Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Science Fiction Comic Round-Up, Part 2

Continuing from the previous post, we will wrap up or look at some of the strong new science fiction titles coming out right now.

Letter 44 #1

Prior to this batch of reviews, I had never heard of Charles Soule, yet he has popped up twice in this list, writing both Inhuman and Letter 44.  The latter title is set following a recent election, during which the new president discovers that the wars in the Middle East and the increases in military R & D has been because of the discovery of an installation being built in the asteroid belt.  The reader is introduced to the crew and the situation as the new president is, creating a very effective start to an exciting new series.  Well told and fast paced, it appears that Charles Soule may be my new go-to writer for science fiction comics.

Magnus: Robot Fighter #1

The story of Magnus is one that has been told by many people at many companies, and been updated many times.  Beginning in Gold Key Comics, the series was most notably revamped by Valiant Comics, becoming a very strong part of their future continuity.  When Valiant closed its doors, the series was bought and sold multiple times with few new comics, with the exception of a not-so-great graphic novella from iBooks, before being picked up by Dark Horse, who published four issues.  The character eventually landed at Dynamite Entertainment, which has proven to be a great developer of new directions for licensed characters (Red Sonja, Vampirella, a whole host of pulp heroes including The Spider, etc.).  The new series is written by Fred Van Lente, who is best known to many as the co-writer of Cowboys & Aliens, as well as some of his non-fiction comics like Action Philosophers and Comic Book Comics, and his run on Hercules and his current (brilliant) work on Archer & Armstrong.  Magnus: Robot Fighter follows a small town teacher who is thrust into a future world where robots seem to control everything, and he struggles to survive.  Van Lente’s new direction is a lot of fun, taking the best elements of the past and making them into a wonderful new story.  This series is highly recommended for fans of science fiction action and adventure.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude #1

It is hard not to be a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and with recent releases Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: Winter Soldier, it just keeps getting bigger and better.  And the next movie is only a few months away.  In anticipation of the release of Guardians of the Galaxy on the big screen, marvel is releasing the official prequel, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude.  Following Nebula, a young assassin in training under Thanos, the reader is introduced to all of the major players that will be appearing in the movie, as well as a taste of how the movie series will deviate from the comic series.  Written by fan-favorite Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, who wrote the Guardians of the Galaxy series that revived interest in the series in the first place, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude is a fun start to a two-part mini-series that will get you excited for the upcoming film.

Rogue Trooper #1

The character Rogue Trooper began in the famous British comic 2000 AD, where science fiction comic staples like The A.B.C. Warriors and Judge Dredd originated.  Unfortunately, this reviewer has found a lot off the material from 2000 AD to be a touch on the tedious side, as we explored previously in the review of Ro-Busters: The Disaster Squad of Distinction, so I was a little hesitant to pick this one up.  However, like Dynamite Entertainment, IDW has shown themselves to be great and re-introducing and re-developing licensed characters, such as G.I. Joe and Judge Dredd, so I picked this one up.  And I am glad I did.  Writer Brian Ruckley does a great job of introducing the character while still keeping him enigmatic and mysterious, and the action doesn’t let up.  Readers who enjoy Valiant’s Bloodshot and H.A.R.D. Corps will really enjoy this new series.

Star Slammers: Re-Mastered! #1

Walter Simonson is truly a comics genius.  Most iconic was his run on Thor, but his work really has few low spots.  However, with the large volume of work he has released, some of it has following to the wayside.  IDW made the interesting decision to rerelease one of Simonson’s earliest works, Star Slammers, that was originally published in a graphic novel and mini-series by Marvel, as a newly colored on-going series, Star Slammers: Re-Mastered!  The series shows the influence of science fiction titles like 2000 AD with its art and narrative approach, but it uses that format in a much more approachable, less slow moving way that creates a wonderfully dynamic story.  While Star Slammers: Re-Mastered! feels like an older science fiction comic, it is all that was great about the genre in that era.  This one is well worth picking up.

The Wake #1

Scott Snyder seems to exploded onto the comics scene recently, first with American Vampire, then on Detective Comics, and following the advent of the New 52 at DC, Batman, Swamp Thing, and Animal Man, along with the brand new weekly title Batman Eternal.  And along with all of that work, he is producing The Wake, which looks to be one of the best horror comics released in some time.  Marine biologist Lee Archer is called to an underwater research facility in the arctic circle by the government, which has discovered some strange sounds that are clearly not whale or dolphin.  The mysteries deepen when Archer gets to the base, and discovers just what has been found.  Lots of suspense, and narrative bouncing around in time, and a lot of suspense make this a highlight of horror science fiction comics.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Science Fiction Comic Round-Up, Part 1

There are always a number of superhero comics out there, and the growing number of horror comics is good to see, but there always seems to be a need for a good batch a science fiction comics.  In the next two posts we will take a look at the first issues of some recent series, so that you can decide which new science fiction titles you would like to get in on the ground floor with.

Black Science #1

I first came across Rick Remender’s work with his run on Uncanny X-Force, which was one of the best takes on a black ops team Marvel has had, and with his fascinating series Strange Girl.  In Black Science, he is unleashing a group of scientists, led by Grant McKay, on a trip through reality and beyond, as we discover how these people stepped out of our reality and how they will survive the strange lands they have found themselves in.  The first issue of Black Science is a lot of fun, and gripping enough to keep readers coming back month after month.

