Saturday, April 30, 2011

Horror '75

DAW Year's Best Horror Stories Series IV (1975), edited by Gerald W. Page (1976):


Introduction by Gerald W. Page
Forever Stand the Stones by Joseph F. Pumilia
And Don't Forget the One Red Rose by Avram Davidson
Christmas Present by Ramsey Campbell
A Question of Guilt by Hal Clement
The House on Stillcroft Street by Joseph Payne Brennan
The Recrudescence of Geoffrey Marvell by G. N. Gabbard
Something Had to Be Done by David Drake
Cottage Tenant by Frank Belknap Long
The Man with the Aura by R. A. Lafferty
White Wolf Calling by Charles L. Grant
Lifeguard by Arthur Byron Cover
The Black Captain by H. Warner Munn
The Glove by Fritz Leiber
No Way Home by Brian Lumley
The Lovecraft Controversy- Why? by E. Hoffmann Price

Page's first outing as editor of the DAW series is a solid one, bringing us (then) new stories from some very old horror masters (Price, Munn and Long all hail from the earliest days of the American horror pulps, and all had connections to H.P. Lovecraft; Price contributes an essay on a controversial L. Sprague de Camp biography of HPL; Munn's short, brutal story is a real dandy).

One sees some of those who'd come to writing maturity in the 1970's represented here, most notably a bit of a trifle from Ramsey Campbell; one of my ten favourite vampire stories ever by David Drake (vampires and Viet Nam -- yes!); a melancholy chiller from the late, great Charles L. Grant; and Brian Lumley's uncharacteristically (for the time) non-HPL derived tale of bad times on the English roadways. Old masters Leiber, Lafferty and Davidson also contribute interesting entries, while hard-science-fiction master Hal Clement manages an increasingly chilling non-supernatural (and non-cryptozoological) story about the origin of all vampires. Highly recommended.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Bossypants by Tina Fey (2011): Funny, breezy autobiography with very little dirt and a surprising amount of practical advice on comedy (the two-page section on 'How to Successfully Improv' is gold, Jerry, pure gold!). Some of the stuff on Fey's Sarah Palin is pretty interesting as well, combining the personal (Palin offered to have Bristol baby-sit Fey's duaghter during their co-appearance on Saturday Night Live) and the political (a few weeks later, Palin complained publically about all those mean impressions of her).

You'll find out that a certain number of 30 Rock bits are based on reality (including the propensity of some male writers at SNL to urinate into containers in their offices because they were too lazy to go to the bathroom), though you'll get very little on the day-to-day workings of the show or wacky stories about wacky goings-on -- probably because 30 Rock is still airing, making it a bit of a necessity to avoid the chance of ruffling any feathers.

Like Steve Carrell on The Office, Fey is a happily married parent who plays a gormless singleton. I'm not sure what that means in the Big Picture, but there it is. Fey also briefly explains where the scar on her face came from, a scar I wasn't actually aware she had until I read this autobiography. The Photoshopped cover riffs on Fey's experiences being on the covers of magazines, by the way. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

DAW The Year's Best Horror Series XI (1982), edited by Karl Edward Wagner

DAW The Year's Best Horror Series XI (1982), edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1983):


Introduction: One from the Vault by Karl Edward Wagner
The Grab by Richard Laymon
The Show Goes On by Ramsey Campbell
The House at Evening by Frances Garfield
I Hae Dream'd a Dreary Dream by John Alfred Taylor
Deathtracks by Dennis Etchison
Come, Follow! by Sheila Hodgson
The Smell of Cherries by Jeffrey Goddin
A Posthumous Bequest by David Campton
Slippage by Michael P. Kube-McDowell
The Executor by David G. Rowlands
Mrs. Halfbooger's Basement by Lawrence C. Connolly
Rouse Him Not by Manly Wade Wellman
Spare the Child by Thomas F. Monteleone
The New Rays by M. John Harrison
Cruising by Donald Tyson
The Depths by Ramsey Campbell
Pumpkin Head by Al Sarrantonio

1982 gives us a nice selection of horror stories ranging from M.R. James homages ("The Executor" and "Come, Follow!", the latter based on James's brief notes for stories he never got around to writing) to creepy contemporary horror ("Spare the Child", which makes overseas-foster-children sponsoring almost as scary as gormless middle-class Americans). Ramsey Campbell shows up twice, in both cases at least a bit meta for stories of a haunted cinema and a really haunted horror writer, respectively.

