Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: THE POISON BELT by A. Conan Doyle

PoisonBeltThe second science fiction novel by Doyle featuring Professor Challenger is one I had high hopes for. First edition above, but I read it on my phone and iPad. The cast of characters is much the same as “The Lost World,” and the story begins with reports of unrest and cataclysms around the world, and a newspaper article by Challenger suggesting the cause: the Earth, and the entire solar system, is drifting into a section of ether or space that contains some kind of poison, one that is affecting all animal life on our planet. Challenger soon contacts his “Lost World” team-mates, reporter Edward Malone (again the story’s narrator), adventurer Lord John Roxton and Professor Summerlee and invites them all to his home in the country, asking each of them to bring a cylinder of compressed oxygen. When they arrive and have the situation explained, they seal off a small suite of rooms in the house and prepare to try to stay alive when everyone else they can see is falling to the ground, and apparently dying. The oxygen keeps them going for a day or two, and when it runs out, they discover the poison has dissipated, and they go out to explore a world greatly changed.

This seemed a promising beginning, and I was expecting an end of the world story perhaps along the lines of Jules Verne’s “Off On a Comet,” or an even closer idea, “The Purple Cloud” by M. P. Shiel, written in 1901, well before this one, and very much along the same plotline. I was disappointed in Doyle’s handling of Challenger this time, though, as he seems to have lost his passion for scientific inquiry. The group of survivors is surrounded by those apparently dead, but they don’t even examine the bodies, other than to move Challenger’s chauffer from the yard into his bedroom. The rest of the book, the four and Challenger’s wife travel by car to London, or as far as they can before the number of bodies halts them, then they walk into the city. There’s no realistic description of the mass death, other than huge numbers of prone bodies, no smell, no signs of decay…and perhaps you can already figure out where this is going. Of course, everyone is not dead, merely in a catatonic state, and before long they’re all coming back to life and resuming their lives as if nothing had happened. The chief wonder that everyone keeps exclaiming over is the silent city, but they hardly get up the nerve to enter a few buildings.

So, rather than getting involved, as Challenger and his crew did so much of in “The Lost World,” here they’re mere observers, and of an episode that doesn’t go very far. I can’t recommend the book, but there’s one more Challenger novel and some short stories that I’m going to try next. In all, I felt the plot of this one was a cheat and a disappointment.

And Then I Read: 75 YEARS OF MARVEL

75YearsCoverImages © Marvel.

Took me a while, but I’ve read it. Or at least as much as I wanted to. This gigantic book is meant as an overview and retrospective of the comics publisher now known as Marvel, previously as Timely, Atlas, and many other lesser-known imprints. As such, it’s about half pictures, but even so, there’s lots of text. I read the first two sections covering 1939 to 1961 the most thoroughly, as it’s the period I knew the least about. I was buying and reading Marvel comics from that point on, and had a chance to catch up with a lot of the issues I missed later, so the period from 1962 to about 1990 was a fun reminiscence of things I was mostly familiar with. From 1991 to the present my Marvel reading has declined steadily, so those sections didn’t mean as much to me, and I generally skimmed.

Roy Thomas has done a fine job with the text, but it’s such a large subject that often he was only able to briefly mention some titles and creators that stood out from the crowd, especially when the output of the company began to grow in the mid-70s. And it’s an official company history, so anything that might make the corporation look bad was glossed over or ignored, but since the emphasis is on the books and the creators rather than company politics and business deals, I didn’t mind that. And there’s always Sean Howe’s “The Secret History of Marvel Comics” if you’re interested in that side of things.

75YearsPages

The art is glorious, lots of larger-than-life reproductions of covers and story pages. To make layouts work, other elements were sometimes a bit too small, but I understand they did the best they could without making the book twice as thick. In all, it’s a fine book, if difficult to lift and read. I’m kind of glad to be done! I imagine I’ll be going back to it for reference in future.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: THE ART OF THE SIMON AND KIRBY STUDIO

ArtSKSImages © Estates of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

I had a great time looking at all the original art in this book, a few hundred pages. Much of it is by Jack Kirby with Joe Simon and others, but at least a third is by other artists who worked in their studio, a wide variety of talents. What’s missing here is their output for Marvel and DC, including their most famous work like CAPTAIN AMERICA for Marvel and THE BOY COMMANDOS for DC, but they were prolific, so that leaves lots of fine comics like BOY’S RANCH, the romance and crime comics, and THE FLY and THE SHIELD for Archie, as well as many things I’d barely heard of. The book is large, and the reproductions from the art collection of Joe Simon and others is top-notch, as you would expect from publisher Abrams. I found most of the stories hard to read, though, often florid, and over-written with plots that are simplistic and predictable. There are surprises, like two stories written for POLICE TRAP with second person narration, a tough thing to pull off, but they worked for me.