The Bunker #1

Joshua Hale Fialkov first struck me as a writer to watch with his graphic novel Tumor.  From there, he has moved into some major titles, especially with his series I, Vampire for DC.  The Bunker started out as an indie release, and hit five issues before getting picked up by Oni Press, which began releasing the series in print.  In recognition of this shift, Fialkov reworked the series, using the new publisher as a fresh start to the ideas presented in the series.  Having read and loved the original indie release, I couldn’t wait to snap up the first issue of the Oni release, which is even better than the original.  Telling the story of a group of friends who discover a mysterious underground bunker in the woods full of information about their future, The Bunker follows them as they try to come to terms with what they have learned.  Brilliantly introspective and thoroughly engaging, this is a great book to follow.

Caliban #1

Garth Ennis likely needs no introduction for comics fans.  Coming off his widely acclaimed series The Boys, Ennis has stepped into the realm of science fiction with Caliban.  The first issue introduces us to the crew of a spaceship travelling through hyperspace.  Humans have branched out to the stars, and found that the universe isn’t as inhabited or hospitable as they might have imagined.  Yet, when the ship comes out of hyperspace, it fuses with what appears to be an alien ship, and the crew knows that there is trouble on the horizon.  I wonderful dollop of suspense makes this series a science fiction/horror mash-up not to be missed.

The First Law of Mad Science #1

Mike Isenberg and Oliver Mertz aren’t names you are likely familiar with, but they have teamed up to write The First Law of Mad Science, a wonderful science fiction adventure.  A genius scientist has created new eyes that are much more powerful and connected to the world than human eyes are, but a strange malfunction is leading people to see blob-like creatures that no-one else can.  Yet, when a scientist dies, everyone has to reconsider exactly what might be going on.  The First Law of Mad Science is a fast-paced science fiction romp that is one of the most successful indie releases through ComiXology Submit’s platform.

The Heroes of Echo Company #1

The heroes of the past have been an inspiration to people for millennia, so when humans need a new inspiration for the future as they head into space, it is decided to create a new fighting force modelled after the heroes of old.  Erik Wright, codename Ulysses, is coming off a tour that resulted in the deaths of all of his men, and has been placed temporarily in charge of a new unit while he awaits his trial.  Yet, when their ship is attacked, the mettle of all of these new heroes will be tested.  Writer Joseph Henson has created a very engaging military science fiction comic that this reviewer will be looking forward to continuing.

Inhuman #1

Marvel is releasing so many titles lately that trying to keep up is an impossible goal without making it a fulltime job.  However, as a long time Marvel fan, I wanted to find something new that I could get into without having to catch up, and could follow, that would fulfill my love of science fiction.  The start of the brand new series Inhuman, written by Charles Soule, seemed the perfect opportunity.  A mist is travelling across the globe full of a substance known as Terrigen, and it is turning seemingly-regular people into strange beings.  However, multiple factions are fighting over these newly-powered individuals, and the conflict threatens to spill over into all-out war.  Inhuman follows the events of the Marvel event Infinity and the epilogue mini-series Inhumanity, but the necessary details are explained and new readers can move into the series without feeling confused.  Inhuman has the potential to be a very exciting new series that will be great for new readers to begin their time in the Marvel Universe.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Interview with Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed

Hi there, Danielle and Day!  Thank you both for stopping by to talk to us today!

Danielle: Hi, Luke! ::::waves:::::

Luke Reviews readers will likely be very familiar with the name Danielle Ackley-McPhail (Bad-Ass Faeries, frequent contributor to Defending the Future, etc.), but could each of you give us a brief introduction to yourself?

Danielle: I am a woman of many voices. Not one to limit myself unnecessarily, I write fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction, science horror, military science fiction, steampunk…pretty much anything and everything that inspires me. I love creating of any type, sewing, cooking, sculpting, and, of course, writing. I do believe that I put together my first book when I was twelve and haven’t stopped since. They have fortunately improved in quality.

I have worked in publishing for over twenty years and I’ve been published for over thirteen years. Currently I have six novels to my credit, three short story collections, one writers guide, seven edited anthologies, and I have contributed to over fifty other anthologies or magazines.

On the other hand, Day Al-Mohamed is making her first appearance on Luke Reviews with Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn.  Can you tell us some more about yourself, Day?  Do you have any other works interested readers can look for?

Day: I’m very excited about this first novel. I love writing, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, comics, even a couple of short films, but novel-length work has always been a bit intimidating. J  I feel like I’m just getting started on some grand adventure!

As to my current work, I co-edited the anthology Trust & Treachery and have shorts in Daily Science Fiction (one of my favorite places to read). This year, I have stories in Sword & Laser, Alternate Hilarities, Breath and Shadow magazine, and GrayHaven Comic’s Women-themed comic anthology (prior work of mine is in their You Are Not Alone anti-bullying issue). I am a member of Women in Film and Video and a graduate of the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.

When not working on fiction, I’m a Senior Policy Advisor with the Federal government.  I love action movies and tea (lots of tea), and live in Washington, DC with my wife, in a house with far too many swords, comics, and political treatises.  I have a website (www.DayAlMohamed.com) but the easiest place to catch me is Twitter (@DayAlMohamed)!

So. Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn.  I loved it.  How did this wonderful book come about?  Did one of you get the idea and bring it to the other, or were you looking for a story to collaborate on and came up with this together?

Danielle: LOL…it started out as a short story and quickly outgrew its pages. When the publisher learned how long it had grown he told us we could not use it for the anthology it was written for. He said it was a book now and we had to go finish it. We are eternally grateful to him for this. While it would have been a good story, it’s a great book.

Day: Initially, Danielle had asked for help with some of the background for a story she was working on for Gaslight and Grimm.  Having grown up in the Middle East and with stories similar, I have always lamented the lack of diversity in fairytale collections and anthologies.  I wanted to see characters that looked like me. I may have gone overboard in my assistance when I sent her a multi-page guide with definitions, common phrases in Persian and Arabic, notes on clothing, culture-specific responses to the environment etc. That grew into a story collaboration and then, accidentally became a novel collaboration.  J

What was it like collaborating on a project rather than working on an individual work?  Was it hard to give up complete creative control?

Danielle: Oh….just….oh….I do have to admit that I have control issues. I have very definite ideas and find it difficult to let go of details. It takes a lot of effort for me to step back and let someone else guide things. In most cases I did it, only occasionally taking the bit between my teeth on one aspect or another. I just kept in mind that it was our novel not MY novel.  It wasn’t always easy, but I think it is a stronger more tightly woven book precisely because I was able to restrain myself and let Day take equal part in shaping the story.

Day: I think there was some suffering. J I’ll admit, I think I had a slight advantage. Working on a couple of stories for comics, it was a difficult lesson to trust the artist when it came to shaping the vision.  Though I will say, every time I did, the final product was fantastic beyond anything I had conceived of myself.

What process did you use for your collaboration?  Did you meet up and write together, or was it a long range email thing?  Did you switch off writing, or did one person write a draft and the other followed up with complete re-writes?

Danielle: LOLOL….I think you would have to call it the “Hot-Potato” method of collaboration. We had so many great ideas and so much excitement to write it that neither of us held on to it for long. We would write sections and bounce it back to the other and just keep going like the manuscript was going to burn us up if we held on to it too long.

Day: Writing is so often such a solo affair.  This was anything but.  We passed the writing back and forth but it wasn’t just adding new material, it was going back over each other’s writing and adding, adapting, revising, and changing. So it became an exciting game.  What did the other person do?  What is going to happen? What shall I do next?  Add to that “idea conversations” over email or phone where we got to bounce back and forth ideas of where to go. I’m sure this made writing Baba Ali take longer than it would have otherwise, but I think that a small sacrifice.

There were some wonderful period references in your novel.  What sort of research was done in the writing on Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn?

Danielle: The historic elements are a hodgepodge of contributions from both myself and Day. I brought in the historic elements from the Persian dynasties and Al-Jazari’s The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices and I picked Charles Babbage as Ali’s mentor, all gleaned by searching certain terms on Google that pertained to the time period we were aiming for and the regions. Once I settled on Babbage I did research into his background and referenced photographs/etchings to incorporate details of his appearance and home. For everything else, to be truthful, I can’t remember what ideas led to finding these particular things. For me research is a real scavenger hunt and I find ways to seed my work with the relevant details. Now Day…she’s the true researcher and history buff. She did a lot more in-depth research to keep us historically accurate and to draw in the right technical feel to lend credence to our period piece, but I’ll let her share those details with you.

Day: I love history. I love alternate history and what ifs.  I also love those tiny details that let you think “This story COULD have happened.” We worked hard to include the 1001 Nights aesthetic and capture elements from oral storytelling, but we also included concrete references and technologies.  I love including those little references for people who either know the topic or are interested enough to take a few minutes to look it up. We pulled up old maps and descriptions of Jerusalem and used actual schematics for the Graf Zeppelin to design the aerostat, Thaddeus Lowe (I also encourage folks to look up who he was).  As a more specific example, I used language references from both Arabic and Persian.  It won’t matter to most readers but if you recognize that difference, it leads you to perhaps some more interesting questions about the origin of Baba Ali and his family.

What about the story of Ali Baba inspired you to use it as the basis of your novel?  There are a lot of stories to choose from in the Arabian Nights, so what made this one stand out?

Danielle: A couple years back a fellow author recommended a themed anthology to me: Gaslight and Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales. I loved the idea and so we moved ahead. My vision for that collection was a mix of traditional Grimm’s tales, mingled with fables and tales from other sources as well, to lend variety. I don’t think there was every any question what I was going to do myself. See, while I was growing up my mom worked for CBS records and they received an allotment of free records every year. One of those my mom chose was a recording of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and some other fable. I don’t remember what the other one was but I listened to Ali Baba until the vinyl was nothing but scratches. Even without that, though,  I really wanted to do Ali Baba myself because I saw so many possibilities to transform the tale through a steampunk retelling.

Day: In some ways, I came to the project knowing it was “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”  But what I remembered more about the story was that Ali Baba wasn’t really the only hero.  In fact, I had heard of it as “Clever Morgiana” and that long-forgotten element made this stand out as a story with great potential for a retelling.

Is there any chance of a sequel?  This setting and these characters seem so full of depth and wonder that Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn seems like a world with more than one story to tell.

