BOOK REVIEW: Dracula, Motherf**ker by Alex de Campi

Dracula, Motherf**ker!Dracula, Motherf**ker! by Alex de Campi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This short story in graphic novelized form imagines a Dracula who has been trapped in his coffin since the post-Bram Stoker story time period coming back into action in 1970’s Los Angeles. (While there is a nod to the Bram Stoker novel in starting the story in late-1890’s Central / Eastern Europe, the book doesn’t present itself as a sequel — and purposefully tries to avoid some of the old [and new] vampire clichés.) The book taps into the feel of 1970’s noir crime drama. The main character, Quincy Harker, is a photographer whose work appeals to a macabre impulse of those who like to see snuff shots of beautiful people. As such, he goes around to scenes reminiscent of the Manson family slaughter of Sharon Tate and friends to snap his pictures. [Note: While in Bram Stoker’s book Quincy Harker was the child of Mina Harker, in this book that’s just an Easter Egg-style reference without any intended continuity to the book’s characters.] Because Harker is always going out at night to capture images of the recently deceased, he his easily drawn into the family feud between Dracula and his brides.

The artwork is interesting. There is not a single color palette used throughout, but rather different scenes are in different palettes. In the back-matter written by the artist, there is a statement about this being meant to influence the reader’s emotional inflection. It’s also pointed out in the back-matter that all scenes are set at night, which might not be otherwise apparent. Some panels are colored brightly and colorfully while others are in black and dark blues.

The story is simple and quick. Between drawing on the vampire mythology and on the noir crime cinema imagery, there’s not much that’s particularly novel about this book. That said, the fact that it puts Dracula’s brides at the fore does give it a bit of niche.

As mentioned, there is a writeup at the back by both the author (de Campi) and the artist (Henderson,) along with some draft drawings and scripts for those intrigued by how the sausage is made.

I enjoyed this enough to get caught up in reading it in a single sitting. (That said, it’s very short — even for the 80-ish pages — given sprawling panels and sparse / terse dialogue.) If you enjoy vampire fiction, it’s worth checking out.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable

Dracula: Son of the Dragon (comiXology Originals)Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

There is a vast amount of vampiric fiction available today, and no small amount of it focuses on the character of Dracula. This graphic novel sets itself apart by building the story on real world events (such as they are known, and with dramatic license to make the story exciting and the imagery evocative.) At the risk of turning people off (but not intending to,) I would go as far as to say this book leads with history, and makes the supernatural secondary. I actually liked that about it. When I say the supernatural is secondary, it’s not like its eliminated from existence or that it’s purely garnish. There are dragons and vampires, but a story exists with or without those elements.

A story of war and political intrigue in what is now Romania is bookended by the depiction of a meeting between Vlad Dracula and three clergymen. In the opening, Vlad is telling the priests that he is about to let them in on the truth of his story, which they have no doubt heard in mythologized form. At the end, he asks the clergymen to tell him whether he will be allowed into heaven. The body of the story is a flashback from the meeting with the priests. It splits focus between Vlad’s father, who is working to keep his domain under his control by playing the ends against the middle vis-à-vis his Roman Catholic neighbors (notably Hungary) and the Ottoman Empire, and the story oft Vlad, himself. Vlad is a young man. He and his brother are sent to Scholomance (a kind of Slavic Dark Arts Hogwarts) and later become prisoners of the Ottomans.

I thought the artwork was easy to follow and stylistically appealing enough. Some of the frames in the ancillary material at the back were truly beautiful. I often disregard the back-matter in comics because it usually amounts to little more than discussion of how the drafts changed over time – i.e. offering insight into the sausage-making of the book. However, this book had an extensive Notes section that I found fascinating and useful because it explained how points in the book compared with known history. Some of the points that I assumed were pure fiction had a factual basis. Sable also related points to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The creators tried to be consistent with Stoker’s book, as well as with history, when they could. The former wasn’t so hard because readers of Bram Stoker’s will recognize that the titular character is kept largely a mystery, particularly with regard to his backstory.

