Superhero Novels: The Best of 2014 and a Peek at 2015

REEDSUEKISS GOOD2014 was definitely the year of the tiger as far as we’re concerned. Nick Harkaway’s latest novel featured a substantial superhero storyline and we are happy to embrace it as our favorite novel of the year. But really, when we think about it, all the novels on our yearend best-of list are roarsome. There’s nothing “inferior” about these five books (sorry about the silly pun). Here in recap are the best superhero novels of 2014.

1) Tigerman by Nick Harkaway. Could Harkaway’s novel be the future of superhero fiction? We hope so. It’s the story of a lonely man living at the end of the world who transforms himself into a crimefighting vigilante. He is Tigerman. Hear him roar!

2) Minion by John David Anderson. It doesn’t matter if you’re a superhero sidekick or a supervillain minion. Growing up is hard. And making the right decisions along the way is even harder. Anderson’s got an easy-going (and slightly poetic) flair for telling these sorts of stories. An excellent follow-up to last year’s Sidekicked.

3) The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. The creators have taken a long-forgotten Golden Age superhero and given him a backstory that touches upon the immigrant experience, still-relevant Chinese cultural stereotypes, and the struggles of assimilation. Long live the Green Turtle!

4) The Indestructibles by Matthew Phillion. When assembling a superhero team it’s best to appoint a sorcerer supreme to lead them into battle. It worked for the Defenders back in 1971. And it worked for the Indestructibles in 2014. Highly recommended by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth.

5) Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn. Keeping secrets is an important part of the superhero lifestyle. But therapists and life coaches agree: Lying to your friends and sneaking around in spandex is a lousy way to live life as a mature human being. It is, however, splendid grist for a novel.

The start of a new year always brings the promise of more exciting superhero fiction to come. Now that we’ve bottled 2014, let’s look forward to 2015 (colloquially known as the Age of Ultron). Here’s a highly selective list of books we’ll be reading in the next 12 months.

Ant-Man: Natural Enemy by Jason Starr. Arrow: Vengeance by Oscar Balderrama and Lauren Certo. Avengers: Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Dan Abnett. Battlestorm by Susan Krinard. Citizen Skin by Stephen T. Brophy. Day of the Destroyers edited by Gary Phillips. Deadpool: Paws by Stefan Petrucha. Deceptive by Emily Lloyd-Jones. The Dragons of Heaven by Alyc Helms. Ex-Isle by Peter Clines. Firefight by Brandon Sanderson. Gailsone: Head of the Dragon by Casey Glanders. The Green Lama: Crimson Circle by Adam Lance Garcia. The Halo Effect by Ben Langdon. H.I.V.E.: Deadlock by Mark Walden. The Incredible Space Raiders from Space! by Wesley King. Less than Hero by S.G. Browne. Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond. School for Sidekicks by Kelly McCullough. Secret Wars by Alex Irvine. Wild Cards IV: Aces Abroad by George R.R. Martin and crew. The Worst Thing About Saving the World by Christopher Healy.

Posted in Best Of, Published in 2014 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

The Invincible Mega Girl

SFPIn 1991, the earth witnessed an unprecedented meteorological event. For five and a half weeks, over 90 percent of the planet’s surface suffered mass flooding, soil erosion, and large-scale climate and terrain changes. Years later, it was discovered that this cosmic event created the first generation of “biodynamic” individuals. In other words: Superheroes.

Of all these superheroes, Alison Green was the most powerful. Taking the name Mega Girl (“It was literally the first name I thought of,” she says), Alison was invincible and stronger than any human alive. As a teenager, she became famous for her dedication to crimefighting. A wrecking ball (her weapon of choice) became her iconic calling card.

But being a superhero isn’t as self-fulfilling as you might think. “I love fighting,” she confesses at one point. “I love the blood. I love the heat. I love breaking shit. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at. And the fact that it never makes anything better just fucking kills me.”

Because of this ongoing angst, Alison quits her superhero gig and tries to reinvent herself as a normal college freshman. This is where Strong Female Protagonist (Book One) starts.

It’s hard to turn your back on superhero infamy, however. Even though she hung up her cape and domino mask when she was 19, everyone still knows Alison’s “secret” identity. This can be messy, particularly when scary supervillains hunt her down for a little payback. Plus: her old pals, the Guardians (a young Teen Titans-like aggregate), are constantly asking for backup.

Despite the simple declarative book title, Strong Female Protagonist contains plenty of complexity and nuance. There’s nothing “simple” about Alison’s mega existential crisis. She enjoys crushing rocks with her bare hands. But later she wonders, “Am I still me?” For answers, she is encouraged to read All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. (We’re not joking.)

The book stumbles occasionally when the characters (especially Alison) start monologuing. But overall, the creators have produced a reflective comic narrative that offers a new (and welcome) perspective on the superhero genre.

