Book Review: Great Thrillers: 101 Suspenseful Tales

Book Review: Great Thrillers: 101 Suspenseful Tales compiled by Stefan Dziemianowicz

The definition of “thriller” is a little loose in this fun anthology, though most of the stories do have at least some suspense.  It feels more like the compiler picked a bunch of the public domain stories he liked, but didn’t have a strong enough connection to a single genre to put in one of the other anthologies.  There’s scary stories, but little outright horror.  Some stories with mysteries in them, but not formal mystery stories.   The closest for many of these is “adventure” or “survival.”

Great Thrillers: 101 Suspenseful Tales

The stories are arranged alphabetically by title, so start with “The Alligator Test” by Howard Dwight Smiley (a supposed psychic flushes out a thief with a stuffed alligator) and end with “With What Measure” by Maude Heath (an ex-prostitute turned society dame is confronted with the one man who knows her past and devises a clever way to stall him.)  There’s an impressive amount of variety in these tales; only two, widely separated, use the same gimmick.

None of the stories are over ten pages, and quite a few don’t top three, so if one is a dud, another will be along in no time, and there’s more hits than misses.

Let’s just look at a few that are by famous authors.

“The American’s Tale” by Arthur Conan Doyle is a tall tale about flesh-eating plants in Arizona, told to skeptical Englishmen.  Some phonetic dialect.

“Calloway’s Code” by O. Henry involves a telegram sent during the Russo-Japanese War designed to foll the censors.  It was probably hilarious in its day, but relies on then-current bad writing habits of newspaper reporters, which have been completely replaced with new bad writing habits so the logic is opaque.

“The Cone” by H.G. Wells concerns the manager of an ironworks discovering that his wife has been cheating on him, and offering the lover a tour of the workplace.  It’s obvious where the story is going, but when and how?

“A Dream of Red Hands” by Bram Stoker is a tale of secret murder and the need for redemption.  Content note: death in childbirth in the backstory.

“The Interlopers” by Saki has two men meet in disputed territory.  The first one to have his allies arrive will, in theory, be the winner.  But what if there’s a third party involved?

“The Leopard Man’s Story” by Jack London has almost nothing to do with leopards, but is about jealousy and vengeance at the circus.  Humorous despite its dark theme.

“Out of the Storm” by William Hope Hodgson is one of his sea tales in which a Morse code message is received from the scene of a nautical disaster.   I can really spot that this story had a strong effect on H.P. Lovecraft.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe is so famous that I will just mention it’s in here.

“Markheim” by Robert Louis Stevenson concerns a murder on Christmas Day and what might be the Devil, an angel, or a man’s own manifest conscience.  Very much in the Victorian tradition of spooky Christmas stories.

Period racism, sexism and colonialism mars some of these stories, particularly “The Cross of the White God” by Harold de Polo, which leans heavily into the “ignorant superstitious native” stereotype.

I could count the stories that feature active female characters on one hand, but “The Sapphire Chain” by Caroline Ticknor features three active, clever women (and two foolish husbands.)  It’s also a good story.

Many of the stories can be found in other anthologies or in public domain archives, but this volume would make a good investment for the person who enjoys classic stories and has only a little reading time at any given sitting.

Book Review: Time and Mr. Bass

Book Review: Time and Mr. Bass by Eleanor Cameron

Long ago and long ago and even before that, came the Mycetians to Earth from Basidium, the Mushroom Planet.  Much of their history has been lost to Deep Time, but it is known that they were stranded on this planet, and eventually wound up settling in the mountains of Wales.  In recent times, the new leader of the Mycetians, Tyco Bass, with the aid of human boys Chuck Masterton and David Topman, has re-established communications with the Mushroom Planet.

Time and Mr. Bass

Mr. Bass and his young friends have had many fine adventures.  A new one begins when it is learned that two relics of the Mycetian people have been stolen, the Necklace of Ta, and the Thirteenth Scroll, the latter said to have information about the missing years of Mycetian history–if anyone could read it.  Our heroes must track down the thief and recover the items, but that will only lead to a battle against ancient evil!

