Comic Strip Review: The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume Two 1937-1939

Comic Strip Review: The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume Two 1937-1939 written by Lee Falk, art by Ray Moore

Almost five hundred years ago, a sailor named Christopher Walker was accompanying his father on that man’s last voyage when they were attacked by the Singh Brotherhood, a bloodthirsty band of pirates.  The pirates killed the rest of the crew, but Christopher survived and washed up on a beach in Bangalla.  The native Bandar people, pygmies who were known as the Poison People because of their knowledge of botany and chemistry, healed the young man and brought him to the Skull Cave, supposed home of their god.

The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume Two 1937-1939

Donning ceremonial garb modeled on that vengeful spirit, young Walker became a Phantom, a Ghost Who Walks.  He destroyed that iteration of the Singh Brotherhood and vowed on the skull of his father’s murderer to oppose all forms of piracy and injustice.  When the Phantom died, his son took his place, and in each generation, another son takes over the role, creating the illusion  that the Phantom cannot die.

This long-running comic strip was created by Lee Falk in 1936, two years after creating the also-successful Mandrake the Magician.  Skilled artist Ray Moore brought the characters to life.  In the first story the proto-superhero succeeds his father, who has been treacherously slain by a member of the Singh Brotherhood.  (In the early stories, Bangalla is near India, but has wildlife and native customs closer to Africa at times–later on the country would move to sub-Saharan Africa.)  Also early on, the Ghost Who Walks also meets Diana Palmer, who becomes the love of his life.

This volume opens with the Phantom engaging in a bit of stagecraft (with the connivance of the local witch doctor) to perform his annual duty of acting as judge for a village’s disputes.  The witch doctor turns out to be aware that the Phantom is actually a series of men, but finds it useful to pretend otherwise to keep the superstitious natives in line.  During his visit, the Phantom realizes that village boy Toma is actually a white kid who’s been disguised as a native via skin dye by his purported father.

Somehow, the other villagers had never cottoned on to this, but in retrospect they admit having some suspicions about Beeli’s behavior and excellent cash flow despite being the laziest man around.

The Phantom takes Tommy Reynolds to England, to search for answers as to why he was sequestered in that native village for years.  There turns out to be a convoluted reason  for the bizarre events, but justice is served and there’s a bittersweet ending.

After that, Diana’s meddling mother pressures the young woman into marrying one of her more suitable suitors, as it’s unlikely the masked man Diana loves will ever turn up again.  Diana’s mother is wrong, but before the Phantom and Diana can tie the knot, the British government alerts the Phantom to an emergency situation in the Himalayas that only he can solve!  (The star-crossed lovers wouldn’t finally get hitched until the 1970s.)

The Himalayas situation resolved, the Phantom is on his way back to Diana when he’s waylaid in Algiers.  Mrs. Palmer successfully meddles by preventing the lovers’ communications from reaching each other, making each think the other has broken off the relationship.

The next story introduces Baron Grover, a modern-day pirate who would become a recurring foe of the Phantom.  Grover is an actual nobleman who began piracy as a lark, only to lose all his money and thus take up the profession seriously.  The Phantom has a lot of fun making it appear that he truly is immortal; this is also the first time we learn that supposedly seeing the Phantom’s real face is lethal.

Back in Bangalla, a white trader is forcing natives to become pearl divers for him, overworking them and ruining their health.  Roark turns out to be trickier to deal with than he should be, as he has not only bought off the local law, but the Phantom becomes mistakenly convinced that Diana is now Roark’s wife!

The final story in this volume has the Phantom saving Diana from slave traders in North Africa–in a story where they never actually meet!  Comic relief is provided by an elderly hermit who is getting more visitors in a few days than he’s had in the last forty years; and could probably resolve the romantic subplot in seconds if he were told a few pertinent details.

This is great adventure strip stuff, with Lee Falk working out just how this masked hero thing works, and getting the balance of action, humor and romance right.  Over the short term, the separation of the Phantom and Diana creates a nice tension, and the misunderstandings and missed connections draw out the relationship nicely.

Because of the period it was written in, there’s some unfortunate stereotyping of native peoples,  a certain amount of presumed white superiority and a bit of period sexism.  (Played for laughs in the case of the hermit–“women get fat when they have children, therefore I do not regret escaping the bonds of matrimony!”)

