BOOK REVIEW: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Vol. 3 by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 3 (Black Panther 2016-)Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 3 by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the concluding segment of a story written by Ta-Nehisi Coates in which King T’Challa (a.k.a. the Black Panther) must fight to keep his nation, Wakanda, from descending into chaos and revolution. It features “Black Panther (2016)” #9-12, as well as some supplementary material from “New Avengers (2013)” #18, 21, and 24.

As with the other volumes in this story, there is a major and a minor plot, and at the beginning of this Volume the latter resolves itself in order to fold into the main story. The major plot involves an attempted revolution fomented by a man named Tetu who heads a revolutionary organization called “the People” that has engaged in terrorist and other nefarious activities. While progress was made against Tetu and his allies in Volume 2, he still presents a threat to the throne and to Wakanda. However, Tetu isn’t the only threat to the nation. Wakanda’s problems are bigger and more systemic than that. While Tetu is a terrorist, there are dissenting factions with far more legitimacy, including the Midnight Angels (former bodyguards to the King, i.e. ex-Dora Milaje) and the much-loved philosophy professor, Changamire.

The secondary plot involves T’Challa’s search for his sister Shuri who has been trapped in the Djalia, the Wakandan plane of memory. At the end of the second volume, T’Challa resumes the search using a technology that channels and amplifies the powers of his friend “Manifold.” As it happens, bringing Shuri back occurs effortlessly, but it seems returning her to this world isn’t so critical to the story as the effect her experience had on her. She returns with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Wakanda as well as numerous inexplicable supernatural abilities. The past queen plays an important role in the balance of the story both by advising T’Challa, fighting, and lending her influence with the Midnight Angels (ex-Dora Milaje.)

The fight for Wakanda plays itself out as both a battle of action against forces controlled by Tetu and Zenzi as well as a battle for the minds of the people (not to be confused with the organization “the People.”) I found it to be a smart story.

The supplementary material from “New Avengers (2013)” was illuminating. My only problem with it is that it occurs after the story is complete. If one just reads this Ta-Nehisi Coates arc, one might want to go to the end of Volume 3, and read this material first or pick up the whole “New Avengers (2013)” story. By doing so, one will have a much better understanding of why there is so much conflict in Wakanda, and why T’Challa is so unpopular. It’s hinted at here and there, but I didn’t understand the motivation fully until this material showed the events rather than offering random back story tidbits.

I would recommend this story for anyone. I don’t think one needs to be a regular comic book reader or have a particular interest in the Black Panther character to find it interesting and enjoyable.

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BOOK REVIEW: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Vol. 2 by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 2Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 2 by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume contains the middle portion of a three-part story arc written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The books included are “Black Panther (2016)” #5-8 and “The Black Panther: Jungle Action” #6&7.

As the subtitle suggests, the fate of Wakanda is at stake and King T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther, must find a way to keep his nation from falling. Public displeasure with T’Challa is being exploited by a man named Tetu who heads a revolutionary group called “The People.” Tetu is allied with a powerful psychic named Zenzi and—in contrast to the populist message his organization’s name suggests–the arms dealer Ezekiel Stane. However, while the might of Tetu and his allies represents a dire threat, the greatest challenge might be from a beloved scholar named Changamire, who holds both the moral high ground and the voice of reason. As Tetu sought to co-opt ex-Dora Milaje members Aneka and Ayo (now called the Midnight Angels) to gain legitimacy as well as their strength, he also seeks to get Changamire in his corner.

As the main plot of political intrigue unfolds, there is a subplot involving T’Challa’s sister Shuri who is trapped in the Djalia—Wakanda’s plane of collective memory. For a time T’Challa is forced by events to set aside his desire to get his sister back in order to battle Tetu both outright and by rekindling goodwill in the hearts and minds of his people. However, Shuri’s lessons in the Djalia, delivered by a griot in the form of her mother, are interspersed throughout the story, and by this segment’s end T’Challa finds it impossible to delay his search any longer.

