Book Review: Herb Kent West Point Cadet

Book Review: Herb Kent West Point Cadet by Graham M. Dean

The United States Military Academy in West Point, New York was established in 1802 as a training ground for United States military (primarily Army) officers.   It’s known for its high academic standards, strong Code of Honor, oh, and its students’ athletic achievements.

Herb Kent West Point Cadet

The last is the primary focus of this novel, written in 1936 when West Point’s football team was particularly well known as a powerhouse.  Herb Kent is a young fullback who’s the star of his hometown high school team, but also good at academics, and a stand-up fellow.  His father was a football star at West Point, but never served in the military due to the sudden onset of an eyesight problem.  His real estate business is suffering in the Great Depression, and Herb’s three dollars a week from a part time job is keeping the family out of the poorhouse.  There’s no chance of Herb going to college–unless he can win an appointment to West Point!

The first third of the book is the lead up to and detailed play by play of Herb’s final high school game, hometown Marion against rival Milford (evidently in their state in the 1930s there’s no playoff season.)  This serves to introduce Herb, his best/only friend quarterback Ted Crosby, and jealous rival fullback Steve Moon.

Steve is the sort of villain who often appears in boys’ fiction of the early Twentieth Century, the “small town rich” kid who has more money than sense, and resents the hero for having success based on talent and hard work.  Steve has good technical football skills, but no sense of teamwork or sportsmanship, which has resulted in him riding the bench most of the season.  He tries various dirty tricks to get Herb out of the big game so that he can be the star.  (And later in the story escalates to attempted vehicular homicide!)

After the big game, Herb, Ted and Steve prepare for the USMA entrance examination (even if you’re great at football, you still have to qualify.)  Herb and Ted win highest marks and are recommended by their state’s senators, while Steve barely passes but his wealthy father uses leverage on a House rep to get Steve a slot.

A friend of the family gets Herb and his buddy summer jobs as camp counselors in northern Minnesota, where they save some campers from a forest fire.  And it turns out one of the camp’s leaders is a famous football coach who gives our heroes pointers.

Finally, Herb arrives at West Point, where he and Ted are immediately tagged for their company’s football team (plebes don’t go on the college’s varsity team no matter how good their high school record was.)   You’d think that the grinding schedule of the plebes wouldn’t allow for any serious shenanigans, but Steve Moon just will. not. let. it. go.

After leading his team to victory over the other plebe football squads, Herb is ready for a big celebration.  But look, the neighboring barracks are on fire!  Herb goes in and saves Steve (who may or may not be responsible for the blaze) but Steve isn’t exactly grateful.

Despite the age of the main characters, this is very much a children’s book aimed at boys maybe ten to twelve.  Situations are black and white, with no subtlety, everyone cares  far more about football than any other subject, and the only female character even mentioned is Herb’s mother.  She cooks well and worries about her son getting military training.  (Perhaps she should be more worried that his father’s eye condition (never explained) is hereditary.)

Herb is a star athlete, intelligent, morally pure, and oh yes handsome.  This last we learn in a lovingly described shower scene he shares with Ted, who also gets his lean but muscular body mentioned.   You know, for kids.  Anyhow, the one flaw Herb has is that he is far too reliant on handling things on his own.  For example, he deals with Steve’s attempt to run him over by challenging the other boy to an impromptu boxing match.  Herb is warned by adults that this approach could backfire, but it never does.

The football scenes are well-written and exciting, while all other activities tend to be sketchily described (as, for example, what classes one takes at West Point.)

While this was clearly meant to be the first in a series of Herb Kent books (the title of the next one is on the last page) no sequel seems to have been published.  Given the timing, Herb would probably have made First Lieutenant just in time for World War Two.

The archaic attitudes may make this book less appealing for modern boys, but I’d still recommend it to football fanatics.

And now, let’s enjoy a football game from the year of publication, as Army battles its age-old rival Navy:

 

Manga Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 1 Phantom Blood 01

Manga Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 1 Phantom Blood 01 by Hirohiko Araki

Centuries ago in Mexico, an offshoot of the Aztecs discovered a method of attaining eternal life through the consumption of human blood.  They ruled supreme for a while, then abruptly vanished from the pages of history.  One of their mysterious stone masks was excavated in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, and made its way to Britain.  There, it became the catalyst that altered the fate of two young men and their descendants.

Jojo's Bizarre Adventures Part 1 Phantom Blood 01

In 1868, lower-class ne’er-do-well Dario Brando was returning home from the pub in a storm when he came across a carriage accident.  The driver and the female passenger were dead, and the male passenger looked dead, but an infant was alive.  Dario was going to loot the bodies, but the man woke up and mistakenly believed that Dario had saved his life.  He rewarded the rascal handsomely.

Dario used the reward money to open his own pub, but his alcoholism and general mismanagement drove it into the ground.  He also abused his wife and child, sending the former to an early grave.  By 1880, his health was completely failing and Dario realized he was about to die.  Despite his behavior, Dario did love his son Dio, and decided to prevail upon the rich man in a letter to take care of the boy.

And so it was that Dio Brando came to live with the Joestar family.  A cunning lad, and already a skilled manipulator at age twelve, he swiftly ingratiated himself to everyone but the Joestar heir, Jonathan Joestar, who was nicknamed “Jojo.”  Dio’s plan was to estrange Jojo from his family and friends, cutting him off from all positive human contact.  He meant to drive Jojo to suicide, allowing Dio to become the new heir to the Joestar fortune.

This plan doesn’t quite work, and Dio switches to biding his time, but not before committing a horrific act of animal abuse.

In 1888, with the boys graduating school (Jojo taking a degree in archaeology, and Dio in law), Mr. George Joestar is ill and sinking fast.  Jojo finds the letter Diego Brando sent introducing Dio, and discovers that Diego’s symptoms exactly match those of George.  He swiftly realizes that Dio is somehow responsible.

Jojo heads to the slums of London to get the evidence he needs, and the antidote for his father.  Meanwhile, Dio has filched the stone mask from George’s collection, and is about to find out what it really does.  When these two meet again, the true nature of their fate will be revealed!

This was the first installment of Araki’s series of series about the adventures of the Joestar family and those connected to them.  After the initial color pages, which assure the audience that weirdness is coming, the story switches to a somewhat more realistic tale of a charismatic social climber using any method at his disposal of getting wealthy without getting caught.

Until Dio’s cornered and decides to find out what the stone mask actually does, of course.  The volume ends as he uses the mask himself–the amazing battles that this manga is known for begin with the next volume.

Araki’s character designs are bulkier here than in later installments.  As he mentions in the author’s notes, this was created in the age when Stallone and Schwarzenegger were the big movie stars, and overgrown musculature was all the rage.  Jojo and Dio can barely fit into their somewhat fanciful Victorian suits.

This volume also has the one combat scene where Speedwagon, a former slum dweller who becomes Jojo’s sidekick and a good ally to the Joestar family, does anything of importance.

This is a violent series, and there are often grotesque results fully shown on-panel.  Especially disturbing is what happens to the dog Danny.

As was the custom with shounen (boys’) manga of the time, female roles are at a minimum.  Erina is there to be a romantic interest for Jojo, and to be forcibly kissed by Dio as a way of hurting his rival.  (This scene also shows how abusers can be enabled by their friends; Dio’s hanger-ons admire him for doing things they’re too chicken to actually try.)

This is also very much penny dreadful England, not a meticulously researched historical fiction.  The Chinese character is particularly stereotyped.

The characterization is very shallow, with most of the good bits going to Dio, who would become one of manga’s and anime’s defining villains.  Araki has since gotten much better at writing.

Recommended to anyone who’s enjoyed the Jojo anime series.

Book Review: Strip for Murder

Book Review: Strip for Murder by Max Allan Collins

Years ago, Sam Fizer hired young Hal Rapp as an art assistant on his comic strip Mug O’ Malley.  At first, they were good friends, but when the ambitious Rapp struck out on his own with his new strip Tall Paul, Fizer felt betrayed.  Especially as the characters around hillbilly Paul were very similar to ones created for Mug’s supporting cast.  The two men feuded for years; but things have become especially heated now that there’s a Tall Paul musical on Broadway and Sam Fizer’s ex-wife has a big part in it.

Strip for Murder

So when Sam Fizer is found dead at his drawing board, in a particularly fake-looking “suicide”, Hal Rapp is the number one suspect.  It’s up to Starr Syndicate’s in-house troubleshooter Jack Starr and his stepmother/boss Maggie Starr to figure out who really killed Fizer and why, if they want to hire Rapp away from his current distributor.

This is the second Starr Syndicate novel, set in the 1950s by author Max Allan Collins, who is familiar with the newspaper comics business from his time as the writer of Dick Tracy.   It’s a roman a clef (novel with a key) as Fizer and Rapp stand in for Ham Fisher, creator of Joe Palooka and Al Capp of Li’l Abner fame.  Several other cartoonists also get the transparent name change treatment.  As the author mentions in the afterword, this is so he can switch things around and introduce entirely fictional elements.  (For example, Ham Fisher didn’t die the year the book has Sam Fizer doing it.)

For a huge old-time comics fan like myself, there are lots of in-jokes and references to enjoy; but there’s also a twisty mystery with multiple suspects and several red herrings for those who just want to read a book.   The experience is enhanced by the drawings of Terry Beatty, who gets to stretch a bit as he imitates the art styles of the cartoonists in question.

Jack Starr is a likable narrator, closer to soft-boiled than hard as he’s had to give up alcohol and tobacco, and drinks Coca-Cola like they’re paying him to endorse it.  (He claims they aren’t, but he’s willing to make a deal.)  He does the legwork, but it’s actually former stripper Maggie who is the brains of the outfit.

There are some outdated period attitudes, deliberately done, but still a teensy irritating.

Overall, good writing, a sense of fun, and you may learn a thing or two about the comics business.  Highly recommended.

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