Thursday, March 22, 2012

Samurai Pizza Cats

Step off my nostalgia! It is mighty

What you have to learn to accept is that there are some works you can't look at objectively, works for which you will forever surrender your critical considerations because there is no alternative. When nostalgia or good vibes, these just swamp your higher brain functions. It might lead to the worst ways of fandom, but sometimes it's harmless.

Samurai Pizza Cats is one such example, of the chronological nostalgic type. I haven't equally embraced everything from my childhood that I've re-explored, but with Samurai Pizza Cats I get the very strong sense that I'm not entirely thinking with my Adult Brain when I enjoy watching it. I can point to reasons why the series is good,  but it doesn't change the fact that watching or remembering it turns me into a raging nostalgia monster.

Okay, for those who don't know, Samurai Pizza Cats was a Saban Entertainment dub of Cat Ninja Legend Teyandee, a series about a historical-Japan-styled futuristic town populated by animal-robot…things. The three heroes run a pizza parlour while moonlighting as sentai-style heroes, battling the rat/fox Prime Minister and his group of crow allies, with a different giant robot (usually) every episode. For variously-given reasons (having a bad script translation, receiving no script translation, there being too many untranslatable jokes, etc.) this children's anime was dubbed into a comedy containing fourth-wall breaking, characters speaking as if they were employed actors, references to adult pop culture, bad puns, weird interpretations of onscreen visuals, and an overall junior MST3K feel to it.

While I became an anime nerd long ago, in this case I don't give a damn about the original version of Samurai Pizza Cats. One could easily say that since this series comes from the Woody Allen school of dubbing there's an exception to be made, but I have seen anime fans getting riled up about privileging the dub edit, so I'm just making my place clear. It's not surprising somebody would feel this way, when people have angrily catalogued the censorship in the Pokemon dub. One can't place a standard on which altered anime are "worthy" of being complained about, but we all don't have to care.

As an even more specific example, while it's now obvious now that the character Big Cheese was supposed to be a fox, not a rat as the dub says (he has a face that looks like stylized foxes in Japaense art, not to mention that tail), part of my brain refuses to process this. It's easy to take his dub-species as a "truth".

There was nothing really new about the series' style of humour by 1990, but the dub does it well. You can't trust what I say, but honestly, the dub holds together. There are a few moments when the dialogue obviously doesn't match the facial expressions or the onscreen content, but it mostly flows. However accurate they might be, the writers also have a good handle on the new personalities they created, keeping them consistent and distinct.

Strangely enough, for all its rewriting the dub seems to be less censored than other anime from that time period. It'd be hard not to have a dub that looks like this be said to take place in Japan, but you know somebody would have tried. Pizza Cats doesn't, but calls their place Little Tokyo and say they are in a "Japanese cartoon". The heroes are also clearly launched from a giant revolver without any alterations, and the main villain is still a campy gay cross-dresser. Oh, and Japanese text appears from time to time, and jokes are made about it.

I also like the character designs: while the dub doesn't make it that clear, apparently they're supposed to be…robots? The robotic animals have super-deformed proportions and bright colours, and are, well, pretty damn adorable and also kind of cool-looking in all their details and fancy armour (except that pretty female mammals have humanlike jawlines and tiny noses, which are weird; so is Lucille, the sheep girl with horns).

When I was a kid, my favourite characters were the bad guys: the "rat" Big Cheese and his various crow helpers: Jerry Atric, Bad Bird, the Rude Noise (they're some kind of birds anyway) and the horde of disposable Ninja Crows. There's no real deep reason for it, except maybe that I love all those animals much more than cats. And I still like them better than the heroes, though it all blends together into some kind of nostalgic fog.

As I mentioned above, Big Cheese loves to cross-dress, and in the dub is played as campily gay. He doesn't do it so often that he could easily be dubbed as a female character, but that he wasn't is still surprising considering the time period. And yes, he's supposed to be a fox, but I don't really care that much, as I said above. Though now it answers my old question of why he had such a thick tail….

