Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hey, there, "Star Blazers" fans...

Look what's coming soon to a movie screen near you! (Well, near you if you live in Japan.)

Finally, there's a summer movie that I want to see ... and it's in Japan! Aaaargh.

I don't know how and I don't know when, but oh yes, it must be seen.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Book Reviews: Four more Stainless Steel Rat Novels

Yup, I'm still working my way through the Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison, courtesy of the Commerce Township Library, in anticipation of the release later this summer of the first new Stainless Steel Rat novel in more than ten years: The Stainless Steel Rat Returns. Your local library is a great way to catch up on these books. Few libraries stock them all, but most have one or more of the collections and they are all easily available through inter-library loan.

Here's what I've read most recently:

--The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You (1979)

--A Stainless Steel Trio, collecting:
---- A Stainless Steel Rat is Born (1985)
---- The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987)
---- The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues (1994).

All of these are played more for laughs than drama, but they all contain enough action and suspense to keep you turning the pages. None of is likely to be nominated as the best of the series, but they all make for good entertainment with the galaxy's greatest con-man turned interstellar agent Slippery Jim DiGriz. Harry Harrison is a Science Fiction Writers of America Grandmaster for good reason, and these entries all show off his ability to combine good plotting and pacing with a light comic touch.

The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You (1979) -- The fourth of the series. This time Slippery Jim DiGriz is defending the human race from an invasion by a vast coalition of aliens. So, the ultimate undercover agent goes undercover among the aliens, thanks to a loathsome-looking alien suit. Good fun, with several memorably tense scenes in the second half of the book when he finally goes to the planet of his worst enemies, The Grey Men. Good stuff.

A Stainless Steel Trio -- This collection collects up the first three Stainless Steel Rat prequels, in which Harrison goes back and shows us how slippery Jim DiGriz turned to a life of crime and some of his early adventures before he joined the Special Corps.

A Stainless Steel Rat is Born (1985) -- We learn how little Jimmy DiGriz turned Slippery, as he turns to a life of crime and tutors under his planet's greatest career criminal, The Bishop. This is definitely a book best enjoyed after you've read a few of the other novels because the process of discovering his back story is set up so deftly by Harrison.

The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987) -- Slippery Jim goes undercover in a quest for revenge and finds himself drafted into an interplanetary invasion force. Needless to say, the military is no place for this young criminal anarchist. Mayhem and fun ensues.

The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues (1994) -- Slippery Jim DiGriz cuts a deal to get himself out of the clutches of the League Navy and finds himself leading an undercover team on the prison planet of Liokukae. Their undercover identity? The galaxy's greatest rock band: The Stainless Steel Rats! This entry -- one of the later ones in the order in which they were written -- has a lot of interesting things to say about modern culture and celebrity.

Coming soon: A review of The Stainless Steel Rat for President (1982) which is in my hot little hands right now.

Book Review: Spider-Girl, #0 - #100

I first picked up the Spider-Girl comic written by Tom DeFalco almost six years ago right at the end of its 100-issue run, and have followed it ever since as it morphed into a 30-issue run as Amazing Spider-Girl and has then bumped around a few other joint titles and mini-series in the last year or two. In many ways the comic has been by far my favorite of the many Spider-Man comics on the market. It has a great lead character, May "Mayday" Parker, the daughter of Spider-Man; a deep and interesting cast of supporting characters; and is written and drawn with a sensibility that reminds me very much of the best comics that I enjoyed back in the 1980s. With so many grimly dark comics or books that take two-dozen issues to tell a brief tale, it's nice to still be able to pick up a comic that will reliably give me a good story and a fun read.

So, I figured going back and reading the original 100-isssue run would be a fun stop in my ongoing effort to get my money's worth out of a year-long subscription to the Marvel Digital Comics platform.

It was.

The character of Spider-Girl herself lives in an alternate Marvel Universe based on an issue of What-If (#105) that essentially the question "What if Peter Parker and Mary Jane had a teenage daughter?"

The real-world answer? The comic book series that had the longest continual run of any Marvel comic with a female lead. That's right. Step aside She-Hulk, Red Sonja, Phoenix, Black Widow, Elektra, Scarlet Witch, and everybody else. Marvel Comics all-time female champion superhero is a teenage basketball-team dropout with babysitting duties and hand-me-down web shooters.

