In which Bryan Hitch starts his run proper on the Justice League and tells a story which is big on spectacle, but short on detail. Does that matter? Let’s find out.
I just might be in love with Tony Daniel’s artwork. Issue 1 of the Justice League opens with a glorious splash page of Wonder Woman diving downwards through the air while flak and missiles explode all around her. It is magnificent and I would quite like it to be a framed poster on my wall. Turn over the page and we’re treated to a double page spread of Diana landing, wielding her lightning bolt against a bunch of Russian soldiers and tanks. Once again, it is impressive stuff with bodies and hardware being tossed around like toys in a show of strength that rather belies her declaration that she is “on a mission of peace”.
This, I think, is the first slight problem with the issue. In these pages and the ones that follow, Diana attacks the Russians in devastating fashion, but, aside from a general lecture about peace and the various things to which human beings devote themselves that prevents it (including “border disputes”), there is no clear context for her actions. Is this a reference to the current crisis in the Crimea and Ukraine or something else? We only see the Russians, not who they’re fighting or, for that matter, any civilians that might be caught in the crossfire. If Diana thinks that attacking random Russian battle groups is the way to bring peace to man’s world, she might want to take a few lessons in politics first. In a sense it doesn’t matter, but fiction tends to be more successful when it is grounded in a believable world. When a huge earthquake shakes the area (wherever it is), a Russian soldier accuses Wonder Woman of having “killed [them] all”, rather implying that, when she tossed a bunch of tanks up in the air a few pages earlier, somehow none of the tank crew were killed in the process. The story’s too busy moving to care about such issues, but the dialogue raises them anyway, leading to a slightly jarring reading experience.
The focus shifts to Beijing (oh, so now you’re going to tell us where we are, Mr Hitch) where the two Green Lanterns, Jessica and Simon are doing their best to keep the city from collapsing, shoring up buildings with green… stuff. Then it’s off to New York, where Cyborg stops a subway train from crashing into some cars that have fallen through earthquake-generated gaps in the tunnel roof to land on the tracks below. This is all pretty good, actually. We get a clear idea of how widespread the earthquake problem is and we get to see the League members in full-on hero mode, saving lives and, to some extent, property. One of the best sequences, though, is Flash’s intervention in San Francisco in which his speed is emphasised by the simple but very effective image of a falling bottle of water. This is all engaging enough – in a visual as well as emotional way. After all, if the idea of specially powered superbeings putting their lives on the line to save people doesn’t grab you by the heartstrings, why are you reading superhero comics to begin with?
But, we’re already halfway through the comic and we’re not really progressing that much, particularly when we move to Atlantis to see Aquaman trying to deal with the earthquake (seaquake?) that’s taking place there. It’s only when we shift back to the two GLs who are now trying their best to save Hong Kong from a huge tidal wave, that things begin to get more interesting. Some of the civilians seem possessed by a strange power (complete with glowing red eyes) and, chanting something about “stolen light” and “our light” they somehow siphon off the Green Lanterns’ emerald energy. We see Jessica and Simon falling towards the sea and then we’re back with Wonder Woman and things get… weirder.
Again, the idea of things being “stolen” comes into play as the Russian soldiers (most of whom are, I’m going to assume, dead) lurch forward, eyes glowing, talking about “stolen power”. The same is true of Flash in San Diego; this time it’s stolen speed.
Then things get weirder still, when it turns out that a giant alien bio-mechanical missile has landed in Gotham City and begins to release hundreds of that seem intent on attacking the populace. While Batman is typically efficient, the story doesn’t hang around too long, as we move back to Atlantis where, once again, people are being possessed and talking about “stolen words” this time. What does any of it mean?
At this point, we don’t know and, in a sense, we don’t need to know. This is the first issue, after all. When we move back to Eastern Europe (finally!) and find Wonder Woman trying to tackle a horde of (possibly) undead soldiers who are moving through the air like a shoal of fatigues-wearing fish, we find out (because the aforementioned soldiers are helpfully telling us) that something called ‘The Awakening’ has started and that something called ‘The Kindred’ is coming. There’s also a reference to Diana’s ongoing search for her true origins as one of them calls her a “pretender god”. All intriguing stuff, but, while Daniel’s artwork portrays Diana beautifully, her speech essentially consists of the kind of posturing that, without some clear context, sounds quite hollow. “The Kindred? Well hear me now, Kindred. I have friends. And we’re coming for you.” Apart from the fact that that’s the second time in a few short pages that we’ve heard a member of the JL refer to the other members as “friends” (awww), the dialogue is mostly remarkable for its macho stupidity. While it’s not unreasonable to assume that the Kindred (whatever they are) are hostile, there’s still so much mystery here that it seems foolish for Diana to leap to conclusions like this. As a way to end the issue it works well enough, I suppose, but it leaves more questions than it answers and also leaves a slightly unsettling feeling in this reader’s mind at any rate. There are some pretty big assumptions being made here, and, as we all know, if you assume you just make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’. (Yeah, one of the worst sales managers I’ve ever encountered taught me that a long time ago. Never mind, eh?)
As a spectacle, Justice League issue 1 delivers. Tony Daniel’s artwork is impressively kinetic and his character work is phenomenal. As a story, the issue is a little more difficult to assess. While the feeling of worldwide catastrophe is successfully conveyed, by having the JL essentially deal with issues on their own, the story goes round in circles a little as Hitch tries to give each hero his or her time in the spotlight. Consequently, we’re actually not that far along by the time we get to the end of the issue. Numerous concepts have been introduced – the Kindred, the invading bug-missile, the earthquakes – but there’s no clear indication of how they’re connected to each other. Perhaps things will get better in future issues. This one, though, is a spectacular introduction to the series, which, despite some high concept stuff, falls short of being genuinely engaging.
Roll on, issue 2.
Bryan Hitch carries on his affair with the Justice League. Is it true love? Will it last? Or will it end messily? Who knows? But here’s how we start phase two…
Justice League: Rebirth is mostly about Superman. The opening four pages are narrated by him and, to be honest, those opening four pages are pretty impressive. If it’s one thing that Hitch does well (and, to be fair, he does a lot more than just one thing well), it’s… epic. As the Rebirth Superman (who is actually the pre-Flashpoint Superman after the New 52 Superman died) declaims his monologue, Hitch gives us scenes of an alien creature invading a city and of people running around in panic before Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg and the Flash show up to repel the invading monsters, which look a bit like giant flying leeches. Honestly, it is pretty damn good. Hitch has always done epic visuals astonishingly well and his work here, though not quite matching his stuff on The Authority or The Ultimates, nevertheless does the trick of taking our breath away. It’s a fairly obvious point to make, but these pages have an undeniably filmic quality and it is very easy to imagine them forming the storyboard for the opening of a Justice League film that is probably going to end up being directed by Michael Bay.
