Comic Strip Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason

Comic Strip Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason by Thomas Siddell

After Antimony “Annie” Carver’s mother Surma dies, her father Anthony drops her off at her parent’s alma mater, a strange boarding school called Gunnerkrigg Court.  The court is an enormous place, looking rather like an industrial city, but large portions of it seem to be abandoned…by humans, at least.  There are robots advanced beyond anything in the outside world, bizarre events are commonplace, there’s a creepy forest just across a long bridge students are forbidden to cross, and Annie notices that she’s picked up a second shadow.

Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason

This noted fantasy webcomic has been running since 2005, beginning here (happily, the art style drastically improves over time.)  It’s got an intricate plot with many details planned well in advance.  (For example, in an early strip Antimony tells us it will be two years before she sees her father again.)  The Court’s architecture is somewhat based on the city of Birmingham in England.

At the beginning of this volume, Annie is in training to possibly become the Court’s Medium, an ambassador between the school and the magical Gillitie Wood.  The other two candidates, Andrew Smith (with the ability to bring order out of chaos) and George Parley (whose father expected a boy, and has the gift of teleportation) argue a lot but turn out to be attracted to each other.  This interrupts two simulations.

Then it’s time for a camping trip to a park that is actually inside the boundaries of Gunnerkrigg Court.  Campers start to disappear, and Annie and her best friend Kat (Katherine Donlan, daughter of two of the teachers who were friends with Annie’s parents) must solve the mystery.

After that, Kat, who is beloved by the Court’s robots due to her technical skills and repair abilities grants the king of said robots access to the portrait of Jeanne, the ghost that haunts the ravine between the Court and the Wood.  In return, he reveals the existence of a robot that has memories of Jeanne, and the very early days of the Court.  Those memories reveal a dark secret of the past.

In the next chapter, Annie visits the Wood and learns more about Ysengrim, the wolf with tree armor that is the current Medium for their side of the river.  Coyote, the trickster spirit that is in charge of the Wood, gives Annie a gift for reasons not fully revealed.

Then the subplot of Jack, who’s been acting increasingly erratic since he was exposed to the mass hallucination projected by a girl named Zimmy, comes to the fore.  He coerces Annie into accompanying him to a power station that might have something to do with why he can’t sleep.

This is followed by a spotlight chapter for Kat, who hasn’t been able to process her emotional reaction to learning what the Court did to Jeanne.  She’s finally able to recover her equilibrium with the help of an abandoned baby bird, and Paz, a classmate who can talk to animals.

Further research with the help of Andrew and Parley reveals some of Jeanne’s story from her point of view, and convinces Parley to be honest about her feelings.

Finally, Annie’s second year at Gunnerkrigg Court comes to a painful close when she and Renard (a fox spirit living in a stuffed toy) quarrel and reveal some very painful secrets to each other.  This leads to her choosing to spend the summer in the Wood rather than with friends.

At the end are some art pages and bonus strips about “City Face”, the pigeon Kat rescued.

The mood swings wildly between chapters, some being very comedic while others go deep into dark territory.  While we get several important revelations in this volume, the jigsaw nature of the overall plot means that many items don’t pay off until future volumes–I do recommend starting from the beginning.

As is often the case with webcomics collections, the material is all available on the internet for free, but if you like it, please consider buying the print version to make the creator more financially stable.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Rip Hunter…Time Master

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Rip Hunter…Time Master written by Jack Miller

After the success of Jack Kirby creations The Challengers of the Unknown in 1959, DC Comics took a chance on two other quartets of non-powered adventurers in the pages of Showcase, their try-out comic.  The more successful of these was Rip Hunter’s team of time travelers.  He is introduced as already having invented a Time Sphere, and with the aid of his friend Jeff Smith built two of them.  The only people he’s trusted in his secret laboratory are his girlfriend Bonnie Baxter and her kid brother Corky.

Showcase Presents: Rip Hunter...Time Master

In the first Showcase appearance (#20, May 1959) Rip and Jeff take one of the spheres on its maiden voyage to the Mesozoic Era, 100 million years in the past.  Unfortunately, it turns out that two criminals stumbled on the lab some weeks before while the team was absent, realized this could be big, and planted a listening device.  The crooks force Bonnie and Corky to take them back to the same era as the first pair, planning to mine deposits of gold, silver and diamonds they know the location of in the present.

