Archive for July, 2012


Five Months to SEVEN KINGS

SEVEN KINGS, the second book of the Shaper Trilogy, is only five months away…

Cosmic Thoughts: IX

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” –Poe

Artwork by the great Michael Whelan

Big John Buscema was one of the greatest comics artists to ever take pencil in hand. He was recruited by Stan Lee at Marvel to replace the great Jack “King” Kirby on several main titles in the late sixties, but Buscema really leaped out from the King’s shadow when he did the immortal SILVER SURFER series, turning that character from a second-stringer into one of Marvel’s most unforgettable heroes.

Buscema, however, never really enjoyed drawing superheroes. He found his true purpose in comics when he took over drawing CONAN THE BARBARIAN after Barry Windsor-Smith departed in the early 70s (after an amazing run that brought Robert E. Howard’s pulp character a whole new audience). I’m sure that nobody believed at the time that anyone could ever eclipse BWS’s run on the CONAN title, but if anybody ever did it was definitely John Buscema. He did more issues of CONAN THE BARBARIAN than anybody else, and he also did an unbelievable number of issues of THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN, the black-and-white mature readers magazine that followed the uber-success of the color CONAN comic.

Both of these CONAN books are marked by spectacular runs, mostly written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by John Buscema with his great inking partner Ernie Chan. When I was a very picky lad growing up on comics, I was a huge fan of John Buscema’s work, but like the artist himself I was incredibly hard to please when it came to inkers. There were only three artists whose inks really “worked” over Buscema’s gorgeous pencils: Ernie Chan, Tony DeZuniga, and Alfredo Alcala.

Thanks to Dark Horse comics, the entire runs of CONAN and SAVAGE SWORD are being collected in terrific trade paperback collections. I have the first dozen volumes or so of each of them. They read much better than the old fading, yellowed, dog-eared comics that I used to have. However, recently I re-discovered another great CONAN series that Buscema did (with Roy Thomas), and thanks again to Dark Horse it is being preserved with the same loving tpb treament.

KING CONAN was a spin-off from the main CONAN book, and it featured tales from the barbarian’s latter years as the King of Aquilonia. I had quite a few issues of the series as a kid, and now I’ve gotten my hands on the first two volumes of the collected series from DH. This summer I’ve been enjoying my return to the Hyborian Age with these great collections. They are every bit as pleasing to the eye as the CONAN THE BARBARIAN runs featuring Buscema and Chan. There are also a couple of great issues inked by Danny Bulanadi, wherein Conan finally settles the score with his arch enemy, the evil sorcerer Thoth-Amon.

The biggest difference between the main CONAN THE BARBARIAN book and KING CONAN (besides the fact that Conan is the king of Hyboria’s mightiest nation), is the presence of his son Conn. Yes, Conan the Cimmerian is both a father and a husband (he married Queen Zenobia, whom he rescued in one of the CONAN annuals). You might think being domesticated would make for some boring Conan tales–yet nothing could be farther from the truth.

For one thing, Conan wasn’t your typical monarch. He would never send his soldiers out to fight a war unless he was in their midst, leading them to victory against Zingaran rebels or Stygian wizards. It was hard to keep Conan on the throne–as a man of action he was alwasy running off to settle a score, or rescue his kidnapped son–or kidnapped queen. Also, there were endless plots featuring subversives who wanted to remove the barbarian usurper from the Aqulilonian throne. Conan was the king of a civilized realm, but this was still the Hyborian Age–an age of savage violence and lurking menace.

Another trait that drove Conan’s advisors and generals a bit mad was his propensity to take his 13-year-old son on adventures with him. Conan wanted to be sure his heir didn’t grow up as a coddled, pampered city-boy. He wanted Conn to be every bit as tough and experienced as his northern upbringing in Cimmeria had made him. And Conn was not one to disappoint. In the final conflict with Thoth-Amon it is Conn who is Conan’s ace-in-the-hole. The presence of “Conan Jr.” doesn’t slow down these stories, but actually adds to their charm.