Danielle: Oh….I don’t think we could stop here even if we wanted too. We had half a dozen ideas for other books before we even finished the first one, it seems. There is so much wonder and adventure to explore and elements from the first book still unresolved that there simply have to be more books.

Day: Maybe in a sequel Danielle will let me chop someone into 40 pieces to distribute through the Ottoman Empire…yes? J Expanding to a novel was probably the best thing that could have happened to the story.  It gave us the time and space to not only expand the characters, but to fill in a world rich with magic and mechanics, personal ambition, politics, and secrets.

What other works do you two have on the horizon?  Will we be seeing any more collaborative work from you in the near future?

Danielle: :::groan::: I still have to finish Gaslight and Grimm (Dark Quest Books, Fall 2014) and I have about five novels I’m working on, not counting the future Baba Ali books. There is also a short story collection I’m wrapping up for October. It’s mostly a reprint collection of my urban fantasy stories that have appeared in various anthologies over the years.

Day: Baba Ali? Likely yes.  J  I think we’ve been bitten by the bug and the urge to spend more time in this world is very tempting.  Other things on the horizon? I have several stories and comics coming out this year (I mentioned several above – that’s what I get for not reading ALL the questions before I start answering.) I’m currently in the middle of two other novels, one that has the flavor of a steampunk Lonesome Dove, set post-Civil War and the second, co-written with N.R. Brown, a science-fiction Young Adult novel set in a future Venice.  I have to admit, with showings of both my short films on Virginia cable this year, I also have been thinking about spending a bit more time working on film.

Thank you so much for taking the time to hang out and answer some questions.  Do you have any final comments before we wrap up?

Danielle: Thank you for having us, Luke. And thanks a LOT for really liking our books! For those who are curious about what else we have done, my website is www.sidhenadaire.com and www.badassfaeries.com....

Day:  Thank you!  This was a lot of fun.  Just had to say, yours was my first review.  I was so very excited about it. As I said earlier, I love talking to folks and the easiest place to find me is www.DayAlMohamed.com  or (more likely) @DayAlMohamed 

Thanks again!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Interview with Brian Libby

Hi Brian!  It is great to have you on Luke Reviews!

You’ve been working on a wonderful fantasy series, Mercenaries, which began in Storm Approaching and continued in Gold and Glory, Resolution, and The Free Lands.  Right now, only the start of Mercenaries is available in eBook format.  Are there plans to bring the rest of the series to digital formats?

   I would like all my books to be available electronically but budget constraints prevent this. (Although theoretically one can download and format books oneself, were I to attempt this with a long novel I imagine I would have a nervous breakdown.) I will have them electronically formatted as I can afford to.

I know these books took a bit of a circuitous path to publication.  Can you tell us a little bit about that?

      “Circuitous” is a good word for what happened. Others good words are: tortuous, interminable, frustrating. Those interested in a story that began in June 2001 and did not officially end until March 2012 may find it on my blog entry for May 5, 2012, “A Cautionary Tale.” (I certainly disproved the idea that it is harder to get a good agent than to get a publisher. My agent was the same one that Patrick Rothfuss and Tad Williams have, but even fine agents do not always sell their clients’ books. Close but no cigar, as they say. I finally decided to publish them myself rather than risk that they might appear only posthumously.)

You’ve also written a couple of books that aren’t part of your Mercenaries series, And Gladly Teach and Miscellanea.  Can you tell us a bit more about these two works?

     AGT, my first novel, is a lighthearted look at the workings of a boarding school with some perhaps not-so-lighthearted observations on secondary education in this country. Miscellanea is a collection of humorous and satirical essays on various topics, e.g. education, military history, and films. I also have an affectionate pastiche of David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot series posted at fanfiction.net: “The Adventure of the Surprising Ending” (by ‘Vorbin’).  

What are your future writing plans?  Are you looking to write more fantasy, or do you want to focus on a new direction?

     My plan at present is to concentrate on marketing. After publishing six I sensed—despite my lack of business acumen—that it would be wise to sell more before writing more. I know there is a market for them because I have received very positive reviews and feedback, but now I hope to spread the word before I write more words. I would like to write one or two more works in the Mercenaries series (though I assure prospective readers that the series as it stands is complete, i.e. the first three books are a unit with a definite ending and The Free Lands is a stand-alone. Readers are not left hanging; but “the further adventures of” are a possibility.) I will also add more essays to my blog as I find suitable topics.

I really appreciate your stopping by!  Do you have anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?

     Thank you indeed for this chance to say a bit about my literary efforts. With so very many books available today it is optimistic to expect prospective readers to take a chance on POD items. But I hope that many folks will at least take a look at my blog—andiriel.blogspot.com—to find out more about my books, read some essays, and decide if my style and subject matter warrant the investment of hard-earned cash and the time to read my stuff.  

 Thanks again, Brian!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Vampirella: Southern Gothic by Nathan Cosby and Jose Luis

There are some truly iconic horror comics characters.  Swamp Thing.  Man-Thing.  Werewolf by Night.  Cain and Abel from DC’s House of Mysteries and House of Secrets.  Dracula featured prominently in Marvel comics for an extended period.  And, of course, Vampirella.  Mixing the dark imagery of Creepy and Eerie with the sex appeal of Elvira, Vampirella has had the staying power so many horror comics lacked.  Going in and out of publication, Vampirella was most recently acquired by Dynamite Entertainment, which has been publishing a regular on-going series as well as a number of mini-series, including Vampirella: Southern Gothic, written by Nathan Cosby, with art from Jose Luis.

