Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows by Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin

The universe is vast, and intelligent life has arisen on many worlds.  Over millennia, these different lifeforms have spread out from their points of origin and met each other.  Sometimes, these meetings have led to friendly interaction, sometimes they have ended in interspecies war.  No one remembers precisely when, or who did it, but an artificial habitable environment was created to serve as a meeting place for diplomats.  Each new species has added on to that space station to create Point Central, our last, best hope for peace.

Ambassador of the Shadows

Now at last it is Earth’s turn to preside over the Council in the Hall of Screens, and the new ambassador from that planet has big plans.  Plans so big, he needs to be guarded by top spatio-temporal agents Valerian and Laureline.

Valerian and Laureline is a French comic book series originally published from 1967 to 2010, very popular in European comics, and an influence on the look and feel of the movie The Fifth Element.  A new live-action movie version is coming out this summer, so I thought I’d check in on the source material.

The future Earth civilization, Galaxity, is based on time travel technology, which their space travel utilizes for faster than light speed.  This technology is dangerous in the wrong hands, thus the need for special time/space agents.

Valerian is a native of the 28th Century, and initially is quite respectful of authority, and does not question his orders, even when they seem ethically dubious.  That said, he is a good-hearted fellow who does the right thing as he sees it when the chips are down.  While in Middle Ages France, he recruited Laureline as a guide, and she proved so effective that he brought her home with him as an agent.

While Laureline is a fast learner who quickly adjusts to her new surroundings, she has an outsider’s view of them.  A fiery redhead, Laureline is impulsive and suspicious of authority figures, especially when their behavior is fishy.  (She initially was scheduled to be a “girl of the week” but was so well-received by the audience that she became the co-star.)

Earth’s ambassador initially emphasizes the “ass”, but that quickly becomes moot, as both he and Valerian are abducted by mysterious parties immediately upon arrival at Point Central.  Laureline must track them down through the labyrinthine construction and clashing cultures of the diplomatic station.  Comic relief is provided by a cowardly protocol officer Laureline dragoons into service as her sidekick.

The story becomes something of a shaggy dog when things going on in the background make the heroes’ actions irrelevant in the big picture, but this volume is important to the continuity because it introduces two recurring elements.  The Grumpy Transmuter from Bluxte is an astonishingly rare animal that can create copies of any item it ingests; since it’s a tiny animal with a small mouth, it’s limited to things like gems and pharmaceuticals.  Since the galactic community has no common currency, it’s like a portable cash machine and becomes Laureline’s pet.  Also, the Shingouz, greedy information brokers who will dispense helpful data in exchange for large payments.  Laureline becomes one of their favorite customers and they frequently appear in later stories.

The art is good, with the setting allowing the artist to go wild with interesting alien designs.  I’m not a fan of the coloring, though, which is often garish and inconsistent.  In particular, the humans often have bright orange skin.

There’s some violence, but it’s non-lethal, and one scene takes place in an alien brothel where we see some scantily-clad aliens (including Laureline in a disguise.)  Say a PG-13 rating.

Recommended to fans of science fiction adventure and/or French comics.

The City of Shifting Waters

And now a special bonus review of The City of Shifting Waters, which is as of 5/13/17 available for free download on Kindle.  This is an earlier adventure, when Laureline was still a new partner for Valerian.  A mad scientist named Xombul has escaped confinement and used a one-way device to travel to New York City in 1986.

Time voyages to that era are forbidden as global disaster, including melting of the polar ice caps, wiped out the existing civilizations, and there’s a blank spot three centuries long in the history books.  It’s not clear what Xombul is up to, but he must be stopped, so Valerian is sent back.

The secret time portal in the Statue of Liberty becomes inoperable shortly after Valerian arrives when the statue collapses, and the agent is pressed into service by a gang looting the flooded city.  While Valerian does manage to find a clue as to what Xombul is doing, he can’t do much with it.

Until Laureline shows up.  When Valerian didn’t report back in, she went to the time portal in Brazil and worked her way up to New York.  Reunited, the time agents make a deal with the leader of the looters, Sun Rae.  Since there are no historical records of this period, one petty warlord or another makes no difference but allowing Xombul to take over would change the future unpredictably.  They’ll let Sun Rae keep any 1980s science Xombul has gathered in exchange for his help against the intruder.

