My 2021 Reading Stacks #6-Up: The Super-Sized Finale

Reading Stack 2021, Books and Graphic Novels!

All 41 books and graphic novels featured in this series, not including the two I borrowed from Anne.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

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, cut out 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…

Among the may disadvantages of scaling back my internet writing hobby is I now a massive backlog of entries that I tell myself I must do someday, which are now trapped in a bottleneck in my mind. Rather than drag these out to October, here’s all the other books and graphic novels I finished reading in 2021. Some capsules have been truncated to save time and to cut corners in instances where the work left an unmemorable impression on me. As usual, these aren’t ranked or even listed in reading order. They’re simply the order in which I’m grabbing them off the towers that have been sitting next to our computer for months and waiting for me to do this. So LET’S DO THIS.

20. Alan Moore, Peter Hogan, Yanick Paquette and Karl Story, Terra Obscura: S.M.A.S.H. of Two Worlds (2014). Fun superhero leftovers from that time Wildstorm Publishing let the Alan Moore have his own imprint called America’s Best Comics, until DC bought Wildstorm and Moore fled to escape their corporate clutches once again. Tom Strong fans have already read this, but today’s readers might now be more curious about his co-writer Hogan, who’d go on to co-create the Dark Horse Comics series-of-miniseries turned hit Syfy show Resident Alien. I stopped keeping up with ABC after its first 7-8 months but had no trouble stepping into this.

21. Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death (2010). After enjoying the award-winning author’s comics dalliances with LaGuardia and Marvel’s Shuri, checking out her SF work was a logical and overdue next step. I was not let down. I was horrified at the violence taken straight out of real-life events and cultural practices (with some super-powered justice/revenge given back in kind), but I was not let down. Really, I need to visit bookstore SF sections more often in general. I’ve been out of touch with the field for ages.

22. Nikki Jones, Between Good and Ghetto: African American Girls and Inner-City Violence (2010). One of my son’s required college texts, an anthropological thesis-shaped examination from a Black college professor who immersed herself in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood and interviewed several teenage girls with varying numbers of permanent record marks and at varying levels of accumulated survival wisdom and/or success stories. Some tales are filtered through the lens of stiff-postured academia, but the young ladies’ own stories are worth the telling.

23. Kieron Gillen and Adam Kubert, Wolverine: Origin II (2015). Marvel picked two ace creators to prolong the magic of Paul Jenkins and Andy Kubert’s bestselling expansion of Logan’s formerly ambiguous secret origin. Gillen has more fun with a 1900s Mister Sinister than with Our Hero, the other Kubert brother makes it look fine, and Sabertooth is as Sabertoothy as ever, but the “twist” ending made me groan more loudly than any of Gillen’s Twitter puns ever have.

24. Greg Rucka, Russell Dauterman, Carmen Carnero, and Terry Pallot, Cyclops, Vol. 1: Starstruck (2014). The plucked-from-the-timestream Young Cyclops from Brian Michael Bendis’ All-New X-Men spends some quality time with his present-day dad, the space pirate Corsair, along with his hearty Starjammers. “Greg Rucka wrote an X-comic? Why” I thought to myself when I saw this on a comic-con dealer’s discount rack. I had to know more, but I forgot how little I’ve ever cared for Cyclops’ deadbeat dad. Nothing about this felt like Rucka’s handiwork except one scene in which an alien woman knocks Cyclops around with her space quarterstaff.

25. John Scalzi, Redshirts (2012). One of my souvenirs from our Dragon Con 2021 experience. I’ve followed his blog for years but was afraid to dive into his primary income source (i.e., his novels) for weird fear of hampering my blog enjoyment. My fear was dumb. This was largely awesome and hilarious and exactly the sort of meta satire on which I thrive. My only problem — and really, it’s my problem more than his — was the largely undescribed characters made it more challenging for me to cast actors in my head-space performance, as I’m wont to do with my novel-reading.

26. Arnie Bernstein, ed.,, The Movies Are: Carl Sandburg’s Film Reviews and Essays, 1920-1928 (2000). A souvenir from our 2021 vacation, whose premise hooked my curiosity and clinched the deal with four magic words: “introduction by Roger Ebert”. Once upon a time before he became America’s celebrated poet and definitive Lincoln biographer, Sandburg was a silent-era film reviewer for the Chicago Daily News. I took copious notes about this tome’s contents on another computer, but am hesitant to dump them all here within a single capsule unless anyone’s interested. Some of his reviews were too short and nondescript; quite a few expound at length and display a critical faculty that neither loved nor hated everything. There were degrees, as there should be for any pro critic of any medium. All told they’re an invaluable slice of cinematic history covering names both famous and forgotten.

