Manga Review: Platinum End 1 Story by Tsugumi Ohba, Art by Takeshi Obata
Have you ever looked at the world around you and thought, “Wow, God’s not doing a very good job.”? Perhaps you have even succumbed to hubris and thought you could do a better job if you, personally, had God’s power. As it turns out, God’s retiring and has assigned thirteen angels to seek out candidates for the open position. Each will be able to give their candidate special powers, and there will be a 999-day competition period, at the end of which the new God will be chosen. Special rank angel Nasse already has someone in mind.
Which brings us to our protagonist, Mirai Kakehashi. He’s introduced to us by tossing himself off a building on the day he graduates from middle school. Seems that Mirai is an orphan whose life has been made utterly miserable by his abusive relatives (yes, shades of Harry Potter) and now that he’s past mandatory school age, aunt and uncle want him to get a job and sign over the paycheck in return for their “generosity.” Nasse catches Mirai before he hits the pavement.
The angel explains that she has been keeping an eye on Mirai for a while as his “guardian angel” and she is at last able to intervene to make him happy. Nasse grants him three nifty powers; wings to fly, red arrows that will make people love him, and white arrows that kill painlessly. Mirai isn’t too sure about this, especially as Nasse suggests using these powers in ways that seem…unethical to the boy. He does, however, wind up using the red arrows to resolve the issue of his abusive relatives.
Now that Mirai has a future again, he works hard to get into the same school as his crush, Saki. While that’s going on, Nasse explains more about the “replace God” contest, and they become aware of a God candidate who is most definitely abusing his powers. This story doesn’t really intersect with theirs, as he’s quickly taken out by a third candidate, who has decided to murder his way to victory.
“Metropoliman” uses his powers to appear to be a superhero so that he can openly hunt for the other candidates with the public on his side. This makes Mirai worried, but the murderous “hero” isn’t his top priority when a fourth candidate turns out to be going to the same high school. A candidate who’s gotten the drop on him!
This monthly manga is by the creators of Death Note and Bakuman, and was much anticipated. The art is certainly excellent! But large chunks of the premise seem to have been lifted from the Future Diary series, and several of the characters in these early chapters are kind of blah. In particular, Ohba seems to struggle with the right balance of competence and initiative for female characters. I am hoping that future chapters will improve this.
That said, Nasse has a lot of potential as an angelic creature that doesn’t quite grok human morality. Her design which makes it difficult to tell whether she’s wearing clothes or just has an unusual body is also nifty.
Content issues: In addition to frequent mentions of suicide (and one on-camera attempt) and child abuse, there’s rape and female nudity in a sexual context. While the series is aimed at high schoolers in Japan, it gets a “Mature Readers” tag in the U.S.
Primarily recommended to fans of the creators’ previous series. Consider getting the physical edition–there are some neat effects on the cover that don’t come across in a scan.
Book Review: The Fall of the Towers by Samuel R. Delany
Five hundred years after the old civilizations perished in the Great Fire, the Toromon Empire occupies all the known livable space on Earth. But they are hemmed in by deadly radioactive belts and there’s nowhere for it to grow. And yet–and yet, the Empire is not alone and there is something beyond the barrier…is it the enemy the Toromon government claims?
This science fiction trilogy is an early work by noted author Samuel R. Delany. I have previously reviewed the first part, Out of the Dead City and it would be best if you read that review first. To briefly recap, escaped prisoner Jon Koshar, the Duchess of Petra, and scarred giant Arkor are contacted by a disembodied intelligence called the Triple Being to battle another disembodied intelligence, The Lord of the Flames, which is interfering with humanity. This is set against a backdrop of the Empire preparing for war with its unknown enemy.
The Towers of Toron: It has been three years since the climax of the previous volume. The war with the enemy beyond the barrier is in full swing, although it is impossible to tell how well it is doing, as none of the soldiers ever return. The Lord of the Flames has returned to Earth, and must be rooted out again regardless of the cost.
The emphasis shifts somewhat in this volume, with two previously minor characters taking on new importance. Clea Koshar, physicist and math genius (and Jon’s sister) is in hiding. She is suffering what we would now call PTSD due to her war work, and is triggered by a common patriotic phrase, so has holed up in a boarding house under an assumed name and tries to avoid interacting with anyone. Towards the end of the book, she begins to heal with the aid of circus acrobat Alter.
