Movie Review: The Chinese Cat (1944)

Movie Review: The Chinese Cat (1944) directed by Phil Rosen

Six months ago, Thomas P. Manning, businessman and chess expert, was shot to death in his study, the door locked from the inside.  The police have been unable to solve the case.  Daughter Leah Manning (Joan Woodbury) is dismayed to discover that a new book has come out, a roman a clef that accuses her mother of the murder.

The Chinese Cat

Leah learns that famous detective Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is in town, and rushes to his hotel.  She instead finds his #3 son Tommy (Benson Fong) there, which turns out to be a good thing.  Tommy’s a sucker for a pretty face, and convinces his father to take the case.   However, the elder Chan must catch a flight out of town in 48 hours, so there’s no time to lose!

Charlie Chan was invented for the 1925 novel The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers.  He was inspired by real life Honolulu police detectives Chang Apana and Lee Fook.  Mr. Biggers did not like the stereotyped “evil Chinaman” so common in media of the time, so wrote Chan as a hero and clever detective.

Because of the way Hollywood worked back then, movie adaptations of Charlie Chan did not succeed until a white actor wearing heavy “Oriental” makeup was placed in the central role.  Chan was also made somewhat more “stereotypical” by spouting fortune-cookie aphorisms, a move Mr. Biggers did not like.  Nevertheless, Warner Oland’s performance was big box office, and Asian actors were allowed to be in lesser roles, such as Keye Luke as #1  Son Lee Chan.

When Mr. Oland died, the role was taken over by Sidney Toler, who played Chan with a bit more bite to his personality.  He enjoyed the role so much that when Fox stopped making Charlie Chan films, Mr. Toler purchased the rights and got Monogram to continue the series.

The Chinese Cat is one of these late-period films.  The budget had been slashed, and fog is used to minimize the amount of detail needed in outdoor scenes.   Much of the runtime is taken up by the comedy antics of feckless Tommy Chan (who is away from college for reasons he never actually explains) and chauffeur/taxi driver Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland.)  The latter character has also been somewhat controversial, as he plays into stereotypes about African-Americans at the time, servile and superstitious.  The act doesn’t come off as badly as in some of the other Chan films I’ve seen.

Ian Keith has a nicely sinister turn as Dr. Paul Recknik, the criminologist who wrote the accusatory book, and believes that police detective Harvey Dennis (Weldon Heyburn) is shielding Mrs. Manning because he’s sweet on Leah.

Charlie Chan, of course, quickly realizes the importance of a couple of clues the police overlooked, and uses his Chinatown connections to establish the real motive for the murder.  Then there’s a big showdown in a fun house that’s been closed down for the duration of the war.  (The World War Two setting is also reflected in the tight transportation schedule Chan has, and a mention of the Chinese War Relief Fund.)

Keeping in mind the time period in which this film was made and the cultural milieu, this is a fun, light entertainment piece.  Parents of younger viewers may want to explain the concepts of “yellowface” and limited roles for minority actors to their offspring.

Comic Book Review: Daring New Adventures of Supergirl Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Daring New Adventures of Supergirl Volume 1  written by Paul Kupperberg, pencils by Carmen Infantino, inks by Bob Oksner

In the late 1950s, DC Comics decided to protect its “super” trademark by creating a character named Supergirl.   (“Superwoman” had been used in individual stories as Lois Lane’s codename when she temporarily gained superpowers.)  There was a test-run story in which Jimmy Olsen wished a “Super-Girl” into existence to help Superman, and that story was well received by the readers.

Daring New Adventures of Supergirl Volume 1

So it was that in 1959, Superman investigates a crashed rocketship to discover a girl in her teens, who possesses all the same powers he does!  She explained that she was his cousin Kara.   It turns out that Kal-El’s father Jor-El had a previously unmentioned brother named Zor-El who was married to a woman named Alura.  Faced with the destruction of Krypton, instead of building a rocket to escape as Jor-El had, Zor-El had put a protective dome over his home of Argo City.

The dome held, and Argo City was blasted off Krypton in one piece with many survivors.  Unfortunately, the chain reaction that destroyed Krypton also turned the bedrock under the city to deadly Kryptonite.  Lead sheeting was laid down, and the citizens carried on with their lives.  Kara was born some years later.

A meteor shower damaged the dome and the lead sheeting irreparably, and Kryptonite poisoning swiftly began killing the people of Argo City.  Knowing that Kal-El had survived and become Superman on Earth, Zor-El constructed a spaceship from the few remaining uncontaminated materials, and sent Kara to join her cousin.

Superman wasn’t ready to be raising a teenager full-time,  plus he thinks having Clark Kent’s cousin around on a regular basis might compromise his secret identity’s lifestyle.  So Superman has Kara placed in an orphanage under the name Linda Lee, and tells her to lay low–for now Supergirl will be his secret weapon.

Showing considerable faith in the character concept, Supergirl was given her own solo stories as well as guest appearances in her cousin’s comics.  She joined the Legion of Super-Heroes, was adopted in her secret identity and became Linda Danvers, and eventually revealed to the general public.

Supergirl bounced around the DC Universe for years, doing guest appearances, being a back-up feature and eventually having her own series, that was then folded into Super-Team Family.   In 1982, it was decided to put her back into a solo comic, which brings us to the present volume, reprinting issues 1-12 of Daring New Adventures of Supergirl.

As the story opens, Linda Danvers is on a cross-country train from New York (her job there as a soap opera actress is never mentioned) to Chicago, where she has enrolled in Lake Shore University as a freshman.  (This is her third time as a college freshman; her previous schools are also never mentioned.)

Linda meets her new best friend Joan Raymond, who works in the registration office and happens to know of an empty apartment in her building.  Also introduced are new landlady Mrs. Berkowitz (a Holocaust survivor) and handsome but dim neighbor John Ostrander, an aspiring actor.  (No relation to real person comic book writer John Ostrander, who wouldn’t start working in the field until the next year, and not at DC until 1986.)

Another student at the college is Gayle Marsh, a troubled young woman with psychic abilities.  This would be difficult enough, but she’s fallen under the influence of a Mr. Pendergast, who is obsessed with removing “decay” from society.  He browbeats Gayle into mindlinking with him so that their combined intellect becomes a supervillain named Psi.

Psi starts destroying Chicago, and battles Supergirl.  Supergirl makes some good points about the nature of Psi’s actions, and Gayle turns on Mr. Pendergast, transforming him into a misshapen monster that calls itself Decay for its ability to absorb life force and accelerate decay.  Decay rampages until Psi recovers and turns him back into a human, vanishing in the process.

Meanwhile, John Ostrander is given a courier job by a shady businessman, which leads into the next plotline.  A group of people with special abilities calling itself the Gang has just stolen a prototype satellite.  Supergirl interfered, but was stymied by Ms. Mesmer, who has hypnotic talent.   The Gang discovers that their payment was in the hands of Johnny, who failed to deliver as he learned of an audition, and lost the package there.

The Gang abducts Johnny, and this allows Supergirl to track them down, despite the fact that she’s been given a post-hypnotic suggestion that makes her think she’s flying around in her Linda Danvers identity.  (Kara’s identity issues would keep cropping up in this series.)

A nice touch is that the Gang grew up together in the slums of Chicago, and truly care for each other to an extent.  One member, Brains, manages to escape and becomes a recurring problem.

The secret organization that had hired the Gang, the Council, next sends out a robot called Matrix-Prime to do their bidding.  It’s called that because Matrix-Prime can create new, smaller robots and weapons from inside itself to adapt to different situations.

Supergirl manages to smash the Council’s underwater base in Lake Michigan, but the trail goes cold there.

Taking a break at a park concert, Linda suddenly hears a weird noise just before a woman in bandages is attacked from above.  This woman turns out to be Valentina Vostok, the Negative Woman of the New Doom Patrol.

This iteration of the superhero group known for being freaks and misfits is after Reactron, a former military man who was exposed to atomic testing, then exposed to Tempest’s kinetic blasts in Vietnam.  As a result, Reactron can absorb, create and control various forms of radioactivity, including, as it turns out, at least one that can harm Kryptonians.

Supergirl manages to get Reactron out of Earth’s atmosphere, but ill with radiation poisoning, she makes an enemy of a Chicago police detective.  More worrying, she is captured by the Council and subjected to a mad science process that creates six tiny duplicates of her.

Even though weakened, Kara’s Kryptonian physiology prevents her from fully dying from the duplication process.  The Council sends the duplicates after her, and the seven beings have a battle royale inside the Fortress of Solitude.  The duplicates accidentally cure Supergirl of the radiation poisoning and she then defeats them.

But by the time Supergirl returns to the Council hideout, the mad scientist is dead (“you have failed me”) and the trail is cold again.  Her costume is in tatters, which will trigger a change of outfit in the next issue.

This is considered one of the best runs for the character, thanks to being more philosophically nuanced than most while not losing that essential fun aspect of superhero comics.  It was also the last run  for this particular version of the character, as Kara Zor-El was killed off in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The supporting cast is well-used, and the stories flow organically into each other.

Carmine Infantino used his years of depicting the Flash to give Supergirl an impression of speed in her actions.  Linda’s civilian clothes are remarkably frilly, but suit her personality, and give the impression of being selected from a relatively limited wardrobe that would fit into a few suitcases.

Psi’s costume leaves a lot to be desired and raises some questions about Mr. Pendergast’s intentions towards his protege.  Decay may have been closer to the surface of his personality than he’d like to admit.  There’s also some peekaboo nudity with the miniature Supergirl duplicates before they are somehow clothed in identical costumes to their template.

This would be a good choice as a gift for young Supergirl fans who have only seen the TV show, and for the nostalgic Supergirl fan who was around in the early 1980s.

 

Manga Review: Manga Classics: The Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

Manga Review: Manga Classics: The Stories of Edgar Allan Poe adapted by Stacy King

When I was young, a half century or so ago, there was a line of educational comics called Classics Illustrated.  These presented classic public domain works of literature in a comic book format.  The art tended to be static and pedestrian, difficult or disturbing plot material got left out, and very little of the stirring language that made these works classics remained.  But they read fast, and had helpful pictures for kids not ready to tackle Cliff’s Notes.

Manga Classics: The Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

There have been several revivals and imitators since then, and currently Udon Entertainment has brought out a line of such works under the group name Manga Classics.   The word “manga” is used rather loosely here as the material is neither produced nor created in Japan.  The artists do use “mangaesque” art styles, and some of them are at least of Japanese heritage.   It will be published in the chunky paperback format familiar to manga fans, and printed to read right to left for aesthetic purposes.  The hope is that the sort of kid who enjoys other manga will pick up these volumes.

