BOOK REVIEW: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Vol. 3 by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 3 (Black Panther 2016-)Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 3 by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the concluding segment of a story written by Ta-Nehisi Coates in which King T’Challa (a.k.a. the Black Panther) must fight to keep his nation, Wakanda, from descending into chaos and revolution. It features “Black Panther (2016)” #9-12, as well as some supplementary material from “New Avengers (2013)” #18, 21, and 24.

As with the other volumes in this story, there is a major and a minor plot, and at the beginning of this Volume the latter resolves itself in order to fold into the main story. The major plot involves an attempted revolution fomented by a man named Tetu who heads a revolutionary organization called “the People” that has engaged in terrorist and other nefarious activities. While progress was made against Tetu and his allies in Volume 2, he still presents a threat to the throne and to Wakanda. However, Tetu isn’t the only threat to the nation. Wakanda’s problems are bigger and more systemic than that. While Tetu is a terrorist, there are dissenting factions with far more legitimacy, including the Midnight Angels (former bodyguards to the King, i.e. ex-Dora Milaje) and the much-loved philosophy professor, Changamire.

The secondary plot involves T’Challa’s search for his sister Shuri who has been trapped in the Djalia, the Wakandan plane of memory. At the end of the second volume, T’Challa resumes the search using a technology that channels and amplifies the powers of his friend “Manifold.” As it happens, bringing Shuri back occurs effortlessly, but it seems returning her to this world isn’t so critical to the story as the effect her experience had on her. She returns with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Wakanda as well as numerous inexplicable supernatural abilities. The past queen plays an important role in the balance of the story both by advising T’Challa, fighting, and lending her influence with the Midnight Angels (ex-Dora Milaje.)

The fight for Wakanda plays itself out as both a battle of action against forces controlled by Tetu and Zenzi as well as a battle for the minds of the people (not to be confused with the organization “the People.”) I found it to be a smart story.

The supplementary material from “New Avengers (2013)” was illuminating. My only problem with it is that it occurs after the story is complete. If one just reads this Ta-Nehisi Coates arc, one might want to go to the end of Volume 3, and read this material first or pick up the whole “New Avengers (2013)” story. By doing so, one will have a much better understanding of why there is so much conflict in Wakanda, and why T’Challa is so unpopular. It’s hinted at here and there, but I didn’t understand the motivation fully until this material showed the events rather than offering random back story tidbits.

I would recommend this story for anyone. I don’t think one needs to be a regular comic book reader or have a particular interest in the Black Panther character to find it interesting and enjoyable.

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BOOK REVIEW: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Vol. 2 by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 2Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 2 by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume contains the middle portion of a three-part story arc written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The books included are “Black Panther (2016)” #5-8 and “The Black Panther: Jungle Action” #6&7.

As the subtitle suggests, the fate of Wakanda is at stake and King T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther, must find a way to keep his nation from falling. Public displeasure with T’Challa is being exploited by a man named Tetu who heads a revolutionary group called “The People.” Tetu is allied with a powerful psychic named Zenzi and—in contrast to the populist message his organization’s name suggests–the arms dealer Ezekiel Stane. However, while the might of Tetu and his allies represents a dire threat, the greatest challenge might be from a beloved scholar named Changamire, who holds both the moral high ground and the voice of reason. As Tetu sought to co-opt ex-Dora Milaje members Aneka and Ayo (now called the Midnight Angels) to gain legitimacy as well as their strength, he also seeks to get Changamire in his corner.

As the main plot of political intrigue unfolds, there is a subplot involving T’Challa’s sister Shuri who is trapped in the Djalia—Wakanda’s plane of collective memory. For a time T’Challa is forced by events to set aside his desire to get his sister back in order to battle Tetu both outright and by rekindling goodwill in the hearts and minds of his people. However, Shuri’s lessons in the Djalia, delivered by a griot in the form of her mother, are interspersed throughout the story, and by this segment’s end T’Challa finds it impossible to delay his search any longer.

Coates presents us with a human T’Challa, one who makes mistakes and whose mistakes exacerbate the threat to Wakanda. His most notable mistake is allowing himself to be talked into convening a council of “counter-revolutionary” experts who, in fact, consist of heads of the security apparatus for several corrupt regimes. His only saving grace is that Tetu has even more skeletons in his closet. T’Challa has to deal the best he can with situations in which there is no clear high ground, and that makes for a more intriguing story than one normally associates with superhero comic books. By the end of this Volume, it seems that Black Panther—along with his allies Manifold, Luke Cage, Misty Knight, and Storm—has turned things around by defeating Stane and uncovering the lair of “the People,” but then one realizes how fragile Wakanda remains.

The two bonus books “Jungle Action” #6&7 are from the early 1970’s and feature an earlier challenge to T’Challa’s throne from his archenemy Erik Killmonger. I can see why these two comics were included. Said books might be viewed as influences on this story, but there may have been better choices. At the end of the third volume (reviewed concurrently), there’s material from a 2013 run that offers great insight into why T’Challa is on the outs with his people. For those of us who pick up select stories (i.e. not all-reading fanboys), the insight offered in Volume 3’s supplementary material would be useful earlier in the reading process. (Preferably it would be in Volume 1.) The first volume includes a single book from “Fantastic Four.” It’s fun to read because it’s Black Panther’s introduction into the Marvel-verse and it shows us how formidable Black Panther is as well as letting us in on the secret that Wakanda is the most technologically advanced nation on the planet. However, I think knowing why the Wakandans are so disgruntled would help make Coates’s story more powerful.

As it’s a comic book, I should mention the artwork–even though I have no particular insight into graphic artistry—comic book or otherwise. All I can say is that I liked the art and found it effective and clear. I viewed the book in black-and-white, so I have nothing to say about color palette.

I enjoyed this arc and thought this section of it had a good balance of peril and victory for our hero. I’d recommend it broadly. I don’t think you have to be solely interested in comic books or the Black Panther character specifically to find this story intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Iron Man: Civil War by Brian Michael Bendis et. al.

Civil War: Iron ManCivil War: Iron Man by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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With the “Captain America: Civil War” movie set to come out this year, one would have to be living under a rock to be unfamiliar with the basic premise of the Civil War story line. (Not that the movie will—or even can—follow the comic books exactly. But the gist is the same.” The government passes a Registration Act that would require superheroes to be registered, regulated, and trained. This splits the Marvel universe of heroes into two battling factions. (In the movies, it’s just the Avengers, but the comics include members of the Fantastic Four, X-men, etc.) One side, led by Tony Stark—a.k.a. Iron Man, supports the Registration Act. The other side, led by Steve Rogers—a.k.a. Captain America, staunchly opposes the new law. The four issues collected here offer insight into the mind of Tony Stark.

The four issues in this collection are: “Civil War: The Confession #1,” “Iron Man #13,” “Iron Man #14,” and “Iron Man / Captain America: Casualties of War #1.” Putting the issues in this order contributes to the somber tone of the storyline, as the chronological end of the events is put up front in the form of Stark’s confession. The start is a little like the very beginning of “Saving Private Ryan” (before the battle scene begins.) As with “Saving Private Ryan,” this opening does little to detract from the story and in fact builds immediate intrigue.

This isn’t the most action packed collection, but it is an emotional story line. Tony Stark is serious, somber, and sober (in both senses of the word.) This isn’t the cocky, witty playboy philanthropist one associates with Iron Man. It’s a man whose convictions are forcing him to fight his friends and comrades in arms. The irony of the situation is that Stark is certain the Registration Act is necessary because of people like him. In other words, if everybody was like his friend-turned-enemy Steve Rogers (i.e. a pinnacle of virtue) then the Act would be unnecessary.

There is some awkward expositional dialogue / monologuing in this book—a common problem among serial comic books. However, overall the story is engaging. If you want battle scenes, you may be disappointed, but this book makes one sympathize with Stark—even if you’ve previously thought him an arrogant douche.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cimarronin by Neal Stephenson, et. al.

Cimarronin: A Samurai in New Spain #1Cimarronin: A Samurai in New Spain #1 by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Cimarronin opens in Manila in 1632 with a masterless samurai (i.e. a ronin, hence the latter part of the name) about to commit ritual suicide. The ronin, Kitazume, is interrupted by a Catholic priest who Kitazume knows and who—it’s hinted—has the kind of nefarious past that one has trouble reconciling with the priesthood. The priest offers Kitazume a mission.

The opening hooks one. It raises several questions that the reader will want answered: Why is a Japanese samurai hanging out in the Philippines in 1632? Students of Asian history will recognize that Japan’s long warring period is a couple of decades past and there are a lot of warriors out of work. But is that all? Is the priest really a priest, and, if so, how does a blackguard end up a holy man? And most crucially, will Kitazume take the mission, and—if so—will he succeed (and will he be glad he did?) The reader always knows that the priest has something up his sleeve, but it’s only gradually revealed what that is.

We soon discover that Kitazume has some skill as a detective. This enhances our curiosity about the character. The higher echelons of law enforcement in feudal Japan were staffed by samurai, but it still adds another interesting dimension to the character.

The three book collection continues with the discovery that the priest is facilitating the transport of a Manchu princess to Mexico. (Philippines to Mexico, hence the “New Spain” subtitle reference.) The priest’s plot unfolds in the middle book, and we get a better picture of his scheme.

The second book ends with a fight with the Cimarrones—a bellicose, indigenous tribe (and the reason for the first part of the title,) and in the third and final book the Manchu Princess’s own scheme is revealed. The differing goals of the various major characters set up the potential for an excellent story. Kitazume has the simplest goal: to have a mission that makes life worthwhile and to conduct his life with some semblance of the virtue for which the samurai were known. The priest and princess weave a more complex web of scheming.

The story is peppered with flashback sequences that give us some of Kitazume’s backstory, and a substantial part of the third book is such backstory. The graphic artist uses a subdued scheme to make it readily apparent which panels are flashback and which are in the timeline of the story arc.

As this is the first three books of a larger collection, the ending is lacking (which is to say it’s not so much an ending as the set up for the story to unfold.) The story is much stronger in its beginning than its ending. The third book ends trying to entice one to read the concluding volumes more than it tries to wrap anything up. This situation also results in the fact that we don’t get a good picture of why Kitazume is the lead character in the story. I suspect that’s why there is so much backstory, to try to build sympathy and curiosity for the character while making him weak enough that his success is not apparent. At any rate, Kitazume doesn’t come off as the strongest or most competent character in the book by a long shot. Hopefully, this is so that he can pull out an underdog save in the end, but that’s just speculation.

I found this collection to set up an interesting story, but it doesn’t stand alone. It does have plenty of action and intrigue. If the historical fiction premise intrigues you, you may want to get the complete collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol. 1) by Alan Moore

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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For those unfamiliar with this series or the movie featuring Sean Connery, this graphic novel assembles a team of heroes from 19th century science fiction and adventure novels. Specifically, the team includes: Mina Harker (of Bram Stroker’s Dracula), Allan Quatermain (of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mine series), Captain Nemo (of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and other Jules Verne novels), Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel featuring their names), and Hawley Griffin (of the H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man.) The team’s principle nemesis is Professor James Moriarty of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series.

Interestingly, this book follows the same general plot progression as the movie, but is much different in tone, settings, and character details. The plot progression of which I refer is that the team is assembled (with no small amount of mutual animosity) and they bond into a team as they face a grandiose threat of steampunk industrialization run amok. That plot progression aside, you’ll find an entirely different story otherwise. First, those who favor gender equality will appreciated that Mina Harker is in a leadership role in this volume, the role played by Quatermain in the movie. (That being said, this isn’t a group of individuals who take readily to being led.) Second, those who like darker, grittier tales will find this book more appealing than the movies. Allan Quatermain is found by Harker wasted in an opium den. Griffin is captured after having moved into a girl’s school to use his invisibility to lecherous advantage and the head mistress of said school is decidedly dominatrix like. I generally liked the grittier tone better, though it was hard to reconcile Griffin’s abhorrent behavior with heroism—anti-heroes are a challenge, particularly one who can disappear at will. Third, the team in the book is smaller and more manageable, with the movie having taken on two more characters (Dorian Gray and Tom Sawyer.) Finally, the book doesn’t get around so much. The movie features at least four major settings—not counting the high seas, but the book takes place mostly in Victorian London.

You don’t have to have read all the classic works from which the characters derive to get the story, but it does make it a little more fun. (Yes, I realize that I’m using “classic” for books–some of which–were considered the pulp fiction of their day. However, if your book is still in print after 100 years, I’d say you deserve the status and respect.) Those who’ve read the books will get some subtleties that aren’t critical to the story but are kind of nifty. That being said, don’t expect the characters to match their originals perfectly. The novels covered are wide-ranging, some rely on supernatural elements and others are more realistic, some are futuristic while others reflect the times more accurately. One can’t bring all these individuals into one world and have them be exactly as they were in their original domains.

There are some extra features at the end including a short story featuring a time traveling Allan Quatermain and some art from the series.

I’d recommend this book for those who read comics and graphic novels—especially if they’ve read the stories of at least a few of the 19th century characters. (If you haven’t read any of the novels, you should probably go back and hit some classics before you read anything else. Just my opinion.) It’s an intriguing concept, and it’s done well.

The movie trailer is here.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Strain, Vol. 1 by David Lapham et. al.

The Strain Volume 1The Strain Volume 1 by David Lapham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I sometimes wonder what Bram Stoker would think about the fact that his work spurred an entire industry of copy-cats. Everybody thinks that they can make an interesting and novel contribution to this vampiric genre. In very few cases, see: Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, they are correct. However, even though most of these works don’t take us into uncharted territory, they can still be entertaining. In fact, some of the versions that stay true to the concept seem more entertaining than others that moved into new territory but are patently stupid. I’m speaking, of course, of Twilight and other vampire-as-romance books that feed a widespread malady of the age afflicting teenage girls and, sadly, middle-aged women. I think The Strain, Volume 1 makes for an interesting and entertaining modern-day vampire story, without being particularly brilliant or groundbreaking.

The Strain, Volume 1 is the first installment of a graphic novel adaptation of the novel written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. The Introduction states that the graphic novel isn’t meant to precisely mirror del Toro and Hogan’s prose novel. I haven’t read the del Toro / Hogan book, but the synopsis indicates that at least the beginning and the characters are largely the same. I can’t comment as to how much the two works differ in detail, and whether the authors of the first book emphasized the difference so as to encourage readers to pick up both books (instead of cannibalizing each other), versus because the works are truly substantively different.

The inciting incident, apparently for the novel as well as the comic, occurs when a commercial jet liner lands in New York, coming to a stop and going out of contact with the tower. It turns out that all but three of the individuals on the plane are dead.

The graphic novel weaves together the story from two perspectives. First, the lead in the story is Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, a Center for Disease Control (CDC) employee who heads a rapid response team. As circumstances somehow indicate that this event involves a biological or toxic substance—though they have no ability to see into the plane, Goodweather’s team is called to investigate. (How they concluded with such high certainty that it was a substance in CDC’s bailiwick and not smoke inhalation or a terrorist hijacking is beyond me. But the CDC team enters on the heels of SWAT, and with operational control.) However, it’s a graphic novel with limited page constraints, so I didn’t grade too harshly on this particular type of credulity stretcher.

Second, the graphic novel begins with a vignette from the point of view of Abraham Setrakian who is a holocaust survivor and former Vampire hunter. Setrakian knows what is going on from his experience in the old world. It’s this odd couple pairing of an old man who knows an unbelievable truth and a scientist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural that makes this work interesting. The latter anchors the work in the world as we know it, but the former adds an element of mystery and charm. These mixed atmospherics are where this work really excels. The two men end up teaming up to fight a threat that will spread with unchecked fury unless they do something about it.

Unlike the hunky Vampires of Twilight fame, the vampires in Lapham’s work are meant to be as repulsive as possible. They have six-foot tongues with stingers by which they take their blood meals, and the giant slobbery maws necessary to accommodate such an appendage. Instead of having a new twist on the Vampire story, this work attempts to create value added in part by putting the horror back into Vampires in a big way (also, through skillful atmospherics.)

It should also be noted that this isn’t a work for young kids. That should go without saying, I know. Freak-show parents who reason that it’s only violence, and who have no problem with their child seeing someone take a shotgun blast to the chest, but who’ll write a death threat to networks, publishers, or congressmen if said shotgun blast exposes a nipple should be forewarned that the work has a short but sexually graphic section in it—in addition to all the stakings and proboscis stabbings.

This was an entertaining enough horror-genre take on the Vampire. Scientists may find it a bit ridiculous that their comic book counterparts go about their jobs sticking their hands in unknown substances found at the site of the mysterious deaths of almost 200 people. However, despite some credulity challenges, the book creates an interesting atmosphere for a vampire story.

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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman (Art: Andy Kubert)

Marvel 1602Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is anachronism done right by Neil Gaiman. The title gives one the jist of this graphic novel’s theme. It’s the Marvel Universe circa 1602. There’s a big cast of Marvel characters in this collection of eight comics. However, those who don’t follow comics might not recognize some of the characters because they are decidedly less comic-esque in this take. The characters mostly go by their given names rather than their superhero nom de guerre and not one of them wears spandex—and even capes are fairly few and far between. While the cast is large, there’re just a few main players and some major Marvel superheroes play only minor or unheroic roles.

The principal heroes in this book are Nicholas Fury (as head of the Queen’s Intelligence Service), Carlos Xavier (principal of a school for mutants), Virginia Dare (the first girl born in the Roanoke Colony), Rojhaz (the–decidedly Caucasian but–Native American protector of Dare), Stephen Strange (close to his modern-day namesake), Matthew Murdoch (think Daredevil), and a smattering of other X-men, Avengers, and Fantastic 4 members.

The principal villains are King James I (as himself), Count Otto Von Doom (similar to the modern character), The Inquisitor Enrique (a Magneto-esque character), David Banner (advisor to James I and–it would appear–the gray Hulk), and Natasha (think Black Widow). Before one bemoans the fact that the slate of heroes seems much stronger than the slate of villains, it should be noted that there is a threat that far exceeds the likes of Von Doom.

The world of Marvel 1602 is quite similar to Earth 1602, but there are differences such as the existence of pterodactyls and dinosaurs in some locales. The plot includes political intrigue in the form King James I of Scotland’s desire to nudge an ailing–but beloved—Queen Elizabeth I out-of-the-way. We soon find out that three assassins have been dispatched to target Fury, the Queen, and Virginia Dare, but finding out who hired them and why takes up a fair piece of story line. There’s a substory that features Matthew Murdoch and Natasha on a mission to retrieve what can only be described as a McGuffin (a highly sought after artifact whose value and purpose remain completely unknown until a big reveal, but for which characters are none-the-less willing to lay their lives on the line on pure faith) that offers its own intrigue. There is also the matter of strange weather that increasingly comes to be considered a harbinger of doom (not Von Doom the character, but actual doom.) Ultimately, this is a bigger threat than is presented by any of the human villains, and it can only be overcome through a combination of Richard Reed’s brilliance, Nicholas Fury’s courage, and Rojhaz’s sacrifice of what matters most to him.

I enjoyed this graphic novel. First, having a top-rate writer like Gaiman was certainly a help. There was none of the juvenile / poorly written dialogue that usually plagues comic writing. Gaiman is his usual clever, witty self. Second, while the anachronisms often border on silly (e.g. 1602 Reed’s noodling out Einstein’s discovery of 300+ years later), they are intriguing and recognize real science. Third, the last being said, there’s a lot of effort put into making the comic appropriate for the era in which it’s set. It’s not just putting frilly shirts on modern-day characters. The blending of fact into the fiction is thought-provoking.

If you read graphic novels–even sparsely–this is one that you should definitely check out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Justice League Vol. 1: Origin by Geoff Johns

Justice League, Vol. 1: OriginJustice League, Vol. 1: Origin by Geoff Johns

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Amazon had the Kindle edition of this graphic novel on sale recently. With all the talk of a Justice League movie, and whether it can ever get off the ground, my curiosity in these characters was piqued.

This volume was released in August of 2011 as the leading edge of a reboot of the entire DC comics line called “the New 52.” This is the origin story for the Justice League as a team, though all but one of the individual characters–Cyborg–is an existing hero at the time the story begins. The other characters, i.e. Batman, Green Lantern, Superman, Flash, Wonder Woman and Aquaman are familiar to the world but are not well liked. (and are introduced into the story arc in that order.)The volume consists of Issues #1 – 6 of the Justice League [New 52] reboot.

In the beginning, there’s only one dyad among this group who knows each other personally, the Green Lantern and the Flash–we don’t really know how they know each other. Most of the other characters are aware of each other’s existence (or myth), but have never met. Of course, Cyborg doesn’t exist at the beginning of the story, and his individual origin story is woven in throughout the book as a subplot so that he can be introduced into the arc at the climax. The characters are assumed to each operate in his (or her) own domains, i.e. Gotham City, Metropolis, Coast City, Central City, etc.

As the story opens, Batman is chasing down a stocky, non-human creature on the roof tops of Gotham in order to try to figure out what the nefarious character is up to. Green Lantern is inexplicably introduced into the middle of this chase scene. Batman and Green Lantern viscerally despise each other from the get go. This isn’t surprising as Green Lantern is an arrogant ass throughout the entire story. Perhaps the highlight of the book (which is sad as it happens so early) is when Lantern is busy mocking Batman, and the Dark Knight steals his ring–the source of his power–right off his finger.

The Green Lantern and Batman witness the inhuman creature planting a piece of alien-looking technology (later revealed to be a “mother box”), and Green Lantern’s ring confirms it to be otherworldly. The pair decide to pay a visit to the Earth’s resident alien, a.k.a. Superman. Green Lantern immediately runs afoul of Superman, arrogantly thinking he can subdue the Man of Steel, and has to call his old friend the Flash. The quartet finally stop fighting and begrudgingly agree to put their heads together.

After seeing a piece of the Cyborg origin story, we are introduced to Wonder Woman. She is probably the character that we get the greatest sense of. (Besides Lantern, who is unlikable throughout.] The Amazonian seems more alien than Superman. She’s never had ice cream but loves it, but not quite as much as a good fight. She’s not emotional about fighting, neither fearful nor angry, but is at her most happy when fighting. She’s the character most out of touch with the world she is occupies. She joins up with the four in the chase for the winged, alien monsters, forming a quintet and instilling some gender equity.

The Cyborg origin story comes to a head when Silas Stone, a brilliant defense industry scientist, turns his dying son, Victor, into the Cyborg, thinking it the only way to save the young man after he suffered severe burns from a mother box explosion. The former star football player is now a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, part himself and part autonomous machine. There’s a cacophony in his head as he can now pick up various radio signals.

It’s shortly thereafter that Aquaman is introduced. Considerable artistic effort was put into manning up Aguaman, who always seemed the weak link in this team. The group happens to be standing around near the water when Aquaman and his fish minions chase some of the evil army to the surface

The enemy is Darkseid, a juggernaut warlord from another world (or a parallel universe), whose army of evil minions have been the ones that the newly formed League have been fighting both individually and as a group. When Cyborg goes running away from his father–and his creator as a machine-man, he runs into the six superheroes, and the team of seven is fully assembled. Darkseid’s power is so great that he relatively easily captures and subdues Superman.

Batman goes to rescue Superman as the rest of the team regroups. The Dark Knight’s tactic is letting one of the evil, winged, juggernaut minions capture him–as they have been capturing others.

I won’t spoil the ending, but will say that it was pretty weak, and a large part of the reason I gave this work such a low rating.

