Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4 edited by Julius Schwartz

The Flash is Barry Allen, a police detective who was working during a thunderstorm one night when a bolt of lightning struck a shelf of chemicals, spilling the mixture on him.   Barry quickly realized that he’d been gifted with super-speed, making him the fastest man alive.  Taking inspiration from a comic book hero of his youth, Barry Allen protects Central City and the world as the Flash!

Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

This fourth volume of the Showcase Presents collection of the series covers from Flash #162-184, 1966-68.  The first story in the set is “Who Haunts the Corridor of Chills?”   A Walt Disney stand-in is inspecting the new spooky ride at his amusement park when he’s unexpectedly transformed into a rampaging monster.  Flash is temporarily handicapped by developing a sudden phobia of dark spooky tunnels.  By the end, the story becomes a parable about not jumping to conclusions.

Most of the stories are workmanlike tales of the Flash encountering a criminal or monster, encountering some sort of obstacle that prevents him from simply using his immense speed to solve the issue, and thinking his way through to victory.  Barry Allen was very much a “thinking” hero, using his scientific know-how and reasoning abilities as much as his ability to move very fast.

Some have criticized the Silver Age Flash for having a bland personality, but “bland Midwestern science fan” is a personality I see all the time in real life.  Barry’s serious but not grim, and even when he loses his temper, it’s in a subdued fashion.  This makes him becoming a braggart in the cover story, #177 “The Swell-Headed Super-Hero!” especially jarring.  This particular story is also interesting because it’s the only one in the volume where we see Barry performing his day job as a crime scene investigator for more than one panel.

Alas, he doesn’t use any of his science skills on-panel, but instead performs a Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny-style feat of deduction to solve the “impossible” crime.  This story also has a great panel by Ross Andru of horrified civilians seeing the transformed Flash for the first time.  (The Silver Age writers loved transforming the Flash.)

The thinness of characterization is perhaps clearer in the villains, who tend to have very similar personalities, leavened slightly by Captain Cold being a would-be ladies’ man, and Abra Kadabra’s need to be the center of attention.  (The latter may explain why he appears the most in this volume.)

And then there’s Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash.  He only gets one appearance, but it’s a doozy, as Barry Allen finally gets around to marrying Iris West.  Except that Zoom decides to take his similarity to the Flash to the next level by changing his face to Barry Allen’s and impersonating the hero–even to the point of marrying his girlfriend!  Barry manages to escape in time and prevent the false vows, but this plotline will define Professor Zoom for years to come.

Barry, very protective of his secret identity, doesn’t tell Iris that he’s the Flash until a year into the marriage!  (Flash television show viewers can take heart that this tendency is faithful to the comics.)  However, it turns out Iris has known since the wedding night as Barry talks in his sleep.  (Wah wah waaaah.)   This is directly contrasted with Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick’s relationship with his wife Joan, who was in on the secret from the beginning.

There are a couple of real clunkers in this collection.  The first is #167, “The Real Origin of the Flash!”  This was the most hated Flash story of its era (and for many years thereafter.)  It introduces Mopee, a fumbling “heavenly helper” who somewhat resembles Woody Allen, and claims that he made an error in giving Barry Allen the power of super-speed.  He spoils several attempts by the Flash to “re-earn” his powers, before finally getting it right.  The reader reaction was so negative that the story was simply not referred to again for decades.

#180-181 “The Flying Samurai” & “The Attack of the Samuroids!” is a fun story that has aged badly.  Barry and Iris go to Japan on vacation and the Flash gets involved in a battle against nigh-invulnerable flying samurai robots.  So many well-meant but glaring ethnic stereotypes!  Among the lowlights: A cute female secretary is named Tushi (a name that doesn’t even work in Japanese); Japanese people speaking broken English even when alone among themselves (particularly annoying with supposed traditionalist Baron Katana); one of Barry’s Japanese friends referring to marital relations as “tender tentacles”; and villain Baron Katana assuming no one will think to look for him at the abandoned castle…that has belonged to his family for generations.

