Joe G.’s #CBR5 Review #3: Superman – The Unauthorized Biography, by Glen Weldon

WeldonSuperman1

It seems like everybody’s got an idea of what Superman is or should be. He’s a guardian angel, he’s a big blue boy scout, he’s a Christ figure, he’s space Moses. He’s awesome, he’s lame, he’s relevant or he’s not. To a certain extent, everyone is right – over the course of 75 years of continuous publication, Superman has been a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In Superman – The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon maps the history of Superman – his publishing history, but also the evolution of his portrayal in comics, film, radio, and every other medium imaginable. In doing so, he distills and analyzes the essence of what makes Superman who he is and why he has resonated with readers in one way or another for three-quarters of a century.

Half of the book’s opening chapter is about how creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster developed Superman; the remaining half-chapter is devoted to a close read/analysis of the original, 13-page Superman story that appeared in Action Comics #1. And if that sounds boring or tedious to you, then I can do nothing for you because you could not be more wrong. It certainly could have ended up that way, but the exercise is anything but in Weldon’s hands. He provides valuable context and commentary that makes this chapter – and the entirety of the book, really, though it rarely gets as nitty-gritty again as it does in those opening pages – comfortable.

And comfortable is probably the best word to describe how the book reads. It feels like you’re out at a bar, having a beer, and talking about Superman with a smart friend. Weldon clearly takes Superman seriously, but he also acknowledges the sillier aspects of the character’s history (various colors of Kryptonite, new powers, and a certain regrettable hairstyle). Even those aspects, though, which other people might choose to ignore, are important to Weldon’s thesis, acting as indicators of how the Man of Steel has changed over time and reinforcing Weldon’s conclusions about what makes Superman important.

It’s worth mentioning that I spend more time than is probably healthy thinking about Superman. I’ve read nearly every Superman comic of the modern, post-Crisis (the first one) era, and quite a few from before then, so I knew a fair amount of the information that Weldon includes in the book going into it. Maybe that’s why it felt so comfortable to me. That said, it also felt fresh and I was never bored. The analysis that he provides is both insightful and entertaining, and it made me consider stories with which I am extremely familiar in a new light. I can also say confidently that, even if you’ve never read a Superman comic but are interested in the character and his cultural evolution, this book is perfectly accessible. If you’re interested in the book, but you didn’t know what “post-Crisis” meant earlier, don’t worry. This is not a book for insiders only, with winks and nods and references without explanations. The book, like Superman, is for everyone.

If you want a taste of what the book is like, check out this extra piece that Weldon wrote about Krypto the Super-Dog, a character and topic that was left out almost entirely from the book. That piece should give you a pretty good idea of the tone of the book (though it is played more for laughs, because, as he writes, it’s a dog in a cape). I would’ve read 15 pages about Krypto if they were written like that, but that’s just me.

Literary nerds (of which I am one) will enjoy the book for its well-considered analysis. Comic book nerds (of which I am also one) will enjoy the history and the respect paid to a character that has endured for 75 years. Honestly, I wish the thing had been 1000 pages longer. Such is my combined love of Superman and enjoyment of Weldon’s writing style.

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Joe G.’s #CBR5 Review #2: Doctor Who: The Forgotten, by Tony Lee and Pia Guerra

Doctor Who: The Forgotten

Licensed comics are always a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s fun to see the further adventures of your favorite characters from movies, TV, or even video games. On the other hand, nothing of real substance can ever happen in them – that stuff, naturally, is reserved for the characters’ original source. The best licensed comics are the ones that manage to tell a compelling story about the characters even in the face of there being no real threat to them in the first place. Good ones also take advantage of the comic format to do things that a TV show on a strict budget would otherwise be unable to do.

Which brings us to Doctor Who: The Forgotten, a miniseries published by IDW that came out in late 2008. It features the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant – well, a drawing of him) and Martha Jones as they attempt to find their way out of a sort of museum that is dedicated to The Doctor. It houses items from all of his adventures throughout his 10 incarnations. The Doctor and Martha have no idea how they arrived in this place, and the TARDIS is nowhere to be found. Also, The Doctor has lost his memory – he can only remember what’s happened to him since he regenerated into his current form – and he must use the artifacts in the museum to help bring it back.

