I’m still trying to get back into this blog, thinking about things to write a lot and then not actually writing them. So here is me rambling on about a few things I’ve been reading/watching.
Conan the Barbarian: The Original Marvel Years Omnibus v.1 by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith (and a few others) (Marvel, 2018)
As I was thinking about writing about this volume it occurred to me the comics in this book are almost 50 years old. I think my sense of time is faltering. Thinking about comics history, the 1970s don’t seem that old, but this whole book pre-dates my existence by a couple years, so I guess it is. My impression has been that these comics (in this case issues 1-26 of the Marvel series Conan the Barbarian) were one of the more popular comics of their time. Perhaps that reading is over determined by having read Dave Sim’s Cerebus which started out as a parody of this comic (I do “get” some of the Cerebus parodies a little better now having read this volume; it was a bit odd to come at them in this comic from the opposite direction a contemporary reader would have seen them (“Oh, so that’s why the Elric parody had a pointy hat, I just thought that was part of the parody”)). Being a fantasy fan, but also a picky one, I’ve been curious about these comics for awhile, as there are surprisingly not a lot of well regarded fantasy comics (though I’m open to recommendations). I finally read all the original Howard Conan stories a few years back (in that three volume collection from Del Rey), but my only exposure to these comics is to some issues of Savage Sword of Conan (the black and white magazine that started in the mid-70s subsequent to this series’ popularity) and isolated images here and there. At the time I read the short stories I looked into reprints of these comics, but the in-print editions were published by Dark Horse and for inexplicable reasons digitally recolored (the kind with gradations and effects, not just digitally recreated). It looked too awful to contemplate reading.
This new edition uses the original colors, though it is still rather garish. Using the same highly saturated colors on coated paper with modern printing methods gives a very different look than the same colors on 1970’s newsprint. Everything is bright, dense, and saturated, at times this works really well, for some of Smith’s more psychedelic, magical moments, but a lot of the time it just looks ridiculous. Still after a while one gets used to it, Marvel isn’t the only company to do this with their reprints (the Dark Horse Jesse Marsh volumes have the same issue, though it feels less annoying in the pulp jungle adventures of Tarzan and John Carter than in these sword and sorcery tales).
So this volume is 25 issues of the comics (1-26, but one of the issues was originally just a reprint of the first issue (one of those things that happened in the days before collected volumes and even before comics shops)) as well as a few comics from Savage Tales (a very short-lived black and white “mature readers” magazine that Marvel tried). Besides the comics there is Roy Thomas. He wrote all these comics and clearly he loves writing about writing these comics, because the volume features no less than 73 pages of introductions by Thomas. There is the actual introduction to this volume, and then introductions to two separate series of reprints of these same comics. It’s absurd. I only read the first introduction, which was a thorough enough background on how the series started and some of its early woes. Oddly (or not, I don’t know the current situation between Marvel and Smith), Smith contributes no commentary at all, might have been interesting to hear his impressions of the series.
The back of the volume also has various reprints of original art and other ephemera. Probably the most interesting is the commentary on the Comics Code Authority (basically, a self-censoring body that the comics industry set-up). They include a reprint of a letter detailing requested changes to some stories and then provide pages of before/after images. It’s sadly funny the types of changes that were requested, often just turning a skimpy female fantasy outfit into a slightly less skimpy female outfit. In one panel Conan has his arms around a woman as they stand in some water. His hands are clearly on her butt, but because of the water you can’t actually see that. The Code had them change the drawing so his hands are above the water line on the woman’s waist. I guess that saved creating some delinquents or something. That’s the first time I’ve seen such specific examples of art changes in regards the Code, so that was an interesting glimpse of comics history.
The comics themselves are… ok. I was entertained well enough, but like many comics (especially at that time) they truly suffer from overwriting (as we’ve already seen Thomas clearly likes to use a lot of words). Often I just had to skip all the extra narration. Barry Windsor-Smith is also fairly green at this point in his career, so the art can be wildly inconsistent. You can see the imagination and potential (and some of his influences like art nouveau and pre-raphaelites) of what his work later becomes, but he doesn’t quite live up to it. Even by the slightly later Red Nails story that he did in 1974 (not included here, but easily findable with a search online) his art had improved greatly.
The stories are a mix of Howard adaptations (of Conan stories and non-Conan stories adapted to feature Conan) and original stories. Most involve Conan wandering by himself into some situation or other. It’s all a bit D&D like (though this even pre-dates D&D), in the kind of wanderer stumbling until situations involving monsters and wizards and fighting factions of humans. But Conan is just wandering around by himself (no adventuring party for him), and the lack of any other continuing characters makes it all feel very disjointed and episodic. Occasionally some character comes back for a second issue but they invariable then die so Conan can be mad/sad about their death (or in the case of enemies, sort of happy). The original stories weren’t that numerous and skipped around in Conan’s life, so they don’t cry out as much for other characters, but reading this whole thing as a chronological story about the character’s life, the lack of a supporting cast lessens the stories interest a lot, I think.
