Quick Thoughts on VENOM by Rick Remender & Cullen Bunn (Marvel)

Venom-Vols.3&4

I’ve been reading through the latest run on Venom, by Rick Remender and Cullen Bunn and, while I haven’t been moved to write a full review, I did want to just flag it up as a series that is well worth reading. The covers above are for the latest two collections that I’ve read. There are six Venom-only books in the series, which a couple of cross-overs (Spider Island and Minimum Carnage).

Remender kicked off the series, and does a great job of making it stand out among the Spider-Man related series. For one thing, it’s not nearly as quippy as other Spidey series, which means it didn’t quickly become irritating, and I was able to read through three collections without wanting to confine the protagonist to the trash heap of comicdom (as can so easily happen with the uneven Amazing Spider-Man). It is a darker series, overall, and works very well. What I like best about the series is that it largely avoids the Marvel glibness, which (in my humble opinion) has ruined too many series (e.g., Captain Marvel). Instead, and despite the supernatural/Hell-related storylines, this is somewhat more on the horror side of things. Very welcome indeed.

I much prefer the non-super-heroing storylines in this series. The plethora of other symbiotes were less interesting to me, to be honest, but they do on occasion add another element of tension and emotional angst for Flash.

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Remender shows us how Eugene “Flash” Thompson is not your typical hero. For one thing, unlike many other Marvel heroes, he started out as a bully: Peter Parker’s tormentor at school. Rather than just telling us that he is a bully who has come good, Remender instead builds Flash’s background brilliantly and gradually. Present day scenes are interspersed with flashback to his childhood, abused by his alcoholic father and emotionally betrayed by his beaten-down mother, and the emotional damage this has done. Coupled with his double-amputee existence, made bearable by the Venom symbiote, he is constantly struggling to become the hero he always wished he could be. He is confronted by the lasting damage of his childhood; the damage he caused as an angry jock, and then as an alcoholic and also as Venom. Bunn picks up this character development expertly, and doesn’t miss a beat, building on what Remender started really well.

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I know I’ve focused on the two writers, but it should also go without saying that the artwork is excellent – from the controlled action and off-mission scenes to the Venom’s-Taken-Over-And-Gone-Crazy moments (which are far less frequent than you might think, especially in the latter-half of the series), it is an eye-catching, visually impressive and brooding series.

Definitely recommended.

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Review: MITOSIS by Brandon Sanderson (Gollancz)

Sanderson-R-MitosisUSA good short story stop-gap between Steelheart and Firefight

Epics still plague Newcago, but David and the Reckoners have vowed to fight back.

Sanderson self-published this short story, set in the same world as his first super-hero novel, Steelheart. I rather enjoyed the novel (which was the first of the author’s that I’ve read), and when I stumbled across this I was very happy to be able to dive back into the world he’s created. I’m not going to include an official synopsis, as that will give away the ending of Steelheart.

Nevertheless, what you need to know (for both the novel and Mitosis) is that in this reality, super-heroes exist – something happened that bestowed upon a small percentage of the global population special powers. Unlike in the super-hero comic books of Marvel, DC, et al, the power has very much gone to most of these powered individuals’ heads, and they started using them for their own ends. In Chicago, Steelheart reigned supreme with a coterie of other powereds. Steelheart the novel was the story of a fight against this tyranny, spear-headed by an insurgent group known as the Reckoners and their new ‘recruit’, who is a bit of a geek, and has been cataloguing the powered dictators and criminals as a means to learn of their weaknesses.

Mitosis deals with a single powered individual: Mitosis. The story moves quickly, and there is a rather nifty homage (perhaps) to Agent Smith from second and third The Matrix movies. That is all I shall say on the specific plot of this story.

If you are familiar with Sanderson’s writing – be it The Way of Kings or his Mistborn series – then you are sure to know what to expect: brisk, engaging and professional storytelling. The man can certainly write, and I intend to get more of his novels read by the end of this year. [Famous last words, perhaps, but I managed to read three of the four authors I promised to last year…]

Short, but well-worth reading to hold you over until the release of Firefight.

***

UPDATE: When I first wrote this, Gollancz had yet to announce the UK cover art, which I have now included below. The UK hardcover edition also includes an excerpt from Firefight and also some character sketches. It’s a really great little book. Perfect for any fan of Sanderson’s writing.

Sanderson-R2-FirefightUK

Superman, Vol.3 – “Fury at World’s End” (DC Comics)

Superman-Vol.03-ArtWriter: Scott Lobdell | Artist: Kenneth Rocafort (#13-17,19), Aaron Kuder (#18), Tyler Kirkham (#18), Robson Rocha (#18) | Inks: Aaron Kuder (#18), Jaime Mendoza (#18) | Colors: Sunny Goh (#13-16,18), Blond (#17-19)

H’El has come to Earth. When a mysterious ghost from Krypton’s past comes to Metropolis in hopes of finding the lost planet’s last son, his arrival comes with disastrous consequences for not just Superman, but also for Superboy and Supergirl. H’El has decided that Earth is the place to resurrect Krypton, but the price the lives of everyone on the planet! Guest-starring the Justice League, Wonder Woman, Orion and more!

Collects: Superman #13-17 [+ #18-19]

Continuing my attempts to catch up on a few New 52 titles, before I… uh… give them up… I actually quite like the Superman series. It wobbled a bit early on when the DC Powers That Be (DCPTB) decided to tie it in to the daemonite/Helspont mess that dominated the story-arcs of Grifter and Voodoo, but also roped in Stormwatch (and maybe a couple others?). I liked the greater attention paid to Superman/Clark’s everyday life, as a journalist and as someone navigating the changing industry and also his personal relationships. This collection of issues had a lot of this, too, and I’m certainly glad I read it. However, it also features the Superman issues that tie into the Super-family Event, “H’El on Earth”, which presented some issues for me.

As I just mentioned, I really like the focus on Clark’s non-super life. It’s something other readers really didn’t seem to like in earlier issues/books, but I think some of the most interesting content in the Superman mythos and character comes from his interactions with real life, how he handles his gifts, how he struggles to be “normal”, and how his over-developed sense of Right and Justice makes him stand out as a throwback to classic portrayals of the character or what would be considered “goody-two-shoes”, naïve characters today. For example, this monologue on the idealism of journalism:

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Unsurprisingly, Clark loses his job after this…

I’m not sure about the way Clark’s relationship with Lois is being written. His continued difficulty with her moving on, and moving in with Jonathan (although, I can’t remember who that is, exactly), seems forced. Given the timing and the events from the end of Justice League #12 (Superman’s kiss with Wonder Woman, and the start of their relationship), I found it difficult to consolidate his sense of justice and decency and this jealousy (even if it did make him out as more human). I felt bad for Diana, to be honest, that he is with her and yet pining for Lois. Given that the New 52 Superman had been steering clear of a Clark-Lois romance (I thought purposefully), it felt a little bit like a manufactured conflict for Clark. It’s well-written, though. Just felt a little out of place, given the stated intentions of the DCPTB. I would, however, accept that I may have missed something, given how much time lapsed between reading these issues and anything before.

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The “H’El on Earth” stuff, which is woven around and over Clark’s ‘mundane’ life, is kind of a typical, Supehumans-Breaking-Stuff-in-Large-and-Improbable-Manner tale. It’s… fine. But if you think about it, highly over-done. I’m looking forward to an understated Superman story. Something that doesn’t require him to just be invincible and strong enough to bench-press more than the weight of the Earth (as we are informed he apparently can do, at the start of issue #13). The exaggeration is, I understand, part of the charm of Superman – for some, it seems to be all they want. But for me, I would really like some more variation in the approach to the character.

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I do so love Batman’s cavalier attitude…

After “H’El on Earth”, there are two issues of strangeness, involving Orion (who made out with Wonder Woman in her solo series), and Hector Hammond (of the massively-bloated head – who I last saw in Green Lantern pre-New 52, I think… I don’t quite remember). Issue #19 was not too well written, sad to say. It felt clunky, with some info-dumping, and a little too heavy on telling and lesser writing for the first six pages. What happened? Things improved at Lois’s house-warming party. But then everyone starts to act strangely, and the issue ends as Orion catches up with Superman. I was left none-the-wiser as to what was going on. I guess I’ll have to wait until I can pick up the next few issues (those that will comprise volume 4, I suppose).

Not bad, but starting to show cracks. I hope this gets better, and doesn’t end up spinning its wheels, while the DCPTB try to come up with another cross-series Event to generate sales. In the meantime, I shall investigate some of the older Superman stories – for example, For Tomorrow, Lex Luthor, Superman For All Seasons, Secret Identity and maybe some others.

Review: THE VIOLENT CENTURY by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder)

Tidhar-ViolentCenturyUKA strange-yet-brilliant blend of Watchmen-style Super-Heroes and John le Carré Spy Fiction

They’d never meant to be heroes.

For seventy years they’d guarded the British Empire. Oblivion and Fogg, inseparable at first, bound together by a shared fate. Until a night in Berlin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and a secret that tore them apart.

But there must always be an account… and the past has a habit of catching up to the present.

Recalled to the Retirement Bureau from which no one can retire, Fogg and Oblivion must face up to a past of terrible war and unacknowledged heroism, a life of dusty corridors and secret rooms; of furtive meetings and blood-stained fields, to answer one last, impossible question: What makes a hero?

The Violent Century is, much to my shame, the first novel of Tidhar’s that I’ve read. And it’s quite the impressive accomplishment. Tidhar is not a stranger to pushing the envelope – see, for example, his World Fantasy Award-winning Osama – and in The Violent Century, he has created an original, engrossing fusion of noir-ish super-heroes and gritty espionage thriller. The publicity material that came with the ARC managed to capture it very well – “Watchmen meets John le Carre”. This is a very good novel. Continue reading

“Steelheart” by Brandon Sanderson (Gollancz/Delacorte)

SandersonB-SteelheartUKWhen Superheroes Go Bad…

Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics.

But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his wills.

