Wolverine – Old Man Logan by Mark Millar

Growing up, my cousin had this thing where no one was allowed to like anything he liked or he accused you of copying him, and sometimes he would punch you.  He loved Wolverine, so I said whatever.  I didn’t read much Wolverine. There was a lot of other good, if not better stuff out there.  Like Elektra: Assassin.

Now that we’re older, I’m much bigger than he is.  There will be no punching.  So, I’ve started reading some Wolverine comics.  Like I said in my Just A Pilgrim post, I like post-apocalyptic stories, and Old Man Logan is kind of a post-apocalyptic Marvel universe.   On the “Night the Heroes Fell,”  evil won, the good guys disappeared, and the villains have been running things ever since.

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The bad guys have split up the U.S. into fiefdoms, extorting those living on their land.  The story starts with a pacifist Wolverine living on a ranch in the Sacramento desert with his wife and two kids.  He’s late on his rent to the Banners, the grandkids of Bruce Banner.  They are a nasty bunch. Hawkeye proposes a delivery job (read illegal smuggling) across the country that would raise enough money to pay the rent.  It has a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid feel to it.  You can see where this is going.

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This is a fun road-trip comic with a pretty cool concept.  The old villains (or their descendants) and some of the heroes pop up in surprising ways.  There are several rabbit trails and plot twists on the journey.  Although the ending isn’t necessarily a surprise, the details leading up to it are certainly entertaining. Check out Old Man Logan here.

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Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire

lost dogs coverTop Shelf Productions published a remastered version of Jeff Lemire’s Lost Dogs in June 2012.  Chris Ross re-lettered the book and helped Lemire repackage it.  This is a powerful short story of a graphic novel using three colors and a brush.

Timothy Callahan reflects in his introduction on the first time he saw the Lost Dogs at a comic show.  He walked away without buying it.  He writes:

And before long, I returned.  The glimpses of imagery haunted me through the rest of the day at the MoCCA art festival.  Before I left for home, I stopped at Lemire’s booth and bought a copy of Lost Dogs, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made (at a comic book show, at least).

That’s the kind of book Lost Dogs is.  It’s haunting, and it sticks with you. If you’re familiar with Lemire’s work, you will not be disappointed. Lost Dogs is his first work, and he is finding his style and voice. You’ll see how his work has evolved and become more refined without losing any of the power or rawness.

I came to the book from Lemire’s most recent graphic novel, The Underwater Welder.  The artwork in Lost Dogs is certainly rawer, but the power of the story and even some underlying themes remain the same.  The book has Lemire’s signature full page panels that stun you with their ability to capture crucial story elements.  I just linger on those pages.  And the text is kept to the bare essentials. Not one word is unnecessary.

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Callahan’s introduction really captures the work well:

Lost Dogs is rough, it is raw as hell, but it’s rough like a bareknuckle fist fight and raw like a rusty knife into your gut.  Lemire’s artistic style has tightened up since he first worked on this book, but the grammar, the fundamental storytelling elements, remain the same as what you might see in the Essex County comics, or in his work for Vertigo.  He’s a true cartoonist, in the sense that his words and his pictures flow from the same source.

If you’re a Jeff Lemire fan, do yourself a favor and pick this up.  You’ll read it through it one sitting and then want to read it again.

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Doctor Who: The Dave Gibbons Collection

Doctor Who I’m a latecomer to Doctor Who.  My 11-year-old son turned me on to the television series a few months ago, and we have been steadily making our way through the Netflix collection. When I saw Doctor Who: The Dave Gibbons Collection, I couldn’t pass it up.  I mean Dave Gibbons, artist of Watchmen and Superman: “For the Man Who Has Everything,” and Doctor Who together in comics?  How could you go wrong?

Since I’m no expert, my insight into how these stories relate to older episodes of the series will be admittedly limited.  The collection mainly focuses on the Tom Baker incarnation of the Doctor, with a few stories towards the end that include the Peter Davison incarnation, including one of my favorites in the collection “The Tides of Time.”   Sharon and K-9 are the Doctor’s companions for several stories, but most of the time he travels alone in these stories and meets people along the way.

Naturally, Dave Gibbons’ artwork lives up to his reputation.  The colors and detail are superb throughout the collection.  From what I can tell, he captured Tom Baker’s manic grin and personality perfectly, but I’m going on very limited knowledge of Baker.  Gibbons’ vision of creatures, space vehicles, and intergalactic communities completely drew me into the stories.
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The book opens with several multi-part stories that I really enjoyed- “The Iron Legion,” “The City of the Damned,” and “The Star Beast.”  “The City of the Damned,” which has Orwellian themes, is probably my favorite of the collection.  The citizens of the city are controlled and programmed to be emotionless, but there is a gang of rebels, who each exhibit one emotion, fighting the controllers. There is a quirky ending befitting the Doctor.

“The Tides of Time” runs a close second.  It shows a side of the Doctor I haven’t seen in the latest seasons of the television series.  There are massive powers at play in the universe.  The Doctor is mainly along for the ride and is just as confused as everyone else.  The story takes some really bizarre turns, but is visually stunning.
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There are several other stories in the collection where the Doctor seems to just be along for the ride without contributing much, but they are one-off, quick stories that seem to end as soon as they really begin.  There also seems to be a lot more Star-Wars-like space battles and lasers in these older stories, but that may be natural in the older stories and incarnations of the Doctor.

Overall, the collection is just as compelling as the television series.  Anyone who is a fan of the show and likes comics will certainly enjoy this book. Check it out here.
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The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire

The Underwater WelderJeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder is a powerful example of how graphic novels / comics can be just as artistic, important, and poignant as traditional literature.  The story follows Jack, an underwater welder for an oil rig.  Jack and his wife are expecting their first child, but Jack is struggling with issues from his own childhood and his relationship with his father.

Jack feels an overwhelming need to be alone, and the only place he can find the peace and quiet to deal with his thoughts is underwater welding at work.  The story takes some surreal and unexpected turns as Jack deals with his past and ultimately tries to answer that nagging human question, “Who am I?”  In the introduction to the book, Damon Lindelof describes it as “the most spectacular episode of the Twilight Zone that was never produced,” and that describes the book perfectly.

Lemire’s art is simplistic and raw, which really captures the isolation in the story and Jack’s state of mind.  Lemire uses large panels liberally with minimal text, which also highlights the internal contemplative aspects of the story.  I had an English professor who said that in good literature everything is there for a purpose.  Nothing is superfluous.  The craftsmanship and vision displayed in The Underwater Welder is the perfect combination of writing and art to create a powerful story.  It is good literature.

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I highly recommend The Underwater Welder.   The book is over 200 pages, but reads very quickly.  And then you will want to read it again to figure out how Lemire captured so much story and emotion with black and white simplicity and sparse text.

I seriously doubt there will be a better graphic novel released in 2012. The Underwater Welder is published by Top Shelf Productions. Check it out here.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: A Graphic Novel

Do Androids Dream of Electric SheepLike most people these days, I came to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Philip K. Dick through Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner.  I knew the film was based on the book and always had it on my to-be-read list, but that list grows faster than I keep up with it.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep kept its spot as other books piled on.  Then I stumbled onto this comic adaptation by Tony Parker and BOOM! Studios. It’s word for word from the book with panel-to-panel continuity.  I couldn’t resist.

If you like Blade Runner, you really owe it to yourself to read the book or comic.  Both the film and novel are excellent, but they are really two different animals (pun intended).  The film is very character driven and its thematic focus is very narrow. It’s good, but it’s narrow. The novel is idea driven and is much more complex than the film.  Philip K. Dick was as much philosopher as storyteller.  There are some crucial scenes and ideas in the novel that make it superior to the film, because they add so much more depth and meaning to the story.