Coates presents us with a human T’Challa, one who makes mistakes and whose mistakes exacerbate the threat to Wakanda. His most notable mistake is allowing himself to be talked into convening a council of “counter-revolutionary” experts who, in fact, consist of heads of the security apparatus for several corrupt regimes. His only saving grace is that Tetu has even more skeletons in his closet. T’Challa has to deal the best he can with situations in which there is no clear high ground, and that makes for a more intriguing story than one normally associates with superhero comic books. By the end of this Volume, it seems that Black Panther—along with his allies Manifold, Luke Cage, Misty Knight, and Storm—has turned things around by defeating Stane and uncovering the lair of “the People,” but then one realizes how fragile Wakanda remains.

The two bonus books “Jungle Action” #6&7 are from the early 1970’s and feature an earlier challenge to T’Challa’s throne from his archenemy Erik Killmonger. I can see why these two comics were included. Said books might be viewed as influences on this story, but there may have been better choices. At the end of the third volume (reviewed concurrently), there’s material from a 2013 run that offers great insight into why T’Challa is on the outs with his people. For those of us who pick up select stories (i.e. not all-reading fanboys), the insight offered in Volume 3’s supplementary material would be useful earlier in the reading process. (Preferably it would be in Volume 1.) The first volume includes a single book from “Fantastic Four.” It’s fun to read because it’s Black Panther’s introduction into the Marvel-verse and it shows us how formidable Black Panther is as well as letting us in on the secret that Wakanda is the most technologically advanced nation on the planet. However, I think knowing why the Wakandans are so disgruntled would help make Coates’s story more powerful.

As it’s a comic book, I should mention the artwork–even though I have no particular insight into graphic artistry—comic book or otherwise. All I can say is that I liked the art and found it effective and clear. I viewed the book in black-and-white, so I have nothing to say about color palette.

I enjoyed this arc and thought this section of it had a good balance of peril and victory for our hero. I’d recommend it broadly. I don’t think you have to be solely interested in comic books or the Black Panther character specifically to find this story intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Captain America: Civil War by Ed Brubaker

Civil War: Captain AmericaCivil War: Captain America by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Captain America has gone rogue. In the wake of the passing of a law that requires heroes to be registered and regulated, Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America) leads a resistance movement. The arc conveyed in this four-book collection tells a story of the resistance at once battling S.H.E.I.L.D. Cape-Killers on the one hand and a HYDRA plot on the other. It should be noted that it’s at least as much a Winter Soldier collection as a Captain America one. In fact, the third book in the collection is the only one in which Steve Rogers / Captain America can be said to be the lead.

The books included are: “Captain America #22 [Civil War / The Drums of War, pt. 1],” “Captain America #23 [Civil War / The Drums of War, pt. 2],” “Captain America #24 [Civil War / The Drums of War, pt. 3],” and “Winter Soldier #1: Winter Kills.”

The first issue features Sharon Carter meeting with a S.H.E.I.L.D. psychiatrist, or so she thinks. Carter is the agency’s liaison with Captain America, and has developed a close relationship with him. While S.H.E.I.L.D. is trying to get her to exploit the relationship to bring in the Captain, others are manipulating Carter for their own nefarious purposes.

In the next issue, Bucky Barnes (i.e. the Winter Soldier) breaks into a secret facility at the behest of a disembodied Nick Fury in order tap into a fake robotic Nick Fury. Next, Winter Soldier takes on a group of “Cape Killers” (i.e. agents of the government working to bring down Captain America’s resistance forces using Tony Stark technology) in order to capture some of their technology.

In the third issue, Captain America breaks into a HYDRA facility on a mission that goes bad. When he’s discovered by Cape Killers, he’s “rescued” by Sharon Carter. During his infiltration, he learns something that will help him in his mission to defeat the Red Skull, if only he can succeed before the Red Skull destroys him.

