Friday, January 16, 2015

5 x 5 Book Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman

1. First of all, this book by Jill Lepore is not a secret history of Wonder Woman in the sense that it tells the story of Diana of the Amazons, Wonder Woman, superhero, associate of Superman and Batman, member of the Justice League, &c. This is  the secret history of the creation of that character: how the motivations and values and experiences of William Moulton Marston and his associates and his unusual, cobbled-together family all fed into the Wonder Woman mythos. There are call-outs to the comics themselves, of course, and quite a few samples of four-color panels among the illustrations, but the book is more in the nature of an author biography and less an exegesis of an oeuvre; more Will in The World than Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare.

2. And this is not the secret history of Wonder Woman's creator that every comics fan thinks they know. Lepore covers the usual bases: Moulton was a psychologist (well, yes, technically - but with a much more checkered academic profile than we think); Marston was the inventor of the lie detector (well, yeah, kinda - he invented one of them); Marston was a polygamist with two wives (well, yeah, sorta - more accurately, he and his wife shared an additional wife); Marston was into dominance and submission (well, yeah, you could say that - but not in the way that most people imagine). Where the book breaks new and exciting ground is in exploring the heretofore unexamined aspects of Marston's adventures: his identity as an entrepreneur, almost an impressario; his early connections to the suffragist and feminist movements; his close connection to Margaret Sanger, the slightly tarnished saint of the movement that would become Planned Parenthood; and how he used his total control over the creation, writing, and presentation of Wonder Woman to forward his philosophies.

3. In fact, this is not really a comic-book-book. Lepore was apparently not a comics fan, someone seeking to unearth the treasure of her favorite fandom. She is a professor of American History and a cultural historian; she has written on the American experience through the lenses of language, the concepts of life & death, Colonial era war, post-independence race relations, and the writings of Ben Franklin's sister. She brings the same scholarship and seriousness of purpose to her inquiry into Marston. Her non-fan's take on the sections delving into the comic book subculture brings a fascinating perspective and sensibility and only occasionally misses a nuance. This book deserves to be shelved with David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin as much as with Douglas Wolk or Scott McCloud.

4. Speaking of scholarship, the research evident in the book astonishing. The work of a historian - the sifting of documents, the collation of information, the verification of sources - is palpable on every page. This is a virtuoso demonstration, a talented scholar marshaling primary sources to build a coherent picture of obscure events and adding insightful analysis to make meaning. I am tempted to use this as the model text for my research writing class: you can almost inhale the scholarship.

5. Notwithstanding its rigor, the book is a wonderful read. I read mostly non-fiction these days, and much of it can be a slog; this book was quite the opposite. I took it as a vacation book on a trip to California and I could not have been more pleased. Lepore's prose is cogent and springy and occasionally charmingly idiosyncratic. Besides learning a lot, I enjoyed the book immensely. Read it and see for yourself.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Jill Lepore
Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Monday, January 12, 2015

It's here!

So, as I reported about a week ago, I had a great visit to Sterling Silver Comics (Mike Sterling, Esq., Prop.) when I was down in California for Winter break; the idyllic sojourn was marred only by my forgetting there was a Part Two to the story in the X-Men comic that I purchased specifically for one panel by Werner Roth - and of course that panel is not in Part One.

Undaunted, I made mail-order arrangements with the Mikester for the second issue; it was easy, since he's such an Ebay maven and has all the ducks particular that kind of exchange nicely lined up. And today, a package was delivered to my door by a uniformed representative of the federal government.

I want to digress a moment to say that the package was pretty impressive. It was a nice stiff manila envelope with a professional mailing label; inside was a thick backing board and a thinner protective cardboard sheet; and inside that the poly-bagged comic was wrapped in another plastic bag for added protection. Nice.

When I got the issue out, I realized the cover was cooler than I remembered - here it is scanned clear:

The story concerns Count Nefaria's (um, okay) attempt to revive the criminal organization The Maggia (cut it out, Stan!) and use the captive X-Men as pawns in a plot extort one hundred million dollars (that's three quarters of a billion in today's money) from the U.S. government by holding Washington, D.C. hostage in a weird transparent dome. The Count's lieutenants are The Eel, Scarecrow, The Porcupine, Plantman, and The Unicorn. (I thought this group had a name, but if they ever did, it came later.)

