BOOK REVIEW: The Golem of Venice Beach Vol. 1 by Chanan Beizer

The Golem of Venice BeachThe Golem of Venice Beach by Chanan Beizer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 15, 2022

The title is the premise. The Golem of Prague is now living in Venice Beach, CA. However, the protagonist is a human hipster with a sunglass kiosk near the beach named Jake. Jake is a secular Jew with a penchant for all manner of drugs who falls in love with a neighbor who is some sort of chosen one for a Santa Muerte cult that’s protected by some drug-dealing gangbangers. The connection to the Golem is that Jake’s bloodline is protected by the Golem.

This is one of those titles that’s hard to rate. The art is well done. The character development is great. And it’s a compelling premise. (Though I think we may be experiencing a Golem zeitgeist as this is the second or third Golem story I’ve read recently. But, it could also be an anecdotal coincidence.) That all sound pretty good, but I have no idea whether the story is any good because it’s one of those one-story-arc-split-over-two volumes, and so the resolution-to-cliffhanger ratio is not good. [i.e. It ends all cliffhanger and with nothing having been resolved.] To be fair, the last line does promise to conclude the story in the second (next) volume. (i.e. As opposed to: “We’ll see if it’s popular and then string it out until there’s no hope of tying up all the loose ends.”) So, I guess it comes down to whether you’re a trusting soul. I don’t think I’ve read this author previously, and thus have no basis for drawing a conclusion.

So, my recommendation is…


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BOOK REVIEW: Little Monsters, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire

Little Monsters, Vol. 1Little Monsters, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 11, 2022

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It’s vampiric Lord of the Flies in a dystopian wasteland. Checks a lot of boxes. To begin on a positive note, I loved the character development in this book. Each of the kids is distinct and one rapidly develops an affinity for some of them and a distrust of others. Long story short, you want to know what happens to these kids, and why they’re in the situation in which they find themselves.

What I didn’t like is what I call the “resolution to hook” ratio. When something is written with serialization in mind, it’s a challenge to provide a satisfying story arc. There’s an incentive to end with a big hook, so as to draw readers farther down the line, and often the whole climax-resolution-conclusion bit is skipped or glossed over. Often, this leaves no (or a weak) resolution, such that reading the volume doesn’t scratch the itch that good stories do. Steamrolling through the end of the story arc to end on a cliffhanger may attract some continuing readers, but for those of us wary of the sunk cost fallacy (giving into an investment made with the assumption that it will eventually turn out positively,) it’s a sign to move on to the next story. (Lest one be Lost-ed – i.e. to be drawn in by a brilliant and inventive story only to see it become increasingly muddled, ultimately to end in a sad crash landing.)

The art is somewhat crudely rendered, but I suspect that was a conscious choice to achieve the desired atmospherics. And, I think it worked. The art clearly conveys the action.

If you have faith that you’ll eventually get that narrative itch scratched, you may want to check this one out. It does have a lot of potential. For my part, I’m once bitten, twice shy.


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BOOK REVIEW: Step by Bloody Step, Vol. 1 by Simon Spurrier

Step By Bloody StepStep By Bloody Step by Simon Spurrier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: August 30, 2022

This is the story of a young girl who goes on journey through a wondrous – and often perilous – exotic land with only the company of her giant knightly protector. The early part of the book involves this odd couple confronting various threats as they engage in their quest, but then they arrive in a fantastical realm, running up against their most dire threat yet — humanity.

This fantasy quest / adventure graphic novel is presented almost entirely without words. Each section is begun with a few poetically vague lines, but otherwise it’s entirely pictorial. The question is whether it works, or is like watching a movie with the sound and subtitles turned off – i.e. confusing and frustrating. The answer is complicated. For one thing, the part of the book where it’s just the girl and the giant works quite well because there aren’t a lot of characters to confuse or complex actions to grasp. However, this limits the story to a series of random unfortunate events. From the part where they arrive at civilization, it becomes less easily comprehended. There’s a lot of potential for: “Who is that, and why are they doing that?” And the conclusion has some complex story elements that are hard to comprehend without textual cues.

