Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Review: The Black Dossier

Spoilers shall abound in this review, just to warn people...

I find myself surprised, depressed, and more than a little intimidated to say this, but...wow, that was really disappointing. I never thought I'd say that about something Alan Moore wrote, but it's true.

It's not all Moore's fault, I have to say. Some of it comes from the fact that LoEG volumes are so few and far between (due to Kevin O'Neill's somewhat deliberate speed of drawing) that each one feels more like an "event" than a story, and DC's delay of the release (due to all sorts of reasons) merely amped up the hype. It's possible that there's just no way that anything could live up to the excitement of the idea of the Black Dossier.

But I do think that some of the fault, and I say this as someone not nearly as talented as Alan Moore, is...well, Alan Moore's. For one thing, the sex. I am no prude. I admire greatly Moore's stance that writing 'Lost Girls' opened his eyes to the idea that human sexuality is natural and healthy, and something that can be included in his stories without shame or fear. But I do think that like any writer who's using a new storytelling technique, Moore seems to be overusing it in his first flush of enthusiasm. Much like Brian Michael Bendis scatters random thought balloons in every panel of 'Mighty Avengers', things like "I like pie," or "Where are my keys?", Moore seems to be sticking sex scenes in just to say, "Look! I'm not afraid to include a sex scene!" (In fact, that's literally the case at one point--a porn pamphlet from Orwell's '1984' is inserted between two other pages, seemingly at random.) The overall effect is more numbing and pointless than erotic. A few years down the road, I'm sure Moore will integrate this stuff better, but for now, it feels clumsy and forced.

But that's not the big problem with the Black Dossier. The big problem is...well, the big problem, to put it bluntly, is that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Not the plot, that's relatively straightforward. Mina and Quartermain steal the "Black Dossier", a compendium of secrets of the various incarnations of the League, from British Intelligence, and spend the rest of the book on the run while reading it. But very little of the actual material makes sense.

I suppose I should have seen this coming. Moore has been very forthright in discussing how the LoEG books have been and will be getting more and more elaborate in their "continuity references", working in more and more oblique references to other literary works of the period and using them as plot points. After all, Jess Nevins has published two annotated guides to the previous two mini-series, explaining all the "Easter eggs" for people who aren't walking pop culture encyclopedias. But even so, it's very frustrating to read an entire book that's nothing but knowing winks to things you don't recognize. The original series worked because the "Easter eggs" were just that, asides in a story whose main thrust was broad and immediately recognizable. Mister Hyde, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, and Allan Quartermain were major literary characters that the average person could recognize, and villains like Moriarty and the Martians from 'War of the Worlds' worked perfectly precisely because they were legendary villains that the legendary heroes could believably struggle against. (Although even in the original series, the veiled references to Fu Manchu were probably a mistake...but more on that in a moment.)

'The Black Dossier' is full of oblique references and veiled hints at other fictional stories, but that's all it really is. There's nothing for a reader except for the satisfaction of picking out a reference they recognize, or more often sighing in frustration as another obscure character shows up that they've never heard of. And since Moore appears to be hanging his hat on the notion that Jess Nevins will be publishing an annotated guide for this series as well, reading 'The Black Dossier' is a bit like buying a trivia quizbook without an answers section.

Worse, even in the parts where Moore probably wants to make things clear, he can't, because he hasn't learned his lesson from Fu Manchu. Too many of the important characters in the book are still under copyright from their respective authors, meaning that Moore has to make veiled allusions and hope that his readers are well educated enough to pick up the hints. (This was the problem with Fu Manchu in the original mini-series...if you're not familiar with Sax Rohmer's pulp villain, then large parts of the series are downright incoherent.) Admittedly, the key reference (a British secret agent named "Jimmy" who worked with Felix Leiter in Jamaica) is clear enough, but for every reference like that, there's a whole series of plot points that turn on You-Know-Who working with Wink-Wink to uncover the secret of That Famous Place With The Buildings, Get It? If you do get it, you'll no doubt be smiling faintly at the way the references dovetail. If you don't, you'll be wondering why they didn't just bundle the damn book with a coupon for the inevitable Nevins guide.

The ending, on the other hand, is a species of error that we haven't seen from Moore yet. It's all in 3-D, for starters (word to the wise: people with glasses hate 3-D effects, because we have a choice of either missing the 3-D part or sitting with the damn book an inch from our nose because we're nearsighted, for Pete's sake...I suppose it could have been worse, Moore could have persuaded DC to include a vinyl record I'd never be able to play on my CD player), and it takes place in the "Burning Realm", a place that's sort of a walk-in imagination where all these fictional characters can go when they get tired of dealing with the real world...except that obviously some of them can't, because they're not "fictional", except that they clearly are, because "Jimmy" is James Bond, but obviously he's not the right kind of fictional, so perhaps it's to do with being the right kind of fictional, but honestly, this isn't a story that has been doing the meta-fiction at all until now, and ringing it in right at the end of the third book for about ten pages feels odd and takes you right out of the story. The ending feels really like a chapter of 'Promethea' that wound up in the wrong book--don't get me wrong, I like the idea of fictional characters traveling into and out of the realm of imagination, but that's not the concept of 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'. LoEG suggests that it's all real, every last bit of it. Having it suddenly be all real except for the bits that aren't and some of them are and they can go into the imagination when they want to so they don't age...it's a pretty severe tangent, and it muddles the message.

I don't wish to sound wholly negative, since even disappointing Alan Moore is still Alan Moore, and there's one short story in there that works perfectly as an example of how LoEG should work (Jeeves vs. C'thullu, a clear example of two iconic and legendary characters facing off on a grand literary stage.) But on the whole, it really came off as self-indulgent and esoteric, and strangely pointless. Perhaps when Jess Nevins writes about it, I'll be more impressed.

Monday, November 26, 2007


I have edited the post "I Am King Geek, All Bow Down Before Me!" to correct an obvious omission...I'd totally forgotten about Lana Lang's checkered journey from Superboy's college sweetheart to hardened FBI agent.

Silly me.

Essential Update '07

Last year at about this time, I made a list of
the top fifteen Marvel series I wanted to see made into Essentials. It's now a year later, and I thought I'd take a moment to ask, "How did Marvel do?"

Unsurprisingly, they did a lot more volumes of existing series. I can't say I mind, honestly; it was good to get another X-Men volume, a couple more Spider-Man trades, more FF, more Silver Surfer, more Punisher, more Werewolf By Night, and more X-Factor. But of the fifteen titles on my list, only two were actually collected: Ms. Marvel, and Dazzler. (Which isn't to say there were no other new series being collected--'Essential Marvel Saga'? I didn't list it because I didn't dream Marvel would collect something so wonderful, yet so esoteric...now I've learned that my fanboy dreams can truly become reality.) So what does this year hold in the Marvel release schedule of my dreams?

15. The Champions. To be honest, I'm not sure what the rights issues are with this series, and I suspect nobody else does either, including Marvel (they did, after all, get within two months of publishing a new 'Champions' series before deciding to call it 'The Order'.) But I know there's a 'Champions Classic' set of trades in print, so Marvel must have the rights to reprint its old stuff. So howbout an Essential, Marvel?

14. Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu. Another one where the rights might be in limbo...they can obviously make use of Shang-Chi himself, since he's an original Marvel character, but the series also used Fu Manchu, and I'm sure the rights have lapsed on him by this point. Still, I will fall back on my "Godzilla" argument: If Marvel can hash out the rights to an Essential Godzilla, how much harder can any other character be?

13. Micronauts. I really don't know what the rights status for this series is. But somebody's got to be able to reprint these. Even if it isn't Marvel, I'd settle for another company putting out an affordable black-and-white reprint volume...

12. Adam Warlock. With all the "cosmic" characters enjoying a big renaissance due to the success of 'Annihilation' and 'Annihilation: Conquest', putting out affordably-priced reprints of the old adventures of these characters sounds like a smart move to me. And it's not like Adam Warlock doesn't have a fan following. (OK, certainly the sales figures on 'Adam Warlock and the Infinity Watch' suggests he doesn't have much of one. But that was a whole different era.)

11. New Warriors. Another series that seems more relevant than ever in the new year...there's a new 'New Warriors' series out, Nova's got his own series again, Night Thrasher and Penance (the former Speedball) both have mini-series, Justice is a prominent character in 'Avengers: The Initiative'...really, Marvel, this one just makes sense.

10. Spider-Man 2099. The only reason this didn't make the list last year is because I figure a series should be at least fifteen years old before being considered "Essential"...and that time has passed by 2008, meaning that Peter David's wonderful reimagining of the Spider-Man concept can see print. It's the best of the 2099 line, it's got a surprisingly faithful cult following, and it's the only series to feature the line, "I have tough nipples." What's not to like?

9. Power Pack. They're already doing new, family-friendly out-of-continuity 'Power Pack' mini-series. Why not reprint the classic adventures as well?

8. West Coast Avengers. Hawkeye. Team Leader. I should not have to speak of this one again next year.

7. Alpha Flight. Another one of those series that's had a bit of a renaissance lately, and one that I really think would work well in big, 24-issue chunks. It was ahead of its time in "writing for the trade", with lots of ongoing subplots and character developments that unfolded over many issues, and now is the time to reprint it.

6. ROM. I am aware, thank you very much, of the rights issues regarding ROM. Pah, I say to them. Pah! If you can do 'Essential Godzilla', why are you letting the only records of our great struggle with the Dire Wraiths languish in Marvel's vaults?

...don't make me get Congress involved here.

5. Quasar. See everything I said about 'Adam Warlock', only with bells on. This really was Mark Gruenwald's magnum opus, and I don't think it ever got the attention it deserved. I think it would sell very well in trades, and I really enjoyed the series.

4. New Mutants. As I understand it, the reason this hasn't been collected is that Bill Sienkiewicz's art doesn't translate well to black and white. But I still hold out hopes that somehow they could "remaster" it to make it work, because this really is the definition of an "Essential" title. Following the X-Men during the 80s meant following the New Mutants, and the X-Men and X-Factor titles feel incomplete without the missing third of the story.

3. Excalibur. Less "essential" than the New Mutants, but oh-so-gorgeous...and don't even try to tell me that Alan Davis' art doesn't look good in black-and-white, because I ain't buying it.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy. Still one of my favorite series ever from my childhood (well, teenage-hood), still needs to be reprinted, still needs to be relaunched (I wanted to see 'Civil War' end with the Guardians showing up and siding with Cap), but I must bump it down a spot, because...

1. What If? I must, at this point, confess the deepest of fanboy shames. I totally forgot about 'What If?' when making last year's list. Two series, hundreds of issues, one-shots to this day, the inspiration for 'Exiles' and the only place where you could see seriously dark stuff go down in the Marvel Universe, this cries out to be reprinted. Yes, I'm aware there's a "Classic" line for this series, much as there is for many of the series on this list. But I loves me the big thick black-and-white volumes, and that means I wait in anticipation for the day this one gets released.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Review: World War Z

Many apologies for the late post, but I'm in the middle of recovering from a nasty attack of malware that forced me to erase my hard drive. (No important files were lost, thanks to good backups, but it is a bit time-consuming, reinstalling everything.)

So nothing ambitious today, because I'm still recuperating, but let me take a moment to mention how very, very well 'World War Z', by Max Brooks, evokes the idea of a zombie uprising. It shouldn't surprise anyone who reads this blog that I heard the phrase "zombie uprising" and was right there in line to buy the book, but Brooks really does do an excellent job with the idea. The book takes the form of a number of "interviews" with survivors of the plague that reanimated the dead and gave them an uncontrollable hunger for the flesh of the living, and each interview is almost a short story in miniature. The various survivors' tales interlock to form a vast, sprawling narrative of a world in crisis, progressing from denial, to panic, to full-fledged chaos, and finally our struggle to fight back and reclaim our world.

At each stage, you'll be impressed with Brooks' sense of realism; having laid down ground rules for the zombie virus in 'The Zombie Survival Guide', he then proceeds to come up with very authentic human responses to a plague of the walking dead. I quibbled about a few things (I think, for example, that the military would come up with an effective response faster than they did--ultimately, no matter how implacable and terrifying zombies are, they're basically unarmed, unarmored people who use no subterfuge or tactics and move at a slow walking pace.) But Brooks paints a compelling picture, and gives each survivor a unique voice. I could have read a book twice this length, and I'd be more than happy to see a sequel out of Brooks.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Odd Businesses Update!

I saw again tonight a check for a Mexican restaurant here in Minnesota called 'The Taco King'.

Now 'Taco King', by itself, isn't bad. Conveys a sort of fast food, Taco Bell meets Burger King vibe. But every time I see 'The Taco King' on a check, I picture all these animals kneeling down, watching this aged baboon head up the mountainside. He arrives at the pinnacle, and holds up...a taco! "Behold...your king." (And then he takes a big bite.)

It's just not the image I think they wanted to provide when they named their business. "Simba...it is time for you to return to the pridelands and take your place in the Combo of Life."

Or it could just be me.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Meet 'N Greet #4

Once, he was an ordinary clown. His was a happy lot, entertaining children, loving his beautiful wife (also a clown), and looking forward to teaching his young son the craft of circus entertainment.

Then, one day, all that changed. A group of renegade mimes from the infamous 'Cirque du Soleil' crime family gunned down his whole family with invisible bullets. With no ballistics to trace, the police could do nothing. But he could.

Now, he's no longer a clown. He's a clown with a gun. And he's going mime hunting. No invisible box can save them. He's a one-man force for justice, an unstoppable white-faced, big-haired torrent of revenge...

No. Not revenge. Funishment.

He is...the Funisher.

(True story: This character was inspired by a "wannabe" on the 'City of Heroes' game, someone who'd simply made a copyrighted character and changed his name slightly to avoid being deleted for copyright infringement. He had made the Punisher, but had added an "h" so it was the "Phunisher". Apart from being appalled at the lack of imagination, I was quite irritated at the poor understanding of phonetics. That wouldn't sound like "punisher", it'd sound like...and then I realized it was the Best Character Idea Ever.)