Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6 written (mostly) by J.M. DeMatteis, Pencils by Don Perlin

The Defenders are one of Marvel Comics’ more oddball teams, beginning with a line-up of Doctor Strange, Hulk, Silver Surfer and the Sub-Mariner, four of Marvel’s most powerful characters who did not belong to other teams.  After a couple of pilot stories, the “non-team” first assembled in Marvel Feature #1 in 1971 to battle the alien Scientist Supreme Yandroth, and shortly thereafter got their own continuing series.

Essential Defenders Vol. 6

With four such volatile personalities, it was difficult to justify them staying together very long, and the warrior woman Valkyrie was added to the group to give them “texture” and a reason to cooperate.  Other members soon followed, either long-term or temporarily, and the Defenders got a reputation for being whoever happened to show up when danger struck, with Dr. Strange being the linchpin of the group.

This volume covers Defenders issues #107-125, and a couple of extras from 1982-83.  We open in the aftermath of a major plotline involving a group of self-proclaimed super-patriots trying to take over America with a group of powerful telepaths.  These telepaths and Kyle “Nighthawk” Richmond combined their mental powers to blow up the bad guys’ base, apparently dying in the process.  As the assembled heroes reel in shock during the aftermath, a stray minion of the super-patriots manages to get the drop on Valkyrie, killing her.

SPOILERS AHOY FROM THIS POINT!

It turns out that due to her convoluted backstory, involving the Asgardian goddess Amora the Enchantress, Valkyrie isn’t quite dead yet.  The heroes split into two groups when Amora offers a deal to restore Valkyrie to full life.  This plotline ends with Valkyrie restored to her true form of Brunnhilda, and no longer with the curse of being unable to fight women.  (She also loses some of her disdain of men in the process.)

Several members of the Defenders are lost in transit back from Asgard, but before that plotline bears fruit, there are solo issues focusing on Eric Simon “Devil-Slayer” Payne and Patsy “Hellcat” Walker.  Then there’s Avengers Annual #11. which features the return of perennial Defenders villain Nebulon.  He and his wife Supernalia clash, pitting the Avengers and Defenders against each other.

This is followed by Marvel Team-Up #119, which features Spider-Man and Isaac “Gargoyle” Christians in a story about aging and the acceptance of same.  Isaac has some insight into these matters as he was already a senior citizen when he made the Faustian bargain that made him a living gargoyle.

The missing Defenders turn out to have been transported to Earth-S, a parallel universe where the main hero group is the Squadron Supreme, a parody of/homage to the Justice League.  On their earth, Kyle Richmond is President of the United States.  Which would be great if he weren’t under the mental control of the alien known as Overmind.  As is most of the Squadron, saving only Hyperion (their version of Superman), who is suffering from lethal radiation poisoning.

And Nighthawk, “our” Kyle Richmond, is helping him out, having been transported to this Earth by the group mind that were once human telepaths.  He brought in the missing Defenders, who now summon the rest of the team for a moon mission to keep the Overmind from conquering the rest of the universe.

Except it turns out that “our” Kyle Richmond is actually “their” Kyle Richmond, given Nighthawk’s memories by the group mind.  But wait, then who’s the President?  It’s actually Null the Living Darkness, which has been puppeteering the Overmind to draw attention away from its protective shell.  The climax is kind of disappointing as it’s the group mind’s show, co-opting everyone else for a battle of wills with the ultimate darkness, only to have Null destroy itself with its own inner light.

So in the aftermath, “our” Kyle Richmond is as really dead as a Marvel superhero gets (not coming back from the dead until 1998!); Earth-S’ Kyle Richmond regains his true memories and reunites with his old teammates (who would go on to the Squadron Supreme miniseries, one of the best superhero stories ever); the group mind inhabits the currently vacant body of the Overmind; and the Defenders return to their own Earth.  (With a slight detour for some of them in a Dr. Seuss-inspired adventure.)

