Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 by Various

In 1976, Marvel Comics felt the time was right for another try at a overtly feminist superhero to appear in a solo book.  (Their first stab was 1973’s The Cat, who became Tigra.)  Someone, probably Gerry Conway, who would be the first writer on the series, remembered the existence of Carol Danvers, a supporting character in the Captain Marvel series who early on had had an experience that could be retconned into a superhero origin.  The name was deliberately chosen to reference feminism, and the first issue had a cover date of January 1977.

Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Ms. Marvel’s backstory came out in bits and pieces over the course of the series, so I am going to reassemble it in in-story chronological order.  Carol Danvers was a Boston, Massachusetts teenager who loved science fiction and wanted to become an astronaut and/or a writer.  She was very athletic and whip-smart.  Unfortunately, her father was a male chauvinist pig who felt that the most important thing for a young woman to do was marry a good man and have kids.  (In his partial defense, this would have been in the Fifties.)  He told Carol that he would not be paying for her to go to college, as the limited funds would be needed for her (not as bright but his dad’s favorite) brother’s education.

Carol pretended to have given up, and after graduating high school with honors, continued a part time job until her eighteenth birthday.  At that point, without telling her family, she enlisted in the United States Air Force.  Her father never forgave her for this defiance.  Somehow Carol got into flight school and became an officer and one of the Air Force’s top jet pilots.  Then she transferred into intelligence and became a top operative, partnering with her mentor/love interest Michael Rossi and rising to the rank of major.  (At some point, her  brother died in Vietnam.)

NASA recruited Major Danvers out of the Air Force to become their security chief at Cape Canaveral.  While there, she became entangled in events surrounding Mar-Vell, the Kree warrior who became known to Earthlings as Captain Marvel.  Carol was attracted to the mysterious hero, but that went nowhere as he already had a girlfriend.   During a battle with his turncoat superior, Colonel Yon-Rogg, Mar-Vell saved Carol from exploding Kree supertechnology.  At the time, no one noticed that the Psyche-Magnitron’s radiation had affected Ms. Danvers.

While the Mar-Vell mess wasn’t really Carol’s fault, she hadn’t covered herself in glory either, and her security career floundered.   Between the time we last saw her in the Captain Marvel series and her own series, Carol had decided to try her other childhood dream and wrote a book about her experiences at NASA.  (Apparently it was a bit of a “tell-all” as some at the agency are angry about it when they appear in this series.)  She also began experiencing crippling headaches and lost time, and consulted psychiatrist Michael Barnett.  Dr. Barnett was at a loss for a diagnosis but began falling in love with his client.

Which brings us to Ms. Marvel #1.  An amnesiac woman in a “sexy” version of Captain Marvel’s costume (plus a long scarf that was a frequent combat weakness) suddenly appears in New York City to fight crime.  She soon acquires the moniker of Ms. Marvel.  At the same time, Carol Danvers has been tapped by J. Jonah Jameson to become the editor of Woman magazine, a supplement to his Daily Bugle newspaper.  JJJ is depicted as being rather more sexist than in his Spider-Man appearances to better clash with Ms. Danvers over the direction the magazine should be taking.

Mary Jane Watson befriends the new woman in town (her friend Peter Parker appears briefly, but Spider-Man never does in this series.)  But their bonding is cut short by another of Carol’s blackouts.  Across town, the Scorpion, who has a long standing grudge against Jameson, has captured the publisher and is about to kill him when Ms. Marvel appears to save the day.

Eventually, it is discovered that Carol Danvers and Ms. Marvel are the same person, but having different personalities due to Ms. Danvers being fused with Kree genes and having Kree military training implanted in her brain.  Thanks to this, she has superhuman strength and durability, and a costume that appears “magically” and allows her to fly (until she absorbs that power herself.)  From her human potential, Ms. Marvel has developed a “seventh sense” that gives her precognitive visions.  Unfortunately, they’re not controllable and often make her vulnerable at critical moments.

Much later, the personalities are integrated as Carol learns to accept all of her possibilities.  Ms. Marvel fights an assortment of villains, both borrowed from other series (even Dracula makes a cameo!) and new ones of her own, especially once Chris Claremont starts writing her.  The most important is the mysterious shape-shifter Raven Darkhölme, who considers Carol Danvers her arch-enemy, even though they have never met.  Carol doesn’t even  have Raven on her radar!

In issue #19, Ms. Marvel finally meets up again with Mar-Vell for the first time since her transformation, her origin is finalized, and they part as friends.  The next issue has Carol change her costume to one that looks much less like Mar-Vell’s. but is still pretty fanservice oriented (like a swimsuit with a sash, basically.)  It’s considered her iconic look.  Shortly thereafter, Carol is fired from Woman (she missed a lot of work) and Dr. Barnett starts getting pushy about advancing their romantic relationship.

And then the series was cancelled.  Ms. Marvel was still appearing as a member of the Avengers team, but that was about to change as well.

In the now notorious Avengers #200 (not reprinted in this volume), Carol Danvers is suddenly pregnant despite not having been in  a relationship in some time.  The pregnancy is hyperfast, and the baby is delivered within 24 hours.  The child, Marcus, rapidly ages to young adulthood and explains that he is the son of time traveler Immortus, who’s been stuck in  the Limbo dimension all his life.  In order to escape, he had brought Ms. Marvel to Limbo, and seduced her with the aid of “machines” so that he could implant his “essence” inside her.  He then erased her memories of these events and sent her back to Earth so that Marcus could be born within the timestream.

Marcus’ presence is causing a timestorm, and a device he is building only seems to make the storm worse, so Hawkeye destroys it.  Sadly, it turns out the device was meant to “fix” Marcus so that he would not be detected as an anomaly, and without it, Marcus must return to Limbo.  Ms. Marvel volunteers to go back with him, because she is now in love with the man and wants to stay with him forever.  None of the other Avengers find this the least bit suspicious, and it’s treated as a happy ending for the character.

But come Avengers Annual #10, which is in this volume, Chris Claremont got the chance to respond to that.   Raven Darkhölme had since been revealed as Mystique, leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants  One of the Brotherhood, Rogue, ambushes Carol Danvers in San Francisco, where Ms. Danvers has been living incognito.  Rogue is a power parasite, able to steal the abilities and memories of her prey.  Still clumsy with her powers, Rogue steals Ms. Marvel’s powers and memories permanently; attempting to hide the results, she dumps the victim off a bridge.

Spider-Woman just happens to be nearby and rescues the amnesiac Carol.  The arachnid hero then calls in Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men to assist in figuring out what happened.  Professor X is able to restore many of Carol’s memories from her subconscious, but not all of the emotional connections.

Meanwhile, the Avengers battle the Brotherhood, which is trying to break some of its members out of prison.  Once that’s settled, they go to meet Carol.  She explains that Marcus made a fatal mistake in his calculations.  By being born on Earth, he’d not made himself native to the timestream, but he had made himself out of synch with Limbo.  Thus the rapid aging he’d used to make himself an adult on Earth couldn’t be turned off, and he was dead within a week.  This freed Carol from the brainwashing, and she was able to figure out just enough of the time travel tech to get home.  And then Carol rips into the Avengers for not even suspecting there was something wrong.  Once freed of the brainwashing, she recognized the rape for what it was and didn’t want anything to do with those who had condoned it.  Chastened, the Avengers leave.

(One bizarre bit is that Carol Danvers is established as being 29.  Nope.  Sorry, not even if she got promoted first time every time in her military career.  She’d be a minimum of 32 by the time she made major, was in that rank for at least a few years, and then there’s her next two careers.)

The volume also contains the Ms. Marvel stories from Marvel Super-Heroes Magazine #10-11, which have the plotlines originally intended for issues #24 & 25 of the series.   Here we learn that Mystique’s grudge against Ms. Marvel was caused by a self-fulfilling prophecy that Rogue meeting Carol Danvers would cost Rogue her soul/life.  As Mystique had adopted Rogue as a daughter, she felt that the best way to protect the power parasite was to kill Ms. Marvel in advance.   The last few pages are obviously drastically rewritten to have Carol vanish from the timestream (and thus invisible to precognition) for a while before returning and the plot of Annual #10 kicking in.

After the issues published in this volume, Carol Danvers went through several different name and power set changes, before becoming the current Captain Marvel.  She’s scheduled for a movie in the relatively near future.

Good bits:  Lots of exciting action sequences, and some decent art by Marvel notables like John Buscema and Dave Cockrum.  (Have to say though that Michael Golden’s art looks much less good without color.)  Despite some clumsiness at the beginning, Claremont does a good job with Carol’s characterization, peaking with her interactions with the mutated lizards known as The People.

Less good bits:  Carol’s costumes are clearly designed with the male audience in mind, rather than any kind of practicality.  Many male characters seem to feel obliged to use words like “dame” and “broad” much more than they came up in conversation even back in the Seventies.  Male (and male-ish) villains seem to default to trying to mind-control Ms. Marvel into serving them–this is one reason why Marcus succeeding at it jars so badly.  And Dr. Barnett suddenly getting so pushy about the relationship and his plans to convince Carol to give up being Ms. Marvel seems off-and we would never have found out why as he was scheduled to be murdered in the next issue.

Most recommended to fans of the current Captain Marvel series who want to see where the character came from; other Marvel Comics fans might want to check it out from the library.

Anime Review: The Kindaichi Case Files Return

Anime Review: The Kindaichi Case Files Return

Hajime Kindaichi is a high school junior who has a reputation for laziness and poor grades.  His childhood friend Miyuki Nanase alternates between being sweet on him and irritated by his antics.  What makes Kindaichi different from most teenage underachievers is that he’s the grandson of famous detective Kosuke Kindaichi, and learned mystery-solving at his grandfather’s knee.  Since the first time the lad got mixed up in a murder investigation, he’s been constantly stumbling into complex cases that baffle the police.

The Kindaichi Case Files Return

The Kindaichi Case Files manga originally ran from 1994-2001 and was enormously popular.  A second series began in 2004.  The earlier series was brought to America by Tokyopop, but with that company’s collapse, the volumes are out of print.  The series takes off from the written adventures of Kosuke Kindaichi by Seishi Yokomizo written from 1946-1980 (sadly only one volume, The Inugami Clan, has been published in English.)  The creator of the manga appears to have been under the impression that the earlier stories were in the public domain, and there were some legal issues when it turned out they weren’t at that time.

A new anime adaptation began in 2014 and is currently running a second season.  I watched the first season on the Crunchyroll website.

The stories are pretty formulaic; Hajime and Miyuki go somewhere or get invited to an event.  A gruesome and baffling murder takes place, often seeming to relate to a legend or monster (or the murderer takes on a cool nickname.)  Several more murders take place, but young Kindaichi, along with gruff police Inspector Kenmochi and smug Superintendent Akechi, spots the killer’s tricks.  Everyone is gathered together for a summation, as Kindaichi exposes how the murders were done, and then the murderer explains their motives.

In almost every case, the murderer’s motive turns out to be at least somewhat sympathetic, some of them being tearjerkers.  There are times when their motives are mistaken.  And then there’s the Puppeteer from Hell, the series’ recurring villain.  In his first appearance, he had the standard sympathetic motive, but at the end, he turned out to really enjoy coming up with elaborate murder puzzles.  Now the Puppeteer finds people who’ve been wronged, and manipulates them into using his plans.

There are a few episodes in the first season that break from the formula; one has recurring starlet Reika trying to get some time alone with Hajime, only to snare a murderer as well with her rigged contest.  Two others are flashbacks to when Hajime and Miyuki were in junior high–these episodes are high in the male-oriented fanservice, which I found off-putting.

While the individual stories (usually taking three or four episodes) are interesting puzzles with some comic relief, the formula makes them feel too similar to each other, and I recommend taking a break between arcs.  The continuing characters never grow or change beyond their second appearance, as the series is frozen in that junior year, so the romance never goes anywhere.  (And some of the stories require the characters to forget contradictory events in previous tales.)

For lovers of locked-room mysteries and teen detectives.

Book Review: Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China

Book Review: Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China by Brandon Ferdig

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book free from the author in the expectation that I would write a review.  No other compensation is involved.

The traveler’s tale is one of the oldest forms of narrative; going to a faraway place and telling those at home what was seen and learned there.  The rise of low-cost independent publishing has made such memoirs easy to make available to the public, even if it is still just as hard to convince them to read it.

Life Learned Abroad

Mr. Ferdig is a Minnesota resident who spent a year in China, primarily to teach English.  He spent most of the year in Zhuhai, a modern city in southern China, and close to both Hong Kong and Macau.  Towards the end of the year he also managed to travel to Beijing, a village in rural China, and a mountain where he spent two weeks learning Tai Chi.

This book is heavily illustrated with photos (in black and white) taken on the journey; this makes it easier in many places to understand what Mr. Ferdig is saying in the narrative.  While the vocabulary is suitable for junior high students on up, some discussion of intercultural romantic relationships and China’s sex industry may convince parents it’s best for senior high students and up.

As the subtitle indicates, the main theme of the book is the lessons learned on this voyage; about humanity, about China and also about himself.  Mr. Ferdig tried to be open to any lessons that could be learned from his experiences; some he sought out, and others were thrust upon him.  And like all of us, the author sometimes had to learn from his mistakes.

I would recommend this book as an introduction to modern China from an outsider’s perspective, as it gently brings in various topics of interest.  (A book about modern China from the perspective of a resident would be a good counterpart.)  The paperback is a bit bulky, about the size of a college textbook, so the space-conscious person may be more comfortable with the Kindle edition.

Come to think of it, with a little revision to tighten up the narrative, and appropriate study materials, this might make a good text for a community education class on China.

Book Review: A Curious Man

Book Review: A Curious Man by Neal Thompson

Disclaimer:  I received this volume free from the Blogging for Books program, on the premise that I would write a review.

This is a biography of Robert Ripley (nee LeRoy Robert Ripley), the cartoonist who created the Believe It or Not! feature.  I was fascinated by the paperback reprints of the cartoons back in my boyhood, but knew little of the story behind the creator.

A Curious Man

This volume covers Mr. Ripley’s life from barefoot poverty in Santa Rosa, California, to his early career as a sports cartoonist, through his discovery of a love for bizarre factoids and the creation of his famous comic strip to his worldwide fame.    He became a world traveler, a millionaire, star of radio and newsreels and knew many beautiful women, all for doing something he enjoyed immensely.

Of course, he also had his faults; Mr. Ripley was a heavy drinker, sexist, racist by our current standards (though progressive for his time), could not keep it in his pants, and had a tendency to fudge facts about his own life the way he didn’t the stories in his cartoons.  He also became a more difficult person towards the end of his life as his health failed and his drinking and overwork caught up with him.

The story of Ripley’s life is told in mostly chronological order,  with little “Believe It!” factoids about the people and places mentioned.  There’s also the story of various supporters of Ripley; most importantly, Norbert Pearlroth, Ripley’s main research person who found many of the factoids that appeared in the comic.  (He actually stayed with the strip longer than Ripley himself!)

There is a black and white photo section in the middle, but if you have a smartphone, you can download an app with audio and video clips from Mr. Ripley’s many public appearances.  For those of you with multimedia capability, this will make the book a much better value for money.  There are extensive end notes and an index as well.

This biography benefits from the very interesting person at its center, and I would recommend it to any Believe It or Not! fans.

TV Review: The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu

TV Review: The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu

Fu Manchu is the greatest of the Yellow Peril villains, created during a time period when it was believed that “sinister Chinamen” plotted to overthrow the Western nations and bring the world under Asiatic control.  The first Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novel, The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, was published in 1913, having first appeared as a series of magazine stories.

The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu

In 1956, a television program aired featuring Glen Gordon as the Devil Doctor (Fu Manchu has almost never been played by an actual Chinese actor), with Lester Matthews as his long-time nemesis Sir Denis Nayland Smith, formerly of Scotland Yard.  In the books, Fu Manchu’s motivation had evolved from smashing the British Empire and by extension all Western civilization, to taking over the world for its own good to prevent war and chaos.   For the TV series, he was portrayed as mostly wanting to create war and chaos so that he could then take over the world.

Due to rights disputes with Mr. Rohmer, the series was truncated at thirteen episodes, two of which I have on DVD.  Each episode opens with a chess game between Sir Denis and Fu Manchu, representing white and black respectively.  (The symbolism takes on a slight tinge when you remember that white attacks first.)  At the end of each episode, Dr. Fu Manchu is thwarted, and breaks one of the black pieces in anger.

Fu Manchu is aided in each episode by the lovely Egyptian slave girl Karamaneh (Laurette Luez) and the little person Kolb (John George).   Other minions are guest stars, and tend to die during the course of the episode.  Sir Denis is assisted by Dr. John Petrie (Clark Howat), who is attached to the Surgeon General’s office, and Dr. Petrie’s lab assistant Nurse Betty Leonard (Carla Balenda).

“The Prisoner of Fu Manchu”:  Fu Manchu hypnotizes Betty into injecting an Asian diplomat with a formula that puts him into a coma just before an important peace conference.  This is part of an elaborate ploy to replace the diplomat with an impostor, kill all the diplomats to ensure war, and steal a new type of radiation shielding being demonstrated at the conference.  The most interesting twist here is that the impostor pretends to be partially paralyzed from the effects of the poison, thus drawing attention to that rather than any defects in his impersonation.

“The Ships of Death”:  A ship sinks off Hong Kong in heavy weather, but the seasoned captain saves the entire crew, and some special cargo.  The captain is unaware that his precious cargo is actually stolen germ warfare samples from an American government facility.  (Naturally, they were only created  to help Americans defend against germ warfare.)  If these samples fall into the hands of the Reds, they’ll be able to use them as an excuse to step up their own germ warfare research and possibly utilization.  Fu Manchu blackmails the captain into accepting the job of delivering the cargo, and injects the samples into melons for smuggling purposes.  The captain decides he cannot be a part of this, and by the end, Fu Manchu himself narrowly escapes an infectious death.

Keeping in mind the technical limitations of 1950s TV, and the attitudes towards racism of the time, these episodes are pretty exciting and well-shot.  Glen Gordon is enjoying himself, and Laurette Luez is a sultry femme fatale.

This show is perhaps best watched in contrast with a modern depiction of Asian people to remind us how attitudes have changed, or so we would like to believe.

Movie Review: The Grandmaster (2013)

Movie Review: The Grandmaster (2013)

This Chinese-French co-production is a Wong Kar Wai film loosely based on the real life of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s instructor in the art of Wing Chun style kung fu.  As the title indicates, however, the true central character is the Northern Grandmaster, Gong Yutian.  As the film begins, Master Gong is about to retire as Grandmaster.  He has traveled south, accompanied by his chosen successor Ma San and his daughter Gong Er to the city of Foshan for one last exhibition match with the southern schools.

The Grandmaster (2013)

The chosen champion of the south is Ip Man, who both receives wisdom from Gong Yutian and teaches the master something new.   Gong Er is discontented, however.  While she cannot succeed to her father’s school because of the pesky being a woman thing, she wants to prove herself against Ip Man.  (Ma San might also have done the same, but was already sent home for being hot-headed.)

The film’s story skips over the Japanese invasion almost entirely (for a more detailed look at that part of Ip Man’s life, see the movie Ip Man.)  After the war, Ip Man emigrates to the British territory of Hong Kong to make money for his starving family, only to be cut off when the Communists take over the mainland.  Some years later, he discovers that Gong Er is also in Hong Kong, but no longer practicing kung fu, and we learn what happened to her and Ma Sun.

This isn’t quite the standard kung fu movie; while there are some standout fight sequences (a rain-drenched one that starts the film, and a dangerous battle on a snowy rail station platform come to mind), often the expected beats never connect.  It’s also not quite a romance, though it has many of the moments you’d expect a romance to have.  It’s more a story of life happening that just happens to be about martial artists.

I enjoyed it, but the anachronic order and some events being reduced to just an intertitle (words on the screen) may confuse some viewers, especially if you’re not good at reading subtitles in the first place.  The period sexism may also be unappealing to some viewers, especially as Gong Er makes a decision that many women wouldn’t to deal with her dilemma.

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