Manga Review: Hayate the Combat Butler Vol. 2

Manga Review: Hayate the Combat Butler Vol. 2 by Kenjiro Hata

Nagi Sanzenin, for all her wealth, is a lonely 13-year-old girl who must constantly be on guard against those who would harm her to gain some of her money, even her own relatives.   On Christmas Eve, Nagi is saved from kidnappers by an outstandingly athletic boy named Hayate Ayasaki, and falls in love with him.

Hayate the Combat Butler Vol. 2

What she doesn’t know is that Hayate originally meant to kidnap her himself!  This luckless 16-year-old had his internal organs sold to the Yakuza crime syndicate by his callous gambling addict parents to pay off their debts as they were leaving town.  In desperation, he thought of holding a rich girl for ransom, but wound up defending her from other kidnappers.

Nagi buys off the Yakuza, but now Hayate owes her the money, and becomes her “combat butler”, a combination bodyguard and manservant.

This gag manga ran from 2004 to 2017 in Weekly Shounen Sunday, and had several seasons of anime adaptation.  It combined elements of romantic comedy, shounen battle, and fourth-wall breakage as the characters make frequent reference to other manga and shows.

As it happens, the second volume is the one I have to hand.  It’s only been three days since Hayate came into Nagi’s service, but a lot has already happened.  In the opening chapter, Hayate has a few moments to talk with Nagi’s pet tiger, Tama.  Tama pretends to not be intelligent around his mistress, and kind of resents that she likes this new kid.  Their discussion is interrupted by the return of Nursing Robot #8, seeking revenge for its earlier defeat.

Then Nagi’s loud, obnoxious “friend” Sakuya shows up.  Sakuya thinks she’s a comedian and tries to rope others into her act, including poor Hayate.  Worse, her comedy act is very physically punishing to Sakuya’s partners.

Nagi insists on going to the beach to watch the sunrise on New Year’s Day, but the transportation situation doesn’t work in Hayate’s favor.  For New Year’s Day proper, Nagi must visit her hated and even wealthier grandfather Mikado Sanzenin at his mansion.  While on the estate, Hayate meets a strange gardener who seems to know too much about him, and gives Hayate a strange pendant.  This is actually Mikado (who he’s met before but that won’t be revealed for a while.)

Mikado has changed the conditions of his will.  Nagi is the presumptive heir as Mikado has no other direct descendants, but anyone who can make Nagi cry and apologize to them will inherit the whole estate instead.  Within minutes, Hayate is already having to defend Nagi against a distant relative of hers.

Next, Hayate is sent into town with a new expensive cashmere coat and warned not to get it damaged or stained.  Naturally, immediately he is confronted with multiple dangers specially designed to attack cashmere.  To top it off, our hero runs into a lost girl he thinks is being pursued by criminals.  In reality, she’s Nagi’s friend Isumi and the men after her are her servants.  Hilarity and a ruined coat ensue.

Messed up from this and the subsequent maltreatment by an angry Nagi, Hayate spends a chapter in bed being nursed by his mistress.  Too bad she has no skill at nursing or cooking, and too much pride to admit either.

Finally, a new guest arrives at the Sanzenin manor, Wataru Tachibana, a spoiled brat who happens to be Nagi’s fiancé.  There’s some character profiles and bonus gag strips at the end.

This is an important volume for understanding the series, as it introduces several characters who will remain important throughout the story, and sets up one of the major subplots that will drive conflict.

Despite this being a gag manga, there is a serious undercurrent that pops up from time to time as we learn more about Hayate’s abusive parents and otherwise tragic backstory.  They’re also used for comedy, which can cause some emotional whiplash.

Many of the jokes are funny, though quite a few rely on slapstick violence.  The art is adequate but the young characters suffer from “same face” so hairstyles become important.  Romantic misunderstandings proliferate as the series winds on.

I think this series will play best with romantic comedy fans who can handle the clash between absurdist humor and very serious moments.

And here’s an anime opening theme!

Magazine Review: High Adventure #73: Secret Agent “X”

Magazine Review: High Adventure #73: Secret Agent “X” Edited by John P. Gunnison

Let’s take another look at this pulp reprint magazine, this time reprinting stories from Secret Agent “X” May 1934.