Tony Lee does a wonderful job capturing the tone of the TV series and of the characters themselves. It was easy to hear Tennant and Freema Agyeman’s voices when reading their dialogue. Lee also weaves in tales of The Doctor’s other ‘lives’, as memories come back to the current Doctor with each artifact he examines. I’m not familiar with any of the pre-2005 Doctor Who material, so it was nice to get a glimpse of The Doctor and of the companions with whom he traveled in years past. The flashbacks never felt shoehorned in – they all served a purpose in helping The Doctor and Martha figure out what was going on.

Doctors Display

Pia Guerra’s art is well-suited for the story. Her linework, as always, is clean with just the right mixture of realism and cartoonish, and she does a good job of capturing the likenesses of dozens of actors without letting the art look overly photo-referenced. That’s another fine line that licensed comics must walk – capturing likenesses can be difficult for the artist and distracting to the reader – and the art in this book did a nice job. A few other artists join in for some of the flashbacks, but the changes in art style are never jarring, and it’s all held together well by Guerra’s solid work.

The thing that most surprised me about this comic is how well it fit into the established timeline of the TV series. All is not as it seems throughout the story, and to say more about where it actually falls would be to spoil one of the fun surprises of the book, but it suffices to say that this Doctor Who story fits neatly into a very specific window of time for The Doctor, and it fills in a bit of a gap where not a lot of stories have been told in the past but where the potential for more stories definitely exists. I was also surprised by how emotional the whole thing was towards the end. It wasn’t a Russell T. Davies-level of melodrama, but there are several really nice moments for The Doctor in the final chapter of the story, one of which even choked me up a bit.

Doctor Who: The Forgotten may be the best Doctor Who comic that I’ve ever read. It was both entertaining on a story level and educational in terms of finding out more about The Doctor’s history. If you’re in need of a Who fix before series 7 starts up again (in…April? Aw, man…), do yourself a favor and check out this tale of Doctors’ past. In a word, it’s fantastic.

Joe G.’s #CBR5 Review #1: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time is one of those books that I’ve been hearing about for a while. It’s an older book, so it doesn’t have the ‘buzz’ of a recent release, but I’ve heard enough to know that I should have read it a long time ago. Having read it now, I kind of wish I had read it before, as I could easily see my younger self becoming entranced by it. The story centers on Meg Murry, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin O’Keefe, as they go to unimaginable lengths to find and rescure Meg and Charles Wallace’s father.

I actually knew nothing of what the book was about before I started reading it, and I’m so glad that I went in with a blank slate, as I got to be as bewildered and confused by things as the characters themselves were. What starts off as a relatively normal story about a troubled girl and her family quickly takes a turn for the strange as we meet the Mrs Ws – Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which. A seeming coincidence brings Calvin into the picture, and then off we go into the heavens.

L’Engle’s writing is a perfect mixture of grounded character work and fantastical situations. The narrative focus is on Meg and her thoughts, but the dialogue does a nice job giving each of the other characters a personality. Charles Wallace, in particular, is wonderfully mysterious, exceptionally well-spoken for a five year old, to the point that it was easy to forget how young he was. The physical descriptions create an easily-envisionable world for the reader. I can readily recall how the Mrs Ws look – or don’t look, for that matter – and each locale that is visited over the course of the book is described in exceptional detail, as is the ‘wrinkle in time’ itself, to the point that the reader can clearly imagine what it would feel like to tesser.

If I have a complaint about the book, it’s that I wanted more of it. The worlds are so well-envisioned, and the concepts so intriguing, that it’s hard to imagine that L’Engle didn’t have notebooks worth of material written that she never included in the book. Similarly, several ‘big bads’ are introduced in the book, but none of them is seemingly defeated. They rescue Mr. Murry, but the force that was holding him captive is still active, as is the mysterious ‘Dark Thing’ that apparently threatens the entire universe. I only learned after finishing this book that there are more in the series, so presumably the Murrys finish the job in those, but as a standalone story I was left mildly unsatisfied by that aspect.

But that’s a nitpick about what was otherwise an enthralling and entertaining read. I will, in all probability, read the other books in the series at some point. The characters and the concepts introduced in A Wrinkle in Time are too strong to ignore for long, and L’Engle has created a world in which truly anything is possible.