Thursday, October 13, 2016

Superstitious, Cowardly Lot

Batman: Haunted Knight Written by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. Art by Tim Sale.
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna

Batman and Halloween just make sense together. Certainly Bruce Wayne wasn’t the first, or the last, ultra-rich playboy to fight crime by donning a mask and costume. However his costume isn’t just a mask to conceal his identity or armor to protect his body. His chosen totem, that of the bat, is linked in our culture to the night, the occult, and Halloween. It is part of Batman’s creed that he considers the criminals of Gotham “a superstitious, cowardly lot.” In his more gritty adaptations we see how Batman deploys the imagery of the supernatural, his Dracula-like cape and his pointed ears, which present an almost demonic profile to strike fear into the hearts of hapless henchmen.

Even his most iconic villains look more like people headed to a costume party then on the way to commit a crime: clowns, a dapper penguin in a tuxedo, a sexy cat-woman, and a man bisected between good and evil. And like Halloween itself, this iconography can be tweaked to move along the spectrum toward children or in the other direction toward a mature audience. On one end of the spectrum we have Adam West’s Batman attempting to thwart some ridiculous caper by comedians, on the other end, Christian Bale trying to stop deadly terrorist attacks by a method actor.

So let’s continue our Nerds who Read Halloween series with the graphic novel, Batman: Haunted Knight. I wanted to hire long-time Joker voice actor Mark Hamill to introduce this review in his Joker voice, à la the Crypt Keeper, but my cheap editor won’t pay his fee, so you’ll have to use your imagination:

“Okay, listen up kiddos, the following material requires parental guidance. On the other hand do you know who didn’t have parental guidance? Little Bruce Wayne and look how well-adjusted he turned out. HAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Haunted Knight is a collection of three separate standalone stories: “Fears”, “Madness”, and “Ghosts”. Each of these was a Halloween special when authors Loeb and Sale were the creative team on the Legends of the Dark Knight monthly comic. Together the three stories form a sort of concept album, same creative team, same overall tone, but each part distinct.

In the first part, “Fears,” our hero is challenged on two fronts: Batman seeks to bring in the villain Scarecrow and his fear-inducing chemicals, and a beguiling redhead has set her sights on Bruce Wayne at a costume ball. And for those who think they’ve got it figured out just from the premise, this redheaded vixen is not famous man-eating plant-lady Poison Ivy, but rather a more mundane threat to Batman’s crusade: he might find a reason to settle down.

In the second installment, “Madness,” childhood fantasy is warped into adult obsession when the criminal Mad Hatter kidnaps Commissioner Gordon’s young daughter when she is out trick-or-treating, dressed as Alice from Alice in Wonderland.

The creative team takes some inspiration from Batman director Tim Burton In the final tale, “Ghosts.” They bring Halloween and Christmas together and see what happens. One Halloween night, Bruce Wayne is placed in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge as he is tormented by apparitions guiding him through his past, present, and future. Our hero is asked what kind of legacy he wants to leave as Batman and as Bruce Wayne.

Unlike some writer/artist teams, where the artist slavishly attempts to illustrate the purple pulpy prose sent down from the writing department, Loeb and Sale work as a dynamic duo. The text is either sharp dialogue or internal monologue that doesn’t obscure the fine art and panel arrangement. With contributions from colorist Gregory Wright, they weave quite the immersive tale. Loeb and Sale have worked together with Batman before and in their hands certain parts of the Batman iconography are more form than function. Batman has an impossibly long cape that unfurls into bat wings when airborne, yet pools and billows around his ankles like a personal fog bank when he stands still. His rogues gallery, Joker, Scarecrow, and Mad Hatter, are more caricature grotesques then people; the Joker is all toothy grin, the Scarecrow a gangly assortment of rags, and the Hatter a dumpy little man who looks like he walked right out of the Lewis Carroll storybooks. In Loeb and Sale’s excellent crime saga Batman: The Long Halloween and its sequels Dark Justice and Catwoman:When in Rome, the highly stylized character designs of the supervillains stand in stark, probably deliberate contrast to the more believable and grounded character designs of Gotham’s traditional mafia families. But here, that contrast isn’t called for. It’s just Batman and his foes tearing it up, on the spookiest night of the year no less, so bending the laws of reality makes more sense for the Halloween atmosphere. In two stories, “Fear” and “Ghosts,” there are sequences where actual dream logic and imagery is on wonderful display. In “Fear,” a dose of Scarecrow’s fear gas subjects Batman to all kinds of illusionary horrors. As “Ghosts” is directly inspired by A Christmas Carol, Bruce Wayne is whisked magically from his bedchamber to all the different locales and times. At one point, as Bruce walks through the mansion to meet the Ghost of Halloween Present, his pajamas and dressing gown shift and morph until he is wearing his Batman cape and cowl.

As I said, Batman and Halloween make a lot of sense together thematically and this is the creative team to pull off a whole grab bag of tricks and treats that pair this specific character and this specific holiday. I would highly recommend checking out Haunted Knight if given the opportunity. It isn’t heavy on continuity, so even if you're familiar with Batman mainly through TV and film, and the comic books are uncharted territory to you, you'll find it rewarding.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Fahrenheit 10-31

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury. Audiobook narrated by Bronson Pinchot.
Book Review by Kerey McKenna

October is Halloween, so I thought I’d kick off the month here at Nerds Who Read with the Ray Bradbury classic The Halloween Tree. It isn’t just a story of the occult, and thereby Halloween-themed. It’s a ghost story of Halloween: an exhumation of the ancient traditions, civilizations, and very primal fears that gave rise to the Dance Macabre and harvest festival that lie just below the surface of Halloween the American Holiday of door-to-door candy collection. Our story begins in small town America. The small town America that is no place in particular and yet so very specific:

It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn't so much wilderness around you couldn't see the town. But on the other hand there wasn't so much town you couldn't see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across.

In this idealized American town lives of course the most idealized American boy since Huckleberry Finn took his famous raft ride, Joe Pipkin. Pipkin leads a cohort of eight rambunctious boys who are always up for whatever game, adventure, or practical joke a group of twelve-year olds will swear was a good idea at the time.

But this Halloween, the band of brothers is without their fearless leader: Pipkin has fallen seriously ill. Or so they thought: the Trick-or-Treating boys could swear they saw him run into the old, dilapidated, and therefore, surely haunted house with the gnarled, twisted tree in the backyard. A tree from which hang jack-o’-lanterns of all shapes and sizes. Something they have never seen before but can name instantly because it is so self-evidentially…a Halloween Tree.

There they meet the mysterious Mr. Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud who reveals that if they do not learn the origins of Halloween and find their friend Pipkin’s wandering soul, they will lose him forever.

The gang (the boys are named but rather interchangeable save for their costumes: Ghost, Witch, Gargoyle, Devil, Ape-Man, Mummy, Skeleton, and Grim Reaper) are whisked away on a magical journey by Moundshroud, chasing the spirit of Pipkin through the ages, learning about the ceremonies, fears, history, and religions that formed the iconography of Halloween as we know it today in America. But at the end of what could possibly be the most engrossing presentation on the cultural anthropology of a holiday, the boys will have to make a bold sacrifice to retrieve their friend.

The common wisdom of drama is that both magic and horror lose their power if the audience sees what’s really going on. So does explaining the origins of the ghosts and goblins of our autumn holiday rob them of their danger and mystique? Not really, since Moundshroud’s thesis statement is that humanity’s contemplation of its own mortality is the root of all these traditions. Behind all the fearsome monsters isn’t a harmless old huckster pulling the strings like the Wizard of Oz, but rather Death itself. That this quest for knowledge is also an attempt to rescue a beloved friend from Death’s clutches raises the stakes and makes the boys acknowledge their own mortality, in a way they never had before, and as an important step into adulthood.

As I mentioned in my review of Lovecraft Country, I find there is something special about having a ghost story read to me. I therefore chose to “read” The Halloween Tree with my ears, via the audiobook narrated by Bronson Pinchot (yes, the one from Perfect Strangers). Pinchot does an excellent job capturing all at once the ominous Moundshroud, the Norman Rockwell naivete of the boys, and the sometimes lyrical, often purple prose of the narrator.

I would highly recommend seeking out this story during October to get you into the Halloween spirit. In addition to paper, Kindle, and audio versions, there is an animated adaptation from the 90’s that is still generally available commercially and sometimes still gets air time. It features Leonard Nimoy as Moundshroud and Ray Bradbury himself as the narrator. But regardless of which incarnation you choose, this story is for anyone with little boys and ghouls who find it a treat to learn something from scary Halloween tricks.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds Who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Conan the Librarian?

Geek Fitness Inspiration: Literature Edition
By David Mandeix

Today I’d like to discuss the seemingly incongruous idea of nerds and fitness.

