Sunday, November 19, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 057: Mad Night”

I’m a huge Richard Sala fan. If I suddenly found myself wealthy, the first two things I would do are buy a vintage pinball machine and get Richard Sala’s entire body of work. I first discovered his brand of weirdness back in the early 1990s, when MTV aired a series called Liquid Television, which included Sala’s bizarre, noir, serialized story, “Invisible Hands.” (It’s still creepy and hilarious. I recommend looking it up.) Flash forward a few years, and I came across this graphic novel, Mad Night, and I realized, instantly, that I had a new favorite.

Richard Sala – Mad Night (2005)

Mad Night was originally serialized in Sala’s comic, Evil Eye, (the individual issues can now sell for anywhere from $10 to $40 or more---but I don’t have any of those, so it doesn’t really matter.) The story falls pretty squarely into the crime / noir / thriller category, but is complicated a bit by two things, Sala’s sick sense of humor, and his amazing art. Let’s look at the artwork first.

Sala’s lines are exquisite. He draws in an old fashioned, cartoony style, very reminiscent of Chester Gould (who created Dick Tracy) or Will Eisner (who created The Spirit), and like Gould, Sala invents a menagerie of oddly shaped and humorously named characters. Odok Ood looks like a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and a beatnik. Professor Pestal has a concave head that looks like it would be perfect for mixing potions in, and Herr Schpook is right out of the pages of Dick Tracy, sort of a mixture of Prune Face and Major Toht (the evil Nazi from Raiders of the Lost Ark). His images are stunning, his “camera eye” is perfect, and his attention to gruesome detail is unmatched (since the passing of Edward Gorey at any rate.) It’s a beautiful book, as all of his that I have read have been.

With the art out of the way, I suppose I should try to explain, a bit, about what’s going on in the story. Enter Kasper Keene, slacker and coward, who wants to borrow a camera from a friend so that he can make a quick couple of bucks photographing the new school catalog for the college he’s attending. The meet-up with his friend to borrow her camera, however, results in a case of mistaken identity, and he suddenly finds himself embroiled in a sinister world of secret societies, bizarre medical experiments, hidden conspiracies, pirate women, puppetry, and MURDER. (Lots and lots of murder…)

Luckily for Kasper (or UN-luckily, as he would explain it), he is also friends with Judy Drood, the hard-as-nails girl detective---who was the actual owner of the camera that Kasper originally borrowed, and subsequently lost. Judy dives into the swirling conspiracy mess, cussing and fighting the whole way, trying to discover who’s killing whom, as well as attempting to get her camera back.

As I mentioned above, Sala has a wicked sense of humor, and this comes out in the weird character names, as well as in the bizarre and freakish situations that Judy and Kasper (completely against his will) find themselves in. The dialogue is snappy and entertaining, and keeps some of the darker things that happen in this story from diving into straight, Grand Guignol terror. Make no mistake, Sala holds nothing back. This story is swimming in nudity, gore, and numerous extremely disturbing scenes, but because of Sala’s cheeky tone, the whole thing comes off as a clever romp. Not kid friendly in the least, but wonderfully entertaining for those with a taste for the sinister and grotesque. I wouldn’t say it’s SCARY, but definitely DARK, and one of my favorite books from the last few decades. (I’m trying not to give too much away, since half the fun is seeing how the chaos unfolds.) I’ve read it five or six times already, and I’m sure I’ll read it again.

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 056: Monsters and Water Beasts”

Shane Grove*, molder of young minds (and a teammate on my Thursday night bowling league), found a book for me that he knew, thanks to my love for the weird and “unexplained,” was going to be right up my alley! He wasn’t wrong!!!

[* Mr. Grove is also the only person, so far, to write a guest review for RADB, when he provided a second opinion on Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. After you read this review, go check that one out!!!]

Karen Miller and Sergio Ruzzier – Monsters and Water Beasts: Creatures of Fact or Fiction? (2007)

Monsters and Water Beasts is a middle reader book (intended for kids between the ages of 8 and 12) in which Miller writes about a small selection of well known “cryptids,” and Ruzzier provides some fantastic color artwork. Miller starts each chapter by retelling a personal encounter by an eyewitness to some strange creature, and then Miller follows these stories with possible explanations for whatever the witnesses saw. Most of these explanations tend to run towards the “believer” side of the spectrum, and only a cursory mention (and usually subsequent dismissal) of the skeptical position makes it into each chapter. Miller covers nine different monsters in all, touching on the biggies: Bigfoot, Mothman, The Jersey Devil, Champ, but she chooses to avoid a couple of “classic” critters. (No Nessie? No Chupacabra?) I suppose sticking with just a few creatures gave her the chance to look in greater detail at her chosen beasts and still keep the book relatively short, which is important for a middle reader book. A 700-page tome (which you’d need to cover EVERY cryptid) would be too imposing for youngsters.

