The Return of 5 Quick Reviews From the Writing Desk

In a lot of ways, writing a review can be just as hard as writing a piece of fiction. Sometimes, not matter how passionately you may feel, the material doesn’t leave you with enough meat for a full review. As such, here are five quick reviews of books like that!

Savage She-Hulk by Fred Van Lente: this more-than-unwelcome introduction of the new, non-Jennifer Walters She-Hulk should have been axed at the idea stage. 1/5 stars.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds by James Moore: a novel based on a video game based on a television show that was based on a movie? This book can be best described as entertainment incest. 2/5 stars.

The Human Equation by Kenneth Tam: an interesting premise with great characters, told with some early foibles of an author that would go on to amazing status. 3/5 stars.

Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud: the foremost text on the early study of the mind. 4/5 stars.

The Little World by Kevin Woolridge: without a doubt one of the most enjoyable and imaginative strip comics you will ever read. 5/5 stars.

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Dark Phoenix Returns

X-Men_-_Dark_Phoenix_Returns_Vol_1_1The Dark Phoenix Saga is one of those untouchable, seminal moments in X-Men lore and comic book fandom as a whole. It has been adopted into television and film, and goes down as the first great threat to face the all-new, all-different Uncanny X-Men… and as soon as it was over, people wanted more. Such is the nature of sequential, serialized storytelling: people will want more. But master-scribe Chris Claremont has always been aware that what people say they want is different from what they want, and was reluctant to water-down the story with a Dark Phoenix 2.

Also, there were editorial mandates in place. Jean Grey was dead not by written edict but by choice of Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, as he felt that Jean should pay for the wrongs she had committed as Phoenix.

So there was a bind. And from that hardship came the amazing story of Dark Phoenix Returns and the smart, innovative character of Madelynn Pryor.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and from the contrasting push-and-pull of fan demand and editorial mandate, Claremont created this. But rather than a straight sequel involving a duplicate of Jean and Phoenix-villain Mastermind, Claremont adds a dose of emotional turmoil and makes this a story of grief and getting over the death of a loved one.

See, science-fiction works best when it takes an element of the human condition that shapes us all and adds a sci-fi twist, turning it into a parable that an teach us a lesson about how we live our lives. Star Trek the Next Generation did this very well.

In this instance, Claremont plays with the idea of moving on. After the death of a loved one, many people see them everywhere. This is caused by thinking about the person, by not moving past their departure or passing. If you start dating someone new before this stage of the mourning process is over, it can lead to seeing aspects of the old love in this new love… can even lead to feelings for the old love being moved to the new. This is called transference.

Taken to its sci-fi extreme, Claremont tells the story of Scott, still woeful after the passing of Jean, meeting Madelynn: a woman who may as well have been Jean’s twin and who has multiple conspiracy-laden connections to her, wherein major events in Jean’s life correspond to major events in Madelynn’s.

What follows is a psychological minefield for Scott, complicated by an assault by classic X-Men villain Mastermind, who uses his illusions to make it seem as though Maddie is Phoenix, and that she’s killed Captain America and the Avengers.

In the end, Scott must overcome his grief and personal demons in a poignant moment that translates into us needing to overcome our own illusions.

A wonderful, emotionally-charged epic chapter of the X-Men franchise by Claemont. A well-deserved 5/5 stars.

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Marvel Masterworks: Spider-Man & X-Men

Masterworks X-MenI think we need to stop liking things ironically, and stop liking things out of reverence for the potential they wrought as well. This has become a hot topic in recent years, with a plethora of merchandise being sold to people that don’t even like it… it came up for me when I started down my trek to read all of the issues of X-Men.

I was trying to slog my way through the early Stan Lee / Jack Kirby run, and finding it difficult. Upon hearing my complaints, a friend of mine stated: what did you expect? All the classic 60s stuff is bad by today’s standards, isn’t it?

Well…. no.

Some of it is campy, some of it is socially or culturally insensitive, but there is a clear divide between what is good and what is bad. And nowhere is that divide more prevalent than when looking at the gap between Marvel Masterworks Spider-Man and Marvel Masterworks X-Men.

Masterworks Spider-Man contains Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #s 1-10, introducing seminal characters like Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, and of course, Spidey himself. It also brings to the table classic villains like the Chameleon, Doctor Octopus, the Sandman, the Lizard, Electro, and more. But more than all that fan-candy… it’s really well-written work. There’s real angst here, as Peter continually struggles with his dual identity. It mixes grand super-hero epic with Archie-style romance comics, with some real on-again off-again drama that occurs in those awkward lost years of adolescence.

1127899You find yourself reading through Masterworks Spider-Man very quickly, and being almost sad when it is over. It is a genuinely good read, with incredible imagination and ideas and compelling, interesting villains.

As much as it pains me, that is not the case with Masterworks X-Men.

Each and every one of these ten chapters is a trial to get through. The original five X-Men… well, no. I was about to say they didn’t work well together, but later they work together as X-Factor just fine. Lee doesn’t make them work well together though. Beast, Cyclops, Iceman, Jean, Angel… there’s this weird, creepy 5-way love hexagon that also briefly involves Professor X. They all talk like overtly obnoxious stereotypes and just plain don’t gel in their civilian lives. In addition the villains are flat, one-dimensional, and cumbersome idiots like the Vanisher and Lucifer. Even Magneto is bad here, lacking any measure of the depth he would later be presented with.

So no, not all of the 60s Lee stuff is bad by today’s standards. Given the fact that it was eventually cancelled until Chris Claremont came along and saved the day, I think we sometimes gloss over the fact that it wasn’t good by the standards of the time either.

Marvel Masterworks Spider-Man is, as the title implies, a Masterwork. It gets a a full 5/5 stars. Masterworks X-Men… well, it’s a great idea handled poorly, so by my self-imposed rating system that’s a 2/5 stars. Although honestly, I’d love to give it only 1.

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From the Writing Desk: Planning and Plotting

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Top Ten Character-Driven Novels!!

10. The Whirlpool, by Jane Urquhart
09. Wolverine Classic volume 1 by Chris Claremont
08. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
07. Hearts in Atlantis (short story) by Stephen King
06. Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov
05. The Long Road, by Matthew LeDrew
04. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
03. Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
02. Dark Avengers – Ares, by Kieron Gillen

What’s #1? Sorry! You’ll have to watch the video to see! ;)

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

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Sci-Fi on the Rock 7: Looking Back

Sci-Fi on the Rock 7So Sci-Fi on the Rock 7 has come and gone, and it’s always a weird time. This convention, more than any other, marks the passage of time for me. It’s been seven years since Engen Books started. Since that first spark when I was talking to Kenneth Tam and went “I can do this,” and started this weird, oddball publishing company that has shaped so much of my life since.

Every convention is different and every experience is different. This convention, I’m happy to report, was our biggest in terms of sales: both in number of books moved and amount of money made, according to our accountant — I can’t be trusted with the money.

And really, that’s incredible. That should not be possible. We’ve been coming to the same convention 6 times in a row — logically, everyone who was going to buy a copy of the book should already have it. But there’s a reason I’m an author and not a marketer, and this year really proved me wrong.

Every convention has it’s stories. The weird little behind-the-scenes tidbits that nobody sees that just makes it real. At Sci-Fi on the Rock to it was singing “Old Man River” with Boba Fett. At Polaris 24 it was making an ass of myself in front of Claudia Black. At Hal Con 2012 it was having a chat with John Rhys Davis about politics — and then getting tickled by him during a picture. This convention was different though. This time it was special, and had nothing to do with rubbing shoulders with the A-listers and then coming home to write about it, hoping that blog hits from someone searching that celeb will result in book sales for you. Nope, this time the coolness came from a very, very different place.

The Real Engen CrewThis year we sold more books than ever before, and got more positive feedback than ever before. I didn’t print any ads. I did very little to hype it on Facebook. I don’t think the newest books are even available on the Engen website as of yet (coming soon, website’s getting revamped). There was no social-media marketing. There was no air-time on VOCM. There was no web-presence to speak of. Engen Books had it’s best day ever for one reason and one reason alone — positive word of mouth.

No less than a dozen times did someone come up to us and say “My friend read your first book, and he can’t stop talking about it. I’d like to pick up the whole series.” Those people pictured on the left? That is the Unofficial Engen Street Crew: the people really spreading the word about Engen Books. I left Sci-Fi on the Rock 7 with a renewed sense of purpose and a new conviction to continue doing what we’ve been doing — and to get better. Because this crew deserves for it to get better.

Did I sing a song with Dominic Keating? No. Do a jog with Gary Jones? Nada. Embarrass myself in front of Dean Haglund? Not this time. What I did get was validation — this is working for us. We’re doing what we love and other people love it too. There is no better feeling than that. Than having fans who are just as into your thing as you are, and it’s reminded me who we are.

We are Engen Books.

We write amazing fiction. We take the mundane and make it spectacular. We create worlds and craft ideas and change thought. And we are good at what we do.

And we never look back.

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Iron Man 3 Review: Return of the Awesome

Iron Man 3So five years ago I went to see the first Iron Man movie with my buddy Jordon Pollard — great guy, never had a book dedicated to him. I didn’t expect much, because honestly I didn’t think much of the character at the time. I’d never read Iron Man. I didn’t particularly like Iron Man. Then the movie came out and it just blew me away — stylistically, thematically, everything was perfect. And that Nick Fury cameo at the end? Got goosebumps. Everyone did. It was an awesome day.

For the next few years I continued to hold Marvel films to that standard, with varying degrees of success. Incredible Hulk was okay, Thor was great, Captain America and Iron Man 2… not so much. Iron Man 2 was the worst of these offenders, as it failed to live up to the level of the original. So when Iron Man 3 was announced as launching Phase Two on the Marvel Cinematic Line… I was cautious.

But honestly, they couldn’t have made a better choice.

Everything in this movie works. It delivers on all promises. I deconstructs Tony Stark in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible again, and really reminds us why we fell in love with the Avengers franchise. It continues from Avengers in an amazing way, with Tony Stark suffering from PTSD after the results of that film, making Avengers not just a crossover, but an essential part of the Iron Man saga. That was appreciated. Beyond that, it’s a wonderful story with believable characters and interactions. Downey Jr. really gets to have some fun with his dialog in a way that wasn’t there in the second movie and it just makes the film.

I’m not going to ruin anything — but anyone who loved Iron Man but has been ho-hum since then on Marvel Movies, see this flick. It’s very much worth the price of admission.

Matthew LeDrew
Engen Books
Never Look Back

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