Thursday, June 1, 2023

Book Review: The Oz Encounter

Book Review: 'The Oz Encounter' by Ted White and Marv Wolfman
2 / 5 Stars

'The Oz Encounter: Weird Heroes Vol. 5: Doc Phoenix' (216 pp.) was published by Pyramid Books in January 1977.

Inaugurated in 1975 by Byron Preiss, 'Weird Heroes' was intended to be a resurrection of the pulp magazine in a paperback book format. 

[ My review of 'Weird Heroes' volume 1 is here.]

Eight Weird Heroes volumes were published before the series was cancelled in 1977. Some volumes were anthologies, while others were novels intended to focus on one among a cast of characters. So it was that volume 5 was devoted to 'Doc Phoenix', a super-psychologist who, via exotic instrumentation, can enter the minds of the mentally ill and effect a cure. This concept is not novel to 'The Oz Encounter', as John Brunner used it as the basis of his 1964 novel 'The Whole Man'.

In 'The Oz Encounter', Doc is treating a ten year-old girl named Patricia Wentworth, who lies in a coma, its cause unknown. Patricia's father, an ambitious and well-connected politician named James Wentworth, is anxious to see his daughter recover so that he can embark on a campaign for re-election.

Upon entering Patricia's subconscious mind, Doc Phoenix learns that her love for the Oz novels by Frank Baum has populated her dreamscape with characters and landscapes from those novels. However, the trauma that has rendered Patricia unconscious is manifested in her dreamscape in disturbing ways; fear and violence have come to Oz and one individual, in particular, known as the Shaggy Man, has malevolent ambitions. 

Unless Doc Phoenix can foil the evil intentions of the Shaggy Man, the likelihood of Patricia ever awakening from her coma is slim at best. And making things worse, someone is trying to sabotage Doc's efforts, someone with an awareness of what is happening in Patricia's dreamscapes. And they have no hesitation about using lethal force to achieve their aims..........

In his Introduction to 'The Oz Encounter', Preiss indicates that Ted White initially was assigned to write the novel, but when circumstances prevented this, Preiss turned to Marv Wolfman, formerly a writer and editor for Marvel Comics. Wolfman in turn composed a manuscript based on White's outline. 

'Oz' suffers from a disjointed, choppy narrative, which is not too surprising given that Wolfman wrote for comics, where transitions between characters and settings are by nature abrupt due to the limited page space allotted for that format. There also are more than a few plot holes that never get filled, and the denouement is so contrived that it takes almost five pages to explain.

One strength of the book is the participation of illustrator Stephen Fabian, who understood what the Weird Heroes franchise was trying to do. Fabian's graytone artwork is ideal for the 'pulp paperback' design concept and played a role in keeping me interested in the narrative's later chapters, when the plotting takes on a strained quality.

When all is said and done, 'The Oz Encounter', like the other Weird Heroes book I have read, is underwhelming. While I sympathize with what editor Preiss was trying to do with the franchise, his editorial policy of closely emulating the diction and style of the Pulp era winds up being too banal to impress the modern-day reader. And for this type of narrative, Wolfman probably was not the best choice to be pinch-hitting as an author. In conclusion, I advise passing on 'The Oz Encounter'.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Wolverine / Nick Fury The Scorpio Connection

Wolverine / Nick Fury: The Scorpio Connection
by Archie Goodwin (story) and Howard Chaykin (art)
Marvel, 1989 
'Wolverine / Nick Fury: The Scorpio Connection' (64 pages) was one of the 75 'Graphic Novels' Marvel issued from 1979 to 1993. It's a nicely produced hardbound volume, printed on glossy paper.
As 'Scorpio' opens, an unknown assailant attacks a SHIELD field team at a site in South America. Among the dead SHIELD staffers is David Nanjiwarra, who happens to once have saved Wolverine's life.
When news of the attack reaches Nick Fury, he is disturbed to learn that the attacker left behind a momento: the sigil of a scorpion. 

Fury once battled a villain named Scorpio, who turned out to be his estranged brother, Jake. And long ago, Jake committed suicide. Who now is posing as Scorpio, and why are they targeting SHIELD ?

