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Review: “Saga, Volume I” by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Title: Saga, Volume I
Writer: Brian K. Vaughn
Artist: Fiona Staples
Series: Saga (Volume I, Issues #1-6)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Image Comics, 2012

Star Wars meets Lord Of The Rings, written for HBO” is how somebody once described this comic series to me. I can’t argue that, given how frequently Vaughn cites Star Wars as an inspiration. It certainly has the same attitude–namely, that narrative trumps science, and the weirder the better. However, I think this gets a little closer to the heart of the series: “Romeo & Juliet, if the Montagues and Capulets were embroiled in an interstellar xenophobic war, written to see just how much HBO could get away with.” Vaughn has a bit of a reputation for defying conventions with regards to content, poking and prodding at the line of what’s allowed until he gets it to move a couple inches further out before he starts up again, and that’s certainly his game here. Profanity, violence, sex….all taboos Vaughn revels in playing with. This is definitely not a book for kids. It is, however, widely considered to be one of the best-written comics to come out in the past several years, and I can’t really argue with that.

The technological society of the Landfall Coalition is at war with the magic-using inhabitants of its moon, Wreath, and apparently has been as long as anybody can remember. Both sides have committed egregious atrocities against the other. Both have a more-or-less implicit assumption that the galaxy would be a better place without the other in it. Ironically, though, their worlds are symbiotic. If Landfall was destroyed, its moon would fly off into the void. If Wreath were destroyed, the planet below would suffer catastrophically. This has led to the war being “exported” to the rest of the galaxy, each world forced to choose a side in a conflict that never ends. And both sides want our protagonists dead….

Marko was a Wreath foot-soldier before he grew disillusioned with the war and surrendered to Coalition forces as a conscientious objector. He was arrested on suspicion of espionage (“Moonies” are apparently not known for pacifism) and sent to a POW camp on the planet Cleave, where he met Alana. Alana was gunner on a Coalition tank until being reassigned as a prison guard on Cleave for “abject cowardice” (refusing to fire on Wreath civilians). Within twelve hours of meeting, Marko and Alana were on the run together. They’re small potatoes, not really worthy of the attention of either warring empire. Wreath was presumably unaware of the situation, and the Coalition assumed that Alana was kidnapped. As long as that was true, they didn’t care…but once they learn that she went willingly, and worse, that she’s pregnant, suddenly our beleaguered family is a threat to morale on both sides of the war, and the focus of a multi-faction intergalactic manhunt. The Coalition has dispatched Prince Robot IV to track down the strange couple and figure out just what possessed Alana to take up with the enemy. Wreath has gone a different route, placing a massive bounty on their heads. They’re not complete monsters though–while Marko and Alana are to be killed, the bounty is only payable if baby Hazel is returned unharmed. Our troublesome couple are soon being chased by such quirky Freelancers as The Stalk, a female spider-thing with an aversion to shirts, and her spurned ex-lover The Will and his partner the Lying Cat. Their only ally is Izabel, the ghost of a young Cleave native who left her bottom half spattered all over the place by a landmine and who is now bound to Hazel’s soul as a spectral babysitter. With so many hunters on their tails, our heroes had better find a way off-planet fast….

Generally, when a book has a reputation like this one for deliberately trying to offend, I avoid it. Alas, this time I couldn’t. While I’ve not picked up his more recent works (Y: The Last Man or Ex Machina), I was a huge fan of Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways for Marvel several years ago. If you haven’t read that, I heartily recommend it. So when I heard that he was doing a series that mixed sci-fi and epic fantasy, and that it was getting absolutely rave reviews from everyone and their brother, I had to check it out. I have to say, its reputation is deserved. There’s not a moment that is boring, with a breakneck pace that keeps you turning pages right up until the end. Every single character is fascinating and rendered in shades of grey, even the supposedly-heartless Freelancers. The world itself? A thing of beauty and delightful strangeness, filled with fascinating dichotomies around every turn of the page. You want television-headed robots? Check. Sassy teenaged ghosts? Yep, that too. Fantasy magic? Sure. Sci-fi tech? Uh-huh. Wooden rocketship? Gotcha covered. Weird weapons? How’s a stun gun that operates on emotion sound? Meet the Heartbreaker. (“It hurt like the day my dog died…”) Weird aliens? Most of these seem based on familiar animals, at least so far. I’ve seen monkeys, crocodiles, lemurs, seahorses (yes, seriously), even a giant turtle with laser vision being used as a tank. There’s The Stalk, who is best described as an armless centaur, except that instead of a horse her body is that of a spider. You can’t get a whole lot stranger than that…. The art is nothing short of gorgeous, and the talented Ms. Staples has a genius for the subtleties of facial expression. The character design is incredible, and I’m sure she deserves at least some of the credit for the lovely strangeness I was just extolling. If you can get past all the attempts to offend you, this is a book that I can’t recommend enough.

That’s the problem though. A lot of people won’t be able to get past the attempts to offend. There’s a childbirth scene, though it wasn’t near as graphic as I would have expected from the rest of the book. Maybe they wanted to get you more than two pages in before you threw it down…. At any rate, more of the same follows. Breastfeeding, multiple times including on the cover. Television-headed robots having sex? Yep, and then some. There’s a whole planet devoted to “carnal pleasures” of every type and variety, and we get teasing glimpses into various rooms as The Will walks through. If you fancy a centipede woman or someone as rotund as Jabba The Hutt, Sextillion is apparently the place for you. You can even buy time with a six-year-old war orphan, though before you get all huffy I will point out that this concept is played not for titillation but for disgust and pathos. One of the issues opens with Prince Robot IV reading on the toilet–apparently robots still have all the normal biological urges, somehow. After all that, it seems almost pointless to mention The Stalk’s apparent disdain for shirts….like I said, this isn’t for everyone. I didn’t really expect to get more than one volume through it myself, but I’ll probably be grabbing the next volume sometime here in the next couple weeks. Read it if you will, but don’t say I didn’t warn you….

CONTENT: R-rated profanity. Strong, gory violence, from decapitation and disembowelment to characters getting holes blown in their chest or their head crushed like an egg. Strong, explicit sexual content and rampant nudity. Fantasy magic, but nothing I would label occult content.

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Review: “D-Day: June 6, 1944” by Stephen E. Ambrose

49250Title: D-Day: June 6, 1944–The Climactic Battle Of World War II
Author: Stephen E. Ambrose
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Simon & Schuster, 1994

Well, this is awkward. I was all set to tell you how Stephen Ambrose was one of the greatest historians of the Second World War still living, and then tell you to read this book. Except that in looking up tidbits of fact to sprinkle in here and whet your fancy, I discovered two things. First, he died twelve years ago. Secondly, and more important, his reputation is not now as glowing as I had believed it to be. It seems that several of his books are riddled with improper citations and, in a couple places, even inaccuracies. Sentences or even paragraphs lifted almost verbatim from other sources, given a citation but not acknowledged within the text. An easy mistake to make, perhaps, but a rookie level one. Ambrose was one of the leading WWII scholars in the nation, even the world. You would think that indicated a level of care and professionalism that would preclude such sloppiness. (You can read about that whole mess here.) More troubling is the recent discovery that his relationship with General-turned-President Dwight D. Eisenhower was not exactly as he had described. Instead of Eisenhower approaching him to write his biography, Ambrose approached the former president. Instead of the hundreds of hours they allegedly spent talking before Eisenhower’s death, the meticulous records kept by Eisenhower’s secretary and assistant show only five. Some of the interviews cited by Ambrose take place at times Eisenhower was recorded to be elsewhere. Later-used citations are vague as to the date and time, simply cited as “Interview with DDE.” (You can read that story here.) This saddens me, for I had intended to consume his entire bibliography. Now….now my plan is to still read his WWII histories (Pegasus Bridge, Citizen Soldiers, re-read Band Of Brothers) which are less controversial, but I doubt I’ll push beyond that. We’ll see when the time comes I suppose.

But you know what? I’m still recommending this book. It was incredibly engaging and well-written–even his harshest detractors admit that he was one heck of a writer. With two lone exceptions (discussed below), there is no controversy concerning the facts as Ambrose relates them here. There may be a few spurious interview bits from Eisenhower buried in the passages he cites from his own books, I can’t check the whole chain of citation since I only have this one book on hand, but across the board his sources for this one seem legit. Would I use this as a source for a scholarly paper? Maybe not, at least without doing some more serious digging, but that’s really not a question I think most of my readers are concerned with. So far as I can tell, most of my readers are simply concerned with finding good books to fill their reading time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. History degree or not, I’m under no delusions that my review blog is a scholarly source. So, let me be clear as to what this is: Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day is an incredibly compelling study of arguably the single most crucial operation in the Second World War, told mostly by the men who were there and survived the experience. It is a tale of incredible human ingenuity, courage, and resolve, and it is very much worth reading.

In the wee hours of the morning, June 6th, 1944, the Allied nations launched the single greatest amphibious assault in the history of warfare. Hitler had spent years fortifying the French coast against this day, certain that it would have to come eventually, and the network of fortifications he had ordered constructed were intended to be impenetrable. Had any one of a hundred different factors played out differently, they may well have proved to be. Had the fortifications been better staffed, had Hitler proved more decisive and/or less inclined to micromanaging troop dispositions, had his staff even proved willing to wake him up when the invasion started so that he could give the proper orders, it would be a very different book I’m reviewing here. Had the invasion failed, what would the world look like today? That’s a question far too large for me to answer, at least here, but Ambrose believes that Berlin would have suffered the eventual fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe, maybe not. At any rate, it’s no spoiler seventy years on to tell you that the invasion of Normandy was successful, if incredibly costly. I urge you to read this book and see the operation through the eyes of the men who were there.

I think I’ve pretty adequately communicated that I think you should read this. I’ve touched on how well it’s written, and how despite the controversy surrounding the author nobody really takes issue with this particular work, with two exceptions. First, Ambrose portrays the pilots ferrying the airborne troops to their dropzones as untrained for the degree of AA fire they were taking, and blames this factor (and, by extension, their fear) for how scattered the paratroopers became. These pilots take offense to this portrayal and have repeatedly lobbied for changes in this and other books that make the same claim. The second minor controversy concerns an incident occurring off of Omaha beach, where a landing craft skipper wanted to abort and the infantry captain aboard forced him to make the run in anyway at gunpoint. A fine story, a compelling anecdote, and properly sourced to boot. Ambrose didn’t simply make this up–it comes from a 1960 article in Atlantic Monthly, and is a story that has been much repeated in a number of other works since. The problem? The sole survivor of that landing craft denies it ever happened. Either way, Ambrose acted in good faith here, though I do somewhat question the reliability of Atlantic Monthly as a reliable source of historical fact. So do with that what you will. But read the book.

CONTENT: Some R-rated language, depending on how the veterans being interviewed censored themselves and their stories. Some graphic depictions of violence, especially in the accounts from Omaha beach. No sexual content.

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