Thursday, February 16, 2023



These past few years, through the Covid pandemic, I've found myself retreating into nostalgia, reading old comic books, playing classic video games, watching comfort movies, and not only has it been a salve for this upended time, but it has also been greatly enjoyable. But there was one experience with which my childhood had been filled that I'd forgotten about: reading trashy sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks. Our family trip to Disney provided a prime opportunity to alleviate that oversight, and it didn't hurt that I'd gone on an online "shopping spree" to find the original Star Wars extended universe books by the likes of L. Neil Smith, Alan Dean Foster, and Brian Daley. 

Han Solo at Stars' End is the first in the Han Solo trilogy (OG style). Written by Daley, who also adapted the original Star Wars films for radio, this book was way more fun than I expected it to be. Daley's prose was light and airy, whisking along at a good clip, while also providing descriptions that felt both familiar and alien at the same time. I'm uncertain when this story is supposed to take place, though I would guess it's prior to Han & Chewie hooking up with Obi-Wan, Luke, and the Rebellion, as we get no mention of anything relating to the first film. A wise decision, as it allows Daley to be untethered from continuity and not have to second-guess any of his writing choices. 

If we don't get any of the other characters we love from Star Wars, we do at least get the familiar in Han Solo and Chewbacca, with characterizations that feel right. Daley also provides a lot of information about the Falcon, commenting at length on the modifications hinted at by Han in that first film, and they all feel plausible and in keeping with what we already know of Han. One of the things I did not expect to get, in reading this book, was new, pertinent information about one of my favorite ships in all of science fiction. More importantly, though, it is these modifications that are vital to the plot of the story. 

While finishing up a job for one scoundrel, Han is informed that, due to new regulations from the Corporate Sector Authority, he will need to have the Millennium Falcon examined and a waiver provided, in order for it to be allowed to fly within Corporate Sector Authority space -- safety precautions and all that, don'tcha know? Han knows he'll never get the waiver, and he and Chewie break the Falcon out of impoundment and fly for a black market technician Han knows, who goes by Doc, in order to get the Falcon tuned along with procuring paperwork that will make it look as if the Falcon has the necessary waiver. After arrival, though, Han & Chewie learn from Doc's daughter, Jessa, that he's been kidnapped, and they have no idea where he is. 

A deal is made. Jessa will provide the paperwork and do repairs on the Falcon if Han will transport two droids to Orron III, within Corporate Authority space, and exfiltrate a small band of individuals from the planet, which also houses one of the Authority's data centers. The droids are going to insinuate themselves into the Authority's data banks and work to find where Doc, and the many others who have been taken, are being held. Han doesn't like the odds, or the idea of returning to a main hub in Authority space, but he has no choice and agrees. 

When Han & Chewie arrive at Orron III, we are introduced to the first black character in Star Wars history, as far as I can tell, as Rekkon greets them. He is the leader of the band of people trying to leave the planet, but he also has the problem of a mole within his group, and he wants Han to assist in finding who that is. They go into the city and the robots infiltrate the system, not only finding the information they need but also discovering that the security police are aware of their presence in the data center. The group, including the other members of Rekkon's cadre, flee, but in the ensuing chase and firefight Chewbacca is taken prisoner. Rekkon stops Han from sacrificing himself in a vain attempt to rescue his friend, an attempt that could only have ended in his death and possibly the wookiee's. 

They clamber into the falcon, still camouflaged within the core of a huge space freighter, and take off, but the Authority has a dreadnaught waiting in orbit, which goes to intercept them. Han releases the grain in the freighter then detaches the Falcon from within its hull and blasts away, letting the freighter fall into the Authority ship, allowing them to escape. But when Han is finally able to leave the cockpit, he finds Rekkon dead. Killed by the traitor, who is still on his ship. But Rekkon left a message, in his own blood, of where the Authority is holding all those they have kidnapped: Stars' End, Mytus VII. 

Han sets a trap with disinformation about what Rekkon discovered and susses out who the traitor is. A fight ensues, but Han eventually gets the upper hand. The traitor, Torm, seeks refuge in one of the Falcon's compartments. But it is an emergency airlock. Han ejects him into the cold of space, then turns his attention to Stars' End and saving Chewie. 

Stars' End is a detention facility, run by an autocratic Vice President named Hirken. Han intercepts a communication from the entertainers' guild about a cancellation by a troupe scheduled to offer their services to Stars' End, but they assured the V.P. that a replacement will be sent along as soon as possible. Han and his new companions use this as a way in and pass themselves off as entertainers. 