27. Ed McBain, Romance (1995). A souvenir from our 2020 pandemic-era vacation. Whenever I’m in a used bookstore and feel I cannot leave without buying something, McBain’s classic 87th Precinct crime-procedural series is one of my go-tos. He wrote dozens of them, and I’ve read merely one dozen or so. Not once to my knowledge have I ever bought and read one twice by accident. This one involves the attempted stabbing of a theater actress, a revelation of fraud, a real stabbing, and the usual suspects from any murder mystery full of actors and their crew. Not that that’s a bad thing. McBain’s works remain a class act when it comes to period details and when it comes to welcoming new readers with tidy expository efficiency instead of assuming they’ll go use Wikipedia to catch up. That wasn’t an option in our day, and remains a rude gesture to new readers by lesser writers today.

28. William Gibson, The Peripheral (2014). Going back to that “SF catch-up” idea, for this onetime cyberpunk fan Gibson’s oeuvre seemed an obvious place to go even if the “cyberpunk” label is a relic he’s long since discarded. This near-future dual-timeline caper could’ve been about 100 pages shorter if the future still had police sketch artists instead of contriving a whole “Let’s have Our Hero go face the killer person-of-interest in person, what could possibly go wrong” thing. 400 pages pass before anyone realizes maybe one character might exist in both timelines, which is usually a cross-time story basic. I would also rather not start on the feel-good Deathly Hallows coda. I was reminded of how Grant Morrison skips large narrative sections and leaves the audience to infer all the connective tissue that he felt was too tedious to type out. Same deal here, except Morrison is a better judge of what’s skippable. By the end I’d forgotten who half the supporting cast were, which was easy to do since most of them were barely sketched in. In my head they were mostly played by faceless mannequins. I did enjoy mentally casting Noah Robbins (Evil, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) as an important tech-bro instead of imagining him a generic hunk, so that was fun, but it was fun I had to bring in myself. I’m not really feeling motivated to move on to the sequel Agency anytime soon.

29. Bradley S. Compton and Praveen V. Arla, The Arameus Chronicle: The Girl from Avignon (2016). Once upon a time, the authors of this Book One in an ostensible series tabled at an Artists Alley at Wizard World Chicago and gave out free copies to any takers in exchange for a promise of an online review. Years later I’m proving I took that promise seriously. The reading experience was entirely unfavorable, my nitpicks were many, a Book Two never materialized, and one of the authors has since graduated and moved on to a rewarding, non-literary career. I pride myself on finishing every book I start, but I was all but begging for release until page 230 when a rape scene arrived. It was brief and facile and amounted to little more than, “And then he raped her, DUN DUN DUUUUUUN! And then…” I used it as my excuse to walk away. This is why I tend to swerve around rookie novelists’ tables at conventions.

30. Jerrod Begora, The Blood Between Us (2013). Another gamble on a comic-con novel that likewise reminds me why I only make exceptions for two (2) such gents, but at least I finished this one. Its three main characters are teen siblings with barely related misadventures: one straight-laced white guy whose ex might be pregnant (and whose quasi-righteous digressions include at least one that feels lifted from, or at least informed by, Chuck Colson’s Now How Shall We Live?); his adopted Black brother who might or might not be a vampire, which is hard to care about because stories where Vampires Are Real But Vampire Rules Aren’t loses me quickly; and their bubbly, willfully antagonizing, high-functioning sister with Down Syndrome who hops around a lot of different vectors and at various times is a school crossing guard, a comic shop employee, a would-be romantic interest, and a vampire hunter. The author tries doing the Elmore Leonard thing of skipping boring parts and beginning every chapter in media res, only to then waste several paragraphs per chapter recapping all the skipped parts, and thus is no time saved.

31. Peter David, Star Trek: New Frontier: Treason (2009). I filled a collection gap and finally got to the last remaining print novel in David’s long-running series. I’ve read more novels by him than by any other writer living or dead, so his prose clicks for me and makes for a pleasurable, rapid-paced read every time. Unfortunately the grand finale of the “New Frontier” series was an e-book trilogy that’s never seen a paper release, so for the foreseeable future I’ll never know the final fates of Captain Mackenzie Calhoun or the Starship Excalibur. I’ll just assume they won and they’re fine.

32. John Shirley, Borderlands: Gunsight (2013). My quest continues to prolong my Borderlands fandom in every possible way short of buying a PS4 to play Borderlands 3. Unlike the last tie-in book I read, at least this one stars a main character from the games, though I’ve no idea why they put Brick on the cover instead of the actual protagonist Mordecai. This one was mildly more rousing, yet is likewise no substitute for hands-on gameplay.

