Battle Bots

Mazinger Z (1972), Getter Robo (1974), Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) and Appleseed (1985) were some of the seminal manga titles that introduced giant robots to Japan and the rest of the world. 

Not everyone was hip to Japanese comic books back in the early 70s. Many kids in the U.S. discovered a version of giant robots in 1979 when Marvel Comics started publishing Shogun Warriors. Author Van Allen Plexico was one of those kids. 

Plexico even dedicates his latest novel to the talent behind the Shogun Warriors series. He writes: “This book is for writer Doug Moench and artist Herb Trimpe, who showed us all the way.” Trimpe, in particular, was the undisputed master of robots and monsters at Marvel in that era. 

A quick note here: “Happy” Herb Trimpe had his fans, no doubt about it, but in no way was he in the same league as Go Nagai (Mazinger Z) or Masamune Shirow (Appleseed). I think we can all agree that Marvel’s “American Mecha” couldn’t hold a candle to Japan’s mecha invasion. 

Regardless, Validus-V is the result of Plexico’s childhood love of giant robots and giant monsters. His book wouldn’t exist without Shogun Warriors, Transformers, Godzilla—and a host of other ancillary mecha and daikaiju merch.  

The novel begins in 1978 when a fistful of 300-foot creatures converge on the shores of Monster Island (a.k.a. Johnston Atoll, a radioactive reef southwest of Hawaii). These giant monsters include a centipede, a bat, a Bigfoot-like beast and a mighty lizard named Tyranicus.

Thankfully, there’s a quartet of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots nearby: the titular Validus-V, Tornader-X (and its alter ego Rednator-Oh), Z-Zatala and King Karzaled. Together they possess enough power to destroy all monsters.

The problem, however, is that the human-piloted robots are a fractious bunch. Honestly, they’re too busy fighting amongst themselves to tackle the impending monster mayhem. Similarly, the towering colossi from Johnston Atoll aren’t united either. It’s hard to have a raging mecha battle when there’s no strategic alliance between combatants. 

Like a lot of classic mecha manga (and anime), the fate of the world ultimately rests in the hands of a young kid. Up until this point, 16-year-old David Okada was merely preoccupied with doing homework and avoiding bullies—he had zero experience piloting a bionic war machine. But that changes quickly. Through a combination of luck, opportunity and necessity, he becomes an awesome robot pilot. “Clearly you’re some kind of prodigy,” notes a colleague. 

There’s a lot more going on here, of course. I didn’t even mention the escalating galactic war or the rampaging 40-foot ants living on Monster Island. Ultimately, Validus-V is greater than the clash of giants and aliens. Plexico is smart enough to know that a story about robots and monsters is really about all the people caught in the confluence.   

[VALIDUS-V / By Van Allen Plexico / First Printing: July 2022 / ISBN: 9798841938194]

Hot for Teacher

Certainly there were happy people living in Smallville. Lionel Luthor, for example. He owned most of the town. Why wouldn’t he be happy? And Jonathan and Martha Kent. They were modest people who derived honest pleasure from working on their small farm. 

But there were unhappy people in Smallville too. Lana Lang’s parents were killed in a meteorite shower, Lex Luthor had ongoing daddy issues and Clark Kent was a lovesick puppy that pined for a girl who would never totally reciprocate his affection. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy: “All happy people in Smallville were alike; all unhappy people in Smallville were unhappy in their own way.”

Take the Sanchez family for example. They gave up cushy jobs in Spain to become corn farmers in Kansas. Their idyllic dreams were dashed on the day Smallville was rocked by a meteorite shower that brought baby Kal-El to Earth. Their nine-year-old daughter Lilia suffered the worst. She had to live the rest of her life with space junk embedded in her skull. 

Eventually, José and Carmencita Sanchez sold their farm and moved back to Madrid. Their daughter, on the other hand, stuck around long enough to earn a college degree and get a job teaching Spanish at Smallville High School. 

Lilia’s personal life was splintered and she suffered ongoing seizures because of her childhood head injury. Even with all the adolescent trauma, she grew up to be a stunningly beautiful woman. At 23 she looked like “Penelope Cruz and Jennifer Lopez morphed together.” That ain’t too bad. 

