Posts from July 2007

July 19th, 2007

The Uncommon Reader

Our book today is a little delight we here at Stevereads never dared to hope we’d encounter: “The Uncommon Reader,” a novella by Alan Bennett, the English national treasure and author of “The History Boys.” The thing appeared in virtually unaltered form in the London Review of Books some months ago, and although we here at Stevereads saved it and photocopied it and assiduously handed it around, we thought we’d be dealing with clumsy xeroxes forever. But lo, here it is, bound as a neat little booklet of its own.

The story is classic Bennett in its beguiling simplicity of plot: owing to the mischief of her dogs, the Queen discovers one day that the palace is regularly visited by a ‘travelling library’ of a type that was once popular in rural America. Her Majesty feels a little awkward and so borrows a book. And what follows is a sweet, wondrous little story: the Queen gradually comes to love reading.

At first she must snatch time in between her official duties, but bit by bit, she works more and more reading into her days in exactly the same wayall book-people do. In this endeavor she’s aided by Norman, the smart young man she met at the travelling library and who, for the first part of the book, acts as her text-procurer and overall amanuensis. Bennett handles their relationship with his customary pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, as in the wry passage in which the Queen assesses her strengths in the least likely of venues:

“‘Do you know,’ she said one afternoon as they were reading in her study, ‘do you know the area in which one would truly excel?’
‘No, ma’am?’
‘The pub quiz. One has been everywhere, seen everything, and though one might have difficulty with pop music and some sport, when it comes to the capital of Zimbabwe, say, or the principal exports of New South Wales, I have all that at my fingertips.’
‘And I could do the pop,’ said Norman.
‘Yes,’ said the Queen. ‘We would make a good team. Ah well. The road not travelled.'”

Anybody who’s read Bennett’s always-engrossing diaries knows him to be a diehard reader himself, and in “The Uncommon Reader” he distills some of his thoughts about the process of reading itself. In doing this, he has the perfect foil in the person of Her Majesty:

“The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, was a commonwealth; letters a republic. Actually she had heard this phrase, the republic of letters, used before, at graduation ceremonies, honorary degrees and the like, though without knowing what it meant. At that time talk of a republic of any sort she had thought mildly insulting and in her actual presence tactless to say the least. It was only now she understood what it meant. Books did not defer.”

The Queen’s newfound love of reading creates consternation in those around her, who are unused to any changes in the living institution she represents. And the most flustered by the change? Why, the dogs of course, little tyrants that they are:

“Indulged and bad tempered though they were, the dogs were not unintelligent, so it was not surprising that in a short space of time they came to hate books as the spoilsports they were (and always have been).
Did Her Majesty ever let a book fall to the carpet it would straightaway be leaped on by any attendant dog, worried and slavered over and borne to the distant reaches of the palace or wherever so that it could be satisfyingly torn apart. The James Tait Black Memorial prize notwithstanding, Ian McEwan had ended up like this and even A.S. Byatt. Patron of the London Library though she was, Her Majesty regularly found herself on the phone apologizing to the renewals clerk for the loss of yet another volume.”

Bennett is also shrewd in assessing what kind of a reader the Queen would be – that, for instance, she would have a hard time empathizing with the minute social distinctions that abound in Jane Austen. Broader subjects too get examined in this wonderfully insightful way:

“Feminism, too, got short shrift, at least to begin with and for the same reason, the separations of gender like the differences of class as nothing compared with the gulf that separated the Queen from the rest of humanity.”

Bennett doesn’t forget his dramatist’s duties – even in a hundred pages, he manages to serve up for the reader lots more humor, palace intrigue, a happy ending, and a surprise twist at the end that will have the reader clapping. We here at Stevereads encounter entirely unsuccessful novels that ramble on to five or six hundred pages – this little book should stand as quietly eloquent proof of what a sure craftsman can do with a lot less space.

July 19th, 2007

Moving Picture Trash

Ordinarily, we here at Stevereads, upon learning of the existence of a potential rival in the blogosphere, would react with Biblical vindictiveness. The exact verse in question would of course be “We are the Lord thy God, we brought thee out of the land of Egypt, thou shalt worship no gods before us.” Our usual response to such upstart sites would be to unloose the full bespectacled wrath of our tech department on them, tearing the sites down and disabling the guilty computers in the process (just recall how fast Beepy’s ‘Manatees Gone Wild’ site lasted, and the awful fate it suffered). Here at Stevereads, we are a jealous God.

But every so often, we find a site we don’t entirely despise. One such site to appear recently is the brainchild of our colleague Brian, a blog called Moving Picture Trash devoted to bad movies.

‘Bad movies’ is of course a problematic phrase, since it takes under its aegis three different kinds of movies: movies that are out-and-out bad, movies that are bad but eminently useful as guilty pleasures, and movies that are widely considered bad but in reality, upon examination, aren’t bad at all. Thankfully, Moving Picture Trash understands this perfectly well and is ready and able to write entertainingly about all three kinds. The updates are satisfyingly long, satisfyingly frequent, frequently funny, and curiously free of the royal ‘we.’

Movie critics this good are thin on the ground, as we here at Stevereads know better than most. So follow the link to the right (links have been refurbished to keep you all updated on the growing careers of all the promising young people who owe their inspiration – and in four cases, their biological creation – to the jealous God who rules this site) and enjoy yourselves.

Then come back here and wait patiently for the next bread-crumb of wisdom to fall from our beard …

July 16th, 2007

Such Agreeable Friends

Our book today is “Such Agreeable Friends” by Grace Marmor Spruch, and it stands as wondrous testimony to one fact above all others: libraries are not only the chief adornment of any civilization, but they are, all of them, the very place where serendipity calls home.

Even bookstores can’t claim that distinction: the arrangement of their wares is designed, after all, and the goal of the design is to separate you from your money.

Not so libraries, who are so unconcerned with such worldly matters that they arrange their stock according to alphanumeric systems so arcane that cracking them requires the skills of both the cryptologist and the math prodigy (someday, when there’s more time, we’ll regale you all with stories of the original category system for the Boston Atheneum … it’s stuff to keep you up a-nights). A big city’s big library will baffle even frequent visitors, who will find themselves clutching a slip with call-letters scrawled upon it, wandering down one aisle and up another.

They may find their book unassisted or they may not (we here at Stevereads always succeed on first try, but lesser creatures – and you are all lesser creatures, remember – never have that luck), but in any case, magic happens along the way. Serendipity intervenes.

Books are found the searcher never guessed existed; books are found that never see the inside of the average used bookstore, let alone a retail shop concerned with a financial bottom line. It is a sight universal to libraries of any size: patrons, once intent on a specific errand, stopped, halted, ensnared in some aisle by a book that caught their eye and now holds their attention.

Such was our fate one stormy day when we found ourselves wandering the aisles of the public library of Philadelphia and came across “Such Agreeable Friends.”

The book is an entirely winning account of one Greenwich Village couple’s encounter with a group of wild squirrels in their fifth floor walk-up.

It starts innocuously enough, with a squirrel making an appearance inside the Spruch’s apartment and demanding food. Anyone who’s ever had a walk-up apartment in New York City can attest to the fact that New York squirrels are the most brazen, opportunistic, and even quarrelsome members of their much-maligned race. They take no guff, they ask no favors, and even their handout-begging in Central Park seems bossy and distracted. They are the superstars of the squirrel world, and they know it.

The Spruchs encounter these superstars head-on, and the result is a unique and thoroughly spellbinding example of amateur natural history at its best.

Amateur natural history meaning personal observations, without recourse to statistics or field hands or tracking collars. The best of natural history, really: a smart person with a simple and abiding passion for watching things. There are wonderful books written by humans who watched swans, cranes, snow geese, humpback whales, coyotes, African elephants, mountain gorillas, beavers, wolves, great white sharks, gulls, bumblebees, and of course dogs and cats – and all shall get their mentions here, in due time (after all, the Internet is eternal, and so are we). But right now, our matter is squirrels.

Inevitable, ubiquitous squirrels, simple, ordinary squirrels – except that the best amateur natural history makes you see things you’d previously ignored or dismissed, to find wonder in the mundane. Certainly for American city-dwellers, there can be no animal more mundane than squirrels: they skitter over every tree of every public park, they display their peculiar habits for every visiting tourist, and most people never given them a second thought.

Thank the gods the Spruchs in their fifth floor Washington Square walk-up gave squirrels a second thought, or we all would be lacking one singularly joy-inspiring book.

It begins simply: a few squirrels, a few nuts left out on a window sill – a novelty, really, although Grace Spruch admits readily to being a lifelong lover of animals:

“Creatures – all – have power over me. When I rode horses, they sensed immediately that I could never touch them with a twig, let alone kick them. They would ignore my entreaties and stop for lunch, long drinks. Murderous ones tried to rub me off – and out – on trees, or to decapitate me on low-lying branches. I had no power over them, I didn’t blame them. Why shouldn’t they try to get rid of this burden on their back if they could? I spoil all animals rotten.”

Reading that last line, readers might think objectivity would be scarce in “Such Agreeable Friends,” but by a very happy chance, the exact opposite turns out to be the case. Spruch is a pushover, yes, and she gives all her squirrel guests somewhat goofy names designed for mnemonic ease, but when it comes to observing, she’s a natural-born naturalist, entirely scrupulous and eagle-eyed for every minor detail. Indeed, Spruch’s readers have two treats in store: first and foremost, that wonderful, personal, and very rare experience of sensing immediately that as a reader, you’re in good hands, and second, that she would rather not write at all than write one word that wasn’t accurate to what she watched every day.

It need hardly be stated that she immediately learned no two squirrels are alike. A cast of regulars begins to take shape, and as the squirrels become more accustomed to the handouts, they become more demanding (often waking the Spruchs by knocking on the window, on those mornings when the couple had the nerve to sleep in past ‘opening time’) and more bold (rummaging around, burying nuts in various locations around the apartment, and most charmingly, hanging around to consume their meals indoors, before rushing back out into the semi-wild world of Manhattan). Grace records it all in minute, charming detail, and the most charming thing about it all is the lack of deep philosophizing. If she can’t figure out why a squirrel is doing some peculiar thing (and, like humans, they do peculiar things all the time), she says so and moves on.

As with any regular cast of characters, certain individuals begin to stand out: gentle, unassuming Sweetie, wise and patient Notchko, calm and enterprising Slim, and above all a slightly weird, undeniably intense squirrel rather aptly named Genius. Grace is, as she’s told us, a softie for all animals, but the reader can’t help but come away from “Such Agreeable Friends” feeling that of all the one-pound little visitors to cross her path, Genius was the most special, the most memorable.

In the course of the book, the reader will learn a very large amount about the physiology and natural history of squirrels (Spruch unobtrusively sprinkles the results of her own research throughout the text), but it’s the book’s unapologetic compassion that stands as its single best feature. To those of us who’ve gone out and experienced it ourselves, she’s preaching to the converted when she writes:

“Some of the best things in life are indeed free. The pleasure to be derived from a gust of wind on a sunny spring day, the sight of a golden retriever looking back to see if you are following on the trail, the sight of the muscles on the shoulders of a sturdy little rodent, all are God’s gifts – joy to mankind. And the people who can experience these joys are blessed.”

So the next time you’re in your local library, look for “Such Agreeable Friends” and add it to the armload of other unlooked-for gems you’ve no doubt already found. You won’t be disappointed.

July 10th, 2007

In the Penny Press!

Just the other day we were coming back inside from the rooftop garden here at Stevereads when we chanced upon a young intern crying in the stairwell. Foolishly, impulsively, we inquired as to the cause. The intern turned her bloated, tear-blotched face up to us and said, “I miss In the Penny Press!”

Which got us to thinking (well, actually it first got us to firing, since any hapless intern given to such bouts of soppy sentimentality obviously deserved the old heave-ho) that perhaps the occasional In the Penny Press might not be such a bad thing, even though we’ve re-consecrated the site to books.

So in light of the fact that there’s actually a good deal of interesting stuff to discuss in the recent Penny Press, and in memory of that poor weak intern (who’s already been tasered out of the building by Steveread’s elite security forces), let’s have a look, shall we? And what better place to start than the current New Yorker?

The July 9 & 16 issue has several things to recommend it, not least Hendrik Hertzberg’s withering column on Vice President Count Cheney in ‘Talk of the Town.’ Hertzberg is redacting multi-part examination of Count Cheney done in the Washington Post, and his summaries are pure, gleeful gold – or worth their weight in it, anyway, to those of us who watched with horror as a Marvel Comics super-villain came an inch away from literally stealing the country away from its people:

“Given the ontological authority that the Post shares only with the New York Times, it is now, so to speak, official: for the past six years, Dick Cheney, the occupant of what John Adams called ‘the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived,’ has been the most influential public official in the country, not necessarily excluding President Bush, and his influence has been entirely malign. He is pathologically (but purposefully) secretive; treacherous toward colleagues; coldly manipulative of the callow, lazy, and ignorant president he serves; contemptuous of public opinion; and dismissive not only of international law (a fairly standard attitude for conservatives of his stripe) but also of the very idea that the Constitution and laws of the United States, including laws signed by his nominal superior, can be construed to limit the power of the executive to take any action that an plausibly be classified as part of an endless, endlessly expandable ‘war on terror.’”

Granted, the end of that last sentence kind of breaks away from Hertzberg and starts galloping around the ring, but honestly, can you blame it? Count Cheney learned his dark arts from his Sith Lord Richard Nixon – that the White House cannot do wrong because it defines right and wrong, that power must be exercised only for power’s sake, never for the sake of good, or in the benefit of the people from whom it comes (except that in W. & Cheney’s case, that power didn’t come from the people – the people used their power to elect somebody else; but stealing sort of counts). And for a while there, it actually looked like evil would win. But the tide of public opinion has at last turned on the Dark White House, and we here at Stevereads predict the process will only continue, as more and more subpoenas are handed out and more and more evil misdeeds come to light. We further predict that on the eve of finally being brought to justice by good ol’ Mace Justice Department, Count Cheney will suffer his 121st heart attack and escape punishment of any kind. But those are the breaks.

Elsewhere in the New Yorker, an equally baneful-looking figure, a 1949 black and white photograph of surly, whiney, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius looms over a very good appreciation by the always-reliable Alex Ross. The composer’s lifelong pessimisms and lifelong dependence on copious amounts of alcohol to fuel his creative endeavors are woven by Ross into a profile very much worth reading. Our only problem with it? We here at Stevereads object to Ross’ calling legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky ‘garrulous.’ Koussevitzky was outright told in no uncertain terms by Sibelius himself that the composer’s much-anticipated Eight Symphony would be premiered by the BSO; it’s hardly ‘garrulous’ for Koussevitzky to, you know, tell people that. How was he to know Sibelius was fatally locked in a block-struggle with the work and would never, in fact, deliver it? Serge Koussevitzky was many things, but ‘garrulous’ wasn’t one of them. But aside from that one little quibble, the article made for some great reading.

And speaking of great reading, in a rare development for the New Yorker, the short story, “If I Vanished” by Stuart Dybek, is actually very, very good, very nearly worth the price of the issue all by itself. Summarizing short stories is about as tedious as summarizing dreams (note to Beepy: they’re both very, very tedious), but suffice it to say the Kevin Costner movie “Open Range” manages to play a fairly large part in a story that has, in the end, nothing to do with it at all …

Closing out our look at this New Yorker double issue is Anthony Lane’s very funny review of the new Michael Bay smash-fest “Transformers,” starring Shia LaBeouf. This is the movie in which our young hero’s yellow Camaro turns out to be a crusading alien Autobot, and as you can guess from such a summary, Lane has lots of good stuff to work with:

“Certainly, the director can’t decide on their [the Autobots] level of moral sophistication; early on, they seem merely aggressive and willful, not unlike a real Camaro, but then suddenly the Autobots – led by Optimus Prime, whose name suggests an ambitious, moist-palmed young curate out of Trollope – begin gushing sermons like oil.”

‘not unlike a real Camaro’ … hee …

Shia LaBeouf also turns up in the latest Vanity Fair, in a cover-featured interview by Michael Hogan that does its level best to hide what is obvious from the third paragraph anyway: the kid’s no Einstein. In the typical way of such interviews, Hogan tags along with LaBeouf asking pro forma questions while LaBeouf does his level best to pretend he doesn’t really have anybody in the car or at the restaurant with him. This behavior among Hollywood’s young stars (the cake would have to be taken by Ashton Kutcher a few years ago when he took a cell phone call in the middle of an interview with GQ. For an hour. From his pharmacist.) has always amazed us here at Stevereads. After all, every one of these self-absorbed little shits started off life as a person. At what point did they morph into ass-talking egomaniacs capable of banally mouth-shitting to somebody who’s actually getting paid to interview them? We feel fairly certain if somebody had been paid to interview LaBeouf when he was, say, thirteen, he’d have puked himself with anxiety at the honor; but here he is, acting like he’s free-associating on his Bluetooth to Teen Beat.

Hogan gets past the patter only once, when he asks the kid if his unconventional upbringing (pothead mother, drug-dealer father) has impaired his ability to function well in romantic relationships. Shia says yeah, that’s certainly the case, he’s the bad guy in relationships.

No mention, of course, is made in the article to LaBeouf’s own drug use – at least, no honest mention. He says he’s basically high on life these days, that he won’t let drugs derail is burgeoning career – says, in fact, that he won’t drink a drop until after the next Indiana Jones movie, in which he has a big part (exactly five seconds googling his name will fill your computer with cell-phone pictures that contradict this assertion, but we here at Stevereads can’t honestly recommend you waste those minutes in such a way). No mention is made of how many cigarettes LaBeouf smoked during the interview – probably because Hogan lost count. In any case, one thing more than anything else becomes clear by the end of the piece: roughly two months after the ‘wrap’ on the new Indiana Jones movie, Shia LaBeouf is going to have the mother of all meltdowns. Somebody should start writing his part in ‘National Lampoon’s Family Vacation VIII’ right now.

Fortunately, elsewhere in this issue of Vanity Fair there’s another profile, this one of somebody entirely smarter, funnier, more honest, and in the end more courageous than poor little Shia LaBeouf could ever hope to be.

We refer, of course, to Barbaro.

In a lamentably-titled piece called “Gone with the Wind,” the lamentably-titled Buzz Bissinger tells the uplifting, heartbreaking story of the Kentucky Derby champion whose horrific injury at the Preakness (Youtubing the final stretch is recommended only for the strong of stomach) eventually claimed his life.

Bissinger does a fantastic job of capturing the nature of the largely wacky, largely insular world of thoroughbred horse-racing, and in a very refreshing take, he decides from the beginning to refer to Barbaro in no different terms than he would to an up-and-coming baseball star, or basketball phenom: not as a bought-and-paid-for animal with no personality or control over his destiny, but rather as a physical prodigy with a prodigy’s good and bad points, and boat-loads of personality.

Bissinger describes in touching, accumulating detail the ways in which Barbaro slipped inside the oft-repeated #1 rule of thoroughbred horse-racing: never fall in love with a horse.

His owners, trainers, handlers, riders, and eventually veterinarians and doctors all were helpless to forget that rule, and there are wonderful little portraits of all of them. But by far the most vibrant and memorable personality in the piece is that of Bararo himself.

We’re aware here at Stevereads that there will be those among you who grant no personhood even to those non-human animals who display it far less problematically than horses. Dogs, dolphins, elephants, even cats all behave in ways that are far more analogous to human ways than horses do, and even we here at Stevereads have enjoyed an only very spotty relationship with the beasts ourselves (they don’t much like dogs, so the inferences are right there to hand). But nevertheless, we hope (in league with our dear little Elmo, who knows from first-hand observation that complexity lies all around us like air) that in the not too distant future ALL animals of any complexity whatsoever will be granted the hithertofore human preserve of personhood. To say that Barbaro was forced as a calf into contact with the life-consuming sport that would consume his life is to say nothing different than you’d have to say of Michael Jordan, or Tiger Woods, or David Beckham. And to keep saying it, after you’ve seen the film footage, any film footage, of Barbaro running – or more accurately, on the testimony of his riders, Barbaro in flight – well, if you don’t see a creature absolutely loving what he’s doing at least as much as any steroid-addicted, endorsement-hunting human athlete, you’re just plain bigoted, or just plain blind, or both. Look again: you’ll see a very distinct form of poetry, visceral, physical, and entirely, voluntarily luminous. And then, once you’ve looked, bow your head for a couple of seconds to notice the passing of Barbaro the way you’d ordinarily do for an extremely promising young college student, taken early.

The last item on our agenda today is something of a postscript, a nod to the wild old days when we here at Stevereads reviewed anything that moved. We couldn’t help but notice this week the premiere of Thor #1 from Marvel Comics, otherwise known as the House of Loathsome. Those of you who are comic book snobs can feel free to stop reading at this point (side note: those of you who are Stevereads readers had better not even think of ceasing to read here).

A quick background update for those of you who’ve already lost your virginity: in the immediate prelude to the infamous, disastrous ‘Civil War’ storyline, Marvel killed off their resident super-hero Thunder God, Thor. They killed him off but good: no more Thor, no more Asgard, no more gods – all of it gone. A daft idea in and of itself, yes, but nevertheless wrapped up to be really, truly, completely, and utterly final.

Which, in the magnificent first issue of this relaunch, takes writer J. Michael Straczynski all of two pages to get around, with some mumbo-jumbo about how gods can never really die as long as humans are around to believe in them (this will be good news for Jesus, if his comic book is ever cancelled). There’s some great, juicily ambiguous stuff about how the gods of Asgard are only sleeping, awaiting awakening. It’s classic Marvel stuff, of the type that is certainly not being floated about the alleged ‘death’ of Captain America.

The plot – such as it extends beyond ‘bring Thor back’ – has some little kinks in it that on the surface appear to be inconsistencies (a free book – shush, Kevin – to the first person who points out the biggest of these; a quick hint: it’s on page Page 6) or just plain mistakes, but we here at Stevereads have a battered but intact faith in Straczynski; he’ll see this title well-launched before he decamps, six issues from now.

Six consecutive issues is much more than we can expect from the series’ sensational artist Olivier Coipel, naturally. Coipel’s artwork has never been stronger than in this issue – like all ‘cool’ young artists, he’s slowly, surely making his way back to the basics Jack Kirby laid out fifty years ago. You can be as artistic and diaphanous as you want, but this is four color comics, in the end: if you can’t tell a story, visually, you aren’t doing your job, period.

But nonetheless, Coipel and his higher-profile brethren are horrible, embarrassing disgraces, not only to the profession of comic book artists but to all professions, to anybody who actually works for a living. The final Warren Ellis/Brian Hitch issue of ‘Ultimates’ was one year late – one year late – entirely because of artist Brian Hitch. Ellis is a workhorse professional, and he had his completed, detailed drafts of the final issue of his run done roughly three weeks after the penultimate issue went to press.

The artist was the problem, as they always are these days. They sign on for a hot new series, they sign on for a large amount of money, they spend that money, and then, like locusts, they move on to something else. It’s disgusting, but we have to live with it, at least among comics-readers.

And certainly the results in this issue are spiffy. This is the real Thor, the eternal warrior-god and thunder-lord – not a clone, not some super-sophisticated space alien (anybody remember that retooling?), not even changed in personality. He’s once again bonded to the mortal Don Blake (who seems too cool for school this time around, so we’re hoping Jane Foster is paying attention), and Coipel’s artwork captures that dichotomy – the mythic and the mortal – perfectly. The two issues he’s on the title should be great to look at (after which a back-bench reliable will be called in – is George Tuska still alive?).

So there you have it, an old-fashioned installment of In the Penny Press, complete with miscellaneous topics, copious digressions, and a baker’s dozen frothy screeds. Hard to believe we once indulged in this three times a week, no? Now that it’s out of our system, we’ll return to our more state

July 4th, 2007

Absolute Kingdom Come

Our book today is the ‘Absolute’ edition of DC Comics’ graphic novel ‘Kingdom Come.’ The four issues of the mini-series by writer Mark Waid and artist Alex Ross have been collected in a great big deluxe slip-cased hardcover, complete with oversized pages, superb color transfers, and nearly a hundred pages of ‘extras’ bringing up the rear. It’s like having a playground pressed between two covers.

The nicest thing about “Kingdom Come,” at least in terms of explaining it to non comic book fans, is that most of its main characters are familiar to them anyway. Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and the Joker – everybody knows at least something about these characters – they’ve been somewhere in the American subconscious for the better part of the 20th century: you don’t need to know anything about comics to get at least a vague lay of the land from those names.

And those names more or less form the supporting plot of “Kingdom Come”: the Joker walks into the Daily Planet and slaughters everyone inside, including Lois Lane. A grief-stricken but law-abiding Superman lets the courts take their course – until a new super-powered character confronts the Joker on the courtroom steps and shoots him down. Superman, demoralized, retreats from the world, and the rest of the super-hero community goes to hell in a handbasket. The other heroes mostly balkanize, and ten years later the next generation of super-beings, punks with godlike powers, are conducting their internecine warfare anywhere they please, regardless of the civilian population. That civilian population is represented by our everyman touchstone, preacher Norman McKay, who’s granted visual access to past, present, and future by the supernatural Spectre.

A weathered Superman (Ross paints him with the face of a Manhattan beat cop and the body of a Midwestern football coach) returns to this harried world with his sense of right and wrong firmly in place and therefore wildly out of fashion. What he has on his side is the fact that, well, he’s Superman, and in the last ten years he may have been disillusioned, but he was also getting stronger the whole time. When he returns to the world, the super-powered punks he confronts, with their morphing bodies and their explosive weapons, get brushed aside like cobwebs.

This is the age-old revenge storyline Waid taps into and so expertly retells, and it’s as old as Homer’s Odyssey: that there’s a scattered and outcast older generation easily more powerful and resourceful than the callow new generation that replaced them (for what it’s worth, that same premise is what makes “Star Trek III – The Search for Spock” such endlessly rewatchable fun). Superman returns, and his return sparks the return of many other titans of old, who set about imposing a new world order on the prevalent crop of lawless super-riffraff.

This is good stuff, and it makes for a fun chapter to watch the old titans – Hawkman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and most of all of course Wonder Woman (statuesque, ageless, and very, very angry) and Batman (unmasked, crippled, and exoskeletoned) – follow Superman out of retirement and begin to change the world.

A great deal happens as a result, and we here at Stevereads are reluctant to spoil the plot for any of you small-minded or snobbish (or simply unlucky) enough not to know it already. Suffice it to say, the clouds darken before the sun shines, and the tense, horrible process Waid mines for his trademark specialty, iconic figures under unprecedented stress, uttering essential truths about themselves.

This book has a huge cast of characters – indeed, as obsessive fans spotting faces in all of Ross’ crowd scenes can attest, the cast features virtually every DC character ever dreamt up in the last sixty years – but the heart and soul of the story is the trinity that has sat atop superhero stories for the entire 20th Century: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

Waid write all three of them in such distinctive voices and with such perfect control that you wish he could somehow write their own monthly comics for the rest of time. Although this way is undoubtedly better: the sense of a special occasion just makes it all sweeter.

The greatest thing about this trinity of characters – a thing Waid mines perfectly – is the endless ways in which their backgrounds and natures combine to be invigoratingly unpredictable. Superman is an alien, but his Kansas upbringing has made him more human in many ways than the remote, forbidding Batman. Batman is a human being with no special powers, but his aristocratic background of wealth and privilege give him far more in common with Wonder Woman than with Superman. And Wonder Woman’s the toughest riddle of all (which is probably why writers have done her scant credit over the decades), an Amazon princess as powerful as Superman, as elite as Batman, but more alien than either of them to the world of ordinary people.

This mix is perfect for plumbing – Superman and Wonder Woman are the most powerful super-heroes in the DC universe, Batman the most dangerous, and the combination works absolute wonders. Waid does his job so well that even in an epic story with a cast of thousands and the world itself coming to an end, the tension between these three characters very often eclipses everything else.

Wonder Woman wants to meet the chaos of the new world order with militaristic violence. Batman wants to sift and manipulate. Superman wants to heal it all.

As noted, Waid’s greatest trick as a writer is to let extreme pressure prompt characters to tell each other things they’ve always left unsaid.

Perhaps the greatest of these moments happens in the final chapter, when tensions are at their highest, and Superman confronts Batman in a last-ditch attempt to enlist his help. Face to face in the ruins of the Batcave, Superman pours out his heart on the subject of his problematic best friend:

“The deliberate taking of human life – even super-human life – goes against every belief I have – and that YOU have. That’s the one thing we’ve always had in common. It’s what’s made us what we are. More than anyone in the world, when you scratch everything else away from Batman, you’re left with someone who doesn’t want to see anybody else die.”

Countless writers over the decades have had their chance to define Batman in two sentences. Nobody else has ever done it but Waid.

But the best thing in ‘Absolute Kingdom Come’ (beating all the neat extras, which for once are actually worthy of inclusion) is still and always will be the ‘one year later’ vignette at the very end.

The crisis has been averted, some semblance of normality has been restored, and a plaid-clad Clark Kent and a gorgeously-draped but anonymous Wonder Woman enter a gaudy superhero-themed restaurant for a pre-arranged meeting. None of the costumed waitstaff of course recognize the titans in their midst, and so they seat their charges with no fanfare. They’re waiting for a third party, and Clark is uncomfortably aware of that fact. “So where is he?” he edgily asks. “You’re the one with the X-ray vision,” Wonder Woman chidingly reminds him. “Did you look behind the Giant Penny?” When Clark says “You didn’t tell him, did you?” she gamefully responds “Of course not. If it actually means seeing him surprised, who am I to hoard the moment?”

Of course the third party is Batman, who shows up a moment later right behind the seated Clark Kent. And the World’s Greatest Detective has already figured out the momentous reason for the get-together. The brief scene is handled perfectly, ending with our three heroes walking out into the sunlight.

“Absolute Kingdom Come” isn’t something you’d hand to the comics novice. It’s a long, detailed love note to DC Comics, something best savored by those who’ve been absorbing comics for years. But it’s a testament to the book’s staying power that even a novice, stumbling into it, would be spellbound.

July 1st, 2007

A Time to Shout!

That happy day has arrived once again – the first of the month, and a new issue of Open Letters Monthly, courtesy of our inimitable Web Czar Nick and just bursting with delicious content! Read Sam Sacks’ hilarious forensic examinations of Ian McEwan and Khaled Hosseini! Read John Cotter’s take-no-prisoners review of the latest novel by Annie Dillard (an essayist we all love, but still …)! Thrill as young seminary student Ignazio deVega risks all by reviewing the latest book by his boss, the Pope! Enjoy Karen Vanuska’s account of the new novel by Michael Ondaajte! Take in yet another wonderful poem by Sommer Browning! Join Chris Tonelli as he keeps an eye on the contemporary poetry scene! Patiently endure my own fulminations on one damn subject after another! And, as always, tear your hear out trying – and failing – to conquer the Open Letters Monthly Quiz! This is a serious amount of entertainment, folks, and you can only find it at Open Letters, brought to you without commercial interruption and with a lovely photo by Kirsten Lewis! So imbibe all the treasures over there, and then come back over here and continue to have your self-esteems pruned to low, healthy levels!