Before about three years ago, I had no idea M.T. Anderson had a career outside of writing the maniacally brilliant Thrilling Tales series, which deftly subverted and thoroughly deconstructed the tropes and conventions of 20th century children’s literature, and the eerie fantasy novel The Game of   Sunken Places which also gives a spin on old cliches. As I found out, he had also written several edgy books for young adults as well, including the entertaining 18th century literature pastiche Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, the bleak vampire novel Thirsty, and this book. Jeez louise, was I not prepared for this book! It’s about a kid who lives in a society where vampiric, oppressive corporations have taken over the world, and are slowly destroying it, through environmental destruction, total impingement of all perceivable civil liberties, and a chip implanted in people’s head called “the feed” that is basically a parasitic computer disguised as a part of the brain. He and his girlfriend try to resist the feed, but, in short, it doesn’t work.

I thought I was accustomed to dystopian fiction. Of dystopian fiction, I’ve read  1984, Brave New World, The Hunger Games, the Uglies series, The Giver, and Snow Crash. Make no mistake, whatever their resolution was, these books were depressing. But nothing I’ve read, dystopian or otherwise was as soul-crushingly dour as this book. It was funny, and well written, but it was also gut-wrenchingly painful.

At the end of Brave New World, 1984, and all the other books I named, there was a spark of hope, or an outright happy ending. At the end of Feed there is none of that. Just suffocating paranoia and despair. Only the skin-crawlingly awful endings of the Series of Unfortunate Events books compare. Even despite its 2002 publishing date, and its Bush-era malaise, it’s scarily prescient of the smartphone age, which disturbs me to the core. Although, this book is witty, and well observed, and it captures perfectly a society where the attributes of today’s teens were taken to their logical extreme.

There are a lot of blackly hilarious moments, such as the “Hipster Nostalgia Feedback Syndrome”, and the “Nike Speech Tattoo”, that lighten up the darker moments, but an overwhelming sense of dread really pervades this book. The main character isn’t very likable, but he’s a product of his environment. Like with a lot of Anderson’s books, the other characters aren’t very well developed, but they are rounder than other of his books. There were a lot of great, acrid bits in this, but I would have liked this book better if it wasn’t just so darn heartbreaking.

Grade: B+

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“The Books of Magic” is basically about a bespectacled British kid from a dysfunctional family situation finding out he’s a powerful wizard from benevolent adult wizards. Sound familiar? But this boy wizard’s name is Tim Hunter and he technically lives in the DC universe (well, a more mature version of it called “Vertigo” where various magical things happen more often, and people can drop unbleeped f-bombs:  a little like the HBO of the DC universe). He meets a couple DC magicians, and Morpheus and Death from Gaiman’s Sandman  series, but other than that this is more of a picaresque trip through various magical realms that Neil Gaiman must have drudged from Bulfinch’s Mythology, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and old issues of The Phantom Stranger than an actual comic book story in the DC universe.

Like a lot of Gaiman’s comic book work, he makes the story soothingly plotless, and is more of an opportunity for him to throw in about two mythological allusions per 3 panels rather than tell a story with actual rising action, climax, and falling action. Tim Hunter’s questioning attitude keeps it real throughout, though, and Gaiman doesn’t let the non-plot get away from him too much to lose good character moments and sneak in a good joke. It also works great as a story of Tim’s maturity, through its chronicling of his acceptance of his magical destiny. Some standout sections include when Tim meets Merlin which portrays the famous wizard as a hormonal teenager, Doctor Occult bringing Tim through the various magical realms, and his interaction with perennially foulmouthed curmudgeon John Constantine, who seems to always be slinking in and out  of Gaiman and other Vertigo writers’ work, and here, he adds a bit of salty flavor to the ponderous orations on magic that the other characters make.

The part where Tim travels to the future with DC soothsayer Mister E would be less irritating and more interesting, if Mister E wasn’t a self righteous jerkface who spends his whole segment browbeating Tim about morality and his destiny. Other than that, the art was good, but some of it was painted weirdly, which was off putting, and a standout was former Sandman artist Charles Vess. Overall, an ephemeral, but ultimately charming coming of age tale.

Grade: B

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Here we are again. I’m yet again reviewing a John Green book, but this time, he’s writing it with fellow YA author David Levithan. It tells the stories of two separate people named Will Grayson (who live in Naperville and Evanston, Illinois, respectively), whose paths eventually cross due to a chance encounter, and whose lives are eventually changed for the better because of it. This book seems disparate in tone at times, because the chapters alternate between the two Will Graysons’ perspectives, but both perspectives complement each other.

David Levithan’s chapters (about the Naperville Will Grayson) tell a delicate, melancholy story about coming of age, and a gay youth’s quest for meaning and love, but is also bitterly funny. This Will Grayson knows he has made mistakes, is in touch with himself, but not with others, which adds a sharp edge to his sometimes laugh out loud internal monologue. His personality has the right balance of jaded sarcasm and emotional vulnerability to make me actually care about him.

John Green’s sections (about the Evanston Will Grayson), like usual, are a sharp,fizzy screwball comedy of manners about a straight teen’s identity crisis that zips along at a nice pace. My main issue with his sections is the same issue I always have had with Green’s work: the main character is annoying. This Will Grayson is a non-committal, indecisive, mealymouthed milquetoast whose various neuroses irritate me like usual. But also as usual, Green writes the dialogue and narration outstandingly well, and his typical bitingly witty, John-Hughes-meets-Woody-Allen blend of comedy seems to be surprisingly looser and less glum in this work.

A standout in both plots is the character of Tiny Cooper, a gay youth that has such an outsize personality, that I’m surprised he doesn’t have his own spinoff book yet. The way the two threads come together is marvelously realistic, but also fairytale-y enough to be fun, and the ending is entertainingly optimistic. Overall,  a great collaboration worth checking out.

Grade: A-

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Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is an alternate retelling of the origin of Marvel Comics’ Avengers team. The main concept behind it and other “Ultimate” Marvel titles, was that newbie comic readers could get into Marvel, and not have to worry about not knowing all of the details of a certain title’s mythos. It was similar to   a previous series, Heroes Reborn, but was actually successful, and not an epic failure like that earlier venture. This series, like I said before, was supposed to retell the origin of the Avengers, and update it for a modern audience. It was pretty good, but was annoyingly snarky and meanspirited at points, and much of the hip, 2000′s-y stuff that was added seemed cheesy and forced.

The characters of Giant Man, The Wasp, Nick Fury, Captain America, and the Hulk were fleshed out and realistic, but a lot of the bits with Hawkeye, Black Widow, Iron Man, and Thor skirted the edges of self parody.The dialogue was often too hip for its own good, but had its moments. Millar’s very good at handling action packed events, and this was no exception, with the plot moving along at a brisk clip. It was refreshing, after reading a lot of talky DC comics events, where the fights scenes and action sequences weren’t as emphasized as the plot exposition, to read the well written battles that fill this book. Bryan Hitch’s art for this series reminded me vaguely of J.G. Jones, which is a good thing, and carried the weaker sections of the book.

Overall, I thought it was great fun, and a good jumping on point for the Avengers mythos in general, and if you liked the Avengers movie, chances are you’ll like The Ultimates.

Grade: B

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Year of the Beasts

I read this book during the summer and I peeked through it. I even read the flap. It seemed interesting. So I checked it out. I read the book and I was utterly confused. The book is manga styled drawings. However, the drawings didn’t match with the story. And the plot didn’t seem well together. I mean, it’s about a girl who looses out to the guy she loves by her little sister and wants to find love. That’s it. But the drawing doesn’t match with the story. Overall, I give this book 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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Abducted as a young boy, Ethan finally is reunited with his family. He returns to his small town with a warm welcome from his family and friends.  Ethan tries to go back to the life that he cannot remember. Cami, his old best friend that was heartbroken when he left. Gracie, the “replacement” child, that his parents has when he left.  Blake, the four-year old brother that he left behind, now thirteen, is angry because when Ethan left he left behind a broken family. Can Ethan remember and sew everything together without making everything fall apart in the process?
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Well, it looks like I’ve reached the end of my wild, weird, and wonderful journey through Grant Morrison’s gonzo take on Batman, but I can’t start celebrating yet! Is still have one more book to review. Batman Inc. is the final in print volume of the Bat-Quest, and boy was it crazy. In this one, Batman sets up an organization of global Bat-Agents who are sworn to fight crime in their respective areas. Unfortunately, a mysterious villain had the same idea, and had set up its own organization of mind controlled assassins called Leviathan. This book was more of a traditional adventure than its predecessor, but turned from a story of global Bat-Antics, to a wacky international spy mystery.

While Leviathan’s plots didn’t make sense half the time, I realized that they weren’t supposed to, because their main master planner, a sort of elderly Blofeld called Dr. Dedalus was suffering from advanced stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. This had potential to be an interesting concept, but wasn’t explained enough to be interesting, but the crazy global villains including the Japanese mass murderer Lord Death Man were morbidly wacky, and made up for how incomprehensible Dedalus’ plots were. I liked how Morrison brought back Batwoman as a supporting character, though, and the 1980′s British superteam Morrison creates is cool, but unexplored. Although, the stuff with Leviathan’s agents were gory and frightening, and I still don’t understand what SPYRAL was.

There were so many zany concepts introduced in this volume that it provided for entertaining reading throughout, though, but the cliffhanger ending was cheap. Yanick Paquette’s art was the best of the collection, and the worst was the art in the arc that takes place in the internet. Look out for Bat-Quest Conclusion to the Conclusion, though, that will review Batman Inc: Volume 2 and finally end this epic saga. Overall,  an incomplete, but rousing conclusion to a great run.

Grade: A

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In this penultimate volume of the Bat-Quest, Dr. Hurt (dunh-dunh-DUNH!) from Batman R.I.P. returns and does his usual “I am the Devil you will die” schtick, and the Joker and Batman team up and kick his behind into next week. In this volume, it was basically a re-run of  R.I.P., but isn’t done as well. Dr. Hurt cackles and plots like usual, but he wears out his welcome because the demonic air of mystery around him that was created in R.I.P. has all but dissipated. The horrifying Professor Pyg from Reborn returns, and is even scarier than before. He’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of psychotropic drugs.

The scenes with a half-insane Commissioner Gordon (don’t ask) are genuinely unsettling, but none of the scenes with the Joker are, ironically. The way Dr. Hurt gets his tush handed to him is spectacularly campy, but isn’t as cathartic as how he was defeated the first time. The Joker comes back, but isn’t really funny enough to be fun to read, but not crazy enough to be scary. The last issue in the volume is a prelude to the Batman Inc. plot, so it’s really just setup. Remember how I said I liked Frazer Irving in my last Batman review? 
Well I still do, but only in small amounts. A large chunk of the first arc is drawn by him, so his art loses its appeal. Overall, a spooky, but fun rollercoaster ride.  
Grade: B
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Taking a small break from my Batman odyssey, I read Ian McDonald’s Planesrunner. It’s about a nerdy Londoner named Everett Singh who comes into possession of a computer program that allows him to travel between parallel earths. He ends up getting stranded on one of these earths, and comedic hi-jinks and action scenes involving  large airships ensue.  I was genuinely impressed by the cosmic creativity of this work, but was also astounded by how down to earth the author kept it. Everett keeps it grounded the entire time, providing his own what-the-heck-is-going-on, fish out of water perspective on the event.

Everett’s experiences in the story and his perspective on them is a little like if Marcus, from Little Brother was dropped into a Phillip Reeve novel, which is quite entertaining to read. The beginning is slow, though and the dialogue is clunky at times. Some things, like his possession of Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle-esque “god sight” that allows him to weave together a map of the parallel earths seems a little contrived, and the editor could have done a better job localizing the exclusively British references.The flashes of brilliance in this book  are stunning, though, and they occur more often than not. I’d recommend this to anyone who likes Doctor Who, or well characterized science fiction.

Grade: B+

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