Archive for the “What’s he reading?” Category
And why is he reading it?
I haven’t talked about books in a while, and now I have three that I want to tell you about, so I’m putting them all in one review.
The reason I’m doing this is Twitter. I found out about each of these books on Twitter, tracked them down, read them, and thoroughly enjoyed each one. More and more, I’m using my Twitter feed to find out about good books and authors that I might not hear about otherwise. These three books are just the first that I’ve picked up this way – there are more that I’ve found and read, and others that I’ve been teased with, but that aren’t yet released.
So. Yeah. Twitter is fast becoming my go-to book recommendation service.
Enough about that. Let’s talk books.
Throne is note-perfect sword-and-sorcery, in the tradition of Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard, but with a more modern sensibility to things like the inner lives of the characters, diversity, language, and the like. It takes the rollicking, swashbuckling, over-the-top action and adventure of the pulps, and adds character depth, ambiguity, and actual moral dilemma, creating a novel that is both exciting and rich in story.
It’s set in the pseudo-Arabic city of Dhamsawat. I say “pseudo-Arabic” because it’s not set in the real Middle East, even by cleverly changing the names, but in a fantasy world that combines the best of the 1001 Nights and real touches of history to create a place and time that is richly evocative of a fairy-tale Arabia. The main character, Adoulla, is a ghul-hunter – the last of a mystical order that hunts down and destroys the undead ghuls and the sorcerers who create them. He’s old, he’s fat, he’s cynical and irreverent, but still has the heart of a hero, though he’s slowing down and thinking about retiring before he gets killed.
And so, of course, he gets dragged into one last case by an old flame.
I loved this book, mainly because of all the ways it subverts genre tropes. First off, a non-European-based fantasy world is a treat. No clones of Arthur and his knights or the Fellowship of the Ring showing up. Characters of different races and cultures – sure, pseudo-British and pseudo-German cultures are fine and good, but we’ve seen a lot of that over the years, and it’s nice to get a different perspective on things. Faith is dealt with in an interesting, two-edged way, showing both admirably pious characters and villainous zealots. And a nice contrast of ages, as the older characters and younger characters each show very different strengths and weaknesses.
And every one of the heroes kicks ass. The aging ghul-hunter? Kicks ass. The pious and naive young dervish bodyguard? Kicks ass. The angry young nomad shapeshifter? Kicks ass. The old alchemist, worried about her husband’s failing health? Kicks ass. Her husband, the mage, who spends his own life-force to power his magic? Kicks ass.
The bad guys are suitably detestable, whether they are the shadow-jackal servant Mouw Awa or simple thugs in the street. Perspectives shift and change as the simple question of who is raising the ghuls evolves into a desperate race to save the entire city.
It’s a wonderful book, and you should read it. If you like sword-and-sorcery stuff, you’ll like the way it handles the genre. If you hate sword-and-sorcery stuff, you’ll like the way it subverts the genre. It’s clever, and dotted with little delights to keep you reading. Go buy it now.
The only reason I found this book was because I butted into a conversation about chickens on Twitter, and Alex Adams was involved. We bantered, and she followed me, and I followed her, and then I checked out her page, and found that she was an author with this book coming out, and it sounded interesting, so I bought it.
The story is a little bleak. It tells the tale of Zoe, a young woman who survives a multi-stage end-of-the-world scenario, and is on a journey from the US to Greece. It flashes back to the time before and during the… well, Apocalypse, I guess… slowly building a very compelling, ground-level view of how the world ends. There’s scientific hubris and human fear and agression and sheer bad luck all mixed together in bringing things to the point where most people are dead, a lot of technology is trashed, and strange things are happening to the survivors. By showing it through Zoe’s eyes, the whole thing is personalized, and the impact of it is visceral. Chaos, confusion, fear, loss, and desperate hope all get some page time as we see the world fall apart.
In the midst of all this grimness, Alex Adams weaves some solid literary magic. She plays with you. She teases you with a couple of wonderful bait-and-switch-and-switch-again threads that follow Zoe through her journeys, both inner and outer, leading you to the edge of revelation before showing you that – again – things aren’t what they seem. I don’t want to give away what those threads are, or where they eventually lead; discovering and following them, thinking you’ve got them figured out and finding that the author is still a step ahead of you, that’s one of the great joys of this book.
I’m gonna be honest: I almost didn’t finish this book. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fantastic book, with some great writing and compelling characters. And I’m not afraid of a bleak story.
What got to me, what almost made me stop reading, was the lack of any really likable male characters. Well, okay, not really lack of them, but the nice guys were pretty quickly removed from play, and the male characters that took the centre stage were all unmitigated bastards. I hated them. They were vile, brutal men, and they made me want to throw the book across the room.
Why didn’t I stop? Well, because I’ve been reading a fair bit about privilege, and I thought it would be enlightening and good for me to read a book where I wasn’t given a character that I, as a straight white male, could identify with as my proxy in the story. I mean, I read a lot of books where I am given that character, but other readers – women, non-white, non-straight readers – aren’t. So I wanted to see how that made me feel, to raise my awareness of such issues.
That’s the end of my little political tirade, by the way.
I’m immensely glad that I didn’t stop reading the book because Alex Adams – and I picture her with a saucy, knowing smirk when I think about this – plays games with this, too. Expectations are both fulfilled and confounded, understanding dawns as the final tricks are exposed, and the issues are revealed as both subtler and more complex than they first appeared. And I am left marveling at the craftsmanship and beauty of the story, and the delicate, artful way that my emotions and reactions have been led to the end.
Normally, I read a book, enjoy the story, and move on to the next. White Horse lingers with me, making me think about how I read it, what it did to me, and how I reacted to that. It has shown me something new about myself and about the world. It wasn’t an easy journey, but it’s one that I’m immensely grateful I was able to take.
And I’m eagerly looking forward to Alex Adams’s next book.
Chuck Wendig has written some of the most entertaining – and profane – writing advice I’ve ever read and enjoyed. So, I wanted to read his novel when it came out.
First things first: if you have a problem with coarse language, avoid this book. Because the language is coarse like a cheese grater rubbing on your most sensitive bits. But Chuck uses obscenity like the craftsman he is, building brilliant, dark images and situations with finely crafted expletives, each polished to perfection. He is deliberate and inventive in his cursing, understanding the rhythm and pace of each horrific bon-mot he includes. He is an artist in vulgarity, and worth reading just for that.
Anyway, with that caveat out of the way, on to the book.
This is the story of Miriam Black, a young, troubled woman who just happens to be able to tell when people are going to die. When she touches someone, she sees the time, place, method, and circumstances of their death. She can’t change anything about it, though; what she sees comes true, and if she tries to change things, she winds up contributing to the death she’s seen. This has, as you might imagine, messed her up some, and she currently wanders the highways and by-ways, hitching rides and living hand to mouth. She isn’t really a nice person, but she is someone you can root for.
Two things come into the picture that change things for her – the first is a vision of the death of someone that she doesn’t want to die, and the second is someone who has figured out her secret.
