Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Welcome once again to our recurring MCC feature in which I scribble capsule reviews of everything I’ve read 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 Anne 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. In the meantime, here’s me and my reading results…
25. Tillie Walden, Are You Listening? (2019). The best part of my Free Comic Book Day 2022 was discovering Walden’s work, which was unfairly outside my personal radar shaped for better or worse by a lifetime of prioritizing monthly singles over original graphic novels. Image Comics’ sneak preview of her then-upcoming Clementine was my favorite of the FCBD batch, cannoned her straight to the top of my Must-Read list, and kept her name freshly in my short-term memory when I found this book at a most unusual bookshop in Ohio. Two young ladies, one driving with an awful lot of baggage and the other a teenage runaway, pair up for a mythically hued, sometimes surrealist wintertime road trip through the farthest creepier reaches of Texas. The attempted escape from their own painful memories finds new purpose in a self-appointed quest involving boogeymen and a lost cat…or maybe it isn’t the cat who needs to be found. Stops for snacks, car accidents, chases, and stick-shift driving lessons are among the pitfalls laid before them as they keep plowing onward toward where they’re meant to be.
26. Tillie Walden, Clementine, Book One (2022). Speaking of which! That same FCBD sampler nudged me into doing something I rarely do: I pre-ordered this through my local comic shop. Consequently it came with an autographed bookplate, an awesome perk I hadn’t expected. This YA OGN stars a character from Telltale Games’ Walking Dead games, which I’ve never played, but I never felt velvet-roped off here. When last gamers left Our Heroine, she was wandering alone through New England with a makeshift prosthetic leg but managing relatively fine despite whatever tribulations she outlived (alluded to briefly without getting bogged down). Clementine’s journey takes her from a friendly Amish village, where she receives a much-needed prosthetic upgrade now that she’s earned enough XP, to treacherous Mount Killington in Vermont, where she fits in with a group of fellow teen misfit survivors in varying states of mental acuity and PTSD. Like Are You Listening? it’s a hazardous wintertime road trip in which the travelers’ burdensome pasts weigh them down as much as whatever physical effects they can carry, though the Amish lad who tags along with them on his post-apocalyptic Rumspringa feels refreshingly lighthearted about his.
Of course there are zombies, most of them easily dispatched by these young undead-fighting pros but a few situated in fiendish traps that challenge the party, as if the mountainside terrain and impending blizzard weren’t harsh enough for them. Clementine is reluctant to form new relationships given what happened to all her previous ones, but eventually she has to learn that, try as she might, she can’t do everything alone. Mostly everything, but not actually everything. Not everyone makes it out alive, but their suspenseful adventure through beautifully textured black-and-white environments is the best Walking Dead experience I’ve had in years, which maybe isn’t saying a lot since I gave up on the show in season 7, but still.
27. George R. R. Martin, ed., Wild Cards: Low Chicago (2018). The 25th book in the adults-only shared-world superhero anthology takes the series to a place where it’s never been before: time travel! Thanks to a freak accident at a superhuman poker party in Chicago, a cast of new and old characters get tossed back into random eras of local history, where they’re all screwing up our timeline and two characters (including the late Roger Zelazny’s Sleeper, one of the precious few characters still alive since Book 1) have to go retrieve them all, one short story at a time. A killer lineup of authors including longtime contributor/co-editor Melinda M. Snodgrass, Paul Cornell, Saladin Ahmed, and more more more take the lost Aces and Jokers through a wild lineup of Windy City highlights that include the 1968 Democratic Convention, the original Playboy Mansion (a different building from our timeline’s), the 1919 World Series, H. H. Holmes’ Murder Castle, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the Great Chicago Fire, saber-toothed tigers, and on back to that fabled dinosaur-extinctifying meteor. A running gag about Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”, which I well remember, adds to the tremendous fun.
