Welcome once again to our recurring MCC feature in which I scribble capsule reviews of everything I’ve read lately that was published in a physical format over a certain page count with a squarebound spine on it — novels, original graphic novels, trade paperbacks, infrequent nonfiction dalliances, and so on. 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, though I do try to diversify my literary diet as time and acquisitions permit.
Occasionally I’ll sneak in a contemporary review if I’ve gone out of my way to buy and read something brand new. Every so often I’ll borrow from my wife or from our local library. But the majority of our spotlighted works are presented years after the rest of the world already finished and moved on from them because I’m drawing from my vast unread pile that presently occupies four oversize shelves comprising thirty-three years of uncontrolled book shopping. I’ve occasionally pruned the pile, but as you can imagine, give away one unread book and three more take its place.
I’ve previously written why I don’t do eBooks. Perhaps someday I’ll also explain why these capsules are exclusive to MCC and not shared on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites where their authors might prefer I’d share them. In the meantime, here’s me and my recent reading results.
As it happens, all five of the following were 2020 releases. Everyone’s cool if I don’t maintain that up-to-the-minute momentum all year long, right?
1. Robert Kirkman, Chris Samnee, and Matt Wilson, Fire Power, Vol. 1: Prelude. Before Image Comics launched what MCC called the best new series of 2020, it all began here in an OGN that I skipped for months till I finally noticed copies of it on my local comic shop’s shelf. Before Owen Johnson grew into an American family man with a strange past coming back to haunt him, that strange past was his present, in which he was a teenage orphan trekking across distant Asian mountain ranges to reach one of those ancient secret martial-arts training complexes that nearly outnumber Starbucks mountainside franchises. Owen naturally has to prove himself to his would-be sensei, endure hazing from C students, meet a forbidden love interest who can handle herself in a fight, talk about his messed-up childhood, and tap into long-dormant forces that might just make him a Chosen One.
The tropes spill out wall-to-wall in overabundance, but Kirkman’s knack for full-stop surprises and Samnee’s mastery of sequential beat-for-beat melee — influenced as much by classic adventure strips as by the speediest manga — add up to quite the satisfying page-turner for anyone who remembers the few great American martial-arts comics of yore, or anyone who simply enjoys seeing Samnee immensely enjoying himself.
2. Brian “Box” Brown, Child Star. If you’re sadly familiar with how the Hollywood entertainment machine thrives vampirically on the lifeblood of temporarily world-famous minors, you’ll recognize much of this fictionalized cautionary tale of a young, permanently undertall actor named Owen Eugene whose newfound career takes off when he becomes the center of an ’80s sitcom, complete with his own catchphrase that takes America by storm, only to age less than gracefully into an inevitably tragic adulthood.
Though all the names and shows have been changed, it’s rife with easily spotted callbacks to milestones from my childhood prime-time. (TV Guide listings! Very Special Episodes! Punky Brewster versus the refrigerator!) A number of well-known child stars can claim identical trajectories, and yet much of his story resembles Gary Coleman so closely — the height condition, the crappy TV-movies, the “Just Say No” episode with First Lady Nancy Reagan, the even tinier child actor on a rival network’s copycat show — that it veers arguably close to a whitewashing job. It’s not for kids, it avoids any hideous #MeToo accounts, and some sequences meander for a few more pages than they should, but it might be an eye-opening primer for anyone who’s unaware of all those underage casualties strewn across the roadside to stardom.
3. Paul Kupperberg, I Never Write for the Money…But I Always Turn in the Manuscript for a Check. A Kickstarter project collecting an interview and multiple online essays by a longtime comics professional who’s been in and out of the biz since I was a kid and has racked up more than his share of stories and opinions. His career has ranged from orchestrating Archie Comics’ gay wedding event that grabbed mainstream-media headlines to becoming the unasked trivia question, “Who was the regular writer on Doom Patrol before Grant Morrison made then awesome?” He’s found contentment in contributing to all manner of media beyond comics — cartoons, coloring books, Mad Libs, even the fabled fake-news forefather Weekly World News in its twilight years. His memories and comics-biz advice are shared with wit and insight that could only come from someone talented enough to survive and sometimes even thrive in those trenches.
4. Mike Baron, Nexus. One of the best indie SF series from the 1980s returns in the hands of one of its co-creators (plus a new cover by the other) in Our Hero’s very first non-illustrated prose novel. Decades have passed for us and for Horatio Hellpop, who’s still the defender of the amalgamated refugee planet Ylum, still assigned to hunt and execute intergalactic mass murderers, and now old enough to have a son who’s inherited some of his skill set and may have to start making similar dark decisions.
Two different crises demand attention: while a pair of serial-killing twins are deadly enough to merit his very first trip to Earth (and all Baron’s odd, whimsical pop culture preferences therein), entire civilizations are also threatened by a planet-eating monster named Gourmando and its shiny space-surfing herald, who are totally not just a certain Lee/Kirby master/servant duo wearing different hats if any Marvel lawyers happen to ask. The concurrent storylines are far from balanced (one is put on time-out for dozens of pages while the other peters out anticlimactically) and any newcomers to this universe will have no mental image of the largely undescribed alien races at play here. For old fans it’s kind of a nostalgic treat, albeit just not the same without Steve Rude’s sleek visuals to jazz up everything.
5. Nick Jones, DC Comics Cover Art. My mom has taken to buying us coffee-table books every Christmas despite our lack of coffee tables. At least she’s stopped buying me Dilbert stuff, so I’ll take them. This well-curated tome reprints 350 different covers from across 85 years of publishing, some of which I’ve seen countless times (sigh, there’s Action #1 AGAIN) and many I’d never seen before. Particularly illuminating were selections from Nick Cardy, a Silver Age artist who only worked in the field for a handful of years and is best known for drawing the original 1960s “groovy” version of the Teen Titans. Before that he was doing stylish, inventive covers that look years ahead of those times. Apparently he was the sort of old-school artist who knew a cover’s primary goals were to (a) entice new readers to pick it up off the newsstand, and (b) represent something related to the actual story in that issue.
Cardy’s samples are one among many legacies from the DC universe at large — there’s also Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino, Curt Swan (they threw in Giant Turtle Olsen!), Neal Adams, the eternally underrated Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, George Perez, Brian Bolland, Dave McKean, Alex Ross, Jim Lee, Jock, J.H. Williams III, and more, more, more. Some of the modern choices are questionable as they march obligatorily into the New 52 (Rob Liefeld’s Deathstroke?) and of course there’s a disproportionate Harley Quinn section. I suppose every list has its compromises. Best of all, the captions are more in-depth than I’d expected, better than a repetitive “so yeah, this is cool” style of other coffee-table books, and even taught me new things. It’s not something I’d buy for myself, yet nonetheless appreciated and thoughtful, as gifts go, especially in 2020 when we barely had a Christmas.
More to come!