Third Time’s No Charm : E. E. Smith – “Triplanetary” (Lensman #1)

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At some point Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith’s novels under the “Lensman” umbrella were serious contenders for best SF series of all time. That point was 1966, at the Hugo Awards, and if “Triplanetary” is any indication, Smith’s books belong back there in that Golden-Agey, “scientifiction” past, being whopped by Isaac Asimov’s similar- but far superior- “Foundation” series.

“Triplanetary” was originally published as a serial in Hugo Gernsback’s seminal “Amazing Stories,” and spruced up to be issued as a  novel in the late ’40s. And yet the language sounds far more archaic and portentous than that would suggest: I don’t think I’ve heard a brunette described as a “brownette” in… ever? The book tracks millennia in the lives of Eddore (bad guys who are also… amoebas) and Arisia (good guys who are also… giant brains?): two galaxies and two ways of living colliding, penetrating each other- and influencing life on Earth, from the Fall of Atlantis and the Roman Empire, to the World Wars.

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So much subsequent space opera owes a debt to E. E. Smith that I may return to the “Lensman” series at some point. Truthfully what brought me here was misguided nostalgia for the loosely related “Lensman” anime from the ’80s, which may borrow more from “Star Wars” than from Smith. The tortured writing keeps me at bay: at least in this book, “Doc” wrote like he was eager to remind you about his Ph.D. in Engineering… even if it was FOOD Engineering.

RATING: SHRUG

 

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Not the Hernandez Bros : The Luna Brothers – “Ultra: Seven Days”

I suppose when you and your siblings get into the comic book biz and call yourself “The ______ Bros,” you’re bound to hear “They’re NOT as good as the Hernandez Bros, though” an infinite number of times. Sooner or later you will snap at some ComiCon or other and shake someone by the lapels: “That comparison doesn’t even make sense! If someone was an only child, would you compare them to all the other only children in their chosen profession?”

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But anyway, the Luna Brothers are not quite as good as the Hernandez, etc etc. Their career over the last fifteen years or so has seen them grow in ambition, and it all began with “Ultra,” a “Sex and the City and the Superheroes” trifle that follows Pearl Penalosa (Ultra), a Hispanic female superhero of undetermined Hispanicity, and her two besties: Jennifer Janus (a.k.a. Cowgirl because… she dresses country?) and Olivia Arancina (Aphrodite) who is SUCH a Samantha. While on a girl’s night out, an unimpressive fortune teller crystal ball prophecies that Ultra will find true love within 7 days, and somehow the characters all take this extremely seriously, even though the fortuneteller is openly coked up.

The reader won’t, but the art is pleasant, even as it consistently beats the writing, which is best labeled as “amiable” (We all need to see more caped folk, male and female, just being nice to each other and catching up over lunch.) The covers mimic those of famous mags: Maxim, Time, Wired, Rolling Stone, Vogue… and I may be forgetting a couple since it was an 8-issue run. In the brevity lies the problem: “Ultra” hints at larger serious issues of commercialism, (what happens when superheroes go fully corporate?) but the breezy story never even intends to tackle them.

RATING: GOOD

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.

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!