Archive for May, 2020

The Unnamed Land

This is the first book in a series that’s been out for a while, but I only had a chance to get it recently when I found out the local library had it. So let’s take a look at The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks.

The setting is extremely important in this book. The City is a center for trade and commerce, a gateway to the rest of the world, one of the most important locations on this world. And there are frequent wars fought over it. Different nations take control over it every few years, and they always change the City’s name to something completely different. But the people who live in the City — not the visitors, not the conquerors — they never accept the new names. To the people who live there, it’s just the Nameless City, the greatest city in the world.

So we start out meeting Kai, a boy from the Dao nation, which currently rules the City. The Dao are warriors, but Kai really doesn’t care for fighting, just for books, which leaves him alienated from the other Dao boys. Kai is here to visit his father, General Andren, who serves the ruler, the General of All Blades. Andren loves the City and encourages Kai to explore his new home.

And then there’s Rat, a girl who lives on the street. She doesn’t like the Dao — or any of the other outsiders. She challenges Kai to a race over the City’s rooftops, and when he later begs her to teach him to run, in exchange for food from the palace, there’s the beginning of a friendship between the two kids.

But there are political intrigues going on behind the scenes that hold dangers for Kai, Rat, the people they love, and the entire City. Can they save the Nameless City and help bring its people stop hating each other?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Listen, Faith Erin Hicks is just the best. Do I need to say anything more in a review? She’s just the best.

Okay, I guess I do need to say a little more. I love the heck out of all these characters. Kai and Rat are brilliant and lovable and complex and precisely the kinds of heroes you need to anchor a book and series like this.

But there’s also Kai’s father, the drill sergeant Erzi, the unstoppably badass bodyguard Mura, and the General of All Blades — not a tyrant, like we expect, but a book-loving man willing to listen to strange ideas to improve the city he runs.

Hicks’ art has always been wonderful, but I feel like she really leveled up with this book. She creates a whole, massive city, intricately detailed — and as much time as Kai and Rat spend running over the rooftops, that means she had to draw so many of the City’s tiny roof tiles!

Her characters are always charismatic and fun, and with the City as a character just as important as the humans here, she makes almost every image of the City and its people just as appealing.

It’s a downright fantastic book, and you should absolutely go pick it up.

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Memorial Day

Well, it’s Memorial Day.

I’m not a huge fan of the modern incarnation of Memorial Day. It’s gotten to where it’s less about honoring those who died in wars and more about glorifying war, and that’s not a trend to emulate.

I never wanted to be in the military, and I’m glad I never served. My father served stateside and never tried to fill our heads with nonsense about treating veterans like pagan gods to be worshiped by a war-loving nation.

And I was never a big fan of war comics — at least until I got old enough to read them in the massive phone-book editions. Comics about the Losers or Sgt. Rock might have plenty of explosions and ricochets whining past the heroes and desperate battles against grinning Nazi ghouls — but “Nothing’s ever easy in Easy Company,” and war was depicted as a desolate, depressing chore.

There’s no glory in the best war comics — particularly the ones written by Bob Kanigher and illustrated by the great Joe Kubert. There’s just people suffering through hell, sometimes winning, sometimes losing — and losing good soldiers much, much too often — and always wishing they didn’t have to fight anymore.

So remember what Memorial Day is about — remembering those who’ve died, sometimes for our country, sometimes for some damn oil company’s profits — and working to make sure no one else has to die in any future wars.

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Freedom’s Conductor

Alright, let’s review a book today — something that’s part historical fiction, part steampunk, part superhero, part mind-blowing awesomeness. Let’s review Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman by Balogun Ojetade.

This was originally published in 2012. It was divided into two parts — Book 1: Kings and Book 2: Judges — and was the author’s vision for a genre he called “Steamfunk” — steampunk that centered on the struggles and heroism of Africans and African-Americans.

