Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6 edited by Julius Schwartz

By 1971, the Batman television show had been off the air long enough that its sales boost to the Batman and Detective Comics series had faded, and with it, the incentive to model the magazines on the show.  Bruce Wayne moved from stately Wayne Manor to a penthouse in downtown Gotham City and started a charitable organization for victims of crime.  Dick “Robin” Grayson went off to college on the other side of the state, and guest-starred infrequently.  And most of Batman’s regular rogues’ gallery took a vacation.

Showcase Presents: Batman Volume 6

This freed up space for a more somber tone, although this run certainly had its own silliness, such as a return engagement by the Ten-Eyed Man, whose optic nerves had been transplanted into his fingers.  And Two-Face made an appearance for the first official time since the 1950s.  But quite a few of the stories had Batman facing off against ordinary murderers and organized crime…as well as what appeared to be ghosts and psychic powers.

This volume covers Batman 229-236 and Detective Comics 408-416.  The first story, “Asylum of the Futurians” pits the Caped Crusader against a group of apparent lunatics who’ve captured a photographer in the mistaken belief he possesses psychic abilities that will make him their leader.  (It’s never clear that the Futurians actually have ESP; it certainly doesn’t help against Batman; but then how do you explain the sudden impulse he had to investigate the neighborhood?)

Several stories are topical to the 1970s.  Thinly veiled versions of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and “participatory journalist” George Plimpton make guest appearances.  Stories featuring youth activism and black radicals have aged poorly; the latter mixes in a police corruption subplot, the end of which supposedly fixes injustice in the legal system of Gotham City.  Batman’s platitudes towards the radicals he’s fighting/helping come off as tone-deaf.

Other stories focus on Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective, revealing at the end the one clue he noticed where the criminal slipped up.  One, taking place at a production of Macbeth, involves the literal pricking of Batman’s thumbs.

The most notable plotline was the first appearances of Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia.  Talia appeared first, helping Batman bring down Dr. Damien Darrk of the League of Assassins, who had fallen out with her father.  Then Ra’s contrived a scenario where both Robin and Talia were kidnapped in order to test Batman’s fitness to marry Talia (who had fallen for Bruce) and eventually take over his shadowy empire.

As created by writer Denny O’Neil and artists Dick Giordano and Neal Adams, Ra’s al Ghul was a mastermind in the Fu Manchu style (particularly the later novels.)  He controlled a vast criminal network, but did not consider himself a criminal, but rather humanity’s eventual savior.  Over his long life, Ra’s had become convinced overpopulation was the root of all the Earth’s problems.  Therefore he was going to do something about that.

Like Fah Lo Suee before her, Talia was conflicted between loyalty to her father and the desire to jump the hero’s bones.  Ra’s respected Bruce’s intelligence and skills enough to allow them to be mated, but only if Batman accepted a place as the Demon’s Head’s heir presumptive.  And no, Batman was not impressed by the “kill most of humanity to save the rest” plan.

After several encounters, Batman decides to take down Ra’s al Ghul once and for all, assembling a small team of specialists to help.  (This was the first appearance of the Matches Malone disguise, as Batman’s attempt to recruit the hitman went awry.)  After much ado, they finally catch up to the mastermind, or rather his corpse.

Except that it turns out Ra’s has access to something called the Lazarus Pit, which allows him renewed life and vigor at the cost of temporary insanity.  (This puts a different cast on an earlier story where Talia had supposedly believed her father dead.)  Eventually, Batman and Ra’s al Ghul must duel in single combat to determine which of them shall triumph in the last story of the volume.

This is nifty stuff, with some crackerjack writing and excellent art.  On the other hand, Talia’s personality is entirely defined in this storyline by her relationships with men, and she wavers back and forth between them as the plot demands.

Overall, this is a good run of Batman, and well worth requesting for the library, or even buying if you are a big Batman fan.  (Batgirl has a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.)

Book Review: Goblin Quest

Book Review: Goblin Quest by Jim C. Hines

Jig has always lived in the mountain, only hearing third-hand stories about the outside world.  Even stepping outside the goblin warrens is dangerous, why risk going any further?  Still, he dreams of being promoted from his lamplighter duties (a child’s job) to a patrolling warrior.  Jig’s smart, but that counts little in goblin society when he’s also small and weak, with poor vision.

Goblin Quest

Then  one day Jig is bullied into acting as a scout for a lazy patrol, only to find himself captured by adventurers who have killed the rest of the goblin patrol.  A captive, Jig is forced to become a guide for the party of four.  There’s Prince Barius, a younger son touchy about his honor and his low status among his siblings; Ryslind, Barius’ brother whose magic seems to be adversely affecting his sanity; Darnak, a dwarven cleric and tutor to the brothers, and Riana, an elvish pickpocket who was also dragooned  into serving Barius.  It seems they’re after the Rod of Creation, a powerful artifact that supposedly created the mountain itself.  Jig’s chances of survival just keep dropping!

This is the first volume in the “Jig the Goblin” trilogy of comedic fantasy novels by Jim C. Hines, who was a Guest of Honor at Minicon 52.  It’s heavily based on the kind of “kill monsters and take their stuff” style of fantasy common to games of Dungeons & Dragons, and in specific seems to be parodying aspects of the Dragonlance series of D&D tie-in novels.

One of the common hallmarks of comedic fantasy is to tell the story from the viewpoint of someone who isn’t the typical hero of heroic fantasy stories, and in this case, it’s one of the “monsters” who would normally be cannon fodder to allow the protagonists to show off their prowess before getting to really tough opponents.

Jig is initially only sympathetic because of his underdog status; he’s cowardly, selfish and all too willing to let others suffer or die in his place.  As the story progresses, Jig has his horizons expanded as he learns about the adventurers from their perspective, and realizes that goblin social norms put them at an even greater disadvantage than they already had due to their small size and lack of technology.  He even finds a god!

Meanwhile, the adventurers are no heroes; Prince Barius’ motive for seeking the Rod is entirely self-centered, Ryslind has a hidden agenda, Darnak is at least honorable, but must serve the brothers’ will, and Riana is only serving due to a threat of prison or execution.

And that’s not getting into the truly strong and evil monsters that wait deeper within the mountain.

Once Jig is dragooned into the party, the plot is a fairly straightforward dungeon crawl with some backtracking towards the end.  The back half of the book reads quickly, and the ending is reasonably satisfying.

Recommended primarily for fans of the tabletop role-playing games the setting is based on.

Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Manga Review: Doraemon, Vol. 1

Manga Review:  Doraemon, Vol. 1 by Fujiko F. Fujio

It’s not often that someone is so big of a loser that his descendant feels the need to travel through time to fix it.  But Nobita Nobi has managed it.  Nobita’s a wimp, as well as not very bright and so lazy that he doesn’t even get the low grades he could if he put in an effort.  His classmate Gian frequently bullies him, and Shizuka, the girl Nobita likes, has placed him firmly in the friendzone.

Doraemon, Vol. 1

Nobita’s grandson’s grandson uses time travel to come back to his ancestor’s elementary school days.  He reveals that Nobita will eventually marry Gian’s ugly little sister Jaiko, fail miserably in business and saddle the family with so much debt they’re still paying it off in the late 22nd Century.  But the descendant has a plan.  Get Nobita a wise and powerful guardian robot that will protect and guide the boy towards a better future!  (The rules of time travel are such that the descendant will still be born in some form, but hopefully with a better life.)  Unfortunately, with his miserable future allowance, all the boy could afford is the defective and damaged cat robot Doraemon.

Doraemon means well, but he is also kind of lazy and can be distracted by sweet dorayaki treats.  So he often doesn’t think through the consequences of giving Nobita access to the many futuristic gadgets Doraemon carries in his pouch.  And when he does consider the consequences, he can be bribed or tricked into letting Nobita use them anyway.  And that sets the primary pattern for the series stories.  Nobita or one of the other characters has a problem, one of Doraemon’s gadgets comes into play to fix it, the gadget is abused, and Nobita winds up in a heap of trouble.

The original manga ran from 1969-1996, a total of 45 volumes created by Fujiko F. Fujio (pen name of Hiroshi Fujimoto (1933-96) who was half of the Fujiko Fujio combo.)  It has spawned spinoff manga, several TV series, and a long-running series of animated movies.  Doraemon is considered one of the cultural icons of Japan.