The next few issues weave together the resolution of the Patsy Walker/Daimon “Son of Satan” Hellstrom romance, Hank “Beast” McCoy’s growing irritation with the Defender’s “non-team” ethos… and the return of the Elf with a Gun.  This last had been a subplot during the Steve Gerber run, involving an elf with a gun popping up and seemingly murdering random people.  It was abandoned when Gerber left the book with the apparent death of the elf in an accident.

Mr. DeMatteis wanted to change the direction of the book, so revived the elf (now revealed to be multiple identical beings) as the agent of a time tribunal that was attempting to prevent the destruction of Earth.  Removing random Earthlings had not done the trick, so the tribunal had to convince the four original Defenders that they must never all be in the same room together again.  Unfortunately, the elf took over the narration for a couple of issues, and he was written as a very annoying character.

The resignation of the four founders gave Beast the opportunity to reconfigure the group as the New Defenders (complete with title change as of #125).  He roped in his old X-Men teammates Iceman and Angel, holdovers Valkyrie and Gargoyle, and new member Heather “Moondragon” Douglas.  A powerful telepath who had a revolving door hero/villain history, she had been released into the custody of the Valkyrie to re-learn human values.  (The Overmind simply disappeared between issues; this would become a plot point later.)

This began a period in which the New Defenders were an official team, with rules and such.  But that’s for Volume Seven.

Overall, a decent run with consistent art, and some good character focus stories.  Some of the writing is a bit heavy-handed with the morals; there’s a consistent theme of learning to have hope even in a world full of loss and pain.  The Dr. Seuss inspired story will either be laugh out loud funny or a total miss depending on your tastes.

Recommended to fans of the characters or 1970s Marvel storytelling.

 

Book Review: The Baker Street Peculiars

Book Review: The Baker Street Peculiars written by Roger Langridge, art by Andy Hirsch

It is 1933 in the city of London, and what appears to be a stone lion from Trafalgar Square is running wild in the streets.  Three children from different walks of life (and a dog) have separately decided to chase down the lion to learn what’s going on.  They eventually lose the trail, but meet the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, who engages them for a shilling each to be his new Irregulars.  They’ll investigate the supposed living statue while he’s busy with other cases.

The Baker Street Peculiars

But wait; assuming Sherlock Holmes wasn’t just made up by Arthur Conan Doyle, didn’t he retire to a bee farm in Sussex before World War One?  There’s more than one odd thing going on here!

This volume collects the four issues of last year’s children’s comic book series of the same name.  As a modern period piece, it’s a bit more diverse than the comic papers that would have been published back in the day.

Molly Rosenberg is a whip-smart girl, who wants to be a detective.  Her kindly but conservative tailor grandfather has forbidden her formal education as he’s afraid she’s already too learned to attract a good husband.

Rajani Malakar is an orphan of Bengali descent who was raised (when not confined to juvenile institutions) by professional thief Big Jim Cunningham.  Big Jim had an alcohol-related fatality a bit back, and she’s had to make her way alone with petty theft.  Rajani is probably the oldest of the children, as she’s hit puberty.

Humphrey Fforbes-Davenport is the youngest son of a large upper-crust family.  Evidently he was unplanned and unwanted, as he was shipped off to a harsh boarding school as soon as possible, with only a golden retriever named Wellington as a valet.  (Wellington doesn’t talk, so his level of intelligence is difficult to gauge.)  Over the course of the story, Humphrey learns to weaponize his class privilege (within his own class, of course, it’s never done him any good, so he didn’t even realize he had it.)

As it happens, Molly’s cultural background is especially useful in this case, as the villain is Chippy Kipper, the Pearly King of Brick Street, a self-willed golem.  Chippy has the mind of a small-time protection racketeer, but has realized that the ability to bring statues to life gives him an army with which he could take over the city–maybe the world!

The kids are on their own through most of the adventure.  The sole representative of the law enforcement establishment is PC Plank, who’s intellectually lazy, and would rather arrest known riffraff Rajani than investigate any other possible criminals.  Sherlock Holmes is…elsewhere…much of the time, and Daily Mirror reporter Hetty Jones is well behind the children in her investigations.

The art is cartoony, with several Sherlockian in-jokes hidden in the background.  This serves to soften somewhat the several off-screen deaths.

