Sunday, October 31, 2010

I'm Back!

The comprehensive exam is over. There was much rejoicing...

No minstrels were eaten but there was ice cream and alcohol comsumed.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Compound Geekery Will Be Going Dark....

Well, dark to dim I'll say.

Either way don't expect a lot of posts in the coming weeks. I've got a comprehensive exam to take in order to complete my (second) Master's Degree and "failure is not an option". So with that looming I doubt I'll have much free time for reading or writing here.

See you when I'm done!

The Chicago Comics: "Madame Mirage"

And getting back to my round of overviews of what I bought in Chicago this year....

Paul Dini's 2007 six-issue mini-series from Top Cow... Madame Mirage.

First off, I've got to say, it's really, really REALLY hard to give a plot overview to this story without giving to much away. Suffice it to say, Madame Mirage takes place in a world rather like our own but where technology, genetics, drugs and advanced surgery have allowed some people to have what amounts to super powers.

At first many of these people use their powers to help people -- as they were originally meant to do -- but some turn to crime and evil. As the evil starts to outweigh the good the decision is made to ban all forms of "mega tech" and all who use them, have them implanted, or been altered through it. The good are thrown into prison alongside the evil and in fact many of the evil escape, move underground, and operate as shady mercenaries.

One of those who escaped has set up a dummy front company and taken a number of supervillains under his wing. Behind the front he hires out these powered individuals for kidnappings, assassinations, and other crimes.

Now, however, he finds himself under assault by a mysterious woman named Madame Mirage. She's definitely more than human -- a ghost, a magician, and utterly impossible -- and she's definitely not playing by the rule of law. Mirage is out for bloody justice -- the justice of an eye for an eye -- but why? And who is she really?

Dini is well known among comic book circles for his love of stage magic. With Madame Mirage he manages to combine that love with the darker, heavy-hitting, crime noir style as opposed to some of the lighter noir of guys like Raymond Chandler. He also, of course, mixes in superheroics, sci-fi, and a dash of the pulps. On top of all of that, in the middle of the series he makes a sudden reveal which does literally change everything you've seen going on and makes you go back and re-read the stories in this new light.

All that being said, the series is not without it's flaws. For one thing, there are several plots points which are mentioned but then never end up going anywhere or being mentioned again. This might be forgivable except for the fact that these are really fascinating, complex ideas and ones that would seem to possibly have lasting consequences but then they are ignored. I had thought that perhaps Dini might address them in a follow-up mini-series but the original six-issue series has a pretty conclusive ending to it leaving little wiggle room for a sequel.

For another thing... I'm, personally, not that crazy about Kenneth Rocafort's art. The line work is somewhat 'scratchy' and all of the female characters are pretty hypersexualized. There is a reason for it in Mirage's case but not so much in the case of many of the other characters. The scratchy line work makes the art seem... well.... I'm just going to say it... it looks sloppy. I really feel that Dini's story would have worked a bit better with a more crisp, clean style buttressed perhaps with a darker color palette and heavy inks. Everything here just looks fuzzy and slightly out of focus in most cases.

Taken as a whole, though, if you like noir, particularly the sub-genre of crime noir then Madame Mirage is an excellent new twist on an old story and Dini adds something new to the comic book universe.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Yes, I'm getting a little political. Sorry. NPR fires Juan Williams...

And I know, you're thinking, "Who the hell cares" but I've seen a lot of arguments about this both pro and con but I'm not seeing people making the points that I think need to be made.

1) People are arguing that Williams expressed a personal opinion and he should have a right to that personal opinion.

My answer: Yes, Williams was expressing a personal opinion. BUT he is a news analyst and commentator for a living AND he was giving his opinion on a nationally broadcast TV show that appears on a channel which offers news and news opinion based shows. In fact, the show he was appearing on is a news opinion based show. Williams is no babe in the woods, he should have known better. A show like that and a venue like that is NOT the place where you state your personal opinion. He is free to state those opinions privately to family and friends but he was in front of the TV camera in a position where he was being treated as a news expert. In other words, he stated his personal opinion while on the job.

2) Williams expressed fear of people on planes dressed as Muslims because they were "putting their religion first".

My Response: Oh, so should we be afraid of nuns? Because they dress according to their religion. Does that mean they are placing their religion first? Well, yes, in a way I suppose it does, but at the same time it doesn't make them any less American. Or how about someone Amish? Should we be afraid of the Amish? They dress according to their religion.

Again, it was a stupid, brainless thing to say. And nuns and priests and others who dress according to their religion were the FIRST things to pop into my head when Williams said this. I'm not Rhodes Scholar, I'm not brilliant. If *I* can see the flaw in his words HE sure as heck should have been able to.

So, in closing, no, I don't think NPR necessarily did the wrong thing in firing him. And even if it were, perhaps, an overreaction to the situation, Williams certainly had SOME form of rebuke coming to him. This isn't something he has any right to get away scott free on simply because he was stating an opinion or simply because he tried to weasel out of it by saying he wasn't bigoted and he didn't blame all Muslims for the actions of the 9-11 bombers.

