Notes On A Film – Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Friday, 15 April 2016

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice poster
I usually discuss my thoughts on superhero films because it’s in the centre of the Venn diagram of this blog, namely comic books and movies, and especially when I go to the cinema to see them. However, my reaction to seeing Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was along the lines of, ‘Oh dear’, which doesn’t make for a fascinating or interesting insight. Several weeks after seeing it, I felt compelled to get the thoughts out of my head so I no longer had it ruminating in there.

I can’t tell what was more annoying while watching the film: the lack of thought put into the story, or the two kids behind me constantly talking through the action of the last third after their bored silence of the first two-thirds. At least they weren’t traumatised like the younger children sitting further down the aisle from me, asking their mum in tremulous voices about what was happening on screen …

The problem for the film is that the only creative motivation behind it is that Zack Snyder loved the fight between Batman and Superman in the Frank Miller comic book, The Dark Knight Returns, and wanted to make a movie about it; however, he doesn’t seem to understand that the fight in the comic book was earned by the previous issues and the characterisation given to the protagonists – the film comes across as a dreary and unengaging build-up that doesn’t have any of the weight required to justify it. The entire film is constructed to set up this conflict, but it’s not believable and, anyway, Snyder doesn’t care – he got to film the fight, and that’s all that matters to him.

The film fails because it doesn’t serve any of reasons for making it  – it doesn’t provide an entertaining film in its own right, it doesn’t serve as a sequel to Man of Steel because Superman is not the protagonist of the story, and it doesn’t serve as an exciting launching point for the raft of Warner Bros. films based on DC Comics characters. It exists as an exercise in putting two of the most famous fictional characters from comic books into a live-action film together for the first time. I don’t usually care about the box office numbers, but here they speak volumes: the huge opening weekend shows how much people wanted to see Batman and Superman on screen together; the huge drop-off in the second weekend shows how disappointed all those people were and told their friends not to bother.

I wonder if Marvel Cinematic Universe films have spoiled us – even the average MCU films (Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World) were better than this, and all of the films developed the character and the story to earn the final act climaxes, and more importantly remembered to be entertaining at the same time. I counted three jokes in the entire 2.5-hour running time, and two of them were in the trailer – the Nolan Batman films, more serious and complex than BvS:DoJ, were far more entertaining and had far more humour in them.

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice still
Let me leaven my own darkness here with some of the highlights: Wonder Woman was great – her arrival injected energy and spark, and it was great to see a superhero who knew how to smile. It was slightly depressing that the best thing about a Batman/Superman film is Wonder Woman, but there you go. Gal Gadot looked and acted the part, so that’s a good sign for the standalone film. I thought Ben Affleck was great as Bruce Wayne – he had the right tone and attitude, when he wasn’t just being grumpy about Superman. I liked his Batman – the scene where he fought a bunch of goons was extremely well done – but not as much as his Bruce, and I’m glad that a voice modulator was used for the Batman voice instead of trying to do a Christian Bale growl. I wish that Jeremy Irons had more to do as Alfred because he had a great spiky energy in the role. Amy Adams was her usual great self as Lois Lane, even if she was wasted for the most part (and was it really necessary for that scene for her to be in the bath?). I think that Henry Cavill might make a good Superman/Clark Kent, if he was given the opportunity – here, he spends most of the time looking sullen and serious, with very little chance to do anything interesting. In contrast, Jesse Eisenberg is given plenty to do as Lex Luthor but seems to be in a completely different movie to everybody else, all crazy ticks and excessive dialogue compared with the general sombre tone, with no motivations for his character: he’s just there to act as the plot engine for the whole film.

Luthor is also the plot engine for the hoped-for Justice League set-up – instead of an organic introduction to Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg, we discover that he has files on them; not only that, Luthor has asked a designer to come up with a logo for them (including Wonder Woman) as well as naming them (the name is part of the video filename). Because that’s what would happen. It’s typical of this film – things happen for no reason apart from they have to be there for something else. There are lots of dream sequences – the film starts with Bruce dreaming about his parents being gunned down and discovering the cave with bats, because nobody knows Batman’s secret origin; he has another one about Superman being a fascistic leader at some point in the future that suggests the world is controlled by Darkseid, although it seems that this dream might have been a warning from a future Flash about what may happen if they don’t trust in Lois Lane; it’s hard to tell because it was all rather confusing.

Fair play to Snyder, the fight between Batman and Superman is well done, even if the way it ends involves a maternal coincidence that I confess hadn’t thought about before, and would have made for a decent ending to the film. But then we get the bigger fight, the one that was ruined by showing the antagonist in the bloody trailer, and it’s a return to the bigger-is-bigger-is-best approach employed at the end of Man of Steel, where things are moving so fast your eyes can barely keep up. Marvel films do this better – like in comic books, you have to show the fight in a way that people can follow it and enjoy or there’s no point; seeing as superhero fights are the USP, it’s kind of important.

I left the cinema after watching this film with the feeling of a wasted opportunity – we could have had an entertaining cinematic meeting between Batman and Superman; instead, we got a sombre, slow, dull, uninteresting, plodding, unengaging 150 minutes that will probably be the only time we get a film billed as a Batman and Superman film. I didn’t care about the ending, I didn’t care about a potential Justice League film, and as someone who copy-edits and proofreads for a living, I was appalled at the lack of punctuation in the headline of The Daily Planet at the end of the film – you’re film isn’t a success if that stays in the mind instead of the supposed spectacle around it.

Rating: DA

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

Book Review – Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim cover
Written by Brian Michael Bendis and Neil Kleid

I remember the excitement back in 2000 around the arrival of Powers the comic book, co-created by Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming – Bendis was a rising star of indie crime comics and the book seemed to be a perfect fusion of his noir approach and superheroes. Fortunately, the excitement was justified – Powers was a great comic book from the start, about detectives in the Chicago Powers Homicide Division, a book filled with sex and violence and swearing and death, but also infused with love for the genres and a serious sensibility in Oeming’s moody art. Powers also introduced two great lead characters: Detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim. Walker’s long history was examined in the comic book in the infamous ‘monkey-sex’ issues (and I love that a comic book with shagging monkeys has been adapted into a live-action television series, even if we’ll never see that incident on the show …), but Pilgrim’s history was not. Until now.

The story starts in particularly grisly fashion, even for Powers: a hooded man beats an old man to death, the viciousness and gore described in gruesome detail. Detectives Walker and Pilgrim are called to the scene (NB: this book takes place after Powers Bureau – Deena has lost her powers and the pregnancy and she is back to working with her old partner in the PHD) – Walker recognises the victim, aged 112 (Walker had been at his 100th birthday party) with his shield discovered as the murder weapon: Joe Monroe, aka Citizen Soldier, a ‘living legend’, ‘America’s greatest hero’, i.e. the Powers analogue of Captain America. The problem is that the tattoo on Monroe’s arm – snakes and bullets, a fist, lightning bolts, the letters ‘T.H.F.’ – is the symbol of The Human Front, the most vocal and organised anti-Powers movement.

Back at PHD, Walker is taken off the case by Captain Cross due to a government-level investigation of all cops with powers (even though Walker no longer has powers) making Walker a liability. Because Detective Enki Sunrise is on another case, Pilgrim is given a new partner, a new detective called Kirk. The man investigating Walker is Special Agent Aaron Boucher, which complicates things further because he and Pilgrim had a relationship back in Atlanta when they were starting out but ended messily. Their lives were entwined growing up because her dad was Detective Waldo Pilgrim, who rose through the ranks of Atlanta’s PHD and was friends with several masked heroes; Boucher’s father was Judge Kenneth Boucher, friend of Waldo’s, and also a powerful figure in the judicial system in Atlanta. Twelve years before, Atlanta was under curfew and patrolled by the National Guard and deputised Powers under the leadership of Citizen Soldier, including Walker in his Diamond identity; however, this didn’t stop the murders known as the Liberty Murders (always a different MO but with the note In The Name Of Liberty found at the scene).

Back in the present day, the killer strikes again – the prose explicitly identifies the killer as ‘Liberty’ – killing three men with THF tattoos, beheading them and leaving them on a train with a note in blood on the wall: In The Name Of Liberty. The three were known as the Rampage Brothers, who were part of the Atlanta gang wars and the Detroit Powers Riots (Citizen Soldier fought in both, as did Walker), as well as being associated with the THF for a long time. When the Soldier’s death is leaked to the cable news show, Powers That Be, the investigation is messed up even more and Pilgrim’s past life and current life collide in a fashion that will test whether Pilgrim wants to be a cop any more (she is exhausted by the job; she wants an easy one – ‘Nothing that jams electric death rays up my cooter’.) and her relationship with Walker.

This novel justifies its existence as a prose book instead of a comic book by the fact that is introspective and needs to be inside the heads of the main characters – comics can’t do this well because there is only so much space in a panel for thought balloons and because it’s not as visual – so there is never the voice in your head wondering why this story isn’t a comic book. This is something I worried about when I heard about the project, because jumping mediums doesn’t always make sense. However, this is definitely a story that required the format of the novel to tell it.

Despite it being a novel, it’s not quite the novel I’d hoped for. Even though the credits have two names, the novel is more Kleid than Bendis (Kleid mentions it in interviews, such as the one at Forces of Geek: Bendis plotted but Kleid wrote the novel). It’s not surprising, considering that Bendis writes so many comic books for Marvel nowadays so hasn’t got the time to write a novel, but I thought that he would have been more possessive of his co-creation. Also, I would love to read some Bendis prose, because his crime comic books suggest he would have a great voice. Kleid does a good job but it doesn’t feel 100% Powers. There are some weird descriptions: the prose actually calls Pilgrim ‘the spunky detective’ and ‘opinionated ball of spunk’. The prose occasionally sounds as if Pilgrim is narrating, describing someone ‘as useless as a bag of assholes’, despite the fact that she clearly isn’t the narrator. There are the occasional clunky lines trying to reference stories in the comic books to get the reader up to speed on where the characters are at that fall flat on the page.

It’s far from all bad. There is nice banter between Walker and Pilgrim when they’re working a case that makes you want to read an entire novel about the two of them (the story needs to split them up to focus on Pilgrim and her history and its relation to the current investigation). This even gets a funny reference: witnessing Walker and Pilgrim talking at each other, Boucher asks them, ‘Do you always talk this much?’ There are cute references to comic book creators in the form of places in the book, name-checking Kirby, Fialkov, Bernardin and Andreyko. It’s also great to finally read about Deena’s life and how she got to be who she is – one of the great comic book characters: complex, snarky, defensive, messed up, loyal, honest, a good detective and an interesting human being. Unfortunately, I don’t think the book quite hits the heights it aims for – the cutting back and forth between the past and the present, with all the connections between the two, and the various crooked dealings of corrupt cops and villains feel like an attempt at James Ellroy’s LA Quartet but with superheroes (and without the beat-style prose) but without the skill and depth. I’m glad to know so much more about Deena Pilgrim; I just wish this could have been a better book because I think she deserves it.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

From A Library – Star Wars: Shattered Empire

Monday, 22 February 2016

Star Wars: Shattered Empire collection cover
Star Wars: Shattered Empire #1–4
Written by Greg Rucka
Art by Marco Checchetto (and Angel Unzueta and Emilio Laiso)

I didn’t expect to see Rucka writing a Star Wars comic, especially one that starts at the end of the Battle of Endor; what I did expect was that Rucka would write a good comic book, and at least I was right about that. Lieutenant Shara Bey is an Alliance pilot in Green Group, fighting Imperial ships outside the Death Star; she comes close to accidentally shooting Luke Skywalker as he exits the Death Star following his battle with the Emperor. She is married to Sergeant Kes Dameron, part of the Pathfinders team assigned to Han Solo, which is how she ends up volunteering as a pilot for his team when it goes on a clean-up mission after the celebrations. Her adventures in the weeks after see her acting as a pilot for Leia and Luke on separate missions, as she also struggles to come to terms with being a rebel but who wants to settle down with the husband she barely sees and their baby they haven’t seen since joining the rebellion.

I know this is a clichĂ© when it comes to talking about Rucka’s writing, but he writes phenomenally good female characters, mostly through writing really good characters who happen to be women. It’s a sad indictment of fictional entertainment that we still have to make a point of highlighting good female characters, but that’s the way it is so I will continue to highlight them, especially with Rucka’s excellent track record (Tara Chace, Renee Montoya, Forever Carlyle, to name a few). Shara Bey is a human being doing her best under difficult circumstances, who is good at what she does but doesn’t want her life to be nothing else but the job; she is relatable, admirable and believable. Rucka does a nice job of fitting her in the Star Wars mythos but he makes sure to focus on her character first before the story; it just makes the fun of seeing Bey in stories with the main Star Wars protagonists even more enjoyable.

It’s good to see Rucka working again with Checcetto – they did a great job on the Punisher series that should have been allowed to continue, and seem to have a good synthesis of their styles. It’s a shame that Checcetto doesn’t do the art for the whole four issues, but the other artists don’t drop the ball – I’m not sure which artist was responsible for the Leia sections but the likeness was perfect.

If I have a criticism of this collection is that four issues isn’t enough – I would gladly read more stories centred on Bey interacting with the Star Wars characters. This is compounded by the strange choice to include the first issue of Princess Leia by Mark Waid and Terry Dodson and the first issue of Star Wars from 1977 by Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin at the end of the book. The Princess Leia chapter is very good, and I will go out of my way to read it, but I would feel cheated if I bought this book and the Princess Leia collection, paying twice for some of the same content. The original Star Wars comic book is an oddity, being the start of an adaptation of the film but seemingly from a shooting draft of the screenplay that had sections removed for the film – it has various scenes with Luke and Biggs on Tattoine that aren’t in the movie; also, and I say this as a Chaykin fan, the art isn’t as strong as Chaykin’s previous work on the likes of Cody Starbuck or later work on American Flagg!, so doesn’t act as a great incentive to read more of those earlier Star Wars comic books. However, as I said, it’s only a small criticism – Rucka has crafted a great new character in the Star Wars world and a very enjoyable story.

The Comic Book Industry Eats Itself

Friday, 19 February 2016

DC Rebirth
With the news of DC Comics Rebirth (they are keen to state that it’s NOT a reboot, but c’mon …) relaunching the DC universe of titles with new #1 issues after 52 issues of the DC New 52 reboot of the entire DC universe (which happened only back in September 2011), readers of comic books must be wondering: what the hell is going on with mainstream comic book universes? What is the point of reading these books when everything is going to change and nothing matters?

Rebooting/relaunching comic book universes is not a new phenomenon – the Silver Age of comics started in October 1956 with the publication of Showcase #4 and the modern version of the Flash, the success of which would lead to modern versions of many DC superheroes, effectively revitalising the DC universe where only Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman had titles of which they were the star. DC did it again in 1986, with Crisis on Infinite Earths streamlining the 50-year history and relaunching new versions of various characters.

Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, which saw the release of Ultimate Spider-Man in 2000, Ultimate X-Men in 2001 and The Ultimates in 2002, was effectively a reboot of the Marvel universe but in parallel with the rest of the Marvel universe. Marvel kept on publishing both universes until finally admitting that the Ultimate experiment had run its course and absorbed the successes (Miles Morales as Spider-Man, Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury) into the ‘proper’ Marvel universe, albeit in the All-New, All Different Marvel universe that launched out of the Secret Wars title (even if it was a slightly botched launch because Secret Wars overran so long that it was still coming out while all the new titles were starting). And this was after Marvel, in response to DC’s success with their New 52, relaunched their ongoing books with new #1 issues as Marvel NOW! in October 2012 and then All-New Marvel NOW! a year later.

