Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

What I bought, read, watched, or otherwise consumed – March 2021

“‘The devil does exist, not only as a symbol of evil but as a physical reality.’ How do you like that? It was written by a pope, Paul VI. In 1974.”

“He was a professional,” said Corso equably. “He must have had his reasons.” (Arturo Pérez-Reverte, from The Club Dumas)

COMICS

Die! Die! Die! #9-14 by Robert Kirkman (writer), Scott M. Gimple (co-plotter), Chris Burnham (artist), Nathan Fairbairn (colorist), Rus Wooton (letterer), and Sean Mankiewicz (editor). $23.94, 130 pgs, Image.

The first arc of Die! Die! Die! came out of nowhere (Kirkman deliberately didn’t put it in Previews), but once that finished, there were plenty of new plot threads he could follow, so he and Burnham cranked out a second arc. Issue #14 took months to come out, but it’s here now, and the entire arc is, once again, a blast to read. Kirkman takes the idea behind the first arc – that a cabal of senators is running the country – and expands on it, as the one running the cabal after the first arc – Connie Lipshitz – decides to make some sweeping changes to the country. Most of these involve making white men experience problems with their genitals so that they change laws, and of course it’s hilarious, but Connie goes a bit too far in the end (although she seems a bit more upset by it than we would expect). Meanwhile, Barnaby Smith, whom Connie fought for control of the cabal, has been smuggled out of the States to Russia, where they plan to basically rip his brain apart to get at the sweet, sweet knowledge inside, so Connie sends two of her agents to get him back. Things get violent. Kirkman also gets into the alien subplot from the first arc, leading to issue #14, when Obama goes off into space for a battle royale with a bunch of aliens (it makes sense in the context of the book, I promise!). Much like the first arc, this is crazy bananas storytelling, but it’s fun as hell. Burnham absolutely kills it, too, which isn’t surprising, but it’s just nice to see. His fight scenes are kinetic and balletic, his aliens are weird, his sense of humor is terrific (the big page showing a Russian village could not have endeared Burnham to any actual Russians, but it’s still very funny), and his details are superb. Just check out the double-page spread below, homaging the Superman vs. Muhammed Ali cover, to which Burnham adds so many fun pop culture details. This is just a wild and wacky comic, and I love it. Kirkman gives us the old “We’ll be back before you know it!” speech in the letter column, which probably means the book is dead as G. Gordon Liddy, but I always can hope for more!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

One totally Airwolf panel:

Not a perfect stitch, but you get the gist!

American Ronin volume 1 by Peter Milligan (writer), ACO (penciler), David Lorenzo (inker), Dean White (colorist), and Sal Cipriano (letterer). $9.99, 115 pgs, AWA/Upshot.

Milligan gives us a story about his favorite topic – identity – as we get an assassin who once worked for a secret cabal that runs the world (yes, another one) but who’s gone rogue and now wants to take them down. Yes, it sounds pedestrian, but as we know, plots don’t really matter – the execution is what matters, and Milligan is very good at this kind of story. The assassins are able to use DNA to get inside other people’s headspace (don’t question it – this is a quasi-sci-fi story!), so Milligan uses this to drive his principals – the nameless protagonist and the man tasked with hunting him down – a bit crazy. Again, not the most original idea, but Milligan is so good at this, blending reality with visions, almost merging the two men into a weird amalgam of both, and making both characters weirdly sympathetic – that it doesn’t matter that it’s not terribly original. Milligan himself mentions Human Target in the backmatter (he also mentions Enigma, which isn’t quite the same as this, although both of those old series deal with identity), so he’s aware of the parallels, but whereas Christopher Chance disguised himself as other people, our “hero” in this book simply is able to think like them. Yes, it’s a fine distinction, but that’s that. Anyway, Milligan ends the book with our hero having a renewed purpose, so I hope there’s a volume 2 coming (it’s promised, but you never know!).

Of course, another reason why this is such a good comic is ACO’s art. He’s a terrific artist, and he makes this book a weird fever dream of bullets, violence, weird visions, exotic locations, and tense moments. There are a few artists these days whose work can be called “Steranko-esque,” and ACO is one of them (his Nick Fury book made that connection very clear). His details are amazing, and he blends pencils with computer effects very well, far better than most artists. This is a very crowded comic, as Milligan gives ACO a ton to cram onto the pages, but he lays them out in innovative and readable ways, so despite the quick slides into “unreality” a lot, it’s not confusing. ACO does some fun things, too – he uses some sound effects as panels, so that a “KRAK” might have drawings inside the balloon letters showing why the effect is there, and his blacks (or Lorenzo’s blacks, I suppose) are used really well. Dean White, whose colors a decade or so ago were often overwhelming, has either gotten better at his job or the digital tools have gotten better, because the book is wonderfully colored without obscuring ACO’s superb lines. It’s a wildly fun book to look at.

I imagine Milligan will only have one more arc in him, because it doesn’t feel like a book that could go longer than that. But I could be wrong! I hope both he and ACO can do more of this!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

One totally Airwolf panel:

Fun stuff!

We Only Find Them When They’re Dead volume 1: The Seeker by Al Ewing (writer), Simone Di Meo (artist), Mariasara Motti (color assistant), AndWorld Design (letterer), Gwen Waller (assistant editor), and Eric Harburn (editor). $9.99, 112 pgs, Boom! Studios.

Ewing gives us an interesting story about space miners who head out into the void to find dead gods, mining their organic material for the rich nearer to the center of the galaxy, who pay through the nose for it. Our hero, Georges Malik, is the captain of a ship, and he comes from a long line of god-miners. His entire family is dead, thanks to some kind of occurrence years earlier, for which the hard-nosed space cop who makes sure the miners don’t get out of line has not forgiven him. Malik has cooked up a scheme to go further into the void, because he’s convinced he’ll find living gods in deeper space, even though going there is strictly forbidden. So one day Malik and his crew take off, the hard-nosed space cop comes after them, and things hit the fan, as they invariably do.

