Flex Mentallo – Man of Muscle Mystery: Dynamic Tension in the Comics Medium

During the British Invasion of Comics back in the 1980s, one such writer who would gain prominence in the movement was Grant Morrison. His skilled writing has helped to keep him in the spotlight, but there are many parts of him that help him shine. For instance, there is his knack for writing bizarre, fascinating concepts. For example, his revamp of Doom Patrol as part of DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint reinvigorated the obscure title with a fascinating and bizarre range of characters, such as foes including the Brotherhood of Dada (a collection of super-villains waging war against rationality) and the Scissormen (beings with scissor hands capable of cutting people out of reality). In addition to his out-there ideas, however, is his knowledge of the comic book medium’s history. It is something not just demonstrated by the variety of lesser-known figures he has plucked out from obscurity. He has also demonstrated this knowledge in works like Supergods, a non-fiction book that serves as both memoir of his life and an analysis about the history of superheroes and their impact. Both aspects of Morrison came together when he teamed with artist Frank Quitely for a comic book miniseries known as Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery. Centered around a character he had introduced in Doom Patrol, Grant Morrison takes this mind-bending miniseries and uses it to explore the development and change in superhero stories.

In the world of fiction, a strongman superhero named Flex Mentallo witnesses a potential bombing at the airport. He manages to intervene, but the bomb turns out to be the latest fake in a series of attacks designed to shatter people’s sense of safety. Orchestrated by a shadowy group known as Faculty X, the police seem to have no leads into why they are launching this bizarre crusade. The only clue that grabs Flex Mentallo’s attention is a single card, one that had belonged to a fellow superhero known as the Fact. Perhaps if he can find the Fact, then Flex can find the answer to this weird crime wave. In the world of reality, rock musician Wallace Sage has taken a bunch of pills in a bid to kill himself. Feeling his life slipping into the abyss, he gets a phone and calls up a good Samaritan. He spends what may be his final moments talking to this good Samaritan, discussing his life and his own interest in comic books. Though both threads seem separate, they will eventually wind together in a mesmerizing finale that brings a hopeful hero against a grim reality.

Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is a good example of the sort of bizarre craftsmanship that Grant Morrison can deliver. In this case, he uses the multi-layered story to explore the history and then-current state of superhero comics. For instance, Flex Mentallo is a character very much rooted in the Golden Age of Comics (generally regarded as being the late ’30s through early ’50s). His Charles Atlas-inspired aesthetic and idealistic attitude work well to mark him as a figure of that time, especially in the fictional world he lives. It is a darker world than the one he knew, both figuratively and literally. Among the shadowy corridors and the cynical or corrupted figures he encounters along the way, he can’t help but think about how much simpler his life used to be. Likewise, Wallace Sage’s chat with the good Samaritan winds through his experience with comics and moments in his own life. He rambles and winds through the call, from writing and drawing childhood comics to letting his life fall apart as he wrapped himself in his work. Really, both threads are used as part of one united point: a strike against the Dark Age of Comics.

At the time of this comic miniseries’s original release, American comic books were going through the Dark Age of Comics. This was an age brought on by the success of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel Watchmen, which is a well-crafted deconstruction of superheroes with mature themes. Unfortunately, that success led to a flood of poorly conceived comics that sold themselves on anti-heroes, brutal violence, and greater sexuality. It was an attempt to swing away from the silliness of older superhero tales, but it pushed the contents to absurd extremes of cynicism and grit. Essentially, those trying to make superheroes into more than so-called “kid’s stuff” merely wound up making immature brutes. It is that attitude which Grant Morrison challenges with this series, coming to the defense of the sillier side of superheroes. Sure, the adventures could get silly and there is something inherently absurd in a character like Flex Mentallo. However, what is important is what a character like Flex Mentallo represents: the light against the darkness, the idea that goodness and justice can prevail. They offer figures that can help to inspire us, to show a way towards a better world. In fact, it is even brought up that perhaps that is the reason why people write superhero comics: that the world does not have to be like it is, and that we can be like them.

Among the many works of Grant Morrison, his writing can demonstrate oddball ideas and a skilled knowledge of the comic book medium. Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is a fine merger of these aspects, using big ideas and comics history to tell a tale that defends the somewhat goofy nature of superheroes and their optimistic core.

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Blade Runner 2049: All Those Moments, Remembered in Time

In 1982, director Ridley Scott released a new science fiction film known as Blade Runner. Telling the tale of Rick Deckard, a futuristic cop who hunts down rogue bioengineered humans known as replicants, the film mixed together a film noir narrative with a bleak vision of a dystopian future. The movie had underperformed when it first came out but has since grown to be regarded as one of the finest science fiction films made. Its striking visuals, along with a story that explored the line between man and machine, have made the movie a landmark in the field of cyberpunk and served as an influence in later works. In fact, the anime series Ghost in the Shell, the video game franchise Deus Ex, and the updated reimagining of Battlestar Galactica all have their roots in Blade Runner. The idea of doing a sequel to such an impactful film, much less a sequel made thirty-five years after the original, would seem a dangerous gamble. Of course, the director this time is Denis Villeneuve, a newer director who has already proven his capable talents with films such as Sicario and Arrival. Now, with the hotly anticipated Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve manages to pull off making a great sequel that expands upon the world of the original film.

Once, replicants (a race of bioengineered humans designed for off-world work, effectively a slave race) were prohibited from Earth when their fight for rebellion and their own freedom hit a breaking point. Now, in the year 2049, replicants have become legal once more and integrated into Earth society, though the newer models have been made to be more subservient than past creations. One such replicant is K, an officer for the LAPD who works as a “blade runner”, hunting down older replicant models that are still on the run. During one such mission, he discovers evidence of a powerful secret that could upset the relationship between human and replicant. His boss sends him out to destroy all evidence of this secret, afraid of what would happen to society if someone found out. Of course, there are those who seek to learn this secret, such as Niander Wallace, a powerful corporate figure whose company is currently responsible for replicant production. As the clues begin to emerge and Wallace’s agents threaten to claim the secret, K finds the evidence pointing him towards a key figure: Rick Deckard, a former blade runner who has gone into hiding.

Blade Runner 2049 is a great follow-up to a classic piece of sci-fi cinema. It helps to have good performances, and the actors here work hard with the great material they are given in the script. In particular, Ryan Gosling works well as K, presenting an understated exterior that fits his manufactured origins but hides a depth of consideration. More than that, the film manages to pick up the look and feel of the original quite naturally and even build upon it. For instance, the original film captured a strong film noir vibe with the use of a limited color palette and plenty of shadows around its dystopian Los Angeles. Though the same dystopian LA shimmers with bright holograms standing out in the city’s deathly green, new locales offer a sharp punch with a similar visual style. From the dark grays across the junkyard-like remains of San Diego to the burning bright orange of a once irradiated Las Vegas, the familiar technique is used in a  way that also helps to expand the film’s world by revealing the states of these once familiar cities. More than just recapturing the visual aesthetic, this movie also finds its own approaches in exploring the issue of what makes humanity.

In Blade Runner, Rick Deckard had made his living by hunting down replicants. They looked human and wanted their freedom instead of being doomed to a life as slaves, yet the fact that they were created by a company is enough for people to see them as “other” and as nothing more than a machine. The film used that to explore the line between man and machine by exploring the morality of hunting down beings that are virtually human. For Blade Runner 2049, they explore this point from the angle of a replicant protagonist. Even if replicants are now integrated into society, K is still treated as lesser and called a “skinjob” by those who see him as a machine. Indeed, he would seem to be like a machine considering how much his replicant model was designed to be subservient to humans. However, there is a humanity lurking in him, displayed through moments like his romance with a holographic AI system named Joi. That sense of humanity grows over the course of his investigation, his knowledge of the grand secret causing him to reexamine the world around him and the state of human and replicant relations. His own empathy beyond the current structure grows. Indeed, his own empathy for the beings he is hired to kill grows more than some humans who see them as just slaves. He just might be more human than human, one might say.

Blade Runner is an influential piece of science fiction, and it would seem bold to attempt a sequel to such a seminal work. However, Blade Runner 2049 manages to pull off being a good sequel that captures the feel of the original while exploring its key themes in its own way.

Neo Yokio: Class Conflict and Shattered Satire

Comedy is something that does not just have to make us laugh. When properly used, comedy can be a tool that sheds light on problems, whether in another work or in the world. Two forms of comedy that fit into this school of thought are parody and satire. Parody is about sending up another work through an ironic fashion, while satire is about holding flaws up for ridicule in the hope of inspiring others to be better. In both cases, they are about taking the components of something (tired tropes in the case of the former, social vices in the case of the latter) and using them as tools of mockery. Ezra Koenig, lead singer of the indie rock band Vampire Weekend, has attempted to employ these methods for a joint Japanese-American anime on Netflix known as Neo Yokio. Within the series, he attempts to parody anime by playing around with familiar tropes as a vehicle for satirizing the upper class and issues of class conflict. Unfortunately, the result is a six-episode series that wavers in how it wants to tell its story, falling apart in the process.

The City of Neo Yokio stands as a shining example of success and culture. Of course, when a city becomes so powerful and influential, it is only natural that enemies would arise to bring it down. In this case, demons seek to tear the city apart, seeing it as a symbol of greed and decadence. Standing guard against such evils are a collection of people known as Magistocrats, rich descendants of the original wizards and witches brought over to defend the city. Among this class of citizen is Kaz Kaan, a skilled demon slayer and one of Neo Yokio’s most eligible bachelors. Unfortunately, he has no real interest in working as a demon slayer. Despite his stern Aunt Agatha’s insistence, Kaz would rather deal in fashion and lay about in luxury rather than work. In fact, his main aim is to win out over Arcangelo Corelli, a member of the old money that mocks Kaz for being “neo riche” and for having to actually work for his cash. Still, the job of a demon slayer must be done to maintain the city’s splendor. In fact, the work seems more important than ever when a demonic possession causes fashion blogger Helena St. Tesero to drop from the fashion world and set out to cast a light on the city’s darkness.

While the show generally falters in its execution, there are still a few strong points. For instance, the show’s side characters have some fun personality to them that is delivered by good talent, such as Jude Law as Kaz’s mecha-butler Charles or Jason Schwartzman as the snobbish Arcangelo Corelli. There is also a strong sense of an interesting and developed setting, with hints that suggest an interesting alternate universe in which Neo Yokio resides (such as Japan and Italy apparently united as one nation named “Giaponne”). However, the satirical goal behind the show falls flat in its execution. In terms of being a parody of anime, its approach is weak-willed. It attempts to play with tropes like nosebleeds and sudden chibification (rendering a character with a more cutesy, cartoonish appearance), but these uses are rare and the tropes themselves have already largely fallen by the wayside in most modern anime. More than just those misfired attempts at anime tropes is a far bigger issue at play. Namely, the show’s attempts to satirize the flaws of upper-class perceptions flounder in their execution.

Over the course of its six half-hour episodes, it is clear that greed and vanity are two major follies that Neo Yokio wishes to satirize. However, the attempts to mock these points become muddled in how the show operates. For one, Kaz Kaan is presented as a symbol of that decadence and celebrity obsession, wallowing in his own melancholy despite living the good life as ordinary citizens sing his praises. While those close to him do call out his shallow and selfish behaviors, others who indulge similar attitudes (like his best friends Lexy and Gottlieb) are treated as normal and let off the hook. Later, the show attempts to delve into more serious issues of class warfare, but that is stymied by how little the poorer denizens of Neo Yokio are actually shown. It feels as if they are only seen for a part of the last episode. Honestly, there is more focus on class warfare among the upper class between old money and “neo riche” than there is between the rich and the poor. When it attempts to do this more meaningful class struggle, it is too little, too late. It is a shame, really. There is a solid idea for a series at this show’s core. Unfortunately, the writing fails to commit fully to its message and the six half-hour episode format is too short to fully realize the story they wanted to tell.

Thoughout the year, satire has been a school of comedy that has produced plenty of great works that aim to inspire improvement in humanity. Neo Yokio is not an example of those good works, as its attempt to offer a message satirizing greed and class warfare is muddled in how it presents that message.

Repo Man: California Calling

Oftentimes, when a particular genre or medium can grow excessive, there arises a counterbalance to offer something different. For instance, the excesses that came in with 1970s mainstream music was counterbalanced by a new genre being born: punk rock. Marked by fast-paced songs, stripped down instrumentation, and often political lyrics, punk rock came to be adored in local scenes, relished by an audience that wanted to reject the mainstream and rebel against authority. By the early 1980s, mainstream media gained a very particular image of punk fans: that of the criminal delinquent, marked by their mohawk, leather jacket, and bad attitude. They presented punk fans as a living symbol of anarchy, as nothing more than destructive people wanting to tear down society. However, not all media succumbed to this pop cultural shorthand. Director Alex Cox is an example of this, when he decided to make a film that was inspired by his experiences as a repo man. In 1984, he released that movie, entitled Repo Man. The result was a cult classic movie, one that is hailed as a punk classic thanks to its exploration of punk characters along with a soundtrack filled with plenty of punk rockers.

Otto Maddox is a suburban punk that has had a bad day. He ends up laid off from his grocery store job when he acts flippant towards his boss’s insistent demands. He discovers that his girlfriend has been hooking up with his best friend. However, the straw that breaks the camel’s back comes when he finds that the money that his parents had been setting aside for finishing school has instead been sent to a crooked televangelist. Tired of all these breakdowns in his life, he decides to start up a new path for himself. Namely, he begins work as a repo man. Joining the team at the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation, Otto finds himself spending his days stealing back cars from folks who have gone overdue on their payments. The life is dangerous, but certainly more thrilling than what he had before. Of course, things take a turn when a new task turns up: a 1964 Chevy Malibu that can vaporize anyone who pops the trunk. Soon, Otto finds himself caught between shadowy government agents, rival car thieves, and even those close to him as everyone hunts down this very particular car…and the potentially alien secrets that lay within it.

Watching Repo Man, it is understandable how the movie would go on to become a cult classic. This is a film that is punk rock to its core, and not just in its soundtrack featuring punk rockers like Black Flag and The Plugz. Rather than a standard narrative, the film works in a more episodic style, jumping between threads like repossession missions and a shadowy government investigation until they all collide together in a manic, cosmic finale. Meanwhile, the world of this story takes then current-day Los Angeles and remixes it with a punk perspective. The nice spots and glamorous locales of LA are not the areas our characters call home. Instead, the movie stays away from the glitz and instead shows off the gruff and grimy side to the “City of Angels”. Instead of famous or recognizable products, most everything is marked in the same generic label, from a can of food to a bottle of butyl nitrite. Even the political side of punk rock creeps in through television broadcasts in the background, whether through news reports of ongoing conflicts or the television sermons of a crooked televangelist. Most of all, there is how it portrays the punk mentality in its characters.

Of all the punks that turn up in this movie, Otto seems to be one of the few true punks that capture the spirit of the movement. Though he starts dressing nicely with a blazer and tie for his work as a repo man, he lives his life on his own terms. Instead of just accepting rough treatment for his grocery store boss or accepting how his parents have used up his cash, he rejects the standard life and takes up a profession known for its danger. In fact, when he starts getting pushed into a conventional role, he pushes back and simply embraces whatever can excite him next. In contrast, there is a trio of punks that appear throughout the film. They fit the pop culture image of a punk, with black leather outfits and hair styled out in mohawks and similar cuts. However, they are mocked by revealing the shallowness of their attitudes. They go around causing trouble and committing crimes, but when things get rough, they are clearly scared and even considering a new life in the suburbs. In fact, when one member of the trio claims that society made them what they are, it takes a guy like Otto to call them out on what they really are: just another suburban punk like him. The difference, however, is that Otto is a true punk. He does not live by what the establishment demands. He follows his own code and attitude, even when things get intense.

Punk rock is a music genre that flourished in the early ’80s, while being vilified in mainstream culture as the music of criminals and delinquents. Repo Man is a film that captures the true sense of punk, which is about rejecting the establishment and embracing your life on your terms.

It: Terror at the End of Innocence

Stephen King is an author that is often regarded as a modern master of horror. Among the works that have helped him earn such a title is his 1986 novel, It. Telling the story of seven friends reuniting in their home town to battle a cosmic evil they had previously fought as children, the book is dense but gripping with every page. It captures well a lot of recurring themes in King’s writing, such as childhood trauma and its impact on adulthood or conquering evil through mutual trust. In addition, the novel gave the horror genre a great new boogeyman to fear with Pennywise, a creature capable of forming itself to look like the things people fear but whose most prominent form is a clown. It is no wonder how the book became so popular, even getting a television miniseries adaptation in 1990 that starred Tim Curry as Pennywise. Now, at long last, It has been brought to the big screen. However, it would seem difficult to adapt such a dense novel into a single movie. As such, this film instead focuses on those seven friends when they were kids, with a sequel planned to cover the portion of them as adults. The result is a really good coming of age story with some good scares as well.

In the town of Derry, kids prepare for fun as the summer of 1989 rolls in. However, one child does not have fun on his mind, and that is Bill Denbrough. Ever since the disappearance of his younger brother Georgie on a stormy day back in October, Bill is convinced that Georgie must still be alive somewhere. With the help of his friends, like the motor mouth Richie Tozier, hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak, and shy Stan Uris, Bill intends to find some evidence that Georgie is still alive somewhere. Along the way, they end up adding more friends to their numbers, befriending new kid Ben Hanscom, local girl Beverly Marsh, and home-schooled outsider Mike Hanlon. However, there ends up being something that unites them more than just friendship: they all find themselves terrorized by personifications of the things that they fear. Realizing that they are the targets of something that can shape itself into what people fear (with its most recurrent form being Pennywise the dancing clown), they learn that whatever this thing is might just be responsible for the decades of missing and dead children that plague Derry’s history, including Georgie. With no adults doing anything about this deadly history, these seven friends decide to step up and try to stop this creature, and just maybe find the truth about Georgie.

Plenty of adaptations have been done of Stephen King’s work, but It ranks among the better attempts to bring his writing to the big screen. Certainly, it does deliver on some strong jolts of horror, in particular thanks to Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise. His turn as Pennywise is one that captures the sense of a starving predator, one that relishes his meal as his prey feels fear. From his teasing and at-times puppet-like movement to the soft-lilting voice that can effortlessly shift to a growl, Skarsgard brings this classic monster to life with a seeming ease. However, there are moments with scares that don’t land quite as well. Occasionally, the film leans a touch too often on striking with a jump scare or having Pennywise rush his target with a yell. The stronger scares come through more in the surreal torment that Pennywise performs on the children or in scenes when Skarsgard gets to carry through with the creepiness, such as when he lures Georgie from the shadows of a sewer drain. Even the normal lives of these children capture some of that horror better, such as the psychotic bullying from Henry Bowers or the creepily possessive nature of Beverly’s father. In fact, that leads me into what helps this movie shine like it does: the coming-of-age story.

In attempting to adapt such a dense novel, one whose story unfolds during childhood and adult years, the choice was made for this movie to put the focus on the main characters as children. By making this choice, the story for this film is one about these misfits facing the darker edges of life that can emerge as one grows up. True, they do face certain terror from the hands of a shapeshifting creature responsible for a history of horrors. However, their fears stem from more than that. They emerge from the horrors that haunt their everyday life. Sometimes, it comes from bullies like Henry Bowers and Patrick Hockstetter, who torment them and see them as misfits. Other times, it stems from adults like their own parents, such as Eddie’s mother constantly needling him with health concerns or Beverly’s father displaying an unsettling attachment to his “little girl”. Life offers plenty of things for these kids to fear. However, it is with their mutual friendship and trust that they can grow, facing the things that they fear and not giving in to the terror. Thanks to strong writing, a good dose of humor to lighten up between the scares, and a cast of child actors who deliver some excellent performances, the coming-of-age story captures the feel of similar tales from the 1980s. For some, the result might seem slightly jarring when it shifts hard between these portions and the more overtly horror sections, but the whole film is still a good piece of work. To borrow a reference to another King adaptation, it is as if Stand By Me periodically swerved hard into a horror story.

Among the many works of Stephen King, It is often regarded as one of his best novels. Now, It has arrived on the big screen as a terrific coming-of-age story that shines even if a few of the scares might not land.

Death Note: Lost in Translation

As anime and manga grow in popularity around the world, it is only natural that Hollywood would come calling to adapt them. After all, it is a new media vein for them to tap into and adapt to the big screen for a new audience. However, adapting these media genres to films for a Western audience presents its own fresh round of challenges. Plenty of hurdles present themselves, such as trying to translate more extreme illustrated moments to live action or figuring out how to navigate the cultural differences that might be present. Indeed, most of the live-action American adaptations of anime that have stepped up to the plate tend to swing and miss. Netflix has taken their own stab at this challenge, releasing a live-action American film of the popular anime series Death Note. This would seem to have a better shot of making it as an American film, with its clash between the law and vigilante justice being an idea that can work in an American lens. Unfortunately, the resulting movie waters down the source and offers a blander product, missing the core battle of wits that helped to make the series so popular in the first place.

Light Turner is a high school student burning with anger. Haunted by the fact that his mother’s murderer had gotten off scot free thanks to his wealth and connections, he sees the world as one where the innocent suffer and the wicked escape any punishment for their deeds. One day, that fire gets an outlet as a mysterious book known as a Death Note seems to fall from the sky and land near him. Examining the book, Light is greeted with the sudden appearance of Ryuk, a god of Death. With a nudge, he reveals to Light the book’s ability to kill anyone whose name is written in it. After testing the book’s power, Light begins using it to dole out brutal justice, gaining an ally in the form of cheerleader Mia Sutton. The two operate as Kira, making the world fear them as a vengeful god. There is one person, however, who refuses to bow to their power: L, an eccentric and brilliant detective. Gleaming that the Kira killings began in Light’s home town of Seattle, L comes in and sets his sights on bringing the killer to justice. Now, Light must contend not only with L and his pursuit, but also with the growing darkness of Mia and her twisted goals.

While there is plenty of flaws present in this adaptation of Death Note, it is worth bringing up some of the strengths that are in this film. For instance, Willem Dafoe is a great choice of casting as Ryuk. Even though Ryuk himself does not do a lot, mostly serving as an observer to Light’s killing spree, Dafoe delivers a performance that crackles with a mocking delight as he watches the proceedings. Another good choice on the film’s part is that Mia Sutton (the movie’s version of Misa Amane) is a more active participant of the plot. Instead of being merely a pawn in Light’s plans, Mia works alongside Light and helps him in their schemes, while having plans of her own. Even Lakeith Stanfield offers some solid work as L, capturing his drive along with his eccentricities…at least, to a point. Unfortunately, there comes a moment in the plot when L drops the ball and becomes a reckless, emotional idiot, losing the intelligence and calm that are part of his character. That problem is among some of the film’s bigger issues, most of all in how it handles its depiction of Light.

In the original series, Light Yagami was an ace individual. He was handsome, a top student, and a friend to many. That makes his inner darkness all the more shocking (whether a God complex like the original manga and anime, or a frustration with the legal system as presented in the Japanese live-action films and J-drama) when he gets the Death Note and begins blossoming into a killer that sees himself as a god of justice. Meanwhile, this film’s counterpart in Light Turner is presented as a young man bullied by others, disheveled in his appearance, and still nursing an anger from his mother’s murderer avoiding punishment. While that motivation can make it understandable how Light could start down the path of Kira, it feels like they made him too sympathetic by making him look like the sort of outcast that would be picked upon and by making him be pushed further into darkness by Ryuk and Mia instead of pursuing it himself. Along with taking away the great intellect that was part of his character, the result is a bland protagonist who feels made to be too sympathetic and lacks the more unique nature of this blossoming genius teenage madman. In addition, by taking away his genius the film does away with the great battles of wits that are a staple of the series. L would find ways of proving that Light Yagami was Kira, while Light would use a combination of his own cunning and some clever application of the Death Note to spring himself from L’s latest trap. In fact, that battle of wits was the core balance to the anime: a seemingly normal teenager like Light lashing out with a dark vengeance, in opposition to a weird eccentric like L who fought for justice. It is that dynamic which helped to make Death Note such a popular anime, and what the adaptation sorely lacks.

Hollywood has turned its eye to the world of anime and manga as a new source for film adaptations, but unfortunately the track record has not been a stellar one. Death Note is the latest of these missteps, maintaining its basic idea but watering down its protagonist and peeling away its gripping battles of brilliance.

Roald Dahl: Macabre Sensibilities, for Young and Old

Plenty of children’s stories tend to be thought of as light and fun. In truth, they are not all fun and games. There is normally some darkness that lurks within these stories, darkness that helps to make the light and its messages shine brighter. Even the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, regarded as some of the original tellers of children’s stories, contain plenty of mentions of cruelty and violence. Now, some might feel that this could be too intense for children, that these should be scrubbed clean according to a certain set of standards. In truth, there is a certain value in not talking down to children about this. One such author who understood this was Roald Dahl. His stories for children, remembered for whimsical touches and adapted in plenty of media, also possess plenty of darker elements. Perhaps it might be worth looking at what inspires an author to not shy away from these darker elements.

Born on September 13th, 1916 in the town of Cardiff, Roald Dahl was the son of Norwegian parents. When his sister and father had both died when he was three, his mother had the choice to remain in Wales after their passing, even when she had the option to return to Norway. Dahl first began the life of a schoolboy at the Cathedral School in the district of Llandarff. It was that time that he and his friends had gotten into trouble for putting a dead mouse into a jar of gobstoppers (also known as jawbreakers) owned by Mrs. Pratchett, a local sweetshop owner who was mean to the boys. He would go on to be transferred to St. Peter’s boarding school, where he and other students endured a fierce faculty. However, the school which would be a pivotal place to Dahl was Repton School in Derbyshire. Beginning his time there at age 13, he endured cruel treatment at the hands of both students and teachers. From the brutal corporal punishment he suffered and witnessed dealt out by the teachers to the demeaning work of having to serve senior students, Dahl’s experiences there would develop a definite cynicism in him about humanity. His main joy in that time were the candies and chocolates that the chocolate company Cadbury would send to the school for students to test.

As Roald Dahl got older and World War II began to roll in, he would come to join in the Royal Air Force as a pilot. Among the many missions that he flew in, one flight would bring him to Libya. Having trouble finding the airstrip as night approached, He was forced to make a landing in the desert. The result was a crash, one that landed him in the hospital with a fractured skull and blindness. Eventually, he would regain his sight and continued to serve as a pilot, until he was grounded for suffering from a series of headaches serious enough to cause blackouts. After that, he was made an attache to serve in the British Embassy in Washington D.C. From there, he would come to serve in the intelligence division alongside such noted officers as David Ogilvy and Ian Fleming (best known as the creator of James Bond). During this time, Dahl would come to meet the famed novelist C. S. Forester. Forester had been approached by The Saturday Evening Post with writing a story, and he in turn wanted to write a story about Dahl’s experiences as a pilot. Dahl wrote and compiled a number of anecdotes from that time, then provided them to Forester to work from. Instead, Forester provided the story exactly as Dahl wrote it. Thus was born Roald Dahl’s first story, “A Piece of Cake”, which The Saturday Evening Post had published as “Shot Down Over Libya” in order to have a more exciting title. It was also the story that would go on to launch Roald Dahl’s writing career.

Before he became renowned as a writer of children’s stories, Roald Dahl first began as an author for adults. Most of his early work came in the form of short stories. Plenty of these stories concerned deadly gambles, acts of revenge, and bitter spouses. Most of all, they frequently came with endings that served as a macabre punch line to the proceedings. There is no doubt that Dahl’s more cynical view of humanity comes through in stories like “Lamb to the Slaughter”, about a wife who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and tries to cover up the deed, or “Parson’s Pleasure”, about a deceitful antiques dealer who poses as a clergyman for his cheats. However, it is actually his children’s novels where Dahl really cranks up this cynical attitude. While a few stories concern monsters like witches or giants, nearly all of the villains in his children’s novels are rotten, vile adults.

Sometimes they may lord their wealth over others, sometimes they may be verbally abusive to those they see as weaker or lesser, and sometimes they may simply be sadistic with physical cruelty. In any case, these parents are the sort of commonplace evils of which even children are familiar. As dark and imposing as such cruelty may seem, Dahl balances things out with how he presents goodness. The children that serve as the heroes in his stories are not generally portrayed as extraordinary. In fact, they frequently are presented as rather average. Instead, they possess an innate goodness, recognizing the wickedness around them and rising above it. In that way, Dahl offers a way to challenge and overcome the commonplace evil in their own lives. He also delivers it in a more playful, slightly morbid manner than the squeaky-cleaned stories that some believe children should be given. The result is a more naturalistic approach to teaching children about the cruelty of the world and preparing them for it, treating them with respect and understanding they can grasp it without being directly moralized.

For those who have never read any of Roald Dahl’s stories, there are two avenue I might offer, depending on if you wish to try his adult work or his children’s stories. For those who wish to explore his more adult-oriented work, Tales of the Unexpected is an anthology that collects some of his yarns of the macabre. With such stories as “Lamb to the Slaughter”, “The Man Down South”, and “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat”, this collection will help to show how Dahl’s writing career was launched thanks to his clever writing. As for his work for children, the best example I would guide new readers to would be Matilda. Centered around an intelligent and kind-hearted girl named Matilda and her challenges overcoming her obnoxious parents and a cruel headmistress named Agatha Trunchbull, this novel stands to me as a great example of the kind of whimsical yet morbid stories that he crafted for children.