As the JL members try to deal with the situation, the widescreen action is intercut with slower character interaction – either Superman and Lois talking through the issue of whether he should help out the JL or a flashback scene on the Watchtower in which the JL members try to get their heads round ‘their’ Superman’s death. And that is pretty good, actually. This structure is fairly straightforward but the contrast works well and there’s a genuine sense of increasing threat, as the giant crab/shrimp thing sends out its drones to enslave unsuspecting civilians and gather them into itself.
There’s a quick scene featuring the two Green Lanterns that foreshadows events in the new series proper and then we follow the JL into the belly (or, more accurately, brain) of the beast. Again, this is done fairly well. Some of the dialogue is a little banal, but every so often Hitch provides a zinger. (Batman’s “We’re going to find its brain, and negotiate the terms of its surrender.” is a great example.) Tension is increased as Aquaman is subjected to a telepathic assault that handily fills him in on what the creature wants and what it’s called (a Reaper, apparently), and then the creature responds to the team’s intrusion with a wave of smaller drone-squids. Although Flash’s “Action scene, people!” is annoying, this section as a whole is pretty exciting. The GLs arrive but it’s clear their presence isn’t going to be enough to turn the tide. This is, obviously, a job for…
I must confess that Superman’s arrival did cause my heart to leap and a big grin to spread across my face. We knew it was coming, but Hitch draws the man of steel perfectly here, smashing through the creature’s body and blasting away with his heat vision. Hurrah for Superman! There’s a nice pic that seems to consciously ape that moment that ends the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer, in which all the characters are in action in the same shot, facing the same way, working in unison. What the hell. It works.
So, too, does the page on which the JL, having broken the Reaper’s hold on the populace, warn the creature that the Earth is protected in a manner that strongly echoes the Doctor’s speech at the end of the Doctor Who episode ‘The Eleventh Hour’, the story that introduced Matt Smith as the Doctor. Not that I object to that, particularly. It is pretty cool.
The final page is a splash page as predictable as it is dramatic and the issue leaves the reader (well, this one at any rate) with a building sense of excitement for the rest of the series.
As a primer to the new series, Justice League Rebirth does its job pretty well. The plot is coherent and exciting; the character stuff mostly works, too. It reinforces the notion of the JL as global protectors and it also introduces the idea of the team working against external planetary-level threats reasonably well. All good.
The problems? The main problem is that, its portentous final words (helpfully relayed by Aquaman) notwithstanding, the main threat of the issue is not really fully explained. We’re still not entirely sure just what the Reaper wanted with the Earth’s population, and there’s a missed opportunity here to make the threat more specific and, potentially, more terrifying. I’m not going to quibble too much about that, though. It was great seeing the characters work together and it was especially great seeing Superman (re)join the League. The dialogue could arguably have been a bit snappier, but I’m prepared to give it a pass on this occasion and declare this issue a (slightly qualified) success. So far, this stage of the Hitch-JL love affair is off to a steady and intermittently exciting start.
Back when I was a teenager, Firestorm was a superhero of whom I was particularly fond. The character originally appeared in a short-lived book which suffered early cancellation because of the infamous DC Implosion in the late 70s. I’ve never seen that initial series, but the Fury of Firestorm, which started in 1982 with original writer Gerry Conway on scripting duties and Pat Broderick (and later Rafael Kayanan) on art was a staple of my monthly comic buying.
Firestorm is a pretty unique hero, born of the nuclear accident-induced fusion of two distinct personalities: Ronnie Raymond, high school jock and teen everyman, and Professor Martin Stein, a nuclear physicist whose luck in a variety of areas – career, relationships with the opposite sex and being in the middle of runaway nuclear reactions, to name just three – is truly abysmal. Arguably Ronnie gets the better end of the deal. When the pair transform into Firestorm, he at least gets to keep his body. Stein, on the other hand, is reduced to a disembodied consciousness, represented in the comic by a floating blue-outlined head.
For me at the time, Ronnie was easily the more compelling of the two characters. Despite my reasonably comfortable middle class existence and the singular lack of a flame-haired dual personality alter ego, the whole sense of teen tragedy was profoundly appealing. To be fair, a lot of this was down to Conway’s writing. Not only was his narration drenched in the kind of melodrama that was everywhere in 80s comics, but his plotting was relentless. If Ronnie wasn’t coping with being Hyena-fied, then he was being captured, imprisoned and used in weird nuclear experiments. Or he was seeing his Dad (apparently) dying in an explosion. Nowadays, Martin Stein’s worries about money, career prestige and the demands of his curious relationship with Ronnie Raymond and Firestorm seem much easier to relate to. Perhaps it’s the experience of raising two boys, but the sight of a disembodied head spouting advice to a teenager who largely ignores it is an oddly familiar and reassuring one.
Issue 19 is a curious beast. It comes after a complex and dramatic storyline that had begun in issue 14 and just finished in the first The Fury of Firestorm annual. This storyline had seen the re-introduction of old nemesis Multiplex and the first appearance of villain-turned-hero-turned love interest Firehawk. It also featured that aforementioned death of Ronnie Raymond’s dad and the reappearance of Martin Stein’s ex-wife. Compared to the soap operatic quality of what had preceded it, issue 19 is a much simpler, self-contained tale. It would be easy to dismiss it as filler, but it is noteworthy both for Conway’s script (more of which in a moment) and the fact that, despite the information on the cover, it features stand-in artist Gene Colan who was one of the giants of the genre and remains one of my favourite artists of all time.
To my teenage self, Colan was most associated with Detective Comics which featured him as artist on the main strip at roughly the same time as my collecting of The Fury of Firestorm and Marvel’s Doctor Strange, back issues of which would sometimes appear in the big pile of random comics on sale at the used book stall in Southport’s draughty and dour indoor market. (It’s since been refurbished, to be fair. Very nice. The current lack of a book stall, however, is a big disappointment.) Now that I’m (a bit) older, my appreciation extends to include his phenomenal Tomb of Dracula run, Howard the Duck and a variety of shorts for Warren’s horror magazine titles.
