Heroes Wear Masks!

Well, good day, comic book fans! How’s your day going? Mine? Almost no one in my town wears their masks like they’re supposed to, so I’m mostly livid these days!

Granted, some days are better than others. Sometimes I’ll go in the grocery store, and no one will be wearing masks; some days, everyone is. But it’s deeply discouraging that so many people aren’t taking this virus seriously. And that’s going to hurt us all down the line.

We need to be more like our favorite superheroes.

Okay, not all of them. Superman and Wonder Woman don’t wear masks at all. Batman and Captain America wear masks, but the wrong kind. No protection for the mouth, nose, lungs. But plenty of superheroes and even a few villains put their own safety and the safety of their fellow citizens above the need to show off their chins.

We’re not going to be able to list all of them, because even I don’t have that much free time. But we’ll try to hit a nice mix of ’em, okay?

Here are the ones doing the best job with their masks:

Azrael!

Black Panther!

Cassandra Cain!

The Confessor!

Deadpool!

But only when he doesn’t get his mask all ripped up.

Doctor Doom!

Even when it looks like his mouth is open, it’s still covered up by a funky mechanical grill!

Iron Man!

All of his modern armor is sealed, even when it looks like the mouth or eyes are open!

Moon Knight!

The Question!

It may look like bare skin, but it’s still a mask!

Rorschach!

The Golden-Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds!

He’s wearing a freakin’ gas mask!

Sensor Girl!

Spider-Man!

Plus most of the other Spider-heroes — Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, and plenty of others. But not a number of Spider-Women, who often don’t have full-face masks. And definitely not Venom. My god, he puts his nasty-ass tongue on almost everything!

White Tiger!

The Winter Soldier!

The version in the comics has typically worn a domino mask, but the movie version had his mouth and nose covered. And with that haircut, he’s been avoiding hair salons, too! Nice work, Bucky!

A few points for effort:

Doctor Fate!

The mask appears to be open at the bottom, but shouldn’t be much trouble to cover up better, Doc.

Casey Jones!

Sorry, Casey — hockey masks don’t do a good job at all of keeping mouths safely covered.

Grifter!

Masks that hang from the bottom of the face aren’t effective enough, because air and germs can still make it to the mouth pretty easily.

We’ll cover the next four together.

Blue Beetle!

The Mask!

Mister Miracle!

Steel!

Now seriously, how do these even work?! They’re wearing masks, right? They’re clearly wearing masks. But their mouths are completely uncovered. Right? Or are they covered, and we’re just somehow able to see their mouths? MASKS SHOULD NOT WORK THIS WAY, AND CONTEMPLATING THIS FURTHER IS JUST GOING TO REDUCE MY SANITY SCORE.

And finally:

The Shadow!

Come on, pull it up over your nose, Mr. Cranston.

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Shadow Theater

It’s been ages since I reviewed any comics! Let’s jump back into things with a look at Shadow of the Batgirl by Sarah Kuhn and Nicole Goux.

We start out with Cassandra Cain, brainwashed teenaged assassin, whose conditioning is unexpectedly broken when one of her victims leaves a brief final message for his daughter that shocks her out of her murderous programming. She spends a night in an alley before she’s taken in for a meal by Jackie Yoneyama, an old woman who runs a restaurant. Cass isn’t even able to thank her properly — she was trained by her father solely as an assassin, and she isn’t even able to talk.

Cass runs away and finds herself confused and frightened by the noise and chaos of modern life — and being pursued by the other assassins in her father’s employ. Soon she finds shelter in the Gotham Public Library, where she’s able to hide, learn to read, practice her fighting skills on stacks of books, and eventually start making friends, including a wheelchair-bound librarian named Barbara Gordon and a boy closer to her age named Erik.

Can Cass learn more about the world around her? Can Jackie, Barbara, and Erik help her come out of her shell? Can she defend herself against her father’s villainy and discover what happened to the long-vanished Batgirl?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Sarah Kuhn’s story is fine — a tad slow around the middle, but it picks up wonderfully well before the end. Besides, the slower portions of the story are where the character building comes in — and there’s so much great character detail in here. Lots of comics fans love Cassandra Cain, but this is a graphic novel for younger adults who might not be as familiar with Cass as everyone else is, and this comic gives her space to become a heroic character and a character who readers can love. That’s a great gift — not just to readers, but to Cass as a character, who now gets a new generation of fans.

I’m also a big fan of Jackie Yoneyama. She’s a new character created just for this book, but she was wonderfully realized. And she’s the kind of character who should be present in more comics, and particularly in more Bat comics — a street-level civilian who isn’t a victim, isn’t a crook, isn’t a future hero — just a connection to keep our main characters grounded as part of Gotham City. Even better — a character who runs a restaurant, because superheroes need somewhere to stop and get a bowl of ramen while fighting crime.

And let’s give big props to Nicole Goux’s stunning artwork, which rocks its way across every single page. And colorist Cris Peter really makes this book sing — shadowy libraries and rooftops, brilliant sunsets through windows, gloriously colorful clothing. The art and colors really make this book come to life.

Do you love Cass Cain, brilliant characters, beautiful artwork? You’ll definitely want to pick this up.

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Happy Birthday, Clifford Simak!

Hey, I noticed that today is the birthday of Clifford D. Simak, science fiction grandmaster and one of my favorite writers. Let’s take a look at his very best book — City.

(FYI, that’s a scan of the first copy of this book I ever got, and it’s still my favorite because I love the retro sci-fi cool this cover is drenched in…)

This is the kind of story that exemplifies why I love so many stories from science fiction’s Golden Age — it has stereotypical sci-fi elements like robots, mutants, and aliens, it has completely unscientific elements like talking dogs and intelligent ants, it has wild, breathtaking ideas, it has characters you can’t help but love and hate, and its glimpse of the future is simultaneously grim and hopeful. It’s far from a perfect book — there are ongoing assumptions in the story that most of humanity, regardless of cultural differences, will always speak and act with one voice. There are no important female characters in the whole book. And some of the science is distractingly goofy. Nevertheless, Simak is one of science fiction’s unrecognized geniuses, and this is his masterwork.

“City” is the story of how mankind dies, told from the perspective of the intelligent dogs who have taken over the Earth in our absence. It’s all framed as an attempt by the dogs to assemble an oral history of the planet, including the improbable myths of a creature called Man that used to run things in the distant past. Much of that history follows the lives of a single human family, the Websters, and a nearly immortal robot named Jenkins.

In the initial story, told only a short distance in our own future, humanity is in the process of abandoning all of its cities. Mostly plotless, it serves mainly to allow us to follow the transition from today’s urban society to a future society using advanced technology to embrace a more pastoral lifestyle. Technological advances in transportation and communications have rendered the city unnecessary — people can live anywhere they want and still stay in contact with their friends, families, and coworkers. Anyone can feed themselves with a hydroponic garden. Few people want to live in big, crowded, smelly cities, which are mostly abandoned except for some squatters. Only a few old-timers still cling to the old ways.

A century later, we get to our first really important character, Jerome Webster, a doctor who’s been turned into an agoraphobic, terrified of open spaces, by his comfortable life at home. His every need is taken care of instantly by the family’s robots, including the butler, Jenkins. Webster is called upon to travel to Mars, where history’s greatest philosopher, Juwain, is gravely ill — if he lives, he will soon develop a new philosophy that will propel humanity to the very peaks of perfect enlightenment. But Webster finds himself completely unable to undertake the journey to save his friend.

We jump forward several decades and sees the introduction of the Dogs, as Jerome Webster’s grandson surgically gives his pet the ability to speak. We also meet Joe, a mutant who is able to live for centuries and is gifted with extraordinary intelligence. A completely amoral creature, he has spent over a hundred years helping humans, but he’s getting bored with that. So he steals the last notes on Juwain’s revolutionary Martian philosophy, just for the pleasure of hurting humanity. We also get our first look at the ants, as Joe puts a nest on the path to higher intelligence by protecting it for a few winters, then sadistically demolishes the mound. But the ants have already learned quite a bit, and they’ll be back…

The years march on, and we leave Earth to visit the hostile surface of Jupiter, where scientists have attempted to explore the planet by transforming themselves into creatures that can survive the corrosive atmosphere — but none of these scientists have ever returned. What predator could be killing them off?

Decades, centuries, millennia pass. The Webster family continues on, slowly dooming the human race with each decision it makes. The Dogs continue on, growing in sophistication and morality. Jenkins and the other robots continue on, shepherding the new animal civilization through the years. The ants continue on, becoming more and more powerful. Some species die off, some species evolve into new forms, some species abandon Earth forever. Life continues, on and on. Earth continues.

Verdict: Thumbs up. No question, it’s a melancholy, almost heart-breaking story. If you’ve long dreamed that mankind would live forever, this story will subject you to the spectre of the human race embracing extinction, of humanity’s greatest works of science and art being forgotten, of even Man’s Best Friend leaving our home planet behind in the face of an expansionist alien species. Simak’s “Epilog” (which is not present in all editions of the novel) is even sadder. “City” is a book with few truly happy endings.

And yet, I still see this as a hopeful book, and it fills me with joy when I read it. Perhaps it’s the beauty of the writing and of the story. Perhaps it’s the fact that many of mankind’s creations — robots, dogs, storytelling, morality and ethics — continue thousands of years beyond our end, even if our status as the creators are long forgotten. Maybe I just really like dogs.

Maybe I enjoy the novel so much because I like the way it’s acknowledged that, eventually, all species must die out — extinction is inevitable, but I think Simak knew that our story isn’t finished yet. Enjoy the good things that humanity has brought about, recognize the bad things that we’ve caused, resolve to help move the species farther along the evolutionary chain, scientifically, artistically, socially.

In the end, I think it’s a story about life and death and memory. Years will pass, centuries will pass. We will die, and those who follow us will remember us for a while. But we will eventually be forgotten. That thought may make you feel depressed and melancholy. But life, in some form, continues, and where there’s life, there’s hope.

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The Future Is Home

Probably a short review today, so we’ll take a fast look at Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.

The tale stars a teenager named Binti, a member of the (somewhat fictionalized) Himba people of Southern Africa at an unspecified point in the future. The Himba traditionally cover their skin and hair with otjize, a mixture of butterfat, ochre pigments, and aromatic plants, as a combination of sunscreen, insect repellent, and cleansing agent. Binti’s people consider otjize an almost religious sacrament, preferring to wear it at all times. The Himba also prefer to stay close to home — in the novella, no Himba have ever left Earth at all, despite space travel being fairly commonplace.

Binti is a mathematical genius and is expected to take over her father’s business creating electronic astrolabes — but she’s secretly accepted admission to the prestigious Oomza University, located on a distant planet. She sneaks away from home, boards her flight off-world, and starts making friends, slowly, with her future classmates. It’s not an entirely smooth process — even among other African tribes, the Himba are considered unusually standoffish and weird, thanks to all the otjize, but Binti slowly begins getting acquainted with people.

And that’s when the Meduse attack.

The Meduse are jellyfish-like aliens, hostile to almost everyone, and they tend to prefer to shoot first and ask questions never. Can Binti survive the attack, learn to communicate with the Meduse, and convince them to embrace peace before her ship arrives at Oomza University?

Verdict: A very enthusiastic thumbs up. This was a pretty short novella — just around 100 pages — but I had a lot of fun with it. It reads quickly, the action is sparse, but well-done, and the concepts Okorafor is playing with — mathematics, African futurism, communication, and some level of mysticism — are excellently done. Binti is a glorious character, both traditional and conservative, and forward-thinking and radical at the same time.

Binti’s interactions with the Meduse aliens, particularly the one called Okwu, are also very well-done. These scenes are very tense, with both sides slowly coming to understand each other — although whether any reconciliation between the two sides is possible is hard to say.

I thought it was particularly cool that Okorafor was able to use a science fiction novella set in the far future to respectfully bring attention to the real-world Himba people. Binti is treated like an alien by almost every Earthling she meets because of the Himba’s isolation and customs, so perhaps she’s the perfect person to make friends with cultures even more alien.

FYI, Okorafor has turned out to be one of my favorite authors, and I plan to review at least a few more of her books eventually.

“Binti” won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella. It has two sequels — “Binti: Home,” focusing on Binti’s homecoming to Earth, and “Binti: The Night Masquerade,” which puts a capper on Binti’s journey. You can buy all three novellas separately, though there’s also a collected edition. You should get ’em and read ’em.

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The Long Way to a Great, Optimistic Novel

These days, we need as much positive, open-hearted, optimistic, diverse fiction as we can get, so let’s take a look at one of my favorite books from the last few years: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

Becky Chambers’ debut novel was originally funded on Kickstarter in 2012 and self-published in 2014 before being picked up by larger publishers, which tells you that it connected with a lot of readers very quickly. The book focuses on the crew of the Wayfarer, a small working-class spaceship that specializes in building wormholes to facilitate long-range travel throughout the galaxy.

The crew includes Rosemary Harper, the ship’s new clerk, who’s hiding a dark secret from her past; Ashby, the compassionate human captain; Sissix, the gregarious reptilian pilot, Corbin, the ship’s uptight algaeist; Kizzy and Jenks, the fun-loving engineers; Dr. Chef, the ship’s doctor and cook, who’s from a dying race; Ohan, the reclusive navigator, and Lovey, the ship’s AI. Among the crew, several have interesting plothooks built in — Ashby is dating a member of an alien species that deeply disapproves of sexual relationships with aliens; Sissix and Corbin absolutely hate each other; and Jenks and Lovey are deeply in love and making plans to give the AI an illegal robot body.

The Wayfarer is an unusual ship because most of their crew is human. In this futuristic universe, humans are a distinct minority among more numerous and more powerful alien nations. The human race had to leave Earth hundreds of years ago, living on scattered planets and asteroids and spaceships. They’ve come to terms with some of the problems we’ve had to deal with, and most of the species has chosen to embrace pacifism, feeling that endless warmongering is what got their homeworld wrecked.

Soon after Rosemary joins the crew at the beginning of the book, the Wayfarer gets a lucrative contract, and because they’ll have to spend a year traveling to the site where they’ll be building the new wormhole, we get to spend most of the book meeting these people and getting to know them. We essentially get a nice long stretch of short stories focusing on each of our characters. We get to visit Sissix’s homeworld, we meet Kizzy and Jenks’ demented engineer buddies, there’s a pirate attack on the ship, and one character gets arrested for an accidental genetic crime.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This book turned me into a fan of Becky Chambers forevermore.

The characters and interactions in this book are absolutely why you’ll find yourself loving it so much. It’s a hard, brutal, depressing world out there, and this book gives you a bunch of people who are interesting, diverse, funny, and supportive of each other, even when they hate or don’t understand each other.

We’re able to see through these people’s eyes to examine a galaxy filled with wonders. Aliens may be everywhere, but they still tend to be pretty compassionate and empathetic, because that’s what you have to be in order to survive in a cold, cruel universe. And if scores of alien species are able to live together in peace, maybe there’s hope for us, too. It’s everything you’d ever want from optimistic, forward-thinking, hopeful science fiction.

Yes, there are more astonishingly wonderful books in this series, but for now, go pick this one up. You’ll love it.

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Good Trouble

This has been an overwhelmingly rotten year, and if we needed another reminder of that fact, it came Friday night when we learned that John Lewis, civil rights icon and one of the best damn people anywhere, had died at the age of 80.