 As I mentioned briefly above, Miller tends to lean pretty heavy on the believer angle, using phrases like “experts” and “some scientists” when discussing evidence that supports the various beasts, which of course lends credibility to the pro-cryptid argument, and she usually discredits the skeptical arguments after only briefly mentioning them, if they are mentioned at all. To be fair, a middle reader book that said in no uncertain terms, “Monsters aren’t real! And Santa is just your parents…” probably wouldn’t be very popular with the target audience. However, I do wish that Miller had provided a more balanced presentation of the topics, as Joel Levy did in his book Unsolved Mysteries. Levy told the folklore account, mentioned what believers thought had happened, covered the skeptical and mainstream beliefs, then ended with the “fringe” theories, making certain that the reader knew these weren’t accepted by the majority of the researchers or scientific community.

A quick look at Miller’s “Selected Resources” reveals a number of prominent cryptozoologists and chroniclers of the weird, including Loren Coleman, Bernard Heuvelmans, and (perhaps the most famous name in the cryptid pantheon) John Keel! If these are Miller’s sources, it’s no wonder the book leans towards the believer end. I’m not seeing anything here from the skeptical community. Where is Joe Nickell’s account or Ben Radford’s or Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero’s work from Skeptical Inquirer or Skeptic Magazine? It’s entirely possible that Miller has never heard of any of these authors, but Joe Nickell has been writing skeptically on weird topics for decades, and has appeared on a bunch of talk shows and programs about strange phenomena. Granted, skepticism isn’t as fun when you’re a kid, but I still think it’s important to at LEAST let kids know that not EVERYONE is a believer. At one point, Miller even calls the skeptics “cynics,” which is not the same thing. (And I think Miller takes the “believer” perspective WAY too far, even leaving HOOP SNAKES open for possible discovery by zoologists. Maybe they’ll find a giant blue ox, too!)

On the positive side, the book is pretty fun, and Miller’s choices for personal encounter stories were engaging. My favorite element of this book, though, is actually Sergio Ruzzier’s art. He draws a few images for each chapter (as well as the cover), and I’m very entertained by his renditions. His Mothman is a literal interpretation based on very early sightings, where the witnesses claimed the creature had no neck, huge wings, and giant saucer-like eyes. What he draws (you can see it in the cover image) looks more like a blemmy from medieval travel stories than the highly stylized, Frank Frazetta painting that most of us think of today. Other excellent interpretations are The Jersey Devil (p. 40) and his rather creepy “cadborosaurus” (p. 80).

Overall, this isn’t too bad of a book, and I’m betting that young persons who are interested in monsters will find a lot to enjoy here. Miller follows the tried and true method of introducing each creature with a bang, and Ruzzier’s illustrations are very enjoyable. My suggestion for parents hoping to balance the believer opinion with the skeptical would be to read the book with your kids (or before or after) and then discuss the monsters with them. For a very enjoyable (though somewhat PUN heavy) science based show about monsters, I recommend the podcast, MONSTER TALK, with hosts Blake Smith and Dr. Karen Stollznow. They also start each show with the folklore stories, but then bring on scientists (like Dr. Todd Disotell, Dr. Kenny Feder, Dr. Steven Novella,), psychologists (Dr. Chris French, Dr. Richard Wiseman), and skeptics (Dr. Joe Nickell, James Randy, Daniel Loxton), and a number of other specialists in art, history, theology, journalism, etc., to discuss the evidence, historical context, and cultural factors behind the monsters, ghosts, and other strange phenomena they cover. It’s one of my favorite programs, and they have done episodes on several of the creatures that Miller and Ruzzier address in this book.

So, to conclude, the book is pretty good. Its tone is a bit credulous for my taste, but the artwork is great, and there is always the possibility that kids will get interested in the monsters and then eventually find their way to science because of the stories! I know I did! I grew up on In Search Of and Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unexplained type of books, but here I am today, an advocate for scientific skepticism! This book is fun for what it is, and like I said, it’s worth the price of admission for the artwork alone. (Thanks again to Shane Grove for bringing the book to my attention!)

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 055: The Crow”

A couple of decades ago, I was at a comic book convention, but I didn’t have a lot of money to spend, so I went around carefully eyeing every booth for “MUST HAVE” materials, knowing I was only going to get a couple of books. At one booth (I can’t remember whose booth it was anymore), I spotted a comic I’d never heard of, which had this dark figure on the cover wearing a trench coat and what almost looked like Alice Cooper face-paint. It was spendy, about $10, but I was intrigued, so I grabbed it. It ended up being James O’Barr’s The Crow #2, put out by Caliber Press, and the book was great… (I also spotted a humor title called The Tick at that convention, but I think that’s a topic for a different post.) A year or two after this convention, they made a movie out of the comic, and the price for the book that I’d bought jumped up real high, (my copy was a first printing,) so I made an executive decision and decided to sell the book to a local comic shop. I got enough in trade to buy The Crow graphic novel (basically the original Caliber run collected by Kitchen Sink Press) and a whole bag of books from the 50 cent bins. (Trading GOLD for trash. That’s the way it works with me…)

James O’Barr – The Crow (1994)

I’m sure a lot of people have seen one of the films based on The Crow, or maybe the television show, or read one of the novels or maybe even read some of the comics, but THIS series is where it all got moving---I think. Personally, I’ve only seen the first film, the one with Brandon Lee as main character, Eric, and I really enjoy that---but for me, I’ll take the original comic series.

For those who have never read the book (or seen the first film), here’s a short synopsis: a young couple, deeply in love and preparing to get married, is set upon by a group of merciless thugs who violate the girl and murder both. Through some supernatural agency, Eric returns a year later as an avenging spirit to hunt down the men who committed the crime and make them pay. The book is violent and dark, and told through a combination of flashbacks, dream sequences, and noir violence, and the art style is an appealing mixture of scratchy, indie action and beautifully framed, painterly Art. (Capital “A.”) The story, though stylistically rendered, is pretty straight-forward: ghost guy with weapons kills the Hell out of the bad guys. However simple the premise, it’s the DETAILS that make this book work.

As a young adult with a penchant for the gothic, The Crow hit a nerve. The protagonist looked a bit like Robert Smith from The Cure, (sometimes), and O’Barr even quotes lyrics by The Cure and Joy Division in the book. In addition, O’Barr’s dream-scape imagery created a chilling and haunted world full of supernatural goings-on (as well as a certain amount of justice, which seems unlikely considering the darkness of the comic. In the end, however, the bad guys get what’s coming to them.) There are other little touches, like the spectral crow who accompanies Eric and gives him advice, like a haunted Jiminy Cricket, and the way Eric’s gun goes “Boom! Boom!” when he shoots it, which is a more cataclysmic sound than just “Bang! Bang!” It’s a subtle touch, but the cumulative effect of each one of O’Barr’s little touches is a book that is deep and chilling.

The book is dark, brutal, offensive, disgusting, and disturbing, but has a strange beauty to it, and a solid sense of gallows humor. O’Barr’s art style is sometimes rough, sometimes sublime, and should be enjoyable for anyone who likes horror or has an 80’s goth aesthetic. His action sequences, in particular, are excellent, incorporating motion lines, noir atmosphere, and cinematic angles. It should be obvious from what I’ve mentioned so far that this is not a kid’s book, but just to be crystal clear, this comic contains offensive language, extremely violent imagery, a scene of graphic sexual assault, drug use, and wicked horror visuals throughout. There is also some blasphemous content and a dangerously depressed tone that might be diagnosable as indicative of severe mental illness. But it’s also pretty clear that, with this book, O’Barr is working through some serious mental anguish (and a few lines in the introduction by John Bergin suggest that this is the case.) It’s a dark book, but enjoyable on a few levels, at least for someone like me who loves horror, but has a soft spot for seeing the bad guys getting what’s coming to them. Even though the book is over 20 years old now, it still holds up---and there still isn’t much in this world that can compare to its raw horror and existential despair. If you think you’re strong enough, give it a read.

