Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Introduction by Lizzy Attree

The Caine Prize is awarded to a short story written by an African author (which primarily means one born in Africa–all the authors in this volume are from Sub-Saharan Africa), published in English in the last five years and submitted for consideration.  This volume contains the five stories that were shortlisted for the prize in 2013, plus twelve more written at a workshop sponsored by the Caine Prize.

A Memory This Size

The collection leads off with the 2013 winner, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin.  A group of Nigerian immigrants attend a tent revival in Texas.  A great faith healer is scheduled to appear, but will there be a miracle tonight, and what form will it take?  I found this to be rather a blah story, but I am not one of the judges for the contest and don’t know what criteria they based the decision on.  Nigerians dominate this volume, with four of the five shortlisted stories and several of the workshop ones as well.

Three of the five shortlisted stories have a heavy Africa-America connection, to the point that Chinelo Okparanta’s story is actually titled “America.”  A schoolteacher who wishes to join her lover there uses the Gulf oil spill as a wedge to try to convince the immigration people to give her a green card.   There’s an interesting ending in which the protagonist remembers hearing a folktale similar to ‘Jack the Giant-Killer” except that it stops short of the “ever after” with no explanation of what happens past a certain point.

The title story, “A Memory This Size” by Elnathan John concerns a man mourning for his brother, who died years ago, and yet he cannot let go.

There are common themes in these stories, most of which are “slice of life” tales:  government corruption, marital infidelity and environmental destruction.

There are a couple of stories that move into the “magical realism” camp (that is, fantasy, but not called that so critics can treat it as actual literature.)  The better one is “Howl” by Rotimi Babatunde, about a dog named Jack who may or may not have the extraordinary powers the villagers think, but is certainly not a normal dog.  “Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile” by Stanley Onjezani Kenani, however, has the best title in this volume.  That story is about a fishing village threatened by oil developers, and the sacrifice one man makes to save their way of life.

I also enjoyed “Stuck” by Davina Kawuma, told in a series of emails by a young woman who is tempted to have an affair.  One final email changes everything.

My least favorite story was “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist.  This tale of a man who returns to Sierra Leone after many years in America, thinking he will be a big man thanks to his money, was too predictable and made me cringe rather than care.

That said, I am glad I took the chance to read this book and learn what some African writers are doing.  There are thirteen volumes of Caine Prize stories published; check your inter-library loan system for any one of them.

I should also mention that there is some disturbing subject matter, and would best suited for college age and up.

Manga Review: Dream Fossil

Manga Review: Dream Fossil by Satoshi Kon

Satoshi Kon (1963-2010) was an acclaimed anime director, making a handful of movies (including Paprika) and one television series, Paranoia Agent.   His themes of confusion of dreams and reality, and madness lying just below the surface of society, made his works fascinating.  He also spent some time as a manga creator, creating several stories in the 1980s before going into anime full time as an assistant to Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira).  This volume collects his short works.

Dream Fossil

The lead story is “Carve.”  After a war polluted the old places of habitation, most of humanity moved to “The City”, a haven of high technology.  However, when a minority of humans started developing psychic powers, they were kicked out of The City, and scrape by in the now less toxic old cities.  Sculptor Kei and his female friend/model Ann notice that Specials are starting to disappear from their neighborhood.  Are The City people up to something?

The fifteen stories cover a range of genres.  There’s a couple of baseball stories, some slice of life, a samurai thriller, and some more speculative fiction.  The characters tend towards the realistic, even if the circumstances are often bizarre.

One standout is “Kidnappers”, about a car thief who discovers that he has a small child in the back seat.  He wants to get the kid back to the parents, but doesn’t want to go to jail for swiping the vehicle–and the actual kidnapper is after him too.  The main character is well drawn as a bad person, but one that doesn’t want to be that bad.

There’s also  “Waira”, the samurai thriller I mentioned.  A feudal warlord has been betrayed by his vassal/brother-in-law, his troops massacred, and now he and a handful of surviving followers are fleeing through a mountain forest in the middle of the night.  The brother-in-law and his troops pursue, but their guides warn them that the mountain is haunted by a murderous creature named “Waira.”  Who will survive?  The nature of Waira comes as a bit of a surprise–it’s so out of place that it might as well be supernatural.

I can really spot the Otomo influence in several of these stories.  The art and writing are decent, but Kon doesn’t sparkle here the way he does in his animation work.  A couple of the stories are photocopied from magazine appearances as the original art is lost; this affects the print quality.

The last story in the volume is Kon’s debut work, a two-parter titled “Toriko” (prisoner).  It’s very YA dystopia.  Yuichi, a teenager, lives in a future society ruled by implacable robot police, and in which you must have your identity card ready at all times for any transactions or even just walking down the street at the wrong time.  When he and his friends break curfew, they are remanded to The Center for “rehab” to become “productive citizens.”  Good thing Yuichi managed to snag a weapon!  Downer ending, depending on your point of view.