For example, one crucial element in the novel is Mercerism, a religion that uses technology to give people a sense of connectedness.  People can plug in and feel connected physically and spiritually to Mercer (and all humanity as a result) as he eternally struggles up his hill, like Sisyphus.  As his invisible persecutors throw rocks at him, everyone connected feels the pain.  They actually bruise and bleed.  This is a human need that androids do not understand.  The film doesn’t have enough time to develop this idea, and it is too far removed from Dekker’s primary mission.

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The Mercer idea also leads to Buster Friendly, a media personality constantly broadcasting on TV and radio.  Everyone loves him.  Everyone watches.  He has a cast of silly characters that join him similar to variety show and late night TV.  The idea of Mercerism and Buster Friendly are just two examples of Philip K. Dick’s prescience.  They also contribute to the development of Deckard’s character and the difference between humans and androids.

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I’m not sure if the comic adaptation now constitutes a third animal in addition to the film and traditional novel.  It includes everything in the novel, and readers who know the film will recognize elements of it in the comic as well.  Tony Parker’s illustrations are brilliant and flow seamlessly with the text.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually reading a novel that was written in 1968.  Everything fits and looks perfect in this adaptation.

Parker’s illustrations also illuminate Dick’s underlining themes and the bigger questions at play.  What does it mean to be human?  If the androids are more than human, what does that mean?  What is empathy and why do we have it? Deckard feels like he is increasingly becoming dehumanized by the hunt for the escaped androids.  During Deckard’s internal monologue, Parker often illustrates him imagining that he is killing the androids.   By the time that moment comes in reality, Deckard has already done it in his mind repeatedly.   There is a sense of anti-climax.  It doesn’t mean that much anymore. He has lost some of that empathy.

In addition to the great adaptation, the comics also include an essay at the back of each issue by the likes of Warren Ellis, Jonathan Letham, James Blaylock, TimPowers, etc. The essays are very different from one another.  Some discuss the book and film from an academic perspective.  Some discuss Philip K. Dick in general.  Some are like memoirs. I found all of them illuminating after reading the respective issue.

In short, the comic adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is fantastic.  I loved every second of it.  I managed to use the internet machines to track down all 24 issues of it, but BOOM! has issued 6 volumes that collect the whole series.  I will close with a quote from Gabriel McKee’s essay at the end of issue 21:

Dick’s universes have shaky walls and insubstantial foundations.  But throughout it all—and this is where I think many of Dick’s academic admirers get him wrong—he never abandons hope that an authentic ultimate reality exists.  At the core of all of that anxiety… there is a faith that something real is hidden beneath the veil, and that it can and will break through that veil to help us.  And it is that hope, more that the surface anxiety, that gives his stories such power.

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The Best American Comics of 2011 edited by Alison Bechdel


coverThe Best American Comics 2011
is the first comic anthology I’ve read.  It convinced me that the comic medium is not well suited for “best of” anthologies, unless the comic is intentionally written to be ingested as a very short piece, like David Lasky’s six-panel “The Ultimate Graphic Novel.”  An excerpt from a graphic novel just doesn’t do the work justice.  What this anthology did was show me I need to get these graphic novels and read them in their entirety.

Comic fans will be familiar with the best, and most obvious, selections: an excerpt from Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza and Chris Ware’s Jordan W. Lint to the Age 65.  Joe Sacco is a master of investigative journalism in the comic medium.  His excerpt in the anthology details a massacre of Palestinian men by the Israelis in 1956. He then questions the reliability of memory when trying to discover the facts of the event.  Chris Ware is doing some of the most stylistically imaginative work in comics while examining the sad mess people make of their lives.