My favorite chapter is Marko Kloos’ “Stripes”, in which a Mob bodyguard named Khan has to sneak around detailed 1920s street geography, which isn’t easy for a guy who’s one-half burly tiger-man. After accidentally disrupting crime history, he has no choice but to go “fix” the St. Valentine’s massacre, which requires him to be more of an enforcer than a bodyguard, which isn’t the same thing. Different jobs can require different mindsets, even when folks think your skill set ought to be easily transferable.
28. George R. R. Martin, ed., Wild Cards: Texas Hold ‘Em (2018) The 26th book in the adults-only shared-world superhero anthology takes the series to a place where it’s never been before: a YA novel! Bubbles, the Ace heroine who survived the Cthulhu-esque catastrophe of the 23rd book High Stakes, has a much different challenge this time, less deadly but no less vexing: chaperoning her adopted insectoid daughter Adesina’s school jazz band to a national contest in San Antonio. Teenage attitude, curfew violations, anti-Joker bigots, saboteurs, street criminals, one insufferably vainglorious reality-show diva, and a g-g-g-g-g-GHOST are among the obstacles facing our chaperones and their charges as they alternate between their swingin’ sets and their outings to the nearby Riverwalk. The sabotage and bigotry storylines are predictable (surprise spoiler: they’re related!) and one tale of young stupid love on the lam is particularly a letdown, not to mention the book’s climax involving a gratuitous giant creature and the day being saved by a cheesy inter-band jam session, but one arc in particular stuck with me — Diana Rowland’s “Beats, Bugs, and Boys”, in which a drummer girl from deep-backwoods Louisiana who can control and talk to mosquitos, isolated all her life from any other Aces and Jokers, comes to the big city in hopes of meeting other not-so-normal folks like herself and finds a crowd where she fits in. Her curiosity and joy are quite infectious, much like her mini-minions.
29. Markisan Naso, Jason Muhr, and Andrei Tabacaru, Voracious, Vol. 3: Appetite for Destruction (2019). The trilogy that began with Volume 1 and Volume 2 reaches its uncompromising conclusion in which Our Hero, the young chef who invents a groundbreaking cuisine whose main ingredients are dinosaur meats he hunted and killed in an alternate timeline where dinosaurs later evolved into people, has to deal with the consequences of his actions and the dinosaur people whose lives were ruined or erased by the butterfly effects of his shenanigans. It isn’t the first time a comic has presented the idea of bipedal dinosaur cops, but it might be the first to deserve to be taken seriously. One battle scene in particular, in which disastrous side effects turn one such cop into a violent mad-saur, is a total jaw-dropper.
30. Markisan Naso, Jason Muhr, and Andrei Tabacaru, By the Horns, Vol. 1: The Wind Rises (2022). The creators of Voracious stuck together for their next/current project, set in a fantasy world where evil magicians need to be taken down lest they ruin everything, which doesn’t sound revolutionary, but nearly all the magical creatures throughout the land are the authors’ own creations rather than loaners from the D&D Monster Manuals that most sword-and-sorcery authors keep next to their laptops. The requisite questing party is led by a young fighter named Elodie with a vendetta against all unicorns because of a unicorn-related tragedy in her past. Of course things get complicated when she realizes she needs unicorn assistance to save her village and the world…though she’d much rather be slaughtering unicorns than world-saving. The first volume makes short work of most of the baddies, leaving more time to focus on the more benign nonhuman party members who bring balance to Elodie’s tunnel-visioned fury and try to convince her #notallunicorns.
31. Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (1999). Years ago when our church used to hold adult Bible study classes on Sundays in addition to the normal service, one of our teachers used to refer to this book all the time. The headliner among the two authors was more well-known as one of the chief Watergate perpetrators, who did his time in prison and found more constructive purposes upon his release — prison ministries and so forth. His largest (co-)written work became one of the seminal texts on the Christian side of that whole “culture war” thing that now bulldozes through far too many attempted conversations and dictates the worldviews of a lot of folks who think the Bible consists solely of Jesus roundhouse-kicking the money-changers in the temple, Paul’s talks about metaphorical swords and shields, all those bloody Old Testament wars and…that’s it, that’s their Bible, the whittled-down Airplane! pamphlet from which they hear God’s voice telling them they’re the action heroes Jesus needs to pummel nonbelievers into shutting up and getting out of “their” America or whatever. They aren’t my favorite crowd and are part of the reason why I edited my social media profiles into more dissociative terms.
That said, this 500-page book sees Colson contemplating numerous sides of modern living — the contrasting and often incompatible worldviews, the nonpartisan deterioration of American society, the worldly assumptions that we maybe don’t reconsider too deeply on an everyday basis, and philosophies that evince some Scriptural influence while compromising them with secular insertions. I disagreed with some of his conclusions, appreciated his and his co-writer’s insights into others from an alternative perspective that doesn’t jibe with the internet cool kids’ party lines, but bristled at a few chapters that lead off with anecdotal role-modeling stories which he confesses in later sections were mostly fictional but filled a need for a parable where he couldn’t dig up a sufficiently perfect analogy to use in their place.
32. Stephen W. Smith, The Lazarus Life: Spiritual Transformation for Ordinary People (2008). Now that our church no longer offers adult Bible classes and all the Christian bookstores on our side of town shut down long before the pandemic, my faith-based book recommendations come primarily from whenever our lead pastor bases a sermon on one. Our Barnes & Noble of course has a religion section, but I can’t tell any of the modern-era Christian nonfiction apart, and in aggregate they just look like the self-help section except Jesus is name-checked on a few more spines. Anyway, this one uses the story of Lazarus’ resurrection as a template for perceiving and praying for times in our lives when we need the removal of old shrouds and the renewal of aspects gone fallow. I read this much earlier in the year and failed to write down any “aha” moments, but I don’t remember questioning or disagreeing with anything.
33. Gary L. Thomas, Authentic Faith: The Power of a Fire-Tested Life (2002). A lengthy listicle of sorts in which the author breaks down ten qualities that Christians ought to consider and hone as true disciplines even if they don’t sound like bragworthy qualities, which isn’t something we should be worrying about anyway. Chapters cover important topics such as selflessness, suffering, persecution (like, actual persecution, not “Twitter liberals are mean to me”), forgiveness, social mercy, waiting (always a tough one for me and my impatience), and so forth. This one had quite a few more “aha” moments than the previous books, though a few of his real-world role-modeling examples have aged poorly in the two decades since publication, such as an entire tribute to former luminary Lance Armstrong that’s laughably null and void. Such is the risk of writing Christian nonfiction about sinners whose lives are still in progress and subject to failure without notice.
34. Pamela Ribon, Veronica Fish, Brittany Peer and Laura Langston, Slam!, Vol. 1 (2017). I may have flipped the TV channel to the original Rollerball on some childhood weekend afternoon, but the wild world of roller derby is otherwise a faraway exotic land to me. I’ve seen more mosh pits in my life than roller derbies, though the latter looks way more organized and safer. Indianapolis has its own team, albeit currently in pandemic hibernation, who used to do public appearances at places we went, where I got to learn a few of the game’s surface details, like the skaters’ punny names.
This dramedy chronicles the highs and lows of a particular team in all their feminist, feminine candor — the tough training curve, the messy friendships, the injuries, and the behind-the-scenes stuff that might make some dudes squirm and pale. (I’ve been married for 18 years. I can handle it.) My only qualm is the helpful “How Roller Derby Works” tutorial for ignoramuses like me doesn’t come up till halfway through the book. Of its creators, Ribon has written several animated films (Moana being the best so far) and was among the original contributors to Television Without Pity (Anne was a big fan of that site); I’ve seen Fish’s dexterous line work on series like Blackwood and Archie during its funny, shortened pre-Riverdale reboot era. Together they’re a team to be reckoned with, one that’ll elbow you jokingly in the ribs before they elbow you off the track and into the concrete.