It’s a good comic, as Ewing creates interesting characters quickly, so when someone dies, it actually is traumatic even though we haven’t spent a lot of time with the characters. Ewing doesn’t forget that everyone is in space, so death can strike at any moment, which adds some tension to the proceedings. We do learn what happened with Malik’s family and how the space cop is involved, and we do end on a nice cliffhanger that should lead nicely to the second arc. I’m a bit puzzled how no one seems to age all that quickly – some events take place about 30 years before the main events, and nobody looks all that different except for Malik, who’s grown a beard – but I can live with it. One thing does bug me – the gods themselves. As they are dead, Ewing can avoid explaining them, but I’m curious about them, because they simply look like Marvel’s Celestials, and I wonder what the humans’ relationship to the gods is. They’re obviously not immortal, and they’re obviously tangible. Is Malik’s universe one in which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam exists? If so, do these humans have a notion of largely intangible and abstract gods, and if so, what do they think about the gods they’re harvesting? I know that gets into a bit of a philosophical bent in a comic that is somewhat action-packed, but I don’t think you can use a loaded term like “god” and not put some thought into it. Ewing seems like a thoughful writer, so it would be nice if in the next arc we get some more information about these beings.

Di Meo’s art is pretty good, but he and Motti use a lot of special effects, which can be fine, but in the case blurs the artwork a bit too much. He’s trying to convey a sense of motion, which is fine, but it sometimes obscures what’s going on. The book is set in space, so there’s a lot of black, and in some cases, too much, as the book can be too dark at times. The storytelling is nice, and the characters are interesting, but occasionally it’s just too hard to see what’s going on and get a good sense of the action. I never thought I’d say this about a comic, but the gigantic scale of the gods isn’t there, either, and a movie might show it better. Di Meo makes sure that the space ships are tiny next to the gods, but the double-page spreads he uses occasionally for the gods doesn’t convey their size, and usually, those pages are a bit darker than the others, so while we get an eerie glow around the gods, so much of the rest of the page is murky so we can’t really grasp the scale. It’s unfortunate, because the size of the dead beings really is important, and I’m surprised it didn’t come across too well here. Di Meo does a better job with the personal interactions of the characters, but it’s odd that some of the more epic stuff in the book doesn’t come across that way.

Still, it’s a neat book, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Ewing and Di Meo take the story!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

One totally Airwolf panel:

Should be a fun reunion!

The Green Lantern “season 2” (blech) #1-12 by Grant “Like, love is all you need, bros” Morrison (writer), Liam Sharp (artist; colorist, issues #3, 9-12), Steve Oliff (colorist, issues #1-2, 4-9), Tom Orzechowski (letterer, issues #1-4), Steve Wands (letterer, issues #5-12), and Brian Cunningham (editor). $49.88, 288 pgs, DC.

This “season” (blech) of Green Lantern isn’t quite as good as Morrison’s first, but it’s only slightly not as good, which means it’s still quite good. It feels a tiny bit more scattershot, and the single issues don’t quite stand out as well as Hal’s weird team-up with Oliver Queen in the “first season” (blech), for instance. The God of All Comics is still having a ton of fun, though, as we get weird evil toys, bird-men, Hector Hammond, Star Sapphire, that GL with the volcano head, and more sword-and-sorcery stuff than we got in the first arc, so that’s fine. This is Morrison going out with a bang (if indeed this is the last DC work they do), throwing a ton of junk into the mix and not worrying too, too much if it all coheres. It … does …? … but it’s also all over the place, and it’s much easier to read this in one sitting than monthly. There’s a lack of the Blackstars and Controller Mu this time around, which makes the threats bad but not as terrifying as those in the first arc, which had a stronger overarching theme. Still, it’s a blast for Morrison fans, and I doubt if it will finally convince haters of Morrison that they’re really a great writer. Liam Sharp is wonderful, too, moving from straight pencils to that weird digital painting thing he does, which I don’t love but which he’s very good at, so it’s not like it’s bad, just not my cup of tea. Along the way he uses Benday dots, apes Kirby and Simon Bisley (which is kind of Sharp’s old style, so maybe he’s just reverting for a bit), and gets to design more wacky things, just like he got to do in “season 1” (blech). This is a magnificent artistic achievement, and Sharp is one of those excellent artists who can match Morrison’s wild imagination, so the book is just better for having Sharp on it.

Morrison turned 61 this year, so who knows what they’re going to do now, if, as I noted, DC is behind them. I buy almost everything Morrison writes (I’m a bit behind on Klaus, but I’ll catch up once I can sort out what I have and what I don’t!), so I’m on board with whatever comes next from that bizarre brain!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

One totally Airwolf panel:

Oh, that Morrisonian sense of humor!

Sabrina the Teenage Witch volume 2: Something Wicked by Kelly Thompson (writer), Veronica Fish (artist), Andy Fish (artist), Jack Morelli (letterer), Alex Segura (editor), and Jamie Lee Rotante (editor). $14.99, 100 pgs, Archie Comics.

The second volume of Sabrina is a bit better than the first, mainly because the introductions are out of the way, and Thompson can just do the story. Thompson, of course, is one of the best dialogue writers in comics right now, and she has nailed all these characters very well, so the book flows very well even though the teenagers do some fairly dumb things. The villain is obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good story, grounded in Sabrina’s desire to help everyone and keep her witchiness away from the “norms” in her town. So we get some goofy stuff with her friends, but Thompson does a good job with it. There’s also the whole typical teenage romance thing, but again, Thompson can sell that because she does such good work with characters. It’s just a fun, heartfelt horror comic, and the Fishes do their usual exceptional work with both the line work and the color art, which is eerie when it needs to be and “normal” when it has to be, creating a nice contrast between Sabrina’s worlds. Thompson ends it on a quasi-cliffhanger, so maybe there will be more from this team, which I will enjoy quite a bit!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

One totally Airwolf panel:

Everyone is buying it!

Bad Mother by Christa Faust (writer), Mike Deodato Jr. (artist), Lee Loughridge (colorist), and Dezi Seanty (letterer). $9.99, 104 pgs, AWA/Upshot.

