BOOK REVIEW: Home by Julio Anta

Home, Vol. 1Home, Vol. 1 by Julio Anta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: November 23, 2021

This book starts out with a gripping premise, a single mother and her son separated at the border, the mother being deported back to Guatemala as the son makes his way to the home of his aunt in Texas. The story shows a great deal of promise in the introductory issue. Unfortunately, over the course of the volume, all of the tension that is painstakingly built up is squandered. Whenever there is a challenging and visceral circumstance a new set of random superpowers is revealed, such that by the fifth and final issue, one no longer feels the protagonist is in peril (regardless of circumstance) because it’s a given that some deus ex machina magic will come along to save the day.


What’s sad is that, other than the crippling problems of anti-climactic story, the book shows many positive attributes. It’s well drawn. The book builds characters for whom the reader is rooting. Emotion is effectively portrayed. I think if the superpowers had been introduced upfront with some understanding of limitations and “kryptonite,” there would have been potential for an enjoyable read. As it is, however, it’s exactly the opposite of what one would like – a book that gets more and more intense – as resolutions come too easily.


It’s an impassioned, if not nuanced, view of immigration issues, and – if that’s enough for you – you might be interested in checking it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: False Guard by Merwan

Fausse Garde - NE (Hors Collection)Fausse Garde – NE by Merwan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 30, 2021

This graphic novel is set in a fantastical world that combines the culture of a Southeast Asian live-in gym, a setting suggestive of “One Thousand and One Nights” supersized to mega-city scale, and some novel creative elements of the author-artist’s imagination. The protagonist, Mane, is a fighter who dreams of making it big in the big city. On the bright side, despite the prejudices against him as an outsider, Mane has the drive and talent to be a champion. However, in a universe of single-minded people (professional fighters,) his energies are split between the gym and his desire to fight for social justice. It turns out that the man leading him into a guerrilla battle against the societal elite, Fessat, is an old intra-gym rival of the gym-owner / coach, Eiam, for whom Mane is fighting.


The story is largely about Mane’s attempts to reconcile these two aspects of himself, and the travails of the bifurcated mentorship he receives from Fessat and Eiam. The fictional martial art of Pankat bears resemblance to Muay Thai / Lethwei / Pradal Serey Southeast Asian style kick-boxing, with a combination of MMA elements to appeal to the present-day reader and some creative details to make it feel more exotic.


For the most part, I found the story and character development compelling. There were some points at which it felt like there was a disjoint between the emotional displays being made and the events at hand. It’s hard to put a finger on what was off, it just felt a bit overwrought at times. Besides a desire to create a visceral story, this is probably meant to reflect Mane’s stress level, but it felt forced at times. It’s also true that Mane is a complex character – at times sympathetic and at other times an impetuous jerk.


If found this book to be enjoyable and engaging.


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BOOK REVIEW: Mademoiselle Baudelaire by Yslaire

Mademoiselle BaudelaireMademoiselle Baudelaire by Yslaire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel mixes fact and fiction to tell the tale of the romance between French poet, Charles Baudelaire, and Jeanne Duval, the Haitian mulatto woman with whom he maintained a long-term relationship. The fictional portion of the story is necessitated by the fact that some of the couple’s story is unknown. Much more is known about Baudelaire than Duval, and in terms of what is on record, accounts differ. The relationship was passionate and complex, but it’s hard to say how loving it was. Baudelaire is depicted as fetishizing Duval’s dark skin, and Duval seems like a gold-digger at times.


The bulk of the story is told in an epistolary fashion as a letter from Duval to Baudelaire’s mother after the poet’s death. While the epistolary form seems apropos for creating a tone for historical fiction set during the 19th century when that form was all the rage, it was the source of my only problem with the book. That problem is that some of what’s communicated strains credulity. First, the work is erotic in nature, and it seems unlikely that even the most libertine of women would feel the need to share with a mother what they did with her son. It just feels awkward. Second, there is a fair amount of “as you know, Bob” exposition in the letter. [“As you know, Bob” being shorthand for telling a character something that they would know at least as well as the teller knows, and – in some cases – more so.] This is most clearly seen when the letter talks about a time when Baudelaire was living with his mother, such that it’s not clear how Duval knows this information, but it’s non-sensical for her to act as though the mother wouldn’t know.


Other than that, my view of the book was entirely positive. I found the art was effective and captured the spirit of the time well. There’s large amounts of nudity and graphic sexuality, so if that’s troubling for you, it’s not your kind of book. The prose is just purple enough to lend authenticity to the 19th century epistolary format, but quite readable.


