Review: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Crash Test Demons” by Andi Watson & Cliff Richards

Title: Crash Test Demons
Writer: Andi Watson
Artist: Cliff Richards
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Buffy The Vampire Slayer #13-15)
Rating: **
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2000

The Buffy binge continues! This time we have the next three issues in the ongoing arc begun back in Bad BloodCrash Test Demons collects issues #13-15 of the ongoing Dark Horse series, which can also be found in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer Omnibus Volume IV.

We start out on a weird note in Love Sick Blues, with Cordelia deciding her image needs revamped and deciding to compete with Willow in the school’s “Quiz Bowl.” Yeah, you heard that right. Of course, to have a hope of succeeding Cordy’s going to need some supernatural help, and that comes with consequences….In the untitled following issue, things start to get serious as Buffy and Angel encounter several “super-vamps” that take a lot more killing than usual. Oh, and after Buffy saves his bacon, Todd (the creep from A Boy Named Sue) develops an unhealthy fascination with our favorite Slayer….Finally, Lost Highway sees Buffy attacked by a trio of super-vamps after a fortuitous (under the circumstances) hit-and-run. All the while, Selke and her pet doctor are trying to raise a new dark power in Sunnydale….

Meh. The art was great, with the briefly-confusing exception of a few moments where the super-vamp gang contains a member who looks just like Buffy. The writing though….not so great this time through. The first story was mostly okay, but the other two are plagued with unresolved subplots, like Spike & Dru showing up just long enough to work some mischief and (apparently, since they don’t appear again) disappear without so much as a how-you-do. The characters’ dialogue was all spot-on, but the plotting and pacing could use some work. Timeline-wise, for lack of any other information this continues to follow the previous so many stories, in the slot between Buffy S03E10: Amends and Buffy S03E11: Gingerbread.

CONTENT: No profanity that I can recall. Vampire violence consistent with the Buffy television show. Some mild sexual innuendo…. Buffyverse vampires could be considered occultic due to their demonic nature, but it didn’t bug me.

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Review: “Insurgent” by Veronica Roth

Title: Insurgent
Author: Veronica Roth
Series: Divergent #2
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Katherine Tegen, 2012

I’ve decided I need to be more focused when I read a series. I’ve always tried to not binge, but that’s obviously not working–I never finish! So here we go. Insurgent! Plus, the movie’s coming soon, and I know I’m going to get pulled in to see that with my wife and/or my sister….can’t see it ’til you read it, after all….Oh, and since this is the second book in the trilogy, it’s bound to be a bit spoilery for the first novel. If you’ve not read the first one yet, you’ve been warned.

Insurgent picks up right where Divergent left off. The faction system is shattered, teetering on the brink of collapse due to the unprecedented attack led by Erudite against the Abnegation. Erudite stands powerful, maintaining a position of strength after seizing control of the city. Abnegation is almost nonexistent, most of its leaders and citizens slaughtered. Dauntless is fractured, split between those allied with Erudite and those in revolt, horrified at having been manipulated into committing genocide. Amity stands aloof, offering a safe haven for refugees of the attack, while Candor stands undecided. But there is a sixth group that no one has considered yet, and they may hold the key to everyone’s future in this troubled city. Can Tris and her friends trust the Factionless? And regardless of the answer to that question….do they really have a choice?

I stated before, in my review of Divergent, that I thought this trilogy was far superior to The Hunger Games for a variety of reasons. I still hold that opinion, and I don’t think it’s likely to change despite my sister’s allusions to her “ocean of tears” after finishing the last book. The writing continues to flow almost effortlessly from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and while I’m admittedly unlikely to give these a second read-through (I only do that if I really like a book) I have to admit to an incredibly reluctance to stop reading once I’ve started. Tris is a bit less emotionally stable this time around, and I can see where some people get annoyed at that, but I think it’s only natural for the character. She just watched most of the people she grew up with get massacred, her parents both sacrificed themselves to save her (a sacrifice she feels deeply unworthy of), and she was forced to shoot one of her closest friends in the face when he tried to kill her while under simulation control. I think her emotional breakdown is warranted, and while I don’t like whinyness in a narrator, I think I would find her character less believable if she didn’t break down occasionally. And believably, overwhelmingly human characters is something that Ms. Roth does incredibly well. There are a couple characters who are just outright slime (Eric, for example), but most of the villains are operating from a desire to serve the greater good…as they see it, and regardless of the cost. That element in particular is highlighted in this book, as we get more insight into just what the heck went down to cause the Erudite coup. I’ll not get too lost in rambling, except to say that any lingering qualms I had about the premise of the trilogy after the first book (and there weren’t many) have been laid to rest.

CONTENT: Brief R-rated language (I think, I don’t actually remember any, but the first one had some….) Strong, occasionally gruesome violence and its aftermath. Mild sexual innuendo and flirting, but nothing too explicit.

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Review: “Hellboy Vol. V: Conqueror Worm” by Mike Mignola

Title: Hellboy Vol. V: Conqueror Worm
Writer & Artist: Mike Mignola
Series: Hellboy
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse, 2004

Yay! More Hellboy! Have I mentioned that my library is totally awesome? They got in another three or four volumes of the adventures of everyone’s favorite monster-fighting….er, monster. I’ve mentioned my affection for this rebellious demon before, here and here, and now there’s more to read! So without further ado, Conqueror Worm.

In the early days of WWII, while Rasputin was scheming to bring Hellboy to our world, Herman Von Klempt and some of his colleagues sought a more direct route to the apocalypse. There are non-corporeal beings living out among the stars, many of whom would love to end life across the universe if only given a body. The Nazis sent them one…a dead man, a hollow shell they could inhabit. Now that capsule is heading back to Earth, bearing with it the conqueror worm….

Not sure why, but this one just didn’t quite do it for me. I can’t put my finger on it–we’ve got Hellboy doing his thing, intergallactic Lovecraftian beasties, another appearance by Herman the Head-in-a-Jar, even an undead early superhero dispensing justice (though it’s never explained why he’s resurrected just at this point in time). What’s not to like? I don’t know. I enjoyed it, really I did, it just wasn’t quite as awesome as some of the other Hellboy stories I’ve read. It’s still a worthy addition to the series, and an important one too–we’re given a bit more insight into the Ogdru Jahad as well as those funky aliens we saw standing guard over their prison in the first volume. I look forward to seeing where Hellboy goes from here, especially since….well, that would be telling….

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: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Bad Blood” by Andi Watson & Joe Bennett

Title: Bad Blood
Writer: Andi Watson
Artist: Joe Bennet
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Buffy The Vampire Slayer #9-11)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2000

It’s been a while since I read any of these Buffy comics, hasn’t it? Got a bit sidetracked. Anyway, the Bad Blood collection contains a mere three issues (#9-11), the first part of a larger long-running arc. Andi Watson is still going strong as the writer, and Joe Bennett subs back in as the artist for this arc. These three issues are available either here or in Buffy The Vampire Slayer Omnibus Volume IV.

Life goes on apace for the Scoobies in these three issues. Nothing too life-changing happens in the parts of the story focused on our favorite slayer and her friends, as these issues blend a fairly episodic approach to the Scoobies with a long-game story featuring Selke, the vengeful vampire who got torched back in Cold Turkey. Hey Good Lookin’ (issues #9-10) sees Selke recruits an amoral plastic surgeon to try and fix her “cosmetic issues” while Buffy tries to balance tracking a band of ghouls who have been using the local cemetery as a diner with her surprising new gig: modelling! Then in A Boy Named Sue (issue #11) Buffy and the gang have to deal with an arrogant and duplicitous something-or-other, frontman for a band that rivals Oz and the Dingoes while being utter tools. Todd Dahl has decided that it’s time to add another “S” to his little black book of conquests, and he’s settled on our favorite Ms. Summers despite the fact that she’s not interested. Amy is, though, and she can be quite vengeful when spurned….

My reactions this time are…mixed. The art is definitely improving, even Xander is mostly recognizable. Probably a mix of the artist improving and me getting over my grumpiness with his appearance in these books. Everyone else is pretty well done though. Kudos to Mr. Bennett, he’s put my complaints to rest. The writing is where I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s perfectly spot-on when it comes to dialogue and characters sounding like themselves. On the other hand, there are deep flaws in this story arc. I don’t buy that Joyce Summers would be considering plastic surgery–it just doesn’t seem consistent with her character. The plastic surgeon suddenly becoming adept at magic? Maybe, I can buy that, especially if he’s a quick study. He seems to accumulate enough arcane books quickly enough, probably from Selke. But being able to pull off a tricky translation from an ancient language? Not exactly something they teach at medical school. This is of course somewhat balanced by the sheer hilarity of his attempt to buy time by passing off a jar of mayo as some mystery salve. Why did he have a random jar of mayo sitting in his operating room? I have no idea, and for once I don’t care. The writing was occasionally quite abrupt, switching scenes without warning, and I think each of these issues could have benefited from another couple pages, but that’s not always an option. Timeline-wise, these still have to happen before Buffy S03E11: Gingerbread since Amy makes an appearance. Xander and Cordelia seem to be together, but that’s never explicitly said so I guess we just ignore that.