In Southern Gothic, Vampirella receives a call from a former lover following a battle with demons that left her with a mystical wound.  Jacob, the caller, is sheriff in Mississippi who I dealing with an unusual murder case, in which the victim has died before.  Many times before.  Vampirella heads down to Mississippi to investigate, and discovers that there is far more going on in Mississippi than she thought, with crazed demons only being the start of her nightmare.

As a fan of horror comics, not having read any Vampirella was a notable absence, so I was excited to rectify it with Southern Gothic, which turned out to be a great introduction to the character.  Not delving too deeply into the backstory, and smoothly introducing readers to the key elements, the story is fast-paced, holds a lot of action, and is a very fun story.  Vampirella proves to be a very engaging character that can hold her own in her fights with demons, and the supporting cast becomes more and more interesting as the story progresses.

For readers interested in giving Vampirella a try, or for fans looking for a fun stand-alone adventure, Vampirella: Southern Gothic is a great read.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Ro-Busters: The Disaster Squad of Distinction by Pat Mills, Kevin O'Neill, Dave Gibbons, Bryan Talbot, Alan Moore, and Steve Dillon

While the comics of today show a much more merged sense of storytelling, not that long ago the divide between American and British comics was very sharp, and the story telling in each made it very easy to identify, especially when it came to science fiction.  While American comics had Jack Kirby’s epic visions of great alien societies, Britain countered with the dense serials epitomized by 2000 A.D.  The comic brought readers Judge Dredd, the Rogue Trooper, and the A.B.C. Warriors, which all became staples of the genre.  However, many modern American comics fans have not been introduced to the original comics except through American remakes, which leaves one to wonder, what was it like when it first began?

This reviewer had previously read A.B.C Warriors, Volume 1: The Meknificent Seven, the first collected volume of A.B.C. Warriors comics, and had found it a tad on the slow side, but with strong enough team dynamics to make it a worthwhile read.  This series actually spawned out of a previous series, Ro-Busters, which, while appearing before the later A.B.C. Warriors, actually took place after the events of the later series.  Curiosity grabbed me, and I decided to check out this prequel/sequel series with the new collection, Ro-Busters: The Disaster Squad of Distinction.

Ro-Busters follows a couple of robots headed for the scrap heap, who are bought at the last second to be expendable members of a team designed to assist in major disasters.  While the story could almost have a Dirty Dozen feel to it, it never reaches that pinnacle, but ends up getting bogged down in bizarre disasters, glacially slow plots, and stilted writing.  Ro-Busters presents the beginning of a saga that would eventually evolve into one loved by many readers, but in its infancy it shows all of its faults with none of its successes.  A.B.C. Warriors clearly shows the growth of the writers.

Fans of British science fiction comics in the tradition of 2000 A.D. may enjoy this title, but be prepared to struggle through some major issues.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Dust: Withered Earth by James Ninness and John Narcomey

Post-apocalyptic science fiction is certainly in vogue in comics right now, with a number of titles featuring this subgenre, such as East of West, the new Tank Girl series, the on-again/off-again mini-series Zombies vs. Robots, and the epic Wasteland, which is swiftly approaching its conclusion.  It seems that, as the subgenre becomes more popular, people are looking for more ways to make their post-apocalyptic fiction stand out, leading to bizarre imaginings and oddball stories, both good and bad.

Dust: Withered Earth collects issues #0-6 of the comic DUST, telling the Western-inspired tale of two people travelling across the American southwest in an attempt to get to San Francisco and save the world.  Jim is a loner, who travels along with his imaginary friend, while Deborah is part of a scientific group hoping to re-establish crops in the area and provide food for the starving.  Their journey takes them through desolate land, dealing with larger than life vagabonds, crazed cannibals, and multiple solicitations of prostitution.

Dust: Withered Earth isn’t a bad story by any means, but its quirks seem less central to the story than just a way to try to stand out from the pack of post-apocalyptic comics, and the writing successfully tells the story without really ever gripping the reader.  The art, too proves to be a little lackluster.  The book could have succeed if one of those two elements was better, but without that it just doesn’t make itself worth going out of your way for.

Readers who are interested in the post-apocalyptic Western may want to seek this out, but even in that sub-subgenre there are better comics to seek out.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Zombies vs. Robots: No Man's Land edited by Jeff Connor

Zombies are popular right now.  It’s undeniable.  With Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead being unbelievably successful in multiple media, and the overflowing of zombie-related prose, comics, videogames, tv shows, movies, etc., it’s clear that you can have some success with zombie fiction.  Almost as popular are robots, and the idea of the robot overthrown/robot apocalypse.  So why not just geek out and put it all together?

That is exactly what Chris Ryall and Ashley Wood did in Zombies vs. Robots and its sequel, Zombies vs. Robots vs. Amazons, with both series being collected in Complete Zombies vs. Robots.  It is a story of a devastated world in which a robot society has arisen around the key objective of protecting the last remaining human child.  The story is fun, fast-paced, and doesn’t worry about being serious.

