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: The Naturalist

Book Review: The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States of America, was big on nature.  Specifically, he had a strong interest in natural history, and wanted to become/be known as a naturalist.  This new biography focuses on that part of Roosevelt’s life, from his boyhood collection of stuffed birds to his African expedition for the Smithsonian Institute.

The Naturalist Theodore Roosevelt

The author is himself a museum naturalist, so the narrative is perhaps a bit biased in favor of those who go out to collect specimens for natural history museums.  Roosevelt considered himself a “hunter-naturalist”, someone who went out, observed nature carefully, then killed animals for scientific study.  Sickly as a boy, with bad asthma, Teddy had to re-invent himself several times in his youth.  He worked hard to build up his body and mind, engaging in outdoor activities and especially learning about animals in nature.  His family was involved with the founding of the New York Museum of Natural History, which gave him a head start.

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s choice to go to Harvard seems to have doomed his ambition to become a full-time naturalist–according to this book, the college’s natural history program was dominated by laboratory work, not the field expeditions Teddy favored, and he met his first wife and realized that a naturalist’s pay wasn’t going to keep them in the style they were used to.

Instead, Roosevelt studied law and got into politics, with the results I mentioned in the first paragraph.  While he certainly made some headway as President, including creating America’s first wildlife reserves and other environmentally friendly actions, Teddy chafed at not being able to hunt properly and the last months of his term were largely taken up with preparations for his African expedition.

There were many bits of knowledge in this book that I either had not known before or had long forgotten.  Theodore Roosevelt’s poor vision meant that he was a bad shot, and often had to use far more bullets to bring down specimens than was ideal (and sometimes this meant he wound up killing more animals than he wanted!)

I found the literary feud between Roosevelt (and other scientifically-oriented naturalists) and the “sentimental” nature writers as exemplified by the Reverend William J. Long interesting.  Dr. Long heavily anthropomorphized the animal behavior in his “non-fiction” stories, and often depicted events that were so unlikely that naturalists accused him of just making things up.  (Side note:  I looked up Dr. Long’s work and among other things he penned an entirely serious book on the subject of animal telepathy-not just non-verbal communication, telepathy.)  In response, Dr. Long said that President Roosevelt could only touch the hearts of animals…with bullets.

The book stops with the aftermath of the successful African expedition-the less happy Amazon expedition does not get mentioned at all.  As is common with these specialized biographies, any parts of Roosevelt’s life that did not have a bearing on natural history get short shrift, and the serious student should also read a more general biography to get a balanced picture.

A heavy emphasis is placed on how Roosevelt’s practical experience with hunting influenced his ideas on conservation.  He could see with his own eyes how over-hunting was wiping out game animal populations, even within the span of a few years.

There’s a center section with black & white photos, and a few more scattered through the book.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.  Bright senior high students should be able to handle the material and language.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to those interested in Theodore Roosevelt, natural history and the role of hunters in nature conservation.

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

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

As the subtitle of this volume indicates, it’s a collection of 29 short stories written from a feminist perspective. There are selections from the 1960s through the 2000s–SF, fantasy, horror and a couple of stories that seem to be included out of courtesy because of “surrealism.”

Sisters of the Revolution

The anthology begins with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp, an account of a journalist’s meeting with a woman whose use of language is considered so dangerous that a Constitutional amendment has been passed to specifically ban those words. The journalist has a photo-op with Margaret A. in the prison that woman is being held in, and the experience changes her. It’s an interesting use of literary techniques to suggest the power of Margaret A.’s words without ever directly quoting them.

The final story is “Home by the Sea” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, in which a gynoid in a post-apocalyptic world returns to her mother/creator to ask some questions. The answers to those questions both disturb and give new hope. Like several other stories in the volume, this one deals with the nature of motherhood, and the mother-daughter relationship.

There are some of the classic stories that are almost mandatory for the subject of feminist speculative fiction: “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. (men abruptly start murdering people they’re sexually attracted to, mostly women but the story tacitly acknowledges homosexuality); “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (a planet with an all-female society is contacted by men from Earth after centuries of isolation–it originally ran in Again, Dangerous Visions, an anthology for stories with themes considered too controversial to be published elsewhere, times have changed); and Octavia K. Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” (a woman with a genetic disorder discovers that she has a gift that fits her exactly for a specific job, whether she wants that job or not.)

The anthologists have also made an effort to include stories that are “intersectional”, providing perspectives from other parts of the world. “The Palm Tree Bandit” by Nnedi Okorofor tells the story of a Nigerian woman who defies a sexist tradition and starts one of her own. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a retelling of the Bluebeard story in modern Jamaica (this time the women avenge their own), and “Tales from the Breast” by Hiromi Goto, wherein a Japanese-Canadian woman discovers a solution to her breastfeeding problems.

Some other standouts include: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (a fairy tale about language); “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter (one of the stories that really doesn’t feel like speculative fiction, but is really well-written, set in the moments just before Lizzie Borden is about to get up and kill her parents) and “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn (how far would you go to fit into the corporate culture? Would you let them shoot you up with insect genes?)

Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” is a fantasy tale of a warrior woman infiltrating a castle cursed to be a deathtrap by an evil alchemist. It’s exciting, but the ending relies on a now-hoary twist. Still worth reading if you haven’t had the chance before.

Most of the other stories are at least middling good. The weakest for me was “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, which falls into the surrealist category and seems to be about a woman who has rejected conventional beauty standards. Probably.

Rape, sexualized violence and domestic abuse are discussed; I’d put this book as suitable for bright senior high schoolers, though individual stories could be enjoyable by younger readers.

Recommended for feminists, those interested in feminist themes, and anthology fans.

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.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups Volume 2 edited by Julius Schwartz

The dedicated rotating team-up series was a huge boon for DC Comics and Marvel back in the day.  A top-selling character anchors the book (in this case Superman) and rotating guest stars got a chance to shine.  Some appearances were to promote their own new series, others were to wrap up a plot of a recently canceled book, even more were to make sure DC kept the trademark on a less active character in house, and a few were just because the writer had a cool idea for a story.

Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups #2

Volume 2 covers from 1980 to 1982, including the first annual and issue #50.  We start with a three-parter introducing Jim Starlin-created villain Mongul and his quest for a Warworld of his very own.  One of the problems with writing Superman team-ups is creating menaces that both challenge the Man of Tomorrow and allow the guest star to contribute.  Mongul tended towards the “stronger than Superman” end, so it’s a good thing the guest stars were the Martian Manhunter, Supergirl and the Spectre.

On the opposite end of the scale is Issue #39’s team-up with Plastic Man, where they fought dueling villains Toyman and Dollface.  This one required heavy use of Kryptonite to slow Superman down.  Some nice Joe Staton art, and a Karl Malden joke.

#41 brings us the cover story, which is not so much Superman teaming up with the Joker, as the Joker wanting revenge on the Prankster after the very similar villain double-crosses him during their team-up.  The whole story feels very much like Martin Pasko took a Los Angeles vacation and decided to work the location into a paid script.  The story sidelines Batman with an injury as this is not World’s Finest.

#42 has one of the weirder crossovers, with the Unknown Soldier, a disguise expert (real name unknown) who died in World War Two.  The Paul Levitz script is based heavily on the paranoia about nuclear war being imminent so common in the early 1980s before the Soviets blinked.

The Global Guardians had been introduced in the Superfriends tie-in comic book, but issue #46 of this series brought them into the main DC continuity.  A fun issue with some interesting wizard villains from different cultures.

#47 was a crossover with the Masters of the Universe tie-in comic book DC was doing at the time.  He-Man mentions that his mother (who is originally from Earth) had told him tales of Superman.

Annual #1 has a rare team-up of the Golden Age Superman with the then-current Man of Steel.  Their versions of Luthor change places, but still fail to overcome the other Supermen; but then they head to Earth-3 and team up with that world’s evil Ultraman (who becomes stronger from Kryptonite exposure.)  Our heroes must team up with Alex Luthor, who becomes Earth-3’s first superhero at the request of Lois Lane.  (This is a bit confusing as named characters on Earth-Three have flipped morality…so does this mean that regular Lois is evil?)

