Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Saturday, December 20, 2008
When ‘Origins of Marvel Comics” was published in 1974 by Simon and Schuster, there were no such things as ‘graphic novels’ on the store shelves. Indeed, comic books were still mostly relegated to appearing on the wire racks stationed in drug and ‘five and dime’ stores; the idea that a reputable book store would stock a healthy supply of comic books was quite unusual. The revolution in comics retailing that would result in the creation of small shops devoted to selling both new and old comics (as opposed to ripping off their covers, returning them for credit, and then tossing the coverless comics in the trash) was still several years away.
Comics companies and their publishers were aware that in Europe, ‘graphic novels’, in which several issues of comics were compiled between hardboard or trade paperback covers, were a very common form of retailing and such books were often handsomely produced. But most publishers in the US still considered comics to be a ‘kids’ publication, and the thought of devoting effort to reprinting them in a higher-priced, ‘legitimate’ book format didn’t generate much enthusiasm.
Somehow, Stan Lee was able to persuade Simon and Schuster to enter the field of ‘graphic novels’, if only under the guise of a sort of ‘nostalgia’ trip aimed at Baby Boomers entering their forties and fifties. And, by ’74, some weekly comic strips from the 1930s (or even earlier) were seeing print again in nice hardbound editions designed to appeal to the Nostalgia Craze market then existing in the US.
‘Origins of Marvel Comics’, which did nothing more complicated than reprinting some old Marvel ‘origin’ stories on quality paper stock, sold quite well; so well, that a ‘Son of Origins’ was soon issued. Next came ‘Bring on the Bad Guys’ (1976) which turned out to be one of my Christmas presents for 1978.
Things start off with some very early Fantastic Four issues (1962) and the first appearance of Doctor Doom; there’s a follow up short from 1964 that fleshes out Doom’s origins more fully. Next comes a classic Steve Ditko adventure for Dr. Strange as he meets the Dread Dormammu. Then there’s some classic Jack Kirby artwork for two Thor adventures, dealing with Loki and the Absorbing Man.
A Captain America story, involving the Red Skull, is another Kirby classic (how did that guy produce so many exemplary comics despite the fact he was illustrating three or four books a month ?!). Spider Man ‘s entry is a rather brief and underwhelming fight with the Green Goblin. The Hulk takes on The Abomination in a story drawn by Gil Kane. The book ends with the Silver Surfer taking on Mephisto; John Buscema does a great job with the art but, as happened all too often with this character, there’s so much over-emoting dripping from Lee’s script that the story tends to collapse under its atmosphere of fervid angst.
‘Bad Guys’ contains sections of text bracketing each story where Lee provides his comments on how the villains came to be; in a (rare ?!) contrite or conciliatory mood, he actually points out that many of the featured characters were joint creations.
(By ’76 Jack Kirby had returned to doing some work for Marvel, so maybe Lee thought it prudent to give some credit to Jack, lest the atmosphere in the Marvel offices get too tense following the appearance of ‘Bad Guys’ on store shelves).
Within a few years after I got ‘Bad Guys’ for Christmas ‘78, you could see graphic novels starting to appear more frequently on the shelves at chain stores like Waldenbooks. Certainly not in the numbers and variety you see today, but it was a start.....
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Friday, December 5, 2008
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
DAW’s ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories’ entries tended to be hit-or-miss affairs. I picked up eight or nine of them from the mid-70’s to the early 90’s. In general, you would find three, maybe four good stories in each volume, with the rest of the contents unimpressive.
This was due in large part to flaccid editing by Gerald Page, and after him, Karl Edward Wagner. Both editors preferred to feature stories from the same narrow pool of writers, such as the highly over-rated Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, Fritz Leiber, Charles L. Grant, and Stephen King. Both editors were reluctant to select any stories with overt gore or violence, and were overly willing to accept sub-par efforts from ‘name’ authors. The result was that many ‘Year’s Best’ volumes contained tepid and unremarkable entries.
‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series V' (1977), edited by Page and containing stories appearing in print in 1976, is actually one of the better volumes. It starts on a promising note with a great cover illustration by Michael Whelan.
The first story, Jerry Sohl’s ‘The Service’ isn’t really a horror tale per se, and arguably doesn’t belong in this anthology. I will admit that it’s a well-written and effective take on providing unique assistance with confronting one of life’s major stages.
The second story, ‘Long Hollow Swamp’, by Joseph Payne Brennan, is a moody and atmospheric monster tale and one of the better stories in the collection. Also well worth reading is H. Warner Munn’s ‘The Well’, featuring a ‘shock’ ending (so be careful thumbing through the book so you don’t glimpse the last sentence and spoil the story for yourself).
Arthur Byron Cover’s ‘The Day It Rained Lizards’ is one of his better short stories and touches on a feckless young man’s doings with a teen witch in the suburbia of the ‘Swingtown’ era (nowadays it would be labeled as an ‘urban fantasy’, but back in ’76 such a term didn’t exist).
Karl Edward Wagner’s ‘Sing A Last Song of Valdese’ is one of his best works. The fantasy setting is artfully combined with a subtle, unfolding story of atrocity and overdue revenge. Like Munn’s tale, ‘Valdese’ features a surprise ending, so take care in glancing through the pages.
Tanith Lee’s ‘Huzdra’ is another strong entry and also successfully melds a surprise ending and a fantasy setting. Her intensely descriptive writing style lends itself better to the short story format than the novel (cough…The Birthgrave…cough).
The last story in the collection, Manly Wade Wellman’s ‘Where the Woodbine Twineth’, is set in the North Carolina backcountry, but doesn’t feature his well-known character Silver John. It’s a low-key but memorable tale of witches and charms and could well have served as the inspiration for Mike Mignola’s recent Hellboy three-issue series ‘The Crooked Man’.
The rest of the stories weren’t all that memorable. The (predictable) Fritz Leiber story, ‘Belsen Express’, the (predictable) Charles L. Grant entry ‘When All the Children Call My Name’, and Robert Bloch’s ‘A Most Unusual Murder’ are all rather dull. Harlan Ellison’s ‘Shatterday’ didn’t strike me as one of his better short tales. David Drake’s ‘Children of the Forest’ mixes fantasy with subdued horror but goes on a little too long, and fails to provide a strong ending, making it seem a bit vague compared to the entries by Lee, Wagner, and Munn.
So what’s the verdict ? I recommend picking up ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series V’. It’s got a larger-than-usual panel of good stories, along with some (inevitable) weaker entries. The book serves as a good snapshot of where horror fiction stood at the midpoint of the 70s.