The comic book industry is in strange times. The films based on comic book properties are massive successes but there hasn’t been a comparative increase in the sales of comic books. Caveat: It’s hard to be completely accurate with the sales of comic books, with most data coming from Diamond, which is how many books Diamond sells directly to comic book shops in the US, and doesn’t take into account comic books sold in the rest of the world or digital sales. However, these numbers are a good indicator and, despite the fact that sales have increased since the extreme low prior to the DC New 52 relaunch, the top titles sell in the region of 100,000 to 150,000, and that’s only for the top ten, with the rest of the top 50 selling in the 30,000 to 60,000 range. Note that this doesn’t take into account the sales of trade paperbacks, but that’s a different issue because the trade relies on the sale of individual issues as a loss-leader.

All-New, All-Different Marvel Universe teaser
Comic book culture dominates geek culture, with the films and the television series and cosplay seemingly everywhere, but there is still a limited audience of people who buy individual issues of a comic book on a weekly basis. Comic book readers are conditioned to this, but the general audience doesn’t know and doesn’t care – the mythical idea that everyone will buy comics if there is something for everyone and they know about it is ridiculous and the sooner it is removed from any discussion about the future of comic books the better. The rest of the world is not going to start buying monthly comic books for entertainment when they cost so much and provide so little value for money when they have film and TV providing a more satisfying and cheaper version of the same concepts. There is also the fact that, unless you get into the mindset when you’re younger, reading comic books is a unique medium that requires different comprehension and appreciation, something that the average person is not going to put the effort into acquiring.

There is also the fact that comic books are inherently something that are not designed for casual dipping into – it’s a commitment and conscious decision to wade into titles with years of history, or which have a different status quo from the mainstream version that the majority of people know (e.g. for the majority of people who were aware of Green Lantern from TV, which vastly exceeded the people who knew Green Lantern from the comic books, John Stewart was Green Lantern because of the Justice League animated series, not a dull white man in an animated suit). Even newer characters exist within a universe filled with a massive number of other characters and a shared history of concepts and events, something that appeals to a comic book fan but is a barrier to someone not conditioned to it or who doesn’t care and just wants a story like the film or the TV show.

Constantly relaunching with #1 issues might create a temporary boost in sales because everyone likes something new and shiny, but inevitably numbers decline because it’s not sustainable. Marvel has been using the ‘new creators, new season’ model for their big sellers for a while now, justifying the #1 issue with a new creative team providing a jumping-on point; this has some validity because there is generally a different approach between creative teams in the modern comic book industry, instead of the old days where there was a belief in maintaining continuity in these multi-decade titles. However, it has reached a law of diminishing returns where everything has a new launch so often that it doesn’t mean anything and the years of continuing history are irrelevant – the only option left soon will be to have a new issue #1 with every issue.

Conversely, DC has tried a different approach by forcing out issues consistently on a monthly basis with little care for creative vision apart from a few titles – as long as the book gets out the door on schedule, it doesn’t seem to matter to DC who it writing or drawing the book as long as it is published. This has led to unhappy creators feeling undervalued, with the exception of some of the big names, books being cancelled because they’re not selling well because they’re not very good, multiple crossovers, and a general sense that only the big titles matter (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Justice League).

This doesn’t consider the fact that comic books are expensive, that it is an industry mainly created by and for white men, that it is still mostly stuck with characters created 50 years ago, that the physical version requires comic book shops to order them several months in advance and can’t return them. Comic books are generally better than they were – the writers, artists, colourists, letters, editors are top quality; the sophistication and quality of comic books are better; the range and diversity of characters are better – but the industry is still relatively small and should stop hankering for the sales during the Second World War. IT’S NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN.

