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: Memetic by James Tynion IV & Eryk Donovan

MemeticMemetic by James Tynion IV
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story takes what happens to a brain on memes to an extreme (if absurd) conclusion. (To get the most out of the story, one needs to understand “meme” in the sense Richard Dawkins coined the term. Not just as a popular image one sees repeatedly on social media, but as any cultural artifact (image, idea, symbol, fashion, etc.) that behaves in a manner analogous to a gene – spreading, mutating, etc.)

In the story, a meme (featuring a sloth) goes viral. All is benign, at first. People are spending far too much time blankly staring at the meme because it engenders a euphoric feeling, but that doesn’t seem so bad (and — quite frankly – it’s not much different from how people engage with social media and online games in real life.) Then, like a time-release bomb in the brain, something is triggered and people start bleeding from their eyes, screaming, and engaging in Zombie-like behavior. [Except, as befitting a story about memes, the mindless activity of these “zombies” is designed to perpetuate the meme — rather than the eating of brains.]

The story plays out in two interwoven arcs. At the center of each arc is an individual who is – at least at first – immune to the meme by way of a “disability.” One story features a college kid who is color-blind, and the other a retired Colonel who is visually impaired so he can only see vague shapes (i.e. either glaucoma or cataracts.) The college kid’s story is the more human-interest piece, with him just trying to survive the apocalyptic world when he feels challenged enough by his usual world. The Colonel leads a team to try to defeat the meme by tracking its author.

In one sense, the perfect power of this meme and its ability to mutate to more effectively spread itself may feel ridiculous. However, without spoiling the story, I will say the author does offer a kind of explanation that may help quell the mental rejection. I’ll leave the reader to determine whether they think it helps or not. But, more importantly, I think it’s a story that knows it’s venturing into preposterous territory, and that’s kind of the point. We don’t necessarily see the freakish way we respond to memes and the online world, and so this story blows the problem up to absurd scale to make the reader more aware. [It’s also fun.]

I delighted in “Memetic.” I found the concept thought-provoking and the telling entertaining. It’s not just a concept, it offers a strong story. I’d highly recommend this graphic novel for those who find themselves aware of, and disconcerted by, how many people in their immediate environment are entranced by their phones.

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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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BOOK REVIEW: World War Hulk by Greg Pak

World War HulkWorld War Hulk by Greg Pak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection [World War Hulk (2007) #1-5] picks up where “The Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk” left off. “Planet Hulk” sees Hulk arriving on the harsh planet of Sakaar where he engages in a series of adventures that take him from enslaved gladiator to king. I reviewed that work recently, and enjoyed it more than this one, though both are from the same author and each tells an intriguing story. The “Planet Hulk” story was just more intricate and thought-provoking — we see a change in the Hulk and the events that bring those changes about.

In “World War Hulk,” the Hulk returns to Earth, seeking revenge upon the “Illuminati” group who jettisoned him into space (i.e. Tony Stark / Ironman, Doctor Strange, Reed Richards / Mr. Fantastic, and Black Bolt.) Said revenge isn’t so much for shooting him into space, but because the craft that they sent him to space in blew up leveling Sakaar’s capital city and killing (among many others) his brand new Queen. So, the story is just the Hulk trying to put a beating on the four superheroes who shot him into space as they try to not get beaten (and to keep a [mostly] evacuated New York City from being leveled.] The Illuminati quartet face a number of problems, however. First, while they might have had the combined ability to defeat the Hulk before (at least teamed with the many other heroes at their disposal — and many are present from street-level vigilantes to big leaguers like the Fantastic Four,) the Hulk is madder than ever, and thus stronger than ever (but also wiser / more experienced.) Second, the Hulk now has his own monster-level “Warbound” entourage (i.e. Korg, Miek, Hiroim, Brood, and Elloe Kaifi.) Finally, the one hero who, without a question, has the power to stop Hulk and his Warbound, i.e. The Sentry, is severely agoraphobic and schizophrenic. So, it’s a great challenge to get him out the door and once you do, he’s at risk of schizoid behavior. On top of all that, he contains enough power to destroy the world – accidentally or because of distorted perceptions.

I did like the touch about The Sentry being a basket case. I’m not a big fan of hugely overpowered heroes, but if they have enough weaknesses they can redeem what would otherwise be terminally boring storylines. This is certainly the case with the Hulk who is at his most powerful when he is out of control and who is also, generally, at his least intelligent at those times. The Sentry takes it a step beyond because he’s barely functional. One may be doubtful about someone so powerful being scared to go outside, but it is the nature of mental illness that one doesn’t always see oneself as one is seen and there need not be a sound logic to one’s perceptions of the world.

I’d recommend reading “Planet Hulk” first and – if you enjoy it, which I suspect you might – you’ll probably find following it up with “World War Hulk” worthwhile.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

The Hidden Girl and Other StoriesThe Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: February 25, 2020

 

This smart collection of speculative short stories by Ken Liu is mostly science fiction, but includes a few works of fantasy (including the titular story, which is what one might call “martial arts-fantasy” – i.e. imagine “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with more magic.) Depending how one counts up the stories, one could call the collection nineteen stories or sixteen stories and a novella. The novella, broken into three parts, is “storified” enough that its sections are interspersed among the other stories.

Liu doesn’t neatly contain his stories within boundaries of genre. In some cases, he jumps through time — including historical fiction, contemporary / near future, and distant future within a single story. He also takes on social issues like the Japanese internment during World War II in “Maxwell’s Demon” and the blight of technology on social interaction (best shown in “Thoughts and Prayers.”) There are hard sci-fi stories that show intergalactic travelers in a distant future, such as “The Message,” but there are even more that peer into the worries of the near future, such as artificial intelligence or the replicating of human consciousness in computers.

The novella imagines a world in which companies have captured the consciousnesses of great, but dying, minds for their own purposes. It then explores considerations such as: what happens when a great mind gets tired of being trapped as an acorporeal intelligence for the benefit of a company, and what does humanity mean in the context of fully replicated human minds?

I found these stories to be both intriguing and thought-provoking. I enjoy a good story, but stories that make one think deeply hold that much more allure. I’d highly recommend this collection for fiction readers. Whether or not you read genre fiction, you’ll find stories of great appeal.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

The Three Stigmata of Palmer EldritchThe Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This trippy sci-fi novel takes place in a future in which near colonization (e.g. the moon and Mars) has taken place, and life is so dismal that much of the population (especially on the colonies) take a drug that allows them to partake of a communal hallucination of a more idyllic life. This substance is called CAN-D, and – like many drugs – is largely illegal but widely available. But the CAN-D business is about to be turned upside-down, because the tycoon Palmer Eldritch is returning from the Prox System with a new drug based on a lichen that is indigenous to that solar system, a drug called CHEW-Z. CHEW-Z, it is claimed, is better in every way, but it has two readily apparent advantages: it’s cheap, and it’s not yet illegal. Beyond that, what CHEW-Z is is a question the reader will be forced to confront.

The book has shifting perspectives and isn’t focused upon a single central character through its entirety, but the lead character is Barney Mayerson. [If you’re wondering why the titular character, Eldritch, isn’t the lead, it’s because the mystery of him is crucial to the intrigue of the story. Throughout most of the story, Eldritch is more of a legend than a character, and the reader is presented with the question of whether the Eldritch coming back from Prox is the same one who left for it.] Mayerson is in the employ of the firm that runs the layouts central to the CAN-D trade. He has powers of precognition and his job is predicting whether potential products will sell or not so that the corporate powers-that-be can decide whether to invest in them. But two problems loom over his head. First, his number has been called in a draft to force him to move to Mars, away from his prestigious New York life. Second, his position is going to put him right at the center of the battle between CAN-D and CHEW-Z.

The book explores topics of religion and mystic experience. Mayerson, like most of the population, is secular and has little inclination toward religiosity. For many, CAN-D is a sort of pseudo-religion, or at least it frees them from their egos and helps the feel empowered in a way many seek through religious practice. One of Mayerson’s love interests (he has three over the course of the book, but this is the one he meets when he moves to Mars) is a hardcore Christian (by the standards of the day.) The interaction of these two characters brings the philosophical / religious component to the fore.

Much of the story plays out a product war between CAN-D and CHEW-Z, but, in the latter chapters, as the story plays out in large part in the minds of individuals on CHEW-Z, one starts to reflect upon just what CHEW-Z really is. And that reflection leads one into some profound questions such as: What is the nature of consciousness? What does it mean to be a god?

