Category Archives: Comics

Black Hammer and the ends of heroic ages

One of the Atomic Junkshop reviewers recommended Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston to me; as the library had V2, The Event, I picked it up. It was probably a better intro than the first volume, Secret Origins.

The premise of the series is that after an epic battle between Spiral City’s superheroes and the world-ending Anti-God, a half-dozen heroes — Black Hammer, Abe Slam, Golden Gail, Barbalien, Madame Dragonfly and Colonel Weird (all recognizable as pastiches — Black Hammer is a hybrid of Thor and the New Gods’ Orion, Barbalien is the Martian Manhunter and so forth) — wake up in the small village of Rockford. They can’t seem to leave (Black Hammer dies when he tries) and have to get along as best they can, posing as ordinary people. It’s particularly rough on Gail, a 50something woman now trapped in her nine-year-old superhero form. At the end of the first book Black Hammer’s daughter Lucy arrives, and some of what’s going on becomes obvious. In the second volume, The Event, we explore Rockford in more detail and things get more interesting. To date there’s also a spinoff, Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil, which looks at how Lucy wound up there.

Overall it’s a fun series, even if the riffing on established character types gets heavyhanded at times. But it got me thinking how often in the past two decades we’ve seen this sort of thing.

It started, as far as I remember, with Kingdom Come about 22 years ago. The Age of Heroes has become the Age of Super-Powered Showoffs Throwing Buses At Each Other (to paraphrase the creators); can the older heroes return in time to put things right.

Marvel’s Earth X and its sequels likewise showed the Marvel Universe sliding into its dotage. Then came Terra Obscura, a spinoff of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong in which a parallel world’s superheroes are freed from captivity after forty years and the world has to deal. Albion similarly assumes the superhumans and adventurers of British 1960s comics have all been locked away. Project Superpowers took many of the same characters as Terra Obscura, sealed away in Pandora’s Box in a misguided attempt to seal up evil (because they’re the hope that was also in the box). Now they’re out, facing a world that’s grown much worse without them. And there’s at least one more I don’t quite remember.

I’ve seen lots of other stories showing superheroes in the future, but without assuming a collapse of some sort; Gerry Conway’s Last Days of Animal Man, for instance, looks 10 or 15 years down the road, but assumes superheroes are still going strong. In the Spider-Girl series, everyone’s older, but the new Fantastic Five and the new Avengers are just as heroic as their predecessors. So Heroes in Decline isn’t automatic when writers look to tomorrow.

I suppose it could just be that everyone wants to knock off the critically acclaimed Kingdom Come. But I wonder if it also doesn’t reflect the aging of the superhero genre and its fans. It’s easy if you’re a long-time fan to feel the best years of the genre are behind you; Mark Waid and Alex Ross were quite upfront that Kingdom Come represented their take on 1990s superheroes and how they’d fallen from the Silver Age. It may also reflect, as Eric C. Flint puts it, that longtime fans want more than an entertaining story. They want metacommentary and deconstruction, and stories like these tend very much that way.

Regardless, Black Hammer is worth picking up. Though if I’d read V1 first, I don’t know I’d have been interested enough to try V2.

#SFWApro. Cover by Ormston, all rights remain with current holder.

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The Klan, divorce in America and the Sub-Mariner: books and graphic novels

THE SECOND COMING OF THE KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition by Linda Gordon is a history written in full awareness how much that Klan’s anti-immigrant, anti-semitic, anti-Catholic politics mirrors the current era, and how the Klansmen (and women) saw themselves as the Real Americans in contrast to their opponents (Jews being their biggest bogeyman). After the initial attempt to revive the Klan in the wake of Birth of a Nation flopped, a couple of PR whizzes (Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke) bought the organization and took it national. Their trick was that along with politics they presented the KKK as a fraternal organization much like the Masons or the Elks (and it did have a lot in common with them), with the added plus that if members recruited new Klansmen, they got a commission (part of which was passed up the line). Tyler was the first of several prominent Klanswomen who found the organization a perfect outlet for ambitions as motivational speakers, organizers and businesswoman. Interesting, and depressingly familiar

