Book Review: The Inkblots

Book Review: The Inkblots by Damion Searls

“What do you see?”

Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922) was a German-speaking Swiss psychiatrist who developed an interesting experiment involving inkblots.  The son of an artist and himself artistically trained, Rorschach was fascinated by visual perception and hoped to use the things people saw when they looked at his inkblots to help understand their minds.  The experiment was surprisingly successful, and the strapped-for-cash doctor barely managed to scrape together enough money to do a first printing of Psychodiagnostics  and the associated illustrated cards.

The Inkblots

Rorschach died short years after the publication of his book, and before he could see the test gain acceptance outside his native Switzerland.  Without its creator to correct any flaws or incorporate new insights, the Rorschach Test became a force to reckon with in international psychology.

This is, according to the introduction, the first full-length biography of Hermann Rorschach, but it’s also a history of his famous creation–which doubles the length of the book.

We learn of Rorschach’s childhood happiness and sorrows, his education in Zurich, his fascination with Russian culture (Hermann married a Russian woman who’d come to Switzerland to become a medical doctor), and his important but poorly paid institutional work.

The inkblots themselves are reminiscent of a children’s game, blotting paper and trying to interpret the shapes.  And some similar psychological experiments had been  tried before.  But Rorschach was the first to craft specific blots, neither too abstract nor too obviously one thing, and to systematize the interpretation of what the examinee saw.

Because the inkblot test interpretation contained both crunchy numbers and fanciful imagery, it could be used in a number of ways.  It was adaptable across language and cultural barriers, unlike many written tests.  So the Rorschach Test grew in popularity and influence, not just in the realm of medical science but in pop culture.  Its imagery resonated in 1940s film noir and 1980s comic books.

But one of the flaws of the test, as Hermann Rorschach noted, was that he’d found something that seemed to work, but not laid a solid theoretical foundation under it that explained how and why it worked.  So the test became itself “a Rorschach test”, with different people reading into it according to their own psychological theorems.  This caused schisms among those who used the test in different ways, and eventually gave rise to a movement that believed Rorschach Tests didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know.

The author of this biography thinks the inkblot test is still of importance, and still of use.

There are black and white illustrations throughout, and two sections of “colored plates.”  An appendix directly reprints Olga Rorschach’s speech on her husband’s character.   There are extensive end notes and an index.

The subject is fascinating and the writing is interesting, though sometimes veering into deep psychology jargon.  There is discussion of famous cases and people involved with the inkblot test, including Adolf Eichmann!

On a side note, Hermann Rorschach was quite a good-looking fellow, and one of the few psychiatrists who could be played by a Hollywood star without suspending disbelief.

Highly recommended to those with an interest in the history of psychology.

Disclaimer:  I received this book from Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  There was no other compensation requested or offered.  Sadly, the BfB site is closing down, so this will be my last review from that source.

And now, how about a scene from Dark Mirror with a Rorschach-like test?

Book Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Book Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

World War One rages in Europe, but for Captain Arthur Hastings, the fighting is over.   Recovering from battle wounds, Hastings is at loose ends until invited to the country manor of his old acquaintance John Cavendish.  Styles Court has changed a bit since Hastings’ childhood visits, as John’s stepmother has remarried.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The former Mrs. Cavendish is now Emily Inglethorp, having married a rather shady character named Alfred Inglethorp.  Alfred has the habit of wearing dark glasses and a long beard that doesn’t quite match his other hair, making him look like someone in disguise.  Emily’s stepsons are not well pleased, but Mrs. Inglethorp controls the purse strings and will have her own way.

While Emily Inglethorp is quite generous, she’s also very keen on having people show due appreciation for her largess, which can be grating.  When she dies of strychnine poisoning, the obvious suspect is Alfred, who the rest of the family assumes married Emily for her money.  But it could also be country squire John Cavendish who’s strapped for money; his brother Stephen, an unsuccessful poet who was medically trained; John’s wife Mary, who is beautiful but not happy in her marriage; Cynthia Murdoch, a pharmacist’s assistant who Mrs. Inglethorp had taken in; Evelyn Howard, Emily’s long-time best friend who’d recently quarreled with her, or just possibly poison expert and foreigner Dr. Bauerstein.

