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Review 171: Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

As I was reading this book, a student saw me reading it and asked what it was about, I had to think for a few moments before answering.

“It’s about terrible people in a terrible place, doing terrible things to each other,” I said. And that really does just about sum it up.

The story that McCarthy tells is a complete destruction of the mythology of the Old West that Americans had come to know and love over the years. Some of the more modern Western films had begun to explore this territory when the book was published in 1985 – many of Clint Eastwood’s films spring to mind – creating a West where the “hero” is just the least bad person in the film. Even then, though, there are still undercurrents of the nobility of the cowboy, out to tame a savage land for the good of a civilization that will no longer need him when it’s done.

Next to these bounty hunters, Boba Fett is practically Gandhi.

This book features characters who are violent and vicious, thieves and murderers who will stop at nothing to get what they want. It starts with the nameless Kid, a young man who joins a group of bounty hunters riding the US-Mexico border in the years before the Civil War. They’re ostensibly looking for Apaches, bringing back scalps for gold, but they’re not especially picky. Any black head of hair ripped from the head of its owner will do, and if that means ravaging some small Mexican villages, then so be it.

The bounty hunters are led by Judge Holden, a man who gladly takes his place as the antithesis of everything that was supposed to be right and good about the old west. In both form and philosophy, Holden is barely human, and he only becomes less human as the book goes on. Insofar as the book has an antagonist, it is he.

He contrasts greatly to our ostensible protagonist, The Kid, in many ways. For one, the Judge has a name. For another, the Kid routinely disappears from the story for pages at a time, only to reappear to get to the next stage of the story. It’s actually very easy to forget that the Kid is in the book, until you see him again and think, “Oh yeah. Him.”

The Judge, on the other hand, is impossible to miss. He holds court out in the wilderness and expounds upon his philosophy of the world. He is huge and pale and clean, standing out amongst the filthy and starving band of killers that he’s assembled. Whenever he’s off-stage, you find yourself wondering when he’s going to show up again, and how much worse things will get when he does.

Kind of like this, only worse. Much, much worse.

Another image that McCarthy decides to destroy is that of the Native Americans as being honorable heroes, out to save their land from white invaders. Just as the cowboys of old were not all knights on horseback, the natives of old were not all noble savages who resorted to violence only as a last resort. The Apaches – and other native Americans in this book – are just as violent and bloodthirsty as their American and Mexican counterparts. Everyone, regardless of background, ultimately resorts to violence and savagery, throwing aside all morality in the name of either profit or survival, or simply the demonic glee of seeing things destroyed. No one comes out of this book looking good or ultimately redeemed. All are villains.

All of this made it something of a tough read for me. Not because of the scenes of horrifying violence – I can deal just fine with those – but because there was no one I wanted to like. I mean, I was fascinated by The Judge, but with that same kind of fascination that made me watch tsunami videos or that made people visit Ground Zero in New York City. It’s horror on a scale that we hope never to experience in our own lives, but we can’t look away.

Without someone to like, it was hard to care, and when it’s hard to care about a book, I find reasons not to read it. The writing was amazing, don’t get me wrong. McCarthy’s use of language was a joy to read, even if his refusal to use quotation marks got me a little annoyed from time to time, and I sometimes found myself reading passages out loud in the voice of Sam Elliott. In describing the landscapes of the West, McCarthy turns nature itself into a character, one that is every bit as violent, dangerous and hateful as the humans traversing it.

In addition, he does a very good job with the pacing of the book. The narration tends to grow as the book goes on, with sentences becoming longer and more elaborate as they unspool across the page, some taking a page or two to themselves, only to be stopped short by a single line or a rapid exchange. It’s hypnotic in places, and something I wish I knew how to do half as well.

All that aside, though, the only thing that really kept me going – other than the writing – was morbid curiosity. That, and the hope that I would figure out what McCarthy was trying to say in the book. What it all means.

So true, so true...

And that, friends and neighbors, is one of the pitfalls of being an English teacher. Always looking for meaning in things, for the bigger picture, the author’s Big Message to his readers. And as far as I can tell, McCarthy’s message is that man is a savage, terrifying animal, capable of cruelties that the average book-buying person cannot even begin to contemplate. The horrors that are depicted here are so brutally displayed and so viscerally described that we eventually become numb to them – which is a new horror by itself. There are things depicted in this story which should evoke nothing less than absolute moral condemnation, a rejection that such things should be possible to contemplate, much less carry out.

So when you find yourself glossing over these horrors as though they were mundane, it’s jarring. As you read, you want to keep a distance from the monsters populating the book, but isn’t ignoring their evils a kind of acceptance? And do you really want to be the kind of person who accepts these things? At the same time you’re trying to convince yourself that real people shouldn’t be capable of the acts you’re reading about, you end up accepting them.

Maybe that was what McCarthy wanted all along – for the readers to look at how we view violence and what our understanding of it really is. To force us to re-assess the limits of what we will tolerate and why. To make us look again at our heroes and villains and try to figure out exactly what the differences are, and whether we are really that far removed from them.

Or maybe McCarthy just really likes writing this kind of thing.

Either way, it’s a fascinating read, one that will linger with you long after you’ve finished the book.

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“In the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away so that in the circuit of a few suns all trace of the destruction of these people would be erased. The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, neither ghost nor scribe, to tell any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died.”

Cormac McCarthy on Wikipedia
Blood Meridian on Wikipedia
The Cormac McCarthy Society
Blood Meridian on Amazon.com

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Filed under Cormac McCarthy, death, dystopia, fiction, good and evil, morality, murder, survival

Review 140: The Shining

The Shining by Stephen King

I’m going to have pick on Jack Nicholson here, but I’m pretty sure he can take it. If I get an angry email from him, I’ll let you know. I’m also going to take a couple of shots at Staley Kubrick, who is dead and can’t defend himself, although I can probably count on some of his loyal followers doing so in his stead. Basically my goal in writing this review is to encourage you to completely ignore the film version of The Shining and appreciate the book.

Thankfully, the original line - "DY-NO-MITE!" - was cut.

To be fair, though, the film and the book really are two different beasts. They share a basic story line, yes, and some characters, but they’re looking at the story from different points of view. The film did create some iconic moments – Danny running his bigwheel down the hallway, the elevator vomiting blood, and “Heeeeere’s JOHNNY!” which isn’t outdated at all, of course. Note to filmmakers, no matter how brilliant you think you are: pop culture references have a short shelf life. Avoid them. But I think that Kubrick’s film kind of misses the point, which disappointed me greatly.

Anyway, this isn’t a movie review. So let’s shut up about that for a while, shall we?

The book is one of King’s earliest, written in 1977, and like so many of his early works it’s one of his best. It’s a tale of a hotel that’s more than just haunted – it’s possessed. It’s a place that has been a witness to all kinds of evil, inhumanity, and malice, and the spirits that inhabit it are always looking for company. So allow me to present Jack Torrance. A once-promising writer, former teacher, and an alcoholic, Jack is man whose life is on the edge of collapsing. After being fired for beating the daylights out of one of his students, the job as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel is, as far as he’s concerned, the only thing keeping him and his family from complete destitution and shame.

And let’s be clear about this right up front – Jack loves his family. He loves his wife, Wendy, even if she does get under his skin from time to time, and he is utterly devoted to their son, Danny. He knows that his own upbringing, with an abusive, alcoholic father, didn’t prepare him to be a good head of household. He knows that his own drinking problems led to the breaking of his son’s arm, an incident which very nearly destroyed his marriage. He also knows – or at least believes – that he can change. That’s why he took the job at the Overlook, in order to have some time to reset. Spend sober time with the family, finish the play he’s been working on – take a breather and get ready to rebuild their lives.

See? A cozy, family-friendly place.

The Overlook is one of the premiere hotels in Colorado. It’s a place that just exudes luxury, with a history stretching back to the early 1900s and everything a person vacationing in the Rockies could want. But because it’s perched in the mountains, it has to close down for the winter. No sane person would drive up there when the snow really got started, and so the need arose for a live-in caretaker to make sure the place doesn’t succumb to the elements. It’s a lonely and perilous job, miles away from help and civilization, but the right kind of person can probably do it.

Jack might have been able to manage, if the hotel weren’t the vessel for some evil, malevolent entity that thrived on the horrible things that men do to each other. For lack of a better phrase, the hotel is psychically charged – memories permeate it, making it haunted on nearly every level. Normal people can’t perceive this – they might feel uneasy in a certain room, or hear some strange sounds at night, but if you’re a garden-variety person, you won’t notice a thing.

Any kid who talks to his own finger has gotta be watched.

Five year-old Danny Torrance is not a normal person. He has the Shine, as it is called – a psychic ability of great and wondrous strength. He can read his parents’ emotions, he can predict the future and see the past. While his power isn’t fully under his control, he knows that he’s not like other children. His is a unique mind, and it is this power, this shine, that both dooms and saves him. (As a note to Dark Tower fans – don’t you think Danny would have made a great Breaker? I wish King had hit on that….)

The hotel knows it too. It wants to use Danny to power itself, to perpetuate its evil. But it can’t get to Danny – so it gets to Jack. It preys on his weaknesses (and Jack Torrance has oh so many weaknesses) and uses him as a tool to destroy his own family.

Truly this is a creepy book. The descriptions are careful and evocative, and when King wants you to be scared, you can be damn sure that you’ll be scared. It’s cabin fever in book form, and the longer you read it, the more you can feel the hotel pressing in on you from the pages. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy, the slow destruction of what could have been a good and happy family, had they not come to this place. To be fair, Jack Torrance was not a very good human being to begin with, and the odds are good that he would have ruined his family eventually. Under the roof of the Overlook, though, he never even had a chance. As you read, you realize that while it’s hard to like Jack, you can certainly understand him.

Ladies and Gentlemen - Shelley Duvall!

And that’s why I like the book better than the movie. The film makes Jack the villain. It makes him into a guy who snaps under the pressure of not drinking, not being able to write and having a wife played by Shelley Duvall, who could have been replaced with Munch’s “The Scream” on a stick to as much effect. In the end, it’s Jack who betrays his family, Jack who tries to murder his wife and son, and Jack who dies frozen in the hedge maze.

The thing is, that’s not how King wrote it. While Jack certainly isn’t redeemed by the end of the book, it is clear that the person who was chasing Danny through the halls with a roque mallet, the person who nearly bludgeoned Wendy and Hallorann to death was not Jack Torrance. He may have looked like him, but what was doing all the evil was the thing that had defeated Jack – it was the thing that had killed him. And I think that story, about a man who was just not strong enough to resist a far greater power, is more interesting than a story about a guy who just goes nuts. Jack’s character in the book is far more nuanced and deep than I thought he was in the film, and it saddened me to see him pressed into two dimensions. And again, I think Jack Nicholson – while perhaps adequate for the role as Kubrick saw it, was not the Jack Torrance that I saw in this book.

As an aside, I thought the TV miniseries was much closer to the book and, thusly, better. True, it lacked a lot of Kubrick’s more famous directorial panache, but since a) Kubrick ruined the movie and b) I’m not a big fan of his anyway, I didn’t hold that against ABC.

Jack is not that far from Homer Simpson, really....

The book wasn’t written, I think, with a lot of Deeper Meaning in mind. I’m sure King would be the first to admit that. It’s a kind of psychological study of how to turn a weak person into a bad person, and how much pushing it would require to make a man turn to evil. It looks at the bad choices we make, and how we fool ourselves into making them. Jack Torrance is a cautionary tale against self-pity and self-delusion. Jack views himself as a perpetual victim, held back by his upbringing, his wife, his alcoholism – nothing that goes wrong in his life is actually his fault (according to Jack). Had he taken responsibility for his actions and his errors, he might have withstood the Overlook’s attacks.

The big question for this book is this: was any other outcome possible? Did the Torrance family have any choice in what happened to them, or were they doomed from the moment they set foot in the hotel? I vote for the latter. While they certainly had their chances – many chances – to get out and escape the horrible future that was bearing down on them, it was clear that was never going to happen. Jack was a man who was far too weak, too selfish and too self-absorbed to let himself leave the Overlook. And so they were doomed. The fact that anyone got out of there at all was a miracle.

This is part of the Stephen King Required Reading set – if you’re going to read any King at all, you need to read this one. It’s a horror book that’ll stay with you for a long, long time.

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“The boiler’s okay and I haven’t even gotten around to murdering my wife yet. I’m saving that until after the holidays, when things get dull.”
– Jack Torrance, The Shining
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Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Shining on Wikipedia
The Shining on Amazon.com
Stephen King’s homepage

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Filed under children, death, family, fathers, fear, horror, made into movies, madness, murder, sons, Stephen King, wives

Review 110: Johnny the Homicidal Manic & SQUEE!

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors by Jhonen Vasquez

I’m putting these two together, because they really do form one larger piece – the craft of an artistic mastermind. Although perhaps “mastermind” isn’t the best word to use here. What do you call the person that they lock up when they’re about fifteen because they keep saying things to their teachers like, “The human body has ten thousand miles of blood vessels in it and I can feel my hate for you coursing through every one?” Or the guy who buys a dog, takes care of it, feeds it, loves it, and then one day realizes that the dog has been spying on him for the CIA for years and buries it in his backyard? Or the angry hobo who lurches up to your car as you wait at the stop light, a bucket of dirty, grey water in one hand and a rotten squeegee in the other and proceeds to molest himself with it, afterwards demanding that you gave him change, quote, “For the show.”

You thought I was kidding about the dog....

That kind of guy. What would you call him?

Whatever it is, welcome to the world of Jhonen Vasquez. Strap yourself in.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is the story of Johnny C., known to his very few friends simply as Nny. Nny is rail-thin, yet something of a fashion plate, and lives in a broken-down house with two evil Styrofoam doughboys, a dead bunny nailed to a wall, and a gateway to a creature of infinite evil somewhere in one of the many basements of the house.

In his free time, Johnny kills people in horrible and graphically interesting ways.

Not because he’s a bad person, necessarily. He does have the wall to feed, after all – a wall that has to be continually painted with fresh blood, lest the Evil come out of it. But he is, by his own admission, “quite horrendously insane.” He murders for many reasons, the Evil Wall aside. He murders the people who feel superior to others (while at the same time feeling that he is superior to them). The kills the smug and the self-possessed, the materialistic and the bored, the lowbrows and the posers and the jerks who seem to infest every corner of his world. And while he does kill with great glee and abandon, he occasionally takes the time to wonder if what he’s doing is worth it. If murder is all that his life has become. If maybe it would be better off to just end it all and kill himself.

Fortunately – or not – he has The Doughboys to keep him company. Two Styrofoam figures, painted by Nny, which talk to him constantly. One urges him to live and kill to his heart’s content. The other presses him to commit suicide and leave this world behind. Whichever wins will be freed from his plastic prison and reunited with his evil master. As a balance to them is Nailbunny, which is pretty much just what it sounds like – a bunny rabbit that Johnny bought from the pet store and then one day nailed to the wall. Nailbunny (or at least its floating head) is the voice of reason in Johnny’s life, urging him to be suspicious of the Doughboys and all they want. Despite his nihilistic view of the world, Johnny discovers that he does indeed have a purpose in life. Just not a very good one.

Yes, Nny, show us "wacky"

Johnny is, naturally, hard to sympathize with. Part of that comes from his almost cavalier attitude towards killing, but more than that, he’s rather adolescent in his view of the world and how it works. Like so many teenagers, he has yet to grow a buffer between himself and the world, and cannot differentiate malicious acts from merely thoughtless ones. He feels every barb and every sting like hooks in his flesh, and the only way he is able to deal with it is through murderous rage. Reading it as an adult who remembers his teen years, I can certainly see where Johnny is coming from, but at the same time I wish he’d just grow up and learn to live in the world like the rest of us.

Which is a statement for which Johnny would no doubt gleefully murder me.

One of the major themes of these comics is conformity and humanity’s need to follow each other into the abyss. Hypocritical characters dressed in all the latest fashions snub people who are slaves to public opinion. One of the worst offenders, a recurring character named Anne Gwish, embodies the modern Goth poser who shuns everyone while despairing that no one talks to her. Johnny’s world is filled with these people and they all need killing. Even people who don’t deserve death might end up falling to Johnny. In one of my favorite stories, “Goblins,” a man who was chosen at random is strapped to a truly terrible machine, and faces his impending death with enviable conviction.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac reads like an extended teenage revenge fantasy, if a highly philosophical and entertaining one. Eventually you figure out that, as Vasquez himself says, “He’s not a loser, he’s simply lost.”

No. Don't do it. Life is too... oh, go ahead.

Themes of identity and social connection continue in the book SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors. Young Squee (whose real name is Todd) is Johnny’s neighbor and is featured in the very first JtHM story. Squee is a pitiful child, with parents who resent his very existence and a school that is constantly trying to crush the spirit out of him. Squee lives a life of unending terror as he’s beset by nightmares, aliens, his cannibalistic grandfather, openly hateful parents, and a world that never seems to make sense. It is his young burden to have to live in a world created by Jhonen Vasquez.

Somehow, though, little Squee manages. Manages to get himself locked into an insane asylum, yes, but manages nonetheless.

The second half of the book features Vasquez’s filler strips – one or two-page stories of pain, heartbreak and horror. Poor Wobbly-Headed Bob tries to convince the rest of the world to accept that he’s smarter than they are, and can’t understand why they want to kill him. True Tales of Human Drama are just that – dramatic, probably human and god I hope they’re not true. Happy Noodle Boy is a free-form anarchistic story, allegedly drawn by Johnny himself, and I can never manage to finish one. My favorite filler strips are the Meanwhile…. strips, one of which features two elementary-school crossing guard children enacting the final battle between two entities of pure evil. Another depicts a first date gone horribly, horribly awry as a case of gastrointestinal distress engenders one of the best attempts to save face I’ve ever seen. A horrible, lying vampire, the revenge of the pinatas, and a case of childhood attachment issues gone horribly wrong, these are some of my favorite works in the whole series.

Good old Ludwig van B. Perfect for any occasion - even mass murder.

The work of Jhonen Vasquez certainly isn’t for everyone. Even his famous animated program, Invader Zim, is a little weirder than most people are willing to accept for a children’s show. It rewards patient reading and careful attention to the artwork. Which, I might add, is distinctive and disturbing and wonderful. Vasquez has created a style that’s cartoonish and yet horrible, in which childlike glee can be rendered next to heart-stopping horror, and we can perfectly believe that they exist in the same world.

It’s strange, horrible and funny all at the same time. If you’re interested in something out of the ordinary, I can definitely recommend this.

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“I suggest you seek some alternate source of sympathy, Nny. You tried to kill that girl. She liked you, and you tried to kill her. That was impolite.”
– Nailbunny, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Wikipedia
Squee! on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez’s website
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Amazon.com
SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors on Amazon.com

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Filed under afterlife, childhood, comic books, death, demons, existentialism, good and evil, graphic novel, horror, humor, Jhonen Vasquez, madness, morality, murder, philosophy, sins

Review 104: The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

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The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

This is the second of the Dirk Gently books – and the final one – and is no easier to explain than the first. But I’ll try.

Ah, just like college.... (photo by Gene Han)

In this story, Dirk is contracted to meet a client one morning at 6 AM, and play bodyguard. The time is vital. The client has made it a point that Dirk absolutely, positively has to be there by six, and he’s willing to pay handsomely for it. So when Dirk wakes up at 11 AM, he suspects that he’s screwed up royally.

His suspicions are confirmed when he arrives at the home of his client, who is sitting quite comfortably in an armchair while his head is rotating slowly on a nearby turntable. The only clues to his grisly demise are his ravings about a green, scythe-wielding monster and a mysterious packet of papers, written in a language that Dirk cannot begin to understand. But he does know their shape – they’re a bill. But for what services, and rendered by whom? So now Dirk has to figure out who, or what, did this to his client and why.

But there’s more to this story (isn’t there always?) An American woman, Kate Schechter, is one of the survivors of the explosion of an airline ticket counter, something that everyone who knows about explosions is calling an “act of god.” But which god would do such a thing, and why? Lucky for her, Kate is about to find out, and she’s also about to find out why gods aren’t quite all they’re cracked up to be.

This, of course, does not happen in the book. I needed a picture of Thor that wasn't the super-hero.... (art by Boris Vallejo)

There aren’t a lot of greater themes in this book – it’s an adventure, of sorts, but as far as overarching messages go, it’s pretty thin other than watch out for eagles and be nice to homeless people. It’s entertainment as only Douglas Adams can deliver it. There is some thought given to gods, however, which is a topic I always enjoy. In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett asks where gods come from, and what sustains them. In American Gods, Neil Gaiman asked the question of what happened to gods who were brought to America by their believers. Adams asks what happens to gods once we don’t actually need them anymore.

We made them, after all, and most of the time we made them immortal. We needed gods to be bigger than we, stronger than we, and generally everything we weren’t. And then we went around infusing them with humanity – with jealousy, courage, rage and fear. When we were done with them, we let them go. But that didn’t mean they went away. An immortal is an immortal, and without work to do or followers to deal with, what is a god to do? In the case of Odin, the father of gods and the ruler of the Norse pantheon, the solution is very simple. What’s more, it keeps him pampered and cared for, which is all he ever really wanted.

While I love Hitchhiker’s Guide first and foremost among Adams’ works, I really wish he could have lived to write more Dirk Gently books. The character is a person of reprehensible ethics and somewhat tarnished morals, but you can’t help but love him. Lurking refrigerators, coffee-thievery and all, you find yourself wishing that you could hang out with Dirk, while at the same time knowing that he’d probably invite you out for lunch and somehow make you pay for the meal. He’s a bad person, but an excellent detective – and a great character.

So pick this one up and give it a read. It’s fast, it’s fun – you won’t regret it.

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“Nobleness was one word for making a fuss about the trivial inevitabilities of life, but there were others.”
Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul on Wikipedia
Douglas Adams on Wikipedia
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul on Amazon.com
The Douglas Adams Homepage

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Filed under detective fiction, Douglas Adams, fantasy, fiction, gods, humor

Review 77: Identity Crisis


Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales

There are, traditionally, two modes of thought when it comes to comic book super-heroes. The first is that just as these people are stronger, faster and more powerful than we, so must they also be better than we.

This is the philosophy behind the immortal words penned by Stan Lee in the first Spider-Man story – “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s not enough to be able to see through walls, teleport, manipulate eldrich energies or talk to gods if you do not live up to the incredible burden that comes with such powers. Even if you’re a self-made hero, with nothing more than your wits, a jaunty cap and a quiver full of trick arrows, there is still the expectation that you will always do the right thing. Or at least try to.

There is a nobility to this kind of super-hero. He is not motivated by fear – he surpasses it. She does not fall prey to baser human nature – she provides a model for us all to be better. These heroes don’t do what is easy – they do what is right. They don’t ever do the wrong thing, even if it is for the right reasons. They are, in a word, heroic.

This story is not about those kinds of heroes. This story is about the other kind – the heroes who are, when you strip away the Batarangs and magic rings and masks and tights, just as human as we are. Just as fallible, just as vulnerable to anger, fear and weakness as we. Much like the traditional hero, they are us writ large – in every way, unfortunately.

Being a super-hero – either kind – has never been easy. Balancing your hero life and your private life is something that even the best heroes have trouble with, and the decision to involve someone else in your life is one that carries great danger with it. If you marry someone, if you have a father or mother or lover, they all become potential targets for those who would want to hurt you. At some point, you have to decide which one is more important to you, and the special people in your life need to be included in that.

For Ralph Dibney – The Elongated Man – the choice was simple. He loved his wife, Sue, and his heroism, so he decided to have them both and became one of the very few heroes to make his identity public. Together, they were a true celebrity couple, touring the world, solving mysteries and showing everyone what a truly happy marriage looked like. And they were so very happy. Sue became an honorary member of the Justice League (an honor that not even Lois Lane has been granted) and their love inspired everyone who knew them. The heroes’ love for Sue Dibney led them to one of their greatest mistakes – albeit one that would not come back to haunt them until the worst had already happened. Not until Sue Dibney was murdered.

The heroes of the DC Universe went into overdrive, searching every corner of the world for Sue’s killer. Whoever it was had bested the technology of four worlds and eluded the greatest detectives in history. And what’s more, this new villain was targeting others that heroes loved. It was only a matter of time before someone else died, and if they could not find the killer then the very fabric of the hero community would be torn apart.

While this is, with a few caveats, a good story, it’s not a pretty one by any means. It shows the darker side of the heroes we love. They act in morally questionable ways – something that the traditional super-hero would never do – in order to serve the greater good. By using their powers to adjust the personality of Dr. Light, turning him from a menacing villain to a laughable punching bag, they set in motion a chain of events that would have universe-wide repercussions.

All told, I liked this story. For one thing, the writing was really solid, with great care paid to pacing and visual impact. The story is not really about the heroes, at least not by themselves. It’s about the relationships they have with other people, and how those relationships affect their decisions. That’s why characters are constantly introduced in terms of their relationships to each other. You can see it on the very first page – “Lorraine Reilly and Ralph Dibney. Co-workers.” The fact that they’re both super-heroes is self-evident. The fact that they’re people, with a relationship to each other, is often taken for granted in comics.

Ray Palmer and Jean Loring go from “Divorcees” to “Lovers” in the span of two pages, while Firestorm goes from hero to atomic bomb. “Father and son,” “Husband and Wife,” “Partners” – characters are constantly being introduced by their relationships, and usually by their given names, rather than their superhero sobriquets. In fact, Green Arrow, who is one of the driving forces in this story, rarely refers to anyone by their code name. When he does, it’s an immediate signal that this is a person he doesn’t know well. To Ollie, and thus to us, these are people under those masks, and it’s important to remember that.

My favorite example of the heroes’ humanity is the scene in the issue “Father’s Day,” wherein Robin and Batman are racing to save the life of Robin’s father. Set up by the mysterious killer who murdered Sue Dibney, Jack Drake tries desperately to tell his son not to blame himself while Tim tries just as desperately to save him. In the end, even the incredible Batman is unable to save this one life, and the reader is forced to feel every moment of it. It’s a painful, beautiful sequence, both in terms of the writing and the artwork.

I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the villains as well. All too often they have been portrayed as madmen and megalomaniacs, driven by nothing more than nefarious purposes and misanthropy. The villains in this book are also humanized. They tell stories, have trouble making ends meet, even have hobbies outside of villainy. And, like the heroes, they have relationships with each other. They are fathers and sons, friends, employers and employees, and the tragedy being visited upon the heroes spills into their world as well. While we may not root for the bad guys, we can at least sympathize with them a little more.

There certainly are flaws to the story, though. For one, it’s been described as “tragedy porn,” and I can’t disagree. Much as regular pornography takes the sexual act and distorts it into a pleasurable fantasy, so does tragedy porn take an unfortunate event, such as rape or murder, and make it into something even more horrible than it normally would be. Whether this is entirely a bad thing, I can’t really say. Writers have always used pain and death for our entertainment – hell, look at Titus Andronicus. Not only was Lavinia raped, she was mutilated on top of it. Was Shakespeare just trying to get a rise out of the masses? Maybe. Is Meltzer doing the same here? Probably. Does it work? Hell, yes.

There have been a lot of objections raised to the use of rape as a plot device in this book – whether it was appropriate for a super-hero comic book, for one, and whether it was nothing more than a gut-punch. A story choice that’s effective, but ultimately unimaginative. All this may be true, but my take on it is this: That’s not what the story is about.

The story isn’t about rape or murder. It’s not about mind-wipes and magic. It’s about the relationships between these people, heroes and villains all. It’s about their identities, as the title implies – how they see themselves and how others see them. It’s about people, with all the flaws and defects that make them human. It’s a book of revelations, illumination and truth, none of which are ever easy to confront.

While this wasn’t the first comic book story to feature its characters as humans rather than heroes, it could be the most influential. At least in recent years. The events of this book started a chain reaction that has followed through to every universe-wide event that DC has published in the last six years, from Infinite Crisis all the way to Blackest Night. Meltzer built a story that provided a solid foundation for a new DC Universe. It’s a universe that gives us heroes more realistic than before, more human and fallible. While it may not be the kind of story that you like, you cannot deny the impact that it’s had.

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“Think about your own life, Wally – everything you’ve done to keep your secrets safe. You don’t just wear the mask for yourself. It’s for your wife, your parents, even for – one day – your children. There are animals out there, Wally. And when it comes to family, we can’t always be there to defend them. But the mask will.”
– Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) to Wally West (Flash), Identity Crisis
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Identity Crisis on Wikipedia
Brad Meltzer on Wikipedia
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Brad Meltzer’s homepage
Rags Morales’ blog (last entry2006)
Identity Crisis at Amazon.com

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Filed under Batman, Brad Meltzer, comic books, DC Comics, death, detective fiction, ethics, identity, morality, murder, Rags Morales, rape, super-heroes, Superman

Review 75: The Eyes of the Dragon


The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

Sometimes you are surprised.

Stephen King has long been associated with horror, and deservedly so. His career began with works like Carrie, Christine, Firestarter, The Shining and so on, all designed to scare the everlovin’ out of any poor soul who picked up the book – and usually succeeding. What’s more, the books often became movies, thereby allowing that segment of the population who doesn’t read much to be terrified.

So for years, King has been called one of the scariest authors alive. I’ve seen cartoons attempting to portray Halloween at his house, bedtime stories for his children, and the horrible, dark confines of his imagination. The mind of King is where the terrors dwell, most think – the monsters, demons and vampires.

And Flagg.

But this book is where King really strayed from the image that had been built for him in popular culture. This story isn’t a horror story, no matter what the quotes on the back of the book imply. This is a fantasy story. It has some tense and scary moments, yes, but it’s a fantasy through and through, built with some of the most well-worn elements of fantasy storytelling. We have all of the necessary elements before us:

The King – King Roland (no relation to the Roland of the Dark Tower Series, as far as we know), the fairly capable and mostly well-liked king of Delain. He has served his kingdom well, and grown old and, if not wise, then at least experienced. He’s not the best king, nor is he the worst. The most that can be said of him is that he tried his best and hoped that his son would do a better job than he had. Of course there is also….

The Queen – Queen Sasha, beloved of Roland. She was the light of his life, and the guiding hand on his shoulder. Many in Delain agree that Roland could have been a despot were it not for his beautiful and kindly wife whose compassion and good sense would eventually save the kingdom. She bore two sons, the first of whom was…

The Prince – Prince Peter, the shining star of the family. Wise beyond his years, strong and fair, everyone loved Peter. He won awards and friends, and was all in all a good son, one that any father would be proud to have. Most people, knowing that Peter would be the next king, felt that the future of Delain was safe. Peter had a brother….

The Second Son – Prince Thomas, forever standing in his brother’s shadow. Not only was Peter older and more capable than Thomas in every way, there was an additional burden on his young mind. With the birth of Thomas, his mother, Queen Sasha, had died. And so it was that Thomas grew up the guilty one. He sought the love of his father, who thought the sun rose and set on Peter. And while Peter made every effort to extend the hand of brotherly love, Thomas felt only resentment and jealousy. Little did he know that his destiny had been guided from the beginning by….

The Evil Wizard – Flagg, that undying demon whose black and poisonous presence had been in Delain every time the country fell into ruin, and who intended to do it once again. A master of spells, potions and poisons, to speak his name was to invite horror, pain and death. He stood in Roland’s shadow, quietly twisting his mind over the years. His ultimate goal was a millennium of darkness for Delain, and he knew just how to bring it about. The only thing standing in his way is the possibility that Peter could be king.

I’m not sure whose story this is, which makes it all the more interesting. On one hand, it’s Flagg’s story. In his dark desire to see Delain in chaos, he manipulates the King and his family to bring the kingdom to the brink. A little patient planning, some good preparation, and Flagg manages to frame Peter for the vicious murder of his father, the King.

Suddenly the Golden Boy is a despised murderer, patricide and regicide, and sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life imprisoned at the top of Delain’s tallest tower, the Needle.

But, then, maybe it’s Peter’s story. He is caught, an innocent victim in this web spun by Flagg. But he was well-taught by his father and mother. His father taught him to be strong and kingly, his mother to be kind and human. The combination made him into something that Flagg could not stand – a good person and potentially a good leader.

Even in his lofty prison, Peter isn’t willing to give up. With some clear thinking and a lot of patience, he manages to work out a plan to escape. Because he is a good man, he has friends willing to help him, to do favors, who will perhaps help clear his name and end the less-than-spectacular reign of his brother, Thomas.

Then again, maybe it really is Thomas’ story. The narrator (the presence of whom gives this story a wonderful fairy tale feeling) takes pains to show us that, while Thomas is a sad, confused, and sometimes cruel man, he’s not really bad.

Full of fear and self-loathing, Thomas is the perfect tool for Flagg. Under his dominion, the kingdom starts to slide towards the chaos that Flagg so richly desires. Thomas is a good example of what happens when a weak person, guided by circumstance and cruel greed, takes power. But even Thomas is not irredeemable – despite the mess of his life, he possesses a secret that could ruin everything Flagg has tried so hard to create.

As with so many of King’s really good books, we are presented with not only an excellent cast of characters, but also excellent storytelling. In many of his author’s notes, he refers to us as Steadfast Reader. He never forgets who has given him his fame and his reputation – the readers. By using a storyteller to present this tale, he acknowledges and speaks to us as though he were telling us the story directly.

Much like it can be a story about many people, it’s a story of many messages. It’s about hubris and the belief that one cannot possibly fail in one’s Evil Plans (happens to me all the time). It’s about honor and loyalty and standing by what’s right, even when the whole world is against you. It’s about being able to redeem yourself, no matter what horrible things you might have done in the past. It’s a story about love and hope and faith, one that never gets old no matter how many times you read it.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve read this book by now, and I fully expect I’ll read it again in the future. If you’re not a King fan and you’re not too keen on reading about family dogs that turn into killing machines, insane telekinetic teenage girls, or possessed Plymouths that steal the souls of their owners, then this is the book you want to read.

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“In those years, Thomas discovered two things: guilt and secrets, like murdered bones, never rest easy; but the knowledge of all three can be lived with.”
– Stephen King, The Eyes of the Dragon
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Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Eyes of the Dragon on Wikipedia
The Eyes of the Dragon on Amazon.com
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Filed under adventure, brothers, dragons, family, fantasy, fathers, friendship, murder, revenge, sons, Stephen King, wizardry

Review 67: The Graveyard Book


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

As I’ve said before, Neil Gaiman is one of the very few authors whose books I’ll pick up without reservation. I can always be sure that I’ll enjoy what he does, so I always look forward to new work. I am happy to say that this book is no exception. It’s even made news recently – it won the Newberry Medal for Children’s Literature, a very prestigious American literary prize. So good for you, Neil….

It’s a well-deserved medal for a book that follows in the footsteps of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It’s a book that can appeal to young readers and adults alike, without being condescending or patronizing, something that many writers for young readers have trouble with. As can usually be expected from books aimed at young readers, it’s heavy on the themes of growing up, learning your place in the world, and eventually deciding who you want to be. The means by which this book does it, however, are slightly different.

The first line was enough to get me hooked: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

Ooo. Shivers.

The story begins with a gruesome triple murder, as all good childrens’ books do. But the intended fourth victim, a young toddler, manages to escape the bloodbath and wander, quite innocently, up to the graveyard on the hill. There, amidst tombs and graves that had lain there for centuries, he is saved from certain death and given protection by a most unusual new family: ghosts.

The boy, rechristened as Nobody Owens, or Bod for short, is raised by the spirits of this tiny world through the intercession of Silas, a mysterious individual who straddles the boundary between the living and the dead. As far as places to grow up go, it’s not a bad one. He does end up learning some rather old-fashioned English from those who died half a millennium ago, and wanders around in a grey winding sheet instead of proper clothing, but he is safe there. He has the Freedom of the Graveyard, a gift from the ghosts that allows him the protection that only the dead can offer.

As Bod grows up, he learns the tricks that ghosts can do – how to fade from sight, or to rouse fear and terror, how to walk through walls. But he also learns that he’s very different from his adopted community. Their lives are ended, their stories are done. He is alive, and as he gets older, that difference becomes more and more vivid. While he may live among the ghosts, he is not one himself. Not yet, anyway.

But there are those who would like to make him one. The mysterious murderer who destroyed Bod’s family, a man named Jack, is one of many wicked men who would see Bod dead. He may have lost the boy once, but he and his confederates are determined to find him again. There is a prophecy, you see, and they mean to see that it’s stopped. And once Bod learns about his family’s fate, he becomes equally determined to see justice done.

The book is really good. It’s a bit simple for an adult audience, and there were a few plot points that I was able to predict pretty quickly. But the book isn’t really aimed at us – it’s aimed at the younger reader, around eleven or twelve years old. Such readers don’t quite have the experience to know that, say, when a new character is introduced two-thirds of the way through the book, that’s a character to be wary of. It’s the kind of book that’s best read to people,and that’s how Gaiman promoted the release of the book, by doing public readings of it.

As I said before, it dwells on the theme that most books of this genre do: growing up. As Bod gets older, as he starts to feel the pull of the outside world, he understands that he can’t stay with his family forever. The dead don’t grow, they don’t change, but young people do – often very radically in a very short span of time. While it is perhaps a stretch to compare parents to dead people, there is certainly a vague parallel to be drawn here. As adults, we don’t change very much, at least not unless we have to. We’re set in our ways and our beliefs. They’ve served us well, and if there’s no reason to go mucking about with them, then they’re better off left alone. Kids, however, are malleable and ever-changing. They go through phases and changes and switch from adorable little tyke to abominable little teenager with alacrity. Eventually, they have to discover who they are, and the only way to do that is to leave.

The nice thing about Bod is that, while he does get into trouble and disobey his guardians, he is, on the whole, obedient and self-aware. He understands that his freedom – indeed his very life – is a gift to him from the graveyard. The ghosts there taught him what he knows, and made sure that he lived through the traumas of childhood and the machinations of men who wanted him dead. He appreciates what his guardians have done for him, even as he prepares to leave them. It’s a good message, slipped in with the general motif of the challenges of growing up, and one that I hope young readers absorb.

It’s easy for a young person to look at the adults in his or her life and think of them like the ghosts in this book. Yes, their lives aren’t very exciting anymore, and yes they tend to be overprotective and kind of a pain in the ass. But it’s for a good reason, most of the time. Thanks to them, you have all the possibilities of life laid before you. And it won’t be easy, living. But you should do it while you have the chance….

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“You’re always you, and that don’t change, and you’re always changing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
– Mother Slaughter, The Graveyard Book
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