And … we’re back! Let’s see what’s what under the cut, shall we?
Batman: Birth of the Demon by Mike W. Barr (writer), Jerry Bingham (artist/colorist), John Costanza (letterer), Tom Grindberg (artist), Eva Grindberg (colorist), Gaspar Saladino (letterer), Dennis O’Neil (writer), Norm Breyfogle (artist/colorist), and Ken Bruzenak (letterer). $29.99, 279 pgs, FC, DC.
This comic collects three graphic novels that DC published back in the day – 1987, 1990, and 1993, to be exact – in one fancy package. Birth of the Demon is the name of the third one, while the first is called Son of the Demon and the second Bride of the Demon, and while Andy Kubert’s nice but generic cover might not give anything away, the names of the books should tell any good Batman fan that all three comics star Ra’s al Ghul, famous extreme environmentalist of the Bat-verse. These are, not to put too fine a point on it, phenomenal comics. I already own the first two (I’m rather mystified that I never got the third one, and the only thing I can think of was that 1993 was the year I graduated from college and moved from Pennsylvania to Oregon, so maybe I just missed it), but it’s nice to have all three between one cover, even though the art has shrunk slightly to fit the smaller dimensions of the package (because God forbid any mainstream comic has different dimensions than everything else these days).
Son of the Demon, written by Mike W. Barr at the height of his career and drawn by Jerry Bingham, is superb. It was the first time I had seen Bingham’s art, and it blew me away. He has a classic style – nothing terribly fancy, just strong line work and storytelling – and his page layouts are excellent. In the first pages, when Batman foils a bunch of terrorists at a chemical plant, is brilliant, as Barr and Bingham make sure that Bats is only seen in shadows and quickly, so even though the reader knows who’s taking the bad guys out, the terrorists don’t, and it freaks them out. In a callback to “A fitting end to his kind!”, a bad guy gets doused in some chemicals and as he dies, he says to Batman, “God damn you …!” and our hero coldly replies, “Looks like he got to you first.” I first read this when I was 18 or so, and it gave me chills. It still does today!
The story focuses on Qayim, a man whose parents were once agents of Ra’s al Ghul before he (al Ghul, that is) sent them to Hiroshima on the day the atom bomb was dropped on the city (obviously, he didn’t know the bomb was going to be dropped). Qayim becomes bitter, lurks around a Lazarus pit, and when Ra’s’s wife discovers him, he pushes her in and kills her. So Talia isn’t too happy about Qayim. These days Qayim has taken up with General Yossid of Golatia, a small country between Turkey and Armenia, and they’re developing a satellite – with the help of the United States – to create weather. What the U. S. doesn’t know is that Qayim and Yossid plan to hijack the satellite and destroy Moscow, starting a war between the two powers. That sounds like something Ra’s would dig, but he agrees to ally with Batman because he hates Qayim so much. And so we get international intrigue and large groups of armed men parachuting into secret bases inside snow-bound mountains and rockets taking off and Gorbachev yelling at Reagan and, because it’s Barr, a small murder mystery (a scientist in Gotham is killed because he was researching rainmaking). Bingham is up to the task, giving the book an expansive sense of grandeur worthy of the James Bond movies it’s obviously based on, and he does a very nice job incorporating some black-and-white sketches among the colored artwork. His colors are marvelous, too, and as this was not an era of gore yet, the book is fairly bloody without being obnoxious – some of the most horrific violence takes place just off-panel, and Bingham makes sure the blood is more black with just some tinges of red, making it more effectively creepy.
Of course, the reason this book has had such an impact is because in this comic, Batman and Talia have a child. The book seems to be in continuity, but perhaps Barr didn’t mean it to be. For years DC denied that it was in continuity, and I’m not even sure if it really is, because Batman is a seasoned veteran in this book and he would have to be over 40 if Damian is the kid in this book. It certainly doesn’t matter, but it is an interesting plot point in the comic. I always just assumed it was in continuity but no one would ever bring up the kid again – Talia points out that she and Bats are already married because her father performed a ceremony and in their tradition, only the bride needs to consent, and that’s certainly never come up – but I guess the God of All Comics can do whatever he damn well pleases! Talia’s pregnancy is part of the book, sure, but the comic stands proudly on its own as a highpoint of one of Batman’s Golden Ages.
Bride of the Demon is the weakest of the three stories, for a few reasons. Grindberg’s art is fine – heavily influenced by Neal Adams, but fine nevertheless – but placed alongside Bingham’s and Breyfogle’s, it suffers a bit. Barr is particularly strident about global warming, and while there’s nothing wrong with passionately preaching about something, it tends to interfere a bit with the story, which occasionally lacks drama because Barr is too busy going on about the evils of climate change (and I’m not someone who disbelieves man-made climate change, because there’s too much science behind it, but I still got tired of it). The actual story isn’t as good – it’s decent, but not great. Ra’s is trying to repair the ozone layer, but in doing so, he’ll poison the atmosphere. He doesn’t care because he’s all about killing a lot of humans, but his plan seems goofy even for Ra’s. Meanwhile, he finds an old movie star from the 1950s and puts her in the Lazarus pit in order to make her youthful so she can provide him with an heir. It’s another somewhat cockamamie scheme – Ra’s already has a daughter, and he has a grandson, too – Talia and Batman’s kid. Barr wrote both books, so even if they’re not in continuity, you’d think he’d bring that up. Ra’s seems like more of a jerk in this story, as well – he’s much more interesting as a noble villain, and in this, he’s not only a male chauvinist (ignoring Talia’s presence as his heir), but he seems like more of a douchbag than usual. His love of Evelyn Grayce and Dr. Carmody’s relationship with his son don’t have the same narrative kick as Bruce and Talia having a child and Ra’s seeking revenge against the man who murdered his wife. It’s not a bad story by any means, but it’s always been a bit of a poor cousin to Son of the Demon.
Birth of the Demon is the origin of Ra’s al Ghul, told by his creator, Denny O’Neil. It’s a marvelous melodramatic tale of a sultan’s evil son, the doctor (Ra’s) who cures him in the first Lazarus pit, the sultan’s betrayal after Ra’s saves his son, and Ra’s’s bitter revenge. Even though Ra’s is far more evil in this story than in Bride of the Demon, I don’t mind, because he has good reasons. O’Neil also makes sure to highlight the fact that the pit can lead to madness, so even though Ra’s seems sane, the madness deep inside him lingers, explaining some of his later exploits. It’s a grand desert epic, and O’Neil hints around that Ra’s has always been haunted by a bat-demon, which is kind of annoying but not a deal breaker.
Breyfogle’s art is simply amazing. It appears that he paints it directly from the pencils (or the inks are quite light), so the desert feels even dustier and grittier than usual, and his palette is amazing. The bright yellows of the desert stand in stark relief with Ra’s’s normal green scheme, which extends to the bubbling pits, which are also green. As Ra’s plans his revenge, the yellows grow darker until they turn blood-red, highlighting the violence and Ra’s’s lust for vengeance. The battle between Batman and Ra’s at the end is magnificent – exciting and brutal and stunningly laid out, and it features Ra’s stone cold stabbing Bruce in the chest with a shovel, a scene that made Chris Sims squeal like a tween girl at a Justin Bieber concert when he first read it. Whether you like Breyfogle’s style or not (his somewhat angular figure work, for instance, might not be to your taste), you can’t deny that he lays out a page brilliantly, his fight scenes are dynamic and wonderful, and on this book in particular, his coloring is absolutely breathtaking. O’Neil’s story is fine (although he contradicts Son of the Demon directly with regard to Talia’s mother), but you could just sit and stare at Breyfogle’s art without reading a word and this book would be worth it.
The entire collection is worth it, in fact. Between “Year One” and, I would argue, the earthquake, we got many, many excellent Batman stories, and these can stand with any of them (even Bride of the Demon, for all its faults). I imagine the original books are long out of print, but here’s your chance to get them all. I really can’t recommend this trade enough!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
King City is almost impossible to describe, and I doubt I’ll do it any justice, but just look at that – over 400 pages for 20 dollars, which is a fine, fine value. At least there’s that, right? Of course, the comic itself is pretty excellent, but I did want to get the actual value into this, too.
Graham’s weird epic defies description because Graham doesn’t really care about plot – there are several plots running through the book, but he picks them up and drops them as suits his fancy, it seems, and the big plot meanders in and out of the book. Graham introduces several characters and just puts them into his wacky city and lets them loose. The main character is Joe, a thief who left King City two years earlier and trained to become a “catmaster” – he uses a cat and many unusual substances that he injects into said cat as an all-purpose tool. His friend Pete is another second-story man who has takes a job delivering a water-breathing alien to some shady folk, but he falls in love with her and spends a good deal of the book figuring out how to get her back. There’s Anna, Joe’s ex-girlfriend, who’s taken up with Max, a veteran of the Korean Xombie Wars who’s become addicted to a bizarre drug. One of the wonderful things about King City is that those four characters are joined by dozens, if not hundreds, of other characters, some of whom barely get any page time but who leave indelible marks.
The three main plots are Pete’s quest to find the water-breather, Anna’s anxiety about Max’s addiction and the lengths he goes to first get the drug and then get off it, and some demon thing that’s threatening the city. Only the first is followed through to any satisfaction, but that really doesn’t matter. Graham himself writes that he was far more interested in seeing how Joe and Anna relate to each other after he’s been gone for a while and she’s totally in love with Max, and the character interactions are excellent in the book. The characters feel real even though they live in a crazy place and hold strange jobs, like painting mustaches on billboards (which is actually Anna’s job; her employers even send her to a class about it). Joe’s re-introduction to King City is the focus of the book for the most part, because he recognizes that things have changed and so much has happened since he left, and that allows Graham to explain some of the new stuff that’s come up, such as the Owls, a gang that tries to recruit Joe to help them clean up the city. More than the actual plot, what makes the book so cool is Graham’s writing, which sings. He constantly twists familiar phrases to fit into the weirdness that is King City (Anna’s full name, for instance, is “Anna Greengables,” while Pete’s last name is “Taifighter”), and while some are cringe-worthy, the sheer inventiveness of the language is wonderful to read. Plus, at times he comes up with terrifyingly good descriptions of things that give you a chill. Graham’s world is an insane brew of cool shit, but although it could easily feel hipper than thou, the fact that he commits to it so fully makes it work. He thanks Bryan Lee O’Malley in the back matter, and I think I remember some people comparing this to Scott Pilgrim, and I will too: It’s Scott Pilgrim for grown-ups. BOOM, motherfuckers!
Graham’s astonishing artwork makes words almost superfluous. Every page and every panel of this book is packed with visual information, and Graham’s command of perspective and point of view is amazing. His characters are excellent – Joe looks like a typical slacker; Pete always wears a balaclava/wrestling mask, which adds to the impact when he actually takes it off; Anna is a hipster cutie; Max has scars all over his body; Beebay is an Asian sexpot who blows obscene smoke bubbles; and even the ancillary characters show a great deal of thought and detail. Graham covers every inch of King City buildings with humorous graffiti, he gives every storefront a sign and advertisements for their services, and he litters every panel with pop culture ephemera. He has a wonderful, loose, cartoony style, which makes everything look slightly odd but also keeps us from taking this all too seriously. King City skirts some serious issues, but Graham never lets it get too heavy, piercing the moments with silliness not unlike many “serious” moments in real life. The ending is excellent because it’s when Joe actually has to make a choice about where his priorities lie, but Graham never turns sentimental, instead pointing out that, in the end, it all works out. And sometimes friendship is far better than crazy sex.
King City is not something you read with a destination in mind. It’s a book you read for the journey, because you get so much along the way, from the Sasquatch hotelier to the vowel beast to the crossword puzzle Graham challenges you to do. It’s a cat doing crystal math. It’s a drug knife you can have sex with. It’s two pages devoted to turning the city into a board game tracking the movements of the three main characters. It’s killing xombies with chainswords. There’s so much going on that it’s a scintillating pleasure simply to open the book and look at a page, no matter what’s happening on it. It’s really an amazing comic, and I recommend it very highly. Plus, it has Marian Churchland and James Stokoe art in it, too! Whoo-hoo!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Red Spike volume 1 by Jeff Cahn (story/scripter), Dave Elliott (story), Salvador Navarro (artist), Mark Texeira (artist), Ifansyah Noor (colorist), and Josh Aitken (letterer). $14.99, 145 pgs, FC, Image/Benaroya Publishing.
Gianluca Glazer, the head of promotion at Benaroya Publishing, is a swell guy. He’s very friendly and he loves comics. He used to send me stuff from Radical Comics, and now that he’s working at Benaroya, he’s sending me their stuff too. This and the next book are the latest from the group, and I’d like to thank him for them.
I read the first three issues of Red Spike when they first came out, and I wasn’t too impressed. I’m still not too impressed with the final product, which is too bad. The story is that the government is creating super-soldiers by somehow boosting adrenaline, and their two examples, Greg and Matt, have some issues. The first issue shows how they get the job done, but then we start to learn that Greg has some severe emotional problems (due, most likely, to the fact that his father shot his mother right in front of him before the authorities killed him) and starts to act a bit odd. They try to screw around with his head a bit more, but that just sends him even further into craziness, and he escapes the program. Matt is sent after him, and the big action set piece of the book is their battle at the Lincoln Memorial. Greg is getting worse, and even his lover, a psychologist at the program, can’t talk him down. After that battle, she and Matt begin to realize that the program is a lot worse than they thought, and that the heads of the program have been lying to them (I know, shocking). In the end, the old boss – Colonel Moyer – tries to become a super-soldier himself, and he fights it out with Matt. Even with that resolved, the machinations continue. This is very much a “volume 1” in that it ends on a cliffhanger that anyone who’s ever seen a movie can see coming, but I don’t know if and when the next volume is coming out. Cahn and Elliott do tell a fairly complete story, so there’s that.
Red Spike is a fairly standard action movie in comic book form, and therefore it’s inoffensive without being all that memorable. Cahn and Elliott hit all the clichés – before getting into the program, Greg is in and out of jail, and he doesn’t take orders well; Matt is a straight arrow who won’t believe his commanding officers might be evil. They are friends, which is a nice touch, because although there’s a rivalry, it’s not as contentious as we might expect from something like this and makes their big fight a tiny bit more poignant. Greg and Margaret’s affair is handled fairly well, too – there’s not a lot of drama until he goes a bit crazy, and even though the potential for a love triangle is there, Matt’s relationship with her remains platonic. The few nice details in the book go some way to overcoming the stereotypical plot.
Navarro’s art, unfortunately, isn’t all that good. He isn’t helped by Noor, whose Imaginary Friends Studio has become more prominent in the coloring world of comics recently. Noor’s heavily photo-referenced work is pretty sterile, and Noor smooths out every single nuance that might be there. Texiera, who draws the flashback sequences in the book, fares a bit better, but mainly because he’s a more experienced artist with a rougher line whose work can resist the bland colors (or, possibly, Noor didn’t color those pages). Navarro also casts actors in certain roles, which drives me absolutely batshit insane. The characters often look like they’re wearing masks of the actors, which is not a good look. In a couple of panels, we see the world through Greg’s crazed eyes, and they’re probably the best panels by Navarro in the book – Noor colors them in red, and Navarro distorts the faces that Greg is looking at. It’s frustrating that Navarro and Noor made the rest of the book so bland, because it’s just possible they might have been able to make the comic look a little better.
I can’t really recommend Red Spike, even though it’s not terrible. It tells a familiar story fairly well, and if you’re in the mood for a big-budget action movie kind of thing, it might be up your alley. I guess it’s just not for me.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Samurai’s Blood by Owen Wiseman (writer), Nam Kim (penciler), Matthew Dalton (inker), Sakti Yuwono (colorist), and Josh Aitken (letterer). $14.99, 171 pgs, FC, Image/Benaroya Publishing.
This is another trade that Gianluca Glazer sent me, and it was awfully nice of him. I read the first two issues of this last summer, and I liked it more than Red Spike, and that holds true for the trade. The book is set in the middle of the 17th century in Japan, so we’re in the early years of Tokugawa Shogunate. In the first issue, the head of the powerful Sanjo clan is murdered by is right-hand man, Gakushi, who then institutes a pogrom against the entire clan. Only two teenagers, Junichi and Mayuko, a brother and sister, survive. They escape a massacre in their village with their childhood friend, Katashi (with whom Mayuko is already carrying on a secret affair), who pledges fealty to Junichi as the last daimyo of the clan. They head off to the main Sanjo castle, which Gakushi has appropriated, and plot revenge. Of course, things get awfully complicated.
Wiseman takes his time with this story, which makes it far more interesting. Katashi wants to storm the castle, but Jun points out that would just lead to their death. He has a long-term plan which involves disguising their identities and slowly gaining influence in the town. Unfortunately, Mayuko is snatched by Gakushi’s brutal enforcer, Araku, and sent to a geisha house. Katashi is sickened by his role in the plot, which involves fighting in an arena. He and Jun disagree on their plans, and Wiseman slowly builds the tension between them. Meanwhile, Gakushi is terrified of the rumors of a ninja wandering around the city, and we eventually find out he’s right to be scared, as an old ninja seems to have reappeared and is causing mischief. It all comes to a head, of course, and there’s a battle royale in the final issue (you didn’t think there wouldn’t be, did you?), but the interesting thing about the book is how Wiseman gets us there. He doesn’t just tell a straight-forward story. When Mayuko is grabbed, he stays with Jun and Katashi until the end of the issue, when some time has passed and he brings Mayuko back in, greatly changed. Then, in issue #3, he tells us what happened with her. The ninja gets the focus in issue #5, which ties tangentially into some of the earlier scenes. It’s a clever way to shift the perspective of the book without having several story threads running through each issue. The fact that several months pass in the course of the story is nice, too – nothing comes easy to this trio as they plot. It’s not a wildly complicated story, but it does have a lot of moving parts, and Wiseman does a nice job fitting everything together. (There’s an apparent loose end that he doesn’t tie off; someone seems to die in the final issue, but we’re never sure.)
The themes he explores are interesting, too. Some of the omniscient narration is a bit overdone, because there’s a lot of talk about “fate” in this comic. The best part of the “fate” theme is that certain things happen in this book and then we see them from a different perspective, and it indeed looks like fate. But the writing is a bit ponderous at times. More interesting is the dichotomy between Jun and Katashi, because Katashi wants to be a samurai and all that entails, while Jun understands that when you live in the real world, sometimes you need to choose the lesser of two evils. Katashi’s way is far more “honorable” but would get all three of them killed very quickly. Jun occasionally hates what he’s forced to do, but he realizes that being a leader means making hard choices. Wiseman also brings in the idea of “honorable” warfare – the difference between swords and firearms, for instance. “Dishonorable” people use guns; swords are what true samurai wield. This might be a tad anachronistic – by this time, gun usage in Japan had dwindled to almost nothing thanks to a strong government ban on their manufacture – but it highlights the tension between traditional and modern Japanese values. Katashi might not recognize it and the shoguns managed to hold back the tide for 200 years after this, but the samurai were part of a dying breed. Jun is the face of the future, but he’s able to recognize how much he needs to bridge the gap from the past to that future.
Kim’s art is not really my style, but it’s well done. He has a bold line and is ably assisted by Dalton’s solid inks. Kim does a very good job making sure the setting is as important as the characters – we get a nice feel for medieval Japan from this book. His character work is a bit too “Image” for me – the men look a bit too bulky and the young women tend to resemble each other too much – but he does have a dynamic sense of page layout and the book, despite starring a lot of people, never feels cluttered. As usual, digital coloring doesn’t do the art any favors, as Yuwono smooths out any peculiarities in Kim’s pencils and makes everyone look far too clean. There’s no contrast between Mayuko at her lowest and when she is being preened as a geisha, for instance, or between her and the slovenly men who visit her. All Kim can do is make sure one of the men has fewer teeth and is a bit ugly. He still looks too clean.
Samurai’s Blood is a more interesting action comic than you might expect. Wiseman has more on his mind than just a simple revenge tale, and the book goes in some unexpected and welcome directions. If you missed the single issues, it’s 15 bucks for 6 issues, which isn’t bad at all!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Honestly, these stories were first published five/six years ago or so, and I can’t imagine anyone who wants to read them hasn’t already. People often proclaim to me that I’m punishing myself by not reading Hellboy and B.P.R.D., and I have to repeat myself: I read them in giant hardcovers, which take a while to come out. Dark Horse has been putting out those really nice “Library Editions” of Hellboy, and while they haven’t done that with the sister title, it’s still really fun to read the giant hardcovers of B.P.R.D. This collects three mini-series: The Universal Machine, Garden of Souls, and Killing Ground. Thematically, they’re linked, as in the first mini-series, we finally learn what happened to Ben Daimio in Bolivia, and by the third series, we find out the horrible consequences of that action. It’s really Daimio’s arc, even though, in the best B.P.R.D. tradition, everyone gets a lot of screen time and development. Arcudi is just that good!
In the first story, the team sits around telling stories about themselves while Kate Corrigan goes to France to try to get a book that might revive Roger, the homunculus who “died” in the previous story. The actual plot is somewhat thin, but Corrigan is awesome in the story, because unlike superhero comics where eventually everyone just starts punching everyone else, Corrigan uses her brains to get out of a problematic situation. In Garden of Souls, Abe Sapien learns quite a bit about his past and doesn’t necessarily like what he discovers. In the first story, there’s a lot of creepy horror, and the second story is much more steampunkish and science-fictioney. There’s some horror, of course, but there’s also giant clanking robots and genetic manipulation, which is always fun. Finally, in the third story, Daryl the Wendigo (who was introduced in The Universal Machine) is transported to Colorado, where shit is about the hit the fan. This is a classic “people trapped in an area with a nasty monster” story, but Arcudi, as always, confounds our expectations throughout. Even though the plots are good, it’s the way Arcudi writes the characters that makes B.P.R.D. so very keen. Abe is haunted by his past, Johann gets a body and goes a bit kooky with it, Liz is still dealing with the mysterious Asian gentleman who knows all the bad stuff that’s coming down the pike. All of these arcs play out in the course of this comic, and it’s really nice reading a series where characters grow and change, decisions have consequences, and people react to things in different ways based on their personalities. I know, what a concept.
Guy Davis is brilliant, which pretty much goes without saying. He’s marvelous designing all the creepy monsters in this book, from the giant demons to the steampunk robots to the jaguar god. He’s simply amazing – each page is packed with details, his panel-to-panel storytelling is wonderful, and Dave Stewart’s superb colors make the art look even more excellent. It’s Guy Davis – honestly, if you don’t like Davis, I just don’t know what we’re going to do with you.
As this is part of an ongoing (I know it’s a series of mini-series, and you do get a complete story in each issue, but still), some things are mentioned from earlier stuff and the book, annoyingly, ends on a huge cliffhanger, but that’s okay. B.P.R.D. is an excellent comic book, and it’s totally worth the wait.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
In the Shadow of Wounded Knee: The Untold Final Chapter of the Indian Wars by Roger L. Di Silvestro. 253 pgs, Walker Publishing Company, 2005.
This is a fascinating book about a murder that occurred in January 1891, not even two weeks after the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, which is generally considered the final “battle” (if soldiers killing unarmed women and children can be called such) of the Indian Wars. Di Silvestro makes the case that the murder and the trial that followed should get more attention, because it was the first time a Native was charged with murder of a white man, which meant the context of the Americans’ conquest of the West was shifted from a military one to a civilian one. The killer, Plenty Horses, was a Brulé Lakota, while his victim, Lieutenant Edward Casey, was in the Army. There was no doubt about Plenty Horses’s guilt – he admitted to shooting Casey, and there were several witnesses. What Di Silvestro points out is that the United States had to deal with a vexing question – did a state of war exist between the government and the Lakota in January 1891? As the author makes clear, Plenty Horses’s trial was of paramount importance, because if he could be found guilty of murder, what about the soldiers at Wounded Knee?
The actual trial of Plenty Horses that ends the book is a bit anti-climactic. Plenty Horses’s first trial ended in a hung jury, and the second was stopped by the judge told the jury that a state of warfare existed between the Lakota and the United States, so the Indian should be found not guilty. It was a fairly momentous ruling in the history between the two cultures, because the U. S. had, after all, never actually declared war on any Indian nation, but the idea that an Indian could get a fair trial in a U. S. court based on what the Indian believed was the state of affairs between the two sides is impressive. While the trial was a bit of a bummer for people who love a good courtroom drama, Di Silvestro still gives us a good book, because he does a nice job in a short period of time explaining how the United States interacted with the various Indian tribes it came in contact with, the Lakota specifically. Historical situations are always far more complicated than people in the present like to think, and this applies to U. S.-Indian relations. Indians, of course, fought each other with as much ferocity as they fought the white invaders, and the idea of a unified Indian response to the encroachment of the United States, if it hasn’t died hard already, should. Di Silvestro goes into detail not only about the ghost dance that led to Wounded Knee, but why it reached that point. We’ve heard about the lack of faith the U. S. government kept with the treaties they made with the Indians, but Di Silvestro does a nice job putting those treaty breaches in context, which doesn’t excuse them but does help explain them. He examines the split in the Lakota tribe itself between the “progressives,” who were adopting white ways and trying to work within the new system in order to save what they could, and the “traditionalists,” who rejected the white ways and continued to fight the government. Interestingly, much like conservative movements everywhere, there doesn’t seem to be a “traditionalist” movement when the Indians were in a position of relative strength – they gave up there culture fairly quickly until they realized they might be completely assimilated, which is when the “traditionalists” began to revert to things they had voluntarily abandoned years before.
Di Silvestro also goes over the complex reaction white people had to the Indians. Many of them hated Indians and wanted to kill them all, an attitude exemplified by General William Sherman, the Civil War hero. Many military men had the most “enlightened” attitudes toward the Indians, Casey included (Plenty Horses didn’t realize he was killing someone who identified very well with the predicament of the Natives). They had fought against the Indians and admired their military minds and understood how they felt as a conquered people. In the West, attitudes were rawer, because the settlers had to confront the Indians all the time, and Di Silvestro tells of another trial in which white cowboys ambushed a peaceful Indian wagon train, killing one of the drivers, and how the courts tried to prosecute the killers (after Plenty Horses was released, there was no way the cowboys would be found guilty, and they were acquitted not long after Plenty Horses was freed). In the East, people tended to take a more paternalistic and condescending tone toward the Indians, trying to “turn them white,” which is typified by the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, which Plenty Horses attended before he returned to South Dakota. Di Silvestro points out the way proximity can influence people – L. Frank Baum, a noted liberal and defender of women’s rights throughout his life, wrote editorials in his newspaper (he lived in South Dakota at the time) saying that the white man should wipe out the Indians because it’s better to remember them as the noble warriors of old rather than the sad, conquered people they’ve become, apparently never seeing the irony of those statements (Di Silvestro finds these quotes at Blue Corn Comics, which is FoTB Rob Schmidt’s site). It’s a very interesting book in that regard, because it doesn’t paint the white people as simple villains and the Indians as simply noble victims – both groups are much more than that, and while Di Silvestro’s sympathies lie with the Indians (given how poorly they were treated, it’s not hard to sympathize), he’s also committed to showing that the story isn’t as simple as we might think.
This isn’t an in-depth history of the white/Indian conflict, but it does get into a lot of the context that led to the murder in January 1891. It’s a quick book – the actual text is only a bit over 200 pages – but the book is heavily sourced and the footnotes do contain a lot of useful information. If you’re at all interested in this part of American history, In the Shadow of Wounded Knee is a nice primer on what was happening in the country during this difficult time.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
The cover of this book proclaims that it won a Pulitzer Prize, and I can believe it. This is a superb book, encapsulating 13,000 years or so of human history in less than 500 pages. This is a book you should hand to racists when they start being all racist, but they probably wouldn’t read it because they’re illiterate. Basically, Diamond’s thesis is that everything but the quality of the actual people is why white Europeans have been so successful in taking over the world. White Europeans are basically the luckiest motherfuckers on the planet. Who knew?
Diamond spent years in New Guinea hanging out with the natives, and he began to wonder why the people of New Guinea didn’t become mighty conquerors of Asia and Australia. He comes up with a foundation for human societies: food production. Without food production, things never get off the ground and humans remain hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers tend not to settle in villages, don’t grow exponentially in population, don’t create nation-states, and don’t go off to conquer foreign lands. Hunter-gatherers also tend to murder each other rather more than other societies, because they don’t have laws. Diamond doesn’t sugar-coat hunter-gatherer societies, just points out how they tend to operate.
Food production might be the foundation, but it’s not all that matters. Diamond points out the places where food production arose independently, and he gives us the major places we might already know: the Fertile Crescent, China, the eastern United States, Mesoamerica, and possibly the Andes, Amazonia, New Guinea, Ethiopia, the Sahel (the southern edge of the Sahara), and West Africa (there’s debate about those places). Of all of those, only the Fertile Crescent fulfills the other requirements for becoming a dominant civilization. Food production relies on domesticated animals, and Diamond points out that there’s remarkably few animals in the world that can actually be domesticated (tamed is not, he notes, the same as domesticated). When the first people arrived in the New World, there was a mass extinction of giant fauna, presumably because they weren’t scared of these small two-legged creatures and were slaughtered pretty indiscriminately by the new arrivals. So even though the Indians of the East Coast and the Aztecs settled and started farming, they couldn’t do it on as massive a scale as the people of Mesopotamia, who had cattle and sheep. The kinds of plants that were grown are important, too. The people of the Fertile Crescent grew cereals – which are high in carbohydrates, grow fast, and yield a lot of food per hectare – and pulses (legumes), which make up the protein deficiencies in cereals. Many of the other places that independently developed food production didn’t have such a good balance as that. Diamond points out that many plants are also difficult to domesticate, and Mesopotamia had many of the best plants to domesticate. Finally, the food “package” developed in the Fertile Crescent spread easily to India and Europe because the land mass was spread over similar latitudes. In the New World, the South American Incan empire was separated from Mesoamerica by the isthmus of Panama, while North America was separated from Mexico by desert. Sub-Sahara Africa was separated from temperate South Africa by the jungles of Central Africa. Eurasia is oriented along latitude, while the other continents are aligned longitudinally. The climates of the other continents vary so much that it’s difficult for crops and animals to move easily from one region to another. Therefore, the spread of domesticated animals and plants was far easier from Mesopotamia to Greece, North Africa, Italy, Spain, and even into northern Europe.
Infectious diseases, of course, have killed more indigenous people than conquerors, and Diamond traces this back to food production as well. When people begin congregating in villages, they are more susceptible to epidemics, and over the course of millennia, the farmers in the Old World became resistant to these diseases. When they encountered hunter-gatherers or more rudimentary food producers who hadn’t come as far as they had, the diseases they brought with them spread like wildfire. Technology followed food production, too. Hunter-gatherers had no reason to develop the wheel, for instance, or writing. The Incas, who farmed, had no pack animals except llamas, which aren’t as powerful as cows, and so they had no need for wheels because they had no animals who could provide more power than humans could. Technology follows food production, but Diamond stresses repeatedly that several factors need to come together to create the kind of society that can dominate others, and that of Mesopotamia and later Europe had all of them. Even a place like China, which was once at the forefront of technology, didn’t have every single “perfect” factor, and it gave up the lead in the world society in the fifteenth century.
It’s far more complicated than this, of course, but Diamond makes a convincing case. He not only puts paid to any racist reasoning for the ascent of white Europeans, he also makes clear that there’s nothing particularly noble about the societies who never reached their level. Many of the food producers in other parts of the world didn’t develop to the level of the Europeans not because they couldn’t, but because they started later and didn’t have time to catch up before other groups of people showed up and forced them to adapt. Only in a few places on Earth is hunting-gathering a “better” lifestyle than food production, because the environment is so rich that it can support groups without the groups severely diminishing the area or the environment simply can’t support agriculture. Most groups of people were moving toward food production, but were interrupted by those groups that had already reached it. When the two groups clashed, the people that adapted the technology and food production of the conquerors tended to thrive. Diamond points out the “Musket Wars/Potato Wars” of New Zealand as an example: the northern Maoris acquired guns and potatoes from Europeans and, armed with new technology and better food, proceeded to slaughter their neighbors until those neighbors could get guns and more calories. As Diamond points out, those people who cling to “old ways” tend to get wiped out quickly, no matter what group they belong to. We know more about some of the modern examples, but there are plenty of examples from history.
Guns, Germs, and Steel might be a bit too expansive, as Diamond readily admits – specialization is the order of the day in history and other disciplines, and those experts might nitpick his conclusions to death. A quick tour of the Internet seems to confirm that; reviews seem to focus on his broad strokes, while someone like Victor Davis Hanson predictably criticizes Diamond for not giving more weight to Europe’s political and economic organization (Hanson as a historian is very pro-America, and therefore tends to follow the American system of governance and economy back to European roots). I get that, but Diamond tends to address many of the anticipated criticisms in the text itself, so the fact that reviewers would bring them up seems odd. His scholarship might be a bit fast and loose, but I think part of the point of the book was to encourage specialists to pick up on the threads and examine them in some greater detail. As for the book being derivative of others, well, I haven’t read those, so I can’t speak to that.
Diamond’s book is extremely readable, fascinating, and comprehensive. He reiterates some key points a bit too much for my taste, but I suppose it’s better than never repeating them at all. If you’re looking for a book that attempts to explain why the world looks like it does, you could do a lot worse than read this book. Plus, you get to learn cool trivia like the fact the 1000 of the world’s 6000 languages are confined to New Guinea. That’s pretty cool, if you ask me.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
So that’s another month in the books! I didn’t review Legion of Monsters this month even though I got it last week – I didn’t have time to read it and might not for another few days, and I wanted to post this sucker. It will be up next month! Enjoy your trade paperbacks, everyone!