Monday, March 4, 2019

The Essential Captain America, Volume 2 by Stan Lee, et al.

More 1960s fun with Cap (and introducing the Falcon!)
This second volume of classic Captain America comics from the Marvel Essentials series picks up where Volume 1 left off. The Essential Captain America, Volume 2 reprints issues 103 to 126, which were originally published from 1968 to 1970. All the stories were written by Stan Lee, and initially the art is provided by Jack “King” Kirby, but he departs after the first several issues included here. The middle of the book features brief stints by artists John Romita, John Buscema, and Jim Steranko. The latter was highly regarded back in the day for his innovative page layouts and psychedelic imagery, but in hindsight his art seems overrated and takes too many liberties with the human figure. With issue #116, Gene Colan settles in for an extended stay as artist, and his work is superb. This unsung master’s artistic style, combining the thunderous bombast of Kirby’s work with the anatomical fidelity of Neal Adams, is the perfect graphic complement to Stan Lee’s rollicking adventure stories.

Speaking of which, Lee’s storytelling has improved since the last volume, but it’s still pretty bizarre. The Red Skull continues to make frequent appearances, but thankfully he’s not as ubiquitous as before. MODOK and AIM show up more often, Batroc makes a couple reappearances, Dr. Faustus is introduced, and bad guys from other Marvel titles, like the Trapster and the Scorpion, each stop by for an issue. These villains usually have no plan or objective beyond the assassination of Captain America. Rick Jones (the Hulk’s best friend) decides he wants to be Cap’s sidekick and dons the old costume previously worn by Bucky Barnes. The ease with which he falls into the role defies belief, and his presence is usually more of a burden than a help. In Volume 1, Cap’s secret identity was revealed, and the whole world came to know him as Steve Rogers. In this volume, Lee comes up with a cockamamie plot to fake Steve Rogers’s death, thus negating the identity reveal, but then Cap goes back to being Steve Rogers anyway, as if nothing ever happened. The biggest development within these issues, however, is the debut of the Falcon, one of Marvel’s pioneering black superheroes. He won’t become Cap’s official partner until Volume 3, but he appears in four or five of the issues included here. Although his origin story is a little weird, towards the end of Volume 2 the Captain America title starts to display inklings of an increase in urban realism that would characterize the Falcon’s tenure as co-headliner. 

The tone and subject matter of these issues vacillates between scenes of artfully violent hand-to-hand combat and more pensive moments in which Cap broods over thoughts of loneliness and love. He is still chasing Sharon Carter, but their relationship is not working out because he wants her to give up her career as a SHIELD superspy. (Cap may be a liberal, but he’s not yet a feminist). These moments of heartache and tribulation often seem lifted from a sappy romance comic, but when drawn by Kirby or Colan they at least have the appearance of film noir.

In summation, there’s nothing here that will really go down in history as a Marvel masterpiece, but for the most part it’s just good solid storytelling and art. At times the plot points come across as kitschy or ridiculous, but that’s part of the nostalgic fun. Like it’s predecessor, Volume 2 is an enjoyable trip down memory lane, and I am looking forward to reading the further exploits of Captain America and the Falcon in Volume 3.
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Friday, March 1, 2019

Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life by Scott M. Marshall

The slow train’s still coming
In contrast to the prevailing critical consensus that Bob Dylan did all of his best work in the ‘60s, my favorite period of Dylan’s career consists of his three gospel albums from 1979 to 1981 (Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love) and the two albums that bookended them (Street-Legal and Infidels), which also deal with religious themes. During this era, Dylan was always backed up by a top-notch band, and his lyrics were quite fascinating and compelling. Though I am not a religious man, I appreciate the ever-present biblical references in Dylan’s lyrics in much the same way that a classical philologist appreciates Homer’s references to Greek mythology. Despite our difference in beliefs, the moral message still comes through. Looking to learn more about Dylan’s gospel period and the religious views he’s held throughout his life, I couldn’t have asked for a better guide than Scott M. Marshall’s 2017 book Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.

