Friday, March 27, 2009


Gods, Heroes and Men of Ancient Greece: Mythology’s Great Tales of Valor and Romance is a 1934 book of Greek mythology by W. H. D. Rouse, who was known for pioneering the Direct Method of teaching Greek and Latin in Britain. This book contains the Greek creation myths, the tales of Heracles, Jason, Theseus, and Perseus, and miscellaneous smaller stories. It is geared to a young adult audience.

Gods, Heroes and Men of Ancient Greece has been heavily edited for content and length. The book is only 200 pages, which isn’t enough space for half of these stories. Some of the tales are completely butchered; there’s so much left out of Odysseus’s story, for example, that one wonders why Rouse bothered with it in the first place. At times, Rouse rushes through stories and recounts events in a dry, history book way that completely robs these tales of their charm and appeal.

Rouse doesn’t tell the stories in the most coherent fashion – not that the reader can’t follow what is going on, but Rouse often leaves out characters’ motivations for doing things. He will trudge through a pedestrian narrative only to omit some of the most interesting parts of many of these stories, as well as explanations for why or how things happened. Frequently the reader will reach the part of a story where he expects the payoff, only for Rouse to say, as he often does, “I can’t tell you about that now.”

This book includes commentary from the author in the text (example: “You see, Achilles and King Agamemnon had both lost their temper. I do not make any excuse for either of them; I am just telling the story.”). Few of his observations are particularly astute or clever, and almost none of them would be necessary if he had done a better job telling the story.

In the best books of mythology, a writer breathes life into the ancient stories. Rouse, conversely, has made them dry and tedious. There’s no real need to be lenient here because there are a million books on Greek mythology, for every target audience, and it shouldn’t be difficult to find a better one than Gods, Heroes and Men of Ancient Greece, which is frustratingly poor.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

SUPREME: THE RETURN by Alan Moore et al.

Supreme: The Return (2003) collects Supreme #53-56 and Supreme: The Return #1-6, which were originally published from 1997 to 2000 by Awesome Entertainment. With Supreme: The Story of the Year, this volume collects Alan Moore’s entire run on Supreme. Moore continues his homage to/send-up of Silver Age comics in general and Superman in particular.

Moore’s writing here is hit-and-miss. In general, there are fewer flashbacks than in previous issues, and Moore focuses on stories set in the present. And either Moore has toned down his alliteration supreme a little bit or I’ve become numb to it. There are some genuinely funny moments here, most of them involving Hillary Clinton. Moore tries to take the fun, fifties style he’s done a fairly good job with so far and mix it with some grittier, more modern stories. It doesn’t work – it makes the grit seem almost horrific – and at this point, nobody is reading Supreme for “horrific.” It feels like Moore is using Supreme as his personal lab in which to conduct experiments, to see which genre hybrids work and which don’t. And some of the stories feel rushed, crammed into limited space so they’ll only run one issue. Others feel overlong.

Extensive rehashing of what has gone before makes this book tedious. Almost every issue, whole pages are devoted to recapitulating what has already happened, whether it was at the beginning of Moore’s run or last issue. And this is doubly tedious given that plots are getting rehashed. For example, in his first issue of Supreme, Moore presented the world of the Supremacy, where every version of Supreme went when they were revised out of continuity. Now we have a whole issue for a world of Lex Luthor-analogue Darius Daxes.

Metafiction is through the roof here. Moore tosses in layer after layer of it seemingly because he can. There’s all the metafiction from The Story of the Year, plus now Ethan Crane and his comic book coworkers are themselves doing with their superhero, Omniman, exactly what Moore has done with Supreme.

The text is riddled with typos and grammar and syntax errors. This isn’t necessarily Moore’s fault, but who’s editing this two-bit operation? It takes more than a few Alex Ross sketches to make a professional publisher.

Awesome Entertainment went under before the last two issues of Supreme: The Return could be published. Here, in the last published issue, they tack “The End” onto the last panel and call it a day; while it hardly ends on a cliffhanger, this is no ending to speak of.

The art here is a disaster. Rick Veitch’s Silver Age-style flashback scenes are the highlight, as before, but now he’s also doing the present in some issues, and his modern style is less remarkable. As in The Story of the Year, there are a lot of different artists here (so that rarely does the same artist draw two consecutive issues), many of which aren’t very good. Unlike that volume, however, here the style of the art changes significantly from issue to issue, which makes the whole thing feel sloppy.

A combination of factors makes Supreme: The Return feel thrown together, and it will have less of an appeal to fans of Silver Age comics than The Story of the Year did.