If he feels a bit of fear getting on a plane with someone dressed in Muslim or Middle Eastern garb then that is HIS problem and one that HE needs to work on. He needs to come to grips with his fears and be rational about them... rather than trying to rationalize them.

There, now that's off my chest

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: Over My Dead Body (1939)

There's a nice "extra" to this story since this is one of more than 20 Nero Wolfe books and short stories to be adapted by the A & E TV series between 2001 and 2002. Not only can you read the book but you can see a really faithful adaptation of it as well. And we'll get into that a bit more below. For now.....

The Plot: A young Montenegrin woman comes to Wolfe to ask him to defend one of her fellow countrywomen, Neya Tormic, against a charge that she stole diamonds from a client at the fencing school where both women teach. The women can't pay Wolfe's usual fees but they call upon his good will since Neya claims to be his daughter!

Wolfe reluctantly admits that years ago in his idealism he fought for Montenegro's independence. Finding a starving, orphaned girl he adopted her to provide for her but later left the country but sent money to continue to provide for her care. When he tried to find her again later she had vanished.

Wolfe takes on the case despite his questioning on if Neya is that little girl but the mystery of the missing diamonds is quickly settled without him having to lift a finger. Before he can even be informed of this fact, though, there is a murder and Neya and her friend Carla are in the thick of things again.

The murder is wrapped up in international intrigue and spy vs. spy, much to Wolfe's annoyance. He must untangle a web to find out if his client is guilty or innocent and even to discover if she really is his daughter.

My Take: As I've mentioned before, I watched (and loved) the A & E series when it first ran in 2001-2002. Since I saw the episodes which were based on this book it was impossible for me to come to Over My Dead Body completely cold as I have with the other stories.

That being said, the reading added an extra layer to things and readers might need to keep a scorecard for this book... I know I almost did. This is one of Stout's more complex stories to date as there is a small raft of characters and a lot happening among them all. If you aren't paying attention it is easy to get lost in the maze-like plot.

All of this is not a bad thing, however. The layers upon layers, the family drama, murder mystery, and espionage thriller aspects of things blend rather well and prove that there is no one quite like Rex Stout for pulling all the threads together and coming up with something so eminently readable.

If there is a fault to be found it is that many of the characters are a little thin. In some cases Stout crafted characters who are more like countries personified than they are characters.

All of this can be overlooked though with the taut, layered mystery that constantly keeps you guessing.

Out of curiosity, I also decided to take another look at the corresponding A & E episode after I read the book, just to see how well they compare, and I have to admit I was shocked. I know that there were praises for the series for being faithful to Stout's work but I really cannot remember if I have ever seen an adaptation that was so much like someone had simply set the book to film. The dialogue is nearly exact and scenes play out almost precisely as Stout wrote them originally. There are a few things to quibble with (actor James Tolkan's attempt at a British accent being one of them. Ouch. Seriously. I like Tolkan as an actor but that accent was just... bad. And actor Maury Chaykin isn't *quite* the Nero Wolfe I have in my head... but he's darn close) but when you get down to it most of it is just nitpicking. If you get a chance to I do highly recommend reading the book and then watching the episodes. The series brilliantly brought Stout's book to life here and if you're like me you'll probably spend the rest of your reading hearing Timothy Hutton's voice in your head as you read Archie Goodwin.

Favorite Quote of the Book: Apparently, Mr. Faber, Mr. Goodwin doesn't like you. Let's disregard that. What can I do for you?

"You can first," said Faber in his perfect precise English, "instruct your subordinate to answer questions which are put to him."

"I suppose I can. I'll try it sometime. What else can I do for you?"

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: Some Buried Caesar (1939)

Rex Stout is probably one of the few writers who could combine comedy farce with tragedy in such an effortless blend as this...

The Plot: When Wolfe leave the brownstone it's just one problem after another... On their way to the mid-Atlantic exhibition in upstate New York a blowout causes Archie and Wolfe to become guests of Mr. Pratt -- a roadside diner mogul. Pratt has purchased a champion bull -- Hickory Caesar Grindon -- in order to butcher and barbecue it as a publicity stunt. This puts Pratt on the hate list of local stockmen.

If that were not enough, Pratt also has a feud with the neighboring Osgood family. Upon finding out about the stunt Clyde, the Osgood scion, makes a reckless bet that Pratt will not barbecue Caesar that week.

It is not Pratt who winds up dead, however, but Clyde; found in Caesar's pasture apparently killed by the bull while trying to steal it to win the bet. At least that's what the authorities think. Clyde's father thinks differently and Wolfe backs him up and declares it to be murder. Osgood hires Wolfe to prove it so and find the killer and Wolfe accepts the case. This time, though, the great detective is up against an unexpectedly wily and fast moving killer. Can Wolfe prove the murder before all the evidence vanishes?

