Comic Book Review: Snake Tales

Comic Book Review: Snake Tales edited by Mike Howlett

Ophiophobia (fear of snakes) is a common phenomenon (Hi Mom!) and has plagued humanity from ancient times, even appearing in the Book of Genesis.  Even humans not afflicted with undue fear of the legless reptiles tend to distrust them, and snakes are often cast as villains or hazards in fictional stories.  And thus, this collection of eighteen tales from Pre-Code comics, with luridly-illustrated snakes and serpents in every one.

Snake Tales

As museum curator Dr. Frank T. Burbrink explains in the introduction, most of the science in these stories is dubious at best.  The behavior and anatomy of snakes as depicted seldom matches real life, and sometimes the writer just made up new species for the sake of the story.  “Slimy” gets used a lot, even though the vast majority of snakes are not given to producing slime.

This collection opens with “Mirror Image”, in which, surprisingly, the African King Rattler is not the bad guy, no matter what the fellow who finds it in his bed thinks.  It’s more an exploration of what fear can do to a man.

“Meet Me at the Cemetery” concludes this volume with the tale of a second wife visiting the grave of her predecessor, only to find a cobra on the grounds.  Her husband is suspiciously dismissive of her experience.  And who’s that exotic-looking woman cadging a ride from our heroine’s friend?

In-between are tales of people who worship snakes, people who turn into snakes (or vice versa) and two different women with snakes for hair.  Some standouts include:

“The Echo” is the only non-horror story, being more a pulpish tale.  Ventriloquist The Echo, his brother Doctor Doom(!) and sister Cora wander America in search of adventure.  In this tale, they find a snake-handling church, the leader of which has been defrauding his parishioners.   Some voice-throwing tricks make sure he gets what he deserves.

“Serpent of Doom” is a combination “cursed artifact” and “deal with the Devil” story.  Bud Hampton is fired by his boss, and buys a cheap necklace from a man whose face he can’t clearly see in the rain to placate his wife Lydia.  Lydia isn’t too impressed, and yet the snake necklace does have an appeal.  Especially when she learns that she can become rich and powerful if she calls upon Seth while wearing it–and murdering her husband!  (While many of the stories feature women in skimpy clothing, this is the only one where the female lead is in actual underwear.)

Soon, Lydia is rising up in the world, through judicious application of murder.  But she also starts exhibiting odd behavior and experiencing dry, scaly skin.  It may be too late to avoid paying the price for her success, unless perhaps you would like to buy a necklace?

“The Pool of Eternity” concerns a man who crashlands in the jungles of the Amazon.  A native snake priestess is determined to heal the handsome stranger, even if she has to resort to the title body of water.  It’s said the snake goddess will grant immortality to the drinker, so it’s forbidden to taste the fluid.

Naturally, the foolish young woman breaks this taboo.  The pilot is let go by the tribe, but their priestess is going to be punished.  When the man realizes that he is, in fact, immortal, he returns and induces the beautiful priestess to drink from the Pool of Eternity as well.  Unfortunately for them, the Jivaro have ways of dealing with immortal criminals.  Disturbing ways.

This might be a good time to mention that some of the stories have racist imagery and plot points, in addition to the usual Pre-Code horror use of shocking images.   Concerned parents will want to examine the book before allowing younger readers to peruse it.

The art ranges from excellent, “The Fangs of Death” to not very good, “The Snake Pit.”  The writing is uneven as well, but there’s some chilling stuff in here.  There’s also a cover gallery of some of the stories.

Recommended to horror fans who love them some unlikely snake stories.  Check it out from your library!

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (USA)

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (USA)

It’s the first anniversary of my blog!  To celebrate, I thought it would be nice to update the very first review that appeared here.  http://www.skjam.com/2012/12/09/manga-review-shonen-jump-alpha/

Shonen Jump

Shounen Jump is still Japan’s number one best-selling manga anthology title.  Although the primary market is still middle-school through high school boys, people of all ages and body shapes enjoy these tales of friendship, struggle and victory.  Weekly Shonen Jump is the English language edition, which now has many of the series available online the same day they’re legally for sale in Japan.  (Due to a persistent piracy problem, scans of the Japanese version appear online a week early.)

Because of the change to same-day release, the name of the ezine was changed from Shonen Jump Alpha to Weekly Shonen Jump.  Those of you who live outside the U.S.A. will be happy to hear that  Viz (the publishers) have arranged for it to be legally available in most English-speaking countries, and they’re working on the rest of the world.

Now, let’s take a look at what’s currently running.

Weekly

One Piece:  Still Shonen Jump’s flagship title.  Young Luffy D. Monkey lives on a world that’s mostly water.  He decides he’s going to be the Pirate King, and sets out on a voyage to find the mysterious One Piece treasure.  Along the way he gathers a wacky crew and battles evil pirates and the dictatorial World Government.    Having captured the main baddie on Punk Hazard, the Straw Hat Pirates sail to Dressrosa (which looks like a cross between Spain and Toyland) to negotiate with his boss.  Unfortunately, Dressrosa turns out to be a lot more sinister than it looks, and while Luffy is distracted by a gladiatorial contest, the rest of the crew learns dark secrets.

Naruto:   Young Naruto Uzumaki, an outcast in his hidden ninja village, decides that he will one day become the Hokage, leader of the village.  A year later, and we are still on the final battle of the Ninja World War–I don’t think even a full day has gone by yet.  It does look like the fight may be winding down within the next year, as all the major players are in one place.

Bleach:  Ichigo Kurosaki, a young man who can see ghosts, finds himself embroiled in the affairs of the otherworldly Soul Reapers who help dead people reach the afterlife.  This one is officially on its final plot arc, with the creator having taken a hiatus to plot out the intricacies of the Vandenreich’s attempt to destroy the Soul Society.  Perhaps by this time next year a full day will have passed.

Toriko:  Toriko is a Food Hunter in a world where the more dangerous it is to acquire the food substance, the more delicious it is.  The attack by the evil food organization, along with the emergence of a new even more evil organization, has resulted in a disruption of the ecosystem, leading to mass starvation.  The other heroes have a plan to restore the world that used to be known as Earth, but  they’ll need Toriko to help, and he’s kind of out of it.

Nisekoi:  False love is the name of the game, as Raku and Chitoge have to pretend to be dating to end a feud between their respective clans.  Meanwhile, Raku made a childhood promise to a girl whose name and face he cannot remember, and there are several girls it could be, including Chitoge.  This very formula romantic comedy continues to play the variations on its central theme.  The main plot development has been the introduction of one character’s little sister, who thinks Raku is an enemy of all women, especially her older sister, and doesn’t realize Raku’s also the mysterious protector she has a crush on.

World Trigger:  Earth is being invaded by creatures called Neighbors from an adjacent dimension.  The secretive agency Border has been formed to fight them.  Osamu Mikumo, a wimpy but goodhearted Border trainee, finds out that new classmate Kuga Yuuma is himself a Neighbor who is on Earth illegally to fulfill the wishes of his late father.  It turns out the Neighbor world political situation is far more complicated than most Earthlings knew.  Currently, our two young men and Chika, a girl whose brother went missing in the Neighbor world, are trying to become full-fledged Border agents.  This series started off very weak, but has greatly improved as it found a direction.

Dragonball Z:  Yes, the one about the mighty Son Goku finding out he’s actually an alien and having to battle against increasingly strong threats to humanity.  This is a rerun, but has been colorized and spiffed up a bit for new readers.  I actually preferred the first half of the Dragonball series, but for those who grew up on Z, this is a nostalgia blast.

Monthly

Seraph of the End:   A mysterious “virus” kills 90% of the adults on Earth.   Many of the children are abducted underground by vampires to protect/feed on them.  On the surface, the remaining humans are hunted by monsters, and the Demon Army has to use dangerous possessed weapons to battle them.   Our protagonist was a bitter orphan even before the series began, only bonding with the rest of the orphanage kids moments before the caretakers died of disease, and then the rest of the orphans were murdered in an attempt to escape the vampires.  So he’s understandably skeptical of the need for friendship to become a functional member of the Demon Army.  He’s kind of a prick, honestly.

Blue Exorcist:  Young delinquent Rin Okumura discovers that he is in fact the son of Satan and thus half-demon.   Rebellious by nature, he refuses to join his father’s forces and instead enrolls in a school for exorcists to battle the forces of evil.   Currently, one of the exorcism students has been kidnapped with the assistance of another student who it appears was a spy for the Illuminati all along.  Time for a rescue mission!

Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal:  Yuma Tsukumo is, in theory, a huge fan of the card game Duel Monsters, despite not knowing anything about the rules or customs of it.  He acquires a not-so-imaginary friend nicknamed Astral who has lost its memories but helps Yuma win duels.  Right now in the manga, it turns out that destroying the Astral World will destroy the human world as well, turning the villains into omnicidal maniacs.  Worse, Astral’s original purpose in coming to Earth was to destroy the human world to protect the Astral one….

One Punch Man:  Saitama, an unemployed salaryman, was bored with his life, and decided to become a superhero.  After training so fanatically that his hair fell out, Saitama became a powerful superhero who can defeat any enemy with one punch.   Which again leaves him feeling kind of empty, since there’s no challenge in that.   Now he searches for meaning in his life, while monsters and villains need punching.  This superhero parody is surprisingly deep for its simple premise, and has had some of the best action scenes in manga.  Currently, Saitama’s best buddy, cyborg Genos, is invited to a meeting of the top heroes and Saitama tags along.

If you like shounen action manga, Shonen Jump Weekly is good value for money.

 

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Alpha

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Alpha

Shonen

Let’s start with something hefty, shall we?  Shounen Jump is the #1 manga anthology magazine in Japan, selling in the millions of copies.  Its emphasis on the themes of “friendship, struggle, victory: have made it a favorite of both its primary demographic of teenage boys (“shounen”) and the general public.  The series featured inside often get animated adaptations, which feed back to the popularity of the magazine.

Thus it was that Viz comics, , which imports manga to the North American audience, had a magazine called “Shonen Jump” which brought monthly installments of some of the most popular series to Western readers.  But the print magazine market is such that that approach wasn’t working as well as the company would like, so they’ve switched to an online magazine format instead, “Shonen Jump Alpha.”

Alpha comes out weekly at http:shonenjump.viz.com with chapters two weeks later than the Japanese print edition.  As of January 21st, they’ll be speeding it up to same-day release.  There are at present six weekly features licensed, and several monthly offerings; depending on the scheduling and if one of the regulars is having a skip week, this can make for a thin issue or a very large one.

Weekly Features

One Piece: In many ways the flagship title of SJA.  A boy named Luffy decides he’s going to become the pirate king.  He sets off on his adventure and gains a crew of wacky characters to assist him while fighting evil pirates, monsters, and the corrupt government. Cartoony art, engaging characters and a good variety of emotional tones have made this a standout series.  At present, the crew has answered a distress call from the supposedly deserted island of Punk Hazard, site of a chemical weapons disaster some years before.  The island is of course not nearly as deserted as it would appear.

Naruto: Orphaned ninja Naruto, despised and mistreated by his fellow villagers, decides that he’s going to become the Hokage, the chief of his village.  He is both aided and hampered in this quest by the fact that his body is the prison for the legendary Nine-Tailed Fox, a powerful spirit that attacked the village long ago.  The characters are more superhero than ninja per se, but this series can be a lot of fun  Presently, it looks like the Great Ninja War is finally winding down, with Naruto and his allies confronting the real (for sure this time!) mastermind behind everything.

Bleach: Ichigo Kurosaki, a boy who sees ghosts, suddenly finds himself thrust into the battles of the Shinigami (“reapers”) whose job is to assist the flow of spirits to the afterlife, and battle spirits that have lost their way and become “Hollows.”  As time goes by, more and more factions are introduced, and Ichigo unlocks more and more ultimate potential, in addition to learning things about his rather unusual heritage.  Not as good as the above two.  The current arc is supposedly the last, with a group called the Vandenreich attempting to destroy the Soul Society (the primary afterlife) altogether.  Naturally, it turns out that Ichigo has a surprising connection to them…

Toriko:  The adventures of a superhuman gourmand named Toriko on a world where the more dangerous/difficult to get a food ingredient is, the more tasty it is.  He partners with an aspiring chef named Komatsu to track down the rarest and most delicious of creatures.  This is an audience participation manga, with readers sending in their ideas for cool new foodstuffs.  It can be fun, though I am not as affected by the munchies as some other readers by it.  Presently, the characters are involved with a cooking tournament, which with any luck will be interrupted by an evil food company invasion.