Sunday, March 22, 2009


Supreme: The Story of the Year (2002) reprints issues 41-52b of Image Comics’ Supreme, which were originally published in 1996 and 1997. Supreme was originally created by Rob Liefeld; Alan Moore completely recreated the character beginning with issue 41, so no previous familiarity with either Supreme or his world is necessary here (In fact, as the story begins, Supreme is suffering from amnesia, so the reader learns his background at the same time the character does).

Moore has deliberately created a pastiche of 1950’s Superman. There are analogues of all the old characters. Supreme has all Superman’s powers; his alter ego is Ethan Crane, a bespectacled comic book artist. There’s Diana Dane, a coworker who’s the love interest, and Darius Dax, a brilliant criminal mastermind who’s Supreme’s old nemesis. There’s Suprema, Supreme’s super-powered sister, and Radar the caped “hound supreme.” There are analogues for Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang, all the members of the Justice League and the Legion of Superheroes, too. But Moore is not just writing old Superman stories with these characters – most of them are distinctly different from the characters on which they are modeled.

Moore’s Supreme is both an homage to and send-up of Silver Age comics. There’s none of the deconstructionism he’s commonly associated with (see Watchmen, etc.). What Moore has tried to do here is merge the comics of the nineties with the sensibilities of fifties’ comics, which were cheesier and more fun, in which science operated in broad strokes, and which featured such alliterative exclamations as “Great galloping galaxies!” Here, Moore gives us that and more, the highlight being “Great Montezuma’s Revenge!”

Supreme features several layers of metafiction. At the beginning of Moore’s run, Supreme observes that maybe he did just pop into existence – he’s fine with this. As Crane, he draws the comic Omniman, which features a Supreme-like character. When Supreme has a flashback, it’s drawn as a comic within the comic. On top of all this is the constant reminder of vintage Superman.

The art here is a mixed bag. This volume collects 13 issues, and features nine pencillers and three inkers. From one issue to another, the primary artist often changes. Nearly all of them draw the present-day sequences in the ridiculous overly-muscled and exaggerated style that Image helped make so popular in the nineties. The highlight is Rick Veitch’s art. When Supreme has a flashback (he has them at least once an issue), Veitch does the art in a Silver Age, more realistic style; without this, the whole thing wouldn’t work (Keith Giffen adds one seventies-style flashback that’s also well done).

What Moore has done here works for the most part, but not entirely. Occasionally it feels forced, and the flashbacks are usually more interesting than the “present day” parts of the story. And in the flashbacks, the toddler version of Supreme talks like the Incredible Hulk for reasons that are not explained. The reader may also insane by the vast number of times the word “supreme” is used as a following descriptor (sight supreme, hound supreme, spat supreme, etc.).

Moore’s run on Supreme isn’t his best work, but he keeps things interesting. This volume will definitely appeal to fans of Silver Age comics.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

BONE by Jeff Smith

Bone (2004) collects all 55 issues of Jeff Smith’s comic book Bone, which was independently published from 1991 to 2004. Three Bones – pantsless hybrids of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Casper the Friendly Ghost and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – are run out of their town. They cross the desert and arrive at a Valley, where the series takes place, just in time for an epic conflict to erupt there.

Bone is often humorous and at times very funny. Smith constructs his situation comedy with the best of them, but he has also created a couple of characters who are innately funny, which is rare: the rogue pair of quiche-loving rat creatures is always funny, no matter what they’re doing. Toward the beginning of its arc, Bone has something of a leisurely pace, which allows for more humor and frequent appearances of these “stupid, stupid” rat creatures. Some of Smith’s gags are pretty thin (as is Fone Bone’s crush on Thorn), but on the whole this is a fun book.

Smith’s humor works a lot better than his drama. Broadly, Bone features a fairly generic, been-there-done-that “epic” plot centered on a peasant girl who, unbeknownst to her, is both the long-lost heir to the throne and the hero of destiny. In fact, all the trusty, worn-out fantasy tropes are here: quests, a dark lord, the unwitting royal hero, magic, the pseudo-medieval setting. And the Bones are noticeably like Tolkien’s hobbits in that they are outsiders caught up in a grand struggle they don’t fully understand. Smith handles the story adequately, although as the story progresses, a great deal of the humor is lost, replaced by unpleasant amounts of bickering and expositional monologues.

Bone has two main climaxes – one two-thirds of the way through and one at the end. The first feels sufficiently weighty, the second, less so. There’s plenty of build-up, but the book’s ultimate resolution is underwhelming, and a bit rushed. It also suffers because some of the book’s most interesting characters have limited or no presence – Lucius is an obvious example, as is Kingdok, the best villain in the book by far.

