Reviews and Recommendations by Mel Odom, Professional Writer


Christopher Fullbright Elderwood Manor

Elderwood Manor is a trope-filled horror novella that readers of that genre will either love or be bored by. Jaded readers might not enjoy the ride because the story hits too many of the standard features of this kind of horror.

1) Father and son are trying to recover from loss of wife/mother.
2) Father is down on his luck and has to return to the family home and his weird mother to hope for some kind of financial help and stability.
3) All kinds of evil has taken root (literally) in the home since he’s been gone, and now he’s stuck there without any kind of recourse to get out as Hell opens up around him.

The authors are very good at establishing the creepiness of their story, and the slow build up gives even seasoned horror writers a chance to get anxious as things start to go WRONG in a big way.

The cover is absolutely beautiful and is a scene from the book, which isn’t always the case.

I loved the atmosphere of the book but wasn’t terribly blown away by the action or the plot. There are only the two characters, after all, and one of them is a child. There was too much narration, too much introspective inner dialogue to suit me, and that kept taking me out of the game. Whenever I wanted to know what was going to happen next, I got plot-blocked by a bunch of information that would have been better served if another person had been there.

I read the novella in a single sitting, guessed most of what was going to take place, but still ended up getting tense a few times before the story played out. For those of you who want a chill and a thrill every now and again, Elderwood Manor may just be the thing for an otherwise calm night.


John Benteen Fargo

I bought a couple Fargo novels by John Benteen back when I was a kid. There were a lot of those books in Conda’s Swap Shop for 15 cents. I wish I could go back and buy them now. But there was another series being published under the John Benteen pseudonym and I wasn’t quite as blown away as I felt like I should have been. They were about Sundance, half-white, half-Indian, constantly trapped between those worlds. They were all right, but not something new like I was looking for at the time.

The original Fargo cover showed a guy in an army campaign hat from the Spanish-American War of 1898, which was attention getting to my younger self. The guy was also bronzed and scarred over, a tough looking guy, but he kind of reminded me of Doc Savage.

I was reading books with a couple of friends, one of whom had read the first Fargo book and said he wasn’t impressed. We had different reading tastes, so I shelved Fargo. I didn’t mean to let more than 40 years go by before I got back to it.

Up in Minnesota a couple years ago, I saw the book again in a used book shop and bought it on impulse, because I have no clue if I still have the first one. Maybe I do. I have a LOT of books.

And I still put off reading the book until this year when it came out on ebook from Piccadilly Press, which is reprinting a lot of old Westerns from those days.

I sat down and read Fargo because it was short and I was in-between things at the moment and wanted something that wouldn’t require a lot out of me because—truthfully—I didn’t have a lot to give. I’d also read post about Benjamin Haas on fellow writer James Reasoner’s blog and was curious.

I started turning pages and was immediately swept away. The book starts out a little slow, maybe, but it doesn’t take long to get caught up in the action. Fargo is down to his last dollar and meets a guy who wants to truck a load of silver out of Mexico while the rebellion between Pancho Villa and other would-be dictators is going on. The United States is about to pull out of supporting Villa and American assets over there—including the silver mine—is about to be lost.

There’s a lot of action in the book. In fact, once the action kicks in, the pages almost start turning themselves. Fargo is a total hardcase and gets into the thick of things immediately. Still, he’s a professional fighting man and knows what he’s doing.

There are so many double-crosses in the book, so many changing alliances, that Fargo becomes an island unto himself. But he won’t walk away from a job, or a woman that he wants to save, or even revenge (as long as there’s a payday in it for him). This is the start of a series, so you know he doesn’t die, but no one else is safe.

The story doesn’t require much of an emotional investment, but it does keep your attention. It’s about as deep as a television episode, and doesn’t last much longer for an aggressive reader, but it’s like a bag of peanuts in a Grapette soda—it just goes down and satisfies.

In a way, I’m glad I missed out on these books all those years ago. I read a lot of current novels that are really long, and I’m glad to have these little snacks waiting. I’ve picked up the four (thus far) ebooks in the series as well as a handful of other novels in used book shops since.

If you’re looking for a change of pace, maybe a little history thrown in that takes place between the Spanish-American War and World War I, and if you like action, I’d definitely recommend the Fargo series. This is how the 1970s paperback writers did the new pulp of that era. It fits in perfectly with the new ebook market.


Craig Johnson Spirit of Steamboat

Walt Longmire is a great addition to the mystery scene, and to summer television. I enjoy Walt in both mediums and like sitting down to see where his latest cases are going to take me.

I also appreciate the fact that author Craig Johnson sits down every now and again and blows through a short Longmire story. It usually arrives around the holidays, or maybe there’s one right before the next novel. Whenever it gets out there, I pick it up and add it to the TBR pile because I know I’ll get to it as soon as I can.

Spirit of Steamboat is probably the longest of the short novels, and Johnson addresses that in the preface before the story. It’s also kind of pricy compared to the other shorter works, and it’s not even a mystery. It’s more an adventure tale told back in the earlier days of Walt’s career.

I like the fact that Walt reads A Christmas Carol over Christmases. Somehow that just seems right.

Johnson’s love of the B-25 plane used in the novella shows, too, and I enjoyed the history lessons about the aircraft that seamlessly mix with the action and suspense of the story. It’s evident that Johnson has intimate knowledge of the plane, and that makes the setting even more real, which is a good thing because readers spend a LOT of time aboard Steamboat (the name of the plane).

The way Lucian Connally and work together in the story gives some real insight into the two men. They have a lot of friction, but they share mutual respect and understanding to things that just need doing.

The ending comes as no surprise because our heroes have to do what they set out to do, but that flight is nerve-wracking all the same because Johnson brings the whole situation to life so well. In addition to aircraft knowledge, Johnson also displays a grasp of medicine and emergency life-saving techniques.

It’s not a mystery, but even readers new to the series will find much to love with this compact little adventure.


Robert Lautner The Road to Reckoning

I’m a sucker for coming-of-age in the Old West novels. I’ve read a few of them over the years. Many of the books in Louis L’Amour’s Sackett series and other novels he penned fill that vein. Then there’s True Grit and Joe Lansdale’s latest offering, The Thicket, to add to the pile.

Robert Lautner joins those ranks with his debut novel, The Road to Reckoning, which introduces us to shootist and Indiana ranger Henry Stands, an old gent with a quick temper and an even quicker gun hand.

The narrator of the story is Thomas Walker, an older man who recounts his misadventures at the age of twelve when his father was murdered right in front of his eyes. Lautner goes into detail about daily life and the career of a traveling salesman (Thomas’s father), and I really enjoyed that (because I’m a history major and stuff like that is in my wheelhouse), but pure Western readers might find the going a little slow, though they may not.

The villains are properly black-hearted, though I felt they could have used a little more development.

As for Henry Stands, I couldn’t help but picture Wilford Brimley. Brimley’s fierce mustache, his straight-ahead, no-holds-barred presentation of life during many of his roles, just rang a bell with me. When Stands stepped onto the stage in front of young Thomas, that’s who I saw, and that image didn’t strike a false note throughout the novel.

Interestingly enough, this “Western” novel never leaves the east side of the Mississippi River. It’s set in 1837 and the United States was in a turmoil. Lewis and Clark had explored the Louisiana Purchase and people were headed out that way to get new land and start building new futures. Industrialization had crept into everyone’s lives and there is a distinct transition from the old life to the new.

That industrialization figures into the plot significantly. Samuel Colt has invented the revolving pistol and Thomas’s dad has signed on to sell those weapons. A large chunk of the story is devoted to how the invention of the revolver is going to change the future of combat, the United States, and possibly the world. After seeing the Walker Colts in action, Thomas doesn’t believe that change is going to be a good thing.

There are a lot of adventures in this book, a lot of scenery to take in, and there’s a great shootout at the end of the book that is simply vivid and stirring. Lautner is still learning things as a writer, but he’s well on his way. I can’t wait to see what he delivers next.


Poul Anderson Conan the Rebel

Conan the Rebel was written back in 1980 by Poul Anderson, a writer I’ve read and admired for years. I’ve always enjoyed Anderson’s Dominic Flandry series (haven’t read all of them and it’s been years since I picked them up), but my favorite book he wrote was Three Hearts and Three Lions, a mix of Edgar Rice Burroughs and fantasy.

