Sunday, January 31, 2016

Jessica Jones Before Netflix

Jessica Jones: Alias, Vol. 1 Jessica Jones: Alias, Vol. 1 by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A hard drinking private eye whose cases become explorations of the dark side of human nature is a character concept that has become a cliché of crime fiction. Ah, but what if the detective is a woman who used to be a superhero? Now you’ve really got my attention.

Jessica Jones used to go by the name of Jewel when she hung around with people like the Avengers, but despite super strength and the ability to fly (Sort of.) she never really felt like one of them and eventually hung up her spandex. But a gal’s gotta eat and booze cost money so she tries to earn a living by getting the dirt on cheating spouses or locating people who don’t want to be found. Despite her best efforts to leave her old life behind she gets a couple of cases that force her to deal with superheroes again when she accidently ends up with evidence of a famous costumed crime fighter's secret identity and looks for a missing Rick Jones who is an old buddy of the Hulk’s.

One of the more interesting aspects of a long running fictional setting like the Marvel universe is that it offers opportunities to explore different parts and ideas of it. We’ve seen superheroes by the dozen in this world, but with Jessica we get answers to interesting questions we haven’t thought to ask. What if everyone with powers isn’t cut out for wearing tights and punching bad guys? How do they deal with that realization? What do they do with their lives after that? How do you turn your back on abilities most people would love to have?

Long time comic readers or people who have watched the Netflix TV series know that there are some dark reasons behind Jessica’s choices, but we aren’t there yet in this volume. Fans of the show might be shocked that there’s no Killgrave here yet since he was the focus of most of the first season, but what we do get is this damaged woman navigating a world that feels completely beyond her while trying to do the right thing as best she can. That makes for a damn fine comic book.

My one complaint is that I’m not sure about the art. It seems muddy and all the people, including Jessica, come across as kind of ugly and distorted. That’s probably a deliberate choice to separate this from the more traditional look where everyone is gorgeous, and I’ve liked this style in other things I’ve read, especially Sean Phillips’ work in books like Criminal. However, there’s something about it that doesn’t set quite right with me. At least not yet.

Fair warning that even though Jessica is a Marvel character this is one of those comics that is not for kids or the easily offended. There's plenty of profanity, sex, and violence. You know, all the things that make life worth living!

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Crisis of Confidence

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time by Maria Konnikova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was in my mid-teens I came home from school one day to find my father reading a letter.  He asked me to look at it, and it was a badly typed message full of misspellings that was  my first encounter with the Nigerian prince scam although I didn’t know it at the time.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“It’s a scam,” I replied.

At that point he actually got irritated with me and started pointing out a bunch of reasons why it could be legitimate.  I was beyond shocked that the man who had constantly told me things like “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” and “If it’s too good to be true then it probably is.” would seriously be considering answering this letter.  If I, an idiot teenager, could see it was a fraud then why wouldn’t a pragmatic adult recognize that?  Eventually the letter got tossed in the trash without Dad sending the Nigerian prince any money.

Years later, when I was about twenty, I had a coworker approach me with a no-risk way to make some money.  He laid out a deal he’d gotten into where you kicked in cash and then convinced others to contribute which moved you up a ladder where you would eventually make like 10 times your original investment.

“That’s a pyramid scheme,” I said.  “It’s illegal, and it’ll blow up in someone’s face eventually.”

He got extremely angry, told me that I was turning down free money and went on to recruit a bunch of other people we worked with.  It was part of a trend that had swept the area, and inevitably a whole lot of people I worked with lost a bunch of cash.

I’ve puzzled over those two incidents a lot since then because I could never understand how I could see that these things were scams while others seemed eager and willing to throw their money into them.  I chalked it up to my inherent cynicism and being a fan of crime novels.  After reading this I have a much better understanding of why people fall for cons, and why they refuse to admit that they even are cons.  To be honest I’ve often patted myself on the back when reflecting about them.  See, I told myself, you’re much too smart to fall for that.

However, thanks to this book I now realize that I’ve also at least twice over the years fallen for a classic when I was approached on the street by women with small children who needed some help.  (“I’m so sorry to ask this, but I forgot my purse and I’m almost out of gas.  Is there any way you could possibly loan me….”)  And even though I had some slight misgivings at the time it was only while reading this that I realized that I had for sure been taken, and that like a lot of people I hadn’t learned my lesson after the first one.  Oops.  Well, at least my stupidity only amounts to about $20 while some suckers have lost much more than that and then went back for more.

That’s part of what makes this an interesting read.  When most of us hear about people getting swindled we usually think it’s just greed and stupidity on the part of the marks, and we have the smug satisfaction of knowing that we would surely never fall for such a thing. Maria Konnikova uses a variety of psychological studies to illustrate how that’s exactly what the victims thought, too.

She highlights how people are essentially hard wired to trust others, otherwise society would just be every person with their back against a wall with a knife in hand.  We also have the deep seated belief that each of us is special, we're surely owed a break and that we’re shrewd enough to make the most of it when it happens.  Combine that with the human tendency to refuse to admit mistakes, and it makes all of us potential rubes.

