The Clown Princess

HQThe indomitable Harley Quinn is experiencing a little bit of anxiety in Lisa Yee’s latest Super Hero High novel. “Some people think I’m just a class clown,” she laments. “But I’m more than that, aren’t I?”

Usually Harley Quinn is an irrepressible force of nature. She’s the frosting on the cake, the zzazz in pizzazz, the ribbon on the present, and the duper that follows super. But it’s a lot of work making people happy, and she’s starting to feel the pressure.

Because she’s so busy joking around she’s having trouble juggling schoolwork, friends, and everything else. Her main priority is promoting Harley’s Quinntessentials, an internet video channel boasting “a million-ish viewers.” The clown princess is working 24/7 to become the biggest media star in the DCU.

Many of Harley’s classmates don’t exactly respect her, however. Cheetah, for one, dismisses her with a roll of her eyes. “It’s so pathetic,” she says. “She’ll do anything for a laugh.”

But is making people laugh so terrible? Harley doesn’t think so. “Kids call me a class clown, like that’s a bad thing,” she complains. “People underestimate the benefit of being happy.”

That, in a nutshell, is what Harley Quinn is all about. She wants everybody to be happy all the time. “Whenever I see someone looking stressed, I want to cheer them up,” she says. “So I’ll tell a joke, or do a super-duper gymnastics move, or whatevs, even if I’m not feeling so great myself.”

Unfortunately, Harley’s sunny attitude gets her in big trouble. When the Krazy Karnival comes to Metropolis she is instantly attracted to the “chills, thrills, and delights of the world’s greatest and grandest amusement park.” To her, the carnival represents her madcap philosophy to a T.

Much to Harley’s chagrin, the Krazy Karnival turns out to be a shady enterprise helmed by two carny criminals. The double reveal at the end of the novel won’t surprise anyone with a passing grade in DC Supervillains 101, but it nevertheless throws Harley for a loop. Eventually, the Metropolis City Sirens (including Harley, Miss Martian, and Bumblebee) find a way to burst the carnival’s balloon.

In the end, the Krazy Karnival Kaper helped Harley find a little solace. Who was she? A class clown, an internet personality, a B-minus student, an entertainment impresario, a superhero? She was all that and more. “You’re fun and funny, and a super friend,” says Batgirl. Everyone agrees: Harley Quinn was one of a kind.

[Harley Quinn at Super Hero High / By Lisa Yee / First Printing: January 2018 / ISBN: 9781524769239]

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Neon Angelinos on the Road to Ruin

RunawaysEven though they possessed a multitude of weird powers, the Runaways didn’t consider themselves superheroes. Even the term “superhero” made them a tad uneasy. They weren’t guarding the galaxy, or fighting Thanos, or anything crazy like that. Their mission was simply to save kids in danger and get them off the streets.

But as long-time comic book readers know, Gert, Chase, Nico, Molly, and Karolina were an unlucky bunch. Even in the best of times, things had a habit of going horribly wrong for them. They often found themselves in knotty situations that needed to be untangled by superpowers. Having a genetically engineered nine-foot-tall dinosaur from the future was a big help too.

It all started back in 2003 when the kids discovered their parents were an evil consortium of magicians, scientists, time-travelers, and aliens called the Pride. In cahoots with the Gibborim (a trio of Elder Gods of the Earth), the Pride sought immortality, power, and wealth in exchange for one ritual human sacrifice a year.

In Christopher Golden’s novel, the Pride was gone (dispatched by their children), but L.A. was being threatened by two disparate criminal contingents: the Masters of Evil, a bunch of B-list supervillains trying to fill the power vacuum left by the Pride, and the Nightwatch, a group of metahumans from San Francisco with a shady agenda. It was up to the Runaways to stop both of them.

Unfortunately, teenagers were a distracted bunch, and the Runaways were no exception. Nico spent her days navel-gazing, Gert and Chase were busy working on their night moves, and Karolina was getting frisky with a new lover. On top of everything else, their hideout had recently been compromised and they desperately needed to secure a new HQ.

Thankfully, the Runaways were able to rally before mad villains and ancient elemental gods smashed L.A. Their novel-ending clash with the Masters of Evil and the Nightwatch resembled a “Michael Bay wet dream,” wrote the author. We’re pretty sure he meant that in the best possible way.

Capturing the spirit of the original comic book series, author Golden does a good job of breaking down superhero clichés with snark and self-conscious humor. Nico, the lonely but clever goth witch, and Molly, the chibi She-Hulk, consistently deliver the best zingers, but all of the Super Angelinos are funny in their own particular way.

Be forewarned, however: If your only exposure to the Runaways is via the Hulu video-on-demand series, there are some spoiler-y moments sprinkled throughout this novel. Similarly, if your only exposure to the Runaways is via the music of Joan Jett and Lita Ford, then you’ve just wasted your time reading this review.

[Runaways: An Original Novel / By Christopher Golden / First Printing: January 2018 / ISBN: 9781484782019]

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The Chicago Cub

BlackPanther Young PrinceAs a superhero, you never forget the first time you put on your costume. And certainly T’Challa was cognizant of that moment in Ronald L. Smith’s novel, Black Panther: The Young Prince.

“T’Challa stood in front of the mirror, the Panther suit in his hands,” wrote Smith. “He felt as if the suit wanted to be worn. His fingers tingled as he touched the fabric. His heartbeat sped up, and his chest rose and fell with each breath he took. He slipped into the suit for the first time. He felt powerful. Royal.”

Putting on the suit marked the beginning of T’Challa’s hero’s journey. He was only a 12-year-old kid at the time, but he clearly saw his future on the horizon. He knew that he would eventually grow up to be King of Wakanda and assume the ceremonial title of Black Panther. Unbeknownst to him, a stint with the Avengers, a marriage to Ororo Munroe, and a blockbuster movie franchise were also in his future.

There would be growing pains too. And that’s what’s at the heart of this middle-grade Black Panther book. T’Challa and his best friend M’Baku were attending a Chicago middle school, and their inner city experience in the U.S. would change their relationship forever (btw: don’t ask why the Wakanda pre-teens were going to school in Chicago. It’s a contrived plot point not worth talking about).

The boys had grown up together and enjoyed getting into all sorts of harmless mischief. But honestly we don’t know why they were friends. Instead of being a loyal sidekick and boon companion, M’Baku was a nudnik whose teasing, fake sincerity, and mockery often belittled the young prince. Deep down, M’Baku thought T’Challa was a spoiled brat who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Things only got worse in Chicago. M’Baku quickly made friends with the jocks and bullies at school, while T’Challa sat at the nerd table playing chess during lunch period. The two had very different temperaments and social agendas.

To the surprise of no one, M’Baku eventually gets in deep shit trouble with a bunch of teenage boneheads and a scary African vampire. It was up to the young panther prince to save his frenemy from getting sucked into an interdimensional portal. “I’d say your first mission was a success,” said Nick Fury to T’Challa at the end of the novel.

The Black Panther’s debut was indeed a success, but the friendship between M’Baku and T’Challa was over forever. M’Baku would grow up to become a supervillain named Man-Ape, and T’Challa would (of course) ascend to the Wakanda throne and embrace his royal legacy. Once friends, now rivals, the two Wakanda warriors would clash for the rest of their lives.

[Black Panther: The Young Prince / By Ronald L. Smith / First Printing: January 2018 / ISBN: 9781484787649]

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“I Am Catwoman. Hear Me Roar!”

ManyLives CatwomanAuthor Tim Hanley is back with another discombobulated history of an iconic comic book heroine (previous books examined the messy backgrounds of Wonder Woman and Lois Lane). This time he takes aim at Catwoman, arguably the most iconic character of them all.

For more than 75 years, Catwoman has been a mercurial presence in the DC universe. She’s survived numerous incarnations as a burglar, a romantic interest, a murderer, a vigilante, a dominatrix, a mob boss, and more. In comics, movies, and cartoons she’s always been cunning, fierce, and a perpetual outsider. “In the black-and-white world of superheroes,” writes Hanley, “she exists in shades of gray.”

From the very beginning she was a clever thief, almost impossible to pin down. Debuting in the pages of Batman #1 (1940), she quickly established herself as a perennial headache for the Caped Crusader. “We knew we needed a female nemesis to give the strip sex appeal,” wrote Bob Kane in his 1990 autobiography, Batman and Me. “Bill (Finger) and I decided to create a female version of Batman, except that she was a villainess and Batman was a hero.”

Unfortunately, a guy named Dr. Fredric Wertham came along in the ’50s to declaw Catwoman. Because of Wertham’s pointed attacks on Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, DC Comics voluntarily sanitized its books. Catwoman didn’t survive the newly formed Comics Code of Authority and disappeared without a trace for 12 years, from 1954 to 1966. Writes Hanley: “Catwoman’s absence was so glaring in this era that it had to be intentional, and her connection to Seduction of the Innocent is the only obvious explanation.”

Catwoman bounced back in a big way when she appeared semi-regularly on the kitschy and beloved Batman TV show (1966 to 1968). When she popped up in Batman Returns and Batman: The Animated Series (both 1992), she became an iconic figure that transcended comic books. These days, she has a broader fan base than the vast majority of female heroes.

Despite Catwoman’s eventual rise to iconic superstardom, she never truly found her groove in comics. DC’s interpretation of the character was haphazard (at best). But that’s the problem with being out of circulation for more than a decade, says Hanley. “She had no established characterization. She was just a generic villain with a fondness for cat-related crimes.”