I vaguely remember reading this Conan novel before, back when it first came out, and I remember struggling through it, though I can’t remember if I’d ever finished it before.

Back then I was working at Solo Cup at a factory job and had just finished college and was trying to figure out what to do with myself. I was young and restless, and since I’m ADHD my attention span isn’t always what it should be.

So either I finished the book or I didn’t.

After reading the Red Sonja graphic novel by Gail Simone, I wanted to read about Conan. I pulled this book up on Amazon, saw that it was now an ebook, and downloaded it. Then I dug in.

I have to admit, those first two chapters are tough reading. Anderson is wonderfully descriptive and evokes the mood of the novel, but there just isn’t much happening except a prophecy that we know Conan will deliver on. The novel gets faster paced after that, but it takes a while.

One of the other reasons that I wanted to read this book is because it has Belit in it. I remember Belit more from Roy Thomas’s run on the Marvel Comics. Belit only shows up in one f Robert E. Howard’s original stories, a novelette titled “Queen of the Black Coast.” I liked Belit in the comics and I was curious as to what Anderson did with her. To my chagrin, Belit isn’t in this book much, but we do get her full origin story. Now I’ve gotta go back and read Thomas’s stuff to see if the backgrounds agree.

Anderson’s book gets really involved in all the warring countries and political gamesmanship going on with the wizards. He does a nice job of lying out the Hyborian world and talking about it with authority, but the pace is erratic and the threat level sometimes requires only scant derring-do.

There’s a lot of running around, of getting from one place to another, and no shortage of coincidence (running into a band of warriors from Belit’s home village out in the jungle?). I hung with the book because there’s a lot of good stuff in here, but I got completely worn out by the princess’s infatuation with Conan and constantly throwing herself at him. I wanted more swordplay and less lust, and seeing Conan tempted at times while at the same time trying to get the princess foisted off on the young warrior with them got old in hurry.

Another thing that was interesting was Anderson’s archaic choice of language. Granted, the author had done a lot of research for his various projects over the years, but it really shows here. I know the younger me probably just glossed over the unfamiliar words, figuring out – more or less – what they were from the words around them. However, with the Kindle’s instant fingertip dictionary, I looked up a lot of those words during this read-through and learned a lot. The words are still archaic and won’t come up in a conversation anytime soon, but it was fun seeing them in play in the novel. It makes me wonder if Anderson just knew the words or kept a thesaurus at hand.

I enjoyed the book for the most part, but the ending left me feeling a little cheated. There is a dark moment where Conan almost loses the battle, but he of course gets out of it (thanks again to the coincidence of meeting up with the tribesmen loyal to Belit). The final battle against the evil wizard isn’t seen, which chapped me to no small degree.

I’m enjoying Conan all over again and look forward to reacquainting myself with more of the series, and I think I’ll read Three Hearts and Three Lions again as well.

Original Bantam Cover

Original Bantam Cover


Roy Thomas Chronicles of Conan volume 01 cover

Roy Thomas was the second major writer at Marvel Comics, groomed by Stan Lee himself. But Thomas was also the first guy to bring Conan the Barbarian to comics. In fact, he was the one who named Conan “the Barbarian” instead of the Cimmerian as Robert E. Howard usually referred to his larger-than-life hero.

I remember reading the first Conan comic book, borrowed from a friend of mine named Ricky who was enthusiastic about it. I can’t remember if he’d read Conan’s newest paperback releases from Lancer or not before the comic came out. I knew I hadn’t.

Frankly, I was less than impressed with the story, and not happy at all with the astronaut floating in space in one of the panels. That took the story right out of the fantasy realm for me. I had recently read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Those books were fantasy to me.

Eventually, though, Conan became – and still is – a mainstay of my reading. I do remember Barry Windsor-Smith’s art, though. No one did stuff like Barry Windsor-Smith. That second page of the comic book that has the panel of Conan running with his horned helmet is one of those iconic images that will never leave me, and never fail to reduce me to a 12 year old boy again.

Roy Thomas Chronicles of Conan volume 01 page 01

Windsor-Smith’s use of small panels and Thomas’s tendency toward verbosity (often explaining in narrative what a reader can SEE in the panels) makes those issues often read like an illustrated manuscript rather than a comic book. I don’t know how Windsor-Smith did it, and I know there are artists who would run for the hills if this kind of work load was shoved at them.

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The stories kind of limp along in this collection because Thomas was still finding his feet as a storyteller in general, and hadn’t (by his own admission in the afterward) really known what he was doing with Conan. Or where he wanted to go.

The adaptation of Howard’s “Tower of the Elephant” is a story I always think of when I think of Conan. The story is just so heartfelt, and it’s weird to think of just how young both Howard and Thomas were when the first wrote the story and the second adapted it to comics.

Windsor-Smith (according to Thomas) was incredibly excited about the story. He did his best on the pages, and even got Thomas to stay off of some of them to let the story be told visually.

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Sitting and reading these first stories one after another does tend to show how repetitive the adventures are. At one point, Conan got canceled (for a day) because of low sales, but thankfully the series picked back up and allowed Thomas to continue writing literally hundreds of Conan tales for years.

Roy Thomas Chronicles of Conan volume 01 page 04

Barry Windsor-Smith was lost along the way, but John Buscema stepped in as the regular artist for years and gave Conan that iconic look so many comic book fans around the world know and love.

I’m looking forward to reading other volumes of the Conan the Barbarian series, called the Chronicles of Conan in these collections. I spent a lot of my formative youth reading the adventures of the barbarian hero, so I look forward to adventuring with him again.


Gail Simone Red Sonja volume 01 cover mel

Gail Simone really GETS Red Sonja! Simone has long been one of my favorite comics writers, but she exceeds all my expectations with her first graphic novel collection featuring Red Sonja. This is absolutely a wonderful story, and Walter Giovanni’s art is a visual cornucopia of imagery.

The story caught me completely off-guard because I was certain it would be standard barbarian fantasy fare: hero bumps up against near-invulnerable villain, then spends time battling his/her way to secret potion/weapon/spell that will turn the tables.

Simone gives us so much more in this volume, and she kicks it off with a display of violence that is sudden and satisfying. She’s a great writer and knows when to get off the page to let her artist work.

Gail Simone Red Sonja volume 01 page 01 mel

From that violent opening, Sonja’s adventures careen into a dungeon where she’s freed by a triumphant king who knows well the blood price that has been paid for that victory. Pay attention to everything that happens on these pages. I thought at first they were just throwaway pages that kept me from the impending action.

Everything Simone does in this story is carefully weighed and laid out. I liked watching the handmaidens trying to spruce Sonja up. Simone has a wicked sense of pacing, knowing when to cut back on the grim darkness and give her readers a break.

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Before long, we get back to the action as Sonja takes her place at the forefront of battle against a legion of invaders.

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The battle turns bloody, and Sonja falls. The invaders pen up the city because of the plague that runs through it. I like Simone’s sense of history. Back in those days, any whiff of a plague or even sickness could – literally – be the death of a community. Those illnesses ran rampant and killed hundreds and thousands. In today’s world we don’t worry overmuch about things like the plague. Occasionally some bug will get loose that kills people, but not to the extent that happened in the Dark and Middle Ages.

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Once beaten by Dark Annisia, who was the only other survivor rescued from the dungeon with Red Sonja, our heroine ends up in the forest, sick with the plague and dying. She’s been beaten, forced to kneel at her opponent’s boot, and Simone does a great job of showing the readers the effect of these events.

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The story proceeds in an interesting fashion. Like peeling an orange, the story starts at one point and keeps moving for a time before ultimately returning to its origin. Along the way, we get to know the story of how Red Sonja’s people were killed and what made her the way she is.

We also get to know more of the events that led up to her time spent in the dungeon. I love this circuitous method of unveiling the tale, and everything got much, much deeper as the stakes were continually raised. I figured the initial story would only take an issue or two, but this one winds steadily through all six issues comprising the graphic novel.

One of the other interesting concepts that Simone has is that other creatures than humans exist. That will open up Red Sonja’s world more, but at the same time it gives the story a Dungeons and Dragons feel that I wasn’t at first too sure of. But Simone does a great job of just blending all of these elements in, and I trust that she will do more with them as time goes on.

And all while facing these new opponents, Red Sonja is a total action heroine!

Gail Simone Red Sonja volume 01 page 06 mel

One of the problems that some readers have with Red Sonja is that she runs around in her metal bikini armor. Simone and her artist aren’t afraid to step away from that costume and dress her more effectively. As a result, Sonja looks different throughout the book, but she’s still the warrior old readers know and love.

Gail Simone Red Sonja volume 01 page 07 new

Dark Annisia is more than just an opponent in these pages. Simone propels Dark Annisia with her own demons and desires, and I ended up compelled by her story and actually not wanting her to square off against Red Sonja – because the book isn’t called Dark Annisia, after all. I knew how that battle would go. The ghosts that follow Annisia are either figments of her guilt or truly supernatural entities that trail after her. Simone cannily doesn’t tell her readers for certain.

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The resolution of the story doesn’t hold back. Red Sonja comes back into her own and is as fierce a sword-swinging heroine as anyone could ever hope for. The various strands of the story come together in an absolutely breath-taking finish.

Although this story is complete in and of itself, and there are no real plot threads left dangling to compel the reader to pick up the next story, I’m entranced by this incarnation of the swordswoman as well as Gail Simone’s storytelling. Others have told of Red Sonja’s adventures, but no one has told them as Simone is going to tell them.

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I’m hanging around to see what happens next.


Robert Kirkman Super Dinosaur cover new

Super Dinosaur is a treat for kids and the comics-loving adults who choose never to grow up. When I first saw the cover for the new comic, I’ll admit I had my doubts. The guy who gave us such serious comics worlds as The Walking Dead, Thief of Thieves, and Invincible couldn’t possibly create something light-hearted. Could he?

Well, he did. Derek Dynamo (gotta tell you, that name turned me off for a little while, but it’s a cool name for a kid’s hero and I gradually warmed to it) and his dino friend, Super Dinosaur (yeah, Derek named him) are locked in constant battle with Max Maximus.

The core of the story might be the friendship between Derek and Super Dinosaur, but the father/son relationship is pretty awesome as well. It reminded me of the old Hanna-Barbera television series, Jonny Quest. But the roles get reversed here, because for reasons that are explained, Derek has to take care of his dad.

Robert Kirkman Super Dinosaur page 01 mel

The concept looks kind of lame on the surface to comic book fans who tend to be a little snobbish, but Kirkman goes right after the kid’s heart that lurks inside every reader. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a dinosaur friend? Especially if he played video games too?

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Kirkman marches into his first issue and throws problems and changes everywhere. Not only are the Dynamos up against their arch-nemesis, but the government is leaning on them for new stuff, and even sends in a family of techs to help Derek and his dad speed up their research. In no time at all, these new techs are adding to Super Dinosaur’s arsenal.

Robert Kirkman Super Dinosaur page 03 new

It’s evident that Kirkman believes a toy line can spring out of this series, because the techs whip up new combat suits for Super Dinosaur at the drop of a hat. I know that the changes might be mercenary in intent (gotta drive up the toy sales with new toys), but the new tech also lends itself to the series and the characters. This is what they do, and Super Dinosaur’s equipment does take a beating.

Robert Kirkman Super Dinosaur page 04 nw

Derek is no slouch in the action department either. He has his own robot sidekick who deploys various abilities when they’re in battle. Which, of course, necessitates new toys. Still, I’m all for these. The kids would love them if that happens, and they provide for great visuals on the pages.

Robert Kirkman Super Dinosaur page 05 new

The battles are plenty and the artist, Jason Howard, makes them play BIG across the pages. Despite the cartoony visuals and colors, the action is intense and there are lots of emotions.

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And Kirkman isn’t afraid to go REALLY HUGE by whipping up his own throwdown to the Transformers, going after their market as well with his big powersuits for Derek and Super Dinosaur.

Robert Kirkman Super Dinosaur page 07 new

The super powersuits even join together to make an even larger unit!

Robert Kirkman Super Dinosaur page 08 new

I’m really enjoying Super Dinosaur, even though my 16 year old frowns at me doubtfully as I recommend the comics to him. But Super Dinosaur is just great fun, a fantasy that opens up forgotten worlds powered by WHAT-IF.

Still, even in the midst of that, Kirkman throws emotional turmoil that’s pretty big too. No one ever knows what happened to Jonny Quest’s mom, or to the parents of some of the other kid heroes with missing parents, but Kirkman dangles that thread at the end of this first graphic novel.

Robert Kirkman Super Dinosaur page 09 new

I’m definitely picking up the next volume of Super Dinosaur’s adventures.


GI Combat vol 1 cover

World War II soldiers fighting dinosaurs in a land that time forgot began in Star Spangled War Stories in 1960, and the idea has never seemed to go away. The “forgotten” war has shown up time and again in the DC universe, and even showed up in the New 52 in the short-lived GI Combat magazine.

I was really looking forward to this one, especially after seeing how Darwyn Cooke played with it in his limited series, The New Frontier. I thought I’d be getting something special.

Instead, I got a story that had absolutely brilliant art, but was only half-baked. The adventure through the prehistoric jungle actually got tedious even with the action-oriented plot and the threat of death on every page. Then … it just stops. I don’t know if the series got cancelled before the story could be resolved, or it this kind of ending was planned from the beginning. I wish I had known I was going to be left hanging.

GI Combat vol 1 page 01

The War That Time Forgot segment only takes up about a third to one half of the book. The remainder is devoted to an updated take on the Unknown Soldier that wasn’t much better than the preceding story. The story was dark and kind of punchy, and even tried to lift the mythos of the unknown soldier into the realm of the supernatural, but I wasn’t really that interested.

GI Combat vol 1 page 02

The original run of the Unknown Soldier offered a lot more character, a lot more tension. Basically, just a lot more story and adventure in general. After having that, and even experiencing the newly updated Unknown Soldier that came before this one, I wasn’t given anything really new or rewarding.

GI Combat vol 1 page 03

The Haunted Tank strip that ran for so long in the original incarnation of GI Combat was awesome, one of those series that I even now look back on with fondness. DC even tried to unleash a new “haunted” tank on the DC universe a few years back that was interesting but in no way came close to the original.

GI Combat vol 1 page 04

This haunted tank is a bit TOO supernatural for my tastes, and the story was too lightweight.

GI Combat vol 1 page 05

All in all, I’m glad I bought this graphic novel because it allowed me to travel down some good comics memories, but I didn’t really make any new good ones.


Animal Man vol 4 cover

When the new 52 debuted with Animal Man on the list, I was pumped. I’ve always liked that character, even back when he was just a back-up feature, a lightweight hero with kind of ridiculous powers. Buddy Baker was just a guy’s guy who ended up putting on a costume and battling bad guys.

I liked that.

The first two volumes of the new Animal Man by Jeff Lemire were pretty solid, too. They were both full of wild stuff I DID NOT see coming. Lemire took his readers down a rabbit hole and exposed them to a whole new world in the Red. I went willingly, gawking at everything he put on display.

Then volume 3 happened and I wasn’t so happy. *SPOILER ALERT*

Animal Man vol 4 page 01

I was really upset that Cliff died. The plot just didn’t make sense to me. The Rotworld sequence ran long, got too spread out in some ways, too many guest stars, and then – when I was way exhausted from making my way through everything – Cliff gets killed. It was like a kick to the groin.

I honestly wasn’t looking forward to volume four that much. Even if Lemire found a way to do a reset on Cliff’s death, the way he did for Buddy’s daughter Maxine, I wasn’t too interested. Then the loss would have been an artificial emotional cudgel.

Animal Man vol 4 page 02

So I approached this volume with trepidation. As expected, the graphic novel centers on Cliff’s loss and how it has destroyed Buddy’s marriage. In fact, I felt like the story actually WALLOWED in the event way too much. The cult people Buddy goes up against actually offer a distraction from all of the darkness.

Although the preceding volumes have all been graphic in nature, this one seems to raise the bar. Or maybe I’m only sensitive to it in light of the other material being covered. I liked the early adventure of Animal Man against the spider queen, and it was nice seeing Maxine so sure her brother is not truly dead, but it looks like that quest to return him to life isn’t gonna pan out, and if it did, the dead in the first place would simply be cheap theater.

Animal Man vol 4 page 03

Volume 5 is going to be the last of the series, and I’ll pick it up to round out the series, but I’m not looking forward to the darkness I think is going to continue.


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