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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Serpent King: Shadow and Light (Science Fiction)

by Brian Barr

  • Publisher: Brian Barr Books (October 31, 2017)
Softcover 305 pages 

This is a great action-packed space opera taking place over two overlapping generations of a world conquering alien family, the Ur. A family shrouded in power, magic, and secrets, which eventually leads to the downfall of their civilization. The struggle presented within these pages is the classic conflict of the old versus the new- or perhaps the old once again becoming new and striking down the existing order. In this case the Naga society is under an insidious and hidden attack by a horde of demons, lurking just outside the bounds of physical reality.
The society is a caste system mixed with a meritocracy with the Emperor and his family on top, the Supreme class just below, the Elites, and then the plebs below. The interesting part is that the meritocracy is based not only on an individual's achievement, but on that person having a competent heir to future serve the society. Thus one could struggle a lifetime, only to lose everything if they produce a loser child. This is a fascinating concept and one that could be explored if the author wishes to add on to this universe in the future.
Author Brian Barr

The culture has an obvious connection to Earth. Their deity is Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, of the ancient Nahuan, Mayan, and Aztec civilizations. Various interpretations of the deity’s legends exist, but often he is associated with having been conceived in outer space, created the fabled fifth world of the Mayan’s out of the bones of the previous one, and then set himself on fire after possibly having an incestious relationship with his sister. His ashes rose into the sky and his heart followed into space. The legends of his return lead to the destruction of Aztec society.
Additionally, Ur, our protagonist’s family name, is the name of an ancient coastal in Iraq, from around five thousand ago. It is near the city of Uruk, the central city as mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is one of the oldest, if the not the oldest city, build by man. There is also clever use of the caduceus- the heralding staff of the ancient Greeks, often confused with the modern symbol of the medical community (there is a reason for the mix up, but it’s too much to go into here). Here the caduceus is a symbol of evil magic, essentially heralding in the arrival of the new dominant race.

While this is a good story, I wanted to see more of was the history, culture, technology, and customs of this species. We have race that conquers others, Roman Empire style, leaving the titular heads in place as long as they pay suzentry to the lords above, but we don’t have enough on how this great race achieved their first conquest. There is some material present, but it isn’t enough. A society like this should be rich with tradition, or a lack of it as they’ve shunted off the past, or a struggle between the two. This last is somewhat present in the story, but more could have been made of it. As they are alien, I wanted to be immersed in alien ideas and thoughts.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Humbug (2 Volume Set) (Humor)

by Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Will Elder, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth

Publisher: Fantagraphics; 1 edition (March 23, 2009)

Hardcover 476 Pages

“We won’t write for morons. We won’t do anything just to get laughs. We won’t be dirty. We won’t be grotesque. We won’t be in bad taste. We won’t sell magazines.” - Harvey Kurtzman
After the commercial failure of his Jungle Book (which I reviewed here) and Hugh Hefner pulling the plug on his glossy magazine Trump (which I will review in the future) after two issues, Harvey Kurtzman had an idea for another Mad clone. This one was a little different however, it was a creator owned humor magazine run by the original staff that made Mad great: Kurtzman himself, Bill Elder, Al Jaffee (who went onto the create the Mad fold out back page), Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Arnold Roth, and Larry Siegel. If any of those name are unfamiliar to you, their work probably isn’t. If you have read a Mad magazine from the later half of the twentieth century or enjoyed any of the old EC horror comics, then you have more than likely seen their material.

Like his previous hit, Humbug satirizes every aspect of American life from sports, to politics, to films, to television, to music, to the idiosyncrasies of American life at that time. Again this is all very similar to Mad, in fact more than similar. In all intents and purposes, it was Mad by another name. So why did it fail after eleven issues?
It failed primarily because all of the people that were involved were writers, artists, and creators,- not businessmen. Financially, they were on shaky ground from the get-go and the market had reached saturation point for magazines earlier in the previous year. Several big name periodicals had gone under, so what chance did a new magazine, a clone of a more popular one, have? Additionally, the size of the magazine presented a problem. Halfway between a comic and a magazine, it didn’t fit with the comics and easily got lost amongst its larger brethren. It was mostly black & white and priced at fifteen cents, whereas most comics were ten cents and full color. Even with the best material at the time, it wasn’t enough.

Reading it now, some sixty years after its first publication, fills me with mixed feelings. The art is excellent, particularly anything done here by Al Jaffee, Bill Elder, or Jack Davis. It is some of the best they’ve ever done but what dates this book is that the humor is too topical. It is trying too hard to rise above being a labeled a Mad magazine rip-off, so it uses a lot of topical humor . However, topical humor is the type of humor that goes stale the fastest. They do include annotations in the second volume explaining what the parody is off, but that dulls the humor rather than accenting it. When you have to explain the joke, it ceases to be funny. And there are just too many references to Confidential (A gossip mag), Sputnik, Dave Beck (Teamster’s Union boss prior to Jimmy Hoffa), and so on.

When dealing with parody there tends to be two types. The first takes the source material and does a funny take on it that stands alone, as in the source is not really needed. Monty Python and Mr. Show did this best. Secondly, there are the parodies which are only funny if you have a passing familiarity with the source material. WIthout that, the entire piece falls flat. This is not something unique to Humbug. A lot of  humor falls by the wayside. Even the still running Mad magazine has a lot of material in its old issues that is stale. From that perspective, you should look at Humbug as a slice of history, a written relic of its time. While it isn’t as humorous as it once was, it still has value of the old days.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster (Fantasy)

by Hugh Cook 

Publisher: Corgi (December 3, 1992)

Softcover 720 pages

  The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster is the notoriously difficult to find tenth book in The Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series (known as the Wizard War series in the US).  The first edition of it was barely published at all, while the second is available as a print-on-demand novel through Amazon for around $40. I first came across it as a free PDF on the author’s, Hugh Cook, website but that was taken down after his death from brain cancer in 2008.
2nd edition cover
The Chronicles of an Age of Darkness is a series of interconnected books all of which occur at the same time (or roughly the same time) and the events of each impact the others. This leads to some very interesting storytelling as in some cases you saw the impact (it would come across as a rumor in a novel), before the event was described in another book. Each novel centers on a different protagonist and that person would often show up in another novel in a brief reference or as a minor character. So while every book technically stands alone, they all coalesce to make a greater whole- a literary collage.  He must have had one hell of a chart to keep track of it all, but it was one of the things that made this series stand out.
        Originally the series was to be twenty books long, with two additional series planned The Chronicles of an Age of Wrath, and The Chronicles of an Age of Heroes- making for a total of 60 books. Unfortunately poor sales aborted that idea and Cook wrote The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster to wrap up the entire series- after which he put it completely behind him. I had contacted him in the mid-2000s offering to work with him on the series, releasing some more as ebooks – a very new idea then- but he was uninterested. Which is understandable, he had recently been diagnosed with cancer, but he also stated that he had moved past the series. Perhaps that was presumptuous of me, but I loved the world and the characters in it and I did not want it to end- especially not with this novel.
Cover of the 1st book-
American Edition
   I first encountered the series when it was published as Wizard War in the late 80s. I was immediately drawn in by the imagination, scope of the book, and the wonderful descriptions. What attracted me most though was the amorality which hung heavy in the setting. This was no typical fantasy fight against the forces of darkness. The protagonists were not shining examples of goodness and heroism. These were men, neither good nor evil (or should I say, both good and evil), struggling against each other, each with their own agenda. Reading it was a breath of fresh air.  As I continued with the series, I saw how one intimately slid into the other, like a great jigsaw puzzle. In fact there are many little things mentioned in the first and second books which are much larger deals in the tenth. Cook really did construct a beautiful literary architecture.
2nd book- Original cover
           The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster centers around the character of Guest Gulkan- The Weaponmaster, also known as The Emperor in Exile- and his father Onosh Gulkan – The Witchlord- as they rule their empire, lose it due to internal strife, then attempt to regain it. Guest Gulkan has appeared as a minor character in several other novels- The Wordsmiths and the Warguild (book 2), The Women and the Warlords (book 3), The Walrus and the Warwolf (book 4, though he isn't named) and The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers (book 6)-  always with a sinister agenda which is finally revealed.  He begins the novel at the age of 14 (earlier than any other story in the series) and ends with his quest for power uniting many of the plot elements of the series. His eventual success is of a different order from that of the previous protagonists, giving him enough control over his world to change it entirely and shows us the end of the Age of Darkness- and probably therein lies the problem with this book.

2nd book- American cover
  I had several problems with this novel. The first being, despite its length (724 pages), it appears to be hastily written. There is a great deal of repetition of past events (some of them which happened only three or four pages earlier) and the titles of characters (some of which are quite long). Often the same information is repeated almost word for word on the same page. It seems very sloppy, almost like a first draft. An odd thing is that this repetition appears to have gotten worse between the first and second editions. I know when he re-edited the book he was suffering from brain cancer and had vision problems, but it still needed to be smoothed out. He obviously just wanted to get it over with. Perhaps it's understandable with his dreams of a huge series blowing up. 
3rd book- Original cover
        This is also probably the only book in the series which could not be read as a stand-alone book. A lot of the action that we get is either covered entirely in other novels or is skipped over in a few lines. Especially towards the end, the entire story mostly relates Guest zipping to and fro across the world, stopping some place for a few years (covered in a few pages), and then moving on. It wraps up the series, but is not a good story by itself. It feels more like a synopsis in many places.

3rd book- American cover
And because of this, the character of Guest is not very fleshed out. He’s just there. We are told of how he grows and changes, but we don’t feel it. Everything is hastily assembled. The opening of the book is the Collisnon Empire, also the setting for the third book. In the previous novel we get a real feel for this land. It is very distinct, filled with old customs and its own sense of history. All of this is missing here. It feels like just some generic country, not the interesting place described before. The flavor is missing from this novel and we are left with a bland concoction.
            Again I love this series and I’m happy I have this book. It’s simply that the last of the novels is also the least of them.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Giant Robot Warrior Maintenance Crew (Graphic Novel)

by Mervyn McCoy & Nate Hill

 Publisher: Cosmic Times (2015)

 Softcover 87 pages 

    I picked this one up at the 2017 Soda City Comic Con. One of the main reasons I go to these events, apart from digging through the discount comic bins,  is to buy independant books and comics which I might not have heard of otherwise. You never know what you might be missing. And a prime example of an easily missed gem is this book, Giant Robot Warrior Maintenance Crew.
    As I’m sure you can tell from the graphics, this is a parody of Voltron: Defender of the Universe. If you've ever watched the show as a kid, or in the current Netflix reincarnation, then you have probably seen the giant robot injured more than once, but never have you seen it repaired… or even maintained. Mechanisms don’t just take care of themselves. So who does it? Who are the grunts that check the oil and repair armor plating. This book answers the question. 

The story is told from the perspective of the unseen and unsung maintenance crew lurking behind the scene and in the bowels of the beast. The crew live in dingy conditions with barely any downtime, fighting off alien parasites and having sludge dumped on them on a daily basis. Meanwhile the photogenic pilots live in luxury, hog all of the glory, and are basically clueless about the day to day running of the ship.
    There is a wide disparity between the lifestyles of the pilots and crew, so much so that each group barely seems aware of the other. They interact through shouted command over speakers and unread memos. A microcosm of our own world where the uncaring elite make demands of the little folks without understanding or caring about their own problems or positions. By the end of the first twenty pages, you are actively rooting for the pilots to all die horribly. 

    This was one of those “why didn’t I think of it first” books. It is hysterical in its presentation, mixing cynical humor with dire action with skill and aplomb. You can feel the tension in the book, and the struggle between the haves and have-nots is palpable.  A must for fans of giant robot manga.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Comic Tales (Graphic Novel) (Science Fiction)

by Angus McKie with Mike Feeny, Dave huxley, Alan Craddock, and William Shakespeare

Publisher: Olympic Marketing Corp (June 1988)
Softcover 56 pages


Nine tales from a master of the craft. Angus McKie is a partially unsung hero of the comic industry. In my opinion, he is vastly underrated as an illustrator, painter, and colorist. I first ran across his work in Heavy Metal magazine and have snapped up as much as I can when it becomes available for a reasonable price. I am obviously a fan of his stuff but I’m not going to get ripped off here. One of his books, So Beautiful and So Dangerous, is going for over sixty bucks on Amazon. Even if it did inspire one of the shorts for Heavy Metal: The Movie, the book clocks in at about sixty four pages. I’m not paying a dollar a goddamn page, I don’t care who wrote it. Jesus Christ could return and spit out the New New Testament and I wouldn’t pay that fucking much.
This book is somewhat more reasonable. I found it at the Soda City Comic Con while pawing through the discount boxes at the dealer’s tables, which is the only reason I go to those events. All these people want autographs and expensive collectables so they can brag to people who aren’t paying attention. To me, the real treasure is in the bottom of dingy cardboard boxes marked “$1 apiece”. I found that treasure when I purchased this beautiful book.

It contains nine beautifully painted works of science fiction and fantasy, all with a cynically comic twist. They range from tales where a scientist has found a way to view into the past, only to have his work turned into a pornographic blackmail machine; to adaptation of a Shakespeare soliloquy from King Lear; to tales of the Sufi and Zen masters; to a man who is bred to defeat an alien champion in single combat; to a man who finds musical superstardom through bizarre means; and so on.

The art is the main attraction here. It is beautiful and lush, with colors blending to make a truly startling display. I found myself staring at each page for half an hour, just admiring the work, drinking in its beauty. Even if you don’t like the plot, the art will carry you away. This is not a book to pass up on… if you can get it for a reasonable price.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Original Adventures of Cholly and Flytrap (Graphic Novel)

by Arthur Suydam

Publisher: Epic Comics (1991)

Softcover 56 pages

    Here’s another comic character (or pair of characters) that have been around for awhile. Cholly and Flytrap are a pair of humans trapped on an alien world, trying to survive in bizarre circumstances. The stories are surreal and always tongue-in-cheek, with a bizarre societal structure on top of bleak landscapes filled with pollution and corruption. It is a series of vignettes, half the time the protagonists are blown up at the end and then somehow manage to stitch themselves back together in time for the next story. Initially published in the old Epic magazine (Marvel's answer to Heavy Metal magazine), the characters appeared sporadically in various other magazines over the next few decades.

    Cholly is a violent, gun toting, crack-shot at war with seemingly everything else on the planet. Flytrap (apparently not his real name, but he can’t remember the actual one) is his human pack mule and transportation. He is large enough to be a sumo wrestler. The world is populated with aggressive snail headed creatures referred to as “gooks”,  huge bats, what look like flying disembodied breasts that can be harness to pulled airships and so forth, and huge monsters with two heads that chop each other to bits in esoteric arguments. Now, this is only a sampling of the entire material, the collected series is available here.

    The author, Arthur Suydam, is recently best known for his brilliant covers for the Marvel Zombies comics (probably the best part of the series) and its undead take on classic Marvel covers. If you liked those, the art inside this book is on par with them. Apparently the character, Cholly, was initially supposed to be for the cover art for the movie  Heavy Metal.  The original art had him riding a giant bat, this eventually morphed into a half-naked Taarna on top of some sort of pterodactyl creature. C’est la vie.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Death of Groo the Wanderer (Graphic Novel) (Fantasy)

by Sergio Aragones & Mark Evanier

Publisher: Epic Comics (1987)

 Softcover 65 pages

    This is an independent character that has been around for awhile. An unabashed parody of Conan, Groo is perhaps one of the stupidest and strongest characters ever created. For every issue he blunders idiotically about, accidentally causing trouble and slaughtering ridiculous amounts of enemies. Created by Sergio Aragones (himself well known for his work in Mad Magazine. Especially the Mad Marginal squiggles) in the 1970s, Groo has been published by nearly every major comic publisher out there: Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Eclipse, and Pacific Comics. It still retains a excellent sense of timing and comic appeal even over the decades from when it first appeared.
    I’ve heard some criticism about Aragones’ artwork in the past. Some claim that it is too bigfoot or cartoony a style for a “serious” comic collector to be interested in. While certainly done in a more cartoony style than many of the standard comics, Aragone’s art is rich in detail and action. His work is on par with Kirby in his ability to render motion and violence, and similar to Mobius in the amount of detail on every page and panel. It is a treat to view. And the cartoony style is unique and still refreshing from many of the others out there, even the ones done for a tongue-in-cheek book. Quite simply no one draws like Aragones, which is why his work always stands out. 

    The story here revolves around Groo stumbling into a realm where the king has an absolutely mad hatred for our hero. Groo, not realizing this at first, is chased out of town and nearly killed by the resident dragon. Believing he is dead, the king has a huge celebration including a funeral where many of the characters (those who have survived actually meeting the protagonist) show up to discuss how much they hated him and how they are all glad that their dead.
Groo, very upset, decides that they would all miss him if an evil enough villain showed up and needed defeating. He then attempts to create an evil persona, but in a reverse Don Quixote situation, only succeeds in becoming a masked hero that is praised throughout the realm. From there, further insanity ensues leading to an explosive ending. All of this is narrated by a recurring minstrel character who acts as a Greek chorus. Commenting on the action in rhyming couplets, but not actually participating in the plot. 

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst.