BOOK REVIEW: Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs, and the CIA, Vol. 1 by Brandon Beckner

Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIAProject MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIA by Stewart Kenneth Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 19, 2021

This graphic novel mixes fiction with the historical events, and – in a bizarre inversion of the usual – the most outlandish parts of the story tend to be the history. It tells the story of the CIA’s ill-fated and highly illegal “experiments” with LSD, studies that involved dosing unwitting individuals on American soil. The fictionalized through line of the story involves a San Francisco journalist who stumbles onto the CIA’s illicit activities in 1971, and – even after being discredited – continues to pursue the story with the help of a whistleblower. The book includes a prologue that shows the accidental dosing of chemist Albert Hofmann in his laboratory, an event that marked the discovery of LSD. And it comes to an end showing Operation Midnight Climax, a sub-project of MK-Ultra that was among the most audacious plots because it involved setting up a brothel at which johns were involuntarily dosed with LSD and watched through 2-way mirrors as they did the deed [or freaked out, as the case may be.]


The art is interesting. A lot of the frames are psychedelic, reflecting the fact that one is seeing the world through the eyes of tripping individuals. Most of the rest are retro to give the feel of the time at hand. In most cases, that’s 1971 San Francisco, but some of the story jumps back to events in the 50’s and 60’s. At one point the frames reminded me of Archie and Jughead comics.


I enjoyed how the story was told, using the driven newbie journalist as protagonist. That said, the book may be annoying for individuals who are curious about what is fact and what is fiction. Footnotes are occasionally used to help in this regard, as well as to give information about period references used for authenticity.


I found this book compelling, but – having read a fair amount about MK-Ultra – I had some idea what was true and recognized the names of key figures. If you’re interested in the ridiculous annals of the CIA and aren’t bothered by the fact / fiction mixing, check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Jules Verne’s Lighthouse by David

Jules Verne's LighthouseJules Verne’s Lighthouse by David Hine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 13, 2021

This graphic novel presents a loose adaptation of “The Lighthouse at the End of the World,” taking the story into space opera-like territory. Verne’s story is set on Earth in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Horn at the southern tip of the Americas. Hine’s is set in a remote region of deep space that requires a beacon to navigate through a treacherous aggregation of wormholes. (I don’t know whether the latter is even remotely in compliance with the laws of physics, but the concept of a deep space navigational station seems perfectly feasible so I was untroubled by the details. An Astronomy majors’ experience may vary. In general, the book doesn’t seem to be written as hard sci-fi.)


Hine borrows Verne’s idea of a remote navigational beacon being taken over by pirates, and a survivor of the “lighthouse” crew working to foil the pirates’ plot, as well as drawing on some character details. However, it’s not meant to be a beat-for-beat retelling of Verne’s story set in the future and in space. There are many differences of plot and character from the source material. Besides robots and aliens, there is much greater diversity in the cast.


I found the story compelling. The source premise of being far from help and at a severe disadvantage is thrilling, and I think Hine did a fine job of taking the story into the future.


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BOOK REVIEW: Justice League vs. Suicide Squad by J. Williamson / R. Williams / T. Seeley

Justice League vs. Suicide SquadJustice League vs. Suicide Squad by Joshua Williamson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The premise of this comic book seems a bit ridiculous, like bears versus squirrels. It’s a perennial challenge for DC in writing the Justice League. When you have a team with mega-powered characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lanterns, narrative tension is hard to generate. The writers pull some clever tricks via misdirects and character selection to make the story more compelling (and feasible,) but not without inconsistencies and inordinate convenience / serendipity.

This is a fine read if one is in search of some mindless entertainment and doesn’t want to think things through too much. It’s like TV or movie, but in book form: colorful, visually interesting, loaded with action, with the occasional amusing line, but – if one lets the inertia breakdown – there’s a lot of openings for thoughts like “Why didn’t so-and-so do _____?” “That felt easy,” or “Wait, what?”

Overall, I enjoyed this as pure escapism.


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BOOK REVIEW: MonsterMind by Alfonso Casas

MonsterMind: Dealing with Anxiety & Self-DoubtMonsterMind: Dealing with Anxiety & Self-Doubt by Alfonso Casas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 12, 2021

This comic offers a clever and insightful look at the voices inside one’s head. The use of cute graphic depictions of fears, doubts, and past traumas – along with lighthearted narrative analogies – allows the reader to explore the subject matter in a manner that is neither dry nor anxiety-inducing, in and of itself. This apparently autobiographical book shows how a comic artist, beleaguered by the monstrous occupants of his own mind, goes from being overwhelmed to learning to manage his mind.

At the end of the book there are a few pages of tips, both for dealing with one’s own anxieties but also for interacting with others who have intense embattled minds. It’s a book that may even be more beneficial for individuals without crippling issues themselves, but who know or love such individuals. The use of graphic depictions and adroit portrayals of anxiety may help individuals who haven’t faced severe issues to gain a better understanding of what goes on in the minds of those who do. Having said that, these “monsters” will be familiar to everyone on some level, though for many that that level doesn’t necessarily interfere with living their lives.

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a gentle and amusing introduction to the topic of the runaway mind. It’s delightfully drawn and amusingly told.


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BOOK REVIEW: Friday, Book One: The First Day of Christmas by Ed Brubaker

Friday, Volume 1Friday, Volume 1 by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 9, 2021

I was loving everything about this book until (the very big issue of) its failure to provide any conclusion or resolution. Imagine watching a two-hour movie, and at the one hour and forty-two minute mark the screen goes blank, the lights come on, and the ushers start humming “…you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here…” I understand writers of serialized works need to leave a hook, but this is all hook and no itch gets scratched.

And it’s a shame because the art was beautiful and evocative, the setting was both warmly hometown and eerily odd, the character building was intriguing, and everything seemed to be clicking. The conflict level was compelling, and one could definitely get attached to this world and its characters, but then one gets cold water thrown in one’s face and is asked to leave.

I will tell you one thing about the book that’s magnificent and that’s…


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BOOK REVIEW: After the Fall by Laurent Queyssi

After the FallAfter the Fall by Laurent Queyssi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: October 12, 2021

This isn’t exactly a thinking person’s read. It’s a fine, if simple, return home quest story with plenty of action. But it feels like the production process began with an artist’s Wishlist – e.g. “I would like to draw a comic that combines my love of dinosaurs, aliens, roided-up dudes, scantily-clad women, fantasy genre weaponry, bare boobies, zombies, and set it all within a crumbling 21st century Earth city.” To which the writer said, “We can do that! I’ve been working on this story about a friend who got his headphones stolen.” And the artist said, “That sounds perfect!”

It’s not until the end of the book that we learn what could create such a disparate set of conditions. We know that nuclear radiation could only account for the super-huge and preternaturally-aggressive animals, as well as the superpowers. How are we to account for the fact that all the men look like Conan the Barbarian, all the women look like their previous gig was sitting atop a muscle car for a muffler shop calendar, and some of the dudes look like video game monsters / aliens? I won’t spoil the mystery radiation that could result in such a range of afflictions, as well as bringing back the dinosaurs, except to say that I didn’t find the explanation compelling.

Unless you’ve been looking for a book that combines pterodactyls, aliens, superpowered anti-heroes, boobies, roided-up dudes, and stylized battle axes, you can probably pass on this one. But, if you’re into such things,…

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BOOK REVIEW: Scout’s Honor by David Pepose

Scout's HonorScout’s Honor by David Pepose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

This is one of those books that I found myself liking more and more as I continued to read, though which, frankly, the opening left me with low expectations. Said opening was pure Cold War cliché. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, radioactivity has had no impact on the human population besides thinning it out tremendously, but it has rendered incredible size, aggression, and monstrous adaptations upon every other species on the planet. [This preference for being cinematic over being smart is getting a bit old.] Between this and one of the lead characters hotwiring a car that had ostensibly not moved in decades, I was feeling I’d chosen poorly.

However, eventually, I did get the book that I’d expected from reading the blurb, a book based on the intriguing premise of a religified and militarized Boy Scout-like organization in a dystopian / post-apocalyptic future. The protagonist is named Kit, a highly-motivated Scout who has risen to the top of the troop through valor and clever-thinking. Kit has a secret, but learns an even bigger secret of the organization, one that throws the Scout’s worldview into doubt.

The book does a good job of establishing relationships to build emotional intensity, as well as in how it deals with the apparent truth that any organization that holds itself as a moral paragon is going to have some skeletons in its closet. I found it worthwhile to continue reading, even when this book felt like it was going to be just another post-apocalyptic cliché-fest.


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BOOK REVIEW: I Breathed a Body by Zac Thompson

I Breathed a BodyI Breathed a Body by Zac Thompson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

This is one creepy commentary on technology run amok, and the alienation, desensitization, and disconnection that can result. [Or, at least that’s how I interpret it.] The protagonist is a driven social media executive who finds herself in territory that even she believes is over the line, despite her near psychopathic emotional disconnection. Another way to interpret the story is that the fungi that has taken parasitic control over humanity is making people see the world more as they would – i.e. with less cringing about death, decomposition, and deformation. [I happen to think that the fungi infection is a clever plot device to get across ideas about technology and modernity, but I could be wrong.]

Either way, I do think this is a clever story. There’s a species of Cordyceps fungi that takes control of the brain of an ant, steers it to the top of the nearest tree, and bursts out of the ant’s head to spread its spores from its new, elevated vantage point. This book reminded me of the Cordyceps fungi, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired the story — with the requisite growth in sophistication to account for taking over a much more complex brain. This is a compelling and thought-provoking story, but it’s also gruesome and at times chaotic. If you can take horror, you’ll probably find it worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ashes, Ashes by Jean-David Morvan

Ashes, Ashes #1Ashes, Ashes #1 by JD Morvan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

[Note: The book I’m reviewing is the 144-page multi-issue story.]

This is the story of a technological apocalypse and a post-apocalyptic Alexander the Great who was born of it. The bulk of the story reveals the cataclysm and life in the early days of its wake. But there is an interspersed subplot that takes place in a present-day that is well after the apocalypse. The big difference between this “world-conqueror” (actually, it seems to be only a small area of what had been southern France) and other power-consolidating titans is his luddism. He vehemently hates [almost] all technologies and insists that all (but one) post-Amish technology be eschewed because he feels human innovation to be cause of humanity’s fall. Otherwise, he checks the boxes: narcissistic, nihilistic, and probably a psychopath.

The story is compelling, and it definitely draws one in. I thought the pacing was well-executed and the concept was intriguing. Both the art and story have a unique feel, though I don’t know that the book will be able to distinguish itself within an extremely bloated dystopian / post-apocalyptic sub-genre.

There were a few elements that felt clunky. First of all, the mid-twenty-first century technological landscape is strange. I didn’t think anyone still imagined flying cars on the near-future time horizon. I think they only existed here to make the moment of doom impressively fiery. Second, a romance is established with great effort that is allowed to flameout to a lukewarm puddle of nothing. Perhaps, this was the point — to show the romance as victim of the demands of life under an anarchic dystopia. (If so, it gets lost amid the more exhilarating happenings.) Third, there is one modern technology that the protagonist is quick to adopt. This might be an intentional way of showing his love of self far exceeds his hatred of technology, but it’s curious.

If you don’t have dystopia fatigue, you may want to give this book a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Department of Truth, Vol. 1 by James Tynion IV

The Department of Truth, Vol 1: The End of the WorldThe Department of Truth, Vol 1: The End of the World by James Tynion IV
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the cleverest and most mind-blowing graphic novel I’ve read in a long time. Like the first “Matrix” film, it challenges one’s metaphysical certitude, making one question whether the world might – just might – work differently than we think. But, more importantly, it shines a light on one of the major problems of our age, and it does so in a smart way, recognizing a core conundrum – that there are no clear-cut right answers.

The sci-fi premise at the heart of this book is the idea that collective belief shapes reality, and, thus, conspiracy theories that gain enough of a following can manifest physical evidence of their truth. This is a fascinating concept, but – even without it – the book forces one to reflect upon what might be the single most important dilemma of our age. On the one hand, people would rather believe malarkey that confirms their worldview and ideology than truth that conflicts with it. On the other hand, if people don’t have the freedom to believe whatever they please, in what sense can they be said to be free?

As I read, there were many examples from our present pandemic in which one could see this conflict in action. I saw an article in which a person who took one of the COVID vaccines but mentioned that he felt quite sick afterward was ostracized as an “anti-vaxxer.” While I’m pro-vaccine and took my shots, I’m disturbed by the idea that “off-message” statements are being so vitriolically (and, sometimes, deceptively) attacked. “Truth at any cost” will incur a terrifying cost, I’m afraid. And, therein, lies the point of this book, that the issue is complicated and it’s by no means clear who the good and bad guys are.

I’d highly recommend reading this book.

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