Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Showcase Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Showcase Volume 1

In Ouroboros  fashion, DC’s line of black and white reprint comics returns to its roots.

Taken from the cover of Showcase #14, as Flash fights "The Giants of the Time-World".

Back in 1956, National Comics (DC) had more ideas for comic books than they had publishing slots to put them in, and readers asking for dozens of different concepts. So they came up with Showcase, a series where a concept would be tried out for an issue or three, and if all went well, would be promoted to its own continuing title.  The first issue featured the subject they’d gotten an overwhelming demand for–firefighters!

“Fireman Farrell” was about the son of a famous firefighter who follows in his father’s footsteps.  In the first story, he graduates from firefighter school.  Then he battles a circus blaze, and appears on a TV program modeled after Edward R, Murrow’s “See It Now.”  The foils in each story are foolish men who ignore Farrell’s wise advice about fire safety and must be rescued.  Sadly, this was not turned into a continuing series, but Fireman Farrell has made cameo appearances in DC comics ever since.

The second and third issues featured animal stories (one with great Joe Kubert art) and frogmen respectively.  But it’s issue #4 that really hit the stride.

For Showcase #4 is the first appearance of Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash.  And with him, the semi-official beginning of the Silver Age of comics.  In the late 1940s, superheroes had gone out of fashion, but the crime and horror comic books that had ascended for a while were crippled by the Comics Code.  The clean, morally clear world of superheroes was more easily adapted to the new rules, and Carmine Infantino’s art suited a super-speedster well.

After the Flash, there’s Manhunters (detectives), the Challengers of the Unknown (non-powered adventures), Lois Lane (Superman’s girlfriend),  the Space Ranger (outer space hero with the flimsiest secret identity ever), Adam Strange (planetary romance) and Rip Hunter, Time Master (time travel.)  And that brings us up to issue #21.

This book has a lot of history value; many of these characters went on to long careers.   However, they got their own Showcase volumes, so if you own all of those, there’s a lot of overlap.  This volume would be excellent for the new reader who wants to see where much of DC’s history comes from for a reasonable price.  There’s some fantastic art in here.

Book Review: Aim High

Book Review: Aim High by Joseph A. West

Cover of Aim High by Joseph A. West

If you’ve been around the small-press horror magazine scene for a while, you may already be familiar with the work of Joseph A. West.  His distinctive primitive art style, heavy on sloping foreheads, large noses and jutting jaws, has graced many a magazine.  He also is a poet and filled spots with prose where needed.

‘Ol Uncle Joe is 91 as of this writing, and a collected volume of his work has finally been published by Witch Tower Press of Minneapolis.  I happened to attend one of his readings at Dreamhaven Books (won’t get the chance again, I figured) and picked up the book there.

It’s arranged by category of work (with drawings throughout), Verse, Tales, Nonfiction, Random Musings and Illustrations.  The strongest sections are the first and the last.  Mr. West’s earthy and sometimes macabre  sense of humor works best in his poems, and his art is what he’s most known for.  The middle sections have generally good stuff, but there’s a lot of repetition as the same subjects and jokes come up several times.

Literary horror fans may be most interested in the accounts of H.P Lovecraft’s house, and a visit with August Derleth.  I do wish there were more nonfiction pieces aoout Mr. West’s experiences as a small press artist.  I bet there would be some juicy tales there!

I would primarily recommend this book to fans of small press horror who may have fond memories of Mr. West’s work, and those interested in the history of the field.

 

Book Review: The Devil–With Wings

Book Review: The Devil–With Wings by L. Ron Hubbard

Full Disclosure: I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it. Presumably this was influenced by my review of an earlier book in the series, “If I Were You.”

The Devil--with Wings

This volume is part of the “Golden Age Stories” reprints of L. Ron Hubbard’s pulp writing. A lot of effort has been put into making the book physically attractive, and the appearance is of very high quality. I wish some other authors got the same treatment!

The short novel within is set in 1930s Manchukuo, a part of northeastern China set up as a puppet state by the Japanese invaders. The Japanese are being battled by a man they call “Akuma no Hane”, which the author translates as “the devil with wings.” (A closer translation would be “The Devil’s Feather.” Most of the names of Japanese people are likewise suspect.) This mysterious black-clad aviator has been harrying their troops for the last three years.