Recommended to adventure lovers, those interested in the roots of costumed hero comics, and well worth checking out at your library!

 

Book Review: A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman and the Birth of Modern China, 1949

Book Review: A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman and the Birth of Modern China, 1949 by Kevin Peraino

In 1949, Chen Yong was an idealistic boy in his teens, his military uniform too large for him, cheering in Beijing as Mao Zedong declared that the People’s Republic of China was born.  Now, he is an old man who fondly remembers those early days, even as his memory of the specifics fades.  It was a tumultuous year, not only for China itself, but for its neighbors and the far off United States of America.   The response of America’s government, as led by president Harry Truman, would have a long-lasting effect on world politics.

A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman and the Birth of Modern China, 1949

This book covers that pivotal year, from Madame Chiang’s desperate mission to the States to raise sympathy and funds for the Nationalist cause, to Mao’s solidification of his alliance with the Soviet Union.  It covers the major players, Generalissimo Chang, Dean Acheson, Secretary of Defense Johnson, and a Congressman from Minnesota named Walter Judd, who led the “China bloc” that tried to draw Truman into direct military support of the Nationalists, or at least giving them much more money.

Some of the people involved get much more attention than others–there’s a full description of Madame Chiang’s family life and childhood, but her husband is picked up only when he becomes involved with her.  (The Generalissimo spent much of the year semi-retired before deciding to evacuate to Taiwan and consolidate his forces there.)

There’s also considerable time devoted to what Truman had intended to do with his time as president, as opposed to what reality had in store for him.  Sometimes, universal peace and brotherhood have to be put on hold.

Reading about Chiang’s behavior as he rose to power doesn’t make me think he would have been that much better as China’s leader than Mao–it was an early of example of supporting terrible people in office for the sole reason of being anti-Communist.  Sadly for the Chinese, Mao turned out to be a better general than practical economist or agriculturial planner.  Plus, he let his personality cult overwhelm any real reforms.

The writing is college-level, and the vocabulary sometimes gets a bit pretentious.  All Chinese names use the modern transliteration.  There are copious end notes, with explanations of where sources differ, a small photo insert, bibliography and index.

This book is primarily valuable as a snapshot of one particular issue at a particular time– the serious scholar will want to pair this volume with a more general history of China, or a full biography of one of the major players.   That said, I recommend this book to those interested in the starting point of Red China and how it got that way.

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster

While there were several precursors to Superman, he’s generally agreed to be the first full-fledged comic book superhero.  Superhuman abilities, a distinctive costume, and a dual identity, he had them all.   When Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, the readers had not seen anything quite like him before, and the comic book flew off the shelves.

The Superman Chronicles Volume One

However, the fellow who appeared in those early issues wasn’t quite the Superman we’ve come to know after all these years.  The “Chronicles” series of reprints gives us full-color reproductions of the stories in order of publication, starting with the very first, plus the covers of the issues.

Action Comics #1 starts us off right with the classic scene of Superman smashing a car into a rock, which turns out to actually happen in the story.   The feature begins with an abbreviated version of Superman’s origin.  The dying planet that sent a single rocketship to Earth (not yet named Krypton), a passing motorist (not yet identified as the Kents) who takes the infant to an orphanage, his growing powers (strength, speed, leaping, nigh-invulnerability) and his determination to use his powers to help those in need.  Clark Kent’s powers are explained by his physical structure being far more advanced than Earth humans, giving him the proportionate abilities of an ant or grasshopper.

The story itself starts in media res, as Superman carries a murderer to the governor’s mansion.  Leaving her tied up nearby, the Man of Steel forces himself past the governor’s servant, and through a metal door to that worthy’s bedroom.  He produces proof that the woman about to be executed is innocent, and stays right there until the governor pardons her.

The next day, Clark Kent is pleased to see that the Daily Star did not print anything about Superman’s involvement.  But the rumor of a superhuman fellow in a bright costume has already come to notice, and the Star’s city editor puts his rookie reporter Kent on the job of discovering the truth.

Kent learns of a wife-beating in progress, but it’s Superman who appears at the scene and roughs up the abusive husband.  The cad faints, and it’s Clark who greets the police.

Next, it’s time to establish the “mild-mannered” part of Clark Kent’s persona.  Clark convinces fellow reporter Lois Lane to go dancing with him, but she’s showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm.  When Clark backs down far too easily to a hood named Butch who cuts in, Lois is disgusted at his cowardice and leaves the dance hall.

