Reviews of Novels Based on Comic Book Characters

(That'd be the ones without pictures)

I was going to review these in depth, but since many of them -- particularly the recent Marvel tie-ins published by Boulevard/ByronPreiss -- suffer from similar problems, I thoughht I'd save some bytes by doing an overview, first. The problem with many of these books is that they're awfully thin -- there's a feeling most of the authors came up with enough plot for maybe a novelette, then pad it ruthlessly to bulk it up to novel length.

I'm also not exactly in awe of the literary skill and prose styles being employed by some of the authors. Although these obviously appeal to kids (reading reviews at, for instance, it's clear at least some of the readers are young), nonetheless, these are ostensibly "grown up" novels. To be fair, they aren't badly written, but few are in danger of scooping any Pulitzers.

With all that being said, many of them are still enjoyable, though by far the best book here is The Marvel Superheroes.
More reviews are coming...

Batman: Knightfall by Dennis O'Neil
The Batman Murders by Craig Shaw Gardner
The Further Adventures of Batman edited by Martin Greenberg
Click Here for Batman novel reviews


Predator's Smile
(1996) by Christopher Golden, paperback, pub. Byron Preiss/Boulevard Books

This pales beside "Blind Justice", but is still fairly entertaining, with good mood and introspection. I enjoyed it. The problem is that plot-thing to which I keep alluding.

Daredevil gets caught in a gang war between the Kingpin and an upstart mobster, who brings in bad guy Bullseye as well. And the heroine the Black Widow crops up, too (though in a minor way).

Golden states in his introduction to this novel (set amidst D.D. stories from the mid-'80s) that what he likes about ol' Horn Head is his complex supporting cast. Which is part of the problem. Golden works in most of D.D.'s supporting characters...but hasn't come up with a story that actually involves them. There are various scenes of D.D. meeting with Ben Urich, Foggy Nelson, etc., but few that impact upon the story. There's a lot of repetition and scenes thrown in just for the sake of throwing them in.


Dick Tracy Meets His Match
(1992) by Max Allan Collins, paperback, pub. by Bantam/Falcon Books

This was the third Dick Tracy novel written by the writer of the Dick Tracy comic strip, Collins (inheritor from series creator Chester Gould -- and a successful novelist already). Thhe first book was an adaptation of the Warren Beatty movie, though supposedly bringing it a little bit more in line with the comic strip continuity; the second was Dick Tracy Goes to War set during WW II. According to Collins' introduction, a fourth and final book was in the works, but I don't know if it was published. This book is set in the late forties and has cop Tracy getting caught up in murder and intrigue in the blossoming world of live television (each of the novels was meant to explore aspects of the period). Tracy reluctantly agrees to wed his true love, Tess Trueheart, on TV -- a wedding interrupted by a sniper's bullet.

I quite enjoyed it. Considerably more than I've enjoyed the (admittedly) few samples I've read of Collins work on the comic strip.

Like the Dick Tracy comic strip, you know who the villain is almost from the beginning (though Collins cleverly throws in a surprise twist near the end), making it more a suspense novel than a mystery. But it's quite enjoyable, with a nice sense of period, and Collins finding the right prose style to be both serious and dramatic, and silly and tongue-in-cheek (with some wry metaphors). Collins clearly loves the cast of eccentric characters and friends that surround Tracy, and in the format of a novel, he can explore them more in depth than in a newspaper strip. Granted, that means the story can slow down in spots, as Collins sometimes downplays the suspense plot in favour of character stuff, but it's all done with a tight, brisk writing style that makes the book barrel along reasonably well.

Actually, this is one of the better, more satisfying books on this list. It's a lot of fun.


To Free Atlantis
(1995) by Nancy Collins, paperback, pub. by Boulevard/Byron Preiss

Dr. Doom works to usurp Atlantis from Namor, the Sub-Mariner, and the F.F. must come to the rescue.

