Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1 art by Dick Dillin and Charles Cuidero

In September 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union.  The valiant Polish people battled bravely against the two-pronged attack, but it was to no avail.  One aviator was shot down, as it happens, near his family’s farm, only to watch as it was blown to bits by a Nazi bomb.  He discovered his siblings inside the ruined farmhouse, dead or dying.  The aviator vowed vengeance against the Nazis, and particularly the pilot of the plane that had murdered his family, Captain von Tepp of the Butcher Squadron.

Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Months later in England, the aviator stewed in frustration.  The RAF did not trust the Polish airmen who’d fled to their shores, thinking that because they’d lost, the Poles were inferior pilots.  Unable to get in the air through the regular channels, the aviator found a small group of other pilots who were refugees (plus one American volunteer) and likewise unable to get into the fight.  They pooled their resources and secretly purchased several Grumman XF5F Skyrockets, as well as supplies for them and a secret island base.

The aviator had discarded his civilian name and now went only by Blackhawk.  His men were the Blackhawk Squadron, or just the Blackhawks.  They operated on behalf of the Allies, but independently of any military command, striking wherever the need was greatest.  After a few missions never detailed, Blackhawk and his men were able to track down von Tepp and Blackhawk took his revenge.  His personal business complete, the Blackhawks were free to fly anywhere at any time to fight the Axis.

The Blackhawks first appeared in Military Comics #1 in 1941, under the Quality Comics label, and got their own title, Blackhawk, in 1944.  They were very popular, at one point selling just below Superman.  In 1952, they even got a film serial, starring Kirk Alyn, who’d previously played Superman in the movies.

But by 1957, sales were waning, and Quality first leased, then sold, its trademarked characters and titles to DC.  Blackhawk was one of only a handful of titles to continue (the other notable one was G.I. Combat.)  It kept its art team, but had an assortment of now-anonymous writers.

This volume reprints the DC run, starting with #108.  At this point, the team had long been stabilized at seven members.  Blackhawk (Polish/American/Polish-American) was the leader.  Hendrickson (Dutch/German) was the team sharpshooter and the oldest member.  Stanislaus (Polish) was generally the second-in-command–at this point he was said to have been a aerialist before the war and was quite acrobatic.  Andre (French) was a mechanical engineer and a bit of a ladies’ man.  Olaf (Swedish) was large and exceptionally strong.  Chuck (American) was a radio specialist.  And Chop-Chop (Chinese) was the team cook.  We’ll get back to him.

Since the Korean War was over and Vietnam was not yet hot, the Blackhawks (now flying Lockheed XF-90 C jets) primarily fought spies, saboteurs and mechanized gangs.  In the first couple of issues, their primary opponents are International Communism, the agents of whom are mostly pure evil (except the one woman who is won over by Blackhawk’s chivalrous behavior and moral rectitude.)

At a guess, these stories were left over from previous writers, as after that contemporary politics vanishes altogether, and much more time is spent on borderline to full science fiction plots.  Lost civilizations, time travel, aliens, and lots and lots of robots and awesome vehicles.  The team also acquired a pet between issues, a black hawk named Blackie who was of human intelligence (even able to tap out complex messages in Morse Code!)

The Blackhawks also ran into supervillains, most often a high-tech pirate calling himself Killer Shark or his marine-life themed minions.  They even fought the first Mr. Freeze DC had.

The plots tended to be simple, as the stories were quite short and mostly meant for kids.  There’s relatively little characterization, with each of the Blackhawks having just a few well-worn quirks.

And then there’s Chop-Chop (who did not even get a proper name until the 1980s!)  It’s worth pointing out that even when he first appeared in the 1940s, Chop-Chop was exceptionally competent and good in a fight.  But he was also clearly a comic relief character, short, round, and with facial features that look pretty darn racist towards Chinese people.

By 1957, this had been toned down considerably.  His face was still stereotypical, but not really more so than say Olaf’s.  He’d ditched the queue and lost weight, but still only came up to chest height on the other men and dressed in a “coolie” outfit that had been outdated even back in 1941.

The other Blackhawks treated Chop-Chop as an equal, and he remained good in a fight.  But he also didn’t have his own plane (usually acting as navigator for Blackhawk) and sometimes gets left out of Blackhawks group activities.  He’s also the sole Blackhawk to admit feeling fear, having the catchphrase “Wobbly woes!”  In his one spotlight story, he’s held hostage for a time.

