Monday, July 25, 2011

Angola awaits!

By the time this publishes, I will be boarding a plane bound for Scotland, kicking off a month-long holiday! This will be the first holiday I've taken which lasted longer than two weeks in the last six years.

After a week in Scotland visiting relations, I'll be taking three weeks in Angola, helping to organize a library in Lubango. Considering this is my first trip overseas, I'd say it's pretty ambitious. You may still see some blogging done during this period, but probably of a brief variety.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Mark Gruenwald's Captain America: a recommended reading list

Mark Gruenwald wrote Captain America for a decade, spanning issues #307 (1985) to #443 (1995). I became a fan of the character during Gruenwald's tenure (more about it here) and retain a lot of fondness for his stories and how he characterized Cap.

Having delved into a general recommended reading list elsewhere, here's my overview of the Gruenwald years.

When Gruenwald assumed control of the series, the Red Skull was dead (from issue #300) and he felt Cap lacked a strong rogue's gallery. Attempting to bolster up the ranks of villains, Gruenwald looked to the world around him to see what threats menaced the USA then. His first villain, Madcap (#307), embodied the USA's own disaffected youth; his most frequently-used villains the Serpent Society (#310) were a take on the evils of unions (ie, what if the super villains unionized?); finally, Flag-Smasher (#312) was an anti-nationalist, a man who rejected everything Cap believed in.

Flag-Smasher works well as a zealot, someone whose political (or anti-political?) convictions were firm and honest, but whose means (the violent overthrow of all nations to establish a one world government) put him squarely in the villain camp.

Gruenwald sent a surprising number of villains to their deaths in his first year and a half on the series. In #315, he dispatched the Porcupine, giving the somewhat-goofy villain a sad end; the Porcupine wants out of crime and hopes to make some quick cash by selling his equipment, but no one in the underworld is interested. When Cap finds out the Porcupine has a lead on the Serpent Society, he offers to buy the Porcupine gear if he'll help trap the Serpents. It all ends badly for the Porcupine, but Cap is true to his word.

The greatest massacre of villains went down in #319-320; for the previous year (mostly in titles which Gruenwald edited), a figure would step out of a crowd, shoot a super villain in the chest and declare, "Justice is served." In Cap#319, we learn this figure is the Scourge of the Underworld, who massacres an entire room full of criminals. Cap tries to catch the killer in #320, but is denied any real satisfaction; the Scourge's explanation for his behaviour is almost immediately discredited and he escapes capture...the hard way.

In a rematch with Flag-Smasher in #321-322, Cap is forced to take the life of one of Flag-Smasher's operatives. This caused a major stir in the series - one which actually lasted for decades! In these issues, Cap states plainly that he doesn't kill. Many fans objected to this interpretation of Cap, declaring he "surely" killed people during World War II. Gruenwald stuck by his guns and his interpretation remained with the character until the advent of Ed Brubaker in 2004.

Issues #323 & #327 introduced John Walker, the Super-Patriot, another choice antagonist for Cap. The Super-Patriot was a gung-ho, Oliver North-meets-Ronald Reagan-meets-Bruce Springsteen-meets-New Coke 1980s American. At least, that's what he seemed to be on the surface. While draping himself in the flag to promote himself like a rock star for public appearances, the Super-Patriot would hire his own enemies to beat up for the cameras! Although Walker claimed to be every bit the patriot Captain America was, it was a false patriotism, nothing but jingoism. Unfortunately for Cap, the Super-Patriot was his superior in physical power; he fought Cap to a standstill while barely trying, with Cap unable to find an advantage. Surprisingly, Walker was being set up to become a fascinating hero in his own right.

In #332, the Commission on Superhuman Activities - a body of US government officials - having realized Captain America is the same Steve Rogers who entered government service in 1981, demand he resume working directly under their supervision. In this, the era of the Iran-Contra scandal, Steve isn't certain he can surrender his own he quits. The government owns the Captain America costume and shield, but by the end of #332 that's all they have.