Seeing him on a title like The Fury of Firestorm is, at first, a little jarring – at least, I thought so at the time. Now, though, I’m not so sure. Whether by accident or design, Conway has crafted a story that really suits Colan’s talents. The opening three-page prologue is a masterclass in visual horror. In the opening page, we are implicitly placed in a voyeuristic, almost furtive, position as we spy on an overweight bespectacled night watchman eating a sandwich. The storytelling is economical but atmospheric. We move from establishing shot to violent sneezing (observed by a sinister shape in the shadows) to a strangely quivering vine hovering over the dishevelled night watchman over the course of just three panels. What’s impressive about it – and this is typical of all Colan’s figure work – is that, during the course of those three panels, the night watchman, Bernie Jones, has already transcended the role of stock victim assigned to him by the plot. His movements and facial expressions are naturalistic and sympathetic. It’s an impressive feat that succeeds in both establishing the scene and drawing the reader in, setting him/her up for…
The splash page, which reveals the night watchman ensnared by plant tentacles and also reveals this issue’s antagonist, the ‘Golden Boy’ of the story’s title, whose look and powers are plant-based. Goldenrod could have looked like a straightforward Flouronic Man rip-off, but Colan’s art, which keeps much of his face hidden in shadow and emphasises the streams of pollen pouring from his fingers, neatly sidesteps this potential pitfall. As does Conway’s script. “Scream if it helps, old man. I screamed too… once. But no one came for me.” As horrifying as Bernie Jones’ death is (and the art makes clear that it is horrifying), there’s a definite sense that the strange plant guy has a very personal reason for what he’s doing and that the night watchman is simply collateral damage.
The next page (an hour later) Firestorm arrives at the crime scene. This is interesting because gatecrashing ongoing police investigations is generally not something Firestorm has done too often at this point. Indeed, Conway has Stein wondering just why they’re patrolling the neighbourhood looking for crimes to solve. He kind of has a point, too. Firestorm’s power set is not exactly suited to the kind of detective work he’s about to engage in, but Ronnie’s answer (effectively a variation on Spidey’s ‘great power, great responsibility’ mantra) works well enough for me. That said, it quickly becomes clear just why Firestorm doesn’t go on night patrol too often. Unlike, say, Batman or even the Green Arrow, he just doesn’t quite have the presence to pull it off. Sure the top half of his head is permanently on fire, but that costume…
Anyhow, Firestorm doesn’t get an entirely warm reception from the police, but he does get reluctant permission to snoop around the crime scene, which leads him to a clue. This in turn leads him to… a public phone box in order to access a telephone directory? Weird, isn’t it, to be reminded what people used to have to do before the internet was a thing? This actually provides the creative team the opportunity to present us with one of the best scenes in the entire comic. Having located a telephone directory, Firestorm is confronted by a gang of the sort of ruffians who hang around public phone boxes waiting to beat up anyone who happens by – even if it’s a superhero whose head is permanently on fire. Needless to say it doesn’t go particularly well for them.
Conway and Colan have some fun here. I’m not sure why Professor Stein is such a worrywart but I, for one, am glad that Ronnie ignores his prompting to leave and lets rip at the hapless gang members. And when I say ‘lets rip’ I mean, of course, uses their surroundings or, in one case, clothing to stop them, disarm them and generally make them look a bit silly. You see, Firestorm’s powers have one important constraint. Neither his nuclear blast nor his molecular rearranging powers can be used against living matter. This means that both he and the character’s creators have to get creative when dealing with enemies that, as here, are flesh and blood. So, we get to see one thug get knocked off his feet by a toadstool that appears from nowhere, another swallowed by a giant clam and the guy with the switchblade and the cool threads robbed of both his weapon and his street cred by finding his knife has become a shepherd’s crook and he’s suddenly wearing a rather fetching Bo Peep outfit. (It is, of course, entirely possible that this enforced transvestitism (to borrow a phrase from Father Ted) will mark a new more gentle and feminine direction in the life of the aforementioned thug, but, given the fairly rigidly-defined gender roles of 1980s comics, I rather doubt it.)
Firestorm’s dialogue here is cornier than a warehouse full of breakfast cereal, but he’s a teenager. I’m willing to cut him some slack. What I am somewhat surprised by is that a previously deserted night-time street very quickly fills up with bystanders who are eager to talk to one another about how great Firestorm is. I’m presuming there wasn’t much on the telly that night.
Having acquired the necessary information, Firestorm heads off to Ollins Labs, but not before carelessly dropping the telephone directory from a great height and inadvertently disrupting a romantic rooftop meeting between two young lovers. I’m not entirely sure what the point of this is, but it’s in keeping with the levity of the last few pages, so fair enough.
Things get more serious from here on in. Ollins Labs turns out to be an ultra-modern research facility that, apparently, once offered Stein a job. On entering, Firestorm interrupts Goldenrod in the middle of doing… something. We’re not quite sure what but it must have been important because he’s very annoyed at Firestorm for distracting him. Fighting ensues.
From start to finish, the fight lasts five pages. And it’s pretty good. Firestorm uses his powers a grand total of three times. That doesn’t seem a lot, but he’s on the defensive for most of the fight, having to deal with both writhing plant tentacles and a violently allergic reaction to Goldenrod’s pollen attack at the same time. At one point a “tornado of pollen” propels him through a glass window, giving him a few moments to catch his breath and try to go on the offensive, but his giant mousetrap doesn’t work (I’m not sure why it doesn’t; that thing is huge) as Goldenrod sidesteps it and he’s back on the defensive again. Colan’s artwork is pleasingly kinetic here and there are some unusual perspectives at times, too, which only add to the overall feeling of weirdness at this point.
As fights go, it’s enjoyable enough with Firestorm on the ropes in the final round, only surviving because he managed to get his hand free, dislodge a gas pipe and light the resultant gas, causing an explosion that frees him from the slow, strangling grip of plant tentacles, while simultaneously destroying… well, most of the lab and the plants, but not, curiously enough, the nearby PC terminal which, despite the explosion and fire, still manages to be functional and proudly display the next vital piece of plot information.
Neuvafed. Remember that name, because Ronnie Raymond doesn’t. Hardly surprising, I suppose, considering that it’s an experimental anti-allergy drug that was discontinued because it didn’t survive FDA scrutiny. Professor Stein does, though. It is one of the story’s happy revelations that not only is Stein a world class physicist but he also keeps up to speed on the world of high-end pharmaceuticals. And it’s handy that he does. Neuvafed was discontinued but its developer is, apparently, an “irresponsible genius” who “advocates human testing”. Erm… are the alarm bells going off in anyone else’s head or is it just mine?