Another factor related to expense is reluctance to try new things and feel the experience of a shared universe of characters. When I started buying comic books, they cost 30 pence an issue, which made it an affordable hobby where I could try new titles and concepts while still feeling invested in the entire fictional world of superheroes. Even with digital comics allowing people to shop for titles more easily, there is no way that the average comic book fan can afford to invest in these shared universes in the same way; also, the risk of trying something new is too expensive, meaning that new concepts don’t get the chance to develop an audience and people stick to the main titles with the decades-old characters that are the major players. Constantly producing new #1s as supposed jumping-on points isn’t going change this – stagnation will set in, nobody will believe that the latest relaunch/reboot/renumbering event is going to mean anything, and the mainstream comic book industry will contract even more so that it will only exist to maintain franchise characters.

I don’t have the answers for this problem – I wish I did – but I do have genuine affection for comic books still: I review comic books that publishers kindly send me, I buy creator-owned titles at Image and Dark Horse, I read forests of trade paperbacks from libraries, and I still have my vast collection of old comic books. I sincerely hope that the industry survives, even if I don’t buy monthly comics from DC or Marvel any more, so that as many people as possible get to experience the joy of comic books and the fantastic stories in massive shared universes. I’m just a little worried about it …

Notes On A Film: Deadpool

Monday, 15 February 2016

Deadpool movie poster
From the opening joke credits through to the knowing post-credit sting, Deadpool is hilariously, filthily, irreverently funny. Nobody is safe from ridicule: the producers are credited as ‘Ass-hats’, the director is ‘An overpaid tool’, Ryan Reynolds mocks himself and his career, the budgetary restrictions of the film are noted, the confusing timelines of the X-Men movies are referenced, the breaking of the fourth wall is mocked; even the ‘gratuitous cameo’ is hilarious and mocking. The Deadpool movie has perfectly captured the comedic sensibility of the Deadpool comics at their best and created something enjoyable in a cinematic format. I’m so glad that the film has had the highest opening of an R-rated movie of all time, because it means we will definitely get a sequel.

The film is an origin story for Deadpool, played to perfection by Reynolds, throwing you straight into the action before flashing back to how Wade Wilson went from former soldier to Merc With A Mouth, involving a shadowy organisation infusing him with serum and then torturing him to kick-start mutations in his genes, resulting in a man who can’t be killed but who looks repulsive. The plot engine of the rest of the film is Deadpool trying to find the man who made him indestructible but hideous so that he can fix him (Ajax, played by Ed Skrein) so that Wade can return to girl he loves (Vanessa, played by Morena Boccarin), all while the jokes fly thick and fast and Reynolds narrates throughout.

After the taster of Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine that didn’t work out, this is what a Deadpool movie should be. Funny and ultra-violent, it also has a heart (the relationship between Wade and Vanessa is actual rather sweet), which means it can lay into superhero movies because there is genuine affection for them and the lead character. Director Tim Miller manages to find the tone that allows for carnage and dick jokes and inventive swearing, while still being a (relatively) traditional superhero film – the plot is secondary to the gags and Deadpool himself, with an uninteresting villain in the form of Ajax, but he’s not really necessary because Deadpool is anti-hero and part-villain in his own movie.

When a film is really funny, people can forget that it was scripted and the writers (credited as ‘The Real Heroes Here’) Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have packed the script with great lines, sharp retorts and in-jokes. This is helped by Reynolds – it’s tough to break the fourth wall in film and do it well, but his easy charm pulls it off with aplomb (and he would make a joke about ‘pulling it off’ while doing it); his turns to camera in the middle of a shot make the movie sing. Even the way the white eyes in the mask change shape to reflect the dialogue is great.

I’m can’t tell if the film works as well for a general audience as it does for a comic book-savvy audience because I’ve been reading comic books for nearly three decades – for my sins, I bought the first appearance of Deadpool in New Mutants #98 when it came out, and I’ve got the excellent run by Joe Kelly and Ed McGuinness in my collection – so having Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead turn up seems completely normal. However, because we’ve had so many superhero movies recently, and ones that are good and seen by lots of people, it means that everyone can get the jokes; in fact, the delay in getting this film made has worked in its favour, because now everybody understands what Deadpool is about. I’m just happy we live in a world where an extremely funny and good Deadpool movie exists.

