Comic Book Review: Savage: Taking Liberties

Comic Book Review: Savage: Taking Liberties written by Pat Mills, art by Charlie Adlard

In 2000 AD #1 (1977), a feature entitled Invasion! began, created by Pat Mills.  Set in 1999, Great Britain is attacked and occupied by the Volgan Republic, which uses nuclear weapons to force a quick surrender.  Hardline anti-Volgans in the government are eliminated, and a puppet government led by Sir Simon Creepton now administers the People’s Republic of Britain.

Savage: Taking Liberties

London lorry driver Bill Savage begins a one-man resistance to the invaders when his East End home is hit by a Volgan tank shell, killing his wife and children.  Bill’s working-class common sense and brutally violent approach (he favored a hauling hook and shotgun for Volg fighting) prove effective, and soon others are inspired to also take up arms against the invaders.  Bill is recruited into the formal resistance forces, and eventually is assigned to get heir to the throne Prince John safely to North America.  The series ends with Bill hoping that now the Americans will move to help liberate Britain.

The series was written for bloodthirsty British schoolboys, and featured fairly black-and-white characterization.  Working class blokes like Bill Savage were good, the Volgan invaders (so named because editorial got cold feet about having the Soviet Union be the baddies) were evil Communazis, and the upper classes were either quislings, idiots, or in desperate need of spines that Bill would supply.

A bit later, a prequel story, Disaster 1990, was created, in which the Arctic ice cap melts, putting most of England underwater (and presumably causing similar devastation elsewhere.)  Bill Savage helps bring about a restoration of order, though he is suspicious of the new government (which will eventually fall to the Volgans.)  While entertaining on its own, the story raised more questions than it answered.

For a while, as 2000 AD began marketing to a slightly more mature audience, Bill Savage was shoved into the vault of mildly embarrassing early efforts.  But then in 2002, Pat Mills found he had new things to say with the character.  Mr. Mills had become far more politically aware, and thirty years of new history, including the actual circumstances of occupied nations under modern conditions, gave him ideas.  (The introduction to this volume claims that he met a British expatriate in Bulgaria that greatly influenced the new depiction of Bill Savage.)

Thus the appearance in 2004 of a new Savage series, the first storyline of which is reprinted in this volume.  The setting is now firmly established as an alternate Earth, with a different history that explains why things did not go as on our Earth, and incorporating real world technology that Mr. Mills had not anticipated in the original run.  (The 1990 flood is pointedly left out.)

The Americans are not coming, at least not yet, as their isolationist leadership doesn’t see direct war with the Volgans as to their advantage.  The CIA does, however, have no compunctions about helping Bill Savage get back into Britain and aiding the resistance by back door methods.  Bill’s death is faked, and he has plastic surgery to look like his probably deceased brother Jack.  (Jack having been at ground zero of one of the nuclear explosions.)

“Jack” makes contact with his sister Cassie, who runs a newsagent stand, and her not-all-there husband Noddy.  He comes up with a dubious but uncheckable explanation for how Jack’s still alive, and joins the resistance.  Most of the people Jack interacts with quickly tumble to the fact he’s actually Bill, but play along.

Bill participates in a number of resistance actions, which eventually lead up to a confrontation with the Volgan leader, Marshal Vashkov.  The fallout of this leads to the murder of Bill’s other brother Tom.  Investigating this leads Bill to discover a high-ranking traitor in the resistance, and the book ends with the Volgans being pushed out of South England…at least for now.

There’s considerably more shades of gray in this volume than in the original run.  The resistance’s terrorist tactics don’t sit well even with many of the people they’re fighting for, and there are splits in the resistance between gangs that have different ultimate goals and ideals.  The politics of the original also get poked at.

The horrible things Bill Savage is willing to do to liberate his people have taken a toll on his humanity.  In a striking scene, we and Bill learn Marshal Vashkov’s motives for invading and occupying Britain in the particularly brutal way he chose–only to have Savage reveal that he only wanted to make sure this was the real man and not a double; the story does not move him at all.

Content warning: torture and rape, as well as some gruesome violence.  A cute dog comes to a firey end just off camera.  The depiction of Noddy, who apparently had some brain damage due to a Volgan terror weapon, may be overly stereotypical of the mentally handicapped.

The black and white art does well in depicting the grit and shadows of Occupied Britain.  This one’s for fans of dystopian science fiction with strong stomachs.

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989 by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the final volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s history of Japan and his personal life during the Showa Era.  It mixes events that affected the entire country with stories of his struggles as a man and an artist.

Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

As noted in the introduction by Frederik L. Schodt, this volume covers more time than the previous three put together.  It covers Japan’s transition from a militarized country reeling from utter defeat, to a nation that was all about business.  Many of the events covered will be new to American readers (though manga and anime fans may see the roots of certain storylines in real life happenings.)

The book also chronicles the long years of poverty Mizuki endured as he struggled to earn a living as an artist.  Again, this is a warts and all portrayal, so we learn that his arranged marriage was by no means a love match, but something his parents insisted on.  Even when Mizuki finally makes it big with a hit manga, he learns that success is its own trap.  Now that people want his product, he has to keep putting it out on strict deadlines bang bang bang.

I learned a lot.  For example, while it’s been retrofitted into many historical dramas, kidnapping for ransom was a new crime in 1963, made possible by rising prosperity meaning rich people had enough cash to pay ransom.  The “paradox of prosperity” is discussed:  As rising prosperity made the inside of people’s houses more comfortable, the associated pollution made the outside of their houses less comfortable.

As Mizuki’s personal star rose, he had to take on assistants to help him produce all the work he was now obligated to put out.  Some of these assistants, like Ryoichi Ikegami, went on to become famous manga creators in their own right.  Others…did not.  A subplot in one chapter has an assistant vainly attempt to get his original work published to impress a potential marriage partner.

A couple of chapters are dedicated to daydreams Mizuki had, one where he takes a vacation to the afterlife, and another where he contemplates a company that facilitates extra-marital affairs (and admits that his long-suffering wife might also appreciate the idea.)  In real life, he reconnects with the New Guinea natives that had befriended him decades before.

The volume ends with a completely transformed Japan, and Mizuki’s wish that while the future is yet unwritten, the new generations will learn from the mistakes and suffering of the past.  Mizuki lived on into the second decade of the 21st Century, still working up until the end.

Once again, the primary narrator is Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), and we meet the real life person who inspired his personality.  One chapter is instead narrated by a traditional storyteller who mentored Mizuki for a while.  Readers who are unused to manga conventions may find the art shifts uncomfortable.

In addition to the standard footnotes and endnotes, this volume ends with a number of color plates that demonstrate Mizuki’s art at its most detailed.  this is great stuff.

There’s some uncomfortable bits, including rape, cannibalism and suicide.  There’s also some toilet humor (which at one point turns dramatic.)

Like the other volumes in the series, a must have for manga and anime fans who want to know more about Japan’s recent history.  It would also be good for more general history students seeking a new viewpoint.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: Headaches Can Be Murder

Book Review: Headaches Can Be Murder by Marilyn Rausch & Mary Donlon

Charles “Chip” E. Collingsworth III was supposed to become a neurosurgeon like his father and grandfather before him, but wasn’t suited to being a doctor, so dropped out of medical school.  Three failed marriages later and with his trust fund depleted, Chip wrote a crime novel about famed neurosurgeon John Goodman  investigating “the Cranium Killer” with the FBI, and casting two of his ex-wives as victims.  To his surprise, he found an agent willing to represent the manuscript, and it turned into a best-seller.

Headaches Can Be Murder

On a cross-country trip, Chip stumbled across an abandoned farmhouse in Turners Bend, Iowa, and decided that this would be a good place to write his second book in.   Except that he’s run out of ex-wives he wants to murder (his first wife was much nicer)  and that means he’s out of ideas.  Until one day he falls off a shed, and the ensuing bump on his head gives him a painful inspiration for a possible plotline.  As his real life and novel intertwine, can Chip survive long enough to finish the manuscript?

The gimmick in this book, the first in the Chip Collingsworth series, is that there are two stories unfolding simultaneously.  Chip lives his life in rural Iowa, and as things happen around him, he incorporates versions of them into Dr, Goodman’s quest to find out whether microchips inserted into people’s brains are turning them into killers.  Chip meets an attractive veterinarian, and Dr. Goodman meets an attractive FBI agent.  Chip adopts a golden retriever, and Dr. Goodman does as well.  Not all the things happening in Turners Bend are so benign, however, and Chip winds up doing some investigating himself.

One thing that amused me was Chip constantly being given suggestions on what kind of characters should be in his next book, which just happened to match the persons who suggest them.

The twin narrative approach is fun, but means that each story gets less character development.  I noticed quite a few spellchecker typos, which would be acceptable in the “fictional” chapters as Chip writes his drafts, but not so much in the “real world” ones.

There are a couple of sex scenes, and a bit of torture in the Goodman section.

Recommended for those wanting to read mysteries with an Iowa connection.

Manga Review: One-Punch Man 01

Manga Review: One-Punch Man 01 story by ONE, art by Yusuke Murata

Saitama wanted to be a hero when he grew up, the sort of good guy who could beat any monster or villain with a single punch.   Like many people, he forgot that dream as he prepared for a more realistic career as a salaryman (white collar worker.)  That didn’t really work out for him, and Saitama became unemployed and stuck in the hell of applications and interviews and rejections.  Until he saw a monster about to attack a child, and it reawakened his desire to be a hero.

One-Punch Man 01

He managed to beat the (fairly weak) monster, and started training to become a hero.  After three years of intense training, his hair had fallen out, and Saitama had gained great power, the ability to defeat any foe with a single punch.  Now you may be thinking, “that sounds way too easy; surely there is some horrible down side to these powers.”  And you would be right.  For a hero who lives to battle evil, defeating any opponent in one punch makes the victories hollow.

Comic book fans sometimes talk about the “Superman problem”; a protagonist so grossly overpowered that he can solve most difficulties is difficult to write interesting stories for, since normal challenges just don’t work.  A skilled writer can overcome this problem, but you also end up with a lot of Kryptonite stories where the hero’s powers are arbitrarily reduced to provide a challenge.

This series takes a different approach to the problem.  The first few chapters set up what would normally be world-threatening dangers, which Saitama defeats with ridiculous ease as he notes how he’s become detached from his own emotions, mechanically going through the motions of fighting monsters, but  feeling hollow inside.

Things start to change with the appearance of angsty cyborg Genos.  He’s the first person to really see Saitama in action and understand just how impressive he is.  Thus Genos becomes Saitama’s sidekick (although “disciple” is closer to what he acts like) and his first real friend.  They battle the Mosquito Lady, which brings them to the attention of the first arc villain of the series, the House of Evolution, which specializes in uplifted animal monsters.

This manga has a different backstory than many, as it started as a webcomic by ONE, who is an okay artist but not first-rate; as far as I know it’s still running.  However, the webcomic had strong writing and a good sense of comedic timing, and became a huge success.  A deal was made to have top notch manga artist Yusuke Murata (of Eyeshield 21 fame) redraw the series for magazine distribution, with some minor story edits where ONE felt it was a good idea.  This also became popular, and now there’s an animated adaptation as well (currently streaming on Hulu.)

There’s quite a bit of over-the-top superhero violence in this series, so more sensitive young readers might be uncomfortable.  Mosquito Lady is simultaneously a parody and example of oversexualized female supervillains (why does an insect need mammary glands?) but Saitama is fully naked during the same sequence so you may think it balances out.

The characterization is relatively simplistic in these early volumes, but as more continuing characters appear, the storyline gets deeper.

Highly recommended for superhero fans.

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