Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Audio Review: If We Were Villains

Audio Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Eleven years ago, seven drama students entered their fourth year at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory.  Now, a decade after the end of that school year, one of those students, Oliver Marks, is being released from prison.  Former police detective Colborne has never entirely bought the official version of what happened, and Oliver agrees to finally tell the truth of that year.  Or at least a truth.

If We Were Villains

The highly competitive nature of the school and constantly interacting with each other have made the seven students their own little troupe with defined roles.  But a couple of the students have begun resenting their typecasting, and natural born star Richard is on the verge of snapping.  Even when Richard is removed from the picture, the fractures in the group widen until the tragic climax.

This is a debut novel from Shakespearean scholar M.L. Rio, and is full of William Shakespeare’s words and ideas.  The theater kids often quote (or misquote) Shakespeare’s plays to each other in their dialogue, and sometimes to confused or annoyed outsiders.  A basic familiarity with the Bard of Avon will vastly enhance your enjoyment of the story.

The main characters are the kind of “party hearty” kids I did not get on well with in college; their substance abuse is a large factor in how badly their actions go off the rails, and the sexual shenanigans certainly didn’t help.  And of course, keeping secrets from the adults on campus who could have solved many of the issues early on makes things even worse.  (While I am on content issues, warning for rough language, slut-shaming and domestic abuse.)

Oliver has pressures outside school as well, as his parents are unsupportive of his career goals and one of his sisters has an eating disorder that needs them to redirect their limited financial resources.  (Oliver is alas completely unempathetic towards his sister’s problems.)  And some of the other students have even worse family situations, one of the reasons they’ve bonded with each other instead.

Once having established that the main characters are not the kind of people who make smart choices, the stage is set for the inevitable spiral into tragedy, mirrored by the plays they’re performing.

The version of the novel I’m reviewing is the audiobook from Macmillan Audio, and read by Robert Petkoff, himself an actor experienced in Shakespearean drama.  His voice is well suited to the text (though there were times when I could not distinguish between female characters) and conveyed emotion well.

However, the audiobook experience was sometimes difficult for me.  I sometimes missed important words, especially early on, and “rewinding” the CD was trickier than simply turning back pages to recheck lines.  On the good side, portions of the book are written in a semi-script style that made it clear who was speaking, very helpful when all the main characters are in the same room.

The physical presentation of the audiobook is barebones, just a box containing plain white sleeves for the ten CDs.  There are no liner notes (it would have been both helpful and apropos to provide a dramatis personae), nor a quick bio of Mr. Petkoff.

While this novel has mystery elements, it fits more comfortably into the “contemporary” subgenre.  Perhaps that New Adult category I’ve heard of.  Recommended to Shakespeare buffs, theater kids and fans of last minute twists.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested nor offered.

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

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.

Comic Book Review: The New Teen Titans Volume One

Comic Book Review: The New Teen Titans Volume One written by Marv Wolfman, art by George Perez and Romeo Tanghal

By 1980, Marv Wolfman had come over to DC Comics from Marvel, but found himself writing one-shot team-up books, which he felt didn’t allow him the room to develop subplots and characterization the way he wanted to.  He offered to write a revival series for the Teen Titans, a book that had teamed up several kid sidekicks (and eventually some more obscure characters) for some years before dropping sales got the book cancelled.

The New Teen Titans Volume One

The Powers that Were turned his original proposal down, so Mr. Wolfman revised his proposal with several brand-new characters, going for more of a male-female balance than most teams of the time, and complementary personalities that would both cause conflict and bring the team together.  He also gave most of the group some sort of conflict with a father figure.  Robin trying to get out from under the shadow of Batman, Starfire’s weak-willed father selling her into slavery to save his world, Cyborg’s father being responsible for his needing massive cybernetic upgrades, Changeling having all his father figures vanish from his life, and Raven’s father being the demon Trigon.

That last was the plotline behind the first few issues, as Raven fled to Earth and assembled a team to battle her father’s planned invasion.  The first issue, however, made the alien Gordanian slavers the main focus, as Starfire needed to be rescued from them before she could join.  Raven also manipulated Kid Flash’s emotions (off-screen but it was pretty obvious) to make him loyal to her and thus willing to help out.

During that same story, the Titans accidentally made an enemy of Grant Wilson, who then in the second issue became the villain Devastator (using the 100% of your brain hokum) as part of a plan by the shadowy organization H.I.V.E. to acquire the services of his father, Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke the Terminator.

The third issue introduced the first version of the Fearsome Five, a villain group put together by Dr. Light for mutual gain.  They were promptly hijacked by Psimon, one of their members who had been working for Trigon.

The next three issues were all about Trigon, starting with the Titans having to face off against the Justice League in an effort to keep the more powerful heroes from accidentally knocking out the one barrier between Trigon’s realm and Earth.  Mr. Wolfman notes that the sales had been going down issue by issue (and it did not help that #5, the issue where Trigon is fully revealed, had guest art by Curt Swan, rather than George Perez–Mr. Swan was a classic Superman artist, but just wrong for this title) but issue #6, the big finish, saw the sales climb and every issue after that for a while.

In issue #7, the Titans face off against their own headquarters, the Titans Tower, as the Fearsome Five had co-opted it in an effort to free Psimon from the fate Trigon had “rewarded” him with.  This issue also explained who Cyborg actually was, and mostly resolved his relationship with his father.

Issue #8 was a breather, so that several new subplots could be introduced, some of which stuck around for quite a while.

On the strength of the many subplots, engaging personalities, and stellar George Perez art, the New Teen Titans series became DC’s hottest title, and the closest competitor they had for Marvel’s X-Men under Chris Claremont.  One of the obvious Marvel-style touches was setting the series in the real life city of New York, rather than one of DC’s many fictional cities.

There are some elements that don’t come off as well in hindsight; Starfire’s personality, powers and cultural background seem written specifically to have her go around wearing as brief a costume as the Comics Code would allow, or even less.  Raven’s origin involves rape by deception, and Trigon comes across as almost cartoonishly evil for the sake of being evil.  Cyborg often takes the role of “angry young black man”, and his bickering with Changeling is not nearly as funny as the writer seems to think it is.  And of course, Raven’s emotional manipulation of Kid Flash is very skeevy, which is acknowledged in the story itself.

Still, this is an important part of comics history, and fans of the various Titans incarnations should enjoy it.  (With a caveat that kids who only know the Titans from the cartoons might find some of the material a bit much–junior high on up, please.)

Comic Book Review: Wonder Woman ’77 Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Wonder Woman ’77 Volume 1 written by Marc Andreyko

Back in the 1970s, live-action television series with a woman in the lead were rare creatures indeed, and one of the best was Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter.  It migrated from ABC (where it was set during World War Two) to CBS in 1977, and it is this “modern day” series that this comic book series is based on.

Wonder Woman '77 Volume 1

In this version, Wonder Woman works for the Inter-Agency Defense Command in her secret identity of Diana Prince, along Steve Trevor, Jr.  Steve may or may not know  that Diana is also Wonder Woman, but at least in these issues, he doesn’t officially know or make a fuss about it. They have access to the latest 1970s technology, including the advanced computer IRA, but Wonder Woman’s powers and compassion are usually the main key to victory.

Where this comic book series varies from the TV version is that the live-action version used none of WW’s comic book supervillains, so versions of these compatible with the show’s look and feel are inserted.

The first story takes place mostly at a disco, where a Soviet defector scientist must be protected from mind-controlling songstress Silver Swan.  Diana’s outfit for this is based on the “white pantsuit” look she had during a brief period where the comics depowered her (to make her more “relevant.”)

The second story opens with Diana waking up in a world where she is not Wonder Woman or Diana Prince, but a mentally ill woman named Donna Troy.  There are some nifty references to the Cathy Lee Crosby TV movie, and the post-Crisis WW continuity.  Diana must figure out what’s going on and fight her way back to the reality she knows.

Next, there is a story that uses the Barbara Minerva version of long-time supervillain the Cheetah.  It brings in elements of the Priscilla Rich version of the character as well–Dr. Minerva is driven by jealousy when the museum she works for dismantles her prize exhibit involving years of scholarship and hard digging for a Wonder Woman-centric publicity grabber.  This allows the Cheetah spirit to take over her body so that Barbara can try to get her revenge.  The climax is a showcase for Diana’s gentle spirit being able to overcome Cheetah’s command of great cats.

Original (so far as I know) villain Celsia takes center stage next.  Due to a nuclear power plant accident that killed her home town, Celsia can project both heat and cold.  She is determined to punish the men who placed profit over life and safety.  We also get a version of the Atomic Knights, including a not-named Gardner Grayle.

And finally Diana has an encounter with the swamp monster Solomon Grundy on Halloween.  Grundy may not be the real monster here…  (Warning: domestic abuse.)

The issue is filled out with an essay by Andy Mangels about the television show, plus a gallery of covers and concept art.

One of the things I really like about this series is Wonder Woman’s dedication to non-lethal force, something that has largely been lost in recent years.  Yes, punching bad guys is an important part of her problem-solving style, but whenever possible, she uses truth and compassion to bring about resolutions.  This Wonder Woman smiles a lot, and inspires others to be better people.

Some of the 1970s elements do come across a bit cheesy, but this is not entirely a bad thing, as they fit with the feel of the show.  On the other hand, the very episodic stories mean that there’s no character growth or deeper characterization–what you see is all you are going to get.

The art is okay, with Diana and Steve being on model most of the time.

Recommended to fans of the TV show, Wonder Woman fans who prefer a lighter style and younger readers.  (It should be okay for tweens with a little parental guidance.)

And let’s enjoy that theme tune!

Comic Book Review: Jacked

Comic Book Review: Jacked written by Eric Kripke, art by John Higgins.

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

Josh Jaffe is hitting a mid-life crisis.  His body is beginning to fall apart, he doesn’t really talk to his wife much any more, and his entire job field was rendered obsolete by new technology, so he’s been unemployed for the last six months.  Nothing has turned out like he’d imagined it would as a kid, or even as a teenager.  Josh’s dentist brother recommends nootropic supplements, “smart drugs” that supposedly improve cognitive function.  Sounds kind of shady, but while surfing the web, Josh finds an ad for “Jacked,” which seems to speak to him.

Jacked

Josh orders a supply of Jacked, and discovers that the ad was perhaps underselling the product.  He can think more clearly (other than the hallucinations), has energy to spare (especially in bed), his aches and pains vanish…and he can pull a car door right off the hinges.  Josh’s formerly unimpressed son starts looking up to him again!  This is the good stuff.

But then Josh discovers that his next door neighbor Damon is a drug dealer that’s been beating his girlfriend Jessica.  The outcome of that encounter puts Josh and Jessica on the wrong(er) side of some very bad people.  Worse, the nastier side effects of Jacked start coming to the fore, and what if Josh runs out of the drug before the bad guys run out of bullets?  And how will this affect Josh’s wife and child?

Eric Kripke is probably best known as the creator of the popular television series Supernatural.  According to the introduction of the collected volume, he had his own mid-life crisis a couple of years ago, and his musings on that led to him proposing this comic book series to Vertigo Comics.  He mentions that writing for comic books is a whole different kind of hard than writing for television, and gives much credit to John Higgins for making the script actually work on page.

One of the themes of the story is that Josh doesn’t live in a superhero world, so even though he gets some low-level superpowers, things tend not to work out as they would in a traditional superhero story.  Even when he dons a costume, it only makes him look ridiculous.  In the end, it’s his human abilities and connections that give Josh the ability to resolve the situation.  (We do get cameos by a few classic DC heroes, and a reference to obscure series Electric Warrior.)

This is listed as for “mature readers” and has some nudity, non-graphic sex scenes, a lot of gory violence, body function humor and even more vulgar language than is called for by the plot and setting.  I suspect Mr. Kripke may have gone overboard on that last one because of having had to work to TV’s broadcast standards.

One of the features I really liked was that most issues’ last pages were flash-forwards to the next issue that weren’t quite the same as the depiction in that later story.  Also, all the points that were important at the climax were properly set up earlier in the series.

Josh does a fair bit of self-absorbed whining at the beginning of the series, and it takes a while for him to get his head out of his own funk.  I do like that while Josh and Jessica do team up against the drug gang, it’s all about survival (and revenge on Jessica’s part) with no attraction between them at all.  Josh loves his wife, and much of his motivation is being a better husband for her, even if he doesn’t understand the best way to do that.

The main villain is Damon’s brother Ray, who has a rather narrowly defined sense of morality.  He takes care of family, but everyone else is fair game.

Recommended for fans of the “ordinary schlub gets superpowers and screws up big time” type of plot.

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 2 edited by John Denning

Quick recap:  In the 1970s, Marvel Comics started doing larger magazines for newsstand distribution, most of them in black and white.  One of these was The Rampaging Hulk, which originally featured adventures taking place between the Hulk’s appearances in the first year of his existence.  But then it was renamed just The Hulk and retooled to more strongly resemble the then-hot television series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, as well as now being published in color.

The Rampaging Hulk Vol. 2

This volume continues the run with issues #16-27, which were published 1979-81.  It’s a curious mix of the television series and the comics continuity.  The usual supporting cast is not seen or mentioned outside of a brief flashback to the Hulk’s origin, and a mention of Doctor Strange in the narration.  Nor are there any of the usual supervillains–the closest we get is Rypel, who is more of a Bond villain type that wants to trigger World War Three so his underwater utopia can inherit the Earth.  Most of the time, it’s just Robert Bruce Banner wandering from town to town and getting involved with relatively ordinary people’s problems.  Interspersed with the Hulk smashing things, of course.

The opening story, “Masks”, has Dr. Banner lured from New Orleans (the night after Mardi Gras, just to be different) to the Florida Keys to participate in a wealthy eccentric’s treasure hunt.  Of course, the eccentric has ulterior motives,  The final story in the volume, “One for My Baby…and One More for the Hulk!” takes place in Las Vegas, as a past-his-prime crooner tries to get out from under the mob with the help of his new green bodyguard.

This is a real nostalgia blast for me, not just because I read many of these stories when they first came out, but because the writers couldn’t use their usual costumed weirdos to move plots, and thus tended towards topical stories.  Three Mile Island, snail darters, the last days of the Cold War, Native American  struggles, Hare Krishnas…takes me back.

Of course, not all of these stories have aged well.  “A Very Personal Hell” by Jim Shooter has the notorious gay panic scene where Bruce Banner is threatened with rape by a lisping stereotype at the “Y.”  (He saves himself by informing the would-be rapist that he is, in fact, Bruce Banner, y’know, the Hulk, you wouldn’t like him when he’s mad?)

And sadly, the ambitious color usage in some of the stories is completely ruined in black & white reprint–it looks muddy, and some of the captions are borderline unreadable.  Artists like Gene Colan, on the other hand, make it work.

A couple of the stories deal with attempts to cure Banner of turning into the Hulk, or at least lessen the rift between them.  The most striking of these is “Master Mind” in which the Hulk persona winds up in Bruce Banner’s body and goes on a rampage–which could be deadly to the much more fragile scientist.

A couple more stand-out stories:  “Heaven Is a Very Small Place” with great art by Herb Trimpe and John Severin is a sad tale of the Hulk finding a peaceful place at last, only to have the illusion fade.  “Dreams of Iron…Dreams of Steel” has Bruce Banner getting a job at a care facility for children with developmental disablilities (back then the word “retarded” was acceptable, but the shortened form is also hurled as an insult) and the Hulk bonds with an adult graduate of the facility that works at a steel mill.

Recommended with reservations for fans of the 1970s Hulk show and Hulk fans in general–check your library unless you’re a completist who has to own every Hulk story.

Book Review: China Dolls

Book Review: China Dolls by Lisa See

It is 1938, the tail end of the Great Depression, and San Francisco is trying to shake off its blues with a World’s Fair on Treasure Island.  They’re going to need a lot of employees for that, and the prospect of a job draws Grace Lee all the way from Ohio.  She’s from a small town where her parents were the only other people of Chinese ancestry; all these other people who look kind of like her is a bit of a shock.

China Dolls

It turns out that the World’s Fair can’t use a Chinese dancer, but there’s a nightclub called the Forbidden City that’s hiring, and they only want Chinese.  On her way there, Grace gets some help from Helen Fong, a young woman from a traditionalist family, and when they arrive, they meet Ruby Tom, a vivacious woman who’s changed her name because Japanese-Americans have an even tougher time getting good jobs than Chinese-Americans.

The three women try out together, and although only two are chosen at that time, they form a life-long bond.  However, each of them has secrets in their past, and those combine with their ambitions to turn them against each other as well.  World War Two in particular raises the stakes, and their careers and friendship may never recover.

This book is loosely based on real life Asian-American entertainers of the mid-20th Century, and there’s an interview with some of those real people at the end of the paperback edition I read.

Grace makes a good viewpoint character for the first part of the novel; her parents were very insistent on her being “American” so she’s a complete newcomer to Chinese-American culture and the full array of prejudice faced by Asian-Americans outside of her small town.  The reader learns along with her.  Helen and Ruby also have sections from their viewpoints, but at first are concealing details from the reader as well as their friends–we don’t learn some important information about Helen until nearly the end of the book.

Some of the behavior of the protagonists is pretty shabby, and a couple of the betrayals go well beyond what would break most friendships permanently.  Some readers may find it impossible to believe that the characters even speak to each other after what happens.

All three protagonists also have romantic difficulties.  Mistakes are made, and attitudes change over the years.  One of the characters winds up in a relationship that’s considerably less than ideal from just about every angle.

As you might have guessed, period racism and sexism play a considerable part in the story, as well as period homophobia.  Grace’s backstory involves domestic abuse.  There’s some use of period slurs, lampshaded towards the end by a modern-day (1980s) college student asking pointed questions about the attitudes of the past.

I’d recommend this book to people curious about the “chop suey circuit” that Asian-American performers were shunted into during the Twentieth Century–the “Random House Reader’s Circle” edition is designed for use by book clubs.

Manga Review: Black Blizzard

Manga Review: Black Blizzard by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

The year is 1956.  Shinpei Konta, a card shark with five convictions (two for murder) and Susumu Yamaji, a pianist just convicted for murder, are handcuffed together on a train headed for prison.  The weather has turned to a blizzard, and a landslide across the tracks derails the train and allows the convicts to escape.  However, two men handcuffed together aren’t going to get very far before being spotted.  They don’t have any tools that can cut the chain…but they do have something that will cut off a human hand!

Black Blizzard

This was Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s first “novel-length” manga story.  There’s an interview with him to fill out the book, and he explains the commercial aspects of how the story came to be (color pages at the beginning to entice young readers to rent the manga from the store, for example) as well as the creative side.  While the cover calls this “legendary”, he notes that it only had moderate success at the time (but proved he was able to sell on his own, rather than just in anthologies.)

The story has noir-ish touches, and I could see it as an hour-long live action TV drama (half an hour with some cuts.)  Much of the story is Susumu flashing back to his romance with a circus singer, and a drunken brawl that led to the death of the ringmaster.   Susumu is not a hardened criminal, and wants to protect his hands.  Shinpei, on the other hand, has already spent a total of thirty years in jail, is far more ruthless, and needs both his hands as well.

The art is crude by modern standards, but effective, and conveys the heavy weather well.  The writing is likewise somewhat old-fashioned, going for suspense.  Content warning for off-screen domestic abuse.

Since this is complete in one volume, it’s a good choice for those who’d like to sample older manga or have a taste for crime fiction.

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