Sunday, December 31, 2017

Angel City, Volume One - Town Without Pity

This last book that I read for 2017 is something I almost didn't buy. This graphic novel was originally published as a six-issue monthly comic from Oni Press, and when it was first solicited, I considered purchasing it. Yet, when I looked at how many comics I was already buying each month, I decided to pass, figuring it was just another noir detective tale set in Hollywood, and there would be nothing special about it.  After the series ended, and Oni Press solicited the graphic novel collection of the series, I thought, "What the heck? I'll give it a shot." Having now read the story, I am more than glad that I did.

Angel City, "Town Without Pity," is not just the tale of Hollywood in the late 1930s - it's the story of how Hollywood takes the innocence of young girls hoping to make it big in Tinseltown and twists it into something dark and without remorse - without pity. This is hard-boiled noir with only a smidgen of soft edges, and it's unapologetic with it's realism, and it never promises a happy ending for everyone.

Angel City is the story of Dorothy Dunkel and Frances Faye Hallmeyer - two young blondes who head off to Hollywood to make all their dreams come true. As with so many young girls of that time, their dreams are quickly dashed, and they must face the cold, hard reality that is Hollywood. As Frances (going by Faye) sells her body to get ahead, Dorothy (who changes her name to Dolores Dare) sells her soul to the local mobster. They lose touch, and Dorothy believes she will never see her friend again.

Until the body of Faye Hallmayer turns up in a dumpster.

The past comes crashing into the present, and Dorothy realizes that she will never rest until her friend's murderer is caught. The police are in the pocket of Dorothy's boss, Gino Volante, the local mobster who hides behind the scenes in Hollywood's underworld, so they have no interest in solving the murder of yet one more call girl. With the help of her photographer friend, Joe, Dorothy sets out to catch a killer and regain some small portion of her soul - of the Dorothy Dunkel she once was.

Written by Janet Harvey and illustrated by Megan Levens, Angel City gives readers a gritty murder mystery with a determined, yet not invincible, enforcer-turned-sleuth. Harvey tells a magnificent tale with the perfect pacing to keep the action moving, while at the same time, providing backstory and depth to the characters (all except Joe, about whom we really learn very little throughout the six-chapter story). The characters are complex, and with the exception of only one or two, there is no true black or white, good or evil when it comes to people (just like in real life). There are simply individuals who face difficult choices and must live with the consequences of those choices.

Levens' art matches the mood of the story perfectly, with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood on the surface, yet dark and disturbing characters and acts behind the facade. The expressions she draws on the characters are outstanding! Not many artist I have seen can truly capture a wide variety of expressions, but Levens is able to show even the smallest hint of emotion - just check out Joe's face on panel 3 of page 90 to see what I mean. And Nik Filardi's colors definitely enhance the storytelling, with subdued reds and grays that blend beautifully to keep the noir feel to the book.

While Angel City is not for the faint of heart, neither is it overtly sexualized or profane. There is no real nudity (only implied) and there is very little, if any, cursing in the story. It is the subject matter itself that makes it dark, and it is the determination and realistic portrayal of the characters that makes the story so compelling.  This book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys noir or just a good murder mystery, and it was definitely the perfect way to close out a year that did not end so well.

RATING:  9 pearl-handled revolvers out of 10 for proving that noir Hollywood in the 1930s does not need to be dominated by male detectives - a woman can do the job just as well.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Samantha Wolf Mysteries, Book Three - The Beach House Mystery

Author Tara Ellis raises the stakes quite a bit with this third Samantha Wolf mystery. And I'll get this out of the way right from the get-go - I absolutely cannot stand this trend of writing books in the present tense.  It is very annoying, as it does not at all make it feel like it is happening now, nor does it draw me any further into the story than if it were written in past tense.  Maybe it's just me becoming old, but give me a story written in past tense - even if it is in first person, not third - but let's put an end to this present tense writing, please!

Now, that being said, The Beach House Mystery is much, MUCH more than just a mystery surrounding a house at the beach. It involves a possibly haunted lighthouse that was abandoned years ago.  It involves a stranger creature that has become somewhat of a myth in the small fishing village.  It involves a stranger family that is staying next to the beach house where Samantha and her family are staying.  And it involves an international corporation that is bent on gaining sole ownership of the the next big pharmaceutical creation to use for nefarious purposes.

Yes, you read that right.  While the story starts off as a simple enough mystery (worthy of Nancy Drew fans), it suddenly takes a rather more adult turn that centers around a kidnapped girl who is being used as leverage to force a scientist to create a drug that could be used not only as a miracle cure, but also a deadly weapon.  Definitely not the subject matter of a children's mystery, but quite frankly, it created a story that was engaging enough that I managed to stop focusing on the present tense and start focusing on the story.

Ellis also continues to present her characters in a more realistic way than many children's series, where the young sleuths seem to have every freedom and never face any repercussions for their acts.  Sam and her friend Ally go with Sam's parents to the beach house (along with Sam's brother Hunter and Ally's brother John) with a very specific stipulation - there is to be no funny business, no sticking their noses where they don't belong, and absolutely no solving mysteries.  They are warned that if either parents gets wind of the girls getting involved in another dangerous mystery, they are going right home.  Of course, Sam and Ally have been bit by the detecting bug, and when the young girl Erica cries out for her sister, Carrie, but Erica's parents insist there is no sister and warn Sam and Ally to just stay away, they know something's up.

The pacing in the story is good - a slow build-up in the first third of the book, a deeper delving into the mystery during the second third of the book, and a thrilling conclusion in the final third.  And there is one specific moment in the story when I realized just how caught up in the story and characters I was - when Sam and Ally return from a day of hunting clues to find Sam's mother upset - it seems Erica's mother lied about how Sam and Ally helped rescue her, making it seem as if the entire incident was Sam and Ally's fault!  I began to grow aggravated at the unfairness of the situation, wishing I could reach into the book and slap the heck out of Erica's mom for lying to get two teenagers in trouble - and then it hit me:  this is just a book!  So kudos to Ellis for getting me that involved with the mystery!

This series is evolving and getting better with each book, so I'm looking forward to reading the next books with the hope they continue to hold up as well (and with the hope that I'll eventually get used to the present tense annoyance).

RATING:  8 falling sand castles out of 10 for surprising me with much more to this mystery than what it originally appears to be.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Class - from the Universe of Doctor Who: Joyride

This second Class novel, based on the television spin-off from Doctor Who, has an interesting premise.  What if you found a machine that would allow its users to switch bodies with someone else?  And what if you were able to use this machine to start a business, allowing those willing to pay a high price to use this chance to inhabit another person's body and basically do anything you've ever fantasized but were too afraid to do - such as take ballet lesson...or drive a car at the highest speed possible...or jump off the roof of a school...or set fire to a house while a family is still inside...?

Joyride answers that question when a man down on his luck happens across an alien being who seeks his help - only, instead of helping the alien, he kills him and all of his brethren and turns the alien technology into a profit-making business.  April, Tayna, Charlie, Matteusz, Ram, and Quill get drawn into the mix when one of their classmates is killed when she crashes her car into the front of a store after a wild joyride and another burns down his home while his family is inside - but claims he has no memory of it.

And then Ram wakes up in the body of a middle-aged, overweight man.

Author Guy Adams provides a story that is definitely worthy of the television show, and based on comments made by the characters throughout the story, it is set sometime in the middle of the season - before Ram and April hooked up, yet after their April takes half the heart of the shadow king. I think he captures the characters nicely, particularly the naivety of Charlie, the vileness of Quill, the shyness of April, and the energy of Tanya.  And to say there is only one villain in the story wouldn't quite capture the story - because let's face it: who's the greater villain?  The man who gives you the opportunity to kill others, or the one who actually switches bodies so that he can kill and get away with it?

And quite frankly, not all the body-switchers are pure villains.  The one man, with whom Ram is switched, doesn't actually switch bodies to commit a crime; rather, he switches bodies so that he can finally be himself and experience a life he only imagined but was forced to hide by his family and society's dictates.

Adams tells the story through the eyes of quite a few of the characters, and it's interesting to see how each of them view each other - particularly Quill and Charlie.  Poor Matteusz is barely in the story, which is a shame, as he was one of my favorite characters in the show, albeit underused there, too. I also liked what he did with Ram's character - don't want to give away anything, but suffice to say, this could easily be seen as a turning point for Ram, which could have easily integrated into the television program to show how Ram gradually grows as a character.

Now, the one thing I did not like, and quite frankly it bugged me for more than half the book (until I got so involved with the story that I didn't notice it anymore), is the use of present tense.  I've said it before (with the Curious Cat Spy Club series and the Samantha Wolf series), but what is it with this sudden fad of authors writing their books in the present tense?  For me, I find it awkward to read, and it always takes me a bit to settle into the book, because my mind constantly wants to change every verb into past tense.  Present tense does not make the story happen "now" for me - rather, it is jarring enough that it actually takes me out of the story and forces me to concentrate harder to read it.

With this second book in the series read, that only leaves one more Class book to go (it comes out here in the States in March 2018) - after that, with no more show and no more books, Class reaches the end of its short run. Which is sad, because it was a well-written show with great actors, interesting characters and stories, and a whole world of possibilities.

RATING:  8 pyramid-shaped pieces of alien technology out of 10 for expanding the Class universe just a bit farther and proving these characters have many more stories to tell!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Short Lived Comic Series #7 - Hawk and Dove (DC Comics)

Hawk and Dove were definitely characters that were a product of their time.  I was first introduced to them in the Teen Titans series by DC Comics, and later read the post-Crisis series, wherein Hawk's brother Dove (who died during the Crisis on Infinite Earths) was replaced by a female version of the character.  However, I recently was able to track down and purchase the 6-issue run of Hawk and Dove that was originally published back in the late 1960s, and after reading the short-lived series, I realized just how connected these characters were to the time period in which they were created.

The characters of Hawk and Dove are Hank Hall and his younger brother, Don Hall.  The two brothers are polar opposites - Hank is the hothead, violent, judge-now-ask-questions-later type of guy, while Don is the pacifist, determined to to solve any problem through talking and level-headedness with absolutely no room for violence.  Created by Steve Skeates and Steve Ditko, the pair made their first appearance in DC's Showcase comic before spinning off into their own series.  Creator and artist Steve Ditko only remained with the title for the first two issues, and creator/writer Steve Skeates left after the fourth issue, leaving artist Gil Kane (who drew issues three through six) to also write the last two issues of the series.

Throughout all six issues of this short series, there was a constant battle between the brothers - Hank (Hawk) always wanted to take matters into his own hands.  He wanted to beat the truth out of people and had no probably playing judge and jury for anyone who was committing a crime.  He had no tolerance for his brother's pacifist ways.  Don (Dove), on the other hand, was a man of peace.  He believed any problem could be solved by simply talking down the criminal, and he was a strict believer in non-violence, regardless of the situation.  This, of course, led to a constant barrage of name-calling between the two - but, being brothers, regardless of their differences, when push came to shove, they were there for each other and worried about each other.

The first several covers were similar to the romance / soap opera titles of the time.  It seemed each cover had Don fighting with himself over his inability to defend or help fight with his brother, or featured Hank screaming at his brother for his refusal to fight back in any given situation.  It wasn't until Gil Kane took over complete reigns with the fifth issue that Don/Dove gained a little bit of a back-bone - but, sadly, it wasn't enough to save the book, which was cancelled with the sixth issue.

The stories are relatively interesting, if you overlook the child-like barbs the brothers were constantly throwing at one another.  They featured non-super-powered villains who either evaded capture by the law, or managed to escape justice altogether by beating the court system.  Often times, the boys' father, who was a judge, was caught up in the story - which made for a difficult situation for Hank and Don, since their father hated the vigilante tactics of Hawk and Dove (which was a bit odd, since Dove never really did anything to anyone - rather, he allowed things to happen that could have been prevented if he would have simply stood up and fought).

While later incarnations of Hank Hall (after his brother's death) still showed him as full of anger and ready for a fight, none of those incarnations seemed as angry as the Hank Hall in this first series.  Honestly, I think if the writers had simply toned down both characters a bit, not made them so overtly polar opposites, the series may have had a better reception and lasted longer.  The art was not bad at all - Ditko, and then Kane, drew some great fight scenes, and their capture of the boys' expressions at various times was pretty much spot-on for the characterization of the heroes.

Interesting to note that the fifth issue ended with the boys stumbling across the Teen Titans - which was a lead-in of sorts to their crossover into an issue of the Teen Titans book.  While crossovers such as that are commonplace today, back then, direct lead-in crossovers such as that were few and far between.

It's always fun to go back and read comics from a prior decade, as they often reflected the stereotypes, beliefs, and emotions of that time - and definitely, this first Hawk and Dove series from DC comics can give us a picture of the general attitudes in America in the late '60s and early '70s.

RATING: 6 mysterious voices from beyond out of 10 for taking a chance on a unique brother team of heroes that faced down-to-earth, regular villains instead of the super-powered, out of this world villains of normal superhero comics.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Hot Ice - A Groovy Mystery Caper #2

I read the first "Groovy Mystery Caper" some years ago, back in 2011 not too long after it was first published.  The series is set in the 1960s, and its protagonist is Yancy Dunkle, a chauffeur for the quite outspoken Jean Sparks, former head of costume design at Colossal Studios.  Dunkle has a bit of a dilemma (other than stumbling into murder mysteries) - he has amnesia and cannot remember anything before just a couple of years prior.

After solving a murder in Palm Springs, Jean is taking Dunkle to Indio, California, just some twenty miles away, for a carnival, beauty pageant, parade, and some good, wholesome fun to take their minds off of everything they went through.  Of course, this is a mystery book, so it pretty much goes without saying that soon after their arrival in Indio, Dunkle and Jean stumble into a mystery involving - yes, I'm going to say it - midgets, clowns, and camel jockeys.

Interestingly enough, the author, James Huskins, doesn't bring in the murder until well over half-way through the book.  Instead, the mystery begins with a locked-room theft - someone has stolen the priceless Star of Arabia necklace from the safe in the locked library of Dunkle and Jean's hosts while everyone is there!  While the local beauty queen still has the knock-off copy of the necklace to wear at the pageant that week, Dunkle and Jean set about to find out what happened to the real necklace.

Meanwhile, their friend Polly, who is an investigative reporter, is in town as well, following up on a story that she claims could potentially blow the lid off of some long-held secrets in town.  But Polly disappears, and Dunkle and Jean begin to wonder if it has any connection to the theft.  Then there's the mystery of the midget's missing daughter at the local circus that is in town, as well as the mysterious message that the gypsy fortune teller gives to Dunkle about his past, and his future.  There are a jumble of mysteries and a plethora of characters - there are even some good, old-fashioned Nancy Drew-type foibles as they receive notes to drop their investigation, Dunkle gets conked on the head and tied up, they are almost run-down by a speeding automobile, and they get held at gunpoint.

The plot is actually well-thought out and expertly executed, with clues scattered here and there, and enough red herrings to keep you guessing up until the very end.  The only distraction from the story are the number of grammatical errors throughout the book.  Dunkle and Jean's hosts are named Earl and Bessy Garra - yet, whenever the author refers to the couple, he always identifies them as the "Garra's" (singular possessive) instead of the "Garras" (plural, non-possessive).  Once could have been overlooked, but the persistent use of the wrong possessive instead of plural became extremely distracting and constantly took me out of the story.  Then there was the use of "petal" (from a flower) instead of "pedal" (as in a gas pedal for a car); and the use of your's (non-existent word) instead of yours (showing possession).  And these distractions could have been annoying for me simply because I'm an English major and a grammar freak; perhaps for the every day person, these errors would not have jumped out at them.  For me, though, it was a clear reminder that there are no longer any true editors for books - editing is clearly a thing of days gone by, and computers are left to pick up on mistakes (which they don't always do when a word is spelled correctly, but it is a wrong word choice).

Regardless, I still enjoyed the story, and I love that Huskins is continuing the stories of Dunkle and Jean - particularly happy to see he has a third book forthcoming, Seriously Funny, so I can't wait to see what he has in store for these characters then!

RATING:  7 very revealing Aladdin costumes out of 10 for proving that a good mystery with fun characters can still be entertaining without any explicit sex or excessive violence.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

DC Super Hero Girls, Graphic Novel No. 4 - Past Times at Super Hero High

The DC super hero girls are back in their fourth graphic novel - and sadly, this fourth venture into the realm where girls reign supreme does not fare any better than the third graphic novel did.  I'm not sure if the stories are just being rushed, or if writer Shea Fontana  was told to dumb down the stories a bit more - but the third and fourth graphic novels both feel as if they are being aimed at first grade readers rather than all-age readers (unlike the first and second graphic novels, which not only had strong stories and plots, but great dialogue and fun characters).

Past Times at Super Hero High (and yes, I will admit, I love the fact that the titles to these graphic novels are all puns, plays on either films, books, or other comic book tales) gave me some hope, as it deals with time travel, and that's always a favorite subject of mine.  Here, the students are taken on a field trip back in time by Liberty Belle (All-Star Squadron character - there's a plus right there!) to take a look at history in the making. However, that ever-so-dangerous butterfly effect comes into play when Harley Quinn steals a dinosaur egg and brings it back with her to the present.

Only to find that Super Hero High is now Savage High, and the principal is none other than the villainous Vandal Savage!  With Liberty Belle captive and the other students trying to figure out what exactly is going on, it falls on Batgirl and Harley Quinn to go back in time and set things right.  The overall plot actually makes for a fun adventure - or, it could have, had the dialogue been a bit less childish, and the characterization been a bit stronger (as it was in books one and two).  These girls do not whine near as much in the cartoon films, nor in the hardcover books by Lisa Yee.

Despite the weak characterization, there were some good points - seeing the Metal Men (three of them, at least), was a nice surprise, and Fontana's use of Beast Boy as more than just a prankster was a great switch.  Plus, the little bit of competition between Batgirl and Harley as to which knew more about dinosaurs was something I thought would develop into an ongoing rivalry - sort of a precursor to Harley's future hatred of the bat-family as an adult.  But, being an all-ages book, I suppose the animosity didn't fit, so the two girls make-up in the end (yet, there's always a certain tension between Cheetah and Wonder Woman, so why not between Harley and Batgirl?).  And the changing timelines, the realization that they have to leave an alternate version of one of their friends behind in this alternate timeline, and the simple act of Harley calling Principal Waller "Amanda" to her face - they gave the story a bit of depth and humor that I wish I could find throughout the entire story.

The art chores seem to be shared among Yancey Labat, Agnes Garbowska, and Marcelo DiChiara, with additional breakdowns by Carl Potts.  Yet, despite the number of artists, the art (at least, to my eye) pretty much maintains the same level of cartoon consistency as the prior graphic novels, so the changing artists have no impact on the story itself.

I still love the DC Super Hero Girls concept, and I hope DC continues to do more graphic novels and DVD cartoons (whether regular cartoons or animated Lego versions - I am fine with either) - I am just keeping my fingers crossed that they don't continue to dumb them down further.  I would hate to see these characters on the same level with Teen Titans Go or Tiny Titans - that would completely ruin the concept and the characters for me.

RATING:  6 kite-flying aviatrixes out of 10 for keeping time travel light-hearted and reminding readers that there always consequences for our actions.