They don’t end up being as good a run of fantasy comics as I was hoping for. I should also add that for some ill thought out idea, the cover of this volume is: a) not by Windsor-Smith b) by someone that has nothing to do with the contents c) truly ugly. It’s a bad composition, uninteresting in content, poorly drawn, and awfully colored (there’s that ugly digital gradient coloring). It’s just… *shakes head*…
Anyway that was way more text than I expected to write about this book, without really saying much at all about the actual comics.
In sort of different, but not totally different reading…
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (Riverhead, 2019)
I’ve had James’ previous novel (this is not a comic), A Brief History of Seven Killings, on my to-read list for awhile, and then this novel got reviewed in Bookforum and there was a feature in the New York Times Book Review about James (where he mentions Love and Rockets). This is fantasy novel (the first in a trilogy apparently) from an author otherwise known for literary fiction, so it’s getting more mainstream non-genre attention, and surprisingly enough, it really deserves it. I was really engrossed in this novel. It’s 600 pages long and I think I read the last 200 in 2 nights.
First of all, James is just a good writer, the language is engaging, occasionally difficult, and not overwritten (i.e. there are no endless descriptions, which is what caused me to bail in the first chapter of Game of Thrones). This is not an easy read by any means, but it is a worthwhile read. James creates his fantasy world based on African myths (the few words I really didn’t know and looked up were all of Western African origins, though I’m not sure if that is the case for all of it), so it is a source of unexpected and non-stereotypical (for fantasy) monsters, magic, settings, and characters. That alone would probably make this an interesting read, even if he weren’t such a good writer.
The story is basically a narration by the protagonist (who is called Tracker). There is some layer of context to his narration (an “inquisitor” seems to be his audience), though by the end of the novel that is not resolved (I assume the future volumes will provide more details). The tightly focalized narration really helps maintain a sense of mystery throughout, both for what is happening in the wider narrative world and in what is happening with Tracker (he is not always telling us everything). We never get scenes from other characters or places, so all our evaluations of the characters must be gleaned from the combo of what Tracker says and how the characters act. It provides for some interesting developments as the story progresses. Interesting, though the narration is retrospective, I don’t recall many places where that plays into the way the narrative is told via foreshadowing or the like.
One issue I found in the book was way seemingly all the women in the book were “witches” or in some way bad/evil. I have hopes that is something that improves in the next volumes of the trilogy, as at one point, the book self-critiques on the issue when one of Tracker’s companions calls him out about how he seems to call all women “witches.”
I highly recommend this for any fantasy readers. This is good literary adult epic fantasy, which isn’t not a common thing to find.
Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team (1996-1999, 12 episodes, on Hulu)
At some point as a kid I got into mecha anime. This was the late 1980s (1988 or 1989 I think just based on when some things I remember came out) and there really wasn’t much of the genre to be easily found. I guess I’d seen some episodes of the Robotech cartoon, but what I really member is reading the novelizations of the cartoon and some of the sequel comics published by Malibu/Eternity as well as a pretty crappy bootleg of the Macross movie (I’m not even sure it was subtitled). Those comics were an early example of Americans attempting manga style at a time when very little manga was actually available to read in the US. After reading those novelizations I ended up read a three volume novelization of Mobile Suit Gundam, which was released by the same publisher (I’m sure I found it on the shelf in Waldenbooks at my local mall). I had never seen the Gundam animation (not sure it was even shown here at that point) and hadn’t seen any of them since, though with the explosion of availability of anime since then numerous of the series have been available.
I guess I never really lost my interest in the genre, though my interactions with it have been limited. I binge-watched Neon Genesis Evangelion back in 1999 or 2000 when a local video store got copies of it on many many vhs tapes. I’ve read a few other manga since then. But the other day I saw someone on Twitter thanking Sarah Horrocks for telling them about The 08th MS Team being on Hulu (though I can’t find that tweet now), so I decided to check it out (Horrocks seems to have pretty good taste in these things). I work from home, so I watch series as I’m eating my lunch (often taking multiple days to get through episodes). This series is short in number (12 episodes) and length (less than half an hour each), so it was a nice one to try.
Like seemingly all Gundam I’ve seen information on, this one takes places during a future war that involves large “mobile suits”. My general impression is that many/most of them are generally anti-war, while also celebrating these giant mecha fighting each other. This particular series takes place in a seemingly out of the way part of the war on Earth, and does a really good job of a rounded view of both side as potentially awful or not, as well as making the war seem like a bad thing without an excessive glorification of the fighting. In fact, it often seemed like the mecha were quite downplayed and not glorious: they break down, fall over, are often destroyed almost immediately.
