Monday, June 10, 2013


Sins of the Flesh
Written by Steve Lyons

Summary:  Former Stark International employee Mark Grace announces to the public that he’s created genuine artificial intelligence.  Iron Man and Giant-Man attend his press conference and watch the demonstration of his two “HelpMates.”  Ultron enters and steals the female HelpMate, declaring her his partner.  Grace admits to the heroes that he hasn’t created AI; the HelpMates are actually actors wearing suits similar to Iron Man’s.  Iron Man and Giant-Man track Ultron to his lair shortly after he discovers the robot is actually an actress.  Ultron merely leaves.  To their shock, the heroes discover that Ulton left the actress alive.  Later, Ultron ponders the experience and attempts to justify his decision to let the actress live.

Review:  I can imagine most Ultron fans hating this story.  Not only does it posit that Ultron could be fooled, even for one page, by a human imitating a robot, but also that he might actually have feelings for this person.  To Lyons’ credit, he spends most of the story acknowledging Ultron’s established characterization, making his odd change of heart an intentional plot point and not a continuity error.  And the final scene of Ultron trying to convince himself that he absolutely does not have feelings for anyone, and had a perfectly logical explanation for allowing the woman to live, is executed quite well.  Lyons also seems to have a better knack for scripting superhero fight scenes in the prose format than some of the other writers in the anthology.  However, the material just doesn’t feel right for the character, and the story is surprisingly light on laughs, given the absurd nature of the plot.

Jason’s Nightmare
Written by Steve Rasnic Tem

Summary:  Nineteen-year-old eccentric Jason regularly dreams of a pale twin and his horse.  One night during a dream, the horse escorts him to his double, and Jason discovers his twin is actually Nightmare.  Nightmare forces Jason to watch the horrific dream images he captures from people, using them to torture doppelgangers of superheroes.  Jason eventually uses his imagination to empower the heroes, enabling them to defeat Nightmare.  He wakes and discovers a clay replica of Nightmare on his nightstand.  Jason mashes it up, but it returns to its shape after he leaves the room.

Review:  I haven’t watched a Nightmare on Elm Street movie since I was a kid -- do all of them end with the teenager using his or her imagination to kill Freddie?  That would seem to be the simplest, and most obvious, way to end a story about a nightmare villain, so I can’t tell if Tem is doing this an homage to other stories in this genre or if he’s merely using it as a quickie ending after he’s finished with what he has to say.  Overlooking the ending, the story’s pretty interesting as a character study of Jason, the town weirdo who’s been convinced since he was a child that his twin lives in the realm of dreams.  I would’ve preferred to read more about Jason’s life in the real world as opposed to the fairly standard description of Nightmare’s realm, but thankfully this is a genuinely short story, so even the more mundane scenes don’t last too long.

Written by Jose R. Nieto

Summary:  Fearing that her husband will report their mutant daughter to the authorities, Maria checks Laurita out of school and drives south.  After their car breaks down, they seek refuge in a hotel in the Utah desert.  The owner, Joshua, is initially shocked by Laurita’s mutant ability to project her emotions, but quickly accepts Maria and Laurita into the hotel.  Later, Maria’s brother Carlos arrives, claiming that Laurita’s father wants them back.  The residents soon experience strange visions; one leads Joshua to commit suicide.  Eventually, Maria realizes that “Carlos” is not her brother.  He reveals himself as D’Spayre and exposes his plans for Laurita.  Maria and Laurita are trapped in his realm, until Laurita accepts Maria’s love for her and uses the emotion to drive D’Spayre away.

Review:  Unlike most of the stories in this anthology, “Ripples” has very little to do with the starring villain.  D’Spayre could just as easily be an unnamed demon or spirit that wants to exploit a girl with strange abilities, making this the most Stephen King-esque of the stories in the book.  Which isn’t a criticism; I suspect that if “Ripples” had appeared in a standard horror or fantasy anthology instead of a Marvel Comics Super-Villains collection, it would’ve won several awards. 

Nieto’s ability to flesh out all of the characters, and then tie in all of their angsty flashbacks into the main story’s conclusion, is remarkable.  (Even a seemingly offhand reference to the thirty-something Maria gaining weight in the story’s opening is important later.)  Maria is haunted by her suspicion that her father tried to drown her during their escape from Cuba, Laurita has been a frequent runaway since her powers indirectly killed a classmate, and Joshua is living out his deceased wife’s dream of running a hotel, all to assuage his guilt over her death.  The “ripples” of life, how one action influences the next, have lead all of the characters to their lowest point.  The story’s ending might sound like pure cheese when coldly written out in a summary, but the execution is quite touching.  Even if the basic concept might not be very different from most D’Spayre stories, the characters feel real, and D’Sparye himself is kept in the background for just as long as he needs to be.  This is genuinely good; I would recommend tracking this paperback down merely for this story.

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