Category Archives: Comics

Amazing animals and other comic-book characters

VON HOFFMAN’S INVASION by Tom Tully and Eric Bradbury is typical of the British comics I remember from the 1960s and ’70s. Von Hoffman was once Nazi Germany’s most brilliant scientist, but WW II’s been over for 25 years, he’s obviously no threat, why not release him to live out his last years in peace?

Oops. Developing a formula that turns animals into giants under his control (similar to another Bradbury strip, Black Max), Von Hoffman journeys to England to avenge Germany’s defeat (British fiction assumes this means targeting the UK, much as American fiction assumes it means targeting the U.S.). Can two plucky boys with an antidote to the growth spray end his reign of terror?

This is fun, with some creative use of the monsters, though not as good as Black Max. And like a lot of strips I remember, this volume ends with a soft reboot of sorts, as Von Hoffman gains control of some robot dinosaurs rather than just giant animals.

“What if animals turned on us?” is a premise that goes back at least a century. Nevertheless, Marguerite Bennett’s ANIMOSITY: Wake did very well by the concept: animals suddenly gain intelligence, prompting them to engage in revenge schemes, suicide (rats taking rat poison by choice) or commerce (ducks selling their own eggs). Against this backdrop, young Jesse and her bloodhound Sandor escape New York after her parents die but where can they go that’s safe? I look forward to reading V2.

The same cannot be said of Michael Fiffe’s COPRA: Round One because if I wanted to read about the 1980s Suicide Squad, there are lots of volumes following the two I’ve read recently. While using serial-numbers-filed-off characters to offer a new take or metacommentary is common and often successful, this self-published book is just a knockoff without any fresh insight on the source material or on comics in general. For the life of me I can’t see why it’s become a hit.

I wasn’t much more impressed by the TPB STEVE ROGERS: Super-Soldier (this was during the period Bucky had taken over as Captain America) by Ed Brubaker and Dale Eaglesham. The story, involving an attempt by Machinesmith to recreate and sell the supersoldier serum, isn’t bad, particularly when the villain turns Steve back into his original weakling self (it doesn’t occur to Machinesmith that Steve’s combat skills and training aren’t dependent on the serum); however Brubaker’s dead wrong to claim the serum has never worked on anyone else (for example). A bigger issue for me is that Marvel padded out this four-issue story with a Cap/Namor/X-Men crossover that mostly reminds me why I don’t read the X-books much any more (I’d be a lot more annoyed if I hadn’t bought this used for $5).

I’ve never been much of a Brian Michael Bendis fan, but ALIAS: The Underneath by Bendis and illustrator Michael Gaydos turned out to be very good. Jessica Jones (yes, the woman from Netflix’ Jessica Jones) is a chainsmoking ex-superhero who finds herself digging into a shady world of drug dealers to rescue former Spider-Woman Mattie Franklin (one of several Marvel characters to carry the name — probably necessary to protect the trademark) whose become the plaything of a Big Apple drug dealer. This kind of grim and gritty thing usually doesn’t work for me, but Bendis and Gaydos pulled it off. I’ll have to look for the other volumes eventually.

Returning to animals, I bought and reread BEASTS OF BURDEN: Animal Rites preparatory to reading V2. In Burden Hill, life for cats and dogs is a lot like Lady and the Tramp, except now it’s taking a weird turn: demon frogs, zombie roadkill, a haunted doghouse, rats plotting something sinister and by the end of the book clear evidence Burden Hill is turning into Sunnydale (I get the impression the authors didn’t see it as a long-term series until several stories in). Fun and creepy, and the fact I don’t hate it for having dogs killed mid-story shows I really like it.

#SFWApro. Covers by Eric Bradbury and Jill Thompson, all rights remain with current holders.

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Reporting In the Internet Age, In Fact and Fiction

One of the story elements in this season of the CW’s Supergirl is that CatCo has been bought out and taken over by Andrea Rojas (Julie Gonzalo), a corporate schemer (and, we’ve learned, a supervillain on the side) under whose governance clicks, hits and eyeballs are the sole measure of good journalism. Crap is better than good journalism if the crap is serious clickbait.

