BOOK REVIEW: Bangalore: A Graphic Novel by Jai Undurti, et. al.

Bangalore: A Graphic Novel: Every City is a StoryBangalore: A Graphic Novel: Every City is a Story by Jai Undurti
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book collects nine stories communicated via comic strip artwork. As the title suggests, the principle theme is Bangalore. Not much else unifies the nine works. That’s not a complaint or criticism. The book works fine, but the artistic and writing styles do vary radically. The stories include historical pieces, science fiction, crime fiction, and non-fiction – delivered in various tones from dark and gritty to light and playful. [I suspect it is only subtitled “A Graphic Novel” because that’s the only existing term that’s vaguely accurate. While it’s sometimes the case that a collection of stories with little connective tissue is called a novel – this one has no connective tissue beyond Bangalore-ness (no common characters or overlapping events.) But “Illustrated Stories” would be even more confusing to readers because it would sound like a children’s book (which this definitely isn’t) and it wouldn’t convey that the panel graphic style of comic books is employed.]

This isn’t to say that there aren’t cross-cutting ideas. I said Bangalore was the book’s theme, and I meant that. It’s not just the setting for these stories. As such, one sees a few recurring ideas that are central to Bangalore’s unique nature. Those who know anything about Bangalore probably know it as “India’s Silicone Valley.” So, it’s not unexpected that one recurring concept is technology — as well as technology gone awry. If one knows two things about Bangalore, the second is probably that its growth rate has been phenomenal. When India was newly independent, Bangalore was a fraction of the size of Chennai (Madras), and now – at an estimated 12 million people – its India’s third largest city, having edged out Kolkata (Calcutta) for that position. This has led to a lot of concern about urban decay, particularly among those who knew it as “the garden city” back when it was a popular retirement destination. The idea of nostalgia murdered by rampant growth, therefore, plays heavily into the collection.

I’ll briefly mention each of the pieces. Sorry, I know nothing about art, and therefore am unable to comment on the various styles. I just know they cover quite a gamut from monochrome to dark and desolate to bright and cheerful.

-Bangaloids: This is a piece of dark humor that plays with the aforementioned idea of technology gone awry.

-The Incredible Story of Gunboat Jack: This story explores issues of home and how it changes for one from youth to middle age. The tale shows a boxer in his prime juxtaposed with his past-prime self in a city that has grown away from him as he aged.

-No More Coffee: This is a simple story of a broken heart, but what’s cool is how it contrasts futuristic tech with a setting of India Coffee House. (For those unfamiliar ICH it’s one café among a chain owned by the Coffee Board of India that is tasty, simple, inexpensive, and like walking several decades into the past.)

-81, Richmond Street: This tells the tale of a crime famous in the annals of Bangalore.

-The Missing ATM: This comedic story features an ATM guard who has an ATM stolen out from under him while his sits on the midnight shift. While it’s humorous, it also deals with issues of class and moral dilemmas. [This was probably my favorite.]

-11th Main 9th Cross: This spare piece explores the issue of urban decay.

-Mileage: This is dark story features a man speeding home who has an accident, and is forever changed in an unexpected way.

-Beneath: This story is different in that it ends with Bangalore, but doesn’t begin so.

-My Story: This is a nostalgia piece by someone who was born and raised in Bangalore, who went away, and who comes back occasionally to find an everchanging city.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it – particularly for anyone with any experience with Bangalore.

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BOOK REVIEW: American Vampire, Vol. 1 by Scott Snyder and Stephen King

American Vampire, Vol. 1American Vampire, Vol. 1 by Scott Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel includes two distinct, but interconnected, stories presented in an interspersed fashion (i.e. each chapter presents a piece of each story.) The first story, written by Scott Snyder, is set in flapper era Hollywood, and revolves around a hardworking aspiring actress, Pearl, who is lured into a den of vampires by a big-name actor who she has a celebrity crush on.

The second story, by Stephen King, is set in the wild west and tells the story of a violent bandit named Skinner Sweet. Sweet is also turned vampire when he is “killed” by a vampire whose business activities are disrupted by Skinner’s rogue ways. The connective tissue between the two stories is the character of Sweet, who is a background character in Snyder’s story – playing a sort of mentor / guide who Pearl is only reluctantly and skeptically willing to accept.

