Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1 written by Bill Finger & Gardner Fox, art by Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff

Batman was the second full-fledged superhero published by National Periodicals, soon to be better known as DC.  The kernel of the idea was proposed by artist Bob Kane, and fleshed out by writer Bill Finger, with a first appearance in Detective Comics #37.  As the Shadow was to Doc Savage, so Batman was to Superman, a skilled man operating in the shadows, rather than a superhuman operating in the light of day.  But both, of course, dedicated to justice in their own ways.

Batman Archives Volume 1

This “Archives” edition is a hardbound full-cover reprint of the Batman stories from Detective Comics #37-50.  I believe this was the first of this collector’s bait format, thus the “introductory price.”

We open, of course, with “The Case of the Criminal Syndicate.”  Police Commissioner Gordon is chilling with his young socialite friend Bruce Wayne, talking about rumors of a mysterious “Bat-Man.”  Gordon is informed of a murder among the wealthy citizens of the city, and Bruce tags along as he hasn’t got anything better to do.  Chemical syndicate head Lambert is dead, and the most likely suspect is his son.

The son claims he didn’t do it, and to lend credence to this claim, a call comes from Crane, one of Lambert’s three partners, explaining that both of them had threats made against their lives.  Bruce Wayne becomes bored and goes home.  Crane is murdered too, but before the murderer escapes with a certain paper, a mysterious Bat-Man appears, beats up the murderer and his partner and takes the paper.

From this, Batman is able to figure out which of the two remaining partners is the mastermind.  He saves the fourth partner, and punches the villain into a tank of acid.  Commissioner Gordon explains the plot to Bruce, who finds it all highly unlikely.  But in the last panel, we learn that Bruce Wayne himself is in fact the Batman!  What a twist!

The hyphen was quickly dropped, but Batman’s habit of killing opponents in the heat of battle took a bit longer to disappear.   The art is kind of crude, and the plot borrowed heavily from a Shadow pulp story, but the creators were on to something new in comics, and rapidly improved.  (Plus Bob Kane started having assistants to keep up with the work.)

#29 brings us “The Batman Meets Doctor Death.”  The title opponent is Batman’s first opponent with a catchy nom de guerre (his actual name is the pretty nifty Dr. Karl Hellfern), his first mad scientist enemy, and his first recurring enemy.  In the following issue, Doctor Death also becomes Batman’s first hideously disfigured villian, as his face is burnt off.  These two stories have unfortunate ethnic stereotypes as Doctor Death’s henchmen, and Gardner Fox’s lack of research into authentic ethnic background information is obvious.

Batman is also pretty careless with his secret identity of Bruce Wayne in this story; if Doctor Death had been just a little sneakier Batman’s double life would have been over only a few months after his debut.  There’s a cameo by the man who will become the Crime Doctor much, much later on, Bruce Wayne’s personal physician, who wonders how the lazy upper-class twit managed to shoot himself with no powder burn.

#31-32, “Batman Versus the Vampire” introduces Batman’s first full-fledged supervillain, the Monk, who wears a distinctive costume (red monk’s robes and a red hood with a skull & crossbones sigil), and as a vampire/werewolf has supernatural powers.  He and his sidekick (lover?) Dala kidnap Bruce Wayne’s fiancee Julie Madison (also appearing for the first time) for reasons never fully explained, and after much action and scary stuff, Batman puts silver bullets through their hearts.

This story also makes it clear that Batman operates in New York City, which was changed to Gotham City later for ease of fictionalization.

#33, “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom” is most notable for finally getting around to telling us why Bruce Wayne runs around in a bat costume fighting crime.  This simple two-page origin would eventually be vastly expanded upon and become an important part of the mythos.

#34, “Peril in Paris” has Bruce Wayne run into a man without a face.  Who is not the villain of the story.  That’s the fellow who stole his face.  It’s still not back by the end of the story (and the flowers with women’s heads are not explained either), but this faceless fellow and his beautiful sister are the first people Batman reveals his true identity to.  And then are never seen again.

#36, “Professor Hugo Strange” introduces the title character, another mad scientist, who takes part of his inspiration from Professor Moriarty, but is also large and muscular, able to give Batman a good tussle even without his fog machine, monster men and other gimmicks.

#38 “Introducing Robin, the Boy Wonder” does just what it says.  Circus acrobat Dick Grayson loses his parents to criminals, and is taken in by Batman, who gives the lad a costume and training to become a crimefighter.  (He also reveals his identity to Dick off-camera.)  Thanks to this, Robin gets the quick closure that Batman never did by tracking down and convicting his parents’ killer.

Robin was the first superhero’s boy sidekick in comic books, and soon the market was flooded with them.  He lightened up the Batman character and gave the Caped Crusader someone to have dialogue with rather than think out loud to himself.

Also about this time, Batman got his own solo comic book series, but that’s another volume.

#40, “Beware of Clayface!” introduces the first villain to wear that name, crazed horror actor Basil Karlo (a riff on Basil Karloff, who was a swell guy in real life.)  Julie Madison begins her career as a movie actress.  In #49, the Basil Karlo Clayface returns (and then would not be seen again for decades) and Julie decides to break her engagement to Bruce for his fecklessness.  (Little realizing it’s only a cover for his activities as Batman.)

#44, “The Land Beyond the Light!” is the first full-on fantasy story for Batman, as the Dynamic Duo is transported to another dimension and interfere in a war between giants and little people.  It’s all Dick Grayson’s dream in the end, but soon such stories would become a regular thing.

#50 ends this volume with “The Case of the Three Devils.”  Three circus acrobats have turned to crime using devil costumes and their ability to pull off outrageous physical stunts.  They give Batman and Robin quite a chase before the Caped Crusaders can finally corner them.  Batman’s superior use of terrain gives him the victory.

Again, lots of exciting action portrayed in a new way for 1939-40.  Some plots are overly simplistic, while others become nonsensical if you think about them too carefully, but the writing gets much better as it goes along.   There’s also an illuminating foreword by comics scholar Rick Marschall.

This is a must have for the serious Batman collector; other Batman fans should check it out at the library to see the early development of the classic characters.

Book Review: A Man Named Raglan/Gun Junction

Book Review:  A Man Named Raglan/Gun Junction by John Callahan and Barry Cord, respectively

While most of the Ace Doubles (two short books fused together and printed upside down from each other) I’ve read are science fiction, Ace also put out mysteries and westerns in the format.  This book is one of the Westerns, and is volume M-100, first of the 45¢ series.

A Man Named Raglan

A Man Named Raglan takes place during the Civil War, as Nevada Territory becomes a state.  Wells Fargo shotgun rider Dan Raglan isn’t much fussed about it.  He did his bit for the Union up until his leg took a bullet at Chancellorsville, and that’s the end of the war for him, thank you.  His stagecoach driver partner Steve Munson is more concerned.  Munson’s a loyal son of the South, and doesn’t like how it’s getting whipped, and Nevada’s coming in on the side of the North.

Neither of them is pleased when they’re ambushed by road agents claiming to be Confederate irregulars here to confiscate that sweet Wells Fargo moneybox for the war effort.  When it turns out Wells Fargo hadn’t sent any cash on this trip, the owlhoots have to settle for robbing the passengers instead.  They had the drop on Raglan through the robbery, but as the robbers are departing, one’s horse shies, and Raglan has a chance to bring his rifle to bear.

Raglan is about to squeeze the trigger when the road agent’s mask slips–and he recognizes the man as Bob Worden, kid brother of Elizabeth Worden, the woman Raglan is courting.  Raglan hesitates just long enough for Bob to regain his balance and escape.

Munson is furious and accuses Raglan of cowardice.  the two men have a fist fight that reflects well on neither of them, but female passenger Lil Shannon seems to sympathize more with Raglan.  Raglan refuses to identify Bob, even when crack Wells Fargo agent Ben Nasmith asks him directly, so he’s out of a job.

Elizabeth isn’t particularly grateful about Raglan shielding her brother, as she doesn’t believe Bob could have been involved in the first place.  Oh, and the gang Bob was with has realized that Raglan can finger one of their members, and wants the former shotgun rider dead to prevent that.  For a man who thought his war was over, Raglan’s got a lot of fighting to do!

This is a decent enough Western, and I like how Raglan’s bum leg realistically causes difficulty for him.  He spends a good half of the time laid up in bed one way or another.

Less good is some historical sleight of hand that allows Raglan (and by extension the reader) to admire his Confederate foes, considering them honorable men fighting for an almost worthy cause.  There is zero mention of slavery, and not one black person appears, despite Virginia City’s actual demographics at that time in history.  The latter was typical of Westerns in the 1960s, but it sticks out like a sort thumb because of the storyline.

From Raglan’s perspective, there’s a mystery element to the story, but savvy readers will figure out the big twists well ahead of him.

Gun Junction

Gun Junction is set in Texas.  The small town of Fulton has been taken over by Luke McQuade’s gang of outlaws.  They lynched the sheriff, beat the deputy so bad he’ll never come back, and murdered the U.S. Marshal who came into town to avenge the sheriff.   Also, for some reason, they seem intent on preventing the Desert Line Railroad from being finished.

Deputy Marshal Matt Vickers is the next lawman to ride into town, though he comes incognito.  He’s brought two other men, ex-Ranger Doc Emory, and hard-bitten Kip Billens, the brother of the murdered sheriff.  Each of the men carries his own burden of secrets, and not all of them will leave Fulton alive.

This is a dark-themed and brooding story, and is better about delivering its twists than its partner.  (The book’s blurb did give a bit too much away.)  Overall, it’s better-written, too.

Both books use the “protagonist interrupts jerk who’s hitting on an uninterested woman who then takes an interest in the protagonist” cliche–Gun Junction plays it out better as while the young woman in question does fancy Matt Vickers, she’s fully aware he’s not a good long-term marriage prospect.  Also, both books have the phrase “don’t make war on women.”