As achingly Silver-Age as much of the story is, this installment is as action-packed as promised on the cover, with lots of teamwork from both the X-Men and the Five Bad Guys as they battle through the capital. The Army steps in, apprehending super-heroes and super-villains alike (which was actually pretty reasonable), and that leads to the panel that I have remembered for decades: the not-capture of the Bad Guys.

The panel is almost exactly as I remembered; I had the figures a tiny bit smaller in the frame, but otherwise the layout and composition were just as I recalled. I don't know why this panel, of the thousands upon thousands that have passed my eyeballs, is among those that have burned that flashbulb memory into my brain. There's just something about the almost pictographic arrangement and the hyper-expository dialogue that is totally charming. It's almost like old-school filmmaking when they would interrupt a scene to freeze frame and zoom in and highlight with arrows or other markers the details of a scene before letting it resume speed and play out; I get that same explainer feeling with this.

It must have made an impression of some kind. And now I have it again.

Thanks, Mike.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Am I just jaded? A grab bag.

So, in addition to the wonderful French graphic novel I described here, I found other stuff at that previously-unvisited-by-me comic shop, some back issues and some new. Overall, I was... underwhelmed.

I grabbed four of the Before Watchmen number ones, just to see what all the hullabaloo was about. There was hullabaloo, wasn't there? These seemed to drop off the radar pretty quickly. I guess they ran their six or four issues and got collected, but it sure didn't make a splash in my corner of the world.

Does anybody remember the 1983-season television series Casablanca that was a prequel to the classic movie? Anybody? No? Well, I felt about these books the same way I felt about that series. I worry whenever I agree with Alan Moore about anything, but I am not sure why these exist.

Tiny saving grace: Darwyn Cooke's vision of Silhouette:


So, this should have grabbed me, if anything did: a pulpy re-imagining of the JSA with some of my favorite characters, and a shot of Doc Fate with twin forty-fives on the cover - shades of The Spider!

But Society of Super-heroes did not engage me. First of all, I couldn't get the whole Multiversity thing - the comic shop guy tried to explain it to me, but either he didn't do a good job or I'm losing my capacity for Big Events, or both. Besides that, characters were introduced into the story in very off-hand ways, as if I was supposed to already know who they were, and the conflict was more of that generic crossing-dimensions-to-conquer-another-universe stuff, and I'm sorry, but those tropes are just so tired and abstract I can't connect to them anymore. Whatever happened to stories about heroes trying to save a life, or win a battle, or stop a catastrophe involving people we had learned to care about instead of millions of faceless masses that are supposed to evoke some kind of vague empathy?

Tiny saving grace: Al Pratt in mask and mufti:


Is it okay to say I didn't like this all that much? I know it's a whole new direction, and I am glad that a woman named Babs is drawing Batgirl, but maybe I just have to deal with too much hipster culture in my real life to want to visit with the hipsters in Burnside. And has Batgirl been doing that eidetic memory, they've-worn-it-out-on-Sherlock-already thing for very long? I don't remember that being part of what she did, but maybe it was an outgrowth of her Oracle days. I do love the character - a couple of years ago I bought and read all nine issues of this and thought it was wonderful. Maybe I'll wait for the first trade and give it another shot; in the meantime, a colleague was fascinated by the concept so I'll lend this issue to her.

Tiny saving grace: the abundant use of DC's traditional trademark pseudonyms: Hooq for Tinder (or Hinge), Snapgab for Snapchat, and some kind of unnamed not-Facebook. I love that stuff.


Just so this is not all downer, I did buy one thing that was cool: 

Now, he is a Thark! Nobody could do Barsoon like Murphy Anderson, and all of the DC John Carter stories (by Anderson and by others) have been collected. It's worth picking up.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

5 x 5 Bande Dessinée Critique: L'autre laideur, l'autre folie

Different Ugliness, Different Madness by Marc Males
Published byHumanoids/DC Comics, 2005

1.  This 5 x 5 review also has a late to the party tag: apparently it was part of a short-lived DC Comics venture into publishing French graphic novels about ten years ago; I found it in the mark-down bins of a comic shop while I was waiting to take Wonder Wife to her birthday dinner last month.  I picked up several sale items that evening and this was the best of the lot, by far.

2.  This is a comic that has the feel of a French art film: slow-moving, quiet, and living in its details. It tells the story of two lost - or at least displaced - souls encountering one another in rural 1930s America, and its narrative is driven by small steps, tiny gestures, and unhurried interactions as opposed to action and conflict. There is a story arc, and the narrative structure includes flashbacks and flash-forwards, but as a reader I was less interested in rushing the plot forward and more interested in just watching how these people would behave as their circumstances unfolded.

3. But this is not a movie, it is a comic, and it is a wonderfully technique-driven one. You could use Different Ugliness, Different Madness as a course text to accompany Scott McCloud's books: excellent controlled and effective examples of the six forms of transition from Understanding Comics and the five choices from Making Comics seem to jump off the page. Males makes comics the way Hitchcock or DePalma make movies: with a thorough understanding of exactly what strings they are pulling to manifest their vision. And we relish experiencing every manifestation of their craft.

4. One odd note: I don't know if this was part of the original art design or something that happened in the translation process, but the lettering is smaller than it needs to be for the size of the word balloons. The result is a proportionality that reads more like whispering in most mainstream comics, but that is clearly not the intent, for it is used consistently even when it is obvious that voices are louder. It took a while to get used to, but then it just reinforced the feeling of an old movie.

5. The French idea of what a Depression-era American farmer looked like seemed a little off to me, but I am a city boy, so what do I know.

Si vous rencontrez cette bande dessinée, l'acheter! 
Vous ne le regretterez pas.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Sterling Stuff

So, Wonder Wife and I took a real vacation recently, forsaking the gray majesty of a Pacific Northwest winter for the sunny climes of Southern California. During the second half of the trip, I found myself a mere 51.1 miles from Sterling Silver Comics, the almost brand-new retail shop owned & operated by Mike Sterling, the grand-deanmaster of the comicsweblogosphere (if you don't know Progressive Ruin, you should), and even in California traffic that's not very far, so of course I paid a visit.

After a nice cruise from L.A. along the part of the Pacific Coast Highway that wasn't closed from mudslides and scenic drive through the Malibu Canyon, a few short minutes on the 101 brought me to Camarillo - where I screwed up and stopped looking at my GPS too soon, winding up across the street in the wrong lot.

I squared myself away and got to the store, which is every bit as attractive as I have heard - and the floor certainly lives up to is reputation.

I was a doorbuster, getting there right at the opening hours, so I had a chance to chat with the Mikester before the crowds descended. He was suave enough to recognize me from our online exchanges (or to pretend to) and it was great fun to meet in person someone whose stuff I have been reading for so long. It wasn't a reunion as such, but calling it a union sounds either formal or creepy, so let's just say we were well met.

But I have to tell you, Sterling Silver is just a great comics shop. It has the usual appurtenances - new comics racks, graphic novel sections, some doodads and trinkets - but the jewels in the crown are the back issues. I live in Seattle, where there are almost as many comic book shops as Starbucks, and I have to say I have never seen a back issue stock that was as complete and accessible as Mike's. He gave up some of his personal collection to open the store, and man, that must have been some collection. I could easily have spent the rest of my vacation money (and the rest of my vacation) going through his stock, but I dutifully restrained myself - more's the pity. Here's the stuff I took away:

War of the Gods is a 1991 DC miniseries chock full of Perez art that totally passed by me 24 years ago. (I just love finding complete miniseries in a back-issue longbox.) I am working my way through this; the muddy printing from that time is a bit of a hassle, but it's a great find!

This sure brought back memories! I had totally forgotten Moby Dick was a Saturday morning cartoon hero! (I think it came on right after The Gatsby Green Light Adventure Hour.) This is a cool collection of classic goofiness.

This was the prize - or I thought it was. I bought it for one specific panel by Werner Roth: the final "stampede" of the sensational super-villains. But I forgot that this was a two-parter! The panel that I wanted is actually in the next issue.

Hey, Mike! I need X-Men number 23! Hold it for me will, you? Seriously, I mean it.  I'll be in touch.

Besides getting the right X-Men comic, I would really love to run through that longbox of 80-page giants again, with a little less self-control this time. Anyway, if you're anywhere near Camarillo, California in the near or far future, stop by Sterling Silver Comics and say hi to Mike. And buy stuff.