Sunday, December 30, 2018

Book Review: Mute

Book Review: 'Mute' by Piers Anthony

0 / 5 Stars

Prior to 1979, humorous, or comedic, sf was a sub-genre of sf; its most prominent representatives were Robert Sheckley and Ron Goulart. Whether or not you considered either writer particularly effective, the fact remained that neither was successful in bringing their work to the attention of the larger pop culture landscape. It was safe to say that a small readership treasured the sub-genre, and things were not likely to change.

But of course, in 1979 the status of humorous sf did indeed change - drastically - with the publication of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by the British author Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001). Adapted from a radio serial Adams had presented on the BBC in 1978, the novel was a major hit in the UK, and in 1980 a hardcover version was released in the US by Harmony Books and became a bestseller as well. By the time a mass market paperback version was published in 1981, Hitchhiker had become a pop culture phenomenon, with many book purchasers consisting of people who were not sf fans.

Needless to say, mainstream sf writers in the US were very aware of the tremendous success of the Hitchhiker phenomenon. Unsurprisingly, more than a few of these mainstream writers quickly moved to take advantage of the interest in humorous sf. One of the most successful was Terry Pratchett, whose 1983 novel The Colour of Magic kicked off the remarkably successful ‘Discworld’ series.

[ I freely admit to 
having never read any of the above novels, or of being all that fond of the genre of comedic sf. ] 

UK writer Piers Anthony (the pen name of author Piers Anthony Jacob) wasn’t slow to get on the humorous sf bandwagon, issuing ‘Mute’ (440 pp) in April 1981 as an Avon mass market paperback. The cover art is by Ron Walotsky.

‘Mute’ is set in far future, and features as its lead character a misshapen mutant named Knot; he is gifted with the ability to subconsciously convince people to forget ever encountering him (this gives author Anthony the opportunity to insert smarmy in-jokes about attractive female muties being seduced by Knot in a 'deja vu all over again' sort of way). 

As the novel opens, Knot is a job placement officer on the mutie planet Nelson; there, he is visited by the beautiful Finesse, an agent working for the Galactic Empire. Finesse is accompanied by Hermine, a weasel who can communicate telepathically; and Mit, a hermit crab that can predict the immediate future.

(Yep………cute, talking animals…….)

After much arguing, Knot agrees to join up with Finesse, Hermine, and Mit to combat a Threat to the Entire Galaxy. The Empire’s Central Computer has determined that only this group of unique beings has much of a chance to set things right. 

Thus begins a picaresque series of whacky adventures that have our team of heroes traveling all over the galaxy and facing all manner of perils…………..

‘Mute’ is an awful novel. It’s so bad I gave up at page 133. I couldn’t take it anymore.

Here’s one example why: early in the book, the team lands on a planet that is a giant chicken coop. Knot makes his way into an area of the coop that houses roosters bred for cockfighting, and accidentally frees them. This gives author Anthony an opportunity to have his character make the following remark:

‘Loose cocks’, Knot said.

This kind of forced, cheeseball humor isn't the book's only drawback. Add in the fact that the majority of the narrative consists of lengthy passages of dialogue in which the characters stand around and say witty things (in between efforts by Knot to get Finesse into bed), and you have a novel that is beyond lame.

Perhaps inevitably given his prodigious output, many of Piers Anthony’s novels were duds, while others (like Var the Stick, which I recently reviewed here) are very engaging. But ‘Mute’ is in definitely one to be avoided.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Black Max Volume One

Black Max
Volume One
Frank Pepper (story) and Alfonso Font (art)
Rebellion, October 2018

'Black Max Volume One' (112 pp) was published in October 2018 by Rebellion (UK). It's part of the 'Treasury of British Comics' imprint which issues graphic novel compilations of black-and-white comics that were serially published in the weekly Boy's Papers and Girl's Papers issued in the UK in the 70s and early 80s. Most of these comics are unknown to American readers and are tone. Who else would devote a comic strip to the adventures of a fox ?!

These Boy's Papers were printed on newsprint, so the resolution of the artwork appearing in them necessarily was less than ideal. It's also clear that the original artwork for these comics has since been lost, and what appears in these graphic novels likely is scanned from well-preserved printed papers.

Which brings us to 'Black Max' Volume One. I first learned about this title from a July, 2017 post at the blog 'Blimey ! The Blog of British Comics'.

