Book Review: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail

Book Review: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail by Marcus Rediker

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Outlaws of the Atlantic

During the Age of Sail, the deep ocean sailing ship was one of the most advanced technological wonders of its time.  But such a complex device required many workers to keep it running smoothly and keep it from collapsing in times of danger.  So there rose the class of people known as the common seaman; sailors who were essential to the ship as a group, but entirely replaceable as individuals.

Often ill-used, to the point that they often compared themselves to slaves, sailors developed their own subcultures and began “resistance from below”; most notably creating the “strike” when an entire harbor’s sailors struck  (took down) the sails of the ships they were on and refused to work until they got better conditions.  Sailors became both the creators of and spreaders of rebellion against the cruel social order of their day.

Mr. Rediker is a professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh, and this is a collection of short pieces he’s written on the general theme of “resistance from below” as it relates to the Atlantic Ocean in the Age of Sail.  He talks a lot about “antinomianism” (the idea that one is primarily saved by faith, rather than obedience to law), and “hydrarchy” (rule by the sea, often connoting rule of the lowly many as opposed to the official hierarchy).

The book begins with an examination of “the sailor’s yarn” and how it was used to spread information both useful and dubious, influencing Western literature among other things.  It moves on to the stories of two men that demonstrate that history also includes ordinary workers and castaways.

In an essay on pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy 1650-1730, emphasis is laid upon the efforts of pirates to democratize their ships; pirate captains were limited in authority, unlike merchant or military captains whose word was law, and whose punishments were untempered.  This indeed was one of the reasons pirates found favor in popular culture; for all that they were criminals, they also had a kind of freedom seldom seen at the time.

There’s another essay on how “motley” (multi-ethnic) crews of sailors helped spread the ideas that led to the American Revolution; though the wealthy stepped in to keep the Revolution from going too far towards mob rule as they saw it.

There is a chapter on slave rebellions aboard the ships carrying them to the New World, usually doomed, and a separate chapter for the case of the Amistad, which turned out much better than could have been hoped.  The latter chapter looks at how conflating the Amistad freedom fighters with pirates helped influence American attittudes towards the men from Sierra Leone.

There are several black and white illustrations, copious endnotes and an index.

This book very much feels like an introduction to the theme of rebellion in Atlantic Ocean history, and as such I would recommend it to the casual student looking for a quick read on various aspects of the subject.  Professor Rediker’s other books appear to go into much more depth on the individual subjects involved, such as slave ships and piracy.  Based on his work here, those should also be interesting.

If these sound like topics you’d be interested in, check your lending library system to see if they’ve got this book in stock.

Book Review: The Infinite Arena

Book Review: The Infinite Arena edited by Terry Carr

Science fiction, in a way, is a very broad genre, that can easily contain stories of other genres within itself.  Thus space westerns, fantastic romance, star war novels and so forth.   In this case, we have a sample of sports stories set in science fiction terms.

The Infinite Arena

Lead batter in the lineup is “Joy in Mudville” by Poul Anderson & Gordon Dickson.  It’s a Hoka story as the imaginative aliens that look like sentient teddy bears have taken up the sport of baseball.  As is their wont, they have assumed the identities of fictional ballplayers of Earth, including the Mighty Casey, their best batter.  Unfortunately, their latest opponents, the Sarenn Snakes, are masters of psychological warfare.  Alexander Jones, the ambassador from Earth, must summon one of his rarely-appreciated talents to save the day.  It’s all very silly.

“Bullard Reflects” by Malcolm Jameson begins with the Space Patrol celebrating the Jovian armistice with athletic contests, including the sport of Dazzle Dart, played with flashlights and mirrors.  But it turns out not all the Jovians are honoring the armistice, and Captain Bullard’s Pollux is sent to track down diehards who’ve taken over an experimental weapons testing station.  Things look dark for the Patrol when they are ambushed and disarmed, but Bullard figures out a way to make the situation a Dazzle Dart game…to the death!  A fine bit of pulp writing, but Mr. Jameson piles the awesomeness of his heroes a shade high.  Not only are they the fleet champions in Dazzle Dart, but are best at all the other athletic contests too, and the Pollux is the only ship in condition to fly when the crisis arises as all the others slacked off when peace was declared.