Nobody fights the Epics… nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart — the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David’s father. For years, like the Reckoners, David’s been studying, and planning — and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He’s seen Steelheart bleed. And he wants revenge.

I’m going to keep this review pretty short. As a big fan of comic books and super-heroes, I was very intrigued to see what Brandon Sanderson – best known for his magic-heavy, epic high fantasy tomes – would come up with. As it turns out, Steelheart is a fun, quick-paced super-hero novel. It’s a good novel, with an interesting hook, but it is by no means perfect. While I had a couple of niggles, they were easily overlooked based on the strength of the pacing and streamlined prose.

Superhero villains! This has become a popular idea (for my money, the best example is Mark Waid’s Irredeemable comic series). Sanderson manages to pull this off with aplomb. The plot moves at a quick pace, and Sanderson’s direct prose grabbed me from the opening scene. The story opens in a bank, and we learn that the superheroes – or, “Epics”, as they’re known in this reality – are not all about truth, justice and equality for all. Instead, they are pretty much just about getting what they want, when they want. And everyone else is just an inconvenience, a pawn to used and discarded, or an obstacle to be destroyed. In many ways, there’s something about this cynical approach to super-powers that rings more true than the utopian portrayals often found in comic books: human nature is far more likely to make those with super-powers work on behalf of their own selfish desires than for the good of others. [But then, I am eternally cynical…]

There’s a pecking order to the Epics, based on their broad range of abilities, as well as how many they have. It seemed to me like Sanderson put plenty of effort into devising the “system” of super-powers of this world – not as much as he might for a magic system in his fantasy novels, but he appears to have thought of everything and put more thought into the ‘rules’ than many writers do. The detail he offers in the story – of how the powers work, how some Epics have complementary powers, and also their weaknesses – is very well-woven into the narrative, and I never felt like I was being fed an info-dump (although, there were a couple of instances when things came close…).

SandersonB-SteelheartUSI liked the idea of our (non-super-)hero, David, being there when Steelheart bled. The momentous, covered-up event that has fuelled his quest for retribution against the Epics, and Steelheart in particular. It has dictated almost everything he has done, including collecting perhaps the largest ‘repository’ of information on these oppressing Epics. The novel follows his quest for vengeance, and along the way we meet plenty of interesting and colourful characters. Some of them are a bit thin, but they are never dull. David himself is an interesting guide, although his apparent fetishisation of guns left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable. He hooks up with the Reckoners, a group of insurgents who are acting against the Epics in any way they can – attempting to take them out where possible, but equally content to just upset their various plans. Steelheart is the ultimate target, and with the help of David, they think they may have come up with a way to take him and his inner circle of uber-Epics down. There’s action, a bit of suspense, much plotting, some sneaking about, and a huge climax. There’s also a rather under-developed ‘romantic’ possibility, but that seemed like an afterthought, and was therefore a little predictable.

Sanderson’s prose, as anyone familiar with his work would expect, is very well-crafted. It’s focused, fluid and not at all over-done. I’m still very behind on my Sanderson reading (which I’ve mentioned a number of times here on CR), but after reading this, I am even more eager to get to Mistborn and even the Stormlight Archive (ten epic-length fantasy novels…? Usually, that would be a very scary proposition, especially when only the second novel is coming out this year), not to mention Brandon’s stand-alone novels, Warbreaker and Elantris.

If you like super-hero fiction and comic books, or are a fan of Brandon Sanderson, or even if you’re just a fan of science-fiction and speculative fiction, then Steelheart should certainly entertain. It’s a quick read, but an enjoyable one. The pacing does mean Sanderson doesn’t give himself much time to really get into the characters’ heads, which was unfortunate. I would have liked to have learned more about David’s comrades and their pasts. Maybe in the next book? Steelheart could also function as a good introduction to Sanderson’s work and writing. It’s certainly worth picking up. I hope we get to more novels set in this reality in the not-too-distant-future.

Recommended.

An Interview with JAMES MAXEY

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James Maxey’s Dragon Apocalypse is a series I have been eager to read for a long while. It has been one of many victims of Kindle Invisibility Syndrome (I bought Greatshadow soon after it came out). Now that I have acquired Hush and Witchbreaker, I’ll be sure to blitz through the series, which so many reviewers (many of whom share my tastes in this sub-genre) have enjoyed. So, without further ado, let’s get to the questions…

Let’s start with an introduction: Who is James Maxey?

I’m a guy who daydreams a lot and has enough discipline to write down some of the crazy stuff that crosses my mind.

Your latest trilogy, Dragon Apocalypse, has been published by Solaris. How would you introduce the series to a potential reader?

First, I refrain from calling it a trilogy, and usually only refer to it as a series. The three books out now constitute one arc of a larger story, but there will definitely be future books featuring these characters. It’s a big world with lots of potential, and my eventual story-arc covers decades.

My short pitch for the series is that it’s “X-men meets Tolkien”. The setting and scope of the tale are definitely epic fantasy, but the characters – and to some degree the plot lines – are more superhero inspired. Every major character in the series has some kind of superpower. Instead of battling super villains, they battle dragons, and also each other.