A two star rating may seem a little harsh. The dialogue in this work is better than most comic books. There’s relatively less “As you know, Bob,…” style exposition. There is some, as when Green Lantern feels the need to explain to Batman about how there are other Green Lanterns and this is his space sector. However, there are also clever uses of action to present background, as when Lantern begins to admit that he’s a show-off and it turns out he’s brushing up against Wonder Woman’s truth lasso. (This is a much better way to do it than Wonder Woman saying, “And now my lasso is around you and you’ll have to tell the truth, for whosoever the lasso touches cannot bear false witness.” Which would be the typical comic book way of revealing the lasso’s power.)

There are two problems with this work that are too serious to overlook. First is the deus ex machina ending. The authors make a bold choice as to who will save the day, perhaps to create surprise and perhaps to highlight the character. But the whole resolution strains credulity. Second, there is no good explanation for why these characters keep piling into each other (except for the Xenophobic thought processes of Batman and the Green Lantern that Superman must know about anything alien.) These evil minions are supposedly everywhere, and yet the individual superheroes keep running into each other–and continuing to stay together despite the fact that most of them clearly don’t like the others. I think the author takes this “we hate each other, but are begrudgingly working together” trope a little too far. It feels as if this Wizard of Oz cast hadn’t come together by commonly following the yellow brick road, but rather that seven separate and randomly moving tornadoes picked up one each and just happened to stack them in a neat pile.

Besides Green Lantern being arrogant and unlikable and Wonder Woman being endearingly alien, we get very little sense of individual characters. Batman and the Flash are the voices of reason of two differing type, but Superman and Aquaman are just muscle.

I have a black and white Kindle, but the art looked good to me–but that’s not my forte. I applaud the artists for getting rid of Superman’s red tighty-whities and making Aquaman look more manly. At the end there’s some alternative artwork and info on costume development for those who geek out on such things.

If there’s any hope for a Justice League movie, it’s not to be found in this story line. If you’re a DC fan, you’ve already read this–like it or not. If you’re wondering whether to become a DC fan, I wouldn’t start here.

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BOOK REVIEW: Watchmen by Moore & Gibbons

WatchmenWatchmen by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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When one sees lists of must-read books, if there is a graphic novel on the list, it’s probably this one. Watchmen represents both the graphic novel and the super-hero tale at their best. It forgoes the unrealistic and hackneyed dialogue and internal monologue that usually plague this genre. While the “tough” style (see: Tough Sweet Stuffy by Walker Gibson)is used liberally–particularly for the voice of Rorschach–it has a natural ring to it.

At its heart, Watchmen is a morality tale that pits absolutist morality against the utilitarian approach. Rorschach (a.k.a. Walter Kovacs) represents the absolutist extreme. For Rorschach, the lesser of two evils is nothing more than an evil to be punished. On the other hand, Ozymandias (a.k.a. Adrian Veidt) represents the utilitarian view that to save the many one may have to sacrifice the few. The rest of the cast is in between, showing varying degrees of comfort with utilitarianism, but none willing to accept the absolutist extreme.

While my preceding paragraph may have made this sound dreadfully boring, in fact it’s anything but. The morality tale plays out inside a well-developed mystery plot. It begins with an inciting incident best described by a quote from Rorschach’s journal, “Tonight, a comedian died in New York.” That comedian was “The Comedian” one of the book’s cast of costumed heroes. As other heroes begin to be eliminated–not all by death, some by imprisonment or apparently self-imposed exile–the intrigue builds. Events pull individuals–such as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre–back into the game after many years out.

For those who have seen the movie, I will say that it follows the book far more than do most film adaptations. The movie borrows many of the exact words of dialogue. It even borrows a lot of the imagery almost exactly (e.g. the Comedian flying out the window enveloped by glass shards.) However, if you’re wondering whether it’s still worth reading, I’ll say two things. First, the book does cover a lot more detail than the movie. Besides the usual comic book style graphic panels, there are excerpts from fictitious novels, correspondence, magazine interviews, and another graphic novels that support the story line. Second, the biggest deviation between the book and the film is in the details of the devious plan that is revealed at the book’s end. In other words, there are a few surprises.

I would agree with the widespread notion that if you only read one graphic novel, make it this one.

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