Naturally, the arrival of Profesora Sanchez on campus caught the attention of Clark “Horndog” Kent. When he thought about her, he felt like a thousand tiny birds were in his belly all beating their wings at the same time. Clearly, he was hot for teacher. “If you told me you didn’t like her,” said a clueless friend, “I’d say you weren’t human.” 

But Clark had concerns. His teacher had a preternatural ability that could jeopardize his deepest secret. Those chunks of Kryptonite in her skull gave Lilia mind reading abilities, and that wasn’t good news for a young space alien in love. “What if she knew about my powers?” cried Clark. “She can’t find out. She can’t tell anyone. She can’t know my secret!”

Thankfully, not everyone infected with Kryptonite turned out to be a supervillain (or a snitch). Lilia figured out Clark’s secret pretty quickly but she remained discreet. In the final chapter she gave her favorite student a bit of advice. “Don’t keep what’s in your heart a buried secret,” she told him with a wink. 

You can’t write a Smallville novel without addressing Clark Kent’s adolescent angst or Lex Luthor’s emerging villainy. Nor can you ignore the super-charged estrus of Lana Lang. Author Suzan Colón was smart enough to know this. But her sole contribution to the show’s mythology (Lilia, the sexy dama mind reader) paled in comparison to the well-known legacy characters. Clearly, Lilia had her own unique story to tell, but here in this tie-in novel from 2003, she was just an actor on the wrong TV show. 

[Smallville: Buried Secrets / By Suzan Colón / First Printing: June 2003 / ISBN: 9780316168489]

The Bogus Man

At best, Nikie Gordon was a C-level actress in a string of B-level films. With her career in the crapper, no one in the industry was surprised when she disappeared in 1974 and became a Hollywood dropout. 

Twenty-three months later, she was back like a Bi-Centennial rockets’ red glare. Full-page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter announced her triumphant return to the spotlight. She was a star reborn. 

The mystery of Nikie’s disappearance and her surprising return ran parallel with a monster that emerged mysteriously from La Brea Tar Pits. In a way, the titular Bog Beast became her benefactor and co-star. 

The creature was seven-feet tall, bipedal, skeletal and thickly covered with black viscous tar. Its silhouette was vaguely human if you ignored its crust of twigs, roots, clumps of fertilizer and vegetation. The Bog Beast didn’t come from the swamp, but it certainly was a sludgy cousin of the Heap, Man-Thing, Swamp Thing (and probably Theodore Sturgeon’s It).

Unlike its predecessors, however, the Bog Beast lacked any sort of compelling origin story. Nothing was known about the creature except that it had crawled out of a Los Angeles tar pit. Later, the author would give readers a small crumb to chew on: “It knew nature,” he wrote cryptically. “It was part of nature and had elemental understanding of earth and water.”

The lives of Nikie Gordon and the Bog Beast intersect during the filming of a movie called Tomb of Frankenstein. The sound stage was destroyed by a disgruntled former crew member, and the actor portraying Frankenstein’s Monster was killed. Luckily, the Bog Beast rescued Nikie when she accidentally fell down a rickety FX contraption. The film production was consequently shut down and the actress spent two years convalescing from her injuries. 

During that time, a Hollywood fixer approached Nikie with a proposal. Faced with major insurance lawsuits, union reprisals and insurmountable bad publicity, Worldly Pictures gave her an offer she couldn’t refuse. All she had to do was blame the whole thing on the Bog Beast and she’d get a second chance at Hollywood stardom. And that’s what happened.

I can’t blame the author for his contrived plotting and tidy resolution. Richard H. Levey’s prose is actually quite entertaining throughout the novel. I would even call it perky. 

Unfortunately, Levey is constrained by the poor quality of his source material. If you didn’t know, the adventures of the Bog Beast first appeared in a long-forgotten 50-year-old comic book. Believe me, the comic wasn’t very good, and neither is this novelization. Digging Dirt: Seeking the Bog Beast is a fine example of “garbage in, garbage out.”

[Digging Dirt: Seeking the Bog Beast / By Richard H. Levey / First Printing: July 2020 / ISBN: 9798666859476]

Life On the D-List

It’s no secret. Everybody knows who’s on top of the superhero A-list. There’s Superman, Batman and Captain America, and all the Avengers and everyone on the Justice League roster. When Darkseid and Thanos come to town, these are the heroes who dutifully show up for work.

