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.

 

Magazine Review: Gamma 3

Magazine Review: Gamma 3 edited by Charles E. Fritch

Gamma was a short-lived science fiction magazine (five issues in 1963-64), known for high-quality cover art and snagging stories from authors connected with the film industry.  (Indeed, I picked up this issue because of the sweet Morris Scott Dollens art.)  It was digest-sized and relatively thin.   Let’s look at the contents!

Gamma 3

“The Girl of Paradise Planet” by Robert Turner concerns retired millionaire George Prentiss.  He and his third wife Evvie have come to the title planet on a long vacation (her idea.)  Bored, Robert has taken up underwater swimming with future SCUBA gear.  This world is not supposed to have any native intelligent life, but then where did that water-breathing naked girl come from?  Is George having hallucinations from the water pressure, or is he just going insane?

Over the course of the story, we learn that George is a self-made man who spent his youth starting a business, growing that business and getting rich, so he didn’t look for romance until middle age, and three times went for trophy wives, none of whom have worked out.  Which is okay…except that the possibly imaginary Irlana comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose function is to rekindle his love of life (and is younger and prettier than Evvie.)

Mr. Turner was an experienced author, but this was his first time writing science fiction, and I can tell.  He’s certainly no climatologist, and the ending twist relies on most of the characters forgetting a perfectly logical explanation for events that would be common knowledge to them, even if the reader wouldn’t know it.

“The Feather Bed” by Shelley Lowenkopf presents a bizarre future in which the economy runs on make-work.  For example, three years after a building is built, all the piping is torn out and replaced just to give the plumbing crews something to do.   This extends to writing as well.  Every 37 years, all extant editions of Shakespeare are destroyed, and replaced with “newly written” versions by living authors.  Except that it’s just retyping the whole thing verbatim.  And the same goes for all other works of fiction by dead writers.

Lew has had it with the system–he doesn’t want to “rewrite” King Lear again, and on the union points system, it will be years before he’s allowed to write more of the original fiction that made him a successful author in the first place.  Unfortunately, he’s just one man against the system, and winds up causing even the FBI to intervene.  If Lew sticks to his principles, he could lose everything, including the writing he really wants to do.

“Angel Levine” by Bernard Malamud stars  Jewish tailor Manischevitz, who is going through hard times.  His shop burned down, and the insurance money was eaten by customer lawsuits.  His son died in the war, and his daughter ran off with a man and never communicates.  He’s got chronic pain, and his wife Rosie is dying.  Manischevitz asks God for assistance, but when an “angel” named Levine shows up, there are reasons the tailor is unconvinced.  It’s ultimately a story about belief in the face of your assumptions about people.  There is racism and anti-Semitism in the story.  (This one was reprinted from one of the author’s collections.)

“The (In)visible Man” by Edward W. Ludwig  is a fantasy about James Smith, who has become socially invisible.  He’s finally decided to exploit that fact, but one person has finally become able to see him, and that is both Mr. Smith’s weakness and best hope.  It’s a fairly sweet story, helped along by James Smith, even when he turns criminal, sticking to a “least harm” principle.  There is an attempted suicide in the story.

“Inside Story” by Miriam Allen deFord takes place in a far future when the Galactic Federation sends scouts to find new worlds that one of their myriad species can live on and isn’t already inhabited by intelligent life.  These planets are exceedingly rare.  It looks, however, like this one might be ideal.  Presuming the scout party doesn’t find any surprises like rapid inexplicable temperature variations….

In this future, scout ships have mixed-sex crews, but this is because every member of that crew is a different non-compatible species.  The twist ending is suitably bizarre.

“The Birth” by George Clayton Johnson is a retelling of a classic story from a different perspective.  See how long it takes you to figure out which one!

“Buttons” by Raymond E. Banks concerns John Burke, a starship officer who is forced by disaster to upload his mind to a computer memory storage system.  Supposedly, he will have his mind reinserted into his human body once that’s fixed.  But that procedure has a high failure rate, and Burke is rapidly discovering the advantages of being a disembodied intelligence.  There’s some relatively early thought about the benefits versus possible hazards of transhumanism.

“Society for the Prevention” by Ron Goulart is a humorous piece about the travails of a interplanetary surplus store manager.  He’s just gotten a large shipment of extremely ugly wicker urns, the natives of the planet have organized a violent “Shop Local” campaign, and the newly arrived Young Girls Space Police and Welfare Committee officer suspects him of being in cahoots with the inventor of a death ray.  Everything more or less works out in the end, but now the store manager has to try to explain to his boss why the urns didn’t get sold.  The female Space Police officer is treated as a joke–admittedly so is everyone else, but it may not sit well with some readers, as part of the joke is that women are completely unsuited for the work.

