Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Surfer, a Puritan, a Doppelganger and a Sundial walk into a Bar...

Comics:

The Saga of Solomon Kane Volume 1 by Roy Thomas, Doug Moench, Don Glut and about 50 other writers and artists (1974-1994; collected 2009): Dark Horse Comics turns its attention to reprinting the adventures of one of Robert E. Howard's non-Conan heroes. The adventures, originally published as back-ups in various Marvel B&W comics magazines of the 1970's, 80's and 90's, adapt pretty much every Howard story, poem and fragment about Solomon Kane, and also add several original stories to the mix.

Kane was an English Puritan of the 16th and 17th centuries who pledged his life to fighting supernatural evil wherever he found it. In Howard's original double-handful of stories and poems, these adventures take place in Africa, England and Western Europe, though there are references to adventures in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the New World as well. An extremely muscular Christian, Kane does battle with vampires, werewolves, Cthulhoid monstrosities, genocidal last outposts of Atlantis, ghosts, demons, dragons and even Dracula herein. The art is for the most part solid 1970's Marvel style, with one really nice piece illustrated by the great Howard Chaykin and a number of nice 'pin-ups' by artists that include John Byrne and John Buscema scattered throughout.

The overall effect isn't quite as much fun as Howard's original prose pieces, due in part to the cramped nature of a number of stories that try to tell an entire Howard short story in too few pages. The two Dracula encounters embody one of the problems of having an established hero fight an established villain prior to that villain's chronicled 'demise.' Kane, who otherwise bats 1.000 against supernatural menaces, can't dispose of Dracula 300 years prior to the events of Bram Stoker's Dracula, so he doesn't -- Dracula must survive. So the writers content themselves with having Kane defeat Dracula on every other level, including a humiliating pummelling during a sword fight.

All in all, though, this is a lot of fun, and as I believe there's enough Marvel material for another volume, hopefully that volume will be forthcoming in the future as a 'sideline' to Dark Horse's new, more expansive Solomon Kane adventures like "The Castle of the Devil."


The Essential Silver Surfer Volume 1 by Stan Lee, John Buscema and Jack Kirby (1968-1970): The Silver Surfer started comic-book life in the pages of Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four as the herald of Galactus, Galactus being a universe-wandering devourer of the life of 'living' planets. When Galactus came to Earth, the Fantastic Four fought him long enough for The Thing's blind girlfriend Alicia Masters to convince the Surfer that humanity didn't deserve to die, leading the Surfer to switch sides and fight Galactus. After various twists and turns, Galactus left Earth without eating it, exiling the Surfer to our world as punishment for his betrayal. The Surfer's own series picks up where that and a couple of subsequent FF adventures left off, with the cosmically powered Surfer trying to understand humanity.

The Silver Surfer was pretty much a cosmic naif in his early FF appearances, suggesting that he had indeed been created by Galactus sui generis to search out living planets. The Surfer's own magazine quickly altered that concept, giving the Surfer a backstory as a self-sacrificing alien named Norrin Radd from the planet Zenn-La who bought his planet's survival by agreeing to aid Galactus in his search for living planets.

Lee really lays on the bathos and sermonizing with a trowel in the Surfer's own magazine -- this may be the preachiest comic-book on the topic of man's inhumanity to man ever published by a major comic book company. That preachiness works insofar as one pretty has to read the book as a series of late 60's moral homilies spruced up by cosmic action and adventure.

And because the book was originally a double-sized bimonthly, artist John Buscema really gets to cut loose with the art in that more expansive format because the plots themselves aren't really any more detailed than a typical 20-page Stan Lee opus. Thus, with loads of single and double-page spreads and a preponderance of 4-panel pages, we get what I think is probably John Buscema's best artwork. Certainly his most epic, anyway, as the Surfer battles various threats to Earth, the universe and even his own immortal soul at the hands of Mephisto, the Marvel Universe's version of Satan introduced for the first time in the pages of the Silver Surfer. The sermons get a little tiresome, but the whole thing moves quickly.


Prose Books:

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (1958): Jackson was a master (well, technically mistress) of a sort of understated, sarcastic Gothic/horror style that no one else has ever really done. Her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, managed to present both a terrifying (and pretty much terrifying in an unprecedented way) haunted house operating as both the setting and another character within a novel about the extent to which various types of people can delude themselves, and how those delusions can flow naturally out of a character's social class as much as from individual psychological quirks.

Here, Jackson pretty much eviscerates the American rich of a certain type, possessed of a superiority complex derived from money and station, isolated literally and figuratively from the townspeople nearby, and deluded about what those townspeople really think of them. All this is set against a plot driven by a supposed ghostly warning of the End of the World granted to Aunt Fanny of the O'Hallarn clan. Everyone, Fanny says she is told by the ghost of her robber-baron father, will die except for the O'Hallarns and anyone else inside their massive house on the Night of Judgment. And so the family and its guests set out to prepare for the apocalypse.

Horror lends itself to social satire, and the satire here is about as bleak and black as it gets. Jackson always had a flair for allowing a reader to understand the forces that drive flaws and errors in certain characters without necessarily making one feel sympathy for that character, in part because self-pity is a dominant character trait in so many of here wealthy, pampered protagonists. By the time the end of the world arrives, if it does, there won't be a wet eye in the house.


This Rage of Echoes by Simon Clark (2004): Clark is one loopy horror writer. The central premise of this novel is a concept I've only encountered once before, in a Philip K. Dick story called "Upon the Dull Earth", and there the concept was deployed to much different effect. Basically, a bizarre plague starts transforming people into copies of certain other people. Then these copies try to kill the originals. And other stuff. And the plague starts spreading while also eventually centering on copies of one man, the narrator, who has no idea why this is happening. And then things get weirder, with covert government agencies, aliens and the apparent ghost of a 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy being added into the mix.

Clark knows how to write an action scene, and while the novel is bloody and contains some graphic sex, it doesn't resort to the stomach-turning grotesqueries of a lot of post-splatterpunk horror. The plot twists (and the Final Plot Twist) are often so bizarre that they stagger one's suspension of disbelief. It's as if Stephen King worked up a novel based on a Philip K. Dick outline. I enjoyed the novel, but I enjoyed the other two Clarks I've read (Vamphyrric, Stranger) more, though this novel shares with Vamphyrric a certain spottiness of editing that leads to too many repeated phrases and descriptions. I'd almost think the novel had been serialized and then compiled without having the necessary repetitions and reiterations of something in serial form edited out.

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