Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Guest Post | The Ghostbreakers Mythos: A Dream

By GW Thomas

Lovecraft's circle shared mention of their separate creations in the pages of Weird Tales, name-dropping here and there a friend's character or some other reference. This was the beginning of the Cthulhu Mythos. Not everyone at Weird Tales was included; just the closest correspondents of Lovecraft’s. Later, August Derleth would take what was largely a game for HPL and tie it into a commercial package that featured monsters, weird books, and a shared world of dreams and terror. I suspect Manly Wade Wellman tried a little of this magic too.

"The Half-Haunted" (writing as Gans T Field), a Judge Keith Hillary Pursuivant ghostbreaker tale, appeared in Weird Tales in September 1941. This tale was the last for the Judge for several decades because Wellman would create a new ghostbreaker of even greater popularity in John Thunstone. But in this tale, Wellman borrows a page from Lovecraft's literary game. He mentions another Weird Tales alumnist's creation, that of Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin, without doubt the most popular character in WT's original run. In effect, what Wellman was doing was saying that the Judge and de Grandin existed in the same WT universe:
"...New Year's Eve found him at Harrisonville where de Grandin and Towbridge [sic] wanted his word on translating certain old Dutch documents better left untranslated..."
1941 is an interesting date for this to happen. De Grandin had been around since October 1925 while the Judge had first appeared only three years previous in January 1938. Still, the readers of WT liked both and you can see Wellman trying in a small way to create a Weird Tales Mythos like Lovecraft's. Why hadn't he included some actual Mythos?

Wellman did write one Mythos tale, "The Terrible Parchment" (Weird Tales, August 1937), that appeared five months after HPL's death, written as a memorial to the great author. By 1945, the only Mythos works appearing were August Derleth's pastiches. Derleth had taken control of the Lovecraft material, writing to authors such as C Hall Thompson to cease-and-desist. A number of unauthorized pastiches had appeared in Weird Tales by Gardner F Fox and Thompson. Ironically, "The Half-Haunted" appeared in an issue that sported a cover based on one of Derleth's pastiches about Ithaqua: "Beyond the Threshold."

Wellman did it again in "John Thunstone's Inheritance (Weird Tales, July 1944):
She smiled, with a great deal of maddening mystery. "Why not ask your friend the Frenchman -- Jules de Grandin? You and he are very close. Are you surprised to learn that I keep some watch on your movements?"

He answered her questions in order. "I invited de Grandin, but he and Dr. Trowbridge have all they can do in that line just now..."
Seabury Quinn finally returned the favor to Wellman in Weird Tales September 1945 in a non-de Grandin story called "Take Back That Which Thou Gavest." Instead of including Judge Pursuivant or John Thunstone in a story, Quinn pulls the authors into the frame for one. The opener is Quinn and Gans Field walking the streets of New York, looking for somewhere to drink. Quinn mentions that Field has just finished "The Hairy Ones Shall Dance" and is now working on "The Black Drama." (These stories both appeared in Weird Tales in 1938, seven years earlier. Editor Dorothy McIlwraith must have liked this kind of self-referential promotion for she could have easily cut the entire frame as the story does not need it.) The gist of the frame is that Gans sees an odd old man and curses at him in French. Wellman is well-known for his jovial nature and Quinn comments on this. How could a man be so evil that even the pleasant Gans Field should curse him out?

It's possible that Wellman saw a chance to tie other Weird Tales characters outside of the Mythos (maybe giving Derleth a bit of a poke too?), especially if they were ghostbreakers. A Ghostbreaker Mythos. To make this a reality, more writers would have had to be connected. To my knowledge this never happened. Wellman did tie some of his own ghostbreakers together into this shared universe when he wrote the 1982 novel The Hanging Stones, featuring Silver John and Judge Keith Hillary Pursuivent. He did not have John Thunstone and Silver John meet, but the singer with the silver strings did cross paths with John Thunstone's greatest enemies, the Shonokins, in After Dark (1980). So in this way, all three of his famous ghostbreakers do exist in the same universe.

I wish that E Hoffman Price's Peter D'Artois had flourished in Weird Tales, then he could have been tied into the Ghostbreaker Mythos as well. Unfortunately it was the popularity of Jules de Grandin that forced Hoffman to give up the character, since readers kept accusing him of ripping off Seabury Quinn.

Even if Wellman's mention of de Grandin was just a blip on the screen, a mere whim to please a fellow writer, the idea of a Ghostbreaker Mythos is very appealing to one such as I. Imagine Martin Hessellius, Abraham Von Helsing, Flaxman Low, John Silence, Carnacki, and all who followed belonging to a fraternity of ghost chasers! This idea was irresistible and I have used it in my own work. Thank you, Manly Wade Wellman! The Fraternity of Ghostbreakers goes on...

Using friends in stories was also part of the Cthulhu Mythos game. Clark Ashton Smith used Lovecraft as the model for Tomeron in "The Ephiphany of Death" (The Fantasy Fan, July 1934). Robert Bloch portrayed HPL in "The Shambler from the Stars" (Weird Tales, September 1935) and Lovecraft returned the favor in "The Haunter of the Dark" (Weird Tales, December 1936). Frank Belknap Long used a thinly disguised portrait of HPL in "The Space Eaters" (Weird Tales, July 1938). For Quinn to use the same idea in 1945 is not surprising. It's part of the Mythos game.

Perhaps the most interesting of these portrayals was done by August Derleth in 1966 in "The Dark Brotherhood". This posthumous collaboration with Lovecraft is about a man (who is very much like HPL: keeping strange hours, admiring architecture and graveyards) who finds multiple versions of Edgar Allan Poe popping up. In this way, HPL and Poe get to share a story together just as Derleth and HPL penned the story together.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Countdown to Halloween 2017



So next week is October and as usual I'll be counting down to Halloween all month long.

I'm going to do it differently this year, though. Instead of picking a monster or spooky subject to explore for the month, I'm just going to follow my bliss and talk about movies. Each day I'll have one or two posts about different horror movies from various time periods: starting with the silent era and working my way up to this year.

Because of that, there won't be any 7 Days in May posts for the month (or this week), but I'm planning to resume that in November.

Happy Halloween!


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Greystoked | The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935)



Noel and I are joined by guest Melissa Kaercher (A Reel EducationThe Sound and the Foley) to discuss Edgar Rice Burroughs' sole attempt at financing a Tarzan serial himself (with co-producer/actor Ashton Dearholt). We talk about the extremely troubled production, from its poor planning and even poorer sound to its Mayan space queens and wife-swapping producers. Was anything good able to come of the mess? Tune in and find out!




Friday, September 22, 2017

Guest Post | The Comet Doom: SF's Second Chance

By GW Thomas

There really isn't any way to predict if an author will one day become important to you. A perfect example of this is Edmond Hamilton. When I was kid in the 1970s, collecting paperbacks at an alarming rate, I had piles of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard books. Lin Carter as well. Now I think back to how much of that was because I was a super fan of these writers and how much was because that's what was being printed at the time. It's a combination, no doubt. I had no source of steady income, so I spent my quarters and dollars frugally. This might have been a third factor.

The only paperback I had by Edmond Hamilton was a copy of Lancer's The Valley of Creation (1967). This was the red reprint version with a swordswoman riding a black horse alongside her pet hawk and tiger. In the background, armed space marines watch her ride by. (I'm pretty sure the cover art was by Gray Morrow.) The blurb says, "In the Tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs." Another edition uses the words: "Sword and Sorcery." Those Lancer people really wanted me to buy this book. Because usually that's all it would have taken. I did buy it or acquired it second-hand. I never read it back then.

Why? Because it's neither in the tradition of ERB nor sword-and-sorcery. In fact, it was in the tradition of A Merritt's Dwellers in the Mirage. None of which I knew back then. I had no idea it had been published in Startling Stories, July 1948. But I never read it because I didn't know who Edmond Hamilton was. I was pretty limited in my pool of reading material. But we grow up. And we learn better.

Edmond Hamilton has since become special to me. The Burroughs and Howard have become so familiar over the last forty years that I dip into them only occasionally. My interest in Lin Carter has become mostly academic. But Edmond Hamilton is a rich vein that I continually explore. Sure, not every story is a masterpiece. He wrote over 200 of them. Yes, he did write Superman and Justice League comics (and I enjoy these too). But Hamilton is never dull. He always knew how to take an idea and make it a story. And when he's brilliant (such as in "Day of Judgment" or "He That Hath Wings"), then he is unstoppable. Hamilton is unbridled imagination. He deserves so much more than "in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs." The name Edmond Hamilton is a magic all its own.

A story that possessed such a magic was "The Comet Doom" (Amazing Stories, January 1928). This early story contains the original idea of placing a human brain inside a machine, a standard trope of science fiction since. It may have even inspired the idea of Neil R Jones' Zoromes, mechanical men with organic brains that became one of SF's longest running series. It may have inspired Lovecraft's evil Yuggothians, who steal human brains to run their technology on Pluto in "The Whisperer in Darkness" (written in 1930). Keith Laumer would use the idea in the 1950s and '60s for his super tanks known as Bolos. The BBC would use the idea for their cyber-men on Doctor Who starting in 1963. And on it goes...

The story begins with a lengthy (far too lengthy by modern standards) build-up with a comet coming closer to Earth. It is supposed to miss the Earth, but the planet is inexplicably drawn into a collision course. Hamilton's knowledge of comets is quite dated, as they are thought to be vaporous only and as ethereal as the Northern Lights. This comet, of course, in true Wellsian style, proves to be a vehicle bringing space invaders. The comet folk are robotic bodies run by alien brains. The relentless machine men are building a device that will neutralize the sun's gravity on the earth, allowing the comet to snag and claim the planet for its uranium; killing all life in the process.

Two men, Coburn and Hanley, are held captive and Hanley joins the invaders, having his brain placed in a robot. Coburn escapes and joins forces with the narrator, Marlin. Despite the slow beginning, the story fires up as the desperate hour approaches. Marlin has one last ditch chance to destroy the gravity machine, but fails. In the end, it is the converted human-robot Hanley who does the deed and saves the world. The invaders are drawn away from Earth by the comet and are powerless to take over. The finale involves self-sacrifice on Hanley's part as he is destroyed by ruining the machine. He will be an unknown hero of the human race.

It is easy to under-play how inspirational this story was. Cyborgs have become such a part of science fiction that we don't often think when did they begin? And this seems to be the pattern with Hamilton. He was an innovator, but his work tended to be ignored after the fact, partly because of where it was published (Weird Tales, quite often) and partly because SF moved so fast in the old days, with ideas sparking off single stories to be absorbed by SF as a whole. This is a fate Hamilton shared with Raymond Z Gallun, another innovator who is barely remembered. This may explain a little more why Edmond Hamilton took a while to find a home in my library.

Hamilton did get a chance to revisit this story idea when he wrote "The Comet Doom" for DC's Mystery in Space #2 (June-July 1951). In this ten-page comic story there are no robots. Set in 1986, the next year that Halley's Comet would appear, Hamilton gives his future vision. This, of course, is hilarious for anyone who was around in the '80s and remembers how it really went. Hamilton's version has rocket-planes that travel from LA to New York in an hour and are commonly used instead of cars. There is tele-news on some new-fangled thing called a television. With the comet's passing, the earth begins to follow Halley's Comet in space. A group of scientists go to the North Pole to cut the tether that attaches the comet magnetically to Earth. They are sucked into the beam and land on the comet where they discover a solid planetoid and air and a city and the weird comet-folk who are floating globes. The lead scientist, Dr Stanton, talks with the aliens and his friends think he has betrayed them. The scientists rush the control panel, knocking Stanton over and fatally wounding him. Before he dies, he explains that the comet-folk wanted to move the planet because of deadly sunspot activity. The world is saved, but Stanton dies, Earth's greatest hero. Many of the elements are the same but inverted in this second version. In his second career as a comic-book writer, Hamilton again innovated in the pages of DC comics.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Dragonfly Ripple | Britain and Rocky



After Carlin and I share some thoughts about kids and social media, Carlin talks to David about the trip we recently took to England and Scotland and all of the pop culture locations we visited. I discuss the Rocky movies with Annaliese and then the whole crew picks our dream houses from movies and TV. And in a very special Jetpack Tiger, Carlin takes another stab at introducing Dash to Star Trek (specifically The Next Generation). Did it finally take? Tune in and see!



Monday, September 18, 2017

7 Days in May | Big Golden Child in Little China

Brimstone (2016)



I'm gonna mention this on an upcoming Hellbent for Letterbox, but even then I'm not gonna say too much out of fear of spoilers. I watched this only knowing the IMDb summary and that was a pretty great way to go into it: "From the moment the new reverend climbs the pulpit, Liz knows she and her family are in great danger."

Learning why Liz is afraid pulled me into the movie, but what kept me there were the powerful performances, the gorgeous cinematography, and the intriguing, non-linear way that the story unfolds. It's a dark, disturbing tale, but it's so engrossing.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of specific moments as the film's wrapping up that I just couldn't stick with. Just quick things, but they were unbelievable enough that they ungrounded a movie that was otherwise all too real and scary.

Rogue One (2016)



This was the last of my rewatches of favorite 2016 movies.

I liked it quite a bit the first time, but I'm enjoying Rogue One more every time I watch it. This time it got me interested in watching it in context of the entire Star Wars series, so I'll probably try to do that before Last Jedi comes out.

The Golden Child (1986)



One of my favorite Eddie Murphy movies. A fun fantasy-adventure story with a hilarious and cool hero, an awesome villain (Charles Dance), and tons of memorable lines. And I'm still in love with Charlotte Lewis.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)



Rewatching The Golden Child got me wanting to see Big Trouble in Little China again, mostly because of the shared actors. I'd never made the connection (not even in 1986) how similar they are and certainly didn't know that Big Trouble in Little China rushed production to beat Golden Child to the theaters.

I still think that the similarities are superficial and I'm a fan of both. Big Trouble in Little China takes more chances though and is a crazier, more fun experience for it. It's hard to tell if the movie knows how awful its dialogue is and is in on the joke, but I like to read it that way. It's certainly aware of its tropes, because it's playing with them and turning some of them upside down. I was afraid this wouldn't hold up, but it totally does.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)



I really wanted to like this because of how much I love all three of its main stars, but unfortunately it was another reminder that I really don't like screwball comedies that aren't What's Up, Doc?. This one almost entertains me (it certainly has its moments), but...

Look, any complaints I make are going to be about things that are specifically related to the genre. It would be like complaining about a horror movie because it's too scary. You would be perfectly justified telling me to just avoid the genre in the future. And one of these days, I'll remember to follow that advice.

Lured (1947)



A brilliant thriller. I love I Love Lucy, but I love Lucille Ball in these early, serious roles (see also: Five Came Back) even more.

In this one, Ball plays a dancer whose best friend goes missing, most likely as the victim of a serial killer. When Ball contacts the police, she's offered an undercover job. The killer lures his victims through personal ads in the paper, so the cops send Ball out to answer various ads and see if they can sniff out the murderer.

What I like is that not every ad leads to the murderer (of course), but that they're all interesting. It becomes almost an anthology, with Ball involved in multiple stories and situations. Boris Karloff plays one ad-placer (not telling if he's involved in the larger case or not) and George Sanders is a nightclub owner whom Ball would love to work for once the case is solved. The rest of the cast is great, too, especially Charles Coburn, Cedric Hardwicke, and George Zucco. And Alan Napier (Alfred to Adam West's Batman) has a small part as one of the police detectives.

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947)



I didn't care for the one Dick Tracy serial I saw starring Ralph Byrd, but so far his feature movies are great. In this one, Boris Karloff plays the title villain who takes over a gang of bank robbers that uses freeze gas to commit crimes. Karloff feels dangerous, Byrd is charming, and Anne Gwynne's Tess Trueheart is resourceful and helpful to the case. There's actual mystery-solving and some cool twists. I'll be seeking out more of these.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Guest Post | DC Flirts with Sword-and-Sorcery, Part Two: Horror Anthologies

By GW Thomas

Nightmaster failed to become DC's first sword-and-sorcery title, but DC kept trying in the horror magazines. “The Eyes of the Basilisk” (The House of Mystery #184, January-February 1970) was written by E Nelson Bridwell and drawn by Gil Kane and Wally Wood. The plot has the country of Karinek invaded by the deadly serpent. The king offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who can slay the basilisk. Many try, but fail. Two brothers, Ursus and Ulfar, go to defeat the monster using a polished shield. Ursus doesn’t look into the basilisk’s eyes, but in the shield. The terrible gaze freezes him and the serpent kills him. Ulfar goes to avenge his brother, lifting the shield and reflecting the monster’s gaze into its own face. The basilisk turns itself to stone and Ulfar becomes king. It is only at the end that we find out Ulfar is blind.

