BOOK REVIEW: The Umbrella Academy, #0 by Gerard Way

The Umbrella Academy #0The Umbrella Academy #0 by Gerard Way
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This issue features the dysfunctional family of freakish [non-blood] sibling superheroes taking on a character called the “Murder Magician,” a dapper but demented individual who likes to combine the showmanship of magic with the psychopathy of serial killing. The Murder Magician takes control of a talk show with a live studio audience while he’s being interviewed so that he can have the makings of mass murder readily at hand.


The art is chaotically drawn, but colorful, imparting a level of whimsy in line a villain with an affinity for sleight of hand.


It’s a simple story, as a single-issue comic can only be. I was familiar with the characters from the Netflix series adaptation, and that proved necessary because even though it’s #0, it’s very much a story in medias res.


I stumbled upon this issue as a free promotional gift on Amazon. If you like and are familiar with the comic, it’s worth a look. If not, there might be too many characters and too much oddness to make sense of it.


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BOOK REVIEW: Home by Julio Anta

Home, Vol. 1Home, Vol. 1 by Julio Anta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: November 23, 2021

This book starts out with a gripping premise, a single mother and her son separated at the border, the mother being deported back to Guatemala as the son makes his way to the home of his aunt in Texas. The story shows a great deal of promise in the introductory issue. Unfortunately, over the course of the volume, all of the tension that is painstakingly built up is squandered. Whenever there is a challenging and visceral circumstance a new set of random superpowers is revealed, such that by the fifth and final issue, one no longer feels the protagonist is in peril (regardless of circumstance) because it’s a given that some deus ex machina magic will come along to save the day.


What’s sad is that, other than the crippling problems of anti-climactic story, the book shows many positive attributes. It’s well drawn. The book builds characters for whom the reader is rooting. Emotion is effectively portrayed. I think if the superpowers had been introduced upfront with some understanding of limitations and “kryptonite,” there would have been potential for an enjoyable read. As it is, however, it’s exactly the opposite of what one would like – a book that gets more and more intense – as resolutions come too easily.


It’s an impassioned, if not nuanced, view of immigration issues, and – if that’s enough for you – you might be interested in checking it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Jules Verne’s Lighthouse by David

Jules Verne's LighthouseJules Verne’s Lighthouse by David Hine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 13, 2021

This graphic novel presents a loose adaptation of “The Lighthouse at the End of the World,” taking the story into space opera-like territory. Verne’s story is set on Earth in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Horn at the southern tip of the Americas. Hine’s is set in a remote region of deep space that requires a beacon to navigate through a treacherous aggregation of wormholes. (I don’t know whether the latter is even remotely in compliance with the laws of physics, but the concept of a deep space navigational station seems perfectly feasible so I was untroubled by the details. An Astronomy majors’ experience may vary. In general, the book doesn’t seem to be written as hard sci-fi.)


Hine borrows Verne’s idea of a remote navigational beacon being taken over by pirates, and a survivor of the “lighthouse” crew working to foil the pirates’ plot, as well as drawing on some character details. However, it’s not meant to be a beat-for-beat retelling of Verne’s story set in the future and in space. There are many differences of plot and character from the source material. Besides robots and aliens, there is much greater diversity in the cast.


I found the story compelling. The source premise of being far from help and at a severe disadvantage is thrilling, and I think Hine did a fine job of taking the story into the future.


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BOOK REVIEW: Justice League vs. Suicide Squad by J. Williamson / R. Williams / T. Seeley

Justice League vs. Suicide SquadJustice League vs. Suicide Squad by Joshua Williamson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The premise of this comic book seems a bit ridiculous, like bears versus squirrels. It’s a perennial challenge for DC in writing the Justice League. When you have a team with mega-powered characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lanterns, narrative tension is hard to generate. The writers pull some clever tricks via misdirects and character selection to make the story more compelling (and feasible,) but not without inconsistencies and inordinate convenience / serendipity.

This is a fine read if one is in search of some mindless entertainment and doesn’t want to think things through too much. It’s like TV or movie, but in book form: colorful, visually interesting, loaded with action, with the occasional amusing line, but – if one lets the inertia breakdown – there’s a lot of openings for thoughts like “Why didn’t so-and-so do _____?” “That felt easy,” or “Wait, what?”