I was pleasantly surprised by Bad Mother, as it’s a lot more thoughtful than I thought it would be. That’s not to say it’s not action-packed and that people get killed in horrible ways, but I thought it was going to be a “John Wick” situation, where the protagonist turns out to be a super-soldier who just decided to settle down and is forced back into action. That’s definitely NOT what it is, as the “bad mother” of the title is just a regular mom pushed to violence by terrifying circumstances. Her daughter disappears one evening, and April eventually figures out she inadvertently got involved with a vicious suburban drug dealer, so she has to figure out what to do, especially because she finds out the cops will be of no help. Nor will her husband, who’s out of town on a business trip. Faust does a nice job showing how an ordinary person could become a killing machine, especially when their child is involved, but the drug dealer isn’t quite what we expect, either. It’s a fascinating comic, really, because it shows how easily people can find out information on the internet and how little privacy we really have, even when we’re a drug dealer and we want to keep things private. April is a terrific character, doing her thing with focus and resolve, getting lucky in some situations, true, and seeming in over her head in others, but she knows what she has to do and does it.

Deodato is his usual self – as I always note with Deodato, you know what his art looks like, and if you don’t like him (I do), then this won’t change your mind. One thing I dig about Deodato is that he’s constantly challenging himself with storytelling choices, and in this book, the way he lays out the panels is really nice. He uses the gutters very well, as bars to cage people in (which isn’t new, but usually effective), to transition from different moments in time while keeping part of the page static, to frame important moments in a larger tableau (again, not new, but Deodato does it well), and to bleed to the edge of the page while still creating an outside border. When April is piecing together what her daughter has been doing by using her Instagram, Deodato does an excellent job showing the links and how April navigates through it, which helps the reader immensely. I’m sure Deodato used models to create the characters, but unlike when he uses people who are really famous, nobody springs to mind, which is nice. As always, if you don’t like Deodato’s art, that’s fine, but I do, and I also like how he does not seem to get in a rut, which some artists do fall into.

This has a “vol. 1” on the cover for some reason, but it’s a complete story. So check it out – it’s pretty keen.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

One totally Airwolf panel:

That’s … gonna leave a mark

Okay, here are the rest. I was going to do the top five comics of the month, but Sabrina and Bad Mother were so close in quality I added one more. I decided to do these in alphabetical order this month. None are bad, which is nice.

I’ve been a fan of Amy Reeder’s art for years, and while her writing doesn’t always measure up, Amethyst is quite a good story, as Reeder makes our hero kind of a jerk (I mean, she’s a teenager, so par for the course) who has to learn some hard lessons about Gemworld, and it’s a nice adventure as well. Reeder’s art is terrific – better than I think it’s ever been – as she seems to have a slightly rougher line, which grounds the work a bit better. It’s a neat comic, and it’s nice to see Reeder doing some more DC work. Justin Jordan’s Breaklands is an interesting fantasy – there’s a world where everyone has powers, and a teenager is taking care of her younger brother while their mother is away (it’s unclear whether she’s actually able to come back or not, but she’s been gone a while). The brother, it turns out, has a power that a lot of people are interested in, so he gets kidnapped, the the girl – who does not have a power, one of the rare ones who doesn’t – goes to find him, hooking up with some rogues on the way who help her out. It’s an interesting comic, and of course there are secrets, and the art – by Tyasseta – isn’t great, but it’s not bad. The second and concluding volume of Everything shows that Christopher Cantwell is still not a great comics writer, as it’s a bit clichéd, but it’s not the worst critique of consumerism and I.N.J. Culbard’s quirky art is fun to check out. Fantastic Four: Antithesis is a pretty keen book – Galactus gets his powers sucked away by the “anti-Galactus” of the Negative Zone, but even that thing isn’t the real threat! Waid and Adams try to prove that Reed isn’t a douchebag, but that’s a tough slog, and the Treasury Edition format is a superb vehicle for Adams’s art. Despite that horrific face on Mr. Thing on the cover (and some bad ones inside), Adams proves that at 79 (!) years old, he’s still got it.

Sweet Fancy Moses!

Tommy Lee Edwards makes Grendel, KY an absolutely gorgeous book, as he brings Jeff McComsey’s monster story to gripping life. It’s a retelling of Beowulf set in the 1970s and Beowulf is an icky girl, and it works pretty well in that context. Grit is a fun, short comic about a dude who hires himself out to kill things, and some farmer hires him to find out why all the trolls have disappeared (apparently troll poop is a good fertilizer). The dude stumbles across an apocalypse cult that is calling up a demon, and things get very bloody. It’s kind of like what Shaolin Cowboy would be if Geof Darrow didn’t draw every goddamned wrinkle on skin and fold in clothing. Legacy of Mandrake the Magician is a nifty comic about a teenager whose mother knew Mandrake, and she learned some stuff from him. Her best friend is the son of Mandrake’s best friend, and together they find out some weird things are happening in town and of course they have to stop them. It’s nothing special, but it’s entertaining. The eighth volume of Nailbiter seems to be the final one, as Joshua Williamson clears up what was going on in volume 7, but then at the very end he drops another bombshell about the serial killers, so who knows? I like Nailbiter, so I don’t have a problem if Williamson and Mike Henderson want to keep doing it. Gene Luan Yang is writing Shang-Chi, which is never a bad thing, and he does a story about Shang-Chi’s family and how he has to embrace his heritage. The plot is nothing special (and man, I dislike stories about how people can’t escape their families, because of course you fucking can), but Yang creates some fun characters, and he has a good handle on our hero, and Derek Ruan’s art is quite nice. And Yang gets to write more Shang-Chi, so there’s nothing wrong with that. Stillwater is a pretty good comic with a lot of potential, but volume 1 is very much a “laying the groundwork” kind of story – there’s a town where no one ages, and some dude gets a letter from a dude in town, and it turns out his mother smuggled him out of town 30 years before. He doesn’t think the sitch in town is too great, but of course most of the townspeople don’t want the secret to get out. Violence ensues. Chip Zdarsky, who’s never impressed me too much as a writer (he’s fine, but nothing great), does a decent job with this, and Ramón Pérez is typically excellent on art. It’s a good start. Finally, Youth is not a bad comic about kids who get superpowers (from a meteor that hits the truck they’re in, and they learn later they’re not the only ones), but Curt Pires falls into the trap of thinking that assholes are compelling just because they’re assholes (they’re not) and that people who lust after each other are really in love (they’re not). It’s not a bad concept, especially because kids getting superpowers is a pretty good well to dip into, as a metaphor for kids going through puberty, and Pires is a good enough writer that the characters’ dilemmas aren’t bad, but most of them are kind of assholes, so it’s hard to care too much what happens to them. It feels like Pires wants to do more with the characters, so maybe this is just part of their emotional journey, but it’s frustrating to read about assholes who really don’t have too much else going for them.