Specifically, I’d like to focus on the strange dichotomy that exists wherein nerds are not great physical specimens, but almost every character in their preferred obsession is.

Somewhere back in prehistoric times, around the origins of the term nerd (a brand that I bear proudly, by the way, and have since my youth) came the stereotype of being physically unfit. A nerd was either overweight—due to lack of physical exertion—or underweight—due to lack of physical exertion. In my own case, I landed on the heavy end of the spectrum.

And why was this? Largely because the typical physical activities associated with lean muscle and general good health hold no interest to the common nerd; at least I knew this to be the case for me. Also, those things were difficult, not very exciting, I wasn’t good at them, and I was lazy. This compounded my difficulties in socializing in general, as I shared no interest or aptitude in activities that generally made one popular (see: sports). And could you blame me? #Sorrynotsorry: I thought that lords, swords, and dragons were more exciting than watching a person hit, throw, or run with a sports-ball, and if HBO’s viewership was anything to go by, the number of people who agreed with me was on the rise.

It dawned on me one day that it was profoundly strange to admire my heroes and follow their fantastical adventures without actually having adventures of my own. If these things were so exciting to me, why wasn’t I out there doing them? Thus began a long and arduous journey that blossomed into a love of fitness and physical challenges. I submit myself and my own experiences as the case study. This is partially because I know my own story best, partially because I hope you will find it interesting, but mostly because I am in the process of inflicting my fitness mania on my long-suffering roommate Kerey (known to Nerds who Read readers as the resident expert on all things steampunk).

One day, after dragging him through a particularly tough workout, Kerey put the question to me: “What books or films inspired you to get fit?” It was a valid question; after all, it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for hard work when you’re not inspired! While there are many books and movies that have gotten me to this point, I’d like to submit to you my top five nerd-fitness motivators:

5. Altered Carbon (Richard Morgan, 2002). A neo-noir cyberpunk novel and a hell of a great read, this book’s hero (anti-hero?) drove home the need for mental toughness, personal grit, and borderline psychotic motivation during his adventures. This is the sort of thing that made me want to go back to the gym the next day, even though my body was in agony. This book will make you want to run that extra mile and do that extra rep. (Disclaimer: It will also make you want whisky and cigarettes, but you’ve got to take the good with the bad).

4. Martin the Warrior (Brian Jacques, 1993). This was the first book I remember staying up all night to read. I couldn’t put it down. I think I was in sixth grade at the time. Gripping story and indomitable heroes, in spite of all the suffering that was heaped upon them. This book probably first instilled in me the admiration of heroes that spit in death’s eye when their backs were to the wall. Also, bonus points because all of the characters are woodland creatures, and when a mouse can inspire you to be badass, that says something.

3. Gates of Fire (Steven Pressfield, 1998) is a 1998 historical novel that recounts the Battle of Thermopylae through the eyes of an auxiliary, but also chronicles the training of the Spartan warriors and their noble battle and sacrifice. In addition to coming into my possession around the same time 300 came out, it paints a vivid picture of the ruthless Spartan training regime; it’s the kind of story that makes you want to heft a spear and shield and engage in a raucous clash of arms. After reading this book, my training relied heavily on a weight vest (Forty pounds was the closest approximation I could get to a hoplite’s armor).

2. Spartacus (Starz, 2010). A spectacular premium cable series in terms of both story line, cinematography, and—let's face it—some extremely good muscle porn. It chronicles the story of the eponymous gladiator, and should have enough violence, intrigue, and historical sentence structure for any nerd. Bonus: it features excellent performances by John Hannah and Lucy Lawless. Lucy, by the way, was 42 at the time of the filming and looks absolutely stunning. The actor playing the main character was 39 and incredibly ripped. Not to mention the (now) 46 year old actor playing Crixus. Just goes to show the lasting benefits of fitness... I challenge anyone to watch this TV show and not want to work out.

1. Conan the Barbarian (books and films). The granddaddy of them all. From Robert E. Howard, to L. Sprague de Camp, to Robert Jordan (yes, in his early days!), I loved loved LOVED the Conan series. Introduced to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie at a formative moment of my youth, but forced to acknowledge that I did not possess the “strength of a great ape,” the “lithe movements of a panther,” or even “well-oiled muscles that moved like snakes under the torchlight,” I determined to acquire these things. Though at the time, my thighs were neither mighty nor steely, Conan was really what made me start putting the hours in at the gym. And is it any surprise? Eighty per cent of Conan’s problems are solved through judicious application of his barbarian physique. Sign me up for Body by Cimmeria.

There are countless other books and movies that inspired or added fuel to my fitness journey (possibly to be covered in another article), but these five make up the core of my motivation to set down the book and pick up the weight. Don’t get me wrong—I haven’t given up books. I still read nightly and use my nerdy obsessions to help drive my fitness goals. If anything, imagining that I’m scaling a Cimmerian cliff or running down a Persian scout makes the exercises a little bit easier to stomach. It is my sincere hope that they can somehow inspire other folks as well!


Friday, September 9, 2016

A Justice League of Their Own

DC Comics: Bombshells, Volumes 1 & 2
Written by Marguerite Bennett with art by Laura Braga, Mirka Andolfo, and other contributors
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna

Comic books built around selling toys are nothing new, but the genesis of DC Comics’ new series Bombshells was a bit convoluted. In 2013, the company issued a run of collectible statuettes re-imagining iconic DC Heroines like Wonder Woman and Supergirl with character designs inspired by classic pin-ups and Diesel-Punk (the 1930-50’s art deco cousin of Steampunk). These character re-designs were then repurposed as “variant covers” for DC’s run of regular comics for one month (variants being covers that encourage collectors to buy multiple copies of the same comic for the special covers). Now, with Bombshells, DC is building a story around these character re-designs—the women of DC Comics fight in an alternate World War II against the Axis of Evil: Nazi Germany….AND ZOMBIES!

So can a graphic novel series set in the 1940's, seemingly designed to push collectibles and retro cheesecake, provide a good narrative and satisfy the political sensitivities of the 2010's? And what is a 1940’s take on Wonder Woman anyway, given that the character premiered in 1941?

While Wonder Woman’s origin story is almost completely unaltered (the princess of a mystical island of warrior women follows WW2 aviator Steve Trevor back to the outside world to fight the evil Nazis), her iconic outfit is merged with that of another heroine of the 1940’s war effort…Rosie the Riveter. Bombshells (helmed by a mostly female creative team) moves the heroines of the DC Universe into center stage by setting their story in a version of World War II without DC’s male superheroes in the mix. Bombshells works best when it grounds its heroines in the real world contributions of women, whether in theaters of war or on the home front. Batwoman and Batgirl are vigilantes who are also members of the women’s baseball league (immortalized in the film A League of Their Own) that moved into the Major League Baseball diamonds when the men went off to fight. Supergirl and Stargirl are members of the famous Soviet all-women’s volunteer aerial bomber squadron, the Night Witches. When she’s not sinking Nazi submarines with the aid of sea creatures, Mera the Aquawoman entertains sailors in USO-style stage shows.

The first volume is highly episodic with different narrative threads of different heroines becoming involved with the war effort, while Volume 2 draws most of the characters together to repel an undead Blitzkrieg on London. Unlike some other recent “World War II…but with superheroes” series, DC Comics Bombshells doesn’t concern itself much with period details (like the exact date or progress of the war. These details are vague at best and contradictory at worst) or with much of the historical realities of the time and place (intelligence official Amanda Waller, an African American woman, has all the authority she possesses in the modern series Suicide Squad, without any attempt to explain how that would work in segregated America). The creators aren’t worrying about explaining it so don’t think about it too hard yourself.

So how does the series hold up? Well, as far as period pieces go I wouldn’t rate it as high as DC’s Golden Age and New Frontier limited series but Bombshells did exceed my expectations.

The art is vibrant and dynamic and surprisingly very classy despite the “what if our heroines were pin-ups?” premise. I guess this would be the same very fine distinction aficionados of burlesque shows claim separates the experience from “mere strip-clubs.” Most of the costumes don’t have the “painted on” look of modern superhero spandex and the artists mostly avoid the tacky “Snake Spine” or “Escher Girl” poses that contort the female form in painful or impossible ways to present T&A. And I dare say, with the men sidelined or non-existent, the comic may pass the feminist Bechdel Test: “whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man (Wikipedia).” In this case, the only heroines who are in any way defined by relationships to a man would be Wonder Woman (who considers Steve Trevor under her protection) and Harley Quinn (whose obsession with the Joker is fairly central to her character). For others, it doesn’t matter if the men are, in the words of the 1943 hit song, either too young or too old, because they weren’t very interested in the men in the first place.