I enjoyed this book. I’m a fan of the work of Philip K. Dick, anyhow, but this book is among my favorites. Hopefully, I haven’t made it sound like a confusing or cumbersome read. It’s actually quite easy to follow despite the perspective shift from Mayerson to his boss Leo Bulero and back as well as the dreamlike quality of life for characters on CHEW-Z. In fact, I’d say its one of the most skillfully written mind-bending reads that I’ve read.

If you like trippy, mind-bending fiction, you should definitely check this book out, and if you like books that spur philosophical deliberations — all the more so.

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BOOK REVIEW: Escape from a Perfect World by Sándor Szélesi

Menekülés egy tökéletes világbólMenekülés egy tökéletes világból by Sándor Szélesi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Available here.

 

This short sci-fi novel revolves around the mystery of a man who wakes up with autobiographical amnesia (i.e. he can’t remember anything about his life, though he is familiar with the world in general.) It should be noted that I read the English translation, and can’t speak to the original Hungarian edition (i.e. Menekülés egy tökéletes világból.) At least one minor criticism leveled may not apply to the Hungarian edition (e.g. there are a couple minor typos of the kind spellcheck wouldn’t necessarily catch.)

The story is set in a futuristic Budapest. Most of the description goes into detailing the futuristic technologies — such as virtual reality — that are important to the story and intriguing, but there is minimal description of setting or characters. Some will find this works fine – particularly those who are familiar with Budapest. (It’s accurately described as a beautiful city and locations are given that will be familiar to those who’ve spent time there, but others will be left completely to their imagination.) Other readers will find the writing a bit sparse. The technologies involved are believable progressions of what is under development currently, though implementing some of them would take working through intense controversy (though that is set up to some degree by mentioning a dystopian background event.)

The story is intriguing from the opening premise of a man wondering who he is (not to mention the woman he woke up next to) through the discovery of why it is he can’t remember his life. Along the way, a couple possibilities pop up as false flags to tug readers’ anticipation in the wrong direction. That the protagonist tries to not let on that he doesn’t know who he is also creates an interesting wrinkle.

There is a nonfiction appendix that discusses the future of technology that is presented by the corporate sponsor of the work (i.e. WaveMaker.)

I enjoyed this story. It’s a quick and entertaining read and raised some questions about the future of technology that aren’t yet clichéd.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Valiant (#1-4) by Jeff Lemire, et. al.

The ValiantThe Valiant by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book gathers four comic books into a full story arc. It tells a simple story of good versus evil involving a team of superheroes versus an extremely powerful opponent called “The Immortal Enemy.” The Immortal Enemy takes many forms over the course of its life, and in this case (as always) it chooses a form designed to unnerve the Geomancer who opposes it. It’s an allegorical tale of environmental protection versus degradation that blends fantasy and sci-fi with a touch of the weird.

At the heart of the story there is a blossoming relationship of an unlikely pairing. The first is an inexperienced Geomancer. She is just learning the ropes and is a very human and emotionally-oriented character. He is a Wolverine-esque character named “Bloodshot.” He’s stoic and rocksteady. The gist is that she becomes more confident through her exposure to him, and he regains some humanity through exposure to her.

The story’s resolution felt a bit deus ex machina to me, involving an artifact whose role and function aren’t clear until it proves instrumental, but overall it was an entertaining read.

I found the artwork to be well done. I don’t have any particular expertise in such matters, but it looked good too me.

If you enjoy graphic novels, this one is worth picking up.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this counterfactual novel, the Axis powers won the Second World War, and America has been divided between Germany and Japan. I recently re-read this book, having watched the Amazon Prime series that is loosely based upon it. [FYI – the plotting and details are considerably different between the book and the series, and — while many major characters and a few key events are shared between them — they are not recognizable as the same story. Though I believe both are good, each in its own way – and the world is quite similar between them.]

There are a couple subplots that play out to form the larger story. One of these involves Robert Childan, a dealer in Americana who [while he specializes in antiques] ends up dealing in jewelry made by Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy after unwittingly being used as a pawn in their plan to manipulate the two artists’ former employer. This line intersects with that of Mr. Tagomi, a high-ranking Trade Ministry official who is involved in grand strategy level issues, but who is a customer of Childan’s.

