The Review: Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Alan Moore and Curt Swan

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
Alan Moore and Curt Swan
DC Comics, 128 pp

Reviewed by University of Toronto Bookstore Staff, James Bell

Soon students will be returning to university campuses across the country in pursuit of degrees in English literature, and some of them will be taking courses dedicated to a subject that not many years ago wasn’t acknowledged as appropriate for study, let alone a serious art form.  In fact, being caught reading it would have been an embarrassment, a sign that the student hadn’t outgrown childish pursuits, and indicative of a level of immaturity that would have called into serious question whether the student should even be attending an institute of higher learning.  Cries of “Nerd!” or “Geek!” would have rained down upon them without mercy or apology.

Professors and their students will say they’re studying graphic novels, but often they’re really reading comic books.  The “graphic novel” rose out of the comic book tradition, but as a designation it has a complicated history.  It is often a term used to add a patina of respectability to a story that is clearly a comic.  Chris Wares’ Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is a graphic novel, and so is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: they were written as complete stories, meant for the form in which they exist.  Dave Sim’s Cerebus “phone book” compilations are collected comic books.  So is Watchmen, the comic book that everyone loves, as long as they can call it a graphic novel and elevate it to the status of “literature”, because then it’s safe to study it in a way that’s still not possible with mere comic books.

Let me state unequivocally that I’m a huge fan of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and that it was a revelation to me when I read it at age 15 in 1986–month by month, eagerly awaiting the release of the next issue.  That’s how I read it, and I still have every issue, prized possessions amongst more than a thousand other comic books (pared down to just the essentials from close to two thousand–some comics, after all, don’t stand the test of time).  It’s because I read so many superhero comics that Watchmen means so much to me: the themes, rituals, and cliches of the superhero comic were embedded deep within me, just as they were with Moore himself, so that his deconstruction of them was, for me, a coming-of-age that marked a passage from childish pleasures to adult understanding.  I often wonder how much people who never grew up reading superhero comics can appreciate Watchmen or, when I’m being more generous, how their appreciation of it differs from mine.

But that sublime story, almost twenty-five years old (has it really been that long? Am I really that old?) has overshadowed the other work Moore has done in comics over the years, and people should understand that however much of an innovator and iconoclast Moore has been, most of his work has been within the comic book medium.  And as much as he was capable of writing extended story lines that played out over years in comic books like Swamp Thing and Miracleman (both of which I will proselytize about given even the slightest encouragement, so beware) he was also great at writing concise, brilliant single issues of a mere twenty pages.

“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” is an example (this compilation includes that story as well as two stand-alone stories written by Moore).  For reasons too complicated to go into here, but in part due to the seismic changes taking place in comic books thanks to creators like Frank Miller and Moore himself, in the mid-1980s Superman, the literal grandfather of all superheroes, was facing an overhaul.  A new creative team would be taking over, introducing changes in an attempt to make Superman more “relevant”.  Superman, unleashed on the world in 1938, had a lot of history, and the new team would be scrapping much of it and starting with a clean slate.  Thankfully, someone at DC Comics had the brilliant idea of revisiting that soon-to-be-dismissed history one last time, and the even more brilliant idea of allowing Alan Moore to write it.

Moore perfectly encapsulates the history of an icon, his friends, and his enemies, stories that had played out month-by-month for almost fifty years, in less than sixty pages.  He allows the reader to revisit the characters who had become so familiar, so much a part of our lives, in a way that honours the past, and yet acknowledges the changes to come.  The reader is surrounded by the markers of more innocent times while witnessing their destruction.  The genius of Alan Moore is that, given the opportunity to revel in the past, to lose himself and his readers in youthful nostalgia, he also finds a way to speak to very adult concerns.  Moore doesn’t transcend the genre of comic books; he elevates it by his presence.  And that’s why students will be studying his work this semester, and for years to come.  Watchmen may be the pinnacle of Moore’s career, but perhaps some brave professor will add Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? to the reading list.

Buy Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow Now!

The Review: Angel Time, Anne Rice

Angel Time
By Anne RiceThe Review:  Angel Time, Anne Rice
ISBN: 978-0-676-97808-7
Random House

Reviewed by University of Toronto Bookstore Staff, Ceri Nelmes

In Angel Time, Anne Rice moves beyond the despairingly dark vampires, witches, and beauty protagonists that we’ve come to expect from her and portrays a deeply troubled and soulless contract assassin named Toby O’Dare.  In the first half of the novel, Toby is forced to reinvent himself after his abysmal teenagehood comes abruptly to a tragic halt.  Unknowingly searching for a purpose, love, and acceptance, Toby finds a Father Figure – something he’s never had before.  When injustice strikes Toby initiates a protective battle for what is right, commits the ultimate sin, and soon becomes a contract assassin.

Before the end of the first half of the book a skeptical Toby meets a seraph, Malchiah, who has a mission for him.  After the angel convinces him that he is a messenger from God, Toby’s work transforms into a quest to save lives instead of end them.  His first task is to save a 13th Century Jewish couple accused of ritual murder. In order to do so he is transported back in time by Angel Time and must attempt to end conflict in the town of Norwich.

Part two is a struggle for rightness in a cast of would-be martyrs . The landscape in England surrounds an accused “sinner” couple who are choked by thorns of religious difference and familial expectations.  Fluria and Muir are accused of a child’s ritual murder which, in an attempt to find justice, creates a tumultuous and festering witch hunt.  Enter the town Friar, the lawman, the woman and her child who have brought forth the accusations, the loving-but-zealous Grandfather, and numerous other characters who believe that what they are doing what is right.

