Tuesday, November 22

Bronze-Tempered Steel (The Bronze Saga #7, 2008)

By Mark Eidemiller, with Barry Ottey (available for free download here)

This is very much a different kind of Bronze Saga entry than the prior six, and it's somewhat difficult for me to review properly for a couple of reasons. One is that I have now read it twice and had somewhat different reactions each time. Another is that, even before I read it the first time, I struck up a long-distance email friendship with Mark Eidemiller's co-author, Barry Ottey. I've always found it difficult to judge the work of friends with objectivity, and sometimes find myself erring on the critical side in an effort not to be too easy on them. Bear that in mind as you read further, and know that whatever criticisms I lay out, I did like this story very much. In some ways it's one of those dream-stories that I wish I had the ability to tell.

But the hesitancy I always feel in reviewing the work of friends is part of why I've now read the story twice. It's not the only reason, to be sure. I've alluded elsewhere to the fact that the summer of 2011 was a busier summer for me than usual, due to circumstances outside of this blog which itself provided something of a self-imposed drain on my time and energy that had not been there before. Then, about the time I finished reading Bronze-Tempered Steel the first time back in July, there came our family vacation with all its distractions, followed by several weeks of traveling here, there, and yonder for various reasons – and suddenly the fall semester was beginning. Just because I wasn't having time to sit down and collect my thoughts about this book and blog it (and was having difficulty doing so) didn't mean I didn't continue reading other stuff, either – which ended up being easier for me to write about – until too much time had passed for me to hope to give it a fair review. So it had to go back into the reading queue. (Same thing happened with Perry Rhodan #14, Venus in Danger, by the way – which I also ended up having to reread before blogging.)

Anyway, I have now finished reading Bronze-Tempered Steel for the second time, and I refuse to let it go unblogged again. On with the review:

It's my understanding that, although Eidemiller's name is given priority as it's part of his series, this book is primarily Ottey's project, conceived during a time when he was serving as a long-distance reader and editor for earlier books in the Bronze Saga series. Having a life-long love for the Man of Steel and having given a great deal of detailed thought to exactly how Superman's amazing powers might actually work in the “real” world, he proposed bringing him into the world of the “Christian Adventures of” the Man of Bronze. The result is quite an entertaining story that, similarly to the first Bronze Saga story with Doc Savage, finds Superman accepting Christ as his Lord and Savior. Imagining such stories of redemption for some of the greatest heroes of popular literature is of course the driving purpose of this series of fan fiction. Along the way Superman – generally called “Kal” in this story to distinguish him from the other “Clark” – reveals the difficulties he had growing up different, an outsider of sorts, having to hide his true nature as his powers developed; his childhood reaction to the preaching by his parents' pastor that there is no such thing as extraterrestrial life; and ultimately his own version of the ages-old question, framed as “How could a loving God destroy the entire Kryptonian race?” Some of those issues I can personally relate to, on a certain level. Growing up Southern Baptist but with an early love for science fiction as well as science, I was always ostracized to a certain degree as being a bit strange because I perceived the disconnect between what science says about such things as the age of the universe, evolution, and so forth, and what a fundamentalist Christian interpretation of the Bible says about those things. I myself was driven away from Christianity for a time before finding it anew in the Catholic Church which I find much more open to the true wonders of the universe God created. Not that I actually believe in aliens, however, as much as they might be a staple of most science fiction ... that's where suspension of disbelief comes in. Maybe I'll post some of my ruminations on exactly why – somewhat honed by a rather lively email debate between myself and Ottey early in the summer soon after we “met.” But that's not really germane to this post. Anyway, those types of issues are addressed very well here.

