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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Power to the People

RL SuperHeroesHave you heard the news? Superheroes aren’t just a figment of your amazing fantasy – they’re totally real. And if you’re living in a large metropolitan area like New York, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, or Salt Lake City, these real life super heroes are fighting crime and keeping the streets safe for law-abiding citizens like yourself.

In her latest book, reporter Nadia Fezzani takes a deep dive into the “Real Life Super Hero” movement and asks some tough questions. For instance, what motivates a person to dress up and go looking for danger? Were they crazy? Were they uniquely brave? The results of her hero’s journey might surprise you.

Even though Phoenix Jones in Seattle uses his mixed martial arts skills to pummel rowdy scofflaws (check out YouTube if you want to see him in action), most of these superheroes don’t exactly “fight crime.” They help their communities with less aggressive pursuits. They work with disabled children, give food to the homeless, and counsel women in abusive relationships. Geist, for example, a hero who sports a cowboy-like outfit, travels around the country lending a hand to people in disaster areas. “I fight for the forgotten,” he tells Fezzani.

You’d think superheroes such as Thanatos, Purple Reign, Nihilist, and Mr. Xtreme would be applauded for their commitment to civic service. After all, hospitals, churches, animal shelters, and recycling centers need all the volunteer help they can get. But that’s not necessarily the case.

As it turns out, dressing in flamboyant costumes and carrying expandable stun batons is slightly controversial. Go figure. “Ninety-nine percent of these guys are ridiculous,” says the Baroness, a concerned citizen from Salt Lake City. “They’re delusional. If you’re going to call yourself a superhero, you better damn well act like one.”

The Baroness is referring to all the superhero wannabes who get their inspiration from the movie Kick-Ass. Phoenix Jones, for example, has gotten in trouble with the Seattle police because of his confrontational attitude, and a particular superhero from the Bay Area once infamously traded blows with the Oakland police. These heroes (and many others) have polarized the RLSH community.

To her credit, Fezzani doesn’t shy away from the controversial elements of being a real life super hero. In the end, however, it’s easy to see where her heart lies (just wait until you read the last sentence of her book, it’s a humdinger). She admits they’re an eccentric bunch of do-gooders, but she feels they have the potential to inspire people.

To emphasize her point, she quotes a superhero called Thanatos from Vancouver. “The world can be a nasty place,” he says, “but I know in my heart that one person can make a difference. If you look at history, it’s always been one person who’s started something big – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus, Buddha, Albert Einstein. All of them made this world a better place to live.”

[Real Life Super Heroes / By Nadia Fezzani / First Printing: October 2017 / ISBN: 9781459739154]

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Big Ol’ Jet Airliner

MM Phantom JetlinerIn 1942, Mighty Mouse fought mobsters, rescued damsels in distress, and punched erupting volcanoes. Like Superman, he was strong and wore a colorful superhero costume. Unlike Superman (who could only leap tall buildings at the time), Mighty Mouse streaked across the sky like a comet.

The character was conceived as a Superman spoof and was known as Super Mouse for a brief time in the very beginning. Even in 1981 when this novel was published, author Horace J. Elias used the pronoun “Super Mouse” freely. There’s no arguing that Mighty Mouse was rodentia progeny of Superman. But we confess – given the choice between the two iconic heroes, we’d pick Mighty Mouse every time.

Mighty Mouse and the Phantom Jetliner was one of three novels published to supplement a short-lived television show called The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle (the other two books included Mighty Mouse and the Moon Men and Mighty Mouse Saves the Spaceship). Author Elias was a busy guy during the ’70s. He penned a raft of prose novels featuring the Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, Magilla Gorilla, Mister Magoo, Huckleberry Hound, and Johnny Quest. He was a lucky duck who found a way to pay his mortgage by writing books based on cartoon characters. Nice work if you can get it.