FergusonLettersI particularly enjoyed the chance to study the work of the studio’s first staff letterer, Howard Ferguson, as in the BLACK CAT story above. I’ve already written a blog post about Ferguson HERE, but the work in this book, and especially seeing it reproduced so well, gave me a new appreciation of his talent. He may have been the best letterer in comics in the 1940s, I’m now prepared to say.

PvtStrong“The Double Life of Private Strong” made an impact on me when I first read it around 1960. He was one of the heroes Simon and Kirby did for Archie Comics in the late 50s, their version of THE SHIELD. Rereading it, I wasn’t impressed by the story, but the art is terrific. (I suspect it may also have made an impression on Alan Moore, some elements of the character’s origin are echoed in that of his TOM STRONG.)

Mark Evanier’s historical overview is informative and thorough, and the afterward by Joe Simon’s son Jim adds personal memories that bring a human connection to the men involved, well done both.

In all, a fine book and highly recommended.

Rereading: THE LOST WORLD By A. Conan Doyle

LostWorldDoyleHaving finished all 6,000 plus pages of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories, I found I wanted more A.Conan Doyle, so I loaded this book on my phone as well, and had a fine time reading it. (First edition above.)

While the premise of the story seems impossible now — a volcanic plateau in the Amazon basin of South America cut off from contact with surrounding land for millions of years, where dinosaurs and primitive ape-men have survived to the present day — when the book was published in 1912, it was every bit as plausible as “Jurassic Park.” Air travel had not yet begun except by balloon, and far less was known about the jungles of the Amazon than today. While it’s clearly science fiction, the reader of 1912 would have no trouble suspending disbelief. And Doyle masterfully handles his main characters: young reporter Edward Malone, out to document the story of his life; Professor George Edward Challenger, the irrascible scientist who has made the discovery of HIS life, and is violently angry when no one believes him; Lord John Roxton, veteran of many expeditions and battles in South America; and gloomy Professor Summerlee, sent along by fellow scientists to document the expedition. Each man is introduced and examined in depth before they all begin to explore the jungles and search for the Lost World, so when the action heats up, we feel we know and care about them, warts and all. And there’s plenty of action once they attain the plateau, between dangerous dinosaurs and other beasts, and even more dangerous hominids.

There are some elements of “Great White Hunter” that come across as politically incorrect for today’s reader, but they’re pretty easy to overlook in the bulk of the story, which I found cracking good fun. I think I read this book in my teen years, but remembered very little of it. That made it all the better.

Highly recommended. Moving on to the next Professor Challenger book now, “The Poison Belt.”

And Then I Read: A CITY IN WINTER

CityInWinterImage © Mark Helprin and Chris Van Allsburg.

Chris Van Allsburg is probably best known as the writer and artist of the book “The Polar Express.” This is one of three by Mark Helprin illustrated by Van Allsburg, and the book is formatted in a similar style to the artist’s other books that I’ve seen. At 8 by 10 inches, and 148 pages, it straddles the boundary between picture book and children’s novel. The illustrations are gorgeous, often making good use of perspective and low viewing angles, two Van Allsburg trademarks.

The story by Helprin has many good qualities, and some that bothered me as well. The prose is often full of strong, evocative imagery that rivals the pictures. It’s told from the perspective of a young girl from distant mountains who is secretly a princess destined to rule the massive city she comes to, or so she’s been told, but at present that city is ruled with iron control by “the usurper,” who killed her parents. As the innocent girl is swept into city life and put to work in the massive kitchens of the royal palace, she finds friends who help her toward her destiny, though that path is dangerous for all of them. The emotional arc of the story works well, and I liked the characters, but the book is full of impossible things (like a single room filled with ovens for baking that takes hours to travel through) that kept pulling me out of the story. The plot is also full of lucky coincidences and deus ex machina solutions that don’t play fair. I suppose I might have accepted such things with less trouble in my own childhood, so perhaps this book is not for me. In all, I liked it, but never fully fell into the story, as I think one should with a fantasy. The “willing suspension of disbelief” was too difficult.

Mildly recommended.