And fans wanted more.  So more comics came out, but in a wonderful move by IDW, they also started releasing prose works, starting with the anthology Zombies vs. Robots: This Means War! And continuing in a string of releases.  The most recent book is another anthology, Zombies vs. Robots: No Man’s Land, edited by Jeff Connor.  This set of stories ranges from the very beginning of the zombie outbreak all the way through the series, including a stop into the realm of Zombies vs. Robots vs. Amazons, this reviewer’s favorite entry in the comic series.

While the anthology is clearly aimed at readers of the original comic series, No Man’s Land is very accessible to new readers, as well, in large part because of the wonderfully simple premise of the entire universe: robots fighting zombies.  It doesn’t need to be any more complicated to be fun.

While some of the stories can be a little tedious, overall this is a fun if not-standout collection that is perfect for readers of the Zombies vs. Robots comic, or any reader who wants to see heavy metal/undead conflict.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

Fantasy comics have long had a strong representation in the graphic fiction market, but so many of the standard tropes have not evolved, but have stagnated, bringing the genre to a standstill while comics of other genres are advancing all around them.  One of these problematic areas is fantasy comics’ depiction of women.  Far too often, women are only appearing in comics as bar maids falling out of their blouses, damsels in distress, or for no real reason other than to pose suggestively while wearing the bear minimum of clothes.  Or, on the rare occasion that a woman held the role of protagonist, you frequently get something along the lines of Marvel’s Red Sonja, which was more about underwear-sized armor rather than a strong female protagonist.  Recent years have seen some growth here, in comics such as Dynamite’s Red Sonja, where we finally see a smart, capable female warrior in a series with depth.  With Gail Simone currently doing the writing, this likely will only get better, both in representation and story quality.

A new series that is running along with this is Rat Queens, from writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and artist Roc Upchurch.  Rat Queens features a group of five women who like to drink, get in trouble, and make money, all of which frequently seem to involve quests.  The first collection, Sass and Sorcery, introduces the readers to all of the cast, from a magic-using Cthulhu worshiper to a dwarf warrior, and gets the adventure of with a bang as the Rat Queens struggle to find who is trying to kill them.  Full of humor and adventure, Rat Queens will appeal to general fantasy readers, as well as fans of team-oriented books with plenty of witty banter.

Rat Queens should prove to be a popular new fantasy series, and is exactly what the genre needs: a funny, well-told action epic that isn’t afraid to be all about women.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Dumbing of Age, Volume 1: This Campus is a Friggin' Escher Print by David Willis

Webcomics have an appeal all their own.  Like the comics in newspapers, they pop up every day, but with the plethora of options, readers can personalize their daily webcomic reading, whether they are looking for the offbeat humor of XKCD of the science fiction action of Fighting Stranger.  Very specific niche markets can be reached through the power of webcomics, as well, such as the wonderful Dork Tower.  And sometimes, people want to fall in love with a cast of characters as they go through the brand new experience of moving away from home and starting at college, and for that they go to Dumbing of Age.

Dumbing of Age, Volume 1: This Campus is a Friggin’ Escher Print is a collection of all of the Dumbing of Age strips run during the webcomic’s first year of existence.  Introducing the characters, the story moves forward as the characters grow in friendships and relationships, learn about college, and grow up together.  You are quickly drawn into the story by both the humor and the well-rounded characters.  You can come for the laughs, and stay to find out how everything works out for this new group of friends.

The collected edition includes some commentary and other bonuses that make this both a nice collection for followers of the webcomic and new readers alike.  Dumbing of Age, Volume 1: This Campus is a Friggin’ Escher Print is a condensed collection of humor and relatable characters that readers will love and find themselves drawn back to time and time again.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dogs of War edited by Mike McPhail

Everyone has heard the typical response to anthologies: Some stories are good, some aren’t.  With so many different writers, it is more or less guaranteed that no reader will enjoy every story, and most of the time you find a few that just don’t work for you.  I came across this very situation with the last anthology I read, L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 30.  It is the nature of multi-author collections.

So when I read and loved the first story, Christopher M. Hiles’ “The Shepherds,” I figured that I would be coming across a dud soon.  When I finished “Brothers” by Danielle Ackley-McPhail, the final story in the collection, I realized that those duds never showed their face.  Editor Mike McPhail’s Dogs of War is brilliant military science fiction from start to finish.

Part of the Defending the Future military science fiction anthology series, Dogs of War takes the theme of dogs (or other companion animals) in combat, and runs with it in seventeen different directions, each one fascinating.  Some, like the aforementioned story by Hiles, felt like the start of a much bigger story, and readers will be keeping their eyes peeled for more from these authors.

Authors embraced the ideas of robotic dogs in combat, birds of prey performing recon, entire units made up of nothing but augmented animals, some even exploring the boundaries (or lack thereof) or human and canine soldiers in the future.  Readers concerned that Dogs of War would be a sappy collection of military science fiction dog lover stories are missing out on the massive breadth of content, the engaging conflicts and fascinating futures, and a host of talented authors.  Military science fictions fans will love this anthology.

Monday, May 12, 2014

ComiXology Submit Single Issue Reviews #3

The Dead #1

When Sam dies, he is surprised to wake up in a room in what appears to be a giant house, which he soon discovers is a far from safe place to be.  Written by James Maddox with art from Jen Hickman, The Dead presents a very interesting view of the afterlife, reminiscent of Guy Adams’ The World House that was reviewed here a few years ago.  This is a fun book with a great setting, and is well worth checking out for fans who like a little surreal in their comics.

Department O, Vol. 1: The Body Politic #1

Department O is a secret agency set-up to protect England from supernatural and occult threats.  While the idea of a supernatural secret agency isn’t one that is new, the story written by Jamie Gambell is fun, with plenty of mystery, and the quirky art from Andrew MacLean fits well and gives the story a great feel.  Fans of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen should find much to enjoy here.

Diskordia #1

Jackal Black is a young man trying to find the quickest path through life, when he falls through the cracks of reality and enters a whole new plane of existence and meets a girl with an octopus on her head.  The story only gets stranger from there.  Andrew Blackman writes and illustrates Diskordia, which proves to be one of the weirder comics out there, but is oddly fascinating.  Definitely not for younger readers, those of you on the lookout for something very different from the usual comic fare should give Diskordia a look.

Doc Unknown #1

Look for pulp action with a twist of the weird?  Then pick up Doc Unknown.  Written by Fabian Rangel, Jr., with art from Ryan Cody, the first issue, Doc has to stop a snake mob boss from stealing a priceless treasure at the museum, which precipitates a much larger adventure ahead.  All the fun with none of the seriousness, Doc Unknown is a great read if you want to avoid the heavy, moody, darker side of comics.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Beyond the Rift by Peter Watts

Peter Watts has been making a name for himself in science fiction.  He hasn’t exploded into the SF stratosphere like John Scalzi or Charlie Stross, but his he has been slowly building a reputation of strong science fiction with a detailed science element to it, particularly with a focus on biology.  He is also one of the authors I found myself most intrigued by, and I couldn’t wait to get a chance to finally explore some of his fiction.

Beyond the Rift presents a wide swatch of fiction from the entire length of Watts’ career, from very early stories (“Flesh Made Word” and “Nimbus”) to much more recent ones (“The Things”).  From the beginning of the collection, with the opening story, “The Things,” Watts’ chops for writing hard science fiction are evident, as is his love of the genre, writing a new version of John Carpenter’s classic film, The Thing, itself based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s “Who Goes There?” 

The collection expands from there, showing a seeming fascination with the merging of the future of life sciences and religion, with many of the stories featuring a mix of both.  Of particular note were “The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald,” which featured a woman who has found a way to program the universe, “A Word for Heathens,” in which religious extremism is taken into the future, and “Hillcrest v. Velikovsky,” a very short story in which a man is on trial of murder after his museum exhibit allegedly killed a woman.

In some of the stories, Watts’ storytelling gets a little mired, and the reader has to drag themselves to the end of the tale, but in many of the others a fascinating idea is well explored.  This makes the end of the collection all the more disappointing.  Watts’ afterword, “Outtro: En Route to the Dystopia with the Angry Optimist,” is more-or-less exactly what is says:  Watts takes a significant amount of time to be very angry about a number of things, and tries to justify himself as an optimist in a world slowly building towards the dystopic.  Watts takes time to ridicule those with opinions that differ from him, make fun of people who are religious, hate on all of North America, and otherwise be abrasive, disagreeable, and close-minded.  Any appreciation of Watts’ writing is lost in the muck that is his afterword.

Fans of hard science fiction with a focus on the life sciences will likely find many enjoyable stories here, but they unfortunately appear to come from the mind of a rather unpleasant person.  This reviewer will be avoiding Watts from here on out.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Batman: Battle for the Cowl by Tony S. Daniel

After Batman dies, who will take up the mantle?  Following the events of Batman: R.I.P. and Final Crisis, Gotham City’s crime element is growing without the presence of the Dark Knight.  Dick Grayson, current Nightwing and former Robin, seems to be the obvious choice to everyone, but he is unwilling to take on the roll.  As he struggles with this, someone else takes on the role of Batman, and begins killing criminals.  Nightwing and Robin have to find out who this new threat is and stop him.

Most people won’t be too surprised with how Batman: Battle for the Cowl plays out, and the ending certainly isn’t a shocker, but Tony S. Daniel presents a wonderfully entertaining story that will keep readers moving along.  This story is pretty mired in continuity going back a ways, so new readers won’t find this the most accessible, but for readers who have been making their way through the Batman titles for a while will find a lot to enjoy here.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Murder Mysteries by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell

When it comes to comics, you can come across some writer/artist pairings that just flop.  The artist may use a sharp, dynamic style that just doesn’t fit the slow, methodical Victorian story, or perhaps the cartoony drawings may not be the most effective way to tell the story of a murder mystery.  Every comic fan has read a book before where the writing and art just didn’t work together.  But sometimes, the combination is just perfect.  And in Murder Mysteries, based on the short story by Neil Gaiman, illustrated and adapted by P. Craig Russell, the combination couldn’t be better.

Murder Mysteries follows a young man who is stranded in Los Angeles while his flight is delayed, and spends some time with an old flame.  After returning to his hotel, he goes out for a walk and meets an old man who will pay for cigarettes with a story of the first murder, in Heaven, and how he, formerly an angel, tracked down the killer.

While this, at first glance, may not seem to be the most fascinating plot, anyone familiar with Gaiman’s work knows that he can turn it into a masterpiece, and he does.  The complexities of the plot unwind at the perfect pace, and the incredible parallels that appear were completely unexpected, and all the more chilling because of it.  What readers familiar with Gaiman’s work might not expect is that Russell will take the story and make it even better in his adaption, crystallizing the story and presenting a fascinating view of Heaven to set the story in.

I first read Russell’s adaption when it was released about a decade ago, and read it again for the forthcoming re-release from Dark Horse Comics.  The story very much stands up to second readings.  The new edition doesn’t make many changes, other than including an essay at the end regarding Russell’s work in Murder Mysteries reprinted from The Art of P. Craig Russell, so if you own the original, buying the new edition may not be critical.  However, for readers who haven’t yet encountered Gaiman and Russell’s masterwork, this is the perfect time to check it out.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 30 edited by Dave Wolverton

L. Ron Hubbard has been many different things to many different people, and it is undeniable that his legacy is tainted for many people.  However, everyone can agree that one of Hubbard’s greatest contributions to science fiction and fantasy is the Writers of the Future competition, which has jumpstarted the early careers of many writers who have gone on to make an impact in the field.  Each year, the top stories from the competition are put together in a book, along with articles on the craft from well-known writers.  Each story is illustrated by winners of the Illustrators of the Future competition, making the book a multimedia approach to the next generation of writers in the field.  This year, in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 30, stories by Orson Scott Card and Mike Resnick, both judges of the competition, are also included, along with a story from L. Ron Hubbard himself.

As with any anthology, especially an unthemed one, the contents have the potential to be a mixed bag, and this year was no different.  Some of the stories felt a little flat, while others showed potential.  However, the one that really gripped me and had the strength I was looking for was “Beneath the Surface of Two Kills” by Shauna O’Meara, which followed a hunter who is struggling with the ethics of killing.  It was a gripping story with a strong protagonist that wasted no time getting to its emotional impact. 

The essays are rather middling, with a pedantic list from Hubbard and an essay that is mostly direct quotes from previous essays in the series by Robert Silverberg.  It all felt rather uninspired.

Perhaps it is a sign that the future of the genre is not where my tastes lie, but I didn’t find this volume as gripping as I had hoped.  Fans of the series will enjoy the new crop of stories, but for people looking for polished, exciting tales, this book may be worth a skip.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Black Well by Jaime Tanner

While there are a number of stories that play with the idea of someone waking up to discover they are different, the king of this odd subgenre has to be Franz Kafka’s “Die Verwandlung,” known in English as “The Metamorphosis,” in which salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant bug.  Kafka’s story seems to be one of those strange beasts that everyone calls a classic, but seemingly no one knows anyone who has enjoyed reading it.  However, as someone who enjoys stories in the so-called weird fiction genre, I found Kafka’s most famous work interesting.

It was in this vein that Jaime Tanner’s graphic novel The Black Well appealed to me when I first heard the premise.  A man wakes up to find that he now has the head of a dog, and much like Gregor Samsa, has to find ways to continue living his life.  But Tanner takes The Black Well into far stranger directions, with a secretive island clinic, a dashing headless vampire who won’t take no for an answer, and a series of strange occurrences that lead the story into progressively odder places.

I found myself enjoying Tanner’s story as it was moving along, becoming more and more curious how it would all come together.  But then it doesn’t.  The ambiguity of the ending left this reviewer wanting more, and feeling that the end dashed a lot of the enthusiasm I was feeling as a reader.  Is The Black Well very much a part of the indie, “literary” comics tradition?  Yes, and fans of that genre might find the appeal in the ending that I missed.  However, as a fan of comics without any particular leaning in regards to indie/mainstream or “literary”/”nonliterary,” I felt that this graphic novel was a great journey with an unsatisfying conclusion.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Comics and Language by Hannah Miodrag

While everyone with even a vague interest in comics scholarship seems to have read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, many people don’t get much farther.  There are great organizations out there, such as Sequart, who are working on brings comics scholarship to new venues and audiences, but all-in-all, serious academic studies of comics are pretty few and far between.

This makes Hannah Miodrag’s Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form all the more exciting.  After doing an impressive job of distilling some of the trends in the field of comics criticism, Miodrag sets out to step away from the defensiveness so prevalent in the field and explore the use of language, art, and the confluence of the two in a serious, academic fashion.

Before you check out Miodrag’s work, be forewarned: this is serious literary criticism, so there is heavy use of jargon, lots of dense references, and the in-depth investigation of what may frequently seem to be minutia.  This sort of thing isn’t for everyone, so if the previous sentence doesn’t sound appealing to you, I would strongly encourage you to avoid Comics and Language.  For those of you with an academic bent, or who find the analysis of fiction to be very interesting, step forward!

Miodrag’s analyses of the field is broad, and focuses on works from Krazy Kat to Black Hole, from webcomics to original graphic novels, and everything in between.  The only glaring absence is major publishers and superhero comics, with Miodrag acknowledging in the introduction that her focus is mainly on the more “literary” end of the comics spectrum.

Miodrag approaches the language used in comics first, exploring how they function without a major focus on the art, before shifting to the artistic aspect of comics, and finishing with how the two function in relation to each other.

For students looking for a fascinating reference point for the study of comics criticism, as well as those interested in literary criticism in a field that doesn’t have a large volume of academic studies, Miodrag’s Comics and Language is a great addition to your library.