Comic Book Review: New Avengers #16

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“THE NIGHT BEFORE THE WORLD ENDED” No more bloodshed. To save their nations, the proud Black Panther and the arrogant Namor have sued for peace. As members of the Illuminati, the secret organization made up of the Marvel Universe’s most powerful heroes, they must work together to stop the extinction of the entire universe! But are their amends too little too late? There’s no turning back for the Illuminati after this issue – and they’ll pay the price for their sins.

Stepping in as pencilist, artist Rags Morales breathes some new life into this somewhat stagnant title in New Avengers #16. As the team tries to figure out what to do with Black Swan, Namor and Black Panther put their differences aside to find a solution. T’Challa has been using the bridge to peer into worlds across the multiverse to see how these alternate Earths have fallen and shows Namor his findings. The issue follows events on Earth-4,290,0001, as a very novel version of the 616 Illuminati deals with their own impending destruction. This peculiar band of heroes finds a new way to stop the incursion and the onslaught of Sidera Maris that bears down on their world, ending in a dramatic showdown that offers hope for other Earths.

While I’ve been critical of the recent repetition of this storyline, watching the team watch other worlds from afar, Hickman strikes a decisive note in this issue. The heroes of the parallel Earth prove intriguing with their unique power sets and setting. They evoke familiar tropes and design elements of DC and Marvel characters alike, making for an effective balance of the alien and familiar. Their battle at the incursion site is exciting and visually interesting, and more than makes up for some of the repetitive action sequences of the last few issues. This is due largely in part to Morales’ artwork, and the strength of his pacing and storytelling. His character designs, especially for Sun God, Rider and Boundless, are suitably otherworldly, making strong use of Hickman’s eerie tone and scripting. Colorist Martin’s reliance on cool blues and bold reds make for strong color choices throughout.

After a weak few issues, New Avengers #16 comes out strong. It moves the title back on track with the introduction of an intriguing cast of alternate heroes and brings a sense of momentum where this book has been sorely lacking. Definitely worth a read.

Queer Horror?: Writing, Horror, and Fleshtrap

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So if you go to Amazon and look for my horror novel Fleshtrap, you might notice that (at least as is true with the Kindle edition) it’s listed under the category Horror and the subcategory Gay & Lesbian Horror.  Which, you know, makes sense enough, I suppose. The protagonist, Casey Way, is a self-identifying gay man. He has a boyfriend, Joel Britton, and they live together. They carpool. They trade-off on domestic responsibilities. They lay around eating take-out in bed when nobody wants to cook or do dishes, or, you know, eat at a proper table.  This isn’t a spoiler; it’s in the first chapter, as Casey wakes up from a nightmare and steals Joel’s Manchester United jacket to go for a walk.  And I say that it isn’t a spoiler because…well, Casey being a gay man just isn’t that big of a deal.

Sure, it informs who he is. We’re all informed by our sexual identity, and obviously Casey wouldn’t be in the relationship that he is with Joel, for all of its bumps and bruises, if he wasn’t attracted to men. Even for that, it still doesn’t inform the narrative. Casey is gay because he’s gay, and everybody else is fine with it. His boss is fine with it. His sister’s fine with it. Even his therapist is fine with it. (No, wait, actually his therapist isn’t — but that’s a whole other kind of spoiler!)

What I’m saying is, we live in a very interesting time right now. Diversity and fair representation — be it of female characters, PoC characters, queer characters, disabled characters, and any/all intersections of these definitions — in mainstream media is a big issue that’s being debated in every corner of our popular culture. In the grand scheme of things, Casey being gay is a non-event. That’s because I wrote it that way. But I still find myself being asked all of these questions now that the book is out, about what “queer horror” really is, and where the book falls on that spectrum.

After some careful thought and deliberation, I’ve finally come up with a hard and fast answer.

I have no idea.

I guess my only answer is a question: What do you think makes a book queer? Is it a book with a queer protagonist? A book with a queer author? (In which case, this book is a double-whammy. But they don’t have a Double-Plus Gay subcategory so, you know, sorry.) But following that logic, does a book with a female protagonist or a female author qualify as a woman book? What about a book with a Pakistani protagonist? What if your protagonist is a lesbian Pakistani woman with MS? What do you call that book?

