BOOK REVIEW: Second Chances by Ricky Mammone

Second Chances, Vol. 1Second Chances, Vol. 1 by Ricky Mammone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: March 22, 2022

This is essentially a hard-boiled PI story, except, instead of being a private investigator, the protagonist runs what is basically a commercial witness protection program for individuals who are trying to escape from someone (but aren’t witnesses and – thus – can’t get the government to provide a new life on the taxpayer dime.) The story follows the fallout of a case gone wrong, in which the lead, Leblanc, finds himself being pursued by a sexy hit squad and must protect his clients at all cost.

It’s not the most innovative of stories and relies on action a great deal. The action being all the more important because our hard-boiled lead experiences little to no growth throughout the story. That said, it’s no worse than a great deal action stories, and better than some. It has a coherent storyline, lots of action, and characters that are interesting – if in a clichéd sort of way.

The illustration is monochrome but detailed, presumably the black-and-white format is meant to contribute to the noir / pulp feel.

If you like action stories, this is a fine one – but not necessarily one that differentiates itself from the pack.


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BOOK REVIEW: Night Mary by Rick Remender

Night MaryNight Mary by Rick Remender
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In this graphic novel, the protagonist is a young woman, Mary, who is a talented lucid dreamer – i.e. being conscious in one’s dreams. While lucid dreaming is a real thing, the sci-fi “magic” of the story world is that, using an experimental medication in conjunction with skilled dreamers allows the lucid dreamer to observe and take part in the dreams of another person. Said experimental medication was developed by Mary’s father, who’s a bit of a shady “evil scientist” type, and he employs Mary as his lucid dreamer (even though she is still a high school student.)

The story is intense and provocative. Character development is good and we learn that Mary is dealing with her own mental health issues, presumably PTSD-like traumatization related to an automobile accident she was in with her mother, but she may have already been anxiety prone. Mary’s father is a complex character throughout. He’s cold and distant as a father and obsessive as a scientist, but not altogether dastardly. I enjoyed falling into the story and found it to be narratively taut. That said, it wasn’t with out some problems of pacing and villain monologuing around the climax.

The artwork by Kieron Dwyer succeeded in creating a visceral horror / surreal feel. Also, the use of different color palettes for the real world versus various dream worlds helps to clarify where one is, which is useful in a story that shifts between the real (waking) world and dream scenes.

If you enjoy stories set in dreams and the sci-fi of the unconscious mind, you may want to look into this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hawkeye Vol. 1: My Life As A Weapon by Matt Fraction

Hawkeye, Volume 1: My Life as a WeaponHawkeye, Volume 1: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This six-issue volume features a Clint Barton who’s a great deal more hapless and humorous than the one we’ve seen in the Avengers movies. [I haven’t seen the “Hawkeye” streaming series, though I’ve heard that it borrows elements and devices from Fraction’s run, including enemies (e.g. Tracksuit Mafia) and gags (e.g. trick arrows,) thought I don’t think the TV series relies on the comic for story, per se (i.e. beyond the Barton / Bishop team-up angle, generally speaking.)] This version of Hawkeye is still impressive with his accuracy in archery (and otherwise,) but his ability to take a beating and keep moving may be his primary “superpower.” In this collection, we mostly see an un-uniformed Clint Barton going about his daily business, getting into adventures consistent with his persona as an unpowered individual without allies of the supersoldier, tech wiz, or giant green rage monster varieties.

It should be pointed out that the sixth issue is different from the first five. It’s not a “Hawkeye” title but a “Young Avengers” one, and it’s built around the handoff of the Hawkeye mantle from Barton to Bishop. I’m not sure why they included it. It feels like a jarring discontinuity. In the earlier issues, the two are working together, but in the last issue they seem to be meeting for the first time with Bishop having already assumed the mantle of Hawkeye. Moreover, the tone is completely different. The Barton of the last issue is more like movie Barton: costumed, less funny, and surrounded by Avenger-level superheroes.

