Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Viking Prince


A full fifteen years before Marvel Comics brought Conan the Barbarian to the newsstands, another sword wielding hero stalked across the four color pages of DC Comics' anthology title The Brave and the Bold. Created and originally written by Robert Kanigher, The Viking Prince premiered in B&B issue #1 in 1955 with art by the legendary Joe Kubert. For a little over two dozen issues, Jon the titular Viking prince would fight monsters, mages, and madmen and rescue maidens and mermaids, all illustrated with Kubert's amazing brushwork.
And the best thing is, now you can get all of The Viking Prince's adventures in one volume, a hefty full-color hardback available at comic book shops, bookstores and from Amazon.com. This stuff has been hard to come by for many years, a lot of the stories having never been reprinted. I can remember first discovering Viking Prince in the early 1970s as a reprint in a Brave & Bold Hundred Page comic. I was familiar with Joe Kubert mostly from his work on DC's war hero, Sgt. Rock and from a short but very impressive stint on Tarzan. Viking prince showed me a different side of Kubert's work. The Viking Prince leaped and ran through a world of swords and sorcery and high adventure, very much in the tradition of Hal Foster's Prince Valiant, but with an action oriented spin. I hunted down any reprints of Viking Prince I could find, and looking through this new volume, I see that I'd only collected about half the stories. Great to have them all in one place. The stories, mostly written by Bob Haney after Kanigher got the ball rolling, seem a bit dated now, but the artwork, Odin's Blood, the artwork. The first few stories look sort of like Kubert's Tor (a caveman hero) work, with slightly cartoonish faces and 'slick' inking. But after only a few stories we get into prime Kubert, the same sort of art he would do on Hawkman and Sgt. Rock. His inking becomes looser and more detailed, his brushwork more thick and expressive and his page layouts more experimental. Kubert's work has weight on the page. Just amazing stuff, and you can watch the evolution of his style as the series progresses.
A final note. Though I mentioned that Kanigher left the book after just a couple of stories, he would return to the character in 1966 to team the Viking Prince with Sgt. Rock in World War Two, a crossover that would make Win Scott Eckert proud. How did these two heroes meet? Ah, that would be telling. Find out yourself by picking up this volume of sword & sorcery goodness. I've already spent a lot of time just marveling at the art. Highly recommended.

Up Under the Roof


A few posts back, I mentioned that some filmmakers had done a short film adapting Manly Wade Wellman's short story Up Under the Roof', and how I hoped to get a chance to see it. I got my wish. Darin Read, the director of Up Under the Roof ,was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the movie.
I watched it this weekend. Watched it twice, in fact. I viewed the film, then reread the short story, then watched the movie again and I can tell you that the film was great. It's a beautifully done adaptation, very loyal to the subject matter, but with some nice cinematic touches. I think that's what most fans or readers want from an adaptation. Something that has reverence for the source but adds those things that only a movie can add. As the old saying goes, a book is not a film and a film is not a book. There's a happy medium in there somewhere. I usually think of my all time favorite film, The Maltese Falcon ,and how it is almost scene for scene Dashiell Hammett's novel, but filtered through director John Houston's perceptions. While I think one can go too far in sticking to a source (I think Watchmen did.) we all know how far someone can veer from it. (I'm thinking of Conan films, past and future here.)
Anyway, Up Under the Roof is a somewhat autobiographical story of a young boy (Twelve in the story. Ten in the film.) living a lonely existence among a family which often ignores him. The time period is the depression era, the 1930s. The story originally appeared in Weird Tales in 1938. One summer the boy begins to hear strange noises coming from the attic above his room and he slowly comes to realize that there is a malevolent thing creeping around up there, looking for a way to get to him. Of course his family, who seldom pay him any attention anyway, are no help and he realizes that he is alone in the dark with whatever it is that lurks above.
The film has a voice-over narration which consists almost entirely of Wellman's prose and this helps to set the scene. There are a couple of great visual bits extrapolated from the story which I won't go into detail about here because I'm hoping some of you will get to see the film. The period detail is good and the performances of professional quality. This has the look of a much bigger film.
The best thing about Up Under the Roof for me though is that it feels like Wellman's story. Some of it was even darn close to what I saw in may imagination as I read the story. Read has got some great director's chops. He knows how to tell a story on film for sure. Anyway, as you can probably tell, I was very impressed with Up Under the Roof. I think any fan of Manly Wade Wellman's would be as well. I've provided a link before but here it is again. Check out the trailer at:

