Saturday, January 30, 2016

Book Review: Diadem from the Stars

Book Review: 'Diadem from the Stars' by Jo Clayton

1 / 5 Stars

During the 1980s it was not at all unusual to see sci-fi novels by Jo Clayton on the bookshelves. Clayton (1939 - 1998) wrote 35 novels, many of which were part of the DAW Books catalog. Clayton played a major role in DAW Books’ emphasis, started in the 1980s, on publishing sf and fantasy books - particularly serial novels - by female authors for an increasing female readership.

‘Diadem from the Stars’ (Marc h 1977; DAW Book No. 235) is the inaugural novel of the so-called ‘Diadem’ series, which ultimately spanned nine books over the course of 1977 – 1986. The cover artwork is by Michael Whelan.

As the novel opens, the eponymous Diadem is stolen from the ‘planet of the spider-people' by Stavver, the galaxy’s greatest thief. The Diadem is not just a valuable jewel, but a sentient artifact with the ability to confer psi powers upon the individual lucky enough – or unfortunate enough – to wear it.

When the vengeful pursuit by the spider people damages his ship, Stavver is forced to crash-land on the backwater planet Jaydugar. Stavver survives the landing, but loses the Diadem.

The narrative then shifts to the adventures of Aleytys, a teenage girl, and the daughter of a long-vanished spacewoman. Aleytys has been raised since infancy by the tribesman of Jaydugar, from whom she stands out, not just for her physical size and red hair, but also for her self-confidence and defiance of authority, traits uncommon to the women of the native peoples of Jaydugar.

Aleytys also has psi powers that, as the novel opens, she is just becoming aware of – powers that include telepathy and the ability to rapidly heal herself, other humans, and even animals. When threatened, Aleytys is able to wield even stronger powers – powers dangerous to her assailants – and this has generated increasing unease among the tribe that has taken her in.

Circumstances soon force Aleytys to make her own way across Jaydugar to a remote locale where a chance to go off-planet may await. But a young girl traveling by herself, across the harsh and unforgiving landscape of a backward planet, is easy prey for any number of unpleasant people……..

I found ‘Diadem’ to be a dull and unrewarding read, even when making allowances for its status as a First Novel. Much of its failings are due to the author’s desire – clearly inspired by Dune - to over-elaborate on the sociology and anthropology of Jaydugar and its tribes (which are modeled on the Arabs of North Africa). This subjects the reader to a constant stream of invented words and phrases, and detailed expositions on cultural issues, which are a chore to wade through.

It also doesn’t help matters that author Clayton periodically engages in stream-of-consciousness passages associated with the heroine’s moments of Psychic Awareness; while such passages were part and parcel of New Wave era sf writing, they act here to burden, rather than enlighten, the narrative.

When it first was published, ‘Diadem from the Stars’, as well as the succeeding volumes in the series, were praised for breaking new ground with their depictions of independent heroines, as opposed to portraying women as the inevitable girlfriends or concubines common to sf literature at the time. While this may have been true of ‘Diadem’, when all is said and done, it doesn’t deliver much of a story………..perhaps the other volumes are better written and more rewarding, but this one is hard to recommend.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Bizarre Adventures No. 31

Bizarre Adventures No. 31
Marvel / Curtis, April 1982

For the March, 1982 issue of Bizarre Adventures, editors Jim Shooter and Dennis O'Neil decided to use one of the oldest and cheesiest tricks in magazine publishing to try and drum up newsstand sales: 

........exploitation ! ......... disguised as a Meaningful and Profound examination of a Social Issue of Deep Concern.

So it was that the cover of issue 31 features a Joe Jusko painting of an alluring blonde 'flashing' an array of firearms, while the cover blurb promises a 'hard look at violence'.

In his editorial page, O'Neil uses the sort of sententious wording that gives the more naive reader the impression that, by examining violence, Bizarre Adventures actually seeks to reduce it.....

I suspect that, with issue 31, the Marvel editorial staff was seeking to attract the readership of more 'adult' magazines like Heavy Metal. But with this issue of Bizarre Adventures, they failed, because the content is quite lame.

