Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Harlan Ellison and Sword & Sorcery [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I am going to admit I’m not much of a Harlan Ellison fan. He’s much too literary for my tastes. I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I like space opera, sword-and-sorcery, and other forms of adventure fantasy; told in a straightforward way and quickly paced. That’s not what Ellison writes. This isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the man. I have found his observations on Hollywood very entertaining and informative. I admire his work as an editor on the Dangerous Visions and Medea anthologies. I’ve read his work in comic book form many times. I’ve even read some of his stuff over the years, such as “The Chocolate Alphabet,” twenty-six flash fiction pieces he wrote while sitting in a store window. (The one I liked best was “D is for Dick,” where he described Philip K Dick as a strange creature that lives in a hole writing masterpieces that nobody appreciates.) Ellison is often ahead of the curve. And he’s feisty. Who else but Ellison would go to a national Star Trek convention and begin a speech by saying Doctor Who was the greatest SF show ever made? That takes kahunas, brother. Giant brass ones. And Ellison has them. All this aside, I don’t read his fiction much.

Which is my loss, because if I had ever finished reading The Deathbird Stories (1975) I would have come to “Delusion For a Dragonslayer.” I had no idea that Ellison even noticed sword-and-sorcery in the 1960s. The only time I had ever heard him refer to the Big Three of Weird Tales (Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith) was when he selected Clark Ashton Smith’s “The City of the Singing Flame” as a story that inspired him to be a writer. This surprised me because I thought his influences would all be non-fantasy authors like Ray Bradbury or Ted Sturgeon.

Now the only reason I stumbled across this at all was because of comics. Ellison would like that as he loves and collects comics. He can’t be all Anais Nin and Ayn Rand if he collects Batman and Uncanny X-Men. So there it was... a comic book adaptation in Chamber of Chills #1 (November 1972). It didn’t surprise me to find a sword-and-sorcery story there – that was exactly what I was doing at the time: cruising the horror mags for sword-and-sorcery stories. House of Mystery to Dr. Graves, they all have a few sword-and-sorcery stories in them, especially in the years 1973-75. The Warren magazines and independents had gone through a similar phase in 1966-72. Sword-and-sorcery has enough horror elements in it that this was where the first experiments in short, 5-10 page strips were tried. So this didn’t surprise me. But Harlan Ellison? That surprised me.

Now Ellison’s story originally appeared in Knight (September 1966), a men’s magazine. Alongside the “nekkid ladies” were stories by Brian W Aldiss and John Steinbeck. The cover features Ellison’s story and was done by Leo and Diane Dillon, who would do future Ellison covers like The Deathbird Stories. By all appearances, I had stumbled onto a little bit of Weird Tales-style fantasy in a dirty magazine.

The plot concerns Warren Glazer Griffin, an office worker who gets killed by a demolition accident. Griffin wakes up in heaven, but as the old wizard next to his herculean barbarian body explains, the world is of Griffin’s design and he must fulfill the implied quest of sailing to an island, slaying the monster, and saving the girl. The sailors all chain themselves to their rowing benches and rely on Griffin to navigate them past the siren colors. He does this, then wrecks the ship, because he is too busy admiring his new body.

Washed ashore, he finds the island he has been seeking. With almost no regret or conscience at the death of his crew, Griffin finds a beautiful woman lounging by a waterfall. She is the epitome of all the women he has ever desired. Out of the mist, a fourteen-foot mist giant appears, then becomes more human in shape. Griffin is immobilized by terror and can’t confront the beast. The woman and monster get down to business (let’s remember what kind of magazine this is, after all) and Griffin uses the distraction to stab the monster in the back. Monster defeated, he claims the woman as his reward. His lust satisfied he realizes he has not won heaven at all, but that his dreams are superficial and childish, and a dragon forms from his cowardice and angst devours him. Cut back to the real world. Warren Glazer Griffin’s body has been crushed by the wrecking ball, but every bone has been broken like he was devoured by a monster.