In the final issue, the Winter Soldier is sent by a disembodied Nick Fury to interrupt a group of Young Avengers who think they are about to attack one of Tony Stark’s facilities when, in fact, it’s a HYDRA base. After a brief skirmish, the Winter Soldier succeeds in talking these young heroes out of their mission, only to be discovered. As a result, Bucky and his new group of young comrades are forced to take down the facility. The setting of the story on Christmas Eve, with flash backs to Christmas Eve 1944, are used to make the story more poignant.

As a collection, I didn’t care for this book. It didn’t provide a satisfying narrative arc. Though I’d say the individual issues were worth reading, and if the collection went a little further, it’d have something. But nothing is resolved at the end, and the jumping between Captain America and the Winter Soldier stories doesn’t provide the makings of character development. It’s a series of missions with varying objectives. The collection does offer quite a bit of action, much more than the “Iron Man: Civil War” collection that I recently reviewed. However, it doesn’t provide nearly as much of a story as that book, and is not as artfully grouped as the Iron Man collection. In summary, the tone setting and action are good, but it’s a collection of action that doesn’t go anywhere.

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BOOK REVIEW: Iron Man: Civil War by Brian Michael Bendis et. al.

Civil War: Iron ManCivil War: Iron Man by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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With the “Captain America: Civil War” movie set to come out this year, one would have to be living under a rock to be unfamiliar with the basic premise of the Civil War story line. (Not that the movie will—or even can—follow the comic books exactly. But the gist is the same.” The government passes a Registration Act that would require superheroes to be registered, regulated, and trained. This splits the Marvel universe of heroes into two battling factions. (In the movies, it’s just the Avengers, but the comics include members of the Fantastic Four, X-men, etc.) One side, led by Tony Stark—a.k.a. Iron Man, supports the Registration Act. The other side, led by Steve Rogers—a.k.a. Captain America, staunchly opposes the new law. The four issues collected here offer insight into the mind of Tony Stark.

The four issues in this collection are: “Civil War: The Confession #1,” “Iron Man #13,” “Iron Man #14,” and “Iron Man / Captain America: Casualties of War #1.” Putting the issues in this order contributes to the somber tone of the storyline, as the chronological end of the events is put up front in the form of Stark’s confession. The start is a little like the very beginning of “Saving Private Ryan” (before the battle scene begins.) As with “Saving Private Ryan,” this opening does little to detract from the story and in fact builds immediate intrigue.

This isn’t the most action packed collection, but it is an emotional story line. Tony Stark is serious, somber, and sober (in both senses of the word.) This isn’t the cocky, witty playboy philanthropist one associates with Iron Man. It’s a man whose convictions are forcing him to fight his friends and comrades in arms. The irony of the situation is that Stark is certain the Registration Act is necessary because of people like him. In other words, if everybody was like his friend-turned-enemy Steve Rogers (i.e. a pinnacle of virtue) then the Act would be unnecessary.

There is some awkward expositional dialogue / monologuing in this book—a common problem among serial comic books. However, overall the story is engaging. If you want battle scenes, you may be disappointed, but this book makes one sympathize with Stark—even if you’ve previously thought him an arrogant douche.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cimarronin by Neal Stephenson, et. al.

Cimarronin: A Samurai in New Spain #1Cimarronin: A Samurai in New Spain #1 by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Cimarronin opens in Manila in 1632 with a masterless samurai (i.e. a ronin, hence the latter part of the name) about to commit ritual suicide. The ronin, Kitazume, is interrupted by a Catholic priest who Kitazume knows and who—it’s hinted—has the kind of nefarious past that one has trouble reconciling with the priesthood. The priest offers Kitazume a mission.

