Saturday, October 22, 2016

Swords And Ice Magic!

Swords and Ice Magic is the first collection I bought when it first appeared. In fact some of the stories I'd read as they'd appeared in various collections and magazines. As Fritz Leiber created more installments in the Fafhrd and Gray Mouster saga during the 70's they eventually reached a critical mass where a new collection was necessary.  There is a certain lack of substance to many of the early stories here, but it gets better.

"The Sadness of the Executioner" (1973, in Flashing Swords! #1, ed. Lin Carter)

The gods plot to end the lives of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser but our heroes are too much for them. 

"Beauty and the Beasts" (vignette 1974, in The Book of Fritz Leiber)

Fafhrd and Mouser try to split a girl between them and end up with two villainous swordsmen. 

"Trapped in the Shadowland" (1973 Fantastic)

Our heroes look for lost loves in the land of death and find them thanks to Ningauble and Sheelba.

"The Bait" (vignette 1973 Whispers)

In a story which seemed very familiar the two heroes argue over a maiden who ends up becoming two warriors. 

"Under the Thumbs of the Gods" (1975 Fantastic)

The Gods have another go at our heroes as they relive some of their adventures, meet old loves, and learn new lessons from them. They also encounter oh so briefly Alyx the Picklock, a creation of Joanna Russ. I recently read a story by Russ in which her heroine Alyx muses on a lover she had who remind anyone familiar with Leiber's material of a certain red-haired barbarian. Fun little crossover it seems.

"Trapped in the Sea of Stars" (1975 The Second Book of Fritz Leiber)

While on a voyage of forgetfulness, the two heroes end up in a distant sea near the equator of Newhon which blends seamlessly into the very night sky itself. 

"The Frost Monstreme" (1976 Flashing Swords #3, ed. Lin Carter)

Fafhrd and the Mouser begin a new stage of their lives when they are hired by two determined and hard-minded and very lovely ladies named Cif and Afreyt of Rime Isle to gather warriors not unlike themselves and protect that distant land from pirates on a monster ship.  

Rime Isle (1977 Cosmos SF&F Magazine)

Still on Rime Isle and far from Lankhmar, Fafhrd and Mouser find some measure of love and a tiny jot of satisfaction as they appear almost to settle down. Two oddly familiar gods create no end of trouble for the often ungrateful and singularly avaricious people of  Rime Isle and our heroes in particular. There is real cost as the threat to life and limb proves very real indeed. 

Aside from the Rime Isle material here, there's a lightness to the storytelling which to some extent undermines the adventures of our heroes. The threats they face are so vaporous that it's difficult to imagine them being under any threat at all. Leiber seems to want to treat his characters with an awareness of their literary reality which invades the stories and frustrates to some extent the suspension of disbelief. The first several stories lack any real depth and at least two of them seem to be two goes at the same yarn, a strange thing to include in a single volume.

But with the journey to Rime Isle that frothy approach settles down and in a territory more intentionally realistic the heroes find real threats and consequently the ability to demonstrate true bravery.  We are able to care about them again as they seem really to have lives which seem to be grounded in a recognizable reality.

There is one more volume in this series.

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Strange Takes On The Vatican!

Finally Doctor Strange proved his mettle in the pages of Marvel Premiere and graduated once again to his own self-titled comic, and as it turns out his very first number one issue. Before Doc had taken over the numbering of Strange Tales and his debut was issue #169 or something like that. Now Doc gets a bonafide #1 all of his own.

After the confrontation with Sise-Neg at the beginning of time, things settle down a bit in the Greenwich address as Stephen Strange begins to pay attention to Clea, his apprentice and lover. But their romantic antics prove a sufficient distraction to allow the entrance of the depraved Silver Dagger. He steals his way into the house and attacks Doc imagining him to be a representative of the devil. Silver Dagger takes Clea prisoner while an injured Strange escapes into the Eye of Agamotto.

In this "wonderland" environment Doc encounters a host of odd creatures such as a know-it-all worm smoking a hookah, a bizzaro gang of Defenders and even more dangerous things. Eventually though Doc figures it all out and is able to escape the illusionary world and once again confront his enemy Silver Dagger.

