Live! In the Link Age 09.27.16

monstersHeroes and villains work best when there’s some sort of shared history between them. And so it is with Alley Hawk and Vermin King (“The Monsters We Make” / By Matthew Phillion / First Printing: August 2016). The story begins when a small time crook named Amos Canter tries to pull off a big time crime. Naturally the caper doesn’t go as planned. A superhero named Alley Hawk pursues him to an abandoned pesticide factory on the edge of town. One thing leads to another and Canter falls into a pit of burning chemicals and is transformed into a hideous rat-like monster. From that day forward, Vermin King and Alley Hawk are inextricably linked. Like Batman and the Joker, their personal drama rises to operatic proportions. If you missed Alley Hawk’s brooding presence in the latest Indestructibles novel (see our review here), you’ll be happy with this supplemental short story. The author calls it “Indestructibles noir.” And that’s a great way to describe it.

Marvel’s Black Widow from Spy to Superhero is an upcoming collection of essays that examines Natasha Romanoff’s career from KGB to MCU (Edited by Sherry Ginn / First Printing: March 2017 / ISBN: 9780786498192). We wonder what the essayists will say (if anything) about Black Widow’s short-lived career as a fashion designer.

Superheroes, mad science, and feminism are the three main ingredients that make up Samantha Bryant’s Menopausal Superheroes series (Going Through the Change and Change of Life). But there’s also a pinch of Vincent Price, Flash Gordon, and “a little personal anxiety about getting older.” Check out (this link) for more info about Bryant’s superhero recipe.

In an attempt to beef up her college application and earn a little cash money, high school student Jessica Tran accepts an internship with her town’s most heinous supervillain (Not Your Sidekick / By C.B. Lee / ISBN: 9781945053030). Naturally, her superhero parents aren’t very happy. The author talks about her personal background and why she decided to write a superhero novel (here).

Author Mary Pletsch posts a short comment about her contribution to the anthology Superhero Universe (here). It was our favorite story in the collection (see our review here) and it’s nice to get a peek into her writing process. “I imagined my husband’s grandparents — Prince Edward Islanders, both — wondering ‘who wanted to spend all day running around in their underpants,’ and a story idea was born.”

According to Charlie Jane Anders, “The Best Superheroes Right Now Aren’t on Screens. They’re in Books.” We approve of the author’s uncurbed enthusiasm. The article features interviews with Sarah Kuhn (Heroine Complex), C.B. Lee (Not Your Sidekick), and Lexie Dunne (How to Save the World).

Interviews: Alan Moore, author of Jerusalem (here). Paige Orwin, author of The Interminables (here). Lisa Yee, author of Supergirl at Super Hero High (here).

Reviews: Suicide Squad: The Official Movie Novelization by Marv Wolfman (here). Singularity: Rise of the Posthumans edited by Jaime Ramos and Wayne Carey (here). Jerusalem by Alan Moore (here and here). Queen Emeraldas by Leiji Matsumoto (here and here). The Dragons of Heaven by Alyc Helms (here). Thor: Dueling With Giants by Keith R.A. DeCandido (here). Vicious by V.E. Schwab (here). Clara Humble and the Not-So-Super Powers by Anna Humphrey and Lisa Cinar (here and here). Song Bird Superhero by Karen Tyrrell (here).

For your reading pleasure: The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale by Tim Hanley. Hidden Universe Travel Guides: The Complete Marvel Cosmos by Marc Sumerak. Super Mario Adventures by Kentaro Takekuma and Charlie Nozawa. Infinite Power by C.Z. Anderson. K9 Superhero by DeVaughn Whess. Superstars by Zack Cahill. Fixer by Gene Doucette. Shiners by Mark Clodi. Hearts of Darkness by Andrea Speed. Repulsive and “Repulsive Origins: The Captain” by Brian W. Foster.

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Miles Taylor vs. the U.S. Army

RobotArmyAt school, Miles Taylor was the boy whom everyone would vote most likely not to be voted for anything. But last year during seventh grade he won the equivalent of the galactic lottery. That’s when he became a superhero.

Not a dress-up-for-Halloween and pretend superhero, but an honest-to-goodness living, breathing, pound-bad-guys-into-the-dirt superhero. With the help of a golden cape engineered with alien technology, he was the Golden Great, the Halcyon Hero, and Atlanta’s 24-Karat Champion.

Officially he was known as Gilded, the barrel-chested six-foot-plus exemplar of good. The cape transformed Miles from a nobody into the ultimate somebody. All things considered, he was “in-freaking-vincible.”