The Phantom Jetliner begins when Mighty Mouse gets a panicked call from the head of the Mouse Bureau of Investigations. Some sort of invisible aircraft was harassing commercial jet airliners. Fifteen pilots had narrowly escaped midair collisions, and the M.B.I. was in a tizzy. “I will do everything I can to help you get to the bottom of this mystery,” said Mighty Mouse.

Surprisingly (or maybe not), Mighty Mouse doesn’t rely on his mighty superpowers to solve the case. Instead, he spends a big chunk of the novel studying pilot logs, mapping flight patterns, and calculating collision angles. We’re pretty sure Superman never sat down with field reports and a calculator to defeat Brainiac.

One hundred pages later, Mighty Mouse discovers that his archenemy Oilcan Harry is responsible for all the fuss. The black cat nutball was trying to bait Mighty Mouse into a fight by flying around in an invisible jet. His cat-and-mouse game failed spectacularly.

“I don’t think we’ll be hearing from Oilcan Harry again,” Mighty Mouse told the chief of the M.B.I. “I flew his plane out to sea and then set the automatic pilot in a circular pattern. The plane should continue to fly in circles until it runs out of fuel.”

The G-mouse wasn’t convinced, however. “Do you think there’s any chance at all that he could be rescued and resume his villainous career?” he asked.

“I seriously doubt that,” replied the super mouse with a big, satisfied grin on his face. “Who could find the plane? It’s invisible!”

[Mighty Mouse and the Phantom Jetliner / By Horace J. Elias / First Printing: 1981]

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Unidentified Assailant in Black

NightwalkerBruce Wayne was a senior in high school at the beginning of Batman: Nightwalker. In his spare time he liked to read mystery novels and listen to the police scanner. All things considered, he was just a normal everyday teenage billionaire. Nobody knew what the future held for him.

Don’t be fooled, however. Somewhere buried deep inside his batling brain, Bruce was already working out the logistics of becoming a caped crusader. There was no doubt about it, the road to Detective Comics #27 was indelibly etched in stone the moment he witnessed his parents being murdered in Crime Alley.

Author Marie Lu begins her novel on the night of Bruce Wayne’s eighteenth birthday. Driving home after the party he witnesses a crime in progress and gets involved in a high-speed car chase. Naturally, things don’t go well for the nascent crimefighter. He’s busted for interfering with a crime scene, disobeying a police officer’s orders, and obstruction of justice. His sentence: community service at Arkham Asylum cleaning toilets and mopping floors.

During his time at Arkham, Bruce starts talking to a young and cute internee named Madeleine Wallace (her nickname was “Mads,” so you know she belonged in a mental institution). She was accused of three recent murders and was the youngest inmate in the history of Arkham Asylum. Like Catwoman, Madeleine was “a girl who seemed to exist in a realm between black and white, who seemed like a force of evil, then of good, and then everything in between.”

While Bruce was falling in love with her (“God, she was frighteningly pretty,” he swooned), Madeleine was ensnaring him in her deadly web. She was working with a terrorist group called the Nightwalkers that were waging a war against the super elite. And in Gotham City, nobody was more “super elite” than Bruce Wayne.

This was Bruce’s first tour of Arkham Asylum. In years to come, his connection to the institution would become more familiar and further complicated. Author Lu makes a case that Bruce found common ground with the asylum’s lunatics immediately. He was one of them, she says. In fact, her description of Arkham could easily substitute as a description of Batman during his twilight years. “Like a creature come alive in the night, Arkham Asylum was all gnarled limbs and sharp shadows, an illusion around every corner.”

Even beyond all the Arkham stuff, there was a lot of foreshadowing in this book. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. All Batman prequels were loaded with knowing winks and nods. Writers had fun with it, and readers unquestionably liked it too. We especially enjoyed the moments involving the first Batmobile (an Aston Martin) and all the scenes featuring Bruce wearing his beta version of the Batsuit.

Built by Lucius Fox, the experimental exosuit was meant to boost physical prowess. Although it was an impressive piece of tech, it wasn’t quite ready for prime time. There wasn’t a utility belt for instance. Bruce had to stash all his gadgets in his school backpack. In addition, the suit didn’t mimic any proprietary design. During Bruce’s first nighttime vigil, the police simply described him as an “unidentified assailant in black.”

