Monday, September 28, 2020

Review: Suicide Squad, Volume 2: The Nightshade Odyssey

Suicide Squad, Volume 2: The Nightshade Odyssey Suicide Squad, Volume 2: The Nightshade Odyssey by John Ostrander
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm having a lot of fun with this Ostrander run. It's a great example of that late '80s time where they were mixing more serious political topics with full on superhero silliness at times so Ronald Reagan is a supporting character as the Suicide Squad gets missions like trying to kill a South American drug cartel leader, but then there's another story that involves going to another dimension and battling weird demonic creatures.

Captain Boomerang continues to be both the most ridiculous and annoying character. I'm pretty sure that Amanda Waller just keeps sending him out on every mission hoping that he'll be killed someday. Fingers crossed.

There's also a couple of appearances by Batman, and the way he's portrayed here reminded me that DC was in the middle of that phase where he had to be an absolute asshole to everybody. Because it's gritty and mature!

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Friday, September 11, 2020

Review: My Life as a Villainess

My Life as a Villainess My Life as a Villainess by Laura Lippman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Did I once meet Laura Lippman and try to mansplain one of her own characters to her?

Yeah, I did. Sort of. But I swear it was an accident!

More on that in a moment…

Here we’ve got a novelist doing a series of essays, and the topics include family, marriage, motherhood, friendships, aging, accomplishments, tragedies, regrets, sexism, and social media. While those subjects are universal, Ms. Lippman’s perspective on them is unique. After all, I don’t think there are that many former reporters turned award winning crime writers who married the guy who created The Wire.

The most impressive thing about this is by focusing in on her specific circumstances Ms. Lippman can then provide insights that apply to a lot of us. For example, her and her husband had become acquainted with chef Anthony Bourdain, and his death was a hard blow for them. People all over the world mourned Bourdain, yet it’s her personal connection to him that leads to a touching examination of not just losing a friend, but also grieving celebrities we never met.

In Game of Crones Ms. Lippman talks about becoming a mother. Obviously, motherhood is something that many women experience, but she had her child in her fifties so she’s outside the traditional model. She fully admits that doing this was maybe the ultimate example of white privilege. Yet by explaining why she chose to do it and how she balances her writing with raising her daughter even as her husband is absent for months at a time as part of his work, she once again highlights something that many people can relate to even if her specific circumstances are different than most people.

That brings up another interesting aspect which is that despite being well off and telling stories about meeting famous people and traveling the world, Ms. Lippman still comes across as down to earth and not an entitled jerk. It helps that she goes into her middle class background, and how she struggled to find work as a low paid reporter at the start of her career while eventually writing her first books in the early mornings before work. There’s a sense of having paid her dues as well as self-awareness and gratitude about how things worked out that make you happy for her instead of jealous. (OK, I was a little jealous when she talks about being friends with several crime writers I admire.)

The thing that struck me most is that even though a large part of this discusses her fears and what she thinks are her shortcomings is just how remarkably self-assured Ms. Lippman comes across. While she can mock herself and find no shortage of flaws with her own character, she’s a woman who set out to become the very person she is now, and she is pretty pleased with the results. She doesn’t think she has all the answers, and she has the same self-doubts that any sane person does. Yet, while she’ll acknowledge them, they don't paralyze her, and she doesn't let herself be stopped by other people's opinions. This gives her a distinct perspective as someone who has thought a lot about what really matters to her, and that's an oddly rare trait.

Despite this confidence the one observation I might have made before I met her is that Ms. Lippman seems overly harsh in her self-criticism. The title essay about being a villainess comes from a story she tells about how she divorced her first husband, who had supported her novel writing from the start, just as she was about to hit the big time as an author. She admits to ruthlessly exploiting what she knew about him during the divorce as well as not being fully honest about her feelings that the marriage was over when they separated. She also goes on at length about her failings as a friend as well as tendency to hold grudges.

