Saturday, July 24, 2021

**Announcement of Partial Hiatus**

Posts (including that aforementioned discussion regarding politics in the Captain America comics) will still appear on this blog from time to time, but for the next few months, I plan on devoting most of my energy to developing my Iron Man fan comic and working on a possible book idea. See you on the flip side! 

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Continuing the Space Trilogy Discussion w/Perelandra!

And, unfortunately, that's all I have ready for this post. But the next should be pretty chock full. In addition to some comic and book reviews, I also plan to share an essay on the abuse of Captain America. Hope you'll stop by on the 17th for the fun!

ETA: The second post of the month has now been pushed back to 7/31. Many apologies!

Saturday, June 19, 2021

One Review, One Advertisement, and Several Streams

Let's open this post with the review: Yesterday, I started - and rapidly finished - Andy Weir's Project Hail Mary, which is absolutely outstanding and thus earns my highest recommendation. Indeed, I don't think I've been this excited about a book in quite some time.

How shall we describe the premise of Weir's third novel? Well, I read it as an offspring of a marriage between The Martian (reviewed here) and my favorite first contact narratives (like, for example, James Cambias' A Darkling Sea, reviewed here), . 

Like Mark Watney, the protagonist and point-of-view character in Project Hail Mary - Dr. Ryland Grace - is a wise-cracking, super-skilled scientist who must rely on his wits to solve seemingly insurmountable problems. In this case, however, the primary test he faces is not mere survival but an imminent apocalypse: a newly-discovered space-faring unicellular lifeform is syphoning energy off our sun (and off many other stars in our local cluster), and Grace has been sent to Tau Ceti on a fast-tracked suicide mission to find a solution before crop failures and radical climate change destroy the human race. 

Interestingly, the above remit is not something Grace realizes right off the bat; interestingly, it is something he has to discover gradually after waking up from an extended medically-induced coma with severe memory loss. And it is this choice to situate the main character in the same condition of ignorance as the reader as to the full context of his predicament that, in part, makes for a riveting story. 

The other thing that kept me turning the pages besides Grace's slow-to-resolve amnesia (and, of course, Earth's impending doom) is "Rocky," our second principal character. "Rocky" (dubbed thus by Grace because of his mineral-based exoskeleton) is an ammonia-breathing alien spider from the Eridani system who has come to Tau Ceti to save his own species from the very same invasive organism that is threatening Earth. It is "Rocky" who brings the Darkling Sea elements to the table; after Grace and "Rocky" encounter each other, much of the middle chapters are devoted to their attempts to 1.) recognize each other's sapience, 2.) communicate, and 3.) learn about each other's biology and cultural traditions. I suppose another breed of reader might find such exposition boring, but I don't; on the contrary, I'm attracted to science fiction precisely because it tackles this challenge of mutual comprehension so often.

Plus? "Rocky" is so. damned. likable. Once Grace and "Rocky" learn the basics of each other's languages and it's revealed that they're both the sole survivors of their respective missions, they strike up a genuine, heart-felt friendship that, at several points, moved me to tears. The end of chapter 19 in particular is a stand-out moment. I actually had to stop for a while to collect myself before proceeding to chapter 20.

Bottom line, what we have in Project Hail Mary is a book that brings several positives to the table: 1.) sympathetic characters, 2.) high stakes, and 3.) more than one intellectually engaging mystery. On top of all that, we can add the fact that our main characters do not, as we eventually learn, hail from the cream of the crop. "Rocky" is a workhorse engineer, and Grace -- well, I don't want to spoil the specifics about his history, but suffice it to say that he's not a stellar specimen either. And I like what that says, implicitly, about the heroic capacities of ordinary people. This novel is competence porn -- but it's also Human Wave to the core. A+



Now for the advertisement: If you have the time, I encourage all of you to sign up for the July 3rd Zoom seminar that's been arranged by The Society of Tolkien. Said seminar promises to celebrate Tolkien's works as they were intended to be celebrated: without Current Year nonsense. Because of course, Tolkien was a mid-20th century Catholic fantasy writer who, if he were ported to 2021, would find present-day fixations utterly incomprehensible and bizarre.