“The Body Builders” by Keith Laumer posits a future in which most people who can afford it store their physical bodies away and use humaniform robots by telepresence.  Dueling has become a frequent occurrence thanks to the more or less disposable extra bodies, and the protagonist is a professional gladiator.  Which is all well and good until he’s tricked into a duel in his weak “pretty boy” body used for dates, as opposed to the monstrosity he uses for combat.   He sees no way out except to tarnish his honor temporarily in an effort to get to his backup bodies, but is eventually forced to resort to his original organic form–if this one dies, it’s curtains!  Some of the celebrities name-dropped as body models are now obscure, which may make reading the story a chore for the young.

“The Great Kladnar Race” by Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett has Earthlings stuck on a backwater planet try to create some excitement by organizing a race of the local beasts of burden.   The twist ending is one that could have been thwarted easily if any of the Earthlings had bothered to ask the natives relevant questions.

“Mr. Meek Plays Polo” by Clifford D. Simak involves space polo.  Don’t know how that’s played?  Neither does Mr. Meek, a retired bookkeeper now touring the Solar System in the spaceship it took him a lifetime to save up for.  But he did see a game once, which is more than anyone else in the rowdy frontier of Saturn’s rings has to their credit.  So when the radioactive moss harvesters are talked into a game by a social worker trying to civilize them, Mr. Meek is drafted as a coach for one team, and eventually a replacement player.

As you might guess from his name, Mr. Meek is a timid fellow who tries to explain the reality of the situation, but no one is listening until he is so riled up that he bets his ship on the contest.  (Apparently, he keeps getting into this sort of situation.)  Oh, and there’s an infestation of metal-eating bugs to deal with; that can’t be good.  Things sort themselves out in the end.

“Sunjammer” by Arthur C. Clarke is more “hard” SF than most of the other stories, as solar yachts use the pressure of sunlight to have a race from Earth orbit to the Moon.  One of the ships is manned by the inventor of solar sails, after decades of work finally able to compete; but this will be his last chance.  Soon, solar flares will make it too dangerous to yacht, and he’ll be too old for the sport by the time it’s safe again.  This one has a bittersweet ending.

“Run to Sunlight” by George R.R. Martin is comparatively light considering his reputation.  A spaceport’s amateur football league is thrown into chaos when a team of heavy-worlders apply to play.  The government doesn’t want the coordinator of the league to reject the application as they’re trying to keep a peace treaty going, and this is an obvious propaganda moment.  But the aliens prove to have major advantages in the sport, and the war may start again if they can prove how weak the Earthling really are.  Good use of strategizing and using strengths and weaknesses, but true victory goes to the person with their priorities straight.

I liked the Laumer and Clarke stories best.  The stories were written from the 1940s to the 1970s, so there are none that feature female athletes, and the few women that do appear are largely useless in plot terms.  (The Laumer story has the protagonist choosing between a young woman who hates artificial bodies but genuinely likes his personality and a flashier woman who wants to get married for a five-year trial period so she doesn’t have to work anymore.)

Recommended to fans of “strange sports” stories and fans of particular authors who haven’t seen these stories before.  Check interlibrary loan or the finer used book stores.

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

Today is an ill-omened day.  It began with a heavy fog in San Francisco Harbor, and the ferry carrying literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden colliding with another ship.  He managed to get into a life jacket, but was swept away from the other survivors by a freak tide that took him out to sea.  You’d think that being picked up by a ship would be a good thing, but this is the seal-hunting ship Ghost, and she is commanded by the much feared Wolf Larsen.  Captain Larsen has no intentions of returning to harbor, and one of his sailors having just died, presses Van Weyden into service as a cabin boy.

The Sea-Wolf

This 1904 novel was partially based on Jack London’s own experience working on a sealing ship, and is considered one of the great sea adventure stories.  The primary conflict of the book is the clash of life philosophies between the idealistic gentleman Van Weyden, and the nihilistic and amoral Larsen.

