Monday, November 30, 2015

The Vampires are Coming

The Vampires are Coming
by Doeg Moench (script) and Isidro Mones (art)
from Vampirella No. 29, November 1973

An atmospheric tale of vampires loose in the Revolutionary War. 

'Munes' was the pseudonym used by the talented Spanish artist Isidro Mones, who did a lot of memorable work for Warren magazines in the 1970s.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Book Review: Inner Eclipse

Book Review: 'Inner Eclipse' by Richard Paul Russo

3 / 5 Stars

‘Inner Eclipse’ (376 pp) was published by Tor in February 1988; the cover artwork is by David Mattingly.

This was the first novel for author Richard Paul Russo, who is nowadays a well-recognized, award-winning sf author, mainly for his ‘Carlucci’ trilogy of novels that mix the cyberpunk and detective story genres.

The protagonist of ‘Eclipse’ is Benedict Saltow, a young man with a mutation that enables him to feel the emotions of others at a distance. The rarity of such ‘First Order Empaths’ in the Federation makes them sought-after individuals who are valued as advisors for all manner of political and economic undertakings – particular those of the clandestine kind.

As the novel opens, Saltow is adrift in a prolonged state of self-pity on the planet Triumvirate, a sort of world-spanning city-state. A previous assignment has gone bad, and left Saltow with post-traumatic stress disorder that manifests as crippling seizures (in the 80s, PTSD was a very ‘in’ thing with which to afflict characters in sf novels and short stories).

Saltow is hoping for something – anything – to happen to break his self-imposed passivity. This is accomplished when he is contacted by a corporate mercenary named Ryker, who offers Saltow a unique job: accompanying Ryker on an expedition into the trackless jungle of the planet Nightshade, there to determine if rumors of intelligent, alien, humanoid life are true.

Despite his mistrust of Ryker, Saltow agrees to accompany him on the expedition. In due course, Saltow and Ryker travel to Nightshade, and there link up with other two members of the team: a smuggler named Renata, and the backwoods trader named Gerad.

As the expedition sets off into the hinterlands of Nightshade, it becomes clear to Saltow that Ryker is utterly amoral, and as much a danger to the lives of the team members as any outlaws and narco-barons in the jungle. But Saltow’s obsession with First Contact overrules his misgivings…..and when violence begins to coalesce around the expedition, Saltow is obliged to put his trust in Renata and Gared. But they have their own reasons for wanting to find the aliens……reasons that may not guarantee safety for Benedict Saltow……..

In terms of its prose style, ‘Eclipse’ is a well-written novel, particularly for a first novel, but it suffers from the lack of a compelling plot. Most of the narrative is preoccupied with staging one scene after another in which Saltow finds himself pondering his existential anomie, an anomie resulting from his empathic gift (or curse) and his struggles to overcome the psychological barriers that inhibit his emotional exchanges with other people. These scenes are often cast in a Blade Runner aesthetic marked by continuous rain, mist, and moody contemplation.

The expedition that forms the centerpiece of the plot doesn’t even get underway until the last third of the novel, and its denouement has an underwhelming, perfunctory character that really doesn’t justify wading through the first two-thirds of the novel and its labored documentation of Benedict Saltow’s efforts to identify, and overcome, his profound personal alienation from society.

Summing up, many of the themes and ideas that Russo explores in ‘Inner Eclipse’ are those that are also examined in his latter novels, such as the Carlucci series; but those novels also provide more engaging plots, and I recommend them over ‘Eclipse.’

Monday, November 23, 2015

Operation Omega by Denis Sire

Operation Omega
by Denis Sire 
from the October, 1977 issue of Heavy Metal magazine

The French artist Denis Sire (b. 1953) began publishing his work in Metal Hurlant in 1976. 

When its American counterpart Heavy Metal launched in early 1977, Sire's strips were translated into English and regularly featured, primarily through the loosely connected episodes of the 'Diabolical Planet / Great Trap' (Menace Diabolique) series, starring the hero Maurice Leblanc (translated into 'Morris White' for American printing).

Sire's comics in the late 70s issues of Heavy Metal, with their striking use of black and white linework, stippling, and shading, and an Art Nouveau / Retro stylistic sensibility, were instantly recognizable. And, needless to say, Sire's incorporation of pinup imagery into his reimagining of the 'Flash Gordon' sf adventure tale also appealed greatly to the magazine's stoner readership and signaled that here was something very new in American comics.

[In the early 80s his color comics series, Willy's Wood, also became a regular Heavy Metal feature, but I found it disappointing, being an obsessive depiction of Betty Page - inspired, softcore porn.]

Here's the standalone story 'Operation Omega', scanned from the original magazine pages at 200 dpi.

Saturday, November 21, 2015



What with Fallout 4 now on store shelves, and the rockin' tune 'Atom Bomb Baby' part of its soundtrack.....

.....the timing seems right to post about a unique website called Conelrad.

Conelrad, which I've been following off and on for several years now, is devoted to documenting postwar American pop culture and its references to atomic war / WWIII. There are pages devoted to Cold War era civil defense media, including feature films, public service announcements, radio and television broadcasts, newspaper articles about hypothetical bomb drops on U.S. cities, and (of course), warnings about Commies and the Red Menace. 

I remember some of this stuff from when I was a kid in grade school in the 60s, learning how to duck under my desk to shield myself from an atomic blast.....

One can spend hours poring over its extensive inventory of artifacts from this time period, which cover just about every nuance of the Cold War and its love / hate relationship with The Bomb and atomic energy.

One drawback to the site is its design, which - for whatever reason - is not at all user friendly. It has a strange Left-Justified, one-third page format which may have been current in 1997....... combined with its small font, this formatting gives the site a cramped appearance and makes it difficult to navigate.

When all is said and done, however, Conelrad is a site worth visiting.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review: Frostflower and Thorn

Book Review: 'Frostflower and Thorn' by Phyllis Ann Karr

2 / 5 Stars

‘Frostflower and Thorn’ (276 pp.) was published by Berkley Books in November, 1980. The cover artist is Enrich.

‘Frostflower’ was Phyllis Ann Karr’s first novel; a sequel, ‘Frostflower and Windbourne’, was published in 1982.

Nowadays female authors and female heroines are commonplace in the fantasy genre, and in fact make up the majority of the DAW Books catalog; but at the time it was published, ‘Frostflower’ was comparatively rare in these regards.

The book certainly has an interesting premise: what happens when a female swordswoman / barbarian – think Red Sonja – gets pregnant ?

And insists upon having an abortion - !?

As ‘Frostflower’ opens, that is the case indeed for its titular heroine, Thorn. Following a dalliance with a merchant, Thorn is Knocked Up....... a physical state she views with disgust, as it prevents her from earning her trade as a hireling swordswoman among the compounds and settlements of the Tanglelands (in the standard-issue medieval fantasy world of the novel, all combat is handled by guilds of swordswomen according to strict rules of engagement – males are restricted to non-combat pursuits).

As Thorn ponders her next move, the softspoken sorceress Frostflower offers to help: using her magic, within the afternoon she will accelerate the growth of the fetus until it is at the stage of a full-term, nine-month fetus, ready for delivery - ! What does Frostflower want in return ? Merely to keep the infant and raise it as her own.

Despite her reservations at being subjected to a bizarre magical ritual, Thorn agrees, and in the space of an afternoon, she does indeed give birth to an infant boy. Naming her adopted son ‘Starwind’, Frostflower requests Thorn’s assistance in escorting mother and child to far-off Windslope Retreat, Frostflower’s home. Thorn grudgingly agrees.

Unfortunately, en route to Windslope, the pair stumble upon a secret fertility ceremony being performed by Maldron, the highest-ranking Farmer-Priest of the Tanglelands. Violence ensues, and Frostflower and Thorn succeed in escaping Maldron’s clutches……but they now find themselves declared outlaws, hunted across the Tanglelands by order of the Farmer-Priests.

In a land where the most brutal and cruel of punishments are routinely meted out to violators of the Farmer-Priests’ creed, the two women must use every ruse and wile at their command if they are to escape Maldron’s net and reach the safety of Windslope……

I found ‘Frostflower and Thorn’ to be something of a slog to get through. While the premise is certainly offbeat and novel from a sword-and-sorcery standpoint, the book suffers from being heavily overwritten.

Author Karr regularly devotes much of the narrative to lengthy segments of exposition, making the book’s too-few action scenes too plodding and drawn-out be very effective.

In terms of characterization, while Thorn makes a reasonably good female version of Conan the Barbarian, the Frostflower character is so passive and indecisive – even while enduring all manner of graphic abuse from the plot’s major villain – that I gradually became tired of reading those sections of the narrative devoted to her misadventures.

Summing up, ‘Frostflower and Thorn’ is one of those first novels that could have benefited quite a bit from a more invested editorial hand. As it stands, only readers with quite a bit of patience will find it rewarding.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

All's Well

All's Well
A 'Gideon Plexus' Adventure
by Zoran
from the February, 1985 issue of Epic Illustrated

The Croatian-born artist Zoran Vanjaka is a skilled illustrator, but unfortunately most of his work for European comics has not been translated into English.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Showcase Presents: The Warlord

Showcase Presents: 'The Warlord'
by Mike Grell

After looking on in envy all during the early 70s as Marvel enjoyed strong sales from its 'Conan' franchise and its numerous spinoffs, DC Comics' management decided to make a trial run into the sword-and-sorcery genre by printing Mike Grell's 'Warlord' comic in the November, 1975 issue of 1st Issue Special

Reader response to the comic was favorable, and DC went ahead and made 'The Warlord' its own title, allowing Grell - a talented veteran of the comic book industry - to provide both art and story, which back in those days was a rare step on the part of the management at the large comic book companies. 

The first issue of 'The Warlord' was issued in early 1976, and the comic quickly became one of DC's strongest sellers, ultimately lasting for an impressive (for a non-superhero title) 133 issues through September 1989.

This 'Essentials' volume reprints - in black and white - the content from 1st Issue Special and 'The Warlord' issues 1 - 28 (January - February 1976 to December 1979).

The premise of the story incorporates a number of familiar sf and fantasy themes: US Air Force pilot Travis Morgan loses control of his SR-71 'Blackbird' spy plane over the North Pole, and passes into a Hollow Earth world (called Skartaris) marked by eternal sunlight, a tropical ecosystem populated by barbarian tribes and dinosaurs, and, of course, nubile women wearing scanty furs from the Vampirella and Red Sonja schools of heroine fashion.

After only a few weeks in Skartaris, Morgan abandons his military-regulation haircut, grows a beard, dons a loincloth, learns how to wield a sword, and takes to his new home with enthusiasm..... and dry humor.

The majority of the issues released during The Warlord's first three years were single-episode in nature, as opposed to relying on longer, multi-issue story arcs. When combined with the fact that The Warlord was a Code book, this meant that the plots tended to be oriented towards a straightforward adventure narrative, one reliant on depictions of overt action and drama. 

However bounded he was by editorial policies in terms of his scripts, Grell was a skilled artist when it came to rendering scenes of dynamic, sword-and-shield combat.

The latter issues in this compilation indicate that, with the title's financial success, Grell was given greater leeway in terms of content; as well, the advent of frequent barbarian / sword and sorcery stories in 'adult' comics like Heavy Metal and the Warren magazines, in the late 70s, seems to have further loosened the editorial restrictions imposed on The Warlord. 

While remaining distinctive in its own right, Grell's artwork began to take on a more ornate, 'artistic' visual style, one similar to that used by South American, European, and Philippino artists like Alex Nino, Esteban Maroto, and Gonzalo Mayo for their fantasy comics in Eerie and Creepy.

Summing up, if you are a fan of 70s sword-and-sorcery comics, then Showcase Presents: The Warlord is worth getting. However conventional his plots may have been during the book's first three years, Grell's artwork always was of high standards and, in my opinion, superior to some of the artwork appearing in the modern-day sword-and-sorcery comics.