‘Suspicious Minds’ book review: An enticing prequel to Netflix’s Stranger Things

I love Stranger Things. To me, it simply has it all. A slick 80s setting, a stylish, retro soundtrack, undeniably likeable characters, and intriguing sci-fi mystery that even Doctor Who could take notes from. So when I picked up Gwenda Bond’s ‘Suspicious Minds‘ I was hoping for a similarly enjoyable level of sci-fi mystery written on the pages of a book. Needless to say, Bond’s book did not disappoint for the most part. All the preludes to the Netflix series were all well and good, but I appreciated the fact that Bond created a relatively engaging story without relying too much on the source material. I think this is quite a difficult thing to do, since fans of the source material may expect plenty of nods and set up. Luckily though, Bond just about pulls it off without being too pandering. This is a story set in the Stranger Things world, but with new characters, a fresh setting, and enough intrigue in the story to keep you turning the pages.

The story follows a young Terry Ives (Eleven’s mother to fans of the series) as she enters the mysterious world of Hawkins lab, and uncovers dark secrets that would never see the light of day. No matter how intimidating the sinister Dr Martin Brenner and his lab orderlies are, Terry has her loyal friends by her side who she makes at the lab. Alice, the introverted mechanic, Gloria, the quirky yet intelligent comic book nerd, and Ken, a supposed ‘psychic’. The story begins in 1969 (14 years before the first series of Stranger Things) and Bond absorbs the reader into the atmosphere of the time. From old-school American diners where you dip your fries in milkshake, references to the moon landing and The Beatles, to a delightfully ongoing Lord of the Rings metaphor between Terry and her boyfriend Andrew; the story has its fair share of cultural references which sets it apart from the slick, retro 80s setting of the TV series.

I appreciated how the narrative wasn’t entirely from Terry’s perspective. Each chapter is stylised to the title cards of each TV episode, also aptly named ‘chapters’. The story often switches perspectives, giving the reader an idea of how each character is feeling about their predicaments, which keeps the narrative fresh and helps to empathise with each character more. You will also find yourself reading what the characters want to say running parallel to what they actually say, which is an everyday mental habit we’re all guilty of. We even get short but sinister glimpses into the mind of Dr Brenner, how dedicated he is to his research, and what kind of moral and ethical barriers he’s willing to cross to reach his goal. The story also provides some backstory to Kali (known to Brenner as number 8), which is the girl with the illusional powers we meet in season 2 of the show. By doing so, we get an idea of how much Brenner truly disregards human feelings and normal experiences for the sake of scientific ‘research’. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t divulge much into what the purposes of the research is, nor does it explore Brenner’s backstory or true motives, leaving the reader guessing at to what kind of intentions the American government may have with the Hawkins laboratory.

Whilst I would say Suspicious Minds doesn’t quite match the show in terms of its character development and story progression, it is still a recommended read for fans of the show. It takes similar tropes from the show, such as the value of friendship in the face of a mysterious adversary, and makes for an interesting side piece for fans to nibble at. The way the book ends gave me the sense that Bond was attempting to balance two things; an effective backstory to the events of the show, and an intriguing story within its own right. It certainly provides the show with some context, providing what is essentially the closest thing to an Eleven origin story. In terms of a story independent of the show, Bond just about hits the mark. Whilst the new characters she introduces didn’t have quite the development I had hoped, they still had enough for me to care about their fates. Most importantly, I enjoyed how Bond showed how much these characters valued each other’s company and friendship. Topped with a neat little romance, this is what I believe Stranger Things is about to its core – the value of friendship and love. The best way I can sum up Suspicious Minds in a sentence would be – Stranger Things is the main course, whilst Suspicious Minds is a tidy little side dish.


