Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1 art by Dick Dillin and Charles Cuidero

In September 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union.  The valiant Polish people battled bravely against the two-pronged attack, but it was to no avail.  One aviator was shot down, as it happens, near his family’s farm, only to watch as it was blown to bits by a Nazi bomb.  He discovered his siblings inside the ruined farmhouse, dead or dying.  The aviator vowed vengeance against the Nazis, and particularly the pilot of the plane that had murdered his family, Captain von Tepp of the Butcher Squadron.

Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Months later in England, the aviator stewed in frustration.  The RAF did not trust the Polish airmen who’d fled to their shores, thinking that because they’d lost, the Poles were inferior pilots.  Unable to get in the air through the regular channels, the aviator found a small group of other pilots who were refugees (plus one American volunteer) and likewise unable to get into the fight.  They pooled their resources and secretly purchased several Grumman XF5F Skyrockets, as well as supplies for them and a secret island base.

The aviator had discarded his civilian name and now went only by Blackhawk.  His men were the Blackhawk Squadron, or just the Blackhawks.  They operated on behalf of the Allies, but independently of any military command, striking wherever the need was greatest.  After a few missions never detailed, Blackhawk and his men were able to track down von Tepp and Blackhawk took his revenge.  His personal business complete, the Blackhawks were free to fly anywhere at any time to fight the Axis.

The Blackhawks first appeared in Military Comics #1 in 1941, under the Quality Comics label, and got their own title, Blackhawk, in 1944.  They were very popular, at one point selling just below Superman.  In 1952, they even got a film serial, starring Kirk Alyn, who’d previously played Superman in the movies.

But by 1957, sales were waning, and Quality first leased, then sold, its trademarked characters and titles to DC.  Blackhawk was one of only a handful of titles to continue (the other notable one was G.I. Combat.)  It kept its art team, but had an assortment of now-anonymous writers.

This volume reprints the DC run, starting with #108.  At this point, the team had long been stabilized at seven members.  Blackhawk (Polish/American/Polish-American) was the leader.  Hendrickson (Dutch/German) was the team sharpshooter and the oldest member.  Stanislaus (Polish) was generally the second-in-command–at this point he was said to have been a aerialist before the war and was quite acrobatic.  Andre (French) was a mechanical engineer and a bit of a ladies’ man.  Olaf (Swedish) was large and exceptionally strong.  Chuck (American) was a radio specialist.  And Chop-Chop (Chinese) was the team cook.  We’ll get back to him.

Since the Korean War was over and Vietnam was not yet hot, the Blackhawks (now flying Lockheed XF-90 C jets) primarily fought spies, saboteurs and mechanized gangs.  In the first couple of issues, their primary opponents are International Communism, the agents of whom are mostly pure evil (except the one woman who is won over by Blackhawk’s chivalrous behavior and moral rectitude.)

At a guess, these stories were left over from previous writers, as after that contemporary politics vanishes altogether, and much more time is spent on borderline to full science fiction plots.  Lost civilizations, time travel, aliens, and lots and lots of robots and awesome vehicles.  The team also acquired a pet between issues, a black hawk named Blackie who was of human intelligence (even able to tap out complex messages in Morse Code!)

The Blackhawks also ran into supervillains, most often a high-tech pirate calling himself Killer Shark or his marine-life themed minions.  They even fought the first Mr. Freeze DC had.

The plots tended to be simple, as the stories were quite short and mostly meant for kids.  There’s relatively little characterization, with each of the Blackhawks having just a few well-worn quirks.

And then there’s Chop-Chop (who did not even get a proper name until the 1980s!)  It’s worth pointing out that even when he first appeared in the 1940s, Chop-Chop was exceptionally competent and good in a fight.  But he was also clearly a comic relief character, short, round, and with facial features that look pretty darn racist towards Chinese people.

By 1957, this had been toned down considerably.  His face was still stereotypical, but not really more so than say Olaf’s.  He’d ditched the queue and lost weight, but still only came up to chest height on the other men and dressed in a “coolie” outfit that had been outdated even back in 1941.

The other Blackhawks treated Chop-Chop as an equal, and he remained good in a fight.  But he also didn’t have his own plane (usually acting as navigator for Blackhawk) and sometimes gets left out of Blackhawks group activities.  He’s also the sole Blackhawk to admit feeling fear, having the catchphrase “Wobbly woes!”  In his one spotlight story, he’s held hostage for a time.