If there is one area where the-fast-and-loose-with-history attitude falls short it’s on some of the period set dressing. One of the artists (I’m not sure which, due to the large number of contributors) uses modern designs for cars, tanks, and military uniforms. This was disappointing because they put so much thought into the character designs, but then it seemed like they used the first bit of reference material that came up in Google for "Tank" or “Ambulance.” I wouldn’t consider myself even an armchair military historian but even to me the M1-Abrams tank (those used in the Gulf Wars) trundling around Germany as part of the SS Panzer division somehow distracts me from the amazon warrior ripping it apart with her bare hands. Although I must have developed a fetish for historical accuracy in my old age if it’s distracting me from all these scantily clad women tearing up the battlefield.

While this series wouldn’t go on my “must read” list, I think the right audience really can get something out of it. If my friends sending home pictures from Dragon Con over Labor Day Weekend are any indication, a fair number of female cosplayers have jumped at the chance to give a pin-up glam twist to their favorite heroines. And given the grim nature of DC’s film adaptations I’m always keen to boost anything that shows they can actually have fun with these characters.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Strange Fruit and Alien Geometries

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Book Review by Kerey McKenna

August 20th was the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, famed Author of Call of Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness, and other pulp tales of foreboding New England towns where clandestine conspiracies attempt to awaken long-slumbering, cosmic horrors. In honor of Mr. Lovecraft, I sought out a novel with Lovecraftian themes for this week’s review, the latest in my series, “I read this…with my ears.”

My search turned up a mesmerizing new novel, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. The book puts a novel historical spin on some classic Lovecraft themes but grounds the horrors and dangers in recent American history. I chose the audio book; there is always something unnerving about having a horror story read to you. In addition to serving as third person narrator, Kevin Kenerly does an apt job playing all roles, black, white, young or old, male or female.

Leaving aside H.P.’s break-out star Cthulhu, the iconic slumbering cephalopod, what are the most identifiable themes of Lovecraft’s eerie tales? What local landmarks would signal to a weary, but wary, traveler that they have crossed the border into Lovecraft country? I would posit there are three:

  1. Hostile environments: From the barren arctic poles to rural New England villages that don’t take kindly to outsiders, you get the sense that you are clearly not welcome among these insular, and probably inbred, country folk.
  2. Malevolent Conspiracies: If, despite the icy welcome, one were to make it to the manor house overlooking this odd community, there would be no respite from the strangeness and unease. One might soon discover that the country aristocrats are members of a secret society. A society whose tendrils influence every local authority. And if you come to their attention you may well be the “guest of honor” for a strange ceremony that you may not survive…
  3. Cosmic Insignificance: Dubbed “cosmicism” by H.P. himself, it is the horror experienced by the individual human mind when confronted with the fact that not only is it not the center of the universe, but in the grand scheme of things the struggles and desires of the individual do not matter.

So does Matt Ruff do anything different with these themes than what Stephen King has done many times over? Yes. He acknowledges that here, in America, an entire population had to cross through or even somehow survive and eke out an existence in “Lovecraft Country:” African Americans in the Jim Crow era.

If one’s skin is the “wrong color,” then the wrong turn down a country road at sundown could bring a motorist into a hostile rural town, where they do not take kindly to strangers, and where the police had no power to stop or were in fact in league with a malevolent conspiracy. Figures in white hoods would hold strange ceremonies and sacrifice hapless victims as offerings in a twisted theology. And even if they survived all that, African Americans would be presented with constant evidence that their lives do not matter. Eking out an existence on the margins of mainstream society could be revoked by the majority at any time, and any aspirations the individual might have based on talent and desire would always be barred to them. Cosmic Horror: the intuition that even if one survives the ordeal, the struggle is ultimately meaningless.

Our story is set in 1954 when Atticus Turner, recently returned from service in the Korean War, sets out on a road trip to find his estranged father who disappeared chasing mysterious bits of family lore in the rural and insular community of “Arden, Massachusetts” (as fictional as Lovecraft’s Arkham, Massachusetts). Joining him is an expert on traveling while black, his Uncle George Turner, travel agent and publisher of The Safe Negro’s Travel Guide. “The Guide” is a book for African Americans, cataloging which hotels, motels, campgrounds, and diners serve blacks, as seeking respite at other businesses could result in a door in the face at best and violence at worst. This is actually based on the real world publication of the time, The Negro Motorist Green Book, whose cover read, “Carry this book with you—you may need it.” Also along for the ride is Letitia, a childhood friend of George’s who claims to be a spirit medium, but demonstrates more than her fair share of street smarts and cunning. Being an avid reader of science fiction, pulps, and yes, even H.P. Lovecraft, Atticus takes it in stride when, after several life-and-death car chases, they finally reach Arden and find they have stumbled into a town very much like a Lovecraft pulp tale. He discovers that the Order of the New Dawn, a group of “natural philosophers” (i.e., would be alchemists) have lured him to a ceremony because they believe he carries the blood of a powerful sorcerer. The question is how polite are they going to be about collecting that blood? And even if Atticus and his band do escape, what strangeness might follow them back to Chicago…?

And that’s just the opening act. Once back in Chicago, the narrative becomes more episodic, with each section featuring a different friend or relation of Atticus and the troubling aspects of American history intermingled with the supernatural. In “The Witch House,” Letitia sets out to become a “Pioneer”—a black owner of a house in a traditionally white neighborhood. Not only is the system rigged against her (banks, reluctant to grant mortgages to blacks, instead set up alternate agreements heavily stacked against the would-be home owner), but she faces a two-pronged attack trying to force her out, beset on one front by her white neighbors and the other by a poltergeist. In one episode, the brothers of a Prince Hall Freemasons Lodge (Prince Hall Masons is a real-life, predominantly black Freemason order) go on a treasure hunt in the catacombs of Chicago’s underground, searching for a grimoire of a warlock, who was also a prohibition-era gangster. In these stories, the wrong inflection in tone while reciting an incantation or the wrong tone of voice when speaking with a police officer present equal danger for the hero or heroine. Another tale reframes Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to explore the experience of “passing”, when a light-skinned African American could present as either black or white and thereby adopt a dual identity.

I’d go on, but each episode builds upon the next to advance the larger narrative and I don’t want to spoil anything (save that the aforementioned “Witch House” and “Hippolyta Green Disturbs the Universe” may be my favorites). Frankly, some of the surprise is discovering which character mentioned offhandedly or even portrayed disparagingly in one chapter becomes the hero or heroine of the next.

The book has a lot for fans of horror and science fiction—even those who aren’t devotees of H.P. Lovecraft. Classic Sci-fi and pulp adventures available to a 1950’s audience—The Martian Chronicles, Tom Swift, John Carter of Mars, Superman, and radio pulp drama—are all touched upon, but again through an African American lens. Escapism becomes all the more important for a people whose lives are not only mundane but often difficult and steeped in struggle. But what does it mean when even in escapist flights of fancy, the underlying inequities of reality are still present?

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Lovecraft and race. With his posthumous fame, modern Lovecraft fans who care to look are confronted with personal correspondence, letters to the editor, and even bits of doggerel verse that display H.P.’s visceral detestation of peoples and cultures other than White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And while some of his apologists may claim that this was par for the times and his upbringing, I would argue that even for the time someone getting worried about “a plague of clamorous French-Canadians” may have been afflicted with literal xenophobia, the fear of the different. In his more fantastical writings, the hordes of Blacks, Jews, Poles, Catholics, Irish, Latins, and the aforementioned French Canadians became the hierarchy of bug-eyed creatures and mad cultists that so bedevil the characters of his stories.

In this novel Matt Ruff (who is white) asks us not to erase H.P. or love him warts and all but acknowledge the effect that his talents and his flaws have on the audience and move forward from there.

If asked to sum up the Lovecraftian aesthetic many would do so with the term “unease”. If pressed to elaborate one might expound, “unease at the true horror and injustice of the world.” By setting the narrative in the Jim Crow Era, that unease and injustice become a palpable, malevolent force even before any tentacled monsters or cultists arrive on the scene. For generations, tales from an ancestor who lived on a plantation, an uncle who was at the mercy of a vindictive police officer during a traffic stop, or an aunt tailed by a car full of white thugs have been the horror stories passed down in the family lore of all-too-many homes. For those lucky enough to be born in more favorable times, places, and stations, these horrors should be as terrifying as any strange elder god sleeping in a sunken city. For those not so lucky? Well, that’s just another day in Lovecraft country.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Dirty Half Dozen

Suicide Squad
Movie Review by Kerey McKenna

With Suicide Squad, Warner Brothers may have finally figured out how to make their insistence on gritty and dark tones (of both subject matter and visual palette) work in the DC comic book universe: focus on the bad guys. While not a great movie, it’s a lot better than the last installment of the series, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and may signal an important course correction for the DC cinematic world. So it’s worth a look.