And, indeed, when Firestorm follows the trail to the home of the scientist who developed the drug, he finds out the truth from the aforementioned scientist who is about to die from an extreme allergic reaction (with “bloated dissolving flesh… chills their very souls” Conway is hitting peak melodrama here) but still has the time to give our hero – and us – Goldenrod’s origin story. It seems that Goldenrod was a Harvard ‘golden boy’ whose law firm went bankrupt; to pay the bills he submitted himself to illegal experimentation, died when the anti-allergy drug he was testing went horribly wrong and was dumped in a ravine. This being comics, his death merely acted as a transition stage for something else. There are echoes of Swamp Thing in the origin here, I suppose, and Bruce Bonwit can be added to the very long list of unethical scientists whose work has inadvertently led to the creation of a superbeing. The ideas may be well-worn at this point, but they’re serviceable enough to work here.
What is strange, though, is that although Goldenrod has been successful in wreaking revenge on his ‘creator’ (yep, the Frankenstein trope is strong here, too), he sticks around and takes on Firestorm. He really doesn’t need to do this, although the dialogue suggests he thinks he has to. He could conceivably go somewhere else to start a new life for himself pollinating plants in a garden centre or something. Instead, he’s drawn into a final confrontation with our flame-haired hero.
Compared to their first fight, this one is decidedly downbeat. Firestorm doesn’t want to fight Goldenrod; in the end, he opens up a fissure in the ground beneath him with a nuclear blast and Goldenrod tumbles down inside it. Firestorm seals the crevice, but the earth starts to shake and it is clear that we’re not done yet. Which is good, really, because if that was the ending, it would have been one heck of an anti-climax. Conway’s too experienced a writer to do that, though, and the penultimate page is a dramatic full-page splash that shows Goldenrod ascending in a stream of light and pollen, while, in the foreground, Firestorm is caught mid-air by the blast. It’s a very nice piece of artwork and it leads to a poignant ending in which Goldenrod, anguished by what he’s done and the existence that he now has, “seeds himself” across the area by exploding in a shower of pollen in the night sky.
So, that’s Fury of Firestorm 19. A nice self-contained issue with some impressive artwork from Colan and some pretty decent story-telling that, despite a couple of clichés, nevertheless manages to evoke some genuine pathos at the end. These days in comics, there’s a lot of focus on big events, crises, new characters etc. Not that I don’t like epic multi-part stories, mind you, but I must confess I sometimes find myself nostalgic for the days when it was possible to pick up an issue of a comic and get a fully-fleshed out, well-structured story that managed to be both funny and exciting as well as packing an emotional punch. That’s what Fury of Firestorm issue 19 manages to be and I’m glad I’ve had the chance to revisit it.
 Did the company not invite Stein to tour the facility? If they did, then surely Stein would remember its location, thus rendering the previous four pages completely pointless. If they didn’t, maybe he wasn’t as much of a shoo-in for the position as he seems to think.
I started this review shortly after seeing the Batman vs Superman film back in April. It’s now August. This is simply how my life works at the moment. Still, here it is. Finally.🙂
So, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (from henceforth known as BvS). There’s a thing. The film that started off as a straightforward Man of Steel sequel and then became a (sort of) World’s Finest film and then eventually a bridging film between Man of Steel and the newly conceived Justice League movies has been released and I have watched it.
Even someone with the most superficial of social media presences could not avoid hearing or reading something about the film in the run-up to its release. Most of what I heard was not especially promising. The trailers and the press releases led me to the following conclusion: BvS would be an interesting but imperfect film; it would be typically Snyderish – big on spectacular visuals and bent on wrestling with big philosophical themes in a generally unsatisfactory way. Oh, and it would be coated liberally with a layer of grit that managed to be both shiny yet somehow very very dark.
And I was right. More or less.
BvS is indeed a bombastic big-screen iteration of the kind of self-consciously ‘dark’ stories popularised and taken to their sterile extreme by both the big two comic companies (and their many, short-lived imitators) in the early 90s. It is imperfectly structured and presents a story that hangs on one (or two) too many coincidences. It is violent and tackles its big theological and philosophical themes in an entirely predictably over-stated and relatively unsubtle way. It is also weighed down by its function of introductory vehicle for a wider DC Universe that its audience has yet fully to experience. (An almost complete reverse manoeuvre of Marvel’s more systematic and thorough build-up to Avengers Assemble.) And yet…
I really rather enjoyed it.
At least part of the reason for this is the first ten minutes. The film opens with a re-telling of Batman’s origin story, an in-credit-sequence revisiting of the death of his parents which, though arguably unnecessary, is nevertheless stylishly and powerfully done, although cinema’s fetishisation of Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace has surely now reached its apotheosis. (The impracticality of Joe Chill placing his pistol inside the necklace makes the moment more than a little bizarre.) That said, the re-telling is not as laboured as others, boiling the origin down to its essential elements and it’s always good to see Jeffrey Dean Morgan (although perhaps not if you’re a fan of The Walking Dead).
The movie then shifts to one of the most gripping sequences of the entire film – a ground level view of the battle of Metropolis, and it is executed pretty much flawlessly. Snyder’s direction is kinetic and exciting without being unnecessarily jarring (Larry Fong’s cinematography is generally very good throughout, too) and we get a very powerful and clear understanding of how vulnerable and powerless human beings are while the supergods fight it out above them. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is introduced here and he is excellent – heroic, fearless and ultimately traumatised by the experience of being at ground zero as the city is destroyed around him. We see buildings collapse, streets choked with dust and civilians trapped under rubble – all grippingly desperate stuff. And, to a large extent, genuinely new. While we’ve seen similar scale destruction in the two Avengers films, it has not quite been portrayed to make this particular point or from the perspective of ordinary people caught up in the devastation and reduced to the role of victims rather than the grateful rescued (although the discarded Maria Hill-narrated opening to Avengers Assemble would have come close). In some respects, it reminds me of Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels, the seminal comic book series that presents the significant events of the early Marvel Universe from the viewpoint of an ‘ordinary’ photographic journalist. As a powerful introduction to the main themes of the movie, it is very effective; as a piece of cinema it is extraordinarily engaging.
