Wednesday, June 29, 2016

DC Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster

DC Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster
DC Comics, 2014

'The Great Disaster' (575 pp) was published by DC Comics in 2014. Like all the other volumes in the 'Showcase' series, the entire contents is reproduced in black and white.

This is one of the odder compilations in the 'Showcase' series. It cobbles together comics that first were published over the 23-year interval from July 1960 to May 1983.

The overarching theme in 'Disaster' is that World War Three took place on October 9, 1986 (this date is first disclosed in an Atomic Knights tale in the September 1962 issue of Strange Adventures). This event, which periodically resurfaced among DC's comic books during the 70s and early 80s, serves as the loose thread linking all of the stories compiled in 'Disaster'.

A quarter of the contents is made up of brief 2 - 8 page stories that appeared in the anthologies Weird War Tales and The House of Secrets during the 1970s. These stories, all of which deal with a post-apocalyptic world, suffer to a some extent from being published during the Code era - the dismembered corpses and blood-drenched monsters that define post-apocalyptia in contemporary video games like Fallout 4 are utterly absent here. But the restrained plots of these short stories are compensated for, by the presence of good quality artwork, including the great Alfredo Alcala:

Along with veterans like Steve Ditko, Jack Sparling, Alex Nino, and Rich Buckler, these short stories also feature artists who would go on to become well-known in the comics world: Paul Kirchner, Frank Miller, and Howard Chaykin.

Another quarter of the book is taken up with reprinting 15 issues of Strange Adventures that appeared in 1960 - 1964 and featured the Atomic Knights.

Modern-day comic book fans are going to find the plots of these stories to be insipid, if not silly. They mainly revolve around the Knights combating various monsters and criminals infesting a post-apocalyptic USA. The one saving grace of these 'Knights' stories is the outstanding artwork by Murphy Anderson, one of the most accomplished artists of the Silver Age of comic books.

The third quarter of 'Disaster' is taken up with all 12 issues of Hercules Unbound, which ran during 1975 - 1977. The premise of this series was that World War Three enabled Hercules to break free from hundreds of years of imprisonment at the hands of the God of War, Ares.

Accompanied by the by a trio of supporting characters, Hercules wanders the post-apocalyptic landscape of Europe and the USA righting wrongs and correcting injustice. There are some humorous segments showcasing contemporary social issues:

The move by DC to have only 17 pages for the lead story in its comic books at this time in the 70s means that these issues of 'Hercules' suffer from contrived, gimmicky plotting. There isn't really all that much here to recommend to modern comics readers, although the artwork - primarily done by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez with assistance from comics great Wally Wood - is of good quality. The final issues of the series saw also some striking art by Walt Simonson, then a newcomer to the comics field.

The remaining quarter of 'The Great Disaster' is made up of a potpourri of single-issue Superman comics (one 1983 issue features a meetup of Superman, the Atomic Knights, and Hercules), some backup comics from some 1976 issues of Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth, and even 'Atlas the Great', a Jack Kirby one-shot comic from 1975's 1st Issue Special.

Summing up, 'The Great Disaster' will appeal mainly to a Baby Boomer-based readership, who - if they remember these old comics - do so with sufficient a sense of nostalgia to overcome their bland nature. However, I doubt that readers under 40 will find much here to appeal to them.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Book Review: Shadow of Heaven

Book Review: 'Shadow of Heaven' by Bob Shaw

4 / 5 Stars

‘Shadow of Heaven’ was first published in 1969 as a fix-up by Avon Books; this version (125 pp) was released in 1974 by UK publisher New English Library. The cover artwork is by George Underwood.

The novel is set ca. 2092, in a USA marked by overpopulation and eco-disaster. A World War started in 1992 led to the deployment of a particularly powerful formulation of herbicide, which devastated the world’s crops; now, the teeming, overcrowded masses of humanity must derive their meager nourishment from the oceans. Progress in restoring greenery to the massive fields of dirt that once were farmlands is a slow and uncertain endeavor.

The one exception is the International Land Extension U. S. 23, or ‘Isle’. Resting three miles up in the air over the Atlantic, courtesy of powerful antigravity pulsars, the Isle is a fifteen-mile long platform on which crops are grown by robots. The produce from the Isle is shuttled down to earth via a massive elevator. The produce derived from the Isle is so small that it constitutes only the rarest of treats to the population of the USA; but the government recognizes its psychological value and willingly budgets the considerable funds necessary to operate the Isle.

As the novel opens Victor Stirling, a newspaper reporter, discovers a startling bit of information while researching a story: his half-brother, Johnny Considine, has been officially declared a Missing Person. Although he has not spoken to Considine is some time, Sterling retains a sufficient sense of familial duty to make inquiries about his brother’s disappearance. These lead to contacts with a renegade political group, and rumors that Considine has done something thought impossible: traveled to the Isle.

Victor Stirling decides to access the Isle via a clandestine route; he arrives and finds a community of fugitives living among the greenery of the Isle. But this discovery comes with its cost, for as Stirling is to learn, once you travel to the Isle, you can’t go back………..

‘Shadow of Heaven’ is one of the better sf novels of the late 60s / early 70s that I’ve read. While the premise is a bit contrived, it’s imaginative, and the world of the Isle is carefully sketched and made sufficiently believable to support the straightforward narrative. For a novel published during the height of the New Wave era, Shaw’s prose is particularly clear and devoid of self-indulgence, and makes for an engaging read.

This one is worth picking up.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Return of Sir Richard Grenville

The Return of Sir Richard Grenville
Script by Roy Thomas, Art by David Wenzel
from The Savage Sword of Conan No. 41 (June 1979) / Marvel / Curtis magazines

Based on a poem by Robert E. Howard, this Solomon Kane backup feature offers some good artwork from David Wenzel, who ably illustrated a number of Kane stories for the Marvel black and white comic magazines.....

Richard Grenville (1542 - 1591) was a British sea captain who, once when dining with a group of Spanish naval captains, displayed his machismo by chewing and swallowing his beverage glasses, pretending to ignore the blood running out of his lacerated mouth - ! 

During the Battle of Flores (August 31 - September 1, 1591) which took place near the Azores, his ship the Revenge attacked a numerically superior Spanish fleet; after much combat, which at one point saw the Revenge simultaneously attacked by five Spanish ships, Grenville was severely wounded. His crew (Robert E. Howard's poem places Solomon Kane among them) surrendered after Grenville was struck down. He died of his wounds two days later, aboard the Spanish flagship.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Book Review: Flashing Swords 5

Book Review: 'Flashing Swords #5: Demons and Daggers' 
edited by Lin Carter

3 / 5 Stars

'Flashing Swords #5: Demons and Daggers' (250 pp) was published by Dell in December, 1981.The striking cover art is by Richard Corben.

This is the fifth and final volume in the 'Flashing Swords' series that began in 1973.

Like the other volumes, this one features commissioned stories, but editor Carter, in his Introduction, states that for No. 5, he chose to go outside the membership of the SAG -the organization of sword-and-sorcery writers from whom he previously drew stories - to solicit entries from writers who are not usually associated with the genre.

[All of the stories in 'Flashing Swords #5: Demons and Daggers' were written in 1981.]

My capsule summaries of the contents:

Tower of Ice, by Roger Zelazny: when he avoided writing avant-garde New Wave prose, and instead stuck to traditional modes of storytelling, Zelazny could write some good stories, and this novelette - featuring his 'Dilvish the Damned' character - is very good. The narrative is fast-paced, the dialogue crisp, and the setting imaginative. This is the best entry in the anthology.

A Thief in Korianth, by C. J. Cherryh: in the squalid, violent streets of the waterfront district of the city of Korianth, a young pickpocket named Gillian steals from someone better left alone. This story is overwritten, particularly in terms of devoting too much prose to analyzing the main character's inner turmoil. But the plot is sufficiently engaging that I finished the tale.

Parting Gifts, by Diane Duane: an elderly sorceress is given a dangerous task, on the one night of the year when the Devil and his servants are free to roam the land at will. While this story's plotting and pacing are reminiscent of the stories of Ursula K. Leguin, 'Gifts' is well-written in its own right, and the second-best tale in the anthology.

A Dealing with Demons, by Craig Shaw Gardner: Ebenezum the mage and his trusted servant Wunt come to the aid of a king who cannot access his treasure-room. This is a 'humorous fantasy' story, reminiscent of the Jack Vance 'Cugel' tales. It's competent, if not remarkable.

The Dry Season, by Tanith Lee: in a drought-stricken foreign city, a forthcoming human sacrifice draws the attention of a conscience-stricken legionary. Lee's use of an overly figurative prose style - light is colored Ochre, sunsets are colored Apricot, hair is a Black Fleece, when crickets stop chirping it is like a Heart Suddenly Faltering, an impasse in a conversation is a Lacuna - sets too large a burden on the narrative, which is otherwise interesting.

Summing up, 'Flashing Swords #5: Demons and Daggers' is like the preceding four volumes in this series: some good stories, some mediocre ones. But the entry by Zelazny is a good argument for picking this volume up.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Mind of Her Own

A Mind of Her Own
by Bruce Jones
from Alien Worlds No. 2, May 1983 
Pacific Comics

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Plague King

The Plague King
by Chuck Dixon (story) and Don Perlin (art)
from Savage Sword of Conan No. 159, April 1989 

Although much of the content of the 1980s issues of Savage Sword of Conan still adhered to the increasingly tired sword-and-sorcery adventure format, there were those occasional backup stories, hidden in the final pages of each issue, that veered away from the formulaic approach and offered something a bit more imaginative. 

This short tale from the April 1989 issue of SSoC, written by Chuck Dixon and illustrated by Don Perlin, is set in the King Kull era. But its downbeat plot, suffused with gritty realism, makes it stand out as something apart from the usual frenetic sword-swinging and 'By the Gods !' exclamations........

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

First Maitz: Selected Works by Don Maitz

First Maitz
Selected Works by Don Maitz
Ursus Imprints 1988

If you read sf and fantasy books at any time in the late 70s, 80s, or early 90s, then it's highly likely that at least one of those books featured cover art by Don Maitz (b. 1953).

Raised in Plainville, Connecticut, Maitz attended the Paier School of Art in Hamden, from which he graduated in 1975 - the same year he got his first commercial art assignment, for Marvel comics.

A year later, Maitz provided the cover artwork for the Science Fiction Book Club's The Book of Skaith, as well as cover art for the Dell paperback Flashing Swords 3: Warriors and Wizards, launching his prolific career as a cover artist in the sf and fantasy genres.

'First Maitz' provides artwork from Maitz's career through 1988; many of the featured pieces were commissioned by DAW Books and will be very familiar to anyone with experience with that publisher's catalog from the late 70s through the 80s.

One thing that is quickly apparent from looking through 'First Maitz' is that the author is very adept both at composing artwork with a more abstract, figurative aspect, as well as art with a more realistic tenor. Maitz's work is very much allied to that of the classic illustrators such as Maxfield Parish and N. C Wyeth. 

Each of the reproductions of Matiz's paintings is accompanied by a text description offering details of the processes by which Maitz came up with the composition and design of the illustration, as well as preliminary black-and-white sketches and the occasional reference photograph. 

Maitz makes clear that reading the book he has been assigned to illustrate is a vital component of rendering satisfactory cover art, although this action - along with all of the others associated with producing commercial art - can lead to anxiety as deadlines come due......

cover art for Flashing Swords 4, Dell, 1977

'First Maitz' (96 pp) is a well-made book; the artwork is reproduced on a finer grade of paper stock, pages are sewn into the binding (not glued), and the quality of the reproductions is very high. Copies can be had from the usual used-book online vendors for very reasonable prices. If you're a fan of fantasy and sf art, or a fan of novels in the genre from the 70s and 80s, then you may well want to get a copy of 'First Maitz'.
cover art for The Green Gods, DAW Books 1980

The Pirate, Captain Morgan Co., Baltimore, MD

cover artwork for four novels in the Bard series, Ace Books, 1981 - 1987

cover artwork for The Shadow of the Torturer, Pocket Books, 1981

cover artwork for Electric Forest, DAW Books, 1979

cover artwork for Fane, Pocket Books, 1981

cover artwork for The Purgatory Zone, Ace Books, 1981