POEM: Higher Dimensional Human Zoo

The doorless door was painted on
a vacant building’s wall.
It stood cartoonish and shabby,
crooked, and far too small.

I peered around the vacant room
behind that concrete wall:
nothing but dusty detritus —
of broken bottle brawls.

Later that night, after I’d binged,
I came back past that way.
The door was now thrown wide open.
And what was on display?

Into those higher dimensions,
I had a fateful view.
There was cage after cage of me
in an odd human zoo.

BOOK REVIEW: The Boys, Vol. 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis

The Boys, Volume 1: The Name of the GameThe Boys, Volume 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you weren’t familiar with this comic book, you’ve probably at least seen promos for the streaming series adaptation available on Amazon Prime Video. After watched season one, and as season two is currently in release, I decided to give the source material a read. As with “Preacher,” this presents its own challenges in keeping the comic book and series straight. This is because (as with “Preacher”) there is a common cast of major characters, but significant differences in the story and details. That said, the book and series both open in a similar way with Hughie being drawn into the action by a tragic event involving a superhero (A-Train, this team’s version of the DC character, Flash) and Hughie’s girlfriend.

If the description of A-Train as – essentially – the same as the Flash makes the book sound derivative, it is intentionally so. In a nutshell, “The Boys” takes the Justice League and gives the characters nasty personality traits, ranging from pettiness to madness, and then centers the story not on the superheroes but on a group that works to check those “heroes’” power from the shadows (i.e. the titular “Boys.”) So, A-Train is fast like the Flash, but he lacks Barry Allen’s intellect and soft-spoken mannerism, and so – conversely – A-Train is a high school jock dialed up to his most vain and brash form. The other members similarly have unappealing personality traits, and even full-blown dark sides. This divergence between is most intensely seen in Homelander (the Superman of this series, but without the Man of Steel’s perfect moral compass and stoic Midwestern calm,) but even Noir (the Batman of the group) is intended to make Bruce Wayne seem like a well-adapted beacon of light by comparison.

The six issues contained in volume one both tell the tale of Hughie’s reluctant entrance into “The Boys,” and follows him through his first mission as the newly reassembled Boys take on “Teenage Kix.” (A youth superhero group which is to “The Seven” as the Teen Titans are to the Justice League.) Having Hughie in the role of the group’s “everyman” would be an odd choice in real life because it puts a rank amateur on a team of professionals who are already outgunned. From a narrative point of view, however, the appeal is clear. It creates emotional stakes within a group that is otherwise stone-cold killers (if with some positive personality traits to subvert expectations.) Hughie’s naivete and raw fear is particularly necessary in the book because the stakes are somewhat lessened by the fact that the Boys are not as severely outmatched as they are in the series (in the series “The Female” is the only superpowered member of the “Boys.”) The decision to recruit Hughie is explained both by the desperation of the team’s leader, Butcher, and his desire to include someone who is personally driven. There are not a lot of people willing to sign on to take on a two-faced lunatic with the powers of Superman (i.e. Homelander,) and Hughie is uniquely motivated by the tragedy of his girlfriend’s death to go after superheroes who’ve been corporately levered above the law.

The comic is a bit more sexually graphic than the series, though in some ways the series is more viscerally horrifying. (As I mentioned, in the series the Boys – excepting one – are in no way capable of going toe-to-toe with the enemy.)

The art is well drawn and colored and I didn’t have any problems following the happenings conveyed graphically.

I enjoyed this comic as I have with other Garth Ennis works. At least this volume was a bit more lighthearted and not as visceral as the series, but I don’t count that as a good or bad thing. Just different and just appealing to different states of mind. The comic is funny in places and action-packed in others. If you are interested in the concept of neurotic to psychotic superheroes and what it would take to keep them under control, it’s worth giving this book a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Matrix and Philosophy ed. William Irwin

The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the RealThe Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real by William Irwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As might be expected of a collection of twenty essays that try to squeeze every drop of philosophy out of a two-hour movie (or to criticize each drop,) some of the chapters are much more compelling and pertinent than others. One could argue that some of the chapters are of sounder quality than others (and I would make that claim,) but even if you take them as a collection of high-quality philosophy essays, it’s hard to deny that some of the chapters are germane to the story the filmmakers created, while others try to use the film to get across an idea they find worthy – regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with the film, per se. More simply, the book comments on “The Matrix” through the varied lenses of a wide variety of philosophical branches and schools, most of which have something to say about the movie, and others… not so much.

