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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Insufferable: On the Road (Superhero) (Graphic Novel)

by Mark Waid (Writer) Peter Krause (Artist) 

Publisher: IDW Publishing (October 25, 2016)

Softcover, 128 pages

Amazon Listing

This is an obvious analogue to Batman and Robin but, like I said in my previous review, it is so well done that I don’t care about. It is, again, an idea so obvious that it leaves one to wonder, why didn’t I think of that?
A rich man, methodical and obsessed, becomes a costumed vigilante and eventually trains his son to take his place. They become Nocturnous and Galahad. However, the son gets tired of being put in the corner and reveals his identity to the world. His father is forced to go into hiding, but can't funnel his fortune away fast enough. The son becomes a media giant, and a brand, spending more time advertising products and posing for social media than defeating villains.
Picking up where volume 2 left off, the insufferable duo team travel to the Cayman Islands to track down Galahad’s stolen fortune. There both are subject to humiliating revelations about their lives and the limits of their abilities. Of course, the superheroes stumble into a murder and various other villains while tracking the missing money, all of which leads them back to their home city where trouble has broken out.
As before, the art and plotting make for a fun face paced read, mixed with humor. It might make a good action film.

For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 


Monday, October 28, 2019

Notes on Nationalism (Psychology) (Non Fiction)

By George Orwell  

Publisher: Penguin Random House (2018)

Softcover, 48 pages.

Amazon Listing 

“By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions can be confidently labeled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly - and this is much more important - I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duties than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are usually used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By patriotism I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”  

This is a collection of three essays by George Orwell written in 1945 and published originally in the magazines: Polemic, Contemporary Jewish Record, and Tribune. All of them are additionally collected, along with a host of others, in Orwell’s Collected Essays. The three essays, “Notes on Nationalism”, “Antisemitism in Britain” and “The Sporting Spirit”, have a similar theme.  Each is an analysis of the phenomenon called nationalism.
For the above selection, you can see how Orwell divides nationalism and separates it from patriotism, but he also discusses an aspect of nationalism which I find fascinating and relevant to  American society today. That of negative-nationalism, where a person can have a purely negative attitude towards a society (usually the one they live in) with no positive feelings towards any other culture or country. While slightly different, this attitude is just as destructive as pro-nationalist attitude as a person’s main motivation. The negative-nationalist just wants to destroy anything to do with a society, to erase and condemn it completely. Often this is the prime motivation of various Communist\Socialist parties worming their way into positions of power. 

In the second essay, “Antisemitism in Britain”, Orwell discusses how anti-Jewish sentiment has not dissipated in Britain, but due to the Nazi atrocities it isn’t discussed anymore. Many people secretly still dislike the Jews, but would never openly admit it, making “stamping it out” (Orwell’s words) completely impossible if it hidden. 

The last article is rather lighthearted and demonstrates the tribal nature that people take to one’s sports team, and how often that team is much more important to people than the politicians about them. He points out people often treat their chosen political party with the same rah-rah-rah mentality that they do their football team. It’s not they're winning. It's we’re winning. 

For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Eighth Tower: On Ultraterrestials and the Superspectrum (Psychology) (Non-Fiction)

by John Keel  

Publisher: Anomalist Books (December 31, 2013)

Softcover, 266 pages

Amazon Listing 

“In a real sense, all are one with this infinite energy field. It is not part of us. We are a trivial part of it. Energies on the lower frequencies would sometimes be responsive to rites and prayers. Man’s own mind, being part of the greater mind, could unconsciously manipulate some of these energies and form a pseudo-reality populated with spirits and demons. As Emanuel Swedenborg and other great thinkers discovered, we can even program these entities ourselves and bestow them with identities. Like Dr. Lilly’s experimental subjects, we create the supernatural world. It’s a part of us. The ghosts of our dead are an offshoot of the beliefs of the living. The devil is the byproduct of the evil that is in all of us.” 

This book is primarily made up of material originally collected for The Mothman Prophecies and if you haven’t read that book yet then do so before you pick up this one. It is better focused and touches on many of the same topics. John Keel is one of the most interesting researchers on paranormal occurrences since Charles Fort. 

From ancient religious manifestations, to faerie appearances, to UFO encounters, Keel ties them all together claiming they are exact same phenomena. The nature of the experience has changed, because it is a reflection of how humanity has changed. In the old days we would assume anything strange was connected to one’s own religion (Saul on the way of Damascus), but later on as sci-fi films really started to catch on then the odd encounters, lights in the sky, mysterious entities became creatures from other worlds.