Much of this scenario is familiar, and I think on purpose. The ship and sirens smacks of Ulysses (not Conan), though the rest could be more Howard. I felt more like the hero was John Eric Stark of Leigh Brackett creation, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. We all know the type of tale, from Beowulf to Masters of the Universe. This tale of the macho barbarian is told in an ornate style that reminds me at times of Clark Ashton Smith. For example his description of killer colors: “In a rising, keening spiral of hysteria they came, first pulsing in primaries, then secondaries, then comminglings and off shades, and finally in colors that had no names. Colors like racing, and pungent, and far-seen shadows, and bitterness, and something that hurt, and something that pleasured...” This goes on for many more sentences.

It is a rather artsty fartsy way to tell an adventure story, but it’s not an adventure story really. It is a story with a point: that the dreams of fourteen year-old boys are lustful, childish, and ultimately unrewarding. This may be a bigger poke at fanboys than anything Fredric Brown ever wrote. If we assume that Ellison is saying that people who read sword-and-sorcery are as unworthy as Warren Glazer Griffin, then I guess this is an anti-sword-and-sorcery story.

My first guess before even reading the story was that Ellison was going to be slagging sword-and-sorcery. He would not have been alone. Ron Goulart, Larry Niven, and even Andrew J Offutt (before Andy would become one of the top sword-and-sorcery writers of the 1980s) have disparaged the legacy of Conan. Was Ellison jumping on their bandwagon? I don’t really think so. And I don’t think Ellison is trying to skewer Conan fans. There were suddenly many new ones around 1966 with the new Lancer paperbacks, but most of these lie in the future, as are the Conan the Barbarian comic fans. Instead, I think Ellison may be remembering his own teenage fantasies and enjoyment of hero tales. Ellison was fourteen in 1948 or so, about the time Leigh Bracket was queen of the space pulps. Robert E Howard was becoming a dim memory then. Remember, I thought of Stark, not Conan. Maybe Ellison was thinking of “Lorelei of the Red Mist” from 1941 by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury. The main character’s named is Conan. More likely he was thinking of “The Enchantress of Venus” (1949) that begins with John Eric Stark on a Venusian sailing ship. Maybe he was writing about how he had to grow past such stories and become a “speculative fiction writer.” As such, I can appreciate the story better than a sad reductionist parody.

Looking at the Chamber of Chills comic adaptation is interesting. The comic story was adapted by Gerry Conway (who would script Conan the Destroyer with Roy Thomas in 1984) and the art was provided by Syd Shores. Conway’s script strips off Ellison’s five dollar flowery phrases and its sexual content, leaving us with little but the bones. The final “surprise” is no surprise to anyone familiar with “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I don’t know what Ellison’s feelings were about the adaptation, but it is a perfect example of how adapting a heavy work can result in a much smaller product. Without Ellison’s words the piece is no different than any of the others in the comic series. The emotional payoff at the end is gone and the plot is largely pointless. Just another guy-I-don’t-care-about dreams big, then gets squashed. It doesn’t even have the crutch of blaming it all on Dungeons & Dragons like so many stories in the 1980s. The final irony is that the writer who was so good at fantastic tales with a sting of emotional irony at the end was Leigh Brackett. In a story like “The Woman From Altair” (1951) which ends on a bitter note, Leigh could have the hero win, but leave a bittersweet taste in the reader’s mouth. Maybe Ellison meant something similar. If so, his hand is too heavy while his over poetic words are distracting. It’s like Clark Ashton Smith rewriting Leigh Brackett.

Finally, I wonder how I would have reacted to this story back in High School where I first encountered The Deathbird Stories? I was a solid Edgar Rice Burroughs-Robert E Howard fanatic then. That fourteen year old me with the fourteen-old fantasies. If I had been able to wade through Ellison’s prose (which is doubtful) I am sure I would have reacted badly to his message. As a fifty-three year old I can see things a little differently. But I still don’t know if I agree with Ellison’s dark message. The hero tale is as old as time and it does more than belittle women and hide cowardice or whatever angsty worries Ellison had back in 1966. Christopher Booker and Joseph Campbell and even JRR Tolkien would back me up on this. I think sword-and-sorcery is worthy of our time. Like all fiction, the best examples are pure gold while the worst hackwork is abysmal trash (Sturgeon’s Law). And maybe Ellison would agree with me now at 82-years-old. Or maybe I missed the point and will have to read “Delusion For a Dragonslayer” again and again until I get it. But a re-re-re-re-read of “The Tower of the Elephant” or “The Enchantress of Venus” is much more likely, and ultimately, more satisfying.