Between dinosaurs and active volcanic terrain, the six time travelers have a series of exciting escapes and daring deeds to accomplish before they can return to the present.  The tired and sore criminals are dismayed to find their hard-won sack of minerals empty–turns out you can’t bring any objects from the past forward.  (This rule was eventually quietly ignored, but no one ever thought to abuse that capability thereafter.)

Much like the later Doctor Who, the second storyline went straight to aliens as Rip and his pals investigated the origin of Atlantis.  Another pair of Showcase issues followed shortly, and in 1961, Rip Hunter got his own series.  Writer Jack Miller did some research to come up with interesting time periods, but historical accuracy was clearly not a high priority.  Each issue followed a three-part structure as a mystery from the past surfaced and the crew checked it out using a Time Sphere.  Often complications would arise due to the never-stated but obvious rule that they cannot change the past; attempts to do so would fail, meaning the team has to come up with a new plan.

Characterization is thin; all four main characters are brave and adventurous.  Rip is the main history expert, and a very good shot; as the Comics Code prevented him from killing humans, he would use trick shots to bring down awnings and such.  Jeff appears to be the mechanic; he’s the one who does the repairs on the Time Spheres and is slightly more muscular looking than Rip.  Bonnie and Corky appear to have no special skills beyond being backup sphere pilots.  Bonnie is a bit nervous at times, and Corky knows less history than the others, so is the recipient of infodumps.  Guest characters have just enough personality to fulfill their plot purposes.

Aliens and hidden civilizations are rife in these stories, and monsters appear frequently.  Magic is sometimes mentioned but almost always turns out to be fake or actually alien technology.

There are several art teams in the early going, the most notable of which features Joe Kubert.  Eventually it settled down to William Ely, who is decent enough, but perhaps could scale back the worry lines on some of the characters.

My favorite of the stories is their battle against the gods of Mount Olympus, which features Jeff being transformed into a griffin!

Later versions of Rip Hunter have shed the rest of his team; Legends of Tomorrow fans will likely find this early Rip nearly unrecognizable.

Recommended primarily to fans of more straightforward time travel stories as there’s seldom the creative abuses of the concept that have become common in literature since.

Manga Review: Doraemon, Vol. 1

Manga Review:  Doraemon, Vol. 1 by Fujiko F. Fujio

It’s not often that someone is so big of a loser that his descendant feels the need to travel through time to fix it.  But Nobita Nobi has managed it.  Nobita’s a wimp, as well as not very bright and so lazy that he doesn’t even get the low grades he could if he put in an effort.  His classmate Gian frequently bullies him, and Shizuka, the girl Nobita likes, has placed him firmly in the friendzone.

Doraemon, Vol. 1

Nobita’s grandson’s grandson uses time travel to come back to his ancestor’s elementary school days.  He reveals that Nobita will eventually marry Gian’s ugly little sister Jaiko, fail miserably in business and saddle the family with so much debt they’re still paying it off in the late 22nd Century.  But the descendant has a plan.  Get Nobita a wise and powerful guardian robot that will protect and guide the boy towards a better future!  (The rules of time travel are such that the descendant will still be born in some form, but hopefully with a better life.)  Unfortunately, with his miserable future allowance, all the boy could afford is the defective and damaged cat robot Doraemon.

Doraemon means well, but he is also kind of lazy and can be distracted by sweet dorayaki treats.  So he often doesn’t think through the consequences of giving Nobita access to the many futuristic gadgets Doraemon carries in his pouch.  And when he does consider the consequences, he can be bribed or tricked into letting Nobita use them anyway.  And that sets the primary pattern for the series stories.  Nobita or one of the other characters has a problem, one of Doraemon’s gadgets comes into play to fix it, the gadget is abused, and Nobita winds up in a heap of trouble.

The original manga ran from 1969-1996, a total of 45 volumes created by Fujiko F. Fujio (pen name of Hiroshi Fujimoto (1933-96) who was half of the Fujiko Fujio combo.)  It has spawned spinoff manga, several TV series, and a long-running series of animated movies.  Doraemon is considered one of the cultural icons of Japan.

