Graphic Novel Review: Dry Spell by Ken Krekeler

Dry SpellDry Spell by Ken Krekeler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Addiction, Recovery and Relapse resonate throughout this graphic novel depicting a world of superheroes and supervillains. One man walked away from it all: the fame, the rush. Tom’s become a pencil pusher taking it one day at a time. Not even his girlfriend knows of his storied past. The public never knew what it took for him to perform–LCD. Anything to remove the self-doubts.

Then his HR rep, Walter, recognizes him for who he was. mire of Walter, too, dabbles in the world of Super hidden beneath a mundane facade. He takes Tom to a group of underperforming Supers. Tom’s not interested in unleashing his great potential again. He was too strong, too able. But Walter laces Tom’s drink to unlock the dormant Super . . .

The art is compelling, adeptly circumventing the mire of exposition and lengthier dialogues. Key images explode off the page with restrained use of color until necessary and with beautiful choreography of silhouette and drama.

However, it is the story that makes this highly recommended. Tom’s brooding and interactions with family members, friends, lovers, and potential colleagues feel real. Surrounded by well-meaning people, he’s alone.

I received this title directly from the artist when we met at Chicago’s C2E2 convention of comic and graphic novel artists.
 
 
 
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Graphic Novel Review: Angel Catbird by Margaret Atwood

Angel Catbird, Volume 1Angel Catbird, Volume 1 by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Graphic novels have evolved into sophisticated, often dark tales exploring complex psychologies and critiquing entire social systems. When the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, itself a dark and sophisticated social critique, decides to write a graphic novel, one could expect more than this pulpy, pun-filled origin story.

Artist Johnnie Christmas adequately draws this superhero landscape of were-animals and shapeshifters in the uninspired style of decades of superhero comic books. The art matches the cheesy dialogue and paper-thin plot. Every character wears their role on their sleeve.

Strig Fleedus, hero and soon-to-be superhero, is hired to complete the formula for a gene-slicer elixir. But upon completion, he has an accident while chasing his indoor cat that’s escaped outdoors. An owl gets into the mix and we get a cat-owl-human superhero . . . who seems largely unfazed by his new role.

It becomes clear that nothing deeply psychological will be explored when the female love-interest and coworker of Strig calls him out the next day. Firstly, without prompting, she announces that she’s a half-cat who can transform at will. Then, she states “It was that super-slicer you’re working on. The secret project. You spilled some on yourself, right?” So much for it being a “secret project.” Nor for any sense of reveal or “coming out.”

The true purpose of this graphic novel lies outside of the plot and panels. Many of the pages contain statistics, PSA style, about domestic cats and the dangers awaiting them outdoors. It also cites stats about the impact domestic cats have on native birds in the Americas and British Isles. The odd juxtaposition of the PSA and comic fails to elevate the conversation within the panels.

The series is not recommended.
 
 
 
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Anthology Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

SuperheroesSuperheroes by Rich Horton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Superheroes have been enjoying a century of popularity, building on their predecessors the folk heroes, heroes of tall tales, and mythic heroes. The most successful of heroes are the ones that despite their uber-human status, grapple with their humanity and oh-so-human weaknesses. They also exemplify the potential contradiction between pubic and private personae.

This enjoyable anthology brings together 16 tales of larger-than-life heroes dealing with common themes: family, relationships, and aging. My favorite tale was Matthew Johnson’s “Heroic Measures” meriting 5 stars. This heart-stirring/heart-breaking tale shows familiar, unnamed characters–with a very strong resemblance to Superman, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthur–grappling with the painful sorrow of old age. The very nature of heroism and bravery earns a new definition in this tale.

My honorable mentions, each with 4 stars, are:
“Super. Family.” by Ian Donald Keeling. Sparring with one’s supervillain nemesis may make the papers, but raising teens is the real struggle . . .
Downfall by Joseph Mallozzi. The road to recovery is difficult and unappeciated. But it’s also necessary for this reformed supervillain just trying to do right by his loved ones.
Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang by Gord Sellar. Culture and politics clash when multinational superheroes try to do right by “the people.”

