Thursday, December 25, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #40




Though Robert E. Howard's Conan stories were revived for 1960s paperbacks, my first exposure to the battling Cimmerian was in Marvel's 1970 adaptation of the character to comic books, written by Roy Thomas and delinated by Barry Windsor-Smith.Within the first year, it seems that Marvel knew that it had a hit, for in issues #14 and #15 the barbarian played host to a renowned sword-and-sorcery hero created for the decade of the sixties: Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone. I've never read any behind-the-scenes stories regarding how Moorcock-- who owned his character outright-- came to allow Marvel to adapt Elric. It would seem plausible that both Moorcock and Marvel were "testing the waters" to see whether or not Elric would resonate with enough Marvel-readers to make more adaptations profitable for both parties. .
But Elric would not be adapted by Marvel until much later.

At the time of the two-parter's publication I was captivated by both heroes as presented by Thomas and Smith, and I didn't lose any time reading the prose adventures of both-- though I would always find Howard the writer much more appealing than Moorcock. The two-part story favors the mythic complexity of Moorcock's world, hurling a variety of sorcerous characters seen and unseen at the reader-- and at the barbarian, who says that his head spins "with names I have no faces for." But the strength of Conan's character still holds its own, even when he only has two support-characters with him: Zukala, a wizard whose name was plundered from a REH poem, and his daughter Zephra, created entirely for the comic.

There's nothing special about the "two heroes meet, then become allies" plot, but Thomas' script is chock full of good characterization moments, and Smith's pre-Raphaeleite visuals are consistently excellent.  It's sad to recall how far Marvel's Conan titles fell with respect to this initial high point.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

THE MURK OF AVALON




I'm usually a sucker for fiction about Arthurian Britain, particularly when they delve into the conflicts between pagan lore and Christian doctrine during that not-strictly-historical period. I'd heard nothing but good things about Marion Zimmer Bradley's 1982 novel, THE MISTS OF AVALON, and finally chose to crack this massive 800-page tome.

I knew before reading that MISTS was a feminist rendition of the Arthurian tradition, which emphasized the male agency of King Arthur and his knights, but did, in contrast to some comparable traditions of other cultures, allow for some agency on the part of female characters. The most famous of these are generally Guinevere, queen to Arthur and lover to Lancelot, and Morgan LeFay, sometimes represented as half-sister to Arthur, and the mother to Modred, the child of their mutual incestuous encounter. I also knew in advance that MISTS' focus was the character Morgaine, Bradley's take on the evil, magic-wielding sorceress LeFay. The traditional Morgan was not invariably associated with the magical isle of Avalon, but in MISTS Morgaine is not just a sorceress, but an iniatiate into the mysteries of matrifocal British paganism. Avalon, a domain perpetually shrouded in mists, is in some ways a perfect visual symbol for what some have called "the mystery of womanhood," at least as compared to the blunt, obvious preoccupations of the male gender-- few of whom, in Bradley's cosmos, are particularly sharp blades.

Unfortunately, Bradley reveals more than she conceals through having most of her characters chew the fat endlessly about who's sleeping with whom and whose parents brought about what psychological traumas. I have no objection to a latter-day author transporting some modern-day psychological observations into the matrix of Arthurian myth; indeed, as every writer is a child of his or her time, it's well nigh impossible not to do so. What I found egregious in Bradley's MISTS is the repetitiveness of many of her tropes regarding character makeup and ongoing plot-conflicts. This authorial inability to know when "less would be more" may have come about simply because during the majority of her career Bradley did not work in such lengths.

As I commented in my only other blog-comments on a Bradley book here, I've read twenty or more of Bradley's SF-fantasy works. She came to prominence in a period when almost the only publishing outlet for SF-fantasy was in the format of the paperback novel, usually not much beyond 100,000 words in length. I've rarely retained strong memories of those Bradley novels that I've read: whether written in the 1960s or the 1980s, I've found them to be efficiently plotted stories told in a simple "meat-and-potatoes" style. Obviously, given the strong popularity of her ongoing "Darkover" series and MISTS itself, it's possible that I'm simply not destined to be one of Bradley's bigger fans.

Nevertheless, even though MISTS by design is meant to be a long, generation-spanning work, the book's substance could have been boiled down to a more comfortable 500 pages without losing anything but repetitious character-and-plot tropes. Another culprit may be the fact that any author attempting to do a "big novel" on the Arthurian theme has a prodigious number of stories from which to choose. Naturally, Bradley gives preference to stories focused on the Morgan character, providing quasi-realistic takes on stories  like this one from Thomas Malory in which Morgan forces Arthur to fight a warrior named Accolon.  A minor consequence of this focus as that male-focused tropes, such as Arthur drawing the sword Excalibur from a stone or a tree, are substantially altered, and downplayed save when they are relevant to the novel's main conflict: the fading of the pagan and matrifocal way of life before that of all conquering Christianity.

I fully understand why Bradley chose to focus on the domestic world of women in her feminist re-writing of Arthurian themes. Although Arthur's Camelot did not exist as such in recorded history, Bradley must model her version of that world upon the medieval society of the time, with its extremely bifurcated gender-roles (though she does mention in passing that the older Celtic tribes harbored women who took up arms upon the battlefield). Yet for all the talk of rival religious traditions, Bradley's world is one in which both God and the gods are silent.  Any fans of Arthurian fantasy will find that the only magic in MISTS can be explained by the evocation of various psychic powers that have simply been interpreted as magic. Oh, and there's one "dragon," never seen "on-camera" as it were, but Bradley implies that it's nothing more than some prehistoric venom-spitting worm.

These rationalizations of mythic material are standard enough in what I tend to deem "bestseller fiction," and indeed Bradley's MISTS may have been successful with audiences precisely because it did not require those readers to believe in dragons and enchanted swords.  Still, bestseller fiction is capable of providing some philosophical discourse on certain topics, like what makes one religion different from one another. Bradley, no philosopher, placates possible Christian readers by having many of her pagans assure the Christians that "all gods are one." Yet clearly all religions are not one, given that so much of the novel is devoted to showing how feminine agency is reduced and downgraded with the encroachment of patrifocal Christian beliefs.  But I will admit that since most of Bradley's characters don't have the intellectual background conducive to long religious debates, such discourse would have been difficult to render credible.

Morgaine, the center of the novel, is fascinating in the novel's first half, as we see her caught in the machinations of the king-making pagan priests who plot to bring about the birth of Arthur. Yet while I admire the complexity with which Bradley lays out her vision of familial relations between dozens of Arthurian figures, some of them result in the aforementioned repetitiveness. As a young woman Morgaine falls in love with Lancelet (the novel's version of Lancelot), with the result that she and the novel's version of Guinevere are rivals for the knight's charms. This could have been a sound plot-idea, but Bradley returns to it again and again, rarely saying anything new beyond another chorus of Morgaine singing "Poor Poor Pitiful Me."

I'll note in conclusion that just as the Morgan-Arthur relationship is sometimes incestuous in certain stories, Bradley uses incest-motifs frequently throughout MISTS: for instance, Lancelet is Morgaine's cousin, the son of the woman who initiates Morgaine into the mysteries and who is more of a mother to Morgaine that the woman who births her.  In my other essay I commented that THE DOOR THROUGH SPACE is replete with such motifs, though only a more thorough reading of her corpus of works would reveal whether or not it's a repeated theme.





Saturday, December 6, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #39




FLASH/ARROW may not be the ideal crossover of live-action TV superheroes, but it'll do until a better one comes along.

The crossover owes its entire aesthetic to John Byrne. In the 1980s Byrne, whose pronouncements carried enormous clout with both the fan community and professional comics-editors, stated that Superman and Batman, given their polarized outlooks, should never have been friends. much less that they would have teamed up with one another often enough to spawn a regular feature about their joined adventures. Byrne's direct influence on Superman and Batman ended when his tenure on the 1980s SUPERMAN feature concluded, but his indirect influence went on for years. Many though not all raconteurs agreed that Superman's niceness would set Batman's teeth on edge, while Batman's questionable practices would raise the Kryptonian's eyebrows.

FLASH/ARROW borrows this basic schema of light vs. dark, innocence vs. experience, and so on. In ARROW's previous season the hero and this support-cast take police scientist Barry Allen into their confidence regarding their clandestine mission. This season, Barry receives the blessing of super-speed powers for his own brand-new series, precipitating this two-way crossover.

