It is the close of the Twentieth Century, and the United Nations has achieved two major goals. There is now a permanent scientific base on the moon, and a way has been found to safely and humanely contain Earth’s giant monsters on a remote island dubbed Kaijuland (Monsterland in the dub.) World peace also seems to have been achieved but no one directly says so.
Of course, it would be a pretty dull monster movie if the status quo remained that way, so shortly after a UFO is seen lurking near the moon base, a mysterious gas cuts off all contact with Kaijuland. Soon, the monsters that should be on the island are spotted in capital cities around the world, destroying property and causing death…except in Tokyo. That arouses suspicion since Japan is the closest large land mass near Kaijuland, and all the monsters normally gravitate there.
Captain Katsuo Yamabe and the crew of the spaceship Moonlight SY-3 are assigned to investigate. They are shocked to discover that the staff of Monsterland (including Captain Yamabe’s sweetheart Kyoko Manabe) are now cheerfully directing the monsters to attack using previously unknown technology. It turns out that aliens called Kilaaks are responsible. The Kilaak have decided to colonize Earth and they’re not keen on human civilization.
Most of the movie is Captain Yamabe and his allies investigating the Kilaak threat and attempting to find some way of breaking their mind control over humans and monsters, with sporadic monster attacks to spice things up. But in the final reel, we are treated to the kaiju battle action we’ve been waiting for, as Godzilla and the other Earth monsters go up against the Kilaak and space monster King Ghidorah.
This 1968 film is considered one of the weaker entries in the Godzilla franchise, as the writers had largely run out of good ideas, and the monsters weren’t really scary anymore. The plot is thin and the acting minimal. But it’s got that cool monster battle at the end, with Minilla actually being useful for a moment. I also appreciate the optimistic future in which humanity lives and lets live with its giant monsters.
As of this writing, both subbed and dubbed versions are up on Crunchyroll, and recommended to kaiju fans as a pleasant popcorn movie.
Comic Book Review: Joe Kubert Presents by Joe Kubert and others
Joe Kubert (1926-2012) was one of the all-time great comic book artists. The bulk of his work was done for DC Comics, including many Hawkman and Sergeant Rock stories. Joe Kubert Presents was his final series, a tribute to him by the company he’d done so much for. Mr. Kubert was given free rein to choose which stories to do, and which other creators he wanted to share the spotlight with. Rather than risk an announcement of the series ahead of time only to not be able to deliver (this had happened to him before), Mr. Kubert insisted on having several issues “in the can” before it was put on order forms for retailers. The sixth issue was nearly complete when he died.
The first issue leads off with “Hawkman”; this iteration is closest to the science fiction-inspired Silver Age version, but not in continuity with any previous story. Katar Hol and his partner Shayera (Hawkgirl) are sent from the utopian planet Thanagar to observe Earth up close and determine what steps should be taken in the future. The Thanagarians worry that the Earthlings will not mature out of their destructive behavior before they develop interstellar travel.
The aliens land in Africa, observe the wanton slaughter of wildlife and environmental destruction, and decide to visit a nearby village. Unfortunately, this particular village sits atop a toxic waste dump; the poverty-stricken villagers have become economically dependent on the storage fees. The villagers worry that the Thanagarians have come to stop the practice and react badly.
While I understand the good intent of the story, it really does look like technologically advanced white people lecturing primitive native Africans on proper respect for the environment. And the Hawks destroy the natives’ livelihood and leave without considering that consequence, so their victory leaves a bitter aftertaste.
“Spit” is a recurring feature about an orphan who runs away from the orphanage and winds up stowing away on a whaling ship. In short vignettes, he suffers much abuse, but eventually learns how to survive at sea and decides to become a whaler. The first few chapters are in sepia tone, but the finale is mostly in full color. One (landlubber) character is implied to be a pedophile, but is thwarted before he can do anything.
“The Redeemer” is three chapters of a series Mr. Kubert solicited back in the 1980s before he discovered he wouldn’t be able to deliver it on time. Jim Torkan is the title character, a man who reincarnates across time and space to gain the wisdom he will need to eventually save the human race from itself. He is the target of the Infernal One, who sends agents to tempt Torkan from the path of righteousness, so that the Redeemer will be under his control.
