Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross

Artist Scott McCloud writes of his friend Kurt Busiek and their enjoyment of comics as teenagers. He says they wrote a series together of an epic battle that destroyed their high school and many landmarks of their Lexington, Mass, hometown. He and Busiek had an agreement, he says, that he would write critically acclaimed comics and Busiek would write the popular stuff that made money, but with Marvels Busiek has produced an award-winning, fan-loving hit that has sold like lemonade on hot day in a freedom-loving town in these blessed states of America.

Marvels tells the human side of living in New York City with superheroes, aliens, and mutants emerging in the world. Photographer Phil Sheldon hopes to land a gig as a war correspondent, but when the offer comes, he declines because The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner have begun to fight through the skies of their city.

“… repeat the latest developments: The Human Torch had imprisoned The Sub-Mariner beneath a sheet of flame in an update reservoir, but the undersea dynamo freed himself — even as the Army bombed his fiery prison!”

Phil: “Blast them! Look at us — just sitting here waiting! There isn’t a thing we can do — and this is our city! Our world! Who gave them the right to just come in and take it away from us?!”

Over four collected issues, Phil works through varying emotions about the “Marvels,” his term: who or what they are, public reaction, and his own responsibilities. He doubts, he fears, he falls into public outrage at the mutant X-men and hurls a brick at Ice-Man. Then he rallies and writes a book about them that features his photography.

I looked up this series collection after listening to a Stitcher podcast based on it. Marvels reads a bit like the story of a Frenchman who survives WWII rolling overtop of him. It doesn’t tell much of the many stories it references. We just see something blow up down the street and empowered people we may or may not recognize rushing toward it.

In one conflict between Galactus and The Fantastic Four that appears to spell the end of the world, Phil runs home to spend whatever minutes he has left with his wife and kids. But the world doesn’t end, because the Marvels save it with every ounce of skill and luck they have.

The book doesn’t end on that note, because not every hero’s story moves from victory to victory, and Phil’s emotional turns flow naturally as he and the world react to many fantastic events. Fans of golden age comic book superheroes will love this gorgeously produced tale of a photographer who fights to see to wonder in the age of supers.

‘Insidious,’ by Brett Battles

Brett Battles is the author of a successful series of thrillers about a covert operations “cleaner” named Jonathan Quinn. I like that series very much. Insidious is the second book in a spin-off series about Quinn’s former assistant, Nate (have we ever been told his last name? I can’t recall). Quinn and Nate have kept their distance from one another to an extent since the death of Liz, Nate’s girlfriend and Quinn’s sister. So Nate is operating on his own more often now.

In Insidious, Nate is out jogging in the Hollywood Hills one morning when he spots a backpack discarded beside the path. Investigating, he finds the dead body of a young woman at the bottom of a hill. After helping the police with their investigation, Nate figures that’s that.

But his Thai friend Jar feels differently. Jar is a young woman, a computer genius with autistic traits who has been slowly coming out of her shell and growing closer to Nate. Jar shows a surprising interest in the case. This girl, she discovers, was living under a false identity. She was actually the central character in a sensational police case some years back. She had been kidnapped and held prisoner for months, then had miraculously escaped, though her captors were never identified. Now she has been murdered. For very personal reasons, Jar grows obsessed with discovering who killed her, and making sure they face justice.

What can Nate do but help her? Along the way he will not only learn the shocking motive behind the girl’s kidnapping and murder, but also some painful secrets from Jar’s own past.

I found Insidious totally engaging, and moving in parts. I recommend it highly. Cautions for the sort of things you’d expect.

‘Inheritance,’ by Allie Ray

A friend suggested I read Allie Ray’s novel Inheritance, because its main character is a Swedish immigrant named Lars. It displays a promising talent.

Lars Gustafson is an undertakers’ assistant in the small town of Osceola, Nebraska in the early 1930s. When a prosperous local farmer named Harold Eklund is found shot to death, his bloody head frozen to the dining room table in his freezing house, Lars is expected to thaw the head loose with warm water so the body can be removed. This gives him time to examine the crime scene, and he notices some curious details.

Lars is no detective. But he’s smarter than people think, and for some reason – perhaps it’s his large size and quiet manner, or perhaps his difficulty speaking English which makes people assume he doesn’t understand them – he hears a lot of secrets, and some people even confide in him unbidden. And so, over a period of time, he begins to put together the story of events 15 years before that resulted in the shooting of Harold Eklund. Possible motives center around Harold’s predatory business practices, and his manipulation of family members, including his handsome Southern son-in-law and his beautiful daughter. There are a lot of secrets surrounding that family, and nobody involved is an angel.

