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

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

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

Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Curiosities of Literature

Book Review: Curiosities of Literature by John Sutherland

This is a book of trivia, factoids and amusing stories about the world of literature.  The author is a professor of English literature, so he knows his stuff.  The book is organized by loose themes, beginning with food (both as featured in literature, and as eaten by authors.)  There are bits on authors’ pen names, sales figures and famous deaths.  After the index, there’s an essay on “the end of the book” where Mr. Sutherland muses whether the codex book as we know it will soon vanish, replaced by electronic media or even telepathic communication.

Curiosities of Literature

The illustrations are by Martin Rowson, who is in the old style of detailed editorial cartoons, and give a very British feel to the book.  (The words are less obvious about it.)

Being relatively widely-read, I had run across many of the factoids before, but there were some I had no idea of, or had long forgotten (like the true fate of V.C. Andrews.)  Mr. Sutherland makes no pretense of being neutral in his opinions–he’s particularly scathing about the Left Behind series.  His writing is informative and readable; it might be worthwhile to look his more serious work up.

As with many other trivia and lists books, this is less something one would buy for themselves, and more something to buy as a present for a relative who loves reading.  As such, it’s good value for money–but given that “mature themes” are discussed, I would not recommend it for readers below senior high school age.

Book Review: Kaiju: Lords of the Earth

Book Review: Kaiju: Lords of the Earth edited by Essel Pratt

Kaiju (“strange beast”) is primarily a subgenre of the monster movie that became codified in Japan.  They’re mostly gigantic monsters that are nigh-unstoppable by conventional armaments, and run around destroying cities or fighting other giant monsters.  The seeds of the story type were sown in the original King Kong movie, but it was Gojira (“Godzilla”) that codified it, and inspired most of the later examples.

Kaiju: Lords of the Earth

This is a collection of sixteen short stories and poems on the theme of kaiju, all appearing here for the first time.  The book opens with “Call of the Vailathi” by John Ledger, a poem that cautions that even when the kaiju is on your side, it is still a destructive force.  …At least it has a rhyme structure, that’s good.  The closing tale is “Unleashed in the East” as fracking releases a monster from the Java Sea, and two airline pilots must make a decision between saving themselves and saving the world.

I really enjoyed “The Wolf and the Rabbit” by Alice J. Black, in which a disaffected pub worker connects with another random survivor, and finds the will to do what must be done in this crisis.  If the monster seems too easily dispatched, there are hints it wasn’t the only one.

Also good is “Frankentop” by Amanda M. Lyons, which is told from the perspective of an artificial intelligence that both wants to be loved, and to protect itself.  Unfortunately, the latter is easier than the former.  Internet references abound.

“I Awoke…Wutoomba!” by Roy C. Booth homages the Marvel monster comics of the late Fifties and early Sixties.  Jack Lieiber, writer of fantastic fiction, travels to a South Seas island and runs into an assortment of stock characters, including the title monster.  This one is mostly going to please Marvel fanboys who get all the in-jokes.

Most anthologies have a dud or two, but seldom to the level of “The Plastic Centipede” by R.T. Sirk.  The monster itself is a cool idea, a giant centipede made of discarded mannequin parts and the vengeful spirits of a gangster’s victims.  But spellchecker typos, misplaced commas, badly structured sentences and characterization by telling, not showing make this story come off like the first draft of a fanfic, rather than a professionally published story.  This is clearly a failure of editing, as these banes of small press publishing should have been caught early on.

“A Day at the Racetrack” by Essel Pratt is also sub-par, as waste in a stock car racetrack’s inner pond turns animals giant-sized.  Regional stereotypes are played for broad humor, as are potty jokes.

The rest are decent enough stories.   Due to the very uneven quality, I would recommend this book only to kaiju fanatics or fans of a particular author for that one story.

 

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate edited by John Gaterud

Yes, this is yet another literary magazine; I picked up a bunch inexpensively at the book fair.  This one seems to take its title from Jack Kerouac’s writing; this first issue was published in 2007.

Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

The index is unusual for this kind of magazine.  Rather than a linear index, or arranged by subject or type of literature, it’s by author.  It also doesn’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction–while some pieces sound more fictional than others, you will need to make up your own mind.

Insert my usual comments about modern poetry here.  The most interesting ones for me are “Postcards to Mike” by Ed McManis, a set of verses describing a school trip to Europe, the small disasters and odd moments of traveling with students.

A couple of the pieces are very much written in 2006, and feel dated now with their jabs at the Bush administration.  Deserved jabs, but still.  “Letter from Iceland” by Bill Holm and “Letter from London” by Donna R. Casella are both most interesting as time capsules, I think.

Best of the prose pieces from my point of view was “O Mary, Where Art Thou?” by Suzanne Lillian Bunkers.  It’s an examination of the various appearances of Mary, mother of Jesus, with an emphasis on the sites that the author has personally visited.  One of the qualifications for authenticating a visit by Mary, it turns out, is conformity with Catholic doctrine.  If your vision of Mary has her advocating ordination of women, you’re out of luck officially.

Overall, the theme is of road trips and journeys.  Many of the pieces are sad or bittersweet; others are nostalgic.  I do not know if any further volumes were published by Blueroad Press.

As with other literary magazines I’ve reviewed, it seems decent if this kind of literature is your thing.

TV Review: Martin Kane, Private Eye

TV Review: Martin Kane, Private Eye

Martin Kane was a fairly standard private eye appearing on radio and television 1949-1951.  He was played by four actors on TV,  William Gargan, Lloyd Nolan, Lee Tracy and Mark Stevens, each with their own characterization, from mellow cynicism to outright rudeness.

Martin Kane, Private Eye

The most notable thing about the program is that it was sponsored  by U.S. Tobacco, so instead of smoking just being a habit of the characters, it was a central theme.  Kane loves him some Old Briar pipe tobacco, and there are lovingly shot sequences of him stuffing his pipe and lighting it.  In addition, there is always a scene set in the local tobacconist’s shop, staffed by Happy McMann (Walter Kinsella), who both helps recap the plot and shills for U.S. Tobacco.

I watched five episodes of the TV show on DVD.

  • “Altered Will”:  A wealthy inventor is murdered, and it’s obvious his will was altered.  But the person it was altered in favor of couldn’t possibly have been the murderer.  Could they?
  • “A Jockey Is Murdered”:  Martin Kane is asked to get a loan shark off a jockey’s back.  When the jockey turns up dead after he loses a race, the loan shark is about the only person who doesn’t have a motive.  The solution depends on a trivia point about racetracks that I was unaware of, due to never having been to one.  (And I am not sure it still applies.)
  • “A Crooner Is Murdered”:  A singer is killed in front of a crowded nightclub.  Turns out lots of people had good reasons to want him dead, including the person who actually wrote all his songs.   There’s a small bit with a particularly misogynistic bartender.  (On average, Mr. Kane is condescending to dames himself.)
  • “The Black Pearls”  Martin Kane is lured down to Florida to take the rap for a millionaire’s murder, involving the title rare luxuries.  He manages to turn the tables, of course.  Has an interesting murder method.
  • “The Comic Strip Killer”:  An eccentric comic strip artist is basing his plotline on a recent unsolved murder.   Basing it a little too closely for the comfort of the real people involved in the case.   They hire Martin Kane to find out where the artist is getting his information.  Both the artist and his guru are murdered before Kane can get the proof, but comic strips from beyond the grave give the final clue.  Kane is at his rudest here, calling the guru a fraud to his face.

A sixth episode, “The District Attorney Killer” is listed on the DVD, but it turned out to be another copy of the comic strip story.

The comic strip episode is the most interesting, otherwise it’s a fairly generic show.  The audience that might be best pleased is smokers who sorely miss the sensual treatment of tobacco on TV shows.

Comic Book Review: Constantine Volume 1 The Spark and the Flame

Comic Book Review: Constantine Volume 1 The Spark and the Flame by Ray Fawkes and Jeff Lemire

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Constantine Volume 1

John Constantine first appeared in the Alan Moore run of Swamp Thing.  At the time, he was a relatively fresh look at comic book magicians, scruffy, streetwise and cynical.  His magic had a price; anyone who got close to Constantine got hurt.  This especially applied to his friends and family, but really everyone got hurt (his enemies too, but most of them never figured this out.)

As a result, Constantine had become a manipulative user of people,  screwing them over to push them away.  Not that this always helped.  The character was interesting, and John Constantine was spun off into his own mature readers series, Hellblazer, under the Vertigo label.   It was generally well-received, despite some lesser runs.

With DC’s New 52 reboot, the company-owned characters that had been exiled to the Vertigo imprint were folded back into the main continuity.  Constantine showed up in Justice League Dark, while his mature readers title went into its final storyline.  Now the New 52 version of Constantine has his own book, the first volume of which has been collected.

We don’t know how much of his backstory has been changed, although this version of Constantine is younger than the middle-aged one in Hellblazer.  We do know that when he was younger, he was arrogant in his use of magic, and didn’t realize what the price was, resulting in a lot of horrible things happening.  Now he knows the price,  but still uses magic because he has to do so to survive the consequences of his earlier actions (and because he likes using magic.)

The plotline starts with Constantine learning that a major magical artifact has come up for grabs to anyone who can find all the pieces.   His main competition in this is the cult of the Cold Flame, magicians corrupted by the need for more power.  They’re mostly repurposed versions of previous magical DC characters.  It’s a race around the globe, with Constantine’s price continually being paid.  Of note is that he can no longer operate freely in his original stomping grounds of London, as the entire city is now cursed to kill him.

There’s a breather issue that introduces Papa Midnite, New York’s resident magical ganglord.  This is followed by a tie-in to the Trinity War/Forever Evil event, as Constantine manages to bungle an encounter with Billy Batson at the same time the Cold Flame starts their revenge.

This is a horror comic book, so there’s a lot of disturbing imagery crafted by artists Renato Guedes and Fabiano Neves.  Trigger warnings for gore and torture.

I know many fans were disappointed by the ending of Hellblazer, and the slight toning down from “mature readers” status might defang the concept some, but the writing is decent and Constantine seems to be in character more than some of the other reboots.  It should do all right for horror fans.

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