As a 12-year-old reading these stories, I remember how I used to identify with Conn. What boy doesn’t want a father who is the mightiest warrior the world has ever seen, and who drags him across the world on one adventure after another? Roy Thomas did a great job of fleshing out the Conan character–who was now in his fifties but still a formidable swordsman–and giving him a depth that went far beyond the barbaric simplicity of his youth. Conan is the kind of king you’d want if you were a Hyborian peasant: He is just, mighty, and has a way of cutting right through the silliness of courtly ettiquete. He even makes sure his people aren’t over-taxed, though he leaves most of that boring stuff to his queen. Yes, Conan in this light could even be considered a feminist, letting his queen do most of the actual ruling of the kingdom while he runs off to slice up evil-doers and demon-gods.

Buscema’s work is phenomenal, as usual. The first volume is the best of the two, but only because Roy Thomas left Marvel in ’82, so that the last two issues of the collection were done without him. Not that the great Doug Moench didn’t do a good job taking over, but there is only one Roy Thomas, and he had been the “voice” of the Conan comics for well over a decade.

I highly recommend THE CHRONICLES OF KING CONAN volumes 1 & 2, which sits perfectly with my glowing recommendations for THE CHRONICLES OF CONAN volumes 1-13 and the SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN volumes 1-5.

This is the really, really good stuff. If you love fantastic comic art, sword-and-sorcery, and/or epic fantasy, don’t miss it. (Nevermind that last CONAN movie; the books remain unharmed.) If you’ve never read any of Howard’s original Conan tales, these comics will do for you what they did for me decades ago: Send you to the bookstore or library on a quest to find the source material. Luckily, all of Howard’s CONAN tales are widely available thanks to constant reprints and new editions.

All of these Dark Horse collections of the classic Marvel runs are testaments to the great lives and works of Big John Buscema and Ernie Chan (among others).

If Conan was a King among Men, these guys were Emperors among Artists.

The deeper I get into writing a novel, the more actual time I spend writing. That means I spend less hours reading and more hours at the keyboard. I’m still reading Tanith Lee’s  THE BIRTHGRAVE, but my progress on it has slowed to a crawl as I’ve been writing way more than reading. Still, I need to keep my inspirational batteries charged, so to speak.

That’s where graphic novels and comics come in…

First up, Jack Kirby’s THE ETERNALS. This series was the last great book Jack Kirby did when he returned to Marvel Comics in the mid-70s. A few years ago I managed to assemble a complete 19-issue collection of THE ETERNALS, but they were unfortunately left behind when I moved from SoCal to NorCal in 2007. However, I recently replaced them with the much superior ETERNALS two-volume collection released by Marvel in 2008.The colors are brilliantly restored and I found my re-read of the series much better than my old, faded, yellowed copies of the original comics.

Jack Kirby was indeed the King of Comics, and my favorite work is his 70s comics. THE ETERNALS was something I stumbled across in the late 70s as a young lad–I picked up a coverless copy of ETERNALS #3 somewhere. Years later I rediscovered it in my collection and it set me on the path toward acquiring the whole series. All of Kirby’s brilliance is on display in this tour de force of imagination. Nobody did the High Concept Book like Jack Kirby.

Instead of a supergroup of six or seven superpowered characters, Kirby gave us an entire RACE of them in the Eternals, immortal beings who have lived among humanity since prehistoric times, hiding in the cracks of our histories and legends, living on remote mountaintops and working miracles. At the same time he gave us their opposites, the twisted, warlike Deviants, who were also born of the same humble origins as Humans and Deviants, but were genetically unstable monsters.

Best of all, Kirby gave us the Celestials. These “Space Gods” were inspired by the Incan legends and carvings of space travellers of legend. They were towering titans of unimaginable power who had visited the earth three times before. The first time they had messed with hominid DNA to create the triple race of Human, Eternal, and Deviant. The second time they came to destroy the empire the Deviants had created, effectively freeing humanity from enslavement by their Deviant masters and sinking the lost continent of Lemuria. In the first issue of THE ETERNALS (published in 1976), these Celestials return to earth. The mission of this Fourth Host? To monitor mankind for 50 years and then decide if it deserves to exist or be utterly destroyed!

This series was exceptional for many reasons, and Kirby was once again breaking the “rules” of comics. The story rotated between a huge cast of Eternals and Deviants and Humans and Space Gods; there was no true central character. The stories were not meant to be part of the existing Marvel Universe, but eventually they were retconned into it. The Deviants weren’t single-minded villains, but complex beings with the potential to be as deep and heroic as Eternals or Deviants.

