Live! In the Link Age 05.21.15

SHMonsterHunter TheGoodFightUnlike Bruce Banner, who was always angry, Lars Petersen had learned to control his transformative temper. Or so he thought. In “Slouching Towards Ragnarok” by Frank Byrns (Superhero Monster Hunter: The Good Fight / Edited by Miles Boothe / First Printing: Coming Soon), Petersen was doing his best to live life as a normal person. But the government (or a complicit secret organization) wanted to provoke the beast within him. In his puny human form, Petersen was useless – small and weak. But as the rampaging Ragnarok, he became a weapon and/or invaluable test subject. The Agents of S.M.A.S.H. found a way to harness the incredible power of the Hulk. Convincing Ragnarok to get with the program, however, might be a little bit tricky. After all, what do you do with a monster with a broken heart?

The Book Smugglers, a website dedicated to speculative and genre fiction, will publish a couple of superhero projects in 2016, including its first novel acquisition. Starting in the spring of next year, expect to see Hurricane Heels, a series of five interconnected short stories by Isabel Yap, and Waking Gifts, the fourth novel in Susan Jane Bigelow’s Extrahuman series. If you’re an author you may want to bookmark the Book Smugglers website. It plans to announce an open call for superhero-themed story submissions, along with guidelines and instructions, very soon.

Crimson Son by Russ Linton has been on our “to read” list for over a year. And one of these days (fingers crossed) we hope to sit down and read it. In the meantime, Linton is back with another effort called Empty Quiver (First Printing: June 2015). It is a novella length anthology that further explores the author’s Crimson Son universe. Here’s the description: “The Augments were superhumans designed by the government to be living war machines. But now that the war is over, what happens next?” According to Amazon, Linton’s new book “features five personal tales of a history gone wrong,”

Jonathan Liu has posted another welcome roundup of superhero fiction at This time he takes a peek at The Ables by Jeremy Scott, Villainous by Matthew Cody, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities by Mike Jung, and Superheroes Anonymous by Lexie Dunne. As an added bonus, he even throws in a couple of superhero non-fiction reviews. For another handy roundup of superhero novels, check out the recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article: Super Reading for Super Readers.

WWWWD. As the daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta (according to New 52 retcon), Wonder Woman is both an ambassador of peace and the goddess of war. In an upcoming book called The World According to Wonder Woman (By Matthew K. Manning and Paul Bulman / First Printing: October 2015 / ISBN: 9781608875306), Diana shares her unique perspective on being a demigoddess, a superhero, and a feminist icon. Maybe she’ll even dish the dirt on her boyfriend Superman. You never know.

Day of the Destroyers is a brand new and all-original mosaic novel featuring a host of pulp heroes like the Green Lama, the Phantom Detective, and the Black Bat. Several of the contributors (Joe Gentile, Gary Phillips, Ron Fortier, Tommy Hancock, and Adam Lance Garcia) sat down recently for a fun group interview (here). BTW: We think it’s cute the way Phillips quotes our review of his book, Astonishing Heroes.

More interviews: Gwenda Bond, author of Lois Lane: Fallout (here). Joanne M. Harris, author of The Gospel of Loki (here, here, and here). Kitty Bucholtz, author of Unexpected Superhero (here).

Reviews: Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond (here and here). The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris (here, here, here, here, and here). Superhero School: Alien Attack by Alan MacDonald (here). Going Through the Change by Samantha Bryant (here). Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson (here).

For your reading pleasure: Batman: Arkham Knight – The Riddler’s Gambit by Alex Irvine. Dreams of Flying by J.D. Brink. All-New Ghost Rider, Vol. 2: Legend by Felipe Smith and Damion Scott. Babes in Arms: Women in the Comics During WWII by Trina Robbins and others (available 08.04.15). Ghosts of Karnak by George Mann (available 08.13.15). The Complete Wimmen’s Comix edited by Trina Robbins (available 09.05.15).

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Powerless (Again)

VillainousYears ago, when we read Matthew Cody’s terrific superhero novel Powerless, we never suspected that it was the first book in a planned trilogy. And yet here we are. Villainous crowns a three-book series about kids with super powers living in the weirdest town on earth.

Looking back, the author could easily have stopped after one book. The two follow-up efforts (including Super, the second novel) didn’t significantly expand on anything mentioned in the first book. But we know how things go. Certainly, Villainous leaves the door open for more superheroic adventures. We’re positive that Cody and his publisher would consider pumping out another novel if BookScan numbers were favorable.

To recap: Back in 1934, the town of Noble’s Green, Pa., experienced an “unclassified celestial phenomenon.” One night, according to first-hand reports, the stars above the town were obscured by storm clouds lit with a sallow greenish light. “It looked like the end of the world,” said one particular eyewitness cowering in an outhouse.

