PS Art Books
Surely you are acquainted with those luxurious “archive” editions of Golden Age and Silver Age comics. Sturdy, well-bound hardcovers with lush paper stock and crisply reproduced and digitally cleaned-up artwork, containing informative and appreciative ancillary material. All the big publishers feature a line of these. Marvel does them. DC does them. Dark Horse does them.
And Pete Crowther does them.
What?!? Little old PS Publishing, better known for its superior and expansive catalog of fiction and its regular original anthology Postscripts? How could this be?
Well, it could be because Pete Crowther loves old comics and is a man of consummate vision and professionalism whose passions drive his business. And so now there exists PS Art Books, and what a product they are turning out!
Given the remit of PS Publishing, it follows logically that the comics being reproduced in this new line are all fantastical. And the firm has unearthed a forgotten treasure trove of great work. They have turned to the output of two second-tier publishers who once had flourishing empires and produced much good work, employing the top talent of the era. Those firms are Harvey Comics and ACG.
If folks recall Harvey Comics these days, it’s because of their humorous titles for kids. Richie Rich, Casper, Little Dot, et al. And as for ACG (American Comics Group), they bequeathed us the immortal Herbie Popnecker, the Fat Fury (whose own archives from Dark Horse are well worth your pennies).
But in the 1950s, both firms featured a number of titles in the mold of the more famous ones pioneered by the infamous EC Comics, with their Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, and other well-known stablemates.
The Harvey Horrors books include Witches Tales (comprising four PS volumes), Chamber of Chills (four volumes), Tomb of Terror (three volumes), and Black Cat Mystery (four volumes). The ACG books are Forbidden Worlds (sixteen volumes) and Adventures into the Unknown (twenty-one volumes). All titles comes in three states, ranging from an edition of only twenty-six copies in slipcase with extras, to the still posh baseline incarnation.
I’ve had the privilege to thoroughly read the first volume each of Witches Tales (hardcover, £29.99, 288 pages, ISBN 978-1-84863-208-0), Forbidden Worlds (hardcover, £29.99, 288 pages, ISBN 978-1-84863-215-8), and Chamber of Chills (hardcover, £29.99, 288 pages, ISBN 978-1-84863-160-1), while also gleefully fondling Tomb of Terror and Adventures into the Unknown. I can report that seldom has so much pleasure been contained in such elegant packages.
Let’s discuss the art first. You’ll encounter beautiful work by such well-known artists as Lee Elias, Al Williamson, Warren Kremer, and Bob Powell. But even when the illustrations derive from the pen of an unknown fellow, the craftsmanship level remains incredibly high. Whereas many of today’s comics seem to me at times to be sloppy, rushed, decompressed, and feature poor draughtsmanship, these old books display an invariant high degree of story-telling proficiency. Not to say that we do not occasionally encounter some botched anatomy or bad staging. But overall, the intelligent and creative panel construction and page design, as well as the realistic depictions of what exists and the marvelously surreal depictions of monsters and imaginary venues, all conduce toward enraptured page turning.
As for the scripting: well, unfortunately the names of most of the writers have been lost to the dustbin of history. But what we do have are the stories on the page, and they range from genuinely disturbing to outrageously daft. What most strikes me is the lack of boundaries between subgenres. The pop-culture marketplace made no fiddling literary distinctions among weird tropes. This is truly John Clute’s big tent of fantastika. Ghosts consort with aliens. Spaceships and wizards coexist. Lost civilizations stand side by side with cursed urban antique stores. It’s all grist for the mill, enjoyable both by adolescent and adult audiences of the time. And no punches are pulled, with many a gruesome death and “unhappy” ending. One can see why these comics, led by the excesses of EC, ended up in Congressional hearings.
Appearing in 1951, they hold no personal nostalgia for me, as yet unborn in that year. Still, I found them compelling reading, both on the sheer storytelling plane, and also as brilliant cultural artifacts of another era. When you add in the extras, such as essays by Joe Hill, Ramsey Campbell, and others, and the reproduction of charming advertisements too, you approach reading nirvana. Short of getting your own time-travel machine and voyaging back to 1951, you’ll not find the equivalent pleasures elsewhere.
Perhaps you recall that marvelous tome from 2009, by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, entitled Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel. A brilliant blend of witty graphics and clever text, the book recounted the “facts” concerning a primitive, Zelig-like robot forgotten by the history books. Now the team of Bennett and Guinan have returned with a similar volume fully the equal of their first masterpiece: Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention (Abrams, hardcover, $24.95, 176 pages, ISBN 978-0-8109-9661-8). The book even slots neatly into the Boilerplate universe, with guest appearances by Boilerplate and his inventor, Archie Campion.
This time the jumping-off platform for the charming fabulistic excursion consists of the famed dime-novel adventures of boy Edison Frank Reade, Jr. This series was once immensely popular, and in fact received a facsimile reproduction in a number of hardcover volumes put out by Garland Publishing in the 1980s—hardcovers now more rare than the original pulps, if one is to judge by the online marketplace. But Guinan and Bennett remedy this inaccessibility with a generous sampling of the primary texts.
Frank Reade, Jr., was the template for Tom Swift and a host of other young technophilic geniuses who would follow. The thrilling, gadget-heavy exploits of the Reade Family—Frank Sr., Frank Jr., Young Frank, and sister Kate—stretched over seventy years, from circa 1867 to 1937. The authors of this volume collate and extend all the canonical outings into a kind of affecting family saga, fully rationalized and coherent, complete with a secret skeleton in the closet, using the discovery by Kate of hidden journals as their framing device.
The mostly American historical events, with some global detours, of these seven decades are summarized in crisp fashion. Reade’s period attitudes involving prevalent prejudices are neither excused nor overly condemned, but dealt with in sensitive fashion that does not detract from the blood and thunder fun. Kate Reade plays a larger part than she did in the original canon, making for an agreeable feminist balance to all the testosterone.
And the illustrations are just superb, a blend of untampered-with originals and seamlessly altered, ingenious compositions that manage to look both fresh and antique. Your eyes will pop at certain double-page spreads that are both purely gorgeous and evocative of proto-SF frissons.
Three Universes of Short Fiction
The times they are a-changing, especially in the realm of self-publishing. Acres of verbiage have been expended on the pros and cons of authors doing it for themselves. We will have to content ourselves here with saying, “Not all tomes produced in this fashion are valueless.” Here’s one worthy candidate: Cherubimbo (Xlibris, trade paper, $19.99, 190 pages, ISBN 978-1-4628-4731-0) by Gabriel S. De Anda. With prior publication credits in several respectable zines, these stories come pre-vetted by an editorial acumen that is so often absent in other DIY productions. A practicing lawyer, De Anda infuses a couple of pieces with stefnal legal expertise, in the vein of Charles Harness. Time travel offers him lots of room for playful speculation, particularly in the emotionally resonant “1969.” And some colorful posthumanism informs “My Year To Be A Horse.” De Anda’s touch is solid yet light-hearted, a winning one-two punch.
In its young existence, Merry Blacksmith Press has already published vibrant collections from Lou Antonelli and Don D’Ammassa. Now comes Dan Pearlman’s A Giant in the House & Other Excesses (trade paper, $13.95, 198 pages, ISBN 978-0-6125-54713-8), and it’s exemplary. Pearlman’s writing has never been more polished, nor more neatly carpentered, nor more clever, nor exhibited greater range. Favoring the surreal and absurd over hard SF, his tales inhabit the stranger corners of existence, even when their surface seems purely mimetic, as with “Two-Time Losers,” about an adult-education class. The wistful title story might have come from the pen of Italo Calvino, while others conjure up comparisons to John Collier (“Mariah My Soul-Mate”) and Rhys Hughes (“Double Occupancy”). All are marked by vividly embellished prose: “The television stood like a toothless mouth retracted against the wall, silent now after disgorging its bellyful of morning news. . .”
Mere mention that the accomplished, always surprising and frequently brilliant Nancy Kress has a new collection out should send Asimov’s readers running to their online retailers and/or brick-and-mortar bookstores for the latest fix of her clear-eyed futurism. In fact, five of these nine stories first appeared in these pages as a foretaste of Fountain of Age (Small Beer Press, trade paper, $16.00, 384 pages, ISBN 978-1-931520-45-4). They are “By Fools Like Me,” “End Game,” “The Erdmann Nexus,” the title piece, and “Safeguard.” I will assume your familiarity with these, and tell you about the other four. “The Kindness of Strangers” features aliens so nice they are horrible, in a parable about overpopulation. The career of a warped gene-modded youngster and his unforeseen place in the larger world is the theme of “First Rites.” “Images of Anna” concerns a woman who exhibits a strange relation to cameras and photography. And “Laws of Survival” limns a post-disaster world where love is both a trap and a path out. Together with the five items from this zine, you have a full spectrum of wonders indeed.
Alien Space Bats Rule!
It’s been eight long years since the field was graced with a novel by Tony Daniel, a writer whose short fiction actually debuted in these pages (“The Passage of Night Trains,” 1990) and who in that far-off year of 2004 was seen to be moving from strength to strength. In terms of audience, that’s almost two generations of readers come into the field who, to their unwitting detriment, might have little awareness of his name. Whether dictates of the marketplace or of personal creativity or both kept him away, we shall not inquire, for such speculation is ultimately bootless. Let us instead rejoice at his return, heralded by the novel Guardian of Night (Baen, trade paper, $13.00, 334 pages, ISBN 978-1-4516-3802-8). It’s on a high par with his prior work, though perhaps more streamlined, more compact, and less multivalent.
In the year 2075, Earth is home to a mere 180 million souls. The planet and human civilization have been decimated by alien attacks and plundering. The aliens—humans call them the sceeve, though they call themselves Guardians—come for our gadgets and natural resources, ignoring or peremptorily smushing humans, in the same way we treat ants in our way. Naturally, mankind has fought back, landing some telling blows but generally outclassed. When the sceeve finally withdrew, humans earned a breathing space. But that interregnum is about to come to an end. The sceeve are closing down the permissible borders of human space. They have dispatched a ship with a megaweapon to threaten our planet. (Those readers who enjoyed the infernal device at the heart of Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World will be amused to see how Daniel extends the remit of his very similar gadget.) And yet, oddly, the aliens are also showing signs of splintering from within, as a lone Guardian nicknamed “the Poet” runs his pirate broadcasts of “Mutualist treason.” In short, Daniel picks a time of maximum uncertainty and chaos for his exciting tale.
We witness all this through a large cast of utterly graspable humans, mostly military and political folks, of all ranks and capacities and temperments. Daniel has a keen eye for the kinds of in extremis thinking and behavior that such a wartime situation would engender, acts of desperation, resignation, wild courage, and irrational hope. He paints neither pure villains nor pure heroes, but conflicted individuals each striving to do the best that their own inner light reveals. The reader will certainly inhabit this shattered milieu in very intense fashion, thanks to the believability of these characters.
But Daniel goes a big step further, by sharing the narrative point of view with the Guardians. He builds up the weird physiology and culture and psychology of these aliens with the pure intensity and skill of a Hal Clement. His Guardians have evolved partly in vacuum conditions, and can sustain naked exposure to space. They are “humanoid, bilaterally symmetric, but with a facial muzzle of folded membranes similar to the multiple crenellations of a fruit bat’s nose.” And they have fluorocarbon blood and communicate by scents!
Our main figure among the Guardians is Arid Ricimer, apostate from the conquering creed of his species. By the time the novel’s done, he’s nearly stolen the show from the human characters. And he’s exemplified the pitfalls and benefits of always seeking to understand the Other.
Along with his living creations, Daniel does a superb job of extrapolation on vectors of new quantum and nano technology, as testified to not only by the idea-stuffed story but also by his extensive appendix of research.
Critic John Clute in his Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry on Tony Daniel refers to the writer’s “sustained exuberance,” and that quality is manifest here. Daniel’s scenario would, in the hands of, say, Cormac McCarthy or Nevil Shute, have resulted in a stick-your-head-in-the-oven tale of helpless resignation to fate. Instead, given Daniel’s touch, we get a story which, while still acknowledging the seriousness of affairs, refuses to succumb to despair. This indomitable attitude, I sometimes believe, is what truly separates genre SF from even those mainstream works that employ a high quotient of genuine speculative tropes.
The Book That Sailed to Immortality
Once upon a time, in the far-off year of 1923, a strange handcrafted book was printed, titled The Ship That Sailed to Mars. Its author was William Timlin, and his uncanny tale had begun life as a bedtime fable for his children. But two years’ worth of repurposed labor had resulted in many beautiful watercolors and plates of calligraphic text, all bound into a luxurious book. Two thousand copies were printed—partly subsidized by Timlin—and made their way into the world. There was never another edition, causing collectors eventually to spend up to fifteen thousand dollars for a copy. The title remained legendary and inaccessible, until now.
All this and much more you can learn from a loving, perspicacious introduction written by a talented modern and simpatico artist named John Howe, an essay that is attached to the Calla Editions reprint of The Ship That Sailed to Mars (hardcover, $40.00, 208 pages, ISBN 978-1-60660-017-7). Calla is an imprint of our beloved, invaluable Dover Books, the folks responsible for so many other fine reprints. And in fact this facsimile edition reminds me of another title of theirs that I cherished as a teenager: the Kelmscott Press edition of William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World.
But whereas the Morris reprint was only a sturdy trade paperback, this volume is an oversized hardcover with no beautiful touches missing. Marbled end papers, every page featuring an unprinted verso side, high quality paper stock—it would not surprise me if this edition itself became highly collectible.
But having lavished praise on the production, what of the story and art? Does it fulfill the expectations engendered by rarity?
Howe compares Timlin’s paintings to Dulac and Sime, and he’s spot on. But there are also flavors of the self-taught splendors of Tolkien and Blake; the high professionalism of Kay Nielsen; the landscapes of Turner and the Hudson Valley School; and the lush imagery of the Pre-Raphaelites. The Martian Princess lolling on her couch might recall Edward Burne-Jones to you.
And Timlin had a flair for picking just the precisely perfect moments from his tale to illustrate. For instance, the ship flying through a cloud of star-stuff is the quintessential Conceptual Breakthrough instant.
The story itself, likened by Howe to Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927; 1943), is a brilliant balancing act between allegory and adventure. It’s never twee, but always clear-eyed in its hard-won innocence. Savvy readers will hear echoes of E.R. Eddison and Lord Dunsany, as well as Winsor McCay. But most significantly, I think, David Lindsay and his A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) serve as a benchmark. The eccentric vision of a lonely dreamer, made manifest for the illumination of all those lucky enough to encounter it.
Copyright © 2012 Paul Di Filippo's