As Fury tries to answer this question, he's obliged to work with Wolverine, who is intent of avenging the death of David Nanjiwarra. 
We learn that the 'new' Scorpio has ties to the late Jake Fury.
As the story unfolds, it become clear that the new Scorpio is motivated by longstanding rivalries and betrayed alliances. Ones Nick Fury prefers to forget, for he helped engineer some of the betrayals. But when Wolverine is your ally, there is little room for negotiations and niceties, because for him, it's slice first, ask questions later.......
For me, 'The Scorpio Connection' was a disappointment. Archie Goodwin's plotting has a rushed, haphazard quality, as if he addressed the project in fits and starts, his mind on other things. The melange of 
conspiracies and double-crosses that propel the story are poorly served by a gimmicky denouement.
Howard Chaykin was not the best artist for this graphic novel. His pencils have a rough, blocky quality and the the spectacularly ugly color scheme (by Richard Ory and Barb Rauch) give 'Scorpio' the visual stylings of an awkwardly reimagined 1960s Pop Art production, rather than a late 80s spy adventure. 
Summing up, I can't recommend 'The Scorpio Connection'. Goodwin and the Marvel editorial staff could have done something memorable, but what they came up with simply was pedestrian. 

Friday, May 26, 2023

Book Review: Slaying the Dragon

Book Review: 'Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons' by Ben Riggs
5 / 5 Stars

'Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons' (293 pp.) was published by St. Martin's Press in 2022. Author Ben Riggs is active in chronicling the contemporary RPG landscape in podcasts and articles for a variety of online portals. His blog hasn't posted content since 2022, but contains articles relevant to 'Slaying the Dragon'.

I was a wargamer in the 1970s, and I have only vague memories of 'Dungeons and Dragons' (D&D). I played the games from the major publishers such as SPI and Avalon Hill. As far as I was concerned, D&D was just another one of a number of indie games that floated around the periphery of the tabletop gaming world, buying small ads in The Wargamer's Digest:

D&D advertisement in The Wargamer's Digest, 1974

Little did I know that D&D would morph from a modest, home-made game into a franchise that would come to define Planet Geek like no other properties before or since.

'Slaying the Dragon' tells the story of TSR and D&D from its start in the 1970s to 2022. It all began with Gary Gygax, a man in his mid-thirties who worked as a shoe repairman in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and who, in his spare time, wrote about, designed, and sold, board games. 

In 1973 Gygax formed 'Tactical Studies Rules' to promote and market his properties, and in January 1974, he began selling an RPG called 'Dungeons and Dragons'. The game was assembled in the basement of Gygax's house in Lake Geneva, and immediately became popular with gaming geeks.

As author Riggs relates in 'Slaying', within a few years, D&D had become a pop culture phenomenon, and Gygax moved his enterprise into the Hotel Clair, a rather dilapidated building in downtown Lake Geneva. TSR's expansion only accelerated in the late 1970s and early 1980s when lurid stories of impressionable youth, led astray by D&D, proliferated in the national media.
William Dear's account of the life and death of D&D fan James Dallas Egbert III

But although outwardly TSR was a thriving enterprise, Riggs shows that in reality, the company based its business strategy on what proved to be an inherently risky arrangement with publisher Random House. And its management had a habit of alienating some of its most imaginative, and commercially successful, creative personnel. By the mid-1990s, TSR was experiencing increasing financial difficulties, and only the intervention of an RPG rival would enable the world of D&D to survive into the 21st century.

'Slaying the Dragon' is a very readable book. Author Riggs avoids getting too bogged down in the minutiae of tabletop RPG gaming, keeps his chapters short, and uses a large body of on-the-record statements from many former and current staff to provide 'insider' perspectives on the history of TSR and D&D.

This allows the book to appeal both to geeks, and to businesspeople. This is a rather unusual conjunction of interested parties, but Riggs does a commendable job of interlacing the actions taken by TSR's creative staffers with the actions of the managerial tiers, emphasizing that the willful separation of these two facets of the D&D enterprise was ultimately to the detriment of the company. 