Few films have achieved the mix of popularity and philosophization of 1999’s “The Matrix.” The movie imagines a world in which the simulation hypothesis is true – i.e. there are people living in a simulated / virtual world that is so convincing that they are unable to tell that they aren’t going about their lives in “base-reality.” The movie’s central question is: should one prefer an existence that is real — if grey, dismal, subterranean, and hostile – over one which is illusory — but one has all the modern comforts, delicious virtual steaks, and one isn’t being hunted by killer machines? Over the course of the story we see two divergent perspectives on this question. The lead character, Neo, chooses to leave the Matrix to enter the real world. Meanwhile, one of the crew members of the ship Neo finds himself on, Cypher, betrays his shipmates in order to get back into the Matrix. It’s clear from the fact that Neo is the lead and Cypher is portrayed as a treasonous scoundrel that opting for “the real” – warts and all – is viewed as the correct position on the matter. However, the fact that we see Cypher in relatable circumstances, ones that engender some empathy for the character, means that answer isn’t meant to be taken as a forgone conclusion.

The movie’s premise engages a couple branches of philosophy – notably, epistemology (asking what, if anything, can one know to be true?) and metaphysics (asking, what is real?) While there are a number of philosophical ideas that recur in the book, the most repeated is Plato’s cave? Based on the ideas of Socrates, Plato described a situation in which people live chained in a cave in which they can only see silhouettes moving about on the wall from a light source behind them. What happens when one becomes unchained and leaves the cave into the “real world?” How is one received by people when he returns and tells the story of what one experienced? Is anyone interested in following in one’s footsteps, or do they believe it’s a lie, or the ramblings of a madman?

The twenty chapters of the book are divided into five parts. Chapters one through four consider the epistemological questions raised by the film. Chapter one sets the scene and gives the most extensive discussion of the comparison of the movie to Plato’s cave. Chapter two takes an anti-skeptical turn. It argues that, if one isn’t a philosopher, one has little reason to view the world skeptically. The world works, why question it? The argument is both true and not particularly useful. Chapter three proposes that one cannot make sense of a world in which all or most of a person’s beliefs are false. Like the previous chapter, this one boils down to: we can’t eliminate the possibility of a Matrix-like truth, but neither do we have any good reason for giving it a second thought. Chapter four focuses on sensory perception and what it says (and / or doesn’t say) about what we know. In daily life, we intuitively (if not explicitly) base a lot of what we “know” on our sensory experience — even though most of us know it is flawed. Perhaps the most intriguing issue raised by Chapter 4’s author was about the Hmong people, and their increased incidence of dying during sleep – in conjunction with a folk belief about malevolent spirits who attack during sleep. (Thus, it’s suggested that the mental world and the physical world aren’t separated such that the former can have no influence on the latter – i.e. the materialist take.)

[Note: The reason the point about the Hmong is salient is that there is a scene in which Neo asks whether dying in the Matrix means dying in the real world. Morpheus answers “the body cannot live without the mind.” From a storytelling perspective, it’s easy to see why the filmmakers created this rule. There would be zero tension in any scene that takes place inside the Matrix (i.e. where almost all the action takes place) if it weren’t the case that people could die from what happened inside. However, from a philosopher’s (or scientist’s) point of view the statement is problematic. Every night our conscious minds go “dead” and yet we wake up just fine. However, the Hmong issue raises an interesting point, suggesting maybe we don’t understand the issue as clearly as we feel we do.]

Part two of the book (ch. 5 – 8) shift from epistemology to metaphysics. Chapter five lays out the basic metaphysical issue, asking how effective a two-category classification scheme of real and unreal is, and where it runs into problems. Chapter six shifts focus to the mind-body problem (does physical matter generate subjective experience, and – if so – how,) and asks what minds are and whether machines can have one. Chapter seven rejects the film’s notion that mental states can be reduced to physical states, but ventures into interesting territory by evaluating the ethics of “imprisoning a mind” — if it were possible. Chapter eight explores questions of fate and determinism, which is also a central premise in the film. The appeal of the real world in this film is obviously not that it’s better, bolder, brighter – it’s none of those things – a major part of the appeal is that in the real world it seems one is free (i.e. one has full free will.) Whereas inside the Matrix, a least much of one’s life is deterministically dictated by computer programs.)