I am given to understand that Gun Junction was later reprinted separately, and that may be a better bet than trying to track down the relatively rare Ace Double printing.

Book Review: Fire-Tongue

Book Review: Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer

If there’s one thing a detective hates, it’s when their client hems and haws about explaining basic details of why they need a detective, only to die just as they make up their minds with only a cryptic last utterance as a clue.

Fire-Tongue

But that’s the situation Paul Harley is in with his latest case.  Sir Charles Abingdon, noted osteologist, suspects he may be in danger, but is so vague about the circumstances that it’s impossible to tell why.  He promises to make more explanations at dinner, but collapses just after drinking a bit of water, uttering only “Fire-Tongue…Nicol Brinn” before passing.

Nicol Brinn is an American millionaire who happens to be in London just now, but what possible connection could he have to Sir Charles?  And the phrase “Fire-Tongue” is a complete mystery.  Oh, and neither the water nor the glass itself were poisoned, so how did Sir Charles die?

Brinn appears to know something about “Fire-Tongue” but is evasive at best on that matter, and claims to know nothing about Sir Charles’ death or why he might have felt threatened.  He does promise to let Harley know if he has any definite leads.  Very suspicious.

However, Harley learns that Sir Charles’ daughter, Phyllis “Phil” Abingdon has been receiving “attentions” from Ormuz Khan, a Middle Eastern banker.  And since certain features of this case suggest the “Oriental”, that’s worth looking into as well.

Readers familiar with Sax Rohmer’s work will fnd little mystery here.  Once there’s a “mysterious Oriental” in the case, it’s obvious he’s guilty somehow.  From there on in it’s secret societies, poisons unknown to Western science, subtle mental powers and lots of peril.

This isn’t Rohmer’s best work by a long shot.  He divides the role of hero up between three male characters poorly, has characters make stupid decisions to keep the happenings mysterious, and the backstory is given in four straight chapters of infodump at the end.  Exciting but incoherent.

And that’s before we get to the racism, sexism and making the villain effeminate in appearance to indicate that he’s somehow unnatural.  Perhaps the weirdest bit in this direction is that Brinn’s face is repeatedly described as “Sioux-like” without any indication of Native American heritage.

This is, by the by, the second Paul Harley book; the first, Bat Wing, was apparently more of an actual mystery.  Mr. Harley is an ex-barrister who has turned to political consulting and detection as a more interesting career.  He’s apparently psychic, able to detect auras of evil or danger.  Which would be more helpful if this sense were directional, and didn’t sometimes interfere with his ability to make rational observations.

Like many pulp heroes, Mr. Harley is also a master of disguise.  Pity the baddies were specifically looking for someone in disguise!

Mr. Brinn is a harder-edged sort, and rather cold-blooded.  He has a sense of honor that allows him to dally with other men’s wives, but not break his word.  It’s a good thing he’s a millionaire, or he’d never get away with this stuff.

And then we have Detective Inspector Wessex of Scotland Yard, a bright (but not too bright) fellow who fills in chapters when neither Mr. Harley nor Mr. Brinn is available on-screen.

Overall, only recommended to Sax Rohmer completists.  It’s in the public domain in the U.S.–my copy was from a print on demand publisher, but you should be able to find the text on the internet.

Book Review: Octavia’s Brood

Book Review: Octavia’s Brood edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha

One of the many uses of science fiction is to talk about current issues in a speculative setting.  One can posit a world in which current trends have become exaggerated to dystopian levels, or where a solution has been found to a current problem and what that would result in, or imagine how a change in the past would affect an issue…or even just go the allegory route by, say, having anti-Martian prejudice stand in for anti-immigrant prejudice of the current day.

Octavia's Shadow

This anthology is dedicated to science fiction stories on the theme of social justice issues.  It’s dedicated to the memory of Octavia Butler (1947-2006) a Hugo-winning author of works that touched on such themes as racism, alienation and the environment.  There are twenty stories and two essays by a variety of experienced and first-time authors.

The first story is “Revolution Shuffle” by Bao Phi.  Two Vietnamese-American young people in the middle of a zombie apocalypse are about to liberate an internment camp for Asian and Middle Eastern-descended people.  It seems that in this future, the zombie infestation was declared a terrorist attack, and the most likely suspects were locked up in special facilities to maintain zombie-attracting pistons “for their own protection.”  It reads like the first chapter of a YA dystopia novel.

The last fictional story is “children who fly” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.  It’s a future starring her daughter in a globally-warmed Oakland, trying to preserve what’s left of the community through group disassociation.  “Evidence” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs also uses heavy author insertion in foretelling a future where material goods are no longer important but personal growth is.

Several stories are clearly in the Afrofuturism mode, such as “Lalibela” by Gabriel Teodros, about a time-traveling Ethiopian king.

The most stylistically interesting piece is “Sanford and Sun” by Dawolu Jahari Anderson, which is a script format tale about junk dealer Fred G. Sanford encountering cosmic funk musician and philosopher Sun Ra.  It’s a neat concept, but the “jokes” reminded me of just how much Redd Foxx’s comedic delivery skills carried the Sanford and Son show.  Without specifically imagining him in the role at all times, the lines fall flat.