And to answer that question, I only have one answer.

You call it a book.

So, look, I don’t know if Fleshtrap is a queer book. I don’t even really know what that means, to be honest. I do know that it’s a horror story, about a guy who happens to be gay. Which is funny that he turned out the way he did, because in the original version of the story he was supposed to be estranged from his wife. Then I came up with Joel and he was a much better character who contributed more to the story, so I went in that direction instead. Take that as you will, I guess.

Comic Book Review: New Avengers #15

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Meet the Mapmakers, cartographers of the Apocalypse. Doctor Strange sells his soul. Reed Richards and the Illuminati rekindle an old relationship.  From Jonathan Hickman and Simone Bianchi.

After two issues spent detouring into other realities, New Avengers #15 gets the title back on track. Having peered into these other world, it quickly becomes clear to the Illuminati that things are, as always, far worse than they imagined. All the other Earths are falling, either through the arrival of Black Priests and Mapmakers or dying as these parallel planets collide. Even with Namor busy and Doctor Strange missing in action, they also discover that their looking glass can see more than just other timelines, giving them the ability to peer through time and space. They’re able to glimpse their Black Swan throughout her life, learning her disturbing origins as she moved through the multiverse and encountered other Illuminatis, and discovering what awaits them in the future.

Hickman offers an intriguing look behind the veil in this issue, giving the team a very dramatic peek into Swan’s exploits. His scripting is solid and I overall enjoy his characterizations, but I find this issue, like the last two, to be a bit too passive. The team is once again simply observing as these events unfold. While there are plenty of action sequences throughout to break up any sense of monotony, this plot structure serves to remove the protagonists from any real sense of danger. Yes, they are all quite doomed, but it lacks tension to drive the suspense and dread. However, Hickman is able to bring Thanos back into the story, after the vague and somewhat indecisive resolution at the end of Infinity, at the very least alluding to more of the Mad Titan in the future.

Bianchi’s dramatic style brings action to this otherwise static narrative, heightening the tension that makes it to the page. There is such a strong sense of motion in his character designs, from their exaggerated postures to the theatrical flourishes of the hair and facial anatomy, which makes his storytelling so fun to read. Some pages are stronger than others, but overall his sense of panel composition is compelling with its dynamism and flair. Dall’apli does a solid job overall but sometimes his colors a bit muddy, losing character detail in the midst of broad fields of black and brown. This dark color scheme strikes a dark and moody tone, but sometimes it sacrifices the clarity of the artwork, which is unfortunate.

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel #2

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Kamala Khan’s very ordinary life has suddenly become extraordinary. Is she ready to wield these strange and immense new gifts? Or will the weight of the legacy before her be too much to handle? Critically acclaimed writer G. Willow Wilson (Air, Cairo) and fan-beloved artist Adrian Alphona (Runaways, Uncanny X-Force) bring you the groundbreaking Marvel series that has set the world abuzz. Don’t miss history in the making.

After a stellar #1, Ms. Marvel returns with another strong offering from Wilson and Alphona, with beautiful colors by Herring. Waking up from her vision, Kamala finds herself transformed into her hero Captain Marvel, but her surprising metamorphosis turns out to be more complicated than she thought. As her shape-shifting powers manifest, Kamala is unable to fully control her physical state, her size and appearance changing wildly until she can get a handle on it. She has little time to dwell on this, however, as she must rush to the aid of her classmates when they stumble drunk away from the party and fall into the lake. Using her abilities to help others, she learns, rather than just using them to assert her own strength and power in the world, is what brings her a sense of peace.

Wilson’s scripting is just as air-tight this issue as it was the last. Her characterization of Kamala is endearing and genuine, grounding Kamala’s idealistic fantasies in a well-balanced coming of age narrative. Kamala’s family plays an important role in the story as they continue to serve as her moral center, fueling her youthful rebellion as much as they try to support and protect her. Such subtle family dynamics seem natural to a story with a teenaged protagonist, but they are so often taken for granted, or fall into tropey territory. However, Wilson does a nice job with using the internal struggles of faith, family and cultural identity to drive Kamala’s need for escape, making for a believable home-life for an aspiring teenage superhero.