I won't go into detail about the cast of characters and Spider-Girl's rogues gallery. Suffice it to say that her family includes Peter Parker, now middle-aged and retired from his run as Spider-Man; her mother, Mary-Jane Watson Parker; and -- about halfway through the run -- her baby brother Ben. She has a deep cast of assorted high-school friends and fights an assortment of villains that includes original villains, some second-generation Spidey villains, and even a few old Spider-Man classic villains who are still around and up to no good.

Reading the 100-issue (well, 102-issues, including #0 and an annual) run all in one fell swoop was a lot of fun. Ron Frenz was the artist who co-created the character with DeFalco in the original What-If issue, but he was replaced by Pat Oliffe for the first 50 issues of Spider-Girl. Interestingly, I thought the book improved when Frenz returned for the second half of the run. That surprised me because Oliffe is a really good artist who provided lots of good art, but DeFalco and Frenz seem to have a chemistry that translates better on the page for some reason. The narrative of the stories with Oliffe as artist sometimes felt a smidge stiff and forced, whereas the ones with Frenz have a fun and freewheeling feel that makes them especially fun to read.

Interestingly, I had the opportunity to talk with DeFalco and Frenz briefly at the Motor City Comic-Con last year, and was struck by the good chemistry they seemed to have away from the page, too. They just seem to be having fun making comic books, and that comes through on the page. I've picked up some of the original Ron Frenz pages inked by Sal Buscema, and they're among my favorite pieces in my entire comics art collection.

Many of Spider-Girl's exploits are available in graphic novel collections of individual issues. I'd recommend them for anybody looking for a family friendly comic-book read for a youngster. And I'd recommend the whole run of Spider-Girl -- especially issues #50-#100 -- for any comics fan looking for a fun read.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Good Night, Blogosphere

The beagle sleeps curled on her chair,
Where she can keep watch
Over her binkies on the floor
And her mistress on the couch.

My wife sleeps on the couch,
Still sitting upright
With a sheaf of pages to proof
And her glasses sliding down her nose.

And I will gently pry the papers
From the sleeping hand
Remove the glasses,
Cover my dear wife with a blanket,
Gently pet the sleeping beagle,
Then head up the stairs
To sleep in bed.

In bed?

I'm a rebel.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Book Review -- The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History

This is a really interesting history book that tells the story of the great Memphis yellow fever epidemic of 1878 and the experiments and investigations that finally led to the discovery of how yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitos in 1900.

The first part is a truly horrifying account of the 1878 Memphis epidemic. Yellow fever was a fairly common affliction in the American South in the 18th and 19th century, but on occasion a virulent strain would rage through a city, and the last and worst of these outbreaks killed more than 5,000 people in Memphis, Tennessee, then a city of about 40,000 people.

The descriptions of death by yellow fever are as horrifying as anything from the imagination of Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft, and at the description of Memphis at the height of the epidemic -- when the only people who remained were the diseased, the destitute, and a small number of nurses and doctors who risked their lives to treat the ill -- are a truly horrifying post-Apocalyptic vision.

The second half of the book focuses on the studies of the Yellow Fever Commission led by Walter Reed in Cuba in 1900. If you ever wondered why Walter Reed was famous, this is it. This section details the long struggle to discover how yellow fever was transmitted, a difficult task in an era when the concept of a virus was unknown and conventional wisdom scoffed at the notion that a mosquito could transmit disease. Smaller follow-ups detail the further progress against yellow fever in the 20th century, including the development of the vaccine that has protected millions against this horror.

The most striking aspects of this section are the tales of the scientists and volunteers who risked death by intentionally attempting to infect themselves with yellow fever as they worked tirelessly to find the disease's vector. It's truly amazing, heroic stuff. Just consider for a moment the nerve it takes to intentionally attempt to infect yourself with this horrible deadly disease because you are determined to discover its cause, so that this scourge can be defeated.