When I was a tween, my impression from TV was that divorce was slightly edgy, disreputable and just not done by normal people. Ah, youth; DIVORCE: An American Tradition by Glenda Riley shows that the US was already divorcing at a much higher rate than Europeans, and had been doing so for years (the US allowed judicial divorce long before Great Britain did). Riley tracks the constant push and shove between those who wanted to make marriage eternal, those who thought an exit option was necessary, and those who thought marriage, not divorce, was the real problem (the whole “we don’t need a piece of paper to prove we love each other” of the 1960s had lots of precedent). This has lots of detail, some of it amusing, such as learning Indianapolis was once the quickie divorce capital of America (though the statistics don’t confirm the reputation). Interesting again

MARVEL MASTERWORKS: THE GOLDEN-AGE SUB-MARINER by Bill Everett and others was one I picked up on sale last year. While I’m not particularly a fan of Namor, there’s some fun to be had here; in one story, when Namor busts up a ring of radium thieves he keeps the rare element for use by his own people (not yet identified as Atlantean) rather than returning it. The backup, the Angel, is pretty fun too; the protagonist apparently has no secret identity, being the Angel full-time (not the only Golden-Age hero of whom that was true). Entertaining, but I doubt I’d have bought it at full-price.

#SFWApro. Art by Alex Schomburg, all rights remain with current holder.

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Witch hunts and suicide missions: books read

A TRIAL OF WITCHES: A Seventeenth Century Witchcraft Prosecution by Gilbert Geis and Ivan Bunn works much better than Malcolm Gaskill’s tedious Witchfinders, wisely focusing on one single 1662 trial, of accused (and found guilty) witches Amy Denny and Rose Cullender in Lowescroft. The authors detail the accusations at trial (Denny supposedly hexed merchant Samuel Pacy’s daughter after Pacy refused to sell Denny some surplus herring); the learned personages testifying or sitting in judgment (most notably the once-legendary judge Sir Matthew Hale, now best known for his warnings about the dangers of women crying rape); the accusers; and the village itself. The authors agree with the theory witch trials were less about the Inquisition sweeping down and more about local, personal interactions: the two women were quarrelsome and strongminded, and Pacy refusing Denny’s request (by local standards a very reasonable one) may have given him an incentive to believe she was evil and therefore not entitled to charity. Other factors in play include religious outlooks, recent political turmoil and the sexism of the era. A very good book on the subject.

SUICIDE SQUAD: Trial By Fire by John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell launched the long-running 1980s series about a team of supervillains working for the government as disposable agents (if they’re caught, they can be written off as crooks doing criminal stuff). This was a little too grim-and-gritty for my taste when it came out, and even now I’m not rushing to get V2. That said, it is well done as the team tackles an Arab terrorist super-team (the Bad Arab stereotypes have not improved with age), rescue a dissident from the Soviet Union and stop a white supremacist from using a fake superhero to launch a race war (black crooks get dragged to the cops, white criminals get to go free if they join the militia). And of course, with a bunch of sociopaths, possession victims and broken people, there are no end of potential problems that can break the team apart. If this is your sort of thing, definitely worth buying,

#SFWApro. Cover by Luke McDonnell, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Does the Count of Monte Cristo read romance comics? Books read

While I’m a huge fan of Alexandre Dumas’ THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO I’d never read the unabridged version before this past week. Having done so, I must confess I prefer the unabridged one I’d read previously (though that abridged one major element, the final downfall of the scheming banker Danglars). The book tells the  story of Edmond Dantes, unjustly imprisoned for fifteen years, escaping and acquiring almost unlimited wealth, then using it to bring slow, relentless doom on the three men who framed him. It’s a great yarn and I love some of the subtle webs Dantes spins. I also like how deftly he uses his wealth: to enlist the aid of a bandit chief he drops one bribe so that the chief’s imprisoned man gets a long stay of execution, then another to get the guy out of the slammer.