And we wrap up with #50, which has Superman team up with…Clark Kent?!  Alien science has separated the two, making Superman lose touch with humanity, while Clark loses much of his timid persona.  They must work together to save an alien world and California, before finding a way to merge again.

As with all the Showcase volume, these reprints are in black and white.  This is only a bit of a problem in the Plastic Man story as one of the running gags of that character is that he can look like anything and you can only spot him by his costume colors.

Sadly, the decision to concentrate only on the Superman stories means that we don’t get to see the “Whatever Happened To…?” backup stories that gave some closure to obscure characters.  Some of these were small gems–I was especially affected by the sad yet stirring tale of the Crimson Avenger, who will remain in the Land of the Remembered.

Overall, the writing quality is good to excellent, with art to match (with a couple of clunkers.)  Worth looking into if one of your favorites got a team-up slot.

Anime Review: Humanity Has Declined

Anime Review: Humanity Has Declined

In the indefinite future, homo sapiens as we know it is slowly going extinct.  Not to worry, though, our successors have already appeared, the New Humans, also commonly referred to as “fairies.”  The Mediator is a young woman who works for what’s left of the UN, acting as an intermediary between the Old Humans and the new ones.

Humanity has Declined

This 2012 anime series is based on a series of light novels, Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita, by Romeo Tanaka.  It’s a satire on human behavior, with plenty of dark comedy mixed in with science fiction concepts.  The fairies have seemingly miraculous technology but can’t master the concept of making sweets for themselves.  No one seems to be terribly fussed about the extinction of humanity, at worst being a bit melancholy about what sort of legacy it will be leaving behind.

The series is told in anachronic order; the first two episodes take place near the end of the storyline, while the last two cover the Mediator’s education.  (Very few people in this series have actual names that we hear.)

There’s some slapstick violence, particularly in the first couple of episodes, in which the fairies try to help with a food shortage, and it might not be suitable for viewers with sensitive stomachs.  There’s also a couple of incontinence jokes, and a character that’s overly fond of stories where boys become more than friends.  Still, it should be okay for most viewers junior high age and up who can handle dark comedy.

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People by Jared Diamond, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

This is a young adult version of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, originally printed in 1992.  I have not read that book, so will not be making direct comparisons.  I have, however, read Guns, Germs & Steel, which has some overlap with this volume.

Mr. Diamond is a biogeographer and evolutionary biologist.  In this book, he discusses the information (current as of 1992) that scientists have about the evolution of humans, who share about 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees.  This segues into an examination of human behavior, how it is (and is not) unique among the world’s animals; and winds up with some thoughts about what this might mean for humanity’s future.

The language is clear and should be suitable for strong readers from 10-11 up; there’s also a helpful glossary at the back along with an index.  There is no bibliography, presumably because the sources would not be written for young adults.  There are several illustrations and sidebars to break up the text.

Parents of sensitive tweens should be aware that the book covers some “heavy” subjects, such as war and genocide.  There’s also some discussion of the probable evolution of human sexuality.

A couple of chapters recap the information from Guns, Germs & Steel about why some human societies developed technology more quickly than others.  Mr. Diamond frequently uses “narrative causality”; trying to find the most logical sequence of cause and effect without being able to fill in all the links in the chain.

The final chapters deal with the looming specter of environmental destruction and mass extinction of animal species.  (But not anthropogenic climate change.)  Mr. Diamond is pessimistic about the chances of alien contact.  He does believe, however that conservation and population control can mitigate the worst effects of human behavior.   After all, while evolutionary biology explains many things about human behavior, it is not the only explanation.  We have free will.

This would be a good general introduction to anthropology and biogeography for  middle schoolers and non-science majors.  Some of the information is out of date, due to it being more than two  decades since the original book was written–serious students should review the recent research as well.  As Mr. Diamond repeatedly reminds us, his opinions influence his interpretation of the available evidence.

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