Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Book Review: Swords Against Darkness

Book Review: 'Swords Against Darkness' edited by Andrew J. Offutt
3 / 5 Stars

'Swords Against Darkness' (288 pp) was published by Zebra Books in February, 1977. It was the first of what would eventually be 5 'Swords Against Darkness' volumes. The dramatic cover art is by Frank Frazetta.

Andrew J. Offutt (1934 - 2014) was of course a one-man publishing factory in the 70s; his main occupation was in churning out as many as 10 sleaze paperbacks per year, a practice he curtailed only in the mid-80s, when the genre began to die out. But he did give considerable effort to editing and writing sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks throughout the 70s, particularly for lower-budget publisher Zebra Books.

'Swords Against Darkness' was an anthology of tales emphasizing the sword-and-sorcery genre. Most of the contributors were fairly new to fiction writing, which means that readers should be prepared for a dose of sometimes Purple prose...........

My capsule summaries of the contents:

Nekht Semerkeht, by Robert E. Howard and Andrew J. Offutt: even by 1977 'unpublished' or half-completed manuscripts by Robert E. Howard still were being 'discovered' by literary agent Glenn Lord. Offutt himself finished off this one, which is about a Spanish conquistador who finds a lost city, albeit one ruled by a powerful sorcerer.

The Tale of Hauk, by Poul Anderson: Norse lore and myth combine in this story set in medieval Norway. Anderson was the most accomplished of the writers in this anthology, and 'Hauk' is the standout contribution.

The Smile of Oisia, by Geo W. Proctor: Proctor's hero 'Nalcon' joins forces with a red-haired witch to retrieve a fabled mask of power. This is an early story from Proctor and its prose can be a struggle to get through, although it does have a satisfying denouement. 

Pride of the Fleet, by Bruce Jones: melding humor with sci-fi, author Jones takes aim at the concept of 'cosplay' (although in 1977 the term really didn't exist). 

Straggler from Atlantis, by Manly Wade Wellman: Kardios, swordsman and adventurer from the sunken city of Atlantis, comes to the aid of a race of giants endangered by a unique type of monster. One of the better stories in the anthology.

The Ring of Set, by Richard Tierney: this story takes place in Rome during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. Simon the wizard pursues an artifact with the power to plunge all of mankind into chaos and despair. Another of the better entries in the anthology.

Laragut's Bane, by Raul Garcia Capella: a fisherman battles a curse that threatens his daughter. A subdued, well-written tale that seems more in keeping with the fantasy stories Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in the the 70s, than a Conan-style sword and sorcery adventure.

Dragon's Teeth, by David Drake: one of the earliest short stories from author Drake, and one of the earliest of his stories to feature his character Vettius, the Roman legionary. In 'Dragon's Teeth', Vettius confronts a Sarmatian sorcerer. The prose can be stilted at times, but the story is an effective melding of sword and sorcery with a background in 'real' history.

The Sustenance of Hoak, by Ramsey J. Campbell: the very first of the four stories featuring his 'Ryre' the swordsman character, that Campbell wrote in the late 70s. In this tale, Ryre visits a remote jungle village that harbors a sinister secret; the horror content is creepy enough to make 'Hoak' another of the better entries in the anthology.

Summing up, 'Swords Against Darkness' ably represents the sword and sorcery genre as it stood in the late 70s. It was a genre that was still relatively unsophisticated in terms of literary quality, but the signs were there that the genre was undergoing the necessary maturation from its pulp origins into something with a higher level of craftsmanship on the part of its practitioners.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s: 1990 - 1999

American Comic Book Chronicles
The 1990s: 1990 - 1999
by Jason Sacks and Keith Dallas
TooMorrows Publishing, September 2018


My review of the volume for 1965-1969 is here.

My review for the volume for the 1970s is here.

My review for the volume for the 1980s is here.

In the early 1990s, I remember going into Steve Geppi's Comic World in the Woodlawn neighborhood of West Baltimore on a monthly basis. While Comic World was by no means a small store, it was literally overflowing with inventory: racks stuffed full of comic books, sliding piles of comic books stacked up on display tables, cardboard shipping boxes, stuffed with yet more comic books, lying on the floor. At the sales counter, there would be copies of the latest issue of Wizard vying for space with boxes of superhero trading cards.


It was flabbergasting to see just how much Comic Book Product was contained within that one store.

I would come away with the two or three titles that I was interested in, and a single, powerful thought: who the fuck is buying all this crap ???!!!!!!!!


Who was buying five copies of the polybagged issues of X Force #1 so they could get the complete set of the five trading cards sequestered in each issue ? 

Who was buying the special 'Memorial' issue of Superman #75 ('the death of Superman') for $2.50 in order to get not just the comic book, but the exclusive memorial poster, the exclusive mourning armband, the official Daily Planet obituary, and the exclusive Skybox 'Death of Superman' Commemorative trading card ? 

Who was buying all 23 Annuals associated with DC comic's 1993 'Bloodlines' crossover ? 

Who was buying the comics created by Clive Barker for Marvel's 'Razorline' imprint that same year ?

And even after the Crash, who on earth was buying all the issues in the 'Clone Saga' ?!


Well, in the pages of 'American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s' (287 pp, TooMorrows Publishing, September 2018) you will learn how the comic book market underwent an unprecedented expansion in the early 1990s, an expansion fueled in part by speculators who thought that obtaining an issue of Spectacular Spider-Man with a hologrammed cover would, within just a few years of being published, bring them a major return on their investment. 

As authors Jason Sacks and Keith Dallas point out, there were indicators and warnings in the first half of 1993 that the giddy boom in comic book sales that marked the early years of the decade (for example, in the Summer of 1990, Marvel printed 2.35 million copies of Spider-Man #1, a record for the industry) was going to come crashing down. 


And crash it did. As the summer of 1993 turned into fall, the collapse of the trading card market was quickly followed by the collapse of the comic book market. By December, 1993, retailers were struggling to pay their bills, while sitting on thousands of dollars worth of inventory that they would never be able to sell. As Sacks and Dallas point out, in 1994, 40% of the nation's 9,000 comic book retailers went out of business.

While smaller publishers like Eclipse couldn't survive the crash, Marvel comics did, even though in 1995 it angered retailers by forcing them to acquire all Marvel titles through one distributor, Hero's World. But Marvel could only stave off disaster for so long; in December 1996, it filed for bankruptcy.


Throughout the pages of 'American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s' Sacks and Dallas ably document the travails and triumphs of the comic book industry. Their history of the era is made all the more readable by the inclusion of all sorts of insider anecdotes; for example, publisher Fantagraphics survived the crash via strong sales of its porno comics line, Eros Comics. But by 1998, internet porn had so supplanted the market for porno comics that Fantagraphics found itself in economic straits.....


As with the other volumes in this series, as you go through the pages of 'American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s' you're going to find yourself noting all sorts of titles that you had never been aware of, and wondering, now, if they are worth investigating. 


The book does have some weaknesses (in my opinion). Rather too much attention is paid to the Indie Comics movement and its lead artists / writers (do we really need to know about Too Much Coffee Man or Stuck Rubber Baby ?). Yet, even as coverage is given to the more obscure Indie publishers, Caliber Comics, one of the major Indie publishers of the decade, gets very little mention.


On the whole, however, 'American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s' does a good job as an overview of the most tumultuous decade in American comic book history. While it's an expensive book, you can find used (and even new) copies for under $30 at your usual online retailers. 

I recommend buying it sooner rather than later, as once the current inventory is gone, the speculators will be advertising their copies on amazon for several hundred dollars each..........

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Warlords

Warlords
by Steve Skeates (story) and David Wenzel (art)
DC Comics, Graphic Novel No. 2, 1983

Strange as it may seem, this DC Comics graphic novel was based on an eponymous 1980 Atari video game.