It’s a shame, then, that shortly afterwards the film makes its first serious misstep. Having established the moral ambiguity and material threat of Superman’s collateral damage-filled ‘saving’ of Metropolis, the film takes us to the Middle East and a poorly explained encounter between some unpleasant looking terrorists and Lois Lane accompanied by a photographer who turns out to be a CIA agent and, much later – and more shockingly, turns out to be Jimmy Olsen. There are numerous things wrong with this section of the film, not least of which is the fact that it is utterly superfluous to the plot and dilutes the power of the previous few minutes of Metropolis carnage. While Amy Adams is excellent, the stand-off scene is resolved in a distinctly unimaginative way and the slaughter of one set of terrorists by another set of mercenaries (which is meant to ‘frame’ Superman) is heavy-handed and unnecessary when there are already perfectly valid questions to be asked of Superman after the rather messy way he handled Zod in Man of Steel.
In a sense, these two sections are representative of the film as a whole – bold and almost viscerally watchable on the one hand; awkward and disappointing on the other. Superman, after all, is possessed of heat vision, super strength and super speed. He is, in fact, literally faster than a speeding bullet. He really doesn’t have to bludgeon his opponent through two brick walls at super speed to save his girlfriend.
While that scene is disappointing on a number of levels, some of the subsequent Batman scenes raise more specifically moral questions. Batman has always been a morally ambiguous character. His Golden Age appearances frequently presented him as a vigilante who was singularly unconcerned about the eventual fate of his enemies. Indeed, his very first ‘case’ is resolved by punching a murderer into a vat of acid. Later comic book interpretations of Batman, however, have seen him adopt a ‘no-killing’ rule that most creators have believed to be a fairly important aspect of the character. It becomes clear fairly early on that Snyder does not share that belief. Behind the wheel of the Batmobile, Batman guns down enemies and blows up cars with ruthless precision; in hand to hand combat, he flips a grenade from one foe into the path of another, and disarms a knife-wielding thug before stabbing the hapless man in the shoulder with his own weapon. He also sets off another enemy’s flame thrower tank in one of the film’s more improbable sequences. The fact that all of this is stylishly and fluidly directed can’t quite mitigate the uneasy revelation that this is a Batman who kills without too much remorse.
It’s a good job that Affleck is so good, then. It could be argued that, in one or two scenes, his Wayne is a little anaemic, but his Batman is a brutal and driven force of nature, skilled in both unarmed and (in a breathtakingly impressive flash forward) armed combat and mercifully unencumbered by Christian Bale’s guttural and occasionally incomprehensible orc-voice. One of the film’s pivotal scenes (the resolution to the Superman/Batman fight) which relies on a coincidence so obvious I’ve never really noticed it, only works because Affleck sells it so well. The obsession with Superman that leads him to this point is similarly believable precisely because Affleck makes it so; he is ably assisted in this by Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, who is marinated in a world weary irony that softens the sharper edges of Affleck’s dialogue. It is Irons who provides most of the humour in the film (although Diane Lane gets the film’s one genuine laugh out loud line), and it is of a particularly dry, fine vintage.
Jesse Eisenberg is similarly excellent as Luthor. Although he is largely playing a slightly more megalomaniac version of Mark Zuckerberg (mind you, I have my suspicions about him) and much of what he does doesn’t really make a great deal of sense or relies too much on coincidental timing to be indicative of genius, he is never less than watchable. While he wears his bad guy status reasonably lightly, there are moments of genuine menace, not least in his scene with Holly Hunter’s rather impressive Senator Finch. Yes, his performance is eccentric, but we understand that this is at least partly Luthor’s attempts to disarm his opponents. It’s telling that it is only when he meets a politician who isn’t prepared to go along with him that he gets more serious.
You’ll have noticed that I’m focusing a lot on performances rather than plot. There is a reason for this. The plot, as I’ve already suggested, is a bit of a mess. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (more of her in a moment) wants a photo that belongs to her, and ‘steals’ it by copying it while still leaving it on Lex Luthor’s hard drive. This is a hard drive that contains files on other metahumans, all of which are identified by icons that suggest Lex knows rather more about the DC Universe than he really should. Lex’s plan consists of forcing Batman into an anti-Superman obsession by sending him paper clippings with provocative messages scrawled across them in red ink and manipulating one of his former employees, while also pushing a stronger anti-Superman sentiment onto the wider world. He imports Kryptonite into the country so that Batman will steal it (how does he know this?), betting that Batman will fight and kill Superman with it. Just in case Bats doesn’t, he also has some Kryptonian DNA in the form of Zod’s corpse with which he bio-engineers an ‘abomination’ who, we all know, will become Doomsday and make an appearance in the final act. He pushes Superman into fighting Batman by kidnapping Superman’s mother, but doesn’t seem to notice when they stop fighting and Batman goes off to rescue her.
Despite the plot holes, the movie remains an enjoyable experience and there are, I think, a few reasons for this. Firstly, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is magnificent. She is elegant and supremely confident out of costume and utterly enthralling in the film’s climactic fight scene. The moment when Doomsday knocks her to the ground and she looks up at him with a smile of genuine relish on her face might just be my favourite bit of the entire film. It gets to the heart of the character and is one of the film’s few punch the air moments.
Then there are the intriguing references to the wider DC Universe. Admittedly, if you’re not a fan with some pre-existing knowledge of DC comic history, these will most likely serve to confuse and weaken the film’s coherence quite significantly. Arguably that’s a cardinal sin that the more objective side of me has to acknowledge as a serious weakness, but, for the fanboy side of me, the Crisis on Infinite Earths-influenced appearance of the Flash, the Mother Box-enabled origin of Cyborg and the parademon-infested future vision of Bruce Wayne all serve to add extra excitement to the movie as well as hints to the possible future direction for the DC films. (It seems very likely that we’re heading for New Gods territory, which, honestly, is just fine by me.) Even then, though, there are still missteps. The flash forward really does need more context and the Aquaman clip is just… weird. (I’m assuming that this section of the movie was sponsored by L’Oreal, but I could be wrong.)
What does intrigue me, however, are the philosophical questions being asked by the film. I said earlier that I was expecting the film to grapple with some big issues in much the way that Snyder’s Watchmen and, to a certain extent, Man of Steel do. Although BvS doesn’t deal with them terribly well, they are at least framed in visually interesting ways and they are dealt with more thoroughly than they are in the otherwise superior Avengers: Age of Ultron. BvS does at least have a stab at examining whether the notion of superheroes still has any relevance in the early 21st century and, in doing so, it suggests to us that heroism and its counterpart villainy are not always (or ever) absolute qualities. Key to this examination are the two main characters of Batman and Superman. I’ve heard (and read) a number of critics point out that the film’s characterisation of Superman is off, that it is not, in fact, at all representative of the Superman of the comics. Superman is, in that sense, the film’s very own Kryptonite – he weakens the film and allows Batman to ‘steal’ it. I have some sympathy with that point of view.
