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: 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: Preacher, Book One by Garth Ennis

Preacher, Book 1Preacher, Book 1 by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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After hearing glowing praise about the television series, I picked up this volume, intending to watch the series and wanting to take in the source material. As both the television show and this book were available via Amazon Prime, I ended up reading it in a period overlapping with watching the first season. [I don’t recommend doing it that way. The comic book and series share the same basic premise, but are wildly different in the story details and even shared plot points are revealed in different ways or at different points in the story. One can end up conflating the two in confusing ways because they are neither so close nor different that the stories merge or completely distinguish themselves.]

The book involves an unwholesome but likeable trio who travel together in search of divine answers. The lead character is Jesse Custer, a preacher prone to cursing, drinking too much, and getting in brawls. Early in the telling of the story, we also learn that Custer has been granted a godly superpower – the ability to give people orders that override their freewill – which we learn is called “Genesis.” The other two characters are Tulip, Custer’s love interest, and Cassidy – an Irish Vampire who parties hard but has surprising levels of charism and good-naturedness for a member of the undead.

Book One contains a dozen issues. There are three distinct parts to the story. The first part (Ch. 1 – 4) not only introduces the story (in part through flashbacks as the three sit in a diner telling stories,) but it also shows the three being tracked down by “The Saint of Killers” — an old west gunmen that some angels hire to take out Custer because even the angels can be stopped by Custer’s “word,” i.e. Genesis.

In the middle part (Ch. 5 -7,) the trio heads to New York City in an effort to rendezvous with someone Cassidy knows who might be able to put them back on God’s trail. This puts them in the middle of a manhunt for a serial killer who’s been terrifying the city.

In the final part (Ch. 8 -12,) Custer and Tulip go back to Texas to fix Tulip’s debt problem, but they end up getting caught by two mysterious rednecks who turn out to be henchmen of Custer’s despicable grandma – who plays the role of lead villain throughout the remainder of the book. Chapters nine and ten are largely flashbacks that give the reader insight into Jesse’s background, why he’s so screwed up, and also answers a number of burning background questions.

I thought the ending point was a good place to end the volume. In serialized works I often end up focusing on the question of whether the collected issues present a full story arc. In this case, they did. It is true that a part of the resolution hinges on a bit of deus ex machina that is clearly meant to be part of the hook to keep people reading. However, they pile on the action so it’s easy to miss the importance of this inexplicable sleight of hand. Overall, I thought the story was skillfully delivered.

As many people will have seen the tv series, one point of interest might be whether it’s worth it for said individual to read the comics. As I said, the details of the story are quite different, and so even though the core characters are the same [in some cases only superficially so] and the central ideas (e.g. pursuit by St. of Killers and Genesis) are shared, it’s not the case that you’ll be rehashing the same story. As far as the quality of the two media, I thought they were on par. I’m not going to spout the bookish motto – i.e. “the book is always better.” In fact, I would say there is one way in which the TV show is much better, and that is the character of Tulip. In the comic book she is an unexciting character who largely serves as love interest and damsel in distress. In the show, she easily holds her own weight against the strong characters of Jesse Custer and Cassidy. But that said, I think it’s worth reading the comics and I don’t think a reader will be disappointed.

By way of warning, I should mention that, while it’s hard to pin a genre on this work [Neo-Western / Horror / Anti-hero story?] it is graphic in gore, language, and [though only sparsely] sexual activity.

This is a fun read. It’s a tense story, but has humor and characters to which a reader will be drawn. I’d recommend it for readers of horror and comic books.

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BOOK REVIEW: Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici

Heathen, Vol. 1Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The protagonist is a lesbian Norse warrior, Aydis, who is living in exile in the wilderness. After she was discovered making out with a girlfriend, two unappealing fates were offered: marriage (to a man) or death. Her father, recognizing that neither of those options was acceptable to his daughter or himself, pretends to accept the death sentence, but instead of killing Aydis he helps with her escape. The story is set in a period in between the heyday of Norse Mythology and modernity. The story refers back to mythological events (and since many of those characters are immortal it includes a few of them,) but it’s during a time when Christianity is spreading in the region and some of the old ways have been forgotten or dismissed by many.

The four issues contained in this book follow a quest that involves Aydis going to rescue a Valkyrie named Brynhild who was long ago imprisoned on a mountain in a circle of fire for defying Odin. Then – once Brynhild is freed –the quest continues in order to keep the rescue from being reversed and becoming meaninglessness. [Brynhild must be married to a mortal to escape imprisonment, but since that means she must repeatedly see her mortal spouses die only to go back to her prison. Aydis intends to see this reversed.]

I found the writing engaging and action gripping. While I’m no expert on art, I was able to follow the action in the panels and found it stylistically interesting and distinct – though I couldn’t tell you anything about what that style is.

My primary criticism revolves around my own preference for a volume having a self-contained satisfying narrative arc. This volume had plenty of great action and relatable character objectives. Admittedly, this is a tough standard for work that is by its nature serialized. However, at the end of the book one feels the set up for the continuation of the story (the cliffhanger) much more intensely than one feels there was any kind of conclusion and resolution. For readers who are predominantly series readers, this may not be a problem, but as one who reads one book at a time, I need to feel that something was resolved over the course of the story.

I think the book was bold and successful in turning conventions on its head. The primary convention under attack is the distressed damsel – a helpless character who needs a man to come along to rescue her. The book also takes the social issue of persecution based on sexual preference in a scene within Brynhild’s parallel (but intersecting?) quest.

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable read. If you like the story idea and tend to read in series, then this is a great volume to pick up. If you’re not sure you want to be drawn into another series, you may decide to exercise more caution.

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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: Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of DestructionHellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This four-part story presents Hellboy’s origin and then transitions to an account of how Rasputin attempts to co-opt an adult Hellboy in service to the Russian mystic’s demonic master. That sounds disjointed, but it’s not because Rasputin is integrally involved in Hellboy’s origin. Movie fans may notice that that description mirrors the plot of the first Ron Perlman “Hellboy” movie (2004.) It does, and this volume serves as an influence on that movie (also, the bound collection of the component issues was issued in conjunction with the movie debut.) That said, one shouldn’t be concerned that one will get a repeat of the same — the connection is largely limited to the broad-brush strokes of the story. The opening (Hellboy’s origin story) shares common visual and narrative elements with the movie, but beyond the origin story the two stories diverge. The middle act shares little in common other than a few Easter eggs. The conclusion has some visual and narrative similarity, but not nearly so much as the opening.

For those who have no idea what the blazes I’ve been going on about, Hellboy is a comic book superhero in the form of a demon-child who was summoned to Earth during World War II through the activities of Rasputin in conjunction with a Nazi agency dealing in the occult. [The Nazis hope it will allow them to turn the tides of the war, but Rasputin has his own plans.] The British-American scientist (Professor Bruttenholm) who finds Hellboy raises him. As a grown man, Hellboy becomes a “paranormal researcher” – i.e. he fights supernatural threats. He works as a team with Liz Sherman (a pyrokinetic woman) and Abe Sapien (a fish-man,) under the direction of Professor Bruttenholm. [Though, while Hellboy ages slowly – or stopped aging as an adult, the Professor is quite elderly by the time this story begins.

The central question of this series is nature versus nurture amped to eleven – i.e. whether someone born to such a bleak fate as demonhood can be redeemed by a good upbringing and positive role models. What is created is a character who is rough around the edges but abundantly aware that he has more to worry about than most with respect to tilting toward the dark-side [and that the fate of all who he loves does as well.]

If you’re interested in the character of Hellboy and his “band of misfits,” this volume is the perfect place to start. I think there is a reason the movie drew particularly heavily on the origin story panels – Mignola does a fantastic job of creating a unique and engaging character. If you’re a reader of comic books, I’d highly recommend this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: SFSX, Vol. 1: Protection by Tina Horn

SFSX (Safe Sex), Vol. 1: ProtectionSFSX (Safe Sex), Vol. 1: Protection by Tina Horn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is “The Handmaid’s Tale” meets “Ocean’s Eleven.” Well, admittedly, that’s a concise pitch-line offering more confusion than information value. Allow me to clarify. This series is set in a dystopia in which morality and sexuality are controlled by the state, and efforts are underway to eliminate any “deviant” sexual activity (i.e. any sexual activity not involving a heterosexual married couple having vaginal intercourse – preferably with a strong procreative intent.) Within that world, it’s a heist story. [Some might argue that it’s more a prison break, but because it involves people breaking into a secured facility in order to get others out, I stand by my descriptor. That said, it really combines the two because one of the prisoner’s takes agency to affect escape]

The story’s protagonist is a woman named Avory. She once worked a giant sex club / dungeon called “The Dirty Mind” before “the Party” [the conservative guardians of morality] consolidated control. When the Party did come to power, they raided The Dirty Mind. Avory escaped with a client who she’d fallen for, the two got married, and they were trying to live “normal” lives in compliance with the new laws. When this façade falls apart, Avory goes back to her old [kinky] friends seeking help. However, she’s seen as a turncoat by them. They don’t trust her, and they decline to help her. But things change when the Party publicizes its new activities.

Because of the nature of comic books / serialized graphic novels, the first thing I feel I need to say is that I found this to be a complete and satisfying story arc. This format often fails in this regard because it’s a challenge to keep an eye on an overall run arc while building that overarching story from component stories [that are truly stories.] Often the end of a volume feels like a speedbump rather than a conclusion. However, that isn’t the case here. That doesn’t mean the story is not left with someplace interesting to go. It is. However, if all one read was this volume, one would experience a self-contained story. In short, I felt Horn [and team] did a great job of balancing “leave them satisfied” with “leave them wanting more.”

I also found character development to be well-done. The characters are all developed, unique, and we can see their combination of motivation and internal conflict. Flashbacks are put to good use to give the reader enough insight to see why this gulf exists between Avory and her former best friends. However, these are kept to a few panels (usually at the beginning of each issue) and so they don’t bog the story down.

By this point, this probably goes without saying, but in the interest of due diligence: this book is graphically sexual. The artwork and dialogue are explicit. I won’t get into an extended philosophical discussion of whether it’s pornography or erotica. As I said, there is a story, and all of what is shown is in service to that story. That said, nothing is held-back, either. One of the book’s key points is the importance of consent as shown in the contrast between the consensual activities in the club and the “reconditioning” activities carried out by the Party. Long story short, there are some cringe-worthy scenes, at least to laity to sadomasochism. So, if you are sensitive to such matters or are purchasing this for someone who is, buyer beware.

I found the story gripping and also thought-provoking. If you are not averse to graphic sexual content, I’d highly recommend it.

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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: 30 Days of Night, Vol. 1 by Steve Niles

30 Days of Night, Vol. 130 Days of Night, Vol. 1 by Steve Niles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story takes the run-of-the-mill vampire tale into more chilling territory by setting it in Barrow (a town on the northern end of Alaska that sits within the Arctic Circle) in the dead of winter when weeks pass without sunlight. The vampires, thus, figure they have a month to feed without having to hide from the light, or risk being staked to death in their sleep.

On the day of Barrow’s final sunset of the year, the Vampires send in a scout to destroy all communications – starting by stealing and burning all of the residents’ cell phones. As I thought about this after reading, it was one of several points that strained credulity, but I have to say the visceral setup these people being trapped in darkness while being hunted kept me from being too skeptical at first reading. (I don’t know what cell service is like in Barrow but it seems like eliminating a tower would be more probable means of success than steeling a huge number of individual phones. To be fair, the scout does knock out the central communication hub as well, and maybe the reader psychology of being without personal communication (a cell phone) in the world we’ve grown accustomed to makes this course more intense – if absurd.)

The vampires, literally, chew through most of the population in short order. We do get some sense of the futile resistance put up by locals – particularly the protagonist and sheriff. [I would assume in a town like Barrow everyone over six-months-old possesses at least one firearm, and that likelihood is not disregarded, which makes the inconsequential resistance more chilling.] While the pacing feels slightly fast, it does get the scenario down to a manageable few to be hiding out together in a single building. (There is another major vein of strained credulity with regards to the people hiding out while maintaining core temperature, but – again – it was engrossing enough that I wasn’t much distracted at the time.)

I give the resolution high marks for being clever and gripping, but I will say that it felt to me like it unfolded too quickly and was too easy. I suspect that that may have to do with this being a serialized story. While I will say that the story is successfully wrapped up as a stand-alone arc (no mean feat as this is often a fail in serialized graphic novels or comic books,) the one eye toward setting up the continuing story arc may have contributed to this ending’s rushed feel. (Or maybe it was too much story for the allotted pages.)

I found this to be an intense and riveting read. If you like vampire horror, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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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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