Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Don't Tread on Me

The Sons of Liberty, Volume 1. Written by Alexander & Joseph Lagos with Art by Steve Walker and Oren Kramek
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna

This is the third in a series of Nerds who Read Graphic Novel Reviews dedicated to Black History Month.

Sons of Liberty Living most of my life in Massachusetts, I count myself lucky to have visited many locations crucial to the Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States. As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I have always been slightly disappointed by the lack of fantastical spins on our nation’s founding era. In American alternate history stories, the War of Independence trails a distant third to World War II and the Civil War for novels created out of “what if” scenarios and war gaming. A fascination with the historical old west has produced plenty or weird west tales and cowboy ghost stories. The demand for more steampunk is currently mining every buried lump of story potential from America’s industrial years. But it seems like fantastical takes on our founding are few and far between. Perhaps as other historical periods become overdone though, more creators will find fertile ground in this era of rebellion. The Assassin’s Creed 3 video game and several of its spinoffs were set against the backdrop of the American Revolution, and Fox’s supernatural action show Sleepy Hollow re-imagines Washington Irving’s hapless schoolteacher as a swashbuckling spy charged with preventing the British from winning the war through dark magic.

I was hoping that The Sons of Liberty would offer something new to the historical fantasy and comic superhero genre by setting its action in the years leading up to the American Revolution, but I found the execution somewhat lacking.

The story begins promisingly enough in 1776 with a raid on a loyalist compound by two mysterious figures. Their faces are obscured by tri-corn hats and black masks but their eyes crackle with electric sparks and they demonstrate agility and strength far beyond those of mortal men. However before we can begin what the narrator assures will be an epic battle…the rest of the book is a flashback/origin story for our mysterious heroes. Winding the narrative back several years the story takes us to the plight of Graham and Brody, run-away slaves in colonial-era Pennsylvania who fall into the clutches of William Franklin, evil bastard son of Benjamin Franklin. For the story the bastard William (yes he was actually a bastard, but Benjamin ‘recognized him’ as a son and helped advance his career in the British colonial civil service) has been upgraded to a mustache-twirling villain. Perverting the studies of electricity performed by his father, William not only electrocutes every barnyard animal he can get his hands on, but also snatches up the fugitive boys to use in his in-human experiments. Electrocuted and left for dead, the boys are discovered by Benjamin Franklin and the abolitionist dwarf Benjamin Lay. They hide with the hermit Lay, who instructs them in the African martial art of Dambe (Lay having been upgraded to abolitionist Yoda). They also discover that the Bastard Franklin’s experiments have granted them extraordinary powers, the implication being that Graham and Brody will one day become the dynamic duo we saw in the action cold open. Despite using their powers to get revenge on their former master and his slave hunter, the boys are shunned and feared by their peers due to their unnatural powers and the very real concern that they will all be killed in the ensuing retaliation to any perceived slave rebellion.

There is a lot of promise in this book, but I felt like it was hampered by pacing issues and peculiarities in the artwork. This first volume carries a heavy burden of world building, introducing the audience to pre-revolution America, the horrors of the slave trade, the early abolitionist movement, and Benjamin Franklin’s relationship with his evil bastard son.

The narrative foot-dragging in getting to the supernatural and alternate history elements isn’t aided by the uneven art. Steve Walker’s drawings work well in creating coherent action scenes (such as the boys escaping vicious hunting dogs that have been sent to track them down), but sometimes his work on faces and anatomy doesn’t quite pull together. Often enough when the faces slip into the uncanny valley this may be because the colorization used by Oren Kramek suggests that the whole art team is learning as they go; sometimes the colors work and in other panels they clash in such a way that it is hard for the eye to follow.

All that being said, the book never falls completely flat and superhero franchises have been launched on much shakier first installments than this one. As I said, it appears that the art team may be learning on the job, but they do appear to be improving. While not my top recommendation, it may be something to throw the way of a reader (particularly a young adult or tween) that needs a little nudge from action and science fiction to get more interested in history. If I come across it, I may pick up the second volume, Death & Taxes, to see if the rough edges have smoothed out.

