Sunday, May 19, 2024

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen

 
 
Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen
Who Killed Jimmy Olsen?
by Matt Fraction
art by Steve Lieber
2020
 
 
"Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen: Who Killed Jimmy Olsen?" collects a year-long miniseries that's like, a celebration of Silver Age comic hijinx and shenanigans. After an initial inciting incident where Jimmy gets turned into a giant turtle-man while skydiving from orbit for charity, and thus crashes into and destroys a giant lion statue built by Lex Luthor (see, it's wacky from the very start), Jimmy realizes that someone is trying to kill him, and fakes his own death so he can go into hiding and investigate his own (attempted) murder.

The plot is complex from the start, and picks up complications along the way, like a katarami ball made of chaos.

Jimmy's version of going into hiding is to ask Superman to let him figure this one out for himself, moving to Gotham, and reappearing as Irresponsible Blogger Timmy Olsen, a parody of cruel, click-hungry prank YouTubers. Ostensibly this is because the financially struggling Daily Planet is existentially dependent on Jimmy's video content for revenues, so even when he's 'dead,' he can't in good conscience be off the clock. While there's a lot that's funny in this comic, the Timmy Olsen segments were my favorites, especially when he repeatedly antagonizes Batman, for example, by seeing how many men in Joker costumes he can fit in one restaurant.

Anyway, Jimmy is pretty sure it's Lex Luthor who wants him dead. In a series of flashbacks, we see that the Olsens and Luthors have been enemies since Metropolis was just a trading outpost. They're also the two richest families in the city? But while Jimmy basically just ignores the fact that he's a billionaire, his brother Julian leans into his role as builder, donor, civic booster, font of noblesse oblige, and rival to Lex. We also get flashbacks (these ones blending the art style of Calvin & Hobbes with the story beats of Peanuts) showing the complex sibling dynamics of the lil Olsens that help make sense of their adult relationship.

In Gotham, Jimmy seeks out his sister Janie, an award-winning playwrite, and recruits her to help solve the case. While they're on the lam, they run into Jix, an alien jewel thief whom Jimmy accidentally married during a drunken night in Gorilla City (a city of sentient gorillas) on a previous wacky adventure. Jimmy was supposed to annul the marriage but forgot, which is a problem, because Jix is trying to enter into an arranged marriage / hostage situation with a demonic-looking alien warlord so that his people's conquest of hers will be like, somewhat less awful. But he's mad that he was denied his hostage-bride, so he and his robot army also show up to chase Jimmy and wreak havoc.

Phfew! And then, in the last 1-2 chapters, all the various plotlines are brought together and resolved, including solving Jimmy's (wannabe) murder and fixing the financial solvency of the Daily Planet.

The first half, roughly, of the story is told very nonlinearly, not really for any obvious reason. I might guess that Fraction either decided that a linear telling would be poorly paced, or perhaps he just wanted to jumpstart several plots simultaneously to increase the early excitement. Once the situation reaches a critical mass of complexity, he switches over to linear progression (aside from the childhood and ancestral flashbacks) for the rest of the series.

Each issue is broken into scenes, and each scene gets its own 60s style intro culminating in a character getting declared like, 'Superman's Nemesis, Lex Luthor,' or 'Jimmy Olsen's Coworker, Lois Lane,' and then the scene gets a punny title. There are also a lot of really excellent montage sequences, such as Superman looking back on the kinds of trouble Jimmy has historically gotten himself into, or a series of Timmy Olsen's irresponsible pranks.

Fraction and Lieber really dig deep into the Silver Age toolkit and pull out as many 1960s style plots, jokes, characters, and ideas as the comic can possibly hold. They're not all equally successful, but I admire the spirit. One thing I didn't love was Fraction stringing together longer and longer sequences of nicknames like Jimberly and Jimmifer and so on to call Jimmy. Overall, I would say this will appeal to fans of screwball comedy and anyone looking for an adult homage to the classic, silly Superman storylines of yore, when comics were unambiguously for kids.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Pollen from a Future Harvest


 
Pollen from a Future Harvest
by Derek Kunsken
2015, reprinted 2021 
 
 
Pollen from a Future Harvest is a scifi novella set in a distant future where control of the few wormholes that allow instantaneous travel has elevated totally new nations to Great Power status. The 100 page tale unfolds among members of the Sub-Saharan Union (formerly Zimbabwe), who are a client state serving the Venusian Congregate (formerly Quebec), or rather, they were clients until recently, when the Union discovered their own new wormholes, which give them a opportunity to gain independence from the Congregate.

To do that though, first they're going to have to survive, which means laying low until they can figure out how to use their wormholes well enough to weather the inevitable Congregate attempt to recapture them and their newly found fortune. These wormholes are a pair - one sends objects back 11 years in the past, the other receives objects sent back from 11 years in the future.

One complication is that the trip is harrowing; no human can survive it, and most information storage devices end up so scoured that, so far, they come back unreadable. The other complication is that the Union scientists are afraid to do anything that cause a paradox. So, suppose I decide on June 1st that I want to do something - run a science experiment or write a computer program or something - and I want to send the finished product backward. So first of all, since I know I didn't get the result yet, my future self can only send the results back to June 2nd at the earliest. And second, whoever gets the results had better be sequestered from whoever's actually doing all the work. The payoff would be, with the correct organization and multiple teams building off each other's work, you could get like, sixty years of science done in a decade.

The final complication is that humans are not alone on the planet that hosts the wormholes. There are Vegetable Intelligences here, sentient plants who send pollen back in time and receive pollen from the future. And, oh yeah, the most immediate crisis, the pollen from the future just stopped flowing. So what's going to go wrong, 11 years from now? And what, if anything, can be done to mitigate it, without causing a paradox that might, as far as anyone knows, have even more disastrous consequences?

We follow Major Okonkwo, the auditor assigned to try to figure this out. Okonkwo initially suspects sleeper agents, still loyal to the Congregate, trying to sabotage the Union's bid for independence and signal their patrons to come reconquer them. She's also hurting because her senior husband, who was also the Union's best auditor, just died. The Union practices triple marriages, arranged to create families that are also functioning offices. Kunsken draws some compelling parallels between the triple marriages and the Vegetable Intelligences' relationships with their past and future selves, and the way the halting of the future pollen mirrors the loss of the senior spouse.

The resolution of the mystery and the handing of the time-travel elements were both fine, but I felt most interested in how much detail Kunsken could share about this world in such a short book. The idea that discovering a new basis of power and wealth catapults some groups far ahead of others feels somewhat true to our real history, and allows him to depict a future that is as alien to our present as our world today would be to someone from, say, 1490. We learn a lot in a concise way. When combined with the frozen planet and strange alien intelligences, it reminds me just a little of Charlie Jane Anders's The City in the Middle of the Night.

I've never read any of Kunsken's writing before, but it appears this novella takes place in between the timelines of his two major book series, one of which is about the early days of the Venusian Congregate, and the other about the Sub-Saharan Union after it's fully established as an independent power.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

How to Make Friends with a Ghost


 
How to Make Friends with a Ghost
by Rebecca Green
2017
 
 
How to Make Friends with a Ghost is a children's picture book, but at almost 50 pages, it's longer than these books often are. In the style of an instruction book, complete with pun-filled fake citations and references to other works, author Rebecca Green explains how to find, befriend, and care for a ghost, and discusses the benefits of such friendship.
 
What Green describes sounds a bit like having a pet, or an imaginary friend. I don't necessarily think it would help a child missing a deceased relative - though I could be wrong. I think it would appeal most to a kid who likes spooky stuff or is curious about death in a more abstract and less personal way.
 
Green's art is pastel crayon against a white background, so that it looks reminiscent of children's art. She uses a restricted palette of black, browns, greys, and taupes, and red. The ghost is a classic bedsheet ghost - she both warns against mistaking another kid in a costume for a potential ghost friend and recommends trick-or-treating as a fun activity your ghost can enjoy. The child protagonist of the book is a girl whose face often looks intently interested, but never scared.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Mudlark

 
 
Mudlark
In Search of London's Past along the River Thames
by Laura Maiklem
2019
 
 
Mudlark combines journalistic accounts of specific mudlarking trips author Lara Maiklem took while writing this book, memoirist accounts of both her earlier life, how she got into the hobby, descriptions of her own and other mudlarks' notable finds, the laws governing treasure hunting in England, the effects of climate change on the river, bits of British history, and imaginative accounts of how people might've used (and lost) some of the items she finds. 'Mudlarking' here refers specifically to searching the muddy shoreline of the Thames, in England, at low tide.

The book is organized, kind of, by location, starting at the Tidal Head where the river Thames first starts rising and falling with the tides, passing west to east through London, and ending at the Estuary where the river flows into the North Sea. Each chapter starts with an epigraph from British literary history, mostly unflattering descriptions of mudlarks from times when they were very poor and collected river debris to resell, as a career, out of economic necessity, a far cry from Maiklem and other modern mudlarks, who are hobbyists, mostly treasure hunting as a leisure activity.

Each chapter also has another theme or two, although Maiklem moves from thought to thought without being strongly bound to a single topic. I imagine this conversational style would make Mudlark an enjoyable audio book. I think I would've preferred the book to be a bit more structured, though I acknowledge that as personal preference. But my favorite chapters were the ones with the strongest themes, like 'Hammersmith,' which is mostly about a famous lost font that the original typesetter dumped in the river rather than giving to his business partner. That story's been in the news in the last few years.

The thing I think would've liked best, I think, is if the book had included photographs. Maiklem is acting a bit as an amateur archaeologist and hobbyist museum curator - I would've liked to see the shore, and more of her found objects than fit on the cover. Her descriptions are very good! But photos would've added something.

Photos would especially drive home a point she makes over and over - that nearly everything she finds is either broken or very small, or both. She finds buttons, beads, pins, coins and metal tokens, parts of clay pipes, and an awful lot of fragments of glass bottles and pottery vessels. Almost nothing is large or whole. Some things get lost in the river, many are thrown away because they're already damaged, and while the anoxic mud preserves, time and salt water both destroy. Maiklem is a treasure hunter, but these are treasures for their historic and sentimental value, not because they're worth a lot of money.

I think lots of kids have collections like Maiklem did, of interesting looking rocks and shells and other found objects, though hers sounds much larger and better tended than mine was. There was a book I loved as a kid, a guide to treasure hunting, that was fully illustrated, and I checked out over and over from the school library. I never got into the real thing, but the vicarious, imaginative thrill of discovery is part of what I like about games like D&D. I'd kind of hoped I would like Maiklem's book the way I did that one as a kid, which was probably too much to ask for. But it was interesting to see what the real life of an actual hobby treasure hunter looks like.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Karmen

 
 
Karmen
by Guillem March
translated by Dan Christensen
2022
 
 
Karmem collects a comic miniseries by Guillem March. The title character, Karmen, has a human face and hair, but her body is a black silhouette with only the skeleton visible. Karmen is a psychopomp, a supernatural being who accompanies to souls of the dead to the afterlife, or rather, to their next incarnation. In this case, she's accompanying Cata, a young woman who just committed suicide in the bath. For the time they're together, Cata continues to look as she did at the moment of death, that is, completely naked.
 
It's fair to say this is a comic for adults! But this is not only an adult comic because of the nudity and self-harm. It's also about that most adult of topics - regret.
 
And yet, Cata is still a very young adult, still inexperienced, still becoming. What Cata's death does in this story then, is to arrest her at that inflection point. To stop her life as it's still just beginning, and to ask, what if that's all there is? Cata mostly regrets what she hasn't done, but after her time with Karmen, she also learns to regret at least one thing she has done - she regrets her suicide, and wants to live again, not to be reincarnated, but to continue her life.
 
In a way, Karmen reminds me of The Good Place and Hazbin Hotel, because all three appear to ask whether a soul's quality remains fixed at the time of death, or whether any sort of redemption can be earned in the afterlife. Is becoming a better person reserved only for the living? Or can we still grow and change and mature after the end?
 
I might be wrong, but I don't think any of these are really about the theology of salvation or eternal damnation. I think they're about being an adult, about getting older, about feeling trapped, feeling that your past decisions have already been set in stone, and wondering whether there's still any fresh clay before you to make new marks in, to mold into a new shape. These stories aren't really about a literal afterlife, but about the life you continue to live after you've seemingly already finished living your life. Perhaps especially after you've made a mistake, something you think you can't get over, something you think you'll never live down.
 
Over the course of their afternoon together, Karmen helps Cata to see the world from a new perspective, literally, by flying like swimming through the air, helps her to empathize with others, and to correctly understand the situation she was fleeing through suicide, a seemingly unrequited crush on her childhood best friend. Even though Cata's life is over, Karmen thinks there's still time. Not much, but enough, if Cata will finally open herself up enough to use it.

Monday, May 6, 2024

The Seven Deadly Sins of Science Fiction

 
 
 
The Seven Deadly Sins of Science Fiction
edited by Isaac Asimov, Charles Waugh, and Martin Greenberg
Fawcett Crest
1980
 
 
The Seven Deadly Sins of Science Fiction is an anthology of short stories that are ostensibly about things like pride, lust, envy, etc. As a collection, it's not very coherent. There are nine stories - three set in something like the present, the rest at varying points in the future. And while the book itself was published in 1980, six of the stories are from the 50s, two from the 60s, and only one from the 70s. There are nine because gluttony gets two (ha ha) and avarice and covetousness are counted separately.
 
It kind of feels like some of the stories got picked because Asimov had a publishing intern run a search for ones that literally include the name of the vice somewhere in the text. A couple seem to include a character who actually has the vice, a couple others perhaps seem like ironic commentary on the vice, and in the other cases, the connection is more tenuous. To the extent the stories have anything in common, it's that most of them would make okay Twilight Zone episodes.
 
Jack Vance's "Sail 25" gets sloth. It's about a student crew taking a solar sail spaceship to Mars and back. Their hardass, House-like instructor spends the whole flight in his captain's quarters, telling them they'll live or die on their own merits, and berating for not living up to his standards. He's probably also sabotaging the ship to really put them through their paces. One nice detail - when we first meet the instructor, his appearance suggests he was badly burned; half the story later, his one helpful suggestion is that he once saw a student set on fire by the reflection from the sail. In retrospect, he himself must've been that student.
 
Judith Merril's "Peeping Tom," the lust selection, is about a guy who learns psychic powers from a village elder during the Vietnam War and uses them to have sex with a lot of women. This story and the next one probably fit the supposed theme of the book best; they were also the two I enjoyed least.
 
For envy, we get "The Invisible Man Murder Case" by Henry Slesar. An aging locked-room mystery writer who hates the new pulp and noir crime novels uses an invisibility device to commit seemingly impossible murders and drive up sales of his own books. This story was at least twice as long as it needed to be, making everything belabored and obvious.
 
Asimov chose one of his own stories for pride - "Galley Slave," which is about a robot company that leases a university a new robot that's supposed to free up faculty time for research by performing 'intellectual drudgery' like copy-editing the galley proofs of books before they're published ... or grading student papers! I was disappointed that Asimov didn't seem to consider the possible downsides of this robot - in light of all the downsides we're experiencing from generative AI right now - but in fairness, the invention of Spell Check, for example, probably did in fact mostly enable people to do more of the good parts of writing.
 
The story takes place at a trial after something has gone wrong. It turns out the ignorant, prejudiced sociology professor tricked the poor robot into sabotaging his forthcoming book, then ordered it to lie about this. Then he sued the manufacturer for the robot ruining his professional reputation. Fortunately, the heroic robot psychologist deduces what happened, and tricks the sociologist into revealing what he did at trial.
 
Asimov seems pretty triumphalist about all this, as though this was the one and only possible way someone could misuse the robot. I feel like if someone can get the robot to hurt themselves to embarrass the manufacturer, they can probably get the robot to hurt someone else for more comprehensible motives, a possibility Asimov doesn't really seem to consider. And in our world today, the people getting killed by self-driving cars, for example, aren't activists committing suicide, they're not even the victims of a hacker using the cars as weapons, they're simply people who put too much trust in a device and a manufacturer that doesn't deserve it.
 
For anger, we get "Divine Madness" by Roger Zelazny, a good and very short story that doesn't at all belong in this collection, about a man grieving his girlfriend who recently died in a car crash. He then lives several days backward in time, then resumes going forward at just the right moment to fix what he regrets and stop her from driving off and getting in a wreck after they argued. The descriptions of time moving backward were quite well-done.
 
For gluttony, we get two by Frederick Pohl. First, the best story in here, "The Midas Plague." In a future where all manufacturing is automated, the robots who make everything make way too much of it. Allowing any of this stuff to be 'wasted' by storing it, destroying it, recycling it, is unthinkable. And so, it is every citizen's patriotic duty to consume, use, and use up all this bounty. Everyone has ration cards to track their required consumption, with the poor required to live in overstuffed mansions while the rich get to enjoy minimalism.
 
Pohl's not trying to establish a rigorously plausible future economy here, he's writing satire. And at one go, his upside-down world manages capture the hardship of going hungry and doing without on WWII-era rations, and the shocking reversal of burgeoning post-war consumer economy, and the way that new forms of credit could lead to debt traps. It's kind of brilliant that he speak to both experiences at once!
 
And I think he manages to speak to our current situation, when people are using LLMs and generative AI to pump an endless streams of 'content' into an already oversaturated internet, where everyone wants likes and clicks and subscribes, our money sure, but especially our attention and our time. Pohl's world reminds me of how online ads are just riots of bright colors, autoplaying videos, annoying sounds, while so many people who are able are creating quiet minimalist spaces instead.
 
Pohl's story tells us nothing about gluttony, though it does force us to think about what counts as 'waste.' I say this as someone who only even read this book because I was trying to pare down my bookshelves, but somehow it felt like 'a waste' to get rid of it without reading it first - an impossible standard to follow in every case, but a trap that caught me this time nonetheless.
 

Pohl's "The Man Who Ate the World" takes place a bit in the future, when mandatory over-consumption has been replaced by Star Trek-like post-scarcity. Except for one man, who grew up during the bad old days, and is making a problem by using too much because he's trying to be a virtuous person. It's fine, but not as interesting as the original.
 
Averice is Poul Anderson's "Margin of Profit," which kind of reads like a math word problem padded out to a story. Space pirates are kidnapping and enslaving crews in one region of space. The crew union is threatening a strike rather than keep flying through that region. What's an interstellar shipping magnate to do? Anderson's guy heroically does the math, and discovers that as long as he remains sociopathically indifferent to crew safety, he can arm a fraction of his ships and eventually outlast the pirates in a war of attrition. And since the pirates are also perfectly rational profit maximizers, they surrender to his superior logic once he explains it.
 
The last story is the one from the 70s, "The Hook, the Eye, and the Whip" by Michael Conley, which is cast as covetousness. This was pretty good, but also awfully bleak in its view of human nature. The plot revolves around people getting ready for, and then competing in, a higher speed, more dangerous version of parasail racing. In this future, criminals can get sentence reductions by becoming the personal slave, and on-call organ donor, for a specific free person. There's a women's antislavery club, but Conely writes them as essentially insincere. They don't care about anyone's well-being; they just want an excuse to have club functions and occasionally yell at someone.
 
One of the racers has a slave, and people have been maimed and killed in previous races, but don't worry, even when things go wrong, he manages to not get hurt, and actually his slave was never in any real danger, since his prison sentence ended a few days before the race, so wouldn't have been forced to donate an organ regardless. So, that ending is far too convenient, and despite how dismal the world was, Conely seemed waaay too sympathetic to the men who used enslaved labor. I also found most of his descriptions of the boat race, or even the boats themselves, difficult to translate into a mental picture. But I liked that his characters were basically ordinary people without the power to simply change the world by personal fiat.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

The Planet in a Pickle Jar


 
The Planet in a Pickle Jar
by Martin Stanev
2022
 
 
The Planet in a Pickle Jar is a children's picture book about a couple kids staying with their grandmother. Initially they're bored, but then warm up to her. The book is playful about the space between what the words say and what the pictures show. And while the title image is obviously a metaphor, it's not one with a straightforward interpretation.
 
The text in this book adopts the kids' perspective; the art, I think, shows their grandmother's. So we're told that her house is boring, her stories are too long, and she spends all her time sewing and making pickles. What we see is a tableau that rewards a closer look.
 
The house is full of interesting-looking knickknacks and tchotchkes. The word-bubble showing the grandmother's story appears to illustrate the big bang and formation of the solar system. And her pickle jars aren't full of pickles, but of tiny images representing sights and memories from her travels. Kids who like to stop and spot all the details on the page will have a lot to look at here.
 
The grandmother tells another story, (again shown as an illustrated word bubble,) about how we are wrecking the environment and it won't still be there to enjoy if we do. Then, in the night, the kids wake up and discover she's missing. They search the whole house, then find a secret passage that leads to a tunnel that leads to a secret second basement where the grandmother keeps all her pickle jars, lots more than we saw earlier. She'd gotten tangled up in her own knitting, so the kids 'rescue' her pretty easily. But they are awestruck by the sight, and decide to get off their phones, touch grass, and join her in filling pickle jars.
 
I feel like I would've liked this book as a kid. Even today, I dream all the time of a giant version of my childhood home, with extra high ceilings, bookshelves like libraries, an attic like an airplane hanger, a basement like a dungeon, and everywhere cardboard boxes of interesting stuff, and tunnels or secret staircases connecting it all. It's part of why I like the film Inception, and playing D&D. And while the art isn't Where's Waldo or Find Freddie level detailed, there's still a lot going on that, when I was younger especially, I'd have liked poring over, admiring, and noticing new things.
 
As an adult, the one thing I find confusing is the grandmother's story about pollution and deforestation. Because the pickle jars seem like they represent photos or memories. One has a tiny sun in it, another a tree, another a leopard. So is her advice basically 'gather ye rosebuds while ye may?' Like, get out there and enjoy this stuff now, kids, cause it won't still be here when you're older? That seems a little bleak!
 
Or is this intended as an environmentalist message? But if so, 'saving' the memory of something is very different than saving the thing itself. Whatever essence of leopard you're preserving in whatever thing the glass jar is a metaphor for won't do anything to help the real live leopard itself. So while I know my kid self would've liked this, my adult brain kind of gets hung up on the logic of it.