Book Review: The Avon Fantasy Reader

Book Review: The Avon Fantasy Reader edited by Donald A. Wollheim and George Ernsberger

Avon Fantasy Reader was a pulp magazine that reprinted fantasy and science fiction stories for eighteen issues starting in 1946.   It featured some doozies from authors who’d since become well-known, or were classics in their own right.  In 1968, this paperback tribute to the magazine featuring the best dark fantasy and horror stories was published.

The Avon Fantasy Reader

“The Witch from Hell’s Kitchen” by Robert E. Howard starts us off with a tale of Pyrrhas the Argive.  A barbarian who has come to the civilized but haunted lands of Mesopotamia, he finds himself haunted by dreams of a winged woman with fangs.  Or are they dreams?  Realizing he’s been cursed, Pyrrhas must seek out the one mage who might know how to fight this evil magic.  The problem is that Gimil-ishbi is equally wicked, surely not to be trusted.

Pyrrhas is not as iconic a character as Conan the Cimmerian, but is much in the same mold.  His mighty thews and propensity for violence serve the barbarian well.  Content note:  he beats his slave until he gets information out of her–the subsequent dialogue suggests this was a spanking.

“Black Thirst” by C.L. Moore is the story featured on the Grey Morrow cover.  Two-fisted drifter Northwest Smith is lurking on a Venusian side street for reasons that are never explained but don’t really matter.  He’s interrupted by the appearance of the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.  And that’s not just pulp romance hyperbole.

Vaudir is a member of the Vinga, an apparently all-female subset of humanity bred for beauty and rented out to the wealthy and powerful by their masters, the Alendar, who may or may not be human themselves, or even mortal.  Vaudir needed a man for some heavy lifting, but when she meets Northwest, his reputation convinces Vaudir that she could use him…another way.

Y’see, Vaudir is defective, not as beautiful as the high-class Vinga which no one outside their palace has ever seen.  But she possesses a remarkable amount of intelligence and curiosity, and has discovered one of the secrets of the Alendar.  And they know this.  Perhaps if Vaudir has the renowned Northwest Smith at her side, she can survive….

What makes this story especially interesting is that author C.L. Moore is a woman (like many women writing in the speculative fiction field, she used her initials for a gender-neutral name.)  Thus the theme of women being valued only for their physical beauty and being exploited by a male(ish) authority figure has a deeper resonance.

This is really Vaudir’s story, and Northwest is a passive observer through most of it.   Which isn’t to say he’s unimportant.  It becomes evident that the Alendar hasn’t been able to honestly talk with anyone in ages, and like a Bond villain feels the need to explain the master plan so Northwest will understand why he’s about to die.  That gives Vaudir time to do what she needs to do.

“A Victim of Higher Space” by Algernon Blackwood features his series character John Silence, a physician specializing in paranormal disorders.  In this case, Mudge, a self-taught mathematician and philosopher, has discovered a way to project himself into the dimensions “higher” than the three we know.  Which is totally cool, except for the part where he can’t control it very well, and is often sent off into the fourth dimension by (among other things) the music of Wagner.  Can John Silence help this man return to normal space permanently?

Not the best of the John Silence stories; more silly than anything else.  It has some nice touches, though, stating that 90% of the people who seek out Mr. Silence are just kooks, and the elaborate precautions he takes to protect himself from “patients” who don’t like him telling them that.

“The Sapphire Siren” by Nictzin Dyalhis has an ordinary but unlucky fellow from Earth suddenly transported to a fantasy realm to overthrow an evil usurper.  Taken straight, this would be a very bad story, which leads me to believe it’s in fact a deadpan parody of the subgenre.

Read that way, the story becomes hilarious.  Our initially nameless forty-eight-year-old protagonist is such a screw-up that his life on Earth is hopeless, so he just stares really hard at a wall and wishes for a doorway to another world to open.  Once it actually does, our hero learns that he is actually King Karan of Octolan, a kick-butt warrior and rightful ruler who was cursed with amnesia and exiled to a miserable existence on Earth by the evil sorcerer who stole his throne.