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The first book, Greatshadow, is mainly the story of Infidel, a woman with a mysterious past who is super strong and invulnerable. The story is told by Stagger, her best friend, who is secretly in love with her but never confesses his love until the moment of his death in the middle of the first chapter, after he’s accidentally been stabbed with his own knife. His spirit winds up tied to the knife that killed him, so that he winds up haunting Infidel, witnessing her trying to carry on with her life. After Stagger dies, she feels like she’s done with the life of a vagabond mercenary, and wants to make one last big score so she can be insanely wealthy and retire in peace. To do this, she joins up with a hunt to kill Greatshadow, the primal dragon of fire, with the goal of looting his legendary treasure trove. However, the hunt is being organized by the Church of the Book, the dominant religion of the land and the group responsible for her bearing the nick-name “Infidel”. She has to join a party of knights and priests sworn to kill her if they ever learned her true identity. Complicating matters even further, the leader of the dragon hunt is the legendary knight Lord Tower – the man she left standing at the alter near fifteen years before. Hijinks ensue. It’s a love story.

What inspired you to write the novels? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

My previous series, the Dragon Age (not related to the video game), was actually science fiction in fantasy drag. Everything in the books has the look of epic fantasy, but underneath it all there’s scientific explanations grounding how our world became the world of Bitterwood. Having written all those epic fantasy books without any recourse to magic, I wanted to go in the opposite direction and create a world where science just doesn’t have any say in the rules. So, instead of the sun being a giant ball of burning gas, the sun is actually a dragon named Glorious who flies across the sky at the same time every day because he’s kind of obsessive compulsive. Also, the Bitterwood novels were fairly gritty, with a few moments of humor, but mostly a very serious tone. The Dragon Apocalypse is much more humorous. It’s not a parody of the fantasy genre, but it does have a lot of fun playing with some of the more absurdist underpinnings inherent to all fantasy.

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How were you introduced to genre fiction?

Comic books, mostly. Once I discovered superheroes, it was all over for me. My mother worried reading all those “funny books” would warp my mind. Boy, was she right! From comic books, I branched out into reading a lot of science fiction in high school, branching out into more fantasy in college, then, for a long time, settling into reading mostly non-fiction about science, history, geography, etc. I get much more day dream fuel out of reading about the real world than I do reading about made up places.

The Dragon Apocalypse novels are your second series to feature dragons prominently. What draws you in particular to dragons?

As you might suspect from my reading material, I’m something of a nerd. From the time I was in high school until well into my 30s, I played AD&D religiously. Usually, I was DM, so I got to play the roles of all the dragons and other monsters the players would fight. And, dragons really had a lot of questions surrounding them. Just what did they want all that treasure for? If they could talk, did that imply culture? They were pretty smart, genius level in fact, and a lot tougher and stronger than humans. Why weren’t they running the world? Eventually, these musings laid the groundwork for the novels I would go on to write.

How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

One specific writing practice I engage in is that I never look back. Once I start writing a book, I never read any of the first draft until I get to the end. Forward is the only direction. Also, I try to write as swiftly as possible, since I really think momentum matters. The faster I write, the better the story flows. I get into zones where my own thoughts go silent and it’s like I can hear the characters talking to one another. Which, arguable, is a symptom of an undiagnosed mental illness, but let’s not go there.

As to whether I enjoy it… well, yeah. People often ask me what I’m smiling about, when I’m just sitting around looking like I’m doing nothing. What I’m usually smiling at is something funny one of my characters just said in my head. I hope I never reach an age where I outgrow my imaginary friends.

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

I wrote a lot of short stories in high school, then a lot of terrible poetry in college. When I was 25, I put butt in chair and vowed to write a novel. It took me two years to accumulate 60,000 words. It was unrelentingly awful in just about every aspect. The characters were cardboard, the plot was random, the style was pretentious and opaque. The best thing about the book is that it taught me a lot about how not to write a book. Failure can be a great roadmap to success.

What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

I confess, I read almost no current fiction. I used to write a book review column for Intergalactic Medicine Show, and reading nothing but new releases for a couple of years left me yearning to read some older material, stuff I’d always meant to get around to reading, but somehow never had. These days, I’m reading classics almost exclusively. Just this week, I finished A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and now I’m reading King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. I’ve got a warm place in my heart for these older pulp novels. There’s something charming about reading books from an era when people were still creating the genres of fantasy and science fiction.

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As to where my work fits in, I’d say the writer I’m most often compared to is Terry Pratchett. I mix humor, action, and philosophy and try not to take my books too seriously, while also taking care not to slip into slap-dash silliness. I never want to let the humor get in the way of you caring for a character or undercutting what’s at stake in the plot. Ultimately, I write books that I want to read. I think that my pulp fiction affinities are pretty evident on the page, with my emphasis on larger than life characters having big adventures against exotic landscapes.

What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?