In addition to a few color pages, there’s also an interview with Susumu Hirawara, a composer who worked with Satoshi Kon on musical scores for the anime projects.  (One last film, Dreaming Machine, is being slowly finished.)

The intended audience varies, a couple would be suitable for young readers, but overall this anthology seems to be seinen (young men’s.)  Several of the stories have lethal violence, there’s some nudity, underaged drinking and smoking, and one story has an attempted rape.

Fans of Satoshi Kon’s other work will want to own this anthology; others will be better served by checking it out via library loan.

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (2015)

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (2015) by various creators.

It’s the third anniversary of this blog, and as is my custom, I’ll be looking at the current lineup of Weekly Shonen Jump, the online version of Shounen Jump.  For those just joining us, Shounen Jump is the top-selling shounen manga (boys’ comic book) in Japan.  Many of its series get anime (animated cartoon) adaptations, and its ethos of “friendship, struggle and victory” has been highly influential in manga circles.

Shonen Jump  2015

The struggle is exemplified in the magazine itself by the reader polling system.  Each issue comes with a survey to mail in, and the placement of further chapters within the magazine is based on how well they do in the polls.  Popular series get prime spots near the front, while struggling series get moved to the back.  Series that do poorly for an extended period tend to get axed–if this happens right away, it’s called “ten-weeked” for the minimum time a series will be kept.  (There are a couple of exceptions to the polling system that are more or less immune to being cancelled as their collected volume sales are very high, even though the weekly readers rate them poorly.)

Not all of the series in the print edition make it into the online edition, which also adds some monthly features from other magazines also owned by the same publisher.  Let’s start with the weeklies.

One Piece:  On a world that is 90% ocean, a boy named Luffy decides to become the Pirate King.  He gathers a wacky crew as he sails around the world looking for the mysterious “One Piece” treasure of the previous Pirate King.  Currently, the situation in Spanish-flavored Dressrosa has been resolved, and the crew is looking for their vanished members on the “island” (actually a massive elephant) Zou, home to a tribe of animal-people called Minks.

World Trigger:  Earth is periodically invaded by beings from a parallel universe called “Neighbors.”   The agents of BORDER are our primary defense against them.   Currently, our viewpoint agents are engaged in a tournament called “Rank Wars” to try to qualify for an away mission to rescue kidnapped Earthlings from the Neighbor dimension.  This is about to be complicated as a Neighbor strike force has arrived with the intention of crippling BORDER’s ability to launch away missions.  The artist has been having health issues, so the feature takes frequent breaks.

Bleach:  Teenager Ichigo Kurosaki has the ability to see spirits, and has since been inducted into the Soul Society, which attempts to stop evil spirits and conduct good ones to the afterlife.   This is still on what is supposed to be the final arc, as the previously-thought-dead Quincies invade the Soul Society to destroy the afterlife as we know it and presumably replace it with one where they’re in charge.  It looks like the creator is going to milk every last member of the huge cast for extensive flashbacks–we may be at this for another three years.

My Hero Academia:  Izuku Midoriya (aka “Deku”) was born without superpowers on an alternate Earth where 80% of the population has “Quirks.”  But he has the heart of a hero, and has earned a special power, so can attend a magnet school for aspiring superheroes.  Currently, Deku’s class is on a summer field trip for intensive training.  (I’ve reviewed a couple of the individual volumes.)

Nisekoi:  Raku and Chitoge, the scions of feuding crime families, are forced into a fake dating relationship (the “false love” of the title) to stop the feud.  They start developing genuine feelings for each other, but things are complicated by there being several girls who have a thing for Raku, at least one of whom he also has feelings for.   The series just concluded a story arc that eliminated one of the “harem” from consideration; this did very poorly in the polls, perhaps because it centered around her frankly annoying personality and equally annoying family.   Now Raku is down to two viable choices and desperately trying to avoid making up his mind.

Toriko:  A far-future Earth has become a world where the more dangerous a creature is, the more delicious it is (usually), and Toriko is one of the top Gourmet Hunters, dedicated to seeking out new flavors and foods.  Over time, the series has come to focus more on his sidekick, aspiring chef Komatsu.  This may be in its final story arc, as the Earth is “ripe” and about to be eaten by a cosmic being, unless our heroes find an alternative.  But there is so much going on with different parts of the cast that it may take several real-time years to resolve.