In #333, the Commission hires John Walker to become the new Captain America and he employs one his hirelings to be his Bucky (later taking the less-insulting name Battlestar). For a time, the series splits between following the new Cap & Battlestar as they learn how to fight and begin taking on missions for the government, while Steve adopts his new identity ("the Captain") and joins his ex-sidekicks in fighting crime with much-reduced resources.

The storyline hits a major turning point after Walker's secret identity is made public by two of his ex-hirelings (now dubbing themselves Left-Winger & Right-Winger). By then, Walker had already made enemies for himself and in #345 one group, the fundamentalist Watchdogs, took Walker's parents hostage to trap him; Walker tried to save his parents, but failed. At seeing his parents' death, Walker's mind snapped and he killed and maimed several watchdogs, then settled down with his parents' bodies, chatting to them as though they were still alive.

In #347, Walker went after Left-Winger & Right-Winger, leaving the duo in a death-trap (more on that in #383). He was clearly coming unglued and matters finally came to a head in #350 when the Red Skull returned, revealed as having been manipulating the Commission from behind-the-scenes. The Skull tricks Walker and Steve into a fight, but this time Steve proves himself superior.

The Commission gives up trying to control Captain America, having learned their lesson; they offer to let Steve have his costume & shield back, but Steve's learned he doesn't need them to be a hero. It's only when Walker confronts Steve directly about how he carries the identity better than anyone that Steve relents; it's a great moment for Walker, having learned his lesson about who Cap is. Walker and Steve's relationship going forward has remained an interesting one, because Walker is one of the only people who can understand what it means to be Captain America...but he still doesn't see eye-to-eye with Steve and won't hesitate to disagree with him. He's found his own path as the U.S. Agent, usually in the government's employ.

The Bloodstone Hunt (#357-362) was just good fun. The Serpent Society's Diamondback had been an unusual love interest for Cap: he hadn't had to deal with a criminal falling for him before. In this globe-spanning epic, Cap works with Diamondback to stop Baron Zemo and Batroc's Brigade from reassembling the Bloodstone, an alien gem of vast power. Diamondback keeps trying to prove herself to Cap and this ultimately sets her up to reform for good. In addition to the many Indiana Jones-style locales and death-traps, Batroc brings some fine levity to the proceedings, particularly in the finale when he has to point out to his own men how unlikely it is they'd win in a fight with Cap.

The "Acts of Vengeance" crossover set up most of Marvel's top super villains to collaborate against the heroes. Consequently, the X-Men's top villain - Magneto - was working alongside Cap's top villain - the Red Skull. In #367, Magneto finally confronts the Skull; being a Holocaust survivor, Magneto has just one question: is the Red Skull the same man from World War II? Once Magneto has his answer, he goes into full-on revenge mode and...hey, it's the Red never feel sorry for him.

Cap and Diamondback formally began a relationship in #371, despite Cap's many protestations that he couldn't make a romance work (Diamondback proposes "friendship" instead, then asks her "friend" what he's doing that evening). Gruenwald had done away with Cap's attempted secret identity around #318, having him be Captain America full-time. Here, Steve is forced back into the real world and finds he's really out of touch. While he and Diamondback try to have a peaceful night, Diamondback's friends hang on the outskirts to make sure no one interrupts the evening. A funny and welcome change of pace for the series.

Gruenwald's next great epic was "Streets of Poison" in #372-378, drawn by my favourite Cap artist, Ron Lim. Cap goes up against the drug trade, putting him in the path of the Kingpin and the Red Skull for good measure. Unfortunately, Cap winds up being exposed to drugs and they bond to his own Super-Soldier formula, meaning his body can't expel their effects. Cap goes completely off the deep end, leaving it up to Diamondback to reel him back in. Because of the nature of Cap's origin - particularly as Kirby first depicted it in 1941 - it had often been noted how Cap owed his powers to drugs, drugs which were essentially "super steroids." It proved to be a strong jumping-off point for Gruenwald to tackle and ended with Cap losing the formula, helping Gruenwald make his point that Cap is exceptional even without his powers (just as in the Walker epic he showed Cap didn't need his costume or shield).

In the midst of celebrating Cap's 50th birthday in #383, Gruenwald included a back-up tale where the U.S. Agent goes looking for Left-Winger & Right-Winger...only to find them six feet under. In horrible, graphic detail, we learn how the death-trap Walker left his ex-friends in didn't kill them...but left them so mutiliated that they took their own lives. It's a great turning point for Walker as he confronts his personal demons and vows to become better.

I never grew bored with Gruenwald's Cap, but the years following Lim's departure weren't quite as interesting. Still, as a fan of the Cap-Diamondback romance, there was always that developing relationship. At one point, Diamondback had been almost drowned to death and wound up tracking down her assailant and drowning her in return. After keeping this murder a secret from Cap for more than a year, in #424 Diamondback finally confessed it all to him; Cap's reaction? Unconditional support, whatever happens. I love ya, Cap.

Gruenwald brought his run to a close in #443. Cap eventually regained his Super-Soldier formula, but the drug was now working against his body, causing him to become weaker the more he exerted himself. Of course, this is Cap we're talking about...he refused to retire, instead pushing himself closer to his grave. In this, Gruenwald's final issue, Steve is told he has one day to live. He tries to find a friend to spend it with, but no one seems available. Ultimately, Cap winds up having a heart-to-heart with Batroc, sharing all of his trauma with one of his enemies. Cap even asks Batroc to reform, which I wish had happened.

Mark Gruenwald died only a year after leaving Captain America. I wonder if he'd have enjoyed Captain America: the First Avenger? He'd surely have been pleased to see Cap on the big screen, finally receiving some dues from the world at large.

Captain America recommended reading list

As is custom for me when a Marvel Comics character receives their own motion picture, I'm going to dig through the publishing history of Captain America and compile a recommended reading list to honour the release of Captain America: the First Avenger, which I watched earlier today.

Captain America was first published in 1941 in Captain America Comics via Jack Kirby & Joe Simon; after super heroes fell out of favour post-World War II, the series struggled, vanished for a while, tried to make a comeback in the early 50s, then folded for good in 1954 after 78 issues; during that time, Captain America was frequently a featured player in other Marvel titles such as All Select Comics, All Winners Comics, Marvel Mystery Comics and USA Comics. He became one of Marvel's flagship characters, often sharing covers with the other two big Marvel heroes of the time (the Human Torch & Sub-Mariner). In the midst of World War II a red, white & blue hero who took the fight to the Nazis - before the USA had even declared war! - he was pretty evocative. His sidekick Bucky even scored his own super hero team in Young Allies Comics.

Stan Lee & Jack Kirby brought Captain America back in 1964's Avengers#4, rendering Cap an indelible part of the Avengers franchise; Lee & Kirby threw out all of the Captain America stories published from '46-54, preferring to have Cap spend the intervening years in suspended animation; thus, Cap has remained "the living legend of World War II." Having retroactively killed off Bucky, Cap was depicted as a man out of time, haunted by his sidekick's death and uneasy about the world he lived in. Starting with Tales of Suspense#59, Lee & Kirby began delivering half-length Captain America solo stories (the other half of Tales of Suspense was held by Iron Man) until the series became Captain America with issue #100; Captain America has been published by Marvel ever since, despite a serious rumour mill claiming he'd be cancelled in the 1980s.

If you want my recommendation in brief, there are two great eras of Captain America: the Lee-Kirby years (Tales of Suspense#59-Captain America#109) and the era of writer Mark Gruenwald (Captain America#307-443). The first three volumes of Marvel Masterworks: Captain America collect the Lee-Kirby years, but there is no definitive series of Gruenwald volumes, just a few representative trades (Scourge of the Underworld, the Captain, the Bloodstone Hunt, Man and Wolf and Fighting Chance vols. 1-2).