Hastings considers himself a bit of a detective, but all this has him a bit baffled.  Fortunately, among the other beneficiaries of Mrs. Inglethorp’s generosity is a houseful of Belgian war refugees in the nearby village of Styles St. Mary, and one of the residents is the man who trained Hastings in the detective arts, former police chief Hercule Poirot.  It will take all of Monsieur Poirot’s “little grey cells” to unravel this mystery!

This was Agatha Christie’s first mystery novel, written in 1916 and serialized in the Times, then published in book form in 1920.  It introduces the eccentric detective Poirot, his frequent sidekick Hastings, and competent but not quite brilliant police officer Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard.   This book made Ms. Christie’s reputation as a rising mystery writer.

Poirot’s age is not clear, although he had a long career in the Belgian police and thirty-year-old Hastings considers him “old.”  Poirot sometimes uses words oddly in English, has an egg-shaped head, and acquired a limp during the war.  He’s got a considerable ego, and enjoys twitting Hastings about the latter’s foibles.  They met in Belgium some time before World War One, under circumstances never fully described.

Hastings is very much a Watson figure in this story, with a good memory but a bit thick.  He’s very much the British gentleman with the traditional values of same, but does tend to let his imagination run away with him.  As the narrator, this helps Agatha Christie as Poirot deliberately omits details of his thought process to keep the too-honest Hastings from alerting suspects to Poirot’s true suspicions.  Hastings, is, however, good at blurting out observations that help Poirot realize key points.

Good:  Poirot is a fun character, and this first novel already shows Ms. Christie’s ability to create a twisty mystery where the culprit is difficult for the casual reader to guess ahead of time.

Less good:  Agatha Christie lays on the red herrings a bit too thickly; she’d get much better at tightening up her books.

There’s a bit of period anti-Semitism, and a scattering of ethnic slurs.  Most notably, Hastings uses a particular slur multiple times in his narration along with slut-shaming (though never speaking that way in dialogue.)  He also shows a distinct double standard when it comes to marital infidelity.  Bad show, old chap.

Overall:  One of Agatha Christie’s lesser books, but well worth going back to after you’ve read one or two of her later Poirot works.  Do, if possible, read this one before Curtain, as that book relies on echoes from this one.

And did you know there was an Agatha Christie anime?

Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

We open on a good day for Paul Bäumer and the men of the Second Company.  The sun is shining, there’s a light breeze to cool them, and they’re getting double rations.  The reason the men are getting double rations is that half their company was killed in the last action at the front lines, and the supplies were ordered before that was known.  But hey, at least their bellies are full for a change.

All Quiet on the Western Front

A few months ago, Paul and his classmates were idealistic young patriots, who signed up for the army en masse at the urging of their schoolmaster.  War seemed a glorious adventure then, and they wanted to serve their country.  Too late, Paul has realized that old men start the wars that young men die in.

This novel was published in 1928 as Im Westen  Nicht Neues (“Nothing New in the West”).  It’s based in large part on the actual experiences Mr. Remarque had during his service for Germany in World War One.  (Compare Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, which I have previously reviewed.)  It quickly became a bestseller, not only in Germany but around the world for its gut-wrenching picture of the lives of ordinary soldiers.  About the only people who didn’t appreciate it were the Nazis, who banned the book when they came to power.

Although there are small moments of individual heroism (and cowardice) in battle, this is not a book where the main characters contribute to a major victory or have the influence to come up with brilliant tactics.  At best, they gain a few feet to another set of trenches, and more often, they die to no purpose.

Gritty realism is the main focus here, detailing how the soldiers become desensitized to body modesty, sexual mores and lice.  The extreme violence of war can still get to them, though.  One of the most memorable scenes is when Paul is trapped in a shellhole with a French soldier who’s taken a mortal wound, but doesn’t die for hours, and how Paul’s emotions change over those hours.

On Paul’s rare leaves, he feels detached from the civilians he’s fighting for, who do not understand the horror of the front lines.  But the civilians are suffering too; the bread made from actual bread ingredients Paul brings home is much appreciated, and his mother is dying of cancer.  Paul and his fellow soldiers realize well ahead of the civilians that the war is being lost; the leaders are still talking about victory even as the Americans enter the fray.

Although there are deaths in the first part of the novel, the last third increases the pace of mortality as the Second Company falls one by one.  The breaking point for Paul is the death of old veteran Katczinsky, who mentored him and the other new recruits in the arts of survival and scrounging.  And then comes the end; the book has been told from Paul’s viewpoint until the final page, which is an anonymous postscript telling us Paul is dead.

There are bits of dark humor scattered throughout; one of the more amusing scenes from a schadenfreude perspective is when the schoolmaster who talked Paul and his classmates into enlisting is himself drafted into the Territorial Reserves.  His drill master is one of his old students, who delights in throwing the teacher’s motivational speeches back at him.

As one might expect, there’s a certain amount of crude speech from the soldiers, and the usual disturbing events that surround war.

This book is indeed one of the classics, particularly in the field of war literature, and is worth reading at least once, preferably before signing up to go off to war.

Here’s a scene from the 1930 movie version:

 

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E Lockhart

Fantasy and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a big seller during his lifetime, but the loose setting he created of the Cthulhu Mythos, where humans are only the most recent inhabitants of a cold and chaotic universe, and many of the previous inhabitants are effectively gods, has become one of the most popular sub-genres of horror literature.  The twenty-seven stories in this volume are by second- and third-generation Lovecraftian writers.

The Book of Cthulhu

There’s an encouraging variety of protagonists; professors and prostitutes, hitmen and clergymen.  Some of them are from ethnic groups HPL would never have made the heroes of his stories.  There’s a variety of tones as well.  Of course there’s a number that are straight up creepy horror, but there’s also noir-ish crime fiction and deadpan penny dreadful humor.

The volume opens with “Andromeda Among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  A family guards a gate off the Northern California coast; but only one of them was truly born for the job.  I found the story rather slight, and one of the weaker ones in the collection.

The closing story is “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron.  Seven lumberjacks go hunting in the Pacific Northwest.  Not all of them are going to be returning.  This one makes good use of escalating creepiness, culminating in a scene where a monster makes its menace particularly personal.

Oldest story honors go to Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tugging” from 1976.  An art critic in a small British city is having disturbing dreams about Atlantis, which may tie into a comet with unusual gravitation behavior.  I’ve read this one before, and it’s interesting as an unintentional period piece.  I remember in my youth paging through great bound volumes of yellowing newsprint as the protagonist does here, instead of scrolling through microfilm, or today’s scanned files.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein is one of the editor’s favorites, according to the introduction (which is perhaps a little too generous to Lovecraft’s writing skills.)  An elderly writer who was a friend of HPL in his youth meets a missionary returning from Malaysia.  Over the course of time, the writer learns that at least one thing written by Lovecraft may be uncomfortably close to reality.  It is a good story, told well.

I also particularly enjoyed “Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe.  A Nebraskan teacher is collecting oral history in the Appalachian region.  An old man tells him about seeing the “soul sucker”, which seems like a tall tale at first…but it’s actually a warning.  This one held my attention fast.

Overall, this is a strong collection with many creepy stories and some marquee writers like Elizabeth Bear, Joe R. Lansdale and David Drake.  I should mention that one story features incest and marital rape.  Recommended to fans of the Lovecraftian type of horror.

Book Review: Army Wives

Book Review: Army Wives by Midge Gillies

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Army Wives

The life of a soldier is hard and often dangerous, but the life of a soldier’s spouse has its hardships and hazards as well.  This book collects the stories of various British Army wives from the Crimean War (where wives sometimes shared tents near the front lines with their husbands) to the modern day, when social media allows spouses (now including husbands) to worry about the servicemember’s safety in “real time.”

After chapters on spousal travel and accommodations, the remainder of the book is in roughly chronological order.  There tends to be more information on officers’ wives than those of enlisted men, as especially in the early days they were more likely to be literate and thus leave behind letters, journals and memoirs.  Most of the women covered are ordinary people who rose to the occasion, but there’s also Lady Elizabeth Butler, who was a famous painter even before marrying a famous soldier.

The epilogue is about life after the army, both in the general sense, and the fates of the specific women used as examples in the book.  There’s a nice center section of pictures, many in color, plus a bibliography, end notes and an index.

