A Review of “Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism”

I stumbled onto this book quite by accident, but it had a lot going for it fairly immediately. While I had not read Miller’s work on Daredevil, I, like most any other comics fan, had read (and come away with strong feelings about) his Batman retcon The Dark Knight Returns. That said, Daredevil has always been a favorite character of mine…indeed, the first comic that I ever seriously collected, although after Miller’s run…and so seeing what Miller had done with this character fascinated me.

I’ll preface everything else here by saying that, if this book grabs your attention at all (and you’ve likely stopped reading by now if it doesn’t), then you really should read the source material before reading Young’s analysis. I took the time to do so and it won’t take long….about five collected volumes of graphic novels, none difficult reads, an you’ll be up to date. Doing so gave me a great appreciation for Miller’s work in and of itself. I didn’t really appreciate just how influential his writing was on the character, nor how much of his influence shows up in the recent Netflix series. I particularly enjoyed Miller’s forward in one of these collections, in which he discusses that Daredevil had always fascinated him because, given his history, he should have been a villain, yet chose to be a hero.

Miller’s re-telling of Daredevil’s origin certainly takes a rocky road to get there, but I tend to agree.

This isn’t so much about Miller’s writing, though, as Young’s analysis of Miller’s writing. Young describes Daredevil here as the most Christian of superheroes, which piqued my theological interest. The rationale for this statement is that Daredevil’s focus is always on compassion  for the victim, rather than justice or revenge on the criminal. Within the confines that Daredevil inherently struggles by adhering to the rule of law while still acting as a vigilante, this is a fascinating take. Young also feels that the current Netflix series isn’t truthful to Daredevil as a character because it seems to focus him on seeking revenge. Again, insightful perspectives and criticisms.

There’s an interlude in the middle of the book that attempts to ground the the author’s thesis theologically, but it’s strange. The writing style becomes oddly introspective. That said, the writing style throughout the book is very conversational, and I found myself often wanting it to be more academic given the subject matter. The issue is that the writing is conversational to a fault, including foul language at times, and that detracts from the seriousness of the analysis. I get the motivation to make the topic more accessible to a wider number of readers…this is sort of a comics apologetic in places…but the book suffers for this choice overall.

Perhaps the best part of this book is that Young writes as much as historian as he does literary critic, giving a detailed look into how the comics industry functioned at the time that Miller began working on Daredevil. This was certainly informative for me…as much as I’ve always loved the medium, I had no clue as to these inner workings. We also learn how influential Miller was on the industry and how artists are treated therein, especially within Marvel Comics, which was an entertaining account.

I enjoyed Young outlining Miller’s work on making Bullseye a villain to be taken (very) seriously, as well as his creation of Elektra, whom, as any Daredevil fan knows, is integral to Matt Murdock’s story. Young also gives an insightful analysis of the artwork decisions on Miller’s run, and the intent conveyed in those panels, which I found intriguing.

In the end, the author lands where most critics have with Miller’s perceived artistic and social digression in recent years, but does so while still respecting his contributions both to the character of Daredevil and to the medium of comics in general. If you’re a comics fan, and certainly if you’re as much a fan of Daredevil as I am, then this book is a must-read.

A Review of “Ethel and Ernest”

I found Ethel and Ernest waiting for me one evening on my nightstand. This is the home of my “to-read stack,” or at least the non-digital incarnations in my to-read list. This small volume had been laid to the side…not inserting itself onto the top of the stack, but rather existing as a suggestion off to the right. Initially thinking this was a book for our daughter’s reading lessons, I passed it by. Then Karen told me that she had checked it out from our library, and that I really should read it.

Opening its pages and discovering it to be a graphic novel intrigued me, so I allowed it to skip ahead of others on the list and read it next. I am unbelievably glad that I did.

Ethel and Ernest is an artist’s recollection of his parents…the story of their lives told as he remembers and has pieced it together. One reviewer called it a “love story,” and that phrase resonates as I have found myself thinking about the book…unpacking it, journaling through its impact on my life, an impact disproportionate to its small size.

We initially encounter Ethel and Ernest as they meet and fall in love in 1920’s London. We watch them work through their relationship as the world goes to war, the horrors of what was faced as they sent their son away to the country to be safe, the stories we’ve all read in history books taking on a completely new depth when we witness how it played out in the lives of this ordinary couple. We watch them become lost in the pace of industrial and technological change, loving the new conveniences (she cannot believe how fast the washing machine gets their clothes clean) while grappling with the enormity of how their lives are altered by them. I adore the scene in which they buy a car and go riding down the street, in disbelief that they could afford such luxury.

We walk through their remembering their early romance later in life, watch them struggle with the alienation from their son (the author of the book) as they struggle to adapt to the things that he just accepts.

I feel as though I know Ethel and Ernest now, like I’ve met them. I feel like I know how they tried their best as life rushed by, how they found ways to cope with their profound political disagreements. Perhaps this is inevitable with such a work, whether it’s Brigg’s intention or not, but I can’t help but see my own parents here. They still sit in the same house in which I grew up, and I can picture them waiting for their son to visit or call, uncertain at times of how to adapt to a world that is merciless in the speed with which it changes.

I can hear Brigg’s sorrow at his frustration with them. I can feel my own love for my daughter as I watch  Earnest’s affection for his son. In short, I see that I have so much connecting me…all of us…with Ethel and Ernest, because their lives were ordinary, albeit lived in extraordinary times. Any of us can, and likely will, live through very similar struggles and triumphs.

I think that is why I fought back tears over Earnest’s loneliness in the end.

Brigg’s remorse over his broken relationship with his parents is never explicitly stated, but is an unmistakeable through-line, palpably felt in the jagged speech bubbles and the stark lines of his drawings of himself,  making the reader painfully aware of his disproportionate responses. Ethel, always seeing their family as proper and never “common,” persists in offering him a comb whenever they see each other, which we see as adorable but which was a source of much friction in their relationship. I think that she just wanted to take care of him in a manner of which she was deprived by the war. Later, he accepts the comb, no longer feeling judged, some peace made before the end, before Ethel and Ernest pass away alone and in the cruelest of circumstances after giving their life together everything.

I see so much of not only my parents in them, but also of Karen and I. I wonder how our daughters will remember our lives when we are gone.

In the end, we find the author and his wife looking at the house which Ethel and Ernest bought together. He states with some wonder that they lived in the same house for 40 years and never moved. That home becomes a metaphor for Ethel and Ernest’s devotion to each other. The horrors that they witnessed, the turmoil through which they lived, made them stronger, more resilient in their commitment to their marriage and to their son. They stayed together until the end in a way that I hope to, and were stronger for it.

This achievement alone, if it can be replicated, can be called a successful life.

This little graphic novel carries so much weight. I am not the same as before I read it. I do not treat my relationships the same, I do not view our world the same. Neither, I suspect, will you. I am so glad that Briggs has given us the chance to become acquainted with Ethel and Ernest.

I encourage you to take the opportunity.

A Review of “Jennifer Government”

Jennifer GovernmentI had marked another of Barry’s novels to read some time ago and never gotten around to it, and the premise of this book was even more compelling. I’m generally a fan of dystopian science fiction, though, so this was almost guaranteed to be an enjoyable read. Still Jennifer Government provides a compelling…and extremely timely…story.

The setting is a near future in which America has overtaken a number of other countries and thus spread the dominance of a handful of major corporations through most of the world. Taxes in American countries are no more, and an impotent government that relies on fundraising struggles to police the law against corporate forces, such as the ubiquitous NRA, which have the freedom to do whatever they like in pursuit of profit, including murder. In this future, people are born with no last names. Their identity is entirely associated with the corporation for which they work, and they take on the company’s name as their last name upon employment. Children take on the last name of the corporation sponsoring the school which they attend. Being un-employed, or self-employed, leaves one with no name, no identity. One’s life is entirely dependent upon being consumed by a corporation.

I should point out that, while dystopian, this is a comedy, and Barry’s dry wit is present throughout the story. Characters, such as Billy NRA, find themselves in outright hysterical situations that leave the reader laughing while unable to escape the nagging through-line woven into the setting of every scene.

Not that the through-line is at all subtle. And, as comedic are the scenarios in which our characters find themselves, the development and internal lives of the characters are often flat, and certainly secondary to the story. The point of this novel isn’t the characters, nor is it so much the plot, but rather the world which is its setting, and, while this sounds as though it would be completely dysfunctional and without any chance of working, it keeps the reader turning the pages with a surprising amount of engagement.

Barry’s writing style is quick, overly abrupt in places, and this is one of the most prominent criticisms that I’ve read in other reviews. As this is the first of his work that I’ve read, I can’t speak to whether or not this is his writing style, but it seems as though it’s a device in itself to place the reader into this comically frightening world.

Many would discard this novel as an anti-capitalist diatribe, but doing so misses something deeper going on here. The future in which Barry places his reader is one in which there is no room for thinking against conventional wisdom. Critical thought has been over-run by marketing. Taking time to think, or to live or care for one’s loved ones, means that one is not being productive in one’s employment. Propaganda rules, and different ways of thinking are not tolerated. In its absolute freedom, society has paradoxically given up its soul.

This is a light and quick read, but one that will continue stay present in your mind, and in your perception, in troubling ways long after you’ve finished laughing your way through its pages. Considering the climate in which we live, the setting of this novel, which becomes its own character in many ways, is a warning not only of what is to come, but of what has already arrived. While a bit heavy-handed at times, this is still a worthwhile read for anyone who would like to have their thoughts provoked.

Jennifer Government by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Review of “The Clockwork Dagger”

I knew next to nothing about steampunk, other than the fact that it attracts a devoted following and looks like a really interesting genre. I wasn’t even completely certain how attracted I would be once I truly explored it, but, finding the visual aesthetic appealing in the handful of films I’ve watched, and the conventions that some friends attend, I wanted to explore what steampunk was like on the printed page, how it played out in deeper story-telling. The Clockwork Dagger seemed a popular choice, so I decided to make it my entry point.

This is Beth Cato’s first full-length novel, and we all know that first novels deserve a certain understanding in some areas. Many authors are still finding their voice with that first publication, and so some faults are to be expected. That said, I was impressed with how strongly our protagonist, Octavia Leander’s, voice came through. I could hear this character speaking clearly on the first page, the cadences and tone of her voice clear in my perception, and growing clearer with each chapter. I’m quite impressed with how Cato developed Leander through the course of these 200 + pages, and I felt that I had met a character that I truly knew by the time I closed the book. The other primary characters receive an equally just treatment..all are developed thoroughly and carefully. Occasionally, a piece of reflective or introspective dialogue felt forced, but this was rare, and ultimately never broke my suspension of disbelief. The greatest strength of Cato’s writing in this debut is the care with which she permits her characters to come to life. This is accomplished in no small regard due to her handling of the language, which is clever and inventive, merging well a period piece and modern language as seems a requirement for this genre.

Second would be the world-building. This novel is as steampunk as they come. We’re introduced to a nice balance of Victorian dialogue, whirring machinations and inventions, magical spells and curses, and a mystery playing out aboard a dirigible. I was surprised by the magical components of the book…surprised in a good way. It’s just that I hadn’t really known how much a part of steampunk that magic is, but there you have it…this was a part of my education. I’m actually surprised with the depth of complexity that Cato captures in this world, given that the novel is relatively concise in length, but every nuance of the political structure, the economic issues between nations, and an industrial revolution run amok in war are designed with each detail considered and completely working. The warring nations and corrupt leadership form a fascinating backdrop to the story, without becoming overly didactic in their metaphor.

What Cato tackles head-on in this work is the seeming conflict between faith and science.

Octavia Leander, you see, is a medician…a healer who understands the natural ways to heal that the earth provides, as well as possessing magical means of mending broken people. More than this, these magical abilities are derived from a religious faith, a faith in the Lady and her Tree. Legend holds that the Lady received her power after asking God for the ability to heal more people, and the medicians follower her order. Octavia is ridiculed by many who trust in the rapid new technological developments of the age, yet her abilities cannot be questioned. She is a gifted healer, perhaps the most gifted known in recent memory, and it is for this reason that she is hunted. Most simply end up accepting her abilities with some awe, while concluding that such a path is not for them, thus walking away and attempting to reconcile the visible effects of an unseen faith with the measurable, quantifiable and tactile world of technological advances around them. That reconciliation seems to occur on mostly a surface level, never delved into too deeply…just as in our culture today. I think that this faith in a more ancient knowledge is the thesis of the novel, and what I especially appreciate is that Cato handles it adeptly without ever leaving the reader groaning or resentful. She never develops this into any sort of theology. She is content with the imagery that she is presenting, and it does its job well.

There’s a romantic sub-plot that the book could simply live without. Each development in this regard feels forced and un-natural, and, on the rare occasions in which I did feel that something was out of place, it was in those moments. That said, I have no interest (and barely any tolerance) for the romantic genre, so this could just be my own clouded perceptions, and I’m willing to own that.

The ending feels a bit…stretched…but not to a point in which I feel anything is lost. Simply, proportions of things seem to become very large and epic very quickly, an abrupt step from the heavily interpersonal plot that Cato has developed up to that point. I think that it would have worked better with a bit more transition, but, while trying to avoid spoilers, I’ll say that this could also be seen as a device to further her emphasis on the power of faith.

I expected steampunk to be a bit of escapism, as it has always felt a bit whimsical in my previous (brief) experiences. I certainly didn’t expect it to deal with something deeper and thought-provoking, but I was pleasantly surprised here. I’m certain that, if you’re already a fan, this is already on your list or on your shelf. If, like me, you’re just exploring what this whole thing is all about, then this is a good first read…the kind of novel that stays with for a bit after you’ve finished. I think Cato’s future works will get better, but I’m glad that I’ve met Octavia Leander.

A Review of “Superman / Wonder Woman, Volume 1: Power Couple”

Superman/Wonder Woman, Vol. 1: Power Couple (Superman / Wonder Woman, #1)Superman/Wonder Woman, Vol. 1: Power Couple by Charles Soule

This graphic novel collects the first 7 issues of this story arc, which is one that I haven’t managed to follow in the New 52. I knew of it’s implications, of course…it’s difficult to read anything current in the DC Universe and not know of this romance of titans, but I wanted to finally delve into the story and see for myself.

First, I’ll say that I’ve read reviews and heard strong opinions on whether or not this is sensationalist storytelling on DC’s part to put Superman and Wonder Woman together as a couple. I also have reservations about this, but I’m not reviewing that editorial decision. That is what it is, and there’s no point in reading any review of this collection if you disagree with the plot so entirely.

That said, the writing in these issues is strong. I really haven’t read Soule’s work until this, and I’m impressed with the way he crafts his dialogue. These are two of the most primary characters in the DC Universe…no small undertaking to handle on the page, and he does so deftly. What is actually quite fascinating about the romantic concept here is how both characters are developed in ways that we didn’t see coming. Superman’s desire to maintain a dual identity is as much for the protection of his emotional well being as it is for the protection of those he loves here…and Wonder Woman sees this as a weakness that she has difficulty reconciling. Both struggle to balance the selflessness of their role to protect their world with the very human selfishness of wanting to be happy with someone else. In doing so, Soule is wrestling with the role of the hero, the failings that come from the humanity of the heroes viewed by the public as gods among us, and the heightened repercussions of their choices. As Wonder Woman frets over the tragedy that inevitably befalls the hero, Batman chastises Superman:

“You two have a spat, and the world burns? How can you not be aware of the stakes of what you’re doing?”

I appreciate how Wonder Woman, particularly, is handled in this collection. After her strong start in the New 52, I was worried that she would be overly romanticized or weakened here. I’m glad that quite the opposite is true. We feel her trepidation and insecurities surrounding their relationship…the vulnerabilities that any of us have when being involved with someone. Yet, she is still the adept warrior who needs no help from Superman, and in fact arrives to save him in a critical moment. Both are recognized as the most powerful heroes on the planet, a just due that is all too easily missed when writing Wonder Woman.

I can also say that, for the first time, I felt that I truly heard Diana’s voice in Soule’s writing.

Unfortunately, what Soule does so beautifully with dialogue and character development, he misses in overall plot. The storyline of battling escaped Kryptonians bent of world destruction is merely a forgettable vehicle with which to convey the larger issues presented here, and the climactic fight scene feels dismissive and bordering on unbelievable.

I was a fan of Daniel’s artwork in the Justice League, and he performs just as well here for the most part. He’s a bit more inconsistent in these pages, however, particularly in facial expressions, which leave especially our protagonists looking oddly unfamiliar in several panels.

I respect what DC’s trying to do here, and the way in which they are exploring the characters. There is quite a bit within these pages that is thought provoking, and indicative of the angst with which we see heroes in the “real world” today. I wish that a more thorough plot had been used to convey this adventure, as the final pages fell quite flat and were disappointing. Overall, this concept is off to a good start, but has much room to improve.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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