I'm going to discuss Gruenwald's body of work in a separate blog post; for now, here's my favourite stories from the rest:

Tales of Suspense#79-81 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby. Of all the Lee-Kirby tales, this is easily the most frequently referenced. The Red Skull - Cap's most repeated enemy in the 40s - returns in modern times, still worshiping evil in spite of the Nazis' defeat. Having obtained the Cosmic Cube, a veritable Aladdin's Lamp of power, the Skull becomes all-powerful...but that doesn't mean Cap can't stop him. There have been many (too many) Red Skull/Cosmic Cube stories since this one, but the original frames it properly; it doesn't matter how superior the Red Skull or any opponent is, Captain America will find a way to stop them.

Captain America#110-111 & 113 were the only three issues written/drawn by Jim Steranko. The plot isn't too remarkable, with Cap fighting the forces of Hydra, led by the memorable new villain Madame Hydra, but the style Steranko brought to these issues have kept them firmly entrenched in people's minds as what a great Captain America story looks like.

However, after Steranko the series fell into the doldrums, despite some nice art by Gene Colan and a great new sidekick for Cap in the person of the Falcon. Captain America#168 was a fill-in story by Tony Isabella and Sal Buscema and delivered a fine tale with Cap meeting the son of Baron Zemo, the man who slew Bucky; just as Cap is haunted by Bucky's death, the younger Zemo has a vendetta with Cap for ruining his father's life. Helmut Zemo had a modest introduction here, but would go on to become an interesting character, not entirely unlikeable and a skewed perspective on what kind of man Captain America was.

I know I couldn't go without mentioning Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema's Captain America#175, the climax to Englehart's lengthy Secret Empire epic, where Cap brings down the Secret Empire on the White House lawn...only to find the Empire's leader is the President! The President commits suicide rather than face humiliation and Cap is stunned, finding his faith in his own nation faltering. He gives up being Captain America, leading us to...

Captain America#180-183 by Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema & Frank Robbins. In these issues, Steve Rogers adopts a new costumed alias: Nomad, the Man Without a County! However, his cape doesn't last very long.

When a young man named Roscoe takes on Captain America's identity, only to be killed by the Red Skull, Steve realizes he has to reclaim his identity.

Roger Stern & John Byrne's run on Captain America lasted only from issues #247-255. Regardless, it turned out to be one of the most memorable turns on the series, similar to Steranko in being well-remembered despite its brevity. Captain America#250 addresses the idea of Captain America running for President. It's an outstanding issue because of how it portrays the public reaction; the people want Cap to be their President. They don't care that he knows nothing about politics; they just want somebody they can trust. This story hits on all the angles about the idea of Cap running for President (the Democrats & Republicans both want him on their ticket!), but finally brings it down to Steve Rogers and his personal conviction that his work as Cap is more important than becoming a figurehead.

Stern & Byrne's best multi-part story was Captain America#253-254; Cap looks up some of his old World War II allies, the British hero Union Jack and his daughter Spitfire, now both quite old and Union Jack nearing death's door. However, Jack is convinced their old vampire foe Baron Blood is still alive; unable to slay his foe alone, he brings in Cap. The showdown between Captain America and Baron Blood was notable for how violent it was for the time, with Cap beheading Blood in the climax; this story also helped keep the Union Jack identity alive as young Joe Chapman assumes the role (which he bears to this day), giving England a pretty cool-looking super hero.

Captain America#255 was Stern & Byrne's farewell; appropriately, they took the series back to its beginnings with a retelling of Captain America's origin. Kirby himself had told the origin on three separate occasions, incorporating different names and details each time. Stern & Byrne put everything together in way which made all three versions accurate, which is a pretty neat feat. It also filled in little details like how Cap went from his triangular shield to the rounded shield and how the Red Skull helped inspire his costumed identity. This remains the best single-issue adaptation of Cap's origin.