I might have once argued these are just the same kind of things that a lot of people struggle with in their lives, and that doesn’t make her a villain. However, it’s thinking that Ms. Lippman was being needlessly hard on herself that led me to the incident in which I found myself mansplaining her own character to her….

I went to the 2019 Bouchercon in Dallas, and one of the authors I was hoping to meet was Ms. Lippman because I’d just finished her two most recent books and absolutely loved them. I saw her and some other writers on panel about unlikable characters, and the lead from Lady in the Lake came up. The book is set in the ‘60s and involves a woman named Maddie suddenly divorcing her husband and leaving her child with him. She finds work as a reporter and begins to dig into the recent murder of a woman. Over the course of the story Maddie shows a streak of ruthless ambition and willingness to screw anybody over to get what she wants.

As I recall, during the panel Ms. Lippman was the only writer to declare that she thought her character was ‘unlikable’. I found that interesting because I had very mixed feelings about Maddie and went back and forth as to whether she was sympathetic or not. Yes, she does questionable things, but she’s also a woman trying to make it on her own in a time when that was even harder than it is today.

After the panel I went to a signing session, and as Ms. Lippman autographed my books, I told her I was a new fan, and how much I loved her writing. She thanked me, and I had happened to catch her a moment when no one else was in line so we started chatting for a moment. I mentioned that I had heard what she said about Maddie on the panel, and that I was a little surprised that her opinion about the character was so much tougher than my own.

She noted a couple of the specific things that Maddie did in the book that she felt weren’t forgivable, and this is where I went off the rails. I wasn’t trying to be the guy who argues with the woman who created the character. I wasn’t trying to argue at all. I was nervous and excited to have the opportunity to talk to Ms. Lippman, and what I was trying to say was that I thought she had done such a great job in making Maddie a real and complex character that despite her flaws, I still felt real empathy for her.

Almost a year later, I can articulate that pretty well as I write this review. What I did in the moment was to come across as insistent that Maddie wasn’t as bad as her creator was saying, and when I realized I was botching it, I panicked. And dear reader, that’s when it happened.

I interrupted Laura Lippman and started talking over her, and it very much sounded like I was saying that she was wrong.

The only saving grace was that I saw the look in her eyes, realized what I was doing, and I managed to shut my big stupid mouth and say, “I’m sorry, please go on.”

She was incredibly polite, and she finished the thought I’d so rudely tried to talk over. Then another fan came up to get her books signed, and so I thanked Ms. Lippman again. Then I fled in shame. I looked for an opportunity to see her again that weekend so that I could apologize, but unfortunately, I never got a chance. Now I had to read her essay Men Explain The Wire To Me with my fingers crossed hoping that there wasn’t a brief mention of the idiot in Dallas who tried to tell her about her own character. *whew*

So that’s why if Laura Lippman declares that she’s a villainess, I’m just going to nod and agree.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Review: My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Even if Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips never published another project together they are still going to go down in comic book history as one of the great creative partnerships of all time. Fortunately for us all, they keep doing new books, and this short graphic novel is one of their very best.

Elle is an addict at a fancy rehab facility who doesn’t seem all that interested in getting clean as she scoffs at other patients and flaunts the rules. As the title of this indicates she also romanticizes famous drug addicts and seems to have modeled her life on their behavior despite having an upbringing that is one giant cautionary tale.

That’s all I want to say about the plot of this one, and that short summary doesn’t do justice to the genius work that Brubaker & Phillips have done here. It’s just an amazing piece of art that is bigger than any label or genre that some might try to put on a crime comic. Check it out.

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Review: Broken

Broken Broken by John Rector
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this for review from NetGalley.

It’s like the old gum commercial said about twins: “Double your pleasure, double your fun.”

At least until one of them is brutally murdered.

Maggie and Lilly are estranged twins who had a falling out because Lilly refused to leave her abusive husband Mike. It’s been a year since Lilly and Mike left the girls’ hometown, and the sisters haven’t spoken since then. When Lilly turns up beaten to death, Mike is instantly arrested for the crime. Now Maggie has to journey to the fading tourist trap of a town they were living in to try and find some personal effects that belonged to their mother that Lilly had taken. However, while Mike admits that he beat Lilly the night she died he also insists that she was still alive when he left her.