Some of the stories feel like incomplete fragments.  “Aftermath” by LeVar Burton (about an African-American scientist developing a cure for Parkinson’s Disease, only to be kidnapped by people who want to skin her alive) and “Fire on the Mountain” by Terry Bisson (an alternate history where the Civil War went very differently indeed) are open about this as they are previews of longer books.  Others come off as essays more than stories.

Of the stories in this volume, the one I liked best was “The Long Memory” by Morrigan Phillips.  It takes place in an archipelago where people known as Memorials can access the memories of the Memorials who have come before them, back to the beginning of their line.  These Memorials have become an important part of the society as the rulers must consult them and their knowledge of history before each important decision.

A wealthy and ambitious politician has become an enemy of the Memorials for reasons including the fact that they remember his ideas turn out badly.  He manages to get enough of the government on his side to imprison the Memorials.

The protagonist organizes a hunger strike in an effort to bring the politician to the negotiating table (and also to remind the people that the Memorials have been locked up.)  She naturally wants herself and her colleagues to be freed, but also comes to the realization that the people of the Archipelago have leaned on the Memorials for long-term memory so much that they’ve lost the capacity to remember history for themselves.

The essays are “Star Wars and the American Imagination” by Mumia Abu-Jamal, which is about pretty much what you’d think, and “The Only Lasting Truth”  by Tananarive Due, which is about Octavia Butler herself, her work, and her legacy.

There’s also a foreword, introduction and outro discussing the themes and importance of the works included, and a set of author bios.

This collection is “important” more than “good”; the quality of submissions is uneven, but they are nevertheless interesting to read and contemplate, and I look forward to seeing the future work of many of these authors.  If you have an interest in social justice themes or Afrofuturism, please consider picking this book up.

 

Book Review: A Storm of Swords

Book Review: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first two volumes in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

A Storm of Swords

The Battle of King’s Landing is over, and the forces loyal to King Joffrey are triumphant.  But the War of Five Kings rages on, with no part of Westeros left untouched.  Lord Tywin Lannister returns to power as the King’s Hand after many years and his iron grip is soon felt both by the people of the land and his own family.

The various factions scheme and negotiate and betray, but all of this may soon be pointless as the Others gain strength and seek to slay all who live.

This is the third and largest volume so far in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series.  In a foreword, the author explains that the chapters from different points of view do not immediately follow each other chronologically.  Indeed, the first few chapters of A Storm of Swords take place before the last few chapters of A Clash of Kings, catching us up on some characters who were not at the Battle of King’s Landing.

The members of the Stark family remain a plurality of the viewpoint chapters, but other folks are catching up.

Catelyn Stark takes a calculated risk in freeing Jaime Lannister to exchange for her daughters, which angers some of her son’s bannermen.  Thus she has little room to talk when King Robb himself makes a major diplomatic faux pas.  (Robb still doesn’t get a viewpoint chapter.)  With their alliance falling apart, will the King in the North be able to mend fences before his enemies regroup?

Jon Snow infiltrates the Northern Wildlings as he was ordered, in order to learn what Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, is up to.  Like many spies before him, Jon learns that the Free Folk are people not so different from those he has loved and sworn to protect, despite their odd customs and desire to invade his homeland.  It is a bitter pill to swallow, but realizing that you know nothing is the beginning of wisdom.

Sansa Stark, trapped at King Joffrey’s court, continues to be a political pawn, valued primarily as a possible claim on the lands surrounding Winterfell, and if rebuilt, the castle itself.  She’s forced into a political marriage which she will need all her courtesy and will to survive.  The wolf may be caged, but she has not forgotten how to wait.

Arya Stark may have escaped the ill-omened castle Harrenhal, but the land is still torn by war, and one thing after another delays her reunion with her mother.  Among other events, Arya falls in with the Bannerless Brotherhood.  Once the enforcers of the king’s law, a change in government has made them outlaws who steal from the rich to give to the poor.  (For certain values of “rich” and “poor.”)  Arya may need to cash in a certain favor if she is to survive on her own terms.

Bran Stark, presumed dead after the fall of Winterfell, is headed north with the faithful Hodor and the Reeds.  (He has parted company with Rickon, who still gets no chapters.)   His link with direwolf Summer continues to grow, and he learns new facets of his powers.

Tyrion Lannister, badly wounded by an assassination attempt during the Battle of King’s Landing, finds himself fallen from power.  His father Lord Tywin grudgingly admits that Tyrion did a decent job as King’s Hand, but is soon back to treating his little person son like dirt, including saddling Tyrion with a cruel arranged marriage.  Queen Cersei and her son King Joffrey also take every opportunity to mock and belittle their relative.  How much can one man take before he snaps?

