Comic Book Review: Batman Deathblow After the Fire

Comic Book Review: Batman Deathblow After the Fire by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo

Full Disclosure: I received this book as a Goodreads Giveaway on the premise that I would review it.
Cover of Batman/Deathstroke
Those of you who’ve been following my reviews for a while will know that I’m a longtime Batman fan. Not so much though as regards Deathblow, one of the many Nineties antiheroes Image pumped out back in the day. He’s an agent of International Operations (I/O) who, well, kills people.

This is not a promising basis for a team-up, and Mr. Azzarello wisely doesn’t try to make it one. Instead, Batman picks up the trail of a pyrokinetic terrorist that the now-deceased Deathblow had encountered a decade before. The story cuts between the two eras, piecing together the murky circumstances through the triple-crossing wires of espionage agencies.

Even with a good writer, Michael Cray, the Deathblow used in this story, never rises above the Nineties cliches he’s mired in. Batman is done pretty well, and Alfred is a delight. Commissioner Gordon makes a cameo to give Batman a clue. The villain has a bit more depth than is evident through most of the story, which leads to a neat little last page twist.

Lee Bermejo’s art is kind of blocky, which makes for some nice covers, but is less effective in the story itself. For this deluxe edition, he presents some sketches and alternative covers, with notes on each.

To be honest, I think this book is only getting the deluxe treatment because the author has gone on to do better work. This is one I recommend checking out at the library if you can.


Comic Book Review: Son of Samson #1 & 2

  Comic Book Review: Son of Samson #1 & 2 by Gary Martin & Sergio Cariello.

Christian kids, just like every other kid, want to read the kind of books that appeal to them. And for a while, manga volumes became huge in the bookstores.  So there was an obvious market for something that physically resembles manga but reflects wholesome Christian values.  Zondervan, a Michigan publisher, is attempting to fill this need with series like Son of Samson.

Son of Samson

The series begins ten years after Samson’s death, with the arrival of Branan, the son Samson never knew.  He wants to know more about his father, and wanders ancient Palestine hearing about Samson’s many feats.  (For purposes of this story, the Biblical account is factual.)

In Volume One, “The Judge of God”, Branan matches wits and muscles against the Philistine commander Sidon.  He’s accompanied by a not-so-faithful sidekick, the irritable camel Uzal.  There’s a bizarre side trip to a town of crazy religious fanatics awaiting Samson’s return.

Volume Two, “The Daughter of Dagon,” introduces spoiled heiress Saphira, who hires Branan as a bodyguard on a journey.  Unfortunately for Branan, her other parent is the treacherous Delilah, the only person ever to defeat Samson.

Branan is a much nicer person than his father, and the story does address the fact that Samson was a jerk.  Branan does not kill (never outright stated but it’s pretty obvious) which comes back to bite him a couple of times.  He seems to have his father’s strength and appetite, but not Samson’s love of booze or lust.

Saphira is more oblivious than evil.  About halfway through volume two, she learns that slavery is bad, and gives letters of manumission to her slaves.  She thinks that because she’s never mistreated them, the former slaves will stick around out of loyalty.  While it’s true Saphira has never abused her slaves, she’s never done anything to earn their loyalty either, and she finds herself stuck in the middle of a journey with no clue how to do anything for herself.

Delilah, on the other hand, is out for herself at any cost–even getting her daughter to do her dirty work.  And still very physically attractive.

The art does not try to be manga-style, which is a relief.  It is well suited to the humorous bits, such as the splash page of Branan and Uzal fleeing in terror in volume one.  There’s a number of backup features, including maps, discussions of the various terms, and a quick  look at how Samson might not have been a handsome muscleman at all.  (The Bible mentions his great strength, not his physique.)  Some non-Christian readers may find the Bible citations annoying.

Overall, this is a pretty good series, though clearly not for everyone.

Book Review: Where the Cherry Tree Grew

Book Review: Where the Cherry Tree Grew by Phillip Levy


Full Disclosure: I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway, on the premise that I would review it.

This is something a little different for me, a geographical “biography” that traces the history of a particular place. In this case, the piece of land that became known as Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his boyhood years. The title alludes to the infamous Parson Weems story in which young George takes a hatchet to his father’s favorite cherry tree and owns up to it.

The history begins with the first written accounts of the area, back when the Rappahannock was a wild river, where the West began. It mentions the first person to put a house on this particular tract, Maurice Clark, and a bit about his structure (traces of which were found by the author’s archaeological team.)

There’s a fair bit on the Washington years, some from actual records and other pieces extrapolated from what was dug up there. At the time, the Washingtons were an unremarkable family, planters and slaveowners like most of the local gentry. Some difficulty over the land (which George inherited, but not without strings) meant that young George Washington had to make his own way in the world, with the results most readers will be familiar with.

One notable thing here is that the original Washington house vanished bit by bit over the years–when Washington surveyed the land shortly before selling it off, he didn’t mention its location at all. And at the time, the people of Fredericksburg weren’t much interested in memorializing Washington, even after he became president of the United States.

