Monday, November 29, 2010

Book Review: 'Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s' edited by Greg Sadowski

5 / 5 Stars

If there is one book that's a sure-fire gift for horror and pop culture enthusiasts for Christmas 2010, then it's 'Four Color Fear'. This is a thick chunk of a book (Fantagraphics Books, September 2010, 320 pp.) with great production values and it's available from for $19.79 (not including shipping).

As editor Sadowski makes clear in his introduction, EC's books made up only around 7 % of the horror comics produced during the early 50s. Many titles of equal, or even superior, quality have tended to be overlooked amidst all the fawning devoted to the EC library. Thus, 'Four Color Fear' is a timely overview of strips from other publishers such as Comic Media, Avon, Fawcett, and Harvey (I had no idea Harvey, who published 'Casper the Friendly Ghost' and other 'kiddie' comics when I was a child in the 60s, had churned out lots of grisly horror books in the 50s).

The book contains 36 stories culled from the best efforts of the abovementioned publishers, as well as a back-of-the-book Notes section with interesting details on the writers, artists, and publishers of each story. The center section of the book contains a cover gallery printed on high-quality, slick paper.

These stories are reprinted on good-quality paper stock, and the color reproductions are very well done. I can't scan full pages without breaking the book's spine, but here are some excerpts of some pages to give an idea of the book's contents.

Here's a striking panel by Jack Cole of 'Plastic Man' fame:

The strip titled ' The Maze Master' by Lou Cameron prefigures Steve Ditko's work a decade later for 'Dr Strange':

'Corpses Coast to Coast', by the Iger Studio, has a novel take on the zombie theme:

 Some well-known comics artists are featured, including of course Basil Wolverton:

In the era well before computerized color, when comics were printed on less than stellar quality paper and considered a product for juveniles, the artwork in many of these stories is quite novel and inventive. 'Nightmare', by Harry Lazarus, demonstrates that printing comics with black borders was something done well before Marvel and DC started doing it frequently back in the 1980s:

And here's an attention-grabbing opening page from 'Amnesia' by Warren Kremer:

In summary, comic book fans will definitely want to have this book on their shelves. It's a great value for the money and editor Sadowski hints that another volume, devoted entirely to the horror comics produced by Atlas (forerunner of Marvel Comics) may be in the wings.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book Review: Killing Ground

Book Review: 'Killing Ground: The Canadian Civil War' by Bruce Powe

4 / 5 Stars

My sisters live in Buffalo, and whenever I go to visit them and we drive around the city, it’s not at all unusual to see many cars with Ontario license plates in the parking lots of the shopping centers and malls and stadiums. The cross-border visits of the Canadians, who make day or weekend trips into the city to shop and sight-see, helps keep Buffalo from sliding into even greater economic decline.

The Canadians can be distinguished from the locals by their habit of pronouncing some words in a slightly different way; ‘about’, for example, becomes ‘aboot’. The visitors from Ontario are almost always relatively affluent, polite, and well-behaved.

And they hate the French-Canadians.

Most Americans are only vaguely aware that during the late 60s and throughout the 70s there was a very real possibility that the Francophone province of Quebec would secede from Canada and form an independent nation. The vacillating Canadian government adopted a policy of appeasement, in the hope that by catering as much as possible to the political desires of the Quebec political bloc, the province could be coaxed into staying.

The moment of truth came in 1980, when Quebec held a referendum on sovereignty (i.e., independence). The referendum was defeated by 60 % of the voters, a resounding margin that sent the independence bloc into a decline from which it has never really recovered. 

By that time, however, the majority of English-speaking Canadians had come to despise the decades-long policies of pandering to the French contingent, and their resentment smolders to this day.

‘Killing Ground: The Canadian Civil War’ was published in 1968; this paperback edition (349 pp., cover artist unknown) was released in 1977. The novel is set in the future, i.e., in the early 70s, when the main character, Lt. Colonel Alex Hlynka, returns to Canada after serving on a UN Peacekeeping mission in South Africa. He is bemused to find Montreal in the grip of terror bombings carried out by militant separatists of ‘The Quebec Legion’ or PDQ. As the Canadian government dithers over how to respond to the attacks, the Army – with all of its best units on duty overseas – ponders how it will summon up the manpower to police the province of Quebec, should the need arise.

In short order, the separatist party declares independence for Quebec; riots and mob violence break out in Montreal, and government institutions are under siege. Forces of paramilitary units – ‘whiteshirts’ – take control of the government and initiate a campaign to expel English-speaking residents from Quebec. 

With the crisis mounting, Alex Hlynka is given command of a Royal Canadian Regiment and ordered into action to liberate Dorval Airport in Montreal, where thousands of desperate refugees await transport out of the province. It soon becomes clear that violence between the French Canadians and the Anglo Canadians is inevitable….and Alex Hlynka won’t be in the mood to hold back….

‘Killing Ground’ starts out slowly; the narrative doesn’t pick up speed until after the first 100 pages, but from then on until the book’s last page, the pace moves along at a good clip. Author Powe is skilled at writing blood-drenched battle scenes, and while he does tend to invest a bit too much text on extended descriptions of military matters or internal monologues on the part of Alex Hlynka, these are minor digressions and rarely sap momentum from the plot. 

The author consciously avoids providing a happy ending, preferring to end things on an ambiguous note with a plot device sure to make all Canadians uneasy.

‘Killing Ground’ is a good 70s action novel and an interesting examination of the psyche of our neighbors in the Great White North. Keep a map of eastern Canada handy – it helps to know where the various locales are – and be prepared to look up some obscure idioms and cultural references (e.g., ‘Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry’ ?).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

'Blind Citadel' by Giraud
(from 'Heavy Metal' magazine, November 1980)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

'Heirs of Earth' by Richard Corben (from 'Slow Death' No. 3, 1971)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review: 'Steam Bird' by Hilbert Schenck

 2 / 5 Stars

Hilbert Schenck states in his Introduction to 'Steam Bird' that when he received his degree in mechanical engineering in the 1950s, his first job was on the R & D team at Pratt and Whitney, working on the design of the engines for a nuclear reactor-powered aircraft.

The US Air Force had been contemplating building such a plane since the late 1940s. The idea called for a 'small' nuclear reactor to be installed in the fuselage; hot water turned to steam via flowing into and out of the reactor would be piped to engines located in the wings, where a heat exchanger mediated the  transfer of the heat to the air, which in turn was forced through turbojets to provide thrust and propel the aircraft.

Articles on the history of the program are available here and here. Some interesting technologies were developed in the course of the R & D, including what was arguably the world's first 'mech', designed to perform maintenance on the highly radioactive components of the aircraft. A modified B-36 bomber carrying a functioning nuclear reactor actually saw significant flight time. However, the 'nuclear energy for propulsion of aircraft' (NEPA) program was shut down in March 1961 with the proposed plane still only a model on the drawing board.

In 'Steam Bird' (Tor Books, 1988, 213 pp., cover art by Vincent di Fate), Schenck posits an alternate USA where the NEPA program never got canceled and actually produced three huge atomic-powered bombers in the mid-60s. Since once the engine is activated, the bulk of the plane becomes radioactive and essentially a one-time-use piece of equipment, the aircraft are consigned to sit in hangers in an Air Force base in Moosefoot, Maine, Cold War relics too expensive to junk and too dangerous to fly.

Then, in the late 80s, a seeming move by the USSR to place long-range ballistic missiles in Nicaragua gives the Air Force an excuse to send at least one of the antique bombers, the Samuel Langley, into the air as a show of force to the Soviet government. Before President Shamus O'Connell can quite grasp what has happened, the Langley lumbers down its ten-mile runway and takes to the air. But even if the plane succeeds in frightening the Russians into withdrawing from Nicaragua, a major problem awaits: where is the plane to land ? 

The slightest slip-up, and the landing site becomes a radioactive wasteland....

'Bird' is a superficial effort at SF; the real purpose of the book is allow Schenck to write a novel about a family of eccentrics similar to that of the best-selling 1985 book 'The Beans of Egypt, Maine' by Carolyn Chute, or any one of the novels of John Irving. 

Schenck's book features a Maine family called the Muths, and most of the narrative revolves around their humorous interactions with each other, their uncle Congressman Hazelton, and President O'Connell and his aide, 'Happy Jack' Hanrahan. There are times when 'Bird' had me laughing out loud, but if you approach this book thinking it will be like a Tom Clancy novel, you're going to be disappointed.

Also included in the book is a novelette titled 'Hurricane Claude'. Claude is a monster storm bearing down on New England and threatening to cause all kind of mayhem. Techoceanics, a consortium of eccentric, visionary scientists and engineers, has a plan to dissipate the hurricane. It involves sending an aluminum speedboat into the Eye of the storm, while a prop-driven airplane circles above the Eye trailing a long line of metal cable. The idea is that by serving as anode and cathode, the ship and plane will create a column of ionized air in the center of the Eye, which will cause the Eye to collapse, and then the body of the hurricane proper.

It's a daring, even deadly, plan, but the payoff will be huge...if Techoceanics can make it happen....

'Claude' is an engaging story, in many ways a better story than 'Steam Bird', and perhaps the major reason to pick up this book up from the second-hand shelves.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

'Heavy Metal' magazine November 1980

The November 1980 issue of ‘Heavy Metal’ featured a cover ('Warmth') by Hajime Sorayama and a back cover ('Number 13 at Hialeah') by Chris Achiellos.

This issue contained the usual dross (‘Changes’ by Howarth and ‘Professor Thintwhistle’ by Stiles and Lupoff),  lengthier pretentious rock criticism by Lou Stathis, but also some very good pieces by Giraud (‘Blind Citadel’), Poirier (‘The Prophet and the Dictator’), and Caza (‘Metropolitan Opera’). 

The outstanding strip for this issue was ‘Awaken’, by the British artist Martin Springett, a strip that features some of the most intricate artwork to ever appear in the early years of Heavy Metal. These were the days before user-friendly drawing and graphics software was available for PCs, so painstakingly drawing the motifs, stippling, and designs intagliated in profusion on every image in every panel must have been a herculean labor on the part of the artist.

Springett continues to be active in fantasy art and also in music; more details on his work are available at his website.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Book Review: 'Farewell Horizontal' by K. W. Jeter

4 / 5 Stars

‘Farewell Horizontal’ (237 pp.) was published by Signet in November 1989; the cover artist is uncredited.
The Cylinder is an immense building, miles high and miles in circumference, built long ago by a polity no longer remembered. Within, the population labors at mundane pursuits, factory jobs, and dull administrative tasks. True nonconformists make for the ‘Vertical’, the outside of the Cylinder, where the metal surface is intagliated with a network of grids and attachment points for high-tech ‘pithons', retractable Smart Cables that extrude from one’s boots and belt to anchor one safely to the wall. An entire society of ‘Mad Max’ – style warring gangs, scavengers, and thrill seekers wander the vast expanse of the surface of the Cylinder, only their slings and pithons keeping them from falling miles downward to the mysterious cloud layer masking the lower regions of the Cylinder.
Ny Axxter earns a living as a Graffex artist out on the surface, designing and applying icons, military regalia, and totems for the various lower-league gangs operating on the Vertical. It’s not an easy life, and Ny is always looking for the one major contract that will fill his bank account. When he gets word that the Havoc Mass, one of the two largest paramilitary forces in control of the top portion of the Cylinder, is looking for a Graffex artist to revamp their image, it’s the break Ny needs to get into the big time.
The Havoc Mass are indeed pleased with his work….but when one deals with the movers and shakers on the Vertical, one gets caught up in the turf wars and conspiracies that come with being among the powerful and ambitious. Ny soon discovers that he’s in over his head, and running for his life beyond the morningside of the Cylinder to the little-explored eveningside, where lurk the dreaded Dead Center tribes….and perhaps things much, much worse…..
‘Farewell Horizontal’ has an original, cool concept for its core. The world of the Vertical is consistently interesting and full of surprises. Ny is no superman, and occasionally rather too mercenary for his own good, but he remains an engaging character, as do the various other personalities he comes across in his travels on the surface. The chapter dealing with the Havoc Mass encampment is genuinely funny, but author Jeter is also adept at writing believable action sequences.
‘Farewell’ stands as a good example of late 80s cyberpunk, where traditional SF world-building melds neatly with the more traditional concepts- ‘jacking in’, virtual reality, wet-wired interfaces - of the cyberpunk genre.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Killraven Amazing Adventures No. 33

Killraven: 'Amazing Adventures' No. 33
(November 1975)

‘Amazing Adventures’ No. 33,  featuring Killraven in ‘The War of the Worlds’, was issued with a publication date of November 1975. Don McGregor is replaced as writer by Bill Mantlo, while Herb Trimpe replaced Craig Russell as the artist.

This episode, ‘Sing out loudly…Death !’ is one of the more inventive in the series. Killraven and his crew are hiking through West Virginia when they decide to rest up in a cave. While the other members of his party sleep, Killraven, troubled by Psychic Visions, wanders into the interior of the cave. There he comes upon an African village (!) complete with grass huts, and bare-chested natives in loincloths chucking spears - !

Killraven is subdued and brought before a pimp (!) who reveals that during the conflict of the Martian invasion, he led a small army of black folks away from the cities and into seclusion, refusing to join Whitey in the fight against the invaders:

Things aren't looking to good for Killraven, for the 'brothers' holding him in captivity have no love for honkies. But then a Martian monster rears its ugly green head.....

Will Killraven - raised in the postracial world of the invasion aftermath - be able to convince the homiez not to smoke his ass ? Will the Kumbayaa Spirit take hold and bring racial harmony to the cave dwellers ? This is a Marvel comic from 1975, after all, so don't expect any major surprises. 

But this remains one of the more entertaining installments of the series, which was starting to look vulnerable in the eyes of the Marvel editorial staff....although its readers were blithely ignorant, the Killraven saga was on its last legs as 1975 drew to a close....

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Book Review: 'Identity Seven' by Robert Lory

2 / 5 Stars

In the first few years of its existence DAW Books regularly filled out its catalogue by releasing short novels of 150 pages or less. Some of these novels were well-written (‘Blue Face’ by G. C. Edmondson), while others were forgettable. ‘Identity Seven’ unfortunately falls into the latter category.

Robert Lory wrote a large number of paperback novels in the 60s and 70s, and is perhaps best known for authoring all the volumes of the ‘Dracula’ series published by the New English Library in the mid-70s. ‘Identity Seven’ (155 pp.) was DAW Book No. 95, released in March 1974, and features a striking cover illustration by Kelly Freas.

The plot has something to do with a galactic organization called Hunters Associated, which hires out agents to take the identity of corporate officers and magnates whose lives might be in danger. The unnamed first-person narrator, known only as agent Seven, is dispatched to the planet Usulkan to assume the identity of a powerful businessman named Kalian Pendek. It seems Pendek has been assassinated, and before the world recognizes his demise, the Hunters have inserted Seven to take his place and to investigate the circumstances of the assassination. 

As his inquiries proceed, Pendek quickly learns that the conspiracy to deprive his predecessor of life and liberty is growing in intensity and threatens the stability of the entire planet. The keys to identifying the conspirators ? An exotic jeweled pendant, a talking squid, and a set of blueprints to a massive underwater redoubt lying somewhere on the sea floor of Usulkan…..

In terms of its prose style, ‘Identity’ reads as a series novel from the 60s spy genre – think ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ –with a science fiction coating hastily applied. The plot is frenetic, and shifts from one danger-filled moment to another in the span of a few pages. The novel’s sentence structure is so carelessly assembled that I found myself having to re-read many passages in order to ferret out exactly which words and phrases were governing the assignment of the Subject, Object, and Verb.  The author regularly employs  the clipped, wisecracking prose style commonly encountered in the more campy 60s spy literature. You will  find passages in which the same words are used multiple times, and hyphenated constructions are tossed around in a manner that apes the worst of the New Wave approach to writing:

I let it pass as a holdover from my morning’s mind-wanderings under the approaching death-spell of the jackal-grain. Or let’s say I tried to let it pass. At the end of that dream world was a large pit of blackness, a mammoth blot of smothering death. And in this real dream world there was waiting, below the crags, on the sea floor strewn with memories of past slaughters, a very real and mammoth blot of smothering destruction.

 ‘Identity Seven’ is best avoided, even by those intent on reading everything in the early DAW catalogue.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

'Questar' magazine, November 1979

Questar was a 8 x 11"  magazine published from 1978 to 1981 by MW Communications of Pittsburgh, with William Wilson serving as editor. The magazine was a 'slick', printed in color on higher quality paper stock, with a newstand / magazine rack distribution alongside more mainstream publications .

The runaway success of 'Star Wars' in 1977 had made possible the commercial viability of a new generation of SF magazines devoted to covering the genre in film and television. The leading publication of this type was Starlog, which debuted in 1976 and soon achieved a respectable circulation. Questar was aimed at the same audience. It did not achieve the economic success of its competitors, however, and the magazine folded after issuing its 13th and final issue in 1981.

The November 1979 issue features the hit movie 'Alien' on its cover and devotes a good portion of its interior to articles reviewing the film, and interviews with the cast and crew. In addition to the Alien coverage there are some black and white / graytone comics, an article about a 'Kiss' stage play, another about the newly released James Bond film 'Moonraker', and an interview with Mike Gornick, the cinematographer for George Romero's zombie film 'Dawn of the Dead', which was released - to considerable success -  in 1979. 

I've excerpted the Gornick interview here; it's an interesting look at low-budget film-making back in the late 70s. 

The idea of placing a zombie series on network TV with the requisite gore intact, like with AMC's 'Walking Dead', would have seemed most unlikely back in the Old School days of the late 70s.

Also scanned is the magazine's 'Panorama' section, providing a nice overview of what was going on in the SF / fantasy culture throughout 1979.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Book Review: The Disciples of Cthulhu

Book Review: 'The Disciples of Cthulhu' edited by Edward P. Berglund
3 / 5 Stars

‘The Disciples of Cthulhu’, DAW Book No. 213 (288 pp.) , was issued in 1976 and features a cover illustration by Karel Thole. Long out of print, copies of the DAW version have very high asking prices.

In 1995 Chaosium published a trade paperback reprint, used copies of which unfortunately also go for very high prices. It also has some editorial meddlings, in terms of dropping the Carter and Brennan entries for new ones by Robert Price and A. A. Attansio.

I remember picking the DAW book up from the rack at Gordon’s Cigar Store in October 1976, back when Steely Dan’s ‘The Fez’, ‘Muskrat Love’ by the Captain and Tennille, and “Disco Duck’ by Rick Dees, were playing on the radio. TV offered ‘(Dick) Van Dyke and Company’, ‘Police Woman’, ‘Baretta’, and ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’.

‘Disciples’ is a reasonably good anthology of Cthulhu stories, particularly in comparison with the endless fanfic anthologies churned out over the past 15 years by Chaosium, and the more polished collections (‘Cthulhu 2000’) published by Del Rey. 

All its entries were written specifically for 'Disciples', and veteran authors, as well as newcomers, were included in the lineup. Copies of this book in good condition fetch high prices on eBay and

As a Cthulhu anthology, ‘Disciples’ tends toward the quieter end of the horror spectrum, focusing less on blood and gore than on the psychological derangement that comes with encountering the Old Ones and their warped human acolytes.

My opinions of the stories:

‘The Fairground Horror’ by Brian Lumley: the creepy owner of an amusement park side show reserves a set of eldritch artifacts and collectibles for viewing by appointment only. When an archeology professor requests to see the objects, he may see more than he bargained for….sharing the same English setting as Lumley’s ‘Titus Crow’ stories, ‘Fairground’ takes a leisurely approach in getting to its denouement.

‘The Silence of Erika Zann’ by James Wade: in a seedy music club, an acid rock band named The Electric Commode, led by a striking singer named Erika Zann, starts to attract attention from the hipsters. The band’s music is strange and unearthly, and not all of the sounds are coming from the players on stage. [The theme of rock music as a natural outlet for Cthulhu worship is recycled by Alan Moore in his comics ‘The Courtyard’ (2003) and ‘Necronomicon’ (2010) for Avatar Press.]

‘All Eye’ by Bob Van Laerhoven: in the Canadian wilderness a scholar gets lost and finds himself confronting an evil entity from beyond Time and Space. Van Laerhoven was a newcomer to writing and his first-person narrative, while holding the reader’s attention, can be confusing at times.

‘The Tugging’ is the inevitable entry from Ramsey Campbell. An art critic for a British newspaper is troubled by dreams of an undersea island coming to the surface; these dreams may be triggered by the approach of a rogue planetoid into the solar system. As is usual with a Campbell contribution, the plot is an afterthought, weighted down by a thick encrustation of metaphors and similes: buses ‘quake’ and ‘fart’, telephone calls ‘leap prankishly’ (?!), the dawn ‘clutches’, memories ‘tear’ their way through insomnia… get the picture.

“Where Yidhra Walks” by Walter C. DeBill, Jr. : in the wilds of West Texas, a traveler finds himself stranded in a small town named Milando. The townspeople don’t take kindly to strangers, particularly strangers who start to ask too many questions about an ancient cult that worships an entity called Yidhra the Devourer…..this is one of the better tales in the anthology, making a well-crafted transition from the atmosphere of unease that starts out most traditional Mythos stories before ramping things up to a chase sequence reminiscent in some ways of ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’.

‘The Feaster from Afar’ by Joseph Payne Brennan: a supercilious novelist decides to take a sabbatical in a remote area of New England. He begins having disturbing dreams, but dismisses them as manifestations of the depression induced by the gloomy countryside. This is not a good attitude to take when in Cthulhu Country…one of the best stories in the anthology.

‘Zoth-Ommog’ by Lin Carter: a young museum staffer is troubled by a statue from a collection of artifacts recovered by a South Pacific expedition. He enlists the aid of the faculty at Miskatonic University and discovers the statue is the manifestation of one of Cthulhu’s offspring; there are unpleasant implications for the safety of all who view it. Carter can’t resist belaboring the reader with a detailed exposition on the background of the Mythos, making this novelette too long and rambling to be very engaging.

‘Darkness, My Name Is’ by Eddy C. Bertin: vacationing in Freihausgarten, a remote village in Germany, Herbert Ramon decides to investigate rumors of a temple located somewhere within a nearby Dark Hill. The locals don’t like talking about the Hill, or the strange ceremonies that are supposed to take place during the full moon…This story is the most innovative in the collection, moving from the familiar theme of the seeker into Eldritch Mysteries to a decidedly Cosmic, sci-fi perspective. Bertin’s use of a New Wave prose style in accompaniment of this narrative shift is overdone, but ‘Darkness’ stands as a very capable modern contribution to the Mythos.

‘The Terror from the Depths’ by Fritz Leiber: on the California coast, Georg Fischer has weird dreams of a vast network of tunnels lying under the trails in the hills surrounding his home. Are they connected to the bizarre shrine to a marine Deity in the basement of the house ? ‘Terror’ is a rather pedestrian reworking of the major storylines of the Mythos, and Leiber mimics too closely Lovecraft’s overwrought prose style (caves are referred to as ‘subterranean vacuities’).

Summing up, 'Disciples' is a decent anthology and worth picking up if you are able to find a copy with an affordable asking price.