August 2009


By John Byrne

To me, Byrne’s FF is *the* FF. As far as I can tell, almost the whole Byrne run have been published in Finland and it was in full swing when I got into comics. Byrne’s tales with the family-feel of the group combined with the cosmic adventures in space and alternate dimensions are still pretty much the yard stick that I use to measure superhero comics. I guess that’s why I don’t much care for the darker stories. (My other superhero reading in my teens was Claremont’s long run in the X-Men.) I think the first time I read about the FF was when they beat Galactus.

I have read some of the Lee and Kirby stories and they were published here in small black and white paperbacks a few years ago. However, I felt that they had aged badly especially with the blatant sexism aimed at Susan who was pretty much always in need of rescue. Byrne changed that.

This collection gathers the first Byrne issues from FF 232 to FF 240.

In the first story the villain Diablo sends four elementals to battle the FF. At the start of the story, we get a glimpse of the heroes’ ordinary lives: Sue getting a new hair style, Johnny on a date with Frankie Ray, Ben coming from the theater with Alicia, and Reed absorbed in his work. The elementals aren’t terribly hard to beat.

The next story stars Johnny. He gets a letter from an acquaintance who had been recently executed for murder. Even though the man had been a criminal most of his life, he swears that he didn’t do this crime and asks Johnny to investigate. How could he resist?

The next is a more cosmic two-part story. It starts with J. P. “Skip” Collins who lives an ordinary life. However, because he was subjected to an experiment during his days in the military, he has the ability to make everything he really wants to happen. He travels to New York and is there when a disaster hits Earth. The Fantastic Four do their best to help people and find out that the threat comes from space. They will, of course, confront those responsible.

The next story is also a two-parter. It starts with the surreal notion of the all the FF living as ordinary people in Liddleville. They have no idea that they have super powers. However, Johnny, Ben, and Sue are having nightmares about their flight to space and about the cosmic radiation. The town has another not-quite-ordinary resident, too: Philip Masters who is also known as the Puppetmaster.

In the next story Frankie Ray reveals her secret to Johnny. Also, a gang of thieves gives trouble to Reed and Sue because they have a strange member: a blue skinned woman who is three meters tall and able to tear apart a human’s mind just by looking at them. At the end, Reed tries to change Ben back to human. Unfortunately, it does change the Thing but not into a human.

The next issue starts with Reed desperately trying to find out what went wrong while Aunt Petunia visits Ben. However, she’s come to the Baxter Building to get help: people in her small, Arizonan town are apparently dying of fear. But can even the FF beat such strange adversaries?

In the last issue Quicksilver races to the Baxter Building looking for help; the Inhumans are plagued by a mysterious disease. Reed comes to the conclusion that even the Himalayans where their city Attila stands, is now too polluted for the Inhumans to live in. So, the city must be moved.

The last issue especially is a classic one with the Inhumans’ move and the birth of Quicksilver’s and Crystal’s daughter. The is a great start for Byrne’s long run.

I really enjoy the family aspect of the FF. Ben as the irritable uncle, Johnny as the carefree youngster, Reed as the know-it-all scientist who has a tendency to put work before family, and Sue as the compassionate glue who keeps the rest together. They work together amazingly well.

The FF usually has some guest stars, as well. Frankie Ray is the guest in most of the trade and I definitely enjoy the Inhumans and the rest of the (supernatural) cast. The villains are also, of course, half of the fun. However, this trade didn’t really have the most impressive villains; Diablo and the Puppetmaster aren’t that great. Dr. Doom made a surprisingly short visit.

Overall: a good trade and the last story alone is worth getting it.

Yelena has been sentenced to death because she killed a man. However, shortly before her execution she is given another chance at life: if she accepts a position as the ruler’s food taster, she would be allowed to live. Without other real choices, she accepts and is quickly brought into the household of the Commander, the ruler of Ixia.

Valek, who is the Commander’s right hand man, teaches different poisons to Yelena who must be able to detect them by taste and smell. At the same time, he deliberately gives her poison. In order to avoid a messy death, Yelena must take the antidote every day. She is furious but Valek informs her coolly that it’s the only way to make sure that the convicted murderer, Yelena, will be loyal to her new employer.

Most of the people in the household are indifferent or downright hostile to her but Yelena finds a few friends which is a good thing because she feels that she can’t be safe. The man she killed was the son of General Brazell and the General is determined to get his revenge one way or another. Also, Yelena finds strange powers inside her and in Ixia all magic users are executed.

At the same time, Yelena becomes interested in Valek and his past. It’s rumored that Valek is the Commander’s assassin and he killed the old King on behalf of the Commander.

This book has gotten a lot of attention from the romance readers but I found the romance-side to be quite understated; barely even a sub-plot until near the end. I was also quite puzzled why Yelena would be attracted to the stone-cold Valek when there were some more palatable men in the story.

The world-building was very interesting. This isn’t a medieval world. Although fighting is done with knives and swords, there’s also a mention of guns and the medical technology is far better. I was quite a bit surprised though that bows were apparently used as melee weapons.

The magic seems to be mostly psionic: sending and receiving thoughts, using songs or sounds to confuse the enemies. Apparently, it’s an inborn talent and can’t be learned.

The culture is pretty interesting. The Commander and his troops killed the previous king and now rule the land. Ixia has been split into Military Districts and each General rules over one District while the Commander ruler the Generals. Also, the Commander chooses his successor. He set up the Code of Behavior which must be followed without exception. According to it, killing another human isn’t acceptable in any circumstances, everyone is assigned a job, and very few are allowed to move from one District to another. To me, this brought to mind a Communist state combined with absolute ruler ship; the rules work as long as the man on top is a benevolent tyrant.

By the way, the women in Ixia can take up about any job they want but apparently, they don’t hold position of power; there are some female soldiers but not female Generals. However, since under the previous King women had to pretty much stay in the kitchens, the power imbalance is likely a reflection of the short time women have been able to choose their jobs. However, there weren’t many sexist attitudes among the characters.

Yelena is a pleasant main character. She had reasons for killing the General’s son and they are shown slowly in short flash-backs early on. She’s determined, clever, and compassionate. She’s also not a lone wolf; when she finds out that many of the people of the household think that they shouldn’t befriend her because she’s likely to die soon, she becomes depressed. When some of the people become her friends, she’s glad. She’s doing her best coping with her emerging powers, her status are a pardoned murderer, and with being poisoned.

The secondary characters are quite good. I especially enjoyed the soldiers friends (or perhaps lovers? It wasn’t said) Ari and Janko, and their friendly banter. The amicable cook Rand was also interesting and I liked what Snyder did with him. Valek is pretty much too distant and aloof for me to form much of an opinion about him.

The plot was centered on politics and intrigue but had quite a lot of action and character interaction as well. A very good balance.

Overall: I enjoyed the book but since the most interesting characters aren’t likely to be in the next books, it’s going to take me some time to continue with the series.

Booking Through Thursday

What’s the lightest, most “fluff” kind of book you’ve read recently?

Thanks to a hectic end of the week, I’m a day late.

Anyway, some people would consider everything I read to be fluff: fantasy, science fiction, comics, mysteries. Maybe not the history books but even with them I tend to avoid pure war studies. (And war, after all, is apparently Serious Business. Possibly the only Serious Business around.)

The fluffiest to me are certainly the Justice League of America trade paperbacks. With books, I’d say Frost’s Halfway to the Grave and Synder’s Poison Study which I just finished.

This is the third book in the delightful Alchemist series which is set in the Renaissance Venice under the Doge Pietro Moro. Once again, Maestro Nostradamus and his apprentice Alfeo Zeno investigate a murder case.

Alfeo’s lover Violetta, who is also one of the finest courtesans in Venice, calls on the Maestro. She has a case for him: her mentor Lucia has been found dead in one of the canals with all of her jewelry intact. She has been dead and in the water for a few days. However, Nostradamus isn’t interested in the death of an elderly courtesan and he also thinks that the case would be impossible without witnesses or a crime scene. He also thinks that Lucia could have killed herself. As a courtesy, he does allow Alfeo to look into it for a short while.

Alfeo and Violetta start their investigation and find out a few strange things. One of the senators found Lucia’s body and kept her valuables from being stolen, which still means that the purported killer didn’t take them. Then they find out that another courtesan, Katarina, has been killed. Also, an old, sick noble man wanted to tell Nostradamus something after he had heard about Katarina’s murder. Unfortunately, the apparently kind and generous man died before telling anyone what he had wanted to say. How could his death be related to the courtesan’s?

Then Alfeo finds out that a third courtesan has been killed as well and starts to really be worried for Violetta’s sake. It seems clear that someone is killing courtesans and the Maestro decides to investigate after all in order to prevent a future murder. But before Alfeo can do much more, the ruling council of Ten forces him to stop his investigations.

This time Alfeo is plunged to the worlds of both the nobles and the highest paid prostitutes. And, of course, politics because politics belongs into both of those worlds. Violetta is his guide to both of the worlds although she knows more about the world of the courtesans. Alfeo finds out more about her profession than he would want to.

The luxurious Venice is again the backdrop to the story and it shines through in both the culture and the luscious descriptions. We also get some historical info. For example, about the War of the Fists where the working class men vented their aggression and everyone else apparently admired them. However, the history lessons are always pertinent to the story and usually brief.

The characters are again delightful: the crotchety Nostradamus suffers even worse rheumatism than usual and Alfeo tries to earnestly please his lover, and all other young women. Violetta is her enigmatic self: again she shows many facets of herself being in turn a tender lover, a canny politician, or a grieving friend. Many of the prostitutes don’t want to tell their secrets to anyone and the men who come under suspicion aren’t any more forthcoming.

The plot is a complex mystery with many twists.

Overall: an excellent continuation of the series.

Booking Through Thursday

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

Hmm. That’s hard because I tend to read only books I like to begin with. Probably Brandon Sanderson’s Hero of Ages in May. The whole trilogy was great for the twists it brought to the epic fantasy formula.

During summer I also read Sanderson’s Warbreaker, which was also very good. Peters’ The Snake, the Crodocile, and the Dog would have been in this group without a certain plot twist in it.

By Mark Waid and a whole host of artists. I love Hitch and Neary’s art and they’re in a fine form here.

The trade has three basic storylines: in the first one an evil Queen from fairy tales emerges to try to take her “rightful” place as the ruler of the world (and the most beautiful woman in the world, as well). Then there’s a brief about Dr. Destiny and his apparently ability to change reality. The lastly, there’s a longer story where most of the JLA have been divided into their superhuman and civilian identities.

The first story was clearly influenced by fairy tales, especially Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty but some of the others are dealt with as well. An unsuspecting woman reads an old book and so releases the evil Queen to modern Manhattan. She promptly uses her powers to turn the city into a magical forest and also sends her minions to terrorize the citizens. She sees Wonder Woman on the TV and believes that Diana is her ancient enemy – the only woman who is prettier than she.

The JLA arrives quickly and the Queen kidnaps Diana. The rest of the team then tries to rescue her from the glass coffin where she sleeps. At the same time, they are trying to find a way to defeat the Queen. Many of them miss Batman’s skills and the team is starting to divide into two.

The next story is quite short and is more of a staging ground for the start of the next story. The story starts with Superman telling about the case to Batman. He’s trying to convince Batman to return to the team by telling him how fractured the team had become. Dr. Destiny is causing trouble all over the world at the same time. However, the JLA knows that he is trapped in the Dreamstream. The team uses this knowledge to attack Dr Destiny in their dream forms.

The next story starts when Batman finds a group of people from his Batcave: Clark Kent, John Johnson, Bruce Wayne… He calls in the rest of the team. It seems that the “civilian” people are convinced that they are the real JLA and are baffled about why they don’t have their powers. Aquaman and Wonder Woman are the only ones without secret identities and they are also the only ones who aren’t affected.

Meanwhile, different people’s wishes come true all over the world. But the wishes have all been twisted somehow: a girl wishes a little bit of chocolate and the whole town is turned into chocolate; a homeless man wishes to be noticed and he’s given the power to change reality. The team has their hands full. Diana and Arthur are keeping a close eye on their team mates and they notice that the others are become more impatient and less human.

I really liked this trade. Throughout, the team is struggling to come to grips with Batman’s actions and there’s even some character growth.

I love the old fairy tales, especially the non-Disney versions of them, and the first story was mostly a real treat. Mostly, because I was a bit frustrated that the Queen sole motivation was to be the most beautiful in the land. I know it’s a classis motivation but still… Diana is so much more than just her looks. But I enjoyed the flying monkeys and the Hansel and Gretel dilemma poor J’onn had. It was also a great touch that J’onn, Arthur, and Diana weren’t familiar with the stories (of course, since they hadn’t grown up in modern society) while the Kryptonian who grew up in Kansas was.

However, I was somewhat confused by the ending. I don’t think that you can just swap an ordinary book for a magical one.

I also loved the third story where we’re shown how much the heroes need their more human halves.

Overall: one of the best JLA trades I’ve read.

Kit and Nita are in deep trouble again. This time the “problem” is Nita’s younger sister Dairine who knows that Nita is a wizard and wants very much to become a wizard, too. Nita wants nothing more than for her little sister to leave her alone.

Dairine wants to get as much information as she can. She’s especially interested in computers and her parents have just bought them one. She notices something different in the programs – they have the Apple logo but with a full apple. She continues to run them and soon realizes that this isn’t an ordinary program or computer. She can make a copy of the computer and take into some kind of pocket plane which she can take with her to any place without others noticing.

Kit and Nita leave for New York and Nita’s father forces them to take Dairine with them. However, in New York she starts to experiment with the computer and notes that she can make it do even more unusual things. She opens a gateway to Mars and leaves to explore the universe.

Once Nita and Kit realize what has happened, they are of course furious and concerned. Nita’s and Dairine’s parents are even more so. However, they have no choice but to send Nita and Kit after Dairine.

This time we are shown a much larger universe outside Earth. It’s a large and well populated universe where most life forms bear no resemblance to humans.

The point-of-view varies between Nita and Dairine every other chapter. The theme of the book is exploration of both the universe and self. It’s not centered on violence.

Dairine is a science fiction nut who greatly enjoys exploring the planets in our solar system and beyond. She learned from an early age that she needs to have knowledge in order to survive. She’s also highly intelligent and not afraid to show it. That annoys many people, including Nita.

Even though Nita isn’t much older than Dairine she feels like a much more experienced as a character and of course she has used magic quite a bit longer than Dairine.

I enjoyed that usual minor characters Macchu Picchu, Carl, and Tom. (Even though here Nita assumes that Carl and Tom are just friends who happen to live together…)

This was also the last book in this series that was translated into Finnish. Too bad.

Overall: An enjoyable continuation of the series.

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