Friday, October 21, 2011

Of Inhuman Bondage

Marvel Masterworks: The Inhumans Volume 2, written by Doug Moench, Scott Edelman and Marv Wolfman, illustrated by George Perez, Gil Kane, Keith Pollard, Al Milgrom, Bob Hall, Terry Austin and others (1975-78; collected 2010): Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created the Inhumans during their long and essential run on their Fantastic Four title in the 1960's.

The product of genetic experiments by the mighty, interstellar Kree Empire intended to create biological weapons, the Inhumans are basically a race of super-heroes. Led by the ever-silent Black Bolt (who can destroy things by whispering, much less talking) and the rest of his royal family (wife Medusa and cousins Crystal, Gorgon, Triton and Karnak), the Inhumans avoid contact with humans while they hide away in their Himalayan city of Attilan.

They're great supporting characters. As the leads in their own book, they've never been much of a success. This volume collects the entire run (all 12 issues) of their first standalone, continuing series from the mid-1970's, along with other appearances from that time period.

Doug Moench struggles mightily to invest these ciphers with defining characteristics beyond the simplistic (Black Bolt is noble! Gorgon complains all the time!) while also situating them within a much more blatantly science-fictional universe than that surrounding most other Marvel characters. Genetic engineering and space travel yield a number of productive storylines, as does the internal and external politics of the Kree Empire. Black Bolt's nobility is put to the test again and again. Everybody, human and alien, seems to either despise the Inhumans or want a piece of them. They're like mutants in the Marvel Universe, only moreso.

As Moench notes in his introduction, Kirby and Lee were playing with Chariots of the Gods material when they originally created the Inhumans -- aliens tampering with human evolution and human history. The names of many of the Inhumans are drawn from human mythology, suggesting that they may be the source of certain myths. And of course there's the city of Attilan, its name echoing Atlantis, which once was an island on the ocean until the Inhumans moved it to the Himalayas. Jack Kirby would further indulge his Space-gods ideas in the New Gods and the Eternals; in the Inhumans we find more of a rough draft, still more tortured mutants than gods (I'm assuming that's mostly the work of Lee).

The great George Perez pencilled several issues of the continuing series, giving the reader solid superhero work that already shows flashes of the top-end superhero artist he would fully become by the early 1980's. Gil Kane and the always solid Keith Pollard also pencil some issues. The whole thing doesn't really go anywhere, but the ride is enjoyable. Recommended.

Plastic Fan

Plastic Man Archives Volume 4, written and illustrated by Jack Cole (1945-46; collected 2005): Jack Cole sure was dandy, writing and drawing (with the help of assistants) the adventures of stretchable hero Plastic Man for more than a decade before he moved onwards and upwards to the world of syndicated cartoons and Playboy and, alas, suicide at a relatively young age before the 1950's were through.

In later years, Cole would all but disown his comic-book work. But it's his work on Plastic Man he'll live on through, one of the two or three best and most beloved comic books of the 1940's.

Cole's comic-book world is gloriously cartoony and aesthetically fluid and unhinged. Plastic Man can pretty much stretch into any shape or size, allowing Cole to play tricks with internal panel composition and with the boundaries between representational cartooning and the purely surreal.

Cole may have hated this work even as he did it, but none of that shows in this volume, which is as jolly and inventive both visually and narratively as one could want. Cole astounds in a way that few comic writer-artists ever have. His work is a joy to behold as he helps invent the visual language of comic books. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Homicide Machines

Machines That Kill, edited by Fred Saberhagen and Martin H. Greenberg (1984) including "Killdozer!" (1944) by Theodore Sturgeon, "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" (1961) by Cordwainer Smith, "Hunting Machine" (1957) by Carol Emshwiller, "Auto-da-Fe" (1967) by Roger Zelazny, "Second Variety" (1953) by Philip K. Dick, "Under the Hammer" (1974) by David Drake, "Lost Memory" (1952) by Peter Phillips, "Making the Connections" (1975) by Barry N. Malzberg, "Steel" (1956) by Richard Matheson, "The Iron Chancellor" (1958) by Robert Silverberg, "The Wabbler" (1942) by Murray Leinster, "The Cruel Equations (1971) by Robert Sheckley, "Combat Unit" (1960) by Keith Laumer, "Fondly Fahrenheit" (1954) by Alfred Bester, and "Goodlife" (1963) by Fred Saberhagen:

Generously overstuffed, tiny-print 1980's paperback reprint anthology edited by Saberhagen, creator of the anti-life killer machines called Berserkers by the humans who have to fight them, and the ubiquitous anthologist Martin H. Greenberg.

The machines here aren't always self-willed in their attempts to kill people or animals, or even malevolent when they do so, and the tone of the stories ranges from hard-edged military drama like that seen in David Drake's "Under the Hammer" to the bleakly humourous and satiric "Hunting Machine", "The Iron Chancellor", "Auto-da-Fe" and "The Cruel Equations." We visit the odd and oddly believeable world of humanity's far future in "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard," one of Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind stories, and the world of the now-past in Theodore Sturgeon's then-contemporary WWII-era "Killdozer!".

Some stories, like Cordwainer Smith's, form part of larger story and novel cycles, such as "Goodlife" (the aforementioned Berserker stories), " Combat Unit" (Laumer's Bolo series), and Drake's Hammer's Slammers military/mercenary science-ficton universe ("Under the Hammer"). At least three of these stories have been adapted at least once for television or movies -- "Steel" (as the Twilight Zone episode "Steel" and the 2011 movie Real Steel), "Killdozer!" (as a 1970's TV movie of the same name) and "Second Variety" (as Screamers). All and all, a solid anthology with a nice mix of the often-anthologized and the overlooked. Recommended.


Needing Ghosts by Ramsey Campbell (1990): Dandy standalone novella about one incredibly bad, odd day in the life of a writer. Campbell's command of the limited third-person voice is, as always, razor sharp in terms of working through the thoughts of a protagonist while maintaining a slight, objective distance.

Campbell's recurring tropes get full play here: strange shapes just slightly off-centre, seen in the distance or through something obscuring vision; a reality which baffles the protagonist more and more as the narrative develops; cool or even hostile reactions from the people whom the protagonist meets. The story occupies a day in the life, but there doesn't really seem to be any day as time itself (or is it just light?) bends and collapses.

Some of the fears explored here are indeed writerly. The protagonist's attempt to speak to a writers' group goes nightmarishly wrong, as do his attempts to find copies of his books in the baffling number of bookstores he stumbles across in close proximity to one another. But these are all yoked to more universal fears of bodily and mental disintegration, of fight or flight, of terrible and increasingly justified paranoia. It's a lovely, dense little tale. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 10, 2011


(L-R): Joh Fredersen, Rotwang and the robot. Yes, Rotwang's look influenced Peter Sellers's Dr. Strangelove, Christopher Lloyd's Doc Brown and Christopher Walken's Max Schreck in BATMAN RETURNS.
Metropolis, adapted by Thea von Harbou from her novel of the same name, directed by Fritz Lang, starring Alfred Abel (Joh Fredersen), Gustav Frohlich (Freder Fredersen), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Rotwang), Fritz Rasp (The Thin Man), Theodor Loos (Josaphat), Erwin Biswanger (11811 - Georgy), Heinrich George (Grot), and Brigitte Helm (The Machine Man/Maria) (1927; this version restored 2010) (145 minutes; 210 minutes premiere, 153 minutes mass distribution):

Simplistic in characterization and message (that message, flashed on the screen at the start, really is, quite simply, "The Heart must be the Mediator between the Head and the Hands!", with the figurative level of this statement simply being Head = Management/Government, Hands = Workers/Citizens and Heart = unh, somebody who wants to mediate between the two), Metropolis is nonetheless a towering achievement in science-fiction film for the complexity and scope of its visual and special effects. Its vast and teeming cityscape looms over later science-fictional cities such as those in Blade Runner and Batman Returns, as do many other often startling visual elements herein.

In today's dollars, Metropolis would have cost something north of $200 million, and it nearly bankrupted the German studio that produced it. Lang wouldn't return to epic science fiction again, and would flee the Nazis for Hollywood in the 1930's, there to become a well-regarded director of film noir. Along with the expressionistic German crime film M., Metropolis is a high point of his career. He's one of the essential directors of world cinema's rapid stage of artistic growth in the 1920's.

The film itself depicts a battle between labour and management, who in the world of the future are also governor and governed. Down below the streets of Metropolis (yes, the city really is called Metropolis), workers manipulate often hilariously touchy machines to keep the city running. Apparently the city of the future is in constant danger of being blown up if a worker passes out at his 12-hour shift. As is often the case in science-fiction movies and television shows, the designers of the future have never heard of fail-safes or fuse boxes.

Up above, the rich frolic. But young Freder Fredersen, son of city patriarch Joh Fredersen, falls in love with a young, beautiful revolutionary, Maria, and tries to make things better for everybody. In response, Joh Fredersen gets old, crazy-ass, crazy-haired scientist/magician Rotwang to make a rabble-rousing robot in the likeness of Maria to destroy the revolution. But Rotwang has his own vengeful plans. And some idiot has built the Undercity of the workers directly below the reservoir! Oh noes! Will the dangerous idiocy of the designers of this city never end?

Rotwang and Maria/Robot-Maria are beautifully acted. Brigitte Helm's Robot-Maria moves like a demented marionette in contrast to normal Maria's more languid movements. Of course, this is a silent movie, with silent-movie acting -- big gestures and big facial expressions. But Helm really stands out.

Then there are the visuals of the film: massive sets, detailed models, and visual effects that, in total, took two years to complete, given the technical limitations of the time. Much of the movie still looks terrific, most notably the scene in which Rotwang gives life to Robot-Maria. Lang also used astonishingly large armies of extras for many scenes. Metropolis is a film that could only be made with CGI today unless the filmmaker had an unlimited budget.

This version, compiled in 2010 using newly discovered 16mm footage, is almost complete -- written narration explains the two missing segments. It would be nice if someone fronted the money to fix up the 16mm footage, which is still quite damaged and not the same aspect ratio as the rest of the film. James Cameron? Spielberg? You listening? For a couple of million bucks of CGI, you could fix one of the most important movies ever made!

In any event, don't make the mistake of watching one of the cheapo, 90-minute versions that still populate discount DVD bins everywhere. And really, really, really avoid the 88-minute-or-so 1980's version with the Giorgio Moroder (Flashdance, Footloose) soundtrack. Seriously. Highly recommended.

Up From Earth's Centre

What the HPL?
New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by Ramsey Campbell, containing "Crouch End" by Stephen King, "The Star Pools" by A. A. Attanasio, "The Second Wish" by Brian Lumley, "Dark Awakening" by Frank Belknap Long, "Shaft Number 247" by Basil Copper, "Black Man with a Horn" by T. E. D. Klein, "The Black Tome of Alsophocus" by H. P. Lovecraft & Martin S. Warnes, "Than Curse the Darkness" by David Drake and "The Faces at Pine Dunes" by Ramsey Campbell (1980):

Campbell's first published stories mostly got bought and published by H.P. Lovecraft's publishing champion August Derleth in the early 1960's when Campbell was in his teens. Campbell rapidly grew into one of the most formidable, if not the most formidable, talents in horror fiction. He partially repaid his debt to Derleth (who died in 1971) with this anthology, initially published by Derleth's pivotal Arkham House Press.

Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos was neither internally consistent nor called 'The Cthulhu Mythos' at the time of HPL's death in 1937. But Lovecraft's vast web of writerly correspondents had already begun working in a loosely consistent shared universe before HPL's death, with HPL's blessing, and that shared universe would only grow larger and larger over the decades. Now that the Cthulhu Mythos has engulfed South Park, Supernatural and Hunter S. Thompson, can world domination be far behind?

The nine stories herein range from a pastiche which fleshes out one of Lovecraft's story fragments ("The Black Tome of Alsophocus") to a creepy, allusive dystopia that makes no overt reference to anything in the Cthulhu Mythos, though it appears to be clearly set within that universe if one has even a passing acquaintance the Mythos ("Shaft 247"). In between are gems like David Drake's hard-case, Conradian "Than Curse the Darkness", Stephen King's London-taxi-cab-ride-gone-horribly-wrong "Crouch End", T.E.D. Klein's subtle and bleakly funny "Black Man with a Horn" and Campbell's own tale of teenage angst and amorphous horrors in "The Faces at Pine Dunes."

The last five stories named above have all been anthologized multiple times since their first appearance, and for good reason. Between about 1976 and 1981, Campbell edited three major original horror anthologies -- Superhorror, this book and New Terrors -- during what was a high point for original-to-book-form horror anthologies. All of them, including this one, are dandy. Derleth would have been proud.

However, the cover of the only paperback edition of this anthology (which cost me $23 used, by the way, plus shipping and handling, and was worth every squamous, batrachian penny) takes a risible scene from Brian Lumley's so-so Robert E. Howard homage "The Second Wish" and runs down the hall and into the exploitative bookstalls of the world with it. I'm pretty sure Campbell, and the ghost of H.P. Lovecraft, must have had a laugh over the paperback publisher's choice of subject matter. Ai! Highly recommended.

Algae Bloom

Capitalism: A Love Story, written and directed by Michael Moore (2009): Didactic, skewed to the left, factually dubious at points, and absolutely essential: these are the qualities of Michael Moore's documentary movies and television programs since he first exploded into America's consciousness in 1989 with Roger & Me like a working-class, ballcap-wearing Kool-Aid Man. Capitalism: A Love Story offers something more than a depressing look at the impact of decades of business-first policies on ordinary Americans, though, as it also longs for some sort of rebirth of American social consciousness.

At points we might as well be watching a horror movie. Or we are watching a horror movie. By the time you watch a family who's been forced out of their home by endlessly escalating mortgage payments rehired by the bank that kicked them out to clean out their old house, you may feel a bit sick. Or maybe not. It's an awful narrative.

So is watching the various Goldman Sachs employees who helped create the financial "crisis" get jobs with the U.S. government to help fix it. Blaugh.

Or discovering the long list of American companies and banks that take out life-insurance policies on their own employees, secretly, so as to benefit if the employee dies. As one insurance investigator points out, it's illegal to take out fire insurance on someone else's property because of the obvious benefits attached to then burning down that person's home. But no such illegality attaches in the U.S. to insuring one's employees without their knowledge. Un-fucking-believeable.

Tim Robbins's striking, albeit one-note, 1990 political satire Bob Roberts had the eponymous neo-con sing a song called "Times are Changin' Back." Yes, yes they are. Or are they? The deep-seated nostalgia among a large swath of the American and Canadian population for a Golden Age that never really existed is strikingly sinister, as is the targeting of those least responsible for our current economic woes for the lion's share of the blame.

Meanwhile, Wall Street continues its esoteric economic fiddling while America burns. A small group of shareholders matters more than a large group of workers: it's simple numbers, big numbers. Capitalism, as Kurt Vonnegut once noted, is simply what all the rich people, drunk or sober, are doing today. And one of the smart things Capitalism: A Love Story does is show how utterly disconnected the people at the top are from the consequences of their actions. Failure, whether you're a Goldman Sachs trader or the Treasury Secretary, has no downside: you'll still be an expert, you'll still get your bonus, you'll still be able to book speaking tours and gigs on TV.

But God help you if you screw up at your minimum-wage job.

The ostensive efficient Social Darwinism of capitalism only functions at the bottom: there is no real selection at the top. And Social Darwinism was always a crock. Actual Darwinism places life forms within the context of an entire ecosystem which can be destroyed if something goes wrong with even one of its constituent parts. The ecosystem is the economy; Wall Street and its siblings have become the mutated algae that kills everything in the pond. But at least the algae lacks agency, and it doesn't blame the carp. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Shelter from the Storm

The Graveyard Book, written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean (2008): After a run of stinky book and comic-book projects, Gaiman returned to form with this riff on Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book that won several major awards, including children's novel honours the Carnegie Medal and the Newbery. Rather than being raised by a forest of animals like Mowgli, young Nobody Owens is raised by the mostly dead inhabitants of an English graveyard.

He doesn't start off as Nobody Owens. Instead, an 18-month-old toddler fortuitously wanders into a no-longer-active graveyard on the same night his parents and sister are killed by a mysterious, knife-wielding man called only Jack. The ghosts of the graveyard and the mysterious Guardian we know only as Silas -- supernatural but not a ghost -- band together to protect and raise the baby they christen Nobody Owens (or 'Bod' for short) over the next 13 years or so. The killer continues to look for Bod, so the child remains for the most part inside the graveyard at all times.

Thankfully, being granted The Freedom of the Graveyard by its inhabitants also grants Bod a number of supernatural powers, though he does have to practice to perfect them. Eventually, he can walk through walls while in the graveyard, fade from sight almost anywhere, and induce a certain measure of fear in others if he concentrates.

Needless to say, all these powers will be needed by the end of the book. Jack's still out there, and he has friends. In a subtextual narrative reminiscent of Clive Barker's Nightbreed (though much, much more child-friendly), The Graveyard Book pits the mysterious supernatural "monsters" of horror fiction's long history against the knife-wielding maniacs of horror's more recent past.

The ghosts of the graveyard are a lively bunch from throughout history -- the graveyard has been active in one form or another for several thousand years. A mysterious but strangely pitiful magical being that calls itself a Sleer guards a treasure cache and a grave hidden within a mound; one of the tombstones is a "Ghoul Gate" (every cemetery has one) through which carrion-eating ghouls come and go from their strange, red-skied land; adjacent to one part of the graveyard is an unhallowed, unmarked grave area in which witches and others were interred. Bod's Guardian Silas has physical form outside the graveyard, and so he can fetch food, clothing and books when necessary.

Gaiman portrays Bod's journey to being a teenager with a lot of zing, sentiment, and cleverness. Homages and references to other works of the supernatural abound, either obliquely in the persons of Silas and the stern but helpful Miss Lupescu, or slightly more noticeably with the episode that involves the ghouls and pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft's odd, dream-like narrative The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. All in all, this is a jolly, engaging book from the writer of The Sandman and Stardust and Coraline, suitable for anyone above the age of 8 or thereabouts. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Make the Warrior Princess Take Notes...

All-Star Comics Archives Volume 1, introduction by Don Thompson, written by Gardner F. Fox, illustrated by Sheldon Moldoff, Bernard Baily, Everett Hibbard, Howard Sherman, Howard Purcell and others (1940-41; collected 1992): A combination of exhilaration and exasperation accompanies my reading of most Golden-Age (that is, 1937-1949) American superhero comic books. One can see both a genre and a medium being defined and refined, sometimes boldly, sometimes wrongly, sometimes ineptly. And as per Sturgeon's Law, at least 90% of it is crap. Maybe 99%.

Before the Avengers, the Justice League of America, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the X-Men -- before all other superhero teams and superhero groups -- was the Justice Society of America, debuting in 1940 in issue 3 of All-Star Comics, just less than 3 years after the appearance of the first American superheroes. The group comprised the company now known as DC's Golden Age superhero stable, with a few notable exceptions: Superman and Batman were honorary members who almost never appeared, as the Society was used to help promote 'DC's' less popular heroes, while Wonder Woman would generally only act as recording secretary and not an actual fighting member of the group.

The most active original members of the JSA would range from the fairly famous (the original Green Lantern and original Flash) to the more obscure (comic relief Johnny Thunder and Red Tornado, the original Atom, Hourman, Dr. Fate, and the Spectre). Heroes with earth-shaking cosmic powers (the Lantern and his magic ring, Flash, Fate, Spectre and, surprisingly perhaps, Johnny Thunder and his magical intelligent pink thunderbolt) sat beside heroes with limited powers (Hourman, whose Miraclo pills gave him an hour of enhanced strength), powerful gadgets (Starman, Dr. Midnite, Hawkman, Sandman) or no powers or gadgets at all (the dreary Atom, whose power was that he was really strong for a height-challenged person. And he wasn't a really strong dwarf or midget -- he was maybe 5'2". Really, every JSA adventure should have ended with the dead body of the Atom being taken to Paradise Island to be revived with the super-healing Purple Ray, his revival being accompanied by the other heroes standing around laughing about how he got killed in every adventure by someone with a handgun or just a pointy stick. It wasn't until the Silver Age that a character named Atom got appropriate, and appropriately awesome, super-shrinking powers).

The first two issues of All-Star Comics published individual adventures of what would soon be Justice Society members; the third issue featured the origin of the Justice Society. And what an origin! A bunch of superheroes decide to get together in a hotel banquet room and talk during dinner!

OK, dramatic it's not. In the 1970's, writer Paul Levitz and artists Joe Staton and Bob Layton would give the JSA a truly awesome origin story, complete with Batman and Superman, but for now they are a jovial, joking sausage party (Wonder Woman was still a year away). They don't even fight crime together in that first issue, instead telling tales of individual heroism. But by issue 4, they were fighting crime in what would be the first model of a JSA story, individually tackling criminals in stories drawn by different artists (but all written by Gardner F. Fox) before coming together at the end of the story. Eventually, they'd do more teaming up, at least in pairs or trios, prior to the final gathering.

The art ranges from awful through competent to interesting. Sheldon Moldoff, later a Batman artist with a much different style, here does his best Alex Raymond impersonation on Hawkman; Bernard Baily does some really peculiar work on the Spectre; Howard Sherman does his typically weird, offbeat stuff (including the oddest lettering of the Golden Age) on Dr. Fate. The only real greatness here is the core concept of heroes getting together. As one can see from the hype surrounding next year's Avengers movie, that's still a concept with a lot of pop-cultural heft. Recommended.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Mighty Matheson

The Shores of Space by Richard Matheson, containing "Being," "Pattern For Survival," "Steel," "The Test," "Clothes Make The Man," "Blood Son," "Trespass," "When Day Is Dun," "The Curious Child," "The Funeral," "The Last Day," "Little Girl Lost," and "The Doll That Does Everything" (1957): Thanks to his own television and movie work, and adaptations of his stories for those media by him and others, and all the parodies and homages and outright steals of his ideas by the makers of movies and TV shows, Richard Matheson has become one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century when it comes to popular culture. And he's still alive. It's a remarkable career, but it all started with the printed page, and an astonishing and prolific run of stories and novels in the 1950's and early 1960's, a time period from which this collection hails.

I suppose Matheson's closest 'lookalike' is Robert Bloch, about ten years older but with a similar pedigree in several media. Bloch's most famous achievement was writing the novel from which Alfred Hitchcock adapted Psycho. Matheson's biggest moment is a bit harder to pin down. The panicky airline passenger played by William Shatner in the Twilight Zone series and John Lithgow in the 1983 TZ movie? That's Matheson's creation. Recent movies based in whole or in part on Matheson's stories and novels include I am Legend, Real Steel, and The Box.

His novella "Duel" supplied pretty much a shot-by-shot blueprint for his own screenplay for Steven Spielberg's TV-movie breakthrough of the same name; his story "Little Girl Lost", adapted for Rod Serling's Night Gallery, supplied Spielberg's Poltergeist with its girl who vanished in her own living room. His novel The Shrinking Man spawned two adaptations; the novel I am Legend spawned three official ones and at least one acknowledged unofficial one (Night of the Living Dead) making Matheson the grandfather of the entire zombie genre and of the scientifically plausible vampire sub-genre).

The stories here show Matheson in solid, genre-crossing form. Science-fictional horror occurs in "Being" and "Trespass"; nuclear apocalypse spawns both satire ("When Day is Dun", "Pattern for Survival") and elegy ("The Last Day"); at least four stories here would be adapted at least once for television and/or movies ("Steel", "Blood Son" (itself suggesting an unacknowledged source for George Romero's vampire film Martin), "The Funeral" and "Little Girl Lost."

Matheson established his plain prose style, shot through with startling images and turns of phrase, pretty early, but it was his ability to find new horrors, and new combinations of horrors, thrills and genre concepts, that made him so invaluable -- he helped firmly establish the American supernatural tale both in terms of pure science fiction and in terms of finding new ways to present old horrors such as vampires and werewolves and haunted houses. And he could be funny, as he is here in "When Day is Dun", "Pattern For Survival" and "The Funeral." A brilliant, influential writer caught at the prolific beginning of a half-century career. Highly recommended.