Boxers by Gene Luen Yang – A Book Review

After teaching American Born Chinese for several years, I finally decided my (then) nine-year-old could handle it last fall.  She loved it, so when Gene Luen Yang came to our local library, we had to pay him a visit.  Unbelievably, we got there before anyone else and snagged a front row seat.  Mr. Yang was already there and held a wonderful conversation with my daughter.  He is truly an incredibly nice man and obviously a father of young children.

Because he made such a great impression on her, my daughter wanted to read everything by Gene Luen Yang.  She enjoyed Secret Coders, so I next grabbed her both Boxers and Saints as well.  Admittedly, I didn’t know much about either book.

She read them and made a few comments about them being a little bloody, then asked me to read them, too.  How could I say no?  I’m a fan of the author as well.

My daughter was right–these are bloody, violent books!  However, they are also very, very good.

Boxers takes place between 1894 and 1900.  Historically speaking, it deals with the Chinese uprising against Western invaders as well as Christian missionaries.  This all actually happened.

Yang focuses on Bao, a young man whose family, friends, and village has suffered at the hands of foreign influences and even Christians.  They are marginalized, bullied, and even killed for not conforming to outside forces.  Bao loves Chinese opera, specifically the many gods and goddesses featured therein.  As you know from American Born Chinese, Yang is particularly talented at infusing Chinese mythology into his stories.  Of course, in the case of Bao, these are not myths.  These gods and goddesses are reality, and he is soon able to harness their power.  He teaches others to harness their power as well, and this is the foundation of their strength against the bigger, better armed invaders that they confront.

The book culminates in the city of Peking.  There Bao must make his most difficult of decisions and face his ultimate challenge.

Boxers is a violent, complex book.  While I don’t regret letting my (then) nine-year-old read it, I should have done a little research and provided a bit more guidance as she devoured it.  It presents the very ugly, brutal side of colonialism and even Christian evangelism.  However, it also brilliantly depicts Bao compromising his “gut” feelings of right and wrong versus what he thinks is best for his nation.  Bao kills innocent Christian women and children in this book, but from his perspective, they are not innocent.  They are foreign devils trying to destroy his culture and people.

Yang himself is a Christian, so please don’t get on his case about this.  He’s depicting a character rooted in historical events and using him to explore obvious complexities that actually occurred.  The Chinese who did not conform were beaten and killed mercilessly.  The Boxers did the same to their adversaries.

Rest assured, Yang does not deal with any of this lightly.  He clearly put a lot of thought into how he wanted to execute this story.  I found it thoughtful, tasteful, and fair in relation to historical precedent.

I will admit, though, because of Yang’s drawing style, the violence jarred me.  This would have been a very different book by any other artist.  While there is blood, head shots, beatings, and even mass murder, Yang doesn’t make any of it gratuitous.  At the same time, though, he also doesn’t shy away from what’s happening.  At one point, Bao decides to burn a church with Christians inside of it.  Yang doesn’t soften this horrific event, but he also doesn’t sensationalize it.

As you can tell, Boxers deeply resonated with me.  I completely recommend it.  I do think it’s okay for children, but I would urge you to guide them through it (unlike what I did).  There is much to be learned from the book, to be sure.

I’ll review Boxers‘ accompanying title, Saints, soon!

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

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Wonder Woman: The True Amazon by Jill Thompson – A Book Review

I have to be honest, I’m a huge fan of Wonder Woman, but my interest in her derives from two very distinct sources.

Firstly, I have two young daughters, and as a lifelong comic book lover, I very much want them to have a super hero for whom they can both admire and aspire.  With her rich history, roots in Greek mythology, and general decency, Wonder Woman fits the bill.  Best of all?  She is not derivative of a male counterpart.  My girls love Batgirl and Supergirl as well, but I don’t want them subconsciously believing they have to copy a boy to be cool.  Wonder Woman shows them they can walk their own path and achieve heroism just fine.

Secondly, Brian Azzarello rocketed Wonder Woman up the ranks to become one of my favorite characters, and this happened well within the last six years with the advent of The New 52.  By reinventing the Greek Gods and plopping them right down into the world of both man and Wonder Woman, Azzarello brought a complexity to Wonder Woman that, for me, didn’t exist in any other title.  He somehow merged the world of super heroes, ancient Greek mythology, and modern day concerns into a monthly title that never failed to captivate my imagination.  As you can probably guess, I was disappointed when he moved on.

Grant Morrison recently released his version of Wonder Woman’s origin set within the Earth One imprint.  I’ve reviewed that title already, but in a nutshell, it seemed to rehash events and themes already well covered within the character’s multigenerational existence, albeit with wonderful Morrison flair.

When I discovered Wonder Woman: The True Amazon, I felt both intrigued and fatigued.  On the one hand, Jill Thompson is an amazing talent and the fact that she both wrote and illustrated this book makes it a must-buy.  On the other hand, I’ve experienced quite a bit of Wonder Woman’s origin within the last few years, so much so that I really didn’t want to go down that road yet again.

In the end, I’m glad I made the trip down said road, but I’d be lying if I said a few bumps did not jostle me from time to time.

Let’s first discuss the art.  I could pretty much summarize it with one word and be done: magnificent.  However, I’m not a one word kind of guy, so allow me to offer a bit more.

Thompson’s drawings and colors have an ethereal picture book quality, which is meant as a compliment.  As I read this book, I felt as though I’d entered a fairy tale, not in content, but rather in terms of atmosphere.  The material is fairly serious, as I’ll discuss later, and there are some imposing monsters and gruesome circumstances, yet Thompson manages to maintain an almost otherworldly quality that struck me as … well … magical.

Her Amazons are also incredibly interesting.  Thompson depicts them as strong, sometimes brutal women, but they never appear brutish or even physically menacing.  Their strength resonates though a certain grace Thompson bestows upon them.  They are athletic, but not hulking.  They are beautiful, but not sexualized.  They are lithe and light except when weighed down by armor.  Thompson conveys a race capable of winning wars but very much more interested in art and culture.

As for the story, I congratulate Thompson on taking a different approach, but I wish she had avoided the “origin” element of the tale.  In this version, Princess Diana is a gift to Hippolyta from the Gods, and the Amazons treat her as such.  As a result, Diana is spoiled, humored, and given chance after chance even when behaving badly.  That’s not to say she does not have the heart of Wonder Woman within.  She is still capable of great feats, and is, for the most part, a decent woman, and the book takes care to remind the reader as such, but the book also spends a lot of time displaying Diana’s flaws.

By this point, Thompson had me hooked.  I liked this new approach in that Wonder Woman did not always have a heart of gold.  Though born physically perfect, the Amazons’ influence ironically tainted her persona.  She exercised selfishness, lied, took advantage, and even treated others poorly.  Again, though, Thompson made a point to showcase her heroic tendencies as well.

I won’t spoil the ending of the book, but Wonder Woman’s impetus for travelling to the world of Man is given a major overhaul.  She now has an express reason for wearing her armor, bracelets, lasso, and golden girdle.  I especially love the tiara’s new concept and its implications upon her character.

Part of me, though, and again, I’ll try not to spoil too much, did not enjoy the significant change in motivation behind Wonder Woman’s mission to Man.  Thompson executed it well, but it does bring a certain level of darkness to the character that I’m not sure I wanted.  Does it make more sense than her original origin?  Yes, absolutely.  But, at the same time, we’ve seen this story unfold hundreds of times before with other characters, especially those within the comic book medium.  In a way, it lessens Wonder Woman’s originality even as the event itself is unique and new to the character.  I’m honestly conflicted about the issue.  Perhaps this is a good sign, though.  Thompson evoked a lot of thought from me concerning her iteration, which means that I didn’t close the book, set it aside, and move on.  It’s been days since I finished it, in fact, and yet here I am, still thinking about it and trying to revolve my feelings regarding it.

Speaking of lingering issues, Grant Morrison made his Amazons overtly homosexual in Earth One.  It makes perfect sense when you really think about it – an island paradise solely comprised of eternal women.  Thompson handles the matter far more deftly, with a far lighter touch, but proves even more provocative in doing so.  She hints at much, reveals nothing, and accomplishes the perfect tone as a result.  My pre-teen daughter could read this book and think nothing of Wonder Woman’s sexuality, whereas, as an adult, a few scenes led me to certain conclusions.

Ultimately, Wonder Woman fans need to read this book.  It is beautiful to behold and delivers a distinctive exploration of the character’s incentives.  Thompson takes a super hero trope and manages to make it feel fresh, especially in regards to Wonder Woman’s garb and tools.  I like that Thompson scuffed Wonder Woman’s personality up a little, making her not quite so pure hearted and good intentioned, but I’m not convinced of its necessity.  The True Amazon will leave you with much to think about, and that’s ultimately the sign of a successful work.

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Aquaman: Rebirth #1 – A (Comic) Book Review

I happen to really dig Aquaman.  Peter David’s unprecedented run on the title in the early ’90s won me over due to the sheer originality and complexity of character, and I’ve followed the character ever since.  Of course, as he does with everything he touches, Geoff Johns returned Aquaman to his classic greatness while keeping him just as interesting over a decade later.

Since I found myself in the comic book shop anyway, I figured I’d pick up Aquaman: Rebirth #1 to see what new approach DC and Dan Abnett would take with our favorite Sea King.

Unfortunately, of all the Rebirth titles I’ve read so far, Aquaman struck me as the least innovative, revolutionary, or even interesting.  That’s not to say Abnett wrote poorly – he didn’t.  The dialogue flows well and is consistent with the characters.  The art is fine as well.  Both script and art progress the story resulting in a crisp, pleasurable read.

My issue with the, well, issue is that I didn’t notice anything new of consequence added to the character or mythology.  This installment seemed purely intended to catch up someone who has never read Aquaman before.  We’ve sailed these waters before.

So while the writing and art is well executed, the story itself offers nothing new and, consequently, makes this issue irrelevant.

 

Star Wars: Vader Down – A Book Review

This is probably the coolest Darth Vader story I’ve ever experienced, and that’s no small statement.

The first crossover between Marvel’s Darth Vader and Star Wars comic book series, Vader Down collects the entire tale as Darth Vader crash lands on the Rebel Alliance’s new planetary base.  He hunts Luke Skywalker, the boy who humiliated Vader by destroying the Death Star.  However, though he’s told no one, Vader has learned that the rebel hero is also his son.  How exactly did Vader crash land on this planet?  I won’t spoil it for you, but it involves Luke Skywalker, and it is totally in keeping with the Skywalker tradition of adventurism.

What makes this graphic novel so utterly cool is that Darth Vader literally fights an entire battalion of rebel soldiers on his own.  He is surrounded by dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of enemy combatants and he doesn’t even flinch.  This is the Darth Vader you’ve always wanted to see, trust me.  I’ve never felt so good about rooting for the bad guy!

And while this prolonged conflict is worth the price of the book alone, there is much more going on in it besides Vader’s impossible fight.  Luke must battle a murderous protocol droid as well as his astromech partner who is somehow even more bloodthirsty.  Both are in service to Vader, by the way.  The two droids are accompanied by Dr. Aphra, a standout character new to the mythos and also dedicated to Vader’s cause.  She tussles with Han Solo, and you’ll love the steps they take to try to defeat each other.  Finally, Princess Leia ultimately faces down Vader herself; neither realize the implications of their confrontation.

This book is nonstop action with great sequences that will delight any Star Wars fan.  Though it features different artists due to the nature of the crossover, the pencils, inks, and colors are beautiful to behold.  Both writers capture that distinct Star Wars humor, deliver an epic story, and keep each and every character true to their roots.

I have thoroughly enjoyed both the Star Wars and Darth Vader comic book series, and this crossover between the two should be considered an instant classic.

Black Science: How To Fall Forever by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera – A Book Review

I saw this book earned a little buzz so I thought I’d check it out.  The premise is Grant McKay and his team have broken through the barrier between infinite dimensions.  The machine making this capable, The Pillar, got damaged though, so they only have a little time before they jump to another world, and if they want to make the jump, they better be near The Pillar or they will be left behind.  McKay’s two children were sucked along for the ride, as were two corporate representatives who don’t get along with McKay at all.  McKay is your narrator.  He is anti-authoritarian, smug, arrogant, cheats on his wife, and is not all that likable.

This first volume begins with McKay trying to escape some aliens and race back to The Pillar before the next jump.  Over the course of the volume, you discover why his kids are with him, why his wife is not, why the team seems so ill prepared, the identity of his mistress, and why the two corporate representatives accompany them.

The artwork is quite stunning.  Scalera creates some impressive aliens and exquisite settings.  His panels keep the story moving along wonderfully, and he delivers some dynamic, fast-paced action.  My only complaint is that because McKay’s crew wear the same uniforms, they tend to look quite a bit alike.  I appreciate the realism, because they likely would wear the same suits, but at times it’s hard to tell who is who.

Dean White does the painted art, and let me tell you, his colors alone make this book worth the price.  I have zero talent at colors, so I’ve learned to appreciate that which I cannot do.  White is a master.  Gorgeous colors.

In the end, though, while the book is very good, I can’t say I’m hooked.  I bought the first volume because I was sure I’d love it, but I didn’t.  I’ll probably check out the second volume when it comes to a local library.  I simply never connected to the characters.  McKay is an anti-hero, and that isn’t a bad thing, but I never really cared about him.  I never found any common ground.  I never necessarily rooted for him.  I can’t really say I have to know where his story goes next.

Of course, this is just my opinion.  I loved most of the art, the story proved interesting, the colors were beautiful, so there is a good chance you may very well adore it.  If the premise captured your interest, I encourage you to see for yourself.

Pretty Deadly: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios – A Book Review

This is a strange book and I mean that as a total compliment.  Strange is good.  Unique is appreciated.  Original is commendable.  Pretty Deadly is all of those things, and more.

Pretty Deadly is not a linear story.  Meaning, it doesn’t start at an origin, then progress to a conclusion.  It sort of begins in the middle of things, offers some hints as to what occurred in the past, yet doesn’t totally explain what’s occurring in the middle.  By the book’s end, you have a good idea of what happened, but not a complete one.  For some books, this would be a gross misstep, but DeConnick executes it masterfully and I trust that the writer knows exactly what she’s doing.

For example, by and large, we don’t know much about the characters.  They are explored just enough to seem round, dynamic, real, but we don’t know everything.  For a few of them, we don’t know anything.  Even so, I want to know more.  This is not a plot driven book, though it certainly has an interesting one.  This is a story about people (of sorts).

This is a rather unconventional title, and that’s why it works so well.  Death personified is a major player, but that’s not necessarily breaking new ground.  The story occurs in the Old West, but that’s not unheard of in the comic book world, either.  But the combination of the two, coupled with mysticism, swordplay, gunfights, and a mythology-in-the-making sets Pretty Deadly apart from anything else out there at the moment.

Rios’ artwork is frenetic, almost messy, yet oddly detailed.  It suits the story well.  At times it’s hard to tell what’s going on, especially during the brutal fight scenes, but I believe that’s actually a boon to this title.  Fights usually are messy and confusing, and since this story is not delivered in a neat, tidy little package, I see no reason for the art to contradict the story’s style.

The story ends on a bittersweet note, but one that certainly lays the groundwork for many interesting stories to come.  If you’re looking for something different from a comic book, something well executed and purposeful, something that will stand the test of time, I urge you to give Pretty Deadly a shot.

 

 

 

 

My Initial Impression Of the Affleck As Batman Photograph

Today Zack Snyder released the first image depicting Ben Affleck as Batman for the upcoming Man of Steel sequel, tentatively titled Batman Vs. Superman.  Though the movie does come out until May 6, 2016, it’s never too early to get the fans worked into a frenzy, and this photograph has apparently done just that.

You know I love Batman.  I love all iterations of the character.  There’s enough love in my heart for the character to accept most interpretations.  And concerning this image, honestly, I like where they’ve taken him.  It’s already been established that this Batman will be an older and wiser, battle-hardened version, such as the Batman depicted in the critically acclaimed Batman: The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, and this costume does much to evoke that series’ imagery.

For example, I love that they have finally got a cape and cowl that seem attached to one another and organic to the man beneath.  Best of all, his head doesn’t look huge because of his mask.  It looks very sleek and form fitting.  It’s good.

I also like the over-sized bat symbol on his chest. Again, this looks like the one from the graphic novel, and that’s okay by me.  The belt looks cool and useful.  I love the little nuances of the costume/armor – the little lines and details.  Snyder is an extremity stylized director, and the costume reflects that.

Ironically, the costume is also far more simple than I expected.  It does not look clunky with plates of armor, it does not appear awkward due to gargantuan headgear.  Even the ears are more subtle.

In fact, quit honestly, this looks like the most “comic book” version of the costume we’ve had perhaps since the 60’s television show.  I hear rumblings that it would appear as though Jim Lee drew it, and that seems to be the case.

Are there some things I wish they’d done? Sure.  I’m a little tired of the all black Batman.  Some kind of grey and black contrast would have been nice, or even grey and dark blue.  I also miss the yellow oval included with the bat symbol as well.  Finally, the white eye slits like in the comics would be so cool, but I get that they want us to recognize the actor beneath in some capacity.

But, even having said all that, I am satisfied with this look.  To me, it’s the most loyal to the source material we’ve had yet.  I’m excited to see more during the next two years.