Over the years there have been some great Catwoman comics (kudos to Ed Brubaker and Genevieve Valentine), but there have also been some head-scratching editorial missteps along the way. For example, a Catwoman series in the ’90s became infamous for its va-voom artwork. And who could forget the disastrous “New 52” reboot where Catwoman and Batman came together in a kinky sexual clutch? The axiom that sex sells didn’t prove true for Catwoman.

In conclusion, says Hanley, Catwoman’s faced the best and worst that the superhero industry has to offer. She’s been a marquee star and blatantly objectified – sometimes at the same time. As an independent provocateur, she’s embraced both villainy and heroism. And her up-and-down history showcases a compelling alternate viewpoint in the world of superheroes.

[The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale / By Tim Hanley / First Printing: July 2017 / ISBN: 9781613738450]

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The Green Canary

ArrowFatal LegaciesIf you’re a fan of Green Arrow and his small-screen colleagues (including Felicity Smoak, John Diggle, Rene Ramirez, Curtis Holt, and Dinah Drake), you already know that Season 5 ended with a big bang cliffhanger. When the TV show resumed five months later, Gang Green was back in Star City with lingering PTSD. Arrow: Fatal Legacies is a novel that purports to fill in the details between Season 5 and Season 6 of the series.

Unfortunately, there isn’t anything particularly substantial going on in Season 5.5. A lot of the intel in this tie-in novel is being hashed out week-by-week in the current season.

There is, however, one very compelling reason to read Fatal Legacies. Sara Lance, the White Canary, returns to Star City to reunite with Oliver Queen. As a former member of the League of Assassins and a current member of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, she’s one of our favorite characters in the DCEU television lineup. Taking a short break from her Waverider duties, this is probably the closest thing we’ll ever get to a White Canary novel.

It’s a good thing Sara shows up in Star City when she does. Not only is Oliver struggling with the aftermath from Season 5, but he’s also trying to wrap up three ongoing storylines. Frankly, he needs all the help he can get. “I’ll stick around as long as you need me,” promises Sara.

Together the pair dismantles an escalating drug network, they confront a new (and pesky) vigilante, and foil the mad plans of a psychotic explosives expert. Fans of the TV show know that Oliver and Sara share a long history with each other so it’s no surprise to discover they make a great team. Felicity calls them Team White Arrow, but we prefer Team Green Canary because it implies an extended Canary Universe. Hey @DCComics, what do you think? Give us a call and we’ll work out the details.

The novel isn’t all about Oliver and Sara, however. The entire cast (including Oliver’s son, William) is involved in some way. Fans of Olicity will especially enjoy an extended scene where Felicity sneaks a peek at Oliver doing his early morning workout. Her body buzzes with adrenaline watching her former lover on the salmon ladder. It makes her head “go a little wonky,” says the author(s).

But honestly the only reason to read Fatal Legacies is because of Sara Lance. She and Oliver are close in a profound way – former lovers, fellow warriors, and closest friends. They share the same losses and triumphs, and it bonds the two of them forever. It’s good to see them back together again. Long live Team Green Canary!

[Arrow: Fatal Legacies / By James R. Tuck and Marc Guggenheim / First Printing: January 2018 / ISBN: 9781783295210]

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Wreck-It Ralph

4ColorBleedThe Magic Art Reproducer was a great little device. It captured any kind of image and projected it onto paper. In this way, it helped you draw. No electricity, No battery. Like the name implied, it was magic.

If you were a kid during the ’60s and ’70s, you inevitably saw ads for the Magic Art Reproducer in every comic book you read. We have no doubt it stoked the imaginations of thousands of youngsters who wanted to draw like Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, and Bernie Wrightson.

The Reproducer didn’t actually “teach” you how to draw, however. It merely enabled you to trace images. If you wanted to reproduce an awesome explosion of Kirby Krackle, you could do it. But drawing a picture of Galactus and the Silver Surfer on your own would be a little tricky.

Undeterred by such limitations, 14-year-old Ralph Rogers used his Magic Art Reproducer to whip out the first issue of Meta Boy. Hailed as a comic book wunderkind, the fanboy press raved about his unusual combination of styles. Hollywood was even interested in making a movie based on his best-selling comic.

But the hammer came down swiftly for Ralph. Within six months everyone knew about his copycat scam. The slide from recognition to infamy to anonymity was faster than a Professor Zoom ride at Six Flags. Ralph’s career was over before he graduated from high school.

Years later, still depressed and shunned by his peers, Ralph found a way to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation when he uncovered a stash of old and highly collectible comic books. Overnight the world was overrun with real superheroes and supervillains. As it turned out, Ralph was the accidental catalyst of the whole damn thing. No Magic Art Reproducer required.

But was Ralph’s real-life retcon good or bad? Now that Atlantis was real (as well as Camelot, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Paul Bunyan, and Meta Man), did Ralph wreck the world with his over-active imagination? Or did he turn himself and his friends into new gods? Also: was the world real or not?

“It doesn’t matter,” said Ralph just before stepping through the looking glass. “It doesn’t matter if I’m a raving lunatic in a rubber room or if I’m living in a dream world. One way or another I’m going to be a hero in that world.”

If you’re a little confused by Ralph’s meta journey, don’t worry about it too much. We recommend a little bit of supplemental reading to help sort things out – perhaps a Grant Morrison comic book or a novel by Philip K. Dick. Watching Peter Pan again would also help decipher the head-spinning denouement that takes place on the dark side of the moon.

“Who are we to say who’s real?” writes author Ryan McSwain at the end of his book. In our reality, Superman, a so-called fictional character, is recognized and loved by billions of people. In comparison, how many people know who we are – a few hundred maybe? How conceited are we to claim to be real just because we’re made of flesh and blood? As it turns out, McSwain makes a pretty good argument that we’re already living in a four-color reality bleed.

[Four Color Bleed / By Ryan McSwain / First Printing: August 2017 / ISBN: 9780990460749]

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Explosivo!

All Those ExplosionsEvery species has an ecological niche, according to author James Alan Gardner. A superhero’s niche was coincidence. “They inhaled luck and exhaled unintended consequences,” he said. “They were born in fluke accidents, died in dramatic irony, and came back to life at the precise moment it would have maximum impact.”

Superheroes didn’t get their powers through merit. “They won the lottery without buying a ticket,” said Gardner. Supervillains, on the other hand, embodied order. They were organizers. Leaders. They managed resources to leverage prosperity and maximize their return. They were the ones who steered their own fate.

Becoming superheroes was certainly a pleasant surprise for Kim and her friends Miranda, Shar, and Jools. By happenstance, they stumbled upon a yonic-shaped rift in reality (sexy!) and were exposed to otherworldly forces. Like the Fantastic Four and the Powerpuff Girls, the four college roommates experienced a shared origin story. Like it or not, they were now superheroes.

Conversely, supervillains got their powers by going through a Dark Conversion (price tag: $10 million). Once they signed the Dark Pact, they became vampires, werewolves, goblins, and all sorts of shady bogeymen. Only the rich and powerful were allowed to become “Darklings.” And unlike all the old movies, where the monsters tried to make everyone else like them, these monsters did their damnedest to keep the riffraff out.

Naturally, these creatures of dark and light didn’t see eye to eye. Heroes and villains rarely belonged to the same country club. After 20 years of conversions, Darklings controlled the show. Money and privilege flowed uphill. And you know what they say about absolute power, right? You can’t expect a vampire to govern selflessly and with good prudence.

Something big and nasty was unfolding in Kim’s hometown of Waterloo, Ontario, and coincidence had dragged her and her friends into the middle of it. To their credit, the girls didn’t shrink from their newfound responsibilities. They were eager to join the fray. “The game’s afoot, bitches!” said Kim with a big grin on her face. “Tally-fucking-ho.”

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault is a book filled with a mad jumble of superheroes and Halloween monsters. Over all, we liked it very much. Gardner is a clever writer with an outsized imagination, and he’s peppered his novel with a never-ending list of pop culture signifiers from Thomas Pynchon to Kimmy Schmidt and everything in between. Gardner seems like the kind of guy who would be an interesting dinner companion. If he were ever in our neck of the woods, we’d love to spend an evening with him talking about math, science, geology, and (of course) superheroes.

In the end, Kim and her friends survived their superhero learning curve, reset the Doomsday Clock, and saved Christmas. Mission accomplished. Kim – a diminutive and asexual Chinese-Canadian keener – was the hero of the story, but all of the young ladies were terrific in their own way. Our favorite of the bunch was Julietta Walsh.

Jools was an indefatigable sparkplug with a quip for every situation. She dressed like a hockey playing samurai warrior and wielded a stick made of blazing green energy that was “a thing of power like Excalibur.” She called herself Ninety-Nine (in honor of the Great One, Wayne Gretzky) and was a beguiling mix of brains and brawn. Truly she had an unquenchable lust for life.

Jools, Kim, Miranda, and Shar embraced their superheroic destiny without a moment of hesitation. But there was one thing they couldn’t agree on. Going forward, what would they call themselves? Alpha Flight was already taken – so too was Defenders, Protectors, and Guardians. The “Thirty-Six Triple Ds” didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and “Heroes of Science” was a lousy acronym. Here’s an idea: Maybe Kim and her crew could call themselves the Wonder Women of Waterloo? That’s got a nice ring to it.

[All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault / By James Alan Gardner / First Printing: November 2017 / ISBN: 9780765392633]

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