Runaway fisherman’s son Tel joins the army and is sent into the war. Anyone who’s ever been through basic training (and quite a few who haven’t) will recognize that the training sequences don’t make any sense–which is only the first clue that something is very wrong here. Once Tel is in the war itself, it turns out to be a murky affair, mists constantly concealing everything even a few feet away, constantly repairing machinery of unclear purpose, and random lethal attacks by an enemy that is never actually seen.
While banishing The Lord of the Flames is a necessary thing, it is not sufficient to stop the war. That will take an unprecedented act of communication and understanding.
The City of a Thousand Suns: A month after the events of the previous book, the war appears to be over, but one of the participants hasn’t put down their arms, and the consequences of the war are coming home to the island of Toron, where the Toromon Empire is centered.
On another front, actions taken by the Triple Being earlier in the trilogy have left their agents susceptible to influence by The Lord of the Flames, which is starting its endgame, to learn how to make war against the universe. The Earthlings must finish their final mission without the direct aid of their sponsors. That mission: collect three books that represent the finest thinking of humankind.
One of the authors comes directly on stage for the first time in the trilogy: poet Vol Nonik. He’s finally gotten out of the street gang he was in, but former rival gang leader Jeof still holds a grudge. He and his minions attack Vol and his artist wife Renna, crippling the poet and murdering the woman. This tips Vol Nonik over the edge into despair..which is good for his poetry…maybe? He’s not so sure.
This volume is heavy on the Big Ideas as it wraps up the themes of the trilogy. Creating new perceptions by forcibly moving a person from one setting to another, the question of whether it’s better to fix sick social systems or just let them go smash, and of course, the meaning of life. One of the recurring images is the gambling game Randomax, which appears as random as the name suggests, but is actually easily manipulated by those with higher math skills.
There’s more sexism as the trilogy continues, less, I think, from the author himself than from the social assumptions he’s working with. There’s also a fair amount of “fantastic racism” as prejudice against the Neo-Neanderthals and the gigantic forest guards comes up every so often, and within the forest guard culture, how they treat their telepathic minority.
The closing chapters become clumsy, with hallucinatory paragraphs meant to show a poet plunging into suicidal madness, and a huge infodump by the Triple Being to explain what The Lord of the Flames really is and how it was working behind the scenes of the final book. The Lord never becomes a character in its own right, and we will just have to accept the Being’s word that it is no longer a threat.
But then there is the city of a thousand suns, and perhaps there is hope for the future after all.
Recommended for Delany fans and those interested in the roots of New Wave science fiction.
Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years. Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within. Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.
The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.) It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again. After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists. They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies. Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.
Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets. Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest. Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.
Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks. He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department. It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in the process. For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)
There are time travel shenanigans involved, and one character seems determined to produce a specific future. The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board. The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.
A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims. There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”
Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends. The cliffhanger is neat: “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips. And kissed him.”
“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova. He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot. (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.) As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.
“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.) A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human. Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.
The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch. While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for. A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.
The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day. (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.) Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.
The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.
“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel. A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans. They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.” Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.
All that is background. A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky. There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell. Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.
It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story. It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while. Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)
Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later. (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)
“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life. Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens. Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet. Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants? A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.
“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece. It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop. A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain. The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.
Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet. But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes. He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.
Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries. Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.
The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted. It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)
John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.
There are two science fact articles. “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses. “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained. Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.
I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.
Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.
Book Review: Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson
This book covers two generations of the William “Red” Hill family of Niagara Falls, Ontario. They were river men, swimmers, rescue workers, boat handlers–and some of them were driven to perform dangerous stunts. And around Niagara Falls, the most daring stunt imaginable was to go over the Horseshoe Fall in a barrel. The Hills, father and sons, were involved in most of the attempts at this feat until the 1950s.
Parts of the story are fascinating; the first survivor of a deliberate attempt to go over the falls was a woman in her sixties, Annie Taylor. And there’s quite a bit of family drama, particularly in the sibling rivalry of Red’s sons “Junior” and Major. I found the contrast between the acceptance of ultimate risk and the careful shaving off of every bit of lesser risk that could be managed a fair assessment of the character of a daredevil.
The author is a local newspaper reporter who knew the Hills in his youth and has extensively interviewed several of them over the years. This means that certain details are covered in great depth (and often repetitively), but others are given short shrift–later attempts to go over the falls alive that didn’t involve the Hill family are summarized in a paragraph or two, despite sounding just as fascinating in their backgrounds. The book also engages in mind-reading from time to time, reporting what a person who did not survive likely felt during certain events.