My Take: The opening sequence from the car accident to the bull chase is quite one of the funniest things I've read in a long time. If you can read that without laughing or at least cracking a smile then you should probably see a doctor because you funnybone may be broken.

From there the story is light, breezy and funny -- almost like one of the screwball comedies of the 1930's, which makes the sudden death hit with the force of a sledgehammer. One would expect the humor to quickly evaporate after that but this is Stout we're talking about here. He somehow manages to move from scenes of comedy to scene of pathos with lightning speed. The readers' emotions and sympathies are put in a bumper car with a target painted on it and yet it never makes the reader feel strained or whiplashed.

Stout also returns to his theme of romance as well. Here he places a definite call back to Romeo and Juliet in the form of the feuding families and young lovers but that aspect of the story never really ends up on the front burner. In fact, out of all of these early books Some Buried Caesar is one of the few where, once the "young lovers" subplot is introduces it fades away almost completely.

That's okay, though, because a different sort of relationship begins here. Meet Lily Rowan. She is independent, smart, wealthy, used to getting her own way, and keenly self-aware. She would actually be a very easy character to dislike but Stout injects her with so much charm, verve and life that she becomes one of his best characters. She comes across as a very modern woman -- one who would be as comfortable in 2010 as she was in 1939. And if you think Archie and Wolfe's dialogue is sharp wait till you read Archie and Lily. Their exchanges have the wit, punch and sexual tension of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and Archie and Lily actually predate the first pairing of those actors on screen!

Readers also get a look at a slightly new side to Wolfe as well. He's a bit of a greedy jerk here. We've seen him be eccentric, egotistical, arrogant and manipulative but this is something more than that. He's selfish. Here he is certain Clyde's death was murder and without being hired the death would have been labled an accident and a killer would have gone free and a death gone unavenged. Despite Wolfe's defense of his actions it still places him in an unflattering light.

As for the mystery, again, this was a story which I had at least part of figured out early on. The relative thinness of the mystery does not detract at all though from the overall story. The characters are so forcefully drawn that it is them you keep reading for, not necessarily the mystery.

Archie and Wolfe tackle a mystery off their home turf, comedy and tragedy ensues and Archie meets a woman who just might be able to match him smart-alec quip for smart-alec quip. Some Buried Caesar sure shouldn't be buried in your reading pile.

My Favorite Quote of the Book: I stood up with my heels together and saluted him, and he glared at me. Naturally he knew I was on to him, Machiavelli was a simple little shepherd lad by comparison. Not that I disapproved by any means, for the chances were that I would get a fairly good bed myself, but it was one more proof that under no circumstances could you ever really trust him.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: Too Many Cooks (1938)

Whooo boy. I have to say I've not been looking forward to reviewing this one for reasons which will be outlined below. Time to take a deep breath and just plunge in....

The Plot: Les Quinze Maitres is an exclusive society of the 15 best chefs in the world. Masters in the art of food. They meet now at that exclusive Kanawha Spa in Virginia with the intent to dazzle each other with their culinary skills and to elect three new members (as three have passed away due to natural causes). Nero Wolfe is invited as a guest and keynote speaker and the honor is enough to get him out of the brownstone with Archie along of course in his usual role of secretary, travel agent, and bodyguard.

Wolfe expects world class cuisine and socializing with the greatest minds in the culinary arts. The last thing he expects is to get tangles up in the murder of one of the great chefs -- a man who has no end of enemies, including many of his fellow Quinze Maitres.

Now Wolfe must take a busman's holiday to catch a killer. Bon Appetite if you dare!

My Take: Let's just get this out of the way first... there is rather a lot of racism in this book and that is where most of my discomfort with the story lies.

At the time Stout was writing racism was still institutionalized. Segregation was a fact of life -- some of it on the books as law others of it a matter of social pressure and convention. It was part of a less enlightened time and narrow minded thinking.

As someone who works in the history field I recognize this as a fact of the times. Too Many Cooks is a product of those times. It doesn't excuse the attitude, it doesn't make it right but it is the past and the past cannot be changed.

One part of me is able to read this book on that level -- seeing it in it's historical context and analyzing what it adds to understanding that time period. But there is also the non-historian side of me which flinches when the n-word is used to describe African Americans here. And the word is used plenty along with other, slightly less inflammatory but no less hurtful racial slurs.

There is a lot to unpack here... For one thing, as I said, many characters use the n-word, but in 1938 Virginia where this story is set that would have been fairly common so Stout is, technically, merely giving realism to the story.

It is indicated that many of the workers at the spa-hotel where the action takes place are African-American. Again, for the time period,this would have been common with usually menial jobs being the ones most open to African-Americans and not many other career paths available. There is also a problem in that Stout tends to leave them as "greenjackets" -- the livery of the spa being for workers to wear green jackets. In Stout's other stories even the throwaway characters like secretaries get a little more individuation and description. Here, for a good chunk of the book, the African-American character are treated just as a kind of collective whole.

And then there's Archie. I know Stout wanted to show Archie's unsophisticated nature but again the racial slurs just make me cringe. Archie never stoops to the n-word but he does use some other racial slurs which are still just... ugly.

There are a few bright spots. Stout writes Wolfe as pretty firmly egalitarian. Wolfe treats the African-American characters exactly as he does the while characters and Wolfe does at least briefly mention the fact that African-Americans are denied many of the rights and privileges that whites have in society. Wolfe also warns the police against taking frustration out on the African-American hotel workers when they opened up to Wolfe rather than to the police. It shows that Wolfe is aware of the relationship African-Americans have with the police in this time period.

Stout also depicts most of the African-American characters as highly intelligent and/or great chefs in their own right. He makes them observant and having their own thoughts and issues and this really rounds the characters out and makes them true characters rather than just stereotypes or anti-stereotypes.

Overall, at least a part of me thinks Stout was against the racism and bigotry of the day and was trying to reflect the social situation of the time and place he was setting the story. It is still highly uncomfortable though for a modern reader or for someone unable to fit the book into it's historic context.

The rest of the plot is rather interesting and we get the excitement of a physical threat to Wolfe -- reminding us once again why one of Archie's job titles is bodyguard -- and there is a bit of Stout's usual hints of romance in the story but Being honest, the racial aspect of the story did somewhat ruin my reading of the book.

I would love to see a serious roundtable discussion of Too Many Cooks by a multi-racial panel; it's one of the reasons I regret reading and analyzing these books in isolation because some, like this one, might really benefit from a book discussion group. In the end, though, as much as I hate to do it, for most people out there it's probably for the best if they skip Too Many Cooks.

My Favorite Quote: Even though the book made me a bit uncomfortable reading it there was still quite a bit of Stout's trademark witty dialogue. My favorite bit comes from Archie.. I thought to myself, darn you, some day you're going to push the button for my wits when they're off on vacation, and then you'll learn to let me in on things ahead of time.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: The Red Box (1937)

The Plot: When a model for prestigious clothing designer Boyd McNair is poisoned a young friend of McNair's, Mr. Frost, hires Wolfe to find the killer... and to convince his cousin to stop modeling. Wolfe takes the job with much grumbling but soon finds it is not as straightforward as it appears.

McNair is the next to die but not before cryptically telling Wolfe the truth can be found in a Red Box. The search is on for the box with Wolfe and the police both vying for it in hopes of catching the killer. The stakes are high in this one -- love, money, truth and justice all hinge on Nero Wolfe's genius and one red box.

My Take: Out of all the stories I've read so far this one is the weakest. At least part of the solution is telegraphed fairly early on and the third murder skews into the realm of esoteric.

In addition to that the initial death which start the story is kicked to the curb and as the story goes on it is mentioned less and less. It makes the death feel like little more than a plot device and somewhat less than integrated into the whole. It is kindling for the fire and like kindling it is quickly burnt up and nothing left. That really isn't Stout's usual style.

The book does have a number of good points though. The supporting characters provide comedy, tragedy and pathos and the young Miss Frost does quite a bit of growing up over the course of the story. The character Gebert also becomes fascinating. My attitudes toward Gebert in particular changed over the course of the story. At first I thought him merely a slimy, middle aged letch, then as one of those annoying people who think themselves funnier than they actually are and finally as a quite intelligent and tough individual who has become disillusioned and jaded with life but tries to hide how are he's sunk behind a sardonic mask. I ended up with a grudging respect for him and that change in attitude toward the character is a testament to Stout's skill.

There is also the humor of seeing Wolfe out of his element as he is convinced to leave his brownstone for a while, the usual witty banter between Archie and Wolfe and a little tweaking of the nose of Inspector Cramer and the police.

The Red Box isn't a bad story, far from it and in point of fact I have yet to encounter one of Stout's Wolfe stories that is outright bad (although it's still early days in my reading through the corpus), but it isn't the best one I've encountered so far. The murdered are uneven and some of the outcomes are easy to figure out. The wealth of characters in the book are what truly make it worth the time to read, though and time spent with Stout's characters is never time wasted.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Chicago Comic Books: "Reading With Pictures"

Kind of busy around the old blog here. Not wanting to neglect my reviews of comics I picked up in Chicago this summer here are my thoughts on the anthology Reading With Pictures.

I should say that, like a lot of kids, I read comic books growing up. Mostly Marvel's Star Wars but also Archie and some occasional Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman stuff among other titles. In my day and age comic books were bought off the spinner racks or magazine racks at grocery stores or convenience stores and they were usually a treat. Some of the comics I even still have in my collection -- dog-eared and spine rolled with age. But comics were part of my childhood. Part of my growing up.