Up to this point, whether or not I felt a given essay said anything interesting, I believed they were all addressing this film’s philosophical underpinnings. From part three, we see a shift. For example, chapter nine asks, is “The Matrix” a Buddhist film. Not surprisingly (given – to my knowledge – none of the filmmakers ever said it was,) the authors conclude that it’s not, but that it has touches of Buddhist influence (also not surprising, given they aren’t hidden or subtle.) Chapter ten discusses the problems of religious pluralism. Because this film presents not only the aforementioned Buddhist influence but also Christian influence (Neo as savior) and bits from all-manner of ancient mythology (starting with character names / roles, e.g. Morpheus,) it’s proposed that it’s advocating a kind of pluralism. [Given that the movie exists in a fictional world, the fact that it draws ideas and names from various sources, doesn’t seem to me to be a suggestion that the filmmakers are advocating a particular hodgepodge, pluralistic, Frankenstein’s Monster religion.] I do think the author did a fine job showing that pluralistic “religions” tend to be logically inconsistent and systemically untenable. Where he lost me was in the suggestion that individual religions are logically consistent. The one I was raised in had an all-powerful god who couldn’t contradict human free will, and one god that was simultaneously three separate and distinct entities. In short, the religion I had experience with is chock-full of logical inconsistency. I burst out laughing when I got to this statement, “Is it really the case that the evidence supporting the truth of, say, Christianity is no stronger than that supporting the truth of, say, Buddhism or Jainism?” Given that (at least the schools of Buddhism closest to what Gotama Buddha taught) pretty much only ask one to believe that if one meditates and behaves ethically one can achieve a heightened state of mind free of the experience of suffering, and Christianity asks one to believe in a God[s] and demons and miracles and sundry ideas for which there is not a shred of evidence, I’d say it really is the case.

Chapter eleven examines the question of happiness, and concludes that: 1.) happiness “is the satisfaction that one is desiring the right things in the right way”; 2.) that one can’t have happiness without a “right understanding of reality.” I don’t think its convincingly conveyed that either of those two ideas is true, but the question of happiness as it pertains to Cypher’s decision is an interesting one. I found chapter twelve to be one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking of the book. It focuses heavily on the teachings of Kant, and it discusses how important features we see with the Matrix (e.g. illusion and enslavement) aren’t features projected from an external source but are imposed by oneself. I think this is a useful way to think about how the film can be related to one’s own life – i.e. thinking about the Matrix world as symbolic for an illusory mental world.

Part IV is entitled “Virtual Themes” and it looks at “The Matrix” from the perspectives of nihilism, existentialism, and then takes a step back and asks questions about the usefulness of studying philosophy through a fictional device (i.e. film.) Chapter thirteen looks at “The Matrix” through the lens of nihilism, putting it beside Dostoevky’s “Notes from the Underground.” Chapter fourteen is similar in that it compares / contrasts “The Matrix” with another philosophical literary work, the existentialist novel by Sartre, “Nausea.”

I thought the questions taken up in the second half part IV were important ones. These two chapters (i.e. 15 and 16) deal with what is the proper relationship – if any — between philosophy and the product of storytellers. I say this is important because the discussion throughout the book is contingent on there being some value in philosophical ideas in fictional accounts that aren’t optimized to conveying philosophy, but rather are optimized to building an entertaining story. Some of the critiques lack effectiveness because they seem to accept there is value in considering philosophy in fiction, but the correction to make it more effective philosophy would make it useless as story. I would hazard to say that any film that would receive a thumbs up as a conveyor of philosophical ideas from a panel of 24 philosophers (the number involved with these chapter) would be fundamentally unwatchable. But does that mean the bits and pieces of philosophy one gets are worthless? I’d say no, but opinions may vary. Chapter fifteen asks why philosophers should engage with works of fiction, as wall as considering the value of story. Chapter sixteen focuses on genre, concluding that “The Matrix” is a work of real genre, but virtual philosophy.