Van Weyden is a nice enough fellow, but in large part that’s because he’s never needed to test that niceness.  Having inherited a substantial sum from his father, and cossetted by his female relatives, Humphrey has been able to dedicate himself to his books and writing career.   He’s never had to actually work for a living, and the harsh shipboard life comes as a series of shocks to him (even not counting Wolf Larsen’s particular cruelty.)  Van Weyden is rather classist, and as we see later in  the book, very sexist (in the “positive discrimination” sense.)  He grows up in many ways during the course of the story.

But it’s Larsen that the book is named for.  Born into abject poverty as a Dane in Norway, he went to sea at the earliest opportunity.  He taught himself to read and write and speak English, and all the skills needed of a sailor.  No man’s hand was lifted to help him along the way; Larsen clawed every bit of knowledge out for himself.  In a harsh world, Wolf Larsen learned to be harsh and rose in the ranks.  He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, and has reached the pinnacle of his career path…captain of a small ship, commanding a score or so of men.

It’s said that Jack London modeled Wolf Larsen on the Nietzchean ubermensch, physically superior to everyone else on the ship, and intellectually superior to everyone except Humphrey (but with a more thought-out life philosophy.)  He’s also a perfect specimen of masculine beauty according to Van Weyden.  But he is constrained by his circumstances; his genius and drive could have made him a rich man or politically powerful, or a great artist, but life never fell out for him that way.  His cruelty and amoral behavior make him absolute master of his ship, but immensely lonely, and those under Wolf will turn against him at any chance they have.  In the end his own philosophy of “life eating life to live” is his downfall.

Most of the crew has minimal characterization, but we do get to know a few.  Johnson (not “Yonson”) of quiet dignity and great admiration for the shipbuilding craft.  George Leach (not his real name) who had to flee San Francisco for crimes unnamed, and with too much courage for his own good.  Louis, the consummate survivor.  And Thomas “Cooky” Mugridge, Cockney ship’s cook.  This last fellow is Van Weyden’s particular enemy early in the book.  Mugridge is sniveling to those above him, and tyrannical to those below him, filthy in his habits, greedy and isn’t very good at cooking.  He’s an odious person, but as Van Weyden learns, Mugridge is also constrained by his circumstances, plagued with ill luck as well as bad life choices.

Another presence, never directly seen, is Death Larsen, Wolf Larsen’s brother, and by all accounts an even worse person than him.  He’s in the same business, but with a bigger boat, and the brothers hate each other even more than they hate everyone else.

The story shifts about two-thirds of the way in with the appearance of more castaways, including Maud Brewster.  This moderately successful poet was on a voyage to Japan to improve her health when a storm wrecked her ship.  Fancy her landing on the same ship as the literary critic who boosted her early career!   She and Van Weyden quickly become friends, and in different circumstances, it could be more.  But Wolf Larsen also finds himself attracted to Maud’s beauty and wit, and he is bound by neither politeness nor custom of courtship.

It becomes necessary for Maud and Humphrey to flee the ship, and after some days in a small boat, manage to find a deserted island.  They set their minds and bodies to survive the coming winter…but the couple hasn’t seen the last of Wolf Larsen.  The romance is easily the weakest part of the book, and was considered cheesy even by contemporary critics, but does provide something of a happy ending.

There’s quite a bit of violence in the book, both human-on-human and human-on-seal.  The latter will be even more appalling to modern readers than early Twentieth Century ones, I think.  Van Weyden notes the wastefulness of killing these creatures for their skins, and then just dumping the remainder of the corpses.  There’s torture that goes a bit further than intended, and a near-sexual assault that’s only averted by coincidence.

On the other hand, no one in the book excretes waste, (really obvious during the small boat escape) and no one ever has sex.  (The crew of the ship is explicitly celibate.)  There’s a kiss at the end, but that’s it for physical contact.

Overall, an exciting tale of adventure and philosophy, but the romance takes the book down a notch.  Recommended for fans of sea tales and people who enjoy Jack London’s other books.

Book Review: Flying Colours

Book Review: Flying Colours by C.S. Forester

This is the third book in the Horatio Hornblower series as they were originally written, but the eighth in internal chronology.   For those of you who somehow have not heard of these books or their media adaptations before, Hornblower is an officer in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars period, rising from midshipman to admiral over the course of many years.