Alphona’s artwork is nothing short of gorgeous. His strong sense of plot and storytelling fully engages the reader through attentive page design, skillfully pacing every critical panel, whether dramatic or funny, to make the most of narrative tension. The dreamy construction of Kamala’s world evokes a storybook-like quality that is both fantastic and exciting, rife with humor and heart that pours from his wonderfully expressive figures. The addition of Herring’s beautiful color palettes make for a charming reading experience from cover to cover.

Ms. Marvel #2 proves that the formula works. This is a truly great title from an amazing creative team, and things only look to get better in the future. If you’re not reading this book already, do yourself a favor and pick it up today.

Comic Book Review: Black Widow #4

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From the cold streets of old Russia, the Hand of God reaches out to crush Black Widow—and it is merciless. Outmatched by the brute force of a powerful new villain, Natasha finds a deadly plot unfolding that spans the entire globe. Jump on to the sensational new series as the most lethal The Avenger faces her deadliest test

What begins as just another day at the office takes a disastrous turn in Black Widow #4, as Natasha runs afoul of the Hand of God. After an explosive confrontation and a SHIELD gig gone awry, Natasha goes on a globe-trotting adventure to track down the homicidal monk Molot and stop him from killing his next target. This issue has both well-paced action as well as intrigue to match, pitting Natasha against a worthy foe and kicking this series into high gear with a new threat to explore in the future.

I especially enjoyed Natasha’s scenes with Maria Hill. Their interactions are so true to genre convention, pulled right out of any spy movie or novel, while still showing that these are two women at the top of their respective fields. It’s the use of these clichés that make the book so fun. They utilize common spy idiom and graphic narrative, but still come up with something true to the character, as well as the Marvel Universe at large.

Edmondson and Noto continue to prove themselves as one the most compelling creative teams at Marvel. The pacing of this issue is outstanding, with slick storytelling and page design to boot. So few titles out there offer espionage action as strong as Black Widow. Every chase, break-in and escape balanced by a strong fundamental understanding of Natasha’s narrative voice, serving to keep the story grounded. Each adventure successfully builds on the last, expanding already strong foundations to tease future plot lines and arcs to put Natasha to the test. With Molot and the Hand of God, this issue proves to be no exception. Another solid offering from this dynamic creative team.

Comic Book Review: Hawkeye #17

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“Rio Bravo” – PART 4 The sense-shattering fallout of the Clint vs. the Clown — Clint Barton has been deafened! With the Barton Brothers this battered and bloodied, surely they’ll make easy pickins for the Bros, right? Bro? Seriously? If we do our jobs right THIS time, this issue will be the Dog Issue of Sign Language issues.

Despite the somewhat misleading solicitation, Hawkeye #17 breaks from the Rio Bravo storyline for a belated holiday special. This is a very different issue from what readers might expect from the dramatic cliffhanger of #16, but given the title’s non-linear structure, the departure works. Featuring a cheerful graphic shift, this issue follows a meta-narrative nested within the children’s show Winter Friends, offering insight into Clint’s state of mind as the upcoming showdown with the Clown looms on the horizon. Which is surprising, given that the meta-narrative features talking dogs who fight crime.

True to the tone we’ve come to expect from this series, its inherent irreverence is balanced with a fundamental sense of melancholy. The understated humor is punctuated by the underlying tragedy of Clint’s character with great success, making the holiday theme all the more bittersweet. Aja’s artwork bookends the issue as Eliopoulos steps in to pencil the wonderfully cheeky Winter Friends, providing a humorous departure from the grim nature of Clint’s adventures so far. Jordie Bellaire, taking the place of series colorist Matt Hollingsworth, upholds the visual cohesion of previous issues by maintaining the heavy blues and moody purples that have become synonymous with this title.

Another strong and poignant issue, just as we’ve come to expect. For such a stark digression from the current arc, #17 may very well be the most Hawkeye issue of Hawkeye yet, right down to the talking dogs. Highly enjoyable overall and definitely worth the post-holiday wait.

Comic Book Review: Captain Marvel #1

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Hero! Pilot! Avenger! Captain Marvel, Earth’s Mightiest Hero with death-defying powers and an attitude to match, is back and launching headfirst into an all-new ongoing series! As Captain Marvel, a.k.a. Carol Danvers, comes to a crossroads with a new life and new romance, she makes a dramatic decision that will alter the course of her life and the entire Marvel Universe in the months to come. It’s time to go HIGHER, FURTHER, FASTER and more in the most super-powered comic around!