When my nephew came on the scene I wanted him to have a similar experience. I wanted him to have comic books as part of his growing up even if he ended up dropping them as he got older and so, even before he could really read, I bought him comic books figuring he could at least follow the story in the sequential panels and then I or his mom and dad could read the dialogue to him. He took to them like gangbusters and when he was still fairly young one day his mother told me that he wanted to show me something. He went and got one of his comic books, opened it up and read it to me instead of me reading it to him. He even got a lot of the really big words! We were all really proud of him.

That's what the group Reading With Pictures is all about. They're message is that comic books' unique blend of words and sequential images can help young people learn to read and have fun doing it. They also believe that comics can encourage young people to explore art as well. And so the group acts as a bridge between educators and comics creators -- encouraging educators to use comic books in the classroom and encouraging comic book creators to write stories which can be used in classrooms.

Reading With Pictures the anthology was designed as a way of raising funds for the project while at the same time promoting it and also being something which teachers can use in the classroom. The book contains 37 short comics; some are only a page or so in length others run for several pages but all are All Ages compliant. Each story brings something appropriate and understandable to the younger set while at the same time appealing to the older set set and the genres run the gamut. There are some autobiographical and semi-autobiographical stories here, there is fantasy, humor, superhero, sci-fi and everything in between and despite the fact that all the stories revolve around themes of learning, school, reading and education they are never preachy or boring.

And don't go thinking this is all just stories by people you've never heard of either. Chris Giarrusso contributes a story featuring his G-Man character (found at Image comics), Jim Gownley adds an Amelia Rules short, Josh Elder and Tim Smith throw in a Mail Order Ninja tale, Raina Telgemeier produces a semi-autobiographical story, Scott Christian Sava contributes an original Chronicles of Dreamland tale, Chris Eliopoulos of the critically acclaimed Franklin Richards, Son of a Genius specials tells an all-original story and hot and getting hotter Marvel writer Fred Van Lente finishes the whole thing off with creations of his own. In between, of course, are many independent writers and artists whose love for comic books began when they first started Reading with Pictures.

The whole book is really delightful and has high production values all around. The art is printed nice and clean and each artist's individual style is well represented. The colors are gorgeous even with each piece having a different color palette and shading, and even the cover puts you in mind of every comic book you've ever read over the years and reminds you of just how diverse the medium can be when you look around.

Bravo to all who contributed and managed to capture the essence of what makes comic books great. Who took their own love of comic books and poured it into stories about creating stories and finding creative ways of looking at the world around you.

To learn more about the group Reading With Pictures you can visit their website HERE

To learn more about the anthology book look HERE

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: The Rubber Band

In 1936 Rex Stout published the third of his Nero Wolfe stories...

The Rubber Band:
The Plot:
It's double duty for Wolfe and Archie as a previous client asks them to discover the truth when a beautiful employee of his company is charged with theft. Before the day is out, though, that employee, Clara Fox, would appear at the brownstone with a group in tow, wanting to hire Wolfe for another job!

Decades ago out west a band of rabble rousers led by "Rubber" Coleman saved the life of an Englishman. As payment the Englishman pledged a chunk of his fortune to the men when he came into it.

Clara's father was one of that band and now Clara thinks she's found the Englishman -- a visiting dignitary and British peer! Clara wants Wolfe to help her and her friends get the promised reward. Instead, the little group may get eternal rewards as members are murdered one-by-one.

Suddenly Wolfe finds himself with an abundance of concerns: protecting the life of his clients from an unknown killer, finding said killer and preventing Clara from being arrested by the police for theft, blackmail and murder!

My Take: Unlike with the previous two stories Stout hit the ground running with this one. Readers are quickly plunged into the drama of the office theft and then subsequently hit with murder and debt collection.

With Wolfe hiding Clara in the brownstone we get some of the clearest pictures of it's interior, it's staff, and how they operate. We also get to see a new side to Wolfe -- that of a reluctantly charming host.

Wolfe and Archie also spend a good portion of the book keeping the officers of law enforcement -- notably Inspector Cramer and Lt. Rowcliffe -- spinning in circles and generally just raising the ire of anyone affiliated with law enforcement. Wolfe and Archie's failure to be impressed by officials of the law shows an anti-establishment streak to the two characters that is always a delight to behold. Archie and Wolfe's run arounds with Cramer and his ilk are second only to Archie and Wolfe's bantering for humor and wit.

For all of the steam Cramer raises, though, Stout manages to keep the character fun and interesting, mostly by making it clear that, for his exasperation, Cramer still has respect for both Wolfe and Archie. It is hard to really hate Cramer nor see him as a buffoon but that doesn't mean it isn't great fun to see Wolfe and Archie pull a fast one on him. It's like watching Bugs Bunny get the better of Daffy Duck.