What makes this entertaining and not just informative is the deft way that Konnikova mixes fascinating true stories of cons to highlight the behaviors she’s discussing, and then she backs that up with the scientific research of the studies which often show startling tendencies.

For example, people usually decide that they're right about something and then cherry pick facts to support their beliefs.  This often leads to people digging in their heels in the face of overwhelming evidence so that they won’t even admit to being scammed.  The book highlights one man in New York around 1900 who ran a forerunner to the Ponzi scheme and was so successful that people were still lining up outside his office to give him money even after he had been exposed in the papers and had fled with the money.  In fact, even after he was arrested and convicted many remained convinced that he was legitimate and it was the newspapers who ruined the whole thing.  (Which also shows that blaming the media for bad news is a very old trick.)

All in all this is a fascinating account of not just the psychology of what makes people susceptible to cons, it’s also an excellent window into the weird ways our minds make us idiots.

Now, I’ve got a nice bridge in Brooklyn for sale if anyone is interested….


Luna: New Moon Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza-pie...That’s amore!"

Dean Martin certainly sang how we see the the moon here on Earth. It’s a brilliant light in the night sky that is the symbol of romance as well as a tantalizing beacon of wonder and discovery that inspired one the greatest scientific and engineering achievements in human history. However, that’s looking at it from a distance. On closer examination it’s a lifeless hunk of rock in a vacuum that is irradiated constantly by the sun. And since people suck, when you send a bunch of us there it only gets worse.

In the future the moon has been opened for business and after a couple of generations it’s now developed into a feudal state where the five families (a/k/a the Five Dragons) who control some it’s most profitable businesses reign supreme under the watchful eye of the Lunar Development Corporation. The Corta Hélio company mines helium-3 for Earth’s energy needs, but the founder and matriarch Andriana Corta is elderly and ill. She fears that her children will fight for control once she dies, and their most bitter rival seems to have made an assassination attempt on one of the family that could turn into open warfare.

It took me a while to warm up to this story, but eventually it did grab my attention thanks to its well thought out sci-fi elements as well as detailed ideas about how a human society would function in that environment. I was particularly intrigued by the notion that their are no laws on the moon, only negotiations where everything is controlled by contracts with a court system dedicated to parsing the fine print, and where a duel might be used to settle a dispute.

Another interesting aspect is that since oxygen and water are the most precious of commodities that everyone is charged for every breath and every drop of water. So having a contract that allows you to pay for these things is very important, and unemployment could turn into an extended death sentence. Everything from the health effects of living in low gravity, the future version of the internet, fashion trends, sexuality, and the best way to make a cocktail are brought up ways that show that McDonald put a great amount of thought into this story.

The one piece I felt short changed on was a sub-plot that involved one character being a ‘wolf’ who seemingly gains extra intellectual and physical prowess when the Earth is in certain positions. Obviously, this is meant to be a kind of reverse werewolf thing, but it really seems to come out of left field and is never as fully explained as most of the other details.

The story has invited comparisons to other works like Game of Thrones, Dune, and The Godfather and you can certainly see elements of all of those and more in this, but the one that really caught my eye was in an interview that McDonald did where he cited the old TV show Dallas as one of his main inspirations. That makes a lot of sense because for big chunks of this I was thinking that it felt like a soap opera with a big wealthy family fighting each other and outsiders, and like a soap opera you’ll find yourself rooting for and against various characters.

So that’s what this is: Dallas on the moon, and just as Dallas once captivated the country with its ‘Who shot JR?’ cliffhanger McDonald tries a similar thing here by not wrapping anything up and leaving the reader with multiple storylines hanging. That’s not a fatal flaw, especially since this is supposedly going to be just a two-book story. (Although the sheer number of characters suggest that McDonald may be hoping for a TV deal of his own.) Still, it’s irksome to read all of this and end in such an open ended way.

I’ll call it three stars for now while reserving the right to adjust once I read the second part.

On a side note, isn’t it weird when you get through a whole book and don’t realize you read something else by the author? I got all the way through this one without realizing that I had also read his Brasyl.

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Saturday, January 23, 2016


The Deep Blue Good-By The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you’ve been conned or robbed out of something by a shady character then Travis McGee will try to get it back for half the value of what was taken. And if you’re a woman he’ll more than likely bang you in the process. No extra charge.

Cathy Kerr is a single mom whose father had hidden something valuable he brought back from serving in the military overseas before being sent to prison. After he dies in jail a pyschopath named Junior Allen shows up and manages to locate and steal the goods. While trying to pick up Junior’s trail McGee finds himself reluctantly cast as the savior and caregiver of Lois, a woman that Junior brutally assaulted and dominated to the point that she was total wreck in the aftermath.

This first novel in the series sets the tone with MacDonald doing some sharp writing that works as both crime story and social commentary with Travis quietly rebelling against the consumerist and conformist culture he despises. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty dated in a way that lets McGee function as both a womanizing sexist and the white knight there to defend damsels in distress. 

It’s dated, but there’s still good stuff here. I’m looking forward to the planned movie version of this because he could still be a great character if he gets modernized a bit. Hopefully, Christian Bale can do for Travis McGee what Daniel Craig has done for James Bond.

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