High Adventure #73: Secret Agent "X"

“Ambassador of Doom” by Brent House: A secret meeting takes place in Washington, D.C.  The matter at hand–whether to preserve or destroy the prototype and blueprints of a terrifying new weapon, the paralysis ray!  Developed by Professor Browning shortly before his untimely death, the Browning Ray causes permanent and total body paralysis at a great distance.  There is no known defense.

Most of those present feel this inhuman terror weapon should be destroyed, but Senator Rathborne disagrees.  He believes that the next great war will be won by the country with the most effective weapons, not the one with the most humane treatment of enemy soldiers and civilians.  If the Browning Ray will win wars, America should have it.  He’s outvoted.

This not being the kind of story where that’s an acceptable ending, the Army officer carrying the blueprints to be destroyed is murdered and the plans stolen.  Have foreign agents somehow learned about the Browning Ray, or has Senator Rathborne’s patriotism driven him to the unthinkable?  Only one man can get to the bottom of this–Secret Agent “X”!

“Sting of the Scorpion” by Richard B. Sale: Private detective Marty Trent was just about to get bored when he’s called in on a case of extortion.  Banker Arthur Barbour is being threatened with death by someone calling themselves “the Scorpion” if he does not make a ludicrously large payment.  It might be a bluff–or it might be the precursor of several men bleeding to death…without a wound on their bodies!

Secret Agent “X” was first published in February 1934, headlining a magazine meant to compete with such luminaries as the Shadow and Doc Savage.  While never a huge seller, his magazine did manage to survive until 1939.

While other pulp heroes were also masters of disguise, X was notable for never being out of disguise.  He had no civilian identity or personal life, remaining nameless even to the readers.  X’s backstory was also minimal.  He’d been an American intelligence operative during World War One, presumably under his birth name.  At some point X had picked up many useful skills at expert level.  (There are frequent footnotes explaining that, for example, X is a master at administering anesthetic and hypnotic drugs.)

X reports directly to K-9, a highly placed government official we also never learn any personal details about.  Their work is technically extra-governmental and sponsored by a fund created by unnamed wealthy philanthropists.  The stories from the original run of the magazine contain not a whiff of cynicism about this shadowy operation.

The closest thing X has to a friend is reporter Betty Dale, who has managed to fall in love with X without ever seeing his real face or interacting with him outside cases they work together.  X also feels affectionate towards Betty, but feels it is too dangerous to pursue the relationship beyond collaboration in investigation.

The villain of “Ambassador of Doom” is a step ahead of X at the beginning, divining which person coming into Washington must be the agent, capturing him, and sending an impersonator to meet with K-9.  The impersonation fails as K-9 and X have an elaborate confirmation protocol, but it’s not until X makes it look like he’s dead that he is able to make any headway in the case.

An amusing subplot is that one of the suspects is a German spy that X fought back in the Great War, but it turns out the German is also unaware of who has the plans and is attacking X completely by coincidence without knowing of their shared history.  I should note that this is a German spy, and not a Nazi spy–the quick way to spot a modern pulp pastiche is heavy use of Nazis as villains, which wasn’t done in the 1930s.

A trivia bit:  X disguises himself as a wealthy South American  to attend a party, and speaks to the Brazilian ambassador in “excellent Spanish.”  I don’t know if Paul Chadwick (who was the author under the house name of Brant House) forgot that Brazil’s language of choice was Portuguese, or if X is playing the part of a boorish non-Brazilian South American who refuses to acknowledge that.

Content warnings:  The first story contains a torture scene, and the aftereffects of another.  There’s also period racism, and the villain uses “exotic” Malaysians as minions.  The second story has some gore, which if illustrated would put it in the “not for children” category.

The X story does a good job of challenging its ubercompetent protagonist and keeping the action going.  Characterization is thin on  the ground, but adequate for the style of pulp fiction this is.  There’s a fairly good secondary female character, but she’s usually off-stage.

The Scorpion story is also fast-paced, but relies on the detective learning things the audience is not privy to until after the Scorpion is exposed.  The effects of the venom used are vastly exaggerated for melodramatic purposes.