This was the first of the current crop of superhero novels I read, after having, more or less, stopped reading comics themselves about a decade ago (I've since fallen back into the bad habit). I liked it. I mean, the story  is a bit thin, with Collins kind of dragging things out at the beginning, then, when the action/adventure stuff gets going, it's pretty straight forward. There are no Burroughsian twists, or trap doors; the plot doesn't veer off into unexpected quarters. Once the Fantastic Four return with the Sub-Mariner to Atlantis, it's basically just to mop up the bad guys. But those are criticisms I could level, to varying degrees, at all the ByronPreiss superhero novels.

With that being said, I found this a fun read. Collins accomplishes something that few F.F. comic book writer (that I've read) ever quite pulled off, and that is, she evokes the original Lee/Kirby stuff in that some of the Thing's quips are actually funny. I mean, chuckle-out-loud kind of funny. At  the same time, she remembers the pathos of the characters, too.

The Redemption of the Silver Surfer
(1997) by Michael Jan Friedman, hardcover/paperback, pub. by Boulevard/Byron Preiss

The FF, reluctantly, allow themselves to be recruited by their old foe, Blastaar, when Blastaar's home universe -- the Negative Zone -- seems to be threatened by an even greater menace than himself: a legendary planet destroyer akin to the FF's foe, Galactus. And when the Silver Surfer, Galactus' former herald, hears of this, he becomes involved, hoping that in combating this menace, he will make amends for his days as Galactus' herald. But Reed begins to question whether the situation is quite what they think it is.

Like a lot of these books, there's nothing terrible about this...and not necessarily anything that great about it, either. Once more, it's an okay, but kind of thin story (at over three hundred might've made a decent two-part comic book). When I first started reading these novels, I had fallen out of reading comics, but when I read this novel, I had got back into the habit, and so there's a bit of a difference in perspective. In that, though the core threat is, to be fair, new, the overall traipings are kind of familiar (Negative Zone, Blastaar, Silver Surfer). And if you haven't read an FF comic for a while, that might be what you're looking for -- a certain nostalgia as Friedman drags out the old props. But otherwise, you might find yourself thinking -- been there, done that.

Anyway, as I say: not terrible, not great.


The Ghosts of Manhattan
(2010) by George Mann, paperback, pub. by Pyr Books

It's been, literally, years since I last added a review to this particular section of my website. And most of my super hero novels reviews are of novels based on pre-existing properties. But this is an entirely original novel featuring an original character. Well, sort of.

The Ghosts of Manhattan is part of that tricky little sub-genre which is deliberately meant to be evocative...even as it's also supposed to be original. The story takes place in alternate reality 1920s Manhattan, where cars are powered by coal steam (not gasoline) and airships ply the skies. The Ghost is a trenchcoated vigilante with rocket boots who deals out lethal justice to evil doers, and ends up allying himself with a local cop to take on a mysterious crime boss, The Roman -- with a supernatural agenda. Yeah, I know, little of that sounds original -- right down to a mobster called "The Roman"! -- but that's sort of deliberate.

As I say, it's a tricky genre to pull off. The fun is in the cozy cliches...but our interest is maintained by the originality. Unfortunately, Mann ends up writing a story that just seems tired and trite and cliched, where the basic ideas aren't particulary new...yet they aren't compensated for by applying them to a clever plot, characters or scenes (the plot is rudimentary -- like maybe a two-part Batman comic stretched out to a couple of hundred pages). He pads it out with dense, introspective sections, as if maybe intending to say: "that's why this is a novel and not just a comic"...yet even those sequences feel more like he's just struggling to write something pseudo-profound, rather than because he really has anything to say! (The fact that the title is "ghosts" (plural) is likewise presumably to hint at subtext and meaning). He juxtaposes scenes of the Ghost with a bored society dilettante named Gideon Cross, without saying they are the same character, as if he wants it to be a surprise. Yet then, as if he realized how obvious it was, suddenly starts referring to them as the same person half way through without, so I recall, an actual "revelation" moment!