As a result, a handful of locals acquired god-like powers; including Johnny Noble, an “ignorant woodsman.” Noble, much to his chagrin became the world’s very first superhero. His reluctant adventures, serialized in a best-selling comic book, would inspire future generations of tiny titans.

These days Noble’s Green was famous for being superhero ground zero. Tourists came to the small Pennsylvania town to take pictures of all the flashy superheroes, including Kid Noble and the students of the Noble Academy for the Gifted. Mr. Madison, the floating (!) fire chief, was the town’s star resident.

But like Springfield, the home of Homer Simpson, Noble’s Green was haunted by a grumpy (and rich) old man. Herman Plunkett looked like Nosferatu the vampire, and terrorized the town’s people much like Charles Montgomery Burns — he even steepled his fingers ominously in the same manner (page 197). Plunkett is the vanquished villain in all three books. He returns over and over again but the super kids always figure out a way to squash him. He’s a persistent old bat, that’s for sure.

Plunkett is sufficiently evil, but Villainous is mostly about superhuman ennui. What kind of emotional toll must be paid to possess god-like perspicacity? And what happens when those powers go away? What’s it like, for instance, to soar over buildings on Sunday and be anchored to the sidewalk on Monday? “It’s not fair,” said Plunkett at one point. “A boy dreams his whole life of being Johnny Noble, only to wake up one day alone in the knowledge that he is something else entirely. He’s quite the opposite.”

[Villainous / By Matthew Cody / First Printing: August 2014 / ISBN: 9780385754897]

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Mighty Meds

LessThanHeroA recent medical study found that 70 percent of Americans are merrily ingesting at least one prescription drug. Of this percentage, more than half of us are taking two or more pills at a time – with antibiotics, antidepressants, antianxiety drugs, opioids, high blood pressure medications, and vaccines making up the bulk of the prescriptions. Most troubling is that a third of all these drugs are toxic to humans, with side effects worse than the affliction being medicated.

Clearly we’re gradually becoming more and more dependent on drugs. Whatever our problems may be there’s inevitably a handy proton energy pill waiting for us at the friendly neighborhood Roger Ramjet Drugstore.

So it seems reasonable to assume that it’s only a matter of time before evolution makes a leap forward and humans start exhibiting permanent drug-inspired side effects. Some people, like the characters in S.G. Browne’s new book, have already jumped to the top of Darwin’s short list. Lloyd Prescott and his pals for instance.

They’re professional guinea pigs. They get paid to take generic painkillers, heart medications, and other probationary drugs being developed and tested for consumer use. By volunteering for clinical trials and taking experimental drugs for the past five years, they’ve all developed some kind of mutated superpower.

“We’re genetic mutants, freaks of science,” says Lloyd. “We’ve become drug-reaction crimefighters. Side-effect superheroes, using our pharmaceutically enhanced abilities to teach criminals a lesson.”

With a collection of powers that give people rashes and erections, or make them fall asleep, gain weight, vomit, and go into convulsions, Lloyd and his slacker mutant squad decide to rid Manhattan of litterbugs, smokers, and loud talkers.

Less Than Hero is filled with social commentary on the proliferation of pharmaceutical drugs in the U.S. But it’s also a story about figuring out what it is you’re supposed to do with your life. Take Lloyd for example. Growing up, his shortlist of dream jobs included professional golfer, travel writer, general manager of the Mets (or Yankees), and photographer for Playboy. But he never had much imagination or ambition to begin with. He just sort of drifted along and got older, waiting for something interesting to happen. Becoming a superhero was a way for him to escape his own inertia.

Things get hairy for the Super Six when two pharmaceutically enhanced guinea pigs decide to pursue careers in villainy. On one hand, the novel’s inevitable superhero/supervillain clash follows a predicable conclusion. But also, it underscores the author’s point. Which is: In life, we must all find our unique path.

“Some people might say we’re being stupid by living a childish comic book fantasy,” says Lloyd. But he knows that common sense takes a backseat when you’ve been given the opportunity to be something greater than you ever imagined. “We’re not ready to take on Doctor Doom or Magneto,” he says, “but at least we’re able to make a difference for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Just because we’re not from the planet Krypton and we weren’t bitten by a radioactive spider doesn’t mean we can’t be superheroes.”

[Less Than Hero / By S.G. Browne / First Printing: March 2015 / ISBN: 9781476711744]

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Our Violent Century

Violent CenturyWe remember reading initial reviews of Jonathan Lethem’s novel, The Fortress of Solitude. Many critics were clearly baffled by the author’s decision to include a superhero in his giant, messy semi-autobiographical novel.

But those early critics were quickly silenced by the consensus. Released in 2003, Lethem’s masterpiece of race and culture is now considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever written about New York City. With The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem deftly proved that comic books and superhero tropes have literary merit.

