Blast from the past

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I just got my first war-era comic book, Flash Comics #38, originally published in 1942. You know it’s a bad day when you’re at crime school and the Flash pole vaults through the window using a bamboo stick! This book features the original Flash, Jay Garrick, who fights crime in his Hermes-inspired uniform and iconic tin hat. Garrick made his debut in 1940 – 16 years before his more popular predecessor, Barry Allen.

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Back in the day, the Flash had to share his comic book with Hawkman, who also made his first appearance in Flash Comics #1 alongside the Fastest Man Alive.

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So when you bought a Flash comic, you got two superhero stories – all for the price of 10 cents!

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In the ’40s, DC Comics was officially called Superman-DC, named after their most popular character at the time, and the comic book title that gave birth to Batman, Detective Comics. It wasn’t until the ’70s that the comic book company dropped “Superman” from their name and adopted their current brand.

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Another marked difference between the comic books from this decade and the ones we have now is the clear lack of supervillains. Most of them only began showing up in the 1960s, leaving superheroes of the early years with no one to fight, except for common criminals. Nazis were also a popular match-up for the super-powered crime fighters of that era.

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It’s quite fitting that I got my first war-era comic book while I’m in the middle of reading The Book Thief. Knowing how turbulent it was back then, it really isn’t a stretch to think that stories like this kept the world sane. I can only imagine what journey this book must have had – from that kid who bought it from a magazine stand for 10 cents over seven decades ago to the here and now; from the chaos that was World War II to the still-tumultuous present. What amazing stories it could tell, if only its pages could talk.

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The evils of man

I’ve never actually read anything by H.P. Lovecraft. I’m definitely planning to, being a horror fan and all. But everything I know about Lovecraft’s works, I know from the authors he inspired – and there are plenty. If the horror genre was a crime scene, you’d probably see about as much of Lovecraft’s fingerprints on it as you would Bram Stoker’s. Here’s one Lovecraft-inspired book that makes me want to read H.P.’s notoriously weird tales.

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Set in the 1950s, during the twilight years of the Jim Crow era, Lovecraft Country follows 22 year old Atticus Turner as he investigates the case of his missing father. Accompanied by his uncle and his childhood friend Letitia, Atticus sets out to follow his dad’s trail, only to get tangled up in a cult ritual. As he witnesses some unearthly events unfold, he soon realizes that racists aren’t the only demons living in America.

Lovecraft Country is one of the most enjoyable horror books I’ve read. I always found stories about cults extra creepy for a number of reasons. We know these groups actually exist, and that in itself is quite unsettling. Then there’s the idea that they study the occult, and that they do rituals to communicate with or actually bring forth entities from beyond our realm. (Honestly I’d rather not know what they’re doing.) Cults represent a tangible sort of evil, and in horror, the closer you are to the threat, the scarier it becomes.

What I really like about the book is the way Matt Ruff tells the story. Each chapter is like an episode of the Twilight Zone wherein you get a creepy stand-alone tale. As the story progresses, you’ll see how each of these mini stories converge to form a delightful tapestry of horror. And then there’s the social aspect of the book. It’s quite clear that Ruff intended to shed as much light on racism as much as he wanted to write about the supernatural. There are several elements in the story that are based on how things were in 1950s America, and I feel like the author gave a good depiction of what a lot of people went through during that era. Apart from being an exceptional work of horror, this book is a brutal reminder that men are more than capable of being monsters, too.

For more about this book, and to know more about the author and his works, visit bymattruff.com.

When reality is overrated

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The year is 2044. Not much has changed, except maybe the world’s problems have gotten worse. There are no flying cars, no hoverboards, no self-tying shoes. None of the bright and shiny cities of sci-fi lore came to be, and unsurprisingly, we haven’t evolved much as a species either. Much of the population while their days away strapped on devices that allow them to live in a virtual world where their lives are exponentially more interesting. Known as the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, or OASIS, this online utopia has become humanity’s only refuge from the harsh reality that is Planet Earth.

Behind this widely popular program is eccentric billionaire software developer James Halliday, a recluse who lived out his final years developing a game that would, as they say, break the internet. On the day of his death, it was announced that he had been busy designing the biggest Easter egg hunt in history. The reward: his assets, amounting to $240 billion, and control of the Gregarious Simulation Systems, the most lucrative company in the world and owner of the OASIS. But Halliday didn’t make it easy. All the clues were embedded in things he had liked as a child; things that were recreated and hidden across the vast universe that is the OASIS.

And just like that, the world had a new obsession.

