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.

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.

 

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2 mostly written by Marv Wolfman and art by Gene Colan.

When the Comics Code restrictions on horror were loosened in the 1970s, DC primarily went in for horror anthology comics, while Marvel Comics based entire series around horrific heroes and villains.  One of these was the classic (and public domain) character of Vlad Tepes, aka Count Dracula.

Essential Tomb of Dracula Volume 2

This series revealed that Bram Stoker’s book (highly recommended if you haven’t read it, by the way) was highly fictionalized, and Dracula had not in fact finally died at the end of it, only being very inconvenienced.  He had been various places, doing various things, temporarily being put of commission now and then…and this storyline opened with him once again being awakened to start his reign of terror anew.

Opposing the Lord of Vampires was a crew of vampire hunters including Quincy Harker (the son of Jonathan and Mina), now an elderly man confined to a wheelchair by injuries received in past battles with Dracula; Rachel van Helsing (great-granddaughter of Professor van Helsing) a crossbow-wielder who wasn’t always as effective as she’d like; Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula (before becoming a vampire) who had wasted his wealth and had to man up over the course of the series; and Taj Nital, an Indian man who had been rendered mute when Dracula injured his throat.  Independent of them were Blade, who only hunted Dracula because he hated all vampires due to the murder of his mother by Deacon Frost, and Hannibal King, a detective that Deacon Frost had turned into a vampire, who avoided taking blood from living humans.

Of course, Dracula didn’t just have vampire hunters after him, but people who either wanted to become lord of all vampires themselves or otherwise exploit him.  The most persistent of these was Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who’d been turned into a disembodied brain hooked up to a computer, who wanted to take over the world.

At the start of this volume, Dracula learns of the current whereabouts of an artifact called the Chimera, which re-sparks his desire to conquer the world himself.  (He’d had to put that on hold as a vampire army large enough to take over would promptly drink the rest of humanity to extinction, and then where would they be?)  Fortunately for the world, Dracula is not the only one after the artifact, and it ends up smashed.

Dracula has noticed his powers waning, and this leads him to a near-final confrontation with Quincy Harker, before learning that it is in fact Doctor Sun behind it, and the action moves to Boston.  There the cast adds nebbish “true vampire story” writer Harold H. Harold and lovely but ditsy secretary Aurora Rabinowitz, who act as comic relief.

After the Doctor Sun situation is resolved, Dracula takes control of a local Satanist cult and marries a woman named Domini, who he believes will give him a proper heir.  (The leader of the Satanists, of course, has other plans.)

Mixed throughout this volume are soap-opera subplots involving the various supporting cast, and interludes of Dracula’s adventures in other times and places.  Marv Wolfman’s writing is often excellent, but he sometimes doesn’t consult previous issues, resulting in some minor continuity glitches.  Gene Colan’s art is more consistently outstanding, and fits the mood well, especially in this black and white reprint.  (Some stories from the Giant-Size side series are included, with art by the less impressive but very competent Don Heck.)

Make no mistake, Dracula is the main villain here, and rare is the issue where he does not murder at least one innocent person just to remind us of that.  Much of his time is taken up with petty revenge against people who have crossed him and when he acts against other villains, it’s usually out of pride or personal vendetta.  Every once in a while, he does show a moment of kindness, but the door soon slams shut when his darker nature prevails.  Because he’s the title character, Dracula has what TV Tropes calls “Joker Immunity”; he can never be permanently killed off, only temporarily thwarted, so the heroes seem ineffectual.  (Quincy Harker broods about this frequently.)

These stories do take place in the Marvel Universe, though this series avoids most of the implications of that.  Brother Voodoo helps Frank Drake through a bad patch in his life, and Doctor Strange actually temporarily kills Dracula (but is hypnotized not to notice it’s not permanent until later.)

In addition to the expected violence (but relatively little gore–the Comics Code was still in effect), Dracula’s attacks on women are often treated in a sexualized manner.  There are some instances of suicide, both voluntary and forced.  Dracula is also depicted as being racist (mostly against Blade) and sexist (he is not at all kind to the memory of Lucy Westerna.)

And speaking of sexism, one story includes a woman who’s a bit of a “straw feminist”; the owner of a fashion house who only hires women even if a man would be more competent at the job (except one dress designer who might be gay given the coding) and who has an enormous grudge against the various men who tried to keep her down.  Dracula agrees to kill her enemies in exchange for information she can get more efficiently than he, but leaves her in a sticky situation at the end of the story.

Despite often high melodrama, there are some very well-written moments as well.

Recommended for vampire comics fans, Blade fans who want to see his early adventures, and those who enjoy Gene Colan’s art.

Magazine Review: Gamma 3

Magazine Review: Gamma 3 edited by Charles E. Fritch

Gamma was a short-lived science fiction magazine (five issues in 1963-64), known for high-quality cover art and snagging stories from authors connected with the film industry.  (Indeed, I picked up this issue because of the sweet Morris Scott Dollens art.)  It was digest-sized and relatively thin.   Let’s look at the contents!

Gamma 3

“The Girl of Paradise Planet” by Robert Turner concerns retired millionaire George Prentiss.  He and his third wife Evvie have come to the title planet on a long vacation (her idea.)  Bored, Robert has taken up underwater swimming with future SCUBA gear.  This world is not supposed to have any native intelligent life, but then where did that water-breathing naked girl come from?  Is George having hallucinations from the water pressure, or is he just going insane?

Over the course of the story, we learn that George is a self-made man who spent his youth starting a business, growing that business and getting rich, so he didn’t look for romance until middle age, and three times went for trophy wives, none of whom have worked out.  Which is okay…except that the possibly imaginary Irlana comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose function is to rekindle his love of life (and is younger and prettier than Evvie.)

Mr. Turner was an experienced author, but this was his first time writing science fiction, and I can tell.  He’s certainly no climatologist, and the ending twist relies on most of the characters forgetting a perfectly logical explanation for events that would be common knowledge to them, even if the reader wouldn’t know it.

“The Feather Bed” by Shelley Lowenkopf presents a bizarre future in which the economy runs on make-work.  For example, three years after a building is built, all the piping is torn out and replaced just to give the plumbing crews something to do.   This extends to writing as well.  Every 37 years, all extant editions of Shakespeare are destroyed, and replaced with “newly written” versions by living authors.  Except that it’s just retyping the whole thing verbatim.  And the same goes for all other works of fiction by dead writers.

Lew has had it with the system–he doesn’t want to “rewrite” King Lear again, and on the union points system, it will be years before he’s allowed to write more of the original fiction that made him a successful author in the first place.  Unfortunately, he’s just one man against the system, and winds up causing even the FBI to intervene.  If Lew sticks to his principles, he could lose everything, including the writing he really wants to do.

“Angel Levine” by Bernard Malamud stars  Jewish tailor Manischevitz, who is going through hard times.  His shop burned down, and the insurance money was eaten by customer lawsuits.  His son died in the war, and his daughter ran off with a man and never communicates.  He’s got chronic pain, and his wife Rosie is dying.  Manischevitz asks God for assistance, but when an “angel” named Levine shows up, there are reasons the tailor is unconvinced.  It’s ultimately a story about belief in the face of your assumptions about people.  There is racism and anti-Semitism in the story.  (This one was reprinted from one of the author’s collections.)

“The (In)visible Man” by Edward W. Ludwig  is a fantasy about James Smith, who has become socially invisible.  He’s finally decided to exploit that fact, but one person has finally become able to see him, and that is both Mr. Smith’s weakness and best hope.  It’s a fairly sweet story, helped along by James Smith, even when he turns criminal, sticking to a “least harm” principle.  There is an attempted suicide in the story.

“Inside Story” by Miriam Allen deFord takes place in a far future when the Galactic Federation sends scouts to find new worlds that one of their myriad species can live on and isn’t already inhabited by intelligent life.  These planets are exceedingly rare.  It looks, however, like this one might be ideal.  Presuming the scout party doesn’t find any surprises like rapid inexplicable temperature variations….

In this future, scout ships have mixed-sex crews, but this is because every member of that crew is a different non-compatible species.  The twist ending is suitably bizarre.

“The Birth” by George Clayton Johnson is a retelling of a classic story from a different perspective.  See how long it takes you to figure out which one!

“Buttons” by Raymond E. Banks concerns John Burke, a starship officer who is forced by disaster to upload his mind to a computer memory storage system.  Supposedly, he will have his mind reinserted into his human body once that’s fixed.  But that procedure has a high failure rate, and Burke is rapidly discovering the advantages of being a disembodied intelligence.  There’s some relatively early thought about the benefits versus possible hazards of transhumanism.

“Society for the Prevention” by Ron Goulart is a humorous piece about the travails of a interplanetary surplus store manager.  He’s just gotten a large shipment of extremely ugly wicker urns, the natives of the planet have organized a violent “Shop Local” campaign, and the newly arrived Young Girls Space Police and Welfare Committee officer suspects him of being in cahoots with the inventor of a death ray.  Everything more or less works out in the end, but now the store manager has to try to explain to his boss why the urns didn’t get sold.  The female Space Police officer is treated as a joke–admittedly so is everyone else, but it may not sit well with some readers, as part of the joke is that women are completely unsuited for the work.

The final story is “The Snail Watcher” by Patricia Highsmith.  This creepy tale is about a man who gets a little too fascinated with the reproductive habits of snails, not noticing that these particular snails are reproducing much more rapidly than is anywhere near normal.

Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham
Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham

Interior art is by Luan Metheringham, who sadly seems to have completely dropped out of sight with only her Gamma appearances known.

There is also an interview with “Ivan Kirov” about the state of Soviet science fiction in the early 1960s.  He declined to have his real name published for security reasons.  Per the interview, SF in the USSR was beginning to blossom after being suppressed during the Stalinist years.  Noted was a tendency for “nuts and bolts” stories of adventure, with little of the social or psychological exploration that had become common in Western nations’ science fiction.  (At the time, the government censors were big on Soviet Communism going worldwide being the only possible future, and writers were expected to get on board with that.)

The Banks story is the one that I liked best, though the Highsmith story was also effective.  Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of either author or the cover artist.

Comic Book Review: The Golden Age Starman Archives Volume 1

Comic Book Review: The Golden Age Starman Archives Volume 1 Written by Gardner Fox; Art by Jack Burnley

Wealthy playboy Ted Knight has somehow harnessed the cosmic energy of the stars in his Gravity Rod.   As the world moves to war, he decides that the best use of this technology is to become a costumed superhero, taking the name Starman.

The Golden Age Starman Archives Volume 1

Like many characters created during the Golden Age, Starman did not have an origin story as such, (Roy Thomas gave him one decades later); in the first story Ted Knight has already been operating as Starman long enough to have convinced FBI chief agent Woodley Allen to trust him and for his fiancee Doris Lee to be used to his excuses for slipping away.   According to Jack Burnley’s introduction to this volume, this first story was not written by Gardner Fox, and is the only one he substantially revised, inserting a villain he named Dr. Doom (and editorial changed for unknown reasons to Dr. Doog.)

The story itself opens with America in a panic as electrical components suddenly heat up, causing electrical outages, fires and explosions.  The FBI is called in on the case and Agent Allen decides this is a job for the Starman.   Bored playboy Ted Knight is having dinner with his fiancee Doris Lee in Gotham, one of the unaffected areas when the rod in his pocket starts vibrating.  He claims not to be feeling well, but Doris opts to stay for the food she ordered while Ted leaves.  A blackout happens, which makes it even easier for Mr. Knight to switch to his Starman outfit.

Conferring with Agent Allen in a cabin outside the city, Starman is informed that the Secret Brotherhood of the Electron is behind the attacks.  The FBI can’t locate them, however, as their communications and transportation have been wrecked by the Brotherhood’s electrical control device.  Starman’s Gravity Rod is immune to outside control, and can trace the energy to its source in a mountain stronghold.

Inside the stronghold, most of the Brotherhood is ordinary criminals, but Dr. Doog has stolen the Ultra-Dynamo from a Dr. Davis by means of his hypnotic powers.  Starman’s rod protects him from hypnosis, and Doog apparently perishes in one of his own death traps.  Starman seals the mountain just to make sure.

The stories tended to be formulaic, but reasonably entertaining individually.  Starman’s most frequent foe was The Light, a mad scientist who had been laughed out of the scientific community, and developed a shrinking ray (which gives off a hot bright light) to get his revenge.  He returned twice, each time with a different scheme.  The most iconic villain, however, was the Mist, an elderly man whose head appeared to be floating on a moving cloud.  He’d developed an invisibility formula for use in World War One, but been turned down by the government for unknown reasons.  Having perfected it, he turned to crime.

The most out-there villain was Cuthbert Cain, a sallow, puny-looking fellow who had combined an advanced knowledge of photo-electric energy and black magic; he could capture the will of anyone he photographed.   The story also had one of the best covers of the series on Adventure Comics #66.

Jack Burnley had been a sports cartoonist before going into comic books, and had a style well-suited to the superhero genre, with dynamic poses and framing.  But Starman never broke out as a major character.   Part of this, I think, is that Ted Knight wasn’t a very compelling character.   This hypochondriac made Clark Kent look like a dynamic man of action, and was so dismissive of Doris Lee that at one point the writer makes her explain that he’s much more likable off camera, thus her continuing to put up with him.

As Starman, Ted is fairly generic–his inability to use his powers during the daytime did add some suspense, but the combination of square-jawed virtue and battle wisecracks was shared with over half of the other costumed characters being published at the time.

There’s some period ethnic stereotyping.   This may have been the inspiration for Roy Thomas making Starman particularly anti-Japanese in his All-Star Squadron series.

At the time this compilation was published, a modern Starman series featuring Ted’s son Jack Knight was being run with creator James Robinson.  I highly recommend it.

As for this book, the art is good, the writing is decent, and it has rare stories.  Recommended to Golden Age fans, those who enjoyed the Robinson series, and people who have a good library near them.

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