(I can't help but wonder if being a fan of Master Splinter predisposed me to accept canine features as part of Rattus anatomy. And that, while the rodent vs. cat thing is an obvious reason to change his species, I wonder if  another part of the inspiration was the canid look of Master Splinter, given that the dub takes other jabs and TMNT, even in the theme song.)

Bad Bird (which I keep wanting to type as "Brad Bird") is extra-notable because the end of the cartoon throws in a change-of-heart for the character, motivated by previously discovering honest work can work out, and rediscovering an old sweetheart. It happens fast, and his girlfriend, Carla, doesn't really have a personality, but this was probably the first thing I shipped, and I know I had a drawing of Bad Bird and Carla on the wall of my childhood bedroom. I'd be really reluctant to call this any sign of Japan's "superior" storytelling, but man…it is so…cute. And having even a crude attempt at character development probably makes him the best character in the show, and the best out of all the villains I loved as a kid.

Yet I'm not going to harp about that, because as I said above, a love for Samurai Pizza Cats has more to do with a generalized nostalgia than any specific interest or attachment to a specific character. I have my preferences, but it all blurs together into a general feeling of nice good happy time. Bad Bird is a character from the past, and while he's the character I like the most, I can't approach him as I would a present-day character I love, or even one that I've rediscovered. He's not to be talked about that much, but just admired as a beloved figure from childhood.

Naturally, this was all prompted by the announcement of a DVD release, for which I trotted back to the show to see if it still held up. Having 52 episodes and being put out by a small company probably means I'd have to pay through the nose for this release, and I'm actually not sure if I would want to go that far. But I'm not sure that I don't, either.

It wasn't prompted by the news of a Speedy Cerviche action figure release, because, well, I never liked Speedy. For all the pratfalls he takes, he's still supposed to be the Brash Young Hero that I usually never like, and re-watching the series, there's still something off-putting about him. People claim the article says they'll be making other characters, too, but at about $50 a pop, I probably wouldn't pay that much for a Bad Bird of similar quality. Maybe.

Anyway, my gut tells me this series has some recommendable quality for older nerds who've never seen it. While a lesser edited dub would try to follow the original story but make the same typical mistakes, by setting Samurai Pizza Cats up front as a comedy, and a relatively well-done one at that, it becomes something far different, and far more interesting.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Who Else But You?: The 2012 Transformers Hall of Fame

Well, damn. It looks like the Transformers Hall of Fame has put both of my all-time favourite Transformers on their nominee list: BW Megatron and (technically) Rodimus Prime. Both are on my list of top fictional characters, both are important to my fandom nostalgia. When it comes right down to it, could I really decide?

Eh, actually, if you like over-thinking this sort of thing (and you know I do) the choice is easy. BW Megatron is far more the type that deserves to be in any kind of "Hall of Fame", and for many reasons. He's not only popular, but seems to have had an impact on the franchise, as it has since produced more sophisticated bad-guy leaders that could, in theory, have been cast in his mould.  Rodimus Prime, in contrast, is virtually forgotten, as there is a Hot Rod role, but no place for a leader who isn't Optimus Prime, and no real change to Transformers archetypes that could potentially have stemmed from him.

Secondly, Beast Wars Megatron was a better-written character than Rodimus in any form. While Rodimus Prime was likeable, and he was a great idea for a character, he never really had any consistent character arc. He had his issues with insecurity wrapped up in one episode, only for them to reappear again and be wrapped up again, while other episodes he was totally in control. He didn't go through a period of insecurity and then get over it as part of the plot, it just appeared and reappeared without warning. It's not the fault of the character, but rather that the writers never gave enough of a damn to plot out a real arc for him. I like Rodimus because he can be heart-bustingly insecure and wonderfully sarcastic, but he was off and on with all this, rather than building towards a permanent change.