By donning the Batsuit for the first time, Bruce finally caught a glimpse of his crimefighting future. The world was full of liars, traitors, thieves, and terror organizations like the Nightwalkers, but there were good people in the world too. “Gotham City was a place worth protecting,” he said at the end of the novel. Like it or not, it was his home.

[Batman: Nightwalker / By Marie Lu / First Printing: January 2018 / ISBN: 9780399549786]

Posted in Marvel/DC, Published in 2018 | Tagged , ,

Young Man Blues

SuperteamLike Dick Grayson, Vincent Sawyer grew up as a superhero’s sidekick. But at 16 he wanted to say goodbye to his Batman-like mentor Black Harrier and fight crime solo. It was time for him to establish his own identity. He figured, if Nightwing could do it, so could Red Raptor. For further details, see our review of Sidekick, the first book in the series (here).

Now at 17, Sawyer was looking to form a New Teen Titans-like group. Inexplicably he wanted to trade one interdependent relationship for another. If he wanted to be the star of his own comic book series, he wasn’t doing a very good job of it. Branding experts agree: stay on point.

But there was one significant difference. With the Resistors (cq) he would be the leader. No more Batman and Robin stuff. Sawyer would interview and audition candidates for his new superteam. He would supply the secret lair and the tech – and he would set the agenda too. That was his hope, anyway.

Naturally there were problems along the way. By using social media (always a bad idea), Sawyer attracted an odd bunch of applicants with questionable talents (like a not-quite master of kung fu). Later, when the charter members were finally chosen, discipline and training became a pressing issue. And during its first official mission, the Resistors (including Sawyer along with Osprey, Bash, Neith, and Pace) were busted for not having superhero permits. The Resistors Initiative was definitely a work in progress.

All things considered, we were a tad disappointed with Superteam – especially because Christopher Valin’s first novel was so dang good. Conflicts resolved themselves in an unfettered manner, and big revelations didn’t provide a big bang. For some odd reason, drama and narrative tension were askew throughout the entire book.

But there were many things we liked about this second Red Raptor outing. Mostly we were happy that Sawyer’s spunky attitude hadn’t softened over the past year. He wasn’t a bad guy by any means. He was just suffering from a Mose Allison ailment called “Young Man Blues.” As a kid trying to make his way in life, Sawyer was a lot like Peter Parker the Boy Wonder. But he was also like the loud and somewhat annoying Boy Wonder from the Teen Titans Go! television show. Like this sequel, Vincent Sawyer was simply experiencing a little thing called growing pains.

[Superteam: The Red Raptor Files – Part 2 / By Christopher J. Valin / First Printing: September 2017 / ISBN: 9781976332357]

Posted in Published in 2017 | Tagged , ,

One Woman Army Corps

Sienna McKnightSienna McKnight was born in the harsh desert of Central Asia. She was, says author R.K. Syrus, “An orphan girl born in blood with the birthright of pain and scars.” Nothing in life would be easy for her.

Now a full bird Colonel in the U.S. Army, McKnight’s personal mission was to return to the wasteland of Khorasan and punish her mother’s murderer and find out what happened to her father. The circumstances surrounding her birth and the ensuing years spent on a military base in North Carolina were improbable. But what came before seemed inescapable. No one could stop Col. McKnight from returning to the badlands of Asia. She was looking for a slice of justice with a big scoop of no mercy.

Along for the ride were a scruffy battle-tested ops team known as the Dogs. These howling commandos were basically grown-up versions of the kids in high school who dressed in black and barked at the moon. Now as sanctioned military personnel, they carried licenses to kill.

The Dogs were a tough bunch all right, but just in case they needed a little backup, McKnight “borrowed” a piece of top-secret Army tech known as RAPTEK. The self-contained weapons system was infused with a mysterious alien power source, and McKnight knew it would transform her into a Kirby-esque O.W.A.C.

