Comic Book Review: Essential Daredevil Vol. 4

Comic Book Review: Essential Daredevil Vol. 4 edited by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas

Created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, Daredevil is Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer.  He was struck in the face with radioactive material as a teen while shoving a blind man out of danger, which both blinded Matthew and gave him extraordinary senses.  When his father “Battlin’ Jack” Murdock was murdered for refusing to throw a boxing match, Matt donned a bizarre devil-themed costume to avenge him.  He then continued to use the Daredevil identity to fight crime and help people.

Essential Daredevil Vol. 4

This volume contains Daredevil #75-101, plus an important issue of the Avengers, #111.  Gerry Conway wrote most of these issues with Gene Colan on pencils.  (As usual, Colan’s work looks great in black and white.)

We open with Matt having mostly broken up with his long-time romantic interest, Karen Page, who is pursuing an acting career.  They’re both having second thoughts, so it’s several issues before they move on and Daredevil can devote his full attention to Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow (who got to share the cover title for a while.)

#75 seems to be a filler issue, with Matt and his law partner and best friend Foggy Nelson visiting South America.  Daredevil battles a revolutionary calling himself “El Condor” after a local hero.  It’s an interesting story because it’s clear that El Condor’s identity was supposed to be a last-page reveal (always wears a mask, the one person who sees his face reacts with shock, and there’s a character who the story logic says it had to be) but El Condor simply dies (crushed by a statue of the original!) and then Matt leaves the country without El Condor’s true identity even being mentioned.

Then begins a long sequence with the mysterious “Mr. Kline” acting against Daredevil and Matt Murdock in various ways.  First he sponsors a mad scientist’s experiments that wind up turning a man named William “Bull” Taurus into the Man-Bull.  A nice touch in this story is that Bull has his own mini-gang and a character named “Freakface” explains why he’s personally loyal to Bull.  At the same time, Kline begins to blackmail Foggy, who at this point is New York City’s district attorney.

Then Kline frees the Owl from prison and provides the gliding financier advanced technology to attack Daredevil.  At the same time, he manipulates the Black Widow into meeting Daredevil as part of a long-term backup plan.  As well, the reader learns that “Mr. Kline” is not as we might have thought one of Daredevil’s old enemies, but an android (MK-9) controlled by an even more mysterious master which codenames it “Assassin.”

Kline’s next maneuver is sending out the Scorpion, who acts somewhat out of character (actually an android), and is apparently killed by the Black Widow.  The Assassin then has Foggy insist on prosecuting Natasha for murder (her background as a Communist spy prejudices people against her.)  The trial is rigged further by Mr. Hyde (another android) murdering the coroner and replacing him with a duplicate.

The trial ends when all the evidence is destroyed by an explosion, but Black Widow is still under suspicion.  She heads to Switzerland, where the Assassin springs the backup plan of having her convince Matt Murdock to undergo an operation to restore his eyesight.

The secret boss is finally revealed to be…no one we could have reasonably guessed.  Baal, a computer from the far future, is trying to avert a disaster in the past that Daredevil (and Iron Man of all people) will eventually cause.  Trying to kill him has failed, though they have managed to prevent Foggy Nelson from eventually becoming the president of the United States.  But restoring Matt’s eyesight will also eliminate Daredevil.

The plan doesn’t work because too obvious, and a deus ex machina prevents Baal from reverting to the “kill Daredevil” idea.

After a couple of transitional issues which resolve the Karen Page subplot, Matt Murdock moves to San Francisco with Black Widow and her chauffeur Ivan, taking a set of rooms in her house there.  At this point in time, the Comics Code prevented unmarried characters from sleeping together.

The local police are less than enthused about their new vigilantes, especially Commissioner “Ironguts” O’Hara.  It takes him a long time to warm up to the colored longjohns  set, even though they’re a big help against powered criminals like Electro and the Purple Man.  (The latter has a flashback sequence to explain how he escaped from jail–which is missing a crucial panel.)

Another lengthy plotline involves Project Four, the very first case Natasha ever worked on as a spy, and the return of her first partner, Danny French.  Danny is ethically bankrupt (he’s now a private detective introduced working both sides of a blackmail case) but winds up having some redeeming qualities.  A new Mister Fear also shows up, but is a red herring.

Gerry Conway wraps up his run with the return of the Man-Bull, and Steve Gerber takes up the writing chores as of issue #97.  He introduces another mysterious mastermind who is empowering seemingly random people for unknown purposes, starting with Mordecai Jones, the Dark Messiah.

