BOOK REVIEW: Shang-Chi, Vol. 1: Brothers & Sisters by Gene Luen Yang

Shang-Chi by Gene Luen Yang, Vol. 1: Brothers & SistersShang-Chi by Gene Luen Yang, Vol. 1: Brothers & Sisters by Gene Luen Yang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This five-issue story arc tells the tale of an intra-family battle for control of the Five Weapons Society, a kung fu dynasty that dates back at least to the Boxer Rebellion. With the patriarch deceased, sides form behind Shang-Chi, on the one hand, and Sister Hammer, on the other. While close as young children, Shang-Chi and Sister Hammer grew up separated, and could not have turned out more differently. Shang-Chi (aka. Brother Hand) has been reluctantly drawn into the conflict by virtue of his being the “chosen one,” and by having the support of Brother Sabre and (to a lesser degree) Sister Dagger. Sister Hammer has raised an army and is bent on taking over the dynasty by whatever means necessary.

So, this is one of those stories that’s not about a purely good hero against a purely evil villain, the latter needing to be completely destroyed, but rather it’s about the need for catharsis and reconciliation. But that doesn’t keep the comic from being loaded with action. We also see a protagonist who experiences a change, which is a story convention that is often jettisoned in the action genre. Shang-Chi must move past his reluctance, and embrace his role in the family.

I found this comic to be compelling and worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: Venom vs. Carnage by Peter Milligan

Venom vs. CarnageVenom vs. Carnage by Peter Milligan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This story revolves around the strange social dynamics of symbiote reproduction, which echoes the filial infanticide seen in many earth-bound species, whereby a family member tries to eliminate the competition while it can still be readily killed and eaten. There’s a shifting landscape of alliances as a new symbiote is birthed into existence.

Besides the titular characters, Venom and Carnage, the story’s other major characters are Toxin (the new symbiote on the block,) as well as Black Cat and Spiderman. It’s a simple, but action-packed, story.

I read the e-version of the book and the art was strange and rubbery. I think it’s meant to be hyper-realistic, but it tripped the uncanny valley for me. That said, it’s fairly easy to follow what’s happening. (And to the degree that it’s not, it’s not a problem with the artistic style, but rather with the chaotic stringiness of symbiote combative interactions.)

I enjoyed the story. It’s a quick read, and is thrilling entertainment fare. If you know nothing about the symbiotes of the Spider-verse, it’s not the best place to jump in because it assumes you know a bit about what’s what and who’s who.


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BOOK REVIEW: Hawkeye Vol. 1: My Life As A Weapon by Matt Fraction

Hawkeye, Volume 1: My Life as a WeaponHawkeye, Volume 1: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This six-issue volume features a Clint Barton who’s a great deal more hapless and humorous than the one we’ve seen in the Avengers movies. [I haven’t seen the “Hawkeye” streaming series, though I’ve heard that it borrows elements and devices from Fraction’s run, including enemies (e.g. Tracksuit Mafia) and gags (e.g. trick arrows,) thought I don’t think the TV series relies on the comic for story, per se (i.e. beyond the Barton / Bishop team-up angle, generally speaking.)] This version of Hawkeye is still impressive with his accuracy in archery (and otherwise,) but his ability to take a beating and keep moving may be his primary “superpower.” In this collection, we mostly see an un-uniformed Clint Barton going about his daily business, getting into adventures consistent with his persona as an unpowered individual without allies of the supersoldier, tech wiz, or giant green rage monster varieties.

It should be pointed out that the sixth issue is different from the first five. It’s not a “Hawkeye” title but a “Young Avengers” one, and it’s built around the handoff of the Hawkeye mantle from Barton to Bishop. I’m not sure why they included it. It feels like a jarring discontinuity. In the earlier issues, the two are working together, but in the last issue they seem to be meeting for the first time with Bishop having already assumed the mantle of Hawkeye. Moreover, the tone is completely different. The Barton of the last issue is more like movie Barton: costumed, less funny, and surrounded by Avenger-level superheroes.

I enjoyed this collection, particularly the first five issues. It’s amusing, and creates a likable scamp of a character who is witty, relatable, and more sympathetic. If you don’t think Hawkeye is a character you’d be interested in, this is a good collection with which to give him a chance.


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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel-Verse: Shang-Chi by Fred Van Lente, et. al.

