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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Magazine Review: The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61 edited by Ben Hibbs
The Saturday Evening Post ran weekly from 1897-1963; after several format changes, it is now published six times a year. The Post was well known for its lavish illustrations and a combination of current event articles and short stories by popular writers. I got this issue from the month of my birth as an early birthday present. At the time, this magazine was printed in the broadsheet format, which is too large for my scanner–thus the truncated cover image showing only a part of Amos Spewell’s painting of tourists in Venice.
To entice potential customers at newsstands, the Post front-loaded the illustrations in spreads at the front of the magazine, and each of the articles and stories continued in the word-heavy back pages interspersed with a few cartoons. There were also many large illustrated advertisements–one for tampons is notable for not telling the reader what the product is, showing the product or saying what it’s used for exactly; if I didn’t know from the name of the product, I’d assume it’s some kind of skin cleanser or deodorant.
The Post was also known for having a staunchly conservative editorial stance, and this is on full display in an editorial expressing relief that leftist thought was vanishing from college campuses and conservatism was on the rise. “Of course, the battle isn’t over. Queer characters still appear on college campuses sponsored by ‘liberal’ groups.” Oh, if only they knew!
In the lively letters to the editor section, comments on an article about Bobby Darrin reveal changes in our pop culture, with people being shocked or pleased that he was willing to share personal opinions with the press even if they didn’t match the public’s desired stance. One letter writer asked why an article on “Presidents in Retirement” did not include FDR. The editor waggishly replies that the place that man retired to is not on the reporter’s regular beat. There’s also a couple of letters on segregation, responding negatively to a previous letter writer’s suggestion that since Southerners didn’t go to Northern states to demand segregation, Northerners should reciprocate about desegregation.
Let’s look at the contents.
“The White House Insiders” by Stewart Alsop is a look at President Kennedy’s political staffers (all men, all white-one had a black deputy) and how they helped him keep on top of what was happening in the country and the world. It goes into detail about JFK’s management style. The only top staff name most younger readers are likely to recognize is Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but Henry Kissinger is briefly mentioned as a second-stringer.
“Death of a Demon” by Rex Stout is part one of three of a Nero Wolfe mystery novella. The sedentary detective is briefly engaged by a woman who wants to show him the gun she will not use to shoot her husband. That’s…kind of suspicious, and when the husband turns up dead from a bullet wound, some questions are raised. Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s leg man, is pretty sure the woman didn’t do it, but there are gaping holes in her story. It’s certainly an intriguing beginning! Happily, this story was included in Homicide Trinity by Rex Stout, which you can probably get through interlibrary loan.
“How the Doctors Saved Chicago’s Burned Children” by Alice Lake is a look at how St. Anne’s Hospital dealt with the victims of a fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in 1958. 95 people died immediately or in the aftermath, but this story concentrates on the survivors. Part of the credit for St. Anne’s quick and organized response goes to disaster preparedness they had undertaken after a fire some years before had caught the hospital unprepared for multiple victims. There are details of the treatment s used and updates on a couple of the survivors as of mid-1961. One of the treatments tried was using blood transfusions from recovering adult burn victims in the hope that their blood had antigens against “burn toxin.” (From the little I could find, research into this treatment has shown scant evidence of effectiveness.) For more on the fire, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_the_Angels_School_fire
“Handsome Samaritan” by Phyllis Duganne is a story about an airline pilot driving to vacation in Florida when he stops to help some stranded motorists. One of them is a very pretty woman, but he’s supposed to be meeting his fiancee. The pilot comes to realize he is much more compatible with this new woman who is more interested in who he is than who she can make him become. I found this story uncomfortable, and skimmed to the end.
“The Poacher” by Gene Coghlan, set in Depression-era North Dakota, has two brothers growing up on an isolated farm, and using traps to earn a little pocket money. One brother is laid up with a broken leg, and the protagonist takes advantage of this to claim that a fur animal was caught in one of his traps, rather than his brother’s. Presumably he learned a valuable lesson about life, but the conclusion pages are missing from my copy. Unfortunately, Mr. Coghlan doesn’t seem to have any books in print.
“The Case of the Comical Banker” by Harold H. Martin, profiles Mills Bee Lane, Jr., then president of the Citizens & Southern National Bank in Atlanta, Georgia. Known for a jovial style (unlike the stuffy conservatism usually associated with bankers of the period), his business acumen turned the C&S into the largest bank in the South. You may be more familiar with his nephew, Mills Bee Lane III, who became a famous boxing referee and TV judge. Lane, Jr. was credited in the article for jumpstarting tobacco farming in the Atlanta area when cotton took a dive in the market.
“The Meaning of the Eichmann Trial” by T.S. Matthews was published about halfway through the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann. (He was found guilty and hanged.) The article talks a lot about the trial conditions and the thoroughness of the Israeli court system. “Israel means to show the world that, in the British phrase, ‘justice is not only done but seen to have been done.” It also talks about the character of Israel as a country, and its people. The trial took place in a newly built suburb of Jerusalem, because at that time the Old City was in the hands of Jordan. This is a very moving article, and I think the best in the issue.
“Cop with Camera Eyes” by Thomas Walsh features a police detective with “photographic memory”, if he sees something, and it’s important to him at a later time, he will remember it clearly. It triggers when he notices the same person in the crowd three times during a date he’s having with his new neighbor. After safely returning his date home, The cop ambushes this tail. Surprise! It’s a federal agent! Seems the attractive foreign lady is suspected of being a Communist spy. Reluctantly, the cop agrees to keep an eye on the girl he has come to adore, but then she vanishes–and for the first time, the cop’s memory fails him at a critical moment. Can he crack the case before innocents are killed? It’s a pretty good story; I don’t know if it’s ever been reprinted, but Mr. Walsh’s Nightmare in Manhattan is considered a superior mystery novel and that you can find.
“Is Nature Getting Neurotic?” by Corey Ford is a humor piece about how over-complicated gardening and landscaping have become, requiring the homeowner to employ multiple specialists and expensive treatments just to keep the lawn alive.
“In the Best Interest of the Service” by Walt Grove takes us inside an Air Force base. A major must make a difficult decision because of the need for unit cohesiveness. A rescue chopper pilot is being accused of cowardice by one of his crew members. This is complicated by the officer being a Negro, and the crew member being a white man from the Deep South and the type of person who nowadays would be decrying “political correctness.” He doesn’t mean any harm by the N-word, he claims, so why shouldn’t he use it? But that does raise the stink of possible racism. Oh, and the chopper pilot is the major’s best friend on the base, so there may be the question of favoritism. Who will be getting transferred out? The resolution to the situation may be a little too convenient, but is satisfying, and inspires the major to take some steps in his personal life he’s put off too long. Mr. Grove wrote several action books about pilots, but it doesn’t appear any are currently in print.
“Comeback of the Giant Turtle” by Bern Keating is about efforts to increase the population of the green sea turtle (so called because of its distinctive green fat deposits inside the shell) in the Caribbean. Despite these and other preservation efforts, the green sea turtle remains an endangered species.
And finally, “The Big Swindle” by Clarence Budington Kelland is part 5 of 6. Twins Pet and Pete Du Chillon have finally come of age, and are attempting to make sense of what their guardian, Mortimer Norton, has done with the family company. It seems all sorts of shady shenanigans have been going on! The twins have some sort of scheme to expose the truth, involving a phony foreign prince and double-bluffing the man who runs security for Du Chillon Industries. This installment suffers from coming in the middle of the story, but I think it’s also a pretty bad story. Pet and Pete, as well as their beloved grandmother, are the sort of people who the author tries hard to convince us are very witty, but come off snide instead. The funniest bit for me was one of the supporting characters denying the possibility of a “twins threesome” in such a way as to make me think he’s thought waay too much about the topic (and also never mentioning sex because this is a family magazine.) Mr. Kelland is largely forgotten, but once was popular enough that Harlan Ellison called him out by name for lowering the tastes of the American public.
There’s also short poems (amusing but forgettable), jokes and cartoons.
This was a fun look back at a moment in time just before I was born. Copies of the Post in bad condition can be found relatively cheaply; issues in excellent condition, or with stories by top authors, will set you back considerably more money. Also, you can visit the website of the current magazine: http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/
Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2 mostly written by Marv Wolfman and art by Gene Colan.
When the Comics Code restrictions on horror were loosened in the 1970s, DC primarily went in for horror anthology comics, while Marvel Comics based entire series around horrific heroes and villains. One of these was the classic (and public domain) character of Vlad Tepes, aka Count Dracula.
This series revealed that Bram Stoker’s book (highly recommended if you haven’t read it, by the way) was highly fictionalized, and Dracula had not in fact finally died at the end of it, only being very inconvenienced. He had been various places, doing various things, temporarily being put of commission now and then…and this storyline opened with him once again being awakened to start his reign of terror anew.
Opposing the Lord of Vampires was a crew of vampire hunters including Quincy Harker (the son of Jonathan and Mina), now an elderly man confined to a wheelchair by injuries received in past battles with Dracula; Rachel van Helsing (great-granddaughter of Professor van Helsing) a crossbow-wielder who wasn’t always as effective as she’d like; Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula (before becoming a vampire) who had wasted his wealth and had to man up over the course of the series; and Taj Nital, an Indian man who had been rendered mute when Dracula injured his throat. Independent of them were Blade, who only hunted Dracula because he hated all vampires due to the murder of his mother by Deacon Frost, and Hannibal King, a detective that Deacon Frost had turned into a vampire, who avoided taking blood from living humans.
Of course, Dracula didn’t just have vampire hunters after him, but people who either wanted to become lord of all vampires themselves or otherwise exploit him. The most persistent of these was Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who’d been turned into a disembodied brain hooked up to a computer, who wanted to take over the world.
At the start of this volume, Dracula learns of the current whereabouts of an artifact called the Chimera, which re-sparks his desire to conquer the world himself. (He’d had to put that on hold as a vampire army large enough to take over would promptly drink the rest of humanity to extinction, and then where would they be?) Fortunately for the world, Dracula is not the only one after the artifact, and it ends up smashed.
Dracula has noticed his powers waning, and this leads him to a near-final confrontation with Quincy Harker, before learning that it is in fact Doctor Sun behind it, and the action moves to Boston. There the cast adds nebbish “true vampire story” writer Harold H. Harold and lovely but ditsy secretary Aurora Rabinowitz, who act as comic relief.
After the Doctor Sun situation is resolved, Dracula takes control of a local Satanist cult and marries a woman named Domini, who he believes will give him a proper heir. (The leader of the Satanists, of course, has other plans.)
Mixed throughout this volume are soap-opera subplots involving the various supporting cast, and interludes of Dracula’s adventures in other times and places. Marv Wolfman’s writing is often excellent, but he sometimes doesn’t consult previous issues, resulting in some minor continuity glitches. Gene Colan’s art is more consistently outstanding, and fits the mood well, especially in this black and white reprint. (Some stories from the Giant-Size side series are included, with art by the less impressive but very competent Don Heck.)
Make no mistake, Dracula is the main villain here, and rare is the issue where he does not murder at least one innocent person just to remind us of that. Much of his time is taken up with petty revenge against people who have crossed him and when he acts against other villains, it’s usually out of pride or personal vendetta. Every once in a while, he does show a moment of kindness, but the door soon slams shut when his darker nature prevails. Because he’s the title character, Dracula has what TV Tropes calls “Joker Immunity”; he can never be permanently killed off, only temporarily thwarted, so the heroes seem ineffectual. (Quincy Harker broods about this frequently.)
These stories do take place in the Marvel Universe, though this series avoids most of the implications of that. Brother Voodoo helps Frank Drake through a bad patch in his life, and Doctor Strange actually temporarily kills Dracula (but is hypnotized not to notice it’s not permanent until later.)
In addition to the expected violence (but relatively little gore–the Comics Code was still in effect), Dracula’s attacks on women are often treated in a sexualized manner. There are some instances of suicide, both voluntary and forced. Dracula is also depicted as being racist (mostly against Blade) and sexist (he is not at all kind to the memory of Lucy Westerna.)
And speaking of sexism, one story includes a woman who’s a bit of a “straw feminist”; the owner of a fashion house who only hires women even if a man would be more competent at the job (except one dress designer who might be gay given the coding) and who has an enormous grudge against the various men who tried to keep her down. Dracula agrees to kill her enemies in exchange for information she can get more efficiently than he, but leaves her in a sticky situation at the end of the story.
Despite often high melodrama, there are some very well-written moments as well.
Recommended for vampire comics fans, Blade fans who want to see his early adventures, and those who enjoy Gene Colan’s art.
Book Review: One in Three Hundred by J.T. McIntosh
Most of you will have run into some variant of the “Lifeboat Problem” at some point. (In my youth, it was done with bomb shelters due to the strong possibility of atomic war.) A disaster has occurred, and a large number of people are going to die. There is one ticket to safety, but only a limited number of spaces available. As it happens, you are the person put in charge of filling those spaces. Here’s a list of people longer than the number of available spots, tell us who lives and who dies. Usually, some choices are easy (the person with vital medical skills lives, while the banker dies because seriously no one cares about money right now) but other decisions are more difficult (your beloved granny who’s partially disabled or the hot woman who dumped you in college but has many good years left?)
And that’s the starting dilemma of this book, originally published as three novelettes in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction in 1953. The first section, “One in Three Hundred” reveals that in the very near future, the sun is about to become hotter, making Earth uninhabitable. However, this will also raise the temperature of Mars to the point it will be barely livable. In the limited time left before this insolation happens, the governments of Earth have pooled their resources to build a fleet of ten-passenger “lifeships” to allow approximately one in every three hundred Earthlings to have a shot at joining the small scientific colony already on Mars.
Bill Easson is one of the Lieutenants chosen to pilot a lifeship, and to pick the ten passengers that will be on board. For this purpose, he’s been sent to the small Midwestern town of Simsville. He wastes no time drawing up a preliminary list, but as the deadline approaches, the small-town tranquility is ripped apart as the citizens reveal their hidden sides and true natures, so Bill is forced to revise his list repeatedly, up until the last moment.
“One in a Thousand”, the second section, has Bill and his passengers discover that the lifeship isn’t quite as safe as they’d been led to assume. Turns out that the Earth governments, decided to give a maximum number of people a small chance to survive, rather than a small number of people a maximum chance to survive. Thus the lifeships have been built to absolute minimum standards. (Bill does some calculations and figures that to build the lifeships to the correct standards, the number of potential passengers would have to be one in one million Earthlings.)
The lifeship crew must find a way to survive the rigors of space travel and perhaps more importantly, the landing!
Finally, in “One Too Many” those of Bill’s complement that survived the journey (including Bill) must weather the many dangers of Mars if they hope to have a future at all…but the greatest danger may be one they brought with them!
The first part is the most suspenseful, since we know that Bill survives (he’s narrating the story from several years in the future) but everyone else is on the chopping block. On the other hand, it makes the narration feel oddly detached; Bill is doing his level best not to get emotionally involved, even though he’s making very emotional choices.
The second and third parts are more SFnal, though this was clearly written before any humans had gone into space, so the author has to guess what zero-gravity conditions are like, let alone the problems of surviving on Mars. It’s also notable that this potential future (deliberately, probably) has no technological advances beyond those needed to get to Mars–Bill has to make all calculations aboard ship with pencil and paper, apparently not even getting a slide rule to work with. Atomic power is mentioned as having stalled out.
And it’s very clearly a deliberate decision by the author not to have any social change whatsoever between the 1950s and “the future.” Simsville is very much an average American town of the Fifties, and the culture shock of what needs to be done to survive on the lifeship and on the new colony is from a very Fifties perspective. (The thought of miscegenation blows a lot of survivors’ minds.)
Some lapses are clearly down to 1950s standards and practices–there’s no mention of how waste elimination is handled aboard the lifeship. But others are just weird. The choices are kept secret until the absolute last minute so no one has time to pack, but none of the survivors had been carrying around a pocket Bible, or a pack of cards or even a family photo just in case?
And there are some skeevy bits. Okay, yes, the survivors on Mars are going to need to make lots of babies to ensure the human race has a future. But the standards listed for sexual assault are “if it’s a respectable woman who is trying to make babies with her respectable man, then the assault is to be punished severely, but if she’s a stuck-up rhymes with ‘witch’ that is denying society the use of her uterus, then the offender gets off with a wrist slap.” I can see, sadly, the male-dominated readership of the time going “Yeah, rough on the women, but got to be done.”
And then there’s the ending, where the bad guy essentially has Bill and his friends over a barrel and unable to act, so someone who’s gone “crazy” has to resolve the problem for them.
The cover is cool, but more symbolic than representative–in-story, the government has taken great pains to avoid such a scene. This was a Doubleday Selection of the Month, and the back cover copy is more about how science fiction is a popular and respectable literary genre now than it is about the book itself.
This is a good read, with the caveats mentioned above, but don’t think too hard because this is a “gee-whiz” story that will fall apart if you slow down to examine individual parts. Also, be aware that there are reprints that only have the first story, but don’t say so in the description.
Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War edited by Paul Levitz
In 1977, African-American male leads in mainstream comic books were still countable on one hand (and don’t even ask about African-American women!) But this also had the effect of making a comic with a black person on the front attention-getting. And I suspect that at least some of the creation of “Gravedigger” came from that fact.
Gravedigger was the lead feature in DC Comics’ last-launched war comics series of the Bronze Age, Men of War. He is introduced as Sergeant Ulysses Hazard, a polio survivor who threw himself into intense physical training (including martial arts) to overcome his handicaps. Despite his superior physical condition and combat skills, Hazard was consigned to a segregated battalion and assigned to funeral detail (thus his codename.) After his heroics saved lives (except his best military friend) and defeated Nazi troops, the white officers ignored his contributions and denied his request for reassignment to a combat unit.
In the second issue, Hazard somehow gets back to the U.S. and single-handedly infiltrates the Pentagon War Room to demonstrate his skills. A character identified in that issue as the Secretary of War but in later issues demoted to an undersecretary (as his sliminess would have been a slur on the character of Henry L. Stimson, the actual Secretary at the time) decides to use Hazard as a political pawn. If “Gravedigger” fails on one of the suicidal missions, he can be written off, but if he succeeds, the Undersecretary can take credit.
Now Captain Ulysses Hazard so that he can pull rank when necessary, Gravedigger returns to Europe and takes on a number of commando missions ranging from rescuing art from the Nazis to destroying an experimental mini-sub. There are guest appearances by a couple of DC’s other war comics characters, and the final issue features Gravedigger actually leading Easy Company (normally the job of Sergeant Rock) for a few hours.
Gravedigger was basically “military Batman”, performing superheroic feats on a regular basis. To be fair, this is common in comic books about commando-style solo characters, but if you are a stickler for realism, look elsewhere. Later in the series, he gets a cross-shaped facial scar to make him more distinctive looks, important in comic books. He even gets an archnemesis, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who enlists mad science in a massive scheme to rid the Reich of this one commando.
In the next to last story, Gravedigger personally saves the lives of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though an opportunity is missed to have Captain Hazard bond with FDR over their mutual experience with polio.
In addition to the expected violence, there’s also period racism, ableism and anti-Semitism (the last confined to Nazi characters.)
The back-up features varied from issue to issue. “Enemy Ace” featured Baron Hans von Hammer, “the Hammer of Hell”, a World War I German fighter pilot. He was depicted as noble and honorable, one of a dying breed of warrior outdated by brutal modern warfare. Some of the stories have art by Howard Chaykin, who is not as well served by the black and white reprint as the other artists.
“Dateline: Frontline” was about American reporter Wayne Clifford, covering World War Two while the U.S. was still neutral, and having his naivete chipped away bit by bit. He struggles with censorship, the temptation of writing the story to suit the person who can give you access, and the moral gray areas of war.
“Rosa” features a spy working in the late 19h Century who is loyal to no country, and has the habit of switching accents in every sentence either to disguise his nationality or (as he claims in a somewhat dubious origin story) because he is literally a man without a country. His name might or might not actually be Rosa. Most notable for having a character switch sides between chapters for plot convenience.
This volume contains all 26 issues, and is not brilliant but is decent work by journeymen creators. Worth picking up if you are a war comics fan, or interested in the history of African-American characters in comic books.
Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman edited by Gary Groth
In later years, Harvey Kurtzman was better known for his humor work, among other things being the first editor of MAD. But while he worked at EC Comics in the early Fifties, Mr. Kurtzman was also known for some very impressive tales of action and warfare in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. He was a pioneer in the area of more “realistic” war comics, ones that didn’t treat the enemy as subhuman or inherently evil.
This book reprints many of those stories, divided into two sections, those Mr. Kurtzman illustrated himself, and those done by other artists from his layouts. (He was notoriously unhappy when those artists deviated from his vision, and as he was also the editor of the books, those artists usually didn’t get invited to work with him again.)
The volume opens with “Conquest!”, a story set during Spain’s expansion of its empire into Central and South America. Captain Juan Alvarado and his conquistadors initially have great success against their under-gunned native opponents, but their lust for gold undoes them.
The final story (with art by Reed Crandall) is “Memphis!” about a battle between Union and Confederate gunships on the Mississippi River during the Civil War. The enthusiasm of the spectators, especially the children, is contrasted to the horrific cost of the battle.
The Korean War was going on during the run of these comic books, and the majority of the stories concern that conflict. Several of these are top-rate. “Rubble!” is about a Korean farmer building a doomed house, with step-by-step coverage of the hard labor he puts in–the art in some panels reminds me of WPA heroic friezes. “Air Burst!” is the tale of a Chinese mortar squad as they try to survive a UN attack, their numbers dwindling. “Corpse on the Imjin!” was one of Mr. Kurtzman’s favorites, about two soldiers fighting to the death near the title river, with narration that’s deliberately poetic. And “Big ‘If’!” is a meditation on the randomness of death that focuses on one soldier considering the choices that have led him to this place, sitting facing five “devil sticks.”
Some of the stories are not quite as good–“Contact!” about a U.S. patrol looking for the North Koreans and finding them ends with a patriotic speech straight out of Hollywood propaganda. And “Bunker!” (art by Ric Estrada) about two disparate units trying to take a heavily-defended hill, has some unfortunate exaggerated features on the black soldiers that would not fly today, despite the well-meant message of the story. But overall, most of the stories are solid to excellent.
The stories are reprinted in black and white, which favors the strong inking skills of Mr. Kurtzman, but there is also a color cover gallery that shows off his sense of color design and the work of Marie Severin as a colorist.
The volume is completed with several essays about Mr. Kurtzman’s work and EC Comics in general.
While the violence level is high as you might expect from war stories, these tales don’t lean on the gore as some of EC’s horror titles did–even visible blood is rare.
Highly recommended to EC fans, war comics buffs and those studying the Korean War and how it was seen at the time.