I enjoyed this collection, particularly the first five issues. It’s amusing, and creates a likable scamp of a character who is witty, relatable, and more sympathetic. If you don’t think Hawkeye is a character you’d be interested in, this is a good collection with which to give him a chance.


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BOOK REVIEW: Crueler than Dead, Vol. 1 by Tsukasa Saimura

Crueler than dead, vol.1 (Crueler than dead, #1)Crueler than dead, vol.1 by Tsukasa Saimura
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 12, 2021

A teenage girl regains consciousness in a bland institutional setting to discover that she has been part of medical experimentation. Her mission, should she choose to accept it, is to get a vile of vaccine tested on her and the young boy who will be her traveling companion (as well as, on a bunch of people who didn’t survive) to a stadium in the heart of a Tokyo, a city overrun by Zombies. This is a manga-style graphic novel (i.e. black-and-white panels read right to left.)

I found the work to be in the meaty middle among the vast Zombie subgenre – neither among the best nor the worst. What I think the book did well was set up stakes for intense action. They have to journey to the center of the world’s most populous city to the only un-Zombified people known to remain living. So, the stakes are the continued existence of our species. What the book doesn’t do so well is maintain pace and a clear narrative thread. Textless panels are used to make transitional jumps and it’s not clear to me that most readers will follow the flow smoothly.

If you enjoy Zombie stories and manga comics, you may want to look into this one. It has a video game like aesthetic and feel which may (or may not) appeal to gamers more than the average reader. If you find Zombies overplayed and are looking for only the best of the best in Zombie stories, you’re unlikely to find that here.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Complete American Gods by Neil Gaiman; Adapted by P. Craig Russell

The Complete American Gods (Graphic Novel)The Complete American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: September 28, 2021

This is the graphic novelization of Neil Gaiman’s brilliant story “American Gods.” The tale begins with the protagonist, Shadow Moon, being released a few days early from his prison sentence to attend the funeral of the wife whom he has been longing to see. On the flight home, he sits next to a gregarious man named Wednesday who offers him a job and who knows way too much about Shadow. While Shadow initially rejects the offer, Wednesday is relentless. When Shadow finally gives in, he’s introduced to a world where nothing is as it seems, a world of gods, demi-gods, and folklore heroes.

The premise is simple, but magnificent. America is a hard land for gods. The country’s melting pot nature makes for so many old gods: Native American gods, Norse gods, African tribal gods, pagan gods, Hindu gods, Slavic gods, etc. Then there are the new gods like “technology” and “media.” Comparing the average American’s screen time versus time in church or in prayer, it’s not difficult to tell which side is winning the war for the affection and attention. Still, the new gods exist in an ephemeral landscape. So, Wednesday is going around trying to build support among old gods for a war between the old and new gods — no easy task as a self-confessed con man.

It’s been a while since I read the novel, but this adaptation felt true to my recollection of the original story. It seems closer to the original than, say, the Amazon Prime series (which I also enjoyed, but which often diverges, particularly to build out some of the secondary characters’ arcs.)

This is definitely worth a read, whether you’ve read the novel or not. The artwork was well-done, and I highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: House of M by Brian Bendis

House of MHouse of M by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book pics up in the wake of a tragedy triggered by Wanda Maximoff’s (a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch) descent into madness. Normally, a losing one’s mind would be a cause for sympathy and assistance among heroic individuals, but there are those among her former teammates and friends who think the Scarlet Witch needs to be killed. The reason for this extreme view is that Maximoff’s tremendously powerful reality-warping abilities make her insanity not merely a risk to herself and to her loved ones, but to the nature of reality itself.