I’ve reviewed and rated all of the tales. Also included are:
Beagle, Peter S.–“Dirae”–3 stars
Beyer, Kat–“The Strange Desserts of Professor Natalie Doom”–3 stars
Bobet, Leah–“Wild Card”–3 stars
Gregory, Daryl–“The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm”–3 stars
Kelly, James Patrick–“The Biggest”–3 stars
Marcade, Jei D.–“Superhero Girl”–3 stars
Ronald, Margaret–“Sunlight Society”–3 stars
Schutz, Aaron–“Dr. Death vs. the Vampire”–3 stars
Emshwiller, Carol–“Grandma”–2 stars
Fortin, Elana–“The Los Angeles Women’s Auxiliary Superhero League”–2 stars
Link, Kelly–“Secret Identity”–2 stars
McDonald, Ian–“Tonight We Fly”–2 stars

I’ve previously reviewed a couple anthologies edited by Rich Horton:
The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2015–4 stars
The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2016–4 stars
 
 
 
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Novella Review: Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang by Gord Sellar

4 of 5 stars.

This superhero/supervillain urban fantasy cleverly depicts the complicated relationship between South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan and the United States. The countries, cultures, and politics are personified by the superheroes representing them helping to illustrate the complexities of the divided peninsula.

Wonjjang is a South Korean superhero/mutant working on a multinational team in the superhero division of a company. He leads the team that includes American, Japanese and Chinese members. Most of their attentions are used for thwarting the destructive tendencies of North Korean mutants led by a mad dwarf.

Two major sub-themes run through the tale. Firstly, mis-translations and awkward communication run rampant between both allies and enemies alike. One could include in this sub-theme the 2 mutants with communication-based abilities: the telepath and the mind-reader. The other sub-theme is attraction and romance. Wonjjang, who lives with his mother still, has a crush on the Japanese superhero who in turn is crushing on the American–that’s one way to summarize complicated politics. The hero’s mother would prefer him to settle down with a nice Korean girl, even if she’s from the North . . .

The blend of allegory and superhero works well here. The tale is recommended.

This tale appears in the anthology, Superheroes edited by Rich Horton.
 
 
 
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Novella Review: Downfall by Joseph Mallozzi

4 of 5 stars.

Redemption and rehabilitation aren’t uncommon themes in literature. Here, a man struggles to stay true to his word, a word he’s broken before to those he loves.

Marshall was born with hereditary superpowers. But his single mother has never revealed the identity of his absentee father. So, Marshall grows up with a mental list of potential candidates. But growing up is hard, and Marshall finds himself surrounded by bad influences and users. He becomes a supervillain named Downfall in a gang of supervillains.

For the sake of his wife, Allison, he quits the gang and moniker and promises to lead an upstanding life. A bad decision, and relapse, finds Marshall busted in a bank robbery with his old gang and tossed in prison for 5 years. It’s 2 years before his wife even visits. But he vows to steer straight and is released on good behavior after a few more years.

Life on parole isn’t easy. Especially when one particularly beloved superhero, The Imperial, has made it his personal mission to reveal Marshall’s true identity wherever Marshall and Allison try to hang their hat. They can’t put down roots, or relax–they cannot start a family in circumstances like this. So, when The Imperial turns up murdered, it’s awfully ironic the feds want Marshall’s help to find the perpetrator. Or, is it?

This tale appears in the anthology, Superheroes edited by Rich Horton.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “The Los Angeles Women’s Auxiliary Superhero League” by Elana Fortin

2 of 5 stars.

This tale sees adults with emerging superpowers–just not necessarily very useful ones. Camille learns of her ability to disappear when see wishes to get out of the way or not be noticed during a red carpet event. Only, her ensuing disappearing act isn’t just metaphoric. Later, she learns that her two friends had previously learned of their superpowers. Together, they decide to band together for the greater good. End of story. ??

It reads as a prelude to a story that’s not forthcoming. This would be okay if the emphasis was on the characters and not the circumstances. What’s included is not enough for story or even tale status. It’s a story pitch, or the kernel to something that could be.

This tale appears in the anthology, Superheroes edited by Rich Horton.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Grandma” by Carol Emshwiller

2 of 5 stars.

Like Matthew Johnson’s excellent “Heroic Measures”, this tale depicts a former superhero succumbing to old age as they interact with a loved one. In this case, the superhero was of the Wonder Woman or Supergirl variety. Her end-of-life sees her living a secluded life with her youngest granddaughter who narrates the tale.

Little insight is given into the grandma’s motivations beyond “not wanting to be a bother” as her abilities become increasingly limited. The granddaughter is a compromised POV, as she clearly feels inadequate carrying the family mantle and yet aspires for some sort of greater life despite an overall lack of super-talent.

The narrator can neither face the truth, her grandmother’s legacy, nor the public.

This tale appears in the anthology, Superheroes edited by Rich Horton.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Super. Family.” by Ian Donald Keeling

4 of 5 stars.

Along the course of every father-daughter relationship, there’s the moment things change. The little girl is no longer a little girl anymore and the father–no matter how invincible and unknowable he seemed–proves all too human. Adult mysteries fail to remain mysteries to the ever more canny offspring.

This tale captures the wonder and bafflement of that moment, when the daughter’s curses and disappointments can slash the parent as deeply as any knife. The loss of innocence is rarely subtle.

However, here it is larger than life. The father is a superhero, one of the greatest and strongest. And yet his identity has remained a secret to even his two daughters. Mom, too, was an active superhero once. But now she’s home raising the third child that came along well after the others. The relationship between the parents is strained to say the least. And the strain is not nearly as lost on the daughters as the parents have hoped.

For a man that’s nearly invincible to the rest of the world, his daughters and wife find and exploit his vulnerability to his very family . . .

This tale appears in the anthology, Superheroes edited by Rich Horton.
 
 
 
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Graphic Novel Review: Birthright, Volume 2: Call To Adventure by Joshua Williamson

Birthright, Vol. 2: Call to AdventureBirthright, Vol. 2: Call to Adventure by Joshua Williamson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The sophomore slump drags down this graphic sequel as it abandons its strengths and unique points in favor of a fantastical chase and action sequence that manages to not move the plot more than a hair with its final panel and yet also manages to avoid further world-building.

The first volume establish a rich, dark tone depicting the grief of a father having lost his son in the woods. As days and weeks stretch to months and even a year, suspicions rise that the father must have killed his younger child. His wife leaves him, and the law is always probing him for evidence. He almost loses his older son in favor of his growing alcohol dependency.

Then one day a crazy man is found in the woods with a sword that claims to be the lost son, grown much older in the misaligned timelines of neighboring dimensional planes.

This volume barely shows the parents and fails to further their angle. The older brother, now much younger than the man his younger brother has grown into, is on a quest with the dimension-crossing warrior. Law enforcement now chases them, as do forces from the fantastical realm whence Warrior Mikey sprang.

We know Mikey has been corrupted into a character of questionable morality, as this was established in Volume 1. The interspersed flashbacks into Mikey’s decades off-world don’t show the cause behind the corruption. All we know is that his unrevealed plans include his still pre-teen older brother.

The father was “corrupted” in very specific ways: guilt, suspicion, accusation, abandonment, and alcohol. It’s time for the series to allow the same treatment for the lost son . . .

This series is co-created by author Williamson and artist Andrei Bressan. My rating for Birthright, Volume 1: Homecoming was 4 stars.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Dr. Death vs. the Vampire” by Aaron Schutz

3 of 5 stars.

This rather quixotic tale has superheroes-who-aren’t-superheroes pitted against vampires-who-aren’t-vampires. Either the narrator, Dr. Death, is a hero in wanting to rid the world of faux-vampires or he’s a psychopath. His friends seem to think he’s a bit of both.

Dr. Death’s superpower is the ability to really feel what others are feeling, both bodily and emotionally. Call it super-empathy. He has a morally questionable habit of killing those who he deems beyond saving from their own internal suffering. One could consider this assisted suicide if the victim was actually asking for help or relief, but there’s no indication that they do.

Vampires, in this world, are not bloodsuckers. They’re parasites of a different nature, feeding off of the emotional pain of others. They both keep the victims alive and in a constant state of suffering. Really, the superhero and the vampire clash in being 2 sides of the same coin . . .

This tale appears in the anthology, Superheroes edited by Rich Horton.
 
 
 
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