In many ways, author Lavie Tidhar has done the same thing with his novel, The Violent Century. He’s written a knotty spy thriller about mid-century global events and he fearlessly added superheroes to the mix. Imagine that.

But Tidhar’s book isn’t a secret history. Nor is it an alternative history. It’s mostly a parallel history. The real world is full of marching armies, rockets, atomic bombs, and death camps. These things align perfectly with comics and “cheap novels.” Consequently, when superheroes show up on the beach at Normandy in 1944 it totally makes sense.

In this pre- and post-WWII era, the Nazi Übermenschen Korps battle the League of Defenders (from the U.S.), and the Union of Socialist Heroes (from Russia). The British have their own group of beyond-men too: the BSA (the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs). The novel focuses on two of these British superheroes: Oblivion and Fog.

Even though both men had special gifts (Oblivion could “make things not exist,” and Fog could manipulate fog and smoke), their duty to King and Country was to simply observe and gather intel. But as we all know, to observe something is to change it. And that’s what happened. Oblivion and Fog ventured into the war zone and accidentally uncovered the biggest secret imaginable.

Supermen, over-men, beyond-men, übermenschen – they were all created by the Vomacht wave, a device that unleashed a quantum blast allowing humans to harness the basic power of the universe. But what nobody knew was that the Vomacht wave was not a single, observable occurrence. Rather, it was a sustained confluence. It did not happen and then pass. Oblivion and Fog discovered that it was still happening. The world, they realized, was forever changed.

In the end (spoiler alert!), the Axis Alliance was defeated. But before he shot himself, Hitler changed the world forever. He rose to power and rewrote world history like a lurid paperback. The quantum bomb created a new era of super men who acted within a moral vacuum of nihilism to create a new set of values. “We won the war,” said the head of the BSA, “but we lost ourselves.”

[The Violent Century / By Lavie Tidhar / First U.S. Printing: February 2015 / ISBN: 9781250064493]

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Fringe Noir

FringeSinsSins of the Father, the latest novel from Christa Faust, is somewhat similar to her Hard Case Crime hardboiled adventures. It features a con man, a high-stakes sting, and lots of gunplay. Let’s call it Fringe noir: things start badly and quickly get worse.

The year is 2008 and Peter Bishop (our anti-hero) is in Bangkok to squeeze some money from a group of trigger-happy Koreans and Chechens. Bishop wasn’t particularly a brave guy. But he needed a quick influx of cash to settle a lingering debt. Being reckless was part of the game plan.

Scams like this weren’t new for a grifter like Bishop. He’d been on the road constantly since he was a teenager – picking up odd jobs, engineering a variety of shady rackets, and then moving on. Over the years he had become a master manipulator. “That was his secret power,” writes the author. “The ability to think on his feet, and talk his way in and out of any situation.” In addition, Bishop was unburdened by quaint, old-fashioned concepts of morality. He just made sure his sliding moral scale always tipped in his favor.

But this sticky Korean/Chechen deal wasn’t going very smoothly. Bishop found himself in the middle of a complicated caper that would ultimately lead back to his father, Dr. Walter Bishop, his father’s best friend, William Bell (R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy), and a secret war between parallel universes. Interestingly, the novel ends in an Iraqi hotel lobby. If you’re a long-time Fringe fan, you’ll remember this location as the place Bishop bumps into Olivia Dunham during the first episode of the TV series.

With this book, Faust has now written three prequels to the Fringe macrocosm (the other two books include The Zodiac Paradox and The Burning Man). Despite some road bumps along the way, we’ve enjoyed revisiting the series in prose format. If additional tie-in novels are in the pipeline, however, we’re hoping to see more characters involved, most notably lab assistant Astrid Farnsworth, FBI agent Phillip Broyles, meddling futurian September, and Olivia Dunham’s alt-universe proxy.

While on TV, Fringe created a complex and rich mythology. Of the three main characters, Peter Bishop probably got the least amount of screen time. And yet the entire show exists due to him. Walter Bishop was the brains, the heart, and the soul of Fringe. Olivia Dunham was the show’s conscience. But Peter was the catalyst, and, ultimately, the glue that kept Fringe Division together. Hopefully this isn’t the last Fringe novel we’ll read.

[Fringe: Sins of the Father / By Christa Faust / First Printing: August 2014 / ISBN: 9781781163139]

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Marvel’s Agents of Z.O.D.I.A.C.

ZodiacConvergenceThe Zodiac Legacy: Convergence is a pretty straightforward origin story. It’s about a small group of youngsters who acquire ancient Chinese super powers via an astrological convergence. Each of the kids gets preternatural abilities appropriate to their birth date: Tiger, Ram, Rooster, Pig, and Rabbit.

What’s not straightforward, however, is the name they chose to call themselves. The kids spend the entire novel trying to think of a jazzy team acronym. Like, for instance, A.I.R.L.O.C.K.S. (Astrological Investigation Remote Locator Operative Central Knowledge Systems) or Z.A.P.P.E.R.S. (Zodiac Action Preparation & Protection Emergency Response Squad). At some point G.A.P.P.Z. (General Action Peril Posse Zodiac) is rejected because “it sounds like an FX for flatulence.”

These days it’s hard to think of an acronymic name that’s clever and unique. After all, WildC.A.T.S., T.H.U.N.D.E.R., S.H.I.E.L.D., and N.W.A. have already been taken. Eventually the kids run out of options and briefly (but not seriously) consider calling themselves the Private International Zodiac Zero Assembly (P.I.Z.Z.A.).

Beyond the ongoing branding dilemma, the Z-kids (led by Steven Lee, the Tiger) are busy defending themselves from a scary guy named Maxwell. Like all good villains, Maxwell (no last name needed, apparently) thinks he’s a good guy. But in reality, he’s a vicious war contractor, and a villain-for-hire with no principles. ”He has all the advantages, all the toys, and all the money.” If he captures the power of all 12 zodiac signs he’ll be unstoppable.

There’s no question that Maxwell is a major nutcase. “I am the whirlpool,” he says while in a supervillain trance. “I am fire and I am chaos. I forge the future. I accept the burden and loneliness of power.” He has a dash of Dragon juice within him and that makes him a formidable foe.

Despite being the most powerful of all zodiac creatures, the Dragon is confounded by the wily nature of its young adversaries. Working as a team, the Agents of Z.O.D.I.A.C. find a way to clobber Maxwell and his Vanguard paramilitary troops. It’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with a Stan Lee twist. Added bonus: the novel also features 71 pages of illustrations by Andie Tong.

“You think you’ve won,” says Maxwell to his vanquishers “But you’ll eventually destroy yourselves. And then you’ll destroy the world.” Get ready for more zodiac vs. zodiac action in the upcoming sequel. World War Z has just begun.

[The Zodiac Legacy: Convergence / By Stan Lee, Stuart Moore, and Andie Tong / First Printing: January 2015 / ISBN: 9781423180852]

Posted in Published in 2015 | Tagged , , , ,

Candy Corps

FirefightIt’s been 13 years since Calamity begat a new breed of supervillains. These Epics (with comic book-inspired names like Steelheart, Mitosis, and Obliteration) were cruel and immune to comeuppance. They were like lions among gazelles.

But their reign of terror had recently been challenged by a small group of rebels called the Reckoners. When these insurgents killed Steelheart, the ruthless leader of Newcago (see our review of the series’ first book here), they made a bold statement. “The day of Epic tyrants is over,” said Jonathan Phaedrus at the time. “No Epic, no matter how powerful, is safe from us.” The Reckoners had declared all-out war on Calamity’s progeny. There was no turning back.

Looking for their next big kill, a trio of Reckoners travel to Babylon Restored (aka Manhattan). The city, now mostly submerged under water, was ruled by a crafty hydromancer named Regalia. Like Kamandi, the last boy on Earth, Phaedrus and his gang paddle into Regalia’s watery domain not sure of what fate had in store for them.

In tow with Phaedrus was David Charleston, the 19-year-old kid who took down Steelheart. In less than a year with the Reckoners, Charleston had killed almost a dozen Epics. Now known as Steelslayer, Charleston was a Reckoner rock star. Like it or not, he had become a champion and a hero for millions of people.

Once in Babylon Restored, however, Charleston turns his back on his pals in support of a cute Epic named Megan. The two had a flirty romance back in Newcago. And now hormonal sparks are causing drama again. No surprise: the power of love is everlastingly epic.

Author Sanderson is writing this series in a brisk, propulsive manner. Much like Dan Brown, James Patterson, and Naoki Urasawa, he knows how to keep a reader’s attention. Short chapters, endless cliffhangers, chipper dialogue, and a penchant for plot twists make Firefight fly by like a speeding bullet.

More than anything else, however, Sanderson keeps things light. It’s true that Epics are a vile and self-absorbed bunch (they have a tendency to quote doomsday Biblical scripture when obliterating entire cities). But Sanderson takes the time to temper moments of intense drama with spikes of quirky levity.

And, as it turns out, David Charleston is a pretty good conveyance for the author’s wacky humor. He may be an OMAC-like killing machine, but Charleston can’t escape his own goofball nature. “I felt like a cupcake on a steak platter,” he says at one point. And later, when trying to articulate his newfound ambivalence toward Epics (especially pretty ones like Megan), he tells a colleague: “I’m like a donut, and somebody has sucked all the jelly out of me.” Charleston’s (and Sanderson’s) penchant for confectionary similes make Firefight a treat for anyone with a superhero sweet tooth.

[Firefight / By Brandon Sanderson / First Printing: January 2015 / ISBN: 9780385743587]

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