We also get short and punchy stories from Manly Wade Wellman and Mrs. Manly Wade Wellman (Frances Garfield), another mindfuck from M. John Harrison about, um, a bizarre new cancer treatment? Sarrantonio's "Pumpkin Head" is a Bradburyesque Hallowe'en story unconnected to the Lance Henriksen movie of the same name; Michael Kube-McDowell's "Slippage" manages to suggest classic Twilight Zone in its story of a man gradually being erased from history; and John Alfred Taylor gives us my nomination as the scariest supernatural hiking story ever written. Yes, it's a small sub-genre, but this one is a dandy. All in all, highly recommended.

Friday, April 22, 2011

30 Past

The Year's Best Horror Series X (1981), edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1982):


Introduction: A Decade of Fear by Karl Edward Wagner

Through the Walls by Ramsey Campbell

Touring by Michael Swanwick and Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann

Every Time You Say I Love You by Charles L. Grant

Wyntours by David G. Rowlands

The Dark Country by Dennis Etchison

Homecoming by Howard Goldsmith

Old Hobby Horse by A. F. Kidd

Firstborn by David Campton

Luna by G. W. Perriwils

Mind by Les Freeman

Competition by David Clayton Carrad

Egnaro by M. John Harrison

On 202 by Jeff Hecht

The Trick by Ramsey Campbell

Broken Glass by Harlan Ellison

Another year, another beautifully selected 'Year's Best' anthology edited by Karl Edward Wagner. Standouts among the standouts include "Through the Walls", Ramsey Campbell's tale of a nightmarish drug trip; "On 202", Jeff Hecht's story of a homecoming plagued by bad weather and worse memories; "Egnaro", another M. John Harrison story that reads like Borges as rewritten by Kafka and Robert Aickman; "The Dark Country", a rueful traveller's tale by the estimable, non pareil Dennis Etchison; and "Touring", in which a mysterious concert promoter stages a fairly unlikely triple bill of performers in a seemingly deserted Minnesota town. Other stories run the gamut from M.R. James homages to science fictional terror, and we get at least one humourous horror story, "Firstborn", that actually does manage to be both funny and horrifying. Highly recommended.


Saga of the Swamp Thing Volume 4, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch, Stan Woch, Ron Randall, Alfredo Alcala and Tom Mandrake (1985-86; collected 2011): Blessedly, DC continues to go with non-glossy-coated paper and relatively muted colours for the re-collected Swamp Thing series. I still have nightmares about the candy-coloured original collected paperback of Alan Moore's run, from the late 1980's.

Herein we get the second half of Alan Moore's longest arc on the series, the "American Gothic" storyline. As Swamp Thing visits more American supernatural hotspots, John Constantine gathers his occult forces as part of his plan to stop the Patagonian sorcerers' circle The Brujeria from unleashing the original, pre-Creation Darkness on the universe in an effort to destroy Heaven itself. In between battling serial killers and haunted houses, Swamp Thing learns more about the history of plant elementals on Earth, and why they are created periodically through the years.

Occult investigator John Constantine is already his old snarky self, though less of a magician than he'd later be in his own book. Moore's tour of DC's lesser-known occult characters is a lot of revisionist fun, as is the showdown between an allied army of demons, angels and mystical superheroes and the forces of the Original Darkness (or 'O.D.' as I like to call it!). Moore seems to delight in taking the piss out of some of DC's more pompous supernatural heroes (Dr. Fate and the Spectre take quite an uncharacteristic pounding) so that our favourite plant elemental can finally save the day.

