Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Tower King episodes 1 - 3

The Tower King
episodes 1 - 3
Alan Hebden (writer)
Jose Ortiz (artist)
Eagle (UK) 1982

This is another hard-to-find gem of British comics.

'The Tower King' was serialized in 24, three-page chapters in the UK Boy's Paper Eagle in 1982. Featuring a post-apocalyptic storyline crafted by veteran 2000 AD writer Alan Hebden (Meltdown Man, Harry20 on the Rock), and outstanding artwork by Jose Ortiz, 'The Tower King' was essentially unknown to American comics readers. Which is unfortunate, because is as good as (if not superior to) many US comics of the same era.

In 2014 the UK specialty publisher Hibernia Comics issued an 80-page compilation of the entire run of 'The Tower King', but only a small number of copies were produced, making it a genuine rarity.

Posted below are the first three episodes of 'The Tower King'. I'll post additional episodes in the coming weeks. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

In the Box in the Back of the Store

In the Box in the Back of the Store

Last weekend I traveled to a comic book shop in Fredericksburg, Virginia. It's only about 70 minutes away from where I live, but once you reach the main drag (i.e., Route 3) leading into town, driving in Fredericksburg on a Saturday afternoon is an exercise in self-flagellation. It's all about stopping at intersections every 100 yards  .........with a Wal-Mart tractor-trailer right in front of you going at 10 miles an hour, and gassing you with its exhaust fumes.

The area's population has grown so exponentially that the existing road network can't handle it. And it's only going to get worse, as new subdivisions sprout up as far west as Chancellorsville and the WIlderness, giving the people who choose to live there a 2 1/2 hour one-way commute north to the metro DC area (if there hasn't been an accident on Northbound I-95, that is).

Anyways........... in the back of the store, on a table loaded with old cardboard boxes containing old books, I found some treasures that made the hassle of driving worthwhile. These all were used books, now rare and hard to find, printed in the 70s and 80 from publishers like Catalan and NBM. They had that peculiar smell that signals they came from a smoker's home...........

Celtia (1975), printed in Ireland by De Danann Press of Dublin, is the first book to showcase (albeit only in black and white) the art of Jim Fitzpatrick.

Lakota (1996) from Treasure Chest Books, Tucson, Arizona, is from Brazilian artist Sergio Macedo. If you read Heavy Metal magazine at all during the 1970s then you'll recognize Macedo as the creator of the fantastic comics 'Psychorock' and 'Telefield'.

Tex Arcana (1987) from Catalan Communications compiles a set of strips that first appeared in Heavy Metal in the early 80s. I can't say I found the tongue-in-cheek 'Gothic Western' storyline of Tex Arcana to be all that captivating but there's no denying the meticulous artistic skill employed by John Findley.

Richard Corben: Flights into Fantasy is a real obscurity. It was issued in 1981 by publisher Thumb Tack Books. Copiously illustrated in black and white and color, it's an overview of the comics, album covers, book covers, magazine covers, and other works Corben did up to the early 80s.

The Great Walls of Samaris (1987), from NBM, is an English translation of a 1983 bande dessinee from the Belgian writer Benoit Peeters and artist francois Schuiten. 'Great Walls' is the first volume in the 'The Obscure Cities' series. It also will be familiar to readers of early 80s issues of Heavy Metal

Then, there is Views (1975), by Roger Dean. Dean created the publishing imprint Dragon's Dream in order to make real his idea for a well-produced book that would showcase his artistic endeavors. Views of course went on to become a staple of the well-read 70's stoner's library, sitting on the shelf alongside such titles as Eschatus by Bruce Pennington, Beauty and the Beast by Chris Achilleos, and Visions by Walter Hopps.

So there you have never know what you might find when you look through those battered cardboard boxes in the back of the store................

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Book Review: Tales to Astonish

Book Review: 'Tales to Astonish' by Ronin Ro

4 / 5 Stars

'Tales to Astonish' (298 pp) was published in hardback by Bloomsbury in 2004. 

Author Ronin Ro (I have a faint suspicion that the name is a pseudonym) has written a number of nonfiction works, many of them on rap music and rap musicians. In 2000 he  published a novel, titled 'Street Sweeper', which has a tie-in CD (?!) of rap songs by various artists, including Ludacris and Ja Rule.  

'Tales' is a biography of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the two men who, of course, were responsible for bringing in the Marvel Age of Comics with their collaborative effort on the inaugural issue of Fantastic Four in 1961, and the string of innovative titles that followed. 

Ro covers the lives of each man, from their birth in modest circumstances in New York City, up to 2004 (Jack Kirby died in 1994, ten years after the book was published, while Stan Lee of course passed away in late 2018).

I found the book to be a very engaging read, one that not only showcases Kirby and Lee, but also the other artists they interacted with, and businessmen that they worked for. Ro documents he triumphs and conflicts that characterized the collaboration between the two men in an objective manner, leaving it for the reader to decide whether Kirby's multiple grievances against Lee and Marvel were as justifiable as they have been made out to be.

The book is rich with 'insider' anecdotes that illuminate what went on 'behind the scenes' in the offices of Marvel and DC. 

Where 'Tales' fails to achieve a five-star rating is in its lack of detailed sourcing; there are no endnotes or footnotes. The book's brief bibliography states that Ronin Ro interviewed a large number of Kirby and Lee's associates; however, there are no details given on when and where the interviews were conducted (nor who conducted them), nor whether the interviews were in-person, or generated from email exchanges. 

The book also suffers from a dearth of illustrations. While it's highly likely that Ro faced difficulties in securing permissions from Marvel and DC to reproduce comic book covers and interior art, it's disappointing that he couldn't access even a small number of personal / open source photographs of the major characters. 

Summing up, if you're a fan of Marvel comics, Jack Kirby, or Stan Lee, then 'Tales to Astonish' may be worth picking up (used copies can be had online for modest prices). Just be aware that the lack of detailed sourcing means it has limited value as a reference work.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

You Need Friends

You Need Friends
by Larry Watson (story) and Massimo Belardinelli (art)
2000 AD, prog 646 (September 30 1989)

Monday, May 13, 2019

Thin Lizzy: Lizzy Killers

Thin Lizzy: Lizzy Killers
album cover illustration by Jim Fitzpatrick, 1980

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Star Trek / X Men

Star Trek / X Men
Marvel Comics, December 1996

Crossovers were a big thing for the comics of the 1990s, but I confess I was unaware of this one until I read about it in the pages of American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s.

The book was intended as a launch vehicle for a line of 'Paramount' comics from Marvel that relied heavily on the Star Trek franchise (the line was discontinued in 1998).

Star Trek / X Men was written by Scott Lobdell and illustrated by four different artists, five inkers, another five 'ink assists' personnel, four colorists, and one letterer. 

Even with all this talent, the reality is that almost half of this comic's 64 pages are taken up with advertisements and pinups.

I won't give away any spoilers, save to say that the 'Star Trek' backstory is provided by the 1966 episode 'Where No Man Has Gone Before'. The X-Men backstory has something to do with one of those oberblown, overwritten storylines involving the Shi'ar Empire. For this storyline, there a rift in spacetime that allows two different universes to intrude on one another, and - of course - the rift brings with it a Threat to All Existence.

However weighty the major premise, Lobdell's script doesn't try to take itself too seriously (fortunately). There are plenty of little in-jokes and allusions that will be readily acknowledged by fans of the TV show. The artwork is of good quality, although it's very 'Nineties' in its derivation from the illustrative styles of the stalwarts of that decade such as Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee.

Summing up, Star Trek / X Men does what it was intended to do, which is to garner fanboy enthusiasm for the planned Paramount Comics imprint. But looking through the second half of the book and seeing all the planned titles (Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, Star Trek: Unlimited, Star Trek: Early Voyages, and the one-shot Star Trek: Mirror Mirror, is to realize that shortly before it went bankrupt, Marvel Comics had no inkling of how oversaturated the comic book market was, and how profoundly that market had been altered since the heady days of the early 90s.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Book Review: The Furies

Book Review: 'The Furies' by Keith Roberts
5 / 5 Stars

'The Furies' was serialized in the UK digest Science Fantasy in 1965, then published in novel form in the UK in 1966 by Hart-Davis. This US edition (192 pp) was released by Berkley Books in January 1966; the striking cover art, among the best on any sci-fi paperback of the 1960s, is by Paul Lehr.