The first two chapters take place in the far future, as Torkan is a scientist whose space station is invaded by murderous robbers seeking a chemical he’s developed that can control minds. His love interest is actually an agent of the Infernal One who tries to convince him to join up with the would-be dictator to save his own skin. The third chapter has Torkan as an ex-Confederate soldier just after the Civil War. The story carefully avoids mentioning what the Confederacy fought for beyond “justice and right” (hint: slavery), but it was all a waste and Torkan is without purpose. He gets involved in a treasure hunt, but at the end discovers something more precious than gold: himself.
“Farewell” was Kubert’s last Sergeant Rock story. The son and grandson of one of Easy Company’s soldiers visit a D-Day beach and the cemetery nearby. They discuss the possible death of Rock, but in the end it doesn’t matter if he is buried here–a piece of each soldier who fell rests with every other soldier.
“The Biker” is about a wounded Afghanistan veteran and motorcyclist who bunks down for the night in an abandoned house. But maybe not as abandoned as it looks. Some excellent coloring work here.
Then there are two stories written by Joe Kubert, but with art by other people. “The Ruby” (art by Henrik Jonsson) is about bandits attacking a Himalayan temple–it turns out to be a possible origin story for an obscure DC character. “Devil’s Play” (art by Brandon Vietti) is a Kamandi story, as the last boy on Earth battles the animal-men that have taken over the planet. This story offers a different explanation for the Great Disaster than usual.
The series also contained several “U.S.S. Stevens” stories by Sam Glanzman, telling tales of his WWII service aboard that destroyer. “The Figurehead” is the most interesting of these, featuring an eccentric crewmate of Mr. Glanzman’s who may or may not have had unusual abilities (it’s possible that this is a sailor’s yarn and he’s pulling our leg a bit.) This material has been collected separately, along with Mr. Glanzman’s other memoirs.
Brian Buniak gives us “Angel and the Ape”, based on the Bob Oksner series about private detectives Angel O’Day (an attractive human woman) and Sam Simeon (a cartoonist who also happens to be a gorilla.) It’s not quite in continuity with any other appearance of the characters, but as a comedy strip, continuity was never a huge issue. The pair are hired to prevent a restaurateur from being murdered; they do so but he is shot anyway, and they have to figure out whodunnit. After they solve that case, a reporter gets the story of their origin (or at least Angel’s version.) There’s an energy and attention to humorous background details reminiscent of early Mad, but sometimes the exaggerated art style can go a bit off.
If you are a fan of Joe Kubert’s art, this volume is a must-have; if you’re indifferent to that, the stories are only average, and the problematic material may knock this down a star or two for you. I liked this very much.
Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years. Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within. Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.
The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.) It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again. After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists. They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies. Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.
Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets. Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest. Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.
Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks. He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department. It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in the process. For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)
There are time travel shenanigans involved, and one character seems determined to produce a specific future. The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board. The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.
A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims. There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”
Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends. The cliffhanger is neat: “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips. And kissed him.”
“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova. He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot. (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.) As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.
“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.) A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human. Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.
The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch. While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for. A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.
The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day. (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.) Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.
The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.
“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel. A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans. They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.” Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.
All that is background. A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky. There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell. Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.
It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story. It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while. Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)
Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later. (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)
“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life. Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens. Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet. Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants? A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.
“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece. It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop. A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain. The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.
Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet. But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes. He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.
Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries. Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.
The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted. It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)
John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.
There are two science fact articles. “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses. “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained. Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.
I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.
Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.
Comic Book Review: Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2 by various creators.
Back in 1967, Marvel Comics became aware that the name “Captain Marvel” for a superhero had fallen out of trademark status. It was too good a name for Marvel to pass up, so Stan Lee quickly came up with a character to appear in Marvel Super-Heroes #12, who then appeared in his own series. Captain Mar-Vell was a representative of the alien Kree Empire, sent to spy on the Earth for potential conquest. He was chosen for the job because of being of the oppressed minority “Pink Kree” who happened to look like Caucasian humans, as opposed to the majority “Blue Kree.” (This allowed Marvel Comics to play him as an underdog who faced prejudice, while still having a “white” character as the hero.)
Mar-Vell assumed the identity of recently deceased scientist Walter Lawson and began working at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the better to spy on the space program. When danger threatened his co-workers, Mar-Vell put on his Kree uniform (with its face-hiding helmet), and due to accidentally revealing his name became known as the superhero Captain Marvel. Unfortunately, Mar-Vell’s commanding officer Colonel Yon-Rogg wanted to steal his subordinate’s girlfriend, Nurse Una, and proceeded to try to get Captain Marvel killed.
Several issues in, Mar-Vell’s powers were reworked, and he was bonded with perennial sidekick Rick Jones–only one of them could be in the positive universe at a time, which the other floated around in the Negative Zone, swapping places with power-enhancing bracelets called Nega-Bands. (And yes, this was a riff on the original Captain Marvel’s relationship with Billy Batson.) Sales were never particularly good, and the series went on hiatus for several years while the character guest-starred in other heroes’ books.
Which brings us to the volume at hand. Issue #22 starts with Captain Marvel apparently dead, having given up his lifeforce to save Rick Jones at the end of the Kree-Skrull war. But no, he was just “hiding” and a mad science treatment allows Mar-Vell to return to trading places with Rick. The first few issues are standard superhero stuff, but then comes the Starlin run. Jim Starlin was new to Marvel Comics at the time, but had big ideas for a cosmic plotline involving several characters he’d designed, and he convinced Marvel to let him anchor it with Captain Marvel.
This involved Thanos, one of a race of godlike beings that inhabited Titan, a moon of Saturn. In love with Death (literally), he rejected the peaceful ways of his people to become a conqueror, gathering an army of outcasts and criminals from across the galaxy. Along the way, he inspired the creation of Drax the Destroyer, a golem-like creature whose sole purpose was killing Thanos. (This version was very different from the one most of you will have seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, among other things being a formidable telepath.)
Thanos’ plans to conquer Earth accelerate when he learns that Rick Jones (unknown to himself) knows the location of the Cosmic Cube, a device that can reshape reality to the holder’s whim. The mad titan plans to use it to elevate himself to true godhood, making him omnipotent. While Captain Marvel and his allies manage to defeat some of Thanos’ minions and slow down his plans a bit, it is not until Mar-Vell is granted “cosmic awareness” by a being called Eon that he is finally able to save the day, resulting in Thanos’ first death.
The high-stakes action and some trippy visuals impressed the heck out of 12-year-old me, and a lot of other kids, and Jim Starlin became a favorite creator. After the end of the Thanos Saga, Starlin stayed on only long enough for a transitional issue to Steve Englehart’s run. #34 had Mar-Vell go up against a C-list villain named Nitro, whose power was exploding himself. At the end of the issue, Mar-Vell was exposed to experimental nerve gas, (Much later it would turn out he had developed inoperable cancer from this exposure, resulting in the classic story The Death of Captain Marvel.)
Nitro turned out to be a minion of the Lunatic Legion, Blue Kree purists headquartered on Earth’s Moon. They in turn turned out to be pawns of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, who had been orchestrating events for years to turn Rick Jones into a jump-start for Kree evolution (this is not how evolution works; just roll with it.) This volume ends with Mar-Vell and Rick defeating the Supreme Intelligence’s plan, but not without cost.
There are a couple of appearances by Carol Danvers (who’d been chief of security for Cape Canaveral during the early issues of the series) who has been demoted due to the events surrounding Lawson. She doesn’t get to show off her competence, alas. Things would look up for her a couple years later when she became the superhero Ms. Marvel, and Carol is now the Marvel Universe’s Captain Marvel.
Englehart’s run was also pretty good, but not up to the level of Starlin’s; some good art by Al Milgrom helps.
Trivia note: A black singer says that she wants to be “Tina Turner–without Ike” two years before Ike’s abuse of Tina became public knowledge.
In addition to general superheroic violence, there’s the “fantastic racism” previously mentioned. In addition to the skin color issues of the Kree, the Kree and their long-time enemies the shape-shifting Skrulls regularly hurl slurs at each other. (Even Mar-Vell himself indulges in this before gaining cosmic awareness.) There’s also an issue where Rick takes a hallucinogenic drug a friend gave him without consideration of what that might do to his mental link with Mar-Vell.
The art suffers some from the lack of color (Starlin did his own colors, which made his issues really pop.)
Recommended to Captain Marvel fans on a budget and Starlin fans in particular; check your lending library.
In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.” One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.
Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five. It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels. Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology. Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available. These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.
After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights. In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity. Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.
Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD. It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work. The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory. If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently. Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him. She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.
While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller. Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory. The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.
One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing. The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies. Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives. Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work. A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony. But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.
Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.
Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse. The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.
In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.
Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Manga Review: Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 3 by Jiro Kuwata
Quick recap: The 1960s Batman television show was popular in Japan as well, and a tie-in manga was done by 8-Man creator Jiro Kuwata. It was not based on the show as such, but on the Batman comic books of the time, so had a slightly more serious tone. This is the final volume of the translated collection.
We open with Batman and Robin battling the Planet King, a character who uses superscience gadgets based on properties of the planets of our solar system. The Mercury suit projects heat, the Jupiter suit can make objects giant-sized and so forth. There’s a double fake-out as to the identity of the Planet King, and a motive for his rampage that seems better suited to a Superman comic.
Then there’s a story about three escaped criminals using remote-controlled robots to commit robberies. This one has a “electricity does not work that way” moment that took me out of the story.
This is followed by a Clayface story that chronologically happens before the story in the second volume, which may have confused some readers at the time.
The next story is about a series of robberies committed by criminals in cosplay outfits as part of a contest. Some highlights include Batman disguised as a criminal disguised as Batman, a functionally illiterate crook faced with writing a name, and one contestant’s attempt to rig the contest being foiled by criminals’ congenital inability to follow the rules. In many ways the best story in this volume.
After that, we have a story of Catman, whose cloak supposedly gives him nine lives. (No mention of Catwoman, alas.) His Japanese costume is much cooler looking than the American version.
Then a somewhat longer story about a “ghost” who initially looks like Robin, then Batman, and finally gives up the disguise to be his own character. The main difficulty the Dynamic Duo faces here is that the Phantom Batman can hit them, but not vice-versa.
The final story has our heroes being captured by an alien dictator and forced into gladiatorial combat with representatives of three other planets for the Emperor’s amusement. Naturally, Batman restores good government. “Peace is the best option for everyone.”
There’s a short article about Mr. Kuwata’s adaptation process, and a list of which American issues he adapted.
This is very much an adaptation for elementary school boys, with little in the way of subtlety, and female characters kept to a minimum. The art is often stiff and old-fashioned, and minor character faces are reused quite a bit. Still, it’s fun adventure, and Kuwata often put an interesting spin on the original material. Recommended for the intersection of Batman fans and manga fans.
Book Review: Chameleon 2: In Garde We Trust by Jerry LaPlante
One of my reading addictions as a teen was trashy series hero paperbacks. The Executioner, the Destroyer, Nick Carter Killmaster…much like the old pulp heroes but grittier and with more sleaze. The more successful series are still published to this day in one form or another, but there were many imitators that have sunk into the memory hole. The Chameleon series is one of them.
Vance Garde is a genius scientist (his primary specialty is engineering physics) who has a prosperous think tank producing inventions and innovations to improve things for humanity. But every so often he encounters injustice, and in his rage works to destroy those evil people who are responsible. In the first book, it had been the death of his half-sister from tainted drugs that caused him to create a new subdivision of his company, VIBES, that produces weapons for his missions of vindication. Ably assisted by his Vice President of Operations Ballou Annis (the first book was heavy on the punny names), he wiped out the entire drug ring.
This volume opens with Vance being chased across a Montana glacier by a grizzly bear while doing metric conversions in his head. Which is a pretty good use of in medias res. We then flashback to him as Ms. Annis (who has a pretty vindictive streak herself) and he are interrupted during a meal by a girl in green robes who hasn’t eaten regularly in a while and is seriously glassy-eyed. She collapses, and when taken to the hospital, swallows cyanide rather than be treated. Her male conterpart is prevented from suicide and goes catatonic.
Vance Garde is already beginning to get angry at the cult that sponsors these green-robed fanatics, The Symbiotic Synagogue, when it becomes personal as Ballou learns her brother Adrian has joined the cult and wants his trust fund released to that organization. The two hatch a plan to rescue Adrian by kidnapping him, but that plan goes seriously awry, leading to the situation at the beginning of the book.
Having survived that, Mr. Garde is ready to come up with a plan to crush the Symbiotic Synagogue, if he can just figure out what they’re really up to.
The Symbiotic Synagogue and its leader Father Sol Luna are obviously based on the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, right down to the cultists being named “Lunies”, but there are also elements of the Hare Krishnas and other cults of the time. Their mind control is more literal than in real life, though more subtle than many uses of that idea, and Vance Garde isn’t thinking clearly for a substantial piece of the story.
That serves to smooth over the fact that Mr. Garde is one of those multi-competent protagonists who is both physically and mentally superior to just about everyone in his vicinity. He’s rather smug about it, too–so it’s amusing when he screws up.
Ballou Aniss is less likable, due to her petty yet over-engineered pranks against those who offend her. Seriously, you do not want to get on this woman’s bad side. She also benefits in-story from not so much being brilliant as her targets being stupid, sometimes repeatedly.
It’s interesting to look at the technology in the story as well. Aside from the mind-control gadget and an interesting method of detecting uranium deposits, we have the hero’s computer. It’s got a very powerful database system, and he has three people dedicated to putting in information about science and industry. So when Vance needs information on a company he’s investigating, that’s something he can find right away. But he’s never bothered with religion, so someone has to go out to the library to look up the cult they’re fighting. It’s also apparently not hooked up to ARPANET.
Also, no cellphones, so our heroes hide miniature CB radios in largish tourist cameras.
As mentioned above, this is a sleazy paperback. Two running gags are that Vance and Ballou never actually get all the way through sex (including a waterbed disaster) and a dog that’s been conditioned to poop whenever it hears a telephone ring. The former is more amusing than the latter.
On the more serious side, there’s chastity belts with some nasty surprises built in, attempted rape, and torture (this last one by Vance, who enjoys amateur dentistry too much for this reader’s comfort.)
The writing is adequate for the kind of book this is, and often rises to the level of amusing; it would be a good disposable read for fans of sleazy Seventies paperback series.
Comic Book Review: Vertigo CYMK edited by Scott Nybakken
Disclaimer: I received this volume from a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review. No other compensation was offered or requested.
I don’t talk a lot about colorists. In most comics, they’re not noticed unless they really screw up, or there’s a particularly striking image. But they are an essential part of the color comics creation process. It’s the colorist who makes sure that the characters have the same color clothing and hair from panel to panel and page to page. The colorist has to choose appropriate background colors that will complement the foreground without hurting the eyes, and create mood with appropriate shades for the circumstances. It’s a difficult job and one that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
The reason I bring this up is because this anthology comic book is all about color. It’s named after Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/blacK, the four inks used in tiny dots to create all the colors in the “four color” printing process that allowed color to work on cheap newsprint paper. For many years it was used both for the Sunday comics and comic books. The latter are printed on fancier paper now, allowing for more shades and variations, but “four-color” is a history that all comics creators know. This was originally a four-issue series with each color getting a focus.
The Cyan section leads off with “Serial Artist” by Shaun Simon (writer), Tony Akins (artist) and Andrew Dalhouse (colorist.) A struggling musician falls in love with a girl he finds “tagging” a building. When he inherited a funeral parlor, he feels obligated to make a go of that instead. His girlfriend has an idea for bringing in some business…he really should have asked more questions about that building she was putting graffiti on.
Many of the pieces aren’t full stories, but mood pieces or story fragments.
One of my favorites is “Adrift” by Jody Houser (writer) and Nathan Fox (artist who did his own colors.) A bereaved girl has a conversation with her little sister’s “Barbara Jean” doll while they wait for her grandmother’s funeral. The doll’s garish magenta clashes with the gray tones around her in a way that emphasizes she’s not of this world.
The Black section tends towards…well, darker pieces, but a couple of them play against this expectation. “Super Blackout” by Gene Luen Yang (writer) and Sonny Liew (art & colors) is about an app that allows you to erase photos on your smartphone–but that’s not its true purpose. There’s some effective use of app icons to carry the story with a minimum of dialogue.
Each section ends with a story by Fabio Moon, who does all the chores himself. They form a connected narrative about a vase artisan and his friend who lose one gallery and go in search of another. The artisan is able to see this loss as an opportunity and sees hope in the future.
While some of the pieces are weaker than others, it’s a beautiful assortment. I should mention that this is a Vertigo “mature readers” title, so there is some violence and nudity, as well as rough language. There are stories that involve suicide and rape, both off-page. (It doesn’t wallow in it like some other Vertigo series have, however.)
I’d recommend this book especially to art students to see how different colorists work with artists and writers to enhance the stories.