(Yes, I'm throwing shade at a certain converged organization that shall remain nameless. And no, I'm not even remotely sorry about that. Authorial intent does matter -- and so does historical context.)



And finally, here are the links to my most recent streams:



This one is our discussion of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.



This one is our regular Iron Man stream, which covered the latest annual, a plot-arc from the early 2000's, and one story from Tales of Suspense.



And this is the one we streamed today on C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet.

Hope you enjoy!

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Western Comics, 6/2021

Western Comics: Capsule Reviews


As it turns out, I don’t have much to say about May’s offerings from the Big Two, so this column will focus on three four-star independent graphic novels I read in the past month — one recent release followed by two online recommendations.


T-Bird & Throttle vs. the Moon Men

Writer/Artist: Josh Howard

(How Rad Comics, Superhero)


A YouTube commentator I regularly follow has described this book as the anti-Watchmen, noting that it is a reconstruction (rather than a deconstruction) of the superhero. Said reviewer, in my view, got it exactly right. The first volume of T-Bird & Throttle opens with our protagonist living in disgrace, despised by a world that views men like T-Bird as fascistic, misogynistic, racist — basically any au courant insult you can imagine. But lest you think Josh Howard is simply out to satirize “wokeness,” it should also be noted that T-Bird’s past is not sinless — that, in fact, he does have one major skeleton in his closet for which he needs to atone. So while this story does have some pretty pointed things to say about the eagerness with which certain factions embrace misinformation and smear campaigns, its more important purpose is to tell a redemption story — a purpose it achieves with genuine heart.


Cardboard

Writer/Artist: Doug TenNapel

(Scholastic, Fantasy — Real World Setting, Young Adult)


Are you someone who absolutely adores books like The Velveteen Rabbit or The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane? Then this comic might be for you. The premise: an out-of-work widower, struggling to put together some semblance of a decent birthday celebration for his son, meets a weird salesman who sells him an enchanted cardboard box from which figures can be made and brought to life. From this box, father and son build a man who actually turns out to be a great protector and friend — something they end up needing when the neighborhood ne’er-do-well steals some of the magical cardboard and uses it to make a menacing army of monsters. As an adult reader, I was able to predict the progression of the story here fairly easily — and even foresaw the ending. Nonetheless, it still hit me hard in the feels. Why? Because throughout, TenNapel tackles his main characters’ background grief with touching sincerity and real human emotion. The depiction of the father’s difficulties in particular make Cardboard, in my view, an unquestionable winner. 


The Shadow Hero

Writer: Gene Luen Yang

Artist: Sonny Liew

(First Second Books, Superhero/Historical)


As I hope I made clear a while back when I reviewed Superman Smashes the Klan, Gene Luen Yang knows how to write. And because he has that talent, he’s able to do “representation” right. He doesn’t lecture the reader, and he doesn’t stack the deck in favor of his specific view of the world. Instead, he channels his experiences as a Chinese American into stories that are creative, complex, and honest — stories like The Shadow Hero, in which Yang unearths a little-known Golden Age hero and gives him an interesting (and tragic) origin story rooted in the mid-20th-century Asian immigrant experience. The only complaint I have here? I would’ve liked to have seen just a little more acknowledgement of the father’s decency and bravery. That he asked the turtle spirit to keep him sober instantly inspires my fascination and sympathy — and puts the lie to the idea that he was a coward. But that bit of quibbling aside, this is an essential read for anyone looking for high-quality “diverse” titles that aren’t just thinly-disguised political tracts.     


Yes, I take requests and suggestions! If there’s a particular review you’d like to see, please contact me at hobsonphile@gmail.com and tell me the title, creators, and - most importantly - point of sale. Assuming the comic in question is available for immediate purchase, I will respond in the following issue!

Saturday, May 15, 2021

ICYMI: My Latest Comics Stream w/#1 Marmaduke Fan

Here, we talk about the incredibly stupid marketing campaign for the Hellfire Gala, dive deep into Way of X #1, and then finish the broadcast with my favorite title: Iron Man!

