Sunday, February 28, 2010

Alice Cooper: 'Tales from the Inside', Marvel Premiere No. 50 (October 1979)

I’ve previously posted excerpts from the Marvel three-issue prestige series ‘Alice Cooper: The Last Temptation’ (1993), a horror-themed, downbeat fantasy tale featuring everyone’s favorite 70s  shock-rocker.
In contrast, Marvel Premiere's 50th issue: ‘Alice Cooper, Tales From the Inside’ (October 1979) is a decidedly humorous treatment of rock stardom, and a satire of Alice’s trademark theatrical gimmicks. The book is loosely based on Alice’s 1978 album of the same title, which was in turn derived from his experience in a sanitarium (which he had voluntarily entered in order to deal with his severe alcoholism; according to the Wiki entry, Alice was downing as much as two cases of Budweiser and a bottle of whiskey a day).

Whereas nowadays 'substance abuse' problems and rehab check-ins seem to be carefully scheduled events designed to focus mass media attention back on pop or rock stars who have felt a slackening in their time in the public eye,  for Alice, it inspired an effort at sarcastic humor.
The book opens with our hero attempting to escape from a sanitarium:

The narrative then segues into a flashback relating how our hero came to be placed in a mental institution in the first place:

I won’t spoil the remainder of the adventure, but it's safe to say things will get worse for Alice before they get better.
In terms of art design and writing, ‘Tales’ is an obvious homage to ‘Mad’ magazine circa the early 50s, when it was a color comic book and featured the distinctive writing and art of Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Will Elder, and Jack Davis. There is also a bit of the quintessential 70’s  asylum movie, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, worked into ‘Tales’.
With its mocking depiction of the insane, and a mental institution that is “…like going to camp…Dachau !”, ‘Tales From the Inside’ is  very politically incorrect by modern standards; but back in ’79 things were a little more…liberal. And you even had an ‘Approved by the Comics Code’ stamp on the cover !

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Book Review: Demon-4

Book Review: 'Demon-4' by David Mace

2 / 5 Stars

‘Demon 4’ was first published in Britain in 1984; this Ace paperback (184 pp) was released in 1986 and features a cover painting by John Berkey.

‘Demon’ is part techno-thriller and part SF, and something of a European version of The Hunt for Red October, the 1984 novel that shot Tom Clancy onto the bestseller lists in the US that year.

Mace’s tale is set in the near future, in the aftermath of a nuclear war between the Eastern Bloc and NATO. Most of Europe has been scorched by nukes, selected cities in the US and Russia have been nuked, and with most First World countries out of armaments, there is an uneasy truce between the exhausted warring parties, who now must deal with aggressive overtures from former bottom-feeder nations such as Argentina.

A large undersea fortress, termed Krak-1 (‘Kraken-1’), lies on the sea floor north of Antarctica. Entirely governed by computer control, Krak-1 refuses to stand down now that the shooting is supposed to have stopped; in fact, it now sees all military units as a threat, and the sea lanes in the region are deathtraps for vessels and aircraft. As the novel opens, an effort to ‘talk down’ Krak-1 from its belligerent status fails miserably, and the few NATO assets left in Antarctica are depleted.

Rather than trying to use a nuke to destroy the fortress, the civilian command dispatches Barbara Kastner, a civilian engineer, to a military outpost located on Grande Island in the Kerguelen Island archipelago in the southern Indian Ocean. There, Kastner is charged with overseeing an effort to eliminate Krak-1 using Demon-4, a newly constructed mini-submarine with advanced weaponry and stealth technology.

What sets Demon-4 apart from previous iterations of its design is the incorporation of a cyborg in its command and control function; literally slices of a dead soldier’s brain are kept in a small vat of nutrient media and wired into the sub’s electronics. It is hoped that Demon-4’s unique AI will allow it to slip past the formidable defenses planted on the sea floor around the perimeter of Krak-1, and gain access to the inner reaches of the fort. There, more than 4 kilometers deep in the chilly, dark waters of the Southern Ocean, Demon-4 will have to rely on its limited arsenal of torpedoes and missiles and to destroy the fortress…before Krak-1 destroys the Demon.

Having read Mace’s other nautical techno-thriller, ‘Firelance’, I knew what to expect with ‘Demon-4’: rather than a ‘Go USA !’ treatment akin to the Clancy novels, the novel is infused with a cynical, mordant attitude towards the military mindset and the politicians nominally in charge of the warriors.

Mace never tips his hand as to which side- Krak-1 or Demon-4 – will ultimately triumph, so the narrative retains its suspense to the very end.

For me, the major drawback to ‘Demon-4’ is its prose style. Mace lards too many of his sentences with too many metaphors, similes, excess adjectives, and excess adverbs. The result can be more than a little labored:

Beneath the embalming snow cover was a magnificently obscene marbling of true ice and brown ice and vomit pale mixes of oil and frozen water.


Beside it rested a black toy, a sea creature child a mere ten metres long.


He ran the fan up to power, the bottom sighed in vague doppler shaded ghosts sliding behind, the propulsion jet faded in a smooth stream. He went at full speed towards the fort.

Mace made considerable advances in paring down his sentence structure with Firelance, released in 1986, two years after ‘Demon-4’. But readers interested in ‘Demon-4’ should be prepared for a more ornate, and intensely descriptive, prose style than may be the fashion nowadays.

Friday, February 19, 2010

'Heavy Metal' magazine February 1980:
'Survival' by Ilic and Lilley

One of the more visually striking comics in the February 1980 issue, 'Survival' features some distinctive b & w artwork from Mirko Ilic. Lee Lilley provides a downbeat, rather creepy storyline that comes across very well despite a lack of any text.





Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Review: 'In the Mother's Land' by Elisabeth Vonarburg

2 / 5 Stars

‘In the Mother’s Land’, by Elisabeth Vonarburg (Bantam Spectra, 1992, 487 pp.), features a cover illustration by Oscar Chichoni. The book’s English translation (from the original in French) was done by Jane Brierley.
‘Mother’s Land’ takes place in a future earth nearly a thousand years after combined nuclear war and Eco-catastrophe have destroyed civilization. Small city-states have arisen within the territory of Maerlande; outside its boundaries lie the Badlands, areas still too hazardous from contaminating toxins and radiation to be inhabited long-term. Technology is limited to steam power and the modest use of electricity; most long-distance travel uses livestock, and the economy is primarily agrarian.
One result of the wars and ecological  collapse of the previous millennium is that much of the population is sterile, and the rate of infant and child mortality is high. Only a small percentage of the female population (the ‘Reds’) are permitted to mate and become pregnant. The percentage of males in the overall population is under 5 %, and thus, men have little political or social power within Maerlande; some of the restrictions under which they labor are imposed as cautionary measures in light of the prominent role of men in the downfall of the old world.  Maerlande is very much a ‘Gyn/Ecology’, where woman exclusively serve as rulers and defenders of their civilization. Maerlande society adheres to a belief in a female Deity, termed ‘Elli’, and a female Christ-equivalent, ‘Garde’, who died and was ‘resurrected’ centuries previously.
The narrative follows the life of a young woman named Lisbei, who is born into a high-ranking family in the city-state of Bethely. As Lisbei matures and travels around the city-states of Maerlande she comes to question the religious and historical legends that underpin its civilization.  Her explorations into buried pre-Decline sites soon bring her considerable notoriety as an iconoclast and rebel, and ultimately lead her to question the logic behind the social order and its implications for the future of Maerlande.
‘Mother’s Land’ is a lengthy, deliberately-paced novel and best read by those who seek SF with a decidedly ‘soft science’ bent. The plot relies on prolonged explorations of social and psychological conflicts and conundrums to generate drama and tension. People have emotion-laden conversations with one another, and muse on the significance of various Relationships. They do yoga (the ‘taitche’). Some have mild ESP abilities that manifest as an awareness of an aura radiating from other sensitives.
There are no Radscorpions, Raiders, Feral Ghouls or Deathclaws coming out of the Badlands to commit various acts of mayhem. Nobody unearths a Gatling Laser from a long-buried fallout shelter and decides to take over the world with violent gusto. No subjugated race of deformed mutants instigates a bloody revolt to gain their place in the Sun.
‘Mother’s Land’ is not by any means a feminist polemic; the narrative does not preoccupy itself with feminist ‘issues’, being more of a commentary on how the most structured of societies may rest on a cultural and religious foundation derived from apocryphal sources.
The  last chapter in the book is a disappointment. The author tries to introduce some major revelations about a number of major characters; unfortunately, this is done in a very confusing and obtuse manner. To make things worse, a contrived plot mechanism is used to underpin the revelations; so contrived, in fact, as to make me think that the book would have been better off with the last chapter excised.
In summary, ‘Mother’s Land’ will primarily appeal to those readers willing to embrace a contemplative, slow-moving narrative centered on defining and expanding interactions among the characters, rather a novel centered on action and adventure.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

'Star Trek Blueprints' by Franz Joseph Designs


Back in 1975, Trekkies eager for even the most trivial scraps of material dealing with their Beloved Show had the option of spending $5.00 for a little packet of ‘Star Trek Blueprints’ from Ballantine.

The blueprints were rather unexciting, even by fanboy standards. They consisted of 12 folded sheets depicting the Enterprise in various cross-sectional views, with noteworthy structural and engineering features pointed out for the delectation of the observer. Some of the decks and compartments were rarely, if at all, featured in the TV show but the author (Franz Joseph Schnaubelt, aka Franz Jospeh Designs) was given leeway to expand the description of the vessel as he saw fit.

According to a Trekkie website, Franz Joseph spent 500 hours researching and drawing the blueprints, which entered the New York Times Bestseller list.

The Blueprints were the first of what would soon be an entire library of technical documents derived from not only Star Trek, but other sci-fi television and film productions. From these humble beginnings......... !

Monday, February 8, 2010

Killraven: 'Amazing Adventures' No. 25 (July 1974)

‘Amazing Adventures’ 25 (July, 1974) features Killraven in ‘The Devil’s Marauder’, with script by Don McGregor and art by Rich Buckler, who was replacing Herb Trimpe.

Things start somewhat promisingly, as we are treated to the sight of an escaping slave being executed in rather gruesome fashion by a tripod driven by a villainous individual named Skar. Killraven launches himself at the tripod canopy and a major battle with Skar looms….or so it seems (panels below).

This issue of ‘Amazing Adventures’ is one of the least impressive ones in the Killraven series. It shows too many signs of hasty artwork on Buckler’s part, with poor color separations to boot. As far as the storyline goes, it initially sets up what looks like an exciting confrontation with a genuinely nasty adversary, but instead lapses into a rushed, underwhelming ending, as if McGregor had abruptly discovered that he had only 15 pages this issue, not the historic 20, to work with.

The other material in the book includes a three-page reprint of an old Marvel horror comic reprint, ‘Are You Ready for the Impossible’; a letters page; and several Bullpen pages, on one of which Stan Lee shills for the Marvel ‘Value Stamp’ booklet (50 cents).

All through the last half of 1973 it was clear that Marvel was running into production problems as Lee lavished attention on an ever-increasing line of b & w magazines designed to assuage his envy of James Warren’s publishing success with ‘Creepy’ and ‘Erie’. This meant that Marvel’s color comic output suffered from a lack of resources. Unfortunately, the early months of 1974 made clear that at Marvel, things were going to get worse before they got better….

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

'The Year's Best Fantasy Stories 3', edited by Lin Carter

3 / 5 Stars

‘The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories 3’, edited by Lin Carter, was published as DAW book No. 267 in November, 1977. The cover illustration is by Josh Kirby.  Much as with the other DAW anthologies of the era, the fantasy edition of the ‘Year’s Best’ compilations usually had three, or perhaps four, good stories within their pages, which was the case with this volume.
This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that back in ’76, what was then called ‘adult fantasy’ was still an emerging field in book publishing, and unlike today, the store shelves were dominated by SF, with very few fantasy entries receiving mass market paperback publication. Many of the stories in ‘Fantasy 3’ came from small-press magazines, while others made first-time appearances; all were produced in 1976.
The emphasis in this volume is very much on Conan-style heroic fantasy tales.
‘Eudoric’s Unicorn’, by L. Sprague de Camp, is a pleasant enough tale, if not particularly memorable. It’s an effort at infusing the old-tyme ‘dragon and threatened maiden’ trope with humor.
Veteran fantasy and SF writer Gardner Fox contributes ‘Shadow of a Demon’, in which a barbarian hero named Niall enters the cursed city of Angalore, and a confrontation with a evil mage named Maylok. En route he saves a young woman from would-be molesters and takes to the party life:
Niall pushed Lylthia onto a bench and waved an arm at a serving maid. “Thort steaks and Kallarian,” he ordered, then turned his attention to the girl.
‘Shadow’ delivers the pulp-style sword-and-sorcery stuff in a satisfactory dose, and should satisfy any fan of the ‘Conan’ stories.
Pat McIntosh’s ‘Ring of Black Stone’ is also in the sword-and-sorcery camp, but it’s one of the more subdued and nuanced tales in the genre. Thula the war-maiden befriends an elderly woman and a little girl, as the latter go about burying the girl’s slain parents. Thula volunteers to find the elderly woman’s granddaughter Melvia, abducted by the slayers and taken to the city. The narratives centers less on brute-force hacking and slashing, and more on an understanding of the subtleties of magic, and some careful decision-making by its heroine. ‘Ring’ is one of the best stories in the anthology.
George R. R. Martin, whose ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ / Game of Thrones series dominates contemporary fantasy publishing, provides ‘The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr.’ Laren is a bard who sings his way around confrontations; he befriends a cursed young woman named Sharra, and decides to break the enchantment cast upon her. The story is an patent effort to produce a highly stylized, pretty, melancholy prose poem, but I ‘m afraid I’m too crude and brutish to appreciate it…..
Karl Edward Wagner gives us a 'Kane' story in ‘Two Suns Setting’. While wandering through the wastelands, Kane encounters a well-behaved giant named Dwassllir, and embarks on an adventure to recover the lost Crown of King Brotemllain. Wagner wasn’t the most stylistically accomplished of sword and sorcery writers, and his passages of dialogue are often more than a little clumsy. However, ‘Two Suns’ makes up for these weaknesses with an engaging plot and a nicely drawn atmosphere of lost glories and faded elder races.
The anthology strikes a lame note with the next entry, ‘The Stairs in the Crypt’, in which editor Carter takes a scrap of a manuscript by Clark Ashton Smith and from it fabricates a short story. The result is even worse than Ashton himself would have done. Only true fanboys will be willing to endure this adjective-drenched, syntactically challenged piece. It’s really nothing more than self- indulgence on the part of Carter to include this entry as one of the ‘year’s best’.
Raul Capella contributes ‘The Goblin Blade’. Bickering allies Briot the thief and Dalmask the mage infiltrate castle Skernach, which has been occupied by a supernaturally enhanced warrior named Tormahan. The author is clearly trying to pay homage to the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser tales of Fritz Leiber. This is not a bad thing, although the story’s copious dialogue is more than a little juvenile, and not up to par with something Leiber would craft.
With her entry ‘The Dark King’, author C. J. Cherryh tries to produce a ‘deep’ fantasy tale like those produced by her contemporary, Tanith Lee. The story deals with a young regent named Sisyphos who makes a fateful bargain with Death. It’s not a bad effort, but I found myself thinking Lee may have handled the concept with a bit more aplomb.
You know the startlingly large supply of ‘unfinished’ Conan manuscripts supposedly discovered in the aftermath of Robert E. Howard’s death must be depleted, when Lin Carter is reduced to using his Conan pastiche ‘Thongor the Mighty’ in lieu of the Real Thing in the pedestrian ‘Black Moonlight’. As a sword and sorcery tale it’s competent, but by ’76 Carter had been churning out reams of short stories and novels over a long career, and yet ‘Moonlight’, like so much of his latter work, showed no marked advances in story conception or writing style. 
It wasn’t difficult to foresee that in the next few years authors like Stephen R. Donaldson and Terry Brooks would eclipse Carter as genre writers, and achieve a degree of commercial success that bypassed Carter.
‘The Pool of the Moon’, by Charles Saunders, is a sword and sorcery tale involving Imaro, a black Conan-style hero let loose in a fantasy landscape with Afrocentric tones. Our hero rescues Nakulla, “…a seductive vision in gold and black”, and a princess of Darfur (!). I can’t say it’s a terribly original story, but the inclusion of some ethnicity into the story gives it some offbeat flavor. It’s too bad what we now call ‘urban fiction’ didn’t exist back in ’77, because if it did, I’d like to think author Saunders could have made an impact by pursuing this line of fiction for an audience of black readers.

Monday, February 1, 2010

'Heavy Metal' magazine February 1980


February 1980. The radio is playing Don Fogelberg's 'Heart Hotels',  Queen's 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love', and Michael Jackson's 'Rock With You'. The Winter Olympics are taking place in Lake Placid, New York, and the US hockey team wins the gold medal in a major upset over the Russians (Commies). Eric Heiden wins five gold medals in speed skating.

The latest issue of Heavy Metal features a cover by Patrick Couratin titled 'Mr Interlocutor ? Yes, Mr Bones' (obviously an avante gard title that is comprehensible only to French intellectuals), with the back cover by Jim Burns, titled 'Another DC-10 Bites the Dust'.

I've excerpted a little two-page comic by Enki Bilal, titled 'Road to Ruin'. Its wry humor is just right for the twin doldrums of Mid-Winter and Valentine's Day.