Daenerys Targaryen has come to realize that while being the Mother of Dragons is way cool, her reptilian wards are not yet big enough to win Westeros for her alone.  She needs an army, but where to get one?  Dani’s also finding that celibacy is becoming a harder stance to hold than when she was newly widowed.  Ser Jorah Mormont loves her, but the queen doesn’t love him that way back.

We don’t get any chapters from Theon Greyjoy’s perspective this time, though he is reportedly still alive and in possession of at least some of his skin.

Davos Seaworth, on the other hand, managed to survive the burning of the Blackwater, and returns to the service of King Stannis Baratheon.  The King of the Narrow Sea has been listening to the counsel of the Red Priestess Melisandre, and is prepared to sacrifice his nephew Edric Storm if that’s what it takes to gain enough power to rule Westeros.  Davos makes what is perhaps the smartest choices in the book when he realizes that Melisandre may be reading her prophetic visions backwards.

New to the list of point of view characters is Jaime Lannister, known as the Kingslayer.  Released in the custody of the female knight Brienne in order to get back to King’s Landing in exchange for the Stark daughters, Jaime must cross a hostile land with almost every hand against him.  We learn the reason he became the Kingslayer, and Jaime has to face up to how his past misdeeds have helped put Westeros in the mess it’s in.  Like Arya Stark, Jaime just keeps getting delayed on his journey until it is perhaps too late.

Finally, we follow Jon Snow’s less combat-effective friend Samwell Tarly, a steward for the Night Watch.  While Jon goes off on his secret mission, Sam assists the other Black Brothers in their scouting mission beyond the Wall.  The Others are deadly, but what may finish off the Night Watch might be treachery in their own ranks.

This is the book that really cemented the series’ reputation for having anyone die at any time, and kills off major and minor characters left and right.  (One character who seemed like they were going to be very important in the second volume dies offhand in a single sentence here.)  But that comes with a caveat that anyone who is only reported as dead may in fact be alive, and being dead doesn’t mean not making any more appearances.

The big theme of the book is marriage; there are multiple weddings, none of which turn out particularly well.  There’s also several songs that recur throughout, most notably the bawdy “The Bear and the Maiden” and “The Rains of Castamere”, which has more sinister connotations.

Parts of the book do become a slog as there are multiple characters trying to get from one place to another and not getting there over and over.  A couple of the Stark family just miss meeting each other, and some plot twists are gratuitously cruel.  (As are some actions taken by the characters.) A few of the mysteries in the first two volumes are solved, for what it is worth.

As always, there is plenty of gory violence, some sex, attempted rape of major characters and off-camera rape of minor characters, and great steaming heaps of rough language.  Torture takes place off-stage as well.  But if you weren’t warned by the first two volumes, there’s not much I can say.

There’s some nifty world-building, and a handful of great scenes.  Primarily recommended to people who liked the earlier books in the series.

And now, a song!

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.)

Comic Book Review: Essential Daredevil Vol. 4

Comic Book Review: Essential Daredevil Vol. 4 edited by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas

Created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, Daredevil is Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer.  He was struck in the face with radioactive material as a teen while shoving a blind man out of danger, which both blinded Matthew and gave him extraordinary senses.  When his father “Battlin’ Jack” Murdock was murdered for refusing to throw a boxing match, Matt donned a bizarre devil-themed costume to avenge him.  He then continued to use the Daredevil identity to fight crime and help people.

Essential Daredevil Vol. 4

This volume contains Daredevil #75-101, plus an important issue of the Avengers, #111.  Gerry Conway wrote most of these issues with Gene Colan on pencils.  (As usual, Colan’s work looks great in black and white.)

We open with Matt having mostly broken up with his long-time romantic interest, Karen Page, who is pursuing an acting career.  They’re both having second thoughts, so it’s several issues before they move on and Daredevil can devote his full attention to Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow (who got to share the cover title for a while.)

#75 seems to be a filler issue, with Matt and his law partner and best friend Foggy Nelson visiting South America.  Daredevil battles a revolutionary calling himself “El Condor” after a local hero.  It’s an interesting story because it’s clear that El Condor’s identity was supposed to be a last-page reveal (always wears a mask, the one person who sees his face reacts with shock, and there’s a character who the story logic says it had to be) but El Condor simply dies (crushed by a statue of the original!) and then Matt leaves the country without El Condor’s true identity even being mentioned.

Then begins a long sequence with the mysterious “Mr. Kline” acting against Daredevil and Matt Murdock in various ways.  First he sponsors a mad scientist’s experiments that wind up turning a man named William “Bull” Taurus into the Man-Bull.  A nice touch in this story is that Bull has his own mini-gang and a character named “Freakface” explains why he’s personally loyal to Bull.  At the same time, Kline begins to blackmail Foggy, who at this point is New York City’s district attorney.

Then Kline frees the Owl from prison and provides the gliding financier advanced technology to attack Daredevil.  At the same time, he manipulates the Black Widow into meeting Daredevil as part of a long-term backup plan.  As well, the reader learns that “Mr. Kline” is not as we might have thought one of Daredevil’s old enemies, but an android (MK-9) controlled by an even more mysterious master which codenames it “Assassin.”