While a lot of different artists worked on these issues, a fair level of artistic continuity is maintained; the real stand-out, though, is long-time Swamp Thing inker John Totleben's full-art duties on what was issue 48. It's an astonishingly high-level debut, presaging his horrifying, beautiful work on his later collaboration with Moore, Miracleman. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wretched Hexcess

Jonah Hex, written by William Farmer, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, based on the DC Comics character created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga, directed by Jimmy Hayward, starring Josh Brolin, John Malcovich, Megan Fox and Will Arnett (2010): This movie is staggeringly bad in an almost giddy way. Good actors, a number of whom I didn't know were in the movie until I saw the closing credits (I'm looking at you, Michaels Fassbender and Shannon!), really have nothing to work with but dreadful dialogue and inept staging.

This may be the longest 81-minute movie in history. It bears almost no resemblance to its excellent comic-book source, which was really, when it started in the 1970's, an attempt to translate a spaghetti Western into a mainstream comic book. That effort succeeded, and a pretty good Hex book is on the comic stands even now. But this thing...Holy Fuck! Pardon my French!

But it is fascinating. For one thing, I really came to believe by the end of the movie that we were looking at several different screenplays from which scenes had been pulled at random, filmed, and then assembled hastily. One movie seems to have been based on the Wild Wild West TV show and much-later Will Smith movie, giving us a steampunky Old West in which villainous Confederate General Malcovich plans to destroy Washington, DC on the night of America's centennial with a doomsday machine Super Cannon created for the U.S. government by Eli Whitney, who also created the Cotton Gin; Jonah Hex has his own anomalous high-tech guy make crazy-ass, future-looking weapons for him like a 19th-century Batman.

In another, scarred bounty hunter Hex (Brolin) tracks down killers in the Wild West in the 1870's. In another, Hex has magical powers that allow him to bring the dead back to life so he can get information from them (Pushing Daisies, anyone?). And in yet another movie, Hex has a loveable dog sidekick who vanishes and reappears depending on which script the film-makers are using at that point. Megan Fox's colossal fall from Fanboy starlet to has-been continues apace here -- she neither looks nor sounds like a prostitute from 1876, and her role is kept pretty minimal to hide her ineptitude.

What else? Flashbacks and confusing dream sequences, sometimes cut right into action sequences for added confusion; recurring flashbacks of the same scene; a badly animated opening sequence that condenses Hex's history so that we can get the stuff actually derived from comic books out of the way; Will Arnett as a weinery Union lieutenant; a ridiculously miscast Aidan Quinn as President Ulysses S. Grant; a climactic sequence that occurs entirely at night because the movie doesn't have the budget for a CGI climax one can fully see; a totally out-of-left-field use of Native Americans; almost no attention to Hex's actual backstory from the comic books. Choppy, confusing editing. But it's short! Really not recommended.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dr. Thirteen

The Year's Best Horror XIII (1984), edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1985):


Introduction: 13 Is A Lucky Number - Karl E. Wagner

Stephen King - Mrs. Todd's Shortcut
Charles L. Grant - Are You Afraid Of The Dark?
John Gordon - Catch Your Death
Gardner Dozois - Dinner Party
Daniel Wynn Barber - Tiger In The Snow
Ramsey Campbell - Watch The Birdie
David J. Schow - Coming Soon To A Theatre Near You
Leslie Halliwell - Hands With Long Fingers
Fred Chappell - Weird Tales
Jovan Panich - The Wardrobe
Vincent McHardy - Angst For The Memories
David Langford - The Thing In The Bedroom
John Brizzolara - Borderland
Roger Johnson - The Scarecrow
James B. Hemesath - The End Of The World
John Gordon - Never Grow Up
Charles Wagner - Deadlights
Dennis Etchison - Talking In The Dark

One of the strongest entries from Wagner's 15+ year run on DAW's Year's Best Horror series, with a gratifyingly broad and deep range of stories. Splatterpunk was still in its formative stages in 1984, so the violence levels in these stories generally never go above a Yellow Alert level. Comic horror (David Langford's "The Thing In The Bedroom"), science-fiction-horror (Gardner Dozois's "Dinner Party"), children's horror (the two entries from John Gordon) and even a prose adaptation of what was originally a story from a comic book (Charles Wagner's "Deadlights") represent some of the more off-beat offerings.