I suppose I could quibble with the book's generally narrow focus on those two places and times (Memphis, 1878; Cuba, 1900) since I was expecting a broader overview of the history of the disease and might've liked more detail from other times and places. But it's hard to beat this book for horror, heroism, and page-turning readability. And if you've ever wondered why the words "yellow fever" struck fear in the hearts of people for centuries in America, this book amply answers that question.

Folks with a week stomach may wish to skip the Memphis bits. They'll haunt you.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Friday Night Excitement on Wolverine Lake

Monique and I went for a Friday night pontoon cruise yesterday. We knew there was a storm coming in fairly soon, but figured we had time for a couple of laps.

Needless to say, it was quite exciting when the tornado sirens went off while we were still quite a way from our dock. And while dozens of other boats hit their accelerators and sped home to safety, the ol' Stealth Pontoon continued at a rather stately speed, despite my having turned our little tolling motor all the way up to ten. (Sorry Spinal Tap fans, but there is no "11" speed rating on our boat.)

As we putted ever so slowly back to dock, the sirens kept screaming and lightning began to march in from the West, slowly progressing towards the far end of the lake. The last several hundred yards were rather lonely out there, with everybody else having long since docked and headed for shelter.

Would we make it? Were we lost at sea?

Well, yeah, since I'm typing up this blog post today, I guess the suspense is gone. But it was all rather thrilling last night.

Anyway, we pulled into dock at a rather precipitous speed, and our neighbor Mike helped us tie up. Then we covered the console and zipped into the house, beating the real onslaught of the storm by a good three or four minutes. It was a dandy storm, too. There was no tornado (thank goodness) but winds up to 70 mph that knocked down quite a few trees around us and knocked out the power in quite a few places, and left our lawn litered with twigs, branches, and overturned lawn furniture.

Why do I relate this story? I just want to point out that while some have questioned the excitement level of a pontoon boat with a maximum speed of about two miles per hour, life aboard the Stealth Pontoon can at times be a truly thrilling voyage in extreme pontooning.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Yes, I'm still alive...

... and managed to survive (mostly) the old boy rugby game on Saturday, a couple of days of my asthma kicking up, and the "Great Chlorine Gas Attack of 2010" incident. We shall pass lightly over those mortal threats to life and limb and move on to other items. As you may have already deduced, I don't really have a coherent blog post here, but I did want to point out a few items of interest.

Item #1 -- My sister Susan has finally schemed a dog of her very own for her family, a chocolate lab named Booth. With any luck this means that we now longer have to check their baggage when they visit to ensure that they aren't trying to smuggle Katie the Beagle back to Gettysburg. Go visit her at Gettysburg Family to see a very cute photo of the new pooch, or to contribute to her attempt to corner the world chocolate labrador retriever haiku market.

Katie the Beagle would like to pass along that she feels secure in her place atop the global canine haiku market, since "Katie the Beagle" contains a convenient five syllables, whereas "Booth the Chocolate Labrador Retriever" contains a very un-haikuish eleven syllables.

Item #2 -- My Dad is now online and on Facebook. Or, he is if he can figure out, "Why did it all go away when I clicked that button?" In any case, we have full confidence that he will eventually once again find the World Wide Web, Facebook, and his profile. I shan't include a link in the blog, but if you would like to friend him on Facebook you can now find him on my friends list.

This officially makes my stepfather and wife the last Facebook holdouts in the Western Hemisphere.

Item #3 -- Visitors! The summer visitations officially kicked off late last night when Phil Gaven blew threw town with his two daughters and their friend. They were just stopping by for a pit stop on the way to Chicago, but we'll see them again when they stop by next week for a day or two of fun on the lake. In the meantime, Monique sent them out the door with a fabulous pancake breakfast, so I like to think we're a better bet than the average Motel Eight.

It's nice to have the summer visitations under way. Frankly, nobody wants to visit Detroit during the winter.

Item #4 -- Here at work we just added the term "Vuvuzelas" to our controlled vocabulary. I don't have much to say about that, but I love typing the word vuvuzela.

Try it everybody: Vuvuzela, vuvuzela, vuvuzela. Rolls trippingly off the fingertips, doesn't it?

Frankly, the name of the horn sounds 10,000 times better than the horrible screeching sounds that have overwhelmed a few World Cup matches.