Flying Colours

Flying Colours is a bit of a departure from the usual for the series, as Captain Hornblower isn’t at sea for most of it.  At the end of the previous novel, Ship of the Line, he was forced to surrender to the perfidious French, and can only watch from a distance as the British Navy finishes off the French ships he had wounded.  Things are going poorly for Napoleon at the moment, and a propaganda victory would be nice.  Thus Hornblower, his crippled first lieutenant Bush, and coxswain Brown are to be transported to Paris for a show trial and execution.  (Hornblower had flown false colours at one point, which he considers a legitimate gambit, but it is treated as a war crime by the French.)

Halfway through the journey, the coach gets stuck during a blizzard, and Hornblower comes up with an escape plan.  The immediate plan succeeds, but our heroes are still deep in enemy territory, and it is many miles to the sea.  Now three unarmed men, one missing a leg, in the middle of winter, must somehow elude capture and reach the coast.

Hornblower is a layered character.  Skilled at seamanship, naval tactics and exciting the loyalty of his crews, Horatio is also crippled by self-doubt and a perceived need to prevent anyone from realizing just how “weak” he really is.  This means that  he has trouble making friends, particularly influential ones, and easily makes enemies.  He’s also careful not to let it be generally known that  he’s a “freethinker” which puts him at odds with more religiously-minded fellow officers.

More problematically, Hornblower is very class-conscious due to his humble beginnings, and this causes him to be rather classist at inopportune times.  And his relationships with women are difficult.  During this novel, he’s married to one woman who’s expecting his child, in love with the Admiral’s wife and has an affair with a third woman.  Horatio knows full well that his behavior is inexcusable, and this fuels his self-doubt even more, but doesn’t stop him from having adulterous (as far as he knows) sex.     At the end of the book, he reflects that if it were a romance novel, his gaining everything he thought he wanted would be a happy ending, but it has all turned to ashes in his mouth.

Once our heroes reach the sea again, there’s a small-scale but exciting battle–C.S. Forester is considered one of the best at describing these.

Overall, very well written and it’s no wonder that this is a much-beloved series.  Recommended to those who love tales of the sea and Napoleonic Wars buffs.

Magazine Review: Pirate Stories November 1934

Magazine Review: Pirate Stories November 1934 

Some of the pulp magazines went for very specialized subjects, so it’s not a surprise to find one dedicated entirely to stories about pirates.  As this was the first issue, there’s an publisher’s note indicating that there will be stories about pirate of the past, present and future (it is after all a Gernsback publication.)  The cover is by Sidney Riesenberg, and is not related to any of the features inside.

Pirate Stories November 1934

“Pirate Guns” by F.V.W. Mason is the lead feature.  Nathan Andrews,  born in the colony of South Carolina, was a faithful member of the British Navy until he was falsely accused and convicted of aiding deserters.   Clapped in irons and being shipped off to Australia, Nathan reinvents himself as “Captain Terror,” and convinces his fellow convicts to join him in piracy if he can get them free.   Their escape attempt is treacherously exposed, but this proves a stroke of luck when they’re isolated in maximum security while everyone else on the ship dies of smallpox.  (This saves Nathan having to kill Naval officers.)

The plague ship wrecked, the remaining escapees are able to take over a slave ship (coincidentally freeing the slaves) which they refit for privateering as the Santee.  Captain Terror disdains the democracy usually practiced by pirates of the period, emulating the rank structure and discipline of the British Navy he was trained by.  This makes the Santee an unusually well-run ship, that only attacks other pirates, but they become blamed for other pirates’ bloody massacres.

Eventually, circumstances change–the American Revolution has started, and Captain Terror is hired as part of the new American Navy as Captain Andrews of the Charleston.  He’s able to get revenge on the faithless “friend” who perjured himself to get Andrews out of the way, and learns his beloved never gave in to the traitor’s advances.  Happy ending for everyone but the Irish doctor, who dies in the final battle.

It’s a rip-roaring story, but goes out of its way to make Captain Terror a “good” pirate.   It skirts around the issue of slavery, not mentioning where the slaves were headed, and the freed people have no lines or personality.  Much is made of corruption in the British Navy poisoning their fine traditions.