There are a couple of appearances by Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick (once with his friends from the Justice Society of America), a visit from Hal “Green Lantern” Jordan, and a race against Superman that guest stars the Justice League of America.  Plus, the first Earth-Prime story, in which Flash winds up in “our” world and meets Julius Schwartz.

The final story in this volume, “Executioner of Central City!” has the Flash apparently destroy his home town in an attempt to save it from a pulsar flare.  Of course, this is revealed to be incorrect.  The community has in fact moved to the distant future where humans are much larger and “programmed” against aggression.  Well, except for their leaders, which turns out to be a design flaw.

There’s some excellent art by long-time Flash portrayer Carmine Infantino, and not quite as good art by Ross Andru.

Overall, a good choice for Barry Allen Flash fans; fans of other versions of the Flash might want to check it out at the library.

 

Comic Book Review: The New Teen Titans Volume One

Comic Book Review: The New Teen Titans Volume One written by Marv Wolfman, art by George Perez and Romeo Tanghal

By 1980, Marv Wolfman had come over to DC Comics from Marvel, but found himself writing one-shot team-up books, which he felt didn’t allow him the room to develop subplots and characterization the way he wanted to.  He offered to write a revival series for the Teen Titans, a book that had teamed up several kid sidekicks (and eventually some more obscure characters) for some years before dropping sales got the book cancelled.

The New Teen Titans Volume One

The Powers that Were turned his original proposal down, so Mr. Wolfman revised his proposal with several brand-new characters, going for more of a male-female balance than most teams of the time, and complementary personalities that would both cause conflict and bring the team together.  He also gave most of the group some sort of conflict with a father figure.  Robin trying to get out from under the shadow of Batman, Starfire’s weak-willed father selling her into slavery to save his world, Cyborg’s father being responsible for his needing massive cybernetic upgrades, Changeling having all his father figures vanish from his life, and Raven’s father being the demon Trigon.

That last was the plotline behind the first few issues, as Raven fled to Earth and assembled a team to battle her father’s planned invasion.  The first issue, however, made the alien Gordanian slavers the main focus, as Starfire needed to be rescued from them before she could join.  Raven also manipulated Kid Flash’s emotions (off-screen but it was pretty obvious) to make him loyal to her and thus willing to help out.

During that same story, the Titans accidentally made an enemy of Grant Wilson, who then in the second issue became the villain Devastator (using the 100% of your brain hokum) as part of a plan by the shadowy organization H.I.V.E. to acquire the services of his father, Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke the Terminator.

The third issue introduced the first version of the Fearsome Five, a villain group put together by Dr. Light for mutual gain.  They were promptly hijacked by Psimon, one of their members who had been working for Trigon.

The next three issues were all about Trigon, starting with the Titans having to face off against the Justice League in an effort to keep the more powerful heroes from accidentally knocking out the one barrier between Trigon’s realm and Earth.  Mr. Wolfman notes that the sales had been going down issue by issue (and it did not help that #5, the issue where Trigon is fully revealed, had guest art by Curt Swan, rather than George Perez–Mr. Swan was a classic Superman artist, but just wrong for this title) but issue #6, the big finish, saw the sales climb and every issue after that for a while.

In issue #7, the Titans face off against their own headquarters, the Titans Tower, as the Fearsome Five had co-opted it in an effort to free Psimon from the fate Trigon had “rewarded” him with.  This issue also explained who Cyborg actually was, and mostly resolved his relationship with his father.

Issue #8 was a breather, so that several new subplots could be introduced, some of which stuck around for quite a while.

On the strength of the many subplots, engaging personalities, and stellar George Perez art, the New Teen Titans series became DC’s hottest title, and the closest competitor they had for Marvel’s X-Men under Chris Claremont.  One of the obvious Marvel-style touches was setting the series in the real life city of New York, rather than one of DC’s many fictional cities.

