Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Victory (The Jacksons)

by Michael Whelan
illustration for the cover of the Jacksons' album 

left to right: Marlon, Tito, Randy, Michael, Jermaine, Jackie

The major single off this album was the song 'Torture'.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Book Review: The Runestaff series

Book Review: The 'Runestaff' Series by Michael Moorcock

5 / 5 Stars

All four volumes of what is labeled the 'Runestaff' or 'Hawkmoon' series first were published in 1967 - 1969, sometimes with different titles, by Lancer Books in the USA.

The Lancer books series apparently was not endorsed by Moorcock; accordingly, the 'authorized' version of the Hawkmoon series is considered to be that issued by DAW Books: The Jewel in the Skull (January 1977), The Mad God's Amulet (April 1977), The Sword of the Dawn (July 1977) and The Runestaff (September 1977). 

All feature outstanding cover artwork by Richard Clifton-Dey.

[Sequels to the 'Hawkmoon' titles, known collectively as 'The Castle Brass' series, consists of Count Brass (1973), The Champion of Garathorm (1973), and The Quest for Tanelorn (1975).]

The Hawkmoon novels are set several thousand years in the future, in a Europe ruled by Granbretan, i.e., Great Britain. Interestingly, Moorcock makes this far future Granbretan the villain, intent not only on conquering the rest of Europe, but the Middle East.......and perhaps the entire World. 

Opposing the Granbreton empire are an ever-dwindling collection of European provinces. In one such province, called Koln (i.e., Colonge), the Duke, a man named Dorian Hawkmoon, uses his military prowess to defy the Granbretan forces. When Koln finally is defeated by the overwhelming might of the Granbretans, Hawkmoon flees to Kamarg in Souther France, there to ally himself with Count Brass, ruler of Castle Brass.

Succeeding volumes in the series recount the various adventures of Count Brass, Dorian Hawkmoon, his sidekick - the loyal Oladahn - and the cryptic Warrior in Jet and Gold, in their efforts to deter the Granbretans. It becomes increasingly clear with each entry in the series that a mystical artifact known as the Runestaff is directing the actions of Hawkmoon and his compatriots, although Hawkmoon is none too pleased to discover he is a pawn in the schemes of the Runestaff. 

But it is only with aid the of the Runstaff and its accompanying artifacts - the Mad God's Amulet and the Sword of the Dawn - that Hawkmoon can even hope to deter the well-armed hordes of Granbretan soldiery........and their psychotic leader, Baron Meliadus, who has a deep and abiding hatred for Dorian Hawkmoon....... 

The four volumes in the Runestaff series each are under 175 pp in length, meaning that the series can be read relatively quickly. Moorcock's writing is unadorned and direct; there is little if any unnecessary exposition, dialogue is restrained, and the use of short chapters keeps the narrative moving at a quick pace.

It's worth noting that the combined four volumes of the Runestaff series occupies less than 800 pages. The brevity of the series is something I appreciated, given that modern fantasy novels have become extraordinarily bloated and overwritten. For example, the current 'Stormlight Archive' series by Brandon Sanderson has a first volume with 1280 pp, and the second volume,1328 pp. And there are eight more volumes to go........?!

What makes the Runestaff series effective is its villains. The Granbretans are not the reincarnations of past Dark Lords, or a cabal of Evil Mages who use corrupt incantations to direct Dark Forces against their opponents. 

They are in fact a race of aristocrats who are so jaded that only war, and its freedom to carry out all manner of perversions and atrocities, can satisfy them. The Granbretans take delight in raping and pillaging conquered villages, taking in the spectacle of the Sexual Gymnasts (!) at court ceremonies, and casually snuffing out the lives of their slaves and servants. The repellent nature of the Granbretans gives the conflict between them and Hawkmoon a nasty edge that is very much absent from modern-day fantasy series.

Summing up, although Moorcock was in many respects a one-man publishing factory in the 70s, much of what he wrote in that decade was of good quality, and the Hawkmoon / Runestaff series is the equal of the Elric series. 