Butch is angered by Lois’ refusal to dance with him, and sets out to abduct her with a few of his criminal friends to teach Lois a lesson.  Naturally, Superman shows up and the cover scene ensues.  The Man of Tomorrow carries Lois home and advises her not to tell anyone.  Sure enough, the next day, no one will believe her wild story.  It will take her a couple of issues to fully process her reaction to Superman.

The Star’s editor has a new assignment for Clark Kent.  South American republic San Monte is having a civil war, and since the home front is getting so dull card games are front-page news (I am now imagining a 1930s version of Yu-Gi-Oh), Kent should go down there and file some war reports.  Oh, pictures would be good too.

Rather than head directly south, Kent first travels to Washington, D.C.  He spots a Senator Barrows being furtively contacted by lobbyist Alex Greer, who’s known to be connected to “dark money” but no one knows whose.  Eavesdropping on their next meeting, Superman learns that the bill Senator Barrows is pushing is designed to entangle America in European affairs.   (We never come back to this plot point.)

Afterward, Superman approaches Greer to find out who his backer is.  Naturally the lobbyist declines to state this information, so Superman picks the man up and starts leaping all over town with him.  He even finds time to impart a science fact about birds and power lines!   His last leap doesn’t quite make it to the next building, and the men begin to fall….

All that in thirteen pages!

Action Comics #2 does not have Superman on the cover; he would not make it back until #7, and thereafter would usually be mentioned in a text box even if the cover was of someone else.

The story picks up where #1 left off, with Superman and Greer landing on the sidewalk.  They survive, the sidewalk doesn’t.   Greer spills the beans on his boss, international arms dealer Emil Norvell.  Superman then uses his considerable persuasive powers to make sure that Norvell travels to San Monte and enlists in their army.

Lois is assigned to go along with Clark Kent to South America.  Lots of things happen, including Norvell learning what it’s like to be on the pointy edge of his munitions, Lois nearly being shot as a spy, Superman just straight up killing a torturer (oh sure, we don’t see him land, but being tossed several miles away?  He’s not going to have a soft landing) and the Man of Steel finding a creative way to stop the war.

The story is followed by an advertisement for the daily Superman comic strip, soon to come out.

#3 has Superman get a neglectful mine owner to improve safety conditions for workers.  (Some ethnic slurs by baddies.)    There’s also an announcement of the first Superman fan club, the Supermen of America.

#4 is Superman kidnapping a college football player for several days to impersonate him in order to prevent a game from being fixed.  As a side effect, it also improves Tommy’s love life.

#5 has Lois Lane get enraged by the editor’s sexism (“no job for a girl”) and trick Clark Kent into pursuing a fake story while she goes off to cover a bursting dam.  Superman saves Lois a couple of times and she admits her feelings for him while still despising Clark.

#6 is the first Superman impersonator story.  A crook dresses his henchman up in a Superman suit and has him do faked stunts of superstrength so that the crook can claim he’s got a legal license to sell Superman merchandise.  Lois easily sees through the fake, but still needs rescuing.  Also has the first Superman-themed song.

#7 has Superman join a failing circus to give it an attendance boost, and reveal the criminals that are trying to take it over.  This is a good spot to mention that Superman’s distinctive costume was partially based on a circus strongman outfit, including trunks worn over tights to keep certain body bulges smoothed out.  This story also introduces Curly, the first of what would be a recurring type of bully who also works at the paper and pranks Clark Kent.  By the end of the story, Clark finds a way to get some payback.

#8 is another classic moment for Superman as a social justice warrior.  He decides to tackle the problem of juvenile delinquency in slum kids–by tearing down the entire slum, thus forcing the government to build them new housing ala FEMA!

Of course, actions have consequences, and in #9, the police bring in Chicago cop Detective Captain Reilly, known as “100% Reilly” for always getting his man.  Reilly’s plan hits a significant snag when he attempts to chisel an informant out of the substantial reward money promised.   Clark Kent is barely able to escape detection, but at the end, the visitor is known as “99% Reilly.”

#10 is another social justice story–Superman goes undercover as a prisoner to expose inhuman conditions imposed by a crooked warden.  (Warning: torture.)

#11 continues Superman’s impersonations.  To expose a crooked oil company, he poses as investor Homer Ramsey and contrives a beautiful scam where he tricks the oil company executives into trading their real money for their own worthless stock.  Environmentalists may cringe at how he does it, though.  (Presumably Superman turns the money he made over to charity.)

#12 has an interesting Zatara cover with a nifty spaceship.  The Superman story has him getting angry at reckless drivers and automobiles that are unsafe at any speed.  So he imposes a reign of terror on the city.  (And admittedly, fixes a particularly bad stretch of road.)  You can just feel Siegel’s outrage boiling off the page as Superman refuses to use doors in his pursuit of strict traffic enforcement.  Also in this issue, an announcement of DC’s second superhero, the Batman!

New York World’s Fair #1 ties into that 1939 event.  Clark and Lois are sent to cover the opening, but Superman spends most of his time helping attractions open on time and thwarting a criminal plot.

Action Comics #13 starts its story with Superman fighting the “Cab Protective League”, a shakedown racket aimed at taxi drivers.  However, we soon meet the first ever evil mastermind to battle Superman.  The Ultra-Humanite is a bald scientist who has given himself super-intelligence (which may or may not have anything to do with his paraplegia.)  Moriarty-like, he’s been secretly behind some of the criminal schemes Superman has thwarted.

His vast knowledge of science allows the Ultra-Humanite to stun Superman, but not kill him.  The evil scientist then appears to die in a plane crash, but Superman is unable to find a body.   He’ll be back several times, until Lex Luthor takes over his ecological niche.

And the volume concludes with Superman #1, as Superman became the first superhero to have his own solo comic book.  Most of the contents were reprinted from Action Comics #1-4.

However, the first story had a new introduction naming Krypton and the Kents for the first time, and establishing that John and Mary Kent had passed away from old age after training Clark in American values.  We then see how Superman learned of the innocent person condemned for murder and where to find the murderer seen in the first story.

The explanation of Superman’s powers now explained that Earth’s lighter gravity aided his advanced body structure to perform his superhuman feats.

Finally, there’s a two-page text story.  These prose stories appeared in comic books to force the post office to classify them at a lower postal rate.  Usually, they weren’t very good.  No exception here.

The art is crude but dynamic, and it’s fun to watch Superman perform his many feats.  This is a rougher-edged fellow who very much has opinions, and isn’t afraid to take matters into his own hands.  Soon he’ll calm down a bit and become more authority-friendly (and develop a code against killing.)  No more random kidnappings!

Highly recommended to Superman fans and those who want to know more about the early history of superhero comics.  Check your library!

 

Book Review: Next Year in Havana

Book Review: Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Reading Copy from a Read It Forward giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.  The final product, due out 2/6/18, may have minor changes.

Next Year in Havana

In 1958, Elisa Perez is the daughter of one of the richest families in Havana, constrained by family tradition and the patriarchal society.  Her father supports president Fulgencio Batista in order to protect their sugar industry interests, but Elisa is becoming increasingly aware of the suffering of the Cuban people at the hands of the government.  Still, are the 26th of July movement and the other revolutionaries truly the way forward?

In 2017, Marisol Ferrera takes advantage of the partial thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States following the death of Fidel Castro and her job as a lifestyles journalist to travel to the land her family has long been exiles of.  Though she knows what Cuba was from the stories of her grandmother and other relatives, Marisol has little idea of what that country is like now.  More, she’s about to discover a family secret hidden all these decades.

The author, Chanel Cleeton, is herself the descendant of Cuban exiles, which inspired this dual romance book with political thriller elements.

My mother has told me of meeting Cuban exiles back in the late 1950s who eagerly hoped for the overthrow of the U.S.-backed dictator Batista so that they could go home and rebuild their country.  They hoped that Castro would keep his promises of reform and that Cuba would rise to be the prosperous, modern nation it had once been.  Mom lost touch, and has no idea what happened to them.

Elisa, nineteen, is whisked out of the house in secret by her more daring sister Beatriz to go to a party in a less prosperous part of the city.   While Beatriz meets with their disowned brother, Elisa meets an earnest lawyer, Pablo, who it turns out is an ally of Che Guevara.   They begin a forbidden courtship, kept apart by social status and the explosive political climate.

