Thursday, March 22, 2018

Doom Patrol

Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol Volume 2 (1990-1991/ Collected 2016): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Richard Case, Vince Giarrano, Malcolm Jones III, Mike Dringenberg, Doug Hazlewood, Steve Yeowell, and others: Grant Morrison's early foray into American superhero comics after about a decade writing for UK publications remains its brazen, pomo self all these years later. C-List early 1960's DC superhero team The Doom Patrol offered Morrison the chance to play fast-and-loose with superhero conventions for both comic and dramatic effect. 

Original Doom Patrol member Cliff "Robot-man" Steele remains mostly unchanged, except for his professed level of angst about being a brain in a robot body. And team leader The Chief is still here, wheelchair-bound and pre-emptory as ever. Tempest remains from the brief late-1970's revival of Doom Patrol, but he mostly confines himself to being team medic. Negative Man is now a hermaphroditic hybrid of man, woman, and negative-energy being that calls itself Rebis. Little Dorothy struggles to control her ability to make her dreams becomes true, or at least solid. And Crazy Jane juggles 64 personalities, all of them with different superpowers. But she's integrating them!

This volume introduces Charles Atlas-comic-strip-based superhero Flex Mentallo ("The Man of Muscle Mystery!"), a creation of satiric wonder invested with a poignance based on the ephemeral nature of childhood dreams and visions. A loose plot thread from Paul Kupperberg's previous run on the title is tied up in weird, space-opera fashion. 

The Sex Men, the Men from NOWHERE, the Shadowy Mr. Evans, and the Brotherhood of Dada threaten our heroes. The Chief goes solo against The Beard-Killer in Morrison's hilarious parody of macho comic-book heroes like Wolverine and the Punisher and the sadistic macho monologues of pretty much any hero written by Frank Miller. The volume ends on a bit of a cliffhanger -- the Brotherhood of Dada shows up, but the battle awaits in the first couple of issues collected in Volume 3. Onwards, Absurdist Soldiers. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Barefoot Gen [Hadashi No Gen]

Barefoot Gen [Hadashi No Gen] Volume 1 of 10 (1973/ This translation 2004): written and illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa: Japanese writer-illustrator Keiji Nakazawa was a boy in Hiroshima when the Bomb fell. He told his autobiographical tale of that day in a story called "I Saw It!". In Barefoot Gen -- all ten volumes and about 3000 pages of it -- he tells a fictional tale of the days before and after Hiroshima as seen by a boy about his age, the eponymous Gen.

It's quite a story. Gen's father is an anti-war pacifist, which makes the lives of Gen's family extra-difficult in 1945 Japan, where food is scarce and pro-war fervor dialed up to 11. For the first 200 pages or so of this first volume, we observe the food shortages and the petty injustices of state and individual alike. 

As Art (Maus) Spiegleman notes in his introduction, some of the conventions of Japanese comics (Manga) take some getting accustomed to for the Western reader. The children are big-eyed cartoon kids. Cartooniness can shift suddenly to photo-realistic rendition, especially of machines and buildings, and back again. And there's a violent jokiness throughout, a heightened slapstick of punches and kicks directed mostly by Gen's father at Gen and his equally rebellious but well-meaning younger brother. 

The occasional melodramatic jokiness of some of the proceedings doesn't obscure the smaller horrors of war, and the larger one, when it comes, is  a stunner -- 50 pages of unrelieved horror, all set in the first few hours after the Bomb fell on Hiroshima. The nine subsequent volumes take Gen up to about 1947. This one should probably be on every serious comic reader's bookshelf. Highest recommendation.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Doc Savage: Skull Island (2013) by Will Murray

Doc Savage: Skull Island (2013) by Will Murray: Will Murray has written more official Doc Savage novels than anyone but Savage co-creator/developer Lester Dent. He's done so since the early 1990's, first adapting and expanding unused Dent plots and radio scripts. Skull Island, though, is different -- an authorized team-up of Doc Savage and King Kong!

Who is Doc Savage? The hero of 181 pulp-magazine novels published between 1933 and 1949, reprinted to surprising popularity starting in the early 1960's and continued by Murray and others once those novels ran out in the late 1980's. Trained since childhood to be a physical and mental marvel, Doc fought super-villains and monsters in that pulp series, becoming the second-most popular pulp hero in sales, after The Shadow.

The Man of Bronze supplied the Superman Mythos (through Doc-savvy Superman editor Mort Weisinger and through Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) with a number of attributes:

  • Doc's Fortress of Solitude predates Superman's.
  • Doc's first name, like Superman's, is Clark -- Clark Savage, Jr.
  • Doc, like Superman, has a crime-fighting female cousin.
  • If the Man of Bronze, Doc's most famous nickname, led directly to the Man of Steel, well, another Doc nickname -- the Man of Tomorrow -- was appropriated verbatim for Superman.
  • One of Siegel and Shuster's early Superman pages describes Superman as "A Genius in Intellect! A Hercules in Strength!", which sounds a lot more like Doc Savage than Superman.

