Category Archives: Reading

The Mindless Monsters vs. The Birds of Death: Doc Savage again (#SFWApro)

Alan Hathway contributes THE MINDLESS MONSTERS which has a lot in common with his Headless Men as an army of monsters runs wild in New York. Unlike the early book, however, these horrors are real — men transformed into zombie-like warriors with superhuman strength, mindless obedience and an unfortunate tendency to age instantly when their usefulness is done.

While this probably owes something to zombie films, it also resembles THE MONSTERS in that the villain doesn’t want to use his creations to loot but to intimidate: a few high profile, destructive capers and people will cough up the dough when he threatens to unleash his creations. Which are explained by mad science accelerating their metabolisms so that they’re using up years of their strength in short bursts (which also explains the aging).

It’s a concept that ought to work, particularly after Doc gets taken and almost enslaved, but it just never caught fire with me. I’m not sure why. It does add several new gadgets to Doc’s repertoire, such as an electric field used for security at his HQ.

THE BIRDS OF DEATH by Lester Dent worked a lot better for me, reminding of the kind of daffy mysteries the era sometimes popped out. It opens with two hoods trapping Boots Baxter, a wealthy but ugly man, by setting his pet canary loose. Fortunately Doc catches them before they catch Boots. Who admits to his servant in passing that when a woman he’d fallen for mocked his face, he ruined her father in a business deal and she’s now slinging hash in a greasy spoon. It’s a clear sign that even if he’s not the big bad, he’s probably guilty of something.

More weirdness accumulates. Lots of people have heavily calloused feet like they’d get walking barefoot in the tropics. Lots of people own canaries. Several people appear medically dead, which Doc deduces is a form of suspended animation. It turns out the answer lies in Africa so we get an overseas trip that like The Flying Goblin ignores there’s a war on. What lies at the end of the trail is a lost race that considers canaries sacred symbols (the canaries earlier in the book were just a red herring though) and has the suspended animation drug. Unlike The Green Death, though, they plan to use it as a revolutionary food preservation treatment. Instead of shipping meat, ship animals in suspended animation, then kill them on arrival. That way the meat is fresher and better tasting (oops. the treatment turns out to give meat a horrible taste).

Pat Savage shows up and gets more action than she sometimes does. First Doc asks her to stash the female lead in the case; then Pat shows up in the middle of the adventure later. She reveals that she stole one of Doc’s radio transmitters and uses it to keep track of what cases Doc is working on (which makes it surprising she doesn’t horn in more often).

Like The Flaming Falcons, this has a footnote that the chemicals Monk mixes up in one scene are real, but to avoid accidents, the publisher can’t divulge the formula. Other footnotes reference the uses of ultraviolet light for identifying minerals and the use of Native American languages as a method of encrypting Great War communications.

Overall, it’s a fun book.

Both covers by Emery Clark, all rights to covers remain with current holder.

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Thoughts from Jack Kirby (#SFWApro)

So I recently started reading Jack Kirby’s Fourth World stuff for DC (Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, Forever People, New Gods, Mr. Miracle) in the order of publication (worth doing as Kirby doles out portions of the Big Picture gradually). In Jimmy Olsen he introduces the Hairies, genetically engineered supergeniuses who’ve withdrawn from human society to do their own thing. They’re quite obviously an analogy for the hippies/counterculture (as were the Forever People) and in his third issue, Kirby muses on what they (and by extension the counterculture) means for us. While he was optimistic about the impact on society, I do find his vision surprisingly inspiring. So here it is. All rights to content and to the printed page remain with their current holders.

 

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The Mafia, Astro City and several less interesting books (#SFWApro)

AN OFFER WE CAN’T REFUSE: The Mafia in the Mind of America by George de Stefano looks at the history of Italian-Americans and bias against them, particularly the stereotype that they’re all mobbed up (as opposed to a reality in which lots of ethnicities have been involved in organized crime). That in turn leads to a look at The Godfather and The Sopranos, which was ongoing at the time the book came out. While de Stefano dislikes the stereotype, he actually loves the Godfather films for how awash they are in Italian culture, and The Sopranos for updating the stereotypes (suburban gangsters who are conscious they’re not playing at the Corleone level). While sympathetic to the antidefamation groups that condemn Mafia fiction, de Stefano dismisses the arguments that Italian Americans get it worse than anyone else (“We’re not pulled over for driving while Italian.”) and accuses some of the critics of rejecting their roots (i.e., they’re upscale enough to be embarrassed at the Corleone’s Old World ways). Interesting; all rights to image remain with current holder.

ASTRO CITY: Reflections by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson is definitely not the book to start with as it is, as the title says, a reflection on the series history — a shout back to Samaritan’s first story, the return of the reformed supervillain Steeljack and an update on the First Family. Well done, and reflecting (ROFL) Busiek’s sense that as Astro City ages in real time, we’re now seeing the rise of a second generation as more of the old guard hang up their hats (as in an earlier volume Lovers’ Quarrel). As always, Astro City is a great place to visit.