However even allowing that the nineteenth century had the time to read really big books (this paperback is 1100 pages) this feels very much like Dumas, writing this as a serial, padded it out to add a few extra installments. The bandit chief Vampa doesn’t need much of a backstory, but we get the history of how he became the chieftain anyway, and there are endlessly long displays of Dantes’ spectacular wealth. I may try reading this again, or I may go back to the abridged. I must add that the happy ending works better than I remembered, though the relationship has an unpleasant power imbalance to it. Still, it’s a great story and I have hopes of doing a fantasy variation on it some day.

HOW TO GO STEADY: Timeless Dating Advice, Wisdom and Lessons From Vintage Romance Comics by Jacque Nodell (granddaughter of Golden Age artist Martin Nodell and romance-comics blogger at Sequential Crush) gives a good overview of the advice columnists who populated the romance comics of the 1950s through the 1970s, sharing tips on dating, finding a guy, going steady, S-E-X and fashion in response to reader questions (including some from boys — the comics were less the province of female fans than I assumed). Nodell gives a list of the various columnists (some real people, others staff writers hiding behind pseudonyms) and looks at their advice which she argues was more liberated than a lot of what was out there back in the day. No, they weren’t encouraging kids to use birth control or anything, but they did put a lot of emphasis on girls having their own interests rather than building their life around Him, and not putting up a false front to land a guy (I have seen books and articles even from later eras that suggested the opposite). Though that said, I can’t imagine any columnist today not freaking out about a teenager having a boyfriend a decade older. Obviously not for everyone, but even as a non-romance comics reader I found it interesting.

#SFWApro. Cover art by Jay Scott Pike, all rights remain with current holder.

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Frustrated, by J. Jonah Jameson

J. Jonah Jameson probably doesn’t have a Perry White level of familiarity but between movies, cartoons and comics, he’s pretty well known. Spidey’s foil, persecutor and comic-relief. As I said yesterday, for me he’s the weakest part of the Lee/Ditko run.

When we first see Jonah, he’s running an anti-Spider-Man crusade in the Daily Bugle and Now magazine (which got largely forgotten as the series moved on). Why are we allowing this freak to perform on TV as a bad example for kids? He’s working outside the system — who’s to say he’s not a criminal himself? While not everyone busy it, the effect of this PR blitz is to make Spidey a pariah (curiously the cops are usually shown having a clear-eyed view of the wall-crawler. I don’t know if that reflects the creators’ views or the Comics Code rules against disrespecting police).

A few issues in, Jameson tells Peter that it’s all about the Benjamins: he has nothing against Spider-Man, but crusading against him sells papers. Then in Amazing Spider-Man #10, he reveals there’s more to it: he resents Spider-Man. Jameson’s a proud man, a successful businessman, a prominent public figure, but he knows Spider-Man is greater, nobler, more heroic than he’ll ever be. Rather than aspire to his level and fail, he’s decided to destroy Spider-Man instead.

Here Steve Ditko was definitely channeling his Randian side: one of the villains in The Fountainhead gives exactly that motivation for destroying Howard Roark. It’s a rationale I found awfully forced when I first read it, but as I’ve grown older I find it a lot more plausible (I now realize people really can be that petty). Kurt Busiek, in Untold Tales of Spider-Man, has Jameson genuinely start off targeting Spidey for money. It’s only when Spider-Man refuses to quit helping a public that despises him that Jameson, whose public-spiritedness is definitely fueled by ego, starts to resent the hero.

Despite that striking moment, most of the time Jameson’s just annoying. Where most of the Spider-Man cast are well-developed — even bullying jock Flash Thompson has some depth — but Jameson gets more cartoonish as he goes along. More cowardly, cheaper (in an early scenes he gives Parker a bonus; a year later they’d never have written him that way), more egocentric, more shallow. When he rehires Frederick Foswell — a former Bugle columnist and secret crime boss — as a crime reporter, it’s a smart move; who knows the underworld better than the man who ran it? But instead of showing Jameson making a shrewd call the story makes him look like a jerk, explaining he’s rehiring Foswell to improve “my reputation as a lovable do-gooder.”

The stuff about wanting to destroy Spider-Man out of jealousy or from greed got forgotten. Several later stories show Jameson as sincerely believing Spider-Man is a menace. It’s not that surprising — as noted yesterday, the first retelling of Peter’s origin left out key details — but it does undercut that moment.

In short doses, Jameson’s an amusing enough buffoon. If I’d been reading ASM once a month instead of binging over a couple of weeks, I might not have minded. But Jameson’s definitely the weakest part of the Lee/Ditko era.

#SFWApro. Cover by Ditko, all rights remain with current holder.

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He does whatever a spider can: The Amazing Spider-Man

By an odd coincidence, I’d started rereading the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko run of Spider-Man shortly before Ditko died. I’d just bought the new TPB containing the first year of Lee/John Romita and I figured I’d enjoy it more if I read the TPBs of everything leading up to it.

Damn, that run was some good stuff. Brian Cronin has a good in-depth look at Ditko’s contributions to the strip (he co-plotted it as well) and Atomic Junkshop has a look at his overall body of work. I’m just going to talk about the storytelling he and Lee accomplished during their years on the strip. Though if you want an example of Ditko’s style and the odd angles he used, this is a good one.

While of course I know the outline of Peter’s story — the tragic death of his Uncle Ben, his turning to fighting crime, J. Jonah Jameson turning the city against him, Peter’s constant struggles with money — rereading brought up a lot of details I’d forgotten. For one thing, Lee and Ditko apparently didn’t think the origin was all that iconic. In Spidey’s first issue they recount the origin (which had appeared in Amazing Fantasy of course) but don’t mention Peter’s failure to stop the burglar; his failing is that he was out being a celebrity while Uncle Ben was dying. Did they forget the details? Worry about making Peter too big a screw-up?

That said, everything follows surprisingly logically from the origin (well for comic books, where a high-schooler can invent his own spider webbing). With Uncle Ben dead, Peter has to find a way to support Aunt May. After Jameson makes Spidey too unpopular to get any more show biz gigs, Peter hits on selling the Daily Bugle photos of Spider-Man battling the new supervillain in town, the Vulture. The irony of profiting off the man who hates him gives the stunt extra zing. And now he has a reason to fight crime — taking care of Aunt May. Though as time went by, protecting people would be just as important.

Making Peter a teenager was a surprisingly smart move. The idea of a hero who constantly draws the short straw in life is common in comics now, but it was groundbreaking back then. If they’d written Peter as an adult, it would come across mopey and wimpy (as several later adults following the formula did). But a teenager who’s lonely and struggling? That’s a lot more plausible. When Doctor Octopus kicks Peter’s butt in his first appearance Peter’s so shaken he decides to quit (doesn’t take, of course). It wouldn’t have worked half so well if he’d been Ben Grimm’s age.

On top of which, Ditko and Lee actually let Peter grow and change. After three years, he graduates high school and goes to college. He gets more confident as he goes along, playing the occasional joke on Jameson and in one story going toe-to-toe with an arrogant classmate who keeps picking on him. Girls become interested in him, though it never seems to work out. It’s not easy to keep changing the status quo, but they pulled it off.

Even after Lee and Ditko stopped speaking to each other, they managed to do some solid work. The story that climaxes in #33 is a classic: Aunt May’s deathly ill, Doctor Octopus has stolen the miracle drug that can save her, Peter tears apart the underworld to find him and finally reaches Ock’s underwater base. There he winds up trapped under a ton of debris, water filling the chamber, the vial of the drug just out of reach … And yet he finds the strength to triumph. Things weren’t as good in Ditko’s few remaining issues, but he and Lee did give us the Looter, one of the first villains (maybe the first?) to be intentionally written as a loser.

While Ditko was a devout Objectivist, you wouldn’t know it from Spider-Man. Ayn Rand thought there was virtue in selfishness; Peter’s selfishness costs him his uncle’s life. He redeems himself by helping people, even when they regard him as a menace. Selfish characters — Jameson, most of the villains — are bad. Apparently Ditko’s brand of Objectivism didn’t rule out rescuing people (this is something I’ll return to in a future column).

Tomorrow, a look at the worst part of the Lee/Ditko run, J. Jonah Jameson. Until then, here’s the cover of the first Spider-Man book I ever read.

#SFWApro. All covers by Ditko, all rights remain with current holder.

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The Avengers, the Middleman and a ninja doctor: graphic novels

I loved Mark Waid’s work on Flash and most other characters but his Avengers work? Not so much. AVENGERS/CHAMPIONS: Worlds Collide by Waid and various artists has one of the current Avengers teams and the Champions (a team of ex-Avengers, I gather) joining forces when the High Evolutionary plots to put Counter-Earth on a collision course with our Earth. Part of the problem is that too many characters speak like Waid’s Wally West; a bigger one is that the High Evolutionary and Counter-Earth have no resemblance to any past version (the one from Warlock has been destroyed). And any time a superhero comic book makes a big thing of “that can’t happen because, physics,” I just roll my eyes.

THE MIDDLEMAN: The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Hans Beimler and Armando M. Zinker adapts the script for what would have been the final episode of the delightful TV series. Tech entrepreneur Manservant Neville’s new UMaster has been distributed to millions of people around the world — but what does it actually do? Spoiler: Nothing good. This resolves the relationship between Lacy and the Middleman (the big loose end from the series) but not the way I’d have preferred. And Wendy does spent a lot of time tied up instead of participating in the heroics. Still, this was a fun farewell; I’ll pick up the second farewell, in which the TV and comics Wendy meet up, some time down the road. And thanks to Atomic Junkshop for letting me know this was out there.

ADVENTURES OF DR. MCNINJA: Night Powers by Christopher Hastings, Benito Cereno and Les McClaine (who also worked on some of the Middleman comics) is the hard copy of a webcoming I’ve been following for some time. Dr. McNinja is indeed a doctor, but he’s also a ninja; here he deals with bandits on velociraptors, a tennis match to save the world, archfoe King Radical and a sparkly motorcycle that’s actually an evil unicorn. This is a gloriously loonie series and I’m delighted some of its available in print.

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Legends, Southern Women, Apes and Faith: books read

According to the introduction, WE ARE ALL LEGENDS by Darrell Schweitzer was inspired by The Seventh Seal with its story of Julian the Apostate (“Second of that name.”) who in his first encounter with evil rolls over and surrenders. Denied salvation, he wanders a world of strange cults and warped Christianity (“God is mad, yes, but so is his adversary.”), hoping to escape damnation but unwilling to redeem himself. Dark, gloomy and weird, this reminds me a lot of Clark Ashton Smith’s work; like a lot of short story series, it gets repetitive at times, but it’s still well worth reading.

MOTHERS OF INVENTION: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust looks at how Southern ladies, raised to believe they were utterly dependent on men for protection, guidance and support, suddenly found their men yanked away by the war. Now it was the women who had to order slaves around, run businesses, petition the government for help and make public appearances at fund-raisers, which often left them in a state of cognitive dissonance and outraged other Southerners (even the slightest departure from their conscripted gender roles would piss someone off). The normal course of life was similarly disrupted, as young girls found themselves deprived of the courtship and husband hunting that would usually consume their time and many young widows decided lifelong mourning was not the way to go. Faust concludes that the women never really embraced their new roles, which is part of why feminism never found fertile ground in the south (Southern suffragettes didn’t demand the vote based on equality, but on the grounds they deserved it more than Negros). Not as striking as Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, but interesting.

PLANET OF THE APES AS AMERICAN MYTH: Race, Politics and Popular Culture by Eric Greene argues convincingly that the subtext (and frequently text) of the original films is race relations in America, both reflected in the ape caste system (orangutan leaders, chimp intellectuals, brute gorillas) and ape/human relations (the slaves rising up in revolt in Conquest, for instance).  Greene explores how the theme works itself out in the different films and proposed scripts, from the bleak view of the first two films to the tentative hope of the last three that racial equality might be attained, however much a long shot. An interesting read that also includes the two TV shows and the various comics adaptations, plus several 1990s attempts to revive the franchise (Greene wrote well before the current cycle kicked off).