The set up for Suicide Squad is fairly straightforward: US counterterrorism/ intelligence bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) believes that the government can no longer depend on vigilantes like Batman or good Samaritans like Superman to save the day (or for that matter conduct traditional espionage or military actions). So taking a page from The Dirty Dozen, Waller recruits imprisoned super-criminals to form a new black ops team, “Task Force X.” For every mission they complete, the convicts of Task Force X receive time off their sentences and the chance to get out of their supermax cells and into the open air to deal death and mayhem. But given the dangers of their work, and the penalty for escape attempts, the convicts quickly dub the team “Suicide Squad”:

  • Deadshot (Will Smith): An assassin with unerring aim, be it with his arsenal of custom weapons and targeting gizmos or his naked eye and a standard handgun, he never misses.
  • Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie): Formerly psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel of Arkham Asylum, she fell in love with one of her patients….Batman arch-nemesis the Joker. Leaving respectability and sanity behind, she becomes the Clown Prince of Crime’s gun moll until she is captured by Batman.
  • Enchantress/Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne): And speaking of good girls gone bad, we have Enchantress. After unsealing an ancient evil from a South American crypt, mousy archeologist Dr. Moone is now sharing a body with an ancient witch.
  • El Diablo (Jay Hernandez): An L.A. gang banger who has a literal fiery Latin temper. Unfortunately he is trying to put a life of violence behind him and declares himself a conscientious objector to the Suicide Squad’s violent methods.
  • Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney): An Australian thief with a signature weapon. Three guesses what it is.
  • Killer Croc (Adewale Akinuoye-Agbaje): a half man/half crocodile mutant with the strength and underwater aptitude (and table manners) of his reptilian namesake.
  • Slipknot (Adam Beech): An escape artist/thief.

    They work under the command of Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), a black ops soldier charged with keeping them on task and summarily executing any member that tries to escape. Flag is assisted by Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Like Captain Boomerang no points for guessing her weapon of choice. And while the Joker (Jared Leto) isn’t actually a member of the Squad, he makes his premiere in this new DC shared cinematic universe, his twisted intellect intent on finding Harley Quinn and springing her from jail.

    Was Suicide Squad a grand slam out of the park like Fox’s surprise hit Deadpool earlier this year? No. But it was a solid base hit that promises Warner Brothers isn’t completely mismanaging the translation of another set of comic book characters to the big screen. It’s a decent shoot-em up that also happens to do some world building for DC as they try to catch up with Marvel. And it succeeds at getting the Joker—and the DC universe—out of the shadow cast by Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and the late Heath Ledger. The movie also delivers by bringing long-time fan favorite Harley Quinn to the screen. Better pop culture commentators than I have written much on what it means that one of DC’s most iconic women is a psychopath suffering from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome, but for now it’s enough to say, she may be crazy but she is never boring. Also, speaking of unpredictability, Will Smith’s performance, seemingly peppered with improv, certainly helps punch up a very dour script and bring some much needed heart to the film.

    However due to some pacing issues early in the film and how the movie just can’t seem to shake the cynicism of the DC cinematic universe, my recommendation comes with a lot of reservations. If you want to see a fun movie with a group of lovable comic book rogues coming together to do the right thing, accompanied by a pop music sound track…go re-watch Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. If you want to see DC villains pull off a heist…look up Batman: Assault on Arkham, a direct to video animated film about the Suicide Squad, made two years ago with a bunch of the same characters; unlike the live action division, DC’s animation studios is unembarrassed to make films about comic book characters. BUT—if your comic book hero heist movie absolutely has to have Will Smith in it, then Suicide Squad is the movie for you.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

  • Wednesday, August 3, 2016

    Today's Tom Sawyer. He gets by on you.

    Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
    Book Review by Kerey McKenna

    In a not-too-distant future beset by poverty, crime, and scarcity, a state-of-the-art virtual reality game offers an oasis from a world of devastation. It’s even called Oasis, the marketing department’s backronym for Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation. For the price of visor and gloves, even the poorest American can escape the drudgery of their everyday lives to delve into a virtual world built upon the culmination of over a century’s worth of telecommunications, visual media, and computer science. By the mid-21st Century, technology has finally delivered on the dreams of a generation of youth who spent the 1980’s escaping into fantasy by feeding their pocket change to arcade machines and huddling around a card table playing D&D.

    The creator of Oasis, James Donovan Halliday, was himself a child of the 80’s, before growing up into a combination of Steve Jobs and Howard Hughes. He never forgot that his state-of-the-art simulation would not have been possible without the wood-paneled home computer he got for Christmas as a child. As his legacy, he makes sure that no one else forgets….

    Upon his death, the estate of the reclusive billionaire releases an elaborate video game filled with more 80’s pop culture than if Cyndi Lauper’s tour bus crashed into VH1 headquarters and it was all filmed by John Hughes. The will states that like many programmers before him, Halliday has placed hidden content, an Easter egg, which can be found by dedicated players who can prove their aptitude at classic video games and love of 80’s culture. The player who completes the quest will be named Halliday’s heir and inherit a vast fortune and a controlling stake in his company—and therefore become de facto master of the virtual reality universe.

    And so a generation of Easter egg hunters (later dubbed “Gunters”) immerse themselves in 1980’s culture and claim it as their own. Their playlists are filled with 80’s classics (transferred from vinyl or cassette for that analog-quality sound). They read back issues of Dragon magazine for clues on Halliday’s game design inspirations. Re-creations of arcade parlors are meticulously programmed so that the Gunters can use state-of-the-art virtual reality equipment to simulate playing classic Pac-Man in a pizzeria while MTV cranks the tunes in the background--cutting edge technology used to make a game within a game. The customized virtual environments created by players are just as likely to be modeled after a 1980’s rec room as an interplanetary spaceship (and some users opt to simply put their rec room inside their spaceship).

    Enter our hero. Wade Watts, a pop culture-obsessed hacker with the disadvantage of being born into abject poverty. The virtual reality public school he attends offers an escape from his troubled home in “the stacks” (a slum town made by literally stacking RV’s into ramshackle high rise apartments). He has lots of practice on classic games that form the new arcade canon and his head contains more facts and stats about the 1980’s than Marty McFly’s Grays Sports Almanac. But with barely two quarters to rub together, he can’t afford the DLC gear and weapons to go questing with the other Gunters. At least, not until the long sought after quest begins practically in his own backyard. Wade is about to shoot to the top of the leader board and to the number one target for everyone else. And as an immortal classic movie once promised, “There can be only one”.

    Ready Player One is a love letter, or perhaps more fittingly a fan-fic, dedicated to the pop culture of the 1980’s; the references to anything past 1990 could, it seems, be counted on one hand. Fortunately for readers not well-steeped in nerd culture and/or the minutia of early video game design, the book is rather patient in explaining the mechanics and significance of the cultural artifacts it excavates, such as the simple text commands of the early PC games, or that yes indeed Spiderman did have a giant robot at his command (when he was adapted for Japanese TV viewers as Supaidâman). I think to the degree that this works may well vary from reader to reader. For me it worked because our narrator Wade is a pop culture obsessive who is compelled to devour and then carefully curate every piece of trivia that interests him. And I found his interest infectious, but then I’m a receptive audience. (I am a reviewer for a blog called Nerds Who Read, after all).

    I chose to read this book now because Stephen Spielberg is working on adapting the novel to the silver screen. It’s a promising venture: much of the forward momentum of the story is driven by a treasure hunt right out of The Goonies or Indiana Jones, exactly the sort of thing Spielberg could knock out of the park. However, I wanted to experience the novel before Spielberg’s version eclipses the original, as happened with Jaws and Jurassic Park. I also wanted to imagine a world of real geeks and nerds, not Hollywood-attractive actors plopped into frumpy clothing. To experience a story that was equal parts Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and The Last Star Fighter, as opposed to merely a studio’s calculated gambit to greenlight “the next Hunger Games.” And in hindsight it was good to get a sense of the full breadth of author’s pop culture obsession. Through the vagaries of IP law, the novel was able to drop a lot of references to all sorts of music, video games, movies, comic books, etc. For example, at one point the novel talks about a character heading out to a VR club, dressed to the nines in a Buckaroo Bonzai costume, and stepping out of a vehicle that is gestalt of the Back to the Future DeLorean, Ecto 1 from Ghostbusters, and KITT from Knight Rider. Steven Spielberg might have had the clout to get Warner Brothers to send the Looney Toons over to Disney to play for a bit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but will Disney return the favor and let Steven borrow their shiny new toy Star Wars, along with an Avenger or two? Will Universal license footage from John Hughes classics to their rival Warner Brothers? I foresee a lot of scenes and set pieces being either dropped entirely or replaced with references that fall under Warner Brothers' ownership.

