Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Deathlok the Demolisher

Rich Buckler, Doug Moench & others Deathlok the Demolisher (1976)
Excluding English black and white reprints, the first American comics I can recall are Marvel's Worlds Unknown #4 and Astonishing Tales #35, and the first issue of Phoenix from the short lived Atlas Comics, dating respectively from November 1973, May 1976, and January 1975. These turned up at some sort of jumble sale held at my school, Ilmington C of E Junior and Infants, possibly on more than one occasion. I seem to recall the two Marvel comics being found together, but I'm not sure about Phoenix. Anyway, they were in colour with stories of filmic aspiration spread across a much higher page count than that to which I was accustomed. As science-fiction, they made The Whizzers from Space in the Topper seem slightly ridiculous. They made a huge impression.

Deathlok was a cyborg, and a surprisingly gruesome creation for Marvel, but this was the seventies and America was still trying to process the Vietnam war and the rise of its own counterculture; so Deathlok is a much darker spin on square-jawed Steve Austin. It wasn't quite a case of rebuilding him - seeing as he was actually killed and was therefore a stiff, but they augmented him with robotic parts, put a computer in his head, and reanimated the dead bits with preservative in the hope of slowing his deterioration. Most depressing of all is that having been revived, the computer prevents him from killing himself, leaving him no choice but to serve as a programmable assassin. You can see how it might have left him feeling a bit grumpy.

Deathlok the Demolisher was set in a post-apocalyptic America and is therefore approximately a mash-up of Shelley's Frankenstein, I Am Legend and its big screen reincarnation as The Omega Man, plus a whole load of countercultural ill-will. We're at some distance from truth, justice and the American way.

Deathlok is the warrior let down by his country, the soldier who becomes aware of his own place within an industrial process, and the parallels with those returned or otherwise from the Vietnam war are difficult to miss.

All the places Janice - my wife - and I went to when I was normal! All of it - gone. The restaurants, theaters, everything that was precious to me - gone.

So, as is probably obvious, the Deathlok of Astonishing Tales was one of those strips pitched beyond the traditional Marvel audience, more in the direction of your older brother with his prog rock albums and Farrah Fawcett posters. It was ponderous, vaguely cerebral, and not afraid to unsettle its readership - maybe not Crime and Punishment but certainly a few stages on from Superman's brightly coloured adventures; and most notably, much of issue #35 occurs within a computer generated reality - possibly not quite the first but substantially predating the popularisation of cyberspace by William Gibson and others, and even predating Tom Baker pottering around within the matrix in The Deadly Assassin later that same year.

The only problem with this version of Deathlok is that he exists mainly for the sake of his post-apocalyptic environment and what it said about the present, as was, so he doesn't actually have much to do beyond a series of ambiguous missions, betrayals, and ensuing pontification. Buckler, Moench and others seemingly realised this and tried to jazz the story up with increasingly implausible twists, but only end up muddling things. Deathlok the Demolisher only ever needed to be a hero journey, or rather an antihero journey, in the same way that Heart of Darkness is about the progress more than the destination. Instead we find Deathlok restored to full humanity in a clone of his original body, except the cyborg body remains sentient so that now we have two of them. Then some minor point of continuity demands that this cyborg is only a copy of Deathlok, who has actually been elsewhere all along, following up some mission or other.

They should have quit while they were ahead but inevitably they didn't, so Deathlok returns a couple of years later to have adventures with Spiderman and the Fantastic Four, which works about as well as would Frank Miller's Dark Knight travelling back in time to hang out with sixties telly Batman. To paraphrase Hank Hill, you're not making Spiderman better, you're just making Deathlok worse. There were ten good issues before it all turned to shit and contradiction, but those issues were mostly amazing, Keith Pollard notwithstanding, and arguably unlike anything Marvel published before or since. Sometimes, no matter how good your intention, you just can't bring them back.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Planet Comics volume two

Planet Comics volume two (1940)
This is my second volume of this one, here collecting issues four to eight as originally published in 1940. Consulting both the first volume and my earlier review of the same, I notice that I've written the following:

Equally bewildering is Kenny Carr of the Martian Lancers which reads a lot like an episode from the Boer War but for the spaceships which our narrator insists are seen making the trip through that cloudy stretch of space between Neptune and Pluto. These spaceships are of the kind with two wings extending out from the centre of the fuselage, wheels beneath, and a propeller on the nose, so I suspect the enterprise is informed by either a certain degree of recycling or a spectacular lack of imagination.

