De Haven attempts to bring the canonical characters into the real world as much as possible. Teenaged Clark Kent is wholly different and doesn't know why, and as a result is tragically, acutely lonely. I mean, how could he NOT be? He gets laid a couple times and then wallows in old-timey Protestant guilt for the rest of the book. I can't imagine a better take on a character as ridiculous as Superman.
Instead of a mad scientist Lex Luthor is a rabidly ambitious politician, industrialist, and gangster with a knack for finding talent and inspiring loyalty.
Lois Lane (man, I never realized how prevalent alliteration is in superhero comics) is...kind of an asshole actually. But maybe she'd HAVE to be to have any chance as a woman reporter in the 1930s.
It struck me that both Kent and Luthor were depicted as unusually egalitarian, but for different reasons. The former simply had a good heart (of course), but Luthor was relentlessly practical and smart enough to see through the social bullshit. He had no problem using anyone with talent--regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, etc--and also no problem murdering them if that was expedient.
The book suffers some due to the constraints of the iconic personas, but the characters are updated wonderfully, the plot is heavy enough without getting bogged down, and the setting is marvelous...it reads like the author came of age in the '30s.
I was expecting something both intelligent and fluffy, but WOW, is this dense. There's a lot (by my standards) of art history, comics history, even some anthropological history. McCloud covers an abundance of fundamental concepts and illustrates them beautifully.
Concepts and definitions:
Author's working definition of "comics": juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.
The masking effect--use of simple, cartoonistic characters against more realistic backgrounds, allowing readers to "mask" themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world.
Universality of cartoon images--A photoreal picture represents a specific person; a cartoonish picture represents all. The more cartoony a face, the more people it describes.
Closure--The phenomenon of observing parts but perceiving the whole (eg object permanence); the phenomenon of filling in the space between panels to connect the panels.
Six kinds of panel transitions: 1. moment-to-moment 2. action-to-action 3. subject-to-subject 4. scene-to-scene. 5. aspect-to-aspect 6. non-sequitur.
Bleeds--When a panel runs off the edge of the page. Expands time, conveys timelessness.
Polyptych--A moving figure or figures imposed over a continuous background.
"The longer any form of art or communication exists, the more symbols it accumulates. The modern comic is a young language but it already has an impressive array of recognizable symbols. Stink lines, x-eyes, sweat beads"
"The art form of comics is many centuries old, but it's perceived as a recent invention and suffers the curse of all new media:the curse of being judged by the standards of the old."
Types of picture/word combinations:
1) Word specific--Text-heavy, pictures are merely accents.
2) Picture specific--Illustrations tell the story; words merely add a soundtrack.
3) Duo specific--The words and illustrations are redundant.
4) Additive--Words and pictures amplify one another.
5) Parallel--The words and pictures are not obviously related.
6) Montage--Words are part of the picture.
7) Interdependent--The most common type. Words and pics go hand in hand to convey what would be impossible alone.
The world and history Trichter has assembled was fascinating, the high point of the book. In short, the android revolution came about suddenly; a massive recession results from the abundance of cheap labor; the predictably brutal exploitation of that labor leads to great social unrest; tribalism and systematic dehumanization provoke a cataclysmic "race" war between bots and people.
The characters were fairly well drawn. The hero is a limp, drug-addicted corporate salesman, driven by love to greater acts of clumsy courage than he'd normally capable of. He compares himself repeatedly to Orpheus (and if you're a book that wants to get on my good side, DO incorporate Greek mythology; yum). His bluff blowhard brother rings true. They're pursued by an exhausted, dying detective who's somehow both an idealist and a realist. He pulls it off.
That's where the good stuff ends. While the historical events hold together well, internal logic and plausibility take a holiday for the duration of the protagonist's story.
The action bits are routinely awful. In one instance, the overmatched hero defeats an evil-doer by yanking a power cord, causing a circular saw to jump through a window, fly across a room, and neatly sever said evil-doer's gun-brandishing arm. The book takes no notice of how stupidly unlikely each step of that sequence is.
The protagonist keeps finding himself stuck with potentially interesting moral dilemmas (his girlfriend's eyes are in the adorable face of a cheerful, innocent little girlbot) only to be saved by lucky happenstance (a train crash kills her but leaves her eyes undamaged and accessible; it'd be a gosh-darned sin to let them go to waste...)
Trichter contrives a succession of situations that allow him to shine a light on aspects of systematic oppression. There's an android recycling plant where the need for profit drives horrific working conditions. An anti-bot activist making an android torture/snuff film. A blind, sexless bot model driven by her prospects to suicide. Wretched, bottom-rung android prostitution. Bot coyotes who take advantage of the desperate "spinners" who come to them for help. If he had anything original to say it might be interesting but it came off as clumsy and simple.
And in creating a world full of deconstructible racial injustice, the author makes up whatever rules of law or physiology or psychology are convenient to his immediate point. Limbs that are sawn off can be easily reattached, though at other times reattachment requires ports and tools and locking mechanisms. Androids are almost universally sexual--and in pretty vanilla human fashion--even though they don't get pregnant or worry about STDs. They have no childhood or altricial period, their parts (even heads?!) are interchangeable and easily removeable, and instead of being motivated by survival and reproduction they're simply driven to stay powered up. Yet in the book they're virtually identical to humans, psychologically and behaviorally. They love, fear, hope, get high, get laid; they're brave, cowardly, short-sighted, visionary, enraged by social injustice, indifferent to social injustice. It's senseless. Trichter missed a huge opportunity to imagine a culture that would necessarily be vastly different from those of humans.
Wool kicks off with one of the best hooks I've ever read:
A hazmat-suited man leaves the silo, expecting the noxious gray wilderness that's been displayed on the silo's cameras his entire life. He steps instead into a sunny green meadow full of birds and bunnies, warm breezes and happy trees. Ecstatic--and shocked at the deception wrought for so many decades on the silo's citizens--he removes his helmet...and dies choking on the virulent atmosphere. It wasn't the silo's screens that had been tampered with. It was the suit's visor...and by extension the visor of everyone who'd ever tried to leave before him.
One of the most reliable indicators for whether I'll enjoy a book is strength of internal logic, and Wool's is superb. The author apparently worked in construction and as some kind of ship's engineer in previous lives, and this was apparent in the way he built the silo. (I don't know how to explain why his mildly Orwellian society worked so well. Maybe he was a sociologist at some point too.)
The social and technological elements of his society reinforce one another and allow for some unsettlingly subtle methods of populace control. The cost of digital communication is artificially inflated, inhibiting the spread of ideas and dissemination of information. There are no elevators, making group assembly difficult. The more powerful units (like law enforcement and Mechanical) are located far from the seat of power. Different professions are dressed in different brightly colored uniforms, fostering clannishness and distrust. Parts are engineered to fail, ensuring people's continued reliance on the government. And the bodies of those who are banished from the silo are forever onscreen, a constant reminder of what happens to troublemakers.
The world building is pretty cool. It quivers with frontierish grit, independence, determination, racism and sexism and good old-fashioned Christian sanctimony. It's narrated first-person by one of the fearless strumpets, and her uneducated voice is wonderfully unassuming and sympathetic:
"Being a growed woman, it turned out, was harder work than it looked. But that's a thing, too, ain't it? Them as work hardest get no respect for it--women, ranch hands, sharecroppers, factory help, domestics--and them as spend all their time talking about how hard they work have no idea what an honest day's labor for nary enough pay to put beans in your family's bellies is all about."
Except for the abundant disparaging observations on the nature of "men", her perspective and quirky musings are a lot of fun to read. (Karen wonders at one point who she'll see first in Heaven, her long dead parents or her recently deceased friend; does it go in order of closeness or recency of demise? In Karen-speak it was movingly adorable.) In this book at least, that writing was Bear's greatest strength.
The action bits on the other hand are highly implausible. Downright silly. [SPOILER]One plucky heroine takes out a hulking sailor with half a bobby pin. I mean, maybe...if in addition to being a spunky 95-pound genius steampunk whore she was also a ninja. But she's not. [END SPOILER] A lot of the action sequences are resolved in ways designed to maximize ocular rotation.
Karen Memory's plot structure really has the feel of an old Hardy Boys book. Evil lunges into their lives uninvited, they get captured three or four times, always make clever but unlikely escapes, there's a slight twist at the end--not too big--and cue the happy ending. Straight out of Franklin W Dixon.
But it's worth the price of admission for the world, the characters, and Karen Memory herself.