While picking up the individual volumes is feasible, there are omnibus volumes that can be purchased for very affordable prices from your usual online vendors.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Judge Dredd Ladies' Night

Judge Dredd in 'Ladies Night'
script by Alan Grant (as T. B. Grover)
art by Brian Talbot
from 2000 AD Annual 1987

This Judge Dredd strip from 1981 features one of the more eye-popping color schemes in an early 80s comic, and a focus on sarcastic humor. But it's the great artwork of Bryan Talbot - of Luther Arkwright fame - that makes this comic really stand out.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Book Review: The Ends of the Circle

Book Review: 'The Ends of the Circle' by Paul O. Williams

4 / 5 Stars

‘The Ends of the Circle’ (203 pp) was published in April, 1981; the cover art is by Ralph Brillhart.

This is the second volume in the ‘Pelbar Cycle’, which ultimately comprised seven volumes.

Like the preceding novel, ‘The Breaking of Northwall’, this episode is set more than 1,000 years after World War Three led to the collapse of civilization. The stone fortress of Pelbarigan, located on the upper Mississippi River, is the home of a matriarchal society that is only slowly coming to accept wider interaction with the nomadic tribes that roam the Midwest.

As ‘Circle’ opens, a young man named Stel is finding his place in Pelbar society to be increasingly difficult, even dangerous. Stel has chosen to marry Arhoe, a woman of the Dahmen family, who are notoriously demeaning towards those males who marry into the family.

Although Stels’ affection for Arhoe is genuine, he can no longer suffer mistreatment at the hands of the Dahmen females, and, renouncing the family, sets off on his own into the winter wastes. His goal is a vague one: to travel the western half of what used to be the United States and see if the so-called Shining Sea of the West really does exist.

For her part, Arhoe is unwilling to see her husband abandon her and the Dahmen family; when word of Stel’s disappearance reaches her, she sets out to find him.

Most of the novel is taken up with the twin narratives of the journeys of Stel and Arhoe across the immense lands of the West. Dangers and perils abound, including standard-issue postapocalyptic cults, hostile tribes, and lingering rads from the nuclear blasts loosed a thousand years ago.

As with ‘Northwall’, much of the narrative is focused on the anthropological nuances of the nomadic tribes that roam this future America, many of which – although comprised of whites – author Williams models on Amerindian counterparts.

As sf novels written in the early 80s go, ‘Circle’, like ‘Northwall’, is much more readable than other novels of the era that dealt with sociological topics. Compared to bloated, meandering novels like Donald Kingsbury’s ‘Courtship Rite’, the Pelbar novels are shorter, more focused, and devoid of world-buildings so intricate that they eventually undermine their own narrative.

This is not to say that ‘Circle’ is flawless; it is not. Many of the dialogue passages have a stilted quality, and the pauses in the narrative during which Stel engages in some existential philosophizing are tedious rather than convincing.

With that said, ‘Circle’ is a good sf adventure novel, and another strong entry in the Pelbar Cycle. It’s worth picking up.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Muskrat Love November 1976

'Muskrat Love' by the Captain and Tennille
November, 1976

November, 1976..........and at position number 4 on the Billboard Top 40 pop chart, it's the Captain and Tennille with their version of the song 'Muskrat Love', which originally was recorded and released by the band 'America'.

It's hard to describe the uniquely deranged nature of this vision of 70s cheese.......those watching it for the first time, are best advised to do so with caution.

I still remember watching it unfold, 
during an episode of The Captain and Tennille TV show, on our little 20 " black and white TV in the Fall of '76. 

What can you say about a live action / video montage in which people dressed in 'muskrat' costumes dance together, while Daryl Dragon (i.e., the 'Captain') plays 'pitter pat' noises on his synthesizer ? 

Only in the 70s, that's for sure.......

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Battle for the Planet of the Apes Part V

Battle for the Planet of the Apes
Part V of VII
by Doug Moench (script) and Dino Castrillo (art) 
Planet of the Apes (Marvel / Curtis) No. 26, November 1976

Marvel continues the 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes' storyline in this November, 1976 issue of the Planet of the Apes comic magazine. The entirety of episode V, 'Assault on Paradise', is posted below.

(Links to previous posts: parts one and two and three and four)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Lost on Venus

Lost on Venus
cover artwork by Richard Clifton-Dey
For the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs
New English Library, 1965

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Book Review: Four Came Back

Book Review: 'Four Came Back' by Martin Caidin

1 / 5 Stars

‘Four Came Back’ (214 pp) was published by Bantam Books in February 1970. The cover artist is Sanford Kossin.

The novel is set in the near future, i.e., the mid-70s. The international space station Epsilon is in orbit 460 miles above the Earth. Its eight-person crew have been aboard for nearly six months, with just three weeks to go before returning to Earth.

The crew is led by the rugged, square-jawed American astronaut Mike Harder. Also on board are two women, June Strond and Paige Alison; the German doctor Werner Koelbe; the Frenchman Henry Guy-Michel; the Britisher Tim Pollard; and two other Americans, Bill Jordan and Luke Parsons.

One of the tasks the crew are obliged to perform in their final days aboard the Epsilon is to obtain samples of space dust, and store them for delivery back to Earth. The collection effort goes well, but just a few days afterwards, Bill Jordan becomes ill….his skin marred by an unusual rash. Despite the best efforts of Dr. Koelbe, Jordan's condition deteriorates with alarming speed........

To the horror of commander Mike Harder, it appears that an unknown pathogen has gained access to the ship’s crew……and as the healthy crewmembers struggle to aid their shipmates, the knowledge that they, too, are potential victims of the unknown plague fills them with dread.

And to make things worse, when news of the crisis on the Epsilon becomes known to the Earth’s population, conflict breaks out over whether to bring the crew home for treatment….or leave them to die in the airless void of space…….

The cover blurb for ‘Four Came Back’ leads the reader to believe that the novel is a sci-fi thriller in the mode of Crichton’s classic ‘The Andromeda Strain’. But the reality is that ‘Four’ is really more of a clone of the 1968 disaster novel ‘Airport’, by Arthur Hailey.

For author Caidin, the space plague is simply a background upon which the narrative – which primarily is devoted to elaborating on the melodramatic interactions of the characters - unfolds.

Indeed, in ‘Four’, the exposure of the crew to the space dust doesn’t take place until the halfway point of the novel. The first half deals with the evolving romantic relationship between June, the idealized 60s liberated, sensual Norwegian bombshell, and the reserved Mike Harder. Complicating things is the presence of Henri, who – as the inevitably randy Frenchman – is happy to try and bed June, while Harder- the stereotypical American man of action who is out of touch with his feelings - can only look on with increasing frustration and resentment.

While Caidin displays competence in writing about the technical aspects of life and work aboard the Epsilon, he is utterly over his head, and tone-deaf, as a romance novelist. The book has a large number of embarrassingly awful passages, such as this one:

And, all the while, he remained blind to the desires that surged through June’s young body.

As the novel’s title makes apparent, only four of the crew of the Epsilon will come back…..I won’t disclose any spoilers and declare who survives, who doesn’t, and whether the plague is defeated or not. I will say that for me, ‘Four’ was a dull and unrewarding slog. Unless you are a dedicated Martin Caidin fan and absolutely have to read every one of his novels, I recommend passing on this book.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Judge Dredd: The Apocalypse War

Judge Dredd: The Apocalypse War
IDW, April 2014

'Judge Dredd: The Apocalypse War' (231 pp., IDW, April 2014) is a highly-quality graphic novel from the 'Judge Dredd Classics' imprint, an imprint that compiles past issues of the character's appearances in the early years of 2000 AD comics from the UK.

If you ask any American comic book fan what he or she regards as the best comic book series or storyline in the early 1980s, they most likely will tell you it's the 'Dark Phoenix' saga from The X-Men issues 129 - 138 (January- October 1980). There was much turmoil and angst both in the Marvel editorial offices and in fandom when Dark Phoenix, aka Jean Gray, casually wiped out the entire population of aliens ('asparagus people').

The 'Dark Phoenix' saga was as overwrought and humorless as anything in American comics, before or since.

But over in the UK, in October 1981, a series that was markedly superior, one that can rightfully be called one of the best of the decade, was launched in the pages of the weekly comic book 2000 AD. This was the epic Judge Dredd adventure 'The Apocalypse War'. 

The problem was, no one in the USA besides those few people who followed UK comics had any idea of what was going on within the pages of 2000 AD. There was no internet in those days, no digital comics, and only a smattering of UK books made the transatlantic journey to the racks of the few American comic book shops that stocked British publications. 

This compilation from IDW compiles all the episodes from 'Block Mania' (the prequel to the Apocalypse War) and 'The Apocalypse War'. The original black-and-white comics have been reproduced in a higher resolution, and colored.
Without disclosing too many spoilers - and certainly no major ones, here's a synopsis:

Without warning, there is a drastic rise in inter-block aggression in Mega City One. The slightest insults trigger homicidal assaults from the thousands of residents of one block upon another. The cause is unknown, but as the body count rockets, the resources of the Judges are increasingly inadequate to maintain law and order.

It's up to Judge Dredd to try and discover the cause of Block Mania - before Mega City One becomes a gigantic insane asylum.....

The writing for 'Block Mania' was done by Alan Grant (using the pseudonym T. B. Grover), who does a very good job of seeing that each episode ratchets up the mayhem and anarchy gripping the city, and the helplessness of the Judges to restore any sort of order. These episodes avoid the emoting that would have been heavily applied in an American comic, in favor of healthy doses of violence, mayhem, and black humor that had me laughing out loud at regular intervals.

The artwork, by 2000 AD stalwarts Mike McMahon, Brian Bolland, Ron Smith, and Steve Dillon, is all top-notch and effective (despite the habit of British comics of eschewing sound effects). Given that 2000 AD were printed directly onto cheap newsprint-grade paper, the reproductions in this IDW compilation show how good the original artwork really was:

With issue 245 of 2000 AD (January 1982) the 'Apocalypse War' story proper began.
Alan Grant again handled the scripting duties, along with contributions from John Wagner. 

In the opening chapters of 'Apocalypse', the Russians - represented by the East Meg One megacity - launch a nuke strike on Mega City One. Grant's writing takes a kind of fiendish glee with amping up the nuclear devastation and the concomitant body count, an attitude that- needless to say - would never would have passed an editorial review by Jim Shooter at Marvel comics......

 No sooner has the destruction ended then the Russians deploy their army and endeavor to capture Mega City One and, by extension, most of the eastern seaboard of the USA. It's up to Dredd and a ragtag group of surviving Judges to resist the onslaught.

In these later episodes, Grant's scripting adopts a gleeful mingling of satiric, laugh-out-loud humor and violent action. 

Not only is there an outbreak of 'Apocalypse Fever'.....

......but Judge Dredd's lisping robot Walter, and Dredd's landlord Maria (who talks in Italian-accented English), get in on the action, too.........

And Dredd has no qualms about dealing roughly with Mega City One citizens who side with the Commies.......can you imagine any American comic book hero in the early 80s displaying this kind of ruthlessness ? The Punisher was still several years in the future....

The concluding chapters of 'The Apocalypse War' get genuinely suspenseful as Dredd leads a 'suicide squad' of Judges in a desperate attempt to retaliate against the Russians...

The depictions of a nuclear strike, a nuclear winter, and combat amid the ruins of Mega City One all were patently 'transgressive' by the standards of American comics and American Pop Culture in the early 80s. This was, after all, the era of increasing alarm over the Cold War. 

A book about the effects of a nuclear war, 'The Fate of the Earth', was a New York Times bestseller in 1982 and the subject of considerable angst in highbrow circles....

And also in 1982, the Fixx were on MTV singing their single 'Red Skies at Night'.....

By turning WW3 into an over-the-top action fest rather than a sober exposition on The Fate of the Earth, Alan Grant and the 2000 AD crew pretty much thumb their noses at these pop culture expressions of angst. They certainly didn't subscribe to the 'shared humanity' ethos that dominated the pop culture's treatment of a future conflict with the Soviets; Grant depicts the Russian leaders as homicidal psychopaths devoid of morals:

Summing up, whether you're a fan of Judge Dredd, UK comics of the 80s, or someone who simply likes a good read, Judge Dredd: The Apocalypse War is well worth picking up.