When I first encountered comics in the early 80s, neither Superman nor Action Comics were titles I read with any regularity, unlike the Doug Moench/Don Newton/Gene Colan creative team on Batman and Detective Comics. There were a number of reasons for this, I think. For one thing, Moench was weaving a fairly densely plotted set of tales with a cast of recurring characters and an almost soap operatic style of storytelling; Newton and Colan’s artwork was phenomenal, too. (Gene Colan remains one of my all-time favourite artists; his Doctor Strange and Tomb of Dracula work is sublime.) Those stories were also kind of weird – dark in a pulpy, slightly twisted kind of way, rather than the more self-consciously brutal manner of post-Dark Knight Returns Bat-titles later on in the decade. Superman, by contrast, was, well, a bit bland, typified by stalwart artist Curt Swan’s solid but undemonstrative style. The stories tended to be one or two-parters and there wasn’t much sense of a more sophisticated building narrative. They were entertaining enough in their own way, but ultimately unmemorable. In these stories, Superman was the archetypal hero – good, earnest, powerful and possessed of a clear moral code. He was the DC Universe’s moral centre in many ways, its constant. The silly de-powerings and increasingly outlandish foes and scenarios couldn’t disguise that, in many ways, the character and his world were resistant to change.
Crisis on Infinite Earths was the wrecking ball that finally broke down that archetype. The 12-part epic which saw the ‘streamlining’ of the DC multiverse into a more coherent singular whole also gave the company the opportunity to reboot some of its more venerable properties. While George Perez was breathing new life into Wonder Woman (which should really be the subject of its own article), John Byrne did the same to the character of Superman, first in the Man of Steel mini-series and then in the new ongoing Superman title which saw a noticeably powered down version of the character take on both familiar and unfamiliar villains in entertaining and inventive ways. While the early stories were mostly self-contained, the sense of the world around Superman changing and developing was clear, with traditional characters like Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen given an 80s facelift and joined by new ones like Maggie Sawyer and her Special Crimes Unit. This developing world made Superman and its companion title Adventures of Superman worth investing in and the character proved his heroism by invariably finding, if not peaceful, at the very least non-lethal solutions to the situations he faced. The way he solved problems was always as important as the fact that he did. With reduced levels of power, it was more difficult – and thus more potentially dramatic – for Superman to save the day.
The 90s saw the Death of Superman storyline and the introduction of Doomsday, both of which are important plot elements in BvS. While Superman didn’t stay dead for all that long, DC continued to experiment with the character, even transforming him into an electricity-based character at one point (utilised memorably by Grant Morrison in his run on JLA, which included a scene in which an electro-powered Superman magnetically charges the moon and stops it from crashing into the Earth by the power of magnetic repulsion – yeah, yeah, another article). Through the various changes and tribulations, though, the core of the character – his confidence, his awareness that means matter as much (if not more) than ends – remained pretty much unchanged. What is significant about BvS’ portrayal of Superman, however, is how uncertain he is (except, to be fair, when bludgeoning girlfriend-threatening bad guys through brick walls). Coming so soon after his outing in Man of Steel, this is a Superman who is fundamentally unsure of his place in a world that is sharply divided about whether it wants him at all. (This lack of certainty is not especially helped by Martha Kent whose declaration that her adopted son doesn’t owe “the world anything at all” would surely be something of a surprise to Metropolis real estate developers.) In some respects, this makes the character very interesting; in others, though, it means that the only sympathetic character who appears to be 100% sure of her values and is willing to stand by them – who is, in a sense, truly ‘heroic’ – is a politician.
The film’s climax is impressively spectacular, but also a little disappointing. The gloomy CGI is oppressive and murky as if reflecting the film’s moral ambivalence and the Superman-as-Christ imagery (already introduced earlier in the film) which includes a nuclear crucifixion and solar-powered resurrection (no three day wait, mind. This is the movies) is beautifully shot but, well, just a little obvious. What is interesting, though, is the Excalibur homage in the very final confrontation between Superman and Doomsday. Having introduced the film in the opening credits (Excalibur is the movie showing at the cinema the Waynes walk past prior to being gunned down) as what I assumed was a neat way of fixing the movie temporally, Snyder demonstrates that he’s much more of a fan of John Boorman’s Arthurian epic than I thought, liberally borrowing the iconography of that film’s climax for his own. And I kind of like it. BvS’ coda shows us a Batman determined to rebuild a super-powered ‘Camelot’ in Superman’s honour, having been forcibly and dramatically reminded what the whole superhero thing is all about by Superman’s actions at the end. Arguably, Batman’s character arc is the emotional heart of the film and we can perhaps safely assume that there’ll be much less outright killing of bad guys in future outings for the character.
In that sense, by the end of the film we’ve returned to much surer and safer ground than the murky, treacherous footing we’ve been on for most of the film. Snyder’s movie can perhaps best be read as a somewhat over-blown but nevertheless rigorous examination of the very concept of the superhero and, while the ending is reassuring in its affirmation that, yes, the idea still has legs, the questions it asks us about the use of superior power and the potential dangers of intervention remain with us, both unsettling and sharply pertinent.
Overall, then, the film is very much a mixed bag – enjoyable but by no means perfect, thought-provoking, but not especially subtle. The expanded version has just been released on DVD/Blu-ray and it, apparently, improves the film. I’ll be interested to see it, but, if I were you, I wouldn’t expect a review of that any time soon!
Well, we’re all apocalyptic now. Here’s some Brexit fanfiction. (I can’t quite believe I just wrote that.)
Empire-Wide Public Announcement 13th September, 2034
>STAND BY STAND BY<
Citizens of the Empire, vassals, serfs and functionaries of the Dominions of America, Greater Europe and the New Russian Republics, give your attention to the following:
London has been liberated.
In the early hours of this morning, the brave soldiers of the 9th Legion of Tomsk and Kemerovo under the command of Brigadier-General Vassily Subarov, ably assisted by two squadrons of VenOM mechanised jetsuits, defeated the last remnants of the European Unionist Expeditionary Force after fierce fighting around the main secessionist strongholds of Threadneedle Street and Canary Wharf. Elements of the 3rd Luxembourgian Light Infantry, along with a small detachment of De Gaulle Mark V transformatanks, had occupied the old Bank of England building in Threadneedle Street for the last few days, using the slow advance of the Imperial Liberation Army across the M25 exclusion zone to dig in and fortify their positions. The soldiers of the Empire, however, ably assisted by local Faragist guerrillas, overpowered them in a breathtaking display of tactical mastery and superior weaponry.
