Category Archives: Reading

Holmes and a hunter: two books reread

I first read EXIT SHERLOCK HOLMES by Robert Lee Hall back at Oberlin and loved it; rereading, I still loved it. It’s 1903, Moriarty has returned and Holmes disappears to work against him (his “retirement” to Sussex is a cover story). Watson, inevitably, gets drawn into the struggle, and finds himself with questions — like why didn’t Holmes ever mention Moriarty was an identical lookalike? Why does Holmes have a secret lab in the basement of 221B Baker Street? Why did Holmes tell so little of his past? With the help of the grown-up Baker Street Iregular Wiggins, Watson realizes that to stop Moriarty, he’ll first have to find out the truth about Sherlock Holmes.

This is very much a fan’s book, judging by Hall weighing on some of the debates of Holmesians over the years (who was Watson’s second wife? Did Holmes have a thing for Irene Adler?) and giving Mrs. Hudson some backstory. It’s also very enjoyable, though it’s annoying Watson doesn’t get to do more detective work; Hall keeps him as loyal sidekick and lets Wiggins do most of the deducing. I also have a couple of reservations about the big reveal, but nothing that’s a deal-breaker.

Y/A author Lisa J. Smith is probably best known for the original Vampire Diaries trilogy and for the final book in her Night World series never coming out (it was imminent when I finished rereading the series back in 2012). Her best work, however, is THE FORBIDDEN GAME trilogy, which kicks off with The Hunter. Protagonist Jenny buys a board game for her party from Julian, a creepy but sexy salesclerk in a strange store. The game involves moving your pieces through a haunted house where you face your own nightmares — and isn’t that cute, when you start all the players have to swear that they’re staking their very lives on the outcome. Isn’t that funny?

One of the things I love about this is that the nightmares get so weird. So many “face your worst fear” stories make the fears a logical outgrowth of the characters’ personalities and in my experience, they tend to be much more random. Here we have one character with a nightmare that her messy room is a thousand times more filthy, the only way out is to dig through the piles of crap between her and the door. And when you do, it disturbs the roaches … Like Exit Sherlock Holmes, this lives up to my memories.

I read a bit more than these two but I attended Mysticon this weekend (details to follow) and didn’t bring my computer so I had to write this up before I left.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jordi Penalva, all rights remain with current holder.

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Big scary monsters and more!

First a Kirby cover. Grottu was eventually killed by dousing him with sugar so his ant armies ate him alive.

Next, Virgil Finlay. I’ve no idea why they’re lying on top of the world.

Paul does the next one.

And we wrap up with another Kirby cover. The giant is a radioactive mutant scarecrow but it’s actually a good guy.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Bad girls, a future Earth, a nuclear hero and witches: books read

BAD GIRLS: Young Women, Sex and Rebellion Before the Sixties by Amanda H. Littauer is the flip side to Trials of Nina McCall, looking at the kind of sexually active women the American Plan longed to lock up somewhere. Littauer’s selection includes “victory girls” who partied with soldiers during WW II, lesbians, prostitutes, kids going steady (which teens rationalized made it OK to have sex) and women discussed in and responding to the Kinsey Report on female sexual activity. Informative, but Littauer’s style is stiff even for a university press book, and I can’t help feeling there’s something missing, though I’m not sure what.

EARTH’S LAST CITADEL by CL Moore and Henry Kuttner starts in 1943 as protagonist Alan helps a brilliant, crotchety scientist escape from the Nazis. As the Nazi agents (a former mob triggerman and an Karen, an adrenaline junkie who does spy work for the thrills) catch up with them, all four are trapped by an ET, then thaw out in the very, very distant future, after the ET’s race has xenoformed Earth to their liking, then died out. Exploring the strange title city, the quartet (fully aware that their political disagreements mean very little now) discover an Eloi like race, a malevolent telepath — oh, and one of the aliens may not have died after all …

This is exotic, imaginative and colorful, the kind of pulp stuff I love. However, while I enjoyed it, it’s kind of a mess; the plot changes direction so much I wonder if they were making it up as they went along and kept changing their minds (it was serialized, like a lot of SF stories at the time). Karen is an interesting character but she virtually vanishes, with more attention going to Alan’s Eloi love interest; nor do they do anything with the idea the scientist, while brilliant, would sooner party than work. by

