Friday, July 30, 2021

DC, October 1980 ( wk 2, pt 3)

My goal: read DC Comics' output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis! This continues my look at the comics at newsstands around July 24, 1980.

Sgt. Rock #345: In the lead story, Kanigher and Frank Redondo almost make you feel sorry for the Iron Major. He's constantly losing to Rock (and presumably other Allied forces) and seems to keenly feel his men's deaths. At one point, Rock stops him from killing himself! It's an interesting tack to take, not because it strives to portray a German officer with some positive traits (that's not uncommon in Kanigher's war books that often focus on how bad war is for everyone), but that this supposed arch-nemesis of Sgt. Rock is portrayed as kind of a sad sack.

The next story is set in Korea and is written by its protagonist Sgt. Major Richard J. Bissette, who I assume is the father of the artist, Steve R. Bissette. Bissette's group is ordered to stay back and clear the way for a brigade to cross a bridge before it is blown. Bissette's team has to hold on until after the bridge is blown and swim the river. Pretty harrowing stuff! "The Bridge" (creators aren't credited) is the story of a selfless GI trying to get a group of Japanese civilians, including women and children, to surrender rather than commit suicide after the U.S. takes an island. He succeeds but only at the cost of his own life. In the last story (also uncredited, but maybe the same artist) a doughboy in the trenches of WWI thinks the pilots have it easy until he's forced to witness the mercy killing of one who is burning alive in his crashed plane. 

Super Friends #37: The main story has that comic book trope of the villain who is barely a match for one hero in a solo hero book becomes a challenge for an entire team in a team book. In this case, it's the Weather Wizard who's up to some nonsense, but the real story is about Supergirl being jealous that Linda Danver's students lavishing so much attention on the Justice League while Supergirl does most of the issue's heroics. It all works out in the end, of course. The backup story by Bridwell and Tanghal presents the origin of the Global Guardians member, Jack o' Lantern. It backs a lot of Irish cliches into one story.

Unexpected #203: The horror host Judge Gallows returns courtesy of Seeger and Patricio who offer up a penal theme horror story, which is unsettling in 2021 for reasons the author didn't intend. Murderer Joe Mundy gets his mother to plead for leniency at his trial, so he gets life in prison rather than the electric chair, which the guards assigned to him think is a complete travesty. So do the ghosts of his victims who torment him in his cell. The horrific part is the guards standby and watch him do this in response to unseen entities only thinking maybe they should intervene when it's too late. One of them quips upon finding that Mundy is indeed dead that maybe he was just "energy conscious" in avoiding the chair. 

The second story by Wessler and Patricio is a kind of Frankenstein movie riff only with the twist that the corpses are reanimated by clone tissue and there's a good one and a bad one. The final tale, also be Wessler, opens with a well-rendered scene by Malgapo where a Gadwin, about to be burned at the stake defends himself by claiming he's a sorcerer not a necromancer (he might have wanted to consult a lawyer there). Anyway, he burns, but not before cursing Joshua Xerxes Tabor, his accuser, and vowing to destroy his family 300 years from that day. Why he waits so long to enact his vengeance and allow generations of Tabor's to live and die in great wealth is beyond me, but eventually a Tabor is in line to be President, only the other baby, Lester Colt, saved from a fire in the hospital years ago and supported by the Tabor family is his challenger. When Colt seems to be winning the Tabor patriarch decides to shoot him. As he gets the electric chair, the ghost of Gadwin reveals that the man he shot and killed was his real son and the man about to win the presidency was the real Lester Colt. Revenge! This issue is a big step down from last month, I think.

Unknown Soldier #244: Haney and Ayers pit the Soldier against a Japanese "ghost sub" and throw in Captain Storm of The Losers as a guest star. The solution to this one is pretty convoluted: a German sub crew is pretending to be Americans and actually impersonating a Japanese sub. Haney's  approach to his book is very different from Kanigher's over at Sgt. Rock. We get to compare the two side by side, because the lead story is followed up by a Kanigher/Yeates story told from the point of view of an American bomber that flies on after it's crew is dead to crash into the intended target. The Dateline: Frontline feature by Burkett and Estrada continues to be not on the frontlines. Instead, this installment looks at the jobs women took over on the homefront for the war effort as the correspondent Clifford meets a woman mail carrier who wants to join the WAC.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Tolkien in Blacklight

It's well known that hippies were into Tolkien's work. Some of it's themes appealed to them, certainly, but like with Ditko's Dr. Strange comics, there was also the idea that the works might somehow be drug-influenced. That the author might be taking the same trip as them. This was, of course, a false belief, but it was one that existed.

I feel like this appreciation of Tolkien filtered through 60s countercultural and mixed with the prevalent cultural representations of fairytale fantasy led to a a subgenre or movement within fantasy, most prevalent in the late 70s and early 80s, before D&D derived fantasy came to ascendancy. While this subgenre likely finds expression in literature and music to a degree, I think it's most obvious and definable in visual media. It's evident in works like the Bakshi's film Wizards and the comic Weirdworld ( both in 1977), and in the Wizard World sequences (starting in 1979) of Mike Grell's Warlord. Elfquest (1978) shows the influence to a degree. Bodē's Cheech Wizard (1966) and Wally Wood's Wizard King (introduced 1968 but significantly presented in 1978) are either the oldest examples or it's direct progenitors.

Essentially, the subgenre eschews the serious world-building of LotR for a more drug-influenced riff on The Hobbit, often with greater use of anachronism, camp, and sexiness, and often with a degree of psychedelia. Beyond the Tolkien influence, these works tend to share a number of common features:  a "traditional" visualization of elves and dwarfs as "little people," arising in folklore and classic illustration, but coming more directly from Disney animation and the fairytale comics of Walt Kelly; the influence of Denslow's Oz illustrations or design aesthetic of The Wizard of Oz (1939); more unreal and visually alien settings informed by Sword & Sorcery comics rather than the historical or mythic sources of Tolkien.

Given they were contemporaries, why didn't D&D borrow more from this? I think in some of the less than serious aspects of classic D&D, it did. It may have influences some of the visuals as well. But as a game that arose from wargaming there was always a thread of verisimilitude or equipment fixation that runs counter to this freewheeling psychedelic adventure vibe.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Wednesday Comics: DC, October 1980 (wk 2 pt 2)

My goal: read DC Comics' output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis! This week, I'm looking at the comics at newsstands around July 24, 1980. Other obligations kept me from getting through all the comics by Wednesday, so look for a follow-up later in the week with the rest.

Legion of Super-Heroes #268: I like the Perez/Austin cover on this, but the story is rough. DeMatteis introduces perhaps one of the goofiest villains to ever appear in a comic, and I don't mean goofy-charming like sometimes happens. Having Ditko on art chores doesn't do the story any favors either; he's a poor fit for the LSH. Anyway, Dr. Mayavale appears as a handle-bar moustachioed guy with hair something like a white guy's afro, a cowboy hat, a "Like Ike" medallion, a chainmail skirt, and 6 extra, noodly, green arms. He's a bit like Marvel's Stranger, I suppose, but with worse fashion sense. And more arms. Anyway, he's an alien mystic who's aware of all his past lives, retaining the knowledge of them. After being virtuous for so long he decides to be evil for a bit. He bedevils the Legion members that fall into his grasp by sending then back to their supposed past lives including being Native Americans of the Great Plains and the assassins of Julius Caesar. He plans to sacrifice Dream Girl for, well, I don't really know what. It turns out all those "past lives" really aren't and the characters they meet are robots. The Legion prevails against them and Mayavale withdraws to contemplate his next move. Hopefully it takes him a long time. 

Mystery in Space #112: The first story by Barr and Sutton is that old standby: a tale of prejudice. The starship U.S.S. Liberty assumes the humanoid race on an alien world to be the virtuous defenders and the reptilians the aggressors--a perception the humanoids foster until they've had human help to eliminate their foes. Then they turn on the humans. In "Howl!" by DeMatteis and Wise, the United Earth ship Lenin rescues a young ensign, Luanna Helstrumm adrift in a lifeboat following an attack by alien warships. Captain Karamozova is uneasy about the Helstrumm, and gets even more so when her crew starts turning up dead. Helstrumm is revealed to be a vampire and Karamozova tries to kill her in a star, but has to settle for entombing her forever in a starship made of silver. It's a bit silly, I guess, but I feel like DeMatteis redeems himself (a bit) for that Legion story.

In the next story by Kasdan/von Eeden, an emblezzer injured in a spaceship crash gets rebuilt in the image of his stepson's reptilian toy by helpful aliens. The final story by Kashdan and Bingham sees a ham radio operator in a loveless marriage accidentally transporting a beautiful alien to earth in a radio beam. They develop a relationship over a number of nightly encounters. When his wife discovers them she attacks the alien only to to killed by an equally alien pet. The radio ham is arrested for her murder. When convicted he gets the electric chair, which transports him to the realm of his alien lover when he's shot full of electricity. Overall, this issue was a cut above what we previously got in Timewarp, I think.

New Adventures of Superboy #10: Superboy travels to the 52nd Century where he finds a replica of Smallville and an android ("humatron") version of himself in a futuristic theme park. He subs in for a malfunctioning humatron and gets nabbed by a rival of the park's owner who wants to improve his own alien replica androids. Superboy teaches the thief a lesson while never revealing he's the real article, then slips back to his own time. Bates' and Schaffenberger's story could reasonably be said to have "Silver Age charm," though it probably wouldn't have interested me in the 1980, and honestly isn't the sort of thing I would seek out now. The Rozakis, Calnan, and De Mulder backup is sort of a day in the life of Krypto and has a similar feel to the main story. The only break with Silver Age tradition is that this Bronze Age Krypto thinks in full sentences.

Warlord #38: Read more about it here. In the backup, Starlin's continuation of OMAC rolls on with the GPA destroyed and the U.S. now in the hands of corporations. We are told by the corporate representative Wiley Quixote that IC&C control's one half and Verner Bros. controls the other. Given the similarity of those names to the corporate owners of the Big Two at the time (Cadence Industries Corporation and Warner Bros.) I can't help but think Starlin was making doing some allegory for the comics industry here.

Monday, July 26, 2021

On Fantasy Naming

Since I read Lin Carter's worldbuilding advice in Imaginary Worlds, at least, I've had an interest in names and neologisms in settings. I certainly have an interest in the "conlang" end of things--the world of Professors Barker and Tolkien appeal to me--but I don't think it's necessary to invent a language or even partial devise one to have character and place names that seem plausibly like they might arise from a an actual language.

Carter points out in his essay, names need to have an appropriateness to them. He uses the example of Stonehenge (the location), and asks the reader to imagine it was named Piccadilly. Stonehenge seems a much more appropriate name for the place, not the least because it has "stone" as a component. Obviously, the "fit" of a name depends on preconceptions arising from one's native language, but also one's personal preferences. There are people that feel Clark Ashton Smith was horrible at invented names, and plenty (Carter included) who think he was a master of them.

In coming up with names I try to first consider this aspect of appropriateness: What vibe do I want the name or names to convey? The second thing I try to do is give them a sense of linguistic cohesiveness, as if they might come from the same language. 

For the imperial Vokun in Strange Stars, I wanted them to have names that suggested a tradition-bound, decadent, warrior culture. I thought longer names with some "heavier" (to the English speaker) sounds would fit the bill. I wound up using a list of Old Avestan names as my base, adding in some names from other sources, mixing and matching syllables and selecting mostly longer ones that I further tweaked to taste. Online name generators that accept a list of words as an input are good for inspiration, but they seldom provide a lot of "keepers" without tweaking. I wound up with names like this: Artazosthra, Ishramis, Jannaxa, Valakasta, Vahupareshta, Zrayangashamesh.

For my as yet unnamed science fantasy setting, I wanted most of the human names to have an easy and obvious rhythm and length for English speakers, but not generally be actual (or at least common) English names. the naming styles of Edmond Hamilton and Jack Vance were particular influences here, leading to names like: Glattis Malva, Godo Shrune, Yreul Dahut, and Festeu Harfo. The place names similarly were devised to be like English place names, but not actually be English place names.

The names of the nonhumans in this setting (like the various clades in the Strange Stars) had names suggesting they came from different languages:  hohmmkudhuk, ythlaxu, and hwaopt are "weird" in some way for English speakers, but trell and ieldra are much easier. Not every alien should have a name like something out of Marc Okrand's Klingon!

Of course, there are a lot of other things to consider. Carter's essay suggests things like trying to spread them out over the alphabet to make them distinct. 

Friday, July 23, 2021

Paleomythic, Ewoks and Rats

by Michael Whelan

I recently picked up Paleomythic by Graham Rose, and it's a relatively simply but definitely flavorful "Stone Age" rpg--or "Stone and Sorcery" as the subtitle would have it. It's perhaps a little less Jean Auel and a little more Robert E. Howard than say Würm, but really I think you could do pretty much the same stuff with each system depending on your preferences.

One thing I've been thinking about this past week though is using Paleomythic for a setting where the characters are primitive, but not necessarily human. 

Without their toyetic, teddy bear looks, the story of the Ewoks is one of a "primitive" culture in a world of magic and exotic creatures (if we consider the cartoon and tv movies)--and then it's invaded by murderous aliens. Plenty of game fodder to be found in that, I think.

Simon Roy's Habitat and other Metamorphosis Alpha-adjacent stories feature post-technological primitive humans. Betram Chandler's "Giant Killer" is in no sense post-apocalyptic, but has a bit of the vibe of those settings--only with nonhuman protagonists. There are mutated rat tribes making their caves in the walls of a spacecraft and their "giant" antagonists are the human crew. The rat(ish) scale would make the sizes of generation ships more vast and add some interesting detail to those sorts of settings.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Weird Revisited: The Like You for Your Brains

The original version of this post appeared in 2011...

Bored with the standard monsters? Tired of the same old thing? Here’s a couple of mechanically-unchanged stalwarts with a shiny new finish:

Moon Men
Mysterious beings that appear by night and move silently to feed upon the minds of humans. Moon Men appear as tall humanoids whose heads are hidden beneath gleaming, featureless domes. These scientist-sadists rarely make any attempt to communicate, and treat other sentients with clinical detachment, as if they were mere cattle.

These are good ol’ mind flayers--because tentacles are so last year. The only change would be to dispense with the tentacle attack--or maybe keep it and have pseudopods emerge from a Moon Man’s liquid metal head. With that option, they might literally eat brains, but otherwise its the mind they’re after, not the meat.

Though the picture is Mysterio, the name was inspired by a pulp hero with a similar look.

Brain Parasite
“The brain was in a serious state of liquefaction. Only the brain-stem had any discernable structure. A puncture in the back of the skull likely indicates where the creature insert its venom...Yes, that’s the thing in the preservative vat there. It was completely invisible--or more precisely, simply, unseen--on the victims back until it was killed.  And by then it was too late.”

These reskinned intellect devourers look like the zanti from the Outer Limits and act sort of like the mutant spiders from Metebelis 3, the titular Planet of the Spiders in Doctor Who. I imagine they inject some sort of a toxin into the skull, dissolve the brain slowly, and suck out the sweet, sweet juice over time. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Wednesday Comics: DC, October 1980 (wk 2, pt 1)

My goal: read DC Comics' output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis! This week, I'm looking at the comics at newsstands around July 24, 1980.

Action Comics #512: I have to hand it to Bates and Swan on this one. Here's one of the Bates "conundrum" plots where the ending works just as well as set-up. In fact, I think this is the sort of story (in basic concept) I could see someone like Grant Morrison doing (in their more Silver Age homaging moments), though the execution would have been different in their hands. Anyway, Luthor's reform is a ruse, as we knew all along. When Luthor's new bride asks to give Superman a kiss at the wedding, Luthor's robots show up and whisk him away. They take him back to the Nefarium where they remind him of the plan he made himself forget: Luthor cloned a dying woman in an overly elaborate plot trap Superman forever in the Phantom Zone. He even excised his own memories of the plot to pass any test Superman applied. Callously, he "disposed of" the young woman and cured her clone of the disease. Luthor sits impassively as these memories are returned to him and the robots explain to the reader. We do not see his expression.

Superman comes busting in, of course. He had seen through Luthor's plot when he noted the cells encoding Luthor's memories of his marriage to Ardora of Lexor were severed (so Luthor's a bigamist too!). Supes played along in the hopes that the young woman might still be alive, but when he heard she wasn't, it's time to end Luthor's game. In the end, we find that Luthor played himself. When we finally see Luthor's expression, he is in tears as he watches his clone bride forever trapped in the Phantom Zone--his sacrifice to trap Superman. He's forever separated from the woman he tricked himself into falling in love with.

Adventure Comics #476: DeMatteis and Giordano have not yet hit their stride (I'm being optimistic that they have one). Aquaman is still, I guess, on a quest to find Mera but he continues to he get sidetracked. This time he tangles with Neptune-or as he insists, Poseidon--merely so DeMatteis can give the story a clever title. It turns out that Poseidon's power to control sea creatures comes from his trident. When it's destroyed, he disappears without us finding out whether he was really Poseidon on not. The point of this story seems to be contrast Poseidon's manipulative control of sea life (including Aquaman) with our heroes friendship and cooperation. Considering the last two issues, the point of these stories seems to be rehabilitating the idea of Aquaman. A laudable goal, but it would be nice to have a better story as its vehicle.

In the Starman feature we reach a sort of climax with our hero confronting the throne-usurping Oswin. He's in a bit of a bind, though, because if he wins his sister the Empress (unaware of his identity) wants to marry him. When he reveals his identity, she might order his death as a threat to her throne. Starman makes a shrewd move and fakes his death after defeating Oswin. Plastic Man's goofy adventures from Pasko and Staton continues as he tangles with Cheeseface who has been killing execs in companies that manufacture nondairy creamers for revenge. 

Brave & the Bold #167: Wolfman teams up with Cockrum for what the splash page calls a tale of the "Golden Age Batman," which means a tale of a Batman active in WWII, because he meets the Blackhawks. It's interesting they say "Golden Age" instead of the diegetic "Earth-2." Is this indicative of Wolfman's dissatisfaction with the multiple Earths idea he'll get rid of in Crisis, or merely him not wanting to pin himself down since the most commonly appearing Blackhawks are the Earth-1 version? Regardless, the story is fun with Batman entering a boxing match as it's being broadcast over the radio to ruff up and interrogate a German boxer. There's also an appearance by the Hidalgo Trading Company of Doc Savage lore. Cockrum draws a good Golden Age Batman and Bruce Wayne that pays homage to Sprang's without aping the style. He also is good with the Blackhawk planes.

Detective Comics #495: The Crime Doctor story by Fleisher and Newton continues, picking up with Thorne realizing that Batman is Bruce Wayne. Batman gets knocked out by one of the thugs, but Thorne keeps them from killing him because "he's still a doctor." The cops are on the way, so they all run out, leaving Batman to wake up and rescue a doctor before a bomb goes off. Later, the thugs fill in crime boss Sterling Silversmith that the Crime Doctor may know Batman's identity and Sterling decides to have a chat with the doctor. Thorne is in disguise and trying to get out of the country, but gives himself away when he can't help but save a woman's life. Silversmith forces Thorne to drink some mercury ("quicksilver"--it's thematic!) and won't get him to a hospital if he doesn't give up Batman's identity. Thorne won't break confidentiality. Batman shows up to save him, but not before Thorne's mind is completely destroyed by mercury poisoning. A good, solid story.

The "Tales of Gotham" feature by Rozakis and Spiegle has a numbers runner desperate to get his mattress full of money out of a burning building. It's sort of clever, but I wonder who the audience was for this sort of thing? Burkett and Delbo continue the adventures of Batgirl, or the "Darknight Damsel" as this story puts it. This storyline isn't bad, but it suffers a bit by comparison to the better stories around it, which include the DeMatteis/Forton Black Lightning yarn. "Animals" has Black Lightning trying to resolve a hostage situation with a teen gang within the school without any of the gang members loosing their lives. It's 70s heavy handed, sure, regarding life in the ghetto and how it shapes youth, but it works pretty well. In the last story, Robin takes down a drug ring that is shipping the drugs to the campus under the guise of being an academic book publisher in Gotham. I bet the pricing was ridiculous.

Green Lantern #133: Wolfman and Staton get Carol and Hal back together around their mutual desire to not see Ferris Aircraft go under after several mysterious plane crashes. Things are complicated by Dr. Polaris whisking Green Lantern to the North Pole to try and kill him. Based on the trouble Polaris gives GL and the dialogue about the ring's power and magnetism, Magneto would be a deadlier foe for Jordan than Sinestro! The backup story by Laurie Sutton and Rodin Rodriguez has Adam Strange and friends fighting to save Ranagar from Kaskor the Mad. There's a lot of action, but it still feels kind of dull.

House of Mystery #285: Great cover on this one courtesy of Joe Kubert. I don't think any of the stories live up to it. The cover story by Wessler and Henson (in that it has a clown, otherwise it's unrelated) is sort of a Murder on the Orient Express riff set in a circus where the clown arrested for stabbing the lousy circus owner was actually the only member of the circus that couldn't have killed him because she stabbed him after he was dead at the others' hands! Kupperberg's and Cruz's "Cold Storage" has a soldier freaking out due to isolation in the arctic and committing murder, only to wind up infected by a deadly disease careered by a quarantined astronaut that will keep him isolated and in the extreme cold. Barr and Patricio deliver a tale of an overzealous vampire hunter who, after the accidentally murder of a boy just pretending to be a vampire, has a curse put on him by the child's mother. It causes him to develop a phobia that leads to his death when it manifests at a crucial moment: a fear of pointed objects.  Barr takes another swing, this time with Garcia, in a slightly better story of a robber and who plays his boombox at an annoying volume. The music allows the woman he injured in a jewelry store robbery to guess his identity. The woman's husband ultimately traps him in a basement under debris--and turns up his radio so that no one can hear his cries for help.