Wednesday, March 18, 2015

H.G. Wells and EC Comics


I spent some time flipping through a facsimile of the 1920 edition of H.G. Wells' Outline of History. It's fairly useless as a history book, but still interesting as a presentation of a certain archaic, yet academic, point of view. Wells defers to "expert" opinion, even when it conflicts with his own (which leads to a inclusion of Piltdown Man, even with the acknowledgement that the jawbone doesn't match the skull).

There are two beautiful essays in here. The chapter on natural selection is one of the best things I've read in the realm of science writing, elegantly presenting the simple idea of change over time. The other deals with the mis-understanding of the idea of races of man, pointing out that the arbitrary division of humans into three categories derives from the bible and not from scientific inquiry. For anthropology, there aren't pure and unchanging races, but general groups that often share each other's characteristics.

The largest problem with the book is that Wells follows a common error of this period: after presenting the possible "Aryan" ur-language group, he assumes that there was an actual Aryan people who were the ancestors of the 20th century's dominant Europeans. Everyone else then gets lumped into their typical stereotypes. Semitic people are good at commerce and Africans don't develop a real language. Oh, and the Japanese apparently use their feet to pick up objects as chimpanzees do.

There is also a weird assumption that all pre-historic peoples were strictly patriarchal, going so far as to mention local goddesses only in an aside about gods having wives just like men do. It's especially weird when looking at all the included illustrations of pre-historic art. There are an awful lot of sculpted women found at archaeological sites at this time, and they don't seem suppliant at all.


This is another entry into the world of books about EC Comics, not really a history of the company but more of a presentation of each individual artist. There's a chapter for every worker at EC (even giving colorist Marie Severin a few well-deserved pages) drawing from interviews in various fan magazines. There are some new art pieces caricaturing the old staff, and a good assortment of non-EC and personal art showing the range of each illustrator. And every talent presented has a story reprinted after their chapter.

As always, the artwork is astounding, and it isn't surprising to hear every artist express a love for drawing comics that kicked in when they were children. Upon reading the stories however, one sees how much of this talent was wasted on second-rate storytelling. It's fascinating to see how mainstream comic books haven't changed at all in over fifty years. Most of what is presented falls into the realm of fantasy revenge stories or "message" stories that hit the reader over the head with a moral. Outside of the Ray Bradbury adaptions, where his voice still comes through on the wordy EC pages, these comics would be nothing without their amazing illustrators. If there's a nostalgia here, it's one for a world where craftmanship held a priority, even for mediocre commercial art.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Not hearing the Call of Cthulhu


I'm starting to wonder whether H.P. Lovecraft is one of those things, like super-hero comics or Bruce Springsteen, that one has to discover by a certain age. I'm about a third of the way into a digital copy of The Complete Lovecraft, but I'm not seeing the genius that others insist is there. By 1928's The Call of Cthulhu, he's learned how to properly structure a story and shock his audience, but his writing style isn't anywhere near his predecessors Edgar Allen Poe or Lord Dunsany.

Part of the problem for me is that his intended audience appears to be people who are massively afraid of non-Anglo Saxon "races" mixing with, and diluting, civilization. Even in Cthulhu, a large part of the language assumes automatic horror associations with swarthy natives. From my point of view, what is actually happening in these stories is that the majority of the world has thrown in with an ancient power in order to overthrow their easily-fainting masters.

For there is a lot of fainting in these stories, if not outright death by fear. When reading a number of these in succession, it comes off as a silly device. Sort of a way of having not to deal with describing the indescribable horrors. Which is sad, because he is really good at going on about impossible geometries and such. In past anthologies, the better stories that I've read are the ones that try to describe the feeling of lucid dreaming. Some of that appears here, and later in The Mountains of Madness, as the heroes venture into territory that doesn't conform with normal physics.

In the meantime though, there's a bit of slogging to do; a lot of purple prose that attempts to make me care about the narrator's impending loss of sanity. Perhaps if I was a typical 1920's American, I'd care more, but for now I'm on the side of the monsters.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Heroes & Monsters and James Bond


"Well, it's certainly not writing for the fans, or for an audience of any sort, really. I write primarily for myself. It's largely if there's something that I want very much to exist in the universe and it doesn't. Then, rather than wait around for somebody else to make it exist, then it generally seems to work better if I do it myself." -- Alan Moore

I picked up a copy of Jess Nevins' Heroes & Monsters this week at the local thrift store, thinking I would just give it a quick read-through to see if I had missed any arcane material in Moore & O'Neill's League series. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book goes well beyond a play-by-play recap of who appears in what panel of each page. Nevins presents some interesting insights into the backgrounds of the main characters and their derivations in popular culture, never shying away from the more unpleasant aspects of Victoriana. The included essay on the history of "yellow peril" characters is itself worth the price of the book. Plus, there's a fun interview with Alan Moore, showing some of his associative ideas, and his willingness to work with great illustrators as O'Neill, rather than just dictating to them.


"Now he proposed to kill the sting ray because it looked so extraordinarily evil."
Speaking of unpleasant aspects, here's the always problematic James Bond for me to deal with. I've been going through a pile of 1960s Playboys, partly for entertainment and partly for collage purposes, enjoying the old Ray Bradbury stories and Shel Silverstein cartoons. Nothing really goes with the Playboy package of soft-focus nude photography, cocktail recipes and high masculine fashion more than the appearances of Ian Fleming's reluctant spy.

The March, 1960 issue features "The Hildebrand Rarity," which has been collected in the recent Quantum of Solace anthology. Here, readers would have encountered it right after finishing Dr. No or Goldfinger. Bond is on a working vacation in the Seychelles, happily hunting fish with a harpoon gun, apparently to the consternation of some of the locals who don't share his enthusiasm for swimming with barracudas and sharks.
"It's damned silly. Everybody moans about how poor they are here although the sea's absolutely paved with fish."
His native friend, Fedele Barbey, does poke fun at him a bit for his colonial attitude, but this is part of the gentlemanly image presented in all the Bond novels, irritation at others' not being up to the same standards as the "civilized" world. It's a weird mixture of nobility and racism. Later on in the story, when he meets the villain of the piece, it's not enough to describe Milton Krest as a ugly American, but he has to be German on top of it.
"So that was it! The old Hun again. Always at your feet or at your throat."
It's also not enough that Krest is an annoying bully, he also abuses his wife, beating her with a sting ray tail. Apparently, even the natives don't sink that low and have made such things illegal. Bond doesn't do anything about this however. Typically, he spends most of the story being indecisive about what the proper course of action should be.

Eventually the dead body of Krest is discovered by Bond one night; he's been killed in an ironic way that the old E.C. comics editors would have been proud of. Not wanting to compromise his identity, or put blame on either of his ship-mates, the German is dumped overboard. Interestingly, we never find out exactly who killed the man. Instead, there's a wonderful tense series of passages where the remaining characters all have to converse without revealing any suspicion of guilt.

This is a very odd entry in the James Bond series, very in-active, but very typical in that the hero is presented as a reluctant participant. For all his snobbery, the character still comes off as fascinating, due I think to Fleming's honesty (and his writing talent). If a conservative gentleman was placed in the position of moral compromise over and over again, he'd probably be an over-compensating Playboy. As a modern reader, however, I'm not sure that Bond is still the male power fantasy that audiences are looking for.