I suspect y’all will remember that Lewis wrote his own graphic novel, “March,” co-written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. I’d previously reviewed Book One and Book Two, but I was surprised to realize I’d never reviewed Book Three — it was released after I’d mothballed the blog in 2016.

So there’s probably no better time to remedy that situation than right now. Let’s look at March, Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell.

In 1963, the civil rights struggles become more violent, largely because white supremacists were getting more and more frightened and angry. The book opens with the terrifying bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham by the KKK that killed four girls. While much of the rest of the country is horrified, whites in the Deep South are largely ecstatic.

From here, Lewis recounts a lot of tough times for the Civil Rights Movement — attempts to register voters in the South that were obstructed by police, judges, and politicians; the death of John F. Kennedy, one of their major supporters; the murders of Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman, James Chaney, and far too many other activists; the futile struggle to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates at the Atlantic City Democratic Convention.

And Selma. The campaign to register voters, opposed with fanatical rage by the police. The brutal Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettis Bridge, where Lewis was savagely beaten by police. And the march from Selma to Montgomery.

And finally, the Voting Rights Act of 1964. But the battle didn’t end there.

And the book isn’t a dry recounting of historical events. Lewis tells you the people he worked with, the disagreements, the small moments between friends, the events that mattered, the speeches that drove civil rights forward. Lewis shares meetings with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, C.T. Vivian, also gone last week, and dozens more. It’s not textbook history — it’s human history, recreated before your eyes.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Lewis brings us the terrors and triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement on a fully human scale. You’re gonna see a lot of stuff in this book that will make you absolutely furious, from the various bigoted sheriffs committing assaults and murders at will (Golly, how the times do repeat themselves) to LBJ, who, though he may have signed the signature civil rights legislation, was still a racist douchebag.

Luckily, you’ll also see plenty of stuff to inspire you, too. Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony, Lewis’ trip to Africa and meeting with Malcolm X, the march to Montgomery, all the people working together to bring about a more equitable world.

Lewis decided he wanted to write this because he wanted to educate young people about the struggle for equality and the right to vote — but parents should be aware that the book is full strong language and violence. It’s not gratuitous — this is the language white racists used. And the violence is not gory, but the smudged and shadowy depictions of assaults and fires and bombings are their own kind of nightmare fuel.

But even if you’re worried about showing it to your kids, you shouldn’t be afraid of reading it yourself. When I was growing up, my history classes always petered out not long after World War II. The Civil Rights Movement was glossed over, at best. So reading this is a valuable education for adults as well as kids.

This one is highly recommended. Go read it. Go read all three books of this series.

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The Story of You

Hey, it’s been too long since I had a review up here, so let’s look at You, a novel by Austin Grossman.

This was the second novel by Grossman, who’s still probably best known, especially among us nerd types, for his superhero novel, “Soon I Will Be Invincible.” This is a novel about the video games industry and probably classifiable as science fiction, partly because it’s set in an alternate universe where Ultima III and Tomb Raider and Wolfenstein existed right alongside and in competition with the novel’s fictional Black Arts Studios and Realms of Gold games, partly because the book covers fantasy, espionage, and science fiction gaming, and partly because Black Arts’ signature game engine, WAFFLE, does things that normal game engines probably can’t do.

Our plot focuses on four people who became friends in high school — brash, charismatic Darren, nerdy hyper-genius Simon, quiet, furious Lisa, and Russell, the guy who can’t match up to any of them, and knows it. When they were in high school in the ’80s, they all helped create — in handwritten and physically-typed-in code — the first versions of the “Realms of Gold” fantasy computer game, which would eventually go on to become a popular game franchise.

Years later, Darren, Simon, and Lisa go on to found Black Arts Studios, and Russell goes off to law school. And when he burns out on law, he goes crawling back to his old friends, or what’s left of them. Darren is the public face of Black Arts and a gaming industry legend. Lisa buries herself in the code. Simon is dead. And soon after Russell joins the team, Darren leaves, takes off with the senior developers to found a new game studio all his own, and Russell finds himself promoted to design lead for Realms of Gold VII. He’s not ready. He has to be brought up to speed on how to design a modern game. He has to learn how to lead a team on creating a playable game.