This issue is worth picking up if you run across it, but is not a must-have if you are on a budget.

Comic Book Review: Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom Volume 01

Comic Book Review: Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom Volume 01 Written by Paul S. Newman & Matt Murphy; Art by Bob Fujitani & Frank Bolle

Dr. Gail Sanders’ first day on the job at Atom Valley is also almost her last, as an experimental rocket goes off the rails.  Fortunately, she is saved by her friend from college, Dr. Phillip Solar.  He introduces her to her new colleagues, Dr. Clarkson (head of the lab), Dr. Bently (who works with Solar on the energy-to-matter project, and Dr. Rasp, who will be working with her on anti-gravity.

Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom Volume 01

Unfortunately, Dr. Rasp’s real employer, the archcriminal known only as Nuro, isn’t interested in antigravity.  He wants the energy-to-matter project, and directs Rasp to kill one of the project scientists to take their place.  After a couple of failed attempts, Dr. Rasp succeeds in overloading an atomic pile, which results in a lethal dose of radiation within the lab, killing Dr. Bently…and doing something entirely other to Dr. Solar.

Through some freak of fate, Dr. Solar becomes a man of the atom, subsisting on radiation and himself radioactive to a dangerous degree.  With Dr. Clarkson’s connivance, Dr. Solar is concealed within the lab, still technically alive, but working in secret and seeing no one.  When Dr. Rasp makes another attempt to discover Solar’s secret, the man of the atom learns that he has incredible powers granted by his new radioactive form.

Doctor Solar was created in 1962 as the first original character for the Gold Key line of comic books from Western Publishing.  The publisher had previously been partnered with Dell Comics, and doing almost all licensed adaptations of TV shows and movies.  This influenced the look and feel of the series, especially in the early issues where the hero didn’t even wear a brightly colored costume.

Interestingly, Dr. Solar did wear dark glasses at all times, even indoors, and this was never explained or even remarked on by other characters.  After his transformation, he had green skin whenever full up on radiation.   Eventually, he learns how to appear human again, but must wear special clothing to damp his radioactivity so that he can mingle with mere mortals (and forget intimate contact!)

Western Publishing’s reputation for family-friendly comics was so strong that Gold Key was one of the few lines of comics that could be successfully distributed without submitting their work to the Comics Code Authority.  This mostly showed itself in the fact that Nuro remains unpunished throughout the first seven issues reprinted in this volume.

Once Dr. Solar does get himself a distinctive costume, his superhero name is “Man of the Atom” (something that got dropped in later revivals of the character as it’s a bit clumsy.)   In these issues he primarily deals with Nuro’s repeated attempts to steal the secrets of Atom Valley and natural disasters.

The good:  Excellent art, especially the distinctive covers.  Innovative use of the main character’s powers.  The plots do a good job of establishing tension and making Dr. Solar seem not too overwhelming to be a sympathetic character.

The less good:  Characterization is thin on the ground; we learn all we need to about the characters in the first story, and there’s no character development after that.  Gail is a damsel in distress, and we almost never see her use her science skills (and never in a way that helps resolve the story’s central plotline.)

Nuro’s the kind of villain who sits in a chair in obscuring shadows and orders minions about; by the seventh issue, Dr. Solar still doesn’t even know who he is.  As  the hero’s control of his powers grows, the threats Nuro, a mere human being, can throw at him become much less threatening.  This undercuts the menace considerably.

Also, the binding of this collection is fragile, and my copy has already fallen apart.

Primarily recommended to fans of the type of superhero who was created for television back in the day, as that’s what this series reminded me of most, and who like good art.  Other superhero fans might want to check to see if the library has a copy they can read.

Book Review: The Case of the Fenced-In Woman | Inspector West Takes Charge

Book Review: The Case of the Fenced-In Woman by Erle Stanley Gardner | Inspector West Takes Charge by John Creasey

These two books were bound together as a Detective Book Club selection and thus I am reviewing them together.

The Case of the Fenced-in Woman

The Case of the Fenced-In Woman:  While Perry Mason is best known for defending innocent people accused of murder, he does handle other cases.  In this instance, Morley Eden wants to file a civil suit.  It seems Mr. Eden purchased two adjacent lots of land and built his dream house on them.  What he didn’t know at the time was that the seller, Loring Carson (who was also the construction foreman on the house) only had full ownership of one of those lots, with the other belonging to his estranged wife Vivian Carson.

Loring Carson has been pulling some shady stuff during the divorce proceedings, including concealing most of his assets and falsely accusing Vivian of an affair (the people who were actually having the affair are also steamed at Mr. Carson.)  With the connivance of the divorce judge, Vivian got a restraining order against Morley Eden preventing him from coming on to her property, and set up a barbed-wire fence through the middle of the house to mark the border.   His lawsuit against Carson will make it harder for the cad to conceal his assets.

When Mr. Carson turns up dead in the disputed house, there are plenty of people who have a motive, but the most likely suspects are Mr. Eden and Mrs. Carson.  They hire Perry Mason to defend them on the murder charges, but absolutely refuse to tell their lawyer what actually happened that night.  Perry’s going to have to pull some pretty spectacular courtroom antics on this one!

Erle Stanley Gardner wrote some eighty Perry Mason novels and short stories starting in 1933.   A lawyer himself, Mr. Gardner’s books were accurate as to points of law (for that time in the state of California), but he often wrote Perry as getting away with stunts in court no real-life lawyer could get past a sober judge.

The books were hugely successful, and spawned several movies, a radio series (which was not faithful to the books and got retooled into the soap opera The Edge of Night) and a TV series starring Raymond Burr as Perry Mason.

This 1972 novel is late in the series, and the long-running nature of the books is acknowledged by Perry being something of a celebrity, recognized almost instantly by everyone, even during a side trip to Las Vegas.   As always, however, Perry’s actual age is left up to the imagination, and he carries on his partnership with private detective Paul Drake and secretary Della Street as he has done since the 1930s.

There’s some nice puzzle elements to the case, with the layout of the divided house and grounds playing a part in the mystery.  But the main draw as always is watching Perry Mason cleverly deal with police, prosecutors and judges as he proves his clients not guilty.

This isn’t the best Perry Mason book, but it’s quite enjoyable, and recommended for fans of the character.

Inspector West Takes Charge

Inspector West Takes Charge is the first in this long-running series, written in 1942.  Roger West is the youngest and handsomest Inspector at Scotland Yard, and still in the early stages of his marriage to Janet.  He’s introduced stumbling over a kitten, which the young couple soon adopt.  (The naming of the cat is a subplot.)

The main plot is that several members of the Prendergast family, owners of the Dreem Tobacco Company, have died in the last six months.  Sure, there are reasonable explanations, but three deaths in the same family within six months is statistically improbable.  Inspector West and his best friend, amateur criminologist Mark Lessing, are convinced that it’s actually murder, but they have no proof.

Subsequent events establish that something is definitely amiss, but our heroes don’t know which of their several guesses is correct.

From the reader’s point of view it’s less a whodunnit (the crooked solicitor outright tells one of his minions that he’s in this up to the elbows) than a whydunnit.  I mean, ownership of the tobacco company is a nice pile of money, but after inheritance taxes, attracting the attention of the police, and the worries of stockholders, and so forth, it’s not worth several murders.  And to make matters more complicated, someone tries to murder the lawyer as well!

Meanwhile, World War Two is going on in the background.  At first, it just causes gasoline rationing running gags and the manpower shortage is part of the reason Inspector West is allowed to delegate some of the investigation to a civilian friend.  But it turns out to be much more relevant to the case than anyone had thought.

This is one of those murder mysteries where our heroes solve the case less by thinking and doing legwork than by arresting the survivor as several more murders take place during the story.   It makes the book exciting, but not particularly reassuring as to Inspector West’s brainpower.  Characterization is also kind of minimal and relies a bit on stock types.

To be honest, you can easily skip this book unless you’re a completist–later volumes in the series are much better.  (Consider Inspector West at Home.) John Creasey wrote over six hundred novels, he’s allowed a few lesser works.

