My 2020 Reading Stacks #3

Reading Stack 2020 3!

Three books edited under the same guiding principle: for fans, by fans.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year, each and every squarebound work of qualifying length that I’ve read gets a capsule review apiece. I refrain from devoting entries to full-length book reviews because 999 times out of 1000 I’m finishing a given work decades after the rest of the world is already done and moved on from it. As time permits and the finished books pile up, I’ll be charting my full list of books, graphic novels, and trade collections in a staggered, exclusive manner here, for all that’s worth to the outside world. Due to the way I structure my media-consumption time blocks, the list will always feature more graphic novels than works of prose and pure text. Novels and non-pictographic nonfiction will still pop up here and there, albeit in an outnumbered capacity…

And now, we rejoin reading time already in progress…

8. Brian Michael Bendis, David F. Walker, and Jamal Campbell, Naomi: Season One. “Watch her unlock the DC Universe’s biggest secret,” said one of the early house ads for the flagship title of DC’s Wonder Comics imprint spearheaded by Bendis. Average teenager Naomi enjoys life in the tiny Oregon town of Port Oswego with her friends and her adoptive parents until one day a Superman fight comes to town. Even after he’s left, curious little facts begin to surface all around her involving strangers from beyond, one stranger in town, and surprise superpowers from nowhere. New-hero escapades ensue, wonderfully illustrated by Campbell (now weaving his magic on Far Sector).

There’s a short spell in which she has to suffer the annoying thing teen heroes often face when their parents figure out what’s going on and forbid them from using their superpowers, which either leads to several issues of boring powerlessness or several fleeting seconds before the hero defies their parents. Our co-writers thankfully send her down the more entertaining road, but this leads me to more frustration as, despite the house-ad tagline, we view her homeland and meet her parents, but the conspicuous lack of proper nouns all around means more secrets have been withheld for future revelations. We still technically have no idea who she is; whether she has distinctive powers beyond strength, stamina, or energy blasts; why her pas is seemingly integral to the very foundations of the current DC Universe itself; or if she ever plans to choose a superhero name. (As of this writing she still has no Wikipedia entry, so I assume their editors are keeping her in a penalty box till she declares one.) So her debut volume is only a partial origin, pending further developments. It’s compelling that I may have to return for Season Two as long as I can keep safely ignoring her guest appearances and any major crossovers between now and then.

9. Jamison Raymond and Ryan Howe, Henchmen. In a world of ordinary superheroes, Gary is no ordinary minion. Unemployed and on the brink of losing custody of his daughter in divorce, Gary needed a steady job and local super-villains are always hiring. One application later, suddenly he and several other guys were wearing identical costumes and robbing a bank. Gary survives the experience, finds another villain hiring, and so it goes in his new career track. After several brushes with the law and shoddy treatment by every nefarious boss he meets, Gary begins to wonder if perhaps henchmen deserve a better lot in life. What if…they decided to unionize?

This sometimes deadly serious, sometimes whimsical spoof of old-fashioned hero tropes finds a new angle on villain/hireling relations and in Gary develops a three-dimensional portrait of the kind of guy who would be so desperate as to take orders from bizarrely dressed, evildoing micromanagers. Meanwhile in the background, the U.S. government is on the verge of approving funding boosts for super-villains premised on the notion that their constant need for hired help actually makes them leading job creators. Though this was collected back in 2015, a scenario in which politicians exploit profit motives by endorsing entire evil industries doesn’t feel like so much of a wacky stretch. Surprisingly prescient in that respect, pretty amusing in its union negotiation scenes, yet carrying a fair amount of feels for anyone who’s had to summon up the courage to do wholly unexpected things for the sake of their kid.

10. Francis Chan with Danae Yankoski, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. Challenging words of Christian encouragement from a California pastor, potentially convicting to believers who find themselves muddling through a lukewarm season and forgetting that a journey of faith shouldn’t be a comfy cakewalk. Points deducted for a few early chapters that keep referring readers to videos on his website. Whenever a book tells me “go online to learn more!” I never do this. It’s the same principle as lazy comic book writers who hate exposition and likewise expect me to read up about past stories on Wikipedia. There’s also a chapter of testimonials about folks (not from, necessarily) who made jaw-dropping sacrifices and then saw or performed tremendous blessings in their lives, but a few of the anonymous stories all but cry out for verification. In between those drawbacks: much food for thought during my own moments of spiritual inertia.

