Live! In the Link Age 04.19.14

PrimevalAnointed with preternatural powers by a council of Pakistani spirits, Ahad Bhai is slowly learning more about his newfound responsibilities as Sergeant Pakistan (“Primeval” / By Syed Hamdani / First Printing: April 2014). First on his to-do list is to squash a reprobate named Ba’al Hadad who recently escaped from an antimatter prison in Antarctica. Young Bhai still has a lot to learn about being a superhero, but he needs to get to the South Pole right away before things get messy. Call this one Sergeant Pakistan: The Winter Soldier.

Most people go to the opera for a night of music and spectacle. Dinner afterward might be nice too. But Alice Gailsone has other plans (“Gailsone: A Night at the Opera” / By Casey Glanders / First Printing: January 2014). She’s not interested in La Cenerentola or anything else by Gioachino Rossini. She’s come to the Sydney Opera House with hopes of bagging a foppish billionaire and squeezing a little bit of ransom money out of him. It was, she figured, an easy way to boost her employer’s bank account. Unfortunately, the night doesn’t end the way she thought it would. Secret identities, secret agendas, covert operations, drunken shenanigans, and a scary techno-shifting monster conspire against her. One good thing happens, however. Gailsone is left with a one-of-a-kind memento from her night in Australia—a selfie of her hostage with his face buried deep in her cleavage. Good times!

When author Nicholas Ahlhelm announced (via Kickstarter) his intention to tackle a monthly publishing schedule for his latest project, we applauded him before a single word was written. Comic books have conquered episodic storytelling and it’s time superhero prose fiction did the same. “Dreams” (First Printing: December 2013) is the opening chapter of Ahlhelm’s ongoing Lightweight serial and it introduces readers to a high school senior named Kevin Mathis with burgeoning telekinetic powers. In concert with his best friend Andy Case, and his wannabe girlfriend Millicent Bryant, Kevin butts heads with a school bully and a giant killer robot. “This is the end. My life just changed forever,” says Kevin after embracing his metahuman legacy. What he actually means, however, is that this is just the beginning.

The Pen and Cape Society is a newly formed association of writers who share a passion for superhero fiction. According to charter member, Ian Thomas Healy, the site will eventually offer “exclusive content not available anywhere else on the Internet, articles penned by some of the greatest writers working in the superhero fiction field today, and contests with free stuff.” That’s cool. Also on the horizon, expect to see a Pen and Cape Society-endorsed anthology sometime later this year. Follow the gang on Twitter here.

Fans of superhero fiction should also check out Ka-BOOMers, the new fan group on Goodreads. The inclusive club welcomes readers, writers, and reviewers of all sorts of superhero genre fiction—including prose, comics, movies, and television.

“There are a lot of differences between comic books and superhero fiction, and it’s not just about the number of words and pictures,” says Ben Langdon, author of The Miranda Contract. He talks further about the joys of reading comic books and the expanding potential of superhero prose fiction here. More jibber-jabber: Adam Lance Garcia, author of The Green Lama: Scions and Ian Thomas Healy, author of Jackrabbit.

The School Library Journal reviews a handful of recent middle-grade novels featuring superheroes and supervillains, including The Ultra Violets #2: Power to the Purple! By Sophie Bell, Almost Super by Marion Jensen, Villains Rising by Jeramey Kraatz, Hero Worship by Christopher E. Long, and School for Villains by Bruno Vincent.

More reviews: V is for Villain by Peter Moore (here). Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Supervillain by Richard Roberts (here). The Bone Queen by Andrea Judy (here). Wild Cards (Book 1) edited by George R.R. Martin (here). Grimm: The Chopping Block by John Passarella (here). Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox by Christa Faust (here). Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas (here).

For your reading pleasure: Jackrabbit by Ian Thomas Healy. Lost in the Stars by Carol A. Strickland. The Other Eight by Joseph R. Lallo. H.E.R.O. – Augments by Kevin Rau. Sad Wings of Destiny by Thom Brannan. “Gailsone: Blackbird’s Song” by Casey Glanders. Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas. Lankyman – A World Without Heroes by Greg Jackson. Real Heroes Cry by Kieran Gould-Dowen. Cause and Effect by Christopher Francis. Sky Shatter by Michael John Olson. Heroic Abduction by Eve Langlais. Amy Allen: Superhero and Finding Amy both by Tim Ruggenberg.

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The Incredible Marie Severin

SeverinMarie Severin had a unique and amazing career in comic books. Harvey Kurtzman recruited her to join the EC bullpen in the ’50s. And a decade later, when Stan Lee needed a little help, she joined the Merry Marvel Marching Society. She spent most of her time as a colorist and an in-house troubleshooter, but she was also a pretty good artist herself. The author of this chatty bio calls Severin a comic book icon and we agree. She was one of a kind.

