Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Eight

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Eight by Makoto Yukimura

Warning:  This review contains spoilers for earlier volumes in the series.  If you have not read those, you may want to refer to my earlier reviews instead.

Vinland Saga Book Eight

Thorfinn Thorsson has finally arrived back in Iceland after more than a decade away.  His sister, now a wife and mother herself, tells Thorfinn that he’s of an age when he should get married and settle down.  Snoggi the fisherman has five lovely granddaughters of the right age, and is looking for an heir.  Thorfinn admits that the life of a fisherman is not a bad one, but he has other plans.

Thorfinn has seen much bloodshed and suffering–and caused some himself.  With his new pacifist ideals, the young man wants to mount an expedition to Vinland, to build a community without war or slavery.  The problem is, that expedition will need a lot of front money, and where will he get the funding?

Thus this epic tale of the Viking age enters another phase.  It has changed considerably from its initial plotline of vengeance seeking, though as we will see, that theme has not entirely vanished.

The only fellow around with deep enough pockets is Halfdan the Chainer, who has built up a fortune by lending money to small holders, then making them his thralls if they do not pay up.  He is not without his own form of honor, but is a hard man.  Halfdan also has his own concerns.  His not quite as bright son Sigurd is soon to be married to Leif’s sister-in-law Gudrid.

Gudrid was a child bride, and widowed before the marriage could be consummated.  That was something of a relief to her, as Gudrid has always resented the gender roles of her society.  She wants to be a sailor, exploring the wide world, not a wife to stay home and tend the household.  But now Leif’s family is entering an alliance with Halfdan, so she’s being forced into this arranged marriage.

When Thorfinn approaches Halfdan with the proposal for the Vinland expedition, Halfdan tries his favorite game of breaking men’s  pride.  But Thorfinn has no pride to break.   So Halfdan decides on a new game.  He gives Thorfinn a cargo of narwhal horns, of minimal value in Iceland, but priceless in far-off Greece.  If Thorfinn can survive the journey and return with a good profit, Halfdan will support the expedition.

As Thorfinn, Einar, Thorfinn Bug-Eyes, and Leif prepare to cast off for the journey, they are joined by Gudrid.  The wedding night…did not go well, and she needs to leave pronto.  With great reluctance, she is allowed to board.    Her not actually dead husband Sigurd soon figures out what happens, and sets out in pursuit.

The vengeance theme comes back as the travelers stumble across Karli, an orphaned infant that none of the locals will take in lest the killers of Karli’s family target them as well.  After all, when Karli is grown, he will be honor bound to kill the killers.  There’s some comedy when it turns out that none of the group know how to take care of a baby, even Gudrid.  She has to explain basic female anatomy to Thorfinn, who had never gotten around to learning before.

And then there’s a cliffhanger, as Thorfinn faces vengeance from his own murderous past.

The art and characterization continue to be top notch, the humorous moments working well to offset the dramatic themes.

There’s less violence than in the previous volume, but it’s just as intense and horrifying when it does occur.  Gudrid’s wedding night is borderline; Sigurd doesn’t want to rape Gudrid, but he doesn’t think to check how she feels about having sex.  (It doesn’t get further than him opening her outer clothing before she reacts badly.)

Period sexism is pivotal in Gudrid’s plotline.  (It’s not mentioned in-story, but her mannish taste in clothing would have been grounds for divorce if she kept wearing such after the wedding.)  But we also see the point of view of women who fit better into Icelandic society.

By changing up the story direction every few volumes, this series remains fresh and interesting.  Highly recommended.

Let’s have a Viking video!

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.

Comic Book Review: Joe Kubert Presents

Comic Book Review: Joe Kubert Presents by Joe Kubert and others

Joe Kubert (1926-2012) was one of the all-time great comic book artists.  The bulk of his work was done for DC Comics, including many Hawkman and Sergeant Rock stories. Joe Kubert Presents was his final series, a tribute to him by the company he’d done so much for.   Mr. Kubert was given free rein to choose which stories to do, and which other creators he wanted to share the spotlight with.  Rather than risk an announcement of the series ahead of time only to not be able to deliver (this had happened to him before), Mr. Kubert insisted on having several issues “in the can” before it was put on order forms for retailers.  The sixth issue was nearly complete when he died.

Joe Kubert Presents

The first issue leads off with “Hawkman”; this iteration is closest to the science fiction-inspired Silver Age version, but not in continuity with any previous story.  Katar Hol and his partner Shayera (Hawkgirl) are sent from the utopian planet Thanagar to observe Earth up close and determine what steps should be taken in the future.  The Thanagarians worry that the Earthlings will not mature out of their destructive behavior before they develop interstellar travel.

