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: Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan

Pride of BaghdadPride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I generally dislike books for adults which anthropomorphize wildlife. Except for “Watership Down” and “Animal Farm” I can’t — off the top of my head — think of another book oriented towards adults that I liked that did so. However, Vaughan’s book tells a stirring story that could pretty much only be told by anthropomorphizing its wildlife characters – because those characters are the only characters through most of the story and the intensity of the story revolves around their internal experience.

It’s the story of a pride of lions that escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during the Gulf War. The four lions were – for a time – roaming the streets of war-torn Baghdad looking for food. The story blends fiction with way-points of fact established from the accounts of soldiers.

Vaughan does inject some of the harsh reality of the natural world into the book, and so it doesn’t fall completely into the pit of anthropomorphization, and — by doing so — he creates a more visceral experience in the story.

It’s a short but gripping story. Vaughan succeeds in facilitation of the reader’s consideration of what it must be like to be an uncomprehending creature placed in humanity’s most incomprehensible condition – warfare.

An appendix to the book includes the proposal and notes, which clarifies some of what was actually known to have happened as opposed to what is either speculated or fiction.

I found this book intriguing and would highly recommend it.

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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: 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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