Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1 art by Dick Dillin and Charles Cuidero

In September 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union.  The valiant Polish people battled bravely against the two-pronged attack, but it was to no avail.  One aviator was shot down, as it happens, near his family’s farm, only to watch as it was blown to bits by a Nazi bomb.  He discovered his siblings inside the ruined farmhouse, dead or dying.  The aviator vowed vengeance against the Nazis, and particularly the pilot of the plane that had murdered his family, Captain von Tepp of the Butcher Squadron.

Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Months later in England, the aviator stewed in frustration.  The RAF did not trust the Polish airmen who’d fled to their shores, thinking that because they’d lost, the Poles were inferior pilots.  Unable to get in the air through the regular channels, the aviator found a small group of other pilots who were refugees (plus one American volunteer) and likewise unable to get into the fight.  They pooled their resources and secretly purchased several Grumman XF5F Skyrockets, as well as supplies for them and a secret island base.

The aviator had discarded his civilian name and now went only by Blackhawk.  His men were the Blackhawk Squadron, or just the Blackhawks.  They operated on behalf of the Allies, but independently of any military command, striking wherever the need was greatest.  After a few missions never detailed, Blackhawk and his men were able to track down von Tepp and Blackhawk took his revenge.  His personal business complete, the Blackhawks were free to fly anywhere at any time to fight the Axis.

The Blackhawks first appeared in Military Comics #1 in 1941, under the Quality Comics label, and got their own title, Blackhawk, in 1944.  They were very popular, at one point selling just below Superman.  In 1952, they even got a film serial, starring Kirk Alyn, who’d previously played Superman in the movies.

But by 1957, sales were waning, and Quality first leased, then sold, its trademarked characters and titles to DC.  Blackhawk was one of only a handful of titles to continue (the other notable one was G.I. Combat.)  It kept its art team, but had an assortment of now-anonymous writers.

This volume reprints the DC run, starting with #108.  At this point, the team had long been stabilized at seven members.  Blackhawk (Polish/American/Polish-American) was the leader.  Hendrickson (Dutch/German) was the team sharpshooter and the oldest member.  Stanislaus (Polish) was generally the second-in-command–at this point he was said to have been a aerialist before the war and was quite acrobatic.  Andre (French) was a mechanical engineer and a bit of a ladies’ man.  Olaf (Swedish) was large and exceptionally strong.  Chuck (American) was a radio specialist.  And Chop-Chop (Chinese) was the team cook.  We’ll get back to him.

Since the Korean War was over and Vietnam was not yet hot, the Blackhawks (now flying Lockheed XF-90 C jets) primarily fought spies, saboteurs and mechanized gangs.  In the first couple of issues, their primary opponents are International Communism, the agents of whom are mostly pure evil (except the one woman who is won over by Blackhawk’s chivalrous behavior and moral rectitude.)

At a guess, these stories were left over from previous writers, as after that contemporary politics vanishes altogether, and much more time is spent on borderline to full science fiction plots.  Lost civilizations, time travel, aliens, and lots and lots of robots and awesome vehicles.  The team also acquired a pet between issues, a black hawk named Blackie who was of human intelligence (even able to tap out complex messages in Morse Code!)

The Blackhawks also ran into supervillains, most often a high-tech pirate calling himself Killer Shark or his marine-life themed minions.  They even fought the first Mr. Freeze DC had.

The plots tended to be simple, as the stories were quite short and mostly meant for kids.  There’s relatively little characterization, with each of the Blackhawks having just a few well-worn quirks.

And then there’s Chop-Chop (who did not even get a proper name until the 1980s!)  It’s worth pointing out that even when he first appeared in the 1940s, Chop-Chop was exceptionally competent and good in a fight.  But he was also clearly a comic relief character, short, round, and with facial features that look pretty darn racist towards Chinese people.

By 1957, this had been toned down considerably.  His face was still stereotypical, but not really more so than say Olaf’s.  He’d ditched the queue and lost weight, but still only came up to chest height on the other men and dressed in a “coolie” outfit that had been outdated even back in 1941.

The other Blackhawks treated Chop-Chop as an equal, and he remained good in a fight.  But he also didn’t have his own plane (usually acting as navigator for Blackhawk) and sometimes gets left out of Blackhawks group activities.  He’s also the sole Blackhawk to admit feeling fear, having the catchphrase “Wobbly woes!”  In his one spotlight story, he’s held hostage for a time.

This was a relatively good depiction for a Chinese character in the comics of 1957-58, but sets the teeth on edge for modern readers.

Certain plot elements do get reused.  There are no less than four times the Blackhawks fight counterpart teams!  The first is the all-female Tigress Squadron.  They don’t have a Chop-Chop or Blackie equivalent.  At first Blackhawk tries to pitch that crimefighting is man’s work, but after they prove their competence, Blackhawk simply switches to criticizing their plan to execute a criminal mastermind instead of turning him over to the police.  (In fairness to the Tigress Squadron, they’re entirely composed of the widows that criminal murdered after he escaped from the prison the Blackhawks delivered him to multiple times.  They have good reason for wanting to make sure this time.)

Next up is the all-villain Crimson Vultures.  They do have a Chop-Chop equivalent (who never does anything) as well as a crimson vulture named Crimson to fight Blackie.)  Unfortunately for them, Crimson is not as smart as Blackie, and that costs them the battle.

And two entirely separate miniature robot versions of the team created by mad inventors!  (Both have a Chop-Chop but not a Blackie.)

Coordination between writers was plainly not a priority.  In one story, a humanoid robot intelligent enough to infiltrate a criminal gang for months is brought back after several issues of being missing, and the Blackhawks take it back to their island.  In the next issue, Blackhawk needs a humanoid robot for something, and builds one from scratch, without even mentioning the previous robot, who also does not appear again in this volume.

That said, there are some tremendous machines in this series, and the War Wheel is always a joy to see in action.

Primarily recommended to older fans who fondly remember the Blackhawks from their childhood like me.  Others should take advantage of interlibrary loan.

And now, here’s a trailer for the Blackhawk serial!  Hawk-aa!

 

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: 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.

Comic Book Review: The Golden Age Starman Archives Volume 1

Comic Book Review: The Golden Age Starman Archives Volume 1 Written by Gardner Fox; Art by Jack Burnley

Wealthy playboy Ted Knight has somehow harnessed the cosmic energy of the stars in his Gravity Rod.   As the world moves to war, he decides that the best use of this technology is to become a costumed superhero, taking the name Starman.

The Golden Age Starman Archives Volume 1

Like many characters created during the Golden Age, Starman did not have an origin story as such, (Roy Thomas gave him one decades later); in the first story Ted Knight has already been operating as Starman long enough to have convinced FBI chief agent Woodley Allen to trust him and for his fiancee Doris Lee to be used to his excuses for slipping away.   According to Jack Burnley’s introduction to this volume, this first story was not written by Gardner Fox, and is the only one he substantially revised, inserting a villain he named Dr. Doom (and editorial changed for unknown reasons to Dr. Doog.)

The story itself opens with America in a panic as electrical components suddenly heat up, causing electrical outages, fires and explosions.  The FBI is called in on the case and Agent Allen decides this is a job for the Starman.   Bored playboy Ted Knight is having dinner with his fiancee Doris Lee in Gotham, one of the unaffected areas when the rod in his pocket starts vibrating.  He claims not to be feeling well, but Doris opts to stay for the food she ordered while Ted leaves.  A blackout happens, which makes it even easier for Mr. Knight to switch to his Starman outfit.

Conferring with Agent Allen in a cabin outside the city, Starman is informed that the Secret Brotherhood of the Electron is behind the attacks.  The FBI can’t locate them, however, as their communications and transportation have been wrecked by the Brotherhood’s electrical control device.  Starman’s Gravity Rod is immune to outside control, and can trace the energy to its source in a mountain stronghold.

Inside the stronghold, most of the Brotherhood is ordinary criminals, but Dr. Doog has stolen the Ultra-Dynamo from a Dr. Davis by means of his hypnotic powers.  Starman’s rod protects him from hypnosis, and Doog apparently perishes in one of his own death traps.  Starman seals the mountain just to make sure.

The stories tended to be formulaic, but reasonably entertaining individually.  Starman’s most frequent foe was The Light, a mad scientist who had been laughed out of the scientific community, and developed a shrinking ray (which gives off a hot bright light) to get his revenge.  He returned twice, each time with a different scheme.  The most iconic villain, however, was the Mist, an elderly man whose head appeared to be floating on a moving cloud.  He’d developed an invisibility formula for use in World War One, but been turned down by the government for unknown reasons.  Having perfected it, he turned to crime.

The most out-there villain was Cuthbert Cain, a sallow, puny-looking fellow who had combined an advanced knowledge of photo-electric energy and black magic; he could capture the will of anyone he photographed.   The story also had one of the best covers of the series on Adventure Comics #66.

Jack Burnley had been a sports cartoonist before going into comic books, and had a style well-suited to the superhero genre, with dynamic poses and framing.  But Starman never broke out as a major character.   Part of this, I think, is that Ted Knight wasn’t a very compelling character.   This hypochondriac made Clark Kent look like a dynamic man of action, and was so dismissive of Doris Lee that at one point the writer makes her explain that he’s much more likable off camera, thus her continuing to put up with him.

As Starman, Ted is fairly generic–his inability to use his powers during the daytime did add some suspense, but the combination of square-jawed virtue and battle wisecracks was shared with over half of the other costumed characters being published at the time.

There’s some period ethnic stereotyping.   This may have been the inspiration for Roy Thomas making Starman particularly anti-Japanese in his All-Star Squadron series.

At the time this compilation was published, a modern Starman series featuring Ted’s son Jack Knight was being run with creator James Robinson.  I highly recommend it.

As for this book, the art is good, the writing is decent, and it has rare stories.  Recommended to Golden Age fans, those who enjoyed the Robinson series, and people who have a good library near them.

Book Review: If I Were You

Book Review: If I Were You by L. Ron Hubbard

Before L. Ron Hubbard got involved in…you know, he was a middling-good and prolific pulp author. The Golden Age Stories line is reprinting many of his stories in attractively designed paperbacks. This volume contains two short stories, , a preview of another, a glossary (really needed this time because of heavy circus slang) and a hagiography of Hubbard that does not mention…you know by name, just calling it “serious research.” Hee. It’s double-spaced in a largish typeface for easy reading.

You

The title story concerns a little person, “Little” Tom Little, who works as a circus midget, and then discovers a mystical method for bodyswapping with other people. He promptly decides to use this to swap with the tall, imposing ringmaster Hermann Schmidt. But Schmidt has troubles of his own, which could get Tom killed regardless of which body he’s in!

There’s a nice bit of foreshadowing early in the story, with what seems like random cruelty to Tom, but is actually a hint of what Schmidt’s issues are. The lion phobia, on the other hand, was a bit too telegraphed. The payoff to that is a very exciting scene, mitigating the obviousness. There’s a nice bit of ambiguity, too, in the motives of the Professor, who leaves Tom his books of magic.

The second story, “The Last Drop” is co-authored by the much better L. Sprague de Camp. A bartender foolishly creates a cocktail with some untested syrup from Borneo; growth and shrinking hijinks ensue. A fun story that at least waves at scientific plausibility as it goes by, in the form of the square-cube law. (The glossary explains it for the benefit of anyone who might have forgotten.)

While it’s a handsome package, and the stories are fun, the book is thin on content for the price. I’d recommend looking for used copies at a steep discount, or checking it out from the library.

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