This is the Kindle edition, and the word “volume” is an exaggeration.  There are three stories for a total of about 30 pages, and they are selected rather than printed in the order of publication.  (I suspect the latter is to avoid any of the stories with nudity, which is a problem for American children’s media.)  Some of the names are changed; Gian and Jaiko become “Big G” and “Little G” respectively.  This version has been colored, but as the original was in black and white, it looks fine if your Kindle can’t do color.

“All the Way from the Future” is the first chapter of the series and sets up the premise.  Doraemon arrives on New Year’s Day to change Nobita’s life.  Nobita is doubtful at first, but various incidents occur as the robot cat predicted.  At the end, the first of Doraemon’s many futuristic gadgets is introduced, miniature propellers that you stick on your head (or other body part) to fly.  It doesn’t work out so well for Nobita.

Some readers may find the part where Nobita marrying a woman who isn’t conventionally attractive is a Bad Future annoying.  The good news is that in a much later story, we see the Slightly Better Future where Nobita hooks up with Shizuka–and Jaiko has become a successful artist, much happier than if she was stuck as Nobita’s baby factory.

“Return to Un-sender” has Nobita’s mother worried because a friend hasn’t replied to a letter she sent.  Turns out Nobita’s father never actually mailed it.  To help Dad out, Doraemon pulls the “Pre-mailer” out of his pouch.  This item looks like a miniature postal collection box; you put your letter in (must be properly addressed and stamped) and you will instantly get the response you would have gotten had you actually sent the letter.  However, you must then actually send the letter if you want the recepient to react that way in real life.  Dad posts Mom’s letter, gets the response and gives it to Mom, who is happy, while Nobita and Doraemon go out to actually mail the letter and complete the time loop.

The kids play around with the Pre-mailer a bit, including Suneo, the spoiled rich kid who is generally Gian’s sidekick.  (He writes a letter to the bully expressing his true opinion; the response chills his blood, and Suneo opts not to actually send it.)  Nobita decides to write a love letter to Shizuka, but while he’s out getting a stamp, Mom mails the letter for real.  A hastily-written duplicate reveals that Shizuka will not be pleased at all by the love letter, so now Nobita and Doraemon must camp out on her doorstep in hopes of intercepting it.

“Noby’s City of Dreams” starts with the kids discovering that the only vacant lot in the neighborhood has been taken over by a construction company.  Their parents don’t want them playing rough inside, and it’s too dangerous to play in the street, so what’s a kid to do?   This time Doraemon has a two-gadget solution.  The first is a camera that creates miniature duplicates of non-living objects, like houses and stores.  The second is the Gulliver Tunnel, go through it one way to become tiny, the other way to return to normal.  This allows Doraemon and Nobita to create a miniature town in the back yard for all the kids to play in.  Until Mom clears all the “toys” away because she wants a storage shed built there.

This is very much a children’s series, and it’s a classic for a reason.  But some parents may feel that Nobita’s many flaws make him a poor choice as a protagonist (he is very kind and brave when he needs to be, but none of these stories show that.)  There’s bullying, and in stories in other volumes, parents using physical discipline.

If your kids like the “Doraemon” TV show, this is worth a look.

Anime Review: Battle Athletes: On Your Mark

Anime Review: Battle Athletes: On Your Mark

In the far future year of 2015, World War Three is interrupted when Earth’s magnetic poles shift drastically, causing global disaster.  The silver lining is that the survivors united to form a peaceful culture that then rapidly advanced.  However, by the 31st Century, humanity was again at war, against aliens this time.  After several centuries of stalemate, a contest of champions was proposed, a series of athletic competitions.  Despite the aliens being physically superior to Terrans on average, Earth’s exceptional champion succeeded in ending the war in Earth’s favor.

Battle Athletes: On Your Mark

As a result, humanity has become obsessed with physical culture and athletic competition.  Female athletes compete at the University Satellite to gain the title “Cosmic Beauty.”   The year is 4999, and Akari Kanzaki, daughter of former Cosmic Beauty Tomoe Midou, has come to the University Satellite to train and then compete for her own shot at the title.

There were two anime continuities for this series; I’m looking at the original OAV version of six episodes in this first DVD volume-but the television remake Battle Athletes Victory lasted 26 episodes.   The TV series drastically altered several characters’ personalities and plot arcs, as well as adding more characters in general.

