Hush and Arkham Asylum

by Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee, and Scott Williams; and
Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

 

In a Bored and Literate first, I’m going to take a shot at two books in one post. Alright, technically I’ve done it before, but only when reviewing two or more books of the same series, by the same author; Hush and Arkham Asylum, while both well-known graphic novels starring my favorite superhero, Batman, are very different stories with very different aesthetics.

And while not a Bored and Literate first, this is personally my first foray into the graphic novel genre. I read Persepolis a few years back, when it was assigned for a women’s studies class in college, but other than that, I’ve read nary a panel; no Batman, no Spider-Man, no X-Men, nothing. The closest I’ve come is the funny pages in the newspaper which, while containing a long-running Spider-Man strip, aren’t exactly comparable to reading a book.

But friends of mine–and friends of the blog–know that I do get down with comic book characters, with Batman being far and away my favorite. (I even had to review The Dark Knight Rises, a movie I saw at midnight on a Thursday, despite having to be at work at nine the next morning.) I love the characters, themes, aesthetic, and even the relative plausibility of Batman, and I love the ongoing meta-commentary about what Batman’s meaning and presentation. So this past summer, after a tempting visit to a comic book store, I resolved to finally visit the world of popular graphic novels, starting with Batman. But which books to choose? Luckily, that choice was made for me when a friend revealed his heretofore unknown comic book collection, insisting that I borrow Hush and Arkham Asylum.

With my Batman books in hand, it didn’t actually take too long to get through them, and here we are. Since I haven’t done this before, and I’m just making up the rules as I go, I suppose I’ll start by describing the books separately, before getting into the similarities, the contrasts, the subject matter, the format, and whatever else there could possibly be to discuss.

Hush

HushFor someone already familiar with Batman from movies, TV, and his place in the broader popular imagination, Hush was an incredibly easy transition into a new medium. The book begins with our hero chasing down leads to thwart a kidnapping plot, leading him to Killer Croc and Catwoman before a life-threatening injury forces him to retreat to the Batcave. He eventually follows the clues and encounters just about every rogue in the gallery, from the Joker to the Scarecrow to Superman–even the Green Lantern and Lex Luthor make brief appearances. As he grows frustrated with his pursuit, Batman also reflects on how his persona has, in many ways, destroyed any hopes he might have had for a life as Bruce Wayne.

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

Arkham AsylumIf Hush was crowd-pleasing and easily accessible, if somewhat uninspired, Arkham Asylum was small, dark, and surreal. Rather than depicting a mystery unfolding over the course of many days and nights, Arkham Asylum invites Batman–and the reader–to spend one night at Gotham’s infamous mental hospital, necessitated by an inmate takeover of the asylum and made urgent by the Joker’s sadistic and believable threats to Arkham’s staff. As Batman ventures deeper into the labyrinth, the audience is simultaneously given the twisted history of what had once been a private home and an exploration of the twisted minds of its current residents; the story of Amadeus Arkham, a man driven to the brink by Gotham’s cruelty, mirrors Batman’s own experience in the house.

Basically, these books could not be more different in style or tone. Broadly speaking, while both had beautiful art, Hush was much more centered on its plot than was Arkham Asylum, which instead used nightmarish visuals and heavy symbolism to tell its story.

I don’t know if I could say which I enjoyed more, though without a doubt I became more engrossed in the story of Hush. For one thing, the plot unfolded over the course of several days, with red herrings, betrayals, new leads, and dead ends. It was action-packed, but the separation into chapters gave the book room to breathe, allowing Batman to wax philosophic on his own existence. Arkham Asylum, on the other hand, was claustrophobic, and intentionally so. Taking place overnight, and across a century of Gotham’s history, Arkham Asylum nearly begs the reader to finish it in a single, two-hour sitting. So while I don’t think the story of Arkham Asylum was as good, each book accomplished what it set out to do. Hush succeeded in creating a serialized adventure with interesting characters, and Arkham Asylum was a thoroughly engaging and disturbing fever dream. On the plus side, as someone who has had trouble finishing novels recently, I can honestly say that I was never bored and I never lost focus with either book.

In addition to telling their stories differently, the two books also diverge in their depiction of Batman himself. Hush‘s Batman, as I mentioned, has time to reflect on his mission and his history; the book’s action is accompanied by Batman’s narration, which eschews the extremes of seriousness and silliness for  a quiet, self-aware internal monologue. While Loeb’s Batman often seems to see the humor in his situation, it is clear that he takes his role seriously, seriously enough to carry out his responsibilities even when they seem most futile.