Recent developments at the Deadspin sports-and-news site have demonstrated that’s a very realistic prospect. The new owners promptly told everyone that to draw more eyeballs, they should stick to sports coverage and nothing else. The flaw in this argument being that the political stuff drew lots of hits: if the owners had any brains, they’d have run with it. As former Deadspin reporter Megan Greenwell puts it, “The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.” Which is why so many of the staff are resigning.

Part of the problem may be that “publishing well-written, well-researched articles that address various subjects with authority takes longer and costs more than publishing a high volume of short posts that exist only as filler underneath narrow-topic headlines designed to game Google searches.” Which fits with my experience at the Freedom News chain: I often felt like upper management would have been happy to convert the papers to endless pages of ads and “Cutest Cat” contest instead of actually paying anyone, only they, at least knew that wouldn’t work. It’s why I became suspicious of the business-speak phrase “content providers” which implies that reporters and photographers are really no different or more important than the people who submit press releases, fishing photos or letters to the editor. It’s all content, what’s the difference?

Where Supergirl gets it wrong is that, as Greenwell puts it, “the journalists at Deadspin and its sister sites, like most journalists I know, are eager to do work that makes money; we are even willing to compromise for it, knowing that our jobs and futures rest on it.” Again, that fits with my experience. I know writing about city council budget meetings or zoning hearings might as well be blank space as far as most readers are concerned (though it’s still a bad thing that local news coverage is disappearing), even though it affects their lives big-time (more than once I’ve seen someone declare at a Destin City Council meeting that there’s been no information released about a particular issue or city project, even though I’ve written dozens of stories about it). But I do the best I can to make them interesting and readable. And I also do stories that are more appealing to readers: talented kids and their accomplishments, local writer publishes book, new business development on the harbor.

Kara, Jimmy, Nia and their fellow journalists, however, don’t think about that. As Greenwll puts i, it’s a story where “idealistic journalists, unconcerned with profit, are posed against ruthless business-doers” rather than journalists trying to combine quality and popularity with management that happily flings crap against the wall in the conviction they know what will stick. Nobody argues with Andrea that their serious news article will be a better hook than whatever clickbait she has in mind, they just protest on principle.

Of course, I also have problems with the opposite handling of journalists, where their only standard in covering stories is how it will advance their career (e.g., the graphic novel Genius: Siege). Most of the reporters I’ve known find covering stories and writing about them interesting; awards are great but they’re not the prime motivator (and bosses don’t usually assign coverage based on what will advance our careers).

Still, despite my criticisms, Supergirl comes closer to capturing 21st century reporting than the comics have lately.

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Cats, food and killers: books read

Given the possibility Wisp may eventually move into our house, I thought I should read up ahead of time — CATWISE: America’s Favorite Cat Expert Answers Your Cat Behavior Questions by Pam Johnson-Bennett proved to be a good first book as the Q&A format meant I could pick and choose the key topics: getting along with dogs and catproofing the house are useful, for instance, whereas selecting a kitten is a moot point. Very helpful, though I suspect we’re a long way off from having her take up residence.

I’ve enjoyed several of Amanda Quick’s Regency mysteries, but I was disappointed in her 1930s thriller THE GIRL WHO KNEW TO MUCH. After seeing her employer murdered, the protagonist flees the crime scene with a McGuffin, travels west and reinvents herself as a scandal-sheet reporter in Hollywood. Unfortunately when she ends up embroiled in the murder of an aging actress, the publicity draws the first set of killers to hunt her down and reclaim what she stole. I found this disappointingly bland, partly because it was lighter on historical detail than I wanted (and the mystery wasn’t as interesting as An Act of Villainy).

THE COOKING GENE: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by chef and food blogger Michael W. Twitty was also not what I anticipated: I’d expected a food history, but that part of the book is mixed up with a ramble through the history of slavery and Twitty’s reconstruction of his own ancestry and their travails and his own interest in cooking (while these things obviously overlap, they didn’t tie together well — and I was most interested in the food side). Despite which I found this to be worth reading; while I’ve heard people mention how much Southern cooking is black cooking, Twitty really drives it home by detailing how much of Southern cuisine derives from black recipes, black traditions and African plants, not to mention generations of talented black chefs (wealthy families sometimes trained their slave cooks in French cooking or similar styles).

RAGNAROK: Lord of the Dead by Walt Simonson improves considerably on Last God Standing, as we have the setup out of the way. Thor returns to Asgard with the black elves Regn and Drifa, whom he convinces to join him in attacking Angantyr, lord of the living dead; unfortunately a cursed sword steeped in poison is slowly killing Thor and it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll stay alive long enough. Very grim in the best Norse sense.

NEXUS OMNIBUS Vol. 6 by Mike Baron and multiple artists wraps up the original First Comics series (the remaining two omnibuses reprint the various miniseries that followed). With Horatio renouncing his powers in the previous volume, the Merk picks a brilliant scholar as his new hired gun. Unfortunately Stan turns out to be much keener on the killing than the justice; will Horatio return in time to stop him? Meanwhile the fanatical followers of the prophet Elvon are pushing for a theocratic takeover of Ylum; how does a democracy tolerate people who hate democracy?

This suffers from the lack of Nexus’ co-creator Steve Rude on the art, and the political discussion gets a little tedious at times (but only at times). Overall, though, a success. And it had one of the better backup arcs, involving Nexus merc’ friend Judah the Hammer, trying to stop a crooked treasurer from looting the Mercs’ Guild of its retirement fund and leaving him holding the bag.

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

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Horror, robots and war: comics cover art for Tuesday

Nothing sinister actually happening on this Grey Morrow cover, but it’s still damn creepy, I think.

Veteran art team Ross Andru and Mike Esposito did most of the covers for the Silver Age Metal Men. The first appearance of the Missile Men is eye-catching, though I think their return adds some drama.

Joe Kubert brings the kind of distinctive POV that made DC’s war-book covers so memorable.

And here’s Jerry Grandenetti applying the same principles.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Femmes fatale: books read

THE MANY LIVES OF CATWOMAN: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale by Tim Hanley makes the interesting point that Catwoman has become a successful, long-running DC character despite never having had a single, iconic look the way the Joker or Penguin (or for that matter Batman) have, as witness the renditions by J. Winslow Mortimer, Carmine Infantino and Darwyn Cooke below

She’s also never had a single, consistent characterization: she’s been antihero, hero, gang boss, jewel thief, supervillain, love interest and man-hating dominatrix. It wasn’t until the Bronze Age that she became a serious love interest for Batman rather than a sexy bad girl. Nevertheless she’s immensely popular both as a character and as Batman’s lover (even during a period DC retconned out all romance between them, the Bat and the Cat wound up together in several Elseworlds.

While I knew a lot of her history, Hanley covers a lot of stuff I wasn’t aware of, including tracking the long stretches she vanished from comics for one reason or another. He points out, for instance, that while the pre-Crisis Huntress was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, she sees herself entirely as Batman’s heir — her mother apparently had no influence on her at all, other than getting killed to inspire Helena to turn hero. Despite a couple of minor errors, very good.

FEMME FATALE: Love, Lies and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari by Pat Shipman looks at how teenage Dutch girl Margaretha Zelle went to colonial Indonesia with her much older husband, then returned to Europe, divorced him (two promiscuous people with zero money-management skills proved a bad recipe for marriage) and reinvented herself as the exotic dancer Mata Hari (claiming her dances were sacred mystic temple rites let her elevate near-nudity to serious art). Unfortunately, when WW I began, Zelle became a target: traveling across Europe and having many lovers in multiple countries made it easy for French security officials to frame her as a spy; Shipman suggests a mixture of contempt for her casual affairs and the need to justify their jobs by a big score gave them an incentive to ignore her innocence and claim her evil schemes had sent 50,000 Frenchmen to their deaths! As Mata Hari is one of those figures I know of but not about, this was most interesting

Despite putting Cleopatra first in the title, CLEOPATRA AND ANTONY: Power, Love and Politics in the Ancient World by Diana Preston doesn’t focus on Egypt’s queen as much or as well as Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Cleopatra. That said, Preston does an excellent job of putting her in context, covering the Ptolemaic dynasty’s history in Egypt, the Roman imperial ambitions and power struggles that brought first Caesar, then Antony to her door (in this era Egypt was both an agricultural and cultural superstar) and the internecine Roman power struggles that led to Octavian becoming the first Roman emperor. Dry, but satisfying.