Captain Marvel gets another reboot in a brand-new #1, featuring the high-flying Carol as she begins her life anew in the face of her recent traumatic brain injury. While the last run had its fair share of tough decisions and life-changing moments, this storyline is off to a less bittersweet beginning. It’s everything longtime readers have come to expect from Captain Marvel, and it’s the perfect place to start for new readers looking to get into this series.

Despite the bumps and bruises of her latest adventures, here Carol is a little more stable than we last saw her. She’s in a relationship with James Rhodes, she’s a full-time Avenger, and she’s settled into her new life in her apartment atop the Statue of Liberty, with Kit as her eager sidekick Lieutenant Trouble. Even for it, she’s still restless on Earth, unsure of her place in the universe in the face of all of these changes. As she looks to the stars for answers, Iron Man arrives to offer her a position on a deep-space Avengers explorer post. Craving some much-needed distance between her and her life, she takes the job, leading to the promise of newfound adventure in the far-flung regions of known space.

This latest incarnation of Captain Marvel, still helmed by series writer Kelly Sue DeConnick with artwork by David Lopez, picks up exactly where the last left off. DeConnick’s writing is as charming and genuine as ever, with equal measures of humor and humanity that keep Carol and her supporting cast a joy to read about. So few solo titles right now manage to balance action with meaningful character development and this title makes it look effortless, making this a truly enjoyable reading experience from start to finish.

While I’ll miss Philipe Andrade as the series artist, Lopez’s pencils are like a breath of fresh air. His style evokes a classic superhero aesthetic while still bringing subtle emotional vulnerability to these characters through strong storytelling and page design. His Carol has such a solid presence on the page, with a sense of humor and softness that never once betrays the inherent strength of the character. Stepping in for series colorist Jordie Bellaire, Lee Loughridge’s colors are a lovely complement Lopez’s pencils. Loughridge deriving his palette of warm golds, cool blues and intermittent reds directly from Carol’s costume palette, adding a thoughtful undercurrent to the overall visual cohesion to the issue. A great issue from top to bottom, and a promising start to adventure for this beloved series and character.

The Day a Comic Book Saved My Life

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I was born depressed.

That sounds like a dramatic oversimplification of a very complicated condition, but that’s what it comes down to. Emotional disorders and mental health problems run in my family like a cancer, a natural predisposition to outwardly negative behavior and inwardly destructive tendencies.  Instead of my cells threatening to betray me it’s the imbalance of chemicals in my brain, the synapses jumping between neurons and missing their landings. It comes down to something as simple as that, something so unassuming as the invisible processes of my rather inadequate composition, that make my life a struggle.

And I don’t mean struggle in comparison to the lives and problems of other people, of course. This isn’t a pissing contest and we’re all entitled to our own pain. But these are the things that make it hard to get out of bed in the morning, or to look at my own reflection with anything other than self-loathing and contempt. These are the things that make it hard to breathe, because I sometimes find myself so consumed by despair that I can barely stand up, let alone walk or talk, or make pleasant conversation in a room full of people who have no idea how much it hurts to smile. These little misfires leave me in a very tenuous state much of the time, as you can imagine,  because most of the time it hurts no matter what I do.

People often tell me that I am  worthwhile person. People tell me that I’m talented and I’m accomplished, and that they care for me. I don’t believe them. I don’t think that they’re lying, because they have no reason to deceive me. I think they believe what they say, but I still don’t take them at their word. I can’t. It’s not from a lack of trying, more like a nagging side effect of being chemically deficient. Because where others see worth, I often see a void. A total nothingness of being, like a waste of cells and energy and time, so dark and so empty that even light can’t escape. In the place of human value, I see warm fleshy artifice hiding a vast black sea, tucked away behind carefully chosen clothes and attitudes, accessories and turns of phrase. It gets easier and easier to look like you’ve got it all figured out when you’re wearing the right clothes, I find.

So I was born depressed. It’s a familiar story. But sometimes, on a good day, when there’s sunshine, I try to remind myself of what’s really important. I try to remind myself that I am just one person in an entire species, on a tiny blue planet, in an unfathomable cosmic ocean that stretches out beyond what we can observe from our insignificant station. And I think about the beauty in that, in being so small and insignificant in a universe so endless and unknowable. And I think back to a book that I like. I’ve read it a few times now. There’s one part that always sticks out in my mind on good days, because it reminds me what it really means to be alive right now.

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And those are the days when it’s all worth it.

Coming Soon to a Convention Near You: Texas Frightmare Weekend

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bannerWill you be in Texas in May? Do you want to see my glorious face in full 3D and Technicolor? Do you want to buy my book? If you answered Yes to any of these questions, I have news for you!

I don’t often get to the chance to make my rounds on the convention circuit. College gets in the way of that, as you can imagine, since I’m either there or I’m broke from going there.  However, with my first novel Fleshtrap under my belt, this year I’m making the trek to Texas Frightmare WeekendHeld May 2nd – 4th just down the highway from me in Dallas, TFW is the biggest celebration of horror in the southwest United States. This time around I’ll be in the company of the good (ish?) people of Post Mortem Press. There will be boozing, cruising, and even a horror movie trivia contest. Oh, and you can buy stuff from us. It’ll be bitchin’.

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Sound good? If you’re in my neck of the woods in May, come on by and see us. Buy some books. We might even sign them for you, if we’re upright. And be sure to hang around for the Frightmakers 101 panel Eric and Co. will be hosting, as well as the trivia contest. Mark your calendars, people. Also I will be appearing on some podcasts in the next few weeks promoting the book, so watch this space for more news.

Comic Book Review: Moon Knight #1

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Marc Spector is Moon Knight!…Or is he? It’s hard to tell these days, especially when New York’s wildest vigilante protects the street with two-fisted justice and three—that’s right, count ‘em—different personalities! But even with the mystical force of Khonshu fueling his crusade, how does the night’s greatest detective save a city that’s as twisted as he is? The road to victory is going to hurt. A lot. Marvel’s most mind-bending adventure begins NOW as Moon Knight sleuths his way to the rotten core of New York’s most bizarre mysteries!  Written by Warren Ellis with art by Declan Shalvey.

The cult hero Moon Knight returns in this #1 from the dynamic creative team of Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire. Moon Knight may or may not be insane, as his various personalities might suggest, but I can guarantee that the book just might be. With its unique visual aesthetic, air-tight scripting, and unresolved ending, this opening issue poses more questions than it cares to answer. But that’s what makes Moon Knight #1 such a compelling read: You’re not quite sure what you come away with when you’re done, but you definitely want more.

The issue opens with Marc Spector’s return to New York, as expounded by an as of yet unnamed journalist, following a series of grisly late-night murders. Spector, who may or may not be who we think he is, dons his updated costume to serve as a consulting detective of sorts for the NYPD, despite the reservations of the other officers on the scene. Descending into the sewers to find the killer, he follows blood to the lair of the strange and brutal creature at the heart of these deaths, resulting in a confrontation that is worth the cover price.

This updated Moon Knight affects a surreal presence on the page, a stark white profile amidst the fully colored and detailed supporting cast of police officers and grimy New York streets. Shalvey’s line work truly shines here, illuminating the machinations of the character through an exceptional use of motion and framing. His dynamic page designs are made all the more vibrant by Bellaire’s brilliant color choices, using grim palettes of blacks and reds in severe contrast with the disorienting whiteness of the titular character’s costume. It leaves you with an unsettled feeling, uncertain of what these colors represent or if any of this is actually happening, which is a testament to the strength of this team.

As for the writing, Ellis’ scripting is slick and polished, with lines of dialogue so cool as to chill. Despite the succinct recap on the title page, Ellis gives nothing away about the larger nature of the story, or how much of it is even real. While mystery in superhero titles is often ham-fisted at best, the unsure footing that Ellis places the reader on is tantalizing as he sends us into this rabbit hole with Spector, with no idea what awaits us at the bottom. Nothing is clear, nothing is certain, except that Spector is in New York and people are dying. I did find the last section and the subsequent ending a little abrupt, but when the writing is this good, I can safely advise you to run – don’t walk – to your local comic book store and pick up your copy of Moon Knight #1.