This is the fifth and final book in the Mushroom Planet children’s science fiction series that began with The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet in 1954.   Chuck and David, who live in Pacific Grove, California, see an ad in the newspaper asking for a rocketship to be built by clever boys, with a reward offered.  They build a small ship out of materials lying around, meet Mr. Bass, who installs the parts to make the ship actually work, and fly to the invisible moon Basidium and meet its people.

Back in its day, this series was very popular, and it’s easy to see why.  There’s fast-paced action, a general sense of wonder, and the ending is terrific as a farewell to the series.

However, in a number of ways the series is very dated.  Real-life space exploration tore the suspension of disbelief for the invisible moon stuff, the paucity of decent female characters is notable, and as the stories went along they became much more science fantasy than science fiction.

The book falls fairly neatly into two sections.  In the first, the stolen items must be recovered.  This is made a bit complicated by the thief selling bits of the necklace to other people.  The stones of Ta cause a person’s passions to become unhealthy obsessions with a Basidian twist.  For an example, a doctor who wants to heal sick people becomes obsessed with mushrooms as a panacea for all ills.

Mr. Bass and the boys must appeal to each victim’s underlying true nature to get them to relinquish the stones.  This bit had a very C.S. Lewis feel to it.

Introduced during this part, and taking center stage in the second half of the book, is Mycetian history.  While Mr. Bass is over five hundred years old, and the story does convey something of how that affects him, he has a connection to an even older ancestor, the Bassyd.  Elder Grandfather (as he is called by Mr. Bass) was a bard at the court of King Arthur, and had been given great powers by the Ancient Ones who later gave them to Mr. Bass.

But all his powers could not save Arthur if the king would not take his advice, and the other lords did not support their ruler.  Also, both Arthur and the Bassyd had an enemy (whose name is never given but is nicknamed Narrow Brain) who was jealous of the Bassyd’s power and sought to steal the magic that the Bassyd did not have.  After Arthur’s death at Camlann, Narrow Brain tracked down and murdered the Bassyd, burying him in an unknown location.

This somehow gave Narrow Brain a form of immortality and supernatural powers.  We learn that the reason there’s no indisputable physical evidence of the reign of Arthur is because Narrow Brain down the centuries methodically destroyed it.  With the loss of the Bassyd, the Mycetians also lost valuable knowledge of their past, and have slowly withered as a people ever since.

Now that the scroll has been recovered, the translation process (including a side trip to Basidium for more clues) attracts Narrow Brain’s attention, and the ancient evil strikes again and again in an attempt to prevent the truth from coming to light.

Of the boys, young dreamer David is more prominent than Chuck, as his second sight is repeatedly useful, while Chuck’s more grounded approach is de-emphasized.

These books (past the first) are now difficult to find; your best bet is libraries with superior children’s collections.  Primarily recommended to readers with nostalgia for the 1950s-1960s, and secondarily to collectors of Arthuriana.

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!

Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1 written by Bill Finger & Gardner Fox, art by Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff

Batman was the second full-fledged superhero published by National Periodicals, soon to be better known as DC.  The kernel of the idea was proposed by artist Bob Kane, and fleshed out by writer Bill Finger, with a first appearance in Detective Comics #37.  As the Shadow was to Doc Savage, so Batman was to Superman, a skilled man operating in the shadows, rather than a superhuman operating in the light of day.  But both, of course, dedicated to justice in their own ways.

Batman Archives Volume 1

This “Archives” edition is a hardbound full-cover reprint of the Batman stories from Detective Comics #37-50.  I believe this was the first of this collector’s bait format, thus the “introductory price.”

We open, of course, with “The Case of the Criminal Syndicate.”  Police Commissioner Gordon is chilling with his young socialite friend Bruce Wayne, talking about rumors of a mysterious “Bat-Man.”  Gordon is informed of a murder among the wealthy citizens of the city, and Bruce tags along as he hasn’t got anything better to do.  Chemical syndicate head Lambert is dead, and the most likely suspect is his son.

The son claims he didn’t do it, and to lend credence to this claim, a call comes from Crane, one of Lambert’s three partners, explaining that both of them had threats made against their lives.  Bruce Wayne becomes bored and goes home.  Crane is murdered too, but before the murderer escapes with a certain paper, a mysterious Bat-Man appears, beats up the murderer and his partner and takes the paper.