FLASH: Rogues Reloaded by Joshua Williamson and Carmine di Giandomenico is a decent “Rebirth” collection (though once again, nothing seems terribly reborn about this) in which the Rogues attempt to pull off one big score, then quit. If stock, this was well executed (except for adding Heat Wave a tragic backstory ripped off HELLBOY’s Liz Sherman) but the last couple of issues involving Reverse-Flash were quite pointless.

OF MONSTERS AND MADNESS by Jessica Verday is a disappointing Y/A horror novel in which 19th century expat Annabel Lee reunites with her family in Philadelphia, falls for handsome poet Allan Poe but oh dear, his creepy brother Edgar keeps showing up … This generally fell flat (a shame — Annabel herself is a good character) but a big part of the problem is that borrowing from other 19th century horror instead of milking Poe’s own works more bugs me aesthetically.

BEHIND THE MOON by Madison Smartt Bell is a literary novel in which a teen skipping school winds up in a coma while ducking a gang rape and finds herself in a Pretentious Surreal Astral Sequence, only to have her mother find her in the same plane. Even allowing for my general lack of interest in literary fiction, I wasn’t impressed.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: Timeless by Bryan Hitch (who writes and co-draws) improves on Hitch’s first two Rebirth volumes, but it’s still not a winner: we have silly things like the JLA taking an issue to share their feelings in the middle of an imminent alien attack, then a better story arc involving a plot by an alien intelligence to erase Earth’s superhumans from history (because of them, after all, the entire reality of the universe has been rebooted several times). This is definitely not the JLA’s finest hour.

 

 

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RIP Len Wein (#SFWApro)

Last weekend Len Wein, one of my favorite Bronze Age comics writers, died. For a list of his accomplishments, this Atomic Junk Shop post is pretty good. I’ll take a few paragraphs to talk about my personal reaction to his work.

While I don’t think it was the first story by Wein I read, the Nick Cardy-illustrated cover above marks when I became a fan. When I started reading comics again after moving to the US, my old favorite Justice League of America was one of the first I bought (curiously I picked up Teen Titans, which I didn’t like anywhere near as much, several months earlier). At the time Mike Friedrich was the writer and while I enjoyed them, I think there was something missing. I didn’t really sense what until I read JLA #100 as Mr. Wein took over.

Len Wein’s superhero work never pushed the envelope as much as Steve Englehart’s (another writer of roughly the same period). It was simply good, well-told, entertaining stories.  Pacing, humor, character bits, action scenes, they all came together and worked.

The three part #100-2 arc involved the Justice League and Justice Society joining forces to save the JSA’s Earth-2 from apocalypse. To do that, they had to find the Seven Soldiers of Victory, who’d been scattered through time battling a creature called the Nebula Man. Seven teams set out across time for seven adventures. Throwing in a Golden Age team I’d never heard of was icing on the cake for me (this was long before even the most obscure heroes could be found on the Internet somewhere).

Among the pleasures of Wein’s two-year run were guest appearances by the Phantom Stranger and the supervillain Eclipso; the introduction of the Freedom Fighters; establishing Green Arrow and Hawkman as frenemies; and the lonely android Red Tornado exploring humanity (not a new concept, but well done).

I can’t say Len Wein made me a comics fan. I already was. But his stories were among the ones I most looked forward to, and that’s pretty cool.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Wein.

Below, one of Jose Garcia-Lopez’ covers for Wein’s Untold Legend of the Batman.
Rights to both covers remain with the current holder.

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China, Italy, the Old West, art theft and Paper Girls: books read (#SFWApro)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KAI LUNG UNROLLS HIS MAT has the villains of the previous book descend on Kai Lung’s village, kidnap his wife and raze his home to the ground; with no allies and no money, can he cross China, track the bad guys down and outwit them with nothing but his storytelling skills? Well, obviously, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. However as with the first one this is a 1920s Orientalist fantasy of China, so if that’s not to your taste, avoid. Cover by Ian Millar, all rights remain with current holder.

TWENTY DAYS OF TURIN by Giorgio de Maria is a creepy Italian work from the 1970s, newly translated, in which a reporter investigating the eponymous reign of terror (individuals randomly attacked and battered against walls until death) discovers it was not only weirder than he imagined but that Sinister People would just as soon he not investigate it. The translator’s intro says this was probably intended as a veiled metaphor for the continuing presence of fascist and neo-fascist groups in Italy in the era it was written, but it works just as well as a magical realist Lovecraftian take. Also curiously prescient about social media in its portrayal of a library where people swap their diaries and intimate confessions.

SIXTH GUN: Sons of the Gun by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt was surprisingly disappointing — this story of General Hume’s band of killers tries to make them more than generic thugs, but it didn’t hold my interest at all. Partly that’s because without Becky and Sinclair as the focus, this is just a lot of horrible, eerie things happening to people I don’t ccare about at all.

