Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Review: Death in Silver

Book Review: 'Death in Silver' by Kenneth Robeson

3 / 5 Stars

‘Death in Silver’ originally appeared in the October, 1934 issue of Doc Savage magazine; the author was Lester Dent. Bantam re-issued ‘Silver’ as series paperback No. 26  in July 1968.

‘Silver’ is the very first Doc Savage book I ever saw, back in the late 60s when I was 9 or 10 years old, on the shelves in the small library in the upstate New York town where I lived. The great cover artwork by James Bama was of course eye-catching, and has remained in my memory for those 40+ years. 

‘Silver’ deals with the depredations of the Silver Death’s-Heads Gang, who commit crimes clad in unusual garments of silver fabric, with headgear that obscures their faces save for skull-like openings for the eyes, nose, and mouth.

As the novel opens a shipping magnate named Paine Winthrop discovers he has earned the wrath of the Death’s- Heads. A tremendous explosion in the skyscraper housing Winthrop’s offices draws the attention of Monk and Ham, and in due course, Doc Savage himself. 

There are some bloody encounters with members of the Deaths-Heads as Doc and his team struggle to learn why Winthrop was targeted. The activities of the gang are difficult to unravel, but seem to be centered among the slum warehouses on the city waterfront. 

It transpires that the Deaths-Heads are led by a sinister genius named Ull, and he and the Deaths-Heads aren’t too pleased to discover that they have earned the scrutiny of the Man of Bronze. Ull decides that they have to eliminate Doc Savage and his team as soon as possible- and if the deed requires excessive violence, Ull is happy to oblige…

Lester Dent was in pretty good form with ‘Death in Silver’. The action moves at a brisk pace, and Ull is a worthy adversary in terms of his ability to counter Doc’s scientific wizardry.  As with many of the early Savage novels, there are some red herrings introduced early in the plot, and the revelation of the identity of the criminal mastermind is withheld until the last few pages.

‘Death in Silver’ is one of the better Savage novels of the 30s and if you spot a reasonably priced copy on the used bookshelves, it may be worth picking up.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

'The Gray Man' by Enki Bilal
from the September 1985 issue of Heavy Metal

Thursday, November 24, 2011

'Conquering Armies' by Gal and Dionnet
from the May 1977 issue of Heavy Metal

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Book Review: Stormqueen

Book Review: 'Stormqueen !' by Marion Zimmer Bradley

 2 / 5 Stars

‘Stormqueen’ is the quintessential PorPor Book: the front cover (art by Michael Whelan) has a red-haired woman in a tight-fitting dress perched in a dramatic stance on the battlements of a castle, while lightning rages about her.

‘Stormqueen’ is DAW Book No. 292 (364 pp), published in June 1978.

Although Stormqueen is not the second Darkover novel to be published, it is arguably the second book in the series’ internal chronology, following the events outlined in ‘Darkover Landfall’ (1972).

The intrigues in Stormqueen take place during the Ages of Chaos, an era prior to the arrival of the Terrans, when the world’s various ruling families and factions engaged in myriad small wars and border conflicts. Intermarriage and even incest are encouraged in order to heighten the psi powers (precognition, telekinesis, etc.) possessed by selected clans, although this has a deleterious effect on infant and adolescent survival.

The ‘Stormqueen’ of the title is Dorilys, the daughter of Mikhail, Lord of Castle Aldaran, a principality located in the rugged and remote mountain country; the novel revolves around her birth and maturation into a teenager gifted with the ability to command storms and lightning.

An intersecting narrative deals with the travails of Allart Hastur, whose family becomes allied with Aldaran when conflict breaks out between Mkhail and his avaricious brother, Lord Scathfell.

The bulk of the novel is concerned with the various personality clashes, and emotional intimacies, of the rather large cast of characters; in this respect, Stormqueen is more akin to a romance novel than hardcore sci-fi or fantasy.

Bouts of adventure and action periodically pop up here and there, including some initial skirmishes, involving an unpleasant derivative of napalm, between warring houses. There is also a tense episode when our lightly-equipped heroes find themselves caught in a mountain blizzard. But for me, the novel only really gained momentum in its last 60 pages, when the enmity between Scathfell and Aldaran comes to a climax.

While I can’t say I found the book to be boring, I suspect that readers who are not fans of the series will find ‘Stormqueen’ to be slow going at times; this one is best recommended for Darkover enthusiasts only.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

'The Bus' by Paul Kirchner

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Black Dragon

'The Black Dragon', by Chris Claremont and John Bolton
Marvel / Epic Comics, 1985

‘The Black Dragon’ was published by Marvel’s Epic Comics line as a six-issue miniseries from May through October 1985.

The story is set in England in 1193. The plot centers on Scottish knight James Dunreith, exiled from his country by order of the King, Henry Plantagenet.

With Plantagenet’s death Dunreith decides to end his exile and return to England, where he is recruited by the Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It seems rumors are circulating that a West Country nobleman named Edmund de Valere is planning a rebellion against the realm, even as Henry’s successor, Richard the Lionheart, is off adventuring in Palestine. 

James Dunreith knows de Valere well, having been the nobleman’s boon friend and comrade-at-arms. Dunreith, doubtful of the allegations against his friend, decides to allay the Queen’s fears and makes plans to visit Edmund at Glenowyn Castle.

Once at the Castle Glenowyn Dunreith finds it even harder to believe that de Valere is plotting to overthrow the King. Is a conspiracy underway to pin the blame for an insurrection on de Valere ?

Who is responsible for massacres and atrocities committed on the people living in the countryside around de Valere’s holdings ?

And why are the original inhabitants of the British Isles, the Little People, and their allies among the disgruntled Saxons of Wales, whispering that de Valere has entered into a pact with dark forces ?

Before long, James Dunreith finds himself in the middle of a bloody conflict between Norman and Saxon, between the supernatural and the natural, with the future of Merrie Olde England at stake.

‘The Black Dragon’ is an interesting effort at taking the authentic medieval setting and visual style of ‘Prince Valiant’ and melding them with a narrative full of modern fantasy and horror themes. 

John Bolton’s artwork is very good, despite suffering from the limitations of comic book printing as it stood in the mid-80s. Bolton’s draftsmanship carefully reproduces the environment of late 12th-century England, and yet provides his own visual flair to the battle and fantasy scenes.

I had reservations about Chris Claremont’s writing duties for ‘The Black Dragon’, as Claremont is overly prone to putting together overwritten, overwrought narratives that tend to collapse under their own weight. 

Sadly, this is true of ‘Dragon’. The first four issues are well done in regard to plotting and the management of a large cast of characters, including historical personages such as Robin Hood. However the series’ final two issues suffer from too many plot threads vying for panel space; too many lengthy, stilted speeches by one character after another; too many convenient rescues and deathbed resuscitations; and an underwhelming ending that relies on a contrived act of spell-casting.

Despite the flaws of its scripting, Bolton’s artwork makes ‘The Black Dragon’ worth picking up. It’s also worth investigating for its treatment of classical English folklore, particularly in comparison to the contemporary approaches to this topic, such as Mignola’s recent Hellboy series, ‘The Fury’.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fallen Angel by Maroto

'Fallen Angel' by Esteban Maroto
from Vampirella No. 60 (May 1977)

All of the Spanish artists employed by the Warren magazines during the 70s were skilled draftsmen. Esteban Maroto's pen-and-ink work, in particular, had an impressive artistic sensibility.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Book Review: 'The Third Omni Book of Science Fiction', edited by Ellen Datlow

3 / 5 Stars

‘The Third Omni Book of Science Fiction’ (479 pp.) was edited by Ellen Datlow and released in April 1985 by Zebra Books; the cover artist is unknown.

This anthology contains short stories published during the interval 1978 – 1985; some originally appeared in Omni magazine, or in earlier anthologies (‘The Best of Omni Science Fiction’, 1980) associated with the magazine.

The first story, Alfed Bester’s ‘Galatea Galante’, is the worst in the collection. In the early 80s Bester began to get increased praise as the cyberpunk movement recognized the before-its-time quality of 'The Stars, My Destination'. Much is made in the back cover blurb of his inclusion in this collection

Unfortunately, 'Galatea' is a lame re-telling of the Pygmalion theme, a theme already heavily overworked in the sci-fi literature. Bester attempts to add satiric humor and New Wave-style mannerisms (including the insertion of musical notations into the text) but they fall miserably flat.

‘Number 13’, by Stephen Robinett, deals with a lone crewman’s angst. ‘Men Like Us’, by David Drake, is an entertaining look at post-Armageddon Earth and the suspicion of the Outsider. ‘I Am the Burning Bush’ , by Gregg Keizer, is a downbeat, original tale of a mutant and his unique abilities.

‘Farmer on the Dole’, by Frederik Pohl, is another of the weaker entries. Pohl recasts the struggle of the Lumpen Proletariat, with robots as the main characters. The story goes on too long, and runs well out of steam, before it struggles to an ending.

Jack Dann’s ‘Blind Shemmy’ is one of the best stories in the anthology. It is set in a near-future Paris, where an amoral reporter decides to engage in a high-stakes, ‘virtual reality’ game of chemin de fer (the ‘Blind Shemmy’ of the title). Featuring some disturbing imagery and a suspenseful duel between desperate antagonists, this is a gem of an early cyberpunk tale.

Roger Zelazny contributes ‘The Last of the Wild Ones’, set in his universe of intelligent, self-aware automobiles. ‘Prairie Sun’, by Edward Bryant, deals with time travelers and the fateful decisions regulating interaction with the Past.

Robert Silverberg’s ‘Amanda and the Alien’ is a humorous tale of a California Valley Girl and an escaped ET.

Gregory Benford and Marc Laidlaw provide ‘A Hiss of Dragon’, a well-written tale of an adventurer who makes a hazardous living on a low-grav planet. ‘Executive Clemency’, by Gardner Dozois and Jack C. Haldeman II, is another of the better entries in the collection; in a near-future, post- World War Three USA, an elderly man struggles to come to terms with the changes to his world.

Philip K. Dick’s ‘Ruatavaara’s Case’ is a satiric look at the collision of human and alien theologies. ‘Adventurer of the Metal Murderer’, by Fred Saberhagen, mixes his Berserker theme with proto-Steampunk.

‘Borovsky’s Hollow Woman’, by Jeff Duntemann and Nancy Kress, features a spacesuit governed by an empathic AI, a troubled steelworker, and murderous rivalries on a massive space station construction project. It’s a labored tale that could have benefitted from being shortened in length. Gene Wolfe’s ‘The War Beneath the Tree’ is a blackly humorous take on Christmas toys; perhaps because of its shorter length, it is one of his more accessible stories.

‘Webrider’, by Jayge Carr, is a middling tale of a mutant gifted with the ability to travel the galaxy through teleportation. This involves great risk; there is predictable angst on the part of the ‘webrider’. ‘Ringtime’, by Thomas Disch, deals with virtual reality, risky behavior, and a paying audience; it suffers from an oblique prose style that shows too many signs of hanging on to New Wave affectations.

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling provide ‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’, a passable, if not particularly exciting tale of a seedy Soviet space station and its rebellious crew.

The anthology closes with a novelette by Dan Simmons, ‘Carrion Comfort’, which the author later expanded into a novel.

‘Comfort’ deals with a group of mutants who are able to bend others to their will. This novelette starts off very slowly, and the powers wielded by the mutants are more than a little contrived. While the ending eventually takes on some momentum, it was too long in coming to make me interested in possibly trying the novel. 

All in all, the Third Omni Book of Science Fiction is a reasonably good snapshot of SF writing in the early 80s, at a time when the cyberpunk movement was in ascendancy, bringing with it greater attention to composition, plotting, and narrative as compared to the defunct New Wave movement it was replacing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Thrillogy by Tim Conrad

'Thrillogy' by Tim Conrad
Pacific Comics, 1984

 An interesting take on the 'Caveman' theme with 'Prometheus Primeval'.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

'Heavy Metal' magazine: November 1981

It's November 1981, and in heavy rotation on the FM stations is Lindsay Buckingham's 'Trouble'.

The newest issue of 'Heavy Metal' magazine is out on the stands, featuring a front cover by Segrelles, titled 'The Mercenary', which was accompanied in the issue by the second installment of that series. The back cover, 'And the Children Play', was by Tito Salamoni.

Buoyed by the success of the Heavy Metal motion picture, the editorial staff presents a variety of stylin' early 80s clothing and merchandise for fans to purchase (note that back in 1981, baseball cap brims were always flat...the idea of actually manufacturing them with the bills curved would have seemed perverse and bizarre.....note, too, that the idea of shorts for men that had hems below the knee was still some 7 - 8 years in the future).

The columns reviewing music and books in this issue are expanded to three pages. Leading off is 'rok' critic Lou Stathis's exposition on reggae. 

All through the 70s and early 80s, rock critics were obsessed with reggae, never skipping an opportunity to rhapsodize about those profound sounds, and, most importantly, never passing up an opportunity to speak in the reggae style (I learned from a native Jamaican that the island people are not, repeat, not impressed when suburban white boys try to mimic 'the dialect' ).

I remember buying Burnin', by Marley and the Wailers, back in 1979 and thinking, what's the big deal ? Thankfully, by early 1979, The Police had come along and done something worthwhile with reggae.....

Also receiving reviews are albums by some 'New Wave' English bands called 'The Psychedelic Furs', 'Joy Division', and 'Souixie and the Banshees'. Kind words also are applied to a nascent genre dubbed 'trance music', as performed by the German band named Kraftwerk. In 1981, all the proto-hipsters name-dropped Kraftwerk.

As far as the comics go, Bilal's 'The Immortal's Fete' continues, as does 'Tex Arcana' by Findley, and there is another 'Mudwogs' strip from Arthur Suydam. The artwork of the Dillons is the topic of a Portfolio. 

There are a number of one-shot strips of quality. 'One Evening, I Saw Red !', by Caza, is posted below.