The Dark Night

IndigoAt 19, Nora Hesper’s parents were gunned down in a dark alley. Flush with a large life insurance payout, she traveled to Nepal and studied the mystic arts in a mountainside monastery.

Returning to the U.S., she hooked up with Bruce Wayne, Stephen Strange, Danny Rand, and Jethro Dumont to form a chay-drinking klatch of supranatural superheroes.

Or did she? Nora’s memories were a bit fuzzy. Did Himalayan monks really grace her with esoteric powers? Or did she simply read too many Iron Fist comics when she was a kid?

As the crimefighting vigilante known as Indigo, Nora could slip in and out of shadows. Shifting darkness was an extension of her identity and she lived perpetually in the margins of reality. Was it any wonder Nora’s memory was hazy? It was hard to see your past when you were cloaked in shadows.

Putting her comic book-inspired identity crisis on hold for a second, Nora began investigating a string of grisly murders in her neighborhood. She was convinced that an international black magic cult was involved. “The Children of Phonos weren’t just socialite fucks dabbling in magic,” she said. Some of them were vicious, highly skilled killers who had performed blood sorcery 800 years before Mary whelped baby Jesus. In other words, they were the real deal.

But the “Phonoi” weren’t the worst of Nora’s problems. A demon by the name of Damastes had a grip on her too. In fact, Indigo’s shadow powers hadn’t come from a noble place at all. They came from a murder god who reveled in pain and carnage and despair. “Damastes is the source of my power,” she confessed. “He is the coal that burns in the furnace of my heart.”

In order to solve the serial killings, dismantle the Children of Phonos, and smash Damastes, Nora knew that she’d have to dive deep into darkness and find the light. But she wasn’t worried. She was an avenging angel and she wore her shadows like a halo.

It took 10 authors to tell Indigo’s origin story. As a result, the book was filled with a ton of crazy and offbeat ideas. Heck, we didn’t even mention the Eternal Sisterhood of Righteous Slaughter, the heykeli, Caedis, Rafe Bogdani, Sam Loh, and detectives Angela Mayhew and Hugh Symes. All of these characters were at the center of significant sub-plots that zigzagged throughout the novel. Congratulations Team Indigo. Real and fictive, you all did a bang-up job.

[Indigo / By Charlaine Harris, Christopher Golden, Kelley Armstrong, Jonathan Maberry, Kat Richardson, Seanan McGuire, Tim Lebbon, Cherie Priest, James A. Moore, and Mark Morris / First Printing: June 2017 / ISBN: 9781250076786]

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Legends of the Zodiac

BalancePowerWhat’s the mightiest of all astrological signs? Is it Scorpio? Taurus? Leo? It’s hard to qualify such a thing. When you think about it, perhaps the most powerful sign is Pisces. After all, water covers over three-fourths of the Earth’s surface. That’s a big wet empire for fish to govern.

In the Chinese zodiac there is no debate. The Dragon is easily the most vital and powerful of all twelve signs. “The Dragon’s power is inconceivable and impossible to describe,” says Jasmine, one of the Zodiac Legacy superkids. “It’s like all the fire in the world, burning behind your eyelids. Like a star.”

Jasmine knows what she’s talking about. She once possessed the power of the Dragon until it was snatched away from her. (For more details, read our reviews of the first two novels in the series, Convergence and The Dragon’s Return.) The Horse is fierce, the Ram is unstoppable, and the Rooster can let loose with a piercing scream that would put Black Canary out of business. But all of them are just flickering matches when compared to the mythical fire-breathing creature. “The Dragon is the whole blazing sun,” says Steven Lee, the hero of the book.

Somehow the Zodiac Kids have to find a way to snuff out the Dragon before it triggers an irreversible chain of earthquakes across the globe. “If all the volcanoes in the Ring of Fire exploded at once it would lead to massive ecological disaster,” explains Duane, the group’s tech-savvy Pig. “Billions would die or fall sick from the toxic gases released into the atmosphere.” That’s bad.

But why did the Dragon want to wipe out all known life on Earth? That’s a good question – one the author(s) never truly answer in a sufficient way. But whatever. Don’t think about it too much, says Duane. “The Dragon doesn’t think like the rest of us.”

The novel opens with a tricky rescue mission deep inside a volcano. Afterward, the Agents of Z.O.D.I.A.C. travel to the Sahara desert and later they board a rickety submersible vessel off the coast of Japan. And, of course, they confront the MechaDragon in an explosive 100-page endgame. Throughout, the action sequences are constructed like a video game written by Miyuki Miyabe. If you grew up playing video games and reading Japanese genre fiction (like we did), you’d certainly agree.

The Balance of Power may (or may not) be the final volume in the Zodiac Legacy series, but it satisfactorily concludes the gang’s first star-crossed mission. Steven and his pals were a disparate bunch of kids with mad celestial superpowers. And over the course of three novels, they came together as a team to save the world. Everything worked out in the end. “Piece of cake!” they all agreed.

[The Zodiac Legacy: The Balance of Power / By Stan Lee, Stuart Moore, and Andie Tong / First Printing: March 2017 / 9781484713518]

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Live! In the Link Age 06.13.17

RefrigeratorThe Refrigerator Monologues (By Catherynne M. Valente and Annie Wu / First Printing: June 2017 / ISBN: 9781481459341) is being touted as a Vagina Monologues for comic book heroines. The title refers to a plot device known as “Women in Refrigerators,” in which female characters are killed or injured to advance the ongoing story of the male superhero. The trope has been around forever, but it was given a name back in the ’90s by writer Gail Simone. Read an interview with Valente (here) and read an excerpt from her book (here). To find out more about the WiR trope, pick up a copy of Green Lantern #54.

Coming this fall: two new middle-grade novels based on the Flash and Supergirl TV shows. Supergirl: Age of Atlantis by Jo Whittemore (available 11.07.17) is about a humanoid sea creature and a surge in “super-citizens” in National City. The Flash: Hocus Pocus by Barry Lyga (available 10.03.17) takes place in an alternative timeline where Flashpoint never happened. “We’re big fans of the TV shows,” says a publishing rep. “We’re thrilled to be working with Warner Bros., the shows’ production teams, and the authors to introduce two epic new series featuring original adventures not seen on television.”

Shattergirl, an alien superhero with amazing strength, has always been aloof. But now she’s gone off the grid completely (Shattered / By Lee Winter / First Printing: June 2017 / ISBN: 783955335632). It’s up to bounty hunter Lena Martin to track down the rogue hero and bring her back home. “As the pair clash, masks begin to crack and brutal secrets are exposed,” says the publisher.

“By and large, the number of novels about the lives of superheroes isn’t a massive one,” writes Tobias Carroll in his double review of A Little More Human by Fiona Maazel and Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim. “It’s hard to say why: perhaps the archetypes of the genre are so well-established that they’re nearly impossible to avoid; perhaps it’s just harder to translate these kinds of stories into prose, as opposed to film.” Wrapping up his review, Carroll writes: “These are stories that could only be told via fiction, but they’re also stories that wouldn’t exist without a long history of comic book storytelling.”

Last Son of Krypton (1978) and Miracle Monday (1981) are two revered Superman novels written by Elliot S. Maggin. Miracle Monday, in particular, is well remembered by fans. Now the author has published a newly edited edition. And that means you don’t have to scour dusty used bookstores to find a copy. For more information, comic book tummler Greg Hatcher has a nice perspective on both novels (here).

Even though we saw it on opening day, we still haven’t publically commented on Wonder Woman’s big screen debut. But don’t worry; we’re planning to review the movie’s novelization in a couple of weeks. We’ll save all of our grand pronouncements until then. In the meantime, go ahead and check out author Carrie Vaughn’s initial thoughts on the movie (here).

Without a doubt, AdHouse Books is one of our favorite comic book publishers. Normally the company doesn’t venture anywhere near genre material. But a recent publication looks like a retro-pulp doozy. Tarantula (By Alexis Ziritt, Fabian Rangel, Jr., and Evelyn Rangel / First Printing: July 2017 / ISBN: 9781935233381) is Satanic noir about three people trying to bring justice to a world on the brink of chaos. It is, according to the publisher, “the pulp of yesterday retold through the lens of modern psychedelic storytelling.”

Reed Crandall: Illustrator of the Comics (By Roger Hill / First Printing: August 2017 / ISBN: 9781605490779) is an extensive history of one of the comic industry’s finest artists. We loved Crandall’s stuff with EC Comics and in early issues of Creepy and Eerie. But his work with superheroes (specifically Doll Man and Blackhawk) was awesome too. His cover of National Comics #26 is memorably iconic.

Interviews: Eugene Lim, author of Dear Cyborgs (here). Gwenda Bond, author of Lois Lane: Triple Threat (here). Tom King, author of A Once Crowded Sky (here). Trina Robbins, editor of A Bunch of Jews (and Other Stuff) (here).

Reviews: Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim (here and here). The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente and Annie Wu (here and here). Behind the Mask edited by Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson (here). Rabbit Heart by Barry Reese (here). Dreadnought by April Daniels (here). The Supergirl Storybook by Wendy Andrews (here). Do I Make Myself Clear? by Harold Evans (here).

For your reading pleasure: Captain America: The Never-Ending Battle by Robert Greenberger. Arsenal by Jeffery H. Haskell. Midnight by Stefani Chaney. War for the Planet of the Apes: Revelations by Greg Keyes. Superheroines and the Epic Journey: Mythic Themes in Comics, Film and Television by Valerie Estelle Frankel. Hero-A-Go-Go by Michael Eury. Groovy: When Flower Power Bloomed in Pop Culture by Mark Voger. Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere by Hillary L. Chute. Gothic Tales of Haunted Love edited by Hope Nicholson and Sam Beiko. Bonfire by Krysten Ritter (aka Jessica Jones).

Posted in Live! In the Link Age

Mighty BioMorphin’ Super Soldiers

LockdownThe super soldier concept was one of the most popular tropes in superhero fiction. With a simple injection, anybody could attain peak physical performance and operate beyond normal human abilities. Just look at Captain America, Deathstroke, and Mockingbird.

Of course, you didn’t have to drink super soldier juice to become a super patriot. Maria Hill, Alex Danvers, Lyla Michaels, and Steve Trevor were all elite commandos too. They couldn’t jump out of an airplane without a parachute or outrun cars on the highway, but they all performed admirably on and off the battlefield.

Another super soldier who’s done pretty well for himself was Mack Bolan. Since 1969 (and in over 600 novels) he’s been waging his own personal War Everlasting. And unlike Steve Rogers and his progeny, Bolan’s been doing it without enhancements of any kind. “In the perilous world of black ops,” wrote the author, “Bolan was the best there was, bar none.” They didn’t call him the Executioner for nothing.

Tucked away in a remote facility somewhere deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a cutting edge biopharmaceutical company called Harkin Industries was working on a super-soldier serum of it’s own. Sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Defense, its goal was to produce the soldier of the future – to enhance natural ability to a level never before conceived. “Imagine, if you will,” said Lex Luthor Harkin, the company’s CEO, “soldiers five times as strong as they normally were. Soldiers who never tired, and who were impervious to pain. Super soldiers who would be next to invincible.”

But super-soldier serums were notoriously volatile. After all these years, no one in the Marvel Universe had been able to replicate it, and Harkin was having trouble too. His scientists wanted to produce a squadron of Captain Americas, but instead their bioenhancer created a virus that turned humans into mindless adrenaline-fueled Man-Things.

An outbreak of the virus puts the Harkin lab in lockdown, and it’s up to Bolan and his Stony Man agents to arrest the situation. As you’d expect, the novel contains lots of super solder vs. super soldier fireworks. But it also contains a lot of commentary about human nature at its worse. Call us a misanthrope, but that’s the part we liked best. It’s kind of like a superhero version of the Billy Wilder film, Ace in the Hole.

In the end, the virus was contained and the Harkin Industries lab was smashed. Bolan and his crew saved the day. The super soldier program was dead. Long live the super soldiers.

[Lockdown / By David Robbins based on characters created by Don Pendleton / First Printing: December 2004 / ISBN: 9780373643134]

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The Stranger Within

ALittleMoreHumanA Little More Human was a novel about a guy named Phil Snyder, Jr., who could read minds. During the week he worked as a lowly nursing assistant at a top-secret medical research facility. But on weekends, he slipped into his superhero costume and became Brainstorm.

Basically the story was about a man who discovered his true identity by hiding behind a mask. Which was kind of a twist. The only time Phil felt good was when he was in his snazzy Brainstorm suit.

It was a twist. But it wasn’t a total surprise. Everybody leads a double life, says our new favorite author Fiona Maazel: “We’re all chronic liars – to the world and more often to ourselves.” Never make the mistake of thinking you know someone, she says. Secrecy is the bedrock of humanity – just ask Bruce Wayne.

Phil could read minds, but he wasn’t nearly as powerful as the Martian Manhunter or Professor X. He couldn’t, for example, drill into someone’s brain halfway across the country. Friedrich Nietzsche would call him an overman, but Phil had done little to cultivate himself beyond what was thought to be his natural-born province of intellect and spirit. More often than not, he thought his mindreading skills were skeevy.

But with a little biotech nudge, Phil’s powers would eventually evolve. And his new “super” powers came in handy when he got tangled up in a conspiracy web involving his wife’s pregnancy, his mother’s death, his father’s dementia, and his best friend’s duplicity. In addition, photos were being circulated showing Phil’s involvement in a violent sexual assault incident. With or without the Brainstorm suit, our hero had to figure out a way to become a little more human.

The good news was that Phil finally figured it out. The bad news, however, was that he did so in the messiest way possible. He used his newly acquired “mind scraping” abilities to change lives and rewrite history to his advantage. Once again the hero prevailed. Shout hooray. But this time nobody cared except him.

[A Little More Human / By Fiona Maazel / First Printing: April 2017 / ISBN: 9781555977696]

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Live Long and Prosper

Sputniks ChildrenTwenty-five years had passed since the debut of Sputnik Chick #1. And never once during that time did creator Debbie Reynolds Biondi ever consider giving “The Girl With No Past” an origin story.

