The New Defenders

IndestructiblesAt some point in Matthew Phillion’s indefatigably entertaining novel The Indestructibles we began reminiscing about the Defenders, Marvel Comics’ aggregate of superhero square pegs. But instead of Dr. Strange, Hulk, or the Silver Surfer, the author has given us Dr. Silence, Fury, and Straylight.

Call it the Defenders template, if you wish. To wit: bring together a group of “fruitcakes and small gods” and appoint a sorcerer supreme to guide them into battle. It worked back in 1971 when Dr. Strange first assembled his classic Defenders line-up. And it still works today.

In this instance, however, there was a slight wrinkle. The Indestructibles weren’t a fraternity of well-known (but notorious) heroes. As a matter of fact, all the old heroes were gone. They had retired, or gotten themselves killed, or flown off to another galaxy to solve some other world’s problems. Some even found refuge one hundred years in the future. There were no “well-known” heroes to assemble.

It was up to Doc Silence, arguably the world’s greatest magic practitioner, to draft a squadron of youngsters with burgeoning superpowers. And thus the Indestructibles were born. First to join was a young woman with Supergirl-like strength and abilities. Other members included a kid with an alien super symbiote living in his brain, a girl who could control gravity, and a teenage werewolf. Also on the team was Kate Miller, who wasn’t really a superhero at all. “Technically, I was simply assaulting people without the sanction of law enforcement,” she admits. In other words, the superteam was filled with a disparate mix of monsters and freaks. Or, we suppose, they could simply be called Dr. Strange and the Furious Five.

Naturally (as is often the case in these sorts of novels) there’s someone trying to take over the world. This time it’s a Lovecraftian end-of-the-world cult known as the Children of the Elder Star. These nut jobs were doing their best to manipulate governments, political leaders, wars, and finances to their advantage. It was all about the money and power. “The world was a big chess board to them,” explains Dr. Silence.

And, like the Indestructibles, the Children of the Elder Star had its own sorceress supreme on the payroll. Lady Natasha Gray exuded an air of power, something predatory and infinitely dark—like Maleficent on a bad hair day. She and Doc Silence shared a long and complicated history, and their relationship definitely makes the situation more acute.

At the beginning of the novel, the Indestructibles weren’t very indestructible. During their first official mission, for example, they looked like a bunch of toddlers in a bouncy castle. But over time, and through experience and good-fellowship, they figured out how to become superheroes. “Every so often humanity gets lucky and a hero is born,” says Dr. Silence. “And these heroes shine in the sun.” Three cheers for Solar, Dancer, Fury, Straylight, and Entropy: the five brightest stars in the sky.

[The Indestructibles / By Matthew Phillion / First Printing: April 2014 / ISBN: 9780991427529]

Posted in Original Characters, Published in 2014 | Tagged , ,

Live! In the Link Age 07.12.14

SummonedKevin Rau has just released the 18th novel in his ambitious Metrocity superhero serial (H.E.R.O. – Summoned / First Printing: June 2014 / ISBN: 9781500218935). In this adventure, the Air Force finds itself under assault when it unearths the crashed remains of a battleship from outer space. As expected, Rau is already hard at work on the next book, H.E.R.O. – Bio-Organism (“Coming soon,” he promises).

C. Montgomery Burns’ Handbook of World Domination (By Matt Groening / First Printing: September 2014 / ISBN: 9781608873203) is a simple step-by-step manual for people who want to rule the world. In just 64 pages, good ol’ Monty Burns will teach you how to subjugate the weak, how to rise above the unworthy, and how to use your superior intelligence to acquire an unlimited supply of cold hard cash.

Here’s how author Jason Stuart describes his novel 16 Tons (First Printing: June 2014 / ISBN: 9781941601990): “It’s got bad language. It’s got sex. Forced prostitution. Brutality. Violence. Death and murder. Fast cars and pickup trucks. Redneck slang and country jive. Religious cults. Child abuse and attempted incest. Motorcycle gangs. Political corruption. Unscrupulous business dealings. Guns. Knives. And fists.” In other words, 16 Tons sounds like a ton of fun.