To explain the Captain America stories from '46-54, it had been decided by various writers that three different replacement Captains America had taken up the role while Steve Rogers was thought dead. In Captain America Annual#6, J.M. DeMatteis and Ron Wilson told an offbeat story where all four Captains America are united. The 3rd Captain America, Jeff Mace, formerly the hero Patriot, is dying of cancer; all he wants is one last challenge and he wants to face it at the side of his idol, the original Captain America. Thanks to a cosmic being, Mace gets his wish, but it's not everything he'd hoped for. It's a bittersweet story and made me an instant fan of poor Jeff Mace, the replacement Cap who never seemed to have his moment to shine.

For J.M. DeMatteis' farewell to the series in Captain America#292-300, he set up a "final fight" between Cap and the Red Skull. With the Skull nearing his end from old age, he's decided how he wants to die: at Captain America's hands. Of course, he doesn't want Cap to live too much longer after him, either. In the issues building up to this, the Skull does all he can to tear Cap down, hoping to drive him into a murderous rage, while poisoning him so they'll die together. Cap keeps trying to reason with the Skull, but the Skull is fundamentally incapable of caring. In the outstanding issue #298, the Skull narrates his full origin to Cap, demonstrating how throughout his life he's been thoroughly horrible.

So, the best revenge against the Red Skull turns out to be...denying him what he wants. Cap refuses to take the Skull's life, pitying him to the end. In a truly memorable moment, the Skull dies, cursing Cap for his pity.

The Adventures of Captain America was a four-issue mini-series by Fabian Nicieza and Kevin Maguire which retold Captain America's origin with some cinematic flourishes. It was instantly forgotten and remains so, for reasons I'm not clear about. It didn't quite square with earlier versions of Cap's origin, but did a fine job of characterizing Bucky into someone who was a believeable sidekick for Cap. It even wound up influencing a lot of decisions on how Cap's origin was depicted in the movie.

Marvel Holiday Special#1 features a sweet Christmas tale of Captain America by Len Kaminski & Ron Lim. Steve happens to encounter Bucky's sister, who was never told the truth about what her brother did during the War. Cap tells her everything and, to his surprise, discovers he's found a new family.

Captain America Annual#13 by Roy Thomas and Arvell Jones, told a lengthy tale from the Red Skull's perspective, again refusing to make him sympathetic (I think if the Red Skull is ever made relateable it's time to board-up the windows at Marvel and go home). This concerns the Skull's decades-long quest for the long-lost secrets of Adolf Hitler. Amusingly, it turns out to be something akin to Geraldo's quest for Al Capone's vault!

Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty#7 contains a back-up tale by Brian K. Vaughn (then a novice) and Steve Harris. It looks in on Steve Rogers at various points in his life during the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, transcribing FDR's "fireside chats" from the radio. It does an excellent job of bringing to light who Steve was as a person prior to becoming a super hero, particularly in depicting his mother's death (which had been referenced but not seen). It leads up to Cap meeting FDR for the first time and how FDR's struggle with polio inspired Cap in his mission; it climaxes just before Cap and Bucky's final World War II mission as they hear FDR has died. This is an obscure tale, but find it if you can.

The Young Allies Comics 70th Anniversary Special#1 by Roger Stern and Paolo Rivera takes up in recent continuity where Bucky (back from the dead) has become Captain America. When Bucky goes looking for the graves of his old Young Allies comrades, he's stunned to learn two of them are still alive. This leads to a brilliant scene of Bucky reconnecting with his old friends and finally honouring a 70-old promise the Young Allies made together. Given that the Young Allies were treated as a forgotten piece of Captain America backstory for most of the previous 60 years, this draws an incredible sense of pathos for these people who, in the absence of Cap and Bucky, just went on with their lives.

The four-issue mini-series Captain America: Patriot by Karl Kesel & Mitch Breitweiser picks up Jeff Mace's story, so obviously I was stoked. This follows Mace's life from when he first sees Captain America, to adopting his own identity as the Patriot, to taking Cap's place in '46...only to find the US government isn't too keen at this "outsider" taking over when he hasn't been vetted. The story is mostly concerned with how Mace was just a hair's breadth from greatness, but manages to give him a sense of accomplishment in the conclusion; he loses the Captain America identity, but becomes satisfied with being Jeff Mace.