Marvel-Verse: Shang-ChiMarvel-Verse: Shang-Chi by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of issues involving Shang-Chi. The early issues present the “Master of Kung Fu” in cameo / secondary roles within headliner characters’ comics – notably Wolverine and Spiderman. In those early issues, Shang-Chi mostly serves as the invincible master showing quippy superheroes that their kung fu lacks vigor and precision. In the later issues, those in which Shang-Chi is the lead, he becomes more well-rounded leading man material and less of a stoic, exotic Yoda-figure. In those issues, Shang-Chi combats the elusive ninja organization called “The Hand,” as well as “Lady Deathstrike.”


There is one issue, “Shang-Chi’s Day Off,” which is written as one-liner laden low comedy. Its tone stands out as distinct from the rest of the volume, but it has a few genuinely amusing lines, and so it’s not so bad. Those who take their superheroes somewhat seriously will hate it.


This collection isn’t a bad way to gain insight into the character and his evolution over time. Don’t be thrown off by the campy and stereotyped way he’s portrayed in his 70’s Kung fu cinema iteration, it gets more balanced and sophisticated later in the volume. I read found it on Amazon Prime.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Umbrella Academy, #0 by Gerard Way

The Umbrella Academy #0The Umbrella Academy #0 by Gerard Way
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This issue features the dysfunctional family of freakish [non-blood] sibling superheroes taking on a character called the “Murder Magician,” a dapper but demented individual who likes to combine the showmanship of magic with the psychopathy of serial killing. The Murder Magician takes control of a talk show with a live studio audience while he’s being interviewed so that he can have the makings of mass murder readily at hand.


The art is chaotically drawn, but colorful, imparting a level of whimsy in line a villain with an affinity for sleight of hand.


It’s a simple story, as a single-issue comic can only be. I was familiar with the characters from the Netflix series adaptation, and that proved necessary because even though it’s #0, it’s very much a story in medias res.


I stumbled upon this issue as a free promotional gift on Amazon. If you like and are familiar with the comic, it’s worth a look. If not, there might be too many characters and too much oddness to make sense of it.


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BOOK REVIEW: Black Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell

Black Widow: Deadly OriginBlack Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This flashback-laden volume revolves around Natasha Romanov’s relations with various men but especially Ivan, a man the Black Widow saw as a father figure. Ivan’s death is an impactful moment in the life of this femme fatale, and it seems like it might be just the start as all the men in her life begin to come under attack (mostly fellow Avengers and other superheroes from the Marvel pantheon.) The story unfolds as the Black Widow tries to unravel the mysterious plot to eliminate her prodigious corps of boyfriends while protecting said friends and (ex-)lovers.

This comic might seem like it would be the perfect entry point for a reader new to the Black Widow character. It offers flashes of insight into the character’s origin, but without the dated feel of old comics that were often marketed toward ten-year-old boys and that didn’t anticipate technological progress and cultural trends any better than most sci-fi does. However, I would argue that it’s a bit of a chaotic read for a newbie to the character (speaking as one.) It’s a four-issue volume and so the glimpses of backstory and the references to arcane Marvel characters and events come in rapid succession.

I found this book a fun and entertaining read, if a bit helter-skelter. I should point out that by the time one gets into the latter-half of the volume everything starts to come into focus.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: Gotham by Gaslight by Brian Augustyn

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight The Deluxe EditionBatman: Gotham by Gaslight The Deluxe Edition by Brian Augustyn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume collects five issues that [mostly] set Batman in a Victorian Era world. The issues do not present a serialized story arc, but rather four independent stories connected through world building.

The first two stories are the heart of the book, and the other two are of varying degrees of relevance and are used to round the volume out to book length. It should be pointed out that those first two issues make up about two-thirds of the book’s page count. The first, “Batman: Gotham by Gaslight,” imagines Jack the Ripper, having retired from London, moves to Gotham City, and Batman must end the serial killer’s reign of terror. The second, “Batman: Master of the Future,” depicts Gotham as it’s about to host a World’s Fair type event and is approached by a mysterious villain who warns them to cancel the event or face dire consequences. I thought the art and world-building were done nicely to create an interesting and unique conception of Batman. That said, neither story wowed me, and I particularly found the resolution of the Ripper story to be anti-climactic. [Though it was not so much a story problem as an insufficiently villainous Ripper — i.e. one who was a little too Scooby-Doo villain-like for my taste.] Usually, I would enjoy the dark, Ripper, line more, but – in this case – I think the Master of the Future edged it out. [The problem with that story had more to do with obscure motivations.]

The third issue is set in the Gotham by Gaslight domain, but is a much broader story, featuring a big team-up and a multiverse. It’s entitled, “Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer, Gotham by Gaslight, #1,” and – as that mammoth title suggests — the ensemble team is drawn to Victorian Gotham searching out a missing Ray Palmer. I liked this story even less than either of the first two. There was just too much going on in too tiny a space.

