The House of Mystery

Last month, between Las Cruces Comic Con and Bubonicon, my wife and I took our daughter back to college. A big part of the back-to-college ritual is the trip to the nearby big-box store to stock up on supplies for the school year. While doing that, I’ll inevitably pop into the video section to see if there’s a release I’ve missed. This year, I found Constantine: The House of Mystery. It featured Matt Ryan reprising his role of John Constantine, a character from DC and Vertigo comics. It also featured one of my other favorite DC characters, the magician Zatanna. I decided it would be worth picking up.

Constantine: The House of Mystery

Upon closer inspection, I noticed the headline over the title, “DC Showcase Animated Shorts.” Sure enough, the disk proved to be an anthology of sorts, featuring a Constantine story, a Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth story, a Losers story, and a Blue Beetle story. My only complaint about this is that aside from the Constantine story, all the other stories had been released before. Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth had been released as a special feature on the Justice Society: World War II Blu-Ray I purchased a year ago. After a little digging, I found out the other two shorts included with House of Mystery had been previously released as well, but I hadn’t seen them. Still, I could imagine a fan of DC animation being disappointed that this disk contained mostly previously released material.

I like anthology movies and TV series. They provide an opportunity to sample many kinds of stories and tell tales that aren’t really suited to a full-length movie or TV series. I found many early favorite authors by watching the credits of The Twilight Zone and seeing whose stories inspired the episodes. So, given the fact that three of the four shorts on this disk were new to me, it was a nice treat. The Constantine story, House of Mystery, is set after Justice League Dark: Apokolips War. At the end of that movie, the heroes won, but Earth was left a wasteland. Sorcerer John Constantine sends the Flash on a mission to reset time so the world can be made right again. However, the godlike superhero Spectre pulls Constantine out of time and drops him into the House of Mystery. In the comics, the House of Mystery title was itself an anthology comic where people would go into the House and literally anything could and did happen. In this case, Constantine finds himself tormented by demons who take the forms of his closest friends. Constantine’s only hope is to find a way to break out of the house and break the cycle of torture and torment. His solution is well grounded in the comics. My only issue with the short is that they slightly redesigned Constantine from Apokolips War to House of Mystery and they use both versions, so it can be a little jarring when they swap back and forth.

Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth provided a good introduction to the character, which was good, since I’d never read the comic before. It opens on a post-apocalyptic Earth as our title character is trying to free his friend Prince Tuftan of the Tiger Kingdom from captivity. As they flee Tuftan’s original captives, they find themselves captured by the Gorilla Kingdom and forced to go on a quest to show which of them can earn the title of the Mighty One, a revered figure from the Gorillas’ past. The story has a nice twist ending, when the Mighty One’s identity is revealed.

Losers was a comic set during World War II. The Losers themselves are a unit of military outcasts sent on dangerous missions. In this story, they find themselves marooned on an island populated by dinosaurs. However, it turns out the dinosaurs aren’t the island’s biggest secret. Perhaps not surprisingly, the story had a lot in common with Jurassic Park. Still, there were some nice twists and turns and it made me interested in learning more about the original comic.

Aside from John Constantine, Blue Beetle was the character I knew best from his time as a member of the Justice League International, which ran in the 1980s. Blue Beetle himself is the millionaire Ted Kord who fights crime in a beetle suit and flies around in a beetle-shaped craft. In the DC universe, he’s effectively a more lighthearted version of Batman. To that end, the animated short was made to look and feel like animated cartoons of the 1960s and 70s. Blue Beetle tries to stop a diamond theft and learns that the villains plan to use the diamond in an emotion-controlling machine. It’s all a lot of fun and probably my favorite of the shorts on the disk.

All in all, I enjoyed the four shorts and would love to see more anthologies of short films from DC, but would prefer them to be all new material. If you’ve already seen the three shorts that have appeared on other disks, you may prefer to stream the Constantine short separately through your favorite service rather than buy the disk.

The Space Vampires

In recent weeks, I’ve been working on a sequel to my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order, which is about vampire mercenaries who learn they must stop a government plot to create super soldiers with vampire powers. Part of the reason is that vampires have a cosmic origin that gives them powers which could prove extremely dangerous if unlocked. What’s more, the government scientists creating those super soldiers are working diligently to unlock all the vampire secrets. In the sequel, the vampires have decided to unlock those secrets for themselves. This notion of vampires having an otherworldly origin has been explored in numerous books and stories, but a notable example is Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel The Space Vampires, which was then adapted into the 1985 movie Lifeforce. I had seen the movie once in the 1980s and then read the novel in the late 1990s, but I didn’t remember many of the details, so I went back for a second look.

