Posts from August 2008

August 2nd, 2008

Comics! Uncanny X-Men #500!


Last week saw a milestone in Marvel Comics – the publication of the 500th issue of the Uncanny X-Men. Marvel marked the occasion by commissioning a painted front-and-back cover by quasi-deified comic book artist Alex Ross, and Marvel definitely got its money’s worth (just how much does Ross get paid for a painting like this? Anybody out there hazard a guess?): the painting depicts all (well, most – the guy with the super-powered pet maggots is nowhere to be seen) the various ages of the X-Men caught between their two most emblematic foes, the mutant-hunting robot Sentinels and the world-dominating mutant master of magnetism, Magneto. There in the background is a ghostly telepathic image of Professor X, who recruited those five young mutants way back in 1963’s first issue. Directly below him are the heroes those teenagers became: Iceman, Marvel Girl, Angel, Beast, and Cyclops, whose devastating ruby eye-beams carve an angle through the painting in classic Ross style (he loves the play of light in all its thicknesses). And surging forward toward the foreground is the new team that revitalized the comic in 1975 and changed the face of Marvel Comics forever: Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Kitty Pryde, Gambit, Rogue, and of course Wolverine, bigger and better drawn than all the others. It’s a bravura piece of work, even for an artist from whom we’ve come to expect such work.

It would be wrong to say that cover painting is the best thing about the 500th issue of the Uncanny X-Men. It’s the only good thing. As for the rest, Marvel has pulled off something uncanny indeed: they’ve commemorated the 500th anniversary of their most popular title with the single worse X-Men issue ever published.

That’s saying something. Uncanny, through its countless variations and incarnations, has published some truly crappy issues over the decades. This issue has to compete with the aforementioned maggot-guy, with the disco-heroine Dazzler, with the onslaught of Onslaught, and with the mini-era of the snub-nosed Wolverine (a manifestation that still confuses us, here at Stevereads). It handles this competition easily; it’s worse than all of those eras before it even reaches page 10.

We’ll get to page 10, but first a bit of true confession: Uncanny X-Men was never our favorite among the Marvel titles. When it first came out, we bought it of course – at the time, this new imprint Marvel Comics seemed able to do no wrong, and this seemed like another winner. The organizing principle? These super-powered kids, this team of kids and their somewhat creepy instructor (I wasn’t the only one who suspected Marvel of doing a quickie-ripoff of the Doom Patrol, which, if memory serves, came out only a few months earlier and also featured a creepy instructor), were born that way. They didn’t study with the Ancient One in a mountaintop retreat; they weren’t struck by radioactive waste, spiders, rays, or bombs – instead, they just developed their abilities at puberty, the same as all their readers! When I first read it, I immediately started mentally listing all the other heroes who fit the same bill (what can I say? Way, way back then, I was something of a geek): Wonder Woman (who even as a child was stronger and faster than other Amazons) but not Superman (if Krypton hadn’t exploded, he’d have been a poor powerless schlub like everybody else), the Martian Manhunter (on Mars, it seems, everybody could shapeshift) but not the Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, or Supergirl. The Sub-Mariner, but not, as mentioned, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, or the Hulk.


(And what of my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes, you ask? I did the rundown on them too! Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, Phantom Girl, Chameleon Boy, Shadow Lass, Shrinking Violet, Triplicate Girl, Matter-Eater Lad, even Element Lad, yes – Wildfire, Lightning Lad, Cosmic Boy, Mon-el, Invisible Kid, Sun Boy, Colossal Boy, Princess Projectra, Timber Wolf, no …)

It was an interesting take, but the first issue was sloppily done. Too much exposition, boring action sequences (even Jack Kirby could nod), and a team of weaklings the Thing alone could probably stomp into the ground before lunch.

The title won me over a few times (“Not a Dream! Not a Hoax! Not an Imaginary Story!” was an unbeatable hook for one issue, and of course there was the great Neal Adams for a too-short while, giving us the first truly great X-story with the introduction of the Sentinels) and lost me a few times, and like everybody else, I thought the 1975 re-launch (featuring Cyclops leading a team of heroes nobody’d ever heard of) was really good. But even during the Dark Phoenix Saga, my comics-reading heart lay elsewhere – with Thor, and Conan, and the Avengers, and Superman, and, of course, the Legion. And like all sensible sentient beings, I’ve had two parallel reactions to the modern incarnation of the title: one the one hand, a growing and awestruck appreciation of Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men, and on the other hand, a near-hysterical avoidance of the 100 percent pure crapola being produced in all the other X-titles.

Still, when a comic turns 500, you gotta read it. I was there, of course, for Action Comics 500 and was very much not disappointed – it was a great, epic retelling of the Superman story combined with a first-rate Lex Luthor plotline. It delivered.

Uncanny X-Men 500 miscarries. In fact, if it were a baby, it would miscarry so bad it would cause all the other babies in the whole friggin maternity ward to croak.

Some brief background, some of which we’ve already covered here: the mutant Scarlet Witch, in a fit of pique, warped the world’s reality and thereby eliminated the super-powers of all but a handful of Earth’s mutants – including Magneto, her father, who was left a powerless wretch. The X-Men still remained, dedicated to fighting the good fight against mankind’s intolerance and evil mutants. That brings us to the latest issue, the #500 landmark.

Matters open with decidedly substandard Terry Dodson artwork (how exactly Marvel got substandard artwork out of somebody as talented as Dodson is a mystery all on its own – he shares haphazardly divided art chores in this issue with the notorious Ted Land, suggesting that either Dodson or Land or perhaps both learned rather late they’d be drawing any part of this issue), showing a pretentious artist receiving some old-style Sentinels in order to transform them into a modern art display. Our scene immediately shifts to the X-Men’s new headquarters on the Marin Headlands across the bay from San Francisco, whose mayor is right then being flown to meet our heroes by Storm – who, despite now being queen of Wakanda, still finds time to for the whole super-heroing thing. The mayor has been given a ‘psychic blindfold’ by the X-Men’s resident telepath, Emma Frost, despite the fact that she’s a super-VILLAIN and always has been (these days she shows this mainly by making snide remarks).

The mayor’s on some sort of good-will visit, so the X-Men show her around. Here the artwork is handled by Greg Land, so Emma Frost is of course beautiful – and, um, I guess so is Scott Summers, aka Cyclops, except that he’s built like a steroid-popping weightlifter (what, can’t Land find pictures of skinny models?). Hank McCoy, aka the Beast (still looking like a great big kitty-cat) shows up, introducing himself as “Hank McCoy, scientist” (which causes no one to laugh, even though it’s absurd), and they’re all telling the mayor how ‘green’ their new headquarters is when Warren Worthington, aka Angel, scolds them all for not wining and dining her – he promptly shows her the view of San Francisco across the bay, which kind of defeats the purpose of the psychic blindfold, since she can see her house from here.

When she tells the X-Men (at least, I think these are the X-Men – nobody bothers to enumerate the team-roster; I think it consists of Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Emma Frost, Nightcrawler, Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, and maybe-sorta Cannonball) about the pretentious artist-type and his Sentinel-installation, they’re understandably upset – they vow to attend the gala opening, just to make sure nothing untoward happens. Exactly why they think mixing mutants with Sentinels, even deactivated ones, would calm things down is a mystery our writers don’t bother with; instead, they shift the scene to the gala opening, where our heroes are mixing and mingling with slobbering fanboys (who are mocked even though their real-life counterparts are the ones who’ll be buying the damn issue) and growling about the Sentinels standing there. Everbody’s in X-Men costumes, and when a big guy dressed as Magneto hands Colossus a champagne glass, Colossus starts to tell they guy he’s not a waiter – when gasp! it turns out to be the real Magneto! Why Colossus doesn’t recognize the real Magneto when he’s six friggin inches away is a mystery our writers don’t bother with; instead, Magneto says “Now then, where were we?” uses his apparently-restored powers to hurl Colossus through a skylight, then says’ “Now then, where were we?” again.

Angel says “Magneto! Put him down!” Cyclops says “Magneto tactics, team. Response squad, you’re with me” Storm says (no snickering now) “Tyrant. Your villainy will be held here.” But what follows is nevertheless a disorganized fiasco in which virtually nothing makes sense. Magneto handles everything the X-Men throw at him, then Cannonball hits him really hard and – presto! – we see that he’s wearing some sort of power-simulating suit. It naturally comes with a transporter, so Magneto is able to disappear once he’s been beaten. In the meantime, Colossus, Wolverine, and Angel (yes, Angel, who manages to take out a Sentinel on his own despite having no powers to speak of other than big, white wings) have defeated the reactivated Sentinels, and our landmark 500th issue thus ends in an ungainly heap.

And part of that ending? Emma Frost telepathically amplifies Cyclops’ thoughts as he broadcasts to every mutant on the planet that X-Men headquarters is now a mutant sanctuary, that every mutant who wants to can now come there and be safe. Why on Earth he would say this, when his telepathic broadcast has just drawn a gigantic bullseye on the Marin Headlands location, is yet another mystery. The issue’s full of them, and none of them the good kind. To put it mildly, this kind of X-Men execution is as far away from the stuff Joss Whedon was doing over in Astonishing as it’s possible to get. In that title, Whedon made a fantastic new epic out of almost entirely new characters and material; in this one, two already-great characters and concepts – Magneto and the Sentinels – are wasted simultaneously.

Who knows what happened? Maybe despite the 499 rehearsals, issue 500 somehow snuck up on all involved. That would explain the lack of any cohesion in this issue, the feeling that it’s all been cobbled together at the last minute. It’s issue 500, so you have to read it, but there’s nothing here to warrant anybody obeying any kind of telepathic summons to show up for issue 501.

August 1st, 2008

Rats, Lice, and History

Our book today is Hans Zinsser’s Rats, Lice and History, and it completes the little popular-science triptych we’ve been indulging in here at Stevereads (an arbitrary stopping-point, since we could, otherwise, cover really, really entertaining popular science books literally every day for the next year without running out of wonderful titles). Zinsser, a native New Yorker who spend his life as an increasingly-famous bacteriologist, wrote this, the best-known of his books, in 1935, which makes it a good deal older than our other two titles, but it’s the best of the three, a deep and intensely satisfying study with numerous digressions.

Zinsser sets his task right from the start: to write a biography. But he himself faithfully catalogues his obstacles:

There will be no prenatal influences; no Oedipus or mother complexes; no early love affairs or later infidelities; no perversions, urges, or maladjustments … We shall have no gossip to help us, no personal letters which there was no time to burn. We cannot count upon the reclame of a libel suit barely averted, or of scandals deftly hinted at. We have not even the comfort of preceding biographers and essayists whom we can copy, paraphrase, or refute. Indeed, we are quite stripped of the sauces, spices, and dressings by which biographers can usually make poets and scientists into quite ordinary and often objectionable people; by which they can divert attention from the work of a man to his petty or perhaps vicious habits; by which they can create a hero out of a successful commercial highbinder; by which they can smother public guilt by domestic virtue, or direct interest from the best and lasting accomplishments of their subject to the utterly unimportant private matters of which he was ashamed.

The habitue of biographies will ask himself how, without these indispensable accessories of the biographical tradesman, we can dare to enter this field. The answer is a simple one: the subject of our biography is a disease.

That disease is typhus, whose global path of destruction Zinsser recounts from earliest times (and all of whose vectors – through lice, through the fleas of infected mice and rats, and through infected nightcrawlers – are covered by his narrative reach) to the present, when the West made huge strides against the disease (many of those strides were made by Zinsser himself, or colleagues he inspired and helped). Typhus is a hugely successful family of bacteria, hardy and opportunistic, most widespread in conditions of abysmal sanitation – conditions that, in a world full of the squalor and waste of human cruelty, are not hard to find. The disease has been rampant in times of war, famine, and concentration camps since the dawn of mankind. It’s easily treatable with antibiotics, but the most formidable foe it ever faced was likely Hans Zinsser.

He wears it all lightly, as you could tell from the above excerpt (as is also abundantly evident from that excerpt, with Zinsser’s book we are dealing with a level of prose many orders of magnitude more advanced than either Stephen Jay Gould or Carl Sagan – as either one of them would have been quick to concede). Rats, Lice and History is immensely learned and informative, but it is also very funny, very clever, and often very playful. These things are not antithetical to the well-stocked mind, nor are they detrimental to a high purpose. Zinsser has fun throughout his book, and he tries his best to share that fun with his readers (and he’s had readers! This book has been through countless editions).

In writing his biography, and especially in dealing with something at once as complex and as simple as bacteria (they are hard to understand, although not nearly so hard as viruses), Zinsser tries to start with the broadest possible canvas: what is life itself? How do we define it? And where did it come from:

Did life originate spontaneously by such progressively complex associations of matter through enzymes – unformed, regulated intermediaries, capable of building up and expending energy? Or did it come to our earth from elsewhere – cosmically, – in which case it would have had to possess the capacity of resisting, without destruction, exposure to temperatures ranging from absolute zero to incandescence. We cannot deny these possibilities, but we have no clue to either. We are beginning to know that all the processes which take place in living beings are governed – though with more complexity – by the same physiochemical laws which govern the reactions in dead chemical systems. Yet this purely mechanistic understanding is insufficient for the final answer, and vitalism is reborn again and again to bridge the gap.

(Zinsser’s speculation, though gripping, is in this case fanciful: no living organism could possibly survive the trauma of planetary entry – all Earth life is certainly Earth-originated, although the rest of his ruminations on the flickering boundaries between life and non-life are spot-on)

A hardy disease that thrives on squalor – it’s easy to see why typhus in all its various forms would have such a successful life among mankind. That it thrived even in comparatively modern times is well-known and deplorable; Zinsser extensively catalogs its domination of more ancient eras as well:

In earlier ages, pestilences were mysterious visitations, expressions of the wrath of higher powers which came out of a dark nowhere, pitiless, dreadful, and inescapable. In their terror and ignorance, men did the very things which increased death rates and aggravated calamity. They fled from towns and villages, but death mysteriously traveled along with them.

Centuries later, things have scarcely improved:

The Thirty Years’ War was the most gigantic experiment in epidemiology to which mankind has ever been subjected. Europe, as we have seen, was a spot map of constant small outbreaks of every conceivable infectious disease; and through this area, for a little over twenty-nine years, armies marched and countermarched, and disbanded soldiers, fugitives, and deserters vagabonded far and wide. Famines resulted and populations wandered in fugitive hordes toward food and protection. Wherever men traveled, disease followed them.

In a withering footnote, one of many swipes Zinsser takes at the carnage of the First World War, he writes:

Nature sets up her experiments of epidemiology in times of war and famine, and when, as in the wars of the late nineteenth and twentieth century, these dreadful experiments can be observed by a competent medical profession, much of value to mankind may be learned. It can well be said that nobody won the last war except the medical sciences. The profit was not worth the loss, but the increase in sanitary and medical knowledge was the sole determinable gain for mankind in an otherwise utterly disastrous catastrophe.

It’s precisely this tone, this perfect balance between the frustration of a scientist and the optimism of a humanist, that gives Rats, Lice and History its perennial appeal, and it’s a tone Zinsser maintains all the way to the book’s conclusion, which is caustic, cautionary, and celebratory all at the same time:

Typhus is not dead. It will live on for centuries, it it will continue to break into the open whenever human stupidity and brutality give it a chance, as most likely they occasionally will. But its freedom of action is being restricted, and more and more it will be confined, like other savage creatures, in the zoological gardens of controlled diseases.

The happy day Zinsser envisioned, when all strains of typhus would be safely confined in laboratories, is as far off today as it was when he first wrote his book; the diseases abound in the modern world, and several modern countries (most certainly including the United States) have toyed with the possibility of developing ‘weapons-grade’ typhus for use as a biological weapon (it has a satisfyingly high mortality rate if untreated, but it can’t readily be spread human-to-human). Sadly, the stupidity and brutality of humanity noted by Zinsser, also seem incapable of eradication. We can only hope a bell-note wonderful book like Rats, Lice and History survives as well, infecting everybody it touches.

August 1st, 2008

august in open letters!


Let the word go forth that the August 2008 issue of Open Letters Monthly is live and a thing of beauty! As usual, we have a bounty of intellectual goods on display, in a variety that will take your breath away! We have impressionable young freelancer Steve Brachmann telling you all about how Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage helped him steer his life through a rocky patch; we have Lianne Habinek exploring the relationship between legendary pianist Glenn Gould, his favorite piano, and the man who tried to keep them both in tune; we have Laura Tanenbaum reviewing a couple of new books about stupidity of the current American voter (not to be confused with those worshipful hordes in Oregon, as pictured above); Daniel Green takes us through James Wood’s criteria for what does and does not constitute good fiction (the blurb for Green’s piece refers to Wood as the world’s most influential critic, a happy exaggeration we here at Stevereads will magnanimously pass over in silence!); Greg Waldmann makes some mighty big objections to Robert Kagan’s mighty small new book; father and son freelance team Thurlow and Zack Truman relate the low point of Samuel Pepys’ career; far-flung correspondent Bartolomeo Piccolomini tells us all about the navigation of Christopher Columbus; King Henry VII gets his turn in the sun in “A Year with the Tudors.”

And this month Open Letters has something special for you all: the site’s founding editors, Sam Sacks, John Cotter, and yours truly, have each turned in a review of Evan Connell’s new collection of short stories, Lost in Uttar Pradesh. And true to Open Letters form, each of those pieces is not only a much broader look at Connell’s work than just one book, and each of them wonderfully reflects the stylistic tri-corner hat that is that founding trio: Sam’s is wonderfully dense with analysis of all the deeper issues, John’s is dancingly alert to the glories of the prose itself, and mine harps on a couple of minor points and then mostly talks about me. The three pieces together form an unprecedented tribute to one of America’s greatest living literary figures – if it doesn’t make you want to go out and read Evan S. Connell, nothing will!

Add to all that a poem by Matt Klane, a playful issue-photo by Sven Vorkmeister (and people say my pseudonyms are transparent …), and some eye-catching new graphics by Tom Hartley, and you have a literary confection fit for every aesthetic sweet tooth! So click on over and dig in – and as always, feel free to leave copious comments! Comments are the currency of the Web, and we’re always looking to add to our stash!

August 1st, 2008

The Panda’s Thumb

Our book today is The Panda’s Thumb, the 1980 collection of natural history essays by Stephen Jay Gould, who published them all originally in his “This View of Life” column for Natural History magazine, back when that publication was (largely due to his presence month after month) still worth reading.

Gould was an evolutionary biologist, an entomologist, an anthropological theorist, and, more than any of those things (and the half-dozen or so other interdisciplinary hats he wore from time to time), a natural-born teacher, able to summarize and jazzercise virtually any subject, no matter how abstruse, into eight or ten jaunty, inviting pages anybody on Earth would enjoy reading. This is not a trait often found in scientists, and it is not to be scorned (the ones who do scorn it, both inside and outside the scientific world, are invariably the ones who can’t do it, or who are too lily-livered to try). Given a small lead-time and no more reference-works than could be found in his overstuffed personal library, Gould could write an essay on, say, neotony, that you could not only hand to your fundamentalist grandmother but that would leave her wanting more. And he did it all amiably, without ever striking a strident note.

This last is all the more remarkable when viewed alongside his peers, some of whom could be very strident indeed. The mind naturally turns to Richard Dawkins, who shared an intellectually heated – and temporarily famous – exchange of letters with Gould in the pages of The New York Review of Books years ago – letters in which Gould comes off the better. Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ idea of gene-dominated evolutionary drives never met with much enthusiasm from Gould, as he writes at one point in The Panda’s Thumb:

Still, I find a fatal flaw in Dakwins’s attack from below. No matter how much power Dawkins wishes to assign to genes, there is one thing that he cannot give them – direct visibility to natural selection. Selection simply cannot see genes and pick among them directly. It must use bodies as an intermediary. A gene is a bit of DNA hidden within a cell. Selection views bodies. It favors some bodies because they are stronger, better insulated, earlier in their sexual maturation, fiercer in combat, or more beautiful to behold.

If, in favoring a stronger body, selection acted directly upon a gene for strength, then Dawkins might be vindicated. If bodies were unambiguous maps of their genes, then battling bits of DNA would display their color externally and selection might act upon them directly. But bodies are no such thing.

Gould will be known in the science-history books mainly as the co-creator (along with Niles Eldredge)(who, with a colleague like Gould, ought to legally change his first name to “along with”) of the idea of punctuated equilibrium: the concept that the process of evolution by natural selection is far from the stately, Lyellian progression tradition had made it out to be:

A new species can arise when a small segment of the ancestral population is isolated at the periphery of the ancestral range. Large, stable central populations exert a strong homogenizing influence. New and favorable mutations are diluted by the sheer bulk of the population through which they must spread. They must build slowly in frequency, but changing environments usually cancel their selective value long before they reach fixation. Thus, phyletic transformation in large populations should be very rare – as the fossil record proclaims.

Gradualism, the belief that all change must be smooth, slow, and steady, was never read from the rocks. It represented a common cultural bias, in part a response of nineteenth-century liberalism to a world in revolution. But it continues to color our supposedly objective reading of life’s history.

But the history of life, as I read it, is a series of stable states, punctuated at rare intervals by major events that occur with great rapidity and help to establish the next stable era. Prokaryotes ruled the earth for three billion years until the Cambrian explosion, when most major designs of multicellular life appeared within ten million years. Some 375 million years later, about half the families of invertebrates became extinct within a few million years. The earth’s history may be modelled as a series of occasional pulses, driving recalcitrant systems from one stable state to the next.


Gould’s essays (The Panda’s Thumb contains such classics as “Piltdown Revisited,” “Were Dinosaurs dumb?” and the glowingly inimitable “A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse”) dance happily from one subject to the next, as Gould’s own interests did (baseball and Gilbert & Sullivan get equal – and equally loving – attention). And always he returns to the big picture, the broader canvas on which the forces of evolution work and one which he tried to think (and succeeded more often than most mortals ever come close):

The best illustration of dinosaurian capability may well be the fact most often cited against them – their demise. Extinction, for most people, carries many of the connotations attributed to sex not so long ago – a rather disreputable business, frequent in occurence, but not to anyone’s credit, and certainly not to be discussed in proper circles. But, like sex, extinction is an ineluctable part of life. It is the ultimate fate of all species, not the lot of unfortunate and ill-designed creatures. It is no sign of failure.

The remarkable thing about dinosaurs is not that they became extinct but that they dominated the earth for so long. Dinosaurs held sway for 100 million years while mammals, all the while, lived as small animals in the interstices of their world. After 70 millions years on top, we mammals have an excellent track record and good prospects for the future, but we have yet to display the staying power of dinosaurs.

It’s not given to science-writers like Gould to have much staying power at all, and slowly, one by one, his many delightful titles will proceed out of print. But the books themselves will always lurk in the interstices, available for your curious mind. The man himself died in 2002, far too early, but echo of his many enthusiasms can be found in books like The Panda’s Thumb, from Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical.