BOOK REVIEW: Public Domain, Vol. 1 by Chip Zdarsky

Public Domain Vol. 1Public Domain Vol. 1 by Chip Zdarsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This isn’t a superhero comic, but a meta-superhero comic. The central premise is similar to that of the popular novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” by Michael Chabon, which is to say it’s about how comic book artists historically made work-a-day salaries while others (actors, executives, producers, etc.) became astoundingly rich off the creations of those artists. In this case, it’s the father of two middle-aged sons, one of whom has a gambling problem.

It’s a fine story, and the character development is well done. Of the two sons, there’s one that’s incredibly likable and the other makes you want to punch him in his stupid face, and – as a twist – the likable one is the man-child and the straightlaced one is the jerk.

If you’re interested in a story about comic book justice, you should check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: All Talk by Bartosz Sztybor

All TalkAll Talk by Bartosz Sztybor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: March 14, 2023

This is the tragedy of a young man, Rahim, whose need to feel esteemed and empowered leads him ever deeper into the gangster life. But in that vicious world, his desire to be seen as powerful and his inability to tolerate insult is a threat not only to his life, but to all those close to him – even those who are more emotionally mature than he. There are a couple characters that provide contrast by showing an ability to navigate that life of youth amidst inner city poverty. The reader hopes Rahim will bend their way but fears he will pull them down with him.

This is a straightforward story but is still emotionally rousing. It’s a little like watching a car crash in slow motion, one knows what will go wrong well before it does, just by virtue of the fact that it’s all been set inexorably in motion. And yet one can’t look away.

If you enjoy a modern-day tragedy, you may want to look into this one.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & NocturnesThe Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this, the first, eight-issue volume of Sandman, we’re introduced to Morpheus / Dream – the king of dreams & nightmares and one of the seven Endless – when he’s captured by an amateur occultist who was trying to kidnap Death [the (not-so Grim) Reaper and also Dream’s sister.] The story told in “Preludes and Nocturnes” is one of Dream’s captivity, escape, and the subsequent missions to reacquire three magic artifacts that were stolen from him when he was captured (i.e. his bag of sand, helmet, and ruby-like jewel.) That last sentence makes it sound like a far-out fantasy, but it’s really a relatable and human set of stories.

This imaginative and compelling opening volume is at its best with “24 Hours” (as well as “Passengers,” the issue that precedes “24 Hours” and sets up its story.) In “24 Hours,” escaped villain, John Dee, torments the occupants of a smalltown diner by manipulating their reality (a capability he achieved when he came into possession of Dream’s “ruby.”) It’s a story that’s both horrifying and thought-provoking as Dee forces the diners to shed the masks of polite society and get to know the uncensored versions of each other.

Another favorite is the concluding issue, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which is really more of an epilogue, given the story has been brought to a successful and satisfying conclusion with the penultimate issue. “The Sound of Her Wings” introduces us to Death (the kinder, more charismatic, and more articulate Gaiman-version of the Grim Reaper) and shows us interaction between Dream and Death as Dream learns a crucial lesson from his sister.

“Sandman” is an excellent series, and the volume where it all began is no exception. I’d highly recommend it for readers in general.


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BOOK REVIEW: I Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp by Zumrat Dawut & Anthony Del Col

I Escaped a Chinese Internment CampI Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp by Zumrat Dawut
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: April 11, 2023

This short but evocative graphic novella tells the story of a Uyghur woman who is sent away to a reeducation camp and who is also sterilized against her will. It shows the brutality of China’s totalitarianism at its most oppressive. It’s easy to see China as a fairly benign – if autocratic – regime until one learns about the Orwellian nightmare that exists for some minorities deep within the country.

FYI – This book won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for “Illustrated Reporting and Commentary.”

I’d highly recommend reading this work as it shines a light deep down the rabbit hole of Chinese governance.


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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: The Complete Hush by Jeph Loeb

Batman: The Complete HushBatman: The Complete Hush by Jeph Loeb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Over the course of this twelve-chapter story, Batman is pitted against much of his rogues’ gallery, but they’re puppets to a shadowy unknown, a secret villain: Hush. Batman has to do his best detective work, and still faces twist after turn in uncovering this enemy that knows him all too well, who knows all his pressure points. Batman has to battle Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Joker, Scarecrow, and Clayface – and even [due to mind control] Superman and Catwoman, but nothing is as it seems. One might expect that a book this packed with enemies would face problems of pacing and poignancy, but the way the story is crafted (and the villains are effectively subordinated) it’s quite the opposite.

This was one of the smartest comics I’ve read. It’s a mystery that offers foreshadowing, but also false flags. There’s a sub-plot love story between Batman and Catwoman in which the relationship matures, but the question of whether one can ever really trust someone in that world remains ever in the background.

I thought this was one of the best comics I’ve read, and if you’re a Batman fan, it’s definitely a must-read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Ahiahia the Orphan by Levi Illuitok

Ahiahia the OrphanAhiahia the Orphan by Levi Illuitok
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: April 11, 2023

This is a brief and action-packed graphic novelization of a traditional story of the Inuit people of Kugaaruk. That said, it’s probably too brief and action-packed for its own good. The story revolves around a man, Ahiahia, who is orphaned when members of the tribe kill his parents, and then when he comes of age the same contingent have it out for him. While one can imagine any number of internecine conflicts that could lead to the murder of his parents, the fact that we have no clue of the attackers’ motivation makes the whole thing feel gratuitous.

Ahiahia’s grandmother takes the boy in and goes to great lengths to see that he will be safe in the face of whatever familial rivalry led to his parent’s murder. Her actions blend the magical with the practical (e.g. chanting incantations over the bow and arrows she makes for him.) For me, the moral of the story can be seen in this blending. We don’t know how much of Ahiahia’s successes are due to the practical versus the magical, but one feels they worked together and that one without the other would probably not have fared as well.

At the end, there’s a scene that may be disturbing for those who have strong feelings about patriarchal subjugation of women, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not authentic.

This is a very quick read and has sufficient action to keep it engaging. However, it can also feel a bit purposeless.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Dreaming, Vol. 1: Pathways & Emanations by Simon Spurrier

Pathways and Emanations (The Dreaming, #1)Pathways and Emanations by Simon Spurrier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This title is part of the “Sandman extended universe” that was spurred by the success of Neil Gaiman’s comic about the lord of dream realm –“the Dreaming” being said realm of dreams and nightmares. The Dreaming is usually presided over by Dream of the Endless, one of seven siblings commanding various domains. In this story, Dream is gone, no one knows where. Readers of Sandman will remember that in the original run Dream is kidnapped and imprisoned for 70 years. This isn’t the same disappearance (it’s not even the same “Dream,” but as he’s not a major figure in this book, there’s no need to elaborate.) While this may seem like a rehash, the Sandman story was focused on the character of Dream and mostly took place in our world, occasionally visiting the Dreaming as relevant to Dream’s story. This story is all about what happens within the Dreaming when the master is away, allowing decay, internal treachery, and the potential for invasion.

The story heavily focuses on three characters: Lucien, Mervyn, and Dora. One of the things this story does well is to build a tension between Lucien and Mervyn, a tension that is relatable and contributes substantially to the turmoil within the story. Lucien is ordinarily the librarian, and he’s a scholarly fellow who is an excellent librarian but is in over his head running the Dreaming (especially as he’s trying to keep it a secret that Dream has vanished so as to avoid panic or invite attacks.) Mervyn (Pumpkin-head) is like the head of maintenance, a blue-collar stiff who doesn’t know Dream is gone and thinks Lucien is making a powerplay and has bitten off more than he can chew. Dora is a mysterious rogue of a character who we don’t know much about other than that she’s not from the Dreaming (but lives there with Dream’s permission,) she’s quite powerful, and she does her own thing — which often runs her afoul of the staff of the Dreaming.