35. Zoe Thorogood, The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott (2020). The British graphic novelist completed her heartbreaking, inspirational, masterfully illustrated debut book at age 21. Meanwhile, here I am at 50 with a rinky-dink blog feeling like Milhouse bringing his toy horsey to Show and Tell. Anyway, Billie from the title is an artist in her formative young-adult years, taking the early steps of her life’s direction and close to finding her voice when a nasty head trauma leaves her retinas nearly detached, soon to be fully so. Before her eyesight disappears for good, she commits to one last visualized project: composing ten portraits for what just might be the only gallery showing she’ll ever have. Her quest takes her through various towns and backstreets, across personalities big and withdrawn, friendly and corrupted. From them she has to decide who’s worthy of the honor of being her last rendered subjects.
Thorogood’s sure hand guides Billie through a parade of city neighborhoods isolated with carefully chosen monotone palette settings, where everyone thinks they’re the heroes of their stories and a few of them are right. I’m reminded of Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor, another story about an artist energized by fear of a Dreaded Deadline Doom into composing the final works for which they’ll hopefully be remembered. Whereas that book’s artist came from a more self-absorbed place and had to have an otherworldly boost, Billie’s smarts and talents are fully inborn, though — much like Walden’s Clementine — there’re gaps in her perceptions and experiences best compensated for by the right set of friends. Beyond the moral of “the real art subjects were the friends she made along the way”, her most important lesson comes after what she mistakenly thinks is The End: the blind are capable of doing a lot. It isn’t The End by any means. Art will find a way.
36. Pornsak Pichetshote, Aaron Campbell, and Jose Villarubia, Infidel (2020). Pichetshote wrote one of my favorite comics of 2022, the period-piece noir The Good Asian, and shot to the top of my Must-Read list alongside the aforementioned Ms. Walden. When I saw his name on this book at Campbell’s table at Fan Expo Chicago, passersby could hear the sounds of screeching tires coming from my shoes as I braked to a halt to buy it on the spot.
Fractured by the death of a core member, a NYC family and their friends and neighbors (some not-so-friendly) live in a tenement with a checkered history, one that may be connected to its newest inhabitants: a batch of racist, xenophobic, murderous ghosts. It’s unfair to say which among the diverse cast is our “main” character because it’s that kind of horror story where no one’s safe, not even from each other as the debates over What Just Happened reveal unspoken and unconscious rifts among them. Pichetshote and Campbell know exactly how to pace an authentically scary story for maximum shock and plumb deeply into the diverse cast’s internal lives as they walk one by one into the ever-threatening shadows of the building that no longer feels like home.
37. J.H. Williams III, D. Curtis Johnson, Mick Gray, et al., Chase (2011). Before he became one of the best artists in the medium today with rules-defying, multi-styled works like Promethea, Sandman: Overture, and his current series Echolands (and co-created the star of The CW’s erstwhile Batwoman), Williams worked his way up through the Marvel and DC ranks with random guest-art jobs and an occasional odd-duck series like this one that ran circa ’95-’96. Cameron Chase is a world-weary government agent with an anti-metahuman chip on her shoulder, assigned to police that community on behalf of the DEO, newly introduced in this series and later adapted into The CW’s Supergirl. DEO head honcho Mr. Bones — an Infinity Inc. nemesis whose side-switching remains unexplained to this day — is a valuable supporting player here and was recently played by Keith David in two episodes of Stargirl.