For another thing, it really depends on how attached one is as a reader to grasping what the author intended. If one is highly attached, one will probably spend a fair amount of time flipping back and forth and it will become an exercise in frustration as one tries to decipher meaning. If you don’t have such hang-ups – i.e. you see the act of reading as interpretative and believe all you need to do is let your brain make sense of the story (as it might in a dream — ) then it can be great fun. I came down on the latter side.

The artwork is imaginative and the “reading” process fascinating. If you’re game for a wordless story, you may want to check this one out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Trapped on Zarkass by Yann

Trapped on ZarkassTrapped on Zarkass by Yann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: October 11, 2022

This odd-couple quest story contextually resembles the movie Avatar, which is to say it involves an Earth-colonized exotic planet that has an intelligent – if primitive – indigenous lifeform. That said, neither the story nor the visuals are reminiscent of Avatar.

The story is about a pair of women who are tasked with tracking down a crashed enemy spacecraft in the remote jungles of the planet Zarkass, and returning with samples and intel about it. Because of treaties, the pair must operate undercover, assisted by a group of locals who are kept from the truth of the mission. One of the “agents” is a sweet, sensitive young woman who is pretending to do research as an expert on butterflies, and the other is a gruff, red-neck-ish drug dealer who’s released from prison to be the first woman’s guide and protector. The downed aircraft is a triangular spaceship that outmatches the Earthling craft, and the colonizers want metal samples to discover why their missiles glance off.

I enjoyed the story and found the world-building to be brilliantly imaginative [it’s outlandish, scientifically speaking, but creative.] As per the odd-couple norm, these two very different women slowly and begrudgingly develop respect and concern for each other by surviving numerous trials by fire together. Furthermore, in the end, it seems like they’ve developed a similar begrudging connection with the indigenous species that they did for each other. Even the main characters look down on the indigenous population throughout the book, but there seems to be a change. If you’re put off by nudity and near nudity of a gratuitous nature, the book does have it in spades.

If you like sci-fi adventures set on exotic worlds, you might want to give this one a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: Dwellers by Eliza Victoria

Dwellers: A Novel: Winner of the Philippine National Book AwardDwellers: A Novel: Winner of the Philippine National Book Award by Eliza Victoria
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: August 16, 2022

This well-crafted tragedy features a form of magic handed down within a family that allows one to shift one’s consciousness into to the body of another, though this bodily colonization kills the original owner. While it might seem like just another sci-fi / fantasy plot device designed to make for an interesting adventure, the book conveys lessons about the discontentment and the inability to escape oneself. It’s also worth noting that despite its speculative fiction / fantasy gimmickry, the story is also a taut drama of family dysfunction.

The narrative isn’t linear, and this allows the story to begin in medias res, with the protagonist / narrator finding himself in the fire after having leapt from the proverbial frying pan. Two crucial mysteries are solved over the course of the book. The first mystery is why two young men would jump into new bodies, apparently with such urgency as to not realize the bodies they were taking possession of belonged to people whose lives were a horrifying mess. The other mystery is why those lives were such a mess in the first place.

I found this story intriguing and it kept me reading with an interest in discovering the base truth. The book’s beginning is a bit disorienting because all one knows is that the two characters living in the house aren’t it’s rightful owners, but rather mental settlers of unknown identity who’ve taken possession of the occupants’ bodies, and — speaking of bodies – there’s a mystery corpse in the basement freezer. The body in the freezer is both an excellent hook, and also the means to create a pause in any reader who might tend to think, “if I could, I’d definitely change bodies.” Despite the nonlinearity and the snarl of characters within the bodies of other characters, the book is readable; i.e. it’s not as challenging to follow the thread of plot as it often is in books with such narrative complications.

If you enjoy philosophical speculative fiction, this book is well worth looking into.

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BOOK REVIEW: He Who Fights With Monsters by Francesco Artibani

He Who Fights With MonstersHe Who Fights With Monsters by Francesco Artibani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: August, 30, 2022

This graphic novel tells a story featuring the Prague Golem, a mighty protector figure from Judaic folklore – formed of clay and breathed to life by magic words. The setting is Nazi-occupied Prague, and the golem is brought to life after a great period of dormancy, having been stored in the rafters of a synagogue, in order to once more act as protector to the Jewish people.

