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.

Anime Review: Tiger Mask W

Anime Review: Tiger Mask W

On an alternate Earth where professional wrestling is absolutely real, the world wrestling industry is dominated by the Global Wrestling Monopoly (GWM.)  One of the few independent markets left is Japan.  GWM offers a cross-promotion with the second-biggest wrestling operation in Japan, Zipangu.  But once the matches begin, it’s obvious that the goal is not exciting matches, but for GWM to destroy Zipangu as an organization.

The final blow is the match between GWM’s Yellow Devil and Zipangu’s champion and manager, Daisuke Fujii.  The masked Devil used illegal moves to win the match, and continued to attack even after he’d won, crippling Daisuke for life and scarring Daisuke’s son Takuma.  Without the older man’s leadership, Zipangu fell apart   Takuma Fujii and his best friend Naoto Azuma vow vengeance, but as lowly trainees there is little they can do at the time.

Tiger Mask W

Several years later, GWM returns to Japan to wipe out its largest wrestling operation, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW.)   Naoto is ready for them.  He found a trainer in Kentaro Takaoka, who was once secretly Yellow Devil himself.  Takaoka reveals that the true power behind GWM is the Tiger’s Den, once feared as a criminal organization that churned out superior wrestling heels, until they were exposed and defeated by their former member Tiger Mask.  Takaoka puts Naoto through a special training regimen to become the new Tiger Mask.

However, he is unaware that Takuma has infiltrated Tiger’s Den to destroy them from within, becoming the fearsome Tiger the Dark!  Who will be the ultimate tiger?

This 38-episode anime series is a sequel to the Tiger Mask manga and anime from the 1970s.  While in many ways it’s a throwback to older styles, with an episodic structure, opening song that’s directly about the show (a remix of the older series’ theme) and clearly drawn lines between good and bad, it’s lighter in tone and outcome than the original.  (Tiger Mask killed off many of the major characters, including the hero!)

Lighter the show may be, but there is still blood in some matches (about as much as you’d see in a real life professional wrestling match which calls for bleeding) and frequent use of wrestling moves that are Do Not Try This At Home.  The series is relatively light on male-oriented fanservice, but there is a hot springs episode, and female wrestlers wearing form-fitting outfits.

Comic relief comes from the clownish masked wrestler Fukuwara Mask (who hides a dark secret) and Haruna, niece of Takaoka and Tiger Mask’s self-appointed business manager.  While she’s certainly got the enthusiasm and some business sense, Haruna is a recent high school graduate and rather naive.  Over the course of the series, Haruna begins to show more competency, and the final episode (after the main plot wraps up in #37) is a spotlight for her coming into her own.

Several of the matches are quite thrilling; the romantic subplots are kind of cliche.

Recommended highly to pro wrestling fans, and those looking for a more kid-friendly anime that isn’t about selling toys.

And here’s the opening theme!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RF7cwAo0UTI

 

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2  by Takehiko Inoue

Quick recap: In 17th Century Japan, failed soldier Shinmen Takezo has reinvented himself as wandering swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.  Dedicating his life to perfecting his own style of swordsmanship, he travels to Kyoto and starts a feud with the Yoshioka school of kendo.  Unknown to him, his childhood friend Matahachi is also in town, and accidentally sets fire to the Yoshioka dojo.

Vagabond Volume 2

This volume opens with Musashi being nursed back to health by the rough-edged Buddhist monk Takuan.  Realizing he still has a long way to go, Musashi decides to travel to Nara, there to pit himself against the spear style of the Hōzōin Temple monks.  A chance encounter with an elderly gardener may be more valuable than any battle.

Musashi is distracted by thoughts of his other childhood friend, the lovely Otsu.  She’s now the servant of a master of the Yagyu style of swordsmanship, who Yoshioka Denshichiro has come to train with in preparation for his next duel with Musashi.

Others are also on the road.  Gion Toji of the Yoshioka school is tracking Musashi to kill him, and is none too restrained about maiming other people along the way.

Matahachi’s on the run because of the arson thing, and a chance encounter allows him to also reinvent himself as the respected warrior Sasaki Kojirō.  His sections of the story are tragicomedy, as he keeps having good intentions, but the flaws in his character prevent him from following through in a crisis, and we watch him make excuse after excuse for doing less than he ought.

Miyamoto Musashi is better at learning from his mistakes; while he is not the sharpest katana in the armory, he’s partially grasped the concept of critical thinking and examining his own mindset.  Still has a long way to go before being the best swordsman in Japan though.

The successor to the Hōzōin spear style, Inshun, has his own issues.  He’s a natural combat genius who has never known “fear”, or had a truly serious challenge to his skills until now.  Thus his growth has stalled; Inshun must learn how to deal with defeat to become stronger.  His multi-chapter duel with Musashi is the centerpiece of this volume.