The Captain America comic, which I skipped in the above paragraph, is kind of fun. It’s one artist per page, retelling Captain America Comics #1 and Avengers #4, and the talent is quite good. At the very end, however, there are two panels, the script of which I assume is from the original Avengers #4, and I suppose the art is similar, and they crack me up:

Yep

Oh, Stan Lee. In the first panel, Iron Man basically “accuses” Captain America of being gay, as if it’s an insult (I mean, it was 1963 …), and in the second panel, Janet says she fled to battle to make herself look better for when the men cleaned things up. Dang, that is a fun one-two punch from the early Sixties, isn’t it? If only Janet had gussied herself up before the Blob tried to eat her intestines, it might have distracted him!

Let’s move on to other forms of entertainment from March that I consumed (so to speak)!

BOOKS

The Cosgrove Report: Being a Private Inquiry of a Pinkerton Detective into the Death of President Lincoln by G.J.A. O’Toole. 448 pgs, Rawson, Wade, 1979.

This is a fun book about the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, written by a dude who was in the CIA for a time in the 1960s, so he knows a thing or two about clandestine activities. The way O’Toole writes the book is a bit convoluted but still clever: he writes it as a report by a Pinkerton agent who was hired by Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War under Lincoln and then Andrew Johnson, who tried to fire him and got impeached for it. The book plays out in 1868, during the impeachment drama, as Stanton hires Nicholas Cosgrove to find out if John Wilkes Booth is still alive and free. As the book progresses, Cosgrove finds himself working for Senator Edmund Ross (one of the unsung heroes of American history, according to my tenth-grade history teacher) to find out what was really going on with Lincoln’s assassination. O’Toole presents this as the manuscript being written early in the 1900s, when Cosgrove was fearing death more, and passing it down to his grandson, who turned out to be a lawyer. Said lawyer finds the manuscript and sends it to a private investigator, hoping he can help verify it. The PI gets the help of O’Toole to edit it and present it to the public. Therefore, we get many, many fun footnotes (I love footnotes) about what’s going in the text. There’s a bibliography, so I assume some of the book is based in some semblance of reality. Hey, maybe Booth even got away after killing the president!

Cosgrove is an interesting narrator, and the book moves smoothly through its plot without too much confusion. Some of the ways O’Toole chooses to tell the story are a bit odd – when Cosgrove goes to work for Ross, his escapades in tracking down information are skimmed until he confronts both Stanton and President Johnson, when he then summarizes what he’s been up to. So that’s a bit strange. In general, though, it’s a gripping and fascinating book, because it not only deals with the assassination but its aftermath and why Johnson was so hated by some and why he was impeached in the first place. So despite the fiction of it all, there’s some decent history in it, too, and some weird and interesting historical characters, from Vinnie Ream to Lafayette Baker. And the finale is a bit strange, as Cosgrove figures things out and then embarks on the slowest and longest chase in history (I don’t want to spoil any more of it). It’s kind of bizarre. There are some nice twists in the book, so that’s always good. Basically, this is a very readable, engaging book about a shadowy moment in the country’s history. There are, naturally, unanswered questions about the Lincoln assassination, and because of the distance of so many years, some explanations might have been lost, so an enterprising writer can find links where they might not exist, and it becomes a fun speculative history. It’s an enjoyable book.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. 468 pgs, Scribner, 2010.

This is a terrific book about one of the weirder episodes in American history, one that created a vicious industry (organized crime), brought together strange bedfellows (women suffragettes and the Ku Klux Klan) and ruined the careers of many politicians. It did have an impact, as drinking the United States declined as a result of Prohibition, but as we’ve seen from the anti-smoking campaigns, there are better ways to get people to stop doing things that are harmful to them. Okrent’s book is very good reading, as he delves into the deep roots of the movement, how it spread, what began to tip the scales toward the constitutional amendment, and then, of course, how almost everyone in the country ignored it once it became law. The roots are fascinating – it goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and was driven mostly by women in the early years, simply because women were tired of their men coming home drunk and beating on them or their children, and instead blaming the men, they blamed demon alcohol. They soon realized that the best way to get rid of alcohol was to secure the vote for women, because then they could vote alcohol away! So the temperance movement very early on dovetailed with the suffragette movement, and Okrent does a nice job placing this in a historical perspective. In modern fiction, when people set stuff in the past, they tend to smooth out the rough edges of the protagonists because they want audiences to like them. This is especially true if the protagonist is a member of a minority. The temperance and suffragette women seem admirable – they wanted to get rid of alcohol, sure, but that’s not particularly an evil thing, and they wanted women to vote, and they wanted to get rid of the Electoral College, and they wanted better working conditions for all, so we do admire them. They were also super-racist and nativist, which is why they were willing to ally themselves with the Klan – both wanted to get rid of alcohol, but both thought that alcohol made the “lesser” races – not only blacks, but Europeans from the southern and eastern parts of the continent – more “animalistic” and hence harder to control. They also hated that Jews controlled a large part of the hard alcohol business and that Germans controlled a large part of the beer industry. As admirable as many people in the past were, even the best of them tended to be super-racist, and Okrent doesn’t hide that fact like a lot of fiction writers do.