It’s a gripping tale of wartime resistance, but with a flat ending. However, I’m not sure it could have concluded in a satisfying way. That’s the challenge of writing a story of a superhero versus Nazis. The Holocaust is such a colossal tragedy that to rewrite the it resets the book into some alternate reality fantasyland, striking a raw nerve and killing any poignancy in the process.

The artwork is skillfully rendered and captures the grim nature of a city under fascist occupation quite well.

I enjoyed the story, despite not really knowing how to process the ending. Maybe that’s the point, that one can’t turn such mindless brutality into a storybook satisfying ending [by satisfying I don’t mean happy, but rather concluded in the definitive and intrinsically reasonable – if horrifying – way of tragedies.] Still, one is left wondering about apparent changes in character motivation and whether they make any sense — because they don’t feel like they do.

If you’re intrigued by a historical fiction / fantasy mashup set in Prague during the Second World War, check this book out, but expect to be left in an uneasy space at the end.


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BOOK REVIEW: Bolero by Wyatt Kennedy

BoleroBolero by Wyatt Kennedy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Release date: August 2, 2022

This speculative fiction graphic novel follows a struggling millennial, Devyn Dagny, as she leaps through parallel universes in search of a better life. This plot device, being presented with a key that allows one to escape one’s current world and try others on for size, is a brilliant way to show that one can’t fix one’s life by changing one’s scenery — one has to change one’s self. Otherwise, attempts to escape are just exercises in Einsteinian insanity (i.e. doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel this was the lesson conveyed. It seemed like the lesson in question was that it’s impossible to escape one’s history and that world-hopping in the hope that some external environment will align to make everything perfect is a valid approach. In the back-matter there’s a line written by the book’s artist (Luana Vecchio) that says, “Most of our traumas come from our parents.” That philosophy explains the story arc without character growth. Nothing is my fault, everything is my parents’ fault — ergo, I’ll forever be broken unless someone else can come along and make everything alright for me.

I will admit that I might have missed the intended point of the story because the book reads chaotically. It’s not so much the jumps between parallel worlds, but jumps around in time and in relationships.

The art was nicely drawn. There may have been palette changes to distinguish different times and / or worlds, but besides the red of the interdimensional space, I couldn’t keep them straight – i.e. there were either too many different palettes or they lacked distinction. Am I in a flashback, a flashforward, and alternate dimension? I couldn’t always tell.

I have mixed feelings about this one. Some will love it and others will find it frustrating. The premise and much of the execution was splendid, but the helter-skelter feel and missed opportunities for character development and growth resulted in a dissatisfaction.


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BOOK REVIEW: Thor, Vol. 1: Goddess of Thunder by Jason Aaron

Thor, Volume 1: The Goddess of ThunderThor, Volume 1: The Goddess of Thunder by Jason Aaron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I applaud what they were trying to do with this comic book, to hand the title and powers of Thor to a female in order to shake things up and break readers’ calcified thought processes. That said, I felt the story execution was poor. The art was well done, the dialogue was solid, but the story did not impress.

The story picks up with Thor having spontaneously become unworthy for reasons that are teased but left unclear, and the God of Thunder is pining for his hammer. The hammer, Mjolnir, is inscribed / enchanted with a spell: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” Then Frost Giants attack a Roxxon (Marvel’s Evil Corp) deep drilling facility, with the support of Malekith, the Dark Elf King, to add a cleverer and more competent adversary to the brute power of the giants. Over the five-issue arc, the main action is involved with battling this incursion into Earth (Midgard) by the Frost Giants.

