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Review: “The Dead Zone” by Stephen King

Title: The Dead Zone
Author: Stephen King
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Signet, 1980

My reading relationship with the works of Stephen King is a complicated one. I greatly admire his craft, he’s an excellent writer. The Shining is one of my favorite books ever, and may be the only one to ever actually scare me. (I don’t usually read horror, as a rule, so there haven’t been many opportunities.) I’ve been meaning to read this one for a year or so now, ever since King piqued my interest in it when he discussed its premise in On Writing. Fortunately, I found a copy at the library book sale last week, and here we are.

Johnny Smith is on the face of things nothing exceptional, but his brain hides a secret of astounding power. A childhood concussion gives him occasional headaches and vague premonitions, but it is not until a run of spectacular luck at the fair is balanced by a near-fatal car accident that plunges him into a coma for four and a half years that this gift or curse is unlocked to its full potential. He awakes to find a world that is changed–Watergate has forever ruined the American people’s faith in the White House, long hair isn’t just for hippies anymore, and his girlfriend married another man after the doctors said Johnny would never wake up. The real kicker, however, is that Johnny now has the ability to “read” certain people and things, touch them and know something about them he shouldn’t otherwise know. He tells one of his doctors how to find his supposedly-dead mother. He informs a nurse that her apartment is on fire and she should go save her cats, and tells another nurse that her son’s surgery will be a success. He tells Jimmy Carter he’ll win the Presidency. And one day, when he shakes the hand of an up-and-coming politician, he is treated to a vision of impending full-out nuclear war….

I like King. I really do. That said, there are some things about King and his work that I am less a fan of. For example, in the works I’ve read so far anyway, the supernatural is almost always bad, almost always horrifying. The exception to this rule has been The Shining, where the boy’s power is at worst neutral and could potentially be used for good. Now The Dead Zone makes the list as well, since John Smith’s ability or curse has positive applications.* The Dead Zone also makes the list of exceptions to the other general rule for King novels–I usually don’t like the characters. Johnny Smith is likable. So is Danny Torrance and the old cook who has the same ability in The Shining. I liked Jake Epping, the protagonist from 11/22/63 as well, but most of the characters King writes (that I’ve read) are less likable. I pity Carrie, but I don’t like her. Neither did King, according to On Writing, so that may have had something to do with it. Paul Sheldon doesn’t deserve what happens to him at the hand of Annie Wilkes in Misery, but he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue–let’s not forget he fell into her hands after driving drunk during a snowstorm. I don’t remember strongly reacting to the characters one way or the other in The Eyes Of The Dragon or Cell, so I’ll leave those be. Johnny Smith, however, is a rarity for King’s body of work (again, so far as I’ve read.) He’s a true tragic hero in every sense of the term. On multiple occasions it would be so much easier to ignore his premonitions and just let things be, but his conscience gets the best of him every time. To quote Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Christians don’t fare well in King’s novels (again, so far as I’ve read.) Carrie’s mother is a full-blown psycho fundamentalist, as is a character’s mother in this novel. Johnny’s mother is on her way to becoming the same way, but never gets beyond eccentric and gullible to become destructive. If I didn’t know better, I’d say King’s mother had something to do with this recurring theme, but I don’t recall that being discussed in On Writing. On the other hand, he does take care to distinguish these characters who are so far off the deep end from the main body of Christians, so that’s at least not quite so annoying.

CONTENT: R-rated language, not so gratuitous as you will find elsewhere. Some violence, occasionally graphic, and some related content that is fairly disturbing. Gred Stillson’s first appearance is a disturbing example of animal cruelty. Sexual content, non-explicit, including a serial-killer/rapist whose victims range from an old church-lady to a nine-year-old schoolgirl. This is in no way glorified, but written such that the reader feels only repulsed (as they should be!) Stephen King is no stranger to occult content, but I don’t think this quite qualifies. Johnny’s power is played as scientific, albeit far from understood, a side effect of his brain accommodating the damage done in the accident.

*You could argue whether it’s truly supernatural, however.

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Mini-Reviews: Marvel 1602 Sequels

I reviewed the original miniseries on here several months ago (see that here). These are the sequel miniseries, which I reviewed separately on Goodreads but thought I would post here as well. The obvious lack of Neil Gaiman proves to be their undoing, unfortunately…..perhaps it is unfair—though perfectly natural—to compare these to his stellar foundation to the 1602 universe, but I can’t help it. Nevertheless, I found them worth the read.

Writer: Greg Pak
Illustrator: Greg Tocchini
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Comics, 2006

The saga began by Neil Gaiman in his stellar book 1602 continues! Except that he’s no longer writing it….He did serve as “creative consultant” for this book though, so I can only assume that’s why it was just “meh” as opposed to being a total suckfest.

Okay, so when 1602 left off Steve Rogers was returned to the future along with Sir Nicholas Fury, the Witchbreed left on a quest of their own as did the Fantastick Four, David Banner was hit with all the gamma energy of the closing space/time rift, as was a spider that bit young Peter Parquah. The colony of Roanoke declared its independence from Britain, and that was that. Now King James wants to know why Banner isn’t back with Fury’s head, so he sends Captain Ross and Antonio Stark, Lord Iron to the New World to reclaim him. In other news, Norman Osborne is stirring up trouble with the natives for the colony in a bid to find the source of all the strangeness that has plagued the New World recently, hoping to exploit it to his own ends….

The resulting battle feels like it should be epic, but doesn’t quite make it. If you were left unsatisfied at the end of 1602, you probably would do well to read this and get a little more closure at least. But be forewarned, it has nowhere near the awesomeness of Gaiman’s original.

Writer: Peter David
Illustrator: Pascal Alixe
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Comics, 2007

The phenomenal 1602 saga Neil Gaiman created continues! It just doesn’t have Neil Gaiman attached to it anymore. In any capacity. The result isn’t terrible, its just not terribly good…..

At the end of 1602 the Fantastick Four quietly exited stage right. Apparently King James was uncharacteristically (at least for this fictional version) merciful, allowing them to go their separate ways and go adventuring no more on pain of execution for being Witchbreed. When last seen, Otto “The Handsome” Von Doom had been horrifically scarred in the FF’s escape from his Latverian fortress. But now travellers’ tales begin to spread of a city beyond the edge of the world whose science is far advanced beyond the abilities of those in the outside world….Atlantis! When Doom kidnaps William Shakespeare to chronicle his quest and sets out for Atlantis with the intent of seizing this power himself, the King forces Reed Richards and his fantastick crew to follow on pain of death. But Atlantis will prove more than a match for any who would seize it by force, as even Doom has not counted on Prince Numenor….

Again, I wanted to like this a lot. Instead, I liked it a little. But then, perhaps it is unfair to compare it to Gaiman’s foundational work in this universe….although I would argue it’s perfectly natural. At any rate, this miniseries offers little closure and while there is one more focused on Peter Parquah, I don’t see their paths crossing. So for that, I would like to see at least one more to wrap up some of the plot threads left hanging here. If you enjoyed the original, this is worth your time. If you haven’t read the original, go do it NOW and then come back. But if you disliked the original miniseries, I doubt you’ll find much here to engage you.

Title: SPIDER-MAN: 1602
Writer: Jeff Parker,
Illustrator: Ramon Rosanas
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Comics, 2010

And so we come to the end (at least for now) of the Marvel 1602 saga. And this time, I feel the product we are given at least comes close to matching Neil Gaiman’s excellent foundation for this world.

Despite the title of the book, it is actually several years after the events in 1602–I have the impression the year was 1608, but I can’t put my finger on why. This miniseries picks up the story threads laid down at the end of 1602: New World, with Peter Parquah still in the colony at Roanoke, now a young man and very much in love with the daughter of the governor, Virginia Dare. Norman Osborn has been on his best behavior since the events of 1602:NW and has managed to insinuate himself into the position of Harbor Master, but Peter and Virginia don’t believe he has reformed. When their suspicions are proved correct with tragic consequences, Peter is sent to escort Norman as a prisoner to England where he will answer for his crimes. Meanwhile, back in the Old World, Baron Octavius has imprisoned both Henri Le Pym and Henry McCoy, forcing them to work in his laboratory. They were able to save him from the plague, but the side effects of the treatment were…unexpected. Now he wants them to find a way to restore his humanity. Throw in the pirate King’s Pin and his sidekick Bull’s Eye, the result of Curtis Connors’ own experiments, the travelling Watsonnes’ entertainment troupe and you have this delightful close to the Marvel 1602 saga.

There are still a few loose ends hanging in the wind–mostly ones left by the previous Fantastick Four miniseries, which doesn’t get touched by this entry in the series–but on the whole this offered a good close. Nothing says they CAN’T follow this up, but I get the impression the series is not making them money or garnering critical acclaim anymore, so I kinda doubt it will happen.

Content-wise this is pretty PG across the board. A little language, nothing you won’t hear on primetime TV. An occasional innuendo or unclothed character obscured by shadows or foreground objects. Some violence, a little blood, but nothing too horrific. Pretty standard comic book fare, on the whole.

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Review: “Marvel 1602” by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert

Title: Marvel 1602
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Pencils: Andy Kubert
Colorist: Richard Isanove
Series: Marvel 1602 Vol. I
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Comics, 2005

All is not well in the Marvel Universe in this stellar graphic novel from Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert. Strange weather haunts the earth, and the people whisper rumors of the end of the world. Queen Elizabeth is nearing the end of her reign, while James of Scotland waits impatiently in the wings to take her throne and Doom The Handsome of Latveria dreams of world conquest, his dungeons holding four very interesting explorers hostage for his own purposes. Sir Nicholas Fury, the Queen’s spymaster, has his hands full foiling enemy plots. His page, the young Peter Parquah, has his hands full running errands for Fury. Stephen Strange, the Queen’s physician, grows increasingly concerned about the strange phenomena that increase every day. Virginia Dare and her bodyguard Rojhaz, a burly blonde Native American, are freshly arrived from the New World seeking royal aid for the colony of Roanoke. In Europe Fury’s agents, blind Irish minstrel Matthew Murdoch and femme fatale Natasha Romanova seek to safeguard a powerful weapon on its way from Jerusalem to London for safekeeping. In Spain the Inquisition rages on, seeking and burning any Witchbreed it can find, these foul creatures being born into a new age with strange physical deformities or other odd and unnatural abilities–wings of an angel, the speed to run across continents in moments, the ability to read mens’ minds or even master steel. The only safe haven for such as these is the school of Carlos Javier, but if James takes the throne even that port will be denied them.

Neil Gaiman is one of those writers that comes along every so often, where you read one of their works then visit Wikipedia to get a list of everything they have ever written. I had read this before, way back when it first came out, but reading it again was still a wonderful experience. Gaiman takes all of these characters that we know so well and sets them in an entirely different world, one that is truly fascinating. Some comic book fans may be dissatisfied with this, as it doesn’t really provide the sweeping action sequences Marvel is known for and does so well, but the story and character work more than make up for this. If I have any complaint with this book it is that certain characters get so little done with them as we know them–Peter Parquah gets bit by a spider on the very last page, and Banner’s transformation is left for the epilogue as well. Gaiman is here creating a whole new Marvel Universe (technically this all starts in the 616, but that gets complicated) and not a self-contained story. That would be great, if he had continued to write the sequels, but he left that to others. I haven’t read them yet, but I can’t imagine they match Neil Gaiman’s storytelling…..

UPDATE: I read the sequels. Not as good across the board, but worth the read if you got engrossed by this. I really liked the closer to the series, Spider-Man 1602. Anyway, read the reviews for those here.

There’s not much to say, content-wise. There’s some violence, not too gruesome aside from a subplot featuring a character’s severed head. It’s been preserved in brandy and certainly doesn’t look pleasant, but this isn’t an R-rated comic so its not too bad. There’s a little mild language, again, nothing major. Brief suggestion of sex, but again nothing even remotely explicit. However, this is Neil Gaiman. His writing is nuanced and subtle, and a younger reader may not fully understand all that is happening–I know I didn’t when I first read it.

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