Friday, April 21, 2017

Warriors of Plasm by Jim Shooter

I’ve met Jim shooter a few times, and spoke to him only briefly. I don’t recall my exact words, but it was something like, “I’ll always love those Legion stories you wrote for Adventure Comics.” Those are words I suspect he’s heard thousands of times. His tenure in the comic book industry is legendary, from the time he sold his first Legion of Super-Heroes story to DC Comics in the 1960s, when he was just 14 years old. He went on to succeed Stan Lee as editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics where he ushered in the “New Universe”, then on to Valiant and Defiant Comics, which published Warriors of Plasm # 1 in 1993. Everything he’s touched is highly creative, sometimes controversial but imminently entertaining. I suspect Jim shooter has been publicly vilified far more than any other comic book creator. I don’t have any insight into that, and I certainly don’t know him at all. Having met and spoken a few words with someone is not the same as knowing them. What I do know is this – I know talent when I see it. Jim shooter is a creative powerhouse. If his name is on something, I’m buying it. I know I’ll be entertained. His “New Universe” series at Marvel, especially, Star-Brand, is underrated. I was thrilled when he started Defiant Comics. Frankly, Warriors of Plasm was one of the best series introduced in the 1990s, a decade now infamous for the comic book industry’s implosion, the demise of independent comic book shops across the country, and the rapid disintegration of those two major brand names, Marvel and DC Comics whose titles were so bad by 1997 and 1998 they’re still scoffed at by longtime fans and collectors. There are a lot of reasons for all of that, but the bottom line is that basically comic books sucked. The corporations had taken over; and the men in high-water pants, penny loafers and ink-stained pocket protectors had fiscally analyzed and interfered one time too many. I thought Jim Shooter and Defiant Comics would usher in a new renaissance period; an era of unbridled creativity. When I look at Warriors of Plasm # 1 today I can see how close he came. I’ll go so far as to say that he did it for 13 magnificent issues. Those 13 Warriors of Plasm issues are still better than any single series being published by Marvel Comics today. With outstanding artwork by David Lapham and Michael Witherby, a bright color scheme by Janet Jackson, James Brown and Tom Ziuko, Warriors of Plasm # 1 remains a high-octane science fiction adventure. On the Org of Plasm, the Supreme Inquisitor, Lorca, sets a plan in motion to overthrow the rulers of Plasm who were responsible for the death of his true love, Laygen. The plan goes awry, but his effort results in five genetically modified humans who then find themselves responsible for defending earth from an invasion from Plasm. The five humans are a diverse group, and ultimately dysfunctional - a grandmother, an ex-military officer, a preacher, an auto-mechanic, and a young geeky girl who works as a cosmetics clerk. The visuals by Lapham and Witherby are stunning. Warriors of Plasm is one wild, wacky, weird and wonderful series, and over twenty years later I’m still pissed it didn’t run for at least a hundred issues. Jim shooter has never disappointed me, and these 13 issues are proof of his talent. I have over six thousand comic books in my collection, but the stuff that shines the brightest are titles like Warriors of Plasm. I believe a trade paperback was published that collected all of them. This post is for you, Jim, wherever you are. And, yeah, I still love those Legion stories you wrote for Adventure Comics. Rock on.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Alvin’s Secret Code by Clifford B. Hicks