Of the two episodes themselves, the FLASH story was a bit stronger. Arrow and his crew visit Central City on separate business, but the archer and his team can't help getting involved with Flash's new meta-villain, TV's version of the Rainbow Raider. The Raider unleashes nice-guy Barry's buried hostilities and aggressions, so that he begins to flip out in the workplace. Then the Flash goes on a super-speed rampage against the boyfriend of Barry's sort-of adoptive sister Iris-- a rage-fest that's been building for some time in the regular series.  The ensuing battle between Flash and Arrow can't hope to duplicate the kinetic antics of the comics page, but for television, it's pretty good.

The ARROW episode, naturally, had to be considerably darker, as a murderous version of Captain Boomerang comes to Starling City, intent on killing Lyla, ex-wife of Ollie Queen's buddy John Diggle.  While I 'm glad that the producers gave the loony-looking captain a grittier aspect for the purposes of this story, I think they hyped up his skill-set too much when they had him single-handedly invade an ARGUS stronghold, where his boomerangs really shouldn't have been very effective against multiple guns. This time Flash and his crew visit Arrow and his "Arrowcave," as FLASH-regular Cisco calls it: all of these scenes are a virtual treasure-trove of the embarrassing aspects of superhero gimmickery to any self-respecting "dark hero," even if he does use gimmicky arrows himself.

But, as the characters themselves say-- perhaps a little too self-reflexively-- the worlds of the Superman-type, Flash, and the Batman-type, the Arrow, don't merge very well. Arrow, who has already vowed to clean up some of the dirtier aspects of his crusade, must be made to don the hairshirt of regret once again, simply because Barry and his buddies come to visit. This forces the episode to go over old ground once more, partly with the use of flashbacks hearkening back to Oliver's service with Amanda Waller-- a plot-thread I for one am not in love with. Since Boomerang is not capable of taking on both heroes, the script is forced to find a way to employ the talents of Barry and Ollie separately. It's an efficient enough contrivance, but overall the story doesn't do much to enhance the reputations of the speedster or the archer. It's a small blessing that their friendly-but-testy relationship feels indebted less to John Byrne's simplifications tand more to the more artful meditations of Frank Miller on the subject.

Since the crossover was a ratings success, I imagine there will be another one some time in the future. I for one would rather leave the respective heroes in their own bailwicks for the foreseeable future.

Monday, December 1, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #38



The best compliment I can pay to THE GAMBLER RETURNS; THE LUCK OF THE DRAW is to say that its salute to the television westerns of yesteryear is good enough to make it worth sitting through Kenny Rogers' artless performance as the titular character. The supporting actors accompanying him on his quest-- Rick Rossovich, Park Overall, and even fellow singer Reba McIntire-- do yeoman service in distracting the audience from Rogers' tone-deaf line-deliveries. The script is serviceable, involving the Gambler's quest to participate in one last great poker-game-- though, as it happened, this was not the last of the GAMBLER TV-flicks.

The one thing that makes this telemovie palatable is its status as a crossover-work. It might be seen as an inversion of the type of crossover seen in the SPACE GHOST/"Council of Doom" episode. The purpose of the crossovers in that episode was to create viewer interest in Hanna-Barbera's new offerings, but LUCK OF THE DRAW is about saluting series-characters who were now only revived in the spirit of nostalgia.

DRAW is replete with many references to both real western history and that of the "fake West," none of which go very deep. In some cases, the film's producers didn't secure permission to reference certain characters. Thus Doug McClure and James Drury appear, but are not playing their VIRGINIAN characters. Neither the Lone Ranger nor Tonto appear, but a horse that looks like Silver shows up, accompanied by the William Tell Overture. None of these "doppelganger characters" count as genuine crossovers, but fortunately, DRAW does bring in such luminaries as:

*Bart Maverick, played by Jack Kelly
*The Rifleman, played by Chuck Connors
*Wyatt Earp, played by Hugh O'Brien
*Kwai Chang Caine, played by David Carradine
*Dave Blassingame, played by Brian Keith
*Cheyenne, played by Clint Walker
*Bat Masterson, played by Gene Barry



In addition, the story also works in various actors with strong western associations, such as Linda "Big Valley" Evans and Dub "Wild Bunch" Taylor.  And Paladin of WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE is referenced as having passed on, in deference to the passing of the actor who played him, Richard Boone.

Though the main characters have some interesting if low-key adventures, the story is clearly an excuse for the guest-stars to show up, do their turn, and then gracefully bow out. One's enjoyment of these scenes probably does depend on some familiarity with the original series. Possibly, though, even the trivia-happy Internet Generation could appreciate the soliloquy of Paul Brinegar, reprising a not-named version of "Wishbone" from RAWHIDE-- for in said soliloquy, Brinegar managed to work in the titles of about a dozen TV westerns.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #37



The above illustration doesn't precisely represent the memorable crossover story presumably within. The male hero might be a passable visualization of the titular C.L.Moore protagonist "Northwest Smith," except for the fact that he's carrying a rapier rather than his trusty futuristic "heat gun"-- Smith being a space-opera hero who lives in some era when Earth has colonized the planets of this solar system.

The female illustrated, though, could never pass for the other character in the crossover, Moore's currently better-known Jirel of Joiry, an imperious noblewoman who lived in a fictitious medieval French setting.  The original Jirel would never cling like the woman in the picture does: she was a fiery swordswoman who could lead her followers into battle without a second thought and could slay a sorcerer as soon as look at him.

The story "Quest of the Star-Stone" was published in a 1937 issue of WEIRD TALES, some time after both Jirel and Northwest Smith had earned some cachet, though Moore never wrote more than a dozen stories for either character. "Quest" is the only one of these in which Moore collaborated with her husband Henry Kuttner, also a renowned SF-writer, and it may be that they did so in order to let their own personal romance infuse the story.

The "Starstone" of the title, a sort of magical dingus, is what Hitchcock called a "Macguffin" over which the characters could contend.  In medieval Joiry, the warrior-woman breaks into the castle of the warlock Franga to kill him. He escapes, but Jirel takes possession of his valued Starstone. Franga, who has not yet had a chance to tap its powers, can only recover it by either winning the stone from her in battle, or by forcing her to give it up of her own free will.

For no clear reason Franga travels in time to find the one agent who can help him: cosmic troubleshooter Northwest Smith. Smith accepts Franga's commission to recover his stolen property.  When Franga takes Smith into the past, he inadvertently also takes Smith's Venusian buddy Yarol as well; when Yarol tries to stop Smith from going.

As a result of Franga's manipulations, Smith, Yarol and Jirel (whose names are suspiciously similar!) end up in an extradimensional world, and Sniith divines that Franga plans to double-cross his agents and leave them, and Jirel, stranded once the wizard gets the stone.  Thus Jirel and Smith are forced to make common cause despite their differences.

Though Moore and Kuttner certainly don't invent any wheels here, "Starstone" is a heady pulp-action story which is given special resonance by the instantaneous lust experienced by both Smith and Jirel when they see each other. They continually check one another out whenever they're together, and only the exigencies of the narrative keep them from bumping uglies.  Moore and Kuttner also throw a few humorous moments to break the tension, as when Jirel calls Smith by the name "Smeet."

This one's a treat worth seeking out in the few collections where it's appeared.

Monday, November 17, 2014

SING HEIL, SING HELL

I've recently finished all but one of the ten collected volumes of Kouta Hirano's HELLSING. The only one I missed was number nine, and by the time I got to eight, I was pretty sure that I would be able to fill in most of any missing pieces.

HELLSING takes place on a vague future-Earth some time after the end of World War II, but all of the action takes place in Europe and I found no allusions, at least in the English translations, to Japan's role in the war.  It's also a world in which vampires, werewolves and various other freaky phenomena have always existed alongside humanity, though apparently only in recent years have they become allies to a number of warring factions.

The title of the series is one of those factions, an English-based organization named after the original vampire hunter Van Helsing. Van Helsing's victory over the vampire-lord Dracula didn't take quite the same way it did in Bram Stoker's novel. For one thing, the creature once called Dracula still lives, but Van Helsing-- or someone-- chained him in the dungeons beneath Hellsing Institute. When he's released from captivity by the vampire-hunter's descendant, the fearsome female Integra Hellsing, he takes the name "Alucard" and becomes Integra's bondservant, as well as her foremost agent in the defense of Hellsing.

Hellsing Institute has not one but two major factions ranged against them.  One is a group called Millennium, a neo-Nazi group whose leader, the mysterious "Major" (implicitly a holdover from the original Nazi regime), wishes to foment an endless state of war for no reason but for the love of destruction.  The other is the Vatican itself, which sports its own cadre of Catholic commandos and frequently spends more time fighting the English Protestants than the menace of Millennium.

I'm not sure why I didn't like HELLSING better. Hirano's art is good but displays an unfortunate tendency, seen in many manga works, to depict battle-scenes as a jumble of confused activity, with no appreciation for the virtues of white space.  The writing is decent for this sort of fevered adventure-opus, where Alucard, his supports cast and his enemies are all tough enough to cut nails on their tongues.  But Hirano doesn't really give the average reader much reason to identify with any of the characters, so that most of them have a fairly artificial feel.

Vampire myths have become some of the fecund literary myths of the past fifty years, but only once does Hirano excel himself in this sort of mythopoesis. In Book Eight, Alucard has a flashback to his experiences during his years as the Romanian Christian voivode (ruler) Vlad Tepes-- though this name is not used. During a major field-battle between Alucard's Romanian troops and those of the neighboring Turks, Alucard equates the slaughter on both sides with the idea of a holocaust, in the sense of a major sacrifice to deity.

"Fight. Everyone fight. Fighting is prayer itself. At the end of so much prayer [that] it astounds, God will descend. Jerusalem will descend!"




I don't know whether Romanian Christians of the 15th century might have entertained this specific line of thought, but the idea of attracting the attention of God/the gods with a mammoth sacrifice of lives seems characteristic to the nature of early humanity.  As expressed it even holds some resemblance to myths in which mortals may attempt to "bully" the gods into responding to their prayers, not by respectful pleading but by defacing or striking the icons of the deity to elicit a response.

It would seem, though, that Hirano had no deep interest in the metaphysics of worship. The sequence described serves the purpose of establishing Dracula/Alucard's profound alienation, for neither God nor Jerusalem descends in response to the wholesale slaughter.  On the whole HELLSING is a moderately enjoyable balls-to-the-wall example of "horror-adventure," but it fails to touch on the deeper resonance of the modern vampire myth.


Monday, November 10, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #36



Usually, crossovers between franchise characters are structured as one-shots.  However, they can become more ambitious when two different companies agree to cross over their characters. Such is the case with the four Batman/Judge Dredd tales, the result of a collaboration between Britain's Fleetway and DC Comics.
Though the individual stories can stand alone, there are touches by writers Alan Grant and John Wagner that tie them loosely together.

The first, "Judgment on Gotham," is also the best, skillfully alternating between Judge Dredd's futuristic Mega-City domain and its gang of crazies, and Batman's Gotham. Dredd-villains like "Mean Machine" and "the Dark Judges" receive the bulk of the two crimefighters' attention, but the villain Scarecrow is a nice change from some of the more overused Bat-villains.  "Judgment" sports the best art, thanks to Simon Bisley, and begins the fractious association of the two heroes, whose dislike for one another goes beyond the bounds of the average "meet-and-beat" encounter.

"Vendetta in Gotham" is merely fair overall, though it does feature an enjoyably-long, kickass fight-scene between Batman and Dredd.  "The Ultimate Riddle" works Batman, Dredd and the Riddler together in a tedious gladiatorial-combat plotline.

"Die Laughing," however, works almost as well as the opener, even if it does spotlight that most overused of overused Bat-villains, the Joker.  The Glenn Fabry excels Bisley in one respect: Fabry does the best job of depicting the polychromatic yet sleazy world of Mega-City One.

The crossover of Dredd and Batman works as well as it does not simply because the two heroes don't like each other: because Dredd considers Batman a "vigilante" while the Caped Crusader deems the Judge to be a brainless fascist.  It works because they mirror opposing interpretations of the megalopolis as simultaneously a Pleasure-Dome and a City of Dreadful Night.

In the Dredd franchise, the opposition is more extreme: Mega-City is an overcrowded mess filled with discontented citizens, and the non-criminals can be even more dangerous than the criminals to the commonweal.  Dredd and his fellow Judges just barely control the chaos through the use of a justice that recognizes no compromise, but their struggle, while offering the thrills of a straight adventure, is always tainted by a whiff of irony; by the awareness that This is No Way for People to Live.

Batman, of course, inhabits a city where a humanistic approach to law and order is still possible, even though he too has any number of "I Am the Law" moments.  Gotham was not portrayed as especially corrupt until the 1990s, but even in the sunny eras of Sprang and Infantino there always remained some inkling that the city was the place of constant, unfulfilled desires-- symbolized not by the egregious misbehavior of the ordinary citizens but by the repetitive acting-out of Batman's endless array of antagonists.

By the bye, the volume collecting all four also includes a Lobo/Judge Dredd crossover, but this particular crossover is far from exceptional.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #35

For the final six episodes of the 1966 SPACE GHOST teleseries, the show featured what might be called a "limited crossover"-- limited because the titular hero only interacted very briefly with his heroic guest-stars.  These interactions come very close to being cameos, and I said earlier that I wouldn't consider cameo-crossovers that fit this definition:

Also not considered here are "cameo crossovers," where characters have no interaction with a developed plot, but merely appear as "walk-ons," usually for the purpose of a quick joke. 


However, the "Council of Doom" episodes are slightly more developed than the "quick joke" example I provided in my earlier essay.

The main plot of the mini-saga goes like this: six of Space Ghost's most vicious enemies team up-- becoming the "council" of the title-- and then take turns trying to destroy the spacefaring hero. The six of them, seen blow, are (going clockwise from the well-known Zorak) are Zorak, Creature King, Metallis, Spider Woman, Brak, and Moltar.




In four of the encounters, the villains zap Space Ghost into some other cosmos. The hero is then set upon by hostile forces in that universe, only to be saved by one of four heroes native to said universe: respectively Shazzan, the Herculoids, Moby Dick and the Mighty Mightor. (Note: the first two had their own shows, while the latter two shared one cartoon-berth.)




Thus, Space Ghost never interacts with any of the other heroes for more than a minute, if that. However, I find that these brief encounters-- patently intended to advertise the new cartoon-kids on the block-- are still important to the "Council of Doom" plot, at least more so than you would get with a throwaway joke.  And in at least one case, there's a good "science vs. magic" vibe. In the Shazzan segment, Space Ghost's powers are useless against the sorcery of the evil "Sultan of Flame," while the heroic genie's abilities easily trump those of the mystic evildoer.

A later 1980s cartoon had Space Ghost and the Herculoids cross paths off-and-on. But as limited as these crossovers were, they captured perfectly the pure fun of the 1960s era, whereas the 1980s show seemed a pale spectre of the originals.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #34



This one-shot novel is a conceptual kissing cousin to H.P. Lovecraft's THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH, insofar as it brings together over a dozen characters or milieus created by a single author. But these creations were all spawned by Edgar Allan Poe, while the two authors bringing them all together for this Poe-pastiche are Roger Zelazny and Fred Saberhagen.

The viewpoint character of the story is one Edgar Allan Perry, who exists in our world but shares a telepathic relationship with his other-dimensional counterpart, Edgar Allan Poe and with a young woman named Annie. Both men are somewhat in love with her, which is enough to motive Perry when he's shunted into a dimension where Poe's literary creations and finds Annie in peril there. I think-- but am not sure-- that Annie is a native of this dimension, while Poe is hurled into Perry's world, which seems to be "our" world, in that Poe will then live out a doleful life in which he never feels at home.  Perry, having lived in a time approximate to Poe's, does not recognize any of the people or situations that he meets as being literary creations. The authors devote zero time to explaining why they have independent existence, to say nothing of the fact that their stories are conflated. Dirk Peters, one of the protagonists of Poe's CONFESSIONS OF A. GORDON PYM, not only becomes an aide to Perry, he's altered into being both (1) the sailor who owns the ourang-outang from MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, and (2) the vengeful dwarf from HOP-FROG, who in turn works his devilment on the court of Prince Prospero from THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH.

I presume that Perry's imperiled romantic partner Annie is named for the character from the poem "Annabel Lee." Annie is a powerful psychic who's kidnapped by a threesome of conspirators who want to use her talents to help them obtain an alchemical gold-making process. Two of the conspirators are named for Poe characters, while the third is named for Rufus Griswold, a real-life acquaintance of Poe's who defamed the author after his death. Perry, given the command of a ship by yet another Poe-character ("Seabright Ellison" from THE DOMAIN OF ARNHEIM), undertakes to pursue the villains and liberate Annie.

Although there are a few quotes from Poe's works that contribute to the reader's sense of what Poe accomplished, the simplistic quest-narrative doesn't lend itself to much complexity. It's moderately fun to see Zelazny and Saberhagen bring together so many "centric crossovers," as I've termed them. Aside from those already mentioned, the duo also work in Ligeia, Hans Pfall and his balloon, King Pest and his court, Montressor and Fortunato, the living corpse M. Valdemar, the detective Dupin, a maelstrom, a gold-bug, the pit and the pendulum, and the asylum of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether. And yet, I found that after a while one crossover seemed much like another, and that Perry's quest for Annie took a back seat to all of these witty references.

Still, BLACK THRONE is an exceptional crossover-work even if it's far from perfect as a novel.


Friday, October 17, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #33




There's not much to say about this odd duck, THE MAN WHO HATED LAUGHTER, except that it only qualifies for this list by the sheer uniqueness of the crossovers.  About three dozen characters syndicated by King Features appeared in this phlegmatic 1972 episode of THE ABC SATURDAY SUPERSTAR MOVIE.  However, whereas ROGER RABBIT wisely kept the majority of its cameo-characters confined to quick, highly visual appearances, LAUGHTER-- written by Lou Silverstone and directed by long-time animator Jack Zander (best known for his Tom-and-Jerry shorts)-- pokes along, trying to give all its characters some little something to do. LAUGHTER is a lot like those "Hollywood Canteen" films of the 1940s, in which big-time movie stars, often playing themselves, were assembled to participate in some worthy project, often involving entertaining the troops. Unfortunately, this barely animated TV-movie is even less funny than those stodgy films. The movie won't make anyone hate laughing, but watching it will probably make some viewers hate LAUGHTER.

Mad scientist Morbid Grimsby hates laughter, but can't figure out how to end that phenomenon. He decides to abduct all the funny characters from comic strips, because his computer tells him that comic strips like BLONDIE and HI AND LOIS contribute so much to human amusement.  To do this, Grimsby commissions Popeye and his entourage-- that is, Olive and Wimpy-- to gather the various characters together on a ship, promising them a fabulous ocean-voyage. Popeye, nominally the hero of the story, is totally clueless that Grimsby, upon getting his "guests" to a remote island, plans to keep them imprisoned so that they will never again create laughter. Maybe the sailor-man would've caught on if he'd met Grimsby's henchman, who happens to be Popeye's old sparring-partner Brutus (a TV-cartoon version of the Fleischer Studio's heavy, Bluto). The island-bound guest-list includes such notables as Henry, Snuffy Smith and his wife, the cast of the Katzenjammer Kids, Beetle Bailey and Sarge, the Little King, Little Iodine, and the respective households of the Bumstead and Flagstone clans, among others.

Though Popeye and his buddies don't know what's going on, the government somehow gets wind of Grimsby's plot, and calls into action most of the King Syndicate's adventure-heroes: the Phantom, Mandrake, Steve Canyon, Flash Gordon, and Tim Tyler of TIM TYLER'S LUCK, which strip had been cancelled since 1966. The Phantom's wolf-ally Devil and Flash's girlfriend Dale also make quick appearances.  The amusing thing about the "serious" heroes being called up to rescue the supposedly vulnerable "funny" characters is that in real life the former were already on their way out, as all forms of story-strips-- not just those centering on martial heroes-- while the "funny" strips would regain the dominance in the comic-strip market that they had enjoyed prior to the adventure-boom of the 1930s.

Since Popeye is framed as the hero, the serious heroes are eventually defeated by Grimsby, though they do get one little victory. Brutus, dressed up like a cockamamie excuse for a knight-in-armor, is sent packing when Mandrake conjures up a more prepossessing armored knight: Prince Valiant, complete with horse-- though Valiant doesn't stick around to get captured.

Once the serious heroes are out of the way, the captured comic-heroes-- including Popeye and his retinue-- attempt to make Grimsby laugh, in the hope that the experience will cause him to change his ways.  Given the supposedly funny routines performed by the captives, it's a wonder that the mad scientist doesn't atomize the lot of them.  But yes, they finally make Grimsby laugh. For a desultory climax, one of Grimsby's devices goes haywire, and Popeye, finally getting access to his beloved spinach, saves the day.

As a closing note, the comics-characters all seem to be aware that they occupy comic strips in addition to their ongoing lives.  I have not been able to determine whether or not credited scripter Silverstone is the same author known for contributing to MAD magazine. If so, in this endeavor he was a long way from the wit displayed in the classic sixties spoof "Bats-Man!"

Thursday, October 16, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #32



Despite the multitude of animated characters appearing in 1988's WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, the vast majority of them are walk-ons, as seen in the memorable crowd-scene above.

And to be sure, if they were all just walk-ons, then ROGER wouldn't qualify for my list, given that in this post I said that my list wouldn't include simple walk-on/cameo crossovers. Often the crossovers stories that I've selected in the past hinge on two or more characters who have already been established crossing one another's paths-- though I've bent this rule somewhat for "back-door pilots," in which a new character is introduced to an audience by being "written in" to the mythos of an established character, or group of characters.

In the case of ROGER, the three primary protagonists-- the titular rabbit, detective Eddie Valiant, and Roger's wife Jessica-- originated in Gary Wolf's 1981 book WHO CENSORED ROGER RABBIT?  This book, which I have not read, had the protagonists encounter characters from the comic strips. The combination live-action/animation film principally took the idea of human and comic-strip characters co-existing in the same world, and altered the concept to that of humans and animated cartoons-- specifically, those spawned by American theatrical cartoons-- sharing a world.

One salient difference between the two media involved was that in comic strips crossovers were extremely rare, while one could frequently come across intra-company crossovers in American theatrical cartoons. particularly between the two companies licensing their franchises to the ROGER production: Disney and Warner Brothers. The animation divisions of the two studios were in many ways antithetical, so it's not surprising that when ROGER does allow for some crossover side-plot action, the effect is not very salutory.

Many reviewers have pointed out that the scene between Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse lacks pizzazz:



The one between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck is a little better, but not by much.




The better bits are those in which Eddie Valiant interacts with famous faces like Betty Boop, but there aren't many of these: the focus is on the interaction of Wolf's key characters. That said, given that I did say I would include crossovers of characters and milieus, as I did with TARZAN AT THE EARTH'S CORE.

 ROGER is perhaps best described as a melding of Wolf's characters with a "super-continuity" that merges the cosmoi of both Warners and Disney.  Since the comedy stylings of each company's respective characters don't really play off one another that well, it's probably just as well this "super-continuity" was never, and probably will never, be seen again.  ROGER, like a certain stage-act by Daffy Duck, could only be done once.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

TARZAN THOUGHTS



The image above is that of the first Tarzan paperback I owned. I've a dim memory that prior to this I may have had a hardback version of TARZAN AND THE GOLDEN CITY. I liked the latter quite a bit but somehow it didn't move me to go out and read every Tarzan book available. I bought the paperback because I liked the 1966 Ron Ely teleseries, but I have a dim memory of being disappointed because it wasn't any way like the TV show. Ah, evil publishers, playing on a young boy's vagrant enthusiasms--!

It should go without saying that these days I think a lot more highly of the original 1912 Tarzan story than of any television version. I recently reread both APES and its sequel, RETURN OF TARZAN, and the following thoughts came to me.

Burroughs frequently acknowledges that Black Africans are getting shitty treatment by representatives of European colonialism (American colonialism is not referenced). The original reason that the Claytons, the father and mother of Tarzan, travel to Africa is because John Clayton has been appointed to a post designed to redress "unfair treatment of black British subjects by the officers of a friendly European power." Many chapters later, long after the deaths of the Claytons and Tarzan's adoption by the Great Apes, a tribe of Black Africans moves into the territory of Tarzan's ape-tribe. These natives are explicitly fleeing their mistreatment by Belgians, who have forced them into slave labor.

At the same time, Burroughs was not above a few jabs at superstitious blacks, though the ones he does take are pretty mild. There's no doubt that he plays to the aesthetic preferences of white people from his time period, for in RETURN he describes Tarzan's adopted human tribe the Waziri as not possessing the thick lips and large noses of the average Black African. But then, Burroughs had the habit of conflating moral excellence with physical beauty. Even though he should know that none of Tarzan's ape friends can be held to human standards of beauty, the author can't help describing the hero's adoptive ape-mother Kala as "clean-limbed."

Still, while Burroughs obviously had no knowledge of real African customs and traditions, on balance it's clear that he doesn't hold with the subjugation of the African people. Tarzan becomes allied to the Waziri after he helps them defeat a raiding-party made up of Arabs and other Black Africans. Somehow I can't help thinking that desiring justice for black people is more important than whether Burroughs personally believed that "black could be beautiful."

Back to Tarzan's parents: there's an interesting-- and non-functional-- scene in which the Claytons, having made their home on the edge of the jungle, are surprised by the attack of a hostile ape. The ape runs at Lady Alice, who, fortunately, happens to be armed. She shoots the ape dead, but it manages to blunder into her as it dies. Though Alice is not physically harmed, the trauma causes her to lose her mind, so that she no longer comprehends that she and her husband are stranded in Africa. She expires a few months after successfully delivering a healthy boy, and Clayton's mourning leaves him vulnerable to being killed by another hostile ape. What I find interesting about this scene is that there was no functional reason for Lady Alice to be assaulted and to lose her mind. But the scene does remind me of old wives' tales in which a pregnant mother would be "scared" by some terrifying creature, and would thereafter bear an infant who carried some physical resemblance to the creature, as if it were possible for women to be impregnated through fear. Is it a coincidence, then, that Alice's progeny after being scared by an ape, is a boy who successfully acts the part of an ape?

Burroughs conveniently overlooks a lot of unlikely physical facts: he has Clayton make door-hinges with few tools, and certainly not with a lathe, and little Tarzan, upon discovering pencils in his late parents' cabin, writes interminably without ever needing to sharpen them. The standout is the "earthen drum" that exists in the arena of the ape's dum-dum ceremony. What the "drum" is exactly, Burroughs does not explain; maybe he meant it to be some oversized gourd-plant. Obviously it's there because Burroughs wanted his tribe of anthropoids to dance like "wild Indians," as it were.

Still, the dum-dum ceremony is a brilliant conception. In its first appearance, it's the site to which the Great Apes commit a sort of demi-cannibalism-- which I qualify only because Burroughs tells us that the apes won't eat any of their tribe-brethren, but they will eat apes outside their tribe. One such victim is killed and his meaty parts are separated, but though Tarzan is present, and does try to partake, the reader never sees Tarzan eat ape-meat, for the hero is interrupted and must fight for his life against his nasty foster-father Tublat. Later, upon encountering the first man he ever meets-- the black warrior Kulonga, slayer of Tarzan's mother Kala-- Tarzan kills Kulonga for revenge's sake, and then wonders whether or not he Tarzan should eat him.  The ape-man is preserved by a "hereditary instinct" that makes him nauseous at the attempt to eat the flesh of a fellow human-- not the first or last time Burroughs invokes "nature" over "nurture."

After this meeting with Kulonga, Tarzan effectively terrorizes his tribe, stealing the natives' poisoned arrows and playing juvenile pranks on them. He evinces no sexual interest in the Black African females, though a later story in JUNGLE TALES OF TARZAN addresses this lacunae somewhat. He does almost kill one of them when she comes close to catching him during a raid, but luck saves the unnamed female's life.

Naturally, the one female in Tarzan's life is destined to be the blonde American Jane Porter, who gets stranded in Tarzan's territory in much the same way his parents were marooned.  By this time Tarzan has slain both Tublat and Kerchak, the latter being both the chief of the ape-tribe and the slayer of Tarzan's father. Burroughs then introduces Terkoz, the son of Tublat, and in their initial battle, Tarzan's foster-"brother" nearly tears off the ape-man's scalp-- leaving him with a scar that remains part of Tarzan's mythology.  I note in passing that Burroughs also wrote a few stories about Native Americans, though I can't say offhand if any of them reference the human technique of scalping.


Tarzan spares Terkoz's life the first time, and on his advice the tribe expels the violent ape. However, sparing Terkoz leads to the novel's only literal attempt at "ape-rape," for the expelled simian decides that he's going to start a new tribe-- by mating with Jane. One might assert that Terkoz symbolizes all the repressed desires of Tarzan, since even after the hero kills Terkoz, Tarzan is still a perfect gentleman with Jane. Nevertheless, he does take Jane to the dum-dum arena for a while, suggesting an equivalence between the orgy of flesh-eating and that other type of orgy. A couple of times, Burroughs titillates the reader with the possibility that the ape-man and his destined mate will do the dirty right there on the jungle floor-- only to draw back and keep things in the realm of pure love.  To be sure, Burroughs does a nicer job with the romance element here than he ever did again, for in later books he tended to just go through the motions.

There are some moderately interesting soap-opera elements with respect to Jane's fellow castaways, particularly her suitor William Clayton, who is Tarzan's cousin, and who inherited the title of Lord Greystoke when the Claytons disappeared.  However, if Burroughs was somewhat even-handed with Black Africans, he felt in no way constrained to pay respect to Black Americans, for among the castaways is Jane's maid Esmerelda, a ghastly concatenation of every vice attributed to blacks-- cowardly, stupid, and prone to "funny" word-manglings.

The conclusion of TARZAN OF THE APES is a grand renunciation scene, in which Tarzan comes to believe that Jane wishes to marry William-- so he Tarzan keeps quiet about his identity as the real Lord Greystoke. Of course this was simply a setup to the sequel. RETURN is much less unified than APES, in that the lovelorn Tarzan merely bounces about from adventure to adventure.  It's in this book that Tarzan becomes the chief of the Waziri tribe, though again, he never for a moment considers any black women to be his queen. He also encounters the first of many, many lost cities of white people in Africa: that of Opar.

From the first Burroughs pictures the Oparians as divided in terms of aesthetics: the women are all normal humans and naturally gorgeous, while the males are ugly and ape-like. In this novel Burroughs goes so far as to promulgate the idea that some Oparians have actually mated with apes, but later he puts the division down to a crude eugenics program. Burroughs apparently had Opar in mind back when he wrote APES, since Jane's professor-father is said to be seeking an "incredibly ancient civilization." He apparently never brings up the matter again, and Opar, modeled on the Biblical city of Ophir, becomes the source of Tarzan's African wealth. It's also the source of the first of Burroughs' not-so-nice queens, for La, High Priestess of Opar, continues to appear in subsequent novels, always trying to either murder or seduce the ape-man.

The romantic unison of Tarzan and Jane is of course the drawing-card of the sequel, but it's interesting that Burroughs again worked cannibalism into the mix. For a time William, Jane, and the novel's villain Rokoff are stranded at sea in a lifeboat, and before they can starve to death, they flirt with the notion of cannibalism-- with which only the villain has no moral problem. Burroughs may have included this scene-- not strictly necessary from a plot angle-- to emphasize that some modern men could be no less capable of this particular vice than apes and savages.

Many later Tarzan novels cannot be as deeply mythological as these two, as they provide the hero's "origin-story." Nevertheless, it's arguable that Burroughs, however often he repeated certain situations, never lost contact with the deeper symbolic meaning of these tropes, as many authors of lesser merit did.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

MORRIS DANCES PT. 4



THE SUNDERING FLOOD was completed in 1896, just a few weeks before its author died. Of the four fantasy-novels, this still uses archaic diction, but Morris no longer seems to use forty words when four will do, as in the other novels. Perhaps the writer sensed that he no longer had time to waste, and chose to tell his last story more concisely.

FLOOD is also the only Morris fantasy that evokes the magical potential of what Lin Carter calls the “imaginary-world novel.”  In the other three books, Morris avoids depicting acts of magic, or magical beings, save where they’re strictly necessary to the plot. Thus one character possesses a magical boat that gets her where she needs to go, and another character sees visions of people he has met or is fated to meet. But in contrast to most later fantasy-authors, Morris has no interest in the dynamics of the faerie world. It may be that he was just too strongly influenced by the historical fiction of his time, as produced by writers like Dumas and Scott.

FLOOD, though, evokes faerie very strongly in its early chapters, though again, it’s for the purpose of empowering the hero, whose central conflict is one of overcoming mundane opponents. As a child the parent-less Osberne encounters a capricious dwarf who demonstrates his ability to cut off his own head and survive. Osberne refuses to let the trick be played on him, and his physical resistance wins the dwarf’s respect—so much so that the dwarf gives him a special knife. A little later Osberne, while standing guard over a sheep-flock, uses the knife to kill a pack of wolves. This heroic deed apparently wins the approval of another denizen of faerie, for at the age of thirteen, long before Osberne is deemed a man, a strange knight named Steelhead visits Osberne’s village and gives him two gifts: arrows that never miss their target, and a huge sword named Broadcleaver.

The sword presents a problem: Osberne is not yet strong enough to wield it. What follows might be termed the medievalist’s version of endowing a hero with some special abilities. In modern times heroes are empowered by mutant genes or the bites of radioactive nightcrawlers, but Steelhead empowers Osberne by the venerable medieval method known as “the laying-on of hands.” 

“And the lad stood still before [Steelhead], and Steelhead laid his hands on the head of him first, and let them abide there a while; then he passes his hands over the shoulders and arms of the boy, and his legs and thighs and breast, and all over his body…”

In our current culture there’s no way that we can read this scene—which takes place when both thirteen-year-old Osberne and apparently adult Steelhead are standing naked in a pool—and not think “gayboys!” I can’t absolutely deny that Morris might have written the scene with some mild gay-curious sentiment. But it’s worth pointing out that in the same section, Steelhead states that he’s performing the laying-on of hands because it’s considered the duty of a father, and he says of his deed: “Thus then have I done to thee to take the place of a father to thee.”  I think that while a gay sentiment is not impossible, it’s more likely that this ritual is a rite of passage, in which the adult only touches the different sections of the child’s whole body in order to bless them. And the result is indeed that thirteen-year-old Osberne gains the magical strength to wield the huge sword, and thus to become the village’s premiere warrior.

Osberne’s prowess also leads to a heterosexual conclusion. In place of the “older woman-younger woman” constellation seen in the other novels, here older women are no threat to Osberne’s relationship with his “Woman of Innocence.”  The only opponent to his tryst with Elfhild, girl of a neighboring village, is “Mother Earth,” for the villages of Osberne and Elfhild are separated by a titanic river-torrent that goes on for miles. This “Sundering Flood” prevents them from doing anything more than talking to one another across opposing river-banks, and thus builds good narrative tension for the early section of the novel.

Evil deeds break the impasse, as raiders called “the Red Skinners” take Elfhild prisoner. Osberne gathers some companions and pursues the raiders until he finally reaches a point where the Sundering Flood ends—culminating in the defeat of the raiders and the final union of the romantic couple. 


Of Morris’ four fantasy novels SUNDERING FLOOD is the easiest to read, in addition to having the most compelling storyline. It’s slightly disappointing that all trace of faerie drops out of the story once Osberne goes in quest of Elfhild, but it may be that on some level Morris simply wasn’t as “bullish” as Tolkien with regard to “dreaming of dragons” and all the other tropes of fantasy. Morris, it seems, made use of faerie “as needed.”  For this reason none of his four “imaginary world” novels rate among the best of their subgenre. Still, William Morris continues to deserve the appropriate honors for forging a new pathway, along which others chose to build more impressive structures.    

MORRIS DANCES PT. 3




1896’s WELL AT THE WORLD’S END benefits from a more forthright hero, the inauspiciously named “Ralph of Upmeads.” In a clear evocation of folktales in which three brothers leave their home to seek their fortunes, Morris begins WELL with four princes of a small kingdom. All four want to seek their fortunes, but the king asks them to draw lots, so that one will stay behind to comfort the king and his wife their mother. The three older brothers win the right to leave, and Ralph is expected to stay behind. Yet in  contrast to the folktale “three brothers” motif, where the older brothers fail at some task  that the youngest one fulfills, the three brothers barely re-appear in the novel. Ralph chooses to break faith and go forth anyway, seeking the fabled  “Well at the World’s End.”  He has heard that a drink from the well gives one not immortality but unblemished youth for the rest of one’s life. But the author’s real goal is for Ralph to find a perfect feminine companion to remain with him during that blessed life.

Ralph actually meets this helpmate almost as soon as he embarks upon his quest, but the young woman—confusingly called first “Dorothea,” and later ”Ursula”—apparently recognizes their joint destiny before he does.  She follows Ralph on his quest, but remains conveniently far behind him as Ralph has his first adventures, coming in conflict with a pair of towns at war with one another. But the real reason for Ursula’s prolonged absence in this section is that this leaves Ralph free to encounter a “Woman of Experience” paralleling the character of the Mistress seen in WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD.

The new character, known only as “the Lady of Abundance,” has suffered bondage under an evil, older female, just as did the characters of “the Maid” and “Birdalone” from the earlier two Morris novels.  Like the Maid, the Lady of Abundance gains a degree of supernatural wisdom from her association with a tyrannical witch, and as a result of that wisdom the Lady has managed to drink from the Well at World’s End. Ralph never explicitly worries about how old she really is, but even after their lovemaking he does start worrying about how many lovers she’s had before him. But any Freudian repercussions are literally cut short when one of those former lovers, a battle-skilled knight, catches her alone and slays her.  Though this grieves Ralph, for the author it may have been more like exorcising another baleful image of femininity, so that a Woman of Innocence can enter the picture.

Morris does not emulate those authors who preferred women to be distressed damsels, though. Ursula’s courage in joining Ralph on his quest is obvious. In a scene that’s become almost archetypal in fantasy-fiction, Ursula gets naked in a forest to take a swim, and is promptly attacked by a gargantuan bear. Though Ralph does have to come to her rescue, she does attack the beast with a knife rather than waiting to be saved. In addition, one of the many incidental off-to-the-side battles between opposing factions mentions a conflict in which the women of a town don armor and battle male opponents.


 WELL’s most problematic aspect is just this “off-to-the-side” resolution of several conflicts, as if Morris didn’t wish to waste time building to a climax.  Ralph and Ursula are separated when an evil lord—with the amusing name “Gandolf”—kidnaps  Ursula. But not only is Ursula freed from captivity without Ralph’s aid, Gandolf is killed in battle by opponents who are of tangential importance to the story. The fates of the witch who enslaved the Lady and of the murderous knight are also tossed off with no emotional impact. Worst of all, given the novel’s title, one might expect that Ralph and Ursula might have to overcome some obstacle in order to drink from the magical well. But there is no obstacle; they simply drink and then begin making their labyrinthine way back to Upmeads, on their way hearing stories about how their enemies were undone in their absence. At least Ralph does participate in one climactic fight, as he finally decides that one of the two townships he encountered earlier deserves his help, and he aids those townspeople in defeating their hereditary—but not very interesting—enemies.

MORRIS DANCES PT. 2




The most interesting thing about 1895’s THE WATER OF THE WONDROUS ISLES is that, if one does regard Morris’ works as the first in the “imaginary-world tradition,” then WATER is the first such work to focus upon a female protagonist. The central character Birdalone is a clever young innocent like the Maid from WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, and she begins her novel as the Maid does: as a serving-girl to an unnamed sorceress known only as “the Witch-Wife.”  However, though the Witch-Wife also has a sister in sorcery, Birdalone also gains an ally, a mysterious woman named Habundia (“abundance”) conjures up a magical boat with which Birdalone escapes via the ocean to other lands.


However, Birdalone’s first stop takes her to the land ruled by the witch-wife’s  sister, who has under her thrall not one but three maidens: Aurea, Viridis, and Atra, who are “named for the hues of our raiment.” Birdalone makes yet another escape and later encounters a similarly color-coded group of three knights who are lovers to the three damsels, and later, a knight for Birdalone herself. But I quickly became bored with all these minimally characterized figures, who displayed no more depth than mirror reflections—and in a psychological sense, the three sisters are just Birdalone times three, and the three knights are just reflections of her destined lover. In addition to the witches—who, like the one in WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, do very little actual magic-- there’s a hostile Red Knight who fights with some of the goodguy knights, but these conflicts did not increase my involvement. The only interesting aspect of this rather turgid and self-referential fantasy is that Morris gave it the structure of a labyrinth. That is, after Birdalone has used her magical boat to visit various isles, she reaches the narrative “center” of the story and begins to travel back, visiting all the sites she visited before, though some of them have altered by the time of the second visit. Morris would use this narrative strategy again in his best-known and longest fantasy-novel, THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END.

MORRIS DANCES PT. 1




My most recent project has been to re-read the fantasy novels of the Victorian author William Morris, whom the 20th-century fantasy-writer Lin Carter credited with having initiated  “the first great masterpiece of the imaginary-world tradition.” One can certainly quarrel with the criteria Carter chooses to define this tradition, but in essence he has a valid point. Prior to Morris, most fantasy-worlds were depicted as being either the phantasms of dreams, as with Carroll’s two ALICE novels, or as existing in some obscure corner of the normative world, as with the strange lands described in GULLIVER’S TRAVELS or the pseudo-Arabian realms of William Beckford’s VATHEK. For better or worse, Morris gave birth to the archetype of the fantasy-domain not tied to earthly expectations, which would be more fully elaborated by later authors like Dunsany, Lewis and Tolkien.

I didn’t anticipate getting much fun out of my scholarly task. In my first reading of Morris’ fantasies over twenty years ago, I was less than enthralled with his adoption of an extremely archaic style of writing, which sought to emulate the convoluted diction of old medieval romances. However, though during my re-read I still found the archaic style to be distracting, it didn’t impede me from appreciating Morris’ primary theme: the quest for a romantic fulfillment Morris apparently did not experience in his lifetime. Thus his imaginary-world novels—all of which take place in a medieval England that shares no place-names or history with the real country—may be interpreted as what Tolkien calls “fantasies of consolation.” Prior to the fantasies, Morris had also written historical novels after the primary model of Walter Scott. But since the four novel-length fantasies were written consecutively during the author’s last years, the last being finished a few weeks before his death, it’s logical to assume that for Morris the idealization of love dovetailed with the idealization of an enchanted England that never existed in history books.

About two years I had already re-read the first novel, 1894’s THE WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, so this time I only spot-read the novel. It begins with a character named “Golden Walter,” who on the face of things sounds less like a medieval hero than a Walter Scott protagonist, being that Walter is the son of a rich merchant. Further, unlike the many unaligned medieval heroes Walter begins the novel married to a shrewish, unappreciative wife, and he leaves his comfortable town of Langton in order to forget his bad marriage. If the unnamed wife is even disposed of at some point, I may have missed it.

As Walter leaves Langton, he experiences strange visions of three strangers, a woman who apparently holds as slaves a younger woman and a male dwarf. Later he will encounter the two women and the dwarf in the flesh when he crosses the titular “Wood Beyond the World.” None of the three are given proper names, though the women are dubbed “the Maid” and “the Mistress.” One doesn’t need a degree in Jungian psychology to perceive that these are archetypes first and living females second. The Mistress is a sorceress, though one sees little actual sorcery in the novel. Implicitly, since she has the authority of an older, landed woman, she is symbolically a “Woman of Experience,” making her homologous with the shrew Walter leaves behind—and the opposite of the Maid, who is a younger “Woman of Innocence.”  The dwarf-servant may represent the ugliness beneath the Mistress’ surface beauty. In later chapters Walter will see the Mistress being friendly with yet another unnamed fellow, known only as the King’s Son, who is implicitly her lover, but the Mistress also takes a shine to Walter, and becomes jealous when Walter and the Maid fall in love.


There’s no much action, or even forward momentum, in WOOD. Walter eventually kills the dwarf, but he doesn’t have a satisfying arc that fulfills his character at the novel’s end. Rather, by authorial contrivance he just stumbles across a city that chooses to make him their local king. The nameless Maid is a little more interesting: after Walter kills the dwarf the Maid gives him very specific instructions regarding the dead man’s burial so as to avoid occult consequences—meaning that she really is not as innocent as she appears, but shares with the Mistress a feminine grasp of magical matters. She enjoys the novel’s best scene as well. When the Maid suspects that the Mistress plots to come to the Maid’s bed at night and kill her, the clever young woman drugs the King’s Son and hides him in the Maid’s bed, so that the Mistress kills him instead.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #31



I can't exactly claim that the crossover in PRIZE COMICS #24 is any great shakes as a story. However, it enjoys a particular place in American comic-book history, being the first tale in which characters from disparate features team up against a single foe-- one who, in this case, also sported his own feature from that publisher.  Possibly this short tale intended to imitate Timely Comics' historical "book-length" story in which the Human Torch battled the Sub-Mariner, amid guest-shots from other Timely heroes, published in the fall of 1941, or the July 1941 story entitled DAREDEVIL VS. HITLER, aka DAREDEVIL #1. However, in both earlier stories, the individual heroes separately grappled with whatever menace was at hand. They did not truly "team up," as the Prize heroes do in this 8-page tale. The only Golden Age tale comparable would be published five years later, when Solomon Grundy took on the Justice Society-- and even then, only for a few panels does that man-monster fight the whole team, as the Frankenstein Monster does against the Prize superheroes.

Again, it's not a great tale. For one thing, the Monster-- whose series was one of the few Prize-serials that's still celebrated today, thanks to Dick Briefer art-- is a bit too much of a punching-bag for all of the heroes, including two goofy non-superheroes, "the General and the Corporal."

But as far as being the first time a villain found himself beseiged by the stars of several ongoing features, this story seems to take the, uh, "prize."

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #30



The 1920 novel SHE AND ALLAN, as I've mentioned in earlier posts, was one of the earliest examples of a tale in which an author chose to cross over two popular characters, both of whom were the "stars" of their respective shows -- in contrast, say, to Jules Verne providing crossovers between both major and minor characters in THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND.

Rider Haggard created his two seminal characters, Allan Quatermain and She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, within about a year of one another. Not surprisingly, there are a number of similarities of plot and theme between KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1885) and SHE (1886). However, the biggest dissimilarity between the universes of the characters is that Quatermain dwelled in an Africa that some would call "quasi-realistic"-- though I prefer my own term, "uncanny." SHE, however, takes place in an Africa that allows for causality-defying marvels, such as a woman who lives for hundreds of years thanks to a magical flame, and who can wield a sort of preternatural force-- even though Haggard suggests that this may also belong to some form of "science" that men no longer recognize.

Haggard clearly realized the conceptual gulf between the two characters. As a result, the author begins the novel by having the practical-minded Quatermain haunted by the spectres of lost loves. He conceives the desire to know something about the world after death, and a crafty witch-doctor named Zikali chooses to help him do so. Zikali gives Quatermain a magical totem-- albeit one whose power the hero never believes in-- and sends him to find a certain mysterious white queen, who may be able to answer the great white hunter's questions. On the way Haggard picks up Umslopogaas, the huge axe-wielding Zulu warrior who teams up with Quatermain in the 1887 novel ALLAN QUATERMAIN. Since Quatermain perishes in that novel, SHE AND ALLAN is one of many prequels Haggard wrote of his hero's early adventures, as well as the novel that depicts the first meeting of Quatermain and Umslopogaas.

SHE AND ALLAN is a great read. Haggard doesn't stint on the thrills, for when Quatermain's party arrives in the domain of She, the hunter finds himself and his friends drafted in a war with Rezu, a man who has undergone an immortality-transformation parallel to She's own.  A final battle between Umslopogaas and Rezu, both gigantic warriors, reads just as well as it did in 1920. At the same time, Haggard gets some dramatic mileage out of the mental outlooks of She and Quatermain, since the latter cannot place any faith in the marvels he beholds, and must constantly rationalize them out of existence. The queen does deliver on her side of the bargain, granting Quatermain a look at the World Beyond, with bittersweet results.

The novel can't very well surpass the seminal books that introduced these characters, so much-imitated over the years. But it deserves to be better known among readers of great fantasy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #29



I debated about whether or not to give individual entries to Universal's four "monster mashes," which are pretty much sui generis.  I finally decided that although the films just barely keep continuity with one another, they do all use the same basic template, in which a mad scientist-- or, in one case, a vampire controlling a mad scientist-- interacts with at least two monsters, shows preferential treatment for one over the other, and gets undone by the neglected-child monster.

I won't go into great detail here, since I've reviewed all four monster mashes in depth on my film-blog. Links follow:

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)



Sunday, September 7, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #28




I just re-watched, thanks to YouTube, "Who Killed the Jackpot?," the April 1965 episode of BURKE'S LAW in which ABC's version of Honey West premiered. Though it's only been a few days, I found the episode so unmemorable that I've already forgotten the whole plot, aside from the scenes in which the show's titular star, Gene Barry's Amos Burke, encountered Anne Francis' svelte lady sleuth.  The following September, HONEY WEST received her own show, which lasted for one season of 30 episodes.

I never saw BURKE'S LAW back in The Day, but upon watching reruns on a local station, I found it meretricious, even for an escapist cop show about a millionaire police captain. In every episode Amos Burke, who usually juggled two or three girls per episode, sauntered his way through crime-scenes, interviewing assorted suspects who were usually kooks or eccentrics of some sort. Whereas a private-eye show like PETER GUNN had a way of making eccentricity charming, BURKE'S LAW treated oddballs with an air of smarmy condescension.

One good thing about Honey West's guest-shot here is that because her character was being hyped, the show spent less time ridiculing weirdos. As I'm not a big Gene Barry fan, I'm doubtlessly prejudiced in saying that Anne Francis steals every scene she's in, particularly in showing off her mastery of judo-skills.

The HONEY WEST TV series-- which had little in common with the 1950s series of paperback novels-- may well be the best thing that ever resulted from the BURKE'S LAW show.


THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #27



I promise that this will be the last time I spotlight Silver Age Spider-Man.  If I had to choose just one Spidey from this period for my survey, though, I'd drop both of the Ditko choices and stick with this early collaboration between editor-writer Stan Lee and artist John Romita Sr.

Spider-Man had met and battled the Hulk in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #14 (July 1964), over a year after Ditko had contributed the last issue of the INCREDIBLE HULK magazine. However, it's likely that Lee had some plans for launching the second Hulk series in TALES TO ASTONISH, dated October 1964, and that the Hulk appearance's in ASM was meant to keep the character in play. As for the SPIDER-MAN feature, Lee and Ditko remained on the series-- as well as the first two annuals-- until mid-1966, when Ditko took his leave of Marvel.  This forced Stan Lee to find and train John Romita as Ditko's replacement for the monthly book, as well as the next three annuals of the 1960s.

Stan Lee has often been criticized for relegating to his artists a lot of the "heavy lifting" of comic-book storytelling. Even Romita asserted that at times Lee would give him minimal input on future stories, leaving the artist to muddle through as best he could. Many of these accusations may well be true. However, SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #3 is one of the best illustrations of the greatest strength that Lee brought to the table-- the consistency of voice.

The story  is simple. Spider-Man is nominated for membership in the Avengers. The young hero, upon being apprised of this signal honor, debates the matter for a bit, and then decides to accept-- only to find that he has to pass an initiation test: to find and lure the Hulk into the custody of the super-team. Somehow the heroes fail to express their intention to help the confused green giant, and Spidey thinks they simply intend to imprison the Hulk. Thus, in the course of finding and battling the Hulk, Spidey sees the monster transform back into Bruce Banner. Feeling pity for the tormented scientist, the hero simply lets the Hulk go and brushes off the possibility of Avengers membership.

What isn't simple is that each of the characters-- Spidey, the Hulk, and each of the Avengers-- has his own distinctive voice. Hawkeye is a hot-tempered rebel, Iron Man a cautious businessman, Captain America a wise diplomat. Goliath is staid, Thor is portentous and the Wasp is a bit of a shrew. On a side-note, I think it likely that since Romita had only been on the title for a few months, it's almost certainly Lee who remembered a bit of minutiae from a previous encounter between Spider-Man and Wasp: that the heroine nursed an irrational dislike of Spidey because "wasps hate spiders" or some such silliness.

But the issue's high point is Lee's handling of the Hulk. The earliest versions of the character by Lee, Kirby and Ditko focused on the Hulk as perpetually aggressive. However, in the second Hulk series in TALES OF SUSPENSE, Lee and Ditko changed the focus to a more mentally challenged man-monster, and Lee carried that treatment over to other Marvel features. Romita's rendering of the brutish Hulk is one of the better artistic renderings of the character, while Lee's characterization is the linchpin of the story. If the reader doesn't buy that the Hulk is pitiable, then Spider-Man's sacrifice carries no weight.

I might not deem this one of the best Spider-Man stories of the period. But as far as conveying the unique excitement of seeing superheroic characters crossing paths, it's one of the best.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #26



The 1967 BATMAN episode "A Piece of the Action / Batman's Satisfaction" won't go down in history as one of the series' best episodes, though it's also far from being the worst.

Obviously no one who wanted a crossover between Batman of the comics and Green Hornet of the radio show would have found "satisfaction" here: these are producer William Dozier's versions of the respective mythoi. To be sure, though, this story doesn't try to duplicate the relatively "realistic" tone of the GREEN HORNET series, but forces the Hornet and Kato to participate fully in Dozier-Batman's candy-colored effervescence.

Nothing speaks of the difference in tone better than the nature of the villain faced by Batman, the Hornet and their respective sidekicks: the "mad stamp man" Colonel Gumm. Roger C. Carmel has fun chewing the scenery with this character, particularly when he's forced to kowtow to his female boss Pinky Pinkston (Diane McBain). But his master plan is forgettable and his lame death-trap-- planning to convert the Hornet and Kato into life-sized stamps-- looks forward to a lot of the even lamer traps of the BATMAN show's final season.

Clearly the script wants to emphasize the crossover-elements above all else. Naturally, staunch crimefighters Batman and Robin don't know that the Hornet and Kato are merely posing as criminals in order to fight crime in their own way, though at episode's end Batman nurtures some suspicions in that direction.  The first encounter of the two groups is curiously low-key, with Batman refusing to arrest the Hornet for lack of evidence. This may have been done in order to set up the big fight-scene in the second half, which has an added charm in that while the Dynamic Duo are trying to beat down the Hornet, Kato, and Colonel Gumm and his men, the other duo are trying not to injure their goodguy counterparts. It's a better than average fight for the BATMAN show, even if one doesn't know about all the alleged backstage conflicts-- one of which makes Bruce Lee sound like a bit of a jerk.

The continued one-upmanship between Bruce Wayne and his college-buddy Britt Reid is consistently amusing, and for once the female guest lead in the show isn't either a villainess or a henchwoman, but an admittedly eccentric businesswoman.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #25



TARZAN AT THE EARTH'S CORE was, as I mentioned before, a rare attempt by Edgar Rice Burroughs to combine two of his popular concepts; that of his famous ape-man and of his "inner earth" series. However, though it's a significant crossover, it does diverge from the parameters of the latter mythos.

In my essays on the two major film adaptations of Conan Doyle's THE LOST WORLD-- reviewed here and here-- I remarked that "in Doyle's novel the environment of the Lost World is secondary to the lively characters. In both films, the prehistoric plateau is the 'star' of the show."  There's a similar shift in the dynamic between hero and hostile land involved here. Most of the Pellucidar novels focus on some heroic figure struggling against assorted prehistoric perils, so the environment is secondary, as it is in the Doyle novel. But Burroughs wasn't interested in having his ape-man hero interact with any of the heroes of Pellucidar-novels, even though a couple, David Innes and Tanar, are referenced.  Here it is the world of Pellucidar that becomes a palpable opponent to Tarzan, his "greatest challenge" as the paperback-hype above has it.

That's not quite to say that Tarzan alone faces the perils of the hostile land. The Lord of the Jungle joins the quest of a team of dirigible-pilots as they descend into the Earth's Core to rescue David Innes, the legendary emperor who more or less unified Pellucidar. Innes gets left in prison until the very end of the book, because Burroughs' main concern is to play up a subsidiary hero, Jason Gridley. This young American, while secondary to Tarzan, does one thing the married ape-man could not: he meets and romances the "savage girl" typical of most Burroughs fantasies.

In many respects TARZAN AT THE EARTH'S CORE revisits the same basic structure of Burroughs' Caspak novels, in which assorted modern-day explorers have adventures in a primitive world. Jason Gridley's romance with savage Jana is strongly reminiscent of the 1918 tale of Tom Billings as he finds savage love in THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT. Gridley even refuses his savage lover out of social snobbishness just as Billings does, though the earlier novel expresses the dichotomy between savagery and civilization more adeptly.

TARZAN AT THE EARTH'S CORE is a good read, but it really isn't much more than a lot of captures and escapes, punctuating by Tarzan or Jason killing prehistoric beasties. It could have used either a strong villain for readers to dislike, or some "ticking clock" to give the adventures more immediacy. To my knowledge Tarzan doesn't encounter Pellucidar's best villains, the Mahars, until comics artist Russ Manning pitted them against one another in a 1979 comic strip continuity.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #24



I'm writing this on the day after Robin Williams' death, so it seems entirely appropriate to cite here the 1978 HAPPY DAYS episode "My Favorite Orkan," which served as a de facto pilot for the 1978-82 MORK AND MINDY series.

In the episode, the naive alien Mork descends to 1950s Earth with the intent of finding a typically dull specimen of humanity. He first encounters Fonzie, telling the leather-jacketed lothario that he's famous for his lovemaking prowess throughout the galaxy.  Fonzie, though he's far from comfortable with this close encounter, is relatively friendly toward Mork until the alien gets the idea of abducting Fonzie's buddy Richie Cunningham for his specimen. This leads to an epic conflict in which Mork's magical finger is pitted against Fonzie's prodigous ('Eyyyy...) thumbs.

I can't say I was a big fan of HAPPY DAYS or of most Garry Marshall productions, but when I liked DAYS at all, it was largely when it put aside conventional sitcom humor in favor of goofball absurdity-- and even the famed "jumping the shark" episode can't compete with the first Mork episode. According to Wikipedia, the episode originally ended with the claim that Richie dreamed the whole thing; when Mork proved popular with audiences and got fast-tracked into his own series, the episode was edited to reveal that Mork himself had edited Richie's memories of the event. Mork also met Laverne of LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, probably with the intent of further boosting the Orkan's TVQ, even though his own series would be set in the 1970s.

I did like MORK AND MINDY, principally for its strong first season.  But even the show's better episodes are less significant than its role in promoting Robin Williams as one of the premiere comic talents of the latter 20th century.