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First superheroes, then the Middle East then Mr. Sammler’s Planet: reading

While I have most of Hawkman’s Silver Age run in either originals or reprints, a used copy of SHOWCASE PRESENTS HAWKMAN Vol. 1 by Gardner Fox, Murphy Anderson and Joe Kubert did give me a chance to get the two issues I’ve never read. And Joe Kubert’s art on the early stories actually looks a little more impressive in black and white. As the series progresses, though, the stories lose some of their early pulp feel and become (as Murphy Anderson complained in The Hawkman Companion) not that different from the kind of crimes Batman tackled in the Silver Age (with plenty of exceptions, such as the wild alien world of Hawkman #6). Still I’m glad to finally have everything.

FAITH: The Faithless by Jody Houser and multiple artists was the last of Faith’s original series (previous volumes covered here and here), wherein her small rogue’s gallery gathers together with the intent to exact revenge. Can Faith stop them when they’ve convinced LA she’s gone rogue? This is fun, as usual, but the ending felt a little like Houser just had to wrap it up before the book folded. Some great moments, even so.

THE ATTACK by Loic Dauvillier, Glen Charpon and Yasmina Khadra has a Palestinian Arab working as an Israeli surgeon, convinced he and his beloved wife fit in perfectly — until she commits a suicide bombing. Obsessed with understanding how he didn’t understand her, the doctor questions his friends and family, the police, the terrorists in hopes of getting an answer. This does a good job capturing the tangled Arab/Jew politics inside Israel but I wish we’d gotten the protagonist’s view of things (the radicals think he’s an Uncle Tom, but how does he see things?). And the ending was frustratingly trite.

Nothing trite about the memoir PERSEPOLIS: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, chronicling her growing up during the Islamic revolution in Iran and then the Iran-Iraq War, before being sent out of the country to relatives in France. What makes it stand out is the kind of quirky details American portrayals of the Middle East would rarely think of, such as Satrapi fantasizing herself as Iran’s Che Guevera or hoping she’ll become the Twelfth Imam (a Muslim analog to the Second Coming) so she can heal her grandmother’s aging knees). Not as cute as that makes it sound (Satrapi doesn’t sugar coat the blood and oppression of that era), but very good.

I’d always assumed my parents’ copy of MR. SAMMLER’S PLANET was an SF novel by that Saul Bellow literary guy (hey, Kurt Vonnegut wrote SF!) so when I saw it in the library recently, I checked it out on impulse. And put it down after 30 pages of Sammler reflecting on his life, all the people in it and how violent New York is getting in one long internal monologue (the planet, in short, is Earth, or Earth as Sammler interprets it). Precisely the kind of literary fiction I don’t read — though that’s very much a matter of personal taste.

#SFWApro. Cover by Murphy Anderson, all rights to image remain with current holder.


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Two legends of the 1960s, and more: books read

JFK AND THE MASCULINE MYSTIQUE: Sex and Power on the New Frontier by Steven Watts, hooked me with its introductory chapter discussing the 1950s’ fears that corporate conformism was emasculating men (Watts sees this as a twisted image of the housewife’s frustrated life in The Feminine Mystique) while wives dominated husbands and working women were taking over business! JFK seemed the perfect antidote: a handsome war hero, charismatic politician, the embodiment of masculine vigor and a world-class ladies man — who cares what his policies were? And JFK’s own desire for manliness shaped his view of Vietnam, the CIA (and his fondness for James Bond) and the Cold War.