The book is fiercely focused, and quite short. There are no wasted words, no distractions, nothing to take you away from the story. It is a brutal trip through a pulpy charcoal sketch of bad people and nasty situations, and it drags you pretty aggressively through to the end at top speed. Along the way, you see how Miriam got to be the way she is, and what she’s really made of.
There’s a dark delight to the story, a nobility in the seediness of the situations and locations, and great heroism happens on very human scales, feeling more real and immediate than all the over-the-top thrillers. It’s a very human book, with messy, damaged characters, rife with good intentions and stupidity, fear and hope, desperation and resignation.
It’s not a happy book, but it is a hopeful one. And the darkness in it is wonderfully entertaining.
Word is that Miriam’s coming back, too. And that’s good.
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I can’t believe I just found out about this.
Last week some time, Fred Hicks tweeted about this comic called Atomic Robo. The tweet included this link, which you should check out. I did. And it intrigued me so much, I immediately went and bought all the Atomic Robo comics.
There are currently five complete series of Atomic Robo up on Comixology, each series running from four to six issues. In addition, there’s a sixth series that is in progress and three Free Comic Book Day issues. I read them all in a binge over the weekend, and am now very sad that I’ve finished them. Gonna have to reread very soon.
The idea behind the comic is simple: in the 1920s, Nicola Tesla built a robot. Ever since then, the robot has been fighting crime and dealing with weird technological mysteries, alongside his team of Action Scientists. What more could you ask for? It’s written by Brian Clevinger, drawn by Scott Wegener, coloured by Ronda Pattison, and lettered by Jeff Powell.
Now, the link above gives you a really good overview and teaser to the comics, so I’m not going to go into much depth about them. I’m just going to talk about why I like them, and why you should go buy them.
- Echoes of some great sources. You see the influence of Hellboy, Planetary, Indiana Jones, and Buckaroo Banzai in the story and structure, and the influence of Mike Mignola and Dave Stevens in the art.
- Transcending its influences. The influences in the book are visible, but the comic is not just a pastiche of the sources. It takes elements from the sources and turns them into something new, exciting, and brilliant. Standard tropes are lampooned or inverted, all with smart, savvy commentary on the sources.
- Taking chances. The stories jump all through Atomic Robo’s history, and deal with everything from Nazi super-tanks to time-traveling dinosaur geniuses to the evil manipulations of Stephen Hawking. It does unexpected things, smart things, things that fill me with mad glee.
- Smart, yet absurd. One of my favourite moments in the books – one which, for me, sums up the heart of Atomic Robo – is when a giant monster rises from Tokyo bay, and Robo says, “Why do we even have the square-cube law?” There is something sublime about that image: a sentient, atomic-powered robot built by Nicola Tesla complaining about a violation of physics.
- Trusts the readers. In that moment I described above, there is no explanation of the square-cube law. The book trusts the readers to get it. With the tangled, time-jumping stories, the book trusts the readers to keep up. The comic treats the readers as intelligent, creative, adaptable people, and trusts them to be able to follow along on the mad, joyous ramble through the story.
- Fun. Fun! FUN!! The stories, situations, and characters are just a whole lot of fun. The art is clean, kind-of-cartoony, with great monsters and expressions and fights and motion. It’s just an amazingly fun comic.
Here’s a link to the official website of Atomic Robo. You should go buy all the comics.
And Atomic Robo folks? Please make more. Very quickly.
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Well, I’m somewhat behind with this post, what with traveling and all. It’s barely relevant anymore, but my compulsive completist side says I have to post it.
All-Star Western #1
I liked this one, provisionally. It’s got a nice mix of Jonah Hex with something out of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, set in late-1800s Gotham City. There’s creepiness and brooding western action. All in all, it’s a good mix, and I’m interested in seeing where it goes.
I’m not an Aquaman fan. I did not expect to like this book. That said, they tackled a lot of concerns I have with the Aquaman character head-on in a clever way. I found myself really enjoying the story and the take on the character.
Batman The Dark Knight #1
This was a solid Batman story, but not as engaging as Batman or Detective Comics. Still quite good, though, and laying foundation for better stuff to follow.
I hate G.I. Joe. Just want to put that out there as the reason I was initially predisposed to hate this comic, which seems to be doing the same sort of thing. But it’s doing it better than I expected, with some interesting quirks and twists. I’m actually interested in what happens next, which I did not expect.
Never been a huge fan of Flash. He’s got a reset, no longer married to Iris – after the Brand New Day reset for Spider-Man, I’m very leery of this kind of thing. But the setup for the book is interesting, and is using Barry’s skills as a forensic scientist as much as Flash’s speed. So, I’m intrigued.
Fury of Firestorm #1
I haven’t read any Firestorm books for years. I always thought the dual nature of the hero – two minds sharing one body – was interesting. This book seems to be taking some neat chances with the ideas behind the hero. I hope they keep it up.
I, Vampire #1
I really wanted to like this book. But the first issue is a disjointed garble of flashbacks, with no help trying to put them into a sequence that makes sense. Disappointing, because it looks like there’s a good story lurking in the background that I’d like to read.
Justice League Dark #1
Okay. I like any comic that has John Constantine in it. Unfortunately, this one also has Shade, whom I really dislike. This is causing me no small amount of cognitive dissonance. The underlying story has some promise, though. Let’s see where it goes.
New Guardians #1
Here’s the thing, DC – flashbacks are cool and all, but you really need some way to show when you’re switching timeframes from the past to the present and vice-versa. Points for flagging that the initial scene takes place in the past, but minus points for not showing when we jump to the present. I mean, the GL mythos is tangled enough that it’s almost impenetrable for newbies like me. You gotta give us a fighting chance of understanding how the pieces fit together. This was not as bad as in I, Vampire, but it still was a major impediment for me.
Savage Hawkman #1
Never been a Hawkman fan. I’ve said that about other heroes, but the difference here is that this book didn’t do anything to change my mind. I just didn’t care enough about the character to get into his angsty wonking about being Hawkman and all that stuff. Oh, well.
We get another relationship reset here, a la Brand New Day, and I’ve already mentioned how I feel about that. That said, this book has a good story, and some great Superman moments. What I like best, though, is the way this Superman – older, more mature, less wild and carefree – contrasts with the Superman in Action Comics. The differences – and the similarities – between the two are wonderful to see, and really make the character richer.
Teen Titans #1
Starting fresh with this book. Tim Drake’s Robin showing some good leadership potential as he starts to build the team. An interesting threat in the background, and the beginnings of fun group dynamics. I’m looking forward to seeing where this one goes.
Wow. Shapeshifting alien stripper hunting men. Someone has watched Species too many times. Not a good book so far. If they can pull it out of the smut-spiral, it might have some potential, but I’m not hopeful.
