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: The Killing Moon

Book Review: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

The city of Gujaareh worships Hananja, the goddess of dreams.  Their entire culture is centered around the power of narcomancy to draw magical power from dreams to heal and perform other wonders.  The most powerful of these “humors” is dreamblood, which is only produced by a person’s final dream.  Thus a small group of holy men called the Gatherers are dispatched to bring gentle death to the aged and incurable–and sometimes those that would threaten the peace of the city.

The Killing Moon

Ehiru is considered the most skilled of the Gatherers, in much demand to bring surcease to the suffering.  But his most recent Gathering has gone horribly wrong.  He has condemned a man to eternal nightmare, and threatened his own sanity.  Why, Ehiru is even seeing what looks like a Reaper, a mythical corruption of the Gatherers that has not existed for centuries.

Sunandi is the Voice of Kisua, an ambassador from that ancient land to Gujaareh.  She is suspicious of the magic that pervades the entire city; to her euthanasia and assassination are evil.  Sunandi is investigating the sudden death of her predecessor (and foster father) Kiran.  Is the Sunset Prince of Gujaareh up to something even more sinister than she expected?

Nijiri is a faithful follower of Hananja, whose long loyalty and training are rewarded when he becomes a Gatherer-Apprentice under the tutelage of Ehiru, his personal hero.  However, this is not an auspicious time to become a Gatherer, and Nijiri may end up having to do the unthinkable to remain true to his vows.

This fantasy novel is the first in the Dreamblood series by N.K. Jemisin, who recently won a Hugo Award for her book The Fifth Season.  The geographical setting and other details are evocative of Ancient Egypt, but this is very much not Egypt, or even Earth, as is quickly made clear by the existence of the Dreaming Moon.  Ms. Jemisin’s introductory note mentions that one of the difficulties was coming up with names that sounded right, but didn’t mean anything in Egyptian.

Many of the cultural details revolve around Gujaareh’s unique form of magic; for example, the equivalent of temple prostitutes don’t have sex with the worshipers, but instead guide them into erotic dreams from which healing “dreamseed” can be extracted.  The Gatherers are central to this story; they have great power and special training, but must devote themselves to self-control–losing that control makes them vulnerable to becoming Reapers.  Unfortunately, someone has found a way to pervert the system and use it for their own purposes.  Peace is the will of Hananja, but whose definition of “peace” will it be?

There’s quite a bit of world-building, and it’s nice to see a fantasy setting based in ancient African civilizations.  It’s also quite pleasant that it’s not “good vs. evil” as such, either.  Gujaareh’s use of magic does a lot of good for its citizens, but Kisua’s worries about the ethical problems of narcomancy and the dangers of collecting dreamblood are not unjustified.  Is denying a painless death to someone who cannot be cured of their constant pain who might live on for years yet unable to move worth holding to a principle?  But if you allow this “good death”, who is there to stop all deaths that serve Hananja from being declared “good?”

Some of the characters fell a little flat for me, and a map would have been nice at a couple of points to make it clearer why certain journeys had to be made in a specific way.  On the other hand, there’s a glossary, and in the paperback edition I read, there’s an “interview” of the author by the author that explains a great deal of the reasoning behind details of the setting.

Overall, this is an excellent book, well worth searching out if you’re looking for something different in your fantasy worlds.

Comic Book Review: Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2 by various creators.

Back in 1967, Marvel Comics became aware that the name “Captain Marvel” for a superhero had fallen out of trademark status.  It was too good a name for Marvel to pass up, so Stan Lee quickly came up with a character to appear in Marvel Super-Heroes #12, who then appeared in his own series.  Captain Mar-Vell was a representative of the alien Kree Empire, sent to spy on the Earth for potential conquest.  He was chosen for the job because of being of the oppressed minority “Pink Kree” who happened to look like Caucasian humans, as opposed to the majority “Blue Kree.”   (This allowed Marvel Comics to play him as an underdog who faced prejudice, while still having a “white” character as the hero.)

Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2

Mar-Vell assumed the identity of recently deceased scientist Walter Lawson and began working at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the better to spy on the space program.  When danger threatened his co-workers, Mar-Vell put on his Kree uniform (with its face-hiding helmet), and due to accidentally revealing his name became known as the superhero Captain Marvel.  Unfortunately, Mar-Vell’s commanding officer Colonel Yon-Rogg wanted to steal his subordinate’s girlfriend, Nurse Una, and proceeded to try to get Captain Marvel killed.

Several issues in, Mar-Vell’s powers were reworked, and he was bonded with perennial sidekick Rick Jones–only one of them could be in the positive universe at a time, which the other floated around in the Negative Zone, swapping places with power-enhancing bracelets called Nega-Bands.  (And yes, this was a riff on the original Captain Marvel’s relationship with Billy Batson.)  Sales were never particularly good, and the series went on hiatus for several years while the character guest-starred in other heroes’ books.

Which  brings us to the volume at hand.  Issue #22 starts with Captain Marvel apparently dead, having given up his lifeforce to save Rick Jones at the end of the Kree-Skrull war.  But no, he was just “hiding” and a mad science treatment allows Mar-Vell to return to trading places with Rick.  The first few issues are standard superhero stuff, but then comes the Starlin run.  Jim Starlin was new to Marvel Comics at the time, but had big ideas for a cosmic plotline involving several characters he’d designed, and he convinced Marvel to let him anchor it with Captain Marvel.

This involved Thanos, one of a race of godlike beings that inhabited Titan, a moon of Saturn.  In love with Death (literally), he rejected the peaceful ways of his people to become a conqueror, gathering an army of outcasts and criminals from across the galaxy.  Along the way, he inspired the creation of Drax the Destroyer, a golem-like creature whose sole purpose was killing Thanos.  (This version was very different from the one most of you will have seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, among other things being a formidable telepath.)

Thanos’ plans to conquer Earth accelerate when he learns that Rick Jones (unknown to himself) knows the location of the Cosmic Cube, a device that can reshape reality to the holder’s whim.  The mad titan plans to use it to elevate himself to true godhood, making him omnipotent.  While Captain Marvel and his allies manage to defeat some of Thanos’ minions and slow down his plans a bit, it is not until Mar-Vell is granted “cosmic awareness” by a being called Eon that he is finally able to save the day, resulting in Thanos’ first death.

The high-stakes action and some trippy visuals impressed the heck out of 12-year-old me, and a lot of other kids, and Jim Starlin became a favorite creator.  After the end of the Thanos Saga, Starlin stayed on only long enough for a transitional issue to Steve Englehart’s run.  #34 had Mar-Vell go up against a C-list villain named Nitro, whose power was exploding himself.  At the end of the issue, Mar-Vell was exposed to experimental nerve gas,  (Much later it would turn out he had developed inoperable cancer from this exposure, resulting in the classic story The Death of Captain Marvel.)

Nitro turned out to be a minion of the Lunatic Legion, Blue Kree purists headquartered on Earth’s Moon.  They in turn turned out to be pawns of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, who had been orchestrating events for years to turn Rick Jones into a jump-start for Kree evolution (this is not how evolution works; just roll with it.)  This volume ends with Mar-Vell and Rick defeating the Supreme Intelligence’s plan, but not without cost.

There are a couple of appearances by Carol Danvers (who’d been chief of security for Cape Canaveral during the early issues of the series) who has been demoted due to the events surrounding Lawson.  She doesn’t get to show off her competence, alas.  Things would look up for her a couple years later when she became the superhero Ms. Marvel, and Carol is now the Marvel Universe’s Captain Marvel.

Englehart’s run was also pretty good, but not up to the level of Starlin’s; some good art by Al Milgrom helps.

Trivia note:  A black singer says that she wants to be “Tina Turner–without Ike” two years before Ike’s abuse of Tina became public knowledge.

In addition to general superheroic violence, there’s the “fantastic racism” previously mentioned.  In addition to the skin color issues of the Kree, the Kree and their long-time enemies the shape-shifting Skrulls regularly hurl slurs at each other.  (Even Mar-Vell himself indulges in this before gaining cosmic awareness.)  There’s also an issue where Rick takes a hallucinogenic drug a friend gave him without consideration of what that might do to his mental link with Mar-Vell.

The art suffers some from the lack of color (Starlin did his own colors, which made his issues really pop.)

Recommended to Captain Marvel fans on a budget and Starlin fans in particular; check your lending library.

Manga Review: Dream Fossil

Manga Review: Dream Fossil by Satoshi Kon

Satoshi Kon (1963-2010) was an acclaimed anime director, making a handful of movies (including Paprika) and one television series, Paranoia Agent.   His themes of confusion of dreams and reality, and madness lying just below the surface of society, made his works fascinating.  He also spent some time as a manga creator, creating several stories in the 1980s before going into anime full time as an assistant to Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira).  This volume collects his short works.

Dream Fossil

The lead story is “Carve.”  After a war polluted the old places of habitation, most of humanity moved to “The City”, a haven of high technology.  However, when a minority of humans started developing psychic powers, they were kicked out of The City, and scrape by in the now less toxic old cities.  Sculptor Kei and his female friend/model Ann notice that Specials are starting to disappear from their neighborhood.  Are The City people up to something?

The fifteen stories cover a range of genres.  There’s a couple of baseball stories, some slice of life, a samurai thriller, and some more speculative fiction.  The characters tend towards the realistic, even if the circumstances are often bizarre.

One standout is “Kidnappers”, about a car thief who discovers that he has a small child in the back seat.  He wants to get the kid back to the parents, but doesn’t want to go to jail for swiping the vehicle–and the actual kidnapper is after him too.  The main character is well drawn as a bad person, but one that doesn’t want to be that bad.

There’s also  “Waira”, the samurai thriller I mentioned.  A feudal warlord has been betrayed by his vassal/brother-in-law, his troops massacred, and now he and a handful of surviving followers are fleeing through a mountain forest in the middle of the night.  The brother-in-law and his troops pursue, but their guides warn them that the mountain is haunted by a murderous creature named “Waira.”  Who will survive?  The nature of Waira comes as a bit of a surprise–it’s so out of place that it might as well be supernatural.

I can really spot the Otomo influence in several of these stories.  The art and writing are decent, but Kon doesn’t sparkle here the way he does in his animation work.  A couple of the stories are photocopied from magazine appearances as the original art is lost; this affects the print quality.

The last story in the volume is Kon’s debut work, a two-parter titled “Toriko” (prisoner).  It’s very YA dystopia.  Yuichi, a teenager, lives in a future society ruled by implacable robot police, and in which you must have your identity card ready at all times for any transactions or even just walking down the street at the wrong time.  When he and his friends break curfew, they are remanded to The Center for “rehab” to become “productive citizens.”  Good thing Yuichi managed to snag a weapon!  Downer ending, depending on your point of view.

In addition to a few color pages, there’s also an interview with Susumu Hirawara, a composer who worked with Satoshi Kon on musical scores for the anime projects.  (One last film, Dreaming Machine, is being slowly finished.)

The intended audience varies, a couple would be suitable for young readers, but overall this anthology seems to be seinen (young men’s.)  Several of the stories have lethal violence, there’s some nudity, underaged drinking and smoking, and one story has an attempted rape.

Fans of Satoshi Kon’s other work will want to own this anthology; others will be better served by checking it out via library loan.

Comic Book Review: The Batman Adventures Volume 2

Comic Book Review: The Batman Adventures Volume 2 written by Kelley Puckett, pencils by Mike Parobeck, inks by Rick Burchett

Batman: The Animated Series ran on Fox 1992-1995, and is considered one of the best animated TV series of all time, as well as one of the best adaptations of Batman outside comic books.  It spawned an entire DC Animated Universe set of series with its unique look and strong continuity.  The series also influenced the comics it had spawned from, creating the madcap Harley Quinn and her friendship with Poison Ivy (and suggesting they might be very close friends) and a new sympathetic backstory for Mr. Freeze, who had been a flat character before.

The Batman Adventures Volume 2

But more directly, there was a tie-in comic book series, The Batman Adventures.  It was written for younger readers than the mainstream DC Comics universe, although it could still handle some subject matter that the TV series had to shy away from.  The art was meant to evoke the style of the show, and frequently succeeded.  Rather than copy scripts from the TV series, most of the issues tell stories in between episodes.

Many  of the stories in this second volume revolve around secondary characters rather than Batman himself.  There are stories for Batgirl (taking place before her first appearance on the show), Robin and  the pair together.  Man-Bat, Talia, and Ra’s al Ghul each get a spotlight story, as does Commissioner Gordon.  There’s even an issue from the viewpoint of the Professor, a brainy guy who teams up with schemer Mastermind and reluctant master of violence Mr. Nice to steal nuclear weapons.  Their plan is foiled by one unexpected glitch….

The cover story is from issue #16, “The Killing Book.”  When the Joker discovers that the Gotham Adventures comic book depicts Batman always defeating him, the Clown Prince of Crime kidnaps an artist to draw the true-life stories of the Joker’s triumphs.  This one has a lot of meta-humor, from the titles of the chapters to the comics creators being roughly based on the real ones at DC.  The lighter nature of this series is shown by the Joker not actually killing anyone, though he tries to remedy this with a deathtrap for Batman.

The Scarecrow story in #19 is darker, as fear of the Scarecrow spreads over Gotham City, far in excess of his actual threat level.  He’s even invading Bruce Wayne’s nightmares of the death of his parents!   It turns out that Jonathan Crane isn’t the only ethically deficient scientist in Gotham this month.

Some bits in this series may be too scary for the youngest readers, but most ten year-olds and up should be fine.  Older readers will enjoy the in-jokes and references.

Recommended to fans of the cartoon, and parents of young Batman fans who aren’t ready for the very dark mainline comics.

Manga Review: Master Keaton, Volume 1

Manga Review: Master Keaton, Volume 1 art by Naoki Urasawa, story by Hokusei Katsushika & Takashi Nagasaki

Taichi Hiraga Keaton is a mild-looking fellow with a bumbling exterior personality.  You’d never guess that he’s a brilliant archaeologist, ex-SAS soldier and freelance insurance investigator.  He often takes leave of his day job as a poorly paid lecturer at a small Japanese college to investigate possible insurance fraud around the world, especially if it involves archaeological artifacts.  Adventure awaits!

Master Keaton

Now if he could just figure out a way to get back with his mathematician ex-wife like his outspoken teen daughter Yuriko would like….

This late 1980s manga series has art by Naoki Urasawa, famous in the U.S. for his work on Monster and 20th Century Boys.  There are touches that suggest he had some input on the writing of this series, but it lacks the intricacy and long-term plotting of his solo work.

As it is, this is a fine action series, very episodic in nature and could easily be done in live action.  While Mr. Keaton has special forces training, and several of the stories do have heavy violence, he’s fundamentally a man of peace who prefers to solve problems with MacGyver style ingenuity and thoughtful negotiation.  He goes well out of his way to avoid killing people.

The 1980s setting is very obvious from time to time, especially in the politics; but at least one story involves a piece of then-new technology today’s kids would find hopelessly obsolete.  Taichi being Cornish-Japanese with dual citizenship helps move the story along and gives him a unique perspective.

The final story in this volume is a two-parter that focuses on James Wolf, Keaton’s fencing instructor in the SAS and a perfect role for Liam Neeson.  He has a mad on for Corsican drug gangs and Keaton is called in to deal with the situation, in hopes that he can keep the body count down.  This story also explains why Keaton is called “Master.”

This is a seinen (young men’s) series, so there is some nudity, including male nudity in art reproductions.

Keaton can come across as a bit too competent in some of the stories, which presumably is why he’s written as such a bumbling father.  Recommended for fans of Eighties action shows.

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