The final two issues are “Convergence: Shazam!, #1 and, #2.” Of these, #1 has nothing to do with the Gotham by Gaslight world, but it’s necessary to grasp #2 which does include both Batman and Victorian Gotham. Batman’s role in the second part is not inconsequential and we even see a little bit of his Victorian rogue’s gallery, but still the fit of this Shazam! comic in the collection is a bit questionable.

Being a fan of the Batman comics and not so much a fan of either DC team-ups or Shazam!, I liked the idea idea of the first two issues. That said, I wish more effort had been spent to make the climax and resolution satisfying, matching the level of the intriguing worldbuilding. Had those stories gripped me more, I don’t think I would have been dismayed by the other stories, chalking them up as bonus material.

I read the Deluxe Edition. It has some sketch art ancillary material, but not much else besides a story introduction by the author.

If you like stories in the Victorian Era, and are a super hero fan, you may find this intriguing — though you might also find it a bit disappointing, depending upon your tastes.


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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King by Ira Madison III, et. al.

Marvel's Black Panther: Sins of the KingMarvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King by Ira Madison III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: January 28, 2021

The edition that I’m reviewing includes episodes one through thirteen, covering an entire story arc that revolves around a present-day conflict with its origins in the policies of Wakanda’s previous king, T’Chaka – hence, the subtitle. I mention this because the single “issue” / episode-only books seem to be what are currently posted on Amazon and GoodReads (though the blurbs they display are consistent with the story under review.) While I try to avoid being too spoiler-y, it’s hard to talk about a thirteen-issue collection without spoiling something about the first issue. [If you are only getting 15pp, that’s just Ep.1.]

The story opens in media res with a fight against Graviton that takes place in Rudyarda, one of Wakanda’s neighboring countries. This battle includes not only Black Panther and other Wakandan warriors, but also a partial Avenger’s roster including Vision, War Machine (Col. Rhodes,) Ant-man, and The Wasp. This Avenger’s team will be “re-assembled” in the climactic battle – against another foe entirely. However, the heart of the story revolves around T’Challa / Black Panther (and also Shuri and Okoye (of the Dora Milaje)) operating more or less independently. The Graviton opening is mostly about getting off to an exciting start, but the most compelling parts of the story occur later when the characters are more isolated and vulnerable.

After the Graviton battle, there’s a bit of intrigue in New York that lets the reader know there’s more going on than meets the eye. However, the big shocker of the book comes upon T’Challa’s return to Wakanda when he finds his deceased father (T’Chaka) is inexplicably back from the grave. The strength of this story comes in the middle issues (Ep. 6 – 9) when the Black Panther is isolated from his resources and must rely on his mind and his capacity to endure adversity. While the Black Panther is away from Wakanda, the nation comes under a kind of Trojan horse attack, requiring others to hold the fort while T’Challa extracts himself and brings reinforcements.

There is a false climax in Ep. 11, in which it seems that the forces of good have won – only for the battle to be taken to an unexpected domain. I would say the conclusion of the Ep. 11 battle was the least satisfying part of the story; the pacing and explanation gave it a deus ex machina feel. However, the fact that the ultimate battle was more satisfactorily concluded made the Ep. 11 victory less problematic.

I found this story to be compelling and cleverly plotted. It keeps the reader engaged and – for the most part – satisfied. If you get a chance to read it, I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Boys, Vol. 2: Get Some by Garth Ennis

The Boys, Volume 2: Get SomeThe Boys, Volume 2: Get Some by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This volume continues the Garth Ennis series that takes as its premise that the superheroes are villains and the real heroes are anti-heroes. It consists of two different four-issue stories. The first half (issues 7 – 10 [of the comic series overall]) is the subtitular story “Get Some,” and the back half (issues 11 – 14) is entitled “Glorious Five Year Plan.”

“Get Some” pits the Boys against Tek Knight and SwingWing as the anti-supe team investigates the killing of a young gay man. Tek Knight is a sex-addicted cross between Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne (i.e. wealthy, intellectually-gifted, and without superpowers.) SwingWing was originally Tek Knight’s sidekick, Laddio, but became a marquee character in his own right (á la Dick Grayson’s Robin to Nightwing transformation.) Of course, Butcher and his team, “the Boys,” aren’t social justice warriors out to solve all societal ills, but – instead — are interested in the case mostly for the leverage it will give them over a couple of key members of the superhero group called Payback.

This is a simple story, and perhaps the most thought-provoking part of it is how the characters respond to homosexual individuals. On the one hand, there is Billy Butcher who talks in such un-PC terms that he would certainly be labeled homophobic by anyone hearing him talk, but yet he is both comfortable being around gay people and shows no disrespect in his behavior toward them. On the other hand, one has Hughie, who is very uncomfortable with Butcher’s politically incorrect speech, but is also subtly uncomfortable interacting with gays. As the movie “Get Out” considered whether “soft racism” can be at least as disconcerting as hardcore bigotry, this story considers whether “soft homophobia” isn’t something that presents a more serious long-run threat to better relations.

The second half of the book presents a more intriguing story. In “Glorious Five Year Plan,” the Boys go to Russia to get to the bottom of a case involving an exploding head. [FYI – this has nothing to do with the exploding heads from the second season of the Amazon Prime tv series.] The Boys team up with an old retired superhero from the Soviet days, “Love Sausage,” whose costume is way too tight. The story revolves around a nefarious plot and international intrigue that turns out to be much bigger than was first thought. When Butcher stumbles onto warehouse where about 150 superheroes are hanging out, he knows someone has big plans. The story features an intriguing villain, Little Nina, who is physically tiny but manages to have an outsized menace.

I enjoyed both these stories. It’s nice that each is self-contained. If you like the idea of superhero team-up parodies, this series is worth looking into. If you’ve been watching the tv series, don’t worry that the books will be spoiled, they are very different in many ways.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Boys, Vol. 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis

The Boys, Volume 1: The Name of the GameThe Boys, Volume 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you weren’t familiar with this comic book, you’ve probably at least seen promos for the streaming series adaptation available on Amazon Prime Video. After watched season one, and as season two is currently in release, I decided to give the source material a read. As with “Preacher,” this presents its own challenges in keeping the comic book and series straight. This is because (as with “Preacher”) there is a common cast of major characters, but significant differences in the story and details. That said, the book and series both open in a similar way with Hughie being drawn into the action by a tragic event involving a superhero (A-Train, this team’s version of the DC character, Flash) and Hughie’s girlfriend.

If the description of A-Train as – essentially – the same as the Flash makes the book sound derivative, it is intentionally so. In a nutshell, “The Boys” takes the Justice League and gives the characters nasty personality traits, ranging from pettiness to madness, and then centers the story not on the superheroes but on a group that works to check those “heroes’” power from the shadows (i.e. the titular “Boys.”) So, A-Train is fast like the Flash, but he lacks Barry Allen’s intellect and soft-spoken mannerism, and so – conversely – A-Train is a high school jock dialed up to his most vain and brash form. The other members similarly have unappealing personality traits, and even full-blown dark sides. This divergence between is most intensely seen in Homelander (the Superman of this series, but without the Man of Steel’s perfect moral compass and stoic Midwestern calm,) but even Noir (the Batman of the group) is intended to make Bruce Wayne seem like a well-adapted beacon of light by comparison.

The six issues contained in volume one both tell the tale of Hughie’s reluctant entrance into “The Boys,” and follows him through his first mission as the newly reassembled Boys take on “Teenage Kix.” (A youth superhero group which is to “The Seven” as the Teen Titans are to the Justice League.) Having Hughie in the role of the group’s “everyman” would be an odd choice in real life because it puts a rank amateur on a team of professionals who are already outgunned. From a narrative point of view, however, the appeal is clear. It creates emotional stakes within a group that is otherwise stone-cold killers (if with some positive personality traits to subvert expectations.) Hughie’s naivete and raw fear is particularly necessary in the book because the stakes are somewhat lessened by the fact that the Boys are not as severely outmatched as they are in the series (in the series “The Female” is the only superpowered member of the “Boys.”) The decision to recruit Hughie is explained both by the desperation of the team’s leader, Butcher, and his desire to include someone who is personally driven. There are not a lot of people willing to sign on to take on a two-faced lunatic with the powers of Superman (i.e. Homelander,) and Hughie is uniquely motivated by the tragedy of his girlfriend’s death to go after superheroes who’ve been corporately levered above the law.

The comic is a bit more sexually graphic than the series, though in some ways the series is more viscerally horrifying. (As I mentioned, in the series the Boys – excepting one – are in no way capable of going toe-to-toe with the enemy.)

The art is well drawn and colored and I didn’t have any problems following the happenings conveyed graphically.

I enjoyed this comic as I have with other Garth Ennis works. At least this volume was a bit more lighthearted and not as visceral as the series, but I don’t count that as a good or bad thing. Just different and just appealing to different states of mind. The comic is funny in places and action-packed in others. If you are interested in the concept of neurotic to psychotic superheroes and what it would take to keep them under control, it’s worth giving this book a read.

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