I have to admit that the design of these books is what drew me in. I kept seeing the optical illusions and matching trade dress of Simon Morden's Samuil Petrovich Trilogy on a display at University Book Store and picking the books up. The striking black-and-white images, the neon edgework, the little stylized guns displaying the volume number at the very top of the spines all made the books surprisingly approachable. Every time I visited UBS, I'd pick a copy up and turn it over. As an object, it was inescapable for me. The dust jacket's promise of a noirish story of a man in a post-apocalyptic London who gets involved in a kidnapping case sounded appealing enough; it was really only a matter of time before I bought a copy.
The first book in the trilogy, Equations of Life, lives up to the promise of the dust jacket. What you have here is a black-and-white crime thriller from the 1930s, shot full of 80s cyberpunk and fired into the future, with well-armed nuns thrown in for good measure. Petrovich is a charming protagonist, the classic good-hearted man who's trying to stay out of the many conflicts swirling around him. Eventually, he crosses the Yakuza, the Russian mafia, and the mysterious New Machine Jihad.
Equations of Life resembles nothing so much as a Warren Ellis story. This has its merits and demerits. On the bright side, the main character is a likable schemer, and Morden throws in some interesting ideas every few pages to keep you zipping through the book. On the down side, the ending is lackluster. Perhaps it's unfair to complain about the ending of the first book in a trilogy—does anyone complain about the first third of a movie not containing a beginning, middle, and end?—but a book should aim to be satisfying on its own. Every loose end doesn't need to be tied together, but there should be a definite sense of closure for the protagonist; otherwise, you're just reading the first third of a very long book. But I'll definitely check out the second book in the series; at the very least, these three books will look really good together on my bookshelf.
I feel sorry for people who write off entire genres. It's lazy thinking. This is not to say that all genres are created equal. Some genres have much richer terrains to explore than others. (Cops and robbers, say are a much broader concept than westerns.) And it's also not to say that every genre is for everyone; we are human beings and we have unique tastes. So you can subjectively call a genre boring, but you should not declare it fallow ground for everyone.
That said, the superhero genre is definitely proving to be less adaptable than readers might have hoped in the 1980s. Tom King's A Once Crowded Sky is yet another reinvention of superheroes, this time told mostly in the form of a novel. But it owes too much to Alan Moore to be quite exciting enough on its own.
Sky tells the story of the superheroes of Arcadia City after the greatest of them, The Ultimate ("The man with the metal face") sacrifices himself to save them. Things are grim and gritty: Suicide, alcoholism, and disillusionment with God and country abound. Ultimate's sidekick, Penultimate (I know, I know, and what's worse is that everyone calls him Pen) has retired, and everyone is looking to him for leadership, even though he's firmly out of the business.
King tells the story through a mixture of prose, comics pages (illustrated by Thomas Fowler), and comics script pages (illustrated in an annoying, ripped-from-a-journal-with-handwriting-like-font style). Chapters are broken up into individual issues of comic books starring the protagonist of that chapter ("Star Knight # 504," "The Soldier of Freedom # 527," and so on). If you're a superhero fan, you won't have any trouble identifying the archetypes and references. Which is maybe part of the problem. King is a bit too familiar with the genre, a bit too reverent, to make this book into something different or worthwhile. If you want to write an "adult" take on superheroes, it seems, you can't go anywhere that Alan Moore has already gone.
So if you're looking for something that advances the genre the way Watchmen did, Sky is not for you. If you're looking for a little well-written self-contained superhero universe with a beginning, middle and end, it's a far better example of superhero fiction than what the big two comics companies are doing nowadays.