MUSEUM OF THE MISSING: A History of Art Theft by Simon Houpt looks at the history of the topic including outright robbery, conquest (while I’m familiar with Nazi art thefts, I hadn’t realized Napoleon likewise sucked up art from his conquered provinces), cultural appropriation from the Third World and some of the more horrifying incidents (the mother of one art thief tried to hide the evidence by throwing it in a canal). Houpt concludes that in some ways, things are getting worse (paintings are now used as bargaining chips in underworld deals, which makes them much more profitable to swipe) and the laws for recovering them are surprisingly weak (in much of Europe, even a stolen painting can be kept if you bought it in good faith). On the other hand, the Internet makes tracking and identifying stolen goods a lot easier, and the methods for planting GPS trackers on art are surprisingly cheap. A good read.

PAPER GIRLS 3 by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang was less fun than Vol 2 because time travelers in prehistoric times is such a stock set-up, certainly more so than 1980s tweens winding up in the present (in the previous collection). Still, the characters kept my interest so I’ll be looking for Vol. 4

 

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New Screen Rant out— (#SFWApro)

This should be my book review post for the week, but my schedule got messy, so that’ll be out Tuesday. For today, my new Screen Rant featuring nine superheroes who are secretly jerks. Eight who are secretly sweethearts.

For one of the sweethearts we have Herb Trimpe’s Hulk from the Bronze Age, when Hulk was just a lonely kid who desperately wanted friends.

For a jerk, here’s Otto Octavius (from his time as Spider-Man) deciding not to get Mary Jane into bed (she thinks he’s Peter) because he can voyeuristically experience Peter’s sex with MJ in the past. There is much debate online whether the creators really appreciated what a dick Otto was in this story. Art by Ryan Stegman.

All rights to images remain with the current holders.

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Stories that don’t age well (#SFWApro)

H. Rider Haggard’s THE PEOPLE OF THE MIST (stunning cover by Dean Ellis, all rights remain with current holder) is a good example of what people mean when they say a story “hasn’t aged well.” It’s a great adventure, but Haggard’s 19th century attitudes make it a lot harder to read than when I was a teen (the Ballantine version came out in ’73). Warning, some spoilers below.

The protagonist, Leonard Outram, opens the book in sorry state. Dad’s reckless spending, including embezzling his sons’ inheritance, has wiped out the family fortune. Leonard has just sold off the estate, the silverware, the fine furniture. When Leonard goes to see Jane, the woman he loves, her father lets him know their engagement (which he was thrilled about previously) is no longer suitable. Despairing, Leonard and his brother Thomas vow to journey to Africa and rebuild their fortunes or die trying.

Eight years later, Thomas has just died and Leonard’s as impoverished as ever. Then an elderly black woman, Soa, recruits him to free her mistress, Juanna (a Portuguese trader’s daughter) from a slaver who plans to auction her to the highest bidder (just as if she were a black girl!!!!). Leonard and his trusty black companion Otter (a strong, fearless dwarf), despite the impossible odds against them, destroy the slaver’s fortress and free Juanna, though in the process she and Leonard wind up married (she’s not happy with this).

In return, Soa leads them to the lost valley where the eponymous tribe she comes from dwells (unusually for a lost race novel, they’re sui generis rather than descended from Egyptians, Atlanteans, etc.; this may reflect Haggard was writing before the Lost Race tropes were set in stone). Juanna and Otter look like the People’s gods, which should enable Leonard to score a fortune off the gems so many human sacrifices wear to their deaths (devoured by a ginormous crocodile). Of course things prove complicated …

This is slower in spots than a modern writer would get away with, but it has enough high points to make it enjoyable. There’s Otter’s fight with the giant croc, and the climax in which our heroes have to toboggan down a glacier and over a ravine to escape. The fight at the slaver’s lair is also entertaining.

And then ending is beautiful. Despite everything they’ve been through, they lose the gems. When they return home, it turns out Jane married the man who bought the Outram estate (she couldn’t withstand her parents’ demands); as he died childless, she inherited everything and left it to Leonard. None of their heroics made a difference, it’s Jane who gives them the happy ending (Juanna really writhes at this).

The downside is those attitudes. The opening emphasizes the tragedy of the Outrams losing their estate isn’t just losing it, it’s that a JEW bought it. It’s not as odious as the Evil Jewish Moneylender in The Grand Sophie, but it has a whiff of the same sentiment.

Then we have an African adventure with a white hero. Black servants (Soa and Otter) who are irrationally loyal to their master or mistress; Otter at one point contemplates suicide when he assumes Leonard will leave him behind in Africa. And this despite the fact Leonard constantly berates Otter, declares him an idiot and never treats him as the comrade in arms he is. I can’t see Haggard having a white character, even a servant, treated the same way.

All of which would have been unremarkable when Haggard wrote it. And didn’t bother me, IIRC, back in 1973. But if I were recommending this to anyone, I’d have to add a huge “I have to say …”

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