So, that’s a look at all the new #1s. I’ve been reading the new #2s as they come out, and am generally pleased, though nothing has really changed my initial impressions of the books I’ve been reading so far. I plan on giving the books three issues to grab me; if they can’t manage it in that time, I’ll stop reading. There are a few – Action, Detective, Batwoman for the three most obvious ones – that have already really hooked me, and I’ll be continuing. Others are gonna have to fight it out.
DC isn’t just putting out the New 52, though, and I’m happy to see that. Last week, they released Penguin: Pain and Prejudice, which was a really great look at the Penguin, and they’ve released The Shade this week, which I haven’t read yet.
All in all, though, I think this New 52 launch has been a good thing, especially coupled with the day-and-date electronic sales model.
So, congratulations to DC Comics. I think you’ve done a great thing.
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So. Let’s see what we’ve got this week.
By the way, I have come to the conclusion that the mysterious cloaked woman I have spotted in several of the books probably appears in all of them, but I just haven’t seen her. In some, she is very obvious. In others, not so much. This is obviously something leading up to a big tie-in or reveal, so keep an eye out for her. I’m gonna stop mentioning when I see her.
I like this story. It does a good job of laying out the situation for newcomers to the series, while pushing into an interesting storyline that looks to go in an unexpected direction. It also ties in nicely with Nightwing #1, so bonus points. And, I have to say, I was nicely baffled by the opening sequence. Good stuff.
Birds of Prey #1
This has some potential, but I don’t really have any investment in the characters. I mean, I know who Black Canary is, but I don’t really know all that much about her, and I have no idea about Starling. Still, the set-up has some interest to me, so we’ll see where it goes.
Blue Beetle #1
I never got into Blue Beetle, much. I liked the Ted Kord Blue Beetle in the Justice League books, but I don’t know much of the backstory, beyond he’s got a magic bug talisman that gives him superpowers. That means that I don’t know how much of the backstory of the scarab told in this book is rehash, and how much is new. Not that it really matters; I was pleasantly surprised by the story, and the ideas – it’s a good book. I just wish I knew more Spanish so I could follow the dialogue a little better. It’s not that there’s a lot of it in Spanish – it’s just that I’m kind of a completist, and I hate feeling that I’ve missed something.
Captain Atom #1
This is not a bad book, I just don’t care all that much about the character, and the story has yet to grab my interest. Some neat stuff, but not enough for me to buy in completely.
This book is the clearest example of why people are upset about the portrayal of women in comic books, I think. It’s pretty much all T&A, heavy on the sexualization, and empowering the female character in a very stereotypical dominatrix way. This is a real shame, because the character deserves better than this.
DC Universe Presents #1
Nice recap of Deadman’s origins, along with throwing in a nice twist. Boston Brand’s crisis of faith could make for some very interesting stories, and I look forward to seeing where it goes.
Green Lantern Corps #1
Of all the Green Lantern books so far, I like this one the best. It’s got an interesting threat – one that’s on a scale with the Corps – and solid characters. Some of the best stuff is character stuff with Guy Gardner and John Stewart, but the book does not skimp on action, either. Good fun.
Legion of Super-Heroes #1
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love me my Legion of Super-Heroes. Yeah, it’s corny, and campy, and has a convoluted membership awash in soap-operaesque drama, but I love it. This book makes me want to track down the LSH stuff from the past couple of decades that I missed, so I know the new faces and understand the current status quo. For example, reference is made to a lot of Legionnaires dying – I need to know about that!
This book meshes nicely with Batman #1, giving a look at a different part of the emerging story. It is well-done. The character moments with Dick and the circus are particularly good, reminding you that, though he was Batman for a while, he has a different core than Bruce does. It doesn’t make him weaker, it doesn’t make him stronger, but it makes him different. You can see the mark Bruce left on him, but he is more than just an ex-Robin. I really liked it.
Red Hood and the Outlaws #1
Hmmm. Red Hood, Speedy, and Starfire. Okay. The book is full of gratuitous violence, and, as usual, Starfire is displayed very gratuitously. That said, there’s an interesting story lurking in the background that’s got me intrigued. I’ll give it a chance.
Nice action scenes. The beginnings of a mystery. Looks like Supergirl is being re-origined again. This makes, what, eight times? Nine? The only character in comics that I can think of with more convoluted origins and versions is Jean Grey. Still, having her show up on Earth with no idea how she got there, remembering Krypton like it was yesterday, could make for some interesting stuff.
Wonder Woman #1
I was really not expecting to like this series. Instead, it may be one of my favourites. They’re drawing in the Greek mythology lurking in the character background, and running with it. I like that. A lot. I like the story, I like the characters, and I like the nasty twist they’re putting on things. I’m really looking forward to the next issue.
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So, let’s see what we’ve got from DC’s New 52 this week. I’m still loving the day-and-date electronic sales, and am rapidly becoming an even bigger DC fan. Not everything is perfect, but there’s some good stuff going on.
Batman and Robin #1
The main story in this one is framed by the start of a new, very cool-looking storyline. This is good. What’s not so good is that the framing story is better than the main story. Yes, as a new #1, a jumping-on point for new readers, it’s important to establish who the characters are and what the situation is. But the main storyline is just Batman (Bruce) trying to keep Robin (Damian) from being a perfect cocky little shit. And failing. I’m hoping that, now that the dynamic has been spelled out in big, bold letters, the book backs off on this aspect of the mythos. It’s hard enough to like Damian at the best of times – and he is not being shown at his best.
Batman has an interesting little character moment that’s been a long time coming in the sewers, but outside of that, he seems more like Mr. Wilson trying to babysit Dennis the Menace than the Dark Knight. As I said, I hope they get over this bit and on to some good stories.
I liked the Batwoman run in Detective Comics a lot. This picks up from that, and does a pretty good job of giving us a tough, smart, female hero. There’s not a lot of meat to the story – again, it’s trying to lay the foundation for new readers, I think – but there are hints of good things coming, and the character scenes in the book are very good. Bette Kane is back, trying to earn the right to be Flamebird to Kate Kane’s Batwoman, and there’s some understandable tension between Kate and her father after the revelations in the Detective Comics storyline. All in all, I’m hopeful for this one.
I’m not really a fan of villain books, and Slade Wilson is definitely a villain. Not even the Punisher is as much an unmitigated bad guy as Deathstroke the Terminator. I’ve enjoyed seeing Deathstroke opposing many different DC heroes and teams, right back to The New Teen Titans, but I’m not sure how much I’ll be grabbed by a book with him as the star. On the other hand, his miniseries in Flashpoint was pretty good.
This book is also pretty good. It latches on to the idea that, legendary super-badass or not, Slade Wilson is getting old and, while it may not be slowing him down much, his clients are starting to think it is. So he’s gotta prove he’s just as hard, just as nasty, just as scary, and just as effective as he’s always been. I’m going to give it a couple of issues to win me over.
Demon Knights #1
The Demon Etrigan, Madame Xanadu, Vandal Savage, the Shining Knight, and three others I don’t recognize get caught up in an invasion, led by the Questing Queen and Mordru. It’s set in the middle ages, and looks like a great deal of fun.
Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1
As might be expected in a comic starring Frankenstein and the Creature Commandos, this is a pretty weird, silly book. Not necessarily in a bad way, though. I liked the bizarre story and the strange characters. It had a nice touch of the absurd mixed in with the horror and action. I’m not really a fan of the art style, though. It’s a little muddy for my taste, though well-done. But for me, that’s a little quibble.
Green Lantern #1
With Blackest Night and Brightest Day, it seems the Green Lantern mythology has become very complicated. Now there are rings of all sorts of colours. Sinestro has a green ring back, endorsed by the Guardians, and Hal no longer has a ring. Having followed neither Blackest nor Brightest, I’m a little out of my depth with the background, but the story itself is not bad, if a little trite – ex-superhero dealing with the difficulties of returning to normal life. Could be interesting.
I’ve never read anything with Grifter in it, except for his appearances in Flashpoint, so I don’t know much about the character. Because of that, it was nice that the series is starting with an origin story. It’s a pretty good story, too – reluctant, misunderstood hero, alone and on the run from the police and military and his entire life, a mysterious threat tied to his origin, and general confusion about what’s going on. I’m liking it so far.
Legion Lost #1
The Legion of Superheroes has changed a bit since I used to read the series. The look of Tyroc is far less 70s funk, and they’ve brought along Gates and Chameleon Girl, along with heroes I’m more familiar with: Wildfire, Dawnstar, Tellus, and Timber Wolf. The team has chased a bad guy back from the future to stop him from releasing some sort of pathogen and, predictably, they get stuck here in our presence.
I like the story, but that may be because of the love I have for the LSH. It was the first series that hooked me with an ongoing storyline – the Great Darkness Saga. So, I’m more forgiving of some of the oddities and awkwardnesses of the book.
Mister Terrific #1
Again, I’m not familiar with Mr. Terrific, so it’s good that they’re doing an origin story. I like the hero – nice combination of haunted and driven, relying on intelligence and tech to fight crime. I think they’re jumping at the twist a little early in this one – I don’t know the character well enough to care deeply about it yet. But it is a good twist – no denying that.
Red Lanterns #1
More lantern mythology. Atrocitus lacks direction, so decides to become an avenging angel. I dunno about this one. On the one hand, that is one bad-ass kitty cat he’s got. On the other, I’m not sure I’m all that interested in a book about taking savage and bloody vengeance on all and sundry. I don’t think that’s totally the direction the book is going – there are strong intimations of more complex and interesting stories – so I’m going to give it a bit of a chance. But it’s going to need to work hard to win me over.
Resurrection Man #1
I liked this book. Resurrection Man is another new hero that I’m not familiar with, but this book is less of an origin story than some of the others. This works, mainly because of the mysterious nature of the origin. There’s a bit of a The Fugitive vibe being set up, with what looks like both Heaven and Hell hunting for him, coupled with a built-in story generator – the feelings that draw him to perform certain acts and go certain places. It’s got a nice mix of creepy and action.
Suicide Squad #1
I have mixed feelings about Suicide Squad, both as a group and as a book. The basic premise is interesting for about five minutes, then quickly reveals itself as an excuse to write about the main characters being absolute bastards. On the other hand, the story in the book was pretty good, even if they did telegraph the twist in it a little bit. And I like the character of Harley Quinn.
There’s been a bit of Internet grumbling about Harley’s new look, and it is certainly a more gratuitously sexy look than in a lot of other versions, but I gotta say that those complaining must not have seen her in the Arkham Asylum video game. There’s also been some complaints about Amanda Waller’s new look – slimmed down and sexied up. There may be some merit to this complaint, but it seems like an awful lot of noise over a single panel. Anyway, the look of characters in comic books change all the time, whether as part of an editorial decision or because a different artist brings a different take to the character. With the relaunch, I figure you gotta expect even bigger changes, and I can’t see bashing an entire book because you don’t like the look of a single character.
But that’s just me.
It’s not the Superboy I grew up with – it’s the post-death-of-Superman, clone-grown-by-secret-project, funky-telepathy-telekinesis Superboy. This first issue focuses on the lab and the shady secret agency that grew him, with hints of agendas and plots and secrets. There’s some strong association to the feel of the Project: Superman miniseries from Flashpoint and the Superboy origin and recruitment from the Young Justice animated series. It’s got some promise.
I plan to continue with Week Three of this little series of posts next week, but it’ll probably be delayed some, as I’ll be traveling. Still, I’ll be able to get my comics electronically, and can read them on the bus and in the hotel at night, so hopefully I won’t fall too far behind.
I generally give a new TV show or comic series three issues to grab me, and that’s what I’m thinking with the new DC universe. I’m only going to write about the new #1s, though – after that, I just won’t have much new to say. I may post a scorecard a few months down to take a look at what I’m still reading, though. We’ll have to see.
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I love comics. And I’ve always been a DC guy. Over time, I’ve branched out into a lot of other companies, including a lot of the smaller press ones, but I’ve always – at heart – been a DC guy.
So, I was somewhat concerned when I started hearing rumours of a relaunch of the DC titles. And when those rumours were confirmed, I have to admit that I had the initial, knee-jerk reaction common to most fans and started mourning the loss of the comics I loved.
But I hate that reaction.
A little research turned up more information, and I started to become cautiously optimistic. Then I discovered that the entire New 52 thing was going to be introduced by another big crossover event called Flashpoint. I figured that I could either check out Flashpoint and see what kinds of things they were trying to do, or I could just write off DC and cut waaaay back on my comic buying.
Given that option, I rounded up Flashpoint and started reading.
Well, these big crossover events get pretty tangled, so I was very grateful to find Allyson’s Attic had a reading order list for the various books. That was immensely useful, so thanks for that, Allyson!
In general, I was blown away by the Flashpoint stuff. I realized pretty early on that this was a throw-away universe/continuity/whatever, so they felt safe taking some big risks in storytelling, knowing that the reset button was coming. That said, I was still very pleased by the size of the risks they took, and the stories they got out of it. I mean, when you start off with sinking Western Europe, and the Amazons invading England, you show people you’re serious about doing big things.
Flashpoint was made up of a number of miniseries, with a few one-shots and a single continuing series (Booster Gold) thrown in. Each of the miniseries focused on a different hero or group, and showed you a twist in the way they were in this new timeline. I don’t want to spoil things too much, but Flashpoint won my heart the instant I realized that Slade Wilson and Travis Morgan were waging piratical naval battles in the water above sunken Paris.
The things the series did with Batman, with Superman, with Dick Grayson and Frankensein’s Monster were just brilliant. I wasn’t too impressed by some of the other books, like The Outsider, The Canterbury Cricket, and The Secret Seven, but most of the books were just good reads. I was even impressed by how the Flash was worked into all this.
And then it ended, and it left me pretty jazzed for the New 52.
Justice League #1
This was the first book to come out, and they started it pretty slow. The default assumption for the universe seems to be that Superman is the first open superhero, and he popped up on the scene about five years ago. Batman was around before then, but he was mainly regarded as an urban legend. So this book opens up five years before NOW (with NOW defined as the current time-point in the bulk of the new DC continuity) with the first meeting of Batman and Green Lantern.
There’s some neat stuff that happens, though as I said, it starts slow. They seem to have gone back to basics with the characters – Batman is grim, pessimistic, and kind of a dick, while Green Lantern is cocky, smug, and kind of a prick. The bulk of the issue is devoted to setting up the expectations of both the characters and the world: the characters are as stated, and the world thinks they’re dangerous criminals.
I liked the issue, and I’m heartened by the fact that they’re taking their time with the storytelling.
Action Comics #1
Restarting the numbering on Action Comics is a pretty big deal. The fact that DC did so, in my opinion, shows that they are seriously devoted to the new universe, and I like that.
Story-wise, this book presents a younger, cockier, less-boyscoutish Superman than I can remember seeing. He’s still a nice guy, and he still values life, and still upholds justice, but he’s going after people that the law can’t touch. And he seems to be having fun. That right there is an interesting take on things, and it was surprisingly refreshing. I found myself liking the character, and the book, a whole lot more than I expected. And for those of you on the Interwebs complaining about Superman’s costume in the book, get a grip.
Animal Man #1
Never followed Animal Man previously. No real reason – I just didn’t. This story struck me as very human. Buddy Blake is a pretty normal guy, and the story is, in large part, about his concerns for his family. He’s grateful for his wife’s support, he worries about his kids, and he hopes he can make them all proud and keep them all safe. So that’s where he’s going to get hit, and the hit, when it comes in the book, is really pretty awesome. Definitely hooked me.
I’ve always liked Barbara Gordon, first as Batgirl, and then as Oracle. I liked the recent Batwoman run in Detective Comics. I think that there are interesting Batman stories to tell that benefit from a female point of view. So, I was happy to see her getting back into the game. They haven’t dismissed everything that happened in Alan Moore’s stunning The Killing Joke – Babs was still shot, still crippled. But in the new universe, she regained the use of her legs after lengthy rehab, and is putting on the cowl again.
There was a lot about this book I liked – Barbara as a strong, smart, resourceful, determined woman, both in the costume and out of it; Jim Gordon’s worry and devotion to her; her own fears and doubts and her struggle against them – but there was some ham-handed stuff that just didn’t work well. I mean, having a roommate introduce herself by saying, “I’m kinda an activist,” and point to a big Fight The Power scrawled across the living room wall in fresh paint. I know they have a limited amount of space to introduce the characters, but that one hurt.
Not enough to turn me off the book, though.
Okay. A black Batman works for all the same reason a Batgirl or Batwoman works. It gives you access to stories that you couldn’t tell otherwise. And setting the thing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is brilliant. Batman stands out as a sort of dark anomaly in the US – a savage force lurking inside civilization. Batwing lives in a more openly brutal world, with people who aren’t going to be frightened by a bat. He faces horrific conditions without the supporting infrastructure that Batman has. His world is not Batman’s world, but he still tries to do Batman’s work. The character rocks, and the book rocks.
Detective Comics #1
Like Action Comics, it’s a big deal that DC started Detective Comics over at #1. This is a great Batman story, and the Batman in it is less of a dick than the one in Justice League. That may be because this is set later in his life (in the NOW), or it may be because he isn’t interacting with any other superheroes on his turf, so he doesn’t need to do the alpha dog thing.
But this is hard. Core. Batman. It is nasty, and brutal, and glorious, and heroic, and dark, and disturbing. The Joker is awesome and terrifying, and the story that this kicks off really bears watching. It looks to be amazing.
Green Arrow #1
Like Animal Man, Green Arrow was just not a hero I ever followed. I liked Frank Miller’s bitter, disillusioned socialist version in The Dark Knight Returns, but other than that, he didn’t really appeal to me. I’m not sure if that’s changed with the new book, but they seem to be taking a different tack – one more inspired by the Smallville Oliver Queen. He is sort of the anti-Batman, now: rich, dressing up to fight crime, but with a larger support team and less brooding. It bears watching.
Hawk & Dove #1
Well, Hawk and Dove were always heavy-handed heroes. That hasn’t changed. There’s not really anything subtle about the avatars of War and Peace, and not really anything subtle about the book. We get that Hank’s angry. Of course he’s angry. He’s Hawk. And Dawn is keeping a secret from him, something about his brother, and she’s anguished about it. I’m going to give it one more issue just because it had the line, “Nobody likes zombies anymore!” Maybe it’s just first-issue jitters. Or maybe it just doesn’t work for me.
Justice League International #1
I dunno. This is, like the JLI books of the 90s, a light superhero comic. It’s got a bevy of good comedy-fodder characters – Booster Gold, Guy Gardner, Rocket Red, maybe Plastic Man – but it seems to be trying too hard. The story has potential, more because of the political aspect of being a supergroup assembled by and reporting to the UN than because of the awkward comedy so far.
Men of War #1
Really mixed feelings about this one, caused by the fact that there are two stories in the book. The first shows how Corporal Rock became Sergeant Rock, and it is pretty good. It gives some insight into the man beyond his sleeveless shirt and crossed bandoliers, and it places him and Easy Co. firmly in the DC universe, with the appearance of a superhuman. I liked it.
The other story is an anvilicious tale of the Navy SEALs in a modern conflict. It reads like a re-purposed propaganda script, and it drove me nuts. I hated it.
But Sgt Rock. Sgt Rock. Okay, I’ll go another issue.
I remember liking OMAC back when he was a back-up feature in (I think) Warlord. I realize that the idea went through some changes just prior to Final Crisis, because Brother Eye was zapping folks into OMACS left, right, and centre in that arc, but I never really figured out what the changes were. Now this book makes it look like DC is splitting the difference, with one OMAC, linked to Brother Eye, but with transformation and taking over the body and consciousness. I hope that they stick with one OMAC – hard to have a hero book with a random hero every issue.
There’s plenty of Kirby-esque weirdness going on the book, which is good. The art captures the Kirby style without just aping it – the influence is very recognizable, but the artist’s own style shows through. All in all, I really liked the first issue.
Static Shock #1
Static has moved to NYC, giving the book even more of a Spiderman feel than the character had previously. This is not a bad thing – adolescent superheroes trying to sort out regular adolescence coupled with the complications of super powers is a pretty good mix for pulling stories out. Look how many great Spidey moments came from just the struggle of a teenager to prioritize things.
That said, I’m hoping the book stretches out beyond that bailiwick. If it stays there, it’s going to get more and more comparisons to Spiderman, and the storylines starting to be developed look to deserve better than that. I have hopes – the last page had a cliffhanger that really caught my attention.
It’s a good book, so far.