From this, Batman is able to figure out which of the two remaining partners is the mastermind.  He saves the fourth partner, and punches the villain into a tank of acid.  Commissioner Gordon explains the plot to Bruce, who finds it all highly unlikely.  But in the last panel, we learn that Bruce Wayne himself is in fact the Batman!  What a twist!

The hyphen was quickly dropped, but Batman’s habit of killing opponents in the heat of battle took a bit longer to disappear.   The art is kind of crude, and the plot borrowed heavily from a Shadow pulp story, but the creators were on to something new in comics, and rapidly improved.  (Plus Bob Kane started having assistants to keep up with the work.)

#29 brings us “The Batman Meets Doctor Death.”  The title opponent is Batman’s first opponent with a catchy nom de guerre (his actual name is the pretty nifty Dr. Karl Hellfern), his first mad scientist enemy, and his first recurring enemy.  In the following issue, Doctor Death also becomes Batman’s first hideously disfigured villian, as his face is burnt off.  These two stories have unfortunate ethnic stereotypes as Doctor Death’s henchmen, and Gardner Fox’s lack of research into authentic ethnic background information is obvious.

Batman is also pretty careless with his secret identity of Bruce Wayne in this story; if Doctor Death had been just a little sneakier Batman’s double life would have been over only a few months after his debut.  There’s a cameo by the man who will become the Crime Doctor much, much later on, Bruce Wayne’s personal physician, who wonders how the lazy upper-class twit managed to shoot himself with no powder burn.

#31-32, “Batman Versus the Vampire” introduces Batman’s first full-fledged supervillain, the Monk, who wears a distinctive costume (red monk’s robes and a red hood with a skull & crossbones sigil), and as a vampire/werewolf has supernatural powers.  He and his sidekick (lover?) Dala kidnap Bruce Wayne’s fiancee Julie Madison (also appearing for the first time) for reasons never fully explained, and after much action and scary stuff, Batman puts silver bullets through their hearts.

This story also makes it clear that Batman operates in New York City, which was changed to Gotham City later for ease of fictionalization.

#33, “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom” is most notable for finally getting around to telling us why Bruce Wayne runs around in a bat costume fighting crime.  This simple two-page origin would eventually be vastly expanded upon and become an important part of the mythos.

#34, “Peril in Paris” has Bruce Wayne run into a man without a face.  Who is not the villain of the story.  That’s the fellow who stole his face.  It’s still not back by the end of the story (and the flowers with women’s heads are not explained either), but this faceless fellow and his beautiful sister are the first people Batman reveals his true identity to.  And then are never seen again.

#36, “Professor Hugo Strange” introduces the title character, another mad scientist, who takes part of his inspiration from Professor Moriarty, but is also large and muscular, able to give Batman a good tussle even without his fog machine, monster men and other gimmicks.

#38 “Introducing Robin, the Boy Wonder” does just what it says.  Circus acrobat Dick Grayson loses his parents to criminals, and is taken in by Batman, who gives the lad a costume and training to become a crimefighter.  (He also reveals his identity to Dick off-camera.)  Thanks to this, Robin gets the quick closure that Batman never did by tracking down and convicting his parents’ killer.

Robin was the first superhero’s boy sidekick in comic books, and soon the market was flooded with them.  He lightened up the Batman character and gave the Caped Crusader someone to have dialogue with rather than think out loud to himself.

Also about this time, Batman got his own solo comic book series, but that’s another volume.

#40, “Beware of Clayface!” introduces the first villain to wear that name, crazed horror actor Basil Karlo (a riff on Basil Karloff, who was a swell guy in real life.)  Julie Madison begins her career as a movie actress.  In #49, the Basil Karlo Clayface returns (and then would not be seen again for decades) and Julie decides to break her engagement to Bruce for his fecklessness.  (Little realizing it’s only a cover for his activities as Batman.)

#44, “The Land Beyond the Light!” is the first full-on fantasy story for Batman, as the Dynamic Duo is transported to another dimension and interfere in a war between giants and little people.  It’s all Dick Grayson’s dream in the end, but soon such stories would become a regular thing.

#50 ends this volume with “The Case of the Three Devils.”  Three circus acrobats have turned to crime using devil costumes and their ability to pull off outrageous physical stunts.  They give Batman and Robin quite a chase before the Caped Crusaders can finally corner them.  Batman’s superior use of terrain gives him the victory.

Again, lots of exciting action portrayed in a new way for 1939-40.  Some plots are overly simplistic, while others become nonsensical if you think about them too carefully, but the writing gets much better as it goes along.   There’s also an illuminating foreword by comics scholar Rick Marschall.

This is a must have for the serious Batman collector; other Batman fans should check it out at the library to see the early development of the classic characters.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4 edited by Julius Schwartz

The Flash is Barry Allen, a police detective who was working during a thunderstorm one night when a bolt of lightning struck a shelf of chemicals, spilling the mixture on him.   Barry quickly realized that he’d been gifted with super-speed, making him the fastest man alive.  Taking inspiration from a comic book hero of his youth, Barry Allen protects Central City and the world as the Flash!

Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

This fourth volume of the Showcase Presents collection of the series covers from Flash #162-184, 1966-68.  The first story in the set is “Who Haunts the Corridor of Chills?”   A Walt Disney stand-in is inspecting the new spooky ride at his amusement park when he’s unexpectedly transformed into a rampaging monster.  Flash is temporarily handicapped by developing a sudden phobia of dark spooky tunnels.  By the end, the story becomes a parable about not jumping to conclusions.

Most of the stories are workmanlike tales of the Flash encountering a criminal or monster, encountering some sort of obstacle that prevents him from simply using his immense speed to solve the issue, and thinking his way through to victory.  Barry Allen was very much a “thinking” hero, using his scientific know-how and reasoning abilities as much as his ability to move very fast.

Some have criticized the Silver Age Flash for having a bland personality, but “bland Midwestern science fan” is a personality I see all the time in real life.  Barry’s serious but not grim, and even when he loses his temper, it’s in a subdued fashion.  This makes him becoming a braggart in the cover story, #177 “The Swell-Headed Super-Hero!” especially jarring.  This particular story is also interesting because it’s the only one in the volume where we see Barry performing his day job as a crime scene investigator for more than one panel.

Alas, he doesn’t use any of his science skills on-panel, but instead performs a Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny-style feat of deduction to solve the “impossible” crime.  This story also has a great panel by Ross Andru of horrified civilians seeing the transformed Flash for the first time.  (The Silver Age writers loved transforming the Flash.)

The thinness of characterization is perhaps clearer in the villains, who tend to have very similar personalities, leavened slightly by Captain Cold being a would-be ladies’ man, and Abra Kadabra’s need to be the center of attention.  (The latter may explain why he appears the most in this volume.)

And then there’s Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash.  He only gets one appearance, but it’s a doozy, as Barry Allen finally gets around to marrying Iris West.  Except that Zoom decides to take his similarity to the Flash to the next level by changing his face to Barry Allen’s and impersonating the hero–even to the point of marrying his girlfriend!  Barry manages to escape in time and prevent the false vows, but this plotline will define Professor Zoom for years to come.

Barry, very protective of his secret identity, doesn’t tell Iris that he’s the Flash until a year into the marriage!  (Flash television show viewers can take heart that this tendency is faithful to the comics.)  However, it turns out Iris has known since the wedding night as Barry talks in his sleep.  (Wah wah waaaah.)   This is directly contrasted with Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick’s relationship with his wife Joan, who was in on the secret from the beginning.

There are a couple of real clunkers in this collection.  The first is #167, “The Real Origin of the Flash!”  This was the most hated Flash story of its era (and for many years thereafter.)  It introduces Mopee, a fumbling “heavenly helper” who somewhat resembles Woody Allen, and claims that he made an error in giving Barry Allen the power of super-speed.  He spoils several attempts by the Flash to “re-earn” his powers, before finally getting it right.  The reader reaction was so negative that the story was simply not referred to again for decades.

#180-181 “The Flying Samurai” & “The Attack of the Samuroids!” is a fun story that has aged badly.  Barry and Iris go to Japan on vacation and the Flash gets involved in a battle against nigh-invulnerable flying samurai robots.  So many well-meant but glaring ethnic stereotypes!  Among the lowlights: A cute female secretary is named Tushi (a name that doesn’t even work in Japanese); Japanese people speaking broken English even when alone among themselves (particularly annoying with supposed traditionalist Baron Katana); one of Barry’s Japanese friends referring to marital relations as “tender tentacles”; and villain Baron Katana assuming no one will think to look for him at the abandoned castle…that has belonged to his family for generations.

There are a couple of appearances by Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick (once with his friends from the Justice Society of America), a visit from Hal “Green Lantern” Jordan, and a race against Superman that guest stars the Justice League of America.  Plus, the first Earth-Prime story, in which Flash winds up in “our” world and meets Julius Schwartz.

The final story in this volume, “Executioner of Central City!” has the Flash apparently destroy his home town in an attempt to save it from a pulsar flare.  Of course, this is revealed to be incorrect.  The community has in fact moved to the distant future where humans are much larger and “programmed” against aggression.  Well, except for their leaders, which turns out to be a design flaw.

There’s some excellent art by long-time Flash portrayer Carmine Infantino, and not quite as good art by Ross Andru.

Overall, a good choice for Barry Allen Flash fans; fans of other versions of the Flash might want to check it out at the library.

 

Book Review: Tuesdays With Morrie

Book Review: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

In 1995, there was fighting in Bosnia, O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder, and a man named Morrie Schwartz was teaching his last class about life.  It met on Tuesdays, and the student was sportswriter Mitch Albom.  Twenty years before, Mitch had been Morrie’s student in sociology classes at Brandeis University, and now that Morrie was dying of ALS, he reconnected with his old teacher for a series of conversations.

Tuesdays with Morrie

Like many people, Mitch’s life after college hadn’t gone as planned, his musical career not panning out.  After the early death of a beloved relative, his priorities shifted, and he found success in writing about sports.  But when he saw Morrie being interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline (the first of three interviews), Mitch realized he had lost touch with someone important to him, and the wisdom of that man.

Morrie Schwartz had been an unusual man all along, and had dedicated much of his years to learning how to live his own life.  He had developed a set of aphorisms that distilled this philosophy into understandable chunks.  When his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gherig’s disease) began to take away his ability to engage in everyday activities, Morrie sent out his aphorisms into the world to those he thought might be interested.  And they brought the world back to him, notably Ted Koppel, and through him, Mitch Albom.

As it happened, a newspaper strike left Mitch with some spare time to come visit his old professor, and he made more time when they reconnected.  They decided that Mitch would come again and again on Tuesdays, a day that was special to them, and they would discuss subjects like death and marriage.  The plan was for Mitch to write a book the proceeds of which would help pay for Morrie’s substantial medical bills.

This is that book, a bestseller that has spawned a TV movie and stage play, and changed many lives.  A new edition has been released for the twentieth anniversary, with a new afterword catching up with what’s happened with Mr. Albom since the end of the book.

The book intersperses valuable lessons about life and related topics with flashbacks to their relationship in college and biographical information about Morrie that helps explain how he became the teacher so admired by so many people.

It’s very well written; the outcome is known from the beginning, so the journey is the important part.  If what Morrie has to say sometimes seems trite or cliched, that’s because much of it is things we already knew, even if we ignore them in the hustle and pain of everyday existence.

My one caveat is that sometimes this sort of philosophy has been weaponized against people who are suffering systemic poverty and oppression to tell them that they shouldn’t fight back, but simply accept their lot.

The subject matter of death and dying may be a bit heavy for younger readers, but this book has been used in high school classes.

Recommended for people who haven’t gotten around to this book yet who are interested in philosophy and life lessons.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, a video of those Ted Koppel interviews.

Comic Book Review: Essential Daredevil Vol. 4

Comic Book Review: Essential Daredevil Vol. 4 edited by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas

Created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, Daredevil is Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer.  He was struck in the face with radioactive material as a teen while shoving a blind man out of danger, which both blinded Matthew and gave him extraordinary senses.  When his father “Battlin’ Jack” Murdock was murdered for refusing to throw a boxing match, Matt donned a bizarre devil-themed costume to avenge him.  He then continued to use the Daredevil identity to fight crime and help people.

Essential Daredevil Vol. 4

This volume contains Daredevil #75-101, plus an important issue of the Avengers, #111.  Gerry Conway wrote most of these issues with Gene Colan on pencils.  (As usual, Colan’s work looks great in black and white.)

We open with Matt having mostly broken up with his long-time romantic interest, Karen Page, who is pursuing an acting career.  They’re both having second thoughts, so it’s several issues before they move on and Daredevil can devote his full attention to Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow (who got to share the cover title for a while.)

#75 seems to be a filler issue, with Matt and his law partner and best friend Foggy Nelson visiting South America.  Daredevil battles a revolutionary calling himself “El Condor” after a local hero.  It’s an interesting story because it’s clear that El Condor’s identity was supposed to be a last-page reveal (always wears a mask, the one person who sees his face reacts with shock, and there’s a character who the story logic says it had to be) but El Condor simply dies (crushed by a statue of the original!) and then Matt leaves the country without El Condor’s true identity even being mentioned.

Then begins a long sequence with the mysterious “Mr. Kline” acting against Daredevil and Matt Murdock in various ways.  First he sponsors a mad scientist’s experiments that wind up turning a man named William “Bull” Taurus into the Man-Bull.  A nice touch in this story is that Bull has his own mini-gang and a character named “Freakface” explains why he’s personally loyal to Bull.  At the same time, Kline begins to blackmail Foggy, who at this point is New York City’s district attorney.

Then Kline frees the Owl from prison and provides the gliding financier advanced technology to attack Daredevil.  At the same time, he manipulates the Black Widow into meeting Daredevil as part of a long-term backup plan.  As well, the reader learns that “Mr. Kline” is not as we might have thought one of Daredevil’s old enemies, but an android (MK-9) controlled by an even more mysterious master which codenames it “Assassin.”

Kline’s next maneuver is sending out the Scorpion, who acts somewhat out of character (actually an android), and is apparently killed by the Black Widow.  The Assassin then has Foggy insist on prosecuting Natasha for murder (her background as a Communist spy prejudices people against her.)  The trial is rigged further by Mr. Hyde (another android) murdering the coroner and replacing him with a duplicate.

The trial ends when all the evidence is destroyed by an explosion, but Black Widow is still under suspicion.  She heads to Switzerland, where the Assassin springs the backup plan of having her convince Matt Murdock to undergo an operation to restore his eyesight.

The secret boss is finally revealed to be…no one we could have reasonably guessed.  Baal, a computer from the far future, is trying to avert a disaster in the past that Daredevil (and Iron Man of all people) will eventually cause.  Trying to kill him has failed, though they have managed to prevent Foggy Nelson from eventually becoming the president of the United States.  But restoring Matt’s eyesight will also eliminate Daredevil.

The plan doesn’t work because too obvious, and a deus ex machina prevents Baal from reverting to the “kill Daredevil” idea.

After a couple of transitional issues which resolve the Karen Page subplot, Matt Murdock moves to San Francisco with Black Widow and her chauffeur Ivan, taking a set of rooms in her house there.  At this point in time, the Comics Code prevented unmarried characters from sleeping together.

The local police are less than enthused about their new vigilantes, especially Commissioner “Ironguts” O’Hara.  It takes him a long time to warm up to the colored longjohns  set, even though they’re a big help against powered criminals like Electro and the Purple Man.  (The latter has a flashback sequence to explain how he escaped from jail–which is missing a crucial panel.)

Another lengthy plotline involves Project Four, the very first case Natasha ever worked on as a spy, and the return of her first partner, Danny French.  Danny is ethically bankrupt (he’s now a private detective introduced working both sides of a blackmail case) but winds up having some redeeming qualities.  A new Mister Fear also shows up, but is a red herring.

Gerry Conway wraps up his run with the return of the Man-Bull, and Steve Gerber takes up the writing chores as of issue #97.  He introduces another mysterious mastermind who is empowering seemingly random people for unknown purposes, starting with Mordecai Jones, the Dark Messiah.

This plotline is interrupted by a guest appearance of Hawkeye, Black Widow’s former love interest, who wants to see if he can rekindle the relationship.  No, but it does lead into an Avengers crossover.  They need DD and BW’s help against Magneto, who has managed to mind control the X-Men and most of the Avengers, and is trying to seize the United States’ nuclear arsenal.  (This includes a really skeevy scene of Magneto compelling the Scarlet Witch to dance for his pleasure, which would get even skeevier in hindsight once she was retconned into being his daughter.)

Daredevil turns down an Avengers membership (at this point his supersenses are not sufficiently tuned to allow him to work in a large team) but Natasha accepts.  He thinks that means she’s leaving him.

Issue #100 has Daredevil being interviewed by Rolling Stone and recapping his origin for the readers, in between bouts of mass hallucination.  The latter turns out to be the work of Angar the Screamer, an aging hippie being controlled by the mysterious mastermind previously mentioned.  Black Widow returns (she plans to commute to Avengers meetings) and they manage to drive Angar off…for now.

The good:  Gene Colan art, some nifty villain appearances, Black Widow getting to be competent most of the time, random civilians getting the gumption to fight back against criminals on their own.

Less good:  Matt Murdock’s internal monologues tend to the verbose at best, Daredevil too often feeling he needs to protect Black Widow from danger even though she’s repeatedly shown her competence, gratuitous scenes of Natasha dressing/undressing/showering in a way we don’t see Matt doing, Marvel’s writers just not “getting” the counterculture or feminism despite theoretically catering to them, and the Marvel soap opera formula meaning that Matt can never just be happy for an entire freaking issue without finding something to angst about, often completely unnecessarily.

That said, this is a decent run on the title (though nowhere near the quality of Frank Miller’s first run) and worth checking out at the library.

 

Book Review: Windswept

Book Review: Windswept by Adam Rakunas

Padma Mehta used to work for The Man.  That is, WalWa, one of the Big Three megacorporations that own most of Occupied Space.  She was good at her job, too, despite the shabby treatment she often got.  Then Bad Things happened, and Padma Breached, breaking her indenture contract to join the Union on Santee.

Windswept

Now Padma’s a Ward Head for the Union in Brushhead, one of the neighborhoods in Santee Landing.  But now she has other plans–the owner of the distillery that makes Padma’s favorite rum “Old Windswept” is retiring, and Padma wants to buy that distillery to make sure the sanity-restoring drink remains made just the right way.  But to do that, Padma must fill job Slots for the Union, and that means finding new Breaches to take those Slots.  When a mining ship disaster kills the discontented workers she was counting on, Padma is forced to accept a deal with small time con artist Vytai Bloombeck, who knows where some other Breaches are coming to the planet.

Except, of course, that there are five Breaches (six if you count the corpse), not forty, and rival ward head Evanrute Saarien is determined to steal even those to add to his own credit with the Union.  And things just continue to go downhill from there, with disgruntled Union workers, corporate assassins and a deadly cane blight all making Padma’s life even more awful than she perhaps deserves.  The only people that might be on Padma’s side are rogue cab driver Jilly and recently Breached lawyer Banks, and that might just be because they don’t know her well enough.

This science fiction novel is set in a future that’s not the worst possible outcome, but is full of broken systems.  Yes, being a corporate Indenture means that you get many benefits, like the “pai” (never actually explained but probably short for “personal assistant implant”) hooked up to your optic nerve to allow wireless communication among other neat features.  But the Big Three tend to cheap out on the actual quality of the benefits, and every upgrade comes with more time on your indenture.

The Union is no bed of roses either; there’s a bunch of low-level job Slots that need filling, and rookies go straight into things like sewer cleaning and hull scraping, regardless of actual skill set.  Getting into better Slots takes the ability to convince the Union you’re worthy, and new Breaches coming in to take the lowest Slots.  (Bloombeck’s been stuck in the sewers for decades because no one likes him enough to find him a better Slot.)

Padma has a lot of flaws, some of which are related to the mental illness that she got during her service to WalWa.  Old Windswept is the only effective treatment she’s found for The Fear, so that’s her top priority.  Unfortunately, Santee has fallen off the main trade routes, so fewer ships are coming for the cane, molasses and galaxy’s best rum, and thus fewer Breaches to feed her kitty and let her workers rise in the ranks.  As a result of her worries about this, Padma has not kept her ear to the ground about various developing situations around the colony, and that comes back to bite her repeatedly.

Something else that bites Padma is her habit of assuming people she meets have always been what they are when she meets them.  More than one person has a secret past that has bearing on current events.  Other people turn out to be exactly what Padma thinks they are, which may be worse.

Once the ball gets rolling, it’s pretty much non-stop peril for Padma and her crew, only getting breathing space to set up more peril.  There’s a fair amount of violence, but more disturbing in its implications than graphic.

There’s no romance subplot, but Padma does have plot-relevant casual sex towards the beginning of the story.  Perhaps the happiest part of the ending is that Padma’s a better person than she was before everything happened, even if she didn’t exactly get what she wanted.

Other characters develop depth of personality only by what Padma sees them do, as makes sense in a first-person narrative.  Banks is far more complex than he initially seems, while Jilly is young and rather callow, but learning fast.  Other characters…well, that’d be spoilers.

At least one scene is designed to be in the potential movie version, as lampshaded by the characters in it talking about the movies they’ve seen and whether this is actually something that could happen in real life.

I enjoyed the book and the characters–it’s not often a battle-scarred, middle-aged woman of South Asian descent is the protagonist in an action novel.  (However, the treatment of her mental illness may not be fully accurate; I am not qualified to tell.)

Recommended to fans of science fiction action, and rum drinkers.

Comic Book Review: The Batman Adventures Volume 2

Comic Book Review: The Batman Adventures Volume 2 written by Kelley Puckett, pencils by Mike Parobeck, inks by Rick Burchett

Batman: The Animated Series ran on Fox 1992-1995, and is considered one of the best animated TV series of all time, as well as one of the best adaptations of Batman outside comic books.  It spawned an entire DC Animated Universe set of series with its unique look and strong continuity.  The series also influenced the comics it had spawned from, creating the madcap Harley Quinn and her friendship with Poison Ivy (and suggesting they might be very close friends) and a new sympathetic backstory for Mr. Freeze, who had been a flat character before.

The Batman Adventures Volume 2

But more directly, there was a tie-in comic book series, The Batman Adventures.  It was written for younger readers than the mainstream DC Comics universe, although it could still handle some subject matter that the TV series had to shy away from.  The art was meant to evoke the style of the show, and frequently succeeded.  Rather than copy scripts from the TV series, most of the issues tell stories in between episodes.

Many  of the stories in this second volume revolve around secondary characters rather than Batman himself.  There are stories for Batgirl (taking place before her first appearance on the show), Robin and  the pair together.  Man-Bat, Talia, and Ra’s al Ghul each get a spotlight story, as does Commissioner Gordon.  There’s even an issue from the viewpoint of the Professor, a brainy guy who teams up with schemer Mastermind and reluctant master of violence Mr. Nice to steal nuclear weapons.  Their plan is foiled by one unexpected glitch….

The cover story is from issue #16, “The Killing Book.”  When the Joker discovers that the Gotham Adventures comic book depicts Batman always defeating him, the Clown Prince of Crime kidnaps an artist to draw the true-life stories of the Joker’s triumphs.  This one has a lot of meta-humor, from the titles of the chapters to the comics creators being roughly based on the real ones at DC.  The lighter nature of this series is shown by the Joker not actually killing anyone, though he tries to remedy this with a deathtrap for Batman.

The Scarecrow story in #19 is darker, as fear of the Scarecrow spreads over Gotham City, far in excess of his actual threat level.  He’s even invading Bruce Wayne’s nightmares of the death of his parents!   It turns out that Jonathan Crane isn’t the only ethically deficient scientist in Gotham this month.

Some bits in this series may be too scary for the youngest readers, but most ten year-olds and up should be fine.  Older readers will enjoy the in-jokes and references.

Recommended to fans of the cartoon, and parents of young Batman fans who aren’t ready for the very dark mainline comics.

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

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