Not only does Stout keep the characters in motion, he also not only starts the story at a brisk pace he keeps it moving at a fairly speedy clip -- although not so fast as to lose the reader. He effortlessly juggles the carious plot points and the supporting characters here are roundly interesting and readable... with the exception of the British secretary Francis Horrocks. It's one thing to use one or two stereotypes for a character but it's something else to throw nearly every single one into the mix and then add a cod accent on top of it all. Stout was going for a bit of comedy here but it ends up with a character who is kind of insufferable to read. Especially for me since I have a lot of British friends and I know they're fairly tired of the American version of the British stereotype.

If you look at The Rubber Band as a whole you find that it's a mystery with a treasure hunt at the heart of it. Leave it to Rex Stout to give readers a treasure hunt story of an entirely different sort.

Even within the short span of three books there are certain things which readers come to expect from Stout: witty dialogue, engaging characters, impenetrable mysteries, twists, turns and surprises. This story delivers on all three.

My Favorite Quote of the Book: Well, I have to say that my favorite sequence is where a couple of cops manage to get past Archie at the front door and he retaliates by physically throwing them both out the door and down the front stairs. Since this isn't eactly a quote though I suppose I have to go with: Cramer got up too, saying to Hombert, "He's always like this. You might as well stick pins in a rhinoceros."

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: The League of Frightened Men

And moving on with my proposed attempt to read and review my way through Rex Stout's entire run of Nero Wolfe stories here is the second book in the series, published in 1935...

The League of Frightened Men
The Plot:
Years ago a group of Harvard students forced a fellow student, Paul Chapin, into a stunt. An accidental fall left Chapin crippled for life and left the others emotionally scarred. They vowed to make sure Chapin wanted for nothing and called themselves privately "the League of Atonement".

Now Chapin is a successful if controversial novelist. When two members of the League die nothing seems amiss to the authorities but the other League members receive threat letters after each death and believe Chapin is a killer.

When a third member goes missing, presumed dead, Wolfe steps in for a very hefty fee. Has Wolfe, however, met his match in the brilliant Chapin? Can he stop the man from killing again? Wolfe believes he can snare Chapin but is he really on the right track or will the great detective fail?

My Take: As with the first book some of the cultural references go whizzing by overhead, rendered somewhat irrelevant by the passage of time. Also, as with Fer-de-Lance this book is a slow burn. There is much time spent on the League, it's members, their lives, and of course Paul Chapin and his situation. Stout holds the readers' interest, though, by dint of keeping Wolfe and Archie (and through them the reader) busy contemplating three possible murders all the while trying to protect the remaining League members from a fatal attack which could come at any time and in any form.

There is also a sudden twist that comes as the end would seem to be in sight. This twist throws open what has gone before to new interpretation and causes the reader to change ideas as well as change sympathies to a certain degree. Stout, however, with an already sure writing style, never allows any of these changes to seem unnecessarily jarring or simply tacked onto the plot in order to bump the page count.

There are some areas, though, where time has not been as kind to the book. Much of the psychology that Wolfe and his clients bandy about seems rather suspect now -- particularly considering all of the advances the field of psychology has made over the decades. Readers also meet more of an unsavory side to Archie Goodwin. Goodwin's use of the term "lop" (for lopsided) in relation to Paul Chapin is distasteful to the modern reader. The reaction Wolfe shows to it -- which is to take Archie to task for using it -- implies that Stout put the term in exactly for that reason -- to demonstrate to readers that Archie is rather uncouth -- but even at that the word grates on the spine. Thankfully it is used sparingly.

Overall, the good points far outweigh the few bad ones here. The story has more twists and turns than a Rubik's Cube and shocks and drama keep readers at the edge of their seats once the story cranks up speed. Wolfe's psychology may be shaky after the passage of time by Stout's psychology of knowing exactly how to thrill readers still holds fast today.

Favorite Quote: Wolfe: "I'm really not much good at negotiation, I am too blunt. It is a shortcoming of temperament not to be overcome. For instance, my proposal to you. I can only present it and say, take it or leave it. I compensate for the handicap by making the proposal so attractive that it cannot very well be refused."

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Wolfe at the Door

It isn't often that I revisit books I didn't like. Most of the time if I try to read a book and find it doesn't capture my interest I get rid of it and move on.

On rare occasions, though, I will go back and give a book a second chance. Most of the time I find my initial reaction was correct. Sometimes though... sometimes I discover that my attitude has changed.

One of those rare occasions was with Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books.

A few years back I borrowed the first of Stout's Nero Wolfe books from the library. I had thoroughly enjoyed the A & E TV series that had been broadcast in the early 2000's and so naturally I thought I would enjoy the books.

I did not.

In point of fact I found the plot slow to get started and all of the characters -- from Wolfe to his aide-de-camp Archie Goodwin to all of the supporting cast -- were dull. I returned the book to the library and went on to other things.

Several months ago, however, I felt compelled to give it another chance. Again, I checked the first book in the series out of the library. To my surprise something had changed and this time I honestly enjoyed the story!

