There’s a strange divide between superhero fiction and the rest of SFF. It may be because superheroes started out in comics. Almost all the tropes — the spandex, the tights, the rules of combat enforced by the Comics Code of the 1950s — come out of those comic book origins. As more and more superheroes hit the big screen, it hasn’t been surprising to see them in novels, some of them on the literary side of SFF (like Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, Carrie Vaughn’s “Golden Age” books), and many of them looking at how those tropes play out when you’re not in a visual medium.
So how do you classify superhero webcomics that play with the tropes in the way that those SFF novels have done? Are they fantasy or are they superhero comics, or are those lines really more fluid than the divisions warrant? Either way, three of my favorite webcomics are superhero comics and all of them look at the genre in a way that questions our assumptions about how superheroes work.
What happens when a superhero gets married to a nice, normal girl — and what kind of strengths does it require to be married to someone with a secret identity? What does it matter if you can kick butt and take names if you’re not contributing to solving the big world problems? What is it like to be an 8 year-old superhero? Keep reading and find out how three very different comics are looking at superheroes (and why you should be reading them).
Jim Beard made quite a splash in the New Pulp community when he introduced an original occult detective character in Sgt. Janus, Spirit-Breaker in 2012. There has been a rich history of Holmesian occult detectives, but Beard appeared to have been the first to hit upon the brilliant concept of having each short story in the volume narrated by a different client of the detective. It was a simple, but highly effective means of giving eight different perspectives on the character.
Beard also took the unexpected decision to kill off his character at the end of the last story in the collection. Imagine if A Study in Scarlet had concluded with Holmes plunging to his death at the Reichenbach Falls and you have a clear notion of what a bold and unexpected move it was to make for an author who had already managed to raise the bar in a genre that many believed had been exhausted of fresh ideas.
I know almost nothing about Thomas Burnett Swann… other than that he wrote a lot of fantasy novels in the decade between 1966 and 1976, most of them published as paperback originals by DAW. He died of cancer in 1976 at the age of 48, bringing a very promising career to an abrupt end.
Wildside Press has reprinted much of his work as print-on-demand trade paperbacks. But other than their efforts, virtually none of his novels remain in print today.
I didn’t pay much attention to Swann in my formative years, despite that fact that he had numerous novels on the shelves. His work — peopled with satyrs, dryads, and minotaurs — had a classical, almost pastoral, fantasy feel to it, which did nothing to appeal to my hungry-for-adventure teen mind. His fans have done a much better job of summarizing it than I ever could in his Wikipedia entry:
The bulk of Swann’s fantasy fits into a rough chronology that begins in ancient Egypt around 2500 BC and chronicles the steady decline of magic and mythological races such as dryads, centaurs, satyrs, selkies and minotaurs. The coming of more “advanced” civilisations constantly threatens to destroy their pre-industrial world, and they must continually seek refuge wherever they can. They see the advent of Christianity as a major tragedy; the Christians regard magic and mythological beings as evil and seek to destroy the surviving creatures… An undercurrent of sexuality runs through all of these stories. Many of Swann’s characters are sexually adventurous and regard sexual repression as spiritually damaging. Casual and sometimes permanent nudity is common.
Swann is well-regarded as a writer with a fine poetic sense, by those who remember him, and every few years I promise myself I’ll try one of his novels. I haven’t managed it yet, but I did have the chance to buy a copy of one of his harder-to-find books: Wolfwinter, published by Ballantine in 1972.
If you read my posts with any kind of regularity, you’ve seen me refer fairly frequently to the same Fantasy and SF classics, whether I’m talking about my own reading habits, or just looking for examples of the topics I’m discussing. So you know that LOTR, Chronicles of Narnia, Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stores, etc., keep turning up.
In part this is because I really love these books and in part it’s because in many instances (as with Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Princess Bride) these works are community property, as it were, and I can be pretty sure that in referring to them, I’m going to a common source that most of you will recognize.
Recently, however, John O’Neill’s post on Emma Bull’s novels reminded me that sometimes you need to talk about books people might not know. It’s in that spirit that I’d like bring to your attention the seven books that form Paul O. Williams’s The Pelbar Cycle, originally published between 1981 and 1985.
Each book is a self-contained adventure (I didn’t read them in order until I had them all and didn’t have a problem with it), but the overall story arc tells of the re-uniting of human groups which became isolated after “the time of fire” and evolved separately into distinct (though recognizable to us) societal types.
I don’t tend to post negative reviews because, mostly, I can’t be bothered.
You can’t learn much about how to survive the melee from inspecting a corpse.
I’m also aware that my tastes may be special to me. For example, the entire world loved the wonderful Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrionseries, except for me. I simply don’t like the spiraling-disaster-with-redemption-at-the end sub genre. Finally, I’ll also admit I don’t want to roast anybody I may subsequently meet in a professional capacity (who may then take a swing at me, metaphorical or otherwise).
It’s in that not-quite-YA category of 9-14, so I read it to my son “Kurtzhau” a couple of years back when he was 8.
It came complete with a cover quote by Philip “My God, that City is on Caterpillar tracks” Reeve and promised Pulp Tropes and good rip-roaring adventure along the lines of the truly excellent Luke Challenger Adventures.
What it delivered… well it did deliver the Pulp Tropes, but only grudgingly.
It followed the boilerplate children’s fiction structure Kurtzhau once described as “It’s all blah blah blah here’s his uncle and now we’re travelling, and FINALLY you get to the space station.”
Admittedly, until Doctor Sleep, I had been over Stephen King for some time.
I caught up with him in college, falling hard for Salam’s Lot and The Shining, and proceeded to devour anything King I could get my hands on.
That is until I slammed head-first into The Stand.
That experience, much like a really bad bender, left me swearing I’d never, ever, do that again. And just like the days or weeks or even months after that horrible hangover, here I am once again ready to slug down a really strong glass of King – neat.
But this isn’t the Wild Turkey King of my youth – no siree.
This is an aged and far smoother vintage of King; free of what we now know was a fairly serious struggle with substance abuse.
Which totally explains The Stand, if you ask me.
And so having consumed Doctor Sleep, finding it a wonderful and satisfying with no nasty after taste, I now carry the experience a bit further with Joyland.
The top article on the Black Gateblog last month was Elwin Cotman’s detailed look back at the Space Opera of famed Anime creator Leiji Matsumoto.
Second on the list was Jon Sprunk’s survey of the Worst Fantasy Films of All Time, followed by our tribute to the 80s science fiction & fantasy of Bluejay Books.
Fourth was the 12th installment in our ongoing series tracking the latest in Appendix N scholarship: “H.P. Lovecraft, A. Merritt, and Appendix N: Advanced Readings in D&D. Closing out the list is M. Harold Page’s thoughtful response to the question, “So What’s Wrong With (Some) Modern Fantasy?”
The complete Top 50 Black Gate posts in December were:
I think a Christmas fantasy anthology is a great idea. For one thing, there’s a long history of magical Christmas tales, including some of the most famous in the fantasy genre (especially if you’re willing to include Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Jimmy Stewart’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which of course we are).
Connie Willis used to write a semi-regular Christmas fantasy for Asimov’s, and I always thought that was cool. Going by the stellar line-up of authors in Paula Guran’s Season of Wonder, she’s not the only one seduced into writing a yuletide fantasy: Charles de Lint, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, Ellen Kushner, Robert Reed, James Patrick Kelly, Robert Charles Wilson — and of course, Connie Willis — plus many others are all included. Here’s the back cover copy:
Wonders abound with the winter holidays. Yuletide brings marvels and miracles both fantastic and scientific. Christmas spirits can bring haunting holidays, seasonal songs might be sung by unearthly choirs, and magical celebrations are the norm during this very special time of the year. The best stories from many realms of fantasy and a multitude of future universes, gift-wrapped in one spectacular treasury of wintertime wonder.
Paula’s previous anthologies include a wide range of nifty titles, including the altogether splendid Weird Detectives, and Vampires: The Recent Undead, New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, Ghosts: Recent Hauntings,After the End: Recent Apocalypses, and the ongoing The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, which she’s been editing since 2010. She’s practically a one-woman renaissance in fantasy anthologies and we’re having trouble keeping up with her.
I love weapons. No, not guns and rockets (although they can be cool, too). I prefer the weapons of ages past. Swords, axes, spears, arrows, and maces. Just like Napoleon Dynamite, I remember drawing them in my notebooks when I was in school.
When I was younger, the weapons were part of what drew me to fantasy. Science fiction has its laser guns and starships. Horror has axe murderers and vampires. But fantasy takes me back to earlier epochs in human history when people (and nations) settled their differences with bronze and iron.
Fantasy also adds an element of the mystical to these trappings, and one of my favorite literary devices are weapons so famous or powerful they have their own names. There’s just something… well, magical… about these weapons. Just saying their names evokes a world of pageantry and adventure.
I have some that are my favorites, which I’d like to share with you today.
If you’ve been reading my blogs here for a while, you already know how much I love the ElricSaga by Michael Moorcock. So it should be no surprise that this fell blade ranks among my top fantasy weapons of all-time.
A huge, black, rune-covered vampiric sword that sucks the souls from those it kills and transfers a portion of that energy to its wielder, it is the perfect (albeit evil) companion for our tragic hero Elric. Sure, in the end it devoured all life in the universe, but hey, you can’t blame a demonic sword for following its heart.
Recently I’ve found myself thoroughly captivated by early fanzines. I’m not doing a study by any means… I’m just surfing eBay, picking up bargains here and there. And I have to say I’ve been lucky enough to stumble on some marvelous finds.
Each of the fanzines I’ve found has its own unique identity, but there are things they all seem to have in common. For one thing, they are suffused with a marvelous optimism. Science fiction of the 1930s and 40s wasn’t dominated by grim dystopias like The Hunger Games and The Matrix; often it idealized the future, as in Things To Come (1936), or gave us heroes like Buck Rogers. It’s hard to be gloomy when the future is whispering promises of ray guns and a personal jet pack.
But it was more than just that. Immerse yourself in early fandom long enough, and you’ll come to see that interest in science fiction was viewed unquestionably as a virtue, like temperance and personal hygiene. Never mind that society viewed SF as perhaps the lowest form of literature, low-grade children’s entertainment at best; early fans were convinced otherwise, and by the late 40s there was actually evidence to support that line of thinking. SF prepared you for the future, and in a world still startled and horrified by the rapid advances of World War II — and thrown headlong into the Atomic Age by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — preparation of any kind offered a psychological edge, even if just an illusory one, and fans relished the vindication.
Now, I have no doubt that readers of the day were drawn to the pulp magazines by the same things that drew me, decades later: bright covers featuring monsters, dinosaurs, space ships and beautiful women. But the pages of early fanzines are filled with earnest young fans patting each other on the back for their enlightened choice in literature, as if reading science fiction was the vocation of a select elite who took on the task as a social imperative, like early socialists. All while simultaneously expressing giddy excitement at the latest installment of their favorite space opera. It’s funny, and oddly charming, and it doesn’t hurt that many of the fans filling the pages of these slender proto-magazines are fine writers in their own right — and many of them are insightful critics, as well.