That last section includes analysis from the perspective of what I would call the single-issue schools of philosophy (feminism and Marxism,) as well as postmodernism (which is said to have been a major influence on the directors) and other twentieth century philosophers. The two single-issue schools do what those schools often do, which is to myopically focus on what is interest to them (regardless of that issues importance to the film, or lack thereof) and pick and choose examples that seem to support their idea. The feminist essay reduces the story to an attempt to be un-raped (i.e. unplugged) and catalogs all the instances in which some “penetration” took place, be it characters being jacked into the Matrix hardware or shot. The author compares “The Matrix” to “eXistenZ,” a film with similar themes that she prefers (though, given the relative popularity of the two films, she may be the only one who feels that way.) The chapter on the Marxist perspective isn’t as poorly related to the film. However, I doubt the essay would exist if the Wachowskis had stuck to their original plan. I read once that the filmmakers originally had a different (and more sensible) rationale for why the machines had humans in a vat. The idea that appears in the film is that humans are used to produce bioelectricity (probably the most scientifically ridiculous idea in the film) and this forms the basis for the Marxist critique of the pod people as exploited labor.

The penultimate chapter is probably the most relevant of the last section. It discusses postmodern philosophy, notably Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” which is said to have influenced the Wachowskis and it [the book] even had a cameo appearance in the film. The last chapter is the most convoluted read, but probably by the most prominent author in the book. It’s by Slavoj Zizek and it critiques the movie from the perspective of the ideas of Lacan, Hegel, Levi-Strauss, and Freud.

I found lots of interesting nuggets of food-for-thought in this book. As I said, the effectiveness of the chapters varies tremendously. This isn’t so much because the quality of authors varies. It’s just that some of the work gets off topic – kind of like if there was an analysis of “My Friend Flicka” and it was decided that the thoughts of a Marine Biologist were essential — you’d be like “what am I reading, and why?” That happens sometimes as one reads this book. But, if you like the movie and want some deeper insight into it, this is a fine book to check out. It’s also a good way to take in various philosophical ideas, leveraging one’s knowledge of the film.

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BOOK REVIEW: Frankenstein Alive, Alive! by Steve Niles

Frankenstein Alive, Alive: The Complete Collection (Frankenstein Alive, Alive!)Frankenstein Alive, Alive: The Complete Collection by Steve Niles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novella collects four issues together with some ancillary matter (e.g. draft sketches.) It not only draws upon the Shelley Frankenstein world; it picks up from it as if it were a sequel. That is, it begins on the Artic ice, with Frankenstein’s monster intent upon finding peace – if not an end — frozen in the glacial mass. The story is about the monster coming to grips with its humanity, its monstrosity, and its immortality.

When the monster’s attempt to freeze himself in the ice fails to bring eternal rest, as well as a second attempt of a similar nature, the monster realizes there is no respite to be had in hiding out in suspended animation. It will simply result in a string of rebirths like the one that began his torment. The monster must go about the business of living.

Wandering back to civilization, the monster finds a rare friend among a wealthy doctor, and takes up residence in the doctor’s mansion. At first, this doctor, Dr. Simon Ingles, seems quite unlike the monster’s creator, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Ingles isn’t repulsed by the creature’s existence and has a nurturing manner that wasn’t to be found in Victor. However, eventually we see that Ingles shares with Victor an ambition to be free from the shackles of mortality.

Ingles wants to harness the power of life to keep his terminally ill wife from dying. The price that must be paid to extend his wife’s life is even more foul than that paid by Dr. Frankenstein. When the monster recognizes this monstrous ambition in Ingles, he is torn about what to do. On the one hand, Ingles has been kind to him, is in many ways a good person, and the monster thinks that it is far be it for him to enforce morality given his own great crimes. On the other hand, the monster is uniquely attuned to the darkness of this desire shared by the two doctors, the desire to be master over life and death, and the sight of this ambition brings out a desire to end Ingles’ life and his despicable plan.

This is a smart story built around the humanity in a monster and the monstrosity in humans. It’s a quick read, being less than one-hundred pages. Bernie Wrightson’s artwork is appropriately gothic, and – except for a few plates between issues, is black-and-white. I’d highly recommend it for those who like classic horror and science fiction, particularly if you enjoy graphic works.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1 [Marvel Masterworks] by Stan Lee (+Ditko & Kirby)

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1 by Stan Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This collection includes the first ever appearance of Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15, as well as the first ten issues of the original Amazing Spider-Man run from 1963. The story (told by Lee in the intro) is that “Amazing Fantasy” was about to be discontinued, and this gave Lee and team the opportunity to present a character that the powers-that-be found too ridiculous to merit consideration (but no one cared because the series was going under.) Lee’s instincts were right. Marvel got tons of love letters to the character, and Lee was able to sell the idea of a stand-alone comic.

This is a hard book to critique. It’s the dawn of a much beloved character – arguably Marvel’s flagship to this day, and there are many solid reasons for that love. That said, this ground-breaking collection of comic books that would launch a vast empire [or multi-verse] around one of the most popular characters ever, is in many ways fairly amateurish (e.g. in an early episode the lead’s alter-ego is called “Peter Palmer” for a whole issue, presumably because Lee forgot that “Parker” was the correct last name and there was no editorial oversight.)

So, this collection mixes tremendous strengths with some cringeworthy elements. I’ll start with the former for two reasons. First, I think they ultimately outweigh the weaknesses, and – judging from the immense popularity — most people seem to agree. Second, and probably far more important, is the realization that criticizing Lee almost 60 years later is a little like faulting Edison for the short filament life of incandescent lightbulbs. Lee, Ditko, and Kirby were on the sparse end of the learning curve. [I also realize that the lack of objective editorial oversight that made “the Palmer debacle” possible may have also made the series much better because of a lack of second-guessing by higher-ups.]

So, what are the strengths? First, Lee builds an extremely interesting and sympathetic character in Peter Parker / Spider-Man. Parker is beleaguered with problems (e.g. bullied at school, raised by a single aunt who is elderly and [in some issues] in poor health, and he’s constantly in need of cash to keep the household afloat.) Spider-Man is made tremendously powerful, but not invulnerable. He is presented with a steady stream of moral dilemmas in which he could easily solve a problem using his power if he weren’t compelled to act morally. Second, these early episodes did a tremendous amount of foundational heavy-lifting for the enterprise. It’s not just his origin story. Many of the members of Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery that are most well-known and which have been drawn upon for the movies (e.g. The Vulture, Doc Ock, Sandman, and Electro) feature in these early issues. The bulk of Spider-Man’s world – minus his most well-known love interests and the Osborn’s [Norman, Harry, and the Corporation] – are presented in these pages.

The bulk of the weakness is in dialogue and internal monologue. First, there is a lot of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition. [If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s explanation of things that should be clear to the relevant characters (and to the reader,) but that are said anyhow.] Part of the reason for this is the serialization issue (i.e. one doesn’t want someone to be penalized for joining in the middle of the series, so one is constantly rehashing backstory – but there are more and less skillful ways to do this.) Beyond the serialization conundrum, there seemed to be a lack of faith that readers would understand the action from the drawings. [However, while the art might seem crude by today’s standards, I think it did a very clear job of conveying the dynamism of action.]

Second, there is sometimes flimsy psychology behind character motives. This is best exemplified by a soliloquy by J. Jonah Jameson at the end of the collection. He explains, to himself, why he hates Spider-Man, and it presents a man who is a villain in his own mind, as if he realizes his own faults but insists on moving forward with them. (As opposed to thinking that he is the hero of his own story and acting from that deluded belief.) I don’t know the backstory, but it reads as if someone said, “Why does Jameson continue to hate Spider-Man?” and the staff had no idea besides that it increased plot tension nicely. So, they wrote the kind of weak explanation that a person tends to engage in when one attributes nefarious motives to one’s employer or anyone else one doesn’t get along with. That is, they suggested that Jameson is just a jerk because he feels like being a jerk (not because he is operating from his own motives and worldview, which don’t necessarily align with Parker’s.) [Actually, a brief mention early in the collection hints that Jameson doesn’t like Spider-Man one-upping Jameson’s son, which is a much more interesting motivation than the others presented.] A possible third weakness is an excess of cornball. I suspect this tendency results from Lee trying to appeal to what he thought kids would find hip. (Which may or may not be the same as what they actually did find hip.) I’m not so sure about this one, as I think it’s something that people love about Lee’s work –e.g. alliterative naming schemes, strained metaphors, and narcissistic internal monologuing.

