Book Review: Black Bird of the Gallows

Book Review: Black Bird of the Gallows  by Meg Kassel

Cadence, Pennsylvania used to be a mining town.  The economy never fully recovered from the mines closing down, but the town survived.  But there are some disturbing signs.  There’s an unseasonably high number of crows for February, and an even more unseasonable number of unusually aggressive bees.

Black Bird of the Gallows

Angelina “Angie” Dovage doesn’t pay too much attention to that at first.  She’s trying to survive her last year of high school, live down her past life with her drug-addicted mother, keep her identity as Sparo (the town’s hottest DJ) secret from her classmates, and checking out the hot new boy who just moved in next door.  The tall, dark, brooding boy who has a mysterious past.

This is a young adult paranormal romance, so Reece Fernandez turns out to be a supernatural being with strange powers, and also a strong attraction to Angie.  And of course he feels the need to “protect” her by not telling her relevant information until much later than it would have been useful.

There’s also Rafette, a much less pleasant supernatural being who has taken an interest in Angie, and knows way too much about her mother for his appearance in Cadence to be a coincidence.  Unlike the crow-based Harbingers, Beekeepers can’t be killed–or at least that’s what everyone’s been told.

On the more normal high school drama side of things, there’s Angie’s musical friends Daniel “Deno” Steinway and Lacey Taggert, and mean girl Kiera Shaw.   Deno still seems to carry a bit of a torch for Angie, and is oblivious to Lacey’s interest in himself.   Kiera seems intent on bringing up Angie’s supposedly sordid past at every opportunity.

Things get progressively worse in Cadence as increasing numbers of people go mad, and the real reason the Harbingers are in town approaches.

At my current age, I sympathize more with Angie’s well-meaning but out of the loop father when it comes to her apparent relationship with Reece.  The story fudges a bit on the “much older guy falls in love with a teenage girl” thing, but it still comes off icky.

Thankfully, Angie’s reasonably competent on her own; it’s only supernatural problems that she needs a supernatural rescuer for.

A third kind of supernatural being comes into the plot briefly, creating a sequel hook.  (Yes, of course this is a series.)

Overall…I’m not the audience for this book.  It seems competently written, and I didn’t actively hate any of the characters, but they didn’t engage me either.   It will probably work much better for teenagers, and more likely artsy young women.

Let’s have a video of crows being annoying!

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

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

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

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

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

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

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

Some stories I particularly liked:

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

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

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

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

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

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One

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

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

The Superman Chronicles Volume One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All that in thirteen pages!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comic Book Review: Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool

Comic Book Review: Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool written by Dwayne McDuffie & Robert L. Washington III, art by Denys Cowan & John Paul Leon

Static is Virgil Ovid Hawkins, a science-loving teenager exposed to an experimental gas that gave him electro-magnetic superpowers.  He protects his schoolmates and neighborhood against gangs and supervillains who were also powered up by the gas.   Now if he could find the time to also have a normal teenage life!

Static shock: Rebirth of the Cool

Static was the most successful character to come out of the Milestone Comics line, an attempt to showcase African-American comics creators and more diverse characters in superhero comics.  He was a blend of early Spider-Man (nerdy teenager who is bullied at school, wisecracker, prone to bad luck) with concerns familiar to black teenagers in the 1990s.  He went on to have a Saturday morning cartoon, Static Shock, that ran for four seasons before being cancelled because the toy companies couldn’t figure out how to merchandise it.

Although Milestone had ceased publishing in 1997, the popularity of the TV series allowed for a four-issue miniseries that was a “where are they now” for the characters, centering on Static.

This volume reprints the first four issues of the original Static  series, as well as the Rebirth of the Cool miniseries.

The story opens with Static already having operated in his Dakota neighborhood for a month or so, and being appreciated by the locals.   Some hoods are hassling Frieda, the girl Virgil likes, and Static interferes.  After this triumph, Virgil heads home and we meet his skeptical mother and annoying little sister Sharon.  (Virgil’s father works long hours at the hospital and we see little of him in these issues.)