Kline’s next maneuver is sending out the Scorpion, who acts somewhat out of character (actually an android), and is apparently killed by the Black Widow.  The Assassin then has Foggy insist on prosecuting Natasha for murder (her background as a Communist spy prejudices people against her.)  The trial is rigged further by Mr. Hyde (another android) murdering the coroner and replacing him with a duplicate.

The trial ends when all the evidence is destroyed by an explosion, but Black Widow is still under suspicion.  She heads to Switzerland, where the Assassin springs the backup plan of having her convince Matt Murdock to undergo an operation to restore his eyesight.

The secret boss is finally revealed to be…no one we could have reasonably guessed.  Baal, a computer from the far future, is trying to avert a disaster in the past that Daredevil (and Iron Man of all people) will eventually cause.  Trying to kill him has failed, though they have managed to prevent Foggy Nelson from eventually becoming the president of the United States.  But restoring Matt’s eyesight will also eliminate Daredevil.

The plan doesn’t work because too obvious, and a deus ex machina prevents Baal from reverting to the “kill Daredevil” idea.

After a couple of transitional issues which resolve the Karen Page subplot, Matt Murdock moves to San Francisco with Black Widow and her chauffeur Ivan, taking a set of rooms in her house there.  At this point in time, the Comics Code prevented unmarried characters from sleeping together.

The local police are less than enthused about their new vigilantes, especially Commissioner “Ironguts” O’Hara.  It takes him a long time to warm up to the colored longjohns  set, even though they’re a big help against powered criminals like Electro and the Purple Man.  (The latter has a flashback sequence to explain how he escaped from jail–which is missing a crucial panel.)

Another lengthy plotline involves Project Four, the very first case Natasha ever worked on as a spy, and the return of her first partner, Danny French.  Danny is ethically bankrupt (he’s now a private detective introduced working both sides of a blackmail case) but winds up having some redeeming qualities.  A new Mister Fear also shows up, but is a red herring.

Gerry Conway wraps up his run with the return of the Man-Bull, and Steve Gerber takes up the writing chores as of issue #97.  He introduces another mysterious mastermind who is empowering seemingly random people for unknown purposes, starting with Mordecai Jones, the Dark Messiah.

This plotline is interrupted by a guest appearance of Hawkeye, Black Widow’s former love interest, who wants to see if he can rekindle the relationship.  No, but it does lead into an Avengers crossover.  They need DD and BW’s help against Magneto, who has managed to mind control the X-Men and most of the Avengers, and is trying to seize the United States’ nuclear arsenal.  (This includes a really skeevy scene of Magneto compelling the Scarlet Witch to dance for his pleasure, which would get even skeevier in hindsight once she was retconned into being his daughter.)

Daredevil turns down an Avengers membership (at this point his supersenses are not sufficiently tuned to allow him to work in a large team) but Natasha accepts.  He thinks that means she’s leaving him.

Issue #100 has Daredevil being interviewed by Rolling Stone and recapping his origin for the readers, in between bouts of mass hallucination.  The latter turns out to be the work of Angar the Screamer, an aging hippie being controlled by the mysterious mastermind previously mentioned.  Black Widow returns (she plans to commute to Avengers meetings) and they manage to drive Angar off…for now.

The good:  Gene Colan art, some nifty villain appearances, Black Widow getting to be competent most of the time, random civilians getting the gumption to fight back against criminals on their own.

Less good:  Matt Murdock’s internal monologues tend to the verbose at best, Daredevil too often feeling he needs to protect Black Widow from danger even though she’s repeatedly shown her competence, gratuitous scenes of Natasha dressing/undressing/showering in a way we don’t see Matt doing, Marvel’s writers just not “getting” the counterculture or feminism despite theoretically catering to them, and the Marvel soap opera formula meaning that Matt can never just be happy for an entire freaking issue without finding something to angst about, often completely unnecessarily.

That said, this is a decent run on the title (though nowhere near the quality of Frank Miller’s first run) and worth checking out at the library.

 

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Comic Book Review: The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story

Comic Book Review: The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story written by Ed Brubaker & Matt Fraction, primary artist David Aja

When Daniel Rand was nine years old, his father Wendell Rand took him, his mother Heather, and business partner Harold Meachum on an expedition to the mystical city of K’un L’un, which appears in the mountains of China only once every ten years.  When Danny slipped into a crevasse, endangering his parents, Meachum, who was in love with Heather, treacherously murdered Wendell.  Heather refused to go with Meachum, and continued onward with her son.   They came across a bridge that hadn’t been there before, but a pack of wolves attacked.  Heather sacrificed herself to give Danny time to cross the bridge.  Archers from K’un L’un attempted to rescue Heather, but were unable to drive away the wolves before her death.

The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story

As the years passed inside the mystical city, Danny Rand became the best martial arts student of Lei Kung, the city’s guardian.  Eventually, he was allowed to battle the dragon Shou-Lao the Undying and plunge his fist into its heart.  This branded his chest with the crest of Shou-Lao, and gave Danny the ability to focus his ch’i energy into his fist, making it like unto a thing of iron.  He is not the first Iron Fist, but questions about the past ones are not encouraged.

At the next opportunity, Danny left K’un L’un to seek revenge upon Harold Meachum, a quest that ultimately proved hollow.  He instead embarked upon a career as the martial arts superhero Iron Fist.

Iron Fist was created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane as part of a martial arts fad at Marvel Comics inspired by the popularity of kung fu movies at the time.  He first appeared in Marvel Premiere #15 in 1974, ran for ten issues, then got his own starring series.  It was notable for the rare second-person narration.  (“You are Iron Fist, and you are about to die!”)  When sales fell, Danny Rand was teamed up with blaxploitation-inspired character Luke Cage in Power Man and Iron Fist.  As the “Heroes for Hire”, they became an iconic team for Marvel.

The volume under discussion here appeared in 2007, after several status changes (including being dead for a while) for Iron Fist.  As of the opening of this series, Daniel Rand is the head of Rand International, the company his father and Harold Meachum had founded.  They have been approached by the Chinese corporation Wai-Go Industries, which wants to buy mag-lev train technology and infrastructure from Rand Intl.  Danny senses something wrong with the deal, and cancels it, much to the dismay of Jeryn Hogarth, the person who actually runs the company for Danny.

Investigating the offices of Wai-Go as Iron Fist, the hero learns that the company is actually a front for the terrorist organization HYDRA, and is forced to battle their agents and their latest weapon, the Mechagorgon.

Ordinarily, Iron Fist would call in his allies in the superhero community to assist with a threat of this size, but this series takes place during the Civil War event, when all superhumans are required to register their identities with the government or else.  Many of his friends have joined the pro-Registration side, which Danny is opposed to, and the remainder are now fugitives.  (Iron Fist only remains free due to a legal loophole.)

At about the same time, the Steel Serpent resurfaces.  Davos, the son of Lei Kung, believes that the power of the Iron Fist is his by right, and has frequently tried to steal it from Danny.  He has come to believe there is a conspiracy to keep him from attaining the Iron Fist.  (Mild spoiler: he’s not entirely wrong.)  Steel Serpent has allied with HYDRA and a previously unknown being called the Crane Mother, and is looking for a man named Orson Randall.

Orson Randall (the name is probably not a coincidence) turns out to have been the previous holder of the Iron Fist title, one of the Immortal Weapons.  He relinquished the title and disappeared for reasons not adequately explained in this volume, but can still tap into the power of Shou-Lao.  Flushed out of hiding, Orson seeks out Danny Rand to give the newest Iron Fist some vital information about their legacy.

Lots of kung-fu action ensues!

As the original Iron Fist stories were inspired by the low-budget kung-fu flicks of the early 1970s, this one is heavily influenced by the special effects extravaganzas of the more recent wuxia movies.  There are mystical kung fu powers being unleashed right and left, and huge battle scenes.  The art goes well with this, including some nifty effects to show how Iron Fist finds the precise areas to attack.

Iron Fist’s backstory is somewhat problematic these days, given its use of the Mighty Whitey trope (white person goes to foreign land and is better at what the natives do than they are themselves.)  This series tries to mitigate it somewhat by revealing a more diverse array of past Iron Fists, and hinting in this volume that there’s a specific reason the last two have been Caucasian.  (It remains to be seen how the upcoming Netflix series will deal with the issue.)

Orson Randall is a good guest star as a pulp hero gone sour, and with hints at his own extensive backstory and heritage.

Most of the plot threads are still left dangling at the end of this volume, to be resolved later in the series.  The volume also contains a short piece referring to a period when Danny Rand was wearing the costume of Daredevil while Matt Murdock was otherwise occupied.

Overall, a good update to the Iron Fist concept and a rollicking adventure story.

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1977

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1977 edited by Ellery Queen

Having enjoyed a recent issue of this magazine, I decided to root around for an older copy.  This one was published in December 1976, but the cover date was a month ahead.  Frederic Dannay (half of the “Ellery Queen” writing team) was still editor at this point, as he would be until 1981!

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine January 1977

We open with “Jode’s Last Hunt” by Brian Garfield.  Mr. Garfield is better known as the writer of Death Wish,  which was turned into a hit movie starring Charles Bronson.  This story, his first in EQMM, stars Sheriff Jode, who was a big hero in his Arizona county when he first started.  But that was a couple of decades ago, and between  competent policing and a naturally low crime rate, Jode hasn’t hit the headlines in years.  When a former rodeo and movie star turns eco-terrorist, the near-retirement sheriff sees one last chance at fame.  This one was collected in Great Tales of Mystery and Suspense in 1985.

“The Final Twist” by William Bankier is set at a small advertising firm where the boss is a bad person who managed to offend each of his workers individually and as a group.  His employees decide he needs to die, but they want to make it look like suicide.  How can they best use their skills to this end?  This one was turned into an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1986.