    But those are questions for another day. Presumably the movie’s opening day in 2018. For now grab the book, put on a Rush mix tape, chug a bottle of New Coke, and set your flux capacitor to 1985! I’ll start you off:

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

    Wednesday, July 27, 2016

    Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! NO! It’s a DEADBEAT DAD!

    Dynamo 5. Created by Jay Faerber and Mahmud Asrar
    Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna

    With his iconic blue, red, and yellow costume (bearing a strong resemblance to a certain Man of Steel), the superhero Captain Dynamo fought crime around the world and in his home territory of Tower City for decades. His five signature superpowers—strength, flight, super vision, telepathy, and shapeshifting—not to mention his good looks and natural charisma, made him one of earth’s most powerful and well-respected superheroes. Until the day he died, anyway, in a seedy motel room, most likely while engaged in one of the many clandestine extra-marital affairs he had throughout his career.

    Maddie Williams, Captain Dynamo’s widow and former ace reporter, is devastated on three fronts: the death of her beloved husband, the discovery of his years of philandering, and the prospect that in his absence supervillains will run roughshod over a defenseless Tower City. Determined to find new champions, Maddie puts her investigative skills to the test to discover if her husband left any secret…legacies. And she discovers five young people, each a reminder of her husband’s infidelity, each having grown up in a different background, each possessing one of her husband’s superpowers, and each with the potential to be a great hero—if only they can work with the other four:

  • Bridget Williams: A young, disillusioned screenwriter who, like many, went to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune but so far has only fallen into a dead end job. However, her unassuming and pale gothic looks disguise that she inherited her father’s super strength. Willing to roll up her sleeves as the team bruiser, she is…Scrap.

  • Olivia Lewis: Overachieving student at Georgetown University, she soars through the sky as…Slingshot.

  • Hector Chang: A bookish high school student in Vancouver who is, unfortunately the victim a bully right out of central casting. Thanks to his coke bottle glasses, Hector has no romantic prospects. But just maybe, after his super vision develops (x-ray vision and optic blasts), he’ll see a way out of his miserable school life. He is…Visionary.

  • Gaige Reinhart: the polar opposite of Hector. Tall, all-American hero of his small Texas town, lineman for the football team, he is literally the Big Man on Campus. His brute force tendencies are a stark contrast from the power he inherited from his father, the subtle skill of telepathy. He is…Scatterbrain.

  • Spencer Bridges: the most mysterious member of the novice superhero team. After a troubled and tumultuous childhood in the American foster care system, the adult Spencer became a ladies' man and grifter. His dubious vocations dovetail with his inherited power of shapeshifting. He will be the team’s espionage ace in the hole as…Myriad.

    Together they form—The Dynamo 5!

    With this novel premise and diverse cast, creators Jay Faerber and Mahmud Asrar launch a high-flying adventure that is equal parts bold classic superhero tale and modern deconstruction of the same genre. Unlike some such deconstructionist melodramas, Dynamo 5 does not apologize for being a story about superheroes: the costumes are bold to the point of garish, the greatest threats to the city can be defeated with a sound thrashing, and, most importantly, despite all the danger, this world would be thrilling to inhabit. The deconstruction comes from examining the human element of this world of magic, mad science, and aliens, and playing with standard superhero tropes. The late Captain Dynamo, in public a mighty defender of truth and justice was, in reality a cheating heel and deadbeat father to the children that resulted from his serial indiscretions. His widow, having formerly played the role of damsel in distress, now calls the shots for a team of superheroes. And each of the Dynamo 5 has a distinct personality and interpretation of what it means to be a superhero and the child of a famous father they never knew.

    While the dialogue in the first several chapters can be somewhat heavy on exposition, it’s balanced by an engaging plot with lots of twists and turns. It says a lot that while the big two comic book companies attempt to maintain interest in their well-established characters with ever more convoluted reboots, re-imaginings, retcons, and recastings, Dynamo 5 is able to do so much with a completely new cast. Thanks to the great art team and the engaging premise, I couldn’t put down the first volume, Post-Nuclear Family. Then I raced through the next four volumes in the course of a weekend. As far as I can tell, that’s the entire run, although I hope it’s just the entire run available in trade paperback. Volume 1 has a fairly complete story arc so I would highly recommend picking it up to enjoy either as a standalone adventure or as the introduction to a bold world full of potential.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

  • Tuesday, July 19, 2016

    Dynamic Duo—Radio and Superheroes

    Red Panda Adventures. Written and Directed by Greg Taylor. Performed by the Decoder Ring Theatre cast
    Review by Kerey McKenna

    [Organ music]

    “OLD TIMEY” RADIO ANNOUNCER: And now Decoder Ring Theatre presents the continuing adventures of Canada’s greatest superhero, that scourge of the underworld, hunter of those who prey upon the innocent, the marvelous masked mystery man known only as THE RED PANDA. The Red Panda, mysterious crusader for justice, hides his true identity as one of the city’s wealthiest young men, in his never ending battle against crime and corruption. Only his trusted driver Kit Baxter, who joins him in his quest in the guise of the Flying Squirrel, knows who wears the mask of the Red Panda!

    The adventures of the titans of the 1930’s-1950’s Golden Age of Comic Book Super Heroes weren’t always bound up on the printed page. Many of their stories where carried by the dynamic duo of comic books and radio. The Shadow, the Green Hornet—even Superman himself (a mere 2 years after his debut on newsstands)—all had beloved and long running radio dramas. Radio and comics make an odd yet complementary pairing: Comics are a visual medium that can only convey noises through artistic cues. Radio uses voice acting to paint vivid pictures in the mind’s eye. The radio shows of yesteryear weren’t merely ephemeral tie-ins chasing the success of the comics. They made significant contributions to the lore of each hero. It was Orson Welles’s chilling performances that promised listeners that the mysterious Shadow knew what evil lurked in the hearts of men. Radio introduced such mainstays of the Superman mythology as Kryptonite, Daily Planet editor Perry White, and photographer/cub reporter Jimmy Olsen.

    However, when radio dramas by and large left American airwaves, eclipsed by the post-war television boom, superheroes either jumped on the exodus to the small screen (a la Superman, Green Hornet, and Batman) or returned to the comic books, newspaper strips, or pulps from whence they came. Fortunately, a small audio dramatic group based out of Canada, Decoder Ring Theatre, has resurrected the radio superhero serial with Red Panda Adventures, a long running series of super heroic adventures, in the form of radio plays, available for free streaming or download from their website, and the subject of this week’s installment of “I Read this…with my Ears.”

    The Red Panda himself is equal parts Green Hornet and the Shadow. With a dapper suit, fedora, and red domino mask, his genius-level intellect and vast family fortune allow him to deploy an arsenal of weapons in his war against crime, such as a personal auto gyro, static shoes that cling to walls, and miniaturized radio equipment that is cutting edge for the 1930’s. But his greatest weapon against crime is his powers of hypnosis. In an homage to the Shadow, the Red Panda, after years of study abroad in the mystic arts, has the power to influence the minds of others. He can taunt and confuse criminals by making phantom doppelgangers of himself appear all over a room to sow confusion and draw their fire. Like the Green Hornet, the Red Panda goes into battle with his martial artist valet. In this case, that's his driver, Katya “Kit” Baxter, a sassy redhead who is as aggressive on the road as she was in her father’s boxing gym. Much of the humor of the series comes about because Kit would like to be partners in more than just crime fighting with her employer and mentor (The Red Panda is voiced by series creator Greg Taylor and Kit is voiced by his wife Clarissa Der Nederlanden-Taylor).

    The series begins in the Great Depression as the heroes defend Toronto from crooks, gangsters, and costumed supervillains, giving the city a fighting chance to recover from the economic downturn. Next, World War II, a weird war where Nazis have deployed ancient magic, dinosaurs, and all manner of sci-fi weaponry to fend of the Allies’ Super Services (the superheroes and adventurers of the combined Allied nations). Eventually the postwar years arrive. Mystery men bow out into retirement and hand the keys to the city to the garish “caped crusaders” of the Silver Age.

    Red Panda Adventures are fun for casual listeners and a must-listen for fans of audio drama or superheroes. It’s got the corny earnestness of the classic Adam West Batman series, the morals of classic Dragnet, and the romantic banter of the Nick and Nora Charles mysteries. From the intro music to the Foley sound effects, the Decoder Ring Theatre audio drama troop are dedicated to putting out rip-roaring superhero adventures on a shoestring budget. Like the radio plays of old, a small band of actors plays a large cast of characters. An actor playing a friendly beat cop one week may be featured as a supervillain the next. And in a time when superheroes of the big screen might be considered indifferent to the plight of civilians in the cities that they blow up, the Red Panda and the Flying Squirrel are unambiguous about why they don their costumes. The Red Panda began his crusade out of a sense of noblesse oblige. The Flying Squirrel, who grew up in Cabbage Town, the working class section of Toronto, knows what it’s like to be one of the downtrodden masses; she wants to put a well-placed punch to the face of any racketeer, supervillain, or otherworldly dimensional terror that would make life harder for the blue collar masses.

    If, after listening to a few episodes, you decide that Red Panda Adventures scratch your itch for superhero thrills, I also recommend the four prose novels available for purchase. These are available in print, e-book, and audiobook; the latter is narrated by the author and Red Panda himself doing an excellent one-man rendition of the entire cast. The creators have also begun a series of proper comic book adventures available for digital download from but they assume a bit of familiarity with the characters that would best be appreciated by people with a couple of seasons of the radio show under their utility belt.

    So if you’re ready for excitement, turn your dial to Red Panda Adventures. Only at

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

    Friday, July 8, 2016

    No Premium on Fun

    Review of The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Agent
    Audio Book by Larry Correia, Performed by Adam Baldwin
    Review by Kerey McKenna

    Welcome dear Nerds Who Read regulars to my new series of reviews, “I Read This…With My Ears,” where I will be reviewing audio dramas and audio adaptations of literature, as a change from my usual reviews of graphic novels. My first review will be of an odd little sci-fi farce I came across during an audiobook sale for my Amazon Fire, The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Agent. Written by Larry Correia, it is read by Adam Baldwin, who for Firefly fans is the man they call Jayne, and for followers of The Last Ship, XO Mike Slatterly. Tom Stranger works because of Baldwin's vigorous, over-the-top dramatic reading.

    What happens if assassins from a parallel dimension are coming after you as a way to get at your much more successful parallel dimension doppelganger? Is your dimension being invaded by platoons of Nazi dinosaurs? Then you better hope that you’re covered by Stranger & Stranger Interdimensional Insurance. In providing consummate customer service, Tom Stranger serves as actuary, bodyguard, and general man of action to defend his clients from bizarre dangers from all around the multiverse. And it is a bizarre and dangerous multiverse indeed, brimming with more over-the-top testosterone-fueled spectacles than John Cena juggling chainsaws while riding a dirt bike over a pit of alligators. Unfortunately, a clerical error has saddled Tom with Jimmy the intern, a slacker coasting his way to a degree in Gender Studies who would be better suited to the soul-numbing drudgery of a telemarketing call center operator than the mental and physical rigors of an interdimensional man of action.

    It is said that comedy is one of the hardest forms of drama to pull off and I have to credit the chuckles that Tom Stranger does get to Baldwin’s narration. Whether playing the taciturn Tom Stranger, his helpless slacker sidekick, a smarmy business man, a manatee CPA, or himself (in a parallel universe where Baldwin's TV role as a “libertarian cowboy” led him to the Oval Office), Baldwin performs with an infectious sense of fun. Baldwin is an outspoken conservative in left coast Hollywood, and his and Correia’s regular jabs against leftist politics and the Obama administration are not so much vicious barbs as big lemon meringue pies to the face lobbed by self-professed clowns.

    As far as sci-fi satire audio dramas go this will not challenge the audio adaptations of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy but with a run time of just over two hours (which is brisk as far as audio books go) and priced to move on Audible, it might be worth a listen if you are in the mindset for a bit of mindless fun.

    The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Agent is available on Audible.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Learn more at

    Monday, July 4, 2016

    Patriotism--from the Left

    1632 by Eric Flint
    Book Review by Michael Isenberg

    It's not my intent for Nerds Who Read to be a political blog. But I wanted to review something for the Fourth of July that captures the essence of America, and these days it's not possible to do that without inviting controversy. So here goes...

    Author Eric Flint dislikes the notion of American Exceptionalism. In his blog, he described it as “A term which has no coherent meaning except for serving its proponents as a general purpose Get Out Of Jail Free card. ‘It’s not America’s fault if we did X, Y, or Z. We’re exceptional. Rules don’t apply to us.’”

    So perhaps he will take umbrage when I say that his alternative history novel 1632 is one of the finest tributes to American Exceptionalism in print. I’m sure I’m not the first to say so.

    1632 is the story of Grantville, West Virginia, which instantly and without warning is ever-so-gently ripped from the American heartland—and the present day—and relocated with all its people, buildings, and infrastructure intact to Thuringia, Germany—four hundred years in the past. The cause of this remarkable transposition—named the “Ring of Fire” because of the flash of light that accompanies it—is aliens, but that’s only mentioned in passing and isn’t important to the story. What is important is how the inhabitants of this all-American burg adapt to their new surroundings.

    They are dangerous surroundings. The Thirty Years War is in full swing and bands of mercenaries roam the countryside, pillaging what they can carry, burning what they can’t, and brutally raping any young woman who has the tragic misfortune to cross their path. It’s a world where the plague can attack at any time, anti-Semitism is par-for-the-course, and kings and nobles do as they please by Divine Right, while their subjects have no rights to speak of. Against this backdrop, the Americans must secure a food supply, keep their technology running, establish a government, and face down the combined military might of Europe's Catholic powers.

    There’s debate among the townspeople how to proceed. Some want to seal the town off and ration its limited resources. But the overwhelming majority, led by Mike Stearns, head of the town's United Mine Workers local, feels that closed borders isn’t the American way. Give me your tired, your poor, etc. When told, “This isn’t America, you stupid idiot,” Stearns replies, “It will be, you gutless jackass….I say we start the American Revolution—a hundred and fifty years ahead of schedule!

    When America is juxtaposed side-by-side with traditional European society, it’s hard not to appreciate American Exceptionalism. By "exceptional," I don’t mean, as Flint puts it, that America should get exceptions from the rules; frankly, that's a straw man. Like most people who speak of American Exceptionalism, I simply mean that America is different—in a good way—and that it behooves us, therefore, to understand, cherish, and preserve the things that make it different. Through most of world history, not just the seventeenth century, rapine and famine, tyranny and plague were the norm. America changed all that. The difference isn’t merely one of technology, although that plays a part in 1632, making for some incredibly fun (and well-written) battles. More important are differences in institutions and rights, attitudes toward education, and, above all, character. In 1632, a Scottish mercenary who allies with Grantville early on has an opportunity to observe the unique American character at close quarters. The way he sees it, America is, “a nation of commoners…each of which thought like a nobleman…He had never encountered such confident people in his life, and confidence is the most contagious of all diseases.”

    Eric Flint is an unapologetic Leftist. He came to writing late in life, after a career as a union activist. According to Wikipedia, he also “worked as a member of the Socialist Workers Party.” His early career is evident in his writing. CEOs of large corporations do not fare well in his hands. Small businessmen and middle managers might grudgingly get a spot at the table with the good guys, but the real heroes of 1632 are unionized coal miners and teachers. As Flint explains in an afterward, one aspect of modern fiction of which he is “more than a little sick and tired” is that “the common folk who built this country and keep it running—blue-collar workers, schoolteachers, and the like—hardly ever appear.” Nor is it an accident that the schoolteachers in the novel are public school teachers. “Public schools…remain the principal forges of America’s youth. Let others whine about their shortcomings and faults, I will not. You can have your damned playing fields of Eton, and all the other varieties of that exclusionary ‘vision.’ I’ll stick with the democratic and plebeian methods which built the American republic, thank you.” Since I am a product of those democratic and plebeian methods, this struck a chord with me.

    I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being unfair if I said that "America, yay" has not been the slogan of the Left for some decades now. Dylan Matthews’ Independence Day rant, “3 reasons the American Revolution was a mistake,” is typical: the United States is nothing more than a nation that enslaved blacks and persecuted Native Americans, without benefiting from the “efficiency of parliamentary systems” to raise taxes and spend more. The world in general and North America in particular would have been better off if the colonists had just turned in their muskets and paid the tax on tea (You know, I’m NOT making this up!).

    Flint's worldview hearkens back to an earlier era of the American Left. And while it sometimes seems dated (who refers to feminism as "women's lib" anymore?), it is unabashedly patriotic. Like Howard Fast, in his novel The Crossing, Flint portrays George Washington as a hero, and after all, what better role model for a card-carrying Leftist than a revolutionary? While many of Flint’s political fellow travelers diss the Bill of Rights as the creation of “dead, white, slaveholding males,” Mike Stearns and company make it the cornerstone of their “new” republic: one of the few requirements of citizenship is to hear it recited. While the private sector doesn't seem to exist in the minds of today's Leftists, it saves the citizens of Grantville: Food turns out to be far less of a problem than expected, and one reason for that is trade. The other is hunting, which brings me to...

    Guns. It seems like everyone in Grantsville has at least one. The town is an arsenal of hunting rifles, automatic pistols, and sawed-off shotguns. One Vietnam vet even has an M60 machine gun that he liberated upon his discharge from the military. “I figured the Army owed me,” he explains. The head cheerleader, who trained to be an Olympic biathlete, turns out to be a coldly efficient and deadly sniper. I’m not sure how Flint feels about civilians owning guns in the twenty-first century, but it was a damn good thing the citizens of Grantville had them in the seventeenth: badly outnumbered in all of their battles, their most significant tactical advantage lay in rate of fire.

    A good novel of ideas must be, first and foremost, a good novel, and that means developing characters who are interesting enough that the reader cares what happens to them. Flint delivers. In my humble opinion, the most compelling characters in the book are not the native-born Americans, good as they are, but rather the immigrants—the characters who, like my own grandparents, had experienced the horrors of Europe and were therefore able to truly appreciate the greatness of America—once they got over their culture shock and came to understand what America was all about. Notable among these characters is Gretchen, the daughter of a German printer who was captured by mercenaries and forced to be their captain’s “concubine” until she was liberated by the Americans. “A steel angel, forged in the Devil’s inferno,” she managed, through sheer force of will, to take care of a baby, a younger sister, a grandmother, and a growing “family” of strays during her captivity. Another notable character: the Jewish philosopher/physician/banker/spy Balthazar Abrabanel, who had been in the audience at the Globe Theater for the premieres of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello and knew for a fact that Shakespeare didn’t write them. As for Balthazar’s beautiful daughter Rebecca, she is without doubt the brains behind the new American government.

    1632 was published sixteen years ago. Since then Flint and his collaborators have created an entire Ring of Fire industry, with numerous threads, sequels, and anthologies of short stories. I look forward to getting started on them and learning the further adventures of Gretchen, Balthazar, Rebecca and the other citizens of the United States—Thuringia branch. I hope they will continue to remind us how America is a force for good in the world.

    Michael Isenberg is senior editor of Nerds who Read and author of Full Asylum, a novel about the American character. And hospital gowns. Check it out on

    Thursday, June 16, 2016

    D.O.A. meets Blade Runner

    Necropolis by Michael Dempsey
    Book Review by Michael Isenberg

    “Ten minutes before I died, I realized I was out of cigarettes.”

    The opening line of Necropolis, the debut novel by actor/director Michael Dempsey, pretty much summarizes it. NYPD detective Paul Donner walks into a Korean market with his wife to buy some cigarettes. He dies. But only temporarily.

    It’s forty years later when he revives, and he must face two shocks. The first is that coming back from the dead is quite common. There’s an epidemic of it. No one knows why, or why New York City is its epicenter. The leading theory is a bio-weapon gone wrong. But “The Shift,” as it’s called, turned the city upside down. There was chaos for a time—looting, murders, etc. But then the Surazal Corporation stepped in with its private security force to restore order. Donner’s former partner, now an old man, tells him, “We can’t take a piss without Surazal holding our dicks.”

    The other shock: Donner and his wife were murdered.

    On learning this, Donner eschews the factory job arranged by his assimilation counselor, Maggie (a virtual person, i.e. artificial intelligence, who eventually, and ironically, becomes his anchor to his own humanity). Instead, like Frank Bigelow in the 1950 noir classic D.O.A., Donner sets out to solve his own murder. His investigation takes him into a world of high stakes drug research, missing and murdered scientists, sadomasochism clubs, and a “cyburban myth” about the Lifetaker, a spectral virtual person gone rogue. Whenever Donner seems to have figured everything out, he’s blindsided by yet another twist.

    Along the way, he confronts a host of metaphysical and social issues: The nature of artificial intelligence (à la Blade Runner). The surveillance state (“It seemed to me the only thing more disgusting than the speed at which we’d handed over our freedom for the promise of security was the speed in which others had stepped in to take that control.”). And racism. Easily identified by their white hair and gold-flecked eyes, the reborn are relegated to second life as second-class citizens (Albeit the hair can be recolored with Just for Reborn Men). Violence against “reebs” is endemic and the security forces are never on their side. In the subway, signs decree, “REBORNS IN REBORN CARS ONLY.”

    Tying these issues together is the theme of the novel: how our environments shape our identities. If that environment is stripped away, as Donner's was, we learn that we’re not who we thought we were. And then we face a crisis—but also an opportunity to start anew.

    I’m making it sound rather grim, but Necropolis is a fun book. Retro is the order of the day. Having lost the sense that the arrow of time only moves forward, each NYC neighborhood chooses its own decade. In midtown it’s the 1940s. Men in trench coats and fedoras drive mag-lev Studebakers. Many of the early chapters take place here, which gives the whole thing a noir sensibility. But in Harlem it’s the 1920s. Gangster Queenie St. Clair (look her up) lives again and the Cotton Club is back in business. It’s the ‘60s in the Village of course, and in Battery Park City, the competition between horses and cars snarls traffic, and 1880s hoop skirts are all the rage (Were hoop skirts still popular in the 1880s? But, I nitpick). In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t even get into what’s going on at the Meadowlands. Suffice to say, it will be familiar to fans of Star Trek TOS.

    Of course it’s not just ordinary citizens like police detectives who come back from the dead. Celebrities are reborn too, and it’s not unusual to walk into a night club and find Judy Garland belting out Over the Rainbow. The Beatles finally have a reunion concert, absent John who hasn’t found his way back; Peter Best subs for him. And in the morgue at Bellevue, a medical examiner sadly fills out an autopsy report, “Name: Belushi, John. Cause of death…Same as the last time.”

    The writing in Necropolis is excellent, a skill honed during Dempsey’s stint as a scriptwriter for the ‘90s sitcom Cybil. Granted, that's probably not where he learned the Raymond Chandler hardboiled-detective-speak, but regardless, he nails it. A sample: “The setting sun transformed Manhattan’s aeries into postcard silhouettes. I looked at the skeletons of warehouses, the rolling tide of razor-wire, the rusted steel shutters. The desolation was somehow beautiful. In a world of lies, it at least was honest.”

    The dialogue sparkles. Donner pulls off the requisite wisecracks. For some reason, my favorite exchanges had to do with sadomasochism.

    “Why do people go in for S&M?”
    “Beats me.”

    “For a submissive, you ask a lot of questions.”
    “I’ll stop if you want.”

    Not sure if my enjoyment of these reflects on me or the author.

    A thriller is only as strong as its villain, and Dempsey provides a great one in the person of Nicole Struldbrug, a stunning woman with Japanese Tanto blades up her sleeves. Sister to the CEO of Surazal, she starts out as the stock noir character who walks into the shamus's office and hires him to find a missing person. “Mickey Spillane’s wet dream," is how Donner describes her. "This woman had been wrapping men around her finger since puberty….I was wondering where she went to stereotyping school.” But later, as she contemplates an antique chess set, we get inside her head and discover hidden, albeit delightfully malevolent, depths:

    Most of all, though, she loved the Queen. Before the board’s “conversion” [from a Muslim game to a Catholic one], there’d been no female figures. How strange that a church so violently patriarchal would replace the King’s vizier, originally the weakest member on the board, with a woman—let alone transform her into a superpower. Maybe it was due to the rising importance of the Virgin Mary in church doctrine. But Nicole suspected that, on a deeper level, humanity was finally beginning to sense where the real strength lay between the sexes.

    The King was a figurehead, trapped by the burdens of office. He could only move slowly, carefully, one square at a time. The Queen had no such impediment. She could act without regard to opinion, rules of conduct or even the rule of law. She was the real mover and shaker, putting the right words into the King’s mouth, kissing his cheek, and acting deferential.

    That’s how Nicole preferred to operate, in the shadow of the crown. Let her brother play alpha male. Let her deluded father try to control her from afar. Her plans had already been set in motion, in the dark. Her dear, dear family would realize this far too late….

    She looked across the board again. Besides the queen, the other players—the knights, bishops, even the kings—when you got down to it, they all were pawns.

    To learn what these plans of hers are, and how she intends to make Detective Donner her pawn, read the book.

    Michael Isenberg has had a checkered career as an astrophysicist, weapons merchant, manufacturer of cigarette butts, and senior editor of Nerds who Read. His novel, Full Asylum, is about the consequences of handing over freedom for the promise of security. And hospital gowns. Check it out on

    Wednesday, June 15, 2016

    Rumble in the Concrete Jungle

    Review of Elephantmen Volume 1, Wounded Animals. Written by Richard Starkings, with art by Moritrat and additional contributing artists.
    Review by Kerey McKenna

    Imagine your “standard” cyberpunk cityscape: The sprawling metropolises of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. Futurist elements whiz by, a flying car here, a holographic display there, yet there is a 20th century familiarity. Some of those flying cars are yellow with a black checkerboard pattern, or blue and white with emergency lighting, instantly recognizable as taxi cabs and police cruisers respectively. The people that walk the busy streets, aside from the occasional outlandish “future fashion,” don a mish mash of styles for the 20th century: a bit of urban hip from the 1980’s, some 90's casual, and a dash of 1940’s trench coats and fedoras to give that pulp/noir undertone cyberpunk is so fond of invoking. And like the noirs and pulps there are many beautiful woman: femmes fatales, girls Friday, and mob wives, all with legs that take the scenic route up.

    Now to this sprawling burg of 200 years from next Sunday, add something truly odd: eight foot tall behemoths with the heads of African animals—hippos, crocodiles, rhinos, camels, and of course elephants. These human/animal hybrids known collectively as “elephantmen” (despite there being many kinds) are veterans from the last world war. Created by the insidious MAPPO Corporation, these creatures were bred, trained and medicated to serve as the new infantry of the 23rd century. After the war, freed of their murderous programming (but still in possession of inhuman strength and animal instincts held in check by human souls), they try to make their way in the world. Many have fallen to the bottom of society doing menial labor. A few have climbed tooth and nail to the top to become celebrities, captains of industry, and “legitimate businessmen” with no ties whatsoever to organized crime <wink, wink>. And patrolling the streets, keeping the uneasy peace between the human and transgenic citizens, are two federal agents, Hieronymus “Hip” Flask (hippopotamus hybrid) and Ebenezer “Ebony” Hide (elephant hybrid).

    Elephantmen is more about the journey and the atmosphere than the destination. For a series that takes so many visual cues from film noir and pulp detective stories (for example our heroic animal men have elephantine size trench coats and, save for the flying cars, the city they inhabit feels very much like the early 20th century), the first volume of Elephantmen doesn’t concern itself with being a police procedural or setting up “who-done-its” for the clever detectives to solve. Each chapter is headed by a different art team and has a different narrative feel. In the first episode a little girl’s naive inquiries of an elephantman stir the traumatic memories within him. In another episode a brutal beat down between a hippo-man and a crocodile-man has as its only narration excerpts from the Book of Job that cast one combatant as the Behemoth and the other as the Leviathan. It's followed by a quiet interlude showing a Good Samaritan stopping to help a bloodied and wounded combatant from the previous episode. Elephantmen: Wounded Animals is concerned with how its characters were shaped by war. Were they victims, war criminals, or both? How do the humans and animal men that participated in the war fit into a peacetime world? Can they survive as everyday citizens or must they embrace the savage survival skills that got them through the war?

    As I said, Elephantmen doesn’t concern itself with racing to resolutions to these questions. With art this rich, I can’t blame it. Many of the plot seeds and McGuffins introduced in the premiere won’t have payoffs for several more volumes. But given the lush artwork and contemplations on such topics as bioethics, veterans’ issues, race relations, and the thin line between fascination with and alienation from “the other,” this series has a lot more to offer than the surface premise—a hippo and an elephant fight crime in THE FUTURE—suggests.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival, coming to Waltham, Massachusetts on May 7, 2016. Learn more at

    Wednesday, June 1, 2016

    Eulogy for Darwyn Cooke

    Justice League: The New Frontier
    Review by Kerey McKenna

    In May 2016 animator and comic book artist Darwyn Cooke passed away, succumbing to terminal cancer. Like many comic fans, I knew Mr. Cooke’s work from the comic book miniseries Justice League: The New Frontier and its 2008 direct to video animated adaptation of the same name (for which Cooke also served as a writer). While Mr. Cooke worked on many projects in the realm of comic book heroes, it is safe to say that New Frontier will stand as his magnum opus; his signature art style, reminiscent of 1950-1960’s commercial art, serves as a complex yet ultimately optimistic tribute to the Silver Age DC heroes and the events of the 20th Century from which they emerged.

    Justice League: The New Frontier is an ambitious project. A period piece set mid-century, it seeks to bridge the gap between DC Comics’ Golden Age (characterized by the late 1930’s-WWII: the first generation of mystery men, pulp heroes, and war stories) and the Silver Age (chiefly the 50’s and 60’s characterized by the Baby Boom and the Space Race) and show how the most iconic heroes of that time might have experienced it as participants in history and not simply pop culture artifacts of it.

    Indeed, the scope alone is ambitious (especially for a 1 ¼ hour video!). It plays out the highlights of two decades of our nation’s history: WWII, the Korean War, The Red Scare, Women’s Liberation, the Civil Rights movement, the Space Race, and of course, the New Frontier, with Vietnam looming in the distance. It weaves in the narratives of six superheroes: the Golden Age Trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and the Silver Age heroes Martian Man-hunter, Flash, and Green Lantern. The heroic leads are supported by a large cast of non-super powered adventurers touched by war and now seeking adventure in peace: Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, P.I. Slam Bradley, the Challengers of the Unknown, and the Suicide Squad, to name a few.

    There is a lot going on narratively and historically but I will try to do it justice: The heroes of the Golden Age are forced into early retirement during the post-WWII Red Scare, save for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (not coincidentally, the ones with the most staying power throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st). Despite their power, they struggle to find their places in Eisenhower’s America. Batman returns to form as a vigilante striking out at crime from the shadows but begins to wonder if he is striking fear not just into criminals but onto the weak and vulnerable he wants to shield. Superman tries to toe the line as the public face of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, but is troubled by problems that can’t be solved by bending steel or out-racing trains. Chief among them: Wonder Woman’s campaigns in Indochina (i.e. the Vietnamese Civil War in which the US is not yet involved, at least not officially) may be leading her down the path of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. In a scene that could have come right out of that Vietnam epic, Wonder Woman (played by former Xena actress Lucy Lawless in a spot-on piece of voice casting) explains to a dismayed Superman what she believes are appropriate rules for engagement amidst a bloody insurgency:

    Meanwhile, troubled by the bloodshed of the last war in Korea, fighter pilot Hal Jordan seeks peace and purpose as a test pilot in the space program. But perhaps he won’t reach the skies with a rocket but rather a mysterious ring from beyond our world.

    And speaking of mysteries from beyond, we have J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, a red planet native brought to Earth by cosmic mishap. Deciding to do his part for his adopted home as a police detective, his outsider’s perspective (and telepathy) do not allow him to overlook the failings and inequities of the strange society in which he is immersed.

    Finally Barry “The Flash” Alan, the second crimson speedster to bear that name, has to race to thwart the crimes of his rogues gallery and stay one step ahead of a government that seeks to put a stop to “subversive” unregulated vigilantes.

    And just in case the tumults of history aren’t enough, the atomic age has spurred “The Center” into action, an eldritch entity from Earth’s primordial past which seeks to cleanse the planet of the humans that now “infect” it. Can our heroes set aside their differences to defeat this prehistoric menace and reach for the stars in a new Space Age?

    Cooke’s art style serves as a pitch-perfect tribute to the 1950’s Silver Age of comics while building upon some of the better developments of the last 20 years in both writing and artistic craft. His rich pop-art colors and bold lines would look right at home in the magazines of the 1950’s, save that today’s coloring and printing techniques have gone far beyond the three-color dot mosaics of days gone by. While ultimately an uplifting take on the period, a fair amount of modern cynicism acknowledges the shadows cast by America’s halcyon days.

    Whether to start with the graphic novel or with the film adaptation I suppose would come down to which you come across first. The film follows the same overall story as the graphic novel but cuts or rearranges material for the purposes of time and pacing. For example the book features some of the retired (or semi-retired) heroes of the Golden Age and multiple groups of non-costumed heroes like the Challengers of the Unknown and John Henry, arch nemesis of the KKK. In the film the retired heroes make a cameo in the opening credits sequence, the men of action like the Suicide Squad are pushed back to the supporting cast, and John Henry’s struggle against racism is essentially relegated to a footnote. However many of the key scenes of the book survive the jump to the screen, including the aforementioned tense confrontation between Superman and Wonder-Woman, the Flash thwarting a robbery in vintage Las Vegas, and the final battle in which the heroes and the military attempt to fend off a monster attack on Cape Canaveral.

    The animated adaptation also brought with it a mighty league of actors to bring these iconic characters to life. I already mentioned Lucy Lawless. Neil Patrick Harris voices the Flash; Kyra Sedgwick, Lois Lane; and Brooke Shields, Carol Ferris.

    But the highest recommendation and summation I can give New Frontier is to show you its epilogue, a montage of DC’s Silver Age contrasted with the titular JFK New Frontier speech--a call to action to meet the challenges of the days ahead with American optimism and know how:

    It still rings true today.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Learn more at