Saturday, October 29, 2011

In Which Trai Mini-Reviews 'Spider-Man: The Death of Captain Stacy' and 'Spider-Man: Reign'

Hi, all! I'm short on time and still have a backlog to get through, so in the interest of time, I'm doing two Spider-Man mini-reviews in one post! This month has been a bit graphic novel-heavy due to my coursework and slight obsession with Spider-Man, but there will be more diversity on this blog soon, I promise!

The Am
azing Spider-Man: The Death of Captain Stacy, by Stan Lee (author), Gil Kane with John Romita (artists): Before Gwen Stacy met her demise at the hands of the Green Goblin, her father was killed trying to save a child in the path of a battle between Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man. Unbeknownst to Peter, Captain Stacy had known for quite some time that Peter was Spider-Man, and, with his dying breath, made Peter swear to protect Gwen. Peter swears he will, but that might be a problem--believing the accounts of the passerby who thought Spider-Man taking Stacy's body away from the crowd meant he went to finish him off, and with Peter unable to tell her his side of the story, Gwen swears that she hates Spider-Man, and joins forces with a corrupt D.A. candidate who wants to stop Spider-Man for good.

Having read the Gwen's death story arc earlier this year (review here), I wanted to read the issues where her father died, to see a bit more of Peter and Gwen's relationship as well as Peter's mentor/mentoree relationship with Stacy. I don't think this arc did as much for me, emotionally and as a story, as that arc did, but it was still touching, and still had some very worthy moments. One of them: Doctor Octopus is a very menacing villain; I can see why he was picked for the second film adaptation. It's tough to beat titanium tentacles that basically keep fighting no matter what. It was nice to see a glimpse of one of Spidey's most famous foes.

Another: Stacy's death scene is very touching. "Be good to her, son! Be good to her... she loves you--so very much..." Knowing Gwen's eventual fate compounded the emotional impact. There wasn't as much direct interaction between Peter and the Stacys as I thought there would be, but there's a cute scene where Peter collapses from overexhaustion and Stacy has Gwen take care of him at their home. The art was somber when it needed to be, like when Peter is cradling Stacy's body, but bright and colorful during the battle scenes.

The subplot involving the smear campaign against Spider-Man by the D.A. candidate just didn't do it for me. I didn't care about the guy's political maneuverings. I did, however, like seeing more of Robbie, Peter's only ally at the Daily Bugle--he gets a lot to do, and it was so awesome to see who my research tells me was the first major supporting black characters in comics. I also really enjoyed the last issue, where the X-Men's Iceman first thinks that Spider-Man is the enemy, but then comes to realize he's the good guy, leading to their teamup. The two of them taking down the bad guys together was fun to see.

I'm going to be interested to see how the Stacy family dynamic is handled in the 2012 reboot, and to see if Stacy's death will make it on screen. I was a bit bored by the smear campaign subplot and didn't see enough of Stacy to get too attached to him, but this one is worth reading if you want to see some of Doctor Octopus, or if you want to learn a little more about Peter and the Stacys.

Spider-Man: Reign, by Kaare Andrews (author and artist) with Jose Villarrubia (artist): In the future, New York City has outlawed vigilante activities. Masks are forbidden and citizens are cowed and controlled by a brutal police force known as the Reign. Print media is tightly regulated. Peter Parker is an aging man working as a flower seller and haunted by the ghost of Mary Jane, deceased for quite some time.

J. Jonah Jameson shows up on Peter's doorstep on the eve of a new program, the Webb, being initiated that would contain the City in a sort of electrified bubble, preventing the intrusion of criminals from other areas. He wants Peter to become Spider-Man again and fight the government, but Peter refuses. One spark, though, is all that's needed to light a fire, and when Peter dons the costume again, he becomes the City's only chance at salvation.

There was some influence from Watchmen here, with the outlawed superheroes and the perpetual night, and I've heard that this is apparently heavily influenced by the classic Batman graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which I've not yet read. I was curious to read this because I've never really seen the concept of a very elderly superhero played with before, and because I wanted to see how the impact of Mary Jane's death on Peter would be handled.

In that regard, this book made me weep. Not as hard as Gwen's death, not as hard as Blue, but it made me realize how much Mary Jane means to Peter in a way I hadn't before considered, even when I read the major points in their history. Sebastian Mercer over at SpiderFan puts it eloquently: "Peter's religion is his wife." Mary Jane's death is the big symbol here; losing her makes Peter lose his faith, and it symbolizes the downfall of the City. Yeah, there were things I could have done without, and Peter cradling Mary Jane's long-dead corpse was one of them, but there are some truly beautiful scenes where Peter imagines conversations with Mary Jane, or when he remembers sitting by her bedside as she died, that really touched me. "I remember the day we met. You already knew it and you told me. I hit the jackpot. Your face was so beautiful… the sky cracked like ice. And I could feel the sun pour down on me like rain. It was all I could do to stop staring. You were so… my chest was too small for what you did to my heart. I wanted to tell you so much, but words didn’t have enough. So I tried to show you. But just when you meant the most. Just when I thought I could do it. I screwed up." That passage alone really made me feel how badly Peter needed the faith and love Mary Jane gave him.

As for the elderly superhero angle... well. I was a bit nonplussed. Elderly Peter fights with far too much ease. I kept expecting the scene from Up where Carl and the villain duke it out, only to be thwarted by their backs going out. Instead I got a Peter who basically had every bit of strength and agility the young Peter had, with wrinkles. I guess you could chalk that up to super strength, but I don't know if it should work like that. If you're in your sixties or seventies and haven't been a superhero for quite some time, I don't think it should come as easily as it did here. I'm also not quite sure how Jonah was still kicking, but he had an awesome role here and he was probably my favorite of all the side characters. He can be a jerk in the original continuity, sure, but there seems to be some good in him.

I admittedly don't think I knew quite enough about old Spidey villains to keep track of what was going on here. The art was a bit dark and it made me muddled at times. I was deeply confused and wondering what the hell was going on at one point; that might have been because I hadn't paid enough attention to some things, as reading the recaps on SpiderFan cleared me up. (In one of the few parts I could keep track of, Peter's joint taking down of Hydro-Man and Electro is priceless, and his knocking out Mysterio was applause-worthy.) I've seen people say there's some post-9/11 commentary in here, what with the panopticism going on and the control on the press. I don't really look for politics in what I read, so I couldn't say, but having just reread Watchmen recently, I caught a hint of that same political commentary and that who watches the watchmen? attitude.

Overall, as a Peter/Mary Jane fan, it was touching and exactly what I wanted to see of a graphic novel exploring the impact of her death on Peter. On the other hand, without as much knowledge of Spider-Man villains as I'd thought, I was often confused and needed a plot synopsis to help me keep track of the action. Despite that, I was really moved and haunted by some of the imagery of a city in chaos and the people who rise up to try and fight that, and I'm glad I read it.

In Which Trai Reviews 'Daredevil: Yellow'

The Book: Daredevil: Yellow

The Author and The Artist: Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

How I Found It: My love for Spider-Man: Blue (review here) and a nostalgic fondness for Daredevil made me seek this one out; big ups as ever to my local library.

The Review: "Dear Karen, I'm afraid... Just when I think it is all going to get easier, I close my eyes and I see you in my arms. It's as if a hole were torn open in the center of my chest. After a while, it starts to close up and... something has a laugh that sounds like you or wears a perfume that smells like you and... it tears the hole wide open again."

Matt Murdock is a man defined by loss. The loss of his father spurred the creation of his vigilante persona Daredevil, and as this volume posits, Karen Page is the one who inspired Matt to change his costume from yellow to red. These two losses have shaped Matt into a deeply remorseful man, and it is this remorse we get a glimpse of in this chronicle of Daredevil's early outings.

Matt's father, Battling Jack Murdock, was a boxer seeking to regain some of his former glory. It's just unfortunate he went to the wrong man looking for it--a manager whose name is Sweeney but whose nickname is "The Fixer." As Matt says in his voiceover, "A fight manager named 'The Fixer' and my Dad, over the hill when he was forty, kept winning. I can't imagine which one of us was more blind." When Jack is murdered by the Fixer and his associate Slade after he refuses to throw a fixed fight, a crime they get away with, Matt sews his father's old yellow boxing robe into a costume and takes on the nickname childhood bullies used to taunt him with--"Daredevil". He "had seen how the law--which [he] still steadfastly believed in--wasn't always the same as justice." So justice he became.

Even as Matt is busy seeking justice for his father's murder, his professional life is beginning to shape up. His best friend and partner, Franklin "Foggy" Nelson, has established a law office and is looking for a secretary. Just when the search seems fruitless, in walks Karen Page--young, blonde, and beautiful, understanding exactly what the rigors of the job will be. Foggy's smitten. Soon enough, so is Matt. But there's nothing New York's villains love more than a pretty girl, and when Karen is drawn into danger, protecting her becomes Matt's job.

I will admit that I preferred Spider-Man: Blue to this volume, although this one does still have its merits. Blue was more of a romance, the story of Peter, Gwen, and Mary Jane. Yellow, to my surprise, seemed to lean far more on Matt's relationship with his father, despite the framing device of Matt's letters to the now-deceased Karen. It was an interesting change, but given that I went into this expecting what I got in Blue--a better understanding of Matt and Karen, like the one I attained for Peter and Gwen--a tiny bit disappointing.

I did, however, like that this comic focused on Matt's relationship with his father as well. I felt the scenes immediately following Matt's father's death were the best, the most affecting. I teared up as Matt says a belated "I love you" to his father's corpse. You can feel Matt's desperation as he tears down the fire escape and runs through the city blocks all the way to the site of his father's murder--no mean feat, as Matt is blind, and this one act could expose his abilities (every other sense is extremely heightened, to compensate for his blindness). You can practically smell the aftershave and talcum powder as he digs Jack's robe out from his footlocker. You can hear the subway approaching as Matt contemplates how to kill the Fixer. Atmospheric is the word here.

Matt's relationship with Karen, as well as his friendship with Foggy, were perhaps not quite as fleshed out as Peter's relationships with Gwen, Mary Jane, and Harry were in Blue, but there were scenes here I found more memorable. My particular favorite was Matt, Foggy, and Karen's night out at a local bar. Foggy challenges some college kids to a game of pool, and the kids make a few ill-advised cracks about Matt being blind, including one of those ever-popular Helen Keller jokes. Matt tells Foggy to rack the balls--and proceeds to win the entire game with just a shot or two due to his heightened senses, cracking Helen Keller jokes all the while because, as Foggy says, he's "heard them all in Braille before." I was delighted by this scene and even surprised at the fairly subtle condemnation of ableism.

Another striking scene is Matt's rescue of Karen after she's abducted by a client of theirs known as the Owl. Tim Sale gives us a stunning, almost full-page panel wherein Daredevil stands atop a spire on a city skyscraper, looking out over the entire city and listening for Karen's voice. Not even the bright yellow of Daredevil's costume is visible; the choice to have Daredevil in shadow against such a dark night, in front of such a landscape, made the panel breathtaking. The colors really pop off the page here. When Matt tries to drown the Owl, when he attacks the Purple Man who's abducted Karen, the colors are so vivid and gorgeous to look at.

The "voiceover," as it were, here is our main insight into Matt's relationship with Karen. The love triangle between Matt, Karen, and Foggy never felt overdone and was done so subtly; I really do applaud Jeph Loeb's skill at writing things like this (I gushed over his handling of the Gwen/Peter/Mary Jane triangle last time). That one scene where Foggy quietly turns around and throws out the bouquet he had in hand is entirely silent on Foggy's part, but gets the point across so eloquently. And it really is easy to see why both Foggy and Matt fall for Karen. She's hard-working (taking down dictation even while distracted), lively (she's thrilled by Daredevil's antics), and very beautiful. Her banter with Daredevil during one of his rescues of her, while she's unaware he's her boss, was so much fun to read. I'd like to see more of their relationship, for sure--a gripe I had with this volume was that it cuts off so abruptly. In Blue, it was made pretty clear what and who led to Gwen's death. Here, there's an oblique reference or two and that's it. If I hadn't read up about Karen on the Marvel wiki, I would've had no idea what led to her death or how her and Matt's relationship ultimately ended up.

Overall, though the story didn't have the focus I was expecting and the villains seemed to take a sideline to the story of Matt, his father, and Karen (there's only the Fixer, Slade, the Owl, and the Purple Man), I did enjoy the graphic novel and felt it was a good companion piece to Blue, if not quite its equal. It certainly reminded me what I loved about Daredevil, whose film adaptation was the movie that got me loving superheroes. Matt is an unconventional superhero--a blind man, a man with a great deal of faith... but what makes him a superhero is his unyielding search for justice. If you'd like a glimpse into the life and loved ones of the Man Without Fear, I feel this is a good place to start.

In Which Trai Reviews 'Spider-Man/Mary Jane: ... You Just Hit the Jackpot!'

The Book: Spider-Man/Mary Jane... You Just Hit the Jackpot!

The Author: Stan Lee, et al.

How I Found It: As I've said in my other Spider-Man reviews, I've been a fan of Peter and Mary Jane since childhood, thanks to the movies. I found out earlier this year about this compilation of their finest moments as a couple and had to buy it so I could see their courtship and marriage as it was in the comics.

The Review: Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson were married in 1987, after an often turbulent courtship. Before they finally met, they'd both steadfastly avoided their aunts' attempts at setting them up. Eventually, Peter started dating Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane, the perpetual party girl, started dating Harry Osborn. Peter only started to realize Mary Jane had depth beyond her party girl personality when she stayed with him the night of Gwen Stacy's funeral, despite his efforts to make her leave. Their romance wasn't all roses--Mary Jane was commitment-shy, and Peter's duties as Spider-Man left her in constant danger. An infamous and widely hated storyline in 2007 finally erased Peter and Mary Jane's marriage in a deal with the devil to save Aunt May's life. But before then, Peter and Mary Jane were a sometimes troubled but very much in love married couple.

This book compiles some pivotal moments in Peter and Mary Jane's relationship, both before their marriage and after. (Oddly, the issue where the actual marriage takes place isn't included, but it's shown in the included full graphic novel Parallel Lives.) There are people like me that choose to believe that Peter and Mary Jane's marriage was never erased. I might not have read the comics to see that storyline for myself, but from what I've heard, I don't want to. I prefer to dwell in the continuities where Peter is a loving husband and not a basement dweller in Aunt May's house, and Mary Jane is the girl who matured and fought her way past her emotional issues to become Peter's wife. This book was great for giving me insight into the story behind Peter and Mary Jane's relationship, and I loved seeing how they worked through various conflicts on their way to a life together.

The Amazing Spider-Man #43: The issue before this ends on Peter finally meeting Mary Jane, after years of trying to avoid her (having only heard from Aunt May that she has a "great personality," and he knew what that was supposed to mean). She's a red-headed bombshell who walks into his life with the famous words "Face it, Tiger... you just hit the jackpot!" When we open, Peter is already dazzled by Mary Jane. When they see on TV that one of Spider-Man's nemeses, The Rhino, has broken out of prison and is rampaging through the City, Mary Jane suggests they go and check it out--helpfully supplying Peter with an excuse to head down there and defeat the Rhino. This was a fun story that I'd seen recounted in Spider-Man: Blue, so it was nice to see the original story of Peter and Mary Jane's first date, and to fill in what that story illuminated. You get a real glimpse of the surface aspects of Mary Jane--that party-loving personality Peter sometimes condemns her for--that later issues reveal is all just a front. The issue ends on a touching scene when Peter realizes that he's been so wrapped up in himself that Aunt May has been quietly suffering, and a bit of that age-old conflict between the duties of Spider-Man and the duties of Peter Parker emerges.

Untold Tales of Spider-Man #16: This story reveals something pivotal to Peter and MJ's relationship--that Mary Jane knew Peter was Spider-Man even before she met him. Staying with her Aunt Anna the night Ben Parker was killed, she witnessed Peter going into the house... and Spider-Man subsequently climbing out a window. It suggests that the reason Mary Jane avoided meeting him was an inability to reconcile her love for Spider-Man's dashing antics with the reality of him being a kid with responsibilities just as huge as her own. "He's science-geek Peter Parker. He's a laughing, joking adventurer. He's the boy next door. He's a hero who saved the city. I just--I just don't know..." It was interesting to see some light shed on why MJ might have really wanted to avoid Peter, besides her insistence about not wanting a date with a geek who couldn't get one on his own (hence the aunts' set-up). There was also a look into Peter's love life before Gwen and Mary Jane--his friendship with Liz Allan complicates his budding relationship with Betty Brant. Oops.

The Amazing Spider-Man #259: Just after Mary Jane reveals that she's known Peter's secret identity all along, Peter hedges, wondering whether or not it's safe to own up to it--he only knows Mary Jane as the irresponsible party girl, after all. Since Mary Jane knows Peter's most painful secret, she decides to confess hers: her childhood growing up with constantly fighting parents, how her sister's unhappy marriage to her high school sweetheart gave her a glimpse of harsh reality, and her escape to her aunt's after her mother's death. The art in this issue really wowed me. There's a glimpse of who Peter used to be that transitions into who he is now. There are heartbreaking tableaux of Mary Jane's passionate but doomed parents. There's despair on Mary Jane's face as she sees her sister's young husband and realizes that how trapped he feels isn't how she wants to feel in a few more years. I'm sure that for readers back in the day, the revelation of Mary Jane's inner life was a shock, but it couldn't have been better done, and Peter and Mary Jane's final conclusion--that they care for each other, but aren't in love quite yet--is touching and true to form. Mary Jane still has commitment issues; Peter is still Spider-Man. Let's see how long it takes for things to change...

The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #19: Through a mishap with a hat bearing a tracking device from a local supervillain (... yeah), Mary Jane ends up caught in the snare of a supervillain, Smythe and his robotic Spider-Slayer, who thinks she's Spider-Man! Fearing for her life and her aunt's, Mary Jane has to rely on her own wits to mislead Smythe, even as she quietly tries to signal the real Spider-Man for the help she so desperately needs. It was so fun to see Mary Jane take action and actually manage to hold her own against Smythe, for a time. She might not be a match for him physically, but she's quick-witted enough to hold her own in the crisis and figure things out. She finally recognizes how much Peter has to go through when he fights supervillains, but she's got a fight of her own ahead of her: not long afterwards, Peter spontaneously proposes. Uh oh.

The Amazing Spider-Man #291-2: This two-part arc was sweet and even a little heartbreaking. It was nice to include it just after the Annual, because it marks the return of Smythe, who follows Peter and Mary Jane all the way to Pittsburgh (supervillainry gets you mileage, you know that?). Mary Jane has declined Peter's proposal and taken off to visit her long-lost father and sister, only to get caught up in a criminal plot perpetuated by her father. When Peter joins her, he and Mary Jane have to figure out what the line is between having to help family and having to do what's right--and they just might have to figure out whether Mary Jane really meant it when she said she wouldn't marry him. Mary Jane gets a pretty substantial amount of growth here, and we get more insight into her family. (Peter's confrontation with Gayle, her sister, is a real plus.) Mary Jane gets to help fight Smythe, and it's the thought of MJ in danger that gives Peter the strength to keep fighting. How awesome is that? Very.

The Amazing Spider-Man: Parallel Lives: Oddly enough, the issue where Peter and Mary Jane got married (Annual #21) wasn't included, but Peter and Mary Jane's wedding is recounted here. Really, this was a bit of a rehash of what we'd learned in the Untold Tales issue and #259--that Peter and Mary Jane had a lot more in common than they initially thought. But seeing it laid out side-by-side was really stunning. Aunt May cradling baby Peter, just dropped off by Richard and Mary Parker before their final, fatal departure, mirrors Gayle holding Mary Jane and begging her to be quiet in the midst of their parents' fighting. Peter's aunt and uncle don't understand just how much is going on with him, just as Mary Jane's friends don't see under her carefree exterior. The section that takes place after the marriage offers a sweet glimpse into Mary Jane coming to terms with her husband's propensity for getting into dangerous situations, and how it's possible to calmly and maturely hash that out. I could've done without the recapping of all we'd already learned, but it was really interesting to see it side-by-side, so I let it go and enjoyed the different perspective.

The Amazing Spider-Man #309: This was the only story I could have done without, although I could see why it was put in: more reason for Mary Jane to be badass. In this one, she's been held captive by a deranged stalker who's obsessed with the character she plays on TV. She was undeniably clever in how she handled things and I appreciated seeing that resourcefulness, but it seemed like an excuse to have her running around doing badass things in a skimpy outfit, to cater to that male fantasy. The art style was also jarring, compared to the other issues--very faintly drawn, very muted. I got so used to the bright colors of the other issues that I almost had to squint to see this one. Bit not good.

The Amazing Spider-Man #491: I'm enough of a sap that this one had me crying! It was the perfect place to end the collection. Peter and Mary Jane are reuniting after a painful estrangement, but their reunion is marred by an attack on the life of Dr. Doom, who is acting as a foreign diplomat. Peter and Mary Jane are shown to have the same quibbles as any other couple ("You never introduce me to your friends!") , as well as more serious issues, mainly seated in Mary Jane's long-held fear of ending up like her parents or her sister. Their final reunion, in which Peter admits just how much he not only loves Mary Jane, but needs her, was beautifully done and perhaps my favorite moment for them so far.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this one to anyone who's interested in the history of what was once a great comic book marriage, or to someone who needs convincing as to how marriage can work in a comic book. Fans of the Peter/Mary Jane relationship on film are encouraged to check it out as well; I know that I've been enriched and enlightened by acquainting myself with the source material for the couple that was a substantial part of my childhood. Go get 'em, tiger!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Doctor Who: Shining Darkness'

The Book: Doctor Who: Shining Darkness

The Author: Mark Michalowski

How I Found It: Before making the decision to buy a Doctor Who novel, I usually check Amazon and Goodreads reviews by avid Whovians who can comment on characterization (which I care about more than plot when it comes to tie-ins, because if it doesn't sound like the characters I know and love, I'm not going to buy into it). This one had strong reviews.

The Review: The Doctor has taken Donna to an art gallery millions of light years away. If only he'd picked a better day. He's intrigued by a piece of art that gives odd readings when he scans it with the sonic screwdriver. Unfortunately, a group of art thieves is also intrigued--and Donna ends accidentally teleported with them as they steal the piece of art.

The art thieves are robot envoys of the Cult of Shining Darkness. The Cult are "organic supremacists"--they believe in the superiority of organic beings over robots, or "mechanicals," and the only robots they allow to work with them are ones with almost no sentience. They refuse to believe that robots can feel emotion or pain, that anything they do is a mimickry of humanity. And they would really like it if Donna could think as they do.

Meanwhile, the Doctor, in his desperate search for Donna, finds himself captured as well. The crew of The Sword of Justice is very interested in what the Cultists want with that piece of art, and if the piece the Cultists stole could be but one part of a whole. If the Doctor wants to find Donna, if he wants to learn what the Cult is up to, he's going to have to go along with the crew's pursuit.

I knew I was going to like this book from the opening scene. The Doctor and Donna, when I watched Series 4, quickly became my favorite TV friendship. They had such a fun dynamic (although it could certainly become a serious one at times), and Michalowski got that down with this exchange alone:
'Two and a half billion light years,’ said Donna Noble, her eyebrows raised and a gentle smile tugging at the corner of her mouth, ‘and you’ve brought me to an art gallery?’

‘Two and a half
million light years,’ corrected the Doctor, pulling Donna out of the path of something that resembled an upright anteater, studded with drawing pins, trundling down the street, ‘and it’s not just an art gallery.’ He sounded almost hurt.

‘If you’re going to tell me it’s “not just an art gallery” because it’s got a shop that sells fridge magnets…’

‘It might,’ replied the Doctor, glancing away guiltily and tugging at his earlobe. (8)
Everything about that one exchange struck me as the Doctor and Donna. The Doctor's sounding hurt at Donna slighting the art gallery, and that guilty, almost childish glance away at the end--that's him. Donna's mock-threatening tone and her indignation that of all the places they could go, the Doctor chooses a lowly art gallery--that's her. I knew right then that the author had their dynamic down, and it's really a shame that the Doctor and Donna spend almost the entirety of the book separated. Still, even if they're separated, their friendship is palpable. At one point, the Doctor talks about the Cultists stealing a valuable treasure, and when a museum worker remarks that what was stolen was hardly valuable, the Doctor glares at him and says, "I was talking about Donna." (15) It was little things like that that made me feel like Michalowski really got it.

As I said above, I read these books for the characters, not the plot. The plot has never been why I watch the show; I watch the show to see how everyday people react to (a) this brilliant alien they find themselves traveling with and (b) the absolutely ridiculous shenanigans said brilliant alien gets them into. But I was surprised at how much I liked the plot here, and the message it sent. Sometimes the didacticism was a bit over the top, but the book actually had a very touching message about racism and discrimination. Characters such as Mother, the Sword of Justice's helper robot, had depth and backstory. Mother was perhaps the most integral character in the story, the one who imparts said lesson and who the Doctor and Donna both learn from. This exchange with Donna was surprisingly profound:
[Donna] shook her head again. 'It's only natural to see something that doesn't look human and doesn't act human and to assume it doesn't think human, isn't it?'

> IT IS UNDERSTANDABLE, agreed Mother.

There was a long silence.

'It doesn't make it right, though.' Donna said quietly. 'Does it?'


Donna gave a bitter little laugh. At herself. (109)
Given that Doctor Who is a show aimed at family viewing, or at least was before this current series got into more adult territory, the message was subtle enough that kids wouldn't feel preached to, but obvious enough that parents who might read this with their children could use it as a talking point. I like those sneaky bits of education for the kiddies in the tie-ins, and to be honest, this exchange made me think, and I'm twenty!

The novel's message aside, this book was just funny at certain points. Michalowski had a good handle on balancing the humor with the dramatic bits. One review I read compared the book's humorous parts to Douglas Adams, and I can agree with that. The Cult hides another piece of the puzzle with a civilization that changes what they worship like they change their underwear, just for fun. When you've got a character whose subtitle is the High Priest of What We Believe Today, and the culture is currently worshiping an apocalyptic chicken--well, yeah, there's a bit of satire there. It wasn't offensive, though, and seemed more a gentle mockery of people too willing to believe anything rather than of religion itself. (There's even a perpetually bickering gay robot couple. It was kind of awesome.)

Even if the plot separates the Doctor and Donna, it was still fun to see their efforts at helping (or being forced to help) their respective captors. Donna learns a bit about robots and has to rethink her opinions about sentience and how she views nonhuman lifeforms, and she ends up being an instrumental part of facing the Jaftee, they of the ever-changing religion, in one of the best, most hilarious scenes. The Doctor's interactions with Mother give him a new respect for robots, and he gets to try his damnedest to stop another war. He has a beautifully in-character speech that ends on ‘Bad business, war. No one comes out of it unscathed.’ He paused. ‘Believe me.’ (128)

My biggest complaint was how the plot kept the Doctor and Donna separated, but Michalowski had just as good a handle on the Doctor and Donna separately as he did on the few scenes the reader sees them together. There's a subtle but profound message about racism, as well as some fun humor. As Doctor Who stories go, I found this to be a really entertaining one. Recommended to all fans!

In Which Trai Reviews 'Moll Flanders'

The Book: Moll Flanders

The Author: Daniel Defoe

How I Found It: I was very much interested in the BBC miniseries starring Alex Kingston and Daniel Craig, and felt the need to read a banned book for Banned Books Week! My thanks to Project Gutenberg.

The Review: I can give you a plot summary, but to be quite honest, I think Daniel Defoe took care of that with his original title. There is no other way to describe this title without defaulting to the phrase "long-ass." I shall reproduce it here:
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, etc. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.
See what I mean? Defoe must be the king of the Spoiler Title.

To flesh out the summary a bit: Moll is born in Newgate Prison, after her mother, a prostitute slated for execution, "pleads her belly," appealing to the practice of staying the executions of pregnant criminals. She is granted a reprieve and later is transported to the United States to work on the plantations in Virginia, and Moll is taken from her and left to shift for herself. When Moll escapes the gypsies who take her in, she is given to a woman who raises children orphaned by the law.

Moll's great ambition in life is to be a "gentlewoman" and to earn her own money to live on, like one of the ladies in the town. If only Moll knew what that little euphemism meant, but she doesn't. Soon enough, Moll's dignified nature catches the eye of an upstanding family in the town, and she is taken in and raised as one of their maids, while really treated as one of the family. She grows up to be beautiful, and even becomes more accomplished than the family's daughters. However, it is here that Moll gets into her first romantic entanglement: she becomes the mistress of the elder brother, but the younger brother is in love with her.

When Moll's first husband (one of the brothers--I'm not going to say which!) dies, Moll is free to marry again. And so she does--many times. There's the draper, a rich man who'd like to spend his inheritance on a wife. There's her own brother, entirely on accident and much to Moll's grief. There's Jemy, a dishonest rogue who nonetheless becomes the love of Moll's life, no matter how financial circumstances conspire to separate them. There's the banker, trustworthy and loving. There's any number of lovers. And when Moll runs the gamut of her husbands, she finds herself with no other options before her but to be a thief or to starve. Well, then, what's a girl to do?

So really, the book is exactly what it says on the tin--the romances and adventures of the indomitable Moll. I've heard her described variously as the first great female character in literature (a statement I am fully prepared to agree with) and the Wife of Bath's spiritual successor (which, having read her tale in English Lit this semester, I can also agree with). Moll is many things, but above them all, she is perhaps as liberated a woman as it is possible to be. She knows what she wants and she will take it, even if she has to steal it. And I love her.

I had heard this book was a slog, so I approached it with trepidation. One Friday afternoon I picked up TARDIS and selected Moll Flanders, figuring I'd have a go at the first few pages and see what happened. Though people have said this work makes Defoe the father of the modern novel, the man hadn't quite worked out that chapter breaks are beneficial. I figured I'd get bogged down in this mass of a tale--literally a life story, uninterrupted. I think that what helped me along at first was the standardized, modernized spelling and punctuation. I thank Project Gutenberg for that. I know there are critics who hate this movement--that they feel it dumbs down the text, or that it takes away from the original spirit of the work--but to be so very honest, I much prefer it this way, because otherwise my inner grammarian cries and proceeds to hide in her corner and refuse to help me parse things. (As much as I love Jane Austen, reading the Penguin edition of Mansfield Park a few years back made me wince at the state of pre-standardization spelling and grammar.) For anyone who might approach this book with trepidation, I recommend the Gutenberg e-text, or a print edition which standardizes the text (the pictured Collins Classics edition does, for example).

The modernized spelling and grammar helped me to understand the book better than I had anticipated, but what really drove me along was Moll herself. I'm still in awe that a man wrote this book. Sure, certain parts of it can be seen as less than empowering today, but Moll is every bit her own woman and I was cheering for her from the beginning. Defoe's observations about society were dead on. The passage that made me love the book comes early on, when Moll is a servant in the household of that noble family, under the name of "Miss Betty" (we never do know her true name, and she doesn't take on the name Moll until fairly late in her life). Both brothers are in love with Moll, and the younger insists he would have Moll even if she didn't have a fortune. His sister fires back with this observation:
'I wonder at you, brother,’ says the sister. ‘Betty wants but one thing, but she has as good want everything, for the market is against our sex just now; and if a young woman have beauty, birth, breeding, wit, sense, manners, modesty, and all these to an extreme, yet if she have not money, she’s nobody, she had as good want them all for nothing but money now recommends a woman; the men play the game all into their own hands.’
It was that "yet if she have not money, she's nobody" that sold me. Defoe clearly knew exactly what a woman's position in society was at that point, and seems to have written this novel to show just how few options were available to women. What else can a woman do but marry? And if she cannot marry--if she is too old or has too little money--isn't she as good as a beggar?

Moll's refusal to accept society's norms made me love her. She marries plenty of times, sure, but she never loses her independence. She might prostitute herself to live, but she clearly enjoys sex and feels shame only when she repents in the face of her impending execution. As I said before, the empowerment is a bit warped these days, but Moll's impassioned speech to her first lover had me cheering despite that: 'If, then, I have yielded to the importunities of my affection, and if I have been persuaded to believe that I am really, and in the essence of the thing, your wife, shall I now give the lie to all those arguments and call myself your whore, or mistress, which is the same thing? And will you transfer me to your brother? Can you transfer my affection? Can you bid me cease loving you, and bid me love him? It is in my power, think you, to make such a change at demand? No, sir,’ said I, ‘depend upon it ‘tis impossible, and whatever the change of your side may be, I will ever be true; and I had much rather, since it is come that unhappy length, be your whore than your brother’s wife.’

See that? Moll takes a stand. She doesn't let a man rule her desires or her prospects. She even advocates that women not settle, saying that it is the propensity women of the day had of marrying too soon that traps so many of them in unhappy marriages, that if only women waited just a bit more to find a man with good character, or until the fear of not being immediately married has passed, they would fare somewhat better. I was stunned at Defoe's insight into the plight of women in the era, and now I'm mightily curious to check out Roxana, his other work, as well as John Cleland's Fanny Hill, which came twenty years after Moll and was a bit more scandalous. (Cleland wrote his tale from prison and thus had nothing to fear. Defoe presented the tale initially as Moll's autobiography, rather than fiction, so he could keep out of jail!)

The thing I loved most about Defoe's method of telling the story, keeping us in Moll's head all the while, was that I could see exactly why she fell for each husband or lover. I was particularly sold by the initial scenes depicting her courtship with the man she doesn't know is her brother. As she tries to snare him into admitting that he'd marry her even if she were penniless, they write back and forth on a piece of glass with his diamond ring, as he tries to win her over with flowery statements and Moll refutes every one. I was entirely sold on their relationship, and thus understood entirely Moll's revulsion when he turned out to be her brother. Similarly, it was clear why Moll fell so hard for Jemy, and even after their initial assignation was cut short, I was rooting for them. Sure, it's difficult to sympathize with her at times--she has twelve children and entrusts them all to the care of others, with varying degrees of involvement in the care and keeping of each--but it's always easy to see that Moll does what she does because she has to.

I did feel one part of the novel dragged on perhaps too long--I started to become slightly bored with Moll's life as a thief. So many scrapes and methods of stealing are recounted that it becomes difficult to keep track of them all, and Moll has quite a few near-misses with the law, nearly all of which are accounted for. Though it was fascinating to realize how expensive things were back then (fabric cost more than some women had to live on for a year!) and how harsh the law was (the simplest of crimes merited "the steps and the string," as Moll so eloquently puts it), I eventually wanted to tell Moll to get on with it, already, and tell me how she got thrown in Newgate! That section was the only one that bored me, though, and it was towards the end of the novel, so it wasn't hard to get past.

I wasn't expecting it at all, but Moll's story kept me captivated and had me turning pages at every opportunity (TARDIS got the most mileage of her lifetime so far; she was in my bag and ready to be whipped out at any opportunity). She has become probably my favorite female character in all of literature, and I'm even looking to getting a physical copy of the book for rereading purposes. I was delighted to read one of the most notorious books in all of literature, and though this isn't one for the kiddies (probably not for anyone below fifteen!), I'd really recommend it to anyone who feels up to the task. I especially recommend the novel to anyone who has an interest in great portrayals of women in literature. Meet Moll. I think you'll like her.

Coming soon: my reviews of three film adaptations of Moll's story--the aforementioned Alex Kingston miniseries, an extremely loose American adaptation starring Morgan Freeman and Robin Wright Penn, and the 1965 adaptation starring Kim Novak.

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Complete Maus'

The Book: The Complete Maus

The Author/Artist: Art Spiegelman

How I Found It: This is the first of the new-to-me books assigned in my Graphic Literature course at college. Before then, it had been recommended to me by a friend or two.

The Review: This is one of the most difficult-to-classify books I have ever seen. We had a long discussion about it during one of my classes. I found this, along with Persepolis (one of the future texts), at a Borders closing sale, but not without agonizing over where to look. First, my mother and I checked the graphic novel section. No dice, although surely it should be there. I go to check nonfiction. No luck. History. Nada. Finally it dawns on me: memoir! And there they were. Look at the tags for this post, and you'll see my dilemma still. How many categories does this work fit in? A whole lot.

Maus: A Survivor's Tale, a two-volume comic (Volume I: My Father Bleeds History and Volume II: And Here My Troubles Began), is the story of Art Spiegelman's father and mother, Vladek and Anja, and how they survived the Holocaust. Vladek was in Auschwitz; Anja was in Birkenau. Often, their survival was a matter of luck. Though Vladek and Anja survived, their family was torn apart, and Vladek and Anja are forever changed. Vladek, to Art's dismay, becomes a cantankerous caricature of the Jewish miser; Anja commits suicide when Art is twenty.

It is Art's idea to write his father's story, to make it a graphic novel. Here is where the story differs from other tales of Holocaust survivors--not only is it a graphic novel, the central metaphor is to equate the people involved with animals. The French are frogs. The Americans are dogs. Germans, particularly the Nazis, are cats. And no matter where they are from, the Jews are mice--they are vermin, just as Hitler sees them.

Maus is the only graphic novel to ever receive a Pulitzer Prize--it was so rare an event that a special Pulitzer Prize had to be created. Undoubtedly, the work has a complex history. The work went through many forms (its earliest appeared in 1972) and there was a five-year gap between the first volume and the second (1986 to 1991). Vladek died in 1982, and so probably never saw the work as it came to be. The history behind the book is so complex that Spiegelman has just released a book about its creative process, MetaMaus. I went into this work with only a vague idea of the conceit behind it, and came out staggered by just how complex it was. This is so much more than a Holocaust story--not only is it a rumination on a man's complex relationship with his father, it is a commentary on the process of creating art and how taxing it is for the artist.

Vladek's story is framed by what went into the book's creation. We see Art coming home for the first time in years, wanting to ask his father about his story and Anja's, allegedly recorded in her diaries. The book is transcribed from Art's notes and, later, his tapes of Vladek talking--almost all of it is in Vladek's own words. It's so hard to describe the effect this has, when coupled with how Art chose to represent the story in drawings. For example, Vladek's story as he tells it to Art is in somewhat broken English, but whenever Vladek is shown in his younger days--when he would be speaking a language he knew fluently and did not have to learn later in life, like English--he is very eloquent, as he would be. It's something you barely notice until it's been pointed out to you, but when it is pointed out, it's something that makes you pause and really consider how much thought and time Art had to put into his representation.

One of the most interesting parts of the book, for me, was how hard Art struggled to put down his father's experiences. At one point, he even goes to his therapist with his agonies over getting every detail right (eventually, he settles on a few compromises when his father's account contradicts documented facts about the camps). A favorite exchange of mine is early in Volume II, when Art talks to his wife about his difficulties:
Art: There's so much I'll never be able to understand or visualize. I mean, reality is too complex for comics... so much has to be left out or distorted.
Francoise: Just keep it honest, honey.
Art: See what I mean? In real life you've never have let me talk this long without interrupting.
Spiegelman's art is done in stark black and white, and though it seems cartoonish and rudimentary (though not nearly as much as his early drafts did), he really did make some fascinating artistic choices. One panel shows Vladek and Anja at a crossroads, looking for a place to seek refuge--and they stand in the center of a road that forks outwards like a swastika, symbolizing that no matter what path they take, the Nazis will be waiting. Another shows Vladek and Anja trying desperately to disguise themselves so they won't be recognized as Jews--they were pig masks, trying to pass as Poles. Vladek has no problem, but Anja's physical appearance hews more closely to traditional Jewish features, and it's easier for her to be recognized. Spiegelman represents this by having her mouse tail sticking out of her coat. Often, the choices he made were clever and really interesting to think about; I certainly found myself poring over different panels.

Vladek himself is a complicated, flawed person. He is highly prejudiced, for one thing, though Art tries to point out to him that he is essentially harboring the same attitudes towards other races that the Nazis held against Jews. He is cheap enough that it infuriates his second wife--he even returns a half-used box of cornflakes to the local supermarket so that the food doesn't have to be wasted. What he chose to do with Anja's diaries, when it is revealed, is a shock. It is often easy to see why Art had such a difficult relationship with him, but despite that, Vladek's story of survival and of his love for Anja is truly amazing.

While I was fascinated by the book's insight into its own artistic process, and by the insight into Art's relationship with Vladek, I think that what ended up dampening my appreciation of the book just a bit was its central conceit. Having the characters pictured as animals, as brilliant an idea as it was, left me feeling perhaps a bit too distant from them, and I couldn't feel as much emotion as I should have. There were definitely some emotional moments still--the first time Vladek and Anja see a swastika on display, when Anja makes the conscious choice to go to the camps since Vladek will be there, when Vladek hears in Auschwitz that Anja is still alive: these moments had me crying. I just wish there could have been more emotion towards the end, for me.

Though I felt the book was not as emotional as it could have been, I still really appreciated the story it told, and it did move me. The way Spiegelman chose to tell his father's tale reminded me at first, in the best way, of my favorite song from my favorite musical, Cabaret. By portraying the Jews as mice, Spiegelman makes the reader confront not only how the Nazis saw the Jews, but how the Jews still see themselves. He strips the story of the Holocaust down to its most human elements and does so in a way I don't think I'll forget anytime soon. Recommended for someone with an interest in a seminal work of graphic literature or in Holocaust stories.