“Scourge of the Main” by James Perley Hughes involves another American colonial serving on a British ship, but in an earlier period when England is at war with Spain.  Daniel Tucker is from New England, and serves on a privateer that is hunting Spanish treasure ships.   However, Jolly Roger Hawkins is also after those ships,   And he’s a full-on pirate who doesn’t want to share, especially when “his” woman decides she’d rather sail with Tucker.

The author really stacks the deck, making Tucker tall, blond, blue-eyed and blessed with “Atlantean shoulders” while Hawkins is “ponderous” and has “distorted features.”   I suspect a certain amount of prejudice at play.

“High-Admirals of Piracy” is an illustrated spread about famous historical pirates from Pierre le Grand to Blackbeard.  Sadly uncredited.

“Marauders of the South Seas” by William B. DeNoyer moves into the then-present day, with a diver realizing that his employers were the ones who sunk a ship he’s been hired to salvage–and they have no intention of paying him in money.  “Lucky” Lewis is aided by the fact that one of the criminals has a wife on board who deeply regrets the marriage.  Less suspenseful than it might have been with a couple more twists.

“Jolly Roger’s Log” by Ned Carline, which would become the letter column, has a couple of suspiciously apropos letters with questions Mr. Carline answers.   Again, this is the first issue, so where the letters came from is unclear.

This Adventure House reprint includes the original ads, including advertisements for “the forbidden secrets of sex”, a collected volume of H.G. Wells’ science fiction and the German Iron Horseshoe muscle builder.

Recommended for pirate story fans who don’t mind clear-cut tales of good vs. evil.

Book Review: Billy Smith Shanghaied Ace

Book Review: Billy Smith Shanghaied Ace by Noël Sainsbury, Jr.

William “Billy” Smith, noted teen aviator, has been called to Australia by a wealthy banker, Mr. Clafflin whose daughter Janet was on the missing passenger liner GLORIA (sic).  The banker believes that the ship was not sunk, but is stranded off course somewhere in the Solomon Islands.  He has hired Billy to search the islands by seaplane.  However, no sooner has Billy started preparing for the journey in Sydney than he is tricked into an ambush.

Billy Smith Shanghaied Ace

Billy finds himself shanghaied aboard the blackbirder (slave ship) PAULINE S, under the command of Captain Hammond.   This is bad enough, but after the ship goes through a dangerous “white squall”, Billy is lost overboard.

By an amazing coincidence, Billy is rescued by the only other boat in these waters, a whaleboat crewed by four Tahitians and a lad slightly younger than Billy, John “Jan” White.  As it happens, they are headed to Rennell Island, where the PAULINE S. was also sailing.  They were passengers on the GLORIA who managed to escape when the Malay pirate Che’ Ali captured her.  Jan has an aunt on board and wants to rescue her.

Billy, being a famous hero (he already has a series of books about his adventures despite being no more than eighteen, in universe!), is put in charge of the rescue effort.  The small party soon learns that the blackbirder captain and pirate are in cahoots, and the GLORIA is somewhere near the dangerous island of Malaita.  Billy is able to regain his seaplane, and the rescuers luckily coordinate with the one white man allowed to live on the remote Solomon Isle.

This 1934 book is part of the Great Ace series by Mr. Sainsbury.  Technically, Billy is not a true ace; while he spent two years at Annapolis Naval Academy, he apparently has not shot down the requisite five enemy aircraft in formal war conditions.  But other than that, he’s very much the standard boys’ adventure hero.  Gray eyes, a muscular 160 pounds, expert in wrestling and cutlass fencing, and qualified as navigator and pilot of both air and sea vessels.  He’s honest and upright, and makes friends easily.  But he’s not perfect, I’ll discuss his one in-universe flaw in the spoilers section below.

The glaring problem with this book for modern readers is the racism.  Once the Solomon Islanders come into the picture, constant mention is made of how ugly, dirty and smelly they are, as well as how savage they are, being cannibal headhunters.  The “black” Melanesians are compared unfavorably to the “brown” Polynesians, and one of the villains even uses the N-word (and he’s the sympathetic villain!)

Also, for purposes of the plot, Malaita is mischaracterized.  By the time this story takes place, the natives were well acquainted with the outside world and quite a few missionaries and traders lived there.  After a British punitive expedition in 1927, many Malaitans converted to Christianity.   A far cry from the howling wilderness populated by stupid, superstitious barbarians who can only be pacified by one eccentric butterfly collector and his mastiff Satan.