Captain America and Batroc by Kieron Gillen and Renato Arlem was an odd one-shot which came out recently. Told from the perspective of Cap's foe Batroc the Leaper, it does an excellent job of getting into Batroc's head. Because of Batroc's outrageous French accent (and, heck, that he calls himself "the Leaper") he's been a target of ridicule for decades; obviously, that means we're primed to like him now! There's a great piece about Batroc meeting parkour runners who idolize him and it does a lot to flesh out Batroc as a person; it also brings up Batroc's most memorable quality, his determination to defeat Captain America in a fair fight. Batroc's never been evil, just a crass mercenary and this story understands him perfectly.

There you go; look elsewhere for the Gruenwald recommendations!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Racism in the Sins of Séverac Bablon?

"Jews control all the money."

When did you first hear that little chestnut? I know I didn't learn of it from my day-to-day life; I first saw that phrase some time after I began using the internet in 1998...probably on the same day I learned what "anti-semitism" is.

Dear internet: thank you.

Seriously, it is better for you to know the messed-up things people think so you're better equipped to guard yourself against it. On the internet, everything is hyperbole* but in the real world someone who wants to convince you that, say, the Jews control the wealth of the world, would use guarded, subtle language (assuming they aim to be persuasive) to sway your thinking.

The internet has taught me so much about the terrible things people believe that I've become sensitive to phrases loaded with bias and ignorance. One of my personal pet peeves is our tendency to paint groups of people with the same brush. I believe in the uniqueness of individuals and hate to think of the characteristics of "groups;" it's dehumanizing. For instance, as someone deeply involved in the world of comics, it irks me to find references to comic book fans as a group (or "geek culture"); whether those references are meant as an insult or a compliment, "we" don't like the same things and the things we do like we do to varying degrees. Nice cuticles!

So. I've been reading Sax Rohmer's Sins of Séverac Bablon, one of his earliest novels, originally serialized in 1912. I'm something of a Rohmer apologist when it comes to matters of race because I have a theory that, in spite of how you feel about the popular conception of Fu Manchu, Rohmer's stories were a little more clever about race than you'd assume**. However, I had recently finished his book Fire-Tongue which was...needlessly racist***. So, Séverac Bablon deals with Jews; I was prepared for something pretty painful, especially when it turns out Séverac is a "gentleman thief" who preys upon wealthy Jews. Ah, this is where years of preparation for such racism pays off, right?

Having broken the ice, Sheard found his enforced task not altogether distasteful. It seemed wrong to him, unjust, and in strict disaccordance with the views of the Gleaner, that these thousands should be locked up for one man's pleasure, while starvation levied its toll upon the many. Moreover, he nurtured a temperamental distaste for the whole Semitic race -- a Western resentment of that insidious Eastern power.

After reading that paragraph, I was about ready to be done with the book, but I kept going. Moving forward, it became much more positive: not all of the wealthy Jews in the story are bad people, it's just a matter of how the story defines a "bad" wealthy Jew:

"Why do you make a victim of me?" he gasped. "Antony Elschild is--"

"Mr. Antony Elschild is a member of one of the greatest Jewish families in Europe, you would say? And his interests are wholly British? He has recognised that, Baron. I have his cheque for fifty thousand pounds!"

We gradually learn Bablon is himself Jewish and the (self-proclaimed) heir to the lineage of Israel's kings; as such, he's able to summon up allies at a moment's notice, which...come to think of it, that's not unlike some of the "Elders of Zion" conspiracy theories, is it?

"Gott im Himmel!" he said hoarsely. "Who are you? Why do you persecute those who are Jewish?"