In 1971 - perhaps inspired by the success of the DC Comics title Enemy Ace, the UK Boy's Paper 'Thunder' began publishing its own WWI aviator strip.

Written by Frank Pepper and illustrated by Alfonso Font, 'Black Max' was inventive in incorporating a supernatural element into its narrative: a German fighter pilot named Baron Maximilien Von Klorr (aka 'Black Max') commands a team of giant vampire bats (!) in attacks on Allied fighters in the skies over Western Europe. Brave Britisher Tim Wilson emerges as Von Klorr's staunchest opponent, as man, machine, and bat clash in duels to the death.

Pepper's scripts were designed for a readership of adolescent boys, so you're not going to find overly deep narratives here, particularly in light of the fact that the series was released as three-page installments in each weekly issue of Thunder. But that is a good thing, because the emphasis with 'Black Max' is on constant action and cliff-hanger endings designed to entice the reader to look towards the next weekly installment. 

It's also very clear that, even in the early 70s, 'Black Max', with its high body count, was more 'adult' in tone than the US comics of the same era, which had to adhere to the Comics Code.

Indeed, American readers might want to think of 'Black Max' as something that might have appeared in Eerie or Creepy rather than the Marvel / DC lineup.

Spanish artist Alfonso Font is of course a legend among European comics readers, and in the US, where his work for the Warren and Skywald magazines in the 70s was well received. My review of the English translation of his 80s sci-fi comic Prisoner of the Stars (El Prisionero de las Estrellas) is available here.

His black and white work in 'Black Max' is excellent and, in the contemporary era in which so much of comic art is simple line art designed to be readily adaptable to digital coloring schemes, a reminder of what can be done with the skillful use of shading and cross-hatching.

The nice thing about this Rebellion compilation is that at 8 1/2 x 11 inches it retains the formatting of the original strips, and doesn't shrink the dimensions of this trade paperback in order to satisfy the American graphic novel market (i.e., 7 x 10 1/4 inches). 

Too often too many compilations of European comics are shrunk to fit that US convention, and for middle-aged readers like me, whose eyesight is not what it used to be, that can make reading difficult.

Summing up, if you're a Baby Boomer and a fan of those great Silver Age DC war comics and characters like Weird War Tales, Our Army at War  (Sgt. Rock), Enemy Ace, and G.I. Combat (The Haunted Tank) as well as Marvel with its Sgt. Fury comics, then you owe it to yourself to grab a copy of 'Black Max'. And with this compilation subtitled 'Volume One', there is the promise of more Black Max Goodness on the way from Rebellion...............!?

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Pulps by Tony Goodstone

The Pulps
Fifty Years of American Pop Culture
by Tony Goodstone
Chelsea House, 1970

What was to be called the Nostalgia Craze of American pop culture arguably began in 1967, with the release of the movie Bonny and Clyde, which sparked an interest in things of the Depression and the 1930s.

Canada Dry ginger ale advertisement, late 60s

Bantam Books nudged the appreciation for the 30s along a little further by buying the reprint rights to the entire catalog of Street and Smith's 'Doc Savage' character. The release of The Man of Bronze in October 1964, with an arresting cover by James Bama, sparked interest in the old pulp magazines. Three years later Lancer Books acquired the rights to the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard and began introducing this characters to an entirely new generation of readers. 

By the early 70s Berkley Books paperbacks dedicated to reprinting the adventures of 'G-8 and His Battle Aces' were sharing shelf space with the Bantam Don Savage titles. Berkley even copied the distinctive 'wave' styling of the Doc Savage titles for its G-8 books:

The Pulps, Tony Goodstone's overview of the pulp magazines, therefore was riding the growing wave of the Nostalgia Craze upon its publication in 1970. The Pulps was a well-produced hardcover book of 239 pp. The opening chapters provided a brief history of the rise and fall of the pulps, followed by a color section devoted to reprinting the covers of various magazines representing different genres. The bulk of the book was made up of reprints of actual pulp stories, and included examples of science fiction, western, mystery, spicy, and adventure stories.

Goodstone was interested in supplying his readers with a sampling of pulp fiction rather than showcasing the more well-known pulp authors; however, a story by Robert E. Howard did make it into the collection:

The reception given to The Pulps was, as best as I can tell, a reasonably favorable one. In his review of the book in the December 27, 1970 printing of New York Times, William Murray is not effusive in his praise, but because it brings back memories of his younger days, he is disposed to treat it rather more kindly than (for example) someone for whom the pulps did not induce nostalgia. 

He remarks:

Mr. Goodstone, evidently an expert in schlock, has done a pretty fair job of assembling these examples from the world of the pulps, which flourished during the first half of this century and really hit their golden age during the Depression. He has made no attempt to select the best material, but only the most representative and I think he has succeeded admirably. Also, the volume, in choice of paper, type and layout, comes fairly close to re‐creating the original format.

Murray regarded Goodstone's book and the subject of the pulps as the latest manifestations of the popularity of 'Camp'. 

My copy of The Pulps is a first edition, albeit one with some severe water-staining. However, copies in 'Very Good' condition can still can be found for under $20. If you are a fan of pop culture, Americana, and - obviously - pulp fiction, then grabbing a copy of The Pulps if you should see it on the shelf in a used bookstore is recommended.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

'Black Max' from Thunder Annual 1972

Black Max
Frank Pepper (story) and Alfonso Font (art)
from Thunder Annual 1972
reprinted in Black Max Volume One
Rebellion, October 2018

I'll have a review of Rebellion's compilation of 'Black Max' strips from the British Boy's papers 'Thunder' and 'Lion' from the early 70s posted here shortly.

However, I'd like to post a story from that compilation that originally appeared in the 'Thunder' 1972 annual. 

'Black Max' took place on the Western Front of World War One, and pitted the German mastermind Maximilien Von Klorr, aka 'Black Max', and his giant vampire bats (!) against the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps. 

The scans appearing in the Rebellion compilation apparently were made from published pages rather than the original artwork, but even so you can see the high caliber of the artwork by the Spanish great Alfonso Font.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

'One Fine Morning' by Brad Johannsen

'One Fine Morning'
Album cover art by Brad Johannsen
For the album by 'Lighthouse'

Brad Johannsen (who apparently passed away in 2011) is best known for Occupied Spaces, his 1977 art book that was a must-read for 70s stoners and Heavy Metal magazine readers.

Early in his career Johannsen did some cover art for record albums, and one of his commissions was for the 1971 album 'One Fine Morning' by the Canadian band Lighthouse. 

The eponymous single from the album can be listened to here. The band is still active and their website can be found here.

My scans of the covers were made at 600 dpi so the files may take a while to open. I think that despite the age and wear and tear on the cover, it's very easy to get an appreciation of the pop art / psychedelic art sensibilities that Johannsen brought to the task.

Johannsen also did the cover art for the Lighthouse album 'Thoughts of Movin' On', also released in 1971.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Book Review: The Palace of Eternity

Book Review" 'The Palace of Eternity' by Bob Shaw

3 / 5 Stars

‘The Palace of Eternity’ (222 pp) was published by Ace Books in 1969. The cover art is by Leo and Diane Dillon.

The novel is set in the far future, one in which Mankind is locked in an interstellar war with an alien race known as the Pythsyccans.

Mack Tavernor, the lead character, is your typical square-jawed, self-reliant, emotionally reserved Man of Action. Having witnessed his parents killed by the Pythsyccans on a planetary raid, Tavernor grew up with an abiding hatred for the aliens. Once he reached adulthood, he became a soldier decorated for his combat forays against the Pythsyccans.

Now retired, Tavernor has found a measure of peace and fulfillment as a resident of the planet of Mnemosyne, known as ‘Poet’s World’ for its particular attraction to artists, many of whom migrate from all regions of known space to live there.

As ‘Palace’ opens, Tavernor’s comfortable existence undergoes upheaval, as word comes that the Federation military is establishing its control over Mnemosyne. Rebelling against the quasi-fascistic strictures imposed by the military soon gets Tavernor labeled as a danger to the war effort. Once a hero, Mack Tavernor now finds himself hunted by the same military he fought for………..even as the threat posed by the Pythsyccans reaches a critical stage……….

Upon finishing ‘Palace’, I found myself with mixed feelings. Making allowances for the fact that the book was written in the New Wave era, the frequent passages early in the narrative that digress into philosophical matters, aided and abetted by flowery language, were negotiable, as the narrative as a whole is an action / adventure narrative – at least for the first two-thirds of the novel.

The last third of ‘Palace’ is where the narrative became more than a little overambitious. I won’t disclose any spoilers, although I will say that author Shaw abruptly shifts the plot from its conventional trappings in order to introduce deep, ‘cosmic’ issues. This metaphysical interlude is followed – somewhat improbably - by the resumption of the narrative dealing with the conflict between humans and Pythsyccans.

Summing up, the first part of ‘Palace’ stands as an engaging treatment of the traditional ‘humans Vs aliens’ theme to sci-fi. However, I suspect that the introduction of the book’s ‘cosmic’ segments likely won’t seem as novel or imaginative to modern readers as they did back in 1968, and the book’s closing chapters have a contrived quality that modern readers also may not find very convincing. Accordingly, I gave ‘The Palace of Eternity’ a rating of 3 / 5 Stars.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Rattle of Bones

Rattle of Bones
by Roy Thomas (story) and Howard Chaykin (art)
from Savage Sword of Conan, Marvel / Curtis, issue No. 18, April 1977

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Joyeux Noel by Jean Sole

Joyeux Noel
by Jean Sole
Heavy Metal magazine, December 1977

If any single cover from the early years of Heavy Metal could be said to display the quintessence of that magazine, then it surely has to be the cover of a 'biker' Santa Claus from the December, 1977 issue.

Sole's art was originally used on the December 1976 issue (number 12) of Metal Hurlant. An argument could be made that the background colors and layout of the Metal Hurlant cover are superior to that of the Heavy Metal version.

According to the Lambiek Comic Encyclopedia and his Wikipedia page, Jean Sole (b. 1948) began contributing art to the French magazine Pilote in 1971. Sole went on to become a major contributor to the comic magazine Fluide Glacial ('icy fluid') while also carrying out commissions for movie posters and theatre sets. A 2015 interview (in French) with Sole is available here.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Book Review: Var the Stick

Book Review: 'Var the Stick' by Piers Anthony

4 / 5 Stars

The three volumes comprising Piers Anthony's 'Battle Circle' had a rather haphazard release in the U.S. Sos the Rope (1968) was released in paperback by Pyramid Books, while Var the Stick (1972) was released by Bantam Books. Neq the Sword (1975) didn't even get a U.S. release, being bundled with the other two titles in the omnibus paperback Battle Circle published by Avon Books in 1978.  

The Bantam Books edition (172 pp) of Var the Stick was released in December 1983 and features a striking cover by Michael Hooks.

It's difficult to give a synopsis of the book without disclosing spoilers related to the content of the previous volume in the series, so my remarks necessarily are superficial.

'Var' is set in the same post-apocalytic North America as Sos the Rope, and features Sos himself, as well as other characters from that novel. As 'Var' opens, Sos investigates the pilfering of crops and discovers the culprit is an orphaned, misshapen boy who lives in the Badlands. After a series of adventures Sos befriends the boy, who is named Var, and trains him in the use of sticks as preferred weapons for ritualized combat within the 'Battle Circle' that governs the pecking order among the nomad tribes.

Var proves himself adept at combat in the Circle, and is chosen by Sos to conduct reconnaissance of the mountain redoubt of the so-called 'crazies', for Sos has a grudge against the mountain and its inhabitants. 

From Var's reconnaissance comes a series of events that will send him into flight across continents, facing myriad dangers from hostile tribes, the environmental hazards of the wastelands, and the unfathomable technologies left over from the ancient days of the Blast.........

'Var the Stick', like the other volumes in the 'Battle Circle' trilogy, is a short and engaging read, something that cannot be said of Anthony's other novels from the late 60s and early 70s. Whether this is due to a stance by Anthony that 'Var' was a simplistic action novel designed for quick production, as opposed to the more involved content of his 'regular' novels, is unclear. I will say that for 'Var' the plot relies on regular twists and turns to sustain momentum, and while there are some rather improbable hairsbreadth rescues, on the whole the narrative retains a sense of fun in its depiction of a post-WWIII world. 

[ Some segments of the novel may raise eyebrows among readers who are not overly acquainted with the more permissive and politically incorrect attitudes of 70s sci-fi........ ]

Summing up, if you have not yet read any of the Battle Circle titles, getting this volume, or the omnibus edition from Avon Books, is worth your while.