The main storyline concerns the new leader of the 08th MS team who, in the first episode before he even gets to his command, gets briefly stranded in a space with an enemy pilot. She’s female, so of course they fall in love, and naturally it turns out she also ends up right across the battlefield from him. The main conflict comes primarily in both of their attempts to reconcile their duty, their responsibility and care for their colleagues, and their desire for peace (and of course each other) in the face of asshole commanders, misunderstanding, miscommunication, and people who just don’t think peace is an option. It all plays out surprising well for a anime that is meant for a younger audience (probably not little kids, but certainly this isn’t targeted at a sophisticated adult audience either), and moves along steadily without dragging down too much.
The thing I disliked most about the series is the final episode. I was watching it without a clear sense of how many episodes there were, and the end of episode 11 ends on what seems like the end of the series. As it was it felt like a downbeat ending, but one that fit in with the theme. But then… oh, there’s an episode 12, and it’s an odd one. It jumps ahead in time, the animation looks like it was drawn by different people (in that it seems like a dip in quality that was immediately noticeable), it goes off on a tangent (bringing in a bunch of new characters), and then ends on this really abbreviated happy ending. The whole thing feels like a tacked on extra episode someone wrote to give it a happy ending. (Some lazy googling seems to indicate a lot of other people really hated the episode too.)
I enjoyed this enough, that I’ll be seeing what other Gundam anime I have available to watch.
Corto Maltese: The Secret Rose by Hugo Pratt (IDW, 2019)
The ongoing new translations of Corto Maltese continues and I’m really wondering why I keep reading these. The longer the series goes on the less seems to… go on in them. It’s like Pratt stopped even trying to have a story. I enjoy his drawing as it gets more and more minimal and abstract but this one and the previous Tango felt pretty light and inconsequential.
Tegan O’Neil has a good review up at The Comics Journal, that came out the day after I read this.
The Comics Journal 303 (Fantagraphics, Winter-Spring 2019)
I didn’t even know I had a subscription to The Comics Journal anymore or that it was coming back, and then this issue showed up at my doorstep. Surprise! I have no memory of 2012’s issue 301 (even looking it up online, I have no recollection of it), and am wondering if I maybe never got it and this is all a mistake. Reading this issue, I’m also wondering if bringing back the journal was a mistake too. The first problem is that this is a 180 page journals and 80 of those pages are devoted to a single interview. That’s almost half the issue. Enormous rambling interviews are just not as interesting as the editors seem to think they are. The rest of the issue is hit and miss, but mostly just left me wondering why. The history of comics distribution from 1996-2019 is a nice overview of a topic that is not all that interesting, even less so for people who have already lived through it. I skipped the article on YA comics, because… YA comics. The second interview in the issue with Fifi Martinez is blessedly shorter and pretty interesting, I’ll be looking her up (the article itself offers no indication of who publishes her work, or if it is all self-published, where I would find it.. ahh, there’s a Patreon). Kim Jooha’s too brief article on “Comics as a Visual Communication System” offers the totally unexpected pleasure of seeing a Jennifer Bartlett image in a comics magazine, but reads like an introduction to a longer work rather than an article unto itself. The heading on the page kind of makes me think it’s going to be a column, but a column in a magazine that I must infer (nowhere do I see it started) is going to be twice yearly seems like it needs to be a little more self-contained. And there’s some other stuff, but not of it landed with me or felt more in-depth than something they could have just published on the website. Assuming my subscription is expired now, I don’t plan on renewing.
The Earth Dies Streaming by A.S. Hamrah (n+1, 2018)
n+1 is one of the only print magazines I get (that and Bookforum), and A.S. Hamrah is their film critic (he also often appears in Bookforum reviewing movies about film). Every issue he does these review articles where he talks about a bunch of films. Sometimes the reviews are 1 sentence long, sometimes he goes on for a few paragraphs. He’s always insightful, interesting, and often very funny as he praises and skewers films, often making astute connections between the films in the article. This book collects all his n+1 review articles, as well as various other film writings, including a crazy one from back from 2008 when he spent 2 months watching every movie he could find about the ongoing “war on terror.”
I probably spent a month slowly reading this book (it lends itself to that since its all articles you can read in one sitting) because I was enjoying it so much. Took down a bunch of notes of films and directors to watch. This has been getting a decent amount of buzz, so a quick google will surely find you more convincing reviews than mine, but I do highly recommend it. I look forward to dipping into it again from time to time.
For a taste of his style, here’s an article from a couple weeks ago where he reviewed a bunch of the Oscar nominees.
A few links:
– Brian Nicholson on Muñoz and Sampayo’s Alack Sinner and also on Popeye.
– Christine Ro at Hyperallergic on Julie Delporte’s This Woman’s Work (which I haven’t read yet, but am looking forward to)
– Nate Powell at Popula on militarized style and symbolism.
– Mehdi Hasan at The Intercept on AOC, Sanders, and Warren Are the Real Centrists Because They Speak for Most Americans