Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Book Review: Death Cloud

Book Review: 'Death Cloud' by Michael Mannion

3 / 5 Stars

'Death Cloud' was first published in the UK in 1976; this New English Library paperback version (160 pp) was released in September 1977, and features a memorable cover illustration by Tim White:

The novel is set in the mid-70s in the small college town of Dorchester, Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh. Newlyweds Paul McLain and his wife Denise have moved to Dorchester in order for Paul to begin graduate school at the University located there.

Paul and his wife enjoy the rural character of the town and the abundant Fall foliage. But as they settle into life as a married couple, they begin to notice some unpleasant aspects of life in Dorchester.....the nasty smell in the air generated by the factories, and, in the outskirts of town, a strange black cloud that hangs low in the air, bringing with it a dark fog and temperatures noticeably warmer than the ambient air.

When an elderly neighbor nearly dies from a respiratory attack brought on by the appearance of the black fog, Paul decides to team up with Kevin Campbell, a young faculty member and environmental scientist, to investigate the nature of the black cloud. This soon brings them into conflict with the powers that be in Dorchester: wealthy industrialists and businessmen who stand to lose their profits should action be taken to curtail factory output to reduce pollution.

Disheartened by the hostility of the town fathers, Paul McLain resolves to abandon his scientific inquiries into the black cloud and focus on finishing his graduate studies. But he finds the threat of the cloud is impossible to ignore once its thick, choking fogs begin to smother Dorchester with increasing regularity........and soon, even the healthiest of the town's residents will come to know the special fear that comes with the arrival of the Death Cloud....

'Death Cloud' is one of those quintessential New English Library volumes from the 70s that takes an interesting premise, and does just enough with it to get by. 

Much of Michael Mannion's narrative is taken up with exploring the emotional and psychological travails of Paul McLain and his wife, who fears that his efforts to alert the community to the dangers of pollution will lead to his expulsion from the University. There are frequent scenes of marital arguments, tearful make-up sessions, followed in due course by another round of arguments. 

The eponymous Cloud is more of an abstract, vaguely realized plot device driving the actions of the characters, than a scientific exploration of environmental disaster. This tends to make the middle sections of the novel slow going, even given the book's comparatively short length.

'Death Cloud' does partly redeem itself in the closing chapters, as calamity approaches Dorchester and Paul McLain and his fellow activists find themselves engaged in desperate struggle to warn the town and its skeptical leaders. Mannion's handling of the plot is at its best in these closing chapters, which are modeled to some extent on the real life Eco-disaster that took place in the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, in 1948.

Street scene in Donora, Pennsylvania during the smog disaster of October 1948

The verdict ? As a 70s Eco-disaster novel, 'Death Cloud' is passable, if not particularly memorable. It's worth picking up if you happen to see a copy on the shelves of your favorite used bookstore, but I can't recommend making a special effort to search it out.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Heavy Metal magazine October 1985

'Heavy Metal' magazine October 1985

October, 1985, and on FM radio, Sunset Grill, by Don Henley, is in heavy rotation. The song, which I consider one of Henley's best ever, was a track on his 1984 album Building the Perfect Beast. Released as a single in 1985, it got as high as number 22 on the Hot 100 chart in October, 1985.

According to Henley, the song was about ".....the disappearance of a certain way of life and of doing business and of people relating to each other on a one-to-one, personal level....It's about living in a world of corporations and franchises. The small shopkeeper in the city is being put out of business."

The October 1985 issue of Heavy Metal magazine is on the stands.....with a cheesecake cover by Greg Hildebrant.

The contents of this issue make clear the ongoing trend by the editorial staff to shift the magazine's focus from high-quality sf and fantasy material, and more into cartoony, softcore porn.......'Mara's Edge' by Riggenberg and Knight, Jr., and 'Slot Machine' by Altuna, being good examples. The October 1985 issue is a far cry from the outstanding H. P. Lovecraft-themed issue of October 1979.........

There still is some worthwhile material in the magazine: 'Weird Soup', by Nicola Cuti, another installment of 'Rebel' by Pepe Moreno, and 'Timescooter' by Juan Gimenez. 

'Timescooter' is posted below.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Den: Neverwhere

Den: Neverwhere
by Richard Corben
Catalan Communications 1984

'Den' started out as a short animated film Richard Corben made in 1968. In 1975 - 1976, a 12-part Den: Neverwhere comic was printed in the French magazine Metal Hurlant; an English language translation was reprinted in the U. S. magazine Heavy Metal in 1977 - 1978.

This Catalan Communciations trade paperback compiles all the Den: Neverwhere episodes in a well-made book, with quality stock paper and reproductions. There is an Introduction by Philip Jose Farmer.

It goes without saying that the Den feature in Heavy Metal was a quintessential part of late 70s stoner culture, and a major factor in the magazine's initial popularity.

Looking at Den 40 years later, it can be easy to regard it as a quaint example of a 70s 'underground' comic gone aboveground into some degree of respectability.......a comic designed to market T & A to the male-under-30 readership.

It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss Den in this manner, It's best to regard it as a product of its times, when sf and fantasy comics with an 'adult' sensibility were commonplace in European pop culture, but considered an aberrant sideline for U.S. publishers. That is why Heavy Metal and Den had the impact they did, back in 1977.

It's true that Den's plot - essentially a recycling of the planetary romance stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard - was simple and unadorned, designed to appeal to males under 30 (who likely got high on a regular basis). But the fact that Den addressed the suppressed ids of that demographic shouldn't detract from the advances its artwork - and in particular, its color - brought to comics.

Corben's unique acetate-overlay technique for color printing gives his illustrations a visual impact that would not be duplicated until the comics industry began to adopt the use of computer-generated coloring techniques in the mid-80s. As Corben explains it: 

I invented a techinque - my system of color overlays - which apparently nobody can understand, but it's really very simple. The luminescent quality of my color overlays is derived from the way I combine the colors. I shoot the photomechanical separations myself, to a slightly higher contrast than a normal photo engraver would do. This makes the colors appear brighter. I'm excited when I do finally see the colors. I can see if my ideas work well or not so well.

Den: Neverwhere works in a lot of Corben's 'cinematic' visual style, by using different points of view and perspectives, along with a more imaginative approach to the use of his layouts and page designs. 
Unfortunately, 'Den: Neverwhere' has long been out of print, and copies have very steep asking prices. Assembling the relevant issues of Heavy Metal is impractical for much the same reason. Hopefully you can luck out like I did and find a copy for an affordable price on the shelves of your local comics shop. 

Otherwise, we can only hope that a publisher like the U. K. 's Titan Books, or the U. S. New Comic Company, would be willing to reprint the series..........

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book Review: Assassin of Gor

Book Review: 'Assassin of Gor' by John Norman
2 / 5 Stars

‘Assassin of Gor’ is No. 5 in the series, and first was published in 1970. This Ballantine Books paperback version (409 pp) was published in September 1978, and features a quintessential ‘Gor’ cover illustration by Boris Vallejo.

[‘John Norman’ is of course the pen name of the philosophy professor John Eric Lange.]

I remember buying and reading this book 'way back in September of ’78, and thereafter stowing it away in my book collection….until I recently decided to take it from the shelf and re-read it.

So, how is ‘Assassin of Gor’ when read the second time, 36 years later ?

The answer is……….not all that great.

The novel opens with a ‘teaser’ chapter, in which our hero Tarl Cabot is murdered by a cowardly attack. It is not disclosing any spoiler to say that the victim was not, after all, Tarl Cabot, but someone who resembled him enough to be the target of an assassination.

In an effort to uncover the conspiracy that arranged for his murder,Tarl Cabot decides to go undercover, assuming the guise of one ‘Kuurus’, a member of the Assassin caste. This subterfuge will allow Cabot to infiltrate the household of Cernus of Ar, the wealthiest, most influential, most cunning, and most cruel slave tycoon on the planet of Gor.

Cernus, it seems, is covertly working for The Others (the alien race that is competing with the Priest-Kings to take over Gor). Kuurus’s mission: find out what Cernus is doing for The Others….and in the course of so doing, uncover whatever role Cernus had in plotting the murder of Tarl Cabot……..

Criticizing John Norman’s prose style has been done in such completeness by the sci-fi community in the years since the Gor books first were written that for me to add any of my own complaints is utterly superfluous. 

But what strikes me after reading ‘Assassin of Gor’ for the second time in 36 years is how slavishly Norman followed the narrative style of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the John Carter of Mars / Barsoom books. Like Burroughs, Norman regularly inserts into his narrative lengthy chunks of didactic exposition on any and all topics of Gorean culture.

For example, early on in ‘Assassins’, there is an exposition on the design, construction, use, and sociological importance of Gorean locks...... that takes up nearly two pages ….?!

Elsewhere in ‘Assassins’, the description of the logistics of the transportation of a slave girl from one locale to another takes up nearly two pages of exposition. A mini-dissertation on the organization and domestic arrangments of Cernus’s household takes up nearly four pages. A didactic passage on the design of a tarn-racing course takes up nearly three pages, and is one of the most confusingly worded segments of text I ever have encountered in a sci-fi novel.

And, of course, whenever Norman turns to his favorite fetish, the slave – girl culture that underpins the Gor novels, the exposition goes on for page after tedious page….

I can understand that some degree of exposition is necessary in a fantasy or science fiction novel, as it is part of the requisite world-building that defines these genera of literature. But that John Norman should find it vital to mimic the style of novels Edgar Rice Burroughs first began publishing in 1912 is a clear signal of unimaginative literary ‘recycling’.

To be fair, there are sections of ‘Assassins of Gor’ that offer the action and adventure that are part and parcel of the so-called ‘planetary romance’ novel. But at over 400 pages in length, the book suffers from an excess of verbiage.

Summing up ? ‘Assassin of Gor’ is one of those books that was aimed at an audience of male readers under the age of 25, a readership that wasn’t – and still isn’t – looking for timeless literary quality. As such, the Gor novels were extremely successful commercially. 

But with age comes wisdom, and it’s impossible to recapture the naivete that made ‘Assassins’ tolerable the first time around……….. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

'The Bus'

'The Bus' by Paul Kirchner

from the August 1985 issue of Heavy Metal

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Demon in a Silvered Glass Part Three

Demon in a Silvered Glass
Part three of three
by John Bolton (art) and Doug Moench (story)
Bizarre Adventures (Marvel / Curtis) No. 26, May 1981

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Demon in a Silvered Glass Part Two

Demon in a Silvered Glass
Part two of three
by John Bolton (art) and Doug Moench (story)
Bizarre Adventures (Marvel / Curtis) No. 26, May 1981