Karan starts with only his loyal servant Zarf, but soon a random act of kindness (meant as a joke) secures an alliance with Koto, a half-elemental Hybrid.   And with Koto’s ludicrously powerful but easily manipulated Red Elemental father.  They begin the dangerous cross-country trek to secure the services of the one mage who might be able to restore Karan’s memories, despite being just as evil as the usurper.

Oh, and of course Karan has a hot wife who is totally loyal to him, but is kidnapped for most of the story and thus relevant only as a reward at the end.

“A Voice in the Night” by William Hope Hodgson takes place on a dark, starless night somewhere in the South Pacific.  A ship is hailed by an unseen person in a boat who begs for supplies.  This person insists that they cannot come aboard, and the watch officer hears the sincerity and finds a way to lower supplies without the boats touching.

Then the voice tells the story of how he and his fiancee were stranded by a sinking ship and came to a small island.  For a while, life was good, despite the constant presence of an odd fungus.  Bit by bit, the true horror of their situation became clear to them.  As the sun rises, the unseen person rows away, but there is just enough light for the sailors to see that the shape of the rower is not human.

An effectively creepy story, which was made into a Japanese movie I like.

“The Crawling Horror” by Thorp McCluskey concerns a farm where something is killing and replacing animals.  It started with the rats and the cat, and graduated to the dogs; it’s pretty easy to see where this is going.

The simple farmer is in fact pretty savvy in dealing with this menace, except for the part where he doesn’t just flee; it’s the educated narrator that screws everything up and leads to the ambiguous ending.

“The Kelpie” by Manly Wade Wellman is a short shock tale to fill out the volume.  A scientist gets a shipment of Scottish water plants, with an extra little surprise.  Has the cliche of a man dismissing a woman’s testimony as overactive imagination.

Overall, a good collection of stories that haven’t been over-anthologized, with the Moore and Hodgson stories being the best of the lot.  Recommended if you can find it!

And now, the Japanese movie I was talking about:

 

 

 

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster

While there were several precursors to Superman, he’s generally agreed to be the first full-fledged comic book superhero.  Superhuman abilities, a distinctive costume, and a dual identity, he had them all.   When Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, the readers had not seen anything quite like him before, and the comic book flew off the shelves.

The Superman Chronicles Volume One

However, the fellow who appeared in those early issues wasn’t quite the Superman we’ve come to know after all these years.  The “Chronicles” series of reprints gives us full-color reproductions of the stories in order of publication, starting with the very first, plus the covers of the issues.

Action Comics #1 starts us off right with the classic scene of Superman smashing a car into a rock, which turns out to actually happen in the story.   The feature begins with an abbreviated version of Superman’s origin.  The dying planet that sent a single rocketship to Earth (not yet named Krypton), a passing motorist (not yet identified as the Kents) who takes the infant to an orphanage, his growing powers (strength, speed, leaping, nigh-invulnerability) and his determination to use his powers to help those in need.  Clark Kent’s powers are explained by his physical structure being far more advanced than Earth humans, giving him the proportionate abilities of an ant or grasshopper.

The story itself starts in media res, as Superman carries a murderer to the governor’s mansion.  Leaving her tied up nearby, the Man of Steel forces himself past the governor’s servant, and through a metal door to that worthy’s bedroom.  He produces proof that the woman about to be executed is innocent, and stays right there until the governor pardons her.

The next day, Clark Kent is pleased to see that the Daily Star did not print anything about Superman’s involvement.  But the rumor of a superhuman fellow in a bright costume has already come to notice, and the Star’s city editor puts his rookie reporter Kent on the job of discovering the truth.

Kent learns of a wife-beating in progress, but it’s Superman who appears at the scene and roughs up the abusive husband.  The cad faints, and it’s Clark who greets the police.

Next, it’s time to establish the “mild-mannered” part of Clark Kent’s persona.  Clark convinces fellow reporter Lois Lane to go dancing with him, but she’s showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm.  When Clark backs down far too easily to a hood named Butch who cuts in, Lois is disgusted at his cowardice and leaves the dance hall.

Butch is angered by Lois’ refusal to dance with him, and sets out to abduct her with a few of his criminal friends to teach Lois a lesson.  Naturally, Superman shows up and the cover scene ensues.  The Man of Tomorrow carries Lois home and advises her not to tell anyone.  Sure enough, the next day, no one will believe her wild story.  It will take her a couple of issues to fully process her reaction to Superman.

The Star’s editor has a new assignment for Clark Kent.  South American republic San Monte is having a civil war, and since the home front is getting so dull card games are front-page news (I am now imagining a 1930s version of Yu-Gi-Oh), Kent should go down there and file some war reports.  Oh, pictures would be good too.

Rather than head directly south, Kent first travels to Washington, D.C.  He spots a Senator Barrows being furtively contacted by lobbyist Alex Greer, who’s known to be connected to “dark money” but no one knows whose.  Eavesdropping on their next meeting, Superman learns that the bill Senator Barrows is pushing is designed to entangle America in European affairs.   (We never come back to this plot point.)

Afterward, Superman approaches Greer to find out who his backer is.  Naturally the lobbyist declines to state this information, so Superman picks the man up and starts leaping all over town with him.  He even finds time to impart a science fact about birds and power lines!   His last leap doesn’t quite make it to the next building, and the men begin to fall….

All that in thirteen pages!

Action Comics #2 does not have Superman on the cover; he would not make it back until #7, and thereafter would usually be mentioned in a text box even if the cover was of someone else.

The story picks up where #1 left off, with Superman and Greer landing on the sidewalk.  They survive, the sidewalk doesn’t.   Greer spills the beans on his boss, international arms dealer Emil Norvell.  Superman then uses his considerable persuasive powers to make sure that Norvell travels to San Monte and enlists in their army.

Lois is assigned to go along with Clark Kent to South America.  Lots of things happen, including Norvell learning what it’s like to be on the pointy edge of his munitions, Lois nearly being shot as a spy, Superman just straight up killing a torturer (oh sure, we don’t see him land, but being tossed several miles away?  He’s not going to have a soft landing) and the Man of Steel finding a creative way to stop the war.

The story is followed by an advertisement for the daily Superman comic strip, soon to come out.

#3 has Superman get a neglectful mine owner to improve safety conditions for workers.  (Some ethnic slurs by baddies.)    There’s also an announcement of the first Superman fan club, the Supermen of America.

#4 is Superman kidnapping a college football player for several days to impersonate him in order to prevent a game from being fixed.  As a side effect, it also improves Tommy’s love life.

#5 has Lois Lane get enraged by the editor’s sexism (“no job for a girl”) and trick Clark Kent into pursuing a fake story while she goes off to cover a bursting dam.  Superman saves Lois a couple of times and she admits her feelings for him while still despising Clark.

#6 is the first Superman impersonator story.  A crook dresses his henchman up in a Superman suit and has him do faked stunts of superstrength so that the crook can claim he’s got a legal license to sell Superman merchandise.  Lois easily sees through the fake, but still needs rescuing.  Also has the first Superman-themed song.

#7 has Superman join a failing circus to give it an attendance boost, and reveal the criminals that are trying to take it over.  This is a good spot to mention that Superman’s distinctive costume was partially based on a circus strongman outfit, including trunks worn over tights to keep certain body bulges smoothed out.  This story also introduces Curly, the first of what would be a recurring type of bully who also works at the paper and pranks Clark Kent.  By the end of the story, Clark finds a way to get some payback.

#8 is another classic moment for Superman as a social justice warrior.  He decides to tackle the problem of juvenile delinquency in slum kids–by tearing down the entire slum, thus forcing the government to build them new housing ala FEMA!

Of course, actions have consequences, and in #9, the police bring in Chicago cop Detective Captain Reilly, known as “100% Reilly” for always getting his man.  Reilly’s plan hits a significant snag when he attempts to chisel an informant out of the substantial reward money promised.   Clark Kent is barely able to escape detection, but at the end, the visitor is known as “99% Reilly.”

#10 is another social justice story–Superman goes undercover as a prisoner to expose inhuman conditions imposed by a crooked warden.  (Warning: torture.)

#11 continues Superman’s impersonations.  To expose a crooked oil company, he poses as investor Homer Ramsey and contrives a beautiful scam where he tricks the oil company executives into trading their real money for their own worthless stock.  Environmentalists may cringe at how he does it, though.  (Presumably Superman turns the money he made over to charity.)

#12 has an interesting Zatara cover with a nifty spaceship.  The Superman story has him getting angry at reckless drivers and automobiles that are unsafe at any speed.  So he imposes a reign of terror on the city.  (And admittedly, fixes a particularly bad stretch of road.)  You can just feel Siegel’s outrage boiling off the page as Superman refuses to use doors in his pursuit of strict traffic enforcement.  Also in this issue, an announcement of DC’s second superhero, the Batman!

New York World’s Fair #1 ties into that 1939 event.  Clark and Lois are sent to cover the opening, but Superman spends most of his time helping attractions open on time and thwarting a criminal plot.

Action Comics #13 starts its story with Superman fighting the “Cab Protective League”, a shakedown racket aimed at taxi drivers.  However, we soon meet the first ever evil mastermind to battle Superman.  The Ultra-Humanite is a bald scientist who has given himself super-intelligence (which may or may not have anything to do with his paraplegia.)  Moriarty-like, he’s been secretly behind some of the criminal schemes Superman has thwarted.

His vast knowledge of science allows the Ultra-Humanite to stun Superman, but not kill him.  The evil scientist then appears to die in a plane crash, but Superman is unable to find a body.   He’ll be back several times, until Lex Luthor takes over his ecological niche.

And the volume concludes with Superman #1, as Superman became the first superhero to have his own solo comic book.  Most of the contents were reprinted from Action Comics #1-4.

However, the first story had a new introduction naming Krypton and the Kents for the first time, and establishing that John and Mary Kent had passed away from old age after training Clark in American values.  We then see how Superman learned of the innocent person condemned for murder and where to find the murderer seen in the first story.

The explanation of Superman’s powers now explained that Earth’s lighter gravity aided his advanced body structure to perform his superhuman feats.

Finally, there’s a two-page text story.  These prose stories appeared in comic books to force the post office to classify them at a lower postal rate.  Usually, they weren’t very good.  No exception here.

The art is crude but dynamic, and it’s fun to watch Superman perform his many feats.  This is a rougher-edged fellow who very much has opinions, and isn’t afraid to take matters into his own hands.  Soon he’ll calm down a bit and become more authority-friendly (and develop a code against killing.)  No more random kidnappings!

Highly recommended to Superman fans and those who want to know more about the early history of superhero comics.  Check your library!

 

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1 art by Dick Dillin and Charles Cuidero

In September 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union.  The valiant Polish people battled bravely against the two-pronged attack, but it was to no avail.  One aviator was shot down, as it happens, near his family’s farm, only to watch as it was blown to bits by a Nazi bomb.  He discovered his siblings inside the ruined farmhouse, dead or dying.  The aviator vowed vengeance against the Nazis, and particularly the pilot of the plane that had murdered his family, Captain von Tepp of the Butcher Squadron.

Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Months later in England, the aviator stewed in frustration.  The RAF did not trust the Polish airmen who’d fled to their shores, thinking that because they’d lost, the Poles were inferior pilots.  Unable to get in the air through the regular channels, the aviator found a small group of other pilots who were refugees (plus one American volunteer) and likewise unable to get into the fight.  They pooled their resources and secretly purchased several Grumman XF5F Skyrockets, as well as supplies for them and a secret island base.

The aviator had discarded his civilian name and now went only by Blackhawk.  His men were the Blackhawk Squadron, or just the Blackhawks.  They operated on behalf of the Allies, but independently of any military command, striking wherever the need was greatest.  After a few missions never detailed, Blackhawk and his men were able to track down von Tepp and Blackhawk took his revenge.  His personal business complete, the Blackhawks were free to fly anywhere at any time to fight the Axis.

The Blackhawks first appeared in Military Comics #1 in 1941, under the Quality Comics label, and got their own title, Blackhawk, in 1944.  They were very popular, at one point selling just below Superman.  In 1952, they even got a film serial, starring Kirk Alyn, who’d previously played Superman in the movies.

But by 1957, sales were waning, and Quality first leased, then sold, its trademarked characters and titles to DC.  Blackhawk was one of only a handful of titles to continue (the other notable one was G.I. Combat.)  It kept its art team, but had an assortment of now-anonymous writers.

This volume reprints the DC run, starting with #108.  At this point, the team had long been stabilized at seven members.  Blackhawk (Polish/American/Polish-American) was the leader.  Hendrickson (Dutch/German) was the team sharpshooter and the oldest member.  Stanislaus (Polish) was generally the second-in-command–at this point he was said to have been a aerialist before the war and was quite acrobatic.  Andre (French) was a mechanical engineer and a bit of a ladies’ man.  Olaf (Swedish) was large and exceptionally strong.  Chuck (American) was a radio specialist.  And Chop-Chop (Chinese) was the team cook.  We’ll get back to him.

Since the Korean War was over and Vietnam was not yet hot, the Blackhawks (now flying Lockheed XF-90 C jets) primarily fought spies, saboteurs and mechanized gangs.  In the first couple of issues, their primary opponents are International Communism, the agents of whom are mostly pure evil (except the one woman who is won over by Blackhawk’s chivalrous behavior and moral rectitude.)

At a guess, these stories were left over from previous writers, as after that contemporary politics vanishes altogether, and much more time is spent on borderline to full science fiction plots.  Lost civilizations, time travel, aliens, and lots and lots of robots and awesome vehicles.  The team also acquired a pet between issues, a black hawk named Blackie who was of human intelligence (even able to tap out complex messages in Morse Code!)

The Blackhawks also ran into supervillains, most often a high-tech pirate calling himself Killer Shark or his marine-life themed minions.  They even fought the first Mr. Freeze DC had.

The plots tended to be simple, as the stories were quite short and mostly meant for kids.  There’s relatively little characterization, with each of the Blackhawks having just a few well-worn quirks.

And then there’s Chop-Chop (who did not even get a proper name until the 1980s!)  It’s worth pointing out that even when he first appeared in the 1940s, Chop-Chop was exceptionally competent and good in a fight.  But he was also clearly a comic relief character, short, round, and with facial features that look pretty darn racist towards Chinese people.

By 1957, this had been toned down considerably.  His face was still stereotypical, but not really more so than say Olaf’s.  He’d ditched the queue and lost weight, but still only came up to chest height on the other men and dressed in a “coolie” outfit that had been outdated even back in 1941.

The other Blackhawks treated Chop-Chop as an equal, and he remained good in a fight.  But he also didn’t have his own plane (usually acting as navigator for Blackhawk) and sometimes gets left out of Blackhawks group activities.  He’s also the sole Blackhawk to admit feeling fear, having the catchphrase “Wobbly woes!”  In his one spotlight story, he’s held hostage for a time.

This was a relatively good depiction for a Chinese character in the comics of 1957-58, but sets the teeth on edge for modern readers.

Certain plot elements do get reused.  There are no less than four times the Blackhawks fight counterpart teams!  The first is the all-female Tigress Squadron.  They don’t have a Chop-Chop or Blackie equivalent.  At first Blackhawk tries to pitch that crimefighting is man’s work, but after they prove their competence, Blackhawk simply switches to criticizing their plan to execute a criminal mastermind instead of turning him over to the police.  (In fairness to the Tigress Squadron, they’re entirely composed of the widows that criminal murdered after he escaped from the prison the Blackhawks delivered him to multiple times.  They have good reason for wanting to make sure this time.)

Next up is the all-villain Crimson Vultures.  They do have a Chop-Chop equivalent (who never does anything) as well as a crimson vulture named Crimson to fight Blackie.)  Unfortunately for them, Crimson is not as smart as Blackie, and that costs them the battle.

And two entirely separate miniature robot versions of the team created by mad inventors!  (Both have a Chop-Chop but not a Blackie.)

Coordination between writers was plainly not a priority.  In one story, a humanoid robot intelligent enough to infiltrate a criminal gang for months is brought back after several issues of being missing, and the Blackhawks take it back to their island.  In the next issue, Blackhawk needs a humanoid robot for something, and builds one from scratch, without even mentioning the previous robot, who also does not appear again in this volume.

That said, there are some tremendous machines in this series, and the War Wheel is always a joy to see in action.

Primarily recommended to older fans who fondly remember the Blackhawks from their childhood like me.  Others should take advantage of interlibrary loan.

And now, here’s a trailer for the Blackhawk serial!  Hawk-aa!

 

Book Review: A Man Lay Dead

Book Review: A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

Sir Hubert Handesley’s weekend entertainments are to die for, so young reporter Nigel Bathgate has been told.  And now, thanks to his well-to-do older cousin Charles Rankin, Nigel will have the chance to participate in one himself.   The game is “Murders”, which should be jolly good fun for the middle-upper crust guests.

A Man Lay Dead

As it happens, Charles has brought along a new toy, a Mongolian dagger said to have associations with a Russian secret society.  That knife ends up in his back when the lights go out.  Did the mysterious brotherhood take revenge for learning their secrets?  Did the two affairs he was having, one with a married woman, create the motive?  Or did Nigel, who will inherit a pile of money from his cousin, decide to speed up the process?

Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard will need all his wits to unravel this puzzle!

This was the first Alleyn mystery published by Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), a New Zealand author who cleverly left off her first name of Edith to stand out on the bookshelves.  She spent a fair amount of time in Britain, but New Zealand was her home, and several of the Alleyn books take place there.

As is par for the course with British detective stories, Inspector Alleyn is a bit eccentric.  He carries a notebook which he uses constantly, and claims to have a “filthy memory.”   (His memory is superior to most people’s.)   He’s somewhat upper-class, has an appreciation of the arts, and had originally been in the Foreign Service until an incident (unexplained in this volume) diverted him into police work.

After establishing that Nigel is almost certainly not the killer, Alleyn begins using him as a “Watson” to bounce ideas off of and explain his thought processes to.  (This continues in later stories.)

There’s some exciting scenes involving the secret society, which yes, really exists and endangers several characters.   The solution to the main mystery is a bit unlikely, but well established by clues in the lead-up.   Unlike some other mysteries of the period, the servants in the household are noticed and have roles to play, if only minor ones for most.  (A staff of about a dozen to support two members of the nobility!)  I also like that Inspector Alleyn gets on well with his Scotland Yard subordinates.

One glaring thing:  A use of the N-word by Nigel–keep in mind that this was written in England in the 1930s, so there’s a slightly different context.

If you enjoy Christie and Sayers, you will probably like Marsh as well.   (But the volumes set in New Zealand might be of more interest to someone looking for variety.)

Here’s a TV adapation (some liberties have been taken):

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6 edited by Julius Schwartz

By 1971, the Batman television show had been off the air long enough that its sales boost to the Batman and Detective Comics series had faded, and with it, the incentive to model the magazines on the show.  Bruce Wayne moved from stately Wayne Manor to a penthouse in downtown Gotham City and started a charitable organization for victims of crime.  Dick “Robin” Grayson went off to college on the other side of the state, and guest-starred infrequently.  And most of Batman’s regular rogues’ gallery took a vacation.

Showcase Presents: Batman Volume 6

This freed up space for a more somber tone, although this run certainly had its own silliness, such as a return engagement by the Ten-Eyed Man, whose optic nerves had been transplanted into his fingers.  And Two-Face made an appearance for the first official time since the 1950s.  But quite a few of the stories had Batman facing off against ordinary murderers and organized crime…as well as what appeared to be ghosts and psychic powers.

This volume covers Batman 229-236 and Detective Comics 408-416.  The first story, “Asylum of the Futurians” pits the Caped Crusader against a group of apparent lunatics who’ve captured a photographer in the mistaken belief he possesses psychic abilities that will make him their leader.  (It’s never clear that the Futurians actually have ESP; it certainly doesn’t help against Batman; but then how do you explain the sudden impulse he had to investigate the neighborhood?)

Several stories are topical to the 1970s.  Thinly veiled versions of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and “participatory journalist” George Plimpton make guest appearances.  Stories featuring youth activism and black radicals have aged poorly; the latter mixes in a police corruption subplot, the end of which supposedly fixes injustice in the legal system of Gotham City.  Batman’s platitudes towards the radicals he’s fighting/helping come off as tone-deaf.

Other stories focus on Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective, revealing at the end the one clue he noticed where the criminal slipped up.  One, taking place at a production of Macbeth, involves the literal pricking of Batman’s thumbs.

The most notable plotline was the first appearances of Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia.  Talia appeared first, helping Batman bring down Dr. Damien Darrk of the League of Assassins, who had fallen out with her father.  Then Ra’s contrived a scenario where both Robin and Talia were kidnapped in order to test Batman’s fitness to marry Talia (who had fallen for Bruce) and eventually take over his shadowy empire.

As created by writer Denny O’Neil and artists Dick Giordano and Neal Adams, Ra’s al Ghul was a mastermind in the Fu Manchu style (particularly the later novels.)  He controlled a vast criminal network, but did not consider himself a criminal, but rather humanity’s eventual savior.  Over his long life, Ra’s had become convinced overpopulation was the root of all the Earth’s problems.  Therefore he was going to do something about that.

Like Fah Lo Suee before her, Talia was conflicted between loyalty to her father and the desire to jump the hero’s bones.  Ra’s respected Bruce’s intelligence and skills enough to allow them to be mated, but only if Batman accepted a place as the Demon’s Head’s heir presumptive.  And no, Batman was not impressed by the “kill most of humanity to save the rest” plan.

After several encounters, Batman decides to take down Ra’s al Ghul once and for all, assembling a small team of specialists to help.  (This was the first appearance of the Matches Malone disguise, as Batman’s attempt to recruit the hitman went awry.)  After much ado, they finally catch up to the mastermind, or rather his corpse.

Except that it turns out Ra’s has access to something called the Lazarus Pit, which allows him renewed life and vigor at the cost of temporary insanity.  (This puts a different cast on an earlier story where Talia had supposedly believed her father dead.)  Eventually, Batman and Ra’s al Ghul must duel in single combat to determine which of them shall triumph in the last story of the volume.

This is nifty stuff, with some crackerjack writing and excellent art.  On the other hand, Talia’s personality is entirely defined in this storyline by her relationships with men, and she wavers back and forth between them as the plot demands.

Overall, this is a good run of Batman, and well worth requesting for the library, or even buying if you are a big Batman fan.  (Batgirl has a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.)

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2  by Takehiko Inoue

Quick recap: In 17th Century Japan, failed soldier Shinmen Takezo has reinvented himself as wandering swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.  Dedicating his life to perfecting his own style of swordsmanship, he travels to Kyoto and starts a feud with the Yoshioka school of kendo.  Unknown to him, his childhood friend Matahachi is also in town, and accidentally sets fire to the Yoshioka dojo.

Vagabond Volume 2

This volume opens with Musashi being nursed back to health by the rough-edged Buddhist monk Takuan.  Realizing he still has a long way to go, Musashi decides to travel to Nara, there to pit himself against the spear style of the Hōzōin Temple monks.  A chance encounter with an elderly gardener may be more valuable than any battle.

Musashi is distracted by thoughts of his other childhood friend, the lovely Otsu.  She’s now the servant of a master of the Yagyu style of swordsmanship, who Yoshioka Denshichiro has come to train with in preparation for his next duel with Musashi.

Others are also on the road.  Gion Toji of the Yoshioka school is tracking Musashi to kill him, and is none too restrained about maiming other people along the way.

Matahachi’s on the run because of the arson thing, and a chance encounter allows him to also reinvent himself as the respected warrior Sasaki Kojirō.  His sections of the story are tragicomedy, as he keeps having good intentions, but the flaws in his character prevent him from following through in a crisis, and we watch him make excuse after excuse for doing less than he ought.

Miyamoto Musashi is better at learning from his mistakes; while he is not the sharpest katana in the armory, he’s partially grasped the concept of critical thinking and examining his own mindset.  Still has a long way to go before being the best swordsman in Japan though.

The successor to the Hōzōin spear style, Inshun, has his own issues.  He’s a natural combat genius who has never known “fear”, or had a truly serious challenge to his skills until now.  Thus his growth has stalled; Inshun must learn how to deal with defeat to become stronger.  His multi-chapter duel with Musashi is the centerpiece of this volume.

The art is stellar, but much of the credit for the plot and characterization must go to Eiji Yoshikawa, author of the novel this manga is an adaptation of.

There’s a lot of violence in this volume, some of it quite bloody.  There’s also a brief sex scene with female nudity–this is a “mature readers” title.

This continues to be a good choice for fans of samurai action stories.

Movie Review: Let’s Go Collegiate (1941)

Movie Review: Let’s Go Collegiate (1941)

The Kappa Psi Delta fraternity on the Rawley University campus is abuzz with excitement.  They’re getting a new frat brother and member of the rowing team, Bob Terry, who was a champion stroke at his prep school.  No one’s ever seen a picture of him, but with his help, Rawley might actually win the big meet this year for the first time since 1928.

Let's Go Collegiate

Then Tad (Jackie Moran), fraternity president, bandleader and second stroke on the team, learns that Bob’s been drafted and will be unable to come.  He and coxswain Frankie (Frankie Darro) try to break this news to their girlfriends from the sister sorority Bess (Marcia Mae Jones) and Midge (Gale Storm), who have been planning a huge party to welcome Bob.  They can’t quite bring themselves to let the girls down and are unable to tell the truth before the girls leave.

Frankie and Tad are being driven around by the house servant Jeff (Mantan Moreland) when they spot a strong-looking young fellow hoisting a safe onto a truck.  (It doesn’t occur to them to wonder why he’s doing this.)  They approach “Herk” with the notion of posing as Bob Terry for the duration of the party, buying him off with ten dollars.

At the party, the tall, relatively handsome and outgoing Herk is a hit with the ladies, despite his uncouth speech and mannerisms.  He decides he wants to be Bob Terry some more, or he’ll spill the beans.  Thus Herk must attend classes as Bob, despite having little education, and serve on the rowing team, despite a seasickness problem.  Tad and Frankie are assisted in this by their fraternity brother Buck (Keye Luke), who acts as the rowing team coach’s assistant.

Things get tighter for Frankie and Tad when their respective girlfriends dump them for “Bob”, and their own grades suffer from having to spend their time tutoring Herk.  Worse yet, a couple of overly inquisitive alumni arrive just before the big race, and begin to piece together what’s really going on.

This 1941 film is on my””Musicals” DVD collection, though it’s more of a movie with musical interruptions.  It’s pretty precisely dated because of the peacetime draft (started September 1940) being a plot point.  it’s a lighthearted film with some nice music, and some bits are still funny.  If you like the “wacky scheme that snowballs way out of control” plotline, this is your kind of movie.

I like that Kappa Psi Delta will pledge Chinese-Americans; Buck is treated as an equal by his frat brothers, although there’s a little ethnic “humor” at his expense (and the alumni are outright rude to him.)  Not so good is the treatment of Jeff, who is stuck with the role of comical sidekick and forced to do anything the white students demand of him.  (On the other hand, he’s a lot more honest with his love interest Malvina (Marguerite Whitten), the servant at the sorority house (she gets the “sassy black woman” stereotype.)  Compared to Tad and Frankie, Jeff comes off pretty good.)

And Midge and Bess are depicted as shallow young women who are easily fooled by Herk’s “aw shucks” demeanor–it’s not until the big race that they realize he’s been playing them.

As for Herk himself, he’s a more complex character than he might look.  He’s a bad person, but he seems to genuinely want to learn when he gets the chance, and help the team win.  If only he weren’t so self-centered, Herk might have had a redemption story here..

Treat this movie as a time capsule, and it’s not half bad, but if you are watching it with younger viewers, prepare to discuss some important ethical topics.

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