What I Read in July 2011

Another month, another comfortable four books read. This month there is an unintentional theme, though. Superheroes. I like superheroes, but I had no intention of reading three, four if you squint, prose books about them in one month. But it worked out that way, giving my thoughts a convenient thread to tie them together.

 

Gods of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs.
This is the 2nd of the John Carter books and it manages to top the first one. Gods of Mars is pure pulp action. Each chapter has John Carter and friends facing a new threat and greater odds than the one before it, with no time for reflection or thought or meaningful character development. John Carter is the manliest of men, his prowess being almost ridiculous. Not one but three beautiful women are in love with him; not just 3 women but the three most beautiful women on Mars. He can outfight any 10 men, 20 if he is angry. He is as much of a superhero as any in the books I read this month. In fact, with his otherworldly origin and leaping prowess he bears no little resemblance to certain alien rocketed from a dying planet to Earth, where the yellow sun gave him extraordinary powers.

The expanded societies of Mars are nuts. The white Martians exploit the red Martians, but are in turn exploited by the black Martians. And everybody is exploited by the mad false Goddess Issus. It is a terrible, labyrinthine system that only a man as great as John Carter could free them from.

Gods of Mars is a blistering, exciting read, but the prose and plot can be quite simple. It does offer a somewhat pointed critique of blind faith, but there is little her to stimulate intellectually. Still, it is loads of fun.

Masked, ed. Lou Anders.

Masked is an anthology of short stories about superheroes, written mostly by comic book writers. Like any anthology, the stories vary in quality. I picked this up because I like many of the contributors, such as Gail Simone, Bill Willingham and Matt Sturges. On the whole the collection is satisfying, even if there are some stinkers.

Among the stories I liked were Matt Sturges’ somewhat gruesome “Cleansed and Set in Gold” about a hero who gets his powers through terrible means and Paul Cornell’s campy “Secret Identity.” The capper is Willingham’s A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (Villains Too)” the last and longest of the stories that compress an event comic into 40 or so pages. There were also many other really good stories.

But there were definitely some disappointing ones. Simone’s “Thug” has her trademark deranged yet heartfelt tone, but the stylistic choice of having it seem to be written by the mentally challenged protagonist made it painful to read. Also, too many of the stories focus too much on the gruesome side of superheroics, reveling in the blood and destruction and death. It is tiring and occasionally disgusting.

Still this is a really nice collection. I recommend a checking it out from a library. It is a decent enough way to pass a weekend.

Supergods, Grant Morrison

Supergods is acclaimed comic book scribe Grant Morrison’s part biography, part history of superheroes jumble. Both parts are worthwhile, but not necessarily aimed at the same audience. I am not sure who exactly this book was intended for, other than Grant Morrison fans (of which I am one). Supergods is quite properly aimless.

The first half, though both parts blend together, is a brief, idiosyncratic history of superheroes. Morrison shows just how well he gets the characters, but most of the information is rather basic. The second half is mostly biographical, with some in-depth dissection of the important superhero works of the last quarter century, both Morrison’s own and others. The problem is that anyone who has read enough to understand Morrison’s critiques probably already knows the information in the first half. Meaning the either one half of the book is needless or one half is incomprehensible. Still, taken individually both are good. It is worth to me to hear Morrison go on at length about this topic. He is the undisputed master of superhero storytelling.

There are, however, some downright bad chapters. Such as any time he writes about movies. Morrison wants to note who thoroughly superheroes have taken over summer movies, but he doesn’t seem to have much to say about any of the films.

I still recommend people read this book. People I know can borrow my copy if they wish. Morrison gets superheroes like no one else, and writes with a manic joy that is hard to match. Though this is non-fiction, it is never even close to dry. This is a unmissable opportunity to learn at the feet of a master.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an astounding, wonderful, unforgettable novel. It did not quite know me off my feet like Yiddish Policeman’s Union did, but that is solely because I had already experienced Chabon. I was ready this time. Amazingly, Kavalier and Clay was even better than Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

The novel follows the exploits of Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier, two cartoonist cousins in the early days of comic book superheroes. The two create their own popular superheroes, Sammy providing the stories and Joe the art. Their story closely parallels the experiences of some real comic book creators, but is definitely their own. Their experiences in life grow to mirror their comics, with Joe and Sammy becoming something like comic book characters themselves. Their friends and enemies are like the supporting characters of a superhero. There is the beautiful love interest, the dastardly villain, the nutty side characters. Life reflects art reflects life.

The novel is an effective history of the Golden Age of comics that never gets in the way of the characters personal stories. Chabon’s prose is lush and extravagant, displaying a love of words and of the subject matter. Though the tome is nearly 700 pages long, it moves with astounding celerity. It is never slow, never plodding, but it is a detailed account of the lives of a group of people over more than a decade. There are many events to cover and while Chabon rarely lingers too long, he also doesn’t rush. The novel breathes, it lives. And it is terrific.

I can’t heap enough praise on what I’ve read from Chabon. Though somewhat longer, Kavalier and Clay is slightly more engaging than Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Both novels are wonderful works of fiction. If you read at all, read Chabon. I am definitely going to track down the rest of his books. Do yourself a favor and do the same.

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