This is the Kindle edition, and the word “volume” is an exaggeration.  There are three stories for a total of about 30 pages, and they are selected rather than printed in the order of publication.  (I suspect the latter is to avoid any of the stories with nudity, which is a problem for American children’s media.)  Some of the names are changed; Gian and Jaiko become “Big G” and “Little G” respectively.  This version has been colored, but as the original was in black and white, it looks fine if your Kindle can’t do color.

“All the Way from the Future” is the first chapter of the series and sets up the premise.  Doraemon arrives on New Year’s Day to change Nobita’s life.  Nobita is doubtful at first, but various incidents occur as the robot cat predicted.  At the end, the first of Doraemon’s many futuristic gadgets is introduced, miniature propellers that you stick on your head (or other body part) to fly.  It doesn’t work out so well for Nobita.

Some readers may find the part where Nobita marrying a woman who isn’t conventionally attractive is a Bad Future annoying.  The good news is that in a much later story, we see the Slightly Better Future where Nobita hooks up with Shizuka–and Jaiko has become a successful artist, much happier than if she was stuck as Nobita’s baby factory.

“Return to Un-sender” has Nobita’s mother worried because a friend hasn’t replied to a letter she sent.  Turns out Nobita’s father never actually mailed it.  To help Dad out, Doraemon pulls the “Pre-mailer” out of his pouch.  This item looks like a miniature postal collection box; you put your letter in (must be properly addressed and stamped) and you will instantly get the response you would have gotten had you actually sent the letter.  However, you must then actually send the letter if you want the recepient to react that way in real life.  Dad posts Mom’s letter, gets the response and gives it to Mom, who is happy, while Nobita and Doraemon go out to actually mail the letter and complete the time loop.

The kids play around with the Pre-mailer a bit, including Suneo, the spoiled rich kid who is generally Gian’s sidekick.  (He writes a letter to the bully expressing his true opinion; the response chills his blood, and Suneo opts not to actually send it.)  Nobita decides to write a love letter to Shizuka, but while he’s out getting a stamp, Mom mails the letter for real.  A hastily-written duplicate reveals that Shizuka will not be pleased at all by the love letter, so now Nobita and Doraemon must camp out on her doorstep in hopes of intercepting it.

“Noby’s City of Dreams” starts with the kids discovering that the only vacant lot in the neighborhood has been taken over by a construction company.  Their parents don’t want them playing rough inside, and it’s too dangerous to play in the street, so what’s a kid to do?   This time Doraemon has a two-gadget solution.  The first is a camera that creates miniature duplicates of non-living objects, like houses and stores.  The second is the Gulliver Tunnel, go through it one way to become tiny, the other way to return to normal.  This allows Doraemon and Nobita to create a miniature town in the back yard for all the kids to play in.  Until Mom clears all the “toys” away because she wants a storage shed built there.

This is very much a children’s series, and it’s a classic for a reason.  But some parents may feel that Nobita’s many flaws make him a poor choice as a protagonist (he is very kind and brave when he needs to be, but none of these stories show that.)  There’s bullying, and in stories in other volumes, parents using physical discipline.

If your kids like the “Doraemon” TV show, this is worth a look.

Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 by Various

In 1976, Marvel Comics felt the time was right for another try at a overtly feminist superhero to appear in a solo book.  (Their first stab was 1973’s The Cat, who became Tigra.)  Someone, probably Gerry Conway, who would be the first writer on the series, remembered the existence of Carol Danvers, a supporting character in the Captain Marvel series who early on had had an experience that could be retconned into a superhero origin.  The name was deliberately chosen to reference feminism, and the first issue had a cover date of January 1977.

Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Ms. Marvel’s backstory came out in bits and pieces over the course of the series, so I am going to reassemble it in in-story chronological order.  Carol Danvers was a Boston, Massachusetts teenager who loved science fiction and wanted to become an astronaut and/or a writer.  She was very athletic and whip-smart.  Unfortunately, her father was a male chauvinist pig who felt that the most important thing for a young woman to do was marry a good man and have kids.  (In his partial defense, this would have been in the Fifties.)  He told Carol that he would not be paying for her to go to college, as the limited funds would be needed for her (not as bright but his dad’s favorite) brother’s education.

