Saturday, October 17, 2009

Clark Ashton Smith

100 Bullets Volume 2: Split-Second Chance by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (2001): There's an undeniable gut-level appeal to the basic idea of 100 Bullets. A mysterious group hands people who've been wronged the "undeniable evidence" of who wronged them and how, along with a handgun, 100 untraceable bullets, and complete immunity from police investigation and arrest. The "mythology" of the series starts to kick into high gear in this second volume, as the origins and purpose of The Minutemen -- two of whom are handing out these guns -- and the super-secret Secret Rulers of the World, The Trust, begin to be fleshed out.

It's all fairly gripping. Azzarello has always had a flair for hardboiled dialogue, while Risso's women almost all seem to embody a sort of grimy sluttishness that occasionally gets in the way of any deeper characterization -- he'd probably be the perfect artist for a Mike Hammer comic-book series. I'm not sure I've ever seen a comic book with more panels centered on the female ass in various stages of undress that wasn't simply pornography. As one of those women whose ass gets centre-panel prominence is pretty much the only continuing sympathetic character -- Dizzy -- one's ability to see her as a character and not as an exercise in drawing boobs and butts is severely compromised. Maybe that's the point, but there's something a bit exhausting (and exhausted) about a book where all the women are at least 34D's sporting thongs and hyper-exaggerated fuck-me collagen lips.

The Collected Short Stories of Clark Ashton Smith Volume 1: The End of the Story, Introduction by Ramsey Campbell (Collection 2007): Of the writers dubbed 'The Three Musketeers of Weird Tales' in the late 1930's, Smith remains the least well-known and, stylistically speaking, by far the best writer. Smith maintained voluminous correspondence with the other two Musketeers -- H.P. 'Cthulhu Mythos' Lovecraft and Robert E. 'Conan the Barbarian' Howard -- which allowed for the many textual crossovers among the three, most of them centered around Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos as Howard and Smith were encouraged to add gods, arcane books of supernatural lore, and weird creatures to Lovecraft's secondary world.

Unlike Lovecraft and Howard, Smith didn't die relatively young in the late 1930's but lived into the 1960's, though the bulk of his major writing did occur in the late 1920's and 1930's. Smith was a poet, sculptor and painter prior to turning his hand to prose at Lovecraft's encouragement, and may critics find Smith's prose to be both painterly and poetic in its attempts to conjure up alien worlds and alien creatures. And yes, even early in his career, Smith seems to have swallowed a thesaurus. But also early on, Smith modulates his dense and high-minded diction in the interests of portraying true alienation, scenes of wonder, scenes of horror, and even material that can be surprisingly (and intentionally) funny.

It's amazing how many major stories came out of Smith's first few years as a writer. Included here are standouts like "The Immeasurable Horror", "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros", "The Monster of the Prophecy" and "The Devotee of Evil", among others. "Horror" gives us the most monstrous blob of carnivorous goo ever seen in science fiction, while "Zeiros" manages to be both funny and horrible in its depiction of a charming rogue-thief (that would be Zeiros) and a treasure-hunting expedition gone horribly wrong. Smith isn't to everyone's tastes, but those who like him, as the beer commercial went, like him a lot.

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