Category Archives: Reading

Wonder Woman, a Psycho and a Cat: More Golden Age WW

So last week I finished WONDER WOMAN: The Golden Age Omnibus, Volume 1, which runs through Wonder Woman #7 and Comics Cavalcade #5, which came out in the winter of 1943. The first two-thirds gave us a formidable foe in Baroness Paula von Gunther, then redeemed her. The rest of the book (I finished my partial review of the omnibus with Wonder Woman #4) introduces two more great adversaries, Dr. Psycho and the Cheetah.

Dr. Psycho, whom I’ve blogged about before (I don’t have time to search for the link, alas) is a big-headed brilliant dwarf. His fiancee Marva admires his mind, but she’s not happy with his looks; a rival for her love frames Psycho for a theft, which leads to her testifying against Psycho in court and sending him to prison. Psycho becomes convinced she was part of the frame so she could get rid of him and marry his rival. From this it’s a short step to believing all women are evil and giving them rights is an attack on men. This being the 1940s Psycho can’t spread his philosophy on YouTube. Instead he uses a blend of science and occultism to channel ectoplasm through his wife, whom he’s hypnotically reduced to a slave medium. He summons up George Washington’s supposed ghost (an ectoplasmic construct) to warn that giving women jobs in factories will lead to disaster, then sets out to make his prediction come true.

For me Psycho’s an alarmingly contemporary character who could fit into the world of right-wing misogyny without missing a beat.

The original Cheetah, Priscilla Rich, was a frustrated young socialite who wants to be the center of attention, but never is. When she organizes a fundraiser in Wonder Woman #6 for the war effort, all the attention goes to Wonder Woman’s appearance, so Priscilla tries to sabotage her performance and kill her. When that fails, her frustrations burst out as a second personality, the predatory Cheetah. Dominating Priscilla’s good side, the Cheetah begins a campaign against Wonder Woman, culminating in stealing Hippolyta’s girdle and conquering Paradise Island.

Just as Marston reformed Paula (who makes several appearances in these issues), he doesn’t see a need to keep these new villains around. After two appearances in the Omnibus, Psycho made one more, then vanished. The Cheetah got four stories, at the end of which Priscilla finds a good outlet for her ego: she’s an amazing dancer, so Wonder Woman realizes channeling her energies that way will eventually banish the Cheetah. She does crop up in one later story, presumably before the cure is finished and in one story unpublished until 1969.

Both the Cheetah and Dr. Psycho would return in Robert Kanigher’s brief Golden Age reboot era, neither one used well. Roy Thomas’ brief run did a better job with Dr. Psycho, but Priscilla Rich went unused except for the Bronze Age WW II run. Gerry Conway later replaced Priscilla with her niece, brainwashed into an eco-terrorist. Then George Perez introduced the post-Crisis Cheetah who gets used a lot by other writers, but not effectively.

Wonder Woman #7 shows life in the year 3000, with Diana’s supporting cast around thanks to Etta developing a miracle “life vitamin” (it’s one of the few issues to show Etta’s got some brains). The female-dominated government of the future infuriates traditional wardheelers and political bosses — my god, politicians are expected to think of the country and not line their own pockets! Another story has an explicitly masculine political movement try to reclaim power from the women. It’s a reminder the issues we deal with today didn’t pop out of nowhere.

There’s also, of course, the standard elements of bondage, some minor villains (Dr. Poison returns) and Wonder Woman contributing to the war effort. All in all, pretty good. And the Omnibus makes H.G. Peters’ art look better than any of the other reprints I’ve seen.

#SFWApro. Covers by H.G. Peters (top) and JL Garcia-Lopez. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Sherlock Holmes: “Any truth is better than indefinite doubt”

Like some of the other Holmes quotes I’ve blogged about this one’s getting two interpretations. One for writing, one for the real world.

If you’re curious, the quote comes from the short story The Yellow Face (art at left by Sidney Paget). Holmes’ client is convinced his wife has some terrible secret, possibly an affair; it turns out she’s caring for a mixed-race daughter, having married a black man back in the U.S. Holmes reassures his client at one point that getting a definite answer will make him feel better than worrying endlessly about what’s going on.

I think it’s true in life in a lot of ways, such as getting a name put to your health problems. Or knowing for sure whether your job will survive the next round of firings; one of the things I learned writing Leaf business articles is that when management doesn’t say anything, rumors fly and people expect the worst.