We are, I trust, familiar with the life of Harriet Tubman? Escaped slave, liberator, abolitionist, spy, scout, soldier, activist, and all-around badass, she was wounded as a child by a slave owner who hit her in the head with a metal weight, and she suffered visions and dreams for the rest of her life that she felt were messages from God and thus pushed her into a Christian life of doing good for others. She led slaves to freedom, fought against the Confederate South as a spy and soldier, even leading a raid that liberated 750 slaves. For all her work as a freedom fighter, she was rarely appreciated or rewarded by the United States, still largely locked in to a white-supremacist mindset.

Even today, white supremacists hate her and her legacy — they reacted with fury when the Obama administration announced plans to put her picture on the $20 bill, and canceling those plans was a top priority of Donald Trump’s weasley Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

As for Ojetade’s novel, it gets crazy really fast. It opens with Tubman on a secret mission to save a kidnapped girl on behalf of an American actor. Once she tracks the abductors to their hideout, she handily defeats them — using her ninja-level combat skills and Wolverine-level healing factor! But it turns out the actor who hired her — John Wilkes Booth — just killed President Lincoln! And the girl’s real father is Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War — and a secret megalomaniacal supervillain!

And Harriet still has her psychic visions in this book. They warn her that dire times are ahead, so she takes the girl and goes on the run. And Stanton pursues, along with his team of superhuman assassins. There are other threats on the way, including the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, werewolves, ghuls, a body-switching demon that calls himself John Brown, and the elderly but terrifyingly Hulk-like Mama Maybelle.

Harriet is far from defenseless. Aside from her staggering powers, she attracts a host of heroes similarly brushed by power, including Baas Bello, an extraordinarily inventive genius who created a properly steampunkian airship and a literal underground railroad, and Stagecoach Mary, supremely skilled as both a brawler and a shootist.

This book has a number of strengths. Characterization is fantastic, particularly for Harriet herself. I think a lot of writers would take Tubman’s actual badassery and take it as an excuse to give her an action hero persona, all attitude and one-liners. Ojetade sticks to Harriet’s actual personality — she’s a relentless do-gooder and an absolute believer in Christianity and the power of God. She sees herself as a weapon to be used by the Lord, and while she may wish God wouldn’t send her up against quite so many powerful foes, she’s willing to trust in Him and in the visions He sends her. She is not an action star, full of shallow quips — she’s Harriet Tubman. With a few ahistorical powers. In fact, Ojetade has said he considers himself to be a Harriet Tubman superfan and thinks of her as “the first modern superhero,” who lived a life full of amazing feats. Aside from giving her superpowers, she is not a woman who needs embellishment to be cool.

The book is also jam-packed with action. Ojetade is a skilled martial artist and martial arts teacher, and he’s written books about martial arts. He’s a man who knows how to write a thrilling action sequence and how to make it work with the plot. Harriet’s fighting skills are suitably beyond belief, but she still throws a punch you can believe in.

Another of the books strengths is, frankly, its audacity. I knew when I got it that it was a fantasy filled with monsters and action — but I was absolutely unprepared for her to bust heads like Batman in the first few pages. And by the time we find out that her employer was John Wilkes Booth — and when we learn his real identity — I was well and truly hooked. Nothing could’ve shaken me loose.

Ojetade is clearly a fan of speculative fiction, and he’s stated that he wants to see more people of color as heroes in genre fiction, partly because they’ve been so rare in the past. He has said he feels the way to get more people of color reading and writing speculative fiction is to give them more opportunities to see heroes who look like them, and not yet another white hero. He has said books like this are his attempt to turn the tide in the other direction.

Ojetade has written other books closely affiliated with “Moses.” There has been one sequel, “The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman: Freedonia,” which follows the adventures of Harriet and Stagecoach Mary in a parallel universe. He’s also written a roleplaying game called “Steamfunkateers” which includes characters and inspiration from the novel.

You wanna have your brain blown out the back of your head by an amazing action novel? You’ll definitely want to pick this up.

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House of Magic

Okay, kids, let’s review another semi-recent graphic novel. This time, it’s the middle-grade comic Zatanna and the House of Secrets, written by Matthew Cody and illustrated by Yoshi Yoshitani.