One year ago, Miles saved the world from an invading horde of lizard-monster warriors from outer space (see our review of the first novel here). But now as an eighth-grader he faced a more insidious threat: the U.S. Army.

Gen. Mortimer George Breckenridge was in Atlanta during the alien invasion. But it wasn’t the monsters from space that worried him so much. It was Gilded. He considered the superhero nothing less than the greatest threat the United States of America – and the world – had ever known. As such, he vowed to destroy him.

Breckenridge was a high-ranking and trusted figure in the Army, but he had ulterior motives. He was desperate to establish himself as one of the greatest military men of all time. If he could tame Gilded and preserve U.S. security, he was positive that his name would be listed in history books alongside George Washington, Stonewall Jackson, Douglas MacArthur, and Thunderbolt Ross.

To be fair, Breckenridge wasn’t the only one with a swelled head. Miles was suffering from an inflated ego too. You don’t douse forest fires, dissipate tornadoes, and foil alien insurgents without getting a little cocky. And one thing’s for sure: there’s nothing worse than a snooty superhero.

In line with the novel’s title, Miles has to defeat the U.S. Army and its secret army of robots. But more than anything, he needs to adjust his crabby attitude. You can’t sass your father, your best friend, and your girlfriend and still call yourself a superhero. Was Clark Kent an impudent lad? Did Peter Parker disrespect Aunt May? Of course not. Teenage superheroes need to follow the rules.

In the end, Miles smashes Gen. Breckenridge’s dreams of military immortality. And he also gets back on track (“I got too big for my cape,” he says). Yes, he was a superhero, but he was also a 13-year-old kid with a great father, a steadfast best friend, and an awesome girlfriend. In other words, he was the luckiest guy in the world.

[Miles Taylor and the Golden Cape: Rise of the Robot Army / By Robert Venditti and Dusty Higgins / First Printing: June 2016 / ISBN: 9781481405577]

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Indestructibles … in … Space!

LikeACometThe last time we looked, the Indestructibles were traveling into the future to save the world from mankind’s bad behavior and hubris (for more details, check out our review of The Entropy of Everything).

Now in the latest novel, our favorite superhero kids were saving the world again. This time the threat was coming from deep space, but man’s rotten nature was still the catalyst of the extinction event. “We are a carrion creature,” explained the encroaching scourge. “We eat the rotten things. We wipe the slate clean. Humanity is the poison in the vein. We can never let you go to the stars, you will bring destruction and death wherever you go.”

It’s true, of course. We were an awful bunch. Ryan Lochte, Jared Fogle, Chris Brown, Harley Quinn – they’re all crackerjack examples of mankind’s bad behavior. Who knows, maybe the universe would be a better place without the stain of humanity.

The Indestructibles disagreed, of course. They were a merry band of misfits that included a sorcerer supreme, a 300-pound werewolf, an alien symbiotic, a ballerina with a bad attitude, a solar-powered girl, and a girl who controlled gravitational anomalies. It was their job to keep Earth spinning for one more day. God bless ’em.

But saving the world was a big job. The Indestructibles needed all the help they could get. As a result, author Matthew Phillion spends a big chunk of the novel adding more firepower to the team. Long time readers will be happy to see nearly everyone in the Indestructibles multiverse make a cameo appearance in this adventure. Some of these supporting characters (like Bedlam and Korthos) are clearly ready for prime time.

Initially, we had concerns that Phillion wouldn’t be able to assimilate such a large group of characters in one book. It’s a tricky thing to do. Many movies, for example, are undone with a large cast vying for screen time (Avengers: Age of Ultron, for example). We understand that serial fiction can be expansive and a little bit messy. But in general we feel that a tight narrative with a manageable cast is the best way to go for most storytellers.

Our concerns were for naught, however. Phillion succeeds (more or less) in his splashy cosmic superhero romp. Outer space is a big place, after all, and there’s a lot of room for subplots and quirky digressions between Earth and Saturn. Even though the cast is large, the author makes sure everybody gets a chance to be a hero. He even finds time to put Entropy Emily in an Evangelion-like war machine. And that’s the coolest thing ever.

The best thing about these Indestructibles novels is watching the tightly knit group of kids grow up. In the first two books (read our reviews here and here), they were a disjointed bunch that didn’t know what to do with their freaky abilities. But after saving the world (twice!), they’ve earned the right to call themselves “Earth’s mightiest heroes.” Sounds like a pretty good tagline, doesn’t it?

