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: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

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

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

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magazine Review: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016 edited by C.C. Finlay

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction started publication in 1949.  According to Wikipedia, it was supposed to be a fantasy story version of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as it was at the time, classic reprints mixed with new material of a higher literary quality than was common in the pulps of the time.  Science fiction was added to expand the possible pool of stories.  F&SF has managed to publish fairly regularly ever since, though in recent years it’s bimonthly.  It has a reputation for literate fiction.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The cover story is “The Cat Bell” by Esther M. Friesner.  Mr. Ferguson is a successful actor in the early Twentieth Century, even having a fine house with servants.  One of those servants, Cook, greatly admires Mr. Ferguson.  Mr. Ferguson greatly admires cats, and has nineteen of them that Cook must feed every day.  One day there are twenty cats, and Cook finds herself in a fairy tale.  Content note:  Cook suffers from several of the less pleasant “isms” and isn’t afraid to say so.

“The Farmboy” by Albert E. Cowdrey is set on a distant planet being surveyed by a scout ship.  The crew has discovered a massive deposit of gold, but even if they had room to take it with them, the government would simply confiscate the wealth, giving nothing to the survey crew.  Several of the crew members come up with a scheme to make themselves very rich at the expense of the rest of the crew.  But if you can’t spot the sucker at the poker game, it’s probably you…some unpleasant sexism.

“Between Going and Staying” by Lilliam Rivera takes place in a future Mexico even more dominated by the drug cartels.  Dolores is a professional mourner using the newest bodysuit technology.  She’s been making very good money performing for the wealthy, but this funeral is personal.

There are two book review columns, one by Charles de Lint, in which he admits not being fond of psychological horror.  The other is by Chris Moriarty and focuses on books about human survival.

“The Vindicator” by Matthew Hughes is the last story in his current cycle about Raffalon the thief.  Raffalon is a mediocre burglar in the sort of fantasy city that has a Thieves’ Guild.  For some reason a Vindicator (assassin) is after Raffalon, and the Vindicator’s Guild isn’t being helpful for calling it off.  Raffalon hires a Discriminator (private investigator) and the truth turns out to be explosive.

A relatively rare Gardner Dozois story follows, “The Place of Bones.”  A scholar and his companion discover the Dragonlands, where dragons go to die.  More of a mood piece than a proper story.

“Lord Elgin at the Acropolis” by Minsoo Kang involves a police officer and writer meeting to consider the problem of a museum director who believes that one of the paintings in the museum is fake, despite no other evidence.  Is he just crazy, or is there another explanation?

“Special Collections” by Kurt Fawver is a horror story about a library with a section you must never enter alone, which is the first rule.  And then there’s the second rule….

David J. Skal reviews High-Rise for the film section, and compares it to the J.G. Ballard novel.

There’s the results of a contest for updating older science fiction works to today’s world.  Including a “Dishonorable Mention” update of 1984.

“A Fine Balance” by Charlotte Ashley is set in a city where all disputes between the two major parties are settled by specially trained duelists.  Except that one side doesn’t want to play by those rules any more.  Very satisfying story.

“Passelande” by Robert Reed takes place in a depressing near future with electronic backups for people who can afford them.  Backups who have their own feelings and motivations.  This one grated on me, as I felt the characters had their motivations poorly explained/depicted.

“The Rhythm Man” by James Beamon is a variant on the legend about talented musicians selling their souls for skill or fame.  A lot of set-up for one great scene at the end.

And the stories wrap up with “Merry Christmas from All of Us to All of You” by Sandra McDonald.  It’s a dystopian tale of a gift-making community that ensures none of its children can truly escape.  But perhaps there is a ray of hope?

There’s an “Easter egg” in the classified ads, and then an index of stories and features that appeared in 2016’s issues.

I liked “The Vindicator” and “A Fine Balance” best, though “The Cat Bell” was also quite entertaining.  “Passendale” was the weakest story for me.

This magazine has consistently high quality stories and some nice cartoons; consider a print or Kindle subscription.

 

 

Book Review: The Ferguson Rifle

Book Review: The Ferguson Rifle by Louis L’Amour

My name is Ronan Chantry, and I am alone upon this land.

He is a scholar and a gentleman, but Ronan Chantry was raised in the wilderness, hunting, trapping and tracking.  Now that his wife and son have died in a fire, and pursued by the reputation of killing a man in a duel, Chantry returns to the wilderness.  He does not remain alone for long, joining a small band of men also going into the West to try their hand at fur trapping.

