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Review 116: Song of Susannah

Song of Susannah by Stephen King

I think that every long series has to eventually include a book like Song of Susannah. It’s the weak book, the one that you have to have, but would rather you didn’t. The one that pretty much exists to get you from Point A to Point B, which resolves some earlier issues and sets up some later conflicts, but which – by itself – isn’t nearly as good or as much fun to read as the books that either preceded or followed it. I call it a “bridge book,” and I suspect that they are somewhat inevitable.

But before getting into all the heady analysis ‘n stuff, let’s see what this book is about.

Book art by Darrel Anderson

Directly following the end of Wolves of the Calla, our ka-tet is split. Susannah, possessed by that strange spirit who calls herself Mia, has taken the supremely powerful Black Thirteen and used it to open a magic door to New York. It is there that she hopes to have her child and have the raising of it, before it grows up to destroy the world. Everyone else, of course, is concerned for her safety, but there is one other thing that needs to be done – the vacant lot in Manhattan and the rose that grows there must be protected. This rose represents one of the two Beams that remain to hold up the Dark Tower (and thus all of existence), so its safety is paramount.

The other Beam just happens to be Stephen King himself. But we’ll get to that….

Roland’s party splits up – Roland and Eddie go to rural Maine to find Calvin Tower and secure proper ownership of the vacant lot. Jake, Oy, and Father Callahan follow hot on Susannah’s heels to New York City to try and save her from the horrible death that no doubt awaits her there. Horrible death awaits all of them, truth be told, but one does what one must in pursuit of the Tower.

Jake, Oy and Callahan’s story is the far more straightforward one. They go to New York and follow Susannah/Mia’s psychic trail to Black Thirteen, which they dispose of in a manner that should bring a grim smile to all 21st-century Americans. They then go on to the Dixie Pig, a restaurant-slash-portal to a dimension of hell and pain, where they expect to be gunned down the moment they go through the doors. Pretty cut and dried, really.

Roland and Eddie, however, have the much more mind-bending task of meeting their maker. Literally.

Book art by Darrel Anderson

As a side-quest to securing legal possession of the vacant lot, they learn that King lives nearby and decide to pop in and pay him a visit. This kind of freaks King out, but rightfully so. To him, Roland is a character who haunted his mind, and a few pages of a manuscript that has languished in storage for years. King had given up on The Dark Tower, and never expected to pick it up again. Until, of course, its main character showed up, insisting that his story be finished.

To me, this was the most interesting conceit of the entire series. The idea of characters breaking through the fourth wall and entering “the real world” is nothing new, nor is having them ask some rather pointed questions of their creators. But it’s another thing for those characters to not only meet their creator, but to do so before he’s actually written about them up to the point where they’re meeting him.

(re-reads that last sentence)

Right.

In short, not only is King the embodiment of one of the last Beams holding up the Dark Tower, he is also an avatar of Gan, the primal force of order and righteousness in the universe. Through King, and the story of Roland and his ka-tet, Gan is trying to keep the Tower up against the forces of Discordia, as embodied by another King, the Crimson King. These two Kings – one unknowing, the other knowing – are locked in a fight to the death, with the universe at stake.

Book art by Darrel Anderson

Throughout all of this, Susannah is having her own troubles in New York. Mia has gained control of her body – to the point where she is able to manifest the legs that Susannah lost long ago – and is determined to have her child. She has an appointment to keep with the agents of the Crimson King, and she believes that she will finally achieve that holy state for which she had gladly given up her immortality – motherhood. Susannah, on the other hand, knows that whatever is brewing in Mia’s belly is a threat to Roland, and will do whatever she can to stop the birth, or at least turn Mia against her chosen destiny.

Depending on the kinds of books you like reading, Song of Susannah will either be tolerably good or downright unpleasant, and this is mainly due to its rather fractured structure. The three plot threads don’t intersect directly once everyone leaves the Calla, and don’t have any kind of resolution once you get to the last page of the book. As a friend of mine put it, “There’s no ‘there’ there.”

The other volumes, like most standard-issue novels, has a resolution at the end. You can close the book and be able to tell people, “The characters achieved this, and it was fairly conclusive and interesting.” Of course, a series always has a greater conflict – the series-level conflict – that won’t be resolved until the last volume, but each individual book needs to have its own setup, conflict and resolution, with enough loose ends to get us into the next book.

Song of Susannah doesn’t really do this. The matter of the vacant lot is a fairly simple legal matter, which is not only easily resolved but also kind of dull, once you compare it to everything that has gone before. The problem of Black Thirteen is done away with pretty easily as well, which doesn’t really befit an artifact that we have been told possesses immense evil power. And while Susannah doesn’t prevent Mia from making her appointment at the Dixie Pig, she does manage to plant the seeds of doubt in the woman’s mind.

Art by Klaimko

In short, what is achieved in this book is not up to the level of what we have come to expect. The dramatic escape from the decaying city of Lud, the horrible tragedy of Roland and Susan in the Mejis, the valiant stand against the Wolves – all of these are proper climaxes and proper resolutions. The sole purpose of this volume is to bridge the gap between Wolves of the Calla and The Dark Tower, and the only reason it ended where it did was because, well, you have to end it somewhere.

Having said all that, I enjoyed reading this book, and tore through it at record speed. I thought Susannah’s chipping away at Mia’s confidence was well-handled and made a lot of sense. Jake, Oy and Callahan preparing for their Last Stand and their likely deaths was great, and the whole meta-fictional issue of characters meeting with their creators is just the kind of thing that really digs into my brain and gets it going. And while the book may have been less carefully focused than the other editions of the series, it must be remembered that I am a long-time veteran of the Wheel of Time series, which has so many sub-plots, side-plots, secondary plots, divided parties, prophecies, histories, secrets, societies, ancient enmities, mythical forces, Artifacts of Unimaginable Power, questionable plot elements and unanswered questions that it makes The Dark Tower look like one of Aesop’s fables.

So I do have an unfair advantage.

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“I don’t think he needs to be immortal. I think all he needs to do is to write the right story. Because some stories do live forever.”
– Roland (speaking of Stephen King), Song of Susannah
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Song of Susannah on Wikipedia
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Filed under adventure, Dark Tower, death, fantasy, horror, meta-fiction, quest, Stephen King, survival, vampires, world-crossing

Review 103: The Waste Lands


The Waste Lands by Stephen King

Remember to go to the Listener Survey! If you don’t, you have clearly forgotten the face of your father….)

The way this book started really threw me when I first read it. It was too… alive.

The Gunslinger takes place entirely in a desert – featureless, dry, unchanging. The Drawing of the Three takes place on a beach – featureless, slightly less dry, unchanging. With this book, a few months have gone by and Our Heroes are in a rather lush forest, without the privation that they had gone through in the previous books. They weren’t desperately racing the clock to try and find food or medicine or water, but rather were going at their own pace, according to what they wanted to do.

It felt weird to me, honestly.

All it needs is the little radar dish on its head. And maggots. Lot of maggots. (photo by Eric Bégin)

In any event, that is how the book begins – Roland has taken Eddie and Suzannah (formerly Odetta/Detta) under his wing and is training them as apprentice gunslingers. They’re learning to shoot, to hunt, and to trust the instincts that they have so long let lie dormant. When they accidentally awaken a gargantuan insane robot bear named Shardik, they discover the path of the Beam, which finally sets them on their way to the Dark Tower.

But all is not well. There is a problem, you see, one having to do with the very nature of the events that have gone before us, and it has to do with young Jake Chambers.

In The Gunslinger, Roland meets Jake, who has been transported to Roland’s world after dying in his own. The last thing the boy remembers was being pushed in front of a speeding Cadillac while on his way to school, seeing a strange man in black who claimed to be a priest, and then waking up in the dusty way station in the middle of the desert. Roland befriended the boy, took him along on his journey, and then sacrificed him to gain an audience with his own Man in Black. Without Jake, and Jake’s double death, Roland could never have made it to the beach where he pulled Eddie and Suzannah out of their worlds.

But there was a third door, remember? Through that door, Roland learned the true identity of the person who killed Jake – a man named Jack Mort, whose hobby was making people die in accidents. By taking possession of, and eventually killing, Jack, Roland erased Jake’s first death. He was never pushed in front of a car, never died, and never came to Roland’s world.

Something like this....

Except that he did.

Or rather, he didn’t.

But he did.

This paradox is driving both of them insane – Roland in his world and Jake in his. Their minds are trying to reconcile two irreconcilable histories, two versions of events that are both true, even though only one can be said to actually be true. In order to save them both, Roland and his ka-tet need to get Jake to their world, where he belongs. Doing so will take all of them risking their lives against agents of unspeakable power.

That’s the first half of the book, and this is another big difference between this book and the two that came before it. If he had wanted to, King probably could have split this book into two smaller ones, and they wouldn’t have lost much. Once Jake is rescued, we are granted a moment to breathe, a moment to appreciate the work and energy that went into making sure Jake and Roland came through the event with their sanity intact. Once we take that moment to breathe, which in the book consists of a wonderful dinner with the few residents of a dying town, the group finds themselves in terrible danger again as they enter the dying city of Lud.

Would you kill for him? Yeah, me too.... (photo by Kasra Ganjavi)

All through the series, it is said that “The world has moved on.” People talk about the civilization that has just collapsed (of which Roland is a final relic) and the one that came even before them – that of the Great Old Ones. The city of Lud is held up as a prime example of their prowess and their poisoned legacy. Within it dwells the tribal descendants of whose who fought over the ruins of Lud, sacrificing their neighbors at the sound of great drums that echo through the city (which are, oddly enough, the drum track from ZZ Top’s song, Velcro Fly), and living like rats in its crumbling walls.

The group is split at this point, with Roland and Oy (a doglike animal whom Jake befriends) trying to rescue Jake from the decaying clutches of a pack of murderers, and Eddie and Suzannah hunting through the city for Blaine the Mono, a monorail train that could be their only way across the horrible irradiated wastelands just outside the city.

It’s an exciting book, I’ll tell you that much, and let me tell you right now that you’re going to hate the ending. At least you would have if you were reading it when it first came out. You see, King admits that The Dark Tower is one long story which, for various practical and financial reasons, has to be split up into multiple books. This means that there isn’t always a practical and clean place to break off the story so the readers can wait for the next one. With this in mind, Kind decided to end The Waste Lands with one hell of a cliffhanger – Roland and his ka-tet aboard Blaine the Mono, an insane, sentient computer train that wants nothing more than to end its life. If they can defeat Blaine, they may live. If not, they’ll all die when Blaine slams into a wall at the Topeka terminal at 900 miles an hour.

Suck it, me in 1991! (photo by me)

This isn’t too troubling today, when you can just turn to your bookshelf after you finish, pick up Wizard and Glass, and keep reading. But put yourself in the shoes of the first readers of this book: they had already waited four years for this book to come out, and it would be another seven before Wizard and Glass was finally published. Even worse, I knew a guy here in Japan who was a huge Dark Tower fan, and he not only had to wait for King to finish writing the book, he also had to wait for it to be translated. My heart went out to him….

But I digress. This book finally sees our heroes on their way – walking on the path of the Beam, as it were. After two and a half books, the journey has finally begun, and if this book is any indication, it’s not going to be an easy one.

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“Jesus Pumpkin-Pie Christ, don’t you get it? You’re killing each other over a piece of music that was never even released as a single!”
Eddie Dean, The Waste Lands

The Waste Lands on Wikipedia
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Review 98: The Drawing of the Three


The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King

I have a soft spot in my heart for world-crossing stories. Perhaps it’s the remnant of the same childhood fantasy that everyone has – you know the one, “My family is not my family, my hometown is not my hometown – I’m really a lost prince of a strange magical kingdom and one day my true identity will be revealed and I’ll be able to go do something more fun than this….”

Escapist fiction of this sort usually does really well, mostly because so many of us are unsatisfied with the way our lives are going right now. Harry Potter blew everyone away for the same reason that, say, Star Wars did – they spoke to that desire that we all have for a destiny, a reason for being in this benighted universe other than to consume, procreate, and die. It’s a very powerful dream, that dream that we can lead a life better than the one we’re living now, and it’s one that very few of us get to realize. So we turn to fiction to realize that dream for us.

Of course, nothing comes without a price. In hopping from world to world, you may have to resist the temptations of a Snow Queen or fight off the forces of Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. You may discover that your father is the greatest force for evil in the universe, or that you’ve been born into a genetic cohort that scares the hell out of everyone. Crossing from one world to another – whether literally or figuratively – always comes with a price.

For Eddie Dean, Detta Walker, and Odetta Holmes, that price could very well be their lives.

When last we left the Gunslinger, Roland was sitting by a vast and gray sea at the end of the world. He had already sacrificed young Jake Chambers for his quest, and had been shown a vision of the universe that would have blasted the mind of a lesser man. Without any other direction, Roland continues on his journey – but not without some difficulty.

Wounded and ill, Roland has to go through three strange doors and draw out new companions to replace the ones he lost so long ago. If he is successful, he will draw out a new ka-tet – a group bound by the forces of destiny – that will stand with him on the way to the Dark Tower. If he fails, he will face total obliteration, to say nothing of being devoured alive by huge mutant lobsters.

Through door number one, Roland meets The Prisoner – young Eddie Dean, a junkie who has to bring a couple of pounds of cocaine through customs at JFK airport in New York. If he can do that, then the men holding his beloved big brother will let them both go, well-paid and well-loaded with the drugs that they so desperately want. Eddie can’t do it without Roland’s help, however – help that turns out to make the whole endeavor much more complicated and lethal than it might have been before.

Through door number two, Roland must bring the Lady of Shadows, a woman who is two minds in one body. One of these minds is Odetta Holmes, an upper-class African-American woman (though in her era of the early sixties she would probably prefer to be called a Negro) who has thrown her efforts and her fortune behind the growing civil rights movement. She is cultured and civilized, a little bit snobbish and prudish, but far, far better than her alter ego, Detta Walker.

Detta is the dark half, the evil twin who relishes in her misdeeds and embodies the worst qualities that can be found in a person. She likes to hurt people, to break things – partly out of the sheer enjoyment of hurting and breaking, but also out of a cruel sense of revenge for the ills the world has done to her. For the brick that was dropped on her head when she was a child, for the train that robbed her of her legs when she was an adult. Of all the people Roland has met so far, Detta Walker is the one who poses the most danger to him and his quest. Only by bringing the two women together can he have any chance of making it to the Tower.

Through door number three, Roland must meet death – but not for him – in the form of The Pusher. The aptly-named Jack Mort has a hobby – anonymous murder. Planning and executing the suffering of others is what brings joy to his heart and a stain to his jeans, and he has intersected with Roland’s quest even before Roland reached the beach. He was the one who pushed Odetta Holmes under a subway train. He was the one who pushed Jack Chambers in front of a speeding Cadillac. Now, Roland has control of this man’s body and will use it to get what he needs from our world so that he can carry on in his. A little poetic justice along the way is just icing on the cake.

If Roland succeeds, he and his new group will push on to find the Dark Tower and do… whatever it is that Roland needs to do there. If he fails, they will all die, and the hopes of Roland’s world will die with them.

Like I said, I enjoy tales of crossing worlds, and so this book felt good to me. I liked seeing not only how Roland dealt with the unfamiliar reality of New York in three different decades, but how the stories of Eddie, Odetta/Detta and Jack intersected with each other. At one point in his section, Jack thinks, “Who was to say he had not sculpted the cosmos today, or might not at some future time? God, no wonder he creamed his jeans!” Crude though it may be, Jack is more right than he knows – a few simple pushes altered the destinies of not only the people he pushed, but those of entire worlds. So if you think small actions can’t have big consequences, well, look to Jack Mort.

Actually, his section of the book was my favorite. While Roland vs. Eddie was an action-packed shoot-em-up, and Roland vs. Detta was a hostage drama, Roland vs. Jack was almost a dark comedy. Taking over Jack’s body and keeping the man’s mind at metaphorical gunpoint, Roland carves a swath of confusion through New York City. The mental disconnect people have between Jack Mort’s appearance as a well-off CPA and his behavior as a seasoned gunslinger is enough for some moments of gold.

By the end of the book, we’re not much closer to the Dark Tower than we were at the beginning, but we are very nearly ready to get started on the journey. Not quite there yet, but Roland now has people he can count on when things turn bad. And they will turn bad, you can set your watch and warrant on it.

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“Well, what was behind Door Number One wasn’t so hot, and what was behind Door Number Two was even worse, so now, instead of quitting like sane people, we’re going to go right ahead and check out Door Number Three. The way things have been going, I think it’s likely to be something like Godzilla or Ghidra the Three-Headed Monster, but I’m an optimist. I’m still hoping for the stainless steel cookware.”
– Eddie Dean, The Drawing of the Three
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The Drawing of the Three on Wikipedia
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Review 53: Crisis on Infinite Earths – DOUBLE FEATURE


Crisis on Infinite Earths: Absolute Edition by Marv Wolfman and George Perez

This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the works that has affected me deeply. More importantly, it is something that has caused considerable harm to my wallet and bank account, as I have been collecting comic books for almost twenty-five years now, and it’s all because of Crisis. I can still remember going to the drugstore after church one Sunday and seeing the cover to Crisis #9 – a classic George Perez group shot of some of the most terrible villains ever seen in the DC Universe. You name the baddie, I guarantee he or she was in there somewhere. I was hooked. Of course, coming into a 12-part series in issue 9 meant that I was really lost as to what was going on, but some effort and visits to comics shops eventually got me up to speed. Unfortunately, once I understood Crisis, I realized that there was much more that I didn’t understand.

You can’t really understand this story without understanding something of the DC Comics Universe. In the late 1950s, they published a story called “Flash of Two Worlds” (Flash #123), in which the Flash, Barry Allen, managed to, using his prodigious super-speed, vibrate through some dimensional barrier or other, and meet the Flash, Jay Garrick, that he had read about as a child in – you guessed it – comic books.

The explanation for this was simple – the guy who wrote Flash comics in Barry Allen’s childhood had, somehow, “tuned in” to this Alternate Earth, watching Jay Garrick’s adventures and, thinking they were fiction, wrote them up as comic books which, in turn, inspired Barry Allen as a child. So when Barry was struck by lightning and chemicals, gaining super speed, he called himself The Flash, in homage to his childhood hero.

Anyway, in “Flash of Two Worlds,” Barry Allen finds out that the Flash he had read about actually existed, only on another Earth in another universe that vibrated at a different frequency from ours. Personally, I think this is a really cool idea, and my personal goal in life is to drink enough coffee in one sitting to accomplish the same thing myself.

Confused yet? Well, it did help if you were an avid comics reader for 25 years before Crisis came out. But to condense the whole thing, here you go:

In the Beginning, there was One. A Universe that grew and shaped and changed. Life was created, rose from the dust, and began to think. On the planet of Oa, located in the center of the universe, life grew with great swiftness, advancing at incredible speed. The beings of Oa embraced science and research. One Oan, a man by the name of Krona, sought to know the origin of the Universe they inhabited. Despite the warnings of his colleagues, he created a device that would allow him to do so. The result was a complete rupture of time and space, for the beginning of things must never be witnessed.

So…. In the Beginning, there were Many. Universe upon universe, each moving at its own speed and vibration, separated by a shadow’s thickness, but each unknown to the other.

That was the idea, anyway. The whole “multiple universe” thing, after Gardner Fox wrote his “Flash of Two Worlds” story, became one of the best plot devices the comics writers at DC ever had. Finally they could have silver age and golden age heroes meet and work together. At first, there was only Earth-1 (silver age) and Earth-2 (golden age), which was odd, because the golden age heroes of Earth-2 were older. But I guess since Barry Allen (the silver age Flash, remember) was the one who broke the barrier, he gets precedence.

Anyway, like I said – at first there were two Earths. That number grew swiftly, both for plot and copyright reasons. For example: At a certain point, DC was working on the rights to own characters from Charlton Comics (The Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, etc), and they inhabited Earth-4. Then they went to obtain characters from Fawcett (the whole Shazam line), who went onto Earth-S. As if the Hungry Beast That Was DC wasn’t finished, they put characters from Quality Comics (Uncle Sam, Phantom Lady, The Ray, etc), onto Earth-X.

Hang in there, I’ll get to the story eventually….

There was also Earth-3, where the doppelgangers of our favorite heroes were villains, and the only hero on the planet was Luthor. Then came Earth-D, Earth-Prime, Earth-Omega and, eventually, Earth-Sigma.

Suffice to say, by 1985, there was a huge mess…. Older readers had no problem following the continuity, but newcomers were baffled, and writers were no doubt also befuddling themselves. The decision was made to clean the whole thing up, make one Earth, one timeline, and one continuity. No more parallel Earths, no more vibrating through dimensional barriers.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it took twelve issues and the appearance of almost every hero and villain ever seen in DC Comics’ fifty year history to pull it off. The research took over three years, with one guy tasked with studying every comic DC had printed since 1935 (my thought when I heard that: “What an awesome job!”). It also required the cooperation of dozens of writers and artists across all of DC’s titles, and a company-wide effort to make the Crisis a truly universal event.

Our story opens with the end of the world. Or the end of a world, more to the point. A vast white cloud encroaches upon the earth, vaporizing everything in its path, without pause or remorse. Panicking, people try to flee, but to no avail. Into this horror appears a man with dark eyes and a tortured face, who watches the world die, helpless and weeping, and vanishes again as the universe becomes nothing more than a mist of free-floating electrons.

Not a bad way to start a book, eh?

The man is Pariah, and he is condemned to appear wherever great tragedy strikes, unable to help, unable to die, only able to watch. He is there when the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3 put aside their evil to try and stop the wave of energy that devours their planet. Again, Pariah appears, and again the world is destroyed, but not before the planet’s only super-hero, Luthor, rockets his son through the dimensions, in the hope of freeing him from his world’s destruction.

Sound familiar? I thought so….

If you think you’re going to know what’s going on this quickly, you’re wrong. A mysterious figure sends his associate, a woman named Harbinger, who can split herself among many forms, to gather heroes from Earths that have not been destroyed and bring them to a satellite that hovers in orbit. While she searches them out, one of her is corrupted by a shadowy evil that tracks her through the ice of Atlantis. She gathers them, heroes, villains and otherwise, to the satellite, where we first meet a character that had been hovering around various DC titles for a few months, always in the shadows – The Monitor.

The Monitor informs them that there is great evil abroad, that universes are perishing at an astonishing rate, and are doing so at the hand of his adversary. Waves of anti-matter are consuming the universes, and with each one gone, the Monitor’s power decreases. He has a task for these heroes, spread out over millennia of Earth’s history. This is the first attempt to save the worlds….

The basic rundown of the story is that there is an anti-matter universe out there, created when Krona performed his experiment, controlled by the mirror version of The Monitor. This “Anti-Monitor” wants nothing more than to see his brother dead, and to see the positive Universes brought under his control. He’s a good, old-fashioned Evil Overlord, I must say…. So as each universe is destroyed by the great sweeping cloud of death, he grows ever stronger.

It has been pointed out to me that some people out there get all anal over this concept, thereby calling the whole damn plot into question. So, a bit of elementary physics. The above scenario cannot happen. When matter and antimatter collide, there is a huge burst of energy as the two forms of matter vaporize each other. Nothing is left – in “reality physics,” both the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor would be playing at a zero-sum game. Given that these people are willing to accept, however, the existence of thousands of metahumans who can perform feats that also fly in the face of real physics, I think their arguments about the properties of antimatter are so much hot air. As a very wise man once said, “Blow.”

Anyway, the Anti-Monitor’s release is tied with Pariah’s fate as well. Determined to do as Krona did, Pariah set up a chamber, of matter and anti-matter, so that he may see the beginning of all things. The result was the beginning of the end, and his world was the first consumed by the anti-matter wave. The Monitor, observing this, imbued him with his curse, using him as a “tracker” to see which universe might be the next to die.

So we have an unstoppable force tearing through the Multiverse, and it is up to The Monitor and Our Heroes to stop him. But the Monitor dies, and the worlds keep dying….

Of course you know that, in the end, the good guys win. But as with any good story, it is the telling of the tale, not the tale’s end, that is important. Wolfman and Perez did some very daring things with this story, not only in rearranging the whole order of the DC Universe, but also in killing off some pretty heavy hitters. The best cover in the series, so good that they came out with a statue based on it, was the cover of issue number seven: The Death of Supergirl.

The other major character to be killed off was Barry Allen, The Flash, who inadvertently started this whole mess a long time ago. But he died well, and, as Marv Woflman says in the forward to the collected edition of Crisis, there was a way left to bring him back if they needed to. Indeed, Barry Allen’s presence has not yet vanished. The current Flash, Wally West, has long held Barry to be the high ideal which he must match, but at the same time leave behind. In one version of the Legion of Super-Heroes books, the character of Xs, another super-speedster, is Barry Allen’s granddaughter, and the character of Impulse/Kid Flash, is Barry Allen’s nephew. So the Flash lives on, in his way. In fact, he’s recently been resurrected in DC continuity – though how long that will last is anyone’s guess.

On the other hand, no one remembers Supergirl. By the end of the Crisis, she had been wiped from existence, and was seen only once more, in a Christmas issue several years later, reminding the character of Deadman about what it means to work without reward. While several new Supergirls have appeared since then, unlike Barry Allen the pre-Crisis Supergirl is lost to history.

As you can probably guess, I really like this story. It has an immense cast of characters, without becoming unwieldy or dispersed. The storytelling, with its multi-universal scope, nevertheless allows you to feel for individuals, with their triumphs and tragedies. Ultimately we see that even the mightiest of mortals is, at heart, human. There is foreshadowing galore, mysteries abound, the plot twists and turns, and you get glimpses of what is yet to come – the hand in the swirling pool of stars, the image of the Flash appearing before Batman and vanishing with words of doom, the Green Lantern’s ring sputtering and failing…. It all intertwines together so very nicely and really satisfies my inner comics geek.

The Absolute Edition was aimed at people exactly like me. Someone who would say, “I’ve read this story a dozen times, I could probably recite it… but I need it to be bigger. Like, big enough to club a man to death with.” So yeah, they had me from the word go on this one, and as soon as the opportunity arose to buy it, I did so without hesitation. It really is very pretty – it’s been recolored and everything, AND it comes with a companion book about how the series came to be. Fascinating reading.

The big question, of course is this – after nearly twenty-five years and at least two other universe-wide reboots (Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis) that have changed the changes made by Crisis, why is this story still worth reading? Well, for one thing, the writing is solid – you can follow the story without having to buy a couple dozen other titles, and there are dramatic moments that have hung in my memory for years. In addition, there’s the art. George Perez has been one of my favorite artists for years. His attention to detail and his ability to draw dozens of characters to a page while keeping each of them dynamic, interesting and individual is, in my opinion, nothing short of superhuman. If I could choose to draw like anyone, it would be George Perez, and I will never get tired of looking at his artwork.

More importantly, however, this book is about the heroic ideal. On many scales, from the small-scale of characters like Hawk and Dove or the Losers, all the way up to the big guns of Superman, the Flash and Supergirl, the idea of what it means to be a good person is presented over and over again: you do good not because it’s easy, not because it will benefit yourself. You do good because it is what you must do, even when you know it could lead to tragic consequences for yourself. My model of heroism was formed in these books, and the model set by these characters has guided my moral choices ever since. Where other people take their moral guidance from Jesus or Marcus Aurelius or Oprah, I take mine from Barry Allen and Kara Zor-el and from so many others who put their lives and their interests aside for the greater good.

Can’t ask for much more than that.

Crisis on Infinite Earths: the Novelization by Marv Wolfman

Why yes, I own both the comic and the novelization. Is there something wrong with that?

Actually, here’s a Little Known Fact about me: when I was in, maybe, junior high school I tried to novelize Crisis. I sat down with the comics and went through them, panel-by-panel, trying to put them into a narrative form. I tried to fill in things like expressions, reactions, to bridge the gap between the kind of story you can tell in a comic and the kind you tell in a novel. To my memory, it was pretty good, though it’s no doubt lost to the ages by now. If I ever run across it, I’ll either marvel at my innocent youth or cringe at my fumbling attempt to do the unnecessary.

I am not the only one who gave that some thought, it seems. To his credit, though, since Marv Wolfman was the guy who wrote the comics, I think he has far more right to put it into novel form than I ever did. But whereas mine was a straight page-by-page translation of the comic to text, Wolfman decided to tell the story from a very different angle. He decided to let us see the Crisis on Infinite Earths through the eyes of Barry Allen, The Flash.

As I said in my review of the comic series, Barry Allen was (more or less) the beginning of the Multiverse in DC Comics, so it was fitting that he be the one to narrate the end in this book. After all, he didn’t get all that much page time in the comics – a few ghostly visitations, some taunting and then he was dead. Yes, his death saved billions of people, but still – for someone as important as he was, you would have thought he’d have gotten a few more pages.

The thing about The Flash, though, is that he’s hard to pin down. Literally. Even on an ordinary day, we’re talking about a man who can race laser beams – and win. He can alter his subjective view of time to the point where a hummingbird in flight becomes a still life. He can run fast enough to travel through time, and vibrate the very molecules of his body to a point where he can not only ghost through solid matter but pass between the dimensional barriers that separate the multiple Earths.

How any villain ever got the best of this man is beyond me. If the writers had ever taken his powers seriously, The Flash never would have had a challenge.

So who better to narrate our alternate view of the Crisis than he? The fact that he’s dead by the time the book begins doesn’t really make much of a difference. There’s too much for The Flash to do, and suddenly the fastest man alive doesn’t have enough time.

I don’t really need to re-iterate what the Crisis was about, why it happened and who the main players were. None of that has changed in this version of the story – we just have a different point of view. And from this point of view, we learn many interesting things that the comic held back from us. The relationship between The Monitor and his young ward, Lyla, for example – he knew even before he found her that she would kill him. In fact that she would have to kill him, if any of the Earths were to survive the coming apocalypse. We get a much better look at the Psycho-Pirate, the mad puppet of the Anti-Monitor whose ability to manipulate emotions becomes key to the control of worlds. And we get first-person views from so many other heroes and villains that took part in the Crisis – getting a much deeper look at the work.

Most of all, of course, we get to see Barry Allen. What drives him, even in this semi-dead state, to continue to play an active part in this Crisis? Incorporeal and largely unable to interact with – let alone avert – the catastrophe, The Flash remains a witness until the time comes that he is able to (with a little time-travel cheating) free himself from his bonds and go to a death that he knows he cannot avoid, and which he also knows is not the end. Honestly, how he survives beyond death the way he does isn’t very clear in this book. It has something to do with the Speed Force, a kind of semi-sentient energy field that grants speedsters their powers and provides them with a heaven when they die. His jaunts through time and space seem to be at the control of a higher power, but exactly who and what that power is we are never quite sure of.

As with any transition from one medium to another, there are changes. The villainous takeover of three Earths is gone, for example, as is the involvement of Superboy-Prime, and much of what occurs after the Anti-Monitor’s ultimate defeat is completely different (and is therefore, if you’ve been keeping up with the DC Universe over the past three years or so, decidedly non-canon). But Supergirl’s death is expanded upon, and we get to see the decisions that bring her to her doom. We know that, like Barry Allen, she did what needed to be done, knowing that it would be her end. Getting a quick look inside her head before she took on the Anti-Monitor makes her death just that much more poignant.

But also as with any transition from one medium to another, it is very hard to compare the new rendition to the original. While this novelized version of Crisis is a quick and enjoyable read, it doesn’t have nearly the scope and depth and visual punch that the comic did. Because comics are such a visual medium – a story told in mixed media – you’re going to lose something when you take one of those media away. While I enjoy reading this (and it’s a lot easier to carry around than the Rosetta-stone-sized Absolute Edition of the comic), it’s never going to take the place of the original. Wolfman is an excellent writer of comics, but he’s not a novelist.

If you are a fan of Crisis and you just want another look at the old story, pick this up. If you’ve never read Crisis before, get your hands on the comics and let this one come to you later.

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“Worlds lived, worlds died. Nothing will ever be the same….”
– Psycho Pirate, Crisis on Infinite Earths #12
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“Barry, I know people die. From the moment I understood what they meant, I was very aware of all the memorials around me. But my mother, God bless her, Barry, she said and kept saying until I believed her, that although we have to remember the dead, we can’t ever let ourselves act like we’re one of them.”
Supergirl (Kara Zor-El), Crisis on Infinite Earths: the Novelization by Marv Wolfman
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Crisis on Infinite Earths on Wikipedia
Marv Wolfman on Wikipedia
George Perez on Wikipedia

Crisis on Infinite Earths: Absolute Edition on Amazon.com
Crisis on Infinite Earths: The Novelization on Amazon.com
The Annotated Crisis on Infinite Earths
Crisis on Infinite Earths on the DC Wiki

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Filed under apocalypse, comic books, DC Comics, death, George Perez, Marv Wolfman, super-heroes, Superman, supervillains, time travel, world-crossing

Review 21: The Thief of Always


The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

This book has one of the best opening lines I have ever read:

“The great, gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.”

Having grown up in New England, where February is the punishment that God metes out for all sinners, I have decided that you can’t beat that.

Harvey Swick is ten years old, and like so many ten year-old boys, he is bored with his life. The interminable grayness of February, the drudgery of life – going to school, coming home, going to school again – and believes that, if his life became the tiniest bit more boring, he would most certainly perish.

Then he met a strange, smiling man named Rictus, who told Harvey of a wonderful place where boredom could not enter, and there was nothing to be had but fun and adventure. There is no better place for children, Rictus said, than Mister Hood’s Holiday House.

Thinking about it, given that Harvey was willing to follow a strange man to a mysterious house without much consideration for his safety, suggests either that Harvey is not very bright, or Rictus is extremely persuasive. Given the rest of the book, I’d bet on the latter.

The Holiday House is truly a place of miracles. The food is better than you’ve ever eaten and there are enough toys and games and costumes and masks to keep any child happy for the rest of their lives. And in every day there are four seasons – a perfect green spring in the morning, a blazing wonderful summer in the afternoon, an evening full of woodsmoke, pumpkins and fallen leaves, and every night is a white Christmas with a present for each boy and girl.

It is the best place Harvey has ever been, and it takes him about a month to realize that something is not… quite right. Why would the mysterious Mister Hood do this for children? And what happened to the children who had come before? And what’s the deal with that cold, deep pond full of big, creepy fish?

It’s a coming-of-age book, the kind that chronicles the transition from childhood to young adulthood. Ten isn’t exactly young adult territory, but it is a time when kids start maturing in the way they think about themselves and the world. Not for nothing that so many young adult novels feature a protagonist that is somewhere between ten and twelve years old – they’re still young enough to have an air of innocence (which inevitably gets torn away) but old enough to think for themselves when there are no adults around to think for them.

There is no end to this kind of book – Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Stephen King and Richard Bachman’s Peter Straub’s The Talisman, John Gilstrap’s Nathan’s Run, and just about anything written by William Sleator are among my favorites in this genre. They represent a growing-up that we feel we ought to have had, but are happy to have missed. They deal with the concepts that kids have to deal with as they age, and do so in a manner that young people can understand – analogy.

The Thief of Always is a book about getting what you want. Anyone who’s spent time around children knows that they’re greedy little beggars. They are dominated by their id and don’t understand that there are concerns out there that might supersede their own. Harvey Swick is just such a boy. He is concerned with his own excitement, his own happiness, and, having a child’s limited view of time, believes that the boredom he feels in the grip of February is permanent. He wants adventure. He wants change and variety, a life that never slows down and never gets old.

As the old saying suggests, however, one must be careful what one wishes for.

In the end, Harvey learns a Valuable Lesson ™ – to let the future happen in its own time, and appreciate what you have now. Because once time is gone, you can never – or at least very, very rarely – get it back again.

It’s a very quick read, but a very good book. I pull it out every February, if only for that opening line. For those who think of Clive Barker as being a master of the gory, pin-headed horror genre, this book may come as a pleasant surprise for you. And if you have kids around Harvey’s age, leave this one lying around for them to find. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it….

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“I only took the days you didn’t want,” Hood protested. “The rainy days. The gray days. The days you wished away. Where’s the crime in that?”
“I didn’t know what I was losing,” Harvey protested.
“Ah,” said Hood softly, “but isn’t that always the way of it?”
– from The Thief of Always
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Clive Barker at Wikipedia
The Thief of Always at Wikipedia
“The Beautiful Moment” – a Clive Barker website for all ages
The Thief of Always at Amazon.com

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Filed under children, Clive Barker, fantasy, time travel, world-crossing, young adult