[Like a Comet: The Indestructibles Book 4 / By Matthew Phillion / First Printing: May 2016 / ISBN: 9780997024852]

Posted in Published in 2016 | Tagged , ,

Supergirl: The Last Leaf on the Tree

SupergirlSuperman and Supergirl have a couple of things in common. They are the last son and daughter of Krypton. And they both acquired super powers living under a yellow sun.

But their origin stories differ in dramatic ways. Kal-El came to Earth as an infant. As a result, his personality and identity were nurtured by life experience and environment. Growing up in Smallville was his only reality.

Kara Zor-El, on the other hand, was a teenager when her parents launched her toward Earth. Not only did she have specific memories of Krypton, but she witnessed her home planet explode in the rearview mirror of her space pod.

Author Lisa Yee uses this backstory to imbue Supergirl with a substantial amount of super angst. Kara was the strongest teenager in the world (she could hold a brachiosaur aloft with just her pinky finger, for example), but she was a mopey kid who grappled with pangs of self-doubt.

You couldn’t blame her of course. She missed her parents, she missed her friends, and she struggled to acclimate to her new home world. Her cousin Kal-El was the most famous superhero on Earth, but she was just a lonely little space alien.

Enrolling at Super Hero High was probably the best thing Supergirl could have done. Instead of being isolated on the Kent’s farm in Kansas, she now mingled freely with a bunch of classmates who had empathy for her situation.

Like all secondary schools, Super Hero High had a clique of mean girls roaming the hallways (Cheetah, Killer Frost, and Star Sapphire to name three), but it was mostly home to a friendly group of kids like Wonder Woman, Bumblebee, Hawkgirl, and Beast Boy. Barbara Gordon in particular (not yet in full Batgirl bloom) quickly became Supergirl’s best friend and most enthusiastic champion.

But Supergirl had a lot to learn. For one thing, she was now in possession of superpowers so intense, she was afraid to sneeze for fear she would destroy something or someone. She didn’t even know how many powers she had. They were growing at a rate faster than a speeding bullet.

And another thing: She didn’t know what a superhero was supposed to do. (They didn’t have comic books on Krypton, apparently.) Before coming to Earth, she was just a regular teenager. “How can I be a superhero?” she wondered. “I can’t even save my super self from being such a super mess.”

Thankfully, things get sorted out before Granny Goodness and her furious female furies arrive on campus. With a little pep talk from Wonder Woman (“The stronger you are,” she says, “the stronger we are”), and some tutelage from Principal Amanda Waller, Supergirl stops feeling sorry for herself and reaches her superhero potential.

Yee’s previous Wonder Woman novel (see our review here) was perkier than this one. But that makes sense. Immortal Amazon princesses don’t have much teen angst. In this case, the author had to respect Supergirl’s personal journey. A young girl doesn’t lose her parents and travel 21.7 light years through space to another planet without being a little traumatized.

Don’t get us wrong, however. Supergirl at Super Hero High isn’t a downer in any way. Kara is winsome throughout and she eventually overcomes her personal crisis in spectacular fashion. Despite the tragedies in her life, it was her fate to be a superhero. Like her mother always told her back on Krypton: “Always do your best and you’ll be fine. I know you have the heart of a hero.”

[Supergirl at Super Hero High / By Lisa Yee / First Printing: July 2016 / ISBN: 9781101940624]

Posted in Marvel/DC, Published in 2016 | Tagged , , ,

As Above, So Below

KarnakJust because no one worships them anymore doesn’t mean the ancient Egyptian gods are gone forever. All gods, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, or otherwise, have infinite patience. They’re just waiting around until the time is right for a comeback.

But if all the ancient gods are on hiatus, what exactly does that mean? Here’s one theory: According to Hermeticism (a philosophy that embraces the mysteries of the universe), the physical world represents the heavens, and the heavens represent the physical world. The two are basically interchangeable. What happens here on earth is a direct reflection of what’s going on in the celestial realm. As above, so below.

Think about it. If the pantheon of ancient Egyptian gods has been displaced because of a heavenly reorg, what (or who) replaced them? Mankind perhaps? And if so, does that mean we possess the ability to manipulate the heavens too? Magic Eightball says “Sure, why not?”

Obviously this power vacuum offers an opportunity for an enterprising madman to take control of Aaru, Duat, and all the temples of Karnak. All he has to do is resurrect Thoth (the architect of heaven) and Sekhmet (the daughter of the sun) and burn down Manhattan (otherwise known as the Empire of Greed).