With Arkham Asylum‘s treatment of Batman as a character, on the other hand, the first thing you notice is his appearance: McKean draws him as a dark, almost demonic figure, usually lacking a face or anything that would identify him as human. Indeed, befitting the book’s exploration of the line between reason and insanity, Arkham Asylum depicts Batman as a creature that would perhaps be more comfortable within the hospital, among its patients, than in the outside world. Unfortunately, while Batman’s visual depiction is thematically coherent and amazing to look at, his character, as created by Morrison, is largely reactive, especially towards his primary opponent. Not only does Batman only show up at Arkham at the Joker’s request, his silence stands in marked contrast to the Joker’s boisterous sexuality, to which Batman responds with obvious discomfort.

Yup, this happens

With respect to the artwork, I was much more drawn to that of Arkham Asylum than that of Hush. As I mentioned, Hush is story-driven, while Arkham Asylum allows the visuals and the atmosphere to take the lead; for me, it created a more immersive experience. With Hush, I never forgot I was reading a comic, but you could get lost in the insane and impossible images of Arkham Asylum, a credit to McKean’s craft.

So that about sums up my first foray into the world of graphic novels. It was a long time coming, but I’m very pleased with the books I chose. Hush and Arkham Asylum, while displaying different facets of Batman and his world, were both incredibly satisfying for me as both a Batman fan and a graphic novel noob. Hush told a grander story, but it also hinged on an incredibly stupid plot point that casts a childish light on the whole book, which is bad news for a medium already considered childish. Pressed, I would say I liked Hush better, though it’s almost like comparing a novel to a poem. (I’m just sounding pretentious now, so I think I’ll call it a day.)

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Towers of Midnight

by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

 

The previous Wheel of Time blog post was largely about the transition from Jordan to Sanderson. The next will probably be a lengthy wrap-up for the entire series. I don’t know how much there really is to say about Towers of Midnight.

I will try to say stuff anyway.

Overall, I liked the book, though it’s pretty clear there’s a checklist of things the characters have to do and places they have to be before we can move on to the finale. It’s foreplay. Or, for our younger readers, it’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. In other words, Towers of Midnight is cool, but even while you’re reading it, you’re already thinking about finishing. So to speak.

Just to get my main criticism out of the way, there was way too much Perrin and the Wolfdream. There’s always too much Perrin. I know I sound like a broken record, or that modern music your friend swears is huge in Europe. But there’s simply too much Perrin, and way too many dead wolves spouting pseudo-philosophical nonsense. It got old many, many books ago.

Alright. With that said, here are the best moments in Towers of Midnight, in no particular order.

  • Mat finally kills the fucking gholam. I don’t even remember where the thing came from; it was probably one of those prologue scenes featuring previously unknown Darkfriends, and it was probably in book seven or something. Regardless, Mat disposes of the gholam, and the loose plot thread, in a cool way.
  • Egwene gets put in her place. Why Jordan wanted to create a virtually flawless character I’ll never know, but it’s nice to see her at a loss for words when Perrin shows her up with his wolf dream skills. Immediately afterwards, of course, she instantly masters everything it’s taken Perrin thirteen books to learn, but whatever.
  • Elayne chooses to exercise her idiocy in a way that moves the plot forward. Okay sure, Birgitte is right about the “interrogation” of her captured Black Ajah being a really, really bad idea. It’s at least a fun action scene that doesn’t do anything we’ve seen before. Plus, it introduces the idea that Min’s vision–Elayne giving birth to healthy babies–might be wrong, a prospect that will hopefully be explored further in A Memory of Light.
  • Perrin and Galad. We always knew Galad wasn’t really a dick, even though he’s the most dickish “good” character, but Sanderson was still able to make the standoff between him and Perrin exciting. The presence of Morgase, the Whitecloaks, the dreamspike–it all came together quite nicely.
  • Mat’s rescue of REDACTED. I’ve never really understood the snakes and foxes. I guess they exist in parallel worlds where it’s normal for people to look like snakes and foxes? But somehow also they’re all-knowing about Mat’s world? Whatever it is, the whole book builds to this one particular scene, and it was great. Mat tests the boundaries of what his luck can do for him, and of course it works, because he’s fucking Mat.
  • Oh yea, the war. There is a war. Rodel Ituralde, one of the more memorable and likable minor characters, is in charge of defending Maradon. He does war stuff.
  • Rand kicks ass in the war. His appearance at Maradon is one of the most badass moments in the whole series. In a world with witches and wizards around every corner, it’s frustrating to watch the main characters constantly behave as if big medieval battles aren’t absurdly wasteful. I guess I’ve just been waiting for Rand to show how powerful a weapon of war he can be. His walk towards the enemy line to deliver a well-deserved ass-kicking, two bodyguards in tow, is one of the more memorable images of the series thus far.
  • Rand stops being grumpy. Self-explanatory. Major improvement.