Cary Bates redefined Charlton Comics’ Captain Atom (the prototype for Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen) in his 1980s series, turning him into a government agent posing as a superhero to infiltrate the metahuman community. Nobody who followed Bates did anything good with the character, and DC’s New 52 turned him into a Dr. Manhattan knockoff. Now comes THE FALL AND RISE OF CAPTAIN ATOM by Bates and Greg Weisman which allows Bates to reboot the character close to Bates 1980s version. In his last battle, Captain Atom apparently dies but actually gets thrown back to the past. When he returns (I’m simplifying a lot of plot here)  he presents himself as a new, improved legacy hero — but what about the family he left in the past? And can he really trust his military superiors? Nothing’s been done with it since, and I’m not sure how it works for anyone who doesn’t love the 1980s version, but I give it solid thumbs up.

Andre Norton’s WITCH WORLD was an insanely weird genre mash-up when I read it in the 1970s (about ten years after it appeared). Simon Tregarth begins as a veteran forced into a life of crime which is about to get him killed. A mysterious occultist offers him an escape via the Round Table’s Siege Perilous, which magically takes anyone who sits in it to the world they belong.

From that thriller opening (which I like enough I’m working on a variation of it) Simon arrives in Estcarp, a land ruled by a matriarchy of witches. Already surrounded by hostile nations, they’re now facing the threat of the sinister Kolder, who turn out to be a high-tech race as alien to the “witch world” (never called that, it’s just the world) as Simon.

It’s a good book with some interesting characters; I particularly like that Simon, while competent, isn’t a chosen one or a superman, he’s just a competent soldier. He doesn’t really do anything spectacular until the final section of the story. Given how many protagonists I see who are devastatingly bad-ass, this was refreshing.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Tim Hildebrandt, middle by Lawrence, bottom by Jack Gaughan

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Ladies Day: Not what I’d expect from Robert Bloch

Robert Bloch’s social satires often veer into the sexist. He’s also extremely cynical. That made Bloch’s optimistic 1968 feminist novella, LADIES DAY (which I have as part of a double book with This Crowded Earth) a surprise — I’d have expected something closer to The Feminists.

Dale Barton, the protagonist, wakes up San Francisco and soon realizes things have changed — my god, there’s a woman over there wearing pants, smoking a cigar and showing tattoos! I imagine Bloch was shooting for the most unfeminine image he could think of, but it is amusing how well he foresaw changes in women’s styles; he later makes clear, though, that this is a working-class thing and well-bred women still dress like girly girls.

A woman, assuming Dale is a hooker, picks him up for a night of sex, which is illegal without a permit. The following morning the cops pick them both up; Dale is immediately red-flagged as a person of interest, for reasons he doesn’t understand. Eventually it sinks in that he’s 200 years in the future, courtesy of suspended animation (a successful attempt to cure his terminal illness). While he was gone, WW III broke out, and it was nasty. By the time it was over, casualties were huge, and most of them were men. Women outnumbering men three to one, they took over. They’ve completely rewritten history so that Cleopatra is now more important than Mark Antony, and Martha Washington and Abigail Adams are the real geniuses behind the American Revolution. This mirrors the way women’s contributions are often written out of history, though I don’t think Bloch meant it that way.

In the new world kids are raised in creches, there are no armies and tech research is carefully controlled; one man later describes it as keeping it to a level humans can actually control instead of vice versa. Lee, the psychiatrist who works with David (one of the rare times Bloch has anything nice to see about the profession), candidly admits it’s not utopian, but defends the problems (breeding permits for instance), as necessary until people are ready to handle a traditional family structure without getting messed up (e.g., no longer defining relationships by military metaphors like “the battle of the sexes”). While that kind of rationale in fiction (or real life often enough) is usually a mask for tyranny, here they really do intend it as a temporary measure.

Complicating things: the renegades, men and some women who want the days of patriarchy back. And with them, war: one renegade gripes to Dale that the U.S. could have won the war and taken the world under its control if the damn women hadn’t opted for peace. Johnny, the U.S. president’s husband, describes the renegades as wanting to go back to the good old days when some idiot who doesn’t know how to drive could drive a car at 100 MPH as recklessly as they wanted. Johnny adamantly opposes going back to the old days, if only because the world’s at peace. He also sees matriarchy as a good deal for men, living as comfortable and free as the stereotype of a housewife in the 1950s.

Both renegades and the government want Dale’s help. He remembers the old days of patriarchy; he can tell them how much better a world at peace is, or he can declare that the world has gone down the tubes and needs to return to the good times of male dominance. Mother Hood, the current president, has scheduled a prime time speech for him; the renegades threaten to kill him if he doesn’t spin things their way.

As he’s complicating what to do, Johnny throws in a twist: men are still in charge. They write the speeches. They put ideas into their spouses’ heads (again this reverses 1960s stereotypes of how wives manipulated husbands). They’re the brains, the women are just the hands doing their bidding.

Dale, who’s in love with Lee, sides with the government and almost dies. In the aftermath the government rounds up the renegades and Lee delivers a speech Dale supposedly wrote. Dale realizes that contrary to Johnny’s beliefs, the women still run things, they just keep the men happy with the illusion of being the man behind the women. If Dale spills the beans, perhaps he can start a new renegade movement, getting back to the way things were. Instead he decides men have had their chance, why not let the women try? And eventually, he hopes, swing the pendulum back to true equality. So he lies to Johnny about the speech and Lee, who already loves him, realizes she can trust him too.

I think that’s part of why I like it. I’ve seen futures of this sort that assume equality can’t happen: men will never accept it, or women will just abuse their power. Maybe Bloch was overly optimistic, but like fluff, optimism in fiction is nice sometimes.

#SFWApro. Cover art is uncredited, rights to images remain with current holders.

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Golden Age Wonder Woman: The Redemption of Paula von Gunther

I’ve been gradually working through the first WONDER WOMAN: The Golden Age Omnibus (by William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peters), which starts with her debut in All-Star Comics #8, then movies into her lead series in Sensation Comics and then her own book (which was a big deal back then — nobody got a solo book if they weren’t A-listers). While I’m not finished the book yet — it’s large, and this is back when one issue was 64 pages — it occurred to me that I ought to give it some of the same in-depth treatment I give the Amazing Amazon’s later eras. So this post, I’ll work through the material in Wonder Woman #4, which culminates in the redemption of Nazi spymaster Paula von Gunther.

Not that the Baroness von Gunther is all that’s going in that era (1942-3). Just for openers we have Steve Trevor crashing on Paradise Island while pursing spies, Princess Diana saving his life, then winning the right to journey to Man’s World to fight for justice and women’s rights, and against the Axis. She buys the identity of nurse Diana Prince to watch over him (the real Diana needed money to leave her job and join her fiancee in South America), then transfers to military intelligence, working as secretary to Steve’s boss, Major Darnell. She also befriends Etta Candy, a Texas-born sorority girl at Holliday College. While Etta’s fat and a glutton for sweets, rereading these showed me she’s also remarkably formidable and capable in a fight.

Marston had an interest in bondage and submission, which led to some blatantly kinky stories (I cover one of them in my WTF Wonder Woman moments list at Screen Rant); slavery and dominance, practiced by a good mistress, would train the slaves into better behavior and more enlightened attitudes (this was Amazon style slavery, not American race-based slavery). The bad guys are also big on slavery; Paula keeps her own army of broken, dominated slave girls (spoiler: she’s not a good mistress).

Much like the Superman stories of this era, Marston constantly emphasizes how awesome Wonder Woman is, performing “the greatest feat of daring in human history” in one story, for instance. Most of the stories pitted her against standard Nazi spies, though (also like Superman) she tackled other issues. In one story, for instance, she helps salesclerks rally and protest against a bullying boss who underpays and abuses his workers. There’s always a feminist element to the stories; along with the sexy side of bondage, Marston, as biographer Jill LePore says, also invoked feminist images of women breaking free of their shackles.

Most of the villains are either Nazi spies or American crooks; the only costumed villain is Dr. Poison. However we do have Mars, god of war, and his three agents: Deception, Conquest and Greed. Wonder Woman #2 is a book-length battle against them, taking Diana to Mars (where Mars has his base). Having a book length arc was unusual for the day: issues of Superman and Batman had four unrelated stories.

And then there’s Baroness Paula von Gunther. First appearing in Sensation #4, identified visually by her long, gold cigarette holder (with a snake twined around it) she has the comic-book equivalent of movie actors’ screen presence: she stands out in a way none of the other Nazi spies of this era (or Dr. Poison, even if she did make it into the Wonder Woman movie) did. She’s cunning, ruthless, a scientific genius and maintains an Army of submissive slave girls; even after Diana imprisons her (more precisely one of several times), her slaves are willing to carry out her plans.

Then in #3, things change. Wonder Woman discovers Paula has been forced into Nazi spy work because her daughter, Gerta, is in the Reich’s clutches. Diana frees Gerta and Paula changes; in the final story, she risks her own life to save Wonder Woman, then submits to training on Paradise Island. This all comes a little out of the blue (it’s not like she showed any ambivalence in her previous appearances) but it worked. In #4, Paula completes her training and carries out several challenging, heroic tasks alongside Wonder Woman to prove herself an Amazon. She’d continue helping Wonder Woman through the Golden Age.

I’ll be back with the rest of the volume when I finish it in a few weeks.

#SFWApro. Covers by Peters, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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Captain America and Promiscuous Women! Books read

CAPTAIN AMERICA: The Coming of … The Falcon by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko and Gene Colan runs from 1968 into ’69 and despite a couple of flaws, made for very good reason. We have Sharon “Agent 13” Carter, easily the most interesting of Marvel’s Silver Age love interests (if she and Cap have to die to complete the mission, so be it) and arcs involving the Fourth Sleeper (I through III showed up in an earlier story), the Red Skull (rather overused during this period) and obviously Sam Wilson becoming the Falcon (a bigger deal back when black faces in comics were a rare sight). It also has Jim Steranko’s short run as writer/artist, during which he introduced Madame Hydra (a good foe except for her I’m Sooo Ugly motivation), made Rick Jones into Cap’s new partner and resolved Cap having his secret identity known (which Brian Cronin covers here).

On the downside, some of Kirby’s last issues show the Lee/Kirby team running out of steam (not as badly as on Thor, though). And the arc that introduces Falcon involves the Skull using the Cosmic Cube and it almost verges on parody how he uses godlike power (for those who don’t know, it’s the equivalent of the Infinity Gauntlet) to toy with Cap and give him lots of time to escape. Still, it was overall excellent.

THE TRIALS OF NINA MCCALL: Sex, Surveillance and the Deacdes-Long Government Program to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women by Scott W. Stern looks at how the United States in WW I decided to fight the risk of soldiers catching debilitating STDs by cracking down on prostitutes and STD carriers around military bases; when it turned out many doughboys had caught the clap in their home towns, the “American Plan” as it was later called broadened all over the country.

In practice what that meant was that women who were prostitutes or suspected prostitutes or simply promiscuous (despite gender-neutral language, the plan in practice targeted women) could be sent to reformatories and forced to accept dangerous chemical treatments for the diseases they supposedly had, all without any trial or hearing. Some women escaped their jails, some set fire to them, and some like Nina McCall (not a prostitute, simply a young woman alleged to have slept with a soldier, and to have gonorrhea) went to court. Usually federal pressure squashed any hope of judicial support, but in Nina’s case she won release from the oppressive post-confinement supervision. The plan however continued on at the local level even after it died out as a federal project; the freedom to round up accused prostitutes as a public health menace without having to worry about a trial was manna from heaven to local cops (much like vagrancy laws).

It’s a good book, though flawed by Stern’s efforts to make Nina the central focus. After she wins her case, Stern continues to follow her life story in detail even though it has nothing to do with the plan, nor offers anything particularly unusual; the best he can do is suggest that Nina must have been worried her female friends or relatives could be caught up in the plan like she was. It doesn’t really fit. Nevertheless, this was worth reading.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Jack Kirby, lower by Steranko, all rights remain with current holders.

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Honor and its discontents

In the quotes post from early in January, I included a line from Lois McMaster Bujold: “Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall as it will. And outlive the bastards.” I like those sentiments, but I don’t think separating honor and reputation is actually possible. They’re twinned and they don’t separate well.

Being honorable has a lot to recommend it. Keeping your word. Paying your debts (though there are lots of circumstances where not paying your debts is not dishonorable). Doing your duty. But like chivalry, the good stuff is tangled up with a lot of stuff that I don’t think is so positive.

Most significantly, honor, like I said, is tied to your reputation. Honor isn’t about doing the right thing or the noble thing, it’s being seen and respected for doing them. A warrior can do the right thing even if nobody knows about it. They can be courteous and just towards the weak and helpless, even if everyone thinks they’re a vile bully. But if people think the warrior acts dishonorably, then they have no honor.

That’s why people fought duels in 18th century America, among many other eras and places. Honor mattered, but it was never enough to live by a code of honor if someone else questioned it. A suggestion you were a scoundrel or a coward (in the U.S., “puppy” was a fighting word too) tarnished your honor even if it wasn’t true. To disprove it, you had to issue a challenge; you didn’t necessarily have to fight (seconds would negotiate a truce, if possible) but you had to be willing to fight.

I don’t see a lot of this side of honor in fiction, probably because it’s not very attractive. Characters like Dumas’ Musketeers, who challenge a stranger to a duel at the drop of a hat or an impolite word, look irrational and unappealing by today’s standards (and I say that as someone very fond of the Musketeers). Post-ST:OS handling of the Klingons, while showing them as violent, makes their honorable ways more commendable than irrational (a subjective opinion). But generally, the only way to guard your honor was to hit, stab or shoot someone.

A related problem is that like chivalry, honor is very much tied up with fighting and masculinity. Being a Marine and doing your duty gives you “honor”; nobody says that about working yourself to the bone to support your kids. Paying your gambling “debts of honor” is one thing; keeping your promise to your kids is another. A woman’s honor was traditionally limited to “is she a virgin?” And like other forms of honor, whether she was didn’t matter as much as whether people thought she was; even a rape victim could be “dishonored” and worthless. For a woman, “death before dishonor” didn’t mean heroic fighting, it meant choosing death over rape (some examples here).

Which is why I have mixed feelings about being told I should respect a character because oooh, their sense of honor is so noble and awesome. By itself that’s not enough. And there are other virtues — honesty, loyalty, bravery — that can get the job done just as much.

Honor is, in short, one of those things I’d love to see deconstructed in a story some day.

#SFWApro.

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The Sandman That Time Forgot

Probably everyone reading this knows, at least by repute, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

The Golden Age Sandman also has a certain rep simply by virtue of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon working on him. The earlier Golden Age version, when he wore a business suit and a gas mask, became retroactively memorable thanks to Matt Wagner’s Sandman Mystery Theatre.

The Bronze Age Sandman? Not so memorable. Or at least, not memorable in a good way.

This character debuted in 1974 in a one-shot by Simon and Kirby. “General Electric,” a Japanese WW II veteran with an electronic head, is secretly plotting against the U.S., using animatronic dolls he’s designed to kill, kill and kill again! A young orphan, Jed, who lives with his fisherman grandfather ,has one of the dolls, which puts him at risk. Fortunately the Sandman — apparently the Sandman of folklore, though they don’t spell it out — intervenes to stop General Electric, ultimately taking him down with his hypersonic magic whistle (think the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver amped up by about 50).

This goofiness is actually typical of Joe Simon’s storytelling in the Bronze Age. But for whatever reason (Kirby’s art? The famous Simon/Kirby team reunited? People who, like me, picked it up out of curiosity at anew superhero?) Sandman sold very well. So well that DC launched a series in 1975 (in those days it took a while to get sales figures). Michael Fleisher and Ernie Chan took over story and art but kept the tone as much like Simon and Kirby as possible (Kirby returned starting in #4). The Sandman, accompanied by the living nightmares Brute and Glob, battled various oddball threats intruding on people’s dreams, with Jed invariably dragged into peril at some point.

I bought the entire run, probably because I’d already bought #1 and I was obsessively completist in those days. I don’t remember really liking it, and rereading recently I don’t discern any hidden depths or charm. If my age had been single digits when it came out, I’d probably have loved it, so maybe that was the market they were shooting for. Judging by the letter columns, that wasn’t the readership they were getting and by the sixth and final issue, they’d acknowledged the magic whistle was too much of a deus ex machina; they were going to work harder on putting the Sandman in real peril.

At the same time, it looked like they didn’t want to shake things up too much. The last couple of issues had Jeb going to live with bullying, abusive relatives and their fat, selfish, bullying son. It definitely felt like they were still trying to appeal to a young audience. The final issue does have one funny moment, in which Dr. Spider warns the White House that he’s ready to use the Sandman’s whistle to blow up Washington; instead of terror, everyone just laughs him off as a crank.

#6 would have been the end of the Sandman. But then Roy Thomas worked General Electric and Sandman into his run on Wonder Woman. Up to that point there’d been no sign Sandman belonged in the DC Universe at all, but now he was part of it. WW #300 revealed he was actually Garrett Sandford, a psychologist tossed into the dream dimension to save the president from nightmares. Unable to return except briefly, he set up shop as the Sandman. In Thomas’ later series, Infinity, Inc., the son of the Golden Age Hawkman, Hector Hall, assumes the Sandman role and takes his wife Lyta (daughter of the Golden Age Wonder Woman) off to dwell with him in the “Dream Stream.”

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman got rid of this pretender to the throne, revealing Glob and Brute were two of Morpheus’ creatures who’d run rogue and set up their own pocket dream universe. Sandford, then Hall, had just been dupes (I don’t remember why). Morpheus sent Hector’s soul into the afterlife, though he eventually returned to become Dr. Fate for a while. Lyta, despite being a good character, got much worse used: she gave birth to Daniel, who replaced Morpheus as the incarnation of Dream, and nobody found anything interesting to do with her after that.

General Electric appeared a couple of years back in DC’s Young Animals imprint so who knows? Maybe even the forgotten Sandman will put in an appearance some day. But I won’t feel bad if he doesn’t.

#SFWApro. Covers by Kirby, all rights to images remain with current holders.

 

 

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A black amazon, black Frankenstein and a light-skinned black guy: books

As far as I know, Leigh Brackett’s only series hero was Eric John Stark, raised as a feral child in the twilight zone of Mercury before adventuring across Mars. In BLACK AMAZON OF MARS, Stark honors a dying friend’s request to return an ancient talisman to a polar Martian city. Too bad that pins Stark between a barbarian warlord starting the march to conquest there (the title and cover spoil the reveal about who’s really behind “his” iron mask) and the sinister ice creatures lurking under the polar cap. The small press edition I have also includes the forgettable “A World Is Born” and the entertaining “Child of the Sun.”

VICTOR LAVALLE’S DESTROYER (by Lavalle, Dietrich Smith and Joana LaFuente) has one good plot thread (a female scientist resurrects her son, gunned down unjustly by cops) and several that were much less interesting, including a covert government agency and the original Creature on a rampage. The uninteresting outweighed the good stuff for me.

INCOGNEGRO: Renaissance by Matt Johnson and Warren Pleece is a prequel to Incognegro in which light-skinned Zane is a cub reporter during the Harlem Renaissance. When a black writer drowns in a bathtub at a mixed-race party, the police wash their hands of it; Zane reluctantly uses his light skin to pass as white and investigate in ways nobody else could. Really good.

#SFWApro. Cover is uncredited, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Friday morning art

Art by Brillhart. At first I thought it was Powers.

Art by Hullings. I like the intensity of it.

Leo and Diane Dillon did the next one.

Here’s one by Don Maitz

And one by James Meese from the early fifties. I find it interesting that pre-Sputnik, pre-ICBM, just the idea of a rocket taking off was good enough for a cover. I’m also tickled the engineer’s holding a slide rule, once a symbol of engineering know-how, now forgotten.

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

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