Of course, things do not go as smoothly as Han would have hoped (but if things went smoothly, he wouldn't be Han Solo, would he?). The Vice President expected a combat robot to go against his own gladiator-bot. The robots in Han's keeping are not at all outfitted for such an experience, but they go along with it. 

Han manages to get into the main computer area and discovers, or intuits, where the prisoners are being held. Meanwhile, V.P. Hirken becomes irritated at the stalling tactics of Han's companions and demands combat between the droids. It goes surprisingly well for the labor droid Han brought along, but eventually the truth -- as much as necessary -- is revealed and things go from bad to worse. It's exciting and tense, but in the end Han Solo manages to free all of the prisoners, finding Chewie and Doc, while his companions find their loved ones, and they manage to escape in the Falcon after setting the detention center to self-destruct, leaving Vice President Hirken and his entourage to perish on Stars' End. 

I may have said it above, but I was surprised at how much I truly enjoyed reading this. Daley wrote a fun, exciting, tense adventure that allowed me to immerse myself into the world of Star Wars that I love so much. There was no overwriting, no dull points, no out of character moments. I loved it all, along with the opportunity to once again stick my nose into a weathered, yellowing paperback book. What a fun experience! 


Friday, February 10, 2023

My favorite run of Daredevil

Frank Miller defined Daredevil. . .

. . . and with Mazzucchelli broke him down and redefined him. 

Kevin Smith revived him. 

Mark Waid, arguably, did the same. 

Seminal runs, all. 

That stated, my favorite run on Daredevil was by Ann Nocenti, John Romita, Jr., and Al Williamson: issues 250-282. There's a fair bit of nostalgia attached to that run -- this was early in my time as a comic reader/collector and shortly after the point where I started buying Daredevil regularly -- but, for me, this run stands the test of time and is a collection of comics that I can return to and enjoy, without fail. I love this run! 

But what is it about this run that stands out for me? (Especially, as I learned on a recent episode of CGS, when there is an apparent backlash against it from DD fans). 


First and foremost, the art from JRJr & Williamson really stands out in this run of comics. I am a fan of Romita Jr. -- especially when he's drawing Spider-Man . . . or ol' Hornhead -- and his dynamism is on full display in these comics. Williamson, a classic comic artist in his own right, adds another dimension to Romita Jr.'s art. Williamson's slick linework softens the characters, while also adding more depth to the imagery through his use of blacks. It's a matter of two artists I love collaborating to craft artwork that is beyond what either have done on their own. There's a litheness to the figure of Daredevil that comes from Williamson's inks, while still retaining the physicality epitomized by Romita Jr.'s pencils. 

This art team also innovates: delineating new characters like Number Nine, Bullet, Blackheart, and most notably, Typhoid Mary, while also crafting a Mephisto the likes of which had never seen, before or since. The excess bulk of Mephisto, as drawn by Romita Jr. & Williamson, with a face unrecognizable to what readers were accustomed, and stringy hair(?) cascading from his head and arms, is overwhelming and otherworldly, befitting the demon lord of Hell in the Marvel universe. The grotesqueness of this iteration of Mephisto adds to the unsettled feeling we, as readers, should experience whenever this character enters a story. It's inspired and ugly and wonderful, all at once. 

Equally important to me in this run is the writing of Ann Nocenti. Nocenti followed the classic (and my all-time favorite superhero story) "Born Again," by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli. She smartly opted to take the character in a different direction, getting back to DD's superheroic roots, rather than trying to play in the noir setting that Miller, with the likes of Klaus Janson & Mazzucchelli, so artfully exploited. It was a wise decision on Nocenti's part, which does not mean it's all spandex, purple-and-green clad villains, and biff, bam, pow! Nocenti is anything but a safe, traditional comic creator. 

Nocenti brings a quirky sensibility to everything she writes, and being someone who entered comics from outside the field, she was not hampered by a decades-long reverence to these heroes, like many of the fans turned creators have. Nocenti infused her run on Daredevil with social commentary, tackling gun violence and sexism, while also creating characters like Blackheart and Typhoid Mary. She utilized the Inhumans -- lesser-known ones, Gorgon and Karnak -- as companions for Daredevil, as she took him out of New York, putting even more distance between her run and previous iterations of the character. There are some wonderful stories during DD's road trip, and in the end he finds he must confront Mephisto in the demon's realm, as the lord of Hell and his lackey, Blackheart, have been harassing and haranguing Daredevil throughout much of this run. Daredevil descends to Hell and battles hordes of demons, trying to keep alit the torch he has carried through the snows unleashed by Mephisto. DD laments what his life is, "endless fighting," and wonders if he can change. He asks himself: "What if I just stopped? If I just stopped fighting. If you stop fighting, isn't the fight over?" This sequence emblazoned this Daredevil run on my heart as a favorite, and it has only risen, in my estimation, through the years. 

Oh, and he also gets a helping hand from the Silver Surfer, with Nocenti doing her best Matt Fraction captions years before Fraction was lauded for his quick, sharp descriptive phrases. Just glorious!

This run was unconventional, even while returning DD to his roots as a superhero, with engaging characters, influences from outside of comics, and lovely art that hit me at just the right time in my comic-reading life. And it is a run that I have enjoyed many times since. It's the quirkiness -- grounded in good writing and good character work, along with character defining art from Romita Jr. & Williamson -- that appeals to me most about this collection of issues. 

They're fantastic!
Or amazing!
Or, possibly, uncanny!
Regardless, I think they're great. 


Thursday, February 9, 2023

Books I've Read: WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel


So, I made a plan to write about the books I've read -- part synopsis, part analysis . . . though mostly synopsis -- as a way not only to add to this tired blog, but also for me to remember what I have read. And then, I dropped the ball. 

though, to be fair, I only dropped it for a moment, relatively and metaphorically speaking. but who cares, let's get to it!

WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel. 

Part one of an historical trilogy, the first two books adapted by BBC Masterpiece, this one winner of the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award . . . this book is masterful! Was I ever blown away reading this! It was pure joy. And just because it earned critical accolades was no guarantee I would enjoy it. Art is subjective, and though I loved the adaptation of LONESOME DOVE and that source material won a Pulitzer, I found reading the original novel a slog. But I digress. 

Wolf Hall follows the meteoric rise of a mere blacksmith's son, Thomas Cromwell, as he becomes the closest advisor to King Henry VIII, in early 1500s England. As noted by many, Mantel offers a fictionalized, sympathetic picture of Cromwell. And I don't care in the least. His characterization is all the more engaging for this. Put forth as a quiet, unassuming man, self-taught in various disciplines and multiple languages, who has traveled abroad and returned to England a lawyer, Cromwell utilizes his ability to fade into shadows to watch everyone and everything, as he plans how to rise through society, while keeping the facade of a simple man living only to serve. 

Gaining entry to the inner political workings of England through his loyal service to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, which also puts him at odds with Thomas More ("Half the world is named Thomas" is one of the lines from Cromwell that brought a smile to my face and has stayed with me since completing the novel), this innocuous man continually confounds those who have lived ever with titles and power and money. Cromwell, in this telling, was born to a blacksmith who was a drunkard and beat young Tom senseless many a time, until Tom left to seek something, anything better. This early abuse steeled the boy who would become the man behind many of the machinations that would endear him to his King, Henry VIII. And even when his patron, Wolsey, finds himself on the wrong side of the king's wrath and eventually dies, Cromwell somehow comes out of this without it hurting him, socially. 

Returning to a thread I lost two paragraphs up (these posts are off-the-cuff, so forgive me if it feels disjointed; there are only 3 of you reading this, anyway, so you can message me if clarification is necessary), it's the quiet strength of Cromwell that I find so intriguing. He rarely raises his voice, hardly ever shows emotion, gliding through the narrative like a shadow, and yet, everything revolves around him. It's a fascinating approach by Mantel. This also makes for a good counterpoint to many of the other characters in Cromwell's orbit -- the boisterous privilege of Henry, the arrogance of Thomas More, the knife-edged ambition of Anne Boleyn, all of them are more animated, more intense, more raucous than Cromwell, and yet, like the running water of the brook erodes the rock, Cromwell's quiet persistence is what allows him to succeed and move into a position of real power. It also offers a wonderful dynamic within the story. 

Mantel's writing -- her actual words on paper -- is masterful. She chooses to never write 'Cromwell said,' choosing to only refer to Cromwell as 'he' whenever defining his speech. It was confusing in the first few pages, but once I got into the rhythm of reading, it all became clear. Mantel also is writing with a slightly elevated language, in order to evince 16th-century England, without wholly abandoning contemporary English. These, combined, make for some slight challenge in reading Wolf Hall (a factor I discovered during a quick online search, where I found some people complaining that the book was too difficult to read and they had set it aside after a few pages), but it also makes for a more enjoyable and satisfying read, as well. Mantel is fully in control of the writing in Wolf Hall, and her confidence is such that she cares not whether you follow or not, she understands those who will get the most from her narrative will complete the journey. It reminds me of the confidence that seeped off the page when I read Toni Morrison's 'Beloved.' It's an admirable trait and elevates the entire experience of reading, for me. There's a reason Wolf Hall won a Booker Prize -- many reasons, actually -- and it is well deserved. I can't wait to dig into the next book!