This is one of those plots that sounds like a cheesy Lifetime TV movie when you describe it, but there’s a lot more going on here. This isn’t just a straight up thriller like it sounds, but instead it’s more of a psychological suspense novel driven by character work. Much of the story comes to us from a the manager of the apartment building where LIlly and Mike were living, and there’s just something off about this guy from the jump that give the whole book a creepy vibe.

The sequences from Maggie’s POV cover her anger, grief, and loneliness that she she hides behind a veneer of toughness. This is a woman who just wants to do what she came there to do and then get the hell out, but she finds herself drawn to some of the people she meets like a helpful sheriff, a psychic who isn’t stingy with her pot, and an aging private detective.

At less than 300 pages John Rector delivers with a swift no-nonsense efficiency that still manages to suck you into a moody and atmospheric novel that seems seems equal parts crime thriller and tragedy.

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Review: Zero Hour: Crisis in Time 25th Anniversary Omnibus

Zero Hour: Crisis in Time 25th Anniversary Omnibus Zero Hour: Crisis in Time 25th Anniversary Omnibus by Dan Jurgens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As an oversized hardcover comic collection with over 1000 pages, this is the kitten squisher to end all kitten squishers. Seriously, if you need some kittens squished, this would be the book you’d want to use for the job. 

It’s taken me months to get through this thing, not just because of how long it is, but because it’s so big that I had to be in the right mood to sit at the kitchen table because it's not like you could read it while laying on the couch.

A funny thing about this one, it’s a DC crossover event that was originally published in 1994. I’m much more of a Marvel fan than DC (Except for my boy Batman.), I think crossover events are generally stunts to boost sales that have seriously hurt storytelling, and this came out at a time when mainstream comics had gotten so bad that fans quit reading which nearly caused the entire industry to implode. And yet I asked for this as a gift last Christmas.

Why? I’m not really sure myself. I’ve been watching a lot of the TV shows and cartoons they do these days so that has my DC interest up. Plus, Zero Hour was right about the time I bailed on reading comics back in the ‘90s so it’s kind of a time capsule to go back to. It just kinda sounded like an interesting artifact to re-examine.

So how was it? Weeelllll….. As I said before, this was kind of a bad time for superhero comics, and there is an incredible amount of material about characters that never caught on who I”m pretty sure have been left to the discount bin in comic books stores. So there isn’t nearly enough of the major characters like Batman and Superman that you’d think. Plus, this was yet another huge part of DC’s obsession with repeatedly trying to revamp their continuity and create a timeline that ‘made sense’ which is something they insist on doing once a decade that looks more and more like a fool’s errand every time they try.The plot revolves around a big timey-wimey crisis that is ending all of the DC realities, and it’s pretty much just nonsense even by comic book standards.

The most interesting aspect is that because it’s about worlds colliding, we get a lot of different versions of characters over the years at times, like Superman running into a whole bunch of different Batmen or Catwoman getting a glimpse of her various incarnations. One of the best side stories involves the Tim Drake version of Robin meeting and working with the much younger Dick Grayson as Robin to catch a thief.

My favorite was an absolute gem of a Green Arrow issue in which the entire story is done without captions or dialogue and shows via clever structure of the panels two parallel stories in which GA pursues the same criminal, but it ends two different ways. I could have used a lot more like that one in this.

Overall, it’s a big mishmash of ‘90s DC characters doing a lot of different stuff so it’s not without it’s charms, but anybody who didn’t know anything about the characters’ histories would most likely be loss. It’s also going to be a fairly big investment so not recommended for casual fans unless you find it cheap.

Still, I had some fun with it, and it did take me back to the days when Superman had come back from the dead and Batman had recovered from a broken spine. Not a bad trip down memory lane overall.

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