CONTENT: No profanity that I can recall. Vampire violence consistent with the Buffy television show. Some mild sexual innuendo, from tight clothes consistent with a comic book to a character attempting to seduce a girl (and then lying about his failure the next day), plus the requisite jokes when a male character gets magicked into a female. Buffyverse vampires could be considered occultic due to their demonic nature, but it didn’t bug me.

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Review: Eastman & Laird’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection Volume I”

Title: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection Volume I
Written & Drawn by: Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird
Series: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Volume I, Issues #1-7 + Raphael One-Issue Micro-Series)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: IDW Comics, 2011

What’s your frame of reference for the Turtles? For me, it’s the general cultural awareness that came about in the early/mid-90s when they were all the rage, largely fueled by that first cartoon series and the subsequent Jim Henson-powered films. Not that I actually saw the show or movies at the time–I was pretty short, and my parents didn’t approve of the crude humor. Not to mention that, according to them, my brother and I “didn’t need any encouragement” to beat the crap out of each other. Nevertheless, the Turtles were pretty inescapable. They were everywhere! There was always something that bothered me though. Half the team (and most of the villains) are carrying bladed weapons, but nobody every seems to get seriously hurt. I mean, why carry a katana if you’re not going to bifurcate something or someone? Obviously it’s aimed at kids, I get that, but….it still bugged me. The original comic series though? The one that everything else sprang from? No such compunctions. My library was awesome enough to recently pick up a nice hardcover of the first arc of TMNT comics, from way back in the mid-80s, and I have to say that this was a lot of fun to read.

Everybody knows the Turtles’ origin story in one form or another. Pet turtles fall into the sewer, get exposed to some sort of mysterious Ooze, mutate into humanoid form and are raised by a similarly-mutated rat who used to be the pet of a ninja master. Stuff like that happens in New York all the time, right? Most of the adaptations have stuck pretty close to the original origin, though I think they’ve all omitted the cameo by young Matt Murdoch that Eastman & Laird manage to sneak in here.* This collection is the original TMNT, way back when Eastman & Laird were still independent and nobody was telling them what to do. Villains are introduced and killed off just as quickly, though to their credit Eastman & Laird got into the “continuous arc” thing pretty quick once they figured out that this crazy joke was actually going to see more than one issue. Still, this is far from the Turtles you’re probably familiar with. For one thing, they kill people. Mostly just Splinter and his Foot ninjas, but there are also a hefty number of alien casualties during the Turtles’ interplanetary adventures. People get sliced and diced, impaled, thrown off of rooftops, shot, you name it. There’s plenty of violence to go around! One issue has Raphael accidentally intruding on a young couple’s “alone time,” crashing through their window, cracking a joke, then escaping the apartment with a bra stuck to his head.** Oh, and despite being teenagers, the Turtles apparently have a taste for alcohol. One requests a beer, and during Eastman & Laird’s homage to the Star Wars cantina scene at least one of the Turtles gets plastered on alien moonshine. For obvious reasons, they toned things down a bit before marketing the franchise to kiddies.

Like I said, this was a lot of fun. You have to go into it with the right mindset though–this is about the furthest thing from a serious comic you can get without ending up with Axe Cop. The series is patently ridiculous from the get-go, when you think about it, and you have to agree to be okay with the idea of humanoid mutated turtles and rats, not to mention a large variety of aliens. Interplanetary teleporters, dinosaur-based aliens, a robot with the brain of a scientist, even a giant hollowed-out asteroid spaceship, there’s seemingly no end to the ridiculousness Eastman & Laird throw at you. I love it! The writing is occasionally a bit wonky, but that’s to be expected from someone new to the game. Keep in mind, these guys were self-publishing back then! The art is surprisingly good under the circumstances, but don’t go trying to identify the Turtles by their mask color–that’s a conceit the show came up with. The comic is black and white, and even once the covers get color their masks are all red. If you can enjoy reading a comic without taking it too seriously, you should really give this a shot….

CONTENT: Some violence, including but not limited to people (and turtles, and aliens, and robots) getting shot, stabbed, cut, impaled, and smashed in various orifices with bladed and/or blunt weapons. Mild profanity. Mild sexual innuendo, played for humor. Some drinking, which I usually don’t make note of, but this is a property that’s usually associated with kids these days.

*Yep, you read that right. The Turtles’ origin is tied to Daredevil’s. See what fun you can have when you self-publish?