I found the book fascinating and I read it straight through. If you’re interested in the Bohemian life of a womanizing poet / laudanum addict, you’ll definitely find this book compelling.


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BOOK REVIEW: Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs, and the CIA, Vol. 1 by Brandon Beckner

Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIAProject MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIA by Stewart Kenneth Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 19, 2021

This graphic novel mixes fiction with the historical events, and – in a bizarre inversion of the usual – the most outlandish parts of the story tend to be the history. It tells the story of the CIA’s ill-fated and highly illegal “experiments” with LSD, studies that involved dosing unwitting individuals on American soil. The fictionalized through line of the story involves a San Francisco journalist who stumbles onto the CIA’s illicit activities in 1971, and – even after being discredited – continues to pursue the story with the help of a whistleblower. The book includes a prologue that shows the accidental dosing of chemist Albert Hofmann in his laboratory, an event that marked the discovery of LSD. And it comes to an end showing Operation Midnight Climax, a sub-project of MK-Ultra that was among the most audacious plots because it involved setting up a brothel at which johns were involuntarily dosed with LSD and watched through 2-way mirrors as they did the deed [or freaked out, as the case may be.]


The art is interesting. A lot of the frames are psychedelic, reflecting the fact that one is seeing the world through the eyes of tripping individuals. Most of the rest are retro to give the feel of the time at hand. In most cases, that’s 1971 San Francisco, but some of the story jumps back to events in the 50’s and 60’s. At one point the frames reminded me of Archie and Jughead comics.


I enjoyed how the story was told, using the driven newbie journalist as protagonist. That said, the book may be annoying for individuals who are curious about what is fact and what is fiction. Footnotes are occasionally used to help in this regard, as well as to give information about period references used for authenticity.


I found this book compelling, but – having read a fair amount about MK-Ultra – I had some idea what was true and recognized the names of key figures. If you’re interested in the ridiculous annals of the CIA and aren’t bothered by the fact / fiction mixing, check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Jules Verne’s Lighthouse by David

Jules Verne's LighthouseJules Verne’s Lighthouse by David Hine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 13, 2021

This graphic novel presents a loose adaptation of “The Lighthouse at the End of the World,” taking the story into space opera-like territory. Verne’s story is set on Earth in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Horn at the southern tip of the Americas. Hine’s is set in a remote region of deep space that requires a beacon to navigate through a treacherous aggregation of wormholes. (I don’t know whether the latter is even remotely in compliance with the laws of physics, but the concept of a deep space navigational station seems perfectly feasible so I was untroubled by the details. An Astronomy majors’ experience may vary. In general, the book doesn’t seem to be written as hard sci-fi.)


Hine borrows Verne’s idea of a remote navigational beacon being taken over by pirates, and a survivor of the “lighthouse” crew working to foil the pirates’ plot, as well as drawing on some character details. However, it’s not meant to be a beat-for-beat retelling of Verne’s story set in the future and in space. There are many differences of plot and character from the source material. Besides robots and aliens, there is much greater diversity in the cast.


I found the story compelling. The source premise of being far from help and at a severe disadvantage is thrilling, and I think Hine did a fine job of taking the story into the future.


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BOOK REVIEW: Justice League vs. Suicide Squad by J. Williamson / R. Williams / T. Seeley

Justice League vs. Suicide SquadJustice League vs. Suicide Squad by Joshua Williamson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The premise of this comic book seems a bit ridiculous, like bears versus squirrels. It’s a perennial challenge for DC in writing the Justice League. When you have a team with mega-powered characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lanterns, narrative tension is hard to generate. The writers pull some clever tricks via misdirects and character selection to make the story more compelling (and feasible,) but not without inconsistencies and inordinate convenience / serendipity.

This is a fine read if one is in search of some mindless entertainment and doesn’t want to think things through too much. It’s like TV or movie, but in book form: colorful, visually interesting, loaded with action, with the occasional amusing line, but – if one lets the inertia breakdown – there’s a lot of openings for thoughts like “Why didn’t so-and-so do _____?” “That felt easy,” or “Wait, what?”

Overall, I enjoyed this as pure escapism.


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BOOK REVIEW: MonsterMind by Alfonso Casas

MonsterMind: Dealing with Anxiety & Self-DoubtMonsterMind: Dealing with Anxiety & Self-Doubt by Alfonso Casas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 12, 2021

This comic offers a clever and insightful look at the voices inside one’s head. The use of cute graphic depictions of fears, doubts, and past traumas – along with lighthearted narrative analogies – allows the reader to explore the subject matter in a manner that is neither dry nor anxiety-inducing, in and of itself. This apparently autobiographical book shows how a comic artist, beleaguered by the monstrous occupants of his own mind, goes from being overwhelmed to learning to manage his mind.

At the end of the book there are a few pages of tips, both for dealing with one’s own anxieties but also for interacting with others who have intense embattled minds. It’s a book that may even be more beneficial for individuals without crippling issues themselves, but who know or love such individuals. The use of graphic depictions and adroit portrayals of anxiety may help individuals who haven’t faced severe issues to gain a better understanding of what goes on in the minds of those who do. Having said that, these “monsters” will be familiar to everyone on some level, though for many that that level doesn’t necessarily interfere with living their lives.

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a gentle and amusing introduction to the topic of the runaway mind. It’s delightfully drawn and amusingly told.


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BOOK REVIEW: Friday, Book One: The First Day of Christmas by Ed Brubaker

Friday, Volume 1Friday, Volume 1 by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 9, 2021

I was loving everything about this book until (the very big issue of) its failure to provide any conclusion or resolution. Imagine watching a two-hour movie, and at the one hour and forty-two minute mark the screen goes blank, the lights come on, and the ushers start humming “…you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here…” I understand writers of serialized works need to leave a hook, but this is all hook and no itch gets scratched.

And it’s a shame because the art was beautiful and evocative, the setting was both warmly hometown and eerily odd, the character building was intriguing, and everything seemed to be clicking. The conflict level was compelling, and one could definitely get attached to this world and its characters, but then one gets cold water thrown in one’s face and is asked to leave.

I will tell you one thing about the book that’s magnificent and that’s…


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BOOK REVIEW: After the Fall by Laurent Queyssi

After the FallAfter the Fall by Laurent Queyssi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: October 12, 2021

This isn’t exactly a thinking person’s read. It’s a fine, if simple, return home quest story with plenty of action. But it feels like the production process began with an artist’s Wishlist – e.g. “I would like to draw a comic that combines my love of dinosaurs, aliens, roided-up dudes, scantily-clad women, fantasy genre weaponry, bare boobies, zombies, and set it all within a crumbling 21st century Earth city.” To which the writer said, “We can do that! I’ve been working on this story about a friend who got his headphones stolen.” And the artist said, “That sounds perfect!”

It’s not until the end of the book that we learn what could create such a disparate set of conditions. We know that nuclear radiation could only account for the super-huge and preternaturally-aggressive animals, as well as the superpowers. How are we to account for the fact that all the men look like Conan the Barbarian, all the women look like their previous gig was sitting atop a muscle car for a muffler shop calendar, and some of the dudes look like video game monsters / aliens? I won’t spoil the mystery radiation that could result in such a range of afflictions, as well as bringing back the dinosaurs, except to say that I didn’t find the explanation compelling.

Unless you’ve been looking for a book that combines pterodactyls, aliens, superpowered anti-heroes, boobies, roided-up dudes, and stylized battle axes, you can probably pass on this one. But, if you’re into such things,…

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BOOK REVIEW: Scout’s Honor by David Pepose

Scout's HonorScout’s Honor by David Pepose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

This is one of those books that I found myself liking more and more as I continued to read, though which, frankly, the opening left me with low expectations. Said opening was pure Cold War cliché. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, radioactivity has had no impact on the human population besides thinning it out tremendously, but it has rendered incredible size, aggression, and monstrous adaptations upon every other species on the planet. [This preference for being cinematic over being smart is getting a bit old.] Between this and one of the lead characters hotwiring a car that had ostensibly not moved in decades, I was feeling I’d chosen poorly.

However, eventually, I did get the book that I’d expected from reading the blurb, a book based on the intriguing premise of a religified and militarized Boy Scout-like organization in a dystopian / post-apocalyptic future. The protagonist is named Kit, a highly-motivated Scout who has risen to the top of the troop through valor and clever-thinking. Kit has a secret, but learns an even bigger secret of the organization, one that throws the Scout’s worldview into doubt.

The book does a good job of establishing relationships to build emotional intensity, as well as in how it deals with the apparent truth that any organization that holds itself as a moral paragon is going to have some skeletons in its closet. I found it worthwhile to continue reading, even when this book felt like it was going to be just another post-apocalyptic cliché-fest.


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