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, November 29, 2016

The Junk Box: MIMP Comics [Guest Post]



By GW Thomas

You’re a grown-ass man and you’re not supposed to play with toys. But like any good fanboy I have my favorites. My thark from Trendmasters (1995) and my various Godzilla bendies, but the rest - old eBay failures and such - I keep in The Junk Box. It’s not really junk. Just an old carton from the liquor store. (In Canada, when you move, you go to the liquor store for empty boxes. We must look like a nation of itinerant alcoholics!) Anyway, let’s take a look inside... THE JUNK BOX!

In this age of Pokemon Go, it may be hard to remember that monster collectors existed before 1995 when Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sagimori created the phrase: “Gotta Catch’em All!” But in 1989, Morrison Entertainment Company, run by two former Mattel executives, Joe Morrison and John Weams, offered the world its own series of collectible critters with Monster in My Pocket (known as MIMP by fans): thirteen collections of rubbery toy creatures to buy and collect. The toys were small, soft, plastic, single-color figures manufactured by Matchbox. The idea was not new. A Japanese company, Kinnikuman had started a small figure line in 1979 called MUSCLE, based on a manga. These fighters were muscular wrestlers that look monstrous at times. Like MIMP, it had dozens of figures to collect.

MIMP started small with only forty-eight creatures, but grew quickly. The creatures included everything from Universal monsters like Vampire and Mummy to dinosaurs to creatures of legend such as Nessie and Spring-Heeled Jack to some pretty obscure mythological critters like Yama and Hanuman. Some of the deities they chose are still worshipped today and got the toys in trouble in certain Asian countries. Here's a complete list. In the end, over two hundred monsters were released. The series would span other media such as a board game, breakfast cereal prizes, trading cards, a video game, animated cartoons, and other tie-ins.

One of these other products was a four-issue comic book produced by Harvey Comics (recently resurrected, but not for long) in 1991. The comic was written by ex-Marvel writer, Dwayne McDuffie. McDuffie worked on Damage Control, a humorous superhero comic with artist Ernie Colon. Like Damage Control, the tone of Monster In My Pocket is tongue-in-cheek with bad puns. It should be no surprise that the premiere issue was drawn by Ernie Colon, of Richie Rich and Arak, Son of Thunder fame, now returned to Harvey. The next three issues were done by the Cover Master, Gil Kane. Ernie may have done only the first issue because he had begun Bullwinkle & Rocky for Star Comics. Gil Kane may have stepped in, having a vacancy after leaving DC, and had not yet started the Jurassic Park comic for Topps. Whatever the reason, the comic got top-notch artists who could handle the plethora of characters.

The first issue begins with two warring factions of monsters, one lead by Vampire and the other by Warlock. At a convention of creatures, the two factions are supposed to vote democratically to see who will rule. Warlock sees he is going to lose, so he casts a spell that sends the monsters into our world, where they appear to be living toys. This kind of Us vs Them plotting is typical of most toy product stories, such as Transformers, GI Joe, and Masters of the Universe. And we know it from movies like Small Soldiers (1998). In this first tale, we meet Jack and Tom Miles, brothers who end up with the monsters living in their house. Subplots revolve around their parents not finding out and the enemy monsters invading the house.

Issue Two has the boys take the monsters to school. It is their hope that Dr. Jekyll can create a formula that will undo the spell. Jack has been skipping Chemistry class and so the Invisible Man (a chemist by trade) does his homework for him. The baddies show up and force-feed Jekyll his formula, turning him into Hyde. They try to recruit the evil Hyde for their side but the Good Guys turn him back to Jekyll with another dose. From this we can see that McDuffie is not a stickler for monster lore, as a second dose would do nothing of the sort. He may have been embracing all the Jekyll and Hyde material from the original to Bugs Bunny cartoons. This is unfortunate, because the toy creators had done a lot of research and the bar could have been set higher.

The second half of this issue was a Punisher parody written by McDuffie and drawn by Nelson Dewey. Not in the same league as either Colon or Kane, the art is adequate at best. The humor is fun though, with Frank Rook, Exterminator, coming to the house to wage war on vermin. He doesn’t find any insects, but he does discover the monsters and try to kill them. He is taken away by the men in the white coats. The best part of this parody is his “War Journal” where he chronicles his battles with bugs.

The third issue has Tyrannosaurus attack the house. Since the name Godzilla is copyright protected, the MIMP producers had to settle for a name similar to other monster dinosaur characters. T Rex wants to eat radioactive material so he can grow bigger. When he gets thrown in the microwave he grows to human size and it is up to the creature called Swamp Beast to best him. SB looks like a combination of Swamp Thing and Man-Thing and The Heap.

The fourth issue begins a storyline that is not completed. The boys need a house for the monsters and go to a toyshop to buy a doll house. The Bad Guys attack, but are stymied when a spoiled little girl named Theresa buys the house first and takes the monsters home. The two factions join forces for the moment. She bakes Swamp Beast in a microwave reducing him to hard chunks (which they suggest they can revive with some water). She makes Werewolf do dog tricks. Theresa’s reign of terror is stopped when Spring-Heeled Jack uses his power to terrify by creating the illusion of a person’s greatest fear. Theresa leaves the monsters alone because Jack reminded her of her father, the disciplinarian of the house.

We can only guess that the next issue would feature Jack and Tom finding and rescuing the monsters. We’ll never know. The comic was cancelled, which was a little surprising since the first issue sold out. But the toy line was done and MIMP disappeared from 7-11s everywhere by 1992, mutating into Ninjas in My Pocket in 1996. By that time, the word Pokemon was beginning to surface…

The comics are gone and the toys have ended up in the Junk Box. And all that remains are questions. Had MUSCLE inspired MIMP? Did MIMP inspire Pokemon? I can’t help but wonder if the Pokemon creators had any knowledge of these toy lines sold all over the world? The collecting aspect of the Pokemon games and toys is the same, as is that dire directive to own them all (and put lots of money in the company’s pocket.) And that incentive hasn’t changed much, with Pokemon Go pulling in $200 million in the first month. Oh, hey, I gotta go. My Kakuna has enough Weedle candy to evolve...

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.





Wednesday, November 02, 2016

James Rosenquest: Man or Pseudoman? [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

If you read a lot of old SF mags like I do, you will surely come across names you aren’t familiar with. A quick look on ISFDB usually tells me which major writers or associate editors wrote the story under a pseudonym. Some that did a lot of this were Paul W Fairman, Milton Lesser, David Wright O’Brien, Randall Garrett, and Henry Kuttner. I mean somebody had to write all those Will Garth, CH Thames, Alexander Blade, and Ivor Jorgenson stories, right? But occasionally, just once in a while, you come across a name that wasn’t a pseudonym and you wonder: who was this wordsmith who wrote a half dozen stories, then gave up the game?

Such a writer for me is James Rosenquest. Never heard of him, right? Nor are you ever likely to. Unlike Cordwainer Smith, who is a pseudonymous author who began in the low-to-no-pay magazines, James Rosenquest is no genius waiting to be discovered. In fact, most of his stories appeared in Super-Science Fiction, one of the worst SF publications of the 1950s. At the end of the magazine’s run, for five issues in a row, James Rosenquest provided a story in a magazine filled with writers who would become famous in the decade ahead: Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, and Jack Vance, as well as a few old pros like Isaac Asimov and Robert Bloch. The magazine was filled with hastily composed stories written on auto-pilot (Silverberg was pumping out 10,000 words a day) or unsellable clunkers from the reject pile. But neither necessarily applies to Rosenquest, as he was not a regular contributor elsewhere.

Are the James Rosenquest stories so bad? Obviously, this is a matter of taste. I enjoy monster fiction, so the cheesy, gigantic beasties and killer robots are right up my alley. The big magazines were Astounding, Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction. I personally find '50s Astounding even more dull than '40s Astounding; Galaxy has many individual gems, but also many stories that haven’t dated well. Only Fantasy & Science Fiction remains enjoyable to read and that is because it was intended as a fairly literary mag from the beginning, so I don’t go there for my monster thrills. (That being said, they did publish Fritz Leiber’s “The Pale Brown Thing,” the novella that became Our Lady of Darkness in 1977.)

The bigger question for me is: who was James Rosenquest? No famous author has claimed him or been found out to be him, so we have to assume he was an actual person. The Internet guides say little. SFE: The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says of the Rosenquest story “Dreadnight” in Shock Mystery Tales:
“…No notable authors appeared, at least not under their actual names; suspicions of multiple pseudonyms are fueled by the fact that bylines tend to be unique to this magazine (an exception being James Rosenquest, with previous credits in Super-Science Fiction and Fantastic Universe)…”
One possibility was that Rosenquest was WW Scott, the editor of the magazine. Quite often, when an editor can’t find enough material, he will write some himself, usually under a pseudonym. Harry Bates did it as Anthony Gilmore. Ray Palmer was Edgar Rice Burroughs knock-off JW Pelkie. Howard Browne was no less than twelve different pseudonyms. The same company did not own the three magazines that Rosenquest appeared in. Super-Science Fiction was published by Headline, Shock Mystery Tales by Pontiac, and Fantastic Universe by Leo Marguiles. Scott worked on Man-To-Man for Official Com Inc. in 1950, before heading to Headline where he edited Trapped (1956-60) and Guilty along with Super-Science Fiction.

Lawrence Bloch tells on the Mystery Scene website:
“…Manhunt was hard to hit, but WW Scott bought a batch of stories from me for his alternating bimonthlies, Trapped and Guilty. He paid a cent and a half a word, and the stories he passed on went to Pontiac Publications, where the rate was a cent a word….”
Since the Super-Science Fiction stories appear first, Scott may have written them at the magazine’s end, then kept the pseudonym when he wrote stories for the other two. What makes this unlikely is that Scott has no writing credits under his own name like most SF editors did, and he stayed on with Headline for at least two more years. Why sell to the competition? Why write SF at all, since the majority of his work was in men’s and mystery magazines? It is unlikely James Rosenquest was WW Scott.

I did a little poking around and found another author with the name J Wesley Rosenquest, who appeared in Weird Tales with “Return to Death” (January 1936) and “The Secret of the Vault” (May 1938). Did the J stand for James? Was Rosenquest a Weird Tales reader who contributed two stories as a teenager (perhaps) then went off to college and work, but returned to the typewriter in 1959? Who knows? I did some reading and a little detective work and came to this conclusion: it is quite possible they are the same writer. They both like semi-colons (but less in 1959, which could be a sign of improvement on a young writer.) They both see horror as a scientifically explained scenario rather than a supernatural one. In “Return to Death," a university-trained nobleman becomes paralyzed only to recover and be staked as a vampire by his less educated villagers. “The Secret of the Vault” has less obvious science to it, with weird eldritch tomes, but for all its talk of the liquid of essence, it isn’t so far away either. If J Wesley is James, his style became more dialogue-oriented, his SF themes more hackneyed, and in the end, not much of a better writer. The poor ending of “The Secret in the Vault” could come from the same one who wrote the poor ending of “Man-Hunting Robot.” (Despite this, it appears “The Secret of the Vault” was used for an episode of The Night Gallery in 1972, called “You Can Come Up Now, Mrs. Milikin” starring Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.)

Whether James Rosenquest was WW Scott, a pseudonymous writer, or J. Wesley Rosenquest, we may never know. What we do know is it that James Rosenquest wrote seven tales that stand or fall on their own merits. I personally found them worth a read, though no tears at the thought of him hanging up his quill pen in 1962.

“Horror in Space” (Super-Science Fiction, February 1959)
“The Huge and Hideous Beasts” (Super-Science Fiction, April 1959)
“Creatures of Green Slime” (Super-Science Fiction, June 1959)
“Man-Hunting Robot” (Super-Science Fiction, August 1959)
“Asteroid of Horror” (Super-Science Fiction, October 1959)
“Rope” (Fantastic Universe, February 1960)
“Dreadnight” (Shock Mystery Tales, October 1962)

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.

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