Douglass and Radium!

The two I borrowed from Anne, and two of the best things I read this year.

33. Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845; 2018 edition). The great man’s harrowing experiences rendered in his own eloquence and unflinching candor far more insightfully and incisively than any ordinary textbook or basic-cable biography could weakly paraphrase. Anne read it first and couldn’t stop recommending it. Anyone who thinks this shouldn’t be required reading should be judged and shunned.

34. Kate Moore, Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (2017). Another strong recommendation from Anne, this true story of American corporate malfeasance and murder involves multiple early-20th-century factories hiring young women to hand-paint glow-in-the-dark watches, with radium as a key paint ingredient, back in the days when everyone thought radioactivity was like a wonder drug. When the ladies began developing cancer, falling to pieces and dying young, the factories ignored or buried the evidence because the work had to continue. Severe labor abuses, executive disregard for human lives, and Cronenberg body horror ensue as the ladies eventually put two and two together and search for lawyers who’d stand with them and ultimately drive their crusade for justice…which, and I still cannot fathom this, dragged on into the 1970s before courts finally crucified the offenders once and for all, far too late for countless victims. Once again Anne’s recommendation was on point.

(After she read it but before I did, we watched the little-seen film version that was eked out to a film festival or two, then left in an indie studio’s broom closet to rot for two years till it was indifferently released to a handful of theaters in late 2020, mid-pandemic. We paid to stream it, and…Anne was really not happy. All of the real Radium Girls and all real-life people who aided their cause were deleted and replaced with one-dimensional fictional clones; the courtroom aspect was blown up to tedious, clichéd proportions; and the filmmakers felt it necessary to insert two representatives from the Magical Negro Trope Guild to educate the poor helpless white girls on How To Do Protests. It takes some kind of nerve to read about each of the women’s stories and their years of hardship, about how much trouble they went through to find anyone in authority who’d listen to them and then amplify their voices in court and in the media so they could finally be heard over the clickety-clacking of the radium companies’ heartless accounting calculators, only for modern Hollywood to tell them, “Cool story, but your soul-crushing plight that saw women sacrificed to fatcat greed just wasn’t intersectional enough.” Any film critic who gave it a positive review couldn’t possibly have read the book.)

35. Jen Van Meter, Christine Norrie, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Chynna Clugston Flores, Ross Campbell, Andi Watson, et al., Hopeless Savages: Greatest Hits 2000-2010 (2010). The long-running indie comics series about a married punk couple and their four kids with varying levels of rebellious temperaments, embroiled in international espionage and occasional romantic issues is a wild ride conveyed by a killer artists’ lineup. As has happened to other long-running indie series, eventually the wild ride slows down and becomes a more somber drama about interpersonal conflicts and everyone “growing up”. If you were a fan following along over the years slowly and organically, the progression and maturation probably made sense as you underwent paralleling transitions in your own life. For us outsiders reading it all in one lump sum, the tonal shift is a bit more jarring and less inviting.

36. Bryan Lee O’Malley, Lost at Sea (2003; 2014 special edition). Before Scott Pilgrim hit the big time, sold tons of copies and was turned into one of Edgar Wright’s best films, his creator’s debut graphic novel concerned an anxious, directionless young lady who impulsively agrees to go on a road trip with three strangers her age. Her search for connection, purpose, and solid ground resonates. I’m reminded of the recent film The Worst Person in the World, except this was better. Also, to give you an idea of how out-of-control my unread book piles are, not until 2021 did I discover I’ve had two unread copies of this for years.

37. David F. Walker, Tim Seeley, Fernando Dagnino and Sandra Molina, Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes (2017). A sensibly conceived venture jointly published by Dark Horse Comics and BOOM! Studios, two publishers quite generous than most in allowing IP crossovers in recent times, unlike some major publishers we could mention. The team-up clicks for its first few chapters, but after the action jumps from Tarzan’s reality to the Apes’ post-apocalypse, at some point the narrative thread snarled and lost me.

38. Tom King, Mikel Janin, Mitch Gerads, June Chung and Hugo Petrus, Batman, Vol. 2: I Am Suicide (2017). I’ve liked most King projects I’ve read, but couldn’t get on board when he took over DC’s primary moneymaker title when the “Rebirth” event supplanted the New 52 era. Bestselling titles tend to be anathema to me nowadays, especially the crossover-prone ones, which is all of them. I figured I’d catch up at my own pace. So far it’s going slowly. It’s as fine as I expected. I’ll see if I can pick up the pace in ’22, maybe.