Like Blade, character from Marvel Comics and the movies of the same name, Pearl and Sweet have enhanced capabilities in comparison to the old “European” vampires. These enhancements are similar to Blade’s, as well. The American Vampires don’t instantaneously fry in sunlight, and they are stronger and faster than their old-world counterparts. I suspect that in both cases, these enhancements are meant to make things interesting, given that – in both cases — these characters are at a disadvantage in every other way (i.e. they are outnumbered, they have many fewer resources, and they are far less experienced.) Unlike Blade, the “American Vampires” morph into nastier and more monster-like versions of themselves when they go on the attack.

The stories are straightforward, though skillfully crafted. In the first, Pearl is turned and then goes out for some payback, her best friend getting caught up in the action as well. In the second, Sweet plays out his vendetta against a lawman who was his nemesis. We get additional insight from a man who wrote up Skinner’s story as a work of fiction, but then came out as having really been writing the truth – much to the amusement of a skeptical audience. Flashbacks throughout this author’s talk layout the Skinner Sweet story. One does get the sense that immortality has had a tempering effect on Sweet, who doesn’t seem so prone to be mean for meanness sake. Although, this might be deceptive as we don’t see much action by him in the Snyder story.

I found the artwork to be well-done. While I don’t have expertise on the subject, I could follow the panels with no problem, and that’s about all I need out of them.

I was engrossed by this book. It can’t be claimed to being original, but it is an adept execution. If you are interested in vampire stories, this is an interesting take on them.

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BOOK REVIEW: World War Hulk by Greg Pak

World War HulkWorld War Hulk by Greg Pak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection [World War Hulk (2007) #1-5] picks up where “The Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk” left off. “Planet Hulk” sees Hulk arriving on the harsh planet of Sakaar where he engages in a series of adventures that take him from enslaved gladiator to king. I reviewed that work recently, and enjoyed it more than this one, though both are from the same author and each tells an intriguing story. The “Planet Hulk” story was just more intricate and thought-provoking — we see a change in the Hulk and the events that bring those changes about.

In “World War Hulk,” the Hulk returns to Earth, seeking revenge upon the “Illuminati” group who jettisoned him into space (i.e. Tony Stark / Ironman, Doctor Strange, Reed Richards / Mr. Fantastic, and Black Bolt.) Said revenge isn’t so much for shooting him into space, but because the craft that they sent him to space in blew up leveling Sakaar’s capital city and killing (among many others) his brand new Queen. So, the story is just the Hulk trying to put a beating on the four superheroes who shot him into space as they try to not get beaten (and to keep a [mostly] evacuated New York City from being leveled.] The Illuminati quartet face a number of problems, however. First, while they might have had the combined ability to defeat the Hulk before (at least teamed with the many other heroes at their disposal — and many are present from street-level vigilantes to big leaguers like the Fantastic Four,) the Hulk is madder than ever, and thus stronger than ever (but also wiser / more experienced.) Second, the Hulk now has his own monster-level “Warbound” entourage (i.e. Korg, Miek, Hiroim, Brood, and Elloe Kaifi.) Finally, the one hero who, without a question, has the power to stop Hulk and his Warbound, i.e. The Sentry, is severely agoraphobic and schizophrenic. So, it’s a great challenge to get him out the door and once you do, he’s at risk of schizoid behavior. On top of all that, he contains enough power to destroy the world – accidentally or because of distorted perceptions.

I did like the touch about The Sentry being a basket case. I’m not a big fan of hugely overpowered heroes, but if they have enough weaknesses they can redeem what would otherwise be terminally boring storylines. This is certainly the case with the Hulk who is at his most powerful when he is out of control and who is also, generally, at his least intelligent at those times. The Sentry takes it a step beyond because he’s barely functional. One may be doubtful about someone so powerful being scared to go outside, but it is the nature of mental illness that one doesn’t always see oneself as one is seen and there need not be a sound logic to one’s perceptions of the world.

I’d recommend reading “Planet Hulk” first and – if you enjoy it, which I suspect you might – you’ll probably find following it up with “World War Hulk” worthwhile.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk by Greg Pak

The Incredible Hulk: Planet HulkThe Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk by Greg Pak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I was pleasantly surprised by the story arc and character development in this volume – which is to say it had both and they were well crafted. I often have a problem with comic books — in particular (and on-going series of any kind, in general,) and that’s that they often fail to be satisfying as self-contained stories. So much effort is put into keeping one reading that the climax and resolution – such as they are – feel like minor speed-bumps on the way to somewhere else. That wasn’t the case here. While the ending leaves open a route of continued story (as one would expect,) one sees the Hulk undergo a transformation across the events of this story. He’s shot away from the Earth, lands on the wrong planet, is forced to fight as a gladiator, escapes, fights his way across a world teeming with harsh adversaries, all the while building the respect of those around him until he is elevated to kingship.

Tough guy characters are notorious for remaining unchanged across a story arc. Hulk, being the ultimate tough guy, seems particularly unlikely to grow or develop. However, the Hulk who begins this story jettisoned into deep space by his superhero colleagues to avoid him causing chaos on Earth, feels different from the Hulk who assumes leadership of the planet Saakar at the volume’s end. Amid monsters, the Hulk is in his element and can be a better version of himself. On Earth he is a bull in a china shop, on Sakaar not everyone he meets is so delicate. Overpowered heroes are often hard to make interesting. However, a couple countervailing features make it easier to make Hulk more interesting than say, Superman. First of all, Hulk is overpowered in one dimension, i.e. power, and might be considered underpowered in other dimensions (i.e. intellect, pettiness, control, etc.) Second, there is an interesting game theoretic condition in which the Hulk just gets stronger the angrier he gets, and so he always presents an object lesson — that is, one can’t just fight fire with fire and get the better of him. Thirdly, and most importantly, no matter who the Hulk is fighting, his story is essentially man versus self. The outward opposition is secondary. Because of his past mindless destructiveness, he is uniquely able to understand the need to let bygones be bygones. This is nicely shown, and eventually challenged.

Movie buffs may wonder what this book has in common with the “Thor: Ragnarok” movie that features common elements. The answer is: not a lot. The Sakaar of the movie seems to be just a huge trash heap and a gladiatorial arena. The Sakaar of the comics is more fleshed out with agrarian areas and various indigenous peoples / species. There are a couple of common characters, including Korg and Miek, but they are only superficially the same character. (Korg is much more serious and Miek is a much more substantially developed character in the comic book.) Also, there is no Thor. The only other familiar hero from other comics that we see on Sakaar is the Silver Surfer – and only early in the story.

Besides the main story, provided by “The Incredible Hulk, #92 – 105” there is a “Planet Hulk Gladiator Guide” for the hardcore nerds the provides all sorts of detail regarding the geography planet Sakaar, biographical sketches of key characters, and the culture of various species on the planet. There is also another issue “Amazing Fantasy #15” that shows Amadeus Cho (on Earth) investigating what happened with his friend, Bruce Banner.

I enjoyed “Planet Hulk” considerably, and I look forward to reading the “World War Hulk” collection that was also written by Pak. The art was generally clear and conveyed action effectively, and I found the story quite intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman, Vol 1: Court of Owls by Scott Snyder

Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of OwlsBatman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls by Scott Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection (Batman #1-7 of The New 52) shows Batman’s discovery of a shadowy and age-old nemesis that has managed to cling to the darkness so well that it’s known only by a creepy nursery rhyme / folksong. The Court of Owls not only predates Batman’s father, Thomas Wayne, but we learn it goes back at least to the time of his [great-]great-grandfather, Alan Wayne, a railroad magnate largely responsible for Gotham’s look.

The story opens with a grizzly murder involving a large number of well-placed throwing knives, positioned to allow the victim to survive for some time. However, it’s Bruce Wayne’s meeting with Lincoln March, an apparently magnanimous man running for mayor, that brings things to a head. During the meeting, March is stabbed by a costumed villain claiming to be carrying out the sentence of the Court as he goes on to attempt to assassinate Wayne. While the Court of Owls connection is clear, Batman concludes that it’s just another villain using the symbolism of the nursery rhyme in the same way he uses the symbolism of the bat. However, as his investigation goes forward, that theory becomes less tenable.

I greatly enjoyed this collection. While we see Nightwing, Red Robin, and the current Robin, this story is very much a solo outing for Batman. The past and present sidekicks serve only to join Alfred in reminding Batman that he’s burning the candle at both ends, and to facilitate [skillfully delivered] exposition. While we see Batman as the pragmatic master detective and as the butt-kicking caped crusader, what I really enjoyed (and what set this edition apart for me) was a trippy, surreal piece of the story. There’s a section of the book that reminds me of Grant Morrison’s “Batman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious Place on Serious Earth.” While it draws on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, it gets mind-bending as Batman finds himself trapped in a labyrinth and his only water source is provided by a conveniently-existing fountain in said labyrinth.

I’d say this is definitely among must-reads for fans of Batman. It sets up what will be an on-going battle, but it was an intriguing in its own right.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Valiant (#1-4) by Jeff Lemire, et. al.

The ValiantThe Valiant by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book gathers four comic books into a full story arc. It tells a simple story of good versus evil involving a team of superheroes versus an extremely powerful opponent called “The Immortal Enemy.” The Immortal Enemy takes many forms over the course of its life, and in this case (as always) it chooses a form designed to unnerve the Geomancer who opposes it. It’s an allegorical tale of environmental protection versus degradation that blends fantasy and sci-fi with a touch of the weird.

At the heart of the story there is a blossoming relationship of an unlikely pairing. The first is an inexperienced Geomancer. She is just learning the ropes and is a very human and emotionally-oriented character. He is a Wolverine-esque character named “Bloodshot.” He’s stoic and rocksteady. The gist is that she becomes more confident through her exposure to him, and he regains some humanity through exposure to her.

The story’s resolution felt a bit deus ex machina to me, involving an artifact whose role and function aren’t clear until it proves instrumental, but overall it was an entertaining read.

I found the artwork to be well done. I don’t have any particular expertise in such matters, but it looked good too me.

If you enjoy graphic novels, this one is worth picking up.

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BOOK REVIEW: My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

My Heroes Have Always Been JunkiesMy Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, this story’s lead romanticizes drug abuse, to the point that she believes the only great art comes from those who are wasted. Said lead is a teenage girl who we know as Ellie, and whom we find in an upscale drug rehab center. She’s a troublemaker and resistant to treatment, and why wouldn’t she be as she believes that drugs make one a musical genius. (Most of her romanticization is directed toward rock-n-roll artists, but she also admires novelists such as William Burroughs and assorted other creative types who were generally blotto in the act of creation.)

Most of the story is a budding romance between Ellie and a young man who is a bit of a mystery but who encourages her to play along for her own good. Ultimately, however, his good influence is no match for her bad influence, and they end up running off together, hanging out in vacant vacation houses. In the latter quarter of the book, the story unfolds and we learn that the relationship isn’t the product of spontaneous chemistry that we’ve been led to believe.

Brubaker creates an addict driven to myopic and impulsive behavior, and so the reader can readily believe how she ends up in her own sort of hell in which she has no good options, only various flavors of terrible ones. The necessary foreshadowing was done for a twist ending, but it gets a little heavy handed at one point. However, to be fair, the reveal takes place in a short space as the overall work is fairly short, and the climax and resolution are late in the work.

I’m not such an expert on artwork in comics. The art and coloring seemed good to me, but I remember thinking that Ellie looked old to be approximately 18 – but then that could have been purposeful as she’s supposed to have drug years on her.

I found this to be a thought-provoking work and read it straight through. It’s not preachy, but does suggest an inevitability of life going sour when one lives such a life. I’d recommend this book for those intrigued by the premise.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin, et. al.

Batman: A Death in the FamilyBatman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection gathers comic books first published in the late 80’s, telling the story of the demise of Jason Todd (the second Robin) and the rise of the third Robin, Tim Drake. There is an intriguing interactive element to the story of Todd’s death as readers were allowed to vote on whether the character would be killed off or not by way of a phone hotline. The challenge for DC was that when readers did decide to ax Todd the publisher couldn’t tell whether the decision reflected a preference for a lone-wolf Batman, or whether they just didn’t like Todd.

The reason it might have been the latter is that Jason Todd was written as a much more sassy, impudent, and disobedient Robin than his predecessor, Dick Grayson (i.e. who’d shed sidekick status to become Nightwing.) Todd’s teenage insolence can be seen in this story when Batman puts him on probation after some rash action while crime-fighting. Having found a clue that puts him on the trail of his birth mother, Todd goes on a global walkabout searching for her. With comic book convenience, Todd’s pursuit of meeting his mother brings him back across the path of a Batman who is out to stop the Joker. When Robin is asked to maintain surveillance on the Joker while Batman sets off to interrupt a convoy of poisonous gas, the seeds of self-destruction are sown.

This isn’t a Gotham-centric Batman story, but reflects the geopolitics of the 1980’s. Batman and Robin reunite in the Middle East, and the story proceeds to the United Nations as the Dark Knight attempts to end the Joker’s reign of madness. When the Iranians make the Joker their Ambassador to the United Nations, Superman is brought in to make sure an enraged Batman doesn’t do something that will cause an international incident. Superman’s role is neither extensive nor, given his vast powers, particularly interesting.

When DC was putting together this collection, they apparently thought that leaving the story with a bitter, despondent, and angry Batman wasn’t the way forward, and so they include the story of how Tim Drake becomes the third Robin. (Even though it makes for an odd narrative kink and tone shift.) Drake is a boy Sherlock Holmes. Having deduced that Batman is Bruce Wayne and noticing that Batman has become more reckless in the wake of Todd’s / Robin’s death, Drake stalks Dick Grayson in an attempt to get him to return to being Batman’s sidekick. Grayson isn’t interested in the demotion, and the guilt-ridden Batman has no desire to partner up again, feeling that he got the last one killed.

I enjoyed this collection. The fact that it includes powerful consequences gives it some emotional resonance and narrative tension. (Of course, in comic book fashion, Todd doesn’t stay dead, but that doesn’t happen until long after this run.) I found the shift to the “Teen Titans” books (i.e. the part involving Drake and Dick Grayson) makes for an odd turn-about in the story. But it’s understandable as it’s a dark story line otherwise. (I would have preferred more on the front end to show why I should care that a rash and disrespectful twit got killed doing what he was told not to. Long time readers will have some sympathies for Todd [his execution by readers was of a narrow margin, after all], but just based on this book one may feel Todd got what was coming.)

This book presents a crucial moment in the Batman canon, and should be read by any one interested in the Dark Knight’s story.

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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Prelude by Will Corona Pilgrim

Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War PreludeMarvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Prelude by Will Corona Pilgrim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This two issue comic book was released in advance of “Avengers: Infinity War.” It revisits the events of previous movies adding a few snippets of new material here and there. Of the new material, much of it elaborates upon events that are known to have happened behind the scenes of earlier movies. Not surprisingly, given Marvel’s penchant for secrecy, there are only a few frames that offer insight into activities that a fan who’d seen all the preceding films would be in the dark about.

I’m assuming that anyone considering reading a prelude to “Infinity War,” by this point, has already seen that movie and relevant preceding films such as “Captain America: Civil War,” the first two “Avengers” movies, “Guardians of the Galaxy 1,” and “Doctor Strange.” If that’s not the case, and you want to avoid potential spoilers, stop now.

The first issue recaps “Captain America: Civil War” while providing insight into what happens with Captain America’s team in the wake of that film, at the end of which they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Much of the issue is verbatim repetition of the events of that movie. There’s also elaboration about the Black Panther’s assistance to Winter Soldier (Sgt. Barnes) via his genius sister Shuri, as well as a scene showing what Captain America, Black Widow, and other team members are up to in the aftermath of the breakup of the Avengers.

The second issue consists largely of Wong schooling Doctor Strange on the powers of the infinity stones and their current whereabouts. Those who’ve seen all the films know that five of the six stones were accounted for before the third Avengers movie. Only the whereabouts of the soul stone remains in doubt. This book doesn’t solve that mystery and merely offers a cryptic comment about the soul stone’s power. As Wong is describing events, the reader is shown flashback scenes from the movies and post-credit scenes that explain where each stone is and how they were used in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1,” “Thor: The Dark World,” “Avengers 1 & 2,” “Doctor Strange,” etc.

If you are an intense fan who craves every new bit of information, you may enjoy combing through this comic book. Otherwise, it’s mostly of use for those who are planning on seeing “Infinity War” but who haven’t seen “Captain America: Civil War,” “Guardians of the Galaxy 1” (which contains a brief piece of exposition that clarifies the nature of the stones), or the previous “Avengers” films. I don’t know how big that demographic is, but I suppose new fans are coming along all the time. I wouldn’t recommend you purchase the prelude expecting anything new and earth-shattering. The art and dialogue are all well done and inline with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films.

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