Unfortunately the book from there turns into multiple profiles of the era’s various macho men and womanizers such as Hugh Hefner, Frank Sinatra, Norman Mailer and Ian Fleming himself, included based on whether Watts can claim some sort of tie-in with JFK (Sinatra and the Rat Pack yes, but Kirk Douglas and Tony curtis are a stretch). While he shows how each man represented an alternative to suburban/corporate drone life, the broader question of masculinity in crisis takes second place to the biographies — and it doesn’t help that Watts’ idea of masculinity in revolt seems to be sleeping around a lot. This also needs more context: America had been fretting about masculinity before the 1950s just as it frets about it now (Women Taking Over and the End of Men are still rallying cries for sexists). Nor do I buy his conclusion that this style of predatory womanizing was so much worse than old-school patriarchy, it helped prompt the woman’s movement. Despite some good sections, this was overall a thumbs-down for me.

THE SILVER AGE FLASH OMNIBUS: Vol. 2 by (mostly) John Broome and Carmine Infantino collects the run of Flash (pun intentional) from #133 to #163. The Scarlet Speedster battles his Rogue’s Gallery, tackles alien invaders, copes with Iris’ constant carping (what would have been stock relationship stuff in fiction then looks a lot more shrewish now), teams up with Kid Flash, Jay Garric and the Elongated Man and loses his powers a couple of times. While I have most of this era in comics, it’s good to fill in the few gaps, and Infantino’s art is absolutely breathtaking in this format. Like most Silver Age comics, not for everyone, but definitely for me.

While it’s targeted at a much younger age range than me, I really enjoy DC SUPER-HERO GIRLS, the online cartoon that imagines DC’s heroes (and a few antiheroes) as teenagers attending high school under principal Amanda Waller and Vice-Principal Gorilla Grodd. In Finals Crisis by Shea Fontana and Yancey Labat, someone’s kidnapping the school’s top female students, but why? And can they pool their abilities to break free? This was light-hearted fun, and I do enjoy some of the results of mixing characters together, like having Katana and Beast Boy as sparring partners (he’s fast, agile and unpredictable so Katana finds him a great adversary).

THE LIBRARY OF THE LOST AND FOUND by Phaedra Patrick has a self-sacrificing librarian discovers a book holding a collection of her childhood writings, and autographed by her supposedly dead grandmother; investigating, the librarian gets to reboot her life and unearth a boatload of family secrets. I have real trouble with the protagonist: she’s endlessly put upon (I can understand caring for her sick parents, but washing and ironing her coworkers’ clothes?) and miserable throughout (if sacrifice sparked joy, that would be different — this is like my problems with Heroine Complex only worse) and at the end she’s way too forgiving of her family (even her emotionally abusive father was doing the best he could!) for my taste.

THE CRYSTAL GRYPHON is Andre Norton’s prequel to Year of the Unicorn, set in the Dales during the early years of the war against Alizon (the story seems to show Alizon was so successful because they used Kolder technology). Kerovan is a nobleman cursed from birth with cloven hooves and golden eyes (a minor plot weakness is that we’re alternately told his face is unearthly and that with his hooves covered he looks quite normal), betrothed in childhood in a political match to Joisan. Their meeting and wedding get postponed by the war, but inevitably their respective struggles draw them into each other’s orbit. That, in turn, pits them against a scheme by Kerovan’s mother (in a nice touch we learn she shunned him not because she thinks he’s a monster but because he’s not the demon-possessed child she wanted to create) to raise Dark Powers and take control of the Dales herself. While Kerovan/Joisan has a lot in common with Gillan/Herrel in Unicorn, Joisan’s a distinctive character, strong-willed and good-hearted but with no qualms about political marriage being one of her duties. Unfortunately, the ending gets very deus ex as the magic the good guys have tapped pretty much does the work for them.

THE EVOLUTION OF USEFUL THINGS: How Everyday Artifacts — From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers — Came To Be As They Are by Henry Petroski argues that in designing every day items it’s not “form follows function but “form follows failure” — thus utensil design in each generation is a response to what the older forks and knives can’t do (plus the sheer range of potential designs means there’s no one form for each function). Petroski applies this analysis to forks, paperclips, hammers (how many specialty hammers do we need?) and zippers, noting as he did in Small Things Considered that no design is ever perfected as we don’t know what might be done with them in the future. Good, and many of these details would be useful for fiction (broad-bladed knives in some eras were tools for putting food in our mouths; before the 19th century invention of the paperclip, packets of paper were often pinned together).

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From Riverdale to Skaith to a blacked-out New York: books read

ARCHIE MEETS BATMAN ’66 by Jeff Parker, Michael Moreci and Dan Parent has the United Underworld (Riddler, Joker, Penguin, Catwoman) decide rather than keep losing to Batman, they’ll take over some small, middle-American town and use that as the basis for their crime empire. Suddenly, Archie and his gang notice everyone from Pops at the malt shop to Mr. Lodge acting peculiar, and there are these two new students, Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon, who seem to have a secret … This was fun, and it even manages to work in a Jorge Luis Borges joke in one scene.

ED THE HAPPY CLOWN by Chester Brown is a cheerfully insane story about Ed, who’s actually rather miserable as he deals with vampires, pygmies, sinister government agencies and having Ronald Reagan’s head on the tip of his penis. This takes a while to get going (partly because the first two chapters weren’t conceived as parts of an overall work) but when it does it’s gloriously whacko. Not to everyone’s taste, though, I’m sure.

Like Northwest Smith, CL Moore’s stories of JIREL OF JOIRY follow a consistent formula, starting with the first story, Black God’s Kiss: Jirel enters or is dragged into some unearthly alien hellscape struggles to stay alive and returns. However as there are only five stories (not counting her crossover with Smith), the worlds she enters are so weird and Jirel herself is such a striking character (even though she usually doesn’t get to do much beside provide us with an eyewitness to the weird) that they work much better. However the romantic element of Black God’s Kiss (he slaps her, he dominates her, how can she not love him?) hasn’t aged well.

THE HOUNDS OF SKAITH was Leigh Brackett’s sequel to Ginger Star in which Stark, having rescued his friend Simon from the Lords Protector of Skaith, must journey back to the planet’s spaceport before the ruling Wandsmen shut it down. Even with the psionic Northhounds as his allies, can he do it? This is a good page turner, though I’m curious what Brackett will do for the final volume as the fight seems to be won here.

THE GHOST AND THE FEMME FATALE: A Haunted Bookshop Mystery by Alice Kimberlyis the fourth in a series wherein Penelope, a bookstore owner, teams up with the ghost of a hardboiled PI who haunts her shop. When Penelope attends a film noir festival, it looks like a legendary B-movie Bad Girl has been targeted for murder, but as people around her drop like flies, Pen and her partner wonder if she’s the real target. Even if I were a cozy fan, I don’t know I’d like this (though I might dislike it less): The ghost’s hardboiled dialog gets tiresome and some of the characters snipe at each other like they were in a bad sitcom.

BLACKOUT by James Goodman looks at the 1977 New York power blackout which led to a night variously composed of looting, casual sex, helpfulness (two blind students at Columbia University led their class out of the blacked-out building; lots of people volunteered to direct traffic at intersections), looting, fear (“I can’t identify Son of Sam in the dark!”), jubilation, overwhelmed police, and looting. The morning-after follow-up led to intense debate on both Con Edison’s failure to keep the juice flowing and why this blackout saw looting when 1965 didn’t (Goodman points out that any analysis now should look at the similar lack of looting in the later outage of 2003). Goodman’s slice of life approach (random vignettes rather than following a few individuals) works for me, though not everyone, and his choice to identify most people  by labels — “the social critic,” “the columnist,” “the city councilor” — gets annoying.  Overall a good book though.

#SFWApro. Covers by Chester Brown (top) and Margaret Brundage. All rights to images remain with current holder.


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Gods and demigods in comics, plus a book on religion

RAGNAROK: Last God Standing by Walt Simonson is set in the aftermath of Ragnarok, which contrary to legend destroyed the gods of Asgard and their allies but did not wipe out the forces of evil. When an elven assassin attempts to eliminate one dead god once and for all, she only wakes him up; picking up his hammer, Thor sets out to see what’s happened to Asgard and take revenge on those responsible. Not as fun as Simonson’s classic run on Marvel’s Thor, but a good, novel take on the Norse myths.