The other major line involves Juliana Frink, ex-wife to the aforementioned artist Frank Frink, who meets up with Joe Cinnadella, and travels with him to Denver. Along the way, Joe introduces Juliana to a novel called, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which is a counterfactual novel in the world of the book that is substantially the same as the world as we know it (i.e. the Allies won the war and America becomes a hegemonic power.) Joe suggests that Juliana and he go to meet the author, who also lives not far within the Rocky Mountain states. “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” plays an important role throughout the book, and it is introduced to Childan by one of his customers as well. The controversial fictional book is allowed in the Japanese controlled territory, but the Nazi’s have banned it and are rankled about its existence. It’s author, Hawthorne Abendsen, is the same-named “man in the high castle.”

As in the series, the Chinese “Book of Changes” (i.e. the I-Ching) plays a role. However, in PKD’s novel it is a much more substantial role. In the series, it is mostly Mr. Tagomi who relies on the I-Ching. In the book, Frank and Juliana Frink use it heavily — as do other characters. The use of an oracle in conjunction with the alternate history premise of the book puts questions of fate and free will at the fore, providing deep food for thought.

In the interest of full-disclosure, Dick’s portrayal of Juliana Frink comes off a bit misogynistically in places, though she is also shown as a character of great strength and intelligence. [In fact, when we meet her, she is a judo instructor, and her cleverness is put on display as well.] It can also be said that the rendered dialogue of both the Japanese characters and those who strive to emulate them [i.e. the Japanophile / sycophant Childan] is a little “inscrutable Asian / Charlie Chan.” That said, Mr. Tagomi is one of the most mature and self-aware characters in the book. It could be argued that making Juliana shallow and self-obsessed gives her depth of character. The book also came out in 1962, so the approach to presenting characters has changed.

I enjoyed reading this book the second time more than the first, and I got a lot more out of the process. I’d recommend the book for anyone interested in questions of destiny and freedom, or who just wants an entertaining story.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Monsters by Meg Hafdahl & Kelly Florence

The Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and MoreThe Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and More by Meg Hafdahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Scheduled Release: October 1, 2019

Monsters, especially movie monsters, and science don’t seem like peas in a pod – one being fictitious and favoring the outlandish and the other insisting on firm roots in reality. Still, the supernatural creatures that enter folklore or mythology (and many movie monsters derive from these sources – whether loosely or closely) often arise because of some real world phenomena, e.g. genetic conditions that cause one to grow hair everywhere or – conversely – that make one pasty complected and sun-avoiding. It’s these kernels of truth as well as the limits of what is possible that form the core of this book. It considers a wide range of “monsters” from psychopathic humans to mythical monsters to ghosts to aliens to mysterious creatures of unknown origins.

The two focal points of a book like this (e.g. monsters and science) are seldom equal. A popular class of nonfiction books has arisen that exists to convey scientific ideas by exploiting pop culture for examples. This isn’t that kind of book. I don’t say that as a criticism. There is room for both types of books. But in this one, the science is secondary to giving readers interested in movie monsters some context and background. This stress can be seen in the book’s organization (i.e. each of its chapters features a different horror [or horror-adjacent] film and its monster) as well the authors’ expertise (while they consulted scientists, the authors are more knowledgeable about horror movies.) Also, the focus is tighter on the type of monster under examination, and the discussion of science roams through different scientific disciplines (including social sciences and even humanities – and, in one instance, pseudoscience) as it discusses what Hafdahl and Florence are interested in, which is any real word bases for the plausibility of these monsters.

Again, the last paragraph isn’t so much a criticism as a statement of what kind of book this is — and isn’t. (Needless to say by this point, it’s also not a book about the science and technology of making credible monsters for movies [e.g. CGI or the anatomy of a credible kaiju,] which is another worthy topic of discussion for another book.) The fact that the book is inclusive of discussions beyond biology and physics and which range into the social sciences and other disciplines offers the reader interesting insights. The exploration of what makes an entity terrifying was fascinating to me, and there is a significant art, science, and psychology to that subject, itself.

I will say that there was at least one time when I couldn’t really grasp how the science under discussion was relevant to the topic (i.e. monster) under discussion. It seemed as though the authors had succumbed to a common ailment of writing – that is, the inability to pitch material that is good, hard worked for, but ultimately irrelevant.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. I learned about how the monsters of the silver screen relate to happenings in the real world. There were several references to how quirky little news stories influenced screenwriters and directors to come up with some of the iconic horror and dark sci-fi movies. If you are interested in the origins of monsters, I’d recommend you check this book out.

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