Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War edited by Paul Levitz

In 1977, African-American male leads in mainstream comic books were still countable on one hand (and don’t even ask about African-American women!)  But this also had the effect of making a comic with a black person on the front attention-getting.  And I suspect that at least some of the creation of “Gravedigger” came from that fact.

Showcase Presents Men of War

Gravedigger was the lead feature in DC Comics’ last-launched war comics series of the Bronze Age, Men of War.  He is introduced as Sergeant Ulysses Hazard, a polio survivor who threw himself into intense physical training (including martial arts) to overcome his handicaps.  Despite his superior physical condition and combat skills, Hazard was consigned to a segregated battalion and assigned to funeral detail (thus his codename.)  After his heroics saved lives (except his best military friend) and defeated Nazi troops, the white officers ignored his contributions and denied his request for reassignment to a combat unit.

In the second issue, Hazard somehow gets back to the U.S. and single-handedly infiltrates the Pentagon War Room to demonstrate his skills.  A character identified in that issue as the Secretary of War but in later issues demoted to an undersecretary (as his sliminess would have been a slur on the character of Henry L. Stimson, the actual Secretary at the time) decides to use Hazard as a political pawn.  If “Gravedigger” fails on one of the suicidal missions, he can be written off, but if he succeeds, the Undersecretary can take credit.

Now Captain Ulysses Hazard so that he can pull rank when necessary, Gravedigger returns to Europe and takes on a number of commando missions ranging from rescuing art from the Nazis to destroying an experimental mini-sub.  There are guest appearances by a couple of DC’s other war comics characters, and the final issue features Gravedigger actually leading Easy Company (normally the job of Sergeant Rock) for a few hours.

Gravedigger was basically “military Batman”, performing superheroic feats on a regular basis.  To be fair, this is common in comic books about commando-style solo characters, but if you are a stickler for realism, look elsewhere.  Later in the series, he gets a cross-shaped facial scar to give him more distinctive looks, important in comic books.  He even gets an archnemesis, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who enlists mad science in a massive scheme to rid the Reich of this one commando.

In the next to last story, Gravedigger personally saves the lives of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though an opportunity is missed to have Captain Hazard bond with FDR over their mutual experience with polio.

In addition to the expected violence, there’s also period racism, ableism and anti-Semitism (the last confined to Nazi characters.)

The back-up features varied from issue to issue.  “Enemy Ace” featured Baron Hans von Hammer, “the Hammer of Hell”, a World War I German fighter pilot.  He was depicted as noble and honorable, one of a dying breed of warrior outdated by brutal modern warfare.  Some of the stories have art by Howard Chaykin, who is not as well served by the black and white reprint as the other artists.

“Dateline: Frontline” was about American reporter Wayne Clifford, covering World War Two while the U.S. was still neutral, and having his naivete chipped away bit by bit.  He struggles with censorship, the temptation of writing the story to suit the person who can give you access, and the moral gray areas of war.

“Rosa” features a spy working in the late 19h Century who is loyal to no country, and has the habit of switching accents in every sentence either to disguise his nationality or (as he claims in a somewhat dubious origin story) because he is literally a man without a country.  His name might or might not actually be Rosa.  Most notable for having a character switch sides between chapters for plot convenience.

This volume contains all 26 issues, and is not brilliant but is decent work by journeymen creators.  Worth picking up if you are a war comics fan, or interested in the history of African-American characters in comic books.

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

Book Review: That Ain’t Right

Book Review: That Ain’t Right edited by Jeremy Zimmerman & Dawn Vogel

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

That Ain't Right

Howard Phillips “H.P.” Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a minor writer of horror fiction in the early 20th Century.  But thanks to a gift for purple prose, a strong philosophical unity in his stories’ viewpoints and (most importantly) a willingness to share his ideas, he’s been immensely influential in the development of the horror field.  He’s best known for the Cthulhu Mythos, a series of stories involving cosmic “gods” that are implacably hostile to humanity as we know it, not out of malice as such, but because humans are irrelevant to the universe at large.

A number of his stories were set in the Miskatonic Valley region of Massachusetts, a fictional backwater including such shadowed locations as Innsmouth, Dunwich and Arkham.  That last one will be familiar to Batman fans.