What he does do is up the gore and violence (and occasional profanity) with the Ghost himself using a particularly gruesome weapon -- again, almost as if he was just trying to come up with anything to make it seem "edgier" than a comic. But the violence is off-putting, and the morality inconsistent (the Ghost insists the line he's drawn is he won't shoot first...except in scenes where he shoots first). Mann wrote a sequel -- Ghosts of War -- but honestly, I found this first book enormously disappointing...and even kind of lazy.


See also Marvel Superheroes

Stalker from the Stars
(1978) by Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Joseph Silva, paperback, pub. Pocket Books

This was one of the very first of Marvel Comic's forays into literature. The Hulk, back when he was still a dim-witted man brute, gets involved in weird goings on in a small town stumbled upon by his sometimes sidekick, Rick Jones. The story is familiar ground -- it's been used both before and since by others (such as Stephen King). But that doesn't make it bad -- in fact, there's a certain appeal to ttaking a vaguely evocative plot and marrying it with a recognizable character (TV series do it all the time).

When I first read this years ago, I was disappointed by the clipped, semi-juvenile prose style. More recently, I enjoyed it precisely for its unapologetic lack of pretension. The novel's pretty short, and broken up into tight little chapters, making it a breezy, passably fun read, with lots of Hulk stand-bys like Rick, General Ross, Project: Greenskin (though no Betty, curiously) and, of course, the Hulk's alter ego, Bruce Banner. And I can't say it's any poorer written than a lot of the books on this list.


Operation A.I.M.
(1996) by Greg Cox, paperback, pub. Boulevard/Byron Preiss

A sort-of sequel to a previous Iron Man book (The Armor Trap), this has Iron Man battling old foe Modok (and some super-adaptoids -- androids capable of impersonating anyone) for a kind of super microchip

With this novel, Greg Cox seems to want to write an old-fashioned, serial-like adventure. Instead of dragging his feet, the story kicks off right in the first chapter; there's plenty of action, a bit of a romance, and even a twist ending (that's both a plus and minus: minus, because you can see  it coming; plus, because you'd be disappointed if it didn't come -- particularly if there was nothing to replace it).

The problem is that for all of Cox's good intentions, he's written, at best, a novella, so he stretches out each and every fight scene to the point of mind-numbing tedium rather than coming up with more twists and plot  developments. A case in point: in one scene, Iron Man tackles a replica of an old foe, the Mandarin, who has rings on all his fingers, and each ring has a unique power. So how many rings do you think he uses -- in a single fight scene -- before Ironn Man gets him? One? Two? Three? Nope. Try, all of 'em (in fact, I think he even uses a couple of rings twice). I was half-hoping Mandarin would kill Iron Man just to get the darn thing over with.

Cox throws in some other superheroes (the Black Panther, Captain America, and War Machine) giving the thing a kind of Avengers ambience (the superhero team to which Iron Man belongs, not the British TV spy series of the same name) which was one of the reasons I bought the book, and which just added to my disappointment. One of the best "text" versions of superheroes I've ever read was an Avengers novella called "This Evil Undying", so I had hopes for Operation: A.I.M. that, frankly, went unfulfilled.

I didn't hate this book; Cox's enthusiasm is too obvious, and the bones of a story sufficiently workable. But I can't entirely recommend it, either.


The Marvel Superheroes
(1979) edited by Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, paperback, pub. by Pocket Books
Featuring: "This Evil Undying" (by James Shooter), "Blind Justice" (by Kyle Christopher), "Children of the Atom" (by Mary Jo Duffy), "Museum Piece" (by Len Wein)

The only must-have book on this list, it features four novelettes featuring, respectively, The Avengers, Daredevil, The X-Men and the Hulk (with Man-Thing thrown in).

The Avengers and the Daredevil stories are extraordinary. They are what a text version of a comic book superhero should be, retaining the flavour of the comic, but fleshing it out with a rich, mature prose style and penetrating character insight. In fact, though I've read Avengers and Daredevil comics over the years, these two text pieces flash more vividly to mind than most comics featuring those characters.

The Avengers story has them going up against Ultron, generating an effectively Apocalyptic, "if we fail, the world is doomed!" ambience. Particularly well written, it mixes brooding introspection, intoxicating atmosphere, and action-adventure. James Shooter (a one-time Avengers scribe) nicely captures the group, and goes one step further by inserting us into the minds of the characters (particularly Iron Man) in a more thorough way than most comics can.

In contrast to the Avengers archetypal world saving shtick, the Daredevil story is firmly set in the semi-realistic, mean streets of New York. The story is credited to Kyle Christopher -- which I read someplace might have been a pen name for comic writer Marty Pasko. If so, I'm truly amazed. Not that I have anything against Pasko, but he's not what I think of as an A-list writer. This, however, is stunningly well as being an engrossingly effective read, poignant, gritty (Daredevil is put through the wringer) and most impressively, truly puts you in the mind of comicdoms blind hero. Christopher portrays the world as D.D. would perceive it, through sounds, smells, etc. It's an impressive literary achievement.

The X-Men piece is the weakest of the collection -- which isn't much of a criticism given how highly I regard the other three stories. The action/superhero plot is a bit generic (and simple), with the stronger stuff being the first half of the story, focusing on the characters...told through interaction and scenes, rather than just flat exposition. It's also notable for the fact that, though there are plenty of X-Men novels around these days, this is the only text story to feature the original "New" X-Men, comprised of Nightcrawler, Colossus and Banshee, as well as Cyclops, Storm and Wolverine (though no Phoenix as the back cover claims). And Wolverine is his earlier, hot headed character, rather than the later pseudo-samurai interpretation.

The Hulk story has old Green Skin (back in his "Hulk smash puny humans" days) and his alter ego, Bruce Banner, becoming caught up in cosmic-flavoured weirdness in the wilderness of the Florida everglades. Wein maybe falls back on comic book style dialogue too much (people tend to talk to themselves) but otherwise it's another very well written, atmospheric piece that unfolds well, delivering a nice encapsulation of Hulkishness, from the obligatory opening scene of Hulk hounded by police, to the bittersweet ending.

All the stories do a good job of being archetypal of their source titles, without being too cliched. Perhaps the ideal format for a comic book story is the novelette. Too many of the novels on this list seem stretched out and padded, while the short stories seem to have to trade off -- if you want characterization, you need a thin plot, if you want a plot that unfolds and develops, you jettison characterization. Literarily speaking, this collection is better written than almost any other book on this list...which says something none-too-flattering about the overall level of prose skill being employed (even by supposedly professional, "adult" authors).


Goblin's Revenge by Dean Wesley Smith
Spider-Man: The Venom Factor by Diane Duane
The Ultimate Spider-Man, edited by Stan Lee
Click Here for reviews of Spider-Man Novels

Lois and Clark: A Superman Novel by C.J. Cherryh
The Death and Life of Superman by Roger Stern
Superman: Last Son of Krypton by Elliot S. Maggin
Superman: Miracle Monday by Elliot S. Maggin
Click Here for reviews of Superman Novels

For my review of Wolverine: Weapon X by Marc Cerasini, see my piece at UGO Here


See also Marvel Superheroes

Five Decades of the X-Men
(2002) edited by Stan Lee, trade paperback/mass market paperback, pub. by ibooks/BP (Byron Preiss)

Five novelettes by different authors set during different creative eras of the X-Men, reflecting different variations of the team. I've said before that the novelette/novella format might be the best form for super hero text stories (as opposed to short stories or novels) and this is a decent enough collection. Decent...but not extraordinary. Some of the stories tend to shunt the X-Men aside in favour of other characters, such as Sholly Fisch's "Firm Commitments" in which the focus is on a scientist who discover the lab he works at is up to no good and must contact the X-Men -- actually it's one of the best tales, but with the X-Men in supporting parts. Tom Deja's "Up the Hill Backwards" is also pretty good, and here the focus is on the heroes -- though not necessarily the "key" team. The first tale literally re-tells the events of X-Men #1 (when the original team battled Magneto) but telling it through Iceman's perceptions -- it works better than you might expect, but it means the story isn't exactly "new", and by focusing on Iceman...most of the others are again, supporting figures. By deliberately focusing on different line ups of the team, reflecting the different eras, and with some stories, as mentioned, focusing on original characters, what's missing from the book is just a straightforward X-Men adventure utilizing the signature characters -- Cyclops, for instance, appears in some stories, but is never used as a main figure. Still, an agreeable tome.

X-Men: The Mutant Empire Trilogy, paperback, pub. by Byron Preiss/Boulevard Books
Siege (1996) by Christopher Golden
Sanctuary (1996) by Christopher Golden
Salvation (1997) by Christopher Golden

This seems an attempt to cover the whole spectrum of X-Men stories in, more or less, one storyline. The team splits up, one half going into outer space to rescue one of their allies, the Starjammers, from a galactic Shi'ar prison, while the other stays home to tackle Magneto's latest take over Manhattan island and turn it into an independent, Mutant controlled, country.

I enjoyed this, though there was a distinct feeling that Golden could have condensed it into two books without the story being any the poorer. It's entertaining, with decent character stuff. Like a lot of the writers, though, Golden doesn't exactly splurge on the cliff-hangers and unexpected plot twists. And it's obvious he's padding in places: in the first book, the main story is the space-faring X-Men, with the earth-side X-Men's story something that only justifies a chapter or two, but Golden stretches it out for the entire novel. In book two, it's reversed, with the main story being the Magneto stuff, and the space X-Men in an (extended) homecoming story. The team unites in the third book to take on Magneto and his Acolytes.

One quibble was that, since the team splits up, I thought it might've been more fun if they had spilt up into the "old" and the "new" team.

Still, I enjoyed it overall, and enjoyed spending time with the characters. In fact, Golden did something remarkable...he made Bobby Drake (The Iceman) a fascinating character! Though maybe that's a problem...since the characters I expected to like, weren't always as effectively rendered.

One awkwardness is that the X-Men have become a comic entirely wrapped up in  its anti-prejudice message -- which is fine, but as such it means the story and values expressed herein must hold up to greater scrutiny, and there were a couple of weakness here and there. And in one spot, Golden decries the fact that politicians talk about racism, sexism, but won't deal with anti-mutant prejudice -- duh-uh. That's 'cause it don't exist. MUTANTS (as depicted in comics) DON'T EXIST! In other words, mutant superheroes should be seen as a metaphor for real-world prejudice, not a competitor.

X-Men: Smoke and Mirrors
(1997) by eluki bes shahar, paperback, pub. by Byron Preiss/Boulevard Books

First thing to know when reading this book: don't look at the cover or read the back cover description!!! Really! There seems to be an editorial rule that says most of these novels have to use familiar villains (robbing the stories of much of their potential for originality or surprises). Stuck with that formula, shahar has at least tried to make the story a bit of a mystery, with the identity of the villain not revealed until closer to the end...except the genius-boy editor decided to feature him on the cover and refer to him in the description. She must've been ticked!

Despite this, the book's a decent read. The story has an organization seeking government sanction for a project that could make mutants normal...with or without their consent. The X-Men become do a group of mutant kids who fall prey to the sinister organization. I'm writing this review long after I read it (sorry), but I seem to recall that Wolverine and Rogue were, inparticular, featured players. Like a lot of these X-stories, the book ends kind of weakly, with most of the emotional plot elements involving prejudice and government policy left unresolved, and the story is kind of down beat at the end, but it's nicely written and well-paced. Even if you do know who the villain is before you start on the first chapter.

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