our new world, of course -- even if everything else had been different, and DC hadn't screwed him over at every possible turn over the last two decades, his sensibility couldn't fit into the current soup of cynicism -- and his superhero comics come from the '80s and '90s rather than now. His few actually cutting-edge works -- primarily Watchmen and Miracleman/Marvelman -- worked to undermine retro nostalgia, and to show what costumed heroes might be like, psychologically and physically, in something more like a real world. But most of his comics that deal with superheroes take them as icons, as the true representation of what a young Moore must have seen in them in the '50s -- from these stories to Supreme to the superheroes scurrying around the margins of Swamp Thing, trying valiantly but completely out of their depth in more complicated works of fiction.

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is a 2009 hardcover collecting three Alan Moore-written stories from 1985 and 1986, illustrated by different artists. The longest piece -- that swan song for the Silver Age Superman -- is given pride of place, first in the book with title and cover features, and it has suitably iconic art by classic Superman artists Curt Swan (inked too fussily by George Perez in the first part and more straightforwardly by equally classic Kurt Schaffenberger for the climax). Moore takes all of the pieces of Silver Age Superman's furniture -- the silly villains, the big cast with their complicated relationships, the thousand toys and wonders -- and systematically breaks them all down and takes them apart, in pursuit of his big ending. It's impressive in the context of comics of the time, though the ending, seen twenty-plus years later, is too facile and the pieces that should be tragic are just swept under the rug. But it is a Silver Age Superman story, so those are features rather than bugs: those stories can't be any deeper than they are, or they would be something else.

The other two stories collected in this book are something else, and see Moore using Superman to tell deeper, more resonant stories: first is "The Jungle Line," from the minor team-up book DC Comics Presents, in which Superman is infected with a deadly Kryptonian disease, and heads off to the least superhero-infested part of the USA -- the Louisiana swamps -- expecting to die. Instead, he runs into Swamp Thing -- star of the monthly comic Moore was also doing excellent work in at the time -- and finds a way not to die of his affliction. It's strengths lie equally in Moore's incisive captions -- particularly as he examines Superman's failing powers and growing sense of mortality -- and in the art of Rick Veitch and Al Williamson, which is much more like the Swamp Thing look, lush and full and organic, than the Superman comics of the time. It's a minor team-up story, of course -- entirely about something that doesn't happen -- but it's a small gem of its time.

The last story here, though, is something stronger than that: "For the Man Who Has Everything," which was the Superman annual in 1985 and has Dave Gibbons's inimitable art support: precise and utterly superheroic in every line, but modern and detailed and dramatic in ways that Swan and his cohort weren't. It's a story of Superman's birthday, and of the best and worst possible present. It's the only Superman story that has ever made me tear up, and possibly the only one that ever could: it gives Kal-El (Moore, again, is most at home with the Silver Age version of Superman that he grew up with) what he always wanted, and makes him tear himself away from it. It's completely renormative, of course, in the style of the Silver Age, but it points directly at Watchmen, which Moore and Gibbons would start work on within a year, and it implies Moore's growing uneasiness at always having to put all of the pieces back neatly in the same box at the end of the story.

So this book reprints three very good '80s superhero stories by excellent creators -- but readers do need to realize that these, if not actually Silver Age stories, have a Silver Age sensibility and feel to them. In particular, Moore's DC work was very heavily captioned, which has gone entirely out of style these days. If you can't stand a Superman who's a big blue Boy Scout, who has a dog named Krypto and a fortress in the Arctic with a gigantic gold key, and who would never ever kill anyone under any circumstances, this is not the book for you.

Today Needs Some Feedback and Fuzzy Guitars

I have no idea what this song is about, and I'm still listening to the rest of the album it's on -- not sure yet what I like and don't like.

This song, however -- it's "Infinity Guitars" by Sleigh Bells -- sounds like the fight song for that high school on the bad side of town you do not want to mess with, and I'm currently playing it at least once a day:

Monday, May 28, 2012

Incoming Books: three or four days ago

Hey! I'm busy being on vacation here! I can't remember what day these books arrived, or bother to blog about them when they came!

One of the comics shops I order from semi-regularly (Midtown Comics, in NYC) had a good sale last week, so I stocked up on manga for the boys to earn [1] and also got a few books for myself:

Saga of the Swamp Thing, Book One by Alan Moore and various collaborators. I'd been looking at this for several years -- thinking that I really should have the complete AM Swampy on hand -- but I had the precursor trade paperback of this collection (and no other Swampy reprint volumes), and was feeling odd about re-buying almost exactly the same package. Well, the flood solved that problem, so I can collect the whole series in this format -- particularly since the flood wiped out all of my comics, including my collection of the first two series of Swamp Thing.