Rating: DAVE

Book Review: All The Birds In The Sky

Friday, 29 January 2016

All The Birds In The Sky book cover
All The Birds In The Sky
Written by Charlie Jane Anders

The near future. Patricia is 6 years old when she helps a sparrow with a wounded wing, who tells her to take her to the Parliament of Birds in the nearby forest to fix him. The sparrow tells her she’s a witch, if she can talk to animals. Laurence (definitely not Larry) is a smart 6-year-old kid who doesn’t like doing stuff that Gets Him Out Of The House, who makes a Two-Second Time Machine from schematics he finds on the internet. He decides to go to Boston to watch the launch of a prototype rocket, which he doesn’t see but he does meet all the engineers who made it because of the Two-Second Time Machine he made.

Seven years later, these two literally bump into each other in the playground at school, Patricia breaking Laurence’s time machine. Despite this, they become friends (Patricia uses his full name without being asked) and Patricia acts as Laurence’s alibi for outdoors stuff so he doesn’t have to do it. They are not boyfriend and girlfriend, even though everyone at school thinks so, and Patricia rediscovers some of her witch power (after eating lots of spicy food as a protest) when she talks to the Tree in the area where she met the Parliament of Birds, while Laurence builds a supercomputer in his bedroom. Things become complicated for them when Theodolphus Rose, a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins, has a vision of the future at the Assassin Shrine in Albania, which will lead to death and chaos and a war between magic and science, at the centre of which are a man and a woman who are children in the present and Mr Rose decides he must kill them, even if his Order has a strict ban on killing minors …

In the third section, Patricia and Laurence meet again when they are 23 and living in San Francisco – Patricia has been to witch school (Eltisley Maze) and Laurence is a Wunderkind working for the rich entrepreneur who paid for the rocket Laurence went to see as a child. The world is in trouble – catastrophes in Seoul and Haiti, the Great Midwestern Dustbath, the French blight, Atlantic superstorms, Arabic winters, the last of the bees in North America – but technology advances as usual, with most of those in the developed world owning a Caddy, the next-generation handheld device that is almost like a life aid. Once again, things become complicated when Patricia and Laurence become part of each other’s lives, only this time there is even more at stake …

This is a wonderful novel by Anders, and it’s even more impressive because it’s her debut novel. It feels strange that this is her first novel because I’ve been reading her incisive and passionate writing for ages at io9.com – she’s the editor-in-chief of the site and has written many, many articles for it, and her analysis and thoughts on science fiction, writing and Doctor Who are a regular part of my daily reading. It also explains the liberal use of Doctor Who quotes and sci-fi references to The Matrix, Star Wars, Avatar, Red Dwarf and the ‘Shatner Space Telescope’, something I enjoyed immensely. It also explains her understanding of story and the ability to blend science fiction and fantasy to produce something new – the two genres are connected but not always mixed in such a blatant yet lyrical fashion, so it was a joy to become immersed in a book that handles the combination so well.

The prose is clean and sharp, neither the dryness of hard sci-fi nor the ethereal quality of fantasy, and is leavened liberally with humour without distracting from the story. Anders has a lovely turn of phrase: a kitten talking to Patricia describes birds as ‘like toys with meat inside’, and I particularly liked the sentence, ‘When Laurence was old enough to do what he liked, he would be old enough to understand he couldn’t do what he liked.’ Anders demonstrates her understanding of plot, theme, story, character in her articles, so it’s no surprise she does the same with her novel, which blends all the elements and brings together all aspects at the end (this book seems to an entity to itself, not the first in a series, which made the narrative resonate more).

Most of all, Anders has created two lead characters the reader can believe in. Through her writing, I connected with Patricia and Laurence, felt for them and their difficulties, developing towards a level where, if the story didn’t end well for them, I would have been forced to hunt Anders down and make her change the ending. Fortunately, Anders didn’t have to obtain a restraining order – her lyrical, charming, inventive, delightful story hit all the right notes and satisfied my demands for a deserved conclusion Patricia and Laurence.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Comic Book Review – Doctor Who: Four Doctors

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Doctor Who: Four Doctors cover
Doctor Who: Four Doctors #1–5
Written by Paul Cornell
Art by Neil Edwards
Colours by Ivan Nunes
Letters by Richard Starkings/Jimmy Betancourt
Edited by Andrew James
Published by Titan Comics

On the planet Marinus at some point during the Time War, the War Doctor is with the Voord, a hive mind race, who are resisting the Daleks; they are worried that the Time Lords will remove what the Voord have become during the war and ask the War Doctor for help. Cut to: Clara Oswald and the Twelfth Doctor, with the word ‘Marinus’ popping in to her head – after a quick recon trip, she goes to a cafĂ© in Paris, 1923, to meet two other companions: Gabby Gonzalez (would-be artist from Brooklyn who is currently the companion of the Tenth Doctor) and Alice Obiefune (former library assistant from London who is currently companion to the Eleventh Doctor). Clara needs to convince the other companions of an important fact or the universe will be destroyed: their Doctors must not meet … Of course, things don’t work out like that and, as the Twelfth Doctor says, “We’re all going to have some sort of ‘Multi-Doctor … Event’! Whether you like it or not!”

After the Blinovitch Limitation Effect creates a paradox at a fixed point in time, Reapers appear to feed on the energy, so it’s time for our Doctors and their companions to run, where the three Doctors deliberately cause their Tardises to become docked into one, allowing plenty of running down corridors, then going to Marinus when they shouldn’t because it’s obviously a trap, revealing the reason why they’ve been lured there, a continuity bomb, and why the series is called Four Doctors. The story includes references to pivotal moments in the lives of the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, lots of in-jokes and references and lovely dialogue (Eleventh Doctor: “Is this what deja vu is like? I've always wanted to have deja vu.”), plus some nice moments that illuminate the various Doctors and their respective companions. It’s all set at a frantic pace, with twists and turns aplenty, excitement, adventure and the feel of a story that you would see on the television (there must have been plenty of careful coordination with the various creators so that storylines didn’t get messed up, helped by the fact that Cornell has written for the TV show as well) instead of just a piece of tie-in merchandise.

This story works really well as a Doctor Who crossover – it feels organic and connected to the history and reliant on the different characteristics of the different regenerations. Cornell brings the right mix of comic book and television to the mini-series so that it works as a comic book that could be a television episode (well, an extra-length special at the very least) without feeling like it’s simply a storyboard for a show that didn’t get made; it’s a tricky balance to pull off, but Cornell manages the equilibrium superbly. He fills it with detail to show that the book is rooted in details of the series but also gently mocks it as well to create the light touch that drives the current incarnation, mixing humour with adventure that has consequences. So there are lines about the Valeyard looking like something ‘out of a panto’, a sly reference to the fact that the Ninth Doctor isn’t part of the Multi-Doctor Event (‘There was … a problem involving him.’), and the Twelfth Doctor describing the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors as ‘Manic Pixie Dream Doctors’ – a phrase that makes me smile just writing it – and as ‘Baby Doctor’ and ‘Posh Doctor’ respectively. Add in references to Harry Potter, Asterix the Gaul, Bugs Bunny, Star Wars and Carry On films, and you have that beguiling mix of entertainment that is Doctor Who.

Another important factor that makes this book feel like a comic book that is also something that could be on television is the art. Edwards has continued to grow as an artist and he makes this book come alive – not only is his art dynamic with excellent storytelling but he also does really good likenesses, something that can be the bane of comic books that are tie-ins to live-action shows. He perfectly captures the mannerisms and facial reactions of David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, which makes the banter and jokes land so much better. He also copes with the tough task of capturing the feel of the show and the accuracy of the Tardis interiors, which makes the story easier to invest in and go with, because the reader can sit back and let the narrative pull them through without anything taking them out of the story.

Doctor Who: Four Doctors is a fun, action-packed, genuine Doctor Who crossover that entertains and delights and makes you glad you’ve read the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and think that you will as well. It’s Doctoriffic.

Disclosure: this book was provided as a PDF for review purposes.
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