Black Clover:  In a fantasy world where everyone can use at least some magic, Asta was born without any.  He’s trained his body extensively to make up for this, and has “never giving up” as his primary personality trait.  At his society’s coming of age ceremony, he initally does not get a grimoire of spells, but then is gifted with one that turns into a sword with the power of anti-magic.  He joins the Magic Knights that protect his kingdom, but only in the Black Bulls, a ragtag group of misfits who are looked down upon by the more professional units.  This series is new this year, and is considered something of a successor to Naruto.  Currently, Asta is helping a mirror mage and a fire-powered nun fight kidnappers who steal the magic from children.

Food Wars!:  Known as “Shokugeki no Souma” in Japan, this series features Souma, a young maverick aspiring chef as he attends the top culinary institute in Japan and engages in cooking battles.  The early chapters were heavy on the cheesecake imagery, but the series has backed off on that some to concentrate on the food porn.  Currently, the school has been taken over by a sinister man who wants to make all cooking conform to his idea of perfection without regard for individual tastes, and Souma is in a cooking contest with one of that man’s minions (who has already bought the judges, so we have no idea how he’s going to win.)

On to monthly features.

Blue Exorcist:  Rin Okumura discovers  that he is the son of Satan, destined to bring about his father’s final triumph.  Rin decides to defy his heritage and joins a school for exorcists that battle the forces of evil.   Currently, Rin and his human (or is he?) fraternal twin Yukio have been sent on a mission to locate a missing exorcist.  They spend much of this month’s chapter being mistaken for a gay couple, much to Yukio’s annoyance.  (Rin seems to think it’s kind of funny.)

Seraph of the End:  In the not too distant future, a plague seemingly wipes out all adults, and many of the surviving children are enslaved underground by vampires.  Yuichiro Hyakuya, one of these slaves, escapes to the surface, at the cost of losing his friend Mikaela Hyakuya (they were named after the orphanage they were brought up in before the plague.)  Yu joins the Demon Army, humanity’s last defense against the vampire menace…or are they the real enemy?  Currently, Yu has been reunited with Mikaela, who has become a vampire.  Meanwhile, the Demon Army’s mission seems to have gone south, or possibly that was always the plan, as the top brass start sacrificing their own troops to summon the Seraph of the End, and Captain Guren appears to have gone insane and it’s not clear what side if any he’s on now.

One-Punch Man:  Saitama trained really hard to become a superhero that could take out any opponent with one punch.  He achieved that goal, but found it hollow as fights no longer hold any joy for him.  This parody of superheroes turns out to have some deeper themes about what it really means to be a hero.  Currently, the main plot seems to be about Garo, who hates stories where the hero always wins, and is working to become a villain who can defeat any hero.  (See my review of the first volume.)

Yu-Gi-Oh Arc-V:  yet another spin-off of the toyetic Yu-Gi-Oh series, centered around a children’s card game that is the most important thing in the world.  Yuzu Hiragi is the heiress to a card dueling school that’s seen better days, and is trying to snag a celebrity duelist as a teacher.  She’d like to snag the mysterious Phantom, who’s been engaging in illegal card games, but may have to settle for another person with a very similar appearance.  Currently, it appears that Yuzu’s father has been kidnapped to lure the Phantom into a duel.

The online edition also features a “Jump Back” slot, reprinting the first few chapters of an earlier series to advertise the back volumes.  Currently it’s running Yu Yu Hakusho.  Junior high delinquent Yuusuke Urameshi is dead on the first page, having senselessly sacrificed his life to save a child that wasn’t actually in danger.  But because of his anomalous circumstances, Yuusuke can undergo a test to see if he is worthy of returning to life.  (Yes, but the experience leaves him with supernatural powers he must use to protect humanity.)

This is still a huge bargain for anyone who likes shounen manga, even if not all the series are that good, and lives in a country with legal access.  Recommended.

Book Review: Headaches Can Be Murder

Book Review: Headaches Can Be Murder by Marilyn Rausch & Mary Donlon

Charles “Chip” E. Collingsworth III was supposed to become a neurosurgeon like his father and grandfather before him, but wasn’t suited to being a doctor, so dropped out of medical school.  Three failed marriages later and with his trust fund depleted, Chip wrote a crime novel about famed neurosurgeon John Goodman  investigating “the Cranium Killer” with the FBI, and casting two of his ex-wives as victims.  To his surprise, he found an agent willing to represent the manuscript, and it turned into a best-seller.

Headaches Can Be Murder

On a cross-country trip, Chip stumbled across an abandoned farmhouse in Turners Bend, Iowa, and decided that this would be a good place to write his second book in.   Except that he’s run out of ex-wives he wants to murder (his first wife was much nicer)  and that means he’s out of ideas.  Until one day he falls off a shed, and the ensuing bump on his head gives him a painful inspiration for a possible plotline.  As his real life and novel intertwine, can Chip survive long enough to finish the manuscript?