The Ferguson Rifle

Their camp is nearly raided by allies of a treacherous Native American guide; but some time later the group makes friends with the Cheyenne, while trying to evade Spanish soldiers who have not yet gotten word that the Louisiana Purchase has gone through.  Then Ronan stumbles across Lucinda Falvey, whose father was murdered for the secret of a lost treasure.

The murderer and his minions have pursued Lucinda into the Dakota Territory, and turns out to have connections to both Lucinda and Ronan’s pasts.  Chantry and his allies must evade the killers, find the treasure and get the woman to safety–perhaps an eccentric mountain man has the key to survival?

This is the first novel written in the Chantry family saga by all-time great Western writer Louis L’Amour.  (But the last in internal chronology.)  The title comes from Chantry’s signature weapon, a firearm given to him by Major Ferguson himself.  It’s a customized prototype without the weakness in the lock mortise.  Since the story is set about the time of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, a rapid-firing breechloader is a formidable advantage.

This is a fast-moving story with clear but often evocative use of language; not a lot of time is spent on characterization, with bad man Rafen Falvey getting the bulk of what depth there is.  Chantry is not just smart and well-educated, but wilderness-savvy and skilled at all forms of combat he turns his hand to.  His one weakness is prideful anger, which led him into the fatal duel, and into the knock-down drag-out fistfight that is the climax of the book.  The use of coincidence to drive certain story elements does come close to breaking suspension of disbelief.

Recommended to Western fans, and those looking for a good manly adventure story.

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.

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

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

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

Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once Upon a Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Yamada “Decapitator” Asaemon is the o-tameshiyaku, sword-tester for the shogun and official executioner of criminals.  It’s not a pretty job, but at least he has one in Edo-era Japan, during a time of peace.  Without wars to fight, many of the samurai vassals are on tiny stipends, while ronin without lords can at least get paying jobs if they’re willing to be a bit flexible in their ethics.  The merchant class is getting richer, while the underclass of urban poor swells and rural farmers are oppressed by their petty lords.  The social conditions breed crime, so there is always plenty of work for Yamada.

Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

This seinen (young men’s) manga series is by the creators of Lone Wolf and Cub, and shares many of the themes and settings.   Unlike that earlier work, however, there does not seem to be an overarching plotline.  The stories are episodic, and most could take place in any order.  Two stories do, however, guest star young cop Sakane Kasajiro, an expert with his hooked chain.  Yamada helps him discover new ways of using his weapon to protect lives.

Yamada takes a grim satisfaction at being expert at his craft, able to decapitate the condemned with a single stroke and thus minimize their pain.  He was raised from early childhood to succeed his father as executioner, and has chosen to remain single to avoid condemning his children to the same path.  (One story in this volume has him briefly reconsider, but it is not to be.)  Yamada seems happiest when he can bring small moments of joy into a person’s life, and is often sought out for sage advice.

The first story in the volume has Yamada challenged for the post of sword tester by Tsukuya Bakushuu, a poverty-stricken and largely self-trained swordsman.  They participate in a contest of suemonogiri, precision cutting.  Tsukuya loses, but cannot accept this result.  It ends in tragedy.  To be honest, at least half the stories here end in tragedy, not surprising, given Yamada’s job.

The closing story is particularly hard to stomach.  O-Toyo murders the woman her lover abandoned him for, and mortally wounds the cheater.  However, it’s a slow death wound, and he could live up to four months with good treatment.  Her execution will be in three months, and O-Toyo wants to outlive the man out of pure spite.  As it happens, there’s one way for a woman to get her execution delayed–getting pregnant.  Now, how is that going to happen when she’s locked in a women’s prison?  Yes, the story is going there.  There are other examples of female nudity and rape in these stories, but this is the most brutal.  And then the ending comes, and it is even more brutal.  Even Yamada is shaken.

Also outstanding is the story “Tougane Yajirou”, about an elderly police officer whose use of force is considered excessive even by the standards of the time, and who is much more interested in catching criminals than in preventing crime.  Yamada disapproves, but there is a story behind the old man’s cruel behavior.

Koike and Kojma do a masterful job of depicting a world that is both very familiar in its everyday life, and alien in its way of thinking.  This omnibus edition combines three of the Japanese volumes, and is presented in the expensive and time-consuming fully-flipped format, so it reads left to right.

Recommended for mature readers who enjoyed Lone Wolf and Cub or are otherwise fans of samurai action.

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