Toby grows while he watches beautiful yet equally festered humanity play out. Almost all of the main characters lie to suit their purpose and, surprisingly, we are left somewhat relieved. The puritanical go against everything they believe in and lie when put on trial in order to save lives.  Seeing this, Toby struggles with his former self and the demons that continually beat him. He forgives himself, just as he was righteously forgiven by God, proving that one good deed vanquishes all of your past deeds as long as you are genuine in your request.

The events during Toby’s perilous mission affect his own tangled web of emotions.  Toby’s childhood, choice of career, and the resulting struggle is heart wrenching. Although he embodies the traits of a stereotypical killer, we sympathize with him despite ourselves because we know how addiction and selfishness stole his childhood.

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The Review: Holding Still for as Long as Possible, Zoe Whittall

Holding Still for as Long as Possible
The Review:  Holding Still for as Long as Possible, Zoe WhittallBy Zoe Whitall
Harper Collins
Reviewed by University of Toronto Bookstore Staff, Anne Burbidge

It’s hard to conceive of a more dramatic story line than that of a year in the life of a young paramedic in Toronto.  In Holding Still for as Long as Possible, Zoe Whittall follows in the great footsteps of Vincent Lam and writes about the journey of medical professionals in Canada. Lam’s Giller Prize winning Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, is a collection of inter-related stories about the lives of doctors, many of which are also set in Toronto. Whittall takes this kind of fiction — complete with medical jargon — one step further and examines themes of love, loss and death.

 Just as she did in her very successful first novel, Bottle Rocket Hearts, Whittall creates characters who are both memorable as fictional beings, but who are also very real in their responses to challenges. In order to deal with his relationship issues, Josh, a gifted paramedic and transsexual, relies on texting on his cell phone to weather all manner of storms.  Amy, a filmmaker and Josh’s longtime date, uses email to reconnect with a lost love and her bike to find a measure of freedom.

Reading about and beginning to understand the drama faced by paramedics is enlightening and, as Whittall observes, many of our “petty” problems are put into perspective. She argues that producing art is also a “fight against. . . death”, a fight that is perhaps as important as the job of first responders. This creativity also can provide comic relief as in the case of former teen pop starlet Billy’s songwriting ability (“My Little Pony Ran Away”.) Along the way, plot lines take us to cultural hubs like 401 Richmond Street West and “that bookstore” on Harbord.  Like a seasoned paramedic of the soul, Whittall cares for the vitality of her readers in an incomparably fearless fashion.

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The Review: The Humbling, Philip Roth

The HumblingPhilip Roth, The Humbling

By Phillip Roth
ISBN: 978-0-670-06971-2

Reviewed by U of T Bookstore Staff, Michael Emery

Pulitzer Prize winning author Phillip Roth’s thirtieth book, The Humbling contains many themes familiar to his readers. This new novella is preoccupied with the misery of old age and the entropy of a declining existence. It is a fast-paced, bleak but entertaining book about the catastrophe of a famous stage and film-actor, Simon Axler, who suffers a breakdown in his sixties. After back-to-back runs of butchered performances of Prospero and Macbeth, Axler no longer “inhabits” roles “making the imagined real” but begins “thinking about everything, and everything spontaneous and vital was killed. … His talent was dead.”

Unable to perform and suffering from actor’s block, Axler is driven to thoughts of “the role that you write for yourself.”  His wife leaves him and, unable to carry out his own finale, he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital. Roth introduces Axler to patients that are more like character actors who are “rehearsing…the ancient themes of dramatic literature: incest, betrayal, injustice, cruelty, vengeance, jealously, rivalry, desire, loss, dishonor, grief”.

Eventually Axler leaves the hospital and retreats to his farmhouse in upstate New York where he spies a possum at the end of its life and deems it “nature’s little caricature of him.” The possum builds a cave in the snow where it will die, and is last seen stuffing a cold last meal of snow into its mouth.

Axler’s solitude is broken by a visit from Pegeen Stapleford, a middle-aged lesbian daughter of theatrical friends from his past. What begins with the offer of a glass of water leads, surprisingly, to an unusual affair complete with nights of whips and green strap-on dildo. It would put a lascivious gaze upon the god Pan’s face.

The relationships in the book are truly performances. At first, Pegeen dresses like a sixteen-year-old boy but both of them agree that she must “become a heterosexual female.” Axler redresses her and attempts to create a “woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want.” Pegeen’s ex-girlfriend took hormone injections and decided to become a man, and when Pegeen dons her strap-on dildo, Axler thinks of it as a “mask of her genitals” like some sexual shaman’s tools, performing on others. Eventually Axler performs, as a player, when, drunkenly, he encourages Pegeen to pick up a woman at a bar, and they hurry her back home for a menage a trois.

Axler dreams of a future life with Pegeen, in which he speaks with a doctor to see if a sixty-five-year old can have still children, but returns to reality and realizes that there is no chance for a new life as he is “a lesbian’s 13-month mistake.”

Through another sub-plot that takes place at the psychiatric hospital, the reader is able to see Axler as a compassionate and caring person. This depiction allows us to both follow Axler through his own humbling, and fully appreciate Roth’s message: that no matter what the talent wealth or quality, there is always a humbling achieved through old age and finally, through death.

The Humbling is an unsettling book that will linger after being read.

Get the book now!