Arkham Asylum — Grant Morrison and Dave McKean
I was so disappointed by this. I can’t remember whose recommendation I ordered it on, but when it arrived and I flicked through it, I immediately thought it had the most artistic art of any comic I’d seen: every page looks like the fruit of a long creative process and has a distinctive character
But the actual story is terribly limp and clichéd. It honestly reads like nothing more than an homage to Alan Moore, hitting all the classic points but without ever quite understanding why. It amounts to two stories told in parallel: one set in the past, about the founder of Arkham Asylum, and the other in the present, featuring Batman punching some lunatics. There’s a twist, but it’s the kind that leaves you saying “Oh, OK”.
Looks amazing, not really worth reading.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World, and Why — Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling
A short and approachable book by a man who spent his life working on medicine in the poorest countries in the world, about how very much better things are than we think they are. (He died before the book was finished: the co-authors are his son and daughter-in-law.)
Poverty is still very real, of course: but globally things are improving and fast. Rosling shows that we adhere to narratives of disaster largely because scary stories stick in our brains better then positive ones, and because the media favours the former. Discarding the notions of “developed countries” and “developing countries” (or”first world” and “third world”), Rosling instead classifies economic wellbeing in four classes: 1 is extreme poverty and 4 is western affluence. The proportion of the word in level one is shrinking fast, and most countries are moving up through the levels.
This is an important book, and an encouraging one. Highly recommended.
Rothgar (Bob the Angry Flower) — Stephen Notley
Honestly, Bob the Angry Flower is my all-time favourite comic, just beating out Calvin and Hobbes and Basic Instructions. To my mind it hit its zenith between the 3rd and 5th collections (Everybody vs Bob, The Ultimate Book of Perfect Energy and Dog Killer) but there are also plenty of outstanding strips in the earlier and later collections — and they pretty much all free to read online. (Try Yes, Terry, Industrious Sloth, Attempts to Reconcile Quantum Physics with Relativity, Uh…, and Slogor.)
That said, I felt that there was a real drop-off in quality — and for that matter, effort — in the books that followed Dog Killer, and that is certainly reflected in the hit-and-miss nature of Rothgar. It’s the third time or so that I’ve read it, and there’s still a lot to enjoy, but I wouldn’t recommend it as the jumping-on point for someone new to Bob.
All-Star Superman — Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
I was re-reading this twelve-issue series, having read it years ago on the recommendation of (I think) Andrew Hickey. As then, I enjoyed it without quite understanding what all the fuss was about. I know it’s a terribly obvious criticism to make, but Morrison really does have a habit of writing as though he really really wants to be Alan Moore but just doesn’t quite have the knack.
It’s lovely to look at, though: all clean lines and open spaces.
Marvel Platinum: the Definitive Iron Man — Stan Lee et al.
A high-quality reprint edition that collects eight classic stories from all eras of Iron Man from his 1963 origin to 2000. I enjoyed all of these, but would have preferred a volume that was just a collection of all the earliest Iron Man stories. It’s always fascinating to see how characters that we know well now swam slowly into focus.
That is especially true in the case of Iron Man, a character whose early incarnation looked absolutely nothing like the crimson-and-gold version we’ve all come to know so well.
Superman: True Brit — Kim Howard Johnson, John Cleese, John Byrne and Mark Farmer
The premise is fascinating: what if, when Kal-El was launched from the dying planet Krypton to Earth, he had landed in Britain (specifically, Weston-super-Mare, England) instead of America? What if he had grown up English, with all the diffidence, self-doubt and awareness of what the neighbours might think that stereotypically characterises the English?
There’s a great comic to be written on that premise, but True Brit isn’t it: it never gets beyond the most one-dimensional of stereotypes — perhaps because it’s trying to be funny — and the result is that it doesn’t feel like Superman is living in the real England, but in a lazily written 1970s sitcom.
Shame. Given the huge list of contributors, you’d like think one of them would have found a way to put the story together; and given that one of the is John Cleese, you’d think more of the jokes would work.
Batman: Year One — Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Second time around for this one, which I read a few years ago. It’s a re-imagining of the Batman origin story, split 50-50 between Bruce Wayne’s and Jim Gordon’s perspective. It works well: short but compelling, and pretty believable as these things go. Not a patch on Arkham Asylum as regards visuals, but that just shows us once again that narrative is king.
Superman: Red Son — Mark Millar et al.
This is a much more interesting what-if for Superman. What if his ship had come down in Soviet Russia, and he’d been raised to believe that communism was the best way to help humanity? We also get to see how Lex Luthor might have turned out had he been America’s great hope against a Soviet super-weapon. Unlike True Brit, which is played entirely for laughs, this one asks genuinely interesting questions, and makes some kind of a stab at answering them. Well worth reading — and indeed re-reading, which is what I did.
I hear that there’s a movie version of Red Son in the works. I am … not optimistic about this. What works well in the comic — Soviet iconography, a rather grimmer outlook that we’re used to from Superman — is likely to be either trivialised in film or handled in a heavy-handed way. I wonder if this story is one best told in the medium it was originally told in?
I’m a bit shocked to see that all but one of this batch are comic books — and I can tell you that four of the next batch will be, too. Evidently I’m a pretty shallow kind of reader.