Saturday, December 23, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 062: Giant-Size X-Men (40th Anniversary Edition)”

Back in 1984, I bought my first X-Men comic for 60 cents from Olympic Drug in Longview, WA. (Uncanny X-Men #187---I don’t have the book anymore, but found an image of it online after a quick search.) The comic had a weird monster on the cover, a “Dire Wraith,” which I learned was one of an entire race of malevolent, outer space, shape shifting creatures who were attacking some guy named Forge at his high-tech home, and a cool lady with a mohawk was trying to fend the monsters off. I also remember that Rom, the Space Knight, was somehow, vaguely, involved. (Rom was a toy that was popular back in the early 80s.) I was fascinated by the comic, and I scoured the city (hitting places like Fred Meyer, Furness Drugstore, and Ron’s Emporium) looking for more adventures from the X-team. That one comic was the start of a decade long obsession with X-Men, that really only stopped when I had to choose between buying comics and paying for diapers.

Mark D. Beazley (ed.) and various others – Giant-Size X-Men (40th Anniversary Edition) (2015)

What Beazley did with this book is create a tribute to the “NEW” X-Men, the second generation of X-heroes who revitalized the series and brought it back from the dead. Len Wein and Dave Cockrum released Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975, which brought the series back to the public’s attention. The original X-Men series, which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started publishing in 1963, had lost its fire, and the book was effectively cancelled in 1970. The comic continued to be published, though, reprinting old stories but without any new content, until the series was given a jump-start in 1975, thanks to Cockrum and Wein (although Wein, the writer AND editor for the book, would rather quickly give up writing duties, being replaced by his assistant, Chris Claremont.) This book gave us a passel of new characters, some exciting dramatic tension, and a gigantic, living island to fight against! (It sounds weird---and it was.)

Collected in the book are Giant-Size X-Men #1, 3, and 4; a couple of X-Men Origins stories; a more modern retelling of G-S X-M #1 called X-Men: Deadly Genesis; a couple of issues from the What If? series; a fanzine from 1975; some concept art; and a bunch more stuff. It’s a beefy book, which explores the characters from a dozen different angles, and actually contains some genuinely interesting historical material. The fanzine is fun, the character sketches and costume development are insightful, and learning about how the careers of the creators affected the development of the comic itself was pretty cool.

So what about the stories themselves? The full Giant-Size X-Men #1 is reprinted in this book, and it starts with Professor X hopping around the world collecting various mutants to help him with a special project that he says is of vital importance to the entire world. He finds a few characters who would become intrinsic to the series in later issues: Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Storm; and a few who didn’t last too long. These little vignettes, mini-origin stories for several of the characters, are somewhat interesting, although the spoken dialog seems a bit (I mean, “offensively”) stereotypical to me. The Irish character, Banshee, has to say “laddy” and things like, “’tis good t’ be seein’ ye,” so we know he’s Irish. (Ack.) And each ethnic stereotype falls nastily into their cultural roles…right “comrads!” But it was 1975, and the creators were TRYING, I believe, to be inclusive.

The problem with G-S X-M #1, however, it that it’s rather nonsensical. I know comics in the 60s and 70s were mostly targeted at kids, and I know that garish costumes were in fashion, and I know that the entire PREMISE of humans born with weird super-powers is far-fetched to the extreme, but this initial story, which ushered in the age of the NEW X-Men… I’m sort of surprised it took hold. I don’t want to spoil the plot for people who haven’t read it, so I’m not going into the details, but let’s just say this as a general summary: there are too many characters involved who don’t really need to be there---they don’t contribute anything specific to the story; there are some weird branches to the plot that seem completely superfluous (various sub-teams are dropped onto this big island in various locations, for no real reason, and then---after they each overcome some weird little challenge, they all randomly meet back up at the same location); and the final battle with the main foe in the story ends with a WHOPPER, as far as physics goes. But for an introductory story, I suppose it served its purpose: it gave the world some new X-Men to sink their teeth into. (And, to be fair, in Chris Claremont’s hands, the stories did get A LOT better later on!)

The rest of the comics collected in this book are either recursive retellings of Giant-Size X-Men #1, or they are addendums, adding new information to that original story and changing the meanings of the events. The Deadly Genesis storyline, which was a six issue mini-series written by Ed Brubaker, is quite good, although it demolishes Professor X as a person, showing him to be a callous, almost egomaniacal villain, who is willing to risk the lives of a bunch of people just to further his own agenda. My favorite stories in the book were actually the What If? tales, but I’ve always like that “alternate reality” type of thing, personally.