Since this is a comic book, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the contributions of Molly Ostertag. Her artwork is deceptively simply but her skills are sturdy enough to provide the emotional weight of Alison and her biodynamic buddies (especially Feral, whose situation is heartbreakingly tragic). Can you imagine if Jim Lee drew this graphic novel? Naw-yeah, it would be a mess. The ongoing Mega Girl story definitely puts Ostertag squarely in genre-busting territory.

Ostertag is also good at producing a string of memorable images throughout the book. Early on, for example, her full-page illustration of Alison leaping across a crowded New York Intersection is terrific. And later, Mega Girl is shown stuffing (and firing!) a gun into her mouth. It’s a highly disturbing drawing and reminds us of an old Black Flag album cover. Raymond Pettibon’s got nothing on Mighty Molly Ostertag.

[Strong Female Protagonist: Book One / By Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag / First Printing: November 2014 / ISBN: 9780692246184]

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

Sodality of Malefactors

AntagonistsSuperhero teams come together in a handful of ways. For example, the collective members might be the same age (Tiny Titans) or they might be related to each other (Hawk & Dove). They might even share a similar life experience (Inhumans). Or, in the case of the Justice League of America, they could simply be thrown together haphazardly.

Most teams, however, unite because of a common goal. The Howling Commandos were drafted to fight the Axis Alliance during WWII. And 20 years later, the Avengers assembled for the first time to defeat a pest named Loki.

And that’s how the Astounding Antagonists were formed. Like the Sinister Six, the Frightful Four, and the Legion of Super-Villains, they joined forces for one simple reason: to smash superheroes.

“Our enemies call themselves the American Division,” says Coltan, the newest member of the Antagonists. “They’re misguided. They use their power to maintain the status quo. They ignore problems that they don’t feel like addressing.”

Coltan is right. The superheroes in Rafael Chandler’s super novel are all self-centered blowhards who have been tainted by years of privilege and celebrity (a few of these alpha turds arrogantly call themselves the Black Belt Billionaires when they’re out clubbing). They manipulate world events to suit their own agenda and they’re always looking for ways to bolster their private bank accounts. It’s the supervillain’s job to stir things up.

“The world’s a complicated place,” says Baelphegor, the strongest and scariest of the funky bunch, “and it’s not like you have a chance in Hell of solving any real problems. No one does. So you pick some people to screw with — people you hold responsible for contributing to the misery.”

Not unsurprisingly, the superheroes are actually trying to do something sneaky. And their nefarious plan gives the Protagonists a whiff of righteous vigor. It all culminates in a brutal street brawl with lots of accusations, recriminations, and payback. It’s like a giant crossover event scribbled on a napkin by James Robinson and Marv Wolfman.

The protagonists are ultimately smashed (mission accomplished!). But even in the glow of victory, the Antagonists continue to live as outlaws in their own moral gray zone. But that’s okay, says Dr. Agon, the leader of the pack: “It wasn’t the having, it was the taking, like stealing moments of joy when life wasn’t looking: the glitter of a diamond plucked from a rich girl’s finger, the sweetness of someone else’s cake, the sunshine of a world stolen from heroes.”

[The Astounding Antagonists / By Rafael Chandler / First Printing: October 2014 / ISBN: 9781502894540]

Posted in Original Characters, Published in 2014 | Tagged ,

Live! In the Link Age 11.28.14

Girl PowerMy First Book of Super-Villains by David Bar Katz (First Printing: October 2014 / ISBN: 9781935703181) promises to teach children the difference between right and wrong. Here’s the sales pitch: “From the Joker and Penguin to Sinestro and Bizarro, DC’s cast of bad guys humorously illustrate the difference between good and bad behavior (like sharing versus stealing).” Huh? Do we really want our kids taking tips about social decorum from the Joker? That seems wrong to us. Instead, check out My First Book of Girl Power by Julie Merberg (First Printing: October 2014 / ISBN: 9781941367032). Unlike the Super-Villain book, this one promises to be a bit more in sync with its readership: “Exploring attributes from physical strength to intuition, this introduction to DC’s super heroines is also a catalog of role models for little girls.”

Get ready for a bunch of tie-in novels to be released during the first six months of next year. First out of the gate is a prose adaptation of Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, the popular comic book series from 30 years ago (Secret Wars / By Alex Irvine / First Printing: January 2015 / ISBN: 9780785191001). Next up is Arrow: Vengeance (By Oscar Balderama and Lauren Certo / First Printing: March 2015 / ISBN: 9781783294848), the first novel based on the hit TV show featuring Starling City’s favorite verdant vigilante. Two Avengers novels pop up in April. Avengers: Age of Ultron (The Junior Novel / First Printing: April / ISBN: 9780316256445) and Avengers: Everybody Wants to Rule the World (By Dan Abnett / First Printing: April 2015 / ISBN: 9780785193005). In May, the eagerly awaited Lois Lane YA novel will be available in stores (Fallout / By Gwenda Bond / First Printing: May 2015 / ISBN: 9781630790059). And don’t forget about Ant-Man. Not only will we see him on the big screen next summer, but we’ll be reading his adventures too (Ant-Man: Natural Enemy / By Jason Starr / First Printing: June 2015 / ISBN: 9780785193234) and Ant-Man: The Junior Novel (First Printing: June 2015 / 9780316256742).

Interviews: Jim Zoetewey, author of The Legion of Nothing. James Robinson, author of All-New Invaders. Forest Parker Dewayne Haslet, author of Untouchable.

Reviews: The Indestructibles: Breakout by Matthew Phillion (here). Strong Female Protagonist by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag (here). The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore (here, here, and here). Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (here). Superheroes Anonymous by Lexie Dunne (here). Powerless by Matthew Cody (here).

For your reading pleasure: “Gailsone: No Man’s Land” by Casey Glanders. With Great Power edited by John L. French and Greg Schauer. Sons of Thunder by Bowen Greenwood. Big Hero 6 Junior Novelization by Irene Trimble. Tomb Raider: The Ten Thousand Immortals by Dan Abnett and Nik Vincent. Synthetic Mind by Mitch Michaelson. Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 by Jiro Kuwata. She-Hulk Vol. 2: Disorderly Conduct by Charles Soule and Javier Pulido (available 04.07.15). Going Through the Change: A Menopausal Superhero Novel by Samantha Bryant (available 04.24.15). Battlestorm by Susan Krinard (available 08.25.15).

Posted in Live! In the Link Age | Tagged ,

Gakuen Alice

RedRookRed Rook is only the second full-length novel in the Gailsone series. But author Casey Glanders has already done a great job of building an expansive universe surrounding his lead character, Alice “Dyspell” Gailsone.

For 10 years Gailsone was a criminal mastermind and the most dangerous woman in the world. During her time with the Purge (a global organization of super efficient terrorists) she was known as the woman of a thousand woes, the Mistress of Dark Magic, and the Queen of Pain. But recently she switched teams and signed the “Open Hand Act,” a law that granted amnesty to any supervillain who agreed to renounce their ways and reintegrate into society. For more details, check out the first book, Big in Japan.

Now working for the Collective Good (a S.H.I.E.L.D.-like superhero organization) Dyspell is experiencing a bumpy learning curve. She’s discovered that you can’t simply renounce villainy one day and embrace heroism the next. Things don’t work that way. Just ask Emma Frost or Natasha Romanova or any of the former members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Being a reformed supervillain ain’t easy.

Because of her sudden change of allegiance, Gailsone’s life has become super complicated. Not only does she have unfinished Purge business to take care of, but she also has to play nice with a bunch of grumpy superheroes. There’s good news, however. In this latest adventure, she saves the world from economic collapse and absorbs a radiation blast from a nuclear bomb. That should earn some brownie points with her new colleagues.

Not only does Red Rook expand upon the author’s superhero universe, but it also fills the universe with a riot of great female characters. There’s Alice Gailsone, of course. But she’s not the only Gailsone in this series. There’s Allison, Holly, and her mother, Dorothy too. They’re all pips.

Beyond the Gailsone clan, the cast also includes a deadly assassin named Aika Fukijima (code name: Lotus), an executive superhero named Victoria Green, (code name: Blackbird), and Eedee, the hardworking Multi-Environmentally Enhanced Electronic Detonation Device. And to stir up trouble, there’s a mysterious villainess named Anna May (“no real code name,” she says).

All of these women are unique and fun and say inappropriate things at inappropriate times. They’ve all traveled interesting paths in life and their personalities reflect the scars (both physical and mental) they’ve earned along the way. But most of all, Alice Gailsone and her team follow their own flexible moral code with great gusto. And it doesn’t matter if they have to burn down Tokyo or detonate a nuclear bomb — they get the job done.

[Gailsone: Red Rook / By Casey Glanders / First Printing: July 2014 / ISBN: 9781500438036]

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

Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron

AftershockHere we are on the seventh volume of author Mark Walden’s ongoing superspy/supervillain series. And for the most part, despite some nitpicking, we’ve enjoyed each outing so far. The kids at the Higher Institute of Villainous Education are a scrappy and likeable bunch. And when they graduate, we have no doubt they will rule the world like a velvet glove cast in iron.

It’s ironic, however, that our favorite characters in this H.I.V.E. series are the grownups. Don’t get us wrong. We like Otto Malpense, the human computer, Franz Argentblum, the newly christened “ninja assassin,” and all the rest of the teenage gang. But the adults provide the conflict that propels the series forward. And, more importantly, they provide the backstory that gives everything context. The kids are awesome, but at this point they’re only reacting to the evil machinations of the Global League of Villainous Enterprises.

Our three favorite characters include: Diabolus Darkdoom, the infamous criminal mastermind who rules the seas in his stealth submarine, the Megalodon; Dr. Maximilian Nero, the headmaster of H.I.V.E. who recently ascended to the top of the G.L.O.V.E. food chain, and; Natalya (codename: Raven) who is widely regarded as the world’s deadliest assassin.

Of the three, it is Raven who has emerged as the rock star of the series. In the first two books (The Higher Institute of Villainous Education and The Overlord Protocol), she was relegated to babysitting and mentoring duties. But over time, the author has given her more to do. And in this book, he’s (finally!) given us a meaningful glimpse into her origin story.

Like the students at H.I.V.E., Natalya was groomed for a future of villainy. She spent her formative years in the Glasshouse, “the most sophisticated operative training facility on Earth.” It was during her time at the Glasshouse when she picked up her nickname Raven. And it was during this time when she was honed as a human weapon. “She’s going to be dangerous,” noted one of her teachers. “No,” said another. “She is going to be magnificent.”

Raven’s past is filled with brutality and sadness. And it adds up to a big novel-ending twist. It’s pretty terrific. The rest of the novel is a little bit of a letdown, however. During the first half of the book, Otto and his friends concoct a complicated Rube Goldberg-like scheme to hack into their school’s computer system (their goal is to grab a copy of an upcoming exam, btw). And in the second half of the book they are enlisted to participate in a Battle Royale-like game of survival. Both endeavors turn out to be a total bust. Thankfully, Raven comes to the rescue. Not only does she save the H.I.V.E. kids when their plans go awry. But she also gives us a reason to read the next volume in the series (H.I.V.E.: Deadlock, available 02.24.15).

[H.I.V.E.: Aftershock / By Mark Walden / First Printing: April 2014 / ISBN: 9781442494671]

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

Girl on Fire

BurningMan“I don’t have superpowers,” says Olivia Dunham scoffing at the notion that she was some kind of superhero. But we beg to differ.

During the five years Fringe was on TV, and here in the second of three supplemental Fringe novels, Olivia shows a tendency to trigger electrical disturbances and fires when emotionally agitated. And her predilection for Cortexiphan-induced pyrokinetic tumult gives her the ability to cause troublesome neuroquake havoc. And, on top of everything else, she also holds the key to an alternative universe. She most definitely has superpowers. And it wouldn’t be a stretch to call her a superhero either.

The Burning Man begins in 1982 when a young Olivia Dunham unwittingly participates in Dr. Walter Bishop’s misguided experiments with a crazy drug called Cortexiphan. The novel attempts to fill in the 26-year-gap between her early years in Florida and her early years as an FBI Special Agent in Boston.

As a teenager, Olivia describes herself as a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. And that’s true. She was a kid from the ghetto with a dispirited mother and an abusive stepfather. Once her pyrokinetic superpowers emerged, however, she was whisked away to an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts—tuition paid by a mysterious tech conglomerate called Massive Dynamic.

Unfortunately, Olivia’s life doesn’t calm down once she reaches Deerborn Academy. In successive order, she is harassed by her stepfather, hunted by a serial killer, and marked for “special treatment” by a doctor who wants to beget a new race of superhuman progeny. And don’t forget about the Observers. They’re on the sidelines silently watching Olivia the whole time.

Honestly, there’s not much we liked about this book. The entire thing is a hot mess. And that’s too bad. We had minor quibbles with Christa Faust’s first Fringe novel (The Zodiac Paradox). But overall we enjoyed reading about Walter Bishop, William Bell, and Nina Sharp as a trio of bumbling hippies. This time, however, Faust never finds her groove. The novel features three separate supervillains (in three separate storylines) each with their own separate scheme to destroy Olivia. To call it disjointed would be an understatement.

But the author’s biggest stumble is her inability, despite endless stabs at character-defining exposition, to bring young Olivia Dunham to life. On the TV show, Olivia was an important part of the Fringe triumvirate. But solo, she’s barely recognizable. Admittedly, she’s a high school kid for most of the book (how many of us are fully formed by the age of 16, after all?). But Faust never truly captures Olivia’s core identity. Instead, she is called “a lonely badass.” Readers have to fill in the rest. Let’s hope this novel doesn’t become official Fringe canon. Olivia Dunham, superhero, deserves better.

[Fringe: The Burning Man / By Christa Faust / First Printing: August 2013 / ISBN: 9781781163115]

Posted in Film/TV, Published in 2013 | Tagged , ,