Review: “East Of West, Volume I: The Promise” by Jonathon Hickman & Nick Dragotta

Title: The Promise
Writer: Jonathon Hickman
Artist: Nick Dragotta
Series: East Of West (Volume I, issues #1-5)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Image, 2013

Apparently this was one of the hottest creator-owned books to come out last year, and I totally missed it. No longer! I was recently scanning the graphic novel/comics section at the local library for that eye-catching sticker designating new acquisitions for my greedy perusal, when I ran across this particular gem. Science-fiction-slash-Western, you say? Well, I doubt it can top Firefly, but I’ll give it a go. Alternate history? I like alternate history. I find alternate versions of any familiar world interesting, especially ours. The apocalypse? I love a good impending apocalypse. Probably why I watch both Sleepy Hollow and Constantine these days, among a slate of others. All of these factors together? That’s gotta be interesting….

The Four Horsemen walk the Earth, heralding the end of days. Surprisingly, however, they do not stand united….Following a staggering betrayal, Death stands opposed to his former comrades, and may just prove to be the only hope humanity has left. The forces against him are legion, including a cabal that would hasten the apocalypse, and he has few friends left standing. But one simple fact remains: eventually, Death comes to every man….

That synopsis really doesn’t do the book justice, of course. Half the fun here is slowly figuring out exactly what’s going on. That can be a little difficult at times, admittedly–the book does you no favors in terms of presenting backstory in a timely manner–but is well worth it nonetheless. It’s less alternate history than it is a future based on an alternate history, but that difference is somewhat academic. Now, what else can I say about this without spoiling it for you? It’s delightfully over-the-top, the product of numerous impulses that blend together to give a flavor that is sometimes Tarantino, sometimes Eastwood, often manga/anime/whatever-you-call-it, and always amazing. I can’t wait to read the next collection….

CONTENT: Profanity on a PG-13 level. Some brief sexual innuendo and non-sexual nudity (it’s a childbirth scene, in case you were wondering). Over-the-top, bloody violence. I’m not sure occult is the right word, but we’re dealing with the Four Horsemen here. I’m not sure what other word to use. Oh, and there are a couple Native American witches. I suppose that qualifies as well.

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Review: “Star Wars: Tarkin” by James Luceno

Title: Tarkin
Author: James Luceno
Series: Star Wars (Rebooted canon, though it would fit equally well with the Legends stuff)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2014

So, here’s the newest entry in the Star Wars publishing empire. This time we’re treated to a biography/character study of Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin, the man behind the Death Star. You don’t remember him? He was the guy in Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope that got to boss Vader around without getting choked, masterfully played by the inimitable Peter Cushing. Cheekbones like razor blades? Ringing a bell? If Vader is the Emperor’s crushing fist, Tarkin is his knife in the dark–deadly, precise, and without mercy.

It’s been five years since the end of the Clone Wars and the rise of the Emperor. For most of that time, Tarkin has been occupied shepherding the Emperor’s pet project: the as-yet-unnamed planet-sized mobile battle station. Keeping such a large construction project on-task and supplied is no mean feat, even for one of the Emperor’s most trusted lieutenants. Keeping it secret is next to impossible–anyone who’s paying attention knows something is going on out by Geonosis, they just don’t know what. Fortunately, most everyone with enough information to know what questions to ask knows better than to do the asking, and that’s the way Tarkin likes it. Once it’s operation, the mobile battle station will render the Empire’s rule unshakeable. Until then, the Empire’s infallibility can only be maintained by meeting any and all dissent with stiff, merciless reprisals. A new order has been born out of the chaos of the Old Republic, and Tarkin will do whatever he has to do to safeguard it and nurture it to maturity.