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Western Comics, 5/2021

Western Comics: Capsule Reviews

Marvel

Captain America #28

Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Artist: Leonard Kirk


This comic quickly became infamous on social media for its gratuitous - and not at all disguised - swipe at one of the writer’s prominent philosophical opponents, but I’m not going to use this space to comment on that bit of controversy (other than to state the obvious: it was bad writing). Instead, I’m going to focus on what this comic gets wrong when it comes to the personality and motivations of Steve Rogers. As I wrote in a longer blog post on this particular issue, Steve didn't embrace service to his country because he was weak and lacking in purpose. His desire to enlist was a function of his greatest strength: his steadfast morality. Yes, he was shrimpy before the serum. But he's Captain America because he recognized evil and cruelty in the world and desperately wanted to confront it head on — not because he was some pathetic character seeking to fill a spiritual hole. Furthermore, the premise that Steve would be fundamentally humiliated if he were rescued by a woman completely ignores the female Avengers under whose leadership he’s happily served — and the multiple times they’ve saved his bacon without prompting Steve’s objection. In other words: the villains’ plan here is dumb. Indeed, it diminishes said villains and Steve to reduce the former to disgruntled vloggers. Even beyond the ridiculous caricature of Jordan Peterson, this book is definitely not one I would recommend. ★


Way of X #1

Writer: Simon Spurrier

Artist: Bob Quinn


The most recent crop of X-Men books are, to put it mildly, polarizing. In one camp, we have the intrigued: comic book fans who generally trust the overall creative vision of Jonathan Hickman and expect this different take on mutantkind to lead to some sort of revelation that will ultimately redeem their current behavior. In the other, we have the angry: fans who believe their lifelong favorites have now become supremacist villains for no discernible, salutary reason. To be honest with you, I lean more toward the second position than the first — which is why the 40-page first issue of Way of X caught me so completely by surprise. I picked it up to see how exactly Marvel was planning to screw up Nightcrawler and, in particular, his established Catholic Christian faith. I put it down feeling hopeful (maybe foolishly) that someone at the leading, oh-so-frequently-misguided American comic book publisher actually has some brains — and a chest to match.


Which is not to say that this book is perfect. There are times when Kurt’s dialogue doesn’t quite sound like Kurt. At one point, for example, he states that he “can see no moral flaw” in how the mutants of Krakoa are currently behaving, which certainly doesn’t line up with the explicit horror he displays while witnessing his fellows’ casual disregard for the sanctity of life. As I wrote in the comments of one YouTube review, I think this line should’ve been “I can articulate no moral flaw” rather than “I can see no moral flaw.” I can buy that Kurt is having trouble reconciling his religious traditions - and their associated moral instincts - with the fact of effective mutant immortality. But he quite obviously does see - and is just as clearly bothered - that killing mutants in gladiatorial arenas so that they may theoretically be resurrected with all their powers intact has made many mutants careless and cruel.


Still, it is so, so promising that this comic actually acknowledges the darkness beneath the surface of Krakoan society. This is only the first chapter of this story, so there is still time to utterly flub the landing. But for me, this opening did what no X book has done for years: earned a digital subscription. ★★★1/2

DC

Superman #30

Writer: Phillip K. Johnson

Artists: Sami Basri & Scott Godlewski


It’s only been a couple months, but I’ve been liking Johnson’s work on the Superman titles so far. He’s shown signs that he does understand the true source of Superman’s heroism. Even more importantly, he’s addressing the relationship between Clark and Jon in a very earnest, very heartfelt manner. As some readers of Tightbeam may know, when Jon was aged up (via time/dimensional travel shenanigans), many fans of Superman who enjoyed the dynamics of the Kent family were upset. Well, in issue 30 in particular, Johnson wisely acknowledges those reader complaints in the narrative itself, allowing Clark to express regret that he missed an enormous chunk of his son’s boyhood. If Johnson can continue dipping into this well of genuine human emotion, I think what will result is a fine-to-great run. ★★★1/2 


Batman: Urban Legends

(Anthology) 


And speaking of genuine human emotion: I can’t recommend the above anthology as a whole. Most of the stories are, for me, eminently forgettable. But if you have the money to spare, you may want to pick this up just for Chip Zdarsky’s Red Hood story, which explores Jason Todd’s troubled past - and his equally strained relationship with Batman - as he tries to do the right thing for a boy he’s quite possibly orphaned through his own rash (though understandable) actions. Said story really is a master class in establishing character motivation - specifically, in driving Jason Todd to murder despite his promise to Batman that he would refrain from killing - and, like Three Jokers (which I reviewed in this column a while back), really tries to get at the core of Todd’s trauma. I only wish Zdarsky had been given his own book! 