Silver Dagger is a failed priest, who by his own story appeared to once have been in line for the papacy itself but who lost out due to his fanatical nature. He left the priesthood and following through on his zealotry became a warrior for God, and thus sought out the magician Doctor Strange. He at first wants to  convert Clea and save her soul, but seems more eager to simply kill her. Doc arrives finally to save the day and return things to some sense of order.

This four-parter (with a reprint story tossed in for good measure) is a stunner. The artwork by Brunner and inker Dick Giordano is outstanding, some of the best the series will ever see. Unfortunately this story is Brunner's swan song. His reputation secured, he leaves Doc behind to find more lucrative ways to make money from his artwork. Still, after all these decades, this material is what I think of first when I think of Frank Brunner.

Steve Englehart will stay with Doc for some time and in the next issue will be joined by veteran Doc artist Gene Colan.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Norman The Barbarian!

Norman the Barbarian is a satire with true bite. That's because frankly it's produced with such vitality and informed accuracy by the very artist whose style is being lampooned in the production. Barry (Not-Yet-Windsor) Smith grew by leaps and bounds stylistically as he produced the earliest issues of Marvel's surprise hit Conan the Barbarian. It was the birth of a franchise that would reap benefits for Marvel for decades. Smith left the title several times during the course of its run, sometimes by his own choice.

National Lampoon was an up and coming satire magazine at about this same time. And the confluence of events allowed for the creation of an exceedingly potent satire on all things Conan though the target is the controversial writer Norman Mailer. I won't comment on the story itself, save to caution one and all that National Lampoon was a magazine that held back few if any punches, especially in its early days. This is a prime example of what the magazine could do when it was operating on all cylinders. For what it's worth the Dojo presents "Norman the Barbarian".

Satire should never ask forgiveness and never beg for mercy. So whatever opinion you hold of the story above is valid. It makes its points and moves ahead. So will we.

I'm struck by the sheer craftsmanship that Smith brings to this work, right down the detailed imitation of Marvel's house style.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Chronicles Of Conan-Volume 3

The third volume of the Chronicles of Conan records a somewhat tempestuous period in the comic book's early history as the artist formerly known as "Barry Smith" becomes increasingly aloof from his comic book origins.

The volume kicks off with a great two-parter which has that classic kitchen sink approach to plotting. We get the return of the sorcerer Zukala and his daughter Zephira. They are now good guys (sort of as these things are always rather suspect in the Hyborian Age) and are battling an other dimensional witch called the Green Empress of the distant land of Melnibone. This calls for Conan to suit up to be Earth's protector as other-dimensional warriors crash in and seek to carry on their deadly queen's mission. That also leads the anti-hero Elric (likewise of Melnibone) to cross over to the Hyborian Earth and hook up with Conan to beat back the enemies they both share.

This was my first-ever encounter with Elric and he's quite the exotic character in his peaked red hat (apparently a hold over from the Jack Gaughan's paperback covers). He and Conan don't really get along, but then neither of them really get along with anyone, but they do successfully battle together and defeat the Green Empress though at a terrible cost for everyone.

And that was supposed to be that for Barry Smith as he intended to move on to other projects.

Roy Thomas taps Gil Kane, an early fan of Conan and a guy who had expressed interest in the title. With inks by Ralph Reese  Kane kicks out some wildly kinetic pages for Conan as he meets up with the pirate Fafnir (previously encountered with his partner Blackrat) who develops beyond his one-off homage to Fritz Leiber's Fahrd and becomes one of my favorite Conan characters. While Conan is always brave and bold, he's often humorless. Fafnir gives him that, a trustworthy companion who has a little perspective.

The two of them become embroiled in an isolated island city's politics, especially helping a duplicitous young beauty who wants to stay being queen. They battle monsters and disembodied suits of armor and barely escape with their lives when the whole place literally explodes beneath their feet.

Barry Smith returns to the book and produces some of his best work ever. Gil Kane hadn't liked the time it took him to produce an issue and apparently Kane needed work that he could churn out fast. It's probably for the best, since while I'm an unabashed Kane fan, I found his work in Conan not the best, lacking the necessary atmosphere the book had developed.

Conan and Fafnir end up in the Turanian navy who are lead by Prince Yezdigerd and are headed to the city of Makkalet to rescue their stolen living god. In these stories we get a real solid epic with Conan behaving in his most realistic manner. He's a mercenary for sure, a hired sword, but such a capable one that he poses a threat and an opportunity for many who are around him. Somewhat less so is the luckless Fafner who falls in the first foray against the walls of the city. Though saved by Conan he loses his arm and is apparently later killed by a feckless and uncaring officer who sought to gain a measure of revenge on Conan with the slaying.  (Fafnir got better in later stories.) That officer of course ends up dead almost immediately when Conan returns from a mission in which he had to battle a deadly hound. Conan also ends up wounding Prince Yezdigerd before making his escape from the Turanians.

That puts  Conan on the other side of the war literally and he ends up hiring out to the citizens of Makkalet, specifically its beautiful queen. He though appears to have chosen badly again as he is sent off to become a sacrifice on an altar which calls down a very Lovecraftian frog-like monster. Conan survives and seeks to put the war behind him but that will prove more difficult than he expected.

There's something so compelling about this period for Conan as he tumbles along. The sense of realism in this series continued to fascinate me. How a fantasy like this set in an imaginary world from long ago could feel more potent and of the moment than stuff like Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four is strange but it did. Conan was just a soldier fighting a war he neither sanctioned nor had much affinity for, but he did his duty. That his duty took him to either side of the conflict proved just how arbitrary the rightness of war could be. In those days such messages about war were heady indeed.

Also is was one of the comics in this collection which really made feel part of a larger community. I was sitting in a local hangout getting a bite to eat when a young man, my elder in his twenties or something like that, came over to me and asked about the Conan comic I was reading ("The Black Hound of Vengeance") and commented how much he admired the book. I never got his name nor saw him ever again, but that brief exchange weirdly validated a young boy who loved comics and now knew for certain that someone else older (and presumably wiser) did also. It was a strangely affecting moment, as small and relatively insignificant as it seemed. I remember that moment often when I interact with teenagers and always try to understand that what might seem small time to me might loom larger to them. That's just one lesson I learned reading Conan. 

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Into The Woods!

One of the more peculiar volumes in my collection is The Marvel Comics Work of Wally Wood from 1982. I forget where I picked this slender volume up, but it was in somewhat less than stellar condition, a touch musty and a touch rounded. I've since used the miracle of massive weight to straighten it out and the mustiness has faded after years in good dry conditions. But those deficiencies aside this tome from an outfit calling itself Thumbtack Books brings together Wally Wood's later Marvel Comics work from the pages of Astonishing Tales and Tower of Shadows. In the former we has some spanking great stories featuring Doc Doom and from the latter a quartet of stories in the Sword and Sorcery vein. That's the focus today.

"Flight into Fear" appeared in Tower of Shadows #5 and is the tale of a modern young man who takes a nap on a gargoyle and ends up in a distant land, his lameness healed and he finds himself a proper hero chosen to save a group of tiny people from a terrible ghoulish wizard. He ends up back in the modern day after his good deeds but with some changes. Wally Wood narrates this one, a mild tradition in this comic after the classic narrator Digger was largely abandoned.

Read the story here.

"The Ghost-Beast" from Tower of Shadows #6 is a more straightforward S&S offering with a "hero" named Beowulf battling against a dark and dangerous demon and saving the day only to force himself on the people as their new leader. He turns out to be a heel and ends up enjoying a grim destiny indeed.

Read the story here.

"Of Swords and Sorcery!" from Tower of Shadows #7 is in many ways the most Woodian of the stories in this run with our hero Vandal the Barbarian helping a group of tiny people against a wizard named Arak. He goes on a bit of a quest with a Princess and some small helpers, the human looking one named Tippit and the lizardlike Trolkin. Our hero here stays true to his nature and ends up rather happily when it's all said and done.

Read the story here.

"Sanctuary" from Tower of Shadows #8 is the only one of the stories to get its own cover, this one by Berni Wrightson. A warrior-king named Hamand battles to penetrate a dangerous crypt to liberate an ancient crown but then finds himself pursued by ghostly enemies and all his efforts to hide in a fortified castle prove less than effective.

Read the story here.

These frothy stories fit well into the canon of sword and sorcery because like the genre itself they are a form of weird horror and are presented as such in comics anthologies dedicated to that form. Wally Wood's craftsmanship is on good display here and his heroes (such as they are) often resemble one another physically but seem to have an array of personalities. Wood's penchant for little people is also evident as is his delightful tendency to portray beautiful women as demure beauties with active libidos.It's all Comics Code approved here but you can tell it wants to be more.

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Strange Takes On God!

This tale told over three dynamite issues of Marvel Premiere is one of my all-time favorite Doc Strange yarns. It's the first story by Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner which they themselves initiated (with a little help from their friends). In their previous outings on the series, they had been wrapping up stories begun by diverse talents, but here they are able to plow ahead with their own vision of Earth's newly dubbed "Sorcerer Supreme".

After defeating Shuma-Gorath at long last, Doctor Strange is getting used to his new role as the number one magician in this reality and is found by Clea and Wong in a state of meditating. He has a hard time remembering all the mundane details of daily life but eventually gets a grip. He then seeks out his old enemy Baron Mordo to tell him about the new status quo (anyone for "I told you so") and runs up against a gypsy witch and a deadly living gargoyle.

Then he learns that Mordo had a deadly plan which forces Doc to travel back in time to the era of the legendary Cagliostro. We learn that Cagliostro though is not who he seems anymore, but rather an enterprising magician from the distant future named Sise-Neg who is traveling back through time to increase his allotment of the available magical power in any given era. Mordo wants to become his ally and Doc wants to defeat him.

They follow Sise-Neg ever further into the past as he grows ever more powerful, and encounter Sir Lancelot and even  Shuma-Gorath again, but eventually find themselves at the very beginning of creation itself. Sise-Neg announces that his motives have altered with is newly acquired powers and prespectives and that instead of altering the future to insure his dominance, he will merely re-ignite all creation as it was in the beginning. When he reveals his new name of "Genesis" it becomes clear he is either now "God" or something akin to the ultimate deity or part of his ultimate plan all along. Reality now safe, Doc heads back to world of 1974 while Mordo does less well.

My research tells me that Sise-Neg was a co-creation of Englehart, Brunner and Neal Adams. Certainly the style of Adams can be seen in the character but I did not know he had a direct hand in his creation. The early issues of the run were inked by "The Crusty Bunkers", the group of artists in the Adams and Giordano studio, so I suppose this has some connection. Would love to know more.

More Doctor Strange to come as the Pope pops up.

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Swords Of Lankhmar!

Swords of Lankhmar is the one full-blown Fafhrd and Gray Mouser novel. It's the only one in the canon and it's rather a cobblied together affair in its own right. It is one of the oldest tales in the canon, originally beginning its existence as "The Tale of the Grain Ships" in 1936 but never seeing publication. It was later revised as "Scylla's Daughter".

The Swords of Lankhmar (novel 1968-first part published as Scylla’s Daughter (novella 1961 Fantastic)

"Scylla's Daughter" is the first half of the story which would become Swords from Lankhmar. It concerns itself with a small flotilla of ships carrying grain from Lankhmar to a neighboring territory. Aboard the ship are some bizarre representatives of that land but no less strange is the enormous sea serpent which accosts the ships. It's a serpent with a rider who hails from a far distant land and speaks German. After these events our heroes return to Lankhmar and discover that a whole subculture of rats (with human looking and quite attractive representatives) have invaded the city which leads to the Mouser getting small and investigating at rat size, but it turns out only some bizarre godlike cats can save the day.

It's a strange strange tale which unravels at a rather leisurely and frankly uneven pace. The first half and the second half of the story are not all that cohesive save for the repetition of key characters. I wish I liked the novel better than I do, but despite being filled with some delightful and bizarre scenes it fails to deliver on a complete story which feels up to true novel length in narration or theme.

One thing which will become an increasing part of the Fafhrd and Mouser tales going forward is a real sense of continuity, a memory for what has gone before. To this point Leiber had sort of forced the tales into a framework of such continuity, but at this point with new material being produced all the time, that sense will only grow stronger.

More to come next week.

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