In writing, it’s simple: sooner or later we have to make a decision. Working on Only the Lonely Can Slay I realized I needed more tension and pressure on my protagonist, Heather. So I decided a couple of drafts ago to have someone accuse my protagonist of murder. That didn’t work. But now I know it didn’t work and I’m trying something else. Sitting and debating which way to go just isn’t workable — we’ve got to put something down or there’s no story. Unlike real life, we can always take it back.

Of course this is a lot tougher with novels where my “that doesn’t work” sometimes comes 40,000 words in and forces me to change everything that came before. But again, it’s better than leaving the story unformed in my head forever.

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Four Kids, Four Paper Girls and more: Books read

FOUR KIDS WALK INTO A BANK by Matthew Rosenberg and Tyler Boss has a quartet of nerdy twelve year olds encounter a bunch of vicious adult punks, then discover Paige’s (the one girl of the foursome) father hanging out with them. It turns out Dad owes them a big favor, so he’s going to help them rob a bank. Horrified, Paige convinces her friends the only way to save him is rob the bank themselves first … This is an odd mix of whimsy and realism, but it works, right up until the end — I won’t go into details to avoid spoilers, but a couple of twists just didn’t make sense to me. Still worth reading, though.

PAPER GIRLS has been a consistently fun series and Volume 5 of the TPBs is no exception. At the end of Vol. 4 (I can’t find my review to link to), Tiffany, Mac, KJ and Kristie found themselves in the distant future from which all the time travelers have been visiting 1988. Now they have to navigate around the alien setting, looking fora  way home, looking for answers and looking for a cure for Mac’s leukemia. Great fun as always, tying up a couple of questions from earlier books an ending on a heck of a cliffhanger.

SAGA Vol. 9 by Vaughn and Fiona Staples didn’t work as well for me as the earliest volumes. All the individuals scenes of Hazel, Marco, Alanna and the rest of their oddball cast are good and engagingly quirky, but taken as a whole, it feels like the creators are just randomly shuffling pieces across a game board. I find it hard to remember much that happened, and even the ending cliffhanger didn’t shock me as much as it should have. Staples and Vaughn have announced a year’s break to recharge, so I hope things pick up when they return.

THE FORBIDDEN GAME trilogy by LJ Smith started with The Hunter and continued with The Chase and The Kill. In The Chase, which I thought I’d reviewed already, Jenny and her friends discover her supernatural stalker, Julian, has escaped the prison they left him in. Now his monstrous creations are stalking and capturing them, and if Jenny can’t figure out where Julian’s stashing them, she’ll end up as his bride for eternity. Complicating things are the kids desperate attempts to explain everything that happened in the first book to unbelieving authority figures.

The Kill wraps up the series (though a couple of elements make me wonder if Smith was hoping for a sequel) as Jenny and the survivors of the previous book take the fight to Julian in the Shadow World. This turns out to be the creepy setting of an abandoned amusement park where souls get trapped forever and the hokey games have a deadly component. This is creepy but the character arcs for Julian and Jenny are particularly good; I also like that just as Smith pulled off a good Face Your Fears storyline in The Hunter, here she succeeds with an excellent Face Your Darkest Secrets scene. Someone should really make a miniseries of this some time.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Boss, don’t know the second artist; all rights to both images remain with current holders.

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Taking it to the limit: Unleash by Lauren Harris

I’m always nervous about reading books by people I know in case they suck. Fortunately I really enjoyed UNLEASH: Spellhounds Book One by Lauren Harris, which I picked up back at Illogicon in January. Harris works with a lot of familiar urban fantasy tropes but she pushes them beyond most of the stories I see.

The book opens with protagonist Helena slitting throats in a sacrifice. Not her choice: the magical tat on her shoulder lets the book’s villain, Gwydian, control her and he gets off on making her kill (plus, he draws power from the blood). The symbol also enables Helena and Gwydian’s other slaves to turn into dog form (which gives them some immunity to magic), or astrally project as dog-spirits. Hence the “spellhound” moniker.

Fortunately Helena and her mother have contacted the mages’ guild for help. The mages bust in and try to take Gwydian down, but when he uses Mom as a human shield, one of the mages shoots right through her. Helena, horrified, goes on the run. She ends up staying over a canine rescue operation outside Chicago with Jaesun and Krista, who run it. Helena’s PTSDed and she’s never had anything that qualifies as a normal life; Jaesun and Krista’s openness and friendliness makes her suspicious. Nevertheless, she likes it, and finds her petrified heart slowly thawing out. But of course neither the mages nor Gwydian are quite done with her.

