Wednesday, December 2, 2009

King, Conan, Bat, Spider


Under the Dome by Stephen King (2009): At 1072 story pages, Under the Dome is King's longest novel since the complete and unexpurgated Stand came out in 1990 and his third-longest novel overall, also trailing It (1986). King originally started writing the novel back in the 1970's, abandoning it twice before finally starting over to write this one. Thus, the concept of a city trapped under a dome (really more of a capsule extending 47,000 feet up and down) predates The Simpsons Movie (2008). But there were also a number of science-fiction stories and novels that also dealt with such a predicament prior to the Simpsons.

As he did in such novels as The Stand and Salem's Lot, King deploys a large cast of characters for the roving eye of the third-person narrative to examine. The entire town of Chester's Mill, Maine, population about 2000, gets enclosed within a mostly impermeable dome (it allows a small amount of air and water flow, along with all forms of radiation) one October day. Over the course of the next week or so, life under the Dome becomes more and more fraught with problems as the power-lust of a Christian fundamentalist town selectman and the brain-tumour-enabled madness of his son lead to a large-scale reenactment of Lord of the Flies.

King's characters are more well-rounded here than they often are -- the nominal villain, "Big Jim" Rennie, is loathsome but understandable. Small towns and big towns are always afflicted by people like him. The rapid descent of Chester's Mills into chaos and then malign reordering has been especially well imagined by King. For all that, the town's survival or lack thereof remains in doubt until the last few pages, when a human-created wild card combined with the air-retaining qualities of the Dome put the town into the Final Jeopardy round.

For a near-1100-page novel, Under the Dome moves quickly and assuredly to its climax. You'll probably end up liking a number of characters, which makes the ruthlessness of King's narrative -- this is not a novel where all the 'good guys' survive, or even most of them -- all that much more appealing. Perhaps most appealingly, none of King's major characters are writers or artists. After Lisey's Story, Duma Key and Cell, that's something of a relief.

The Essential Conan: The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard, edited by Karl Edward Wagner: Even though there are hundreds of Conan books and comic books both new and out-of-print, finding unexpurgated, un-'improved' versions of Robert E. Howard's original stories from the 1930's isn't easy. The successful paperback packagings of the Conan stories from the 1960's edit out the saltier parts along with the most overt sexism and racism.

Beyond that, the editors of the Conan stories for Ace Books also needed to fill as many paperbacks as possible. That's not easy -- there actually aren't that many Conan stories relatively speaking, though in total they probably equal about one Lord of the Rings. Not bad, given that Howard committed suicide when he was 30 and that he wrote more than a hundred stories about characters other than Conan. The editors of those Ace Books 'retrofitted' a lot of non-Conan Howard stories to be Conan stories, changing names and place names, and they also finished up some story fragments and wrote entire stories based on Howard's notes. Howard's original barbarian would eventually be buried under all these additions.

Howard's Conan is indeed the supreme fighter of the movies and short-lived TV series. However, he's also extremely bright, a master of dozens of languages and dialects by his mid-20's, and a highly competent military tactician and strategian. The pre-last-Ice-Age Hyborian world he wanders through is a crazy quilt of countries that resemble historic countries from across the breadth and span of human history -- essentially, dynastic Egypt, 19th-century Afghanistan, Golden-Age Greece and 1000 AD Scandanavia are all contemporaneous. And magic, of course, works.

In this collection, Conan combats a number of menaces human, natural and supernatural. The stories are superior adventures for the most part, and one recognizes certain scenes that the makers of the first Conan movie cherry-picked for that movie, most notably the crucifixion of Conan in "A Witch Shall Be Born." Conan can take punishment with the best of adventure heroes -- in the story, he apparently recovers from being crucified without the aid of magic as he does in the movie.

Howard's prose style is also quite interesting, much moreso than that of most of his imitators. While Howard was relatively young when he wrote about Conan, he was a voracious reader who also apparently swallowed a thesaurus, thankfully after checking the definitions contained therein. The result is prose that moves from the descriptive to the baroque, along with a sense of story structure that grows by leaps and bounds over his short career. If you enjoy fantasy but have only experienced Conan through other media or through various new Conan novels, I'd recommend looking up Karl Edward Wagner's attempt to bring the real Conan back from the 1930's.


Secrets of the Batcave by about 100 writers and artists (1940-2001; collected 2007): A fun collection of predominantly Golden Age Batman stories involving the Batcave, its development, and the various trophies found inside. Of primary geek appeal are the stories detailing the origins of the giant Lincoln penny and the robot T. Rex seen literally hundreds of times in the background of hundreds of scenes set in the Batcave over the last few decades. The filmmakers really should get around to giving Batman a trophy room. Because giant pennies are cool.

Essential Spider-man Volume 4 by Stan Lee, John Romita, Jim Mooney, John Buscema and others (c. 1969-1970): The evolution of Spider-man into the most tormented superhero of them all continues apace here as the book zips ever closer to Stan Lee's retirement as a full-time writer. The legendary John Romita does a lot of design and layout work here, though he pencils relatively little of this collection, leaving Jim Mooney and others to ape his style as best they can.

Where original Spidey artist Steve Ditko's Spider-man actually looked like a gawky teenager (well, at least for awhile) and his characters looked at least nominally realistic, Romita's Spider-designs are slick, action-oriented work -- really, the defining Marvel art-style of the 1970's. Spider-man's popularity exploded under Romita's pen, but I much prefer Ditko's art (and his often wonky plots and villains). Still, quite enjoyable, though Peter Parker's angst does get grating after awhile. Subsequent writers would tone this down a bit -- there are times where Parker sounds as tortured and whiny as Lee's Silver Surfer, also being published at roughly the same time as this version of Spider-man.

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