Among all the great ideas unveiled in THE ETERNALS, my favorite was the Uni-Mind. When all the Eternals of the world united, their atoms and minds combined into a single entity that looked like a giant brain and floated into the cosmos to solve unsolvable problems. The cover of issue #12 features the Uni-Mind and it’s one of my all-time favorite comic book covers.

Kirby was firing on all cylinders here. The art is mind-blowing, the concepts are truly cosmic, and the action is practically nonstop. It’s too bad THE ETERNALS only lasted for 19 issues, but even so these concepts invested the Marvel Universe in the same way Kirby’s New Gods had invested the DC Universe. THE ETERNALS became lynchpins in the Marvel world, and they’ve never stopped appearing in Marvel comics.

Most recently Neil Gaiman delivered a great take on Kirby’s most celestial creations. Jack Kirby’s imagination continues to rock the Marvel Universe nearly twenty years after his passing.Yet there’s nothing like Kirby’s original series, especially when it’s presented in such a quality format as these two volumes. THE ETERNALS is the kind of comic you’ll want pull out and re-read ever year or two. You can almost hear the crackle of cosmic energies as you turn the pages.

In the next post, I’ll talk about another two-volume collection of classic comics goodness that I’ve been enjoying:  Dark Horse’s reprints of Marvel’s KING CONAN, illustrated by the great John Buscema (and various inkers including the great Ernie Chan).

Wow.

Today I read what might be the most gorgeously painted graphic novel I’ve ever seen:

NEW TALES OF THE ARABIAN NIGHTS
by Richard Corben and Jan Strnad.

This story originally ran in serial form in the pages of HEAVY METAL magazine in the late 70s, then was collected into graphic novel form in 1979. I’ve posted about Corben’s other great works, but I think NEW TALES OF THE ARABIAN NIGHTS might be the “crown jewel” of his long and distinguished career.

The book is full of lush, colorful illustrations that bring the world of Shahrazad and Sindbad to life with a spectacular sense of reality. Fantasy has never looked so real. Corben’s gift for blending realistic figures and backgrounds with fantastic elements is nowhere more evident than in this book. Sadly, it’s been out of print for decades.

I’ve been on a mission this summer to fill in the gaps in my Corben collection, and thanks to the miracle of eBay, I found a used, slightly battered copy of NEW TALES for about 15 bucks. However, like-new copies are going for upwards of 50 dollars. Despite its beaten cover, my copy’s interiors are in great shape–this was quite a lucky find. A diamond in the rough, to use the old metaphor.

The story tells “The Last Voyage of Sindbad” and features Shahrazad herself telling a story within a story within a story. Corben’s artwork brings to life the opulence of golden palaces, the glitter of heaped treasures, and the glorious, mythic Arabia of the ancient world. There are Jinn, Ifrits, undead warriors on bat-winged horses, sword battles, dragons, a flying galleon, a man-eating Ogre, and a floating city of decadent sorcery. There’s really nothing like it.

If you’ve ever read the classic issue of SANDMAN (#50) where P. Craig Russell illustrates a tale of ancient Baghdad, you have caught a glimpse of this Arabian splendor. Yet Corben’s work is fully painted and verges on the three-dimensional, immersing the reader in an adventure that is a tale for the ages.

It’s amazing that NEW TALES OF THE ARABIAN NIGHTS has never been reprinted since its release from HEAVY METAL books in ’79. This is a towering work of graphic storytelling that deserves to be enjoyed by modern audiences. Yes, there is Corben’s trademark eroticism, but it’s far less tame than the rampant nudity of DEN or JEREMY BROOD. Corben’s women (and leading men) are idealized version of beauty, i.e. exactly what you want to see in a sweeping, epic fantasy adventure.

The colors here are simply out of this world–they have to be seen to be believed. (Click on any of these images for a larger version.) It seems to me that artists don’t color in such a broad palette anymore–NEW TALES is like a huge, heaping pile of gold and jewels, gleaming in all the colors of the rainbow and the subtle shades in between. From the green, rotting flesh of corpse-warriors to the red-gold skies above the Land of the Jinn to the blue waters of a moonlight ocean, Corben never ceases to amaze in these pages.