I’d heard a lot of good things about ARCHER AND ARMSTRONG (by Fred van Lente and Clayton Henry) and the first TPB, The Michelangelo Code, lives up to the press clippings. Obadiah Archer is a devoutly dedicated assassin trained by his parents’ right-wing Christian cult to serve God by destroying an ancient, immortal hero for his crimes and recovering the mysterious McGuffin he hid. Armstrong is the boozing, party animal who knows Armstrong’s parents are up to no good and that it’s better if nobody recovers the artifact. Can two unlikely good guys find common ground? Yes, that kind of straight man/wild man team up is familiar, but it’s really fun here, as are the constant jokes about Armstrong’s immortal experiences. I look forward to getting V2.

HEIRS TO FORGOTTEN KINGDOMS: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East by British diplomat Gerard Russell looks at the lifestyle, traditions and religious beliefs of Copts, Zoroastrians, Alewites, Mandaeans, Yazdis, Druze, Samaritans and other fringe faiths that after years of survival are struggling not only with Islamic extremism (a lot of the issues the minorities are dealing with reminded me of Invisible Countries’ discussion of how ethnostates are made) but the loss of countless members of the faith to immigration (writing in 2014, Russell’s tentative optimism about the progress some of them were making in the U.S. looks depressingly dated now). On top of which some of them eschew written texts or keep the Great Truth hidden from all but initiates, making it even harder to preserve the faith. The book mixes historical detail with Russell’s personal encounters with believers and doesn’t always get the balance right (at times it’s pure travelog) but overall interesting.

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Two tough guys and a dreamer: books

THE XYY MAN by Kenneth Royce gets its name from a now-discredited theory that having two Y chromosomes makes men more reckless, rebellious and dangerous — as is the case with Bill “Spider” Scott, a professional cat burglar newly out of prison, struggling to stay straight and finding it difficult. Salvation comes when a high placed British official hires Spider to steal a McGuffin from the Chinese embassy in London — but after completing the job, it looks like his new employer’s going to double-cross him. Spider goes on the run but the Chinese, the CIA and the KGB all want what he now has …

The XYY aspect is just a gimmick; Spider doesn’t come across any wilder or more incorrigible than most career-criminal protagonists (he could easily be Al Mundy, the thief-turned-spy from TV’s It Takes a Thief). That said, he’s a good protagonist, plausibly tough but no superhuman. The story itself was entertaining, so I may pick up more in the series eventually.

GASLIT INSURRECTION: The Clockworks of War Book I by Jason Gilbert (who’s a friend of mine, but my review is honest) has a setting I love: it’s alt.1921 in a world where the Civil War lasted twenty years (General Sherman took a bullet in the head before he could start burning the South), ending when a slave uprising destabilized the Confederacy. However the moneyed interests that had taken over the Union covertly now covertly took over the South, crushing the revolt and keeping the CSA free as a puppet state.

Protagonist Kane is a hardboiled PI/magus investigating a series of killings in which strippers are drained of blood. Worse, the “oligarchy” that runs the country doesn’t want him sticking his nose in. And their interest might threaten Tabby, the amiably crazy but attractive woman whom Kane assures everyone he has no romantic interest in …

Urban fantasy, even in an alt.history setting, isn’t my cup of tea. But with that reservation, this was fun. The language was anachronistic in spots (“relationship” isn’t a word anyone was using for love affairs back then) but not so bad I couldn’t live with it.

I have never been a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Gaiman’s writing in general (I find him pretentious a lot of the time) but reading SANDMAN: Preludes and Nocturnes by Gaiman and multiple illustrators reminds me just how much this series impressed me when it started. In the 1920s an occult group tries to capture Death but instead gets her brother, Dream. Years later he breaks free and begins hunting for his lost talismans of power, taking him to Hell, London and into battle with the supervillain Dr. Destiny. Overall it’s impressive work, though one issue in which Destiny hitches a ride and gets into a pseudo-deep conversation, fell flat for me (partly that’s because it’s something that’s been done to death a lot since).

SUBURBAN GLAMOUR by Jamie McKelvie fell really, really flat. The story of a teenage suburban girl discovering she’s actually an adopted faerie princess just hits too many extremely stock tropes, both for urban fantasy and for fictional teenage life; it does go in a different direction than I expected, but not enough to be worth reading.

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