Friday, November 28, 2014

Booknote: First two volumes of Brian K. Vaughan's Saga

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (art), Saga, Vol. 1. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2013. ISBN: 9781607066019.

With the first volume, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. I thought this was just going to be another star-crossed lovers story, but there is much more. The author pulls together science fiction and fantasy to create a tale of adventure and wonder. Marko and his bride Alana, who are soldiers on opposing sides of a galactic war, fall in love and conceive a child. Now, both sides want them dead, and then young family is on the run. The story plays out in a true epic fashion with elements of fantasy and magic. Much of the story is told from the child's  point of view, Hazel, which adds some sense of scale. Overall, this is an excellent story with great art by Fiona Staples.

If you ask me, I give this 5 out of 5 stars.

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (art), Saga, Vol. 2. Berkeley, CA; Image Comics, 2013. ISBN: 9781607066927.

The second volume was also a quick read; once you pick one of these up, you just keep going. The story here continues to grow in depth. When things cannot get more complicated, Hazel's paternal grandparents show up and come to live with them. The story continues with the excellent art by Fiona Staples. The blend of magic and science fiction continues to provide the sense of wonder. This was one I enjoyed, and I will certainly be looking for the next one.

If you ask me, I also give this 5 out of 5 stars. Yes, so far, it's that good.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Booknote: Joker: Death of the Family

Various authors, The Joker: Death of the Family. New York: DC Comics, 2013. ISBN: 9781401242350.

I have been reading the Death of the Family series from DC Comics in bits and pieces, so I was happy to see that DC finally compiled it all in one volume. A big reason I do not read comics in single issues is that major storylines tend to be spread out over various issues; keeping track of those issues is not always easy. Death of the Family is a good example as  you have to read issues in Batman, Batman and Robin, Batgirl, Red Hood and the Outlaws, and some others. So it was nice to see it all in one volume where you can read it all at once in good order. I know this is the kind of remark that comic book purists and publishers do not like to hear. After all, they do want you to buy the comics. I get that. For me, I prefer to read my story in one place where I can make sense of it. I don't have the patience to buy one issue, then wait for the next one. By now, I know publishers will compile the good stuff into trades, or in this case, hardcover. If it is not good enough to get compiled, I probably do not need to worry about it. Anyhow, don't feel too bad publishers and purists: in our household we still get some individual issues (my daughter reads them) now and then.

So, the above is a big reason why I liked the Joker: Death in the Family volume. Reading the story separately is not always easy, plus they often repeat certain scenes in each different comic. One example is the dinner scene (if you have read it, you will know what I mean). Here, you get to it at the right moment in the story sequence. I enjoyed the compilation because I was able to read it all in one place. This is certainly the best way to read this series as it allows readers to better appreciate the depth of the story. For me, this is a big example of why I wait for compilations.

The hardcover edition is a nice, good quality volume. It is definitely the volume that public libraries need to buy. If your library has not bought volumes of the Death of the Family series, and you have Batman fans, then you need to get this one. If you have already bought the other trades, and you have the complete set, then this may be optional (there is no new material here if you got the others already).

I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars. I really liked it, but the series overall does have some ups and downs.Still, this is a volume I would consider adding to my personal collection. For this time though, I borrowed it from my local public library.

To get additional perspective, here are links to my review to individual volumes of the series I read:

Friday, November 21, 2014

Booknote: Darwin: A Graphic Biography

Eugene Byrr and Simon Gurr, Darwin: A Graphic Biography. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2013. ISBN:  9781588343529

This was a short book for young readers that I enjoyed very much. The author presents the life of Darwin in a creative way: a group of apes on APE-TV are doing a documentary on the life of Charles Darwin. It's an amusing and cute way to frame a story for young readers. However, don't think this is just some cute book for children. This book is a pretty solid and substantial biography of Darwin that also explains his theory and ideas in a clear, precise, and easy to understand language. The illustrations are good and go along with the science concepts well, making the science more accessible.