There’s an extensive sources section and chapter notes, but no index. This is more of a memoir than a formal history. I should note that there is discussion of suicides related to the Niagara River.
Recommended for those who have a fascination with daredevils and especially those who have an interest in the Niagara Falls phenomenon.
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.
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.
Manga Review: Orange the Complete Collection 1 by Ichigo Takano
If you could send a letter to yourself ten years in the past, what would you say? “Life will get better after high school”? “Don’t drink and drive”? “Here are the winning lottery numbers for [date]”? On the first day of her junior year of high school, Naho Takamiya receives a letter that purports to be from herself ten years from “now.” It correctly predicts a series of events, including that a new boy from Tokyo, Kakeru, will be joining her group of friends. Then it gets to the reason the letter was sent.
One of Naho’s friends won’t survive the year.
This is a shoujo (girls’) romance manga with a touch of melancholy. Naho is a motherly girl who cares deeply about her friends, but she’s also quite timid and a bit of a doormat. Even though she knows her future self is giving good advice, Naho hesitates to stand up for herself or tell people how she really feels, and several opportunities to influence events slip through her fingers.
There is also a bit of a love triangle involved. Kakeru Naruse clearly has feelings for Naho that deepen over time, but he’s hurting inside and distances himself from others–he is considering suicide. Hiroto Suwa also has feelings for Naho, but considers his friendship with Kakeru important enough to set those aside to help the couple get together.
The other characters are less developed in this first volume (which contains volumes 1-3 of the Japanese version.) Azusa Murasaka is a bit loud and flashy; Takako Chino is more elegant but has a short temper; and Saku Hagita looks gloomy and serious, but has a gift for saying funny things.
The story is set in Matsumoto, a small city in the mountainous area of Nagano Prefecture. Every so often there’s some nice art of the local scenery, but most panels skip backgrounds. Otherwise, the art is decent and conveys the action and emotions well. The location also plays into the motivation of “mean girl” Ueda, who tries to start a romance with Kakeru based on the fact that they’re both from big city Tokyo, not like the provincial locals.
After a while, we do get glimpses of future Naho and her surviving friends, as the events that lead to the letter being sent back slowly unfold. There’s some discussion of how time travel might work–will changing the past overwrite the previous events entirely, or does it simply create a new timeline starting from the deviation point? Naho’s letter becomes less useful as she does start making decisions that vary from the original; by the end of this volume, Naho has decided not to rely on it anymore. This decision is helped along by plot twists at the end of Japanese volumes 2 & 3, which genre-savvy readers will see coming.
The story does deal with suicide and its effects on the survivors, the regret and guilt it causes. It’s made clear that there’s no magic bullet for suicide prevention. The support and attention of friends does help, but they can’t always be there, and it is clear that they might still fail. (And of course, Naho can’t just tell responsible adults what she knows without revealing her source.)
An anime adaptation is running as of this writing, and you can probably find it on a streaming service.
Recommended for teens who enjoy a touch of science fiction in with their melancholy romance, and are able to handle the theme of suicide.
In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.” One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.
Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five. It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels. Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology. Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available. These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.
After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights. In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity. Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.
Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD. It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work. The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory. If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently. Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him. She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.
While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller. Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory. The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.
One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing. The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies. Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives. Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work. A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony. But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.
Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.
Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse. The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.
In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.
Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.
Manga Review: Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki
This is the first volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s massive history of Japan during the reign of Emperor Hirohito, the “Showa Era,” It was a long reign, covering most of the Twentieth Century, from 1926-1989. In addition to the larger story of Japan, it is also his autobiography, as Mizuki’s earliest childhood memories coincide with the beginning of that era.
This volume opens several years earlier, with the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 which devastated Tokyo. The repercussions of this, combined with fiscal mismanagement, created a financial crisis that crippled Japan’s economy. The optimism and liberalization of the Taisho period took a huge hit. Japan struggled along until 1929 and the worldwide effects of the Great Depression hit.
A combination of the Red Scare (the belief that Communists were about to take over), military successes and government incompetence led to the rise of right-wing organizations, especially military cliques. Japan became ever more aggressive against its neighbors in Asia, setting up the puppet state of Manchukuo and grabbing ever more territory from China.