The Space Vampires and Lifeforce

The book and the movie start out much the same. A space mission stumbles across a gigantic, derelict space vessel. Aboard, they find several alien bodies. After some searching, the space ship crew discovers three attractive human forms, who appear to be in suspended animation. Three of the human like figures are taken back to Earth. One of them, in the form of a beautiful young woman, wakes up while being examined and sucks the lifeforce from the person examining her, then escapes and begins looking for others to feed from.

The details are somewhat different between the book and the movie. The novel is set over a century in the future and the alien ship is in the asteroid belt. The movie is set in 1986 and the ship is in the tail of Comet Halley. The aliens in the book look like human-sized squids, while the ones in the movie look like bats. Despite those differences, the book and movie are more alike than I remember. After the alien vampire woman escapes into the world, our heroes start looking for clues so they can locate her and stop her. It turns out that the lead astronaut of the expedition does have a kind of psychic link to her which helps.

The novel spends much more time exploring the issue of vampires from a more metaphysical angle. It points out that everyone on Earth feeds off life, including vegetarians. There’s also an exploration of how we gain energy from other people and that to a certain extent, all humans could be viewed as psychic vampires. I found myself thinking of Colin Robinson from the TV series, What We Do in the Shadows. There’s also an exploration of ways in which the predator/prey relationship can mirror the pursuit of sexual partners.

To give the story more visual action, the movie introduces the idea that people drained by the alien vampires come back to life as zombies two hours after they were drained and then seek to drain others. The zombies are easily stopped by restraining them, but you have to find them first. This allows for a big spectacle ending as our heroes must find and destroy the vampires while London gets overrun by zombies. The book’s ending is much quieter and, at first read, it almost seems he invoked a deus ex machina. However, on reflection, Wilson did give us a few clues about the ending, but I also thought he could have foreshadowed the ending a little better than he did.

Having watched the movie and read the book together, I had the impression that the movie’s screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, read the novel and paid close attention. As in the book, the vampires use sexuality as a lure for their victims, represented visually by Mathilda May playing the vampire woman nude in most of the movie. Both the book and movie posit an alien origin for vampires on Earth, and as I noted, there were more scenes from the book in the movie than I remembered. If Dan O’Bannon’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s the screenwriter behind Alien. The book is fun in that it gives us a light Lovecraftian take on the vampire mythos. The movie takes that idea and ramps it up with a lot of fun, high-octane action backed by a great Henry Mancini score. I wouldn’t take either of them too seriously but, for the most part, I don’t think their creators intended us to.

You can see my take on vampires and their cosmic origins in Vampires of the Scarlet Order. You can learn more about the novel at: http://davidleesummers.com/VSO.html

Lovecraft Country

I first became aware of the TV series Lovecraft Country when it turned up on the Nebula Award Ballot for the 2020 Ray Bradbury Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. The show looked interesting, so I watched a few episodes and was impressed enough to go out and buy the complete series on Blu-Ray. I finally had the chance to watch the whole thing and I’m pleased to say it lived up to my expectations.

Cthulhu thinks you should watch Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country is a TV series that blends Lovecraftian science fiction and horror with the all-too-real horror that is the experience of black people in Jim Crow America. In the first episode, Atticus Freeman joins up with his friend Leticia Lewis and his Uncle George on a road trip from Chicago to Massachusetts to search for his missing father. Set in the 1950s, Atticus has just returned from serving in Korea. He’s a fan of good books, including science fiction and horror. In the first episode, Atticus learns that his father disappeared in the vicinity of a small town called Ardham. As the series progresses, we learn that Atticus is descended from a slave and her owner. The owner, a member of the Braithwhite family, was a leader in a secret society known as the Order of the Ancient Dawn. Because he’s descended from the Braithwhites, Atticus has the ability to summon the magic his ancestors could. A distant cousin of Atticus, Christina Braithwhite, has already mastered the magical arts but has plans to use Atticus in a nefarious scheme. There are lots of puzzle pieces on the road to Atticus understanding his magical legacy and Christina trying to put her plan into action, which lead to individual episodes which take us back and forth through time and space.

