Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year 2010
A little two-page strip, 'Midnight Feast', by Reveillon,  from the December 1979 issue of 'Heavy Metal' magazine. 

Despite its brevity, 'Feast' effectively communicates something of the initial merriment, then the following melancholy, of a New Year's Eve revels. 

In many ways, the end-of-the-decade sense of anomie and weariness that characterized the New Year's Eve of 1979 is also present as we confront New Year's Eve 2009 and the end of its own decade....

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book Review: 'Spawn' by Shaun Hutson

4/5 Stars 

I am NOT  making up this synopsis:

Harold Pierce is scarred and disfigured from exposure to a house fire when he was a child (he carelessly started the fire while torturing crane flies in a jar by dropping lit matches onto them).

As the book opens, the adult Harold is being released from an asylum to make his own way in the world. Harold finds employment as an aide at Fairvale Hospital in the little town of Exham in northern Britain. One of his assignments is to dispose of the corpses of aborted fetuses by placing them in the hospital furnace. However, this action makes Harold so distraught that he smuggles the corpses out from the hospital and buries them in makeshift graves near his small cottage.

One night, a severe storm hits the area and the ground over the graves is struck by bolt of lightning. The corpses of the fetuses are revived and, using a powerful telepathic ability, they command Harold to dig them up, and shelter them in the dank cupboard below the sink in his cottage.

Before too long it becomes apparent that the zombie fetuses need human blood to sustain them...and Harold is forced to carry out the sick wishes of these demonic creatures.

To make matters worse, a lunatic named  Paul Harvey (!) has escaped from the Exham mental hospital and is loose in the countryside-with a rusty scythe. When headless corpses start turning up in the vicinity of Exham, it looks like the madman is on the prowl....and when he meets up with Harold and the Spawn, the body count can only get worse....

'Spawn' (Leisure Books, 1983, 367 pp.) features a great cover illustration of a truly malevolent-looking fetus gazing at the reader. Unfortunately, the artist is uncredited.

I remember seeing Shaun Hutson's paperback novels on the shelves back in the mid 80s; 'Slugs' stuck in my memory. His US publisher was Leisure Books, today a significant source of many horror and mystery titles. 

But back in the 80s there was a rather low-class, seedy air to Leisure Books, and its releases, as far as more mainstream publishers were concerned. Authors like Hutson were not granted approving cover blurbs from genre heavyweights like Steven King or Peter Straub. In fact, there was some degree of enmity between Ramsey Campbell- the grand old man of British Horror - and Hutson. And, needless to say, Hutson and other Leisure authors were not included in high-profile collections of the era, like DAW's 'The Year's Best Horror Stories' or any of the other anthologies of the 80s ('Whispers',  'Shadows', 'Prime Evil').

This was unfortunate, since Hutson was one of the premiere British Splatterpunk authors, and a descendent of a literary line first founded by Colin Wilson in the 60s, then carried on by James Herbert in the 70s, before Hutson (and Clive Barker) sustained the genre through the 80s. 

Hutson's books are unashamedly gruesome and transgressive, and may be considered trash by some readers. The various literary contrivances that constitute 'quality' fiction writing may not make an appearance. But Hutson's books often have an undercurrent of sly humor, as if a smiling Hutson is asking the reader to join him in offending moral sensibilities and insulting the purveyors of 'quiet' horror. 

In my opinion, Hutson's novels are more genuine examples of the genre than most of the mannered, plodding works issued by Campbell, Straub, and King. Anyone looking for an offbeat, original horror tale will find that 'Spawn' fits the bill.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Book Review: 'After Man' by Dougal Dixon

 3 / 5 Stars

This oversize (9 1/4 x 11 inches) trade paperback edition of ‘After Man’ (124 pp., St Martin’s Press) was published in 1981.

Dougal Dixon is a Scottish-born author and illustrator of illustrated science fiction and science fact books, primarily for a juvenile audience, although some of his work is quite accessible to adults as well.

‘After Man’ takes as its premise the state of the Earth some 50 million years into the future. Homo sapiens has, through some vaguely described Eco-catastrophe, passed from the world. Since most of larger mammalian species were extinguished along with Man, the animals that have inherited this new world all are descended from the more resourceful ‘trash’ species of our own era: rats, squirrels, crows, pigs, mongooses, etc.

The book opens with a grayscale text section reviewing the basics of evolution and ecology as per 1981, then moves into the bulk of the book, which consists of nicely done color illustrations of the various animals inhabiting the major habitats: temperate woodlands and grasslands, the tundra and polar regions, deserts, tropical forests, etc.

The book is very didactic; practically every page is suffused with references to the reality and process of evolution, the devastation wrought by the careless and thoughtless actions of Man, and the miraculous ability of Nature to recover from these ravages. Indeed, Man is seen as a nasty sort of disease that plagued Gaia / Mother Earth for an unnecessarily long time and whose riddance is cause for celebration.

This was not all that surprising a tenor for a natural history book seeing print in 1981; while ‘Global Warming’ had yet to exist as the primary cause celebre’, Doomsday Angst - linked to the threat of nuclear war – was all the rage among the scholarly and intellectual classes. This attitude was soon to be articulated in books such as Jonathan Schell’s ‘The Fate of the Earth’ (1982), and the New Wave song ‘Red Skies’ by The Fixx (also 1982).

As a book to be read for either reasons of pleasure or pedagogy, ‘After Man’ comes across reasonably well. Older children will find the different kinds of animals, and the explanations of their behavior and life histories, to be engaging and informative. ‘After Man’ is a very ‘British’ book, in the sense that it mimics the style of a Victorian-era natural history tome. Many of the picture captions are in spidery longhand, and the background color scheme sports the sort of sepia tint one might associate with an old book collecting dust on the shelf of a Gentlemen’s Study ca. 1870. This rather eccentric presentation gives the book its own unique visual character.

The book does have some weaknesses; the sententious tone of the narrative starts to grate after a while, and the 9-pt. text, and cursive writing of the picture captions, will be laborious to take in for those with less than ideal eyesight. As well, the Introduction by that old fraud Desmond Morris (‘The Naked Ape’, ‘The Human Zoo’), he of the cunning and calculated winking, tweedy, salacious mien, could have been jettisoned without loss.

In summary, even though it’s getting close to 30 years after it first saw print, ‘After Man’ remains an interesting look at a ‘what if’ scenario and should continue to appeal to a broad readership of children and adults.






Thursday, December 17, 2009

'Heavy Metal' magazine December 1979: 'A Tale of Christmas' by Moebius

 From the December 1979 issue, a three-page comic from Moebius with the quirky title  'A Tale of Christmas' ..... so ironic and existential, those Frenchies.....



Monday, December 14, 2009

Book Review: 'The Saga of Solomon Kane'


 5 / 5 Stars

While Marvel has been reprinting its comic book back-catalogue  in black and white format as part of the 'Marvel Essentials' series, the licensing rights to reprint the content of the Marvel / Curtis imprint magazines- such as 'Savage Sword of Conan', 'Kull and the Barbarians', 'Dracula Lives !', and 'Monsters Unleashed' - has been purchased by Dark Horse.

'The Saga of Solomon Kane' (Dark Horse Books, 2009) reprints 27 comics that originally appeared in black and white in Marvel magazines- mainly 'Savage Sword' -  from 1973 to 1994. At over 400 pp. in length, it's a real bargain (cover price is $19.95).

Among the artists represented are Neal Adams, David Wenzel, Sonny Trinidad, Howard Chaykin, and Steve Carr and Al Williamson. The pen-and-ink draftsmanship  in the assembled comics is outstanding, particularly the work from the early 70s when many artists were excited at the ability to present their work on the larger page size of the magazine format, without adhering to the content restrictions of the Comics Code. 

[And, very importantly,  they got better, and more timely, pay than they did with their submissions to the Warren b & w magazines.]

The book's only real drawback is that at 8 1/2 x 11 inches, it does not mimic the larger dimensions of the Curtis magazines; thus,  the pages have a rather cramped aspect due to the reduction in page size. The other peculiarity  - if one could call it that - in the collection has to do with the historical accuracy of the clothing and appearance of Solomon Kane. According to this blog, men of Kane's era did not usually wear the drab clothing sported by our Puritan hero.

I've posted some panels from the stories in the anthology in order to give some idea of the variety of illustrative styles used in the Kane adventures.

Among the best of the assembled comics are the opening adventure, 'Skulls in the Stars', with distinctive artwork from Ralph Reese:

'Castle of the Undead', with great artwork by Neal Adams and a plot featuring Count Dracula:

'The Hills of the Dead' features some intricate draftsmanship from Alan Weiss and Neal Adams:

One of the best entries in 'Saga' is the adaptation of Howard's tale 'Wings of the Night', in which Solomon comes upon an African village beset by the Harpies of mythology. This is one of Howard's more grisly and unrelenting Kane tales, and it gets great treatment by artist David Wenzel:

'The One Black Stain', a poem dealing with historical events, is also illustrated by David Wenzel; with this comic, however, Wenzel makes a conscious effort to evoke the intricate penmanship of late 19th century illustration, as might be done by an affiliate of Howard Pyle's Brandywine School of art: 

Steve Gan, in his illustration of ‘The Right Hand of Doom’, another classic tale, aptly captures the brooding countenance of Kane at his most dour and puritanical:

Along with the comics, the book features several brief text entries providing the details of the Kane saga. This one features an illustration by Fred Blosser:

In summary, anyone who appreciates great graphic art, and stories about an offbeat hero placed in memorable settings against a variety of earthly and unearthly adversaries, should put 'The Saga of Solomon Kane' on their Christmas list.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Killraven: 'Amazing Adventures' No. 23 (March 1974)

‘Amazing Adventures’ No. 23 (March 1974) was written by Don McGregor and  illustrated by Herb Trimpe. In this issue, the ‘War of the Worlds’ storyline continues, and the title of this chapter is ‘The Legend Assassins’.

I previously posted an excerpt of this issue taken from the b & w ‘Marvel Essentials: Killraven’ trade paperback, but the excerpt looks much better in full color, as presented here from the original comic. The green-skinned, white-haired chick on the cover is ‘Mint Julep’, a soldier-ess of fortune who threw in with Killraven and his crew on a sporadic basis.

In ‘The Legend Assassins’, Killraven finds himself captured by ‘Rattack’, a mutant human-rat creature who was (prior to the war with the Martians) a secret service agent (!?). In homage to the early 70s thrillers ‘Willard’ (1971) and ‘Ben’ (1972), there is a sequence in which a bound and helpless Killraven serves as a living meal for the little beady-eyed minions of Rattack, which I have posted here.  While nowadays such a setup would draw little oversight, this was rather intense stuff for a Code-approved comic published at the end of 1973.






Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Book Review: 'Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome' by Joan D. Vinge

5 / 5 Stars

This novelization of the screenplay of ‘Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome’ (Warner Books, 1985, 219 pp.) was written by Joan D. Vinge; she is of course a well-known SF writer (‘The Snow Queen’, ‘Psion’).

There’s nothing in the novelization that does not appear in the film, but it does provide some little bits of detail, nuances, and backstory that will be appreciated by fans of ‘Thunderdome’. For example, the reason why Master uses pidgin English in the first half of the film (“No energy, no town. Me King Arab !”) is so that Blaster can follow the conversation. It’s later in the film that Master reverts to correct English (“My name is Elvis Ford…I’m thirty-five inches tall…Sixty-six years old…And my life is over…”).

We also learn that the little shaven-headed man, sporting the mask and plume of hair atop an aerial fixed to his back, is named ‘Ironbar Bassey’, and the convict who befriends Max in the pigpens of the Underworld is named ‘Pig Killer’ (an unforgiveable offense in Bartortown). The Master of Ceremonies at Thunderdome, the man with the slicked-back hair, is named Dr Dealgood, and the tattooed, blind saxophonist in Aunt Entity’s palace is named…appropriately….. Tonton Tattoo. These are the little bits of Australian humor that give the story its quirky, offbeat character.

The novel makes clearer the reasons for the increasing enmity between Aunt Entity and Master, and thus Max's mission to the Thunderdome. As well, the segment of the film that takes place in the camp of the lost children, which I found confusing (due in some part to the Australian accents of the actors and their heavily stylized dialogue: "we're be doing The Tell so that them's who come after, be in the knowing of the why and the how") is easier to understand as described in the novelization.

Even if you are familiar with the movie the novelization is a worthy read; Vinge is skilled at relating events via a smooth and well-paced narrative that can be very engaging at times. Indeed, ‘Thunderdome’ is one of the better script novelizations I’ve encountered. Recommended to Mad Max fans, and those who enjoy a good post-apocalyptic adventure story.

As of October 2009, there are reports that director George Miller will start filming the fourth installment of the series, tentatively titled 'Mad Max: Fury Road', in Australia in 2010. Rumored casting choices include Sam Worthington (from 'Terminator: Salvation'), Tim Worthy, and Charlize Theron (Mel Gibson is apparently adamant that he will not reprise his role as Mad Max).

Saturday, December 5, 2009

'Heavy Metal' magazine, December 1979


It’s December 1979 and the decade of the 70s is drawing to a disillusioned, exhausted close. The economy is still recovering from the effects the past Summer’s crude oil / gasoline shortage, and now some fanatical Iranians have imprisoned US embassy staffers. It seems as if the US is in the grip of a downward spiral politically and economically.

On the radio, Dionne Warwick is getting heavy airplay for her single ‘Déjà vu’, as is a timely new holiday song, ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ by Paul McCartney and Wings.

The December 1979 issue of Heavy Metal features a suitably sci-fi themed cover illustration, ‘He’s Comin’ to Town’, by Richard Cohen and John Townley; the back cover art is ‘Sweet Dreams’ by Thomas Warkentin.

Inside, we find part two of Corben’s ‘Rowlf’, and excerpts from two gift books released in time for the holidays: ‘Giants’, and ‘Gnomes’. Harland Ellison provides a reprint, with an updated Introduction, of his 1969 short story ‘Santa Claus Vs Spider’.

Among the other comics in this issue are ‘Suburban Scenes’ by Caza; ‘Formalhaut’ by Algora; ‘A Tale of Christmas’ from Moebius; and ‘Slim Kentucky’ by Cornillon.

But the best piece in the issue is yet another demented gem of a story from Arthur Suydam: ‘Christmas Carol’, which I post here. Brilliant pen-and-ink artwork, a creepily memorable plot, and some twisted scenes unlike anything you'll see in a conventional horror comic….enjoy !








Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Robert Holdstock, author of 'Mythago Wood', passes away at age 61

I haven't read much of Robert Holdstock's fiction over the years, but I do remember reading 'Mythago Wood' back in 1986. It was a worthy read, all the more so for depicting the forest-bound, bronze-age Mythagos in all their rather dirty, briar-scratched, and unbathed glory. 'Mythago' was definitely one of the best fantasy novels published in the 80s.

According to this article in the Guardian, Robert Holdstock has passed away at age 61 of an infection with E. coli. He had evidently been ill since November 18, and died on November 29, 2009, after being placed in intensive care with multiple organ failure. Holdstock appears to have been in good health prior to being exposed to the E. coli, which makes his death all the more unexpected and unfortunate.

While it is unclear what strain of E. coli was responsible, it is quite probable that E. coli O157:H7, an 'enterohemorrhagic' strain historically associated with the consumption of rare hamburger meat,  spinach, sprouts, and other foods, may have been the culprit.

E. coli o157:H7 is a serious public health problem in Great Britain. Over the past few years outbreaks have taken place among fish n' chips shop patrons, consumers of lunch meat and  children visiting a petting zoo. Some of the more well-known patients include Elton John and Johnny Depp's daughter

What makes the infection difficult to combat is the fact that by the time many individuals are diagnosed, intervention with antibiotics may not be sufficient to prevent fatal damage to the kidneys and other organs. 
Heavy Metal December 1977: Making My Own Christmas Card

For Christmas 2009 I decided to do something different in terms of my Christmas cards; rather than picking up some styles from the Hallmark store, or the rack at 'The Crystal Fox' (a New Age boutique on Main Street in Laurel, Maryland), I would make my own.

I investigated a number of custom ‘photo card’ websites, and eventually settled on Vistaprint, mainly because their pre-formatted styles allowed for a design with the photo occupying the entire front of the card, as opposed to being shrunk and nested within an ornate border or frame. Vistaprint also provided a template ‘blank’ 5” x 7” folded card with a vertical (portrait) orientation.

For the card, I used a 200 dpi scan (2.5 MB jpeg) of the cover of Heavy Metal magazine’s December 1977 issue: a priceless Jean Solè portrait of Santa Claus as a menacing biker (!), with a ‘Joyeux Noel’ message displayed on a banner across the bike’s handlebars.

So how did the whole experience go ?

The pluses:

-the image on the cards reproduced with good quality

-at $20 total (including shipping and handling) for 10 cards, the per-card price of $2 was reasonable.

-the price includes 10 white envelopes sized to hold a 5” x 7” card

-the interval from when I placed my order online until I received the cards in the snail mail was 9 days.

The minuses:

-the Vistaprint card design webpage is a pain to use. Basically, you click thru successive screens to upload your image, and then you go thru various menus to select the options and features you want, such as text on the front of the card. This sounds good in theory, but there are annoyances; for example, I was forced to include text and an image on the inside the card, when I didn’t want this option.

-I also tried selecting different colors for the interior text (as opposed to just b &w), but the user interface was so poorly designed I had no way of telling if my selection had registered in the final card design (it hadn’t).

-after finalizing your card design, getting to the payment and order screens involves a numbing click-through of 7 – 8 further screens, offering all sorts of cheesy tchotchkes and come-ons (placing your card image onto a poster, or putting it on a coffee mug; orders for personalized address labels, pencils with your name embossed on them in gold script, etc).

These screens are deliberately set up to make it very easy for you to mistakenly click the wrong button and inadvertantly add 5 – 10 dollars’ worth of stuff, or unnecessary card features, you don’t really want.

And of course, there are all sorts of cunningly hidden ‘opt-out’ buttons that you must find and select in order to avoid being deluged with regular email sales pitches from Vistaprint and its business partners.

All in all, making my own card was a worthwhile endeavor. Just be careful as you go about the process with the online ordering. And, as Christmas time draws closer, I’m sure the custom card manufacturing services will get ever-heavier traffic, so you may want to allow for sufficient time between ordering and receipt of the finished product in order to get your cards mailed before the holiday arrives.