Next day at school, Virgil meets up with his friends, including the suave Larry and the sensitive Rick (who is the target of homophobic comments, even though the person doing so isn’t sure Rick is gay.)  Virgil asks Larry for relationship advice, as he is thinking of asking Frieda out.  Larry warns that Frieda may already be seeing someone, but Virgil scoffs.

The previous hoodlums invade the school to capture Frieda (popular girl!) and take her to a nearby abandoned playground.  Their leader, Hotstreak, is interested in her (but not vice versa), and in luring in Static for a fight.  With his powers of speed and fire, Hotshot beats Static badly, then leaves to bask in his triumph.  Frieda is surprised to learn that Static is really her friend Virgil.

At Frieda’s place, Virgil gets patched up and tells his origin story.  Some time before, he was new at Ernest Hemingway High School (the Hawkins family had moved from a worse neighborhood) when he ran afoul of a gangbanger nicknamed Biz Money B.  Virgil’s friend Larry advised him that he would continue to be victimized unless Virgil stopped the bullying permanently.

Not actively engaged in the local gangs himself, but “connected”, Larry knew of a turf war going on.  There was going to be a huge throwdown of all the gangs on Paris Island the next night.  If Biz Money B just happened to die during it, end of problem.  Larry provided Virgil with an address and a disposable gun.

Come the actual event, Virgil found himself unable to murder a man, no matter how awful.   But before he could retreat, the cops raided the battle and doused the assembled gangs with what was supposed to be riot gas.  It’s actually “Q-juice”, an experimental chemical developed by Alva Enterprises.  (Alva Enterprises is the bad guys at this point in time.)  Those who survive inhaling it gain superpowers.

This includes Virgil, who uses his newfound electromagnetic abilities to evade capture by Alva Enterprises goons.  Unlike most “Bang Babies”, who started out as criminals in the first place, Virgil decided to use his powers for good as Static.

Explanations given and a pep talk from Frieda later, Static has a rematch with Hotstreak (who of course is the former Biz Money B) and easily defeats him.   Virgil then asks Frieda for a date, but is turned down.  (Turns out she’s dating Larry.)  They remain friends.

The next two issues have Static battling Tarmack, the living road, and Holocaust, a flame-wielding villain who picked the name deliberately to be offensive.   Holocaust is a would-be crimelord, and tries to sell Static on the idea of working with him against “The Man” who’s keeping them down.  Holocaust talks a good game, and Static is not particularly blind to how systemic racism is a factor in his life.  But the villain soon shows his true ruthless nature, and Static dissolves the partnership.

When I first read this back in the early Nineties, I wasn’t all that impressed.  I was tiring of angsty teen heroes, and Virgil’s personality can be a bit much.  But the writing rapidly improved, and the more realistic look at life in a multicultural neighborhood made the book stand out from the mainstream comics equivalents.  The coloring is of special note–Milestone used a new coloring process that allowed more subtlety in hues, so that not all black people had to have the same skin tone.

The mini-series picks up some months after we last saw Static in his own series.   Virgil has retired from superheroing after losing a partner, and is catching up on his civilian life, including having a new girlfriend.   This can’t last, of course.   Someone is kidnapping Bang Babies and other superhumans.

They’ve already taken down the Blood Syndicate (morally complex gang), and crippled Hardware (the local equivalent to Iron Man.)   Icon (the local equivalent to Superman) is out in space, Xombi (regenerator) only handles occult weirdness, and the Shadow Cabinet (secret society of superhumans) is officially hands off.  That just leaves the Heroes, Static’s old team, and without his powers, they’re not doing so hot, having just lost one of their most powerful members.