What I think I liked about Unleash is that it pushes a lot of urban fantasy tropes into grimmer territory (note that as I don’t read a lot in the genre, I may be missing lots of counter-examples. Sorry). Lots of protagonists are burned out and traumatized; Helena’s in an even worse state when we meet her. Compared to her, Anita Blake’s positively sunny. And while she’s improving, it’s slow enough not to be improbable (in contrast to the “OK I’ve dealt with my rape let’s have sex!” character in The Warded Man).

It’s pretty much a staple in the urban fantasies I’ve seen that whatever council the good mages (or were creatures or whatever) belongs to is not so much good as not-evil. Flawed. Morally compromised. At a minimum, it has lousy judgment. But often the group still poses as the wise Gandalf types they’re supposed to be. In Unleash, they’re just plain nasty. They have no qualms about playing hardball and they’re way more interested in the spellhound slave spells than decent people ought to be.

I also liked the magic here. Wizards cast spells by drawing elaborate mandala-patterns; the designs are simple, but drawing them out in the proper order makes the difference between casting a spell and frying yourself. It’s visually appealing, and easy to understand (though the spellhound glyph’s power seems far more complicated than the effects of most of the spells), and not overly complicated. As I’ve mentioned before, I rarely enjoy elaborate magic systems and this one wasn’t overly elaborate.

My only real complaint is that the proofreading or typesetting was a mess. Most of the errors were minor, but there’s a key scene between Helena and a guild sorcerer where chunks of conversation got dropped.

I still enjoyed the book. I look forward to picking up the sequel eventually (though knowing me, it’ll be a while).

#SFWApro. Cover by Starla Hughton, all rights to image remain with current holder.

 

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The many flavors of Doc Savage: Pharaoh’s Ghost, The Man Who Was Scared, the Shape of Terror

One of the strengths of the Doc Savage series is its flexibility to move from SF to lost race yarn to pulp crimefighting. Consider this month’s trio, for instance.

THE PHARAOH’S GHOST is an “exotic” adventure set in Egypt. Johnny’s been abducted so the book opens with Doc, Monk, Ham and Long Tom capturing a stereotypically treacherous Arab, Hamamah to get him to talk. Hamamah babbles about the ghost of Pharaoh Jubbah Ned when a yellow stain appears on his face. He dies screaming for no discernible reason; Monk and Ham find their hands burning. It turns out a crime boss, Jaffa, had the tomb looted, and now the mysterious yellow spot is killing the looters, one by one.

The adventure that follows is descent, but not outstanding. It rises a little above the average by Jaffa’s big plan: use the loot from the tomb to buy corrupt politicians in nations newly liberated from Axis control, then appropriate the governments’ funds. Lester Dent also puts more work in than usual sketching out the Egyptian setting and detailing the history of Jubbah Ned, which like a lot of ancient monarchs is clouded with uncertainty (Johnny, an archeologist, discourses about it at length).

A curious point is one of the supporting cast, Bondurant Fain. A brawny redhead in flamboyant pursuit of a pretty girl, he resembles Henry Peace in The Freckled Shark so much I wondered if it were Doc again, but no. I guess Dent just liked the type.

One unsurprising flaw is that all the good guys and the top bad guy are white, with the Egyptians reduced to supporting and/or villain roles.

THE MAN WHO WAS SCARED is more of a detective story, and a pretty effective one for most of its length. It opens with a businessman “like the fellows the insurance companies always put in their advertisements” trying to reach Doc before the bad guys catch up with him. He’s poisoned but reaches Doc’s HQ long enough to gasp out a cryptic message about breakfast. The bad guys quickly improvise a scheme to distract Doc by making him think the victim was just an escaped mental patient. Investigating and digging for the truth takes up the rest of the book.

Again the scheme is bigger than ordinary crookery. The bad guys were using cereal made by the dead guy’s company to spread a bio-weapon across America. They’ve already bought up the entire supply of the treatment, so they stand to make millions, and they’ve rigged things so Doc will take the fall. Unfortunately the book is too short to really do anything with this: we go from Doc being a wanted man to busting the bad guy (surprisingly the brother of the villain in Pharaoh’s Ghost. More surprisingly, the two schemes are unrelated) in a very few pages. Still, it’s a fun read and pretty woman of the month Elma Champion is brave and capable in the Pat Savage hold.

A really weird bit is that Dent mocks his own past descriptions of Doc as a mental wizard and physical superman, asserting he’s nothing of the kind. He’s got good genes, he had his amazing childhood training — anyone who’d been through that would turn out just as awesome! This ignores that in Invisible Box Murders, Doc states that his training would have driven most people insane.

 

THE SHAPE OF TERROR is a spy thriller. Despite the cover below, about another Awful Egg; that egg’s just a tool for poisoning Doc at breakfast. The big threat is a Nazi McGuffin that’s never described. The story opens with some RAF officers taking Doc from dinner with Monk and Ham. The plane the officers and Doc depart on crashes and kills him. Digging for answers, Monk and Ham discover a conspiracy — at which point British intelligence fakes their death too. The hope is that the Nazis will think they’re out of the picture and relax. The Nazis have developed a weapon that can win the war; Johann Kovic, a Czech scientist locked in a concentration camp, has the concept for a counter-weapon that neutralizes it. Doc, Monk and Ham are to get the secret from Kovic before the Nazis torture it out of him.

It becomes immediately obvious the faked deaths haven’t fooled anyone. First comes the poisoning attempt. Then the Nazis dog the guys’ footsteps and block their path into occupied Czechoslovakia. Then hound them once they’re there. Some of them are trying to kill him; other Nazi factions want to throw Doc in the camp with Kovic to get the secret out of him, after Doc’s been dosed with a form of truth serum. Everyone they’re working with, in Allied intelligence or the Czech underground, has or could have a double agenda.

The result is a solid little spy story that gives Doc a workout without making him just an ordinary guy (as Derelict of Skull Shoal did)

#SFWApro. Covers by Modest Stein (I’ve got to say the Man Who Was Scared cover has little to do with the book).

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Women, both heroes and villains: books read

It’s been a while since I checked in on Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus series, but I finally checked Vol. 4 out of the library (feel free to check out my reviews of 1, 2, and 3). LAZARUS: Poison has the Carlyle family reeling from the attack on the family head in the previous volume. War erupts, the new leader is petrified, but Forever Carlyle (the family “lazarus” because her healing factor resurrects her) does her deadly best leading the family forces in the field. Readable, but not buyable (I think I’m sticking with library copies) — the art is murky during the battle scenes and the ending twist doesn’t work for me.

BOMBSHELLS: Uprising has WW II’s super-women battling the sorcery of the Joker’s Daughter, fighting for control of Atlantis and handling a boatload of European refugees, not to mention meeting radical Renee Montoya and scrappy Latina news vendor Lois Lane. Fun, as always, ending on a surprisingly upbeat note — the equivalent of a TV series season ender that could wrap up the series (though there are more adventures to come).

HITLER’S FURIES: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower looks at the women who in varying degrees enabled or actively participated in the Holocaust. These included nurses giving lethal injections to the disabled, secretaries in SS office, leaders of women’s concentration camps and wives of camp commanders who took sadistic delight in killing or hurting prisoners or children. Lower shows how the motives that drove the various women she profiled included enthusiasm for Nazism, careerism, a desire to get off the farm or simply hopes of finding a husband by entering the Nazi bureaucracy. Only a snapshot, but a good snapshot.

#SFWapro. Cover by Owen Freeman, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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The Bird King and the power of setting

I like G. Willow Wilson’s comic books, and I really liked her first non-graphic novel, Alif the Unseen. I was confident I’d like her second novel, THE BIRD KING, but while it had its moments, I was overall disappointed. And I think the setting is a big part of that.

I don’t think articles about writing, particularly specfic, discuss setting quite as much as we discuss world-building, the ways we create and establish the setting. One’s a matter of craft and skill, the other’s a matter of judgment and taste. Perhaps that’s why it’s not discussed as much: it’s one thing to thumb down “as you know, Steve, our occult research project is devoted to mastering the laws of magic” as objectively bad writing (telling people what they already know) but the merits of setting are more subjective.

As noted at the Alif link, I liked that book partly because it had a setting I rarely see, inside a modern Middle Eastern nation (and focused on the country and its people rather than how they relate to the US). The mash-up of computer hacking with Islamic mysticism and folklore made the setting even weirder. And as someone who’s read several IT/fantasy mash-ups, I think it’s much harder to mix the two than it looks.

Wilson’s opening setting is great: 1491 Granada, a Muslim stronghold about to fall to Ferdinand and Isabella, creating a united Spain. Not that the ancient Muslim world is that unusual a setting but Wilson’s a Muslim and makes it feel fresher than most portrayals. The core characters are good, too: Fatima, a slave concubine serving the sultan and Hassan, a gay mapmaker whose maps can alter the world they portray. Like Lucy in The Twelfth Enchantment, Fatima is a formidable, capable protagonist without being at all anachronistic. She resents being a slave (Wilson discusses this in an interview) but at first it’s the best she can do. After she and Hassan go on the run, she’s determined not to be anyone’s property again.

They have to run because the sultan’s negotiating surrender terms. Luz, a point woman for the Inquisition, makes it clear that Fatima and other Muslims will have to convert or die; Hassan, as both a “sodomite” and a sorcerer of some sort, won’t be that lucky. They have to run.

And that’s where the book turned me off. Hassan and Fatima’s desperate flight isn’t as fresh as the scenes in Granada. They could just as easily have been Protestants fleeing Catholics, Catholics fleeing Muslims, or refugees fleeing a conqueror; the landscape wouldn’t change much. And despite the presence of a jinn, it’s a very low-level magical setting, close to a straight historical story. And I’m not fond of those (see what I mean about taste). The long slow journey across Spain to the Island of Birds drained the interest out of me. (It didn’t help that religious fanatics creep me out to the point reading about them makes me genuinely uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the result of living in the Bible belt much of my life. Maybe not). I also wish Wilson had played around more with the power of maps (I have an interest in maps), like the opening scene in which a general gloats that Granada is already part of Spain on the maps.

C. S. Lewis once wrote that setting is important because it shapes our expectations about the story. An attack by a knife-wielding Martian, a knife wielding Gold Rush claim jumper or a knife-wielding killer in a Los Angeles alley can all offer the same level of danger, but they engage us (or don’t) in different ways.  We can use setting to put a fish out of water, or to contrast with the story we tell; Peyton Place became a best-seller in the 1950s partly because it’s sex-and-scandal plot contrasted with the New England small town setting (I’ve discussed other angles of setting here and here). Even an old, familiar setting can be fresh with the right take. But Bird King‘s setting just wasn’t right for me.

#SFWApro. Cover by studiohelen.co.uk, all rights remain with current holder.

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Destiny turns on a dime — or a batarang

Recently finishing BATMAN: The Golden Age Omnibus Vol. 4 reminded me one of the things I love about the Golden Age Batman is the stories the series tells focusing on ordinary people.

Of course lots of comics, then and now, include ordinary people in the cast, as friends of the hero or as victims of the bad guy. What makes this era distinctive is that the innocents caught up in the story almost seem to have their own character arcs going on, into which Batman and Robin stumble.

The previous omnibus, for example, gave us Destiny’s Auction. A crook, an aspiring actress and an over the hill thespian all lose possession of their steamer trunks. A year later they buy them back at a seized property auction, but ooops, they get the wrong ones. Now they’re all entangled, and the crook is very willing to use force to recover his trunk. At the end of the story though, the two actors have both jump-started their careers. Even though Batman intervened to save them, it feels like their personal stories are their own, not just supporting Bat-characters.

Similarly, in Detective Comics #93, we have One Night of Crime. Crooks fleeing the Batman take a tour bus hostage. Various passengers get to work out their own crises in addition to the main plot.

Batman #33 has The Search for Santa Claus, in which three despairing men, take up roles as Santa for the Christmas season. By the end of the story, which involves crooked heirs trying to kill one of the Santa, they’ve all got a new lease on life.

Detective #94 gave us No One Must Know, in which the Dynamic Duo help out an escaped con whose happiness and whose son’s marriage could be ruined by a blackmail scheme.

Detective #112’s A Case Without a Crime has the employees of a small, tightly knit shop thrown into doubt when they discover one of them has sto-len $99 from the register. Can Batman restore their faith in each other, particularly when it becomes obvious none of them committed the crime? And why steal such an odd figure, anyway?

I still saw stories along these lines in the Silver Age but not as well done. And now they’ve faded away, for the most part.

The omnibus has lots of other good stuff. We have more stories of the Joker and the Penguin (Catwoman only gets one minor story), more war stories before moving into the post-war period, a few new villains such as the Blaze and plenty of ordinary criminals. Alfred gets his own series, four pagers in which he tries to be a detective and succeeds in spite of himself. And just as the previous volume focused on different specialty cops, this one gives us a look at the mail service and Gotham City’s graveyard shift.

And there’s a particular favorite of mine, from World’s Finest Comics #105, The Batman Goes Broke. After one of Bruce’s companies goes belly up from embezzlement, Bruce wipes out his fortune to reimburse the investors. Trouble is, without money the Dynamic Duo can’t pay for all the equipment they need. And working a day job to put a roof over their head will leave Bruce without the time to fight crime and train. It’s all over (spoiler: it all works out). It’s a good story and it amuses me that a couple of decades later, people considered Stan Lee a revolutionary for dealing with superhero money issues (Stan definitely did break a lot of fresh ground, no argument, but it still amuses me).

#SFWApro. Covers by Jerry Robinson, J. Winslow Mortimer and Jack Burnley (t-b). All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Super powers and comics: this week’s reading

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL by Jim Starlin and others collects the original Bronze Age Thanos saga, which elevated Mar-Vell from a C-lister to a major character as he battles Thanos’ elaborate schemes, attains cosmic awareness and saves the universe. It’s the first storyline to realize the full potential of the Cosmic Cube (as opposed to its role in Captain America a few years earlier) and the story is excellent, though I still prefer Starlin’s Warlock run.

After his father’s death from cancer, Starlin returned to Captain Marvel for The Death of Captain Marvel, a graphic novel in which Mar-Vell discovers a past adventure (included in the book) exposed him to a deadly nerve gas that has slowly been killing him with cancer. His many friends put their heart and soul into finding a cure, but in the end they and “Marv” have to accept that fact that sometimes people just die, unheroically and hopelessly. It’s intensely moving, the last work from Starlin that I liked.

I have a fondness for oddball superhero stories when they work, and THE TALENTED RIBKINS by Ladee Hubbard works. Jonny Ribkins comes from a family of metahumans (one of several — they’re not unique) and possesses the ability to map out places he’s never seen. In his youth, he and his friends used their powers to protect civil rights activists; later Johnny and his brother (possessing Spidey’s wall-climbing powers) used their abilities to steal. Now Johnny’s old, desperate to pay off a debt to a powerful businessman and stuck taking his teenage niece along on his road trip. The results are quirky and low-key, but I liked them, though the ending dissolved into film cliches (don’t try to fit in when you’re born to stand out!).

GIRL GENIUS: City of Lightning by Phil and Kaja Foglio continues Agatha Heterodyne’s quest to free her city from its temporal prison. First she has to deal with an intelligent, belligerent and powerful locomotive, then she and her crew arrive in Paris, a city riven by scheming and ambitious sparks but already taken with the legend of the new Heterodyne (she’s being marketed for everything from hats to bath oil). Funny as always, though the sheer scope of the cast frequently makes it harder for me to follow what’s going on.

COMIC BOOK IMPLOSION: An Oral History of DC Comics Circa 1978 by Keith Dallas and John Wells actually starts with the mid-1970s as DC struggled to regain its dominance over Marvel Comics and outsider Jenette Kahn came on board as publisher to shake things up. Her most ambitious project was the “DC Explosion” — rather than simply hike the current 35 cent price to 40 cents, raise it to 50 cents with an expanded page count. Retailers would make more profit, making the books more attractive, and readers would get something for shelling out extra.

Oops. No sooner did the project launch than Warner, the corporate owner since the late 1960s, slapped it down: comics went back to normal size and DC had to cut its line by 40 percent, the DC Implosion (though Marvel cut massive numbers of books that year too, it didn’t get the publicity). This isn’t really an oral history (which implies someone sat down and talked to the players in the present) as much as culling old interviews and articles for contemporary accounts and perspectives at both DC and Marvel, mixed with a few more recent interviews (this is not a bad thing — contemporary material isn’t automatically more accurate but it isn’t blurred by time).  It follows the fallout from the Implosion (a lot of suddenly fired people went to work for Marvel)  through the launch of the Marv Wolfman/George Perez Teen Titans, which proved to the world that DC wasn’t permanently stuck in second place.

As someone seriously pumped about the Explosion and disappointed when it collapsed (particularly as it took down books I liked such as Shade the Changing Man), the high point of Comic Book Implosion is the detailed account of what happened to all that extra material: was it completed? Was it ever published (unsurprisingly a lot of stuff has shown up in more recent hardback and TPB collection)? Almost everything was published in 30 or 40 copies of Canceled Comics Cavalcade, if nowhere else (these were printed to protect copyright in the material and handed out to some of the creators). While I was fascinated to know these existed, I suspect if I saw them I’d agree with writer Mark Waid, who got to flip through one while working at DC and discovered it wasn’t full of lost classics.

#SFWApro. Covers by Jim Starlin and Steve Ditko (Shade), all rights to images remain with current holders.

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Looks like conan, lives like Elric: Claw the Unconquered

Back when I wrote about DC’s Beowulf, I intended to write about Claw the Unconquered, and I clearly remember having done so. But as I looked recently and can’t find any such post, the memory is obviously wrong. So here we go with a look at the most successful of DC’s Bronze Age sword-and-sorcery series (alongside Beowulf, Stalker — The Man With the Stolen Soul and Swords of Sorcery).

As you can see from Ernie Chan’s cover and the Gil Kane image below, the creative team gave readers a character visually interchangeable with Marvel’s Conan except for the red gauntlet. Initially, Claw comes off much in the same mold too, a wandering barbarian swordsman out for adventure, gold and women. By the end of the first issue, though, it was obvious something different was at work.

It turns out that under the gauntlet, Claw’s — real name actually Valcan — hand is a grotesque demonic paw. And that he’s the player in some cosmic game: the tyrant Occulas murdered Valcan’s father (who had the same hand deformity his son inherited) years ago because of a prophecy he would threaten Occulas’ rule. Now it appears Claw poses the same threat. Oh, and it’s hinted that Claw’s hand may be capable of independent action, striking at threats Claw hasn’t spotted. In the second issue, that becomes canon.

In the fourth issue, Claw and his new friend, the elegant womanizer Ghilkyn, encounter Occulas nastiest weapon, the death-demon N’Hglthss. Being near him kills living things, which then rise as zombies. Fighting N’Hglthss will require the two reluctant heroes head across the multiverse their world exists in. The multiverse exists in balance between two forces, light and shadow; Occulas is an unwitting agent of Shadow and if he wins Valcan’s world, the balance will tip in favor of darkness.

This isn’t at all Conan’s style, but it’s very much in the spirit of Michael Moorcock. Moorcock began writing sword-and-sorcerey with his character Elric, doomed non-human prince of ancient Melnibone. He then created several other characters, including Dorian Hawkmoon and Prince Corum, all of them, like Elric, avatars of the Eternal Champion who preserves the balance between Law and Chaos.

David Michelinie’s Claw is very much in the Corum mold. They both fight across a multiverse in a cosmic battle. They both have an enchanted hand. And Claw’s adventures tend to be much weirder than Conan’s, closer to the exotic stories and grotesque settings in Moorcock. When Valcan visits a chaos-ruled world in #8, Keith Giffen’s art truly makes it look bizarre and chaotic. It’s the kind of strangeness it would take me as a writer a lot of words to capture, but Giffen’s able to bypass description and just show it.

Running to 12 issues, Claw the Unconquered was, as noted, far more successful than DC’s other S&S adventures (though I’ll probably write about them eventually). It did not, however, survive the DC Implosion of 1978, in which Warners ordered DC to axe 40 percent of its line. The final issue ends with Valcan, horrified when his demon-tainted hand kills someone against his will, cuts it off. Had #13 come out, Claw would have discovered the hand reattaching itself.

Claw resurfaced later in a 2006 series from Wildstorm, which I haven’t read. It lasted six issues and included a special crossing Claw over with Red Sonja (I wonder if she noticed the Conan resemblance?). 1994’s Primal Force introduced a descendant of Valcan as one of the eponymous team, dedicated to protecting Earth from supernatural forces.

It’s no match for Conan’s long comics run, but it’s not bad either.

#SFWApro. Covers by Ernie Chan (Claw 1 and 4), Keith Giffen (#8), Gil Kane (Conan), Ken Hooper (Primal Force) and Bob Haberfield (King of the Swords). All rights remain with current holder.

 

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