My debut novel was a superhero tale called Nobody Gets the Girl, which came out ten years ago this October. I’ll be celebrating the anniversary with a new print edition of the book this October that will include a new story set in that world. After that, I’m kind of at the mercy of publishers to find out what’s coming out next. I’ve got a steampunk novel under consideration by a couple of publishers, and recently finished the first draft of a new superhero novel called Accidental Gods that I’ll be shopping around soon. While those books are working though the publishing pipeline, I plan to work on a new Dragon Apocalypse novel.

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

In addition to the pulp novels, I recently read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and reread On the Road. On my daily commute, I’m listening to Jane Eyre as an audiobook. My most recent non-fiction was Gulp by Mary Roach, and I just today bought a book called Wretched Writing, which is about, you know, wretched writing. Lately, I’ve been working on three books at once; an audio book while driving, a bedtime book I read on my Kindle, and some kind of non-fiction paperback on hand for the times when I have little snippets of time to kill.

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What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

This July, I wrote an entire first draft of a novel in just 4 days. (The superhero novel I mentioned, Accidental Gods.) Admittedly, non-consecutive days, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and the following Monday. Four fifteen hour sessions of just typing as fast as I could to never let the story lose it’s flow. I had a small window of time where my old day job ended and my new day job hadn’t started, and wanted to find out if I could use the intervening days for something productive. Now, I entertain fantasies of locking myself in a cabin with a bottle of tequila and a laptop with no internet connection for one long weekend and seeing what I might emerge with…

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

In March, I turn 50. I’m going to have a huge party the night before, then, the next day, celebrate by taking a 50 mile bike ride. I’ve been building up to it all summer; so far, the longest distance I’ve done is 30 miles, but I think with another six months of training I’ll be able to do it.

***

Be sure to check out James Maxey’s website for information about his novels. In addition, The Dragon Apocalypse was recently collected into a handy omnibus eBook.

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Upcoming: “The Violent Century” by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder)

This is one of my most-anticipated books of the year. Which is great, because I started reading the ARC today! Hopefully, therefore, I’ll get the review up next week. Hodder unveiled the cover today, so here it is…

Tidhar-TheViolentCentury

I really like it, too. Atmospheric, a classic-feel, and I think the limited colour palette was an excellent Idea. Here’s the synopsis:

They’d never meant to be heroes.

For seventy years they guarded the British Empire. Oblivion and Fogg, inseparable friends, bound together by a shared fate. Until one night in Berlin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and a secret that tore them apart.

But there must always be an account… and the past has a habit of catching up to the present.

Now, recalled to the Retirement Bureau from which no one can retire, Fogg and Oblivion must face up to a past of terrible war and unacknowledged heroism – a life of dusty corridors and secret rooms, of furtive meetings and blood-stained fields – to answer one last, impossible question:

What makes a hero?

“Ex-Heroes” by Peter Clines (Del Rey UK/Broadway)

ClinesP-1-ExHeroesUKSuperheroes-vs.-Zombies Novel Fails to Impress

Stealth. Gorgon. Regenerator. Cerberus. Zzzap. The Mighty Dragon. They were heroes, using their superhuman abilities to make Los Angeles a better place.

Then the plague of living death spread around the globe. Billions died, civilization fell, and the city of angels was left a desolate zombie wasteland.

Now, a year later, the Mighty Dragon and his companions protect a last few thousand survivors in their film-studio-turned-fortress, the Mount. Scarred and traumatized by the horrors they’ve endured, the heroes fight the armies of ravenous ex-humans at their citadel’s gates, lead teams out to scavenge for supplies—and struggle to be the symbols of strength and hope the survivors so desperately need.

But the hungry ex-humans aren’t the only threats the heroes face. Former allies, their powers and psyches hideously twisted, lurk in the city’s ruins. And just a few miles away, another group is slowly amassing power… led by an enemy with the most terrifying ability of all.

I had high hopes for this novel – mixing superheroes and zombies seems like such an awesome, perhaps even common-sense mélange, yet it had not been done before. So, when the three books arrived on my doorstep, I was eager to get stuck in. While Ex-Heroes had some good bits – the action-scenes, in particular, are well-written – ultimately, I do not think this book was ready for publication. This was a big disappointment.

Ex-Heroes is very much rooted in the super-hero and zombie apocalypse genres. Clines does a fine job of painting the post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, and it was never difficult to get a sense of the place and atmosphere when he was writing about the city, it’s few surviving residents, and its shambling hordes.

The novel is also, disappointingly in my opinion, equally rooted in comic book aesthetic of, at a guess, 1990s Marvel – all of the women are super-hot, sexually available, adolescent fantasies. There’s even a “dominatrix-ninja” who doesn’t wear very much at all. This character is Stealth, and Clines overdid her introduction: it is filled with such cliché ideas of what makes someone a genius, for example, and also explanations of how much being stunningly beautiful was something that never mattered to her, and that she was endlessly frustrated that people will only ever see her worth in her looks. Fine, nothing wrong with the latter. But then why on Earth would she design an outfit that accentuates her underwear-super-model figure? And yes, she was an underwear-super-model. I think I get what the author was trying to comment on, but he didn’t do it too well at all. And I may be being charitable…

The novel is meant as pure entertainment, and I can certainly see what the author was trying to do. In many ways, he succeeds, but the end result remains not brilliant. It’s a good, even inspired blend of two popular genres – I’d say more rooted in superhero than zombie sub-genre, though, as it lacks the slow-build, sinister tension of the best zombie tales. It does a good job of tapping in to many wish fulfillment needs of super-hero fans everywhere.

