The Monkey King and the Sacred Quest for Panties: Akira Toriyama – “Dragon Ball” (Volume 1)

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ABOVE: Children of all ages, gather round for this wholesome tale!

Ah, Akira Toriyama’s “Dragon Ball.” The finest of children’s entertainment! It is truly refreshing to revisit the pages of this beloved classic, looking for a gentler time, a more innocent time. What wondrous insights will we find in this pure-hearted adaptation of “Journey to the West,” the revered, borderline sacred 16th-Century Buddhist tome?

*opens comic book*

WHAT THE… WHAT IS THIS FILTH?!?

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ABOVE: I’m too disturbed to even think of a caption.

“Dragon Ball” is, from what I can glean, the tale of Son-Goku, a toddler with a tail who runs into a 16-year old girl named Buruma, (as in Bloomers, after the female undergarment.) While Bloomers is asleep, Son-Goku takes off her panties so as to dive into her crotch. This unorthodox behavior, we learn, can be traced back to Son-Goku’s habit of sleeping with his grandpa’s genitals as a pillow.

You think I’m joking or exaggerating. This is LITERALLY what happens in “Dragon Ball.”

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ABOVE: Or, Friday night at every frat house ever.

The monkey kid is shocked to find that Buruma, or, in the politically-correct, bowdlerized American translation, “Vulva,” doesn’t have a pee-pee and testicles. After being “woke” to gender inequality, the hero of our tale will walk around town, patting little girls in the nether regions to ascertain their sex.

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ABOVE: I’m not even going to go into the whole “Injun” thing.

Of course, we haven’t even met the actual pervert of our tale: that would be the wise Master Roshi, the Dumbledore of our delightful saga, perpetually asking Buruma to show him her magical honey valley.

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ABOVE: He’s 300 years old, she’s 16. The turtle is of indeterminate age.

This is all within the first few chapters of our mythic, decade-spanning quest for magical wish-granting balls. “Dragon Ball”‘s legacy may be one of protracted, onerous world-rending fights, the predecessor of “Naruto” and “Bleach” and “One Piece” and “Fairy Tail” and countless others; but its origins are those of a humble, a pervy parody of “Journey,” which explains things like Roshi summoning “baby Gamera” as a transportation device, a gag more on Tezuka’s territory.

Before long, Goku and Buruma are joined by Oolong, (as in the tea, as in tea-bagging), a cutesy Communist pig whose hobby is drugging and abducting his female victims in an unsuccessful search for a child bride that will obey his whims. THESE ARE THE GOOD GUYS IN OUR SAGA!

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ABOVE: I suppose a perverted pig trying to force children into abject obedience is as good a metaphor for Communism as any other.

The cast expands with every episode: We meet tough-guy-wanna-be Yamcha as well as his cat-like sycophant, Pu’ehr (say it outloud). The characters will soon number on the hundreds, but as the first volume (out of 42!) concludes, we have a sizable questing crew- the final addition being the cutesy Chi Chi who, unlike Buruma, at least seems like size-and-age appropriate for Goku. By this point, I have become immune to the depravity, and only wish these children a happy marriage.

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ABOVE: Hey! You! Get off of my Cloud!

RATING: MASTERPIECE of its kind! Amoral, amoral masterpiece.

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Mindful Meditations : P. D. James – “A Mind to Murder” and “Unnatural Causes” (Adam Dalgliesh #2, 3)

“Though justice be thy plea, consider this: that in the Court of Justice, none of us should see Salvation.”

“The Merchant of Venice” – William Shakespeare

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ABOVE: The Shadow knows.

Fresh off his historic debut in “Cover her Face,” Adam Dalgliesh, chief inspector and cheesy poet, goes deeper to find “A Mind to Murder.” In P. D. James’ second novel, Dalgliesh  investigates a murder that takes place at the Steen Psychiatric Clinic, at a time when such institutions ran crazy electricity bills due to their penchant for shock treatment. (The patients also get tons of LSD with their morning vitamins, because what else can you expect in 1963?) However, as might be expected, the murder suspects are not the inmates, but those running the asylum: pompous psychotherapists, stern nuns, and fidgety nurses. Don’t overly worry about who’s in what room at what time with what weapon: it’s the little hostilities between the suspects that need keeping a tab on. Dalgliesh spends most of his time questioning and probing in little therapy sessions that have the characters reveal their muddy subconscious to the eyes of justice. We get one or two brief mentions of Dalgliesh’s love interest, Deborah Briscoe…

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ABOVE: Incidentally, LSD must have inspired this cover.


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ABOVE: Row, row, row your boat

…. And yet in the next Adam Dalgliesh mystery, “Unnatural Causes,” Dalgliesh is pondering his seemingly inevitable marriage to Deborah Briscoe! Romance was NOT P. D. James’ forte.

“Unnatural Causes” opens in a startling manner: a corpse is floating downstream on a dinghy. This is the corpse of mystery writer Maurice Seton, and it has the distinction of having both hands chopped up. What’s more startling is that this opening scene matches one suggested to Seton by fellow author Celia Calthrop, as Celia lets Inspector Dalgliesh know right away. Dalgliesh, who is visiting his aunt Jane as a way to delay his above mentioned nuptials, winds up in a close-knit community of writers and writer-adjacent characters (the critics, the typing assistants)- a community that counted Seton as one of its own. But have artistic jealousies led someone in the literary salon to hand-chopping extremes?

As usual, the P. D. James mystery characterizes itself by, well, characters who are psychologically deeper than the ones from the Golden Age of Mystery. But those characters are not necessarily ones I like. P. D. James is much more conservative than Agatha Christie, (closer to the classist spirit of Dorothy L. Sayers) and with that conservatism comes a certain contempt for their character’s social failures. Because Christie never really had to worry about “psychology,” she didn’t judge her characters. They were all supposed to be more or less civilized adults, any of which could end up as a potential deadly killer or  a completely harmless and fun dinner companion, depending on what the parlor scene decided. But P. D. James is writing in the 60s, not the 30s.  She thinks she knows a lot about her characters, so they must have their sexual foibles, their psychologies, their pathologies (notice how in the original book cover of a “A Mind to Murder,” the woman is literally holding on to a fetish.) She’s judgey, and everyone is some sort of scum under that clinical eye.

I suppose that’s what keeps me at a distance from the P. D. James novels I’ve read so far. I’ve enjoyed them, but I’m not thrilled by them. They are too historically recent, and yet too psychologically of their time. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and Father Brown and Lord Peter Wimsey (I will talk more about Albert Campion and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn in the future) live in an alternate world, a timeless and delightful alternate world that I love to visit even if the parks and gardens are ridiculously cluttered with dead bodies.

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ABOVE: You gotta hand it to whoever made older covers. This one goes for the graphic, instead of the “evocative, empty boat” of the newer edition.

But Adam Dalgliesh lives in a “real” world, and P. D. James attempts to describe a real society of her time, and sometimes she moves clumsily in it. Here’s how an edgy playboy talks in the novel: “Never go to bed with a woman if either of you would be embarrassed to admit the fact next morning. It’s a little restricting to one’s sex life but now you can see the practical advantages.” No man would say something that cool that in an Agatha Christie novel! (In both the “suave” and the “detached” way.)

But then, P. D. James is aware of the tradition she fights again. Re: a Christie-ish author:

“She kept to familiar characters and settings. You know the kind of thing. Cosy English village or small town scene. Local characters moving on the chess board strictly according to rank and station. The comforting illusion that violence is exceptional, that all policemen are honest, that the English class system hasn’t changed in the last twenty years and that murderers aren’t gentlemen.” 

RATING: COOL, and yet I have reservations about James. More admire than like. In fact, I feel COLD about her novels.

Things Fall Together : Yaa Giasi – “Homegoing”

The greatest and most powerful novel yet written about Africa (Africa both as a multi-national continent, and as a monolithic concept to the Western eye) is still Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” There is no more stark assessment of white misapprehension than the chilling final lines to that masterpiece.

BUT

Yaa Giasi’s “Homegoing” is a very, very sprightly offspring.

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Two half sisters from Ghana, Effia and Essi, are separated by life (half the family will suffer through the American experience, half will deal with colonial abuse.) We follow their descendants through six generations, divided in two continents (make that 14 perspectives) and in a series of short stories we go through all of the horrors that American slavery and European colonialism have wracked on Africa over the last three centuries while also making clear the native complicity. The language is precise and taut and perfectly evokes the settings for each little punch-to-the-gut scene, so much so that I was left wanting a lot more. We start with a rich world worth exploring, but the book becomes increasingly bent on moving on to the next characters just as we are becoming attached to the ones in each chapter, and the American side of things is much more cartoonish than the African side of things, which at least will engage lovers of history. The effect is not novelistic: there is no real accumulation of feeling. This feels like a collection of shorts stories threaded together into the more marketable shape of a “novel.” At times “Homegoing” almost runs the risk of turning into what Achebe warned against: African (and African-American) lives turned into briefly glimpsed  vignettes. It is a testament to Gyasi’s nascent talents that I was left unsatisfied, wishing  that I was given a James Michener whale of a tale. I really look forward to her next effort.

RATING: COOL! but I wanted MORE.

Trial and Terror : James Dashner – “The Scorch Trials” (“The Maze Runner” #2)

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ABOVE: “If we run fast enough from this disaster, we may yet save our acting careers!”

George A. Romero forgot to copyright the word zombie, so I don’t see why so many writers feel the need to contort themselves into giving zombies new, cutesy names: The Grunties! The Growlies! The Ambulating Non-Living! The Jimmy Rottens! The Comebackers! (Unlike Romero, I had the foresight to copyright all of the above, so no stealing!) The “zombies” in James Dashner’s “The Maze Runner 2: The Scorch Trials” are called “Cranks,” but the moment they show up, mad and gory and clawing at windows and doors, we know them for what they are.

Well, TECHNICALLY, these “Cranks” haven’t died yet; they’re in the last stages of a virulent, deforming disease caused by the Zombie Apocalypse, hereafter referred to as “The Flare”.

TECHNICALLY, our hero Thomas also has the disease that will turn him into a Crank, although he’s in the earlier, good-looking, movie-friendly stages.

TECHNICALLY, Thomas, (who, along with the other Gladers, has survived the Grievers to escape the Maze) is now being tested as a Candidate for the Crank Cure by the Evil Lab People behind “WICKED,” aka the “World in Catastrophe: Kill-zone  Experiment Department.”

TECHNICALLY, I lost at least 5 IQ points typing the previous sentences.

 Shucking clunk! Why do I do this to myself? I didn’t even care for “The Maze Runner”!

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ABOVE: Sure, sure, it’s not a Zombie, it’s a “Crank.” 

The best compliment one can give this brazen “Hunger Games”- Meets-“Divergent” imitator, is that Dashner’s plot moves by so briskly that the reader isn’t given time to become too upset by how little sense it all makes. Although the series has been adapted to the movie screen without shame or glory, it almost feels that what Dashner delivers are video-game proposals, rather than would-be screenplays. The Situational Puzzle of the original “Maze Runner” is abandoned for a different type of video-game, the Open World Survival Horror. The “Scorch Trials” monsters are absurdly conceived, rejected sketches for some “Dark Souls” clone. Consider the liquid metal balls that eat heads (?) or the OTHER zombies that aren’t Cranks, the ones with rave glowtubes embedded in their rotting joints (??) I kind of wish Dashner had fully given in to this monster-making madness. Maybe the book could have used mutated traffic cones that spew out lava? Or a helicopter possessed by the remorseful soul of whatever American President caused the Flare? Or dogs attached to cats?

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ABOVE: I can understand how Catdog eats its food… but what happens AFTER? 😦

There isn’t any point in trying to blame the author if I couldn’t leap over the book’s many gigantic plot holes. I knew what I was in for when I picked this up. No shadowy organization controlled me, no mind-altering virus compelled me. I am the one to blame. I could have been reading “To The Lighthouse” or something. But nope. I made a bad literary choice DELIBERATELY.

And it’s not over.

I see the THIRD BOOK on the desk.

It is calling out for me.

Waiting.

OH GOD! There are PREQUELS even!

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH, for those who made it through the Maze happily, anyway.

 

Lost in the Shell : Osamu Tezuka – “Angel’s Hill”

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When we first meet Luna, Mermaid Princess, she’s being ritually shut in a shell (along with her monkey Chichi and her parrot Koko) and set adrift on an unforgiving ocean, an exile from her native island paradise. This is the beginning of “Angel’s Hill,” Osamu Tezuka‘s idea of an homage to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”

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ABOVE: “We expected a redhead with a fish and a crab. Not a brunette with a monkey and a parrot.”

Tezuka does share with Andersen a profitable tendency to ignore the borders between the comical, the whimsical, the melodramatic, and the tragic. Luna is a cutesy chracter that might belong on a Sanrio sticker, (so might her pets) but she is no sooner rescued from her shell, than she’s made to suffer as a slave among humans, tormented  in a PG-rated Marquis de Sade scenario.

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ABOVE: See, Kanye? Even old Japanese cartoons get that slavery isn’t a choice!

Eventually she’s rescued by Eiki, the rich, handsome captain who reluctantly takes her to Japan, largely because Luna looks like Akemi, Eiji’s younger sister. Akemi is a merciless brat, an attention-seeking human “princess” who treats Luna like a pauperish punching bag. Akemi insists Luna trade places with her to do her more boring chores. Bad plan: Akemi ends up kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity by the evil Pyoma, who pretends to adhere to “tradition” and the worship an ancestral, monstrous mermaid god, (with feet of very wet clay, naturally).

The vicissitudes are countless before Luna returns to Angel’s Hill, in an attempt to save Akemi, as well as be reunited with her older sister the Blind queen Soleiyu, (get it? Soleil? Luna? Sun/ Moon?). The plot never lets up, with wave after wave of developments, and, as always, ingenious design choices in nearly every panel. Submerged in the fantasy, though, is Tezuka’s message for 1960s Japan: if that Angel’s Island isn’t going to sink into some mythical ocean, it must learn to balance tradition and co-existence with the rest of the world.

For the most part, Japan listened.

RATING: COOL!