He goes on to show that for every Saul on the road to Damascus who successfully changed history through religion, there are at least one hundred (or more) failures - all claiming to have been inspired by divine visions or encounters. He suggests the motivations of these entities (if they actually have one) are on par with the Trickster Gods of old. 

Ultimately his thesis is that these phenomena are a normal condition of the planet and reflect the state of the human race. That something has happened to the people encountered (whether it be aliens or Gods) but not what they actually remember. The encountees have been brainwashed, hypnotized, or reprogrammed to have a completely false experience. The purpose is unclear, but that there is an intelligence behind it all seems in little doubt. But what that intelligence is and its ultimate goal (again, if there is one) is anyone’s guess. The Eighth Tower is in fact the planet Earth (or a dimensional aspect of the planet) reacting to us. 
Original Cover of the novel

Things start to spin off the rails when Keel tries his hand at science. Using it to describe local phenomenon and how things act in relation to UFO experience, from audio and visual blips, to odd magnetization, to high levels of gamma radiation. There are many “studies have shown” or “polls indicate” or “many scientists believe” statements without any citing of sources. His credibility is further weakened by propping up various writers (such as Erich Von Donniken, Chariots of the Gods) and theories which were popular back in the day (this book was originally written in the 1970s) but have since been discredited over and over again.

If he had simply discussed his ideas without veering far past his technical competency then it would be a different story, but he had to make an attempt for his ideas to seem “real” to skeptics who wouldn’t believe him no matter what.
For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Monday, October 21, 2019

The True Death of Billy the Kid (History) (Graphic Novels)

by Rick Geary

Publisher: NBM Publishing (March 1, 2018)

Hardcover, 56 pages

Amazon Listing 

Normally I'm a big fan of Rick Geary's Treasuries of Victorian Murder series, I believe this is the 20th book, but this one comes in as a little light. Sixty pages, as opposed to the usual ninety. The usual attention to background detail is a little thin, but perhaps that’s because most of the narrative was limited to the actual killing of Billy the Kid. 

It could be that there just isn't much to tell about Billy the Kid, or that it's such familiar ground. In previous volumes many of the topics were obscure events or ones where new information had been uncovered, but with Billy the Kid new information will probably never come. 

Normally, Geary gives us a lot of detail about the history of the participants. We would get a whole chapter on Pat Garret and Henry McCarty (Billy the Kid’s real name), but there isn’t much here. Now, that is probably because not much information exists, thus leading this story to seem a little more superficial than I expected. 

Still it acts as a good primer to the mythology of Billy the Kid and gives a humanizing aspect to the legend. It also accurately points out that he gained his legend and reputation more for his daring escapes than his criminal activities. It is well done despite the lack of information. It just falls short of the other books in this series.
For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Bell Jar (Fiction) (Psychology)

by Sylvia Plath  

Publisher: Faber & Faber (January 1, 1968)

Softcover, 258 pages

Amazon Listing 

This is the classic (or near classic, or non-classic-but-everyone-knows-about-it; depending on who you talk to) book by suicidal poet Sylvia Plath. Her only novel in fact, the rest of her energies were devoted to poetry- and decent poems they are. If you haven’t read any of them, give it a try. They are dark and depressing, and reveal a lifelong depression as her primary personality characteristic. But her melancholy is your gain, as some great art was born from that sadness.
The crux of the novel is about a girl who is soon due to mature past the confines of university and enter independent life. A prospect which causes her great consternation, since up until now she has found her greatest success in the narrow confines of academia, doing as she was told and following the lines laid out for her by others. Now on her last hurrah, she is about to enter an unknown arena where all of the grants and scholarships and what-have-you mean almost nothing. Several factors add into her eventual need for her suicide attempt and incarceration into an asylum, which are events that dominate the second half of the book.
Author, Sylvia Plath - Pretty Hot
The parallels between this novel and Catcher in the Rye are obvious. Two young people on the cusp of becoming adults are having difficulty with the transition. Both wish to remain safe in the womb of adolescent society, with the lack of responsibilities that world has, but ultimately neither can, and the protagonist suffers as a result of their resistance. What make the difference for this novel are the obvious autobiographical details in The Bell Jar. So much so apparently that it caused a lot of fractures in the personal lives of the other real life people (very thinly disguised) mentioned in the novel.
Despite all the other claims, The Bell Jar is an obvious symbolic reference to chronic depression and mental illness. Suffering from chronic depression was like having a bell jar over her head. She could see the world, but was separate from it. It was a muted prison, where all that existed were her own thoughts in a suffocating atmosphere. People have made other claims as to symbolism, but none of them are very convincing so I won’t waste anyone time. Plus the author herself stuck her head in an oven six months after The Bell Jar’s UK publication. That, I think, should end any other discussion.
For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Desert Peach (Historical Fiction) (Graphic Novel)

by Donna Barr  

Publisher: A Fine Line Press (April 4, 2013)

Softcover, 566 pages

Amazon Listing

This is truly a unique book. I have never read a comic series whose plot comes even close to what occurs in The Desert Peach, which is why I’m now a fan. As one of my old writing instructors used to say, “You don’t have to do it better, just differently.” War comics set in World War 2 are nothing new. War comics set in Rommel’s desert campaign are rarer, but not unheard of. But a war comic where the protagonist is a German officer and in which there is almost no violence is rare item indeed. This volume collects the first seventeen issues of the series.

The main character is the fictional homosexual brother of German General Erwin Rommel, also known as the Desert Fox - hence, the Desert Peach. His full name is Colonel Manfred Pfirsich Marie Rommel and he commands the 469th Halftrack Gravedigging and Support Unit of the Afrika Korps. According to his fictional biography, he was born in 1900 and died in 1990, the author keeps his story going in the series Afterlife.

The Desert Peach’s unit is a dumping ground for lunatics and misfits, the rejects of other military units. The character is openly homosexual, even claiming to be engaged to a Luftwaffe pilot, and hates violence, always trying to find another way to resolve a situation. The rest of the crew aren’t much better. Hidden Jews, shell-shocked soldiers, incompetent zealots and so on. 

The action takes on the attitude of a farce, breezy weird stories often about mischievous antics of the unit, or them conniving to keep a character from being sent from the unit. Despite the silliness of some stories there is an element of realism hiding just beneath the surface. Similar in tone to Catch 22 and MASH (at least the good seasons of it), the backdrop of war makes a lot of things seem plausible.

The author’s attention to detail in military equipment and uniforms enhances this comic realism. The author has a very distinctive voice in her art, which adds to the oddness of the series, and continuously plays with the form, whether it is with word bubbles, or the “Mad marginals” sayings or cartoons creeping about the borders of the page.

One of the drawbacks of this volume is the size. Granted you get an incredible amount of material for the price, but the pages had to be shrunk down to fit the book’s dimensions of 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches from 8.4 x 5.8 x 0.7 inches, which cuts down on the clarity and spaciousness of the book. In its original form, the author’s material filled up the page, taking in most of it with barely a millimeter missed. Here it's all scrunched together, making the material that much harder to read. Essentially you have to move the book closer to your face to take in all of the excellent details.

For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Complete Omaha the Cat Dancer Volume 8

by Kate Worely, James Vance, & Reed Waller  

Publisher: Eurotica (September 1, 2013)

Softcover, 160 pages

Amazon Listing

This was the finish to Omaha the Cat Dancer that wasn’t supposed to be. Fifteen (or so) years after a romantic falling out between the artist and writer, they decided to let bygones be bygones and wrapped up their most famous creation. It’s rare that a comic, the field most littered with unfinished tales, to come back later and finish. Like Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, it’s a hell of a treat.
And I must say there are no loose ends. Everyone’s relationships are finalized, one way or another, and the mysteries are all revealed. Unlike the previous volumes, the authors knew they exact amount of space they had to finish their vision, so events are much faster moving with an extra amount of action.

We see Omaha finally get the divorce from her first husband; the wrap up between Shelly and Kurt’s romance; the completion of what would happen to the strip clubs on “A” block; the wrap up on who killed Senator Bonner and its fallout on the political bigwigs in Mipple City; plus the ultimate answer as to what will happen between Omaha and Chuck. I won’t tell you, but I’m sure you can guess.
It’s a good ending for the series. If the art style hadn’t taken a major shift, you would never know about the gap in time. The story picks right up and carries the ball into the end zone. If you’re looking for something other than the happy ending wrap up, then you will be disappointed.
For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Complete Omaha the Cat Dancer Volume 7

by Reed Waller, Kate Worley, & James Vance, with an introduction by Dennis Kitchen

Publisher: NBM Publishing (March 1, 2008)

Softcover, 96 pages.

Amazon Listing 

The issues here are listed as numbers 21 through 24, but originally they were listed as Omaha volume 2, numbers 1-4. This was because the creators had decided to shift publishers and moved the series from Kitchen Sink to Fantagraphics. There also seemed to be a strain between writer and artist, as the quality of the art declines noticeably (not that much, but still perceptible). Not knowing the full details, I hesitate to comment, but Dennis Kitchen in his introduction states that there was a serious physical altercation between the two, which resulted in this being the end of Omaha, until the early 2000s when the pair, both now cancer survivors, reunited to finish their only memorable story- Omaha the Cat Dancer.

The comic has been legitimately called soap opera-ish, and I cannot disagree, but it also suffers from a drag that is endemic to soap operas as well. Multiple story lines intertwine, but each only moves a small increment during each issue, giving it all a feeling that the story is dragging its feet- just like the real soap operas do. I find that I didn’t mind it so much when I collected individual issues, the comic being so different from what I was used to, but when collected together, I’m pushing myself through, waiting for the good stuff to happen. 

The investigation into Senator Bonner’s death heats up and seems to implicate Chuck as a potential culprit, thought we all know this isn’t true. Omaha and Chuck finally get back together and reunite in a gang bang, two guy and one girl, three way. However, Shelly and former nurse, Kurt, break up after he can’t handle her sleeping around. Joanne is then employed by Chuck’s maternal grandfather as his companion as his health worsens.

For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Handmaid's Tale (Science Fiction)

by Margaret Atwood 

Publisher: Anchor Books (March 16, 1998) 

Softcover, 311 pages

Amazon Listing 

"I lie down on the braided rug. You can always practice, said Aunt Lydia. Several sessions a day, fitted into your daily routine. Arms at the side, knees bent, lift the pelvis l, roll the backbone down. Tuck. Again. Breathe in to the count of five, hold, expel. We do that in what used to be the Domestic Science room, cleared now of seeing machines and washer-dryers; in unison, lying on little Japanese mats, a tape playing, Les Sylphides. That's what I hear now in my head, as I lift, tilt, breathe. Behind my closed eyes thin white dancers flit gracefully among the trees, their wings fluttering like the wings of held birds."
This is the classic, and most famous, book by Margaret Atwood about a reformed society who is taken over by a massive decline in the planet's birth rate. A fundamental religious faction takes over and institutes a new "handmaid" program, whereby fertile women were taken in as substitutes for their infertile wives.
The handmaid substitution comes from the Book of Genesis where Rachel, being too old to bear children, told her husband, Jacob, to use her younger handmaid, Bilhah, as a surrogate for bearing children. The specific denomination is not named here in the new country of Gilead, and seems to be a new one popped up from Fundamentalist roots.
Author Margaret Atwood

The name of the country, formerly the US of A., called Gilead is based on Biblical precedent as well. The Land of Gilead, which loosely translated means "hill of testimony" and may be a rocky region located in Jordan. The book of Judges claims that the area comprises thirty towns. This represents a return by the rulers of this new land to the traditional aspects of religion, based purely off the Old Testament. In fact, Heyzeus is not mentioned at all and possibly could be expunged from the religion.
Of course, in this case the real purpose of religious restrictions is an exercise in power. None of the upper echelons of Gilead seem to really believe in its laws. The Commander goes openly to a brothel for the elites. The wife, Serena Joy, openly tells the Handmaid to have sex with the assistant, Nick, in order to get pregnant.
Poster for the 1990s film based on the book.

The bizarre exposition at the end of the novel, explains this was the beginnings of Gilead society, stating that there was a middle and late period as well. Thus the brutality we see at the beginning of a society, eventually stabilized, then fell into disarray with a relaxation of the rules. Similar to the Soviet Union.
Atwood had written that there was nothing new in her book. That at some point in history every element of Gilead society was represented in some country at some point in time.
For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Friday, October 4, 2019

Carolina Daemonic II: Rebel Hell (Horror) (Science Fiction)

by Brian Barr

Publisher: Brian Barr Books (March 15, 2019)

Paperback, 556 pages

Amazon Listing

"’How long are we going to wait at the bottom of this goddamn theater?’ some aggravated, fat sack of a man screamed at the top of his lungs to everyone gathered there.

Is this really the time to complain? Candice thought. Now, while the entire is falling around us? What better place could there be in such dire circumstances? Columbia turned into a ghost town overnight, the entire surface a catastrophe. Here, under the Longstreet Theatre, safe in the space provided below Greene Street, these poor protestors and citizens were provided a safe haven. They found enough food and water that could last them for days while they waited for the police and the military to take care of whatever was going on out there.”
The first book in the series

This is the sequel to Confederate Shadows which takes place in an alternate timeline where the confederates won the Civil War, and not just repelling the North, they eventually conquered the north and as such, slavery was not abolished until the latter half of the 20th Century. Then magic bloomed in the land and, presumably due to this, science did not expand much beyond the steam and coal age.  Esoteric sciences arcane and archaic survive from forgotten times, and strange demonic creatures wander through the slums of Charleston.

The book is a rollercoaster ride through a nightmare version of modern American South. While several topical themes are explored in the narrative, it is organic to the situations in the text, and the author skillfully avoids preaching while still making a statement. The book is a face-paced ride through a sci-fi horror story. Well worth the time.

For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 


Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Mazes and Monsters: A Novel (Humor) (Fiction)

by Rona Jaffe 

Publisher: Delacorte Press (September 1, 1981)

Hardcover, 329 pages

Amazon Listing 

“The days dragged by. The police were still looking in the caverns and questioning students. The Pequod newspaper picked up the story of the missing student, and of course The Grant Gazette did, and then the wire services got hold of it. Suddenly the press aws fascinated by the game. The idea that a game was supposed to be a fantasy could have taken on such reality as to cause the disappearance - and possible death- of a player was thrilling. Sales of mazes and Monsters soared. It was inevitable that someone would finally advance the theory that the game had caused Robbie to flip out. But it was all conjecture. The fact that Robbie had been so normal: an athlete, good grades, popular, friendly pleasant, attractive, made the story even more intriguing to the press. It seemed as if reporters were interviewing everyone on campus.”

This, of course, is the infamous supposed anti-RPG novel where college students playing a Dungeons and Dragons like game get too involved in the fantasy and one of them loses touch with reality. He adopts the persona of his character and drifts off looking for adventure, eventually stabbing a guy who mistakes him for a male prostitute.

Poster for the film version of this novel.
This came out just after the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons boomed in the late 1970s, and was based on an actual event where some college students got lost playing the game in some steam tunnels beneath their university. They essentially were the first LARPers. With typical journalistic zeal for exploitation, the story was seized upon and D&D was eventually roped in with the Satanic Panic which was beginning to pick up steam. The “activist” group B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons) praised the novel and a cheap CBS Movie of the Week was produced starring a young Tom Hanks in one of his first roles. The entire film is embedded below. For bad films aficionados only.

I did research on the literature of the Satanic Panic for my upcoming novel, but I didn’t not include this book among them, due to the fact that this is listed as a work of fiction, while all of the others, Michelle Remembers, Turmoil in the Toybox, etc, claim to be real. Strange as this may sound out of all of them, Mazes and Monsters is the most grounded, down-to-earth, book of them all. The so-called “real” material spins off into ridiculous claims which no critical thinking person could believe.

In fact, one of the novel’s drawbacks it’s that it’s too real. So real that it’s actually kind of boring. We see the four protagonists with their various social dramas and brief romances and various backgrounds, most of which feels like padding. This book was published in 1980 so the stereotypical image of the social leper gamer had not been established. Back at that time, everyone was trying D&D, but most stopped after college. The action, such as it is, is crammed in the last forty pages and even that is thin. It’s mostly about people about to graduate college, worrying about their life and future. Almost a college version of The Breakfast Club or the gamer version of Diner.

Despite most of the fervent criticism against Mazes and Monsters by gamers over the last few decades, it doesn’t paint all gamers as mentally unstable loners. In fact, the book doesn’t really discusses the game much at all. It’s always present in the background, but there are entire chapters where it isn’t mentioned. Three of the four protagonists have no problem playing the game and find it a fun distraction, and the kid who does flip out is already shown to have a terrible home life and previous mental issues. The movie below did take things to more of an extreme in its depiction of the game and its “effects”. The reasons the one character does lapse into his character are pretty dubious. I don’t buy it, and it almost comes out of nowhere.

Essentially though, this novel is a character study of some mild and slightly troubled characters in a story in which almost nothing happens. A pretty boring piece of work.
For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Full Film is Here