Another major weakness, in my opinion, was the writing. I think it could have been much better written. The story lacked depth, but I can’t deny that I zipped through what I read pretty quickly. Sadly, the characters were unsurprising, some of the “psychology” seemed mixed up or garbled. The “relationships” were bland, relying on gorgeous, sexually aggressive women fawning over the menfolk. It lacked tension. Ultimately, I was rather bored. Which is why I stopped reading.

ClinesP-1-ExHeroesUSWhich is a pity, as I thought there were elements of the narrative and apocalypse-building that were innovative and interesting. For example, the nature of zombism idea is intriguing: the virus/pathogen is actually non-fatal, it just turns people/victims into walking petri dishes, as if they have been “injected with the CDC’s wish list” of the myriad diseases percolating in Los Angeles.

And the action scenes aren’t bad. But the overall momentum, and the level of my interest dwindled quickly, the more I read. Each time I picked it up, I’d easily get through a handful of chapters. But each time it took a bit more effort to pick it back up. I wonder, really, if the novel had been properly formulated before it was written – most of the ideas are there, but I would describe this as an early draft at best. It’s missing development. It lacks chops.

As I mentioned at the start, I was sent the first three novels in the series, which makes me feel a little awkward about disliking it as much as I have, truth be told. Will I read the others? Probably, yes. But I’m in no rush to get to them, so don’t hold your breath for reviews in the near future.

With Ex-Heroes, while Clines has managed to come up with an interesting, original spin (as far as I’m aware) on two very popular genres, the actual story, characters and quality of writing aren’t there. I really wanted to like this, but ultimately, after about 40% of the novel, I just couldn’t read any more. This, in my opinion, was not ready to go to market. A real shame.

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Update: The original version of this review included an error. I stated that Ex-Heroes was previously self-published, when in fact it was published through a small-press: Permuted Press. Apologies for the error.

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Ex-Heroes – and the sequels Ex-Patriots and Ex-Communication – are out now in the UK (Del Rey) and the US (Broadway).

ClinesP-2-ExPatriots

Book 2 – UK, US

ClinesP-3-ExCommunication

Book 3 – UK, US

The fourth book in the series, Ex-Purgatory, will be published in January 2014. Here are the covers (UK, US):

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Batman & Robin, Vol.2-3: “Batman vs. Robin” & “Batman and Robin Must Die!” (DC)

Batman&Robin-Banner

I’m still catching up with a huge backlog of comics/graphic novel reviews, but I decided to collect these two books together. Partly because they’re obviously connected, but also because I wanted to get the reviews out of the way. After liking the first volume in Grant Morrison’s Batman & Robin run far more than I anticipated (I’ve written plenty of times how I think he’s highly over-rated), I dove in to the second and third volume pretty soon afterwards. (Told you I was being slow with reviewing…) Sadly, my pleasant surprise at the quality of volume one evaporated with these two books. These are, frankly, not so good.

Volume 2: “Batman vs. Robin”

Batman&Robin-Vol.2Writer: Grant Morrison | Artist: Cameron Stewart (#7-9), Andy Clarke (#10-12) | Colors: Alex Sinclair (#7,10-12), Tony Avina (#8-9,11) | Inks: Scott Hanna (#10-12)

The new Batman and Robin uncover clues involving the mysterious death of Bruce Wayne before facing off against each other in a heated battle instigated by Robin’s mother that both heroes will regret – if they live through it! Featuring a 3-issues storyline that ties into the best-selling BLACKEST NIGHT event titled “Blackest Knight,” this new collection is a must-have for both new readers and longtime fans of Grant Morrison’s Batman epic as the superstar writer unveils more of his genre-defying masterplan!

Collects: Batman & Robin #7-12 (pre-52)

We start in London. And this is the Grant Morrison I know. The story contains some thinly-veiled (to a Brit, at least) social and political commentary. Nothing wrong with this per se, but it wasn’t particularly well-done. Also, #7 (the first chapter in this book) was a bit muddled, to be honest. Suddenly, Batwoman’s there (why?), and also the Knight & Squire. Frankly, this was not good, following the previous issues.

Newcastle vs. London? Really? Writing a Geordie accent is never a good idea. Just sayin’.

The Batwoman story and presence was dealt with in two pages. There was some linkage to Morrison’s Event that killed Batman. It was not great, and rather rushed. Oh, and then Damian takes over as chairman of the board for Wayne Enterprises! At age 10! Of course! That isn’t moronic at all!

This book starts the return of Bruce Wayne. The story has moments which are quite fun, but the dialogue can sometimes be awful… (“It’s like the whole house is coming to life.” – #10, p.11) The story jumps forward, after getting us some way through the ‘treasure hunt’, only to not bother with the end of it. This just reinforces my belief that Morrison is a lazy writer. The story was half-assed. Really disappointing. At the same time, I didn’t see the end coming. So there’s that, I suppose.

