BOOK REVIEW: The Boys, Vol. 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis

The Boys, Volume 1: The Name of the GameThe Boys, Volume 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you weren’t familiar with this comic book, you’ve probably at least seen promos for the streaming series adaptation available on Amazon Prime Video. After watched season one, and as season two is currently in release, I decided to give the source material a read. As with “Preacher,” this presents its own challenges in keeping the comic book and series straight. This is because (as with “Preacher”) there is a common cast of major characters, but significant differences in the story and details. That said, the book and series both open in a similar way with Hughie being drawn into the action by a tragic event involving a superhero (A-Train, this team’s version of the DC character, Flash) and Hughie’s girlfriend.

If the description of A-Train as – essentially – the same as the Flash makes the book sound derivative, it is intentionally so. In a nutshell, “The Boys” takes the Justice League and gives the characters nasty personality traits, ranging from pettiness to madness, and then centers the story not on the superheroes but on a group that works to check those “heroes’” power from the shadows (i.e. the titular “Boys.”) So, A-Train is fast like the Flash, but he lacks Barry Allen’s intellect and soft-spoken mannerism, and so – conversely – A-Train is a high school jock dialed up to his most vain and brash form. The other members similarly have unappealing personality traits, and even full-blown dark sides. This divergence between is most intensely seen in Homelander (the Superman of this series, but without the Man of Steel’s perfect moral compass and stoic Midwestern calm,) but even Noir (the Batman of the group) is intended to make Bruce Wayne seem like a well-adapted beacon of light by comparison.

The six issues contained in volume one both tell the tale of Hughie’s reluctant entrance into “The Boys,” and follows him through his first mission as the newly reassembled Boys take on “Teenage Kix.” (A youth superhero group which is to “The Seven” as the Teen Titans are to the Justice League.) Having Hughie in the role of the group’s “everyman” would be an odd choice in real life because it puts a rank amateur on a team of professionals who are already outgunned. From a narrative point of view, however, the appeal is clear. It creates emotional stakes within a group that is otherwise stone-cold killers (if with some positive personality traits to subvert expectations.) Hughie’s naivete and raw fear is particularly necessary in the book because the stakes are somewhat lessened by the fact that the Boys are not as severely outmatched as they are in the series (in the series “The Female” is the only superpowered member of the “Boys.”) The decision to recruit Hughie is explained both by the desperation of the team’s leader, Butcher, and his desire to include someone who is personally driven. There are not a lot of people willing to sign on to take on a two-faced lunatic with the powers of Superman (i.e. Homelander,) and Hughie is uniquely motivated by the tragedy of his girlfriend’s death to go after superheroes who’ve been corporately levered above the law.

The comic is a bit more sexually graphic than the series, though in some ways the series is more viscerally horrifying. (As I mentioned, in the series the Boys – excepting one – are in no way capable of going toe-to-toe with the enemy.)

The art is well drawn and colored and I didn’t have any problems following the happenings conveyed graphically.

I enjoyed this comic as I have with other Garth Ennis works. At least this volume was a bit more lighthearted and not as visceral as the series, but I don’t count that as a good or bad thing. Just different and just appealing to different states of mind. The comic is funny in places and action-packed in others. If you are interested in the concept of neurotic to psychotic superheroes and what it would take to keep them under control, it’s worth giving this book a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dracula, Motherf**ker by Alex de Campi

Dracula, Motherf**ker!Dracula, Motherf**ker! by Alex de Campi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This short story in graphic novelized form imagines a Dracula who has been trapped in his coffin since the post-Bram Stoker story time period coming back into action in 1970’s Los Angeles. (While there is a nod to the Bram Stoker novel in starting the story in late-1890’s Central / Eastern Europe, the book doesn’t present itself as a sequel — and purposefully tries to avoid some of the old [and new] vampire clichés.) The book taps into the feel of 1970’s noir crime drama. The main character, Quincy Harker, is a photographer whose work appeals to a macabre impulse of those who like to see snuff shots of beautiful people. As such, he goes around to scenes reminiscent of the Manson family slaughter of Sharon Tate and friends to snap his pictures. [Note: While in Bram Stoker’s book Quincy Harker was the child of Mina Harker, in this book that’s just an Easter Egg-style reference without any intended continuity to the book’s characters.] Because Harker is always going out at night to capture images of the recently deceased, he his easily drawn into the family feud between Dracula and his brides.

The artwork is interesting. There is not a single color palette used throughout, but rather different scenes are in different palettes. In the back-matter written by the artist, there is a statement about this being meant to influence the reader’s emotional inflection. It’s also pointed out in the back-matter that all scenes are set at night, which might not be otherwise apparent. Some panels are colored brightly and colorfully while others are in black and dark blues.

The story is simple and quick. Between drawing on the vampire mythology and on the noir crime cinema imagery, there’s not much that’s particularly novel about this book. That said, the fact that it puts Dracula’s brides at the fore does give it a bit of niche.

As mentioned, there is a writeup at the back by both the author (de Campi) and the artist (Henderson,) along with some draft drawings and scripts for those intrigued by how the sausage is made.

I enjoyed this enough to get caught up in reading it in a single sitting. (That said, it’s very short — even for the 80-ish pages — given sprawling panels and sparse / terse dialogue.) If you enjoy vampire fiction, it’s worth checking out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Frankenstein Alive, Alive! by Steve Niles

Frankenstein Alive, Alive: The Complete Collection (Frankenstein Alive, Alive!)Frankenstein Alive, Alive: The Complete Collection by Steve Niles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novella collects four issues together with some ancillary matter (e.g. draft sketches.) It not only draws upon the Shelley Frankenstein world; it picks up from it as if it were a sequel. That is, it begins on the Artic ice, with Frankenstein’s monster intent upon finding peace – if not an end — frozen in the glacial mass. The story is about the monster coming to grips with its humanity, its monstrosity, and its immortality.

When the monster’s attempt to freeze himself in the ice fails to bring eternal rest, as well as a second attempt of a similar nature, the monster realizes there is no respite to be had in hiding out in suspended animation. It will simply result in a string of rebirths like the one that began his torment. The monster must go about the business of living.

Wandering back to civilization, the monster finds a rare friend among a wealthy doctor, and takes up residence in the doctor’s mansion. At first, this doctor, Dr. Simon Ingles, seems quite unlike the monster’s creator, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Ingles isn’t repulsed by the creature’s existence and has a nurturing manner that wasn’t to be found in Victor. However, eventually we see that Ingles shares with Victor an ambition to be free from the shackles of mortality.

Ingles wants to harness the power of life to keep his terminally ill wife from dying. The price that must be paid to extend his wife’s life is even more foul than that paid by Dr. Frankenstein. When the monster recognizes this monstrous ambition in Ingles, he is torn about what to do. On the one hand, Ingles has been kind to him, is in many ways a good person, and the monster thinks that it is far be it for him to enforce morality given his own great crimes. On the other hand, the monster is uniquely attuned to the darkness of this desire shared by the two doctors, the desire to be master over life and death, and the sight of this ambition brings out a desire to end Ingles’ life and his despicable plan.

This is a smart story built around the humanity in a monster and the monstrosity in humans. It’s a quick read, being less than one-hundred pages. Bernie Wrightson’s artwork is appropriately gothic, and – except for a few plates between issues, is black-and-white. I’d highly recommend it for those who like classic horror and science fiction, particularly if you enjoy graphic works.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable

Dracula: Son of the Dragon (comiXology Originals)Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There is a vast amount of vampiric fiction available today, and no small amount of it focuses on the character of Dracula. This graphic novel sets itself apart by building the story on real world events (such as they are known, and with dramatic license to make the story exciting and the imagery evocative.) At the risk of turning people off (but not intending to,) I would go as far as to say this book leads with history, and makes the supernatural secondary. I actually liked that about it. When I say the supernatural is secondary, it’s not like its eliminated from existence or that it’s purely garnish. There are dragons and vampires, but a story exists with or without those elements.

A story of war and political intrigue in what is now Romania is bookended by the depiction of a meeting between Vlad Dracula and three clergymen. In the opening, Vlad is telling the priests that he is about to let them in on the truth of his story, which they have no doubt heard in mythologized form. At the end, he asks the clergymen to tell him whether he will be allowed into heaven. The body of the story is a flashback from the meeting with the priests. It splits focus between Vlad’s father, who is working to keep his domain under his control by playing the ends against the middle vis-à-vis his Roman Catholic neighbors (notably Hungary) and the Ottoman Empire, and the story oft Vlad, himself. Vlad is a young man. He and his brother are sent to Scholomance (a kind of Slavic Dark Arts Hogwarts) and later become prisoners of the Ottomans.

I thought the artwork was easy to follow and stylistically appealing enough. Some of the frames in the ancillary material at the back were truly beautiful. I often disregard the back-matter in comics because it usually amounts to little more than discussion of how the drafts changed over time – i.e. offering insight into the sausage-making of the book. However, this book had an extensive Notes section that I found fascinating and useful because it explained how points in the book compared with known history. Some of the points that I assumed were pure fiction had a factual basis. Sable also related points to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The creators tried to be consistent with Stoker’s book, as well as with history, when they could. The former wasn’t so hard because readers of Bram Stoker’s will recognize that the titular character is kept largely a mystery, particularly with regard to his backstory.

If you are interested at all in the historical and mythological basis of the Dracula vampire, I’d recommend this book. As I said, the notes will give you a good idea of what was known to be true, what is complete fiction, and what is a kernel of truth enveloped in story sensationalism. Obviously, all the supernatural elements are pure fiction, and also there is a lot that remains unknown, but this graphic novel provides an interesting take on the origins of Vlad Dracula.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio

The Photographer of MauthausenThe Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Due out: September 30, 2020

This “graphic novel” tells the story of a Spanish photographer, Francisco Boix, who was sent to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp as a Communist during the Second World War. [Note: I only put graphic novel in quotes because it’s not a fictitious story, which “novel” implies, but graphic novel seems to be the accepted term for any graphically depicted story – fact or fiction.] Mauthausen was a camp in Austria. While it wasn’t technically one of the extermination camps, it was legendary for the death toll associated with the granite mine where many of the inmates labored. Its “staircase of death” was the location of untold fatalities, including: murders by the Nazis, suicides, and even tripping accidents that will happen when an emaciated prisoner has to carry 50 kg stones up almost 200 uneven steps with no railing day after day.

Boix, who had been a journalistic photographer previously, was assigned to work for a Nazi officer who took pictures in the camp – particularly pictures of fatalities. Boix carried equipment, set up lighting, developed negatives, and made prints. His boss, Ricken, is depicted as bizarre character. On the one hand, Ricken seems not so bad by Nazi SS standards, but, on the other hand, he has a sociopathic inclination to see death as art. Boix takes advantage of his position to make copies of the negatives with the idea that they will be evidence when the war comes to the end. At first, there is support for this plot among the Spanish Communists, who help hide the negatives away in places like the carpentry shop. However, this support dwindles when it becomes clear that the Germans will lose the war, and – thus –surviving to the end becomes everyone’s primary focus. Soon Boix is on his own to figure out how to get the photos out. He develops a plan involving one of the boys at the camp (children being less intensely scrutinized) and an Austrian woman, who is a sympathizer.

The book climaxes with the operation to get the negatives out of the camp, but resolves with the immediate post-War period when Boix attempts to generate interest in the photographs as well providing testimony at the Nuremberg Trials. Boix is portrayed as fiery and impassioned. When the others at Mauthausen just want to survive to the end, he maintains that any risk is worth it. While he is shown to have some conflict about putting a boy’s life at risk with (arguably) the riskiest step in the process, he doesn’t seem waiver. At the trials he’s outraged about the panel’s insistence on “just the facts.” He wants to freely and fully tell the story of Mauthausen, and they – like courts in democracies everywhere – wish to maintain an appearance of the dispassionate acquisition of facts.

I found this book to be engaging and well worth the read. The artwork is well-done and easy to follow. The story is gripping. While there are a vast number of accounts of events at places like Auschwitz, there aren’t so many popular retellings of events at Mauthausen. I highly recommend this book for those interested in events surrounding World War II and the Holocaust.

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BOOK REVIEW: Preacher, Book One by Garth Ennis

Preacher, Book 1Preacher, Book 1 by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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After hearing glowing praise about the television series, I picked up this volume, intending to watch the series and wanting to take in the source material. As both the television show and this book were available via Amazon Prime, I ended up reading it in a period overlapping with watching the first season. [I don’t recommend doing it that way. The comic book and series share the same basic premise, but are wildly different in the story details and even shared plot points are revealed in different ways or at different points in the story. One can end up conflating the two in confusing ways because they are neither so close nor different that the stories merge or completely distinguish themselves.]

The book involves an unwholesome but likeable trio who travel together in search of divine answers. The lead character is Jesse Custer, a preacher prone to cursing, drinking too much, and getting in brawls. Early in the telling of the story, we also learn that Custer has been granted a godly superpower – the ability to give people orders that override their freewill – which we learn is called “Genesis.” The other two characters are Tulip, Custer’s love interest, and Cassidy – an Irish Vampire who parties hard but has surprising levels of charism and good-naturedness for a member of the undead.

Book One contains a dozen issues. There are three distinct parts to the story. The first part (Ch. 1 – 4) not only introduces the story (in part through flashbacks as the three sit in a diner telling stories,) but it also shows the three being tracked down by “The Saint of Killers” — an old west gunmen that some angels hire to take out Custer because even the angels can be stopped by Custer’s “word,” i.e. Genesis.

In the middle part (Ch. 5 -7,) the trio heads to New York City in an effort to rendezvous with someone Cassidy knows who might be able to put them back on God’s trail. This puts them in the middle of a manhunt for a serial killer who’s been terrifying the city.

In the final part (Ch. 8 -12,) Custer and Tulip go back to Texas to fix Tulip’s debt problem, but they end up getting caught by two mysterious rednecks who turn out to be henchmen of Custer’s despicable grandma – who plays the role of lead villain throughout the remainder of the book. Chapters nine and ten are largely flashbacks that give the reader insight into Jesse’s background, why he’s so screwed up, and also answers a number of burning background questions.

I thought the ending point was a good place to end the volume. In serialized works I often end up focusing on the question of whether the collected issues present a full story arc. In this case, they did. It is true that a part of the resolution hinges on a bit of deus ex machina that is clearly meant to be part of the hook to keep people reading. However, they pile on the action so it’s easy to miss the importance of this inexplicable sleight of hand. Overall, I thought the story was skillfully delivered.

As many people will have seen the tv series, one point of interest might be whether it’s worth it for said individual to read the comics. As I said, the details of the story are quite different, and so even though the core characters are the same [in some cases only superficially so] and the central ideas (e.g. pursuit by St. of Killers and Genesis) are shared, it’s not the case that you’ll be rehashing the same story. As far as the quality of the two media, I thought they were on par. I’m not going to spout the bookish motto – i.e. “the book is always better.” In fact, I would say there is one way in which the TV show is much better, and that is the character of Tulip. In the comic book she is an unexciting character who largely serves as love interest and damsel in distress. In the show, she easily holds her own weight against the strong characters of Jesse Custer and Cassidy. But that said, I think it’s worth reading the comics and I don’t think a reader will be disappointed.

By way of warning, I should mention that, while it’s hard to pin a genre on this work [Neo-Western / Horror / Anti-hero story?] it is graphic in gore, language, and [though only sparsely] sexual activity.

This is a fun read. It’s a tense story, but has humor and characters to which a reader will be drawn. I’d recommend it for readers of horror and comic books.

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BOOK REVIEW: Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici

Heathen, Vol. 1Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The protagonist is a lesbian Norse warrior, Aydis, who is living in exile in the wilderness. After she was discovered making out with a girlfriend, two unappealing fates were offered: marriage (to a man) or death. Her father, recognizing that neither of those options was acceptable to his daughter or himself, pretends to accept the death sentence, but instead of killing Aydis he helps with her escape. The story is set in a period in between the heyday of Norse Mythology and modernity. The story refers back to mythological events (and since many of those characters are immortal it includes a few of them,) but it’s during a time when Christianity is spreading in the region and some of the old ways have been forgotten or dismissed by many.

The four issues contained in this book follow a quest that involves Aydis going to rescue a Valkyrie named Brynhild who was long ago imprisoned on a mountain in a circle of fire for defying Odin. Then – once Brynhild is freed –the quest continues in order to keep the rescue from being reversed and becoming meaninglessness. [Brynhild must be married to a mortal to escape imprisonment, but since that means she must repeatedly see her mortal spouses die only to go back to her prison. Aydis intends to see this reversed.]

I found the writing engaging and action gripping. While I’m no expert on art, I was able to follow the action in the panels and found it stylistically interesting and distinct – though I couldn’t tell you anything about what that style is.

My primary criticism revolves around my own preference for a volume having a self-contained satisfying narrative arc. This volume had plenty of great action and relatable character objectives. Admittedly, this is a tough standard for work that is by its nature serialized. However, at the end of the book one feels the set up for the continuation of the story (the cliffhanger) much more intensely than one feels there was any kind of conclusion and resolution. For readers who are predominantly series readers, this may not be a problem, but as one who reads one book at a time, I need to feel that something was resolved over the course of the story.

I think the book was bold and successful in turning conventions on its head. The primary convention under attack is the distressed damsel – a helpless character who needs a man to come along to rescue her. The book also takes the social issue of persecution based on sexual preference in a scene within Brynhild’s parallel (but intersecting?) quest.

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable read. If you like the story idea and tend to read in series, then this is a great volume to pick up. If you’re not sure you want to be drawn into another series, you may decide to exercise more caution.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1 [Marvel Masterworks] by Stan Lee (+Ditko & Kirby)

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1 by Stan Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This collection includes the first ever appearance of Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15, as well as the first ten issues of the original Amazing Spider-Man run from 1963. The story (told by Lee in the intro) is that “Amazing Fantasy” was about to be discontinued, and this gave Lee and team the opportunity to present a character that the powers-that-be found too ridiculous to merit consideration (but no one cared because the series was going under.) Lee’s instincts were right. Marvel got tons of love letters to the character, and Lee was able to sell the idea of a stand-alone comic.

This is a hard book to critique. It’s the dawn of a much beloved character – arguably Marvel’s flagship to this day, and there are many solid reasons for that love. That said, this ground-breaking collection of comic books that would launch a vast empire [or multi-verse] around one of the most popular characters ever, is in many ways fairly amateurish (e.g. in an early episode the lead’s alter-ego is called “Peter Palmer” for a whole issue, presumably because Lee forgot that “Parker” was the correct last name and there was no editorial oversight.)

So, this collection mixes tremendous strengths with some cringeworthy elements. I’ll start with the former for two reasons. First, I think they ultimately outweigh the weaknesses, and – judging from the immense popularity — most people seem to agree. Second, and probably far more important, is the realization that criticizing Lee almost 60 years later is a little like faulting Edison for the short filament life of incandescent lightbulbs. Lee, Ditko, and Kirby were on the sparse end of the learning curve. [I also realize that the lack of objective editorial oversight that made “the Palmer debacle” possible may have also made the series much better because of a lack of second-guessing by higher-ups.]

So, what are the strengths? First, Lee builds an extremely interesting and sympathetic character in Peter Parker / Spider-Man. Parker is beleaguered with problems (e.g. bullied at school, raised by a single aunt who is elderly and [in some issues] in poor health, and he’s constantly in need of cash to keep the household afloat.) Spider-Man is made tremendously powerful, but not invulnerable. He is presented with a steady stream of moral dilemmas in which he could easily solve a problem using his power if he weren’t compelled to act morally. Second, these early episodes did a tremendous amount of foundational heavy-lifting for the enterprise. It’s not just his origin story. Many of the members of Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery that are most well-known and which have been drawn upon for the movies (e.g. The Vulture, Doc Ock, Sandman, and Electro) feature in these early issues. The bulk of Spider-Man’s world – minus his most well-known love interests and the Osborn’s [Norman, Harry, and the Corporation] – are presented in these pages.

The bulk of the weakness is in dialogue and internal monologue. First, there is a lot of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition. [If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s explanation of things that should be clear to the relevant characters (and to the reader,) but that are said anyhow.] Part of the reason for this is the serialization issue (i.e. one doesn’t want someone to be penalized for joining in the middle of the series, so one is constantly rehashing backstory – but there are more and less skillful ways to do this.) Beyond the serialization conundrum, there seemed to be a lack of faith that readers would understand the action from the drawings. [However, while the art might seem crude by today’s standards, I think it did a very clear job of conveying the dynamism of action.]

Second, there is sometimes flimsy psychology behind character motives. This is best exemplified by a soliloquy by J. Jonah Jameson at the end of the collection. He explains, to himself, why he hates Spider-Man, and it presents a man who is a villain in his own mind, as if he realizes his own faults but insists on moving forward with them. (As opposed to thinking that he is the hero of his own story and acting from that deluded belief.) I don’t know the backstory, but it reads as if someone said, “Why does Jameson continue to hate Spider-Man?” and the staff had no idea besides that it increased plot tension nicely. So, they wrote the kind of weak explanation that a person tends to engage in when one attributes nefarious motives to one’s employer or anyone else one doesn’t get along with. That is, they suggested that Jameson is just a jerk because he feels like being a jerk (not because he is operating from his own motives and worldview, which don’t necessarily align with Parker’s.) [Actually, a brief mention early in the collection hints that Jameson doesn’t like Spider-Man one-upping Jameson’s son, which is a much more interesting motivation than the others presented.] A possible third weakness is an excess of cornball. I suspect this tendency results from Lee trying to appeal to what he thought kids would find hip. (Which may or may not be the same as what they actually did find hip.) I’m not so sure about this one, as I think it’s something that people love about Lee’s work –e.g. alliterative naming schemes, strained metaphors, and narcissistic internal monologuing.

If you are a fan of comic books, you must read this as a piece of history and for some very entertaining superhero stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of DestructionHellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This four-part story presents Hellboy’s origin and then transitions to an account of how Rasputin attempts to co-opt an adult Hellboy in service to the Russian mystic’s demonic master. That sounds disjointed, but it’s not because Rasputin is integrally involved in Hellboy’s origin. Movie fans may notice that that description mirrors the plot of the first Ron Perlman “Hellboy” movie (2004.) It does, and this volume serves as an influence on that movie (also, the bound collection of the component issues was issued in conjunction with the movie debut.) That said, one shouldn’t be concerned that one will get a repeat of the same — the connection is largely limited to the broad-brush strokes of the story. The opening (Hellboy’s origin story) shares common visual and narrative elements with the movie, but beyond the origin story the two stories diverge. The middle act shares little in common other than a few Easter eggs. The conclusion has some visual and narrative similarity, but not nearly so much as the opening.

For those who have no idea what the blazes I’ve been going on about, Hellboy is a comic book superhero in the form of a demon-child who was summoned to Earth during World War II through the activities of Rasputin in conjunction with a Nazi agency dealing in the occult. [The Nazis hope it will allow them to turn the tides of the war, but Rasputin has his own plans.] The British-American scientist (Professor Bruttenholm) who finds Hellboy raises him. As a grown man, Hellboy becomes a “paranormal researcher” – i.e. he fights supernatural threats. He works as a team with Liz Sherman (a pyrokinetic woman) and Abe Sapien (a fish-man,) under the direction of Professor Bruttenholm. [Though, while Hellboy ages slowly – or stopped aging as an adult, the Professor is quite elderly by the time this story begins.

The central question of this series is nature versus nurture amped to eleven – i.e. whether someone born to such a bleak fate as demonhood can be redeemed by a good upbringing and positive role models. What is created is a character who is rough around the edges but abundantly aware that he has more to worry about than most with respect to tilting toward the dark-side [and that the fate of all who he loves does as well.]

If you’re interested in the character of Hellboy and his “band of misfits,” this volume is the perfect place to start. I think there is a reason the movie drew particularly heavily on the origin story panels – Mignola does a fantastic job of creating a unique and engaging character. If you’re a reader of comic books, I’d highly recommend this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: SFSX, Vol. 1: Protection by Tina Horn

SFSX (Safe Sex), Vol. 1: ProtectionSFSX (Safe Sex), Vol. 1: Protection by Tina Horn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is “The Handmaid’s Tale” meets “Ocean’s Eleven.” Well, admittedly, that’s a concise pitch-line offering more confusion than information value. Allow me to clarify. This series is set in a dystopia in which morality and sexuality are controlled by the state, and efforts are underway to eliminate any “deviant” sexual activity (i.e. any sexual activity not involving a heterosexual married couple having vaginal intercourse – preferably with a strong procreative intent.) Within that world, it’s a heist story. [Some might argue that it’s more a prison break, but because it involves people breaking into a secured facility in order to get others out, I stand by my descriptor. That said, it really combines the two because one of the prisoner’s takes agency to affect escape]

The story’s protagonist is a woman named Avory. She once worked a giant sex club / dungeon called “The Dirty Mind” before “the Party” [the conservative guardians of morality] consolidated control. When the Party did come to power, they raided The Dirty Mind. Avory escaped with a client who she’d fallen for, the two got married, and they were trying to live “normal” lives in compliance with the new laws. When this façade falls apart, Avory goes back to her old [kinky] friends seeking help. However, she’s seen as a turncoat by them. They don’t trust her, and they decline to help her. But things change when the Party publicizes its new activities.

Because of the nature of comic books / serialized graphic novels, the first thing I feel I need to say is that I found this to be a complete and satisfying story arc. This format often fails in this regard because it’s a challenge to keep an eye on an overall run arc while building that overarching story from component stories [that are truly stories.] Often the end of a volume feels like a speedbump rather than a conclusion. However, that isn’t the case here. That doesn’t mean the story is not left with someplace interesting to go. It is. However, if all one read was this volume, one would experience a self-contained story. In short, I felt Horn [and team] did a great job of balancing “leave them satisfied” with “leave them wanting more.”

I also found character development to be well-done. The characters are all developed, unique, and we can see their combination of motivation and internal conflict. Flashbacks are put to good use to give the reader enough insight to see why this gulf exists between Avory and her former best friends. However, these are kept to a few panels (usually at the beginning of each issue) and so they don’t bog the story down.

By this point, this probably goes without saying, but in the interest of due diligence: this book is graphically sexual. The artwork and dialogue are explicit. I won’t get into an extended philosophical discussion of whether it’s pornography or erotica. As I said, there is a story, and all of what is shown is in service to that story. That said, nothing is held-back, either. One of the book’s key points is the importance of consent as shown in the contrast between the consensual activities in the club and the “reconditioning” activities carried out by the Party. Long story short, there are some cringe-worthy scenes, at least to laity to sadomasochism. So, if you are sensitive to such matters or are purchasing this for someone who is, buyer beware.

I found the story gripping and also thought-provoking. If you are not averse to graphic sexual content, I’d highly recommend it.

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