**I have no idea where it came from though–the young lady in question was still fully clothed….

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Review: “The Negative’s Tale” by R. Leib

Title: The Negative’s Tale
Author: R. Leib
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Amazon, 2014

Is it better to be overly ambitious and succeed imperfectly, or to nail a solid performance that lacks in spectacular challenges? Mr. Leib apparently believes in the former. The Negative’s Tale is an incredibly ambitious tapestry of a novel, and I’d be lying if I said it fully hit the mark on all counts, but it was pretty fun to watch it try. I should mention that I was given a copy of this book to read and review by the administrator of a Goodreads group I’m a member of, though I’m not sure what his connection to the book is. If he’s the author, he’s working under a pseudonym, and the publisher seems to be Amazon’s Kindle-based self-publishing service. So I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, I’m just mildly confused.

The central narrative here concerns the attempted murder of Bertie Lindermann, a nearly-immortal engineer on one of the various space stations hanging in orbit around the earth. Apparently someone drugged him, removed his helmet, and pushed him out an airlock. The only person Bertie’s sister-in-law Vice Admiral Eagon Wu trusts to investigate the crime is her estranged husband Allon Wu, a retired Second Navigator. Woven through this murder mystery are multiple threads of flashbacks, mostly telling Allon’s story up to the point we first meet him but also serving to explore a few other secondary characters as well. Can Allon Wu solve the mystery and reunite with his estranged wife? Only time will tell!

As I said before, this was an incredibly ambitious production. The world these characters inhabit is an incredibly interesting one, a world where people with telepathic abilities are trained and employed as navigators on the craft wending their ways between the stars. Wu’s talent as a Dowser is not particular useful in and of itself, but the fact that he’s a rare Negative has no end of uses, allowing him to co-opt the telepathic abilities of others in close proximity. This particular concept is one I’ve not seen before, at least not in wider usage. The idea of people keeping brain-dead clones to allow them almost unlimited longevity is slightly more common, but still a fascinating one. Where the novel misses a step is in the flashbacks. The non-linear nature of the story could be great if done with slightly more adroitness, but as it is Mr. Leib has to occasionally go through a number of contortions to justify sparking particular flashbacks, with varying degrees of success. For example, one of the early flashbacks was prompted by the sight of a particular pin sticking out of the sand. All well and good, but we don’t find out what’s significant about that pin until the very end of the flashback, by which time we have almost forgotten it as an inconsequential detail. Flashbacks featuring other characters occasionally work–such as a character giving testimony of prior events, for example–but at other times are jarring as we leave Wu’s POV for an uncharacteristic side trip. The flashbacks also have the unfortunate effect of leaving us to infer certain information that we won’t learn from the flashbacks until significantly later in the story than when it is relevant. At the same time, the author occasionally lapses into “info-dumping,” which I don’t always mind but some would consider a cardinal sin of sci-fi writing. The mystery itself was decently executed, though I figured out most of what was going on a bit before I think I was supposed to. All told, not bad, just not quite as good as it perhaps could have been.

CONTENT: Some violence. Little profanity, none that I recall at any rate. No real sexual content, aside from an alien mating ritual that is ridiculously non-erotic. One character belongs to a murderous cult, but there’s nothing eldritch there. Just a murderous psycho.

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Review: “Saga, Volume I” by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Title: Saga, Volume I
Writer: Brian K. Vaughn
Artist: Fiona Staples
Series: Saga (Volume I, Issues #1-6)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Image Comics, 2012

Star Wars meets Lord Of The Rings, written for HBO” is how somebody once described this comic series to me. I can’t argue that, given how frequently Vaughn cites Star Wars as an inspiration. It certainly has the same attitude–namely, that narrative trumps science, and the weirder the better. However, I think this gets a little closer to the heart of the series: “Romeo & Juliet, if the Montagues and Capulets were embroiled in an interstellar xenophobic war, written to see just how much HBO could get away with.” Vaughn has a bit of a reputation for defying conventions with regards to content, poking and prodding at the line of what’s allowed until he gets it to move a couple inches further out before he starts up again, and that’s certainly his game here. Profanity, violence, sex….all taboos Vaughn revels in playing with. This is definitely not a book for kids. It is, however, widely considered to be one of the best-written comics to come out in the past several years, and I can’t really argue with that.

The technological society of the Landfall Coalition is at war with the magic-using inhabitants of its moon, Wreath, and apparently has been as long as anybody can remember. Both sides have committed egregious atrocities against the other. Both have a more-or-less implicit assumption that the galaxy would be a better place without the other in it. Ironically, though, their worlds are symbiotic. If Landfall was destroyed, its moon would fly off into the void. If Wreath were destroyed, the planet below would suffer catastrophically. This has led to the war being “exported” to the rest of the galaxy, each world forced to choose a side in a conflict that never ends. And both sides want our protagonists dead….

Marko was a Wreath foot-soldier before he grew disillusioned with the war and surrendered to Coalition forces as a conscientious objector. He was arrested on suspicion of espionage (“Moonies” are apparently not known for pacifism) and sent to a POW camp on the planet Cleave, where he met Alana. Alana was gunner on a Coalition tank until being reassigned as a prison guard on Cleave for “abject cowardice” (refusing to fire on Wreath civilians). Within twelve hours of meeting, Marko and Alana were on the run together. They’re small potatoes, not really worthy of the attention of either warring empire. Wreath was presumably unaware of the situation, and the Coalition assumed that Alana was kidnapped. As long as that was true, they didn’t care…but once they learn that she went willingly, and worse, that she’s pregnant, suddenly our beleaguered family is a threat to morale on both sides of the war, and the focus of a multi-faction intergalactic manhunt. The Coalition has dispatched Prince Robot IV to track down the strange couple and figure out just what possessed Alana to take up with the enemy. Wreath has gone a different route, placing a massive bounty on their heads. They’re not complete monsters though–while Marko and Alana are to be killed, the bounty is only payable if baby Hazel is returned unharmed. Our troublesome couple are soon being chased by such quirky Freelancers as The Stalk, a female spider-thing with an aversion to shirts, and her spurned ex-lover The Will and his partner the Lying Cat. Their only ally is Izabel, the ghost of a young Cleave native who left her bottom half spattered all over the place by a landmine and who is now bound to Hazel’s soul as a spectral babysitter. With so many hunters on their tails, our heroes had better find a way off-planet fast….

Generally, when a book has a reputation like this one for deliberately trying to offend, I avoid it. Alas, this time I couldn’t. While I’ve not picked up his more recent works (Y: The Last Man or Ex Machina), I was a huge fan of Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways for Marvel several years ago. If you haven’t read that, I heartily recommend it. So when I heard that he was doing a series that mixed sci-fi and epic fantasy, and that it was getting absolutely rave reviews from everyone and their brother, I had to check it out. I have to say, its reputation is deserved. There’s not a moment that is boring, with a breakneck pace that keeps you turning pages right up until the end. Every single character is fascinating and rendered in shades of grey, even the supposedly-heartless Freelancers. The world itself? A thing of beauty and delightful strangeness, filled with fascinating dichotomies around every turn of the page. You want television-headed robots? Check. Sassy teenaged ghosts? Yep, that too. Fantasy magic? Sure. Sci-fi tech? Uh-huh. Wooden rocketship? Gotcha covered. Weird weapons? How’s a stun gun that operates on emotion sound? Meet the Heartbreaker. (“It hurt like the day my dog died…”) Weird aliens? Most of these seem based on familiar animals, at least so far. I’ve seen monkeys, crocodiles, lemurs, seahorses (yes, seriously), even a giant turtle with laser vision being used as a tank. There’s The Stalk, who is best described as an armless centaur, except that instead of a horse her body is that of a spider. You can’t get a whole lot stranger than that…. The art is nothing short of gorgeous, and the talented Ms. Staples has a genius for the subtleties of facial expression. The character design is incredible, and I’m sure she deserves at least some of the credit for the lovely strangeness I was just extolling. If you can get past all the attempts to offend you, this is a book that I can’t recommend enough.

That’s the problem though. A lot of people won’t be able to get past the attempts to offend. There’s a childbirth scene, though it wasn’t near as graphic as I would have expected from the rest of the book. Maybe they wanted to get you more than two pages in before you threw it down…. At any rate, more of the same follows. Breastfeeding, multiple times including on the cover. Television-headed robots having sex? Yep, and then some. There’s a whole planet devoted to “carnal pleasures” of every type and variety, and we get teasing glimpses into various rooms as The Will walks through. If you fancy a centipede woman or someone as rotund as Jabba The Hutt, Sextillion is apparently the place for you. You can even buy time with a six-year-old war orphan, though before you get all huffy I will point out that this concept is played not for titillation but for disgust and pathos. One of the issues opens with Prince Robot IV reading on the toilet–apparently robots still have all the normal biological urges, somehow. After all that, it seems almost pointless to mention The Stalk’s apparent disdain for shirts….like I said, this isn’t for everyone. I didn’t really expect to get more than one volume through it myself, but I’ll probably be grabbing the next volume sometime here in the next couple weeks. Read it if you will, but don’t say I didn’t warn you….

CONTENT: R-rated profanity. Strong, gory violence, from decapitation and disembowelment to characters getting holes blown in their chest or their head crushed like an egg. Strong, explicit sexual content and rampant nudity. Fantasy magic, but nothing I would label occult content.

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