James Luceno is known for his incredibly detailed entries into the Star Wars mythos. Earlier endeavors chronicled the rise of Palpatine and his master in Darth Plagueis, somehow showing the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to basically every single Expanded Universe entry set during the period leading up to The Phantom Menace. He’s given us the biography of the Millennium Falcon (yes, you read that right). He’s given us Darth Vader adjusting to his new role in Dark Lord: The Rise Of Darth Vader. Some have criticized a few of his works as being slow at times, which I can see, but I’ve never minded–the attention to detail is worth it. Here, however, nobody has room to complain. Luceno weaves together a pair of compelling narratives, balancing them and always keeping you guessing as to where he’s going to go next. On the one hand, there’s Tarkin & Vader’s pursuit of a suspiciously-effective rebel cell. On the other hand, there’s Tarkin’s backstory, the events that forged him into the Emperor’s finest weapon.

Just as interesting as the new information it provides is the old information rehashed. Why? Because most of it comes from sources that are no longer officially canon. However, thanks to the shout-outs in Tarkin, we can unofficially assume that the events of Darth Plagueis, Dark Lord, and Cloak Of Deception all happened more or less as stated. The books themselves aren’t canon anymore (or at least I haven’t seen anything reinstating them), but the events therein contained still happened. Funny, all those books were written by Luceno….

CONTENT: PG-grade profanity. Some violence, occasionally disturbing in its ruthlessness. No sexual content.

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Review: “Rated R” by Mike Leon

Title: Rated R
Author: Mike Leon
Series: Kill, Kill, Kill
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Self published, 2014

So, I agreed to read and review this on a whim, based on the synopsis the author posted when he offered digital copies to members of one of the GoodReads communities I’m a part of. Normally I write my own synopsis, but since the official one plays such a prominent role in this review (because of the expectations it created), I’ve decided to use it instead this time. So see below:

Lily Hoffman is trouble. The teenage video clerk is deceptively intelligent, exceedingly beautiful, and boldly prepared to use what she has to get what she wants. She’s not a bad person, just the product of the horrors in her past—and those horrors are catching up with her.

Then she meets a stranger who changes everything. He shows no fear. He performs death-defying feats without hesitation. He kills with merciless indifference while growling out snarky one-liners. He is nothing short of the hard boiled action heroes in the movies Lily loves.

Of course, where there are larger-than-life heroes, there are larger-than-life villains, and the ones hunting Lily’s new friend are like nothing she has ever seen before: machine gun toting mercenaries, an invincible cannibal butcher, a ninja master, and a killer psychopath more bloodthirsty than death itself. As enemies close in from all sides, Lily’s life spirals into a catastrophe that is eerily similar to a big-budget Hollywood body-count movie. And this is one blockbuster she may not survive…

So. My expectations going into this book. Some of them turned out to be accurate–for example, I figured it would earn its title. Had I actually looked at the cover art (much easier to overlook when dealing with ebooks) this expectation would have been strengthened. Others…not so much. Based on that synopsis, I expected some sort of clever meta-fictional tale where one or more of the characters either come from blockbuster action movies or get pulled into said movies a la The Last Action Hero…or something clever like that. And I suppose this kind of works, since the book pretends to be written up as a screenplay, with setting notes at the start of each chapter and closing credits where Mike Leon does literally everything, even things that aren’t required for the production of a novel. But mostly we just have over-the-top action-movie characters existing in a world where that’s not normal. You know how you kind of accept certain things in action movies because there’s an understanding that the rules are different? Cars explode when shot, the character named Karl can be full-out hung with a mass of chains around his neck and still come charging out the building in the last two minutes ready to be gunned down for the last thrill of the film, and Jason shrugs off everything anyone ever throws at him just so the studio can make another crappy sequel. The rules are different. By and large, people in those movies aren’t surprised when it turns out that the ninja can deflect bullets with his sword, or at least don’t react by breaking the suspension of disbelief and comparing him to a movie character. Here, the characters embodying all those action movie stereotypes exist alongside-but-not-related-to the action movies from which the author ripped them. So, I was disappointed in that aspect. Oh, it was entertaining enough, I suppose, but not nearly as awesome as I had hoped. Someone with more accurate expectations would probably star it higher than I did. Also, to be fair, nothing in that synopsis was especially misleading. I apparently just read into it what I wanted to see. If you’re looking for over-the-top violence, sex and profanity, this might be for you. Me? I was hoping for something a little more interesting.

Apparently, despite not being an official series, everything Mike Leon writes features most of the same characters. Thus, this novel brings a number of plot threads from his earlier book Kill, Kill, Kill to a close. I’ve not read any of the others, but that didn’t really hinder the reading experience this time. Normally I would be compelled to hunt down the rest of the not-series, but I think this time I’ll pass.

CONTENT: As the title would indicate, there is strong, bloody violence throughout; explicit sexual content; and R-rated profanity.

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Review: “Hellboy Vol. IV: The Right Hand Of Doom” by Mike Mignola

Title: Hellboy Vol. IV: The Right Hand Of Doom
Writer & Artist: Mike Mignola
Series: Hellboy
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse, 2004

As I mentioned ages past, I love Hellboy. And my library finally got another volume! Just a single one, for now, but that’s okay. I eagerly devoured it. This volume was another anthology set, collecting a number of shorter pieces along with a couple longer one-off stories. As I stated last time, I think this shorter format really gives the character his best workout… The stories included here are:

  • Pancakes (New Mexico, 1947). Young Hellboy is a picky eater. This one was done as a joke so that the Dark Horse people would stop asking for stories about young Hellboy. It was a surprising success…
  • The Nature Of The Beast (England, 1954). Hellboy faces down a dragon in the English countryside. But not all is as it seems…. Apparently this one was knocking about in Mignola’s head since he was first created, and he only got around to putting it on paper much later.
  • King Vold (Norway, 1956). Hellboy goes on a research mission with an old friend of Bruttenholm’s. Obviously, things don’t go as planned. This particular story was written up specifically for this collection, so that’s always fun.
  • Heads (Kyoto, 1967). Hellboy investigates reports of a haunted house in the Japanese countryside. They prove to be all too true….
  • Goodbye, Mister Tod (Portland, 1979). Hellboy deals with a medium who, shall we say, ventured a little too far into the open waters of the spiritual realms….
  • The Varcolac (Yorkshire, 1982). Hellboy tracks down a vampire he’s long hunted, only to find a bit more than he bargained for….
  • The Right Hand Of Doom (Sometime after Wake The Devil). Hellboy meets the son of one of those who most fear him and his potential, and recaps the important story beats thus far….learning a bit more about himself in the process. This is mostly Mignola poking his readers and asking them why they aren’t more curious about Hellboy’s stone right hand.
  • Box Full Of Evil (Soon after The Right Hand Of Doom). A troubling burglary leads Hellboy to a cult trying to raise the devil. Well, A devil, anyway….but with such ambitions, what might they do once the Beast of the Apocalypse is within their reach?

Content: Minor language, some stylized violence and gore. Little to no sexual content. A fair amount of occult content, however. In Hellboy’s world, everything supernatural would seem to exist in….well, not harmony, but a unified worldview. This includes the Christian God and the Devil as well as more Lovecraftian things such as the Ogdru Jahad. God and the Church have power, but there are other things abroad in the world that have power as well and were old long before Christ was born in his manger. Hellboy is brought to Earth from another plane–implied to be Hell–in a dark ritual performed by Grigori Rasputin. He later tries to use Hellboy as the focus of another ritual to free the Ogdru Jahad (similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones) and bring an end to the world as we know it. One of the short tales implies that Hellboy himself is the son of the Devil and a mortal witch. Ghosts, vampires….the Beast of the Apocalypse…..

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Review: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: The Family Man” by Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, David Lloyd, Dave McKean, Ron Tiner, & Sean Philips

Title: The Family Man
Writers: Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman & Dick Foreman
Artists: Ron Tiner, David Lloyd, Dave McKean, Sean Phillips, Steve Pugh, Dean Motter, Kevin Walker, Mark Buckingham, Mark Pennington, & Tim Bradstreet
Series: John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume IV, Issues #23-33)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2012

This volume of the ongoing Hellblazer comic series proved to be a mixed bag, not in terms of quality but in terms of subject matter. Much like the first volume, but in this case it was all tied together by a larger narrative. It was, I think, my favorite volume so far….which is a bit chilling, since this was undoubtedly the most messed up volume yet as well. At any rate, I’m finally seeing what everyone raves about with this series.