So fast forwarding to now... I had been checking books out of the library, participating in a contest sponsored by said library. Among those I checked out I decided to grab the second book in the Nero Wolfe series since it had been so long since I had read the first. I was again captivated... in fact, even more so. And this has sent me on a quest to read all of the books in the Nero Wolfe corpus (NOT corpse, corpus -- as in "body of work"). I also thought I might share some of my thoughts on the books with my readers. And so... we begin.

The Plot:Nero Wolfe is hired by Maria Maffei to find her missing brother, Carlo. The trail leads to the death of university president Peter Oliver Barstow of an apparent heart attack. Wolfe, however, believes it was murder. When he is proven correct the race is on to find the murderer and more bodies show up as Wolfe starts to pull skeletons out of suspects' closets. As Wolfe begins unravelling the truth he puts himself in the path of a man who will not hesitate to kill again.

My Take: Written in 1934, some of the cultural references the characters (particularly Archie) make will likely fly over the heads of many if not most modern readers. There is also some ethnic stereotyping which was common for the era but modern readers may be anywhere from uncomfortable with it to expressing distaste for it.

With that out of the way, Rex Stout's main characters carry the day. The plot is a bit convoluted and the murderer seems to be going about things in a ridiculously complex manner but the reader is willing to overlook this because Wolfe and Archie make the story spark.

It is true that there are still some rough edges which Stout would file down over the years -- both in his writing style and in his characters. Archie is often blunt and outright rude but this is balanced by a witty sarcasm and the ability to go from zero to charming in about two seconds. Likewise, despite the fact that Wolfe's ego is as large as he is (a seventh of a ton according to Archie) he manages to come across as charming and eccentric rather than annoying and grating.

Someone once wrote that Stout achieved the near-impossible -- he married the British mannerly style of mystery stories with the American hard boiled style. This is not only true it is obvious even here in the first book. Wolfe, with his insistence on logic and rational thinking, his attention to detail and his genius is very much in the style of Sherlock Holmes. Archie, on the other hand, with his sarcasm, his eye for the ladies, and his streak of old-fashioned Knight Errant in him is firmly from the Raymond Chandler school of characters. And this odd mix works -- just as the odd friendship, partnership and employment relationship works for Wolfe and Archie. We also see that, while Archie may not be up to Wolfe's level of genius, he is a keen student of human nature and Wolfe relies on him, trusts him, and has confidence in his abilities. In short, Archie is no Watson, forever trailing in Holmes' wake.

It is true that the book is a slow burn. It does take a while for the plot to get started and some of the 'talking heads' scenes do go on a bit and get boring but if you persevere you will be rewarded with being introduced to two of the most unique characters in American mystery.

Quote of the Book:He (Wolfe) cursed. I hated to hear him curse. It got on my nerves. The reason for that, he told me once, was that whereas in most cases cursing was merely a vocal explosion, with him is was a considered expression of a profound desire.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Chicago Comic Books: The Avengers Marvel Masterworks, vol. 1

So another thing I picked up at Chicago.... (note: not actual cover. I couldn't find a decent copy of the cover to the Masterworks edition to use here)

A few things out of the way first. The Marvel Masterworks series was Marvel's equivalent to DC's Archives editions. The Masterworks were originally published as hardcovers and consisted of, usually, an entire year's worth of comics from one title. The comics had been scanned from the original pages, cleaned up, color corrected and printed on glossy, high-quality paper stock. The bad thing about both the Masterworks and Archives lines is that they tended to be very expensive... like about $50 a throw.

In recent years, though, both DC and Marvel have realized that they would do better with some more affordable options and so DC has started offering the Chronicles line -- issues of the comics, in publication order, in color, and with a paperback cover instead of a hard one. Marvel just moved their Masterworks into a paperback format.

The Avengers were and oftentimes stil are Marvel's premire superteam -- their answer to DC's Justice League of America. In the beginning the team consisted of Iron Man, Thor, Ant Man, Wasp and the Hulk. Needless to say the Hulk didn't last long as a team member and was soon replaced by Captain America.

Just as an aside, though, to me Marvel's Avengers aren't the real Avengers. No, the real Avengers are British and consist of John Steed, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and, in a pinch, Dr. Richard Keel, Venus Smith, and Tara King. After all, they had the name first and they have been roundly more entertaining, stylish and witty.

So, this Marvel Masterworks Avengers volume collects the first year or so of issues of the comic book. It introduces the basic idea and introduces all the team members for those who hadn't been following them in their individual titles. It will be interesting for Hulk fans to learn that in these early days the Hulk wasn't quite the brainless smash machine he would become later and also Bruce Banner could just "Hulk out" at any time -- it wasn't necessarily tied to his emotions. He could also be changed from the Hulk back to Banner with the application of a Gamma ray beam.

