Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2  by Takehiko Inoue

Quick recap: In 17th Century Japan, failed soldier Shinmen Takezo has reinvented himself as wandering swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.  Dedicating his life to perfecting his own style of swordsmanship, he travels to Kyoto and starts a feud with the Yoshioka school of kendo.  Unknown to him, his childhood friend Matahachi is also in town, and accidentally sets fire to the Yoshioka dojo.

Vagabond Volume 2

This volume opens with Musashi being nursed back to health by the rough-edged Buddhist monk Takuan.  Realizing he still has a long way to go, Musashi decides to travel to Nara, there to pit himself against the spear style of the Hōzōin Temple monks.  A chance encounter with an elderly gardener may be more valuable than any battle.

Musashi is distracted by thoughts of his other childhood friend, the lovely Otsu.  She’s now the servant of a master of the Yagyu style of swordsmanship, who Yoshioka Denshichiro has come to train with in preparation for his next duel with Musashi.

Others are also on the road.  Gion Toji of the Yoshioka school is tracking Musashi to kill him, and is none too restrained about maiming other people along the way.

Matahachi’s on the run because of the arson thing, and a chance encounter allows him to also reinvent himself as the respected warrior Sasaki Kojirō.  His sections of the story are tragicomedy, as he keeps having good intentions, but the flaws in his character prevent him from following through in a crisis, and we watch him make excuse after excuse for doing less than he ought.

Miyamoto Musashi is better at learning from his mistakes; while he is not the sharpest katana in the armory, he’s partially grasped the concept of critical thinking and examining his own mindset.  Still has a long way to go before being the best swordsman in Japan though.

The successor to the Hōzōin spear style, Inshun, has his own issues.  He’s a natural combat genius who has never known “fear”, or had a truly serious challenge to his skills until now.  Thus his growth has stalled; Inshun must learn how to deal with defeat to become stronger.  His multi-chapter duel with Musashi is the centerpiece of this volume.

The art is stellar, but much of the credit for the plot and characterization must go to Eiji Yoshikawa, author of the novel this manga is an adaptation of.

There’s a lot of violence in this volume, some of it quite bloody.  There’s also a brief sex scene with female nudity–this is a “mature readers” title.

This continues to be a good choice for fans of samurai action stories.

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

In the wake of World War One, Spiritualism, a religious movement centering around contact with the dead, was on the rise.  With this came a fad for mediums who claimed to be able to channel those unquiet spirits, both for the knowledge they had and to create uncanny physical effects.  Understandably, there were many who were skeptical, but felt that these mediums should be scientifically investigated.  Just in case there was any quantifiable evidence that wasn’t fake.

The Witch of Lime StreetScientific American, the leading popular science magazine of that time, offered a cash prize to the first medium to pass rigorous scientific examination and be proved genuine.  And on that five-man jury was one man who had a reputation for spotting fakes and chicanery–the magician and master escape artist Harry Houdini.  Most candidates for the prize were easily disproven.  But then there was Mina “Margery” Crandon, wife of a respectable Boston surgeon.

Her gifts, brought to her through the spirit of her dead brother Walter, were impressive indeed.  But was she the Queen of Mediums, or simply a master of parlor magic to rival the great Houdini himself?  This is the story of their meeting and what came of it.

Told in bite-size chapters and a handful of photographs, this book starts with Arthur Conan Doyle learning of the end of WWI, and his involvement with the Spiritualists.  His tours in support of the movement helped create interest in the United States, and indirectly led to the prize competition.  He tried to recruit Houdini, but the showman was less than convinced.  As became something of a pattern, Sir Arthur took Houdini’s politeness in not calling out a fake at the time as impressed belief.

We also learn of how Mrs. Crandon became a medium, but certain aspects of her and her husband’s earlier life are kept from the reader until much later in the story.  (And some mysteries are never solved.)  It should be noted that some conversations are reconstructed from later recollections, which may be fallible.

There’s a lot of interesting material in here for those interested in the mystic lore of the period, including a cameo by Theodore Roosevelt.  But once the investigation of Margery begins, the chapters start to drag, and it feels like the author stretched this part to fill out the page count.  Those of you who are history buffs will already have figured out that Mrs. Crandon didn’t win the magazine’s prize.

