As a general rule, I don’t like to write bad reviews. But that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally guess wrong and end up with a bad book. Or comic or movie or whatever.
Now, bear in mind that of all of us here at the Junk Shop, I probably have the lowest bar to clear when it comes to liking something. Rarely, if ever, am I demanding High Art from my entertainment. Even with things that are pretty clearly just objectively bad, I often can find something there to enjoy.
In fact, for those of us who are immersed in the world of junk culture, we tend to distinguish between ‘bad in a good way’ and just bad. I think the work of Norvell Page, for example, is objectively bad; in technical terms, he was a very poor writer. But his work is bad in a really cool and interesting way. It has a fever-dream quality that I don’t think anyone ever has duplicated.
That said… sometimes something really is just plain bad. “Spock’s Brain” is an excruciatingly awful episode of Star Trek. Not bad in a fun way like “The Way to Eden,” but just a straight-up shitty hour of television.
There are those that enjoy mocking this sort of thing and some even have made careers out of it. But I’m never going to be one of them. I’ve never even been able to get through an episode of Mystery Science Theater. No matter how deserving the object of the mockery might be, I can’t get into it. There’s a mean-spiritedness there that I just can’t get past.
Even with a legendary piece of shit like Plan Nine From Outer Space, all I can think of is what a miserable epitaph that is for Bela Lugosi. It doesn’t make me laugh, it just makes me sad. Beating up on something like that feels like bullying. And I have pretty strong feelings about bullying.
That’s also why, if you are an indie writer or artist and you sent me your book months ago but you haven’t seen a review yet, it’s probably because I thought it was terrible but I can’t bring myself to write a review saying it was terrible. I got a book not too long ago that had a brilliant concept at its core: a mystic menace arises that has to be repeatedly defeated across the ages variously by a sword-and-sorcery hero, a masked avenger, a private eye, and so on and so on. A story structured as a love letter to all the different pulp genres, basically. (Kim Newman did something similar in Seven Stars, if you know that one.)
I cannot stress enough that this particular writer did everything right. He did his research and figured out I was writing stuff for people that would enjoy this kind of genre piece; he emailed and inquired if this was something I’d be interested in; and when I said yes he sent an actual physical copy of the book, something that even a lot of big publishers don’t do. This particular novel is very small-press, self-published (I think, anyway; but even if it’s not, letting go of one of your inventory copies on the chance a reviewer will like it and give it a boost is not a small decision when you are in a pond this tiny.) The concept sounded good, the author was being a total pro, so I was really predisposed to like this book. I was actively rooting for this guy.
But the prose itself, the actual writing, is shudderingly, indefensibly, terrible. It’s riddled with typos and filled with amateurish grammatical mistakes that evoke nothing so much as the worst examples of overly-earnest fan fiction. I kept thinking of what Seven Stars would have looked like if it had been written by Harold H. Harold.
I wouldn’t pass it from one of my Young Authors kids, and they’re only thirteen. It’s absolutely ripe for mockery.
But it’s also punching down and I don’t do that. It’s too damn hard to get a project like that into print at all. I respect the effort, if not the result.
So no review. This is clearly a passion project for this writer and he’s already probably spent way too much money on it. I just can’t bring myself to spit on his dream.
I get a lot of stuff like that. There’s no joy in beating up on it so I don’t write about it.
So, with all that being said…
…every once in a while, I end up with something that I really wish I hadn’t spent the money on, that is so annoying on a visceral level I have to vent about it just to get the bile out of my system. Today we have two of those. I’m going to spoil both of them, so be warned. Although really I’d think of it more as taking the bullet so you don’t have to.
The first is something I kind of knew I’d probably regret picking up, but my curiosity got the better of me. Savage Avengers Vol. 1: City of Sickles, from Gerry Duggan and Mike Deodato.
Deep down I was pretty sure it would be at best a demented hot mess, but that can be fun; after all, I grew up on things like Bob Haney’s Brave and the Bold, to say nothing of pretty much any superhero story Robert Kanigher ever wrote.
Sadly, Savage Avengers is not that much fun. It got off on the wrong foot with me literally from page one. Duggan’s rationale for bringing Conan into the Marvel Universe, which is the main thing I was curious about, happens offstage. This is in itself irksome. You don’t start off the first volume of a new series with a goddamned recap of some other book, at least not if you are doing your job properly.
My thirteen-year-olds in Young Authors hear me say all the time, “You don’t get to run around behind your readers and explain things to them. Find a way to get it in the story without being boring.” Gerry Duggan should know that. For that matter, shouldn’t volume one be the story that is the actual starting point? Ed Bosnar just wrote up the Tigra volume that actually begins with the four-issue Claws of the Cat, right? Because that’s where the story actually goddam begins. So it’s not like Marvel paperback editors don’t understand this.
Nevertheless, I soldiered on. Starting in the Savage Land is actually a pretty good idea for easing Conan into the larger Marvel landscape, I have to give Duggan that. And Mike Deodato is doing the kind of kewl nineties rendering that I suppose the target audience for this will love.