As I now realise, those spaceships bearing suspicious resemblance to aircraft of the forties actually turn up in Gale Allen of the Women's Space Battalion, the strip immediately following Kenny Carr of the Martian Lancers. I can only assume that by that point I was so punch drunk from having read the thing that I simply powered on through the end of Kenny's adventures without even noticing the sudden emphasis on Feminism, exemplified as it was by men commenting upon how well the women had done and rhetorically asking who says they are the weaker sex?

Anyway, I came back for a second helping mainly because Henry Kiefer's art on the amusingly named Spurt Hammond strip is fucking gorgeous, and surely enough so as to classify him as a neglected master of the form, seeing as how we all know about Fletcher Hanks by now.

I gather my copy of volume one may actually have been part of the original run which was recalled and revised due to the reproduction of the artwork being below standard. I'd assumed the quality of my copy was simply down to its utilising scans of ancient and yellowing comic books, but judging by the massively improved quality of this second volume, I guess I may have had a dud; but even ignoring the standard of reproduction, it seems clear that the issues reprinted here were simply better drawn, so I guess we're watching these artists learning and developing their craft as they work. There's no shortage of eye-popping material, but the general figure work and sense of design is improved. It's still stylised, undeniably of its time, but with a weird elegance - deco filtered through moody classicism resulting in panels with the pensive atmosphere of a de Chirico painting.

Before I get too carried away, I should confirm that I'm still talking about Planet Comics. It was, as I've discovered, the comic book - and hence junior - counterpart to Planet Stories, in which dad would have read the works of A.E. van Vogt and others, so it's science-fiction in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs with a hint of Hugo Gernsback. Planets are locales of general terrestrial composition, even Jupiter and Saturn, and they tend to be ruled over by Kings who usually live in castles, despite the presence of spacecraft or the occasional mad scientist; aliens are mostly bestial and brutish, distant relatives to the ogres and goblins of fairy tales. The stories are very, very repetitive, but with such a fascinating level of sheer insanity in the failure of any of it to add up as to overcome all shortcomings. Don Granval battles colossal beings to whom the Earth is but a bauble. Buzz Crandall and Sandra help a race of headless people rebel against the plants which have enslaved them, and all in swimwear. Then we have Chas M. Quinlan's beautifully drawn Crash Barker and the Zoom Sled providing a strange, almost ponderous contrast with the other strips in favouring conversation and formative characterisation over simple exposition and dramatic action. Fletcher Hanks single contribution is inevitably peculiar, but not necessarily more so than anything else here. The more of these reprints I read, the more it astonishes me that I hadn't heard of Planet Comics prior to happening upon the first collection back in 2016.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Planet Comics volume one

Planet Comics volume one (2012)
A massive stack of these turned up in my local Half Price, numerous titles from the thirties and forties and entire runs of things I've never heard of reprinted over a number of volumes. I kept a distance, knowing my own tendency to collect complete sets, but curiosity overcame me. Just one won't hurt, I thought, and Planet Comics seemed closest to my interests. Apparently this thing ran to seventy-three issues, of which the first four are reproduced here, and aside from Will Eisner having drawn a couple of covers, I'd never heard of either it or anyone involved.

I guess from this that mainstream comic strips of the forties were in certain respects closer to silent film than the narratives with which we are familiar. The tales here comprise mostly a series of bold images, more summaries than stories, with text usually serving to emphasise or clarify what we're looking at and only occasionally to explain. The art is generally amateurish, but simple enough to survive crude printing on what probably may as well have been Izel toilet paper, and so strongly stylised as to rise above most of its technical failings. Of course, I'm looking at this stuff seventy-five years later, and that which I see as having novel or otherwise exotic qualities may simply be hack work and crap by ordinary criteria; and there's also the possibility that what I'm enjoying pertains to how closely it resembles strips which have parodied or emulated this sort of material - early issues of Viz, Reid Fleming, and particularly Flaming Carrot; but fuck it - it works for me.

The strips are mostly variations on the theme of the loosely Gernsbackian science hero in thrills and scrapes reminiscent of the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs or E.E. 'Doc' Smith - variations on Flash Gordon in other words, right down to the one-then-two syllable names - Flint Baker, Buzz Crandall, and Spurt Hammond, to name but three. The adventures tend to involve alien despots and female companions kidnapped or else terrorised by the same, and other planets of our solar system tend to bear a suspicious resemblance to Earth. Auro, Lord of Jupiter, for example, tells the story of Auro, a human child orphaned and abandoned on Jupiter and raised by a sabre tooth tiger to rule the planet - which seems to be mostly jungle - by virtue of his superior strength and intelligence. It has to be said that aside from the occasional space rocket, Auro is a lot like Tarzan.

As with Flash Gordon, most of our guys seem to inhabit a swashbuckling narrative of kings, queens, castles, and beautiful princesses, with a cursory mention of the tale being set on Neptune or Pluto to qualify it as science-fiction. A particularly bewildering episode of Captain Nelson Cole of the Solar Force takes our man to the planet Zog whereupon the local and inevitably troubled ruler informs him that he must fight a two-headed giant which has been inducing terror amongst the natives, and he must fight the beast whilst disguised as a character called Torro. Unlike Cole, Torro has a moustache and a mullet, and given that the reasoning behind this transformation is never explained, I've a feeling it may have been effected so as allow the artist to recycle an existing strip for the second half of this one. Equally bewildering is Kenny Carr of the Martian Lancers which reads a lot like an episode from the Boer War but for the spaceships which our narrator insists are seen making the trip through that cloudy stretch of space between Neptune and Pluto. These spaceships are of the kind with two wings extending out from the centre of the fuselage, wheels beneath, and a propeller on the nose, so I suspect the enterprise is informed by either a certain degree of recycling or a spectacular lack of imagination.

Yet despite all of this, there is genuine charm in much of this material, and the better strips are almost hypnotically weird. Plots twist beyond reason and virtually without explanation in the majority of the stories, conclusions occur abruptly or not at all in a couple of cases, and we're left with the feeling that someone was either drunk or making it up as they went along. In other words, if you enjoy A.E. van Vogt, you shouldn't have too much trouble with Planet Comics.

Above all, regardless of narrative peculiarities, whilst the art remains awkward and angular thoughout, these tales are packed with arresting, even nightmarishly surreal images and an often powerful sense of design consistent with the era. Just about every panel of the amusingly named Spurt Hammond, Planet Flyer will pop your eyes from your head, and Henry Kiefer's artwork is genuinely beautiful even if he could have used a few more lessons in figure work. It's a shame Spurt didn't get a longer run in the title, lasting only up to issue thirteen according to Wikipedia, although I suppose at least it means I won't feel obliged to hunt down all eighteen or however many volumes, should I end up going down that road.

On a purely technical level Planet Comics is probably one of the shabbiest things I've ever read, and yet I find myself absolutely transfixed.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Heir to the Empire

Timothy Zahn Heir to the Empire (1991)
Excepting Marvel comics drawn by Carmine Infantino, I have no strong feelings regarding Star Wars. The films are sort of watchable, mostly, but I can usually take or leave them. The reason I ended up reading this, a novel representing the return of Star Wars at time of publication, is admittedly thin - mainly just curiosity about Grand Admiral Thrawn, as seen in fleeting images posted here and there on the internet.

'Read Timothy Zahn's novels,' I was told when asking about this character with blood red eyes and blue skin. 'They're really good.'

I was therefore prepared for something like Stephen Baxter writing Star Wars, or at least Alastair Reynolds. I've heard good things about Timothy Zahn, so hopefully Heir to the Empire isn't representative. It isn't terrible, and truthfully it's surprisingly breezy for a novel of four-hundred pages girth, but neither is it great, and what I take from having read it is that Star Wars doesn't work as the written word. Star Wars is supposed to be on a massive screen and is as such an exercise in scale and speed. Reduced to the written word it simply becomes four-hundred pages of stage directions, descriptions of fights - fights which sound a lot like something we've already seen - all strung together as a narrative which serves mainly to expose how little actual character is involved in this story. It's like novelising the paintings of Leonardo - page after page describing what we would see if we were to look at the things. Star Wars is essentially ridiculous, Flash Gordon with space wizards, a tale which harks back to those pre-Vietnam engagements wherein heroes remained heroes even after they came home and warfare still had a noble aspect. These details are easily lost in the cinematic spectacle, but as written word they're hard to miss and become intrusive.

It wasn't actually unenjoyable and was probably better than The Return of the Jedi, but then I doubt I'll bother with the other two parts of this particular trilogy. The person who described Heir to the Empire as amazing attends comic book conventions dressed as a Star Fleet officer. I should have trusted my instinct.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Amazing Stories (February 1946)

Raymond A. Palmer (editor) - Amazing Stories February 1946 (1946)
I found this in a comic book store. It was falling apart, missing the final three pages and back cover - although I don't get the impression they featured anything vital - and flakes of yellowing paper came away each time I read it; but it was three dollars and the cover promising material by both Richard Shaver and Robert Moore Williams made it an essential purchase.