Copper Knights and Granite Men (First Printing: June 2014) is the inaugural book in Michael A. DiBaggio’s Challenger Confidential series. A description of the novel on the Ascension Epoch website calls it “a witty and suspenseful superhero adventure that draws from the King in Yellow mythos and taps the secret occult history of North America.” More from DiBaggio here.

We are all fascinated by villainy, says John David Anderson, author of the newly released novel Minion. In many ways, he says, villains are heroic. “They overcome significant obstacles in order to achieve their goals. They have fervent beliefs that they stick to, often running against the majority opinion, which takes tremendous courage. Many of them are charming, well-dressed, and extremely intelligent. And while some of them are not too kind to their underlings, others can be quite affectionate to the henchmen that serve them. Plus a good villain (oxymoron intended) often has a wicked sense of humor.”

In January three previously published Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles junior novels will be collected into a 384-page omnibus entitled The Crime Fighter Collection (By Matthew Gilbert / ISBN: 9780553508963). The novels include Showdown with Shredder, Friend or Foe?, and Mutant Mayhem. Also, don’t forget to check out our pal Andrew Farago’s new book on the history of the Turtles: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History (First Printing: June 2014 / ISBN: 9781608871858).

What do superheroes do when they’re not busy saving the world? That’s the question eight Bay Area playwrights are asking in Wily West Productions’ latest stage show, Superheroes. Performances can be seen every Thursday and Saturday during the months of July and August. Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco. 415.931.1094.

The North Shore Library in Glendale, Wis., recommends a handful of worthwhile superhero novels. Lists like this are always interesting to us. And it’s especially nice to see libraries reflecting a growing interest in superhero prose fiction.

Interviews: Nick Harkaway, author of Tigerman. Auralee Wallace, author of Sidekick. Ernie Lindsey, author of Super. Samit Basu, author of Resistance. S.L. Dunn, author of Anthem’s Fall.

Reviews: Sidekick by Auralee Wallace (here). Minion by John David Anderson (here and here). Resistance (here and here) and Turbulence (here and here) both by Samit Basu. Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (here). The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew (here and here). Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn (here). Superhero School: The Revenge of the Green Meanie by Alan MacDonald (here).

For your reading pleasure: “The Eternity Conundrum” by Stephen T. Brophy. Unlucky Seven by J.P. Bidula. The End of Superhero Man by Chris Welsh. Lightweight: Senior Year by Nicholas Ahlhelm. Astonishing Heroes: Shades of Justice by Gary Phillips. Gailsone: Red Rook by Casey Glanders. Ugly by Niall Teasdale. Heroes of the Comics by Drew Friedman (available 09.07.14). Wonder Woman: The Complete Newspaper Comics by William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peters (available 09.09.14). Wonder Woman Vol. 5: Flesh by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang (available 10.07.14). Arrow: Heroes and Villains published by Titan Books (available 10.28.14). Nemesis by Anna Banks (available Spring 2016).

Posted in Live! In the Link Age | Tagged , , , ,

Twilight of the Gods

MirandaDanya Petrovich Galkin was born with a twist to his genetic code. He could hear the electrical world and could exert some control over it. If he wanted, he could change the channels on his TV without using a remote. In other words, he was an “uberhuman” with minor superpowers.

But Dan was haunted by his family’s despicable legacy. His grandfather was the Mad Russian, an international psychopath with enough atrocities linked to his name to rank him side-by-side with some of the worst supervillains of the 20th century like Dr. Doom and 2 Live Crew. Whether he liked it or not, Dan was the next generation of Galkin supervillain and the prodigal grandson. It was time to pass the torch.

As a youngster, Dan made his villainous debut as a member of the Small Gods, an assembled team of super delinquents. Needless to say, it didn’t go very well. Since that time he’s been in an oppressive government rehabilitation program. “I was a teenage supervillain for two weeks,” he said five years later. “And no one was going to let me forget it.”