http://www.upundertheroof.com/

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Walk Like Superman


My pal Cliff recommended I read Superman issue 701, the first part in a series called Grounded, where Superman decides to walk across the country. The premise sounds kind of goofy but as the man of steel walks along, he stops to help a guy fix his truck, eats lunch in a diner, seriously messes with some low level drug dealers (without any violence) and talks a young girl out of leaping to her death from a tall building. He doesn't catch her or grab her or anything. He just talks to her. This is why no other Superhero is Superman. He's not driven by vengeance. His parents weren't murdered by thugs. He wasn't the victim of some strange radioactive accident. Basically he was just brought up right, and he uses his powers for good. He does the right thing because it's the right thing to do.
I was thinking about that this morning when I went grocery shopping early. I had wheeled the cart to my truck and put the bags in the floorboard and I realized I had parked far away from the buggy return. But I walked the buggy back to the store because I knew that was what Superman would do. He wouldn't leave it to roll away. As I came back out of the store, an elderly man yelled to me, "Thank you for doing that!"
I stopped and he walked up and told me that a few weeks before someone had let a cart roll away in the very same parking lot and it had dinged his car. He just wanted to say thanks. I wished him a good morning and went to the truck.
As I was pulling out of the parking lot I saw two young men jogging my way. The timing would make them have to stop unless I waited to pull out into the road. There was no one coming in either direction, but I waited so that they could run uninteruppted. One of them made eye contact and he yelled, "Thanks for stopping, man. You have a good morning!"
Small things, I know, but it made me feel good. I'd done the right thing twice and darned if people hadn't actually thanked me. I'm not telling you this to blow my own horn. I am sometimes amazed at how selfish and petty I can be. I know Superman isn't real and none of us can ever be Superman. But maybe once and a while things would be a little better if we could walk like him.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Crossovers Volume 2

Just finished up Win Scott Eckert's Crossovers Volume 2 and had just as much fun with it as I did with volume one. In case you've forgotten, Crossovers is a massive listing of team-ups between fictional characters over the years in books, comics, television and movies. Volume 2 covers the period between the 1930s and the far future. Batman meets Daredevil. Vampirella teams up with the Catwoman. Bill Pronzini's Nameless Detective meet's Marcia Muller's PI Sharon McCone. Doctor Adam Spektor meets Doctor Solar and fights Dracula.
Speaking of Dracula, I noticed that the early to mid 1970s were absolutely chock full of monsters. The Comics Code Authority had eased up on the restrictions on using Zombies and Vampires after years of those subjects being taboo and suddenly Spiderman was teaming up with or battling Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, The Ghost Rider, Werewolf by Night, the Man Wolf, Morbius the Living Vampire, and so on. Then Dracula fought Werewolf by Night, Doctor Strange, and of all characters, the Silver Surfer.
For you Star Trek fans there's a big section covering the various Trek crossovers and fans of Lee Falk's the Phantom will see versions of the Ghost Who Walks teaming up with all kinds of historical figures and other comic strip characters.
Anyway, as I noted about volume one, if you're a fan of pop culture you need to get your hands on Crossovers. Hours of entertaining reading and you'll doubtless find stuff you'll want to track down and add to your collection. I know I did.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Swords and Dark Magic


Finally got my hands on this collection of new sword & sorcery stories and overall it's a winner. Edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders, this book contains seventeen new stories. The main draw for me was 'Red Pearls', a new Elric story by Michael Moorcock. Mike is kind of the bridge between the old guard of S&S and the new guys. Elric is, of course, Mike's signature character and one of the classic S&S heroes. Moorcock had stories in some of the earliest S&S collections, like L. Sprague de Camp's The Spell of Seven and The Fantastic Swordsmen, and he was a contributor to Lin Carter's Flashing Swords series in the 1970s.
Red Pearl's returns to the old days when Elric was a traveling sword for hire along with his friend Moonglum. As Stan Lee used to say, this one's got it all. Sword fights, sorcery, non-human races, and even a dragon or two. Mike's prose isn't as pulpy as in the old days, but then he's grown considerably as a writer in the last forty something years, so that's to be expected. It still feels like a classic Elric tale.
Other standouts are Glen Cook's Tides Elba: A Tale of the Black Company, Bill Willingham's Thieves of Daring, which strikes me as a nice little turn of Robert E. Howard's Conan story Rogues in the House, and Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Sea Troll's Daughter. I've been running across stories by Kiernan in a lot of anthologies lately and they always seem to be among the best written tales in any of the books, including this one. She can really really write.
I did have a couple of problems with the anthology. In the introduction, the editors keep calling Robert E. Howard's Hyborian age Hyperborean. They aren't the first to make that error but it grates a bit. Their short history of sword and sorcery is a little wonky, but basically correct. The biggest problem is that a couple of the stories simply aren't sword & sorcery. K.J. Parker's A Rich Full Week is a great fantasy tale with some really cool ideas, but no swords to speak of. Much as I like Jack Vance, I never agreed that his stuff was S&S, any more than Terry Pratchett, so the Michael Shea's Vance inspired Hew the Tintmaster doesn't work for me either. But hey, de Camp included H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith as well as Vance in his collections and neither author really qualifies as an S&S writer either, and Carter included Vance in Flashing Swords, so there ya go. Kind of a tradition.
I haven't gotten around to Joe Abercrombie's contribution yet. Though I really liked his stand alone novel, Best Served Cold, I got bogged down in the second volume of his First Law trilogy and haven't returned so while I'm sure I'll read his story, I'm in no particular hurry.
So what I'd like to see now is some enterprising publisher put together a collection of classic sword and sorcery. You know, Robert E. Howard, C.L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, Charles R. Saunders, Karl Edward Wagner, and of course, Michael Moorcock. To round it out, some second stringers like Lin Carter's Thongor, John Jake's Brak, Henry Kuttner's Elak, and so forth. But no Vance. Sorry Sprague.