Kane and Wood’s presence here is significant. Wally Wood was the artist responsible for “Clawfang the Barbarian” (Unearthly Spectaculars #2, December 1965) five years earlier and he had drawn several pieces for his own fanzine, Witzend. He would go on to do both Hercules Unbound (1975) and Stalker (1975) for DC. Gil Kane would draw many sword-and-sorcery pieces, some based on Robert E Howard’s stories for Marvel in the pages of Savage Sword of Conan and Conan the Barbarian. Perhaps his best of all of them was his adaptation of “The Valley of the Worm” in Supernatural Thrillers #3 (April 1973).

DC’s next ploy to test the waters was to reprint three of Joe Kubert’s Viking Prince stories from the pages of The Brave and the Bold from 1955, in DC Special #12 (May-June 1971). More Viking Prince episodes would be used to fill out the backs of DC Special #22-25. These giant-sized magazines featured new stories about the Three Musketeers and old Robin Hood reprints.

Gil Kane tried again with “Sword of the Dead” in Adventure Comics #425 (December 1972). This time Kane wrote and drew the six-pager. The story concerns two warriors. The first is Evlig, a merciless killer who murders the family of the second warrior: John of Gaunt, a retired knight turned farmer. John suits up and finds Evlig. The two square off with lances, sending John to the ground. Evlig tries to finish him off, but John rises up and slays him. Only after Evlig is dead does John see his own slain body. His righteousness was so powerful, his spirit accomplished what his body could not. A few things come to mind about this tale. One: the villain’s name is so obviously a form of the word Evil, while John of Gaunt was an actual historical person. The idea of the dead who kills reminds me of Robert E Howard’s “The Man on the Ground” (Weird Tales, July 1933) where a Texas feuder also sees his dead body after a fight. Kane was a fan of Howard, so this isn’t surprising.

This was followed by DC's first sword-and-sorcery title launch: Fritz Leiber’s two best thieves in Lankhmar, in Sword of Sorcery (March-April to November-December 1973). Before the five-issue run, drawn largely by Howard Chaykin (another artist linked to the feel and look of sword-and-sorcery with his work for Marvel), Fafhrd and Grey Mouser first appeared in Wonder Woman #202 (September-October 1972) in an introductory episode that did little but pit them against Diana Prince. This tale was written by science fiction master, Samuel R Delany and drawn by Dick Giordano. Sword of Sorcery failed after only a few issues, as would titles like Stalker, Beowulf, Dragonslayer, and Claw the Unconquered. Success was to be found in the science fiction-tinged The Warlord by Mike Grell, running for 133 issues with new material up to 2008. You would think after all this trying, DC would have ended the sword-and-sorcery appearances in their horror titles, but this was not so.

“The Survivor” in Weird War Tales #15 (July 1973) was written by Jack Oleck and drawn by Gerry Talaoc. Oleck was a mainstay of the DC horror titles, and not surprisingly, he wrote more of the stories featured here than anyone else. Here is the first of two about Vikings. Lars Ironhand and his crew are stranded on a weird island where the monsters of Throna the Witch attack them. Defeating all her minions, Throna leads them to water. Drinking the liquid causes the Vikings to grow small in body but large in head. Lars, the last survivor, writes a warning to anyone else who might end up on the island and be changed by the water. By the time he finishes, he has changed into a monkey.

“King of the Ring” from Plop #23 (September-October 1976) is an unusual outlier that has to be mentioned. Written and drawn by Wally Wood, the strip is one of the first comic parodies of The Lord of the Rings in the manner of Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings. While not sword-and-sorcery exactly, the funny piece packs many of the highlights and characters of Tolkien’s masterpiece into only six pages. Woody uses silly variations such as Gondeaf for Gandalf and Snyder for Rider, etc. He has a crew of dwarves with names like Slappy, Droopy, Sleazy, Groucho, Harpo, Snoopy, and Shlepo. There is an incognito king who announces he is incognito, the frog-like Glum who wants his “sweetums,” Nazighuls, norks, Schlob, and the ring finally gets destroyed when Frodo shoves Glum over the edge. Wood ends it with the ring flying out of Mount Doom to Gondeaf’s hand. The wizard decides to keep the ring and be evil. Drawn with Wood’s best Mad Magazine-meets-The King of the World style, it is a classic parody.

“Valley of the Giants” was written by Jack Oleck with art by Jess Jodloman for Secrets of the Haunted House #6 (June-July 1977). Jodloman drew King Kull for Marvel’s Kull and the Barbarians (1973) and this experience serves him well in this tale of Vikings. Oleck has a ruthless band of Vikings - lead by Rurik - raid the English coast where an old witch prophesies that Rurik and his men would die by giants. A storm drives them to the African coast. There they attack and capture an Arab ship. One of the Arabs tell them of a fabulous treasure in a valley of giants. The Vikings kill all the Arabs to protect their ship and then press on into the jungle. Pygmies attack them with poisoned arrows. Rurik and his men die fighting the pygmies, but before they die Rurik laughs, knowing the giants of the prophecy are not their opponents but themselves.

“Bruce the Barbarian” in Unexpected #205 (December 1980) was written by JM Dematteis with art by Vic Catan. Bruce E Platt is an unpopular disc jockey who uses the occult to create a fantasy world in which he is a heroic barbarian. This alternate reality becomes so real that when his former girlfriend, Cornelia, comes to his apartment, he kills her by accident. When the cops come to arrest him, they find Bruce being tormented for eternity in a very real hell. This type of story, the fantasy fan as escapist-loser is one of my least favorite tropes, being the shallow reaction of non-fantasy fans: whether it is Harlan Ellison’s “Delusion For a Dragonslayer” (1966) or the anti-LARPing film, Mazes and Monsters starring a young Tom Hanks (1982). Dematteis would pen the final issues of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, so I suspect he’s not an anti-fantasy fan.

“Troll Bridge” in Unexpected #220 (March 1982) was written by Gary Cohn; art by Paris Cullins and Gary Martin. This tongue-in-cheek tale of a troll who works his way up to larger and larger bridges ends when he is tricked into wearing a magic cloak by the wizard Wendik the Trollsbane. The cloak sends him to another dimension where he finds a new home under the Brooklyn Bridge. This goofy tale appeals to me with its cartoony style that reminds me a little of Shrek and by not taking itself too seriously.

“No Penny, No Paradise” in Unexpected #222 (May 1982) was written by Robert Kanigher of Wonder Woman fame (as well as SF titles like Metal Men) and had art by Keith Giffin and Larry Mahlstedt. Not really a hardcore sword-and-sorcery tale, the plot follows Alexander the Great as he conquers Asia. Before his death, he reminds Philo to place a penny on his tongue. When Alexander arrives at the River Styx, Charon refuses him entrance into heaven because he has no penny. Alexander goes back to haunt Philo. The thief defeats him by placing a penny in his own mouth before dying. Alexander is powerless to stop Philo from crossing the Styx while he is damned forever. Giffin got his start with the later issues of Claw the Unconquered. Unfortunately he did not ink his own work. Malhlstedt’s inking lacks the weird flavor of Claw. The cover art was provided by Ernie Colon, the artist who created Arak, Son of Thunder with Roy Thomas.

With that final issue, DC Comics said goodbye to short sword-and-sorcery, but not all heroic fantasy. In 1982, the company had the unpopular Arak, Son of Thunder, Arion, Lord of Atlantis, Masters of the Universe tie-ins, The Warlord (no longer with Grell), The Atlantis Chronicles by Esteban Maroto, and the on-again-off-again Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld. By 1988 though, the ranks of DC would not include sword-and-sorcery. In fact, by the 1990s, only old cornerstones such as Conan, Elfquest, Masters of the Universe, and television fare such as Xena, Warrior Princess would be in evidence. The 1990s would not be kind to sword-and-sorcery. DC Comics, like everyone else, had tested the waters, but ultimately gone back to superheroes.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Monday, September 11, 2017

7 Days in May | A Monster Calls and Holmes vs Ripper

A Monster Calls (2016)



Heartbreaking and thought-provoking. It's easy to understand what the characters are going through, but there are depths to the way the film tells the story that I haven't fully worked through. Lots of symbolism and since the movie is about the complex emotions of grieving, it invites me to dive into those and that takes some processing.

Lovely performances, too, especially by Lewis MacDougall and Sigourney Weaver. And Toby Kebbell's likable, but complicated role makes me even more impressed that he's also Koba in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)



Diane and David hadn't seen this and wanted to. My opinion on it hasn't really changed from the first time I saw it. I don't care much about the US Wizarding World and the plot of Fantastic Beasts is pretty light. I'm bored for most of the movie, but by the end I find that I really like the characters played by Eddie Redmayne, Dan Fogler, and Alison Sudal. It's not a great movie, but I'd be willing to give a sequel a look just to spend more time with those three.

Murder by Decree (1979)



We came back from Britain with a list of movies to watch. One of which had to be Sherlock Holmes trying to catch Jack the Ripper. Christopher Plummer looks the part of Holmes (though with poofier hair than I'm used to), but he's more emotional than Holmes should be. That's fitting for the seriousness of the real-world case he's trying to solve, but it doesn't feel like a real Holmes story. And it doesn't help that most of the clues are handed to Holmes by informers rather than his solving the case through observation and deduction as he should.

James Mason is a wonderful Watson, though, and it's always nice to see young Donald Sutherland, even when his role doesn't actually contribute anything to the story. And I like the theory about the Ripper's identity. This isn't the only time I've seen that particular theory put forth, but the other times are all in things that came out after this one.

The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)



Another '80s movie to show David. I don't know that we'd call it politically correct by today's standards, but it's so kindhearted that it's impossible for me to pick at it. Very funny.

The Hustler (1961)



Watched this in order to also watch The Color of Money. I've only ever seen it once before and had forgotten almost everything about it. So, like the first time, I went into it expecting it to be Rocky with pool and was shocked by how it so not about pool or even winning. At least, not about winning pool. It's about how we define winning at life and what we're willing to sacrifice to do it. Very powerful with great performances by an all-star cast.

The Color of Money (1986)



Like The Hustler, it's easy to go into The Color of Money with the wrong idea of what it is, but it's a mistake to approach it as Top Gun with pool. It's not about Vincent's (Tom Cruise) rise to dominance in the game; in fact, despite Cruise's being a major star already in 1986, Vincent isn't even the main character. Appropriately, that's still Fast Eddie (Paul Newman). Vincent is just the catalyst that sparks the change Eddie's going to go through.

There's a lot to like about The Color of Money. The way it shoots the movement of the balls is amazing and beautiful. Everyone's doing a great job acting (special shout out to Forest Whitaker in a small, but vital role). And it's a good, emotionally satisfying story. But I don't like it as much as The Hustler, because it doesn't play fair with Eddie.

The Hustler is about Eddie's redefining his life goals thanks to the tension provided by his relationships with Sarah (Piper Laurie) and Bert (George C Scott). Because of how that movie ended, Eddie can't really play pool for cash anymore, but Money reveals that he's managed to stay connected by staking other players in games (taking a percentage of their winnings).

That's all cool, but the disappointing bit is that he seems to have unlearned the dearly bought lesson of The Hustler and has basically become Bert. Through his experiences backing Vincent, he relearns what's really important to him, but I hate stories that reset the main character and have them undergo the same journey again (see also: Captain Kirk in Star Trek Into Darkness and the entire series of House).

Money is just different enough that it doesn't feel like a total cheat, but I feel like we're missing the middle part of a trilogy. Still, it's an expertly made movie and it feels right at the end.

Double or Nothing (1937)



A minor Bing Crosby movie in which he and some other characters compete for the inheritance of an eccentric millionaire. They're each given $5000 and the first one to double it gets the whole shebang. Of course, the millionaire's family are there to work against them. It's a cookie-cutter plot, mostly there to hang musical numbers on since the various money-making schemes usually involve singing and dancing. And there's an unconvincing romance between Crosby and the dead millionaire's niece. But I very much enjoyed the end and the specific way in which Crosby outwits his opponents.

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937)



Pretty good mystery in which Drummond has to solve a series of puzzles in order to find his kidnapped girlfriend. The puzzles go on a little longer than I'd like, but they're mostly good ones and I've grown fond of these characters the more Drummond films I watch.

Heidi (1937)



Shirley Temple is always awesome and this is a classic that I've never seen, so I decided to finally fix that on the film's 80th anniversary. I get why people have liked it: it's Shirley Temple doing what she do, but in a series of fantastic settings. It's mostly an infuriating movie though where everyone acts either stupidly or despicably to keep the story moving. If I want to see Shirley Temple charm old curmudgeons (and I do!), I'd rather re-watch Bright Eyes or Captain January.

The Shadow Strikes (1937)



My first Shadow movie. Really my first Shadow story in any medium, but I'm familiar enough with the character to know that this isn't a faithful version. And it's kind of ridiculous.

The Shadow is stopping a robbery in a lawyer's office when the police show up. Rather than getting caught as the Shadow, he changes back to his civvies and claims to be the lawyer. But while he's doing that, he gets a call to come change the will of a millionaire. It's a case of mistaken identity that leads to a murder investigation when of course the millionaire winds up dead. There are billion chances for the Shadow to remove himself from the situation, but he never takes them. He's too interested in the tomfoolery, the mystery, and the millionaire's daughter. Lamont Granston (sic) is a pudgy, swashbuckling playboy with a pencil mustache in this version. If you're willing to forgive all that though, it's kind of fun.

Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937)



In the '30s, all the major horror stars liked to put on yellow face and play Asian crime-fighters. Why should Warner Oland have all the fun? Boris Karloff famously played Fu Manchu, but he was also detective Mr Wong in a series of five films. And I thought I remembered Bela Lugosi's doing it, but I must have been thinking of his playing a villain who was also named Mr. Wong in The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934). Peter Lorre got into the action with the Mr. Moto series.

Acknowledging the problems of these movies (Brian Camp has a terrific essay covering the trend), the Mr. Moto series is my favorite of them. I wish that he could have been played by an actual Japanese person, but the character is cool and complex. I love the kindly, humble, and whip-smart Charlie Chan, but Moto is deviously cunning and even long after I've figured out how he operates, he manages to surprise me with his loose morality and shady tactics. He's endlessly fascinating.

In Thank You, Mr. Moto, he's on the trail of a series of maps that lead to lost treasure, so there's an Indiana Jones quality to it, too.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Guest Post | DC Flirts with Sword-and-Sorcery, Part One: Nightmaster

By GW Thomas

Sword-and-sorcery comics have become a thing in their own right. Titles like Conan the Barbarian, The Warlord, and Red Sonja have been successful franchises spanning hundreds of issues. But back in the late 1960s, while Lancer was virtually coining their own money with the purple-edged Howard paperbacks, the response in comics was slow. Heroic Fantasy had yet to find a foothold in mainstream comics. Artists like Wally Wood and Gray Morrow experimented first in fanzines then later in the black-and-whites pages of the Warren horror magazines. Slowly, the big boys took notice. DC beat Marvel to the punch, but their first attempts gained little notice. By 1970, with the swelling success of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, DC had to take a second look at this new thing, this “Conan stuff” that was part fantasy and part horror.

That first attempt at sword-and-sorcery was to be found in their horror titles. (If it hadn’t sunk the Warren magazines, why not?) “In a Far Off Land” in The Witching Hour #3 (June-July 1968) was written by Steven Skeates and drawn by Bernie Wrightson. The plot follows a man of Earth who is drawn into a fantasy world by magic. The wizard who has summoned him has also locked away his memory. Charged with defeating the barbarian invaders, armed with a magic sword, he prevails by killing the evil Lafhards and winning the girl. When his memory is restored, the man finds he is a murderer who rests in a prison cell. He is given the choice of staying in the fantastic realm or return to Earth. He chooses (rather stupidly) to return and pay for his crime. Skeates would go on to write other sword-and-sorcery stories for Warren’s Creepy and Eerie. Wrightson would achieve fame as the artist behind such horror titles as Swamp Thing, but during this time he produced more sword-and-sorcery for DC and Marvel.

“In a Far off Land” set the pattern for a longer version of this test entitled Nightmaster, using the same man-from-our-world goes to a fantasy realm (what we now call portal fantasy) and has poorly hidden jokes in the names. The three-parter (each bearing a Joe Kubert cover), beginning with DC Showcase #82 (May 1969), was written by Denny O’Neil, a writer who had penned Charlton’s Adventures of the Man-God Hercules under the pseudonym Sergius O'Shaugnessy. This first issue was illustrated by Jerry Grandenetti and Dick Giordano. Grandenetti had drawn several sword-and-sorcery pieces for Warren. The first issue tells how rock musician Jim Rook transcends dimensions to Myrra, a land of fantastic creatures. He meets King Zolto, who relates how Rook is the descendant of Nacht (German for "night"), a hero sent to our dimension by the wizard Farben. Zolto arms Rook with the Sword of Night and sends him to defeat the Warlocks who hold his fiancee, Janet Jones (long before Gretzky). Rook’s assistant is a strange boy named Boz (the character is entirely white and never really explained). Before Rook (now titled Nightmaster and given a rather superhero-looking costume) can defeat the Warlocks, he has to pass through a magical gate. To do this he needs the three magic words from the Ice Witch. The duo ride giant grasshoppers to her mountain and scale the steep walls while Warlock troopers throw icicles at them, but finally defeat the witch after she assumes Janet’s appearance. End of Part One.

In an editorial at the end of the issue, O’Neil lays out his background and mission in “Take That, You Hideous Magician, You! Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Swordplay.” He mentions the big guys: Burroughs, Howard, Leiber, Tolkien, and Moorcock; claiming their inspiration for all the people involved in the comic. “We wondered why nobody was publishing a sword-and-sorcery comic magazine. It seems to us that the comics medium is perfectly suited to sword-and-sorcery’s blend of action, grotesque beings, eerie places. Yet the few attempts in the past to embody sword-and-sorcery in panel art have been dismal failures. Readers left them languishing like ugly kittens. Perhaps these earlier attempts were badly done (and perhaps they weren’t). More probably, potential fans simply hadn’t discovered the special joys the pages offered.” In 1969, this statement is true. Nobody was publishing a real sword-and-sorcery title. O’Neil hints at his stint “at another company” on Hercules and perhaps means himself when he means under-appreciated.

According to Like a Bat Out of Hell: Chatting with Bernie Wrightson (Summer 1999), Wrightson was supposed to draw all three issues, but he was pulled when the first seven pages proved unsatisfactory. Grandenetti was working with O’Neil on The Spectre and was called in to start things off. Wrightson did complete the last two segments. With issue #83 (June 1969) and #84 (August 1969), Wrightson inherited Grandenetti’s rather un-Conan-looking hero and a new companion is almost immediately added: Tark. This ram-horned Szaszian barbarian is much closer to what fans expect of sword-and-sorcery. His real name is Tickytarkapolis Trootrust, but Nightmaster dubs him simply Tark (thank goodness). The trio becomes a group of five when the heroes rescue two sirens who have had their voices stolen by the Warlocks. Breaking into Lord Spearo’s castle, they fight empty suits of armor called Hackies and rescue the sirens’ voices. Using the magic of the sirens, they defeat the present Warlocks, but still have to stop the Warlocks’ plan to cross dimensions and conquer our world. End of Part Two.

The finale has the Warlocks sending giant spiders to kill the heroes on strands of smoke. Spearo and the Warlock Lord (this predates Terry Brooks’character of the same name in The Sword of Shannara by eight years) set a trap for the Nightmaster. They take Janet Jones, change her appearance, and erase her mind. She is turned into Mizzi the Maid, guest-drawn by Jeff Jones (you can recognize his style) in a cutie-pie fashion. Rook and his crew recruit the grumpy wizard Mar-Grouch to help the heroes and retrieve Janet magically. Rook is disappointed when it is Mizzi who is rescued. Now a member of the group, Mizzi tries and tries again to kill Rook, first by stabbing him, then by putting yellow crystals in his flying gear. Green crystals would have worked fine, but the yellow attract the deadly Arivegs, giant man-eating flying plants. They defeat the Arivegs and corner the conspiring Lord Spearo and Warlock Lord. The magician puts them to sleep with a spell and the heroes are captured. Mizzi frees the heroes, but not before the Warlock Lord turns her back into Janet. Using a portal that looks like a big ink blot, the Warlocks cross over to our dimension to begin their conquest. Rook forces them back into Myrra then destroys the portal. He and Janet are standing on the street, wondering if it was all a dream, but the glowing sword in his hand says otherwise.

The writing style of Nightmaster is forcibly scarred by dated language. Rather than having Rook talk in normal phrases he replies in slangy earth references. This constant jarring makes the story a bit of a lark in the Harold Shea vein rather than serious sword-and-sorcery. Perhaps unwisely, Nightmaster was portal fantasy while Conan and Tolkien are not. In the art department, Wrightson got help from two other sword-and-sorcery artists, Jeff Jones and Mike Kaluta. These three, along with sword-and-sorcery superstar Barry Windsor Smith, formed an artists’ commune in 1975 known as The Studio. In this way, with Smith at Marvel and the other three working on Nightmaster, all four contributed to early sword-and-sorcery comics.

DC Comics tried to gain a foothold in the world of sword-and-sorcery comics with DC Showcase’s Nightmaster, but it failed. What would have followed a successful run of Nightmaster can only be guessed. Would the comic have become a superhero comic set in our world or would Jim and Janet have gone back to the realm of Myrra? We will never know what Denny O’Neil would have done if the comic was a hit, but we can be pretty sure what others would do. In 2005, fans of the old series created Shadowpact, a collection of old characters who fight in a superhero group. This superheroing seemed inevitable from how O’Neil finished the tale. Working out of the Oblivion Bar, now owned by Jim Rook. 2011 saw writer Adam Beecham and artist Kieron Dwyer give us Nightmaster: Monsters of Rock, in which Rook does go back to Myrra to fight Lord Meh and rescue the Shadowpact superhero group. His companion is an elderly hippie. Berni Wrightson did a great cover for the last entry.

Next time, DC tries again...

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

'Casting Off | King Kong (1933)



David and I discuss the original, Merian C Cooper classic and how it holds up today. There are comparisons to Peter Jackson's 2005 version and big questions about Carl Denham's fascination with Beauty and the Beast.



Wednesday, September 06, 2017

While I Was Out: N3rd World and Nerds United



I was on a couple of different podcasts that came out while I was in Britain. First was the latest episode of N3rd World where we talked about James Bond (including this post about expanding the Bond Movie Universe), role-playing games, remaking classic monster movies, and Star Trek, among other things.



And I was also on an episode of Nerds United to talk about Kill All Monsters, my current feelings about Marvel Comics, and whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie. That was a fun conversation, so many thanks to Greg Mehochko for having me on.

Monday, September 04, 2017

7 Days in May | Arthur and Austen

King Arthur (2004)



This post is about stuff that we watched the week before our Britain trip. Didn't watch any movies while we were traveling.

One of the things I wanted to see in England was Hadrian's Wall, so what better way to celebrate and learn about it than the totally historically accurate King Arthur?

I kid because I love. Not many people like this version of the King Arthur story, but it's probably my favorite. It's a cool idea to set it during the Roman occupation of Britain with Arthur being a Roman officer and his knights are indentured soldiers from the conquered region of Sarmatia. They protect Roman interests in Britannia by manning Hadrian's Wall against the Celtic Woads. Merlin is a Woad and so is Guinevere.

Calling it "the untold true story" is ridiculous, but the movie is clever and fun and the cast is awesome. Clive Owen plays Arthur, Ioan Gruffudd is Lancelot, and two of my personal favorites - Keira Knightley and Mads Mikkelsen - play Guinevere and Tristan. Guinevere kicks so much ass and Tristan is basically every fantasy RPG character I've ever created. There are tons of other great actors in it, too; more than I want to list.

On top of all that are some great set pieces and a thoughtful, touching exploration of loyalty and duty.

Northanger Abbey (2007)



We didn't get as many Britain Trip movies watched as we wanted to, but since one of our stops was Bath, we wanted to sneak in at least a Jane Austen. Austen spent time in Bath (though she didn't actually like the town much) and used it as a location in a couple of her novels. Northanger Abbey is one of those and since it's a commentary on gothic romances - a genre our whole family enjoys - it felt like a good way to introduce David to Austen's stories.

There aren't many adaptations of it, but the 2007 BBC version is pretty great with or without competition. It stars Felicity Jones (Rogue One) as the main character and does a great job showing how her world view is affected by the books she reads. If you've read the novel, you know that Austen wasn't a huge fan of gothic romance (I forgive her) and that Northanger Abbey isn't so much a parody of them as it is simply making fun. But to get there, the movie lets us into the main character's imagination and uses cool, gothic imagery to do it. It's the closest Austen gets to genre work, so it's a great introduction to her (even though the movie wasn't actually filmed in Bath).

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)



Technically, I watched this out of order since it's the second of Ford's Cavalry Trilogy, but I accidentally watched it last ('cause I forgot that Rio Grande was one of them and not just one of the billion other John Wayne movies named after rivers). Really though, I think it fits best as the final in the series.

The other two are in black-and-white, but Yellow Ribbon is in color, so it looks more modern. And John Wayne isn't playing the same character he does in the other two, but an older officer who's getting ready to retire. Ben Johnson, on the other hand, does play the same character he does in Rio Grande, but in Rio Grande he's a raw recruit and he's obviously more seasoned here. So if we're trying to put together some sort of chronology to this weird, extremely loose trilogy, Yellow Ribbon ought to come last.

It's a good film, but my least favorite of the three. The plot meanders and circles back on itself and I'm never super invested in the romantic triangle of Joanne Dru, John Agar, and Harry Carey Jr. I probably would've been more interested if Dru's character had been played by Shirley Temple from Fort Apache, but that's just because I love Shirley Temple. Dru does a fine job; it's just that Carey's character never really has a chance, so there's not really any tension around that part of the story. Mostly it's just Dru and Agar pretending not to like each other and Carey suffering the fallout from their shenanigans. Not that I feel bad for Carey, because he's pretty unlikable.

I also didn't feel the weight of bad orders like I did in the other two films. Wayne's superior officer does direct Wayne into questionable activity, but it's not like anything that Henry Fonda or J Carrol Naish make him do in Fort Apache and Rio Grande. But that also makes it the most pleasant of the three films. That's not a compliment (the grittiness of the other two are what I like most about them), but it's a true statement and John Wayne is typically charming (and in an atypical way for him) and Ben Johnson even more so.

The Gunfighter (1950)



Every Gregory Peck Western I watch makes him more and more my favorite Western star. In this one, he plays a gunslinger who visits a town for reasons I won't spoil. He has enemies hot on his trail, so the town marshal - who also happens to be an old friend of Peck's - is trying to get him to leave, but Peck insists on staying until his business is concluded.

Peck is awesome in it and it's another great movie that tears down the fantasy of gunfighting as a glamorous life. Unforgiven got a lot of praise for doing that as if it was some sort of new innovation, but the more Westerns I watch - like the original Magnificent Seven and even Young Guns II, for crying out loud - the more I realize how ununique Unforgiven was in that regard.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)



A classic and a favorite that I wanted David to see. It's too pretentious to be my all-time favorite '50s space invader movie (I like more cheese in them), but it's really well done and I love the design of the ship and of course Gort. It's an essential part of the science fiction canon.

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