Anyway, I’ll get off my soap box now. Okrent dives into the income tax push, which was needed to offset the huge revenue the government derived from alcohol tax (remember, Republicans today may talk about a limited government, but they’re pikers compared to people a century ago, who walked the walked as well as talking the talk about government not interfering in personal lives … which would bite the temperance people in the ass during the 1920s). Once that went through, Prohibition became much more likely. Okrent also does a nice job dispelling the myths about Prohibition – anyone could drink alcohol, they just couldn’t sell or buy it, so during the year before it went into effect, people stockpiled it so they could drink it in the subsequent years. He also gets into the early bootleggers and how they were just amateurs trying to make a buck, and only later did the gangsters come in and start being violent. The bootlegging stories about the Bahamas and the island of St. Pierre, which is off the coast of Newfoundland but is part of France and was therefore a good place for Sam Bronfman, among others to use as a liquor clearing house, are the most fun parts of the book, along with the ways winemakers skirted the laws by providing sacramental wine and how doctors applied for liquor licenses for “medicinal purposes.” But he doesn’t focus solely on those stories, as he also shows how the temperance movement kept politicians in line by mobilizing against any who crossed them, even as successive Congresses and presidents failed to properly fund enforcement and so neutered the amendment and Volstead Act (the actual law written in accordance with the amendment). Coolidge in particular didn’t want to spend government money on anything, and it’s perhaps not surprising that under his administration, organized crime became a much more powerful force than under Harding’s administration, as Harding was a weak-willed dude and therefore followed the last person who talked to him. The Depression helped speed along the renunciation of the Prohibition, but wheels were already in motion before that, as rich people were getting tired of hiding their imbibing and they were annoyed at the tiny amount of governmental intrusion into their private lives. One group wanted to get rid of Prohibition so that the government could go back to taxing it and leaving their income alone, but they should have known how difficult it is for the government to give up a revenue stream once they’ve had it!

It’s a well written book, with tons of sources, and Okrent is a good enough writer to make it flow quite well. He gives us a lot of personalities to go along with the straight history, which makes the book very lively. He points out how so many people made their fortune and then later tried to whitewash away their involvement in illegal activities (Bronfman, the Seagram’s magnate, was quite good at this, but Charles Walgreen made a killing during the 1920s selling medicinal alcohol … and if some made it way to people who weren’t actually “sick,” what did he know about it?). Okrent also debunks the story of Joseph Kennedy being a bootlegger, as there is no evidence for it. Kennedy might have been a reprehensible dude, but it wasn’t because he was smuggling liquor! He also looks at some of the social changes that came from Prohibition, like women actually going out and drinking among men (because they couldn’t buy alcohol to bring home anymore!) and white people mixing freely with black people in Harlem and other places (some clubs in Harlem were for white clientele only, but not many).

This is a very good book about a time period that Americans tend to know about, but only the broadest of details and only through popular fiction, but Okrent shows that Prohibition was much more nuanced and fascinating than what we get when we watch Eliot Ness (who died a drunk) go after Al Capone (with whose conviction Ness had nothing to do). So get educated, and find out exactly why making alcohol (and by extension, many other drugs) might not be that good of an idea!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The Brenner Assignment: The Untold Story of the Most Daring Spy Mission of World War II by Patrick K. O’Donnell. 286 pgs, Da Capo Press, 2008.

I read O’Donnell’s history of the OSS a few months ago, then skipped ahead so I wouldn’t read this book right away, and now I’m back to it. O’Donnell focuses on the OSS in northern Italy in later 1944/early 1945, as Stephen Hall, a lieutenant in the army, writes to the OSS with a scheme of destroying the tunnels in the Brenner Pass, which is the only way for the Nazis to resupply their troops in northern Italy. Hall thought that if you cut that off, the Germans in the south would have to surrender. The OSS had considered that, but Hall thought it could be done with a small group, and he would be the perfect person to lead it. He got his way, and in the fall of 1944, he was air-dropped behind the lines in northern Italy, and his adventure began. Meanwhile, Howard Chappell, another soldier, was being trained by the OSS to wreak havoc behind the lines, and eventually, he and some of his team ended up in the same area in order to help Hall. So O’Donnell tells the two stories, as both men try to stay ahead of the Nazis, work with the Italian partisans (who rarely liked other partisan groups and didn’t love the Americans all the time, either), and block the pass. O’Donnell was able to interview a few of the men who were actually behind the lines, men who were in their eighties and nineties in the early 2000s and some of whom had never talked about their war, because all of these missions were top secret for years. Much like the other O’Donnell book I read, it’s a bit of a breezy read and a bit too reliant on memories, but it’s still very interesting, especially because of all the various personalities involved who had their own agendas. Some of the partisans were Communist, some were monarchist, some were downright fascist, and they often worked together because the Nazis were the real enemies (the Italian fascists wanted to be fascists on their own, damn it!) but they never trusted each other. Hall falls in love with a countess living in a villa in the Alps, but it’s never clear how trustworthy she is. Hall gets captured, some of the Chappell’s team gets captured, and the pages describing how the Nazis tortured them are tough to read. The Americans never actually blocked the pass, but destroyed enough access to it that most of the Germans south of the border were forced to surrender in the waning days of the war instead of fleeing to Austria for a fabled “last stand.” Some of the people in the book die, which is to be expected, and unlike in fiction, some of them die in the least dramatic way possible. But such is life.

One thing that’s always interesting about reading such a focused account of something happening inside a larger conflict (this part of the war wouldn’t warrant a mention, probably, in a general history of WWII) is how much war affects everyone. The action takes place in the Alps, among towering mountains and in tiny villages, but people die and civilians live in fear that the Nazis will just round them up and everyone is on edge, even in this small corner of the war. It’s impressive that O’Donnell is able to give us this sense of terror even in a place that was less touched by the war than other places. War sucks, man.

