November 2021 Books …

December already? WTF?! Here’s what I read in the fondly-remembered month of November.

Gated Prey by Lee Goldberg
This is the latest (third) book in Goldberg’s Eve Ronin series and is definitely the weakest of the three. I think Ronin is a great character with lots of potential; she’s a dedicated cop trying to make it in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department after being quickly promoted up through the ranks due to a case that garnered a lot of media attention. She has everyday problems (she eats junk food, sleeps poorly, has house issues) along with her work problems (just about everyone hates her and views her as a self-aggrandizing climber). Her partner, the perennially-retiring Duncan Pavone, is the only person she seems to get along with. Add to all of this an interest in her career from Hollywood, as an agent and showrunner try to produce a series based on her life, called (naturally) “Ronin.”

I found this addition to the series somehow lacking though. It starts and ends with a story about some serial home invaders and that part of the book is interesting and really clicked with me. But it gets side-tracked on a secondary storyline about a “fetal abduction,” which was drawn out and boring (to me, at least) and dragged the rest of the book down. The unfortunate thing about any LA-based cop novel is its comparison to Michael Connelly, the king of LA cop books with his Harry Bosch and Renee Ballard stories. Ronin sometimes seems like a poor-woman’s Ballard, haunted, hounded, and sometimes hunted by her peers at a similar level to Connelly’s character. And it’s almost impossible for me to read the Ronin books and not think of Bosch co-star Troy Evans (Barrel) as Ronin’s partner, Duncan Pavone. Not a bad thought, I guess, but every time I read a Goldberg book, I wish I was reading a Connelly book. Still, I’ll read the next Ronin when it comes out.

All of the Marvels by Douglas Wolk
Douglas Wolk’s journey through almost 60 years of Marvel Comics (which amounts to over 27,000 separate comic books) is quite an achievement. I used to work with Wolk when I edited and designed the publications for San Diego Comic-Con. He wrote articles on various comics-related topics for Comic-Con Magazine and the yearly Souvenir Book. I remember contacting him in 2018 or so and asking him if he was up for writing something for that year’s Souvenir Book and he told me then that he was working on this book and couldn’t commit to anything else. Even then, it sounded like an immense undertaking, and my biggest question was, “But, why?” While there are a lot of great Marvel comics, there are also a lot of not-so-great ones and some just plain awful ones. And honestly, I couldn’t figure out how such a book could be presented. Chronologically? By title? By character? (The answer is kind of all three.)

When I first started reading this book, I almost gave up on it. Wolk gives a long-winded opening chapter on his methodology for the book, and then a second chapter devoted to the various chronologies and then an additional chapter on how you, too, can read Marvel comics. I was pretty much at the end of my rope by then, but with the fourth chapter he dove into his actual reading of these books, and it became apparent that this was less than an authoritative index of Marvel Comics, 1961-2018 (or so), and more a kind of travelogue through stacks and stacks of comics. I think he really hooked me with his chapter on Doug Moench’s Master of Kung Fu, a criminally-overlooked series that ran for well over 100 issues through the 1970s and 1980s and had stellar art by the likes of Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck, and Gene Day. It’s one of my favorite Marvel series of all time and it was great to see someone else agree with that assessment.

Wolk’s chapters are based around characters and titles (like MoKF), including Fantastic Four, Thor, Spider-Man, and even such later-day creations as Ms. Marvel and the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. These are not comprehensive synopses of each title, but rather they touch on key issues and how they fit into the greater Marvel story (and yes, even though no one intended it, there is one greater Marvel story; they don’t call it a Universe for nothing). Between each chapter is an interlude, delving into other aspects of Marvel, including one on Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko; one on the fateful month of March 1965, when a lot of that month’s books started to reference other books within the line and the outlines of the Marvel Universe started to form; even an interlude that puts forth the interesting theory that Linda Carter, Student Nurse, is the starting point of the Marvel Age of Comics, coming out a few months before Fantastic Four #1 in 1961. He ties everything together in the end with an Appendix that offers a chronological plot summary of Marvel. All-in-all, it’s an incredibly well-written exploration of a comics phenomenon, one that quite frankly, probably saved the industry from dying in the 1970s or 1980s. I honestly didn’t know how he could pull this off when I first heard of it, and I was doubtful when I first started reading it, but All of the Marvels is a really stunning—and enjoyable—achievement.

The Dark Hours by Michael Connelly
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Any new book by Michael Connelly is a cause for rejoicing and The Dark Hours is a great book: well-written, engrossing, and exciting. It just makes me a little sad.

Maybe it’s because Connelly’s other day job for the past 8 years or so is executive producer of the Bosch TV series (and its new incarnation, Bosch: Legacy debuting in 2022), and that means he’s writing and thinking about Bosch as a character all the time, but I feel Harry Bosch is now a secondary character in Connelly’s books. While the book is tagged right there on the cover as “A Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch Novel,” it’s much more Ballard than Bosch. Yep, Harry is in it, but he’s just along for the ride, which includes two big cases Ballard is involved in, one involving a New Year’s Eve killing of a car repair shop owner with gang ties and the other involving “The Midnight Men,” a duo of rapists targeting women. This is another Connelly book with a fascinating and well-told mix of crime and police politics, it has the added influence of modern-day life: It’s the first book he’s written that includes references to the pandemic and the George Floyd murder and how much both have changed policing. Ballard is a fascinating character, literally the female version of Bosch, a loner who wants justice to be served, no matter what it takes. But I still want more Harry Bosch in a book tagged as a “… Harry Bosch novel.” And the version of Bosch in this latest novel seems to be a much older man, like old age has finally caught up with him. (In the TV series, Bosch—played by Titus Welliver—has a different timeline than in the books. He’s a Gulf War veteran on TV, a Vietnam War veteran in print, roughly adding at least 15 years onto his life).

