Manga Review: Fullmetal Alchemist, Volume 10

Manga Review:  Fullmetal Alchemist, Volume 10 by Hiromu Arakawa.

In the country of Amestris, the highest form of science known is alchemy, the ability to transmute substances into another form.  It seems limited only by the Law of Equivalent Exchange “to obtain an object, something of equal value must be lost.”  Transmutation of humans is therefore forbidden.  But grief-stricken child prodigies Edward and Alphonse Elric decide to break this taboo when their mother dies prematurely.

Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 10

They do not get their mother back; Ed loses an arm and leg in the process, and Al’s entire body is consumed.  Ed is able to preserve Al’s consciousness by binding it to an empty set of armor.  They both gain the ability to perform transmutation without the cumbersome necessity of an alchemical circle, and Ed has his missing limbs replaced by automail, a form of cybernetic prostheses.

Edward Elric is determined to find a way to restore Alphonse’s body, but to do this he’ll need information on the Philosopher’s Stone, an item that allegedly allows transmutation to be performed without equivalent exchange.  To do this, Ed joins the State Alchemist corps, becoming “a dog of the military” and codenamed “the Fullmetal Alchemist.”  He soon finds himself and Al enmeshed in a government conspiracy, and about to learn even more hard truths about the nature of alchemy.

Fullmetal Alchemist was originally published as a monthly shounen (boys’) serial in Monthly Shounen Gangan.  It did very well, spawning two anime series (one with a different ending than the manga, which was still being written at the time), video games and light novels.  Arakawa went on to write Silver Spoon, the anime of which I’ve previously reviewed.

In the volume I have at hand, Alphonse, the military team led by Roy Mustang (“the Flame Alchemist”) and Ling, prince of Xing (essentially China) have temporarily teamed up with Barry the Chopper (serial killer who’s also been bonded to a suit of armor) in an attempt to make the government conspiracy break cover.  They engage in battle with the homunculi Envy, Gluttony and Lust.  The battle between Roy Mustang and Lust is particularly heated.

Meanwhile, Edward and Major Armstrong head across the border into the wasteland  that was once Cselkcess before the unknown disaster that destroyed it overnight.  In the ruins of the capital city, they meet with an old friend who gives them information on the conspiracy.  Edward also meets a group of Ishbalan refugees, and learns the fate of the parents of his friend Winry Rockbell.

In addition, the Elric boys’ father Van Hohenheim resurfaces after many years.  He had abandoned the family some time before his wife’s death, and hadn’t been heard from until now.  Ed is…less than pleased to see him.  The readers know, but Ed does not, that Hohenheim looks almost identical to the person codenamed “Father”, creator of the homunculi.   That’s pretty suspicious.

This is a pretty nifty series.  The monthly format allows more plot and character development per chapter, and Arakawa doesn’t let that opportunity pass.  There are some heartwrenching moments, as well as exciting battles.  (Even in this volume, Roy finally manages to defeat Lust, but at a terrible cost.)  The art is distinctive and competent, if never spectacular.

Alchemy, which is basically magic, works by a set of rules which is easily understood, and seeming exceptions are carefully explained over the course of the series.

Less good is that some of the comedic bits get overused, particularly Edward Elric’s oversensitivity about his height.  And while yes, the particular usage of the Seven Deadly Sins for the homunculi is nifty, that particular structure for a villain group is nearly a dead horse by now.  (And Lust is the only female in the group.  So shocking.)

I understand there are omnibus volumes out now, which will make collecting the series faster.  Also, because this series was very popular, the hipper libraries may stock it in their teen rooms.

Recommended for fans of shounen manga.

And now, the first opening for the Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood anime:

 

 

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.

