Wednesday, January 6, 2010

When Swamp Thing Left Birmingham

Comics:

Swamp Thing: Riverrun by Mark Millar, Phil Hester, Kim DeMulder, Chris Weston and Phil Jiminez (1995; uncollected): Given writer Millar's superstar status in comic books over the last decade, I don't why DC Comics hasn't collected his lengthy run on Swamp Thing. Just another mystery of DC's often bizarre collected editions policies (Showcase Presents Booster Gold before Jonah Hex Vol. 2? Seriously?).

Grant Morrison and Millar came onboard Swamp Thing after a lengthy run by Nancy Collins and pretty quickly got Swamp Thing out of the domestic life he'd been enjoying with Abby (and later daughter Tefe) since Alan Moore was on the book in the mid-1980's. Once Millar was established, Morrison left for about a dozen other DC books.

In this seven-issue storyline, Millar has Swamp Thing jumping to different alternate worlds which may or may not be 'real' -- they also may simply be the dying hallucinations of a suicidal writer who won't stay dead, and so asks Swamp Thing to get her 'out' of the world of her own stories in which she's trapped. This is an 'arc' structure used to good effect by previous Swamp Thing writers Alan Moore and Rick Veitch. Moore had Swamp Thing compelled willy-nilly through space for several issues, while Veitch had the same thing happen related to time. Indeed, Veitch's writer/artist run on Swamp Thing came to an end when Swamp Thing jumped to the crucifixion, complete with a cover depicting Swamp Thing as the cross upon which Christ was crucified. That issue never actually saw print, making it one of the most legendary of unseen comic-book stories.

In any case, Millar is in top form here. The writing's sharp and occasionally disturbing, and the situations are quite clever, with the 'Nazis won WWII' reality being especially interesting. Of course, it's not collected, so you'll have to hit the back-issue bins to read it. Oh, well.


Books:

The Watchers Out of Time and Other Stories by August Derleth and H.P. Lovecraft: Fantasy fiction owes a huge debt to Wisconsin writer/editor/publisher Derleth, whose Arkham House kept writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith in print during the 1940's and 1950's before the horror boom began in the 1960's. He also introduced Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley to the world, to name just two.

While Edgar Allan Poe had possibly the worst literary executor ever, Lovecraft had possibly the best -- maybe a bit over-eager and a bit too quick to italicize important paragraphs in Lovecraft's stories, but otherwise just about the best friend a dead author who never made much of a living from writing while he was alive could hope for. That Lovecraft earned a Library of America edition in 2007 is as much a testament to Derleth as to the Revelator from Providence.

Derleth made something of a cottage industry out of writing stories based on fragments and notes left behind by Lovecraft after his death in 1937, enough to fill several thick volumes. This book collects some of the best. Derleth's Cthulhu Mythos was a bit happier than Lovecraft's -- there were a lot more ways to thwart the forces of darkness, and they were far more frequently constructed as forces of darkness rather than Lovecraft's conception of the uber-dangerous Great Old Ones as being beyond concerns of good and evil, which were ultimately just human constructions anyway.

Derleth's primary 'tic' -- italicizing final paragraphs -- is in full bloom here, and the selection of stories is a bit Innsmouth-heavy for my tastes, but the whole thing is worth reading if you've run out of Lovecraft to read or re-read. I think the best story is the short and evocative "The Fisherman of Falcon Point", which reads as much like a dark fairy-tale as it does a story set in the world of Cthulhu and Dagon and all those other crawly super-beings itching to return to Earth and turn us all into either dinner or experimental subjects. Recommended.


The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons: Simmons, a regular columnist at ESPN.com, assesses pretty much every aspect of the National Basketball Association one could want. And then some. The book is meandering, digressive, and laden with footnotes -- all in all, a messy joy to read, rife with pop culture and porn references sprinkled amidst the assessments of the 96 greatest NBA players ever, the best teams ever, the biggest MVP voting screw-ups, the size of Dennis Johnson's Johnson and why the fallaway jumper is the preferred shot of superstars who never quite break through to win an NBA title.

His analysis is thought-provoking and occasionally hilarious, especially when he's taking shots at Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, or singing the praises of Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kevin McHale. Highly recommended for people with at least some knowledge of basketball, pop culture, and pornography.

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