Tuesday, August 29, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 044: Super Aces”

Again, FULL DISCLOSURE, this is an Art Horse project, and as such was created by friends of mine. The book I’m looking at for this review is a superhero story set during an alternate history version of World War II: Super Aces!!!

Mark W. Counts & Michael J. King – Super Aces (2017)

Super Aces is a comic book that is the same size and format as the previous Art Horse work I reviewed, Martian-American War. The book is very nicely printed, 8.5 by 11 inches in size, and about 20 pages in length. (According to several sources I read, most comics are 6.63 by 10.24 inches, making Super Aces slightly larger than a standard comic---although how the comic book size standard was decided, I have no idea…) The book was written by Mark Counts and penciled by him, then passed to Michael King for inking and layout. It’s in black and white and the artwork has strong, bold lines and a great, Golden Age look and feel.

The story is set in an alternate history version WWII, and opens with our hero, “Hawker” Houston, in an aerial dog-fight over Burma. This is an origin story, so although Houston survives the confrontation (which is quite spectacular even BEFORE our hero gets super-sized), his plane takes so much damage that he has to ditch, and he wakes up from the crash in a strange laboratory! The images are big and bold, and the pace of the story is very similar to classic Golden Age books---Captain America, in particular, comes to mind. (If you haven’t seen the documentary, Comic Book Confidential, yet, there’s a great reading by Jack Kirby of Cap’s origin story in that film, which is set to the images from the comic. It’s great stuff, and reminds me of this book---or vice-versa!) From here, our hero gets the “sci-fi” treatment, and is reborn as The Flying Tiger!

I love the sinister “secret experiment” elements of the book, and I appreciate that the Nazis are CLEARLY the bad guys (as it should ALWAYS be!) The overall tone and mood are entertaining, especially for an old-school comics reader like me. If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that it’s a bit too short. You get a fun opening battle, and then the scenes where our hero becomes SUPER, and then…that’s about it. The reader is definitely left wanting more. I’ve read a ton of Golden and Silver Age comics (usually in reprint), so I know that the stories in those books were short and episodic, and this book keeps to that tradition, but I hope the next issue comes out pretty soon! Now that we know who our hero is, how he came to be, and who he’s getting ready to fight, we’re totally ready to watch him get in there and get his hands dirty!

Overall, it’s a fun indie comic with a classic feel and very bold art. The mood is entertaining, in that Jack Kirby-esque, simpler-times with simpler-pleasures sort of way, and the story works well as an introduction to our character. Hopefully, Mark and Mike get the opportunity to produce the next issue sometime soon, so we can see our new hero go kick some Nazi butt! (Until then, we can go read some of the other alternate history books by the Art Horse crew…) Super Aces itself will appeal to fans of indie comics, fans of alternate history stories, and to people who enjoy classic, Golden Age atmosphere. If you’re looking for a long, epic tale, you might want to wait until the collected graphic novel comes out, but if you want to support independent artists and storytellers, this book would be a great place to start!

---Richard F. Yates

P.S. – If you are going to be in the Portland, Oregon, area on the weekend of September 8th, 9th, and 10th, Art Horse will have a booth at the Rose City Comic Con! Come on by and check out the Super Aces book, along with all the other great independently produced books and shirts and other swag! If you CAN’T make it to the convention, check out the Art Horse website! AND make sure you visit Mark Count’s Facebook page to see his steampunk sculptures and other art!!!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 043: Club Dead”

I’ve been reading some difficult things lately, some long, obtuse, heavy works (which I’m having a rough time working through), so I thought I’d set those aside for a bit and tackle some lighter fare. I grabbed the next Sookie Stackhouse novel on my shelf, which I hadn’t read in a few years, and thought that would be a fun break from the paranormal drudgery… Maybe not…

Charlaine Harris – Club Dead (2003)

Club Dead is the third book in the Sookie Stackhouse series, and like the other two books I’ve reviewed by Harris, it’s a very quick read, even for someone as slow at reading as I am. The primary plot involves Sookie’s boyfriend, the vampire Bill, who has secretly compiled a computer database of most of the vampires who are living in America. For some reason, a bunch of vampires really want this database, and Bill is eventually kidnapped---and Sookie has to use her psychic mindreading powers to find out who nabbed him. The plot on this one isn’t too deep.

The main plus for this book is the introduction of a new love interest for Sookie (I believe this is the fourth serious contender for Sookie’s affections) in the form of the werewolf/surveyor, Alcide Herveaux. Alcide is hired as a bodyguard, basically, to accompany Sookie as she searches Jacksonville, Mississippi, for her kidnapped boyfriend, and although there seems to be some chemistry between the psychic and the werewolf, the relationship has some serious hurdles to overcome if it’s going to amount to anything. Alcide’s character is funny and likeable, and he seems like a generally nice fellow, despite the fact that he spends a few nights a month running through the woods killing animals.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much else in this book that I really find that interesting. I’m not a big fan of romance as a genre, so the love triangle (actually, it’s closer to a dodecahedron) between Sookie and her suitors isn’t my cup of tea, and the rest of the book is so brutal---and the “mystery” elements are so paper thin---that this is a really tough story to read. You have to wonder if something difficult was happening in Harris’s life when she wrote this episode. Sookie, during her search for Bill, is sexually assaulted at a bar, beaten severally in three different scenes, staked by a vampire hating fanatic and almost killed, is essentially raped by one character and literally raped by another character who we are supposed to find sympathetic, is cheated on by two of her suitors, and even has her favorite wrap burned by a jealous ex-lover of Alcide, all in under 300 pages. And, because this book is told in first person, this is all happening to the reader directly. It’s a harrowing experience to go through, and all for what feels like a throw-away story. The characters even admit that the computer database isn’t really that big of a deal, although it’s supposedly the reason that Bill is kidnapped and being tortured in the first place.

So with Club Dead, I would really only recommend it for people who really liked the first two books in the series and who plan to read the rest of the books. It’s not a very good mystery story, the romance elements are unfulfilling, and the horrible things that happen to the main character are sadistic and cruel, but without any big revelation or redemption at the end. If you’re planning on reading the whole series, and many of the later books are quite good, then this is a necessary step, particularly with the introduction of Alcide, who plays a bigger role later---but it’s a tough chapter in the saga. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for people with PTSD or who have lived through sexual assault. It’s a dark book, and not as funny or clever as the two books that came before or many of the books that come after.

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 042: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

Have you ever pondered the DEEP questions, the ultimate questions of life, considered the vastness of the universe, or wondered if there was a purpose to…everything? These concerns are universal, and there is one book that I can think of that tackles them, head on. For my 42nd review, I just had to do The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the book that put “42” on the map…

Douglas Adams – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (1979)

Hitchhiker’s is rather well known. There was a BBC television series (1981); a feature film (2005) starring Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschanel, Mos Def, and Sam Rockwell; a radio show; comic books; countless memes; and even a text based computer game produced by Infocom back in 1984… There is no doubt that the book has had a lasting cultural impact. But have you read it? The actual book itself? (Many of you, I suspect, HAVE in fact read the book—but not all…)

For those who haven’t read this rather short novel, here’s a quick plot summary: Arthur Dent wakes up one morning with a terrific hangover, only to discover that his house is about to be bulldozed to make way for a new, high-speed bypass. As he is negotiating with the construction crew, attempting to save his home from destruction, a friend of his arrives, says that he is actually an alien, and that the Earth is about to be destroyed—to make way for a new, hyper-speed, galactic bypass. Luckily for Arthur, his friend, Ford Prefect, is a “hitchhiker” who can signal passing space ships for a ride, and the pair are lifted off of the planet just as it’s being disintegrated by a Vogon Constructor Fleet. Once the pair are “rescued,” Arthur and Ford share enough galactic adventures to fill, I believe, five books (or is it six? Or sixteen? It’s hard to tell.) But let’s just stick to this book for now…

What makes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy brilliantly entertaining is Adam’s command of language. He is a master of sly and subtle humor, of interesting linguistic constructions, and of PLAYING with a reader’s brain. Here’s an example taken from early in the book as the Vogon ships approach Earth and prepare to destroy it:

“The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t” (p. 30).

Adams uses a clever, Monty Python-esque, illogic as logic technique in his writing to taunt and confuse the reader, and these frequent, unexpected verbal sneak attacks are extremely effective at making me laugh. This novel is full of absurd situations, silly names (Arthur Dent, Slartibartfast, Fook, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the Paranoid Android, etc.), and brilliant observations. For example, Zaphod Beeblebrox, who is a two headed, three armed, swindler, crook, and con-man, and also the President of the Galaxy, is one of the main characters in the story, arguably responsible for most of the plot that takes place after Arthur leaves Earth. In a footnote, shortly after introducing Beeblebrox, Adams writes this:

“The President in particular is very much a figurehead—he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it” (p. 35).

This passage was published in 1979, on the doorstep of Ronald Reagan being elected President of the United States, but just try to tell me that it doesn’t fit the current political situation in the U.S. as well! Adams is a keen observer, spotting the flaw in American politics and pointing it out in an efficient and humorous way, and similar examples of social critique can be found throughout this text.

To be fair, I do have a few criticisms of this book, and the one major complaint I have is that the book is not complete. It doesn’t present a story with a beginning, middle, and end. There are a number of questions raised by the text, not the least of which is why “42” is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, but the book is obviously the introduction to a series of stories (not unlike Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring), and I don’t think it’s a completely satisfying read on its own. In other words, if you’re going to read Hitchhiker’s, be prepared to grab at least the next three or four books as well, if you desire any kind of resolution in your reading materials. These novels are all quite short and easy to read—I would imagine that someone who reads at an average speed could finish the entire series in a week or two. (In fact, even with my incredibly slow reading speed, I was able to read Hitchhiker’s, cover to cover, in one sitting the first time I read it. It might be the only novel that I’ve ever done that with!) But still, if you read a book, you kind of expect it to END at the end… Not so with this one.

The other complaint that I have with the book is that none of the characters in it, with the possible exception of Slartibartfast—and Ford Prefect, at times—are even remotely likable. Arthur is whiney; the Earth woman, Trillian, is given very little to do; Beeblebrox is an over-the-top egomaniac (which is funny at times) but spends most of his time fighting with everyone, and Marvin the Paranoid Android is so monumentally depressing that a computer system on a police spaceship commits suicide rather than listen to him talk. It’s been years since I read the next few novels, so the characters might just be a bit green in this book, but they are still pretty tough to relate to here. In fact, the narrator (voiced by Stephen Fry in the 2005 film) is probably the most likable voice in the entire book.

Overall, I still love this story, and obviously the lasting impact that the series has had on popular culture shows that I’m not the only one. Adams was a deft hand with a pen, and he created some of the funniest and wittiest sentences ever written in the English language. (I’m talking, up there with Mark Twain…) If you don’t care for Monty Python or clever British-style humor, or if you have no tolerance for science fiction, then I wouldn’t recommend this book. But all the hoopy froods with a twinkle in their eye and a Babel fish in their ear will definitely love this series. As for me, I’ve read it five or six times now, and it still makes me laugh…

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)


Saturday, August 5, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 041: Octopus Girl”

I spotted this book at a comic convention back in 2006 or 2007. It ended up being even weirder than I thought it was going to be…

Toru Yamazaki – Octopus Girl (Vol. 1) (2006) [Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian]

I’m a fan of Japanese horror comics, particularly ghost stories. Something about the cultural relationship between Japanese writers and the world of the supernatural inspires them to produce work that is as strange and as creepy as horror can get. Well, Octopus Girl is certainly creepy, but what Yamazaki has created here is more of a satirical spoof of the horror genre than a true horror comic---but it’s also kind of brilliant.

The premise is this: a young high school girl named Takako is terrorized by the mean girls at her school, who tease her and beat her and nearly drown her and call her “Octopus Girl.” (“Tako” is Japanese for “octopus.”) Somehow, after a particularly vicious attack, Takako finds herself cursed and transformed into an actual octopus. (She still has her human head but instead of a body, she has tentacles sprouting out of her neck.) In this octopus form, Takako essentially goes crazy and kills all of the girls who tormented her, then escapes into the sea.

Eventually, Takako learns to control the transformation between her human and octopus forms, and sets off on a series of bizarre, extremely violent, crazed adventures involving sea witches, a girl who was transformed into an eel by a mad scientist, a vampire granny, a psychopathic toddler, and so on. Along with the violence and gore, there are also some interesting meta-moments in these stories. For example, when the plot starts to get too silly, the “cursed hands of the readers” reach into the comics’ frame to throttle the characters, and when Takako spends too much time on a sideline thought, the foot of the comic artist himself kicks her back into engaging with the plot of the story! It’s very clever and very funny. In addition, Yamazaki’s black and white line art is excellent---allowing him to parody “shojo” style romance comics and then turn around and fill the frames with gushing blood. His ability to create disgusting and disturbing scenes is perhaps a bit too far into the “yucky” even for my taste at times. The mood is an unholy marriage of Tom Savini splatter-gore mixed with a Garbage Pail Kids sensibility!

So there you go… If you like disgusting, creepy, gory, violent, insane, silly, juvenile, horror comedy, then Octopus Girl might be right up your alley. If you are a nice person, a kind person, someone who believes in morality and decency and not cutting humans into ribbons and eating them, I’d probably avoid this book. It’s not particularly SCARY (I’ll get to scary Japanese comics when I get to Junji Ito), but it is very clever, demented fun---if you have a strong enough stomach…

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)