But now it seems Akuma no Hane has gone too far, killing the American civil engineer Robert Weston. Now, not only is Captain Ito Shinohari of Japanese Intelligence after the aviator, but Bob’s sister Patricia is also out for blood. Now the pilot and his faithful sidekick Ching must race to discover the truth and head off a Russian-japanese war!

This is an exciting pulp story, foll of action and gunplay. The centerpiece is a fierce dogfight told from Patricia’s confused viewpoint in the back of Akuma no Hane’s plane. The period racism is toned down considerably; Shinohari isn’t evil because he’s Japanese, but because he cares more about his own advancement than the good of his country. The Japanese in general are in the wrong, but that’s because they’re invaders, not the color of their skin.

The story does less well with Patricia, whose bravery and determination are emphasized in her first confrontation with Akuma no Hane, And then…she accomplishes absolutely nothing in the story, becoming a tagalong for the Devil. There’s a romance angle, but it’s badly shoehorned in towards the end. A woman with agency Patricia is not. If that sort of thing bothers you, take off a point.

The volume comes with a glossary, which will be helpful for readers who are unfamiliar with 1930s history, plus the same introduction and potted hagiography of L. Ron Hubbard that comes with every volume in the series, plus a several page preview of “The Green God,” another volume in the series.

This is a very quick read, and with the recycled material, I cannot recommend paying full price for this one. If you enjoy daring tales of aviation and the Far East, check to see if you can get The Devil–with wings from your library, or wait until it shows up used.

TV Review: Bonanza

TV Review: Bonanza

I recently watched a dozen episodes of this classic Western series (1959-1973) on a Mill Creek discount DVD release.  Apparently, some episodes from the first two seasons have fallen into the public domain.  But not the music, so the evocative opening theme was dubbed over with twangy generic “Western” music.

bonanza

Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) is the owner of the Ponderosa, the largest cattle ranch in Nevada.  He runs it with the help of his three adult sons by three deceased wives, Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon.)  It ran in an hour-long format (unusual for Westerns of the time) and was more of a family drama than an action show.

The hour-long format allowed the writers to add more nuance and character development to the plotlines, resulting in some stellar episodes.  For example, “The Courtship”, which appears to be the first “Hoss falls in love” episode, moves convincingly from light comedy at the beginning, through romance, to heartbreak at the end.  It was probably even more effective when first shown, as this early in the series, the audience would not have caught on to the “Cartwright Curse” (no woman a main character is attracted to will stay on the show.)

Another fine episode is “Blood on the Land.”  Apparently, the earliest episodes had the Cartwrights be clannish and hostile to outsiders, and this episode was a turning point in the series.  Ben Cartwrights open refusal to let anyone cross his land brings him into conflict with a sheepherder who acts as Ben’s dark mirror.  The sheepherder is just as stubborn and prideful as Ben, and calls him out on his autocratic behavior.  While the sheepherder’s fine words are a cover for his own ruthless venality, Ben does take their message to heart and works on becoming kinder to sttangers.

It’s notable in these episodes how little respect the Cartwrights’ money and power get them.  No one ever toadies or gives way to them on account of their wealth.  When people do show the family respect, it’s because of their high moral character and (especially in Hoss’ case) their proficiency in a fight.

An aspect of the show that has aged less well is the “very special” episodes that deal with socially relevant topics like racism and substance abuse.  Ben Cartwright has some peculiarly 1960s attitudes for a man living in the 1850s.  While the writing of these episodes certainly comes across as earnest, it’s also quite heavy-handed and given to platitudes.  And every so often it exposes the show’s blind spots.  Pernell Roberts is said to have left the show at least partially because there were never any black people in Virginia City unless the episode was specifically about how wrong prejudice against black people is.

Also, many episodes do show the patterns that eventually made the show.so easy to parody.  In addition to the tendency of romantic interests to die or leave town abruptly, if there are two antagonists, one clean-shaven and the other blessed with beard stubble, the clean-shaven one will invariably be uncomfortable with the path of evil and be redeemed, while the stubbled one will be close to pure evil and usually die.

That said, this is fine old-fashioned television viewing.  I recommend picking up the official release if you can, because the theme song is part of the experience.

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