I give author Allie Ray high marks as a wordsmith. Her prose is generally superior, especially for a young writer. Her characters are well drawn. She knows a lot of local history, which adds to the verisimilitude of the story. (She should, however, have studied firearms a little more. Her assumptions about the power of a .22 caliber rifle will make gun owners laugh.)

The greatest weakness of the book, for me, was in its ending. It didn’t wrap things up properly, at least for this reader. The final resolution was unclear to me, and I wasn’t certain whether that was intentional. Or why it would be.

Still, as a second novel by a young writer, Inheritance was quite impressive. Cautions for rough language and adult themes.

For your Spectation

I have a new piece up at The American Spectator Online today. I was worried it was a little too personal for the venue, but the editor told me it was “the best piece I’ve read in a long time.” Which is always nice to hear.

Anyway, it’s about the Lockdown and living in fear. Because fear is a subject I know all about.

I hope I’m open-minded enough to listen to experts. However, when an “expert” starts telling me the only way to prevent Gotterdammerung is to increase the size and power of government, I start reaching for my skeptic’s hat. I wear that hat a lot nowadays.

I’m not an epidemiologist, as you’ve probably guessed.

But I do know about fear.

And what troubles me most about our current predicament is that we’re being governed on the basis of fear.

Read it all here.

‘Woe To the Scribes and Pharisees,’ by Daniel Taylor

And who or what is God anyway? A word they used to always capitalize but now is frequently printed in lower-case—god—as in, a god among many gods, none of them real. Personally, I’m sticking with the capital even when not believing there is such a being, because I want my nonbelief to be about something important. Who wants to disbelieve in a lower-case god?

Daniel Taylor is a Christian writer with whom I have theological differences. But I enjoy his novels. Which wouldn’t bother me if I weren’t an ideologue. If I knew the religious beliefs of most of my favorite fiction writers, I’m sure they’d give me a sudden appreciation for Taylor as a brother. It’s only among the brethren that I get all religiously partisan.

Anyway, Taylor’s Jon Mote series is an enjoyable sequence of mystery novels (this is the third) about a troubled and God-haunted man who was once possessed by demons and has been exorcised, but who still declares himself a skeptic. As Woe To the Scribes and Pharisees begins, he seems to be getting his life together. His wife Zee has returned to him, and he has a responsible editing job with a Minneapolis publishing house that specializes in New Age books. They have recently decided to tap into the huge Bible market, by publishing one of their own. This will be a Bible for the new millennium, a Bible acceptable to everyone. However, discovering the expenses involved in producing their own translation, they decide to license one that already exists. They go to Dr. Jerry DeAngelo, a retired TV preacher who appears to be sort of a cross between Pat Robertson and Billy Graham. Dr. DeAngelo published a paraphrase of his own some years back, and now he’s agreed to license it to Jon Mote’s company, with certain stipulations, including his own participation on the revision committee. Which will consist of Christians spanning the continuum from far left universalist to far right fundamentalist.

It goes even worse than you might expect.

They aren’t very far into their editorial meetings before one of their number, a liberal theologian, is found dead in a rest room, the apparent victim of a heart attack. Only Jon notices a cryptic message written in soap on the mirror, which makes him suspicious, though he can’t figure out its significance.

Then a celebrity pastor (sort of a Joel Osteen stand-in) who had agreed to endorse the translation (before it’s finished, of course) dies in what looks like an accident.

And that’s not the last of the deaths. Eventually, while snowed in in a northern Minnesota lodge, they will all realize that these deaths have been murders, and that the murderer is among them.

Author Taylor does an excellent job portraying the debates between liberals and conservatives, and he does it so well that I suspect every reader will think the author secretly agrees with him. The book as a whole consists largely of a series of Socratic dialogues, in which principles of biblical interpretation are hashed out pretty thoroughly and fairly.

What I fear is that Woe To the Scribes and Pharisees is too talky for the average reader, especially for non-Christians. I wish non-Christians would read this book, but I’m not sure they’ll tolerate all the God talk.

Christians, I think though, will take to it pretty well. I know I did.

As always, the real hero of the story is Jon’s “developmentally disabled” sister, Judy, who cuts to the core of matters through her pure and simple love of Jesus, unencumbered by doubts or sophistication.

I highly recommend Woe To the Scribes and Pharisees. Cautions for challenging and mature themes, and some rough language.

‘Dodge City,’ by Tom Clavin

Long ago, based on an article I read in some magazine, I joined the anti-Wyatt Earp party. Anti-Wyatt people like to point out that Wyatt Earp was primarily a gambler, not a lawman – he was never the marshal of anyplace, though he was a deputy off and on. Also that the story of the Gunfight at the OK Corral (which took place not in the corral, but in a nearby vacant lot), is told in so many contradictory ways that it’s impossible to get at the truth, but that the Earps’ conduct is suspicious at best. And that Wyatt’s famous vendetta ride, though understandable in light of the murder of one brother and the maiming of another, was entirely extralegal and far from a law ‘n order affair. And, oh yes, there’s evidence Wyatt was a pimp, at least for a while.

Since then I’ve softened a bit. Wyatt was no Hugh O’Brien (that’s the guy who played him on TV, for your kids out there), but neither were his enemies – white hats were hard to find in them parts, in those days.

My real favorite Wild West lawman is Wild Bill Hickok. And yet I keep picking up books about Earp. Maybe because there are more mysteries in his story. I’m still trying to get to the bottom of him.

So I picked up Tom Clavin’s book, Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town In the American West. It has its virtues, but in terms of a search for the facts, I think it’s a step back rather than forward.

One great virtue of Dodge City is that it provides a lot of context. Although the narrative is centered in Dodge, it sends feelers out to touch on a lot of places that involved the main characters through the second half of the 19th Century. I appreciated this; I know my Old West fairly well, but my sense of what was contemporaneous with what was improved.

The book’s particular virtue is that, instead of concentrating on the almost mythic figure of Wyatt Earp, Clavin also keeps his eye on Wyatt’s close friend Bat Masterson. Masterson has gotten too little attention, and Clavin makes a good case (with which I tend to agree) that he was the more accomplished of the two. For one thing, Bat was actually an elected sheriff, at least for a while. But he was also involved in more adventures, from the legendary Adobe Wells fight to various manhunts, shootouts, and arrests as a lawman. William S. Hart knew both men, but it was Masterson he identified as his character model.

The great weakness of Dodge City is that it scores low on the factual scale. Clavin treats these men as if they were career lawmen, men on a mission to bring peace to the frontier, like in the movies. I don’t think you can honestly make that case. His account of the feud with the Clantons is routinely biased toward the Earps. And there are simple mistakes of fact. I’m not a “real” historian, but Clavin’s accounts of events involving Wild Bill Hickok and Billy the Kid are wrong in important details, to my best knowledge. (Although I could just be behind on the scholarship. It keeps changing. But Clavin does not inspire my confidence as scholar.)

Dodge City has some value for the reader looking for a sweeping overview of a colorful time and place in our history. But if you’re looking for objective scholarship, I’d suggest you look elsewhere.

New Avengers: Other Worlds and A Perfect World

Jonathan Hickman put a poetic balance in his New Avengers: Illuminati tale of the end of universes. Several times we read Reed Richards saying, “Everything dies. You. Me. Everyone on this planet. . . . eventually the universe itself. This is simply how things are. It’s inevitable. And I accept it, but what I will not tolerate–what I find unacceptable–is the unnatural acceleration of that end.”

The select men who form the Illuminati fear they must do horrible things to avoid the death of their instance of Earth (explained in an earlier post). So far they’ve only had to destroy planets that were dead or dying. In Other Worlds, the Black Swan tells them of a device she calls a mirror that allows someone to see into realities or universes. Because in this type of sci-fi all you need is to conceive of a thing in order have a working device in the next few days, they build this device and begin scanning for incursion points on other Earths. In this way they see other societies with other heroes being invaded by the horrifically deadly agents they have only heard about: Mapmakers and Black Priests. In the second book, Infinity, they return to Black Swan after defeating Thanos, and she ridicules them. Why worry about a dog when you have a demon charging you? she asks, because what’s coming is irresistable death.

It’s never clear whether she is shooting straight with them, and as the weeks burn up they see potential threats that only make them fear the worst. In A Perfect World the worst comes in the least acceptable form. The next world incursion is not filled with abominations but with heroes who could be their superiors. Are they willing to destroy a good world to save their own this time?

In this other version of Earth, we read Dr. Richards’ dialogue with a different spin from a Superman-like figure called Zoran, the Sun God.

“Everything lives. It lives before it dies and we are judged by what we do during that time. Like a brilliant, life-giving star, we illuminate the universe, chasing away the shadows. We create life and then celebrate that creation.”

After reading Zoran’s hopeful words, I thought they may right every wrong, even if it took turning back the clock. But now I see this is only part of a much longer story. It probably won’t turn hopeful or patch certain holes in character arcs. Maybe the bottom line comes from one of the characters, who said these men were not heroes but kings. Kings have authority from birth and do not reason within normal human morality; they commit necessary evil to defend their people, and even though you may be able to argue that certain acts were not necessary, if the people are safe, then the actions were acceptable.

That’s more like embracing the shadows than chasing them away.

Free-Lancing, and ‘The Girl Hunters’

Happy Friday. Some people still have Fridays, I’m told. Such people are described as Essential. I am not worthy, I am sure, to unlace the latchets of their sandals.

I was busy yesterday, though. The translation job I got had me working 12 hours straight, pausing only for meals and comfort stops. Also to open the windows, because the day was beautiful.

I won’t say it’s a joy of the free-lancing life, but it’s certainly one of its qualities, that much of the time you wish you had work, and then occasionally you have too much. The big stars can regulate their own schedules, but the rest of us are carrion birds, on the watch for cadavers of opportunity.

While I was working, I streamed a curious old movie on Amazon Prime: The Girl Hunters, a 1963 Mike Hammer flick. What makes it memorable is that the creator of the character, writer Mickey Spillane, played his own creation in this one.

The story involves PI Mike Hammer waking up from a long drunk to find that his secretary Velda is dead, and that his cop friend Pat Chambers now hates his guts. Then Mike gets a hint that Velda might be alive. He will, of course, steamroll anybody who tries to keep him from finding her.

As a late semi-noir, The Girl Hunters isn’t bad. It was produced by an English company, and the obscure cast (except for Lloyd Nolan and Shirley Eaton, who’s best remembered for getting painted gold in “Goldfinger”) turn in solid work. Spillane himself is better than you might fear. He gets his words in the right order, and generally keeps his facial expressions and body language consistent with them. His big problem is that he has zero charisma. He’s not good looking enough to be a leading man, and on top of that he isn’t likeable. You wouldn’t trust this guy to watch your suitcase in a train station.

But the production’s not bad, the music’s good, and the script is adequate. Worth watching mostly for the novelty of the thing.

Bible Translation Can Be Murder

John Wilson describes Daniel Taylor’s new novel Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees, the third in a mystery series featuring Jon Mote, an amatuer dectective in the Minnesota area. Mote is something of an academic and is currently working as an editor for a publishing house. Wilson writes:

When his employers decide that they want a piece of the lucrative if already crowded market for Bible translations, Jon is drafted to serve as a non-voting member of the committee that will oversee the new translation. “The word is, Mr. Mote, that you grew up among the fundamentalists. Those are your people. We need someone on our side who understands them.” Of course, Jon didn’t grow up among “fundamentalists,” but his bosses aren’t interested in such fine distinctions.

Wilson calls it hilarious, but having not read it myself I can’t say how light-hearted or overall comical it is. It’s new today.

Daniel Taylor’s first novel, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, won the Christianity Today 2016 Book Award for fiction. Lars reviewed it and Do We Not Bleed? in earlier posts.

Happy at Home, staying at Home

Here’s a little Latin you may find useful when you’re working from home, recovering at home, taking refuge at home, or being confined at home.

Domi manere convenit felicibus. — It befits those who are happy at home to remain there.

I hope that’s true for you; it’s not true for too many, because as Ovid says, “Dos est uxoria lites,” that is, strife is a wife’s dowry. May that not be your home, for domus sua cuique tutissimum refugium (every man’s home is his safest place of refuge).

Remember that a friendly house is the best of houses (domus amica domus optima), but remember also that pain compels all things (dolor omnia cogit).

You may find it useful to say to yourself and others:

  • Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you)
  • Dominus providebit (The Lord will provide)
  • Dominus illuminatio mea (The Lord is my light)
  • Deus det [nobis pacem] (May God give [us peace])
  • Deus propitius esto mihi peccatori (God be merciful to me a sinner)

Here are a few others words you may wish to repeat, echoing the wisdom of the ages.

  • Honesty is the poor man’s pork and the rich man’s pudding.
  • Hope is grief’s best music, but help which is long on the road is no help.
  • Keep a thing seven years, and you’ll find a use for it.
  • Little fires burn up much corn.
  • Love your neighbor, yet pull not down your hedge.
  • Many a man asks the way he knows full well.

Found in W. Gurney Benham’s A Book of Quotations: Proverbs and Household Words (Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash)

A librarian’s best friend

I’m in haste tonight. Got a translation assignment, and I think I may have promised to deliver faster than I should have. So time’s wingéd chariot is tailgating me like a Ferrari on a blue highway.