There are some elements that don’t come off as well in hindsight; Starfire’s personality, powers and cultural background seem written specifically to have her go around wearing as brief a costume as the Comics Code would allow, or even less.  Raven’s origin involves rape by deception, and Trigon comes across as almost cartoonishly evil for the sake of being evil.  Cyborg often takes the role of “angry young black man”, and his bickering with Changeling is not nearly as funny as the writer seems to think it is.  And of course, Raven’s emotional manipulation of Kid Flash is very skeevy, which is acknowledged in the story itself.

Still, this is an important part of comics history, and fans of the various Titans incarnations should enjoy it.  (With a caveat that kids who only know the Titans from the cartoons might find some of the material a bit much–junior high on up, please.)

Comic Book Review: Noble Causes Archives, Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Noble Causes Archives, Vol. 1 written by Jay Faerber

Liz Donnelly is nervous about meeting her future in-laws.  After all, she’s just a normal bookstore manager, and they’re the Noble Family, celebrity superheroes, beloved across the world.  Her fiance Race Noble is nice enough, but Liz soon learns that behind the glitzy facade, the Noble family has severe problems that are tearing them apart.  When tragedy strikes, it could be the ending of Liz’s world, if not everyone’s.

Noble Causes Archives, Vol. 1

This Image Comics offering was a series of miniseries before getting approved for an ongoing (with a soft reset.)  It takes the soap opera aspects of modern superhero comics, and the idea of superheroes as celebrities, and runs with it.  Indeed, the soap opera is so central that it’s several issues before we see one of the family do something that matches the “hero” part of the genre.

At the beginning, the family consists of “Doc” Noble, an inventor/adventurer who has retreated into his laboratory more and more as the years have gone by, rather than interact with his brood; his wife Gaia, a nature mage from another dimension who craved the celebrity lifestyle and has crafted the family’s public image; Icarus, Doc’s robot assistant, who considers himself the dutiful son; Rusty, who recently suffered an “accident” that required transplanting his brain into a robotic body; Celeste, Rusty’s gold digger wife, who was unfaithful to him even before he became all metal; Race, a super-speedster who has the best emotional balance of the crew; Krennick, Race’s best buddy and son of family enemy Draconis, who has an unrequited thing for; Zephyr, only daughter and a rebellious teenager whose promiscuity has gotten out of hand; and Frost, Gaia’s son by a brief affair, who officially does not exist, and has been sleeping with Celeste.

Liz’s marriage to Race helps precipitate a series of events that bring to light several family secrets and relationship crises.  The series is really good at issue-ending cliffhangers.

This black and white reprint volume covers up to issue #12 of the ongoing, and the resolution of the Zephyr pregnancy plotline.  There were a number of back-up stories that flashed back to events before Liz met the family; instead of being bundled with the main stories of each issue they were published in, they have been placed at the end of the volume.  These stories explain some motivations and sometimes make the characters’ actions more sympathetic.

Content warnings:  There’s a fairly gory scene early on, a lot of talk about sex (and some near-sex scenes) and some rather disturbing implications in the backstory.   I’d say senior high school and up for readership.

Many of the characters are not particularly likable.  (When Doc suddenly starts being a somewhat better husband and father, Gaia worries that he’s terminally ill.)  But there are enough of them that are sympathetic or enjoyable to keep reading.

The art is by a number of different creators, mostly in the decent to acceptable range.

Recommended to comic book fans who are really into the soap opera aspect.

Manga Review: My Hero Academia, Vol. 2

Manga Review: My Hero Academia, Vol. 2 by Kohei Horikoshi

I hope you all had a good Thanksgiving, or at least a nice Thursday!  In keeping with the holiday spirit, let’s have a second helping.

My Hero Academia #2

Brief recap:  Izuku Midoriya always wanted to be a superhero, but was born without a “quirk”, unlike 80% of the world’s population, and stuck with the nickname “Deku” (no good qualities).  After he proves himself to All-Might, the world’s greatest superhero, Midoriya is given the chance to inherit One for All, a unique quirk passed from one hero to another.  Midoriya is accepted to the prestigious superhero magnet school Yuuei High, and has changed the meaning of “Deku” to “never gives up.”

There are two main plot arcs in this volume.  First up is battle training, with all the students in costume for the first time.  Paired into teams and then set up as “heroes vs. villains”, Deku finds himself teamed with likable girl Ochako against his childhood bully Bakugou and the no-nonsense Iida.  Bakugou’s grudge against Deku may cause all of them to fail the class if he doesn’t rein it in!

This is the climax of the bullying storyline, and while Bakugou doesn’t become a better person, the bullying stops.

Then the kids get to go to a remote location to learn about rescue work in various environments.  But the Villain Alliance rears its ugly head for the first time, putting the students in danger to lure out All-Might.  Yes, he’s the greatest superhero alive, but they’ve got Artificial Human Noumu, a being specifically designed to defeat All-Might.  And since Deku has the same powers as his mentor…

In between  is a chapter about the election for class president, which reveals some background on Iida, who turns out to come from an entire family of prestigious superheroes.

The writing and art continue to be impressive, and there are extra pages of artist’s notes on the various characters.  (Perhaps the funniest is of Toru Hagakure, whose power is invisibility.  The portrait is a blank page entitled “complete nude.”)

The Villain Alliance is filled with scary-looking characters, and feel like a real danger to the trainee heroes.

Recommended to teen superhero fans.

Manga Review: My Hero Academia #1

My Hero Academia #1 by Kohei Horikoshi

Izuku Midoriya’s dream is to become a superhero, like his idol All Might.   The problem with that idea is that Midoriya belongs to the minority of people on his world who were born without a Quirk, a superpower of some kind.  His former friend Katsuki Bakugo, who has a powerful Quirk and is naturally gifted, rubs this in at every opportunity, calling Midoriya “Deku” (no good qualities.)  Midoriya has been training hard, but even when he meets his idol, he’s told that there’s no way he can become a superhero if he doesn’t have any powers.

My Hero Academia

But then Midoriya proves he has the heart of a hero, attempting to rescue Bakugo from a powerful villain despite not having a chance of doing so.  All Might reveals that there is a way Midoriya can earn a Quirk, and go to U.A. High, the magnet school for aspiring superheroes.  Izuku Midoriya can turn around the “Deku” nickname, and make it mean “never gives up.”

This shounen manga homage to American superhero comics was something of a sleeper hit; Mr. Horikoshi’s previous two efforts had a lukewarm reception, and the immediately preceding series, Barrage, tanked.   So the online edition of Shonen Jump didn’t even bother running a preview when it debuted.  But this time Horikoshi is firing on all cylinders.

The setting is an alternate Earth where superpowers began appearing about five generations ago–it’s not clear if it’s the present day with huge changes, or a future where fashion and technology stagnated.  Eighty percent of the population was born with some sort of power, called Quirks.  Most Quirks are pretty minor (has tail, can attract small objects to hand from a foot away) but others are very impressive (Bakugo can create firey explosions from his sweat, Mount Woman can become a giant.)  There are many criminals who use their Quirks for evil, so there are professional superheroes who stop them.

There’s a lot to like about this series.  Deku (as everyone winds up calling him) is not the idiot hero so common in shounen, but a thinker who wins battles and solves problems with observation and planning.  Even when he earns the powerful Quirk “One For All” the power is difficult to use, so his brain is his greatest weapon.  And yet he still possesses the compassion and courage of a true hero.