Nisekoi: “False love” is the name of the game, as Raku and Chitoge, scions of feuding gangster clans, are pressured into pretending to date to calm the squabbles.  Only problem is that they can’t stand each other!  Meanwhile, Raku made a childhood marriage promise to a girl whose name and face he doesn’t remember.  At least three girls turn out to carry keys that could fit his lock (Freudian!)  This series is generic romantic comedy done right.  Yes, all the elements are out of the standard playbook, but the writer does them so well!  Currently, Chitoge has finally realized that she’s beginning to have genuine affection for Raku…but what does that mean for their fake relationship?

Cross Manage:  Former soccer star Sakurai is adrift in life after leg injuries sideline him.  That is until he meets the ditzy but very earnest Toyoguchi, whose struggling lacrosse team desperately needs a good manager.  This is a gender flip of the usual Shounen Jump sports story, in which a boy’s team has a cute female manager.  Unfortunately, the story so far has spent less time developing the team’s personalities and play styles than on Sakurai’s deep manpain.  This may explain why the series has been struggling in the ratings in the parent magazine, and looks ripe for an early cancellation.  Which is a pity, because there’s a lot of potential here.  Currently, the team is trying to get up to minimum competency to enter a spring tournament.

 

Monthlies

Blue Exorcist:  Rin Okumura discovers that his father is Satan, making him part demon and a danger to everyone around him.  Turns out Rin has inherited his father’s rebellious nature, and chooses to join exorcist school so he can learn to battle against his father’s evil plans and save humanity.  But his heritage also makes him a target, so there’s always trouble brewing.  Despite the subject matter, this series often comes off as more juvenile than scary.  Right now, someone or something is opening multiple Hellgates that can’t be closed by normal exorcists.

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan:  Rikuo Nura is one-quarter yokai, (Japanese spirit monsters) so can access his superhuman abilities only for a limited amount of time each day.  Which is a real problem when he’s the heir to the yokai clan leader.This series was in Shonen Jump until earlier this year, but doing very poorly.  Since it was on its final battle arc already, the series was moved to a monthly magazine so the creator could really cut loose and do it up properly without having to worry about the ratings poll.

Rurouni Kenshin -Restoration-:  A distillation of the popular series about an assassin turned technical pacifist during the Meiji Restoration period.  It’s kind of a tie-in to the recnt live-action adaptation.  Think of it like a “Best HIts collection, or an alternate universe retelling.  You can tell that Watsuki is having a ball drawing these characters again, but Kaoru comes across as even more useless in this version.  Currently they’re building up to a fight with the hypnotic gaze fighter.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal:  In the far future, Yuma Tsukuno is a huge fan of the Duel Monsters children’s card game…in the abstract, but has no idea how to actually play it.  when he gains a not-so-imaginary friend named Astral, Yuma starts improving, and soon finds himself battling evil plots to misuse the cards.  Yeah.  This latest installment of the Yu-Gi-OH! franchise continues most of the trends that have annoyed non-fans in the past, including substituting expensive overpowered cards for actual skill as the sign of a strong player.  (And despite our hero being supposedly a huge fan of the game, not recognizing half the cards or basic strategies he’s up against.)  How I miss plotlines that have almost nothing to do with the game.  Just at the moment, the good guys are trying to collect all the Numbers cards, a goal shared by the villains but for opposite reasons.

 

Overall:

An excellent value for money, provided that you are a big fan of the general shounen manga style of storytelling.  There are some lesser parts, but the variety is overall strong.  More new series are scheduled to start soon, so keep an eye out if the current titles aren’t enough to excite you.

 

SKJAM!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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