Tuesday, 15 January 2019

80s Comics Cavalcade: Six from Sirius by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy (Epic, 1984–5)

If the 1980s were, as is sometimes claimed, the decade that comics 'grew up', they were also the years in which my taste in comics grew up. I started the decade a callow ten-year-old into 2000 AD and superheroes; discovered Warrior – probably the comic that most expanded my understanding of what comics were and could be – in an Elmers End newsagent when it launched in 1982; bought Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns in Forbidden Planet on Denmark Street as they were published monthly (or not, as the case turned out to be); got into the Fast Fiction/Escape small press scene around the same time; and ended the decade a callow nineteen-year-old who'd pretty much given up on comics in favour of another obsession, music (a state of affairs that persisted for the best part of the 1990s).

I mention all of this because of late I seem to be succumbing to a mild bout of reinvigorated enthusiasm for 1980s comic books – American ones for the most part, a mixture of independent and Marvel/DC. Accordingly, I'm planning on reading or rereading a number of 80s comics this year, which may or may not beget a series of posts – hence the '80s Comics Cavalcade' title of this one. We'll see if this proposed series gets any further than this first effort, which ostensibly is about writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy's mid-80s four-issue sci-fi miniseries (and its four-issue sequel) Six from Sirius.

I think I vaguely recall seeing Six from Sirius in 1984, when the first miniseries was published. It was around then that I first found my way to central London's comic shops – initially Fantasy Inn at the bottom of Charing Cross Road, then Forbidden Planet, then such vanished haunts as LTS/Paradise Alley (down an alley off Denmark Street and up some stairs), Comic Showcase on Neal Street and Jonathan Ross's Top 10 on St. Anne's Court (see here for more on London's lost comic shops) – so I probably saw it in one or other of those places. (This would have been shortly after I'd discovered the Popular Books chain of shops closer to home in Lewisham, Catford and Camberwell; those sold/exchanged back issues, with a partitioned-off bit where you could buy dirty mags, which was obviously also of some interest at that juncture in my adolescence.)

Certainly the cover of the first issue of Six from Sirius is very familiar. I didn't buy it back then, but when I eventually got my hands on the two miniseries the year before last – courtesy of Brighton's back-issue specialists Dave's Books – that cover took me right back to browsing the shelves of the dingy old Forbidden Planet. Indeed, over 30 years on from first publication, Gulacy's covers across the two miniseries remain gloriously vibrant and evocative of the space-operatic spy story within.

His interior art is fabulous too, coloured by Gulacy himself using markers (not paints, as is sometimes assumed: "You will never see me painting a comic panel after panel," Gulacy told Amazing Heroes in 1989, labelling the very notion "absurd"), a technique he'd acquired in advertising.

As one might expect of a comic of this era, the script is a little on the gabby side, with a fair amount of unnecessary expository dialogue; but the general thrust of Moench's story is compelling, especially the bits about body swapping – the insertion of consciousness into artificial "fax" bodies – and the narrative twists that those give rise to.

The second miniseries, which appeared in 1985, also has some intriguing SF concepts in it – notably the notion of a kind of purgatorial pocket dimension that various competing powers want to use as a Trojan Horse – and some fabulously kinetic action sequences towards the end. Something else it has is back-up stories by other creators. I'm guessing these were introduced in this and other titles published by Epic (a boutique Marvel imprint which at this stage predominantly published non-superhero, creator-owned series, always a tough sell) as a way of increasing sales, but based on the back-up stories in Six from Sirius 2, I can't imagine they were much of a draw. That said, I did find Jonathan Zack's "Parody" in #1 divertingly baffling.

Incidentally, while I've never read Moench and Gulacy's signature work, Master of Kung Fu, I have read, and enjoyed, other stuff they've done together – 1986's Batman #393–394; the 2000 Batman: Outlaws prestige format miniseries; one or two other things. But it was Moench's run on Batman and Detective Comics circa 1983–4 – especially his work with Gene Colan – that I think made the biggest impression on me. I was 13, 14 at the time, and vividly recall buying those issues in a newsagent on Croydon Road in Beckenham. My original copies are long gone, but if get my hands on the issues again, maybe I'll write something about them.

Other 80s comics I'm considering covering in this prospective series include Matt Wagner's Grendel, J. M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck's Captain America run, James D. Hudnall and John Ridgway's Marvel graphic novel Rick Mason: The Agent, and the aforementioned Warrior. Whether I'll get round to all – or indeed any – of these is anyone's guess.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

2018: Science Fiction Odyssey, Too

Oh good grief would you look at the time. I mean date. I mean... whatever: Christmas and New Year's are fast approaching, and I am seized by an inexplicable urge to blog about the books I bought and read in 2018 – this despite having barely posted anything all year and consequently squandered whatever remaining sliver of readership Existential Ennui yet retained. Still, when have I ever let widespread disinterest stop me from wittering on at extreme length?

2018, then. A year that, much like 2017 – which, you'll recall (or at least you would if there were anyone left to read this rubbish in order to recall anything) was characterised by an extended science fiction book-collecting-and-reading odyssey – has been characterised by an extended science fiction book-collecting-and-reading odyssey... albeit arguably a less frenzied one. Even so, there have been sizeable scores this year, not least a haul of paperbacks (plus one hardback – a first of Larry Niven and Steven Barnes' Dream Park) I secured over successive visits to Lewes' own Bow Windows Bookshop, who had bought in a huge collection of softcover SF – piles and piles of the bloody stuff – towards the end of the year. (There's still a fair bit left if you're passing.) My spoils mostly comprised space opera by Stephen Baxter, Frederik Pohl (including a couple of entries in the Heechee Saga), Larry Niven, Elizabeth Moon, Charles Stross, Orson Scott Card and others, plus some Philip K. Dick, Terry Pratchett, Bruce Sterling, Joe Haldeman and so on.

Other notable SF scores this year included a stack of Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton first editions (notably Reynolds' entire Poseidon's Children trilogy, and a signed first of Hamilton's Misspent Youth plus his ensuing Commonwealth Saga) from two of Brighton's charity bookshops on the same day:

A smaller pile of SF from one of the same shops (including Joe Haldeman's sequel to The Forever War, Forever Free, which I'd been wanting to read):

A return visit to Camilla's Bookshop in Eastbourne (which saw me completing my collection of firsts of Hamilton's Void Trilogy, the sequel to the aforementioned Commonwealth Saga):

And returns visits too to Leigh Gallery Books in Leigh-on-Sea (who had a half-price sale on) and the Stables Bookshop at Hylands House, plus closer to home a mooch round the charity shops of Uckfield:

There were also some (relatively slim) pickings from the Paperback & Pulp Book Fair:

And of course the Lewes Book Fair:

Then there was the stack of Analog science fiction magazines, secured in Brighton's Snooper's Paradise (including the first appearance of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game):

And a smaller selection of SF magazines, bought in London's Quinto Bookshop, and containing P. M. Hubbard's three earliest short stories, a Joe Haldeman Forever War novella (not included in the first edition I own), and Jerry Pournelle's three-part A Spaceship for the King, alias King David's Spaceship (there was also an epic Westlake/Stark score on the same visit, but that's a story for another time):

Lastly, there were the signed paperbacks I picked up online for a song:

Besides all those, there were other books acquired here and there, but I think I've given the general gist of the year's collecting. What was that about 2018's odyssey being less frenzied than 2017's...?

As for actually reading any of the bloody things... allow me to present my traditional big long list of the books I read this year, in the order in which I read them. In previous years I've also tended to detail the comics I read, and sometimes even offered some commentary on my reading, but it's been a long year and I really can't be arsed. I have, however, deigned to include links to whatever I've previously written about some of the books (however brief). You're welcome. Merry Christmas.

Raft by Stephen Baxter
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds
An Entity Observes All Things by Box Brown
Tales from the Hyperverse by William Cardini
Across the Sea of Suns by Gregory Benford
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Forever Free by Joe Haldeman
The Forge of God by Greg Bear
Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear
A World Out of Time by Larry Niven
Tales of Known Space by Larry Niven
The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton by Larry Niven
Protector by Larry Niven
A Gift from Earth by Larry Niven
Neutron Star by Larry Niven
Spock Must Die! by James Blish (see Star Trek Magazine #69, out now, for my review)
Ringworld by Larry Niven
The Mercenary by Jerry Pournelle
He Fell into a Dark Hole (in Analog) by Jerry Pournelle
Planet of Judgment by Joe Haldeman (see Star Trek Magazine #70 for my review)
The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, plus prologue in A Step Farther Out, and and missing first chapter in Infinite Stars.
Timelike Infinity by Stephen Baxter
The five Shaper/Mechanist stories in Ascendancies by Bruce Sterling
Es*Ef by Phil Elliott, Darryl Cunningham, Glenn Dakin, Paul Duncan and David Thorpe
Kingdom by Jon McNaught
XTC69 by Jessica Campbell
DC Nuclear Winter Special by various
Gateway by Frederik Pohl (still reading)

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Neutron Star and Ringworld: Larry Niven's Known Space I Have Known

Mission accomplished: I've completed my maiden voyage through Larry Niven's Known Space. Actually I reached, and explored, my final destination, Ringworld (1970), a little while ago, but this is the first opportunity I've had to even think about writing anything about it and the book that preceded it on my route, Neutron Star (1968). Of the two, I much preferred Neutron Star, a collection of mid–late-sixties short stories set mostly in the 27th century, half of them starring 'crashlander' Beowulf Shaeffer; I especially liked the title story and "At the Core", which respectively detail Shaeffer's excursions to a neutron star and the galactic centre (the latter a journey also undertaken by Jerome Corbell in 1976 novel A World Out of Time, another favourite of mine from Niven's oeuvre). In fact I liked the collection so much that I wound up with four different editions of it, two of them signed.

The American first edition was published in paperback by Ballantine in 1968, under a cover sporting near-abstract art that's uncredited but reminds me of the work of Richard M. Powers. I bought this pristine copy at the London Pulp and Paperback Fair last year (from Jamie Sturgeon I believe).

The British first edition, published in hardback by Macdonald in 1969, also has an uncredited dust jacket, but the design is the same as other books in the publisher's science fiction line around this period – a large 'SF' outline with an illustration inside it (actually not a bad stab at a Pierson's Puppeteer in this instance), probably all by the same artist; see also the Macdonald editions of Niven's World of Ptavvs and A Gift from Earth, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Piers Anthony's Chthon (a copy of which I own) and many others. I bought this ex-Army Library copy (with very minimal markings) online for a tenner, a pretty good price considering comparable copies are more like fifty quid.

The signed copies are both 1972 second printings of the 1971 Sphere paperback edition... but with different covers, sporting different paintings by Eddie Jones. I can't quite work out why there are two versions of the Sphere second printing. Steve Holland gives the second one an issue date of 1976, but that doesn't match the copyright page of my copy, which definitely states "Reprinted 1972", the same as the other copy. (The Internet Speculative Fiction Database also lists both as 1972 printings.) Answers on a postcard, or in the comments, please. Anyway, each copy has been signed by Niven on the title page (with a "To Brian" in the one with the planetary landscape painting on the cover), and each set me back just a couple of quid.

Incidentally there's a Star Trek connection (isn't there always these days) with Neutron Star, because one of the stories, "The Soft Weapon", was adapted by Niven (at the request of Gene Roddenberry, after D. C. Fontana brought Niven on board) into a Star Trek: The Animated Series story, "The Slaver Weapon". Much of it survives in the episode, including Known Space concepts like Slavers, stasis boxes, and the Kzinti. And there's another Trek connection with these particular editions: Eddie Jones also painted the covers of the final three James Blish Trek novelisations, both of Joe Haldeman's original Trek novels, and the first two volumes of The New Voyages. (Blish has been on my mind of late because there's a big piece on him, featuring an interview with his wife Judy – alias J. A. Lawrence – in the next Star Trek Magazine, out November in the US and December in the UK; I also review Blish's 1970 novel Spock Must Die! in the same issue.)

Another cover that Jones illustrated was the 1973 Sphere edition of Ringworld, i.e. the first British paperback edition – a very nice copy of which I found online dead cheap – and the first to show an image of the Ringworld itself on the cover (the jacket of the Gollancz first edition is typographic). Unfortunately Jones' painting misconstrues the topography of the Ringworld, much as Dean Ellis does on the 1970 US Ballantine first edition: both artists depict the interior at a right angle to the Ringworld's edge. A better representation of the nature of the Ringworld can be found with Donato Giancola's painting on the cover of the mid-1990s Del Rey paperback edition, a copy of which I came across in a charity bookshop in Uckfield.

For anyone minded to try Ringworld, I would recommend reading Neutron Star first, partly for the reasons outlined by Tor.com – doing so affords a better understanding of the concepts and characters and lends depth to the novel's revelations – but also because it's the better book. Ringworld, while terrific in bits – mostly the bits to do with the magnificent scale of the setting and the relationships between the protagonists – for me dragged a little as Louis Wu, Teela Brown, Nessus the Puppeteer and Speaker-to-Animals the Kzin made their way across the landscape. Your mileage may vary, depending on how into world-building you are.

So that's me done with Known Space... although I am thinking of reading the sequel to Ringworld, The Ringworld Engineers (1980), soon. Ahead of that, though, I've started exploring another future history, one commonly referred to as the CoDominium...

Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 12/10/18.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Star Trek Magazine #68 (Titan, Fall 2018)

At risk of Existential Ennui becoming a vehicle for my banging on about whichever Star Trek publication I've been working on of late – which, let's face it, would be an improvement on my usual prolix piffle (posted mercifully infrequently these days at least)... here's another Star Trek publication I've been working on of late:

Star Trek Magazine #68, out tomorrow in the US and 4 October in the UK. I've no particular reason for drawing attention to this, my third issue as editor (actually twenty-eighth overall, this being my second stint in the captain's chair), other than it's quite a good one, I think – a Mirror Universe special, with a future history of that twisted alternate reality, a compare-and-contrast between Lorca and Picard (the latter of whose return to Trek is also covered), a piece on parallel universes, a profile of "Mirror, Mirror" writer Jerome Bixby, a feature on the DC Comics Mirror Universe Saga, and loads more besides (all handsomely designed, as ever, by the amazing Amazing15).

Even the contents page has been conquered by the Terran Empire. Plus there's a bizarre editorial in which I confess to reading my sister's comics as a kid. Quite what this has to do with the Mirror Universe is something you'll need to buy a copy to find out.