What she didn’t know, however, was that the “Railgun: Ansible Powered Test Kit” could trigger ancient powers hidden deep inside of her. Combined with the alien technology, McKnight’s inner wraith roiled with a surge of unprecedented havoc.

The story of Sienna McKnight’s existential journey first appeared in a comic book back in 2012. For one reason or another, creator Syrus decided to cancel the comic and continue the story in prose format. After reading this novel (the first in a planned 10-volume series), we think he made the right choice.

Syrus ably captures McKnight’s situation by mixing military science fiction and superhero prose fiction – a genre mash-up that we haven’t seen very often. He’s pretty good at military techno-babble, and he’s especially good with fight sequences. For example, his hero escapes from a Khorasan cellblock by overcoming her captives in a highly unusual way, and she later destroys the surrounding village (along with a surface-to-air missile launcher) by throwing stones (!) and creating shockwaves.

And lastly, for those of you who continually dismiss superhero prose fiction as inferior to comic books, we ask: What’s more visual than your imagination? Why let an illustrator define your optics? In our opinion, very few comic book creators could have captured McKnight’s surreal pre-birth experience in Chapter 22 any better than Syrus did here. There’s no reason a New Praetorians adventure can’t be as explosive and colorful in prose format than any other format.

[Sienna McKnight: New Praetorians 1 / By R.K. Syrus / First Printing: July 2017 / ISBN: 9781910890066]

Posted in Published in 2017 | Tagged , ,

Be Your Own Bloom

CosplayEveryone is a nerd about something, says author Cecil Castellucci in her latest novel. And we can attest to that. At various times over the years we’ve been inordinately preoccupied with a sundry of things. Rat Fink, Ricky Nelson, Angela Mao, RC Cola – the list goes on and on. Comic books, especially, have been a life-long obsession.

Castellucci’s novel will undoubtedly appeal to everyone ensconced in a Comic-Con-like bubble. The author mentions “free comic book day” in the first sentence of the book, and goes on to joyously name check a string of nerd icons such as B’Elanna Torres (Star Trek: Voyager), Izabel (Saga), and Shade, the Changing Girl.

These days, being a nerd is mainstream with hard-core edges. As proof, Castellucci casts her writerly gaze toward a highly enthusiastic sub-nerd niche. Don’t Cosplay with My Heart is the story of a high school girl named Edan who copes with a significant family crisis by dressing up like Gargantua, her favorite comic book character (“I need to be more like her and less like me,” she says at one point). Cosplay also gives Edan the wherewithal to navigate tricky social situations and even trickier romantic entanglements.

Sadly, nerd culture isn’t all Hello Kitty hugs and all-night LARPing parties. Sexism, bullying, and boorish behavior continue to plague the community like a “Dutch Oven” (look it up). To her credit, Castellucci doesn’t turn a blind eye to these lingering issues.

In particular, there’s a geek chorus of boys who continually harass and disrespect Edan throughout the book. They question her nerd cred and dismiss her opinions every chance they get. “You’re the girl who pretends to be all cool, but you really aren’t,” says their leader in a novel-ending harangue. “Girls like you … you pretend to be into stuff, learn to talk the talk, hooking up with boys, invading our spaces.” It’s a brutal verbal attack, but we’re betting it mirrors similar #MeToo conversations all women have had at some point in their lives.

Never mind that these nerd bullies aren’t fully formed characters. Castellucci doesn’t seem to care. She’s using broad strokes to make her point. Whether you’re an editor at DC Comics or a member of your high school cosplay club, you need to be respectful and inclusive. Let the girls have their fan fun without being belittled, insulted, ogled, or groped. “Here’s the truth about being a nerd,” says Edan. “You don’t have to be an expert in something, you just have to be passionate. There is no test and no application. If you say you’re a geek, then you’re a geek.”

[Don’t Cosplay with My Heart / By Cecil Castellucci / First Printing; January 2018 / ISBN: 9781338125498]

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