Though the ten issues reprinted here are over twenty years old (plus Chase’s debut in an issue of Batman by her creators Doug Moench and Kelley Jones, along with several shorts), even Williams’ earlier efforts from 25 years ago are far more inventive than many of the Marvel and DC comics I ignore on 2022 racks. DC’s frequent timeline changes and company-wide reboots have done the series no favors, as peculiarities of the era abound and hamper readability this far into the distant future. Thrill to such bygone distractions as Electric Superman, the forgettable Teen Titans led by a de-aged Atom, Grant Morrison’s DC One Million crossover event, the post-USSR Rocket Reds, and a Suicide Squad with no classic members except arguably Killer Frost. The mandatory Batman appearance is naturally timeless, but failed to provide the sales boost they needed to keep this going. Helping lesser-known DC heroes with their sagging sales remains one of Batman’s assigned secondary duties to this day, but he can’t save everyone.
The series had fewer story arcs than I expected (the Suicide Squad team-up in particular feels padded) and consequently didn’t give Chase enough memorable cases to become the standout she could’ve been, but at least she looked cool, albeit less so when guest artists began stepping in and navigating their own learning curves. (Not for lack of trying on their part — welcome, for one, a young Charlie Adlard, future longtime collaborator on The Walking Dead.) Bonus points to Williams and Johnson for creating their own entire retro-cheesy super-team, the Justice Experience, who appeared here exclusively before vanishing into DC space-time oblivion forever. At least they tried.
38. Dash Shaw, Discipline (2021). Previously on MCC, Shaw was admired for such tales as Cosplayers, Clue: Candlestick, and two different Free Comic Book Day shorts. For this historical drama, Shaw stripped down to the most primitive basics to somewhere between concept sketches and storyboards, yet builds to tragedy with an undeniable force. A Quaker lad named Charles walks away from his community’s pacifist beliefs because he decides ’tis a far more godly calling to join the Union Army and do his part to help end the tyranny of slavery. While his family is shattered by what they perceive as a blasphemous rejection of faith, Charles undergoes hardships he never imagined as he learns how to soldier, tests the limits of his endurance, and suffers injuries that never would’ve happened if he’d stayed home and convinced himself that hiding from the world was the best way to serve God.
39. Neil Gaiman, P. Craig Russell, Matt Horak, Mark Buckingham, Gabriel Hernandez walta, Sandy Jarrell and Lovern Kindzierski, Norse Mythology Vol. 2 (2022). I read the original book back in 2021 after picking it up as a souvenir from a Viking-themed attraction in Minnesota, but passed this up when it was first released in singles because I’m capricious about which of Dark Horse Comics’ many Gaiman adaptations I add to my library. Then on a slow new-comics week I looked at the artist roster and figured, “Wait, just why am I not?” That lineup with Buckingham (Miracleman, Fables), Walta (Vision, Magneto), Jarrell (Batman ’66) and of course Russell himself — a longtime adapter of fine literature, operas and other works into graphic storytelling — have all floored me before; why expect otherwise now?
All the artists held to their high standards. Coming into this I didn’t know Matt Horak, but his style reminds me of a slightly jollier Kieron Dwyer and fits in well with the older pros. This is a fine package for anyone who loves Thor and Loki stories with or without their familiar Marvel forms, but personally I had two drawbacks: (a) I had just read the book, so the experience had a certain “too soon” feel; and (b) the biggest problem with comics adaptations of Gaiman’s prose is that the very nature of the beast requires his poetic imagery to be converted into illustrations, and the narration and dialogue pared so the captions don’t crush the characters against their panel borders, which means you’re ultimately getting fewer pounds of whimsically vivid Gaiman verbiage per pound. Like, which is the richer experience: hearing Gaiman’s narrators in your mind’s auditorium narrating to you with an excited gleam in their eye, or cool drawings of that same gleam? Minor fussbudget gripes, these.
