Monday, May 24, 2021

The League of Regrettable Superheroes by Jon Morris

Not regrettable enough
Jon Morris writes a blog entitled
Gone & Forgotten, where he showcases an assortment of oddities and absurdities that he has dredged up from the history of comic books. In his 2015 book, The League of Regrettable Superheroes, he assembles a motley crew of crime fighters who range from the silly to the shameful to the mystifying. The result is an amusing and informative tour through roughly 75 years of comics history, one goofy hero at a time.

Each selected character gets a page of text, about the length of a blog post, facing a full-color reproduction of a cover or page from his or her adventures. Every seventh hero or so gets an additional two pages of art. The book is divided into three historical time periods, within which the misfit do-gooders are paraded in alphabetical order. A surprising number of recognizable creators from Marvel and DC are featured along with many lesser-knowns working for the likes of Charlton, Dell, or tiny comics companies you’ve never heard of. This book is sure to inspire some grins in those who love comics, but belly laughs or shocking surprises are few and far between. Given the fact that the sole purpose of the book is to collect characters that are “regrettable,” it’s surprising how inoffensive and mundane a lot of these heroes are.

About half of the book is drawn from the Golden Age of Comics, the 1940s and early 1950s. The problem with focusing so much on that era is that the very style of storytelling itself had a rather dopey dimension to it. Even mainstream heroes like Captain America, Superman, and the Spirit had ridiculous elements to their earliest incarnations, so when Morris singles out a crimefighter for his silly costume, unusual powers, or the fact that he or she happens to be dead, it just feels like par for the course for this time period.

Things pick up a little in the sections on the Silver Age (mid-’50s through the ‘60s) and Modern Age (1970 to the present). The overall style of storytelling during these periods is more palatable to today’s readers, so when a writer and/or artist created something schlocky the result sticks out like a sore thumb. The 1980s and ‘90s were particularly kitschy, given all the fad-based superheroes that arose during that time (such as Skateman, a roller skating hero; U.S. 1, a truck-driving hero; or Sonik, a hero with sound powers who wields a Walkman), as well as the ultraviolent psychos (Gunfire, the Ferret, Ravage 2099) created to capitalize on the success of action movies and Wolverine. Some characters, like Squirrel Girl and Thunderbunny, seem deliberately intended to be silly, and therefore can hardly be considered embarrassments.

Many of Morris’s synopses are written not so much as roastings but as tributes, celebrating the heroes rather than lampooning them. It seems like some more offensive offenders could have been found. Where are Matter Eater Lad, Arm Fall Off Boy, Color Kid, Starfox, Jack of Hearts, Dazzler’s disco origins, or just about any character designed by Rob Liefeld? (Image Comics gets off scot-free.) To be sure, there are quite a few creations here that certainly deserve to be highlighted as regrettable: Captain Marvel (neither of the two you’re thinking of), Speed Centaur, Fatman the Human Flying Saucer, Adam X the X-Treme. For the most part, however, Morris’s selections get a little monotonous, and the collection is mildly tasty but uninspired, like a basket of low-hanging fruit.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Under the Yoke by Ivan Vazov

Bulgaria’s Victor Hugo
Ivan Vazov (1850-1921) is considered the godfather of modern Bulgarian literature. Under the Yoke, his best-known work, is widely regarded as the greatest classic novel in that nation’s literature. It was originally serialized in a Bulgarian magazine from 1889 to 1890 before being published in book form in 1894. It has since been translated into over 30 languages, including an English edition published in 1894 as part of the Heinemann’s International Library series. Vazov’s novel calls to mind the writings of romantic historical novelists like Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Henryk Sienkiewicz, but with a perspective and subject matter that are uniquely Bulgarian.

The plot of the novel centers around an important event in Bulgarian history known as the April Uprising of 1876. Since the late 14th century, Bulgaria had been occupied by the conquering Ottoman Empire. It wasn’t until 1878 that Bulgaria, with the help of Russia, achieved autonomous rule. At times Under the Yoke calls to mind Victor Hugo’s patriotic novel of the French Revolution, Ninety-Three, except that Hugo’s novel was written 80 years after the fact while Vazov’s was written for a Bulgarian reading audience who would vividly remember the violent events that took place a little over a decade before. Both novels are highly romanticized in tone but still manage to satisfyingly enlighten the reader on historical events. In both cases, the author goes into a level of detail that presupposes a native knowledge of historical events, which can be disorienting to foreign readers (Despite occasional footnotes, the translator of the Heinemann edition isn’t much help.) Amid the patriotic fervor, both novels also display a negative side to jingoism, though I’m not sure it’s intentional in Vazov’s case. Bulgarians who show the least bit of cowardice or don’t wholeheartedly toe the revolutionary line or are threatened with the death penalty. The odd thing about Under the Yoke is that the April Uprising of 1876 was unsuccessful. Just a couple years later, Bulgaria would be free from Turkish rule, but Vazov’s story ends before that happens. Under the Yoke is a novel of martyrs, not of victors.