But I regret to say the target audience for Savage Avengers isn’t me. There certainly is a lot of savagery, and Duggan does seem to be bringing some humor to it, but as far as I’m concerned it’s just not over-the-top enough: you know, if you’re really going to go there, then GO there. The bit with Wolverine and Conan shown above is about as much humor as we get; mostly it’s a lot of grunting and grim posturing. Moreover, the personalities of the team members are too similar. The fun of a team book is to see the different personalities play off one another, but apart from everyone’s tendency to look at Conan and say Can you believe this fucking guy? there’s just not much differentiation here. With a concept this deranged, I was kind of hoping for something a little more absurdist, like the old Gerber Defenders or something like that. But this is more just wall-to-wall violence with the occasional wisecrack, and it takes itself way too seriously.
Add to that the fact that this is basically a two-issue story padded out to five with one gratuitous fight scene after another and nothing is resolved (Kulan Gath gets away and the team is left sort of saying well, that happened) and my overall reaction is one of annoyance. If I’d paid full price for this–it retails for $15.99– I’d have been livid. There’s less heft to it than one of the old DC Super-Spectaculars, though I think it may have a dozen or so more pages of story.
But… I didn’t have very high hopes for it, I knew going in that it was at best a fifty-fifty proposition that I’d like it. And, in fairness, I didn’t hate Conan in the Marvel U as much as I expected to. I was more annoyed that Marvel has the gall to market this paperback as a book. It’s very incomplete in both its packaging and in the story’s actual construction. As I’ve said many times, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that a trade paperback collecting a run of comics should, you know, FINISH a story. This book just …stops.
But Savage Avengers, in the final analysis, was just annoying. The second one I have for you today actively pissed me off.
Flash Forward, written by Scott Lobdell, with art from Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund, was a sentimental impulse buy for me. See, Wally West is my favorite iteration of the Flash, and I was kind of irritated when I heard that he’d been retconned out of existence or something. I figured from the cover of this collection that this would be the tale of his triumphant return.
The last time I’d checked in with Wally was around the time of The Wild Wests, so I was certainly not prepared for this opening…
Burgas was snickering here not too long ago about the Baron/Guice Wally being a jerk, but I’d a million times rather have that version back than this brooding guilt-ridden Wally. In fact, this whole opening walks, talks and sheds water like Marvel’s Speedball/Penance transformation, and I think we are all agreed on what a spectacularly wrongheaded shitty idea that turned out to be.
I haven’t gotten around to Heroes In Crisis but now I’m pretty sure it’s not something I’d enjoy. For some reason, both Marvel and DC seem to have characters they’ve designated to be continually crapped on. At Marvel it was Hank Pym; at DC it was a tie for years between Hawkman and Aquaman, but now they’re both cool and getting movies and so on, so I guess the title’s been handed down to Wally West.
There’s a whole column to be written about this, and I’m pretty sure I’ve written it already a couple of times, but the thing that seems to be utterly beyond the grasp of modern comic book writers is the idea of varying approaches in tone. Stuff that is appropriate for The Boys or Watchmen is needle-scratchingly jarring when you graft it on to lighthearted character concepts like Plastic Man or Speedball or The Flash. Don’t take it from me; Alan Moore, the king of grimdark comics deconstruction, even said so. More than once.
Just this week Moore gave an interview where he reiterated that he regrets The Killing Joke and even added that the Adam West version of Batman is probably the best one. Of course it lit up the internet and made fanboy heads explode all over the world, but I can see his point. Especially after reading Flash Forward.
Getting past this depressing setup, the plot is fairly standard. Reluctant Hero is drafted Against His Will for An Impossible Task wherein he will Find Redemption and Purpose. It worked for John McClane and Buffy Summers and Kung Fu Panda, it’s a solid enough frame to hang a story on.
The idea is that Wally is sent hurtling from one parallel Earth to the next, desperately trying to stop “the darkness” from contaminating the multiverse.
This actually is a pretty cool idea and I’d really like it if, you know, we hadn’t already seen Grant Morrison do a (much better) riff on it in The Multiversity.
But all of this only rises to the level of annoying. The part that really killed me was where Lobdell landed with Wally’s redemption.
Wait for it….
Yes, that’s Wally West. In the goddam Mobius Chair from New Gods, because I guess Metron is dead now? Hell if I know.
Not only that, but I guess he’s tapped into the consciousness of Dr. Manhattan. Because I don’t know why, so don’t ask.
While I’m still making an incredulous WTF face and spluttering, it’s followed by…
Yeah. Another book that doesn’t fucking END, and it’s leading into a story I have no interest in, starring a character I’m already sick of, and I’m not even really keeping up with DC. Flash Forward, by the way, retails for $17.99, and though I only paid about nine bucks for mine I feel thoroughly ripped off. And also quite irrationally angry on behalf of Wally West, who isn’t even real for Chrissakes, but still deserves better.
I’m more mad at myself than DC, though, for letting myself be suckered like an abused spouse once again (“Maybe this time it’ll be different….”) when everything I’ve seen from them for, oh, the last three years at least, is screaming that it’s not for me. I thought it was bad when DC was obsessed with Scott Snyder’s Court of Owls, but that was mostly reserved for the Batbooks. This new love affair with Snyder’s Batman Who Laughs is apparently going to screw up EVERYTHING. No wonder they’re calling it ‘the Infected.’
Thanks but no thanks. I think I’m going to retreat to the Mark Waid version of Wally. At least DC is keeping it in print.
Well, I feel a little better now. Back next week with something cool…. and at this point almost anything would be a step up.
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