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Volume 3: “Batman and Robin Must Die!”

BMROBBMD_DLX_DJ.qxdWriter: Grant Morrison | Artist: Frazer Irving (#13-16), Cameron Stewart (#16) | Colors: ?

On the eve of Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham City, the new Batman and Robin team that battled crime during his absence must deal with the return of The Joker.Then, Grant Morrison connects the BATMAN & ROBIN story with the bestselling THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE in the climactic showdown between Batman and The Black Glove.

And in a story illustrated by acclaimed artist David Finch, learn what happens to Dick Grayson after the “real” Batman returns.

Collects: Batman & Robin #13-16 (pre-52)

So, so sloppy.

That is basically how I feel about this book. It feels like Morrison is in a hurry to get things over with. The book ends with Batman Incorporated established – an event that spawned one of the worst books I’ve read. It is a dismal finish. Bruce Wayne just appears back in action at the end. There’s no real development of why or how (I assume one had to read The Return of Bruce Wayne and who knows how many other books/issues to get the full story).

So much has happened to the Bat-franchise during Morrison’s tenure at the helm, and I’m not at all convinced it’s all (or even mostly) good… This was, in many ways, complete gibberish. Maybe, as I’m sure die-hard Morrison fans will argue/wail, I just don’t “get” it, that he’s writing on a level that is above my comprehension. Ultimately, though, I just think he’s a bad writer.

I think I’ll probably just borrow the New 52 Batman Incorporated from my local library (it gets an excellent selection of New 52 books in), as once again he’s been handed the reins for another game-changing event. (Seriously, how can anyone think he’s the best choice, when compared to everyone else currently writing for a Bat-title?!)

I much prefer Peter Tomasi’s take on Damian Wayne, in the New 52 Batman & Robin. Tomasi’s writing overall is also superior in pretty much every way. Actually, everyone else working on Batman-related titles is doing a better job by far. I think I’m done attempting to find the supposed genius and/or magic in Morrison’s work. It just isn’t there, and I’m disappointed every time. Well, always except for one instance: Action Comics #0 wasn’t bad.

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A closing comment for both of the books: the art is good. The one benefit of Morrison’s reputation, is that DC has allowed him to work with some exceptionally talented artists. For that, at least, we can be very grateful. The artists who worked on both of these books do a great job throughout.

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One final comment: At least the Pink Flamingo wasn’t present in these books. He was an utterly ridiculous character.

Ok. I’m done, now.

Trans-dimensional New 52 (DC Comics)

DCNew52-TransDimensionalSeries

There are three series in DC’s New 52 that feature inter-dimensional travel shenanigans, so I thought I’d compile a joint review of all three: Earth 2, Mister Terrific and World’s Finest.

Mister Terrific actually travels between these dimensions, too, so he has a way of anchoring the series together (although, he features more in later issues of World’s Finest, which are not reviewed here). I’m not sure if I’m reading too many New 52 titles, now – I seem to have a shorter fuse when it comes to quality, and am finding myself more inclined to drop series quicker. Or, equally possible/likely, I’m more of a traditionalist, and just prefer the ‘core’ characters that make up the Justice League and their solo-series. Certainly, I’m finding myself really liking Geoff Johns’ series (Justice League, Aquaman and Green Lantern).

Anyway, back to these three series… I had very mixed feelings about them all, and was quite disappointed with two of them. I’ll keep these reviews short, therefore, otherwise I’ll just feel like I’m flogging a dead horse. Also, as with most books I read and don’t connect with, there are some spoilers below.

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MisterTerrific-Vol.1Mister Terrific Vol.1 – “Mind Games”

Writer:

Introducing the electrifying new villain Brainstorm, who is determined to bring Los Angeles to its knees – beginning with Michael Holt!

Collects: Mister Terrific #1-8

I picked up all eight issues of Mister Terrific during one of ComiXology’s sales. I read the first three. I’ve not read the rest of them, and each time I open up the fourth to start reading… I just give up before I turn a single page. This is my first DNF of the New 52 series collections (the panel, below, from issue #2 was just too apt to ignore and not include – it perfectly reflects my own feeling when reading this series). I’d be happy to put some of this down to a complete lack of familiarity with the character. But really, I just think this series wasn’t up to scratch.

MisterTerrific-02-Interior4

I’m always amazed when a comic book, a visual-dominated medium, has more telling than showing in it. It’s littered with pseudo-science, cliché terminology, and frankly sub-par writing. I can understand fully why it was cancelled. Even the revelation at the end of #3 felt forced, where it should have had a huge impact on the story and reader.

The artwork’s not bad, though, and I think the premise has (or, at least, had) a lot of potential. But from what I read in the first three issues, I just can’t generate the enthusiasm to finish it – even though there are only about 100 pages left of the entire series.

If someone can tell me that it got better before the ending, I’ll get back to it. Otherwise…

MisterTerrific-Vol.1-Content

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Earth2-Vol.01Earth 2, Vol.1 – “The Gathering”

Writer: James Robinson | Artists: Nicola Scott, Trevor Scott & Eduardo Pansica | Colors: Ivan Reis & Joe Prado

Who are the heroes of Earth 2? When the Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman of Earth 2 fall in battle, it’s up to a new breed of heroes to come together to combat the returning evil of Apokolips!

Collects: Earth 2 #1-6

I read and rather enjoyed the first issue of this series, when it came out. As with so many series, I decided to hold off until the first collected volume/storyline was available, and on the strength of the debut issue had pretty high hopes. Sadly, these expectations were not met. The premise is interesting, certainly, and I like the idea of alternative versions of these heroes fighting their own battles, completely removed from the ‘normal’ DC Universe heroes and storylines.

However, despite the strong start, this series is riddled with irritating storytelling. For example, the Green Lantern of this world: before he is the Green Lantern, he’s some high-flying celebrity. He proposes to his partner, and we get a good idea of how devoted they are to each other. Then, a handful of pages later, there’s a train crash. His partner dies, and he… moves on rather quickly and easily. I’m not sure if this was an editorial decision, just a way of quickly providing the character with a motivational life-tragedy (in itself, rather cliché). Certainly, given that the character was trumpeted as the first(?) gay major DC character, the quick dispatch of the love interest (whose name I can’t remember) smacked of tokenism.

The storyline itself was just rather flat, and didn’t compare favourably with Robinson’s other stories and series that I’ve read. Given that he’s broken with DC under not the happiest of terms, I can’t help but wonder if this series suffered from overbearing editorial control. In many ways, it’s playing it safe – great, big bad-guy, terrorising Washington, killing everyone (he’s some kind of death creature, Grundy). Instead of getting a sense of any real peril, the threat posed by this big bad ends up forming the crux of a team-building exercise.

The artwork is rather good, I must say, which only makes the lackluster storyline all the more disappointing.

If I’d taken any notes while reading this, I probably could go on at greater length about the things that niggled, but I don’t really think there’s much point. Overall, this was disappointing, leaving me rather nonplused and uninvested in the characters. Will I try the next story-arc? Well… perhaps. A couple of other comic fans, whose tastes are often similar to my own, enjoy this series quite a bit. So… maybe. But not in the near future. And only if I can find Volume 2 or the individual issues on sale.

Earth2-Vol.01-Content

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WorldsFinest-Vol.1Worlds’ Finest, Vol.1 – “Lost Daughters of Earth 2”

Writer: Paul Levitz | Artist: Kevin Maguire, Wes Craig (#0 & flashbacks), George Pérez | Inks: Scott Koblish | Colors: Rosemary Cheetham (#0 & flashbacks), Hi-Fi

Discover why these two heroes are stranded on our Earth – and what it means for the heroes of the DC Universe.

Collects: World’s Finest #0-5

The #0 issue (which originally came out mid-way through this story-arc) takes place two years before the events of Earth 2 #1. We’re introduced first to Helena of Earth 2. She is Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle’s daughter. She is also the Robin of this universe. We meet her on the hunt, shadowed by her mother, and afterwards we learn that Bruce is not at all happy that she went out without him.

Then we meet Superman, who is trying to train Supergirl, while mourning the death of Lois Lane. It’s a much quicker introduction than Helena’s, but it gives us pretty much everything we need to know.

The rest of this chapter tells us of how they met, and the tragedy that brought them together (though Supergirl still wishes to keep her identity a secret).

WorldsFinest-01-InternalArt1

The first story-arc, then, takes place on the main DC world, is pretty good. The first chapter has a fun nod to Huntress’s past identities in the DCU (Bertinelli, the “mafia princess”, for example – above). I’d already read #1 before picking up the rest of the first issue volumes, and rather enjoyed it. The pair of heroines, who have very different approaches to their vigilantism are nevertheless fast-friends. They end up in Japan, and confront Hakkou, the irradiated man. Each issue also contains flashback sequences, which tells us of the first two years Helena and Supergirl-now-Power Girl spend in their new home. It’s a nice balance of action and a twist on a coming-of-age story (a “coming-to-terms” story, perhaps?).

WorldsFinest-02-Interior2

There are clear connections between this series, Earth 2 and Mister Terrific – both of which, as mentioned above, were not as good as I’d hoped they would be. This series is more fun, but it also feels like it’s not quite settled, and a bit thinner than it could have been. We’re still learning about the characters, their dynamic, and so forth, so at least Levitz gives the impression of not being in as much of a rush as Robinson to establish this new team’s dynamic. It is pretty good, and I like the characters, so I have no doubt I will read some more. Given the slight shakiness, though, I’m not wholly sold on this – it does bear more examination, though, and I hope things will take off better in the second story-arc.

In terms of the artwork, I really like the style for for the ‘present’, but the flashback art seems much more inconsistent, with characters sometimes deformed or distinctly different in appearance than they should ever be (faces change shape, rather than expression, for example). There were a few emotional moments that were robbed of their punch because the artwork/pencils looked cartoony (especially the tragedy at the end of #0). Both styles feature nice, bright and sharp colours, though.

WorldsFinest-Vol.1-Content