Turns out Xombul has big plans indeed, and intends to spread his “benevolent” rule over all of space-time!  Will our heroes (and their not so heroic ally) be able to stop him before the future vanishes?

The faces are a bit more cartoony in this volume; perhaps the artist hadn’t quite settled his style yet.  Valerian also comes off a bit more sexist, with some stupid remarks.

Thankfully, even in this cartoonier style, Sun Rae (who’s presumably African-American) doesn’t look too much like a racist stereotype.  When he’s first introduced, we learn he was a flutist before the Great Disaster, and he’s pretty sharp, instantly grasping the advantages of having scientific knowledge once he’s alerted to the idea.  He also doesn’t go out of his way to be evil despite his ruthlessness.

Xombul’s a bit more of a stereotype, given to explaining his brilliant plans to his enemies before disposing of them, and wanting to try out new cool gadgets on human subjects before they’ve been completely tested.  His captive slightly saner scientist, Schroeder, is clearly based on Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor but is better at social skills.

The writing isn’t quite up to the peak of the series, but is pulpy good fun.

Here’s a trailer for the movie!

Book Review: Doctor Dead: A Percy & Quincey Adventure

Book Review: Doctor Dead: A Percy & Quincey Adventure by Tyler Tork

Disclaimer:  I received a free download of this book to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Doctor Dead: A Percy & Quincey Adventure

Percival “Percy” Drew and his cousin Quincey Harker are enjoying an afternoon at San Francisco’s waterfront in 1904.  Until, that is, the young fellows are kidnapped.  It seems that the mad scientist Dr. Benoit believes the albinistic Quincey has a rare blood type that will enhance the endurance of zombis.   The boys must find a way to escape before Quincey is drained dry, or they are themselves turned into the living dead!

This young adult novel is set on an alternate Earth where some of Victorian fantastic literature is real, though often in a different form than the original stories.  (Dracula turns out to have been heavily fictionalized; among other things, Wilhemina Harker is not nearly as decent a person as in the novel.)  It’s fun looking for all the shout-outs.

The book is divided into four adventures, each building on the last.  The boys do escape Dr. Benoit in the first segment, but their elders make poor decisions that come back to bite everyone when Benoit turns out to have taken precautions in the event of being dosed with his own serum.

Most of the story takes place from the viewpoint of thirteen-year-old Percy, with only short sections from the viewpoints of Quincey and Native American (called “Indian” in-story) girl Mary when Percy’s not available to narrate.  Percy is very  bright and something of a mechanical genius, while fifteen-year-old Quincey is more interested in the medical field.

Mr. Tork has done his research on such topics as the manufacture of soft drinks in 1904, so it was a bit of a shock when one of the characters is said to have read H.P. Lovecraft, who would not be published for another decade.

There’s some period racism and sexism; thankfully the boys are only a bit ignorant and not malicious.  It feels at times that the book has trouble fitting in the YA category–a brothel is an important location in the plot, yet no prostitutes are ever “on screen”, nor indeed is it ever explained what goes on in a brothel.

Things become more difficult for our young heroes when a broken time machine comes into the plot; at least one of the adults who are nominally their allies cannot be trusted not to abuse such a device, so they have to keep it a secret from as many people as possible.  This prevents the boys from getting reliable help at various junctures.

There are some quirky supporting characters, and plenty of action to keep the plot moving quickly.  While no sequel is available, there are hooks for an expedition to the Galapagos Islands and a search for lost treasure, so if sales on this book pick up, they may yet be published.

Recommended primarily to teenage boys who’ve read some of the books this volume shouts out to.

Book Review: Empire of Sin

Book Review: Empire of Sin by Gary Krist

A criminal called “the Axman” opens this story, and after a thirty-year flashback through New Orleans history, wraps it up as well.  No one is sure who the Axman actually was, how many of the crimes attributed to him he actually did, or his final fate.  Rather more is known of many of the Crescent City’s other colorful characters between 1890 and 1920 or so.  The reformers tried to make prostitution and other vices confined to a small neighborhood sardonically named “Storyville.”  This created one of the most notorious red-light districts in American history.

Empire of Sin

Gary Krist, who also wrote City of Scoundrels, which I reviewed earlier, covers rather more ground in this volume, expanding from 12 days to three decades of history.  In addition to the brothels and saloons of Storyville, presided over by the genial vice lord Tom Anderson, the history also looks at the alleged Mafia/Black Hand involvement among Italian immigrants, the infancy of jazz music and the coming of Jim Crow.

The high-minded citizens who wanted to reform New Orleans and make it a modern city unfortunately wanted to make it like other Southern cities of the time.  So in addition to segregating out sin and temptation, they wanted to segregate out people of color as well.  New Orleans’ complicated social scene, including many Creoles of color, was simplified (legally at least) into black and white, the first of which was to be suppressed and oppressed.  This resulted in Storyville being one of the few places where people of different races could meet and interact as something like equals.

Meanwhile, the Italian immigrant population had persistent problems with crime;  how organized it was is up for interpretation.   Paranoia and the assassination of the police chief resulted in the Parish Prison lynching of eleven men.   It didn’t help when some of the alleged Mafia people decided to try to muscle in on Storyville.

Quite some space is devoted to the early musicians who created what would become jazz,   “Buddy” Bolden, considered by many to be the first, had a tragically short career due to a sudden onset of mental illness.  But by that time, he had inspired many others, with Storyville providing work opportunities for them in dives and brothels.

While reform movements constantly assailed the vice district, what dealt the crippling blow to Storyville was World War One.  With a major military encampment near New Orleans, and the War Department insistent on keeping their soldiers moral and fit for duty, they imposed restrictions that made it difficult at best to operate.  After the war, Prohibition struck, making it illegal to serve alcohol, the lifeblood of many demimonde establishments.

While crime and vice never actually went away, they did have to go underground, leaving New Orleans a much duller place.  The “better class” people disdained jazz, so the city lost many of its best musicians to other cities, particularly up North.  Eventually, economic doldrums convinced the New Orleans tourist boards to play up its seedy and jazzy past, though somewhat whitewashed.

There’s small pictures at the beginning of each chapter, a bibliography, end note and index.  The paperback edition also has a short interview with the author, a suggested playlist for New Orleans music, and a list of fictional treatments of the Crescent City.

I found this book to be more…diffuse…than Mr. Krist’s previous one–thirty years is a lot of territory to cover.  The focus on the Storyville district means that a lot of other matters get only a glancing view at best.   Still, if you’re curious about New Orleans history, this is a good place to start, well-researched and full of lurid bits.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review. No other compensation was involved.

Comic Book Review: Top 10: The Forty-Niners

Comic Book Review: Top 10: The Forty-Niners written by Alan Moore, art by Gene Ha

In an alternate America with science heroes and other weird or wonderful “characters”, it’s been decided to move everyone who isn’t “normal” to one city, Neopolis.  It’s 1949, and war veterans Jetlad and Sky Witch are reunited on the relocation train.  The new city is bursting at the seams with the continuing arrivals, and crime is on the rise.

Top 10: The Forty-Niners

Jetlad, whose real name is Steve Traynor, finds a mechanic job with the Sky Sharks, an aerial team that themselves are at something of loose ends with the end of the war.  Leni Muller, the Sky Witch (who’d defected from Germany during the war) winds up joining the understaffed police department.

In addition to the usual random street crime, there’s a lot of prejudice against the mechanical-American minority (vulgarly called “clickers”,) something is up with the Nazi scientists the U.S. has kept away from the Russians, and vampire gangsters are taking over the city’s rackets.  Although a romance is blooming, the climax is a major battle to determine just who the law is in Neopolis. and who it will serve.

This is a prequel to the Top 10 series by the same creative team, and fills in some of the background of the city seen there.  As with the original series, some of the characters are thinly-veiled versions of well-known comic book and comic strip characters.  Centrally to this volume, Jetlad and Sky Witch are takeoffs of classic characters Airboy and Valkyrie.  (Airboy was also used in the Wild Cards series under another alias.)  The Sky Sharks are the Blackhawks, and other characters are pretty obvious to fans of the original material.

Gene Ha also puts in many background cameos and sign references, readers can have hours of fun trying to spot and identify them all.  The coloring also deserves a mention, using sepia tones for a nostalgic feel.

The writing, as expected from Alan Moore, is good, but tends to dip into some of his favorite themes, which had gone a bit stale by the time this series appeared.  There’s a fair amount of seamy sexual content (including a vampire brothel) which makes this volume unsuitable for younger readers.  (I’d put it senior high and up.)

If you enjoyed the main Top 10 series, this is a good addition to that.  Otherwise, I recommend this most to older comic book fans who will get the references and are able to handle the seamier aspects.

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