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