This was a relatively good depiction for a Chinese character in the comics of 1957-58, but sets the teeth on edge for modern readers.

Certain plot elements do get reused.  There are no less than four times the Blackhawks fight counterpart teams!  The first is the all-female Tigress Squadron.  They don’t have a Chop-Chop or Blackie equivalent.  At first Blackhawk tries to pitch that crimefighting is man’s work, but after they prove their competence, Blackhawk simply switches to criticizing their plan to execute a criminal mastermind instead of turning him over to the police.  (In fairness to the Tigress Squadron, they’re entirely composed of the widows that criminal murdered after he escaped from the prison the Blackhawks delivered him to multiple times.  They have good reason for wanting to make sure this time.)

Next up is the all-villain Crimson Vultures.  They do have a Chop-Chop equivalent (who never does anything) as well as a crimson vulture named Crimson to fight Blackie.)  Unfortunately for them, Crimson is not as smart as Blackie, and that costs them the battle.

And two entirely separate miniature robot versions of the team created by mad inventors!  (Both have a Chop-Chop but not a Blackie.)

Coordination between writers was plainly not a priority.  In one story, a humanoid robot intelligent enough to infiltrate a criminal gang for months is brought back after several issues of being missing, and the Blackhawks take it back to their island.  In the next issue, Blackhawk needs a humanoid robot for something, and builds one from scratch, without even mentioning the previous robot, who also does not appear again in this volume.

That said, there are some tremendous machines in this series, and the War Wheel is always a joy to see in action.

Primarily recommended to older fans who fondly remember the Blackhawks from their childhood like me.  Others should take advantage of interlibrary loan.

And now, here’s a trailer for the Blackhawk serial!  Hawk-aa!

 

Comic Book Review: 2000 AD #2020-24

Comic Book Review: 2000 AD #2020-24 Edited by Tharg

As I’ve mentioned before, 2000 AD is a weekly comic paper with a speculative fiction bent that’s been published in Britain for over forty years.  It keeps up the schedule by featuring several short stories in each issue, most of them serialized.  A while back I c came into possession of the March 2017 issues, which seems like a good chunk to look over.

2000 AD #2020

“Judge Dredd” has been a headliner in the magazine since the second issue, and stories set in the dystopian future of Mega-City One are in almost every issue.  We start with a two-parter titled “Thick Skin” written by T.C. Eglington with art by Boo Cook.  Two vid stars have their skin slough off on camera in separate instances.  Coincidence?  Plague?  Terrorist plot?  It’s up to lawman Judge Dredd to investigate.

This is followed up by “The Grundy Bunch” by Arthur Wyatt and Tom Foster.  A family/cult that worships “Grud and Guns” has taken over one of the few remaining green spots in the city.  Despite the topical overtones, the story turns out to be a setup for a terrible pun.

“Get Jerry Sing” is by classic Judge Dredd team John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra.  The title phrase is a bit of graffiti that’s been appearing all over the city.  What it means is a mystery, but pop star Jerry Sing isn’t happy about being a target.  This one has a karmic twist ending that brought a dark chuckle from me.

Lastly, there’s the first part of a longer story, “Harvey” by John Wagner and John McCrea.  The Day of Chaos and subsequent disasters have left the Judges severely understaffed, and it will be a while before they can train new human ones.  So there’s a renewed interest in the robot Judge program, Mechanismo.  Previous experiments with the artificial intelligences have proved disastrous, but this time, the Tek-Judges think they’ve cracked the problems with earlier models.  Judge Dredd is asked to take on “Judge Harvey” as a trainee, to see if this time robot cops are finally viable.

2000 AD #2021

The “Sinister Dexter” series is about Ramone Dexter and Finnegan Sinister, a pair of gunsharks (hitmen) who live in the city of Downlode.  Due to shenanigans involving alternate Earths, the pair have managed to get themselves erased from human and computer memory, and are slowly re-establishing their reputations without the baggage of the past.  They’re inspired by the hitmen from Pulp Fiction, but now bear little resemblance to them.

We have three stories in this group by Dan Abnett and Steve Yeowell.  First, the robotic security system for their new apartment building decides that Sinister and Dexter are a threat to the tenants.  A threat that must be eliminated.  The second story is from the point of view of the bartender at their favorite watering hole.  He doesn’t remember their previous interactions, but does know there’s something odd about the pair.  And finally, there’s a new hitman in town, who calls himself “the Devil.”  And his killing skills do seem…supernatural.