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There are some great surprises in this anthology too.  Angie Wang’s short piece “Flower Mecha” is artistically beautiful and strange.  Pollen is ruining a woman’s picnic and she fights it off in a hallucinatory mix of art deco and manga.  Michael Defarge’s “Queen” is even stranger.  A black glob of a creature walks through a strange alien world picking up pieces of mushrooms, flora, and landscape to turn itself into a freakish woman.  Both of these pieces are surprisingly interesting, but I’m not sure they are the best of the past year.  Looking at the notable mention list at the end of the anthology makes me wonder if there isn’t something better that tells a story using the full capabilities of the comic medium.

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The mix of history and memoir in “Little House in the Big City” by Sabrina Jones was intriguing.  The mix of history and fictional mystery in “The Mad Scientist” excerpt from RASL by Jeff Smith made me immediately want to read the entire series.  “Winter,” an excerpt from Refresh, Refresh by Danica Novgodorrodov, Benjamin Percy, and James Ponsoldt has a great abstract watercolor dream sequence in the middle, but the excerpt simply doesn’t give enough of the story to stand on its own.  It’s another one I want to read in its entirety.  Kate Beaton’s take on The Great Gatsby is hilarious.

Alison Bechdel is the guest editor for this year’s anthology.  She mentions in her introduction that there is a metafiction theme in many of the selections.  The best example would be “Pet Cat” by Joey Alison Sayers.  Sayers documents the history of a comic strip in its many incarnations until finally God takes over the writing of the strip.  The satire comments on how artists are disrespected and exploited.

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The anthology was an interesting read, and it pointed me to some works that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.  I do have a gripe, and I’m sure I’ll get ripped by someone for it, because Bechdel is well respected as a writer and artist.  The problem is there’s no hiding her subjectivity or agenda in this anthology.  Many of the chosen selections highlight an obvious feminist and gay perspective.  “Flower Mecha” and “Queen” are perhaps overt feminist symbolism.  Other selections, like “Manifestation” by Gabrielle Bell (which opens the book) and “Weekends Abroad” by Eric Orner, are manifestly feminist and gay, respectively.  Again, I look at the list of notable mentions and wonder if there isn’t quite a few on that list that are better comics overall.  When the subjectivity is so obvious, I think we have to question is this really an anthology of the best comics in 2011?  I understand that an anthology of this sort with a guest editor will never completely escape subjectivity, but I’d like to see some semblance of trying to find a true “best” based on the quality of the work and not some other criterion.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are quite a few selections in this anthology that deserve to be here.

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Lucille by Ludovic Debeurme

lucille-coverThe art in Lucille consists of sparse, mostly black and white line drawings, and the subject matter deals with anorexia, alcoholism, dysfunctional father-son relationships, and OCD.  Heavy topics for a graphic novel, but that’s the beauty of the medium.  It can handle anything.  The book clocks in at over 500 pages and is just part one in a series.  It’s unique, to say the least, but well worth the read.

The book focuses on Lucille and Arthur, who are both coming-of-age.  After being sheltered by her mother and ignored by her peers, Lucille becomes hermetic and anorexic.  Arthur, who has OCD, grows up with an alcoholic father who he often has to escort home from the bar.  As with all awkward adolescent suffering, there doesn’t appear to be much hope for the two, until they meet each other.

Ludovic Debeurme excels at capturing the intimate thoughts of these characters in their flashbacks, dreams, and internal dialogues.  Lucille wants to become light and fly away, “Slender as a thread,” she says.  The bare line drawings support Lucille’s aching desire to shed all excess weight and get to the core of being.  Debeurme does not use the typical comic panel format. The scenes flow seamlessly on the page, which works especially well in the dream like sequences.

I didn’t feel that Lucille’s character was the most interesting in the book, because the reasoning behind her anorexia has sadly become so commonplace.  Arthur’s dysfunctional family and his relationship with his father are developed much more in depth.  Arthur goes from being the stereotypical dark and awkward misfit, to having to take on his father’s role within the family, including taking on his father’s name.  Arthur continuously struggles to escape his father’s shadow, and Lucille becomes the only beautiful thing in his life.