In his introduction to the volume, Harlan Ellison writes: “This is Corben at his consummate best…[Corben and Strnad] have have struck to the burning core of the myth of desire that fires the wild child in all of us…Never before, and perhaps never again, will they create something so universal and so rich with the scent of permanence. They have given us Sindbad, in all his wonder and wildness.”

I certainly can’t say it any better than that. For any fan of Corben’s work, or for those who want to find out what all the fuss is about, this is THE book to get.

And if you have to pay 50 or 60 bucks for it, don’t hesitate. It’s worth every penny and more.

How can one put a price on such a lovely dream?

I am so ready for my pre-ordered copy of the new CREEPY PRESENTS RICHARD CORBEN collection. Should be here by next week…

THE BOOK OF CTHULHU II

Click to enlarge

This October is going to be extra-creepy…

THE BOOK OF CTHULHU II arrives from Night Shade Books on October 16. I am thrilled to have my story “This Is How the World Ends” among the contents, along with 23 other stories by such luminaries as Neil Gaiman, Laird Barron, Michael Chabon, Caitlin R. Kiernan, W.H. Pugmire, Fritz Leiber, and many other talented folks.

The first BOOK OF CTHULHU came out last year to stellar reviews and was called “the ultimate Cthulhu anthology.” So this second volume is bound to deliver the horror goods.

Here is the complete table of contents:

“Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar” by Neil Gaiman
“Nor the Demons Down Under the Sea (1957)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“This Is How the World Ends” by John R. Fultz
“The Drowning at Lake Henpin” by Paul Tobin
“The Ocean and All Its Devices” by William Browning Spencer
“Take Your Daughters to Work” by Livia Llewellyn
“The Big Fish” by Kim Newman
“Rapture of the Deep” by Cody Goodfellow
“Once More from the Top” by A. Scott Glancy
“Hour of the Tortoise” by Molly Tanzer
“I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee” by Christopher Reynaga
“Objects from the Gilman-Waite Collection” by Ann K. Schwader
“Of Melei, of Ulthar” by Gord Sellar
“A Gentleman from Mexico” by Mark Samuels
“The Hands that Reek and Smoke” by W. H. Pugmire
“Akropolis” by Matt Wallace
“Boojum” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
“The Nyarlathotep Event” by Jonathan Wood
“The Black Brat of Dunwich” by Stanley C. Sargent
“The Terror from the Depths” by Fritz Leiber
“Black Hill” by Orrin Grey
“The God of Dark Laughter” by Michael Chabon
“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner
“Hand of Glory” by Laird Barron

Six Months to SEVEN KINGS

Hear that distant thunder?
The second volume in the Books of the Shaper trilogy
is now only six months from worldwide release.
SEVEN KINGS drops in January 2013.

Richard Anderson’s blood-curdling cover for SEVEN KINGS.
(Yes, that is a Giant-King with a battle axe.)

The great Esteban Maroto did this magnificent painting of THE BIRTHGRAVE’s heroine for the German translation of the book.

Summer rolls on, and so do the books!  Today I’m going to focus on a book that I’m right in the middle of reading: Tanith Lee’s
THE BIRTHGRAVE.

First published in 1975, it was Lee’s first “adult fantasy” novel, which is a fascinating term that doesn’t get used anymore by publishers and marketing. When you say “adult fantasy” to the average person today they think you’re talking about some kind of pornography. But in the 60s and 70s the term was widely used to indicate works of fantasy that were not children’s books. I guess the term was replaced by “Mature Readers”–or maybe we just grew out of the need to be so specific about the content of fantasy books.

Lee had published a children’s book before THE BIRTHGRAVE, but this was her official debut as a writer of fantasy for adults. You can tell the original publisher (DAW) knew they had discovered something special because this text appeared above  the title “To rank with LeGuin, Brackett, Norton, here is…Tanith Lee.” Even as a first-time novelist, she was lightning in a bottle.