The final story is “The Snail Watcher” by Patricia Highsmith.  This creepy tale is about a man who gets a little too fascinated with the reproductive habits of snails, not noticing that these particular snails are reproducing much more rapidly than is anywhere near normal.

Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham
Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham

Interior art is by Luan Metheringham, who sadly seems to have completely dropped out of sight with only her Gamma appearances known.

There is also an interview with “Ivan Kirov” about the state of Soviet science fiction in the early 1960s.  He declined to have his real name published for security reasons.  Per the interview, SF in the USSR was beginning to blossom after being suppressed during the Stalinist years.  Noted was a tendency for “nuts and bolts” stories of adventure, with little of the social or psychological exploration that had become common in Western nations’ science fiction.  (At the time, the government censors were big on Soviet Communism going worldwide being the only possible future, and writers were expected to get on board with that.)

The Banks story is the one that I liked best, though the Highsmith story was also effective.  Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of either author or the cover artist.

Book Review: Snuff

Book Review: Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Duke of Ankh-Morpork and Blackboard Monitor, has been aware in a general way that his wife Sybil owns some property in the countryside.  But now that their son Young Sam is six, Sybil has decided that it’s high time that the family take a holiday to visit the ancestral manor.   And she’s somehow convinced Sam’s boss, Lord Vetinari, to sign off on this.

Snuff

So Sam Vimes finds himself on vacation for the first time in ever, stranded far from the smell and sounds of the city he knows so well, and at a loss how to handle himself in a rural area where he’s not got jurisdiction as a cop.  But as Sherlock Holmes remarked in “The Copper Beeches”, the countryside is not free from vile sin.  When Vimes discovers that there’s been a murder on his land and the oppressed cry out for justice, he’s willing to bend the definition of jurisdiction to bring the villains to heel.

This is one of the last Discworld books (only two after this one) and the last of the City Watch sub-series.  While Vimes is front and center for most of the story, we do check in with many of the other continuing characters for at least a sentence.  (This is one of the few Discworld books to miss out Death as a character, but that does not mean that no one dies.)

Over the course of the series, Ankh-Morpork has advanced from a parody of generic sword-and-sorcery cities that happened to share some geographical features with London to more or less a fantasy version of Victorian London–and most of this progress has happened within Sam Vimes’ lifetime.  Indeed, Vimes can be said to have facilitated much of this by his dedication to law enforcement that does what is right rather than what is convenient.  Another running theme of the books has been that people are people, regardless of their shape, odd customs or biological weirdness.  Dwarves and trolls and even vampires have become people, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with that description.  And now it is the turn of the goblins.

Goblins are the lowest of the low, considered filthy creatures with no visible culture, and treated as vermin.  Enslaving them, taking their sacred objects, killing them–none of these are considered crimes by the majority of people or the written law.   But Commander Vimes’ previous experiences give him some unique ways of seeing the “humanity” of goblins.

And while his efforts do yield results, Sam Vimes would not be able to fully achieve the goal of bringing goblins under the protection of the law without the aid of his socially-connected wife, an author who has her own insights into goblin culture, and several goblins who step out of their stereotype to show their worth.  (Although there is some question whether Stinky is really a goblin…or something more.)

Much of the “humor” this time revolves around bodily excretions, as Young Sam has discovered the scientific wonders of poo.  For those of us not keen on toilet gags, this gets a bit tiresome.  There’s also a fair amount of swearing, and a discussion of “the dreadful algebra” of what to do with an infant that’s been born in a time of famine.  And not all sins are forgiven.

The general quality of the writing is excellent as always, but Sir Terry’s sentimental side perhaps overwhelms the sharper edge of social satire, particularly in the ending.

Recommended to Discworld fans; newbies should probably start with Guards! Guards! which is the first of the Watch sub-series.

Comic Strip Review: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Volume 14: 1951-1953

Comic Strip Review: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Volume 14: 1951-1953 by Chester Gould

Another of the fine IDW reprints which are trying to cover the entire Chester Gould run of Dick Tracy, moving into the early 1950s.  As mentioned in the Max Allan Collins introduction, the stories shifted focus a bit.  Dick Tracy is a full time father now, and those concerns take up some of his time.  As well, forensic science was beginning to catch up with the comic strips, so more of that was included as part of the action.

Dick Tracy Volume 18 1951-1953

The volume begins with Crewy Lou’s flight from justice, which is complicated by the fact that she’s accidentally abducted Bonny Braids, Dick and Tess’ infant daughter who started the whole plotline when Crewy Lou photographed her.  They go deep into the mountains, and the desperate woman finally abandons the baby in the smashed-up car.  It’s late fall, and the temperatures are dropping…Bonny Braids is turning blue…would Chester Gould really go ahead and kill the baby?

With his family reunited, Tracy then finds himself the subject of investigation–evidence has gone missing from the police station, evidence Dick was the last to touch.  It didn’t help that Dick Tracy had just built a fine new house and had a brand new car on a cop’s salary.  The main villain this time is “Spinner” ReCord, an electronic entertainment and record store owner.  He was especially cold-blooded, crating himself up with a corpse for hours on a train.  But not, as it happened, quite cold-blooded enough as he is eventually caught due to his body heat.

The supplemental article in this issue talks a bit about how this sequence was modified for comic book publication a few years later when the Comics Code was in force.  A girl’s arms were crudely erased to avoid showing bondage, and a particularly brutal beating was replaced with a text panel that skips over that.

This is followed by one of the most striking Dick Tracy sequences, as Junior Tracy falls in love for the first time (and is now established as a teenager.)  Model Jones is a lovely young woman of decent character, but saddled with drunkard parents and a juvenile delinquent brother.  Gould’s point here is that neglecting your children for alcohol will destroy the family.  Model is killed by her brother (mostly accidentally) and he and their parents mourn the wasted lives as he is sent to prison.

Junior mourns as well, but the world moves on with the initially kind of silly Tonsils story.  Tonsils is a young man with a loud clear voice and a strange way of moving his hands when he “sings.”  He has a poor memory for lyrics, and can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but his manager Dude thinks Tonsils is the next sensation.  Dude wants to quit the rackets, but still has a racketeer’s way of doing things, using a gun to coerce people into giving Tonsils a shot.

Surprise!  Tonsils is exactly the sort of giftedly bad novelty singer the American public wants, and he becomes locally famous.  Unfortunately, Dude’s old racketeer buddies decide that he should not have left the rackets, killing him and nearly killing Tonsils.  This unbalances the lad, and he winds up getting himself on the run from the law due to his mistaken belief that he’s been betrayed.

At this point, Tonsils is picked up by a far more dangerous villain, Mr. Crime.  From his hidden lair beneath a barracuda-infested swimming pool, Mr. Crime is the current leader of the rackets.  He coerces Tonsils into making an assassination attempt on Dick Tracy, and then starts moving against the detective himself.  Mr. Crime is ably assisted by Newsuit Nan, a fashion plate biochemist who has a fascination with blood.

With Mr. Crime and his gang out of the way, there’s a power vacuum in the underworld, which gambler Odds Zon plans to fill.  He tries a combination of torture and bribery to get Dick Tracy off the case, but it obviously doesn’t work.  Things get more complicated when the Plenty family takes in his daughter Susie, who becomes known as Little Wings due to her hair looking like a pair of angel wings.  And this angel glows in the dark!  Uh-oh.

This volume holds off on the truly grotesque looking villains; the most odd appearance is Tonsils’ habit of squinting one eye and bugging out the other.  The Model Jones story is the most “real” seeming due to its down to earth nature.  There is of course considerable violence, and some torture.

This isn’t the most famous period of Gould’s work, but it’s good solid adventure strip territory.  The end piece talks (in addition to the bowdlerization of the comic books) about what Mr. Gould was up to in real life in those years, and the strip’s effects in real life.

Recommended to fans of classic newspaper comics.

Book Review: The Silence of the Loons

Book Review: The Silence of the Loons edited by The Minnesota Crime Wave

The long-time reader may by now have realized that I have something of a weakness for anthologies.  Collections of short fiction are an excellent use of limited lunch reading time.  And I am also a faithful son of Minnesota.  So this book of short mystery genre stories hits several of my buttons.

The Silence of the Loons

Perhaps it is our long, cold, dark winters that inspire thoughts of murder and mayhem, but Minnesota has a bunch of mystery-genre writers, thirteen of whom wrote stories set in the Land of the 10,000 Lakes for this volume.  They were also instructed to choose from a short list of clues.  It will become very evident by oh say the third story which clues those are.  Some uses are quite clever, others are forced.

My favorite story is “The Gates” by Judith Guest, which isn’t really in the mystery genre as such, edging more into horror–but explaining why would spoil the surprise.

The first story in the volume is “Holiday Murder at Harmony Place” by M.D. Lake, which takes place in a senior citizen apartment building only a few blocks from where I live.  This familiarity gives it a great sense of place; the story itself is a “cozy” with a resident of the building investigating the death of a particularly obnoxious neighbor.  The detective work is clever, but fallible, appropriate for amateurs.  (A lot of the stories involve senior citizens; Minnesotans tend to live a long time.)

Finishing the book is “Jake” by Pat Dennis.  A man has quickly tired of his new bride, who is not at all as she presented herself on the internet.  He decides that murder is the best solution, but may have underestimated just how much she lied.

And ten more stories, including “Norwegian Noir” by Ellen Hart, a cautionary tale of a small town woman moving up to the big city suburbs; who can she trust?

While this book is calculated to appeal most to Minnesotans, I think it will please most mystery story fans who enjoy a little dry humor with their murder.  Consider purchasing it directly from Nodin Press.

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