So here’s Zatanna Zatara, a middle-school kid who lives in a big, grand house with her dad, a struggling but enthusiastic and eerily talented stage magician. Zatanna has the usual school troubles, mainly focusing on trying to decide whether she should stay friends with the geeky kid or abandon him for more popular kids.

And then one night, everything goes weird. Zatanna finds a letter to her father from her supposedly dead mother. Then she sneaks out to go to a dance with the popular kids, toting along her dad’s pet rabbit Pocus. And a creepy blue-skinned kid steals Pocus’ collar.

And when she makes it back home, her dad has vanished, her home has turned into an Escher house, and it’s been taken over by the evil Witch Queen, who plans to take control of all the secret magic her father has hidden inside.

And it gets weirder, too. Pocus is able to talk. The house is full of strange supernatural hazards, as well as the Witch Queen’s goblins. The blue-faced kid is the Witch Queen’s son — Klarion the Witch Boy! And Zatanna is able to cast spells by speaking backwards! But it’s hard to think of the right words to say, and how to pronounce them in reverse, especially during a crisis.

Can Zatanna figure out a way to save her father, save Pocus, save her home, and defeat the Witch Queen?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is a fun and funny comic with some enjoyably sharp artwork and fantastic atmosphere. There’s not a lot more to say about it — which isn’t really a bad thing, right? Sometimes all you need is an excellent comic with great artwork.

We tend to assume that middle-grade graphic novels are for kids in junior high — it seems to me this one is aimed slightly younger. I think it’d be best for older elementary school kids.

So go pick it up — it’s a fun comic with a good story and seriously fantastic-looking art.

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Fine, Fine, Here’s Some Photos

Sweet mercy, my children, I have no idea what I want to write about today. I’ve got books and comics I could review, but I just don’t have the will to do ’em today. There’s nothing political I’m keen to rant about. There’s no comics and geek hobby news I feel enthused about opining about.

But I sure don’t want to go too long without posting anything, right?

Well, I’d threatened when I restarted the blog that I might eventually just post photos I’d snapped — so I guess that’s what we’ll do now, okay?

That’s my brother’s dog, Ciri, who is playful and happy and wiiiiiild to make some mayhem. It’s been too long since I saw her last, and I’m looking forward to seeing her again when it’s safe to go out.

And I’ll get in trouble if I don’t post a pic of my sister’s dog, Willow, who is profoundly sweet and patient, and is composed of far more angles than most dogs are. I wanna see her, too, ’cause I suspect she needs her tummy rubbed.

And here’s a bunch of dice. ‘Cause there’s nothing more photogenic than a stack of dice.

Flamingos from the municipal zoo in Garden City, Kansas. It’s not the fanciest zoo in the world, but it’s awfully nice, if you ever find yourself in that part of the country. And the zoo is located right next to the Largest Outdoor Municipal Concrete Swimming Pool in the whole world. Really!

We get some storms up in our neck of the woods.

From the New Mexico forests at my sister’s house. Not much of a wine drinker, but when the light hits the bottle and the glass just right, you absolutely have to take that photo.

That’s it for now, kids. Y’all have a restful weekend!

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RIP Richard Sala

Terrible news for comics fans and anyone who loves weird, gorgeous, gothic art. Artist/cartoonist/storyteller Richard Sala has died at the far-too-young age of 61.

Sala created comics that were a wonderfully weird blend of noir and horror in a unique and instantly recognizable style. His monsters, minions, and masterminds were twisted, grotesque, sometimes pitiable, and doomed. His heroes were nebbishes, everymen, braver than they should have been, and doomed. His heroines were beautiful, sexy, stronger than they looked — and not always doomed.

His stories were convoluted, bleak, eerie, full of dread, and frequently funnier than you were expecting. He embraced the tropes of horror, mystery, and noir while giving them his own special flavor.

If you want to read his books, look for The Chuckling Whatsit, Violenzia, Delphine, Mad Night, Hypnotic Tales, Peculia, Peculia and the Groon Grove Vampires, and numerous others. He’d just announced plans to create a webcomic called Carlotta Havoc Versus Everyone, which is a great title and a great concept, and it’s depressing we’ll never get to see it.

Let’s check out some of Sala’s art.