As always, learning about the lives of people in unusual circumstances is fascinating, and there is quite a variety of women and outcomes represented.  The writing is decent, and some sections are emotionally affecting.

On the other hand, covering so many different stories means that some feel as though they’ve gotten short shrift.  Edith Tolkien, for example, gets two pages, mostly about the codes her husband (J.R.R.) slipped into his letters to let her know where he was.  And the section on soldiers who came home from World War One with facial disfigurements has no direct testimony from wives at all.

That said, this book should be of interest to those interested in military history (especially about women in military history) and those considering being the spouse of a military person.

And now, a video of the British Army Wives’ Chorus:

 

Comic Book Review: The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story

Comic Book Review: The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story written by Ed Brubaker & Matt Fraction, primary artist David Aja

When Daniel Rand was nine years old, his father Wendell Rand took him, his mother Heather, and business partner Harold Meachum on an expedition to the mystical city of K’un L’un, which appears in the mountains of China only once every ten years.  When Danny slipped into a crevasse, endangering his parents, Meachum, who was in love with Heather, treacherously murdered Wendell.  Heather refused to go with Meachum, and continued onward with her son.   They came across a bridge that hadn’t been there before, but a pack of wolves attacked.  Heather sacrificed herself to give Danny time to cross the bridge.  Archers from K’un L’un attempted to rescue Heather, but were unable to drive away the wolves before her death.

The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story

As the years passed inside the mystical city, Danny Rand became the best martial arts student of Lei Kung, the city’s guardian.  Eventually, he was allowed to battle the dragon Shou-Lao the Undying and plunge his fist into its heart.  This branded his chest with the crest of Shou-Lao, and gave Danny the ability to focus his ch’i energy into his fist, making it like unto a thing of iron.  He is not the first Iron Fist, but questions about the past ones are not encouraged.

At the next opportunity, Danny left K’un L’un to seek revenge upon Harold Meachum, a quest that ultimately proved hollow.  He instead embarked upon a career as the martial arts superhero Iron Fist.

Iron Fist was created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane as part of a martial arts fad at Marvel Comics inspired by the popularity of kung fu movies at the time.  He first appeared in Marvel Premiere #15 in 1974, ran for ten issues, then got his own starring series.  It was notable for the rare second-person narration.  (“You are Iron Fist, and you are about to die!”)  When sales fell, Danny Rand was teamed up with blaxploitation-inspired character Luke Cage in Power Man and Iron Fist.  As the “Heroes for Hire”, they became an iconic team for Marvel.

The volume under discussion here appeared in 2007, after several status changes (including being dead for a while) for Iron Fist.  As of the opening of this series, Daniel Rand is the head of Rand International, the company his father and Harold Meachum had founded.  They have been approached by the Chinese corporation Wai-Go Industries, which wants to buy mag-lev train technology and infrastructure from Rand Intl.  Danny senses something wrong with the deal, and cancels it, much to the dismay of Jeryn Hogarth, the person who actually runs the company for Danny.

Investigating the offices of Wai-Go as Iron Fist, the hero learns that the company is actually a front for the terrorist organization HYDRA, and is forced to battle their agents and their latest weapon, the Mechagorgon.

Ordinarily, Iron Fist would call in his allies in the superhero community to assist with a threat of this size, but this series takes place during the Civil War event, when all superhumans are required to register their identities with the government or else.  Many of his friends have joined the pro-Registration side, which Danny is opposed to, and the remainder are now fugitives.  (Iron Fist only remains free due to a legal loophole.)

At about the same time, the Steel Serpent resurfaces.  Davos, the son of Lei Kung, believes that the power of the Iron Fist is his by right, and has frequently tried to steal it from Danny.  He has come to believe there is a conspiracy to keep him from attaining the Iron Fist.  (Mild spoiler: he’s not entirely wrong.)  Steel Serpent has allied with HYDRA and a previously unknown being called the Crane Mother, and is looking for a man named Orson Randall.

Orson Randall (the name is probably not a coincidence) turns out to have been the previous holder of the Iron Fist title, one of the Immortal Weapons.  He relinquished the title and disappeared for reasons not adequately explained in this volume, but can still tap into the power of Shou-Lao.  Flushed out of hiding, Orson seeks out Danny Rand to give the newest Iron Fist some vital information about their legacy.

Lots of kung-fu action ensues!

As the original Iron Fist stories were inspired by the low-budget kung-fu flicks of the early 1970s, this one is heavily influenced by the special effects extravaganzas of the more recent wuxia movies.  There are mystical kung fu powers being unleashed right and left, and huge battle scenes.  The art goes well with this, including some nifty effects to show how Iron Fist finds the precise areas to attack.

Iron Fist’s backstory is somewhat problematic these days, given its use of the Mighty Whitey trope (white person goes to foreign land and is better at what the natives do than they are themselves.)  This series tries to mitigate it somewhat by revealing a more diverse array of past Iron Fists, and hinting in this volume that there’s a specific reason the last two have been Caucasian.  (It remains to be seen how the upcoming Netflix series will deal with the issue.)

Orson Randall is a good guest star as a pulp hero gone sour, and with hints at his own extensive backstory and heritage.

Most of the plot threads are still left dangling at the end of this volume, to be resolved later in the series.  The volume also contains a short piece referring to a period when Danny Rand was wearing the costume of Daredevil while Matt Murdock was otherwise occupied.

Overall, a good update to the Iron Fist concept and a rollicking adventure story.

TV Review: Blackadder Goes Forth

TV Review: Blackadder Goes Forth

The year is 1917, the place, somewhere in France.  British troops are dug into trenches, not too far from the German troops in their trenches.  This particular part of the front line is the location of Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson.)  Experience has taught him that the British strategy of sending men “over the top” in waves to assault the German lines just results in dead soldiers, and the captain has no interest in dying.  He hatches scheme after scheme to get himself away from the front lines, or at least delay the fatal charge.

Blackadder Goes Forth
“A war which would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed in England and shot fifty thousand of our men a week.”

In this effort, Captain Blackadder is badly assisted by his second, Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie), an upper-class twit who believes all the propaganda about honor and glory, and the company batman (military servant), Private S. Baldrick (Tony Robinson) who is profoundly stupid but does the best he can.  They try to outwit the mad General Melchett (Stephen Fry) who thinks that using the same tactic that has failed eighteen times in the past will surely trick the Germans this time, and Captain Kevin Darling (Tim McInnerny) a rear echelon bureaucrat who is determined to kiss up to the general in order to stay safely behind the lines.

This was the fourth and final series of Blackadder, each short (six episodes) season using mostly the same actors in similar roles in different times, as though they were reincarnations.  Blackadder himself seems to improve somewhat over the ages–his first incarnation is both very evil and stupid, and slightly lessens those qualities in each subsequent variant.  Captain  Blackadder is bright (but not quite bright enough) and his goal isn’t particularly wicked (not dying) but retains much of his ancestors’ contempt for everyone around him and skill at insults.

Many of those insults are quite funny, and there are many other laugh out loud moments as the characters react to the situations they find themselves in.  I did not care as much for the gross-out gags involving Baldrick’s cooking (he ran out of real coffee in 1914.)  And to be honest, since the show aired in 1989, rape jokes have lost much of their luster.

The treatment of World War One is satirical, focusing on the futility and loss of life it entailed, and the divide between the courage of the soldiers and the poor leadership of the commanding officers.  Some historians feel the series went too far with this, and warn that this is after all a work of fiction.

Especially striking is the final episode, “Goodbyeee”, in which the Big Push is ordered at last.  The mood turns more somber as Captain Blackadder’s plans to escape fail one by one.  Lieutenant George realizes that all his friends are dead and he doesn’t want to die himself.  Baldrick asks the obvious question, “why can’t we all just go home?” and no one can give him a good answer.  Even Captain Darling is ordered into the charge as General Melchett fails to understand that this “reward” for loyal service is the last thing Darling wants.

In the final moments, the soldiers leave the trench and go into battle–their fate is left unsaid, but the screen fades to a field of poppies, symbolic of the fallen of WW1.  It’s a bleak ending for a comedy.

The cast is excellent, and the writing good (despite some gags falling flat.)  I’d recommend watching all the Blackadder series in order, but if you have a special interest in World War One, this part stands on its own.

And now a video about poppies:

Book Review: Age of Daredevils

Book Review: Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson

This book covers two generations of the William “Red” Hill family of Niagara Falls, Ontario.  They were river men, swimmers, rescue workers, boat handlers–and some of them were driven to perform dangerous stunts.  And around Niagara Falls, the most daring stunt imaginable was to go over the Horseshoe Fall in a barrel.  The Hills, father and sons, were involved in most of the attempts at this feat until the 1950s.

Age if Daredevils

Parts of the story are fascinating; the first survivor of a deliberate attempt to go over the falls was a woman in her sixties, Annie Taylor.  And there’s quite a bit of family drama, particularly in the sibling rivalry of Red’s sons “Junior” and Major.  I found the contrast between the acceptance of ultimate risk and the careful shaving off of every bit of lesser risk that could be managed a fair assessment of the character of a daredevil.

The author is a local newspaper reporter who knew the Hills in his youth and has extensively interviewed several of them over the years.  This means that certain details are covered in great depth (and often repetitively), but others are given short shrift–later attempts to go over the falls alive that didn’t involve the Hill family are summarized in a paragraph or two, despite sounding just as fascinating in their backgrounds.   The book also engages in mind-reading from time to time, reporting what a person who did not survive likely felt during certain events.

There’s an extensive sources section and chapter notes, but no index.  This is more of a memoir than a formal history.  I should note that there is discussion of suicides related to the Niagara River.

Recommended for those who have a fascination with daredevils and especially those who have an interest in the Niagara Falls phenomenon.

Book Review: Famous Nathan

Book Review: Famous Nathan by Lloyd Handwerker and Gil Reavill

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or given.

Famous Nathan

Nathan’s Famous was the number one hot dog stand in the world for several decades, and synonymous with the Coney Island experience.  It was the creation of Nathan (originally Nachum) Handwerker, an immigrant who worked his way up from grinding poverty to being a successful businessman.  This book is primarily his story, told by his grandson.

According to the book, Nathan was born in a Jewish shtetl in Galicia (now part of Poland) in 1892.  At the time, the region was occupied by Austria, and was proverbial for its inhabitants’ poverty.  His father Jacob was a shoemaker who was usually unemployed and his mother sold vegetables as a sideline whenever the chance came up.  Nathan grew up constantly hungry and early on decided he wanted to be in the restaurant business.  Over time, his hard work and good business sense got him enough money to buy passage to America in 1912.

To make it in business, you need a strong work ethic, canny business sense…and a walloping dose of good luck.  Nathan had all three, and by 1916 had learned enough English and accumulated enough savings to open his own “grab joint” selling frankfurters and lemonade from a tiny storefront on Coney Island.  His initial partner backed out when initial sales weren’t good, but Nathan found a good price point and soon became able to stay open all year, expanding the store and his menu bit by bit.

After a year or so, the initially nameless joint became “Nathan’s”, and then “Nathan’s Famous” as business boomed.  Nathan used a business philosophy of fast service, a limited menu and consistent high quality to grow his enterprise.  (This was later independently discovered by the McDonalds brothers, though the highness of quality is debatable.)

A big believer in family, Nathan brought over almost all of his clan from Europe as well as marrying and having children of his own.  He didn’t let nepotism stand in the way of good business practice, though, once firing his older brother the same day he hired him for failure to follow procedure.  He was a very hands-on manager, and ran a tight ship; his contentious personality meant that he often fought with his top workers, but it also bred loyalty.  He integrated his staff very early on and was generous with benefits, but was firmly against unions.

Nathan’s Famous was huge, and the book describes its interactions with American history.  But by the time Nathan’s sons Sol and Murray moved into management positions under him, times were changing.  The brothers had clashing ideas about where the store and its brand should be going, and did not work together well.  Coney Island was losing its place as a tourist attraction, helped along by a city planner who wanted to gentrify the area.  (Unfortunately, his plans had the opposite effect, crashing the local economy and increasing crime.)  And chain fast food places became the standard.