There’s also a good supporting cast.  Bakugo makes a strong contrast as the kid who has had all the advantages handed to him by birth, and takes it as his rightful due.  His arrogance and sense of entitlement make him an ass, and he doesn’t lose much of that even after learning that no one at U.A. is going to put up with his crap.  He does, however, quit with the bullying after events in Volume Two.

Other classmates include nice (but dangerous) girl Ochako and the overly serious Iida, who get the most focus in this volume.   Unlike other school-based series, where we only follow the hero and a handful of his friends, every classmate is a distinctive person and many will get spotlights in future volumes.  There’s also an assortment of teachers with varying personalities.

The tone is closest to Bronze Age DC Comics; some bad things happen, but the general tone is optimistic, never overdosing on grimdark or angst.

As mentioned, there’s some bullying in the early chapters, and superheroic violence.  There’s also fanservice in the form of female superheroes wearing skin-tight costumes (but not every female character chooses to do so.)  Nothing a junior high or up reader can’t handle.

Highly recommended to fans of teen superheroes and those who like their comics light-hearted.

Book Review: Conquest of Earth

Book Review: Conquest of Earth by Manly Banister

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for some major plot twists beyond a certain point.

Today Kor Danay is a Man.  It is the distant future, when Sol has become a red star, and Kor has completed nineteen years of intense mental and physical training to become a Scarlet Sage of the Brotherhood of Man.  Only six out of a class of one hundred have managed to attain the abilities of instantaneous teleportation over galactic distances, moving so fast time seems to stand still, reading minds, etc.  And Kor is the first initiate ever to survive taking the extra credit option of summoning stellar fire to the surface of a planet.

Conquest of Earth

But Kor and his four surviving classmates (one other tried the extra credit option) are bound by oath to conceal their Dragonball Z-level powers from the world.  For the Men are not the masters of Earth.  Earth, and all civilized worlds, are under the control of energy beings called the Trisz, who may or may not be multiple manifestations of a single mind.  The Trisz have been slowly draining Earth of its water, and under the guise of benevolent protection have turned humanity into a servant race.  If the Trisz knew just how powerful the Men really were, they would simply destroy Earth, which wouldn’t necessarily kill the Men, but would eliminate the People the Men want to free.

So as far as the rest of humanity knows, the Men are just philosopher-priests with maybe some holy miracles once in a while, though few people ever see even one.  Kor is shipped off to be the new head priest of No-Ka-Si, in the desert that was once known as Kansas.  There he must match wits with the treacherous Brother Set of the Blue Brethren (those students of the Brotherhood who washed out before the training became lethal) and the beautiful Lady Soma, who leads a double life.

The Trisz want Kor eliminated as their Prognosticator (a powerful computer that can predict the future but only in vague rhyming couplets) has indicated he might be a danger to them.  After some cat and mouse games, Kor makes the Trisz think he is dead and moves into the Organization of Men, the Brotherhood’s even more secret branch.  While investigating a young, untouched planet for possible colonization, Kor undergoes a shocking tragedy.

That tragedy begins a new phase in Kor’s life, that ends with another tragedy, one that gives him the information he needs to free the galaxy of the Trisz.

This 1957 novel appears to have first been a three-part magazine serial, judging by the abrupt changes between acts.  The middle section is the weakest, as it contains a lot of psychobabble philosophy while not much actually happens.  Brother Set is a fun character, but vanishes after the first part.

The idea that humans have untapped mental and physical powers that a chosen few can manifest with the proper training and mindset was a popular one in science fiction during the 1940s and ’50s, though few works carried it to this level.  The story plays with this a bit; Kor has difficulty empathizing with the humans he’s supposed to be saving due to the fact that he’s just better than them in every way.  And concealing his powers causes him issues; he could make himself invulnerable to heat and grime, but that would tip observers off that it was possible.

The romance angle is…lacking.  Apparently, a real Man just has to do whatever he was planning to do anyway, and women will be attracted to his Manliness; Kor never has to work at a relationship.  Lady Soma has some interesting potential, but tosses away her advantages to help Kor out.  After that, she’s just a sidekick who doesn’t do anything useful on page.

Once Kor really gets to unleash towards the end, the prose picks up as the author clearly enjoyed that bit.

Overall, a forgettable book with a few good scenes.

SPOILERS beyond this point.

There’s a phenomenon in fiction that comic book fans call “fridging” after a particularly notable example.  It consists of a female character dying or suffering for the sole reason of  motivating the male main character to do something, usually revenge.  In this situation, the story is not about the woman at all, but about the man’s deep pain and sorrow at losing her or having her relationship with him threatened.

Conquest of Earth is notable in that it does this twice, first by having Lady Soma randomly eaten by the Trisz, who are apparently completely unaware of who she is and why they might want to kill her.  Then the cavegirl Eldra, who is carrying Kor’s child for bonus rage points, is killed when the Trisz invade her planet.  Both women seem to exist solely to make emotional connections to Kor (doing all the relationship work themselves) so he’ll feel bad when they die.

But that’s not all!  Once rescued from Eldra’s planet, Kor realizes that he has been subconsciously manipulating probability to bring about a future in which he eliminates the Trisz.  In other words, he himself was responsible for the Trisz killing both his love interests to advance his main goal.  Kor doesn’t seem particularly upset by this revelation, either; now he can save the universe!

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Trial of the Flash

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Trial of the Flash by Cary Bates & Carmine Infantino

Flash

Barry Allen, the Flash, is finally moving on from his wife Iris’ death, and is about to marry his new love, Fiona Webb.  But on the day of the wedding, Flash learns that Iris’ murderer, Professor Zoom has escaped imprisonment.  In the desperate struggle that follows, Zoom announces his intention to kill Fiona just as he did Iris.  Barry stops Zoom–permanently.  But was it an justifiable act of defense, or a deliberate killing?  That’s up to a jury to decide!

This mid-80s epic is not one of the best Flash stories.  The creative team was tired and it really shows.  One issue in particular is half reprints from older stories apparently to give the writer and artist a break.  But it does treat the issue of a masked vigilante killing a criminal with all the seriousness it deserves, before this became the standard operating procedure for superheroes in the Nineties.

The lack of color in this reprint hurts the story several times, not only because Zoom’s costume is identical to Flash’s with a palette swap, but in that recurring villain Rainbow Raider’s entire gimmick is color (and by this time the writer had stopped having people redundantly mention the colors of things.)

Which is not to say that this story is entirely without merit.  There are some interesting subplots, such as the mystery of Nathan Newbury, and the ambitions of a pompous defense attorney who sees Flash’s trial as a meal ticket beyond compare.  A couple of Flash’s villains put in notable appearances (and the final issue’s villain notes that he’s ,kind of sort of doing Flash a favor, which was foreshadowing for Crisis on Infinite Earths.)

Barry makes a couple of mistakes early on that compound his trouble.  First, he still hasn’t told his bride to be his secret identity, which leaves Fiona with no reasonable explanation when Barry Allen disappears permanently.  This causes a mental breakdown that renders her useless or worse than useless for the remaining two years of the story.  (And then shuffled offstage before the actual ending.)

The other is his decision that he must fight Professor Zoom alone, even actively telling the Guardians of the Universe to keep any other heroes from helping him.  This leads directly to killing Zoom being the only way to stop him, precipitating the entire trial plotline.

Again, not the best Flash story, and a bad place to start reading about the Barry Allen Flash.  (And a worse place to start reading about the Wally West Flash, who’s barely in these issues and whose spotlight is the aforementioned reprint issue.)  But for fans of the Barry Allen Flash on a budget, this is most of the end of the run in one low-price package.

For a volume with the beginning stories of the Barry Allen Flash, see this review: http://www.skjam.com/2013/02/27/comic-book-review-showcase-presents-showcase-volume-1/

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