And so, in closing, I say to all of you: vuvuzela.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Yeah, another busy week...

In retrospect, I shoulda doled out those book reviews day-by-day. Anyway, I was too busy with work and village stuff to actually blog this week, so here's a beagle haiku to reflect how I intend to wrap up this work week in about 45 minutes:

Work work work work work
Work work work work work go home,
Walk the beagle. Ahhhh.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Review Ragout Two: Part 4, The Florida Keys Memoir

--Charlotte's Story by Charlotte Arpin Niedhauk (Amazon.com) -- This may be my favorite book that I've read this year.

In Charlotte's Story, Charlotte Arpin Niedhauk tells about the time she and her husband Russell spent living on Elliot Key and tending a lime grove in 1934 and 1935 . Elliot Key turned out to be a pretty exciting place in those two years, since the memoir starts with a series of encounters with rum-runners during Prohibition and climaxes with onslaught of the Labor Day Hurricane in 1935, one of the most powerful and destructive hurricanes in history.

The memoir starts pretty slowly as Charlotte and Russ get to Elliot Key and spend much of the first few chapters just trying to fix up the old house in which they live. But pretty soon a complicated, colorful, and intertwined web of bootleggers, smugglers, customs agents, politicians, tourists, shiftless conchs, and sponge fishermen emerges from the pages. The book is filled with all sorts of detail that brings the area and the time to life as W-- wth the help of their faithful dog Fiddler -- Russ and Charlotte make their way amid the sand flies and desperados.

This book has a leisurely pace that felt entirely appropriate for a tale of the Florida Keys. I really, really enjoyed reading it at the rate of a chapter or two every night. I suspect that I'd really enjoy reading it at the rate of a chapter or two a day on a beach or boat down in the Keys.

I have a feeling this one's going to stick with me for a long time.

Review Ragout Two: Part Three, The Sci-Fi

--Very Hard Choices by Spider Robinson -- Sigh. Spider Robinson always has been and always will be one of my favorite sci-fi writers. But I'm coming to recognize that it's going to be for a fairly small batch of his earlier work. Far too often his later books have been filled with righteous hippies touting the wisdom and joy of marijuana while saving the world from über-villains who are much more like charicatures of evil than actual characters. Alas, such is the case here.

Spider's a good enough writer that this book was reasonably entertaining for the most part. But, really, I expect better than reasonably entertaining from him. Based on his early work, I had really thought Spider Robinson was going to go down as one of the all-time great sci-fi writerss. But instead I find myself wondering if some of his characters weren't the only ones enjoying a bit too much weed for the last thirty years.


C'mon, Spider. You can do better than this. I have higher expectations of you.

--The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison (Amazon.com) collecting the first three Stainless Steel Rat novels: The Stainless Steel Rat (1961), The Stainless Steel Rat Returns (1970), and The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World (1972).

Slippery Jim DiGriz is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi characters, and so from the moment I saw this paperback on the shelves of John K. King books, I knew I'd be rereading me some Stainless Steel Rat this year. This collection of the first three novels in the series -- there are ten in all with the first new one in more than a decade supposedly coming out later this year or next year, woo-hoo! -- is a great introduction to one of the great adventure heroes of science fiction.

The basic premise is simple: To Catch a Thief in outer space. Slippery Jim DiGriz is the self-styled Stainless Steel Rat, an anarchist con-man and thief who makes his way by happily throwing a one-man criminal monkey wrench into the stainless-steel corridors of modernity. Until, that is, the Special Corps catches up with him. But instead of throwing him into prison -- what prison could hold the galaxy's greatest escape artist, anyway? -- they recruit him to become a galaxy-saving special agent. Mayhem, merriment, and defeat for the forces of evil ensues.

The first Stainless Steel Rat novel is the most serious of the books, a sci-fi adventure with a clever swath of humor thrown in. Later entries are played more for laughs as Harry Harrison takes a few swipes at many of the curses of the 20th century. It's all grand fun written by a genuine Grandmaster of Science Fiction.

If you've never read one of these books, do yourself a favor, dig up a copy, and meet one of the great characters of genre fiction.