FAITH: California Scheming: by Jody Houser and Pere Pérez is an excellent sequel to V1, Hollywood & Vine (which apparently I forgot to review). Faith is a plus-size telekinetic and extreme comics nerd (her secret identity name “Summer” is a tribute to both Summer Glau and Scott Summers) who’s just sunny as all get out about being able to use her powers to help people. Here she encounters Chris Hemsworth (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) who reveals an unpleasant secret and goes with her boyfriend Archer to a con where she faces one of the classic dilemmas (“Which of us is the evil double?”). Highly recommended.

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A few good superheroes: graphic novels read

BATMAN: The Rules of Engagement was the first Tom King Batman TPB (with art by various creators) I genuinely liked (as opposed to, say, The War of Jokes and Riddles). Batman’s engaged to Selina which leads to lots of genuinely enjoyable banter, a battle with Talia al Ghul, shock from the Robins and Bruce and his sweetie going on a double date with the Kents. This was the most lighthearted Batman story I’ve seen in years — so perhaps it’s not surprising that the wedding ain’t going to happen (the Big Twist of the upcoming wedding issue, spoiled by an NYT story).

ABE SAPIENS: Lost Lives by Mike Mignola, Scott Allie and others is a mixed bag of short stories set throughout Abe’s career; “mixed bag” puts it better than most of Abe’s series, ike the previous couple of TPBs. The origin of occultist Gustav Strobl is more interesting than he ever was as an adversary, for instance, but the final story involving Abe’s life as Langdon Caul never really comes to a point. The most noteworthy thing is that setting one story in 2013 forces me to revise the Hellboy Chronology  — I had Abe’s transformation into his new form happening a couple of years earlier. I still think 2013 is a little late, but Mignola gets to make the call.

THE BUZZ AND DARKDEVIL by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz collects two miniseries showcasing two of Spider-Girl’s supporting cast (if they were hoping for spinoffs, alas, they did no better than A-Next or Juggernaut. The Buzz is J. Jonah Jameson’s grandson, JJ; when grandpa’s latest attempt to create a new superhero goes as badly awry as all the others, JJ steps into the Buzz suit and begins fighting the bad guys. Darkdevil has a truly loonie origin: son of Spider-Man clone Ben Reilly, transformed when the demon Zarathos tried to possess him, saved by the ghost of Matt Murdock, he now fights crime with his odd mix of spider/demon/Daredevil powers. If only for sheer weirdness, I liked this one better.

#SFWApro. Cover by Sebastian Fumiura, all rights remain with current holder.

 

 

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Disappointing fantasies with female protagonists

Laini Taylor’s writing style on her Y/A DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE is really clunky (too much head-hopping, for instance) but it got me interested in the early chapters for the sheer amount of weird stuff, such as a nonhuman sorcerer collecting necklaces of teeth, a stalking angel and a teleporting blue-haired girl living in Prague. It got less imaginative as it went along, and switching to another POV character, Madrigal, for several chapters didn’t work at all for me. But the weird bits were memorably weird.

ROOK by Sharon Cameron is set in a post-apocalyptic world that happens to resemble France and England during the Reign of Terror (which doesn’t really make sense, but I’m willing to grant the premise), with the mysterious Red Rook — AKA impoverished English noblewoman Sophia — rescuing prisoners sentenced to die under “the Razor” (Cameron acknowledges the Scarlet Pimpernel influence). This starts off well, but runs too long to keep up the energy. A bigger problem is that while Sophia starts off daring and swashbuckling, once her fiancé gets involved Cameron gives him the leadership role and reduces Sophia to sidekick (as this is part romance, I wonder if Cameron was trying to create a romantic figure and just went over the top). Disappointing

WONDER WOMAN: Heart of the Amazon by Shea Fontana (and other writers and artists) suffers from some really poor art that doesn’t work at all (maybe a lighter, sweeter story). The story is stretched out too far, but the scheme to use Wonder Woman’s blood for sinister purposes isn’t bad, and the various writers play up her compassion, which the New 52 tends to forget about. Not a winner, but far from the worst WW I’ve read.

DEPT H. by Matt Kindt has a great concept — female protagonist investigating a murder at a deep-sea lab — but it really didn’t work for me. Too much time spent fleshing out the protagonist and establishing the set-up rather than getting going. It would work as the first couple of chapters in a mystery novel, but not as a standalone.

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