Smith’s artwork is excellent. He does a great job of blending the cartoony style of the Bones with the more realistic style of the Valley and its inhabitants. Bone was originally published in black and white (as it appears here), and Smith’s style suits it. His use of varying line thicknesses, his simpler (but no less immersive) backgrounds, his use of black and white to create ambience – Smith uses the medium to full advantage.

This one-volume edition is monstrous, and horribly unwieldy. Over thirteen hundred pages long, it’s two-and-a-half inches thick and weighs about four hundred pounds. One feels like it should be read at a lectern. Smith’s many spelling errors remain.

Despite its flaws, Bone is certainly worth reading. After all, any book that makes fun of Moby-Dick as regularly as this one does can’t be all bad.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Revisited - WATCHMEN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, was published by DC Comics as a 12-issue series in 1986 and 1987. I previously reviewed it here, but the nature of the work is such that further readings lead to further discoveries and insights.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Watchmen is the astonishing level of detail in both the story and the art. Each time I read it (this is the fourth or fifth time), I find something new, in the visuals and in the characters. The plot of the book is fine, but this attention to detail is what makes Watchmen so incredibly immersive. Moore packs forty years of alternate-Earth history into twelve issues, and the reader never feels that any part of it has been rushed through or glossed over.

The transitions between scenes are masterfully done. There is, it seems, practically no limit to the parallels the authors have drawn between one character and another, one event and another, the Watchmen world and the Tales of the Black Freighter world. Recurring visuals abound. Also notable is the use of the fixed shot. The vast majority of Watchmen’s pages are divided into nine panels, which allowed Moore more control over the timing of his scenes. Focusing for several panels on one subject in the foreground while the action takes place in the background allows the authors to emphasize certain images while keeping the story moving.

Related to this is the use of symmetry, from the use of the stained smiley face on the first page and the last of the entire work to the vertical zoom-outs on the first and last pages of Issue 1 to the way Issue 5’s panels are symmetrical. The reader doesn’t consciously notice this the first time, or the second, or even the third, but from the beginning it helps to imbue Watchmen with its inimitable style.

After repeated readings, one begins to pick up on some of the little issues of the work (to call them errors is to invite the authors to beg off with the old “it’s a parallel world” excuse): the Astrodome is in New York; Dr. Long’s wife Gloria is drawn and sometimes written as though she were white, but is sometimes written and always colored as though she were black; In the Milton Glass text at the end of issue four, the non-word “refudiated” appears. Still, these are mostly trifling issues. One less trifling: Rorschach, arrested and awaiting trial, is sent, not to jail, but to Sing Sing, a maximum security prison for convicted felons, where he is initially allowed to mix with the prison population. While this does make for some excellent storytelling, it is an indefensible error. But all of this is easily forgivable because of the sheer quality of the work.

So is Watchmen the best comic of all time? Maybe. What does “best” mean, exactly? Certainly no comic has ever been better put together, or executed so flawlessly (Rorschach’s trip up the river notwithstanding).


Monday, March 9, 2009

MONEYBALL by Michael Lewis

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game is a 2003 baseball book by Michael Lewis about the Oakland Athletics and general manager Billy Beane. Conventional baseball wisdom is flawed, Lewis says, and many coaches and scouts focus on the wrong statistics. The Oakland A’s, because of severe budget restrictions, sought to find objective ways (like sabermetrics) to evaluate players. In doing so, the A’s were able to find players who were undervalued in the market, which led to a very successful run with a relatively low payroll in the early 2000’s.

Lewis also explores the life and career of Beane, who was a very talented baseball prospect who never panned out as a player because of confidence issues. Lewis also includes lengthy sections on Bill James, the founder of sabermetrics, catcher/first baseman Scott Hatteberg, and pitcher Chad Bradford. Lewis follows, loosely, the A’s’ 2002 season.

Objectively, on-base percentage is typically considered the most important single statistic. The A’s strategy, though, goes beyond finding high-OBP players – they want any player with any quality that the market undervalues (this also explains why they haven’t been very good in recent years and why they don’t have many good OBP guys).

One of Lewis’s themes is how resistant Major League Baseball has been to Beane’s ideas – they took several years to catch on, and there are still many who oppose them. Several of Beane’s underlings (and other Beane disciples) have become general managers recently, but there is still an appalling ignorance among commentators (which is hardly surprising), coaches, and scouts.

Lewis, as in his other works, tends to ramble from time to time (he also likes to throw in the big word here and there seemingly for its own sake). Many sections are longer than they need to be, and become tedious; others are marginally interesting but have little to do with his topics. But Lewis also does a good job portraying the personalities of his characters, and as such, Moneyball is immersive.

Moneyball is important to the history of baseball – it, more than anything else, brought objective statistical analysis of baseball players into the mainstream. Any fan of baseball should find this interesting.


Thursday, March 5, 2009

TORTURED FOR CHRIST by Richard Wurmbrand

Tortured for Christ (originally published in 1967; revised and re-released in 1997) is an autobiography by Richard Wurmbrand, founder of the nonprofit organization Voice of the Martyrs, which works to raise awareness of the persecution of Christians around the world.

Wurmbrand was a Romanian who converted to Christianity as an adult and became a minister. When the Soviet Union occupied Romania, Wurmbrand was arrested for evangelizing, and spent a total of fourteen years in prison, where he was tortured and beaten. Upon his release, he came to the West and founded what became The Voice of the Martyrs.

Tortured for Christ is a short book (150 pages), and Wurmbrand glosses over many events and leaves out many details that would help the reader put his story together more concretely. Wurmbrand splits these limited pages among giving the broad strokes of his life, offering his thoughts on persecution and witness to Communists, and discussing and condemning the atheistic policies of the Communist governments.

Wurmbrand displays an astonishing love toward his persecutors. He bears them no animosity, no violence, no wish for harm – only love and forgiveness. He says, “Only love can change the Communist and the terrorist” (p. 57). This selfless love, this relinquishing of the “right” to get even or bear a grudge, allows God to work in the hearts of the oppressors. And this has a universal application to anyone that we as Christians might call “enemy”. To Wurmbrand, these individuals were not his enemies – the sin and the evil ideology were.

Wurmbrand calls out Western Christians in a very serious way. After World War II, Wurmbrand says, the West unwittingly helped oppressive Soviet regimes take power in much of Europe. The Communists hijacked Christianity in these countries and turned the organized church into a Communist tool. Wurmbrand, having spent most of his life in an environment where being a confessing Christian could get a person jailed, tortured and killed, found Western Christians profoundly lukewarm. And many of them he found uninterested in helping those suffering persecution.

Tortured for Christ provides a truly eternal perspective on life. Western Christians, even the most generous of them, are attached to their things and their lifestyles. The thought of losing literally everything is terrifying, yet those in Wurmbrand’s boat have accepted this lot with joy. And this is why the Church has, historically, thrived under persecution.

Wurmbrand said that Tortured for Christ “has no literary value. It was written in only three days shortly after my release from prison. But it was written with pen and tears. And for some reason, God has chosen to bless this writing and use it for His purpose” (p. 7). This is a fair assessment – the message is important enough to outweigh the book’s literary flaws.

Tortured for Christ is recommended to any Christian who is interested in what’s going on in the world, or is looking for some real perspective on life.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? is a 1974 critique of the decline and abuse of the English language by journalist and former NBC News correspondent Edwin Newman. Newman is not an advocate for Standard English for its own sake, and he is not against the natural evolution of language. His biggest complaints are with politicians, members of the media (The New York Times in particular), and those in academia, who deliberately use language to sensationalize, obfuscate, and bewilder. He writes “for a world from which the stilted and pompous phrase, the slogan and the cliché, have not been banished – that would be too much to hope for – but which they do not dominate” (p. 32).

Newman covers various and sundry topics, and the book is organized roughly by category, although he moves quickly from one theme to another without much in the way of transition. Newman gets carried away sometimes, and it seems that he’s doing a better job of entertaining himself than he is the reader. For example, his section on the interchangeability of certain names is clever, and the point is taken, but the reader will likely skip pages of his documentation. His delight with his own puns may also be less impressive to the reader. Other sections are inspired – his chapter on sports, in particular.

Politics have not changed much in the 30+ years since Strictly Speaking was published. Newman observes how the elections and political conventions of the sixties and seventies were treated as dramatic, serious, pivotal moments of history – just like now, the candidates treat each election like the most important one ever. And Newman lists the gaffes made by President Nixon, which makes one think that if he were writing this book while George W. Bush was president, Newman may have just given up.

Even responsible users of English can learn something here. Example: Newman laments the incorrect usage of the verb “convince” versus “persuade” (you convince someone of something or that something; you persuade someone to do something; you never convince someone to do something). Be observes the misuse of the word “massive”, which means heavy and solid, not big (although now big has become an accepted definition of it).

Strictly Speaking is an entertaining and illuminating look at modern English. Its 1975 sequel, A Civil Tongue, is just as good, if not better.