Review Ragout Two: Part 2, The Mysteries

--Money Shot by Christa Faust (Hard Case Crime, Amazon.com) -- This is a tightly written noir novel set in the Southern California world of XXX movies and strip clubs, and told from the point-of-view of a retired female porn star who now manages other adult actresses. It's a compelling read, and was nominated for a 2008 Edgar award. If you want to pick it up, be aware that the "Eeeuwww" factor is pretty high around some of the more depraved behaviors on display.

And, of course, as with nearly all Hard Case Crime books, its cover features a great pulp painting with a smokin' hot babe.

--Double Shot by Agatha Christie -- I think we're all grateful that this book does not feature a semi-nude Miss Marple on the cover. It's a good little collection of Marple and Poirot short stories, and a fun read. This is a pretty old paperback that I picked up at the used-book charity sale at work, and I don't see an equivalent title anywhere on the web. I'm sure the same stories have long since been re-shuffled in other collections.

--The Last Coincidence by Robert Goldsborough (Amazon.com) -- Goldsborough wrote eight Nero Wolfe revival books from 1986-1994. In this one, Archie acts impetuously and becomes enmeshed in a murder, while Wolfe eats a lot and tends orchids before solving the case with a stroke of genius.

I've read a few of the Goldsborough books now, and while it's kind of fun to see the characters back out and about, it's also a bit jarring when it feels as if they step out of character on occasion or when Goldsborough's prose isn't up to the standards of Stout's best.

But if not being as good as Rex Stout at his best is a sin, pretty much every mystery writer this side of Dashiell Hammett is guilty. If you're interested in reading some Nero Wolfe, I'd recommend all of the Stout originals over the Goldsborough revivals. But if you've read the originals, would like to read a new Nero Wolfe mystery, and can accept the fact that these aren't written by Rex Stout, these can be a pretty fun read.

Review Ragout Two: Part 1, The Comics

I've once again fallen behind in my book reviewing, so here's another big roundup in the next few posts. If you don't want to read 'em all, skip down to the final review to read about my favorite book in quite some time.

Let's start with a few comics collections in this post:

--The Chronicles of Conan, Vol. 18: Isle of the Dead and Other Stories by Bruce Jones, John Buscema, Marc Silvestri, and others (Amazon.com) -- I've been working my way through the Dark Horse reprints of the old Conan the Barbarian comic from Marvel for several years now. They really are beautiful collections with the original artwork -- mostly by Barry Smith and John Buscema -- re-colored with full-color modern colorization in the place of the original four-color coloring used in the comics of that era.

This is the first collection after Roy Thomas left the helm of the comic that he launched and either wrote or oversaw as editor for a decade. Unfortunately, the change really shows in these collections. Under Thomas the Conan comic was ever so slowly re-tracing his career based on the outline of Conan's career from the original Robert E. Howard stories. Afterwards, Conan kind of became a wandering do-gooder, following a chivalric code that seemed further and further removed from the Barbarian's rough-hewn sense of right and wrong. The art is still beautiful, but the story has lost its direction.

If you're interested in reading one of these Chronicles of Conan collections, I'd really recommend the first few volumes with the beautifully detailed Barry Smith drawings or possibly Vol. 12, which ends with the finale of Conan's time as a plundering pirate with his greatest love, Bélit, Queen of the Black Coast.

--Captain America, #1-#50 (2004-2010) by Ed Brubaker and several artists
--Marvel Secret Wars, #1-#12 (1984-1985) by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck

Enticed by a half-price special run in conjunction with the new Iron Man movie, I took the plunge last month and bought a one year subscription to Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited.

Alas, I found to my dismay that some of the older runs that I had hoped to read aren't yet digitized, or only have a few issues digitized, for example the full run of The Thing from the 1980s and John Byrne's 1980s run on The Sensational She-Hulk both of which I really wanted to re-read in their entirety. I also discovered that most of the newer titles don't make it into this format for at least a year, so as not to cannibalize single-issue and trade-paperback collection sales. And a few titles will never make it into this format. (For example, all the old Marvel Conan and Red Sonja comics whose rights are now owned by Dark Horse and Dynamite, respectively.)