As a side note, the butterfly collector, Mr. Bailey, is named after the artist who did the covers for the Great Ace series.

There’s even a plot development where Billy dons blackface to pass as a local.  Erm.

On the other hand, the sailing and flying stuff is terrific, with lots of technical detail for the air enthusiast reader.

Not recommended except as a curiosity.

SPOILERS after this video which will allow some folks from Malaita to have a voice here.

SPOILERS!

Billy Smith’s one flaw, as it turns out, is that he’s a little too willing to accept things at face value.  It gets him shanghaied in the first place.

When they first pick Billy up, the Tahitians pretend to only speak beche de mer (sea cucumber) a kind of Pidgin English better known as Tok Pisin, and that Jan is their master.  They are in fact able to speak American English, and are independent businessmen.

Moreover, Jan White’s full name is Janet White Clafflin, the very girl Billy was sent to rescue in the first place!  She is, as she admits by way of describing “Miss Clafflin” “a bit of a tomboy” and wore male clothing to help her escape when the GLORIA was captured.   She realizes when Billy describes his mission that he would never let her participate in the rescue and would insist on taking her to safety, so she pretends to be a boy.

And Billy falls for it hook, line and sinker, as does Mr. Bailey.   The result is surprisingly feminist for the time period and genre, as Jan fights a shark, and gets to behave competently all the way through without ever giving herself away.  It’s only when she shows up wearing a dress in the final chapter that Billy learns he’s been had.   Billy does plan to scold her for unbecoming behavior, but the story mercifully ends before then.

Book Review: The Pirate Princess

Book Review: The Pirate Princess by Tawn Krakowski

Penelope Puffinstuff is the ninth child of the royal family of Pufftania, so everyone calls her “Princess Penny.”  She’s a sweet, well-behaved girl, but is feeling slightly bored with the life of a princess.  So when it turns out that a centuries-old prophecy requires her to acquire a family treasure by her twelfth birthday (only a few months away!), Penny comes up with a scheme to disguise herself and her supporting crew as pirates.

The Pirate Princess

The first part of the plan goes off swimmingly, but there’s something a bit suspicious about Captain Mountebank.  Penny learns that her family has secrets, enemies and allies; and the peril described in the prophecy is very real indeed.  Penny’s a plucky girl, and she’s got good friends…can they succeed?

This book originally appeared on Big World Network, a website that showcases serial fiction.  It hosts stories ranging from children’s fantasy adventure (like the volume in hand) to steamy fantasy erotica.  Stories that are especially popular get to go to actual printed books; there’s even a sequel to this one.  The cover art by Mario Hernandez accurately depicts Penny’s outfit by the end of the novel.

This is an enjoyable children’s book, with some mildly scary bits (with pirates, you have to expect a certain amount of violence and bloodshed.)   The only thing I didn’t like was that Penny is perhaps a little too good-natured; a slight character flaw or moment of immaturity might have humanized her more.   Parents will appreciate that Penny has a good relationship with her parents and siblings, who are very supportive.  Naturally, the book is more aimed at girls, but boys should be able to enjoy it too.

I’d recommend this book for parents of 8-13 year olds who want pirate stories but aren’t ready for the more gruesome tales.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights by too many to list.  Trust me, a lot of great names.

Between the late 1940s and somewhere in the 1990s, one of the most pervasive fears of the American public was atomic war. For the first time in known history, humans were truly capable of destroying all civilization, perhaps all life on Earth. One of the ways people dealt with this fear was science fiction. After all, the SF writers had forseen the possibility of annihilation well before such a thing was actually possible–and their stories would tell us the ways things might fall out. At DC Comics, this became a loose theme called “The Great Disaster.”

The Great Disaster

Unlike other Showcase volumes, this one collects not one series or character’s appearances, but a thematically linked set of stories, dealing with the aftermath of atomic war. As such, it provides a wide array of notable comics writers and artists.

The volume opens with a couple of stories about people traveling from after the Great Disaster to the present, or vice versa. This is followed by a collection of short-shock stories all titled “The Day After Doomsday”, presenting varied scenarios for what life after the Bomb might be like. Perhaps the most effective of these is the “Adam and Gertrude” trilogy.by Len Wein and Jack Sparling, but they all have their charms.

Then we have the feature event, the “Atomic Knights” stories. These were all by John Broome and Murphy Anderson. World War Three began in October 1986, and lasted less than a month, but wiped out much of human civilization, leaving a world without many animals or plants, and only a few pockets of humans struggling for survival. Into this world comes Sergeant Gardner Grayle. When he joined the Army, they discovered he was exactly average both mentally and physically, but during the War he was trapped in a bomb shelter that collapsed from a near-hit. The experience gave him traumatic amnesia, and only months after the disaster does he come to himself.

Grayle happens to be near a town named Durvale that was relatively untouched by the war, which is to say it’s a total wreck. It’s come under the thumb of the Black Baron (so named because of his hair color) who has managed to corner the local food supply. By coincidence, Grayle and a local school teacher, John Herald, discover that the suits of medieval armor in the museum have become resistant to most forms of radiation, including the ray-pistols used by the Black Baron and his men. There are six sets of armor, and soon Grayle and Herald recruit twin ex-soldiers Hollis and Wayne Hobbard, as well as scientist Bryndon (who is feared and despised for being one of those who made the bombs that ruined the world.) The last suit is deemed too small to be usable by any combat-ready man, so the Atomic Knight five set off. John’s sister, Marene Herald, who is small enough to fit in the last armor, takes it upon herself to follow them, and helps out in a tight situation.

The Atomic Knights became the new force for law and order in the post-apocalyptic world, fighting bizarre radiation-spawned monsters, evil dictators, the remnants of Atlantis and the mysterious mole people (who it turned out had actually caused the war.) Bit by bit, they began to make Earth liveable again.

These stories were all about the cool ideas, and were aimed primarily at children, so scientific plausibility and deep characterization were generally skipped.  Bryndon being reluctant to discuss his pre-War research and the Hobard brothers being jazz fans was about as much as we learned about them as persons.  Speaking of jazz, the early 1960s habit of only depicting white people in comics was on full display on a visit to New Orleans, where names of black performers are dropped, but there are no people of color in town.  Marene, of course, is often excluded from dangerous missions and seems to have no particular skill set beyond “being feminine.”  She even muses to herself that she’s “just a woman!”  Perhaps appropriately, the last official Atomic Knights story from 1963 has her disguising herself as a boy and demonstrating some athletic talent.

Next up are stories of the return of the gods.  There’s a one-shot about Atlas by Jack Kirby that doesn’t tie into anything in particular, but shared a resemblance to his Kamandi series, also set after the Great Disaster. The Kamandi series lasted long enough to get its own Showcase volume, so the next set of stories are Hercules Unbound, which ran 1975-77.

We open with Hercules bound to a rock, as he has been for the last millenium or so. Suddenly, the chains holding him snap–could this mean that Ares, who treacherously bound Hercules there, is dead? No time to think about that, as a blind boy and his dog are battling sea monsters nearby. Kevin, the blind boy, explains that he was in Greece when World War Three broke out, and he set out in a sailboat to see if he can get to his father, an ambassador to the Vatican. As it happens, Ares is in Rome, and very much alive, pitting the remnants of armies against each other for his own amusement. While Hercules triumphs against Ares’ champion, the opening chapter ends in tragedy for Kevin.

Hercules and his companions begin wandering the post-apocalyptic earth, encountering mad gods and mutants. There’s one person of color, a loincloth-clad hunter named Cerebus (not the aardvark) who is repeatedly referred to as “Nubian.” Yeah. The new-fangled “Women’s Lib” is mentioned a few times, mostly in association with Jennifer Monroe, a woman who was a model before the war, and mostly serves as a damsel in distress for Hercules.

Over the course of the series, it ties into OMAC, Kamandi and the Atomic Knights, despite these series not precisely being in continuity with each other. The last couple of chapters return to the question of why Hercules was chained to that rock in the first place; it answers some lingering subplots, ignores others, and flatly contradicts some of the earlier characterization. (The series had changed writers more than once in a dozen issues.)

After that are a few back-ups from Kamandi, and one last “The Day After Doomsday” shock story. To close out the volume, we have a Superman story from 1983. By this time, it was looking less and less likely that we would actually have an atomic war in 1986, and even if we did, it wouldn’t have the future-Fifties design aesthetic and cultural behavior seen in the Atomic Knights series. So when Superman suddenly finds himself in the Atomic Knights future, he is quick to point out the scientific implausibiliy of the scenario. Yes, this is hilarious coming from Mr. “The laws of physics are just mild suggestions.” Turns out it’s a virtual reality scenario gone horribly wrong, with the moral being “The task before man-kind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!” The story is also notable for giving Marene Herald a much more important role.

All together, this is a mixed bag with something for many comic book fans, including rare stories. It’s well worth a loan from your library, and if you’re a collector, consider buying it.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book One

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book One by Makoto Yukimura

It is the Eleventh Century C.E., and Europe trembles in fear of the raiders from the north, who we would call Vikings.  This is the story of one such Viking, the youth Thorfinn Thorssen.

Vinland Saga

This thick volume opens with a battle in the Frankish Kingdoms (later France) as Askeladd’s band of mercenaries offer their services to Lord Jabbath.  Among the raiders is Thorfinn, who is far deadlier than any beardless boy has a right to be.   But Thorfinn serves Askeladd for one reason only, to someday be allowed to kill his father’s murderer in a fair duel.

We then flash back to Thorfinn’s childhood in Iceland, and how it was that his father, the mighty Thors,  was treacherously slain.   But we also learn of old Erik and his tales of a land beyond the sea, without slavery or war.   This “Vinland” remains a place that Thorfinn cannot bring himself to search for until he has had his vengeance, reckless of the cost.

The art is excellent, and the creator has done his research (no horned helmets here!)   On the other hand, he does take some liberties with history (this will become more apparent in later volumes.)    This is an exciting tale of vengeance and violence, although it should be acknowledged that most of the people in the story just aren’t good people.  The one truly heroic person in this volume is the reluctant warrior Thors,  who believes that a true warrior should not need a blade to lead a good life.

Note:  While there is no rape in this volume, given the subject matter, I would not be surprised if it came up later in the series.  As is, there’s plenty of blood spilled and heads flying off;  it’s rated 16+, and I’d advise parents to stick to that.

I recommend this volume to fans of Viking tales and lovers of violent action stories.

Book Review: Dark Harbors

Book Review: Dark Harbors by J.K. Dark

I received this book as a  Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Dark Harbors

Jack Cross used to be a rock star, the leader of the band Dark Cross, kings of the “pirate rock” trend.   But that was a while back, before drugs and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle brought the band to a crashing fall, and Jack bottomed out.   Now he ekes out a living as a charter boat captain, sailing the Dark Cross out of Florida for tourists.  It’s something to do between the nightmares.

Jack’s latest cruise seems pleasant enough; he and a couple of old buddies are taking some Doctors Without Borders volunteers around the Caribbean to relax and help folks.    But there are bad signs, including reports that modern-day pirates are lurking in these warm waters.   Not everyone is going to be returning from this voyage….

The good first.  J.K. Dark clearly loves sailing, and has done some research on the Caribbean.  Some bits are nicely creepy, and the fact that Jack often has difficulty telling nightmare from reality for a few moments helps set the foreboding tone.

The not so good:  The frame of the story is that Jack Cross is telling it in first person to an Alcoholics Anonymous-like group as they’re something of a captive audience. ( Which may or may not mean he survives the voyage.)   But about two-thirds of the way in, there are suddenly third-person chapters that reveal the inner thoughts of characters Jack hasn’t met yet, and who he never gets the chance to get that information from. I can understand why the author does it, the information is necessary to understand what’s really going on.  But it breaks the frame and the narrative flow, and this is one book that might be better served by the reader being as much in the dark as Jack.

Warnings:  Trigger warning for rape late in the book.  Also, practitioners of Haitian Vodou might be displeased by its presentation in this story, even if it eschews the voodoo doll and evil magic stereotypes.

The book is self-published, I am told, and could have used a stronger editor.  I cannot recommend it unless you are really into crossing Jimmy Buffett atmosphere with a near horror taste.

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