A Comprehensive Essay on ‘The Man Without Fear’: What makes ‘Daredevil’ one of the most intriguing characters in the Marvel Universe

It’s the early 1960s. The Marvel comics industry has already produced a colourful variety of iconic characters such as Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and Spider-Man, still within the first few years of their creation. Then one day, comic legends Stan Lee, Bill Everett and Jack Kirby decide – “Hey, what if we created a disabled superhero?”. This superhero’s disability would be that he is blind, but his big compensation for this is the fact that his four other senses are heightened to super-human level. Not only that, but his every day alter-ego is a lawyer named Matthew Murdock who fights crime using the legal system. This is juxtaposed to the fact he is a vigilante at night who catches criminals who slip their way through the legal system; because sometimes the law just isn’t enough. This is a man who pushes away his loved ones as he attempts to balance these two lifestyles, a man whose religious faith is ironically reflected by the fact he beats up criminals dressed as the devil. A man with the heroism of Spider-man and the emotional complexity and darkness of Batman. A man who attempts to lift Hell’s Kitchen from its criminal damnation by working both sides of the law. A man who faces loss, abandonment, trauma, and constantly struggles with his identity whilst still defending his city. A man, without fear.

To me, all these things are what make ‘Daredevil‘ one of the most unique and intriguing characters in the Marvel universe. The character resonates with me in a way that not many other characters do. The very concept of a blind superhero was enough to interest me, but his abilities and emotional complexity is what put him on my personal pedestal. Matthew Murdock lost his sight at a very young age when a radioactive substance splashed into his eyes, whilst attempting to save an old man from the truck carrying said substance. Initially, you’d think being blinded is quite possibly one of the most nightmarish experiences a person could go through, considering how much humans rely on their sight. But Matt made it his mission to transform his disability into a strength. A strength that he could later use to commit more acts of heroism like the one that cost him his sight. Not only did he lose his sight, but Matt also lost his boxer father, Jack ‘the devil’ Murdock, who refused to intentionally lose a fight for a mobster. Jack used to encourage Matt to not become a fighter like him, but instead study to become a lawyer or doctor to make the world a better place. Like so many other superheroes have shown, loss is a powerful motivator, and Matt was then motivated to support his father’s wish, but also to bring the criminals who murdered his father to justice. This led to the dual lifestyle that Matt leads as lawyer-by-day and vigilante-by-night. This bipartite personality reflects the different ways of how we choose what the ‘right’ thing to do is. We like to keep our loved ones close as they inspire us to be our best selves, using our knowledge and rationality to defend others and resolve injustices. This is the Matt Murdock in all of us. On the other hand, it is only human to give into our emotional impulses, and resolve injustices by whatever means necessary, even if it sometimes means pushing away our loved ones. In other words, sometimes we simply need to ‘let the devil out‘. This is the Daredevil in all of us.

The world of Daredevil and Matt Murdock is perfectly encapsulated in Netflix’s Daredevil series. This is the series which first absorbed me into the character and his world. The series opens with its protagonist sitting in a confession box admitting he needs to ‘let the devil out’, setting up for something which will blur the line between right and wrong. What separates this series from other Marvel TV shows and movies is its perceptiveness and grit. It isn’t afraid to explore deeper themes and make flawed characters likeable. Its reliance on dark, grainy cinematography to encapsulate a much darker comic book story rather than overusing CGI makes it much more grounded and real than most other Marvel properties. Season 1 isn’t just a superhero show – it’s a 13-episode character drama about how far protagonists and antagonists are willing to push the moral boundaries to do what they believe is ‘right’. Charlie Cox’s performance as Matt Murdock is possibly my favourite portrayal of a comic book character; he is to Daredevil what Robert Downey Jr was to Iron Man. He brings likability and emotional complexity to a flawed character, similarly to the antagonist of the series, Wilson Fisk, portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio. Fisk does unspeakable things throughout the series, but still manages to provoke feelings of empathy and understanding with the audience. He is intimidating, anxious, calculating, and somehow empathetic all in one. He doesn’t need superpowers or weapons to show his power. Simply by displaying the effect he has on people and what he makes them do for him before he even appears on screen is enough to show how much of an unstoppable force he is, and how he truly lives up to his comic book alias, ‘The Kingpin’.