Now, the Mad Russian wants Dan to quit his job at Birdie’s Chicken and Pizza (“The shame he brings me!”) and embrace his ignoble birthright. The aging supervillain may be insane, but he’s not stupid. He knows that his influence is fading and he needs to find a successor soon. “We must all die,” he tells his grandson. “Even the old gods themselves must one day make way for the new gods.”

But rites of succession are often bumpy—especially for mighty titans. Just ask Darkseid. His son Orion has been a giant thorn in his side for years. There’s always going to be tension between old gods and new gods. It’s inevitable.

More than anything, The Miranda Contract is a novel about Mount Olympus-sized family expectations. But it’s also about love and respect and profound human connections. While his grandfather is blowing up “like a human lightning storm,” Dan is doing his best to navigate a world filled with obstinate bureaucrats, an unhinged mother, an American teen idol, and a Turkish adventurer named Suleyman. He’s also grappling with his past misadventures as a member of the Small Gods. In fact, his prickly relationship with his former cohort Sohail Pirzada (code name: Halo) is arguably the best thing about the novel. Unquestionably, this is Dan Galkin’s story. But in an unexpected twist, it is Halo who turns out to be the real hero.

[The Miranda Contract / By Ben Langdon / First Printing: March 2014 / ISBN: 9780987530844]

Posted in Original Characters, Published in 2014 | Tagged ,

Joshua Dread, Where Are You?!

DominionThe trouble began one afternoon with a food fight in a Sheepsdale shopping mall. The former members of the Alliance of the Impossible (Joshua, Milton, Sophie, and Miranda) were sharing a plate of cheese fries when a pair of floating ketchup and mustard squirt bottles attacked them. “I really didn’t want to watch my friends die in the food court,” said Joshua, “but it was starting to look like that was the way things were going.”

Little did Joshua know that his life was about to spin out of control. Being sprayed with red and yellow condiments was the least of his worries. In short order he and his friends would be chased by a trio of teen supervillains, trapped inside a giant bubble, dispatched to a prep school for “gyfted” children, bullied by a teenage werewolf, and provoked by Phineax Vex, a 10-foot-tall cyborg with the cumulative powers of all the world’s most feared villains.

Vex was in pursuit of something called the dominion key, an elusive device that could purportedly turn every human on the planet into a perfectly still, helpless being—like a mannequin in a department store. Armies could be toppled. The most secure bank vaults could be plundered. Entire continents would fall under a single person’s control. It was a weapon that could freeze time and space.

And wouldn’t you know it, good ol’ Joshua Dread was the “key” to everything. That’s a lot of pressure for a 12-year-old kid in seventh grade. When Phineax Vex finally corners him in a remote area of Massachusetts, Joshua didn’t have many options. Should he run for cover? Should he stand and fight? Or should he just pee his pants and cry like a baby? He was dangerously close to going with option No. 3.

Thankfully the cavalry shows up in chapter 30 (and we don’t mean Melinda May, ace pilot and weapons expert from TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Realizing his hero was in over his head, the author deploys nearly everybody in the Joshua Dread universe to help defeat the megalomaniacal supervillain. The finale comes fast and furious but the novel ends on an uncertain note. To be continued (hopefully).

There’s definitely less superhero action in this third Joshua Dread novel and more emphasis on spooky mystery adventure. At its best, the latest book made us nostalgic for The Three Investigators, a long-forgotten juvenile detective series originally written by Robert Arthur. At it’s worst, however, The Dominion Key reminded us of how much we’ve always hated Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! Given a choice, we’d prefer to see the series return to the LOL antics of the first book and the superhero shenanigans of the second book.

[Joshua Dread: The Dominion Key / By Lee Bacon / First Printing: May 2014 / ISBN: 9780385743822]

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Bound For Glory

WW UnboundWithout a doubt, the worst time to be a Wonder Woman fan was during the Silver Age of comic books (roughly 1956 to 1971). Merciful Minerva! Those Robert Kanigher-penned issues were dreadful. In fact, Wonder Woman (the comic book) won two industry awards during Kanigher’s tenure: “Worst Comic Book Currently Published” (in 1961) and “Worst Regularly Published Comic” (in 1964). And believe us, those honors were well deserved. Nothing before or since (including the “new” Wonder Woman of 1968) comes close to the garbage Kanigher was spewing every month.