Interest in the farm perked up, however, after it was visited by Parson Weems, who claimed that he had interviewed many of the older locals and learned of George Washington’s childhood. It is evident now that many of his stories were made up, though at one time there had been cherry trees on the property.

After Weems came a string of promoters and farmers who tried to make something out of Ferry Farm’s connection to the first president, interrupted by the Civil War and the near destruction of Fredericksburg and everything in the vicinity. Even the Washington Bicentennial (1932) failed to get Ferry Farm off the ground as a viable historic site. Only the threat of Wal-Mart paving the whole place over as a parking lot finally got enough money and interest flowing.

Chapter Nine is an abrupt shift from third person to first person, as it details the author’s archaeological dig and how they finally found the foundations of the Washington house. i found the shift offputting, and it might have been better left in third person.

The book wraps up with a meditation on what Ferry Farm meant to Washington, and what the cherry tree story, however fabulous, has to teach us today. There are black and white photographs in the center of the book, copious footnotes, and a complete index.

I’d recommend this book to the Washington completist, American history buffs, and the geography student looking for something different to read.

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.


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 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.

Interview: Arijan Clark

Interview: Arijan Clark

Welcome to a new feature here at SKJAM! Reviews, interviews with the people behind the media.

Today, we’re talking to Arijan Clark, the translator of Volume Three of “Anesthesiologist Hana“, previously reviewed on this blog.


S. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

A. My name is Arijan Clark, and I’m a full-time freelance translator living and working in the Seattle area. I was raised in the Camano Island area (in other words, knee-deep in mud, seawater, snow geese, Viking helmets, and tulips), along with two younger brothers who taught me to love cheesy kung-fu flicks and early-Nineties video games.

I jot down scraps of sci-fi and fantasy when time permits, although I can’t really call myself a “writer” until something gets published, and I read omnivorously and vociferously. My husband David and I tied the knot last August after three years together, spent a lovely honeymoon in Yosemite National Park, and are now happily settled in an apartment near his job at Microsoft.

S. Where did you study Japanese?

A. Japanese was one of four languages offered at my high school, and my interest in the country had been piqued by a Japanese exchange student who stayed with my family when I was in middle school. The arrival of the Pokemon franchise on American shores fanned the flames of attraction, and I was madly in love with the language within a month of starting classes. It was so wildly different from English, and my teenaged fascination with those differences sparked a lifelong interest in grammar and linguistics. It also eventually led me to the JET Programme, where I met several of my closest friends and the love of my life. Go figure, right?

S. How did you get the job of translating Anesthesiologist Hana?

A. In the summer of 2011, between semesters of graduate school, I interned with a game translation company in Osaka to build up my professional experience. We mainly worked with iPhone apps and arcade games, but the occasional manga job came down the pike as well. They’ve continued to send me freelance work, and Anesthesiologist Hana was among those jobs.

S. Anesthesiologist Hana uses quite a few specialized medical terms. Tell us about the research process you used to deal with this.

A. Although I studied medical translation in graduate school and did quite a bit of online research, my main resource was my parents, who are both M Ds. I was working on Anesthesiologist Hana during the interim weeks between my graduation from grad school (and move-out from my California apartment) and my marriage (and move-in with my husband in Washington). My parents not only reopened their home to me for those weeks, but patiently let me borrow their resources and pick their brains for as much casual hospital-staff slang as I could possibly need. Their help was invaluable, and I can’t thank them enough for putting up with my (often apparently random) questions.

S. Which character from the manga do you like best? Why?

A. Honestly, my favorite character was Hana herself. A lot of the supporting characters in Anesthesiologist Hana are self-absorbed, grouchy, hostile, flaky, or outright perverted. (Good god, someone needs to punch that Minami guy in the throat.) And Hana in her narrative role as The Watson / Ms. Exposition does suffer from a bit of Naive Newcomer behavior that doesn’t make sense for a trained doctor, even in the third volume. But with basic writing fumbles like that, I prefer to fault the author and try to appreciate the character on their own merits, and Hana measures up very well. Regardless of her thankless job and gormless coworkers, she manages to maintain a sweet and optimistic outlook on life, genuinely wants to give her patients the best possible treatment, and finds real meaning in her daily work. I think that’s really admirable, and inspiring to anyone slogging through a not-so-hot job.

S. Did anything particularly interesting happen during your translation of this volume?

A. In the middle of working on the Hana translation, I had to fly back to California to attend my then-fiance’s graduation from Stanford. We packed his things into our hatchback and road-tripped back up the coast to Washington, but I still had to get the job done. Consequently, I spent the drive busily translating away on my laptop and phone-texting occasional medical-slang questions to my mother when my memory and dictionary failed me, then emailing my deliverables to Osaka over the wi-fi at whatever hotel we found for the night. It was an adventure, but I definitely prefer working from my own desk.

S. I am aware that the standard non-disclosure agreement prevents you from revealing the titles of projects that haven’t been published yet, but are you working on any further translations for Jmanga?

