Sunday, August 31, 2014

Winter World by Dixon and Zaffino

Winter World by Chuck Dixon (writer) and Jorge Zaffino (artist)

'Winter World' was a three-issue, black and white comic published by the indie company Eclipse Comics from September 1987 - March 1988. [Dixon had plans with Marvel comics to publish a three issue sequel, 'WinterSea', but the project never came to fruition.]

This 2014 IDW hardbound volume compiles all the issues of 'Winter World' and 'Wintersea', along with some extra material in the form of cover artwork and pinups by artist Jorge Zaffino (1960 - 2002).

'Winter World' is set in the near-future; the Ice Age has returned and most of the planet is shrouded in snow and ice.

Scully, the lead character, is a trader; sort of a New Ice Age version of Han Solo. Scully wanders the wastes in his oversize snowcat tracked vehicle. His companion is an oversize, highly intelligent badger named Rahrah. Rahrah is an unusual sidekick, and a cool character.

Life in this environment is akin to that of the 'Mad Max' movies, where self-interest is the key to survival, and double-crosses, atrocities, and ongoing acts of inhumanity are par for the course. 

As 'World' opens, Scully saves a wisecracking redheaded girl named Wynn from an unrewarding life at the hands of a particularly smelly and treacherous tribe of ice-dwellers.

However, Scully suffers from bad luck, and soon he and Wynn are in the hands of a group of slavers who have no compunctions about working their captives to death. It's up to Scully and Rahrah to save the day......with lots of explosions, and severed fingers, along the way.

'WinterSea' finds our two heroes heading south, in search of a mythical land where volcanic activity renders the land free of snow and ice, and where strange things called plants are able to thrive. 

Of course, double-dealers and fate conspire against the hapless Scully, and he winds up a member of the living larder (!) of a tribe of ice pirates. Only heroic action from a reluctant Scully can save Wynn and the mythical land of Earthfire.

Dixon's script is well-done, mingling sarcastic humor with plenty of action, odious villains, a believable post-apocalyptic world, and moral ambiguity - Scully isn't the traditional hero type, but a hustler who is more than willing to put his own agenda first and foremost. 

The artwork in 'Winter World' is, in my opinion, 'serviceable'; it was Zaffino's first major art assignment for a US publication. In his Introduction to the third issue of Winter World, reprinted here in the compilation, Dixon reminisces about seeing some of the sketches from the Argentinian artist Jorge Zaffino, and concluding that he absolutely had to work with such a talented artist. 

While Zaffino' indeed shows some skill in his pen-and-ink draftsmanship, there are too many panels where over-inking and poor rendering make the content difficult to make out. And more than a few panels of the 'WinterSea' comics show such a sketchy, half-finished character, that it's clear that the comic book was not ready for release at the time Marvel made the decision not to produce it. 

The verdict ? 'Winter World' and 'WinterSea' are entertaining examples of 80s sci-fi comics. Along with getting the hardback compilation, I recommend looking for the brand-new 'Winter World' series, by Dixon and artist Jackson Guice, being published as a full - color comic book by IDW during the Summer of 2014.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Book Review: Twilight of the City

Book Review: 'Twilight of the City' by Charles Platt

1 / 5 Stars

‘Twilight of the City’ was first published in 1977; this Berkley Books paperback (215 pp) was released in September, 1978. The cover art is unattributed.

‘Twilight’ is another of the most boring sf novel’s I’ve ever attempted to read. I got as far as page 83, at which point I abandoned it.

The premise is standard-issue sf: it’s the near future, i.e., 1997. The US is in the grip of a downward spiral of economic and social collapse. While the ever-dwindling numbers of the wealthy class live in modern homes in gated communities in the exurbs, the middle class are engaged in food riots in the city streets. The impoverished masses live in ghettos have grown and expanded into enormous wastelands marked by lawlessness and anarchy.

The narrative revolves around the actions of three young people: Bobby Black, the superstar singer and showman of the emerging genre of ‘Suicide Rock’. Bobby’s songwriting partner is the taciturn, calculating Michael. And then there is Lisa, who came to the City with a headfull of dreams and stars in her eyes, only to find that dreams die fast on the hard and unforgiving streets of the ghetto.

Michael invites Lisa to live with him and introduces her to Bobby Black. Soon a skeptical Lisa joins the inner circle of artists, researchers, and oddballs who circulate around the Suicide Rock scene and engage in tedious conversations about their existential angst. 

[At some point later on in the book, these characters apparently engage in some sort of uprising against the corrupt order of the state, but I didn’t read that far enough to know exactly what happens.]

Why is ‘Twilight’ so bad ? Well, for one thing, Charles Platt (b. 1945), a prolific writer of sf novels and short fiction starting in the late 60s and continuing into the 90s, forgets how to tell a story, in favor of trying mightily to craft a ‘literary’ novel that seeks to transcend the boundaries of simple genre fiction. 

Such efforts are not in and of themselves deserving of criticism, but looking back, the cruel truth is that many such efforts made during the New Wave era of sf were mediocre, at best.

It’s a sure tip-off an author is attempting and failing at this sort of thing when some chapters of the novel, as is the case in ‘Twilight’, lead off with epigraphs of ‘Suicide Rock’ song lyrics. Here’s a sample:

You say I’m all you care about
To me you cling
The real world you could do without
I’m everything
You scheme and dream of an escape
From iron walls of life you hate
Well darling there’s one way to be together
Alone in love, for you and me, forever


Our suicide
Will be forgiven
After we’ve died
And gone to heaven !

The trite quality of the lyrics is reflected in the conversations that occupy much of the narrative. In these conversations, Bobby, Lisa, and Michael express pathos and uncertainty over the meaning of life, the collapse of the social order, the conflict between the haves and the have-nots, and What Is Art ?

These conversations simply don't work; the prose is stilted, wooden, pretentious, inane....pick your favorite adjective, they all apply.

With ‘Twilight’, author Platt was earnestly trying to craft a novel that said something Profound about the Human Condition, using a downbeat, Ballard-esque sf setting. While I have to acknowledge that he was trying to do something out of the ordinary,the reality is that ‘Twilight’ is boring. Believe me, you’re better off avoiding this novel.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Heavy Metal August 1978

'Heavy Metal' magazine August 1978

August, 1978, and it's impossible to escape the Rolling Stones song 'Miss You', which is in heavy rotation on the FM radio stations. The song's video is underwhelming, and Mick doesn't bother to lip-synch, actually singing the vocals, but that's how it was in those days before MTV........

Stoners across the nation rejoice with the arrival of the latest issue of Heavy Metal magazine, sporting a front cover by Clyde Caldwell, and a back cover by Michael Gueranger. Among the best of the material in the August issue is 'Planet of Terror' by Caza, which I've posted below.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Peter Jones

A Canticle for Leibowitz
by Peter Jones
from Solar Wind, Paper Tiger, UK 1980

This outstanding painting has been used as cover artwork for multiple editions of the novel in both the UK and the US

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Book Review: Icequake

Book Review: 'Icequake' by Crawford Kilian

3 / 5 Stars

‘Icequake’ (243 pp) was published in February, 1980 by Bantam Books; the cover artist is uncredited, but may be John Berkey, or perhaps Lou Feck.

‘Icequake’ is another of those sf novels of the 70s (see my review of ‘The Sixth Winter’ here) that dealt with the phenomenon of Global Cooling and the New Ice Age. Indeed, in the pages of ‘Icequake’, you’ll find a passage in which the Greenhouse Effect / Global Warming is disparaged by the scientists of the New Shackleton Station !

The novel takes place in the ‘future’, i.e., early 1985. It’s not a nice 1985, either; the Earth has somehow lost its magnetic field, and the ozone layer, along with a chunk of the upper atmosphere, has been stripped by unprecedented solar activity; crops are dying from excessive UV radiation, and transmissions in the electromagnetic spectrum are drowned out by static.

At New Shackleton Station, a large research outpost located on the Ross Ice Shelf of Antarctica, the multinational crew of scientists and staff are preparing to shut down the station and evacuate before the arrival of the Antarctic Winter. However, an alarming message comes in from the U.S. base at McMurdo Station: Mount Erebus is erupting, and violently so. The eruption is quickly followed by a massive earthquake, or ‘icequake’, that splits the Ross Shelf into massive ice plates separated by networks of vast crevasses.

The crew at New Shackleton discover that their evacuation plans are cancelled; the icequake and the volcano have made air travel to Antarctica from New Zealand impossible. The New Shackleton crew are faced with the unenviable task of spending the entire winter – when the continent is at its most dangerous – huddled in the underground tunnels and revetments of their installation.

But new complications arise: the icequake has made real an unprecedented geophysical phenomenon. The entire Ross Ice Shelf has become detached from the mainland and is moving, at a speed of several kilometers per day, into the Ross Sea and the Southern Ocean. As the ice of the Ross Sea collides with that of the oncoming Shelf, more earthquakes are triggered. The Station crew must confront the likelihood that the ice underlying their installation may fracture and drop them into the ocean.

Antarctic Winter starts to take hold, and the sun begins to vanish for what will be four months of perpetual darkness. Blizzards that last for days descend on the Station, and temperatures drop to – 40 C. It’s up to the crew to devise an escape plan……..but time is running out………

Incorporating features of Antarctic adventure, disaster tale, and eco-catastrophe novel, ‘Icequake’ could have been an ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful combination of sub-genres; however, author Crawford Kilian does a good job with handling both his narrative and a large cast of characters, and the book wound up being an entertaining read.

There is too much exposition at times on the climatology, geology, and geophysics of the Antarctic, and some of the mini-disasters that strike the hapless Station and its personnel seem more like padding than episodes intrinsic to the main narrative. However, the novel maintains a sense of realism in terms of its locale and the actions of the survivors. 

If you are a fan of disaster / New Ice Age sf, then you’ll want a copy of ‘Icequake’.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Reunion from Epic Illustrated, February 1984

by Archie Goodwin (story) and Phil Hale (art)
from Epic Illustrated issue 22, February 1984

This graytone strip suffers quite a bit from the poor reproduction of the original art - which may have had something to do with the fact that Epic Illustrated was using a cheaper, lower-grade paper stock (akin to that used by the Warren magazines, for example) for much of its non-advertising -related content. 

As well, it's been 30 years since this issue was printed and some fading of the artwork is to be expected. In any event, however, it remains a interesting little sf tale and one worth reading.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Bus

'The Bus' by Paul Kirchner

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Book Review: Cyberstealth

Book Review: 'Cyberstealth' by S. N. Lewitt

1 / 5 Stars

‘Cyberstealth’ (232 pp.) was published by Ace Books in August, 1989; the cover artwork is by Luis Royo. A sequel, ‘Dancing Vac’, was also published by Ace in February 1990.

It’s the future, and war is raging between the worlds of the Collegium and the worlds of the Cardia coalition. Both entities have ringed their major planetary system with sophisticated early warning satellites and patrol ships, making direct assault too costly to attempt. Therefore, much of the war involves small, but vicious, conflicts: the destruction of unescorted merchant ships, terror raids on unsuspecting cities, hit-and-run sorties on enemy bases, and other acts of attrition.

Cargo – real name Raphael – is a hot shot fighter pilot. His co-pilot Ghoster is a member of the alien race of the Akhaid. Together, Cargo and Ghoster have been so successful that, as the novel opens, they have been among the lucky few selected to train, and fly, the ultimate space fighter plane, the ‘cyberstealth’ aircraft of the book’s title: the Batwing.

Crucial to the operation of the Batwing is its cybernetic interface with the pilot; once jacked into ‘the Maze’, or cyberspace, the plane is capable of responding instantly to conscious or even subconscious commands from its pilot.

As Cargo and Ghoster start their Batwing training on the windy and desolate planet of Vanity, some unsettling events come to cast a shadow over the squadron: one of their number may be a spy for Cardia. And an unknown stealth craft has been observed in orbit above the planet.

As Cargo and Ghoster set out on their first mission as a Batwing team, unknown to either of them, the stakes have grown higher in the conflict between the Collegium and Cardia…..and at the center lies a conspiracy that involves Cargo’s own mentor……..

‘Cyberstealth’ is one of the most boring sf novel’s I’ve ever read. I got to page 136 before giving up in exasperation. 

The story’s premise is seemingly entertaining, if not unduly original, and given its 1989 publication date, author Shariann Lewitt certainly had ample time to absorb the cyberpunk ethos and apply it to her novel.

But ‘Cyberstealth’ suffers badly from over-writing. Too many empty sentences, too many strained metaphors, too many interior monologues that go on way too long and suck all the life out of the story. 

For a novel designed around a military theme, the necessary action sequences are few and far between. For example, much of the book’s first half is preoccupied with documenting the emotional and spiritual backgrounds of the characters, their personality clashes, their inner doubts and fears, etc., etc.

So much of the narrative is wasted on this tangential material that, when I reached page 136, I discovered that Cargo had flown his Batwing exactly…..twice….! 

‘Cyberstealth’ reads as if the author had decided to not just emulate the dense prose style of a novel like ‘Neuromancer’, but made the fatal decision to try and top it. The result simply doesn’t work. The verdict ? There are plenty of first-gen cyberpunk novels that are more worthy reads than Cyberstealth.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pigeons from Hell adapted by Scott Hampton

Pigeons from Hell
from the short story by Robert E. Howard
adapted by Scot Hampton
Eclipse Books, November, 1988

Robert Ervin Howard wrote 'Pigeons from Hell' in 1934, and the story was published posthumously in Weird Tales in 1938. 

The story deals with John Branner, a New Englander, who is travelling the South with a companion. The two men decide to stay the night in an abandoned plantation home.

Needless to say, staying the night in an abandoned plantation home has its drawbacks, and soon, John Branner finds himself dealing with murder, voodoo, and the awareness that Dark Forces lurk just outside the limits of human comprehension.

'Pigeons' was adapted into a 51-page graphic novel by Scot Hampton and published by the Indie Comics publisher Eclipse, in November 1988. 

Hampton devoted considerable time and effort to crafting this graphic novel, and it shows. His draftsmanship is impressive, and while to some extent the color scheme is under-exposed, it nonetheless works well to give the novel its overall atmosphere of decaying creepiness.

'Pigeons from Hell' has long been out of print, of course, but with a bit of searching, copies in good condition can be found for $10 - $20. These are well worth picking up. 

In 2008, Dark Horse published a four-issue 'Pigeons' miniseries, written by Joe R. Lansdale, with art by Nathan Fox.

In my opinion, the Dark Horse series is mediocre, primarily due to Fox's cartoony approach to the artwork - a cartoony style more suited to one of those incessant X-Men titles that depicts the mutants as younger kids garbed in clothing and gear straight from the aisles of Wet Seal, Forever 21, and Pac Sun........

Hampton's version remains the definitive graphic novel of 'Pigeons from Hell'.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Book Review: The Green Brain

Book Review: 'The Green Brain' by Frank Herbert

1 / 5 Stars

‘The Green Brain’ first was published as a novelette titled ‘Greenslaves’ in Amazing Stories in 1965; this Ace paperback (160 pp) prints an expanded version of the novelette, and was issued in 1966; the cover artist is unknown.

The novel is set in the ‘near future’. The overpopulation of the planet has meant that ever-larger tracts of land – including much of the Amazon tropical forest – are being plowed under and subject to cultivation. In order to maximize yields, the International Ecological Organization (IEO) has deployed new formulations of insecticides, which are used to carpet-bomb the terrain. Once areas are cleared, high-tech ‘vibration barriers’ are deployed to prevent reinfestation.

Needless to say, these sorts of mass applications are playing havoc with the ecology, and in some areas of Brazil, and the state of Mata Grosso, in particular, resistance to insecticides and herbicides is showing up, and fields once free of insects are being reinfested. Eco-activists, termed ‘Carsonites’, are decrying the despoiling of the ecology by mechanized, intensive agriculture, and warn that the Earth is in danger.

As the novel opens, a team of scientists from the IEO has been deployed to Bahia, Brazil to investigate the reinfestation phenomenon, and the rumors of strange varieties of insects emerging in the interior. 

At a swank nightclub, Rhin Kelly and Travis Huntington Chen-Lhu of the IEO team make the acquaintance of Joao Martinho, a native Brazilian and chief of the Irmendades, the state / corporate entity responsible for eradicating insect life from the cultivated zones of the Mata Grosso. No sooner have the parties embarked on conversation, that one of the rumored mutant insects appears in the street outside the nightclub, terrorizing the citizens and requiring dramatic action from Martinho.

Their curiosity – and suspicion- aroused, the IEO duo travel into the depths of the Mata Grosso, to where the reinfestation is reportedly under way. When he gets word that the IEO team has encountered trouble of some sort, Martinho quickly flies out to investigate.

Martinho, Kelly, and Chen-Lu soon discover some disturbing aspects to the reinfestation, and the lethal insects that are associated with it. For it appears that some sort of hive-mind – a ‘Green Brain’ - is governing the actions of the insects. Does it seek revenge on the humans who are intent on the eradication of the insects ? Or does the Green Brian has a larger goal in mind… the human race cannot ignore ?

‘The Green Brain’ is one of the worst sf novel’s I’ve ever attempted to read; I got as far as page 100 before giving up.

The subject matter seems inherently dramatic – you can’t go wrong with mutant bugs spitting concentrated formic acid - and the eco-awarenes themes of the novel were, and are, very topical. So how and where does ‘The Green Brian’ go so wrong ?

Well, for one thing, Herbert seems to have made a conscious effort to make this a ‘literary’ novel, and he was simply not a skilled enough writer to accomplish this ambition. ‘Green’ is filled with tedious conversations and stilted interior monologues, all presuming to provide the reader with profound insights into the personalities and attitudes of the main characters. Instead, these conversations and monologues team up with labored expository passages to weigh down the narrative. Too much text is wasted on empty prose.

‘The Green Brain’ is a dud, one of an unfortunately large number of duds that Herbert cranked out over his career. Unless you are intent on reading everything Herbert authored, you can pass on this one.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

New York: Year Zero issue 4

New York: Year Zero
by Ricardo Barreiro (script) and Juan Zanotto (art)
Eclipse Comics
Issue 4, October 1988

Issue One is here.

Issue Two is here.

Issue Three is here.

In the fourth and final issue of the series, Brian Chester, along with Delfina Carson, leads a commando team through New York City's sewers. Their mission: breach the stronghold of the Rofeller corporation. But the sewers of this postmodern NYC contain entities more dangerous than just the typical rat..... or alligator....

Here it is, the final episode of 'New York: Year Zero':