April 2022 Books …

I slowed down a little in April after a record-breaking (for me, at least) ten-book March … here’s what I read this month.

Batman: The Long Halloween: The Sequel: Dark Victory Deluxe Edition by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Despite the long title that borders on overkill (the series was originally called Dark Victory, and while it is a direct sequel to The Long Halloween, I don’t remember the latter being part of the original title), I really feel this is superior to its predecessor in every way.Dark Victory introduces Robin to the Batman mythos (at least the Loeb/Sale version of the character, who looks like the eight-year-old boy he should be). It also continues the story of the Falcone crime family and furthers the Holiday killings, this time with a police officer killed once a month in a bizarre game of Hangman. Like TLH, it features the Bat-Villains, too: Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, Scarecrow, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Mad Hatter, Calendar Man, and the ringleader of the whole bunch, Two-Face.

But the real star is Tim Sale’s art, which takes a quantum leap forward in its quality. While I loved the quirky feel of TLH, his art in Dark Victory seems much more assured and professional, and more design conscious. There are numerous bravura pages (my favorite being the splash with Commissioner Gordon leading his hand-picked squad into the sewers), and two-page spreads. Jeph Loeb’s writing is stellar, too, and I feel this is his best DC Comics work with Sale (their best Marvel work is Spider-Man: Blue) and the two of them together are at the top of their respective games. Loeb is a very stark writer, knowing when to hang back and let Sale’s art tell the story. Together they make an almost-perfect comic book team. Once again, DC’s production work on this new “Deluxe Edition” is flawless (released in late 2021), and the two volumes look great side-by-side on a bookshelf, always an important consideration in my humble home. After re-reading this in the new edition, I genuinely feel Dark Victory is my favorite Loeb/Sale collaboration and worth another read a few years from now.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks: The Mighty Thor Vol. 2 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby totally commits to Thor, but Stan Lee can’t quit telling stories that involve lame earthbound “super“ villains fighting the God of Thunder and Dr. Don Blake’s soap opera-like life with nurse Jane Foster. This volume includes Journey into Mystery issues 101-109, which means either Marvel is getting cheap (most Masterworks volumes contain at least ten issues) or there was some compelling reason to stop at 109 (like the first Daredevil volume included issue 11, since it was part two of a two-part story). I have my suspicions that Kirby really dug doing the “Tales of Asgard” back-up stories, and that brought him back to Thor full-time; once the action in each issue’s Thor story switches to being more about Asgard than Earth, the back-up feature goes away and I think Kirby becomes a happy camper, sticking with the book until he goes to DC in 1969. JiM #104 is the classic “Giants Walk the Earth” issue, which brings Odin to Midgard to try and stop this foolish “Thor loves Jane Foster” nonsense (a subplot that quite frankly all but derails the stories each time it pops up; eventually Dr. Don Blake and his love for Jane are both put to rest and Thor is Thor almost full-time), bringing along Surtur and Skagg amid yet-another Loki plot to take the Asgard throne. Chic Stone inks the bulk of the stories in here, being Kirby’s primary inker for a year or so around 1964-65, also doing great work on Fantastic Four and the Captain America stories in Tales of Suspense. This volume once again features a new Michael Cho cover and is much more readable than the first Thor MMMW.

Son of Origins of Marvel Comics and Bring On the Bad Guys by Stan Lee

I have very fond memories of getting this annual series of Marvel reprint books, published by Fireside, each Christmas from 1975 through 1978. And since nostalgia for all things Marvel, circa 1961-1979 or so, has moved into my brain (let’s call it MARVELMANIA!) and taken over, I’ve been buying them up again when I can find one at a decent price and in decent shape. I enjoyed the first in the series, Origins of Marvel Comics, and was pleasantly surprised how amazing it was to see these reprints on nice paper, with the colors very vivid, something that was a brand new experience when these books first came out. That all goes out the window with Son of Origins, which has horrible reproduction

Son of Origins features the origin stories of Avengers, X-Men, Iron Man, Daredevil, Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, The Watcher (from Silver Surfer #1), and the Silver Surfer. It also includes a Stan Lee-penned intro for each chapter, but they’re shorter and a tad less (but not much of a tad) about “ME-ME-ME” and how he created all these great heroes. Stan does give credit to his artist collaborators in both these books, though, at times being very effusive.

Bring On the Bad Guys focuses on the Marvel villains, including Doctor Doom, Dormammu, Loki, the Red Skull, the Abomination, the Green Goblin, and Mephisto in a collection of various reprints. By this time, the Fireside reprints were starting to wear a little thin, and there would be one more in the series, The Superhero Women, featuring Marvel’s fighting females. One shining moment for all four volumes in this series: amazing painted covers by John Romita Sr. The reproduction in this volume is marginally better than Son of Origins, especially in the reprint of the Mephisto story from Silver Surfer #3.

Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama by Bob Odenkirk

I enjoyed this memoir by actor/writer/director Bob Odenkirk much more than I thought I would (it was basically a free book that I chose from a loyalty program with a local bookstore). I love Odenkirk on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, but I’m not a huge sketch comedy fan, and he’s known for that before his acting work, with things such as Mr. Show with fellow actor/comedian David Cross. Still, Odenkirk’s slow rise to fame through SNL and Chicago comedy troupes makes for a fascinating memoir and his writing style is honest and enjoyable (he goes a little overboard with asides, but you get used to it). I wish there was more on his Saul Goodman role, though; about two whole chapters are devoted primarily to that. And it’s apparent this book was written during the pandemic, because there’s no mention of his heart attack a year ago on the set of the final season of Better Call Saul, although his role in Nobody, his action film debut, is included. (Aside: Why do these older guys decide to star in these all-out, vengeful action flicks? If I see one more Liam Neeson scene in which he is painfully running, I’m going to buy him a walker.) Odenkirk is an enjoyable storyteller and his life is definitely worth reading about.

V for Victory by Lissa Evans

One thing I dearly love when I travel is to find a new book to read at night when I’m safely ensconced back in my hotel room. A few years back while in London, I found a wonderful book called Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans. It featured the story of Vera Sedge, a lightweight con artist, and the young boy who she kind of adopts, Noel Bostock. The two make an unlikely duo, navigating the hazardous streets of World War II London during the Blitz. Noel has recently lost his beloved godmother, Mattie, a former suffragette, who raised the boy to be wiser than the average ten-year-old.

I discovered Crooked Heart in London in 2016 or so, and it was right around the time Phoebe Waller-Bridge was taking over the world with Fleabag, and I couldn’t picture anyone else as Vera (aka “V”). Recently I found out that not only is their a sequel (V for Victory) focusing on the further adventures of V and Noel, but also a prequel featuring the story of Mattie, called Old Baggage. (Evans also wrote Their Finest Hour and A Half, about the making of a British propaganda film during WWII; also known as just Their Finest in the US and a wonderful movie of the same name starring Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy).

V for Victory picks up the story of Vee and Noel five years down the line, at the end of 1944 and into the spring of 1945, when the war ends. The Allies are winning the war, but it still isn’t over and the long road of recovery and rationing looms on the horizon. Noel is now 15 and living with Vee in Mattie’s old house (which technically belongs to Noel), and renting out rooms to a motley assortment of British oddballs. Once again, author Lissa Evans tells a warm and evocative story about the most trying time in British history with wonderful characterizations, including a newly introduced air raid warden named Winnie, whose nocturnal adventures become the basis of her twin sister’s fictional book. I love the fact that Evans has created a whole universe for her own characters. (I have to actually read Their Finest to see if any of those characters relate to V and Noel; I have a feeling one of the boarders may be from that book.) My one minor quibble with V for Victory is that it’s one long book; no chapters, although there are some segments that act as stopping points. I’m a reader who likes my chapter breaks … it gives me a sense of when to stop and start for the night. I hope Evans comes back and revisits these characters again and again, and can someone please throw this on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s desk? I would much rather see her as Vee than as the new Indiana Jones.

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