Japan became a rogue state, leaving the League of Nations when that body attempted to intervene in its conquests. Only Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy recognized Manchukuo, and Japan’s alliance with those nations was about to drag it into World War Two.
This is a “warts and all” history, which covers events that many Japanese schoolkids might not be taught in official classes, or have glossed over for them. There are many painful topics in here, so despite childish hijinks in the parts dealing with Shigeru’s early life, I would recommend it for senior high school students and up.
Warts and all is also how Mizuki depicts himself as a child and young man. Naturally athletic but lazy, bright but unmotivated, sensitive but engaging in fights both as part of a gang and solo. It will take the horrors of war (as depicted in the third volume) to force him into a responsible adult life. Perhaps he got some of it from his father, who is shown as a Micawber-like optimist despite his economic woes.
There’s a lot of names and dates, so the end-notes are very helpful–you still might want to have Wikipedia open to assist with some of the more obscure bits and to cross-reference what else was going on in the world at the time. Some bits come across as very dry, making the personal stories a relief.
The art may be jarring for those unused to Mizuki’s style; many pages are drawn directly from photographs in a realistic style, while others are done in a very loose, cartoony fashion. It’s also kind of weird to have Nezumi-Otoko (Rat-man) as the narrator of the more serious history portion-he would not seem the most reliable of narrators.
Overall, not as interesting as the third volume, which features Shigeru’s most harrowing experiences, but well worth seeking out from the library.
Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima
Yamada “Decapitator” Asaemon is the o-tameshiyaku, sword-tester for the shogun and official executioner of criminals. It’s not a pretty job, but at least he has one in Edo-era Japan, during a time of peace. Without wars to fight, many of the samurai vassals are on tiny stipends, while ronin without lords can at least get paying jobs if they’re willing to be a bit flexible in their ethics. The merchant class is getting richer, while the underclass of urban poor swells and rural farmers are oppressed by their petty lords. The social conditions breed crime, so there is always plenty of work for Yamada.
This seinen (young men’s) manga series is by the creators of Lone Wolf and Cub, and shares many of the themes and settings. Unlike that earlier work, however, there does not seem to be an overarching plotline. The stories are episodic, and most could take place in any order. Two stories do, however, guest star young cop Sakane Kasajiro, an expert with his hooked chain. Yamada helps him discover new ways of using his weapon to protect lives.
Yamada takes a grim satisfaction at being expert at his craft, able to decapitate the condemned with a single stroke and thus minimize their pain. He was raised from early childhood to succeed his father as executioner, and has chosen to remain single to avoid condemning his children to the same path. (One story in this volume has him briefly reconsider, but it is not to be.) Yamada seems happiest when he can bring small moments of joy into a person’s life, and is often sought out for sage advice.
The first story in the volume has Yamada challenged for the post of sword tester by Tsukuya Bakushuu, a poverty-stricken and largely self-trained swordsman. They participate in a contest of suemonogiri, precision cutting. Tsukuya loses, but cannot accept this result. It ends in tragedy. To be honest, at least half the stories here end in tragedy, not surprising, given Yamada’s job.
The closing story is particularly hard to stomach. O-Toyo murders the woman her lover abandoned him for, and mortally wounds the cheater. However, it’s a slow death wound, and he could live up to four months with good treatment. Her execution will be in three months, and O-Toyo wants to outlive the man out of pure spite. As it happens, there’s one way for a woman to get her execution delayed–getting pregnant. Now, how is that going to happen when she’s locked in a women’s prison? Yes, the story is going there. There are other examples of female nudity and rape in these stories, but this is the most brutal. And then the ending comes, and it is even more brutal. Even Yamada is shaken.
Also outstanding is the story “Tougane Yajirou”, about an elderly police officer whose use of force is considered excessive even by the standards of the time, and who is much more interested in catching criminals than in preventing crime. Yamada disapproves, but there is a story behind the old man’s cruel behavior.
Koike and Kojma do a masterful job of depicting a world that is both very familiar in its everyday life, and alien in its way of thinking. This omnibus edition combines three of the Japanese volumes, and is presented in the expensive and time-consuming fully-flipped format, so it reads left to right.
Recommended for mature readers who enjoyed Lone Wolf and Cub or are otherwise fans of samurai action.
Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2 mostly written by Marv Wolfman and art by Gene Colan.
When the Comics Code restrictions on horror were loosened in the 1970s, DC primarily went in for horror anthology comics, while Marvel Comics based entire series around horrific heroes and villains. One of these was the classic (and public domain) character of Vlad Tepes, aka Count Dracula.
This series revealed that Bram Stoker’s book (highly recommended if you haven’t read it, by the way) was highly fictionalized, and Dracula had not in fact finally died at the end of it, only being very inconvenienced. He had been various places, doing various things, temporarily being put of commission now and then…and this storyline opened with him once again being awakened to start his reign of terror anew.
Opposing the Lord of Vampires was a crew of vampire hunters including Quincy Harker (the son of Jonathan and Mina), now an elderly man confined to a wheelchair by injuries received in past battles with Dracula; Rachel van Helsing (great-granddaughter of Professor van Helsing) a crossbow-wielder who wasn’t always as effective as she’d like; Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula (before becoming a vampire) who had wasted his wealth and had to man up over the course of the series; and Taj Nital, an Indian man who had been rendered mute when Dracula injured his throat. Independent of them were Blade, who only hunted Dracula because he hated all vampires due to the murder of his mother by Deacon Frost, and Hannibal King, a detective that Deacon Frost had turned into a vampire, who avoided taking blood from living humans.
Of course, Dracula didn’t just have vampire hunters after him, but people who either wanted to become lord of all vampires themselves or otherwise exploit him. The most persistent of these was Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who’d been turned into a disembodied brain hooked up to a computer, who wanted to take over the world.
At the start of this volume, Dracula learns of the current whereabouts of an artifact called the Chimera, which re-sparks his desire to conquer the world himself. (He’d had to put that on hold as a vampire army large enough to take over would promptly drink the rest of humanity to extinction, and then where would they be?) Fortunately for the world, Dracula is not the only one after the artifact, and it ends up smashed.
Dracula has noticed his powers waning, and this leads him to a near-final confrontation with Quincy Harker, before learning that it is in fact Doctor Sun behind it, and the action moves to Boston. There the cast adds nebbish “true vampire story” writer Harold H. Harold and lovely but ditsy secretary Aurora Rabinowitz, who act as comic relief.
After the Doctor Sun situation is resolved, Dracula takes control of a local Satanist cult and marries a woman named Domini, who he believes will give him a proper heir. (The leader of the Satanists, of course, has other plans.)
Mixed throughout this volume are soap-opera subplots involving the various supporting cast, and interludes of Dracula’s adventures in other times and places. Marv Wolfman’s writing is often excellent, but he sometimes doesn’t consult previous issues, resulting in some minor continuity glitches. Gene Colan’s art is more consistently outstanding, and fits the mood well, especially in this black and white reprint. (Some stories from the Giant-Size side series are included, with art by the less impressive but very competent Don Heck.)
Make no mistake, Dracula is the main villain here, and rare is the issue where he does not murder at least one innocent person just to remind us of that. Much of his time is taken up with petty revenge against people who have crossed him and when he acts against other villains, it’s usually out of pride or personal vendetta. Every once in a while, he does show a moment of kindness, but the door soon slams shut when his darker nature prevails. Because he’s the title character, Dracula has what TV Tropes calls “Joker Immunity”; he can never be permanently killed off, only temporarily thwarted, so the heroes seem ineffectual. (Quincy Harker broods about this frequently.)
These stories do take place in the Marvel Universe, though this series avoids most of the implications of that. Brother Voodoo helps Frank Drake through a bad patch in his life, and Doctor Strange actually temporarily kills Dracula (but is hypnotized not to notice it’s not permanent until later.)
In addition to the expected violence (but relatively little gore–the Comics Code was still in effect), Dracula’s attacks on women are often treated in a sexualized manner. There are some instances of suicide, both voluntary and forced. Dracula is also depicted as being racist (mostly against Blade) and sexist (he is not at all kind to the memory of Lucy Westerna.)
And speaking of sexism, one story includes a woman who’s a bit of a “straw feminist”; the owner of a fashion house who only hires women even if a man would be more competent at the job (except one dress designer who might be gay given the coding) and who has an enormous grudge against the various men who tried to keep her down. Dracula agrees to kill her enemies in exchange for information she can get more efficiently than he, but leaves her in a sticky situation at the end of the story.
Despite often high melodrama, there are some very well-written moments as well.
Recommended for vampire comics fans, Blade fans who want to see his early adventures, and those who enjoy Gene Colan’s art.