I’m honestly amazed I never spotlighted any of Sala’s work before on the blog. Probably because I usually focused on new releases and stuff I figured most people could find in their local comics shops or on Amazon. It’s probably way past time I started posting reviews of older works, though it’s gonna take me a month or two to dig my Sala books out of storage.

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Please Stay Well

My people, could I please ask you to be sensible and keep maintaining lockdown procedures wherever possible?

I know that’s not going to be a problem for most of you. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Americans, on both the right and left, support efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including stay-at-home orders, wearing masks in public, and vast increases in testing.

And I also realize that some folks just don’t have a choice but to go to work. Some businesses are forced to either open, despite the health and financial risks, or close down permanently. And I know many employees can’t just choose to work from home, and if they don’t go to work, they lose their jobs — and they’re barred from collecting unemployment.

But if you’re able to? Stay home. Wash your hands. Limit your trips out in public, and if you have to go out, wear a mask. Get exercise and some outdoor time, but do it safely. Take care of your health and the health of your loved ones.

The estimates say we’ll be dealing with 3,000 deaths a day before long — a 9/11 every damn day, and the politicians and pundits are shrugging it all off. And remember, those are extremely optimistic estimates — they could be a hell of a lot higher, and they could go on for another 18-36 months.

And the jackasses going on TV to tell us we need to just take the punch, let the sick die off, sacrifice the old so the country can be strong? Please remember that these people are spouting explicitly Nazi bullshit, so you should simultaneously ignore what they say and burn their house down, because fuck the Nazis.

I’m terrified about the idea that so many friends and family members are at serious risk from this virus, and I want all of you to do everything you can to avoid it. Please, please, please.

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Pure Power

It’s been years — literally! — since I reviewed a superhero prose novel, ain’t it? So here’s one I read a few years ago: Dreadnought by April Daniels.

Danny Tozer doesn’t have a very easy life. Her father is abusive. Her mother is distant. And she’s a closeted trans girl. And things get even rougher for her one day when the world’s greatest hero falls out of the sky, dies at her feet, and grants her all of his amazing powers — superstrength, invulnerability, flight. And it all comes wrapped up with a free transformation into the ideal body she’s always imagined for herself.

Okay, the powers are cool, but now that she can’t hide the fact that she’s a girl, her parents get even more emotionally abusive, and she loses her best friend. And actually, the cool powers come with a major drawback — the supervillain who killed the most recent Dreadnought is now coming after Danny, too.

And the local superheroes are — well, a few of them are welcoming and helpful to Danny, and others are really, really, really unhelpful. And when a gang of high-tech villains working for the ultimate Big Bad come to town for some robbery, murder, and mayhem, Danny will have to hope the power of the Dreadnought will be enough to save the day — and her own life.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is April Daniels’ very first novel, and it reads like it’s her fiftieth — she has a feel for characterization and action that usually takes years to get right. Danny is, obviously, the key character in the book, and her reactions are excellent — as an abused child, she can’t bring herself to fight back against her frantically angry father, partly because she doesn’t want to hurt him, and partly because she’s gotten used to knuckling under and letting him scream at her, and she can’t break free of that habit yet.

Two other fantastic characters are Doc Impossible, a scientific super-genius who gives Danny emotional and material support, and Calamity, Danny’s friend and vigilante super-soldier, who helps her learn how to be a good hero. Some other characters are less fully created — Danny’s parents are a bit one-note, and Greywytch, a spell-slinging TERF, is mostly there to give you someone to despise.

While there’s lots of teenage hijinx and investigations with Danny and Calamity, and plenty of teen angst from Danny, when the action hits, it hits very, very hard. Danny is very powerful, but she doesn’t really understand how her abilities work, and her opponents are powerful enough to put her through a hell of a lot of pain. The fight scenes are frantic and terrifying, because Danny never knows if she’s really powerful enough to survive what the bad guys are going to do to her.

All in all, it’s an incredibly fun superhero tale with a lot of fun, relatable characters. If you love superheroes, if you love great characters and action, and if you have a trans friend who could use a pick-me-up, you should grab this book.

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