Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows by Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin

The universe is vast, and intelligent life has arisen on many worlds.  Over millennia, these different lifeforms have spread out from their points of origin and met each other.  Sometimes, these meetings have led to friendly interaction, sometimes they have ended in interspecies war.  No one remembers precisely when, or who did it, but an artificial habitable environment was created to serve as a meeting place for diplomats.  Each new species has added on to that space station to create Point Central, our last, best hope for peace.

Ambassador of the Shadows

Now at last it is Earth’s turn to preside over the Council in the Hall of Screens, and the new ambassador from that planet has big plans.  Plans so big, he needs to be guarded by top spatio-temporal agents Valerian and Laureline.

Valerian and Laureline is a French comic book series originally published from 1967 to 2010, very popular in European comics, and an influence on the look and feel of the movie The Fifth Element.  A new live-action movie version is coming out this summer, so I thought I’d check in on the source material.

The future Earth civilization, Galaxity, is based on time travel technology, which their space travel utilizes for faster than light speed.  This technology is dangerous in the wrong hands, thus the need for special time/space agents.

Valerian is a native of the 28th Century, and initially is quite respectful of authority, and does not question his orders, even when they seem ethically dubious.  That said, he is a good-hearted fellow who does the right thing as he sees it when the chips are down.  While in Middle Ages France, he recruited Laureline as a guide, and she proved so effective that he brought her home with him as an agent.

While Laureline is a fast learner who quickly adjusts to her new surroundings, she has an outsider’s view of them.  A fiery redhead, Laureline is impulsive and suspicious of authority figures, especially when their behavior is fishy.  (She initially was scheduled to be a “girl of the week” but was so well-received by the audience that she became the co-star.)

Earth’s ambassador initially emphasizes the “ass”, but that quickly becomes moot, as both he and Valerian are abducted by mysterious parties immediately upon arrival at Point Central.  Laureline must track them down through the labyrinthine construction and clashing cultures of the diplomatic station.  Comic relief is provided by a cowardly protocol officer Laureline dragoons into service as her sidekick.

The story becomes something of a shaggy dog when things going on in the background make the heroes’ actions irrelevant in the big picture, but this volume is important to the continuity because it introduces two recurring elements.  The Grumpy Transmuter from Bluxte is an astonishingly rare animal that can create copies of any item it ingests; since it’s a tiny animal with a small mouth, it’s limited to things like gems and pharmaceuticals.  Since the galactic community has no common currency, it’s like a portable cash machine and becomes Laureline’s pet.  Also, the Shingouz, greedy information brokers who will dispense helpful data in exchange for large payments.  Laureline becomes one of their favorite customers and they frequently appear in later stories.

The art is good, with the setting allowing the artist to go wild with interesting alien designs.  I’m not a fan of the coloring, though, which is often garish and inconsistent.  In particular, the humans often have bright orange skin.

There’s some violence, but it’s non-lethal, and one scene takes place in an alien brothel where we see some scantily-clad aliens (including Laureline in a disguise.)  Say a PG-13 rating.

Recommended to fans of science fiction adventure and/or French comics.

The City of Shifting Waters

And now a special bonus review of The City of Shifting Waters, which is as of 5/13/17 available for free download on Kindle.  This is an earlier adventure, when Laureline was still a new partner for Valerian.  A mad scientist named Xombul has escaped confinement and used a one-way device to travel to New York City in 1986.

Time voyages to that era are forbidden as global disaster, including melting of the polar ice caps, wiped out the existing civilizations, and there’s a blank spot three centuries long in the history books.  It’s not clear what Xombul is up to, but he must be stopped, so Valerian is sent back.

The secret time portal in the Statue of Liberty becomes inoperable shortly after Valerian arrives when the statue collapses, and the agent is pressed into service by a gang looting the flooded city.  While Valerian does manage to find a clue as to what Xombul is doing, he can’t do much with it.

Until Laureline shows up.  When Valerian didn’t report back in, she went to the time portal in Brazil and worked her way up to New York.  Reunited, the time agents make a deal with the leader of the looters, Sun Rae.  Since there are no historical records of this period, one petty warlord or another makes no difference but allowing Xombul to take over would change the future unpredictably.  They’ll let Sun Rae keep any 1980s science Xombul has gathered in exchange for his help against the intruder.

Turns out Xombul has big plans indeed, and intends to spread his “benevolent” rule over all of space-time!  Will our heroes (and their not so heroic ally) be able to stop him before the future vanishes?

The faces are a bit more cartoony in this volume; perhaps the artist hadn’t quite settled his style yet.  Valerian also comes off a bit more sexist, with some stupid remarks.

Thankfully, even in this cartoonier style, Sun Rae (who’s presumably African-American) doesn’t look too much like a racist stereotype.  When he’s first introduced, we learn he was a flutist before the Great Disaster, and he’s pretty sharp, instantly grasping the advantages of having scientific knowledge once he’s alerted to the idea.  He also doesn’t go out of his way to be evil despite his ruthlessness.

Xombul’s a bit more of a stereotype, given to explaining his brilliant plans to his enemies before disposing of them, and wanting to try out new cool gadgets on human subjects before they’ve been completely tested.  His captive slightly saner scientist, Schroeder, is clearly based on Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor but is better at social skills.

The writing isn’t quite up to the peak of the series, but is pulpy good fun.

Here’s a trailer for the movie!

Book Review: Treasure Island

Book Review: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

In the year of grace 17–, the Admiral Benbow was a quiet seaside inn run by the Hawkins family. Its relative isolation and excellent view of the surrounding waters recommended the place to a disreputable-looking sailor who preferred to be called “captain” and nothing else. The captain wants no visitors, and asks the son of the innkeeper, Jim Hawkins, to keep an eye out for nautical travelers in the vicinity, particularly any one-legged seamen, as that one was particularly dangerous. In the end, it’s a race between Billy Bones’ old crew (no captain he, but only first mate) and his alcoholism to kill him first. However, it’s Jim Hawkins who ends up with the real prize, a map to Treasure Island!

Treasure Island

This classic adventure novel was written in 1881 while Robert Louis Stevenson was in Switzerland for his health and originally serialized in Young Folks magazine under the title The Sea-Cook, before being published in the form we know today in 1883. It’s the pirate story that originated or popularized most of the genre bits we think of when we think of pirates, such as the pirate parrot. The book was so influential that when J.M. Barrie wanted Peter Pan‘s villain to seem impressive, he wrote that even Long John Silver was afraid of Captain Hook.

Jim Hawkins’ age is never specifically mentioned, he seems to be in his early teens, old enough to work around the inn and later as a cabin boy, but much less big or strong than a grown man. His father dies early on of natural causes, and the last we see of his mother is just before the voyage to Treasure Island begins. (We do, however, get a great moment of characterization for her as she has no hesitation about raiding the proverbial dead man’s chest for the back rent Billy Bones owes the inn. But not a penny more, even though doing the arithmetic puts her life in even more danger.) This is, after all, very much a boys’ adventure story. Jim’s boyish whims and tendency to wander off on his own prove vital to the survival of the treasure hunters. First, he discovers the mutiny plot, then the existence of Ben Gunn (the one man on the island who can help them) and finally denies the mutineers their ship.

Squire Trelawney is an ass at the beginning of the book, blabbing the treasure hunt all over town after being specifically warned not to. There’s also a couple of lines where he comes off sexist and/or racist, but that may be period-appropriate. The squire owns up to his stupidity when the consequences become clear to him, and starts pulling his weight for the rest of the adventure.

Doctor Livesey is more intelligent, and a man of honor, but has a tendency to be scolding and self-righteous, as well as a heavy smoker. Captain Smollett is a stern master of the good ship Hispaniola, and wise in the ways of the sea, but is overridden by Squire Trelawney on the matter of some of the crew hired, and then badly injured in a battle, so can only give advice from then on.

And on the other side, we have Long John Silver, cunning, ruthless and much-feared pirate quartermaster and sea-cook. But you wouldn’t know it to look at him. His appearance is that of a jolly one-legged innkeeper, which is what he’s doing in Bristol when Jim meets him. Unlike most of Captain Flint’s old crew, Mr. Silver saved his booty and invested wisely. Only the lure of the much greater treasure buried on Treasure Island makes him risk the danger of being caught. And to be perfectly honest, his original plan would have worked if it were not for Jim Hawkins and Ben Gunn being in the wrong place at the right time.

Mr. Silver also has a well-honed sense of self-preservation, switching sides whenever it’s convenient for him. On the other hand, Long John is a faithful and loving husband who trusts his wife implicitly. (And is probably less racist than many other Englishmen.) A well-spoken villain with some good qualities, he’s one of the main ingredients that makes the book work.

The ending is a bit abrupt, with a quick overview of what became of several of the characters–we know Jim survives, and presumably spent some of his money on a good education as he’s a skilled writer…but he still has screaming nightmares about the island and what happened there.

Highly recommended to adventure lovers who have somehow never read this book before. Younger readers may need help with some antiquated vocabulary, and there are quite a few violent deaths so parents should consider that before reading it as a bedtime story.

Book Review: Snuff

Book Review: Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Duke of Ankh-Morpork and Blackboard Monitor, has been aware in a general way that his wife Sybil owns some property in the countryside.  But now that their son Young Sam is six, Sybil has decided that it’s high time that the family take a holiday to visit the ancestral manor.   And she’s somehow convinced Sam’s boss, Lord Vetinari, to sign off on this.

Snuff

So Sam Vimes finds himself on vacation for the first time in ever, stranded far from the smell and sounds of the city he knows so well, and at a loss how to handle himself in a rural area where he’s not got jurisdiction as a cop.  But as Sherlock Holmes remarked in “The Copper Beeches”, the countryside is not free from vile sin.  When Vimes discovers that there’s been a murder on his land and the oppressed cry out for justice, he’s willing to bend the definition of jurisdiction to bring the villains to heel.

This is one of the last Discworld books (only two after this one) and the last of the City Watch sub-series.  While Vimes is front and center for most of the story, we do check in with many of the other continuing characters for at least a sentence.  (This is one of the few Discworld books to miss out Death as a character, but that does not mean that no one dies.)

Over the course of the series, Ankh-Morpork has advanced from a parody of generic sword-and-sorcery cities that happened to share some geographical features with London to more or less a fantasy version of Victorian London–and most of this progress has happened within Sam Vimes’ lifetime.  Indeed, Vimes can be said to have facilitated much of this by his dedication to law enforcement that does what is right rather than what is convenient.  Another running theme of the books has been that people are people, regardless of their shape, odd customs or biological weirdness.  Dwarves and trolls and even vampires have become people, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with that description.  And now it is the turn of the goblins.

Goblins are the lowest of the low, considered filthy creatures with no visible culture, and treated as vermin.  Enslaving them, taking their sacred objects, killing them–none of these are considered crimes by the majority of people or the written law.   But Commander Vimes’ previous experiences give him some unique ways of seeing the “humanity” of goblins.

And while his efforts do yield results, Sam Vimes would not be able to fully achieve the goal of bringing goblins under the protection of the law without the aid of his socially-connected wife, an author who has her own insights into goblin culture, and several goblins who step out of their stereotype to show their worth.  (Although there is some question whether Stinky is really a goblin…or something more.)

Much of the “humor” this time revolves around bodily excretions, as Young Sam has discovered the scientific wonders of poo.  For those of us not keen on toilet gags, this gets a bit tiresome.  There’s also a fair amount of swearing, and a discussion of “the dreadful algebra” of what to do with an infant that’s been born in a time of famine.  And not all sins are forgiven.

The general quality of the writing is excellent as always, but Sir Terry’s sentimental side perhaps overwhelms the sharper edge of social satire, particularly in the ending.

Recommended to Discworld fans; newbies should probably start with Guards! Guards! which is the first of the Watch sub-series.

Magazine Review: Argosy October 8, 1938

Magazine Review: Argosy October 8, 1938

Argosy began its life as The Golden Argosy, a children’s weekly, in 1882.  By 1889 publisher Fred Munsey had discovered that the readers aged out too fast to keep the magazine viable, so he switched to fiction aimed at adult readers and shortened the title.  It’s considered one of the first pulp magazines, and published many famous authors.

Argosy October 8 1938

By 1938, the magazine had combined with several others, but continued to be weekly.  Rather than a specific genre, Argosy published adventure of all types.  Generally, it would have two or three  novel-length stories serialized, and then the rest of the magazine would be self-contained short stories.  Series of short stories were also common, bringing back a colorful character in different circumstances.

“Two Hours to Go” by Theodore Roscoe is the cover story (cover by Emmett Watson), with the first part of six.  A Trans-Andean flight is forced down to an abandoned airstrip by mechanical failure and stormy weather.  While the pilot goes off in search of the nearest place with a telephone, the passengers play a game.  “What would you do if you had only two hours to live?”  The man proposing the game has an ulterior motive–he knows a murderer is on board, and hopes to identify that person by what they say.

There’s a character who is obviously supposed to be autocratic and eccentric publisher William Randolph Hearst (three years before Citizen Kane!) and his mistress, a faded movie starlet who clawed her way up from poverty.  Also an algebra teacher who hate schedules and a lawyer who wants to reform the legal system.  This installment ends with a poor little rich girl saying she killed a man–but does that make her the murderer?  Several nice monologues, and I’m glad it’s not the story about the soccer players.

“Bluebeard’s Closet” by H. Bedford-Jones is a weird story about Gilles de Rais and an encounter he supposedly had with Jeanne d’Arc after her execution.  There’s a framing story about a museum of the occult called the Halfway House that a Joan of Arc scholar has been called to.   He and the narrator witness the events of the past…or do they?  And was that woman really Joan, or an imposter?  The world may never know.  I felt the frame story weakened the tale a bit.

“River Pig” by Robert E. Pinkerton sets itself in the woods of Wisconsin in horse and buggy days.  A lumberjack foreman who’s just argued himself out of a job saves a young woman from a runaway horse, and consequently gets hired by her father, a rival logging baron.  As it happens, the baron is overextended in wheat, and cutting corners–so he decides to smash the foreman’s previous boss (and best friend, even if they’re not on speaking terms right now.)   Can a lowly river pig get the logs to the mill on time, put the crooked baron in his place and still win the heart of the girl?  I don’t think it spoils the story to say, yes, he can.

“Death Had a Pencil” by Richard Sale reminded me a bit of Death Note.  There’s this ancient Persian scriber that was used to sign death warrants.  Supposedly, it’s been cursed so that anyone or anything that has its picture X-d out by the pencil dies within twenty-four hours.  But Captain McGrail of the NYPD smells a rat in the picture somewhere.  After all, curses don’t really work…right?  Nifty story with a logical twist.

“Beat to Quarters” by C.S. Forester is part four of six of the first Horatio Hornblower novel written.  (Published as The Happy Return in Britain.)  It’s sixth in the chronological sequence.  Captain Hornblower has been helping a South American revolutionary, El Supremo, against the Spanish, but has now learned that England and Spain are allies.  This means he must battle the very ship he just acquired for El Supremo.   This chapter is the first round of that battle, fought in the heart of a raging storm.  Both ships are heavily damaged, but the revolutionary ship is closer to a friendly port–can Hornblower’s crew repair the ship in time and find the enemy in a trackless sea?   Great stuff.

“For Divers Reasons” by William E. Barrett is a boxing story.  A fighter fresh from the West is finding the boxing game more…complicated in the East.   When his love interest asks if he’s going to take a dive in his upcoming fight, he can’t honestly answer “no” and that bothers him.  On the other hand, he hasn’t actually been told to lose….  Some brutal fight descriptions in this one.

“Weasel, Weasel” by Frank Richardson Pierce is narrated by No-Shirt McGee, an Alaskan prospector and series character.  A criminal is playing mind games with a deputy U.S. Marshal, and the law officer is rapidly heading for a heart attack.  Will his doctor’s prescription cure–or kill?  So-so story.

“It’s Hard to Die” by Walter Ripperger concludes with its third part rounding out the issue.  A man thinks his brother has committed suicide due to embezzling large sums of money, and is trying to get himself killed in a non-suicide manner to collect the insurance and pay off the debt.   He’s finally found a gangster willing to do the job, but that criminal would like to keep the insurance money for himself.  Meanwhile, a police detective has figured out that the brother was actually murdered, and was not an embezzler.   Evil is paid unto evil, thanks to a descendant of the Borgias.  This is one of those stories where a crook could have won, getting out with an amazing amount of money, but he can’t control his greed.

There are a couple of picture features, and an oddly amiable letter column.

Most of these stories will be hard to track down, but Beat to Quarters is a classic and you should be able to find it in any decent book store.  A fun read!

Movie Review: Woochi the Demon Slayer

Movie Review: Woochi the Demon Slayer

Jeon Woo-chi likes to call himself a Tao master, but he’s more like a Tao apprentice who’s got lots of tricks, but not much real mastery, still relying on props to perform his magic.   Woo-chi doesn’t take his studies very seriously either, wandering around 1500s Korea pranking the king and rescuing pretty women.   He’s also not very nice to his faithful dog/horse/man sidekick, Chorangyi.

Jeon Woo-chi

Meanwhile, three bumbling Taoist “gods” have accidentally released monsters into the world, and are trying to track down a magical flute that can fix the problem.  The story lines collide when a rival Taoist wizard frames Woo-chi for the murder of his teacher, and the bumbling trio seal the young man and his sidekick inside a magical scroll without realizing he has half of the Flute.

Five hundred years later, the monsters are on the move again, and Woo-chi is reluctantly released from the scroll to deal with them.  Complicating matters is that the woman Woo-chi saved during his first lifetime has apparently been reincarnated in the present day with no memory of him.  Action and comedy ensue.

This Korean film has a misleading American title, as at no time does Woo-chi slay demons.  A closer approximation of the Korean title would be Jeon Woo-chi: The Taoist Wizard.  It’s a big-budget film by Korean standards, full of monsters, transformations and wire-fu battles.  The director very much modeled the story (loosely based on Korean legends) on superhero films.

The plot is pretty shallow; character development is mostly people just accepting who they are, or accepting that Woo-chi is the person he is.  The comedy bits are broad, some slapstick, goofy personalities, and crude sexual yearnings on the part of Chorangyi.  No existential brooding here!

Roles for women are less than progressive; the female lead specifically scorns intellectual achievement and productive skills; other notable women are a prima donna actress whose acting skills are dubious, a superstitious servant, and bad guys in disguise.

One of the deleted scenes is interesting for showing an entire subplot which has the moral, “if a supernatural being keeps saying ‘there is a knife in the money’ don’t take the money!”

It’s a fun popcorn movie, worth a cheap rental, but not a great example of Korean cinema.

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