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: Swamp Thing, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan

Swamp Thing by Brian K. Vaughan, Vol. 1Swamp Thing by Brian K. Vaughan, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The first thing to be aware of is that the protagonist of this book is Tefé Holland, daughter of Swamp Thing, and the titular character is only in the book for a few frames of flashback. This has the advantage of making for a confused and tormented lead character, a sort of coming-of-age element. Tefé struggles with who she is, and this leads to some wonky behavior. At times, she doesn’t do what would be expected of a superhero, but at other times she does, and this makes her character feel constantly off-kilter. One doesn’t straight away develop an affinity for the character, or – if one does – it comes and goes as she responds to varied situations in various ways. However, this seems to be intentional, a reflection of the fact that she doesn’t know if she’s the protector of the plant world, of humanity, of both, or of neither. She’s at once a pretty and sweet young woman and a terrifying god-like Elemental. She has a couple of “sidekick” characters, Barnabas and Pilate that help lend humanity and provide contrast (given the hardcore nature of these two men, they tend to make Tefé seem even more extreme as they are the ones to talk her down.)

While the Swamp Thing and its extended character-verse is heavy with environmental message, the book is not written to bludgeon the reader with rebukes or preach to the choir. It keeps the lessons subtle enough that I didn’t feel the book swerving into preachy mode, and it remains entertaining throughout.

I enjoyed this volume. It can feel a little disjointed and might read more smoothly for someone who’d read previous Swamp Thing series, but with attentive reading, one can certainly follow the action. (Another potential advantage of it focusing on the daughter character.) [FYI- This is the third of seven series.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Killadelphia Deluxe Edition, Book One by Rodney Barnes

Killadelphia Deluxe Edition, Book One (Killadelphia, 1)Killadelphia Deluxe Edition, Book One by Rodney Barnes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 22, 2022

Just when you think the vampire subgenre has been done to death, a graphic novel comes along that grabs one’s attention and reignites one’s affinity for the trope. As the title suggests, one of the ways that this book establishes itself as something different is to lean into setting, a setting with a unique heritage but no particular connection to vampires, in this case Philadelphia. The book takes cross-genre to the extremes, involving not only speculative fiction / horror but, also, historical fiction and detective fiction.

Killadelphia doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, but it does an exemplary job with an assortment of common tropes and plot devices. Like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the book mashes up vampires and historical figures, but – in this case – Barnes goes more obscure by using John and Abagail Adams. The book also plays on the dysfunctional father / son relationship as source of tension and character growth. In this case, James Sangster Jr. comes to Philly due to the untimely death of his father, James Sangster Sr., but the father’s death turns out to be more of an undeath, the detective having been caught up in an investigation that led him into a den of vampires. This ultimately plays into a reluctant team up as the Philly vampire scene goes epidemic.

There’s some ancillary material with this deluxe edition, most notably a werewolf comic that takes place in the same universe, called Elysium Gardens. [Otherwise, it’s the usual alternate cover art and author exposition type stuff.]

I enjoyed Killadelphia and would put it in the upper echelon of vampire-inspired graphic novels that I’ve seen of late.


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BOOK REVIEW: Slumber, Vol. 1 by Tyler Burton Smith

Slumber, Volume 1Slumber, Volume 1 by Tyler Burton Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 18, 2022

Stetson is a “dream eater.” She makes her living by entering the dreaming mind of clients and “killing” their nightmares. When a series of mysterious and highly irregular murders happen in the real world, the police develop a hunch that Stetson might be involved, or – at a minimum – know something they don’t. And it soon becomes clear that it’s not just a job for her; there’s some sort of personal stakes or vendetta driving her.

I got hooked on this book. The art is colorful and fun and plays well with the imaginative and amusing dream world. The story was well-crafted and offered a satisfying and pleasurable read. If you’re into surreal speculative fiction that deals in dreams and nightmares, it’s worth looking into this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Golem of Venice Beach Vol. 1 by Chanan Beizer

The Golem of Venice BeachThe Golem of Venice Beach by Chanan Beizer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 15, 2022

The title is the premise. The Golem of Prague is now living in Venice Beach, CA. However, the protagonist is a human hipster with a sunglass kiosk near the beach named Jake. Jake is a secular Jew with a penchant for all manner of drugs who falls in love with a neighbor who is some sort of chosen one for a Santa Muerte cult that’s protected by some drug-dealing gangbangers. The connection to the Golem is that Jake’s bloodline is protected by the Golem.

