Monday, January 31, 2011

Book Review: Spacehawk, Inc.

Book Review: 'Spacehawk, Inc.' by Ron Goulart
1 / 5 Stars

'Spacehawk, Inc.' is DAW Book No. 132 and was published in 1974; the cover illustration is by Hans Arnold.

Kip Bundy is a fun-loving young man who likes nothing more than to party and spend time with pretty girls. However, his Uncle Wenzel, an executive in the BKE Corporation, has a task for him. It seems that a cohort of BKE androids, marketed as butlers on the planet Malagra,have a flaw that may cause them to behave in potentially embarrassing, even dangerous, ways.

Accordingly, Kip needs to visit Malagra and fit each butler with a repair module. Accompanying Kip on his journey to Malagra are a lubricious photographer named Palma, and a toothsome young woman named April Arthur.

Once on Malagra, Kip and his friends quickly realize that this is the most chaotic, recklessly governed planet in the system, and seemingly simple tasks will require the utmost in skill and daring.....

This is a really bad book. I gave up on it at page 76 of 160.

I freely admit that I have never been a fan of the sub-genre of humorous / absurdist SF. I've never had the slightest interest in any of the Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett books. So maybe I just don't 'get' the humor in 'Spacehawk'.

But it's the one of the lamest efforts at being funny I've ever encountered. Author Goulart tries to take Woody Allen / New York Jewish humor and graft it onto a standard-issue SF theme and fails miserably.

Goulart produced a very large number of novels and short stories during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, not all of them in the humor genre, so I'm hoping that some of that material is worth looking into. But his comedic work is something I'm going to avoid.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

'There Is A Prince Charming on Phenixon' by Moebius
from the January 1981 issue of Heavy Metal

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: 'Midsummer Century' by James Blish

1 / 5 Stars

Few SF writers of the 50s and 60s were as consistently over-rated as James Blish. In his entry for Blish in 'The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction' (1995, St. Martin’s Griffin Press), Peter Nicholls describes him as ‘…an SF writer of unusual depth’. But I’ve always been unimpressed with those few Blish novels and stories that I have read (starting in the mid 70s with ‘Spock Must Die’, which was remarkably boring).

‘Midsummer Century’ (DAW book No. 89, February 1974, 159 pp., cover art by Josh Kirby) doesn’t do much to dissuade me of my convictions about Blish. First published in 1972, the novelette takes as its starting point an accident which befalls contemporary British astronomer John Martels. He awakens from a coma to discover that his consciousness has been lodged within a computer located in a moldering temple in the year 25,000 AD. 

Sharing the computer is a prickly AI known as ‘Qvant’. Together, Martels and Qvant serve as oracles to petitioning tribesmen, who are under some duress from The Birds; it seems that by 25,000 AD, avians have evolved into larger, and more intelligent, creatures who are determined to eradicate Homo sapiens from the earth. Human civilization has been reduced to the presence of some stone-age tribes that eke out an existence in those places not yet conquered by the Birds.

The story concerns itself with Martel’s efforts to escape his computer prison and find some surviving technological outpost, where he can make arrangements to return to his own time and place. But, while ‘Century’ has an interesting premise, Blish fails to do much with this premise. His prose is overly wordy and meandering and the narrative never achieves much in the way of momentum. A climactic sequence, which in the hands of a more capable writer would have dominated the novel,  instead is relegated to half of a page, providing an underwhelming ending to the novelette.

Rounding out this DAW volume are two short stories:

 In ‘Skysign’ (1968) an immense spaceship appears over San Francisco; the humanoid aliens piloting the craft invite some Earthlings to come aboard for purposes unknown, but presumably involving amiable inter-species relations. An affectless hippie named Carl Wade volunteers, and once aboard ship finds himself a prisoner. Can a disheveled stoner hope to defeat advanced alien technology and gain freedom for himself and his unlucky companions ? 

‘A Style in Treason’ (1971) is an effort to write a Jack Vance-inspired story (the use of the phrases ‘russet breeches’ and ‘a tabard of deeper violet’ are sure tip-offs), albeit an effort  beleaguered with Blish’s attempts at using New Wave prose stylings. The plot is barely coherent, and involves the efforts of one Simon de Kuyl, a courier of state secrets, to foment an alliance between High Earth and the polities ruling the colony world Boadacea. ‘Style’ is very poorly written, featuring clumsy sentence structure and inane metaphors (‘autumn cannibalism’ ???). 

The mediocre quality of ‘Midsummer Century’ perhaps could be excused by the fact that during the early 70s Blish was chronically ill (he died in 1975 from lung cancer). But unless you are a dedicated Blish fan, ‘Midsummer’ is best passed over by those looking for memorable works of the New Wave era.

Monday, January 24, 2011

'The Weird World of Eerie Publications' by Mike Howlett

As a kid growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the most depraved, tasteless, gruesome, schlockiest, and horrifying comics that I could find were the black and white comic magazines issued by Eerie Publications. 

Now, however bizarre and unlikely it may seem, comes a real treat for anyone interested in those comics, or sci-fi and horror pop culture in general: a coffee table book devoted to Eerie comics ! 

'The Weird World of Eerie Publications' (Feral House, 2010) is a large (8" x 11"), handsomely produced hardbound book, the 310 pages of which cover everything you'd want to know about the Eerie Empire.

(The one thing the book doesn't do is reprint any stories in their entirety; for that, you will want to check out the 2007 trade paperback 'The Zombie Factory' by Patrick O'Donnell).

Given titles like 'Tales of Voodoo', 'Weird', and 'Horror Tales', the Eerie comics  featured garish cover illustrations that were the antithesis of the artful covers on the Warren horror magazines.

The contents of these books were always chock full of gore in ways that few, if any, horror comics since have equaled.

The Eerie comics were produced from 1966 to 1981 by Countrywide Publications, whose publisher, Myron Fass, earned a considerable income from churning out low-budget, limited-run magazines (sometimes as many as 50 a month). These magazines were generated by underpaid, ambitious young writers determined to break into the business, and relied on illustrations obtained from studio-provided, public-domain, and archival photograph libraries. 

The Eerie line was edited by Carl Burgos, who was the creator of the Human Torch for Timely (later Atlas / Marvel) comics in the Fall of 1939. In contrast to the approach taken by Warren, DC, and Marvel, neither Fass nor Burgos gave much attention to showcasing the writers and authors who contributed to their magazines. And while not all the strips that appeared in the Eerie comics were necessarily top-notch, many were of a quality equal to that of the Warren publications.

Dick Ayers, Chic Stone, Bill Alexander, Cirilo Munoz, Hector Castellon, and many other artists could produce well-crafted material, albeit of a gruesome nature.

Ayers, in particular, was fond of drawing dislocated eyeballs dangling from the optic nerve on the heads of his victims:

 'The Weird World' opens with a brief recitation of the history of the horror comic books, which is where Fass and many of the Eerie artists cut their teeth, so to speak. Subsequent chapters provide a overview of the Eerie titles issued from 1966 to 1981, the one-shot miscellaneous horror and crime magazines that popped up in later years, and the other sleaze titles (the shark magazines in particular were genuine trash) that Fass and company churned out in the 80s.

Howlett was able to interview former employees from Countrywide and Eerie, and they provide some interesting insights into the world of schlock publishing. Like any true schlock producer, Fass was adamant about recycling covers and interior content, was late in paying contributors (sometimes shafting them of their pay entirely), and had no qualms about how to make a buck (although Fass and the majority of the Countrywide staffers were Jewish, he regularly ran advertisements for companies selling Nazi memorabilia).

The book's second half provides overviews of the Eerie artists and writers, who are now, some 40 years later, starting to receive attention for their demented genius in creating some of the most jolting stuff to appear in mainstream horror media. 

The last few chapters provide a gallery of all the Eerie comic covers, and a rather hastily drawn 6-page comic specially written for the book by Eerie alum Dick Ayers.

At a price of $21.75 (not including shipping) at, 'The Weird World' is very affordable and you get a lot of value for your money. This is a must-have for all fans of Eerie comics and the horror comics culture at large.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

'Fantagor' No. 3

featuring 'Kittens for Christian'

‘Fantagor’ No. 3 was self-published by Richard Corben and something of an experiment for a horror / fantasy underground comic in 1972, as it was printed in full color. Even the high-end Warren horror magazines were printed in b & w, with color sections appearing on a sporadic basis. Indeed, it really wasn't until the advent of 'Heavy Metal' that a magazine-sized publication appeared on the stands with color comics as a staple of its material. 

With ‘Fantagor’, the color separations seem a bit crude today, but by the standards of the time they weren’t bad. Not as good as the mainstream comics from publishers like Marvel or DC, but still reasonably entertaining. And as an 'underground' comic, Fantagor didn’t have to abide by Comics Code regulations.

This issue featured ‘The Temple’ by Corben; ‘Fugue’ by Arnold’, ‘Kittens for Christian’ by Strnad and Corben; and ‘The Demon Gate’ by Dresser.

‘Kittens’ is a great little story and I’ve posted it here. The moral: when you see an albino kitten, you may want to think things over before adopting it….

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review: The Grotto of the Formigans

Book Review: 'The Grotto of the Formigans' by Daniel da Cruz

3 / 5 Stars

‘The Grotto of the Formigans’ (185 pp.) was released by Del Rey in 1980; the cover illustration is by H. R.  Van Dongen.

It’s the early 80s and anthropologist Maynard Griggs is finishing up a three-year sabbatical spent in a camp located in the darkest, deepest region of Zaire. One night he hears the sounds of a helicopter in distress; heading to the crash site he comes upon the lone survivor, a well-built young woman named Consuela Milan. 

Not only is Milan a major in the Cuban Army, but she’s carrying a substantial sum of money embezzled from her erstwhile employers. When the remains of the copter mysteriously vanish overnight, Griggs and Milan embark on a search of the area around the crash. They find themselves abducted by a small army of strange creatures resembling humanoid termites - the Formigans of the book’s title. 

Borne underground to the tunnel network of the Formigans, Griggs and Milan make the acquaintance of the Queen of this unusual nest. When the seemingly indolent Queen gives them the liberty to explore the nest as they please, Griggs makes a number of exciting discoveries that could provide him with overnight worldwide acclaim as the first scientist to ever explore this strange realm. Visions of Nobel Prizes, sponsored professorships, and television interviews fill Maynard Griggs’s head as he contemplates how best to reveal the grotto of the Formigans to the world at large.

But are the Formigan Queen and her cohorts of workers and soldiers really as defenseless as they seem ? Is the freedom given the two human interlopers genuine, or part of a devious plan made by a creature with the accumulated wisdom of centuries of a hidden existence ? 

Daniel da Cruz wrote a number of SF and action / thriller novels throughout the 70s and 80s, with several of these constituting the ‘Texas’ series of novels dealing with a near-future incarnation of that state. 

‘Formigans’ is a competent SF adventure, if not particularly memorable. The narrative moves along at a good clip, the dialogue is well-written, and the ecology of the humanoid termites is worked out with considerable insight. The overall tenor of the story evokes a kind of wry humor, and the two main characters are a likeable enough pair. By featuring a black man - Maynard Griggs – as a protagonist, ‘Formigans’ is also a bit more unconventional compared to the other SF adventures of its time. 

Readers looking for a quick, enjoyable read with lighter SF content may want to check out ‘Formigans’.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Killraven Amazing Adventures No. 34

Killraven: 'Amazing Adventures' No. 34
(January 1976)

Throughout the 70s (and even, arguably, today) Marvel routinely used the 'death' of a main or supporting character to jazz up the covers of titles that needed a boost in their circulation. And so it was that for 'Amazing Adventures' No. 34 (January 1976) some of the supporting cast of Killraven's 'Freemen' were deemed expendable.

This issue features a script by Don McGregor and art by Craig Russell. Unfortunately, as was the case with many issues of the comic around this time, Russell's artwork is smothered by McGregor's overwrought prose. But enough of the art peeks through the verbiage to make this 18-page issue one of the better ones of the mid-70s. 

The Martian's top assassin, Skar, catches Killraven and his crew unawares and quickly deals some major injuries to Old Skull before our hero can react. As the series of pages I've posted below indicates, the ensuing battle is well-choreographed and has the kind of flair reminiscent of European SF comics of the 70s. 

While I won't spoil things by revealing who eventually survives, I will say that the body count is real and there is a downbeat ending to this episode that (hopefully) revived the Killraven franchise in the minds of the comic-buying public as 1975 drew to a close....

Friday, January 14, 2011

Book Review: The Deep

Book Review: 'The Deep' by John Crowley
4 / 5 Stars

‘The Deep’ first appeared as a hardcover from Doubleday in 1975; this Bantam paperback (176 pp.) appeared in January 1984 and has a cover illustration by Yvonne Gilbert.

The plot of this brief novel is straightforward. There is a strange world that resembles a giant dinner-plate atop an enormous pedestal, suspended over a formless void (the ‘Deep’ of the title).

[Think of the painting ‘The Titan’s Goblet’ by the 19th century Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole:]

Peopling this world is a small population of humans, living comfortably at a medieval level of technology, who are governed by one of two perpetually warring parties: the Reds and the Blacks. As the book opens, the Reds and Blacks are busy with another struggle over who shall rule their odd little realm. A wrinkle is thrown into their contest by the arrival of the Visitor: an android, a sexless, ageless, nameless being who happens to suffer from brain damage.

As the Visitor becomes drawn into in the political intrigue surrounding the successor to the deposed King Little Black, he begins to recover his memories, and an understanding of his purpose. It seems that someone, or something, connected with the Deep has an interest in the affairs of its people, and the Visitor may be a powerful tool for change…...or destruction.

I remember reading ‘The Deep’ in hardcover back in ’75 and I have since re-read it multiple times. It’s one of the best SF / fantasy books to emerge from the New Wave movement.

It’s true that Crowley’s prose style is not the most accessible. Many aspects of the politics and sociology of the world of the Deep are communicated in an oblique manner, and the narrative regularly switches from passages of straightforward exposition to those with poetic and figurative content, which can be frustrating at times . As well, the author’s convention of giving his major characters appellations that are based on variations of the same color – Red Senlin, Redhand, Old Redhand, etc., etc. – makes for confusion.

The landscape of The Deep is an interesting one, featuring a Northern Country-inspired setting that is simultaneously familiar, but also unique. While The Deep was his first novel, Crowley avoided succumbing to the New Wave error of sacrificing plot for lots of pretty writing; with every few pages, another twist in the political and military gamesmanship at work in the world of the Deep becomes manifest. The book's ending includes appropriate revelations about the nature of the Deep and its origins, and does so without being facile or contrived.

The novel's atmosphere is downbeat and permeated with entropy, reminiscent in many ways of another great 70s SF / fantasy hybrid, M. John Harrison's book 'The Pastel City'.

The result is a novel with more artistry in its 176 pages than few other SF or fantasy pieces from the 70s could provide in twice the page count. If you haven't yet read 'The Deep', you really should get a copy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Realms by Paul Kirchner

'Realms' by Paul Kirchner

During the late 70s and early 80s some of the best comics to appear in the magazines ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Epic Illustrated’ were done by Paul Kirchner, an artist from Connecticut. 

Kirchner (who also did the smaller strip ‘The Bus’) had a knack for putting together stories with both great art and offbeat, wryly humorous themes. Kirchner was adept at working in illustrative styles from non-Western cultures, as attested to in the strips ‘Shaman’ and ‘The Mirror of Dreams’.

‘Realms’ (Catalan Press, softcover, 1986, 80 pp.) reprints Kirchner’s non- Bus work from Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated. It’s probably the easiest way to get hold of the material, apart from purchasing the back issues of the magazines (although copies of ‘Realms’ are themselves not easy to find). This is a big (8 ½ x 11”) well-produced book with good color reproductions.

The entries include ‘Tarot’



and ‘Mirror of Dreams’

There are b & w entries, including the longer comic ‘A Sprig of Thaxin’, as well as the shorter (i.e., 3 - 4 pp.) strips ‘The Temple of Karvul’, ‘Pillars of P—11507’, ‘Critical Mass of Cool’, ‘Survivors’, ‘My Room’, and the one-pagers ‘Judgement Day’ and ‘They Came from Uranus’.

'Realms' is definitely worth picking up if you happen to find a copy on the shelves of a secondhand bookstore.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

'Heavy Metal' magazine January 1981

January 1981, and the FM radio is playing 'Hey Nineteen' by Steely Dan, '[Just Like] Starting Over' by the late John Lennon, and 'Rapture' by Blondie. The latest issue of everyone's favorite stoner magazine is out, and looking at the January Heavy Metal reveals that the columns so loved by recently departed editor Tim White are all gone, and the magazine has returned to its initial incarnation as a strictly illustration - based publication.

Among the strips appearing in the January issue are the continuations of 'Bloodstar' by Corben and 'Valentina' by Crepax. Also appearing are an odd b &w piece by Don Wood titled 'Bang, Hah'; 'The Ambassador of the Shadows', a new SF comic by Mezieres and Christin; and 'What Is Reality, Papa ?' by Ribera and Godard, a rather confused spinoff from the ongoing 'The Alchemist Supreme' serial.

But the most stoner-friendly piece in this issue is by far and away Jeronaton's 'Woman', which I've posted here. 

Apart from its excellent draftsmanship and coloration, this strip has some subtle satiric humor (which I think probably escaped the minds of the more cannabis- befuddled readers).