I was leery of Stormwatch in the DC Universe. The types of stories told in the various Stormwatch series, including The Authority, are both bigger and grimmer than we usually see in the more mainstream comics. And the inclusion of Martian Manhunter on the Stormwatch team really made me nervous. After reading the first issue, I’m still nervous. There’s some less-than-elegant exposition dropped on you, and MM’s reason for joining Stormwatch is a little too trite for my taste, but the basic story told in the book is as big and grim and awesome as I could have hoped. I’ll give them a couple of issues to decide if the mix is chocolate and peanut butter or cheerios and spam.
Swamp Thing #1
I like Swamp Thing, whether he’s Alec Holland or just the memory of Alec Holland in a plant elemental. He is, after all, the source of my all-time favourite comic character, John Constantine, and the big green thing that saved us all at a certain seance in Washington DC by arm-wrestling the hand of destruction. But I hadn’t followed it the past little while, so I was kind of taken aback by this book. Alec Holland alive and human and working construction was not a sight I was ready for. Is that something that happened in the main continuity, or is it something new?
Anyway, there are some neat things happening here that may (or may not) be linked to what’s going on in Animal Man, and a return of a great foe from the old Alan Moore days of Swamp Thing. It looks promising.
One of the other things DC did with this relaunch was go to day-and-date electronic sales for their comics. I love this, because I love reading comics, but I have waaaaaay too many of them in my home. So, now I can buy the book electronically on the same day as the print version becomes available, and store them on my computer, read them on my iPad, take them with me on my iPhone, the whole thing. My only complaint about the setup is that I can’t subscribe to the digital comics, getting them automatically downloaded to my devices when they become available. That’s not a big complaint, but it is a complaint.
In fact, looking through the Comixology site while I was getting ready for the launch of the New 52, I wound up buying a number of other comics. These were mainly old series that I had read long ago, but wanted in a convenient, portable form. No hunting for back issues; they were all there to be downloaded. I spent more than I had intended on rounding out my collection in light of the long plane trip coming up for me.
So, yeah, as far as I’m concerned, every comic company should go to the day-and-date electronic sales format. But that’s just me.
There’s plenty of complaining on the web about this new launch. I think there’s something kind of disingenuous about accusing a company of making a cash-grab – companies exist to make money, and that means getting us to give it to them. It’s not a cash-grab, it’s business. And there’s been some complaints about the new costumes, which doesn’t bother me – if there’s one thing we know about comic books, it’s that each artist puts his or her own stamp on a character and costume, and both things change and evolve as the book goes on. And there’s been some public squabbling about gender and race employment and portrayal, and I’m just gonna steer right clear of discussing that.
Me, I come down pretty positively on the whole thing. If this is a cash-grab, DC has successfully grabbed my cash, and I have no regrets about that. I think the fresh start presents the opportunity for a lot of interesting new stories, and I want to see them. I’m hoping that DC will continue to take big risks with the books and stories, doing audacious, challenging stories that will equal some of the things they did in Flashpoint. I think I’ll be a little disappointed in that, but I’m willing to give them the chance to prove me wrong.
I’m more excited about buying and reading comics than I have been in a long time. That’s really all it comes down to.
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Graham Walmsley launched a preorder for his book Stealing Cthulhu over on Indiegogo, which is the UK version of Kickstarter. I got in on it, and just finished reading the .pdf version of the book.
I like it a lot.
It’s Graham’s guide to creating Lovecraftian scenarios for roleplaying games. Now, I bought it to use with Trail of Cthulhu, specifically my Armitage Files campaign, but it’s stat-free, and easily applicable to any gaming system where you want to run the types of adventures it describes. The advice is about how to build the right kind of scenario, and how to tell stories that reflect the ideas within the more purist H.P. Lovecraft stories.
This is important to understand. Stealing Cthulhu focuses on what Trail of Cthulhu calls the Purist mode of gaming. Things are bleak, horrific, deadly, and maddening, and you count it as a win if you run away successfully from the monster at the end of the story. You can’t actually win in Purist mode. You can only survive. The stories that inspire this book are things like The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Shadow Out of Time, At the Mountains of Madness, and, of course, The Call of Cthulhu.
Graham is a perfect person to talk about constructing this style of scenario. He’s written a quartet of Purist scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu, published by Pelgrane Press. I haven’t read them all, but the ones I have read are solid, scary, and original. So, I’m going to trust his take on the subject matter.
But you do need to know what you’re getting into. This type of scenario is not going to suit all players; some people want more heroic escapism in their games. They want a chance to defeat the bad guy and triumph. If you’re looking for advice for that type of game, while there is some applicable advice in this book, you should probably look elsewhere. This is all about the joys of going mad while being shredded by something with too many mouths and dimensions.
Now, in addition to his advice, he also passed the book around to Gareth Hanrahan, Ken Hite, and Jason Morningstar, three other folks with mad Cthulhu cred, and had them annotate it for him. So, you get Graham’s take on things, coupled with a very knowledgeable peanut gallery tossing in their opinions. It makes for a good read.
Now, in talking about a book like this, it’s hard to keep from just paraphrasing bits of advice from it, so I’m going to talk about it at a pretty high level. If you want more details, go buy the book.
The main advice in the book is to steal from Lovecraft, but to then twist it to make it fresh again. Now, that doesn’t sound like something you need a whole book to say, but it’s the discussion behind that simple statement that make up the meat of the book. Graham talks about what it is useful to steal – creatures, scenarios, locations, patterns, and descriptions – and how to twist them to make them seem new without sacrificing the Lovecraftian bleakness and horror of the original. To do that, he talks a great deal about what each of the things discussed mean: what they symbolize, what makes them horrific, and how to strip them for parts. It also talks about how to work in things that gamers like but that don’t often show up in Lovecraft’s Purist stories – things like gunfights, actual mysteries and investigation, magic use, and cultists.
This section leads off the book, right after the introduction, and makes up a little less than half the page count. It is filled with examples and references, and is a thoughtful discussion of how all the moving parts of a story fit together to produce the effect you’re looking for. Graham points out not only what works, but some common pitfalls to avoid. The tone is somewhat scholarly, which is kind of fitting for a Cthulhu resource, and is offset by the more chatty tone of the annotations.
The next section of the book cherry-picks some of the best elements of the mythos and shows how to ring them through the changes described in the first part of the book. It’s not exhaustive – there are only fifteen entries – but it illustrates the ideas in the book wonderfully. More than that, you wind up with the skeletons for two or three different scenarios for each entry, ready for you to flesh out and add the stats from your favourite system.
Graham finishes off the book with three appendices: Miscellany, where he lists the notes that don’t fit anywhere else in the book; Bibliography, which again is not exhaustive but very focused; and Cthulhu Dark, his rules-light system for running Lovecraftian roleplaying games.
Final assessment? The book is very focused on producing one type of play experience. That’s not to say that it’s not useful if you don’t want to create the kind of adventure where your investigators die horribly in the ancient catacomb of a bizarre church, but that you will find less useful stuff if you’re trying to do something more heroic. I don’t think this is a bad thing, any more than I think a hammer is a bad tool because it doesn’t tighten screws well. The book sets out to do a very specific thing, and succeeds in doing it very well. But with so many games trying to encompass a multitude of play styles, it’s important to know that Stealing Cthulhu doesn’t follow that path. Buying it with the wrong expectations will lead to disappointment.
I do have one little niggle. I’m hoping the .pdf version I’ve got is going to get another editing pass before it heads to print. There are a couple of typos, and some missing or inaccurate footnote references in it that I’d like to see cleaned up. In general, though, the text is pretty clean.
I have just had a brief exchange with Graham Walmsley. He informs me that there are hidden things in the book, and the typos I have noticed may be part of that. So, it looks like my little niggle, cited above, may just be me not getting the hidden stuff. I shall have to reread with an eye to that.
If you like the stark, eerie horror of Purist Lovecraftian games, this is the book for you. The advice is useful, and the scenario skeletons littered throughout the text are a gold mine of ideas, assuming you don’t just lift them outright and hang some stats on them. If you want to run a Purist Lovecraft game, in any system, this book will fill you with joy and your players with dread.
Which is how it should be.
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I finished reading Dogland by Will Shetterly last weekend. It was published, according to the book, in 1997.
How the hell have I overlooked this amazing book for thirteen years?
Well, okay. Will Shetterly is not a name I routinely look for on the bookshelves. Long ago, I read Cats Have No Lord, and the stuff he’d written in the Borderlands series, but while it was okay, none of it really grabbed me, and I started ignoring his stuff.
I don’t remember where I heard about Dogland. I just remember seeing the book in the store, and thinking, “Oh, yeah. That’s supposed to be good.” So, I bought it. And then it sat on my shelf for several months before I got around to it.
What’s the book about? Well, it’s about a young boy – four years old, almost five, when the story starts – who, in 1959, moves with his family to rural Florida, where they start up a tourist attraction called Dogland. Because of his father’s colourblind approach to hiring and the way he treats people, the family runs into some problems with the less-enlightened folks in the area.
That’s the basics of the plot, but the book goes far, far deeper. It’s also about how we learn what is right, how we gain our values, how we build families, and how stories shape the world. Or at least, our perceptions of the world. Because the book is also about how our memories are less reliable than our imaginations, and when we think we’re engaging with the real world, we’re often just engaging with the stories we tell ourselves about the world.
I know, I know. It sounds like pretentious literary navel-gazing. It isn’t. It’s saved from that fate by a clear, simple, involving writing style and a good story that’s worth reading even without the interpretation I just made.
The first chapter has the main character, Chris Nix, telling stories about his family that were told to him, and he’s very clear there that he can’t vouch for the truth of them. That sets the stage for the rest of the book, which is Chris Nix telling stories about his family that he witnessed. The entire book is a series of anecdotes, vignettes almost, pulled from the life and viewpoint and understanding of a young boy who doesn’t really understand everything that’s going on.
Because there’s a lot going on that the reader understands but Chris doesn’t. Adult things, deep things, important things, things that change the way the world is. But Chris, being just a child, merely witnesses without really understanding, and gives equal weight to the fear he has of jumping into the water from the roof of a houseboat as he does to the fear he has when a Klan rally shows up at Dogland.
The fantasy in the book is very subtle, and revealed mainly if you pay attention to the names of the characters. But there are mythic patterns playing out, and an important battle between good and evil. It’s balanced by, and given the same treatment as the strain of a difficult family situation and the problem of bullies.
What I’m trying to say is that Shetterly presents a wonderful, faceted look into a solidly realized world. We can’t see the whole thing, but we see enough of it to know the shape, and it feels so true to childhood memory that it’s easy to accept as real. Reading it, I was reminded of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes, as well as Dan Simmons’s Summer of Night, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
I’m currently reading Shetterly’s The Gospel of the Knife, which is also very good, but very different, even though it also deals with Chris Nix, now 14 years old.
Pick the books up if you like modern fantasy, or magical realism. Me, I’m going to keep looking for new stuff from Will Shetterly. Hopefully more of the Chris Nix stories.
I really don’t want to miss another book like this for thirteen years.
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Not the labour leader and songwriter, though. A different kind of writer.
I’ve been on a Joe Hill binge, lately. It started with the comic collection Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft, which I picked up because I liked the name and the art. It was a great story, very creepy and with a nice grounding touch of the mundane mixed in. This is, I think, of absolute importance with horror and modern fantasy: there needs to be enough of the mundane mixed in so that the horrific/fantastic elements stand out. Anyway, as I said, I really liked the comic and went looking for more information on the writer.
Turns out he’s got the next volume of the comic collection out: Locke & Key: Head Games. He’s also got a collection of short stories called 20th Century Ghosts and a novel called Heart Shaped Box.
So I bought and read them all.
Well, to be fair, I listened to the audio books for Ghosts and Box. But you get the idea.
I really, really like his stuff. He does amazingly good ghost stories, because he sticks with the idea of the uncanny and how it can affect us in so many ways, rather than just going right for the screamers.
He can do the screamers, too, as evidenced in Box. But he’s got more than that in his trick box.
I’m jumping all over the place. Here. Let me settle down and tell you a little about the stuff of his I’ve read.
- Ghosts is one of the most varied, interesting, inspiring, and enjoyable collections of stories I’ve read. Not everything is a ghost story, and not every ghost story is scary. He can mix do charming innocence in a piece like Better Than Home without it getting cloying or naive. He can do cynical, self-aware horror in Best New Horror without you minding the fact that you know how it’s going to turn out. And he can pile on the weird and surreal in things like Pop Art and My Father’s Mask in a way that makes it seem like it fits in with reality. It’s a wonderful, heady mix of stories. I don’t like them all equally, but neither will you, and our tastes will vary.
- Box is one of the best ghost stories that I’ve every read. Ever. There is a wonderful layering of history and backstory, strong characters (both living and dead), twisted secrets and motivations, some great scares and some more even greater creep-outs. It also has a strongly-hopeful tone to it, as you come to realize that its regrets even more than ghosts that are haunting the main character, and his quest to be free of the haunting is really a story of a man trying to find redemption and peace with his past. Does he make it? I can’t really tell you. Sometimes, as I think of the ending, I say yes, and sometimes I say no. And I love that.
- Locke is a solid horror/modern fantasy comic. I loved the first collection, but felt the second collection didn’t have as strong a story to it. I mean, reading Head Games, it’s obvious that the book is setting the stage for what happens next: it’s a transitional episode, moving the major playing pieces into place. A few of the mysteries raised in Welcome to Lovecraft get… well, not really resolved, but you start to see the shape of them. So, because the story is not as self-contained in Head Games, it lacks the impact. I’m guessing, based on the track record, that this will take care of itself as the series progresses. I’m looking forward to the next collection.
One thing I noticed is that Hill deals with a lot of fathers in his writing. Many of them have powerful impacts on their children, for good or ill – they are powerful figures, even if they’re not always benevolent, whether through presence or absence. Their existence twists and shapes the stories they’re in. It crops up enough that I started to think of it as a theme, but that may be metathinking on my part.