This was a relatively good depiction for a Chinese character in the comics of 1957-58, but sets the teeth on edge for modern readers.

Certain plot elements do get reused.  There are no less than four times the Blackhawks fight counterpart teams!  The first is the all-female Tigress Squadron.  They don’t have a Chop-Chop or Blackie equivalent.  At first Blackhawk tries to pitch that crimefighting is man’s work, but after they prove their competence, Blackhawk simply switches to criticizing their plan to execute a criminal mastermind instead of turning him over to the police.  (In fairness to the Tigress Squadron, they’re entirely composed of the widows that criminal murdered after he escaped from the prison the Blackhawks delivered him to multiple times.  They have good reason for wanting to make sure this time.)

Next up is the all-villain Crimson Vultures.  They do have a Chop-Chop equivalent (who never does anything) as well as a crimson vulture named Crimson to fight Blackie.)  Unfortunately for them, Crimson is not as smart as Blackie, and that costs them the battle.

And two entirely separate miniature robot versions of the team created by mad inventors!  (Both have a Chop-Chop but not a Blackie.)

Coordination between writers was plainly not a priority.  In one story, a humanoid robot intelligent enough to infiltrate a criminal gang for months is brought back after several issues of being missing, and the Blackhawks take it back to their island.  In the next issue, Blackhawk needs a humanoid robot for something, and builds one from scratch, without even mentioning the previous robot, who also does not appear again in this volume.

That said, there are some tremendous machines in this series, and the War Wheel is always a joy to see in action.

Primarily recommended to older fans who fondly remember the Blackhawks from their childhood like me.  Others should take advantage of interlibrary loan.

And now, here’s a trailer for the Blackhawk serial!  Hawk-aa!

 

Comic Book Review: Our Army at War

Comic Book Review: Our Army at War edited by Joey Cavalieri

Back in the day, DC Comics had a fine line of war comics.  Primarily focused around World War Two, they paid tribute to the American military and the Greatest Generation.  Which is not to say that they were mindless patriotic propaganda.  The stories often depicted the costs of war, and to an extent the gray areas of combat.  The Comics Code of the time prevented them from showing gore and some of the atrocities of wartime, or going too far in criticizing the officers, but the stories often showed U.S. soldiers who did not live up to strict moral standards, and the human side of the enemy.

Our Army at War

Also, they had some of the best art at DC, with Joe Kubert as their iconic presence.  As I mentioned in my review of Weird War Tales‘ Showcase volume, sales of the war books started to fall in the 1970s with the unpopularity of Vietnam and a general revulsion towards the military.  At the same time, the Comics Code eased and (relatively mild) horror took a rise in popularity, resulting in “weird” elements being inserted in some of the lesser war books.

Eventually, the various series petered out.  While there have been war books for short runs since, they’ve never been the sellers they once were.  However, DC still has the trademarks for the titles, and some classic characters, so in 2010 the company published a handful of one-shots to keep the trademarks active.  They were combined for this graphic novel version in 2011.

Our Army at War itself leads off with “Time Stands Still for No Man” by Mike Marts and Victor Ibañez.  It compares and contrasts World War Two and the then-current Afghanistan War by following the stories of a volunteer soldier in each conflict.  The WWII section has Sergeant Rock and Easy Company, but they are mostly background, as are the mercenary Gods of War in the modern section.  It’s the most innovative of the stories in structure.

Weird War Tales is split into three shorts.  “Armistice Night” by Darwyn Cooke and Dave Stewart is a darkly silly tale of the annual get together of the ghosts of history’s great warriors.  “The Hell Above Us” by Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein spins a yarn of the sole survivor of a sunken submarine…and what he finds when he surfaces.  “Private Parker Sees Thunder Lizards” by Jan Strnad and Gabriel Hardman is one of those borderline cases–is the blinded, dying soldier conjuring up dinosaurs to battle the Nazis, or is it all a fantasy his buddy is enabling to allow Private Parker pass away with a smile?

Our Fighting Forces stars “The Losers”:  one-eyed and -legged PT boat captain without a boat Captain Storm; Johnny Cloud, the lonely Navajo Ace, and Gunner & Sarge, the sole survivors of their Marine platoon.  Four misfits assigned to the toughest missions, who somehow come out alive to nurse their survivors’ guilt again.  In “Winning Isn’t Everything” by B. Clay Moore, Chad Hardin & Wayne Faucher, they are assigned to take out an isolated Nazi air field, but the route mapped out for them is just a little too obvious.  Their innovative solutions may win the day, but is that for the best?

G.I. Combat is back to the weird with “Listening to Ghosts” by Matthew Sturges and Phil Winslade is centered on the Haunted Tank, a M3 Stuart tank with a commander named Lieutenant Jeb Stuart.  The lieutenant often sees and gets advice from his namesake, Civil War general J.E.B. Stuart.  Usually the ghost only warns of danger with cryptic utterances.  In this story, Lt. Stuart finds that his friendly rival Lt. Billy Sherman, who commands a M4 Sherman tank, has been killed by Nazi snipers, and he must use the unfamiliar machine to assist his regular crew, with another ghost whispering over his shoulder.  Notably, the iconic Stars & Bars flag flown from the Haunted Tank in the original series is absent in this story without explanation.

Star-Spangled War Stories represents the non-American contingent of the Allies with French Resistance fighter Mademoiselle Marie.  “Vive Libre ou Mourir!” by Billy Tucci, Justiano, Tom Derenck & Andrew Mangum has the beautiful and deadly anti-fascist parachuted in to a new Resistance group who she will lead in destroying key railroads.  But treachery is afoot–the local Maquis du Gevaudan would rather use the money Marie brought to buy rifles for direct combat.  More treachery ensues.  Non-explicit sex scenes and some kink, as well as the standard violent death.

It’s a decent collection, but inconsequential.  The Darwyn Cooke story is the most interesting.  I’d say it’s a good choice for someone who wants to sample DC’s war comics characters without needing to find spendy back issues.  Some great art.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales Volume 1 edited by Joe Kubert & Joe Orlando

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the relaxation of the Comics Code in the early 1970s created a horror anthology boom at DC Comics.  At the same time, the once best-selling war comics were going into a slump, at least partially due to the real-life Vietnam War becoming increasingly unpopular.  So a hybrid title was created that combined the two genres.

Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales

Like many anthology comics, there was initially a framing device of a narrator telling the stories to a soldier and the reader.  This switched around a few times, until the series settled on Death as the host of the book.  For who knows the stories of war better?  The majority of the stories are set in World War Two, both because the writers and artists had served in that conflict or were close to those that were, and because the sides were so clearly drawn.  None of the stories in the first twenty-one issues are set in the Vietnam conflict; the most recent war covered is the Korean War in one story, and even then not presented by name.

The art in this volume is stellar.  Joe Kubert (who also got to be an editor on this title), Russ Heath, Irv Novick and others are well-served by the black and white reprint.  The stories range from good to trite.  The two most often used plots are “Corporal Bob saved your life?  But he died last week!” and “Arrogant Nazis disregard local superstitions, die horribly.”  A couple of standouts are Issue #11’s “October 30”, which is a series of interconnected stories taking place on that date in different years as Von Krauss seeks glory and promotion in more than one war; and “The Warrior and the Witch Doctors!” which has a Roman legionary time traveling, but a unique twist ending changes everything.

The Comics Code, while loosened, was still in effect, so while rape and suicide are implied, they are never directly shown.  The gore is also turned way down, unlike many current horror comics.  (On the other hand, there’s enough violence to make the “Make War No More” buttons that sometimes end the stories seem out of place.)  There are some period ethnic slurs in a couple of the stories.  Only one female soldier is seen, and very briefly at that in a post-atomic war story.

The subject matter means that this volume won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the art makes it well worth it for fans of war comics who can take a little weirdness in with it.

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The title is pretty self-explanatory; this book is about the location of the worst mass murders of the 1930s and 1940s; the part of Europe between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  Starting with the 1933 deliberate starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviet government, policies of mass murder were followed by both countries.

Bloodlands

While there were also massive casualties from World War Two, this book focuses on those policies that were deliberately designed to kill as many people as possible whether this was necessary for military purposes or not.  After the starvation of the Ukrainians, Stalin created the Great Terror, designed to remove anyone in the western part of the Soviet Union  who might have loyalties to things other than Communism, or might be able to lead a resistance.

The Nazis got a later start, but kicked their murder into high gear when they allied with the Soviet Union to invade Poland.  Both sides started slaughtering the locals, the Soviets as an extension of the Great Terror, the Nazis because Hitler wanted the area cleared of all non-Germans (but especially Jews) so that it could be colonized as the Americans did to the Wild West.

Then Hitler decided to go to war with Stalin, invading the rest of Poland, and points east to Moscow.  Naturally, the murder of anyone who wasn’t a German or immediately useful to the Germans came with them.   When Russia turned out to be harder to defeat than planned, the Nazis decided to ramp up killing Jews as an actual war aim–if they couldn’t actually win, they were at least going to take the Jews of Eastern Europe with them.

As the Soviet Union advanced towards the end of the war, they were no gentler than they had been before, and those caught between the two dictatorships suffered for it.

The book goes on to describe the post-war “ethnic cleansings”, where millions of people were moved across new borders to match their “nationality”, which only killed people incidentally.  Then it delves into Stalin’s efforts to rewrite history and make World War Two the Great Patriotic War when the forces of imperialism attacked the heroic Soviet Union, and only the Communists (especially the Russians) fought back.  Yes, some Jews were killed, but only as an incidental side effect to them being Soviet citizens.

There even seemed to be a movement by Stalin towards the end of his life to justify a new Great Terror against Soviet Jews–cut short by him dying.

This is all horrific material, and some readers may find it too strong to stomach.  Along with the mass murder, there’s torture and rape.  Nevertheless, it’s an important book with relevance to many modern topics, including the current state of affairs in the Ukraine.

The author believes that it’s not so much a matter of whether Hitler or Stalin was a worse mass murderer.  The Bloodlands were caused by both of them, separately and working to encourage each other.  Even the Western Allies are culpable to the degree they chose to overlook what Stalin was doing and had done, because Nazi Germany needed stopping.  The phenomenon must be studied and understood so that we can avoid it ever happening again.

The danger is not that we might be the victims, but that under the wrong circumstances, we might become the perpetrators.

The book contains multiple maps, an extensive bibliography, end notes and index, and an abstract that summarizes the main points of the book for the “too long, didn’t read” crowd.

Book Review: A Curious Man

Book Review: A Curious Man by Neal Thompson

Disclaimer:  I received this volume free from the Blogging for Books program, on the premise that I would write a review.

This is a biography of Robert Ripley (nee LeRoy Robert Ripley), the cartoonist who created the Believe It or Not! feature.  I was fascinated by the paperback reprints of the cartoons back in my boyhood, but knew little of the story behind the creator.

A Curious Man

This volume covers Mr. Ripley’s life from barefoot poverty in Santa Rosa, California, to his early career as a sports cartoonist, through his discovery of a love for bizarre factoids and the creation of his famous comic strip to his worldwide fame.    He became a world traveler, a millionaire, star of radio and newsreels and knew many beautiful women, all for doing something he enjoyed immensely.

Of course, he also had his faults; Mr. Ripley was a heavy drinker, sexist, racist by our current standards (though progressive for his time), could not keep it in his pants, and had a tendency to fudge facts about his own life the way he didn’t the stories in his cartoons.  He also became a more difficult person towards the end of his life as his health failed and his drinking and overwork caught up with him.

The story of Ripley’s life is told in mostly chronological order,  with little “Believe It!” factoids about the people and places mentioned.  There’s also the story of various supporters of Ripley; most importantly, Norbert Pearlroth, Ripley’s main research person who found many of the factoids that appeared in the comic.  (He actually stayed with the strip longer than Ripley himself!)

There is a black and white photo section in the middle, but if you have a smartphone, you can download an app with audio and video clips from Mr. Ripley’s many public appearances.  For those of you with multimedia capability, this will make the book a much better value for money.  There are extensive end notes and an index as well.

This biography benefits from the very interesting person at its center, and I would recommend it to any Believe It or Not! fans.

Comic Book Review: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition

Comic Book Review: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition by Amity Shlaes & Paul Rivoche

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and some changes will occur in the final edition (due out around May 2014.)

The Forgotten Man

This is a “graphic novel” version of the revisionist history book by Amity Shlaes in which she argues that the New Deal policies tended to prolong the Great Depression.  For this version, the story is told through the narration of Wendell Willkie, an electric utility executive that ran against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 election.

The black and white Rivoche art serves the subject well, although casting FDR’s face in shadow much of the time is an artistic choice that is perhaps a bit too obvious in its intentions.

The general notion is that government intervention in the economy was (and is) a bad thing, and that self-starting individuals such as the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous could have brought the country out of its slump much earlier.  It also tries to link several of the important figures in the Roosevelt Administration to Communism, a frequent bugaboo of neoconservatives.

That said, there were many missteps in the great experiment of the New Deal, and several of them get a mention here.  Some of them don’t come across quite as the author intended, I think, looking more like the result of bad individual decisions than bad government policy.

There are some really good bits in here, such as the running gag of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon not talking.

The back has a (possibly misleading) timeline and economic chart, followed by a listing of the cast of characters.  The potted biographies carefully cut off as of 1940, which means that you will need to do your own research on such figures as Ayn Rand to see where they actually ended up.

As noted in the disclaimer, this is an uncorrected proof, and some dialogue balloons have missing words or badly constructed sentences, making them make little sense,  which will presumably be fixed in the finished product.

Fans of the original book should find this one interesting, as well as history buffs who enjoy graphic novels.  Those of you who are not familiar with economics may want to brush up a bit to more fully understand the positions being argued here.  In honesty, I’m recommending this one more for the art than the writing.

Manga Review: Afterschool Charisma

Manga Review: Afterschool Charisma by Kumiko Suekane

Shiro Kamiya is an ordinary high school student until the day his father takes a job as headmaster of St. Kleio Academy, and enrolls Shiro in that exclusive school.  A very exclusive school indeed, as all the other students are clones of famous historical figures.  As the only one without a storied predecessor to be emulated or rebelled against, Shiro is an outsider–only a few of the students warm up to him at first.

Afterschool Charisma

It soon becomes evident that there is a darker side to the school when Marie Curie decides she’d rather be a musician than a scientist, she’s “transferred” but she never communicates with those left behind.   There’s a mysterious cult that seems to worship sheep, and the staff are evasive on certain questions.

Meanwhile, the most successful graduate of the school, Clone Kennedy, has been elected president of the United States.   He’s assassinated at his inauguration by a group that declares the intention to kill all clones.   Soon, events spiral out of control as secrets are revealed.

By Volume 8, Shiro has learned that he is not the person he thought he was, but remains confused as to just who he is now.  He and Marie Curie (yes, she’s alive) flee after a media presentation at the school goes horribly wrong, meet “Jesus Christ” who is most assuredly not a clone, and discuss the  different meanings of “freedom.”

They’re soon recaptured, but another layer of the onion is peeled away.  Meanwhile at St. Kleio, one reporter is allowed to remain and interview some of the students, learning more about their feelings toward their situation.  And the emotionally fragile Clone Hitler, now with the “resistance”, attacks his former school in the headlines.

There’s some nice art here, although the prettification of all the historical figures makes them a bit blander than necessary.    There is fanservice, mostly in the omakes, but every so often in the main story there will be unnecessary underwear shots or focus on cleavage.  While the guys are also supposed to be eye candy, there is not nearly an equal amount of objectification for them.

In the early volumes, the students of St. Kleio (named after Clio, muse of history) show a decided lack of curiosity about subjects that directly affect them or are relevant to their survival.  One might think that the school has conditioned them into blind acceptance, except that Shiro doesn’t think of these questions either.

And even though multiple revelations have been made about the secret backers of St. Kleio and the fate of many of the clones, it’s still not clear what the actual purpose of the entire exercise is.   It’s certainly not to turn out people just like their originals.  (As pointed out in the seminal 1973 novel Joshua, Son of None and portrayed by a much better writer in The Boys from Brazil, in order to have the same personality as the original, a clone would have to have the same life experiences.  Would Florence Nightingale have the same personality if she were specifically brought up to be a nurse, as opposed to being raised by a family that was strongly against that profession?  You bet she wouldn’t.)

I’m not sure the author will be able to come up with a satisfying answer in the end, but the ride has been a lot of fun so far.

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