This volume should be suitable for middle-schoolers on up.  Parents may want to be ready for discussions on period sexism and ethnic prejudice.  (There’s also a subplot about dog farts.)

It appears that this may be the first in a series about the kids–I should mention that despite the Holmes connection, this and potential future volumes seem more about the “weird adventure” than mysteries.

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016 by various

While I spend many of my comics-related posts on this  blog talking about the Big Two’s superhero comic books, there are a number of worthy small press comics companies that put out interesting material every year.  Oni Press has put out an affordable collection of seven first issues from various series they’ve printed over their existence.

Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Leading off this trade paperback is The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt.  This horror-western about a collection of cursed firearms is as it happens something I have reviewed before.  I won’t repeat myself here, but note that the series lasted eight collected volumes in its main storyline, with three extra graphic novels of spinoff stories.  Pretty impressive!

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque is science fiction.  When incoming president Stephen Blades reads a letter left for him by his predecessor, he learns that many of the bizarre actions taken by Francis T. Carroll were based on information not shared with the American people..  It seems that there are aliens doing…something…in the asteroid belt.  President Carroll felt it was most important for America to arm itself just in case the aliens are hostile, thus his warmongering activities on Earth that have made a mess of foreign policy while neglecting domestic issues that are coming to a head.

The United States also sent a secret manned space mission out to the location of the alien activity in an effort to learn more; they’re just now coming close to their destination.  The astronauts have concealed certain information from their Earth-bound mission controllers…among other things, one of them is pregnant.

There are some pretty clear parallels to the Bush/Obama transition, with mentions of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and a white conservative president with a bad reputation on the economy and war being replaced with a darker-skinned liberal.  But as the series progresses, the special circumstances lessen those similarities as President Blades tries a very different approach to the same situation President Carroll faced.

Meanwhile, the astronauts learn the truth behind the alien presence, and we learn the backstory of their mission.

The Bunker by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Joe Infunari starts with five recent college graduates going out to the woods to bury a time capsule.  Except that they find themselves uncovering a bunker with four of their names on it.  A bunker that contains items alleging to be from the post-apocalyptic future, including letters from their future selves.

It seems that by their actions, the quintet will bring about the near-extinction of the human race.  But not doing so might create an even worse future.  It’s not clear if the future selves are trying to create a time loop, or avert one.

This was a double-sized first issue, so a lot goes on.  This does include nudity and on-page sex, as well as some nasty violence and strong language.  The last page twist is foreshadowed, but still pretty shocking.

Stumptown  by Greg Rucka and Justin Greenwood appears to be the first issue…of the third series.  Private detective Dex Parios participates in an amateur soccer match (her team loses) before going to a professional game of footy with her brother Ansel and friend Mercury.  It’s hometown Portland vs. Seattle, and autographs after!  But afterwards, Dex and Ansel find a badly beaten (maybe dead) Mercury in the bushes.  Is it hooliganism or a crime unrelated to sports?

Greg Rucka is well known for his crime comics, but the soccer elements took up most of the issue for a slow start.

Helheim by Cullen Bunn & Joëlle Jones takes place somewhere up North during the Sixth Century.  A stockaded village is caught in a war between witches.  A raiding party is chased by warriors of the witch Groa who soon become the undead.  A man named Rikard keeps having visions of himself weeping tears of blood.  When the village itself is breached, Rickard is beheaded, but that’s not the end of his participation in the war.  Especially if his lover Bera has anything to say about it!

Rikard is relatively nice for a Norseman of the time, not happy about abandoning comrades or turning over loved ones to the enemy as a peace offering.  His father is made of sterner stuff, but neither of them is fully prepared for what happens next.

Kaijumax by Xander Cannon is a considerable change of pace.  The world has long been infested with monsters who ran rampant over the human civilizations.  But now the humans have developed a way to give themselves giant superpowered forms (ala Ultraman) and have been capturing the kaiju they see as criminals, placing them on an island prison.

One of the latest inmates is Electrogor, who claims to have been just out looking for food for its children.  Alas, the humans take poorly to kaiju eating their power supplies.  Electrogor knows the humans are after its children, and it appeals to E68FE3 (“Hellmoth”), a monster that’s about to be released on a technicality, to help the kids out.

E68FE3 wants a return favor though, and the resulting altercation puts Electrogor in solitary confinement.  It’s only then that a guard lets Electrogor know that the “technicality” Hellmoth was released on is that there are no living witnesses to its crimes.  Especially the children.

Despite the cartoony art and many jokes, this series is a commentary on the American prison system and the abuses rampant within it.  So Not For Children.

We finish with The Life After by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Gabo.  Jude sleepwalks through his life, every day seeming exactly like every other day.  Perhaps a little too much exactly like every other day–how many times can one woman drop her handkerchief on the bus?  But today is different.  Today, Jude picks up the handkerchief and tries to get it back to the woman.

It seems like the world is out to stop him, and it starts getting much weirder, but Jude eventually does catch up to the woman, and seemingly breaks her out of her routine as well.  This disturbs secret watchers who say that no one has escaped in two thousand years.

Shortly thereafter, Jude meets Ernest Hemingway, who believes that everyone in their city is in fact a suicide, and this is the afterlife.

Some nifty use of panels and other art tricks, reminiscent of the Franco-Belgian style.

Content note:  the woman’s flashback includes on-panel prostitution, gore and childbirth as well as suicide.

There’s a wide assortment of genres represented here, and this is a good choice to pick up if you’re unfamiliar with Oni Press and want to know which series you might like.  Based on these first issues, I’m least impressed with The Bunker which skews even more cynical than I have a taste for.

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: 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: The Mida

Book Review: The Mida by Lyle Ernst & Kimberly Sigafus

Tony was little when his parents died and left him in the care of his grandmother Nola.  She tried the best she could to raise him in the tiny community of Farmingdale, Iowa, but it’s 1952 now and he’s a grown man.  Tony’s made some bad life choices which are about to come back and bite him, as he’s accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend.  As if that wasn’t stressful enough, it turns out his mother isn’t dead after all, and she and the carnival she manages just appeared in town.

The Mida

The Mida, as it happens, is no ordinary carnival.  For one thing, it’s a “Sunday school”, which means no rigged games or other cheats.  More relevantly to the plot of this story, the carnival is mystic in nature, traveling through time and place to where it needs to be.  A number of the carnies have special abilities ranging from eidetic memory to being “a Wiccan goddess” granted by their employment.  Mesa, the manager, knows that the Mida has arrived in 1952 Iowa for Tony, but is reluctant to face the son  she abandoned all those years ago.  Especially as the carnival is being stalked by the dark spirit Jiibay, who has finally caught up to them.

This is the first of three (so far) fantasy books about the Mida.  Ojibwa lore is woven into the narrative, but is not the main thing going on.  For most of the book, the non-supernatural murders are the focus plotline.  It’s not much of a mystery for the reader as the story has multiple viewpoint characters, including the murderer.

Good stuff: a fairly diverse cast, not all of whom are the stereotypes they first appear to be from one viewpoint.  A fairly sensible and intelligent sheriff, who gets to be useful even though this is a fantasy book.

Not so good:  Little to nothing is done with the time travel aspect of the plot.  Most of the carnies probably wouldn’t take advantage of future knowledge for profit because of their personal morality or lack of solid opportunities, but there’s no mention by anyone of changes in technology or customs.  Conveniently, Mesa has aged enough in her travels so that no one doubts she’s the right age to be Tony’s mother.  Other than some mention of contemporary baseball players, there’s almost nothing that makes the setting feel like the early 1950s as opposed to any post World War Two but pre-21st Century rural town.

There are eight main carnies who form a “circle” although this is apparently the first most of them have known that; all get at least a little development.  But then there are thirteen Gatekeepers who also work at the carnival and that the Eight aren’t supposed to know about as they are the guardians of the Eight.  Most of them don’t even get named, let alone individual attention.  And presumably there are even more carnies that aren’t in either of those groups.  With all these people and the townsfolk, the book is jam-packed and some characters just get lost in the shuffle.

There’s some brief transphobia, but oddly enough no anti-Native American prejudice is ever brought up.  Abuse is in some characters’ backstory, and some of the carnies have been criminals in the past.

This is very obviously a first novel and self-published (a few spellchecker typos); later books in the series may show improvement.

Recommended to people who like weird carnival-set stories.

 

Anime Review: InuYasha Movie 4: Fire on the Mystic Island

Anime Review: InuYasha Movie 4: Fire on the Mystic Island

Once upon a time, Horai Island was a peaceful land where humans and youkai (Japanese monsters, called “demons” in the dub) lived in harmony.  To protect themselves and their hanyou (“half-demon”) children from less tolerant mainlanders, the people of Horai erected a magical barrier that made the island inaccessible from normal reality, only resurfacing, Brigadoon-like, once every fifty years.  Unfortunately, during one of the brief access points, Horai was invaded and conquered by demons calling themselves “The Four War Gods.”

Inyasha Movie 4: Fire on the Mystic Island

Fifty years ago, the hanyou known as Inuyasha and his then companion, the priestess Kikyo, stumbled across the island and had an inconclusive battle with the War Gods before the access ended.   Now the barrier has lifted again, and one of the handful of hanyou children who have so far survived the War Gods’ cruel rule manages to escape temporarily.  She promptly runs into Inuyasha and his new friends, who decide to do something about the situation.

This animated movie is based on the anime adaptation of Rumiko Takahashi’s shounen (boys’) manga, InuYasha.  The manga is about a modern schoolgirl, Kagome, who travels through time to Japan’s Warring States era.  There she runs into Inuyasha, the son of a powerful dog demon and a mortal woman.  Despite some initial misunderstandings, Kagome joins Inuyasha in a quest for the pieces of the Jewel of Four Souls, which will allow the lad to become fully youkai or fully human (he says the former, but there are hints he might choose the latter.)  Along the way, they gather a group of quirky companions, and a couple of people who show up often but never formally become their friends.

It’s somewhat of a tradition for animation companies in Japan that are producing a long-run TV series to also put out movie-length features timed for Golden Week (a series of national holidays that all come within a week in spring) or the summer break so kids and anime fans have something to go to movie theaters for.  (And even other folks if the weather is bad.)   These stories are generally self-contained; fans can tell approximately where in the series the story would fit in, but often there is no actual space for it to go, and they almost never affect the continuity of the main series (or are even mentioned in it!)

This one is a bit special as it came out during a hiatus between the main InuYasha series and the second one which adapted the final plotline from the manga.  As such, it’s a bit of a farewell performance for those production people who didn’t get picked up for the later show.

For fans of the anime, this is a treat with all the favorite recurring characters (even if they have to be shoehorned in) and running gags.  There’s exciting action, all the main characters get a cool moment, and the Four War Gods (based on the four directional gods) are hissable and powerful.  There are also some parts with better animation than the TV show thanks to a higher budget.

For those coming in cold, however, this movie probably isn’t the place to start.  For example, the story just assumes the viewer knows the elaborate backstories of Kikyo (now undead) and Sesshomaru (Inuyasha’s full-demon half-brother) and doesn’t explain them at all, which is likely to be baffling to the first-timer.   (Especially as there is a second Kikyo running around for a while!)  The War Gods don’t get much characterization beyond “like beating people up and resent being thwarted.”

While this is most assuredly a kids’ movie, sensitive parents should be aware that there is a certain amount of blood mixed in with the fantasy and slapstick violence, and there’s some non-graphic female nudity.  Also, Miroku the fallen monk engages in some sexual harassment of professional demon hunter Sango, and this is played for laughs.

Recommended primarily to InuYasha fans who somehow missed it before; newcomers should try the first few volumes of the manga or the beginning of the TV anime instead.

 

Comic Book Review: The Fix, Volume 1: Where Beagles Dare

Comic Book Review: The Fix, Volume 1: Where Beagles Dare written by Nick Spencer, art by Steve Lieber

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

The Fix Volume One Where Beagles Dare

Roy and Mac are crooked cops in Los Angeles.  Unfortunately, they’re not very good at being crooked.  Or cops.  They’ve gotten themselves deep into debt with the Mob, and now the local crimelord wants them to do him a favor.  A large favor that’s going to take more smarts than these two have put together…and involves a beagle named Pretzels.

Of course, the actual plot is much more complicated than that, and most of this first volume of the comic book series is dedicated to setting up the many moving pieces of the story, some of which Roy and Mac have no clue about.   There’s at least one scene which makes me wonder if there’s going to be a sudden genre change in the next volume.   This does create the problem that my opinion of the series might drastically change based on how well all the pieces fit together in the back half of the story.

Roy is our narrator, a sleazy grifter who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and tries to project a “lovable rogue” image without being likable.  His schemes succeed less often because they’re well thought-out than that they are so stupid and audacious that people don’t realize it was an actual plan.  That, and a crooked Internal Affairs officer is covering for him.  Roy doesn’t learn from his mistakes, and operates under the assumption that everyone else is secretly just as awful as he is, but covering it up better, or stupid.

Mac is slightly more sympathetic, being the follower type–he could have developed some decency if he had a better friend than Roy.  Mac is vaguely aware that following Roy’s lead always gets them in worse trouble, but doesn’t know any other way of doing things.

I should mention that this is a comedy, with riffs on Hollywood option deals, anti-vaxxers and celebutantes, among other targets.  Most of the humor is vulgar, with body fluids, sexual references and foul language, as well as some gory violence played for laughs.  It’s got a “Mature Readers” rating for a reason.

The art is okay, but I really want to point up Ryan Hill’s coloring job as his work carries several sequences where pencils & inks just aren’t enough.

Overall?  Again, a lot will depend on the conclusion of the series and how well all the moving pieces mesh together.  I don’t really care much what happens to Roy or Mac, but at this point I do want to know what is up with Pretzels and hope he succeeds at bringing down the criminals.

Recommended to fans of the creators–others should wait until the second volume is confirmed up to snuff.

Comic Book Review: The Drained Brains Caper

Comic Book Review: The Drained Brains Caper written by Trina Robbins, art by Tyler Page

Megan Yamamura wants a pet. Unfortunately, the young poet’s (she specializes in haiku) father is allergic to all fur-bearing animals, so she’s thinking maybe a tarantula, which is fuzzy but not furry might be the best bet.

The Drained Brains Caper

She’s been looking all over her new city of Chicagoland and having no luck when she comes into the pet supply store Raf Hernandez is manning the counter of. The young computer whiz is helping out his mother, but the store’s policy is clear–they sell pet supplies, not animals.

Megan has other problems. One of the reasons her family had to move was because she’d been expelled from her old school (a total overreaction to a minor offense) and she now has to spend the summer at Stepford Academy. The students and teachers there are all smiling zombies, and the meat-laden school lunches (anathema to vegetarian Megan) have unusual effects if overeaten.

Raf is the only person her age she kind of knows in the neighborhood, so she has to turn to him when her father ignores the warning signs that something’s not right at Stepford Academy. (In the tradition of middle-school stories, Mr. Yamamura is totally oblivious to what Megan tells him and only listens to other adults.) The kids are soon joined by Bradley, a talking dog, and must stop the mad scientist, Dr. Vorschak, before she can bring the entire city under her sway.

This is the first volume in the Chicagoland Detective Agency series of children’s graphic novels. Trina Robbins is a long-time comics creator, and her writing here is decent if perhaps a bit shortcut-heavy. There’s not much mystery here, but then the detective agency hasn’t been formed yet. The detective himself doesn’t come in until halfway through, and he just happens to have known what was going on all along.

The city of Chicagoland is about 90% Chicago (it has the El and the Cubs), but presumably isn’t just Chicago so that the creative team can shove any odd buildings or fictional organizations they want in.

There’s some slapstick violence, and Dr. Vorschak engages in unethical animal testing as well as unethical human testing. But in general, this should be suitable for middle-school readers.

Recommended to fans of things like the Scooby-Doo cartoons.

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Once, Mars was a place of mystery.  Humans looked at it from the blue Earth with feeble telescopes, and imagined what life, if any, might inhabit that red dot in the sky.  Were there canals filled with water?  Bloodsucking tripod operators?  Beings that had never fallen from grace with God?   Ray Bradbury looked, and imagined stories of Martians and Earthlings, and the doom of both.

The Martian Chronicles

Several of the stories in this volume were written in the latter half of the 1940s, and then connected with interstitial material in 1950 to make a chronological narrative.  The book opens with “Rocket Summer”, when a January 1999 Ohio winter is interrupted with heat from exhaust tests on the launchpad.  It ends with “The Million-Year Picnic” as refugees from war-torn Earth arrive on Mars in October 2026, and see the new Martians.   In between is the coming and going of the human presence on Mars.

The first three expeditions to Mars all die; perhaps if the U.S. government hadn’t outlawed science fiction and fantasy (but apparently not religious texts) in the 1970s, they would have been  better prepared.  But they get posthumous revenge; in a nod to H.G. Wells, by the time the Fourth Expedition arrives, the majority of Martians have been killed off by a common Earth disease.

Wave after wave of Earthlings arrive, most of them from the United States, as it monopolizes the construction of interplanetary rockets.  In the story “Way in the Middle of the Air”, the entire black population of the Southern U.S. decamps to Mars.  (in this bleak future, race relations did not advance beyond the early 1950s; poll taxes have only recently been abolished as of 2003. and the Klan is still very active.)   One particularly virulent racist panics when he realizes he will soon not have African-American people to oppress!  There’s use of the N-word and other racist language, so this story is sometimes left out of school editions of the book.  Because of the stitched-together nature of the collection, this large population of emigrants is never mentioned again, and their fate is finally revealed in a completely different short story collection.

Eventually, once the early settlers have made the place relatively safe, the moral guardians who eradicated speculative fiction  on their homeworld arrive to make Mars just as joyless.  “Usher II” has a multimillionaire who is still hopping mad about their destruction of his library take revenge in inventive ways mostly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe.  Mr. Bradbury was tangentially involved with the comic book industry, which was undergoing the attacks (“think of the children!”) which would lead to the Comics Code.  He would return to the theme of book burning in Fahrenheit 451.  As a kid I could easily imagine boring grownups banning all the good stuff.

Eventually, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and most of the population of Mars returns to that planet in a probably vain attempt to help out their relatives or home nation.   “The Silent Towns” concerns one of the very few people left, a miner who’d been up in the hills without communication for a few weeks when everyone else took the rockets home.  He’s initially thrilled when he learns there’s a young woman also still on Mars, but isn’t pleased when he actually meets her.

Some of Bradbury’s stories from this time period showed a nasty streak of misogyny, and this is one of them.  Genevieve stayed on Mars because she’d been constantly bullied about her weight, but rather than treat her sympathetically, the narrative flow treats her as a gross monstrosity for daring to be fat, and indulging herself in ways roughly equivalent to those Walter had done earlier in the story.  Walter escaping and hiding from her for the next twenty years is treated as a happy ending.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” is also included in this collection, one of the most perfect short stories ever written.  After the atomic war on Earth, we look at the last day of a “smart house” that hasn’t quite figured out that all the humans in its city are dead.

One of the interesting things about the stories is that in the early ones, while the Martians are still flourishing, we see their petty sides and moral failings; but after they have mostly died off, those fall by the wayside and their great accomplishments and gentleness are emphasized.

Ray Bradbury really does have a gift for poetic turns of phrase, and his nostalgia for Midwestern small towns shines through.  Sometimes the poetry can get in the way of comprehensibility, or become self-indulgent, dragging on for a paragraph or two too long.  And of course, he made no attempt to be scientifically accurate even to what was known about Mars back in the day–he readily admitted that the stories were really fantasy.

Several of the stories were adapted for EC Comics, and there have been some television show versions as well.

The book is certainly well worth reading at least once, even if it will not be to everyone’s taste.

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