The book (part one) ends with a suggestion that Lucille will develop much more in the next part.  The book won several international comic prizes in its original French, and Debeurme is well respected in Europe.  Lucille should bring him to the attention of U.S. readers, especially those who enjoyed Blankets by Craig Thompson and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.  Topshelf will publish the English translation in July, 2011.

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X’ed Out by Charles Burns

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It should be common knowledge by now that X’ed Out, the first volume of a new trilogy by Charles Burns, is chock full of weirdness, mystery, and beautiful artwork.  The book is part revision of Hergé’s TinTin, part tribute to William Burroughs, part Alice in Wonderland, and something new yet to be revealed.  Within all of that, there are some interesting themes that I’m sure Burns will expand on in the next two volumes.

Doug, the protagonist, has suffered some mystery trauma and spends most of his time in bed in the basement of his parents’ house looking at old Polaroids of his girlfriend.  The narrative slips back and forth between this reality, a Burroughs inspired dream world induced by Doug’s painkillers, flashback sequences where Doug meets and falls in love with Sarah (the girl in the Polaroids), and past conversations with Doug’s father.

The idea of motherhood, or more specifically failed motherhood, runs throughout this first volume.  Doug’s mother is mentioned, but never seen.  Doug and his father both want to avoid her.  In one flashback sequence Doug remembers his father saying, “Your Mom and I…We started out with such high hopes…But I guess things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to.”  Like Doug, his father retreats downstairs, which Burns has admitted is a symbol for the womb.  Doug comes upstairs for Poptarts and reminds himself that his mom will not be home from work until 5:30 He says, “…at least I don’t have to deal with her.”

Sarah has a thing for fetal pigs in jars, one of which gets broken by her “psycho” ex-boyfriend at the party where Doug meets Sarah.  She poses topless with one fetal pig as a Madonna and child (she poses topless a lot).  There is a panel of an actual Madonna and child.  Lizard-like fetuses and eggs are everywhere in Doug’s dream world.  To top it off, a cartoonish version of Sarah appears in the dream world.  Doug’s nameless, baby-like alien guide tells him she is the new Queen of the hive, a breeder.

Identity is another interesting issue in the book.  Doug’s alter-ego is Nitnit.  He puts on a mask that resembles TinTin when he reads his cut-up poetry in reality, perhaps subconsciously wanting to hide from his audience.  In his dream world, Doug is Nitnit.  Doug also identifies with his father.  Like his father, Doug spends his time in the basement looking at photographs and dwelling on the past.  Doug’s guide in the dream world smokes like his father and, I would argue, vaguely resembles his father.  Adding to that, Nitnit has several visions of his father while he is with the guide.

What does this all mean?  It’s too early to tell.  The book is short and leaves more questions than answers, but it is only volume one of what should be a great trilogy.  Burns has stated in interviews that all of these “threads” will come together in the next two volumes.  And let’s not forget the beautiful artwork.  I’ve compared Bill Sienkiewicz’s artwork to fever dreams before, but I have to say that Burns has really captured that particular strangeness in his vivid colors and style.  The next volume, The Hive, is slated to come out sometime in 2011.

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Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman

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I read the first volume of Maus by Art Spiegelman several years ago.  It is a classic in the graphic novel medium, and I felt I didn’t need to add much to the plethora of reviews and praises out there in Internet land with my amateur musings.  The book is part of college English and history curricula now.  But honestly, now that I have read the second volume, I think Maus II is the better book. I think the two volumes are now technically considered to be one book, but volume two was published in 1991, five years after volume one.  The collection won the Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992.

A lot has been said about the book’s value as a Holocaust narrative, and how it illuminates the cost war has on families generations later.  The second volume picks up the story of Spiegelman’s parents as they enter Auschwitz and are separated. Spiegelman’s father recounts his time in the prison camp and his eventual release. I think what really makes Maus interesting is how Spielgelman weaves together his father’s Auschwitz narrative, his own difficult relationship with his father, and Spiegelman’s struggle to make sense of it all by writing the book. I have seen it mentioned many places, and it is true: the last page of volume two is heartbreaking.

There are still many who don’t give the same weight to good graphic novels as they do to traditional literature. I have to stress that Maus is not just a graphic novel or comic book.  This is literature, deep and wide and heavy.  If you have never read a graphic novel, do yourself a favor.  Pick up both volumes of Maus and read them.  I guarantee you will have a new appreciation for the medium.  You can find Maus II here.

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Ruins by Warren Ellis

I recently read Marvels by Kurt Busiek and was impressed with the originality of the story and the art.  I was asked if I had read Ruins by Warren Ellis, which is evidently the sequel but in an alternate universe.  Ruins is comprised of two books:  “Men On Fire” and “Women In Flight.”  Like Marvels, Ruins follows photojournalist Phil Sheldon, who is again trying to write a book about super heroes.  In this alternate timeline, instead of documenting super heroes being super, he is trying to make sense of a nightmare world.  The book opens:

For every kiss, a bullet in the face.

For every action, a reaction.

For every event, there exists in potential,
A mirror event, an exactly opposite possibility.

If the world you know is one of Marvels,
Where heroic women walk invisibly through horror,
And men of fire ride the upper reaches of the air…

…Then only a misstep or a stopped heartbeat away,
Is a world of Ruins.

Ominous stuff.  And for good reason, I guess. This book is very, very dark.  How things get to this point is not quite clear.  Phil Sheldon has a premonition that something good could have come of all these “paranormal” stories, but instead it has gone terribly wrong.  He is dying and racing against the clock to make sense of it all and finish his book.

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The story is very fragmented and abstract, jumping from place to place as Sheldon visits the surviving heroes and witnesses.  We know there has been a war, that the national guard has killed at least most, if not all, of The Avengers. Professor X has somehow become President (I’m assuming by using his mental powers) and has become evil and reclusive.  A lot of the X-Men are mutilated and imprisoned. the Fantastic Four never survived their trip into space. Ellis systematically goes through the list of heroes and shows their bizarre and horrific fates with little to know explanation.  Things just didn’t work out.  It’s not a nice world.

Cliff and Terese Nielsen handle the art in book one, and Chris Moeller joins them in book 2.  The watercolors are well done and give the books a dreamy feel to compliment the nightmare quality of the story. The images are often shocking and gruesome. It is definitely not one for the kiddies. I guess Moeller takes over about halfway through book two, because the style changes.  I find that a little annoying.   His colors are brighter, which I think changes the feel that has been established up to that point.

There is a strange two page sequence in book two where Phil is all of a sudden beside a lake. It seems like a dream sequence, but again, there is no explanation given.  The grass is green; the colors are bright.  It is a drastic change from the grays and browns that permeate the books.  Phil muses, “These people, these paranormal ruins of men– They were dropped on the world like a stone. Their shockwaves have touched all edges of my world.”  He compares this to dropping a stone in the lake and waves slowly making their way to all the shores to make sure we understand the metaphor and theme.  A little girl walks up and asks if he is lonely and invites him to a picnic.


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That scene sums up the major differences between Ruins and Marvels for me.  Busiek’s story was very structured.  It flowed through different historical periods, illustrating people’s varying responses to the heroes.  The themes were subtly woven throughout narrative.  It stood on its own.  Ruins, like the  previously mentioned scene by the lake,  is very scattered and random.  The structure emulates the confusion and panic Sheldon feels, but without any background or orienting narrative, it can’t stand on its own.  And in order to link it all together with a theme, Ellis has to be heavy-handed (ie- stone thrown in lake metaphor).  It was okay because I had already read Marvels and understood what point Ellis has making, but without that reference I’m not sure it would make much sense.  I felt the writing just wasn’t on par with Marvels.


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