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 054: Something Wicked This Way Comes”

Ray Bradbury – Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962/2014)

Bradbury is a legend. He is directly and/or indirectly responsible for dozens of classic films, he wrote something like 30 books, and I even enjoyed his weird, 80’s television show, Ray Bradbury Theater, which fell pretty firmly in the Tales from the Darkside, Amazing Stories, Twilight Zone vein. One of my favorite films based on his work is Something Wicked This Way Comes, released by Disney in 1983 and starring Johnathan Pryce and Jason Robards. I found Pryce’s performance as Mr. Dark, the evil ringmaster of a demonic carnival, to be mesmerizing. (Some of you might know Pryce from his role as the High Sparrow in a fairly recent season of Game of Thrones.) Despite my love of the movie and fascination with the character of Mr. Dark, I’d never read Bradbury’s original novel. I thought I’d better fix that---and just in time for Halloween!

For those who have never seen the film or read the book, here’s a quick plot summary. In a small, midwestern town, two young boys (both 14) are best friends, live across the street from each other, and do everything together. Though both are mischievous, the two boys have different personalities. Jim is more impulsive and adventurous, and Will, the son of an aging library janitor, is more introspective and innocent. One late October, just as the boys are starting to experience the first hints of sexual awareness (a subject that has opened a tiny rift in their otherwise rock-solid friendship) a storm blows into town, and with it, a strange, sinister carnival. Sneaking out, as boys do, they race to the carnival grounds only to witness some supernatural goings-on, including a carousel that can manipulate a person’s age! (When the carousel goes backwards, the rider gets younger, when forwards, they grow older.) For a young person on the verge of sexual awakening, the prospect of being just a little bit older seems enticing, and Jim is inevitably drawn to the idea. Will, more sober, knows Jim mustn’t give in to the temptation.

The master of the carnival, Mr. Dark, is covered in living tattoos, and has under his control a cadre of odd characters, including The Skeleton, The Lava Drinker, The “Dwarf” (to use Bradbury’s word), and The Dust Witch (sometimes called a “Gypsy” by Bradbury; although some of the language in this book can be a bit insensitive by today’s P.C. standards, I don’t think Bradbury intended to be offensive.) Bradbury names this cast of interesting side-show characters, but unfortunately, only the Dust Witch really has anything interesting to do in the story, beyond lurking about and being menacing.

The novel’s setup is fascinating, and the concept of a supernatural carnival that can grant wishes is creepy and enticing, but sadly, Bradbury’s language is so dense that I had real trouble navigating the prose to get to the “here’s what’s actually happening.” I know that some people will really enjoy Bradbury’s language and texture, but let’s face it: IT’S PURPLE PROSE. I’ve read enough Victorian Gothic literature to know purple prose when I see it, and this stuff is so purple it feels like I’m reading directly off an eggplant! The language can get so drenched in metaphor it becomes confusing, and often feels indulgent. (A screeching solo where a riff would do.) Rather than complain, I’ll just give you an example. Here’s a scene in which Jim and Will watch Mr. Cooger, one of the proprietors of the carnival, ride the carousel backwards and become a little kid:

“Another and another time around under the sky and trees and Will whispering, Jim counting the times around, around, while the night air warmed to summer heat by friction of sun-metal brass, the passionate backturned flight of beasts, wore the wax doll down and down and washed him clean with still stranger musics until all ceased, all died away to stillness, the calliope shut up its brassworks, the ironmongery machines hissed off, and with a last faint whine like desert sands blown back up Arabian hourglasses, the carousel rocked on seaweed waters and stood still” (p. 79.)

Notice, if you will, that this is ONE SENTENCE. Don’t get me wrong, some of the imagery is poetic, and I’m cool with poetry, but this is a dense, complex, labyrinthian sentence, and it’s not uncommon in this work. When describing magic, I think some poetry is warranted, even necessary, but Bradbury takes this to extremes. Here’s another example, this time describing Will’s father who gets his hand broken by Mr. Dark:

“Where his left hand should be was this swelled blood pudding which pulsed with such ecstacies of pain it fed forth his life, his will, his whole attention. He tried to sit up, but the pain hammerblowed him down again” (p. 226).

It’s a bit much. In fact, there really aren’t that many actual events that even happen in this book because everything takes a minimum of three pages to be described, even when it's not that important to the story. In fact, several things that DO occur, and seem to point towards future events, fizzle into dead ends. Bradbury makes a big deal about selling a lightning rod to the boys early in the book to protect Jim’s house from a lightning strike that the salesman says he’s sure is coming, but the lightning strike never happens---unless it’s a metaphorical bolt, but if that’s the case then why did he need the lightning rod? And this is just one of a number of scenes that seem to come and go without directly impacting to the story. (To be fair, they do meet the salesman again, after he's been turned into one of Mr. Dark's freaks, but there's no lightning...)

What does happen is freaky and strange, and the idea of a supernatural carnival full of magical creatures who feed on fear and sorrow is brilliantly creepy, and don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I finally read the book, although it took a lot more work to get through than I thought it would. Bradbury’s imagination was deep and dark, but he was also a product of his times. As I mentioned, there is some non-P.C. language in the book, but not too much. In 1962, this book would probably have been considered downright polite. Another issue I have with the book is with a scene towards the end where Will’s father basically beats him, smacks him in the face several times and smashes him across the ear, in order to get him to BE HAPPY and dance and be silly. I’m not buying that for an instant. A 14 year old who is being beaten by his father would not and COULD NOT laugh about it. Bradbury had some strange, old-fashioned views on boyhood (and besides the evil Dust Witch, most of the other female characters in the book are basically made of cardboard.) Something Wicked is considered a classic, and there are certainly people out there who will find Bradbury’s prose style charming, but for me, it was more work to read the book than I’d hoped it would be. I might reread it again someday, but it’s going to be a long while before I do…

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 053: Carnacki, The Ghost Finder”

Since I was a little kid, I’ve suffered from insomnia. In the late, late hours of the night, I usually read, and a few years ago, my wife bought me a back-lit e-reader. (It’s a fancy, name brand machine, but I don’t like to play favorites…) I don’t have to turn on a light to read (which can wake the boss up,) and I still get to immerse myself in creepy worlds and gothic adventures when all the world is quiet and dark. My most recent bout of sleeplessness took me back to an old friend, the supernatural detective, Carnacki!

William Hope Hodgson – Carnacki, The Ghost Finder (1913)

William Hope Hodgson was a prolific British writer and all around interesting character, whose massive body of work I’ve only really sampled through his supernatural detective character, Carnacki. The book that I read, Carnacki, The Ghost Finder, collects six of this character’s stories, which had originally been published in a couple of different magazines of the day. (Because there are only six stories, I am assuming that the version I have is a digitization of the 1913 work. A second edition came out in the 1940s, a couple of decades after Hodgson’s death, which had three additional stories that I’ve never read. But that’s pretty cool, in the sense that there are more Carnacki tales for me to read someday!)

Each Carnacki story is a framed tale in which a first-person narrator, the cleverly named “Dodgson,” receives an invitation to visit his friend, Carnacki, who feeds him and a few select individuals a nice dinner, then regales them with the details of his most recent mysterious encounter. Carnacki is some kind of professional investigator who specializes in weird (we would say “paranormal”) cases. He is armed with a deep knowledge of obscure lore, a keen analytical mind, and a small arsenal of specialized equipment with which he busts ghosts and solves complex mysteries. (Considering the fact that these stories are over 100 years old, Carnacki himself seems remarkably modern in his choices of equipment and his methods.) At the close of each story, and after revealing as much of each mystery as he is able, Carnacki ejects Dodgson and his other guests with a jovial, “Out you go!” and the tale ends.

The stories are well told, including wonderful details, strange situations, some moments of genuine suspense, and they can even be downright creepy at times. (Reading them at 3:00 in the morning might help amplify the mood---I recommend it, if you can manage it.) Without giving away too much, Hodgson, does “Scooby-Doo” a tale or two, having Carnacki’s investigations reveal not a ghost or demonic presence, but mundane human trickery, but despite this occasional (though always well written) twist, I find every single adventure in this collection entertaining. And, as I said, Hodgson’s writing is so strong, and his details so well stated, that the reader can at times actually feel Carnacki’s panic and be swept up in the terror of the situation. (The only other author that I’ve read in the last few years who creeped me out as well as Hodgson was Poe, especially in The Fall of the House of Usher, where the sense of decay and otherworldliness really got to me one night...) Hodgson is good is what I’m saying here.

Probably my favorite stories in this collection are “The Gateway of the Monster” and “The Searcher of the End House.” The first, “The Gateway of the Monster,” finds Carnacki investigating a room in a haunted mansion where the door slams, repeatedly of its own accord and the room seems tempest tossed each morning, and where anyone who attempts to sleep in the room is strangled in the night. In the course of his investigations, Carnacki cracks out an electric pentagram of his own design, which he sits inside of on the floor to protect himself from supernatural forces. It’s a weird story. The other story, “The Searcher of the End House” has Carnacki investigating his mother’s house where strange sounds have begun to occur in the middle of the night, doors are opening and closing, and strange, misshapen, wet footprints appear in various rooms. This story actually moves into some interesting multi-dimensional directions with different characters perceiving different phantom forms. It’s a great, weird tale.