Palmer is credited only as managing editor - Bernard George Davis being listed as the actual editor - but his influence seems overpowering, this influence being expressed as a carnival barker's huckster enthusiasm for scientifiction and the idea that if we are able to imagine it, then one day it will happen - a position I recall having been taken by Bez of Happy Mondays during some television interview wherein he described what he liked about Star Trek. Palmer's editorial accordingly suggests that the contents of the magazine should be read as prediction as much as fiction, giving as an example the notion that readers of Amazing would not have been too surprised by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, having encountered such weaponry in the magazine many years earlier. Palmer, in true pseudoscientific spirit, actually seems to have regarded Einstein as merely a fellow visionary, and suggests that many of his theories were obviously wrong, as demonstrated by tales published in previous issues because if you can imagine faster than light travel, then one day it will happen.

The divide between imagination and reality was clearly an issue with Richard S. Shaver, arguably the star of the magazine at this point. Shaver's I Remember Lemuria had already been rapturously received and Palmer was quite happy to capitalise on its success. The protagonist of the story tells of his being kidnapped by a race of degenerate subterranean beings called the Dero, whereupon he learns how the Dero have influenced human history by use of special rays which cause people to act with evil intent. It's a paranoid fantasy which seems fairly typical of certain types of schizophrenia, and Shaver seems to have related what he believes to have been actual events as fiction, so as not to cause panic as the legend has it.

While Shaver's tales weren't the revelation claimed by Palmer and others in mythology-building articles featured elsewhere in this issue, and nor did they necessarily constitute classic material, neither were they quite the incomprehensible pulp turds recalled by more stringent critics. The worlds and beings described are patently those of a man with mental health issues, and the plot of Invasion of the Micro-Men in this issue is as prone to absent-minded swerves as any of Shaver's fiction, but there's nevertheless something fascinating and compelling here - plus I suppose it could be argued that he foresaw nanotechnology ahead of the curve. This issue transposes the author's usual concerns to outer space with the Dero replaced by their interplanetary equivalent, the Jotun, degenerate inhabitants of abandoned caverns on a myriad of worlds, but tolerated by the utopian Nortan race, who are elevated and therefore almost certainly white. As with the Dero, the Jotun aren't so much evil as simply irresponsible and prone to mischief. Naturally they have a tendency to kidnap Nortan women for their wives, transforming them - so it is primly hinted - into freaks, which I take to mean that they give them comically massive tits by means of special enlargement rays. Even as we read, we can sort of sense Shaver wrestling with thoughts he doubtless regarded as dirty and therefore part of whatever was wrong with his head, itself expressed as the dominant theme of malevolent, invisible influence - whether it's those special rays or tiny men in the bloodstream.

Robert Moore Williams' The Huntress of Akkan is, roughly speaking, Abraham Merritt's The Face in the Abyss but with its team of plucky, hard-boiled adventurers mysteriously transported to another world. It's pleasant enough, and although it hints at some of the strangeness of Williams' later efforts, it lacks their ponderous and peculiar allegorical quality.

The rest of the magazine is competent but about what you would expect of its kind - pulpy and sort of predictable but not actually offensive; and Final Victim by Ray Bradbury and Henry Hasse isn't anything special. The pseudo-factual articles are more speculative than scientific, pretty much Charles Fort with a few grudging nods towards Einstein and the like; and there's The Bearded White Prophet by L. Taylor Hansen which suggests that Quetzalcoatl was almost certainly Caucasian, which is pure bollocks. If anyone familiar with this idea should still, in 2019, be wondering why it's all bollocks, it's because 1) the native records from which this legend derives were all written half a century after the conquest and represent an after the fact attempt to rationalise it, and b) some indigenous Mexicans actually could grow beards.

So it's underwhelming, but fascinating as an historical document, dating from before science-fiction was really a thing in the same way as it is now, even before the advent of the science-fiction paperback. Amazing Stories inhabited a world in which its genre was H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, a few other bits and pieces here and there, and then these generally frowned upon magazines with their lurid covers and arguably more in common with the trashier end of Hollywood than all that fancy book learnin'. Yet, there's worth here, even imagination, and if it amounts to compost in literary terms, then we should keep in mind that things grow very well in compost.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Anxious Comics

Daniel Bristow-Bailey Anxious Comics (2019)
The first issue, hand produced in a numbered edition of one-hundred, was tiny - A6, twenty pages - and while there was a lot going on with those twenty pages, it somehow seemed too insubstantial to review, as I might ordinarily have done on the grounds of it being something I've read. I felt as though I was stood at the edge of a precipice beyond which I might find myself compulsively writing reviews of instructions read from food packaging.

Anyway, three issues down the line, Anxious Comics now reveals itself to be of such quality that I would be negligent to stay silent. This is an ongoing story of more than sixty pages, with many more to go, I would imagine, and I'm intrigued. The art is gorgeous and confident, pleasantly chunky, sketchy suggesting spontaneity rather than anything else, reminding me alternately of Peter Rigg, Tintin, and various European things. The story is difficult to describe, and it's impossible to guess at where any of it might be going - somewhere between David Lynch and Yummy Fur before Chester Brown went off the rails. Daniel Bristow-Bailey may well be just making it all up as he goes along, throwing weird shit into the mix just for chuckles - the guy whose mother turns into a moth, the nude spectre which offers financial advice, and Vin Diesel as himself - but the even pace and the masterful way it all seems to fit together lend it the tone of a reasonably literary novel, which probably shouldn't be too much of a surprise given that the author has form in that respect.

I don't know how easy it's likely to be for anyone to catch up with these, given their being limited runs, but maybe he'll reprint at some point; and in the mean time you might like to keep an eye out for this one because it's genuinely wonderful.

Monday, 6 January 2020

London Fields

Martin Amis London Fields (1989)
Now I remember why I was supposed to avoid this one. All the characters are horrible and therefore lack relatability, or some other quality which people who don't actually read books doubtless regard as essential; and apparently Amis could learn a thing or two from Agatha Christie when it comes to plotting a murder mystery; and there are all those long, long words to consider…

It's all bollocks. Even in the event of relatability being an actual thing, the notion of these characters being horrible only truly works if you were expecting the cast of The Wizard of Oz, and whilst there's an argument to be had that Guy Clinch and Keith Talent are grotesques, I've actually known Keith Talent a few times, and mostly I quite like him for all that he's a bit of a cunt.

To start at the beginning, the story is that Nicola Six, a massively self-involved posh bird, foresees and orchestrates her own murder at the hands of a lover for reasons explained in the novel, albeit without yielding anything which could be distilled into a single tidy sentence. She's playing the sexual field, as is everyone else here, so it's probably going to be some crime of passion, leaving us with the question of whether it will be Guy or Keith; except not, because it doesn't really matter that much, this simply being the Christmas tree from which everything else is hung.

One might wonder how Amis came by the anthropological balls to write someone so resolutely of barely-working class stratum as Keith Talent whose dropped aitches and dedication to pub sports patently comes from something more immersive than watching a few episodes of EastEnders; and, for sake of qualification, I personally found Irvine Welsh writing about life amongst the betting shop clientele unconvincing and even slightly insulting. Amis, however, gets it absolutely spot on, even acknowledging the discomfort of the cheap holiday in someone else's misery with Sam Young, the author who is writing the book we're reading, hanging out with Keith, and trying not to let too much of himself or his alien values get in the way. In other words, it's complicated. Much of the narrative is a comment on this sort of anthropological exercise, notably the awful Crossbone Waters, the book within our book.

Amongst the most severely retarded of the critics seem to have been those taking issue with all the digressions, all that unfamiliar talky stuff going on in between the stage directions of someone walking across a room and then taking an object from a shelf. Woss 'e on abat nah? they ask. Woss'at got t'do wiv anyfink? Amazingly, all that extraneous word stuff is there to communicate the subject of the novel which, believe it or not, isn't primarily a murder mystery in the spirit of The Mousetrap. It's about determinism and free will, so far as I'm able to tell, with everyone set on a track seemingly leading to a particular inescapable destiny, much like the environmental collapse occurring in the background; and more than being subject to fate, the characters form the substance of their respective destinies - which I assume to be the reason for all the allusions to D.H. Lawrence, an author preoccupied with class and environment as inherent qualities of the individual, which is certainly true of Keith Talent. We tend to have forgotten about the approach of the millennium in 2019, but it was a big deal at the time.

The biggest surprises for me were firstly, just how funny this book is, albeit darkly funny and without cracking jokes; and secondly, how much of it reads like a significant influence on Lawrence Miles' This Town Will Never Let Us Go, which similarly explores the end of days by chasing three archetypes along their respective intertwined destinies.