Those few of you that know me personally are undoubtedly familiar with my childhood tales of traveling the country with my parents. Those wonderful years were an education, and included a wild array of literature. Alvin’s Secret Code is a 1967 novel published at the height of the “Spy Craze” that swept the country. I Spy, The Man from UNCLE and James Bond were all the rage. It was this book and Codes & Secret Writing by Herbert S. Zim that led me to cryptology. This included my study of alphabet ciphers. I became adept at creating and using alphabet ciphers with other neighborhood boys willing to go along with the fun. Alvin’s Secret Code is silly and entertaining; and includes a thick dossier of material for any young brain to soak up. The main character is Alvin Fernald, who first appeared in The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald in 1960, and who subsequently appeared in 10 books. Hicks died in 2010 and his books remain popular. I am constantly encountering fans of his Alvin Fernald books. The premise of his Alvin Fernald stories was that Fernald would use his brain to solve problems and extricate himself from any difficult situation. His sister, known as the “Pest” and his friend Shoie serve as foils. Alvin’s Secret Code exploits the spy theme as Alvin decides to become a secret agent after reading The Great Spies of History in school. Hicks was a fine writer and takes a humorous approach to everything. The boy with “the magnificent brain” lands into trouble when he encounters a message he believes was written by a spy. Alvin’s Secret Code earned a permanent place on my bookshelf, side by side with Codes & Secret Writing by Herbert S. Zim, a 1966 title, also from Scholastic Books. There they reside still, the symbols and ciphers whirling to life out of the rainy mist of long ago Sundays when I penned a secret cipher and sat back to contentedly wait for a response from one of my co-conspirators. The code book is still hidden in the hollow part of the old oak tree in the park. A=5gt, B=u8g, C=ppl8, D=r4, E=2w, F=666, G=kkl97, H=qa, I=vh, J=3u, K=z5t, L=tg4, M=dsa, N=my7, O=6c, P=lb, Q=w9, R=zu, S=7ym, T=19j, U=f8h, V=6r9, W=9gy, X=tf3, Y=k1q, Z=8cx. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren

It sounds so bourgeois to say I take my Algren with my morning coffee. From my viewpoint, Algren is synonymous with Carl Sandburg, and even Studs Terkel and Mike Royko, the latter two being authors I met, albeit briefly. I was born in Chicago, raised on the suburban prairie, lived and walked Chicago’s streets, and recall fondly those childhood years of summer in the Windy City. I still live on the prairie, and these days I might cross Chicago’s city limits three or four times a year. Algren’s books came to me during my bohemian 1970s misadventures, and he is still part of my library. I have newer editions and some older paperbacks, vintage Algren, reprinted Algren, and a book of Art Shay’s Algren photographs. Chicago: City on the Make is that type of book that elicits admiring prose from intellectuals, effeminate reviewers, and hackneyed page eleven newspaper writers suffocating in their own egos. I saw copies for sale in the Metro train station bookstore and the O’Hara International Airport kiosk. They market Chicago: City on the Make as “Local Interest” and “Regional History” for tourists from Russia, Japan and that most exotic of locations, Pittsburg. Do they know what they’re reading? Algren is the hard-edged poet of the alleys and side-streets, social critic and political observer with an unflinching habit of telling the truth. Chicago: City on the Make is a prose poem turned essay and marked by historical commentary and a baseball fan’s bleacher seat wisdom. The hustlers and con-men, crooked politicians and semi-literate boxers with more knowledge than a tenured university professor all populate his prose. The title gives it away - City on the Make – and the current crooks in City Hall like to ignore that. Algren’s affection for Chicago is sequestered between unblemished prosody that rises up like a neon sign: “Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” The struggles of the common people, the incessant manipulation of the masses by a broken political system, and the endless dreams of a winning baseball team gone bad (The White Sox) are rendered here with anger, dismay, and perhaps a touch of hope. In Algren’s Chicago “Every day is D-day under the El.” Chicago: City on the Make is punctuated by elegiac moments, as bright as anything Carl Sandburg penned. In fact, the first edition of Chicago: City on the Make was dedicated to Sandburg. This slender volume is a raw, conversational treatise on a city and its people that Algren loved but refused to view through rose-tinted glasses. Also recommended are Algren’s Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, A Walk on the Wild Side, The Man with the Golden Arm, and The Devil’s Stocking.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ultimate Voyage by William Gilkerson

Published by Shamballa in 1998, William Gilkerson’s Ultimate Voyage is a masterpiece. To tag something a masterpiece in these cynical times leaves me open to criticism by the pundits in our ever-increasing negative culture, but it is a masterpiece. Great tales of the sea, written by knowledgeable authors are not uncommon, although finding them requires focus and determination. I don’t recall how I came upon a listing for this book, but my first edition hardcover is something I’ll never part with. Gilkerson himself is a respected artist and historian whose other fine books include Pirate’s Passage, The Ships of John Paul Jones, Scrimshander, and An Arctic Whaling Sketchbook. He was previously a feature writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Most of his books are non-fiction tiles relating to nautical topics. William Gilkerson wrote and illustrated Ultimate Voyage. This is a tale of five young mariners who build a small vessel, Alembic, and embark upon a journey of discovery. It can be interpreted as a coming of age story, and that would be correct, although Gilkerson has accomplished something that exceeds a simple analogy for youthful travails. There is that, and there is his vast knowledge of the sea, his comprehension of the human condition, and his uncanny ability to connect it all. The illustrations are stunning and complement the narrative. Shamballa did it right in their design. Inset with a color plate prior to the title page, the chapter illustrations are offset in either blue or black and white. The endpaper illustration is blue. Gilkerson’s carefully crafted prose and illustrations will transport you to a Renaissance world where the salt-spray of the sea and the cry of gulls over a harbor are at your fingertips. Gilkerson’s prose is leisurely, confident and alive with images. This is the type of story that a reader can take their time with, savoring each sentence as the story unfolds. Ultimate Voyage is a treasure for lovers of sea tales.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Batman: Odyssey by Neal Adams

Originally published in 13 separate issues, this magnum opus was written and drawn by Neal Adams. That’s over 300 pages of outstanding, explosive artwork combined with a wild but compelling storyline. A lifetime of high-energy and critically acclaimed experience went into this amazing graphic novel, with “novel” being the keyword here. Batman: Odyssey is unlike any Batman story you’ve ever read before, although astute readers will likely recognize traditional elements from the era of the Silver Age Batman. Adams proves himself again and again The Master of sequential art, and this sprawling epic pays tribute not only to Batman’s rich history, but to the very essence of pulp fiction entertainment. The premise is simple enough – Batman tells several stories that reinforce his early struggle but ongoing, firm belief that he should never intentionally kill a criminal. That’s the premise, but the narrative structure challenges the reader by its non-linear approach. Adams employs flashbacks exclusively, with an ongoing framing sequence that reminded me of the Greek chorus in the plays of Sophocles. In this case, Batman is providing commentary to an unknown listener who is revealed only in the final pages. Each anecdotal tale he recounts is part of the jigsaw puzzle that makes perfect sense by the conclusion. There are also plenty of guest stars. Dick Grayson as Robin (this takes place out of modern age continuity), Deadman, Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia, Man-Bat, The Riddler, The Joker, and others are featured. Superman’s appearance in the conclusion is breezy but fun. In fact, Adams seems to have enjoyed himself writing and drawing this amazing story. There are numerous references to Batman’s cultural impact, including a sly nod here and there to the famous 1966 Batman television program starring Adam West and Burt Ward. All of this is accomplished with a sense of affection for the characters and their history. Adams even has Bruce Wayne wearing a Green Lantern T-shirt. At about the halfway point, we are introduced to the Hollow Earth section of the story, and it’s here that Batman and others are flying around with dinosaurs. This is where Adams took some heat from today’s synapse challenged armchair fanboys turned critics who clearly suffer from articulation issues. There is nothing new about Hollow Earth stories, and possibly Adams takes his inspiration from Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Hollow Earth stories of Richard S. Shaver. These sequences are wacky, imaginative, and at odds with Batman’s usual turf of Gotham City. Or is it? In fact, Batman and Detective Comics in the late 50s and early 60s were overloaded with aliens and monsters from all sorts of alternate universes, and in my opinion Adams has simply re-imagined that once common plot device. Batman’s encounter with a giant cyclops monster near the end is a treat. The “Underworld” is at the heart of Batman’s odyssey, and derives from the author’s interest in the expanding earth hypothesis. Consistently throughout the narrative, Batman is exploiting this idea that he should never take a life, and it’s eventually revealed that he went to great lengths to maintain that position. What appears shocking one moment might prove to be a duplicitous red herring the next. The artwork is pure Adams all the way, fluid and detailed when it needs to be, and I have always been a fan. The pages are awesome. The story is unique and ambitious, and Adams deserves credit for his imaginative approach. Humorous at times, while confounding and thought-provoking, Adams never loses sight of the fact that sequential art is meant to entertain.  Altogether, Batman: Odyssey is a fantastic graphic novel. Kudos!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Cannibal by John Hawkes

Picture me wearing levis with long hair, a beard, and a rucksack full of books strung over my shoulder. That person, that edgy and mouthy bohemian, encountered The Cannibal by John Hawkes. This book comes back to me every few years, re-discovered amongst a stack of dusty literature, its dark visions very much alive, the prose resonating across time: “Beyond the edge of town, past tar-covered poor houses and a low hill bare except for fallen electric poles, was the institution, and it sent its delicate and isolated buildings trembling over the gravel and cinder floor of the valley. From there, one day in the early spring, walking with a tree limb as a cane, came Balamir, walking with a shadow and with a step that was not free, to fall under the eye and hand of Madame Snow. All of Balamir’s demented brothers, in like manner, had been turned out to wander far from the gravel paths, to seek anyone who would provide a tin plate or coveted drink.” The academic community has tagged The Cannibal as postmodern literature, which is a convenient and necessary way of labeling the heavy narrative. The Cannibal never follows a traditional novel format. Its parts are fragmented, and dense with analogy. The three opening sentences set the stage for a frightening vision of post-war Europe. I have read numerous theories on this novel’s meaning, and all of them are correct, but none of them are satisfying. I believe that’s because the novel itself is unsatisfying, but perhaps The Cannibal offers the strongest condemnation of Imperialism in post-war literature. What I know of the author is simple enough; a man of letters who spent his life in the academic community. I am fond of another of his books, The Blood Oranges, which is far different in structure and tone to The Cannibal. The plot switches back and forth between 1918 and 1945. Madame Snow is the only connecting character, a cabaret singer, a boarding house owner. She is everything and nothing, which might be the point. The tenuous plot of assassinating the American overseer during the German reconstruction strikes me as anti-militarism. The overseer’s motorcycle a symbol of industrial strength, at once appealing and pathetic. Germany in the wake of WWII was grimy, desperate, and murderous. But so, too, are the allied societies that rose against Hitler’s quest for global domination. How much has changed and how much is the same? In The Cannibal Germany is reconstructed and the true “nation” restored; the madmen line up and return to the insane asylum. There are many brilliantly written passages that are surreal but reflect an uncanny picture of modern life. I view The Cannibal as a piece of social criticism, satirical and unpleasant. Trust that mine is the minority view. Academicians have written thesis after thesis on the book’s meaning. I don’t have that much strength. I love The Cannibal for the quality of its writing and the relevance of its many themes, but ultimately its vision is disturbing. That’s why this book is important.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Transcendental by James Gunn

Transcendental is a fascinating book by veteran science fiction author James Gunn. I was immediately struck by the world building that went into this because it seems so natural. I don’t think it’s easy to create alien species and alien worlds, but Gunn makes it look easy. Kudos to the author for this obviously well-planned and interesting book. The story involves Riley, described as a cynical war vet, who is contacted by a mysterious group and recruited to investigate the alleged existence of a transcendental machine and the source of a new religious cult. With an unwanted computer implant in his mind, Riley has no choice but to go along with the quest. Hurtling into deep space aboard a craft populated by others seeking “transcendence,” Riley meets a cross-section of galactic beings, and one attractive human female, each of whom has a fascinating back story. Gunn introduces these characters with a deft touch. I was caught up in a web of intergalactic deceit, although about halfway through the book I suspected this volume was going to be the first of several. I was right, and the sequel, Transgalactic, has already been published. I haven’t read it yet but I intend to. If Transcendental is going to be a part of a series that’s fine with me. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. There is less action in this story, but the general flow and suspense were sufficient to keep me reading. James Gunn tells a exciting tale without resorting to an indulgence of Space Opera action, although this is still a Space Opera all the way. I have read several of James Gunn’s science fiction novels and enjoyed every one of them. Transcendental is published by TOR and available in paperback and for Kindle.