If you are interested at all in the historical and mythological basis of the Dracula vampire, I’d recommend this book. As I said, the notes will give you a good idea of what was known to be true, what is complete fiction, and what is a kernel of truth enveloped in story sensationalism. Obviously, all the supernatural elements are pure fiction, and also there is a lot that remains unknown, but this graphic novel provides an interesting take on the origins of Vlad Dracula.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio

The Photographer of MauthausenThe Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Due out: September 30, 2020

This “graphic novel” tells the story of a Spanish photographer, Francisco Boix, who was sent to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp as a Communist during the Second World War. [Note: I only put graphic novel in quotes because it’s not a fictitious story, which “novel” implies, but graphic novel seems to be the accepted term for any graphically depicted story – fact or fiction.] Mauthausen was a camp in Austria. While it wasn’t technically one of the extermination camps, it was legendary for the death toll associated with the granite mine where many of the inmates labored. Its “staircase of death” was the location of untold fatalities, including: murders by the Nazis, suicides, and even tripping accidents that will happen when an emaciated prisoner has to carry 50 kg stones up almost 200 uneven steps with no railing day after day.

Boix, who had been a journalistic photographer previously, was assigned to work for a Nazi officer who took pictures in the camp – particularly pictures of fatalities. Boix carried equipment, set up lighting, developed negatives, and made prints. His boss, Ricken, is depicted as bizarre character. On the one hand, Ricken seems not so bad by Nazi SS standards, but, on the other hand, he has a sociopathic inclination to see death as art. Boix takes advantage of his position to make copies of the negatives with the idea that they will be evidence when the war comes to the end. At first, there is support for this plot among the Spanish Communists, who help hide the negatives away in places like the carpentry shop. However, this support dwindles when it becomes clear that the Germans will lose the war, and – thus –surviving to the end becomes everyone’s primary focus. Soon Boix is on his own to figure out how to get the photos out. He develops a plan involving one of the boys at the camp (children being less intensely scrutinized) and an Austrian woman, who is a sympathizer.

The book climaxes with the operation to get the negatives out of the camp, but resolves with the immediate post-War period when Boix attempts to generate interest in the photographs as well providing testimony at the Nuremberg Trials. Boix is portrayed as fiery and impassioned. When the others at Mauthausen just want to survive to the end, he maintains that any risk is worth it. While he is shown to have some conflict about putting a boy’s life at risk with (arguably) the riskiest step in the process, he doesn’t seem waiver. At the trials he’s outraged about the panel’s insistence on “just the facts.” He wants to freely and fully tell the story of Mauthausen, and they – like courts in democracies everywhere – wish to maintain an appearance of the dispassionate acquisition of facts.

I found this book to be engaging and well worth the read. The artwork is well-done and easy to follow. The story is gripping. While there are a vast number of accounts of events at places like Auschwitz, there aren’t so many popular retellings of events at Mauthausen. I highly recommend this book for those interested in events surrounding World War II and the Holocaust.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: 30 Days of Night, Vol. 3: Run Alice Run by Steve Niles

30 Days of Night Vol. 3: Run Alice Run30 Days of Night Vol. 3: Run Alice Run by Steve Niles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This volume picks up at the end of the vampire raid on the Los Angeles FBI offices, a raid whose primary goal is to retrieve the remains of Stella Olemaun. The vampire-savvy agent, Alice Blood, seems to be the sole survivor (more properly, only one not turned into a vampire for Eben Olemaun’s army of the undead.) The balance of the book turns Eben Olemaun’s war in a new direction, toward the European old guard. In the original book, this division is introduced between the old-world vampires who want to remain myth and quietly live out their immortal days, and the hot-headed American vampires who are eager to war and watch the world burn.

I enjoyed this volume more than the previous one, but not nearly so much as the original story. Sadly, I suspect the reason that I preferred it to the last volume is that it’s so fast-paced and action-packed that I had no time to notice that it’s often not clear why characters are doing what they’re doing (or, more damningly, that they sometimes adopt behavior that seems at odds with the character as established through his or her recent behavior.) While I seem to have leap-frogged material and may have missed an answer, I continue to be perplexed by an anomaly from the original book and that’s why Eben is so easily able to defeat any other vampire. He’s vampire superman, and it’s not clear why he should be.

As I wrote in my review of Volume 2, at this point the series doesn’t really distinguish itself among the mass of modern-day vampire stories. The original book, I felt, did build a novel concept that made it more interesting and intense than usual. The book is well-written and gruesomely drawn, but so are tons of other vampire stories. Having read three volumes, I’m over this series, but it is well constructed – if a bit Hollywood.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: 30 Days of Night, Vol. 2 by Steve Niles

30 Days of Night Volume 230 Days of Night Volume 2 by Steve Niles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

[Note: this isn’t the Vol. 2 that follows immediately from the original book.]

I enjoyed the original three-issue “30 Days of Night” series. That book imagines a vampire attack on Barrow, Alaska during the winter when the sun does not rise for weeks. That concept of eliminating one of the vampires’ greatest vulnerabilities while putting the survivors in the demoralizing state of being hunted in the darkness and brutal cold makes for a visceral story.