Overall, I enjoyed this as pure escapism.


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BOOK REVIEW: After the Fall by Laurent Queyssi

After the FallAfter the Fall by Laurent Queyssi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: October 12, 2021

This isn’t exactly a thinking person’s read. It’s a fine, if simple, return home quest story with plenty of action. But it feels like the production process began with an artist’s Wishlist – e.g. “I would like to draw a comic that combines my love of dinosaurs, aliens, roided-up dudes, scantily-clad women, fantasy genre weaponry, bare boobies, zombies, and set it all within a crumbling 21st century Earth city.” To which the writer said, “We can do that! I’ve been working on this story about a friend who got his headphones stolen.” And the artist said, “That sounds perfect!”

It’s not until the end of the book that we learn what could create such a disparate set of conditions. We know that nuclear radiation could only account for the super-huge and preternaturally-aggressive animals, as well as the superpowers. How are we to account for the fact that all the men look like Conan the Barbarian, all the women look like their previous gig was sitting atop a muscle car for a muffler shop calendar, and some of the dudes look like video game monsters / aliens? I won’t spoil the mystery radiation that could result in such a range of afflictions, as well as bringing back the dinosaurs, except to say that I didn’t find the explanation compelling.

Unless you’ve been looking for a book that combines pterodactyls, aliens, superpowered anti-heroes, boobies, roided-up dudes, and stylized battle axes, you can probably pass on this one. But, if you’re into such things,…

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BOOK REVIEW: Scout’s Honor by David Pepose

Scout's HonorScout’s Honor by David Pepose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

This is one of those books that I found myself liking more and more as I continued to read, though which, frankly, the opening left me with low expectations. Said opening was pure Cold War cliché. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, radioactivity has had no impact on the human population besides thinning it out tremendously, but it has rendered incredible size, aggression, and monstrous adaptations upon every other species on the planet. [This preference for being cinematic over being smart is getting a bit old.] Between this and one of the lead characters hotwiring a car that had ostensibly not moved in decades, I was feeling I’d chosen poorly.

However, eventually, I did get the book that I’d expected from reading the blurb, a book based on the intriguing premise of a religified and militarized Boy Scout-like organization in a dystopian / post-apocalyptic future. The protagonist is named Kit, a highly-motivated Scout who has risen to the top of the troop through valor and clever-thinking. Kit has a secret, but learns an even bigger secret of the organization, one that throws the Scout’s worldview into doubt.

The book does a good job of establishing relationships to build emotional intensity, as well as in how it deals with the apparent truth that any organization that holds itself as a moral paragon is going to have some skeletons in its closet. I found it worthwhile to continue reading, even when this book felt like it was going to be just another post-apocalyptic cliché-fest.


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BOOK REVIEW: When a Robot Decides to Die and Other Stories by Francisco García González

When a Robot Decides to Die and Other StoriesWhen a Robot Decides to Die and Other Stories by Francisco García González
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 15, 2021

This book isn’t for everyone. There are two factors I believe a reader needs to be aware of going forward. First, shocking and taboo plot devices are used throughout; so, one needs to be mentally ready for bestiality, necrophilia, cannibalism, and enslavement. Second, while this is nominally science fiction, it’s not nerd’s sci-fi, but rather English Lit / Humanities major sci-fi. Which is to say, scientifically- / technologically-minded people are likely be occasionally distracted by thoughts like: “that’s not how that would work,” or “why did he use that word? It doesn’t make sense in that context. Is it just because it sounded vaguely techy?”

For those who are still reading, the stories are more than just shock for shock’s sake. They are thought-provoking, and the taboo topics both engage readers on a visceral level, but also engage readers on an intellectual level as symbolism. While it’s far from great sci-fi, it’s fine psych-fi (a subgenre that – like sci-fi – deals in speculative futures, but which focuses more on changes in human modes of interaction and ways of behaving – rather than on the effects of technological advances.) “The Year of the Pig” was probably my personal favorite. That story explores family dynamics, cultural proclivities, and personal psychology in a smart way.

If the opening paragraph didn’t scare you away, you’ll probably find some compelling stories in this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ashes, Ashes by Jean-David Morvan

Ashes, Ashes #1Ashes, Ashes #1 by JD Morvan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

[Note: The book I’m reviewing is the 144-page multi-issue story.]

This is the story of a technological apocalypse and a post-apocalyptic Alexander the Great who was born of it. The bulk of the story reveals the cataclysm and life in the early days of its wake. But there is an interspersed subplot that takes place in a present-day that is well after the apocalypse. The big difference between this “world-conqueror” (actually, it seems to be only a small area of what had been southern France) and other power-consolidating titans is his luddism. He vehemently hates [almost] all technologies and insists that all (but one) post-Amish technology be eschewed because he feels human innovation to be cause of humanity’s fall. Otherwise, he checks the boxes: narcissistic, nihilistic, and probably a psychopath.

The story is compelling, and it definitely draws one in. I thought the pacing was well-executed and the concept was intriguing. Both the art and story have a unique feel, though I don’t know that the book will be able to distinguish itself within an extremely bloated dystopian / post-apocalyptic sub-genre.

There were a few elements that felt clunky. First of all, the mid-twenty-first century technological landscape is strange. I didn’t think anyone still imagined flying cars on the near-future time horizon. I think they only existed here to make the moment of doom impressively fiery. Second, a romance is established with great effort that is allowed to flameout to a lukewarm puddle of nothing. Perhaps, this was the point — to show the romance as victim of the demands of life under an anarchic dystopia. (If so, it gets lost amid the more exhilarating happenings.) Third, there is one modern technology that the protagonist is quick to adopt. This might be an intentional way of showing his love of self far exceeds his hatred of technology, but it’s curious.

If you don’t have dystopia fatigue, you may want to give this book a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Department of Truth, Vol. 1 by James Tynion IV

The Department of Truth, Vol 1: The End of the WorldThe Department of Truth, Vol 1: The End of the World by James Tynion IV
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the cleverest and most mind-blowing graphic novel I’ve read in a long time. Like the first “Matrix” film, it challenges one’s metaphysical certitude, making one question whether the world might – just might – work differently than we think. But, more importantly, it shines a light on one of the major problems of our age, and it does so in a smart way, recognizing a core conundrum – that there are no clear-cut right answers.

The sci-fi premise at the heart of this book is the idea that collective belief shapes reality, and, thus, conspiracy theories that gain enough of a following can manifest physical evidence of their truth. This is a fascinating concept, but – even without it – the book forces one to reflect upon what might be the single most important dilemma of our age. On the one hand, people would rather believe malarkey that confirms their worldview and ideology than truth that conflicts with it. On the other hand, if people don’t have the freedom to believe whatever they please, in what sense can they be said to be free?

As I read, there were many examples from our present pandemic in which one could see this conflict in action. I saw an article in which a person who took one of the COVID vaccines but mentioned that he felt quite sick afterward was ostracized as an “anti-vaxxer.” While I’m pro-vaccine and took my shots, I’m disturbed by the idea that “off-message” statements are being so vitriolically (and, sometimes, deceptively) attacked. “Truth at any cost” will incur a terrifying cost, I’m afraid. And, therein, lies the point of this book, that the issue is complicated and it’s by no means clear who the good and bad guys are.

I’d highly recommend reading this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Black Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell

Black Widow: Deadly OriginBlack Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This flashback-laden volume revolves around Natasha Romanov’s relations with various men but especially Ivan, a man the Black Widow saw as a father figure. Ivan’s death is an impactful moment in the life of this femme fatale, and it seems like it might be just the start as all the men in her life begin to come under attack (mostly fellow Avengers and other superheroes from the Marvel pantheon.) The story unfolds as the Black Widow tries to unravel the mysterious plot to eliminate her prodigious corps of boyfriends while protecting said friends and (ex-)lovers.

This comic might seem like it would be the perfect entry point for a reader new to the Black Widow character. It offers flashes of insight into the character’s origin, but without the dated feel of old comics that were often marketed toward ten-year-old boys and that didn’t anticipate technological progress and cultural trends any better than most sci-fi does. However, I would argue that it’s a bit of a chaotic read for a newbie to the character (speaking as one.) It’s a four-issue volume and so the glimpses of backstory and the references to arcane Marvel characters and events come in rapid succession.

I found this book a fun and entertaining read, if a bit helter-skelter. I should point out that by the time one gets into the latter-half of the volume everything starts to come into focus.

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