I find these characters smarmy and unlikable, but this sort of “not quite as bad guys” protagonist is popular with a segment of the readership.

2000 AD #2022

“Kingmaker” by Ian Edginton and Leigh Gallagher is a newer serial.  A fantasy world was having its own problems dealing with a wraith king, when suddenly technologically advanced aliens invaded.  An elderly wizard, a dryad, and an orkish warrior riding dragons are beset by alien pursuers.  When they finally defeat this batch of invaders by seeming divine intervention, the trio realizes they may already have found the chosen one.

Cyrano de Bergerac is the narrator of “The Order” by Kek-W and John Burns.  On his deathbed, the boastful writer tells of his experiences with the title organization, which does battle with beings known as the Wyrm.  Time has come unglued due to the latest Wyrm incursion, and a mechanical man from a possible future might or might not be the key to victory.  The Wyrm are driven back, but at a cost.

“Kingdom” by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson is set on a future Earth where humanity as we know it has been all but wiped out by giant insects known as Them.  The genetically-engineered dog soldier Gene the Hackman has finally found the “Kingdom”, haven of the last humans.  Unfortunately, there are dark secrets in this supposed sanctuary, so Gene and his allies must strike even against the Masters.

2000 AD #2023

“Brink” by Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard takes place in the late 21st Century after Earth had to be abandoned due to ecosystem collapse.  Bridget Kurtis is an inspector for the Habitat Security Division.  After the horrific death of her partner on the last case, Bridget is assigned to investigate mysterious suicides on a new habitat that’s reputed to be haunted…even though it’s still under construction.

The latest installment of “Scarlet Traces”, set in a world where H.G. Wells’  War of the Worlds took place is by Ian Edginton & D’Israeli.  Humanity’s history has been twisted by access to Martian technology.  It’s now 1965, and the Martians are doing something to the sun.  It may require allying with the Venusian refugees to thwart them.  This is fascinating alternate Earth stuff.

“Cursed: The Fall of Deadworld” by Kek-W & Dave Kendall is set in the backstory of Judge Death, the lawman from an Earth where life is a crime and the penalty is death.  Sydney D’eath has put himself in charge, twisting the world to fit his vision of a crime-free paradise.  We follow Judge Fairfax, his sentient vehicle Byke, and the orphan Jess as they search for a haven.  Doesn’t look good for them, frankly.

2000 AD #2024

There’s also two “Future Shocks”, stand-alone shorts.  “The Best Brain in the Galaxy” by Andrew Williamson & Tilen Javornik features a descendant of Horatio Hornblower who will do anything to win a competition to become captain of the most important starship voyage ever.  Anything.  “Family time” by Rory McConville and Nick Dyer is a parody of a certain Hollywood couple who like adopting children from around the world.  Except that this version is adopting orphans from across time.  The Child Protective Services are concerned that these children may not be orphans in the usual sense.  I liked the first story better.

There’s also the short humor strip “Droid Life” by Cat Sullivan  in a couple of issues, depicting life for the robotic staffers of 2000 AD.  Plus Tharg’s editorials, and actual letters pages.

2000 AD stories tend to be on the violent side, and sometimes get quite gory.  I didn’t see any nudity in these particular issues, but the comic doesn’t shy away from toplessness.  Parents of preteens may want to vet these comics before giving them to their kids.

As always, it’s a mixed bag for quality, but the very nature of the magazine means that there’s always something different to look at if the current story displeases, and serials are rotated frequently.  worth looking into if you can afford it.

 

Manga Review: Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt 1

Manga Review: Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt 1 by Yasuo Ohtagaki

The time is Universal Century year 0079.  The place is Thunderbolt Sector, formerly the orbital space colony Side 4 before it was destroyed in a battle between the Principality of Zeon and the Earth Federation.  Now this sector is heavily littered with debris, and afflicted with random electromagnetic discharges that gave it its name.  It’s a key point in the supply lines for Zeon, and as such is guarded by the deadly snipers of the LIving Dead division.  Their top sniper is Chief Petty Officer Darryl Lorentz.

Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt 1

Assigned the task of clearing out the snipers and cutting the supply lines is the Moore Brotherhood, survivors of Side 4.  It’s clear to everyone aboard their mothership that the Federation considers them expendable, but this sector used to be their home.  Their ace is Ensign Io Fleming, an eccentric young man who used to belong to Side 4’s nobility.  This battlefield will come down to the clash of these two men.

The Mobile Suit Gundam franchise was the progenitor of what’s called “real robot” mecha stories.  It aimed for greater plausibility than previous giant robot stories by introducing weapons that ran out of ammunition and engines that used fuel.  It also had the giant robots being devised initially as powered spacesuits for space colony construction, and evolving from there, only to be repurposed as military weapons.  And to explain why these huge targets weren’t just hit with missiles from miles away, the original creators came up with “Minovsky Particles” that temporarily block radio and radar signals in war zones, requiring the mecha to get up close in order to hit opponents.

In addition, the Gundam series of series depicts the futility and waste of war; sympathetic characters die, the “good guys” don’t always win, and sometimes it can be tough to tell which side of a conflict are the good guys anyway.

Thunderbolt takes place in the “Universal Century” timeline established in the original Mobile Suit Gundam anime, and is a side story happening at approximately the same time.  Numerous orbital colonies have been built, as well as other colonies further from the Earth, and some of them have prospered to the point they’d like to be independent.  Also, humans have been born in space with ill-defined psychic powers that better suit them for life in outer space; these are often referred to as “Newtypes.”

The Principality of Zeon, a militaristic colony, has decided to go beyond independence and conquer Mother Earth, as it is their destiny to rule over all space.  They have a lot of Germanic influence, and their government is basically Space Nazis.

But that doesn’t mean individual people working for Zeon are evil.  Daryl’s family were apparently merchants who worked for Zeon in another country before the war, but weren’t actually Zeon citizens.  So when Zeon and its collaborators were kicked out of there, the Lorentz family found themselves trapped in a refugee camp.  Zeon had a “service guarantees citizenship (would you like to learn more?)” program, so Daryl joined the military.

Daryl got his legs blown off in combat, and as a reward, his family was moved out of the camp and into an apartment, and his sickly father is finally being treated in a hospital.  But full citizenship only comes with completing military service, so Daryl was fitted with prosthetic legs and reassigned to the Living Dead division, snipers who have all lost body parts and been fitted with prostheses.  They’re all well aware that they’re being used as test beds for experimental upgrades (and aesthetics are not a big concern to the Zeon brass), but that’s life in the military, and at least scientist Karla Mitchum seems to care about them as human beings.

Daryl loves cheesy J-pop music and deals with phantom pain.

Io Fleming, by contrast, loves free jazz and practices drumming in his cockpit when not in combat.  He was uncomfortable as a young noble on Side 4, preferring the freedom of piloting small planes.  Io’s uncomfortable with the idea that he must seek revenge for his destroyed homeland, even if he does have some lingering resentment about that.  He’s rude, bucks rules whenever he thinks he can get away with it, and makes a point of taunting Daryl about his prostheses.

But he is much nicer to his sole male friend Cornelius, and Acting Captain Claudia (who used to be his girlfriend before her promotion made that impossible.)  Despite his disdain for his own social class, Io is despised by Executive Officer Graham, who blames the nobility of Side 4 for its destruction.  And there are hints that there’s more to Io’s issues than we see in this volume.

The art is detailed and when we see faces, it’s easy to tell people apart.  However, the very busy debris fields and multiple giant robots can make for confusing layouts, especially since the black and white art doesn’t have the color cues that would make the machines more distinguishable.

This volume is primarily set-up of the main conflict and the various characters’ subplots, interspersed with exciting giant robot combat.

This manga was originally published in a seinen (young men’s) magazine, though the only strong indicator of that in this volume is a flash of one character’s pornography in an unguarded moment. There’s also the standard violence associated with war stories.  Viz rates this as “Older Teen.”

This story relies heavily on the reader’s presumed familiarity with the background established in the original Gundam series, so I would recommend it only to those fans.  It would not be the best first introduction to the world.

There’s an anime adaptation, of course, and here’s the trailer for that.

Book Review: The Great Quake

Book Review: The Great Quake by Henry Fountain

Disclaimer:  I received this uncorrected proof through a Goodreads Giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.  As an uncorrected proof, many changes will be made in the final product, due out August 2017, including an index and bibliography, and possibly more illustrations.