For the most part, Marshall examines Dylan’s career chronologically. The book is broken up into chapters devoted to each calendar decade, rather than by any stages in Dylan’s musical development, which seems a strangely arbitrary choice. Marshall’s rather generic thesis, as stated in the introductory chapter, also doesn’t inspire much confidence. He asserts that Dylan has been and is still a monotheist. Gee, ya think? Since Marshall’s not really going out on a limb with that statement, I was worried that this was just going to be a catalog of spiritual references in Dylan’s songs, but it turned out to be much more than that. Beyond an encyclopedic mining of Dylan lyrics, Dylan interviews, and Dylan criticism, Marshall interviews many of Dylan’s associates and does a great job of insightfully connecting the dots between all the data he’s amassed.

I remember growing up in the ‘80s and hearing about how brave U2 was for singing songs with Christian imagery. That was nothing compared to what Dylan did when he became “born again.” He alienated his fan base to the point where he was getting death threats every night he was on tour. He also lost a lot of friends who couldn’t understand this new direction in his music and his life. Marshall covers this period beautifully, providing stories from Dylan’s friends, religious advisors, bandmates, and crew about what those gospel tours were really like, and it is a crazy and fascinating ride. Looking through the notes for the chapters on the ‘70s and the ‘80s, one sees the phrase “Author interview” repeated over and over again, a testament to the diligent legwork Marshall conducted in investigating this mysterious period in Dylan’s life. The chapters after that, not so much, but I still learned a great deal about Dylan, and the book is really an addictive read.

Many critics have argued over whether Dylan is a Jew or a Christian, or have chastised him for not being enough of either. Marshall illustrates that Dylan is both, and he draws his spiritual strength from both faiths. Dylan is essentially a Jew who believes that Christ was the Messiah promised by the Hebrew prophets. Marshall also finds fault with those who think Dylan’s embracing of Christianity ended in 1981. He demonstrates how Dylan has continued to make statements of belief, both Christian and Judaic, in music and interviews up to the present day.

Just as you don’t need to be a Christian to get the protest message of “Slow Train,” you don’t need to subscribe to any particular faith in order to enjoy this book. In fact, nonbelievers can probably appreciate the book more objectively than those looking to take sides in the argument over Dylan’s beliefs. As an avid fan, this is one of the best books on Dylan that I’ve read.
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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin

A mysterious expedition to Africa
I enjoyed the Danny Dunn series when I was a kid, and now I am having fun reading them with my young son. Despite all the changes in science and technology over the past 40 to 60 years, the books in this series have held up remarkably well over time. A child’s scientific curiosity never goes out of style. Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster, published in 1971, is the twelfth of fifteen Danny Dunn novels by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin. (Abrashkin actually died in 1960, but Williams insisted on crediting him on every volume in the series.) Though the books in the series are consistently good, this is one of the best that I can recall.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Danny Dunn is a teenage boy whose widowed mother works as housekeeper for Euclid Bullfinch, a professor of science (no specific branch, just a scientific jack-of-all-trades) at the local university. Danny and his mom live in the Bullfinch house, which gives the curious Danny the opportunity to observe, assist, and at times co-opt the professor’s experiments and inventions. In contrast to most of the other volumes in the series, Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster is more concerned with nature than with technology, even though Professor Bullfinch does create an invention in the opening chapters that will get used later in the book. Bullfinch receives a surprise visit from a professional colleague, Dr. Fenster, a distinguished biologist who invites Bullfinch, Danny, and Danny’s friends Joe and Irene to accompany him on an expedition to Africa. Fenster has been investigating tales of a legendary monster known as the lau that reportedly dwells in the swamps of the Sudan. The science that is explored, therefore, is more biological than technological, and the book reads like an adventure that some naturalist explorer like a young Charles Darwin, Alexander Humboldt, or David Livingstone might have had tracking down a new species of animal in an exotic land.

The story does a fine job of illustrating how zoologists would actually go about accomplishing such a task. Though this is science fiction for young readers, it does depict the scientific process in a realistic manner. In the course of their expedition, Danny and his party get to know the local indigenous people, the Nuer. The book sets a good tone for these interactions, respectful and not condescending, and imparts a good message of friendship and cooperation between people of different nations, races, and cultures. The novel has a villain, which allows for some suspense, but the danger never reaches a level to scare young readers. The hunt or for the lau is exciting, and when the creature is revealed, it is pleasantly surprising that the beast is actually within the realm of scientific possibility.