Marisol is twenty-six, and a bit more worldly wise than her grandmother had been.  Her shoes still cost more than the average Cuban makes in a year.  Elisa’s best friend Ana had been forced to stay in Cuba, and has managed to make a small living as a restaurant owner.  Ana’s grandson Luis is a history professor who also helps out at the restaurant, and becomes Elisa’s tour guide.  As Elisa learns more about her grandmother’s life before exile, she finds herself increasingly attracted to Luis.

The descriptions are lush, with many glowing descriptions of landscapes and food.

Elisa’s section of the book seems surer-footed, perhaps because the passage of time has made the political outcomes clearer and that allows the author to weave the events together more closely.  Marisol’s section seems designed to appeal to the viewpoint of Cuban expatriates and their loyalists, and I have to wonder how much it would ring true to Cubans who actually live in Cuba.  The political thriller elements seem more forced in that section.

Torture is mentioned, and the results are seen.

I think this book will go over well with people who are heavily into historical romance as a genre and appreciate political thriller elements sprinkled in.  It’s also nice to read a book with Cuba as a setting; I’ve only had a handful of those.  (Check my back reviews for Mingo Dabney.)

The edition coming out in 2018 appears to be designed to be a book club selection, as there are discussion questions in the back.  Also, the sequel starring Beatriz, Elisa’s sister, is already in the works and there is a chapter from that.  (And from that excerpt, it looks like more my thing.)

Comic Book Review: Savage: Taking Liberties

Comic Book Review: Savage: Taking Liberties written by Pat Mills, art by Charlie Adlard

In 2000 AD #1 (1977), a feature entitled Invasion! began, created by Pat Mills.  Set in 1999, Great Britain is attacked and occupied by the Volgan Republic, which uses nuclear weapons to force a quick surrender.  Hardline anti-Volgans in the government are eliminated, and a puppet government led by Sir Simon Creepton now administers the People’s Republic of Britain.

Savage: Taking Liberties

London lorry driver Bill Savage begins a one-man resistance to the invaders when his East End home is hit by a Volgan tank shell, killing his wife and children.  Bill’s working-class common sense and brutally violent approach (he favored a hauling hook and shotgun for Volg fighting) prove effective, and soon others are inspired to also take up arms against the invaders.  Bill is recruited into the formal resistance forces, and eventually is assigned to get heir to the throne Prince John safely to North America.  The series ends with Bill hoping that now the Americans will move to help liberate Britain.

The series was written for bloodthirsty British schoolboys, and featured fairly black-and-white characterization.  Working class blokes like Bill Savage were good, the Volgan invaders (so named because editorial got cold feet about having the Soviet Union be the baddies) were evil Communazis, and the upper classes were either quislings, idiots, or in desperate need of spines that Bill would supply.

A bit later, a prequel story, Disaster 1990, was created, in which the Arctic ice cap melts, putting most of England underwater (and presumably causing similar devastation elsewhere.)  Bill Savage helps bring about a restoration of order, though he is suspicious of the new government (which will eventually fall to the Volgans.)  While entertaining on its own, the story raised more questions than it answered.

For a while, as 2000 AD began marketing to a slightly more mature audience, Bill Savage was shoved into the vault of mildly embarrassing early efforts.  But then in 2002, Pat Mills found he had new things to say with the character.  Mr. Mills had become far more politically aware, and thirty years of new history, including the actual circumstances of occupied nations under modern conditions, gave him ideas.  (The introduction to this volume claims that he met a British expatriate in Bulgaria that greatly influenced the new depiction of Bill Savage.)

Thus the appearance in 2004 of a new Savage series, the first storyline of which is reprinted in this volume.  The setting is now firmly established as an alternate Earth, with a different history that explains why things did not go as on our Earth, and incorporating real world technology that Mr. Mills had not anticipated in the original run.  (The 1990 flood is pointedly left out.)

The Americans are not coming, at least not yet, as their isolationist leadership doesn’t see direct war with the Volgans as to their advantage.  The CIA does, however, have no compunctions about helping Bill Savage get back into Britain and aiding the resistance by back door methods.  Bill’s death is faked, and he has plastic surgery to look like his probably deceased brother Jack.  (Jack having been at ground zero of one of the nuclear explosions.)

“Jack” makes contact with his sister Cassie, who runs a newsagent stand, and her not-all-there husband Noddy.  He comes up with a dubious but uncheckable explanation for how Jack’s still alive, and joins the resistance.  Most of the people Jack interacts with quickly tumble to the fact he’s actually Bill, but play along.