The Great Quake

March 27, 1964, Good Friday by the Catholic calendar, was the date of the largest earthquake in North American history, magnitude 9.2 on the revised Richter scale.  Loss of life was limited due to Alaska’s sparse population at the time, but property damage in the city of Anchorage was severe, and the town of Valdez and Native Alaskan village of Chenega were devastated, requiring the entire communities to move elsewhere.

This book is a detailed examination of that earthquake, with a special focus on George Plafker, a geologist whose research in the aftermath led him to produce evidence for the plate tectonics theory of geophysics.

The opening chapter deals with Mr. Plafker and his colleagues from the U.S. Geological Survey being recalled early to Alaska to assess the damage after the quake.  The military was glad to see them, as not only were communications and transportation disrupted, but the network of early warning systems protecting America from nuclear attack was at risk.

Then there are a series of backstory chapters about the communities that were affected and their inhabitants, Mr. Plafker’s decision to become a geologist and early career, and the science of earthquakes and continental drift theory.

This is followed by chapters on the earthquake itself, taken primarily from eyewitness accounts.  Then back to the aftermath, rescue measures, reconstruction and the scientific examination of the evidence.  Considerable space is devoted to Mr. Plafker’s analysis of the geology, and the formulation of his hypothesis as to the cause.

There’s a chapter on the acceptance of this idea and the advancement of plate tectonics, then an epilogue that details where everyone still alive ended up.  The end notes are good, with some extra detail.

The writing is okay, and the events of the earthquake are exciting and horrifying, but I didn’t find the style compelling.  (Keep in mind, again, that this is an uncorrected proof; the author may be able to punch it up a bit.)  It should be suitable for high school students on up.

Primarily recommended for those interested in Alaskan history, geophysics buffs and those who like to read about earthquakes.

 

 

 

Movie Review: Destroy All Monsters

Movie Review: Destroy All Monsters

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.

Destroy All Monsters
It took most of the movie to get here, but at last we have all the monsters!

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.

Book Review: Last Hope Island

Book Review: Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Review Copy as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.   Some changes may be made before the final publication date of 4/25/17–for example, the index isn’t included in this version.

Last Hope Island

This book opens with Movie Night at the German embassy in Norway, April 1940.  The film shown to Norwegian government officials was Baptism of Fire, a documentary about the invasion of Poland in 1939.  Afterwards, the German ambassador made a speech that roughly translates into English as “Nice country you Norwegians have here.  It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”  Four days later, the Nazis invaded.

Rather than turn over the reins to local fascist Vidkun Quisling as the invaders wanted, King Haakon VII and the remnants of the Norwegian government fought a running battle until they could be evacuated to Britain, where they joined other European governments in exile.  Soon, this “Last Hope Island” and the embattled people sheltered by it were the only thing standing between Nazi Germany and complete victory on the Western Front.

This volume discusses various aspects of the joint efforts of Occupied Europe and the British against the Nazis.  From the early gift of an ULTRA machine by Polish cryptographers so that the British could read German codes, through the contributions of combat-experienced Polish and Czech pilots in the Battle of Britain, the Norwegian gift of its merchant marine, and Resistance fighters of all descriptions, the governments in exile (and General de Gaulle’s Free French) gave invaluable help.   The BBC’s transformation from a stuffed-shirt government branch to a voice of truth and freedom that brought words of encouragement from exiled leaders is detailed.

But all was not beer and skittles.  Pre-War resentments and cultural attitudes often caused misunderstandings and in-fighting.  As it turned out, the British didn’t have the world’s best spy agency, just the world’s best spy novelists, with both MI6 and the Special Operations Executive (who were supposed to be creating and working with Resistance networks) making bungle after bungle.  And once the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, Britain’s focus shifted to appeasing these powerful allies even when it went against the interests of the occupied countries.  (This culminated in the shameful betrayal of Poland and Czechoslovakia to the Russians.)

After the war, while the formerly occupied countries of Europe were and remained thankful to Britain and its people for all the help given, they also knew that they couldn’t rely on the island nation to protect them.  So new alliances were formed, and greater cooperation established, eventually leading to the creation of the European Union.

Quite a bit of this is material I had not known before, partially because much of my WWII history reading was done in the 1970s, while some of the source documents were still classified, and partially because my sources were USA-centric.  Various people involved get a stronger focus because they survived the war and became famous, such as Audrey Hepburn, who was trapped in occupied Holland.

There are scattered illustrations (possibly more in the finished product), extensive endnotes, a bibliography, and the full book will have an index.  The writing is clear, and this book should be suitable for bright high school students and up.

The benefits of hindsight are very evident throughout (the end material may or may not be updated to reflect Brexit.)  I do recommend this book to those curious about the relationship between Britain and Occupied Europe; however it is at the same time a fairly narrow subject, but covering a multitude of intersecting fields.  I would recommend having to hand a more general WWII history for reference, and checking the bibliography for more specific works on individual people and incidents.   (The author explains in her foreword that Greece and Yugoslavia were completely cut out of the book due to their different circumstances, so readers with an interest in those countries will definitely need to seek out other material.)

Book Review: Out of the Dead City

Book Review: Out of the Dead City by Samuel R. Delany (originally published as “Captives of the Flame”)

It has been about five hundred years since the Great Fire wiped out the old civilizations.  On the island of Toron, however, enough humans and records survived to begin again.  A settlement became a village became a town became a city.  And when the people of Toron regained the ability to sail the sea, they found a fairly large section of the mainland was still livable, though the people living there were relatively primitive, and proximity to radiation had created two mutant races, the short neo-Neanderthals and tall forest guards.

Out of the Dead City

The people of Toron were able to dominate the mainlanders, and became the Toromon Empire; but by the standards of history, it was a small empire.  A belt of deadly radioactive land cut off further expansion on the land, and dangerous currents likewise circumscribed oceanic exploration.  To increase their scientific knowledge and study the radioactive death belt, the Empire built a new city nearer to it, Telphar.  But not too long after it was constructed, the radioactive area expanded to include Telphar, making it a dead city.

Now the Toromon Empire has air vehicles powered by tetron metal, and has tried flying them over the radioactive barrier–but something is making the engines fail.  It’s becoming more obvious that there is someone on the other side of the barrier, someone that certain government officials want to go to war with.  But none of them are in the small group of people who know the truth about The Lord of the Flames.

This was Mr. Delany’s second published novel (see my review of The Jewels of Aptor,) and the first of The Fall of the Towers trilogy.  (I’ll be following up with the rest at a later date.)  This is revised from its earlier publication, as Mr. Delany explains in an author’s note for the trilogy.  He thinks it an improvement, but decided not to meddle further after that.

There are a lot of characters for what is a pretty short novel, and it takes a while to work out which ones are important (some come more into focus in later volumes.)  Mr. Delany seems to have noticed this, at one point telling the reader to remember a name, and at another point letting us know that another character will play no further role in the story.

Eventually, it shakes out that our male lead is Jon Koshar, a merchant’s son who has escaped from the tetron mines, where he was sentenced for a crime he most assuredly did commit.  (The person who instigated the crime refused to come forward and Jon was honor-bound not to expose him.)  Jon has come too close to Telphar, and been changed.  He is now in communication with a disembodied intelligence known as the Triple Being, which has made him resistant to radiation at the cost of becoming transparent in low light.

It seems that Earth has now become part of the battleground between the Triple Being and their enemy, The Lord of the Flames.  The Lord meddles with less evolved beings by puppeteering one of them, evidently for its own amusement, while the Triple Being tries to drive it off while causing the minimum of disruption to the hosts’ civilizations.  The being currently being possessed by The Lord of the Flames is behind the strange things happening around the radiation belt, and Jon and the other two humanoids contacted by the Triple Being must stop it.

Since the struggle is happening simultaneously at multiple points in space-time, this involves some trippy scenes where the protagonists inhabit alien bodies for short periods.

There’s also some relatively mundane action going on, such as the abduction of the empire’s heir presumptive, and a series of business competition actions that result in “accidental” mass poisoning.

For 1963, the novel comes off as surprisingly non-sexist beyond the typical occupations of men and women.  Content note:  there’s a short torture scene.

With so many plot threads, several of which are still dangling at the end of the story (thus the trilogy), this novel feels overstuffed and sometimes lacks focus.  As a standalone, it’s a bit lacking, so check back next year for my opinion of the complete product.

Book Review: Skycruiser

Book Review: Skycruiser by Howard M. Brier

Barry Martin is not as young as he looks.  He’s had three years of engineering in college, and two years training as a pilot.  But he looks like a teenager, and a perception that he was too young to handle a man’s job caused him to wash out of the Navy’s pilot program.  Now Barry is trying to get a job at Starwing Airplane Company as a test pilot, but things are not going well.  The owner, Porter J. Hamlin, has banned Barry from his office!  But Barry isn’t licked yet.

Skycruiser

This 1939 boys’ air adventure novel (my copy is a Comet Books reprint from 1948) originally appeared as a serial in Boy’s Life magazine, the house organ of the Boy Scouts of America.  Starwing is pretty transparently a fictional version of Boeing, with a touch of Hughes Aircraft.  Mr. Brier set the story in  the Pacific Northwest, as he did with most of his books, being most comfortable where he lived.

When Barry’s mentor becomes ill, the young man is able to use a contract loophole to demonstrate his test pilot skills to Mr. Hamlin, and seeing Barry in action is enough to overcome the older man’s objections.  Barry is hired  as a junior pilot, but then experiences difficulty winning over the senior pilots.  Not only do they resent the implication that they’re over the hill (a media report on Barry doesn’t help) but the last junior pilot they had turned out to be crooked.

The Skycruiser of the title turns out to be an experimental aircraft Mr. Hamlin wants to build, an enormous passenger plane that will be the equivalent of a luxury liner.   Rival companies would like to steal the plans for the Skycruiser, as it requires several innovative designs just to handle minor functions, let alone get the thing to fly; and if they can’t get that, sabotaging the prototype would work too.  There’s an ever-present threat of industrial espionage.

But there’s plenty of work for Barry even in his regular job, as he tests planes and flies rescue missions.  Barry’s pretty much married to his work–when he isn’t flying airplanes, he’s maintaining them or reading about them, and seems at something of a loss when he has to kill time without access to airplanes.

After a trip to Canada to deliver a cargo plane and demonstrate its features, Barry is approached by a smooth-talking man who offers him a job at double the salary.  This turns out to be crooked pilot Deat Proctor (yes, that’s as phony a name as it sounds).  Barry plays it cagey with Proctor, not promising anything in hopes of discovering what the criminal is up to.  Unfortunately, this convinces Starwing senior pilot Steve Cline that Barry is in cahoots with Proctor, and every step Barry takes to try to prove himself innocent only puts him further under suspicion.

By the end of the book, Barry’s brave and intelligent actions allow the criminals to be captured, and he is now friends with the senior pilots.  (There’s a sequel titled Skyblazer in which Barry has South American adventures.)

The writing is direct and free from frills, and there’s little objectionable subject matter, so this book would be suitable for middle grade readers (with a dictionary for a bit of technical vocabulary) on up.  There’s no romance, but the only women seen are wives and have tiny roles at best.  The primary and recommended audience, though, is boys with an interest in air adventure stories.  There appears to have been a 2007 reprint which should be affordable, but the collector will probably want this heavily illustrated edition.

Comet Books was evidently a short-lived imprint of Pocket Books that issued reprints of popular juvenile fiction, both boys’ and girls’ (one of the volumes listed in the back is the first entry in the Sue Barton, Student Nurse line.)

Overall, this is a well-written boys’ adventure book; a little dated, but well worth looking up.

TV Review: Blackadder Goes Forth

TV Review: Blackadder Goes Forth

The year is 1917, the place, somewhere in France.  British troops are dug into trenches, not too far from the German troops in their trenches.  This particular part of the front line is the location of Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson.)  Experience has taught him that the British strategy of sending men “over the top” in waves to assault the German lines just results in dead soldiers, and the captain has no interest in dying.  He hatches scheme after scheme to get himself away from the front lines, or at least delay the fatal charge.

Blackadder Goes Forth
“A war which would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed in England and shot fifty thousand of our men a week.”

In this effort, Captain Blackadder is badly assisted by his second, Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie), an upper-class twit who believes all the propaganda about honor and glory, and the company batman (military servant), Private S. Baldrick (Tony Robinson) who is profoundly stupid but does the best he can.  They try to outwit the mad General Melchett (Stephen Fry) who thinks that using the same tactic that has failed eighteen times in the past will surely trick the Germans this time, and Captain Kevin Darling (Tim McInnerny) a rear echelon bureaucrat who is determined to kiss up to the general in order to stay safely behind the lines.

This was the fourth and final series of Blackadder, each short (six episodes) season using mostly the same actors in similar roles in different times, as though they were reincarnations.  Blackadder himself seems to improve somewhat over the ages–his first incarnation is both very evil and stupid, and slightly lessens those qualities in each subsequent variant.  Captain  Blackadder is bright (but not quite bright enough) and his goal isn’t particularly wicked (not dying) but retains much of his ancestors’ contempt for everyone around him and skill at insults.

Many of those insults are quite funny, and there are many other laugh out loud moments as the characters react to the situations they find themselves in.  I did not care as much for the gross-out gags involving Baldrick’s cooking (he ran out of real coffee in 1914.)  And to be honest, since the show aired in 1989, rape jokes have lost much of their luster.

The treatment of World War One is satirical, focusing on the futility and loss of life it entailed, and the divide between the courage of the soldiers and the poor leadership of the commanding officers.  Some historians feel the series went too far with this, and warn that this is after all a work of fiction.

Especially striking is the final episode, “Goodbyeee”, in which the Big Push is ordered at last.  The mood turns more somber as Captain Blackadder’s plans to escape fail one by one.  Lieutenant George realizes that all his friends are dead and he doesn’t want to die himself.  Baldrick asks the obvious question, “why can’t we all just go home?” and no one can give him a good answer.  Even Captain Darling is ordered into the charge as General Melchett fails to understand that this “reward” for loyal service is the last thing Darling wants.

In the final moments, the soldiers leave the trench and go into battle–their fate is left unsaid, but the screen fades to a field of poppies, symbolic of the fallen of WW1.  It’s a bleak ending for a comedy.

The cast is excellent, and the writing good (despite some gags falling flat.)  I’d recommend watching all the Blackadder series in order, but if you have a special interest in World War One, this part stands on its own.

And now a video about poppies:

Book Review: Kaiju: Lords of the Earth

Book Review: Kaiju: Lords of the Earth edited by Essel Pratt

Kaiju (“strange beast”) is primarily a subgenre of the monster movie that became codified in Japan.  They’re mostly gigantic monsters that are nigh-unstoppable by conventional armaments, and run around destroying cities or fighting other giant monsters.  The seeds of the story type were sown in the original King Kong movie, but it was Gojira (“Godzilla”) that codified it, and inspired most of the later examples.

Kaiju: Lords of the Earth

This is a collection of sixteen short stories and poems on the theme of kaiju, all appearing here for the first time.  The book opens with “Call of the Vailathi” by John Ledger, a poem that cautions that even when the kaiju is on your side, it is still a destructive force.  …At least it has a rhyme structure, that’s good.  The closing tale is “Unleashed in the East” as fracking releases a monster from the Java Sea, and two airline pilots must make a decision between saving themselves and saving the world.

I really enjoyed “The Wolf and the Rabbit” by Alice J. Black, in which a disaffected pub worker connects with another random survivor, and finds the will to do what must be done in this crisis.  If the monster seems too easily dispatched, there are hints it wasn’t the only one.

Also good is “Frankentop” by Amanda M. Lyons, which is told from the perspective of an artificial intelligence that both wants to be loved, and to protect itself.  Unfortunately, the latter is easier than the former.  Internet references abound.

“I Awoke…Wutoomba!” by Roy C. Booth homages the Marvel monster comics of the late Fifties and early Sixties.  Jack Lieiber, writer of fantastic fiction, travels to a South Seas island and runs into an assortment of stock characters, including the title monster.  This one is mostly going to please Marvel fanboys who get all the in-jokes.

Most anthologies have a dud or two, but seldom to the level of “The Plastic Centipede” by R.T. Sirk.  The monster itself is a cool idea, a giant centipede made of discarded mannequin parts and the vengeful spirits of a gangster’s victims.  But spellchecker typos, misplaced commas, badly structured sentences and characterization by telling, not showing make this story come off like the first draft of a fanfic, rather than a professionally published story.  This is clearly a failure of editing, as these banes of small press publishing should have been caught early on.

“A Day at the Racetrack” by Essel Pratt is also sub-par, as waste in a stock car racetrack’s inner pond turns animals giant-sized.  Regional stereotypes are played for broad humor, as are potty jokes.

The rest are decent enough stories.   Due to the very uneven quality, I would recommend this book only to kaiju fanatics or fans of a particular author for that one story.

 

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