See, we need to talk about the elephant in the room. Joe Hill’s father is Stephen King. And I have to wonder what sort of impact having Stephen King for a father must have on a writer’s work. So, you see, I may be imposing my own speculation on the writing, creating a theme that exists only in my head.
But you know what, Joe? I don’t care who your daddy is. I like his stuff a lot, but that’s not why I read yours. Why I will continue to read your stuff.
I read it because it’s good.
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Or, The Problem of Betrayal in Small Character Sets
Before I get going, I’m gonna put up a big spoiler warning:
I’m going to be revealing plot twists in the following:
- NCIS: Los Angeles series premiere
- Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
- The Inspector Morse mysteries
- Hyperion by Dan Simmons
- Bones season 3
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
So, we good? Good.
I was watching the series premiere of NCIS: Los Angeles the other night*. In it, the team are trying to track down a kidnapped girl connected to a South American drug cartel. Her mother gets a phone call from the absent father, and calls him Luis. And instantly I decide that he’s in on the kidnapping, because of the hispanic name. And sure enough, he’s the bad guy.
This brought into focus something I’ve faced before in creating adventures, writing stories, reading, watching movies and TV… basically, any time I interact with a story. Stories contain, of necessity, a limited subset of real-world things. Specifically, the only characters in a well-constructed story are those that contribute in some meaningful way to the story. This means that, especially in mysteries, we pay extra attention to the introduction of each character, looking for how they fit into the story*. And it becomes hard to hide things in the background, the way things get overlooked in the real world. There just isn’t enough background noise to conceal things.
This can make it hard to sneak in a betrayal, especially if the audience (or the players) are expecting one. This generalizes to any mysterious identity, including the identity of a murderer, or the missing heir, or the superhero’s secret identity, or what-have-you. I’m going to focus on idea of betrayal in this little screed, because that’s what brought it to mind.
Case in point is Turn Coat, by Jim Butcher. Going in, we know that there’s a traitor on the White Council. So when there’s a new character introduced – a fussy little bureaucrat that happens to hate Harry Dresden – he really stands out as the potential traitor. And you know what? He is the traitor*.
What made him obvious? He was a new character who didn’t seem to have a purpose that wasn’t served by one of the established characters. It made him stand out as a sacrificial lamb, so to speak. He hated Harry – but so did Morgan. He was a staunch traditionalist – but so is the Merlin and Ancient Mai and several others. He showed up, they made a big deal out of how much of the White Council’s information got processed through him, he made himself annoying, and basically made the reader want him to be the bad guy.
Yeah, this is all meta-thinking, based on what we know about how stories work, but it’s thinking that happens, whether in a reader, an audience, or a gamer. We know how stories function, and we can’t turn that knowledge off. You can come down on players for meta-game thinking, but it won’t stop them from doing it – just from acting on it.
And when you’re building a story – whether it’s a novel, a script, or an adventure – you’ve got to be aware that your audience is very sophisticated and knowledgeable in the area of story. Everyone is.
Some authors play with this. In Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, for example, he tells you up front that one of the group is a traitor, and then has each group member tell his or her story in a Chaucerian style. As you go through the book, you examine each story minutely for the clues that might reveal the teller as the traitor. The traitor turns out to be the last person to speak, but in the meantime, you come to the conclusion that each of the previous characters could be the traitor. Until the blatant reveal at the end, there is good cause to suspect each of them.
So, this actually creates two sorts of things that happen when traitors are introduced. One is fixing the identity of the traitor, and the other is seeding clues as to that identity.
By fixing the identity, I mean deciding who’s going to be the traitor. In an ongoing series (TV, novels, games, etc.), it can be tough to surprise with a betrayal. Either you have to introduce a new character (as in Turn Coat), or you have to make an established character the traitor. Introducing a new character draws attention to the addition, and makes the character an immediate suspect. Had the traitor in Turn Coat been introduced a couple of novels previously, he would have been much less obvious. On the other hand, making an established character a traitor can be jarring and unbelievable, such as the third-season finale of the Bones TV series, when they revealed that Zack Addy was the Gormogon serial killer – well, his apprentice, anyway.
The problems with fixing the identity of a traitor can be alleviated or aggravated by the seeding of clues as to who the traitor is. If you don’t give enough clues, then the reveal can strain credulity, as in Bones. If you give too many, then the reveal is not a surprise, such as in Turn Coat. Finding the right balance of clues to make the reveal both believable and surprising is tough, especially from the omniscient seat of the author. What’s the right amount of clues? Tough to say.
My assumption through this posthas been that you want the audience to have a chance of figuring out who the traitor is, but you don’t want to make it too easy. Like a good crossword puzzle clue, you want the solution to be obvious once understood but still surprising when you first discover it. You’ve got to know your audience, and you’ve got to know what they are (and aren’t) going to pick up on. You take a look at the clues you could seed, and try to use the bare minimum. In a game, you have the advantage of watching player reactions, so you can adjust things as you go to provide more or less information. In other forms of story, you take your best guess, and adjust when revising.
The most beautiful example of this that I’ve ever encountered personally is in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. You know all along that Wednesday’s up to something, and that Shadow is in over his head, but I didn’t twig to the actual shape of the con until about a paragraph before the reveal, simply because I never said the name Low-Key Lyesmith out loud. As soon as I realized that Loki was in the mix, I realized that Wednesday was playing both sides for his own ends. And then about a sentence and a half later, Gaiman spells it out. For that sentence and a half, though, I felt very clever. Then I knew that I’d been very successfully played. It was brilliant.
There is an alternative, though. If you’ve ever seen a Columbo episode, you’ve seen it. Technically, it’s called dramatic irony, when the audience knows more about what’s going on than the characters, but really its a sort of reverse reveal. Each Columbo episode started by showing you the (usually incredibly arcane) “perfect murder” perpetrated by the killer. The rest of the episode is a cat-and-mouse mental duel between the killer and the detective to find the flaw that will unravel the crime.
This approach shifts emphasis away from the surprise reveal to the interplay of character and investigation, and can be tough to pull off without becoming very formulaic. Still, it’s worthwhile considering as a device.
So, to sum up: adding betrayal (or another secret and reveal) to a story can be tough, because of the limited range of choices for identity, the difficulty of choosing the correct person for the villain, and the balancing act of seeding appropriate clues. Understanding the difficulties and keeping them in mind can help avoid the common pitfalls.
*Yeah, I like NCIS. You wanna make something out of it? Back
*Back in before-time, my friends and I used to watch the Inspector Morse mysteries. It got so that, whenever a new character was introduced, we’d race to see who could be the first to shout, “He/She did it!”* Back
*Unless, of course, the woman was a love interest for Morse. Then she was either a victim or the murderer. Back
*Well, he’s a traitor. I don’t know about the traitor. The world of the Dresdenverse is a twisty, deceiving place, and Jim Butcher is not above pulling a bait-and-switch on us. In fact, I hope he does. Back
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