That story, on its own merits, is quite compelling. Unfortunately, as an entry in The Bronze Saga, Bronze-Tempered Steel falters somewhat on several counts. One is that it is so obviously not written by Eidemiller. Much of it is narrated, as usual, in the first-person by Perry Liston, the street-preacher who took Doc Savage in way back at the beginning, ministered to him, and became the first of his latter-day band of adventurers in a higher mission. But frankly, Perry as written by Ottey doesn't read like the same person, at least to me. But I would think that imitating another author's style, particularly in dialogue, would be a difficult task – and the result passed Eidemiller's muster. Second, it's a bit too “preachy” – and not in the way you think. Well, actually, there is that. I do find the evangelical fundamentalist tone a bit heavier in this story than usual. Eidemiller generally pulls off such a fine balancing act that I found it a bit annoying here since I do not come at these stories from that religious tradition. That's not what I'm getting at, though. Rather it's how Ottey uses this story to grind an axe of his own. He uses the background of one of the characters whom he introduces, an archaeology graduate student from a Honduran cigar family, as a launching point to argue – several times and at length – against the idea that tobacco usage is incompatible with Christianity. Without going into any detail, from our private correspondence I know that this theme is based on Ottey's own experience when, as a smoker, he has been severely criticized by other Christians who even went so far as to presume to question his faith based on his habit and shun him for it. That's a ridiculous position in my opinion, regardless of the health issues involved … but after a while having the arguments against that narrow-minded attitude shoved at you again and again, sometimes in the same verbiage by different characters in different circumstances, it becomes obvious that this story strays from its main narrative thread off into soapbox territory. I lost patience with it during the second read in particular and ended up skipping over a couple of sections altogether. It's not what I come to The Bronze Saga to read.

There are other elements of the story as well that make it more obvious than usual that this is fan fiction rather than a professional product. Not to say that it's generally badly written, although there is what I consider to be a bit of an overusage of commas. (I'm not an English teacher, but it seemed off to me.) That aside, it's well written. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit more of what I would call “self-indulgence” in this story than in the previous six, characterized by too much incidental detail in some places to the point that I just wanted to scream, “Come on! – get to the point! I don't need to know every step that's taken in prepping the plane for takeoff!” and the like. If the capital of Honduras is not the setting for some of the action to take place, why seem to set it up as such with a long discursus of detailed travelogue? The book overall is quite uneven in that respect – in other parts of the story substantial action is just skimmed over where I would want to know more. On a related note, several times we are treated to in-depth lessons such as how cigars are made or explosions play out in real time, fascinating processes I'm sure but again not really what I'm looking for here. Overall, I think this book more than the previous others would have greatly benefited from a heavy, impartial, even ruthless editorial hand.

Another, perhaps inevitable, problem arises from the fact that there is not just one Superman to base this incarnation on. Since the character was first conceived seventy-odd years ago, there have been a multitude of different versions in a variety of different media, with many different details as to his powers, appearance, supporting cast, and so forth. Sometimes those details are mutually inconsistent from version to version, such as whether Jonathan and Martha Kent died before he began his career, or are both living, or whether one or the other has died leaving the other a widow or widower. In the Bronze Saga world our main characters inhabit, Superman is, as in our world, a fictional character who has appeared in all those different ways. Ottey's version is an amalgam that seems primarily based on the Christopher Reeve movies with a healthy dash of the Smallville TV series as well as a good bit of the comic books, seemingly mainly from the 1986 ff. reimagining usually identified with John Byrne. Most notably from the comics the “Death and Return of Superman” storyline from the early 1990s is referred to several times as an important and traumatic event in his past. Which is all fine and good … except that Perry Liston, who by all rights should start out with no firm knowledge of what is the “real” story of the Superman whom he meets in the flesh, instead far too many times knows instinctively which of those multitudinous possibilities is “real.” In my opinion, that should have been presented a bit more tentatively, with Perry acknowledging that there are so many contradictory accounts that it's impossible to know the “real” story … until now. Heck, I'd've been like a kid in a candy shop, pestering Big Blue with all kinds of questions rather than often interjecting the answers as Perry does, answers that pretty much invariably turn out to be spot on.