The B-list includes all the trusty sidekicks who assist the superheroes—people like Lois Lane, Robin and Bucky Barnes. And since B-listers need a little help too, there’s a C-list as well. Lois Lane always has Jimmy Olsen in her clutch after all. 

At the bottom of the heap are the lowly D-listers. These backup superheroes handle the muggings, heists and regular criminal activity the police can’t respond to in time. They are the faceless heroes who do all the grunt work without getting any of the credit. 

Author Kayla Hicks introduces two of these D-listers in the debut of her Backup Superhero series. Dwighter is an A-list wannabe with a drinking problem. Questions arise when he unexpectedly graduates to the upper ranks of the cliquey Superhero League. It’s up to his friend Tanser Girl to solve the escalating mystery.  

With a little bit of help, Tanser Girl uncovers a messy plot involving international espionage, the FBI, the vaunted Superhero League and a giant shark (for fun). To complicate matters further, the mystery also includes a duplicitous A-lister. 

Goffman is arguably the most popular superhero in the entire League. He holds the record for the most criminal apprehensions and is a PR charmer. He’s proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely. In a way, he’s like a pint-sized Homelander (The Boys) and Ozymandias (Watchmen). 

The Backup Superhero is a rather short effort (only 66 pages), but it contains enough subterfuge and superhero angst to warrant a handful of sequels. It seems reasonable to expect more knotty entanglements and shady alliances in future volumes.   

The key to solving the mystery, of course, is Tanser Girl, a character who freely admits that she’s just a superhero footnote. Like Kathy Griffin, she’s been trying to get on the A-list her whole career. But now, if she can expose systemic fraud within the Superhero League, she might gain the respect she deserves. It’s time for her to get off the D-list.

[The Backup Superhero / By Kayla Hicks / First Printing: March 2021 / ISBN: 9798711535157]

Rock Star

In her latest prose adventure from 2020, Vampirella is in Hong Kong to infiltrate some kind of “crazy-ass” cult. She doesn’t know anyone personally in South China, but her reputation precedes her. Even in a dingy nightclub late at night, she’s recognizable. “You’re Vampirella,” says an awestruck bartender. “Meeting you is one of the coolest things to ever happen to me. You’re a rock star!”

I agree: Vampirella is a rock star. With her red “slingshot suit,” her six-inch stiletto heels and her retro Bettie Page hairdo, she’s the most magnetic vampire in the world.

But even with all her explosive charisma, author Dan Wickline can’t figure out a way to make Vampirella the protagonist in her own novel. She isn’t the A story in The Blood Dragon. She’s not even the B story. For pity’s sake, she’s a lowly C-lister! How could this happen??

The dramatic core of the novel belongs to Jincan and her centuries-old pursuit of revenge. Zhang Wei, the son of the infamous Dragon Lady, represents the supporting story. Vampirella, on the other hand, is simply the helpful outsider.

Eons ago, Xuê Lông (the Blood Dragon) was condemned to exile by the Jade Emperor. In recent years, however, a cult by the name of the Servants of the Blood has been working overtime to bring the demon back to Earth-Prime. Serendipity brings Jincan, Zhang Wei and Vampirella together to stop the cult’s machinations.

Unfortunately, the Warriors Three are unable to stop the Blood Dragon from returning. When he arrives, he’s as tall as a two-story building with wings twice that wide. Says Wickline: “His head was as big as Vampirella and his mouth looked as if it could swallow her in one gulp.”

As I said earlier, Vampirella isn’t the protagonist of this story. Jincan ultimately gets her revenge and Zhang Wei gets his redemption, but there’s no story arc for Vampirella. She’s just passing through on the way to her next adventure (in Russia apparently).

Throughout the book, Wickline has some good-natured fun with Vampirella’s wardrobe. How could he resist? In the beginning he dresses her in acid-wash jeans and a Gangnam Style T-shirt. Later, after the dust settles, Vampirella is spotted in a vintage KISS jersey.

All of it is kind of cute, but my favorite LOL moment comes during the endgame’s epic battle. While pummeling each other in the streets of Hong Kong, Vampirella and the Blood Dragon exchange a few tart quips.

“You’re not as clever as you think you are,” spits the demon. “I don’t know,” replies Vampirella with a shrug. “I do pretty well for myself—although I probably should’ve thought twice before wearing my red sling outfit today. The guy behind me is ignoring you and keeps staring at my ass.”

[Vampirella: The Blood Dragon / By Dan Wickline / First Printing: April 2020 / ISBN: 9781524119607]

Web of Spider-Man

Sixteen-year-old Miles Morales always thought he came from bad blood. Both his father and his uncle were hoodlums when they were his age, and now his younger cousin was locked up in prison. Miles was worried that he would inevitably follow in their footsteps. Like Bigger Thomas, was his destiny written in stone by forces beyond his control?

That was a question he asked himself every single day. Despite being a nascent superhero with the powers of a genetically engineered spider, Miles couldn’t shake the feeling that he was the monster Dr. Frankenstein was chasing.

But one day while perusing his school’s library, Miles discovered a little tidbit about spiders that would help him navigate his family’s messy history. “It used to be said that spiders could connect the past with the future,” explained a chatty librarian. “I think it has something to do with the symbolism of the web.”

Suddenly Miles knew what he had to do. Just as a spider weaved a web, Miles had to weave his own path in life. The same fearlessness that led his father, uncle and cousin to a life of crime would now propel him toward excellence. “I believe it’s not just about where you’re from,” he said, “but also about where you’re going.”

Whoever convinced author Jason Reynolds to write this amazing book deserves a gold star. Reynolds (As Brave As You, Look Both Ways and Stuntboy, in the Meantime) has a passion for telling stories about kids (like Miles Morales) who overcome challenges and triumph over their circumstances. He’s a lively writer who’s tapped into the intellectual and moral climate of our times.

As such, his Spider-Man novel is a nuanced look at an Afro-Hispanic teenager (with superpowers) who’s grappling with family issues, personal identity, school and romance. Naturally there’s villainy afoot, but there isn’t a Vulture, Goblin or Octopus anywhere in sight. Instead of superhero bang-ups, Reynolds informs his story with the pulse of music, language, literature and poetry. I guarantee that you’ll never read another superhero novel containing so much poetry—specifically Korean poetry.

Miles successfully defeats his family’s lingering bad reputation, and by doing so he finds a way to overcome the past and move confidently into the future. In other words: By creating a new and stronger web, he’s able to smash the old webs to smithereens. Spider-Man superpowers not required.

[Miles Morales: Spider-Man / By Jason Reynolds / First Printing: August 2017 / ISBN: 9781484787489]

Vampires from Outer Space

Frankenstein, Godzilla, King Kong, Freddy Krueger, Mike Wazowski—these are just a few of the monsters that have wormed their way into our collective consciousness.

You could probably include Vampirella in that group as well. Since her comic debut in 1969, the sexy vampiress from planet Drakulon has become a worldwide icon. I bet there’s a kid living in the hills of Peru right now with a poster of Vampi on his wall drawn by José “Pepe” González. (Confession: I wish I had that poster too!)

She might be instantly recognizable around the globe, but who’s foolin’ who? Nobody outside of a tiny bubble knows her origin story, her motivation, her powers or her personality. It’s all about the little red suit. Just to let you know, the provocative peek-a-boo outfit wasn’t meant for titillation. According to author Nancy A. Collins, it was simply “the traditional garb of a Drakulon maiden.”  

But how “traditional” was it really? I’m sure Drakulon men had libidos. A woman walking down the street in a skimpy red bathing suit was certain to turn a few heads. Even the viceroy of her home planet couldn’t stop gawking at her: “His eyes greedily devoured every inch of her,” says Collins, “from her luxurious ebony tresses to the scarlet costume clinging to the flawless magnificence of her body accenting every exquisite curve of her swelling breasts, sloping hips and slender waist and torso.”

So, yes, the image of Vampirella was instantly recognizable around the world. It wasn’t easy to create such an enduring icon, though. Give credit where credit is due. James Warren, Frank Frazetta, Trina Robbins (and probably Jean-Claude Forest) all had a hand in creating this enduring iconographic legacy.

The character’s personal story, however, was fuzzy. For newbie’s, the author spends about 20 pages covering the details of her origin story. Like Superman, Vampirella escaped a dying planet to come to Earth. But instead of landing in Smallville, Kansas, she crashed into California’s Hollywood Hills. Later, she became a fearless monster hunter and cracked heads with all sorts of supernatural ghoulies. Naturally, she did it all in her six-inch stiletto heels.

In this adventure, Vampirella reluctantly teams up with Dracula, Viktor von Frankenstein (and his “Patchworkkinder” twins) and Evily, the queen of the witches. Along with Pantha, her were-panther best friend, Vampirella is able to squash an invasion of vampires from outer space. It’s super zany and exactly what you’d expect of a Vampirella novel. Except for the poor copyediting, I have no complaints with it. The cover illustration by Jenny Frison is also very good.

Sexy vampire ladies have been a treasured trope of horror fiction since Carmilla was published back in the late 19th century. Vampirella is indeed sexy, but the author wants you to know she’s more than her itsy bitsy teenie weenie red swimsuit. She’s nowhere as stupid as her costume suggests.

[Vampirella: Blood Invasion / By Nancy A. Collins / First Printing: November 2019 / ISBN: 9781524115135]

Incredible

In this 1995 novel, author Peter David describes the Hulk as “a nuclear warhead on legs” and “an unstoppable engine of destruction.” The Hulk’s muscles, we are told, defy all known rules of human anatomy. And when he’s on a rampage, “there was no plan to his pounding, no art, no strategy.”

But David’s version of the Hulk isn’t the same as the iconic inarticulate brute I grew up with. He may still be “seven feet tall and green as grass,” but he now sports the personality of puny Bruce Banner. He even wears nerdy black-rimmed glasses and smokes a pipe while contemplating advanced mathematical equations. He is 1,000 pounds of ripping muscles with the brain of a genius. No longer does he speak in monosyllables and confuse personal pronouns. He’s so refined he probably eats petite cucumber sandwiches while drinking a cup of P.J. Tips. Pinkie out, of course.

But one thing remains the same. The U.S. Army still hates his guts. Gen. Thunderbolt Ross may be long gone, but the Hulk continues to be hounded by the military wherever he goes. “Our country has been at war with him from the moment he smashed his first tank,” explains Major William Talbot.

With no place left to go, the Hulk retreats to another dimension with help from the Eye of Agamotto. And wouldn’t you know it, even in this negative-like zone, the Hulk can’t find any peace. He’s hunted by his future self (now called the Maestro) and an army of Hulkbusters. He even has to wrestle his 20-year-old son Brett (the name being a portmanteau of Bruce and Betty, FYI).

The entire novel is a never-ending string of crazy situations and connections. The Hulk gets a computer chip implanted into his brain, his wife gets pregnant and gives birth to conjoined twins, Doc Samson and Dr. Strange make guest appearances, and an army of Hulks show up armed with a collection of superhero accoutrements (like the Sub-Mariner’s trident, Captain America’s shield, Wolverine’s adamantium claws, and Thor’s hammer). Unquestionably, the book is a huge page-turner with lots of action and laughs (intentional and/or otherwise). And there’s even a little bit of Hulk sex too.

Overall, What Savage Beast is totally insane and awesome at the same time. Mostly because it’s unapologetically a comic book superhero novel and doesn’t court any sort of literary merit. The only way this book could have been any better is if the Hulk rode a surfboard or an invisible jet. Kudos to Peter David for his ability to maintain his hyper propulsive comic book storytelling skills in prose format. I had a great big smile on my face when the Hulk and his son started debating the merits of Friedrich Nietzsche. At that point, I knew I was reading something truly incredible.

[The Incredible Hulk: What Savage Beast / By Peter David / First Printing: July 1995 / ISBN: 9780756759674]

Why So Serious?

loisclarkLois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was a TV series from the 90s that emphasized the flirty relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent. During its four-season history, the show was a fun and good-natured romantic comedy.

But judging by this 1996 novel, author C.J. Cherryh never saw a single episode of the show. It’s an extremely serious book with very little comic banter between Lois and Clark. Cherryh doesn’t come anywhere close to capturing the spirit of the TV show.

Even more troubling, Lois & Clark: A Superman Novel is actually two separate books smooshed disharmoniously together. In one novel, Superman is tending to a disaster “somewhere uphill of Chechnya.” In the other novel, Lois is reporting on a disaster in Metropolis. In both, Clark Kent is simply a forgetful doofus who drifts in and out of the newsroom at the Daily Planet.

Nowhere is there any winsome Nick and Nora-like chemistry between the two lovebirds. There is a smidgen of romance here and there (mostly at the end), but Cherryh seems to be saying that love and career are two separate things for Lois and Clark. “She had her job and he had his,” writes the author. “And they each did what they had to.”

Despite the book’s many missteps (and believe me there are many glaring missteps), Cherryh’s writing remains top-notch from the first page to the last chapter. She’s a veteran science fiction and fantasy author who’s won a raft of industry awards (including the Hugo for her novels Downbelow Station and Cyteen). In truth, there’s no way a C.J. Cherryh novel is going to be a total bust.

For example, the way she describes Superman in the air is terrific. These reoccurring passages may be the best writing in the book. “He broke through the gloomy gray clouds of Metropolis into the brilliant day that existed above the storm, rising into increasing cold and thinner air. Here he breathed like a swimmer in surf, water streaming off him and then freezing in his wake. Snow might have followed him, however briefly.”

Flying across the Atlantic Ocean: “He wasn’t hungry, but he was burning up the energy around him, turning the air colder than surrounding air and creating microweather as he went, an effect that could generate a sparkle of ice as moisture froze in midair.”

And over Asia Minor: “He flew high, high above political boundaries where his radar signature might trip alarms and scramble aircraft. He might have been a falling satellite. A piece of space junk. A cosmic piece of debris above the ancient and disputed land of Anatolia.”

Because of the ongoing crisis in Europe, Superman spends a lot of time in this book going back and forth across the Atlantic. Cherryh wants her readers to know that flying solo is a big part of being Superman. It’s lonely business being the last son of Krypton. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A man who can fly through a sunset should be able to share that experience with someone he loves.

[Lois & Clark: A Superman Novel / By C.J. Cherryh / First Printing: August 1996 / ISBN: 9780761504825]

Wolverine Blues

RoadofBomesThere’s no question about it. Wolverine is a tough nut to crack. In this book alone, for example, he’s pumped full of lead, burned alive, fed to sharks, attacked by ninja and blown to pieces. Later, he jumps out of an airplane without a parachute. Twice. “It will only slow me down,” he says.

Okay, I get it. Wolverine’s a first-class stud. He’s been alive for over a century and he’s practically indestructible. He’s a living weapon who prowls the shadowy space between human and animal. Thank goodness he’s one of the good guys.

His latest assignment starts in Japan and takes him to Brazil, Austria, Russia, Nigeria, Turkey and South Africa. But this isn’t a picaresque novel by any means. Wolverine is on a mission to save the world from a drug called panacea. This miracle drug can cure anything, “cancer, tuberculosis and the common cold—it can cure them all. Viral, bacterial, congenital, it doesn’t matter.”

Unfortunately it has one deadly flaw. Once a patient takes panacea, he will die unless he continues taking it every day for the rest of his life. In other words, it’s sort of like food or water or Starbucks coffee. And, of course, Wolverine is 100 percent against that sort of thing. When he learns about plans to use panacea to enslave an African nation in order to exploit its bountiful supply of crude oil, he vows to cut the drug cartel down to size with his adamantium claws.

That’s when the shooting, burning, exploding and shark feeding begins. Wolverine and his sexy Chinese mutant sidekick are up against a powerful consortium of yakuza and super ninja. These gangsters didn’t play around. Their only motive is “power for its own sake.” And panacea gives them all the power they need.

Naturally, Wolverine stops the distribution of the drug. But no one throws him a ticker tape parade or gives him a pat on the back when his mission is complete. In fact, some people are rather upset by his hubris. “Who are you to chose our fate?” asks an African woman slowly dying of illness and starvation. Panacea would have made her a slave. But so what? She’s already a slave to political upheaval, warlords, meddling foreigners, hunger, dehydration and disease. She’s just looking for options. Wolverine’s a tough guy, all right. But when it comes to solving the problems of the world, sometimes he’s just as powerless as the rest of us.

[Wolverine: Road of Bones / By David Alan Mack / First Printing: October 2006 / ISBN: 9781416510697]