Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Weapon by Pepe Moreno

The Weapon
By Pepe Moreno
Epic Illustrated (Marvel) February 1982

An effort at a new means of chemical warfare goes awry in this offbeat comic from Pepe Moreno.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Book Review: The Bone Forest

Book Review: 'The Bone Forest' by Robert Holdstock

3 / 5 Stars

‘The Bone Forest’ (247 pp) was published by Avon Books in September 1992. The cover art is by Tom Canty.

Other than the title novelette, the stories in this collection were first published in magazines and digests over the interval from 1976 – 1989.

All of the stories deal with Holdstock’s major literary theme, one in which the religious and sociocultural foundations of the Paleolithic tribes residing in prehistoric Britain are perceptible to those modern-day individuals blessed - if that's the right word - with the proper psychic temperament. Proximity to patches of primeval woodlands – such as Mythago Wood - assists in recovering these deeply submerged ancestral memories.

My summaries of the contents:

The Bone Forest: this is a prequel to Holdstock’s 1984 novel ‘Mythago Wood.’ It is set in 1935, at Oak Lodge, the house adjacent to Ryhope Wood (the ‘Mythago Wood’ of the novel). The lead character is George Huxley, head of the household and father to two sons: Steven Huxley (the protagonist of ‘Mythago Wood’) and Christian Huxley. George Huxley has been investigating Ryhope Wood and its strange character; in so doing, he compromises the power of a woodland entity, with disturbing consequences.

Holdstock’s work often suffers from over-writing, and this novelette is particularly afflicted – the plot simply gets muddier with each succeeding chapter, and the narrative’s resolution is contrived and unconvincing. But it does stay true to the sensibility of how life was lived in the forests of ancient Britain, and in so doing will call to mind the TV show ‘Naked and Afraid’ and its sweaty, grubby, dirty, thorn-punctured, bug-bitten channeling of Paleolithic-era survival.

Thorn: in a medieval-era Welsh village, a mason named Thomas Wyatt is recruited by an ancient forest spirit, and directed to desecrate a Christian church. This tale effectively mingles horror and fantasy.

The Shapechanger: in a village in Britain in 731 AD, a shaman must deal with ghosts inhabiting a nearby ruin; there is a psychic connection with a young boy in modern Britain.

The Boy Who Jumped the Rapids: in prehistoric Britain, a young boy befriends a stranger who carries an enigmatic totem.

Time of the Tree: abstract tale of a man who psychically recapitulates the Post-Ice Age natural history of Britain.

Magic Man: a ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ -style tale with an undertone of horror. One-Eye the painter discovers that the events he draws on the wall of his cave can take on a strange life of their own.

Scarrowfell: in a modern British village, preparations are underway for the yearly festival. Ginny, a young orphan, discovers some unsettling truths about the paganism that lies beneath the Christian veneer of the festival rites.

The Time Beyond Age: Martin and Yvonne are the subjects of an unusual experiment: they are to have their lifespans accelerated, and be raised in a sterile environment, to see how old humans actually can become when environmental hazards are eliminated. The premise is interesting, but the story is mainly an exploration of the psychological and emotional responses among the observing scientists, and suffers from an inconclusive ending.

Summing up, if you are a fan of Holdstock’s deliberately-paced writing style, and his focus on the exploration of ‘inner space’, then ‘The Bone Forest’ is worth getting. Those wanting less introspection and more action will probably find it unrewarding.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Iron Man: Crash

Iron Man: Crash
by Mike Saenz and Bill Bates
Marvel Comics Graphic Novel, 1988

'Iron Man: Crash' (72 pp) was published as a Marvel Graphic Novel in 1988. Along with the 65 pp graphic novel, there is a 7 page afterward featuring an essay from author Saenz, and descriptions of the computing procedures and software used to create the comic. 

Mike Saenz introduced the first computer-drawn comic book, the black and white Shatter, in February 1985 for First Comics. Shatter was composed using a MacIntosh PC. With the advent of the Mac II in 1987, Saenz was interested in using it to compose a more elaborate work, particularly in terms of deploying a full range of color, and arranged with Marvel editor Archie Goodwin to create 'Iron Man: Crash'.

'Crash' is set late in the 20th century. Tony Stark is 74 years old, but maintains a youthful physiology and appearance thanks to a regimen of anti-aging drugs. Stark Industries remains one of the world's top technology companies, and a major player in the international arms trade. 

Tony Stark intends to market his latest 'Iron Man' style technology - a sophisticated armor suite called the SAV - for use in industrial applications. Among the potential licensees is a Japanese conglomerate called ESON; Stark's decision to sell the SAV technology to ESON is not well received by Nick Fury, still the driving force at SHIELD, and a man wary of giving the Japanese an advantage in the highly competitive global technology market.

Stark's liberal stance is tested when, on a business trip to Japan to negotiate with ESON executives, he is attacked by unknown assailants.

Rather than taking Nick Fury's advice and flee Japan, Tony Stark decides that he will investigate the attack on his own - as Iron Man. And his newest suit of armor is more than a fighting possesses an array of devices that allow Stark access to the unique realm of Cyberspace......... 

'Iron Man: Crash' is one of the projects that sounded good in the planning, but failed in the execution. 

Even by the standards of the time, the artwork not very impressive. Most of the content of the novel was composed using the Mac II's graphics software (QuickDraw) and is necessarily low-res. 

A few panels feature more high-res imagery composed using Adobe Illustrator, as well as some CAD images of the Heli-carrier and vertibirds composed using Pro 3D. Regardless of the method used to draw the images, they all have a static, awkward quality that translates rather poorly into the inherently dynamic format of the comic book. 

A major drawback to 'Crash' is Saenz's writing. Many panels in the first part of the book are crammed with strings of pretentious 'tech' gobbledygook that's a chore to wade through.

The essay on 'The Making of Crash' that Saenz provides in the book's afterward also suffers from being less about informing the reader of the creative process and more about Saenz positioning himself as a sort of Tech Guru to the ignorant masses.

Given that Saenz' other major PC project during the mid-80s was the game MacPlaymate, which let the user place a Hand Icon onto certain regions of the anatomy of a rasterized drawing of a reclining nude woman (I'm not making this up - see screenshot below), this attitude seems more than a little pompous........

(For another review of 'Crash', see this link.)

The verdict ? 'Iron Man: Crash' is best regarded as an artifact from the pop culture of the late 80s, rather than a groundbreaking addition to the comic book / graphic novel canon. 

The PC-generated graphic novel 'Batman: Digital Justice', which was authored by Pepe Moreno, and came out in 1990, is better example of what artists were capable of doing at the dawn of the digital comics era.

Monday, August 22, 2016

New York 1999

New York 1999
cover art by Giuseppe Festino

This 1983 German paperback version of Make Room ! Make Room ! by Harry Harrison features one of the more striking cover illustrations I've yet seen for the novel.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Book Review: Rememory

Book Review: 'Rememory' by John Betancourt

3 / 5 Stars

‘Rememory’ (197 pp) was published in October, 1990 by Questar / Popular Library. The striking cover illustration is by Paul Youll.

[John Gregory Betancourt first began publishing sf novels in the 1980s; since the early 90s he has focused on writing series novels for the Star Trek, Hercules, and Amber licensed properties, among others.]

‘Rememory’ is a second-generation cyberpunk novel, one which uses many of the tropes of the initial William Gibson novels, as well as the movie ‘Bladerunner’. For example, the story takes place about one hundred years from now, in the East Coast megalopolis called the Sprawl. The main mode of personal transportation are flyers, and the federal government is at best a remote entity, whose functions often are carried out by private corporations – who have their own agendas.

In ‘Rememory’, advances in plastic surgery and body augmentation have let segments of the population transform themselves into ‘animen’, humans with the physical forms and features of animals. The first-person narrator, Slash, and his partners Hangman and Jeffy all are ‘catmen’, who reside in the catmen-only neighborhood of Fishtown. There, they and all the other catmen engage in a peculiar sort of permanent cosplay, one marked by the single-minded adoption of feline behaviors and mannerisms.

As the novel opens Slash, Hangman, and Jeffy – who are petty criminals - are looking to steal a shipment of goods from their hated animen rivals, the dogmen. The heist goes off as planned, but what Slash has stolen is no ordinary loot, but rather, a pair of super-sophisticated electronic devices called a ‘polyacteural encode / decoders’, or PEDs. When implanted in the user’s brain, the PEDs allow him or her to permanently record anything they have witnessed. These 'rememories' are read to a minidisc, which can be removed from the PED and accessed via computer.

Slash realizes that being in possession of the PEDs will draw the sort of attention that often ends badly for street-level hustlers, and looks to close a deal with his favorite fence. 

But the very act of fencing the PEDs alerts the Sprawl underground, and Slash learns that there are rememories on the stolen PEDs that the public is not meant to see………and soon Slash, Hangman, and Jeffy discover that they are have drawn the attention of one of the most powerful corporations in the nation………a corporation that is entirely at ease with using violence to retrieve its lost belongings…..

While derivative, ‘Rememory’ is a competently written second-gen cyberpunk novel. I can’t say it has the imaginative character of other second-gen novels, like George Alec Effinger’s ‘When Gravity Fails’ (1986). But if you’re looking for a readable cyberpunk story with a fast-moving plot, a suitably noir-ish atmosphere, and an ending that avoids being contrived or pat, then ‘Rememory’ is worth picking up.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

True Brit: A Celebration of the Great Comic Book Artists of the UK

True Brit: A Celebration of the Great Comic Book Artists of the UK
Edited by George Khoury
TooMorrows Publishing, Raleigh, USA July 2004

'True Brit' (200 pp) from the American publishing company TooMorrows (which specializes in books on comics and graphic art) is, unfortunately, out of print. 

Copies in reasonable condition can be found at affordable prices at your usual online retailers. TooMorrows does offer a digital version / pdf for sale; this has color illustrations throughout (the printed version is entirely in black and white, save for a short insert of color pages).

'True Brit', with its pages packed with illustrations and crammed with tiny-font text, is one of those books made for the fans of both comic books and their artists. The book profiles 21 artists, spanning an era from ca. 1940 to 2003.

David Roach leads off the contents with a chapter on 'The History of British Comic Art'; this is indispensable reading for anyone wanting to understand how comic strips and comic books are formatted and distributed in the UK market, a process considerably different from that in place in the US. It provides a good overview of the evolution of comics in the UK from their introduction in the 19th century on up to the early 21st century.

The ensuing profiles cover both the Greats of UK comics, such as Frank Bellamy, Frank Hampson, and Sydney Jordan, as well as those artists - Brian Bolland, Alan Davis, Bryan Hitch, etc. - who began working for British publishers in the late 70s / early 90s, and then went on to fame and fortune providing work for US publishers like Marvel and DC.

The interviews make for interesting reading. Practically all of the interviewees display traditional English rectitude and self-effacement, along with the dry humor common to Brits. 

One thing that emerges quite clearly from the interviews is that the UK publishers were (and are) not very friendly towards their talent. Workplace benefits common to the US - such as allowing artists to retain possession of their original art - were rare in the UK. 

According to Brian Bolland, among the reasons he left IPC to work for the US publishers: 

For one thing the page rate was better; we got our own name printed - you know, we got credit - and we got our artwork back. All stuff we didn't get at home (i.e., the UK). We'd get reprint fees, royalties probably. We didn't get any of this at home here....we were all becoming aware that in American comics you had certain legal rights which were honored by the seemed like a very attractive proposition. 

One fault I have with 'True Brit' is book's formatting; it takes some getting used to, as it adopts a number of awkward layouts for both the text and the illustrations............ 

Some of the profiled artists are ones unfamiliar to me, such as Leo Baxendale, Hunt Emerson, and Ken Reid. These were artists who focused on humor strips, and their work was aimed both at the newspaper-based readership, and comic books for children, which historically has represented a significant portion of the market in the UK.

Given that many of those artists considered as being 'new' back in 2004, when the book was published, have now entered into retirement (or semi-retirement) the main value of 'True Brit' for American audiences is to familiarize them with the work of these British artists during the 90s and early 2000s. 

While it's a given that most American comic book fans will be acquainted with Kevin O'Neil's work on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, there is a lot of outstanding work for other titles in both the UK and the US that is showcased here and will undoubtedly lead readers to seek out............for me, it was the 1982 - 1983 DC series Camelot 3000, featuring artwork by Brian Bolland.

Summing up, if you are a fan of British comics and British artists, then getting a copy of 'True Brit' is well worth the effort. Don't be at all surprised if some of the works described in this book pique your interest and lead you to seek comics that you may have been unaware of.......

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Book Review: Jem

Book Review: 'Jem' by Frederik Pohl

1 / 5 Stars

‘Jem’ first was published in hardcover in 1979. This Bantam paperback version (312 pp) was released in April 1985, and features cover artwork by Peter Grudynas.

The novel is set in the early 21st Century (an elderly Carl Sagan still attends scientific conferences). The Cold War continues to be fought, however, instead of being a contest between the ideologies of Capitalism and Communism, there is a three-way conflict between the People (the overpopulated regimes of Asia); Fuel (Arab nations; Venezuela; the UK); and Food (the USA and Russia) Blocs.

When a habitable planet, the ‘Jem’ of the book’s title, is discovered within range of FTL starships, each Bloc exerts significant effort to dispatch a colonizing expedition. In due course each of these expeditions endeavors to set up, and maintain, a base on Jem. This is no easy task; the side of the planet facing the star Kung is eternally hot, humid, and illuminated with a dull reddish glare. The colonizers discover three sapient races on Jem: the Krinpit, who resemble overgrown crayfish; the belowground-dwelling Creepies; and the Balloonists, who live an exclusively aerial lifestyle.

The opening chapters chronicle the gritty reality of eking out a living on Jem, when resources are scarce and unseen dangers have a habit of picking off the unwary. Inevitably, the humans succeed in learning how to communicate with the native inhabitants of the planet, and, just as inevitably, tensions rise as each Bloc seeks to establish itself as the prime power on Jem.

As the Cold War back on Earth begins an ominous slide into Hot War, the humans grubbing for existence on Jem suddenly become not just colonists, but perhaps the final remnants of Homo sapiens………..if they don’t succeed in wiping each other out………

Along with Niven and Pournelle, John Varley, and Gene Wolfe, Frederik Pohl (1919 – 2013) was one of the most visible authors in sf in the late 70s and early 80s, when – thanks to the success of sf in television and movies - the genre became much more prominent as a commercial entity.

Pohl’s novels of the period – Gateway, The Cool War, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, Chernobyl –all were reasonably well-written, if not particularly imaginative in their scope. In this regard, 'Jem' ’s sci-fi packaging is meant to serve as a vehicle for Pohls’ (somewhat rueful) exploration of humanistic themes – such as man’s ideology-driven propensity to self-destruction, versus his understanding that overcoming racial, ethnic, and political barriers is the only sure path to survival.

However much Pohl intended 'Jem' to an allegorical treatment, the novel itself is overly long and rambling, and, like Pohl’s other novels, leaves the narrative to fend for itself while devoting most of its prose to detailing the various interchanges between the novel’s large cast of characters.

These interchanges are not exclusive to the novel’s human cast, but also apply to lead characters from the Krinpit and Balloonist races, too, further overburdening the narrative with what is nowadays referred to – usually by critics of The Walking Dead - as an overdependence on ‘character development’.

The final chapters of 'Jem' regain some sense of urgency as the inter-colony conflicts come to echo the violence breaking out back on Earth, but this urgency winds up dissipating in the novel’s conclusion, which strikes an unconvincing note of humanistic optimism.

The verdict ? Unless you're a dedicated fan of Frederik Phol, you'll want to pass on ‘Jem’ .

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Judge Dredd: The League of Fatties

Judge Dredd: The League of Fatties
by T. B. Grover (story) and Ron Smith (art)
from 2000 AD Progs 273 - 274 (July 17 - 24, 1982)
reprinted in Judge Dredd: Fatties (2000 AD / Rebellion, July 2013)

From its early days, the editors and writers at 2000 AD comics had a politically incorrect stance on any number of social issues, and took special pleasure is producing satirical treatments of these topics.

Starting in the early 80s, obesity was one topic that got satirized in selected episodes of Judge Dredd. These stories are not only hysterically funny, but a sly dig at Americans; at that time, British popular culture portrayed the USA as being the Wonderland of the Overweight.

'The League of Fatties', a two-part storyline that appeared on consecutive issues of 2000 AD, showed no mercy towards its hapless victims. 

It's hard to imagine any modern comic daring to satirize the obese in the way that this comic does, with its use of the Belliwheel (to support enormous paunches), fatties diving headfirst into garbage cans for scraps of discarded food, 'kamikaze' fatties launching themselves from clifftops onto the beds of trucks carrying provisions, and the Fatties' slogan: 'Gluttony Will Prevail !'