While I hope Connelly has more in store for Renée Ballard (and can we eventually get a TV series with her as the protagonist, please … I nominate Mary-Elizabeth Winstead as star, thank you … she has the kind of quiet intensity the role demands), I want a Harry Bosch novel, one that brings him to the forefront once again and includes his daughter, Maddie (there’s a one-line mention of her in this book). I realize Harry is pushing 70 in the books, but please don’t let him fade away.

Hawkeye: The Saga of Barton and Bishop by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Annie Wu
As the lead-up to Marvel’s new Hawkeye series on Disney+ unrolled this month, you could tell it was going to be heavily influenced by this amazing run of Hawkeye stories written by Matt Fraction and drawn by David Aja and Annie Wu. When this comics series first premiered in 2012, it was totally different than any other superhero book being published at the time by Marvel or DC. Fraction’s writing and Aja’s art style presented a new look at a superhero, showcasing what Clint Barton (Hawkeye) did in his time away from the Avengers. One of a number of comic book archers who were essentially super-powerless, Hawkeye has often been a kind of jokey character, ALA Aquaman, to the outside world. Fraction’s take seems to be that Barton has low self-esteem, stemming from a bad childhood with abusive parents and a track record of failed romances with some of his super-powered female cohorts (Black Widow, Mockingbird, Spider-Woman). Enter Kate Bishop, a wannabe Hawkeye, member of the Young Avengers, and pretender to the throne for Marvel’s best archer “superhero.” Fraction’s Hawkeye becomes a reluctant landlord of a NYC building, fending off the tracksuit-wearing Russian Mafia (“Yo, Bro!”), and trying to save the building’s residents from being evicted and killed. Along the way, he adopts a dog (named either “Lucky” or “Pizza Dog” or both), which Kate steals from him when she goes to L.A. and has her own adventures, probably designed to give Aja more time to work his magic. (Issue #11 is told entirely from the viewpoint of the dog and won the Eisner Award for Best Single Issue/One-Shot in 2014; Aja won for Best Cover Artist in 2013 and 2014, and Best Penciller/Inker in 2013). The tone of this series started a kind of cottage industry of “funny” superhero books at Marvel, including new She-Hulk and Spider-Man (Superior Foes of …) series with a similar bent. None of them were as successful—or good—as Hawkeye, though.

To be sure, this is Fraction’s best comics work, but it didn’t come easy. Hawkeye got delayed and pushed back numerous times and it eventually got to the point that Aja and artist Annie Wu alternated on the book, with the latter handling stories about Kate Bishop in Los Angeles, before the new Hawkeye went back east in the final issues to join the old Hawkeye in the final showdown with the Russians. The whole series ran 22 issues, plus one annual, and three of the issues (including that annual) were drawn by Javier Pulido (Francesco Francavilla drew two issues; Steve Lieber drew one, as did letterer Chris Eliopoulis). This collection puts everything together in one tidy package and even rearranges one of the issues (the Hurricane Sandy story in #7 comes before the Christmas story in #6). Matt Hollingsworth’s coloring perfectly compliments Aja’s minimal art style, which at times reminds me of Chris Ware in the complexity of his layouts and fastidious (yet expressionistic) line work.

You can see glimpses of the tracksuit-ed Russians, plus Pizza Dog in the promos for the Disney+ series. If it’s half as good as the original comics series, it’ll be wonderful. And if not, pick up this (slightly pricey) volume and read the whole thing in the order it was intended and in as few sittings as possible. It’s the best way to read this series. (And go for the direct market version with the Aja cover, not the phoned-in Alex Ross painting one).

Friday Book One: The First Day of Christmas by Ed Brubaker and Marcos Martin
This collection of online comics by Brubaker and Martin was a nice little surprise for me. A part-time sleuth in her teen years, Friday Fitzhugh teamed with her best friend, Lancelot Jones, the smartest boy in the world, to solve crimes. Now Friday is home from college on Christmas break and once again, thrown into a new mystery with supernatural overtones. I loved Martin’s art and I’ll read just about anything by Brubaker (but to be honest, I felt burned out on his new—and very popular—Reckless series of crime graphic novels with long time collaborator, artist Sean Phillips) and this was a welcome “new find” for me. I’m looking forward to subsequent volumes, some of which are already available online.

If this month seems a little light, reading-wise … I picked up a complete run (#s 1-24) of Blackthorne’s old Dick Tracy albums from the 1980s. This was a superior way (at the time) of reading these classic comic strip stories by Chester Gould. Unfortunately, Blackthorne—who also published Dick Tracy Monthly and Dick Tracy Weekly in traditional comic book format—tanked just as they were starting the Flattop story, one of the most famous Tracy tales. These albums are (for the most part) squarebound and run 72 pages each. The first three volumes have a better format, albeit with smaller panels, with two pages of dailies (one week’s worth) followed by a full-page Sunday strip (all in black and white). From books 4-24, the panels are larger and there are fewer storylines per book, but the reproduction is decent (if not great) and the format is imminently readable. The funky covers—laid-out by Comic-Con founder Shel Dorf—are goofy and endearing. The ultimate way to read the Tracy stories remains the IDW Library of American Comics book series (where the strips are NOT cut up, but presented in their entirety as Gould drew them), but they’re pricey and cumbersome … and in the 1980s, they didn’t exist, so this series was the best way to read these stories. In November, I read volumes 1 through 9.

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