The book opens with Charles Xavier trying to help Wanda keep her delusions in check – largely unsuccessfully. We then see a meeting between survivors of the Avengers and key X-Men to discuss the Scarlet Witch’s future (or lack thereof.) When they go to track Wanda down, in a flash of blinding light, the world is changed. The next day, almost no one remembers the way the world was – except for Wolverine and a young girl named Layla, a girl who confirms Wolverine’s telling of events, a story that would be outlandish and unbelievable if not for the girl’s independent corroboration.

The new world is Magneto’s dream world. The mutants have won a war and are in control. Most of homo sapiens humanity is accepting of this, even if many are having trouble coping, though Luke Cage and a few others have created an underground resistance movement. In the new reality superheroes are doing pretty well. Even the homo sapiens heroes such as Spiderman are not bad off because they are generally believed to be mutants.

While Wolverine can merely remember the world as it was, Layla has an additional ability; she can project or unlock these memories in the minds of others. It’s using this ability that the Wolverine / Cage team put the band back together, taking Layla around to free the minds of Kitty Pryde, Peter Parker, Carol Danvers, Tony Stark, Stephen Strange, She-Hulk, etc.

As the superheroes take the fight to Magneto’s stronghold, Doctor Strange sneaks in to see Wanda Maximoff as she blissfully plays out her imaginary life with her imaginary children, until the battle around her turns tragic and, fed up, she changes the world again.

This book collects issues #1-8 of “House of M,” and includes a great deal of bonus content including: character profiles and back ground information (conveyed by way of a fake newspaper) for the alternative reality that Maximoff created – the mutant-dominant world, as well as an interview with the author and sketchbook pages from the illustrator (Oliver Coipel.)

I enjoyed this story. I think because the ensemble cast is so huge – i.e. it has to squeeze in so many Marvel characters – it’s not as emotionally intense as it could be. Bendis goes to the trouble of showing us how hard-hit Peter Parker / Spiderman is hit by the discovery that his new blissful world is not real, knowing that actions must be taken to return the world to its previous status quo. However, the pacing required makes it hard to feel this strongly. What I think this story did very well is keep everything clear, which is not easy task when one is dealing with shifting realities. I thought Bendis and Coipel did an excellent job of being clear about when things changed, how things changed for the crucial characters, and did both without getting bogged down. This is definitely a story that is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 3 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 1, 2021

 

This series collects short fiction of Neil Gaiman and presents it via the medium of the graphic novel. While there are four works listed, because two of these works contain multiple stories, there are actually eight stories contained in this volume. The selection is diverse both in terms of genre and artistic style. With respect to genre, the stories cut across fairy tale, fantasy, horror, supernatural, and tales of the weird. The artistic styles range from art nouveau to comic strip style. While this is the third volume, the included stories all stand on their own, and so there is no necessity to have read previous volumes. Because Gaiman draws heavily on fairy tale source material, parents might assume these are kid-friendly stories, but you should check them out first yourself as “Snow, Glass, Apples” and “The Daughter of Owls” both present somewhat sexually explicit content (the former both graphically and with respect to story events and the latter only with respect to story,) and while the horror stories are pretty calm as horror stories go, they are still works of horror.

“Snow, Glass, Apples” is a dark take on the princess-centric fairy tale. It imagines a vampiric young nymph who appears as challenger to the Queen. This is probably the most visually impressive work, being illustrated in a style that mixes art nouveau with Harry Clark’s stain glass artworks. It is definitely not the run-of-the mill graphic novel, graphically speaking. The art is exceptionally detailed and stunning.

“The Problem with Susan and Other Stories”: As the title suggests, this is one of the two multi-story entries in the collection. The titular main story features a retired Professor who is plagued by Narnia-like dreams, and who receives a visit from a reporter for a college paper. The art for this one is much more reminiscent of the typical graphic novel of today. There are three other stories included. “Locks,” the comic strip-esque illustrated story, is a take on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as it’s being told to – and imagined by – a little girl. “October in the Chair” imagines a kind of story competition taking place around a campfire by anthropomorphized “months.” It’s a bit more artistically rendered than the other stories in this [sub-] collection (although that may have to do with the dark tone that is used to reinforce that the stories are being told in the middle of the night in the middle of a woods.) The final story is a brief, but artistically dense, story that imagines a day in which everything goes wrong at once.

