Comic Book Review: Wonder Woman ’77 Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Wonder Woman ’77 Volume 1 written by Marc Andreyko

Back in the 1970s, live-action television series with a woman in the lead were rare creatures indeed, and one of the best was Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter.  It migrated from ABC (where it was set during World War Two) to CBS in 1977, and it is this “modern day” series that this comic book series is based on.

Wonder Woman '77 Volume 1

In this version, Wonder Woman works for the Inter-Agency Defense Command in her secret identity of Diana Prince, along Steve Trevor, Jr.  Steve may or may not know  that Diana is also Wonder Woman, but at least in these issues, he doesn’t officially know or make a fuss about it. They have access to the latest 1970s technology, including the advanced computer IRA, but Wonder Woman’s powers and compassion are usually the main key to victory.

Where this comic book series varies from the TV version is that the live-action version used none of WW’s comic book supervillains, so versions of these compatible with the show’s look and feel are inserted.

The first story takes place mostly at a disco, where a Soviet defector scientist must be protected from mind-controlling songstress Silver Swan.  Diana’s outfit for this is based on the “white pantsuit” look she had during a brief period where the comics depowered her (to make her more “relevant.”)

The second story opens with Diana waking up in a world where she is not Wonder Woman or Diana Prince, but a mentally ill woman named Donna Troy.  There are some nifty references to the Cathy Lee Crosby TV movie, and the post-Crisis WW continuity.  Diana must figure out what’s going on and fight her way back to the reality she knows.

Next, there is a story that uses the Barbara Minerva version of long-time supervillain the Cheetah.  It brings in elements of the Priscilla Rich version of the character as well–Dr. Minerva is driven by jealousy when the museum she works for dismantles her prize exhibit involving years of scholarship and hard digging for a Wonder Woman-centric publicity grabber.  This allows the Cheetah spirit to take over her body so that Barbara can try to get her revenge.  The climax is a showcase for Diana’s gentle spirit being able to overcome Cheetah’s command of great cats.

Original (so far as I know) villain Celsia takes center stage next.  Due to a nuclear power plant accident that killed her home town, Celsia can project both heat and cold.  She is determined to punish the men who placed profit over life and safety.  We also get a version of the Atomic Knights, including a not-named Gardner Grayle.

And finally Diana has an encounter with the swamp monster Solomon Grundy on Halloween.  Grundy may not be the real monster here…  (Warning: domestic abuse.)

The issue is filled out with an essay by Andy Mangels about the television show, plus a gallery of covers and concept art.

One of the things I really like about this series is Wonder Woman’s dedication to non-lethal force, something that has largely been lost in recent years.  Yes, punching bad guys is an important part of her problem-solving style, but whenever possible, she uses truth and compassion to bring about resolutions.  This Wonder Woman smiles a lot, and inspires others to be better people.

Some of the 1970s elements do come across a bit cheesy, but this is not entirely a bad thing, as they fit with the feel of the show.  On the other hand, the very episodic stories mean that there’s no character growth or deeper characterization–what you see is all you are going to get.

The art is okay, with Diana and Steve being on model most of the time.

Recommended to fans of the TV show, Wonder Woman fans who prefer a lighter style and younger readers.  (It should be okay for tweens with a little parental guidance.)

And let’s enjoy that theme tune!

Book Review: Famous Nathan

Book Review: Famous Nathan by Lloyd Handwerker and Gil Reavill

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or given.

Famous Nathan

Nathan’s Famous was the number one hot dog stand in the world for several decades, and synonymous with the Coney Island experience.  It was the creation of Nathan (originally Nachum) Handwerker, an immigrant who worked his way up from grinding poverty to being a successful businessman.  This book is primarily his story, told by his grandson.

According to the book, Nathan was born in a Jewish shtetl in Galicia (now part of Poland) in 1892.  At the time, the region was occupied by Austria, and was proverbial for its inhabitants’ poverty.  His father Jacob was a shoemaker who was usually unemployed and his mother sold vegetables as a sideline whenever the chance came up.  Nathan grew up constantly hungry and early on decided he wanted to be in the restaurant business.  Over time, his hard work and good business sense got him enough money to buy passage to America in 1912.

To make it in business, you need a strong work ethic, canny business sense…and a walloping dose of good luck.  Nathan had all three, and by 1916 had learned enough English and accumulated enough savings to open his own “grab joint” selling frankfurters and lemonade from a tiny storefront on Coney Island.  His initial partner backed out when initial sales weren’t good, but Nathan found a good price point and soon became able to stay open all year, expanding the store and his menu bit by bit.

After a year or so, the initially nameless joint became “Nathan’s”, and then “Nathan’s Famous” as business boomed.  Nathan used a business philosophy of fast service, a limited menu and consistent high quality to grow his enterprise.  (This was later independently discovered by the McDonalds brothers, though the highness of quality is debatable.)

A big believer in family, Nathan brought over almost all of his clan from Europe as well as marrying and having children of his own.  He didn’t let nepotism stand in the way of good business practice, though, once firing his older brother the same day he hired him for failure to follow procedure.  He was a very hands-on manager, and ran a tight ship; his contentious personality meant that he often fought with his top workers, but it also bred loyalty.  He integrated his staff very early on and was generous with benefits, but was firmly against unions.

Nathan’s Famous was huge, and the book describes its interactions with American history.  But by the time Nathan’s sons Sol and Murray moved into management positions under him, times were changing.  The brothers had clashing ideas about where the store and its brand should be going, and did not work together well.  Coney Island was losing its place as a tourist attraction, helped along by a city planner who wanted to gentrify the area.  (Unfortunately, his plans had the opposite effect, crashing the local economy and increasing crime.)  And chain fast food places became the standard.

The original Nathan’s Famous has never closed, but is no longer in family hands, and in the modern day, it’s more famous as a hot dog brand than as a destination.

Most of the material about Nathan’s early life is derived from a single interview done with him by another of his grandsons, so should be taken with a grain of salt.  The book also talks about some Nathan’s Famous legends and whether they are based on truth or the result of a public relations campaign.

There’s quite a bit of time spent on the logistics and mechanics of running a grab joint in the early part of the Twentieth Century, which will be useful to people who have always wondered about that sort of thing.  There’s also family drama, as well as details about some of the long-time employees.

To be honest, the book never really grabbed me, but I think it will be of great interest to hot dog aficionados and those who are nostalgic for the Nathan’s Famous of yore.  Each chapter has a black and white photo heading.  Also, there are end notes (functional but lackluster) and a bibliography for further reading.

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 2 edited by John Denning

Quick recap:  In the 1970s, Marvel Comics started doing larger magazines for newsstand distribution, most of them in black and white.  One of these was The Rampaging Hulk, which originally featured adventures taking place between the Hulk’s appearances in the first year of his existence.  But then it was renamed just The Hulk and retooled to more strongly resemble the then-hot television series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, as well as now being published in color.

The Rampaging Hulk Vol. 2

This volume continues the run with issues #16-27, which were published 1979-81.  It’s a curious mix of the television series and the comics continuity.  The usual supporting cast is not seen or mentioned outside of a brief flashback to the Hulk’s origin, and a mention of Doctor Strange in the narration.  Nor are there any of the usual supervillains–the closest we get is Rypel, who is more of a Bond villain type that wants to trigger World War Three so his underwater utopia can inherit the Earth.  Most of the time, it’s just Robert Bruce Banner wandering from town to town and getting involved with relatively ordinary people’s problems.  Interspersed with the Hulk smashing things, of course.

The opening story, “Masks”, has Dr. Banner lured from New Orleans (the night after Mardi Gras, just to be different) to the Florida Keys to participate in a wealthy eccentric’s treasure hunt.  Of course, the eccentric has ulterior motives,  The final story in the volume, “One for My Baby…and One More for the Hulk!” takes place in Las Vegas, as a past-his-prime crooner tries to get out from under the mob with the help of his new green bodyguard.

This is a real nostalgia blast for me, not just because I read many of these stories when they first came out, but because the writers couldn’t use their usual costumed weirdos to move plots, and thus tended towards topical stories.  Three Mile Island, snail darters, the last days of the Cold War, Native American  struggles, Hare Krishnas…takes me back.

Of course, not all of these stories have aged well.  “A Very Personal Hell” by Jim Shooter has the notorious gay panic scene where Bruce Banner is threatened with rape by a lisping stereotype at the “Y.”  (He saves himself by informing the would-be rapist that he is, in fact, Bruce Banner, y’know, the Hulk, you wouldn’t like him when he’s mad?)

And sadly, the ambitious color usage in some of the stories is completely ruined in black & white reprint–it looks muddy, and some of the captions are borderline unreadable.  Artists like Gene Colan, on the other hand, make it work.

A couple of the stories deal with attempts to cure Banner of turning into the Hulk, or at least lessen the rift between them.  The most striking of these is “Master Mind” in which the Hulk persona winds up in Bruce Banner’s body and goes on a rampage–which could be deadly to the much more fragile scientist.

A couple more stand-out stories:  “Heaven Is a Very Small Place” with great art by Herb Trimpe and John Severin is a sad tale of the Hulk finding a peaceful place at last, only to have the illusion fade.  “Dreams of Iron…Dreams of Steel” has Bruce Banner getting a job at a care facility for children with developmental disablilities (back then the word “retarded” was acceptable, but the shortened form is also hurled as an insult) and the Hulk bonds with an adult graduate of the facility that works at a steel mill.

Recommended with reservations for fans of the 1970s Hulk show and Hulk fans in general–check your library unless you’re a completist who has to own every Hulk story.

Book Review: Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan

Book Review: Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan edited by Chad Nevett

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.

Shot in the Face

Transmetropolitan was a science fiction comic book series co-created by writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson that ran under the Helix and Vertigo imprints for sixty issues from 1997-2002.  It details the journey of “gonzo journalist” Spider Jerusalem as he is forced to return to the sprawling City and becomes involved in presidential politics.  The foul-mouthed and personally noxious Jerusalem has one redeeming quality, an absolute dedication to tell the truth as he sees it, and in the bizarre world of the future, that quality is vital.

This book is a collection of essays on various aspects of Transmetropolitan, from its publishing history to how it compares to other works by Mr. Ellis.  It’s been in my To Be Read pile for a long time, since its publication in 2013, as I had meant to actually read Transmetropolitan first.  But the volumes I needed were checked out at the library, and weeks went by and then I lost track of this book.  Having it surface again, I decided to read it without finishing the original series.

The essays, for the most part, seem pretty solid.  There’s one that compares and contrasts Spider Jerusalem with Hunter S. Thompson, who was a major inspiration for the character, and another on whether Jerusalem counts as a “super-hero” as well as detailed looks at the plot structure and interviews with the creators.  Some of the essays could have used another proofreader pass, as I spotted spellchecker typos and sentence fragments.

The essay “Supporting Players: Women in Transmetropolitan” by Greg Burgas seemed a little off as he does not even mention two minor characters who show Spider Jerusalem’s less stellar qualities, mentioned in a couple of the other essays, and seemingly this essay would have been the place to go into depth about them.

Several pages from the comics are reproduced in black and white to illustrate points, and there are a few stills from a documentary about Ellis.

As one might expect, there’s a lot of rough language in here, mostly in quotes from the series, and discussions of edgy topics–consider this to have the same “mature readers” designation as the comics.

Primarily recommended to fans of Transmetropolitan or of Warren Ellis in general.  If you haven’t read the series yet, you will be better served by doing that first.

Manga Review: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 14

Manga Review: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 14 story by Eiji Ohtsuka, art by Housui Yamazaki

It’s finally out!  To recap for newer readers, the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is five students at a Buddhist college that each have skills or talents related to the dead.  They form a small firm that fulfills the last requests of corpses, resulting in creepy yet funny stories often focused around odd bits of Japanese culture.

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 14

This volume has three stories; the first has our heroes going up against a fake Kurosagi team of corpse disposal workers who are actually making a profit.  It unfolds into a conspiracy involving a completely unnecessary dam project  that has been claiming lives for three generations.  The story also introduces a mysterious man named Nishi who manipulates social media and may communicate with the dead via smartphone app.

The second story is a one-shot breather about an Americanized cartoon version of the series, where the boys are all pizza delivery workers (with special talents) who wind up employed by the FBI’s Black Heron division identifying corpses that died in bizarre circumstances.  There are interesting touches, like making one of the delivery guys a former rescue worker who discovered his powers on 9/11, and the diminutive embalmer an actual child prodigy.  But it would never fly as an actual American cartoon due to the morbid bits.  (At the end we learn it’s a bootleg DVD Numata picked up…along with a leather jacket with a really cool design…which turns out to be made by the bad guys in the cartoon!)

And the volume wraps up with another political story, as a museum of execution devices is abruptly closed by the government agency that controls it just before an investigation into its funding is about to take place.  It seems that more than one person is losing their head over bureaucracy.   The villain uses a gender-based slur.

As usual, the art and writing are excellent, with the “cartoon” section allowing the artist (and assistants) to show off some range.  There’s an extensive endnotes section with all the cultural references and in-jokes, which Kurosagi is rich with.  It’s been about two years since the last volume due to undeservedly poor sales; the problem is that this series, while of superior quality, is very niche in its appeal.  Dark Horse will be releasing the early volumes in “omnibus” editions, so I urge readers to purchase those to increase the chances we’ll see volume 15 this decade.

This particular volume doesn’t have any appreciable nudity, but there is some nasty violence and dismembered corpses, so the mature readers warning still applies.

Book Review: Women of the Night

Book Review: Women of the Night edited by Martin H. Greenberg

With all the anthologies I’ve been reviewing, I’m surprised it took me this long to cover one edited by Martin H. Greenberg (1941-2011), who curated more than a thousand SF/F/Horror anthologies during his career.  He was an excellent packager:  If you wanted a book about alternate universe Elvises, he could find you a dozen decent to outstanding stories, even if he had to call a few authors to write them to order.

Women of the Night

In this particular case, the theme is “female vampires” of various sorts.  The introduction by John Helfers talks about how they have been relatively underrepresented as opposed to male vampires, but their literary pedigree is nearly as long.

The sixteen tales open with “One for the Road” by Stephen King, a sequel to Salem’s Lot.  A tourist managed to strand his family in what used to be Jerusalem’s Lot during the middle of a Maine blizzard.   He’s finally managed to find help, but it may be too late for his wife and child.  Spooky, but really requires you to have read the previous book for full effect.

The oldest story is from 1953, Philip K. Dick’s “The Cookie Lady.”  A young boy visits a nice old lady who offers him cookies and likes to listen to him read.  She’s a different kind of vampire.  Notably, the boy’s parents are right to be concerned, but for the wrong reasons–in a non-horror story, they’d be the bad guys.

As one might expect from the usual treatment of female vampires in fiction, there’s quite a bit of sexual references in the anthology, unfortunately including rape and pedophilia.  There’s also a fair amount of violence (what, you thought all blood donors were voluntary?)

Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” is an interesting twist on the Snow White tale, but I found it less transgressive than just kind of icky.  Still very well written.

“Sister Death” by Jane Yolen is better, I think, twisting together the myth of Lilith and the Holocaust.  Some very evocative imagery.

There’s a wide assortment of female vampires; sometimes villains, sometimes victims, and one or two are the heroes of their stories.  I think a couple of these have their endings muted because we know that there is a female vampire to begin with, even if within the story it’s a surprise.

The final story is “Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu” bu Norman Partridge.  It’s a take on the Dracula novel, some parts of which are true in the story, and others made up by Bram Stoker.  Quincey Morris returns to Texas to fulfill a promise he made to Lucy, no matter how much blood it’s going to take.  There’s a bit of suspense at the end–is Quincey too late?

It’s a good line-up of authors with some nice stories, it would make a pleasant Halloween present for a vampire fan.

Comic Book Review: The Batman Adventures Volume 2

Comic Book Review: The Batman Adventures Volume 2 written by Kelley Puckett, pencils by Mike Parobeck, inks by Rick Burchett

Batman: The Animated Series ran on Fox 1992-1995, and is considered one of the best animated TV series of all time, as well as one of the best adaptations of Batman outside comic books.  It spawned an entire DC Animated Universe set of series with its unique look and strong continuity.  The series also influenced the comics it had spawned from, creating the madcap Harley Quinn and her friendship with Poison Ivy (and suggesting they might be very close friends) and a new sympathetic backstory for Mr. Freeze, who had been a flat character before.

The Batman Adventures Volume 2

But more directly, there was a tie-in comic book series, The Batman Adventures.  It was written for younger readers than the mainstream DC Comics universe, although it could still handle some subject matter that the TV series had to shy away from.  The art was meant to evoke the style of the show, and frequently succeeded.  Rather than copy scripts from the TV series, most of the issues tell stories in between episodes.

Many  of the stories in this second volume revolve around secondary characters rather than Batman himself.  There are stories for Batgirl (taking place before her first appearance on the show), Robin and  the pair together.  Man-Bat, Talia, and Ra’s al Ghul each get a spotlight story, as does Commissioner Gordon.  There’s even an issue from the viewpoint of the Professor, a brainy guy who teams up with schemer Mastermind and reluctant master of violence Mr. Nice to steal nuclear weapons.  Their plan is foiled by one unexpected glitch….

The cover story is from issue #16, “The Killing Book.”  When the Joker discovers that the Gotham Adventures comic book depicts Batman always defeating him, the Clown Prince of Crime kidnaps an artist to draw the true-life stories of the Joker’s triumphs.  This one has a lot of meta-humor, from the titles of the chapters to the comics creators being roughly based on the real ones at DC.  The lighter nature of this series is shown by the Joker not actually killing anyone, though he tries to remedy this with a deathtrap for Batman.

The Scarecrow story in #19 is darker, as fear of the Scarecrow spreads over Gotham City, far in excess of his actual threat level.  He’s even invading Bruce Wayne’s nightmares of the death of his parents!   It turns out that Jonathan Crane isn’t the only ethically deficient scientist in Gotham this month.

Some bits in this series may be too scary for the youngest readers, but most ten year-olds and up should be fine.  Older readers will enjoy the in-jokes and references.

Recommended to fans of the cartoon, and parents of young Batman fans who aren’t ready for the very dark mainline comics.

Manga Review: Sanctuary

Manga Review: Sanctuary Story by Sho Fumimura, Art by Ryoichi Ikegami

In the killing fields of Cambodia in the 1970s, two sons of Japanese expatriates helped each other survive and became blood brothers.  When they were brought back to Japan, the boys were disgusted by how stagnant and corrupt Japanese society had become.  They came up with a plan to reform Japan, a two-pronged attack through the Yakuza (Japanese organized crime) and the Diet (the Japanese parliament.)   Which boy took which route was left to a game of rock paper scissors.

Sanctuary

When we see them in the early 1990s, Akira Hojo is an underboss in the Kanto area (Tokyo and environs) of the Yakuza, while Chiaki Asami is a political advisor to a Dietman.  They see their chances, and take them, Hojo taking over as boss of his gang, while Asami becomes a Dietman himself.  Their relationship is a secret which allows them to support each other as they rise in their respective fields, always keeping the goal of a revitalized Japan in mind.

This political/crime thriller series has some great art by Ryoichi Ikegami (Mai the Psychic Girl, Japanese Spider-Man, Crying Freeman) which allows most of the main characters to be easily distinguishable from each other.  The writer is otherwise known as Buronson, creator of Fist of the North Star.  As you might expect from this combination, much time is spent on manly men mediating on what it means to truly be a man, doing manly things and shedding manly tears.

Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of having many female characters that are relevant to the story.  Most of the women we see are lovers or victims of the men who move the plot (nudity makes this a mature readers title.)  The most prominent female character is Deputy Police Chief Kyoko Ishihara, who rapidly winds up romantically involved with Hojo and fails to do much of anything police-like.

In the volume to hand, #5, Hojo spends most of his time recovering from being shot by a Chinese hitman hired by the Kobe area Yakuza.  He isn’t even awake for the first third of the volume.  Fortunately, he has able assistants who have his orders for just such a situation.

Thus the spotlight is on Asami and his “Rippu-Kai” (Rising Wind Association), an alliance of young and minority party Dietmen.  Their plan is to reinvigorate Japan’s apathetic voter base by proposing an amendment to Japan’s Constitution, specifically Section Nine.  This is the part that forbids Japan from having a standing military (with the Self-Defense Force being a dubiously justified kludge.)  The young Dietmen don’t really care if the amendment passes, or in what form, but you can bet that the Japanese people would really care, have fierce debate, and get out the vote.

It’s at this point that Hojo’s arch-enemy becomes important.  Norimoto Isaoka is the Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has had a virtual monopoly on power for decades.  He realizes that if the Japanese public starts voting, that will upset the balance of power and all the connections he’s built up over the years.  He knows where most of the bodies are buried, and decides that the constitutional amendment must never come up for a vote.

The Rising Wind realize that Isaoka is now their main obstacle, and try to bring him down with a corruption scandal, and that takes up most of the volume.

This is an interesting (if really skewed) look at the Japanese political and social climate in the early 1990s; it’s out of print in the U.S., but you can probably find the “flipped” Viz volumes relatively inexpensive on the used market.

Manga Review: Captain Ken 1 &2

Manga Review: Captain Ken 1 & 2 by Osamu Tezuka

Mamoru Hoshino lives on his family ranch on Mars near the town of Hedes.  Life in a backwater frontier town can get a bit stale, so he’s excited when he learns a distant relative, Kenn Minakami, is coming from Earth to live with them.   On the way to the spaceport, Mamoru runs into a gunslinger calling himself “Captain Ken.”  Although a boy no older than Mamoru himself, Ken is a skilled combatant and saves Mamoru’s life from an ambush.

Captain Ken

Realizing that he’s too late to get to the spaceport, Mamoru returns home to find that Kenn Minakami, a lovely girl, has just arrived.  Mamoru is shocked to discover that aside from the obvious, Ken and Kenn look exactly alike.  He begins to suspect that they’re the same person, but other problems become more pressing.

This 1960 manga series by Osamu Tezuka took the concept of a “space western” and ran with it.  In the backstory, the first human settlers on Mars were Americans, who noted the terrain’s resemblance to the legendary Wild West.  They promptly adopted Western garb and customs, as well as building robot horses to ride as wheeled vehicles were not suitable except in built-up areas.  Other countries’ immigrants more or less assimilated into that culture, except the Russians.

Unfortunately, another part of American history repeated itself as the Earthlings stole land from the native Martians and broke treaties with them, pushing them into the worst land, ever shrinking as the humans multiplied.

Captain Ken’s mission is a bit nebulous at first, although he does try to protect the natives from oppression by evil Earthlings.  Tezuka was well aware that most of the readers would have read Princess Knight (originally Ribon no Kishi) and would think he was repeating the trick of having a girl impersonate a boy or vice versa.  For most of the first volume, he makes sure no one ever sees Ken and Kenn together, and has them both engage in odd behavior that would make sense if they were the same person.   The real explanation turns out to be way weirder.

Captain Ken eventually decides to learn “Martian Shooting Style” which is actually only usable by people born under the heavier gravity of Earth.  This is important, as the deadly gunfighter Lamp knows the style and is loyal to the villains.  Everything climaxes as the Martians reveal they’ve been stockpiling weapons for years, and are now ready to kick all the aliens off Mars.  The ending is bittersweet.

This is very much a boys’ adventure series, with women relegated to minor roles (Kenn is more important as a motivation than as someone with agency.)  While this is a children’s story, Mr. Tezuka does not hold back on the violent action, and several people die.  (The story wobbles on whether Ken’s gun shoots lethal bullets.)  Sensitive readers may find it too intense.  There’s also a person who is dying of radiation poisoning, clearly inspired by Hiroshima survivors.

Parents of young readers may want to discuss the treatment of Native Americans, whether using guns is the best way to resolve problems, and perhaps the atomic bomb with their children.

This isn’t Tezuka’s best work, but it’s still well-written fun with his cartoony art.  Recommended to Tezuka fans, space western fans, and boys at heart.

Book Review: Bug Jack Barron

Book Review: Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad

What’s bugging Jack Barron?  Jack used to be a young radical, waving signs and helping form the Social Justice Coalition.  But the SJC became a legitimate political party, and Jack wasn’t really interested in playing politics.  Plus, he’d gotten on television a lot, and the cameras and audiences loved him.  Soon, Jack was offered his own call-in show, and it took off.  The wife who kept him honest left, but his star was on the rise.

Bug Jack Barron

Now he’s the star of Bug Jack Barron, on every Wednesday night.  You call in on your vidphone and tell Jack what’s bugging you, and if he finds your problem interesting, Jack will go on to call important people and bug them about the issue.  And you’d better believe that VIPs are sitting by their own vidphones, because if you’re “not home” to Jack Barron, he will skewer you in front of one hundred million viewers.

Of course it’s all a cop-out.  Sure, Jack Barron is for the little guy…as long as it doesn’t involve any of Jack’s own skin.  And he’ll stick it to the Very Important People, but only to a point, just enough pain to make them sweat, but not enough to make them retaliate.  After all, Jack likes making $400,000 a year, and having a penthouse apartment with the latest electronic gadgets, and free smokes from his sponsor, Acapulco Gold.  And let’s not forget that TV stardom makes you a chick magnet!   No, Jack knows better than to kill the goose that lays golden eggs.

Tonight’s show seems standard at first.  Seems there’s a company called the Foundation for Human Immortality, owned by a fellow named Benedict Howards, a powerful billionaire.  The Foundation will cryogenically freeze people to be revived whenever a cure is found for what killed them.  But the process is expensive, you have to have $500,000 in liquid assets for the Foundation to use.  Tonight’s caller tried to get a Freezer spot but was turned down, and he thinks it might be because he’s black.

Jack spots the logic hole right away (the man has $500K in his business, yes, but that’s not a liquid asset.) but decides to roll with it.  He calls Benedict Howards–but Mr. Howards is “not home” to Mr. Barron (for good reason, we learn later) so Mr. Barron decides to turn up the heat on the Foundation a bit.  After humiliating the Foundation’s PR person, Jack calls up his old SJC friend, Lukas Greene, now governor of Mississippi.  Governor Greene explains that the problem here isn’t direct racism, but systemic racism; for historical reasons, there just aren’t that many African-Americans with half a million in cash and negotiable bonds.  That’s why the SJC platform is to nationalize the Freezers so that all Americans have a chance to be revived in the future.

To round out the show and cool things down a bit, Jack calls Senator Hennering, who is sponsoring a Freezer Bill that will give the Foundation a permanent monopoly on their cryogenic process.  The Senator’s a professional politician and an experienced bloviator, so he should be able to provide some calming words.  Except that for some reason, the senator is off-script, and reacting to the call like he’s actually guilty of something.  Odd, but Jack is as gentle as is consistent with his acerbic television persona.

The next day Benedict Howards himself is in Jack Barron’s office, offering Jack a free cryogenic berth if he’ll help put the Freezer Bill through.  Jack still doesn’t know what’s going on, but he’s pretty sure he’s wading into crocodile-infested swamp water, and it’s getting deeper by the moment.  He’s going to have to use all his smarts, and see if he still has a last shred of integrity deep down, and that really bugs Jack Barron!

This 1969 novel was considered the story that put Norman Spinrad on the map.  It’s one of the classics of the New Wave movement in science fiction, when newer SF authors decided to use more experimental literary techniques and use edgier subject matter.  In this case, Mr. Spinrad uses a free association stream of consciousness style of narration to fill us in on the thoughts of the characters randomly sparked by their main concerns.  It takes quite a bit of getting used to.  There was, supposedly, a lot of drug use by New Wave authors–this one reads less like it was made on marijuana than amphetamines.

There’s also a lot of foul language, including racial and ethnic slurs (“shade” is now the slang word for pale-skinned people.)  The sex scenes are pornographic in the “experimental literature” sense, but they’re important for exploring Jack’s state of mind, so you can’t just skip over them.  Racism is an important theme of the book, while the sexism seems to be more of the author’s blind spots.

Most of the action is a match of wills and wits between Jack Barron and Benedict Howards (who is clearly meant to evoke both treacherous Benedict Arnold and nutty millionaire Howard Hughes.)  The one violent on-stage confrontation is one that Jack’s completely unprepared for and survives only by luck.  Jack is an anti-hero, handsome, clever and witty, but having sold out to the Man long ago, and willing to use media manipulation to get his way.  Howards is worse, having such a fear of death that it’s become a full-blown thanatophobia, and he’s willing to do anything to avoid dying.  Ever.

Jack’s ex-wife Sara mostly exists to tell us how awesome Jack is, and urge him to return to the superior levels of awesome he had before he copped out.

Because of the rough language, sex scenes and a suicide, I wouldn’t recommend this to readers below senior high school, and it would probably be best saved for college age.

It’s interesting from a historical viewpoint as well, predicting a 1980s that is very different from the one we knew.  Apparently, at the same time the Coalition for Social Justice became an actual political party, Nixon imploded so badly in his first term that Republicans became poison at the national level.  So the CSJ has become the left-wing party, the Republicans have shifted heavily to the right and are composed of corporatists and the former Dixiecrats (no Religious Right here), and the Democrats have grabbed the large middle ground.  Ronald Reagan is mentioned several times as an example of a politician who is more image than substance, but never became president in this timeline.  One of the major Democrats is referred to as “Teddy the Pretender” and is presumably Edward Kennedy.

Mississippi has suffered massive “white flight” and its new black governor is barely holding on with a crippled economy.  AT&T (not broken up in this world) has produced black & white vidphones, and a “miniphone” (basically a cellphone that works anywhere in the AT&T network) is the latest gizmo.  Marijuana is legal in 38 states, Bob Dylan is dead, and low-level single payer healthcare is the law of the land.  Oh, and there’s a mission on its way to Mars, but it’s not relevant to anything.

There’s an afterword by Michael Moorcock, who ran this novel in the magazine New Worlds, which is why this edition uses British spelling.  He talks about the reaction at the time, including the story being denounced in Parliament.

Overall, a book with a lot of interesting ideas, some pertinence to the current day state of the media, some dated attitudes and a lot of uncomfortable content.   Recommended for those who want to experience New Wave science fiction.

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