40. Neil Cross, Luther: The Calling (2011). As a fan of one of the grimmest TV shows ever, I’d have read this the month of release if only someone had notified me of its existence sooner. The very creator of Idris Elba’s iconic antihero police detective John Luther wrote him a prequel, in which a slightly younger version of our relentless “big man with a big walk” (Cross’ apt recurring sum-up of him) is already the best there is at what he does, with only the occasional moral compromise per case that he keeps below-radar enough to avoid hard looks from The Powers That Be. Then comes a case involving serial child abductions that might just be the one that pushes him over the edge. When the handling becomes a public matter and things go horridly awry…well, Luther does what he does, even in the worst of times when he has to negotiate intel from humanity’s rottenest mentally deformed bottom-feeders.
Meanwhile on the home front, he’s still married to Zoe (played in the series by Obi-Wan Kenobi‘s Indira Varma), albeit not for long as we also learn what tore their marriage apart (not hard to guess) and how Paul McGann’s Mark came in and cuckolded him. Fans, when they’re not drowning in the same level of despair that the show excels in brewing, should appreciate other familiar faces living again in prose, such as Luther’s coked-up staff-hacker pal Benny. (DS Ripley, my all-time favorite Luther partner, rates a chapter-length cameo.) It’s no cheerier than the show itself, yet leads us nonetheless at breakneck speed through its long, grimdark tunnel to the pinpricks of light at the end that keep us and Luther going. As the sole writer of every episode ever, Cross obviously captures the voice of it all, but he nails Elba’s own physical mannerisms and tics as well, bringing him to three-dimensional tough-luck life in cold, hard print.
41. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, Cruel Summer (2022). While we’re already lingering along these dangerous noir streets and catching up on OGN creators I’ve lost track of over time, here’s a crossing of both those tracks with an 8-issue collection of Criminal, the duo’s celebrated Image Comics series. This late-’80s hard-boiled heist drama tosses complicated father/son dynamics into its volatile mix, weaves a grungy tapestry of lies and intergenerational failures, riddles it with bullets and dares you to root for any of these guys, young or old, who fence themselves in with poor choices and have to claw their way out of the wreckage when someone else’s poor choices blow up in their face.
42. Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Ruy José, Paul Mounts, et al., The Immortal Hulk, Vol. 4 (2022). Readers love buttons proclaiming “I READ BANNED BOOKS”, but no one owns a T-shirt bragging “I READ CANCELED CREATORS”. But…this is a thing I read. I got hooked on the hardcover collections of Marvel’s scariest 21st-century horror series during the pandemic and already proffered a king-sized asterisk when I wrote about Volume 3, which was released after the primary artist infamously said and/or drew allegedly anti-Semitic things, which incontrovertibly sucks. But Ewing swung for the fences so hard and for so long with this book that I wanted to see where he went with it to the bitter end, ugly warts and all. (To his credit, a while back Ewing publicly stated that any future proceeds of his from the series would be immediately forwarded to appropriate nonprofits as karmic rebalancing or what-have-you. That may not fully atone for the perceived transgressions of all others involved from publisher to buyers, but there it is.)
For the record: ten more issues of frightening body-horror rooted in Marvel canon continue apace with an absolutely bonkers revamp of Xemnu the Titan as a mass-hypnotic TV icon, the overdue returns of the Leader and Rick Jones (uh, sorta?), further adventures of the Gamma Flight, deadlier hi-jinks surrounding the Green Door in the afterlife, a hallucinogenic sequence from guest artist Nick Pitarra (The Manhattan Projects) and the headline revelation of costar Dr. Charlene McGowan as trans. Investigative reporter Jackie McGee gets short shrift this time around, but will return emphatically to center stage when we cover the final volume later in 2023, a year in which we’ll also be seeking out further works from the seemingly brilliant-so-far Mr. Ewing and continue apologizing for what I’ve done here.
…The End. Thanks for reading about reading! For the rest of the list, check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for more capsules. (A special note about Part 2: that one includes my impressions of the first hardcover collection of Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco’s Arrowsmith, which I wrote two weeks before Pacheco passed away in November. R.I.P.)
Here’s hoping the 2023 edition of this recurring feature recurs much more regularly, Lord willing.