Monthly Archives: May 2013

Mini-reviews: Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, part 1

This is a compilation of my review for the first three Hellboy collections. Why only the first three? Because that’s all my library has. I’m going to have to explore other avenues to get my hands on Hellboy’s further adventures…..

VOLUME I: SEED OF DESTRUCTION (****)
Story and art by Mike Mignola, Written by John Byrne

I’m a huge fan of the Hellboy films—the character, the world it creates, all of it. I didn’t realize until after watching it that there was a comic it was based on, and for a while I had no good way to access those comics even after discovering their existence. I did eventually get my hands on a collection of shorts, including the source for that talking corpse from the movie, but never the original miniseries they mainly drew from for the main thrust of the film. That eluded me….until now. The problem is, that first miniseries was created a long time ago and the character and world have had a long time to mature and grow since then. As a result, this first effort didn’t compare well. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but not nearly as epic in scale as the film. A vast underground complex in Russia, accessible through Rasputin’s tomb? I’m sorry, but that trumps the comic’s crumbling lakeside manor. Though I suppose that manor is a bit more Lovecraftian, which was probably what Mignola was going for….Some other stuff kind of bugged me—such as the moment Hellboy and Abe identify someone from a photograph of a doomed expedition that has been talked about but never seen by the reader. It felt like we should have been able to make that leap too, and I spent five minutes hunting for where we had been shown that picture only to find it doesn’t exist. I’m told it all gets better as it goes, and there’s not a chance this disappointing start will get me to quit, but it saddened me nonetheless. On the other hand, there was some interesting material as well, such as the aliens monitoring the Ogdru Jahad’s prison. I’ll be interested to see if they appear again.

VOLUME II: WAKE THE DEVIL (*****)
Written and drawn by Mike Mignola

This is more like it! You may recall I was disappointed in the first Hellboy volume’s lack of scope. This volume, however, hits the mark without fail.

So you thought the death of Rasputin in volume I was the end of Project Ragna Rok? Think again! The rest of Rasputin’s cult is still at large and newly-awakened, and Rasputin himself is not so dead as Hellboy and company would like to think. In a Nazi castle above the arctic circle, plans are being set into motion to once more try and bring about the end of the world…..unless Hellboy and his friends can once more stave off the apocalypse!

We are introduced to more of the BPRD crew this time around, as well as getting more of an idea of Hellboy’s origins and destiny. On the whole, I love this series!

VOLUME III: THE CHAINED COFFIN AND OTHERS (*****)
Written and drawn by Mike Mignola

This is so far my favorite collection of Hellboy comics. Instead of a long, cosmically-significant storyarc, here we have a number of shorter works–vignettes, even. This collection is really an anthology, collecting various one-offs or short serials Mignola created as backups to other features. While I enjoy the longer storyarcs, I think for my money that Hellboy works best in this format. Introduce monster, give backstory for monster, have Hellboy fight monster, get his butt kicked, and finally win. Rinse and repeat. And yet it never gets boring or repetitive as Mignola uses each tale to build the occult-encrusted world Hellboy inhabits. This collection by rights ought to be read alongside the first two volumes, as some of the stories happen in the interim between Seed Of Destruction and Wake The Devil. The stories included are:

  • The Corpse (Ireland, 1959): Hellboy challenges the Little People for the return of a kidnapped child. Remember the bit in the first Hellboy film with the talking corpse Hellboy carries around for a while? That’s inspired by this story, I believe.
  • The Iron Shoes (Ireland, 1961): Hellboy takes on one of the Fae who does not share the usual faery aversion to iron.
  • The Baba Yaga (Russia, years before Wake The Devil): Mignola planned out this story as a backup feature in a canceled miniseries, so it never actually got published. The events therein, however, are referenced in Wake The Devil, so Mignola went ahead and wrote it specially for this collection.
  • A Christmas Underground (England, Christmas Eve 1989): Hellboy takes on an ancient evil and ends the curse haunting an English manor.
  • The Chained Coffin (England, immediately after Seed Of Destruction): Shaken by Rasputin’s allegations regarding his origin and fate in Seed Of Destruction, Hellboy travels to the ruined church where he entered this world in search of answers.
  • The Wolves Of Saint August (The Balkans, 1994): Father Kelly, an old friend and compatriot of Hellboy’s, is murdered along with an entire village. Hellboy wants to know why….and who he’s going to make pay!
  • Almost Colossus (Romania, immediately after Wake The Devil): This serves to tie up some loose ends from the Wake The Devil story–namely, the fates of Liz Sherman and the homunculous.

Content: Mild language. A fair amount of violence, some of it bloody, but given the stylized nature of Mignola’s art this is usually not too disturbing. Likewise the nudity that occasionally creeps in–female monsters are not going to wear clothes just because the Comic Code Authority thinks they should…..

Occult content: A fair amount. In Hellboy’s world, everything supernatural would seem to exist in….well, not harmony, but a unified worldview. This includes the Christian God and the Devil as well as more Lovecraftian things such as the Ogdru Jahad. God and the Church have power, but there are other things abroad in the world that have power as well and were old long before Christ was born in his manger. Hellboy is brought to Earth from another plane–implied to be Hell–in a dark ritual performed by Grigori Rasputin. He later tries to use Hellboy as the focus of another ritual to free the Ogdru Jahad (similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones) and bring an end to the world as we know it. One of the short tales implies that Hellboy himself is the son of the Devil and a mortal witch. Vampires show up, and the particular vampires in question are implied to be the unholy offspring of a man and the godess Hecate. In one story Hellboy has to find a burial place for a reanimated and talkative skeleton before dawn. The Russian…..godess? Superstition? How do you describe Baba Yaga?….anyway, Baba Yaga shows up. There is a werewolf tale that has its root in a curse leveled on the local nobility by a wandering priest outraged at their idolatry. The Colossus story in itself doesn’t have any real occult elements, but the characters do debate matters of theology and the role of creation.

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Review: “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell

I know, I’m late to the party. I actually discovered Cloud Atlas (*****) on accident due to the film adaptation that was released last year. Let’s just say that when you can watch a six-minute-long trailer and still have no idea what the film is actually about, that piques my interest. Being somewhat religious about reading a novel before seeing its film adaptation, I promptly set about acquiring a copy…..and for some reason managed to let it languish on my to-read shelf for months before finally picking it up. What can I say? I have a LOT of unread books on that shelf, and I was working through the numerous Odd Thomas sequels again before reading the newest one for the first time. While I have no regrets about my time spent reading Odd, I should have made time to read this sooner. Cloud Atlas is certainly one of the most unique novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I’m told that all of Mitchell’s works take place in the same world and background characters recur across different books; I may have to check out some more of his bibliography.

Cloud Atlas is actually six separate-yet-interconnected stories, each from a different genre, and I’m not entirely sure it should be labeled a novel as opposed to an anthology. But then, I’m not entirely sure I’d go the other direction either. The book resembles nothing so much as a Russian matroyshka doll–as you read, each tale breaks off abruptly in a more-or-less cliffhanger fashion and the next tale begins. When you hit the middle, the stories resume an conclude in reverse order so you end up right back where you started. In addition, the stories are all connected–in each story, a character or characters will read, watch or listen to something related to the previous tale. These connections are even more fun as you revisit the stories to conclude them, as each one leads directly into the next (I’ll let you discover the how for yourself). In addition to the explicit connections generated by each character reading, watching or listening to the previous character’s story, each of the main characters save one is implied to be the same soul reincarnated across the ages. (This causes a slight problem with Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish, as Cavendish’s tale is implied to be set in “the present” and he is in his sixties, meaning he would have been alive at the same time as Luisa Rey, whose tale is set in 1973. So far as I can see, the only way to resolve this apparent inconsistency is to have his tale set in the near future as opposed to the present.) Finally, the same themes recur across all the stories in the book as each character deals with issues of oppression, power, slavery, and violence.

The six stories that make up Cloud Atlas are:
The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing (1849): Adam Ewing is an American lawyer come to the Chatham Islands to conduct some estate business for his father-in-law and boss. While his ship is in port for repairs, he there meets and befriends Dr. Henry Goose, a British exile, who agrees to treat his mysterious tropical parasite. This tale is told in the form of Ewing’s regular journal entries.
Letters From Zedelghem (1936): Robert Frobisher is an impoverished, bisexual and recently-disowned dropout from Cambridge school of music. In need of funds and occupation, he sets out to attain the post of amanuensis (someone who copies dictation, in this case musical) for Vyvyan Ayrs, the supposed greatest British composer of all time, blind and slowly dying of syphilis in Belgium. While helping Ayrs finish some of his old pieces and begin some new ones, Frobisher finds an incomplete copy of The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing in the family library and becomes obsessed with it. Though Frobisher is welcomed into Ayrs’ home as a son, his relationships with Ayrs’ family are complex, as Ayrs’ daughter suspects his financial state and he carries on an affair with Ayrs’ wife. Nevertheless, Frobisher manages to find time to begin composing his own works again. This tale is told through Frobisher’s letters to his gay lover, Rufus Sixsmith.
Half Lives–The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1973): Luisa Rey is a writer for a trashy tabloid who wants to be a serious journalist. When aging scientist Rufus Sixsmith tips her off to a nefarious plot involving the soon-opening Seaboard HYDRA nuclear power plant, Luisa is thrust into a high-stakes contest of wills with opponents who are not afraid to kill to get what they want…. This tales is written as a traditional mystery novel.
The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish (Present Day/Near Future):
Timothy Cavendish is an aging vanity-press publisher with a huge problem–due to the highly-public murder of a literary critic, his newest client’s memoirs are jumping off the shelves. A good thing? Sure, until Cavendish’s creditors come to call and claim his newfound fortune to pay his debts. And when his clients brothers (who are just as respectful of the law as his client himself) demand a cut of the now-nonexistent profits, Cavendish is forced to go on the run. He manages to escape to a “luxury hotel” where his brother set up a reservation for him….only to find his refuge is in fact an old folks home, and the staff are not very understanding about the apparent mixup…. This section is told via Cavendish’s memoirs.
An Orison Of Somni-451 (2144):
 Somni-451 is a fabricant (clone) created to serve without question in Papa Song’s diner (I think this is supposed to be a futuristic version of McDonald’s). To this end, like all of her sister fabricants, she is engineered with a very low IQ and only the skills and education needed to do her job. But one day Somni-451 realizes she is no longer like her sisters–she has begun to have thoughts and ideas that are far from acceptable to her masters. She doesn’t understand how this process began, but she knows it has taken her into very dangerous territory…. This tale is told in the form of a prison interview (not a spoiler–they state this from the beginning) between Somni-451 and an “archivist” there to document her story for governmental records.
Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After (2321): Zachry is a young man (fourteen or fifteen for most of the story) living on the Big Island of Hawaii years after “The Fall,” a catastrophe where most of the world’s civilization was destroyed (from the scant descriptions, it would appear to have been a nuclear holocaust) and left the survivors in a state of primitivism. Zachry’s tribe is the most “civ’lized” on the island, and they are often visited by the more technological Prescients who somehow escaped humanity’s fall relatively unharmed. Zachry’s world is forever turned upside down when one of these Prescients comes to live with his family and study their people. This story is told by Zachry sitting around a campfire somewhere in his old age.

The connections throughout the novel are interesting. As I mentioned above, each story references the one before it in some way. Frobisher reads Ewing’s Journal, and Ayrs dreams of a “nightmarish cafe, brilliantly lit, but underground, with no way out….The waitresses all had the same face. The food was soap, the only drink was cups of lather.” Sixsmith and Luisa Rey read Frobisher’s letters and Luisa tracks down a copy of Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas Sextet. Cavendish is given the manuscript of a novel based on Luisa’s adventure. Somni-451 is shown a film adaptation of Cavendish’s memoir. And finally, the neo-primitive inhabitants of Zachry’s post-apocalyptic Hawaii worship Somni as a god (it can be assumed that at some time in their past they found a copy of her Declarations.) In addition, each of the main characters share a birthmark shaped like a blazing comet, a detail that Mitchell has implied is meant to imply that they are various reincarnations of the same soul. (I understand that the film used this to great effect by having the various actors play different roles in each story–though not as the same “soul” as it would be difficult to get one person to play both Robert Frobisher and Somni-451, for example).

Mitchell here presents two fascinating different (though not incompatible–they are separated both geographically and temporally) visions of the future in An Orison Of Somni-451 and Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After. Somni-451’s futuristic Korea is a hyper-capitalistic dystopian corporate state. Certain areas of the world are said to be “deadlanded,” or rendered uninhabitable by fallout from an undescribed nuclear war in ages past. Mitchell does an excellent job of describing this world from within, communicating everything you need to know about Nea So Copros without ever breaking character. You’re left to make sense of certain details on your own, from context, and if you pay attention it will all make sense eventually. Especially watch for how certain modern brand names are now synonymous with their product–sonys, disneys, nikes, etc. It is somewhat unclear whether the nuclear war that is mentioned by Somni and the Archivist is the same as The Fall mentioned by Zachry and his folk, but that wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. You get the sense that Nea So Copros is a society on the brink of collapse anyway, so I’m not at all surprised that they have ceased to exist by Zachry’s time. The most confusing part of the whole thing is that a nuclear war went down and Korea came out of it unscathed…..just doesn’t make sense in terms of the current geopolitical status, but there’s at least a century to work with there, so I’ll let it go. Zachry’s tale is framed as him sitting by the fire and telling his story, so it’s oral. As such, there’s a good deal of dialect involved–and a lot of apostrophes where he abbreviates words or leaves out letters. Some people won’t be able to get past this. Some will go along with it and be blown away by Mitchell’s worldbuilding. It’s all in how you want to experience the book. In Zachry’s world, the Big Island of Hawaii (or Hah Why, as Zachry calls it) is all he knows. Most of mankind has descended back into barbarism and a tribal existence, from Zachry’s peaceful folk of the Nine Folded Valleys to the warlike Kona they live in constant fear of. There is, however, one group more advanced in knowledge and in ideas. The Prescients apparently saw The Fall coming and prepared for it, hiding themselves away and riding out the storm. Now they are travelling about, nurturing seeds of civilization wherever they may find it. Unfortunately, these seeds are few and far between, and the Prescients are few in number….

Reviewers cannot seem to agree when it comes to this book–what one likes, another hates. For my money, Mitchell’s writing here is masterful. Each story has a different narrator, and each narrator has an entirely different voice that feels entirely authentic–you buy entirely that each narrator is a resident of the world they describe. This is no mean feat when one of your narrators is a clone from a future where corporations rule the world and another is a neo primitive from post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Whatever else you say about him, Mitchell is a master of worldbuilding. (Some reviewers disagree and find his use of language in the two futuristic stories gimmicky and distracting. To each his own.) Some may criticize the book’s lack of a central driving plot that transcends the different stories, but so far as I can tell that is simply Mitchell’s style (I’m told his novel/collection Ghostwritten is the same way, only more so.) Some will be annoyed by the structure of the book, feeling it is “gimmicky.” Well….yes, it’s a gimmick. But it’s a gimmick that worked, at least so far as I am concerned. Mitchell himself was well aware of what would be said about this, and even had Robert Frobisher compose his Cloud Atlas Sextet with the same structure, musing “Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late.” Most of these detractors seem to think it was all style and no substance, that Mitchell was just showing off. (These reviewers seem to have missed the recurring themes and fixated solely on the reincarnation and self-referential aspects of its interconnectedness. I’ll admit, if that was as far as it went, I might agree with them.) Others, oddly, have felt that the book had too much substance and was a bit heavy-handed in its moralizing, that the themes of violence and power and oppression through the various stories could have been more subtle. Maybe a bit, but it didn’t bother me–and if you’ve followed my reviews you know I have a low tolerance for that sort of thing when it comes at the expense of a good story. At the end of the day this is love-it-or-hate-it book, and it does require the reader to actively engage the text–to “work for it,” if you will. If you are willing to do that, I highly recommend reading this book.

It could be argued that there is a subtle anti-religious theme here. Ewing is a Christian, but he is at least to some degree a naive and idealistic fool. Reverend Horrox’s views on race and God’s planned hierarchy of the world are frankly disturbing. Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish all seem to have no use for religion. In the world of Somni-451 all “pre-skirmish” religion has been outlawed and replaced with a worship of money (Your digital wallet is your “soul,” and “a soul’s value is the dollars within.”) Zachry and his tribe–the most civilized tribe in Hawaii, and one of the most in the world–worship Somni and hold her commands (I presume these are the Declarations mentioned at the end of her story) as religious law. A more suspicious man would see an attempt at making a statement about deifying a Galilean carpenter. Now, do I think this is a reason not to read this book? No. In fact, I’m not even willing to argue definitively for that analysis. But I do think it bears keeping in mind.

Content: Overall, I’d have to go with R.
Language: PG-13/R. I honestly didn’t notice a whole lot about this, as I kept getting to drawn in to pay attention to such a clinical detail. Each story would probably have to be rated separately anyway to get any real sense of this. At least two “f-bombs” and various lesser profanities, with whatever is said in The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing being rendered in classic 19th-century form as d–n, h–l, d—l, etc. That, at least, I found quite amusing.
Violence: PG-13/R. A fair amount of violence, and some of it is very evocatively described.
Sexual Content: R. This novel contains a fair amount of sexual content, not usually very graphic but nevertheless hard to miss. And I must say that Zachry’s language on this subject was quite….evocative.

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Review: “No Silent Night” by Leo Barron and Don Cygan

Title: No Silent Night: The Christmas Battle For Bastogne
Authors: Leo Barron & Don Cygan
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: New American Library, 2012

I received my copy of No Silent Night as part of the Goodreads FirstReads program. This has no effect on this review, except to ensure that I was able to get a copy of the book. New purchases are being kept to a minimum for budgetary and storage reasons at the moment…..

In December of 1944, Hitler’s Third Reich launched its last-ditch effort to stop the Allied advance–Wacht am Rhein, or the offensive that would lead to the famed Battle of the Bulge. While this battle was more than overflowing with moments of drama and heroism, one of the most fascinating elements was the battle for the small crossroads town of Bastogne. As the German offensive was once more dependent on Blitzkrieg tactics, good roads were going to be essential for moving their armor, troops and supplies quickly to where they needed to be to support the frontline’s advance deep into Allied territory. Quickly taking crossroads towns like Bastogne would be essential to the German advance–a fact that was not lost on the commanders of either side. While the German flood swept towards Bastogne, the Allied command hurriedly installed the 101st Airborne and any other stray troops they could find in defense of the town and its outlying villages, creating an island of Allied resistance that was quickly surrounded. If the defenders of Bastogne could hold out long enough, they could seriously impair the German offensive. If they failed, the Germans would have a direct supply line for their forward troops. Poorly supplied and seriously outnumbered, the defenders of Bastogne were in for a Christmas they would never forget…….

This book first caught my eye because I was passingly familiar with the story–it was featured in the stellar HBO/BBC miniseries Band Of Brothers (if you haven’t seen that, go do so immediately!) Historical narratives have a reputation (not always deserved) of being dry and uninteresting for the non-historian, but I was pleased to find this was not the case with this book. The authors tell the story of Bastogne’s defense from both sides, following both the American defenders and the German besiegers, and the style is very engaging. While the book is a secondary source, I suspect intended more for the general public than for academia, the authors have done quite a bit of original research including interviews with several of the key characters. I will undoubtedly mine their works cited section for some other works on the subject when I get the chance–several of the memoirs they cite look quite intriguing.

This is the first book either author has written, and I had never heard of either of them before, but the book was quite good. According to the dust jacket, Leo Barron has served in the 101st Airborne in Iraq, holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in history, and trains military intelligence officers for the US Army. Don Cygan is a history teacher and journalist.

Content: PG-13 for language and violence. Soldiers’ language can be a bit salty, and this is a narrative about war. On the whole its not too gruesome, but there are a couple occasions that are a bit disturbing and illustrate the horror of war.

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