This plotline is interrupted by a guest appearance of Hawkeye, Black Widow’s former love interest, who wants to see if he can rekindle the relationship.  No, but it does lead into an Avengers crossover.  They need DD and BW’s help against Magneto, who has managed to mind control the X-Men and most of the Avengers, and is trying to seize the United States’ nuclear arsenal.  (This includes a really skeevy scene of Magneto compelling the Scarlet Witch to dance for his pleasure, which would get even skeevier in hindsight once she was retconned into being his daughter.)

Daredevil turns down an Avengers membership (at this point his supersenses are not sufficiently tuned to allow him to work in a large team) but Natasha accepts.  He thinks that means she’s leaving him.

Issue #100 has Daredevil being interviewed by Rolling Stone and recapping his origin for the readers, in between bouts of mass hallucination.  The latter turns out to be the work of Angar the Screamer, an aging hippie being controlled by the mysterious mastermind previously mentioned.  Black Widow returns (she plans to commute to Avengers meetings) and they manage to drive Angar off…for now.

The good:  Gene Colan art, some nifty villain appearances, Black Widow getting to be competent most of the time, random civilians getting the gumption to fight back against criminals on their own.

Less good:  Matt Murdock’s internal monologues tend to the verbose at best, Daredevil too often feeling he needs to protect Black Widow from danger even though she’s repeatedly shown her competence, gratuitous scenes of Natasha dressing/undressing/showering in a way we don’t see Matt doing, Marvel’s writers just not “getting” the counterculture or feminism despite theoretically catering to them, and the Marvel soap opera formula meaning that Matt can never just be happy for an entire freaking issue without finding something to angst about, often completely unnecessarily.

That said, this is a decent run on the title (though nowhere near the quality of Frank Miller’s first run) and worth checking out at the library.

 

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler

I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do.  Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years.  Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works.  This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors.  Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off.  (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.)  Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories.  Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.

There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short.  They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.)  Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people.  Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”

There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson  (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)

The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality.  “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful.  Most of the bad stories are extremely short.  Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.

There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories.  “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me.  Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.

The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)

Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales.  Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like.  (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)

 

 

Anime Review: Argevollen

Anime Review: Argevollen

When Tokimune Susumu’s sister Reika is killed in a mysterious “training accident”, the boy decides to join the Arandas military as a Trail Krieger (basically walking tanks) pilot to work his way up the ranks in hope of eventually having enough access to learn the truth about her death.  He’s still very green when he is assigned to the 8th Independent Unit under Captain Ukyo Saimonji.  The unit is swiftly mobilized when the neighboring country of Ingelmia mounts an invasion, breaking through a previously impenetrable fortress.

Shirogane no Ishi Argevollen

On the way to the front, the 8th stumbles across a convoy that was ambushed by Ingelmian forces.  Tokimune is ordered not to reveal himself, but charges into battle when he sees there is a survivor of the convoy.  For his troubles, his mecha is shot to bits.  The survivor, rookie engineer Jamie Hazaford, decides to have Tokimune use the convoy’s cargo, a prototype war machine codenamed Argevollen.  Despite Tokimune’s inexperience, Argevollen is so advanced over the enemy mecha that he is able to defeat them easily.

Due to the emergency field activation, Argevollen now requires both Jamie and Tokimune to operate, and the shadowy Kybernes Corporation instructs their employee to stay with the 8th so the unit can be tested without having to rip out all the activation hardware.  Tokimune must learn to work with his machine, Jamie and his fellow soldiers if Arandas is not to go down in defeat.  But dark secrets abound, and Argevollen may be more connected to its pilot than was the intention.

Shirogane no Ishi Argevollen is a 24-episode anime series by the Xebec studio, and as of this writing, can be watched on the Crunchyroll website.

This series tends to come across as very generic for the mecha subgenre, especially in the first few episodes.  There are some notable features, however.  The first is that the series takes place in a world where aircraft were never invented.  This is never explained in a satisfactory manner, but does justify some of the military tactics used.  (The first episode has Ingelmia unveil Trail Kriegers that can jump over walls, the first time this has ever been done in history.)

While Argevollen is a “wonder weapon” it is made clear that it’s not a total game-breaker.  It’s like having one 21st Century tank in a World War Two setting, really effective when it works, but where are you going to get spare parts and a mechanic who can fix it?  Worse, when the production model is developed, Kybernes Corporation withdraws their software support.

The Ingelmian military are not the villains of the series, as such.  They’re mostly well-meaning soldiers obeying orders, told by their leader that they are “liberating” Arandas from its dictatorial king.  (“Just like they liberated my homeland,” notes one officer cynically.)  Even Richtofen, who becomes Tokimune’s self-appointed nemesis, is a pretty decent chap at first.  The real baddies are international arms dealers, a coalition of whom have been secretly exacerbating conflicts world-wide and convincing countries to start wars so they can sell weapons to both sides and test their latest creations.

Most of the characters are stock mecha anime types, for good or ill–this works least well with Jamie, who often comes across as much younger than she actually is, and best with Saimonji, whose stoic determination to spare the lives of his fellow soldiers leads him on a dark path, and an alliance of inconvenience.

The ending is rushed, with several plot threads brutally cut off, and a clear sequel hook; the series is selling poorly, I’m told, so we are unlikely to have that sequel.

Mecha fans are likely to find the show too generic for their tastes, with the fights somewhat downplayed.  Several episodes have little or no giant robot action at all!  But the more sober take and slower-paced episodes might appeal to viewers reluctant to watch more flashy mecha shows.  Parents should be advised that a couple of episodes have scenes where the characters are undressed (but tastefully blocked) and there is of course some bloody violence.  Probably not suitable below junior high.

Movie Review: The Miracle Rider

Movie Review: The Miracle Rider

It is 1935 in the Panhandle area of Texas, home to the Ravenhead Tribe Indian Reservation.    The Ravenheads are a peaceful, hardworking tribe.  Sadly, their land is secretly situated on top of the largest deposit of X-94, an ore with tremendous explosive power, in the world.  Somehow, a white man named Zaroff (Charles Middleton) has learned of this and has been secretly mining the X-94 while posing as an oil driller and ranch owner.

The Miracle Rider

If Zaroff could just get the Ravenheads out of the reservation, he could move in openly and become the most powerful mine owner in the world.  To this end, Zaroff tries to scare the natives off their land with a string of bizarre incidents attributed to the evil Firebird spirit.  He is aided in this by one of the tribe, Longboat (Bob Kortman).  It seems that Longboat is not full-blooded, and if this secret was known to the tribe, he could never become chief.

Good thing Texas Ranger Tom Morgan (Tom Mix) is on the case!  A long-time friend of the Ravenheads since his father died protecting them from squatters, Tom is swift to realize that the events are not supernatural.  He acts to protect Ruth (Joan Gale), a murdered chief’s daughter, while investigating the conspiracy.

Early on, Tom is misled into believing Emil Janss (Edward Hern),  a merchant who wants to sell some unprofitable land he owns to the government for a new reservation, is behind the attacks and killings.  Can Tom unravel the tangled web to reveal the truth before the Ravenheads lose their homes?

The Miracle Rider is a fifteen-part movie serial produced by Mascot Pictures in 1935.  It was the last film work by Tom Mix.  While he was still a big box office draw, as he had been in the silent era, Mr. Mix was getting long in the tooth and had nagging injuries that slowed him down.  He still did many of his own stunts in this serial, but you can see him moving stiffly from time to time.

While there are science fiction elements in the story, they swiftly fade out.  The solar-powered heat ray is never used again after the first installment, and the Firebird, a radio-controlled ultralight aircraft, is destroyed only a few episodes in.  That leaves only X-94 itself, and the explosions never live up to the scale the dialogue says they should.  On the other hand, the Western genre bits stay all the way, and there’s plenty of exciting horse chases, gunplay and fistfights.

Typical of its era, the treatment of Native Americans is dubious at best.  The first installment opens with American heroes Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill Cody trying to honor Indian territory, only to have greedier white men go and steal the land anyway, leading to war.  Tom Morgan’s father is cast in this mold as well, and it’s clear that Tom is meant to be the spiritual successor of the other heroes.

Tom and the good guy Indian agent Christopher Adams (Edward Earle) behave as paternalistic protectors of the Ravenheads, who are superstitious, easily panicked and speak (except Ruth) in a vaudeville “Injun” dialect.  Naturally, all of the Ravenheads with major speaking parts are played by white actors in makeup.  Longboat is referred to as a “half-breed” and this is the major motivation for his villainous actions.

But still, there’s some rollicking action, a bunch of plot twists, and a couple of good cliffhangers (even if a couple have resolutions that are obvious cheats.)  The antics of Tony, Tom’s preternaturally intelligent horse, are a hoot.  Watch it with your kids, but prepare for some rather pointed questions afterwards.

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