Category: Comics & Books


 

Review by C.J. Bunce

Philip K. Dick′s 1972 novel We Can Build You, his 22nd novel, has its strengths, the first half of the novel full of several thought-provoking ideas that each would have been better served pared down as one of Dick’s fantastic short stories.  From there it slides precipitously off the cliff into the incomprehensible–an attempt at showing a protagonist with an unstable mind inside what is by all other indications the set-up for a future America sci-fi story.  Originally written in 1962 and not published for a decade, and released first as A. Lincoln, Simulacrum, the story is centered on Louis Rosen, an entrepreneur in 1982 with questionable business acumen who co-owns a musical organ company.  We Can Build You begins to illustrate what it might be like to build a new race of artificial humans, previewing many specific elements that would become the framework of many later films, novels, and shows (like the Humans television series 45 years later).  The “simulacra” business branches off as a natural spin-off of a keyboard type organ that interacts with the mind in the future from the 1962 perspective–simulacra being a favorite early sci-fi construct in Dick’s works, also called a Replicant or android in his other works.

For a few dozen pages Dick examines what it is to be alive, for a human or a sentient robot, this time in a new way, showing two simulacra, one a nearly perfect construct of Edwin Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war during the Civil War, and later, a simulacra of President Lincoln himself.  Why?  Because of America’s fascination with the Civil War following the commemoration of its centennial in 1961 (when Dick was writing the novel).  How these highly functioning automatons react to these businessmen in the Pacific Northwest “in the future” and the ideas to use them concocted by the story’s wealthy progenitor to Elon Musk form the best sections of the book.  The biggest struggle is with the second half of the novel, when Louis, who serves as the novel’s narrator–with no prior warning–becomes fixated on his partner’s daughter, named Pris.  Louis slips rapidly into some form of schizophrenia, obsessed with the 18-year-old, and the reader becomes aware he also has the unfortunate malady of being a textbook unreliable narrator.

 

Was any part of this novel real?  Was the infatuation never mutual (like with Quentin Tarentino’s insane brother in From Dusk Till Dawn?).  Did his organ company really propose making simulacra as entertainment to re-enact the Civil War, or is the reader crazy for even believing that could have been a legitimate plot point?  Was Pris real or only a figment of his mind?  Did his brother really have an “upside down face” (Dick describes it as some kind of mutation of some future people) or Louis really believed this because of his mental disease and his false reality?  Was anyone real?  Every step of the way modern readers familiar with Dick’s more famous work Blade Runner (adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) will see the inspiration for the Replicant also named Pris in that later work, not published until a decade after We Can Build You, and will question whether this Pris is a simulacra, too, or something else.

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The first major variant comic book cover event of 2020 launches tomorrow as the landmark 750th issue of Wonder Woman arrives at comic stores everywhere.  As with last year’s Detective Comics Issue #1000, DC Comics will feature a set of decade-inspired cover art variants plus a sketch cover version, joining an incredibly rendered Joëlle Jones standard cover with Wonder Woman holding the Earth on her shoulders (which might be the best of all), all available in most comic book stores.  Nearly 40 other variants will also be available if you’re willing to track them down, from retailer incentives to artist and store-exclusive issues.

Look for homage covers by Joshua Middleton (1940s), Jenny Frison (1950s), J. Scott Campbell (1960s), Olivier Coipel (1970s), George Perez (1980s), Brian Bolland (1990s), Adam Hughes (2000s), and Jim Lee and Scott Williams (2010s).

 

The first story features writer Steve Orlando and artist Jesus Merino wrapping the Year of the Villain arc.  DC announced previously that a story by writer Scott Snyder and artist Bryan Hitch will basically reboot the DC universe timeline, establishing Wonder Woman as the first DC superhero.  Other stories were created by Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott, Gail Simone and Colleen Doran, Marguerite Bennett and Laura Braga, Mariko Tamaki and Elena Casagrande, Kami Garcia, Phil Hester, and Ande Parks, Shannon Hale, Dean Hale, and Riley Rossmo, and Vita Ayala and Amancay Nahuelpan.  Readers will also find pin-up art by Emanuela Lupacchino, Ramona Fradon, Bilquis Evely, Travis Moore, Liam Sharp, and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

So which is your favorite cover?  Check out the final covers and original cover artwork below:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

We’re accustomed to seeing non-fiction tie-in books digging into what makes the big sci-fi franchises so popular.  But it’s only a recent trend that publishers are meeting fan demand by digging into those television series that don’t have the established fan bases and studio support.  Firefly was probably the first series to break out in this way, but publishers are now seeing–thanks to streaming platforms specifically–that fans want more content about their favorite shows.  Following recent books like Jeff Bond’s The World of The Orville (reviewed here at borg) and The Art and Making of the Expanse (reviewed here), the next acclaimed science fiction series has a behind-the-scenes account with Mike Avila’s The Man in the High Castle: Creating the Alt World from Titan Books.

Designed almost identically to the successful The World of The Orville, this look at Amazon Studios’ The Man in the High Castle: Creating the Alt World is both an overview of the series, its characters, its source material, and the creation of its detailed alternate world, and it’s also a visit with the creators behind and in front of the camera that made a complex, highly regarded work of classic sci-fi literature into a compelling benchmark in television storytelling.  As we’ve seen in interviews with Lisa Henson in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance–Inside the Epic Return to Thra and interviews about the Broccoli family in The Many Lives of Bond: How the Creators of 007 Have Decoded the Superspy, this look at the Amazon series provides one of fandom’s first glimpses at Philip K. Dick’s daughter, Dick estate trustee and series executive producer Isa Dick Hackett.  So whether you liked (or not) how the series took portions of the novel, left some behind, and added new bits, Hackett explains the thought process behind the production’s choices.

The book covers the entire series–all four seasons–and is divided into four sections by theater: the Japanese Pacific States, the Neutral Zone, the Greater Nazi Reich, and Alternate Worlds, and these sections further highlight specific components of the series, including characters, locations, design, costumes, props, and music.  There’s even a section on creating the creepy opening title sequence, slightly altered each season.  And stills of the signage, both re-created concepts and alternate history imagery, provide fans the opportunity to at last study them in detail.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Six have been chosen by their clans.  New dangers have arisen, and they must work together and learn to fight for each other to achieve their mission, ridding the land of new threats.  Unfortunately none of these chosen warriors trust each other.  We meet the cast of characters in the first chapter of Rising Sun, a new comic book series from IDW Publishing set in 12th century Japan, based on the 2017 CMON Limited tabletop board game Rising Sun, where clans must use politics, strength, and honor to rule the land.  The story was created by Skylanders writers Ron Marz and David Rodriguez.

Readers follow Chiyoku of the Koi Clan as she confronts a dragon who fells a fellow warrior.  The introductory issue paints Chiyoku like a cross between the DC Comics character Katana, Disney’s Mulan, or China’s Lotus Rong on a journey Red Sonja might take–It’s drawn in the style we’ve seen of Red Sonja on her bloody adventures with similar sweeping action.  Artist Martin Coccolo (Star Trek: Year Five) renders characters that are lifelike and recognizable from panel to panel.  The costumes and vibrant color work by Katrina Mae Hao bring along a realistic, historical vibe to the world of the game (check out the core Rising Sun game and expansion packs here at Amazon).

 

Readers encounter a similar pantheon of color-styled clans as we met in the movie The Great Wall, this time the red Koi clan, the orange Fox clan, the purple Lotus clan, the gold Bonsai clan, the blue Dragonfly clan, and the green Turtle clan.  As a bonus for gamers, the first issue includes an appendix with suggested game modifications.

It has vivid action and beautiful characters, presenting a good beginning for the series.  Here is a preview of the first issue of Rising Sun, plus some cover art (above) for the first three issues, courtesy of IDW Publishing:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

We first met Rom the Spaceknight in 1979 in the pages of his own Marvel Comics series.  Rom’s first foes were the Dire Wraiths, evolved descendants of the same Skrulls from the Avengers stories.  Since 1979 the Wraiths have faced all sorts of familiar Marvel superheroes, including S.H.I.E.L.D., the X-Men, Silver Surfer, Power Man and Iron Fist, the Fantastic Four, and Doctor Strange.  Now, thanks to co-publisher IDW Publishing, Rom: Dire Wraiths–a new mini-series brings astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins at the launch of the Apollo 11 in 1969 face to face with the Wraiths.

But where’s Rom?  That’s covered in a back-up story by Chris Ryall (writer of previous Rom stories),  featuring art by Guy Dorian (Rom, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero) and comics legend Sal Buscema (The Incredible Hulk, Spectacular Spider-Man).  The primary story by Ryall features a vist from Earth Command, and it includes artwork by Luca Pizzari (Marvel’s Weapon X).  Some particularly striking variant covers are available for the first issue, drawn by Luca Pizzari, Corin Howell, and a collaboration between Guy Dorian and Sal Buscema.  The Wraiths, in both stories, are rendered with incredible detail, some of the best sci-fi/alien designs we’ve seen–one panel in the back-up story featuring the claws is almost three-dimensional.  Brilliant work.

You might recall Men in Black III took a similar approach, an alternate timeline with a visit to the day of the Moonshot, bringing that series’ Agent J back in time to meet a young Agent K at the Apollo 11 launch and face an alien threat, as Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor in Doctor Who also accomplished in the episode “Day of the Moon.”  As with these other genre close encounters, in Rom: Dire Wraiths humans apparently knew more than the public was made aware back in 1969.  In as many crossovers as we’ve found that featured an appearance by the Dire Wraiths, this story also references the G.I. Joe universe via reference to cyborg Mike Power (and did they refer to The Ruby Files’ Rick Ruby?).

This is a science fiction story for fans of monster comics from the 1950s through the 1980s.  The artwork is truly top tier sci-fi.  Here is a preview of the first issue and look at some nicely creepy future covers from Rom: Dire Wraiths:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Usually a franchise tie-in novel or sequel will be able to serve as a standalone story to create a springboard into the story’s universe for new readers.  That’s not the case for readers of the new Gears of War prequel to the Gears 5 video game, Gears of War: Ascendance.  Author Jason M. Hough takes fans of the games on a journey back into field combat with a group of familiar characters battling close-quarters with the Swarm, with a backdrop focus on the political machinations of Coalition of Ordered Governments’ Minister Jinn and her reliance on Damon Baird and his robot army.  Unfortunately the story reads like the down day at a Dungeon & Dragon session, all about a group of characters getting from Point A to Point B, with little happening in between.

The entire novel is a set-up to bring the franchise’s first heroine to the lead position of gameplay, Kait Diaz.  The lack of development of the character is unfortunate, because it could have the potential for another alien bug fighter like Ellen Ripley, Rita Vrataski, Dizzy Flores, or Private Vasquez.  We meet Diaz following the burial of her mother.  She and her team are rescued from this planet only to return later so she can try to save a boy and a girl that she believed were dead when her group had abandoned their location.  So readers will be drawn toward her mission.  Backstory (available elsewhere) for the video games explains the significance of a special talisman she wears, yet each time it is discussed the reader is ready to learn more about it, but its purpose is ultimately skipped over in this book.  And readers don’t get to learn much about what makes Kait Diaz tick.  For that, readers will need to look to the game (which has been well-received by gamers).

So Gears of War: Ascendance is truly for fans already familiar with the game and its characters.  What a “Gear” even is, and what the opposing factions are and why, what one weapon is versus another–none of these concepts are ever explained (a Gear is a soldier, but is it an elite soldier or any foot soldier?).  The Swarm and other beasts are some kind of alien monster inspired by the Arachnid Bugs of Starship Troopers or that creature from Mimic, a kind of giant locust (it’s called the Locust Horde so I assume it looks like a locust) but all creepy like the Xenomorphs of Aliens, and telepathically connected like the hive mind of The Borg from Star Trek.  Why are they bad?  We don’t know, just as Heinlein treated his antagonists in Starship Troopers, although game players who dig in outside this novel will see they become more than that to Kait Diaz in the game.  Opening paragraphs in each section providing some backstory and setting, along with descriptions of characters would have been a welcome addition for those not familiar with the game yet.

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The second Black Widow trailer has arrived (if you missed the first, we previewed it here).  Black Widow features the return of Scarlett Johansson as Marvel’s biggest and most seen screen superheroine, plus Stranger Things and Hellboy star David Harbour as the Soviet answer to Captain America, the Red Guardian, Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz (The Mummy) as assassin Melina Vostokoff aka Iron Maiden, Florence Pugh (The Commuter) as Yelena Belova, and de-aged Oscar-winning actor William Hurt, who started the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe off in The Incredible Hulk, back as General Ross.

Directed by Cate Shortland, Black Widow takes place following the events of Captain America: Civil War, so it’s not really all that long ago.  The villain featured in the new trailer is Taskmaster, created in 1980 by writer David Michelinie and artist George Pérez. but the identity of the actor/actress has yet to be revealed.  Pugh’s character might be getting queued up to take over the Black Widow mantle later in this new phase (#4) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as her character has been known to use the Black Widow title in the pages of the comics.

Along with the trailer, Marvel released a video looking back at Black Widow in the MCU so far.  Check out this new trailer and feature for Black Widow:

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Two of the three most famous genre Jareds take center stage in the latest trailer from the Marvel universe.  Academy Award winner Jared Leto (Suicide Squad, Blade Runner 2049) stars as Dr. Michael Morbius and Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Fringe, The Expanse) as an undisclosed mentor, possibly Jack Russell.  Morbius takes place in the Sony side of the Marvel universe.  Not yet taking the plunge to become a full-on Marvel Cinematic Universe entry now that the Disney/Sony deal is done, a trailer appearance by Michael Keaton as Vulture reflects a straddling of the franchise.  Keaton’s character was the villain of Spider-Man: Homecoming, the first Spider-Man movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Morbius appears to have been filmed in the dark lighting of the earlier horror/superhero-verse film Venom, which featured another historic tie-in character from the world of Spider-Man.  Morbius will be released this summer a few months in advance of a Venom sequel.

Not to be confused with the Dr. Morbius of Forbidden Planet, this is the sci-fi/Dracula hybrid–the “living vampire”–created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in the pages of Marvel Comics in 1971.  Comic greats like Don McGregor and the late Rich Buckler and Steve Gerber would work on the Morbius stories over the years–a doomed hero drawn to look like actor Jack Palance.  Over the years the character would rub shoulders with Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Doctor Strange, and Blade, but most notably Spider-Man.  Elements of the trailer look like the stuff of Doctor Strange, Venom, and Deadpool, and this is obviously a character from the world of Stan Lee.

The original Morbius in superhero costume from the pages of Marvel Comics.

The film co-stars Doctor Who’s Matt Smith, Fast & Furious’s Tyrese Gibson, and 6 Underground’s Adria Arjona.

Could this be an entry point for new Blade, Ghost Rider, or Carnage movies?  Take a look at this first trailer for Morbius:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Although it wasn’t renewed for a second season, streaming service DC Universe’s Swamp Thing is the adaptation of a comic book series from 2019 that stood apart in a year where every other series seemed to be based on a comic book.  On the small screen, from The Umbrella Academy, The Boys, and Watchmen, to the last seasons of Netflix’s The Punisher and Jessica Jones, plus new seasons of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Gotham, and Legion, and new Batwoman and Doom Patrol series, 2019 meant a lot of comic book adaptations that either looked the same or they fought hard to try to be grittier and different.  And that’s great–that means there’s something for everyone.  But if you’re looking for fun, and nicely creepy but not too dark, and not cartoony, soap opera-ish, or comic booky, and you were willing to give DC universe a try, then you’d be lucky enough to have discovered Swamp Thing If you missed it, you can still catch up with the full season now with a DC Universe subscription or via Amazon Prime here, and it’s coming your way (and available for pre-order) on Blu-ray, digital, and DVD next month.

Swamp Thing strikes the right balance, taking a second-tier property and recreating the level of creepy found in 1960s-1980s comics–a show that actually looks and feels like what the original visionary artists Bernie Wrightson and writer Len Wein put on the page.  Finally a great Justice League Dark show, something like we loved in print from Mikel Janin and Peter Milligan that so far also has provided the best character cameos of CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event.  Complete with Madame Xanadu, Blue Devil, and Phantom Stranger, we meet two very Marvel Comics types inside the DC realm.  More importantly it’s great fun, like a John Carpenter movie with its visual effects, a top cast of household name actors and great guest stars, and faithful storytelling to the comics, headed up by Crystal Reed as a smart CDC doctor named Abby.  If you’re of the camp (like us) that agrees Bill Bixby on The Incredible Hulk is still the best comics on TV has ever been, then you’ll love seeing the similar origin tale and subsequent episodes between Abby and Andy Bean′s Alec Holland, a researcher and investigator whose lives are turned upside down when a swamp is contaminated by a local mill, which causes devastating changes to Holland.  The chemistry and tragic tale played by Bixby and Mariette Hartley in the 1970s Hulk series is echoed by the chemistry of Reed and Bean as the leads in Swamp Thing.

Holland transforms into a beast who walks and speaks like a man, but the plants of the swamp have merged with him.  Is there still a man in there that can be removed and repaired, or is he forever transformed into something entirely new?

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Review by C.J. Bunce

To understand the scope of celebrated Chinese author Cixin Liu′s 2005 novel Supernova Era, finally available to Western audiences in an English translated edition by Joel Martinsen, it helps to look back to its influences, and those works published since its original publication in China.  At its core, this is a classic science fiction novel of the Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury school.  It’s a work of speculative fiction, at once arguably both optimistic and dystopian that reads almost like an alternate history in the vein of Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.  Disturbing and horrifying at points, philosophical, and filled with global, international, and political intrigue, it’s also squarely a young adult title, featuring almost exclusively middle grade aged kids tasked with surviving an interstellar holocaust–the actual “supernova” of the title–that quickly fries the DNA of anyone older than the age of thirteen.  The solution?  In the face of their imminent deaths, the world’s adult leaders begin to select youth leadership based on the classic “model United Nations” competitions.  It’s a jarring, but ultimately interesting and clever mash-up of some great tropes of science fiction.

Since the initial publication of Supernova Era in China, we’ve seen parts of the story replayed–possibly even inspiring–many other genre works:  Only last year in we saw Jeff Lemire’s Sentient–a comic book series where the adults on a ship are killed in a sabotage leaving kids to run a spaceship.  Here, we follow two small groups of children, the cabinet who must lead China and the cabinet who leads the United States, without the help, advice, education, and other benefits of adults or adulthood, on a global stage.   At first, the children default to letting an Internet-like artificial intelligence computer–the Digital Domain–help keep society in order, something like the robot in last year’s Netflix movie, I Am Mother, where a computer system’s robotic surrogate fulfills all parental duties to children.

When the daily toil of work grinds the kids in the Supernova Era into a state of boredom, they reach out to a massively multi-player online roleplaying game (MMPORG) and begin to build their real lives around it, as we saw in Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Ready Player One, where a future society allows itself to give up life in the real world to become lost inside a virtual reality MMPORG.  And the world’s kid leadership ultimately decide they need to compete with other nations, creating a worldwide version of Suzanne Collins’ 2008 novel The Hunger Games (also inspired by Stephen King’s novel, The Running Man) with a society relying on a new world construct with quirky contrived, artificial new rules of survival, battling wars with gameboard rules to the death.  Were these authors aware of Liu’s internationally known and respected work?  Possibly, but it’s the earlier works that served at least in part as influences on Liu’s novel.

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