In the midst of this story about secret societies and magic, we are taken on a tour of the all-too-real racism of 1950s America along with a time-travel sequence to the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. H.P. Lovecraft himself was a master of weird storytelling, who introduced us to unforgettable monsters from shoggoths to the mi-go to Great Cthulhu. He was also an avid amateur astronomer who conveyed both the wonders and the terrors of the cosmos. Unfortunately, he was also a racist. He wasn’t simply a casual of-his-times, misguided white person, but actually someone who wrote letters supporting Hitler’s ideas and poetry about the inferiority of black people. So, I found it interesting to see a story that placed black people front and center in a Lovecraftian world, seeking to understand it and keep it from destroying them even as they’re dealing with real world problems.

My favorite character in Lovecraft Country proved to be Atticus’s Aunt Hippolyta. Hippolyta is a woman who wants to be an astronomer, but lives in times when being black and a woman are both serious impediments to her desires. About midway through the series, she finds an orrery built by the Order of Ancient Dawn. Because of her interest in astronomy, she’s able to unlock secrets about the orrery that elude others. She travels to an observatory and goes on truly fantastic journey.

I was sorry to see that Lovecraft Country wasn’t renewed for a second season. Although the first season ends at a satisfying point, I would enjoy following these characters on more adventures.

Witch Hunter Robin

Many years ago, my wife was shopping at Hastings, a book and music chain now long gone, and she found an interesting box on the clearance shelf. It was a promo pack for an anime series called Witch Hunter Robin. It contained a DVD of the first five episodes, the soundtrack album, a shot glass, and a T-shirt. It seemed worth a look.

Witch Hunter Robin DVD set, T-shirt, and shot glass

I remember watching the episodes back when she purchased the pack. The series seemed promising. It told the story of the Japanese chapter of a worldwide organization that hunted dangerous witches. Robin was a new hunter. While born in Japan, she had been educated in Italy and had just returned. Robin was a “craft user” who could shoot fire at opponents. It seemed the main difference between a “craft user” and a “witch” was whether you used your powers for good or evil. The series had a very episodic approach. Each week, an organization known as the STN-J would be called out to find and deal with a witch. The STN-J’s mandate was not to kill witches, but capture them. STN-J is basically a Japanese acronym, which means Solomon Toukatsu Nin’idantai – Japan. Roughly translated, that’s the Solomon Executive Organization. What exactly happened to the captured witches was never made clear in those early episodes. Over the course of the first five episodes we mostly saw Robin learn her new job and better earn the trust of her teammates. We enjoyed the show, but not quite enough to follow up and watch more of the series.

Fast forward to last summer, when we were shopping in Bookmans, a very nice used books, movie, and music chain in Arizona. While browsing through their anime section, I happened upon a few copies of the complete series of Witch Hunter Robin for a nice price. We decided it was time to finally discover what happened in the rest of the series. I will note that they had several editions of the series and we did a little research to decide which one to buy. We purchased the Bandai Entertainment edition from the early 2000s pictured above because it included cast interviews and a few more special features than the later Funimation release.

We have now watched the entire series and enjoyed it. Witch Hunter Robin continued its episodic approach until about the series’ mid-point when soldiers break into STN-J headquarters and Robin goes on the run. During the second half, the series takes on more of an arc format where Robin learns more about her past, her family, and what STN-J does with the captured witches. We learned there are factions within the worldwide STN with somewhat conflicting objectives. In tone, the show reminded me of the X-files where we learn there are layers of truths behind conspiracies and paranormal phenomena. One thing I especially enjoyed is that we learn there’s a scientific explanation for the rise of witches in this world.

On reflection, I think it does the show something of a disservice to regard it as a show broken into two distinct halves. The first half took its time giving us information and clues which paid off in the second half. You would make a mistake to skip the earlier episodes. In fact, I want to go back now and watch the series over again and see what hints about the ultimate resolution I might have missed. The show is a little slower and quieter than some anime. It lingers on some scenes, giving the series a classic cinematic quality. My one criticism is that we could have used a few more light or humorous scenes, especially early on, to break the tension and allow us to relate to the characters just a little more.

Still, if you like the idea of a serious supernatural-themed drama that has elements of a police procedural and a detective show, Witch Hunter Robin is worth checking out. If you don’t want to seek out DVDs, the show is available to stream at funimation.com. The first four episodes are free. After that, you have to subscribe to watch.