There are also some minor inconsistencies of detail with the earlier books in the series, mainly in the chronology – for instance he seems to place the wedding of Clark and Bonnie Savage (which occurred at the beginning of #6, Bronze New World), before the events of #3, Bronze Avengers – but I won't belabor that lest I give the impression I did not like this book. I did. It was cool as all get out seeing two of my favorite heroes coming together in an exciting adventure. And just as Eidemiller pretty much nails the characterization of Doc and his band, Ottey does present a believable Superman who is very consistent with the idea that most people have of the character.

There are definitely some aspects of the presentation of Christianity as presented in this novel that I greeted with relief. Quickly perceiving the more overt evangelical tone as compared with the earlier Bronze Saga entries, and given the young graduate student mentioned above being of Honduran heritage, I worried that eventually the issue of Catholicism would be raised – and not in a way that I would find gratifying. Depending on the source – and exactly how religious affiliation is defined – Catholicism is estimated to be the faith of anywhere between 47% and 97% of the Honduran population. Knowing that general fact going in, I started with a strong presumption that Elena was indeed raised Catholic, and the fact that the family priest is referred to as attending the welcome-home party thrown on her behalf during the course of this story would seem to confirm it. Luckily, although I don't think some acknowledgement of the issue would have been out of line, it is without a doubt a delicate subject and I can understand why Ottey avoided being too divisive. It would have been a needless distraction that could have tarnished the whole story in some eyes (mine). He does manage to subtly confirm, at least as I read it, what has become all but canon in the Superman mythos, that Clark Kent was raised not just Protestant but more specifically in a Methodist church environment, in a way that manages to confirm the fundamentalist/evangelical perspective of the characters (and the authors) without being overtly fractious. When Kal (Superman) accepts Christ he asks Clark (Doc Savage) to baptize him, remarking that his parents (the Kents) had baptized him as an infant (as is the practice among Methodists but not Baptists, the other major denomination in Kansas that is occasionally suggested for the Kents) but that he now realizes that that ritual had no meaning as he did not make the decision for himself. Although I disagree with the theology of baptism that gives rise to that statement, it is a realistic statement given the perspective of the characters.

A couple of nitpicks: (1) “Not only had [Doc] read at least four different modern translations [of scripture], he'd also read the Torah in its original Hebrew, and the New Testament in both the original Greek and Roman Septuagint versions.” The Septuagint was a koine Greek translation of the Old Testament which did not contain the New Testament, although the inspired authors of the New Testament did tend to preferentially quote their Old Testament passages from it rather than the original Hebrew and Aramaic. (2) In relating the story of Jairus' Daughter, Perry states that “Peter was a witness, and – in one of his later letters – mentions the incident, stating categorically that the girl was dead, not 'sleeping', and that Jesus restored her to life just as He did Lazarus.” That miracle is related in three of the four Gospels (Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26, and Luke 8:40-56), and Peter (along with James and John) is listed as attending it, but as far as I can tell he did not discuss it in either of his canonical epistles. (3) At some point, Doc attributes crucifixion as a form of execution to the Romans. It's actually older than that, practiced by the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, maybe introduced by the Assyrians. It's actually one of those things that would be hard to pin down, as it's basically a variation of hanging and impalement. Historically, humans have been very imaginative in coming up with ways to inflict torment. As a statutory method of punishment, it is most identified with the Romans these days because of The Crucifixion, but also because the legalistic Romans did tend to regularize and systematize these things.

All in all, I did greatly enjoy this novel despite the lacerations I subjected it to above. And, having looked at the beginning of the next novel in the series, The Trial of Doc Savage, I can say that it is definitely part of the Bronze Saga continuity. In fact, a conversation between Kal and Clark pretty obviously is meant to set up what's coming.

Now for a little fanboy geekiness. At one point early on, Perry sends his wife Dot on a shopping mission. She comes back with “[e]very current-issue comic featuring Superman that the newsstand had on its racks, and some major selections from the fellow's back room. Apparently he does a nice Internet business in the older issues as collector's items.” Perry wants to give “Kal” an idea of how he is viewed in the world in which he finds himself. This passage is dated specifically to 1 August 2005, and making the assumption that the DC Comics being published in the Bronze Saga universe are the same as were published in our own “real world,” I've made use of the wonderful website Mike's Amazing World of DC Comics (specifically “The Time Machine”) to see for myself exactly what Kal would have seen – the covers at least. Of course, there's no way to know what back issues Dot came back with, but private communication with Ottey reveals he really had in mind collected editions, including “one of the complete 'origin' tales, and 'The Wedding Album'.” He admits to a “goof” in using the term “current issues,” but a few “pages” further into the story Kal is perusing an “issue of Action Comics.” Let's assume that Dot came back with a mix. Here are the covers of current issues on which Superman appeared that may have been on the comic racks on Monday 1 August 2005, plus a couple of trade paperback collections based on Ottey's statement to me:

Blood of the Demon #5
on-sale 7 July

JLA/Cyberforce #1
on-sale 7 July

Superman #219
on-sale 7 July

Action Comics #829
on-sale 13 July

Adventures of Superman #642
on-sale 20 July

Teen Titans #26
on-sale 20 July
(okay, Superman doesn't appear, but the big red S does)

Lex Luthor: Man of Steel #5
on-sale 27 July

The O.M.A.C. Project #4
on-sale 27 July

Superman/Batman #21
on-sale 27 July

Wonder Woman #219
 on-sale 27 July

The Man of Steel TPB
(John Byrne's reimagining from 1986)

Superman: The Wedding Album #1
(a back issue from 1996)

Superman: The Wedding and Beyond TPB
(collects The Wedding Album plus some)

As to the current issues, that's ten comics, not counting variant covers! And I imagine they would have given Perry and Kal plenty to discuss. I mean, to start off with – Blood of the Demon being the first listed, in a Christian novel? How ironic is that? Why are Superman and Wonder Woman fighting on several of the covers? Does she exist in Kal's universe? Does Conner Kent Superboy exist (Teen Titans)? What about the other characters depicted on various covers? And what about Kara Zor-El Supergirl (conspicuous by her absence)? If I recall correctly, only in the case of Batman does Bronze-Tempered Steel give us a definitive answer – yes, he does, and Bruce Wayne owns their apartment building. Being a big Supergirl fan, I want to know her status! It seems like it would have been a natural topic of conversation given the parallel between The Man of Steel and his cousin and The Man of Bronze and his cousin. Along the same lines, since we are told that Kal read Doc Savage in the Bantam paperback reprints as a child, did he name his refuge “The Fortress of Solitude” in homage to Clark's? Inquiring minds want to know! Realistically, of course, just because we weren't witness to such conversations doesn't mean they didn't take place.

Anyway, to give just a little context, at least half of those current issues pictured above were part of DC's ramping up to the Infinite Crisis event that would begin later that year 2005. In particular, the Superman titles and Wonder Woman issues together with The O.M.A.C. Project were telling a story (“Sacrifice”) wherein Superman came under the mind-control of the villainous Max Lord, and the only way Wonder Woman could keep Superman from killing her and Batman was to snap Lord's neck – an action that was caught live on TV and broadcast incessantly thereafter to a shocked world! Is this the action of a hero? More to the point – did something like that ever happen in Kal's own world?

Oh, one other point. The question of how a loving God could destroy the entire Kryptonian race is answered toward the end of the story, in a way that resonates both with what was going on in Smallville during the middle part of that series and in some fairly recent stories – I'm thinking mainly of Kurt Busiek's trilogy in Superman #668-70 (Dec 2007-Jan 2008), “The Third Kryptonian.” Imagine if the Kryptonians discovered their godlike powers under other suns and took mind to use them to subjugate the rest of the universe ….

Thanks for reading, and Cheers!

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