Since Halliday grew up in the 1980s, everyone began binge-watching ‘80s films and TV shows, listening to old records, and of course, playing the most beloved 8-bit videogames. Everyone had a new hobby. But with that much on the line, you just can’t expect everyone to play fair, and some really vile elements prove that they are willing to do absolutely anything to get Halliday’s money and gain control of the OASIS.

The book follows protagonist Wade Watts, an exceedingly average boy whose barely livable circumstances make college dorm life seem luxurious, as he navigates his way through Halliday’s world on an epic egg hunt.

I almost wish I were born a decade earlier thanks to this book. Don’t get me wrong, I think the ‘90s was amazing, but the way the book talked about ‘80s pop culture sounded like so much fun. Every time the author referenced something I was not familiar with, I got the urge to Google it. I felt like I was part of the contest – like I wanted to know Halliday as much as the characters in the book did – and that’s part of what made this book so enjoyable for me.

Apart from being a fast-paced sci-fi adventure, this book also deals with some issues that are quite relevant in today’s tech-ridden virtual age. You’ll see the protagonist struggle to cope with real life problems while keeping up his rock star-esque persona online. You’ll see how it is so much easier for him to make virtual friends than to connect person-to-person. You’ll see his confidence falter at the idea of actually meeting his online amigos, even if he really wants to. The author explores the inner struggle that comes with living dualistic lives, and I think that is something that everyone can relate with on some level.

All in all, Ready Player One is both fun and serious, futuristic and nostalgic, real and virtual. You’ll stay up reading it the same way you stayed up playing Pac-Man.

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Life A.D.

Last week, Image Comics released book one of A.D.: After Death, a three-part sci-fi spectacular that could easily be the best comic book series released this year. This also happens to be the work of two of today’s top comic book talents, with multi-awarded Scott Snyder writing the script and the equally talented Jeff Lemire providing his signature style of art in full color. Both creators have separately done terrific work in the science fiction genre, so there was no way I was going to pass up this masterpiece.

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A.D. explores a world where the human race finally found a cure for death. The story follows Jonah Cooke, who seems just about as average as the next guy, except he has a habit of stealing things.

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It’s gotten so bad that he even stole a cow on his last day at work.

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Other than that, not much is known about the protagonist’s current situation, although the story does go back to his childhood several times. These flashback scenes are more text-heavy, allowing more room for storytelling.

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Snyder’s writing is thick with emotions, adding a lot of depth to the story.

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And as good as his prose is, you’ll equally enjoy Lemire’s art, which dominates the comic book’s future scenes.

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What makes the comic even more enjoyable is that it is presented in large format, so it is actually much bigger than your usual comic book – perfect for showcasing Lemire’s art. Overall, the first book is a solid opening issue, giving you a glimpse of what a deathless future is like, while allowing you to get to know the protagonist just enough to make you want to know more. I’m definitely looking forward to the next two issues.

Magic and mayhem

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I recently finished A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows, the first two books in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. The story follows a powerful magician named Kell, one of the last remaining Antari. He is one of only two people with the ability to travel between parallel worlds, making him the perfect liaison between the three Londons. Grey London has very little magic – so little that some of its inhabitants question its existence, while others dismiss it as mere legend. Red London is Kell’s home world, peaceful and brimming with power, ruled by the Maresh family. White London, while strewn with magic, is much more chaotic; its people are willing to kill for power, especially since controlling powerful magic means controlling the throne.

And then there’s Black London, which nobody talks about – partly because they don’t want to, partly because nobody really knows what’s left of it. Even the most powerful magicians wouldn’t risk a trip there. Not willingly, anyway.

I always believed that fantasy and adventure go hand in hand, and this series is a good example of how these two elements can come together to create a thrilling story. I find that tales of exploration and discovery are much more enjoyable with a touch of magic. Throw in a bunch of interesting (not to mention shady) characters and you have a real page-turner. And did I mention there are pirates? Yup, this series has all the right ingredients for an adventure that spans four worlds.

The first book is about 400 pages long while the second novel is just over 500 pages. But, really, as hefty as they seem, you can easily zip through both novels once you get into the story. You’ll always want to read what the characters do next, and each chapter is sure to whet your appetite for the succeeding ones.

For more about the author, check out her blog at https://veschwab.wordpress.com/.

The secret of Murder City

Over the past few years, many a comic book series has transitioned to the small screen with much success. From superhero-based shows like Arrow, The Flash and Daredevil to supernatural dramas such as Outcast and the record-breaking The Walking Dead, fans have been treated to a plethora of live action adaptations of their illustrated favorites. “There’s no better time to be a comic book fan,” as they say, and it seems the comics-to-TV trend isn’t dying away anytime soon.

