My 2020 Reading Stacks #8

Wonder Woman Stargirl!

Women ruling the multimedia superhero world, and the strongmen they allow at their side.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

At the beginning of each year I spend weeks writing year-in-review entries that cover the gamut of my entertainment intake, including capsule reviews for all the books and graphic novels I’ve read. 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 I’ve read throughout the year 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 pop up here and there, albeit in a minority capacity for a few different reasons. Triple bonus points to any longtime MCC readers who can tell which items I bought at which comic/entertainment conventions we’ve attended over the past few years.

And now…it’s readin’ time. Again.

30. Gail Simone, Aaron Lopresti, and Matt Ryan, Wonder Woman/Conan. Magical time travel facilitates a crossover between the amazing Amazon and the simmerin’ Cimmerian. Evil conspires to pit them against each other, but of course they eventually team up, fight and fight and fight, and engage in will-they-or-won’t-they tension as time permits between bouts. Princess Diana brings a few extra compatriots, and Conan brings monsters, so everyone’s true to their respective forms, and their muscles flex exceedingly well together.

31. Geoff Johns, Lee Moder, Scott Kolins, Dan Davis, et al., Stargirl by Geoff Johns. Once upon a time in 1999 a young Hollywood production assistant made his comics writing debut at DC Comics with Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., in which the second-tier legacy of the Star-Spangled Kid was passed on to a teenage girl named Courtney Whitmore, while the Kid’s original sidekick Stripesy became a tech whiz and built his own mech armor. Together they fought crime, joined the Justice Society, and were canceled at issue fourteen. I bought the first issue at the time, thought it was just-okay, and passed on the rest. Fast-forward two decades, and now they have their own TV show called Stargirl on The CW (and DC Universe for season one only) because Courtney’s creator later became a VP at DC for years before returning to Hollywood with far more experience and clout.

My wife and I have been enjoying the show, which is buoyed with more old-fashioned optimism than DC’s other CW heroes. This collection of the entire series shows how much Johns and the other writers are sticking to the original template, as a surprising number of concepts have been carried over to the small screen — Courtney’s mom, Stripesy’s son (eventually), the town of Blue Valley, Shiv, the Dragon King, and even the mysterious Justin the janitor (whose identity I’d already figured out before I read this). As far as reading quality goes…Johns was young and still learning, even by his own admission in the introduction. It’s mostly harmless, all-ages superhero action, though the art begins to sag in the middle as deadlines probably began to hurt, and there’s a mediocre two-parter guest-starring Young Justice that’s perhaps a bit too silly. On the upside, I was delighted to see her spend an issue with the Jack Knight version of Starman, co-written by his creator James Robinson (who’s also written for the show) as a fitting coda for those of us who followed his 80-issue run before Courtney inherited his legacy, too.

Younger fans of the show might enjoy seeing where she started, but may want to hold off on reading it till after season one is done to avoid spoilers.

Star Trek + Wild Cards!

Two series I’ve been following since high school, but then I fell behind in adulthood. This wouldn’t happen if I quit some hobbies, such as the internet.

32. George R.R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass, ed., Wild Cards: High Stakes. I’m still running a few years behind on this series, but might get caught up in time before the hypothetical HBO series we were promised ever comes close to fruition. Here in the 23rd(?) installment, Our Heroes are pitted against, well, it’s basically Mega-Cthulhu. It’s crossed over from another dimension into Kazakhstan, it’s colossal, it murders everything in its path, it deforms others within an unsafe distance, and it drives one and all to horrendous hate and madness on an NC-17 violence level. I was honestly surprised how few main characters died compared to past Wild Cards books, so in that sense it’s technically tamer, but if you dig the idea of superhero stories as pure nightmare fodder, here some absolutely is.

33. Peter David, Star Trek: New Frontier: Blind Man’s Bluff. David’s inspired “New Frontier” series — which combined original characters with supporting players from various Next Generation episodes and his own YA Trek stories — comprised my all-time favorite Trek novels, though I lost track when a certain cynicism began bugging me in later books. Here in the 20th novel, I was annoyed to realize thirty pages in that I’m missing the book that came before it (Treason), but kept going anyway. I belong to a generation that learned to be okay with reading books out of order and living with holes in our collections. Fortunately writers like David excel at light exposition and are happy to catch up new or forgetful readers as needed.

The plot sounds like classic Trek on the face of it: the crew of the Starship Excalibur must contend with a rogue A.I. that’s taken over their computer systems. This time there’s a wrinkle: the A.I. has been part of the main cast for half the series, and is technically kindasorta the mother of a former crew member (one who was played in two old TNG episodes by Ashley Judd). When Our Heroes aren’t sure how to fight a computer, they turn to two old friends of ours (not theirs) who know a thing or two about artificial opponents: Seven of Nine and the Doctor from Voyager! Having read dozens of David novels in my prime, even all these years later my brain can speed through his works more quickly than any other author’s and find it all vastly entertaining (with bonus points for a couple of non-Trek pop culture references).

Biggest letdown: I reached the last page only to learn the cliffhanger ending was later resolved in a separate trilogy that was published only as e-books. As of 2020 I have yet to own an e-reader or whatever they’re called today. They have a hipper name by now, I assume? Either way now I have a second hole at the end of my “New Frontier” collection and apparently I’ll never experience what happened next. Hmph.

Midas Flesh!

The gold fingerprints are part of the clever book design, not my personal potato chip dust.

34/35. Ryan North, Shelli Paroline, and Braden Lamb, The Midas Flesh, Vol. 1-2. Have you ever been really enamored of a particular writer and stumbled across a work of theirs you never new existed, and suddenly you’re all euphoric? While going through severe Ryan North withdrawal after Unbeatable Squirrel Girl ended at Marvel, one day at Half Price Books I chanced upon a used copy of the second collection of this eight-issue SF project that came from BOOM! Studios’ all-ages “BOOM! Box” imprint when I wasn’t looking. I snapped up that used book, then set it aside for a few months till the next time I needed Amazon for something and cheerfully added Volume 1 to my order for a non-used price.

Fans of Greek myths and space-faring sci-fi should dig the premise: in a galaxy ruled by an evil empire, three rebels track down a mysterious super-weapon they believe will win the war for them: a millennia-old corpse that turns everything it touches into solid gold. The hard part is retrieving it from the solid-gold, entirely dead planet Earth without being transmuted themselves. The even harder part is figuring out how to wield it without becoming the bad guys. The standard space challenges (ship battles, pesky aliens, dangerous spacewalks) are nothing compared to the murky moral dilemmas Our Heroes face in a time of war. You never see, say, Luke or Leia looking at each other and thinking, “Wait, should we really be slaughtering all these people?” It’s just a thing they do reflexively because everyone they murder is presumed guilty of capital war crimes. For other space rebellions, it’s not nearly so simple. The clean, poppy art and colors, not to mention the fact that one of Our Heroes is a cool talking dinosaur (extremely on brand for North), belie quite a bit of complicated space drama that should provoke deep thought for kids rather than simple applause.

More to come!

[See also: Stack #1 | Stack #2 | Stack #3 | Stack #4 | Stack #5 | Stack #6 | Stack #7]

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