In lieu of anything original, I’ll share this nice article from Atlas Obscura about the curses medieval scribes placed in books, so that people wouldn’t steal or mangle them.

“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them. If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”

No Amazon link. I checked and Drogin’s book is very rare and copies are expensive. At those prices, they should have their own curses.

‘The Silencer,’ by Mike Ryan

Here’s the concept: A burned CIA agent, now hunted by his old bosses, meets a computer genius. The genius tells him he’s found a way to hack into police and security databases, to identify ordinary people who are under threat. He needs an agent to intervene and protect those people. He has almost unlimited funds to set them up in the hero business.

If you think this sounds like the old Jim Caviezel TV show, Person of Interest, that’s how it sounds to me too. The main difference is that The Silencer is set in Philadelphia. Our hero takes the name of Mike Recker, and eases into his new life. Soon he will have his hands full, and will begin to make his first human connections after a long personal drought.

Aside from the un-original concept, I found the story in The Silencer entertaining in itself. (One thing that annoyed me was that our hero, supposedly a master of covert operations, loses no time in making himself a public legend. He might at least have varied his costumes, instead of allowing himself to be identified in the papers as “the man in the trench coat.” That’s not keeping a low profile).

But the biggest problem with this book was the author’s weak grasp of English grammar. He’s constantly dropping howlers like, “But things rarely go as planned, don’t they?” And, “There was maps of the area on a wall….” This author needs an editor. Badly.

Light-weight, derivative entertainment, marred by clumsy writing. You might enjoy the book, if you’re less picky than I am.

‘The October Five,’ by Thomas Fincham

There’s an upstairs apartment in Chicago where a small group of middle-aged men maintain a secret club, The October Five. They are all Marine Vietnam War veterans, survivors of one horrific operation that went very bad. They tell no one about their club, even their families and closest friends. That’s because they work on secret projects together, projects that are highly illegal.

Detective Karl Whaler has a mystery on his hands. A young man has been murdered in his apartment, and no forensic evidence can be found. It’s hard to think why anyone would kill a person as universally beloved as this fellow was – until Karl learns that this man had been systematically defrauding many people, most of whom (such was his charm) still think of him fondly.

A chance discovery puts Karl on a surprising track – is this one in a series of murders, very neat murders in which the victims are people who very much deserved death, but whom the law could not touch?

Soon Karl will be pursuing the October Five. But he’s not their worst danger. Their worst danger will come from a quarter they could never have imagined.

For this reader, The October Five started out in an unpromising way. The beginning of the story meandered, and I got kind of bored with the Five themselves, going about their everyday lives. I had some trouble telling them apart. And Karl Whaler was not a terribly interesting detective.

But the book grabbed me as I moved on.  I was particularly pleased with the story’s positive portrayal of Vietnam veterans.

Recommended, with cautions for language, violence, and ambiguous morality.

The New Avengers: Illuminati by Bendis, Reed, and Cheung

I put aside my reading of the New Avengers series to look at this collection of five issues called The New Avengers: Illuminati. I thought it was a prequel to the other series and it does begin that way, but somehow I got mixed up on publication dates. My library site has 2019, but these issues start in 2008 and may stretch to 2010-11, putting this book well before my current series.

But it begins as I expected. Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, Tony Stark, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Charles Xavier, Stephen Strange, and Black Bolt have pulled together to tackle select work of a specialized nature in light of war between the Kree and Skrulls that spilled onto the Earth. Richards has called the meeting and tells them he has one (no, three) of the infinity gems. Oh, and a gauntlet. Understanding it would be super-dangerous for anyone to have all six gems, Richards suggests they are just the super-dangerous men to collect all six in order to keep them out of everyone else’s hands.

Of course, they collect the other three gems, and The Watcher shows up to say, “My job is to watch and record the universe’s defining events.” (I think he’s contractually obligated to say that.) And, Reed, I am so disappointed in you. He says no one should have all six gems, especially a human, so Reed distributes them to the team.

What could go wrong?

In the next issue, the deal with an entirely overpowered young man who just wants to have fun. Then they handle another young man who’s really, really mad at mankind. Finally they talk over the implications of someone they’ve found and realized their efforts to end a future Skrull invasion have kicked open a remodeled level of Hell.

When I said that reading comic books usually involves hopping into the middle of some kind of story arc, this is book has more open ends than a farmhouse in summertime. While it does set up the Secret Invasion series (which might have been nice to learn from the preface), as a whole this book is like watching five disconnected episodes in an evening marathon, the last of which is barely more than a cliffhanger scene.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture