Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review: 'The Jaguar Hunter' by Lucius Shepard

3 / 5 Stars

The best way to describe Lucius Shepard is to say that he writes the way other authors – and Gene Wolfe comes most readily to mind – have been struggling to write for all their professional lives. Lucius Shepard writes the way many New Wave SF writers desperately wanted to write, but couldn’t.

What do I mean by these remarks ? I mean that with Shepard, metaphors and similes are used with deliberation and care. By and large his stretches of figurative prose – and these are prevalent in these stories - are reined in before the reader becomes exasperated (‘Black Coral’ is the only real exception). His narrative style is clear and direct, devoid of the studied opacity that (for example) mars so much of Wolfe’s output. 

The many prose contrivances used by SF writers hoping to generate ‘speculative fiction’ are rarely present in Shepard's stories.

This isn’t to say that Shepard’s work is for everyone. The SF element is scant in these stories, and many of them are an Americanized approach to the ‘magic realism’ genre so beloved by South American writers. Most of the momentum in a given narrative is generated from psychological or moral conflicts among the characters, as opposed to the external forces (space aliens, technology, pollution, Dark Lords, spells gone wrong) acting in traditional SF and fantasy fiction. 

And, set as they are in locales in Central and South America, East Asia, and the Caribbean, the stories in ‘The Jaguar Hunter’ often hinge on a confrontation between the American protagonists and the older cultures and mysteries attendant to the Foreign Place.

 ‘The Jaguar Hunter’ is a 1987 Bantam Trade paperback (356 pp.) with cover art by Barry Phillips. All of the stories first appeared in SF magazines in 1984 – 1985. The lineup:

‘The Jaguar Hunter’: in an unnamed Central American country, Esteban Caax agrees to hunt a notorious man-killing jaguar in order to settle a debt. After encountering a mysterious woman he begins to question his purpose, but it may be too late to turn back….

‘The Night of White Bhairab’ : in Kathmandu, dissipated hippie Eliot Blackford takes a job as a caretaker for Mr. Chatterji. When a malevolent ghost from Europe takes up residence in Chatterji’s house, Eliot must cooperate with the local spirits to prevent ectoplasmic mayhem from descending on the neighborhood.

‘Salvador’: in a near-future conflict in El Salvador, a drugged-out US soldier engaged in a brutal pacification campaign has a fateful encounter with the spirits inhabiting the remote countryside.

‘How the Wind Spoke At Madaket’: in a small village on Nantucket Island the wind suddenly seems possessed of malevolent intent. This novelette has affinities with something Stephen King would write. Featuring the wind as the monster in a horror story seems dubious, but Shepard does succeed to some degree in making it a legitimate 'monster'. However, the frequent intervals in which the author explores the psychological states of his characters tended to impede the narrative and prolong the story too much for its own good.

‘Black Coral’: on the island of Guanoja Menor (a fictional counterpart of the island of Guanaja, located off the coast of Honduras), Prince, a thuggish American expatriate and Vietnam War veteran, makes a fateful decision to smoke a local blend called ‘black coral’. He winds up on a very, very bad trip. The story suffers from belaboring the psychedelic imagery plaguing the hapless Prince, although it delivers a quirky, but satisfactory, ending.

‘The End of Life As We Know It’: an American couple, their marriage crumbling, visit a town in Guatemala and encounter a Don Juan character with mystical revelations about the fate of the Universe. One of weaker entries in the anthology.

‘A Traveler’s Tale’: Also set on the island of Guanoja Menor, drifter Ray Milliken decides to establish a Saucer Cult based on an entry in the 18th century journal of pirate Henry Meachem. Is Ray insane, or is an alien entity actually stranded on a snake-infested plot of swampland called the Burial Ground ?

‘Mengele’: a pilot in distress is forced to make an emergency landing in the jungles of western Paraguay. The nearest place of civilization turns out to be a village governed by a man with a past best left ignored. An offbeat, effective horror story.

‘The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule’: A fantasy story dealing with the comatose body of a dragon over a mile long. A young artist named Meric Cattany proposes to kill the dragon by covering it in a coating of paint, in a sort of Christo project gone amok. The story has a quirky premise but never really does much with it, as the narrative devolves into a soap opera involving romantic rivalries.

‘The Spanish Lesson’: it’s 1964 and a callow Young American named Lucius is bumming around the Mediterranean coast of Spain, seeking enhanced status in the expat community. He befriends a thoroughly creepy brother-and-sister pair who claim to be from Canada. But their notebooks tell of a more unbelievable point of origin....

’Lesson’ is the best story in the anthology. It takes a tried and true SF cliché and breaks new ground by propelling the trope  into far-out realms flavored with quasi- Lovecraftian elements. 

I thought the last few pages had the unfortunate effect of blunting the impact of the story’s climax, but overall, ‘Lesson’ stands as one of the more accomplished SF short stories of the 80s.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Interview with Richard Corben
from Heavy Metal June 1981

Richard Corben remains one of my favorite artists, particularly his work on various projects for Mignola's Hellboy. His obsession with rendering D-cups on any and all of his female characters seems to alleviated a bit with age, The sometimes puerile aspects of his work in the 70s and 80s are less pronounced nowadays, but even at his worst, Corben was still quite a bit better than many other graphic / comic artists of the 70s and 80s.

By the early 80s Corben's continuous work in Heavy Metal had given him a degree of status and a profile that had not been awarded to him by the underground comix scene, the members of which tended to regard him as a warped Midwestern 'square'. Thus, the June 1981 issue of HM saw Corben as the star of a multi-part interview by contributing editor Brad Balfour.

Unfortunately, Balfour comes to the interview more than a little disappointed to see that Corben is your ordinary, average guy who happens to draw comics for a living (albeit comics that often feature large doses of violence and female nudity). Balfour obviously is nonplussed by Corben's ordinariness.

Balfour seems determined to discover some sort of profound psychosexual flaw in his subject, and the interview adopts a testier tone as Corben plainly gets exasperated with Balfour's line of questioning...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Steranko's 'Outland'
from the June 1981 issue of Heavy Metal

Released in May 1981, Outland is described as an outer space version of the Western classic 'High Noon'. It's been a while since I last saw it, but I do remember it being a decent film , if not particularly inspired or imaginative. 

Warner Bros. was hoping the film would be a box-office, multi-marketing juggernaut, like Fox's 'Alien' had been two years previously, and they adopted much the same marketing approach.  

Heavy Metal magazine was happy to oblige,  serializing a graphic novel, ably illustrated by Jim Steranko, in several issues (July through October 1981, and January 1982). 

Outland was also available as a novelization in paperback, by Alan Dean Foster, and a 'movie novel' paperback authored by Richard Anobile.

Unfortunately, 'Outland' never became the marketing phenomenon that Warner was anticipating, but Steranko certainly did a good job on the graphic novel. Here's the Preview of the graphic novel; I'll scan and present its serial sections in forthcoming posts here at the PorPor Books Blog.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Book Review: 'Starshine' by Theodore Sturgeon

1 / 5 Stars

‘Starshine’ was published by Pyramid Books in December 1966; the cover artist is Jack Gaughan.

The book (and the many other paperback iterations in which it has seen print by other publishers) carefully avoids disclosing the original appearance information for the assembled stories, hiding the fact that they span the interval 1940 – 1961.

Needless to say these stories are not going to be very interesting to modern SF readers. They all suffer from excessive wordiness, clumsy sentence structure, and inane dialogue. Of course, most of the SF that also saw print in this era suffered from the same defects. But it was Sturgeon who said: "90 percent of SF is crud", and whether he was referring to his own works or not, well….. if the shoe fits, wear it.

The anthology opens with ‘Derm Fool’ (1940) about a regular joe caught in a quirky situation involving skin that won't stay on; there is a swell dame he needs to impress.

‘The Haunt’ (1941) is also about a regular joe who is trying to impress a swell dame; the plan involves a putative haunted house.

‘Artnan Process’ (1941) deals with two capable Earthmen sent to a remote planet to discover the secret of an energy conversion process. There is an emphasis on humor.

‘The World Well Lost’ (1953): two alien lovebirds /refugees come to Earth; placating their planet of origin requires deporting them back home, an act that troubles a crew member aboard the deportation ship. Although this story has received praise in the decades following its first appearance, the 'message' seems contrived rather than revelatory.

‘The Pod and the Barrier’ (1957): a starship crew must venture to breach a deadly force field. Much angst and drama among the crew. Even by 1950s standards the writing is very, very poor.

‘How to Kill Aunty’ (1961): a bedridden old lady is engaged in a nasty war of wits with her homicidal nephew / estate inheritor. Roald Dahl did so much more with this type of setup.

So, if you are thinking of getting ‘Starshine’ in the hopes that it represents a mid-60s, early New Wave collection by Sturgeon, that is precisely what it is not. You are better off staying away from this paperback.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Killraven Amazing Adventures No. 38

Killraven: 'Amazing Adventures' No. 38
(September 1976)

‘Amazing Adventures: Featuring War of the Worlds’ No. 28 appeared in early Summer 1976 (its publication date is September 1976). The writing duties for this issue were handled by Bill Mantlo, and the artwork by Keith Giffen.

In a seeming last-ditch effort to garner increased sales (this is the second-to-last issue of the Killraven / WotW saga) the cover depicts a slew of Marvel heroes clustered around a bewildered Killraven. How does the writer explain a meeting between Killraven and the Marvel heroes ? It’s all a dream, of course…

In the opening pages Killraven chances upon a strange exhibit hall among the ruins of Miami:

Soon he is caught up in the hallucinatory ditherings of an android residing in the building’s interior; in an utterly contrived plot device, this particular android tends to dream of as many Marvel heroes as this comic can cram into its 17 pages. We first get Iron Man, then the Swamp Thing, and then, in the last six pages, not only a cavalcade of heroes, but mention as well of Howard Cosell (?!) and President Gerald Ford (?!).

Just one issue left with which to put Killraven out of his misery…

Monday, June 13, 2011

'Heavy Metal' magazine, June 1981

The June, 1981 issue of ‘Heavy Metal’ features ‘The Birdwoman of Zartacla’ by Marc Harrison on the front cover and ‘The Bionic Bunny’ by James Cherry on the back cover.

With this issue, Corben’s ‘Bloodstar’ has its next-to-last installment; ‘Tex Arcana’ by Findley continues; more ‘Valentina’ by Crepax; more ‘Cody Starbuck’ by Chaykin; a brief ‘Mudwogs’ comic by Suydam; and a preview of an ‘Outland’ illustrated novel, with illustrations by Jim Starlin.

Among the better pieces appearing in the June issue is ‘March Hair’ by Caza, featuring some nice artwork in the Peter Max / groovy sixties mode....

Friday, June 10, 2011

'Shatter' (special issue one)

'Shatter' debuted in February 1985 (although the cover date was June) from 80s indie publisher First Comics. The artwork was done by Mike Saenz and the writing chores were handled by Peter Gillis. This was, as the blurb on the cover indicates, the first comic book to be composed on a computer; in this case, the Apple MacIntosh, as the introduction on the inside cover page tells the reader:

Shatter carried on as a back page feature in the First Comics book 'John Sable: Freelance', until December 1985 when the first issue of the formal Shatter series was released. The title lasted 14 issues (until April 1988). 

By today's standards the art in 'Shatter' seems crude, but at the time its execution required more than a little masochism on the part of the artist. The MacIntosh  of January 1984 cost $2,500, and had a 9-inch black and white screen with a resolution of 512 x 342 pixels (for comparison, the iPad's resolution is 1024 x 768). The Mac contained 128 kb of RAM (the 512 kb model released in September 1984 cost $2800), and among the included software apps was MacPaint. 

After artist Saenze finished composing his art on the Mac, the pages were printed using a dot-matrix printer (which explains the decidedly low-res nature of the graphics) and colored by hand for final printing.

The comic as a whole is not so memorable as to warrant my scanning and posting its contents entirely, but I will post some of the more interesting pages.

Here's the opening pages from the special debut issue, including a rather graphic death scene...for a computer-drawn image....with a comical 'Borp !'

Later on in this issue our hero, Jack Scratch, visits a hipster club where the fashion is quintessential mid-80s 'Blade Runner' chic:
We'll see what happens in forthcoming issues of 'Shatter'....

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book Review: The Illustrated Roger Zelazny

Book Review: 'The Illustrated Roger Zelazny', edited by Byron Preiss

 2 / 5 Stars

‘The Illustrated Roger Zelazny’ is a mass-market paperback from Ace Books, published in 1979; hardcover and trade paperback editions were issued in 1978, as a Selection of the SF Book Club. Excerpts of the contents were previewed in various issues of Heavy Metal magazine in the late 70s.

The book’s illustrations (mostly in half-tone or black and white) all are done by Gray Morrow. Needless to say, shrinking the dimensions of the original book from 8” x 11” to mass market size (4” x 7”) means that the font is going to be tiny and the illustrations rather cramped. All in all, however, the book’s design it comes off reasonably well, although those over 40 may find spectacles to be necessary.

The book opens with an introduction by editor Byron Preiss, who was a dedicated advocate for the illustrated SF and fantasy book throughout the 70s and 80s. During 1975 – 1977 he supervised the publication of the ‘Weird Heroes’ paperback series, which featured black and white and halftone illustrations throughout the body of the book. 

Preiss also teamed up with artist William Stout and writer William Service for 1981’s very successful book, ‘Dinosaurs: A Fantastic View of A Lost Era’, which exerted quite an influence on the image of the dinosaur in the popular imagination via the use of an art deco / Maxfield Parrish-style approach to depicting these animals.

‘The Illustrated Roger Zelazny’ focuses on the author’s major short stories from the mid 60s, although the lead tale is ‘Shadow Jack’, a prologue (written specially for this volume)  to Zelazny’s novel ‘Jack of Shadows’  (1971). 

This is the best story in the collection, an offbeat sword-and-sorcery tale with great ‘PorPor’ flavor: a witch who looks like Vampirella, and a offbeat hero who very much inspired the engrossing ‘Thief’ series of PC and video games.

Next up is a section devoted to color illustrations of Zelazny’s cast of characters from the ‘Amber’ novels; those familiar with the Amber series will find these depictions interesting.

‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes’ (1963) gets both color and b&w artwork; this tale deals with a linguist given an opportunity to study a dying humanoid race stranded on Mars. 

‘Rose’ is followed by a lengthy, heavily illustrated version of ‘The Furies’ (1965), about a team of psychics employed to bring a revolutionary to justice. 

The book closes with a truncated version of ‘The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth’ (1965), a tale of a fishing expedition on the waters of Venus that serves as the backdrop for a sci-fi iteration of the breezy Doris Day - Rock Hudson romance films of the early 60s. 

I doubt contemporary readers will find ‘The Illustrated Roger Zelazny’ to be all that appealing. 

Zelazny’s stories from the 60s suffer from a self-conscious prose style (the first few paragraphs of ‘Rose’ are cluttered with references to Shakespeare, Saint-Exupery, Sanskrit, Poe, etc.) that seems self-indulgent, even trite, compared to today’s more declarative SF writing. 

I suspect that only die-hard Zelazny fans will want to search out this book.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Epic Illustrated June 1981

Epic Illustrated: June 1981

The June, 1981 issue of 'Epic Illustrated' features a front cover by Neal Adams and an advertisement for the movie 'Outland' on the back cover.

I've scanned the story 'Flash Sport' written by Roy Kinnard and illustrated by Mike Saenz (who also illustrated the seminal 1985 Cyberpunk comic book series 'Shatter'). Back in 1981 virtual reality and its intersection with video games were among the hotter topics in SF culture. 

Although William Gibson's 'The Gernsback Continuum' and 'Johnny Mnemonic' were published this year (in Universe 11 and Omni magazine, respectively)  the Cyberpunk movement was still in its infancy (the term didn't debut until November 1983). 

Whether or not readers knew they were looking at a Cyberpunk piece, 'Flash Sport' features one of the more gruesome last panels ever provided in an SF strip....in this comic, when a  geek gets wasted, he gets wasted.