The current volume retells four of Edgar Allan Poe’s weird stories, and the poem “The Raven.”  The strong narrative voice and short length of the works means that nearly the entire prose of the story can be used as word balloons or caption boxes for the illustrated panels.

The collection begins with “The Tell-Tale Heart” in which a murderer explains that he is not insane, just gifted or cursed with sensory sensitivity.  The format is used to switch between scenes of the narrator telling his story to a doctor or lawyer (it isn’t clear which) and the narrator’s actions that led up to his imprisonment.

“The Cask of Amontillado” is a tale of the perfect revenge (for what, the narrator never quite makes clear) as a fool is led to his doom by his love of and expertise in wine.  The art goes heavy on the screentone.

“The Raven” has a man thinking of his lost love and being tormented by the title bird with its cry of “Nevermore.”  The art style makes the man look too young for the tone of the poem, but it’s otherwise a good adaptation.

“The Masque of the Red Death” is about a party held in the last refuge from a plague; the rich and powerful safe and well-fed while the poor die in droves.  This one works very well, but suffers a bit from not being in color, since the color schemes play so much into the atmosphere.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” finishes the volume with a long tale of the last dregs of a noble family and their symbolic dwelling place.  There are some rather large implausibilities here, but the faces of Usher as he succumbs to madness are well done.

Poe’s masterful writing is the best thing about this volume, but the art is pretty good too.  Most recommended for younger teens who enjoy both spooky tales and manga-style illustrations.  It seems less likely to appeal to older readers already familiar with the material.

Disclaimer:  I was provided a free download of this upcoming book through Netgalley for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.  There may be changes in the final edition.

Let’s have a trailer for the Vincent Price version of Masque of the Red Death!

Book Review: Season of Marvels: Viking Tales

Book Review: Season of Marvels: Viking Tales by Deb Houdek Rule

This is a collection of four speculative fiction short stories on the general theme of “Vikings” from the small label press Variations On a Theme.

Season of Marvels: Viking Tales

“Viking -Trojan War” is an after-action report about 8th Century Viking raiders suddenly materializing on the USC campus due to the Temporal Physics department getting a bit careless.  The narrative voice is apparently one of the college administrators, and sudden bits of informality suggest that this is the draft version of his or her report rather than the final one.  Lightly humorous.

“The Last Ship” is set in Greenland during the 15th Century, after the supply ships from Norway stopped coming.  A shepherd sings an old song from the pagan times, and one last ship arrives.  Did she call it, or was the ship doomed to begin with, and the survivor less monster than alien?

“Season of Marvels” is closer to the fantasy side.  Kieran, Irish slave of Einar the Earless, wants his freedom.  And in this Icelandic winter where marvels and dark magic are on the rise, he might be able to get it.

“Borealis”, on the other hand, is more inclined to science fiction.  An orphan boy who forms a bond with a cat (possibly psychic in nature) is drafted by a secret organization.  That organization drops him without a briefing on a planet with a Norse-like culture that’s been stagnating for centuries.   Culture shock ensues.

This last story has the most potential to be turned into a full novel, or even a series, as Brock deals with Chimaera and its mysterious goals.

They’re all decent stories, with four very different moods.  The paperback is perhaps a bit overpriced for the size, but I see the Kindle version is inexpensive, or free if you already have Kindle Unlimited.

Consider this one if you like Viking-themed stories, or as a gift for someone who does.

Manga Review: Platinum End Volume 3

Manga Review: Platinum End Volume 3 Story by Tsugumi Ohba, Art by Takeshi Obata

Quick recap:  Mirai Kakehashi has had a miserable life as an abused orphan, but when he attempts suicide, he is rescued by an angel.  Nasse, the Angel of Purity, informs Mirai that he’s been chosen to join a contest to determine the next person to be God.  Currently, Mirai is allied with his classmate and crush Saki Hanakago and her sponsor, Revel the Angel of Trickery.  They’re opposed to the mysterious Metropoliman, who wears a superhero costume and has already murdered several God candidates.

Platinum End Volume 3

As this volume opens, Mirai and Saki have been tracked down by yet another candidate, Nato Mukaido.  He’s a businessman who used to work in the fashion industry before he developed terminal cancer.  His sponsor is Baret, Angel of Knowledge.  Nato is pretty sure he’s not going to survive the full 999 days of the contest even if he’s not murdered, so his primary objective is not letting the amoral Metropoliman become God.

Nato isn’t lying, so Mirai and Saki ally with him, despite Mirai’s reservations about killing even in self defense.

We also learn Metropoliman’s secret identity and part of his motivation for becoming God, which I won’t spoil here.  His sponsor is Meyza, the Angel of Greed.  He needs a new plan to draw out his enemies, and takes inspiration from a friend.

Metropoliman breaks serial killer Mimimi Yamada out of prison and enslaves her using the red arrows of love.  He equips her with wings and red arrows, then gives her instructions of who to target.  The plan is to draw out God candidates who won’t allow a superhuman serial killer to operate due to their own moral standards.

And it’s at this point I need to issue a Content Warning:  A pre-adolescent child is placed in a sexual situation on-page before being murdered.

Our protagonists recognize that Mimimi is bait for a trap, but come up with a plan to deal with her that might not leave them too vulnerable to Metropoliman.  They might have underestimated the masked man’s ruthlessness and access to resources, though, and things look dire at the end of the volume.

The art continues to be top-rate, and it’s always fun to watch very smart characters attempt to outplan each other.

Nato’s a good choice as an ally character, someone who temporarily outshines the main protagonist but is doomed by backstory, so will soon give back the spotlight.

Metropoliman:  To quote Brooklyn 99, “Cool motive.  Still murder.”

Mimimi is much less interesting, combining the most irritating characteristics of Misa in Death Note with a skeeviness that is just repulsive to me.

And that’s why I am not unreservedly recommending this series any more.  The skeevy parts made this volume much less enjoyable for me.  Approach with caution.

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster

While there were several precursors to Superman, he’s generally agreed to be the first full-fledged comic book superhero.  Superhuman abilities, a distinctive costume, and a dual identity, he had them all.   When Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, the readers had not seen anything quite like him before, and the comic book flew off the shelves.

The Superman Chronicles Volume One

However, the fellow who appeared in those early issues wasn’t quite the Superman we’ve come to know after all these years.  The “Chronicles” series of reprints gives us full-color reproductions of the stories in order of publication, starting with the very first, plus the covers of the issues.

Action Comics #1 starts us off right with the classic scene of Superman smashing a car into a rock, which turns out to actually happen in the story.   The feature begins with an abbreviated version of Superman’s origin.  The dying planet that sent a single rocketship to Earth (not yet named Krypton), a passing motorist (not yet identified as the Kents) who takes the infant to an orphanage, his growing powers (strength, speed, leaping, nigh-invulnerability) and his determination to use his powers to help those in need.  Clark Kent’s powers are explained by his physical structure being far more advanced than Earth humans, giving him the proportionate abilities of an ant or grasshopper.

The story itself starts in media res, as Superman carries a murderer to the governor’s mansion.  Leaving her tied up nearby, the Man of Steel forces himself past the governor’s servant, and through a metal door to that worthy’s bedroom.  He produces proof that the woman about to be executed is innocent, and stays right there until the governor pardons her.

The next day, Clark Kent is pleased to see that the Daily Star did not print anything about Superman’s involvement.  But the rumor of a superhuman fellow in a bright costume has already come to notice, and the Star’s city editor puts his rookie reporter Kent on the job of discovering the truth.

Kent learns of a wife-beating in progress, but it’s Superman who appears at the scene and roughs up the abusive husband.  The cad faints, and it’s Clark who greets the police.

Next, it’s time to establish the “mild-mannered” part of Clark Kent’s persona.  Clark convinces fellow reporter Lois Lane to go dancing with him, but she’s showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm.  When Clark backs down far too easily to a hood named Butch who cuts in, Lois is disgusted at his cowardice and leaves the dance hall.

Butch is angered by Lois’ refusal to dance with him, and sets out to abduct her with a few of his criminal friends to teach Lois a lesson.  Naturally, Superman shows up and the cover scene ensues.  The Man of Tomorrow carries Lois home and advises her not to tell anyone.  Sure enough, the next day, no one will believe her wild story.  It will take her a couple of issues to fully process her reaction to Superman.

The Star’s editor has a new assignment for Clark Kent.  South American republic San Monte is having a civil war, and since the home front is getting so dull card games are front-page news (I am now imagining a 1930s version of Yu-Gi-Oh), Kent should go down there and file some war reports.  Oh, pictures would be good too.

Rather than head directly south, Kent first travels to Washington, D.C.  He spots a Senator Barrows being furtively contacted by lobbyist Alex Greer, who’s known to be connected to “dark money” but no one knows whose.  Eavesdropping on their next meeting, Superman learns that the bill Senator Barrows is pushing is designed to entangle America in European affairs.   (We never come back to this plot point.)

Afterward, Superman approaches Greer to find out who his backer is.  Naturally the lobbyist declines to state this information, so Superman picks the man up and starts leaping all over town with him.  He even finds time to impart a science fact about birds and power lines!   His last leap doesn’t quite make it to the next building, and the men begin to fall….

All that in thirteen pages!

Action Comics #2 does not have Superman on the cover; he would not make it back until #7, and thereafter would usually be mentioned in a text box even if the cover was of someone else.

The story picks up where #1 left off, with Superman and Greer landing on the sidewalk.  They survive, the sidewalk doesn’t.   Greer spills the beans on his boss, international arms dealer Emil Norvell.  Superman then uses his considerable persuasive powers to make sure that Norvell travels to San Monte and enlists in their army.

Lois is assigned to go along with Clark Kent to South America.  Lots of things happen, including Norvell learning what it’s like to be on the pointy edge of his munitions, Lois nearly being shot as a spy, Superman just straight up killing a torturer (oh sure, we don’t see him land, but being tossed several miles away?  He’s not going to have a soft landing) and the Man of Steel finding a creative way to stop the war.

The story is followed by an advertisement for the daily Superman comic strip, soon to come out.

#3 has Superman get a neglectful mine owner to improve safety conditions for workers.  (Some ethnic slurs by baddies.)    There’s also an announcement of the first Superman fan club, the Supermen of America.

#4 is Superman kidnapping a college football player for several days to impersonate him in order to prevent a game from being fixed.  As a side effect, it also improves Tommy’s love life.

#5 has Lois Lane get enraged by the editor’s sexism (“no job for a girl”) and trick Clark Kent into pursuing a fake story while she goes off to cover a bursting dam.  Superman saves Lois a couple of times and she admits her feelings for him while still despising Clark.

#6 is the first Superman impersonator story.  A crook dresses his henchman up in a Superman suit and has him do faked stunts of superstrength so that the crook can claim he’s got a legal license to sell Superman merchandise.  Lois easily sees through the fake, but still needs rescuing.  Also has the first Superman-themed song.

#7 has Superman join a failing circus to give it an attendance boost, and reveal the criminals that are trying to take it over.  This is a good spot to mention that Superman’s distinctive costume was partially based on a circus strongman outfit, including trunks worn over tights to keep certain body bulges smoothed out.  This story also introduces Curly, the first of what would be a recurring type of bully who also works at the paper and pranks Clark Kent.  By the end of the story, Clark finds a way to get some payback.

#8 is another classic moment for Superman as a social justice warrior.  He decides to tackle the problem of juvenile delinquency in slum kids–by tearing down the entire slum, thus forcing the government to build them new housing ala FEMA!

Of course, actions have consequences, and in #9, the police bring in Chicago cop Detective Captain Reilly, known as “100% Reilly” for always getting his man.  Reilly’s plan hits a significant snag when he attempts to chisel an informant out of the substantial reward money promised.   Clark Kent is barely able to escape detection, but at the end, the visitor is known as “99% Reilly.”

#10 is another social justice story–Superman goes undercover as a prisoner to expose inhuman conditions imposed by a crooked warden.  (Warning: torture.)

#11 continues Superman’s impersonations.  To expose a crooked oil company, he poses as investor Homer Ramsey and contrives a beautiful scam where he tricks the oil company executives into trading their real money for their own worthless stock.  Environmentalists may cringe at how he does it, though.  (Presumably Superman turns the money he made over to charity.)

#12 has an interesting Zatara cover with a nifty spaceship.  The Superman story has him getting angry at reckless drivers and automobiles that are unsafe at any speed.  So he imposes a reign of terror on the city.  (And admittedly, fixes a particularly bad stretch of road.)  You can just feel Siegel’s outrage boiling off the page as Superman refuses to use doors in his pursuit of strict traffic enforcement.  Also in this issue, an announcement of DC’s second superhero, the Batman!

New York World’s Fair #1 ties into that 1939 event.  Clark and Lois are sent to cover the opening, but Superman spends most of his time helping attractions open on time and thwarting a criminal plot.

Action Comics #13 starts its story with Superman fighting the “Cab Protective League”, a shakedown racket aimed at taxi drivers.  However, we soon meet the first ever evil mastermind to battle Superman.  The Ultra-Humanite is a bald scientist who has given himself super-intelligence (which may or may not have anything to do with his paraplegia.)  Moriarty-like, he’s been secretly behind some of the criminal schemes Superman has thwarted.

His vast knowledge of science allows the Ultra-Humanite to stun Superman, but not kill him.  The evil scientist then appears to die in a plane crash, but Superman is unable to find a body.   He’ll be back several times, until Lex Luthor takes over his ecological niche.

And the volume concludes with Superman #1, as Superman became the first superhero to have his own solo comic book.  Most of the contents were reprinted from Action Comics #1-4.

However, the first story had a new introduction naming Krypton and the Kents for the first time, and establishing that John and Mary Kent had passed away from old age after training Clark in American values.  We then see how Superman learned of the innocent person condemned for murder and where to find the murderer seen in the first story.

The explanation of Superman’s powers now explained that Earth’s lighter gravity aided his advanced body structure to perform his superhuman feats.

Finally, there’s a two-page text story.  These prose stories appeared in comic books to force the post office to classify them at a lower postal rate.  Usually, they weren’t very good.  No exception here.

The art is crude but dynamic, and it’s fun to watch Superman perform his many feats.  This is a rougher-edged fellow who very much has opinions, and isn’t afraid to take matters into his own hands.  Soon he’ll calm down a bit and become more authority-friendly (and develop a code against killing.)  No more random kidnappings!

Highly recommended to Superman fans and those who want to know more about the early history of superhero comics.  Check your library!

 

Manga Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 1 Phantom Blood 01

Manga Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 1 Phantom Blood 01 by Hirohiko Araki

Centuries ago in Mexico, an offshoot of the Aztecs discovered a method of attaining eternal life through the consumption of human blood.  They ruled supreme for a while, then abruptly vanished from the pages of history.  One of their mysterious stone masks was excavated in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, and made its way to Britain.  There, it became the catalyst that altered the fate of two young men and their descendants.

Jojo's Bizarre Adventures Part 1 Phantom Blood 01

In 1868, lower-class ne’er-do-well Dario Brando was returning home from the pub in a storm when he came across a carriage accident.  The driver and the female passenger were dead, and the male passenger looked dead, but an infant was alive.  Dario was going to loot the bodies, but the man woke up and mistakenly believed that Dario had saved his life.  He rewarded the rascal handsomely.

Dario used the reward money to open his own pub, but his alcoholism and general mismanagement drove it into the ground.  He also abused his wife and child, sending the former to an early grave.  By 1880, his health was completely failing and Dario realized he was about to die.  Despite his behavior, Dario did love his son Dio, and decided to prevail upon the rich man in a letter to take care of the boy.

And so it was that Dio Brando came to live with the Joestar family.  A cunning lad, and already a skilled manipulator at age twelve, he swiftly ingratiated himself to everyone but the Joestar heir, Jonathan Joestar, who was nicknamed “Jojo.”  Dio’s plan was to estrange Jojo from his family and friends, cutting him off from all positive human contact.  He meant to drive Jojo to suicide, allowing Dio to become the new heir to the Joestar fortune.

This plan doesn’t quite work, and Dio switches to biding his time, but not before committing a horrific act of animal abuse.

In 1888, with the boys graduating school (Jojo taking a degree in archaeology, and Dio in law), Mr. George Joestar is ill and sinking fast.  Jojo finds the letter Diego Brando sent introducing Dio, and discovers that Diego’s symptoms exactly match those of George.  He swiftly realizes that Dio is somehow responsible.

Jojo heads to the slums of London to get the evidence he needs, and the antidote for his father.  Meanwhile, Dio has filched the stone mask from George’s collection, and is about to find out what it really does.  When these two meet again, the true nature of their fate will be revealed!

This was the first installment of Araki’s series of series about the adventures of the Joestar family and those connected to them.  After the initial color pages, which assure the audience that weirdness is coming, the story switches to a somewhat more realistic tale of a charismatic social climber using any method at his disposal of getting wealthy without getting caught.

Until Dio’s cornered and decides to find out what the stone mask actually does, of course.  The volume ends as he uses the mask himself–the amazing battles that this manga is known for begin with the next volume.

Araki’s character designs are bulkier here than in later installments.  As he mentions in the author’s notes, this was created in the age when Stallone and Schwarzenegger were the big movie stars, and overgrown musculature was all the rage.  Jojo and Dio can barely fit into their somewhat fanciful Victorian suits.

This volume also has the one combat scene where Speedwagon, a former slum dweller who becomes Jojo’s sidekick and a good ally to the Joestar family, does anything of importance.

This is a violent series, and there are often grotesque results fully shown on-panel.  Especially disturbing is what happens to the dog Danny.

As was the custom with shounen (boys’) manga of the time, female roles are at a minimum.  Erina is there to be a romantic interest for Jojo, and to be forcibly kissed by Dio as a way of hurting his rival.  (This scene also shows how abusers can be enabled by their friends; Dio’s hanger-ons admire him for doing things they’re too chicken to actually try.)

This is also very much penny dreadful England, not a meticulously researched historical fiction.  The Chinese character is particularly stereotyped.

The characterization is very shallow, with most of the good bits going to Dio, who would become one of manga’s and anime’s defining villains.  Araki has since gotten much better at writing.

Recommended to anyone who’s enjoyed the Jojo anime series.

Book Review: Oliver Twist

Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

An anonymous woman stumbles into a village about seventy-five miles from London, heavily pregnant and with her shoes in tatters.  She collapses in the street, and is taken to the parochial workhouse.  There, she gives birth to a boy and then perishes, seemingly leaving no clue to who she was.

Oliver Twist

The boy is named Oliver Twist, the surname being because he is the twentieth nameless foundling in the parish since Mr. Bumble, the parochial beadle (a sort of petty law enforcer) took up the office and started using alphabetical naming.  He is shuffled off to an “orphan farm” to be neglected until old enough to start picking oakum in the workhouse.  At the workhouse, Oliver is labeled a troublemaker when he dares ask for more gruel.   Is it possible for things to get worse?  Probably.

This was the second novel length work by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).   He moved from the straight-up comedy of The Pickwick Papers to a dramatic plot with comedic undertones.  Much of what happens to young Oliver in the early parts of the book is drawn from what Dickens remembered from his own poverty-stricken childhood.  In the preface to the Third Edition (the one used for the reprint I read), Mr. Dickens defends his use of what we’d call “gritty realism” compared to the usual treatment of poverty and crime in that time’s literature.    Then he admits to toning the language way down to avoid having the book be banned for cuss words.

Once the adults in the charity system have decided that Oliver is a bad child, they proceed to behave as though this is the case while completely ignoring the lad’s actual behavior and character.  (Consistent with the general treatment of poverty as being the result of moral failings, and therefore the poor being undeserving of better treatment, and indeed an excuse to treat them horribly.)

The first adult we see even momentarily show some concern for Oliver is a magistrate that refuses to apprentice the boy to a chimney sweeper that routinely works his apprentices to death on the grounds that Oliver is clearly terrified by the man.   The workhouse managers blame Oliver for failing to look properly grateful.  A second apprenticeship application by undertaker Mr. Sowerberry goes better.

Mr. Sowerberry cannot be described as a good person; there’s too much petty greed and schadenfreude in his character.   But he’s not actively hostile to Oliver and sees a way to make the boy useful and good for the business.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Sowerberry,  older apprentice Noah Claypole, and serving girl Charlotte are hostile and make life miserable.  Noah, whose living circumstances are barely above Oliver’s, has always wanted someone to punch down at.

Oliver finally snaps after one too many insults to his dead mother, and punches Noah back.  This gets Mr. Bumble called in, and it appears that Oliver will be sent back to the workhouse, if not prison.  Understandably, Oliver decides to run away.  Life is not easy for a penniless child alone on the road, but a day’s coach ride out of London, Oliver meets someone who likes the cut of his jib.

This is Jack Dawkins, known on the street as the Artful Dodger.  A bit older than Oliver, and good-natured for a hardened criminal, the Dodger brings Oliver home to meet a gentleman who would be willing to teach Oliver a trade.  This gentleman is Fagin, a “kidsman” who trains children to steal for him.  At first, Fagin pretends that he teaches the boys hanging out in his shelter how to make handkerchiefs and wallets.

Oliver learns the truth when he’s sent out on his first mission with Jack and his amiable partner Charley “Master” Bates.  When he sees the pair steal an old man’s silk handkerchief, Oliver runs away from them, making it appear that he is the pickpocket.  The victim, Mr. Brownlow, quickly realizes the truth and does not press charges, instead taking the seriously ill boy home to tend him.

Mr. Brownlow realizes that Oliver Twist looks a lot like someone he used to know, but keeps that information to himself to avoid raising the boy’s hopes.   The lad grows well again, and for the first time in his life experiences enough to eat and decent clothing.  (Fagin provided minimal food and shelter.)  Unfortunately, Fagin’s gang, including Nancy (whose job is mentioned in the preface as prostitution) and Bill Sikes, a brutal burglar, have managed to track Oliver down.

The very first time Oliver is alone outside the house, he is abducted by the gang.  Fagin worried that Oliver might be induced to give evidence to the police, and also has been engaged by the mysterious Mr. Monks to make sure Oliver returns to a life of crime.  After they think that Oliver’s will has been broken enough, Sikes bullies Fagin into giving him the boy for a job in the country.

This crime goes south quickly, and things look bad when Oliver is shot.  But this is where Oliver’s fortunes truly turn, as he is taken in by generous householders, one of whom feels a certain kinship towards him.

The villains, however, are still at large, so Oliver’s trials are not yet done.

The last third of the novel moves the focus away from Oliver as the various schemes and plans of the adults in the story play out for good or ill.  Only at the end do we return to the boy as his true heritage is revealed.

Good:  Dickens had a way of language, and a saucy narrative style.  One character has the habit of exclaiming “I’ll eat my head!” and the narrator points out that even if science devised a method by which eating one’s own head was physically possible, the appendage in question is too large for him to devour in one sitting.

Many of the characters are comical even while being horrible, as with Mr. Bumble, who talks up his virtuous charity while doing nothing of the sort.  Bill Sikes is a notable exception, with no punches pulled as he abuses pet and lover alike, before slipping into outright murder.

Plus, Mr. Dickens was good at pulling on heartstrings.  Thus it feels earned at the end when the good people mostly are rewarded, while the bad people tend to meet stickier ends.  (Though I do kind of hope that the Artful Dodger makes good in Australia.)

Not so good:  Mr. Dickens was paid by the word in monthly installments, and you can spot passages where he’s using more verbiage to fill out his pagecount, and plot twists thrown in where the monthly installment would have ended to make sure the readers would come back.

And then there’s the antisemitism.  Fagin really gets hit with the stereotype stick in earlier editions, in addition to being referred to as “the Jew” in the narration.  Mr. Dickens claimed that he hadn’t done this because he thought Jews were criminals, but because he was given to understand that the type of criminals that Fagin was tended to be Jewish.  But that doesn’t change that the entire Jewish representation in the book is Fagin (a fence and pimp who exploits children), Barney (a henchman of Fagin’s with a speech impediment) and an unnamed rag dealer who does business with Fagin.

Later in life, after Charles Dickens actually met some Jewish people and got to know them better, he revised the book to lessen the emphasis on Fagin’s Jewishness and excise a few of the physical stereotypes.

There’s also some period sexism, with the villains sliding into outright misogyny.  Mr. Bumble falls afoul of the down side of patriarchy for men when he learns that the law will consider him responsible for the crimes of his wife.  (“The law is a ass.”)   The actual women in the story range from saintly (Rose) to wicked (Mrs. Bumble).  It’s worth noting that Nancy, despite her never-explained day job and criminal behavior, for which she feels she can never atone, is still a better person than say Mrs. Sowerberry, who never breaks the law, but has no charity in her heart.

And of course, there’s some pretty contrived coincidence involved, as Oliver just happens to run into the only two people in England who have personal reasons to help him…and the only person in England who has personal reasons to make sure he never reaches adulthood.

This is a classic novel which has had considerable influence on popular culture, and is well worth reading once.

And a trailer for the musical, perhaps?

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity edited by Groff Conklin

The title of this anthology refers to the phrase “seven come eleven” from craps, referring to the ways you can win.  In the preface, it’s mentioned that there are a finite number of possibilities for the outcome of rolling two dice.  But when you write a story speculating on the future, the possibilities are infinite.  Will these seven stories be winners?

Seven Come Infinity

“The Golden Bugs” by Clifford D. Simak starts us off in 1950s suburbia.  An insurance salesman is living a reasonably comfortable life with his wife and son, but there’s that one neighbor he hates.  It’s an engineer that is building a robot orchestra in his home and insists on testing their musical abilities first thing in the morning.  Also, our protagonist’s house has a bug problem.

This is not the first time he’s had an insect incursion (the grease ants have been a recurring issue) but this is most assuredly the weirdest.  The little golden critters look like nothing on Earth (according to the retired entomologist next door.)  At first, they’re mildly annoying, then turn helpful…and then scary.

The golden bugs are nicely alien, and their motives are never clear, only their actions, which may or may not have anything to do with their attitude towards humans.  The threat level multiplies as we learn more about the bugs’ capabilities.  There’s a comedy twist when the protagonist figures out a plan to deal with the bugs that might have worked, but the music-loving neighbor puts his better plan into operation first.

“Special Feature” by Charles V. DeVet opens in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as a murderous alien infiltrates the city one winter night bent on mayhem.  She’s confident the stupid humans will be easy prey as she learns to fit in and kill her way to the top.  What she doesn’t know is that she’s already been caught on camera.

And that’s where the story gets interesting.  For in this future, the surveillance society is not run by the government, but by the entertainment companies.  There are cameras nearly everywhere in the city that can be operated remotely, and content providers scanning for anything they can sell to the networks.  Vern Nelson is one of those workers, and he spots the alien before it makes its first attack.  He realizes how exciting this will be and gets exclusive rights to make a reality show of it.

For the rest of the story, we watch Pentizel as she cleverly figures out how to pass for human (at least from a short distance) and schemes to conceal her presence from the locals as she picks them off.  We also watch Vern as he finds ways to exploit Pentizel’s actions to attract an audience (and advertiser dollars) without ever letting her know her every move has been watched.  (Well, almost every move.  The broadcast standards people decide that even if it’s an alien, “no bathroom stuff.”)

Eventually, the authorities decide that ratings or no, Pentizel has killed once too often (that is, someone who isn’t a homeless person or a criminal) and the show must end.  Vern has to find a way to finish the program with a bang!

Television was still in its early days when the story was written, but in some ways it’s eerily prescient.  Suitably updated, it’d probably make a great movie.

“Panic Button” by Eric Frank Russell concerns an Antarean exploration mission looking for new inhabitable planets.  They’ve found one, the problem being that there’s an inhabitant, an Earthman.  And he’s already pushed the big blue button on the wall.

The situation is pretty transparent to the savvy reader, but the fun comes from the aliens debating over what they’re going to do each time new information comes in, and their contrasting personalities.

“Discontinuity” by Raymond F. Jones is about a new experimental process of computerized brain repair.   Among other things, it uses the memories of people who know the patient to help rebuild the parts of the brain related to those relationships.  Unfortunately, everyone who’s been treated by the process, while now able to get along physically, is completely aphasic, unable to communicate or understand communication.

When the inventor of the process suffers massive brain damage as the result of a murder attempt, he’s subjected to the process (over the objections of his wife, the attempted murderer) in a last-ditch attempt to perfect the operation.  He, too, emerges aphasic.

However, unlike previous test subjects, Dr. Mantell is not immediately restrained, and is able to escape.  He soon discovers that his mind is functioning just fine, other than being completely unable to understand human language (including gestures.)  Then he meets other escaped subjects and learns that he can communicate with them.

Dr. Mantell realizes that they have in fact become hyperrational superbeings, and the reason they no longer understand human communication is because it’s inherently irrational enough that their refined minds are no longer able to handle it.  In order to survive, they will need to find a way to, well, dumb themselves down to talk to the humans.

This story uses the “10% of the brain” thing, though not by name.  More annoyingly, it uses the cliche common in Fifties SF of “wife of scientist that doesn’t understand or care about science and is therefore horrible to him.”  To the writer’s credit, Dr. Mantell realizes (now that he’s hyperrational) that he was a total jackass to her himself and is equally responsible for the failure of their marriage.

The story ends on a pro-transhumanist message, as an ordinary human begs to be the next one uplifted.    Chilling if you’re not into hyperrationality as the next step in human evolution.

“The Corianis Disaster” by Murray Leinster concerns the title starship, stuffed to the portholes with planetary dignitaries (and one physicist), which has an accident with its faster than light drive.  It takes a couple of hours to replace the burned out parts, so the ship is late to its destination.  Or is it?  It seems that the Corianis landed a couple of hours ago.

Each ship appears to be identical to the other at first, right down to the passengers.  (With the exception of physicist Jack Bedell, who is not duplicated.)  Since the appearance of these doubles might be the work of sinister forces, neither ship’s personnel are allowed to disembark.

Most science fiction fans will realize what happened immediately, but Mr. Bedell takes much longer, and none of the civilians ever grasp the truth before he finally kind of sort of explains it towards the end.  They’d rather believe in evil alien shapeshifters, or witches.  It doesn’t help that Mr. Bedell seems incapable or unwilling to put things in layman’s terms.

This is another one where Fifties social norms date the story.  Women are wives, nurses and secretaries, not government officials or scientists.  Mr. Bedell’s love interest is a secretary who doesn’t get what he’s talking about but can tell he’s the only sane man aboard.

“The Servant Problem” by William Tenn starts “This was the day of complete control…” and ends “THIS WAS THE DAY OF COMPLETE CONTROL.”  In between, we meet Garomma, the Servant of All, the humble dictator of the world.  He enjoys thinking about how he has domesticated the entire human population into thinking he serves them instead of the other way around.  Then we pull back a bit to meet the man behind the man.  And the man behind the man behind the man.  And….

It’s a fascinating look at social power structures, and how systems become self-sustaining.

“Rite of Passage” by Chad Oliver rounds out the book.  Three survivors of a plague ship take a shuttle down to the nearest planet.  The natives appear primitive, but are reasonably friendly.  One of the survivors, an anthropologist, realizes that appearances are deceiving and the local culture is far more complex than it first appears.  Also, there’s evidence the plague survivors aren’t the only technologically advanced visitors around.

This fits into the category of Utopian fiction more than anything else, as the Nern society turns out to be better than the visitors’ in just about every way.  (Think the civilization version of that Japanese decluttering method.)  Lots of infodump towards the end.

I liked “Special Feature” and “The Servant Problem” the best.  “Rite of Passage” is a little too taken with its message for my tastes.

This volume does not seem to have been reprinted past 1967, but some of the stories may have been collected in more recent books.  Keep watching garage sales!

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