If you are a fan of comic books, you must read this as a piece of history and for some very entertaining superhero stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage by Grant Morrison

Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage (Doom Patrol, #1)Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage by Grant Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I’d never heard of Doom Patrol until I recently saw a teaser for the television show (which have not seen.) That lack of familiarity made for a nice surprise. I was aware from said trailer that the team consisted of “broken” individuals, and that mental illness featured prominently in these characters’ makeup. What I didn’t know is the degree to which the Doom Patrol dealt in the strange and weird – and I do love tales of the weird. So, it’s a bizarre / dysfunctional team mashup (like “Guardians of the Galaxy” but less heroic and more mentally ill) that takes on the kind of psychedelic villains one might find in “Doctor Strange.” [I realize I’m crossing the DC – Marvel divide with my comparisons, but – owing to the movies – Marvel is much more broadly known at this point.]

I was familiar with Grant Morrison from one of my favorite Batman stories, “Batman: Arkham Asylum – Serious House on Serious Earth.” And this collection of seven “Doom Patrol” comics – while a little more brightly drawn and lighthearted – share the mind-bending surreality of that book. Though in this book the trippiness is supernatural.

The seven comics included in this volume include the four parts of the “Crawling from the Wreckage” story, plus: “The Butterfly Collector,” “The House Jack Built,” and “Imaginary Friends.” Robotman (Cliff,) Crazy Jane, and Rebis (an amalgam of Larry Trainor / Negative Man and Dr. Eleanor Poole) are the principal heroes of the “Crawling from the Wreckage story, though Joshua Clay (Tempest) and Dr. Niles Caulder play supporting roles. (Caulder is this team’s wheelchair-bound, genius leader. Yes, like in the X-men. While this team is less well known, it does go back to the early 60’s so I don’t know who copied who, but I know both sides seem to have snatched ideas on occasion – or maybe great minds do think alike.) The “…Wreckage” story involves the threat of an imaginary universe (Orqwith) spilling into the world as we know it. The team is established in the first two books, and we are introduced to the opposition in the form of “The Scissormen” (faceless villains that – literally – cut people out of this reality.) Then in the third and fourth installments Orqwith is introduced, and the heroes much go there to bring an end to the threat.

“The Butterfly Collector” and “The House that Jack Built” together present a story of Rhea Jone’s disappearance from the hospital. (Jone’s character is at times a member of the Doom Patrol known as Lodestone, but in this comic book she is mostly unconscious.) One of Crazy Janes’ personalities figures out how to open the portal that the kidnapper must have used. Crazy Jane and Robotman cross over to confront the villain, Red Jack. (Yes, sort of an “Alice in Wonderland” thing going on.)

In “The Butterfly Collector” we are also introduced to Dorothy, a hideous-looking little girl whose imaginings can come to life in the real world with disturbing consequences. The last book in the collection, “Imaginary Friends” imagines Joshua Clay watching Dorothy while everyone else is out. Joshua is a minor character in the other books in this collection, but in this one he is the hero of the hour. The story involves Dorothy’s imaginary friends who’ve come to exact vengeance. We learn that Dorothy developed these friends because she couldn’t make real friends owning to her appearance, but then she had to get rid of them when they got out of hand. Incidentally, tales of woe are a repeated refrain with this team. That’s what creates the team’s uniqueness. There’s an intriguing contradiction. Normally, a reader might envy a superhero, but with the Doom Patrol envy is not where the mind goes.

As I said, I love a good tale of the weird, and this was one strange tale after another. The book is both entertaining and also thought-provoking. If you enjoy comic books and graphic novels, this one is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Memetic by James Tynion IV & Eryk Donovan

MemeticMemetic by James Tynion IV
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story takes what happens to a brain on memes to an extreme (if absurd) conclusion. (To get the most out of the story, one needs to understand “meme” in the sense Richard Dawkins coined the term. Not just as a popular image one sees repeatedly on social media, but as any cultural artifact (image, idea, symbol, fashion, etc.) that behaves in a manner analogous to a gene – spreading, mutating, etc.)