Anyway, Skull Island is both terrific and atypical. The frame narrative concerns Doc returning to New York from his Fortress of Solitude c. 1932, too late to save Kong from his tragic fate. Two of Doc's lieutenants, apish chemist Andrew 'Monk' Mayfair and waspish lawyer 'Ham' Brooks, witnessed some of the final battle shown in the 1933 movie from Doc's heavily armored New York offices on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. So, front-row seats.

Doc accepts the task of moving Kong's body from its impact site at the base of the Empire State Building and preparing it for transportation back to Kong's home of Skull (Mountain) Island. Once Doc has sent an embalmed Kong on his way in the world's largest burial shroud, to be shepherded back to Skull Island by promoter Carl Denham in the hold of the freighter that fatefully brought Kong to New York, he tells Monk and Ham the story of his first encounter with Kong.

A young Doc Savage sets off on a sea voyage with his generally absent father in 1920, after Doc's return from WWI. Clark Savage, Sr. wants to find his missing father, Doc's grand-father, 'Stormalong' Savage, lost for years somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

Battles with head-hunters and pirates come along before the Savages discover Skull Island, hidden within its permanent fog bank. On the island is Stormalong Savage, along with the monsters we saw in the original King Kong and some dinosaurs and perils we didn't see in King Kong. And there is Kong, of course.

Given the chance to tell a story about Doc Savage before he was Doc Savage (if you know what I mean), Murray delves much more into the psychology of the young hero. Clark Savage, Sr. has just been murdered as the first Doc Savage novel, The Man of Bronze, begins. Here, I think Murray does a swell job of fleshing out the relationship (and lack thereof) between the two Savages. Stormalong is also a terrifically fun and poignant figure. So, too, Kong, a threat who becomes an ally to the Savages, possibly because they don't have designs on taking him back to civilization.

Murray gives us some lovely moments, often spiked with graphic violence -- Doc has not yet adopted his 'no killing' policy. Indeed, he wouldn't adopt this until several novels into his career -- the early Doc Savage novels present a fairly murderous Doc.

Skull Island also acts as a welcome antidote to Peter Jackson's ridiculous retconning of King Kong into a really big gorilla. King Kong, faithful to the original novel, is almost completely bipedal and resembles no ape on Earth -- he truly is a rara avis, a different species. This makes sense. In Peter Jackson's world, a tiger would exactly like an over-sized domestic cat and an ostrich a big chicken. Screw you, Peter Jackson.

Anyway, this is a swell Doc Savage novel, somewhat revisionist insofar as we delve into the origins of Doc's psychology (and into the origins of the Doc Savage Oath!). It's fun without being entirely weightless, as good pulp entertainment should be. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Minority Report and Other Stories (1987) by Philip K. Dick

The Minority Report and Other Stories (1987) by Philip K. Dick, containing the following stories:

  • Autofac (1955) 
  • Service Call (1955) 
  • Captive Market (1955) 
  • The Mold of Yancy (1955) 
  • The Minority Report (1956) 
  • Recall Mechanism (1959) 
  • The Unreconstructed M (1957) 
  • Explorers We (1959)  
  • War Game (1959) 
  • If There Were No Benny Cemoli (1963) 
  • Novelty Act (1964) 
  • Waterspider (1964) 
  • What the Dead Men Say (1964)  
  • Orpheus with Clay Feet (1987) 
  • The Days of Perky Pat (1963) 
  • Stand-By (1963)
  • What'll We Do with Ragland Park?  (1963) 
  • Oh, to Be a Blobel! (1964) 

A typically excellent collection of stories by Philip K. Dick, this text being part of the five-volume Collected Philip K. Dick first issued in 1987. There's a perceptive introduction from the late James Tiptree, Jr. (the writing name of Alice Sheldon) and notes by PKD on some of the stories culled from a couple of earlier Dick collections. One story from the early 1960's, "Orpheus with Clay Feet", gets its first publication here.

This hefty volume covers stories long and short from the 1955 to 1964. Dick's typical atypicality is in full flight here -- his protagonists are ordinary, often neurotic characters trapped in strange realities. The plots often defy anything resembling typical plotting, one of the things that makes Dick so difficult a nut to crack in film and TV adaptations.

"The Minority Report" is a pretty good example of why Hollywood almost never "gets" Dick. (Haha!) 

The central concept of Dick's story appears in the Spielberg/Cruise film, but pretty much everything else is different, and lesser. There is a Precrime division that uses precognitives to allow the police to arrest murderers before they murder. And the head of that division in one city is indeed flagged by Precrime as a Murderer-to-be. But that's about it when it comes to correspondences. And there's certainly none of the technological gimcrackery of the Cruise movie. Dick is almost never interested in presenting the visual wonder of machines. He's not about spectacle. 

Nor is there anything to do with freeing the Precogs -- in Dick's story, precognitives are the victims of terrible genetic mutation that leaves them essentially mindless conduits for the future, derisively referred to as "monkeys" by many of those in Precrime. There's nothing sentimental in Dick's story, no stirring speeches about free will. The protagonist is a frightened, flawed, but pragmatic man who does the right thing in the end. He's no Tom Cruise.

There are many stand-outs here, and a few fascinating oddities -- including a piece of metafiction ("Waterspider") starring sf great Poul Anderson and many other cameos from science-fiction writers of the 1950's and 1960's, themselves believed to be Precogs by the time-travellers who come back from the far future seeking their help.

Dick's fiction doesn't remain relevant because of accurate technological prediction. It remains relevant because Dick's observations and speculations about the social, psychological, and political effects of technology are startlingly prescient, primarily because they're based on what he saw around him. 

Stories about the social impact of Fake News ("The Mold of Yancy," "If There Were No Benny Cemoli") still resonate in the Trump Era because "fake news" was around in the 1950's and 1960's for Dick to ponder upon. "Novelty Act" posits an America involved in an endless, state-mandated talent show aimed at getting people to perform for the First-Lady-for-Life on TV. It seems weird right up to the point that it seems weirdly believable, even with its easy flights to Mars and 1950's conceptions of talent shows (the protagonist and his brother perform classical music... by blowing on jugs). 

Yes, it's Philip K. Dick's Jug-band Crisis.

As with any collection of PKD stories, The Minority Report and Other Stories crackles with wit, horror, and humanity. Some people do good things. Some people are just small and mean. Their rewards are not commensurate with their moral worth. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Mystery Street (1950)

Mystery Street (1950): written by Sydney Boehm, Richard Brooks, and Leonard Spigelgass; directed by John Sturges; starring Ricardo Montalban (Det. Morales), Sally Forrest (Grace Shanway), Bruce Bennett (Dr. McAdoo), Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Smerling), Marshall Thompson (Henry Shanway), and Jan Sterling (Vivian Heldon): Solid noir procedural has some nice visual touches. It's a fairly ground-breaking movie for two reasons. For one, Ricardo Montalban gets to play a police detective after generally playing Latino Lotharios in his previous American work. And he's very good as that detective -- one wishes he'd gotten more roles like this. 

The second reason would be that Mystery Street's crime-solving detectives get a lot of help from a forensics expert at Harvard University. One is basically witnessing the birth of the CSI genre, with Montalban's detective slowly being sold on the expert's value to this investigation and many investigations to come. Like a crazy cherry on top comes Elsa Lanchester as a seemingly dotty, secretly malign landlady. Really a hidden gem of a movie. Recommended.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Spider vs. Trump: 1938

The Spider: The City That Paid to Die! (The Black Police Trilogy Part One) (1938): written by Norvell Page writing as Grant Stockbridge, in The Spider Vs. The Empire State: The Black Police Trilogy (2009):: Pulp-action-hero The Spider's crime-fighting disguise was so bizarre that it was only depicted on two of the covers of his 1930's and 1940's magazine. Basically, he dressed up to look like a hideous vampire. Most of the time, the cover artists depicted him as a generic masked crime-fighter, similar to The Phantom and a legion of others.

The Spider's adventures were no worse than the second-most apocalyptic pulp-hero sagas in history (Operator 5 may have been moreso, but it was set in a vague near-future America under siege by a host of foreign powers both real and imagined, which is to say both the Japanese military and The Purple Emperor laid waste to North America). The death toll was often in the millions, with New York often being depopulated in every issue by building-destroying death rays, plague-carrying vampire bats, and endless armies of criminals, madmen, and enemy fifth-columnists.

The City That Paid to Die! is the first part of what's now known as the Black Police Trilogy. In this first novel, fascist criminal forces basically trick New York's population into voting for their political proxies. That done, the forces of evil -- led by a mysterious Master -- enact legislation that allows them to terrorize and enslave the population of New York State. Even the federal government is helpless, we're told, because everything is legal and above-board!

Enter Richard Wentworth, The Spider, unmasked and forced to fight with his secret identity in shreds, his property and weapons seized, his friends and allies in perpetual mortal danger. But his ties to the benevolent inhabitants of Chinatown allow him to escape New York City just ahead of the forces of The Black Police (their uniform colours, not a racial bit, by the way).

In the wilderness of upstate New York, the Spider must build an army from those he's rescued from the murderous clutches of the New New York Order. But the Black Police number 100,000 or more dangerous criminals made legal by the machinations of their Master. Can the Spider prevail? Can he even survive? Two more novels tell the story. Recommended.

The Spider: The Spider At Bay (The Black Police Trilogy Part Two) (1938) by Norvell Page writing as Grant Stockbridge, in The Spider Vs. The Empire State: The Black Police Trilogy (2009): Richard Wentworth's battle against American fascism continues in the second part of what became known as The Black Police Trilogy.

While Wentworth normally fought weird crime as the pulo hero The Spider, here he repeatedly 'pretends' to be The Spider in order to rally the Resistance around him. That almost seems meta!

Things are really bad for freedom and justice in what's basically The Empire Strikes Back of the Black Police Trilogy. New York State is even more under the thumb of an evil mastermind known only as The Master. 

The Master's puppet government, democratically elected with a spineless figurehead as governor, is free to murder and pillage the resources of the state because, um, State's Rights are really solid and binding in the world of The Spider. Even an unnamed FDR can't help! The Master's minions can even call in the National Guard to fight the Resistance!

As the second book in a trilogy, The Spider At Bay mainly exists to make things worse for The Spider and his ragtag group of helpers. This is very much New Deal pulp heroics, with our heroes battling a government that hates the poor and the working class and thrives on villainy. You know, like Trump! By the end, things look bad. Very bad. Is this the end of The Spider, err, Richard Wentworth? Recommended.

The Spider: Scourge Of the Black Legions (The Black Police Trilogy Part Three) (1938) by Norvell Page writing as Grant Stockbridge, in The Spider Vs. The Empire State: The Black Police Trilogy (2009): With the duly elected forces of villainy in New York State holding all the cards, Richard Wentworth/ The Spider must mount one last mission to save the state from The Master!

The Spider takes more physical punishment than any other pulp hero of the 1930's and 1940's. The Shadow, the Avenger, and Doc Savage were generally very little bloodied in the course of their adventures. That was the job of their subordinates -- to get knocked out and beaten up. 

The Spider is basically a cross between Ash from Evil Dead 2 and Leonardo DiCaprio's titular character in The Revenant. He gets shot, shot again, beaten, stabbed... really, he's Wolverine without the mutant healing factor. It's sort of exhilarating to read the adventures of a pulp hero whose main quality is perseverance. Well, and a love of heating up the spider insignia on his ring with a cigarette lighter so he can brand captured criminals on the forehead with the Sign of the Spider!

So many questions...

  • Will The Spider stop The Master? 
  • Will the federal government get off its ass and do something? 
  • Will we learn the true identity of The Master and perhaps feel a bit underwhelmed at the revelation? 
  • Will a Bad Twin become a Good Twin because of the love of a good woman? 
  • Will completely insane death traps like a giant wood-chipper made to chip up humans be put into play? 
  • Will The Spider save the dam in Pennsylvania from being blown up by the Master as a way to divert federal attention away from New York State? 
  • Will anyone realize that The Spider and Richard Wentworth really are the same person? 

So many questions... answered in The Scourge of the Black Legions! Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Detectives, Inc. (Collected Edition)

Detectives, Inc. by Don McGregor, Marshall Rogers and Gene Colan (Material from the 1970's and 1980's; this IDW edition 2009): IDW is really winning my heart with its reprints of great comics from the 1980's and 1990's. 

This B&W collection of writer McGregor's Detectives, Inc. comic stories comes along with several prose pieces on the genesis of the detective comic, along with a piece on the filming of the Detectives, Inc. movie. My only caveat about the volume is that it's unfortunate that it couldn't be reprinted in a larger format -- the hyper-detailed art of Marshall Rogers on "A Remembrance of Threatening Green" originally appeared in a larger album size, and things do get a little squinty at times.

Still, this is a tremendous achievement both in writing and art. The world of McGregor's private detectives, Rainier and Dennings, gets the hypercrisp, hyper-detailed treatment from Marshall Rogers (best known for his Batman work in the 1970's), and the moodier, more humanistic approach from Gene Colan (best known for Tomb of Dracula and about a dozen other books). 

Both art styles work, and both look great in black and white. Indeed, this may be the late Rogers' greatest work. The attention to detail is stunning, and Rogers experiments with some really fascinating one and two-page designs.

Private detectives aren't all that common in comic books unless they wear costumes or have occult powers. Rainier and Dennings remind me a lot of revisionist 70's PIs from the movies -- not so much Jake Gittes in Chinatown, as Rainier and Dennings are less cynical than Robert Towne's PI, but more the characters we see in films like Night Moves (with Gene Hackman on the case) and Cutter's Way (in which non-PI's John Heard and Jeff Bridges try to solve a case). They're battered and bruised sometimes, emotionally as well as physically, but they stay on the case. 

McGregor invests his characters with a lot of heart -- he's one of the great comic book writers in terms of creating sympathy and empathy, at creating plausibly flawed and self-doubting protagonists, and at incorporating both sex and romance into a comic book without being prurient or exploitative. Highly recommended.