BW Megatron, on the other hand, became more unhinged as the story went on, his plans ever more grandiose, until he seemed to have gone bugfuck. Some of this depended on retcons, but nonetheless, Megs travelled a straighter and more focused path than Rodimus Prime did. I also love Beast Wars Megatron's personality, but in that area, he's equal with Rodimus, though they appeal for different reasons. BW Megatron is, in short, cut from a better quality of cloth.

And yes, I realize that in theory the "Rodimus" initiation represents all other versions of the character, too, versions that I know nothing about or don't much care for, but since Rodimus Prime is the Peculiar Olympian here, he's what gets discussed.

On a personal level, I also consider the issue of seniority: Beast Wars was my first Transformer show and my gateway drug into fandom, so BW Megs has that cachet. Furthermore, while both shows are not great, BW holds up better (see "better-written character") than the original cartoon (all seasons). All in all, despite the debacle that was Beast Machines Megatron, BW Megatron still would be more deserving of recognition. He's probably going to win this poll, and nothing would be more appropriate.

However, I'm going to randomly put in some Rodimus votes here and there, because he's still one of my homeboys.

They're also adding Arcee into the Hall of Fame, almost certainly because the original Arcee (again, all versions are lumped together, including the modern one that sprang from Simon Furman's horrible head) was the first long-term prominent female Transformers character. So yeah, that's a legit reason, though I wish G1 Arcee had a more developed personality to go along with that. She was always just kind of…there. Sometimes the "warrior", sometimes the damsel in distress, never building up to a whole picture of a character.

Blackarachnia was also nominated this year but never made the final cut, which is a shame. I had my issues with her character arc in certain spots, but it was nice to see a Transformers character who actually had some character development. I didn't expect that to end in a final-cut nomination, though, since "had character development" isn't usually what people who run these things are looking for, and besides that "Blackarachnia" hasn't really become a Transformers name-as-institution like Arcee. Still, she was cool.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Strong Female Characters

‘Tough, Cold, Terse, Taciturn and Prone to Not Saying Goodbye When They Hang Up the Phone': Carina Chocano on "Strong Female Characters" [Google the title if the link doesn't work]

The Comments on Io9

This article will be more a response to io9's comments on the article rather than the article itself. Chocano's article had pretty much nothing to do with genre fiction at all, while the io9 comments make it all about whether Buffy, Scully, Starbuck, etc. are "men with breasts".

I agree a bit more with Chocano, who seems to be as much against female characters being flawless, as their not being "womanly" enough, though her article still represents the latter. One of the forgotten aspects of progressiveness, likely because it's not all that romantic (in the classical sense of the term), is to show that the minority or persecuted group is just as flawed and can be just as awful as the dominant group.

However, the io9 comments are filled with people who apparently believe the problem with sexism is that the innate traits of women are given less value than the innate traits of men, who desire to re-establish a hierarchy rather than demand greater depth from fiction in total. You're almost waiting for someone to use the term "mannish".

When really, it's a problem all around when heroes are impervious and devoid of flaw or worry. It's a problem if there is only "one kind of strength", but not because it's men's strength being painfully grafted onto women instead of utilizing women's "unique" strengths, but because it is less limiting to define strength based on a small number of factors, whether for female or male characters.

Also, the phrase "men with breasts" might get the point across to the choir, but for many, it's just bewildering. No one can call a female character "a man with breasts", because no one has produced such a timeless, clear, universal understanding of gender differences that we can say for certain a female character with X ratio of masculine traits is so completely impossible for her gender that she is "really" a male character. "Man with breasts" just seems to be another way to state that a character doesn't conform to a critic's personal definition of womanhood and is therefore some kind of freakish fantasy, while the rest of the world may not actually agree.

Take the female Starbuck from nu-BSG. To some, she's a "man with breasts" (and not only because her character was originally male), while others are relieved that she retains "some femininity". If the alleged modern archetype for "man with breasts" can't be agreed upon as insufficiently feminine enough, then the issue is more complex than it appears.

I've often asked myself why it was so important that Starbuck retain "some femininity". Based on this article, I would hope it to be a badly-phrased relief that she is an imperfect character. But the problem is the bad phrasing. They are trying to prove that Starbuck "really is a woman", because a false dichotomy has been created: that if a character is stoic and violent, they are "a man", and if they are emotional and vulnerable, they are "a woman". There is an X level of "masculine" traits a female character must have to become a "man with breasts", which is an awful thing, so Starbuck must be proven not to have reached level X. It's gender policing: albeit for a fictional character, but it still exposes some very ugly attitudes in the real world: despite gender differences supposedly being "natural" and "innate", one can still be policed for not expressing their gender in an approved way.

I would put the issue in different terms. Starbuck being imperfect does not prove that she "reall is a woman", but that perfect characters are boring and so, male or female, they must have some nicks in their armour. Starbuck is particularly good because she does have that, and when her issues are showcased, they do not seem to be a commentary on the fact that she acts rough because of her issues, and if they were not there, she would be a "normal" woman. Instead, she is simply a twisted character, but one for whom it is no special tragedy that she is a female fighter.

The reason this debate exists, of course, is the feeling that society values "male" traits rather than "female" traits, and that women can gain approval by adopting these "male" traits, but the attitude towards "female" traits remains disdainful. By creating more vulnerable and "feminine" action heroines who are still triumphant over evil, the hope is that "female" traits will become more valued.

A noble goal, but that still doesn't explain why love, nurturing, emotional expression, and whatever else is deemed "feminine" is a desirable trait in only female characters, rather than an opportunity to make all characters multi-faceted. True, these traits are traditionally associated with women, but they can't be distanced from society and culture enough to label them as universally female traits and no reason to consider these traits only valuable for female characters to have. If one truly wants to create a peaceful, equitable world through popular culture, it would be to have all traits open to all characters of all genders, rather than establish testing to ensure female characters are sufficiently feminine enough.

That being said, I really can't recall any female characters of any medium or genre who truly lack in any form of vulnerability or in expressions of "female" emotions. All of these staples of nineties genre TV that are under discussion never met that criteria for me. As for the issue of female characters shunning "girly" tasks/hobbies, that's wrapped up in a whole mess, namely that these girly tasks/hobbies are still part of what's considered obligatory for women, instead of becoming personalized interests or something to build a career from.

So it doesn't surprise me that shunning "doing girly things" is used as a quick symbol for independence in younger female characters, being that such girly things are part of the huge package of expectations placed on women, and not presented as a voluntary choice (this is also why Rebellious Princesses still tend to be popular, despite the backlash). That doesn't justify this trope, but I find it hard to get upset about it. Personally, I'd rather have such characters simply lack those interests, without active defiance coming up unless it was a major plot point.

[As an aside, being critical of female characters "falling in love" isn't, to me, part of the hatred of femininity, because it's not about the process itself, but that because female characters are subsequently in danger of, at the hands of bad writers, becoming just "the love interest". That is why fans are wary, not because falling in love makes female characters "weak".]

What I will say is that media does suffer from a very widespread problem with female characters, but it's not that they're too "masculine". Rather, it's that female characters are too "perfect".  They are the hyper-competent moral centres in all genres, rather than being exposed to the same flaws and range of traits as male characters. Being "removed" from feminine emotions could be considered part of this, but again I don't see female characters who are actually distant from their emotions. I'm thinking more about female characters who can be selfish, neurotic, abrasive, weird, without it being characterized as "cute" or with an air of moral condemnation. This is largely the fault of anti-feminism, of putting women on pedestals as a form of "benign" sexism.

[By the way, I don't think Kate Beaton's, Meredith Gran's, and Carly Monardo's strips about a similar subject were really mocking the "men with breasts" characterization so much as the fact that fightin' female characters are often shown to be "secretly" vulnerable at opportune moments, which is a Real Thing that I've seen far more often that the "impervious" female character. The strip where she throws the guy out the window is the only one that it feels like the "female warriors are not allowed to show human emotions" trope is being mocked. And the one with the character eating cookies isn't mocking the fact that girliness is disdained in female heroes, but that most female heroes end up being "secretly" girly, which is why she eats those damn cookies.]

In short, I see some of the issues brought up here, but anyone who uses the term "man with breasts" becomes impossible to take seriously. The issues have not been reversed, and I can't remember a female character who actually is as invulnerable as these people say. Multi-faceted characters are good for any gender, and beneficial human traits don't only belong to one sex.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Lair of the Pterobat's Top Ten Dragon Books

I've been a dragon fan my whole life. There's just something about the flexibility of the dragon image, with so many different shapes and intelligence levels, yet all of them being fundamentally recognizable as a dragon. Compared to many other monsters, there much less of an idea of what a dragon "ought" to be, and so there is a much wider spectrum of possibility without having to deal with flack at the same time.

Books have always been my primary connection to dragon lore, there being comparatively few movies and television series that focus around them. I tend to prefer stories about dragons rather than stories with dragons, although I'm flexible. I also enjoy a good coffee-table book of dragon art, although with so much dragon out there, I tend to get picky about designs and styles instead of embracing them all equally.

Here are ten dragon books of various types that helped nurture my interest in winged, fire-breathing reptiles. It's meant to be a personalized list rather than an overview, which is why books like The Hobbit or the Pern series are not included. I know what role those books played in founding fantasy literature and in determining the common characteristics of modern dragons, but I never loved them as much as I've done these other books, nor have they had as large an influence on me.

1. The Black Wing by Mary Kirchoff

The Black Wing is the literal number one, my all-time favourite dragon novel. This is a little embarrassing because it's a Dragonlance novel, that series of Tolkien-knockoff RPG tie-ins that fantasy readers are supposed to use as literary training wheels. However, The Black Wing is not the typical Dragonlance story, and there are practical as well as nostalgic reasons that it became like that ratty old teddy bear that you wouldn't throw away.

It's about a dragon named Khisanth, who dreams of doing great things but constantly screws up and never learns from her mistakes, and in the end, is exiled to an underground city where she will be killed by incoming heroes. Much of this anti-heroic arc seems unintentional, more a matter of the writer throwing out random plot points, but it makes for a striking contrast to most RPG tie-in novels, and justifies my interest. Clich├ęd fantasy rarely has characters who suffer from a complete lack of self-awareness, and whose endings amount to such mundane bleakness.

This and other factors make my favourite dragon in all of fiction. It's primarily because her story is so different from any other dragon story I've read, but also for her vivid personality, which is a combination of a bratty child's and a sadistic carnivore's. Khisanth also still has a dragon's traditional power and menace, providing an intriguing contrast to her constant failures, and satisfying my usual urge to have dragons who are to a point imposing. Khisanth basically defines what I wanted to see from sapient dragons: provided with a sense of power, but also with flawed "human" personalities.

Funnily, The Black Wing is actually a prequel. Khisanth originally appeared in Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first Dragonlance novel, in which she was a generic obstacle for the heroes to defeat. Her backstory and motivation was apparently invented whole cloth by The Black Wing, and is one of the few times when something like that worked. It was only years later that I discovered this, and Khisnath's entire story came together: The Black Wing was just counting down to her ignominious death. I would prefer The Black Wing to have been original and self-contained, but you can't have everything. As it is, the novel can be read while knowing nothing of Dragonlance history, since the fantasy background is generic enough and the novel gives one all the information they could need, but it misses the completion of Khisanth's folly.

2. The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

I'm cheating a little bit here, since the titular dragon is not the main focus of the book. Rather, he is a dark, perpetual presence in the life of Jane, a human girl stolen to fairyland, which has modernized along with the world outside. However, the mechanical dragon-jet Melanchthon is such an unforgettably devilish presence that I couldn't think of listing my favourite dragon books without acknowledging this novel.

Melanchthon is pure, delicious evil. While he usually does not act directly, he still manipulates. There is nothing cheesy or overwrought about him: a reader believes in his evil utterly and completely. This is especially notable because I swear up and down that I dislike writing dragons as purely saintly or demonic, but Melanchthon manages to get past my defences.

The Iron Dragon's Daughter is also a favourite novel in general. The imagining of modern faerie is strange and vivid, and though the book is very dark and often depraved, it does not feel gratuitously so. Because Jane's final reward is to return home from this bizarre, brooding world, The Iron Dragon's Daughter is also an excitingly vicious attack on changeling fantasies and pastoral fantasy journeys, but can simply be read as its own very strange story.

3. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Guards! Guards! was the first Discworld novel I ever read. I originally picked it up because of the dragon angle, but stayed with the rest of the series because of how funny and sophisticated it was. This book introduced the original Night Watch characters, including Sam Vimes, and they're great characters, too: the Night Watch books remain my favourite Discworld sub-series.

 But, I'll admit, it's still the dragon angle that gives Guards! Guards! an extra flavour. A typical fantasy dragon is summoned to the city of Ankh-Morpork, to use as a weapon to change the structure of government. But things get out of hand, while the washed-up remains of the City Watch try to deal with the intrusion into their not-really-all-that-fair city.

The novel takes apart the classical dragon story to show just how absurd its aspects are: a functional dragon must either "cheat" the laws of physics by constantly absorbing magic, or be a tiny chemical-filled beastie with a tendency towards exploding. A city gets along (relatively) fine without a dragonslayer-king, or is just screwed up enough to make a dragon its king. The best sacrificial maiden is a middle-aged keeper of dragon kennels, raising small dragons in a parody of championship dog breeding. And so on. It's a well-constructed story with multiple levels of humour and a surprise ending.

4. Miss Fanshawe and the Great Dragon Adventure by Sue Scullard

This is a picture book that haunted my childhood from grade school onward. Explorer Harriet Fanshawe captures a dragon and her egg for display on the Buckingham Palace grounds, only to have the egg stolen by a pterosaur-bird that Fanshawe chases into the bowels of the Earth. The Earth's core is heated by the constant fire of captured dragons, but Fanshawe manages to rescue the new hatchling and ride him to the surface. Monstrous animals kill the birds pursuing them, until they arrive safely at the Palace, where the dragons are soon set free.

Many pages have a hole in the middle that offers a peek into the next image, with all the art aligning perfectly, such flying doves becoming the pattern upon a giant serpent. The art is wonderful, sumptuously detailed while often being stylized. I was fascinated by the dragons and the ptero-birds, but also the giant serpent, the huge panther with a hide full of eye-spots, and the cobweb-festooned underground city. Some examples here.

5.    Dragoncharm/Dragonstorm/Dragonflame by Graham Edwards

Graham Edward's UK trilogy of novels, billed pompously as "The Ultimate Dragon Saga" details the multi-part transformation of the world from a mythical prehistory into the patterns we know it today, in which most of the cast members are dragons. It begins with a war between magic-using and non-magical dragons, with the main character being the orphan "Natural" dragon Fortune, but soon evolves into the larger storylines, as various dragons try to seize power during these transitions.

My feelings about these are books are mixed. On one hand, the novels suffer from flat characters whose traits and development are often told rather than shown, while many other characters are entirely generic or unchanging. For example, I struggle to describe what kind of personality Fortune actually has, and he is the main character. On the other, there is tremendous imagination put into the imagery and concepts, and I get sucked in time after time. I like these novels, but they're far from flawless.

Other readers might be put off by the very Disney feel to the novels, combining sentimental softness with scenes of livid darkness. These dragons also lack their traditional power, being relatively small creatures (roughly the size of men), and very much at the mercy of the tremendous forces around them. This is deliberate, since the author set out to write something more along the lines of an animal fantasy such as Watership Down, which includes some presumptions of vulnerability. It doesn't quite sit well with me, but the novels are still entertaining.

6.    The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson

Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons might be the oldest entry in the "Author Outlines a Concept for a Dragon Species and Places it in a Richly-Illustrated Book" sub-sub genre of dragon books, and it's still one of the best. Modern audiences might be more familiar with his concept as integrated into the Rankin-Bass animated film The Flight of Dragons, but I would recommend the book to anyone whether or not they've seen the film, since the book goes into far greater detail, and is also a darker and less romantic picture of dragons than the animated version.

Peter Dickisnon's dragons are non-sapient, living dirigibles of sorts, whose fire breath, poisonous blood, and flight ability are all part of an elaborate chemical system inside an almost hollow body. He outlines many of the physical problems inherent to dragons as we imagine them, and the new problems inherent to dragons as he imagines them (they are creatures of great power, but also of a delicate and volatile physiology).

The text is a fascinating read, making its reasoning clear without scientific jargon. Dickinson tries to demonstrate the way that these biological dragon traits have been interpreted in legends, forming a strong picture of an imaginary dragon species. Sometimes he creates traits that seem biologically unsound in order to match with the stories, such as introducing innate cannibalism into an already small population, but it is overall a sound concept.

As a side note, what we consider "dragons" are actually the males of the species, with the females being flightless, amphibious, and humanoid, which will be a disappointment to some female dragon fans, even if Dickinson does explain it. Female dragons are only illustrated twice in the book, and not as clearly.

Wayne Anderson's artwork deserves a special mention. His male dragons are huge, but with fat bodies, finlike wings, and short, thin limbs. While Dickinson presents the illustrations as theoretical constructions (speculating that the tubular shape of a Chinese dragon could actually be more accurate), they match well with his descriptions, not to mention being wonderful on their own. Anderson gives beauty to the unromantic dragon designs, with stylized forms full of eccentric detail. There are plenty of incidental illustrations and page garnishes that are also beautiful, even if they don't match with the text or anything else in the book.

7.    The Book of the Dragon by Ciruelo Carabal (art) and Montse Sant (text)

Unlike The Flight of Dragons, where the centrepiece is Dickinson's text, The Book of the Dragon is designed first and foremost to showcase Ciruelo's dragon art. Choosing The Flight of Dragons to rank higher is not a matter of preferring text over art, however, but because Cireulo's and Montse Sant's conception of dragons is far more typical than Dickinson's, in both visual and written terms.

The art is the book's greatest strength. In contrast to Wayne Anderson's quirky style, the Ciruelo dragon is the quintessential modern dragon: four legs, two bat wings, a sleek body, long muzzle, finned ears, and back-pointing horns. I chose Dickinson's living blimps above these ones because of their uniqueness, but there's also something comforting about the more traditional design, and Ciruelo's is a gorgeously drawn rendition.

However, where the book loses points is in the text. Written by Montse Saint (though the credit is absent from some covers), unclear how much of it was Ciruelo's idea, it is a largely bland overview of a dragon species. The worst parts are the syrupy passages about dragons as saintly figures of unspoilt nature, rendered extinct by nebulous human folly. This image of dragons is as bad as that of dragons as rampaging monsters, since both are too boring and simple.

There's also this weird idea that female dragons are incredibly rare, and that as a result, the male dragons, must "share" the scarce females in a mating flight after which she mates with one, quickly lays an egg, and goes to the next male, a succession in which only one female egg is conceived. As a result of this lack of mates, male dragons develop attachments to human females, which they keep as pampered, bejewelled "pets" and may fall in love with (especially in the case of the soft-hearted Water Dragons). This was likely used to explain several mythological tropes, but it's still creepy and makes no biological sense.

Part of the book is also devoted to retellings of dragon legends, which are often sanitized, or rewritten to include their conceptual dragon species. For example, the legend of Hercules and the Golden Apples has Ladon the dragon survive and lecture the hapless Atlas; retelling the legend of Sybaris explicitly refers to the antagonist as a Water Dragon of Ciruelo's breed. The book also recalls modern dragon stories: Tolkien, Earthsea, and, for some reason, Dragonlance, though these get a few pages each and are filled with inaccuracies.

8.    The Dragon Book: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois

I have read several dragon anthologies over the years, including Dragon Fantastic, Dragons of Light, Dragons of Darkness, and A Dragon-Lover's Treasury of the Fantastic. All of them have had great stories, forgettable ones, and bad ones. However, The Dragon Book, although not perfect, has a notable number of creative and interesting dragon stories, and so needed a place on this list.

9.    Saint George and The Dragon, Retold by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, adapted from Edmund Speser's The Farie Queene

Like many modern dragon fans, I don't have much taste for the standard tale of dragonslaying. It's not about the evil men being mean to the poor saintly dragons, but that it's a pretty simple, white, predictable story. Hodges and Hyman's version of the Saint George legend, however, manages to succeed through the sheer power of Hyman's art, which gives a powerful and somehow melancholy feel to the story, even though there are no surprises in the plot. Hyman's dragon, in particular, though it is only seen on three pages (including the cover) has a striking appearance that makes one consider whether a dragon is best saved for the climax, too majestic to appear otherwise.

10.    A Book Dragon by Don Kushner

We close off this list with something that lacks theoretical artistic merit, and just makes me happy. A Book Dragon is a children's novel about a young dragon named Nonesuch, who discovers that dragons shrink by not eating (!), and eventually makes his home inside an illuminated manuscript, adopting it as his dragon treasure. He stays with the book as it changes hands throughout human history, chatting sometimes with the spirit of his cynical grandmother. It's a charming little story that speaks to my inner bibliophile, even if the ending involves Nonesuch returning to a large size to devour the man who wants to foreclose the used bookshop that his book now resides in. I can't stand that kind of corporation vs. little guy cheesiness, but it can't spoil the whole book.

Honourable Mentions:

Anne McAffrey and John Howe's A Diversity of Dragons has sumptuous illustrations by Howe, but there were not enough of them, and frequently featured unappealing squat or wormlike dragons, sometimes appearing only in the corners of drawings. I also didn't like the framing story, where a man who may have a dragon on his property goes to McAffrey for help, and she and her friend Eppie end up taking the farmer on a crash course in dragon stories, trying to determine what the man has found. It just seemed like a weird self-aggrandizement by McAffrey, especially since her own novels are also spotlighted and given an illustration by Howe.

Patricia C. Werde's Dealing with Dragons is a fun book, and its dragons are likable, but there's not enough that's striking about it as a "dragon story". It's also more Cimorene's story than Kazul's, anyway.

E.E. Knight's Age of Fire series has some very good ideas, and I  love the way the character of the Copper started, but the six novels ultimately feel stretched-out and, despite being very high-concept, mostly unmemorable. So many scenes and character arcs lack ultimate payoff, and many plot threads are tied up too quickly.

Chris Cymri's Dragon Reforged is like The Black Wing in that it's a cheap, forgotten novel that manages to tug at a dragon-lover's heartstrings. It's about an android dragon and his quest for humanity, which is a good hook, but the story feels not quite whole. Furthermore, I haven't read the first part of the story, found in the novel, Dragons Can Only Rust, and I should see them both to make a final decision about their quality.

Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw does get points for novelty, trying for a Victorian romance starring slightly anthropomorphic dragons, but I didn't feel any strong resonance with it. It's a good novel, just not one I want to put on a pedestal.