This is a slightly better book than O’Donnell’s one about the entire OSS, because of the focus. It’s an interesting, tragic, triumphant tale, and it’s always good to learn a bit more about heroes of history, and Hall and Chappell certainly fit the bill.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ★ ☆

TELEVISION

Miss Scarlet and the Duke season 1 (PBS). Kate Phillips stars as Eliza Scarlet in this series about a female private detective in 1882 London who takes over her father’s business when he dies of a heart attack (or did he?!?!?) and clashes with Stuart Martin, who’s a Scotland Yard copper who’s known her for years (his last name is Wellington, hence his nickname). Of course they really like each other (no romance yet, but it’s clear the showrunnner(s) are thinking of going there?), even though Martin is gruff and grumpy and not terribly respectful of Eliza even as she proves she kind of knows what she’s doing (she’s certainly not perfect, but she proves that she knows a thing or two about detecting). The cases are interesting, and the show gets into the social problems of Victorian London. Eliza forms an alliance with a Jamaican quasi-criminal, so she gets a look at some of the seediness of London and also gets a bit about the racism of the time. The Duke asks her to go undercover to check out an “anarchist” group, which turns out to be a women’s suffrage movement, so there’s that, too. A man who first courts her because his mother is pressuring him turns out to be gay, and Eliza forms a nice friendship with him. The cases are fairly interesting, and while I get a bit annoyed that, once again, we have a man acting dumb to show how smart the woman is (the Duke knows that Eliza does things to get herself alone so she can riffle his files, but he falls for it all the time), their relationship is nice. The show is filmed in Dublin, and the sets are beautiful. It’s an interesting show, and I look forward to the second season.

WandaVision (Disney+). Until the final episode, WandaVision was pretty brilliant, and while it didn’t quite stick the landing, it was still one of the best things Marvel has ever done. As I’ve mentioned before with regard to the MCU, they have the money to get good actors, but usually they put them in big stupid fight-’em-ups, which nullifies their abilities a bit. With this, Disney let Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany step away from the fighting (until the unfortunate final episode) and really sink their teeth into the weird material, and both of them showed why they’re so very good at their jobs. The cast is excellent – Kat Dennings finally gets to be a more central figure, and she kills it; Randall Park is far more serious than he is in the Ant-Man movie, and he’s also very good; Teyonah Parris is the stealth MVP of the show as Monica Rambeau, getting her own origin story as she turns into Photon or whatever they’ll call her; and Josh Stamberg starts off as a terrific quasi-villain (he’s not really wrong about Wanda) before they decided he needed to be broader, which he still manages to pull off to a certain degree. Casting Evan Peters as Pietro was superb, especially because it didn’t lead to anything and left all the fanboys gasping with rage. But Kathyrn Hahn really dominates, even over Olsen, which is hard to do, as she shows so many different facets of her character and is convincing at all of them. Hahn is great in everything, of course, but she blasts her way through this show, and it’s nice to see so many people talking about her. I can see how the sitcom format might have vexed some people, especially when you’re watching on a week-to-week basis, but binging this over a few days is fun, because of the way the sitcoms slide easily into the new format, from the 1950s to the early 2000s. I didn’t love the finale because of the BIG FIGHT, which seemed like it could have been avoided and which the show didn’t really need. At least Vision used his brain instead of his fists … eventually. Another neat thing the show did is that we still don’t know if Wanda is “good” or not – she is cruel to Agatha, she seems convinced that she can remake reality to bring her kids back, and she obviously not terribly stable mentally. I don’t know where the character is going, but I thought the ambiguity of the show was pretty ballsy for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s really good, and I’m glad it wasn’t a movie, because the sitcom thing wouldn’t have worked in a 2-hour movie.

Better Off Ted (Hulu). Better Off Ted lasted for 26 glorious episodes in 2009-2010, and died far too soon. It was a superb show that never found an audience, which is too bad because anyone who’s ever worked in an office will laugh at this show, as it skewered the office culture so very well (as well as just the existence of giant corporations). I saw it back in the day, but after we finished Cheers with my daughter, I said we should watch this, as neither my wife nor daughter had seen it. Jay Harrington is wonderful as the perfect man, Ted, who women desire and men want to be, and Portia de Rossi is utterly brilliant as his boss – she’s a shark, sure, but she has many layers, some of which we see as the show moves on. Andrea Anders is gorgeous and adorable as Ted’s co-worker, who digs him but whom he claims he cannot have a relationship because she’s a bit too flighty for him, and he needs stability for his young daughter (it was a lame excuse a decade ago, and it still is, as the showrunners were clearly trying to keep them apart even though Harrington has terrific chemistry with Anders). Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett wind up the main cast as scientists working for Ted, and while they’re not mad scientists, per se, they do come up with some odd things. It’s such a good show, and I’m a bit surprised it didn’t last longer, but it’s all on Hulu, so you can check it out!

**********

As we’re in the Golden Age of Reprints, let’s check out what I got!

Autobiographix from Dark Horse is a collection of, well, autobiographical comics from about 20 years ago, and it’s full of talented artists doing stories about their lives. I don’t love autobiographical comics, as you might recall, but I don’t mind when they’re little vignettes, and that’s what these are!

Conan the Barbarian Omnibus volume 5. I’ve fallen way behind on my Conan reading, but these look cool!

The Best of Sugar Jones is a collection from 2000AD that has stories from a magazine called Pink, which was published in the 1970s. Pat Mills writes about a TV star who’s much older than she presents herself and will do horrible things to keep her secret, apparently. I’m curious how much of it is a good commentary on how Hollywood treats aging female actors, as that’s something that never really goes away and is still being debated today. It’s drawn by Spanish artist Rafael Busóm Clúa, whom I’ve never heard of before but whose art is terrific – very Simonson-esque in places, which is not a bad thing (perhaps Simonson is “Clúa-esque,” as they were working at the same time?). So I’m curious to check this out.

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga volume 9. Some day I will read all of my Usagi Yojimbo. THAT DAY IS NOT TODAY!

Whisper Omnibus volume 2. This has issues #7-24 of the series, with some Breyfogle art and some “Spyder” art, which is Neil Hansen. Hansen is not a bad artist, and his work looks pretty good here. You might recall Hansen from Untamed from Marvel comics, part of their “Heavy Hitters” line of the Image-era 1990s. I wrote about the first issue almost 15 years ago, and it is one of the most insane books I’ve ever read. Not exactly good, but certainly insane!