If you’re a fan of Clive Barker or the Saw films, these stories will probably not be gruesome or disturbing enough for you, and the language and pacing are a bit old-school. However, I really enjoy this book. The mysteries are odd enough to keep a reader guessing, and the supernatural elements are well described and, at times, wonderfully freaky. I should mention that people who are sensitive to animal cruelty will not enjoy a few of the stories here, as dogs and cats tend not to survive the tales once they are introduced. But if you can stomach that type of unpleasantness and enjoy weird, paranormal mysteries, Carnacki will be right up your alley!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Sunday, October 8, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 052: Ranma ½ Volume 1”

I’ve been at this book review gig for about eight months now, and it’s an absurd crime that I haven’t reviewed a single transgender martial arts comedy comic yet… Slacking. That’s the only thing I can call it…

Rumiko Takahashi – Ranma ½ Volume 1 (1993/2001)

Rumiko Takahashi is probably most well known in the United States for the animated version of her classic fantasy series, Inu-Yasha, but more rabid fans of Japanese comics and animation will recognize a variety of her works: Lum – Yurusei Yatsura, the Mermaid Saga, Maison Ikkoku, One-Pound Gospel, and my favorite, Ranma ½. The Ranma comic has spun off into animation, a number of video games, tons of novelty merchandise, and is a recognized classic, but does it hold up? Is it still funny today? Let’s take a look and see if we can figure out what makes this series tick.

At the beginning of the first book, we’re introduced to the Tendo family (a father and three daughters,) who run the “Tendo Martial Arts School of Indiscriminate Grappling.” Without a son as an heir, Mr. Tendo and his friend, Genma Saotome, another master, have hatched a plan to keep the Tendo School in business once Mr. Tendo gets too old to continue teaching. Tendo has pledged one of his three daughters to Genma’s son, Ranma. Unfortunately for Mr. Tendo, he hasn’t seen his friend since before Ranma was born, and when the Saotomes arrive at the school, Mr. Tendo gets a nasty surprise: Ranma is a girl not a boy, and Genma has, apparently, been turned into a giant panda.

After a tearful discussion, it is revealed that Ranma and Genma were training in China at an “accursed” training ground, trying to perfect their skills. The dangerous training ground is actually haunted by the spirits of various people and animals that have drowned in the numerous pools there, and if anyone happens to fall into one of the haunted pools, they become possessed by the spirit of whatever drowned therein. In a mishap, Ranma fell into the pool of the drowned girl, and so whenever he is splashed by cold water, his body transforms into the female form of the girl who drowned in the pool. He has to be splashed with warm water to turn back into a boy again. Genma, we are told, fell into the pool of the drowned panda and suffered a similar fate.

Yes, the concept is silly, but it’s still fun. Mr. Tendo, still keen on fulfilling the arranged marriage, pledges his youngest (and toughest) daughter, Akane, to Ranma. Of course, neither Ranma nor Akane are fond of the idea of an arranged marriage, and instead they seem to spend most of their time fighting with each other. As the daughter of a martial arts master, Akane is unusally strong and fierce, and Ranma, being a chivalrous young man (half the time), won’t hit a girl, so he spends most of his free time at Dr. Tofu’s getting patched up after Akane inevitably thrashes him. It is a testament to Takahashi’s storytelling ability that I find the budding relationship between Akane and Ranma charming instead of annoying, considering how little tolerance I have for romance stories, but Takahashi knows how to temper her romance with some fantastically entertaining characters and absurd situations, making this series humorous enough to keep even a cynic like me interested.

More than anything, this series is about the laughs, and Takahashi’s command of tone and absurdist sense of humor serve her well. The story is filled with bizarre characters, who usually want to kill Ranma or to date Akane, or in a few cases both. The transgender humor, in which Ranma is constantly being splashed with cold water and transforming into a girl at the least opportune time, is also very funny, particularly when some character who Ranma is fighting can’t seem to understand that the boy he was just trying to murder is also the girl he’s trying to woo! In subsequent volumes of the series, we also learn that Ranma and Genma were not the only martial artists to fall into the haunted pools in the accursed training ground, which adds to the farce.

Ranma is a fun series, and this first volume gets cracking right off the bat. It’s an interesting mix of absurdist humor, touching romance (not too overbearing), and a little bit of weird martial arts, although this is definitely not the focus in the first book. Takahashi’s lines are very clean, and she manages a fair amount of humor just from the facial expressions she draws. There is a tiny bit of nudity in the book, but it’s very cartoony, and not particularly offensive. (There aren’t any explicit sex scenes or anything, just a couple of “embarrassing” bathing moments and such, nothing too racy.) The characters are quirky, the battles are bizarre and fun, and the goofy twists in the story are entertaining, even after reading the book at least a half-dozen times. Inu-Yasha may be a more complex, more fully realized story (and I’ll probably review that series eventually, too) but Ranma ½ is still a lot of fun and worth the hour or less that it’ll take most people to read it.

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 051: The Status Civilization”

Robert Sheckley – The Status Civilization (1960)

As I mentioned in my review of The Robot Who Looked Like Me, Robert Sheckley is one of my favorite authors. He was particularly adept at presenting vicious social criticism under a veneer of humor and absurdism, which made his critiques more tolerable than they would have been if he’d just been cussing from a soapbox on a street corner. The Status Civilization, a particularly poignant work, is a serious warning disguised as a science fiction novel. In these pages Sheckley skewers class stratification, religion, morality, and standardized education by turning the traditional meanings of these concepts on their heads. It’s dark and funny and suspenseful, and once the dust settles, it actually has a lot to tell us about the construction of meaning in our own society (even though it was published over fifty years ago!)

Our “hero,” Will Barrent, awakes on board a transport ship heading for a prison planet. He is told that he is a murderer, but because all of the prisoners on board the ship have had their memories wiped, he doesn’t remember committing the crime. The planet, Omega, is rigidly stratified along class lines, and the quickest and most sure way to climb the ladder in Omegan society is by killing other citizens. Though Barrent moves rapidly up in social rank, mostly through a series of strange incidents that are always just out of his control, his personal disposition puts him at odds with the prevailing ideologies of Omegan law.

For one thing, he keeps having disturbing urges NOT to kill, except in self-defense. He is also visited by a local priest who chastises him for not coming to Black Mass often enough. (The worship of Evil is the state mandated religion on Omega.) And, in complete defiance of the law, Barrent refuses to become addicted to any drugs! According to the judge who sentences Barrent for not being an addict, drugs are an important part of their society. The judge says, “I will tell you that an addicted populace is a loyal populace; that drugs are a major source of tax revenue; that drugs exemplify our entire way of life. Furthermore, I say to you that the nonaddicted minorities have invariably proven hostile to native Omegan institutions” (p. 46). [I would argue (whether we’re talking about alcohol, pot, opioids, or any of the thousands of prescription mood modifiers out there) that this is just as true today!] Non-compliance with the required addiction policy, in conjunction with Barrent’s general lack of enthusiasm for Omegan social conduct, eventually marks him for death by the state.

Through Sheckley’s humorous reversals, (evil is good, murder brings social advancement, addiction is the essence of happiness,) each of the social morays that most people hold sacred are twisted, tested, and usually found lacking. The pace of the story is also lightning fast, with a real PULP ADVENTURE feel. (The story was originally serialized in Amazing Science Fiction Stories magazine.) It’s got it all: humor, suspense, adventure, and some seriously intense social commentary. Few authors can write an exciting adventure story that ALSO makes you think---but that’s exactly what Sheckley does here.

Barrent’s journey of discovery on Omega, from amnesiac prisoner to privileged citizen to hunted quarry, is exceptionally entertaining and well worth the read. I suppose SOME sensitive types might find parts of this book offensive, particularly the religious critiques, but the story doesn’t have much in the way of gore or sexual content or even dirty language. Those looking for a fast-paced sci-fi adventure will find a lot to enjoy here, but for those who like something a bit deeper, this book really shines. 1984 may be the classic work dealing with conformity and social programming, but THIS book is not only funnier, but may actually present a more haunting message about societal control. It’s a book that NEEDS to be read and understood---today, RIGHT NOW, by as many people as possible. Sheckley’s predictions are moving closer and closer to coming true, and maybe, if we can understand HOW social programming works, we’ll be more capable of resisting when we see it’s actually happening! Read this book…

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)