You can also see my take on a supernatural mystery told in two parts by reading my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Watch the trailer and learn more about the book at: http://davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Risk and Exploration

Almost two months ago, I discussed the anime series Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut. The link in the previous sentence will take you to the original post, so you can read about the anime and learn more about the plot. The anime was based on a light novel series. Last month, I picked up the first volume of the series for my Kindle. Because the light novel and the anime are so strongly based on the Soviet Space Program, I took the opportunity to refresh my memory of that period using my handy copy of the Haynes Soyuz manual, which I’d purchased in 2019 at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas. All in all, it made an enjoyable deep dive into both the history of space flight and an exploration of storytelling techniques.

Haynes Soyuz Manual and Irina the Vampire Cosmonaut light novel

Over the years, I’ve read numerous novels that have been made into movies along with several movie novelizations. That said, this marks the first time I’ve read a Japanese light novel that was adapted into an anime. Overall, the anime adapted the light novel almost scene for scene and beat for beat. The main thing I noticed is that the first novel only covers about half the series. So, presumably, the second half of the series is based on the second novel. I’ll have to wait until October to confirm that! There were a few minor details in the novel that I didn’t remember in the anime, but I’d have to go back and rewatch the anime to make sure they actually weren’t there, or if I just missed them in a casual watch.

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut was interesting from a narrative perspective. It told its story strictly from two points of view. One was reserve cosmonaut candidate Lev Leps, who trains the vampire Irina. The other viewpoint belonged to Irina herself. Lev’s point of view is by far the predominant one in novel, with Irina’s viewpoint providing a small counterpoint to Lev’s at the end of each chapter.

Both the light novel and the anime focus a lot of their time on Irina’s training for her rocket flight. This was where the Haynes guide proved interesting. I learned that the training regimen described in Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut is a reasonably accurate depiction of the Soviet training regimen. Isolation training played an important part in the novel and anime as well as real life. As it turns out, the isolation tank used by the Soviets had a high oxygen content and I learned that one real-life cosmonaut died in a flash fire in the test booth in a way similar to the Apollo 1 astronauts in the United States.

There’s an inherent drama in the conflict between pushing forward to achieve a goal but analyzing all the risks to do something as safely as possible. I used that when I wrote my novel The Solar Sea about the first solar sail voyage across the solar system. I would argue that the Quinn family, who build the solar sail in my novel, push a little too hard for their goal. Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut does a good job of showing how the Soviets also pushed very hard to beat the Americans in various space milestones, arguably taking dangerous risks along the way. That said, I strongly sympathize with the idea that it’s sometimes necessary to take risks to achieve great things. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to look at Russia’s history without thinking about current events. Invading another sovereign nation is most definitely not a great ambition for any country and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has harmed international cooperation in space, which I’d argue has been far more beneficial to the planet than the 60s “space race” ever was.

One thing I enjoyed about the novel is that author Keisuke Makino has an afterward where he discusses his inspirations for writing the light novel. He mentioned that he was intrigued by the idea of taking a fantasy character like a vampire and putting them into a space setting. It’s true, that I can’t think of another book that has vampires involved in the early space programs of either the United States or the Soviet Union, but the ideas of vampires being drawn to space and the stars is one I’ve long found fascinating. In fact, my 2010 story “Anemia” about a vampire boarding a colony ship for the stars to escape the Earth’s sun is now reprinted in the first issue of The Hungur Chronicles. Even before I wrote that story, my Scarlet Order vampires dreamed of going to space in Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

You can get the light novel Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut from Seven Seas Entertainment: https://sevenseasentertainment.com/books/irina-the-vampire-cosmonaut-light-novel-vol-1/

My short story “Anemia” is in the first issue of The Hungur Chronicles: https://www.hiraethsffh.com/product-page/hungur-chronicles-walpurgisnacht-edited-by-terrie-leigh-relf-and-robert-bellam

You can learn more about my novels at: http://www.davidleesummers.com

The Forsaken

Over the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed listening to the Gerry Anderson Podcast, which discusses the shows Anderson produced along with new books, videos, and products associated with those shows. Anderson’s shows included Space: 1999, Thunderbirds, UFO, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and more – a few of which I’ve mentioned here at the Web Journal. Back in episodes 188 through 190 of the podcast, producer Ben Page interviewed author John Kenneth Muir, who has written books about Space: 1999, Doctor Who, the films of John Carpenter and more. Over the course of the interviews, it was clear that Muir was very knowledgeable about Space: 1999. However, I was especially interested when Muir discussed his two Space: 1999 novels, The Forsaken and The Whispering Sea. One thing that becomes clear if you watch episodes from the two seasons, is that they’re very different in look and tone. Several cast members left and new ones were introduced. In real life this had to do with a change of production staff that came as a result of a perceived need to make the show more action packed for American audiences. However, as a writer, I always find it interesting to explore ways these discrepancies can be explained within the story itself and that’s one of the things John Kenneth Muir set out to do in The Forsaken.

The Forsaken is set after the events of Space: 1999 season 1. In a typical episode setup, Earth’s moon has drifted into a solar system which contains a planet which looks suitable for colonization. The moonbase receives a mysterious signal from the planet, but it doesn’t seem hostile. While crewmembers at the base set out to translate the signal, a reconnaissance team from Moonbase Alpha, led by Command John Koenig, goes to explore. Soon after they land, the team from Alpha is beset by giant spider-like aliens. It soon turns out the spiders are effectively pets belonging to an intelligent, peaceful turtle-like species. Back on Alpha, teams have interpreted the messages and learn that the turtle-like people call themselves the Cryptodira and communicate through song. As the two sides learn to communicate with each other, we find out the Cryptodira might welcome the Alphans to come and settle. This all looks good, except that in the recent past, the Cryptodiran’s planet, Pyxidea, had been decimated by solar storms. In his explorations, Alpha’s chief scientist, Victor Bergman, finds an alien artifact used to communicate with a lifeform off the planet. It soon becomes apparent, this life form was an alien intelligence the Alphans met – and destroyed – in the episode “Space Brain.” What’s more, the alien intelligence helped to protect the Cryptodirans.

One of the things Space: 1999 did well was to explore the ways science, spirituality, and philosophy intersect. The setup of the novel gives plenty of room to explore questions of the alien intelligence’s place in the universe and whether Earth’s moon had been sent on its odyssey through space for some divine purpose. As the story continues to progress, some Alphans decide they should settle on the planet Pyxidea, others decide they should move on. The results of this conflict explain why some familiar faces don’t reappear in the second season of the series. Muir also sets up the beginning of the move from the Main Mission command center of the first season to the Command Center of the second season. Muir also anticipates some of the political dialogue we find ourselves involved in today in the United States.

All in all, The Forsaken was a fine novel that fit well into the Space: 1999 storyline. It was good to spend time with familiar characters and I look forward to reading Muir’s other novel, The Whispering Sea. You can find copies of The Forsaken at the publisher’s website: https://tkundergroundmusic.wixsite.com/powysmedia/the-forsaken

You can listen to the Gerry Anderson Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts, just search for it by name. It’s available on YouTube, iTunes, and numerous other platforms.

Of course, you can find my novels at http://www.davidleesummers.com

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut

As a writer and an avid reader, I find myself subscribed to the newsletters for several publishers. One of those is Seven Seas Entertainment, which translates Japanese manga and light novels into English. In their latest newsletter, they mentioned a forthcoming light novel which caught my eye simply because of the title: Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut. According to Seven Seas, the novel tells the story of how a space race between two global superpowers led to the “Nosferatu Project.” After sending dogs into space, one of the superpowers decides to send vampires into space before sending humans. This seemed right up my alley! Effectively it’s an atompunk alternate history with vampires. After a little more searching, I discovered the light novel series inspired an anime of the same name and the anime had recently been released in the United States via Funimation.

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut

In the world of this story, the space race is between the Zirnitra Union of the East and the United Kingdom of Arnack in the West. The reason these countries arose instead of the superpowers we know from our history is never discussed. The UZSR has a red flag with snakes. The United Kingdom has a flag with stars and stripes, so it’s not hard to guess who stands in for whom. This world also contains vampires who live predominantly in Eastern Europe. These vampires aren’t the monsters of our mythology, but simply another race of people who happen to be sensitive to sunlight, have pointed ears, and sharp teeth. They eat normal food, but they can gain an energy boost from drinking blood. It’s almost as though Neanderthals survived into the modern world. In the alternate world of the anime, the vampire legends arose as a kind of propaganda to stir hatred and revulsion of vampire kind, and to justify invasions into their lands. It becomes a rather clever way to discuss hatred and bigotry without invoking the all-too-numerous examples we can draw from our real history.

In 1960, the UZSR recruits a vampire to be trained as a cosmonaut. This vampire is the Irina Luminesk of the title. She’s to be trained by Lev Leps, a reserve cosmonaut candidate. Lev was supposed to be one of the regular cosmonaut candidates except that he has a temper and attacked a man who abused one of his fellow cosmonaut candidates. The anime follows Irina’s training along with Lev and Irina’s growing affection for one another. As a fan of the world’s space programs, I found it delightful to see space craft based on early Soviet designs, rather than the oft seen American designs. Characters in the story seem to have historical parallels as well. Party Chairman Fyodor Gergiev is clearly based on Nikita Khrushchev. Lev Leps is basically Yuri Gagarin and his chief rival Mikhail seems based on Gherman Titov. One fun thing I noticed is that while the writing on shops and containers in the anime appears to be in Cyrillic script, the words are actually in English.

Of course, the vampire Irina is the focus of the show. We watch as she trains to be every bit as capable as the human cosmonaut candidates, even when many of the scientists testing and training her buy into the superstitions about vampires. I found myself cheering as she overcame her fear of heights to master parachuting. Given that she’s treated as an animal by many of the scientists and politicians, there’s a real tension about whether or not she’ll survive her first space flight and I won’t spoil things by saying whether or not she does.

It’s a shame this anime came out so close to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I suspect many will shun it because of a perceived connection with Russia even though I suspect no such connection actually exists. In some ways, the series is actually rather critical of the Soviets and their treatment of those countries they took control of. What’s more, one of the themes of the anime is that people can change and become better. In a very real way, it reflects the spirit of Yuri Gagarin who said, “Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!”

I enjoyed the anime enough that I decided to pre-order the light novel so I can get to know the characters better. It will be released on June 23. While waiting for the light novel’s release, you can check out my vampire novels at http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#scarlet_order

Arkham Dreams

In several posts, I’ve mentioned being a Star Trek fan from a very young age. Even before I discovered Star Trek, I was a fan of the Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Part of Batman’s appeal in whatever format is the rogue’s gallery of colorful criminals who try to get away with some dastardly deed only to be foiled by the caped crusader and the boy wonder. My favorite villains at the time were the Penguin played by Burgess Meredith and Egghead played by Vincent Price. Nowadays, I’ve come to appreciate Caesar Romero as the Joker and all the talented actresses who played Catwoman.

Over the years, I’ve remained a fan of the Penguin as a character. Some of that, no doubt, is because I still hear Burgess Meredith’s performance whenever I see the character in the comics. I have to admit, I liked the Penguin’s tuxedo. Some of the appeal came from the Penguin’s use of gadgets hidden in umbrellas. As a kid, umbrellas were fairly easy to come by, so it was easy to play the part without many other accessories. I have to admit, the fact that the Penguin was portrayed a bullied, bookish kid in the comics played on my sympathies. In fact one of my favorite Penguin origin stories was “The Killing Peck” written by Alan Grant with art by Sam Kieth. As it turns out, I wrote about the artist just over a year ago, when I reflected on the comic and animated series, The Maxx.

Batman meets the Maxx

I recently learned that in 2018, Sam Kieth returned to both the worlds of The Maxx and Batman in a comic book miniseries called Arkham Dreams. Three issues of the mini-series were released in 2018, then there was a hiatus, and the series was finished at the end of 2020. The Maxx himself is a large, purple-clad homeless superhero. In Arkham Dreams, we find him in Gotham City going back and forth between the real world and the Outback, which is the world of the subconscious, and, as it happens, fertile ground for exploring both the psyche of Batman and many of his nemeses. The story opens with the Maxx among Gotham’s homeless. Batman catches up with him and takes him to Arkham Asylum for treatment. Of course, Arkham is where many of Batman’s rogues gallery are housed when they’re not committing crimes. At Arkham, Batman encounters a new doctor named Disparu who is trying a new treatment on the Penguin. With the Maxx at Arkham, the worlds of Gotham City and the Outback begin to merge and the two heroes must figure out why this happening and whose Outback they’re going into before the world devolves into chaos.

I love it when characters from different universes meet. Part of what made The Maxx great was its quirky sense of humor even as it delved into serious issues against a psychedelic backdrop. These days, Batman is known for its grim and gritty storytelling, but the best stories often include a certain sense of fun. When that sense of fun is taken to an extreme, Batman becomes like the Adam West and Burt Ward TV series. Pull it back just a little and you find a middle ground where the Maxx and Batman work well together. My favorite part of Arkham Dreams is that even though it’s a crossover, it doesn’t forget to continue some of the narrative from the original Maxx series of the 90s and we get a nice continuation of the story of Maxx and his friend Julie Winters even as Batman confronts the psyches of his rogues gallery.

The real joy of a Sam Kieth book is the art, which is in fine form here. There is a fascinating sequence where the Maxx and Batman are going back and forth between the two worlds. In the Outback, they’re on an air whale battling a strange infection that’s hurting the creature. In the real world, they’re trying to release bombs placed by the Joker on an airship. Arkham Dreams is available in a handsome hardcover edition, which includes all five issues of the comic plus a cover gallery.

If you’re in the mood for crossover stories and want to see the time the Clockwork Legion met the Scarlet Order vampires, read the story “Fountains of Blood” in the collection Straight Outta Tombstone available in ebook at: https://www.amazon.com/Straight-Outta-Tombstone-David-Boop-ebook/dp/B071JGTN3H/

Star Trek: Prodigy

As I mentioned recently, I subscribed to Paramount Plus so I can enjoy the new series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds as its released. I’m still enjoying the series, but while I’m subscribed to the service, I’m also checking out some of the other recent entries in the Star Trek universe.

One thing that has bothered me in Star Trek since The Next Generation is how competitive entry into Starfleet is presented to be. It doesn’t bother me that it’s presented as competitive. After all, exploring space should be aspirational and I have no problem with the idea that its a job for the best and brightest. The problem is the scale of the competition. Back in The Next Generation, Wesley Crusher took a whole bunch of exams and became one of three finalists for some region of space to make it into the academy. Only one of them would make it. How many people started the application process wasn’t clear, but it seemed like these were the only three finalists from several worlds. More recently, in Strange New Worlds, it was stated that thousands of people applied for every single posting.

Two things bother me about these moments. First, we know that Starfleet has many, many ships and many Starbases around the galaxy. In some seasons, it seems like a ship is destroyed every episode. Most of these ships are presented as having somewhere between fifty and a thousand crewmembers. I don’t know how many people there are in Starfleet, but it seems like there are a whole lot of them and there’s real attrition because exploring space is dangerous business! Sure, they come from different planets, but it still strikes me that there’s no shortage of people in Starfleet even though it’s also supposed to be extraordinarily competitive to get in the door. It pushes my willing suspension of disbelief. Also, while I like the aspirational aspect of the competition, I watch a show like Star Trek because I’d like to imagine myself exploring the universe with those people. If it’s presented as too competitive, then I begin to see it as an unachievable dream. Interestingly enough, this is where Star Trek: Prodigy comes in.

Star Trek: Prodigy

Star Trek: Prodigy is a 3-D animated series co-produced by Paramount and Nickelodeon. The show opens on a mining colony outside the Federation where prisoners are used as labor. They’re overseen by a mysterious figure known as Diviner. One of the prisoners, a young man named Dal, is assigned to work deep within the asteroid being mined. There he along with a Medusian in a travel suit called Zero discover the derelict Starfleet ship, the U.S.S. Protostar. Dal and Zero assemble a team of people to resurrect the Protostar and flee Diviner. Their team includes a Tellarite mechanic named Jankom Pog, a rocklike creature named Rok-Tahk, and a slime-like alien called Murph. The inexperienced crew make a getaway aboard the starship with help from a holographic Captain Janeway, from Star Trek: Voyager. The ragtag crew learns about the Federation and decides to take the ship back to Starfleet. In the meantime, we learn that Diviner has been searching for the ship all along and is none too happy with the young people absconding with the prize he’d hoped to find. Diviner, his daughter Gwyn, and the robotic enforcer Drednok go in pursuit of the Protostar.

As our young crew learns about the ship and its abilities, they find that letting it fall into Diviner’s hands would be a bad idea. Along the way, they encounter some strange new worlds, learn to work together as a team and rise to meet the challenges presented to them. There may be a certain realism in presenting placement in Starfleet as highly competitive, but to me, Star Trek’s strongest stories are often about how characters cope with unexpected challenges. There’s no question the best and brightest face difficulties, but sometimes it nice to see people who didn’t necessarily rise to the top of the class, rise to the occasion.

Over the years, Nickelodeon has produced some great shows for younger audiences. While Star Trek: Prodigy may not rise to the quality of a show like Avatar: The Last Airbender, it still tells an engaging tale, expands the Star Trek universe in some good ways and worked equally well for my twenty-year-old daughter and me.

Stay on This Channel

Terrahawks, Volume 1

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I have a long drive from my home to the observatory where I work. Because of that, I like to listen to audiobooks and audio plays while on the road. This past week, I downloaded and listened to Terrahawks Volume 1 available from Big Finish Productions and the Gerry Anderson Store. The production is directed by Gerry Anderson’s son, Jamie Anderson. I gather Terrahawks was shown in the United States, but it came out when I was starting university, so I never saw it at the time. So what is Terrahawks?

Gerry Anderson was a producer well known for producing memorable science fiction and adventure stories in the United Kingdom. Among his most famous shows were Thunderbirds, which ran from 1964-66 and followed the exploits of International Rescue, an agency equipped with advanced air, sea, and space craft that went to the aid of people in trouble. This was followed by the 1967-68 series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons which imagined a top security organization charged with protecting Earth from space invaders. Both shows were produced for younger audiences and featured marionettes. Anderson would go on to produce live action shows in the 1970s like UFO and Space: 1999. Like Captain Scarlet, UFO also featured a security organization protecting the Earth from aliens.

In 1983, Gerry Anderson returned with a new television series. Like Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and UFO, it would feature a secret organization protecting Earth from an alien menace. This show also marked a return to a show produced with a children’s audience in mind featuring puppets. This time, the puppets would be “glove” puppets rather than marionettes, but the show would still feature Gerry Anderson’s quality model work and special effects. The show was called Terrahawks. The aliens were led by a witch-like android named Zelda. She was accompanied by her sister, Cy-star, and her son, Yung-star, plus an assortment of colorful minions. They operated from a base on Mars.

The titular Terrahawks were Earth’s defense force, led by Dr. “Tiger” Ninestein. He was one of nine clones and if he ever died, one of the other clones could be brought in to replace him. His second-in-command was Captain Mary Falconer. Working with them were Lieutenants Hawkeye, Hiro, and Kate Kestrel. Kate also worked as a pop musician and her songs were featured in the show. The Terrahawks organization also has a force of spherical robots called Zeroids. Each of the Zeroids have their own unique personality such as the gruff but loveable Sergeant Major and his right-hand, the French-accented Dix Huit. When Terrahawks started, it seemed Gerry Anderson planned to give it the same kind of earnest, serious treatment as he did Captain Scarlet and UFO. However, budget constraints and the type of puppetry, which was new for Anderson, made it hard to take the show as seriously as its predecessors. Many creators would struggle to bring such a show into line with their vision, but Anderson seems to have rolled with it and allowed the show’s more absurdist and humorous elements to come to the fore. What made the show work were the fun scripts and brilliant voice acting. As such, the show translates very well to an audio-only format.

The Terrahawks Volume 1 audio was released in 2015. It contains eight 30 to 40-minute stories plus a making-of feature. The audio opens with “The Price is Right” in which a government inspector arrives to audit the Terrahawks after Zelda has gone on hiatus for several months. Working at the National Observatory in the United States, I’ve seen many of these kind of inspections and the humor was much appreciated. In “Deadly Departed,” it appears Zelda has finally been destroyed, but everyone is surprised to discover that Tiger Ninestein is named as her heir! The episode “101 Seed” was an episode written for the original series by Gerry Anderson, but never filmed.

“A Clone of My Own” was perhaps the most interesting story. Zelda begins killing off Tiger Ninestein’s clones. Lurking in the background is a serious look at the individuals who are Tiger Ninestein’s clones and the ethics of using them as backup models for the Terrahawks’ leader. Another really interesting idea was explored in Chris Dale’s “Timesplit.” In that one, Zelda’s minion Lord Tempo creates two versions of Lieutenant Hawkeye based based on the possible outcomes of an encounter. He would either escape or be captured. In this case, both happen.

Two of the funniest episodes are “Clubbed to Death” in which Zelda starts a payday loan scam on Earth and “No Laughing Matter” in which a comedian is sent to paralyze our heroes by making them laugh to the point that they can’t effectively defend the Earth.

Throughout the stories, the Zeroid robots infuriate the always-serious Dr. Ninestein. In the final story, “Into the Breach,” the good doctor creates a new type of Zeroid called a Cyberzoid that follows orders perfectly and it looks like the Zeroids will be shelved for good in favor of new robots that sound like fans of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I enjoyed these audio stories a great deal. The story “Deadly Departed” is free to download at the Gerry Anderson Store or from Big Finish Productions if you would like to give the stories a try. Otherwise, you can find the full volume at the links below: