February’s reviews start off with three (!) comic books of varying quality. I read lots of comics, mostly from the library, but I don’t always review them. One reason is that because of the serial nature of much of comics storytelling, I don’t want to comment on and/or recommend a volume that is in the middle of a story. But I’ve decided to try reviewing more of the comics that I read so that anyone interested in the medium can possibly find something new to read. Or maybe I’ll make something sound so good I’ll convince someone to try their very first comic. It’s worth a shot. But it’s not all comics this month. There’s also a novel by a Nobel prize winning author and science writing from a New Yorker staff writer.
- Batgirl Volume 1: Batgirl of Burnside, written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher and illustrated by Babs Tarr, is a smart, fresh take on an old character. This volume collects individual comics #35-40 of the series, but it begins a new start for Batgirl with a new creative team and a new outlook for the character. Batgirl is Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Jim Gordon of the Gotham City Police Department, but she hasn’t always been Batgirl. She was the original, but after the Joker shot her in the classic Killing Joke storyline, she became a paraplegic and became Oracle, a whiz at computers who provided assistance to other superheroes such as Batman and Black Canary. Others took up the mantle of Batgirl in the meantime. When DC Comics relaunched all of their comics a few years ago in an event called New 52, they decided to have Barbara the beneficiary of an experimental surgery that restored her ability to walk, a controversial decision because many found Oracle to be an inspirational hero with a disability. This latest version of the character is starting over at college in Burnside, a borough of Gotham. She is still a super genius with computers, which comes in handy against the villains she faces who use social media and celebrity to further their aims. I appreciated that with this incarnation, the creators revamped her costume into something practical. All too often, women superheroes have had costumes that were about the male gaze and not about the character herself. This Barbara wears a leather coat instead of spandex and boots instead of heels in a chic DIY look. Though not wowed, I enjoyed this new beginning, and I’ll probably read the next installment from the library when it arrives.
- Magneto Volume 1: Infamous, written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Javier Fernandez, is the beginning of a chilling and brilliant anti-hero story. If you’ve read X-Men comics or seen the films, you know that Magneto is a Holocaust survivor: this collection includes a flashback to the Warsaw ghetto. He’s determined to prevent another genocide, the extinction of mutants. This version of Magneto is very much like the one at the beginning of X-Men: First Class. Instead of killing former Nazis, though, he is working alone to take out threats to mutant-kind. In the tradition of other anti-heroes, Magneto’s actions repulse the reader, but still his motivations are understandable and ultimately we end up sympathizing with him. Volume 1 collects the first six issues of the story, and I’m looking forward to continuing.
- Black Science Volume 1: How to Fall Forever, written by Rick Remender with artists Matteo Scalera and Dean White, is a pulpy sci-fi comic that unfortunately falls into the traps of its forebears. It’s published by Image Comics, which is home to a host of creator-owned comics series that are inventive and interesting (such as Saga and Wytches). The premise is solid: it’s an adventure story featuring a device that allows travel to alternate timelines within what the story calls the Eververse (basically all of the infinite possible universes). The cast of characters include the team of inventors who built the device, the two children of the team leader, the financial backer of the project and his partner, and a security guard. After an accident, the group gets stuck jumping from place to place, unstuck in time, with no apparent way to get back. I thought it could be fun, and it sometimes is. But I was extremely bothered by the portrayal of Native Americans in one of the alternate worlds. In that particular world, the indigenous people of North America are visited by some other group of spacetime travelers and they gain use of the device. They use it to find superior technology with which they first fight back against white invaders first defensively and then offensively as a sort of inverse Manifest Destiny. I get that Remender wanted to show the evil of the device. But it’s an alternate reality so he could have made the Native American tribes superior in the first place without outside help (the device works as a deus ex machina). Besides this, the portrayal of the tribes is that they are barbaric in spite of their advanced technology. In their first appearance, they are massacring German soldiers, who appear to be in World War I uniforms and defending trenches. In their next appearance, an indigenous soldier is vividly scalping an enemy soldier. The stereotype has been set, and unfortunately the characterization never gets much better even as we get to know one. The team leader sustains an injury so they need the help of a shaman to heal him, so they kidnap one. He effectively joins the group. Why he bothers to help them and go along after they have left his timeline is not made clear. Nearly every other character has clear backstory and motivation, but his reasoning is mysterious. Eventually in volume 2 of the series we do discover the backstory of his world that I already described, and we learn that he has a family; in fact, he is a grandfather, but it’s not much to humanize him. He’s still paper thin as a character; he’s mostly used as someone who has powerful technology to heal and to fight, not as a person. All in all, it’s an extremely disappointing portrayal of Native Americans. It could have been interesting and forceful (i.e. a world where Native Americans came out on top has potential as a premise), but the execution was abysmal. It played into all of the worst tendencies of the pulp tradition from which it came by playing to stereotypes. If you enjoy swashbuckling fantasy or sci-fi, look elsewhere. Black Science isn’t worth your time.
- Sula by Toni Morrison is a really great novel. It tells the story of two friends, Sula and Nel, who grow up in a small, segregated Ohio town. In brief chapters the story flows as the two girls share life together and then separate when Sula leaves town to live freely. Nel stays and settles down until the day Sula comes back and shakes things up again. I’ve kept this incomplete summary rather vague so as not to give away any particular details for anyone who hates spoilers. I was pleasantly surprised at how straight forward and easy the narration was to read. I began the book worried that it would be too “literary,” which by itself is not a fault and which I often love about books. I love many difficult literary books. But I’ve found that it’s harder for me to give those kinds of books the attention and concentration required these last few years now that I have kids. I’m more easily distracted. So I loved that I could follow the story in Sula, and it was still a deep and rich book even if not as difficult as I expected. An impressive achievement. I’d highly recommend this novel. Now for a little anecdote. I was reading this at the dentist, and one of the assistants/hygienists asked me what I was reading. I told her the title and then said that it was by Toni Morrison. She stared at me blankly. I was momentarily surprised that she wouldn’t have heard of the Nobel Prize winning author, but then I began to think why would she necessarily know Morrison? Would she know the names of other famous authors who have won the Nobel like Alice Munro and Saul Bellow? Why would I assume people outside of my set of friends would know who these people are? Half of all American adults read four or fewer books in a year.
- The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert is a sobering look at the effects humans are having on life on this planet. There have been five major extinction events in Earth’s history, and we are currently living during the sixth. Previous extinction events have been caused by catastrophes like asteroid impacts. Not so for the sixth extinction, which we are currently witnessing. Human behavior, whether greedy or careless, has caused the extinction of untold numbers of species. In chapter after chapter, Kolbert details how species or larger groups have gone extinct or been threatened because of humans. The megafauna (such as mastodons, mammoths, and sabretooth cats) died out soon after contact with humans, possibly from overhunting. Large land animals to this day do poorly when in close proximity to humans because they reproduce so slowly and cannot make up for any population losses. Other chapters deal with the killing off of auks (similar to a penguin) or the Sumatran rhinoceros, which is not yet extinct but barely holding on (in fact, the rhino Suci who is highlighted in book died at the Cincinnati Zoo soon after the book came out). Still other chapters deal with how humans have made such an impact on different species. Habitat destruction, especially in diverse environments like rainforests, has led to untold numbers of extinctions of insects and larger animals in the foodchain. Ocean acidification, caused by global warming, is killing off corals and the many species which rely on coral reefs to survive. Humans also transplant species around the globe, sometimes unwittingly, which can cause all sorts of unintended consequences. The book opens with the fungus that is killing off many frogs and other amphibians. All sorts of invasive species are able to thrive in new environments when they have no natural predators. They disrupt their new ecosystem, outcompeting and/or killing the native species they encounter. The final pages offer up the possibilities of all of the mayhem humans have caused: either we will also succumb to the vast disruptions we have wrought to the planet or we will through our ingenuity overcome the looming disaster. It’s a bleak picture. Despite how depressing it can be, I still would highly recommend this book. Kolbert is a fantastic writer (the book won a Pulitzer Prize), and it’s important to think through the implications of human interaction with nature.