The opening hooks one. It raises several questions that the reader will want answered: Why is a Japanese samurai hanging out in the Philippines in 1632? Students of Asian history will recognize that Japan’s long warring period is a couple of decades past and there are a lot of warriors out of work. But is that all? Is the priest really a priest, and, if so, how does a blackguard end up a holy man? And most crucially, will Kitazume take the mission, and—if so—will he succeed (and will he be glad he did?) The reader always knows that the priest has something up his sleeve, but it’s only gradually revealed what that is.

We soon discover that Kitazume has some skill as a detective. This enhances our curiosity about the character. The higher echelons of law enforcement in feudal Japan were staffed by samurai, but it still adds another interesting dimension to the character.

The three book collection continues with the discovery that the priest is facilitating the transport of a Manchu princess to Mexico. (Philippines to Mexico, hence the “New Spain” subtitle reference.) The priest’s plot unfolds in the middle book, and we get a better picture of his scheme.

The second book ends with a fight with the Cimarrones—a bellicose, indigenous tribe (and the reason for the first part of the title,) and in the third and final book the Manchu Princess’s own scheme is revealed. The differing goals of the various major characters set up the potential for an excellent story. Kitazume has the simplest goal: to have a mission that makes life worthwhile and to conduct his life with some semblance of the virtue for which the samurai were known. The priest and princess weave a more complex web of scheming.

The story is peppered with flashback sequences that give us some of Kitazume’s backstory, and a substantial part of the third book is such backstory. The graphic artist uses a subdued scheme to make it readily apparent which panels are flashback and which are in the timeline of the story arc.

As this is the first three books of a larger collection, the ending is lacking (which is to say it’s not so much an ending as the set up for the story to unfold.) The story is much stronger in its beginning than its ending. The third book ends trying to entice one to read the concluding volumes more than it tries to wrap anything up. This situation also results in the fact that we don’t get a good picture of why Kitazume is the lead character in the story. I suspect that’s why there is so much backstory, to try to build sympathy and curiosity for the character while making him weak enough that his success is not apparent. At any rate, Kitazume doesn’t come off as the strongest or most competent character in the book by a long shot. Hopefully, this is so that he can pull out an underdog save in the end, but that’s just speculation.

I found this collection to set up an interesting story, but it doesn’t stand alone. It does have plenty of action and intrigue. If the historical fiction premise intrigues you, you may want to get the complete collection.

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READING REPORT: February 27, 2015

I finished three books this week.

Antifragility

The first of these is Antifragile, the latest offering by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whom you may know from Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness fame. While it’s his latest book, it came out a couple of years ago and I started it over a year ago.  The premise is that some entities become stronger when exposed to stressors and disorder,  and there are ways to nurture this tendency to be antifragile. While the ideas and many of the examples are fascinating, I put it down for a long time because Taleb is prone to rambling diatribes. After about the 1oooth time reading about how much he loathes the 98% of professors (we get it already), you may be ready to set it down as well.  [To be fair, Taleb probably gets a hundred death threats a year from enraged social science scholars whose life’s work will appear ridiculous to anyone who understands the gist of Taleb’s arguments in this and his preceding two books.] Taleb is a first-rate thinker who has delivered some very important messages about the misapplication of statistics, I’m not sure why he feels compelled go all Howard Stern about it–though it does probably sell a few extra copies and I suspect he is genuinely that way.

 

 

pyjamagameMark Law’s The Pyjama Game is in part a micro-history of the martial art and sport of judō, and in part is an accounting of his own experiences in taking up judō at the ripe age of 50. For me the history and evolution of judō is where the book is at its most interesting. However, if you don’t have any martial arts experience–or even if you don’t have any grappling-centric training experience–you may find Law’s discussion of testing and randori (free form training, the grappling equivalent to sparring) intriguing, or invaluable if you’re considering taking up judō, jujutsu, or sambo.