The only problem I really have with the book is its illustrations. If you have a print edition, it will likely include the original illustrations by Paul Sagsoorian. (The recent ebook edition probably doesn’t include them.) While Sagsoorian is a fine artist for this type of book, the illustrations give away too many of the story’s surprises. This book would be a lot more fun if you didn’t know what kind of creature the lau is, yet almost every edition (not just those illustrated by Sagsoorian) features a front cover painting of the lau in all its glory, spoiling the big reveal towards the end. Nevertheless, despite that one caveat, Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster, and the Danny Dunn series in general, make great reading for kids interested in science (and their parents).
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Monday, February 25, 2019

The Immortal by Alphonse Daudet

A satirical look at the Académie Française
Originally published in 1888, The Immortal is a novel by French naturalist writer Alphonse Daudet. It has also been published in English under the title One of the Forty, referring to the forty members of the Académie Française, who are informally referred to as “Immortals.” Established in 1635, the Académie is an honorary organization of men of letters, similar to a sort of intellectual knighthood, in which membership comes with a distinctive green-jacketed uniform and ceremonial sword. The Académie is considered the foremost authority on the French language and is responsible for publishing France’s official dictionary. At full capacity, the organization consists of forty members, who once elected serve for life. When one dies, the remaining members elect another illustrious author, poet, playwright, or historian to take his place.

Because of its status as a time-honored, government-sanctioned institution, the Académie not surprisingly has been subject to criticism from iconoclasts, among them Alphonse Daudet, who perceive the organization as stodgy, conformist, and conservative. In The Immortal, Daudet pokes fun at the selection process for membership, pointing out that it is based more on politics than on literary merit. The title of the book refers to Léonard Astier-Réhu, a historian, archivist, and collector of historical manuscripts. Now past the prime of his career and fallen on hard times, he clings to his Académie position—his last vestige of professional dignity—like a life preserver. In hopes of being elevated to a lofty officerial position within the organization, Astier-Réhu awaits the passing of a senior member. Meanwhile, his up-and-coming protége, the Vicomte de Freydet, likewise anticipates the next vacancy in hopes of being initiated into the ranks of the immortals.

Even if the angle Daudet takes on the Académie is cynical and sarcastic, over the course of the book the reader really does learn quite a bit about the institution. The book is aimed at a French audience, however, so some prior knowledge of the organization is assumed, which can make for tough going for the non-French reader. The idea of an official order that celebrates achievement in the humanities (or the arts, or the sciences) sounds like an admirable idea to this reader from America, a nation that celebrates its movie stars and sports heroes far more than its academics. Nevertheless, one can easily see how the election process might be rife with opportunities for bias, manipulation, and corruption, and Daudet is relentless in his lampooning of this process. While the novel is sometimes funny, however, it often merely amounts to a tedious bummer.

The truth is, there isn’t really a single character to like in this book. Beyond Astier-Réhu and his cronies in the Académie, we have his wife and son, who are busy scheming to arrange marriages to their advantage, thus adding immorality to insult. Honoré de Balzac was an expert at satire. He could create stories with comically self-serving protagonists, but somehow he also managed to endow them with identifiable qualities that rendered them inexplicably lovable. Not so with Daudet, whose pointed satire doesn’t bring a whole lot of joy, just bitterness and ugliness. Whether or not you choose to read this novel should depend on your level of interest in French literature. If you are curious about the Académie, then this book may be worth your time. If you just like 19th century fiction and are looking for a dose of French naturalism, stick with Emile Zola.
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Friday, February 22, 2019

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Realist housewives of New Orleans
Published in 1899, Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening has been hailed as a groundbreaking work of feminist literature and a pioneering stylistic precursor to modernism. The book’s examination of gender roles was too ahead of its time for many critics of its day, some of whom belittled it as “sex fiction,” which it certainly is not. Viewing the novel with 21st century hindsight, however, it may be an admirable work of American literary naturalism, but the feminist message seems dulled by Victorian gentility and class cluelessness.

The novel opens at a resort on Grand Isle, an island off the coast of Louisiana where wealthy residents of New Orleans spend their summer vacations. Edna Pontellier and her husband Léonce are frequent visitors here and enjoy the company of a circle of friends and acquaintances who are also regulars at the resort. While her husband is often off doing his own thing, Edna begins spending a great deal of time with Robert Lebrun, the son of the resort owners. The two form a very close attachment, one that might blossom into full-blown love were it not for Edna’s marital status. Edna also forms a friendship with Mademoiselle Reisz, an unmarried pianist, and comes to envy the single woman’s independent lifestyle. After returning to New Orleans, Edna becomes dissatisfied with her role as wife and mother and begins asserting her independence, much to the chagrin of her husband.

Though much of what Chopin has to say about gender roles is pioneering for her time and still bears relevance today, she is less liberal and innovative in her views on class. Like so many writers of the Victorian era, Chopin finds the lives of wealthy people of the leisure class the only lives worth writing about. This novel smacks of “rich people’s problems.” At the island retreat, Edna’s greatest concerns are what to wear, what cushion to recline upon, and what fan to cool herself with. If she feels faint, there is always someone handy to brush her face with cologne water. She and her friends are waited upon hand and foot by black servants, whose problems aren’t worth mentioning. Because of her high social status, Edna is totally excused from the hard work of cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing typically requisite to the gender role of women of her era. It is difficult to identify with or feel sorry for characters among this social set. I’d rather read the novels of Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman—or, for that matter, Theodore Dreiser, Emile Zola, or Frank Norris­­—in which the female protagonists deal with more realistic and less aristocratic problems like poverty, discrimination, sexual harassment, or violence.

The Awakening doesn’t come across as so much a feminist statement as just a depressing look at the confines of marriage. Even so, Mrs. Pontellier enjoys more personal freedom than any other married person I know, male or female, even by 21st century standards. Somebody else takes care of her children, she spends her time and money as she chooses, pursues her artistic dreams, keeps her own apartment, and her spouse lets her run around with other lovers. Her living hell sounds like a fantasy camp to me. So what is she actually rebelling against? Monogamy? The solution to Edna’s problems would be divorce, though unfortunately that wasn’t a common option in 1899, thus leading to the book’s memorable final scene. Chopin is a fine writer who examines the psychology of her protagonist with a naturalist’s precision, but had I known what I was getting into I probably wouldn’t have chosen to spend a few hours of my time with this character and her social circle.
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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Best of Simon and Kirby by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Golden Age masters of multiple genres
In the Golden Age of Comic Books, from the late 1930s through the 1940s, few comics creators achieved the renown of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The two were among the first writers and artists ever to sign their names to a comic book, and the phrase “by Simon and Kirby” was a badge of quality sought after by readers of that era. The duo operated their own independent studio, and produced comics for a variety of publishers. Their innovative style broke new ground in comic storytelling and exerted an enduring influence on the development of the art form. Published in 2009, The Best of Simon and Kirby publishes an impressive collection of this creative duo’s work, interspersed with brief informative essays by comics historian Mark Evanier.

Though Simon and Kirby are probably best known for the superheroes they created, the superhero stories included here are surprisingly disappointing. A Captain America story is included, as is the Fighting American, Simon and Kirby’s own self-knockoff of Captain America for another publisher. The Vision, the Fly, the Sandman, and Blue Bolt all make rather lackluster appearances. This version of the Sandman bears no resemblance to later characters with that name, and doesn’t appear to have any superpowers at all, just a silly generic purple and yellow costume. The short-lived character Stuntman shows some promise, but in general these 1940s superhero tales come across as somewhat amateurish, both in storytelling and art, especially when compared to Kirby’s later Silver Age glories in the genre. Likewise, the stories in the section on science fiction are nothing to write home about either.  

Though organized thematically, not chronologically, the comics definitely get better as the book goes along. Once past the superheroes and sci-fi, the quality of the stories improves considerably, both narratively and visually. The stories representing the romance, crime, western, and horror genres are excellent; so good, in fact, that they really make you wonder how superhero fiction became the dominant genre in comics at the expense of those other pulp fiction categories. Simon and Kirby’s stories were the result of collaboration both in story and in art, but in the second half of this book one can see the development of Kirby’s mature style, and it is a vast improvement over the stories earlier in the book. My favorite section of the book is the western chapter, largely because the art is just incredible. Nobody could draw western comics with such vivid detail and thrilling action as Kirby. Regrettably, the book ends on a low note with a final chapter entitled Sick Humor. Simon and Kirby produced a comic magazine called Sick to compete with MAD magazine, but the humor is neither very sick nor very funny, just stupid and juvenile.

There’s no denying that Simon and Kirby were groundbreaking creators who changed the course of comics history. Their prolific output and the staggering variety of projects they tackled is truly admirable, and the fun they had producing these comics is contagious. They didn’t hit it out of the park every time, however, and with daring experimentation sometimes comes failure. A lot of the comics in this book feel antiquated and clumsy, particularly when compared to the works of Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman, two individual writer/artists from this era whose works still come across as timeless and innovative when viewed today. Still, this book is a great nostalgia trip back to comics’ Golden Age and at least half of its pages are packed with some really great comics. For anyone interested in comics history, particularly fans of Kirby, this is a must-read.
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Monday, February 18, 2019

They Call Me Carpenter by Upton Sinclair

Jesus as the ultimate socialist
When one thinks of socialists and religion, there may be a natural tendency to assume that all reds, like Karl Marx, are atheists and materialists. That’s not always true, however, and in fact there is a movement of Christian socialism that even predates The Communist Manifesto. Author Upton Sinclair, being an outspoken critic of Christianity and organized religion in general, could not be classified within that movement, but there’s no denying that he is a great admirer of Jesus Christ. In the 1915 book edited by Sinclair, The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest, he devotes an entire chapter to Christ, consisting of excerpts from leftist literature that depict Christ as the ultimate socialist. Sinclair took this idea a step further with his 1922 novel They Call Me Carpenter, which stars Christ himself. In this book, Sinclair speculates what would happen if Christ visited 1920s America and witnessed firsthand the modern class struggle and oppression of the working class.

The novel takes place in Western City, a thinly disguised surrogate for Los Angeles. The narrator of the story is a young gentleman of the upper class named Billy, who has no apparent occupation and describes himself as a “club man.” Though a fellow of leisure, Billy is a World War I vet who saw combat in France. In the opening chapters, Billy goes to see a film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Upon leaving the theater he is caught up in a jingoistic, anti-German riot, and despite his record as a war hero is beaten for being a German sympathizer, simply for seeing the German film. Dazed and demoralized, Billy takes refuge in a church. As he gazes up at a stained glass image of Christ, he is astonished to see this Christ descend from the window and stand by his side. Christ then decides to go forth into the world, with Billy as his guide, and disguises his identity by adopting the name of Carpenter

The novel starts out pretty farcically. Sinclair lampoons Hollywood by having Carpenter meet up with rich movie moguls and decadent starlets who demonstrate the excesses of the wealthy. Billy and Carpenter venture into a beauty parlor/plastic surgery shop which resembles the face-stretching scene from Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. Then Carpenter meets some members of the working class and begins to see the rampant income inequality of this modern world and the horrible working and living conditions it engenders. He begins speaking out against the exploitation of labor and is branded as a “red prophet” by the press. The capitalist powers use every means to attack him, including legal action, public denunciation, and violence.

The novel eventually turns into a retelling of the Passion, with various characters standing in for figures from the Bible. After beginning the novel in such a looney tone, Sinclair then expects us to feel pathos for Carpenter, and quite frankly the mixture of satire and sermonizing is too incongruous to succeed on either front. Sinclair is good at injecting humor into politically charged novels, such as 100%: The Story of a Patriot or the books in the Lanny Budd series, but when he goes full-on satire he often fails, as in The Millennium. All the silly stuff about Hollywood only detracts from the serious points he’s trying to make about the class struggle. The main thrust of the story is that if Christ were to descend to Earth in the modern era he would be harassed by the police and vilified by the press. That’s not particularly clever and really not all that different from what happened to Christ 2,000 years ago; only now we have newspapers and movies. Though Sinclair has proven himself a great writer in better books, They Call Me Carpenter is neither very enlightening nor very funny, and instead just ends up being mostly a bore.
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