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Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots by Seanan McGuire

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Velveteen lives in a world of super-heroes and magic, where men can fly and where young girls can be abducted to the Autumn Land to save Halloween. Velma lives from paycheck to paycheck and copes with her broken-down car as she tries to escape from her old life.

It’s all the same world. It’s all real. And figuring out how to be both Velveteen and Velma is the biggest challenge of her life, because being super-human means you’re still human in the end.

Join us as award-winning author Seanan McGuire takes us through the first volume of Velveteen’s — and Velma’s — adventure.
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Seanan McGuire, alongside My Little Pony and other franchises, adores the X-Men comics franchise; she’s long expressed a strong desire to write for them. It is, perhaps, no surprise then that since 2008 McGuire has been writing her own series of superhero stories, and posting them on her blog; these are the tales of Velma Martinez, or Velveteen. In 2012, ISFiC collected the first nine stories into a single volume, Velveteen Vs. The Junior Super Patriots

Velveteen Vs the Junior Super Patriots is an interesting combination of (genre-savvy) humour, commentary on poverty and pressures on child stars, feminism, and straightforward superheroism; McGuire doesn’t simply tell superhero stories, but also uses those stories to comment on the tropes of the genre, especially as they apply to characters like the Teen Titans. The emphasis placed on the way child superheroes are treated, and the mistreatment of them, is fascinating, and McGuire is unsubtly linking that to the treatment by companies like Disney of child stars – and the responses of those stars when they hit the age of majority. It’s a sensitive portrayal, although Velveteen Vs the Junior Super Patriots‘ portrayal of the marketing departments of megacorporations like Disney takes their villainousness and really does send it up to supervillainous levels.

The stories that themselves make up Velveteen Vs the Junior Super Patriots work well as a single narrative; the exceptions to this are the two flashback stories, which seem a little clumsy as a way of filling in backstory as compared to how McGuire tends to do it across the rest of the collection. Those two stories feel weaker in part because they’re not looking back on events with rueful hindsight and Velveteen’s sarcastic commentary, but instead simply drop us into those parts of her life. One of the things that really lifts the collection is Velveteen’s voice; throughout, she’s worldweary and frustrated and very self-aware, and that gives these stories a great feeling.

The real strength of the collection is, in fact, that level of characterisation. While some of the characters are a little two dimensional – Action Guy, for instance, and Marketing – the rest are absolutely fantastic; Velveteen Vs the Junior Super Patriots has a better cast than most superhero comics from the Big Two you’ll read. They jump off the page and sparkle with wit, verve, and humour, and even those who look like two dimensional jokes, such as the crab-human hybrid, are shown to have really well considered and developed backstory if you look a little deeper with McGuire.

The other failure of the collection is, surprisingly, a plot-level one. Velveteen Vs the Junior Super Patriots feels frustratingly unfinished; as a collection, there are at least three, if not more, substrands of major plot set up and foreshadowed as huge world-changing things that are just left hanging. While McGuire makes each story fun and action-packed, the fact that so many end with their real plot left hanging, and that this collection doesn’t resolve anything, leaves a slightly hollow sense when the stories are consumed together.

In the end, Velveteen Vs the Junior Super Patriots is rather like an arc in a Marvel or DC comic: setting up some things excellently, and with great characters, but with a very frustrating feeling of McGuire not really having concluded anything that matters.

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The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente, illus. Annie Wu

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The lives of six female superheroes and the girlfriends of superheroes. A ferocious riff on women in superhero comics

From the New York Times bestselling author Catherynne Valente comes a series of linked stories from the points of view of the wives and girlfriends of superheroes, female heroes, and anyone who’s ever been “refrigerated”: comic book women who are killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad, disabled, or had their powers taken so that a male superhero’s storyline will progress.

In an entirely new and original superhero universe, Valente subversively explores these ideas and themes in the superhero genre, treating them with the same love, gravity, and humor as her fairy tales. After all, superheroes are our new fairy tales and these six women have their own stories to share.
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Gail Simone’s Women In Refrigerators has spawned, in the years since 1999, one of the most storied and respected careers in superhero comics (that of Simone herself); numerous conversations about feminism and the role of women in superhero narratives; and the very term “fridging“. Now, Catherynne M. Valente has gotten involved in the conversation, with a kind of running together of superhero fridging narratives and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, The Refrigerator Monologues

The Refrigerator Monologues is essentially a mosaic novel, made up of a series of characters describing how they came to be in the afterlife; essentially, the stories of fridged women, from their own perspective, rather than centring the men. Valente links the monologues with a broad framing narrative, the Hell Hath Club, of the fridged women sitting in a kind of cafe-bar in the underworld discussing what brought them there in a setting reminiscent of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The frame narrative isn’t much, although it’s quite a fun afterlife – Valente makes a lot of the fact that things don’t exist until they’re extinct, and that the dead exist in the clothes they’re buried in.

What this is really about it the narratives of the different fridged women. The Refrigerator Monologues is set in its own superhero continuity, which shares recognisable similarities with especially the DC universe in terms of what superheroes are present, what villains are around, and what powers look like. Valente brings characters like Mary Jane, neck snapped by Spider-Man trying to save her, and Harley Quinn, lover of the Joker, to life in their own right, and gives them their own stories; The Refrigerator Monologues oddly doesn’t really centre them in their own stories though. These are the same stories we get told in comic books, with more anger and more wit, but still tending towards how the deaths of the women have impact on the men.

They’re good stories, though. Julia Ash’s story, ‘The Heat Death of Julia Ash’, is a kind of intimate retelling of the story of Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force, from her own perspective; it refocuses the story on the unfair way Jean Grey is treated by the X-Men, and the way Professor X disposes of her once she becomes inconvenient. ‘Happy Birthday, Samantha Dane’ is the last monologue in the novel, and arguably the titular one; it ends with Samantha dead, stuffed in a refrigerator, recalling the famous Green Lantern #54 scene which gave the trope being sent up here its name, and looks at the effect of the life of a superhero on those around them. Perhaps the least strong monologue is that of Harley Quinn replacement, Pretty Polly; her whole monologue feels very much like it is based on the worst, most abuse-justifying portrayals of Harley, and never really seems to question those portrayals nearly as much as it needed to, instead of just retelling them.

In the end, The Refrigerator Monologues is a fun, angry little novella; it isn’t perfect, but it is enjoyable, and it’s really very much worth reading for every comics fan out there, if only to spot all the references Valente has dropped in to comics and creators!

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Love Is Love eds. Sarah Gaydos & Jamie S. Rich

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The comic industry comes together in honor of those killed in Orlando. Co-published by two of the premiere publishers in comics—DC and IDW, this oversize comic contains moving and heartfelt material from some of the greatest talent in comics, mourning the victims, supporting the survivors, celebrating the LGBTQ community, and examining love in today’s world. All material has been kindly donated by the writers, artists, and editors with all proceeds going to victims, survivors, and their families. Be a part of an historic comics event! It doesn’t matter who you love. All that matters is you love.
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On June 12, 2016, a year ago today, a man went into a gay club in Orlando on Latin Night and shot 102 people, killing 49 of them. The outpouring of grief, solidarity, and love in the wake of the Pulse shooting was powerful and moving, and hasn’t finished yet. One of the forms that outpouring took was Marc Andreyko, a gay man and writer of queer comics including Batwoman and Manhunter, bringing together a number of luminaries of comics, and the publishing houses IDW and DC, to create Love Is Love, which came out on January 4th and immediately sold out; the second print run also sold out within days of release, but my partner managed to snag me a copy…

Love Is Love is a slightly strange thing to discuss, because I’ll be discussing personal reactions to a tragedy that shook my community to the core; but those responses need praise and criticism for the narratives they are part of and perpetuate, in some cases positively, in others less so. I won’t address every single one of the one-to-two-page contributions, but I’ll highlight the ones I find most significant in one way or another.

One of the constants of the book is direct relaying of personal reactions to the shooting. For instance, Jeff Jensen, in ‘Thoughts and Prayers: A Confession’ (illus David Lopez, lett Dezi Sienty), talks about all the actions he could have, but did not, take in the wake of the shooting, and how he only gave thoughts and prayers – a message that, had it included more ideas of concrete action, or more condemnation of failing to make prayer into action, would have worked far better. On the other hand, the untitled comic by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir (illus Emma Vieceli, col Christina Strain, lett Neal Bailey) brings a humour and a pathos to reactions to the events; it records a conversation with someone’s parents, who want him, in the wake of the shooting, to be careful, be himself, be safe, be brave. It’s beautiful and heartwrenching in its truth. Matthew Rosenberg’s piece (illus Amancay Nahuelpan, col Tyler Boss, lett Ryan Ferrier) is about his reactions to being asked to contribute, as a straight white cis guy, to this anthology; his footnotes to the comic include resources to support people who AREN’T straight white cis guys in comics, and works really beautifully.

Other stories use superheroes; some do it beautifully, and thoughtfully, such as ‘Pulse Shooting: the shooter inside the club is dead’, a Batman story by Marc Guggenheim (illus Brent Peeples, col Chris Sotomayor, lett Comicraft’s John Roshnell) about the complexity of coming to easy answers in this particular case, where the shooter’s motives are such a tangle of religious fanaticism, internalised homophobia and sexual self-loathing. It’s empathetic to both shooter and victims and has a subtle balance that really strikes one. Others, such as ‘Harley and Ivy in Love is Love’ by Paul Dini (illus Bill Morrison, col Robert Stanley, lett Cipriano), simply show love, in this case queer love, as normative; it’s a single page comic that shows the compromises Harley and Ivy make for each other, the neogitations they go through, and what they do for each other, and it is beautiful. Dan Didio’s piece (illus Carlos D’Anda, lett Carlos M. Mangual) has some of that power, using DC’s queer heroes (and for once owning up to some really awful elements of DC’s past, such as Extraño) to talk about the progress made and the road yet to go… but at the same time, it serves as a reminder of just how few queer characters there are, and how few of them headline their own titles. Others are straightforwardly misjudged, such as Matt Wagner’s offering, ‘Every Little Bug’s Got A Honey To Hug’, a splash page featuring no less than three heterosexual couples, two single people, and not a single queer character, as if this was any kind of relevant statement; and Sterling Gates’ ‘Why’ (illus Matt Clark, col Mike Atiyeh, lett Saida Temofonte) is simply terrible, being far more about Supergirl and her response to this real tragedy and how it links in with the loss of Krypton than anything specific to the shooting itself.

Inevitably, there are comics that concern themselves more with guns than queers; Taran Killam’s Deathstroke one-page comic (illus Barry Crain, col Giulia Brusco, lett Joshua Cozine) manages to make the point in a humourous way directly related to the Pulse shootings and with some humour about the absurdity of the way comics treat violence. Mark Millar on the other hand has never been accused of self awareness, and his contribution (illus Piotr Kowalski, col Brad Simpson, lett Michael Heisler) is simply a lecture about the prevalence of guns in the United States, and the fact they can only be used for killing – there’s no attempt at specificity to the Pulse massacre, and indeed, it feels as if Love Is Love simply provided a Scottish man a chance to lecture Americans.

The two comics I want to draw out as uniquely moving to me, though, are first of all, Gail Simone’s beautiful contribution (illus Jim Calafiore, lett Travis Lanham, col Gabriel Cassata), which is beautifully written, slowly building up to its moment of both tragedy and resilience at the end: “You can’t stop us from dancing” comes to mean, in Simone’s hands, so much more than dancing. The other is Teddy Tenebaum’s contribution (illus Mike Huddleston, lett Corey Breen), which is about a father explaining to his child about homosexuality: it isn’t different, but because of the way it is perceived by others, it is, and the comic really draws that out and gives it power.

This barely scratches the surface of an anthology that has some really powerful, beautiful contributions, and some that were singularly misjudged, but in the end, Love Is Love is a powerful statement by the comics community, and meaningful, and beautiful. Love is, after all, love.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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Vicious by V. E. Schwab

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Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in one another. A shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death-experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. They become EOs, ExtraOrdinaries, leaving a body in their wake and turning on each other.

Ten years later Victor has escaped from prison and is determined to get his revenge on the man who put him there, aided by a young girl with the ability to raise the dead. Eli has spent the years hunting down and killing every EO he can find, convinced that they are a crime against God, all except his sidekick, a woman whose power is persuasion and whom he cannot defy. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the arch-nemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?
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Vicious is Schwab’s first foray into the world of adult fiction; a superhero novel that doesn’t have a single hero in.

Schwab’s worked that perfectly; for the first half of the novel, we see things from Victor Vale’s viewpoint, one of the protagonists on the novel. He’s presented as an amoral, driven psychopath (literally), with some major issues; Vicious doesn’t pretend to have a hero, as Schwab builds up the image of Vale as a violent horror, a moral black hole – but one with a specific target; while Eli, who sees himself is a hero, is presented as deluded and wrong, with a similar monstrosity to him. Both characters are sadists, violent monsters; but Vale, for his determination and hatred, is a fantastically written one who we sympathise with because of his choice of targets. The rest of the cast are much more likeable, and that creates an interesting dynamic; we watch the impending clash of power not wanting to see the powers survive, but wanting to see their allies live past it. Sydney and Mitch are wonderful characters, Vicious slowly revealing their backgrounds and personalities, the wonderful, caring humans under otherwise exteriors; some really wonderful writing from Schwab makes these characters, who would be in the sidelines but are instead the emotional focus on the narrative.

That narrative is a fantastic one; Vicious combines aspects of a number of genres, in many ways – the revenge drama, the superhero novel, the thriller… and it takes elements of each of those to make a brilliant narrative. Strung between different chronological timelines, moving around among them with ease, Schwab takes on an interesting tour of the past of each of her characters, builds them up, explains why they are how they are – but without justifying that. It’s a delicate balance; the plot has to move forwards on its own, and at times, especially towards the end of the novel, it can feel like Schwab is jumping between characters a little too often for the plot to sustain, but on the whole the movement between characters and times creates an interesting feeling akin to a mosaic novel, where only by standing back can one take in the whole picture and see it as it is meant to be. Schwab does use some frustratingly cliched devices – not having characters explain plans to their allies, keeping readers in the dark to create suspense she knows isn’t really there – that take some of the power away from Vicious, and the pulling of her punches in regard to character death is also frustrating, but all the same, the pace of the plot and its emotional force, given added heft by the character arcs, does work.

Schwab’s worldbuilding is perhaps the most interesting and also least interesting elements of Vicious. In some ways, Merit is an interesting city, which seems to be both an American Midwestern everycity and also to some extent the world; there are other places that appear briefly, but in essense, Merit is the world. That works to some extent, insofar as Gotham works as the world for Batman, but the references to a wider world in Gotham work because it exists; in Merit, the world just doesn’t exist, it is only the subject of vague occasional reference. Similarly, the EOs – ExtraOrdinaries – seem to have had fundamentally no impact on the world; even the police training for dealing with them doesn’t appear to exist, and the EOs have such varied abilities that training to deal with them doesn’t make much sense itself. All this adds up to Schwab appearing lazy in her worldbuilding, a real flaw in an otherwise well-constructed novel.

Vicious isn’t a perfect book – for a start, it’s very straight, male and white; but what Schwab is doing, she does on the whole very well and in a novel with complexities that really make it worth the effort. I recommend it, albeit with some reservations.

Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka & J. H. Williams III

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She is Batwoman, Gotham City’s newest protector, and battling her at every turn of her still young crimefighting career is a crazed cult called the Religion of Crime. Led by a Lewis Carroll-quoting madwoman known only as Alice, they plan to turn Gotham into a wonderland of carnage.

But Alice has something special in store for the Batwoman – something that will show her everything she thought she knew about her new life as a caped crusader is wrong.

Is this one-woman army fighting a war she can’t win, against an enemy with more power over her than she ever could have guessed?
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Rucka’s run on Batwoman, which became Williams’ run with the New52 relaunch, is notable for a number of things. The one most pertinent here is that Kate Kane, Batwoman, is a lesbian who left West Point because she refused to lie about her sexual orientation on questioning about it; Kane’s homosexuality becomes a secondary, and at times primary, theme in the series from the word go. In the first issue we meet Anna, Kane’s girlfriend – although only briefly; Anna dumps Kane because she thinks Kane is having an affair (arguably true, if Batwoman is driven the way Batman is). We also see Kane meeting – and breaking things off with – Renee Montoya, and starting the relationship with Maggie Sawyer that, at the end of Williams’ time on the comic, turns into a proposal. At no point in this is Kane shamed for her homosexuality; at no point is she seen as damaged or wrong for it, and the only person who judges her, her senior officer at West Point, is shown definitively to be in the wrong in driving her out in an incredible and emotional series of panels that drive home the damage Article 125 of the Uniform Code did. Rucka’s work shows both the hardship of homosexuality – Montoya is in the closet at GCPD – but also the everyday ordinariness of homosexual relationships; and the lack of comment on Batwoman’s sexuality does more to normalise it than any amount of discussion ever could.

Of course, that is all in the background of Elegy. Rather, Elegy deals with the arrival of Alice, the new High Madame of the Religion of Crime, into Gotham; after previous run-ins, Batwoman thinks the Religion of Crime is obsessed with her, and arguably it is. She therefore goes off to find out what she can, running into the Batman himself once, and the emotional and action arcs of the comic draw together as the identity of Alice is revealed and as Batwoman’s actions and alliances increasingly come to force her hand. The plot is, naturally, fast moving and in some ways typically comicsy; but at the same time it has a degree of emotional truth, and a weight of emotional heft, that is rare in any medium, let alone the superhero comic. Rucka handles the plot as one would expect a novellist to, and keeps it controlled, showcasing and introducing characters rapidly and making sure the reader is carried along; if at times things seem left at a loose end, it’s worth noting that this is no more a self-contained work than the first book in a trilogy is.

The most striking thing about Elegy, however, is J. H. Williams III’s artwork. Dave McKean aside, and even then it’s a close call, I’ve never seen art so beautiful, so expressive, so brazenly non-naturalistic, so expressionist but also so clear; this is, arguably, what the artwork for Morrison’s utterly stunning Arkham Asylum should have been. The number of different artistic styles on display in different issues, the way art is used to not only show the action and set tone but also draw connections that are not clear in the writing, the way it shapes the action (Williams on a number of occasions eschews square frames in favour of using the Batwoman logo as a framing device, among other shapes) is controlled and masterful in a way few other things are; Elegy and indeed the whole Batwoman run following it is certainly one of the best drawn ongoing or limited series there are.

This isn’t, naturally, perfect – the loose ends and coincidences that are the stock in trade of superhero comics abound as much here as in any other book – but Rucka does do a good job of telling a brilliant and emotionally true story, and Williams’ art adds so much to that. If you’re wondering where to start with superhero comics, Batwoman: Elegy might not be the perfect place to start, but it’s certainly a damn good one.

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