39. Saladin Ahmed, Christian Ward and Frazer Irving, Black Bolt, Vol. 1: Hard Time (2017). Remember when Marvel tried to make the Inhumans happen? This solo series was by far the best result from that failed initiative, and may be the best Black Bolt story ever. Torn away from his loyal subjects, denied his ridiculously overcharged powers that can end any superhero battle by panel #2, and forced to interact with other beings besides the Royal Family of Attilan, Our Hero has no choice but to become intriguing or die dull. In Ahmed’s hands he chooses wisely. Bonus points for repurposing the Metal Master, a “classic” Hulk villain who’s been lying there ignored since his big 1982 battle with ROM, Spaceknight. He’s aged well.

40. Matteo Pizzolo, Amancay Nahuelpan and Tyler Boss, Calexit, Vol. 1 (2018). A worthy example of a Free Comic Book Day tryout leading me to spend money on new jams. In a nigh-apocalyptic near-future, the American government has turned toxic and much of California’s state government has had it. Secession isn’t so simple, especially when your entire state isn’t on board, which imparts a critical lesson to us outsiders: California is not Los Angeless, nor is it Hollywood. Fractures, martial law, and rebellion ensue, with the story’s focal points embedded at ground level with disparate characters caught in the crossfire — some fighting back, some just trying to get by, nobody on the sidelines. In case the overtones are too subtle, this three-issue collection’s bulked-up extras include interviews with political advisors and practicing activists across several career tracks, including director Lexi Alexander, Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers, and future Don’t Look Up co-writer David Sirota, among others. If you’re looking for stories aiming for life beyond the status quo and a mental state severed from screen-numbed complacency, Calexit is as furiously forward-looking as comics get.

41. Zander Cannon, Kaijumax, Season One: Terror and Respect (2016). HBO’s Oz meets Toho Studios in an outrageously spoof-tastic future where humans have developed technology advanced enough and colossal enough to let them police the giant-monster population, whose endgame naturally includes the titular king-sized prison where all the worst mega-offenders are sent. Fans of Godzilla and his frenemies will surely goggle and giggle at the copious Easter eggs and the recasting of familiar monster species, but somehow blowing up all the prison tropes to skyscraper size — innocent monsters who have to toughen up behind bars! monsters with Ebonic accents! off-panel kaiju rape! — got less endearing as it went.

42. Kevin Rubio and Lucas Marangon, Abyss, Vol. 1 (2008). The creators of Tag and Bink, those delightful rascals from the Star Wars Expanded Universe, next created their own superhero title, about an infamous villain’s teenage son who knew nothing about the family business and would much rather do the opposite with it. It’s a little heavier than Tag and Bink as Our Hero deals with a tainted legacy and other heroes who aren’t sure what to make of him. When it goes for the funny bones, it nails the sweet spot. A four-issue follow-up subtitled “Family Issues” was published in 2011 but has yet to be collected.

43. Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, Paul Mounts, et al., The Immortal Hulk, Vol. 3 (2021). The hardcover collections of Ewing’s 50-issue run continue with the return of Rick Jones, an aptly repurposed Gamma Flight, and overhauls of villains like the Leader, Xemnu the Titan, and the mythical Minotaur, a crossover-event castoff who’s upgraded himself to a corporate-executive Big Bad status. It remains one of the creepiest horror comics Marvel has ever produced, but enthusiasm for it was severely dampened when its primary artist (whose work has been catching my eye since the days of DC’s 52) was canceled last year after multiple allegations of anti-Semitism and other issues that…well, weren’t a great look and deeply, thoroughly sucked to learn about. I’ve made a lifelong policy of never jumping aboard bandwagon boycotts, and it’s a shame to see such astounding efforts by Ewing and several other contributors to this volume (including one wacked-out issue drawn by Ryan Bodenheim, who passed away in December), not to mention the final two hardcovers in the series, be flushed into the sewers of comics ignominy over the one guy…but still: ugh. Best-case scenario, we can hold out vain hopes that maybe Marvel has rethought how to divvy the proceeds on their end. (I can dream.) And it doesn’t exactly slot into the “Banned Books” shelf of pride; file it under the Problematics and all the asterisked footnotes those entail.

…and that’s The End. Thanks for reading about my reading! Rest assured my 2022 list has already begun and formed its own backlog.

[See also: Stack #1: the one with Kickstarter rewards | Stack #2: the one with Trebek | Stack #3: the one with Stan Lee | Stack #4: The one with Gaiman and Lemire | Stack #5: The one with Takei and Yang]

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