 

TV Review: Thunderbolt Fantasy

TV Review: Thunderbolt Fantasy

Sho Fukan, a simple wanderer, just wanted an umbrella to ward off the rain.  But the sly stranger called Rin Setsua manipulated Sho Fukan into helping out a damsel in  distress.  The woman’s name turned out to be Tan Hi, a shrine maiden whose family was dedicated to keeping a powerful magic sword locked away.  Tan Hi’s brother had already been killed by Betsutengai, leader of the foul organization Genkishu, who now desires the part of the sword she has to unlock the mystic barrier around the blade.

Thunderbolt Fantasy
Sho Fukan and Shyu Unshou discuss one of their group. But which one?

By assisting Tan Hi, Sho Fukan has made an enemy of the Genkishu, and is thus roped into Rin Setsua’s plan to go to the Seven Sins Tower and defeat Betsutengai.  There are many hazards along the path, so Rin Setsua recruits others for special skills:  demon necromancer Kei Gai, one-eyed archer Shyu Unshou (and his impetuous sidekick Ken Sanun), and the assassin Setsumusho.   It’s not the most cohesive group–Kei Gai and Setsumusho openly plan to kill Rin Setsua for previous wrongs once the objective is reached, Sho Fukan is only going along under duress, and everyone else is wondering if Sho Fukan is really as ignorant as he acts…or is the world’s best actor.

This show is a Taiwanese-Japanese co-production, with writing by Gen Urobuchi (Madoka Magica) and puppetry by Pili Co.   Yes, that’s right, it’s a hand puppet show!  Based on the popular wuxia (mystical martial arts) subgenre, the fight choreography and use of body language are masterful.  This makes up some for the expressionless faces.  I should mention here that the show was broadcast in three different languages; I am using the Japanese versions of the names for convenience.

The setting is more or less a fantasy version of China; a demon invasion two centuries before has split the country in half with a new mountain range and wasteland.   Various mystic weapons were created to drive the demons back, the most powerful of which is rumored to be the Tengyouken that Tan Hi’s family guards.  Kei Gai is a lesser demon who chose to stay in the human world for her own motives, and does not get on well with mortals.  Since everyone is wearing elaborate full-body robes, this helps conceal the puppeteers.

As expected from an Urobuchi story, there are some nasty plot twists in the last third of the series, some fairly obvious (what part of “openly plans to kill the leader” did you not understand?) and others more shocking.  It’s a wonder that anyone is left to appear in the sequel (already in production.)  Viewers unfamiliar with wuxia may find some conventions of the subgenre like random poetry recitation a little baffling or off-putting.

There’s a fair amount of blood in the combat scenes, and a surprisingly gory moment towards the end.  I’d say junior high school viewers and up should be able to handle it.

Highly recommended to wuxia and/or puppetry fans.  These are really cool puppets!  As of February 2017, the show is streaming on Crunchyroll.

And now, the opening song, created by T.M. Revolution!

 

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.

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Weekly (2016)

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Weekly (2016) by various creators.

It’s the fourth anniversary of this blog (where does the time go!?) and thus my annual review of the online edition of Weekly Shounen Jump, Japan’s best-selling manga anthology.   The 2016 reaper has been busy here as elsewhere, with several long-running series ending:  Bleach, Nisekoi, Toriko and even the record-setting but mostly unknown outside Japan Kochikame (a gag series about a lazy cop in a quiet neighborhood police station.)  World Trigger and Hunter x Hunter are on indefinite hiatus due to creator health issues.  So let’s take a look at what’s left, starting with the weekly series.

Weekly Shonen Jump (2016)

One Piece: Now the tentpole long-runner of the magazine, the story of the Straw Hat Pirates as they sail around a world of mostly water in search of freedom and the ultimate treasure continues to be awesome, though the cast is perhaps now too large to fully utilize all of them properly.  Currently, the plot is centered around Sanji, the ship’s cook and would-be ladies’ man.  His unpleasant family has caught up with him, and Sanji is being forced into a political marriage with Pudding, the daughter of Big Mom, one of the Four Emperors.  Naturally, the rest of the crew and a few new allies are determined to rescue Sanji…even if he doesn’t want to be.

My Hero Academia:  The kids of Class 1-A have almost all gotten their provisional superhero licenses.  One of the exceptions is the explosive Bakugou, who has almost but not quite figured out the connection between formerly Quirkless classmate Deku and the now powerless All-Might.  Bakugou and Deku are now having a discussion about their relationship, and in the tradition of both superhero comics and shounen manga, they’re having it with their fists.  Still one of the best superhero school comics out there.

The Promised Neverland:  New this year, and the most promising of the newcomers.  Emma and the other children in the orphanage never questioned the rules about not leaving the grounds, or wondered what happened to the kids who were adopted.  Until the day they learned the horrible truth–the children who leave are eaten by demons!  Now Emma and the two smartest boys in the orphanage, Norman and Ray, must figure out a way to escape, even though Mother Isabella and Sister Krone are keeping a sharp eye out for potential trouble.

We’re still in the early stages of the plot, and much remains mysterious–just what is Isabella’s real motive here?  Do the demons control all of Earth, or just the area around the orphanage?  Just where is the orphanage anyway?  With all the plotting and counter-plotting, this is so far a worthy successor to Death Note.

Black Clover:  In the world where everyone has at least some magical ability except Asta (who now has anti-magic), the Black Bulls are the dregs of the Magic Knights of the Clover Kingdom.  But just because they’re a ragtag bunch of misfits doesn’t mean they’re pushovers!  Currently, two groups that are enemies of the Clover Kingdom have teamed up to attack the Witches’ Forest–good thing the Black Bulls just happened to be there to get medical attention for Asta’s arms!

Food Wars!:  Soma’s education at the elite culinary school Totsuki Institute is threatened when an embittered former student, Azami Nakiri, takes over the school and insists that everyone must now cook only the recipes he likes in the way he prescribes.  Soma and his fellow rebels have been whittled away by rigged final exams, but now Azami’s old classmate (and Soma’s father) Joichiro has shown up to propose a team shokugeki (cooking contest) for all the marbles!  Can the Polar Star team win, even with Azami’s genius chef daughter Erina on their side?

RWBY:  Based on the popular webtoon, this manga covers events that happened before the four girls who make up the RWBY team joined together at their school for monster hunting training.  The current plotline involves Blake (the “B”), who is a member of the Faunus, a humanoid species that is discriminated against by the majority humans.  She was once a train robber to help her people, but her partner Adam crossed the line….  I have not been very impressed with this tie-in.

The most recent issues have two “Jump Start” series that have just started in Japan and may be added to the regular rotation.

Demon’s Plan involves two boys who grew up in a slum together, working hard and saving money for a chance to get a wish from an artifact known as “the Demon’s Plan.”  It turns out that artifact was a fake, but in  the process the owner of the real thing shows up and turns them both into “demons” who must now battle other demons and eventually each other.  The one  who’s less enthused about that idea has made it to the big city in search of the cruel creator of demons.  Could be good, not hitting me well just yet.

Ole Golazo is about a lad named Banba who was a tae kwon do champion before being banned from the sport for fighting.  (In fairness, he was provoked beyond endurance, but rules is rules.)  Adrift in high school, he develops a crush on a girl, and tries to join the soccer team she manages.  Banba has amazing kicking skills, but knows nothing of the rules and customs of “the Beautiful Game.”  Can he be trained to work with a team to achieve victory?  Very reminiscent of the early chapters of Slam Dunk and has some likability.

And then there’s monthly features as well, so let’s look at those–

Seraph of the End:  On the post-apocalyptic world, our heroes have gone AWOL from the Demon Army (which is humans who use demon weapons that if abused will turn them into demons) and teamed up with the nicest vampire they’ve met so far.  They’re in a tenuous alliance with some vampires that seem to be rebelling against their top-heavy social order, but who are not to be trusted.  In the most recent chapter, annoying vampire Crowley reveals he is far more powerful than he’s been letting on.  But he’s still well below the person the alliance will need to beat for the next step of the plan.

Blue Exorcist:  The focus is off Rin “Son of Satan” Okamura for the moment, as his classmate in exorcism training Ryuji works with unorthodox investigator Lightning to discover what happened to several missing people on the Blue Night.  It seems there’s a secret laboratory located on a different time axis below the cram school.

Boruto:  A sequel to the long-running Naruto series starring the son of Naruto.  His father’s turned into a boring bureaucrat who’s hardly ever home, and Boruto tries to get his attention by winning big in a multi-village tournament/exam.  Except that Boruto is talked into using some devices that are against the rules, and is shamed by his father for it.  Now, Naruto has been captured by new villains, and Boruto must regain his honor by joining the rescue team.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V:  I have actually completely lost track of what the plotline is supposed to be, though it seems that both the multiple personality protagonist and his arch-enemy have traveled back in time from when children’s card games destroyed the Earth.  I’m not even sure a full twenty-four hours have passed since the beginning of the series, and certainly the card game school mentioned early on has gotten zero development since.  This is a hot mess.

One-Punch Man:  Saitama, the superhero who can defeat any opponent with a single punch (and that really sucks for him) is participating in a martial arts tournament in a wig disguise.  Meanwhile, most of the other heroes are dealing with a huge monster infestation.  Slow going, but still very amusing.

Although the loss of several popular series seems to have caused a drop in sales for the print edition, the online version is still excellent value for money and is highly recommended for fans of shounen manga.

Book Review: First Contact

Book Review: First Contact by Michael R. Hicks

The scout ship Aurora is searching for new worlds, especially inhabitable ones for the citizens of Earth and the various worlds their descendants have colonized.   What at first seems like a bonus of two viable worlds in the same star system turns into a deadly encounter.  Those worlds are inhabited by members of an alien race that will come to be known as the Kreelan Empire.  And now that the Kreelans are aware humans exist, they are very excited about going to war with us.  All of us.

First Contact

This is the first book in the In Her Name trilogy of trilogies, though the middle trilogy was written first.  It details how the Human-Kreelan War got started.  The series is a cross between military SF and full-on space opera, though this volume tends more towards the former.

It seems that the Kreelans are what TV Tropes call a “Planet of Hats”, a society that is entirely based around one concept or activity for the purposes of moving the plot along.  In this case, their “hat” is honorable battle; Kreelans want to fight, preferably hand-to-hand, and the humans are the first new opponents they’ve had in millennia.  In order to ensure that they aren’t going to accidentally wipe out the humans before the war can really get started, the Kreelans actually go back to their history books and recreate weapons and vehicles of roughly the same technological level as the humans have now.

Early in the first chapter, we are told that most of the characters we’re meeting are not going to make it through the next few hours.  This makes it a bit of a slog as various crew members’ backgrounds and personality quirks are  revealed, often during a combat scene.  The Kreelans are choosing a Messenger to send back to human space and get the squishy people ready to fight.  Once they have that sole survivor, the focus shifts to Earth and the other human worlds’ reaction to the news, and finally to the defense of the first planet on the invasion list.

Many of the people in the book seem to come straight out of Central Casting; the eccentric but brilliant general, the sassy lady reporter, the bungling officer who dies to let a real hero take command, etc.  This is exacerbated by many stereotypes of Earth cultures spreading to their colonies.  For example, people from the Francophone colonies are all some variant of French stereotypes, right down to having their best troops being the Foreign Legion.  One of the heroes comes from the planet of Nagoya, which is basically the Japanese city of Nagoya, but a whole planet of it.  The only mitigating factor is that the casting is a bit more diverse than it would have been in the Twentieth Century.

This means that many of the best passages in the book are those told from the perspective of the Kreelan Empire, which has the advantage of being alien enough to engage the author’s creativity.

There are quite a few exciting combat scenes, and one of the things I like is that the story does not shy away from showing that even the “good guys” can be forced into taking civilian lives as collateral damage.  (The Kreelans have no real concept of “civilian”, seeing them more as “targets that don’t fight back and thus only worthy of extermination.”)

One weakness of this being in the military SF subgenre is that the book has a tendency to make the Kreelans “right”–the only humans of consequence are those that engage in combat or provide support for those that do.   I’d like to see the human tendency to do things that aren’t somehow related to combat or survival as a strength that the Kreelans have discarded in their single-minded pursuit of battle.

Briefly discussed in this book, and apparently a major factor at the beginning of the next one, is that the Kreelan warriors are all female.  Due to a “curse” their males are non-sentient, and mating is only semi-consensual.   Easily triggered readers might want to give that a miss.

Otherwise, this is a pretty clear-cut “no shades of grey” war story where you can root for the human heroes.  Not the best military SF, but readable.

 

Comic Book Review: Wonder Woman ’77 Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Wonder Woman ’77 Volume 1 written by Marc Andreyko

Back in the 1970s, live-action television series with a woman in the lead were rare creatures indeed, and one of the best was Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter.  It migrated from ABC (where it was set during World War Two) to CBS in 1977, and it is this “modern day” series that this comic book series is based on.

Wonder Woman '77 Volume 1

In this version, Wonder Woman works for the Inter-Agency Defense Command in her secret identity of Diana Prince, along Steve Trevor, Jr.  Steve may or may not know  that Diana is also Wonder Woman, but at least in these issues, he doesn’t officially know or make a fuss about it. They have access to the latest 1970s technology, including the advanced computer IRA, but Wonder Woman’s powers and compassion are usually the main key to victory.

Where this comic book series varies from the TV version is that the live-action version used none of WW’s comic book supervillains, so versions of these compatible with the show’s look and feel are inserted.

The first story takes place mostly at a disco, where a Soviet defector scientist must be protected from mind-controlling songstress Silver Swan.  Diana’s outfit for this is based on the “white pantsuit” look she had during a brief period where the comics depowered her (to make her more “relevant.”)

The second story opens with Diana waking up in a world where she is not Wonder Woman or Diana Prince, but a mentally ill woman named Donna Troy.  There are some nifty references to the Cathy Lee Crosby TV movie, and the post-Crisis WW continuity.  Diana must figure out what’s going on and fight her way back to the reality she knows.

Next, there is a story that uses the Barbara Minerva version of long-time supervillain the Cheetah.  It brings in elements of the Priscilla Rich version of the character as well–Dr. Minerva is driven by jealousy when the museum she works for dismantles her prize exhibit involving years of scholarship and hard digging for a Wonder Woman-centric publicity grabber.  This allows the Cheetah spirit to take over her body so that Barbara can try to get her revenge.  The climax is a showcase for Diana’s gentle spirit being able to overcome Cheetah’s command of great cats.

Original (so far as I know) villain Celsia takes center stage next.  Due to a nuclear power plant accident that killed her home town, Celsia can project both heat and cold.  She is determined to punish the men who placed profit over life and safety.  We also get a version of the Atomic Knights, including a not-named Gardner Grayle.

And finally Diana has an encounter with the swamp monster Solomon Grundy on Halloween.  Grundy may not be the real monster here…  (Warning: domestic abuse.)

The issue is filled out with an essay by Andy Mangels about the television show, plus a gallery of covers and concept art.

One of the things I really like about this series is Wonder Woman’s dedication to non-lethal force, something that has largely been lost in recent years.  Yes, punching bad guys is an important part of her problem-solving style, but whenever possible, she uses truth and compassion to bring about resolutions.  This Wonder Woman smiles a lot, and inspires others to be better people.

Some of the 1970s elements do come across a bit cheesy, but this is not entirely a bad thing, as they fit with the feel of the show.  On the other hand, the very episodic stories mean that there’s no character growth or deeper characterization–what you see is all you are going to get.

The art is okay, with Diana and Steve being on model most of the time.

Recommended to fans of the TV show, Wonder Woman fans who prefer a lighter style and younger readers.  (It should be okay for tweens with a little parental guidance.)

And let’s enjoy that theme tune!

Manga Review: Ranma 1/2

Manga Review: Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi

Soun Tendou, a widowed martial arts instructor in the Nerima suburb of Tokyo, has three daughters: gentle Kasumi, cunning Nabiki and fiery Akane.  They are surprised to learn one day that their father made an agreement with his old friend Genma Saotome to marry one of them to Genma’s son Ranma.   Akane is unimpressed with the old-fashioned idea of an arranged marriage, especially as it turns out Mr. Tendou has never actually seen Ranma and knows nothing about him.

Ranma 1/2 1-2

Imagine their surprise when a panda shows up at their door with a young girl in tow, who claims her name is Ranma Saotome!  Akane immediately takes to her fellow martial artist, who is endearingly shy.  However, when Akane walks in on Ranma in the bathtub, it turns out he’s male after all!   Also, the panda is actually Genma Saotome.  A  couple of months ago, the two of them fell into cursed pools in a training exercise gone horribly wrong.  As a result, they change forms when splashed with cold water, returning to normal when exposed to hot water.

Soun decides that the engagement is still on, so Kasumi and Nabiki immediately dump the arrangement on Akane.  Citing Akane’s difficulties with boys, Nabiki points out that Ranma is a girl some of the time.  Akane objects, and Ranma makes a rude remark that gets him hit with a table.

The engagement stands, and the quarrelsome couple must learn to deal with each other while coping with other transformees, wacky martial artists, a love dodecahedron  and the continuing fallout of Genma and Soun’s terrible life choices.

This romantic martial arts comedy manga ran in Shonen Sunday from 1987-1996, and spawned an anime series, several movies and OAVs, and relatively recently a live-action TV film.  It (particularly the anime) was a gateway series for many American fans in the early 1990s.

Much of the comedy in the series comes from the fact that Ranma is a very macho young man, who is exaggeratedly masculine and often trapped in a short, busty girl’s body.   Raised in relative isolation by his none-too-socially-ept father, Ranma has heroic instincts but is rude and uncultured, often setting off Akane with unthinking insults.  Over the course of the series, Ranma learns how to use his female form to his advantage, but never fully reconciles himself to it or the social role it’s supposed to play.

Akane also struggles with social roles.  She’s very attractive (though you will need to take the story’s word for it) which has caused her problems with boys and other perverts, and exacerbated her hair-trigger temper.  She’s amazingly bad at most traditional feminine domestic skills, and her best strong point, her martial arts ability, is routinely overshadowed by Ranma and his opponents.  Since both the main characters are stubborn and cantankerous, even as they slowly fall in love they can’t admit it.

It should be noted here that most of the people in this series are jerks to one degree or another.  Much of the nonsense that drives Ranma and Akane apart even as they draw closer together could have been avoided if someone hadn’t decided to be a jerk at the wrong moment.   Even normally adorable Kasumi has her off moments.

Overall, the series is a lot of fun, with enjoyable art, funny jokes and silly characters.  And once in a while some tense action.  Like many long-runners, it sags some in the middle (the “introduce new wacky character” gimmick only works so many times) and the ending doesn’t really resolve anything.  But hey, it’s a comedy.

Given the premise, there’s quite a lot of nudity in the series; if your child is too young to be shown that girls have nipples, they’re too young to be reading this.  (One of the running jokes is that Ranma has no body modesty.)

More problematic is that “girls hitting boys that make them angry, even by accident, is hilarious” is driven into the ground in this series.  Akane is the worst offender, being the female lead, but most of the other girls are just as awful proportionate to their screen time.  Even by the 1990s, social attitudes were shifting, and by now it can make for some uncomfortable reading.  Also, some of the things Genma does to Ranma as “martial arts training” would get him arrested for child abuse, and the perverted old master Happosai is treated as an annoyance rather than a sexual offender.

The series does not so much deconstruct Japanese gender roles so much as poke them repeatedly with a sharp stick.

The anime is also good (and has a lot of nice music) but relies heavily on filler (episodes that are anime-only and often have continuity issues) and ends when Ranma’s long-lost mother shows up (about 2/3rds of the way through.)  Later season have poorer animation quality as production was moved to cheaper studios.

Viz originally brought Ranma 1/2 over using the flipped-artwork process to make it read left-to-right; between that and their then deliberately slow release of volumes, it took forever to come out in the U.S. (so the anime was a bigger influence on the fanfiction.)  It’s now being reprinted in the otaku-friendly right-to-left format, with each volume containing two of the Japanese volumes.

In Volume 1-2, the one to hand, the main characters are introduced.  Ranma is assigned to the same school as Akane, and we meet Dr. Tofuu (a practitioner of traditional Japanese medicine and Akane’s first crush) and Tatewaki Kunou, the belligerent and amorous upperclassman who’s done the most to cause Akane’s attitude towards boys.   Kunou starts a feud with male Ranma while falling in love with female Ranma (this does not stop him hitting on Akane, and Kunou never fully grasps that the two Ranmas are the same person.)

Just as it looks like Ranma and Akane’s relationship might be warming up, Ranma’s martial arts rival Ryouga appears.  Although he’s very strong, Ryouga has a terrible sense of direction, and is cursed to turn into a cute little piglet.  Ryouga blames Ranma for that last thing (for the wrong reasons)  and is bent on  revenge.  He also falls in love with Akane.  In this first story arc, Ryouga is a clear “heel” but eventually has the most positive character development of anyone in the series.

Ranma and Ryouga have reached something of a stalemate when a new challenger appears, Kodachi Kunou (sister of Tatewaki), who is a mistress of Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics and plays very dirty.   After she cripples the Fuurinkan High gymnastics team, Akane is called in to save their honor.  Too bad she doesn’t know anything about rhythmic gymnastics!  A teacher appears, but Kodachi is determined to end the match before it begins….

Highly recommended to fans of Inu-Yasha and those with an interest in poking fun at gender roles.

Comic Book Review: The Shadow Hero

Comic Book Review: The Shadow Hero Story by Gene Luen Yang, Art by Sonny Liew

It is the 1930s, and Hank Chu lives in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Incendio.  He wants a simple, quiet life, working with his father in the family grocery store.  Hank’s mother, on the other hand, has bigger plans.  She’s learned about this new phenomenon called “superheroes” and sees no reason why a Chinese-American kid couldn’t be one.  Specifically Hank.

The Shadow Hero

Despite Hank’s reluctance, his mother drags him into a quest to become a costumed superhero, the Golden Man of Bravery.  It doesn’t work out that well.  But in the wake of tragedy, Hank discovers that he has an amazing legacy after all,  and a new purpose in life.  It’s possible that the Green Turtle may be able to do some good after all.

This book came about because Gene Luen Yang, creator of Boxers & Saints, learned about an obscure Golden Age comic book character named the Green Turtle.  An artist named Chu Hing created him as a feature for Blazing Comics.  The short-lived series had a number of peculiarities to it.  Although the Green Turtle operated in China against the Japanese invaders, and had Chinese elements to his costume, it was implied he wasn’t from China.  His face was never fully seen, either turned away from the reader, or covered by something.  And the Green Turtle kept promising to reveal how he became a costumed hero, but was always interrupted.

This created suspicion among comics scholars that Chu Hing intended for the Green Turtle to be of Chinese ancestry, but was not allowed to make this overt by his company’s editorial policy.  Sadly, Chu Hing died in obscurity long before anyone thought to ask.

So, in a feat worthy of Roy Thomas, Gene Luen Yang decided to take the fragments of information available, and weave them into a tale of America’s first Chinese-American superhero.

A great deal of humor and sadness is woven into the action.  A major theme of the story is that appearances can be deceptive.  Hank’s father is not a coward,  Red Center is not a helpless maiden, Ten Grand is not a vaudeville version of Fu Manchu, and a naked face can be the best mask of all.  Hank’s mother moves the early part of the story with her tendency to judge by appearances, and her yearning for more than the disappointments her life has offered.

Hank himself must learn how to be a hero; powers and martial arts training help, and so does motivation, but in the end he must choose wisely and justly to be a true hero.

Racism, both overt and unintentional, is a recurring problem in the setting.  Even Green Turtle’s police contact, Detective Lawful, is not as free of prejudice as he’d like to be.  There’s also some crude sexual references, so parents may want to screen the book before allowing readers below junior high or so to read it  Certainly they will want to talk to their children about inappropriate language and behavior modeled by some of the characters.

That said, this is a worthy addition to the ranks of still rare Asian-American superheroic fiction.  I highly recommend it to comics fans looking for something a little different.

Book Review: To Ride Hell’s Chasm

Book Review: To Ride Hell’s Chasm by Janny Wurts

The small, isolated Kingdom of Sessalie is about to celebrate a wedding.   Princess Anja is about to marry the High Prince of Devall, which is not only politically advantageous, but a love match.  But on the eve of the wedding, Anja goes missing.

To Ride Hell's Chasm

It falls to the leader of the Highguard,  silver-haired Taskin, and the captain of the lower city garrison, the “desert-bred” Mykkael, to find the princess, and discover the motives of those that would prevent the marriage.

This is a standalone novel by Janny Wurts, author of the massive The Wars of Light and Shadow.  She is also the cover artist, which at least means that the cover is appropriate to the story.

Mykkael, as it turns out, is vastly overqualified for his position under normal circumstances, despite a bum knee and deep manpain from what he considers his greatest failure.    In this crisis situation, however, he may be just slightly underqualified.   It’s kind of a given that if a place with an ominous name is mentioned, that no one has survived a trip through, that our hero will have to go there.  And given that place name is in the title?

Mykkael faces considerable ethnic prejudice due to his appearance, even though he was not raised in that culture, and the enemies of Sessalie take full advantage of this to discredit his warnings, even spreading misinformation that the defenses against evil magic he recommends will strengthen the demons.  There’s also the persistent mispronunciation of his name by nobility, and it becomes a point of characterization who drops the mispronunciation and when.

The main female character, Anja, comes off well, despite the plot not exactly working in her favor.  A trek through insanely dangerous wilderness while pursued by monsters is not what she was trained for.  If she has a difficult personality at times, it comes across as an understandable reaction.

One thing that struck me as I was reading through was that a major character didn’t seem to have a name.  Eventually, I realized that no one in that character’s category was ever actually named, which may have been meant as foreshadowing.

There’s quite a lot of business involving horses, as several (non-magical) horses become important characters later in the book and much attention is given to their care and injuries.  The ride through Hell’s Chasm, once if finally happens, is grueling and exhausted this reader.

The story is wrapped up perhaps a little too neatly in the final chapter.  It feels like the author really wanted to make sure the book had a seriously final ending so it wouldn’t turn into a trilogy or series.

There are several maps at the beginning, a glossary, an appendix explaining how demons work in the setting, and a brief biography of the author.

Trigger warning:  Taskin is forced by politics to lash Mykkael at one point, making sure to draw blood.  In general, a lot of time is taken describing Mykkael and other people’s wounds.

This is a good starting place if you have been curious about Ms. Wurts’ work, but reluctant to start a long series.

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