My 2020 Reading Stacks #4

Spooky Books!

Somehow while reading, I failed to notice the “spookiness” theme I had going.

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…

13. Koren Shadmi, The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television. Full disclosure: this graphic novel was a Valentine’s Day gift to my wife Anne, a hardcore Twilight Zone fan who can usually identify any given episode within the next three seconds after the opening credits. She graciously let me borrow it after she finished and spoke highly of it. Shadmi charts the life of the legendary creator from his time on the Pacific front in WWII to his slow transition into the world of writing. Tone-deaf studios, skittish advertisers, meddling execs, racist viewers, and eventually fame itself are just a few of the obstacles throughout his career, until the show’s cancellation after five seasons led to his gentle, over-the-hill descent from the limelight. Peppered throughout the anecdotes and the book’s aptly off-kilter framing sequences are numerous nods to Zone episodes, a fitting tribute to a man who pursued truth and morality through a fantastical critical lens.

14. John Shirley, BioShock: Rapture. This prequel to the video games BioShock and BioShock 2 chronicles the secret origin of fanatical objectivist Andrew Ryan and the late-1940s construction of his underwater city of Rapture, a would-be utopia where freedom might be valued above all other moral or ethical considerations, where art-deco architecture and old-timey music could live forever, and where Ryan dared to live out his personal credo: “No gods or kings, only man.” Fans of the series can watch it all fall apart in slow motion as Ryan’s Randian dream falls afoul of sins, selfishness, and superpowers. The lone voice of reason is our viewpoint character, a diligent plumber named Bill wowed by dreams and promises, but later horrified when leaks sprout everywhere from ceilings to souls. Shirley is thorough in his inclusion of supporting characters, subplots, and props from both games (not to mention their level of gore) and vividly recaptures the weight and the dread of finding yourself thousands of leagues under the sea with nowhere to run when madness reigns. The prequel’s ending is of course predictably depressing, albeit with a token ray of light to lead us back to the surface world.

15. Michael West, Cinema of Shadows. Old-fashioned, occasionally twisted horror concerning a rundown movie theater haunted by the ghosts of former employees and audiences, all trapped by a demonic demon who’s all demonist with his demonizing plans of demonism. Old folks like me can remember, either from personal experience or from clips we saw on TV, the often ostentatious decor and design of yesteryear cinemas, evoked here in full nostalgic effect, intermittently tainted by scares and bleeding and of course a destructive climax. I know the author offline, but of his three books I’ve read, so far I’d call this one my favorite.

American Way!

The best thing about the sequel is the white heroes couldn’t crowd the black hero off the cover anymore.

16. John Ridley and Georges Jeanty, The American Way. Years before he became Academy Award Winner John Ridley for writing 12 Years a Slave, he landed a few projects at DC’s Wildstorm imprint. In an alt-history version of JFK’s Presidency, America has its own superhero team and a bureau to run them, but much of their work is a series of shams — PR stunts to give the American people reasons to hope and cheer in a time of tension and fear. When one member dies tragically and publicly, a newly hired supervisor opts for an unprecedented replacement: the team’s first black hero. Thus the New American is born, though ordered to wear a helmet at all times lest the country’s bigoted half — including some of his all-white teammates — cry foul and break out their lynch-mob gear. Years before Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen gave us a secret black hero in a turbulent era, Ridley and artist Jeanty (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) got there first and injected the genre with new conflict, social commentary, jaw-dropping consequences, and a rare instance of heroes fighting heroes for reasons believable rather than contrived (if saddening).

17. John Ridley and Georges Jeanty, The American Way: Those Above and Those Below. Years after that Oscar win and after Wildstorm’s demise, the team reunited over at DC’s Vertigo imprint in its dying days. (Among the noticeable difference between the two labels: Vertigo never censored profanities.) A decade after the original story, the surviving heroes have been wrecked by their experiences and struggle in their quests for purpose. The New American, outed as black (gasp!), has become a lone-wolf hero, denounced by racists and blacks alike because he takes down murderers of any color. One of his former teammates has turned into a radical junkie out to make a statement one explosion at a time, while a fiery newcomer begins to rack up his own body count. With fewer characters and pages at their disposal, the sequel lacks the depth and slimps on some backstory, but nails the rampant disillusionment that made the ’70s quite a drag for many after America’s damages in the ’60s. I’m not sure I see this becoming a trilogy with the New American dealing with the Reagan era or meeting Public Enemy, but I’ll be there if he does.

More to come!

[See also: Stack #1 | Stack #2 | Stack #3]

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