Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: Orbit 6

Book Review: 'Orbit 6' edited by Damon Knight

2/5 Stars

Damon Knight’s ‘Orbit’ anthologies, 21 of which appeared sometimes twice-yearly from 1966 to 1980,  were quintessential New Wave story collections. Earlier volumes (i.e., 1 - 15) featured attractive cover art, usually of an abstract or figurative nature.

As the Editor of the Orbit series, Knight was on a mission to demonstrate that SF was not a frivolous, adolescent-centered endeavor, but in actuality a subdivision of the emerging genre of ‘speculative fiction’ that offered a quality of prose that was equivalent to that of mainstream Literature.

I remember checking some of the volumes out from the library in the early 70s, and I remember being underwhelmed by the story selection.

So are things better when read with adult eyes almost forty years later ?

My brief comments on the stories in ‘Orbit 6’ (Berkley, 1970, 222 pp.):

‘The Second Inquisition’ by Joanna Russ: the narrator is a teenage girl whose family takes in a mysterious woman boarder in the summer of 1925. ‘Inquisition’ mixes elements from C. L. Moore’s classic tale ‘Vintage Season’ with bits of F. Scott Fitzgerald; this is not necessarily a bad thing, but Russ uses an oblique prose style that tends to make the story a laborious read. When overt SF elements appear at the climax of the story,  they are introduced in a rather clumsy manner. A tale that would have benefited greatly from good editing.

‘Remembrance to Come’ by Gene Wolfe: set in a student-controlled college campus of the near future, the narrative deals with an instructor who may be having a nervous breakdown. Readers will probably guess the underlying ‘surprise’ element well ahead of the story’s ending.

Wolfe also contributes another story, ‘When the Whip Came Back’, a dull entry about a socialite-turned-activist who is asked to endorse a global mandate to dispose of the prisoner population in a new and troubling way. These two stories by Wolfe reinforce my assumption that he is one of the more over-rated SF writers to have emerged from the New Wave era.

‘Goslin Day’ by Avram Davidson: a very brief story in an absurdist vein. Solomon Faroly witnesses the advent of a plague of Jewish gremlins. Davidson mixes stream-of-consciousness wordplay with Yiddish terms in an effort to be Avante Garde; like catnip to the witless Damon Knight. This is one of the more helpless entries in the anthology.

‘Maybe Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, Was A Little Bit Right’ by Robin Scott: only in the New Wave era could a short story with such a title have been considered the height of style. The story deals with the last woman and the last two men on earth; it tries to say something caustic and cynical about human nature, but does so in a profoundly uninteresting manner.

‘The Chosen’ by Kate Wilhelm: a man on a time-traveling mission wanders an idyllic far-future earth; he resolves to stay rather than return to his point of origin. There is something of a surprise ending.

‘Entire and Perfect Chrysolite’ by R. A. Lafferty: another overly artsy title. This story deals with recreational hallucinations and their unpleasant side effects. Lafferty had quite a bit of stature during the New Wave era, but his stories all have aged quite poorly.

‘Sunburst’ by Roderick Thorpe: this story’s unadorned, direct prose style makes it seem out of place in the anthology, but it’s a competent tale of sunspots and their less than salutary effect on human nature.

‘The Creation of Bennie Good’ by James Sallis: another absurdist tale with negligible merit; it’s plain that editor Knight selected it to demonstrate his ardor for  ‘Speculative Fiction’.

‘The End’ by Ursula Le Guin: as a rustic seaside village decays into madness and suicide, a brickmaker tries to make real a dream of leaving for islands far offshore. Moody and slow-paced, with an ambiguous ending; more fantasy than SF, but nonetheless one of the better entries in the anthology.

‘A Cold Dark Night With Snow’ by Kate Wilhelm: A young wife has doubts about her husband’s work on a secret government project. Wilhelm tries to be a dedicated New Wave stylist by confronting the reader with several narrative threads representing different events taking place at different times; almost inevitably, the end result is….not impressive.

‘Fame’ by Jean Cox: an ambitious spaceman embarks on the first trip to Proxima Centauri; traveling at near-relativistic speeds means he will return to earth a century after departure, hopefully to receive a hero’s welcome. The ending features the sort of twist encountered in  the stories of Roald Dahl. One of the better entries in the anthology.

‘Debut’ by Carol Emshwiller: a tale that weaves hints of ancient mythology into its first-person narration of a young girl destined for a sacred duty.

‘Where No Sun Shines’ by Gardner Dozois: in the near future, rebellion and social unrest  grip the US; a man driving on the back roads of New Jersey becomes an unwilling participant in a violent confrontation. This also is one of the better stories in the collection.

‘The Asian Shore’ by Thomas Disch: an American tourist in Turkey finds himself haunted by two of the locals. Of all the stories in Orbit 6, this one suffers the most from a self-conscious effort to be ‘literary’. More a vague, existential horror story than SF, the tale is hampered by too many superficially profound but empty sentences.

For example: 

‘It was the thesis of his first book that the quiddity of architecture, its chief claim to an esthetic interest, was its arbitrariness.’

(‘quiddity’ is a rarely-used noun that refers to the intrinsic character or essence of a thing)

Whatever momentum the narrative possessed at its start leaks away as the tale unfolds, and by the time I reached its midway point I found continued reading to be a chore. The story’s ending is predictable; it’s insult to injury that I had to wade through such turgid prose to get there.

In summary, 'Orbit 6' is best experienced only for die-hard fans of the New Wave era and those willing to take in an extra-large dose of 'speculative fiction'.

Friday, November 27, 2009

'The Burial of Katharine Baker'
and 'Witchfinder General'

Some readers may be familiar with the 1968 ‘cult’ film ‘Witchfinder General’ (also released under the title ‘The Conqueror Worm’). The film was a historical drama set in 1645, during the English Civil War; amidst the chaos and violence of the combat between Cavaliers and Roundheads, a Protestant religious fanatic named Matthew Hopkins pursues ‘witches’ with the seeming approval of Parliament. As portayed by Vincent Price, Hopkins is a scheming hypocrite who readily promises to spare accused young women interrogation, and even execution, if they agree to sleep with him.

Despite its modest length (barely 90 minutes) and very low budget (at one point leading man Price purchased lunch for the hungry cast and crew) upon its release the film generated quite a bit of controversy in the UK for its depiction of torture, which was considered graphic by the standards of the time.

As well, the film was a powerful repudiation of the rather gilded picture of the English Civil War which had been promulgated in the popular culture. Far from being a quasi-romantic duel between the King and his dashing Cavaliers on one side, and Cromwell and his dour Roundheads on the other, the conflict in reality was a very brutal guerilla war with plenty of atrocities visited upon not only the combatants, but the civilian population of rural England.

The 7th issue of the Hellboy series ‘The Wild Hunt’ (October 2009) features a six-page comic written by Mike Mignola and Scott Allie, with art by Patric Reynolds, titled  ‘The Burial of Katherine Baker’. This strip borrows heavily from the film ‘Witchfinder General’, even so far as depicting the ‘Harry Hood’ witchfinder character with a strong resemblance to Price’s Matthew Hopkins. However, while one might initially think the comic is yet another treatment of the ‘religious fanatic harming the innocents’ theme, it provides a neat twist that makes it a memorable little story.

(NOTE added December 1, 2009: excerpted pages of 'The Burial of Katharine Baker' removed following request by Ken Lizzi,  Dark Horse Comics)

Neither Mignola nor Allie provide attribution to ‘Witchfinder General’ in this installment of the story, but according to Ken Lizzie, "...attribution was given in the first appearance of his version of the character in the Hellboy comic 'Darkness Calls' ". 

I recommend looking for the film on DVD; the ‘Midnight Movies’ edition from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is the most complete and uncensored version available.

And, for a reasonably well-written, if somewhat reserved,  book on the English Civil War (although it says nothing about Hopkins) I recommend Christopher Hibbert's  'Cavaliers and Roundheads: The English Civil War 1642 - 1649' (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book Review: 'The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 8' edited by Arthur W. Saha

2/5 Stars

‘The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories: 8’ (DAW book No. 501, 1982, 191 pp.), edited by Arthur W. Saha, contains stories published during 1981. The cover illustration (which the South Park kids would undoubtedly label as ‘extremely gay’) is ‘Talena’ (of ‘Tarnsman of Gor’ fame), by Olivierno Berni.

Editor Saha ranged farther afield in the literature for selections than did the series’ previous editor, Lin Carter. This may have reflected a dearth of worthy material (at least in Saha’s opinion) in the dedicated fantasy magazines of the time. Or, Saha may simply have decided to include stories that pushed the boundaries of the genre. But in my opinion the overall results, at least for this volume, are underwhelming. There are too many tepid tales from 'name' authors.

Brief summaries of the stories are as follows:

‘When the Clock Strikes’ by Tanith Lee: the Cinderella fairy tale re-told, with a darker atmosphere. Whatever appeal this approach to fantasy writing possessed was wilting by the time Lee published the collection ‘Red As Blood’, an anthology of these recycled fairy tales, in 1983.

‘Midas Night’ by Sam Wilson: a young artist and a strange old man together in a diner on a cold January night…and three  menacing figures in the shadows across the street…an urban fantasy tale.

‘Unicorn Variation’ by Roger Zelazny: a former chess prodigy encounters a unicorn and winds up playing for very high stakes. One of the better stories in the anthology.

‘The Only Death in the City’ by C. J. Cherryh: the author tries too hard to create an existential atmosphere in this over-written, turgid story of doomed lovers. An unsuccessful effort to produce something akin to the ‘Viriconium’ tales by M. John Harrison.

‘The Quickening’ by Michael Bishop: more of a horror or SF tale than fantasy. After a strange event instantly teleports all the world’s population to random destinations, a man struggles to retain his sanity and sense of self.

‘Skirmish on Bastable Street’ by Bob Leman: another urban fantasy tale, this time about a demon confronting some bar patrons. Not particularly memorable.

‘A Pattern of Silver Strings’ by Charles de Lint: a precious tale of a harpist, his wife, and a music contest with a Bad Tinker. Very insipid and very cloying (people are 'enspelled', they engage in 'roadfaring' and 'worldwalking', 'yearning oaks keep watch', etc., etc.). But I finished it, as might I finish a sickly-sweet, 4,000 calorie sundae purchased from Cold Stone Creamery knowing my gastrointestinal tract will eventually rebel…..

‘A Friend in Need’ by Lisa Tuttle: yet another urban fantasy tale. A chance encounter with a woman at an airport leads the narrator to some conclusions about strange childhood events. Reasonably well-written, but the fantasy element is quite subdued and one wonders why editor Saha thought it qualified for inclusion.

‘Pooka’s Bridge’ by Gillian FitzGerald: a Celtic myth serves as the inspiration for a tale set in medieval Ireland. One of the better entries in the collection.

‘The Belonging Kind’ by John Shirley and William Gibson: in 1981 the literary tsunami we now know as Cyberpunk was still in gestation, and to-become-giants Shirley and Gibson were some promising young writers looking to create something different and original from the withered remains of the New Wave movement.

‘Belonging Kind’ is more of a understated horror story than urban fantasy; it deals with alienation in the city and its nightclub and bar patrons. A New Wave author may have drenched the tale in highly stylized writing, probably using long passages of overly artsy prose intended to convey the sense of existential angst experienced by the lead character. But Shirley and Gibson utilize a more spare, unadorned writing style which makes the story’s creepy goings-on all the more effective.  This is one of the better tales in the anthology.

All in all, ‘The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories: 8’ doesn’t come across as one of the more rewarding entries in the series. Readers must be willing to overlook most of the tales in the collection in favor of a small number of ‘keepers’.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

'Heavy Metal' magazine November 1979

November 1979. The FM rock stations are playing ‘Dirty White Boy’ by Foreigner and “Sara’ by Fleetwood Mac. The AM stations have ‘Babe’ by Styx, and ‘Escape’ (‘The Pina Colada Song’) by Rupert Holmes, in heavy rotation. And the latest issue of Heavy Metal magazine is on the stands at Gordon’s Cigar shop off Main Street. The wrap-around cover is 'Fetch' by Joe Jusko.

The proprietor, a paunchy, taciturn middle-aged man, never raises an eyebrow or smirks when I come in to pick up Heavy Metal or any of the PorPor paperbacks on his shelves (I didn’t know it at the time but he earned most of his revenue from selling smut books from under the counter !). In fact, one time when I was short the wretched New York State sales tax by a nickel or so for a purchase of a Doc Savage book, he simply waved it off.

The November Heavy Metal is a bit of a letdown after the fine October ’79 issue devoted to H. P. Lovecraft. Still, there is the opening part of Corben’s new serial ‘Rowlf’. There are some b & w strips from Chantal Montellier (‘Shelter’), Moebius (“Airtight Garage’), Voss (‘Moon Flight’), and Luc Cornillon (‘Jim’). There are illustrated text excerpts from books: Moorcock’s ‘Elric’, Bester’s ‘The Stars My Destination’, and Wayne Barlow’s interesting ‘Barlow’s Guide to Extraterrestrials’.

One of the better color comics in the issue is Phil Trumbo’s ‘Egg-Stained Wine’, which I’ve posted here. While ‘Wine’ is clearly derived from undergound funny-animal comix like Crumb’s ‘Fritz the Cat’ or Armstrong’s ‘Mickey Rat’, it works in a bit of Winsor McCay’s ‘Little Nemo’ imagery as well. Needless to say, ‘Wine’ was best read while stoned, and perhaps with ‘Tusk’ playing in the background on your stereo system…..







Wednesday, November 18, 2009

'Batman Doc Savage'
Special one-shot, 'First Wave Begins', November 2009

or, DC adopts the Mad Men aesthetic 

Growing up in the late 60s and early 70s meant seeing Doc Savage paperbacks, with their distinctive cover illustrations by the great James Bama, on the paperback stands in every drugstore or five-and-dime. So I’m always interested when another iteration of the Doc Savage franchise pops up in the world of comics.

DC’s ‘Batman / Doc Savage’ Special (November 2009, publication date January 2010) one-shot is a teaser for a forthcoming effort by DC to release a line of books that (to my mind, at least) cashes in on the ‘Mad Men’ cultural phenomenon. These so-called ‘First Wave’ titles are scheduled to start appearing on shelves in March 2010.

If Batman / Doc Savage is any indication, the First Wave line will be an uneasy mashup of vaguely Art Deco, postwar Atomic Age,  and early 60’s designs and visual themes. Instead of being set in the 30s, as one might expect with a pulp hero like Doc Savage, writer Brian Azzarello places Batman / Doc Savage  in a retro-inspired landscape that shows careful devotion to the Mad Men aesthetic. 

Let’s take this series of panels that depict a confrontation between Doc and Bruce Wayne at a high-society soiree:



Phil Noto's pencils, layout, and color scheme (women with pink, bouffant hairdos ?!) all are clearly derived from late 50's / early 60’s advertising and graphic art approaches to illustration, as these examples of  Jack Potter's artwork from that era demonstrate:

(Jack Potter illustrations taken from 'Jack Potter: A Teaching Legacy' by Michael Newton, Illustration magazine, Issue 18, Winter 2007, pp. 94 & 100)

How well will a style of illustration more at home in an issue of  'Woman's Day' from 1962 come across for a superhero comic series published in 2010 ? Will 'First Wave', which is planned to feature not only Batman and Doc Savage, but potentially The Spirit, Black Canary, Richard Henry Benson ('The Avenger'), and the Blackhawks, among others, be yet another bloated, over-exposed onslaught to separate as many shekels as possible from the fanboys (like 'Blackest Night')  ?

At this point the jury's still out; 'Batman / Doc Savage' is just a teaser and it's unfair to judge an upcoming series based on one preview. I guess I'll wait 'till March, and see what develops.....

Monday, November 16, 2009

Book Review: 'Autumn Angels' by Arthur Byron Cover

 3/5 Stars

It’s Autumn, and thus, as good a time as any to read ‘Autumn Angels’. I remember seeing the book on the shelves back in 1975 but, a bit more wary back then when regarding obviously New Wave content (an attitude earned by more than a few disappointments), I didn’t pick it up. Copies of the original paperback are still to be had from secondhand book dealers, and the Babbage Press has released a trade paperback version of several of Cover’s works, including ‘Angels’.

In the 70s Arthur Byron Cover had considerable momentum as an up-and-coming writer of what was then termed ‘speculative fiction’, but nowadays tends to be labeled ‘fabulist’, or perhaps ‘absurdist’, fiction. I recall reading his short stories (such as ‘The Day It Rained Lizards’ ) from the DAW’s ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories’ anthologies. He also had a short story in the April 1979 issue of Heavy Metal magazine titled ‘In Between Then and Now’.

‘Autumn Angels’ was Cover’s first novel, published in 1975 under Pyramid Book’s ‘Harlan Ellison Discovery Series’ imprint.

'Angels’ features a great cover by Ron Cobb. [‘Angels’ is rare among SF paperbacks in that there is a bio sketch of Cobb, the artist, included at the front of the book]. Depicted in the foreground are (from top to bottom) the hawkman (flying); the demon; the fat man (i.e., Kasper Gutman from the crime novel ‘The Maltese Falcon’, played by Sydney Greenstreet in the 1941 movie); and the lawyer (i.e., ‘Ham’, or Theodore Marley Brooks from the Doc Savage novels).

There is also the usual self-serving, protracted Introduction by Ellison, in which he relates some particulars about author Cover, then only 25. Ellison clearly was in proselytizing  mode at the time of publication, seeking to use his ‘Discovery Series’ imprint to try and bring more converts to the New Wave movement still au courant in SF. This was not necessarily an easy thing, for by ’75, increasing numbers of fans were beginning to tire of the self-indulgence of the New Wave movement.

So how does ‘Autumn Angels’ stack up as a late-New Wave period novel ? All things considered, not too badly.

The book’s premise is that far in the future, the earth is peopled by a few million humans with god-like powers. With omnipotence comes boredom, and a confused, unarticulated longing for some sort of Meaning to one’s existence.

The demon, the fat man, and the lawyer are searching for some means of injecting new emotions and new ways of thinking into this twilight culture. Much of the book’s plot revolves around their machinations to bring about genuine change to the world of godlike men.

It goes without saying that as a work of speculative fiction, ‘Angels’ lacks any of the tropes of conventional SF. There are no spaceships, time travel devices, ray guns, computers, etc. There is little in the way of drama or conflict injected into the narrative, and the plot unfolds with an unhurried, deliberate pacing.

Much of the book’s content revolves around conversations and odd encounters between the central trio and other  characters, all of whom have a close resemblance to well-known individuals from popular fiction. There are existential musings, and little episodes suffused with dry humor, but none of the big-screen events that are intrinsic to more representative novels of the SF genre.

‘Autumn Angels’ represents in one novel the good and the bad of the New Wave approach to writing SF. On the one hand, it brings an irreverent attitude to the interactions among a cast of characters near and dear to SF fans, in a topsy-turvy setting with its own quirky appeal. 

On the other hand, it’s difficult to see how the book will appeal to today’s SF readership. Most of the book’s allusions to pop culture characters will draw blanks from any reader under 40, and the underlying philosophical message of the novel is undermined by an ending that, to me at least, struck a contrived note.

‘Autumn Angels’ is best recommended to readers of the sub-genre of SF occupied by Douglas Adams’s ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, or Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ novels. 

Cover wrote two sequels to ‘Angels’,  the story collection ‘The Platypus of Doom and Other Nihilists’ (1976) and ‘An East Wind Coming’ (1979). His other work over the past decade has been novelizations based on franchises, such as the ‘Rising Stars’ trilogy. 

Cover currently manages the Infinite Worlds website, an online bookstore specializing in SF and fantasy.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Alice Cooper: 'The Last Temptation'
(Marvel Comics, 1994)

 Part Three

The third and final issue of ‘Alice Coper: The Last Temptation’ (December 1994) sees our hero Steven setting out on the school Halloween parade...but he soon sneaks off to the town library:


There he investigates the microfilm archive for past news stories on the mysterious theatre, whose Showman (Alice) wants Steven to be his newest actor…for a price. Steven discovers some unsettling information in the town archives…..

Steven decides to venture into the theatre and deal with the Showman, but the theatre’s creepy audience isn’t going to let him enter so easily….

I won’t spoil the remainder of the story save to say that Steven finds himself confronted with the Last Temptation, and any choice he makes will have its cost.

Overall, ‘Alice Cooper: The last Temptation’ is a solid, well-produced series that mixes low-key horror and fantasy in a way suitable for a young adult audience without being too watered-down or pedantic. But it will also appeal to adult readers who appreciate a well-executed concept revolving around a rock n' roll icon. Michael Zulli’s artwork is ideal for the books’ theme, and Neil Gaiman’s plot gives Alice Cooper a distinctive, even threatening role without lapsing into self-parody.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jonah Hex: 'Six Gun War' Part Six (Issue 49)

In the sixth and final installment of the ‘Six Gun War’ series (Jonah Hex issue No. 49, January 2010), Jonah and his little band of vigilantes and do-gooders arrive at the headquarters of nemesis Quentin Turnbull.


Lodged near some ancient Aztec or Mayan ruins, Turnbull is operating a gold mine with Indian slave laborers. The treatment of the laborers is unusually brutal and that gives Jonah an idea….



I won’t spoil the story by divulging how things ultimately turn out, but I will say the end of the miniseries was something of a letdown. It didn’t help matters that the panel layouts and art for this issue seemed to be too cramped, too small, too darkly lit (I used a ‘photo fix’ feature to give these page scans greater legibility). In my mind, the promising start to the ‘Six Gun War’ series wasn’t fullfilled as well as I had hoped. Oh well, there’s always next issue…..

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ron Cobb: 'Autumn Angels' (1975)

I'll have a review of the book by Arthur Byron Cover posted shortly. 

But it's Autumn, and no reason not to have a post devoted solely to a 200 dpi image of the brilliant original painting by Ron Cobb, from the book 'Colorvision'. 

From the top: the Hawkman; the demon; the fat  man (i.e., Sydney Greenstreet from 'The Maltese Falcon'), and the lawyer (i.e., 'Ham' from the 'Doc Savage' novels).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Book Review: 'Dark Forces' by Kirby McCauley

2 / 5 Stars

‘Dark Forces’ was issued in hardback in 1980; this Bantam paperback was published in 1981. The artist who supplied the uninspired cover art is not credited.

In his Introduction, editor Kirby McCauley indicates that he conceived of the book as a sort of horror fiction version of Harlan Ellison’s landmark ‘Dangerous Visions’ anthology from 1967. In McCauley’s view, ‘Dark Forces’ would showcase all-new fiction, from shorter stories to a novelette, from both established authors, as well as newer writers. At nearly 550 pages in length, the book certainly could accommodate a variety of tales with distinctive approaches to the genre.

So how does ‘Dark Forces’ stack up ? Well, in the main, it’s rather underwhelming…

The opening novelette by Stephen King, ‘The Mist’, is the featured sales pitch on the book’s cover and the marquee piece in the collection; it is also one of his better stories. It features some tongue-in-cheek SF elements and flows rather well, perhaps because its length forces King to cut out the padding that renders so many of his novels a trying read.

Karl Edward Wagner’s ‘Where the Summer Ends’, to which I’ve devoted a full post at another time in this blog, is one of the best entries. Something is killing cats, dogs, and winos amid the steaming summer heat of a Knoxville ghetto, and Gradie, the elderly junkman, may have an idea about who is responsible. Stay away from the kudzu !

‘Lindsay and the Red City Blues’, by Joe Haldeman, is another strong entry, as a salesman vacationing in Marrakesh and looking for illicit pleasures gets up close, and a bit too personal, with Third World Squalor.

Manly Wade Wellman provides ‘Owls Hoot in the Daytime’, featuring his recurring character Silver John; this time the wandering balladeer confronts some evil goings-on in a cave set deep in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina.

I’m usually unimpressed with the short fiction of Theodore Sturgeon, but his entry, ‘Vengenace Is’, dealing with a violent crime and the consequences visited on the perpetrators, is well done. The biological theory underlying the tale gets more than a little contrived, but Sturgeon manages to keep the story coherent enough to deliver a memorable ending.

And while I’m not a big Ramsey Campbell fan, considering him one of the most overrated horror writers of the past 50 years, his story ‘The Brood’ is genuinely creepy. It’s rare that one of his stories has a premise, and an ending, that can overcome his turgid and oblique prose style, but somehow, someway, it happens with ‘Brood’. Even a broken clock is right twice a day !

Edward Gorey contributes one of his black and white comic strips, ‘The Stupid Joke’. The intricate pen-and-ink drawing survives the reduction to the confines of the paperback book.

The rest of the stories in the collection are not as rewarding. Some authors – such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Joyce Carol Oates – are included, however awkward their entries, in order to give the anthology some Literary Merit.

Other authors represent the Usual Suspects in ‘quiet horror’ fiction at the time of the early 80s: Dennis Etchison, Charles L. Grant, Lisa Tuttle, T.E.D. Klein, Ray Bradbury, Edward Bryant. All of their entries are, sadly, too mannered and devoid of imagination to qualify as memorable horror tales.

[It should be remembered that in 1980, the term ‘splatterpunk’ didn’t exist, and the idea of extending an invitation to writers who wrote graphic horror fiction - like James Herbert- would have seemed artless, even indecent, on McCauley’s part.]

In toto, then, ‘Dark Forces’ is an unremarkable horror collection that indicates how pedestrian, even bland, horror writing was at the dawn of the 80s. It would be several more years before Clive Barker (and to some extent Shaun Hutson) would arrive on the scene and inject some novelty into the genre.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Deathlok, the Demolisher: Issue 1
November 2009

I remember seeing the issues of Marvel’s ‘Astonishing Tales’ featuring the original ‘Deathlok, the Demolisher’ on the comic stands in the mid-70s. In a near-future USA ruled by corporate entities, a soldier named Luther Manning is killed and reconstituted as a cyborg by one Simon Ryker. While Ryker envisions using Deathlok to carry out corporate dirty work, Manning soon rebels and enters into a one-man campaign to bring down the evil forces ruling the country.

The Deathlok concept was obviously inspired by the Martin Caidin ‘Cyborg’ SF novels of the early 70s and the debut in 1973 of several successive television movies, titled the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’, based on the books. In January 1974 the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ series began, and was a ratings hit for the remainder of the year.

The Bronze Age of Blogs has a detailed post on the Deathlok of the 70s.

Marvel revived the character, and gave Deathlok his own series, at intervals during the 90s. But this current ‘Marvel Knights’ iteration of Deathlok (projected to be 7 issues) is a standalone approach that does not continue the earlier series storyline.

So how does “Deathlok, the Demolisher’ issue 1 (November 2009) fare ?

The cover illustration by Brandon Peterson is certainly well done. The interior art, by Lan Medina, is reasonably good. The script is by Charlie Huston.

Huston has decided to employ the cliché of a future world where wars are outlawed, and combat between teams of mercenaries decides ‘geopolitical differences’. The twist is that these combats are televised to a rapt public who regards them as a sanguinary combination of ‘American Idol’ and the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

Captain Luther Manning helms the ‘Roxxon Rockers’.

The opening book in the series shows us a vicious, to-the-death bout between the Rockers and the Brand Corporation ‘Battle Breakers’. But in a nice bit of caustic humor, before the title bout unfolds, the viewership is treated to a minor league contest between African ‘boy-soldiers’  :

I won't divulge any spoilers, but I will say that the battle between the Roxxon Rockers and the Brand Corp. Battle Breakers features some encounters with particular importance to the future of our hero, Captain Manning.

This new incarnation of 'Deathlok, the Demolisher' left me with mixed feelings. The art is good, although the monochrome tones used to color the battle scenes tends to make the action confusing and difficult to follow at times. 

Huston's script really doesn't bring anything truly novel to the character's origins, and at times the story is hampered by Huston's insistence on littering too many panels with too many dialogue balloons - some  utilizing differently-colored fonts to indicate the observations of the three TV studio personalities providing color commentary on the action. 

This is a common problem with many contemporary comics; instilled with the Intro to Creative Writing mantra of 'showing, not telling', too many writers shy from placing overarching narrative text boxes within their layouts, preferring instead to try and communicate plot points through ancillary dialogue. The limited page-length format of comic books, as opposed to novels or other lengthy texts,  forces the reader to laboriously try and piece together the backstory from fragments of speech balloons littered throughout the book.

Issue 1 ends on an inconclusive note, but you can't judge a series from its first issue, so I'm willing to pick up the next installment to see what develops. Hopefully the plot will break some new ground for a favorite character from the 70s..... ?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Alice Cooper: 'The Last Temptation'
(Marvel Comics, 1994) 

Part Two

At the end of Part One, our hero Steven had been treated to a rather creepy Grand Guignol Theatre show by Alice Cooper in his guise as the Showman.

Unnerved by the experience, Steven rushes home...

Once he settles into bed for the night, Steven begins to have a strange dream...harkening, of course, to Cooper's album 'Welcome to My Nightmare' (1975).

Soon Alice makes his appearance, standing atop a pillar and flanked by extra-large rodents ...

I won't spoil the rest of the comic, but as Steven goes through the day he encounters more than a few odd and troubling sights. Alice assures him that all can be resolved, if only Steven will return to the Grand Guignol Theatre for the final show...

What awaits our hero in Part Three of 'The Last Temptation' ?!

The interplay of Alice and the rats is a bit of an in-joke, calling to mind a scandalous incident with a chicken that took place early in Alice's career:

We played the Toronto Peace Festival with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and the Doors. While we were on, somebody from the audience threw a chicken on stage. I'm from Detroit, I'm not a farm kid. I figured a chicken had wings, it'll fly away. So I took the chicken and threw it and it didn't fly. It went into the audience. Blood everywhere. The next day, everybody's reading, "Alice Cooper rips chicken's head off, drinks blood." Zappa called me. He said, "Whatever you did, keep doing it." To this day, wherever I'm booked the ASPCA is usually there, too

In his book 'Rock Dreams' (1973), the Belgian artist Guy Peellaert features an image of Alice gnawing on the carcass of a rabbit...not something that actually took place, but an image well in keeping with the Cooper stage shows of the period, which featured dismembered baby dolls, plenty of fake blood, and a guillotine....

Rock stars, stage theatrics, and animals.......ahhhh, those halcyon days of the 70s.....  !