While I thought this volume was written and drawn well (and quite similarly to the original – same writer, different artist) I have two gripes. First of all, I guess owing to the immense success of the franchise which resulted in many series and sub-series, it’s quite confusing to pick up the order of storytelling at this point. After reading the original book, I read Volumes 2 and 3 (sometimes labeled “Ongoing”,) thinking they would follow up on the Vol. 1 [the original] that I’d read. However, while I could follow the story, there was clearly a substantial gap in time and events. It seems like the Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 that I read (labeled “Ongoing”) were fitted together, but at least one series must fit between this Vol. 2 and the Vol. 1 that I read. Even scanning through a Wiki-page on the overall series didn’t really lend me clarity — though I had no desire or inclination to read through 30 summaries to figure out where this Vol. 2 and 3 belongs. [Especially as I don’t intend to read further as the series seems to have devolved from that gripping and unique Barrow, Alaska plot to being just another modern-day vampire story.]

So, the story of the Vol. 2 that I read is essentially Sheriff Eben Olemaun first feeding his way through a rebuilt [security super-maxed] Barrow before going to Los Angeles to do both more recruiting and turning, and then attacking the LA FBI offices in order to retrieve the remains of his wife, Stella. [My first clue of discontinuity was that at the end of the first [first] volume, Eben is dead and Stella was alive, and in this book those tables were inexplicably turned.] The other “half” of the story revolves around an FBI agent, Alice Blood, who is apparently the FBI’s star Vampire-slayer. We find out that she is the one who killed Stella, though she seems a bit broken up about it. Being the virtuous hero, Alice is also fed up with the bureaucratic moral ambiguity of her employer.

Getting around to my second gripe, it’s that this isn’t really a satisfying story arc as a standalone entity, it’s just carrying a story through. To clarify, I’m not saying it doesn’t stand alone because I’d missed who knows how much of the preceding story and didn’t understand. In that sense, I thought they actually did a great job of making clear what was going on without getting bound up in a lot of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition. What I’m saying is that this book gives one a chain of action without providing much understanding of motivation. I will grant that my not understanding the motivation in the first chapter is probably the result of not reading the immediately prior issue. However, I didn’t see much convincing motivation for anything in this volume. I saw that Eben wanted his wife’s head and torso back, but as he seems to have zero of the devoted husband and law enforcement professional left at this point and is just monstrous killing machine, it’s hard to know why he would care.

Long story short, I thought this book was alright, but not particularly satisfying and that the ordering is quite confusing. I picked up all three volumes I’ve read on Amazon Prime, so no great loss there. However, I mention that so no one else expects the Volume 1, 2, and 3 presented on Prime to present a contiguous story. Continuity issues aside, I don’t think the story still distinguishes itself from the massive number of modern-day vampire tales available today.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Hellboy: Midnight Circus by Mike Mignola

Hellboy: The Midnight CircusHellboy: The Midnight Circus by Mike Mignola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon Page

Hellboy meets Something Wicked This Way Comes. In this issue, Hellboy—as a boy—runs away from the BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) and stumbles upon a circus that operates only through the wee hours of the morning. An acknowledgement of Ray Bradbury suggests that the use of a creepy, nocturnal circus of the netherworld was not a coincidence but a purposive homage.

The comic also borrows elements of the story of Pinocchio, which is explicitly referenced in the story line.

The comic is well-written and drawn. Those who don’t like it will likely find their dislike rooted in the comic’s ending. The title character doesn’t have a great deal of agency—i.e. he has little influence on the resolution of the story arc. That said, given that Hellboy is a boy in this issue and that his upbringing as a human boy by the Professor is credited with his ability to refrain from regression to his demon-like nature, there’s not a lot that he could probably do without straining credulity.

I enjoyed this book.

View all my reviews

2014 Superhero Movies

Here’s an overview of the upcoming year’s superhero movies.

 



I, FRANKENSTEIN; January 24th

Frankenstein’s monster may not the usual superhero, but it’s based on a graphic novel and the demon-battling premise seems heroic enough.



ROBOCOP; February 12th

This is also one you might not think of this as a superhero movie, I include it because there was a Marvel comic based on the movie and if Iron Man is a superhero…



CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER; April 4th

The second Captain America installment and the third of the five Marvel Phase II films. After taking on some high level conspiracies, Captain America finds himself battling his old sidekick’s villainous alter ego, i.e. The Winter Soldier.



AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2; May 2nd

The sequel finds Spiderman facing Electro and–to a lesser degree–Rhino.



X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST; May 23rd

As the confusing title implies, this is a time travel story in which events in the past must be changed to avert a grim future. Wolverine is sent back to affect this change.



TRANSFORMERS 4: AGE OF EXTINCTION; June 27th
220px-Transformers4_Teaser_Poster
OK, this is more a toy movie than a superhero movie, but cars that turn into robots seem super in my book. That’s not to say there isn’t a better than average chance the movie will stink.



GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY; August 1st
220px-Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_logo
It’s still early. There’s no trailer out as of this posting.



TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES; August 8th
No trailer or images out, and little is known except this is about as ridiculous a premise for a movie as is imaginable.



BIG HERO 6; November 7th
Big_Hero_6_logo
This is an animated Marvel project. A robotics prodigy and his creation team up with amateur crime-fighters to put an end to a nefarious plot.

BOOK REVIEW: Inventing Iron Man by E. Paul Zehr

Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human MachineInventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine by E. Paul Zehr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

As the title suggests, this book examines whether Iron Man could exist in the real world. As with Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Impossible, answering the question involves defining the various meanings of “impossible.”

One way to parse the question is, “Is Iron Man possible today given the existing state of technology?” In and of itself, this question is of limited interest because the answer is, “no.” There’s certainly a demand, and so if Iron Man could exist given current technology, he probably would. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting to learn about what technologies are holding us back and where the cutting edge of relevant technologies lies—both of which are addressed by the book.

Still, a more interesting inquiry is, “Will Iron Man ever be reality given the physical laws that we know to govern the universe?” While more intriguing, it’s also a harder question to definitively answer. It’s impossible to foresee all the technological developments that might come along to answer the seemingly insurmountable challenges (e.g. Tony Stark’s inevitable Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).) The book deals with the critical question of what challenges would have to be overcome for Iron Man to be reality.

As Zehr suggests, the appeal of Iron Man is that he’s considered to be among superheroes for the common man. Like Batman, the sufficiently bright and diligent nerd may fantasize that, “That could be me.” You or I can’t be Superman or Wolverine, but given enough money, smarts, and training we could be Batman, or—even better—pilot the Iron Man suit. Put in this light, the book may seem like just another frivolous attempt to capitalize on the popularity of superheroes to sell books. However, there’s actually a great deal of food for thought packed in the book. Like others, I read the book because its title is Inventing Iron Man and not Neuro-motor control of a self-propelled armor system or some other suitably scholarly title.

Dr. Zehr has the bona fides to delve into this topic. He is a Professor who investigates questions of how the nervous system controls movement. That subject may not constitute the sum total of critical concerns, but it’s one of the most important challenges. For Iron Man to move the way he does in the movies and comic books, Tony Stark’s impulses to move have to be transmitted seamlessly to the servo-motors that move the suit. From dodging Col. Rhodes’ (i.e. War Machine’s) punches to ducking RPGs, Stark can’t be quick enough if he has to manually steer the device. Then, of course, there’s the issue of feedback. Any neophyte meditator who’s had his or her foot fall sound asleep will know how difficult it is to walk surefootedly when one can’t feel anything through one’s foot.

[Iron Man 3 spoiler commentary in this paragraph.] One of the most damning challenges for making Iron Man a reality is the high probability of severe concussions. Let’s say you make the suit out of a material that is virtually indestructible? This may be possible. However, the pilot’s mushy brain is still sloshing around inside that impenetrable armor. One can remotely pilot the suit in order to negate this (as has been done in the comic books and the third movie), but—at that point—is it still Iron Man? I know from a writer’s perspective it’s a lot harder to maintain tension if there’s nothing human on the line. In the third movie about 30 autonomously piloted suits get wiped out and the viewer doesn’t care—the only source of tension is that Tony Stark is without armor half the time.

Some of the most interesting discussions are about where the current state of the art lies with respect to: a.) direct mind control over mechanical systems; b.) a “flying suit”; and c.) robotic movement enhancers. Zehr conducts interviews with those engineers and technologists involved in such technologies, and finds out where we are presently. Letter “a” above seems to be the least developed of the three technologies, but they are all active lines of research.

I enjoyed this book and found it interesting. I think anyone who is interested in the state of technology and its limits will find it a nice pop-sci introduction to the subject. The use of superheroes as a pedagogic device may be overdone, but it continues to work because we are fascinated by the edge of possibility, and that’s what superheroes represent.

View all my reviews