Book Review: Superheroes

Book Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

Superheroes as we know them more or less started in the comic books of the late 1930s, with the most obvious first “true” superhero being Superman.  And comic books have largely shaped our perceptions of costumed superheroes ever since.  But sometimes prose is a perfectly acceptable way of writing about people with unusual powers and distinctive appearances who fight crime and injustice.  There have been quite a few anthologies of short stories in the field, and this is one of them.

Superheroes

The sixteen stories cover various aspects of the superhero genre, from the superheroes themselves, through supervillains, and to the civilians who have to try to survive in these larger than life worlds.  The lead story is “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald.  A nethead (a cyborg able to interface with computers) is called in to deal with a virus in a superhero base’s computer.  But that’s not all he’s there for, and the information he seeks will cost him dearly.

“Wonjjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is the story of a South Korean superhero who’s been forced into the role of leader for a multi-national team operating in his homeland and sometimes in neighboring countries.  Unfortunately, politics has freed his North Korean nemesis, budget cuts have gotten Wonjjiang laid off, and our hero’s overbearing mother is pushing him to get married.  (Sadly, the one woman he’s interested in already has a boyfriend.)  One of the more “traditional” superhero stories in the book.

A couple of the stories are of special interest.  “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is set in the Shadow Unit continuity, about a secret group of government agents that normally battle serial killers who’ve developed super-powers.  Except that this time, the “anomaly” has picked on someone whose personal mythology comes from comic books, and he’s decided to become a full-fledged super-villain.  Somewhat lighter than the usual Shadow Unit story.

Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) contributes “Dirae.”  Suddenly in the city there’s a woman who appears out of nowhere to save lives like a real-life superhero, then vanishes again until the next rescue.  It’s told from the perspective of that woman as she slowly comes to realize she literally does disappear between those incidents, with no clue where she’s spending the rest of her time, if any.  She tries to work out who she really is and what’s happening to her.  Mr. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer, and this is one of the best stories in the book.

The weakest story for me was “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link.  A young woman comes to a hotel to meet a man she got to know on the internet; by coincidence (or is it?) there’s a superhero convention going on at the same time.  The secrets she’s been keeping from her prospective lover are compared to a hero’s secret identity.  I didn’t like the main character and found most of the people she interacted with boring.  Overall, a decent collection of 21st Century superhero themed writing.

There’s some vulgar language and sexual situations in the stories, and a couple of them deal with euthanasia.  I’d recommend this to senior high students and up.

Book Review: Dark Waters

Book Review: Dark Waters by Michael Merriam

Disclaimer:  My copy is an uncorrected proof; there may be changes in the final product (I am hoping for many less spellchecker typos.)

Many years ago, Richard Martz ran afoul of the law forbidding children who have both mage and fey blood from being born.  His lover and her unborn child were executed in an overreaction by the local magical community, and he overreacted in turn, wiping them all out.  Now he is cursed, his magic crippled and longing for death, but unable to die.

Dark Waters

Richard’s buried himself in an electronics repair job in Minneapolis.  His employer died recently, and Richard is surprised when that man’s daughter, Holly Ellefson, turns up in his apartment that night.  It turns out that she herself is a mage/fey combination, her powers and heritage hidden by her mother’s spell…which was tied to her father’s life.  Now that Holly has no blood relatives, her disguise is fading, and her powers emerging.  She need magical training, and protection from those who would murder her to keep the law.

Richard accepts, but his price is that if he saves her life, Holly must take his.

“Urban fantasy” is a subgenre of fantasy that is generally set in something like the modern day, in real world places (usually cities) and has a theme of magic co-existing with technology and mundane life.  Often, the magical world is hidden from  normal people (see for example the Harry Potter series.)  In this case, the story takes place a century or so in the future, after the magical community suffered a disaster that exposed it to the normal humans.