But there's still a lot of good stuff in here, either in terms of classic single issues, or good runs on some of the more modern books that I didn't read at $2.99 or $3.99 a pop. I'm pretty determined to get my money's worth, so expect to see me include some of these runs in the "books I'm reading" box and in my sporadic reviews whenever I think I've hit a run long enough to add up to one or more TPB collections. Now on to the two runs I have for us today

--Captain America, #1-#50 (2004-2010) by Ed Brubaker and several artists -- Ed Brubaker's run on Captain America -- in which Bucky returned and Captain America died -- has been the stuff of comic legend and award nominations. But when I picked up a few individual issues, I found that the combination of its immensely complicated plot and the decompressed pacing made each individual issue feel a bit lacking to me. But read in a vast 50-issue swath like this, it's a gripping read and that decompressed style really serves the story and pacing well. And whereas this wasn't a favorite of mine in the single-issue format, this story works great in this online collection format.

--Marvel Secret Wars, #1-#12 (1984-1985) by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck -- The first comics mega-event that I remember, and one of the most influential. Honestly, I remember this as being better than it was when I reread it now, 25 years later, though I rather suspected that would be what I discovered upon rereading. There are still some good bits, but the whole things suffers a bit from a format in which all of these characters seem oddly compelled to engage in huge Good vs. Evil splash-page battles in every issue. Not a bad read ... just not as good as I remembered.

A Brief John/Julia Update

Triumph and tragedy with the ol' John/Julia project. Friday night I made us a lovely stir-fry with scallops, red bell pepper, onion, and beurre au citron over a bed of rice. Yummy!

This morning, I totally botched a hollandaise sauce. I had a very clever plan for Spam Benedict -- that's a sort of eggs Benedict with Spam, which means that Julia Child is probably rolling over in her grave at the moment -- and utterly and completely screwed up the steps in the hollandaise sauce. So instead of a thick, creamy hollandaise, we had a runny lemon-butter sauce.

Also, we only had one English muffin, so I had toasted up some rye bread. And instead of poached eggs I was concocting an omelet with some leftover portabellow mushroom and onions. So, other than the English muffins, the poached eggs, the hollandaise, and the Spam, it was just like eggs Benedict.

And yet, when served on some rye toast with fried slices of Spam and fresh tomatoes, the runny sauce was still darned yummy.

Yes, I suppose this means I'll have to keep practicing the hollandaise family of sauces. Monique and Katie the Beagle seem okay with that.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Close Call for Spider-Man

My subscription to Amazing Spider-Man expired a couple of months ago. At first I meant to renew it as a matter of course, but ... well, one thing led to another and I didn't get around to renewing it for a couple of months.

And what worried me was that I didn't feel any particular urgency about it.

Now, you have to understand that Spidey and I go way back. I may not have been around when he made his debut in 1961, but I do remember reading old Spider-man comics in the early 1970s at one of our neighbors' houses when a friend's older brothers would let us into their comic book stash. You see, there was a lot about Peter Parker that I could relate to and respect as a character, and by the late 70s I was hooked in an addiction that would carry me pretty steadily all the way through until the early 90s.

By then I was moving around a lot and pretty broke, and Spidey was entering the second or third year of the incredibly overgrown "Clone Saga." (The Clone Saga was originally a six-issue storyline that got stretched far too thin over something like fifty episodes because it was selling well.) So, at some point in the early 90s I lost track of Spidey for five or six years. But eventually I hopped back on the bandwagon towards the end of the decade via subscription and have been reading pretty consistently for the last dozen or so years.

The best run is still the first ten years or so and probably climaxed with the death of the Green Goblin in issue #122. That run was mostly written by Stan Lee and illustrated first by Steve Ditko (issues 1-38) then by John Romita, Sr. with help from a few other well known comic artists, including John Buscema and Gil Kane. I hopped on board a few years later, around the time that Spidey's greatest foes list had devolved from the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus to the Rocket Racer and the Hypno Hustler.

Ahhh, the Hypno Hustler, Supervillain King of the Disco Era.

But I digress. The point here is that Spidey during the time I've followed him has had a few great issues, a few truly terrible issues, and mostly a vast sea of decent-to-good issues. As a flagship comic there are usually some pretty talented writers and artists working on Amazing Spider-Man. However, since Spidey is a flagship character, he tends to appear in a lot of other series and special event comics, which sometimes causes his own comic to be a bit of an afterthought. And a few times Spidey has been re-launched or re-imagined with some new creators and a slightly new direction. But for the most part I've truly enjoyed the ride with ol' Peter Parker as he's tried to learn how to make the best use of the proportionate strength and speed of a spider.

For a long time there were three monthly Spider-Man comics, Amazing Spider-Man and two others from a lineup that over the years has included Marvel Team-Up, Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, and a handful of others with similar names. A few years ago Marvel combined them all into a single comic that came out three times per month, which was fine with me. The old three-different-comics method kind of meant that you were following three different stories at the same time, so it was always slightly disjointed to have to jump from one storyline to another as each comic came out. So making it one comic the same frequency as all three made a lot of sense to me. As it's played out, you tend to have some of the same disjointed effect as you move from writer and artist to writer and artist, but most of the writers and artists are on the book for three- or four-issue arcs and at least it's consistent within a single month.

But somehow, when it came time to renew this time I just didn't feel the urgency to make sure that I didn't miss an issue. And for a while I couldn't put my finger on what it was. But then it came to me.

You see, the reason I stayed on the ride all these years was that it felt as if the ride was going somewhere. And to me that was always the great strength of the Marvel comics over the DC comics. Superman and Batman have generally been the same guys all along, especially in terms of their secret identities. Yes, Superman eventually married Lois Lane and Batman's cycled through a few Robins, but the Superman of seventy years ago was mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent by day while the Batman of seventy years ago used his image as dissolute millionaire Bruce Wayne to through everybody off the track.

But over in the Marvel universe, characters grew and changed. Heck, over in Fantastic Four the Invisible Girl became the Invisible Woman, married Mr. Fantastic, and they went on to have a couple of super-powered kids.

And Spidey? Well, first of all, he wasn't really Spidey. To me he was always Peter Parker, a guy who happened to be Spider-Man. And therein lies a considerable diffence. But beyond that, he was a character who was slowly growing and changing and trying to work his way towards becoming a better person. He graduated from high school; then went to college; then dropped out for a bit; went back; graduated from college; went to grad school; and eventually became a working stiff with a bit of a growing career. He had a first love that he lost tragically; then he dated around for a bit; then he found a great second love; married her; and they went on to have a great and challenging marriage with ups and downs. There was tragedy and triumph and a recognizable life, even within the context of a nighttime gig crawling on walls and swinging from webs.

And sure, all that happened at the speed of a 12-times-per-year comic for most of the run. But that story was going somewhere.

But then a few years ago Marvel decided that they needed to appeal to a younger demographic, and that the kids today just couldn't relate to a married guy. And so -- through a plot twist so ill-conceived that I won't even begin to explain it -- they wiped out the last 30 or so years of Peter Parker's life and sent him back to being a mostly unemployed and poor early 20s slacker.

And that broke something important. Peter Parker stopped being a character who learned and grew, and instead became a character frozen in time. And something was lost there.

I suppose it's a dilemna that faces almost any long-running fictional character. Either they go the route of Hercule Poirot and become increasinly elderly and fragile, or they stay as they were when they first blazed on the scene, eventually cramming hundreds of adventures into what could only be a year or two of time. And so, the kids of For Better or For Worse eventually grow up and have kids of their own, while good ol' Charlie Brown is still standing on his pitcher's mound, essentially the same age as when Sparky Schulz first drew him.

But darn it, that's why I cast my lot with Peter Parker. He wasn't trapped in amber like a fossilized insect. Be it ever so slowly, he was going someplace.

And now he's not. And maybe he never will.

It makes me a bit sad every time I open up a new issue of Amazing Spider-Man.

That's why I just didn't feel any urgency to renew my subscription. It now feels as if I'm not going to miss anything if I miss a few issues or a few months or a few years. I can hop right back in and Peter Parker will be exactly the same as he was when my subscription lapsed.

Oh, I re-upped my subscription for another year today. But I didn't make the call to Marvel because my Spider-Man subscription had lapsed. I made the call because my Fantastic Four subscription had lapsed. You see, unlike Peter Parker those characters are still growing and changing, albeit ever so slowly.