For the anthology: ★★1/2; for Zdarsky’s story alone: ★★★★

Independent/Crowdfunded Comics

The Underfoot, vol. 2

Writers: Ben Fisher & Emily Whitten

Artist: Michelle Nguyen

(Caracal, Fantasy, Young Adult)


The protagonists of this terrific - and sadly underrated - series are intelligent hamsters — descendants of uplifted lab animals who survived some as-of-now mysterious environmental cataclysm that resulted in the disappearance of their former (presumably human) masters. In this volume, we are introduced to a lizard antagonist who deeply resents that his kind were left behind when the mammals escaped their cages and is therefore determined to visit revenge upon the “furs” once and for all. It's a basic plot — but nonetheless well-crafted. The writers elegantly solve the world-building vs. satisfying progression problem by adding explanatory notes between “chapters,” thereby allowing the story itself to move at a brisk, enjoyable pace. And as with the first volume, the characters are all distinct and lovingly rendered. I definitely recommend this series to any fan of the Redwall or Green Ember books. I myself am eager to pick up volume 3! ★★★1/2


Soulfinder: Black Tide (Book 2)

Writer: Douglas Ernst

Artist: Matthew Weldon

(Iconic Comics, Christian Fantasy)


This series stars a Catholic priest, exorcist, and combat veteran who’s learned he’s especially suited to fight the demonic. Ernst is a very new writer, but he knows how to pick good artists to complement his work. Further, I think his writing reaps the benefits of his real-world experience, his Catholic tradition, and his additional reading in history and philosophy. Impressively, he manages to invent an entirely plausible (but still fictional) saint story to round out the background for the relic that drives the plot for the current volume. And I have always appreciated that the protagonist's abilities here are rooted in his acquaintance with suffering. It’s a solid showing, to say the least — one that manages to convey a religious worldview without necessarily putting off readers with more secular mindsets. Ernst is coming from a clear perspective, but he focuses first on his storytelling and doesn’t preach. ★★★1/2

Reader Requests/Suggestions

Batman: Shadow of the Bat

The Last Arkham

Writer: Alan Grant

Artist: Norm Breyfogle


One of my regular correspondents found the first issue of this story in a bargain bin at his local shop, and on his recommendation, I immediately decided to check out the entire story for myself. The premise? There’s a serial killer on the loose in Gotham whose MO quite closely resembles that of a criminal who’s presumed to be locked up in Arkham Asylum. Suspecting that said criminal has found an escape route within the asylum’s walls, Batman arranges to be imprisoned there — and is immediately abused and tormented by Arkham’s newest lead psychiatrist. What I like about this several issue arc is that it shows there is more than one way to be a villain. On one side, you have the maniac who cuts tally marks into his skin for every murder he perpetrates. On the other, you have Dr. Jeremiah Arkham, who exudes a coldly intellectual, calculating evil that is driven by totalizing ideology rather than a pure lust for mayhem. Speaking for myself, I found the latter a more frightening foe. His absolute certainty that he can modify anyone’s anti-social behavior is creepy in the extreme — as is his (eerily familiar) conviction that the past is worthless and ripe for erasure. If you pick this up, be sure to look out for the B. F. Skinner easter egg! ★★★1/2


Yes, I take requests and suggestions! If there’s a particular review you’d like to see, please contact me at hobsonphile@gmail.com and tell me the title, creators, and - most importantly - point of sale. Assuming the comic in question is available for immediate purchase, I will respond in the following issue!

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Video: Is Star Trek Communist? (Short Answer? No.)

For what it's worth, I do believe the intent behind Trek is secular-humanist and progressive at the very least; we're not exactly lacking when it comes to first-person sources on this subject. But in execution, the show speaks to universal values that fans across the political spectrum can appreciate -- and DS9 in particular often gives alternate points of view a voice because its writers were talented and just couldn't help but craft nuanced stories with multiple layers.

For more of my thoughts on the political orientation and appeal of Star Trek, check out the post here.