1976 was the year of the Bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Thanks to that, there was a huge market for stories set during the American Revolution and 1776 in particular.  Fitting in one last story on the theme for the year is “The Spirit of the ’76” by Lillian de la Torre.  It details a bit of secret history when Benjamin Franklin’s grandson is kidnapped and Dr. Sam: Johnson is tapped to track the lad down, with the help of faithful Boswell, of course.  The story perhaps is too eager to have Mr. Boswell praise the inventive American, especially given the political situation.  This one was collected in The Exploits of Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector in 1987.

“To Be Continued” by Barbara Callahan is about a young soap opera fan who discovers that she has an unexpected connection with one of the characters.  There’s a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a gay man for the time period, but the treatment of mental illness may strike some readers poorly.  I did not find any reprints of this one.

“C as in Crooked” by Lawrence Treat is a police procedural starring Detective Mitch Taylor.  He’s assigned to look into a burglary involving a very rich and important man (which is why a homicide detective is working a burglary case.)  Mitch quickly notices that the person in charge of security for that and several other robbed homes is an ex-police officer.  Personal problems for both Mitch and his boss delay the investigation until the next morning, when it has become a murder case.  Mitch cracks the case, but he may not get the credit.  I did not find any reprints of this one.

“‘Twas the Plight Before Christmas” by Hershel Cozine is a poem parodying the famous A Visit from Saint Nicholas and has Santa Claus being murdered by Ebenezer Scrooge.  Don’t worry, kids, there’s a happy ending.

There are two “Department of First Stories” (authors being professionally published for the first time) entries in this issue.  “After the Storm” by L.G. Kerrigan is a short piece about a murder during a rainstorm.  It’s vivid but slight.  “A Pair of Gloves” by Richard E. Hutton is a chiller about a man trying to buy a Christmas present despite the presence of a downer street person who seems to have a grudge against the store.  The ending is telegraphed.  Neither seems to have been reprinted.

Four brief columns follow, two of book reviews (one blatantly pushing items for sale by the magazine’s publisher), one of movie reviews (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and Marathon Man are highlighted) and a short interview with Dick Francis, former jockey and famous for his racing-related mysteries.

“With More Homage to Saki” by Isak Romun is a short tale of a wealthy gourmet who will do anything to keep his personal chef working for him, up to and including blackmail.  But the chef has prepared his own delicious dilemma.  Foodies will enjoy this one best, I think.  Another I cannot find a reprint of.

Next up is from “The Department of Second Stories”, where EQMM also bought the author’s second effort.  “The Thumbtack Puzzle” by Robert C. Schweik features Professor of Bibliography Paul Engle.  During a talk the professor is giving, the narrator (his bookstore-owning friend) discovers that a visiting chemist’s work has been tampered with, and perhaps stolen.  There’s only a handful of viable suspects, but which, and can it be determined with only a thumbtack as a clue?  The solution hinges on the peculiarities of German typewriters.  No reprint here, either.

“Raffles and the Shere Khan Pouch” by Barry Perowne has the gentleman thief (and devoted cricket player) and his sidekick Bunny visiting India.  There they run into Rudyard Kipling and Madame Blavatsky while attempting to steal rubies.  This is made more complicated by a British diplomatic pouch having gone missing, making the authorities more alert.  There’s perhaps a bit too much coincidence for the story to be plausible, and the epilogue spells out who Kipling is for particularly obtuse readers, but Raffles is always a delight.  This story was reprinted in Raffles of the M.C.C. in 1979.

“Please Don’t Help the Bear” by Ron Goulart is the sad tale of a Hollywood animator with a fur allergy and a penchant for another man’s wife.  Mr. Goulart is perhaps better known for his science fiction, but mostly for his humor, though this time it’s gallows humor.  The narrator is his “Adman” character who has a habit of meeting murderers and murder victims and never saving one.  This story may or may not be reprinted in Adam and Eve on a Raft: Mystery Stories published in 2001.

“Etiquette for Dying” by Celia Fremlin concerns a woman whose social climber husband has taken ill at a dinner party whose hostess is well above their class.  Is he just rudely drunk or is there something more sinister going on?  This one is reprinted in A Lovely Day to Die and Other Stories (1984).

And finally, we have a story by prolific author Edward D. Hoch, “The Problem of the Christmas Steeple.”  It’s a Dr. Sam Hawthorne story, as the retired physician remembers the winter of 1925.  A parson is found stabbed to death in a steeple, the only suspect being the “gypsy” chief found in the steeple with him.  But due to physical infirmity, that suspect could not have committed the murder.  The treatment of “gypsies” may rankle modern readers, but it’s a story written in the 1970s about the 1920s.  This story was reprinted in Diagnosis: Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (1996).

There are also a couple of limericks by D.R. Bensen, typical of the genre.

This is overall a good issue, with some fine writers.  You can try combing garage sales, but you might have better luck contacting other collectors.

And now, an audio adaptation of “The Problem of the Christmas Steeple”:

https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/eqmm/episodes/2015-12-01T09_27_41-08_00

 

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