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June 5, 2015 / CB

Book Review: Superman: Doomed, by Greg Pak et al.

23012551When you’re working in a franchise as long running as Superman, it has to be tempting to revisit great characters.  I mean, that’s the model superhero books are built on, right?  If Arkham Asylum had any kind of security AT ALL, Batman would have cleaned up Gotham City years ago.  Knowing that iterative nature, even loving it, I still think there are times when you need to leave well enough alone.  This is one of those times.

I want to be clear: I enjoyed reading this one.  As a standalone graphic novel, it holds up well.  The art is solid and consistent throughout; the dialogue is good; there is a great cast of characters.  The story progresses along smoothly from start to finish, with only a few minor lapses in backstory (i.e., when did Supergirl become a Red Lantern???).  This book is a good representation of what DC was trying to accomplish with “The New 52”, but what’s working against it is the excellence of the past.  When Dan Jurgens, Brett Breeding, and company created Doomsday for the Death of Superman arc, they broke the mold.  At the time, the story idea was unprecedented, and it is still so good that the current incarnation pales in comparison.

Having not read much of the rebooted DC universe, I don’t know all the details of the new Doomsday.  Regardless, it appears that he comes and goes from the Phantom Zone much like Batman’s bad guys do with Arkham.  That’s where we begin this story: Doomsday has escaped again and goes on a rampage.  Interestingly, the writers have given him a new bit of evil.  His very presence kills living things.  He doesn’t even need to touch them; just being in proximity long enough fries any normal plant or animal (humans included).  It was as though his malice is made manifest, and his hatred for seemingly everything (which was present in the original) has become a sort of poison.  [MINOR SPOILER INCOMING] In fact, not long into the story, Doomsday becomes a cloud of spores that Superman inhales to protect the rest of the planet.  It is this which “dooms” Superman, which begins the process of his transformation into the monster he defeated.

From there on out, the story essentially alternates between Clark’s external and internal struggle to control the monster he has absorbed.  It’s not unlike Peter Parker’s early struggles with the alien symbiote, prior to Venom’s inception.  Whereas that battle was concise yet palpable, this one is more drawn out.  Indeed, if the book lags anywhere it is in some of the internal dialogue between Clark and Doomsday.  It certainly needs to happen, and the book is richer for it, but there was just a little too much.  As the book continues on, the writers devote panels to what really could have been communicated in single thought bubbles.

There is a lot to love here.  The colors, for one, are just fantastic.  It’s something I’ve always appreciated in Superman books.  Where other titles try to push things dark, both literally and figuratively, Big Blue’s stories are always vibrant and buzzing with hues.  The relationship which develops between Steel and Lana Lang feels fresh and genuine, and the larger plot they discover lurking behind Doomsday adds a meaningful dimension to the story.  In fact, without this secondary thread, the whole book could have easily turned into a smash and grab job.  All in all, this weighty collection is a broadly satisfying experience which will likely appeal to readers all along the spectrum of Superman devotion.


June 3, 2015 / CB

Wednesday’s Written Word

Runners in the 35th Marine Corps Marathon, by Marines, via Flickr

Runners in the 35th Marine Corps Marathon, by Marines, via Flickr

“There are as many reasons for running as there are days in the year, years in my life. But mostly I run because I am an animal and a child, an artist and a saint. So, too, are you. Find your own play, your own self-renewing compulsion, and you will become the person you are meant to be.”
George Sheehan

May 29, 2015 / CB

Book Review: West with the Night, by Beryl Markham


For reasons I am quite happy with, I don’t travel as much as I once did.  All the same, wanderlust stirs my soul from time to time, making me long to see mountains and oceans and strange trees.  Thank God for books, especially books like this.  Markham’s memoir of colonial Africa is poetically written, creating pictures of a place long ago and far away.  So much has changed in the last fifty years, however, that it’s perhaps easier read as historical fiction than anything else.

I have no illusions about the ills caused by Europe’s colonization of Africa.  That, however, does not diminish my enjoyment of this book.  Much like her friend & lover Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Markham paints linguistic pictures of wonder and respect for the land she inhabits.  Likewise, there is clear love for the people she talks about, regardless of their ancestry.  There are things about her life that I find reprehensible, but I read them as a reflection of her culture as much as of Markham herself.

One of her principal means of employment was as a bush pilot and scout for elephant safaris.  Now, there are still places in the world where this happens, but I think most people would roundly shame anyone involved.  It strikes me as pretty terrible to hunt a species teetering on the brink of endangerment.  Of course, when Markham was flying, the elephant wasn’t so scarce.  Indeed, I don’t know that there was a cultural sense that a species could be lost all together.  If there was, it certainly isn’t present in this book.  For all the due respect that Markham pays the elephant, she discusses it with same pragmatism that I’ve seen other hunters use for animals like elk.  While I was at first put off by this, it didn’t take me long to appreciate these sections for their historical value.  In them, we the readers get an artifact of a lost (or at least greatly diminished) way of thinking.  While I have no intention of ever taking on this point of view, there is value in knowing that it exists, that it was once the norm.

The parts I found most engaging, most exciting, came not in the author’s airborne adventures, but in her childhood.  Despite being born in England, Markham did most of her growing up on a horse farm in Kenya.  The land, animals, and people of her father’s farm at Njoro are all lovingly described.  Markham has that peculiar talent of being able to write about things dear to her without drifting into hyperbolic sentiment.  Instead, the reader gets a sense of the real emotion behind the words without sacrificing descriptive detail.  This is especially true of the Murani people who were Markham’s friends.  It would be easy to read these passages cynically, to say that this is the Westerner painting with rose-colored glasses on, but I chose not to go down that path.  As a reader, I chose to take Markham at her word, to believe that these men and women really did love the little white girl.  There’s not a sense that the Murani made her one of their own so much as they accepted her rather stubborn presence.  They insult her when she deserves it and praise her in the same way; Markham returns both favors.  Taking these stories at face value, suspending my natural skepticism, allows the beauty of the words to shine and makes the reading more enjoyable.

There is no arguing that Beryl Markham is a product of white privilege; she does nothing to either disguise it or exploit it in the book.  Likewise, there is no arguing that she is a good writer.  She tells the story she has to tell, filling it with hunts and horses and daring flights.  She records some of her more memorable escapades as an aviatrix, but the reader gets the sense that these are not the stories she loves best.  They don’t carry the same weight, aren’t crafted quite so well as her time spent on Africa’s soil.  Wherever she is, though, she is herself.  She does not compromise or bow to the whims of the men around her, be they black or white.  And while I’m fully aware there is more to her story, the character she creates for herself is an inspiration regardless of the reader’s own gender.

May 27, 2015 / CB

Wednesday’s Written Word

"Ervik Graveyard Midnight" by Gunnvor Karita, via Flickr

“Ervik Graveyard Midnight” by Gunnvor Karita, via Flickr

“For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”