Here’s another comic book series that many believe could be the next hit TV show.

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Nailbiter: The Murder Edition vol. 1

Written by Joshua Williamson and illustrated by Mike Henderson, Nailbiter is a crime/mystery comic that takes place in Buckaroo, Oregon, a (fictional) city which gave birth to 16 of the most notorious serial killers in the world. In this first volume, NSA Agent Nicholas Finch travels to the city to investigate the disappearance of his friend Charles Carrol, an FBI agent who went missing while investigating the cause of the town’s apparent penchant for producing psychotic murderers. It doesn’t take long for the hot-headed NSA agent to find trouble…

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…and for trouble to find him.

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Without any solid leads, Agent Finch reluctantly turns to the most notorious Buckaroo Butcher for help – Edward “Nailbiter” Warren – a serial killer whose M.O. involves kidnapping men and women who have a habit of chewing their fingernails, keeping them alive long enough until their fingernails grew back and chewing his victims’ fingers to the bone before killing them.

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I didn’t think something with such dark subject matter could be this much fun. A good gory comic is one that balances out its intense scenes with the other elements of the story, and the creators of Nailbiter play that game really well. There’s definitely a lot of action, as well as some heavy parts, but somehow the comic manages to throw in some humorous jabs from time to time.

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What I like most about this comic book series is that it has a lot of personality. Not only will you enjoy its dynamic characters but you’ll also get the feeling that the city has a life of its own. You’ll want to get to know the place as much as its people, except you can’t really do that. Not this early in the story anyway. So you just find yourself hooked on the mystery surrounding Buckaroo, Oregon.

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Overall, Nailbiter is a thrilling read that is sure to suck you in from the very first page. Great characters, great storytelling, and playfully sinister art all come together in this exciting murder mystery series. If I had to guess why people want to see this on television, only one thing comes to mind: they probably can’t get enough of it.

A tale among stars

As a kid I never really found sci-fi appealing. I was raised on fairytales so fantasy was my natural first choice as far as genres go. When I was about eight years old I discovered I liked horror as well and to this day, those two genres are what I constantly look for regardless of medium. What they have in common is that there are elements of the fantastic in them – supernatural beings, magic, and everything that humans can’t create or become.

Sci-fi (or at least the common notion of it) is about technology, steel, everything artificial and fabricated. Even when it deals with distant worlds, it is nothing unreachable. No matter how out-of-this-world the stories are, they are still grounded on science. And science is what humans do so I never saw it as anything special. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I got to read this comic book series called Saga that I became more interested in the genre.

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Written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples, Saga is about as sci-fi as you can get. It is a true space adventure spanning an entire galaxy. It has all manner of life forms from people with horns and wings to biomechanical robots with TVs for heads to large cats that can tell when you’re lying. It is a reality where space bounty hunting is a lucrative career path and spaceships are a common form of transportation; so common that they literally grow on trees. There’s even an entire planet that deals in interplanetary sex trade and a giant flaming gorilla (because why not?).

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So what makes Saga any different from other sci-fi stories? Well, BKV wrote it, that’s what. Like Vaughan’s other works, his character development for Saga is top-notch. First he lets you fall in love with protagonists Alana and Marko, who got into a forbidden relationship in spite of being from rival races that are locked in an endless war with each other. Despite their biological differences, they actually end up having a baby and get chased throughout the galaxy for it (hence the space adventure).

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Then, Vaughan introduces you to their would-be captors: a bounty hunter named The Will and his trusty sidekick Lying Cat. You’ll end up liking them, too, just because they’re a cool pair. There will be parts where you want the protagonists to get away, but at the same time you also end up worrying about what happens to the bounty hunters. It feels like the good guys are good guys and the “bad” guys don’t seem so bad so part of you roots for them, too. And that’s one of the things I enjoy about this story – even the bad guys are likeable.

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Oh, and then there’s Prince Robot IV. He’s a bit of a douche but he does make the story that much more interesting. I guess you can say he’s the main bad guy of the story.

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Beyond all the weird elements of sci-fi, Saga is packed with humor, action, serious and heart-felt moments, great characters and so much more. This series made me realize that genres aren’t always what make stories enjoyable, and that the best stories are the ones that are able to transcend those delineations anyway. It’s no surprise that Saga is what many believe to be the best comic book on the shelves today. And if you know comic book fans, you know that that compliment isn’t something that gets thrown around lightly. This series really does live up to its hype.