Overall, this is a fascinating collection of material, which shows how comics have evolved over the last several decades. The supplemental materials are very cool, and the VARIETY of artifacts collected here is seriously impressive, demonstrating how much thought, effort, and work goes into a (seemingly) simple comic. For someone just looking for a good story to read, this might not be the collection for you. The recursive nature of this collection, in which the same story is basically told and retold and reimagined and retold again, could make it a bit tedious for the average reader (unless that reader happens to be a Samuel Beckett fan, who loves elliptical and recursive texts…) But for someone who already loves the X-Men and who is curious to see how they RE-SPRANG into being, then I recommend grabbing a copy of this book right away. (Really though, if you’ve NEVER read an X-Men book, either start with the Marvel Masterworks collections that go back to Lee and Kirby, or grab a Chris Claremont penned graphic novel. Claremont---he can tell a story!)

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

“Read a Damn Book – 061: The Castle of Otranto”

Horace Walpole – The Castle of Otranto (1765/1901)

The Castle of Otranto is a fun, melodramatic, “gothic” novel published in 1765. (Wikipedia says 1764, but Project Gutenberg puts the date at 1765, so I’m going with that.) The ebook version that I read comes from a 1901 manuscript, but the introduction of the book, written by Walpole, suggests the story was a lost, Italian tale printed in the 1500s, but that it might have been written several hundred years before that. These notes are actually just an elaborate frame for the story, which was written by Walpole himself, according to Gutenberg, based on dream that Walpole had. According to many different sources, this short novel is credited as the first GOTHIC tale ever published.

Okay it’s gothic, but how good can a book be that was written 250 years ago? Surprisingly, it’s a fun, weird story, that reminds me a bit of The Princess Bride! It’s got sinister plots, an evil prince, and sword fights (no shrieking eels or Andre the Giant, though, but it’s 250 years old! Give it a break!) What it ALSO has, and this is what I enjoy, are supernatural occurrences all over the place! There are ghosts and visions and a giant, armored harbinger of doom… I’m telling you, if you want a weird ghost story this winter (and you can stomach some pre-Victoria moral piety), this is the book for you. (It’s also available as a free download for your e-reader from a few different places, including Project Gutenberg!)

Here’s a short plot summary, although I’m not going to say too much, because half the fun of the story is in the exciting revelations. Here goes: Prince Manfred, the lord of Castle Otranto, is about to marry his favorite child, his son Conrad, to Princess Isabella, thus forming a powerful political bond that Manfred hopes will secure the fortunes of his family line for generations to come. Unfortunately, Conrad is killed on the day of the wedding, in the first of a series of strange, supernatural circumstances. Manfred, his hopes for the continuation of his family line crushed, SNAPS, and he goes berserk.

Conrad’s death and Manfred’s mania set off a number of bizarre incidents. The Castle Otranto is overrun with ghosts and specters, and family revelations come back to (literally) haunt Manfred and his innocent and pious wife and daughter. Some of the occurrences in the story are humorous, but most are tragic, and all of the major plot points are pushed along by ghostly visitations, prophecies, and wild conspiracies. It’s not a very long novel, but a lot is jammed into it, and the writing is surprisingly readable for a book that is more than two centuries old.

For those bothered my melodramatic dialog or pious sentimentality, the novel might get a bit tedious. Most of the characters in the tale are good, Christian citizens who make these grand, sweeping speeches about following the will of heaven or weep bitter tears about betraying the trust of their parents by falling in love with the wrong person. Taken at face value, it can get a bit sickening, (for those of us who tend not to believe in DESTINY,) but I like to pretend that it’s all high camp, and I try to read the novel like you would read a melodrama about a nasty villain, twittling his moustache as he ties a damsel to the train tracks.

Overall, it’s a quick, fun read, humorously tragic, with a great story frame, and plenty of ghosts and sinister plot twists to keep a modern reader entertained, AND you’ll be able to brag to all your friends that you’ve read the first GOTHIC novel every published, which was written way back in the GEOGRIAN era (the one BEFORE the Victorian era.) That’s the kind of thing that not everyone can say! The language isn’t as tricky or poetic as Shakespeare, and there aren’t any dirty words or explicitly gory murder scenes, so it’s safe even for a timid soul, as long as you’re not too afraid of ghosts! Definitely worth the effort!

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

Sunday, December 10, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 060: The Illuminatus! Trilogy”


Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson – The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975/1984)

Holy excrement… This week, I’m finally getting around to writing about the most wack-a-doo, hilarious, demented, science fiction, conspiracy, adventure-based, religious text (slash) social critique (slash) social deprogramming (or secret society REprogramming) series that I’ve ever read. (I hope that sentence wasn’t confusing… or that it WAS confusing, but only confusing for people who aren’t IN-THE-GNO…) And the squirrel runs back up the tree…because he knows THEY are watching, and I think there’s a tracking program in the digital copy that I read, so THEY also know I’m writing this review! (I’ll try to be nice…)

In 1975, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson released The Eye in the Pyramid, the first of the three books in this trilogy. I’m not exactly sure when the next two books, The Golden Apple and Leviathan, were published, but according to several of the sources I consulted, the three books were packed together in a single 800+ page volume in 1984, and that’s really how this series HAS to be read. Before deciding to tackle this review, I’d already read the first two books, and I found them humorous, confusing, creepy, and even a bit hokey… Now that I’ve read the first two books TWICE, and finally finished the third book, I see how essential the final book is to making sense of the first two---if SENSE is the right word here.

The “story” as told by the two Roberts moves with frantic speed through various characters’ lives, frequently changing points of view, often without signaling that a change is coming. The story is told sometimes in first person, but mostly in third. TIME means almost nothing in these pages, as the tale bounces from “current” to past events, projects into the future, and then slips into extended hallucinatory segments, then spends pages on theories of reality and perception, exposition, and historical information. The narrative contains explicit scenes of sexual content, is swimming in drugs of every variety, and incorporates historical figures, like John Dillinger and Hitler and Lee Harvey Oswald, plus borrowed elements and situations from a variety of sources, from the Principia Discordia to H.P. Lovecraft to Carlos Castaneda to Laurel and Hardy.

There are a few graspable narrative threads that pop up here and there and some recurring characters to cling to, like a drowning swimmer would grasp a floating piece of debris after their boat explodes at sea---but after experiencing the initial shock of the quick jumps and narrative shifts (jarring enough to make Beckett blush), a reader grows accustomed to the style and learns to go with the flow. And those who valiantly push through the weirdness will be rewarded for their efforts because there’s a LOT to love here. The writing, when not being deliberately confusing, is very funny. There is a cunning mixture of the historical and plausible mashed into the blatantly fantastic and absurd, which I personally find charming and fun. The word play is clever, and the names of many of the characters are downright hilarious! (“Banana Nose” Maldonado, Mary Lou Servix, Dr. Vulcan Troll, Padre Pederastia, and Fission Chips (AKA Agent 00005), and so on. Great stuff!). However, if you think Game of Thrones has a few too many characters, you’ll definitely want to avoid this series.

Now, there IS a solid plotline to be found here---it comes in and out of the narrative for the first two books, but solidifies by the third. The gist goes something like this: one of the MANY competing secret organizations vying for world control plans to put together a large rock concert in Germany in an attempt to gather thousands of music fans together and kill them. The cosmic energy released by the deaths of so many people will fuel their nefarious, magical schemes, but luckily for humanity (and the talking dolphins), there is another group, led by a mysterious anarchist named Hagbard Celine, and this second group are either trying to STOP the massacre from happening, or maybe they are just going to use the rock concert to do something EQUALLY disastrous that furthers THEIR agenda. One of the things that this book is excellent at doing is pushing ambiguity into the red. Sometimes you think a certain character or group is evil, then you think maybe they’re good, then they’re evil again---until you eventually reach a point where you start to wonder if “evil” or “good” are inadequate terms. Motives are always in flux in this story, and the narrators are predictably unreliable, and then sometimes it’s just hard to keep the characters and plot threads straight.

Like I said at the beginning, this was my second time reading through The Eye in the Pyramid and The Golden Apple, and I still had a hard time following the story, (there are SO MANY CHARACTERS!!!), but I have to say this: the series is incredibly entertaining. It’s worth fighting through the confusion in order to get to the hilarious situations and weird philosophy that Shea and Anton Wilson have put together. If you have any sympathy for underground cultural movements (punks or the Situationists or the Discordians or rave culture or any REVOLUTIONARY activists) then this trilogy will probably be of interest to you. It’s not going to appeal to people who want a clear beginning, middle, and end to their stories, nor will it be an easy read for most people. The text is thick, recursive, and confusing. It might help if you’re already familiar with a ton of “higher consciousness” literature in the Tim Leary vein, as well as having the ability to swim in the conspiracy sea (Freemasons, Kennedy assassination, Atlantis, Rosicrucians, Theosophy, The Golden Dawn, etc…), but it’s still a bit of work to get through more than 800 pages of story PLUS the 20 or so appendices, which really do NEED to be read as well to get maximum closure. (The Roberts sneak plot development into the appendices! The dastardly fiends...)

The series is a crazy, drug fueled, sexually unhinged, magic infused, maddeningly paranoid, intentionally ridiculous trip, and one that I will certainly be taking again. I’ve already started looking for my next Robert Anton Wilson book to read, (so get ready for that.) Meanwhile, I’d say, if you’ve got the time and you think you’re mentally fit enough, give the Illuminatus! a try, although I can’t guarantee that you’ll come all the way back from this adventure!

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

Saturday, December 2, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 059: Zombies Christmas Carol”

‘Tis the season…for reading about ghosts and horror stories. (Technically, for me EVERY season is for reading about ghosts and horror stories, but you knew that...) For this week’s review, I’m looking at a graphic novel adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol. It’s been REDONE about a million times already, but this time it has zombies in it! The book was given to me by my older daughter, Frankie, who spends a LOT of time at a cool comic shop in Vancouver, WA, called I Like Comics! (Maybe check them out if you’re in the area!) Thanks for the book, Frankie---and here we go!!!

Charles Dickens (reinterpreted by Jim McCann, David Baldeon, Jeremy Treece, etc.) – Zombies Christmas Carol (2011)

Although everyone has seen an adaptation of Dickens’ novella, whether the Beavis & Butthead version, or Scrooged with Bill Murray, or a local community theater rendition, I’m not sure how many modern folks have actually read the story. Dickens’ original book is decidedly dark, dealing with greed, withered emotions, supernatural horror, and death, and it’s actually a well written and interesting tale. (I’m going to have to reread and review the original real soon. It fits with our current “Haves vs Have Nots” society again...) So the original story, though considered a feel-good classic because of the redemption of Scrooge at the end, is actually a true horror story. Thus the Marvel Comics version isn’t completely out of left field.

In THIS rendition of the tale, Jim McCann, who wrote the script for the comic, adds a viral / spiritual zombie plague element to the familiar story, pushing the tale back to its more Victorian / gothic roots. The horror elements are more than just decorations, however, working on both a metaphorical level and as strong plot points. This retelling is moody and dark, and actually a lot creepier than I thought it was going to be! This is thanks to both the script writing AND the strong art.

The penciling duties for this story were shared by David Baldeon and Jeremy Treece, with inks provided by Jordi Tarragona and Roger Bonet, and despite the fact that the different sections have different art teams, the overall tone is quite consistent---it’s all dark and icky. The lines throughout the book are detailed and expressive, bringing to mind some of the “Good Old Days” of E.C.’s horror comics, with lots of Victorian flourishes, Expressionist shadows, and uncomfortable angles. And the zombies look great. The feeling that the “Hungry Dead” are right on the verge of taking over the population glooms through from the first few pages on. The ghosts, Marley and the Christmas spirits, are also quite well realized. I love the sort of horrific, pre-modern psych-ward look they gave to Marley, who is first shown with this vaguely freaky, caged helmet over his head… I think that most fans of horror comics will find a lot to enjoy in this book.

As far the zombie element is concerned, I’m probably not the only person in the world who is getting a bit tired of undead horrors, and I read this book mostly because my daughter gave it to me, but I’m glad I did. It’s a quick read, has a solid story (built on a classic structure, of course), and very good artwork and color. The end, which I didn’t expect, and which didn’t QUITE work for me, was okay, but the rest of the book was strong enough for me to overlook the somewhat flat finish. Was it NECESSARY for the creators to add zombies to this story? Not really, but since that’s the game they decided to play, and I knew the rules going in, it wasn’t too hard to play along. The book is dark, kind of sick, not TOO offensive, and has a handful of inexplicable moments, but overall, it’s a fun horror story. I’m sure I’ll read it again in a year or two.

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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 058: An Occult Dictionary”

Howard V. Chambers – An Occult Dictionary (1966)

For this entry, I cracked into an odd little book that I found a few years ago, which purports to cover “every accepted theory and idea connected to the vast and growing field of the occult,” or so it says on the back cover. That’s ambitious for a book that’s only about 150 pages long, and who “accepted” these theories and ideas? Unfortunately, the book doesn’t say. It doesn’t have a “Works Cited” page, nor does Chambers cite any historical documents, scholars, specialists, or sources of any kind in the individual entries (except when he’s hocking other books in the “For the Millions” series, which this book comes from.) An Occult Dictionary is full of definitions, but with no reason to believe that Chambers didn’t just invent the entries out of whole cloth.

And who is this guy, anyway? I looked for hours trying to uncover any information I could find on Howard V. Chambers, such as an author page or academic credentials or any kind of a history, but I found nothing. There are a few books available by Chambers on topics as diverse as UFOs, phrenology, and dowsing---second hand---on Amazon, but I couldn’t find any information on what qualifies him to write about “the occult.” Maybe he has a secret history, but if he’s an expert, he hides it pretty well.

On to the text. The first thing I want to point out is that this book is over fifty years old, and although most people like to think of “the occult” as being synonymous with “ancient wisdom,” many of the concepts covered in supernatural and occult literature can change significantly in just a few years. For instance, Chambers defines “ORBS” in this way: “In astrology, the space found between planets which aspect one another” (p. 104). Digital photography wouldn’t be available for decades, and the belief that dust particles reflecting light from the camera flash are ghosts wasn’t popular yet. Another possible surprise for some would be the absence of an entry for “wicca.” Although wicca was already starting to bloom (primarily in England) in the 1950s, it wasn’t even on his radar in ’66. Instead, Chambers tends to focus on astrology, spiritualism, a bit of psychic powers, some mythology, and magic-light.

Unfortunately, the quality of the text is not always great. There are some simple mistakes, like when Chambers misnames the world-famous Society for Psychical Research as the Society for Physical Research (p. 23), which is probably just sloppy. (Or, maybe he has a grudge against them.) The written entries are sometimes unclear (many items say that this or that topic “sees,” but Chambers doesn’t provide an explanation for what “see” means), some entries are not in alphabetical order, and there are several flat-out mistakes. For example, the entry on “NIAD” says “Nymphs of rivers, brooks, and springs. See also NYMPHS” (p. 96), but there’s no entry for “NYMPHS.” This type of thing happens few times in the book.

Chambers also seems to bounce between credulity and skepticism. In the entry on “SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY” he writes, “Because of the great possibility of fraud, such photographic work would have to be made under the most rigidly supervised of conditions to have any validity among psychical researchers” (p. 130). This seems to be a reasonable, rational position, but on the very next page, Chambers writes this in the entry under “SUNDAY”: “People born on Sundays are likely to be possessed of psi abilities” (p. 131). And that is definitely NOT reasonable or rational. He even goes straight up believer from time to time, as in his entry on “ASTROLOGY”: “Although the majority of modern scientists consider it a pseudo-science and a sham, it is winning a great number of adherents because of the accuracy of its predictions” (p. 19). The predictions made by astrology are accurate? I’m afraid I have to disagree, but Chambers also wrote an entire book on astrology, so he was probably a fan.

For the most part, Chambers seems like a hack regurgitating the common magical and supernatural concepts of the day. Tabloid mysticism. However, every once in a while, he writes something that is truly nasty or just plain strange. The entry on “SWASTIKA” briefly mentions the mystical significance of the symbol, but Chambers doesn’t even MENTION the connection to Nazis or racism, which is inexcusable (p. 131-132). In the entry on “HUNS” Chambers repeats this nasty, racist belief: “Believed by the Germans to be the result of intercourse between women and evil spirits, and to have many witches among their number” (p. 76).

And then there are the weird entries, like this one for “FAUST, JOHANN”: “A sixteenth century German magician and astrologer who is believed by the ignorant to have sold his soul to the Devil for the gift of occult knowledge, power, and youth” (p. 60). Believed by the “ignorant?” The two most famous versions of the Faust story that I know of are by Goethe and Christopher Marlow. I wouldn’t call either of those two ignorant by any stretch. And, what is it that the NON-ignorant are supposed to believe? Another odd entry is this note on the “ILLUMINATI”: “Those occult persons who are able to manifest enough power to cause luminescent glowings in their auras” (p. 77). That’s the entire entry. It’s possible, of course, that Chambers had never heard of Adam Weishaupt or the Discordians (who started their fun in 1963) or any of the other secret societies floating around in the 1960s, but really? Glowing auras? That’s all that the Illuminati are? Smacks just a bit of silliness---or is it obfuscation? Maybe Chambers is a misinformation artist! Maybe---but I don’t really think so.

Overall, the book seems like a hack job to me. It’s a bit dry, took quite a long time to read, and wasn’t altogether that enlightening. (No pun intended.) One could also ask why a skeptic who doesn’t believe in magic, psychic powers, demons, or astrology would bother to read an entire dictionary full of stuff he doesn’t believe in? Because I like symbology and semiotics. I know that people, whether through folk tales, magical thinking, religion, or fiction, imbue their symbols with MEANING. By studying the symbols, we can understand the thinking of the people. Granted, this book is half a century old, and I know I pointed out how these things tend to change over time, but it can also be illuminating (pun intended) to track those changes and try to understand which concepts shift and speculate as to why. HOWEVER, this book is pretty rare, probably wouldn’t be that interesting for most readers, and hasn’t got much to offer. I’m glad that I made it through the book, and I’m interested in the wording on a few of the weirder entries, but I doubt that I’m going to be reaching for this book if I ever need some quick info on a rare bit of esoterica. It really just isn’t that good.

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

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.)

Friday, September 22, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 050: Amphigorey”

For my 50th review (!!!) I thought I better do something special, and in my world, there isn’t really anything more special than Edward Gorey.

Edward Gorey – Amphigorey (1972/1980)

Way back at the beginning of the Read a Damn Book project, I reviewed Gorey’s “The Gashleycrumb Tinies,” which is an ABC-style book of the various ways that children can be dispatched and released from this mortal coil. The art is absolutely chilling, consisting of remarkably detailed, black and white images of sad little faces either just about to meet their ends or having just left us. (It’s not a work for the faint of heart...) The only truly unfortunate thing about the book, thought, is how quickly one comes to the end of it. Luckily for us, Gorey wrote and illustrated a GREAT MANY little books, although as it says in the introduction to Amphigorey, the earliest of those works “are now difficult and often expensive to come by” (n.p.), which is why poor people (like me) need reprint collections.

Amphigorey includes fifteen humorous, horrifying, and beautiful works, most of which are comprised of black and white illustrations with obsessively detailed backgrounds full of freakish, repeating wallpaper patterns or looming shadows created by tight-knit, extreme cross-hatching. The tone of most of Gorey’s works is pseudo-Victorian or Dickensian, with weird, vaguely British sounding place names (like Chutney Falls, West Elbow, and Hobbies Odd), bizarre characters (Miss Skrim-Pshaw and Dick Hammerclaw), and a costume department that stopped buying new clothes in about 1929.

A couple of the books are in the ABC-style mentioned above, and some are comprised of odd little limericks with accompanying macabre illustrations, and some of the best works in the collection are freakish, unsettling short-stories, usually involving at least one untimely death. One extremely creepy “story,” called “The West Wing,” has no words at all, but is instead a series of strange set pieces inside of an old house. One illustration is a just a room with peeling wall paper, in another a body is lying on a floor, in another what looks like a sheet or blanket is floating a few feet off the ground in the air, and in yet another is a darkened doorway with just a hint of some legs visible. It’s very eerie and enjoyable (if you’re into that sort of thing.)

All of the works in this collection are entertaining in their own ways, but there are three that stand out as truly exceptional for me. The most brilliant of these pieces is “The Object Lesson,” which is an exercise in stream-of-consciousness absurdity that, despite being disjointed to the point of nonsense, somehow creates a delightfully haunting mood. It’s not a traditional narrative by any stretch just a series of tangentially related scenes that when taken together produce an uncanny effect. Here is one particularly lurid section, which takes place over the course of five separate pages/images:

“Meanwhile, on the tower, / Madame O___ in conversation with an erstwhile cousin / saw that his moustache was not his own, / on which she flung herself over the parapet / and surreptitiously vanished” (n.p.).

Why they were on the tower is never explain, nor is the reason that the cousin had someone else’s moustache, or why this would cause Madame O___ to throw herself off the tower. It’s strange and uncanny and wonderfully well illustrated. To me, this tale, which strings together one nonsense event after another but still manages to be completely unsettling and creepy, is the height of artistic perfection. (This may say more about me than it does the work, but I don’t think so.)

Another great story in this collection is “The Willowdale Handcar” in which a trio of young-adults hops on a handcar they find at the train station and proceeds to ride the rails for months and months, watching a series of bizarre things happen, like buildings burning down, figures creeping through fields in thunderstorms, and various glimpses of different people’s lives falling to ruin. Again, nothing is explicitly stated, just hinted at and suggested, but the overall tone is somehow both humorous and haunting, especially considering what happens at the end!

The third rather unforgettable story here is “The Curious Sofa,” which is subtitled “A Pornographic Work,” although not a single naked body or explicit act is actually depicted in the tale. It’s a masterpiece of suggestion and innuendo, with exceedingly pregnant lines, like the following:

“Colonel Gilbert and his wife, Louise, came in after dinner; both of them had wooden legs, with which they could do all sorts of entertaining tricks. / The evening was a huge success, in spite of someone fainting from time to time” (n.p.).

For most of this tale the tone is rambunctious and humorous, populated with flapper women sporting pixie cuts and pearl necklaces and men with handlebar moustaches, all apparently enjoying themselves. However, towards the end of the story it takes a dark turn, and ends with a surprise, horrifying twist. It’s sick, but in the most inexplicit and inexplicable manner possible.

Gorey was a genius, a truly talented master of both expressive line art and of crafting a tale that could entertain or cut to the bone. His works are unlike anything else I’ve read, landing somewhere between adult fairytales and penny dreadful grotesqueries. Amphigorey itself is a remarkable collection, which will endlessly entertain anyone with a taste for the uncanny---but I should warn potential readers that the gruesomeness and heartbreaking tragedy of many of the tales may be a bit much for some sensibilities. If you consider yourself a fan of horror or of extremely dark humor, then Edward Gorey is the creator for you, and if you haven’t read anything by him yet, then this collection is the perfect place to start!

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 049: Dead to the World”

I felt kind of bad after I wrote the review for Club Dead because it wasn’t very positive, and I really do like the Sookie Stackhouse books, so I thought I’d better move along to the next book in the series and see if it might be a little more fun---and it is… (Thank goodness…)

Charlaine Harris – Dead to the World (2004/2005)

Dead to the World is the fourth book in Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, and by this time in the series, most readers will probably have a pretty good handle on who the characters are. Unlike the previous book, which is rather downbeat and particularly brutal, this book is much more humorous and entertaining, while also having a couple of solid, intriguing plotlines, which Harris quite deftly weaves into a well-crafted, coherent story.

Like all the other books in the series, this novel is told from the point of view of Sookie, a psychic waitress who is just getting over a passionate, though short, relationship with a vampire named Bill. Things start getting weird pretty quickly in this book, however, when Sookie spots a half-naked man running barefoot in the snow on her way home from work on New Year’s Eve. She recognizes the man after a few seconds as Eric, a rich, powerful, and ancient vampire who runs a business empire out of Shreveport. Unfortunately for Eric, he has been hexed by a group of witches and can’t remember who he is or what’s happened to him. Sookie, being a good citizen, takes Eric home, contacts the vampires who work for him, and agrees to keep him hidden from the witches who are trying to find for him. Stuck with a tall, blond, god-like vampire in her care, Sookie quickly begins to have “adult” thoughts, and all manner of hilarity ensues.

This book leans pretty heavily on the “romance” angle, as the now single Sookie rather quickly falls for the “helpless” Viking vamp. And, in this book Harris has a (rather explicit) good time describing the couple’s budding romance. (I would NOT recommend this one to younger readers or for people who have an aversion to erotic adventures.) Let’s just say, things get steamy (in a slightly necrophiliac sense.) Throughout this series, Sookie is beset by a plethora of potential suitors, and by the end of this book I think she’s already racked up a solid half-dozen men, vamps, and other creatures who have stated their interest in her. Of course, part of what makes this series popular is the big question: Who will Sookie end up with? (I’m not a big fan of romance novels on principle, but I do like Harris’s characters, so watching them jockey for position can be pretty fun.)

The second important storyline in this book is the disappearance of Sookie’s brother, Jason. Because he’s a troublemaker, the police are less than excited to go looking for him, and Sookie suspects that Jason might have been kidnapped by the witches that hexed Eric. Wrapped around Eric’s amnesia, Sookie and Eric’s romance, and Jason’s disappearance are a number of crisscrossing plotlines, including a war between the witches and the supernatural creatures of Shreveport, a strange community of shape-shifters living outside of Sookie’s hometown, and a psychotic, jealous were-lynx who thinks Sookie is moving in on her werewolf.

One of the best parts of this book is the character, Pam, Eric’s second in command, but she gets to take center stage in many scenes in this novel since her boss is incapacitated. Pam is described as looking just like Alice from Alice in Wonderland, but is supposedly several hundred years old. In this book, particularly in the battle between the witches and the monsters, you get to see Pam go seriously hardcore and show a vicious and somewhat twisted sense of humor, which is quite fun. Pam is one of my favorite characters in the series, so it was fun to see her featured so heavily in a story.

To sum up, I really enjoyed this book. There are several mysteries to solve that keep Sookie in suspense, the tone is more entertaining and fast paced than the previous book, with a lot more humor (and NO rape scenes), and each of the storylines contributes to the novel as a whole this time (unlike some of the previous books, where the opening mystery has little to do with the main story.) The characters are more fully realized in this book, as well, mostly because Harris has had three previous novels to flesh out who they are. Of the first four books, Dead to the World has been my favorite on this reread through the series. The balance between humor, horror, mystery, and romance is just right, and it makes me look forward to reading the next novel---although it might be a while before I get to it. I’ve got a few other things to cover first!

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

Thursday, September 14, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 048: Gregory”

I don’t remember how I found this particular book by Marc Hempel (who would later go on to do a stint illustrating Neil Gaiman’s “The Kindly Ones” storyline in the brilliant series, The Sandman,) but Mariah and I both loved Gregory, instantly. The book was put out by Piranha Press, which looks like a neat, indie publisher, but was actually a division of DC Comics. We have four of the little Gregory books, and as far as I know, that’s all that Hempel did before moving on to “bigger” and “better” things (like his short-lived but hilarious series, Tug & Buster for Image Comics.) I could sing the praises of Hempel’s assorted works all day long, but for this review, let’s just stick to Gregory

Marc Hempel – Gregory (1989)

Gregory is the story of a disturbed little boy who lives most of his life in a cell in a psychiatric facility, barefoot, with his arms restrained by a straight-jacket. He is incapable of speaking in full sentences, preferring to scream inarticulate grunts and guttural syllables, punctuated by the occasional, “I Gregory!” His best friend is a dirty rat that pops out of the drain in the floor of his cell, spouts interesting comments, and is then smashed flat by one of the orderlies at the facility, only to be reincarnated again a short time later as the same rat. Gregory is sub-intelligent, eats moldy cheese off the floor of his cell, and is terrified of almost everything---but for the most part he seems pretty happy.

What Hempel does so well in this VERY dark book is turn almost everything in the story on its head. Gregory is stuck in a straight-jacket, but in one short scene, his jacket pops open. He immediately strips naked, accidently slaps himself in the face several times (he isn’t used to controlling his floppy arms), sticks his hand down the drain and gets it disgustingly dirty, and ends the mostly wordless sequence cowering in the corner of his cell with the straight-jacket partially put back on. Though most of us would pine for freedom, Gregory retreats into the comfort of the familiar after exploring the unknown. (This sentiment seems completely TRUE to me…)

Throughout the book, people keep trying to “improve” Gregory’s situation. His therapist is driven insane by his lack of verbal progress and runs screaming from the room. A group of “pet therapists” show up, and Gregory is mauled by the cat that was supposed to provide him a little comfort. In one particularly disturbing sequence, Gregory is removed from his cell, taken out of his straight-jacket and given the “proper” medication for his condition, so he doesn’t injure himself. This, naturally, leaves him a drooling vegetable, without any of the life or energy that make’s Gregory who he is. Herman Vermin makes an impassioned plea for Gregory to be returned to his normal cell and mental condition, but because he’s a rat, none of the doctors understand him, and he’s smashed to death with a broom. Hilarious!!! Like I said, it’s a dark book. However, when not being bothered by those looking after his “best interests,” Gregory appears to be genuinely happy with his life.

A large part of the success of the book is Hempel’s stunning black and white art. Combining a thick, rough line with what appears to be either pencil or possibly charcoal for shading, Hempel conveys a dark and disturbed mood, which works perfectly with the existential angst saturating the storyline. But the characters, to me, show echoes of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, especially in the facial features, (although this book is nowhere near as MEAN as the Peanuts stories were.) I’ve always been amazed and jealous when an artist can convey a huge amount of meaning in just a few lines, as Bill Watterson, Schulz, and Hempel certainly can. There’s also something jarring in that juxtaposition of simple, cutesy imagery and dark, disturbing subject matter that I think really helps push the overall mood and tone.

In the end, the book is brilliant. There are several extended sequences where the artwork alone tells the story, others where the dialogue can be hilarious but you see almost nothing that’s happening. Some sections show us Gregory’s perceptions of the world, which makes clear how detached he is from reality (but it’s his MIS-perceptions that help keep him happy!) And there’s even a strange, “experimental” section where a person trying to READ the comic is interrupted by another person who keeps asking questions about what’s going on. It’s weird and funny and completely unexpected. My one negative note is that there is a section in which Herman Vermin is reincarnated as a homosexual, and that short storyline is somewhat insensitive to the LGBTQ community, (although, to be realistic, the LGBTQ community hadn’t really moved into the open yet in the late ‘80s.) In addition, I suppose especially sensitive people who have family members who have been diagnosed with some forms of mental illness might find this entire book offensive, but my family is very familiar with mental issues, and I still found the book to be extremely funny. Gregory’s thoughts and reactions seem very REAL to me, and the tone, while dark, is also somewhat positive and “up.” If we could just let Gregory be himself, instead of trying to FIX him and make him “normal,” then EVERYONE would be better off, especially Gregory.

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