That about does it. Unless there’s a secret fifteenth book that I don’t know about, my five-year Wheel of Time journey is about to come to an end.

The Gathering Storm

by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

 

The big story with The Gathering Storm, obviously, is Robert Jordan’s death and the introduction of a new author for the final three books. While some rockiness might be expected, given the change in writing style and even just the loss of Jordan’s guiding hand, for the most part I didn’t find the transition all that jarring. There are a few things, though, that I believe bear discussing.

First, let’s talk about Mat. I like to read without knowing too much in advance, but I’m not unaware of how fans see characters, plots, relationships, even entire books. The dope on Sanderson’s books included, among other things, his alleged misunderstanding of Mat as a character. Now, I liked Mat from the beginning; he’s comic relief, but he’s also just as powerful as the other main characters, and much more appealing as a character. That being said, as the saga progressed, it seemed like Robert Jordan’s main characters all converged into a single tired, brooding, unpleasant archetype. Jordan doesn’t let them have any fun, and I get the sense that none of the characters want to be there. Mat, especially, suffered from this. He’s always had a dark side, no doubt–the whole knife situation and whatnot–but in the later books, Jordan forgets that Mat is supposed to be lighthearted and fun, a foil to the responsible Rand and the almost comically self-serious Perrin.

Well, I guess a lot of people didn’t see it that way, given all the hate for Sanderson’s more “jokey” portrayal, but I think Sanderson found a way to return Mat to his roots and bring back some differentiation between the main characters. Now that he’s free of Tuon, Mat can return to his old rascally ways, spending his time drinking and ogling people that aren’t his wife. Compared to the unpleasantness of Ebou Dar, I’d say this is a significant improvement, even if it is a somewhat jarring transition.

Actually, I think Sanderson wanted to reset the plot and characters for the final three books, Mat included, so that he could create concise and satisfying arcs. Storm ends with two main characters, Rand and Mat, coming to new realizations about themselves and their role in Tarmon Gai’don. Now, maybe I’m wrong, but I just can’t picture Jordan structuring this book the same way. I don’t know why, but Jordan was always reluctant to give his plots any sense of finality; perhaps he  preferred to keep the characters busy and, in so doing, continue to draw the story out. To me, though, the constant addition of new plot elements, and the lack of any indication that Jordan wanted to wrap up any of his plot arcs, was growing stale. In that sense, Sanderson’s work is an enormous leap forward.

Further, Sanderson is unafraid to push against emotional boundaries that Jordan had never crossed. Without a doubt, The Gathering Storm had some of the most powerful scenes I can recall reading in Wheel of Time. Rand goes to about as dark a place as we’ve been in the entire series, and he takes us there more than once. And while we know, of course, that Rand is our hero, and that he can’t actually fall to “the dark side”, so to speak, Sanderson calls that assumption into question. Again, maybe I’m underselling Jordan, but it’s hard to imagine him being so bold.

The only fault I can really find with Sanderson’s work is that Egwene is still a poorly drawn character. Her only quality seems to be that she’s inexplicably good at everything, and while I’m hesitant to use the term, given all of its connotations, she comes across as very Mary Sue-ish. The rebels follow her, the novices look up to her, and the White Tower sisters almost immediately realize that she would make a better leader than Elaida–who then conveniently gets kidnapped and made into a slave. This “Kumbaya” outcome strikes me as unrealistically optimistic, especially when I consider American politics and some interesting parallels between our current regime and Elaida’s. In particular, the idea that the Amyrlin, who turned out to be a “useful idiot” for the Dark One, was selected by a minority of Aes Sedai and put over the top by Black Ajah traitors–it maybe hit a little too close to home. Given what’s happening to our democracy right now, the notion that Egwene would be able to walk into the White Tower and command respect by virtue of awesomeness looks naive, at best.

The Gathering Storm is notable most of all for Brandon Sanderson’s continuation of the series after creator Robert Jordan’s death. Nothing can take away from what Jordan built–his world building and intricate plotting are unrivaled–but there are some areas in which Sanderson has him beat. Neither author is solely responsible for these last three books, though, and their joint credit on the cover is a testament to Jordan’s and Sanderson’s united efforts to create a series finale that stands the test of time.

Knife of Dreams

by Robert Jordan

 

So I’m probably not going to achieve my goal of finishing in May. And by probably not I mean definitely not, given that it is currently, as I write this, May. But I’m doing the best I can.

Knife of Dreams is different from most of the installments in the Wheel of Time series, in that it actually seems to have a climax and ending. Previous entries have moved the story forward, slowly but surely, often ending with a major event, but plot lines never really seemed to end. Case in point: Perrin’s rescue of Faile. I’ve been complaining about the Perrin-Faile relationship since… well, basically since Faile appeared. She was kidnapped three books ago, and Perrin spent all that time whining about how she was gone and plotting how to get her back. In Knife of Dreams, it’s as if Jordan finally realized that nobody gave a shit, and reunited them.

He does this with other plots as well, bringing them to their logical conclusion so that the next book, The Gathering Storm, can start winding towards the finale. (Actually, it seems that Jordan envisioned Knife as the penultimate publication, with A Memory of Light coming as the twelfth and final book. When Sanderson took over, he made the decision to split up Memory.) I believe Jordan got sick and realized that he no longer had unlimited time to meander the characters towards Tarmon Gai’don, and he tried to move things along a bit. While he didn’t get to finish his series, he does go out on a high note, making Knife of Dreams the most exciting and momentous Wheel of Time book since The Great Hunt.

So Elayne’s succession fight ends, Perrin rescues Faile (bleh), Mat escapes the Seanchan, and Tuon returns to her people. Depending on how you count it, that’s at least three major conflicts that Jordan resolves by the end of Knife. Obviously, this makes for an interesting read, but it’s also such a relief just to know that things won’t keep dragging and dragging through the end of the series.

Two minor items. One: I fucking knew Moiraine was alive! So that was exciting. I was actually hoping that New Spring would provide some hints as to where she went and whether she might pull a Gandalf, but no dice. I was ready to give up on her, so I’m very glad she’s back.

Two: not to harp on the Perrin-Faile thing, but I was totally shipping Faile and her Aiel captor, as well as Perrin and Berelain. The latter seem to have more mutual attraction and respect between them than Perrin and Faile ever do, and at times it seemed that Perrin was starting to realize it. As for Faile, anything to move her from middling importance to minor importance would have been great. Plus, the Aiel love interest, Rolan, is a rare morally gray character in Jordan’s universe, unapologetically fighting for the Shaido Aiel while helping Faile and friends survive and escape Malden. Unfortunately, Perrin accidentally kills Rolan, and my dreams die with him.

Knife of Dreams shows Robert Jordan could still tell a great story, when he wasn’t distracted by creating more and more characters and plots to populate his world. Alas, he got close, but never got to finish the series he started. RIP Jordan.

Lolita

by Vladimir Nabokov

 

I originally started this blog in 2012 as a way to keep track of what I’d been reading, and to put (somewhat) coherent thoughts together right after I finish a book. I had a lot of time for reading, given my general lack of employment, but I didn’t always having someone to talk to when I finished something. Finally, finding that I had no one to talk to about Pale Fire, another Navokov work, I decided that if I wanted someone who would reliably listen to my scattered thoughts, that someone would have to be me. I began to mull the idea of a blog.

The rest is history

The rest is history

That is to say, reading Pale Fire in late 2011, and Lolita less than a year before that, led directly to my blog’s creation, as these were some of the last books that I read before I decided to share my thoughts with the world. Nabokov is a unique writer, one that cries out for attention, and I hoped to one day use my blog to provide it.

Lolita is a complicated book, to say the least. On one level, it’s a relatively sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile who lets his wife die so that he has a chance to rape her twelve-year-old daughter. That’s an accurate one sentence description of the book, one that you might be reluctant to give to anyone wondering what you’re reading, but it doesn’t nearly do the book justice. Lolita is about pedophilia, yes, but it’s about much more than that.

The novel records the misadventures of a European man, Humbert Humbert, whose one childhood experience with romance and sex leads to a lifetime of desire for adolescent girls. At least, that’s his own psychoanalytic rationalization of his desire for what he calls “nymphets.” Unable to find happiness in his native Europe, Humbert moves to America, where he continues his academic career, still unsatisfied with his life. Knowing it’s a long shot, he takes a chance by renting a room in a small New England town, hoping and praying that his host’s daughter will be an easy victim. Arriving in Ramsdale, his plans fall through, but things soon perk up for Humbert; he’s invited to board with Charlotte Haze and her twelve year old daughter, Dolores. Humbert immediately develops a crush on Dolores, or Lolita, as he prefers to call her.