Virgil is begged to come back to active duty, but refuses until inevitably the baddies stumble across him while hunting other Bang Babies.  He briefly assumes a costume that looks like the cartoon before returning to his more usual garb, and leads the remaining heroes (including some unofficially seconded Shadow Cabinet members) to find the missing superhumans.

The investigation leads to someone with a shocking tie to Earth’s first superheroes, the Tower Family, and a small army of that person’s minions, powered up by the very Bang Babies they’ve kidnapped!

It’s nice seeing many favorite characters again, including the love-to-hate omnicognitive Dharma.  (“I’m not going to tell you anything.  Because I know the minute I leave the room, Iron Butterfly will tell you everything you need.”)   Because this is a Static-centric story, the other characters give him more respect than is perhaps warranted by their history.

I’m not fond of the art, as the inks tend to the blobby, losing subtlety in facial expressions.

Good ending, though.

I understand that there’s a Milestone event coming up from DC comics, so now may be the time to look up this bit of the backstory.

And now, the openings from the cartoon:

 

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6 written (mostly) by J.M. DeMatteis, Pencils by Don Perlin

The Defenders are one of Marvel Comics’ more oddball teams, beginning with a line-up of Doctor Strange, Hulk, Silver Surfer and the Sub-Mariner, four of Marvel’s most powerful characters who did not belong to other teams.  After a couple of pilot stories, the “non-team” first assembled in Marvel Feature #1 in 1971 to battle the alien Scientist Supreme Yandroth, and shortly thereafter got their own continuing series.

Essential Defenders Vol. 6

With four such volatile personalities, it was difficult to justify them staying together very long, and the warrior woman Valkyrie was added to the group to give them “texture” and a reason to cooperate.  Other members soon followed, either long-term or temporarily, and the Defenders got a reputation for being whoever happened to show up when danger struck, with Dr. Strange being the linchpin of the group.

This volume covers Defenders issues #107-125, and a couple of extras from 1982-83.  We open in the aftermath of a major plotline involving a group of self-proclaimed super-patriots trying to take over America with a group of powerful telepaths.  These telepaths and Kyle “Nighthawk” Richmond combined their mental powers to blow up the bad guys’ base, apparently dying in the process.  As the assembled heroes reel in shock during the aftermath, a stray minion of the super-patriots manages to get the drop on Valkyrie, killing her.

SPOILERS AHOY FROM THIS POINT!

It turns out that due to her convoluted backstory, involving the Asgardian goddess Amora the Enchantress, Valkyrie isn’t quite dead yet.  The heroes split into two groups when Amora offers a deal to restore Valkyrie to full life.  This plotline ends with Valkyrie restored to her true form of Brunnhilda, and no longer with the curse of being unable to fight women.  (She also loses some of her disdain of men in the process.)

Several members of the Defenders are lost in transit back from Asgard, but before that plotline bears fruit, there are solo issues focusing on Eric Simon “Devil-Slayer” Payne and Patsy “Hellcat” Walker.  Then there’s Avengers Annual #11. which features the return of perennial Defenders villain Nebulon.  He and his wife Supernalia clash, pitting the Avengers and Defenders against each other.

This is followed by Marvel Team-Up #119, which features Spider-Man and Isaac “Gargoyle” Christians in a story about aging and the acceptance of same.  Isaac has some insight into these matters as he was already a senior citizen when he made the Faustian bargain that made him a living gargoyle.

The missing Defenders turn out to have been transported to Earth-S, a parallel universe where the main hero group is the Squadron Supreme, a parody of/homage to the Justice League.  On their earth, Kyle Richmond is President of the United States.  Which would be great if he weren’t under the mental control of the alien known as Overmind.  As is most of the Squadron, saving only Hyperion (their version of Superman), who is suffering from lethal radiation poisoning.

And Nighthawk, “our” Kyle Richmond, is helping him out, having been transported to this Earth by the group mind that were once human telepaths.  He brought in the missing Defenders, who now summon the rest of the team for a moon mission to keep the Overmind from conquering the rest of the universe.

Except it turns out that “our” Kyle Richmond is actually “their” Kyle Richmond, given Nighthawk’s memories by the group mind.  But wait, then who’s the President?  It’s actually Null the Living Darkness, which has been puppeteering the Overmind to draw attention away from its protective shell.  The climax is kind of disappointing as it’s the group mind’s show, co-opting everyone else for a battle of wills with the ultimate darkness, only to have Null destroy itself with its own inner light.

So in the aftermath, “our” Kyle Richmond is as really dead as a Marvel superhero gets (not coming back from the dead until 1998!); Earth-S’ Kyle Richmond regains his true memories and reunites with his old teammates (who would go on to the Squadron Supreme miniseries, one of the best superhero stories ever); the group mind inhabits the currently vacant body of the Overmind; and the Defenders return to their own Earth.  (With a slight detour for some of them in a Dr. Seuss-inspired adventure.)

The next few issues weave together the resolution of the Patsy Walker/Daimon “Son of Satan” Hellstrom romance, Hank “Beast” McCoy’s growing irritation with the Defender’s “non-team” ethos… and the return of the Elf with a Gun.  This last had been a subplot during the Steve Gerber run, involving an elf with a gun popping up and seemingly murdering random people.  It was abandoned when Gerber left the book with the apparent death of the elf in an accident.

Mr. DeMatteis wanted to change the direction of the book, so revived the elf (now revealed to be multiple identical beings) as the agent of a time tribunal that was attempting to prevent the destruction of Earth.  Removing random Earthlings had not done the trick, so the tribunal had to convince the four original Defenders that they must never all be in the same room together again.  Unfortunately, the elf took over the narration for a couple of issues, and he was written as a very annoying character.

The resignation of the four founders gave Beast the opportunity to reconfigure the group as the New Defenders (complete with title change as of #125).  He roped in his old X-Men teammates Iceman and Angel, holdovers Valkyrie and Gargoyle, and new member Heather “Moondragon” Douglas.  A powerful telepath who had a revolving door hero/villain history, she had been released into the custody of the Valkyrie to re-learn human values.  (The Overmind simply disappeared between issues; this would become a plot point later.)

This began a period in which the New Defenders were an official team, with rules and such.  But that’s for Volume Seven.

Overall, a decent run with consistent art, and some good character focus stories.  Some of the writing is a bit heavy-handed with the morals; there’s a consistent theme of learning to have hope even in a world full of loss and pain.  The Dr. Seuss inspired story will either be laugh out loud funny or a total miss depending on your tastes.

Recommended to fans of the characters or 1970s Marvel storytelling.

 

Manga Review: Haikyu!! 1

Manga Review: Haikyu!! 1 by Haruichi Furudate

It is the first game of the junior high boys’ volleyball tournament, between Kitagawa Daiichi Middle School and Yukigaoka Middle School.  While the first school is known for its strong volleyball program, the other…isn’t.  Yet the stars on each team have something in common.

Haikyu!! 1

Shoyo Hinata of Yukigaoka has been in love with volleyball since he saw a particularly thrilling game on television as a child.  A relatively short player nicknamed “the Little Giant” showed his skills leading Karasuno High School to victory.  This inspired the undersized Hinata, and he began practicing his skills.  But his school didn’t have a boys’ team, and he turned down the offer to join the girls’ team.  So for several years he was the only member of the volleyball club.  In this, his final year, he’s finally scraped together enough members (including loaners from other sports teams) to enter the winter tournament.  Pity none of the other team members has skills!

We don’t learn as much yet about Tobio Kageyama’s background, but he’s got a reputation for being a natural genius at volleyball, called “The King of the Court.”  The catch is that his Kitagawa teammates gave him that nickname not for his skills, but for being a royal brat who is the “I” in “team.”  His attitude is sour, but he’s the only one who respects Hinata as an opponent.

The game is a blowout, of course, but Hinata encourages his team even though they let him down time after time, while Kageyama berates his team for being less than perfect.  Despite Hinata’s despair at losing the only full volleyball game he’ll get to play in junior high, his team feels better about their loss than Kitagawa does about their win.  Hinata marks Kageyama as his arch-rival and promises they’ll meet again in the high school tournaments.  Kitagawa is soon eliminated from the tournament as well, though Hinata barely notices the news.

Hinata chooses to go to Karasuno High School, a half hour away by bicycle, because of his memories of the televised game, even though he has heard their volleyball program is not as good as it used to be.  He is shocked to discover that Kageyama is also attending the school, even though he should have been getting a full scholarship from the school district’s top volleyball high.  Kageyama angrily explains that he was rejected, but does not elaborate.

The two immediately begin quarreling, which causes some issues with the vice-principal.  Daichi Sawamura, the volleyball team captain, bans both of the rookies from the team until they’ve learned to work together.  This will be shown in a three-on-three match.  Hinata and Kageyama will be teamed up with the thuggish-looking (but really a huge goofball) Ryunosuke Tanaka, while Daichi will be with the other two rookies, who haven’t been introduced yet.

Can the short kid with speed and jumping skill learn to work with the genius setter in time?

This popular sports manga appears in Shounen Jump Weekly and has had three seasons of anime adaptation.  Volleyball (haikyuu in Japanese) was one of the first sports to get an ongoing manga/anime in the form of Attack! Number One and remains a popular sport in Japan.

The story gives us two protagonists who both must learn teamwork for different reasons, but slightly disguises it by having them set up as rivals in the first chapter.  Hinata’s easier to like, but has a tendency to stick with boneheaded decisions well past the point it’s clear they’re not working out.  Kageyama is quick to point out that never giving up doesn’t work if you don’t have the skills and strength to pull it off.  The taller boy, meanwhile, has to learn how to adapt to the teammates he actually has, rather than expect everyone to match his level.

The rest of the Karasuno team is the usual assortment of quirky types; the most developed in this volume is Tanaka.  His skinhead haircut and habit of sneering at people he doesn’t know makes Tanaka look like a troublemaker, but he’s actually just very intense and a hopeless romantic.

As is common in boys’ sports manga, the only named female character in the first volume is Kiyoko Shimizu, the pretty but shy team manager.  Tanaka is open about his crush on her, which she tactfully ignores.  It’ll be quite a while (I’ve seen the anime) before we get any others worth mentioning.

The Karasuno High School vice-principal is very much a stock character, pompous, obstructive and wearing a bad toupee; thankfully he mostly goes away after this volume.

This first volume is mostly about introducing characters and setting up the initial conflicts; it will be a while before the manga gets to the serious sports action.  We also get little bits of explanation about volleyball for the new reader, and character profiles indicating strong and weak points for the cast.

The art is generally good, with strong crow motifs for the Karasuno team, but every so often the artist uses “crazy eyes” when he shouldn’t.

There’s little here that should be objectionable for sports-minded middle-schoolers on up, with strong themes of persistence, teamwork and (eventually) friendship.  Recommended primarily to young volleyball fans.

Let’s have the opening for the first anime season!

Manga Review: Dawn of the Arcana 1

Manga Review: Dawn of the Arcana 1 by Rei Toma

Princess Nakaba has bright red hair.  This is not a rare hair color in her homeland of Senan; indeed it’s all too common.  Both in Senan and its southern neighbor Belquat, all the nobility and royalty have pure black hair.  Her flaming tresses suggest that Nakaba is the product of an affair with a peasant, or some weakness in her family line.  Thus she has long been shunned and mistreated by her royal relatives.

Dawn of the Arcana 1

When the time comes for a political marriage to quell the periodic military tension between Belquat and Senan, Nakaba is chosen for the task as a deliberate slap in the face to both her and the royal family of Belquat.  The brides in these marriages tend to turn up dead in suspicious circumstances a few years later, so sending Princess Nakaba both tells her how expendable she is, and informs Belquat that their princes are not worthy of purebred wives.

Prince Caesar of Belquat isn’t too thrilled with this marriage either.  He’s the younger son of the royal family, but also has a claim on the throne as Prince Cain is the son of a concubine, while Caesar’s mother is fully married to the king.  His mother’s people are scheming to make him the heir, but Prince Caesar has no interest in ruling Belquat when Cain could do a perfectly adequate job.  Caesar is not a particularly talented warrior, and has won what combat skills he has by long practice.

Princess Nakaba’s sole ally at court (at least at the beginning) is her servant Loki, who has been with her since childhood.  Loki is a member of the Ajin race, humanoids with animalistic ears and tails.  Their senses are sharper than ordinary humans, and their great strength and superior reflexes make them natural warriors.  Ajin are an underclass who are allowed to be servants at best, and are often massacred to keep their numbers down.  Loki is devoted to Nakaba, not least because he knows she has a hidden power called “Arcana” that is about to blossom.

This shoujo fantasy manga was first published in 2009.  There’s heavy romance elements as Nakaba and Caesar must try to make their marriage work despite being enemies, and deal with the passions of other people who have their own love or political objectives.

This first volume has three long chapters.  We first meet the royal couple shortly after the official wedding ceremony.  They don’t like each other, but have to put a polite face on in public and both are trying to make the marriage work to the extent that’s possible.  Princess Nakaba makes an etiquette blunder at her first dinner with the new family,  King Guran takes the opportunity to sentence Loki to death (he really hates the Ajin) but the servant is able to escape.

While Prince Caesar is no fan of the Ajin either, he does pledge to get the death sentence revoked if Loki shows his loyalty to Nakaba by returning to her before dawn.  Loki does, and Caesar stands by his promise.  However, the way the promise is fulfilled in no way endears Loki to Caesar.  Despite that, this marks a turning point in Nakaba and Caesar’s relationship as they begin to see each other’s positive traits.

I’ve looked ahead a bit, and there are many plot twists to come, starting with the true nature of Princess Nakaba’s Arcana.

The art is decent, as is the writing.  There’s a certain amount of violence, so the publisher has rated this series as “Teen.”  There are a couple of forceful kisses, but Caesar backs off his insistence on enjoying his “marriage rights” when Nakaba puts up a fight.

Recommended for fans of fantasy romance.

Book Review: A Storm of Swords

Book Review: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first two volumes in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

A Storm of Swords

The Battle of King’s Landing is over, and the forces loyal to King Joffrey are triumphant.  But the War of Five Kings rages on, with no part of Westeros left untouched.  Lord Tywin Lannister returns to power as the King’s Hand after many years and his iron grip is soon felt both by the people of the land and his own family.

The various factions scheme and negotiate and betray, but all of this may soon be pointless as the Others gain strength and seek to slay all who live.

This is the third and largest volume so far in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series.  In a foreword, the author explains that the chapters from different points of view do not immediately follow each other chronologically.  Indeed, the first few chapters of A Storm of Swords take place before the last few chapters of A Clash of Kings, catching us up on some characters who were not at the Battle of King’s Landing.

The members of the Stark family remain a plurality of the viewpoint chapters, but other folks are catching up.

Catelyn Stark takes a calculated risk in freeing Jaime Lannister to exchange for her daughters, which angers some of her son’s bannermen.  Thus she has little room to talk when King Robb himself makes a major diplomatic faux pas.  (Robb still doesn’t get a viewpoint chapter.)  With their alliance falling apart, will the King in the North be able to mend fences before his enemies regroup?

Jon Snow infiltrates the Northern Wildlings as he was ordered, in order to learn what Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, is up to.  Like many spies before him, Jon learns that the Free Folk are people not so different from those he has loved and sworn to protect, despite their odd customs and desire to invade his homeland.  It is a bitter pill to swallow, but realizing that you know nothing is the beginning of wisdom.

Sansa Stark, trapped at King Joffrey’s court, continues to be a political pawn, valued primarily as a possible claim on the lands surrounding Winterfell, and if rebuilt, the castle itself.  She’s forced into a political marriage which she will need all her courtesy and will to survive.  The wolf may be caged, but she has not forgotten how to wait.

Arya Stark may have escaped the ill-omened castle Harrenhal, but the land is still torn by war, and one thing after another delays her reunion with her mother.  Among other events, Arya falls in with the Bannerless Brotherhood.  Once the enforcers of the king’s law, a change in government has made them outlaws who steal from the rich to give to the poor.  (For certain values of “rich” and “poor.”)  Arya may need to cash in a certain favor if she is to survive on her own terms.

Bran Stark, presumed dead after the fall of Winterfell, is headed north with the faithful Hodor and the Reeds.  (He has parted company with Rickon, who still gets no chapters.)   His link with direwolf Summer continues to grow, and he learns new facets of his powers.

Tyrion Lannister, badly wounded by an assassination attempt during the Battle of King’s Landing, finds himself fallen from power.  His father Lord Tywin grudgingly admits that Tyrion did a decent job as King’s Hand, but is soon back to treating his little person son like dirt, including saddling Tyrion with a cruel arranged marriage.  Queen Cersei and her son King Joffrey also take every opportunity to mock and belittle their relative.  How much can one man take before he snaps?

Daenerys Targaryen has come to realize that while being the Mother of Dragons is way cool, her reptilian wards are not yet big enough to win Westeros for her alone.  She needs an army, but where to get one?  Dani’s also finding that celibacy is becoming a harder stance to hold than when she was newly widowed.  Ser Jorah Mormont loves her, but the queen doesn’t love him that way back.

We don’t get any chapters from Theon Greyjoy’s perspective this time, though he is reportedly still alive and in possession of at least some of his skin.

Davos Seaworth, on the other hand, managed to survive the burning of the Blackwater, and returns to the service of King Stannis Baratheon.  The King of the Narrow Sea has been listening to the counsel of the Red Priestess Melisandre, and is prepared to sacrifice his nephew Edric Storm if that’s what it takes to gain enough power to rule Westeros.  Davos makes what is perhaps the smartest choices in the book when he realizes that Melisandre may be reading her prophetic visions backwards.

New to the list of point of view characters is Jaime Lannister, known as the Kingslayer.  Released in the custody of the female knight Brienne in order to get back to King’s Landing in exchange for the Stark daughters, Jaime must cross a hostile land with almost every hand against him.  We learn the reason he became the Kingslayer, and Jaime has to face up to how his past misdeeds have helped put Westeros in the mess it’s in.  Like Arya Stark, Jaime just keeps getting delayed on his journey until it is perhaps too late.

Finally, we follow Jon Snow’s less combat-effective friend Samwell Tarly, a steward for the Night Watch.  While Jon goes off on his secret mission, Sam assists the other Black Brothers in their scouting mission beyond the Wall.  The Others are deadly, but what may finish off the Night Watch might be treachery in their own ranks.

This is the book that really cemented the series’ reputation for having anyone die at any time, and kills off major and minor characters left and right.  (One character who seemed like they were going to be very important in the second volume dies offhand in a single sentence here.)  But that comes with a caveat that anyone who is only reported as dead may in fact be alive, and being dead doesn’t mean not making any more appearances.

The big theme of the book is marriage; there are multiple weddings, none of which turn out particularly well.  There’s also several songs that recur throughout, most notably the bawdy “The Bear and the Maiden” and “The Rains of Castamere”, which has more sinister connotations.

Parts of the book do become a slog as there are multiple characters trying to get from one place to another and not getting there over and over.  A couple of the Stark family just miss meeting each other, and some plot twists are gratuitously cruel.  (As are some actions taken by the characters.) A few of the mysteries in the first two volumes are solved, for what it is worth.

As always, there is plenty of gory violence, some sex, attempted rape of major characters and off-camera rape of minor characters, and great steaming heaps of rough language.  Torture takes place off-stage as well.  But if you weren’t warned by the first two volumes, there’s not much I can say.

There’s some nifty world-building, and a handful of great scenes.  Primarily recommended to people who liked the earlier books in the series.

And now, a song!

Comic Strip Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason

Comic Strip Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason by Thomas Siddell

After Antimony “Annie” Carver’s mother Surma dies, her father Anthony drops her off at her parent’s alma mater, a strange boarding school called Gunnerkrigg Court.  The court is an enormous place, looking rather like an industrial city, but large portions of it seem to be abandoned…by humans, at least.  There are robots advanced beyond anything in the outside world, bizarre events are commonplace, there’s a creepy forest just across a long bridge students are forbidden to cross, and Annie notices that she’s picked up a second shadow.

Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason

This noted fantasy webcomic has been running since 2005, beginning here (happily, the art style drastically improves over time.)  It’s got an intricate plot with many details planned well in advance.  (For example, in an early strip Antimony tells us it will be two years before she sees her father again.)  The Court’s architecture is somewhat based on the city of Birmingham in England.

At the beginning of this volume, Annie is in training to possibly become the Court’s Medium, an ambassador between the school and the magical Gillitie Wood.  The other two candidates, Andrew Smith (with the ability to bring order out of chaos) and George Parley (whose father expected a boy, and has the gift of teleportation) argue a lot but turn out to be attracted to each other.  This interrupts two simulations.

Then it’s time for a camping trip to a park that is actually inside the boundaries of Gunnerkrigg Court.  Campers start to disappear, and Annie and her best friend Kat (Katherine Donlan, daughter of two of the teachers who were friends with Annie’s parents) must solve the mystery.

After that, Kat, who is beloved by the Court’s robots due to her technical skills and repair abilities grants the king of said robots access to the portrait of Jeanne, the ghost that haunts the ravine between the Court and the Wood.  In return, he reveals the existence of a robot that has memories of Jeanne, and the very early days of the Court.  Those memories reveal a dark secret of the past.

In the next chapter, Annie visits the Wood and learns more about Ysengrim, the wolf with tree armor that is the current Medium for their side of the river.  Coyote, the trickster spirit that is in charge of the Wood, gives Annie a gift for reasons not fully revealed.

Then the subplot of Jack, who’s been acting increasingly erratic since he was exposed to the mass hallucination projected by a girl named Zimmy, comes to the fore.  He coerces Annie into accompanying him to a power station that might have something to do with why he can’t sleep.

This is followed by a spotlight chapter for Kat, who hasn’t been able to process her emotional reaction to learning what the Court did to Jeanne.  She’s finally able to recover her equilibrium with the help of an abandoned baby bird, and Paz, a classmate who can talk to animals.

Further research with the help of Andrew and Parley reveals some of Jeanne’s story from her point of view, and convinces Parley to be honest about her feelings.

Finally, Annie’s second year at Gunnerkrigg Court comes to a painful close when she and Renard (a fox spirit living in a stuffed toy) quarrel and reveal some very painful secrets to each other.  This leads to her choosing to spend the summer in the Wood rather than with friends.

At the end are some art pages and bonus strips about “City Face”, the pigeon Kat rescued.

The mood swings wildly between chapters, some being very comedic while others go deep into dark territory.  While we get several important revelations in this volume, the jigsaw nature of the overall plot means that many items don’t pay off until future volumes–I do recommend starting from the beginning.

As is often the case with webcomics collections, the material is all available on the internet for free, but if you like it, please consider buying the print version to make the creator more financially stable.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

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