I felt this volume offered an entertaining story and resolved it nicely, while setting up for continued chaos in additional volumes. If you enjoyed the Sandman comics, this book is definitely worth a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Swamp Thing, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan

Swamp Thing by Brian K. Vaughan, Vol. 1Swamp Thing by Brian K. Vaughan, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The first thing to be aware of is that the protagonist of this book is Tefé Holland, daughter of Swamp Thing, and the titular character is only in the book for a few frames of flashback. This has the advantage of making for a confused and tormented lead character, a sort of coming-of-age element. Tefé struggles with who she is, and this leads to some wonky behavior. At times, she doesn’t do what would be expected of a superhero, but at other times she does, and this makes her character feel constantly off-kilter. One doesn’t straight away develop an affinity for the character, or – if one does – it comes and goes as she responds to varied situations in various ways. However, this seems to be intentional, a reflection of the fact that she doesn’t know if she’s the protector of the plant world, of humanity, of both, or of neither. She’s at once a pretty and sweet young woman and a terrifying god-like Elemental. She has a couple of “sidekick” characters, Barnabas and Pilate that help lend humanity and provide contrast (given the hardcore nature of these two men, they tend to make Tefé seem even more extreme as they are the ones to talk her down.)

While the Swamp Thing and its extended character-verse is heavy with environmental message, the book is not written to bludgeon the reader with rebukes or preach to the choir. It keeps the lessons subtle enough that I didn’t feel the book swerving into preachy mode, and it remains entertaining throughout.

I enjoyed this volume. It can feel a little disjointed and might read more smoothly for someone who’d read previous Swamp Thing series, but with attentive reading, one can certainly follow the action. (Another potential advantage of it focusing on the daughter character.) [FYI- This is the third of seven series.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Killadelphia Deluxe Edition, Book One by Rodney Barnes

Killadelphia Deluxe Edition, Book One (Killadelphia, 1)Killadelphia Deluxe Edition, Book One by Rodney Barnes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 22, 2022

Just when you think the vampire subgenre has been done to death, a graphic novel comes along that grabs one’s attention and reignites one’s affinity for the trope. As the title suggests, one of the ways that this book establishes itself as something different is to lean into setting, a setting with a unique heritage but no particular connection to vampires, in this case Philadelphia. The book takes cross-genre to the extremes, involving not only speculative fiction / horror but, also, historical fiction and detective fiction.

Killadelphia doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, but it does an exemplary job with an assortment of common tropes and plot devices. Like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the book mashes up vampires and historical figures, but – in this case – Barnes goes more obscure by using John and Abagail Adams. The book also plays on the dysfunctional father / son relationship as source of tension and character growth. In this case, James Sangster Jr. comes to Philly due to the untimely death of his father, James Sangster Sr., but the father’s death turns out to be more of an undeath, the detective having been caught up in an investigation that led him into a den of vampires. This ultimately plays into a reluctant team up as the Philly vampire scene goes epidemic.

There’s some ancillary material with this deluxe edition, most notably a werewolf comic that takes place in the same universe, called Elysium Gardens. [Otherwise, it’s the usual alternate cover art and author exposition type stuff.]

I enjoyed Killadelphia and would put it in the upper echelon of vampire-inspired graphic novels that I’ve seen of late.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Voices of Water by Tiziano Sclavi

The Voices of WaterThe Voices of Water by Tiziano Sclavi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 22, 2022

As the title suggests, this graphic novel is about a guy who hears voices, voices that he most often can’t quite make out, but only in the presence of moving water – i.e. rain, the shower, a sink, etc. Though the reader may read it more as a series of short fiction chapters with a vague vein of interconnectedness. A choice was made to keep the text sparse and to let the imagery do the heavy lifting. I’m not sure it worked out as well as intended, though there is wide variation throughout the book. There are a few chapters that can be read as clear and evocative standalone stories (e.g. “Revenge,” “In a Better World,” and “A Day of the Week: Tuesday,”) but there are others that leave one wondering whether one grasped what was intended (if anything was intended.)

The art is line-drawn (penciled style) monochrome. It works well for the tone of the book, and many of the frames feature old town European architecture that is both attractive and establishes an interesting setting.

This one is definitely high on atmospherics and feels a little disjoint because it’s not always clear that the protagonist, Stavros, is in the vicinity of the action, and – therefore – how the overarching narrative ties together. Overall, I think it works, and I’m glad I read it.


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