Category Archives: Reading

Forging ahead, regardless of the facts

“When you write a story, you have a predetermined end in mind, and the challenge is to make the facts match the ending. This is what I call “the fictific method.” The challenge of the fictific method is to make all the facts along the way to lead to a believable result based on those facts. Unfortunately, more and more we are seeing storytellers whose goal is to reach a certain result regardless of the facts.” — Brian K. Lowe.

Lowe cites two ways this happens: 1)The writer ignores the facts they’ve’ established so that they can make the ending come out the way they want it to. 2)The storyteller establishes false facts: changes history, ignores the way things normally work, or has people behave in ways nobody normally would.

Raymond Chandler’s classic essay The Simple Art of Murder really hammers the classic British mysteries of his day over #2. Cops who don’t follow any of the established rules or use the tools at their disposal to crack the case. Or consider the murder scheme in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase: it’s an absurdly elaborate plot it’s unlikely any killer would use. But it has to be used to set up a seemingly impossible crime, a man murdered on a beach at low tide with nobody leaving footprints in the sand.

Or consider Avengers #38 (cover by Gil Kane). The Asgardian Enchantress places a love spell on Hercules to get him to attack the Avengers for her. At the end, the good guys snap Herc out of the spell, but the Enchantress still has the magical power to annihilate them. Instead, when Hercules tells her to get lost, she just walks out because … she’s in love with him and can’t bear to kill him along with the others. This comes out of nowhere; she’s shown absolutely no interest in Hercules up to that point, unlike Thor, whom she was constantly hot for. But it was the simplest way to end the story, given her Asgardian magic way outclasses the team.

Or take a scene I wrote into Southern Discomfort. After some nasty magic starts paralyzing people, I had the Pharisee County Hospital treating it as if there were a strange outbreak of stroke cases. My friend doctor and author Heather J. Frederick pointed out that strokes don’t work the way the magic did, so that wouldn’t be the diagnosis. I went back and reworked it and settled on the doctors deciding it was some kind of fast-spreading disease — which was scarier because 1973 wasn’t as prepared for epidemics as we are now.

Which is the key to making the fictific method work. If you can’t get the ending you want, given the facts of your story, either change the facts or change the ending so everything flows logically. Hopefully once it’s finally published, everyone will agree that I did.

#SFWApro. All rights to cover remain with current holder.

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It’s hump day, keep fighting!

See the work week fall before your sword!And never give up, never surrender!#SFWApro. Covers by Ken Kelly top and Jerry Grandenetti, all rights remain with current holders.

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Simon Templar, Jesus and Batman! Books read

THE SAINT: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Film and Television 1928-1992 by Burl Barer looks at the career of Simon “The Saint” Templar, gentleman adventurer, troubleshooter and “Robin Hood of modern crime,” a man who took down criminals the law couldn’t catch while also using their loot to cushion his bank account. Barer tracks the Saint’s growth from the early 1930s novels to international popularity and an expansion into movies, radio, comic strips, hardback reprints, TV and mystery magazines. He parallels this with a look at creator Leslie Charteris’ career, which came to focus entirely around the Saint after The Saint In New York became a best-seller. Unlike many authors, Charteris was quite protective of Simon Templar in other media, aggressively complaining if he thought their treatment hurt the brand. He also worried surprisingly about whether Simon’s age as the series progressed made his adventures ridiculous; I just accept that kind of agelessness as a gift of the fictional gods.

The book ends right as work on the 1997 Val Kilmer Saint film was beginning which left Barer optimistic it would launch a whole new franchise. Instead it tanked, and I suspect Simon Templar is very much now a “dad hero” in the sense that while he was huge for my generation (particularly when Roger Moore played him on TV), I doubt he means anything for Gen X, Y, etc., any more than the characters referenced in Clubland Heroes mean to me. Damn, I’m old.

ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan acknowledges in the introduction that trying to capture a historical image of Jesus isn’t really possible, then blithely asserts that he’s done it anyway. Aslan’s version is that Jesus was one of the countless Jewish Messiahs out to free Palestine from the yoke of Rome with the help of Jehovah: he came to bring not peace but a sword (Aslan concludes Jesus gentler admonitions were all meant for Jews on how to deal with each other, not outsiders). This is no worse than most other biographies of this sort I’ve read, but no better; Aslan suffers the usual dilemma of having to separate the parts of the Gospels imposed on Jesus’ life by later Christians with the ones that capture authentic history, and his unsurprising conclusion is that whatever fits his thesis is historical.

THE GOLDEN-AGE BATMAN Vol. 6 pretty much continues the style and spirit of the previous volume which despite the increasing number of time-travel stories is, I think a good thing. We have more Joker and Penguin, the introduction of the Riddler and less well remembered villains such as the Gong and the Pied Piper (not the Flash foe, a criminal who uses pipes as an MO). There’s also the debut of Vicki Vale: having only known her as a rather annoying Lois Lane-clone who was either trying to marry Batman or unmask him (Lois at her best was much better than that) it was quite a surprise to see her in her first story as a determined photojournalist with no qualms about taking a risk to get the right photo. Among the standout stories are “The Case of the 48 Jokers” for how Batman and Robin wrap it up by playing practical jokes on the Joker, and “The Man With the Fatal Hands,” a clever riff on the old Hands of Orlac horror plot. I’ve already started volume #7.

#SFWApro. Batman cover by Dick Sprang; all rights to both cover images remain with current holders.

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Nexus: more than “angsty Punisher in space”

While I haven’t finished the Nexus Omnibus collections completely, Nexus: Alien Justice makes such a good stopping place for the Mike Baron/Steve Rude series (the equivalent of a season ender on TV that could serve as a season ender), I figure I might as well give it an overview.

When the series (initially from Capital Comics, later from First) begins, Nexus is already infamous as a vigilante in the vast spacefaring universe of 500 years from now. There’s the Solar System, which is loosely united; assorted alien races and human colonies; and the repressive Sov empire, the result of Russia taking its communist dictatorship to the stars (when this series started in the early 1980s, it still seemed possible the Soviets would last that long). When Nexus enters one dictatorship’s airspace, the tyrant’s reaction is to have every possible ship and weapon deployed to stop him (they don’t) so it’s clear he’s serious business. Nexus channels fusion power from the heart of a star so he’s near unstoppable (emphasis on the near).

As we learn over the next few issues, Nexus is Horatio Hellpop, whose father was a Sov general ruling one outpost. When his overthrow became inevitable, he followed his duty and wiped out the entire planet, then fled with his wife to an isolated world to hide. After her death, Horatio goes up with his dad and two imaginary friends for company … but they’re not imaginary. They’re agents of the Merk, a cosmically powerful entity that eventually drives Horatio to kill his father by showing him visions of Dad’s ruthless past, then charging him with fusion power. It’s only the beginning: the Merk wants to fight evil, so it sends more dreams of evildoers to haunt Horatio until he kills them. Nexus is born.

On one of his first cases, Nexus kills the boss of a slave labor camp on Thune. The laborers point out that they’ll be blamed and executed so Horatio reluctantly takes them with him back to Ylum, the isolated world where he dwells (it’s linked to the Nexus). This becomes the beginning: Ylum draws more refugees and its development into a functioning democracy is a running plot through the series. Dave, one of the laborers, becomes Horatio’s closest friend. Then there’s Sundra Peale, a spy who eventually falls for Horatio and opens a business on Ylum; and Judah Maccabbee, Dave’s long-lost son, raised Jewish and modeling his role as an interplanetary trouble-shooter on Nexus.

What makes Nexus more than just a standard hardcore vigilante who kills bad guys is — well, several things, starting with Horatio. He’s not a violent man by nature, but the Merk’s torments make it hell for him to refuse a mission. He tries several times, but it doesn’t go well. Later, when the Merk dumps Horatio and appoints a new Nexus, the new man likes killing way too much (Horatio eventually regains his powers in Alien Justice but I didn’t buy it — it seemed he’d be happier to hang up his suit and stay retired). In one story Nexus kills a tyrant, which guarantees vicious reprisals against the oppressed — but Nexus isn’t willing to wipe out the entire government to save them, so what does he do?

