BOOK REVIEW: Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable

Dracula: Son of the Dragon (comiXology Originals)Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There is a vast amount of vampiric fiction available today, and no small amount of it focuses on the character of Dracula. This graphic novel sets itself apart by building the story on real world events (such as they are known, and with dramatic license to make the story exciting and the imagery evocative.) At the risk of turning people off (but not intending to,) I would go as far as to say this book leads with history, and makes the supernatural secondary. I actually liked that about it. When I say the supernatural is secondary, it’s not like its eliminated from existence or that it’s purely garnish. There are dragons and vampires, but a story exists with or without those elements.

A story of war and political intrigue in what is now Romania is bookended by the depiction of a meeting between Vlad Dracula and three clergymen. In the opening, Vlad is telling the priests that he is about to let them in on the truth of his story, which they have no doubt heard in mythologized form. At the end, he asks the clergymen to tell him whether he will be allowed into heaven. The body of the story is a flashback from the meeting with the priests. It splits focus between Vlad’s father, who is working to keep his domain under his control by playing the ends against the middle vis-à-vis his Roman Catholic neighbors (notably Hungary) and the Ottoman Empire, and the story oft Vlad, himself. Vlad is a young man. He and his brother are sent to Scholomance (a kind of Slavic Dark Arts Hogwarts) and later become prisoners of the Ottomans.

I thought the artwork was easy to follow and stylistically appealing enough. Some of the frames in the ancillary material at the back were truly beautiful. I often disregard the back-matter in comics because it usually amounts to little more than discussion of how the drafts changed over time – i.e. offering insight into the sausage-making of the book. However, this book had an extensive Notes section that I found fascinating and useful because it explained how points in the book compared with known history. Some of the points that I assumed were pure fiction had a factual basis. Sable also related points to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The creators tried to be consistent with Stoker’s book, as well as with history, when they could. The former wasn’t so hard because readers of Bram Stoker’s will recognize that the titular character is kept largely a mystery, particularly with regard to his backstory.

If you are interested at all in the historical and mythological basis of the Dracula vampire, I’d recommend this book. As I said, the notes will give you a good idea of what was known to be true, what is complete fiction, and what is a kernel of truth enveloped in story sensationalism. Obviously, all the supernatural elements are pure fiction, and also there is a lot that remains unknown, but this graphic novel provides an interesting take on the origins of Vlad Dracula.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Power of Mesmerism by Anonymous

The Power of MesmerismThe Power of Mesmerism by Anonymous
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Occasionally, a book comes along that is so ill-named that one needs to first discuss what the book is and isn’t. If one only read this work’s title, one might think it’s an early self-help book on hypnotism. It is not – not by a longshot. [Mesmerism, named for Franz Mesmer, is an alternative name for a system he called “Animal Magnetism” that involved a prototypical form of hypnotism along with other practices – most or all of which have been proven to have no scientific merit whatsoever. Because the “magnetism” part of animal magnetism bore no fruit, and only hypnotism proved at all useful, the word “mesmerism” became a synonym for “hypnotism.”] If one read the subtitle, the words “erotic narrative” would clue one into the fact that the book is racy fiction. That it is, but that still may not mentally prepare the reader for the particular nature of this piece of Victorian Erotica.

Even for readers generally comfortable with erotic content, this book may be unappealing owing to three controversial forms of content. First, there’s sexual activity that occurs without consent. The fictitious way in which hypnosis is portrayed in the book is key to understanding this issue (it’s a fantastic depiction that is common in fiction, television, and movies because it makes an interesting plot device.) In the book, mesmerism can be used to make the subject do anything the the hypnotist asks them to, and the subject is perfectly amnesiac (i.e. they remember none of what transpired in the trance state.) Real hypnosis cannot be used to force a person to do anything they don’t want to do, and while a suggestion to forget can be made, results will vary. Some subjects will have no memory of the trance, but others will remember what happened with perfect clarity. I should point out that this isn’t the harshest non-consent scenario because all of the characters eventually are made (at least vaguely) aware of what has happened and are depicted as being “into it.”

Second, much of the content is incestuous (and, on a related note, while the lead character’s sister seems to be physically mature, she is presumably not of legal age of maturity – not today’s, at least.) The story revolves around a young man who comes back home from school, having learned the tricks of mesmerism. He first employs them on his younger sister, then on some household staff, then upon his parents, and finally on a cast of friends and family. The final point which some readers will find excessively offensive involves a lecherous and perverse clergyman. [Though individuals offended by portrayals of depraved clergy probably don’t read many historic works of erotica because from at least “The Decameron” (AD 1351) onward a hypocritical and libidinous priest is par for the course in erotic scenes. As one can imagine, the Church and writers of erotica have not gotten along, historically.]

As is common in erotica that leans pornographic, story and character development are nearly non-existent in this work. It’s largely one sex scene after the other with the only internal logic being that they be more scandalous / decadent as they proceed.

Any recommendation must be qualified. If you can’t deal with sexual activity, this book is definitely not for you. But, furthermore, if any of the three types of content I mentioned above are non-starters for you, this also isn’t your book. If you read historic fiction and don’t mind the aforementioned content, you can find this book on Project Gutenberg and other public domain outlets on the web.

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BOOK REVIEW: Preacher, Book One by Garth Ennis

Preacher, Book 1Preacher, Book 1 by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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After hearing glowing praise about the television series, I picked up this volume, intending to watch the series and wanting to take in the source material. As both the television show and this book were available via Amazon Prime, I ended up reading it in a period overlapping with watching the first season. [I don’t recommend doing it that way. The comic book and series share the same basic premise, but are wildly different in the story details and even shared plot points are revealed in different ways or at different points in the story. One can end up conflating the two in confusing ways because they are neither so close nor different that the stories merge or completely distinguish themselves.]

The book involves an unwholesome but likeable trio who travel together in search of divine answers. The lead character is Jesse Custer, a preacher prone to cursing, drinking too much, and getting in brawls. Early in the telling of the story, we also learn that Custer has been granted a godly superpower – the ability to give people orders that override their freewill – which we learn is called “Genesis.” The other two characters are Tulip, Custer’s love interest, and Cassidy – an Irish Vampire who parties hard but has surprising levels of charism and good-naturedness for a member of the undead.

Book One contains a dozen issues. There are three distinct parts to the story. The first part (Ch. 1 – 4) not only introduces the story (in part through flashbacks as the three sit in a diner telling stories,) but it also shows the three being tracked down by “The Saint of Killers” — an old west gunmen that some angels hire to take out Custer because even the angels can be stopped by Custer’s “word,” i.e. Genesis.

In the middle part (Ch. 5 -7,) the trio heads to New York City in an effort to rendezvous with someone Cassidy knows who might be able to put them back on God’s trail. This puts them in the middle of a manhunt for a serial killer who’s been terrifying the city.

In the final part (Ch. 8 -12,) Custer and Tulip go back to Texas to fix Tulip’s debt problem, but they end up getting caught by two mysterious rednecks who turn out to be henchmen of Custer’s despicable grandma – who plays the role of lead villain throughout the remainder of the book. Chapters nine and ten are largely flashbacks that give the reader insight into Jesse’s background, why he’s so screwed up, and also answers a number of burning background questions.

I thought the ending point was a good place to end the volume. In serialized works I often end up focusing on the question of whether the collected issues present a full story arc. In this case, they did. It is true that a part of the resolution hinges on a bit of deus ex machina that is clearly meant to be part of the hook to keep people reading. However, they pile on the action so it’s easy to miss the importance of this inexplicable sleight of hand. Overall, I thought the story was skillfully delivered.

As many people will have seen the tv series, one point of interest might be whether it’s worth it for said individual to read the comics. As I said, the details of the story are quite different, and so even though the core characters are the same [in some cases only superficially so] and the central ideas (e.g. pursuit by St. of Killers and Genesis) are shared, it’s not the case that you’ll be rehashing the same story. As far as the quality of the two media, I thought they were on par. I’m not going to spout the bookish motto – i.e. “the book is always better.” In fact, I would say there is one way in which the TV show is much better, and that is the character of Tulip. In the comic book she is an unexciting character who largely serves as love interest and damsel in distress. In the show, she easily holds her own weight against the strong characters of Jesse Custer and Cassidy. But that said, I think it’s worth reading the comics and I don’t think a reader will be disappointed.

By way of warning, I should mention that, while it’s hard to pin a genre on this work [Neo-Western / Horror / Anti-hero story?] it is graphic in gore, language, and [though only sparsely] sexual activity.

This is a fun read. It’s a tense story, but has humor and characters to which a reader will be drawn. I’d recommend it for readers of horror and comic books.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

The Third PolicemanThe Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Full-disclosure: I’m a huge fan of stories involving mind-bending, surrealist worlds, of which this is a masterful example. I also find dry, absurdist humor of the Monty Python variety to be hilarious, and this book has loads of it. In short, for me this book was a match made in heaven.

The opening of the story is normal enough. There are two characters who seem to be inseparable friends, but – in fact – they are inseparable because they conspired to murder an old man in order to steal his money. One man, the protagonist, fears that the other man (who knows where the loot was stashed) will make off with the money, leaving our lead high and dry. After the two have left time for the heat to die down, the partner (who knows where the money is) suggests they go to retrieve and split it. Recognizing that the protagonist doesn’t trust him, the partner suggests that the protagonist go into the old man’s abandoned house to extract the lock-box that they left behind.

The protagonist agrees, and once he enters the old man’s house, we know that he has tumbled down some sort of rabbit-hole. The reader doesn’t learn what the cause of this shift into a dreamlike world is until near the end of the story, but it’s quite obvious that this isn’t the real world. “Dreamlike” is an apt descriptor. While this bizarre world clearly builds on the world as he knows it, it also defies the logic of the world as we know it. Furthermore, as when in a dream, the protagonist doesn’t recognize the strange logic of how this world operates, nor does he truly recognize how strange people’s behavior is.

The strangeness begins with the protagonist’s discovery of the man he killed – apparently living – in the house. The conversation gets off to an odd start when the protagonist discovers that the old man will only answer yes / no questions in the negative, and so he’s been giving false information about half the time. Their meandering conversation shifts onto the titular “policemen,” who – while vaguely authority figures – are involved in all manner of inexplicable activities from making garments that indicate the length of a person’s lifespan to taking measurements of unexplained quantities for unexplained purposes (or – perhaps – no purpose.) The protagonist reasons that since these policemen seem to know so much, they will surely be able to tell him where the lock-box is located.

As I said, the book contains a lot of absurdist humor. Some of this derives from the policemen’s obsession with bicycles. When the protagonist arrives, they just assume he is there about a stolen bicycle (or bicycle parts) and – no matter how he tries to convince them otherwise – they continue to answer his inquiries about other matters in terms of bicycles. (There’s also a bit of an unexplained obsession with pancakes, as when a difficult problem is called an “insoluble pancake.”)

As I say, I love this kind of book, and I thought this is a particularly skillful and amusing example of the genre. I’d highly recommend it for readers who like their fiction trippy. Despite huge doses of surrealism, it’s easy to follow what is going on in the story, and to distinguish what is real and what is imaginary.

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BOOK REVIEW: Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici

Heathen, Vol. 1Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The protagonist is a lesbian Norse warrior, Aydis, who is living in exile in the wilderness. After she was discovered making out with a girlfriend, two unappealing fates were offered: marriage (to a man) or death. Her father, recognizing that neither of those options was acceptable to his daughter or himself, pretends to accept the death sentence, but instead of killing Aydis he helps with her escape. The story is set in a period in between the heyday of Norse Mythology and modernity. The story refers back to mythological events (and since many of those characters are immortal it includes a few of them,) but it’s during a time when Christianity is spreading in the region and some of the old ways have been forgotten or dismissed by many.

The four issues contained in this book follow a quest that involves Aydis going to rescue a Valkyrie named Brynhild who was long ago imprisoned on a mountain in a circle of fire for defying Odin. Then – once Brynhild is freed –the quest continues in order to keep the rescue from being reversed and becoming meaninglessness. [Brynhild must be married to a mortal to escape imprisonment, but since that means she must repeatedly see her mortal spouses die only to go back to her prison. Aydis intends to see this reversed.]

I found the writing engaging and action gripping. While I’m no expert on art, I was able to follow the action in the panels and found it stylistically interesting and distinct – though I couldn’t tell you anything about what that style is.

My primary criticism revolves around my own preference for a volume having a self-contained satisfying narrative arc. This volume had plenty of great action and relatable character objectives. Admittedly, this is a tough standard for work that is by its nature serialized. However, at the end of the book one feels the set up for the continuation of the story (the cliffhanger) much more intensely than one feels there was any kind of conclusion and resolution. For readers who are predominantly series readers, this may not be a problem, but as one who reads one book at a time, I need to feel that something was resolved over the course of the story.

I think the book was bold and successful in turning conventions on its head. The primary convention under attack is the distressed damsel – a helpless character who needs a man to come along to rescue her. The book also takes the social issue of persecution based on sexual preference in a scene within Brynhild’s parallel (but intersecting?) quest.

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable read. If you like the story idea and tend to read in series, then this is a great volume to pick up. If you’re not sure you want to be drawn into another series, you may decide to exercise more caution.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1 [Marvel Masterworks] by Stan Lee (+Ditko & Kirby)

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1 by Stan Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This collection includes the first ever appearance of Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15, as well as the first ten issues of the original Amazing Spider-Man run from 1963. The story (told by Lee in the intro) is that “Amazing Fantasy” was about to be discontinued, and this gave Lee and team the opportunity to present a character that the powers-that-be found too ridiculous to merit consideration (but no one cared because the series was going under.) Lee’s instincts were right. Marvel got tons of love letters to the character, and Lee was able to sell the idea of a stand-alone comic.

This is a hard book to critique. It’s the dawn of a much beloved character – arguably Marvel’s flagship to this day, and there are many solid reasons for that love. That said, this ground-breaking collection of comic books that would launch a vast empire [or multi-verse] around one of the most popular characters ever, is in many ways fairly amateurish (e.g. in an early episode the lead’s alter-ego is called “Peter Palmer” for a whole issue, presumably because Lee forgot that “Parker” was the correct last name and there was no editorial oversight.)

So, this collection mixes tremendous strengths with some cringeworthy elements. I’ll start with the former for two reasons. First, I think they ultimately outweigh the weaknesses, and – judging from the immense popularity — most people seem to agree. Second, and probably far more important, is the realization that criticizing Lee almost 60 years later is a little like faulting Edison for the short filament life of incandescent lightbulbs. Lee, Ditko, and Kirby were on the sparse end of the learning curve. [I also realize that the lack of objective editorial oversight that made “the Palmer debacle” possible may have also made the series much better because of a lack of second-guessing by higher-ups.]

So, what are the strengths? First, Lee builds an extremely interesting and sympathetic character in Peter Parker / Spider-Man. Parker is beleaguered with problems (e.g. bullied at school, raised by a single aunt who is elderly and [in some issues] in poor health, and he’s constantly in need of cash to keep the household afloat.) Spider-Man is made tremendously powerful, but not invulnerable. He is presented with a steady stream of moral dilemmas in which he could easily solve a problem using his power if he weren’t compelled to act morally. Second, these early episodes did a tremendous amount of foundational heavy-lifting for the enterprise. It’s not just his origin story. Many of the members of Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery that are most well-known and which have been drawn upon for the movies (e.g. The Vulture, Doc Ock, Sandman, and Electro) feature in these early issues. The bulk of Spider-Man’s world – minus his most well-known love interests and the Osborn’s [Norman, Harry, and the Corporation] – are presented in these pages.

The bulk of the weakness is in dialogue and internal monologue. First, there is a lot of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition. [If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s explanation of things that should be clear to the relevant characters (and to the reader,) but that are said anyhow.] Part of the reason for this is the serialization issue (i.e. one doesn’t want someone to be penalized for joining in the middle of the series, so one is constantly rehashing backstory – but there are more and less skillful ways to do this.) Beyond the serialization conundrum, there seemed to be a lack of faith that readers would understand the action from the drawings. [However, while the art might seem crude by today’s standards, I think it did a very clear job of conveying the dynamism of action.]

Second, there is sometimes flimsy psychology behind character motives. This is best exemplified by a soliloquy by J. Jonah Jameson at the end of the collection. He explains, to himself, why he hates Spider-Man, and it presents a man who is a villain in his own mind, as if he realizes his own faults but insists on moving forward with them. (As opposed to thinking that he is the hero of his own story and acting from that deluded belief.) I don’t know the backstory, but it reads as if someone said, “Why does Jameson continue to hate Spider-Man?” and the staff had no idea besides that it increased plot tension nicely. So, they wrote the kind of weak explanation that a person tends to engage in when one attributes nefarious motives to one’s employer or anyone else one doesn’t get along with. That is, they suggested that Jameson is just a jerk because he feels like being a jerk (not because he is operating from his own motives and worldview, which don’t necessarily align with Parker’s.) [Actually, a brief mention early in the collection hints that Jameson doesn’t like Spider-Man one-upping Jameson’s son, which is a much more interesting motivation than the others presented.] A possible third weakness is an excess of cornball. I suspect this tendency results from Lee trying to appeal to what he thought kids would find hip. (Which may or may not be the same as what they actually did find hip.) I’m not so sure about this one, as I think it’s something that people love about Lee’s work –e.g. alliterative naming schemes, strained metaphors, and narcissistic internal monologuing.

If you are a fan of comic books, you must read this as a piece of history and for some very entertaining superhero stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

CarmillaCarmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This gothic vampire novella is about 25 years older than its more famous subgenre peer, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Le Fanu’s work is not only much shorter, but is written in a more approachable style. The story takes inspiration from an event that is recorded in a book entitled “Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, et al.” (1751.) This tract on spirits, demons, ghosts, revenants, and vampires was written by a Benedictine monk and scholar, Dom Calmet. The story in question involves a village that was said to be having a problem with nocturnal visits from vampires. Try as they might, the villagers couldn’t get this vampiric pest problem under control. A mysterious visitor from the east (usually referred to as a “Hungarian”) stopped into town and offered his services, and – as the legend went – he succeeded in eliminating the vampires. A version of this story is presented late in the novella (Ch. 13) and it’s only then that one learns how that story influences the one Le Fanu writes in “Carmilla.”

The story in “Carmilla” revolves around a young woman who serves as the first-person narrator, Laura. Laura lives out in the countryside with only her father and the household servants. She is starved for interaction with people her own age, and her only female interaction is with the help. Early in the story Laura is excited because a friend of her father’s (the General) is supposed to be coming to visit, and he will be bringing his own ward – a girl of Laura’s age. But that visit is cancelled, and we learn that the girl fell ill and passed away.

When a carriage overturns on the road in front of Laura’s father’s property, it seems that Laura will get the female companion for whom she’s been yearning. The occupants of the carriage that we know of a are an adult woman and her daughter, Carmilla. The woman is unharmed, and says she must make her way to some distant location urgently on unstated business. However, her daughter, Carmilla, is frail by nature and it’s too risky for her to make the remainder of the journey. Laura’s father, a kind man who recognizes his daughter’s loneliness, offers to host Carmilla for a time until her mother can return for her.

Carmilla’s visit starts out well enough. Everything is normal during the day. Over time, Laura recognizes some dismaying personality traits of her visitor (i.e. Carmilla is a bit elitist and narcissistic,) but Carmilla is not without her charms. The nights, however, start getting progressively stranger and more disconcerting. At first, one can’t be certain to what degree something real is transpiring. I thought Le Fanu did a fine job of capturing the hazy hypnopompic world where one isn’t quite certain what is dream and what is reality. Increasingly, it becomes apparent that Laura is experiencing a real loss of vitality. Carmilla seems to be suffering similarly, but they have no basis to think this is new. Among Carmilla’s nocturnal strangeness is the fact that she’s a sleep-walker. One night she disappears and it’s thought that she might have been abducted or run away, but then she turns up none the worse for wear.

I’ll let the reader discover for him- or herself how events play out in the story.

Much has been made of the lesbian element of this story. In true Victorian nature, this isn’t at all explicit or graphic. The reader is given no reason to believe anything sexually romantic transpires. All one knows for a fact is that Carmilla is up-front about being into girls. As for Laura, all we really know is that she is comfortable with a certain degree of intimate physical contact from Carmilla that includes hugs and face touching in conjunction with comments of a vaguely suggestive nature. Laura could be a lesbian or bisexual, but she could also just be naïve and / or starved for physical contact. I don’t know enough about Le Fanu’s views to draw conclusions about any ulterior messages he may have intended. While the obvious ulterior intent is erotic, there are some who argue that the story presents an anti-lesbian message (i.e. don’t let your daughter hang out with touchy-feely friends or she’ll get “turned.”) I’m not enough of a literary historian to know whether such intent existed. Perhaps those who suggest this know enough about either Le Fanu or the literature of the time to have a sound basis. However, I don’t think one could reach that conclusion from the story alone.

I enjoyed this story. For writing from 1872, it’s readable, and – as I mentioned – I think Le Fanu does a good job of describing the supernatural elements of the story in a way that captures the surreal feel. Readers of modern vampire stories might be bored from the lack of crimson arterial spray and sundry grotesqueries, but the novella has got some other fine qualities such as how the story unfolds, i.e. how reveals are made. Not to mention, Le Fanu creates a character whose fate one cares about (rather than random redshirts stuck into the story for the express purpose of being slain.) If you liked Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or other vampire fiction, I think you’ll definitely want to give this one a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius CaesarJulius Caesar by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As with Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” the titular character isn’t the play’s main character – but is the most “bankable” name. The lead is Brutus, the one member of the cabal of executioners that kill Julius Caesar who does so because he truly believes that Caesar has too much power and that the Roman leader’s ambition will result in yet more power flowing to him at the expense of Romans.

In the first half of the play, the conspirators are assembled and the conspiracy planned — with Cassius leading the charge. Unlike Brutus, Cassius mostly wants Caesar dead because of jealousy over the dictator’s power and popularity. However, even in the opening acts much of the story revolves around Brutus, because Cassius knows Brutus must be on-board because he’s both popular and respected. Brutus’s participation both lends moral authority to the act and will help get others to take part. Early in the play, Caesar returns to Rome and is warned by a soothsayer to “Beware the ides of March” (March 15th.) Near the play’s mid-point, the ides arrive, and the soothsayer is proven correct. The play’s second half involves a battle between pro-Caesar forces and the forces of the conspirators. Caesar’s right-hand man, Marcus Antony, and Caesar’s heir, Octavius, purse the conspirators [notably Brutus and Cassius and their men] who’d been forced to leave the city by an angry citizenry after Mark Antony gave a clever speech at Caesar’s funeral. In tragic style, the ensuing battle doesn’t work out well for Brutus, Cassius, or those who are with them.

In broad strokes, Shakespeare follows the flow of events of recorded history. However, in the details he takes dramatic / poetic license. For one thing, he adds a supernatural element with Brutus seeing the ghost of Julius Caesar toward the play’s end. [I suppose this could also be interpreted as stress-induced mental illness / hallucination on the part of Brutus as he not only realizes things are going poorly for him and his family (he was resigned to his own demise when he signed on,) but, moreover, he may recognize that things might get worse for Rome under Caesar’s successors, rather than better. In the debate about whether to eliminate Antony (and about allowing Antony to speak at the funeral,) Brutus comes down firmly on a side favoring Antony. That said, Brutus is presented as a rock – a stoic to the core.] It should be pointed out that the other apparent supernatural element of the story, the soothsayer’s warning, is recorded in some accounts and wasn’t made up by Shakespeare (which is not so say it wasn’t made up by someone.) However, the bard did make up Caesar’s final words, “Et tu, Brute?” [“You, too, Brutus?”]

Lest one think this is irrelevant Elizabethan Era tragedy with little to say about the world today, the crowd dynamics portrayed in the play’s middle act may feel sadly familiar. All it takes for the crowd to go from “Brutus is honorable, forget Caesar” to “Let’s go burn down Brutus’s house!” is a change of speaker from Brutus to Antony. And Antony is only gently riling them up. Mostly, he’s exploiting the fact that the crowd has intensity and passion, but no intelligence. So, they are ready to go out killing and burning without much spurring them on, but they need a leader to point them in a direction (and they don’t seem to care much what the target is.) This mindless, madness of crowds can be seen when Cinna the Poet is captured by the crowd, and they beat him. Even when it’s recognized that it isn’t the same Cinna that participated in the conspiracy, the crowd continues attacking him on the basis that he’s named Cinna.

Where Titus Andronicus aims for the gut and Romeo & Juliet aims for the heart, “Julius Caesar” is more cerebral – a thinking man’s play. What is the virtuous course of action? That’s the question that plays out from beginning to end as events change. This is one of those works everyone should read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of DestructionHellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This four-part story presents Hellboy’s origin and then transitions to an account of how Rasputin attempts to co-opt an adult Hellboy in service to the Russian mystic’s demonic master. That sounds disjointed, but it’s not because Rasputin is integrally involved in Hellboy’s origin. Movie fans may notice that that description mirrors the plot of the first Ron Perlman “Hellboy” movie (2004.) It does, and this volume serves as an influence on that movie (also, the bound collection of the component issues was issued in conjunction with the movie debut.) That said, one shouldn’t be concerned that one will get a repeat of the same — the connection is largely limited to the broad-brush strokes of the story. The opening (Hellboy’s origin story) shares common visual and narrative elements with the movie, but beyond the origin story the two stories diverge. The middle act shares little in common other than a few Easter eggs. The conclusion has some visual and narrative similarity, but not nearly so much as the opening.

For those who have no idea what the blazes I’ve been going on about, Hellboy is a comic book superhero in the form of a demon-child who was summoned to Earth during World War II through the activities of Rasputin in conjunction with a Nazi agency dealing in the occult. [The Nazis hope it will allow them to turn the tides of the war, but Rasputin has his own plans.] The British-American scientist (Professor Bruttenholm) who finds Hellboy raises him. As a grown man, Hellboy becomes a “paranormal researcher” – i.e. he fights supernatural threats. He works as a team with Liz Sherman (a pyrokinetic woman) and Abe Sapien (a fish-man,) under the direction of Professor Bruttenholm. [Though, while Hellboy ages slowly – or stopped aging as an adult, the Professor is quite elderly by the time this story begins.

The central question of this series is nature versus nurture amped to eleven – i.e. whether someone born to such a bleak fate as demonhood can be redeemed by a good upbringing and positive role models. What is created is a character who is rough around the edges but abundantly aware that he has more to worry about than most with respect to tilting toward the dark-side [and that the fate of all who he loves does as well.]

If you’re interested in the character of Hellboy and his “band of misfits,” this volume is the perfect place to start. I think there is a reason the movie drew particularly heavily on the origin story panels – Mignola does a fantastic job of creating a unique and engaging character. If you’re a reader of comic books, I’d highly recommend this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: SFSX, Vol. 1: Protection by Tina Horn

SFSX (Safe Sex), Vol. 1: ProtectionSFSX (Safe Sex), Vol. 1: Protection by Tina Horn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This is “The Handmaid’s Tale” meets “Ocean’s Eleven.” Well, admittedly, that’s a concise pitch-line offering more confusion than information value. Allow me to clarify. This series is set in a dystopia in which morality and sexuality are controlled by the state, and efforts are underway to eliminate any “deviant” sexual activity (i.e. any sexual activity not involving a heterosexual married couple having vaginal intercourse – preferably with a strong procreative intent.) Within that world, it’s a heist story. [Some might argue that it’s more a prison break, but because it involves people breaking into a secured facility in order to get others out, I stand by my descriptor. That said, it really combines the two because one of the prisoner’s takes agency to affect escape]

The story’s protagonist is a woman named Avory. She once worked a giant sex club / dungeon called “The Dirty Mind” before “the Party” [the conservative guardians of morality] consolidated control. When the Party did come to power, they raided The Dirty Mind. Avory escaped with a client who she’d fallen for, the two got married, and they were trying to live “normal” lives in compliance with the new laws. When this façade falls apart, Avory goes back to her old [kinky] friends seeking help. However, she’s seen as a turncoat by them. They don’t trust her, and they decline to help her. But things change when the Party publicizes its new activities.

Because of the nature of comic books / serialized graphic novels, the first thing I feel I need to say is that I found this to be a complete and satisfying story arc. This format often fails in this regard because it’s a challenge to keep an eye on an overall run arc while building that overarching story from component stories [that are truly stories.] Often the end of a volume feels like a speedbump rather than a conclusion. However, that isn’t the case here. That doesn’t mean the story is not left with someplace interesting to go. It is. However, if all one read was this volume, one would experience a self-contained story. In short, I felt Horn [and team] did a great job of balancing “leave them satisfied” with “leave them wanting more.”

I also found character development to be well-done. The characters are all developed, unique, and we can see their combination of motivation and internal conflict. Flashbacks are put to good use to give the reader enough insight to see why this gulf exists between Avory and her former best friends. However, these are kept to a few panels (usually at the beginning of each issue) and so they don’t bog the story down.

By this point, this probably goes without saying, but in the interest of due diligence: this book is graphically sexual. The artwork and dialogue are explicit. I won’t get into an extended philosophical discussion of whether it’s pornography or erotica. As I said, there is a story, and all of what is shown is in service to that story. That said, nothing is held-back, either. One of the book’s key points is the importance of consent as shown in the contrast between the consensual activities in the club and the “reconditioning” activities carried out by the Party. Long story short, there are some cringe-worthy scenes, at least to laity to sadomasochism. So, if you are sensitive to such matters or are purchasing this for someone who is, buyer beware.

I found the story gripping and also thought-provoking. If you are not averse to graphic sexual content, I’d highly recommend it.

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