Which brings us to the book at hand, an anthology of first-person narratives set in the Miskatonic Valley.  They range in time period from about the 1890s to the far future, and one is set in an alternate history.  As is traditional in Lovecraft-inspired fiction, several of the narrators cannot be telling their stories to any living person, although none of them are quite to the level of that one Lovecraft protagonist who was still writing in his journal even as the monster was actually entering the room.  An especially nice touch is that the fictional narrators have their own author bios at the end of the stories.

Some standouts in the anthology include:

  • “Arkquarium” by Folly Blaine:  A high school student working part-time at the Arkham Aquarium tries to impress the girl he likes by sneaking into the locked laboratory section.  Turns out there’s a reason no one is supposed to go in there.  The protagonist shows some gumption, but isn’t unrealistically competent beyond the average teenager he is.
  • “The Reservoir” by Brian Hamilton:  A direct sequel to Lovecraft’s classic “The Colour Out of Space” which has a microbiologist investigating particles in the water of the title lake.  He finds an old well still calling–or is it a hallucination of the deep?
  • “The Pull of the Sea” by Sean Frost:  A ghost learns that not even death can protect you from the worse horrors that come from the ocean.  The story carefully sets up rules, then the creatures that break the rules come along.
  • “The Laughing Book” by Cliff Winnig:  A college student studies the title book in the restricted stacks of Miskatonic University.  This story is more influenced by Lovecraft’s “Lord Dunsany” period of dark fantasy than his straight-up horror.

The quality of writing is generally good, absent a couple of typos, and the annoying use of phonetic dialect in “Dr. Circe and the Shadow Over Swedish Innsmouth” by Erik Scott de Bie.  Horror tends to be subjective as to whether it works for you or not; I found most of the stories nicely creepy, with a couple going a bit too much for the gore for my tastes.

Recommended for fans of the Cthulhu Mythos, and the more literate horror fan in general.

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler

The title of this volume is slightly misleading; “locked room” stands in for the general idea of impossible crimes in mystery stories.  A man  is found stabbed in the back in a windowless room with the door locked from the inside.   A woman is strangled in the middle of a snowy field, but the only tracks are her own.  Precious jewels disappear from a safe that hasn’t been opened.  It’s a thriving subgenre of the mystery field.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

This book starts with a selection of the most reprinted stories of this type, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and G.K. Chesterton’s “The Invisible Man.”  After these, which most readers will already know the endings to, the remaining stories are grouped by category, such as stabbings or impossible thefts.   A wide swath of famous mystery authors is included, and some more obscure writers with particularly good stories.    At least one of these stories has not been reprinted before.

Not all of these stories are “fair-play” mysteries where the reader can figure out the solution from the clues given, but they all play by the important rules of the subgenre.  It’s never as simple as “there’s a secret passage” and the murder itself is never accomplished by the paranormal.    Some of the stories are tinged with the possibility of the supernatural (Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case” is not one of them, surprisingly), but the solution is always possible, if highly implausible.  (Seriously, random Ourang-Outang attack in the middle of Paris?)

The genre-savvy reader will be able to figure out many of the stories before they end, especially as a couple of them use the same dodge as earlier ones in the volume.  Still, there are often other twists that distinguish the story, such as “The Wrong Problem” by John Dickson Carr, where solving the murder isn’t the real mystery; and “The House of Haunts” by Ellery Queen, which features the overnight disappearance of a three-story stone house, foundations and all!

The stories were mostly written in the Twentieth Century, and the first half of it at that, so there’s some period racism and sexism.  (The Flying Corpse” by A.E. Martin relies a lot on the narrator being unable to follow his wife’s “woman logic” )   I should also mention that at least one of the stories has the “it was suicide disguised as murder” solution, which may be triggery for some readers.

This book would make a terrific gift for the mystery-lover on your holiday list, or for yourself if locked-room mysteries are your thing.  I do have one caveat; the cover is a bit flimsy for the size of the book, and will not stand up well to more vigorous transportation.

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg

This was my Halloween season read this year, an anthology commissioned for the Barnes & Noble stores in 1995.  There are indeed one hundred stories in this hefty tome, averaging about six pages.  They are not all about wicked witches, however–some witches are good, some are just mischievous and others are hard to pin down on a moral spectrum.

100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

The volume opens with “Gramma Grunt” by Donald L. Burleson, about a man returning to the streets of his youth and regretting joining in the taunting of an old woman; and ends with “Wall of Darkness” by Basil Wells, about a piece of architecture that should be left strictly alone.  The oldest story (1933) is “The Mandrakes” by Clark Ashton Smith, one of his Averoigne stories, in which a murdered woman gets revenge through the title plants (though her murderer really should have known better.)  Most of the stories, however, are exclusive to this book.

As might be expected, most of these short tales depend heavily on a twist ending, but a few play it straight with an ending foreshadowed throughout.  Sometimes good people win the day, other times evil triumphs, at least for now.  There are many variations in kinds of witches as well, the most bizarre of which is “Fish Witch” by Lois H. Gresh, with a witchlike species of marine life; it’s got a garbled ending.

Some standouts include:

  • “The Only Way to Fly” by Nancy Holder:  An aging witch who’s lost most of her magic through disuse is on a plane to her retirement home.  Does she have one last spark in her?
  • “There’ll be Witches” by Joe Meno:  Danny is haunted by witches that make him wet the bed.  Too bad the grownups never see them!
  • “Beware of That for Which You Wish” by Linda J. Dunn:  A woman who wants a son consults a wiser woman; the wheel turns.
  • “The Devil’s Men” by Brian Stableford and “The Caress of Ash and Cinder” by Cindie Geddes, a nicely matched pair of stories about witch hunts seen from the victim’s point of view, yet with mirrored perspectives.
  • “The Mudang” by Will Murray:  A skull collector discovers a two for one bargain in Korea.

There’s a few duds as well, but they’re short and over quickly.

Scattered among the stories are a few with scenes of rape, abuse, suicide and other triggery subjects.  There’s also a few iffy ethnic portrayals and those of you who are witches may not like some of the more negative portrayals.

You can probably find this for a modest price from Barnes & Noble; I see it’s been reprinted several times.  Or try the library if you just want to read the bits by your favored authors.

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic edited by David Sklar & Sarah Avery

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

Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

This fantasy anthology has a dual theme, as indicated by its title; magic as transaction, and magic while traveling.  The former theme brings to mind the classic Faustian bargain story, and the preface mentions that the editors got a bushel full of them, only a few making the cut.

There are eighteen stories, nine for each theme, divided into groups of three by subtheme, such as “Bad Roads.”  Most of the stories are new, but some have been previously printed.  Some standouts include:

  • “Ghost Diamonds” by Scott Hungerford.  A woman and her niece discover that compressing  crematorium ashes into a diamond allows calling the ghost of the deceased.  But they aren’t the only ones who have made this discovery, and someone’s been switching the ghost diamonds with fakes.  But why?
  • “Across the Darien Gap” by Daniel Braum.   A guide attempts to take a hunted woman through the rain forest between Central and South America.  His two-dimensional thinking may doom them.  This one has been made into an episode of Psuedopod, a horror podcast, and is now being lengthened into a book.
  • “Only a Week” by Joyce Chng.  This one might actually be science fiction, set in a futuristic Chinatown.  A courtesan seeks to regain her youthful beauty, but the medicine has side effects and can be taken only for one week….
  • “And the Deep Blue Sea” by Elizabeth Bear.  A courier must cross the postapocalyptic Southwest to deliver vital supplies.  But a deal she made years ago is coming due.  Can Harrie finish her delivery with the devil himself in the way?

There’s a good diversity of protagonists, and both happy and sad endings.  A couple of stories are perhaps a little too cliche, but the quality is generally good.

Unlike many small press books I’ve read lately, the proofreading is excellent.

I would recommend this book to fantasy fans in general, and modern fantasy fans in particular.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4 edited by Mort Weisenger

Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are two of the most enduring characters in comic books, thanks to being attached to the one and only Superman.  Lois appeared in the first Superman story in Action Comics #1 (1938), a snarky but skilled reporter who initially had little use for Clark Kent but admired the mysterious superhero.  Jimmy appeared first in the radio adaptation in 1940, first as a copy boy and then as a cub reporter/photographer, being brought into the comics proper in 1941.

Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4

As popular supporting characters, they appeared often in Superman’s stories.  In the 1950s, they got their own continuing series, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane.  As you can tell by the titles, Superman was the co-star of each of these series, appearing in every story.  Eventually, the series, along with Supergirl and some other Superman-related characters, were merged into an anthology comic titled Superman Family.

Jimmy’s stories often centered around him suddenly gaining a superpower, a special advantage, or undergoing a weird transformation.   He would figure out some way of using this, until he got cocky and needed Superman to bail him out of the resulting trouble.    Other stories revolved around his falling in love with women who almost invariably weren’t going to stick around.  His most frequent love interest was Lucy Lane, Lois’ little sister, who was much less invested in the relationship than he was.

Jimmy had an ultrasonic signal watch which he could use to summon Superman in case of trouble, though the watch itself often caused trouble, or Jimmy would misuse it.

Lois also got temporary superpowers often, but her stories focused much more on her relationship with Superman.  She often tried to trick him into marrying her or discover his secret identity.  She also met quite a few men that were ready to marry her right away, though all of them turned out to be flawed in one way or another.  Often Lois was pitted against Lana Lang, Clark Kent’s childhood friend as fierce rivals and best friends.

Sadly, the period where Lois initially got her own series was also when she reached the nadir of her characterization.  Back in the Golden Age, she’d been independent and often gotten herself out of fixes before Superman could rescue her.  Her personality hadn’t revolved around her love of Superman nearly as much either.  Early Silver Age Lois was too often a “damsel in distress” and came off shrewish.  (She remained a crackerjack reporter, though.  Half of the danger she got in was because of her successful investigative journalism.)

It’s no wonder that Superman often played mean pranks on Jimmy and Lois to teach them a lesson.  Sadly, those lessons never stuck.

It is important to remember that these stories (this volume covers 1960-61) were aimed at children, who were expected to only read comics for a few years.  Thus plotlines were often recycled as the previous readers weren’t going to notice, and the status quo remained as steady as possible so that the experience was consistent no matter how many issues you might have missed.  They were never meant to be read all in a row by adults.

Some standout stories in this volume include “Jimmy’s Gorilla Identity” which has an appearance by Congo Bill and Congorilla (Bill, a “great white hunter” , could swap minds with a golden gorilla); “The Curse of Lena Thorul” the first appearance of Lena, who was Lex Luthor’s long-lost sister (and later became one of Supergirl’s supporting cast); and several “Imaginary Stories” peeking into possible futures where Lois Lane and Superman finally get married.

Supergirl and Krypto also pop up a few times; as this was during the period when Supergirl was Superman’s “secret weapon”, she has to be careful that neither Lois or Jimmy realize what’s going on or who she is.

There is period sexism (a couple of stories mention that married women are discriminated against in the job market), hussy-shaming (“slut” was a word you couldn’t use under the Comics Code), fat-shaming, and a general attitude of lookism even by the good guy characters.

All that said, these are fun stories with inventive ideas, often having more plot packed into eight pages than many modern superhero comics do in eight issues.  Highly recommended for the nostalgic Superman fan, moderately recommended for other fans (check your local library.)

Magazine Review: Out of the Gutter #7

Magazine Review: Out of the Gutter #7 (Winter 2010)

Back in the day, the low-cost entertainment option of choice was the pulp magazine.  It contained fast, exciting stories on cruddy paper–a lowbrow art form that is still fondly remembered by some.  “Out of the Gutter” tries to be somewhat in that tradition.

Out of the Gutter #7

This is the “U.S. vs. U.K.” issue, with alternate stories from American and British authors.  They’re handily arranged by the time it takes to read them, with the shortest stories up front, interspersed with somewhat relevant quotes and bits of non-fiction.

Unfortunately, while the cover promises “pulp fiction and degenerate literature,” the stories tend much more strongly to the degenerate side of the equation.   Lots of drugs, sex (yes, including rape), strong language and of course violence, with few likable characters to be seen.  It’s kind of like pouring habañero sauce on your jalapeños; too much burn and not enough nutrition underneath.

That said, there are a couple of good stories.  “Darkness Creeps” by Stephen D. Rogers is a good snapshot of a petty bureaucrat trying to fix a town one atrocity at a time.  “Real Estate” by Benedict J. Jones is about a finger man investigating drug dealers’ deaths.  And “Pleading and Bleeding” by Charlie Wade follows two police officers tracking down a serial killer with a thing for bankers.

The non-fiction is more varied.  A comparison of infamous murderers of the U.S. and U.K.,  a remixed comic about social etiquette, and a piece suggesting that the Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Paine rather than Thomas Jefferson are a sample of these.

Based on this issue, I would not recommend this magazine, but it was certainly an interesting read.

Book Review: The Complete Knifepoint Horror

Book Review: The Complete Knifepoint Horror by Soren Narnia

Disclosure: I received this book as part of a Firstreads giveaway on the premise that I would read and review it.

The Complete Knifepoint HorrorOne of the interesting aspects of writing is the self-imposed challenge. Poems in a rigid format, an exact number of words, not using gendered words–it can stretch a writer’s skills, even if the product isn’t always great art.

As described in its back cover blurb, The Complete Knifepoint Horror is an entire volume of short horror fiction stripped down to essentials. Tight first-person narration (a couple of pieces do cheat on this), no capital letters, paragraphs, page numbers or titles. No gratuitous mood-setting, fancy typography, anything like that.

For the most part, this works pretty well. When the author is “on”, the narrow format makes the story especially intense. On the other hand, it tends to flatten the contrast between narrators. Nineteenth-Century and Twenty-first-Century people “sound” identical in word choice and grammar. Sometimes if I put the book down for a moment, it was hard to tell where I’d left off, even with the aid of a bookmark.

As you might expect, full explanations are rare in these stories. Some come across as a series of random creepy events which may or may not be connected with the final horrific moment.  Others leave the “monster” half-glimpsed and barely described, though there are a couple of straight-up ghost stories and a particularly good zombie apocalypse piece.

I’d also like to point out the “moss” story and the one with the deaf protagonist as innovative and especially worthwhile.

This collection should do well in audiobook or podfic format, though I would recommend having more than one reader to offset the flattening effect I mentioned above.

Recommended to fans of experimental fiction and horror fans with strong reading skills.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents The House of Secrets Volume One

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents The House of Secrets Volume One edited by Joe Orlando

House of Secrets started its publication history in 1956 as a “weird menace” title.  You couldn’t really do horror comics as such under the Comics Code, but  short tales tinged with the supernatural where evil was punished and good rewarded?  Sure.  It also had a number of psuedo-superhero types, like Mark Merlin, Prince Ra-Man and Eclipso.  The last of these, (“Hero and Villain in one man!” went on to be a player in the DC universe, and has his own Showcase volume.  The Silver Age run ended with #80 in 1966.

The House of Secrets

After a three year hiatus, it came back as The House of Secrets.  The Comics Code had eased up some, and it was possible to do horror comics in the mainstream again.    #81 started by introducing an actual House of Secrets, which seemed to be both intelligent and malevolent, killing its then-owner in the first story of the issue.   A new caretaker was hired, the pudgy and rather cowardly Abel, who loved to tell scary stories.  (His nastier  brother Cain did the same over at the House of Mystery.)

Each issue, Abel would introduce a few short tales of horror, often having a small adventure of his own in between.  The quality of the stories varied widely from trite to quite good.  A particularly well-received story was “Swamp Thing” in #92.  It was so liked that the main character was slightly updated and given his own series, which went on to become famous.  Another standout is “The Ballad of Little Joe” in #86, about a puppet that comes to life.  What makes that story special is that one of the “villains” is clearly a philosopher at heart, rather than the conqueror his culture wants him to be.  “You can twist form–but can you ever change a man’s love?”

Then there’s “There are Two of Me…and One Must Die!” in #91, which puts a new twist on the stock DC plot of spotting the fake person by a tiny clue.   I do have to say that reading a bunch of these stories in a row  can make them a bit samey, and they’re mostly quite tame by today’s horror standards.

The art ranges from workmanlike to excellent–the lack of color does not hurt most of the stories, and in some cases enhances the feel.  (The four-color process sometimes detracted from the mood of stories.)

I would recommend this volume to DC fans of a certain age, and those looking for horror stories that are spooky, but not too horrific.  I’ll leave you with one of the epilogues…

“Silence sounds like green vines creeping…dry boards scream like blind men seeking…for these are the signs…of secrets lurking…”

 

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