Book Review: My Ultimate Super Hero Manual

Book Review: My Ultimate Super Hero Manual by Steve Behling

Almost every comic book-loving kid has gone through a phase when they seriously wanted to be a superhero.  Wearing a flashy costume, having neat powers, hanging out with people like Spider-Man and Storm; what’s not to love?   At the very least, designing your own super hero character can be a blast.  And this book is meant to help you do just that!

My Ultimate Super Hero Manual

It’s a children’s activity book from the folks who bring you Marvel Comics.  There are pencil and paper exercises, but also ways to make homebrew “superpowers” and costumes.  (Be sure to ask your parents’ permission.  If you are an orphan, you’re already halfway down the road to being a superhero, but ask your guardian’s permission anyway.)  There’s even special dice you can put together to play games.

There’s a plethora of Marvel superheros and villains shown or mentioned–some jokes will only be gotten by long-time fans, but most of the humor is accessible by kids.  (There’s even an index for us scholarly types!)  New art is by Juan Ortiz, while other pieces are reprinted from classic Marvel comics and not individually credited.  (Thanks, “work for hire” contracts!)   Marvel’s female heroes are under-represented.

As a long-time Marvel Comics fan, I have a soft spot for books like this.  At a guess, I’d recommend it to kids from 4th to 6th grade, maybe younger under close supervision, plus old-timers like me who will get all the obscure references.   And the physical copy is recommended far more than the Kindle version–have you ever tried drawing in a Kindle file?

Manga Review: Skip-Beat! Volumes 4-5-6

Manga Review: Skip-Beat! Volumes 4-5-6 by Yoshiki Nakamura

Quick recap:  Kyoko Mogami dropped out of school and moved to Tokyo to support her beloved Sho as he tried to break into show business.  A couple of years later, the now rising star let slip that he has never liked Kyoko back, just using her as a free servant.   Enraged, Kyoko has vowed to get revenge by defeating Sho at the one thing he truly cares about, public popularity.

Skip-Beat! Volumes 4-5-6

Despite no training in the field or immediately obvious talent, Kyoko managed to get a internship at the LME talent agency, because she amused eccentric president Lory.   Kyoko and another young woman with difficulties due to attitude, Moko, have been assigned to the “Love Me” section where they do humiliating chores in an effort to get noticed.

At the beginning of this combined volume, Kyoko manages to pass an audition to acting school by flipping a schmaltzy script to let her acid tongue shine.  She doesn’t get the full scholarship, though, because Lory’s granddaughter Maria (whose home situation mirrored the script) interfered.  Maria and Kyoko bond, and Lory begins to get an idea of how bad Kyoko’s mother was.

Next up, a series of coincidences wind up placing Kyoko in a chicken suit on a TV variety show just as that show has Sho as the main guest.  When Kyoko hears Sho telling fibs to make himself sound more cool, she decides to use her anonymity to get revenge by making the heartbreaker look bad.  It doesn’t quite work out the way she planned, but does allow her to see a different side of her coworker Ren.

We also learn that Ren has deeper connections to Kyoko than she’s aware of, but keeping them a secret because of his work ethic.

The following story has Kyoko and Moko  trying out for a soft drink commercial, and we’re introduced to Moko’s self-appointed arch-nemesis Erika Koenji.  A spoiled rich girl, Erika has never forgiven Moko (real name Kanae, by the way) for getting the lead in a third-grade play over her, and has used her wealth and connections ever since to quash Moko’s acting aspirations.   This is at least partially responsible for Moko’s attitude problem and unwillingness to be friends with other girls.

Learning bits of this makes Kyoko, who has never had a female friend either, feel a connection to Moko, and their unique acting styles (plus some dumb luck) gets them the commercial spot.

The next big storyline has a cold going around the office, knocking out Ren’s manager, and since all the regular replacements are also sick, this leaves Kyoko with the job (while she’s also studying for a high school entrance exam–she really wants to complete her education.)  Kyoko isn’t very good at a talent manager’s main job duties, but her skillset comes in handy when Ren falls ill as well and needs a nurse.  Ship tease!

While Kyoko’s negative personality traits are still present, this collected volume allows her to show the positive ones as well.  The appearances of her (literal) “inner demons” are less frequent.   We also get some nice development for a few of the supporting characters, and hints of deeper backstory.  I like the balance of comedy and dramatic elements, and the romantic hints aren’t overwhelming the story.

The character art is good, but backgrounds are often sketchy or outright absent.

Kyoko’s absentee mother comes across as a real piece of work; parents of younger readers may want to discuss unreasonable expectations with their children.  Aside from that, this book is suitable for junior high kids (especially girls) on up.

Recommended to shoujo readers who like a little tartness in their heroines.

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Once, Mars was a place of mystery.  Humans looked at it from the blue Earth with feeble telescopes, and imagined what life, if any, might inhabit that red dot in the sky.  Were there canals filled with water?  Bloodsucking tripod operators?  Beings that had never fallen from grace with God?   Ray Bradbury looked, and imagined stories of Martians and Earthlings, and the doom of both.

The Martian Chronicles

Several of the stories in this volume were written in the latter half of the 1940s, and then connected with interstitial material in 1950 to make a chronological narrative.  The book opens with “Rocket Summer”, when a January 1999 Ohio winter is interrupted with heat from exhaust tests on the launchpad.  It ends with “The Million-Year Picnic” as refugees from war-torn Earth arrive on Mars in October 2026, and see the new Martians.   In between is the coming and going of the human presence on Mars.

The first three expeditions to Mars all die; perhaps if the U.S. government hadn’t outlawed science fiction and fantasy (but apparently not religious texts) in the 1970s, they would have been  better prepared.  But they get posthumous revenge; in a nod to H.G. Wells, by the time the Fourth Expedition arrives, the majority of Martians have been killed off by a common Earth disease.

Wave after wave of Earthlings arrive, most of them from the United States, as it monopolizes the construction of interplanetary rockets.  In the story “Way in the Middle of the Air”, the entire black population of the Southern U.S. decamps to Mars.  (in this bleak future, race relations did not advance beyond the early 1950s; poll taxes have only recently been abolished as of 2003. and the Klan is still very active.)   One particularly virulent racist panics when he realizes he will soon not have African-American people to oppress!  There’s use of the N-word and other racist language, so this story is sometimes left out of school editions of the book.  Because of the stitched-together nature of the collection, this large population of emigrants is never mentioned again, and their fate is finally revealed in a completely different short story collection.

Eventually, once the early settlers have made the place relatively safe, the moral guardians who eradicated speculative fiction  on their homeworld arrive to make Mars just as joyless.  “Usher II” has a multimillionaire who is still hopping mad about their destruction of his library take revenge in inventive ways mostly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe.  Mr. Bradbury was tangentially involved with the comic book industry, which was undergoing the attacks (“think of the children!”) which would lead to the Comics Code.  He would return to the theme of book burning in Fahrenheit 451.  As a kid I could easily imagine boring grownups banning all the good stuff.

Eventually, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and most of the population of Mars returns to that planet in a probably vain attempt to help out their relatives or home nation.   “The Silent Towns” concerns one of the very few people left, a miner who’d been up in the hills without communication for a few weeks when everyone else took the rockets home.  He’s initially thrilled when he learns there’s a young woman also still on Mars, but isn’t pleased when he actually meets her.

Some of Bradbury’s stories from this time period showed a nasty streak of misogyny, and this is one of them.  Genevieve stayed on Mars because she’d been constantly bullied about her weight, but rather than treat her sympathetically, the narrative flow treats her as a gross monstrosity for daring to be fat, and indulging herself in ways roughly equivalent to those Walter had done earlier in the story.  Walter escaping and hiding from her for the next twenty years is treated as a happy ending.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” is also included in this collection, one of the most perfect short stories ever written.  After the atomic war on Earth, we look at the last day of a “smart house” that hasn’t quite figured out that all the humans in its city are dead.

One of the interesting things about the stories is that in the early ones, while the Martians are still flourishing, we see their petty sides and moral failings; but after they have mostly died off, those fall by the wayside and their great accomplishments and gentleness are emphasized.

Ray Bradbury really does have a gift for poetic turns of phrase, and his nostalgia for Midwestern small towns shines through.  Sometimes the poetry can get in the way of comprehensibility, or become self-indulgent, dragging on for a paragraph or two too long.  And of course, he made no attempt to be scientifically accurate even to what was known about Mars back in the day–he readily admitted that the stories were really fantasy.

Several of the stories were adapted for EC Comics, and there have been some television show versions as well.

The book is certainly well worth reading at least once, even if it will not be to everyone’s taste.

Manga Review: Servant X Service 1

Manga Review: Servant X Service 1 by Karino Takatsu

In a certain city in a certain prefecture of Japan, the Health & Welfare Department has hired three new people.  Yutaka Hasebe, a highly competent slacker; Lucy (etc.) Yamagami, a strait-laced woman with an improbable name,  and Saya Miyoshi, an under-confident woman who has a tendency to speak bluntly when pushed too far.  Together, they learn the ropes at their new jobs as public servants.

Servant X Service 1

This is a gag manga by a former government worker, with the majority of the story done in four-panel strips.  (The format is called 4-koma in Japan.)  Much of the humor will be appreciated by anyone who’s worked in an office or served the public, while some bits (like the backstory behind Yamagami’s name) need some explaining to people who are unfamiliar with Japanese culture.  And of course many aspects are exaggerated or outright made up for humor, such as the boss who works from home and uses a stuffed rabbit robot as his stand-in.

According to the author notes, this series was originally published in a magazine that only ran on the fifth Friday of a month, so it took four years for there to be enough material for the first volume.  A switch to monthly publication meant the second volume only took a year.  (Both are included in this omnibus edition.)

The art is adequate; it’s easy to tell the characters apart, and backgrounds are generally irrelevant, so seldom appear.  The main subplot is that Hasebe begins to be romantically attracted to Yamagami, who is obtuse to his intentions, making his flirting with her not have the intended result.

Hasebe flirts with a lot of women, in a way that would get him fired in any real office, even a Japanese one–because this is a comedy, he’s only reminded that it’s inappropriate and occasionally bopped on the head.  And some readers may find the running gag about the size of Yamagami’s breasts (large) annoying.

There is an anime adaptation, which I have previously reviewed, and it is amazing how well it worked, turning short gag strips into coherent 22 minute episodes.

Recommended to fans of office-based comedy.

Anime Review: Servant X Service

Anime Review: Servant X Service

Like America, Japan has had its economic woes in the last few years, with unemployment a serious problem for many people.  One of the jobs considered “safe” and steady if not spectacular work, is being a civil servant.  So it is that a certain city Health and Welfare Office comes to have three new employees starting on the same day.The competent slacker Hasebe, the shy but brutally honest Miyoshi and Yamagami, a young woman on a mission.

Servant X Service

It seems that years ago, Yamagami’s parents couldn’t decide what to name her, so wrote down all the suggestions and passed the list to a civil servant–who approved the entire name as was!   (In Japan, there are name laws that are supposed to protect kids from unfortunate monikers and ones that won’t work properly with the record keeping.)  Lucy (abbr.) Yamagami is determined to track down that civil servant and give them a good talking to.

But  of course, there’s work to be done, and citizens coming in to demand their paperwork be handled swiftly and without error.  So the employees go ahead and do their jobs…mostly.  Other characters expand the cast and add to the sitcom flavor.  Servant X Service is a 13 episode anime series based on a manga by Karino Takatsu.

It’s nice to see an anime that’s about adults in the working world, even if most of them are very young adults.    That said, by episode four, it’s clear that this show was animated for a reason, and people get away with things they never would in a real office.   See if you can spot all the human resources issues in the first episode alone!

I found the series mildly funny to quite funny, especially when Hasebe’s old “friend” Tanaka shows up.  On the other hand, Yamagami’s large breasts are a frequent point of attention, and one episode’s subplot is that her bra clasps have snapped from overwork.  If you find that sort of (fully clothed) fanservice annoying, you may want to give this a miss.

It’s light comedy with romantic overtones, and college-age people will probably get the most out of it.

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