Esperanza, a Love & Rockets collection by Jaime Hernandez. The flood similarly destroyed all of my L&R stuff, from the original magazine-sized issues (though I was patchy on those) to the old paperback series, to the first three volumes of New Stories. So I'm rebuilding, with the aim to re-read the whole thing sometime in the next year.

The Complete Peanuts 1983-1984 by Charles M. Schulz. Schulz's work in the last few volumes hasn't been as impressive as his heyday -- and that heyday was from the beginning of the strip in 1950 up to about 1973-74, which is one hell of a "day" -- but it's still a fine, iconic American comic strip, and I suppose I will keep collecting it, even if I did lose all of the volumes from the best years in the flood. 

[1] The current deal: Thing 1 (now 14) gets one for each time he mows the lawn. [2] Thing 2 (now 11) gets one for each actual novel (or non-fiction book, I guess, but the question hasn't come up, since he's on a fantasy tear) he reads and tells me about. So I have to keep some choices on hand.

[2] Yes, I have now officially entered the wonderful period when I have sons who are both old enough to mow the lawn without supervision and young enough to still be living at home. And I am savoring it, believe you me.

Ready for Another Tour of the Sublimely Hideous Javitz Center

So I've gotten my marching orders for this year's Book Expo America (BEA, the book-industry convention that I'm old and dull enough to still think of as ABA), where, for the very first time, I will be working official hours in the Wiley booth. [1]

(I'm not sure if that means that there's a rigorous five-year vetting period, or if I'm one of the dwindling number of people who care enough to go at all; I've been in publishing long enough that going to BEA was a perk -- which I didn't get for more than a decade -- so it still feels thrilling.)

Anyway, I'll be demonstrating something -- I believe our enhanced ebooks, or other techy stuff; there is training promised, but it hasn't happened yet -- in the booth from 11 to 1 on Wednesday, June 6th. I'll also have other time doing something else in the Wiley booth -- my department head has let me know that, though not what or when -- probably the same day.

So my current plan is to be at the dumpy Javitz center just that one day, the 6th. (Wiley's in Hoboken, so schlepping over there is somewhat more cumbersome than it is from many other publishing houses.) If there's anyone out there that I should stop by and see (or vice versa), e-mail me, and we can set something up.

Or, conversely, if you want to avoid seeing me, the 6th is the day you need to be more careful, and in particular avoid the Wiley booth.

[1] Which seems to be substantially larger this year, if I'm reading the layout correctly. I have no idea why -- decisions like that are way above my pay grade -- but anything that emphasizes how powerful, stable, and utterly awesome we are is fine with me.


I will also be the official  Business Marketing Group person-on-duty in the Wiley booth on the 5th from 1-3 and on the 6th from 3-5, giving you three times the opportunities to find me, should you want to. Feel free to torment me by asking me questions about other marketers' books!

Note that this now means that I will be at the Javitz for a day and a half -- the afternoon of the 5th and all day on the 6th -- making it that much harder to avoid me.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/26

I write this from the middle of a particularly long holiday weekend -- I took extra days fore and aft -- so I'm about as relaxed and contented as it's possible for me to be. (Which is not very, but it's as good as things get.) So the big stack of books that came in this past week looks like an exciting panoply of potential riches to me, instead of a chore or any of the other things it could be if I were in a grumpier mood.

All of these books showed up on my doorstep, essentially unannounced, over the last week. And I haven't read any of them yet. But here's what I can tell you about them:

The Rapture of the Nerds is the first novel-length collaboration between SF writers Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, coming as a Tor hardcover in September. Actually, I should walk that back a bit -- it's actually a fix-up, consisting of two previous published Doctorow-Stross novellas, "Jury Service" and "Appeals Court," along with a new novella-length story, "Parole Board," all of which has been rewritten at least somewhat to make it read smoothly. (The fix-up is an venerable and respected SF form; Asimov's original Foundation Trilogy and half of the works of Van Vogt are notable examples.) Rapture is set in a moderately post-human future, a hundred years on, in which the various uploaded minds floating around near space occasionally interfere with the lives of the billion traditional humans left on Earth -- which interference our hero, the grumpy young Welshman Huw, tries to minimize.

Timothy Zahn's Quadrail series -- which has something to do with trains in space, or at least began with the novel Night Train to Rigel -- concludes with Judgment at Proteus, a Tor hardcover on sale June 5th. It's adventure SF in the space opera style, with an evil parasitic alien force trying to conquer the brains (sweet, sweet brains!) of the galaxy, and the One Man who must stand against them.

Just in time for this year's gala Nebula Awards ceremony -- literally; it was published on May 15th as a trade paperback from Pyr -- is Nebula Awards Showcase 2012, an anthology edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, containing the 2011 winners, given out at last year's ceremony. The book itself very careful does not say anywhere easily noticeable -- it could be buried in the introduction, which I only skimmed -- that these are the 2011 winners, though a very careful reader could infer that from the list at the end, which contains all Nebula winners from publications years 1965 through 2009. (But that's even more confusing, since SFWA's current numbering scheme calls the winners in this book the 2011 Nebulas -- given in 2011 for works generally published in 2010 -- though the list in this book's appendix uses year of publication, implying that the year 2010 had no Nebulas at all.) Anyway, this book has stories by Harlan Ellison™ -- literally; he's credited with the trademark after his name -- Kij Johnson, Geoff Landis, Rachel Swirsky, Adam Troy-Castro, and more, plus excerpts from the novel nominees, and the aforementioned introduction.

It's also time for the monthly flood of manga from Yen Press -- the comics side of the Orbit SF imprint on my side of the Atlantic -- which is more than half of my books on hand this week. All of these publish in May, and nearly all of them are later volumes, so I'm going to arrange them as a countdown, from thirteen right down to 1 (without ever number being represented of course; I couldn't get that lucky at random):
  • Bamboo Blade, Vol. 13 continues the high-school-girls'-kendo-class drama from Masahiro Totsuka and Aguri Igarashi. And when I say "continues," I mean it: two girls are in the middle of a bout (match? spar? round? whatever the correct term in) on the first page, which ends at the end of this book.
  • Sumomomo, Momomo, Vol. 12 is the finale of the martial-arts parody series by Shinobu Ohtaka (I loved the first two volumes in this series, and lost track of it for a while, and then mildly enjoyed the previous volume), and the kind of parody it is has turned much louder and more obvious by this point -- which probably has pleased many people.
  • The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Vol. 12 is by Gaku Tsugano and Nagaru Tanigawa (from characters by Noizi Ito), and I'm afraid I've never been able to really get into this series, so your guess is as good as mine -- the hero seems to be time-traveling back to his own recent past in this one, which I suppose means it's only for series fans.
  • Pandora Hearts, Vol. 10 is an adventure manga with semi-random references to Alice in Wonderland thrown into it -- as I like to point out when things like that come up in manga, it's the equivalent of all of the ninjas and samurai in western comics with equally serious underpinnings -- by Jun Mochizuki, and I reviewed the first volume, back in the day.
  • Nabari No Ou, Vol. 10 has a painfully thin guy on the cover -- seriously, won't somebody give him a sandwich? -- and otherwise is deep into a story I know nothing about. The back cover explains that Yukimi -- possibly that thin dude -- is searching for the true Yoite, and has been given the name Sora, but Yoite also seems to be another person, who is in danger or something. I'm sure it makes sense if you've been reading Yuhki Kamatani's story, and not just trying to make sense of back-cover copy.
  • Soul Eater, Vol. 9 is the latest piece of Atsushi Ohkubo's very energetic story of the training of minions of the death god (in a good way!), something like Bleach set at Hogwarts, following up on a previous volume I actually read.
  • Omamori Himari, Vol. 7 is the only volume this month that came shrinkwrapped -- due to it's M-rating -- and the panty shot on the cover may give some indication why. Milan Matra's story looks to be another typical manga melange -- one part harem story, with a bevvy of pretty girls in short skirts fighting over one far-too-ordinary boy, and one part he's-the-heir-to-a-thousand-year-tradition-of-fighting-demons.
  • Daniel X, Vol. 3 has a huge "James Patterson" on the cover, but I think it's actually adapted from Patterson's novel by Adam Sadler, and the art is definitely by SeungHui Kye. Daniel X is one of Patterson's YA series protagonists, which means he's got paranormal powers, is part of a band of similar teenage misfit/runaways, and has to save the world from the forces of EEEEEvil.
  • Until Death Do Us Part, Vol. 1 is a double-sized volume launching this new series by Hiroshi Takashige and DOUBLE-S. She's a precognitive pre-teen on the run from yakuza who want to use her powers to get rich! He's a blind swordsman in modern Japan with techno-glasses and a computer voice in his head! Together, they will...well, we'll have to see about that.
  • And last is another debut, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Vol. 1, credited to Magica Quartet (story) and Hanokage (art), which seems to be a spin-off from a different magical girl series (not to mention an anime cartoon adapted into comics). Anyway, there's this magical girl, and her fabulous friends, and their stunning costumes, and all the rest of that stuff.
Back to prose, Daniel H. Wilson -- author of the bestseller Robopocalypse [1], the kind of thriller that we're supposed to pretend isn't actually SF -- is back with his new novel Amped, about a near future in which hundreds of thousands of people are "amplified" with high-tech prosthetics and then the Supreme Court (clearly Scalia and Thomas were only the beginning) rules that, apparently, anyone with a prosthetic anything doesn't count as human for the purpose of the law anymore. And then the requisite thriller plot kicks in. I'm sure that Amped is not nearly as stupid as that description makes it sound, by the way -- but I'm getting that straight from the flap copy and cover letter. Doubleday, which used to know what SF was, back in the day, publishes Amped as a hardcover on June 5th.

Larry Tye is a journalist, biographer, and author of general nonfiction -- his Satchel (a bio of Paige, I believe) was a bestseller a few years back -- and his new book is Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. Tye's previous works are nowhere near the comics field, so I hope he's bringing an outsider's objectivity to this regularly re-told (and heavily mythologized) story. It is, obviously, the story of DC Comics's biggest cash-cow, the character that enriched a thousand corporate executives but couldn't manage to save his creators from poverty. Random House publishes Superman on June 12th in hardcover.

And last for this week is the new Amos Walker detective novel from Loren D. Estleman -- some folks may remember when I read a whole bunch of books in that series -- called Burning Midnight, and coming as a hardcover from Forge on June 5th. This time out, Walker investigates gang violence and the disappearance of a teenager -- related to his frenemy, police detective John Alderdyce -- in his native Detroit.

[1] By the way, Robopocalypse: A Novel is the silliest title I've heard in at least a decade and possibly my entire life. Was someone worried that readers would confuse it with Robopocalypse: The True Story of My Battle Against Skynet by Sarah Connor?

Friday, May 25, 2012

What a Pile of Books Demanding to Be Reviewed Looks Like

My plan to reduce the stack of read but unreviewed books by reviewing one a day has fallen sadly afoul of events -- and the particular "event" in this case was the fact that Thing 2 (my younger son, now 11) and I have been playing a lot of Lego Indiana Jones 2 the last week or so.

(It's not new, but all of the Lego games - except for Harry Potter, which has over-complicated game mechanics -- are so much fun that it's great just to pick them up and run around smashing things and jumping your little man around randomly; they're the kind of games that make you happy just to look at on the shelf and even more so to pull them back down and play.)

In other, unrelated news, my iPod Touch has been acting up for the past couple of weeks, and finally succumbed to the Ubiquitous White Screen of Death over the last few days. Even the so-called "genius bar" -- I've been a user of Apple products for a long time now, and I greatly preferred it when they were scrappy underdogs and not arrogant SOBs -- was no help, and so I ended up having to get a new one earlier today.

So far, it doesn't seem all that different -- it supposedly has the super neat-o keen-o "retina display" and a faster processor, but it basically seems like the same device to me. Except. This new one has a camera in it, a cheap crappy phone-style camera, so I can now take cheap crappy pictures of random things when I remember to. And so, this afternoon, instead of actually writing a review for one (or more!) of the books in that big stack, I played some more Lego Indiana Jones 2 with my son, took a picture of the stack of books, and wrote the above.

I'm not proud, mind you.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/19

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one person to receive more free books in the mail than his fellows and has assumed among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitles him, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that he should declare the nature and type of those books that he hath received.

And who am I to deny that?

So, here, as I've done every Monday for several years, is an annotated list of the books that came into my mailbox last week -- books I have not yet read, I must add, so my opinions on them may be even more suspect than usual.

This week's four books divide neatly into two groups: books I've seen before (and haven't read), and books I'm seeing for the first time (and really haven't read). The first group comprises:
First of the books I'm seeing for the first time is L.E. Modesitt, Jr.'s Princeps, the sequel to Scholar in Modesitt's larger "Imager Portfolio" series (I believe the first three books were a trilogy, and these newer two are prequels. Princeps sees the hero of Scholar with new responsibilities (and the problems that go along with them), and hits stores as a To hardcover on May 22nd.

And last this time is Jessica Abel and Matt Madden's second textbook about creating comics, Mastering Comics, the follow-up to their acclaimed Drawing Words and Writing Pictures. This is from First Second, and appears to be available right now -- so, if any of you want to make comics, you'll want this book.