There’s a list of helpful sources for further reading, and an index.  There’s quite a bit of discussion of female private parts, from whence mediums were supposed to issue ectoplasm (and, it was alleged, where fake mediums often hid props.)  That might make the book unsuitable for readers below senior high level, depending on their parents’ discretion.

Overall, this is a helpful book for the reader who wants a quick look at Harry Houdini’s investigation of mediums from the aspect of his most famous case, and how it fit into events of the time.  There are several fine biographies of Houdini that will be more helpful if his career is the reader’s primary interest.

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

Book Review: Festival of Crime

Book Review: Festival of Crime Edited by Christine Husom, Mickie Turk & Michael Allan Mallory

Minnesotans have a reputation for being a bit mild-mannered and reserved.  But we love celebrations just as much as anyone else, and the state is filled with fairs and festivals, from small-town scarecrow contests to the crowded Pride in Minneapolis.  And sometimes crimes happen at these events.  Thus this collection from Twin Cities Sisters in Crime, a local writers group.

Festival of Crime

Most of these 19 tales are indeed crime stories, but not always murder, and a few have mystery elements.  A couple have supernatural elements, though only one has it proven.  Some merely take place at or near a festival, while others have it essential to the plot.

The collection begins with “Sawbill Checkpoint” by Michael Allan Mallory (wait, isn’t he one of the editors?)   A man is shot during a dogsled race, and his final word may be a vital clue…if only someone knew what it meant.  The last story is “All Sales Final” by Douglas Dorow.  A pair of art dealers discover a treasure trove owned by two elderly women.  Now, how to get it away from them before the old ladies figure out how much it’s worth?

Stories I enjoyed the most were “Looney Daze” by Cheryl Ullyot, in which a gambler woos a woman obsessed with wiener dog races; and “Corn on the  Cob” by Colin T. Nelson, about a sheriff faced with criminals he can’t put in jail, and an election coming up.

“No Time Like the Present” by E.B. Boatner is about a man who spots some anachronistically-dressed people, and learns their secret.  It feels a little too tidy, with a long-winded wrap-up.

Content warning:  homophobia, torture and domestic abuse come up in different stories.

The writing is decent on average, and I only spotted a couple of minor typos.   There are author bios in the back if you decide one of the stories makes you want to read more.

Recommended primarily for Minnesotan crime story fans, as they’ll be most familiar with the local color, but any fan of crime stories should be able to enjoy this.

Book Review: Steal the Sky

Book Review: Steal the Sky by Megan E. O’Keefe

Detan Honding and his partner Tibal (“Tibs” to his friends) are rogues.  They steal and swindle for a living, moving frequently from place to place on the Scorched Continent.  To keep ahead of their victims, yes, but also for more important reasons.  Just now they’re stuck in the city of Aransa with a busted flyer.  When Detan tries to raise the needed funds, he finds himself hired to steal the airship Larkspur from its owner, former Imperial commodore Thratia.

Steal the Sky

Ripka is the city watch captain of Aransa, tasked with keeping the peace and punishing criminals.  She’s wary of Thratia’s ambition to become warden of the city.  While the Valathean Empire technically rules the Scorched Continent, Thratia may be trying to bring the city under direct Imperial control, which would mean more hardship for the selium miners the city’s economy is based on.  Worse, the reason the warden’s chair is open is that someone, probably a shapeshifting doppler, murdered the previous warden.  Ripka needs to track down this dangerous killer before they strike again.

Pelkaia is an illusionist; “doppler” is an Imperial word, and she considers it an insult.  Aransa has taken the last of her children; she’s got a list of those responsible, and they must all die.  And if a few other people die in the process, that might be okay with her.   Pelkaia is missing a few vital pieces of information, however.  Her vengeance may be misaimed, and that could cost all of Aransa dearly.

These people’s lives are about to collide as each of them attempts to achieve their own goals while thwarting the plans of those they consider enemies.

The Scorched Continent is an interesting fantasy setting.  A large landmass in tropical latitudes, it suffered a massive geothermal event that turned it into a volcanic wasteland.  As a result, the heat is oppressive even on a good day and much of the land is unable to grow more than scrub.  However, the volcanoes are the only known source of selium, which is a buoyant gas (like helium) but is also psychically sensitive, being able to be moved and shaped by those who are “sel-sensitive.”  Selium has many uses, including creating airships, so most of the major settlements on the Scorched Continent are near volcanoes so they can be mined.