Standing in the way of this perfect romantic set-up is Charlotte, who develops her own feelings for Humbert. He treats her with nothing but contempt, but she falls head over her heels, ultimately pressuring him into an unhappy marriage. Fortunately for Humbert, a deadly accident soon befalls Charlotte, leaving the widower as Lolita’s sole guardian. LolitaThe pair immediately set off on a cross-country road trip. Humbert plans his next moves as Lolita–still a young child, of course–latches on to anything that might distract her from the trauma she’s experiencing and the horror of what Humbert plans for her.

It’s a comedy. Kind of. Navokov is one of my favorite writers, due not just to his amazing linguistic talent–he’s fluent in French and Russian, in addition to being one of the best English-language novelists of the twentieth century–but also for his ability to create humor in absurd and even upsetting situations. Humbert Humbert, the lecherous foreigner, bumbles through his narration, emphasizing his own deficiencies to such an extent that he comes off as pathetic rather than predatory. Telling his story from a prison cell, Humbert’s self-image is that of a tragic hero, and he’s so simultaneously honest and dishonest with his audience that we can’t help but see the humor in the situation, even as we’re repulsed by his lack of empathy.

My rudimentary analysis is that Nabokov uses his protagonist’s perversions to talk about more universal expressions of love and, just as importantly, lust. The latter is actually better reflected in Lolita than the former, I think. Divided in half, the first part of the novel takes us through the origins and early expressions of Humbert’s predilection, and later the development of his insatiable lust for an idealized Lolita. The second half follows the pair on their road trip across the United States, stopping at every roadside attraction and spending their nights in crappy motels. Humbert spends most of his time and energy trying to convince her to grant him the sexual favors he desires, through bribery, threats, and other forms of coercion. Normal methods of seduction are almost out of the question.

When I read Lolita for the first time, over five years ago now, I found the first part to be faster, funnier, more exciting, and more interesting than the second half. I hold by that assessment, but I think Nabokov intentionally structured his novel to mirror the progression of what you might call a crush: the toxic combination of love and lust that doesn’t reveal what it truly is until it’s too late. Humbert’s feelings for Lolita can’t be described as anything but a crush, especially given his admitted lack of experience with real romantic relationships. The book follows his crush, from his introduction to the enigmatic nymphet Lolita, to getting to know her a little bit, to his first quasi-sexual encounter with her, and finally to his conquest, success beyond his wildest dreams. He achieves everything he could have ever wanted.

Then part two starts. Whereas part one is full of possibility, part two is full of dread and foreboding. Humbert got what he wanted, but he finds himself in increasingly desperate and precarious positions, as he tries to hold onto his hard-fought victory. Humbert’s relationship with Lolita–the one that exists in his head–looks exactly like the real relationships that we all experience. At first full of passion, that superficial feeling slowly but inevitably fades, revealing what lies beneath: hopefully love and respect, but possibly resentment, shame, or even hatred. The second half of Lolita represents the passion of a crush withering away and dying.

Of course, there’s more to the book than that; there are entire plot points I haven’t even explained. In the latter half of Lolita, Humbert fears that he and his lover are being followed, possibly by a policeman, or perhaps a family member. Desperate to escape his pursuer, knowing what discovery would mean for him, Humbert becomes more and more erratic in his movement and jealous of Lolita’s activities. I neglected to explain this part of the story earlier because it simply doesn’t interest me. It was hard for me to follow, even experiencing Lolita a second time and having advance knowledge of the mystery, and I honestly find it distracting.  I understand that Nabokov needs something to drive Humbert forward, and to drive him mad, but I don’t think the hidden clues and red herrings are meant to be taken seriously. There are so many other things for readers to focus on.

For one thing, there’s Lolita’s feelings, which don’t really play a part in Humbert’s self-centered account. I still find his narration hilarious, so it’s easy to forget that he fucks over every other character in the book, especially the girl he ostensibly loves. I don’t think I noticed it as much the first time I read the book, but if you focus on Lolita’s character, the book morphs from comic to tragic and violent very quickly. Which, of course, it was the whole time.

So people who are repulsed by Lolita‘s premise aren’t wrong. I think there’s value to the novel, but there’s no question that it focuses on its narrator at the expense of his victim. That focus isn’t always positive, and in fact I think it would be hard to read Lolita as anything but critical of Humbert; still, many would likely say that the book glosses over the affects Humbert has on Lolita herself. That’s certainly fair, but to ignore the absurdity of the narration would be to miss the entire appeal of the novel. We’re not supposed to sympathize with Humbert. If we were, it would be a very different novel.

Lolita is a great book, and there’s probably nothing I can say to add or detract from it. The subject matter is polarizing, but if you can get over that, there’s no reason not to check it out.