Battle Angel Aveda

Heroine WorshipAveda Jupiter is having an identity crisis in the latest novel by Sarah Kuhn. Was she a flamboyant superhero guardian angel from San Francisco? Was she an “attention-hog diva and raging bossypants bitch”? Or was she simply a bad Chinese American daughter who was a constant disappointment to her parents?

Eight years ago, 18-year-old Annie Chang reinvented herself as Aveda Jupiter and quickly became a glamorous celebrity in Golden Gate City. Back then she was a professional superheroine and city-saver with an aptitude for powerful roundhouse kicks and a penchant for excellent outfits. Her role model was Battle Angel Alita, and her motto was “Don’t fix the problem. Kick its ass.”

But these days she was a “professional identity-crisis-haver adrift in a city that didn’t currently need superheroes – and maybe never would again.” Somehow she had lost her awesome Aveda Jupiter mojo (see our review of Heroine Complex for more details).

The problem was that Aveda worked extra hard to suppress her former Annie Chang personality. She wanted to be a fearsome superheroine 24 hours a day. And as far as she was concerned, little Annie Chang was holding her back. The pipsqueak was like Clark Kent: boring, weak, and mundane, hiding all of his superheroic light.

She was wrong of course. Whether she admitted it or not, Aveda and Annie were inseparably the same person. As a superhero, she was fabulous, dazzling, and larger than life. She had excellent muscle definition too. But without Annie Chang at her side she was nothing. She couldn’t exist without her. Just like Superman and Clark Kent.

Annie made Aveda more of a battle angel bruiser, not less. Said Evie Tanaka, her best friend since kindergarten: “You’re a badass superheroine who’s embracing her human side and learning how to use her relentless determination and truly awesome assertiveness as a Forceful Bludgeon for Good.”

Consequently, Aveda Jupiter 2.0 (aka Forceful Bludgeon for Good) spends the rest of the novel trying to reconcile her messy younger self with the “bossypants bitch” she was now. As a result, she becomes a better superhero, a better friend, and a better daughter. In addition, she even gets to have sex with her high school crush. It’s all good.

Like its predecessor, Heroine Worship is funny and snarky. But what we liked best about the new novel is that author Kuhn allows her hero to display a full range of emotions, good and bad. “I never mastered the stereotypical Asian repression of feelings,” said Aveda. “I’m dramatic, and loud, and aggressive. That’s who I am.” Thank goodness.

[Heroine Worship / By Sarah Kuhn / First Printing: July 2017 / ISBN: 9780756413262]

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The Amazing Bug Girl

BugGirlA lot of superheroes with bug names don’t actually have bug powers. Ant-Man, Green Hornet, Bumblebee, the Moth, Black Widow, none of these characters has a crystalline carapace or super sensilla. Even the Blue Beetle and Ambush Bug don’t technically sport insectile powers. Their abilities instead come from otherworldly origins.

Bug Girl, on the other hand, sports a multitude of insect-like attributes. She has wings and a tough exoskeleton. She has antennae that help her see sound waves, and she has the ability to produce supercharged percussive noises like a cicada. She can also light up like a firefly, spit up noxious chemicals like the bombardier beetle, and release deadly farts like a stinkbug. She even has her own version of Spidey sense.

These powers come in handy when she meets Fritz Von Schlingmann. The Exterminator comes to town with a dastardly plan to disrupt the annual Oyster Cove jamboree, a joyous celebration enjoyed by everyone in the community.

Like the Grinch and Christmas, the Exterminator hates Oyster Cove Day. In fact, during one particularly nasty pique, he sounds very much like the Grinch. “The world will have me to thank when they are rid of this horrid town with its ice cream socials and pumpkin-carving contests and contra-dancing festivals and quilting bees. Disgusting!”

Despite her awesome array of buggy superpowers, Amanda (aka Bug Girl) can’t squash the Exterminator and his army of giant mutant centipedes, beetles, and scorpions. For help she reluctantly turns to her frenemy from middle school. Emily is a nascent superhero with Hulk-like strength and anger issues. She hasn’t gotten around to picking a snazzy name for her alter ego yet (Miss Fury, perhaps? Or Stompa?), but she looks groovy in her silver Lycra jumpsuit and puffy ’80s aerobic sneakers. She was ready to stun villains and look stunning while doing it.

As it turns out, Amanda and Emily are second-generation superheroes. Their mothers are Dragonfly and Megawoman, the most beloved crimefighting duo in the history of their hometown. Like it or not, both girls are Oyster Cove royalty and they are destined (doomed?) to carry on their family’s World’s Finest legacy.

Because of her obsession with insects, arachnids, and myriapods, Amanda’s classmates called her Bug Girl as an insult. But as a crimefighter with awesome insectile superpowers, Amanda took pride in her nickname. She owned it. Authors Benjamin Harper and Sarah Hines Stephens dedicate their book to “all the dorks, geeks, pre-hippies, science nerds, protopunks, gothlings, and other glorious misfits that populate the pariah table.” Let Bug Girl be their champion.