The gimmick in this book, the first in the Chip Collingsworth series, is that there are two stories unfolding simultaneously.  Chip lives his life in rural Iowa, and as things happen around him, he incorporates versions of them into Dr, Goodman’s quest to find out whether microchips inserted into people’s brains are turning them into killers.  Chip meets an attractive veterinarian, and Dr. Goodman meets an attractive FBI agent.  Chip adopts a golden retriever, and Dr. Goodman does as well.  Not all the things happening in Turners Bend are so benign, however, and Chip winds up doing some investigating himself.

One thing that amused me was Chip constantly being given suggestions on what kind of characters should be in his next book, which just happened to match the persons who suggest them.

The twin narrative approach is fun, but means that each story gets less character development.  I noticed quite a few spellchecker typos, which would be acceptable in the “fictional” chapters as Chip writes his drafts, but not so much in the “real world” ones.

There are a couple of sex scenes, and a bit of torture in the Goodman section.

Recommended for those wanting to read mysteries with an Iowa connection.

Comic Strip Review: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Volume 14: 1951-1953

Comic Strip Review: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Volume 14: 1951-1953 by Chester Gould

Another of the fine IDW reprints which are trying to cover the entire Chester Gould run of Dick Tracy, moving into the early 1950s.  As mentioned in the Max Allan Collins introduction, the stories shifted focus a bit.  Dick Tracy is a full time father now, and those concerns take up some of his time.  As well, forensic science was beginning to catch up with the comic strips, so more of that was included as part of the action.

Dick Tracy Volume 18 1951-1953

The volume begins with Crewy Lou’s flight from justice, which is complicated by the fact that she’s accidentally abducted Bonny Braids, Dick and Tess’ infant daughter who started the whole plotline when Crewy Lou photographed her.  They go deep into the mountains, and the desperate woman finally abandons the baby in the smashed-up car.  It’s late fall, and the temperatures are dropping…Bonny Braids is turning blue…would Chester Gould really go ahead and kill the baby?

With his family reunited, Tracy then finds himself the subject of investigation–evidence has gone missing from the police station, evidence Dick was the last to touch.  It didn’t help that Dick Tracy had just built a fine new house and had a brand new car on a cop’s salary.  The main villain this time is “Spinner” ReCord, an electronic entertainment and record store owner.  He was especially cold-blooded, crating himself up with a corpse for hours on a train.  But not, as it happened, quite cold-blooded enough as he is eventually caught due to his body heat.

The supplemental article in this issue talks a bit about how this sequence was modified for comic book publication a few years later when the Comics Code was in force.  A girl’s arms were crudely erased to avoid showing bondage, and a particularly brutal beating was replaced with a text panel that skips over that.

This is followed by one of the most striking Dick Tracy sequences, as Junior Tracy falls in love for the first time (and is now established as a teenager.)  Model Jones is a lovely young woman of decent character, but saddled with drunkard parents and a juvenile delinquent brother.  Gould’s point here is that neglecting your children for alcohol will destroy the family.  Model is killed by her brother (mostly accidentally) and he and their parents mourn the wasted lives as he is sent to prison.

Junior mourns as well, but the world moves on with the initially kind of silly Tonsils story.  Tonsils is a young man with a loud clear voice and a strange way of moving his hands when he “sings.”  He has a poor memory for lyrics, and can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but his manager Dude thinks Tonsils is the next sensation.  Dude wants to quit the rackets, but still has a racketeer’s way of doing things, using a gun to coerce people into giving Tonsils a shot.

Surprise!  Tonsils is exactly the sort of giftedly bad novelty singer the American public wants, and he becomes locally famous.  Unfortunately, Dude’s old racketeer buddies decide that he should not have left the rackets, killing him and nearly killing Tonsils.  This unbalances the lad, and he winds up getting himself on the run from the law due to his mistaken belief that he’s been betrayed.

At this point, Tonsils is picked up by a far more dangerous villain, Mr. Crime.  From his hidden lair beneath a barracuda-infested swimming pool, Mr. Crime is the current leader of the rackets.  He coerces Tonsils into making an assassination attempt on Dick Tracy, and then starts moving against the detective himself.  Mr. Crime is ably assisted by Newsuit Nan, a fashion plate biochemist who has a fascination with blood.

With Mr. Crime and his gang out of the way, there’s a power vacuum in the underworld, which gambler Odds Zon plans to fill.  He tries a combination of torture and bribery to get Dick Tracy off the case, but it obviously doesn’t work.  Things get more complicated when the Plenty family takes in his daughter Susie, who becomes known as Little Wings due to her hair looking like a pair of angel wings.  And this angel glows in the dark!  Uh-oh.

This volume holds off on the truly grotesque looking villains; the most odd appearance is Tonsils’ habit of squinting one eye and bugging out the other.  The Model Jones story is the most “real” seeming due to its down to earth nature.  There is of course considerable violence, and some torture.

This isn’t the most famous period of Gould’s work, but it’s good solid adventure strip territory.  The end piece talks (in addition to the bowdlerization of the comic books) about what Mr. Gould was up to in real life in those years, and the strip’s effects in real life.

Recommended to fans of classic newspaper comics.

Manga Review: Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches #1

Manga Review: Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches #1 by Miki Yoshikawa

Ryu Yamada is a delinquent.  His time at Suzaku High School is marked by poor attendance, bad grades and getting into fights.  His surly attitude is reflected by other students giving him a wide berth and teachers giving him hassle.  One day, after being reamed out by a teacher, Yamada spots honor student Urara Shiraishi going up some stairs.   He stomps up the steps to get ahead of her, to show her–well, just show her.  He’s so focused on getting ahead that when he pivots a couple of steps about Shiraishi, he loses his balance, and they fall down the stairs together.

Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches

When Yamada wakes up in the infirmary, he is shocked to discover that he is now somehow in Shiraishi’s body.  She’s already gone back to class in his body.  She seems remarkably calm about this incident, and doesn’t want to miss any more learning time, so suggests they switch back after the end of classes.

Yamada uses the opportunity to see what Shiraishi’s underwear looks like (in fairness, we learn that she also peeped at his goods), but also learns that Shiraishi is sexually harrassed by men and bullied by the other girls.  Yamada is at least able to impress the worst bully into cutting it out through complicated circumstances.  At the end of the day, the two try falling down the stairs together several times; it doesn’t get them back to their right bodies.

Then Shiraishi mentions that she remembers that just before she blacked out, Yamada’s lips brushed hers.  Yes, it’s kissing that makes them switch bodies!  This being a comedy, they soon need to switch bodies again and again, and eventually it’s learned that Yamada can switch bodies with anyone he kisses.

This is a shounen manga, and has a fairly high amount of male-oriented fanservice.  Yamada himself is remarkably chaste for a “bad boy” (we’ll eventually learn that he didn’t really want that role), but there’s quite a lot of kissing, including same-sex kissing.  As you might guess from the title, there turn out to be other people at the school with special abilities, but we don’t really see any of that in this first volume.  I know some spoilers because this has also been turned into an anime show.

Yamada’s social outcast status has made him woefully ignorant of much of what’s going on with the people around him.   This allows him to be blindsided multiple times by relationships he knows nothing about.  If the manga has a deeper theme, it’s learning how to connect to and understand other people–while Yamada’s fighting prowess is useful, most of the problems he faces require more than a punch or kick to solve.

Ms. Yoshikawa’s art is decent, and she works hard to show by facial expressions and body language who’s in which body.  There’s a certain amount of contrivance in some of the plot developments, but that’s standard for the comedy genre.

Recommended for those who like high school comedy with a fantasy twist.

Anime Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders

Anime Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders

Jotaro Kujo is a bit of a juvenile delinquent, sassing his mother, wearing his school uniform out of regulation style, and getting into fights.  But when he notices that there’s now a strange being that only he can see and does things for him, like bring comics he wants but can’t afford, that’s a bit too much for our young hero.  He decides that he’s become demonically possessed and insists on being locked in jail.

Our main cast.

He’s surprised when his grandfather Joseph Joestar shows up to bail him out, with a mysterious Middle Eastern man in tow.  It turns out that what Jotaro has is not a demon, but a psychic projection known as a Stand.  Some people, like the Egyptian fortuneteller Avdol and his fiery Stand Magician’s Red, are born with these powers.  The Joestar family, however, only recently gained these Stands, including Joseph’s clairvoyant Hermit Purple and Jotaro’s martial arts-oriented Star Platinum –and the reason is unsettling.

The vampire Dio, who had been decapitated and trapped in a chest at the bottom of the sea, was released a few months ago, and attached his head to the body of Joseph’s grandfather Jonathan Joestar.   Somehow.  This also for reasons not fully explained in this plotline caused Stands to awaken in everyone blood-related to Jonathan.   This includes Joseph’s daughter and Jotaro’s mother Holly.  Unfortunately, she is for insufficiently explained reasons unable to fully manifest her Stand, which instead is slowly killing her.   DIO (as he is now called) needs killing anyway, but this puts a time limit on it, and our small band must make their way from Japan to Egypt and destroy the overpowered vampire before Holly dies.

This is the third storyline of the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure series based on the manga by Hirohiko Araki.  I reviewed the adaptation of parts one and two, Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency, earlier.  This part takes place in the 1980s (when it was written)  and replaces the martial arts vs. vampires and super-vampires battles with bizarre psychic abilities that take a physical form.  This provides many chances for tactical innovation as the characters must try to use their specialized powers to overcome the strange abilities of their opponents.

DIO has gathered a motley crew of mostly evil Stand users, though the handsome Kakyoin (wielder of the liquid Hierophant Green) and the comical Polnareff (master of the fencing Stand Silver Chariot) were mind-controlled and join the heroes once freed.  One of the running gags of the series is that the main characters cannot keep a vehicle for more than a day or two before it gets destroyed or made inoperable.  This slows their journey across Asia considerably.

In addition to everyone being named after musicians or music, the Stands are patterned after the Major Arcana of the Tarot  until the arrival in Egypt, at which point most of the enemies have Stands patterned after Egyptian gods.  This is probably because Araki was told to stretch out the manga while its ratings were high.   Also in Egypt, the team picks up a sixth member, Iggy the Fool, a very unpleasant dog.

Jotaro is on the surface a very different protagonist from Joseph, a stoic, quiet young man who prefers to let his fists do the talking.  As the series progresses, however, we learn that he shares some of his grandfather’s goofball sense of humor.   Joseph himself remains the trickster hero, his new powers requiring subtlety and clever tactics to defeat enemies.  Avdol is the dignified one, though quick to anger, and Kakyoin is a bit more intellectual than the others.  Polnareff is, while competent, very much the comic relief, and gets stuck with repeated potty humor gags.

DIO spends most of the series in shadows, barely interacting with his minions, but once he becomes active, takes center stage.  He’s learned not to underestimate the Joestar clan, and his new power The World is seemingly unbeatable.  He’s considered one of manga’s most iconic villains for a reason.

In addition to the violence you’d expect from a shounen fighter series, there’s a fair bit of nudity, some of it very creepy.

This part of the series has been animated before, but the new adaptation is much more faithful and as of this writing is available on Crunchyroll.  (Note: due to trademark issues, some of the names are changed in the subtitles.  So you will hear the characters saying “Vanilla Ice”, the  name of a villain, but the subtitles will read “Cool Ice.”)

This series inspired a lot of later shounen battle series, but the clever fights, roadtrip plotline and fun characters are still some of the best in the business.

TV Review: Checkmate | Colonel March of Scotland Yard | I’m the Law

TV Review: Checkmate | Colonel March of Scotland Yard | I’m the Law

Time for more old-time TV!  Checkmate was a 1960-62 series about a detective agency of the same name based in San Francisco.  Don Corey (Anthony  George ) and Jed Sills (Doug McClure) out of Corey’s plush apartment, and employ Dr. Carl Hyatt (Sebastian Cabot), noted criminology professor, as a consultant.  The agency specialized in attempting to thwart crimes that had yet to be committed.

Checkmate

I watched two episodes on DVD:

  • “The Human Touch” :  The focus is on Dr. Hyatt, as a master criminal (Peter Lorre) he caught years ago is out of prison and wants revenge.  The two men are both very proud of their brains, and we get a lot of cat and mouse dialogue as they try to outsmart each other.  The revenge plan is nifty, but fails due to the title factor.  A fun episode!
  • “Nice Guys Finish Last”:  A more somber story, in which the Checkmate regulars play only a small part.  Instead, the main character is a police lieutenant who is denied promotion because of his obsession with a certain wealthy man about town.  (The man may have even directly intervened to quash the promotion.)  The wealthy man hires Checkmate to protect him from the police detective.   When the lieutenant has an opportunity fall into his lap to destroy his enemy, he takes it,, much to his cost.  An interesting aspect of the story is that it is never proven the rich man did anything wrong, even the one thing that set the policeman on his trail in the first place.  He just acts like a dirtbag, and I for one wanted him to be brought down.

Colonel March of Scotland Yard was a 1955 British series starring Boris Karloff as the eccentric head of the Department of Queer Complaints at Scotland Yard.  The premise was based on a book by John Dickson Carr, a master of locked room mysteries.  March wore an eyepatch (never explained) and was a playful chap who enjoyed a good puzzle.  Sadly, most of the episodes have been lost.

Colonel March of Scotland Yard

The episode I saw was “Error at Daybreak.”  As it happens, Colonel March is on holiday at the seashore, and reading a book on “The Psychology of Crustaceans” when a millionaire with a weak heart dies nearby.  The body is lodged between rocks and impossible to move, but March discovers blood by the corpse, and a mysterious sharp metal rod on the ground nearby.  March suspects murder rather than heart attack, a suspicion given credence when the corpse disappears before the police proper arrive.  The real solution lies in a little boy’s rubber ball.  Pleasant, but not Karloff’s best work.

I’m the Law ran in 1953, and starred George Raft as New York Police Lieutenant George Kirby.  Kirby had been a stage dancer before joining the police force, and never carried a gun.  Mr. Raft’s career was in a steep decline at the time, and was one of the first big-name film stars to be reduced to steady work in television as opposed to special guest appearances.