Whilst some argue season 2 of the series wavers in its objective quality, upon several re-watches I have come to appreciate the thought and depth placed into its story arcs. The first few episodes centre around one of Marvel’s most compelling and morally ambiguous villains – the Punisher. Once again, Jon Bernthal to me is the Punisher like Robert Downey Jr is Iron Man. He is a man to be feared by criminal organisations yet the series isn’t afraid to show his more emotional, familial side. Should we simply kill criminals so they don’t commit their unspeakable crimes again? Or does every criminal, no matter how terrible their crimes, deserve a chance at redemption? This intriguing dilemma is discussed in depth between Daredevil and Punisher, showing two different perspectives on the idea of vigilantism yet showing how similar these two characters are. As the Punisher says to Daredevil – ‘You’re one bad day away from being me.’ That is what makes these characters some of the most compelling in the Marvel universe. The parallels drawn between them throughout the series show how easy it would be for Daredevil to kill and turn into those he fights so hard to defend Hell’s Kitchen from. Season 2 also crafts a story about what it means to live two different lives, as Matt struggles to maintain his day life as an attorney with his night life as the man without fear. He pushes his two closest friends away, Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, trying to balance the demands of the Punisher’s trial as Matt Murdock and the fight as Daredevil with a secret organisation known as The Hand. He forms romantic connections with Karen as Matt Murdock, and with assassin Elektra as Daredevil, epitomising the struggle of which life is best to lead. The more absorbed he becomes in one, the more it infects the other. Season 2 creates believable conflict between those who call each other friends, and understanding between those who call each other enemies. It encapsulates the dichotomy of right and wrong, and how many different approaches there are to achieve what an individual believes is the ‘right’ thing to do to protect others.

My cosplay of Daredevil’s first vigilante outfit from season 1 of the Netflix show

As if the first two seasons weren’t enough to fulfil even the Devil’s appetite, Netflix and Marvel provided us with a third (and possibly final) season of Daredevil. Season 3 effectively uses what made season 1 great and adds refreshing new dynamics to Matt’s defence of Hell’s Kitchen. A broken, beaten Matt seemingly has abandoned his everyday life as an attorney and fully embraced his vigilante persona. Not only this, but the Kingpin of Crime, Wilson Fisk, has returned to the Kitchen and proves that house arrest is far from enough to keep his atrocious criminal schemes at bay. Season 3 also provides us with an intriguing portrayal of one of Marvel’s most underrated villains, Bullseye. Season 3 turns what was originally another costumed assassin who can turn any object into a deadly projectile into a compelling yet terrifying antagonist for Matt Murdock. Bullseye, or known in the series as Poindexter (Wilson Bethel) is an unhinged FBI agent whose childhood abandonment and unresolved psychopathy leads him to become a tool of Fisk’s to incriminate Daredevil with the very crimes Fisk is guilty of. Not only does this parallel Matt’s own abandonment issues from his mother, but it provides us with yet another antagonist who has understandable motives yet atrociously goes about fulfilling them. Similarly to D’Onofrio’s Fisk, he is a villain whose actions you do not condone, yet with a character skilfully crafted to provide an understanding of why he is like he is. The impending clash between Daredevil, Fisk, and Bullseye occurs in one of the most climactic series finales I’ve ever seen. Will Bullseye kill Fisk’s wife Vanessa before Daredevil can save her? Will Daredevil cross the line and kill Fisk? Charlie Cox provides an award-worthy performance as he cries out in pain when the opportunity to kill his adversary arises but he can’t bring himself to do it. What makes the protagonist of Netflix’s series a hero is not Daredevil, but Matt Murdock. As Fisk urges Matt to kill him, Matt exclaims “You don’t get to destroy who I am“. If Matt kills Fisk, Fisk wins. Daredevil becomes a hero by maintaining the integrity of his humanity, by choosing not what is easy, but what is right. I could probably write pages and pages more about why Netflix’s Daredevil is one of the best series of the 2010s. About the stunning comic-book inspired cinematography, the intense, dark soundtrack by John Paesano, and the performance of every actor. But it’s a series you should simply watch for yourself, because I believe it is a series that every comic book fan should experience and could learn from.

Netflix’s masterful series inspired me to indulge in other Daredevil media and explore the world of Matt Murdock further. Comic book writers and artists have provided us with some of the most stunningly drawn and compelling tales in the Marvel universe. Kevin Smith’s Guardian Devil storyline not only provided the basis for the 2003 feature film, but also became one of my favourite comic book stories to date. An infant is mysteriously placed into the care of Matt Murdock, which is revealed to be either the Messiah or the Antichrist, leaving Matt to struggle with his faith in Catholicism and how it weighs on his sense of morality. The story isn’t afraid to deal with themes like substance abuse, suicide, and religious faith. I couldn’t talk about Daredevil comics without mentioning the main man who made the character what he is today, Frank Miller. Miller took Lee and Everett’s creation and placed him into much more real-world scenarios, and immersed him in darker themes and conflicts which readers could resonate and empathise with. Miller’s Born Again story arc is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential Daredevil storylines. Having discovered Daredevil’s secret identity, the Kingpin is hell-bent on bringing down Matt Murdock in every way he can, leaving Matt to pick himself up and find the willpower to pursue his adversary. With its uniquely religious symbolism and struggles with identity, Born Again provided much of the inspiration for seasons 2 and 3 of the Netflix series. Even the criticised 2003 feature film starring Ben Affleck I find enjoyment from. It may have some toe-curling cheesiness, but I appreciated its performances, tone, faithfulness to the comics, and of course those underground-early 2000s Matrix vibes which most comic book films tended to have back then.

Whatever media is used to portray the story of Matt Murdock, whether it be film, TV, or graphic novel, I have come to appreciate him as one of the most interesting and unique characters in the Marvel universe. The way he turns his disability into effectively his greatest assets is awe-inspiring, and shows that irrespective of potential disadvantages, you can still stand up for what you care about. I recently read Travis Langley’s book, ‘Daredevil Psychology: The Devil You Know‘ which explored the complexity of the character and his powers using psychological literature. As Langley writes in his final essay of the book, “Life’s balancing act lasts as long as we do“, which I believe encompasses what makes Daredevil so compelling. The character epitomises the dichotomy of life and morality; lawyer by day, vigilante by night; working both inside and outside the system. Do we indulge in our emotions or keep ourselves level-headed? It shows how things aren’t always as simple as right or wrong or good versus evil. Daredevil taught me things about myself which I wouldn’t have even considered before, and provided me with a reason to express my passion and resonation with the world of comic books and TV. But most importantly, the character taught me to always have faith, no matter the odds. It’s fair to say Daredevil is my favourite comic book character of all time.

Another cosplay of me as Matt Murdock himself, in a world where he decided to grow out his hair (Photos by Jacob McCormack)

How Netflix’s Sex Education masterfully explores human connection, sexuality and social identity

We don’t deserve a series like Sex Education. I have not seen a TV series so perfectly address the fundamental every day aspects of the human psyche. The characters and story subvert almost every stereotype and cliché set by American teen dramas. The characters feel like real people with real connections and real problems, and the series makes you care for them as if you knew them personally. It explores the most important aspects of human connection; from a believable friendship between a straight man and a gay man, to a father-son relationship fuelled by toxic masculinity. The representation the series provides is also unparalleled. It not only contains almost every aspect of sexuality, from heterosexuality to asexuality, but sets the bar for other media to portray these things as the norm and that they don’t need to be a fundamental aspect of character’s stories. For example, if someone has two lesbian female parents, it is simply accepted and is never even addressed within the story. The series quickly establishes that the most important aspect of social identity is that it’s okay to be who you are. It breaks down the expectations that are placed upon us and shows that regardless of culture, background or sexuality, there is nothing more important than being comfortable in your own skin.

From the very first scene of season 1, the series truly shows how complex human connection is. Sex merely scratches the surface of human connection, and the pressure society places on teenagers to ‘get it over with’ often distorts what it is they really want. Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), the series’ main protagonist, is a fairly average good-hearted teenager with zero sexual experience. His mother Jean (Gillian Anderson) on the other hand is a very open-minded qualified sex therapist. This provides Otis with a goldmine of knowledge about sex. This leads him to begin running a sex therapy clinic at school with the much more reserved yet rebellious Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey); providing students with advice on their sex lives to make some quick cash. However, the drawback of all this is that Otis is unable to apply such knowledge to himself. He understands the importance of communication and mutual understanding between two sexually-attracted individuals but never really applies this to his own relationships. In other words, he never ‘takes his own advice’, which is something I believe nearly all of us are guilty of. One of the most important and likeable relationships in the show is Otis’ friendship with Eric (Ncuti Gatwa). Eric fulfils the stereotype of the main protagonists’ black, gay best friend, but does it in a way which also flips the stereotype on its head. Eric is not simply an object solely used to contribute to the protagonists’ story, but is his own fleshed-out character with as many ups and downs as anyone else. One of the most interesting plot lines of the series is Eric’s father coming to terms with Eric as an openly gay black man coming from a culture where such things are heavily frowned upon. As such, the series makes Otis and Eric have the one of most believable friendships I’ve seen on the small or big screen. All the small interactions they have really show how big a part of each other’s lives they are, and when their friendship is tested you really feel the anguish at the thought of them falling out.

The show masterfully deals with social acceptance and identity by showing how much it truly affects personal relationships. In this regard, Maeve is one of the most interesting and complex characters in the series. She is another example of a subverted stereotype; initially she comes across as the stubborn, abrasive, strong-female lead type girl, but as the series progresses she shows hints that she has a more sensitive side. The show does a brilliant job of showing these traits are a believable part of Maeve’s personality, and not just to fulfil the stereotype. Maeve is not a people person and it shows – she doesn’t like other people and they don’t like her, but she doesn’t care and she fully embraces this. Her lack of social identity and abrasiveness is almost a defence mechanism against people judging her for who she really is. Without spoiling the story, the series shows how much you can really empathise with a person like Maeve and how important it is to have at least one person you can truly be yourself around. Maeve’s best friend Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) is one of my favourite characters in the series. She is a care-free, people-loving girl who simply wants to enjoy life. She sticks up for people even when they aren’t there, and she’s not afraid to show how much she cares about people, even if this compromises her social identity and self-image. There is a really powerful story arc in series 2 with Aimee involving sexual assault, and the series masterfully deals with the repercussions this has on a person’s identity and self-image. Again, without spoiling, all I can say is that one scene in particular had me welling up with its message, and there were several times I just wanted to give poor Aimee a hug!

These are just some of the characters who have a pivotal role in the series. I don’t think there is a single character whose story arc I found uninteresting, and I could probably go on all day about how each and every one is interesting in their own way. Every character, teen or adult, seems to be masterfully written to encompass every day issues we all face; including toxic masculinity, sexual identity and social pressure. Adam Groff (Connor Swindells) for instance is a tall, intimidating, jock-type teenager who constantly bullies Eric and others around him to assert himself. However, as the series progresses, Adam’s troubled relationship with his father (Alistair Petrie), combined with an internal battle between this overly-masculine front he puts on and his sexual identity suggests there are much more deeply rooted reasons for the way he is. You end up empathising with characters like Adam exceedingly more than you would have originally expected to. Even minor characters like the nerdy anime-loving Lily (Tanya Reynolds) and the popular people-pleaser Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) have an interesting role in the wider story. We can learn a lot from people like Adam, Lily, and Jackson; that being who you really are rather than who people expect you to be is one of the most powerful messages to what it means to be human.

I don’t like using the word ‘masterpiece’ to describe things, but when it comes to Sex Education, I cannot think of another word which so perfectly encapsulates how well the series is written. I have never seen a series or film so perfectly address the every day pressures we all face, and how they affect our personal identities and relationships. Humans are social animals – we are literally hardwired from birth to interact with other humans, because our survival depends on it. The writers of Sex Education know this, and they place it in a time and place during which it is most important and something we can all empathise with – adolescence. This series inspires me to write things like this and get into filmmaking. Every actor in this series gives their performance their all, and they don’t look like your star-studded overly-attractive actors you see in typical film and TV. They look like normal people – normal people who you could believe you know personally. And that is why Sex Education is a masterpiece. It perfectly balances believability with empathy – it’s simply a series about a bunch of normal people trying to figure out who they are, and as human beings, sometimes that’s all we need to see.