The aliens land in Africa, observe the wanton slaughter of wildlife and environmental destruction, and decide to visit a nearby village.  Unfortunately, this particular village sits atop a toxic waste dump; the poverty-stricken villagers have become economically dependent on the storage fees.  The villagers worry that the Thanagarians have come to stop the practice and react badly.

While I understand the good intent of the story, it really does look like technologically advanced white people lecturing primitive native Africans on proper respect for the environment.  And the Hawks destroy the natives’ livelihood and leave without considering that consequence, so their victory leaves a bitter aftertaste.

“Spit” is a recurring feature about an orphan who runs away from the orphanage and winds up stowing away on a whaling ship.  In short vignettes, he suffers much abuse, but eventually learns how to survive at sea and decides to become a whaler.  The first few chapters are in sepia tone, but the finale is mostly in full color.  One (landlubber) character is implied to be a pedophile, but is thwarted before he can do anything.

“The Redeemer” is three chapters of a series Mr. Kubert solicited back in the 1980s before he discovered he wouldn’t be able to deliver it on time.  Jim Torkan is the title character, a man who reincarnates across time and space  to gain the wisdom he will need to eventually save the human race from itself.  He is the target of the Infernal One, who sends agents to tempt Torkan from the path of righteousness, so that the Redeemer will be under his control.

The first two chapters take place in the far future, as Torkan is a scientist whose space station is invaded by murderous robbers seeking a chemical he’s developed that can control minds.  His love interest is actually an agent of the Infernal One who tries to convince him to join up with the would-be dictator to save his own skin.  The third chapter has Torkan as an ex-Confederate soldier just after the Civil War.  The story carefully avoids mentioning what the Confederacy fought for beyond “justice and right” (hint: slavery), but it was all a waste and Torkan is without purpose.  He gets involved in a treasure hunt, but at the end discovers something more precious than gold: himself.

“Farewell” was Kubert’s last Sergeant Rock story.  The son and grandson of one of Easy Company’s soldiers visit a D-Day beach and the cemetery nearby.  They discuss the possible death of Rock, but in the end it doesn’t matter if he is buried here–a piece of each soldier who fell rests with every other soldier.

“The Biker” is about a wounded Afghanistan veteran and motorcyclist who bunks down for the night in an abandoned house.  But maybe not as abandoned as it looks.  Some excellent coloring work here.

Then there are two stories written by Joe Kubert, but with art by other people.  “The Ruby” (art by Henrik Jonsson) is about bandits attacking a Himalayan temple–it turns out to be a possible origin story for an obscure DC character.   “Devil’s Play” (art by Brandon Vietti) is a Kamandi story, as the last boy on Earth battles the animal-men that have taken over the planet.  This story offers a different explanation for the Great Disaster than usual.

The series also contained several “U.S.S. Stevens” stories by Sam Glanzman, telling tales of his WWII service aboard that destroyer.  “The Figurehead” is the most interesting of these, featuring an eccentric crewmate of Mr. Glanzman’s who may or may not have had unusual abilities (it’s possible that this is a sailor’s yarn and he’s pulling our leg a bit.)  This material has been collected separately, along with Mr. Glanzman’s other memoirs.

Brian Buniak gives us “Angel and the Ape”, based on the Bob Oksner series about private detectives Angel O’Day (an attractive human woman) and Sam Simeon (a cartoonist who also happens to be a gorilla.)  It’s not quite in continuity with any other appearance of the characters, but as a comedy strip, continuity was never a huge issue.  The pair are hired to prevent a restaurateur from being murdered; they do so but he is shot anyway, and they have to figure out whodunnit.  After they solve that case, a reporter gets the story of their origin (or at least Angel’s version.)  There’s an energy and attention to humorous background details reminiscent of early Mad, but sometimes the exaggerated art style can go a bit off.

If you are a fan of Joe Kubert’s art, this volume is a must-have; if you’re indifferent to that, the stories are only average, and the problematic material may knock this down a star or two for you.  I liked this very much.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Four

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Four by Makoto Yukimura

SPOILER WARNING:  This review contains spoilers for earlier volumes.  If you have not read them, please see my earlier reviews.

This manga’s main protagonist to this point has been Thorfinn, a young Viking serving in the mercenary band of Askeladd.  Years before, Askeladd treacherously slew Thorfinn’s father Thors, and the boy has sworn vengeance in a fair duel.  Recently, they’ve become involved with politics, clashing with the legendary warrior Thorkell the Tall (who turns out to be Thorfinn’s great-uncle) over the fate of Prince Canute, son of King Sweyn Forkbeard.

Vinland Sage Book Four

As of this volume, Canute has manned up, earning the respect and temporary service of both Thorkell and Askeladd.  Thorfinn tags along for his own reasons.  They come into the camp of King Sweyn, where the politics become hot and heavy.

Thorfinn meets a figure from his past, who offers him a last chance to turn away from the path of vengeance.  And then in Chapter 54, “End of the Prologue”, several of the subplots come to a head in a climax that isn’t shocking (It’s a Viking saga, everyone expected a bloodbath) but still manages to be surprising.

The next chapter finds us in Jutland (part of Denmark in modern times), with a new viewpoint character.  Einar has recently been enslaved, and is sold to a landowner who needs some forest land cleared.  Einar is less than happy with the whole slavery thing, but he meets one of the characters from the prologue, who has changed greatly.

Much of the focus in this volume is on Askeladd, whose full background is finally revealed, and whose complex motivations make him a key player in Prince Canute’s plans to take the throne.  We also see a fair bit of Canute himself, as he swiftly grows into the role he must play to stay alive.  Thorfinn, on the other hand, is mostly characterized by his refusal to turn from his destructive path; it seems likely he’ll have more development in the next volume.

In addition to the expected violence, some of which is quite graphic, there’s a bit of female nudity, and some implications about owners of slaves sexually mistreating them.  A fair amount of strong language as well.

The art and writing continue to be excellent.  Highly recommended for fans of Viking stories.

Movie Review: Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Ronin)

Movie Review: Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Ronin) (1962)

As mentioned in my previous reviews of book and comic book versions, the tale of the forty-seven ronin is one of Japan’s great stories, based on true events.  Briefly, in 1701, Lord Kira provokes Lord Asano into breaking the rules of the Shogun’s court, a crime that can only be expiated by ritual suicide.  Asano’s samurai followers are immediately made ronin (masterless), and forbidden to avenge their master’s honor.

Chushingura

Several of the ronin decide to defy the shogunate decree, but Lord Kira is well aware of the danger, and his powerful relatives have supplied him with bodyguards to protect against retaliation.  Oishi, leader of the ronin, comes up with a plan to put Kira off his guard, but it will take over a year to complete…

The 1962 film version is in color, and big-budget by Japanese standards.   The early part of the story goes more into Lord Kira’s motivations; while he has a high rank, his holdings are small and impoverished.  Asano is prosperous thanks partially due to his province’s salt farms.  Kira tried to convince Asano to provide salt farming advice, but Asano refused on the grounds that the secret of their success was a proprietary family process.

In addition, Kira is fully invested in the quid pro quo method of doing business in the shogunate.  You give expensive gifts to people or do them favors, and in exchange they do things for you.   Lord Kira is guided by his principles of greed and lust, money and women are the most important things in his life.  At one point, he even hints that his wife should offer herself to the Shogun to earn him political favor.  (She is clearly not impressed.)

By contrast,  Lord Asano hates the bribery system and the corruption it engenders, and points out that laws have been passed against such behavior, that he intends to follow.  While he is aware that he needs Lord Kira to instruct him in court etiquette lest he offend the Emperor’s envoys, Asano refuses to compromise his principles, even though this angers Kira.

You might compare it to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the conflict between Jimmy Stewart’s young, idealistic senator and the corrupt senior senator.

After Asano’s death, the story turns to the ronin, and how each of them copes with issues of honor, sacrifice and their conflicting emotions.  Meanwhile, Kira shows cowardice and openly mocks the traditional samurai virtues.

This is a long movie, clocking in at just under three and a half hours.  Thankfully, there’s a clearly marked stopping point between “Blossoms” and “Snow” that home viewers can use as a good time for intermission.  While the pacing is deliberate, there are no wasted moments.

This movie has a strong cast, the most familiar to Western audiences is probably Toshiro Mifune, who has an extended cameo as one ronin’s drinking buddy.  He seems to have been added just for the box office; compare to how Keanu Reeves was written to take over the whole film in the 2013 version.

Content warnings:  Although none of the suicides in the film is shown directly on camera, the plotline does revolve around the use of suicide as a way of maintaining or redeeming one’s honor, and several people die in combat, particularly in the climatic battle.  (One old woman is also accidentally killed in a subplot.)

Lord Kira peeps at a woman’s bare back and creepily embraces one of his maidservants, he’s clearly forcing himself on them by his own admission.  Oishi does a convincing job of pretending to enjoy himself in the red light district.  No on-screen sex or nudity, though.  Oh, and several men are seen in period-appropriate skimpy loincloths, going about their work.

Overall, this is a classic film and well worth looking up.  See my review of a comic book version here: http://www.skjam.com/2013/09/30/comic-book-review-47-ronin/  and a literary version here: http://www.skjam.com/2013/07/02/book-review-the-47-ronin/

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