I'm the Law

Still, the series benefited from his tough-guy air and screen presence.  My DVD had three episodes.

  • “The Cowboy and the Blind Man Story”:  Kirby is contacted by a singing cowboy star (loosely modeled on Roy Rogers) to investigate a stalker of the singer’s current girlfriend.  That lady turns out to be a sharpshooter and fully capable of taking care of herself.  Except a shot comes in through her window, just missing her.  In the office of a blind record promoter across the street, the stalker turns up dead of lead poisoning.  Could be the sharpshooter, but her guns don’t match the bullet.  So who?  Pretty obvious to the genre-savvy.
  • “O Sole Mio”:  A boy’s father is gunned down in Central Park, with only the boy and an organ grinder as witnesses, and the organ grinder was looking the wrong way at the time.  Kirby takes the boy under his wing before the kid gets too far down the road to becoming Batman, and discovers the father had a taste for the horses and too much money for his day job.  The idea of a police woman is treated with some disbelief by the boy, and a subplot involving a seedy newsstand vendor and a juvenile delinquent turns out to be an entire red herring.
  • “The Trucking Story”:  A dockworker is killed in what is reported as an accident, but is pretty clearly an “accident.”  An elderly peddler who was friends with the dockworker calls on Kirby to investigate beyond the official report.  Kirby goes undercover and discovers that the shipping company is sending more than glassware to China.  The dockworker’s union is seen protecting its members from  abusive behavior by the bosses (one of the reasons the death had to be an “accident.”)

It’s an okay series, but relies a bit too heavily on eccentric minor characters to play off the strait-laced George Raft role.

TV Review: Lock-Up

TV Review: Lock-Up

Lock-Up was a 1959-1961 crime drama loosely based on the files of real-life attorney Herbert L. Maris.  Mr. Maris was played by Macdonald Carey, and John Doucette played police lieutenant Jim Weston, depicted as Maris’ best friend.

Lock-Up

Herbert Maris was actually a specialist in corporate law who sometimes championed people who’d been unjustly accused of crime on a pro bono basis.  As such, there are no courtroom scenes; Mr. Maris attempts to prove the accused person innocent before a trial begins.

The Mill Creek DVD had eight episodes, four of which are of special interest.  “The Case of Joe Slade” has the protagonists go on a fishing trip, only to discover that their guide is locked up for killing his wife.  Lon Chaney, Jr. guest stars as a sheriff who’s just a little too eager to have the case closed.

“The Beau and Arrow Case” has a psychiatrist murdered with an arrow.  The twist is that Mr. Maris himself  is accused of the crime!  The main suspect, however, is an archery range owner and the doctor’s patient.    This episode was written by Robert Bloch, and is quite tense.  It does rely, however, on the coroner not looking too closely.

“Society Doctor” is another man accused of killing his wealthy wife.  There are several people with motives, and the waters are muddied by one person’s persistent lies.  Jackie Coogan is comic relief as the doctor’s drunken brother in law–but was he really passed out during the time of the crime?

“The Case of Nan Havens” has a young woman caught with microfilm of experimental military hardware in her car.  Mr. Maris must prove that she was the innocent dupe of real spies with the aid of a wisecracking drive-in waitress.  Mary Tyler Moore guest-stars.

It’s very much a period piece–Red spies in two episodes, smoking, and several of the stories have plot points about women having to rely on husbands for money.   There’s even a juvenile delinquency story.  Mr. Maris and Lieutenant Weston often flirt with women in ways that might be considered unprofessional today.

Keeping that in mind, the fun guest stars and the interesting writing make this something worth a watch.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights by too many to list.  Trust me, a lot of great names.

Between the late 1940s and somewhere in the 1990s, one of the most pervasive fears of the American public was atomic war. For the first time in known history, humans were truly capable of destroying all civilization, perhaps all life on Earth. One of the ways people dealt with this fear was science fiction. After all, the SF writers had forseen the possibility of annihilation well before such a thing was actually possible–and their stories would tell us the ways things might fall out. At DC Comics, this became a loose theme called “The Great Disaster.”

The Great Disaster

Unlike other Showcase volumes, this one collects not one series or character’s appearances, but a thematically linked set of stories, dealing with the aftermath of atomic war. As such, it provides a wide array of notable comics writers and artists.

The volume opens with a couple of stories about people traveling from after the Great Disaster to the present, or vice versa. This is followed by a collection of short-shock stories all titled “The Day After Doomsday”, presenting varied scenarios for what life after the Bomb might be like. Perhaps the most effective of these is the “Adam and Gertrude” trilogy.by Len Wein and Jack Sparling, but they all have their charms.

