Sunday, March 31, 2019

Book Review: James Warren: Empire of Monsters

Book Review: 'James Warren: Empire of Monsters' by Bill Schelly


5 / 5 Stars

'James Warren: Empire of Monsters' (352 pp) was published by Fantagraphics Books in March, 2019. It contains lots of black-and-white photographs, and an eight-page, full-color insert of the covers of various Warren magazines.

Born the only child into a Russian-Jewish family in Philadelphia in 1930, James Warren Taubman grew up with an ambition to make a name for himself. And despite some early setbacks, he indeed did make a name for himself, as the founder and publisher of an empire of magazines that just about every Baby Boomer holds near and dear to his (and her) hearts.

(As of early 2019, Warren had retired from the publishing business, and was rumored to be working on an autobiography.)

‘James Warren, Empire of Monsters: The Man Behind Creepy, Vampirella, And Famous Monsters’ is not only a very readable biography of the founder of those magazines near and dear to the hearts of all Baby Boomers, but also an informative account of the magazine publishing business in the postwar era.

Author Bill Schelly provides plenty of anecdotes and interviews that help illustrate the world that Warren worked in, where a hard-edged business sense was necessary for survival due to the nature of magazine sales and distribution in the era when the Mob controlled the industry, and only the major publishers, like ‘Time’ and ‘Life’, could afford to send out auditors to collect accurate statistics on sales and returns.


The book is not a hagiography; Schelly presents both good and bad opinions of Warren. To some he was a generous man who mentored their careers and aspirations, while to others, he was a devious and unscrupulous individual. Whether the truth lies in between these two points of view is for the reader to decide.

Schelly is particularly good at detailing the last days of Warren Communications, Inc. in 1982, when Warren mysteriously removed himself from the day-to-day operations of his company and the staff struggled with the ensuing nightmare of declining sales, declining revenue, and angry phone calls from unpaid artists and writers. Schelly's account of the auctioning of a warehouse full of Warren content is a sad and depressing coda to the collapse of Warren's empire.

[One thing I recommend is to peruse the Endnotes, where Schelly provides further little insights that will bring some surprises even to dedicated Warren fans.......for example, I had no idea that Ben DuBay, the nephew of since-deceased Warren editor Bill Dubay, is suing Stephen King...........?! ]

The verdict ? If you're a fan of Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella, and Famous Monsters of Filmland, then you will want to have this book in your library. Even those who are not Warren fans, but retain and interest in magazine publishing and the history of postwar American pop culture, will find the book engrossing. 

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Visions by Walter Hopps

Visions
Introduction by Walter Hopps
Pomegranate, 1977


Along with Eschatus by Bruce Pennington, and Beauty and the Beast by Chris Achilleos, another must-have book in the library of every 70s stoner was Visions, from 'hippie' art publisher Pomegranate (96 pp., 1977).
Visions profiled the works of seven artists: Sheila Rose, Bill Martin, Cliff McReynolds, Gage Taylor, Thomas Akawie, Nick Hyde, and Joseph Parker, who together comprised what has been referred to as the 'California Visionary' school of art. 

Some of these artists were active in the poster movement that took place in San Francisco in the late 60s, and flourished in the 70s: for example, McReynold's 1975 painting The Arrival was one of the 'trippy' posters advertised in the pages of Heavy Metal magazine. Others, like Gage Taylor, not only embraced poster art by exhibited in galleries devoted to 'visionary' or 'New Age' art.


Detail from 'The Arrival' by Cliff McReynolds, 1975


Walter Hopps was the curator of 20th-Century American Art at the Smithsonian's National Collection of Fine Arts from 1972 to 1979. His Introduction in Visions is a textbook example of the pretentious prose style that was a standard feature of any 1970s art, music, and film critic:

Akawie is further removed from a Pharaonic orthodoxy by his incongruous, ecumenical inclusion of sinuous Art Noveau decorative motifs within the frame of his historically derived design, recollected from his youth among the movie palaces and exotic architecture of Hollywood. In general, Akawie's affinity with Egypt is more vibrational than archaeological, and he explores this esoteric symbolism as vocabulary, rather than as personal belief.


Turning from Hopp's verbiage to the artworks on display in the pages of Visions, it's immediately clear that (with the exception of Sheila Rose, whose paintings seem bland and simplistic when compared to the other artists) its profilees are meticulous craftsmen, dedicated to cramming their pieces with detailed renditions of every aspect of their hallucinatory landscapes.

Unfortunately, the rather small dimensions of Visions (10.7 x 8.3 inches) means that my scans of the printed artwork really can't adequately communicate these intricate details. 


In a perfect world, the artists profiled in Visions would have received considerable more notice and fame than they otherwise earned. That, however, doesn't detract from the trippy, hallucinatory, surrealistic excellence of the work presented in the book. 

If you are a devotee of this type of art, then a copy of Visions - which can be had from your usual online used book vendors for affordable prices - very much deserves to be in your library.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Nuclear Disaster Novels: A Compilation

Nuclear Disaster Novels
A PorPor Books Blog Compilation




With the 40th anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident just a few days away, I thought I would showcase novels written about nuclear disasters.

I haven't read all of these novels, but for those I have read, the links to my reviews are here:

Epicenter

Nerves

The Orange R

In the Drift

The Prometheus Crisis


( 'Nerves' is the worst of the bunch; I'd give it a wide berth)

Friday, March 22, 2019

Book Review: Elleander Morning

Book Review: 'Elleander Morning' by Jerry Yulsman


3 / 5 Stars

I remember joining the Science Fiction Book Club in 1985 and choosing this as one of my selections, mainly on the basis of its being advertised as an alternate history novel. 

So how does it stack up when re-read more than 30 years later ? 

'Elleander Morning' (278 pp) was published in 1984 by St Martin's / Marek. As far as I know, it was never released in paperback. It apparently also was author Yulsman's first and only novel.

The book is set in 1983, only it's not 'our' 1983. It's a world in which the Second World War never happened; Soviet Russia was defeated by a multinational coalition in 1953; and the Germans were the first to detonate an atomic bomb (in Antarctica, in 1980).

A young American woman named Lesley Morning learns that her father - from whom she had been estranged - has died, and travels to London to handle his estate. There she is given a curious set of books that belonged to her grandmother, a woman named Elleander Morning.

One of the books is a privately-printed pornographic memoir of a Victorian gentleman. The other is the two-volume Time-Life History of the Second World War, copyrighted 1970.

Perusing the pages of the History of the Second World War leaves Lesley Morning stunned and horrified. Is the book a hoax ? If so, it's one of the most elaborate hoaxes ever perpetrated. 

As Lesley Morning sets out to discover the truth behind a war that never took place, the impact of the books sets in motion events that will come to threaten the security and safety of the entire world.............. 

'Elleander Morning' is a very readable book, with most of the chapters - which alternate between two different timelines - short and straightforward. The plot unfolds without much in the way of contrivances.

However, as a 'science fiction' book, it's something of a middling effort. The means by which an alternate timeline comes to place owes less to a scientific explanation, and more to the rather gimmicky mechanisms that are found in the time travel novels of Jack Finney. 

As well, author Yulsman seems to have been more intent on making 'Elleander Morning' a romance novel with sci-fi trappings, rather than a sci-fi novel with a romantic theme. In this regard it can be argued that 'Elleander Morning' paved the way for the supernatural and fantasy romance genres that are so prominent nowadays.

Summing up, if you like a sci-fi novel with a heavier than normal melodramatic content, then you may like 'Elleander Morning'.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Kiss Love Gun

Love Gun
Kiss
1977
cover art by Ken Kelly

Monday, March 18, 2019

Meltdown: A Race Against Disaster at Three Mile Island

Meltdown
A Race Against Nuclear Disaster at Three Mile Island
by Wilborn Hampton
Candlewick Press, 2001


It's been 40 years since the accident - some may call it a near-disaster -  at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania, which began in the early hours of March 28, 1979.

My reminiscences of the accident were posted back in March of 2009, where I also posted reviews of fiction, such as Michael Swanwick's In the Drift, dealing with nuke plant disasters.

For the 40th anniversary, I decided to read an account of the accident by Wilborn Hampton (b. 1940), who was a UPI reporter in 1979. Although Hampton was a foreign affairs reporter, and did not normally cover domestic events or science and technology, he was dispatched to Three Mile Island on March 30 to assist another UPI reporter with what was turning out to be a major story.


Metropolitan Edison's Three Mile Island nuclear power plant at the time of the accident. Literally located on an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River, the plant's reactor containment buildings are the two cylindrical structures in the middle of the photo. The cooling towers are the large white structures located on the left- and right- hand sides of the photo.

'Meltdown' is not a technical history of the accident, but a personal reminiscence of reporting on the event 'as it happened'. The book is an illustrated narrative, providing black and white photographs and diagrams in accompaniment to the author's spare, declarative text. 


A couple of worthwhile observations emerge from the pages of 'Meltdown'. One is that the plant operators could not 'see' what was taking place in reactor No. 2 in the sense of walking into the building and peering through a reinforced glass panel at the reactor core. In reality the core was a featureless stainless steel container lodged inside the containment building. 

The only thing the TMI plant personnel 'knew' about the condition of the reactor was what they saw on the gauges and multicolored light panels inside their control room. In fact, when an instrument in the containment building showed that the temperature within the core had reached 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (as Michael Swanwick noted, hotter than the surface of Venus) the Metropolitan Edison staff refused to believe it - they thought the reading was due to a malfunction of the instrument. It's an indication of the confusion that governed the the handling of the accident.



Another observation is that there was continual uncertainty about how bad things would get. Some experts warned that it would be only hours before the hydrogen bubble (estimated to be 1,000 cubic feet in size) within the core would trigger an explosion that would render much of Pennsylvania uninhabitable for centuries. 

Others insisted there were days within which to try and eliminate the bubble by running water into the core and venting built-up gas into the atmosphere. Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh was forced to consider both points of view before declining to order an evacuation of the 200,000 people living in the vicinity of TMI.


Another observation deals with how the press covered major stories back in '79. Hampton writes about lugging his portable typewriter around with him; back in those days there were no laptops. There was also no internet, so people were reliant on the press and government statements to learn what was going on. 

And of course, while coverage of disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes and terror bombings can include photographs and video of the carnage and its aftermath, there was no real 'visual' sense of what was taking place at TMI. The best the media could do was present rather bland footage of the exterior of the plant, and press conferences held by various state and federal officials (including President Jimmy Carter). 



Hampton's final chapter covers the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and discusses the issues associated with nuclear power, all of which remain relevant today: Exelon, the current operators of TMI, plans to shut down reactor No. 1 this year, but there are calls from some Pennsylvania officials to continue operating the reactor as a preferred source of clean energy in an era of global warming

Summing up, 'Meltdown' stands the test of time as a readable overview of the accident, an overview designed to be informative to a nontechnical audience. I can't say that Baby Boomers will find the book nostalgic in the regular sense of the word, but it will bring you back to a specific time and place, particularly if you lived in the Northeast back in the Spring of '79.


Friday, March 15, 2019

Quando, Quando, Quando by Engelbert Humperdinck

Engelbert Humperdinck
'Quando, Quando, Quando (Tell Me When)'
The Hollywood Palace, 1969


No artist looks comfortable lip-synching, but Engelbert Humperdinck (the stage name of the Anglo-Indian singer Arnold Dorsey, b. 1936) does pretty well in this segment of the ABC variety show The Hollywood Palace from October, 25, 1969. 

It helps that 'Quando Quando Quando' is a great song (it's an Italian pop song first recorded in 1962, and one of the best-selling singles of all time).

[Believe it or not, another artist appearing on that same show was British skiffle star Lonnie Donnegan, who sang 'Keep on the Sunny Side' ?! ]


The choreographed gyrations and booty-shakings of the accompanying dancing girls make it clear that the on-stage antics that are standard for many pop singers today are nothing new, after all..........

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Zenobia

Zenobia
written by Bhob Steward, art by Shawn McManus, colors by John Coffey
from Zona 84 1985 Annual


'Zenobia' first appeared in the June, 1983 issue of Heavy Metal. It was reprinted in Zona 84, the Spanish counterpart to Heavy Metal.

John Coffey's brilliant candy-based color scheme works perfectly with Bhob's script, and its sinister final twist.





Monday, March 11, 2019

Book Review: The Empire of Fear

Book Review: 'The Empire of Fear' by Brian Stableford

4 / 5 Stars

Before there was Kim Newman and Anno Dracula, Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan and The Strain, and Justin Cronin and The Passage, there was The Empire of Fear.

First published in hardback in 1988, this Ballantine Books paperback edition (470 pp) was released in October 1993. The cover artist is uncredited.

'Empire' is set in the 17th century, in a world where Attila the Hun was transformed into a vampire, and then, in turn, converted selected kings and princes into vampirism. The result is that the ruling heads of Europe and Asia are not only centuries old, but surrounded by courtiers and flatterers who hope to trade their servility for the rarely bestowed gift of long life (if not immortality itself).

The vampires of Stableford's novel are not the world-destroying, blood-ravenous creatures of the Del Toro and Cronin novels, but rather, fashionably bored aristocrats who need only take small sips of blood from their human victims.

However, these vampire kings and princes are ever-ready to use sadistic violence to maintain their grip on the human cattle they rule. Aided by bands of vampire knights (whose resistance to pain, and ability to quickly heal from even grievous wounds, makes them formidable troops in combat) the vampires won't hesitate to imprison, torture, and execute any humans who seek to upend the social order.

As the novel opens the young English scientist Noell Cordery has dedicated himself to the overthrow of King Richard the Lion-Heart and his court. Secreted in a monastery in Wales, Cordery researches what little data is available on the condition of vampirism in the hope that he may learn the closely held secret of how new vampires are made, a secret that he hopes to use to the disadvantage of the vampires.

But Cordery will not be left undisturbed to consult his books and parchments. A new era of independent thought and action is gradually coming to the human population of Europe, and with it, a growing threat to the stability of vampire rule. 

A hazardous journey into the unexplored interior of Africa will bring Noell Cordery to the truth underlying the myths and legends of vampirism.........but will he survive long enough to be able to use that knowledge to free Europe from the rule of the vampires ? 

I remember reading 'Empire' when it first came out and concluding it was a solid four-star novel. Upon re-reading it, I reach the same conclusion.

Not so much a horror novel as an alternate history novel, 'Empire' relies on actual historical events to underpin the narrative. The logic governing vampirism that Stableford introduces in the latter pages of the book is novel, but believable, as is Stableford's decision to render the vampires of his book more a class of mutants than the supernatural creatures of traditional vampire lore.

Where 'Empire' loses a chance for a five-star rating is in its static quality. Passages of action are few and far between in its pages; Stableford regularly uses lengthy passages of dialogue and internal monologues to discourse on metaphysical and philosophical questions, through which the main theme of the novel is overlaid: namely, the rise of Humanism and scientific inquiry as the alternatives to the superstition and feudalism that have aided and abetted the rule of the vampires, and crippled man's ability to rise against his oppressors.

If you are in the mood for a long and contemplative novel that offers a 'scientific' take on the legend of vampirism then you're likely to enjoy The Empire of Fear. However, those looking more for the blood-and-staking excitement of a novel like John Steakly's VampireS probably will not find 'Empire' all that rewarding.    

Friday, March 8, 2019

Heavy Metal preview 1977

Heavy Metal Preview
from National Lampoon
March 1977

Here's a blast from the Pop Culture past: in its March, 1977 issue National Lampoon offered a nine-page preview / advertisement for the very first issue of Heavy Metal magazine, appearing on stands that same month.

The preview includes copies of September 1976 correspondence between Leonard Mogel, President of the National Lampoon; Matty Simmons, the Lampoon's Chairman; and Editor Sean Kelly, revealing their decision to produce an American version of Metal Hurlant

Because, as Kelly states in his letter, 'the people who like the NatLamp would love Heavy Metal '.

Here's where it all started, back in 1977. Toss aside those Marvel comics and Warren magazines and fire up a joint: something New is coming...............!












Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Buckaroo Banzai part two

Buckaroo Banzai
Official Comics Adaptation
Bill Matlo (writer) and Mark Texeira and Armando Gil (art)
Part Two
Marvel Super Special No. 33, 1984