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: 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: 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.

 

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: Barry Blake of the Flying Fortress

Book Review: Barry Blake of the Flying Fortress by Gaylord Du Bois

World War Two is raging, and the Army needs pilots desperately.   Enter Barry Blake and his buddy Chick Enders, straight out of high school and patriotic volunteers.   They’re to receive their preliminary flight training at Randolph Field in San Antonio.   They are almost immediately make friends with good-natured fellow cadet Hap Newton, but are at odds with the vain and ill-natured Glenn Cardiff Crayle.  Crayle’s sabotage causes Chick to wash out of pilot training, but bombardier school is an acceptable fallback.

Barry Blake of the Flying Fortress
From the endpapers. Art by J.R. White

Barry is soon taught to fly the B-17 Flying Fortress, and assigned to the Sweet Rosie O’Grady, under Captain O’Grady, who named it after his wife.  Originally bound for India, the crew is diverted to the South Pacific, where they participate in a raid on the Japanese base at Rabaul.  After Captain O’Grady is severely injured, Barry takes over as pilot, being reunited with Hap as his co-pilot and Chick as bombardier.

The friends and their flight crew participate in many exciting adventures, repeatedly showing their bravery and combat prowess, until tapped for a special secret mission.  The mission goes off okay, but on the way back Crayle can’t stop himself from taunting our heroes one last time.  His vanity and cowardice get him and the crew stuck in a raft behind enemy lines–it’s up to Barry to shepherd them and a few civilians to safety in Australia!

This book was part of the Whitman Publishing Company’s “Fighters for Freedom” series of novels for young readers about wartime careers.  (Other books covered the WAAFs, WAVEs and Ferry Command.)   As you might expect, it’s pretty exciting stuff, depicting war as an adventure.  While the unit takes casualties, the blood and guts are downplayed, and our heroes get away with some very irregular activities.  I will mention that at one point when their slaughter of the enemy gets too easy, our heroes lose their stomach for further attacks that day.

Barry’s a fairly typical hero for this sort of book; ruggedly handsome, athletic, and valedictorian of his class.   Chick is the not quite as handsome, slightly shorter and hotter-tempered best buddy type.  The rest of the crew are fairly bland, the “white guys with different regional accents” that was considered a diverse cast back in the 1940s.  The Italian-American guy is treated by the story as the token minority.  Crayle, of course, is coded as small-town rich, the sort of fellow who’s used to being a big shot at home and not happy about being just another pilot here.

Barry meets a couple of attractive young women in the story, a nurse and a missionary’s daughter; both are treated as impressive in their own ways, and there’s a bit of romance that is cut short by the flow of the war.

The sticking point for many of today’s young readers will probably be the period racism.  It’s mostly directed against the Japanese, and mild by the standards of the time, but there are a couple of odd moments elsewhere.

The author wrote quite a bit of kids’ adventure books, but I remember him best for his work on Turok, a comic book about a Native American stranded in a valley of dinosaurs.

This book is a product of its time; parents may want to talk to younger readers about wartime racism and how it affects people’s attitudes.

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