Then we have the feature event, the “Atomic Knights” stories. These were all by John Broome and Murphy Anderson. World War Three began in October 1986, and lasted less than a month, but wiped out much of human civilization, leaving a world without many animals or plants, and only a few pockets of humans struggling for survival. Into this world comes Sergeant Gardner Grayle. When he joined the Army, they discovered he was exactly average both mentally and physically, but during the War he was trapped in a bomb shelter that collapsed from a near-hit. The experience gave him traumatic amnesia, and only months after the disaster does he come to himself.

Grayle happens to be near a town named Durvale that was relatively untouched by the war, which is to say it’s a total wreck. It’s come under the thumb of the Black Baron (so named because of his hair color) who has managed to corner the local food supply. By coincidence, Grayle and a local school teacher, John Herald, discover that the suits of medieval armor in the museum have become resistant to most forms of radiation, including the ray-pistols used by the Black Baron and his men. There are six sets of armor, and soon Grayle and Herald recruit twin ex-soldiers Hollis and Wayne Hobbard, as well as scientist Bryndon (who is feared and despised for being one of those who made the bombs that ruined the world.) The last suit is deemed too small to be usable by any combat-ready man, so the Atomic Knight five set off. John’s sister, Marene Herald, who is small enough to fit in the last armor, takes it upon herself to follow them, and helps out in a tight situation.

The Atomic Knights became the new force for law and order in the post-apocalyptic world, fighting bizarre radiation-spawned monsters, evil dictators, the remnants of Atlantis and the mysterious mole people (who it turned out had actually caused the war.) Bit by bit, they began to make Earth liveable again.

These stories were all about the cool ideas, and were aimed primarily at children, so scientific plausibility and deep characterization were generally skipped.  Bryndon being reluctant to discuss his pre-War research and the Hobard brothers being jazz fans was about as much as we learned about them as persons.  Speaking of jazz, the early 1960s habit of only depicting white people in comics was on full display on a visit to New Orleans, where names of black performers are dropped, but there are no people of color in town.  Marene, of course, is often excluded from dangerous missions and seems to have no particular skill set beyond “being feminine.”  She even muses to herself that she’s “just a woman!”  Perhaps appropriately, the last official Atomic Knights story from 1963 has her disguising herself as a boy and demonstrating some athletic talent.

Next up are stories of the return of the gods.  There’s a one-shot about Atlas by Jack Kirby that doesn’t tie into anything in particular, but shared a resemblance to his Kamandi series, also set after the Great Disaster. The Kamandi series lasted long enough to get its own Showcase volume, so the next set of stories are Hercules Unbound, which ran 1975-77.

We open with Hercules bound to a rock, as he has been for the last millenium or so. Suddenly, the chains holding him snap–could this mean that Ares, who treacherously bound Hercules there, is dead? No time to think about that, as a blind boy and his dog are battling sea monsters nearby. Kevin, the blind boy, explains that he was in Greece when World War Three broke out, and he set out in a sailboat to see if he can get to his father, an ambassador to the Vatican. As it happens, Ares is in Rome, and very much alive, pitting the remnants of armies against each other for his own amusement. While Hercules triumphs against Ares’ champion, the opening chapter ends in tragedy for Kevin.

Hercules and his companions begin wandering the post-apocalyptic earth, encountering mad gods and mutants. There’s one person of color, a loincloth-clad hunter named Cerebus (not the aardvark) who is repeatedly referred to as “Nubian.” Yeah. The new-fangled “Women’s Lib” is mentioned a few times, mostly in association with Jennifer Monroe, a woman who was a model before the war, and mostly serves as a damsel in distress for Hercules.

Over the course of the series, it ties into OMAC, Kamandi and the Atomic Knights, despite these series not precisely being in continuity with each other. The last couple of chapters return to the question of why Hercules was chained to that rock in the first place; it answers some lingering subplots, ignores others, and flatly contradicts some of the earlier characterization. (The series had changed writers more than once in a dozen issues.)

After that are a few back-ups from Kamandi, and one last “The Day After Doomsday” shock story. To close out the volume, we have a Superman story from 1983. By this time, it was looking less and less likely that we would actually have an atomic war in 1986, and even if we did, it wouldn’t have the future-Fifties design aesthetic and cultural behavior seen in the Atomic Knights series. So when Superman suddenly finds himself in the Atomic Knights future, he is quick to point out the scientific implausibiliy of the scenario. Yes, this is hilarious coming from Mr. “The laws of physics are just mild suggestions.” Turns out it’s a virtual reality scenario gone horribly wrong, with the moral being “The task before man-kind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!” The story is also notable for giving Marene Herald a much more important role.

All together, this is a mixed bag with something for many comic book fans, including rare stories. It’s well worth a loan from your library, and if you’re a collector, consider buying it.

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