Trying to visualize an 8-bit video game for the purposes of a tie-in graphic novel called for quite a bit of imagination, but writer Steve Skeates was up to the task.



While Skeates's plot stays true to the game's theme of four warlords competing for control, he uses as a lead character a troll named Dwayne:



Dwayne is not your usual fantasy hero; he's more than a little shady and conniving. Skills which come in handy when trying to play each of the four Warlords off against each other.



I won't disclose much more about the plot, save to say that it relies as much on humor and satire as it does on sword and sorcery action. It's surprisingly readable for a 64-page graphic novel based on a video game.



'Warlords' benefits quite a bit from David Wenzel's great art. It's hand-painted, or course, and holds up very well when compared with the computer-generating coloring used in today's comics. Wenzel is particularly skilled in drawing facial expressions:



Summing up, 'Warlords' is one of the better entries in the graphic novel boom of the early 80s. With used copies in good condition available for under $10, it just might be worth searching out if you are a fan of the comics of that time period. 



Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Grizzly Adams Gentle Man of the Wilderness

Grizzly Adams
Gentle Man of the Wilderness
promotional photo, 1970s


Sunday, April 21, 2019

Book Review: Blowfly

Book Review: 'Blowfly' by David Loman
3 / 5 Stars

‘Blowfly’ (184 pp) was published in 1984 by Star Books (UK). The artist who provided the cover art, among the most striking produced in the era of the 'Paperbacks from Hell', is, unfortunately, uncredited.

As the novel opens, it’s summer, and a heat wave lies upon the pastoral village of Widecombe in Devon, England. Farmer Roy Lambert has noticed that the heat has triggered an increase in the population of a decidedly unpleasant type of blowfly. Unlike the ‘normal’ flies he is accustomed to, these newcomers are larger, and much more aggressive in laying their eggs on the bodies of dead or dying animals.

For young entomologist Ian Wilde, now working for the Ministry of Agriculture and touring the farms of the Devon area, the blowflies call to mind the species he had encountered while working in the tropics for the World Health Organization. Wilde is puzzled that such flies should be found in the English countryside. But his puzzlement soon turns to alarm as reports come in of the blowflies swarming people. Although the flies are unable to bite, Wilde is stunned to learn that the flies deposit their eggs onto their reluctant hosts, leading to infestation of the skin with writhing maggots…………

With frightening rapidity the bucolic landscape of Widecombe turns into a danger zone as the parasitic flies grow in number and boldness. Emergency measures are undertaken to coat the village with insecticides. But as Ian Wilde is to discover, the flies are by no means content to seek their victims only in the Devon area………

I finished ‘Blowfly’ thinking that it’s a competent, if not particularly imaginative, ‘bugs on the loose’ horror novel. Its premise is a bit more believable than those of the novels by Richard Lewis (The Black Horde aka Devil’s Coach-Horse, Spiders) with similar themes. 


Like those novels, the plot of 'Blowfly', which takes its time developing, is given spurts of momentum via the use of vignettes of grue and gore, in this case through circumstances in which hapless victims find themselves under attack by swarms of the repulsive flies. 

Author Loman doesn’t pass up the opportunity to revel in descriptions of swellings and boils being sliced upon to discharge squirming, hungry maggots, so the novel certainly satisfies in that regard.

The verdict ? ‘Blowfly’ is one of the better novels in its sub-genre; if that appeals to you, then getting a copy could be worth your while.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Junior: Mama Used to Say

Junior
'Mama Used to Say'
May 1982

'Junior' was the stage name of the English R & B singer Norman Washington Giscombe (b. 1957). 'Mama Used to Say' was a single off his 1982 debut album, Ji

The accompanying video was very low-budget and required Junior to dance and gesture against a static backdrop, but his dancing skills were as much up to the task as anyone could've hope for.

Released in the UK, the single went to No. 7 on the charts, and when released in the US, it went to No. 30 in the Billboard Hot 100 on April 24 1982.


Ooh
Yeah, girl
Said a small boy once asked, When will I grow up
When will I see what grownups do see
In his fight to come of age, he would have to know the age
To be recognized is when I'm not unmasked
And mama used to say, Take your time, young man
Mama used to say, Don't you rush to get old
Mama used to say, Take it in your stride
Mama used to say, Live your life
As the years went rushin' by he would cut down on his age
He would tell his girl of how it used to be
How his mommy passed away, but these lines she would say
And at the time he couldn't understand
Mama used to say, Take your time, young man
Mama used to say, Don't you rush to get old
Mama used to say, Take it in your stride
Mama used to say, Live your life
You're young,

Monday, April 15, 2019

Album Cover Album

Album Cover Album
edited by Storm Thorgerson
and Roger Dean
Paper Tiger / Dragon's World
1977


After the success of his 1975 book Views, which was published by Dragon's Dream (a UK company he founded with his brother Martyn), artist Roger Dean teamed up with Hubert Schaafsma to create Paper Tiger, another imprint devoted to publishing fantasy and science fiction artwork.


In 1977 Paper Tiger released Album Cover Album (160 pp), a collection of cover art for 33 1/3 rpm records - better known today as 'vinyl' albums. 


The book was an instant hit, and few indeed were those 70s people who didn't have this book in their library. It was perfectly made for perusing while stoned, and listening to your favorite records. It wasn't at all unusual to see Album Cover Album lying beside the latest issue of Heavy Metal, High Times, Penthouse, or other books, like Eschatus by Bruce Pennington and Mythopoeikon by Patrick Woodroffe.


Eventually five volumes of Album Cover Album were published, the fifth in 1989, after which the switch from vinyl to CD in the early 90s doomed the enterprise of album cover artwork.


At 12 x 12 inches, the book is too big to accommodate on my scanner so I had to rely on taking pictures of the contents, which are roughly chronological in order, as well as grouped by genre / theme.


The format is varied, with some albums getting the full-page treatment, others two to a page, and still others, four or nine to a page. The quality of the photographs used in the book is quite high, something that likely isn't very clear in my own pictures.


Modern-day readers of Album Cover Album probably should keep in mind that many of the albums with the most striking and captivating artwork likely had the worst music. That's how things operated back then: there was no such thing as mp3s or iTunes or streaming to let the listener know just how good - or how bad - the tracks were. In the Vinyl Era, the attractiveness of the album cover had a lot to do with the saleability of the album.


And there are some amazing album covers in this compilation. Looking through the pages of Album Cover Album is to get an education on the excellence of commercial art in the Vinyl Era, a time of creativity and craftsmanship that, sadly, has receded into the realm of nostalgia as the Digital Music Era cements its hold on the marketing and distribution of music.


Summing up, with used copies in good condition, it's well worth your while to seek out Album Cover Album, and maybe its followup volumes, too. It's a great book to leaf through, and a great compendium of commercial art - as it was back in the days when there was no Photo Shop, and an air brush was considered a hi-tech art tool.............

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Book Review: Lore of the Witch World

Book Review: 'Lore of the Witch World' by Andre Norton

4 / 5 Stars

'Lore of the Witch World' (223 pp) is DAW Book No. 400 / UE1634. It was published in September, 1980 and has cover art by Michael Whelan.

This is a compilation of novelettes and short stories Norton wrote from 1972 - 1972 and published in anthologies like the Flashing Swords series.

I won't give a synopsis of each entry in the compilation, save to say it includes 'Spider Silk', 'Sand Sister', 'Falcon Blood', 'Legacy from Sorn Fen', 'Sword of Unbelief', 'The Toads of Grimmerdale', and its sequel, 'Changeling'.

Needless to say, all of the stories take place in the landscape of the Witch World, and all feature women as protagonists, albeit by no means in the 'chain mail bikini' mode. 

The women protagonists in these stories often are introverts and outcasts of one sort of another, and unsure about how to use their ESP gifts; plots usually hinge on a confrontation of some kind which forces the heroine to free her latent psychic powers in the face of grave peril. 

Perhaps reflecting the fact that much of Norton's fiction primarily was intended for the Young Adult market, these confrontations are completely bloodless (any violence that takes place is either simply alluded to in a vague manner, or depicted off-screen). The contests between the protagonist and her enemies are waged psychically, and often are rather tedious.

The stories are well-written, although the reader will need to be prepared for sometimes stilted language (women are not impregnated, but 'Filled'; people are 'wrath-hot'; ESP is referred to as a Talent; etc.). To be fair, this was commonplace in fantasy writing during the 70s, and Norton was not the worst offender. 

Summing up, while there is a note of mildness in these stories, they work well as examples of fantasy writing from a time when the genre was starting to gain momentum and move into styles more varied than the pastiches of sword-and-sorcery, or Tolkein, that were the mainstays of most published material. Fans of Norton's Witch World realm will want to have a copy of this book in their library.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Doom 2099 double-page spread

Doom 2099
Double-paged spread by Pat Broderick, penciller, John Beatty, inker, John Costanza, letters, and Christine Scheele, colorist 
from Doom 2099, issue 3, March 1993, Marvel Comics Group

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Savage Sword of Conan: The Original Marvel Years Omnibus, Volume 1

Savage Sword of Conan
The Original Marvel Years Omnibus
Volume 1
by Roy Thomas
Well, there went a big chunk of my 2018 Tax Return..........



So, here's the deal: if you want the contents of the Marvel / Curtis Savage Sword of Conan (SSOC; 235 issues, August 1974 - July 1995) black-and-white comic magazine, as well as the first five issues of the black-and-white comic magazine Savage Tales (May 1971 - July 1974) that featured Conan and other REH characters, you can:

-try and buy more-or-less intact copies of the original magazines from dealers, often for very steep prices;

-purchase the 22 trade paperback compilations of SSOC issued by Dark Horse from 2008  - 2016;

-or purchase this new 'Omnibus' collection from Marvel, which apparently is going to compile all 235 issues of SSOC, and the first five issues of Savage Tales.



Well, I decided to spend some money on Omnibus Vol. 1. 



The photo below should give you an idea of how it looks size-wise compared to the original magazine and a representative volume of the Dark Horse compilation:



At 1072 pages, Vol. 1 includes the contents of the first five issues of Savage Tales, as well as SSOC 1 - 12 and the cover art from a reprint package 'Super Special' from the Summer of 1975.



Along with the comics, you get the covers in full color; the letters pages; the advertisements; and the photoessays that were used to pad out each issue.



As with all the Marvel 'Omnibus' books, this one is well-made, with glossy paper, crisp reproductions, and a strong binding that is necessary for a book that weighs 6 pounds.



In his Introduction, Roy Thomas reminiscences about the creative and editorial chaos that accompanied the creation of Savage Tales and then SSOC, chaos occasioned by the sometimes capricious and arbitrary decision-making processes of editor Stan Lee.



But there's no denying that these early issues were the best in the series. Now that you can see the artwork reproduced on glossy paper, it's all the more impressive what talents like Barry Windsor-Smith, Alfredo Alcala, and John Buscema (among others) were able to bring to each issue.



Thomas states that Lee's major ambition with SSOC was to compete with the Warren magazines, and in this regard, Lee succeeded. Indeed, I would make the case that comics publishing as a whole has yet to match the caliber of the work presented in those early issues of SSOC.



The verdict ? Scrape your dollars together, eat nothing but Ramen for a week if you have to, and grab a copy of Savage Sword of ConanThe Original Marvel Years Omnibus Volume 1. 

Because the sad truth is that the speculators will buy up their copies, and a year from now, when the book is out of print, they will show up at amazon selling the book for several hundred dollars. It's best to act now, rather than later.............