The King story isn't horror per se, though it is a charming piece that straddles the line between light and dark fantasy. Fred Chappell's story, from a literary journal, takes us through a nightmarish historical voyage that includes the weird-but-true meetings of Hart Crane and H.P. Lovecraft; Dennis Etchison heads into Misery territory, albeit with a decided twist; David Schow pits a Viet Nam vet against the bizarre proprietors of a repertory cinema in rundown L.A.; Roger Johnson presents an able M.R. James homage; Ramsey Campbell is at his drollest in a "true story" which I'm guessing (or hoping) isn't. Karl Edward Wagner was a world wonder; highly recommended.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

John Constantine in Iraq

Hellblazer: Pandemonium, written by Jamie Delano, illustrated by Jock (2010): Delano returns to John Constantine (Hellblazer), the British occult investigator/magician character whose first 40 or so issues he wrote back in the late 1980's after Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben and Rick Veitch created the character in Swamp Thing. He's working-class English and looks a lot like Sting, which explains why the movie Constantine had Canadian Keanu Reaves portray Constantine as an American living in Los Angeles. It makes perfect sense.

Delano has always been firmly in the Ramsey Campbell school of horror fiction -- wordy, literate, and concerned with evoking horror through off-kilter description moreso than sudden shocks or graphic violence, though both of those also have their role to play. Constantine is probably the world's greatest magician. He's also something of a bastard who tends to get his friends and companions killed during his forays against both supernatural and human evil. But he gets results, which has made him enemies in both Heaven and Hell.

Herein, coalition forces in Iraq track down Constantine in London, England to get his help with a peculiar occult problem they've discovered -- a prisoner who drives everyone crazy if he's not sedated. Soon, Constantine is waist-deep in blood as he tries to discover what the forces of Hell are up to in Iraq, though at least some of these demonic forces are also pagan deities (there's a brief shout-out to Pazuzu, the Babylonian demon who showed up in The Exorcist, while one of Constantine's demonic/pagan enemies from Delano's run on the comic also puts in a mythologically and geographically correct appearance).

With the help of a physically and emotionally scarred, Iraqi-born archaeologist, Constantine again manages to insert himself into the competing plans of governments and demons; Heaven, in this case, appears to be absent from the proceedings. I like Jock's art here more than I have on other projects -- he's understated in a way that reminds me of early Delano Hellblazer collaborator John Ridgway's art. The fantastic remains grounded, and dirty. Delano's become a better writer over the last 20-odd years -- there's none of the occasional straining for linguistic effect that could sometimes be a bit jarringly purple in early Hellblazer. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Hellboy without Hellboy

B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs, written by Mike Mignola, illustrated by Guy Davis and Dave Stewart (2004): The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence (B.P.R.D.), Hellboy's agency (much more efficient and much less comedic than in the misanthropic movies), takes on a case springing from one of the first Hellboy stories, only without Hellboy, who by the time of this volume is away on his soul-searching walkabout.

Lovecraftian horror and pulpy action-adventure dominate the proceedings, as a malignant super-mushroom attempts to conquer the planet by turning people into giant, vampiric frogs. Along the way, mysterious aquatic B.P.R.D. agent Abe Sapien learns at least part of his hitherto unknown origin. The action and grotesqueries are top-notch, as Hellboy and B.P.R.D.creator Mignola gives us a glimpse into the workings of the organization and its agents. Davis's art is nicely detailed throughout -- the man loves designing and drawing monsters, that's for sure. Recommended.

B.P.R.D.: The Soul of Venice and Other Stories, written by Mike Gunter, Michael Avon Oeming, Brian Augustyn, Geoff Johns, Scott Kolins, Joe Harris and Mike Mignola, illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming, Scott Kolins, Guy Davis, Cameron Stewart and Dave Stewart (2004): Several short stories of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence (B.P.R.D.), Hellboy's agency (much more efficient and much less comedic than in the misanthropic movies).

"The Soul of Venice" gives us chills, action, and a religion and cullture lesson on the mythic origins of the word 'cloacha' related to the city of Venice. Other stories pit the crew against muck monsters, witches, religious fanatics, giant children's toys, vengeful ghosts and other problems. All this and a welcome appearance from 1930's and 1940's B.P.R.D. hero Lobster Johnson. Writers and artists both clearly enjoy the chance to play in Mike Mignola's creator-owned sandbox with Mignola's toys, as well they should. Recommended.

Green Hell

The Green Woman, written by Peter Straub and Michael Weston, illustrated by John Bolton (2010): I hesitate to use the word 'dandy' when praising such a violent and disturbing graphic novel, but there it is. Straub, Weston and Bolton continue the story of uber-serial-killer Fielding 'Fee' Bandolier (a.k.a. a host of other names, all with the initials 'F.B.'), who we've seen previously in Straub's novels Koko and The Throat.

Viet Nam vet killing-machine Bandolier, now in his 60's, apparently seeks retirement to whatever rewards a seemingly supernatural being inhabiting the closed-down bar The Green Woman just outside Straub staple Millhaven, Illinois. Or is it Wisconsin? An obsessed, debauched cop called Bob Steele, named after an old-timey cowboy actor, has been pursuing Bandolier for years, tracking him by recognizing similar signatures in a host of seemingly unconnected serial killings across America. Two other serial killers are also operating, both obsessed with Bandolier's body of work. Two seemingly haunted bars -- The Green Woman and The Black Galleon, the latter in Ireland -- are also linked by the ship's figurehead, taken from the Galleon and relocated to The Green Woman some time in the past.

The Black Galleon was built from the timbers of a ship upon which all the sailors went mad and killed one another (as one character muses, the lumber probably came cheap). The Galleon wants its figurehead back. And Bandolier believes that his decades of killing have all been in service to some seemingly malign, female supernatural entity that demands he murder and mutilate women. As you can see, this is a light-hearted romp. The writing is crisp and evocative, the violence horrifying but not exploitative, Bolton's mostly photorealistic art jarring and occasionally disorienting to terrific effect. Not for the squeamish, but highly recommended.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Saving Superman

DC Comics Classics Library: Kryptonite Nevermore, written by Denny O'Neil, illustrated by Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson, Dick Giordano and Neal Adams (1971-72; collected 2009): The comic-book Superman seems to accrete mythology at a faster and more expansionary rate than any other long-running superhero, often to the detriment of decent storytelling.

The Last Son of Krypton's powers grew and grew over the first thirty years of his existence so that by the early 1970's, he was almost omnipotent. His supporting cast grew as well, with so many other Kryptonians added to the mix that it seemed like the real question was, did anyone other than Superman's parents die when Krypton exploded? Kryptonite now came in 31 flavours, and was so readily available that pretty much any street punk could lay his hands on a chunk.

Legendary Silver-Age editor Julius Schwartz took over the Superman books in the early 1970's and decided to shake things up. Clark Kent moved from newspaper to television. Superman gained a certain number of doubts and insecurities about his role on Earth. And, in the first major storyline in the Superman comic book after Schwartz took over, a reactor accident destroyed all Kryptonite on Earth.

This development turned out to be a fairly inspired bit of invention, as what initially seemed to be an attempt to make Superman less vulnerable instead made him less powerful: the accident had spawned a mysterious sand-creature which, over the course of a year, siphoned off a large portion of Superman's powers prior to their (seemingly) inevitable confrontation.

The art in this volume is the real selling point. Curt Swan had already been illustrating various adventures of Superman for more than a decade when Schwartz took over, but here, paired with inker Murphy Anderson, Swan's work soared with its unique mix of the grounded and the bombastic. Denny O'Neil's scripts aren't quite up to Swanderson's art -- he was much more at home with Batman. His Superman is bull-headed, a bit whiny, and occasionally something of a prick.

Later 1970's and early 1980's Superman writers such as Martin Pasko, Eliot S! Maggin and Cary Bates would work more fruitfully under Schwartz's editorial guidance, giving us what is, in retrospect, the finest sustained run on Superman comics in history. However, Superman's powers would rapidly ratchet up after O'Neil's stint as writer; Kryptonite would return; Superman would be, by the mid-1980's, again viewed as being hamstrung by the immensity of his powers and his mythology, leading to the complete reboot of John Byrne's Man of Steel miniseries. And now, 25 years after that, Superman is pretty much back in the same jam. Reboot, anybody? Recommended.

A Nightmare for Filmgoers

Nightmare on Elm Street, written by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, based on the movie of the same name written and directed by Wes Craven, directed by Samuel Bayer, starring Rooney Mara, Kyle Gallner and Jackie Earle Haley (2010):

"Initially, Fred Krueger was intended to be a child molester, however the decision was changed to him being a child murderer to avoid being accused of exploiting a spate of highly publicized child molestations that occurred in California around the time of production of the film.[9]" -- Wikipedia entry on the original A Nightmare on Elm Street movie (1984).

Well, we come first to the first problem with this leaden remake of what is generally considered to be, at the very least, one of the well-made slasher films of the 1970's and 1980's. In the original, Freddy is a child-murderer. Somehow, this seems way more wholesome than pedophile, which is what the new Freddy is -- though he's a pedophile who appears to be sexually attracted to the late-teen-aged versions of his pre-school victims.

Psychologically speaking, this somehow manages to be both ridiculous and truly repulsive because of the way the movie operates. We're still on a roller-coaster ride. This isn't a remake of Fritz Lang's criminal underworld vs. sweaty little pedophile/child-killer masterpiece M. The pedophilia referred to throughout the movie sucks pretty much all the air out of this reboot; what remains gets sucked out by the pedestrian minds of the film-makers.

The original Freddy was an interesting character because he talked. A lot. The other two serial-killer icons of the first Slasher Film era, Jason and Michael Myers, were pretty much mute killing machines. Freddy Krueger instead had the tendency towards awful jokes and puns that had previously been seen only in James Bond-type heroes and the grisly hosts of 1950's horror anthology comics that included such titles as The Crypt of Terror and The Vault of Horror (this would be officially adapted as Tales from the Crypt on HBO).

Of course, the real draw of the series was original writer-director Wes Craven's realization that nightmares were both scary and a fertile playground for slasher-type horror. Later writers on the series would take this further into the realms of the uncanny and the surreal, while Craven, when he returned for the New Nightmare, reimagined Freddy as a sort of tulpa figure threatening the world of the filmmakers themselves, given physical form by millions of movie-watchers.

Here, though, we're trapped in a world of sketchily written characters both teenaged and adult, and in a concept made far too heavily disturbing to be the foundation of this type of movie. You can't have a pedophilia-themed haunted house ride. It's fucking ridiculous. The actors do what they can with the material, but there's really nothing to be done withy the material as it thuds and blunders its way to another "shocking" twist ending which only caused me to say, out loud, "Oh, great. Now he's Candyman too!" Not recommended.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


The Year's Best Horror VIII, edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1980, for the year 1979): Wagner's first year as editor for DAW's seminal, annual horror anthology gives us more than a dozen stories ranging from very good to classic, carefully selected (as was Wagner's M.O.) from a wide array of genre magazines, mainstream magazines, low-print-run chapbooks and assorted other venues. Wagner, who died in 1994, was one the horror genre's five or six greatest editors, and a fine writer as well.

Wagner's first effort for DAW is wide-ranging, combining first or second efforts from a couple of writers, stories from established writers, and at least one return to the genre by one of the Golden Age's more skilful writers ("From the Lower Deep" by Hugh B. Cave, a dandy of atmosphere and misdirection). Splatterpunk was still a few years away in 1980, and few of the stories are particularly graphic. A fine balance is struck between realistic horror (the best of these being old hand Davis Grubb's "The Babysitter") and the supernatural, with all the shadings between those two poles. The Ramsey Campbell story included here is a bit of a curiosity, though a very effective one -- "To Wake the Dead" is really the prologue to Campbell's excellent novel The Parasite.

Harlan Ellison gets two selections; 1979 really marks the end of Ellison's most fruitful years as a short-story writer, and while "In the Fourth Year of the War" is a dandy, "All the Birds Come Home to Roost" seems awfully dated now, and a tad like a misogynist's fantasy of horror (a guy who's had a lot of sex with women suddenly starts having those women show up in his life for a one-night stand, in reverse chronological order, leading him backwards to his first wife, who's been in a mental asylum for decades and, I guess, is going to drive him crazy or something when she returns, given that she mumbled a lot and made him feel bad, but then he punched her, and then she got committed. In any event, the poor guy just keeps getting jumped by his previous conquests as some sort of cosmic punishment. Maybe this only qualified as horror in the Swinging 70's).

But enough of my yakking. Wagner would ultimately edit these annual books until his death, when DAW discontinued the line. This one and the others are all well worth picking up used for both their literary and historical value. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Kids in the Hell

Brat Pack, written and illustrated by Rick Veitch (1990-91; this edition 2005): When Veitch started work on Brat Pack back in late 1989, DC's ridiculous phone-in campaign to determine whether Robin would live or die was fresh in everyone's memories. Of course, this wasn't the Dick Grayson Robin, but Robin II, Jason Todd, who'd been rewritten after the company-wide Crisis on Infinite Earths to be a maladjusted teen-aged jerk...almost as if killing Robin was always on someone's mind (his original origin was pretty much the same as Dick Grayson's -- circus performer, daredevil, nice kid; after the Crisis, he was a street punk whom Batman selected to be Robin because...wait for it...Jason Todd stole the wheels off the Batmobile).

Kid sidekicks sorta worked in the 1940's, when child labour was still at least partially acceptable in the U.S., and when superhero comic books didn't strive for quasi-realism. Ostensibly, child sidekicks (Robin seemed to be about 10 at the beginning) worked as wish-fulfillment/identification figures for the child readers of superhero comics, though great American cartoonist (and once-upon-a-time comic-book sweatshop artist) Jules Feiffer once noted that he never met anyone, including himself, who identified with Robin -- kids want to be Batman.

In any case, kid sidekicks proliferated once Robin was introduced into the Batman canon in 1940; the most notable were Green Arrow's Speedy, Captain America's Bucky and, much later, Wonder Woman's Wonder Girl and the Flash's Kid Flash, though the latter two generally appeared on their own or with other teen superheroes, only teaming up rarely with their mentors (ditto for Supergirl). The first kid sidekick to die in action was Bucky, as revealed in Captain America's return to comic-book action in the early 1960's, though more than 40 years later Bucky would (like most comic-book characters) un-die.

Brat Pack meditates, sometimes horrifically, sometimes offensively, on both sidekicks and their changing meanings within comic books and the culture at large. 1950's psychologist Frederic Wertham saw in Batman and Robin an offensive homosexual couple (yeah, I know -- technically Batman would be a pedophile, given Robin's apparent age, but Wertham, like a lot of later bigots, doesn't differentiate); in Wonder Woman, a lesbian bondage queen; in superheroes an endless parade of offense to the morals and minds of America's youth. Oh, Wertham.

Veitch's thorniest problem lies in his characterization of Batman stand-in Midnight Mink as Wertham's version of Batman. Many critics characterized this as homophobia, missing the point, I think -- Veitch's commentary is on just that sort of thinking applied to children's books by adults. There's also a strong sense of disgust at how the adultification of superheroes in the 1970's and 1980's made child sidekicks logically untenable but commercially ever-necessary: corporations almost never willingly lay down a copyrighted character so long as there may be more money to be made.

Even the Robin phone-in is thrown in, as the citizen's of Veitch's Slumburg phone in to a radio show to voice their desire to see the kid sidekicks of Slumburg's four remaining major superheroes die (Superman-alike Maximortal left ten years earlier, plunging the city and the world into a crime-filled depression that they've never recovered from, and causing the remaining superheroes to become debased, ultraviolent parodies of themselves. Yep, just like mainstream superhero comics in the 1980's!).

And so another blisteringly satiric ride through superhero tropes and histories begins, along with a climax that crosses over into Maximortal. This is great, angry work. Highly recommended.

Superman's Dead

Maximortal, written and illustrated by Rick Veitch (1992-93; this edition 2005): Rick Veitch may have the most underground comix-like mentality of any writer/artist to periodically create comics for the major mainstream publishers. His work can be scabrously vicious in its satire, but that's often balanced by the sentiment his stories show for the true underdogs. Maximortal is, on its surface, Veitch's wildly revisionist take on both Superman and the history of Superman as both a concept and a comic-book character. But it's also a wild ride through history, and not just comic-book history. That one of its fundamental elements is a misreading of Nietzsche may irk the philosophically inclined. Or maybe not.

Maximortal is a nightmarish, exhilirating ride through the history of the Golden Age of the American comic-book industry, which began with the appearance of Superman in 1938. In the real world, Superman's creators -- Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- got royally screwed by their publisher, giving up rights to their character from the get-go because they were kids who wanted to get their creation into print after it had been rejected by every comic-strip syndicate for the past five years. The shameful treatment of Siegel, Shuster and their heirs continues to the present day -- Google 'Joanne Siegel last letter Time Warner.'

Veitch replaces Superman with True-man the Maximortal, and Siegel and Shuster with two similar creators whose travails echo not only those of Superman's creators, but also those of Bill Finger (co-creator of Batman who, thanks to co-creator Bob Kane's business acumen, cannot legally be referred to as such by DC/Time Warner to this day; Finger died an alcoholic in near-poverty in the early 1970's; Kane died a rich man in the 1990's) and a host of others. Running parallel to this story (or more accurately, interwoven with this story) is the tale of the 'real' Maximortal, discovered by a childless couple in 1918 and subsequently kept under wraps by the U.S. government.

And then there's a seemingly timeless Maximortal, constantly thwarted in his/hers/its attempts to free itself from the chains of linear time by a magician called El Guano, who uses seemingly magical human feces (dubbed 'Craptonite') to harm the Maximortal. Analogues for various historical figures, including Einstein, Oppenheimer, comic-book legends Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, President Truman, and doomed TV Superman George Reeves appear. Maximortal's creators are ground down by the comics industry. Will truth and justice prevail? That's a good question.

Maximortal is supposed to be part of a five-volume series by Veitch collectively entitled the 'King Hell Heroica,' of which only this volume and the earlier Brat Pack have appeared. The story here doesn't really end (indeed, the 'climax' only makes complete sense if one has already read Brat Pack...and vice versa). Actually, the story really begins at the ending.

In any case, this is a brilliant, brutal book. Its revisionist take on what superheroes might really be like will probably seem familar by now, with two decades of such takes -- often in the mainstream -- behind us, but its horrified, Juvenalian scream at the horrors of history, and of comic-book history, remains fresh and startling and bracing. Highly recommended.