Most of the stories are contrived efforts at copying the satirical style of underground comix ('Dr. Deth with Kip and Muffy', and 'Recondo Rabbit', by Larry Hama; 'Bucky Bizarre' by Skeates and Smallwood). 

Others are pretentious ('The Philistine' by Frank Miller; 'Violence Wears Many Faces' by John Byrne). Some suffer from a makeshift approach and poor artwork ('The Hangman' by Gruenwald and Sienkiewicz).

Probably the best comic in the issue is 'Let There Be Life', written by Tom DeFalco and illustrated by Marvel veteran Herb Trimpe. 

DeFalco's plot is another simpleminded riff on seeing Irony in the Madness of War, but Trimpe's artwork - here uncompromised by graytones, or muddy color separations - really stands out. I've posted it below.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Illustrated History of Science Fiction Comics

The Illustrated History of Science Fiction Comics
by Mike Benton

'The Illustrated History of Science Fiction Comics' (150 pp) was published in 1992 by Taylor Publishing Company (Dallas, TX). It's one of a series of volumes from 'The Taylor History of Comics' featuring overviews of different genres of comic books.

This is a hardbound, well-made book, although many of the scans used as illustrations suffer from some degree of cropping and low-res, presumably a consequence of the state of scanner technology ca. 1992.

'The Illustrated History of Science Fiction Comics' straddles the uncertain middle ground between a comprehensive (and expensive) reference text, and an affordable overview of the topic aimed at readers who are fans of the genre, collectors, or aficionados of pop culture in general. In my opinion, it does a reasonably good job, although with a print date of 1992, it is inevitably obsolete to some degree.

The book's chapters cover the field of dedicated science fiction comics from the 30s up to the early 90s.

Author Benton's remarks are a straightforward narrative of the comics and the creators, although he does slip in some anecdotes and cultural / sociological observations every now and then.

Benton relates how the genre waxed and waned in the years between 1930 - 1960. The 'planetary romance' style of pulp sf was predominant in the 40s and early 50s.

Basil Wolverton's classic 'Spacehawk' series was one of the more notable titles during this time (reprints were made available in the 1990s by Dark Horse Comics).

Benton devotes quite a bit of attention to the EC science fiction comics of the 1950s....these have been over-praised, in my opinion, particularly the issues that adapted Ray Bradbury stories. But all of the EC titles had outstanding artists.

The postwar era saw many titles devoted to spaceman heroes, a nod to the advent of television shows like Captain Video and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.

Benton also devotes coverage to the DC sf comics of the late 50s and early 60s. These were well-done, and featured some of the more offbeat approaches introduced to the genre, such as 'The Atomic Knights' serial that ran in Strange Adventures.

The 60s and 70s saw the rise of sf comics that were based on popular television shows like 'Lost in Space', 'Land of the Giants' and 'The Outer Limits', while adaptations of blockbuster movies like Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture had a huge impact on the genre.

The book's final chapter looks at the state of the genre in the late 80s and early 90s, when the Great Comic Book Boom meant that older properties, like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, were rebooted and given a more modern aspect. 

Whether this was wise or not is open to question; for example, DC's 1988 reboot of Flash Gordon featured some truly shameless cheese being handed to the fanboys, as witnessed by this cover to issue 2, with its lineup of chicks in g-strings and Fetish Boots opening fire on our hero - !

'The Illustrated History of Science Fiction Comics' features (as its appendix) a Checklist of sf comics up to ca. 1991. 

There are going to be some titles listed in this Checklist, like Kammandi: The Last Boy On Earth ! that are familiar to sf fans, while more than a few are - I suspect - going to be complete unknowns (Gold Key published a sci-fi comic called Mighty Samson ?!).....

Summing up, 'The Illustrated History of Science Fiction Comics' - despite being dated - is about as useful an overview of the topic that one can find. With copies for sale for very reasonable prices, it's worth picking up if you're a fan of the genre - there are sure to be some comics listed in its pages that you've never heard of, but are worth seeking out.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Yukon Jack

Yukon Jack
back cover advertisement, Epic Illustrated magazine, August 1983

As a major storm dumps snow and cold temperatures on the Northeast, and the media work themselves into a frenzy with Winter Storm Watch coverage, it's time to take heart....... from a most Manly of Advertisements, from way back in 1983......

I have clinched and closed with the naked North
I have learned to defy and defend; Shoulder to
shoulder we have fought it out - yet the wild
must win in the end

[......why Hueblein, Inc., the Yukon Jack importer at that time, thought that Epic Illustrated was the type of magazine whose readership identified with macho, fur-wearing, whiskey-drinkin' mountain men, and thus an ideal publication from which to purchase a full-page back cover ad, is not entirely clear...........?! ]

The advertisement's verse excerpt is from 'The Heart of the Sourdough' by British-Canadian poet Robert William Service (1874 -1958).

Few poems are as Manly as this one............I've pasted it below in its entirety:

The Heart of the Sourdough

There where the mighty mountains
Bare their fangs unto the moon;
There where the sullen sun-dogs glare
In the snow-bright, bitter noon,
And the glacier-glutted streams sweep down
At the clarion call of June.

There where the livid tundras keep
Their tryst with the tranquil snows;
There where the silences are spawned,
And the light of hell-fire flows
Into the bowl of the midnight sky,
Violet, amber and rose.

There where the rapids churn and roar,
And the ice-floes bellowing run;
Where the tortured, twisted rivers of blood
Rush to the setting sun —
I've packed my kit and I'm going, boys,
Ere another day is done.
* * * * *

I knew it would call, or soon or late,
As it calls the whirring wings;
It's the olden lure, it's the golden lure,
It's the lure of the timeless things;
And to-night, oh, God of the trails untrod,
How it whines in my heart-strings!

I'm sick to death of your well-groomed gods,
Your make believe and your show;
I long for a whiff of bacon and beans,
A snug shakedown in the snow;
A trail to break, and a life at stake,
And another bout with the foe.

With the raw-ribbed Wild that abhors all life,
The Wild that would crush and rend,
I have clinched and closed with the naked North,
I have learned to defy and defend;
Shoulder to shoulder we have fought it out —
Yet the Wild must win in the end.

I have flouted the Wild; I have followed its lure,
Fearless, familiar, alone;
By all that the battle means and makes
I claim that land for mine own;
Yet the Wild must win, and a day will come
When I shall be overthrown.

Then when as wolf-dogs fight we've fought,
The lean wolf-land and I;
Fought and bled till the snows are red
Under the reeling sky;
Even as lean wolf-dog goes down
Will I go down and die.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Book Review: The Reincarnation of Peter Proud

Book Review: 'The Reincarnation of Peter Proud'
by Max Ehrlich

4 / 5 Stars

'The Reincarnation of Peter Proud' was first published in September, 1974; this Bantam paperback (278 pp) was issued in March, 1975, to coincide with the release of the motion picture of the same title.

I remember reading this paperback way back in 1975, but I could only remember the vaguest outline of the book when I decided to re-read now, forty (!) years later.....

The novel is set in 1974, in Los Angeles, where Peter Proud, 27, is a professor of anthropology at UCLA and a rising star in his field. 

Life seems to be working out very well for Peter Proud....except for the recent advent of the Dreams. There is a set of 11 of them, and they continuously repeat, night after night. Dreams of unusual vividness and clarity, dreams in which he is the inhabitant of the body of another man, in a time and place different from Los Angeles in 1974. Some of the Dreams are benign, while one is a genuine nightmare.......... a 'Lake Dream' nightmare in which the man whose body he is occupying, is murdered.

The Dreams, and the Lake Dream in particular, have come to dominate Peter Proud's sleeping hours, leaving him stressed and unable to rest. In an effort to address the Dreams, Proud finds himself seeking an explanation from a clairvoyant. From her, he learns that the soul occupying his body has been reincarnated time and again over thousands of years. And its most recent reincarnation is the young man who is murdered in the Lake Dream.

Peter Proud realizes that the only way he can exorcise the Dreams is to identify the young man who is the participant in them, and learn the circumstances of the murder. Using the few scant visual clues he can glean from the Dreams, Proud travels to New England, there to discover that reincarnation is not just an esoteric concept spawned by Eastern mysticism, but a real and genuine manifestation of the supernatural........

'Reincarnation' really doesn't fit into one genre; it's part psychological thriller, part detective story, with some occult and supernatural elements worked into the mix. As with Max Ehrlich's other novels, it's a very readable book that never gets too contrived, and delivers an offbeat, but satisfactory, ending.

I never saw the 1975 feature film based on the novel; most reviewers at amazon give it a good rating.

Summing up, 'The Reincarnation of Peter Proud' is one of the better 70s novels dealing with supernatural topics, and worth picking up.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Heavy Metal magazine Winter 1986

'Heavy Metal' magazine Winter 1986

January, 1986, and on MTV, the video for Sting's single 'The Russians' is in rotation.

Heavy Metal magazine, having decreased from monthly to quarterly circulation, unveils its 'new and improved' Winter 1986 issue. Darryl Hanna is the cover subject, depicted on the poster for the upcoming film The Clan of the Cave Bear.

While most of this issue's content is not very memorable, it does feature the longest story ever printed by Jean-Michel Nicolett (using the pseudonym 'Sesar'). 

As with his July, 1985 Heavy Metal contribution 'Metropolis', Nicolett again turns to classic old films for inspiration........ this time it's King Kong that inspires a story titled 'The Great Kong', posted below.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Book Review: Montana Gothic

Book Review: 'Montana Gothic' by Dirck Van Sickle

2 / 5 Stars

I first saw this book at the 'Too Much Horror Fiction' blog and, based on the brief blurb there provided, decided to read it. 

‘Montana Gothic’ (254 pp) was first published in hardback in 1979; this Avon Books paperback was released in June, 1980. The artist who provided the striking cover illustration is uncredited.

The novel is organized into four Parts, each consisting of several chapters which progress through time, and are loosely linked by shared characters.

In Part One, it’s 1915, and Deke Morgan, grieving over a failed love affair, decides to move from Baltimore to Citadel, Montana (as best as I can tell, author Van Sickle uses fictional locations, or those of ghost towns, throughout the book), there to take over as the town’s undertaker. Morgan is depressed by the mud, cold, and isolation of small-town Montana. Then he discovers that the actions of the former undertaker have made the entire town loathe and detest the undertaker’s services……….

In Part Two, set about 50 years later, two cowboys – one a young man, the other an aged veteran – are working a small cattle herd in the wilderness. Within the cramped log cabin that is their refuge, they cope with the isolation and cold of the Montana Winter by playing cards and philosophizing.

In Part Three, also set ca. 1955, a mentally retarded young woman is caught up in a clandestine affair; her brother and father are left to deal with the consequences.

In Part Four, set in the 70s – 80s, a cowboy named Mavis Lambrook Herman roams the streets and sidewalks of Montana’s towns and cities, intent on staying true to the Code of the Frontier despite its obsolescence in the modern day.

I won’t disclose any spoilers, save to say that some of the characters in ‘Montana Gothic’ will be visited by tragedy and misfortune.

On the whole, ‘Montana Gothic’ was a disappointment. It’s devoid of supernatural or horror elements, relying instead on black humor to inform its expositions on human frailties. There is an earnest effort to make Montana the real ‘character’ underlying the events in the novel, but too often these efforts are related in a purple prose that quickly becomes tedious, and does little except pad the narrative.

It doesn’t help matters that Van Sickle’s handling of dialogue is less than impressive; for example, in the chapter ‘Winter Calf’, there are lengthy sections of conversation related in a labored ‘Homespun Frontier Wisdom’ dialect:

Montana, she ain’t fer sale, it’s free, but ya gotta love ‘er enough ta find it in yerself. She ain’t no whore.

This stuff is a pain to read. In later chapters, the conversations adopt modern forms of speech, but even here, Van Sickle’s dialogue is stilted and unconvincing.

My recommendation ? ‘Montana Gothic’ has its moments, but they are too few and far between to justify wading though the bulk of this novel.