[Bug Girl / By Benjamin Harper and Sarah Hines Stephens / First Printing: May 2017 / ISBN: 9781250106612]

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Some Kind of Wonderful

WWNo superhero has a messier background than Wonder Woman. She’s always been iconic, of course, but her rep has suffered unduly by censorship, revisionism, editorial missteps, and appropriation.

In the beginning, Wonder Woman’s motivation was clear. She was a peacenik who campaigned for justice while promoting women’s rights. Even though she was a herald for worldwide matriarchy, she established herself as a hero for both girls and boys. Love was the strongest weapon she could wield.

Unfortunately, after the death of creator William Moulton Marston, her mission was derailed by Fredric Wertham, Robert Kanigher, Dennis O’Neil, and Gloria Steinem (among others). Her long-standing secretarial duties with the Justice League didn’t help matters either.

Throughout the years Wonder Woman persevered. Even though her comic books were spotty, she continued to fight for human rights in her satin tights. She was a charter member of Super Friends, and brought goodwill to primetime TV. In addition, Wonder Woman Underoos were pretty popular with kids and adults.

But most of all – she remained a strong and vibrant character surrounded by a sea of male superheroes. Could anyone else steal the spotlight from Superman, Batman, and Aquaman? We don’t think so. For 75+ years Wonder Woman carried the guidon for every female reader who picked up a comic book. You’ve got to love that.

And now we’ve got a Wonder Woman movie. As expected, the film included some revisionist tinkering. But more than anything, it understood the character’s core values. And guess what? Audiences loved it. The movie created a swirl of excitement around Wonder Woman and restored her faded luster.

The movie’s novelization by Nancy Holder also helped promote Wonder Woman’s comeback. It’s a faithful adaptation of events on the big screen with dialogue pinched directly from the script. The author was literally on the same page as the filmmakers.

Holder divided her book into three parts: Amazon, Warrior, and Wonder Woman. After all these years, and after all the retcons and needless interference, the essence of the character remained consistent with her early appearances in All Star Comics and Sensation Comics. She was a demigod, a champion of justice, and a woman. Simply put, she was a wonder woman.

No scene in the movie or book underscored Wonder Woman’s appeal better than her march across No Man’s Land. It’s arguably the single most memorable moment in any superhero movie. “She stepped onto the battlefield and surveyed the ground ahead,” wrote the author. “Her armor gleamed against the colorless breach – the Princess of Themyscira, defender of the people, majestic, magnificent. Driven by the compassion and her commitment to justice.”

[Wonder Woman: The Official Movie Novelization / By Nancy Holder / First Printing: June 2017 / ISBN: 9781785653780]

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Katana: She Who Is Worthy

KatanaWhen Tatsu was a little girl growing up in Japan, her grandmother taught her how to wield a samurai sword. But the bushi queen begged her young charge to be careful. “You may hold my katana,” said Onna-bugeisha Yamashiro, “but only if I have my hands around yours.”

Even though it was way too big for her at the time, Tatsu quickly became an expert with the iconic curved blade. Her grandmother was impressed. “Katana!” she exclaimed happily. “We should call you Katana from now on.”

Over the years, Tatsu Yamashiro mastered many fighting techniques and had many weapons in her arsenal. Shuriken, nunchakus, kusari-fundo, tsubute, blowgun – she was expert at all of them. The katana, however, was her number one weapon of choice. After all, she had been named after it.

Katana liked swords in the same way Batgirl liked bats, Hawkgirl liked hawks, Cheetah liked kittens, and Big Barda liked Scott Free. As the captain of the fencing team at Super Hero High School, Katana diligently developed a new kind of fighting technique that combined martial arts, bushido, saber, foil, legend, and superpowers.

Because she was the granddaughter of a legendary female samurai warrior (R.I.P. Onna-bugeisha), Katana was focused, disciplined, and frighteningly efficient in her fighting methods. No one at school (except for Wonder Woman) understood the art of war better than her. She also looked sharp in her faux samurai outfit.

This is the fourth novel in Lisa Yee’s ongoing DC Super Hero High series. Previous volumes featured unique stories about Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Batgirl, but this one is the most fully realized of the bunch. The narrative bounces back and forth between Metropolis and Tottori prefecture (Japan), and is perhaps the best origin story we’ve read about our favorite samurai vigilante.

A school assignment further underscored Katana’s place in two worlds. History teacher Liberty Belle asked her students to examine their past and relate it to their present while forecasting the future. Working hard to complete her homework, Katana uncovered family secrets that unalterably set her on her path in life.

She would always embody the bushido code (respect, honor, loyalty, and courage), and worked hard to be worthy of her family’s heritage. “I am Katana, formerly Tatsu Yamashiro, and granddaughter of Onna-bugeisha Yamashiro,” she proclaimed at the end of the novel. “I am a samurai superhero.”

[Katana at Super Hero High / By Lisa Yee / First Printing: July 2017 / ISBN: 9781101940686]

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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 the 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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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 misanthropic, 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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