This is one of those titles that’s hard to rate. The art is well done. The character development is great. And it’s a compelling premise. (Though I think we may be experiencing a Golem zeitgeist as this is the second or third Golem story I’ve read recently. But, it could also be an anecdotal coincidence.) That all sound pretty good, but I have no idea whether the story is any good because it’s one of those one-story-arc-split-over-two volumes, and so the resolution-to-cliffhanger ratio is not good. [i.e. It ends all cliffhanger and with nothing having been resolved.] To be fair, the last line does promise to conclude the story in the second (next) volume. (i.e. As opposed to: “We’ll see if it’s popular and then string it out until there’s no hope of tying up all the loose ends.”) So, I guess it comes down to whether you’re a trusting soul. I don’t think I’ve read this author previously, and thus have no basis for drawing a conclusion.

So, my recommendation is…


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BOOK REVIEW: Little Monsters, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire

Little Monsters, Vol. 1Little Monsters, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 11, 2022

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

It’s vampiric Lord of the Flies in a dystopian wasteland. Checks a lot of boxes. To begin on a positive note, I loved the character development in this book. Each of the kids is distinct and one rapidly develops an affinity for some of them and a distrust of others. Long story short, you want to know what happens to these kids, and why they’re in the situation in which they find themselves.

What I didn’t like is what I call the “resolution to hook” ratio. When something is written with serialization in mind, it’s a challenge to provide a satisfying story arc. There’s an incentive to end with a big hook, so as to draw readers farther down the line, and often the whole climax-resolution-conclusion bit is skipped or glossed over. Often, this leaves no (or a weak) resolution, such that reading the volume doesn’t scratch the itch that good stories do. Steamrolling through the end of the story arc to end on a cliffhanger may attract some continuing readers, but for those of us wary of the sunk cost fallacy (giving into an investment made with the assumption that it will eventually turn out positively,) it’s a sign to move on to the next story. (Lest one be Lost-ed – i.e. to be drawn in by a brilliant and inventive story only to see it become increasingly muddled, ultimately to end in a sad crash landing.)

The art is somewhat crudely rendered, but I suspect that was a conscious choice to achieve the desired atmospherics. And, I think it worked. The art clearly conveys the action.

If you have faith that you’ll eventually get that narrative itch scratched, you may want to check this one out. It does have a lot of potential. For my part, I’m once bitten, twice shy.


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BOOK REVIEW: Stephen King by Bev Vincent

Stephen King: A Complete Exploration of His Work, Life, and InfluencesStephen King: A Complete Exploration of His Work, Life, and Influences by Bev Vincent
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 18, 2022

This book offers one-stop shopping for anyone who wants to know about the life and works of one of the most popular and prolific genre fiction writers ever, Stephen King. The book is built around decade-by-decade examination of the books that King published as well as the adaptations that those books spawned (film, tv, comic book, theater, etc.) It’s arranged in an encyclopedic fashion (though chronologically) with entries on all of King’s titles, and has many textboxes about niche subjects including: King’s side hustles (e.g. owning radio stations, playing in a rock bank, etc.,) major events in King’s life, fictional places and characters that grew lives of their own, adaptations other than film and tv [film & tv adaptations are presented in the body of the text,] and various other quirky King-related topics.

The book is illustrated with a large collection of photos of King from various time periods and engaged in various activities.

Many fascinating insights can be discovered throughout the book. I learned, for example, that the Richard Bachman alias resulted from King’s prolific nature (and because BTO was playing at the time.) Publishers thought that readers would only buy one or two titles from a given author per year, but King had a back log of unpublished material – so he started publishing books under the Bachman persona. King was ever experimenting with various approaches to publishing and that makes the book potentially interesting for those with a curiosity about publishing innovations. The book is forthright about King’s alcohol and drug addictions and the influence they had on his work.

Oddly, I’m not the target audience for this book. I’ve only read a couple of King’s books (and one of those was “On Writing,” his nonfiction guide to writing.) That said, I found the book quite interesting.

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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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