A. I haven’t received any further translation work from Jmanga at this time, but my experience with them was a good one and I’d be delighted to work with them again. Unfortunately, since the job was assigned through a translation agency, they almost certainly have neither my name, nor my contact information. C’est la vie.

S. Thanks for your cooperation!


Let’s have a round of applause for our special guest, and be sure to leave comments if you’d like to see more interviews!

Comic Strip Review: Dick Tracy

Comic Strip Review: Dick Tracy by Joe Staton and Mike Curtis.

The Dick Tracy comic strip was started way back in 1931 by Chester Gould, who saw criminals constantly in the headlines of Chicago newspapers and imagined a brave and clever police officer fighting back against them.The thrilling stories and colorful villains made it a long-runner.


So long-running, in fact, that it’s still around today!  Recently, long-time strip artist/writer Dick Locher retired.  The new creative team are Mike Curtis, a former deputy sheriff, and Joe Staton, a well-known comic book artist.  In my opinion they’ve revitalized Dick Tracy.

Staton’s art is clear and evokes Gould’s style, and Martin’s writing has restored coherence to the plotlines.  They’re clearly well-versed in the strip’s continuity without being slavishly shackled to it.  Early on, the syndicate stuck the team with a mandatory time limit for storylines, so some of the stories ended abruptly or had inadequate development, but that restriction has eased now.

The most recently completed storyline brought back a villain from the 1930s named Broadway Bates (the strip has long since entered “comic book time”.)  Bates strongly resembles the later Batman character the Penguin, so the creative team ran with that.  After getting out of jail, Bates had spent “the last few years” in “another city” (clearly Gotham City) infested with costumed crimefighters.

Broadway and his girlfriend/partner Belle returned to Dick Tracy’s city only to find that costumed characters Cinnamon Knight and Black Piranha had suddenly appeared.  The strip followed the parallel plotlines of Broadway’s plan to kill the “costumes” to prevent them from taking root, CK and BP’s own journey from playacting to seriously considering crimefighting and Dick Tracy’s attempts to make sense of what was going on.

The story ended remarkably happily for a Dick Tracy plot, with no actual deaths.

Currently, the strip is featuring a guest appearance by George Takei as George Tawara, a character strongly based on Takei’s real life.  George and his husband Brad are called in to help Dick Tracy solve a cold case involving Camp Freedom, the internment camp Tawara was imprisoned in as a child.  (Again, this is based on George Takei’s real life.)  There are some touchy subject matter here, but the creative team is handling it well so far.

A running subplot in the new stories has been the apparent return of Moon Maid.  In the 1960s, Chester Gould took the strip from techno-thriller (Tracy has had the best law enforcement gadgets since 1946) into outright science fiction with the introduction of Moon People.  One of them, Mysta the Moon Maid, became a huge part of the strip, even marrying Junior Tracy and having a daughter named Honeymoon with him.

Moon Maid was killed off in the 1970s as part of excising the more fantastic elements of the strip, and her people cut off all communication with Earth.  But now, after all these years, someone who looks like Moon Maid and seemingly has her powers has popped up. Although most of the characters are convinced that Mysta is really dead, Honeymoon is investigating the apparent return of her mother.

A secret trip to the Moon has found the Moon People vanished, their homeland airless and in ruins.  So no answers were forthcoming from there.  But the creative team has promised that the mystery will be cleared up in a full plotline later this year.

While few newspapers still cover the Dick Tracy comic strip, it can be found online, and it is well worth searching out.

Book Review: Brandwashed

Book Review: Brandwashed: How Marketers and Advertisers Obscure the Truth, Manipulate Our Minds, and Persuade Us to Buy by Martin Lindstrom.

Disclaimer: I got this book through the Goodreads giveaway program on the expectation I would write a review. My copy is an uncorrected proof, and minor changes (possibly major changes to the final chapter) are likely to occur in the final product.


The first thing I noticed reading the introduction is that apparently Martin Lindstrom does not have a library card. Also, it’s pretty clear that he has never had to look for a discarded newspaper to get the help wanted ads–let alone consider getting breakfast that way. From the introduction, Mr. Lindstrom lives a life of incredible privilege, in both the scholarly and layman’s senses of the word. A glimpse into a very different world than my own.

The subtitle does a good job of summing up what “Brandwashed” is about. Like the 1957 Vance Packard classic “The Hidden Persuaders”, this book looks at the various means advertisers and marketers use to manipulate consumers into buying things. Fifty years of technological and psychological innovation have vastly improved their ability to do so, of course, so you will want both books.

Mr. Lindstrom is a very successful marketing consultant, so many of the examples in Brandwashed are from his own experience. (On the other hand, most of the organizing of the book and connecting paragraphs are by his ghost writer.) I was fascinated by what he claims to have learned about how Russians *actually* feel towards vodka.

One thing I would have liked to have seen is more on how to fight “brandwashing”, to prevent this manipulation from turning you into a shopping addict or spending money you don’t have on crap you don’t need. There’s almost nothing in this line in the book, though Mr. Lindstrom does seem in favor of tighter regulations of health claims on non-drug products.

Overall, much interesting and possibly useful information. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in advertising and marketing.

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