The first episode, “Chronicle Beginning”, sketches in the backstory, then introduces our heroine, who is running (literally) late for the rocket from Earth to her new school.  We are then introduced to her buddies from training camp; Tanya, who has animalistic qualities that are never really explained and a blonde girl whose name I didn’t catch and quickly becomes irrelevant.

The girls are assigned to random roommates who will be their team for the upcoming year; Tanya wanders off to find food first, while Akari checks out the training facilities.  She soon finds out the students here train at a completely different level, and spends so much time bonding with senior students that the information kiosk that would have told her where her new dorm room is has closed.

Meanwhile, painfully shy new student Anna Respighi has become hopelessly lost and innocently interrupts senior student Mylandah’s visualization training.   Mylandah, who is obsessed with becoming number one, is slapping Anna around when Akari shows up.  Mylandah directs them through a deserted corridor to the new student dorm…without telling them that it’s got variable gravity.  She then bullies them some more.

The girls are rescued by their third roommate, Kris Christopher, who is from the Moon and is used to operating in variable gravity environments.  She in turn is bailed out by Headmaster Grant Oldman, the champion of Earth (and not so secretly the kind of guy who pervs on teenage girls.)

Kris is thrilled to meet her roomies, and tells them she wants to feel even closer to them…while removing her clothes!

In the second episode, “Oath Entrant”, Kris takes off her clothes (there’s Barbie doll anatomy,) and performs a skyclad ritual.  It turns out she belongs to a Lunarian cult called the Beginners, who are into spirit worship and casual nudity.   Anna is especially freaked out by the latter due to her strong nudity taboo (but that is something that comes up in Episode Three.)

The first sport the trio is entered into is Zero-G lacrosse; which they aren’t allowed to warm up for or learn the rules before being thrust into the first match…which just so happens to be against Mylandah and her anonymous teammates.   Lacking teamwork and basic information about how the sport works, Akari’s team is stomped.  Akari promptly has a crisis of confidence.

Akari consults a hologrammatic display of her mother when that person was a student at the Satellite, then sets up a robotic practice room.  Mylandah sabotages the practice by altering the settings to “lethal”, but this gives Anna and Kris the chance to rescue Akari and bond with her.  By the end of the lacrosse matches, Team Akari is able to win one.

This 1997 series came out before the current moe movement, but one can see the roots of that treatment here.  Akari is underconfident and emotionally vulnerable in a way designed to make male viewers protective of her, while Anna, Kris and Tanya appeal to specific fetish points.  While the focus on female athleticism is welcome, the young women with visible musculature are treated as less desirable by the camera framing and narrative flow.

Male-oriented fanservice is right up front, and Grant Oldman’s sexual interest in teenage girls is treated as a lovable foible rather than a concerning flaw in a teacher.

This isn’t as deep as Ender’s Game, but does have a similar feel at points.  Interestingly, Japanese culture seems to have survived just fine in the internationalist future.

Recommended for male fans of female athletes; there’s better anime of girls’ sports actually aimed at girls.

 

Manga Review: Noragami: Stray God #1

Manga Review: Noragami: Stray God #1 by Adachitoka

Mutsumi is in a bad way.   Not only is she under stress studying for the high school entrance exams, but her classmates have turned against her, bullying Mutsumi and encouraging her to self-harm.  She’s locked herself in a toilet stall for a good cry when suddenly she sees a telephone number in the graffiti advertising someone named “Yato” who promises to solve her problems.  Desperate, Mutsumi calls the number.

Noragami: Stray God #1

To her shock, Yato (who appears to be a teenage boy) and his female companion Tomone teleport straight into the girls’ room to discuss Mutsumi’s problem.  It turns out that Yato is a kami (“spirit” or “god”), but he’s at the very bottom of the hierarchy, with no worshipers or space in a shrine, making him a “stray.”  In an effort to increase his visibility and save up cash to buy a place to live, Yato has scribbled his number all over town, and charges five yen (roughly a nickle) for his problem-solving services.  Tomone is Yato’s shinki, a living weapon with a mind of her own.

Unfortunately, Yato isn’t all that bright, and tends to solve problems by cutting them with his sword.  Mutsumi’s problems are partially caused by an ayakashi (hostile spirit) that is amplifying and feeding on the negative emotions caused by exam stress, and cutting that is relatively easy.  But that isn’t the only issue, and how Yato finally solves it disgusts Tomone so much that she quits, leaving Yato weaponless at the end of the first story.

This series ran in Monthly Shounen Magazine in long chapters, so there are only three in this volume.  In the second story, Yato meets Hiyori Iki, a human girl who is a big pro wrestling fan, and due to an act of selfless courage develops the ability/problem of her soul slipping loose from her body.   In soul form, she’s physically powerful, but also very vulnerable, gaining a “tail” that’s actually a link back to her physical body–if it’s cut, she dies!  The third story ends with Yato gaining a new shinki, Yukine, who is decidedly unimpressed with his master.

The name of the series immediately brings to mind the classic 1930s manga Norakuro, about a stray dog that joins a canine-people version of the Imperial Japanese army, learns discipline and valor, and climbs the enlisted ranks.  Little-known in America, it was popular and influential in Japan, with demilitarized versions appearing after World War Two ended.

Noragami is fun adventure-comedy, contrasting Yato’s blunt and sometimes abrasive personality against Hiyori’s naivety and sunniness.  While both of them are eager to help people, Yato is goal-oriented and must be compensated first (even if it is just a nickle) while Hiyori just does it because it’s the right thing to do.  Yukine barely appears in this volume, so a full read on his character is not available here.  The art is decent and conveys the action and mood nicely.

As mentioned, the first story does involve bullying, and there is an element of victim-blaming.  There’s a small amount of incidental fanservice–thankfully, the “camera” does not linger.  And of course there’s a certain amount of fantasy violence.  It should be suitable for junior high readers on up; parents of younger readers should point out why victim-blaming is not useful.

This series was popular enough to get a two-season anime adapation, which I have not seen.   Recommended for fans of shounen fantasy manga.

Manga Review: Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan

Manga Review: Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the first volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s  massive history of Japan during the reign of Emperor Hirohito, the “Showa Era,”  It was a long reign, covering most of the Twentieth Century, from 1926-1989.  In addition to the larger story of Japan, it is also his autobiography, as Mizuki’s earliest childhood memories coincide with the beginning of that era.

Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan

This volume opens several years earlier, with the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 which devastated Tokyo.  The repercussions of this, combined with fiscal mismanagement, created a financial crisis that crippled Japan’s economy.  The optimism and liberalization of the Taisho period took a huge hit.  Japan struggled along until 1929 and the worldwide effects of the Great Depression hit.

A combination of the Red Scare (the belief that Communists were about to take over), military successes and government incompetence led to the rise of right-wing organizations, especially military cliques.  Japan became ever more aggressive against its neighbors in Asia, setting up the puppet state of Manchukuo and grabbing ever more territory from China.

Japan became a rogue state, leaving the League of Nations when that body attempted to intervene in its conquests.  Only Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy recognized Manchukuo, and Japan’s alliance with those nations was about to drag it into World War Two.

This is a “warts and all” history, which covers events that many Japanese schoolkids might not be taught in official classes, or have glossed over for them.  There are many painful topics in here, so despite childish hijinks in the parts dealing with Shigeru’s early life, I would recommend it for senior high school students and up.

Warts and all is also how Mizuki depicts himself as a child and young man.  Naturally athletic but lazy, bright but unmotivated, sensitive but engaging in fights both as part of a gang and solo.  It will take the horrors of war (as depicted in the third volume) to force him into a responsible adult life.  Perhaps he got some of it from his father, who is shown as a Micawber-like optimist despite his economic woes.

There’s a lot of names and dates, so the end-notes are very helpful–you still might want to have Wikipedia open to assist with some of the more obscure bits and to cross-reference what else was going on in the world at the time.  Some bits come across as very dry, making the personal stories a relief.

The art may be jarring for those unused to Mizuki’s style; many pages are drawn directly from photographs in a realistic style, while others are done in a very loose, cartoony fashion.  It’s also kind of weird to have Nezumi-Otoko (Rat-man) as the narrator of the more serious history portion-he would not seem the most reliable of narrators.

Overall, not as interesting as the third volume, which features Shigeru’s most harrowing experiences, but well worth seeking out from the library.

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016 edited by Janet Hutchings

Frederick Dannay, who along with Manfred B. Lee wrote the Ellery Queen mystery stories, was asked by Mercury Press to be the editor of a new magazine that would print a higher class of detective stories than the general run of pulps, with the first issue of EQMM coming out in 1941.  At first it was a reprint magazine, featuring classic tales by writers like Agatha Christie and Cornell Woolrich.  But by the seventh issue, new stories began to appear, and one, “The Bow Street Runner” by Samuel Duff, was that author’s first professional sale.

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine July 2016

Over the years, Mr. Dannay sought out new writers to appear in “The Department of First Stories”, many of whom went on to great success.  His successors have carried on that tradition, and as part of the magazine’s 75th Anniversary celebration, the July issue #898 features new stories by authors who got their start in EQMM.

“The Staff of Asclepius” by Stephen Saylor features his Roman sleuth Gordianus the Finder.  This one is set in his youth, when Gordianus and a friend were on a trip to see the Seven Wonders of the World.  They winter in Rhodes, home of the fabled Colossus.  During their enforced idleness, Gordianus learns of a shipping magnate named Rhosander who has suffered several bouts of illness, then miraculously recovered due to wacky cures he dreamed of in the temple of the healing god.  Perhaps these episodes are the symptoms of some underlying illness…but they could also be slow poison.  The illustration has male rear nudity, which is germane to the story.

“Department of First Stories: A History” by Marvin Lachman reveals the material I cited at the beginning of this review, but in much, much more detail, including a list of some of the most famous writers to debut in the magazine and their accomplishments.

“The Granite Kitchen” by David Morrell is a monologue to a real estate agent by a woman selling her home.  She’s obsessed with making her homes just so, always moving on to a bigger project once she has it right.  And either she has the unluckiest bunch of family and friends I have ever seen, or….  Chilling.

“Blog Bytes” by Bill Crider is a regular column of mystery-related internet sites; this time focusing on fans of the Ellery Queen stories.

“The Jury Box” by Steve Steinbock is a more traditional book review column.  Among other works, this month it mentions several novels starring famous writers as the detectives, including A Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman, which I reviewed a while back.

“Get Them Out” by Nancy Pickard has a homeless man kicked out of a shelter for making a disturbance.  The new janitor at an apartment building offers him a place to sleep in the basement, but his motives may not be altruistic.  Ends on an ambiguous note.

“Black Monday” by John H. Sherman is a first story.  Howard, a lab technician at a hospital, has been having problems with alcohol and painkiller addiction, and has missing time.  His dreams of swimming have gone dark, and he can’t remember what he did last night.

“The Red Tattoo” by Percy Spurlark Parker is a noirish tale featuring Las Vegas private eye Trevor Oaks.  He’s hired to find a man’s missing identical twin; the only clue is that the twin was seen in LV with a woman who had a red tattoo.

“The Hangman” by David Dean is the story of a cops-and-robbers game gone south, and the years later sequel.  Depressing.

“Flight” by Trina Corey is set in a nursing home during the Vietnam War era (I suspect to avoid easy fixes by technology.)  Rachel is crippled by multiple sclerosis, unable to speak or write.  Perhaps that’s why a murderer has taken to coming into her room at night to gloat, knowing that she can’t tell anyone.  But Rachel still has her mind, and there’s a young nurse that hasn’t lost her ability to care yet, and maybe there’s a way to stop the killer.

“The Man from Away” by Brendan DuBois takes place in New Hampshire and Boston.  People tell Amos Wilson he’s too gullible, that his estranged wife is a gold digger he’s better off without.  But when she is accidentally killed by tourists who then vanish, Amos feels obligated to do something about it.  He may be long-suffering, but he’s not stupid.  Satisfying.

“Consuming Passion” by Martin Edwards is about two old friends, one a master chef, the other a restaurant critic, having dinner together.  It does not end well.

“The Peter Rabbit Killers” by Laura Benedict closes out the issue with a little girl whose mother has an obsession with cleanliness, and a neighbor girl who is bullying and not at all clean.   Another creepy tale.

Overall, a strong issue with many fine stories.  I liked “Flight” the best, while “Black Monday” and “The Hangman” were less well done.  This issue is certainly worth picking up while the anniversary celebration is still on.

Book Review: Lois Lane: Fallout

Book Review: Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond

Getting in trouble her first day at East Metropolis High School was not Lois Lane’s plan.  Keeping her head down, fitting in, allowing her family to settle in for her general father’s new long-term assignment, that was the plan.  But when she witnesses a student’s report of bullying being laughed off by the principal (especially odd as Anavi Singh claims the Warheads are somehow bullying her inside her own brain), Lois’ curiosity and hatred of injustice are aroused.

Lois Lane: Fallout

While her interference is not appreciated by Principal Butler, local newspaperman Perry White sees some potential in Lois, and invites her to join the staff of the “Daily Scoop”, a teen-oriented website attached to the Daily Planet.   Lois decides to make school bullying her first news story, but she may be getting in over her head.  The Warheads are not ordinary bullies, and almost every adult in Lois’ life is against her pursuing this scoop.  Good thing she has an online friend “SmallvilleGuy” that can help out some–now she just needs to make friends in real life!

This young adult novel re-imagines veteran comics character Lois Lane as a modern teenager just starting out on a journalism career path.  This works pretty well, and Lois makes a good YA protagonist.  She’s mouthy, incurably curious, stands up for what she thinks is right and is clever enough to get herself in trouble but not always clever enough to get herself back out solo.  Her background as a military brat is a plausible explanation for such skills as she has, while allowing her to clash with her authoritarian father.

Romance is mostly on the back burner (thankfully); while Lois does have some romantic thoughts towards the fellow she met on an UFO website after reporting she saw a flying man, she’s well aware that SmallvilleGuy is keeping secrets such as his actual name and appearance from her.  He does seem to be a good friend, though.

Other characters tend not to develop much; a couple have hidden depths that are likely to provide subplots for further stories.  (There’s already a sequel.)

While Lois hasn’t realized this yet, she does live in a superhero world, and there’s some science-fictional technology that plays a part in the story.  Notably, it is not played as inherently bad, though it can be abused.  (In some cases, relatively harmlessly, as Lois’ little sister Lucy demonstrates.)

The main problem for me was the central mystery of the book–possibly it’s because I have decades of experience reading science fiction and superhero comics, but I figured out all the twists by about Chapter 4 of 25.  This meant that the story dragged for me while I waited for Lois to catch up.  I hope that this will not be so much of a problem for the intended audience of young adults.

Overall, it’s a good first installment in what could be a long series, and I recommend it to fans of plucky reporters who enjoy knowing something the heroine doesn’t.

Movie Review: Tokyo Gore School

Movie Review: Tokyo Gore School

Fujiwara leads a double life.  He’s the leader of a gang of high school bullies, and also the teacher-trusted student president.  He’s reasonably comfortable with this, having a binary view of life.  There are winners and losers, and he’s determined to be a winner.   Fujiwara is baffled, however, when he’s suddenly being chased on the street by complete strangers.

Tokyo Gore School

It turns out that Fujiwara is listed as one of the participants of something called the “Chain Game.”  Your data is listed on a cell phone-accessible website, allowing people to track you down.  If you capture the other person’s phone, you learn their darkest secret, and gain points that can be used to erase parts of your data, making it harder to track you.  If you lose, then your secret is out.  A lot of the involuntary participants default to violence as a means of getting cell phones, thus the “gore” in the title.

While some of the secrets are just embarrassing, like having your mom sew your name into your underwear, others are much more dangerous, and Fujiwara will find himself doing anything he must to avoid his secret getting out.  Oh, and the vaguely described “School Justice Bill” the government just passed may have something to do with all this.

This is a 2009 Japanese movie, currently available on the Crunchyroll website.  It’s an “R” for gory violence (which takes a while to get there–the first few fights are relatively bloodless.)  Also on the content front are suicide, rape (off-screen), torture and some rough language.

As you might guess from the plot description, Fujiwara is more protagonist than hero.  He does defend a young woman, but its for his own purposes. He’s invited to join a large group that’s using numbers to protect itself, but declines.  While he’s correct about the deficiencies of the strategy, his refusal is what causes that group to fracture.

Fujiwara’s antagonist for most of the movie, though it takes him a while to figure it out, is his ambitious lieutenant Todoroki, who enjoys violence for its own sake; the other bullies are stupid and easily led.

The movie has some nasty twists towards the end, and its philosophy becomes nihilistic in the negative sense.  There’s some nifty fight sequences, and the gore doesn’t get too overdone.

If teenagers fighting to the death as part of a game is your thing, this isn’t nearly as good as Battle Royale or Hunger Games but is enjoyable on its own terms.

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