And this has also affected the society they live in.  Sel-sensitive people are in a minority, and anyone known to have some talent in that area is drafted into working with selium in some manner, regardless of the social status they were born into.  The government “takes care” of them, but it takes permanent injury to be able to leave the job.  Detan has faked the loss of his sel-sense because he has a deadly “deviant” talent.  The Empire is rounding up any deviants for their researchers to experiment on, and he suffered enough the first time he fell into their hands.

The first comparison that comes to mind is the Locke Lamora books; I like the characters better in this one.  There’s much less of a cynical cast to the personalities; most of these folks are acting for what they believe is a good cause and care for people outside their immediate circle.  The villains are that way because they allow their personal ambitions to treat people who aren’t useful to them as expendable.  Detan’s selfishness is less about pleasing himself than protecting others from his dangerous temper.

There are multiple tight viewpoints, so at any given point we only learn what the current point of view character knows about events.  Detan, Ripka and Pelkaia swap out being the main protagonist, with one chapter near the end being from the viewpoint of a surprise character.

There’s a fair amount of violence, and Detan has medical torture in his backstory.  Tibs has what appears to be post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service when the Empire solidified its hold over the Scorched Continent  by suppressing the native Catari (of which Pelkaia is one.)

I found the world-building interesting, and there is already a sequel out.  This book was enjoyable, and I recommend it to fantasy fans looking for something new.

Book Review: Scammunition

Book Review: Scammunition by Colleen J. Pallamary

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads Giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or received.

Scammunition

Colleen Pallamary has been working as a volunteer to protect senior citizens and others from scams and swindles for over a decade in Florida.  This book is designed to inform people about the most common tricks she has encountered and how to combat them.  It’s arranged in short chapters covering such topics as phony contractors, fraudulent travel agencies (and employment scams promising to make you a travel agent) and malware.

To be honest, most of this is pretty basic material that would seem like common sense–but scammers still catch people with these tricks every day.  It’s certainly worth reading through just to refresh your memory.  About a third of the book is a listing of Better Business Bureau offices and government agency contact information for the United States and its territories, which will be especially helpful if you are dealing with a multi-state scam operation.  Although this book was published in 2012, these sorts of addresses tend not to change so the vast majority of them should still be good.

However, the chapters on cybercrime have already become a little dated–check the latest government warnings for new angles con artists have found.

This book was self-published, and it’s very obvious with the heavy use of public domain clip art, pithy mottoes and reproduction of government forms.  I did not spot any obvious typos, which is a huge plus at this end of the market.  Those with e-readers may want to go with the cheaper electronic version as there’s no real loss of quality.

Recommended for seniors, soon-to-be seniors, and close relatives of seniors, but usable by any adult who wants to be careful with their money and credit.

Book Review: The Black Bat #1: Brand of the Black Bat & Murder Calls the Black Bat

Book Review: The Black Bat #1: Brand of the Black Bat & Murder Calls the Black Bat by Norman Daniels (writing as G. Wayman Jones)

Tony Quinn was a handsome, wealthy and highly competent district attorney until the day of Oliver Snate’s trial.  This time he had proof of the gangster’s illegal activities, actual recordings of Snate openly talking about his crimes.  But Snate had a plan to destroy the evidence.  Out-of-town criminals infiltrated the courtroom, and when the recordings were brought out of their protective cover, the thugs caused a riot.  One of them hurled a bottle of vitriol on the recordings, incidentally also hitting D.A. Quinn, who had moved to protect the evidence.

The Black Bat #1

The acid hit Tony’s face, horribly scarring him, and more importantly, rendering him blind!  With the key evidence destroyed and a less effective prosecutor filling in, Snate’s slick lawyer was able to get the case dismissed.  Without his sight, Mr. Quinn thought his career was over, and the medical experts told him there was nothing they could do.  Tony became a hermit, aided only by his manservant “Silk” Kirby, a former conman who’d reformed to help Tony against an earlier assassination attempt.

Then a mysterious woman arrived, who told Tony that if he secretly went to a certain town in Illinois, there was one doctor that could cure his blindness.  After a period of recovery, not only could Tony Quinn see again, but he now possessed the ability to see in the dark!  Remembering how Snate had mocked him as “blind as a bat”, Tony decided to conceal his new abilities, and operate as the mysterious vigilante, the Black Bat.

In one of those interesting coincidences comic book history is littered with, the Black Bat first appeared in Black Book Detective about the same month that Batman first appeared in Detective Comics.  And it very much was a coincidence–the pulp character was called “the Tiger” in the original draft, from the striped facial scars.  But the publisher of Black Book Detective wanted him to be the lead character in that magazine, so he was rewritten into a darker mode, drawing on much the same cultural influences that Bob Kane and Bill Finger used to create Batman.

The two very similar characters brought about mutual threats of lawsuit–but the companies settled on an agreement that Batman would appear in comics only, while the Black Bat would stick to prose.  We’ll get back to that later.

Back in the story, Oliver Snate has graduated to making armored cars vanish on a regular basis.  He’s smart, but not that smart, so the Black Bat suspects a criminal mastermind at work.  The Black Bat begins his plan by interfering with a bank robbery.  A ex-boxer named Jack “Butch” O’Leary and the mystery girl, Carol Baldwin, get caught up in this and join the Black Bat’s team.  The Black Bat also makes an enemy of Detective Sergeant McGrath, an honest policeman who wants to arrest the vigilante for breaking the law.  McGrath catches on to the connection between the Black Bat and Tony Quinn quickly, but is never able to prove they’re the same person.  (Police Commissioner Warner also suspects, but is much less motivated to catch the Bat.)

It turns out that Carol’s father was a police officer who’d been blinded by Oliver Snate in a different way some years before.  Dying, he convinced Dr. Harrington, a brilliant surgeon living in obscurity for reasons never discussed, to transplant his intact corneas and other vital bits into Tony Quinn’s eyes.  (Dr. Harrington is declared dead offstage at the beginning of the second story, so we never follow up on him.)  Carol and Tony are strongly affectionate towards each other, though they both know romance is out of the question.

Now that all the pieces are in place, it’s time to run Snate to earth, and expose the true villain behind him.

Our heroes are pretty cold-blooded about killing; Tony and Silk don’t hesitate to shoot criminals even before they become vigilantes, and the team racks up quite a body count by the end.  Perhaps the most brutal moment is when the Black Bat straight up murders a parked getaway driver so that bank robbers will be forced to use a car he’s gimmicked to record their voices.

The Black Bat’s double life is a recurring problem; he must often cut investigations short and hurry home so that poor, blind Tony Quinn can be seen to still be blind and most certainly not running around in a hood and cape.

Carol’s backstory has her be an effective solo operator until she joins the team, at which point she never takes initiative any more, just doing whatever the Black Bat assigns.  Yes, she does get into peril a lot and need to be saved, but Silk and Butch are about equally peril-prone.

In the second story, several elite jewelry emporiums discover that large portions of their stock have turned counterfeit, seemingly overnight.  One owner is apparently driven to suicide, while another consults Tony Quinn (who used to be his lawyer before being elected district attorney) before apparently driving off a cliff in an exploding automobile.  When a hitman shows up to kill Tony, he realizes that the crooks behind this bizarre series of events must think he knows more about what’s going on than he really does.  Time to become the Black Bat!

Freed of having to do a lot of set-up, this story is more of an action-mystery with plenty of suspects.  There’s a nasty torture scene, though the cover switches Silk with Carol for the equivalent peril.   The bad guys’ major weak point turns out to be that the field leader of the thieves is obviously planning to betray his boss just as soon as he has the loot.  There’s some ethnic stereotyping.

One neat bit that comes up is that Tony’s scars make the Black Bat not be a master of disguise.  He can disguise himself a bit, but he’s no man of a thousand faces, leaving that to the clever Silk.

Now, remember that deal I mentioned a few paragraphs ago?  Eventually, the publisher of Black Bat wanted to adapt some of the magazine stories to comic book form.  But they couldn’t use the name “Black Bat,” so he was changed to the Owl.  Oops, by the time the art was finished, someone had started publishing another superhero named “the Owl.”  So the script was quickly changed by Raymond Thayer to call the main character “the Mask.”  “The Mask Strikes” from Exciting Comics #1 is the first half of “Brand of the Black Bat” with a few names changed, and the hero wearing a noticeably bird-themed hood.  Very compact art that gets a lot done in a few pages.

The Black Bat’s origin went on to inspire comic book characters Dr. Mid-Nite and Two-Face.  Batman-related character Cassandra Cain took up the name Black Bat for a few issues before a reboot made her vanish (the latest version of her is now called “Orphan”), and the Tony Quinn Black Bat finally got to appear in comics in a series from Dynamite.

Recommended for pulp fans, and fans of two-fisted vigilantes who don’t pull punches when dealing with criminals.

 

Book Review: Once Upon a Star: The Adventures of Manning Draco Volume 1

Book Review: Once Upon a Star: The Adventures of Manning Draco Volume 1 by Kendell Foster Crossen

In the 35th Century, many things have changed.  Terrans have gone to the stars and discovered the many alien races living out there, fighting with some, cooperating with others.  Right now, the Milky Way Galaxy is at peace.  Other things have not changed; there are still companies selling life insurance, and there is still insurance fraud.  And that’s where Manning Draco, top investigator for the Greater Solarian Insurance Company, Monopolated, comes in.

Once Upon a Star

Of course, since Manning is the best insurance investigator around, that means he only gets the toughest cases, using  quirks of the local biology or customs to create loopholes in insurance policies.  Most of his workload is caused by crooked insurance salesbeing Dzanku Dzanku of Rigel IV, and his sidekick, the easily mindwiped Sam Warren.  The slippery pair have figured out all sorts of ways to cash in on insurance scams, but just try to prove it!

Once Upon a Star was originally published as four short stories in the 1950s, then edited together slightly to make a fix-up novel.  (Three other stories about Manning Draco are in the second volume.)  These comedic science fiction tales follow an obvious pattern.  At the beginning, Manning is on Earth, flirting with an attractive woman (like Captain Kirk, Manning Draco has broad tastes and will hit on just about any humanoid species–he draws the line at crocodile people.)  This is interrupted by his irascible employer, J. Barnaby Cruikshank, who describes an oncoming crisis the company is facing.

Manning flies off to the planet where the problem is in his private starship, the Alpha Actuary.  There he learns what Dzanku and Warren have been up to, usually involving something about that world that isn’t in the official survey reports.  There will also usually be another attractive woman for him to flirt with.  Things get worse before they get better, but a combination of telepathy, eidetic memory and rules lawyering allow Manning to win the day.  (There’s also some nifty technology at his disposal, but if anything it’s underutilized and seldom plays a key role.)

As one might expect from the time these stories were written and the genre, Manning Draco is pretty much omnicompetent, though this does not always help a great deal.  For example, he’s the one Earthling with any appreciable psionic abilities…which puts him at about average in Galactic society.  And while Manning is aces with the ladies, Dzanku is fully aware of this and is perfectly willing to use it against him.  (It should be noted, however, that at no point is a woman forced to do something she didn’t want to do in the first place, despite one spoilery bit.)

Dzanku, meanwhile, is generally two or three plots ahead of Manning (having already set up the next scams while Manning has just arrived to fix the first problem), but suffers from the urge to gloat when he’s winning and devise elaborate traps rather than just finish Manning off.  He’s also addicted to gambling on games of skill, which Manning uses against him more than once.  Sam Warren is more or less a nonentity that Dzanku can have conversations with to advance the plot.

There’s no damsels in distress in these stories as such, though Fifties attitudes are the default.  A female insurance investigator is rare enough that Manning Draco is taken off guard by one showing up, and there’s a clear expectation that women will quit their jobs once they’re married.  With one notable exception, the women in the story are fully capable of making up their own minds and have agency, and the exception is so because of [spoiler redacted.]

The science is dubious (there’s an entire page-long note devoted to a nonsensical set of equations proving that people from outside a fast-time zone won’t age faster while inside it, despite experiencing events at the faster rate.)   There’s also some fantastic racism (Rigellians are inherently dishonest and have built their entire culture around deception and betrayal.)  And our hero at one point sells Dzanku into sex slavery as the best way to keep him imprisoned without dying (which would cost the insurance company money.)

Still, if you enjoy the 1950s style humor and want to watch a rules lawyer in action, this is the book for you.

Book Review: The Queen of Zamba

Book Review: The Queen of Zamba by L. Sprague de Camp (Also published as Cosmic Manhunt)

It started out as a normal missing person case.  Victor Hasselborg was hired to find runaway heiress Julnar Batruni.  Her trail is easy to pick up, as she used her own name to buy tickets off-planet with her lover, one Anthony Fallon.  Victor pursues them to the distant world of Krishna, where he runs into a snag.

The Queen of Zamba

It seems that Krishna is under a technological interdict, to prevent the warlike natives from gaining the ability to destroy themselves (and others) before their civilizations advance to more peaceful methods of conflict resolution.  Thus Victor must shed most of his advanced equipment and disguise himself as a native to search for the lovers.  Can a man used to automatic pistols and fast cars survive with a sword and aya-drawn buggy?  And once he does find his targets, will he survive his encounter with the Queen of Zamba?

This story is part of the Viagens Interplanetarias setting, created by Mr. de Camp as a way to use many of the tropes of “planetary romance” in a more plausible way than had previously been the case.  (Edgar Rice Burroughs, the founder of the subgenre with A Princess of Mars, had focused more on the fiction side of “science fiction” and most authors writing in the same vein had stuck with that.)   So the Krishnans, while appearing close enough to Terrans so that they can easily disguise themselves as each other, can make whoopee with humans but not babies.  There’s a reasonable explanation for using swords and riding animals when more technologically advanced items exist.  And our protagonists can’t just zip between worlds–thanks to relativistic effects, voyages that take months for the traveling characters take years for the people left behind.  Even with improved human longevity and safe suspended animation, normal people with settled lives aren’t keen on repeated space travel.

Thus our protagonist, Victor Hasselborg.  In some ways, he’s a typical fictional private eye.  Disappointed in love, recovering alcoholic, tough talker, will kill if he has to.  But he’s also a germ-phobic hypochondriac who is skittish around attractive women who seem a bit too interested, and none too interested in the adventurous life.

There’s also some inventiveness in the general setting–after World War 3, the Soviet Union was gone and the United States crippled to the point it had to merge with Canada to survive.  And Brazil became the world’s leading power, aided by having invented starships.  On the other hand, people still smoke cigars in this 22nd Century, and the number one occupation of Earthwomen is “housewife.”  (A Krishnan woman expresses her desire to become one as the rumors she hears of Earth romanticize the position.)

During the story, Victor runs into treachery and eventually must team up with another Terran in disguise to prevent technological horror from being unleashed on Krishna.

Originally written in the late 1940s, this story was reprinted by Ace Books under the title Cosmic Manhunt and with the ethnicity of one of the characters changed due to politics.  This “Asimov’s Choice” edition restores the original title and character.

To fill out the volume, a longish story entitled “Perpetual Motion” has been added.  Con artist Felix Borel comes to Krishna to fleece the natives with a twist on the technology ban.  He can’t introduce any innovation that is beyond current Krishnan science or technology, but since perpetual motion machines are impossible, they don’t count, right?  Felix is not a good person, though he can twist events to make himself look better–right up until his luck runs out.  This story shares a minor character with the main event.

This is light adventure and fast reading; even with the added plausibility, you shouldn’t think about the science too hard.  Recommended for planetary romance fans.  There are quite a few Viagens Interplanetarias stories; I also recommend Rogue Queen if you can find it.

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman edited by Gary Groth

In later years, Harvey Kurtzman was better known  for his humor work, among other things being the first editor of MAD.  But while he worked at EC Comics in the early Fifties, Mr. Kurtzman was also known for some very impressive tales of action and warfare in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.  He was a pioneer in the area of more “realistic” war comics, ones that didn’t treat the enemy as subhuman or inherently evil.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

This book reprints many of those stories, divided into two sections, those Mr. Kurtzman illustrated himself, and those done by other artists from his layouts.  (He was notoriously unhappy when those artists deviated from his vision, and as he was also the editor of the books, those artists usually didn’t get invited to work with him again.)

The volume opens with “Conquest!”, a story set during Spain’s expansion of its empire into Central and South America.  Captain Juan Alvarado and his conquistadors initially have great success against their under-gunned native opponents, but their lust for gold undoes them.

The final story (with art by Reed Crandall) is “Memphis!” about a battle between Union and Confederate gunships on the Mississippi River during the Civil War.  The enthusiasm of the spectators, especially the children, is contrasted to the horrific cost of the battle.

The Korean War was going on during the run of these comic books, and the majority of the stories concern that conflict.  Several of these are top-rate.  “Rubble!” is about a Korean farmer building a doomed house, with step-by-step coverage of the hard labor he puts in–the art in some panels reminds me of WPA heroic friezes.  “Air Burst!” is the tale of a Chinese mortar squad as they try to survive a UN attack, their numbers dwindling.  “Corpse on the Imjin!”  was one of Mr. Kurtzman’s favorites, about two soldiers fighting to the death near the title river, with narration that’s deliberately poetic.  And “Big ‘If’!” is a meditation on the randomness of death that focuses on one soldier considering the choices that have led him to this place, sitting facing five “devil sticks.”

Some of the stories are not quite as good–“Contact!” about a U.S. patrol looking for the North Koreans and finding them ends with a patriotic speech straight out of Hollywood propaganda.  And “Bunker!” (art by Ric Estrada) about two disparate units trying to take a heavily-defended hill, has some unfortunate exaggerated features on the black soldiers that would not fly today, despite the well-meant message of the story.  But overall, most of the stories are solid to excellent.

The stories are reprinted in black and white, which favors the strong inking skills of Mr. Kurtzman, but there is also a color cover gallery that shows off his sense of color design and the work of Marie Severin as a colorist.

The volume is completed with several essays about Mr. Kurtzman’s work and EC Comics in general.

While the violence level is high as you might expect from war stories, these tales don’t lean on the gore as some of EC’s horror titles did–even visible blood is rare.

Highly recommended to EC fans, war comics buffs and those studying the Korean War and how it was seen at the time.

Comic Book Review: The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One

Comic Book Review: The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One edited by Ian Sattler

DC Comics has produced many fine characters in its superhero books over the decades, including iconic super-villains.  It can be a lot of fun watching the bad guys do things when their specific hero isn’t around to stop them.  Thus, in 1976, we got the first DC series dedicated to the adventures of a super-villain group.

The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One

Several baddies are invited to a “Sinister Citadel” in San Francisco by  means ranging from a rock with a note wrapped around it to an intergalactic sub-space message.  There they are met by a clone of the Paul Kirk Manhunter (even in the 1970s we had characters with convoluted backstories) who claims to have gone mercenary and now works for their mysterious “benefactor.”  The assembled villains are ambushed by a robotic version of the Justice League, and easily smash them, demonstrating the power of numbers.  Then Gorilla Grodd and Copperhead are sent on an initiation mission, which goes south and Copperhead is captured by the police.  Still, the fun is just beginning!

Since the Comics Code was still in effect at the time, the villains could never be allowed a full victory, and in the second issue we meet Captain Comet, DC’s first mutant superhero, who hadn’t appeared since the 1950s.  It was explained he had been out in space, and unaware of current events.  The Society decides to dupe him into working with them–it doesn’t actually work because he’s out of touch, not stupid, but since it is revealed at this point that the Society’s secret benefactor is the evil New God Darkseid, who none of the villains particularly want to serve, Captain Comet winds up teaming with the Society anyhow.

Once the Darkseid situation is resolved, the various members of the Society come up with their own evil schemes, and Captain Comet proceeds to be a thorn in their sides.  This volume collects the first ten issues, and an alternate version of the first issue with slightly different characters and a significantly different plot.

Company politics resulted in three different writers in ten issues, as well as no steady art team.  Series creator Gerry Conway was the most frequent author.  This also affected the casting; some editors at DC wouldn’t let iconic villains associated with their heroes be used, so the Society was heavy on Flash foes (because Mr. Conway was also writing the Flash), relatively obscure characters such as Copperhead and the Earth-2 Wizard, and featured a new person in the role of Star Sapphire, replacing Green Lantern Hal Jordan’s long-time love interest Carol Ferris.

Lex Luthor does show up for one issue, but it’s a very poor showing for him, winding up arrested by ordinary police officers.  Longer lasting was Funky Flashman, a non-powered grifter and entrepreneur who is believed to be Jack Kirby’s satire on Stan Lee’s less stellar qualities.  (His appearance is changed in this series to more closely resemble how Stan Lee looked in the Seventies.)

Sales were never particularly good on this title, and it would get cancelled in the DC Implosion, but it’s a fun look at the bad guys as they were at the time.  (The alternate first issue plays up Captain Cold’s would-be ladies’ man trait, which was his main characterization point at the time.)  Recommended to DC Comics fans and fans of the Flash TV series.

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