 

mantraSherlockHolmesThere is apparently a cottage industry of writers putting out their own Sherlock Holmes novels, and–in particular–writing about Holmes’s gap years. For those unfamiliar with the literary history of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, at one point he got sick of writing these crime fiction novels and killed off Sherlock Holmes. However, there was such a clambering for the master detective that Doyle resuscitated Holmes. These gap years in which Holmes was believed dead have proven fertile soil for writers who wish to write their own spin on where Holmes went and what he did when he was traveling incognito. I saw a press post for a new one the other day in which Holmes goes to Japan. The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, however, speculates that Holmes traveled to Bombay, and from there to Tibet and eventually to Shangri La. It’s an intriguing premise and offers some good travelogue type description of setting–however as a story it’s not as artfully executed as the Arthur Conan Doyle books.

 

I bought four books this week, two of which–in part–because they’ll help me complete the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge, which I will talk about below.

 

Dinosaurs_wo_Bones

Admittedly, I bought this book, Dinosaurs Without Bones,  not because the subject jumped out at me (though I’m sure it will prove thrilling) but rather because I knew the author about a billion years ago (I know; I should take geological time more seriously when mentioning a book of this subject.) At any rate, we trained at the same martial arts school in Atlanta, Georgia. That disclaimer being made, the topic looks fascinating and I’m eager to learn more about paleontological detective work.

 

GoldfinchThe Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Literature, and so it meets an unchecked requirement for the Book Riot Challenge (recent award winner of one of the major literary prizes.) Honestly, if it weren’t for my desire to complete the challenge, I might have read Tartt’s The Secret History first. The latter books seems a little more up my alley, but I”m eager to see what this critically acclaimed novel has to offer. If it’s engaging, I’ll go back and pick up her first novel.

 

AMillionShadesofGray

No A Million Shades of Gray isn’t a mommy porn book 20,000 times more intense than E.L. James’ book. On the contrary, it’s an intriguing YA book about a teenage elephant handler who escapes into the jungle with his elephant to escape war-torn Vietnam. This book will hit on an unchecked category on the Book Riot Challenge (i.e. YA book)

 

Life of Pi

Life of Pi is a book that I intended to read long before the movie came out, but still haven’t gotten around to it. It was cheap on Kindle, and so I picked it up. I’ve seen the movie, so it’ll be interesting to compare, given how visual the movie was.

 

I’m almost halfway through the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge. The 19 books I’ve completed thus far this year include books in 11 of the 24 categories, including:

 

3.) Short story collection or anthology: a.) 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense, and b.) I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream

 

6.) By someone of another gender: a.) Tears in Rain, and b.) Principles of Tibetan Medicine

 

7.) Takes place in Asia: a.) Quarantine in the Grand Hotel, and b.) The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes

 

10.) A micro-history: Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Postural Practice

 

12.) A science fiction novel: a.) Tears in Rain, b.) The Martian

 

17.) A collection of poetry: Leaves of Grass

 

18.) A book that was recommended: Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga

 

19.) A book originally published in another language: a.) Tears in Rain (Spanish), b.) Quarantine in the Grand Hotel (Hungarian)

 

20.) A graphic novel or comic book collection: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol. 1)

 

23.) A book published in 2014: The Martian

 

24.) A self-improvement / self-help book: Zen Mind, Strong Body

 

BOOK REVIEW: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol. 1) by Alan Moore

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

For those unfamiliar with this series or the movie featuring Sean Connery, this graphic novel assembles a team of heroes from 19th century science fiction and adventure novels. Specifically, the team includes: Mina Harker (of Bram Stroker’s Dracula), Allan Quatermain (of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mine series), Captain Nemo (of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and other Jules Verne novels), Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel featuring their names), and Hawley Griffin (of the H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man.) The team’s principle nemesis is Professor James Moriarty of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series.