Please watch the following footage carefully, noting the glorious might of the Empire’s VenOM jetsuits in close and brutal combat with the Unionist foe. Note the devastating efficiency of VenOM flamespray and miniature missile technology. Note the craven cringing cowardice of the Luxembourgian troops as they attack our glorious heroes from below. Note the impregnability of the VenOM armour. Workers in the Ohio and Michigan manufactoria, the Empire salutes your skill and proficiency.
Around Canary Wharf, combat was protracted and difficult. Secessionists from the London Separatist Movement, along with their perfidious allies from the Dusseldorf, Birmingham and Liverpool so-called free militia, put up stern resistance, having mined the North Colonnade with CrushSpyke anti-personnel charges and established sniper and heavy machine gun points throughout the complex. The forces of the Empire were victorious, however, through determination, skill and the limited and entirely justified deployment of deuterium grenades. Footage of this glorious combat will shortly be made available via the ImpNet Pay Per View service. Expert commentary and analysis is available on the Gold upgrade channel. Please see your ImpNet service provider for further details.
Two of the leaders of the secessionist movement were captured alive and ritually disembowelled before the Imperial envoy to the Greater British Isles, the Duchess of Luton and First Lady of the Admiralty, Salacia Trump, the God-Emperor’s seventh and most decorated wife. Resplendent in platinum and chrome ceremonial armour inlaid with mother of pearl and adorned with gold filigree, her golden hair restrained by a slender and unassuming coronet of office, the Duchess received the tribute with great magnanimity, bestowing a number of small tokens of grace on watching vassals who cheered wildly.
The Duchess will stay in London for the next few days while the new governor of the city is chosen, confirmed and anointed. An official announcement as to his or her identity will be made over the next 48 hours.
In response to the liberation of the Greater British Isles’ former capital city, the God-Emperor made the following proclamation, speaking from his hermetically-sealed sanctum at the apex of the tower that bears his name:
“Well, I gotta tell you, that was one tough fight. Very tough. But, you know what? We won! We always win! We keep on winning! Just like back in ’16. You know, they said it couldn’t be done, but we did it anyway. And again in ’20. The world was a tough place back then. Very tough. But we did it. And this today… this is a beautiful victory. I mean, just beautiful. Did you see those VenOM suits? Did you see them? Aren’t they great? Built here in America. Forget China. I’m telling you, America builds the best mechanised combat suits anywhere in the world and that’s a fact. Those are great suits. If it wasn’t for the implants I’d wear one myself but my doctor tells me I can’t because of the power differential. Maybe I will anyway one of these days, eh? Heheh. Yeah. But, no, London. I love London. I was there a few years ago. Lovely city. So much history. So much great history. And it’s terrible. Just terrible what the Europeans have done to it, but we’ll make it. We’ll make it great again. Because that’s what we do. London will be great again. That I can promise you. We’ll make it beautiful, and wonderful and just great. Good night. Love you all!”
… there’s no foe like Doom.
I’ve not been hibernating, honestly!
The job has been busy and I just simply haven’t had much time to update the blog. (Oh, and I became a grandfather, too! That’s been interesting.) I’m going to try and do something about that over the next couple of weeks. There’ll be some reviews hopefully, although I will actually have to finish some books first. There’ll definitely be some fiction and there may even be some political/cultural stuff. Who knows?
In the meantime, here’s some Silver Surfer…
Last birthday, my son (I may have mentioned him already) who is something of a comic aficionado himself gave me the first Silver Surfer Epic Collection. It is, as you might expect, rather good. I’m going through a bit of a Kirby phase at the moment. My teenage disdain for his Super Powers era style has given way to a sort of awestruck wonder at Kirby’s storytelling powers and a deep sense of shame that I could have ever been that ignorant. Rather than focusing on the whole collection (which would be difficult, because – yes – I still haven’t finished it), I’m going to look at a particular moment which, I think, highlights just how good the creative team on the title at this point were.
As is invariably the case with 60s Marvel, issue 57 of the Fantastic Four, which starts the second story arc in the collection, crackles with ideas, invention and the kind of over-the-top grandiose dialogue that was typical of the era. It’s also genuinely funny, not least when the Silver Surfer is summoned to the picturesque residence of Doctor Doom.
At this point, following his dramatic introduction during the FF’s first encounter with Galactus, the Surfer is essentially exiled to wander the Earth and has decided to stop off in Latveria. Whether he already knew that he was visiting the homeland of Doctor Doom is unclear. It’s the meeting that’s important ultimately and the Lee/Kirby partnership delivers us a really rather intriguing scene between two of the most iconic characters they have ever created.
That the Surfer, for all his power, is an ingenu, largely ignorant of the political machinations of people like Doom means that the reader, while generally sympathetic to the Surfer’s moral viewpoint, is considerably more aware of the threat posed by Doom than he is. The subsequent underlying tension in the scene is handled very well. Doom starts off by trying to flatter the Surfer, but the Surfer ignores this and cuts right to the heart of what Doom is all about: “Why do you rule other humans? What quality of leadership do you possess that so sets you apart?”
Doom’s answer is brilliantly disingenuous and is deliberately shown to be false by the creative team a couple of pages later. Having earlier proclaimed himself to be a “servant” to his people, Doom dismisses the Silver Surfer’s offer to rebuild the portion of Doom’s castle that he’s just destroyed as a way of demonstrating just how powerful the ‘power cosmic’ can be. (Technically it’s Doom that destroys it – the Surfer has merely built the weapon that he uses. Actually, that’s pretty clever, too, now I think about it. Rather than just displaying his power with a generic blast, the Surfer builds a weapon out of thin air whose simplistic and lightweight design completely belies its effortless destructiveness. This kind of approach has already been used in Fantastic Four in the form of the Ultimate Nullifier, a potentially universe-ending weapon that can fit in the palm of Reed Richards’ hand. A similar idea is used in the first Men in Black movie for a more explicitly comedic effect.) Doom responds by saying that the Surfer doesn’t need to exert himself. He’s got “serfs” for that kind of thing.
This moment is deliciously ironic, but also a great example of Lee and Kirby at the heights of their power. It’s memorable, genuinely amusing and reminds the reader that, while Doom’s literal mask (almost) never comes off, the self-aggrandising arrogance of the character can never be concealed for very long.