Cover by John Kaiine for the awesome new Norilana/TaLeKa edition

THE BIRTHGRAVE is a compelling novel of magic and adventure that showcases the emergence of one of fantasy’s true giants. Tanith Lee has been among my all-time favorite authors since I discovered DEATH’S MASTER in a used bookstore back in the late 80s. That sent me scrambling to acquire the entire TALES FROM THE FLAT EARTH series (of which DM is the second book). I had no idea at the time that she had written a previous trilogy that began with THE BIRTHGRAVE only a few short years before penning the first Flat Earth novel (NIGHT’S MASTER). Now, thanks to the great Vera Nazarian and the TaLeKa imprint of her wonderful Norilana Books, THE BIRTHGRAVE has been re-released in a gorgeous hardcover version.

The striking cover of the new edition is by John Kaiine, Lee’s husband, and the interior includes artwork by the author herself. As much as I love this cover, the exotic imagery and superb visuals of Lee’s prose (even at this formative stage in her career) had me searching out the covers of previous editions. Boy, did I hit the motherload. There were terrific covers by artists such as Ken Kelley, George Barr, and Peter A. Jones, as well as many others. But my favorite image of them all comes from (of all things) the German translation of the novel—a painting of the protagonist by the great Esteban Maroto.

You can tell Maroto did his best to create a fully realized vision of the book’s nameless heroine, who wakes up inside an erupting volcano and slowly rediscovers her past as she travels a world of savage tribes, decadent cities, and the ruins of a vast empire of sorcery. When Lee writes in the sword-and-sorcery mode, she is unashamed and totally committed to it. There is dark magic, demonic forces, cruel sorcerers, lost races, bloodthirsty barbarians, swordplay, romance, and everything else you could want from a fantastic adventure.

Cover by Peter A. Jones from a 1985 edition

Lee’s prose is so gorgeous I often have to stop reading just to re-read a passage and dissect its construction (it’s the writer in me obsessing over marvelous language). Yet the narrative moves and flows, never dragging. The amnesiac protagonist is possessed of miraculous sorcery that seems as natural to her as breathing, and like many of Lee’s books the male/female relationship of the lead characters is complex, paradoxical, and visceral. These characters are DEEP, with many layers. Even Darak, the savage bandit-lord who alternately loves and hates the heroine, cannot be fit into the stereotypical “noble barbarian” role.

Lee’s understanding of psychology and her insight into the human soul, are as important to the story as the battles, spells, and magical visions that make it so mesmerizing. Publisher’s Weekly said the novel’s protagonist was “…as tough as Conan the Barbarian but more convincing.” Take a look at Maroto’s painting (above) and you can see that. I must add that there is far more sorcery and magic here than in any Conan tale, but there is enough swashbuckling and sword-swinging to satisfy fans of the famous Cimmerian as well. This was the mid-70s, afterall, a golden age for sword and sorcery if there ever was one. Yet believe me when I say that this story is a timeless experience, as fresh today as when it was written. Lee is one of the few authors whose work never goes out of style for discriminating fantasy readers.

Cover by Ken Kelly (year unknown)

What usually happens to me when I read a Tanith Lee novel is happening again: I find myself reading slower and slower in order to prolong the experience that is giving me so much pleasure. There are only a few other authors who hit me this way: Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, and Tolkien are the best examples. She really is that good, which is probably why she has been called one of Fantasy’s Grandmasters, as well as the Princess Royal of Fantasy. Put simply, Lee is a master storyteller in the best sense of the word, and THE BIRTHGRAVE is immensely inspiring because it was the beginning of a career that would rock the foundation of the fantasy genre. I should add there that the book was nominated for a Nebula the year it came out.

I am so very grateful to Norilana Press for re-releasing not only this true classic of fantasy, but many other volumes of Lee’s out of print works. (I made sure to snap up the first three FLAT EARTH hardcover editions as they were released over the past two or three years.) The next two books in the BIRTHGRAVE Trilogy will also be released by Norilana: VAZKOR, SON OF VAZKOR and QUEST FOR THE WHITE WITCH. (Can’t wait!) There will also be more FLAT EARTH books, including a brand-new one eventually.

I encourage everybody reading this to check out Norliana’s TaLeKa page to see all the fantastic Tanith Lee books they have available, as well as their ambitious list of Forthcoming Titles: http://www.norilana.com/norilana-taleka.htm#current