John Constantine knows how to handle a supernatural threat. Usually, that’s run like hell, but still. He faces down the things that go bump in the night on a regular basis, has stared into Hell and had Hell stare back. He bears the scars of these encounters, both physical and mental. But now? Now Constantine is up against his most unnerving enemy yet–a strictly vanilla human serial killer who specializes in slaughtering entire families. Fresh from the near-apocalypse caused by the government’s runaway “fear machine,” and needing a place to lay low, Constantine drops in on an old friend and finds himself in the middle of a mind-bending meta-fictional romp. A few weeks later, a mysterious figure shows up at the door in search of Constantine’s missing friend. This encounter will plunge Constantine into a deadly game of chess for his very soul…. In between the moves of that deadly game, we get some guest appearances. First off, Grant Morrison and David Lloyd spin a tale of nuclear horror as a town and the new missile base just up the road both fall victim to a sinister experiment. Then Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean take an issue to explore the human need for affection and just simply being noticed. Later, Dick Foreman spins a yarn about a madman’s dream to take over the world using an unlikely vehicle for his ambitions.

Like I said, this volume mostly holds together pretty well. We segue in from the previous volume, then move on to set up the chance meeting between Constantine and the Family Man. From there, Constantine tries to ignore the fact that he alone knows the killer’s identity, having a couple side adventures that allow for some guest teams and (I presume) Delano to catch up his schedule before the main showdown and cleanup. It meanders a bit at the end, perhaps, but that mostly serves to allow the next volume to start on cue instead of rambling about first. I’m fine with that. Random Neil Gaiman appearances are always appreciated, and Dave McKean’s style complemented the story being told quite well. I wasn’t quite as fond of the Morrison/Lloyd tale, but that may have been a byproduct of its very obvious political leanings, and I found the Dick Foreman story pretty forgettable, possibly because the art rubbed me the wrong way. At any rate, I’m sticking with the series for a while longer. I see we change lead writers for the next volume, so that will be interesting….

CONTENT: Some strong language, PG-13 grade. Some semi-explicit sexual content, including implied molestation, incest and rape as a city gives in to all of its suppressed desires. Strong violence, very gory in a couple places. Very little occult content this volume though, considering the series as a whole.

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Review: “Metro 2033″ by Dmitry Glukhovsky

Title: Metro 2033
Author: Dmitry Glukhovsky
Series: Metro
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: 2002 (in Russian), 2010 (English translation)

I first became aware of this novel, as did most of the non-Russian world, because of the video game. I haven’t played it yet, but I hope to do so at some point in the future. Anyway, I ran across a short interview some gaming magazine did with Glukhovsky about the follow-up game Metro: Last Light, and determined that this was a book I had to get my hands on. How could I pass it up? I have a weakness for post-apocalyptic stuff in general (or at least I’ve liked most of it I’ve encountered thus far), and the premise was intriguing.

In 2013, the world ended in nuclear fire. The only survivors are those lucky few who managed to escape to the Moscow Metro system, which acts as a massive fallout shelter. (Other authors, with Glukhovsky’s blessing, have explored the Metros of other major cities across the world, which are ostensibly serving a similar function. I wouldn’t know personally, since so far none of the other material has made it into English.) Twenty years later, humanity still huddles in the tunnels of the Metro. Those who remember the surface are growing fewer every day, through the ravages of time, radiation sickness, or the depredations of bandits and mutants. Each station on the Metro has taken on the character of individual countries, with several empires and alliances being forged in the darkness. There’s a group of stations that have reverted to Communism, some that have taken up fascism, a group that have embraced capitalistic trade and the riches it brings, and a whole bunch of other stations caught between the quarreling powers. Above it all stands Polis, perhaps the only place in the Metro that they at least attempt to remember how man once lived. Artyom knows all this only from stories, of course; as long as he can remember, he’s never been further from his home station of VDNKh than the guard post at the three-hundredth meter. Well, except for that one night when he and a couple friends sneaked over to the abandoned station down the line and ventured to the surface, just for a moment. They got scared stiff by noises in the dark, and the door refused to close behind them….In the days since, a steady stream of nigh-indestructible mutants, the Dark Ones, has slowly assaulted the station, with the attacks growing more frequent with every passing week. Now Artyom has to leave VDNKh behind, venturing to legendary Polis with an urgent plea for help, before the Dark Ones overrun first VDNKh and then the entire Metro….

My reactions to this book were mixed. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the book. It was very atmospheric, placing you deep inside this darkened world and the head of Artyom, a young man who has never seen the sun or (at the start) walked under the stars. The world itself is very developed, even if we don’t always get a lot of information on certain sections. On the other hand, I get the impression that the translation was very hurried and sloppy, undertaken on a deadline to meet the game’s release date. Dialogue often felt very stilted and didn’t flow well (I’m giving the author the benefit of the doubt and blaming the unnamed translator for this out of professional courtesy), and there were a small number of typos and similar mistakes embedded in the book–always surprising to find in a professionally-published work. Other elements I felt more ambiguously about. The plot reads like an old-fashioned dungeon crawl, and is honestly pretty repetitive at times, but every step of the way we are treated to philosophical musings on everything from religion to human nature. I was also surprised at the level of mysticism present in the novel. I don’t have any real objection to that kind of thing, I just wasn’t expecting it here. Its not something usually found in conjunction with the aftereffects of a nuclear holocaust. Am I sorry I read it? No. I do think it would benefit from a better translation though, a proper one this time.

CONTENT: R-rated language. Some sexual innuendo, including a mother attempting to sell her son’s company to Artyom, much to his disgust. Frequent, occasionally gory and disturbing violence, both of the human and monster/unexplained varieties. There’s a strange mysticism underlying the novel, from a conversation with two mysterious old men in a station that is supposedly uninhabited to possible sightings of a god that was supposedly made up by a cannibalistic cult up to and including a battle with a hypnotic slime monster. Yes, you read that right.

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Mini-Review: “Star Wars–Reputation” by Ari Marmell

Title: Reputation
Author: Ari Marmell
Artist: Tom Hodges
Series: Star Wars (Technically Legends, but tied to the Clone Wars)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Titan Magazines, 2012

I was going through some old Star Wars Insider magazines the other day, and I ran across this short story. I don’t know how I missed it before, but I did fall pretty far behind there for a while and am only just catching up. Anyone who’s watched much of the Clone Wars series probably remembers the bounty hunter Clint Eastwood Cad Bane. You know, the guy with enough brass to stage a heist in the Jedi Temple itself, proceeding to kidnap several Force-sensitive infants, busted Ziro the Hutt out of the slammer on Coruscant by taking several senators hostage, and then proceeded to sign on for a mission to kidnap Palpatine himself? He’s a cool character, to be sure, and this tale picks him up as he’s just first trying to make a name for himself. War is coming, Bane is sure of it, and that means money up for grabs….if one has the nerves and the reputation to claim it.

For most of the story, from Bane’s musing on the state of the GFFA to his sparse dialogue throughout the tale, Bane’s voice is spot-on. I could almost literally hear it in my head as I read. The story also explains why he has so many gadgets that we see almost nowhere else in the entirety of the franchise, such as the rocket boots he’s rocking while everyone else wears heavy jetpacks.

Trying to place this into the timeline of the Galaxy Far, Far Away illustrates the slightly awkward position the division of the canon puts me in. Officially, anything published before the cutoff date that isn’t the films or the actual Clone Wars cartoon is considered “Legends” canon. However, the Clone Wars cartoon (and thus all related material) doesn’t fit with the previously-established “Legends” timeline for the Clone Wars. Thus, I’m choosing to be slightly rebellious and include the Clone Wars tie-in material in the official canon timeline. Cool? Cool. Anyway, this story is set just a scant two years before the outbreak of the Clone Wars. (That’s 24 BBY for my fellow Star Wars geeks….)

So far as I know, the only place to find this story is in Star Wars Insider #136, where it was originally published.

CONTENT: Mild profanity, mostly specific to the Galaxy Far, Far Away. Some moderately gruesome violence. No sexual content.

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