The novel is set in the UK in the late 60s. First-person narrator Bill Sampson earns a comfortable living as a comic book artist. Accompanied by his Great Dane 'Sek', Sampson is a familiar figure in his small Wiltshire town of Brockledean.

As the novel opens it's a fine day in late June, and Sampson is having a beer at the Basketmaker's Arms, the local pub. There a fellow patron shows him a provocative newspaper story about an unusual incident in Dorset: a farmer had a near-fatal encounter with a wasp a yard in length, with a foot-long stinger.

It soon transpires that this is no solitary event; reports of the giant wasps begin to trickle in from other parts of the UK, all with the same ominous implication: the wasps - or, as they come to be called, the Furies - attack humans and larger animals on sight.

As Bill Sampson is about to discover, his world has been entities unlike any Mankind ever has faced before........

'The Furies' is worthy of five stars. Although it's the first novel Keith Roberts ever published it's also his best, and one of the best sf novels of the 1960s.

Perhaps because it was his first novel, Roberts writes with a clear, declarative style that is much like a documentary in its approach to narrating the trials and tribulations of Bill Sampson and his fellow survivors of the insect invasion. The more oblique prose style that Roberts would come to employ in his later novels such as PavaneThe Chalk GiantsThe Grain Kings, and Kiteworld is absent in the pages of The Furies; the plot unfolds at a quick pace, while effectively communicating the atmosphere of a UK in the aftermath of an apocalypse unlike those usually rendered in the genre. 

Another aspect of The Furies that makes it such an effective novel is its refusal to offer succor in the form of the cliches of the genre that were still in place during the mid-60s. 

Without disclosing any spoilers, I will say that The Furies resolutely avoids contrivance: there is no entomological genius who discovers a hitherto unknown vulnerability that, overnight, is exploited to bring about the defeat of the wasps. There is no miraculous intervention in the form of a microbe that is sprayed across the countryside to kill the invaders. There is no salvation in the form of a visit from omnipotent aliens who kindly implement the safe and effective extermination of a planet-wide bug infestation. In The Furies, there are only the hapless survivors, and their struggle to live for another day.

Summing up, The Furies retains its status as a sci-fi classic more than 50 years since its publication. While copies of the paperback in good condition can be quite pricey, if you see this on the store shelves, it's very much worth picking up. 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Book of Alien

The Book of Alien
by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross
Heavy Metal Books 
May 1, 1979

Forty years ago, 20th Century Fox was kicking off a major marketing campaign for the movie Alien, which was going to premiere on May 25, 1979. 

By today's standards the campaign was rather modest, but remember, Fox was just beginning to learn the lessons of the success of Star Wars two years previously.

As well, Alien was rated R, which meant that Fox couldn't tap the children's market with its lucrative franchises for toys, thermoses, lunch boxes, bedsheets, clothing, dishware, etc. Kenner did release an 18" Alien toy, but it prompted an outcry from angry parents

Ahhhh, those were the days.............

Which brings me to 'The Book of Alien'. I purchased the original book back in '79, but lost it over the ensuing years. During that time the book went out of print and used copies in good condition became quite exorbitant.

And so, for this post, I'm relying on a copy that was published in the UK by Star Books. These copies can be purchased for a modest price at your usual online vendors. 

In May, 2012 Titan Books reissued the book, and these copies also are quite affordable.

'The Book of Alien' (112 pp) contains a wealth of behind-the-scenes photographs and artwork, with remarks about the process of making the film from Ridley Scott, Dan O'Bannon, Ron Cobb, Roger Christian, and H. R. Giger, among others.

There are sure to be at least some tidbits and anecdotes within the pages of 'The Book of Alien' that are new to you, and illustrate some of the complexities and challenges that had to be overcome back in the days when computer-generated special effects really didn't exist. Indeed, it's a testament to the skill of the producers that forty years later, the film retains its effectiveness as a sci-fi horror feature.

'The Book of Alien' will be worth its while to Baby Boomers and sci-fi fans who remember the excitement associated with the film back in those long-ago days...........but even if you weren't around back then, it's a good way to see how far things have come since 1979. But the craftsmanship used in the making of Alien has its lessons even for film-makers of today, in my humble opinion.

Tying in with the film's 40th anniversary, Titan will be releasing a deluxe hardcover volume titled 'The Making of Alien' that goes above and beyond 'The Book of Alien'. 'The Making of Alien' is scheduled for a July 23 release, and is priced (tentatively) at $37.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Gimme an Inch Girl

Gimme an Inch Girl
by Ian Matthews
May 1979

'Gimme an Inch Girl', from the 1978 album Stealin' Home, was the followup single to Matthew's top 40 hit 'Shake It'.

Originally written and recorded by Robert Palmer in 1975 as 'Give Me An Inch' on Palmer's album Pressure Drop, Matthews's version of the song peaked at number 67 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in late April, 1979. 

A Commenter at YouTube remarked that the song sounds like something from the 'Alan Parsons Project', and I have to agree. Featuring lots of moody reverb, and a well-crafted guitar solo, this song is a polar opposite from the bouncy pop of 'Shake It'.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Book Review: Swords Against Darkness

Book Review: 'Swords Against Darkness' edited by Andrew J. Offutt
3 / 5 Stars

'Swords Against Darkness' (288 pp) was published by Zebra Books in February, 1977. It was the first of what would eventually be 5 'Swords Against Darkness' volumes. The dramatic cover art is by Frank Frazetta.

Andrew J. Offutt (1934 - 2014) was of course a one-man publishing factory in the 70s; his main occupation was in churning out as many as 10 sleaze paperbacks per year, a practice he curtailed only in the mid-80s, when the genre began to die out. But he did give considerable effort to editing and writing sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks throughout the 70s, particularly for lower-budget publisher Zebra Books.

'Swords Against Darkness' was an anthology of tales emphasizing the sword-and-sorcery genre. Most of the contributors were fairly new to fiction writing, which means that readers should be prepared for a dose of sometimes Purple prose...........

My capsule summaries of the contents:

Nekht Semerkeht, by Robert E. Howard and Andrew J. Offutt: even by 1977 'unpublished' or half-completed manuscripts by Robert E. Howard still were being 'discovered' by literary agent Glenn Lord. Offutt himself finished off this one, which is about a Spanish conquistador who finds a lost city, albeit one ruled by a powerful sorcerer.

The Tale of Hauk, by Poul Anderson: Norse lore and myth combine in this story set in medieval Norway. Anderson was the most accomplished of the writers in this anthology, and 'Hauk' is the standout contribution.

The Smile of Oisia, by Geo W. Proctor: Proctor's hero 'Nalcon' joins forces with a red-haired witch to retrieve a fabled mask of power. This is an early story from Proctor and its prose can be a struggle to get through, although it does have a satisfying denouement. 

Pride of the Fleet, by Bruce Jones: melding humor with sci-fi, author Jones takes aim at the concept of 'cosplay' (although in 1977 the term really didn't exist). 

Straggler from Atlantis, by Manly Wade Wellman: Kardios, swordsman and adventurer from the sunken city of Atlantis, comes to the aid of a race of giants endangered by a unique type of monster. One of the better stories in the anthology.

The Ring of Set, by Richard Tierney: this story takes place in Rome during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. Simon the wizard pursues an artifact with the power to plunge all of mankind into chaos and despair. Another of the better entries in the anthology.

Laragut's Bane, by Raul Garcia Capella: a fisherman battles a curse that threatens his daughter. A subdued, well-written tale that seems more in keeping with the fantasy stories Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in the the 70s, than a Conan-style sword and sorcery adventure.

Dragon's Teeth, by David Drake: one of the earliest short stories from author Drake, and one of the earliest of his stories to feature his character Vettius, the Roman legionary. In 'Dragon's Teeth', Vettius confronts a Sarmatian sorcerer. The prose can be stilted at times, but the story is an effective melding of sword and sorcery with a background in 'real' history.

The Sustenance of Hoak, by Ramsey J. Campbell: the very first of the four stories featuring his 'Ryre' the swordsman character, that Campbell wrote in the late 70s. In this tale, Ryre visits a remote jungle village that harbors a sinister secret; the horror content is creepy enough to make 'Hoak' another of the better entries in the anthology.

Summing up, 'Swords Against Darkness' ably represents the sword and sorcery genre as it stood in the late 70s. It was a genre that was still relatively unsophisticated in terms of literary quality, but the signs were there that the genre was undergoing the necessary maturation from its pulp origins into something with a higher level of craftsmanship on the part of its practitioners.