Epic fantasy. No. EPIC fantasy. Really big. Epic. Fantasy. Look, it’s 1180 pages long. You get the idea…
Reviewing a Steven Erikson novel is, I’d imagine, a bit like trying to sum up climbing an exceptionally high mountain. On some level, the experience has been arduous, but nothing can quite beat that sense of achievement and, oh, the memories, the moments of heart-pounding excitement and unexpected beauty… And that view!
Memories of Ice is third in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, but comparing it to either of its two predecessors is a futile task. Despite the fact that they’re all huge slabs of second world fantasy and there are some tonal and thematic similarities, they are all very much their own gigantic, quivering beasts. Memories of Ice takes place more or less directly after the events of the first novel Gardens of the Moon, in which the Malazan army led by Dujek Onearm is tasked with capturing the city of Darujhistan, the culmination of a long and bloody campaign on the continent of Genebackis. At the start of the third novel, Dujek has apparently gone rogue, forging an alliance with former enemies Kallor, Caladan Brood and Anamander Rake, the enigmatic ancient ruler of Moon’s Spawn. The alliance is necessary because a new power has appeared in the south of the continent, a fanatic cult led by a powerful Seer, who is himself a front for an older, malevolent power. In the face of this evil, old enmities must be set aside and a desperate race to relieve the siege of Capustan, an independent city halfway between Darujhistan and the Seer’s capital city of Coral, forms much of the matter of the first third of the novel. It’s absorbing and entertaining stuff. A novel of this size has plenty of scope for sub-plots and diversions and Erikson is in no great hurry to present us with the novel’s first big action set piece. It’s a good job that his world building and characterisation is so exceptionally good, then.
The appearance of recurring characters like Rake, Dujek and his cadre of elite engineers, the Bridgeburners, led by the nobleborn, god-touched Captain Paran and the taciturn but eminently likeable Whiskeyjack is reassuring, but Erikson has plenty of new characters to throw into the mix, too. The caravan guard, Gruntle, and his comrades Stonny and Buke; the very creepy Broach and Bauchelain, along with their longsuffering manservant Emancipor Reese; the officers of the Grey Swords mercenary company; Lady Envy and her enigmatic Seguleh companions; the Mhybe and Silverfox, tribal messiah-girl and the reincarnation of four separate spirits: all of these have significant roles to play in the narrative and, through Erikson’s remarkable ear for believable dialogue, they live vividly in the reader’s imagination as the story unfolds.
Erikson’s training in archaeology accounts at least in part for his detailed, layered world-building. History matters in the Malazan books; it influences the actions of the characters and binds them to specific places in often uncomfortable ways. This then lends the events of the novel considerable weight. When certain places are destroyed or changed, when certain characters emerge in answer to ancient needs or manipulations, the descriptions are replete with meaning. The world of the novels is being changed by the actions of the characters within them; this is not a heroic preservation of the status quo, but rather a brave attempt by our viewpoint characters to mitigate the effects of the changes taking place around them. This measured, layered approach – this making real a world of pure fantasy – is one of the most impressive achievements of the series and this novel in particular.
It is, I’m afraid, far outside the scope of this review to summarise the story in its entirety. Suffice to say that there are two major (and by ‘major’, I mean ‘massive and jaw-droppingly good’) military actions in the novel and Erikson is adept at not only describing the tactics and strategy involved but also conveying with an almost visceral intensity those moments when the allies’ plans encounter the enemy and are shredded into an incoherent full-blooded mess. Erikson adds another layer of mystery and intrigue, however, with the revelation that at least some of the participants in the combat have attracted the attention of this world’s gods and, indeed, he frequently reminds us that there is a partially hidden conflict taking place whose roots are ancient and sunk deep into a rich earth of malice and vengeance.
All of which sounds pretty dark. And it is. The Seer delights in torture and feeds his growing army with the bodies of his enemies; what happens to the Mhybe is heartbreaking, and there are some moments of genuine horror. That said, Erikson’s tone is nowhere near as nihilistic as, say, George R R Martin’s in Game of Thrones. In fact, in some senses, Erikson is the ‘anti-Martin’. His world is as layered and politically complex (although in a different way; Erikson’s gods are much more proactive than Martin’s seem to be) as Westeros, but his characters are not quite as self-serving or venal. Betrayal happens in the Malazan books, but so does heroism, although that heroism almost always carries a (sometimes unforeseen) cost. It’s here, I feel, that Erikson particularly excels. No one quite writes heroic moments like him. And I’m not talking cheesy cartoony heroics either. I’m talking… well, I’m talking about Itkovian, mostly.
Itkovian starts Memories of Ice as one of the commanding officers of the Grey Swords mercenary company who have agreed to help defend the city of Capustan. It’s a tough contract, not only because the city is facing a vastly superior force of cannibalistic religious fanatics, but also because it’s ruled by a council of squabbling priests. The Grey Swords are sworn to the service of Fener, the Boar of War, whose power is waning (and whom the reader has already encountered in the second novel, Deadhouse Gates). There is a sense of noble futility to all the Grey Swords; their religious vows mean they will see out their contract despite the seeming impossibility of the task. Itkovian, however, is the Shield Anvil, granted the power to bear the grief, sorrow and pain of the mortals around him. This gift is extended to his enemies as well as his allies and the siege of Capustan provides one of the most powerful moments in the series so far when Itkovian offers to take the pain of Anaster, First Seed, leader of the Tenescowri, the peasant army that has successfully assaulted the city. It is an understated moment of raw compassion that it is quite hard to imagine appearing in A Song of Ice and Fire; as powerful as it is, however, it is also a foreshadowing of a much more significant moment later on in the book.
It is characters like Itkovian that, just as much as the stunning action set pieces, make this novel so memorable and, yes, moving. I’ve said elsewhere that I’m a romantic, despite my occasional attempts to present a cynical front to the world. That said, I don’t want fairy tale endings or tired cliché; I appreciate moral complexity, characters finding their heroism in difficult circumstances, characters stumbling and falling. But, I also want to see redemption; I want to see the possibility of compassion triumphing over selfishness. I want, in short, for my fantasy stories to have at least some measure of hope. This is what Erikson provides here. In the middle of the devastation and loss (and at least a couple of important characters won’t be reappearing after this book – except in flashback!), in a setting that is rich in history and the tragedy that has shaped it, there remains a glimmer of hope. Characters change; characters learn. It is for this reason, along with the excellent world-building and exciting writing, that I have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending it.
 Okay. Confession time. I’ve only managed to make it through one and a half novels of Martin’s admittedly impressive A Song of Ice and Fire series, for reasons that I might go into in a later post. I am not at all questioning Martin’s considerable skills as a writer.