BOOK REVIEW: The Golem of Venice Beach Vol. 1 by Chanan Beizer

The Golem of Venice BeachThe Golem of Venice Beach by Chanan Beizer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 15, 2022

The title is the premise. The Golem of Prague is now living in Venice Beach, CA. However, the protagonist is a human hipster with a sunglass kiosk near the beach named Jake. Jake is a secular Jew with a penchant for all manner of drugs who falls in love with a neighbor who is some sort of chosen one for a Santa Muerte cult that’s protected by some drug-dealing gangbangers. The connection to the Golem is that Jake’s bloodline is protected by the Golem.

This is one of those titles that’s hard to rate. The art is well done. The character development is great. And it’s a compelling premise. (Though I think we may be experiencing a Golem zeitgeist as this is the second or third Golem story I’ve read recently. But, it could also be an anecdotal coincidence.) That all sound pretty good, but I have no idea whether the story is any good because it’s one of those one-story-arc-split-over-two volumes, and so the resolution-to-cliffhanger ratio is not good. [i.e. It ends all cliffhanger and with nothing having been resolved.] To be fair, the last line does promise to conclude the story in the second (next) volume. (i.e. As opposed to: “We’ll see if it’s popular and then string it out until there’s no hope of tying up all the loose ends.”) So, I guess it comes down to whether you’re a trusting soul. I don’t think I’ve read this author previously, and thus have no basis for drawing a conclusion.

So, my recommendation is…


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BOOK REVIEW: Project MK-Ultra Vol. 2 by Brandon Beckner, et. al.

Project MK-Ultra Vol. 2: Sex, Drugs, and the CIAProject MK-Ultra Vol. 2: Sex, Drugs, and the CIA by Brandon Beckner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 15, 2022

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Volume Two continues the story of CIA’s crazy “experimentation” with LSD, ultimately leading to the fall of the MK-Ultra program. The story is built around strange but true events, but there is a fictionalized element, particularly with respect to the investigative journalist (Seymour Phillips) whose presence in the story is used as a mechanism to tie together events that may or may not have had much overlap in terms of common personnel. That is to say, fiction isn’t just used to make the story more intriguing (a tale this strange hardly needs much help in that department,) but to both fill in knowledge gaps (famously, most of the MK-Ultra files were destroyed) and to make a throughline connecting somewhat disparate events. The focus is on events surrounding Ronald Stark as well as the widening spillover of LSD from CIA programs into the civilian space – e.g. the birth of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

The art in this book is amazing. Of course, much of it has to capture the sensory bizarrerie of psychedelic experiences, and it does that creatively. However, even the “sober” panels are colorful and present a captivating world. There’s a full-page depiction of Chinatown that blew my mind.

If you’re interested in a story built around the CIA’s dalliances with LSD, and the subsequent spillover into the civilian world, I’d highly recommend the two volumes of this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: War & Peace: The Graphic Novel Adapted by Alexandr Poltorak [from the work by Leo Tolstoy]

War and Peace: The Graphic NovelWar and Peace: The Graphic Novel by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: September 27, 2022

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Ambitious. Many readers will feel it’s overly ambitious or even impossibly ambitious. It’s not just the challenge of capturing a sprawling 1,220-page tome in a 220-page graphic novel. Tolstoy’s work has a vast cast of characters and captures a broad set of both fictional and factual events whose broad contours are determined by Napoleon’s wars in Europe, culminating in his adventures into Russia. (In other words, the narrative arc wasn’t organized in such a manner as to be readily compressible, but to capture real world events.)

I must make a confession. Usually, when I’m reviewing a graphic novel adaptation of a work of literature, I’ve read the source material. In this case, I haven’t, and so I may not be the best person to comment on how accurately Poltorak and Chukhrai condense events. I can say that the pacing of the book – particularly in the latter half – is a bit like taking in the world through the window of a speeding train. Of the two most important characters, this is particularly true of the experience of Prince Andrew, whose major moments are “blink and you’ll miss them.” Pierre’s arc seems to be covered in greater detail, though still at breakneck pacing.

Given all that, many people will say to themselves: “Realistically, I am never going to read a 1000+ page novel about the experience of Russian aristocratic families leading up to and during the Napoleonic French invasion, even if it has love triangles, conniving inheritance disputes, and plenty of good ole family dysfunction.” The early part of the book is mostly rich people sitting around at soirees discussing war (in peace) as they live out their various familial and romantic dramas. If you’re that person, this graphic novel maybe the perfect solution for you, and I’d recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Little Monsters, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire

Little Monsters, Vol. 1Little Monsters, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 11, 2022

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It’s vampiric Lord of the Flies in a dystopian wasteland. Checks a lot of boxes. To begin on a positive note, I loved the character development in this book. Each of the kids is distinct and one rapidly develops an affinity for some of them and a distrust of others. Long story short, you want to know what happens to these kids, and why they’re in the situation in which they find themselves.

What I didn’t like is what I call the “resolution to hook” ratio. When something is written with serialization in mind, it’s a challenge to provide a satisfying story arc. There’s an incentive to end with a big hook, so as to draw readers farther down the line, and often the whole climax-resolution-conclusion bit is skipped or glossed over. Often, this leaves no (or a weak) resolution, such that reading the volume doesn’t scratch the itch that good stories do. Steamrolling through the end of the story arc to end on a cliffhanger may attract some continuing readers, but for those of us wary of the sunk cost fallacy (giving into an investment made with the assumption that it will eventually turn out positively,) it’s a sign to move on to the next story. (Lest one be Lost-ed – i.e. to be drawn in by a brilliant and inventive story only to see it become increasingly muddled, ultimately to end in a sad crash landing.)

The art is somewhat crudely rendered, but I suspect that was a conscious choice to achieve the desired atmospherics. And, I think it worked. The art clearly conveys the action.

If you have faith that you’ll eventually get that narrative itch scratched, you may want to check this one out. It does have a lot of potential. For my part, I’m once bitten, twice shy.


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BOOK REVIEW: By Water by Jason Landsel & Richard Mommsen

By Water: The Felix Manz StoryBy Water: The Felix Manz Story by Jason Landsel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: March 21, 2023

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This is a graphic novel-style biography of Felix Manz, a Protestant (Anabaptist) reformer from Zurich during the sixteenth century. Manz and his compatriots had a few beefs with the Catholic church, broadly classified. The first (and most religious / doctrinal) grievance was with respect to how the Church handled baptisms; specifically, infant baptism prevented baptism from being a free choice for the baptized. The second set of grievances involved the priesthood and how priests were moved around at the convenience of the Church and how much money they cost the citizenry. (i.e. They wanted local priests and not to be forced to pay a lot of overhead.) The third complaint was more an entire slate of complaints about resources. In that era, Swiss commoners couldn’t just go hunting in the woods or chop firewood as they needed because the land was under the ownership of the powers that be.

The story of Manz and his followers is intriguing, if one is interested in history. It’s kind of a strange topic to read in comic book form, but as history can be tedious in historical / biographic tomes, this makes for a quick and painless way to take in the story. There are a couple points where the book seems to shift into hagiographic territory (i.e. being difficult to swallow for the non-believer.)

The art is clear and neatly rendered, but I wondered how time-accurate it is. Maybe it is, but the inside of the houses looked pretty much like today (e.g. curtains and furnishings) and I found myself wondering whether its anachronistic or not. Ultimately, I have to give the artist the benefit of the doubt as I know virtually nothing about how Swiss commoners lived in the 1500’s. At the end of the book, there are some appendices that provide more information in prose text.

If you’re interested in European and / or Religious History, you may want to read this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Follow Me Down: A Reckless Book by Ed Brubaker

Follow Me Down: A Reckless Book Vol. 5Follow Me Down: A Reckless Book Vol. 5 by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 18, 2022

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This hard-boiled crime graphic novel is a gritty PI story turned grittier revenge journey. In the manner of Hollywood films, it’s over-the-top in places, but it’s also a visceral and (at times) touching story. (Perhaps, because the pacing and drama of the love story are more realistic than the depictions of action – which isn’t a criticism. The book knows what it is, given the almost camp tone of a lead with the surname “Reckless.”) The protagonist, Ethan Reckless, is hired to track down a missing young woman. Ethan isn’t a PI but engages in “problem-solving” activities – often of a legally questionable variety. Finding the girl draws him into a greater mission.

I think pacing is what this book does so masterfully, such that even though the lead character may be a functional psychopath there’s a strong emotional resonance to the story.

This is supposedly the last volume in the “Reckless” series (volume #5,) and I love that it functions so well as a standalone story. If you enjoy crime stories, this one is worth looking into.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hendrix: Electric Requiem by Mattia Colombara

Hendrix: Electric RequiemHendrix: Electric Requiem by Mattia Colombara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: September 6, 2022

This is a biography of the life of Jimi Hendrix in graphic novel form, from his youth in the Jim Crow South to his untimely demise. The book takes narrative license here and there, rather than being a just-the-facts scholarly or journalistic biography. This license is most extensively seen in the mystical and surreal dream and death sequences, but the back matter suggests that there was at least one event depicted in the book that didn’t happen in reality (or, at least, there isn’t evidence to support its occurrence.)

Hendrix’s life was so short and his death was now so long ago that few people know more than that he was a guitar prodigy with a penchant for playing in wild and unusual ways. The story digs into moments of poignancy and drama in the guitar phenom’s life as well as emphasizing his interactions with major artists of the day: e.g. Clapton, McCartney, and The Rolling Stones.

I found the book intriguing and valued the fact that there were notes and a bibliography in the back that help to clarify what’s well-supported and what events take creative license. The art is well rendered and colorful. If you’re interested in learning more about a rock-n-roll legend, it’s worth looking into this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Step by Bloody Step, Vol. 1 by Simon Spurrier

Step By Bloody StepStep By Bloody Step by Simon Spurrier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: August 30, 2022

This is the story of a young girl who goes on journey through a wondrous – and often perilous – exotic land with only the company of her giant knightly protector. The early part of the book involves this odd couple confronting various threats as they engage in their quest, but then they arrive in a fantastical realm, running up against their most dire threat yet — humanity.

This fantasy quest / adventure graphic novel is presented almost entirely without words. Each section is begun with a few poetically vague lines, but otherwise it’s entirely pictorial. The question is whether it works, or is like watching a movie with the sound and subtitles turned off – i.e. confusing and frustrating. The answer is complicated. For one thing, the part of the book where it’s just the girl and the giant works quite well because there aren’t a lot of characters to confuse or complex actions to grasp. However, this limits the story to a series of random unfortunate events. From the part where they arrive at civilization, it becomes less easily comprehended. There’s a lot of potential for: “Who is that, and why are they doing that?” And the conclusion has some complex story elements that are hard to comprehend without textual cues.

For another thing, it really depends on how attached one is as a reader to grasping what the author intended. If one is highly attached, one will probably spend a fair amount of time flipping back and forth and it will become an exercise in frustration as one tries to decipher meaning. If you don’t have such hang-ups – i.e. you see the act of reading as interpretative and believe all you need to do is let your brain make sense of the story (as it might in a dream — ) then it can be great fun. I came down on the latter side.

The artwork is imaginative and the “reading” process fascinating. If you’re game for a wordless story, you may want to check this one out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Trapped on Zarkass by Yann

Trapped on ZarkassTrapped on Zarkass by Yann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: October 11, 2022

This odd-couple quest story contextually resembles the movie Avatar, which is to say it involves an Earth-colonized exotic planet that has an intelligent – if primitive – indigenous lifeform. That said, neither the story nor the visuals are reminiscent of Avatar.

The story is about a pair of women who are tasked with tracking down a crashed enemy spacecraft in the remote jungles of the planet Zarkass, and returning with samples and intel about it. Because of treaties, the pair must operate undercover, assisted by a group of locals who are kept from the truth of the mission. One of the “agents” is a sweet, sensitive young woman who is pretending to do research as an expert on butterflies, and the other is a gruff, red-neck-ish drug dealer who’s released from prison to be the first woman’s guide and protector. The downed aircraft is a triangular spaceship that outmatches the Earthling craft, and the colonizers want metal samples to discover why their missiles glance off.

I enjoyed the story and found the world-building to be brilliantly imaginative [it’s outlandish, scientifically speaking, but creative.] As per the odd-couple norm, these two very different women slowly and begrudgingly develop respect and concern for each other by surviving numerous trials by fire together. Furthermore, in the end, it seems like they’ve developed a similar begrudging connection with the indigenous species that they did for each other. Even the main characters look down on the indigenous population throughout the book, but there seems to be a change. If you’re put off by nudity and near nudity of a gratuitous nature, the book does have it in spades.

If you like sci-fi adventures set on exotic worlds, you might want to give this one a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: He Who Fights With Monsters by Francesco Artibani

He Who Fights With MonstersHe Who Fights With Monsters by Francesco Artibani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: August, 30, 2022

This graphic novel tells a story featuring the Prague Golem, a mighty protector figure from Judaic folklore – formed of clay and breathed to life by magic words. The setting is Nazi-occupied Prague, and the golem is brought to life after a great period of dormancy, having been stored in the rafters of a synagogue, in order to once more act as protector to the Jewish people.

It’s a gripping tale of wartime resistance, but with a flat ending. However, I’m not sure it could have concluded in a satisfying way. That’s the challenge of writing a story of a superhero versus Nazis. The Holocaust is such a colossal tragedy that to rewrite the it resets the book into some alternate reality fantasyland, striking a raw nerve and killing any poignancy in the process.

The artwork is skillfully rendered and captures the grim nature of a city under fascist occupation quite well.

I enjoyed the story, despite not really knowing how to process the ending. Maybe that’s the point, that one can’t turn such mindless brutality into a storybook satisfying ending [by satisfying I don’t mean happy, but rather concluded in the definitive and intrinsically reasonable – if horrifying – way of tragedies.] Still, one is left wondering about apparent changes in character motivation and whether they make any sense — because they don’t feel like they do.

If you’re intrigued by a historical fiction / fantasy mashup set in Prague during the Second World War, check this book out, but expect to be left in an uneasy space at the end.


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