Here’s the money I spent in March:

3 March: $139.70
10 March: $123.97
17 March: $89.32
24 March: $87.58
31 March: $122.32

March total: $562.89
YTD: $1639.44

More than January, not as much as February. I’m averaging $126 a week, which isn’t too bad.

Moving on, here are the publishers from whom I bought comics:

Archie Comics: 1 (1 trade paperback)
AWA/Upshot: 3 (3 trade paperbacks)
Behemoth Comics: 1 (1 graphic novel)
Boom! Studios: 3 (2 single issues, 1 trade paperback)
ComicMix: 1 (1 “classic” reprint)
DC: 3 (1 graphic novel, 1 single issue, 1 trade paperback)
Dark Horse: 10 (2 “classic” reprints, 1 graphic novel, 4 single issues, 3 trade paperbacks)
Floating World Comics: 1 (1 graphic novel)
Humanoids: 1 (1 graphic novel)
IDW: 1 (1 single issue)
Image: 3 (1 single issue, 2 trade paperbacks)
Marvel: 4 (1 single issue, 1 “classic” reprint, 2 trade paperbacks)
Rebellion/2000AD: 2 (1 “classic reprint,” 1 trade paperback)
Red 5 Comics: 1 (1 trade paperback)
Scout Comics: 1 (1 trade paperback)
21 Pulp: 1 (1 trade paperback)

So, that’s:

5 “classic” reprints
5 OGNs
10 single issues
17 TPs

And … let’s check out the leader board after three months:

Dark Horse: 15
Image: 12
DC: 10
Marvel: 9
AWA/Upshot: 5
Boom! Studios: 5
AfterShock: 3
IDW: 3
Rebellion/2000AD: 3
Scout Comics: 3
Behemoth Comics: 2
Black Mask: 2
Abrams ComicArts: 1
Archaia: 1
Archie Comics: 1
ComicMix: 1
Fantagraphics: 1
Floating World Comics: 1
Gallery 13: 1
Hermes Press: 1
Humanoids: 1
Hyperion: 1
Iron Circus Comics: 1
Keylight Books: 1
Magnetic Press: 1
Plough Publishing: 1
Red 5 Comics: 1
Titan: 1
21 Pulp: 1
Vault: 1
Viz Media: 1

**********

No music this month – Eric will be disappointed, I’m sure. I wanted to write a bit about some of the CDs I’ve bought recently, but I never got around to it. Next month, I promise!

Anyway, it’s vaccination time, but I haven’t gotten one yet. A few weeks ago Arizona opened up vaccinations to everyone 16 years old and up, so there’s been a bit of a rush to get them. I keep checking for availability, but nothing yet. I’ll get vaccinated, but I’m going to have to wait a little while. It sucks, but such is life. A few weeks ago a co-worker actually got a bit angry at me because I wasn’t rushing out to get vaccinated. I told her I was still being careful, I’m not going out very much at all and when I do, I wear a mask, and I’m avoiding large crowds. My wife has gotten vaccinated because she’s a bit more immuno-compromised than I am, so she was eligible before I was, and my kids don’t go anywhere without wearing a mask, and I’ve survived an entire year without getting COVID, so I’m just waiting a bit longer to get vaccinated because I don’t feel like spending all my time trying to get vaccinated. She apologized later, but it was somewhat odd. I’m not being reckless at all, after all. She was having a bad day, so I think she needed someone to take it out on. I check the vaccinations every other day or so, but nothing yet. I’ll get it soon, I hope!

There’s nothing much going on right now. The Republicans can’t really criticize Biden too much, as he’s boring and he’s just trying to pass things that are wildly popular but which the Republicans in Congress don’t like, so they’re whining about how he’s not working with them. Shut the hell up, people. I’ve read a lot of defenses of the voting law that Georgia just passed, to which I say: Shut up. To me, it’s not the effect of the law or that other states have similar provisions. It’s the fact that Georgia Republicans lost the state for Trump and two Senate seats, and instead of figuring out a way to make their messages resonate more, they’re trying to fiddle with voting laws and claiming they want to help with fraud even though the incidents of voting fraud in the States are miniscule. If Trump had won Georgia and they retained one or both of the Senate seats and they still passed these laws, I might believe them a bit more. But the fact that they did it after the results of this election stink of sour grapes. As I’ve said before, one thing Biden can do is make voting easier – move Election Day to Monday, make it a federal holiday, make mail-in voting easier … voting should be open to as many people as possible, and if Republicans don’t like that (and they don’t), perhaps they should change their platform. I do like how the governor of Georgia is all pissy about Major League Baseball moving the All-Star Game and how he claims none of the economic boycotts will change his mind, because 1) yes they will, because you’re a politician and you understand how power works; and 2) you’ll get kicked out of office in two years if the economic impact becomes dire and you choose this hill to die on. So shut up.

So it’s getting hotter and hotter here, and soon it will be summer, and my daughter hopes never to speak of tenth grade again (she’s had a rough year), and we hope we can travel in the near future. I hope everyone is doing well, staying healthy, and getting vaccinated when you can. Despite the foolishness of millions of COVID deniers, it appears we can move past this thing eventually. In the meantime, it’s still a good thing to stay in and read comics!

(I linked to American Ronin here, but remember that if you use this link to buy anything, a bit goes into our pocket to help keep the lights on here. Thanks!)

18 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    I’m all about making voting easier, but – unless voting day is declared a national holiday as you, like many others, suggested – I don’t see how moving it to Monday makes it any easier. It *should* be moved to Sunday, which is pretty much the case in every European country. Otherwise, though, totally agree with you; it needs to be made as easy as possible for everyone, and the spate of election laws being proposed in numerous Republican-controlled states to put up additional hurdles to voting can’t be described as anything other than evil.

