Comic Strip Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason by Thomas Siddell
After Antimony “Annie” Carver’s mother Surma dies, her father Anthony drops her off at her parent’s alma mater, a strange boarding school called Gunnerkrigg Court. The court is an enormous place, looking rather like an industrial city, but large portions of it seem to be abandoned…by humans, at least. There are robots advanced beyond anything in the outside world, bizarre events are commonplace, there’s a creepy forest just across a long bridge students are forbidden to cross, and Annie notices that she’s picked up a second shadow.
This noted fantasy webcomic has been running since 2005, beginning here (happily, the art style drastically improves over time.) It’s got an intricate plot with many details planned well in advance. (For example, in an early strip Antimony tells us it will be two years before she sees her father again.) The Court’s architecture is somewhat based on the city of Birmingham in England.
At the beginning of this volume, Annie is in training to possibly become the Court’s Medium, an ambassador between the school and the magical Gillitie Wood. The other two candidates, Andrew Smith (with the ability to bring order out of chaos) and George Parley (whose father expected a boy, and has the gift of teleportation) argue a lot but turn out to be attracted to each other. This interrupts two simulations.
Then it’s time for a camping trip to a park that is actually inside the boundaries of Gunnerkrigg Court. Campers start to disappear, and Annie and her best friend Kat (Katherine Donlan, daughter of two of the teachers who were friends with Annie’s parents) must solve the mystery.
After that, Kat, who is beloved by the Court’s robots due to her technical skills and repair abilities grants the king of said robots access to the portrait of Jeanne, the ghost that haunts the ravine between the Court and the Wood. In return, he reveals the existence of a robot that has memories of Jeanne, and the very early days of the Court. Those memories reveal a dark secret of the past.
In the next chapter, Annie visits the Wood and learns more about Ysengrim, the wolf with tree armor that is the current Medium for their side of the river. Coyote, the trickster spirit that is in charge of the Wood, gives Annie a gift for reasons not fully revealed.
Then the subplot of Jack, who’s been acting increasingly erratic since he was exposed to the mass hallucination projected by a girl named Zimmy, comes to the fore. He coerces Annie into accompanying him to a power station that might have something to do with why he can’t sleep.
This is followed by a spotlight chapter for Kat, who hasn’t been able to process her emotional reaction to learning what the Court did to Jeanne. She’s finally able to recover her equilibrium with the help of an abandoned baby bird, and Paz, a classmate who can talk to animals.
Further research with the help of Andrew and Parley reveals some of Jeanne’s story from her point of view, and convinces Parley to be honest about her feelings.
Finally, Annie’s second year at Gunnerkrigg Court comes to a painful close when she and Renard (a fox spirit living in a stuffed toy) quarrel and reveal some very painful secrets to each other. This leads to her choosing to spend the summer in the Wood rather than with friends.
At the end are some art pages and bonus strips about “City Face”, the pigeon Kat rescued.
The mood swings wildly between chapters, some being very comedic while others go deep into dark territory. While we get several important revelations in this volume, the jigsaw nature of the overall plot means that many items don’t pay off until future volumes–I do recommend starting from the beginning.
As is often the case with webcomics collections, the material is all available on the internet for free, but if you like it, please consider buying the print version to make the creator more financially stable.
Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years. Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within. Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.
The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.) It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again. After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists. They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies. Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.
Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets. Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest. Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.
Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks. He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department. It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in the process. For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)
There are time travel shenanigans involved, and one character seems determined to produce a specific future. The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board. The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.
A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims. There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”
Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends. The cliffhanger is neat: “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips. And kissed him.”
“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova. He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot. (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.) As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.
“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.) A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human. Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.
The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch. While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for. A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.
The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day. (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.) Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.
The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.
“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel. A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans. They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.” Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.
All that is background. A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky. There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell. Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.
It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story. It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while. Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)
Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later. (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)
“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life. Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens. Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet. Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants? A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.
“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece. It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop. A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain. The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.
Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet. But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes. He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.
Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries. Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.
The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted. It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)
John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.
There are two science fact articles. “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses. “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained. Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.
I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.
Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.
Comic Book Review: Jacked written by Eric Kripke, art by John Higgins.
Disclaimer: I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review. No other compensation was offered or requested.
Josh Jaffe is hitting a mid-life crisis. His body is beginning to fall apart, he doesn’t really talk to his wife much any more, and his entire job field was rendered obsolete by new technology, so he’s been unemployed for the last six months. Nothing has turned out like he’d imagined it would as a kid, or even as a teenager. Josh’s dentist brother recommends nootropic supplements, “smart drugs” that supposedly improve cognitive function. Sounds kind of shady, but while surfing the web, Josh finds an ad for “Jacked,” which seems to speak to him.
Josh orders a supply of Jacked, and discovers that the ad was perhaps underselling the product. He can think more clearly (other than the hallucinations), has energy to spare (especially in bed), his aches and pains vanish…and he can pull a car door right off the hinges. Josh’s formerly unimpressed son starts looking up to him again! This is the good stuff.
But then Josh discovers that his next door neighbor Damon is a drug dealer that’s been beating his girlfriend Jessica. The outcome of that encounter puts Josh and Jessica on the wrong(er) side of some very bad people. Worse, the nastier side effects of Jacked start coming to the fore, and what if Josh runs out of the drug before the bad guys run out of bullets? And how will this affect Josh’s wife and child?
Eric Kripke is probably best known as the creator of the popular television series Supernatural. According to the introduction of the collected volume, he had his own mid-life crisis a couple of years ago, and his musings on that led to him proposing this comic book series to Vertigo Comics. He mentions that writing for comic books is a whole different kind of hard than writing for television, and gives much credit to John Higgins for making the script actually work on page.
One of the themes of the story is that Josh doesn’t live in a superhero world, so even though he gets some low-level superpowers, things tend not to work out as they would in a traditional superhero story. Even when he dons a costume, it only makes him look ridiculous. In the end, it’s his human abilities and connections that give Josh the ability to resolve the situation. (We do get cameos by a few classic DC heroes, and a reference to obscure series Electric Warrior.)
This is listed as for “mature readers” and has some nudity, non-graphic sex scenes, a lot of gory violence, body function humor and even more vulgar language than is called for by the plot and setting. I suspect Mr. Kripke may have gone overboard on that last one because of having had to work to TV’s broadcast standards.
One of the features I really liked was that most issues’ last pages were flash-forwards to the next issue that weren’t quite the same as the depiction in that later story. Also, all the points that were important at the climax were properly set up earlier in the series.
Josh does a fair bit of self-absorbed whining at the beginning of the series, and it takes a while for him to get his head out of his own funk. I do like that while Josh and Jessica do team up against the drug gang, it’s all about survival (and revenge on Jessica’s part) with no attraction between them at all. Josh loves his wife, and much of his motivation is being a better husband for her, even if he doesn’t understand the best way to do that.
The main villain is Damon’s brother Ray, who has a rather narrowly defined sense of morality. He takes care of family, but everyone else is fair game.
Recommended for fans of the “ordinary schlub gets superpowers and screws up big time” type of plot.
Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 2 edited by John Denning
Quick recap: In the 1970s, Marvel Comics started doing larger magazines for newsstand distribution, most of them in black and white. One of these was The Rampaging Hulk, which originally featured adventures taking place between the Hulk’s appearances in the first year of his existence. But then it was renamed just The Hulk and retooled to more strongly resemble the then-hot television series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, as well as now being published in color.
This volume continues the run with issues #16-27, which were published 1979-81. It’s a curious mix of the television series and the comics continuity. The usual supporting cast is not seen or mentioned outside of a brief flashback to the Hulk’s origin, and a mention of Doctor Strange in the narration. Nor are there any of the usual supervillains–the closest we get is Rypel, who is more of a Bond villain type that wants to trigger World War Three so his underwater utopia can inherit the Earth. Most of the time, it’s just Robert Bruce Banner wandering from town to town and getting involved with relatively ordinary people’s problems. Interspersed with the Hulk smashing things, of course.
The opening story, “Masks”, has Dr. Banner lured from New Orleans (the night after Mardi Gras, just to be different) to the Florida Keys to participate in a wealthy eccentric’s treasure hunt. Of course, the eccentric has ulterior motives, The final story in the volume, “One for My Baby…and One More for the Hulk!” takes place in Las Vegas, as a past-his-prime crooner tries to get out from under the mob with the help of his new green bodyguard.
This is a real nostalgia blast for me, not just because I read many of these stories when they first came out, but because the writers couldn’t use their usual costumed weirdos to move plots, and thus tended towards topical stories. Three Mile Island, snail darters, the last days of the Cold War, Native American struggles, Hare Krishnas…takes me back.
Of course, not all of these stories have aged well. “A Very Personal Hell” by Jim Shooter has the notorious gay panic scene where Bruce Banner is threatened with rape by a lisping stereotype at the “Y.” (He saves himself by informing the would-be rapist that he is, in fact, Bruce Banner, y’know, the Hulk, you wouldn’t like him when he’s mad?)
And sadly, the ambitious color usage in some of the stories is completely ruined in black & white reprint–it looks muddy, and some of the captions are borderline unreadable. Artists like Gene Colan, on the other hand, make it work.
A couple of the stories deal with attempts to cure Banner of turning into the Hulk, or at least lessen the rift between them. The most striking of these is “Master Mind” in which the Hulk persona winds up in Bruce Banner’s body and goes on a rampage–which could be deadly to the much more fragile scientist.
A couple more stand-out stories: “Heaven Is a Very Small Place” with great art by Herb Trimpe and John Severin is a sad tale of the Hulk finding a peaceful place at last, only to have the illusion fade. “Dreams of Iron…Dreams of Steel” has Bruce Banner getting a job at a care facility for children with developmental disablilities (back then the word “retarded” was acceptable, but the shortened form is also hurled as an insult) and the Hulk bonds with an adult graduate of the facility that works at a steel mill.
Recommended with reservations for fans of the 1970s Hulk show and Hulk fans in general–check your library unless you’re a completist who has to own every Hulk story.
Junji Ito is one of Japan’s top horror manga creators, whose famous works include Uzumaki (spirals are scary!), Gyo (landshark!) and Tomie (the girl who just won’t die.) He’s slowed down some in recent years, so this collection of short stories has been brewing for a while.
Mr. Ito does some excellent art, and several of the stories have large, complex images that show this off, as well as his twisted imagination. Viz has brought out the collection in a fancy hardback complete with wraparound cover–my image conveys only a fraction of what’s going on.
This volume starts with “Futon”, about a man who won’t get out of bed. But is the fate that awaits him if he does so worse than his fate if he stays? The ending story is “Whispering Woman”, which features a young woman with an anxiety disorder and the woman who’s hired to give her direction. A woman who rapidly seems to have no life of her own. Not all of the stories are scary; “Gentle Goodbye” is a wistfully sad story about ghosts.
Perhaps the freakiest story is “Wooden Spirit” about a woman who loves old-fashioned wooden house construction in the wrong way.
Despite Mr. Ito’s drawing skill and imagination, he does tend to default to the same three or four faces for “pretty” or “normal” people. This makes it feel like you’re watching one of those old anthology TV shows where they have the same actors in slightly different roles over and over.
This is horror, so there are disturbing images and some nudity and this is not a book for younger or more sensitive readers.
Horror anthologies are like a box of chocolates. One story might be crunchy frog, another spring surprise, while a more disappointing one is just maple cream. (Seriously, maple cream?) This is because horror tends to be a balancing act between what the writer finds scary and what the reader does. Two different readers looking at the same story may fiercely debate whether it’s terrifying or just kind of gross.
This particular anthology is listed as “contemporary horror” which seems to mean mostly recent stories, set close to the present day. Other than that, there’s no real overarching theme or subgenre requirements. After an introduction that talks a bit about why people read horror stories (among other things, to feel horrified), the opening story is “God of the Winds” by Scathe meic Beorh, a hallucinatory piece that is at least partially about the tendency of white people to appropriate Native American mysticism in stupid ways. The final story is “Out of the Light” by Anna Taborska, a Lovecraftian-feeling story about a man who gets too heavily invested in reading a horror anthology. Hmm.
I was a bit disappointed that the piece by big-name author Ramsey Campbell (“Britain’s most respected living horror writer”) was a reprint from 1988. Which is not to say that “Welcomeland” itself wasn’t a fine story. It concerns a man returning to his home town which has been partially rebuilt into a failed amusement park. Or has it succeeded at its true purpose? It doesn’t feel dated.
Also outstanding is Christine Morgan’s “Nails of the Dead” which looks at Norse mythology from the point of view of a very minor character with a small but important job. Of local interest to me is “Just Another Ex” by Roy C. Booth and Axel Kohagen. A man is sent to find another man who may be unfaithful to his loved one. His reward is non-standard.
There were some typos, most clustered in “Spencer Weaver Gets Rebooted” by Thomas A. Erb, about a bullied high schooler who gets pushed too far. Because of this, and the rather immature feel of the plot points, it felt more like something a high school student would write than something for a professional anthology. (“Did I mention the head bully has a small penis? Well he does.”)
This is an “18+” book, which has sex, rape, foul language, torture and in some cases excessive focus on body fluids. Happy endings are few. But with twenty-eight widely varying stories, there’s something for almost every horror fan. Recommended for the horror buff who wants to try some new authors.
Book Review: Splatterlands edited by Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson
Disclaimer: I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.
According to Wikipedia, “splatterpunk” was a movement in horror writing between roughly 1985 and 1995, distinguished by its graphic and often gory descriptions of violence and attempts to create “hyperintensive” horror with no limits. Supernatural elements are neither necessary or forbidden. It seems to have been subsumed by newer trends in horror fiction, but never entirely died out.
Splatterlands is an anthology of thirteen short stories that try to recapture the feel of the splatterpunk movement. As such, it is filled with sex, violence, sexual violence, crude language and a fascination with body fluids. I’m going to come right out and issue a Trigger Warning for rape, torture, abuse and suicide.
For example, the first story, “Heirloom” by Michael Laimo, is about a woman who inherits a phallic symbol. The main action of the story involves an explicitly described act of semi-consensual sexual violence. If that immediately triggers your “do not want” instinct, then this volume is not for you.
Some stories that stood out include “Violence for Fun and Profit” by Gregory L. Norris, about the origin of a hired assassin/serial killer that’s frighteningly topical; “Housesitting” by Ray Garton (the only reprint), a relatively understated tale of a housesitter who snoops and finds out things she’d rather not about her neighbors; “The Defiled” by Christine Morgan, about a band of Viking raiders who meet a karmic fate; and “The Devil Rides Shotgun” by Eric del Carlo, in which a police officer makes a demonic pact to track down a serial killer.
One story that really didn’t work for me was “Empty” by A.A. Garrison. It’s about a woman in a post-apocalyptic world seeking medical assistance for her husband. It turns out to be metafictional humor, (and I did like the protest sign that said “Too Many Adverbs”), but really came across as trying too hard.
Recommended for horror fans with strong stomachs, especially those who were fans of the original splatterpunk movement. Probably not suitable for anyone else, despite the high quality of some of the stories.