The art is stellar, but much of the credit for the plot and characterization must go to Eiji Yoshikawa, author of the novel this manga is an adaptation of.

There’s a lot of violence in this volume, some of it quite bloody.  There’s also a brief sex scene with female nudity–this is a “mature readers” title.

This continues to be a good choice for fans of samurai action stories.

Anime Review: Battle Athletes: On Your Mark

Anime Review: Battle Athletes: On Your Mark

In the far future year of 2015, World War Three is interrupted when Earth’s magnetic poles shift drastically, causing global disaster.  The silver lining is that the survivors united to form a peaceful culture that then rapidly advanced.  However, by the 31st Century, humanity was again at war, against aliens this time.  After several centuries of stalemate, a contest of champions was proposed, a series of athletic competitions.  Despite the aliens being physically superior to Terrans on average, Earth’s exceptional champion succeeded in ending the war in Earth’s favor.

Battle Athletes: On Your Mark

As a result, humanity has become obsessed with physical culture and athletic competition.  Female athletes compete at the University Satellite to gain the title “Cosmic Beauty.”   The year is 4999, and Akari Kanzaki, daughter of former Cosmic Beauty Tomoe Midou, has come to the University Satellite to train and then compete for her own shot at the title.

There were two anime continuities for this series; I’m looking at the original OAV version of six episodes in this first DVD volume-but the television remake Battle Athletes Victory lasted 26 episodes.   The TV series drastically altered several characters’ personalities and plot arcs, as well as adding more characters in general.

The first episode, “Chronicle Beginning”, sketches in the backstory, then introduces our heroine, who is running (literally) late for the rocket from Earth to her new school.  We are then introduced to her buddies from training camp; Tanya, who has animalistic qualities that are never really explained and a blonde girl whose name I didn’t catch and quickly becomes irrelevant.

The girls are assigned to random roommates who will be their team for the upcoming year; Tanya wanders off to find food first, while Akari checks out the training facilities.  She soon finds out the students here train at a completely different level, and spends so much time bonding with senior students that the information kiosk that would have told her where her new dorm room is has closed.

Meanwhile, painfully shy new student Anna Respighi has become hopelessly lost and innocently interrupts senior student Mylandah’s visualization training.   Mylandah, who is obsessed with becoming number one, is slapping Anna around when Akari shows up.  Mylandah directs them through a deserted corridor to the new student dorm…without telling them that it’s got variable gravity.  She then bullies them some more.

The girls are rescued by their third roommate, Kris Christopher, who is from the Moon and is used to operating in variable gravity environments.  She in turn is bailed out by Headmaster Grant Oldman, the champion of Earth (and not so secretly the kind of guy who pervs on teenage girls.)

Kris is thrilled to meet her roomies, and tells them she wants to feel even closer to them…while removing her clothes!

In the second episode, “Oath Entrant”, Kris takes off her clothes (there’s Barbie doll anatomy,) and performs a skyclad ritual.  It turns out she belongs to a Lunarian cult called the Beginners, who are into spirit worship and casual nudity.   Anna is especially freaked out by the latter due to her strong nudity taboo (but that is something that comes up in Episode Three.)

The first sport the trio is entered into is Zero-G lacrosse; which they aren’t allowed to warm up for or learn the rules before being thrust into the first match…which just so happens to be against Mylandah and her anonymous teammates.   Lacking teamwork and basic information about how the sport works, Akari’s team is stomped.  Akari promptly has a crisis of confidence.

Akari consults a hologrammatic display of her mother when that person was a student at the Satellite, then sets up a robotic practice room.  Mylandah sabotages the practice by altering the settings to “lethal”, but this gives Anna and Kris the chance to rescue Akari and bond with her.  By the end of the lacrosse matches, Team Akari is able to win one.

This 1997 series came out before the current moe movement, but one can see the roots of that treatment here.  Akari is underconfident and emotionally vulnerable in a way designed to make male viewers protective of her, while Anna, Kris and Tanya appeal to specific fetish points.  While the focus on female athleticism is welcome, the young women with visible musculature are treated as less desirable by the camera framing and narrative flow.

Male-oriented fanservice is right up front, and Grant Oldman’s sexual interest in teenage girls is treated as a lovable foible rather than a concerning flaw in a teacher.

This isn’t as deep as Ender’s Game, but does have a similar feel at points.  Interestingly, Japanese culture seems to have survived just fine in the internationalist future.

Recommended for male fans of female athletes; there’s better anime of girls’ sports actually aimed at girls.

 

Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

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.

Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

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.

Book Review: The Players of Null-A

Book Review: The Players of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt (Also published as The Pawns of Null-A)

Note:  This book is a direct sequel to The World of Null-A and this review will spoil elements of that first novel.  Like, immediately after this paragraph.