In the story, a meme (featuring a sloth) goes viral. All is benign, at first. People are spending far too much time blankly staring at the meme because it engenders a euphoric feeling, but that doesn’t seem so bad (and — quite frankly – it’s not much different from how people engage with social media and online games in real life.) Then, like a time-release bomb in the brain, something is triggered and people start bleeding from their eyes, screaming, and engaging in Zombie-like behavior. [Except, as befitting a story about memes, the mindless activity of these “zombies” is designed to perpetuate the meme — rather than the eating of brains.]

The story plays out in two interwoven arcs. At the center of each arc is an individual who is – at least at first – immune to the meme by way of a “disability.” One story features a college kid who is color-blind, and the other a retired Colonel who is visually impaired so he can only see vague shapes (i.e. either glaucoma or cataracts.) The college kid’s story is the more human-interest piece, with him just trying to survive the apocalyptic world when he feels challenged enough by his usual world. The Colonel leads a team to try to defeat the meme by tracking its author.

In one sense, the perfect power of this meme and its ability to mutate to more effectively spread itself may feel ridiculous. However, without spoiling the story, I will say the author does offer a kind of explanation that may help quell the mental rejection. I’ll leave the reader to determine whether they think it helps or not. But, more importantly, I think it’s a story that knows it’s venturing into preposterous territory, and that’s kind of the point. We don’t necessarily see the freakish way we respond to memes and the online world, and so this story blows the problem up to absurd scale to make the reader more aware. [It’s also fun.]

I delighted in “Memetic.” I found the concept thought-provoking and the telling entertaining. It’s not just a concept, it offers a strong story. I’d highly recommend this graphic novel for those who find themselves aware of, and disconcerted by, how many people in their immediate environment are entranced by their phones.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tremor Dose by Michael Conrad

Tremor Dose (comiXology Originals)Tremor Dose by Michael Conrad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Full disclosure: I love trippy, mind-bending stories that use strategic ambiguity to keep one guessing about what’s truly happening. This is that type of story. The setup is brilliant and gets the book off to a captivating start. A college-aged girl is talking to some type of researchers, describing her dreams. The intriguing bit is that we find out that a man appears in this girl’s dream, and that what drew her to the research institute was a flyer with the man’s picture on it and a heading that read “Have you dreamed this man?” That had me hooked. Is this a Freddy Kruger scenario? Something else? I didn’t know, but I wanted to.

While this is a type of story I enjoy, it’s also a subgenre that’s easy to foul up. Capturing the unique logic and illogic of dreams is no simple task. Too ordered and dream becomes indistinguishable from base reality. Too bizarre and it becomes more of an acid trip than a dream. Then there is the challenge of balancing the maintaining of consistency with keeping the reader guessing. There is definitely a varied level of surrealism across the various dreams, but I can’t say I was bothered by this. Actually, the nature of comic is conducive to conveying some elements of a dream state even in a realistic setting – i.e. we pick up in the middle of events and jump from one locale to the next in different panels.

I felt “Tremor Dose” did pretty well with these issues. When I was perusing reviews, considering reading this book, I noticed a few comments about pacing issues at the end. I can definitely see people’s problems with regards to pacing, and I think it is largely a matter of the type of story being told. By that I mean, because one is trying to figure out what is base reality, if there is a base reality, when the climax and resolution are compressed it feels rushed because one’s mind is so engaged with trying to piece together what is happening. I don’t think the flow would have been as much of a problem. [One might reasonably ask whether this is something I would have noticed if I hadn’t seen it mentioned? Possibly not, but I think so. When I got to the end-reveal, I found myself stopping to think about whether the end made sense / was consistent with the story up to that point. I think that’s what creates the rushed feel is that one has to stop to mull rather than reading through it.]

The artwork is unique. It’s pencil-drawn and is not like what one typically sees in graphic novels. I don’t really know anything about comic art, and, so suffice it to say, the drawings weren’t distracting nor did they leave me confused. That’s about all I ask for in graphic novel artwork.

I enjoyed this story, and if you like stories that move in and out of layers of dreams, you’ll likely find it a worthwhile read.

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BOOK REVIEW: World War Hulk by Greg Pak

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

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

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

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

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

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BOOK REVIEW: 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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