That, in a nutshell, is the crisis Gabriel Cross faces in his latest adventure. Cross (aka the Ghost) is familiar with all sorts of supernatural shenanigans. In two previous superhero/pulp/steampunk novels (read our reviews here and here) he dispatched an army of moss men, monsters from an alternative dimension, giant one-eyed squids, and a riot of itchy raptors. More than anyone else, the Ghost has the experience (and the gadgets) to smash any sort of shaggy apocalyptic cult that shows up uninvited to his front door.

But this time the Ghost needs a little bit of help. In the very first chapter, he suffers debilitating injuries from a guy encased in a Gundam/Appleseed-like armored suit. Consequently, to squash the Cult of Thoth, he must put together a preternatural version of the Howling Commandos that includes his sharp-shooting girlfriend, a persnickety museum curator, a necromancer, a couple of inspectors from the New York Police Department, and an 18th century automation. Ghost Gang assemble!

As always, the Ghost is a compelling character who moves between shadows “like a specter, swift and silent.” Like the Shadow he’s a combat veteran who’s ongoing war with criminals gives him a purpose in life. And like Batman, he’s a wealthy dilettante by day who patrols the night with a cache of cool gadgets. His tactics might be anathema, but he gets the job done. “We’re better with him, than without him,” says one crime scene detective.

Despite his well-earned rep, Gabriel Cross isn’t the hero of this particular book. He’s just an ineffectual peripheral character. It’s actually Ginny Gray and Astrid Lunn, two members of his Ghost Gang, who dismantle the Thoth/Sekhmet alliance. We like the Ghost (and we’re looking forward to the next book in the series, Ghosts of Empire), but these two wildcats steal the spotlight every time they report for duty. To paraphrase the quote from the previous paragraph: “Ghosts of Karnak is better with them, than without them.”

[Ghosts of Karnak / By George Mann / First Printing: May 2016 / ISBN: 9781783294169]

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Heroine Chic

Heroine ComplexWe don’t know Sarah Kuhn at all, but according to her author bio we live in the same city. That means we might have bumped into each other unknowingly at the Westfield San Francisco Centre, or attended the same 4-Star Theatre matinee, or stood in line together one weekend for a scoop of Humphry Slocombe’s Secret Breakfast ice cream.

It’s true that we’ve never met. But we’ve read Kuhn’s novel Heroine Complex, and that means we have a pretty good idea of what kind of person she is. Undoubtedly she’s funny and clever and a sparkling dinner companion. She’s probably a little bit of a rude girl, but that’s okay with us. She’s equal parts Kelly Sue DeConnick and Ali Wong, and as a result, her novel contains a big jolt of Captain Marvel super power and Baby Cobra super spunk.

Kuhn is probably a great friend too. So it’s no surprise that friendship plays a big part in her novel. Heroine Complex is a big smashing superhero story about Annie Chang and Evelyn “Evie” Tanaka, two women who’ve been best friends since kindergarten.

But as we all know, friendships are complicated things. Especially life-long friendships. Mostly you get along great. But there are times when you want to strangle the other person. And one thing is certain: Friendships can get particularly sticky when one person is a superhero.

Case in point: Eight years ago Annie reinvented herself as Aveda Jupiter (great name btw), the self-appointed protector of San Francisco. “I am a beacon of hope for this city,” she proclaims. She fought otherworldly demons with the ferocity of Taz, the Tasmanian devil, combined with the tenacity of Ms. Pac-Man. She was loud, self-absorbed, image-obsessed, and bossy. When she showed up in public she inevitably looked like an intergalactic cheerleader.

Aveda Jupiter took care of San Francisco, but her best friend Evie took care of her. She was her babysitter, confidante, and therapist. “As Aveda’s personal assistant,” explains Evie, “it was my duty to fulfill her every need and cater to her every whim.”

The pair’s personal dynamic gets turned upside down when Aveda is sidelined due to an unexpected injury. Despite her misgivings, Evie agrees to temporarily masquerade as her super friend until she recuperates. “Of all the people in all the world,” she says with a sigh, “I was probably least equipped to be a superhero. Or even impersonate one.”

Once Evie starts parading around town as a superhero, Heroine Complex takes off like a supersonic invisible jet. Not only does Kuhn have a lot to say about friendships and how they change over the years, but she also addresses familial obligations, and the perils of fame. She even pokes fun at her hometown to great comic affect. Anyone who’s lived in San Francisco for any length of time knows the city has an “astronomical quirk factor” and is ripe for gentle teasing.

Kuhn also has a lot to say about Asian identity and cultural role models. For example, when Evie agrees to become Aveda Jupiter for a brief time, there’s never any doubt that the friends’ ruse won’t work. All Asian women look alike, right? “We’re both Asian,” says Aveda dismissively. “That’s enough for most people.” Never mind that their “Asian-ness” didn’t match (Annie was Chinese and Evie was Japanese). Even in San Francisco, the overriding homoplasy often renders ethnic identity invisible and indistinct.

From start to finish, Heroine Complex is pretty much a perfect novel. It succeeds at being funny and serious at the same time. Plus it’s the first novel in an ongoing series and you can’t beat that. If we had to nitpick, however, we’d have to say that Evie is a little bit of a Mary Sue-type character. But whatever. That simply means the book’s insights are unfiltered and the author’s personal agenda isn’t cloaked in layers of fiction. We’re already looking forward to the further adventures of Annie Chang and Evelyn Tanaka, the Heroic Duo (aka Galactic Warrior Princess and her best friend Rude Fire Girl). Asian lady superheroes to the rescue!

[Heroine Complex / By Sarah Kuhn / First Printing: July 2016 / ISBN: 9780756410841]

Posted in Published in 2016 | Tagged ,

Lost in Space

GotG CastawaysYou have to admit, the Guardians of the Galaxy are a funky bunch. They consist of a seven-foot-tall ambulatory tree, a raccoonoid, a green-skinned lady, a humorless muscleman, and a Han Solo wannabe. Frankly, we’re surprised Jaxxon or Howard the Duck weren’t part of the regular crew. They would fit right in.

Calling them heroes would be a stretch, however. It’s questionable whether these “Guardians” actually guarded anything, galactic or otherwise. Rocket Raccoon, for one, would rather spend his time gambling. Drax was only interested in destroying and revenging. Peter Quill’s “inability to resist a pretty face” kept his team bouncing from one misadventure to the next. And as the adopted daughter of Thanos, Gamora had a ton of family issues to work out. Only Groot could arguably be called a hero. He was the only one who possessed anything resembling a moral compass.

But one thing was certain; the Guardians were a quirky genre-busting aggregate. And because of their disparate natures they had the potential for outlandish (and otherworldly) humor. On a good day they resembled Sun Ra’s Arkestra with Chewbacca at the microphone. In our opinion, that put Quill and his pals a notch above the Herculoids and the Crystal Gems.

On a bad day, unfortunately, the Guardians were just another dumb collection of superhero ciphers. Take this particular novel, for example. It follows a familiar Guardians of the Galaxy template. The gang quibbles like cranky siblings and they get swept into a wildly preposterous caper. In the end, they settle their differences and abscond with some kind of treasure or reward. Taking a tip from the song “O-o-h Child,” they put it together and they get it undone.

But the success of any Guardians adventure isn’t strictly about the adventure itself. Mostly it’s about a loose confederacy of freebooters and their personal relationships to each other. The adventure is only the petrol that keeps the crew moving forward.

For some reason, the author of this book never fully commits to the characters’ screwy charms. Peter Quill is certainly an unrepentant horndog, Rocket Raccoon can’t escape his Napoleon complex, and Groot continually sheds leaves everywhere he goes. But for a big chunk of this novel, the “castaways” are scrubbed clean of all their idiosyncrasies. That’s a shame.

To make matters worse, the plot is dull as dirt. The crew is marooned on an uncharted planet (“Only about 350 light years off course,” says Quill sheepishly) and in short order they get caught up in a messy civil war. Quill spends his time “fighting and feasting and frolicking” (off the page mostly), and there’s a lot of boring chitchat about military strategy.

Like the Guardians themselves, the locals are flat and unremarkable and there’s not an ounce of nuance in sight. Even the Duke of Vylara, possibly the nicest man since Atticus Finch, doesn’t exhibit any of the duress you’d expect from a magistrate in the throes of a revolution.

In the end, the gang unravels the crisis and solves a big mystery that’s haunted the planet for generations. We admit, it’s actually a nice moment that eschews the typical slam-bang superhero finale. But in no way does it excuse the previous 213 pages.

Maybe next time, Quill, Rocket, Gamora, Groot, and Drax will return to the bad behavior that made them compelling antiheroes. In other words: we’d like to see more canoodling, more destroying, more wiseassery, and more funny business. More guarding of the galaxy would be nice too.

[Guardians of the Galaxy: Castaways / By David McDonald / First Printing: August 2016 / ISBN: 9781772752045]

Posted in Marvel/DC, Published in 2016 | Tagged , ,