Interestingly, this book follows the same general plot progression as the movie, but is much different in tone, settings, and character details. The plot progression of which I refer is that the team is assembled (with no small amount of mutual animosity) and they bond into a team as they face a grandiose threat of steampunk industrialization run amok. That plot progression aside, you’ll find an entirely different story otherwise. First, those who favor gender equality will appreciated that Mina Harker is in a leadership role in this volume, the role played by Quatermain in the movie. (That being said, this isn’t a group of individuals who take readily to being led.) Second, those who like darker, grittier tales will find this book more appealing than the movies. Allan Quatermain is found by Harker wasted in an opium den. Griffin is captured after having moved into a girl’s school to use his invisibility to lecherous advantage and the head mistress of said school is decidedly dominatrix like. I generally liked the grittier tone better, though it was hard to reconcile Griffin’s abhorrent behavior with heroism—anti-heroes are a challenge, particularly one who can disappear at will. Third, the team in the book is smaller and more manageable, with the movie having taken on two more characters (Dorian Gray and Tom Sawyer.) Finally, the book doesn’t get around so much. The movie features at least four major settings—not counting the high seas, but the book takes place mostly in Victorian London.

You don’t have to have read all the classic works from which the characters derive to get the story, but it does make it a little more fun. (Yes, I realize that I’m using “classic” for books–some of which–were considered the pulp fiction of their day. However, if your book is still in print after 100 years, I’d say you deserve the status and respect.) Those who’ve read the books will get some subtleties that aren’t critical to the story but are kind of nifty. That being said, don’t expect the characters to match their originals perfectly. The novels covered are wide-ranging, some rely on supernatural elements and others are more realistic, some are futuristic while others reflect the times more accurately. One can’t bring all these individuals into one world and have them be exactly as they were in their original domains.

There are some extra features at the end including a short story featuring a time traveling Allan Quatermain and some art from the series.

I’d recommend this book for those who read comics and graphic novels—especially if they’ve read the stories of at least a few of the 19th century characters. (If you haven’t read any of the novels, you should probably go back and hit some classics before you read anything else. Just my opinion.) It’s an intriguing concept, and it’s done well.

The movie trailer is here.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Strain, Vol. 1 by David Lapham et. al.

The Strain Volume 1The Strain Volume 1 by David Lapham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

I sometimes wonder what Bram Stoker would think about the fact that his work spurred an entire industry of copy-cats. Everybody thinks that they can make an interesting and novel contribution to this vampiric genre. In very few cases, see: Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, they are correct. However, even though most of these works don’t take us into uncharted territory, they can still be entertaining. In fact, some of the versions that stay true to the concept seem more entertaining than others that moved into new territory but are patently stupid. I’m speaking, of course, of Twilight and other vampire-as-romance books that feed a widespread malady of the age afflicting teenage girls and, sadly, middle-aged women. I think The Strain, Volume 1 makes for an interesting and entertaining modern-day vampire story, without being particularly brilliant or groundbreaking.

The Strain, Volume 1 is the first installment of a graphic novel adaptation of the novel written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. The Introduction states that the graphic novel isn’t meant to precisely mirror del Toro and Hogan’s prose novel. I haven’t read the del Toro / Hogan book, but the synopsis indicates that at least the beginning and the characters are largely the same. I can’t comment as to how much the two works differ in detail, and whether the authors of the first book emphasized the difference so as to encourage readers to pick up both books (instead of cannibalizing each other), versus because the works are truly substantively different.

The inciting incident, apparently for the novel as well as the comic, occurs when a commercial jet liner lands in New York, coming to a stop and going out of contact with the tower. It turns out that all but three of the individuals on the plane are dead.

The graphic novel weaves together the story from two perspectives. First, the lead in the story is Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, a Center for Disease Control (CDC) employee who heads a rapid response team. As circumstances somehow indicate that this event involves a biological or toxic substance—though they have no ability to see into the plane, Goodweather’s team is called to investigate. (How they concluded with such high certainty that it was a substance in CDC’s bailiwick and not smoke inhalation or a terrorist hijacking is beyond me. But the CDC team enters on the heels of SWAT, and with operational control.) However, it’s a graphic novel with limited page constraints, so I didn’t grade too harshly on this particular type of credulity stretcher.

Second, the graphic novel begins with a vignette from the point of view of Abraham Setrakian who is a holocaust survivor and former Vampire hunter. Setrakian knows what is going on from his experience in the old world. It’s this odd couple pairing of an old man who knows an unbelievable truth and a scientist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural that makes this work interesting. The latter anchors the work in the world as we know it, but the former adds an element of mystery and charm. These mixed atmospherics are where this work really excels. The two men end up teaming up to fight a threat that will spread with unchecked fury unless they do something about it.

Unlike the hunky Vampires of Twilight fame, the vampires in Lapham’s work are meant to be as repulsive as possible. They have six-foot tongues with stingers by which they take their blood meals, and the giant slobbery maws necessary to accommodate such an appendage. Instead of having a new twist on the Vampire story, this work attempts to create value added in part by putting the horror back into Vampires in a big way (also, through skillful atmospherics.)

It should also be noted that this isn’t a work for young kids. That should go without saying, I know. Freak-show parents who reason that it’s only violence, and who have no problem with their child seeing someone take a shotgun blast to the chest, but who’ll write a death threat to networks, publishers, or congressmen if said shotgun blast exposes a nipple should be forewarned that the work has a short but sexually graphic section in it—in addition to all the stakings and proboscis stabbings.

This was an entertaining enough horror-genre take on the Vampire. Scientists may find it a bit ridiculous that their comic book counterparts go about their jobs sticking their hands in unknown substances found at the site of the mysterious deaths of almost 200 people. However, despite some credulity challenges, the book creates an interesting atmosphere for a vampire story.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison

Batman: Arkham Asylum - A Serious House on Serious EarthBatman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is the third, and probably last, installment in my “Happy 75th Anniversary, Batman” series of reviews. Batman: Arkham Asylum is an attempt to convey a nightmare on the page, and it succeeds both graphically and narratively. It’s quite different from other Batman comics in style and content. It takes the dark nature of the Dark Knight’s mythology to the extreme.

There are two story-lines woven together in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The main line involves Batman entering an Arkham Asylum being run by the inmates. There he finds himself pitted against his foes: the Joker, Two-Face, Scarecrow, and others. The other is the 19th century tale of Amadeus Arkham’s descent into madness.

As is common in the Batman mythology, psychiatrists are portrayed as walking the razor’s edge between sanity and insanity. For those who don’t read comic books, this is most readily exemplified by the character of Dr. Crane / Scarecrow in the first film of the Nolan trilogy, Batman Begins. I’m not sure whether the point is to create enemies that are so strong they can bend doctors to their will, or if there is a general disdain for psychiatrists—as one might see a dislike of lawyers in other stories.

Among the nightmarish elements of this work is the fact that Batman’s face is never seen clearly. The Dark Knight is always a vaguely and/or surrealistically silhouetted. There’s a mix of sharpness and haziness in the graphics. The Joker gets his own crazy scrawl font. The graphics are as creepy and strange as can be. On my low-end Kindle, the work was in black and white, which worked well. I did look at the sample pages, and the color version uses a lot of sepia and crimson.

Batman: Arkham Asylum asks us to consider whether Bruce Wayne / Batman is sane or just a lunatic with a moral code.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Batman: The Dark Knight ReturnsBatman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A couple of reviews ago, I covered Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, which imagined the first year of the Dark Knight’s venture into crime fighting. The Dark Knight Returns is Miller’s take on the other end of the Caped Crusader’s career. It begins ten years after the last sighting of the Batman. Commissioner Gordon is on the verge of retirement, and there’s a mix of new and old threats rising.

There are four parts to this work. The first, also entitled The Dark Knight Returns shows the rise of a powerful gang of thugs called “The Mutants.” The way this gang’s leader is drawn makes him look like he truly is an altogether different species, but it’s his filed teeth and his bulky physique that account for his appearance. The main battle is with the “rehabilitated” Harvey Dent (a.k.a. “Two-Face,” an inappropriate moniker as his face has been fixed and his flighty psychiatrist ensures the community that Dent’s mind is fixed as well.) We see Bruce Wayne’s concern about the deteriorating state of Gotham and his eventual return to crime fighting, which is instigated by a freakish bat flying through his [closed] window. Wayne takes the bat as a sign from the universe that the Batman is indeed needed. Dent engages in a terroristic plot which the Dark Knight must try to foil.

As was the case in Batman: Year One, the story of Commissioner Gordon plays out in parallel with that of Bruce Wayne / Batman. However, in the third book, Gordon has retired and it’s the new Commissioner, Ellen Yendel, who shares the spotlight. Yendel, unlike Gordon, promptly issues an arrest warrant for Batman.

Book Two is called, The Dark Knight Triumphant, and it’s in this episode that Batman comes up against the leader of the Mutants. As in Batman: Year One, Batman arrives to the fight as an underdog. However, as would be expected, the nature of his underdog status is completely different. In Year One, Batman is a supreme physical specimen, but is green to crime fighting. In The Dark Knight Returns we see a battle-hardened veteran Batman who is a spry geriatric, not up to fighting young, mutant thugs. However, as with the former comic, the Dark Knight does redeem himself. Many of the Mutants, being fair-weather friends to their leader, form a cult of Batman in the wake of the Dark Knight’s victory over their former boss.

Besides broadening the readership demographic to retirement community dwellers, another new demographic is appealed to with Carrie Kelley, the new Robin. There are references early in the book to the profound effect that the death of Jason Todd had on Bruce Wayne. Be that as it may, Batman seems quick to bring this young girl into harm’s way given the lingering wound of Jason Todd.

Book Three, Hunt the Dark Knight, pits Batman against his ultimate nemesis, the Joker—who like Dent—has been sprung in no small part due to his lunatic psychiatrist. Miller continues the popular Batman comic disdain for psychiatrists, who are portrayed as a small nudge away from becoming bat-shit crazy (pun intended.) While the battle against the Joker provides this chapter’s crime fight, Commissioner Yendel’s war on Batman is a major part of the storyline. We also discover that time has not been as kind to Selina Kyle as it was to the men of this series. (i.e. Gordon is old but distinguished, and Batman has pretty much the same preternatural physique that he did as the young batman.)

The Dark Knight Falls is the last section, and it’s the most famous for the battle between Batman and Superman. Earlier in the book there’s a foreshadowing call from Clark Kent to let Batman know that the Superman will be out-of-town for a while. Appropriate to the 1986 issue date of this comic, a Cold War crisis is the event consuming Superman’s time. These Cold War tensions result in a nuclear missile launch that Superman diverts, but the Man of Steel hasn’t read up on the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) effect. [Incidentally, Miller didn’t read up on the use of nuclear weapons as an EMP either, or—at least—he gets it completely wrong. Perhaps, he just figured that his readers wouldn’t know the difference–and he’s probably right. At any rate, I’m not deducting stars for bad science.] The power outage caused by the EMP results in looting and societal chaos. Batman quells this with the help of the cult of Batman mentioned previously. However, this doesn’t go over smoothly with some, which results in Superman’s invasion of Batman’s Gotham turf, and the ultimate battle.

I enjoyed this work more than Batman: Year One in part owing to the serious enemies that the Dark Knight must vanquish. I’d agree with the common view that this is a must-read for those interested in the canon of the Caped Crusader.

Also, if you aren’t a comics fan but are wondering how Batman and Superman could end up fighting–as per the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie–this might give you some insight. [Though I wouldn’t expect that movie to follow this work in any of the vaguest ways.] Also, there are other Caped Crusader versus Man of Steel interpretations out there, though this is probably the most famous.

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