The original Nathan’s Famous has never closed, but is no longer in family hands, and in the modern day, it’s more famous as a hot dog brand than as a destination.

Most of the material about Nathan’s early life is derived from a single interview done with him by another of his grandsons, so should be taken with a grain of salt.  The book also talks about some Nathan’s Famous legends and whether they are based on truth or the result of a public relations campaign.

There’s quite a bit of time spent on the logistics and mechanics of running a grab joint in the early part of the Twentieth Century, which will be useful to people who have always wondered about that sort of thing.  There’s also family drama, as well as details about some of the long-time employees.

To be honest, the book never really grabbed me, but I think it will be of great interest to hot dog aficionados and those who are nostalgic for the Nathan’s Famous of yore.  Each chapter has a black and white photo heading.  Also, there are end notes (functional but lackluster) and a bibliography for further reading.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War edited by Paul Levitz

In 1977, African-American male leads in mainstream comic books were still countable on one hand (and don’t even ask about African-American women!)  But this also had the effect of making a comic with a black person on the front attention-getting.  And I suspect that at least some of the creation of “Gravedigger” came from that fact.

Showcase Presents Men of War

Gravedigger was the lead feature in DC Comics’ last-launched war comics series of the Bronze Age, Men of War.  He is introduced as Sergeant Ulysses Hazard, a polio survivor who threw himself into intense physical training (including martial arts) to overcome his handicaps.  Despite his superior physical condition and combat skills, Hazard was consigned to a segregated battalion and assigned to funeral detail (thus his codename.)  After his heroics saved lives (except his best military friend) and defeated Nazi troops, the white officers ignored his contributions and denied his request for reassignment to a combat unit.

In the second issue, Hazard somehow gets back to the U.S. and single-handedly infiltrates the Pentagon War Room to demonstrate his skills.  A character identified in that issue as the Secretary of War but in later issues demoted to an undersecretary (as his sliminess would have been a slur on the character of Henry L. Stimson, the actual Secretary at the time) decides to use Hazard as a political pawn.  If “Gravedigger” fails on one of the suicidal missions, he can be written off, but if he succeeds, the Undersecretary can take credit.

Now Captain Ulysses Hazard so that he can pull rank when necessary, Gravedigger returns to Europe and takes on a number of commando missions ranging from rescuing art from the Nazis to destroying an experimental mini-sub.  There are guest appearances by a couple of DC’s other war comics characters, and the final issue features Gravedigger actually leading Easy Company (normally the job of Sergeant Rock) for a few hours.

Gravedigger was basically “military Batman”, performing superheroic feats on a regular basis.  To be fair, this is common in comic books about commando-style solo characters, but if you are a stickler for realism, look elsewhere.  Later in the series, he gets a cross-shaped facial scar to give him more distinctive looks, important in comic books.  He even gets an archnemesis, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who enlists mad science in a massive scheme to rid the Reich of this one commando.

In the next to last story, Gravedigger personally saves the lives of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though an opportunity is missed to have Captain Hazard bond with FDR over their mutual experience with polio.

In addition to the expected violence, there’s also period racism, ableism and anti-Semitism (the last confined to Nazi characters.)

The back-up features varied from issue to issue.  “Enemy Ace” featured Baron Hans von Hammer, “the Hammer of Hell”, a World War I German fighter pilot.  He was depicted as noble and honorable, one of a dying breed of warrior outdated by brutal modern warfare.  Some of the stories have art by Howard Chaykin, who is not as well served by the black and white reprint as the other artists.

“Dateline: Frontline” was about American reporter Wayne Clifford, covering World War Two while the U.S. was still neutral, and having his naivete chipped away bit by bit.  He struggles with censorship, the temptation of writing the story to suit the person who can give you access, and the moral gray areas of war.

“Rosa” features a spy working in the late 19h Century who is loyal to no country, and has the habit of switching accents in every sentence either to disguise his nationality or (as he claims in a somewhat dubious origin story) because he is literally a man without a country.  His name might or might not actually be Rosa.  Most notable for having a character switch sides between chapters for plot convenience.

This volume contains all 26 issues, and is not brilliant but is decent work by journeymen creators.  Worth picking up if you are a war comics fan, or interested in the history of African-American characters in comic books.

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