To protect themselves, the magical community provides magical technology that does not rely on the now nearly exhausted fossil fuels.  Only the wealthy can fully afford this, so much of the rest of society is reverting to earlier technology.  General Mills and the Basilica still stand, but Nicollet Island and the Sculpture Garden are ruins.  There’s a magical Council that polices their own community, and has considerable influence over the normal human government.

This book was sparked by a random premise generator, and that origin peeks through the cracks from time to time.  As the cover suggests, it follows the standard Hollywood formula of middle-aged looking male lead, twenty-something looking female lead; though he’s over a hundred years old, and she’s in her forties chronologically.  (Also, the cover is early in the story–Holly is less conventionally attractive by the end.)  There’s also something of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, as the free-spirited Holly helps Richard overcome his deep man-pain.

The Mississippi River plays a fairly large part in the setting of the story, and provides the title.

Content advisory:  There’s several gruesome deaths, a couple of which are basically shrugged off by the end (they’re only non-magical humans after all.)  Late in the book, there’s a on-screen sex scene.

It’s an okay book, but mostly of local interest.  The setting could use more thought, and a less formula plot.

Note:  I have reviewed another book titled Dark Waters; there is no resemblance or connection beyond the title.

Book Review: Average

Book Review: Average by J.C. Thompson

Quin is just your average boy, not particularly good at anything, getting by okay in school, nursing a huge crush on a girl who doesn’t seem to notice he exists…his father, on the other hand, is Ultrarian, one of the world’s most powerful superheroes.

Average

Ultrarian doesn’t seem to quite grasp that Quin doesn’t have any superpowers, thinking that Quin just needs to expose himself to more danger to activate his latent potential.  It doesn’t seem to work that way, but it turns out that Quin’s father has other secrets, as do other people Quin knows.  And everyone else, good or bad, sees something in Quin–they might not be able to grasp it yet, but they don’t buy that he’s just…average.

This is a comedic young adult book from the folks at Big World Network, which I’ve talked about before.  It’s rated for twelve and up; the violence is relatively mild, as is the romance.  For older readers, the fun will lie in working out the rules under which superbeings work in this particular setting, and just what exactly Quin’s gift might be.  (It’s never directly stated.)

I like that Ultrarian  tries hard to have a good relationship with Quin, even if his personality sometimes makes that difficult for both of them.  He means well, and Quin gets that when he’s not having a teenage snit.  It’s a nice twist that Ultrarian is actually more enthusiastic about his cover job as a plumber than he is about sharing his superhero stories.

Genre-savvy readers will spot certain twists coming well ahead of Quin, who initially doesn’t grasp that he’s having an origin story.  Ultrarian’s arch-enemy is especially well done.

There’s some annoying typos, and the book could have used another editorial pass.

Recommended to young superhero fans, and those who like teenage superhero stories.

Manga Review: Batman: the Jiro Kuwata Batmanga

Manga Review: Batman: the Jiro Kuwata Batmanga by Jiro Kuwata

In the mid-1960s, the Batman TV show was a huge hit not just in America, but also in Japan.  As a tie-in, 8-Man creator Jiro Kuwata was hired to create a manga version of Batman for the local market.  While the television show was more based on the late 1950s comic books, the research materials Mr. Kuwata were given were from the “New Look” period, which discarded many of the sillier elements that had been layered onto the franchise over the previous decade to make the Batman comic books as serious as you could expect in the Silver Age.

Batmanga

Thus, this manga has relatively little humor, focusing on Batman as a scientifically-trained detective.  Robin is a bit irreverent, but not nearly as much of a wise-cracker as he was in the American comics.  The serialized weekly format also changes the structure of the stories, which is more obvious in the plots that are lifted directly from the U.S. version.

The first story is an adaptation of the appearance of very minor villain Death-Man.  For the manga version, his name was changed to Shinigamijin which would be literally translated back into English as “Death God Man”, so it’s rendered as “Lord Death-Man” instead.  The villain’s gimmick is that each time he’s captured, he dies, then comes back to life and commits more crimes.  This freaks Batman the heck out until he finally figures out the trick, and Lord Death-Man meets his final fate.

Oddly, there’s an appearance by a Flash villain, the Weather Wizard, renamed Go Go the Magician.  This story demonstrates Batman’s skill at “prep time” setting up a plan to deal with Go Go’s weather control powers which would normally make the villain hard for a normal human to defeat.

The final storyline in this volume, “The Man Who Quit Being Human”, showcases how adaptation changes stories.  Both versions feature the governor of whatever state it is that Gotham City is in discovering that he has a gene that allows for mutation.  He agrees to undergo an experimental process to stimulate this gene to see what mutants will be like, so that if more show up, humanity will be ready.  Unfortunately, it turns out that mutants are insanely powerful, implacably hostile to normal humans and will attempt to destroy humanity.  Batman is regretfully forced to destroy the mutant (his code vs. killing does not apply to non-humans.)

The Japanese version gives the governor a daughter who also has the mutant gene.  The scientific community debates what to do about this, and the consensus is that she, and by extension anyone else with the mutant gene, must be preemptively executed to prevent further evil mutants.  Can our heroes find a way to spare her?  This raises the stakes nicely.

The art is very 60s manga, and might take some getting used to for those used to modern art styles.  There are a few pages where Mr. Kuwata obviously took a lot more time for detailed renderings; these are particularly effective.

This volume is recommended for Batman fans, and fans of 1960s superheroes in general.  Note that some of this material has been previously been printed in a coffee-table sized book, which has a lot of extra information about the series and is highly recommended.

Book Review: White August

Book Review: White August by John Boland

It is one of the hottest Julys on record in Worchestershire.  In a time before air conditioning became common in Britain, the people are roasting in the summer heat.  So they are more bemused than frightened when it suddenly begins snowing.  English weather, isn’t it funny?

White August

Except that it doesn’t stop snowing.  For days.  As the temperature starts to drop, it becomes all too clear that this is not a natural phenomenon.  And as the snow starts to pile up, it is noticed that it’s also radioactive.   Britain is under attack by an unseen, unannounced foe with an inexplicable weapon; can science find an answer before it’s too late?

This 1955 novel is a quick read, positing a science fiction device that causes a massive environmental disaster.  (J.G. Ballard would later work in the same vein to better effect.)  The author works out the details of what a steady fall of snow for weeks on end would have on the infrastructure and society of 1950s Britain.

The government officials depicted in the story are remarkably competent and sensible for the disaster novel subgenre; even the American general is calm and reasonable.  The memory of the Blitz is resonant in this story, as people try to muddle through as best they can (though late in the novel, the commoners start going feral.)

The main hero of the story is William Barnaby Garrett, Doctor of Science.  He’s a bald, middle-aged scientist who has a thing for his secretary Mary, but more importantly, he used to work with the mad scientist the government is pretty sure is behind the snowfall.  Thus, his line of research might hold clues as to how to stop the disaster.

One of the more chilling aspects of the novel is that while everyone becomes reasonably sure Hans Bruderhof, a deformed Austrian with a hatred of humanity, is responsible, he never actually appears, it is never positively proved that he did it and his accomplices if any are never figured out.  There are no villainous monologues, no demands made, only a cold silence, freezing fog and the never-ending snow..  In the end, the British government is forced to have the Americans drop an atomic bomb on the presumed source of the problem.  The snow stops, but Bruderhof may not have been there, and the plans for the device may still be in the hands of Britain’s enemies.

Mary, alas, is in the book mostly to be a plot device, someone to show Garrett’s humanity by having him emote to and about her.  She’s not really even able to be an exposition person, as Garrett’s work is too secret for her to be kept in the loop.

There’s a lot of stereotypical British stiff upper lip going on, although some people do fold under pressure.

This would make a good summer vacation read, with its descriptions of cold and snow, but moving quickly.  It’s not something I’d recommend for serious reading, and it could stand some serious expansion of the subplots (better use of the female characters for a start.)

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