Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4 edited by Julius Schwartz

The Flash is Barry Allen, a police detective who was working during a thunderstorm one night when a bolt of lightning struck a shelf of chemicals, spilling the mixture on him.   Barry quickly realized that he’d been gifted with super-speed, making him the fastest man alive.  Taking inspiration from a comic book hero of his youth, Barry Allen protects Central City and the world as the Flash!

Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

This fourth volume of the Showcase Presents collection of the series covers from Flash #162-184, 1966-68.  The first story in the set is “Who Haunts the Corridor of Chills?”   A Walt Disney stand-in is inspecting the new spooky ride at his amusement park when he’s unexpectedly transformed into a rampaging monster.  Flash is temporarily handicapped by developing a sudden phobia of dark spooky tunnels.  By the end, the story becomes a parable about not jumping to conclusions.

Most of the stories are workmanlike tales of the Flash encountering a criminal or monster, encountering some sort of obstacle that prevents him from simply using his immense speed to solve the issue, and thinking his way through to victory.  Barry Allen was very much a “thinking” hero, using his scientific know-how and reasoning abilities as much as his ability to move very fast.

Some have criticized the Silver Age Flash for having a bland personality, but “bland Midwestern science fan” is a personality I see all the time in real life.  Barry’s serious but not grim, and even when he loses his temper, it’s in a subdued fashion.  This makes him becoming a braggart in the cover story, #177 “The Swell-Headed Super-Hero!” especially jarring.  This particular story is also interesting because it’s the only one in the volume where we see Barry performing his day job as a crime scene investigator for more than one panel.

Alas, he doesn’t use any of his science skills on-panel, but instead performs a Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny-style feat of deduction to solve the “impossible” crime.  This story also has a great panel by Ross Andru of horrified civilians seeing the transformed Flash for the first time.  (The Silver Age writers loved transforming the Flash.)

The thinness of characterization is perhaps clearer in the villains, who tend to have very similar personalities, leavened slightly by Captain Cold being a would-be ladies’ man, and Abra Kadabra’s need to be the center of attention.  (The latter may explain why he appears the most in this volume.)

And then there’s Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash.  He only gets one appearance, but it’s a doozy, as Barry Allen finally gets around to marrying Iris West.  Except that Zoom decides to take his similarity to the Flash to the next level by changing his face to Barry Allen’s and impersonating the hero–even to the point of marrying his girlfriend!  Barry manages to escape in time and prevent the false vows, but this plotline will define Professor Zoom for years to come.

Barry, very protective of his secret identity, doesn’t tell Iris that he’s the Flash until a year into the marriage!  (Flash television show viewers can take heart that this tendency is faithful to the comics.)  However, it turns out Iris has known since the wedding night as Barry talks in his sleep.  (Wah wah waaaah.)   This is directly contrasted with Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick’s relationship with his wife Joan, who was in on the secret from the beginning.

There are a couple of real clunkers in this collection.  The first is #167, “The Real Origin of the Flash!”  This was the most hated Flash story of its era (and for many years thereafter.)  It introduces Mopee, a fumbling “heavenly helper” who somewhat resembles Woody Allen, and claims that he made an error in giving Barry Allen the power of super-speed.  He spoils several attempts by the Flash to “re-earn” his powers, before finally getting it right.  The reader reaction was so negative that the story was simply not referred to again for decades.

#180-181 “The Flying Samurai” & “The Attack of the Samuroids!” is a fun story that has aged badly.  Barry and Iris go to Japan on vacation and the Flash gets involved in a battle against nigh-invulnerable flying samurai robots.  So many well-meant but glaring ethnic stereotypes!  Among the lowlights: A cute female secretary is named Tushi (a name that doesn’t even work in Japanese); Japanese people speaking broken English even when alone among themselves (particularly annoying with supposed traditionalist Baron Katana); one of Barry’s Japanese friends referring to marital relations as “tender tentacles”; and villain Baron Katana assuming no one will think to look for him at the abandoned castle…that has belonged to his family for generations.

There are a couple of appearances by Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick (once with his friends from the Justice Society of America), a visit from Hal “Green Lantern” Jordan, and a race against Superman that guest stars the Justice League of America.  Plus, the first Earth-Prime story, in which Flash winds up in “our” world and meets Julius Schwartz.

The final story in this volume, “Executioner of Central City!” has the Flash apparently destroy his home town in an attempt to save it from a pulsar flare.  Of course, this is revealed to be incorrect.  The community has in fact moved to the distant future where humans are much larger and “programmed” against aggression.  Well, except for their leaders, which turns out to be a design flaw.

There’s some excellent art by long-time Flash portrayer Carmine Infantino, and not quite as good art by Ross Andru.

Overall, a good choice for Barry Allen Flash fans; fans of other versions of the Flash might want to check it out at the library.

 

Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Martin J. Dougherty

The Arthurian mythos is a familiar one to just about everyone in some form or another.  But unless you’re a scholar of the subject, you might not know where all the pieces came from and how they got put together.  This “coffee table” book gives an overview of basic information about King Arthur and his knights.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

This generously illustrated tome begins with a look at what we know of early British history, and historical figures that might have inspired the tales of Arthur, even if no actual King Arthur ever existed.

Then it moves on to the major sources of the Arthurian stories.  The first written account we still have is that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Arthur is just one in  a line of probably fictional rulers.  The book also covers the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (who was big on graphic violence and courtly love), the Grail Quest (heavy on the preachiness and religious allegory), and of course Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which pulled material together from multiple sources and added some of his own touches.

A final chapter touches on modern retellings of the Arthur cycle, from Mark Twain’s satirical proto-science fiction work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, through the musical Camelot to the recent television series Merlin.  The author also talks a bit about what might be called tertiary Arthuriana, where a character could say, “this bell was enchanted by Merlin” with no other references to King Arthur, yet the audience will immediately know what’s being talked about.

This book is for the layman, and should be suitable for tweens on up.  (Parents of younger readers might want to discuss the theme of marital infidelity that comes up in the relationship of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, as well as other places in the Arthurian cycle, not least Arthur’s own birth.)  There is an index, but no bibliography, so serious scholars will want something more advanced to work with.

The author also talks a bit about the enduring appeal of King Arthur and his stories.  Heroic knights and chivalry, a struggle of good against evil, a kingdom where right is more important than might, even if it is doomed to fall and be followed by a darker age.  “A moment so bright it will be seen on the far side of that darkness.”

This book would make a good gift for the casual fan of things King Arthur, especially bright teenagers.  Did they like the recent movie?

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

About three centuries ago, the land of Westeros was known as the Seven Kingdoms.  Then Aegon Targaryen and his sisters came from the collapsed civilization of Valyria with their dragons and conquered six of the Kingdoms.  (The seventh Kingdom joined up later semi-voluntarily.)  Eventually, the dragons died off, but the Targaryen dynasty stayed in power through inertia and intermittent smashing of rebels. Finally, King Aerys the Mad was such a poor ruler that a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and his supporters succeeded in overthrowing the Targaryens.

A Game of Thrones

Robert is…a better king than Aerys, anyway.  He had intended to marry a member of the Stark family, lords of the North, but she perished during the rebellion and Robert settled for Cersei Lannister, member of a powerful Western family.  The Lannisters have become powerful at court, but one of their intrigues is about to have a slight glitch, putting their plans in jeopardy.  Other noble families have noticed the success of the previous rebellion, and remembered that their ancestors were also kings.   Across the Narrow Sea, the last heirs of the Targaryen dynasty are still alive and dreaming of retaking the Throne of Swords.  Far to the North, beyond the Wall, an enemy older than the Seven Kingdoms itself is stirring with the coming of Winter.

If this were a history book, we’d be about to see a lot of maps with flags and arrows on them.

This is the first volume in the vastly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has spawned a TV series, Game of Thrones.  There are planned to be seven volumes, of which five are out and the sixth is scheduled for release in 2017.  This may mean that the TV show will need a completely different ending.  Mr. Martin started writing this epic fantasy series with the idea of making it more “realistic” (cynical) than  many of the doorstopper fantasy books then  on the market.  As such, things do not always go well for people who try to stick to ideals such as honor and justice, leading to cruel, pointless deaths for them or others.   I should mention here that yes, GRRM does go to rape repeatedly as a way of showing how gritty and realistic the setting is, and there are at least a couple of child marriages that are pretty creepy.  (I am told that the TV series aged a couple of characters up.)

This book is written in tight third-person, so we only know what the current viewpoint character senses and thinks about.  This allows the author to keep certain things a mystery until another character is the point of view, and to shade the interpretation of certain events.

Most of the viewpoint characters in this first volume are members of the Stark family.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is more or less the main protagonist of this book.   A childhood friend of King Robert, he’s now been called upon to become the King’s Hand, the person who handles most of the daily details so the king can concentrate on ruling.  Their mentor had been the previous Hand, but recently died, and his wife sent the Starks a letter accusing the Lannisters of having a hand in it.  Eddard is a very honor-bound man and constantly attempts to do the right thing.  Given the nature of this series, that’s not healthy.  His clan motto is “Winter Is Coming.”

Catelyn is Ned’s wife, originally of the Tully family.  Her sister is the wife of Jon Arryn, the former hand.  Catelyn is fiercely protective of her children, which causes her to make several rash decisions.

Robb Stark is the eldest child and heir to their castle Winterfell.  At fourteen years old, he must assume a man’s role before even his harsh homeland’s usual standards.  We don’t get any point of view chapters for him.

Jon Snow is allegedly Ned Stark’s illegitimate child of about the same age as Robb.  While he certainly does resemble Ned, the older man’s refusal to explain anything about Jon’s conception or mother  beyond “he’s my bastard” suggests there is some mystery about his actual parentage.  Catelyn doesn’t like him one little bit.  He’s sent North to the Wall to join the Nightwatch like his Uncle Benjen, only to find out that conditions there are not as expected.  (Benjen goes missing shortly thereafter, one of the big mysteries of the series.)

Sansa Stark is the older daughter, who is good at activities considered traditionally feminine in Westeros.  She’s also a huge fan of chivalric romances, and thinks that’s how the world works, at least for her as she’s clearly the lady fair type.  (Think of an eleven-year-old Twilight fan who actually lives in a world where vampires follow horror tropes.)  She’s engaged to Robert’s handsome son Prince Joffrey and ignores some important clues to his real personality.  (In fairness, her father told her none of his evidence of what was really going on.)

Arya Stark is her slightly-younger sister, who is initially more likable for modern audiences, as she gets all of the “rebellious tomboy” personality bits.  She gets some important clues early on, but only being ten and not having context, doesn’t get to do much with them.

Brandon “Bran” Stark is seven, and an avid climber.  This gets him in trouble when he passes by a window that should have been unoccupied and learns a dangerous secret.  His subsequent near-death experience causes him to forget what he learned, but the person whose secret it is can’t take chances on that, and the assassination attempt made on Bran moves much of what Catelyn does for the rest of the book.

Rickon Stark is the baby of the family at three, and doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book.  Nor does family guest/hostage Theon Greyjoy, who is slightly older than Robb and Jon, and is boarding at Winterfell as a hostage to the good behavior of his father.

Tyrion Lannister is the only member of his family to get point of view chapters.  Born with dwarfism, Tyrion was barely tolerated by his father Lord Tywin and sister Cersei, and marginally treated better by his handsome brother Jaime (now a Kingsguard.)  Clearly never going to win glory in knighthood, Tyrion has concentrated on honing his mind, and his razor tongue.  He is kind to Jon Snow and later Bran, but runs afoul of Catelyn Stark due to the manipulations of his enemies.

And then there’s Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen.  She and her older brother Viserys are the sole remaining grandchildren of the former king, and Viserys is thus the rightful ruler of Westeros for the Targaryen loyalists.  However, in exile in the Free Cities, their cause has not gone well, and the royal pair are broke.  In a last-ditch effort to raise an army which he can use to take back Westeros, Viserys arranges for Dani to be married to Khal Drogo, a mighty leader of the Dothraki horse nomads.

Despite his taste for child brides, Khal Drogo is a pretty good husband by Dothraki standards, and Danerys learns to love him.  Even better, their child is prophesied to become “The Stallion That Mounts the World.”  Viserys isn’t willing to wait until his nephew is born to start conquering things, and pushes a little too hard.  He probably never really understood what it means to “wake the dragon.”

Don’t get too attached to any of these people, Mr. Martin has no qualms about killing viewpoint characters in cruel and pointless ways.

Good things:  There are a lot of vividly-drawn characters in multiple factions–my edition has a list of the major clans and their members at the back, along with a timeline of the Targaryen Dynasty, and that still leaves out multiple members of the cast.  The politics are detailed but not too difficult to follow.  The main thing is that far too many nobles remember bad things that happened to their families decades and even centuries before, and operate on the principle of getting payback for that.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so other than “someone’s going to have a cruel and pointless death soon” it’s hard to guess what’s happening next.    Sometimes I did get frustrated by people making boneheaded decisions for stupid reasons, but the majority of actions made sense given earlier or later explained motivations.

Less good:  The content issues noted earlier; Mr. Martin likes him some earthy language too, and is overfond of the word “bastard.”   This is rather obviously not a standalone book, with most of the plot threads still hanging loose at the end of Book One, and I am told many of them dangling through the end of Book Five!  Perhaps I should have stuck with my original intention of not starting until all the books are out.

To be honest, this series has had so much hype that you probably already know if you’re interested in trying it.

Let’s enjoy the Sesame Street version of the plotline!

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: Japan Tuttle Travel Pack

Book Review: Japan Tuttle Travel Pack by Rob Goss

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Japan Tuttle Travel Pack

Tuttle Publishing was founded by Charles Tuttle, a Vermonter who came to Japan with Douglas MacArthur’s staff after World War Two.  His job was helping the Japanese publishing industry get back on its feet; along the way he married a Japanese woman and founded the first English-language bookstore in Japan.  Tuttle Publishing’s goal is to print “books to span the East and West.”  So it’s not too surprising that they’d publish a tourist guidebook.

The author is a British writer who has resided in the country since 1999 and traveled extensively, writing about his journeys and Japan’s tourist destinations.

The book itself is thin and light, designed to fit well into a backpack or tote bag for easy consultation.  There’s  a fold-out map of Japan (and details of certain areas) tucked into a pocket in the back, as well as several detail maps in the book itself.  There are many color photographs as well.  (One of Sapporo’s Snow Festival is reused several times.)  It’s slickly produced, but sturdy enough that it should survive a several week journey.

After a quick overview of Japan at the encyclopedia summary level, the main book starts with a chapter of “must-see” sights, ranging from Mount Fuji to the “Art Island” of Naoshima.  These alone would take a month or so to get in with any comfort, as they are scattered all over the country.

This is followed by an “Exploring Japan” chapter that focuses on the tourist sights of the major cities and individual regions, making it easier to plan an itinerary.  This includes callbacks to the opening chapter, but also mentions what else is around the must-sees.  There are sidebars on local cuisine travelers might like to sample.

Chapter 3 is the “Author’s Recommendations” section, where he talks about hotels, museums, kid-friendly attractions and the like that he personally really likes.  The edition I have is from 2013, so there may have been some changes–he mentions that a particular fish market was scheduled to move to a different location in 2015.

The last major section, “Travel Facts” is the most likely part to be useful on your actual trip, with the location of important embassies, key Japanese phrases to use, how the transportation system works, and so forth.  There’s an index and a page of photo credits.

The language is clear and straightforward, with key words bolded to make them easier to find.  As a tourism booster, it focuses almost entirely on the positive; people who like to be more cautious might want to do further reading to see what they need to prepare for.

This book would be most useful for tourists who like to plan their own itineraries, or at least dream about doing so.  Package tours, well, you see what’s in the package.   People who want to live in Japan for extended periods will need to consult more substantial materials.

Another group that might find this book useful is fanfiction writers.  You’ve decided that Jeneriku High School will be taking a summer field trip to Okinawa; how long will it take to get there, where will Hana and Tarou be going on their date, and what sights offer the most ideas for plot twists?

Overall, very good of its kind.

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Ogami Itto was once a samurai warrior of high rank, the official executioner for the shogunate.  He had a lovely wife and new son; life was good.  But another clan was ambitious, and framed Ogami for treason.  Under sentence of execution and with his wife murdered, Ogami asked his infant son to make a choice between merciful death and life on the run. now Ogami is a ronin, and an assassin for hire.  If you need someone dead, and you can find them, you can hire the Lone Wolf assassin who travels with his cub.

Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

This classic manga series was popular enough to spawn a series of live-action movies, a television series and several spin-off manga.  It was also influential outside of Japan, notably influencing the art and storytelling style of Frank Miller (who provided the cover for this omnibus edition.)  As such, it was one of the first manga series to be translated for the emerging American market, using the expensive and painstaking “double-flipping” method to make it read left to right.

This volume contains the first three volumes of the Japanese version, and these stories are very episodic, focusing on an difficult assassination, a particular facet of feudal Japanese life, or a philosophical point.  It is not until several stories in that anyone recognizes Ogami for who he is, and even longer before even a partial explanation of his past.

Ogami is a stoic character who works hard not to give away his emotions; his tenderness towards Daigoro is almost entirely seen in his actions, not his face.  This does not prevent him from placing his son in danger if it will help with an assassination plan.  Daigoro himself is one of the most ambiguous characters I’ve ever read.  He seems most of the time to act like the small child he is, but in other instances is far too mature for his age, even allowing for the massive trauma Daigoro has undergone in his short life.  It makes him kind of creepy to be honest.

The art is dynamic and varied, able to handle both exciting battles and calm scenes of nature.  There’s a fair amount of reused faces, which with the episodic stories make the manga feel like a television series with a limited pool of guest star actors.

As expected from a samurai revenge story, there is plenty of violence and death; not all of Ogami’s assassination targets are evil people deserving of death.  In particular in this volume, one target is a Buddhist priest who must die for political reasons–he teaches Ogami how to attain mu (“emptiness”) which allows the assassin to strike without projecting sakki  (“killing intent”).  This becomes an important part of Ogami’s personal sword style going forward.

There is also quite a bit of female nudity, and at least one rape/murder scene.  Ogami himself is decent to the women he meets, but feudal Japanese society is not a good place for them.

Because of its influence on the subgenre of samurai manga, this series is well worth reading and rereading.  Recommended for fans of this sort of thing.

Book Review: The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder

Book Review: The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson

Four men come to the house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea when the man who owns the house, Thomas Carnacki, summons them for dinner.  They ask no questions, as they know Carnacki will wait until his own good time to tell them a tale of his adventures.  And because he is a ghost finder, that tale will be worth waiting for.

The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder

William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) was a sailor and physical fitness instructor before taking up writing and becoming best known for his weird tales.  The Carnacki stories were written between 1910 and 1914, when Mr. Hodgson enlisted in the British Army during World War One.  Only six of them were published during his lifetime (he died at Ypers) with the remaining three first appearing in the collected edition in 1947.

Carnacki is very much in the Sherlock Holmes tradition of the cerebral detective, examining the evidence with the best scientific methods known to him.  Sometimes the menace turns out to be merely human trickery, sometimes it is truly supernatural, and then again sometimes it’s both!  Other than that, the stories are formulaic–the four friends arrive, everyone has dinner, Carnacki tells his tale, there are a few clarifying questions, and then the guests go home.

Carnacki is interesting as a ghost finder, as he’s terrified of ghosts and supernatural phenomena, and readily admits it, even as he  confronts these phenomena.  It’s suggested in one story that fear makes you more sensitive to the spirit world–someone who knows no terror might not even notice ghosts!  He also uses both eldritch lore and modern science like photography and vacuum tubes to battle the supernatural.

The collection begins with “The Thing Invisible” in which Carnacki investigates a haunted dagger that seems able to strike on its own with deadly force.  This story was also in The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries.  It ends with “The Hog”, a tale of sheer horror as a man’s dreams turn out to be a direct conduit to the Outer Monstrosities.  The latter story would be a good source for artists seeking horrific imagery, but becomes overlong with the special effects sequence.

The best story is “The Whistling Room”, a story that starts with a seemingly harmless haunting that becomes much more disturbing by the end as we learn just what exactly the whistling is.  The least effective story is “The Find”, a change of pace that has no supernatural elements even as a distraction.  A second copy of a supposedly unique book has surfaced and Carnacki must learn if it’s genuine.  The case is resolved in a summary to the main suspects, which is summarized for Carnacki’s friends.

The writing is a bit old-fashioned and there’s a bit of genteel sexism.  We learn little of Carnacki’s past, involving him living in a seaside house with his mother as a young man, apparently inspiring his career.  And of the four guests, the only thing we learn is that one of them has studied magical science, apparently in the theoretical model only.

This is a nice little collection of spooky tales, which I would recommend to fans of old-fashioned ghost stories.

Book Review: The Art of the Dragon

Book Review: The Art of the Dragon edited by Patrick Wilshire & J. David Spurlock

One of the most enduring symbols of the fantasy genre is the dragon.  It evokes a primal response and is really fun to draw and paint, so it shows up all the time in fantasy art and sometimes manages to get into science fiction as well.  With so many dragons on the covers of books, it’s no surprise that an entire book can be filled with nothing but dragon paintings.

The Art of the Dragon

This book features works by over a dozen fine artists, most of them currently active in the field.  There are a couple that were recently deceased at the time the book was published, and the volume is dedicated to one of them, Jeffrey Catherine Jones.  Several of the artists are spotlighted, giving details of their careers and their different philosophies of creating dragon pictures.  I personally picked this book up for the Michael Whelan section (including his very influential White Dragon piece), but there is also excellent work by Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell among many others.

It’s coffee-table sized and as an art book, far heavier on pictures than words.  Concerned parents should be aware that the second most common element in these paintings is half-naked women (and a couple of fully naked ones.)  Mr. Vallejo in particular talks about how his depiction of women has changed over the years.

Several of the artists have worked for the companies that published Dungeons and Dragons game material over the year, so gamers may be especially interested in this volume.  Otherwise, this book is recommended for fantasy fans in general and dragon fans in particular.

Comic Strip Review: The Complete Little Orphan Annie Volume Ten: The Junior Commandos

Comic Strip Review: The Complete Little Orphan Annie Volume Ten: The Junior Commandos by Harold Gray

Little Orphan Annie was one of the all-time great comic strips, debuting in 1924.  The story centered on a plucky orphan girl with curly red hair (which was considered unattractive at the time) and her attempts to get by in a cruel world with the aid of her dog Sandy.  Early on, she was taken “on trial” by the unpleasant Mrs. Warbucks, whose husband Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks took an immediate shine to Annie.

Little Orphan Annie Volume Ten

The strip’s formula depended heavily on finding ways to separate Annie from “Daddy” for long periods, or giving him financial troubles so they could go on the road together.  The device of having one of them believe the other was dead was used repeatedly for melodrama.  Mrs. Warbucks eventually relented and made friends with Annie, only to permanently die shortly thereafter.  (There was a second Mrs. Warbucks who was also hostile to Annie, and who Daddy may have murdered offscreen.)

Eventually, the strips added Daddy Warbucks’ exotic servants Punjab (a giant of a fellow with mystic abilities) and the Asp (a East Asian with a mysterious past and no given name.)  Harold Gray had strong conservative views, which often featured in the strips, both as story themes and character dialogue.  He was a big believer in hard work and honesty as ways to get ahead, and sometimes showed huge blind spots about the flaws of capitalism.

This volume covers stories from 1941-1943, and is strongly influenced by the events of World War Two.  While Daddy is testing a new bomber plane (he is after all a munitions manufacturer), he and the group are forced to land somewhere in the midwest.  Annie is injured in an automobile accident, and narrowly escapes the ministrations of quack Dr. Eldeen.  Instead, she is placed under the care of Doctor Zee, a friend of Daddy’s he met in Spain (presumably during the Spanish Civil War), who has become a recluse.

Daddy Warbucks and his associates are reported missing, presumed dead, shortly thereafter, stranding Annie in the large town.  Dr. Zee, one of the few sympathetic characters in the history of the strip with progressive views, is brought out of his shell by Annie, and by reconnecting with a childhood friend who has become known as “Crazy Kate.”  Zee starts a low-cost medical practice that clashes with both Dr. Eldeen (who runs a private clinic for not particularly sick wealthy people and uses heavy drugs to keep them under control) and Dr. Dubb, a mediocre physician who owns the town hospital.

Eventually, it is learned that one of Dr. Eldeen’s patients is a scientist called “Zaney” who has developed an explosive formula vital to national security, which Eldeen wants to sell to the Nazis.  This plot fails, and Eldeen has to go on the run.  Daddy Warbucks and crew reappear alive, but now enlisted in the military of “an allied country” so they can fight the Axis menace.  (Gray didn’t have them enlist in the U.S. Army as then they’d have to obey regulations instead of getting straight down to killing the enemy.)

Determined to do her bit to help win the war, Annie organizes the town kids into “Junior Commandos” who sell War Bonds and collect recyclables for the war effort, performing many helpful functions for soldiers and war workers.  Rather suddenly, the town is near the seacoast so that Annie and a new friend can sink a Nazi submarine.  Shortly thereafter, the town takes in a war refugee nicknamed “Driftwood” who has lost his family to “the invaders.”

Doctor Zee enlists in the military, so Annie and the supporting cast move in with a Mrs. Sleet, a seemingly chilly wealthy woman who Annie helps deal with the loss of her husband and son, and who becomes a sponsor for the Junior Commandos.    Daddy Warbucks and his men are reported killed in the fighting, and Dr. Zee returns minus an arm.  But Annie and a female surgeon, Dr. Clover, help Dr. Zee recover his will to be a healer, and after some mild love triangle shenanigans, Zee marries Katie, his childhood friend.  (There’s also a lot of other action going on in the meantime.)

The Nazis become convinced that Daddy Warbucks (now revealed as surviving) left a copy of Zaney’s formula with Annie, and come up with an elaborate plot to get it from her.  This involves impersonating a reclusive writer, Malcolm Mitt, another of Daddy’s old friends, and inviting Annie to a castle built by an eccentric Spanish immigrant to await her guardian’s return.  The castle is full of secret passageways and tricks, as well as Nazi spies and a submarine harbor.  Annie’s able to recruit the local Junior Commandos and Serbian immigrant “Big George” (formerly a spy on the Germans for twenty years) to help her clean out this nest of rats.

But it’s not until Daddy Warbucks finally shows up for real and Punjab uses his disappearing trick that the situation is fully resolved.  The war’s still on, though, and Annie ends the volume being shipped off to live with another of Daddy’s old friends…

Annie does laundry and philosophy. Yes, all her dresses are red and in the same style. Art by Harold Gray.
Annie does laundry and philosophy. Yes, all her dresses are red and in the same style. Art by Harold Gray.

Annie’s tough and wise beyond her years, and a natural leader, but we do see moments of her still being a child, as when she exclaims in glee over a new doll.   The strip openly mocks the idea of protecting children from the knowledge of war; Driftwood is all too aware that the war does not spare anyone because of age or innocence.  That said, this is not a children’s story as such, but a family one–parents should read these strips along with their kids to aid in understanding the context.

Violence is rife in this story, and Annie, while not directly killing anyone, has to dodge a question on the subject of whether she hasn’t disposed of some enemies permanently.  (It’s also noted that in his backstory, Daddy Warbucks once snapped a man’s neck like a toothpick.)  Don’t let anyone kid you that violence in the media is a modern decline!

One interesting tidbit is the appearance of George, an African-American child, who is afraid he won’t be allowed into the Junior Commandos.  Annie assures him he is welcome, and George swiftly proves his worth, getting a promotion.  He only appears in one Sunday strip (and is mentioned on Monday) but black readers strongly appreciated the interlude.  A Southern newspaper publisher wrote to warn Mr. Gray that he might lose readers in the South for showing “race-mixing.”  Mr. Gray’s response was to the effect that while he fully supported the South working out its own issues, a lot of “colored” people bought newspapers too, especially in the large Northern cities.

The “Nazis in a castle” story isn’t as good; the introduction notes that the artist had recently lost his father, and may have been distracted from his work; also, he was becoming disenchanted with the U.S. government’s handling of the homefront of the war, which would really show up in the next story.

Still, this volume is a good introduction for kids to what life was like on the homefront in World War Two, with proper parental guidance.  Highly recommended to fans of older comic strips.

Book Review: The Greatest Knight

Book Review: The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and there will be changes to the final edition.  Specifically, there will be maps, genealogical charts, and an index.

The Greatest Knight

William Marshal started life as the younger son of a minor noble, so little regarded that when he was taken hostage, his father pretty much said, “go ahead, I can make more.”  But a combination of superior battle prowess, a gift for political maneuvering, and a certain amount of luck caused William to rise through the ranks of knighthood, until he ended his career as regent of all England, acting for the boy king Henry III.  In some ways, he came to define what people expected a knight to be.

We know more about William Marshal than many other figures of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries because his family commissioned a flattering  biography of him, the sole remaining copy of which turned up in the 1860s, and was finally read and translated in the 1880s.   Now, I say “flattering”, but as the author points out, what people in the 1220s considered admirable traits do not necessarily conform with what Twenty-First Century folks consider to be the ideal of chivalry.   William often acted out of naked self-interest to gain rewards of land and titles.  It’s also pointed out when The History of William Marshal skips over or obfuscates events we know from other sources that William was involved with, but don’t reflect well on him.

William Marshal’s life was strongly tied to the fortunes of the Angevin dynasty, and this book covers the political situation of the time, as well as a general discussion of  knighthood as it then existed.  It puts the treachery of John Lackland against his brother Richard the Lionheart into perspective when we see that their entire family was like that (Richard was actively trying to overthrow his father when the old man suddenly took ill and died.)  It’s just that King John was much less competent at it than most of his relatives, so he got saddled with the worst reputation.

While the writer has to speculate in places, it doesn’t feel forced.  He has the advantage of writing about an interesting subject who lived through many historic events.  But William Marshal soon fell into obscurity; all his sons died without heirs, and his biography was written in the days before printing presses, so only a few copies were ever made.  By Shakespeare’s time, he was reduced to a cameo in the King John play as “Pembroke.”  Thus you may be hearing about him for the first time.

While this book is written for adults, it should be suitable for junior high students and up.  I’d especially recommend it to readers who love tales of knights and kings, and Game of Thrones fans who want deep background.

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