The sixth story, “Only the End of the World Again,” revolves around a man / werewolf who wakes up to find that he has clearly turned in the preceding night. The tale is set in a small and remote village, where everyone seems to know everything about everyone, and it doesn’t shock the man when select people let slip that they know his secret. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that the man / werewolf is caught up in something bigger than his own tragedy.

The last entry is a two-parter. The first is one of my favorite Neil Gaiman short stories; entitled, “The Price,” it offers an answer to the question of why some indoor / outdoor cats constantly come home battered and bleeding. The second story, “The Daughter of Owls,” revolves around “the baby left on the church steps” plot mechanism. Because the girl is enveloped in owl accoutrements, she is shunned by the village and forced into exile at a dilapidated former abbey. Both of these stories have a more brush-painted style that the usual graphic novel.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. While not all of the stories were new to me, the way they were illustrated shone a new light on the familiar tales. All of the stories are masterfully crafted and illustrated. While Gaiman draws heavily on well-known fairy tales, there is nothing banal about these stories. I’d highly recommend this book, even if you’ve read some of the stories already.

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BOOK REVIEW: iZOMBIE, VOL. 1: DEAD TO THE WORLD by Chris Roberson

iZombie, Vol. 1: Dead to the WorldiZombie, Vol. 1: Dead to the World by Chris Roberson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“iZombie” is the story of Gwen, a zombie who works as a grave-digger to allow her access to ethically-sourced brains (at least compared to the alternative.) Gwen lives in the cemetery, has a colorful cast of friends and confreres, including: a ghost, a were-dog, and the odd human being. The niche idea that separates this from the vast zombie lore is that Gwen takes on memories and personality traits of the ex-owner of the most recent brain she consumes. She then uses this knowledge to do a favor for the deceased, be it solving their murder, or otherwise. In this volume, following visions of the deceased family man leads Gwen back to a spooky house that she and her ghost-girl pal had trick-or-treated at on Halloween.

I read this because I was intrigued after seeing the CW television series which is based upon this comic book. For those who’ve seen the show and are wondering, the book and show have very little in common beyond the premise of a female zombie who takes on memories and personality traits of the former owner of the brain she consumes. In the tv series, the main character is Liv Moore, a doctor in the medical examiner’s office, and the series is much more of a police procedural set in a city experiencing a covert pandemic of Zombification. Both the comic and the tv series are light-hearted takes on zombie tropes, but the tv series reminds me more of “Psych” than it does, say, “The Walking Dead.” [An individual who people believe is a psychic, but who solves crimes in another way altogether – i.e. “Psych” with Zombies.] Comparing the comic book is more difficult, but I would say it has a definite “Scooby-Doo” vibe, except the monsters (e.g. vampires) are real and not the scary ploy of a crotchety old man (and there’s a nefarious guild of monster hunters in the mix.)

I enjoyed reading this volume. It wasn’t as satisfying as it could be because it seemed like it was more about setting up a larger story than it was about telling a story within the volume itself. That is, I was left in a somewhat unsatisfied state of having more questions outstanding than I felt were answered. To be fair, there is a story – i.e. an answer as to why Gwen’s “brain of the month” died, but we don’t really know whether that answer can be trusted because we know the responsible party has some (presently ill-defined) ulterior motive. Perhaps, it is just that, as readers, we enter the protagonist’s world “in medias res” and then are given a huge helping to chew on that will not be paid off until later. The combination of these two factors causes the volume’s story arc to get lost.

I enjoyed this comic book, overall. I will make the unpopular and anti-urbane comment that the tv series seemed a bit cleverer and more intriguing to me. That said, it’s an interesting concept and a nice light-hearted read.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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