August’s Best Comic Books

Featured Image from the cover of Doctor Mirage #1 by Philip Tan

Best Graphic Novel/Collected Edition

SparrowhawkSparrowhawk [Boom! Studios] – writer Delilah S. Dawson, artist Matias Basla; cover by Miguel Mercado

Dawson’s pitch black Victorian-era fairy tale is the story of Artemesia, the illegitimate daughter of a British Naval captain, unwittingly pulled into Faerie so the evil Faerie Queen can switch places with her and wreak havoc on the human world. Sparrowhawk drips with fatalism from the moment Artemesia finds herself on the wrong side of the mirror. Dawson understands the first rule of tragedy – that the hero must make all the wrong choices for perfectly understandable reasons.

Best Single Issue

House of x 002.jpgHouse of X #2 “The Uncanny Life of Moira X” [Marvel] – writer Jonathan Hickman, artist Pepe Larraz; Cover by Pepe Larraz and Marte Gracia

A much discussed issue that lives up to the hype. Jonathan Hickman’s re-invention of Moira MacTaggart’s origin and timeline might be the most audacious retcon in the history of comics, with implications that stretch far beyond the already massive story he and Pepe Larraz are telling. But there’s more to this chapter than the lives and timelines of the newly-dubbed Moira X: this is also one of the most gratifying accounts of the Magneto/Professor X rivalry we’ve had to date. And with Hickman now taking the reigns of the X books for the foreseeable future, it means he’s only just getting started.

Runners Up

Die 006Die #6 “Grind” [Image] – writer Kieron Gillen, artist Stephanie Hans; cover by Stephanie Hans

After a brief hiatus, Gillen’s and Hans’s take on the LitRPG genre returns with its best issue yet, with Gillen’s furious, high-concept plotting and Hans’s widescreen, dust-blown layouts perhaps the most perfect pairing in comics right now. This chapter finally gives us some background on Ash’s cyberpunk little sister Angela, who makes a heart-wrenching choice at the end.

BR 2019 002Blade Runner 2019 #2 [Titan] – writers Michael Green and Mike Johnson, artist Andres Guinaldo; cover by Christian Ward

I don’t usually go for movie tie-ins, but in all honesty, so far this is turning into the Blade Runner sequel I wish we had gotten on the big screen. Set around the same time frame as the original film but with a completely different set of characters, Blade Runner 2019 feels like period piece set in an imagined future’s past. In this issue, Aahna Ashina’s search for a tech tycoon’s missing family leads her to a “skin doctor” deploying some radical new strategies for hiding replicants on Earth.

Best First Issue

Dr Mirage 1Doctor Mirage #1 [Valiant] – writer Magdalene Visaggio, artist Nick Robles; cover by Philip Tan

Shan Fong Mirage has always been one of the most interesting characters in Valiant’s stable, and Visaggio’s approach, illuminated by Nick Robles’s sleek and trippy art, looks ready to deliver the goods. When the story begins, Shan’s husband Hwen is dead, their TV show cancelled, and her ability to communicate with ghosts is gone. Then a teenager named Grace shows up at her door and turns everything upside down, claiming that they are the ones who are dead and living in hell. The last panel left me wanting more.

Runner Up

Tommy Gun 1Tommy Gun Wizards #1 [Dark Horse] – writer Christian Ward, artist Sami Kivelä; cover by Christian Ward

A retelling of the prohibition-era Untouchables saga, where Capone’s main racket is dealing magic, not booze. Nice retro art stylings, distinctive characters, great world-building, and a touch of goofy humor thrown in just for the hell of it.

 

My Top 10 Current Series (Ongoing or Limited)

(Minimum of four issues and at least one issue published in August)

1 

Im Hulk 22The Immortal Hulk [Marvel] – writer Al Ewing, artists Joe Bennett and Ryan Bodenheim (guest, issue #21); cover by Alex Ross (issue #22)

With an unhinged Banner cycling through his various alter egos by day, and the unchained “Devil” Hulk ruling the night, Ewing and Bennett are still twisting and shaping the Hulk mythos into the flat-out best comic of any genre on the stands today.

2

Die 006Die [Image] – writer Kieron Gillen, artist Stephanie Hans; cover by Stephanie Hans (issue #6)

The first couple of issues of this Lit-RPG extravaganza were a bit too feverish in their pacing, but the story has since settled into a steady rhythm, and the deeper Gillen and Hans dig into the inner lives of the characters and their world, the better this series gets.

3

Fairlady 5Fairlady [Image] – writer Brian Schirmer, artist Claudia Balboni; cover by Jeremy Saliba (issue #5)

Getting a “Complete Fairlady Mystery” every month has been a joy – but the latest (issue #5) comes with a cliffhanger(!!!) and word that the series is on hiatus until next year.

4

Green Lantern 10The Green Lantern [DC] – writer Grant Morrison, artist Liam Sharp; cover by Liam Sharp (issue #10)

The Myrwhydden issue (#7) is the highlight of the Morrison/Sharp run on Hal Jordan’s Lantern, and following it with a Green Arrow team-up and some multiversal madness shows that the emphasis of the book continues to be pure, dorky fun.

5

House of x 3House of X/Powers of X [Marvel] – writer Jonathan Hickman, artists Pepe Larraz (House of X) and R.B. Silva (Powers of X); cover by Pepe Larraz and Marte Gracia (House of X #3)

Yes, Hickman’s plotting can be convoluted, and the unusual intertwining of the two ostensibly separate series doesn’t help at all, and the info-dumpy text pages muck up the pacing, but goddamn if this isn’t an exhilarating ride.

6

Sabrina 4Sabrina the Teenage Witch [Archie] – writer Kelly Thompson, artists Veronica Fish and Andy Fish; Cover by Veronica Fish (Issue #4)

“My life needs to pick a genre already”, Sabrina laments. She may be overwhelmed by the three way tug-of-war of horror, romance and teen comedy, but Thompson and the Fishes have found a sweet spot between the teen melodrama and supernatural shenanigans that makes me wish this was an ongoing, rather than a soon-to-be-concluded mini-series.

7

miles 9Miles Morales: Spider-Man [Marvel] – writer Saladin Ahmed, artist Javier Garrón; cover by Patrick O’Keefe (issue#9)

Ahmed and Garrón have been killing it lately, taking Miles’s life/superhero balance in a fun new direction while conjuring up a terrifying new nemesis in the Assessor.

8

Mary Shelley 5Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter [Aftershock] – writers Adam Glass and Olivia Cuartero-Briggs, artist Hayden Sherman; cover by Hayden Sherman (issue #5)

Sherman’s art is still the star of the show, though Glass and Cuartero-Briggs have built a deliciously macabre sandbox for him to play in. The latest issue rounds off the first arc in horrific, viscera-drenched fashion and sets up a new direction for the series, whenever it may resume.

9

Captain America 13Captain America [Marvel] – writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, artists Adam Kubert, Jason Masters, Sean Izaakse; cover by Alex Ross (issue #13)

Coates’s long-game saga of the Captain-without-his-America transitions from Kubert’s roving multi-angle layouts in the prison break arc “Captain of Nothing” to Masters’s more traditional three-quarter straight shots. The story doesn’t miss a beat, but man I really loved having Kubert on this book.

10

Fallen World 4Fallen World [Valiant] – writer Dan Abnett, artist Adam Pollina; cover by Rick Leonardi (issue #4)

Matt Kindt and Clayton Crain are irreplaceable, but this long awaited follow up to the Rai/4001 A.D. storyline holds its own. One year after the fall of New Japan, Rai has sworn off violence while he tries to help humans and positronics build a new world together. That all changes when the authoritarian AI known as Father resurrects in the body of unstoppable nanotech super-soldier Bloodshot.

 

The Best Short SFF – January 2019

Featured Image from this month’s Fireside Magazine: Illustration by Galen Dara for Mary Soon Lee’s “Lord Serpent”

Must Read

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Cover Art: “Galbourne Ridge” by Tyler Edlin

The Beast Weeps with One Eye” by Morgan Al-Moor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019) Short Story

The Bjebu have been chased from their homeland by a murderous horde of ravens; in desperation, High Sister Nwere strikes a deal with Babawa-Kunguru, the Keeper of Sorrows, for the safety of a new homeland. She soon learns that the cost may be too much for them to bear. Riveting action and suspense from the first sentence to the last, with a brilliant and complex protagonist and breathtaking worldbuilding.

 

Highly Regarded

Hand Me Downs” by Maria Haskins (GigaNotoSaurus, January 2019) Short Story

The story of a teenage troll (the “real” kind, not the internet kind) named Tilda who wants to go to a famous dance academy while battling stereotypes about her identity. A heartfelt story about self-love and family ties, with nice touches of macabre humor.

The Great Train Robbery” by Lavie Tidhar (Apex Magazine Issue 116, January 2019) Novelette

In a dream-like fantasy world called the Escapement, the Stranger realizes that agents of the Colossi plan to rob the train he is on to acquire a dangerous new weapon. But is it too late to stop them? A carnivalesque reverie told in classic cliffhanger style.

 

Also Recommended

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Cover Art: “Pearls and Stardust” by Julie Dillon

Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Fear” by Senaa Ahmad (Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019) Short Story

11-year-old Amina has a mad scientist for an older sister who insists on using her as a guinea pig to test her “mechanical marvel”. A sweet-natured tale of sibling rivalry and bonding.

“The Savannah Problem” by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, January/February 2019) Novella

Draiken abducts a hired killer and attempts to get him on board for his plan to fight the conspiracy while they is pursued by a mysterious ship with lethal intent. The latest in a cycle that began with “Sleeping Dogs“.

On the Origin of Specie” by Vajra Chandrasekera (Nightmare Magazine Issue 76, January 2019) Short Story

A tax protester is thrown into a hellish, lightless tower that slowly funnels its prisoners toward the bottom.

“The Willows” by Delilah S. Dawson (Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019) Novelette [will add link when available on 2/5]

An unsettling variation on Algernon Blackwood’s classic horror story, which finds a young music star and her partner haunted by the sinister history and character of the family retreat where they’re recording their new album.

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Cover Art: “Playing Cello in the Sea Against the Night Sky with the Red Moon” by grandfailure

Beyond Comprehension” by Russell Nichols (Fireside Magazine Issue 63, January 2019) Short Story

Brian is a father with dyslexia who feels left behind when his young son Andre receives an implant that downloads books directly into his brain. Very moving.

Burrowing Machines” by Sara Saab (The Dark Issue 44, January 2019) Short Story

A chilling monster story about a London tunneling project that unleashes something terrible.

Venus in Bloom” by Lavie Tidhar (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 148, January 2019) Short Story

A bittersweet vignette about life on a colonized Venus, as loved ones remember a recently deceased florist who wanted the planet to remain a “wild untamed” place free from the ravages of terraforming.

 

 

The Rack – Zine Reviews for the Week of January 5, 2019

My first bit of short fic reading for the New Year includes a Must Read debut!

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019

bcs 268
Cover Art: “Galbourne Ridge” by Tyler Edlin

When the folded paper icons that sustain her people fail, Dreya realizes she is losing her power and the Company will soon unmake the town. The setting is the strength of Beth Cato’s “The Blighted Godling of Company Town H”, where a factory town on one of many worlds run by the Company sustains itself by the power of its godling. The Company hasn’t reached out to Town H in a long time, and the surrounding towns, along with their people and their godlings, are disappearing. Only Mother has the power to unmake the town, but Dreya and her people may not be strong enough to stand up to her. This is an engaging underdog narrative for a time, though the solution to Dreya’s and the town’s problems comes too easy. Cato builds a fascinating mythological framework to hang the story on.
Toronto-based debut author Morgan Al-Moor continues this issue’s theme of a people faced with extinction in “The Beast Weeps with One Eye”. The author wastes no time getting down to business: when his story opens, the last of the Bjebu have already fled their homeland, pursued by a murderous swarm of ravens determined to finish them. High Sister Nwere is desperate to end her people’s plight and strikes an ill-advised deal with Babawa-Kunguru, the Keeper of Sorrows: Babawa-Kunguru will call off the ravens and give ownership of his land to the Bjebu in exchange for three offerings of sorrow. After collecting the first of his offerings Babawa-Kunguru promises that once he has collected them all, the Bjebu will know the deepest of sorrows. Al-Moor strikes a perfect balance between narrative momentum and expansive world-building, distilling a wide-ranging history and mythology into its essential parts and parsing it out among the various plot points and character moments. It’s a skill even the most experienced authors falter at from time to time, so kudos to a first-time author for pulling it off so well. This is an exciting parable of triumph and loss, with great characters in an inspired setting.

Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019

uncanny 26
Cover Art by Julie Dillon

Delilah S. Dawson’s new novelette “The Willows” gives Algernon Blackwood’s famous 1907 novella of the same name a modern-day makeover. Rather than a journey down the Danube beset by a supernatural menace, in Dawson’s redux The Willows is an old family estate where its inhabitants journey back through its troubled family history. April and O’Leary are music stars who sojourn at O’Leary’s remote family home to record their new album. Steeped in generations of O’Leary ancestors, the property and its surroundings emanate a spectral presence causing physical and psychological transformations in the young couple. The strongest element of Dawson’s narrative is the dissociation – from time, place, self – April both experiences herself and witnesses in her partner. April acts the role of an “O’Leary woman”, a change she is as conscious of as she is absent from: “This place is wriggling under my skin like worms turning soil, like little carrot roots grasping deep. I realize I’m wearing someone else’s old, faded apron over my dress, over the growing bump of my belly. I don’t know where I found it, don’t recall putting it on. But it feels like mine.” And O’Leary soon assumes the character of the O’Leary men, who have specific expectations of how an O’Leary woman behaves. An effective exercise in atmosphere and tone, offset by a sometimes too hurried pace.
Whether she is writing hard SF or fantasy, Marissa Lingen’s stories focus on the ordinariness of things we might find extraordinary. It is fortunate that worlds of ordinary magic are no less enjoyable for readers to escape to. In “The Thing, with Feathers”, Val is a lighthouse keeper in a post-disaster world where not so pleasant things come crawling out of the water. She can also heal with magic, and one day a man with a connection to her past comes looking for help, disrupting her solitude. I always enjoy Lingen’s nimble prose and her pragmatic world view.
Senaa Ahmad offers a sweet-natured tale of sibling bonding titled “Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Fear”. 11-year-old Amina obsesses over Amelia Earhart, her older sister Huda is a mad scientist, and their younger brother Sameer is a pestering third wheel. Huda builds a mysterious “mechanical marvel” in their garage she wants to test on Amina, though she’s not sure how dangerous it might be. There’s a gentleness to this story that distinguishes it, and the prose is graceful and poised. Sibling rivalry magnifies little conflicts while the adult characters and their myriad concerns fade into the background; there is an authenticity of perspective here that stories of childhood often lack.
In Inda Lauryn’s “Dustdaughter”, the nine-year-old title character (“Dust” for short) sneaks into her Grandma’s funeral where her presence causes Big Gram to take a deep breath and open her eyes. Dust thinks she is being punished for what happened at the funeral when her mom sends her away to the home of a woman named Star, but she soon comes to realize Star can help her better understand her unique lineage and special gifts. A hopeful story of self-realization and community support.
Weathermen battle the tempestuous climate by naming and defining different weather disturbances in Fran Wilde’s “A Catalog of Storms”. When her oldest daughter Lillit shows her aptitude, her mother has to send her away to live with the other weathermen. She then tries to hide evidence that her youngest daughter Sila has the same gift as her sister. A very cool premise that literalizes the term “weatherman” and has fun with the concept. I was taken by the fate all weathermen face – to one day become weather themselves, a concept that works its way into the stirring climax. On the downside, the characters were suitable but never got their hooks in me. Not even Sila, who narrates: her voice is often too weary and wizened to be convincing as a child’s.
Civilization has collapsed, and people have broken up into various collectives and tribes in Natalia Theodoridou’s “Poems Written While”. A trans man known as Daddy looks after the kids and recites for them long lost poems about the stars, which are no longer visible in the sky. His favorite of the kids, Luz, likes to bring home strays. Her latest, a woman named Nora, sets Daddy’s heart aflutter. Details of the story’s setting are sparse; there were wars and climate change, etc.; now Daddy’s people appear to live in an abandoned factory. The generic aspect of this post-apocalyptic backdrop doesn’t do the story any favors, though its depiction of the concerns facing trans persons in such a future is noteworthy, and I found the characters’ relationships gratifying. Young children enthralled by the literature of the distant past sans the allure of mass entertainment might be a tad idealistic, but it pecked at my heartstrings, anyway.

Asimov’s Science Fiction, January/February 2019 (Part 1)

asf_janfeb2019_400x570
Cover Art by Michael Whelan

Some of the more interesting shorter works in this issue are covered here; next week I will review the two novellas by Alexander Jablokov and Robert Reed.

“You” are traveling through a system in the Barrens when you happen across a damaged pod with a barely alive passenger in it, in Suzanne Palmer’s sobering rescue story “Taking Icarus Home”. You trace it to a station occupied by “Sunrunners”, thrill-seekers who pilot ships close to the local star for sport. Your encounter with the callous Sunrunners takes up the bulk of the word count and trying to get information about your nearly dead passenger from them is like pulling teeth. Palmer’s story has a sturdy structure and pacing. There is a lack of urgency to the narrative that is unusual and refreshing unless you consider that someone’s life is at stake. The second person POV didn’t work for me here.
The HR Director of Sensus, Inc. fears losing Murphy, the company’s most productive (and underpaid) employee, while Murphy fears something far worse in Jay O’Connell’s “The Gorgon”. Tension builds at a nice pace in the story, as HR guy probes for Murphy’s reasons for wanting to quit, and information about an AI known as The Gorgon comes trickling out. After all that buildup, though, I found the ending abrupt and unsatisfying.
“What if” speculations are a staple of science fiction, and especially in time travel stories. One such “what if” has haunted the narrator of Leah Cypess’ “All the Difference”: what if she had married Steve instead of Jason? It is fortunate that technology exists allowing people to visit themselves in a different timeline, so she gets to peek in on her marriage to Steve to see what she was missing. The premise begs a lot of questions (like: what happens to you from the other timeline while the “real” you steers the ship? Wouldn’t the choices you make alter that timeline? Etc.), though it’s for the best that Cypess hand waves past them. It’s a decent enough yarn, even if it tilts a little toward the melodramatic (Was he holding me back, or was I the one holding him back?!?!).
Middle-aged Miriam makes her way through a sprawling future Middle-Eastern metropolis in Lavie Tidhar’s sci-fi vignette “Neom”. The first two-thirds of the story are an imaginary travelogue, mostly a descriptive account of daily life in the city, littered with goose eggs connecting it to the greater Lavie Tidhar Expanded Universe. The story, when it arrives, concerns Miriam finding the battered carcass of her robot friend Hameed, and everyone else’s indifference to his demise.
In Sean Monaghan’s “Ventiforms”, Tailé travels to the remote planet Zephierre where her son Brendon toils away on a massive art installation for the famous artist Shilinka Swintalla. Some weeks before, Brendon locked himself inside his robot and now refuses to stop working, risking his health. Swintalla takes Tailé to her son so she can convince him to return with them. The ventiforms, enormous wind instruments shaped from the natural environment, are very cool creations. This is an awfully long story that places few obstacles in the protagonist’s path to achieving her goal. It’s more like a series of minor inconveniences culminating in a slightly less minor inconvenience. Swintalla and her people come across as decent folk, though the fact they let Brendon continue doing what he was doing for so long without launching a serious effort to retrieve him makes them all look like assholes.

Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)

* “Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Fear” by Senaa Ahmad (Uncanny 26)

*** “The Beast Weeps with One Eye” by Morgan Al-Moor (BCS #268)

* “The Willows” by Delilah S. Dawson (Uncanny 26)