My biggest problem with the story had to do with the fluctuating rules of Mjolnir. First of all, I’m no fan of having all of the power and capabilities of Thor being contained in the hammer. I know that’s what the aforementioned inscription reads, but I think it makes for a poor hero because one has to wonder why the person is necessary, why not just a hammer flying around thrashing enemies. I prefer the way the “Thor: Ragnarök” movie handled this by insisting that Thor isn’t “the god of hammers” and that it is he who holds the power. However, that aside, there’s a point during which [Goddess] Thor becomes separated from the hammer. As I read this, I thought, “This is great, now she will have to do something clever and self-empowered to at least stall or escape.” But she didn’t have to because she was still every bit as powerful as before (maybe more so, it’s kind of hard to judge the wandering power levels of insanely overpowered superheroes.) Long story short, I was tripped up by the “the hammer is the source of all Thor’s power” to “the hammer is irrelevant” quick change. My only other problem with the story was that it felt like they left more unresolved baggage to serve as hooks than they reconciled.

I can see that a lot of people like this story, but I found it unworthy.


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BOOK REVIEW: Darryl Openworld by Rémi Guérin

Darryl OpenworldDarryl Openworld by Oliver Peru
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: July 26, 2022

This fantasy comic book is set in a multiverse where journalists are rock stars, and none more so than the protagonist, Darryl Openworld. It combines high and low fantasy (moving between created / fantastical worlds and our own world – the latter being called the gray world.) It’s Darryl’s quest to solve the mystery of a series of improbable events so that he can get his story, doing so with an entourage of living and dead, human and fairy, and a magician and a magic bird.

At the broad-brush level, the story is interesting and coherent. It’s got the makings of a fine quest adventure with a love triangle on the side. However, when it came to the story details, it was clunky. The biggest problem was a lack of emotional resonance tied to a lack of pacing, a lack of ebb and flow. I found myself on several occasions thinking, “Why is this person being so emotional right now?” I think the author was trying to establish every moment as fraught to the max by showing the characters as being emotional, and because no story can sustain every moment being at max stakes, it just feels like overacting (or that the characters have low emotional IQ, which doesn’t jibe with what we’re told about them – especially not our iron-willed protagonist.)

The art is beautiful and creates a distinct otherworldliness of the other worlds. The one criticism I would present is that many characters had a similar androgenous appearance (including some of the main characters) and it wasn’t always instantly clear who was who.

The book has some unique features going for it. It’s nice to imagine a world in which journalism hasn’t crashed and burned, and where it’s still a respectable profession. But in the end, it wasn’t my cup of tea. Your results might vary. While there were a few small story problems, the bulk of what felt off about it boiled down to feeling like they were trying to keep the emotion dialed to eleven, but that just compressed the emotional arc of the book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Doctor Strange: Surgeon Supreme, Vol 1: Under the Knife by Mark Waid

Dr. Strange, Surgeon Supreme Vol. 1: Under the KnifeDr. Strange, Surgeon Supreme Vol. 1: Under the Knife by Mark Waid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Those who know the character of Doctor Strange from either the comics or the movies know that his backstory is as an arrogant – but brilliant – surgeon whose hands are badly damaged in an accident. In his far-flung search for a cure, he stumbles onto the realm of magic and ends up making a career change from surgeon to sorcerer. The premise of this volume is that Strange’s hands are cured and he precariously divvies up his time between the demanding jobs of neurosurgeon and Sorcerer Supreme.

The plot of this six-issue arc revolves around a theft from Strange’s own estate, a theft which grants his unknown enemy and her known henchmen the power to give the Sorcerer Supreme a run for his money, magically speaking. The shift to a two-hat wearing Stephen Strange facilitates him being none-the-wiser about the magically powerful weapons being deployed against him coming from his own forge. It also creates a series of tense periods during which he’s simultaneously urgently needed in the magic and material worlds.

I felt the volume did a good job of building up to a face-off with the big bad while making each issue a worthwhile standalone story. There are false flags and other mechanisms to keep one guessing about how the story will unfold. Some of the issues were more gripping and creative than others. The most brilliant, in my opinion, was the issue three battle in a tattoo realm to which the tattoos of humans – including one of Strange’s patients – drain said individuals’ life-forces. That issue most captured the psychedelic bizarrity that makes Doctor Strange comics so splendidly clever, unique, and enjoyable to read. The concluding story / resolution was also compelling.

I enjoyed this volume and would recommend it for fans of Doctor Strange.


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