Vazov is not quite the writer that Hugo is (again, the translator might be partially to blame). Stylistically, his writing bears some resemblance to Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Nobel-winning author of Polish war epics like With Fire and Sword. Like Sienkiewicz, Vazov fills supporting roles with amusing larger-than-life characters, like a burly, boisterous fellow named Ivan Kill-the-Bear. Vazov also devotes much of the plot to a romance that is every bit as chaste and idyllic as one might find in one of Sienkiewicz’s epics. The narrative is driven just as much by the love story between the hero and his soulmate as it is by the historical events of the conflict. To prolong the amorous anticipation, Vazov throws some emotional turmoil in the way of the lovers’ union that feels contrived and unrealistic. He deserves some major credit, however, for not succumbing to a formulaic ending. As mentioned earlier, the rebellion in question was quashed by the Turks, so the story takes a refreshingly darker turn towards the end.

As a historical novel, Under the Yoke is not as well-written as the best efforts of Hugo or Sienkiewicz. It is an intriguing read, however, for the insight it gives the reader into the history of Bulgaria and the Bulgarian national spirit. Lovers of classic European literature will enjoy reading the national epic of a nation whose literature doesn’t often make it into English translation.
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Monday, May 17, 2021

Frank Herbert by William F. Touponce

Lit crit of Dune
The 1988 book entitled Frank Herbert, a monograph of literary criticism on the science fiction author’s work, is part of the Twayne’s Authors Series from Twayne Publishers of Boston. It was written by William F. Touponce, a professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. This is not the first book of literary criticism on Herbert’s work, but, having been published shortly after Herbert’s novel Chapterhouse: Dune, it is the first to cover all six novels in the Dune series.

Touponce opens his book with a brief biographical chapter on Herbert. This life summary has since been surpassed by Brian Herbert’s 2003 biography of his father, Dreamer of Dune, which naturally goes into far more detail. Those just looking for the basic facts of Herbert’s life, however, will find what they need to know here without having to put up with Brian’s numerous digressions. Next, Touponce discusses the first Dune novel. This is the book’s meatiest chapter, containing most of Touponce’s critical analysis. From there, he devotes chapters to each of the remaining Dune books, then ends with a brief overview of Herbert’s non-Dune career, in which about a dozen other Herbert novels are briefly summarized, spoilers included.

Touponce taught university courses on science fiction and has written other books of lit crit on the genre. This book on Herbert is not intended for the casual fan but for an audience of PhDs. In his analysis of the Dune novels, Touponce focuses mostly on Herbert’s use of language and narrative voice. He stresses that Herbert is not a dialectical writer but a dialogical writer. He doesn’t preach messages to his reader, but rather uses dialogue and multiple viewpoints to raise open-ended questions and discussions. Rarely does Herbert provide conclusive resolutions to these dialogues but rather leaves it to the reader to form his or her interpretation of the events and ideas presented in the Dune novels. Touponce also emphasizes the multiple levels of narrative voice through which Herbert tells these stories—the third person authorial narrative, first person interior monologues, the faux excerpts from the writings of fictional characters, historians, and archivists—and how all contribute to what Touponce calls a “polyphonic novel.” Naturally, given the plot of Dune, there is some discussion of Herbert’s views on religion, ecology, heroes, and messiahs, but most of Touponce’s textual analysis focuses on these issues of language and dialogue.

The main problem with Touponce’s book is that it’s at least 90 percent plot summaries. Granted, these are likely the most complete and in-depth plot summaries you are likely to find on the Dune novels, but if you’ve already read Herbert’s books then Touponce isn’t telling you anything you don’t already know. It makes for a nice stroll down memory lane, but there isn’t a whole lot of additional commentary and analysis above and beyond the extensive plot synopses. As a fan of Herbert’s work, I am glad that he was given the full-length scholarly monograph that his novels deserve, but I’m not sure if this is a particularly valuable work of scholarship in its field.

This is a short book, only about 125 pages, so not a major investment in time for the reader. Outside of literary academia, however, it will really only appeal to the most diehard Dune fans, like those who have already read through Willis McNelly’s Dune Encyclopedia.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Jean-Christophe, Volume 2: The Marketplace, Antoinette, The House by Romain Rolland

Heavy on cultural criticism, light on plot
Jean-Christophe is the title of a series of ten novels written by French author Romain Rolland, winner of the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature. Originally published from 1904 to 1912, the ten books chronicle the life of fictional musician and composer Jean-Christophe Krafft. Upon translation into English, these ten novels were consolidated into three volumes published from 1911 to 1913. The second volume includes the fifth, sixth, and seventh novels in the series, respectively titled The Marketplace, Antoinette, and The House. This second volume is also known by the title of Jean-Christophe in Paris because the German-born character has emigrated to France and spends most of these three novels in that nation’s capital city.

At the end of the fourth novel, Revolt, Christophe (as he is most frequently called) fled Germany to avoid legal troubles. At the beginning of The Marketplace, he finds himself in Paris with hardly a penny to his name and only a couple acquaintances in town that he can call on for assistance. He tries to pursue a career in music but is thwarted in his efforts by shallow, self-serving critics who fail to understand his art. Every hero must undergo arduous trials before achieving success, and The Marketplace is the novel in which Christophe undergoes maximum martyrdom. In the four novels of Volume 1, it was evident that Rolland chose a German protagonist as a means to criticize German arts, politics, and culture. When Christophe comes to Paris in Volume 2, however, Rolland points his finger inwards and criticizes France, scrutinizing and censuring every aspect of his homeland’s way of life. In The Marketplace, much of Rolland’s critical analysis is leveled at music, to the degree that anyone without a master’s degree in classical music is likely to understand the totality of his argument.

The sixth novel, Antoinette, is a horse of a surprisingly different color and really a refreshing intermission in the series. Christophe is barely mentioned in this book. Instead, Rolland focuses on the saga of the Jeannins, a family that will play an important part in Christophe’s life. Rolland’s writing here is more naturalistic in tone, calling to mind the novels of Zola or Flaubert. Antoinette, the novel, is far more engaging and moving than the other two books included in Volume 2, perhaps because Antoinette Jeannin, the character, is a more sympathetic protagonist than Christophe himself.

With The House, Rolland returns to cultural criticism. Christophe moves into an apartment building where the tenants represent different classes and ideologies within French society. As he gets to know his neighbors, he learns more about the French mindset and values. Again, most of the criticism is negative, but here the subject matter is less about music and more about politics, war, and just the general French character. The most important development in Christophe’s life is that he now has a roommate and best friend, Olivier Jeannin. Rolland uses the pairing to contrast the two individuals as representations of the German and French national spirits. The two share a bond that for all intents and purposes appears to be a gay partnership, except Rolland shies away from that by occasionally having one of them pursue a woman. If the relationship is merely friendship, the intensity with which it is portrayed is unrealistic, at least for twentieth-century adults.

Having read seven-tenths of Jean-Christophe, I’m assuming the arc of the novel is about the title character’s maturation and self-discovery. The problem is, so far Christophe still comes across as kind of a childish jerk—a self-centered, arrogant man who blusteringly stumbles through social interactions like a bull in a china shop. I’m hoping in Volume 3 he finally grows up.

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Monday, May 10, 2021

Pantology by Roswell Park

A taxonomy of -ologies and -ographies
published in 1847, is a book by Dr. Roswell Park—not the physician Roswell Park who founded cancer hospitals, but his father, who was a professor of natural sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and an Episcopalian minister. With Pantology, the elder Dr. Park pursues the ambitious goal of creating nothing less than a classification of all branches of knowledge, including a summary of the fundamental principles of each. Prior to the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress classification systems, Park proposed Pantology as a possible system of library classification, as well as a general mnemonic guide to a well-rounded education. Park’s system divides knowledge into four “provinces”: Psychonomy, Ethnology, Physiconomy, and Technology. These are each divided by fours into 16 “departments,” which are then broken up into four to six chapters each, which are then subdivided further into three to eight subcategories.

Pantology is essentially a summary of what Park thinks every college-educated gentleman should know about the world. The book is exceptionally strong at defining the fundamental terminology for many of the fields it covers, whether it be the artistic devices of poetry, the parts of a cannon, the denominations of Christianity, or the characteristics and classification of minerals. Since Park’s historical summaries of various disciplines and discoveries all end in the 1840s, the reader is sure to discover many now-forgotten figures of the past. Though much of the information is understandably antiquated, the book serves as an intellectual time capsule, providing a vivid glimpse into the mindset of its time.

Due to the ignorance of its era, there are a few brief passages of overt racism in the book. Mostly, however, it is guilty of racism by omission. Asia probably only gets one-tenth the coverage of the Western world, and Africa even less. Despite the inaccuracies and instances of political incorrectness, there is still much we can learn from generations past. Because of the many discoveries that have been made over the intervening century and a half, the average college graduate of today knows much more about geography, science, and technology than his predecessor of the nineteenth century. The average college graduate of 1847, however, was well-versed in other fields, such as philology (particularly the Latin and Greek languages), philosophy, rhetoric, and logic.

The most annoying aspect of Pantology is Park’s relentless religiosity. Although he admits that the Earth was formed millions of years ago, in all other respects Park believes in a rather literal interpretation of the Bible, one in which mankind was created around 4000 BC. He often attributes historical firsts to biblical figures like Adam, Moses, and Noah. Oddly enough, he also does the same thing with gods and heroes of Greek mythology, speaking about them as if they were real historical personages. Religion is so important to Park that the section on Christianity is the one and only category where he felt the need to resort to a fifth level of classification. His piety is not confined to that chapter, however, as you will often find him sermonizing throughout the book, whether trumpeting intelligent design among the scientific fields or warning of the dangers of moral depravity inherent in reading novels, dancing, or playing card games.

Park’s Pantology is more logically organized than the Dewey or LOC classifications, but less expansive and expandable in scope. Still, it is fun to learn a little bit about nearly everything. As readers, we tend to get caught up in our pet interests and lose sight of “general knowledge.” This book full of interesting facts and ideas is a tasty appetizer to the well-rounded smorgasbord of learning, but it will probably only appeal to those already comfortable in the world of nineteenth-century letters.

General outline of Pantology: the 16 departments
I. Psychonomy
1. Glossology (Language)
2. Psychology (including Philosophy and Education)
3. Nomology (Politics and Law)
4. Theology (Religion)
II. Ethnology
5. Geography
6. Chronography (History)
7. Biography
8. Callography (Literature)
III. Physiconomy
9. Mathematics
10. Acrophysics (Physics, Astronomy, and Chemistry)
11. Idiophysics (Natural History: Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral)
12. Androphysics (Human Anatomy and Medicine)
IV. Technology
13. Architechnics (Building Trades, Engineering, Architecture)
14. Chreotechnics (Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Business)
15. Machetechnics (Arts of War)
16. Callotechnics (Fine Arts, Music, Athletics)

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Thursday, May 6, 2021

Black Panther Epic Collection, Volume 1: Panther’s Rage by Don McGregor, et al.

Overrated jungle action

The Epic Collections from Marvel Comics are a series of trade paperbacks of classic comics reprinted in full-color on matte-coated paper, making these books a step in quality above the black-and-white Marvel Essentials series. The Black Panther Epic Collection: Panther’s Rage, published in 2016, reproduces the title character’s initial 1966 appearance in issues 52 and 53 of Fantastic Four before settling into the Panther’s solo adventures in Jungle Action issues 6 to 24, running from 1973 to 1976. Panther’s Rage is Volume 1 of the Black Panther Epic Collections, which is followed by two additional paperbacks (as of 2021), Volume 2: Revenge of the Black Panther and Volume 3: Panther’s Prey.

The two issues from the Fantastic Four title are classic five-star work by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. One can see why they chose to subtitle the FF “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” Kirby’s artwork has never looked better. In this adventure, it is unclear to the FF whether the Panther is friend or foe, but they eventually team up against the Panther’s archenemy Klaw.

If its possible to have two archenemies, the Black Panther’s second major nemesis would be Erik Killmonger, a Wakandan who tries to overthrow T’Challa and usurp his throne. This villain figures largely in the pages of Jungle Action, wherein runs a twelve-issue story entitled “Panther’s Rage.” This run is highly regarded as the quintessential Black Panther epic, and it influenced the writing of the 2018 motion picture. In reality, however, the comics are far less impressive than the movie based upon them. As a villain, Killmonger is little more than a big bruiser who looks, acts, and dresses like a professional wrestler. Far more interesting is his pantheon of henchman, which includes such freaky types as Baron Macabre, King Cadaver, and Salamander K’Ruel.

Writer Don McGregor is white, but he does a good job of introducing elements of African culture into the stories without being stereotypical or corny. The Panther’s girlfriend, however, seems deliberately modeled after Pam Grier’s persona in blaxploitation films. This love interest allows for many interludes of soap opera romance, but otherwise McGregor’s plots are often little more than extended brawls dressed up with ostentatious verbosity. The Panther undergoes torture in each issue, his uniform torn to shreds (what, no vibranium?) as he gets whipped, burned, and broken by his foes. It calls to mind the kind of masochism often found in Wolverine comics, though in Logan’s case his healing factor often allows for an element of humor. Here, McGregor seems hell-bent on constantly depicting the Black Panther as a Christ-like figure. “Panther’s Rage” is followed by another long story arc, “The Panther vs. The Klan.” This ends unfinished, however, because the Jungle Action title got cancelled. The plot threads were later picked up in the Black Panther limited series of 1988 (included in Black Panther Epic Collection, Volume 2).

With the exception of the two Kirby issues and the occasional guest star, the art is about evenly split between Rich Buckler and African American artist Billy Graham. Both are helped considerably by Klaus Janson’s inks. Neither is a great renderer of the human figure, but there is an admirable concerted effort made towards innovation in page layout that is clearly influenced by Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Such graphic experimentation is really the best thing these Black Panther comics have going for them. Though notable for their forward strides in racial diversity, the Jungle Action issues are by no means Marvel masterpieces, just decent, slightly above average workmanship.

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