To finish, let’s have a bit of the Perry Mason TV series:

 

 

Comic Book Review: Action Presidents: George Washington

Comic Book Review: Action Presidents: George Washington by Fred van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey

Our story begins with two modern tweens glued to their portal screen devices while Parson Weems bores them with the cherry tree legend.  The day is salvaged when Noah the Historkey appears and reveals that George Washington’s father Augustine didn’t raise cherries, but tobacco!  And that’s just one of the many awesome facts the bird of history reveals about the life of the first president of the United States.

Action Presidents: George Washington

As Noah explains, a lot of history books for kids “talk about the past as though it’s a movie you already know the ending to — or a fable that’s supposed to have some sort of moral at the end.”  But this comic book tells the true story of President Washington with extra jokes to leaven the seriousness.

And there’s plenty of serious stuff to get through.  Washington was a soldier, and eventually a general–and he didn’t always win his battles.  His health was poor as time went on, especially his teeth.  There’s all the work that went into the Constitution to try to make the new country’s government work, and the stormy years of the Presidency.

And of course the elephant in the room.  George Washington was a slaveowner from the age of eleven, at one time possessing 318 human beings as property (many through his wife Martha’s dowry.)   He’d always accepted this as perfectly normal, but experiences in the American Revolution began to change his mind.  (This book sets that change around the time of Valley Forge.)

Washington’s realization that slavery was morally wrong conflicted deeply with his economic reality in which slaves were needed to do all the work at Mount Vernon and bring in the crops.  In the end, he compromised by freeing his slaves in his will…but only after Martha died too.  (Martha decided to speed up the process and start freeing them only ten months after George passed on.)

George Washington did many good things, including not seizing power after the Revolution, and setting a precedent for restraint in office.  He also did bad things.   This comic book suggests that knowing all of this makes him more interesting than the whitewashed version some pundits prefer.

The art is dynamic, and many of the jokes are funny.  Some parents may object to passing body function humor, and others skittish about the depiction of violence, and slavery as a flaw in American history.  Fourth graders on up should be able to enjoy this book with the help of the glossary in back.  There’s also a map of important places George Washington went, a list of things named after the president, and a short bibliography of other books to read (some of them for much older audiences.)

This would make a good starter biography for your budding history major, and George Washington fans in general will find it a worthy addition to their collections.  The hardback edition has a sturdy binding so you may be able to find it in elementary school libraries as well.

Later volumes cover Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

Book Review: Great British Fictional Villains

Book Review: Great British Fictional Villains by Russell James

For a wide swath of fiction, a well-written villain is essential.  They provide the impetus for the hero to act, scatter obstacles in their way, and act as a dark mirror to the hero’s personality.  In many cases, the villain of a story turns out to be far more memorable than the protagonist.

Great British Fictional Villains

Thus this compilation of villains by a British crime writer.  Per the title, it celebrates primarily antagonists created in British fiction, from Professor Moriarty to the Daleks.  Mind, the net is cast wide in some respects, so there’s at least one entry that does not match one of each of the words in the title.

There’s essays on the various kinds of villains, and the broad time periods that produced them.  In addition to the many illustrations (most in the public domain) there are charts for such things as Charles Dickens villains.  But the main meat of the book is the A-Z listing of the author’s choices of top villains.

This section is heavy on Jacobean drama and Victorian potboilers, with relatively less from the modern era.  I was particularly disappointed by the absence of British comics.  Not one Judge Dredd villain made the list!  Still, the very famous blackguards like Fu Manchu are cheek to jowl with some true obscurities.

There’s a minimal index.

The best use of this book, I think, is to give to teenagers who enjoy reading to give them more clues to things they might want to track down.  But it would not go amiss as a gift for older villain fans either.

Manga Review: Yowamushi Pedal 1

Manga Review: Yowamushi Pedal 1 by Wataru Watanabe

The Sohoku High School Bicycle Racing Club has several interesting freshman members this year.  There’s Imaizumi, a serious competitor whose family is wealthy, so he can afford the finest bicycle racing equipment and training.  There’s the fiery Naruko from Osaka, who’s a fine sprinter despite his flashy ways.  And then there’s Onoda.

Yowamushi Pedal 1

Sakamichi Onoda is an otaku (nerd) who loves manga and anime, and is afraid of jocks since they always treated him poorly in Physical Education for his weakness.  He didn’t have any friends in middle school, and is looking forward to joining the anime club in high school so he can finally talk about all his favorite shows.  So it’s a crushing blow when he learns the Anime Club has been closed for lack of members!

But unknown to himself, Onoda’s weekly trips to Akiba for manga and anime goodies, a 90 kilometer round trip on a heavy, incorrectly adjusted “mommy bike”, have given the lad superior climbing  endurance and pedaling skills.  A chance encounter with Imaizumi is about to change his life!

Yowamushi Pedal (“Weakling’s Pedal”), known to its fans as “Yowapeda”, is a shounen (boys’) manga that’s been running since 2008, and has a multi-season animated adaptation.

In this first omnibus volume, Onoda meets Imaizumi when he’s run into by the latter’s chauffeur on the steep back road to school.   While at first the serious cyclist dismisses the weird kid on the inferior bicycle, he sees something there that he’s curious about.  Onoda also meets Miki Kanzaki, a girl who loves bicycles and racing (though we never see her ride herself) and wants to be the racing club’s manager.

Miki helps Onoda with some vital adjustments on his bike, which is a good thing as Imaizumi has challenged the otaku kid to a race.  While Onoda doesn’t win even with a huge headstart, Imaizumi is impressed by his potential.

The next time Onoda goes to Akibahara in Akiba, he runs into Naruko, who’s come to the big city to buy presents for his little brothers.  Naruko lassos Onoda into helping him because he likes Onoda’s bicycle and the other boy is clearly familiar with the shops.   A hoodlum in a fancy car disses Onoda’s bike, and Naruko drags Onoda off on a chase to teach the disrespecter a lesson.

Onoda learns more about how to ride at high speed, and the two boys become friends, then learn they’re attending the same school.  Naruko’s enthusiasm finally convinces Onoda to join the bicycle racing club.

But as it happens, the day they join is the day of the Freshmen Welcome Race, a 60 kilometer course over some of the most difficult roads in the area.  Even “experienced” freshman Sugimoto, who was smugly proclaiming his superior expertise earlier, blanches at that one.  But Onoda is fearless, and may surprise everyone!

The series has plenty of exciting bike race scenes with lovingly drawn bicycles, and a good variety of faces (though the problem with similar girl faces is mostly handled by having few important female characters.)  The main trio are a good set of contrasting personalities and riding styles, which sets up a variety of possible interactions.

But this is, after all, a sports anime, and ninety percent of the plot development and characterization is directly attached to the training and races.  We’re going to see little if any of the characters’ lives outside the lens of bicycle racing.

Recommended to fans of shounen sports manga, and bicycle racing fans who would like a good manga to start with.

Here’s a look at the anime!

Book Review: Mammoths of the Great Plains

Book Review: Mammoths of the Great Plains by Eleanor Arnason

On an alternate Earth, the mammoth lived into historical times, abiding with the bison and the Native Americans.   But then Lewis and Clark saw their first mammoth, and reported on it to President Jefferson and the teeming masses of the East.   This is the story of the disappearance of the mammoths, and how they reappeared.

Mammoths of the Great Plains

This chapbook from PM Press is part of their “Outspoken Authors” series, mixing stories with essays and interviews of writers who have opinions.  In this case, it’s Eleanor Arnason (1942-present), who is well known in the Minnesota science fiction community and also read elsewhere.

The title story is a long one, with a framing device of a girl visiting her grandmother on the Standing Rock reservation in  the near future of this alternate history.  The grandmother tells the tale of the mammoths, and how the women of her family became entwined with the fate of these creatures.

There’s a bit of world-building of “the present day” but it’s largely in the background, and there’s a fairly large jump from “and that’s how the first mammoth in decades was born” to “and now there are mammoths again, if you want to see them, go over to the casino.”

The story is told very much in the style of oral tradition, with the elder imparting family history (and perhaps some wisdom) to a child.  It’s clear that Grandmother Liz is remembering events through her own lens, but she tries to be fair to those long dead.  The tale meanders a bit, and might be boring for those only reading for the exciting mammoth bits.

There’s some period racism, never depicted as a good thing.

Also in this volume is “Writing SF During WWIII”, an essay adapted from Ms. Arnason’s guest of honor speech  at Wiscon in 2004.  It talks about the current time of instability, ecological crisis and liberation movements, and how science fiction can respond to these issues and help guide the future.

This is followed by an interview Eleanor Arnason gave to Terry Bisson in 2010, talking about her life story (“…I was raised by time travelers in a house of the future.”), her writing, activism, and politics.  The last highlighted for me just how much has changed in the last eight years in the political world, and how much has not changed at all.

There’s a bibliography of the author’s work, and a short autobiography written in third person.

Recommended to fans of Eleanor Arnason, and those interested in a window into the life and thought processes of authors.  Those just interested in fiction might want to wait until “Mammoths” is collected elsewhere.

Comic Book Review: Athena Voltaire and the Volcano Goddess

Comic Book Review: Athena Voltaire and the Volcano Goddess by Steve Bryant

Our story opens in Malaysia, as premiere pilot and adventurer Athena Voltaire and British agent Desmond Forsyth deal with a recently hatched garuda (a gargoyle-like creature.  Once that’s taken care of, Athena heads back to California for a debriefing by her secret patron, millionaire Caine Foster.  And then, a night at the movies as the new film The Adventures of Athena Voltaire is having its big opening at El Capitan Theater.

Athena Voltaire and the Volcano Goddess

Athena is not overly impressed; the adventure depicted is on target, but the scriptwriters gave her an entirely different backstory.  That doesn’t carry over in her treatment of male lead actor Carter Charles, who she agrees to a drink with–after she talks to her father, the Great Voltaire, retired stage magician.

It seems the elder Voltaire has come into possession of a necklace called Pele’s Tears, fashioned from volcanic glass.  Legend has it that this talisman can be used to gain access through Pele’s volcano home to the Hollow Earth.  It’s also claimed that the necklace has become contaminated during its long time away from Hawaii, and needs to be taken home to cleanse it.

The Great Voltaire imposes on his daughter to transport the talisman back to Hawaii, but there are those who would use it for evil, including Major Klimt of the Thule Society.  Let the action begin!

This is the latest published adventure of Athena Voltaire, with the earlier continuity being collected in the Athena Voltaire Compendium.  It ran as a three issue from Action Lab before being collected into this volume.

Good:  I enjoyed the art and action, which is very much in the pulp tradition.  Carter Charles makes a decent sidekick, and I especially liked the Hawaiian police detective based on Chang Apana (also the inspiration for Charlie Chan.)  The story moved along at a good clip without becoming confusing.  There are a couple of text pieces on fictional aviatrixes and stage magicians.  This volume does not require you to have read the previous stories to understand.

Not so good:  My main gripe is a presentation issue–this volume is exactly the three individual issues bound together, including the house ads for each issue, which results in duplicated pages.  I would have preferred the ads to be shifted to the back, and duplicates eliminated.

I also felt the stinger scene was a trifle too obvious and ill-explained.

Recommended to fans of small press pulp adventurer comics.

Book Review: Crime and Punishment

Book Review: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is a law student, allegedly.  When we meet him, Raskolnikov has not been to class in some time, nor has he worked at his part-time tutoring job.  For the last few weeks he’s been just brooding in his tiny room (several months behind on the rent), not getting enough to eat and wandering around the bad part of Saint Petersburg as his only outfit turns to rags.

Crime and Punishment

Raskolnikov has a theory, though.  While laws are all very well for the common run of people, they just get in the way for the truly superior man.  If a man is destined for greatness, and his destiny will ultimately be the best thing for everyone, then any necessary crimes to achieve that destiny are not only justified, but actually required!

Raskolnikov requires a large sum of money to get back on his feet and do the good works he intends to do.   The miserly pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna has a large sum of money, and is generally a horrid person, including mistreating her kindly sister Lizaveta.  Raskolnikov has almost convinced himself that robbing and murdering Alyona would be the best outcome for all involved.

But Raskolnikov is troubled by disturbing dreams and afflicted by the July heat.  After pawning a small item to case Alyona’s apartment business, the young man stumbles into a tavern, where he meets compulsive alcoholic Marmeladov.  Marmeladov has just thrown away his last chance for a steady job to support his family and allow his daughter Sonya to quit prostitution for a few days of binge drinking.

This encounter will be of vital importance to Raskolnikov’s future, but he proceeds with his plan to commit ax murder for money.  He does not realize that all crimes lead to punishment, even if they are not detected.

This classic novel was first published as a serial in The Russian Messenger in 1866, after Dostoevsky returned from his exile in Siberia.  A lot of words have been written about the themes and meaning of the story, and I am not sure I have anything new to add.

Raskolnikov reminds me a bit of college students I’ve known who go through Philosophy 101 or Political Science 101, get what they think is a brilliant idea about the true meaning of life or how people should be governed and then will just not shut up about it.   He doesn’t really discuss it that often with other people, but the omniscient third person narration means we get to hear his thoughts on the subject frequently.

The crime itself is bungled when Raskolnikov neglects to lock the door after the murder and Lizaveta returns home unexpectedly.   The young man winds up killing the innocent Lizaveta and fleeing with only a small portion of loot, which he promptly buries to avoid being caught with it.  He manages to avoid being seen by a living witness during any of this, so initially escapes suspicion.

A combination of his neglected health and mental stress causes Raskolnikov to have a nervous collapse, and he is nursed back to a semblance of health by his friend Razumikhin, a fellow impoverished student with a much healthier attitude towards life.  Raskolnikov is well-known among his acquaintances for being eccentric, so his behavior doesn’t raise any suspicions.

As Raskolnikov recovers, his mother and sister arrive in St. Petersburg.  Avdotya (nicknamed “Dunya”) had been forced to give up her servant job when her wealthy and wicked employer Svidrigaïlov attempted to seduce her.  In order to save the family from poverty, Dunya has agreed to an arranged marriage with the lawyer Luzhin, who is in St. Petersburg on business so summoned her there.

Luzhin is a grade-A snake, and Raskolnikov takes a violent dislike to him, forbidding the marriage.  In retaliation, Luzhin attempts to frame Sonya for theft at the wake of her father Marmeladov (who dies in a traffic accident while drunk), on the grounds that Raskolnikov likes the young woman.

Nor is Luzhin the only threat, as Svidrigaïlov’s wife has died (coincidence?  murder?  we never find out), and he is now able to pursue Dunya as well.  The older rake is far more competent than Luzhin and a coincidence gives him evidence he could use to destroy Raskolnikov.

Meanwhile, police inspector Porfiry Petrovich has realized that Raskolnikov is the right suspect in the pawnbroker murders, but based on psychology rather than any direct physical evidence.  He plays mind games with the student, attempting to convince Raskolnikov to confess.

In the epilogue, Raskolnikov serves his sentence in Siberia, and slowly comes to full repentance and a re-establishment of his moral core.   This punishment, though unpleasant, is nothing compared to what his own guilt and confusion had done to him.

There’s a lot of death in this book, and I can see where Russian literature got its reputation for being depressing.  (Content warning: animal abuse, suicide, domestic abuse, period ethnic prejudice, mostly against Germans.)

The themes are heavy, reflecting the nihilism and political radicalization of the time.  The freeing of the serfs in 1861 had done little to improve economic conditions.  Luzhin rooms with a proto-Communist during his stay in St. Petersburg.  In general, there is a housing shortage in the city, with every building divided into tiny apartments.  The pawnbroker’s business is a two-room flat, Raskolnikov’s room is small enough that he can open the door from the couch on the opposite wall, the Marmeladov family lives in a converted hallway, and even the police station is a rented upper floor in an apartment building.

I read the Constance Garnett translation, which has only a couple of footnotes to explain historical points and otherwise does not explain references.  This made the book thick going, even for a strong reader.  I’d recommend an annotated version if you can find one.

The psychological drama in Raskolnikov’s head is the main draw of the book, as he learns how bankrupt his “great man” theory is.  (But Friedrich Nietzsche read the book and said, “no, wait, I think he has a point.”)

Some bits are overly melodramatic (the fate of Marmeladov’s wife) or require too much suspense of disbelief (Svidrigaïlov just happening to take the room next to Sonya and just happening to be in it when Raskolnikov confesses to her.)

Well worth reading, but you might want to watch a movie version instead:

 

 

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