But it was finally time to put brush to Bristol board. Debbie’s publisher and her “spunkie” fans demanded it. “Sputnik Chick just shows up out of nowhere in New York City in 1979,” complained one long-time fan. “Where did she come from? Even if her past was obliterated, she still has one, right?”

Sputnik Chick did in fact have a past. And not surprisingly, the events leading up to Sputnik Chick #1 were similar to Debbie’s own personal origin story. “Not that anyone would believe it,” she said.

You see, Debbie was originally from an alternate dimension created when Robert Oppenheimer split the atom back in 1945. But this newly created splintered reality was doomed from the very beginning. To save humanity, Debbie had to collapse time and migrate the entire population of Earth into a single timeline.

The only way Debbie felt comfortable telling her story was via her superhero avatar. For her, comic books were a place to work out painful family stories. A way to deal with a horrific legacy in a way that she could manage. “It was a way for me to turn fantasy into truth,” she said.

Sputnik’s Children is a fractured biography of Debbie and Sputnik Chick (and probably author Terri Favro too) told through a Silver Surfer filter. It’s a dizzying ride through the time-space continuum held together by comic books and quantum mechanics.

But you don’t have to be a whiz at physics to enjoy Favro’s book. You don’t even have to know about superposition and Erwin Schrödinger. Believe us, you’ll be turning pages faster than Space Shuttle Challenger in freefall. And if you read novels with a pen in your hand (like us), you’ll be underlining funny and clever passages throughout the book.

Debbie’s love of superheroes helped her escape Atomic Mean Time and rescue Earth Standard Time. “Comic book time wasn’t so much fluid as rubbery, bouncing back and forth, up and down, like a superball. Do-overs were common: you could literally start a superhero’s life again in a different time, place, or dimension.” Ultimately, that’s what Debbie was doing. She was reinventing herself over and over again until she got it right.

Sputnik Chick’s origin story turned out to be a revenge tragedy filled with jealousy, betrayal, and conflicted emotions. “Just like real life,” said Debbie at the end of the novel. And just like the Silver Surfer’s journey to Earth, it was a sad tale filled with heartbreak, sacrifice, loneliness, and lost opportunities.

[Sputnik’s Children / By Terri Favro / First Printing: April 2017 / ISBN: 9781770413412]

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Face/Off

MaskIt hasn’t happened yet. But at some point, an author is going to sit down and bang out a big, whopping superhero novel. Something hefty like The Brothers Karamazov or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

And why not? Superhero prose fiction is no different than any other genre. It’s sturdy enough to support epic storytelling on a Robert Jordan-like scale. Heck, we wouldn’t be surprised if someone was furiously working on a 1,000-page manuscript at this very moment. J’onn J’onzz: The Early Years, Vol. 1, perhaps?

Nobody’s written a superhero novel the size of Gone with the Wind, but authors have certainly embraced the short story format with gusto. Over the years, most of the superhero anthologies we’ve read have been pretty good. And occasionally they’ve been excellent like this one from editors Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson.

Says Richardson in the book’s introduction: “Behind the Mask is, partially, a prose nod to the comic world – the bombast, the larger-than-life, the save-the-worlds and the calls-to-adventure. But it’s also a spotlight on the more intimate side of the genre. The hopes and dreams of our cape-clad heroes. The regrets and longings of our cowled villains. That poignant, solitary view of the world that can only be experienced from behind the mask.”

He and Reeks have done a great job picking 20 stories that play to familiar strengths of the genre like transformation, self-identity, secret identities and the responsibilities that come with extraordinary power.

The volume’s first story, for example (“Ms. Liberty Gets a Haircut” by Cat Rambo), is about gender and self-identity issues shared by an all-female crimefighting team known as the Unidentified. “Pedestal” by Seanan McGuire underscores the importance of keeping a secret identity in the age of Twitter and Snapchat. And three of the stories examine the curse and privilege of family legacies (“Inheritance” by Michael Milne, “Madjack” by Nathan Crowder, and “The Fall of the Jade Sword” by Stephanie Lai). All of these stories are super terrific btw.

Easily the best contribution to the anthology comes from Kelly Link. “Origin Story” is a nihilistic tale about two childhood sweethearts stuck in their dreary hometown. Despite having superpowers, Bunnatine and Biscuit can’t figure out a way to overcome the crushing reality that surrounds them.

Link is a wonderful writer, and her story has been reprinted numerous times over the years. Any compilation, superhero or otherwise, would get a big boost from having it listed in the table of contents. But maybe, we think, it’s time to move forward. Let’s put “Origin Story” to rest and herald a new era of superhero prose fiction. Maybe now is the time for someone to write that sweeping three-volume J’onn J’onzz bio. It’s just a thought.

[Behind the Mask: An Anthology of Heroic Proportions / Edited by Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson / First Printing: May 2017 / ISBN: 9780996626262]

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