Carol pretended to have given up, and after graduating high school with honors, continued a part time job until her eighteenth birthday.  At that point, without telling her family, she enlisted in the United States Air Force.  Her father never forgave her for this defiance.  Somehow Carol got into flight school and became an officer and one of the Air Force’s top jet pilots.  Then she transferred into intelligence and became a top operative, partnering with her mentor/love interest Michael Rossi and rising to the rank of major.  (At some point, her  brother died in Vietnam.)

NASA recruited Major Danvers out of the Air Force to become their security chief at Cape Canaveral.  While there, she became entangled in events surrounding Mar-Vell, the Kree warrior who became known to Earthlings as Captain Marvel.  Carol was attracted to the mysterious hero, but that went nowhere as he already had a girlfriend.   During a battle with his turncoat superior, Colonel Yon-Rogg, Mar-Vell saved Carol from exploding Kree supertechnology.  At the time, no one noticed that the Psyche-Magnitron’s radiation had affected Ms. Danvers.

While the Mar-Vell mess wasn’t really Carol’s fault, she hadn’t covered herself in glory either, and her security career floundered.   Between the time we last saw her in the Captain Marvel series and her own series, Carol had decided to try her other childhood dream and wrote a book about her experiences at NASA.  (Apparently it was a bit of a “tell-all” as some at the agency are angry about it when they appear in this series.)  She also began experiencing crippling headaches and lost time, and consulted psychiatrist Michael Barnett.  Dr. Barnett was at a loss for a diagnosis but began falling in love with his client.

Which brings us to Ms. Marvel #1.  An amnesiac woman in a “sexy” version of Captain Marvel’s costume (plus a long scarf that was a frequent combat weakness) suddenly appears in New York City to fight crime.  She soon acquires the moniker of Ms. Marvel.  At the same time, Carol Danvers has been tapped by J. Jonah Jameson to become the editor of Woman magazine, a supplement to his Daily Bugle newspaper.  JJJ is depicted as being rather more sexist than in his Spider-Man appearances to better clash with Ms. Danvers over the direction the magazine should be taking.

Mary Jane Watson befriends the new woman in town (her friend Peter Parker appears briefly, but Spider-Man never does in this series.)  But their bonding is cut short by another of Carol’s blackouts.  Across town, the Scorpion, who has a long standing grudge against Jameson, has captured the publisher and is about to kill him when Ms. Marvel appears to save the day.

Eventually, it is discovered that Carol Danvers and Ms. Marvel are the same person, but having different personalities due to Ms. Danvers being fused with Kree genes and having Kree military training implanted in her brain.  Thanks to this, she has superhuman strength and durability, and a costume that appears “magically” and allows her to fly (until she absorbs that power herself.)  From her human potential, Ms. Marvel has developed a “seventh sense” that gives her precognitive visions.  Unfortunately, they’re not controllable and often make her vulnerable at critical moments.

Much later, the personalities are integrated as Carol learns to accept all of her possibilities.  Ms. Marvel fights an assortment of villains, both borrowed from other series (even Dracula makes a cameo!) and new ones of her own, especially once Chris Claremont starts writing her.  The most important is the mysterious shape-shifter Raven Darkhölme, who considers Carol Danvers her arch-enemy, even though they have never met.  Carol doesn’t even  have Raven on her radar!

In issue #19, Ms. Marvel finally meets up again with Mar-Vell for the first time since her transformation, her origin is finalized, and they part as friends.  The next issue has Carol change her costume to one that looks much less like Mar-Vell’s. but is still pretty fanservice oriented (like a swimsuit with a sash, basically.)  It’s considered her iconic look.  Shortly thereafter, Carol is fired from Woman (she missed a lot of work) and Dr. Barnett starts getting pushy about advancing their romantic relationship.

And then the series was cancelled.  Ms. Marvel was still appearing as a member of the Avengers team, but that was about to change as well.

In the now notorious Avengers #200 (not reprinted in this volume), Carol Danvers is suddenly pregnant despite not having been in  a relationship in some time.  The pregnancy is hyperfast, and the baby is delivered within 24 hours.  The child, Marcus, rapidly ages to young adulthood and explains that he is the son of time traveler Immortus, who’s been stuck in  the Limbo dimension all his life.  In order to escape, he had brought Ms. Marvel to Limbo, and seduced her with the aid of “machines” so that he could implant his “essence” inside her.  He then erased her memories of these events and sent her back to Earth so that Marcus could be born within the timestream.

Marcus’ presence is causing a timestorm, and a device he is building only seems to make the storm worse, so Hawkeye destroys it.  Sadly, it turns out the device was meant to “fix” Marcus so that he would not be detected as an anomaly, and without it, Marcus must return to Limbo.  Ms. Marvel volunteers to go back with him, because she is now in love with the man and wants to stay with him forever.  None of the other Avengers find this the least bit suspicious, and it’s treated as a happy ending for the character.

But come Avengers Annual #10, which is in this volume, Chris Claremont got the chance to respond to that.   Raven Darkhölme had since been revealed as Mystique, leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants  One of the Brotherhood, Rogue, ambushes Carol Danvers in San Francisco, where Ms. Danvers has been living incognito.  Rogue is a power parasite, able to steal the abilities and memories of her prey.  Still clumsy with her powers, Rogue steals Ms. Marvel’s powers and memories permanently; attempting to hide the results, she dumps the victim off a bridge.

Spider-Woman just happens to be nearby and rescues the amnesiac Carol.  The arachnid hero then calls in Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men to assist in figuring out what happened.  Professor X is able to restore many of Carol’s memories from her subconscious, but not all of the emotional connections.

Meanwhile, the Avengers battle the Brotherhood, which is trying to break some of its members out of prison.  Once that’s settled, they go to meet Carol.  She explains that Marcus made a fatal mistake in his calculations.  By being born on Earth, he’d not made himself native to the timestream, but he had made himself out of synch with Limbo.  Thus the rapid aging he’d used to make himself an adult on Earth couldn’t be turned off, and he was dead within a week.  This freed Carol from the brainwashing, and she was able to figure out just enough of the time travel tech to get home.  And then Carol rips into the Avengers for not even suspecting there was something wrong.  Once freed of the brainwashing, she recognized the rape for what it was and didn’t want anything to do with those who had condoned it.  Chastened, the Avengers leave.

(One bizarre bit is that Carol Danvers is established as being 29.  Nope.  Sorry, not even if she got promoted first time every time in her military career.  She’d be a minimum of 32 by the time she made major, was in that rank for at least a few years, and then there’s her next two careers.)

The volume also contains the Ms. Marvel stories from Marvel Super-Heroes Magazine #10-11, which have the plotlines originally intended for issues #24 & 25 of the series.   Here we learn that Mystique’s grudge against Ms. Marvel was caused by a self-fulfilling prophecy that Rogue meeting Carol Danvers would cost Rogue her soul/life.  As Mystique had adopted Rogue as a daughter, she felt that the best way to protect the power parasite was to kill Ms. Marvel in advance.   The last few pages are obviously drastically rewritten to have Carol vanish from the timestream (and thus invisible to precognition) for a while before returning and the plot of Annual #10 kicking in.

After the issues published in this volume, Carol Danvers went through several different name and power set changes, before becoming the current Captain Marvel.  She’s scheduled for a movie in the relatively near future.

Good bits:  Lots of exciting action sequences, and some decent art by Marvel notables like John Buscema and Dave Cockrum.  (Have to say though that Michael Golden’s art looks much less good without color.)  Despite some clumsiness at the beginning, Claremont does a good job with Carol’s characterization, peaking with her interactions with the mutated lizards known as The People.

Less good bits:  Carol’s costumes are clearly designed with the male audience in mind, rather than any kind of practicality.  Many male characters seem to feel obliged to use words like “dame” and “broad” much more than they came up in conversation even back in the Seventies.  Male (and male-ish) villains seem to default to trying to mind-control Ms. Marvel into serving them–this is one reason why Marcus succeeding at it jars so badly.  And Dr. Barnett suddenly getting so pushy about the relationship and his plans to convince Carol to give up being Ms. Marvel seems off-and we would never have found out why as he was scheduled to be murdered in the next issue.

Most recommended to fans of the current Captain Marvel series who want to see where the character came from; other Marvel Comics fans might want to check it out from the library.

Manga Review: Nichijou: My Ordinary Life (1)

Manga Review: Nichijou: My Ordinary Life (1) by Keiichi Arawa

The ordinary lives that all of us lead every day might perhaps be a succession of miracles.