The Players of Null-A

With the death of the mighty Thorson, the plans of the Greatest Empire for Venus and Earth have been thwarted.  But that empire and its master Enro the Red are still active threats to the Galactic League.  As well, Gilbert Gosseyn, the man with the extra brain,  has come to the attention of the mysterious Follower.  Even with the aid of his Null-A training, can Gosseyn survive long enough to learn the true nature of his enemies?  And who is the Player who seems to be guiding Gosseyn?

This story was originally published as a magazine serial in 1948, and revised for book publication in the 1950s.  It follows van Vogt’s standard formula of short scenes and plenty of plot twists, while using psychologically tricky phrasing to slow the reader down and make them think a bit.  Still, the plot practically gallops.

One thing Mr. van Vogt did well was allow his overpowered protagonist to still feel challenged.  His training in non-Aristotelian logic gives his cortex (seat of reasoning) mastery over the thalamus (seat of emotions) so that he is able to understand his own feelings and psychology.  This has allowed Gosseyn to reach the peak of human mental and physical conditioning.  In addition, his apparently unique extra brain allows him to teleport himself and other objects without the aid of machines, as well as other minor tricks.  Oh, and if he’s killed, there are backup bodies.

But Gosseyn is up against Enro the Red, a dictator with the resources of an empire and the ability to see and hear events anywhere he chooses; and the Follower, a living shadow with the ability to predict the future.  To make things even more complicated, Gosseyn is forced into a different body from time to time, one without any special powers or training to assist him.  While if he gets killed, Gosseyn will revive in a new body, he doesn’t know where that body is stored–it could be far from the places he needs to be.

Eldred Crang, the Null-A detective, is also busy, but mostly behind the scenes with his alleged wife (who turns out to be Enro’s sister, and co-ruler of the planet…but with no power over the extrastellar empire.)

There are several competent, strong-minded women in the story, but for reasons, none of them are fully trained in Null-A, so they play subordinate roles.  There’s a scene where this book almost passes the Bechdel Test.  It seems that Enro has a childish attitude towards women, considering their primary use to be sex objects (including his sister), so Gosseyn has two of them engage in “girl talk” so that if Enro is listening in, the inanity of it will mask the men’s plot-relevant conversation.   Doesn’t quite pass the test, as none of the women’s dialogue is quoted.

The ending is very abrupt, like one of those old kung-fu movies that stops at the moment the hero lands a knock-out blow on the villain.  Mr. van Vogt was not big on wrap-up chapters, so the fate of several characters is up in the air at the book’s end.

The Null-A philosophy extracts that start each chapter can be a bit repetitious, and one has to wonder just how one leaps from them to rewiring your brain through intense training.  There’s also a lot of technobabble around the teleportation system.

You might want to read the previous book first, (try to get your hands on the 1970s revision which fixes some of the worst plot holes in World), but this is perfectly acceptable pulp science fiction that might give you something to think about.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends by Various

Back in the 1970s, there was a Saturday morning cartoon titled Superfriends.  It featured several superheroes from DC Comics,, plus “Junior Super Friends” Wendy and Marvin, trainee superheroes with their pet Wonderdog.   Each episode taught valuable life lessons to kids across America.  While reruns of the cartoon continue even today, younger fans may not be aware there used to be a tie-in comic book as well.

Showcase Presents Super Friends

Because the Comics Code of the time was surprisingly less restrictive than the Standards & Practices Board that governed children’s broadcasting, the writers of the comic book had more flexibility to put in story elements that explained how the team worked, and the full range of the heroes’ powers.  The book took place in a close parallel of the DC universe, so other superheroes could guest star.

Now, I said the writers could be more flexible than the TV show, but I am still amazed that they got away with mass murder as a plot point in the third issue.  Some of the deaths even happened on panel!  And they weren’t even reversed by the end of the story.  To explain, a mad scientist captures over a hundred supervillains (none of whom were established characters) and disintegrates them to create the World-Beater, which has all their powers combined.

After a few issues, the comic book explained (as the show never did) the change from the first season’s Marvin and Wendy, to the later Wonder Twins, aliens named Jan and Zayna.   This was a truly epic plot which also introduced a slew of international superheroes who later joined the mainstream DCU as the Global Guardians.  (It also gave the comic some much-needed ethnic diversity.)

Many creators worked on the series, but the distinctive art of Ramona Fradon is perhaps most representative.

Aside from the mass murder, this is a kid-friendly title; there are some dated attitudes that parents might want to discuss with their children.  The writing is typical for the time period, and certainly better than the television show.

Recommended for fans of the Superfriends cartoon and nostalgic comics fans.

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