BOOK REVIEW: The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & NocturnesThe Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this, the first, eight-issue volume of Sandman, we’re introduced to Morpheus / Dream – the king of dreams & nightmares and one of the seven Endless – when he’s captured by an amateur occultist who was trying to kidnap Death [the (not-so Grim) Reaper and also Dream’s sister.] The story told in “Preludes and Nocturnes” is one of Dream’s captivity, escape, and the subsequent missions to reacquire three magic artifacts that were stolen from him when he was captured (i.e. his bag of sand, helmet, and ruby-like jewel.) That last sentence makes it sound like a far-out fantasy, but it’s really a relatable and human set of stories.

This imaginative and compelling opening volume is at its best with “24 Hours” (as well as “Passengers,” the issue that precedes “24 Hours” and sets up its story.) In “24 Hours,” escaped villain, John Dee, torments the occupants of a smalltown diner by manipulating their reality (a capability he achieved when he came into possession of Dream’s “ruby.”) It’s a story that’s both horrifying and thought-provoking as Dee forces the diners to shed the masks of polite society and get to know the uncensored versions of each other.

Another favorite is the concluding issue, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which is really more of an epilogue, given the story has been brought to a successful and satisfying conclusion with the penultimate issue. “The Sound of Her Wings” introduces us to Death (the kinder, more charismatic, and more articulate Gaiman-version of the Grim Reaper) and shows us interaction between Dream and Death as Dream learns a crucial lesson from his sister.

“Sandman” is an excellent series, and the volume where it all began is no exception. I’d highly recommend it for readers in general.


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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: The Complete Hush by Jeph Loeb

Batman: The Complete HushBatman: The Complete Hush by Jeph Loeb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Over the course of this twelve-chapter story, Batman is pitted against much of his rogues’ gallery, but they’re puppets to a shadowy unknown, a secret villain: Hush. Batman has to do his best detective work, and still faces twist after turn in uncovering this enemy that knows him all too well, who knows all his pressure points. Batman has to battle Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Joker, Scarecrow, and Clayface – and even [due to mind control] Superman and Catwoman, but nothing is as it seems. One might expect that a book this packed with enemies would face problems of pacing and poignancy, but the way the story is crafted (and the villains are effectively subordinated) it’s quite the opposite.

This was one of the smartest comics I’ve read. It’s a mystery that offers foreshadowing, but also false flags. There’s a sub-plot love story between Batman and Catwoman in which the relationship matures, but the question of whether one can ever really trust someone in that world remains ever in the background.

I thought this was one of the best comics I’ve read, and if you’re a Batman fan, it’s definitely a must-read.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Dreaming, Vol. 1: Pathways & Emanations by Simon Spurrier

Pathways and Emanations (The Dreaming, #1)Pathways and Emanations by Simon Spurrier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This title is part of the “Sandman extended universe” that was spurred by the success of Neil Gaiman’s comic about the lord of dream realm –“the Dreaming” being said realm of dreams and nightmares. The Dreaming is usually presided over by Dream of the Endless, one of seven siblings commanding various domains. In this story, Dream is gone, no one knows where. Readers of Sandman will remember that in the original run Dream is kidnapped and imprisoned for 70 years. This isn’t the same disappearance (it’s not even the same “Dream,” but as he’s not a major figure in this book, there’s no need to elaborate.) While this may seem like a rehash, the Sandman story was focused on the character of Dream and mostly took place in our world, occasionally visiting the Dreaming as relevant to Dream’s story. This story is all about what happens within the Dreaming when the master is away, allowing decay, internal treachery, and the potential for invasion.

The story heavily focuses on three characters: Lucien, Mervyn, and Dora. One of the things this story does well is to build a tension between Lucien and Mervyn, a tension that is relatable and contributes substantially to the turmoil within the story. Lucien is ordinarily the librarian, and he’s a scholarly fellow who is an excellent librarian but is in over his head running the Dreaming (especially as he’s trying to keep it a secret that Dream has vanished so as to avoid panic or invite attacks.) Mervyn (Pumpkin-head) is like the head of maintenance, a blue-collar stiff who doesn’t know Dream is gone and thinks Lucien is making a powerplay and has bitten off more than he can chew. Dora is a mysterious rogue of a character who we don’t know much about other than that she’s not from the Dreaming (but lives there with Dream’s permission,) she’s quite powerful, and she does her own thing — which often runs her afoul of the staff of the Dreaming.

I felt this volume offered an entertaining story and resolved it nicely, while setting up for continued chaos in additional volumes. If you enjoyed the Sandman comics, this book is definitely worth a read.


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

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

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Release date: August 30, 2022

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

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

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

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


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BOOK REVIEW: Dwellers by Eliza Victoria

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

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Release Date: August 16, 2022

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

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

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

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

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BOOK REVIEW: Bolero by Wyatt Kennedy

BoleroBolero by Wyatt Kennedy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Release date: August 2, 2022

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

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

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

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

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


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BOOK REVIEW: Darryl Openworld by Rémi Guérin

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

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Out: July 26, 2022

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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BOOK REVIEW: Doctor Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughan

Doctor Strange: The OathDoctor Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The story begins with Doctor Strange being hauled into the office of the “Night Nurse,” a doctor (misclassified because of Marvel’s great love of alliteration) who treats superheroes off the books and at all hours. Stephen Strange has been shot in the chest by a burglar, Brigand, who proves more capable than your average thief in the night. The drama is all over a potion. It turns out that said potion is intended to treat Wong (Strange’s valet, ally, and martial arts instructor) who is in advanced stages of cancer. However, there’s more to the potion than Strange realizes. This five-issue arc is a race against the clock to get the potion before Wong succumbs to his disease, but there are those who want nothing more than to keep the potion out of Strange’s hands.

Marvel fans will likely be familiar with the “Thanos was Right” movement, a group of fans who propose that in the last phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos wasn’t really a villain but was, rather, doing what needed to be done. This book plays similarly with ambiguity of villainy, asking the question “would a panacea really be good for mankind?” I enjoy such approaches to story in which its far from obvious who is right, making it completely believable that the story’s villain could see themselves as the hero (not to mention some of the readers seeing them that way.) Virtuous villains and heroes who make tragically bad decisions are one thing that Marvel does right both in the comics and the movies.

This book offers an intriguing story. It’s thought-provoking, though not the kind of trippy, surreal tale that many are looking for when they turn to Doctor Strange comics. It revisits Strange’s origin story, but just in enough detail to provide backstory for an important character. It’s a must-read for fans of Doctor Strange.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman

The Books of MagicThe Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Timothy Hunter is a young man faced with a big decision: take up magic and become the powerful sorcerer that he’s prophesied to become or live a magicless existence among muggles. The story’s structure is reminiscent of “A Christmas Carol,” except that instead of three ghosts showing the protagonist what a jerk he is, it’s the four members of the Trenchcoat Brigade (John Constantine, Mister E, Doctor Occult, and the Phantom Stranger) introducing Hunter to the good, the bad, and the ugly of the magical world. There’s much more adventure than in Dickens’s story, owing to the fact that there’re many who don’t want a powerful new magician coming on the scene, and so Hunter is being hunted.

This is a quick read and a straightforward story. It’s a little unusual in that Timothy, the protagonist, so often doesn’t have much agency, but in many ways it’s as much a Trenchcoat Brigade story as a Timothy Hunter story. Also, it’s hard to avoid with a character who is just a regular boy among powerful practitioners of magic.

There’s a lot of connection to the Sandman universe as well as references to the broader DC universe of characters.

I found it to be an intriguing story, and I thought the art captured the trippiness required of this kind of story. If you like Gaiman’s DC / Vertigo work, you’ll enjoy this book.


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