He has to learn how to make sure You have fun in the game. You know — You. The player who experiences the game. The player who sees themself as the hero. The player who keeps the studio profitable.

And the high pressure and focus gets Russell thinking hard about the Four Heroes of Endoria, the characters who’ve headlined all the Realms of Gold games, sometimes imagining conversations with them, sometimes dreaming about them. Brennan, the warrior. Lorac, the wizard. Prendar, the half-elf thief. Princess Leira, the beautiful archer.

And he has to deal with a truly game-breaking bug — Mournblade, a sword that drives its owner to endless bloodlust, allows them to kill any character, including unkillable NPCs, and curses them to inevitable death. No one knows where it comes from, no one knows how to fix it, and its effects can potentially reach beyond the game world to cause real-world catastrophes.

Can Russell track down the Mournblade bug? Can he save the Realms of Gold franchise and Black Arts Studios? Can he come to terms with his past and with the people he used to be friends with?

Verdict: Thumbs up. I liked it a lot. If you’re going into this hoping for science fiction props like proton cannons and alien invasions and mutated penguins, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. It’s a story about people, with plenty of diversions to examine gaming, the concept of play, and how we perceive fictional heroic archetypes.

One of my favorite things about this book is that it’s almost unremarked upon that Black Arts runs on a game engine that’s just a shade away from a fully sentient artificial intelligence. No one really knows how WAFFLE works — because Simon, the company’s secretive genius, built it and didn’t leave a user’s manual around for anyone else to review. It’s so good, they’ve actually loaned the code out to the financial sector to help regulate and stabilize the markets. What looks to everyone else like a complicated but well-designed spreadsheet program, looks more like a bunch of goblins and dwarves selling stocks in a village market if you look at it through the Realms world engine. And Lisa speculates that the Mournblade bug actually got loose in the financial markets through WAFFLE and caused Black Monday…

There’s a lot of drama here — not just the drama of the real-world characters, how their less-than-happy childhoods gradually turned into less-than-happy adulthoods — but also the drama of the fictional game characters. Grossman gives the 2-D game characters, Brennan, Lorac, Prendar, and Leira, their own fully-realized backgrounds and histories, sometimes contradictory, sometimes impossible, sometimes nonsensical, but he lets them have their own inner lives. He lets them be people, beyond the thin origin stories written up for game manuals, and it makes for beautiful reading.

But there’s lots and lots of humor, too. Russell’s observations of the game business are funny, many of his “dialogues” with the game characters are grimly humorous, and his E3 demo for Realms VII just gets funnier the longer it goes on and the more disastrous it gets. And Black Arts’ sports-themed spinoffs of Realms of Gold, always financial flops, are also great: Black Karts Racing, Realms of Golf, and Pro Skate ‘Em Endoria: Grind the Arch-Lich.

And then there’s the mystery of Mournblade — how does it work, why does it manifest, where is the cursed sword hiding, and how can it be found and destroyed?

Looking for a low-key science fiction read that emphasizes character and plot while offering a look into the computer gaming industry? This is one you’ll want to find and read.

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Brain Sprain

Heyo, everyone, took me a well-deserved weeklong break, and now I’m all ready to go, batteries recharged, et cetera!

No, let’s be honest, I got good and lazy and didn’t feel like writing anything for way longer than I should. That and trying to catch up on cool TV shows. Y’all should be watching “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Doom Patrol,” y’all realize that, right?

It’s a difficult time to be focused on writing, largely due to high stress. It’s not easy living in a borderline fascist dictatorship — especially one that’s working extra hard to kill as many people as it can because it’s either that or, quelle horreur, wear a facemask — and worrying about that all the time keeps you exhausted and unproductive, more eager to engage in low-effort hobbies like video games than chores like writing that require you to actually use your brain…

As always, I struggle with what kind of content to drop here. I can dig up the occasional review, but I really don’t know whether anyone cares for reviews. Comics news is vanishingly hard to find nowadays. I could post more of my photos, but I suspect that’s more for my own ego and self-aggrandizement.

Rants are easy as pie to come up with nowadays — I did mention the borderline fascist dictatorship, right? — but I’m trying to control my entirely understandable rage issues, mostly to keep me from showing up in your newsfeed at some point for tearing a governor’s throat out with my fangs.

So in the absence of anything else, let’s check out a few interesting links.

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Just Another Day in July

So it’s Independence Day, and that generally means I post a bunch of comics covers with flags on ’em, right? I really don’t feel like doing that this year.

Let’s be honest — it’s a rotten time to be an American. We’re ruled by a bunch of fascist dumbfucks. At least 70 million of our fellow citizens believe Nazis are Very Fine People and won’t hesitate to kill any of us when their Combover Pedophile God Emperor demands it. The Republicans in Congress know they’d get their ass whupped in a fair election, so they’re busy sending election machine passwords and the nuclear codes to the Russians. And 99% of the cops in this country are champing at the bit to go full Mindless Horde on the rest of the country if we won’t give them medals for committing crimes.

Not to say there isn’t hope for the future — but we’ll have to exterminate 70 million cultists who’ve been successfully converted into Nazi cultists. And the only people who have the stomach to kill that many people are the Nazi cultists.

Still, if you need some inspiration for a better Independence Day, let’s turn to comics.

Happy Fourth. Let’s hope it’s not our last.

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Taco Tuesday

Okay, folks, wanna hear about the weirdest comic I’ve read in a long, long time? Let’s take a look at Apocalypse Taco by Nathan Hale.

Things start out, well, kinda predictably for a middle-grade graphic novel. It’s production night for the high school’s production of “Brigadoon,” and that means an all-night set-building session. Responsible Ivan and deeply irresponsible Axl are the lone junior-high kids on hand, solely because their mother is the drama teacher. The wrestling team raids the drama club’s pizza stash, and eventually, the food runs out, and everyone gets hungry.

Ivan and Axl are assigned to go get food from the nearest McDonald’s, thanks to a handful of MickeyD’s gift certificates. And Sid, a high school girl with her own truck, volunteers to ferry them to the restaurant and back. But Axl manages to lose all the gift certificates, so the three of them decide to stop at the nearest Taco Bear instead, ’cause Mexican food sounds more appealing.

And that’s when things start getting weird.

The Taco Bear is full of customers — but there aren’t any cars in the parking lot. And the doors are locked, so no one can come in. So the kids go through the drive-thru and pick up their order. And the food transforms into shapeshifting flesh monsters.

After throwing the food out the window, the kids race back to the school, only to find that all the drama students are also shapeshifting flesh monsters. And the school itself is a shapeshifting flesh monster.

Basically, everything is a shapeshifting flesh monster at this point.

The kids drive off, pursued by other cars, which are, of course, shapeshifting flesh monsters. They find an ally who’s a ball of arms — and when the arms get cut off, there’s a grad student underneath.

And then everyone gets sucked underground into an immense slime hive of replicating skin bees.

Is there any way for Ivan, Axl, and Sid to escape? Has the world gone completely mad?

Verdict: Thumbs up. But boy, I’ll tell ya, I never imagined I’d find a middle-grade YA graphic novel so absolutely drenched in body horror.

If you’re into body horror, this is pretty great stuff. Besides the flesh monsters disguised as fast-food bags, lockers, cars, and people, you’ve got the grad student/arm monster, you’ve got a monster made of teeth, you’ve got giant mutated bees, you’ve got a vast underground temple of gooey, writhing meat and tentacles.

If you’re getting this for a junior-high or upper elementary school student? Well, read it before you give it to them, and then decide if you think they can handle it. I’m not sure there’s anything as scary as the monster from John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” but the sheer overwhelming volume of squishy tentacle horrors makes for some pretty intense moments.

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