This is the story of four ordinary high school girls living their ordinary everyday lives.  Yukko, cheerful but not very bright; Mio, who’s of average intellect and has an artistic streak; the quiet and book-smart Mai; and Nano, who’s a robot with a wind-up key in her back.  They all have their little quirks, and strange things happen often, but it’s all a part of ordinary life.

Nichijou: My Ordinary Life (1)

Nichijou (“Everyday”) is a shounen (boy’s) comedy manga that ran from 2006-2015, with an anime adaptation in 2011.  There isn’t much of a narrative arc; most of the stories depict short scenes from the lives of one or more characters’ daily lives…strange as those events may be.  There are some recurring themes, the most frequent of which is Nano’s desire to blend in with humans, and her frustration with her inventor/ward, eight year old mad scientist Professor Shinonome, who refuses to remove the key in  her back.

In this first volume, we are introduced to the main characters as they head to school in the morning (Nano doesn’t quite make it.)  Yukko tries to figure out why Mai is ignoring her.  Nano has difficulties with new functions the Professor installed in her body.  The pretentious Sasahara (drama club president) and hot-tempered Misato (kendo club member) try to decide what to do for the cultural festival.

There’s a school assembly led by Principal Shinonome (who may or may not be related), known for his “dad jokes” and the intensely shy Ms. Sakurai.   Yukko witnesses a wrestling match between the principal and a deer–and can never tell anyone.  Yukko and Mai play rock-paper-scissors.  Yukko and Mio build a card house (this is a silent chapter.)  Yukko fails to study for finals, and the questions seem indecipherable.

Yukko tries to finish her lunch despite dropping a key ingredient.  Nano and the Professor have cake.  Ms. Sakurai tries to enforce school rules on Sasahara.   Mio belatedly remembers she drew an embarrassing picture in her notebook when Yukko tries to borrow it.  Mio gets a part-time job that sucks.  Yukko finally did her homework on time, but didn’t remember to bring it back to school.  Nano suffers from over the top comedic reactions due to the Professor’s latest modifications.

The short pieces are usually funny, though some of them rely on Japanese conventions of comedy that might be opaque to newer readers of manga.  The lack of focus and chapters where nothing much happens might also make this less appealing to some readers.  Also, there’s some slapstick violence.

I especially like the card house chapter, which utilizes suspense and the previously established characterization to build to a silly conclusion.

The art in this first volume is less than stellar, and suffers greatly from “same face”–the artist improved greatly over the course of the series.

A word or two more about the anime:  It does not present the sketches in the same order, allowing it to have a plot arc where Nano has to convince the Professor to let her attend school.  It also has interspersed gags from the creator’s other series Helvetica Standard, and in the second half of the season, the closing credits feature a different song each time.

I recommend this series for fans of sketch comedy and magical realism.

And now, a music video based on scenes from the anime:

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

As the subtitle of this volume indicates, it’s a collection of 29 short stories written from a feminist perspective. There are selections from the 1960s through the 2000s–SF, fantasy, horror and a couple of stories that seem to be included out of courtesy because of “surrealism.”

Sisters of the Revolution

The anthology begins with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp, an account of a journalist’s meeting with a woman whose use of language is considered so dangerous that a Constitutional amendment has been passed to specifically ban those words. The journalist has a photo-op with Margaret A. in the prison that woman is being held in, and the experience changes her. It’s an interesting use of literary techniques to suggest the power of Margaret A.’s words without ever directly quoting them.

The final story is “Home by the Sea” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, in which a gynoid in a post-apocalyptic world returns to her mother/creator to ask some questions. The answers to those questions both disturb and give new hope. Like several other stories in the volume, this one deals with the nature of motherhood, and the mother-daughter relationship.

There are some of the classic stories that are almost mandatory for the subject of feminist speculative fiction: “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. (men abruptly start murdering people they’re sexually attracted to, mostly women but the story tacitly acknowledges homosexuality); “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (a planet with an all-female society is contacted by men from Earth after centuries of isolation–it originally ran in Again, Dangerous Visions, an anthology for stories with themes considered too controversial to be published elsewhere, times have changed); and Octavia K. Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” (a woman with a genetic disorder discovers that she has a gift that fits her exactly for a specific job, whether she wants that job or not.)

The anthologists have also made an effort to include stories that are “intersectional”, providing perspectives from other parts of the world. “The Palm Tree Bandit” by Nnedi Okorofor tells the story of a Nigerian woman who defies a sexist tradition and starts one of her own. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a retelling of the Bluebeard story in modern Jamaica (this time the women avenge their own), and “Tales from the Breast” by Hiromi Goto, wherein a Japanese-Canadian woman discovers a solution to her breastfeeding problems.

Some other standouts include: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (a fairy tale about language); “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter (one of the stories that really doesn’t feel like speculative fiction, but is really well-written, set in the moments just before Lizzie Borden is about to get up and kill her parents) and “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn (how far would you go to fit into the corporate culture? Would you let them shoot you up with insect genes?)

Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” is a fantasy tale of a warrior woman infiltrating a castle cursed to be a deathtrap by an evil alchemist. It’s exciting, but the ending relies on a now-hoary twist. Still worth reading if you haven’t had the chance before.

Most of the other stories are at least middling good. The weakest for me was “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, which falls into the surrealist category and seems to be about a woman who has rejected conventional beauty standards. Probably.

Rape, sexualized violence and domestic abuse are discussed; I’d put this book as suitable for bright senior high schoolers, though individual stories could be enjoyable by younger readers.

Recommended for feminists, those interested in feminist themes, and anthology fans.

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

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

The Martian Chronicles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anime Review: Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Vol. 03

Anime Review: Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Vol. 03

It is the year 2030, and after the effects of World Wars Three & Four, Japan is relatively unscathed, having become one of the world’s economic and technological powerhouses.  In particular, they lead the world in cybernetics, and various cyborg upgrades are commonplace.  Of course, this means that cybercrime is even more of a threat than in 2002 (when this series first aired) and the government agency “Public Security Section 9” is detailed to deal with those crimes, especially if they also involve terrorism.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Vol. 03

Section 9’s top agent is Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is a full-body cyborg, a “ghost in the shell.”  She has been in this state since childhood, and is adept at transferring her consciousness into alternate robot bodies (though she has a strong preference for ones shaped like female human beings.)  Along with her superior combat skills, this makes her a whiz at secret agent missions.

The Major and her colleagues will need every bit of their skill to battle the world-class hacker and cyberterrorist known as The Laughing Man, whose real face is impossible to see by anyone or anything with cybernetic connections, replaced by a bizarre logo adorned with Catcher in the Rye quotes.

Standalone Complex is a science-fiction anime series based on the Ghost in the Shell cyberpunk manga by Masamune Shirow.  While it shares many characters and most of its background with the manga and previous adaptations, it is not necessarily in continuity with those, so there are some minor contradictions.  “Motoko Kusanagi” (a name rich with connotations in Japanese culture, equivalent to naming a British secret agent “Victoria Excalibur”) may not even be the Major’s real name.

The structure of the show is interesting; odd-numbered episodes are “complex” and tie into the Laughing Man plot arc, while even-numbered episodes are “standalone” and tell individual stories.

As it happens, I got the third DVD volume of the series for Christmas, so let’s take a closer look at that.

Episode 9, “Chat! Chat! Chat!” takes place almost entirely within a virtual reality chat room for discussion of the Laughing Man phenomenon.  This…is not a good episode to come into the series on, as it is largely just people sitting around having conversations.  And not even the main characters (except the Major in disguise) but a bunch of people who probably didn’t appear before and won’t appear again.  We do get some background on what is public knowledge about the Laughing Man (not much) and some discussion of whether it’s even the same Laughing Man from previous incidents or a copycat.

Episode 10, “Jungle Cruise” focuses on Batou, a former Army Ranger with obviously cybernetic eyes.  A serial killer is loose in the city of Niihama, who skins his victims alive in a distinctive fashion.  The identity of the killer is quickly revealed when two CIA operatives from the American Empire (World War Three was not kind to the United States, which split up into three countries, of which the Empire is the most active in world affairs) appear to ask Section 9 for help capturing him.

We learn that the killer was part of a CIA black ops mission in Southern Mexico known as “Project Sunset.”  It involved murdering civilians in particularly horrific fashion to break the will of the enemy.  Batou, as part of the UN peacekeeping forces, encountered the killer, but was unable to stop him.  The killer’s war has not ended, now brought to the shores of Japan,  Does this also mean that Batou’s war is not over?

Episode 11, “Portraitz” follows Togusa, the least cyberized field agent of Section 9 (just a “cyberbrain” that allows him to communicate with other people who have cyberbrains) as he infiltrates a facility for children  with Closed Shell Syndrome, a condition where one becomes too dependent on cybernetic communication, making it difficult to operate in the real world even while becoming a savant with computers.  There’s something sinister going on in the facility; but is it one of the staff who’s responsible, or one of the patients?

Episode 12, “Escape From” is two related stories.  In the first half, a Tachikoma (an artificial intelligence robot that serves as a small tank for Section 9) goes walkabout without orders, heading into the city and learning about the human concept of death.  Along the way, it picks up a mysterious box.  In the second half, we learn that if someone cybernetically connects to the box, their “ghost” vanishes inside it and won’t come out.  The Major must investigate, but will she too be seduced by what’s inside the box and lost forever?

This one manages to touch on some deeper philosophical topics:  death, the rapidly developing individuality of the Tachikoma AIs, escapism and artistic integrity.

Each episode ends with a short comedy skit starring the Tachikomas, usually tying in with the plot of the episode somehow.  Also included in this volume are interviews with Batou’s actor and the sound director.

The opening credits are full-on CGI, which is a bit jarring, and really showcases how silly the Major’s default outfit looks, especially from behind.  (It reminds me of the US superhero comics fad for putting their heroines in costumes that were basically glorified swimsuits.)  The music is good, though.

I liked “Jungle Cruise” best of the episodes in this volume.

Content notes:  “Jungle Cruise” does involve skinning people alive, and we see some of the results.  There’s a nude female statue in “Portraitz”, which some parents might find unsuitable for younger viewers.  (But honestly, if you let them watch the previous episode…)  The dub version may have some rough language.

Overall, I am looking forward to seeing the entire series so that I can make more sense of the Laughing Man episodes.  Recommended to fans of other Ghost in the Shell versions, and cyberpunk fans in general.

Here’s the opening music, for those who like that sort of thing:

Manga Review: Servant X Service 1

Manga Review: Servant X Service 1 by Karino Takatsu

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

Servant X Service 1

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended to fans of office-based comedy.

Comic Book Review: Superman Adventures Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Superman Adventures Volume 1 edited by Mike McAvennie

After the success of the Batman animated series of the 1990s, the DC Animated Universe became a “universe” with the release of the Superman animated show that shared the same continuity.  While perhaps not quite as brilliant as its predecessor, the Superman animated series was still very good and depicted the characters well.

Superman Adventures Volume 1

So naturally, there was a comic book tie-in series as well.  Paul Dini (who’d worked on the TV show) and Scott McCloud wrote issues, with various pencillers and inker Terry Austin imitating the show’s artstyle.  In this first volume, we primarily see sequels to television episodes.

Some standout stories:  Issue 2 has “Superman’s Girlfriend” who is not Lois Lane, but an ordinary woman who allows a joke to roll out of control because she initially likes the attention.  Which is fine until she’s held hostage by Metallo, the man with the Kryptonite heart.  Issue 5 has the return of Livewire, an electrically-powered woman who’d been created for the TV show.  This time she’s striking a blow against the patriarchy by banning men from all electronic media.  Somehow.  It’s a bit heavy-handed, but allows Lois and a female TV reporter to bond a bit–it’s the first time the latter has been allowed to be the primary reporter on real news stories.

#7&8 is a two-parter in which two Kryptonian criminals get access to size-changing technology.  It’s most interesting for spotlighting police officer “Dangerous” Dan Turpin (a  Jack Kirby creation who was made to look even more like his creator after Kirby died) and his refusal to back down against impossible odds, despite his utter lack of superpowers.  And Issue 9 features a teenager who has two heroes, Superman and Lex Luthor.  We see some depth from Luthor in this one, as he does seem to care about the boy, even as his greed ensures that the teenager will lose faith in him.

These are kid-friendly stories (#10 even has a kid help Clark Kent solve a mystery) with enough depth for adult fans to enjoy.  There’s a certain amount of fantasy violence, and some people die in the backstory, but the worst that happens to anyone in the present day is a trip to the hospital.

The art style may take some getting used to for those who never saw the show, but is clear and effective.

Recommended for young Superman fans, and Nineties kids with nostalgia.

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