I would say this book is a good introduction to Darwin the man and his work. If you felt a bit intimidated by On the Origin of Species, this graphic novel explains the key ideas in a clear and simple way. The graphic novel is not comprehensive, but it is definitely a good introduction that may encourage readers to read more about Darwin, his work, and the work of other scientists. That is an important point. Darwin was not alone in his inquiries. However, he was the one to really explore, investigate, and shape what became known as the theory of evolution in a synthesis. Furthermore, other scientists, as science advanced, have worked on and expanded Darwin's theory. It is a theory but not in the sense that religious fundamentalists misuse the word, which is to mean a hunch or guess. As the author explains, "a theory is a hypothesis that has been tested by observations and experiments" (94). The author even adds that if you can come up with a better theory and produce enough evidence to support it, then you could prove evolution wrong. That is science. Scientists accept that: testing, observation, experiments, and the possibility a theory can change But evolution so far has been proven true, and modern advances in genetics and molecular biology continue to prove evolution true. That is how science works, which is well explained in this book. It certainly is something you can show some misguided fundamentalist when they say, "it's just a theory."

Overall, this is a very good book. Darwin's tale is inspiring, one that many young readers will enjoy. Boys and girls with a budding interest in science will likely find encouragement here. Darwin was not great just because. He worked hard, was perseverant, and curious. Like me, it took him a bit to figure out what to do in life, but he found his passion and went on to move science forward. In addition, this is a good book for adults as well. It is well written and nicely illustrated, a good biography of the man and explanation of his ideas. It uses a bit of light humor to make it entertaining. For adults wanting to learn about Darwin, this is a good start. The author includes a small bibliography listing further works for people who want to learn and read more.

I'd give it 4.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Booknote: Superman: Earth One

J. Michael Straczynski, Superman: Earth One. New York: DC Comics, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-4012-2468-4.

This was a pleasant read. It really is a new story for this generation. J. Michael Straczynski, known for many works including Babylon 5, brings us a new look at the origin of the Man of Steel, and he makes the hero more humane in the process.

A strength of this comic is that it strives to really show what it would be like to grow up as an alien in hiding. The book asks what choices would that person make. The author also brings the comic up to date, making a clear commentary on issues of immigration in the U.S. today. After all, unlike most Superman comics, who is to say every American automatically accepted a powerful man with a dubious provenance as one of their own?

To provide conflict, the author re-envisions the destruction of Krypton as an intentional act of war, and the enemies now come for the last son of Krypton. Superman now chooses to fight for mankind in a sequence filled with action and drama. Add to this great art that gives a good cinematic feel, epic in scope, and blending in small moments, and you get a great tale of humanity and adventure.

This is one that old time fans will likely enjoy, and it is a comic that can bring in new fans. It is a solid 5 out of 5 stars.

In terms of appeal, this comic may be similar to:

I borrowed this one from my local public library, Madison County Public Library (Berea branch). 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Booknote: 50 Girls 50

Albert B. Feldstein, Al Williamson (illustrator),, 50 Girls 50 and Other Stories. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2013. ISBN: 978160699577.

Genre: Comics and Graphic Novels
Subgenre: Science Fiction (some crime and western stories included), vintage comics

This is another good collection of EC Comics vintage stories compiled by Fantagraphics. This time, the publisher focuses on the illustration work of Al Williamson. If you like science fiction adventures, rocket ships, scantily-clad women, and Martian scenes, then Al Williamson was your man to illustrate those stories. The volume is a pleasure to read. For many, this volume may be a journey to earlier years of comics like Flash Gordon. In fact, Williamson names the Flash Gordon comics as one of his early influences.

This edition focuses mainly on Williamson's science fiction work, but he did the occasional Western or crime story for EC Comics, and those are included here too. Many of the stories feature those twist endings that seem to be a trademark of the stories that EC published. You see this also in the Jack Davis anthology that I read and reviewed previously.  Villains and con men get their poetic justice, and hubris is punished. Sometimes things do work out for the better.

Now, some of the stories may seem outdated given our modern knowledge. I think these stories retain their charm, suspense, and romance over time. Williamson's art really evokes faraway worlds full of danger and adventure. He brings to life dashing heroes and their damsels. We must note that he did have collaborators such as Frank Frazetta. As for the stories, while most of the scripts are by EC's Al Feldstein, there are also some adaptations of works by other authors worth mentioning. Ray Bradbury's "The One Who Waits" and I, Rocket" are present in this volume. Harlan Ellison offers his tale "Upheaval!" These are definitely good additions to the volume.

Finally, we must mention the extra features. Mark Schultz provides an introduction that gives some context on Williamson's work. The volume also includes some extra stories, a biographical profile of Al Williamson, biographical notes of the other creators and contributors, and a short history of EC Comics. Collectors will probably wish to add this volume to their collections. This is definitely a good volume for public libraries, and some academic libraries with recreational reading and/or popular culture holdings may want to add it as well. Though I borrowed it from my local public library, I would consider adding it to my personal collection.

If you ask me, 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Booknote: Battle for the Abyss

Ben Counter, Battle for the Abyss. Nottingham: Black Library, 2008. ISBN: 9781844165490.

Genre: Science Fiction
Subgenre: Space Opera, Military Science Fiction
Series: The Horus Heresy, Warhammer 40,000. Book 8.

Warning: this note does have some minimal spoilers (which probably will not bother hardcore WH 40K fans). 

After Descent of Angels, (link to my review here) the series seems to be improving. However, this volume shows it still has some ways to go after the slump in Descent of Angels. The abyss of the title refers to the Furious Abyss, a giant dreadnought starship the Word Bearers legion, in secret collaboration with the Mechanicum of Mars, have constructed and deploy in order to launch a devastating ambush attack on Macragge. Macragge is the homeworld of the Ultramarines legion, who are considered the royalty or blue bloods of the Space Marines. They are the ones who really live "by the book." Although I will say that the novels of the Ultramarines I have read have been enjoyable, but that is in part because they deal with mavericks who do look past the rulebook (link to my review of those novels here). At any rate, if fans of the Ultramarines are looking for a lot about this legion, they are not going to find it in Counter's novel.

The Word Bearers' attack is part of Horus' plan to cripple and/or eliminate any legions that remain loyal to the Emperor. By now, Horus' treachery is in the open, so he has to rush to carry out his plans. Cestus, an Ultramarine captain in an outpost with a small group of Ultramarines and some members of other legions, gets wind of the plot. He commandeers a small fleet, and with the few Space Marines at his disposal, who are members of the Space Wolves, the Thousand Sons, and the World Eaters, goes on a chase to attempt to stop the Word Bearers.

The pace of the action remains at a pretty good steady clip throughout the novel. The presence of members of different legions shows some of their contrasting philosophies and battle tactics, and I found this interesting. This is a certainly a book of the Word Bearers, so fans of that traitor legion will find plenty here. Yet at times, Zadkiel, the Astartes admiral commanding the Furious Abyss, comes across a bit like the stereotypical villain trying to carry out a plot. The man seems right out cartoonish; all he needs is a mustache to twirl in his fingers. The novel also features some moments of gallantry and bonding of warriors such as Cestus, the strict rule follower, and Brynngar, the primally aggressive Space Wolf. I also rooted for Mhotep, the member and captain from the Thousand Sons, a legion revealed to be composed of psykers. Well, if you are a fan of WH40K, you probably already knew this, but to casual readers coming to the series for the first time, this would be a revelation. At any rate, psykers, those who have various psychic and mental powers, are seen as heretics by the Imperium, even if such powers could prove helpful to the imperial cause. Mhotep is disliked by Brynngar, who sees him as a witch and heretic; Cestus, reluctantly has to ask for his help, but he still condemns him because, well, rules are rules. Mhotep, to make things interesting, is acting in a time before it is revealed his own legion takes sides with Horus. This fact is hinted at in the novel.

The novel sets up things for later works in the series such as Know No Fear: The Battle of Calth (Book 19 in the series) and other works that feature the Calth theater of the war and the enmity between the Ultramarines and the Word Bearers. It will take me a bit to get there since I am trying to read the books in order.

Overall, if asked, I'd give this 3 out of 5 stars. It's alright, but it could have been better.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Booknote: Ash and the Army of Darkness

Steve Niles, Ash and the Army of Darkness. Mount Laurel, NJ: Dynamite Entertainment, 2014. ISBN: 9781606905166.

This volume collects issues 1-8 of the comic. The volume opens with a nice cover gallery; it features some very neat images of Ash, and this is a nice way to open the volume. Overall, this is a nice sequel to the films as Ash goes back to the Dark Ages where the Wise Man, not so wisely, read the book (you know the one), and so the deadites are unleashed once more. It falls to Ash to save the day. . . again. That is what happens when you don't pay attention and fail to say an incantation correctly. This collection is filled with enough action to satisfy fans of the series. The art was pretty good too, and it brings the story to life. I really liked this one, and it was a fast paced read. Fans of the series will want to pick this one up. It makes a good continuation of the story many love. I would certainly buy it for my library, and public libraries will probably want to get it as well.

I am giving it 4 out of 5 stars.

Disclosure:  This is where I tell you that I read this via NetGalley; it was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. There, The Man should be happy now.