Bill participates in a number of resistance actions, which eventually lead up to a confrontation with the Volgan leader, Marshal Vashkov.  The fallout of this leads to the murder of Bill’s other brother Tom.  Investigating this leads Bill to discover a high-ranking traitor in the resistance, and the book ends with the Volgans being pushed out of South England…at least for now.

There’s considerably more shades of gray in this volume than in the original run.  The resistance’s terrorist tactics don’t sit well even with many of the people they’re fighting for, and there are splits in the resistance between gangs that have different ultimate goals and ideals.  The politics of the original also get poked at.

The horrible things Bill Savage is willing to do to liberate his people have taken a toll on his humanity.  In a striking scene, we and Bill learn Marshal Vashkov’s motives for invading and occupying Britain in the particularly brutal way he chose–only to have Savage reveal that he only wanted to make sure this was the real man and not a double; the story does not move him at all.

Content warning: torture and rape, as well as some gruesome violence.  A cute dog comes to a firey end just off camera.  The depiction of Noddy, who apparently had some brain damage due to a Volgan terror weapon, may be overly stereotypical of the mentally handicapped.

The black and white art does well in depicting the grit and shadows of Occupied Britain.  This one’s for fans of dystopian science fiction with strong stomachs.

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!

 

Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1 written by Bill Finger & Gardner Fox, art by Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff

Batman was the second full-fledged superhero published by National Periodicals, soon to be better known as DC.  The kernel of the idea was proposed by artist Bob Kane, and fleshed out by writer Bill Finger, with a first appearance in Detective Comics #37.  As the Shadow was to Doc Savage, so Batman was to Superman, a skilled man operating in the shadows, rather than a superhuman operating in the light of day.  But both, of course, dedicated to justice in their own ways.

Batman Archives Volume 1

This “Archives” edition is a hardbound full-cover reprint of the Batman stories from Detective Comics #37-50.  I believe this was the first of this collector’s bait format, thus the “introductory price.”

We open, of course, with “The Case of the Criminal Syndicate.”  Police Commissioner Gordon is chilling with his young socialite friend Bruce Wayne, talking about rumors of a mysterious “Bat-Man.”  Gordon is informed of a murder among the wealthy citizens of the city, and Bruce tags along as he hasn’t got anything better to do.  Chemical syndicate head Lambert is dead, and the most likely suspect is his son.

The son claims he didn’t do it, and to lend credence to this claim, a call comes from Crane, one of Lambert’s three partners, explaining that both of them had threats made against their lives.  Bruce Wayne becomes bored and goes home.  Crane is murdered too, but before the murderer escapes with a certain paper, a mysterious Bat-Man appears, beats up the murderer and his partner and takes the paper.

From this, Batman is able to figure out which of the two remaining partners is the mastermind.  He saves the fourth partner, and punches the villain into a tank of acid.  Commissioner Gordon explains the plot to Bruce, who finds it all highly unlikely.  But in the last panel, we learn that Bruce Wayne himself is in fact the Batman!  What a twist!

The hyphen was quickly dropped, but Batman’s habit of killing opponents in the heat of battle took a bit longer to disappear.   The art is kind of crude, and the plot borrowed heavily from a Shadow pulp story, but the creators were on to something new in comics, and rapidly improved.  (Plus Bob Kane started having assistants to keep up with the work.)

#29 brings us “The Batman Meets Doctor Death.”  The title opponent is Batman’s first opponent with a catchy nom de guerre (his actual name is the pretty nifty Dr. Karl Hellfern), his first mad scientist enemy, and his first recurring enemy.  In the following issue, Doctor Death also becomes Batman’s first hideously disfigured villian, as his face is burnt off.  These two stories have unfortunate ethnic stereotypes as Doctor Death’s henchmen, and Gardner Fox’s lack of research into authentic ethnic background information is obvious.

Batman is also pretty careless with his secret identity of Bruce Wayne in this story; if Doctor Death had been just a little sneakier Batman’s double life would have been over only a few months after his debut.  There’s a cameo by the man who will become the Crime Doctor much, much later on, Bruce Wayne’s personal physician, who wonders how the lazy upper-class twit managed to shoot himself with no powder burn.

#31-32, “Batman Versus the Vampire” introduces Batman’s first full-fledged supervillain, the Monk, who wears a distinctive costume (red monk’s robes and a red hood with a skull & crossbones sigil), and as a vampire/werewolf has supernatural powers.  He and his sidekick (lover?) Dala kidnap Bruce Wayne’s fiancee Julie Madison (also appearing for the first time) for reasons never fully explained, and after much action and scary stuff, Batman puts silver bullets through their hearts.

This story also makes it clear that Batman operates in New York City, which was changed to Gotham City later for ease of fictionalization.

#33, “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom” is most notable for finally getting around to telling us why Bruce Wayne runs around in a bat costume fighting crime.  This simple two-page origin would eventually be vastly expanded upon and become an important part of the mythos.

#34, “Peril in Paris” has Bruce Wayne run into a man without a face.  Who is not the villain of the story.  That’s the fellow who stole his face.  It’s still not back by the end of the story (and the flowers with women’s heads are not explained either), but this faceless fellow and his beautiful sister are the first people Batman reveals his true identity to.  And then are never seen again.

#36, “Professor Hugo Strange” introduces the title character, another mad scientist, who takes part of his inspiration from Professor Moriarty, but is also large and muscular, able to give Batman a good tussle even without his fog machine, monster men and other gimmicks.

#38 “Introducing Robin, the Boy Wonder” does just what it says.  Circus acrobat Dick Grayson loses his parents to criminals, and is taken in by Batman, who gives the lad a costume and training to become a crimefighter.  (He also reveals his identity to Dick off-camera.)  Thanks to this, Robin gets the quick closure that Batman never did by tracking down and convicting his parents’ killer.

Robin was the first superhero’s boy sidekick in comic books, and soon the market was flooded with them.  He lightened up the Batman character and gave the Caped Crusader someone to have dialogue with rather than think out loud to himself.

Also about this time, Batman got his own solo comic book series, but that’s another volume.

#40, “Beware of Clayface!” introduces the first villain to wear that name, crazed horror actor Basil Karlo (a riff on Basil Karloff, who was a swell guy in real life.)  Julie Madison begins her career as a movie actress.  In #49, the Basil Karlo Clayface returns (and then would not be seen again for decades) and Julie decides to break her engagement to Bruce for his fecklessness.  (Little realizing it’s only a cover for his activities as Batman.)

#44, “The Land Beyond the Light!” is the first full-on fantasy story for Batman, as the Dynamic Duo is transported to another dimension and interfere in a war between giants and little people.  It’s all Dick Grayson’s dream in the end, but soon such stories would become a regular thing.

#50 ends this volume with “The Case of the Three Devils.”  Three circus acrobats have turned to crime using devil costumes and their ability to pull off outrageous physical stunts.  They give Batman and Robin quite a chase before the Caped Crusaders can finally corner them.  Batman’s superior use of terrain gives him the victory.

Again, lots of exciting action portrayed in a new way for 1939-40.  Some plots are overly simplistic, while others become nonsensical if you think about them too carefully, but the writing gets much better as it goes along.   There’s also an illuminating foreword by comics scholar Rick Marschall.

This is a must have for the serious Batman collector; other Batman fans should check it out at the library to see the early development of the classic characters.

Book Review: The Buried Life

Book Review: The Buried Life by Carrie Patel

Centuries after the Catastrophe that made living on the surface of Earth too dangerous for most humans, Recoletta is a thriving underground city.  Conditions have improved on the surface enough so that there are farming communities up there, but the vast majority of people would rather stay safe, thank you.

The Buried Life

Inspector Liesl Malone of the Recoletta Municipal police force is one of the people keeping them safe.  She’s just finishing up a long case involving explosives smugglers when Malone is alerted to a murder.  It happened over in the wealthy part of town, so needs delicate handling.  The inspector is surprised to learn that the victim is a historian, and disturbed to find that whatever he was working on at the time of his murder was stolen.

Across town, Jane Lin is a specialty laundress for the well-to-do, hand-washing and mending the clothing and other fabric items the Whitenails (so called because they don’t have to do manual labor and can wear their fingernails long) can’t trust to ordinary servants.  Her best friend, reporter Fredrick Anders, informs Jane of the murder, but it has nothing to do with her.  Until, that is, a missing button enmeshes her in the case.

Recoletta is a city of secrets, especially as the Council has forbidden civilians from studying “antebellum” (apparently the Catastrophe was at least partially a war) history, and also banned various kinds of literature deemed unsuitable for the current civilization.  Malone and her rookie partner Rafe Sundar find themselves stonewalled by the Directorate of Preservation, which has the monopoly on historical research, even as the death toll mounts.

Jane Lin, meanwhile, keeps stumbling on clues and finds herself becoming attracted to the suave and darkly handsome Roman Arnault, who has an unsavory reputation and may or may not have anything to do with the murders.  After all, not all dark deeds are connected.  But many are.

The setting has a vaguely Victorian feel, with gaslight and frequent orphanings.  The title comes from a poem by Matthew Arnold.  But this isn’t steampunk as such, and the author doesn’t feel compelled to stick to one era for inspiration.

In the end, this book is more political thriller than mystery, with an ending that upsets the status quo and paves the way for a sequel or two.

One of the things I really like about this book is that the underground cities are not completely isolated from the outside world.  You can go to the surface any time you want, visit farms and other cities, there’s even immigration!  The hermetically sealed civilization has been overdone in science fiction.

A jarring note for me was the infodump characters used at one point in the narrative.  They have names that are too referential to be a coincidence, and feel like the author is just trying to be cute.

Overall, a solid effort that I would recommend to the intersection of science fiction and political thriller fans.

Book Review: The Rebels

Book Review: The Rebels by John Jakes

Philip Kent, nee Phillipe Charboneau, would much rather be at home, caring for his pregnant wife Anne.  But after he was forced to kill his murderous half-brother in self-defense, Philip has gone all in for the cause of the rebels against British rule.  Thus it is that on June 17, 1775, Philip finds himself on Breed’s Hill near Boston, waiting for the order to fire on the advancing Redcoats.  Too soon, Philip will discover that the price of liberty is steep indeed.

The Rebels

Far to the south in Virginia, young wastrel Judson Fletcher dissipates himself with strong drink and other men’s wives.  Denied the woman he truly loves, and disgusted with the system of slavery that gave his family wealth but too weak to stand up against it, Judson dreams of the West, but does not have the courage to go.

Neither man knows it, but destiny will entwine the fates of these rebels who never meet.

In the mid-1970s, America’s mood was pretty glum.  We’d lost the Vietnam War, Watergate had done a hatchet job on trust in the federal government, and the economy was not doing at all well.  But we did have an important anniversary coming up, the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, generally treated as the birthday of the United States.  Two hundred years of freedom (more or less) was something to celebrate, and thoughts turned more and more to that period in our history as 1976 drew near.

One of the most successful tie-ins to the Bicentennial was this series of books, “The Kent Chronicles”, a sweeping saga of one family’s fortunes during the first century or so of the United States of America.  Extensively researched and well-outlined (the family tree in this volume indicates which family members appear in volumes that hadn’t been published yet), the series was well received, and at one point John Jakes had three volumes of the series on the New York Times bestseller list at once.

The story is told in tight third-person from the viewpoints of the two men (except for a brief section where Anne Kent is the viewpoint character.)  Philip and Judson both meet many historically famous people while never quite making it into the history books themselves.

Philip serves the Continental Army in several important battles and behind the scenes actions.  (It helps that he’s close friends with the Marquis de Lafayette.)  A series of hard knocks musters him out before the British surrender, but some wise investments by Anne allow him to start his own printing business.

Judson acts as a substitute delegate to the Continental Congress for his ailing brother Donald, even helping to craft the Declaration of Independence.  Unfortunately, his alcoholism and inability to keep it in his pants rob Judson of the chance to sign the document.  He then has an even worse failure of character before his last chance at redemption comes up.  His old friend George Rogers Clark needs men for a expedition in the West.  Beset by some of the worst luck a man can have, will Judson arrive in time?

There’s plenty of exciting action, but it’s interspersed with lengthy sections where Mr. Jakes catches the reader up on events our protagonists weren’t there for, but read about in the papers.  This is historical fiction with an emphasis on history.

There’s the expected period racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.  Violence abounds, and a couple of characters commit suicide just off-screen.  I had forgotten since I read the book as a teen just how much rape there is too.

Rereading this book after forty years, it’s pretty clear that the enormous popularity of the series was at least partially because they were the right books at the right time.  They’re very much a product of the Seventies, made for 1970s America.  That said, a blast of nostalgia every so often doesn’t hurt.

And now, a video about the Declaration of Independence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrSeCYSnj5Y

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