But while I was on the phone renewing my Fantastic Four subscription, I decided to give Spidey another year. Peter Parker's been a friend for a long time, and in the end I'm pretty loyal. But I'm really not sure I'll make the same decision next year. There are a lot of comics out there that I could read. I'm not sure I want to spend my money reading the same story again and again, even if I really liked it the first time I read it.

We shall see. But it feels as if I may be closer to the end of my Spidey days than the beginning.

P.S. There's a really good comic out there called Spider-Girl, or occasionally a variation thereof since it occasionally changes titles and has returned from cancellation several times thanks to its devoted following. It takes place in an alternate universe in which Peter Parker and Mary Jane are still married and have two kids. Peter has retired from web-swinging to become a crime lab technician and his teenage daughter May Parker picks up his web-shooters. It's odd, but in a lot of ways that has begun more and more to feel like the main Spider-Man comic to me, since that's the comic in which the characters that I remember are still growing and progressing.

P.P.S. And Stan Lee decided to keep the married Peter Parker in the Spider-Man newspaper strip. So if my newspaper still thought it was in the newspaper business and would deign to occasionally deliver a paper, I suppose I could find Pete there, too.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Pathos of the Final Chapter of the Fish Finder Saga

I shan't go into the earlier chapters, in which I bought a 1/2-price demo unit fish finder to stick on the ol' Stealth Pontoon as a replacement for the old fish-finder, whose LED screen had died. That part of the tale includes a sad subplot about two missing tiny little plastic pieces that are absolutely vital to the installation and must cost all of about 1/10th of a cent apiece.

Instead, let's forward to the final chapter, which came after I had returned the demo model and invested my coin in a genuine new fish finder. Added bonus: whereas in the old days you had to gather up your buddies to look over your shoulder and kibbitz, thanks to the miracle of Facebook your friends can mock your mechanical ineptitude on the Internet:

John Magee is still having troubles with his fish-finder installation. Its power is hooked up. Its sonar transponder is hooked up. So why won't it go on when I press the "Power" button? Sigh.

Jeff DeLamielleure - red is positive, black is negative...

Raymond Brace - I've only got 2 hands when it comes to fishing. One for the crossword puzzle, one for the cocktail. The gear is just to make it look good.

Jon C. Hopwood - Either jab the button, or do a thumb roll that spreads the pressure around delicately. These are the two 2 tricks I have for this old Gateway laptop! The only other option, when it fails 2 boot, is praying.

Raymond Brace - Have you checked the polyhierarchical indexing yet?

Gary Alampi - how about fuses? I had a blown fuse on my boat radio. I almost bought a new one before finding out.

Winston Fritz - Either ur not getting power, bad fuse, bad ground or faulty unit

Raymond Brace - Monique, would you please confirm or deny that John has a faulty unit?

John Magee - And the winner of the "The electrical engineer who provided the condescending but correct diagnosis" award is .... Mr. Jeff DeLamielleure!

C'mon down and accept the prize, Jeff! It's a dunce cap that you get to stick on my head.

Yeah, that's right. I had the little red wire and the little black wire on the wrong screws. Criminy, I ain't bright.

Mike Gangler - Real Fishermen dont use Fish Finders...., Hell, im just jealous

Jon C. Hopwood - Oh, I thought it might have something to do with too many cocktails.

John Magee - Mind you, I didn't figure out that I had the red and black reversed right off the bat. First I went and bought some new fuses, and installed a new fuse. Then I unhooked the wires, restripped them, and mounted them again ... STILL IN THE WRONG DIRECTION.

Then I took the receiver down to Gander Mountain, and plugged it into the cord of their demo unit to test to test whether the receiver was working. When the receiver worked perfectly, I cleverly deduced that the power cord was somehow broken, and bought another fish finder -- so that I'd have a working transponder and power cord. Then I pulled out the new transponder and prepared to remove the "broken" one.

Only then did I look at the bus bar and realize that I had put the red wire on the negative panel and the black wire on the positive panel.

In my defense, I am an idiot.

And with the arrival of Memorial Day...

Where basks the beagle?
In the hot summer sun? No!
Air conditioning!