On the whole, though, I have to say that I didn't like this. It isn't the fact that it's Silver Age and therefore contains some of the goofiest comic book science you will ever see. It isn't the fact that, being Silver Age, is also contains attempts at "hip" language which is simply painful. It isn't the fact that, as Silver Age, it also contains some of the weirdest, most nonsenical villains. Nope. All of that I can deal with. Unlike some people I actually like a lot of Silver Age stuff. I find quite a bit of it charming and entertaining and the goofier aspects are just laugh-out-loud silly which is fun... even if the original writers didn't intend to make you laugh. It's like MST3K -- the entertainment is in making good-natured fun of the stuff.

No, the problem I have with The Avengers is that the stories are actually kind of boring, there are holes in the plot where is feels like there are panels of action missing, and in the writers' attempts to add angsty, soap opera elements to the team the Avengers end up coming off as people who tend to overreact at best and who are whiney babies at worst. If you want to see how one introduces conflict within a team and does it right go read Tom Stillwell's Honor Brigade . Many of these early stories were written by Stan Lee and illustrated (and possibly co-plotted) by Jack Kirby and Lee's trademark "soap opera elements" -- the stuff that made Marvel stand out from DC back in the day -- just don't work here.

And then there is the Wasp. I'm probably going to get hate from Janet Van Dyne fans over this but I'm sorry -- the Silver Age version of the Wasp was too stupid to live.

The first problem was that she had something of a weak power set. Now, I'm not a person who thinks that just because a hero doesn't have a great power set that that won't make them a good character. I do firmly believe that almost all characters can be great with the right writer and the right approach. You almost have to set out to deliberately make a bad character in order to make one that is completely unwritable. But the Wasp -- whose power was that she could shrink down to the size of a wasp and when she did so she suddenly grew wings and could produce energy blasts which she called "wasp stings" -- was almost universally overpowered by the rest of the Avengers. Worse still, Stan and Jack tended to use the character only to provide distractions or annoyances to the villains... something that just didn't seem to add that much punch to the story. Other than that... her personality consisted of every bad female stereotype in the book. Going into battle she had to check her hair and make-up first and was more concerned that her battles with supervillains might muss her make-up than she was with the fact that said villains might destroy New York or such. She complained about having to go heroing when she would rather be shopping instead and she actively tried to make her quasi-love interest, Ant-Man (laster Giant Man) Henry "Hank" Pym jealous by flirting with the other members of the team (in the early days pretty much only Thor since no one knew who was under the Iron Man armor so no one knew what he looked like). If that were not bad enough, in her flirtation with Thor Janet often talked about how good looking he was... and then how much she wanted to see him cut his hair and wear a suit. That just goes right back to that annoying trope that all women want to get their hooks into a guy so that they can change him.

Is it true that there are women who are obsessed with their looks -- their clothes, their hair, their make-up? Yes. But it's still a really annoying stereotype to most women. But what annoys the hell out of me more is that in these early days the Wasp is the only female member of the team and as such there is not another female character to balance out this stereotype. yes, yes, I know that subsequent writers had her get 'better' and got rid of a lot of this sort of thing, but that doesn't change the fact that it was there then. Stan and Jack should have been ashamed of themselves for even thinking that this was a proper portrayal of a woman, even back in those days!

Okay, I'm down off my soapbox now.

There is some levity to be had in the usual bad comic book science and silly supervillain plots but the best stuff comes near the end when they introduce Captain America to the team. Rick Jones, nearly perpetual sidekick, had started out as the sidekick to the Hulk but then found himself, well, kicked to the side. He made himself an adjunct to the Avengers and then quickly endeared himself to Captain America. What is hillarious is that, in Stan's attempt to inject angst into the stories, we have Captain America beating himself up over losing his former sidekick Bucky in the waning days of WW II and seeing in Rick a lot of Bucky, and Rick, on the other side, wanting to be Cap's sidekick and yet worried about what the Hulk might think of this "betrayal" if he ever comes back. Seriously, it reads like a gay version of a cheap romance novel.

So, in the end, I'm not sure myself where to tell you to start reading The Avengers if you want to start reading them but I can tell you to definitely not start reading at the beginning... even if you do like the Silver Age. As for myself... well, I got this on deep discount and I can say that at my earliest opportunity it's going to get sold off to the local used bookstore. There's just no room in my overstuffed Comics Closet to hold something that annoys me this much.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Random Trivia

So I found this out today...

There is a Transylvania.... Louisiana.

The town founder named it after his alma mater.... Transylvania University. Which is in.... Kentucky.

Transylvania University was named after Transylvania County because the land where the university sits was once a part of Transylvania County which, in the days before state lines, actually covered part of North Carolina and Kentucky.

There is still a Transylvania County in North Carolina.

You start with one question and THIS is where is leads you....

Friday, October 1, 2010

Been Under the Weather

Been feeling bad. Nothing serious, just long-term annoying. Starting to feel better... I think... So hopefully some new content in the next few weeks. Keep your eyes peeled because while I've been under the weather I've had time to read a lot of comic books...