There’s also a great supporting cast. Sundra. Dave. Judah. Tyrone, the put-upon leader of Ylum. Ursula who seduces Horatio to begat two girls with psionic power. The Loomis sisters, three young women PO’d Nexus executed their father.

And then there’s the backdrop. Much like Saga, this universe isn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously, as witness we have a cult of assassins known as the Gucci. But it works. There are weird races such as the Heads, disembodied psionics enslaved and used to channel fusion power and political conflict between Ylum (which is largely identified with Nexus) and some of the worlds where he deals death. Even when it’s not serious, it’s usually interesting.

There are some parts of the series that don’t work. Clonezone, a humanoid frog who’s also a chiseling opportunist, is never anything but annoying, but Baron and Rude gave him a backup strip for a while. I just skipped over those stories.

In the Alien Justice miniseries (after First Comics shut up shop and the original series ended), the Merk recruits multiple alternative Nexi without success. Fortunately a rival Merk, “GQ” (see what I mean about not serious?) recruits Horatio to stop them, with Sundra and Judah’s help. GQ then hauls the Merk back to their own plane and offers to power Horatio in his stead. Which like I said, I didn’t buy: with the Merk gone, I think Horatio would happily end his Nexus career and go on with his own life. But either way it represents a stopping point, even if it turned out the series didn’t stop.Despite that, the run of the series is well worth collecting and available in both hard and paperback omnibuses. I’ll be reviewing the remaining collections as I work through them.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Paul Gulacy, others by Steve Rude. All rights remain with current holder.

 

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Mr. and Mrs. Killraven and other cover art

First we have John Romita’s cover for Killraven, Marvel’s SF hero in a future world where HG Wells’ Martians returned and took over —And about two years later we got … another Killraven! Coincidence? Was it the Martian invasion that gave her “a wedding born of terror?” Art is uncredited in any case.Moving to non-Killraven images, we have the futuristic Wonder Bra in Earle Bergey’s cover!Then there’s this one by Rafael de Soto.A great little novel and a typical Powers cosmic-looking cover.Kelly Freas shows that even on Mars they hate bagpipes.I like this George Rozen cover simply because the text reveals the backup story stars “the bowling detective.”A Gerald Gregg mystery cover.

And one by Robert Gibson Jones.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Immortals, a sunken city and Stonehenge: books read

ARCHER AND ARMSTRONG: Wrath of the Eternal Warrior by Fred van Lente and Clayton Henry is a good follow-up to V1; even though it’s a crossover with Valiant’s Eternal Warrior series, I didn’t actually realize that so I’d say it worked well. Gilad, the Eternal Warrior, wants to kill Armstrong over the events of the first book, so Armstrong and Archer must stay one step ahead of him, locate the world’s new Geomancer, and prevent the Sect’s latest scheme. Great fun, though I was amused that one super-assassin tosses off in passing that he’s JFK’s real killer — I’ve mentioned in Screen Enemies of the American Way how the Dallas shooting has become a kind of proof that a given fictional assassin or killer is a big deal, and this is a textbook example (my friend Ross pointed out the same throwaway detail is used in the anime/manga Golgo 13).

JOE GOLEM, OCCULT DETECTIVE: The Rat Catcher and the Sunken Dead is a non-Hellboyverse story by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden, Dave Stewart and Patric Reynolds. Set in an alt.timeline where New York is half underwater, the protagonists are Simon Church, an aging occult investigator, and his grumpy legman Joe Golem — who as flashbacks show is a real golem, but with enough blood on his hands Church has blotted the truth out with amnesia drugs. The two multi-part stories in this volume are fun, though it lacks the magic touch of Hellboy.

STONEHENGE: The Story of a Sacred Landscape by Francis Pryor argues that far from being built according to some master design, Stonehenge was cobbled together over centuries: the site was sacred for so long that people kept adding and adjusting it (Pryor speculates the bluestones in the circle were added to give a more human scale the bigger stones lacked) while other features were eroded with time, or ruined with bad attempts at redesign. This was interesting but I’d picked it up under the impression it would be about the modern world’s long efforts to interpret Stonehenge, so I was a little disappointed.

#SFWApro. Public domain photo by Daveahem on wikimedia commons;  all rights to cover image remain with current holder.

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Juggling, insomnia and a wendigo! Okay, I was kidding about the wendigo

Another rather disorderly but quite productive week. So that’s a win, I think. And my post title gives me an excuse to post one of Herb Trimpe’s Hulk covers, which is another win (Trimpe and Sal Buscema are very much “my” Hulk artists).

The disorder started around midnight Saturday when Trixie woke up, needing to go to the bathroom. I took her out, but an hour later she needed to go again. After that I just settled with her onto the couch downstairs. She was fine with that, but her constant quivering from her tummy upsets made it impossible to sleep. While I’m used to insomnia I’d had some bad nights earlier in the week and this one was just a bridge too far. I was so wiped out Saturday that everything I’d planned to do got either postponed to Sunday (planning some stuff, cleaning) or dropped (going to the movies). I wound up taking a nap that was close to three hours, which is way long for me.

On the plus side, Trixie’s tummy settled down and she went back to normal. However her bad leg definitely felt worse after doing all that extra squatting and relieving herself. But she’s been improving steadily, I think; as I said this morning, I hope she’ll escape needing surgery. Even if not, better a happy, contented puppy in recovery than a miserable sad, diarrhea-ridden puppy.

Now, the juggling; I’ve been practicing juggling for years, based on a couple of how-to books. I’ve known for a while I was never going to get any better without help, so I took a one hour class Monday at Triangle Circus Arts.My teacher was very helpful. She pointed out the mistakes in the way I was doing things and showed me some basic steps I wasn’t taking. It was a huge quantum leap in my understanding of what I was doing, and a modest leap in my performance. But even when I wasn’t doing it right, at least I could spot what I was doing wrong. I’ll keep practicing at home, then next month I’ll go back again.

But the thing is, I normally practice five minutes at a time. Juggling for a solid hour really exhausted my arms and left me wiped out for the rest of the day. Coupled with Trixie’s appointment slicing the morning in two, I got nothing done. However my insomnia was still running so I wound up making up the time at the cost of sleep. Not exactly a win, but …

And as for the writing?

I finished chapter four of Undead Sexist Cliches. I’ve gone light on a couple of sections, such as whether or not a pay gap between women and men exists (yes) and is partly due to sexism (yes), and told everyone to read some of the posts in footnotes if they want to get into serious number crunching. Still it’s in much better order, with all footnotes added.

I got one more chapter of Impossible Takes a Little Longer. After the trip to Stardian City I’m not quite sure where it goes to get to the big superhero/supervillain confrontation (not the climax but a big turning point) but my gut’s lead me well so far; hopefully that will continue.

I redrafted and slightly shortened Death is Like a Box of Chocolates based on last week’s critique from the writers’ group. It’s improved, but I think the ending may still need work. I’ll give it another look next week, then off to another beta reader. If she thinks it works, I’ll have it finished next month.

I worked some on finishing this month’s first draft (as yet untitled), but I didn’t get very far. And other than knowing it’s a riff on Sleeping Beauty, I have no idea what kleptomaniac Mary “Stealer” Holt has to deal with. But it’s a first draft, I can always change the answer later. I hope to finish it this month, but I won’t bet on it.

That’s a satisfactory amount of work. Next week, hopefully, I can accomplish work and sleep.

#SFWApro. Rights to cover image remain with current holder.

 

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Titles and beginnings: Doc Savage in Colors for Murder, Fire and Ice and Three Times a Corpse

For writing Doc Savage (or anything else), Lester Dent’s all-purpose plot outline says to start the story with either an unusual murder method; a normal method but bizarre circumstances; an unusual McGuffin; or a different setting. By 1946, he was definitely not hewing to that approach, but he does know how to hook readers with a striking opening, even if the story doesn’t stay at that level.

Dent and his occasional ghost writers also tried coming up with good titles, many of which, like all three novels I read this month, got changed by his editors. Sometimes these were minor: The Crime Annihilist became The Annihilist. Sometimes they missed the boat: Crew of Skeletons became Brand of the Werewolf, but Dent’s title makes much more sense. Now, as to this month’s reading —

COLORS FOR MURDER was originally titled Jonah Had a Whale which, while a little whimsical, made more sense, as you’ll see. The opening is great: Della Nelson has just seen her brother seized by bad guys who’ve warned her to stay silent. She’s terrified. The crooks recommend a vacation to Cuba, paid for by her brother; just stay out of the way and everything will be fine.

It won’t. Della knows that. And for confirmation, when the stewardess hands her some aspirin, a jerk passenger snatches them for himself — and dies, poisoned. The killer, South, is displeased but rationalizes that fat people suck, so the overweight dead guy had it coming; justifying his murders is a quirk with him, but not one that plays any role in the rest of the book. And the rest of the book, is unfortunately, dull. The scheme involves Arthur Pogany, a whaling enthusiast who it turns out has found a treatment to make whales generate extra ambergris, potentially making him a fortune. The four captive whales have been painted different colors so he can tell which ones he’s treated on a given day (the treatment of whales would not go over well today, I suspect). South’s group want to kill Pogany and take his discovery.

The only really good moment after the opening is the end, when it turns out Pogany’s a fraud. His treatment doesn’t work but he thought South was a rich mark he could swindle easily. Oops.

A curious detail is that Dent avoids any actual description of Doc, as if he wants to leave the usual awed descriptions of Doc’s physique behind with the gadgets and the supervillains.

FIRE AND ICE is the first story in four years by Dent’s ghost-writer, William Bogart, whose own title, Deuces Wild, was slightly more interesting. Nothing else in this story is. Bogart begins with travel-brochure writing about the Alaskan wilderness before getting to the action, Doc rescuing Patience, a beautiful woman with plane problems (Doc’s up there looking at possible tourist flights for one of the airlines he owns). Doc puts her up in a nearby town, but she’s attacked by a sniper in the night. Fortunately Doc’s swapped rooms with her. They eventually head back to New York to figure out what’s really going on.

It turns out Patience’s twin sister, nicknamed “Impatience,” has discovered a ring smuggling Nazi war criminals into the U.S. (a popular postwar plot in fiction, which is ironic given the government actively recruited useful Nazis to its service). Impatience reported this to the FBI, narrowly escaping death. Patience hoped to draw the crooks’ fire by posing as her sister, then figured the crooks would back off once she joined forces with Doc. They didn’t.

It’s a dull, routine thriller, not up to Dent’s post-war stuff and the villains are surprisingly inefficient. Their attacks on Patience aren’t above the level of what a gang of juvenile delinquents could manage. There is one joke, when a pilot tells a friend “I’ll see you in Gotham, Alfred” — Superman jokes in the previous couple of stories, now Batman.

THREE TIMES A CORPSE is the pick of this month’s reading, and easily the best title, even though Dent’s Sea Snare makes more sense. It starts with Doc on vacation in Miami, where a couple of engaging low-lifes, Sam and Petey, have accepted a commission to play a practical joke on Doc. The joke takes the form of a gun set up to detonate and fire a shot into the table where Doc’s eating dinner across the street (in an odd detail, part of the Rube Goldberg mechanism is a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People used as part of the trigger device). The idea is that this will lead Doc on a wild goose chase to Montana, and out of the clutches of the sexy gambler Lucky, who supposedly has her hooks in him.

The gun goes off as its supposed to, but Sam’s snooping about when Doc has his meals tipped off the restaurateur that something’s fishy so Sam and Petey wind up in Doc’s clutches. The local police are fans of Doc (not something we see a lot in this period) and are happy to play games to get the truth out of the guys. The truth leads them to Lucky, a stunning redhead whose name refers to her uncanny gambling luck: if she plays the slots they pay out, ditto any other game she plays. In a nice touch, she only recognizes Doc’s name because she uses his cousin Pat’s line of high-priced beauty products.

This is not, of course, the first time Doc’s vacation has been ruined by someone causing trouble, but he’s actually happy about it, accepting that a nice, relaxing vacation doesn’t suit him as well as a bit of danger. Doc, Ham, Monk investigate who’s trying to get him out of Miami, accompanied by the cops, Lucky and the low-lifes. The title comes when one of the bad guys gets murdered apparently three different ways before he can talk: poisoned cigarette, needle fired into his heart, another fired into his brain.

The McGuffin is dull, a shipload of beryllium that sank offshore and (as so often during this period), now has two gangs of crooks hunting for it. But up to that point, the story is engaging enough I can forgive the bland McGuffin.

#SFWApro. First two covers by Emery Clarke, third by Charles J. Ravel. Rights to all images remain with current holders.

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So yesterday’s double post—

Was because I mistakenly scheduled the post on strong female leads for Monday instead of today. So instead, here’s a cover by Bob Brown —And one by Bernard Sachs. #SFWApro. All rights to covers remains with current holders.

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Women who fly and men who wander: books and graphic novels

SUPERGIRL: Being Super by Mariko Tamaki and Joelle Jones is an out-of-continuity retelling of Supergirl’s origin because we so need more retellings of origins. That said, I’d be down for a good retelling (Supergirl’s isn’t as overdone as Wonder Woman’s) but this is what I think of as spectacularly okay: not actually bad, but a completely unremarkable execution. Kara Danvers hides from everyone but her parents that she has superpowers, even her two best friends; however it turns out someone knows about her and is plotting Evil Experiments for the greater good. Admittedly, as I’ve mentioned before, teenage life isn’t much of a hook for me, but even allowing for that this wasn’t terribly interesting — Kara’s just a generically broody, insecure teen.

I was much more engaged by THE JET SEX: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon by Victoria Vantoch. When airlines began making passenger travel a thing (initially it was mostly cargo) they started with airline stewards, then switched over to stewardesses in the belief they’d be less likely to unionize (incorrect, as it turned out). Stewardesses soon proved to be a potent marketing image, variously presented over the decades as the typical girl next door (in reality they were mostly college students which for the 1930s and 1940s meant they weren’t typical at all), then as glamorous, globe-trotting career woman, followed by the sexist, sexpot “I’m Cheryl — fly me.” ads of the 1970s. Alongside this we got the Cold War as Americans held up their stewardesses as sexy modern women compared to the soulless unattractive Soviet flight attendants; Russia, by contrast, held up their women as liberated working women in contrast to the er, flighty Americans.

And the women’s view?  Despite the airlines ruthless and restrictive rules for the women (to keep their jobs they had to meet weight requirements, age requirements, beauty requirements and stay single), the flight attendants themselves loved the work: travel all over the world and a chance to fly back when flying was thrilling as hell (while the airline played them as just marking time until they started a family, a lot of the woman wanted their gig to be a lifetime career). Most interesting.

I’m not much of a Rick Remender fan and BLACK SCIENCE: How to Fall Forever by Remender and Matteo Scalera doesn’t change that. This amounts to Sliders fanfic as a scientist’s attempt at piercing the multiverse leaves him and his team jumping from unpleasant world to unpleasant world searching for a way home. Only with more backstabbing because this is the kind of Serious Work where everyone’s scheming and rotten. I picked up two volumes of this at the library, but I’m putting V2 back.

John Claude Bemis’ story of wandering adventuring battling the soulless forces of the will-destroying Gog and Magog wraps up in THE WHITE CITY: Clockwork Dark #3: Ray and his fellow Ramblers must cross the country to recover his father from the twilight realm of the Gloaming, then reach the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair where Gog’s Machine will begin reducing humans to soulless drones in its service. While this kind of conflict is hardly new (the Machine is just Kirby’s Anti-Life Equation) it still works here (though Kirby’s take is more effective, as below).

#SFWApro. Cover by John Hubbard, illustration from Airliners International; splash page by Jack Kirby. All rights to both remain with current holder.

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