“She did lots of things,” says Dennis O’Neil, who spent time as an editorial assistant at Marvel during the ’60s. “Art corrections, spot illos, paste-up, comic book stories—if it could be done from behind a drawing board, Marie could do it.”

O’Neil is right. Severin understood the craft of comics better than most people. She developed a coloring philosophy at EC which later became the industry standard, she designed nearly every cover for Marvel from 1968 to 1972, and she tutored dozens of young guns who pursued careers in comic bookery. John Romita says that Severin was Stan Lee’s ace in the hole. And it’s hard to imagine what Marvel (and EC) comics would have looked like without her contributions.

Looking back at her oeuvre, we still think her interpretation of the Hulk was better than everyone else’s. These days, the character is a scary looking thing. It’s hard to work up any sympathy for him. But during Severin’s tenure, he was a pathetic creature and a reflection of society. Severin’s Hulk was both powerful and likable at the same time.

After signing off on The Incredible Hulk, Severin teamed up with her brother John to produce nine spectacular issues of Kull the Conqueror. At this point, the brother-sister combo was at the top of their game and some people consider Kull to be Severin’s best illustrative work.

We liked Kull too, but Severin was an inspired humorist beyond superhero and sword-and-sorcery comics. And as such, we prefer her contributions to Not Brand Echh. For 13 issues, Severin gleefully injected an insane amount of silliness into the Marvel mythology. In our opinion, her work on Not Brand Echh was on par with the stuff Mad magazine was pumping out at the time.

Mark Evanier agrees. “Without question, she should have been in Mad magazine,” says the comics veteran. “She could have added so much to that publication, and she could have gotten much closer to finding the place where she belonged. Because, spiritually, I don’t think she belonged in superhero comics.”

Regardless of any missed opportunities at Mad or anywhere else, Marie Severin was a trailblazer and an anomaly in a male dominated business. How many female comic book artists, for instance, can you name during her time at EC and Marvel? Herb Trimpe, who worked side-by-side with her for numerous years, put it best: “She was equally as competent if not more so than anyone in the industry. She had excellent versatility and her range was broad. She could draw superheroes, horror comics, westerns, science fiction or anything in between. There really wasn’t anything she couldn’t do.” In conclusion, says Trimpe, “Marie Severin excelled as a professional, as well as being a wonderful and amazing human being.” Nuff said.

[Marie Severin: The Mirthful Mistress of Comics / By Dewey Cassell with Aaron Sultan / First Printing: July 2012 / ISBN: 9781605490427]

Posted in Of Interest, Published in 2012 | Tagged , , , , ,

You Say You Want a Revolution

RevolutionAccording to author Michael Ivan Lowell, a second Great Depression will cripple the United States in the near future. With no relief in sight, the president and congress will look for guidance from the private sector. Thus summoned, the 25 biggest companies in the country will come to the rescue.

The good news is that the government’s gambit works. The U.S. will ultimately avoid financial ruin. The bad news, however, is that America will be hijacked by Time Warner Cable, Wal-Mart, Monsanto, and a host of shady oil companies and needy automobile manufacturers.

The Suns of Liberty: Revolution begins 10 years after the second Great Depression ends. The Freedom Council—a consortium of business leaders who have usurped control of the United States—is now telling people what to do. It’s up to a small group of superheroes called the Suns of Liberty to adopt a second Declaration of Independence and reclaim their country’s old glory. Taking a tip from their pal John Lennon, they’re all doing what they can.

The leader of the Suns of Liberty was a guy named the Revolution. Not much was known about him. To some he was a modern-day Robin Hood. To others, he was a guardian of the Constitution and democracy (in other words, a sworn enemy of the Freedom Council). And to others he was a fascist, a fraud, and the most dangerous man alive. Media Corp, a broadcasting organization that manufactured news to suit the new regime, called him “Darth Vader wrapped in a flag.”

Even his cohorts didn’t know much about him. He didn’t have an alter ego or a secret identity. In fact, his costume was permanently grafted to his skin. He couldn’t take it off even if he wanted to. Unlike his entourage of super friends (Spider Wasp, Lantern, Stealth, Hunley, Helius, and Saratoga), the Revolution was a superhero 24 hours a day. His calendar was totally booked solid.

Appropriately, all of the action in this book takes place in Massachusetts (ground zero for the first Revolutionary War), and the heroes are all star-spangled, red-white-and-blue super patriots. There’s a lot of flag-waving and fervent speechifying involved—and all this national pride and love of democracy will surely appeal to anyone who thinks the United States needs a serious reboot. “When corporations become more powerful than governments, democracy dies,” says the Revolution at one point. “Corporate rule is nothing if not taxation without representation. We are the Suns of Liberty, and the Republic will rise again.” Get ready for the American Revolution, Part II.

[The Suns of Liberty: Revolution / By Michael Ivan Lowell / First Printing: March 2013 / ISBN: 9781484060810]

Posted in Original Characters, Published in 2013 | Tagged , ,

Powderpuff Girls

Superhero Tales“Male is not the default gender for superhero,” said She-Hulk in her prose novel debut last year. And we completely agree. It’s good to see, after so many years, that writers are finally, ever so slowly, starting to address the gender gap in superhero fiction. So long Captain KnuckleDragger and say hello to Captain Marvel.

But we’ve still got a long way to go before superheroes reach a tipping point of equality in comics, movies, and prose. And that’s why efforts like this are always a welcome sight. Superhero Tales (with an emphasis on superHERo) collects 27 short stories featuring a riot of female heroines. The boys, for once, can sit on the sidelines and cool their jets.

Beyond the gender specificity of this collection, there are some common threads that appear throughout the book. Female superheroes like to wear baggy, comfortable clothing (nobody has an armoire filled with go-go boots and plunging V-neck outfits). They’re young, athletic, and possess superpowers that reflect their feminine nature. Overall, they’re generally empathetic and generous with an eye toward charitable endeavors. In addition: rainbows are awesome.

We would love to recommend Superhero Tales but unfortunately we cannot. Mostly because the short stories in this collection aren’t even stories—they are stuttering false starts. Each author dutifully completes a dossier of facts pertaining to their superheroine (her name, her alter ego, her costume, how she got her powers, and “anything else important”) and then includes a frustratingly brief snippet (two-to-three pages) of narration that barely touches upon setting, situation, conflict, or resolution. Sadly, there’s very little dramatic structure whatsoever. Imagine reading an entire book written in bullet points. That’s sort of what we have here.

Superhero Tales is available in an expanded edition that includes a handful of illustrations. Unfortunately, many of these drawings are lousy. If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a dozen times: books should never include any sort of graphic element (design, illustrative, or otherwise) that isn’t one hundred percent professional. Amateur artwork will doom all publishing efforts to failure. That’s a fact. We’re a forgiving bunch and we’re hard-wired to love female superheroes. But we cannot celebrate mediocrity in any way.

For a better example of superheroines in prose, we highly recommend a book called Chicks in Capes. The anthology from 2011 puts an emphasis on gender. But unlike Superhero Tales, it’s a legitimate compilation filled with stories by authors who provide insight and perspective on the superhero genre. It’s terrific. In fact, we’re still waiting (hoping?) for a second volume to appear sometime soon.

[Superhero Tales: A Collection of Female Superhero Stories / Edited by Rebecca Fyfe / First printing: November 2013 / ISBN: 9781494312459]

Posted in Original Characters, Published in 2013, Short Story Collections | Tagged , , ,

Saved by Zero Hour

ZeroHourThe boys and girls who attend the Higher Institute of Villainous Education are being trained to become the next generation of malevolent supervillains. At H.I.V.E. they take classes in world domination and elementary evil. And one day they all hope to graduate with honors and begin their reign of terror.

Zero Hour is the sixth novel in Mark Walden’s likeable superspy/supervillain series. Up to this point, Otto Malpense and his friends have walked a fine line between villainous and virtuous behavior. Sure, they want to promote iniquity. But at the same time they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s been a delicate balance for the kids. How can you be a supervillain and a superhero at the same time?

Of course, there’s been slip-ups in the past. For example: In Dreadnought, the fourth novel in the series, Otto saved the life of the President of the United States. Uh-oh. That’s something the professors at H.I.V.E. definitely frown upon. If you weren’t paying attention, you might think the school’s name was actually an acronym for Higher Institute of Valorous Education.

Here in the latest novel, the author has finally thrown in the towel and allowed his characters to whole-heartedly embrace their good nature. Says Lucy Dexter, one of Otto’s classmates: “Just because we’re being taught how to manipulate and deceive doesn’t mean that’s the only path we can take.” She’s right, of course. Everyone makes choices in life. Just because your family tree is thick with thieves doesn’t mean you have to embrace your shady legacy.

Once again Otto and his friends must defeat their arch-nemesis Overlord, a pesky super computer that’s been trying to conquer the world for the past five novels. Frankly, it’s time the author unplugged this overachieving data processor. And the H.I.V.E. kids agree. “We’re gonna give Overlord the ass-kicking of a lifetime,” says Shelby Trinity.

What follows is a titanic battle featuring psychopathic AIs, giant mecha robot battles, flesh-eating nanites, submarine warfare, and nuclear explosions. It even features a little bit of kissing and PDA. It’s like we mentioned earlier: sometimes it’s up to the bad guys to save the world.

[H.I.V.E.: Zero Hour / By Mark Walden / First Printing: March 2012 / ISBN: 9781442421882]

Posted in Original Characters, Published in 2012 | Tagged , ,

The Fantastically Flawed Four

FFPeople forget how odd the Fantastic Four were back in 1961. Unlike other superheroes of the time, they didn’t have secret identities and they were treated like celebrities. And unlike their levelheaded counterparts in the Justice League, they often bickered, cried, squawked, and suffered from bouts of depression and hesitancy.

Now, of course, such things are commonplace in the world of comics. Celebrity superheroes suffer from angst and self-doubt all the time. If you’re sick of deconstructed superheroes, you can blame Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Ben Grimm, and Johnny Storm. They were the fantastically flawed bunch that started the whole damn thing.

Fifty years ago, the comic series, populated with an amazing array of monsters, aliens and freaks, grappled with existential problems that were (somewhat) in-tune with a mid-century culture struggling with a massive generational shift. Looking back, the Fantastic Four, along with creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, did a good job of reflecting the pulse of its era with insight and humor.

But it’s questionable whether the Fantastic Four remain relevant today. For evidence, take a look at the group’s big screen debut from 2005. The characters retained their core personality traits. And their situation was more-or-less preserved (in spirit, anyway). But the group had lost its zing. It was hard to be freaky and funny when the world around them was freaky and funny too. In our opinion, the film might have fared better as a period piece.

As you’d expect, the movie’s accompanying novelization suffers from the same fatal flaw. In a world filled with Watchmen and Dark Knights, there isn’t a place for the Fantastic Four. The book does, in a way, give long-time fans a few crumbs to nibble on. Wyatt Wingfoot, Willie Lumpkin, the Yancy Street Gang, Frankie Raye, J. Jonah Jameson, Fire Chief Stan Lieber, and even the Doom Patrol (!) all get name-checked at some point. Sharp readers may even pick up on a cute Ben Grimm/Michael Chiklis/John Belushi joke on page 80.

It’s questionable, however, whether these tidbits are enough to warrant a good review. We’re thinking not. The author, himself, seems a tad bored with his assignment. Johnny Storm is a hothead, Ben Grimm is a hard-ass, Reed Richards is limp (TMI), and Sue Storm is easy to see through. This type of descriptive language is rote, witless, and easy. On occasion, the author adds a bit of content not seen in the film. But even these moments don’t add extra value to the affair. At one time, The Fantastic Four was “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” Oh, how the times have changed.

[Fantastic Four / By Peter David / First Printing: May 2005 / ISBN: 9781416509806]

Posted in Marvel Characters | Tagged ,

Tokyo Pop

BigJapanIn his afterword, author Casey Glanders says that he wanted to write an adventure story involving a female lead that didn’t revolve around romance.

The author is trying to make a point (we think) about the preponderance of genre stories in which female protagonists are 1) consumed with love beyond everything else, and 2) subservient to a male character’s agenda. To this we say “Right on.”

But we also have to ask: “What’s wrong with a little romance?” Surely Lady Sif, Big Barda, and Diana Prince all have time for matters of the heart? Why deny them a little happiness?

Don’t get us wrong. We enjoyed Glanders’ novel. It’s actually quite good. It features a quirky heroine and her circle of morally flexible acquaintances. But we think the story would have been even better with some kind of romantic hook. Even a kick-ass superhero like Annalicia May Gailsone (code name: Dyspell) deserves a little love.

Gailsone was once second-in-command at Purge, a Hydra-like organization of super criminals. She was born with black magic powers that enabled her to rot, decompose, and break down any substance known to man. “While that alone was frightening, her unbridled mastery of it had been enough to earn her the title of Deadliest Woman in the World.” She was also known as the Dark Witch of Entropy and the Queen of Pain.

But all things come to an end. Gailsone (and her adopted niece, Allison) saw an opportunity to defect from Purge when the Open Hand Act offered amnesty to all supervillains. It was time for Dyspell to change teams and become a superhero. Wave goodbye to Purge and say hello to the Collective Good.

Her first assignment out of the gate was to travel to Japan and recruit and reform Lotus, the second deadliest woman in the world. Immediately Gailsone butts heads with the Dead Talon (a ruthless yakuza gang), an over-zealous industrialist, an underground spy network of kitsune soldiers, a golem that walks the streets of Tokyo dressed in Gundam-like mecha, and (of course) Lotus herself, the chief assassin for the Dead Talon.

Naturally, things don’t go smoothly for our newly christened hero. Yes, Dyspell ultimately completes her assignment and brings Lotus back the U.S. But in doing so she leaves a trail of death and destruction all over Japan. Annalicia May Gailsone was supposed to be one of the good guys now. But it turns out that she was very, very bad at it.

[Gailsone: Big in Japan / By Casey Glanders / First Printing: November 2013 / ISBN: 9781494283773]

Posted in Original Characters, Published in 2013 | Tagged , ,