Saturday, December 05, 2009

"Christmas ought to be brought up to date, it ought to have gangsters, and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols."

For me, this line perfectly sums up The Box of Delights by John Masefield. I have decided that rereading it will be an annual Christmas tradition for me, as well as watching the BBC television adaptation. At least, that's the plan; this is the second year I've read the book, and will the the third year in a row watching the TV series.

It's this weird, modern (for it's time; published in 1935) fantasy story that moshes up modern-day religion, pagan religion, talking animals, Roman armies, Herne the Hunter, magic, gangsters, Punch and Judy, flying cars, time travel, and Christmas. The (extremely) simple version of the story is that young Kay Harker finds himself caught up in a plot by evil gangsters/magicians to get hold of the Box of Delights. The Box (held by centuries-old philosopher-turned-Punch & Judy man Cole Hawlings) has the power to make people "go swift," "go small," or travel through time.

That simple description doesn't really do it justice, though. It doesn't take into account the nonsensical digressions and plot twists that come from out of left field and disappear just as quickly. At one point, while Kay and his friends are hiding from the gangsters, using the box to shrink themselves, they encounter a race of fairies who have been transformed into paintings, with no real explanation. When Kay frees them, they reward him by allowing him to visit their realm one day a year.

And then the kids leave, and the incident is never brought up again.

The book is full of stuff like that, and trying to follow it expecting everything to tie together or make some kind of sense is a fool's errand. Last year, I watched the TV series with the lovely fiancee (just the lovely girlfriend at that point) and watched her get more and more confused and bewildered at each new, weird incident. By the end, she was kind of curled up in a fetal ball, whimpering. And the TV series leaves out a lot of stuff from the book.

(There's a really good piece on the TV show here. They pretty much say everything I would want to about the show, so I refer you to it rather than just say it all again.)

I don't think watching the show is going to become a shared tradition for us, and that's fine. It's got some great performances, particularly from Robert Stephens and former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton, but it's weird as all get-out. But it's also a great Christmas story.

And that's why I love the book, as well. As the opening quote suggests, it isn't trying to be a warm, cozy, traditional tale, but it never forgets that it's a Christmas story. When Kay is listening to the villains plotting, he goes through a whole series of speculations about their plans in his head, but the last thing he thinks about is what he's going to get his governess for Christmas. When Maria Jones (one of a family of children staying with Kay and his governess) appears to go missing, Kay and the other Jones kids worry... until it's time for a Christmas party at the parish cathedral. Then they forget all about Maria, until the party is over. And part of the villains' plot involves kidnapping clergymen in order to prevent Christmas services from being held.

Paul Magrs has written a pretty through analysis of the book on his blog. He also compares it to The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, so now I want to read that. But I can't imagine it's got the same sprawling holiday insanity as Box of Delights. And I won't have the same childhood connection to it (I saw the TV adaptation of Box when I was a kid.)

Even though it's a kid's book, and a story I first discovered as a kid, I think it's only come to define Christmas for me as an adult. For one thing, it's not about family and love and home and hearth in the same way most Christmas stories are. Having lived alone for the past 20-some years, and spent many of my Christmases with just my cat, Christmas isn't about that stuff for me, either. It's about the surface trappings (Christmas music, TV specials, movies, stories, and decorations) overlaid onto and mixed into everyday life. This book may be a weird, twisted hybrid that often makes no sense, but I guess that's what Christmas is to me.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Finished reading Midwinter by Matthew Sturges. As I've mentioned already, I came to this book familiar with Sturges' work as a comics writer, but this is his first prose novel. I thought it was great. He sets up an interesting world that's more complex than it initially appears, and populates it with characters who are interesting to spend time with. The story is a fairly straightforward quest tale (and pretty much lives up to the high-concept description "The Dirty Dozen with elves") but it's told well.

I have a lot of trouble with this sort of otherworldly fantasy, and probably wouldn't have read this if I wasn't already a fan of the author. It's really hard for me to get a picture of a place in my head, or to keep characters straight if they've got weird names. Sturges makes his setting and characters distinct enough that I never had any trouble. He also connects his world to our own in some interesting, unexpected ways, which I thought were pretty cool.

While Sturges' next book--due next year--is set in the same world, it doesn't seem to be a direct sequel to this one. Similarly, this book does drop hints for what the future may hold, but it's complete in its own right. That's great; I read enough stuff as it is. If I read a new book, I want to know I'll be completely satisfied when I get to the end. That's the case here, but I'm so completely satisfied that, paradoxically, I can't wait for the next one.

Monday, November 30, 2009

I read the Batman/Doc Savage Special comic this morning, teaming two of my favorite characters. More than anything, it's pretty much a prologue to a new series, First Wave, which sets up a new fictional universe where traditional heroes like Batman and Black Canary are given more of a crime/noir/pulp feel, interacting with actual pulp characters like Doc Savage and the Avenger. The series will also be featuring Will Eisner's Spirit, and a new version of the WWII fighter pilot team, the Blackhawks. All characters I love, in a world designed to evoke the spirit of the 30s and 40s. It's written by a writer I like (Brian Azzarello) and drawn by an artist I love (Phil Noto). It's almost as if someone had decided to create a comic book series just for me.

So it's pretty impossible for me to be objective about it. I loved it. (And I'm not the only one.) The only thing I would have prefered is if it had been a bit more self-contained, instead of mostly introduction and setup for the main series. But since it was always intended to be a piece of something bigger, that's not really an issue.

Setting this series in its own fictional world, with new, slightly different, versions of familiar characters, is probably a good idea. Comics (and comics fans) have become so continuity-dependent that this is the only way to team Batman and Doc Savage (and all the other characters) without shoehorning in a contrived reason for how they can somehow coexist without ever having met before. This way, Batman, Doc Savage, the Spirit, and all the rest can have adventures together because, in this context, they've always been together.

Perhaps more importantly for the success of the story, this new pulp/noir/superhero world allows the characters to coexist with integrity. One major problem with reviving pulp heroes like Doc Savage is that they are very much of their time. Put them in the modern world, where everyone now carries a pocket-sized computer, and Doc and his companions either need to be changed radically or they seem out of date. Keep them in the period the pulps were written in, and the stories become period pieces, and consequently quaint and charming and cozy. And they become as much about the period as they do about the adventures, which isn't really in keeping with the spirit of the originals.

In this version, we get the style and panache of a period piece, but the characters can still take advantage of technology like cell phones and tape recorders. Doc Savage doesn't use a lot of gadgets here, but presumably we will get to see him using stuff like his little capsules of anesthetic gas, or his aides using their supermachine guns, and they won't look silly or old-fashioned next to a Batman using the latest high-tech computers or a super-slick Batmobile. (And, really, does anyone want to see Doc Savage driving a Corvette? Or a Prius?)

By "creating" a new version of Batman for this world, Azzarello gets to add some new twists. The obvious one that everyone seems to have seized upon is the fact that he's carrying guns, but that's just a throwback to the character's earliest appearances. More interestingly, this is a Batman at the start of his career, and it shows. Instead of a mature, experienced Batman, master of all the world's martial arts, confidently taking on Doc Savage, we see a Batman who barely escapes from that fight with his life. Because this Batman may not yet be this world's greatest detective, he won't necessarily be the dominant character in the First Wave story. (For that matter, he doesn't necessarily even have to survive.)

We may also be seeing Doc Savage at the beginning of his career. In the books, he starts his "mission" after the death of his father; in this story, his father has recently passed away. Azzarello even hints at the parallels between these two men: both orphaned, both set on their missions by their parents, either directly or indirectly. It suggest a more complex relationship than the usual (and facile) "dark/light" contrast that gets played up whenever we get a team between characters like Batman or the Shadow and Superman or Doc Savage.

No idea how long-time fans of Doc Savage will react to this new version, but I'm also not sure that matters. Purist fans can reread the original stories if that's what they're looking for. Those stories tend to be much more plot and action based, at the expense of character, and also pretty formulaic. I think today's comics audience is looking for more depth of character and variety of plots. If Doc Savage (or any of the heroes of yesteryear) are going to find favor with today's audiences, they need to be presented in a style that feels fresh and contemporary. Batman/Doc Savage accomplishes that without losing what makes the characters special.