Saturday, August 22, 2009

Review - Tom Strong Book 1

Tom Strong Book 1
Written by Alan Moore; Art by Chris Sprouse, Alan Gordon, Art Adams, Gary Frank, Dave Gibbons, and Jerry Ordway
Lettered by Todd Klein
2000 Eisner Winner for Best Single Issue (#1)
2000 Eisner Winner for Best Serialized Story (#4 - #7)
2000 Eisner Winner for Best Lettering

That's a lot of header up there and it all requires a bit of explanation. Sprouse and Gordon did most of the art in the book but the stories often contained other stories with art by a different team. In addition the individual stories are not given titles which means that I can only identify the stories that won the Eisner by their issue number.

Tom Strong is one of those comics that exist mainly to remind the reader of the past. Moore dresses his story in the style of pulp fiction and movie serials, his stories flash back to something that uses the style of comics from an earlier age, and it maintains a mostly light-hearted adventure story feeling in this first book. Tom Strong is about homaging the past, not deconstructing it. The down side to this is that Tom Strong is only really effective for readers who appreciate the homage since there's nothing else to it.

The titular Tom Strong is a scientific adventurer born on a hidden south Pacific island at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was raised from birth in a special environment that allowed him to develop physically and mentally beyond normal people. A special root found on this island keeps him young and he has spent the past century having globetrotting adventures with his family, a talking gorilla, and a steampunk robot.

The first issue is not what I'd recommend as an introduction to the series. While it tells the story of Tom's past it is done in a rather clunky method of one or two page flashbacks that are nearly all exposition. This is justified in the story as the introductory comic for Tom Strong's fan club but that doesn't make it more interesting. There are good moments in that first issue but they're caught between characters rushing through dialog explaining things they already know to each other. Between these flashbacks Tom fights some aerial bandits and while that is well told it's also nothing really special.

Then after a brief interlude of fighting some Von Neumann machines and world-hopping Aztecs there is the much better storyline that runs through issues four to seven. That features the vengence of Nazi supercriminals, the resurrection of Tom's greatest enemy, and some unexpected consequences of old adventures with a quick side trip to Pangaea. In these four issues there is the main story following the ongoing action which is broken up in each issue by a shorter story that is supposedly a Tom Strong comic from another era. So the modern comic will suddenly break into an EC-style science fiction comic or a golden age detective. While the focus of these may still be homages the style and content explodes into many new directions. Unlike the origin story and two simple adventures that preceded it this storyline integrates it's homages well. I never felt like the story was getting bogged down and while the previous three issues didn't interest me this last storyline made me want to see what happens next.

It's difficult to dislike Tom Strong because he's the earnest, good-natured heroic adventurer. For that same reason I found it really hard to like him as well. He lacks any texture beyond being an archetypal good-guy. It's especially bad early on where I was constantly asking myself why I should care about this character. The storyline that closes out the volume does give him a bit more to do as he encounters some ghosts from his past but I felt it wasn't enough.

On the other hand the secondary characters that surround Tom are a lot more interesting. They're given more opportunities to show some personality. It isn't much deeper than what Tom gets but they do get more.

I did enjoy Chris Sprouse's penciling. One interesting thing that he does is that most characters have a unique style to them. This is especially evident in the faces which seem to run the full range of styles. It's easy to see in the first issue where Tom's drawn almost cartoon like with just a few lines but has very tiny eyes. His wife and daughter are drawn in a more common comic book style. And the new member of the Tom Strong fan club looks like he came from the Sunday comics of your local newspaper.

All of the other artists who provide illustrations in the flashback do a terrific job of aping the appropriate styles with the exception of Art Adams. Adams has a World War II themed flashback and while it doesn't really look like most war comics it also features a cast of characters that seem to be custom made for his talents; it was a different choice of emphasis than the other flashbacks.

Looking over the review I have to say that I've been a bit harsher than I intended. I do like Tom Strong. I just wouldn't give it an enthusiastic recommendation. Alan Moore launched several books simultaneously with Tom Strong and it was easily the weakest of them. Much like it's contemporary The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tom Strong exists almost entirely for the sake of the homage and it's impact is going to be dependent on how you respond to that homage.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review - "The Erdmann Nexus", "Shoggoths in Bloom", and "Exhalation"

Well, I'm back. I had a terrific vacation, got to see some family, and experience a whole host of new things. I didn't get to some of the nerdy sites I had planned for my trip since wildfires made other members of my group want to keep out of the area but I can't complain.

And it's time to get started on these long dormant Hugo winners. First up is the short fiction category. You may recall that I liked all of the winners even if none of them were my first pick.

Donato Giancola
2009 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"The Erdmann Nexus"
by Nancy Kress
2009 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

At a retirement home populated by quirky individuals the retirees have started to occasionally black out and have visions. When these visions appear to come true a physics professor who is at the center of the phenomenon tries to get to the bottom of it.

I appreciated that Kress didn't try to be coy about what was happening; the collective minds are reshaping reality and have drawn the attention of a distant spacecraft who helpfully explains for the reader's benefit what's going on. It grates on my nerves badly when an author tells a completely transparent story and tries to write around certain aspects of it in order to create a "mystery". By cutting straight to the chase Kress turns "The Erdmann Nexus" into something of a procedural with a distinctive cast. The story becomes how they work out what is happening and what they do about it rather than it being about ineffectively hiding from the reader what is happening to them.

I tend to run hot and cold when it comes to the quirky cast. With "The Erdmann Nexus" Kress seems less focused on emphasizing how "zany" they are and instead fills them in as elderly people who have grown into the eccentricities.

It's funny but the longest story to win in 2009 is the one that I have the least to talk about. That's because I found most of "The Erdmann Nexus" to be run of the mill. It wasn't bad but it wasn't terrific. I can't work up any enthusiasm either way on it. It's a decently crafted science fiction story and that's enough reason to give it a look but at the same time it's not really special.

"Shoggoths in Bloom"
by Elizabeth Bear
2009 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

I love the works of H.P. Lovecraft but I'm under no illusion about the man himself. Even by the standards of the 1930's where casual racism was so ingrained that it would pass without notice Lovecraft was a bigot. Personally I think his irrational xenophobia is an inseparable part of his stories; he channeled his loathing of anyone who wasn't Caucasian into unfathomable horrors. Which brings me to "Shoggoths in Bloom" which is all about racism in the 1930's and horrors that we cannot fathom.

Unlike the monsters in Lovecraft the Shoggoths in this story are relatively peaceful. Or as peaceful as freakish, acid secreting, gelatonous monstrocities the size of houses that emerge from the blackest depths of the ocean and occasionally crush small towns can be. In the late autumn they beach themselves on the rocky shore of New England where they bloom for a short period before vanishing into the deepest parts of the ocean again. An African-American scientist travels to a remote fishing village to study them and once there deals with both prejudice against him by the townspeople and his own prejudices.

My original reaction to "Shoggoths in Bloom" was that I liked it but wasn't thrilled and I didn't like the ending at all. I've revised that opinion a bit. I think "Shoggoths in Bloom" is a better story than my original impressions. I think part of my initial response was that I came into it with certain expectations based on the horror genre and while I could recognize what Bear was doing I couldn't reconcile that with my views. With a bit of distance I have come to appreciate her deconstruction of Lovecraft on multiple levels.

Bear places the xenophobia at the heart of Lovecraft on display with human characters, the shoggoths, and international politics. The horrors in Bear's story are comprehendable if a person makes the effort to cross the divide. Evil large enough to swallow mankind whole can be faced and confronted. Answers are out there for those who seek them. "Shoggoths in Bloom" takes the trappings of Lovecraft and turns them all on their ear.

That makes it a good thing that Bear didn't follow the path of far too many authors and did not choose to ape Lovecraft's style. Since Bear is subverting other aspects of his writing it would have been awkward to have to prose be the same.

Getting to the actual story, "Shoggoths in Bloom" is one of the better SF works that I've read about racism. There have been a lot of them and certain cliches seem to dominate them (see District 9 for a good example of one that came out this week) but Bear avoids those cliches. Her scientist is not a virtuous minority figure who does only good in contrast to the wicked and cruel townspeople who hate everyone different from themselves. The scientist has his own prejudices to deal with and the townspeople for the most part don't care a bit about the skin color of their visitor though they'll say some hurtful things not realizing how they'll be taken. It's a more nuanced look at racial problems than the usual simple morality play.

On the surface "Shoggoths in Bloom" is about race relations and our reaction to concepts outside of our worldview. At that level it's a pretty good story that I'd recommend. There's a deeper structure to it as an attack on H.P. Lovecraft and that is a whole extra dimension that I appreciated. Not everyone will come to the story from that same place but it made it work better for me.

by Ted Chiang
2009 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

It strikes me that the absolute hardest kind of science fiction to make a good story out of is the scientific principle story. These have fallen out of fashion over the years; they were part of the didactic SF right from the beginning and had their heyday in the early years of Joseph Campbell's editing. When the new wave came along and the full weight of the genre jumped to the other side of the spectrum they nearly completely vanished. These stories are invariably hard SF but they're a subgenre of that subgenre. The basic structure is that the scientist hero discovers some kind of scientific problem (usually involving physics) that is an immediate threat. As they explain the concept to the reader they apply their knowledge of science to the problem and resolve it. The problem with these stories is that they're inevitably more about lecturing the reader than telling a good story. It's phenomenally rare for an author to be able to merge both the high concept of the scientific problem and quality writing. Which is why "Exhalation" stands out.

There is a place populated by machines that are driven by high pressure gas cylinders. One of these intelligent machines is interested in the way that their minds function and so contrives a method to disassemble his own head and watch his mind in operation. However as he examines his own brain he realizes that some recent odd occurrences spell doom for their civilization.

I think it goes without saying that Chiang is master storyteller and he is my favorite author of short SF today. He is exceptional when it comes to devising high concepts for his stories and at the same time he is a verbal chameleon whose style shifts dramatically depending on the demands of the story. "Exhalation" is not his best work. The main character is less interesting than others and the story is almost a lecture. And yet it is still something wonderful to read. This is a story that can easily bring together all SF readers from those who just want big ideas to those (like myself) looking for something more literary. All of this year's winners are good but if you can only read one then this is the one to go for.