11. Travis Langley, ed., Doctor Who Psychology: A Madman with a Box. Collection of essays by psychologists and mental health professionals of varying degrees and angles, all of whom are huge fans of the Doctor and can glean examples of their works, theses, and patients throughout the show’s 50+ years of adventure and thirteen Doctors (including the War Doctor but not Jodie Whittaker — this was published shortly into Peter Capaldi’s run). As can be the case with scholarly tomes, a few essays are a bit dry and a few others are structured like unnatural homework assignments — opening paragraph with main idea, supporting paragraphs, closing paragraph restating main idea, that sort of distracting thing. That said, these hyperintelligent superfans deliver intriguing insights on a variety of topics including but not limited to:

  • Why the Doctor chooses the companions he does
  • How his incarnations might score on the Myers-Briggs test
  • Exploration of the Cybermen as metaphor for masculinity run amok
  • Perspectives on grief and death as viewed by an immortal
  • My favorite: how the Doctors’ often peculiar, sometimes hostile behaviors whenever the subject of the Time War comes up could be interpreted as symptoms of PTSD.

12. Larry Hama, Rod Whigham, Andy Mushynsky, et al., G.I. Joe: The Complete Collection Vol. 4. Okay, look, I can explain. When I attend comic conventions and stroll their Artists Alleys, I’d much rather buy books from the creators than either prints or sketches. I’m odd that way. Sometimes it means I end up making odd book-buying choices, such as this volume reprinting back issues from a series I used to collect as a kid. When Larry Hama appeared at a Cincinnati con three years ago, this was among the few books he brought with him. He’s a legend not just as the most influential G.I. Joe writer in the product line’s entire history, but as a longtime Marvel editor as well. I wanted some excuse to pay respects and fork over cash.

Hence this book is now mine and was therefore added to the reading pile same as any other, and dutifully read through from cover to cover as an object lesson or myself in hopes that in the future, before buying any book for any reason whatsoever, I might first ponder the most important question that must be answered to my intellectual satisfaction above all others: “Will I really want to read this someday? Not just own as a showpiece, but actually go through the words and pages one by one?” The volume coincidentally includes the last issues I bought at age 13, well after I’d already sold off my entire Joe collection to a neighbor kid, as well as the next few issues after. I effectively assigned myself the task of reading comics I’d refused to buy as a kid.

Some stories and characters have aged better than others, but Hama in those halcyon times did an above-average job of integrating new action figures and vehicles into ongoing stories, a word here which also means “narrative ad”. Some issues read a bit like military soap opera, but a few standalone gems are a bit deeper and more emotional than you’d expect from anything stamped with a Hasbro logo. A stopover salute at the Vietnam Memorial in DC is a sobering surprise, while Best in Show here is issue #34, concerning an aerial dogfight between hero pilot Ace and his Cobra counterpart Wild Weasel, a tale of honor between well-matched opponents that ranks favorably on the same continuum as the old Robert Kanigher/Joe Kubert Enemy Ace stories and Snoopy vs. the Red Baron. I was less enamored of a later subplot in which the morally ambiguous Storm Shadow begins giving secret ninja lessons to Cobra Commander’s preteen son. Some unbelievable things must be typed out in cold print before one can fully accept what one has read.

As a value-added bonus for the most intense fans, each issue includes new commentary by a certified toy expert. It’s fascinating when he quotes from interviews with Larry Hama himself. It’s useful when he provides historical background material on the true historical events and/or real-life military equipment that inspired the stories and merchandise featured herein.
It’s amusing when he footnotes dated pop-culture references such as Twisted Sister. It’s baffling when he feels compelled to define non-military vocabulary words such as “hidebound”, “obstreperous”, “patricide”, or “fault line” just in case any 8-year-olds happen to be reading this pricey hardcover archive of 35-year-old comics.

More to come!

[See also: Stack #1 | Stack #2]

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Popular Culture Psychology – Review Highlights | Dr. Travis Langley - Dr. Travis Langley, Professor of Psychology, Henderson State University

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