But it’s this nadir of Wonder Woman’s career that provides the most entertaining bits in Tim Hanley’s fascinating history of the Amazon Princess. Hanley agrees with us (more or less): Kanigher was a hack. His work was repetitive, and his grasp of continuity was practically nonexistent. His writing style was haphazard and his plots bounced around in the most illogical manner.

Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston as a character rooted in a specific feminist utopian vision. Her mission was not to resolve tragic personal issues (like Superman or Batman), but to help facilitate a coming matriarchy. But Kanigher sabotaged all that stuff when he took over after Marston died. Under his direction, Wonder Woman lost her complexity, resulting in a character who was no longer unique, whose heroic mission was a hassle that stopped her from getting married, who didn’t fight real criminals, who let her boyfriend aggressively control their relationship, and who lacked any sort of metaphor or subtext other than the importance of romance and marriage.

Kanigher wasn’t the only one who twisted Wonder Woman in knots, however. Gloria Steinem famously did the same thing back in 1972 when she and her publishing crew put the character on the cover of the very first issue of Ms. magazine. Her intentions were honorable, but Steinem projected her own values onto Wonder Woman. She created an historic icon that conveniently reflected her own beliefs instead of accurately depicting Marston’s original brand of feminism.

Ultimately, there is no “true” version of Wonder Woman, says Hanley. “She is a powerful, vibrant woman in a sea of male characters, and for this she is loved.” But today she is an empty corporate icon with a long history of messy contradictions.

Without a doubt, Wonder Woman Unbound proves that Wonder Woman has the most peculiar and fascinating history of any comic book character. And we love her for it. But you have to wonder—what makes her such a cultural touchstone? Is it the early Marston stories? Is it Lynda Carter? What exactly makes her so beloved? Hanley thinks he has the answer. “She isn’t a great character despite her contradictions,” he writes, “but because of them.”

[Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World's Most Famous Heroine / By Tim Hanley / First Printing: April 2014 / ISBN: 9781613749098]

Posted in DC Characters, Of Interest | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Victims of Change

SWODBack in 1977, we wrote a novel based on the songs from Young Loud and Snotty, the debut album by the Dead Boys. Good Lord, it was awful. But don’t judge us too harshly. We were young and wayward, and there was something about that particular album that inspired us to write a punk rock libretto.

Undoubtedly, author Thom Brannan feels the same way about Sad Wings of Destiny, the second and highly influential album by Judas Priest. Not only did he pinch the album’s title for his novel, but he let the lyrical content guide his muse. And who are we to judge between the merits of punk rock and the new wave of British heavy metal? Frankly, Brannan’s novel is a whole lot better than the piece of shit we produced. (And for those of you who may mock anyone who finds inspiration in a Judas Priest album, all we can say is this: at least the author didn’t seek counsel in the music of Stryper or Insane Clown Posse.)

Most of the superheroes and villains in Brannan’s latest novel are tainted by heaven and science. And when you think about it, the music of Judas Priest, especially in the early days, features the same kind of uneasy alliance. Simply listen to a few of the songs from Sad Wings of Destiny (notably “Genocide,” “The Ripper,” and “Tyrant”) and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what is going on here.

Everything revolves around the friendship between Archon, a holy warrior guided by the Archangel Uriel, and Spring-Heeled Jack, a self-made hero infused with advanced nanotechnology. Each man is driven by his own unique circumstances. One is a defender of the faith and the other is screaming for vengeance. (We could go on and on with the Priest puns. But we’ll stop here.)

The story contains a ridiculous Despicable Me-like plot to steal the moon. Don’t get us wrong, we adore ridiculous plot points. But for us, the most interesting thing about the novel is Spring-Heeled Jack’s surprising powerplay. He develops technology to “depower” supervillains and he enlists the U.S. government to help him do so.

But what happens when all the supervillains are gone? The answer is simple. The government steps in and uses the same depowering technology to wipe out all the “extraneous” superheroes. Says Galax, one of the deposed heroes: “And now, let us usher in a new era, one without the need for intervention of ultra-humans. An era where the responsibilities of law and order fall on the shoulders of the brave men and women in civic service.”

No disrespect, of course. But isn’t the government acting a little rash? Archon thinks so. He survives the superhero genocide (along with his pal Spring-Heeled Jack), but he’s not happy about the turn of events. “An entire society has turned its back on its saviors,” he says in a moment of reflection. “I’m talking about a civilization of sheep, giving up freedoms to snuggle more securely in their blanket of ignorance.” Holy flash pots! If that doesn’t sound like lyrical grist for an upcoming Judas Priest album, we don’t know what does.

[Sad Wings of Destiny / By Thom Brannan / First Printing: April 2014 / ISBN: 9781618682550]

Posted in Original Characters, Published in 2014 | Tagged , ,

Angel Heartbreak

Revolution3Now that we’ve reached the third volume of the Secret World Chronicle, we respectfully claim the right to bitch about certain reoccurring characters and subplots. After nearly 1,400 pages, we’ve put in our time.

Don’t get us wrong. Mercedes Lackey and her crew have done a fine job of creating a huge interlocking superhero universe. And they’ve concocted an elaborate Earth-shaking alien invasion to keep everyone busy. Up to this point, we’ve (mostly) enjoyed the ride—the first book of the series (Invasion) even made it onto our year-end Top 5 list back in 2011.

We actually like most of the cast. Two of our favorites include Bill, the Mountain (soon to return, we hope), and Red Djinni, a shape-shifter who likes to baffle adversaries (and delight girlfriends) by rearranging his face to look like George Clooney, Daniel Day-Lewis, and/or Brad Pitt. Our favorite character, however, remains Natalya Shostakovich, the Russian superhero expatriate who is helping the U.S. defeat the Nazi space invaders. She’s a bit cartoony, but her humor (intentional or otherwise) and unwavering commitment to old-school communism makes us laugh every time she shows up. She is restless and irrepressible—like a wolf cub that needs a chew toy.

But the series definitely has a gaggle of characters we dislike. And when these cast members show up, as they do frequently in this novel, our enthusiasm for the Secret World Chronicle wanes considerably. So be it. Everybody has his or her preferences and we have ours. For us, this is definitely the weakest book in the series.

Our main problem centers around a character named Seraphym. She’s an angel (correction: an “instrument of the Infinite”) who pops up regularly to dispense heavenly counsel. She could easily defeat the Thulian invasion with her celestial power. But instead, she is maddeningly obtuse and ineffectual. “The love of the seraphim,” says the authors, “was more and yet somehow less.” Whatever that means.

Anything to do with this angel makes us grind our teeth. For example, over the course of the series she has developed a friendship with a rogue super soldier named John Murdock—another gloomy character. Sporadically these two wet blankets convene on rooftops to engage in heart-to-heart philosophical and spiritual conversations. These gabfests are tortured and tedious with lots of vague references to “The Heart of All Time.” All this chitchat is just twiddle-twaddle to us.

In a not unexpected decision, the authors have finally allowed Seraphym and her mortal boyfriend to consummate their love for each other. In a way, this union represents the climax of the series so far (no pun intended). But their sexual encounter is completely laughable. The angel enters Murdock’s bedroom “innocently unclothed as Eve.” But how can this be? Angels don’t get naked, do they? They’re all fiery and ethereal like a Sulamith Wülfing painting. Most likely they simply “banish the thought of clothing” and get down to business.

To be fair, all authors struggle when writing sex scenes. And it’s especially tricky business when Biblical creatures lie down with horny superheroes. After an appropriate amount of pages dedicated to foreplay, Seraphym and Murdock “join in fire and joy” and the book ends with a big surprising postcoital bang. Uh-oh, it looks like there’s going to be an angel crying in her pillow tonight.

[Revolution: Book Three of the Secret World Chronicle / By Mercedes Lackey, Cody Martin, Dennis Lee, and Veronica Giguere / First Printing: January 2014 / ISBN: 9781451639322]

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