"You are found guilty, Israel Hagar," resumed the merciless voice, "of dragging through the mire of greed -- through the sloughs of lust of gold -- a name once honoured among nations. It is such as you that have earned for the Jewish people a repute it ill deserves. Save for such as Mr. Antony Elschild, you and your like must have blotted out for ever all that is glorious in the Jewish name. Despite all, you have succeeded in staining it -- and darkly. I have a mission. It is to erase that stain. Therefore, when the list appears of those who wish to preserve intact the British Empire, your name shall figure amongst the rest!"

Bablon doesn't resort to physical violence, instead using clever extortion/blackmail plots to force the wealthy Jews into donating their money either to the poor or to fund England in World War I. Either way, this causes the supposedly patriotic/benevolent money masters to be viewed as solid citizens, thus repairing the reputation of Jewish people, as Bablon hoped.

I'm willing to cut Rohmer a lot of slack for this book because his Jews aren't all alike; some are British patriots, some are not; some use their wealth to help others, some are hoarders. Some of the hoarders aren't even that bad, they simply feel entitled to their money in a rather Libertarian way.

Part of what fascinates me about Séverac Bablon is how similar yet different he is from other leading characters in Rohmer's novels. By which I mean, Rohmer's heroes aren't normally Jewish. However, Rohmer was fascinated by all things "Eastern."

"The Jews are an Eastern people," replied Haredale. "That is the fact which is generally overlooked. They are, excepting one, the most remarkable people in the modern world."

After reading that line, I understood Rohmer's intentions much better. Rohmer's fascination with Séverac as a hero was much like that of Bimbashi Baruk (Bimbashi Baruk of Egypt), Moris Klaw (the Dream Detective) or Karamaneh (Fu Manchu). Rohmer especially loved Egyptian protagonists, which probably rank second next to Englishmen as the most common heroes of Rohmer's fiction. Séverac Bablon is, essentially, written like one of Rohmer's Egyptians. He even leads an entourage of Arab underlings at one point...I'm still not clear whether those were his Jewish followers in disguise or actual Arabs paying him homage (Bablon dons a lot of disguises in the course of the story).

At its heart, Séverac Bablon is much like E.W. Hornung's Raffles, with a few differences. In fact, the ways in which Bablon differs from Raffles point to what I believe are the weaknesses of Rohmer's story and the strengths of Hornung's:

  1. A.J. Raffles has his friend Bunny Manders, a normal man introduced to a world of crime; Séverac Bablon has his friend Tom Sheard, a normal man introduced to a world of crime.
  2. Raffles' adventures are narrated first-person by Bunny Manders; Bablon's adventures are narrated third-person.
  3. Raffles has some minor allies, but must usually rely upon himself & Bunny; Bablon claims eight millions subjects and is never at a loss for assistance.
  4. By following Bunny & Raffles through their schemes, we understand the dangers involved and are thrilled when Raffles' carefully-laid robberies go awry; we do not follow Bablon as he commits his crimes, instead viewing his activities through the perspective of his victims, who always fail to upset his carefully-laid plans.

The Sins of Séverac Bablon is not Raffles is what I'm trying to say, I think.

It's interesting how not knowing what Bablon's plans are make his activities less involving to read about. After the third or fourth time Bablon outwits the aristrocrats, police and private detectives you begin to see the patterns in how the victims-to-be prepare for Bablon's capture, only to fail each time and blunder into Bablon's trap. This was probably fine when the novel was first serialized, but taken as a whole, you could stop reading the Sins of Séverac Bablon halfway through and be assured you missed nothing extraordinary in the other half. Once Bablon's identity and purpose have been cleanly established, he becomes an unstoppable yet remote protagonist, usually absent from the narrative until it's time for him to outfox his enemies. I do wish the footing between Bablon and his foes were a touch more even. Again, like Raffles.

Ultimately, the Sins of Séverac Bablon wasn't as troubling as I feared early in the book; it's not altogether great either, but nowadays only a Sax Rohmer enthusiast would crack this one open; if you are a fellow enthusiast, you may find it a nice change of pace from the quasi-supernatural tales Rohmer usually wrote. It's not up there with Fu Manchu, Sumuru or Dope, mind you.

*= Including this.

**= I might have to write up my full essay on this one, but it would require a lot of preparation.

***= "If a man of colour paid his heathen attentions to my daughter--" Yeah, terrific. The "man of colour" in question does turn out to be the villain of the piece, but the first clue that's he's a suspicious character is when he makes respectful overtures to a white woman? Get off my plane!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Appending the Appendix

This past weekend I made my first update on the Marvel Appendix website in many years; it includes a profile for Jim Hudson, patrolman, who starred in his own Marvel comic back in the Atlas days, lasting all issue.

The Appendix hasn't been as up-to-date as it once was, primarily because of me and how my Marvel Comics workload ate up my personal time. I hope to get back to regular editing duties before too long and hopefully bring some of the characters' histories up to the present.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Comics and tactiles

Yesterday I received a new batch of comics from Marvel. Digging through the latest releases, I found an ashcan comic amongst the wares. The ashcan is printed in a format smaller than a normal comic book, on cheap, pulpy paper and in black & white. Because this ashcan hasn't been made available to the public yet (it's for a convention) I won't discuss the title or contents.

After opening my Marvel packages, I thumb through the entire pile to see exactly what I've received. On the second pass through, I begin arranging them in the order I'd like to read them in. Sometimes, I read a book more than once when I'm particularly impressed. After reading them, I sort them out so I can take a few notes, then sort them again to be filed into my collection.

The ashcan sat atop the pile of books when they came out from the package and arrested my progress instantly, simply because it looked and felt differently from everything else. And every time I came across that book in the act of sorting, I stopped for a few seconds to rub my hands over the cover.

You see, everything else from Marvel Comics - and most comic book publishers at present - comes in a slick, glossy package, printed on paper much like a magazine's. The ashcan really stood out for being on supposedly "poorer" quality printing materials. It really gave me pause to consider what comics may have lost in the advancement of paper quality. While reading another comic in the pile, I was struck by how garish the colouring seemed and reflected if it had been printed on duller paper - essentially running it through a gray filter - it would be more pleasantly subdued for my eyes.

I know every time someone brings up the question of which paper comics are printed on, the publishers consistently champion the paper they're using right now, pointing out switching to rougher paper wouldn't affect the cost of their books (since fans usually bring up paper quality while asking "why are comics so expensive?"). I wonder: could we set aside the question of price for a moment? Rough, "cheap" paper feels cool. How about printing more books on that quality - books which would benefit from a rougher tactile experience and faded colours? Would it suit a "retro" pulp thriller like Ed Brubaker's Criminal?

The comic itself was pretty good too, but I won't say more for about two weeks...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Because Matthew demanded it!

It seems Monday's post dashed my brother's hopes that I would be sharing a list of my favourite movie mustaches with you. Actually, no such list exists. But now that Matthew's given me the idea, well, let's see...

Charlie Chaplin (publicity); probably the best part of the Tramp's outfit.

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (The Black Pirate); thus establishing the standard of thin mustaches for swashbuckling heroes.

Ronald Colman (publicity); the epitome of suave.

Clark Gable (publicity); most people's epitome of suave.

C. Aubrey Smith (Little Lord Fauntleroy); the classic British walrus, even moreso when you hear him speak.

Errol Flynn (The Adventures of Robin Hood); carrying his Fairbanks brand mustache well!

Orson Welles (Journey Into Fear); in retrospect, dressing up like Josef Stalin probably didn't help his relations with the FBI.

Sir Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai); a useful prop here, doing something to establish his character as being classicly British and rigid.

Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride); the Fairbanks pastiche!

Christopher Plummer (Star Trek VI); making the "Fu Manchu" hip.

Avery Brooks (publicity); convinced me that mustaches with goatees were cool.

Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man); convinced me Tony Stark would wear a goatee for the next decade's worth of Iron Man comics.