    And man, “Better Off Ted” is one of the best sitcoms ever. I first watched it about 2-3 years after its cancellation when some local channel here was running it, and found it brilliant (I especially love the two R&D guys you mentioned). I was equally shocked that it only lasted for a single season – when so many far less funny shows last for a decade or more.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Edo: ‘Muricans love three-day weekends!!!! I would move it to Monday simply because it seems like it would be easier to make it federal holiday if it were on Monday. I also think it should be the entire weekend, not just one day. But if vote-by-mail becomes more of a thing, perhaps that won’t be necessary.

  2. tomfitz1

    I like the fact that Lord Papal, Adam Warlock, Gamorra, and Pip the Troll (Jim Starlin creations) made an appearance in Die!Die!Die! # 14.

    I have to agree that Morrison’s swan song on GL Season 2 wasn’t as good as the first season, but Sharp’s at the top of his game with the art. Look forward to his next collaboration with Ennis.

    Read Bad Mother, as I have read all of the AWA titles – you may enjoy Redemption with the same Faust/Deodato team.

    As for the tv part: just finished MONEY HEIST season 1-4. It’s insane and intense!
    Check it out!

  3. Eric van Schaik

    “No music this month – Eric will be disappointed, I’m sure.”
    You got that right Greg! 😉

    After 3 months I finally had the opportunity to get to the LCS in Holland. Apart from Savage Dragon in floppy (they missed # 256) and the 3rd Ragnarok HC I could only find the Asterix in Belgium oversized hardcover.

    We have watched the first 2 episodes of Wandavision so I stopped reading your comments because of you spoiling so much 🙂
    We also saw the first episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I read somewhere that a lot of crazy people wanted to cancel Tony Stark because he didn’t give money (salary?) to the other heroes… Silly americans 🙂

    Vaccination in Europe doesn’t go very well.
    Because some people got thrombosis after the AstraZenica vaccin (in Holland 5 out of 400.000 people and 1 person died) they stopped giving the vaccin so it will take some time to catch up. Everyone from 18-59 would get a letter in may with a date for the first shot but I get the feeling that I may be glad if I get the letter in june/july…

    I ride my bike quite a lot and in Holland Strava has a challenge: ride 280 km in april for a digital badge and collect money in the fight against Alzheimer. My mom died of Alzheimer end november last year, so of course I joined it. After 4 days I’ve got to 164 km and friends and collegues donated € 145, so that’s a good start. I think mom would be proud.

    No talk about music? No such luck Greg. 😉
    Sometimes YouTube is my friend. I recently discovered post rock (mostly instrumental music). One of those band is April Rain from Russia. I liked it so much I bought the latest album (Mirror of Ether) while visiting their site and it finally arrived 2 weeks ago. Another cd I bought last week was of the american band If These Trees Could Talk (they are from Ohio), and their last album The Boxes of a Dying World (whats in a name… 🙂 ) is great IMO.
    Sometimes a few notes is enough for me to get a nostalgic fibe. Japanese band Mono with their song The Land Between Tides just need a few minutes to get me kind of emotional. You can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_ciYQnd2xc. Maybe it’s your cup of tea too. YMMV.

    That’s it for now.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Eric: I haven’t watched Falcon and Winter Soldier yet, because I like to binge! So next month, I’ll probably write about that.

      That sucks about the vaccine. I haven’t heard anything about problems here. I hope you can get it sorted.

      That’s a cool thing you’re doing with the bike riding.

      Next month, I promise I’ll write about some music!!!!!

  4. toothpaste

    If you liked Last Call, Greg, you should read Dry Manhattan. New York City in the 1920s was an island-sized rager (Manhattan was more populated than it is now, too), and the book dives into different facets of that era – speakeasy culture, corruption, various gangs, and the ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ movements affecting the city.

  5. Der

    My real problem with Morrison(I’ve liked some of his comics, except Final Crisis, but I haven’t read all from him) is that everyone that was writing comics at the time he became famous decided that they would try to imitate him and that they could just list “high concepts” instead of plot and their comics would be great. Dudes, let me tell you: you can have your characters yelling all the high concepts you want, that won’t make your comic good

    This month is was my birthday, so I got a lot of comics(for me), I bought the hardcover of Man of Steel vol 1 by John Byrne, a friend got me The Imago Sequence by Laird Barron(I think someone in here said it was good? I hope it is) and another friend got me a comixology gift card and I bought several DC comics to see if I like them enough to get them in paper(I don’t enjoy reading digital that much tbh) what I got was:

    -Superman Smashes The Klan
    -Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil
    -Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters
    -Hitman vol 1&2

    My mom(62) and my mother in law(62 too) got their first shot of the vaccine. The vaccination is going slooooooooooowly over here, but what can you do? I hope the companies decide to start sharing their patent so we(we meaning every country if possible) can start manufacturing their own vaccines so that we can get out of this as fast as possible

    1. Greg Burgas

      Happy birthday, sir!

      Don’t blame Morrison for imitators not being as good as Morrison is! 🙂

      I don’t know The Imago Sequence, so it wasn’t me!

      All of those books you got are excellent, so I hope you enjoy them.

      How will companies make any money if they share their patents? THINK OF THE POOR CEOs!!!!!! 🙁

  6. tomfitz1

    Last Call by Dave Van Ronk:

    And so we’ve had another night
    Of poetry and poses,
    And each man knows he’ll be alone
    When the sacred ginmill closes.

    And so well drink the final glass
    Each to his joy and sorrow
    And hope the numbing drink will last
    ‘Til opening tomorrow.

    And when we stumble back again
    Like paralytic dancers
    Each knows the question he must ask
    And each man knows the answer.

    And so well drink the final drink

    That cuts the brain in sections
    Where answers do not signify
    And there aren’t any questions.

    I broke my heart the other day.
    It will mend again tomorrow.
    If I’d been drunk when I was born
    I’d be ignorant of sorrow.

    And so well drink the final toast
    That never can be spoken:
    Here’s to the heart that is wise enough
    To know when it’s better off broken.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Morrison “came out” as non-binary in November. Apparently it’s been an open secret for some time, but as I don’t often hang with Morrison, I didn’t know.

      I have no problem if they continue to work for DC. More is good, sez I!

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