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 www.watchcityfestival.com.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Rhythm & Blues meets Law & Order

Stagger Lee. Written by Derek McCulloch. Illustrated by Shepherd Hendrix
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna

Stagger Lee Keen-eared aficionados of American Jazz, Rock, and R&B might recognize the name Stagger Lee (or Stagolee) as a legendary outlaw. He entered the American mythology when he shot down card sharp Billy Lyons in an old west Texas saloon. Or was it because Billy Lyons was sleeping with Stagolee’s woman and it wasn’t Texas but the gold mines of California? And was it because Billy messed with Stag’s wife or Stag’s Stetson hat? Or was it an act of self-defense in a bar brawl in Mississippi? Or was it Georgia? Were Lyons and Lee not figures of the 1890’s but rival pimps in 1970’s Detroit? Over the years Lloyd Price, Fats Domino, Wilson Pickett, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike and Tina Turner, and the Grateful Dead have been just a few of the musicians to sing Stagger Lee’s song of murder and revenge.

In the graphic novel Stagger Lee, author Derek McCulloch and illustrator Shepherd Hendrix seek to untangle the story of Stagger Lee from the garbled and contradictory tales that have been springing up since the 1890’s when “Stag” Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons in a St. Louis, Missouri saloon. The manhunt for Shelton and his trial became quite the local sensation as white St. Louis authorities rarely took interest in black-on-black crime. If the actual prosecution of the murder was odd then it was even stranger when some prominent whites arranged for a vigorous defense of Lee by gifted lawyer Nathen Dryden. McCulloch and Hendrix dig into the context of the shooting and trial, local politics, race relations, and growing class and wealth disparities within the black community itself. It is also explores the creation of mythology by examining how the tale of Stagg Lee changed as it was passed from musician to musician, down through the years, crossing over from “black music” into the “white mainstream” and back again.

McCulloch and Hendrix present their version of the famous killing (and despite a great deal of research they freely admit in their notes they used a great deal of supposition, interpretation, and artistic license to create their version). They also provide fictional subplots around the trial, chiefly a love triangle between one of Lee’s defense attorneys, a saloon musician who is the first to put Lee’s tale down to music, and the mysterious woman they both love. This historical (or historical fiction) narrative is interspersed with segments exploring the musical mythology that grew from the murder and trial. In these segments Hendrix’s art adopts more cartoonish sensibilities as Lee and Lyons morph and change with each telling of the tale, from thugs to cowboys to gangsters, from black to white, from 1800’s desperados to 70’s pimps. In a visual medium it is hard to provide a musical score but the creators attempt to incorporate the lyrics of many of the Stagger Lee songs and for the most part give a good sense of each interpretation. At the very least, providing the lyrics demonstrates clearly how the story changes in each telling. But comics are a visual medium so I often found myself finishing a chapter and then going over to YouTube to listen to a version of the song referenced in the text.

Illustrated in black and white (although my edition actually looks like a deep chocolate brown; I’m not sure if they deliberately used an off black ink to give the whole thing a sepia tone or if that’s just how my copy aged), Hendrix’s art handles both the narrative and comic strip style segments very well. Reading as many superhero comics as I do, and being inundated with their overpopulation of hyper-muscled strong men and pin-up babes with painted on costumes, it can actually be hard sometimes to find comics artists who illustrate normally proportioned people. The writers allow many moments of the book to hang on subtle visual tableau without superfluous purple prose from the writer (sometimes a problem in comics when a writer doesn’t trust their illustrator to accurately display what is going on). McCulloch does a fine job in weaving their version of the story and in examining how the Lee legend has changed through constant re-interpretation.

I would certainly recommend this to anyone who can appreciate some Rhythm & Blues mixed in with Law & Order. And to learn how a bit about how a tall tale grows in the telling.

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 www.watchcityfestival.com.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Of Bandits and Bigots

Tales of the Talented Tenth, Volume 1: Bass Reeves. Written and Illustrated by Joel Christian Gill
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna

Bass Reeves For Black History Month, I thought I’d post some reviews of books and graphic novels featuring and/or created by African Americans. First up is the graphic novel Tales of the Talented Tenth, Vol. 1: Bass Reeves. This biography covers the formative years and career highlights of the title character, an escaped black slave who went on to have a prolific career as a lawman in the Wild West. Reeves is often cited as having captured over 3,000 fugitives from justice, the highest rate of the era. Frequently overlooked in earlier whitewashed narratives of the Old West, Reeves’s amazing story is beginning to gain more recognition in both history and fiction.

Mr. Gill does his part in spreading the tale of this legendary lawman to a new generation by telling his story of adventure in the face of racism with art, narrative, and language that is approachable to younger audiences. In a stylistic choice also used in his earlier, non-fiction graphic novel Strange Fruit, racist antagonists are portrayed as anthropomorphic crows (i.e., Jim Crows) giving the stories the feel of fables (similar to Art Spiegelman’s famous use of animal symbolism to illustrate his father’s survival of the Holocaust). Another device that struck me was that, when a character utters a racial slur (against Native or African Americans), the slur is replaced by a caricature of that group. On my first read-through it struck me as odd, but on reflection I think it is rather effective at two things: first, it helps keep a difficult narrative appropriate for children (of a certain age), and second, it illustrates how the use of such language reduces real individuals to abstract, negative stereotypes.

I first came across the story of Bass Reeves some time ago when I was doing research into the Old West as it applied to my interest in steampunk and I am always pleased when I come across some new iteration of Reeves’s story. For a tale of adventure in the West, where bandits and bigots must be overcome, this would be my recommendation for children (and some adults) who aren’t ready for the irreverent Blazing Saddles or the brutal Django Unchained.

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 www.watchcityfestival.com.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Great Moments but Awful Quarter Hours—in Space

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Book Review by Michael Isenberg

SevenevesThe composer Rossini once said that Wagner’s operas have great moments but awful quarter hours. Apparently what’s true of Grand Opera is also true of Space Opera. For although Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves features captivating characters on spectacular adventures, between the adventures are vast stretches of emptiness, much like space itself.

And I can’t wait for a sequel.

Seveneves is about nothing less than the annihilation of all life on the surface of the earth. It begins with the words, “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” We never learn the reason and it’s not important. What is important is that simulations show the remnants of the moon are going to collide and break up into ever smaller pieces, until a sudden rain of meteors kills everything below and makes the earth uninhabitable for five thousand years. There are only two places to shelter from the coming apocalypse—in the cramped quarters of deep mines or the inhospitable vacuum of space. The only good news coming out of the simulations is that the human race has two years to prepare.

Part I of Seveneves is the story of those two years and the effort to launch as many humans into space as possible—which will be a couple thousand at most. This part of the book was like an early episode of Star Trek: TNG—interesting to Trekkies but free from the challenges and conflicts that are the essence of good fiction. The crew of the International Space Station (“Izzy”) is hard at work expanding the available living space, but things pretty much go according to plan. Granted, the mortality rate is high, but that's expected. Among the first group launched into orbit, the “Pioneers,” something like two dozen people die. Fortunately they're just the redshirts of Seveneves—I can't even recall if they had names—so we don't have to care about them. #sarcasm

Surprisingly, there’s not much conflict back on earth either—despite the need to make decisions about who will live and who will die. This is in part because of the foresight of US President Julia Bliss Flaherty ("JBF") and other world leaders, who keep people busy with tasks to contribute to the building of the human future. Not all the contributions are actually useful; the politicians are a little devious in that. But the lack of conflict is also a choice on the part of Mr. Stephenson. In an interview with the Seattle Times, he explains, “My general observation about people who have been in wars, and disasters, is that there’s always instances of bad behavior. But for the most part, people tend to rise to the occasion.” Although this is an insightful observation, it does not make for good storytelling. Furthermore, what little conflict does occur on the planet surface we see mostly through the eyes of of the Izzy crewmembers, who have their own job to do. What happens back on earth seems increasingly distant and unimportant to them.

So we don't hear much about conflict in Part I. What we do hear about is the technology of space colonization—and we hear a lot about it. Mr. Stephenson put significant intelligence into his game of “What if”: I.e., what if we had to move into space? How would we go about it? His answers are imaginative, scientifically sound, and abundant. There is a great deal about mass ratios and delta-vees. The Pioneer living modules are little more than pressurized plastic bags, but Mr. Stephenson takes five pages to describe them. Arguably, this is the real point of the book, and I'm being unfair by bringing up considerations of plot structure. Personally, I like reading about technology. I’m a scientist and an engineer by training, Apollo 11 was a formative experience for me, as it was for many people my age, and I’ve been criticized for being too technical in my own fiction. So if I say there's too much technical stuff in Seveneves, there's way too much. When I was about 100 pages in, I cared so little about what was going on in the book that I posted on Facebook, “You'd think the destruction of all life on earth would hold my interest more. Should I keep going?”

My friends told me I should and I was glad I listened to them. The pace picks up considerably in Part II, starting with the actual destruction of earth, which is bittersweet in its numerous examples of the human spirit standing defiant until the end. My favorite: as the meteors begin to fall, there is a live classical concert broadcast from the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Dressed in white ties and tails, the musicians are determined to keep playing until the building crashes down upon them.

Inevitably the music stops (literally) and the story begins in earnest. The Izzy crew must now confront its technical challenges without supplies or expertise from the ground. On top of that, there are political machinations afoot: JBF, now the former president, since the United States no longer exists, is unwilling to accept retirement in space gracefully. Instead she sets about rebuilding her political base by stirring up trouble. Although JBF has real-life fans online, I find her thoroughly repulsive. I have sympathy for the colonists who follow her, though: they have legitimate grievances against the elitist technocrats running the colony. 'Twas always thus: the disenfranchised allow themselves to be co-opted by the ambitious. It ends badly for them, both in real life and in Seveneves, where the colony splits—with deadly consequences.

The lion’s share of Part III is a single long chapter called “Five Thousand Years Later.” The descendants of the survivors now number in the billions. They live mainly in a habitat that rings the earth in geosynchronous orbit. In a cool twist, they have video of most of Parts I and II—they call it “The Epic”—and it plays constantly on screens in bars and transportation hubs; the Part I and II characters are now revered historical figures. Down on the planet surface, life is stirring once again, and small parties of scouts, colonists, and terra-formers are returning. Unfortunately, most of Part III reads like Part I.

It begins with the journey of the scout Kath II from earth to the habitat ring. The means of transportation are ingenious, but for Kath—and therefore for us—it’s a routine journey. Nothing really happens along the way but it still takes fifty pages. Indeed, much of Part III is merely a sightseeing tour of Kath’s world. It’s an incredible world, but not incredible enough to compensate for nearly two hundred pages that are heavy on technology, but light on challenge and conflict. Along the way Kath is recruited on some sort of mission, but neither she nor the reader is told what. When the Big Reveal finally comes, it turns out to be something I completely predicted. With that behind us, the story does pick up again, and there are some pretty good battles before it’s over.

Any book with the epic scope of Seveneves necessarily has a large cast of characters, and every reader will have their favorites. Mine include:

  • Dinah, a fellow introvert who spends much of her time alone in a little workshop at the front of the space station. From there she programs cute robots to crawl around an asteroid that Izzy has in tow (Naturally, we learn all about the different types of robots, their history, their construction, and their capabilities).

  • Tekla, an Olympic athlete/cosmonaut, who joins the Pioneers early on. I picture her as Mother Russia, the villain's hired muscle in the movie Kick-Ass 2. Tekla could have easily been typecast in a similar henchwoman role, but she knew enough about the bad old days of the Soviet Union to steer clear of villains like JBF. (Anyone who read my novel Full Asylum knows I have a soft spot in my heart for amazon women, with bonus points if they "get it" when it comes to freedom.)

  • Sean, an entrepreneur who charges off on a deep space mission simply because he sees a need and decides to fill it. This puts him in a rare Part I conflict with government space agency bureaucrats, who “were baffled, nay, infuriated by the ease with which a few upstart tech zillionaires could command the world’s attention and go rocketing off on ill-advised, hastily planned missions of their own choosing.” Some even wanted to lock him out of Izzy—which would have killed him. Mr. Stephenson explains in his Seattle Times interview that he wanted to show that both the public and private sectors have valuable contributions to make to space exploration.

  • Aida, a younger colonist who overthrows JBF as leader of the rebel faction. I wouldn’t say I like her, she's an awful human being, but she is intriguing. In her, Mr. Stephenson draws a vivid portrait of a smart, sullen, millennial nihilist who is at war with society via social media. Perhaps you know the type through their comments on Facebook. Stephenson takes that character and transports her to a situation where online warfare has far more immediate consequences.

    You may be surprised, in view of my criticisms, that I really meant what I said at the outset about wanting a sequel. There are two reasons for this. First, some loose ends scream to be tied up. In particular, there was a breakaway group of colonists that tried to go to Mars. They’re presumed dead, but we never find out for sure. Their adventures could be a whole book in itself. Also, in Part III, there are mentions of a never-seen group of powerful individuals dedicated to a mysterious purpose known as “The Purpose.”

    The second reason I want a sequel ties to something Mr. Stephenson said—again, in the Seattle Times: “All science fiction and fantasy is about building worlds.” In Seveneves he builds a fascinating one, and I’d like to spend more time there. As for whether I will have the opportunity, last I heard, Mr. Stephenson isn’t saying.

    Michael Isenberg is senior editor of Nerds who Read and author of Full Asylum, a novel about politics, freedom, and hospital gowns. Check it out on Amazon.com.

  • Thursday, February 4, 2016

    Long Live the Goblin Emperor!

    The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
    Book Review by Kerey McKenna

    The Goblin Emperor A strong showing from first time author Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor is an enthralling tale of court intrigue set inside the royal palace of an Elven Steampunk Empire (or perhaps more accurately, a Dungeon/Magic-Punk Empire).

    In the long history of the empire of the Elflands, Maia was destined to be but a footnote of a footnote. The product of a political union between the pale elven emperor and a dusky skinned goblin princess, Maia was unneeded and unwanted in his father’s plans for imperial dynasty. Having already sired three sons of pure elven blood from previous marriages, the emperor banished his goblin consort and her son Maia to an isolated country estate, overseen by the emperor’s estranged—and abusive—cousin, to be kept out of sight and out of mind. Losing his mother at the age of eight, Maia, of royal blood but not recognized as a prince of the realm, expected only to spend the rest of his days in quiet, if barely tolerable exile.

    However, despite the weight of time and history, the course of dynasties can change very quickly—as Maia learns. He is summoned to court, just shy of his 18th birthday, because his emperor father and the recognized princes of the realm have died in an airship crash (airships, pocket watches, and the occasional mention of steam power being the novel’s sometimes hesitant steps out of fantasy and into the steam/dungeon punk genre). Now Maia, having never even attended court, must not only navigate the Byzantine etiquette and politics of the royal palace, but also preside over them as emperor. That is, if the conspiracy that brought down the emperor’s airship doesn’t rob him of his crown (or his head!), bringing a quick end to his reign and relegating the Goblin Emperor once again to the footnotes of history.

    At its core is a premise like many “king for a day” tales, such as The Prince & the Pauper or in modern times, Kevin Kline’s accidental ascent to the U.S. Presidency in the film Dave. But just as some have said that Downton Abby is a rather standard soap opera but with posh accents and decadent set dressing, sometimes the setting does make the drama. Katherine Addison erects a mighty palace around the protagonist and reader and both are kept bewildered by the complex politics of palace life, made all the more alien by use of fantastical names and created languages and rituals. While magic and mechanics are understood to play a part in this world, Addison keeps a tight focus on the rituals of court and the intricacies of social etiquette. Addison also goes on to eschew fantasy’s Eurocentric tendencies and seems to model certain aesthetics from the Eastern Roman Empire (Constantinople), the Middle East, and the far Orient, which for a Westerner such as myself added to the enthralling, yet alienating royal court as opposed to feeling like just another day at the Ren Fair. I often was reminded of the 1987 film The Last Emperor and its lavish reconstruction of China’s Forbidden City. The book also takes a nice rabbit punch at a fantasy convention that has irked me for some time: the clich├ęs of the fair and beautiful elves and the ugly and evil Orcs, Goblins, and Ogres. The goblins are a minority within the Elflands; with their curly hair and dark skin, the parallel to real-life people of color is clear. While some of the blue blood elves may look upon the goblins with disdain, the readers are not asked to accept the paradigm and we are introduced to elves and goblins of all shapes, sizes, attractiveness, and virtue.

    A further word on the use of steampunk or dungeon-punk elements: While I would not recommend this book as an introduction to either genre, I would gladly cite it as an example of how to use these genres subtly. The author did not feel the need to slap goggles and waistcoats on every character or beat the reader over the head with magic-powered technology. Despite the presence of airships, we understand that this is a world on its first steps into an industrial age and I found the implication that there is technology and industry in this world, but the royal court sees very little of it, to build into the themes of isolation and stagnation of the royal court. Again thinking of The Last Emperor, we are presented with the possibility that as the aristocracy concerns itself with age-old rituals and ceremonies, technological innovations and societal revolutions may soon topple the whole system.

    I found myself charmed by this novel and would recommend it to old fans of the fantasy genre as well as those fans of historical fiction and tales of court intrigue who tend to stay away from “high fantasy” because of the genre’s perceived obsession with epic battles and long sagas. It is a self-contained novel, but I hope Ms. Addison will return to this world soon: she has planted some intriguing seeds for future stories.

    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 www.watchcityfestival.com.