Riggs does not shy from arguing that many of TSR's business problems originated with Lorraine Williams, who ousted Gary Gygax from the company in October, 1985 and installed herself as CEO. Riggs acknowledges that he was unable to persuade Williams to be interviewed for the book, and thus her side of the story is absent, but he relies on anecdotes and observations from other TSR staff, as well as company documents, to buttress this argument.

The 'hero' in the TSR narrative is Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison, who purchased TSR in April 1997. Riggs portrays Adkison as the sort of boss who inherently understood what RPG gaming was all about, and realized the need to treat employees with consideration and respect. 

[ Its publication date of 2022 means that 'Slaying the Dragon' can't remark upon the current, fractious state of affairs between a reincarnated TSR, helmed by Gary's son Ernie Gygax, and Wizards of the Coast. ]

The verdict ? Whether you are an RPG and fantasy fan, or someone interested in the rise and fall of corporations, 'Slaying the Dragon' is worth reading. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Penthouse May 1974

Penthouse magazine
May, 1974
It's May, 1974. Despite being released in March, Terry Jacks' hit single 'Seasons in the Sun' remains on the Billboard Hot 100 charts - an iconic song from that year.

The latest issue of Penthouse magazine is on the stands, with Pet of the Month Brande Howard from Mendocino, California, on the cover.

Stunt men and daredevils are the theme of this issue, with a feature article by John Baxter on the high rates of injuries and death suffered by Hollywood stuntmen. The article has arresting art by Roy Carruthers:
Then there's an Interview with Evel Knievel, certainly no stranger to danger.
We have a cartoon.......
.........and advertisements for, among other things, a nudie puzzle, and 'The Sling Shot male liberation underwear' ?!
In the mid 1970s Bob Guccione really was intent on presenting himself, and Penthouse, as earnest advocates for the cause of Vietnam war veterans. This August 1974 issue of the magazine deals with the problem of drug addiction among the veterans. It has some provocative statements (such as the U.S. military handing out 7,000 amphetamine tablets to its troops, per month, in 1968), but as this article is not an investigative report, it's unclear what among its content is hearsay and what is fact.
As for the nudies, we have quite the selection of lissome young women. Leading off is a pictorial of Jessica Len, who remarks that "Nudity for me brings on a spiritual feeling."
Then there is Pet of the Month Brande (no, not 'Brandy', 'Brandie', or even 'Brandee') Howard of Mendocino, California. Brande is the quintessential California Girl and a reminder of an era, long gone, when the Golden State still was Golden.
We close with the brunette Shawn Day. Shawn assures us that "My body tells me who to love."
Ponder, then, these images from long ago............ when life perhaps was a little simpler, and a little less complex, and the hedonism of the 70s firmly was emplaced.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Book Review: The Mad Scientists' Club

Book Review: 'The Mad Scientists' Club' by Bertrand R. Brinley
5 / 5 Stars

If you're a Baby Boomer, then you surely are familiar with some, or perhaps all, of the four books in The Mad Scientists' Club franchise.

The author, Bertrand Brinley (1917-1994) was a public relations staffer with the US government, the Martin Company, and later, for Bell Labs.

The franchise started with the appearance of 'The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake' in the magazine Boy's Life in September 1961, with additional stories appearing in the magazine in 1962 and 1964. In 1965 the stories were assembled into 'The Mad Scientists' Club', a paperback from Scholastic Book Services, the juggernaut of Young Adult print media. The copy of the book in my possession is the fourth edition, from 1968.
That same year Brinley published a sequel, 'The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists' Club'. A third volume in the franchise, 'The Big Kerplop', saw print in 1974. An unpublished manuscript, 'The Big Chunk of Ice', was published posthumously in 2005.

Paperback and hardback editions of all the books in the franchise can be had from your usual online retailers.
Charles Geer provided illustrations for all four books.

As for Club, it consists of: Jeff Crocker (President), Henry Mulligan (Vice President and Chief of Research), Dinky Poore, Freddy Muldoon, Homer Snodgrass, Mortimer Dalrymple, and Charlie Finckledinck, the first-person narrator. The Scientists live in Mammoth Lake, a generic small town, and while their ages never are disclosed, they likely are in junior high (or perhaps the freshman year of high school).
The Club is devoted to using science to create good-natured hijinks in Mammoth Falls, which often leaves the town's blowhard mayor, Alonzo Scragg (and quite a few other adults), looking foolish. In the stories in 'The Mad Scientists' Club', our heroes craft a 'sea monster' that causes quite a commotion in a local lake; leverage a dinosaur egg into a media event; investigate rumors of a lost treasure secreted in a Civil War monument; employ a department store mannikin to disrupt the town's Founders Day ceremony; compete in a hot-air balloon race; and arrange for an old house to be 'haunted'.

The seventh and final story in the book involves the Club in a 'grown-up' drama centering on the rescue of a downed pilot, and as such, the Club's foray into the world of adulthood. It shows the author's deft touch as a writer. 
For me, re-reading 'The Mad Scientists' Club' is an exercise in nostalgia and I'm sure it is that way for many people. A similarly nostalgic overview of the book is available at this blog.

I finished the book with some regret, as the Scholastic catalog stopped carrying the title long ago, and I doubt anyone under 20 is familiar with The Mad Scientists' franchise. 

I'd like to believe that despite portraying the adventures of a group of straight, white, young males, who wear Chuck Taylor / Pro Keds sneakers, blue jeans, and tee shirts, and who live in an all-white town in Middle America, the Mad Scientists' Club will appeal to all kids. But I think there is a very low likelihood that this novel will get any traction with the modern-day school district staff and book publicists who decide the reading lists for middle school students. 

So treasure the days gone by, the Baby Boom era, and 'The Mad Scientists' Club', as they recede into the mists of time..........

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

more art from Don Maitz

more art from Don Maitz
from First Maitz, Ursus Imprints, 1988
Taking my copy of First Maitz off of the shelf and looking through it again, I remain convinced that Maitz was, and is, one of the greatest illustrators of his time. He has impressive technical skills, being adept at rendering landscapes, buildings, people, and imaginary creatures. He is skilled in his use of color. And he has the ability of all great illustrators to capture the theme of a book or magazine and effectively communicate it to the onlooker. 

You still can find copies of First Maitz available for sale in good condition, for under $20. If you like fantasy and science fiction art, then I recommend getting a copy of the book sooner, rather than later, and it's long out of print and inevitably will become more dear as time goes on.
The Tapestry of Time
The Wicked Enchantment
The Captive
Space Opera

Hawks of Fellheath


Wave Without A Shore
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction


The Road to Corlay

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Book Review: Dirty Pictures

Book Review: 'Dirty Pictures' by Brian Doherty
3 / 5 Stars

'Dirty Pictures' (439 pp.) was published by Abrams Press in 2022. The author is a senior editor at Reason magazine and has published books on various pop culture phenomena, such as the Burning Man festival and its adherents.

'Dirty Pictures' joins Mark James Estren's 1993 book, 'A History of Underground Comics', and Patrick Rosenkranz's 'Rebel Visions', from 2008, as histories of the comix movement. But I should stress that 'Dirty Pictures', unlike Estren's and Rosenkranz's books, does not have any illustrations. This likely is due to the complexities of getting permissions to reproduce artwork (something that got Dez Skinn's 2004 book, 'Comix: The Underground Revolution', in trouble). I was unperturbed by the absence of graphics, but some reviewers at amazon are decidedly unhappy with this aspect of 'Dirty Pictures'.
'Dirty Pictures' traces the history of comix, through the experiences of some of the more well-recognized artists, printers, and publishers in the field. Chronologically, 'Dirty Pictures' covers the inaugural efforts by artists to self-publish comix in the early 1960s, and concludes with the state of the endeavor in the late 2010s. Doherty bookends his narrative with Robert Crumb, which is sensible, as Crumb is the foremost practitioner of comix. 

Given that 'A History of Underground Comics' and 'Rebel Visions' more or less end their observations in the mid- to late- 1970s, Doherty's book has merit in terms of covering the decades when comix slowly transformed from 'floppies' printed in black-and-white on low-grade paper, to 'independent' comics and graphic novels issued by well-respected publishing houses.

 As far as the heydays of the 1970s are concerned, 'Dirty Pictures' doesn't offer any real revelations as compared to what already has been presented in Rosenkranz's book, although Doherty does provide some newer anecdotes and observations related to him via interviews with the ever-dwindling cohort of artists who came on the scene in that era. Doherty does shed considerably more light on the mechanics of printing and distributing the books, and the economics of this process, which is where I found 'Dirty Pictures' to be informative.

Doherty also gives attention to the at-times fractious relationships between the genre's major artists, which was somewhat inevitable given the transgressive nature of comix and the willingness of Crumb and S. Clay Wilson to produce material that violated the peace n' love vibe of the hippie era. Egos, and arguments, and snits, and refusals to invite artists to contribute to some titles, were not rare in the 70s and early 80s.  

There are a number of areas where, in my opinion, 'Dirty Pictures' misses the mark:

• The author's prose is stilted, and often features lengthy, run-on sentences where I had to do more work than I wanted to to fish out subjects and objects from awkwardly constructed clauses. Things reach an exasperating level on page 389, which entirely is one sentence, riveted together with semicolons, related in a kind of breathless, stream-of-consciousness, Hipster argot. 

• As an author of books dealing with liberal / left-wing topics, and as an editor for a progressive magazine, Doherty obviously is compelled to provide Equity and Inclusion to his overview of comix. Accordingly, the contributions of women to the field is overstated, and inevitably, Aline Kominsky Crumb is heavily referenced.

• For a book dedicated to an art form, 'Dirty Pictures' gives scant attention to the process by which the profled art actually was created. We never are informed as to how Crumb and Spain and Deitch and Charles Burns made their works: did they all sit down with Number 2 pencils and a sheet of Bristol Board ? Nor is the influence of the newer, digital technologies that were available in the 1990s for comix creation given much shrift.

• A major feature of comix was their humor. From the start they were intended to be funny and they succeeded, with storytelling that was outrageous, and provocative, and in contempt of 'bourgeoisie' values. Reading my copies of 'Freak Brothers', 'Young Lust', 'Mickey Rat', and 'Checkered Demon' still makes me laugh out loud. Yet this aspect of comix gets little attention in 'Dirty Pictures', with the author intent on belaboring the social-political-cultural implications of 'serious' works, like 'Maus'.

I'm comfortable with giving 'Dirty Pictures' a three-star Rating. If you are a fan of comix and interested in the history of the medium, then the book will be a worthwhile read. However, those looking for a less pedantic, and more accessible, overview of comix probably are better off consulting the books by Rosenkranz and Estren.

Friday, May 12, 2023

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers Free Comic Book Day

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers
Free Comic Book Day, May 2023
If, 40 years ago you had told me that in the future there would be a 'Free Comic Book Day', and that the popular underground title 'The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers' would be one of those free comics that anyone could come in and pick up, I would not have believed you.
And yet, here we are. One of the titles participating in the May 2023 Free Comic Book Day is a sampler of Freak Brothers comics from the 1970s up to the present day. I'm sure Gilbert Shelton, the Freak Brothers' creator, who is alive and well on the verge of his 83rd birthday, is pleased to see his stuff now become a part of the culture, as opposed to the counterculture.
Fantagraphics is using this sampler to promote their ongoing series of collected reprints of the Freak Brothers comics. Four books, out of a planned seven volumes, have been issued so far.
While the occasional nudity that appeared in the Freak Brothers is absent in this sampler, the vinateg stoner is well accounted humor for. It's sign of the times that stuff that would have scandalized parents - had it been handed out in 1973 - now is regarded as banal. Also front and center is the political satire that Shelton made intrinsic to the Freak milieu. 
My local comic shop had plenty of copies of this Free Comic Book Day sampler available. I of course recommend getting a copy (if you haven't done so already). It's a jolt of nostalgia for Baby Boomers, and for the younger people, a portal into long ago times and places that are well worth experiencing.