Thursday, February 22, 2018

Gahan Wilson: some words and a bunch of cartoons

Recently, I listened to the most excellent folks at Sanctum Secorum talk about Roger Zelazny's fun homage to the Universal monster movies, Sherlock Holmes' London, and HP Lovecraft, A Night in the Lonesome October (1993). You can (and should) listen HERE. The three hosts - Bob Brinkman, Jen Brinkman, and Marc Bruner - were delighted by the book and have a lot of fun discussing it and how it could be used to inspire RPG adventures. 

The funny thing is, unless I missed it (which we all know is entirely probable), they didn't mention one of the coolest aspects of the book: each chapter is illustrated by Gahan Wilson. Wilson is one of the greatest contemporary cartoonists, with a special love for the creepy and bizarre. His cartoons were long mainstays of Playboy and the New Yorker (they might still be for all I know). I grew up reading them in the cartoon collections my dad owned. Later I bought my own books. 

Snuff, hero of A Night in the Lonesome October on the lookout

He also drew a comic for National Lampoon called Nuts. It told the adventures of a young boy called only, The Kid. It's less overtly creepy than most of his work, but it's just as fun, and even a little melancholy sometimes, as any honest examination of being a kid will be.

Wilson is also a writer of some very good weird short stories as well as two fun novels. Many of his stories can by found in the 1997 collection The Cleft and Other Odd Tales. The first novel, Eddy Deco's Last Caper (1987) mixes a noir detective, Lovecraftian monsters, and art deco architecture. In the second, Everybody's Favorite Duck (1988), stand ins for Holmes and Watson face off against stand in for Fantomas, Fu Manchu, and Moriarty during the late 80s. All three books are terrific, playing with all sorts of genre tropes and archetypes, playing with them completely straight as much as flipping them around, as well as featuring more of Wilson's cool comics.

The thing for which most fans today probably know him for is the recently, lamentably, retired Word Fantasy Award HPL trophy. Argue how you will over the appropriateness of HPL as an award, it's a much cooler looking one than the crappy moon and tree they came up with.

What he will be remembered for most, more than his stories, more than his sculpture, are his cartoons. Unlike the more reserved, Gothic-inspired work of Charles Addams, Wilson's are more grotesque, gorier, more in-your-face. He draws on mid-century sci-fi movies, HPL, classic monsters, serial killers, whatever he needs to give you a good, creepy chuckle. His style is also more exaggerated, with weirdly wrinkled skin, piggy eyes, and all sorts of other oddball characteristics that make his work instantly recognizable as well as what makes it so cool looking. Even his straightest looking characters are off in some way and look like they've stepped out of some stranger, weirder world just to the left side of our own. 

Now, some really good cartoons.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Revisiting Children's Books

 If you're not following along with me over at Black Gate (what, you're NOT?), I'm excavating my parts of my childhood and revisiting some of the fantasy that was important to me before the age of sixteen that isn't by J.R.R. Tolkien. I just read Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three (1964), I'm presently reading Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), and next week I'll pick up Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time (1962).

   It was the death of Ursula K. Le Guin which triggered me to do this. As I wrote recently, the Earthsea books were incredibly important to me and my friends. After the Lord of the Rings, they were easily the most-read series among us. I think we had all read them well before we started playing D&D, so their influence went straight into our playing. True names, familiars, wizard colleges, shape changing, it all got thrown into our early games. Of the three authors just mentioned, she was the only one all of us read.

   Everyone I knew seemed to have read A Wrinkle in Time, but I don't know anyone else who read Alexander's books. L'Engle's books don't lend themselves as easily to gaming, but Alexander's do. I definitely included a dozen or so Horned Kings in my games over the decade. My penchant for adding Celtic stuff to my campaigns came from my love for the Prydain books and Moorcock's Corum books.

   You can't always go back home again. When I tried to read de Camp's The Fallible Fiend a year or two ago I couldn't make myself do it. Where once I found wry satire of humanity, I now only found bad jokes. Like with The Tritonian Ring, which I managed to finish and review, there's a great central conceit to the novel but the execution is poor. I was very surprised when I listened to the Sanctum Secorum podcast on The Fallible Fiend and they all pretty much dug it (and they mostly didn't like Three Hearts and Three Lions - what is this world coming to?). (But then they love Zelazny's Night in the Lonesome October, which is great, so maybe they're okay. It's very confusing.)

   I am very happy to learn, sometimes you can go home. The Book of Three was as good as I remembered, A Wizard of Earthsea far better than I hoped for, and a few chapters in, A Wrinkle in Time remains absolutely delightful. I read other fantasy and sci-fi as a kid, but, again, other than Tolkien's, little of it made as much of an impression on me.

   Leaving aside Alexander, they also helped form a common language between me and my friends. For us, there was no such thing as fandom (looking at what fandom's become now, I can only say "Thank God.") to connect us to some wider world. At some point, you realized you liked sf/f and started keeping an eye open for it or other people who read it.

   Contra a thread on Twitter recently, being a consumer of this stuff was not good for social acceptance. It also didn't make you someone given to excluding other people. Everyone needs friends, and someone who was into Elric and Lord of the Rings was a better prospect for friendship than a jock, regardless of class, race, or religion. Later, when I started playing D&D, we didn't keep out girls. If we knew any girls who wanted to play, we would've said "Yes!" very loudly. That many us didn't know many girls, and that they would've scared the heck out of us, was one of the reasons we had so much time for gaming in the first place. Sf/f fans were exactly social outcasts, but there was more than a hint of the nerdish to us.

   Lloyd Alexander and Ursula K. Le Guin are books woven from the same basic threads, as far as I'm concerned. The Book of Three and A Wizard of Earthsea are both largely about a young man maturing and learning the weight of his actions and the necessity of taking responsibility for them. Simple lessons, but ones that have probably more value today than fifty years ago. Aside from something as mundane and extra-literary as relevance, the books remain good stories told well.

   They're very different, stylistically. Alexander writes more prosaically, keeping things fairly simple. Even with its dark moments (wicker men full of people set ablaze for example), The Book of Three has moments of humor, both verbal and slapstick that keep things light - even as Alexander is slowly building up serious themes. There's little to no humor in Le Guin's book, which, overall, has a more serious and somber atmosphere than Alexander's.

   Le Guin's book is written in a more consciously archaic and poetic style. I don't have a lot of patience for that these days (writes the guy who's working his way through The Night Land), but she does it very well, never becoming too stiff.
The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.
That's the opening paragraph, and it's wonderful. She tells you outright that Ged is a mighty wizard with great deeds to his name, but now she's going to tell you the truths behind how he came to be that man. It's the perfect intro, promising great things, which Le Guin then goes on to deliver. The novel is by turns exciting and introspective. Ged's magical repulsion of the Kargish raiders and his battle against the dragons of Pendor are rousing, and Ged's journey to the evil Court of Terrenon on Oskill is wonderfully dark and creepy. Ged's coming to terms with the cost of his pride and his responsibilities as wielder of tremendous power is presented flowing from the story and not just from Le Guin's desire to lecture.

I'm sorry this piece isn't more coherent, but it's serving as a bit of a kickstarter for getting me writing here again as well as an opportunity to ramble around the corners of my memories. I'm only just now recalling that the same friend, Karl H., pointed me both to A Wrinkle in Time and A Wizard of Earthsea (he also gave me James Blish's Black Easter, a very different sort of book).I got to Alexander from the inclusion of an excerpt from The Black Cauldron in my second grade reader. I can still remember the illustrations of Gurgi, and the three witches. It wasn't until a year of two later that I found the series on my neighborhood library's shelves.

I'll stop there. How do you remember the sf/f books of your youth? What books were they? Any of these?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Andre Norton - Witch World Covers

If you haven't followed me here or at Black Gate for very long, you might not know I'm a fan of Andre Norton's sci-fi/swords & sorcery mashup series, Witch World. The first book, titled just Witch World, came out in 1963. It was followed by an immediate sequel, Web of the Witch World in 1964. I reviewed the latter here.

The following trilogy - Three Against the Witch World, Warlock of the Witch World, and Sorceress of the Witch World, tell the adventures of the three children of the original novels' heroes. I reviewed all of them at Black Gate and found them, if not as good as Witch World and Web, at least interesting and occasionally quite creepy.

The most interesting thing about these is the lack of artist continuity across the series and editions. I get not keeping with the first design for Witch World, but I would have kept it, emphasizing the pure pulpy goodness of the book. The later Jack Gaughan covers, more impressionistic, are excellent advertisements for the sort of monster-killing and spell-casting pulp inside.

I'm torn between saying the Philip Castle covers are bad and saying they're good. They are surprisingly connected to the actual stories, something covers are known for NOT doing many times. On the other hand, they're done in a really unremarkable airbrush technique that's both bland and garish at the same time. Every time I want to defend the aesthetics of the 70s, something like this comes along. Who at Tandem ever though those colors said "Pulp adventure inside?"

I love the Breslow art and wish he'd done covers for the whole series. He did a few others for the High Hallack Witch World books, but not all of them.

The Jeff Jones and Davis Meltzer covers are not bad, but a little bland and not especially specific to the books. The less said about the Jack Pound cover the better.

                            Jack Gaughan      J.H. Breslow      Philip Castle

                            Jack Gaughan      Davis Meltzer   Philip Castle

                            Jack Gaughan    Harry Borgman  Philip Castle

                           Jack Gaughan     J.H. Breslow      Philip Castle

                               Jeff Jones        John Pound        Philip Castle

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Ursula K. LeGuin - Earthsea covers

There's been plenty written about the recently departed Ursula K. Le Guin, all of it far more knowledgeable about her and her work than anything I could add. Aside from the Earthsea series, my encounters with her work were never to my liking. While I didn't read either of her big books (The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed), I read The Lathe of Heaven plus assorted short stories. Too often, politics, for want of  a better word, intruded badly or were so far from my own, I found myself completely disappointed. I doubt at this stage I'll get to either of those two works, but I'm pretty sure I'll reread the Earthsea books, at least the original three, again before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

In my rambling post at Black Gate the other day, I described how my friends and I passed each other fantasy books like contraband. If one was a scifi/fantasy fan one constantly scrambled to find the next book to read. There was only so much an eleven year old could find one his own. Even more than the library, new books came from my dad and my friends. I can't quite remember whether it was Karl H. or Jim D. who first gave me A Wizard of Earthsea, but both were huge fans of the trilogy. Both of them must have told me nearly every detail in that book, - the wizard school, true names, the otak - if not the entire plot. Whomever it was, I wanted to read it right away. Not unexpectedly, my local library had it (Thank you, Ms. Herz), and within a week or two I'd read all three.

A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book, is the best. There are exciting scenes of magical battling, a hero forced to face the damage brought on by his pride. It's a coming of age story as well as a travel guide to Le Guin's unique setting.

The Tombs of Atuan was pretty disliked by me and my friends when we first read it. Returning to it in college, I found it my favorite of the three. True, Le Guin expands on the villainy of the white-skinned Kargish people, which feels too-on-the-nose point-making, but it's a good book. Basically, it's a Gothic, starring an essentially orphaned girl, haunted environs, and a mysterious man.

The final original book, The Farthest Shore, is more interesting than good. It explores more deeply the magical system of energy and balance set up in the first book, which is done well, but it's all a bit of a slog for a book that only comes in at about 200 pages.

Jeffro Johnson has a piece explaining why he believes these books don't belong in Appendix N. I understand his perspective, and I don't disagree. Le Guin's goals and interests in writing these books were quite different from Robert E. Howard's or Fritz Leiber's, and they don't mesh with D&D, especially when it was first rolled out. Le Guin wasn't definitely not writing pulp or heroic fantasy. But to say she wasn't writing fantasy is a bit extreme.

She had definite ideas about race, the sexes, and spiritual balance she wanted to explore. These would become more burdensome to the stories as time went on, but in the first three books, especially as a kid, I didn't find them annoying. Instead, she used the trappings of what was becoming an increasingly tropified genre to tell the stories she wanted to and it kept me and pretty much everyone I knew captivated.

So, here are some covers. The first, by Ruth Robbins, were on the hardcovers I took out from the library. The next, by Pauline Ellison, were on the softcovers most people I knew actually owned. The last are by Yvonne Gilbert and are the best of the newer (meaning after 1975) covers.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Lloyd Alexander - Art of the the Prydain Chronicles

Keith West just posted it's Lloyd Alexander's birthday. It reminded me I need to re-read his wonderful Prydain Chronicles. Michael Moorcock might have hated them (as he goes on about at length in Wizardry and Wild Romance), but when I read them as a kid, and again as an adult, I loved them. Maybe I'll write about them after I read them. One can dream. In the meantime, here are some beautiful covers from the original five books of the series.
The first cover of each set is by Evaline Ness, the second by Don Maitz, and the third by Jean-Leon Huens.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Art of the Fellowship of the Ring

We've been listening to the unabridged audio version of the Lord of the Rings for the past few weeks. We just got into The Two Towers, and it's terrific. It's been probably a decade since I read the series, and all the reasons I loved it in the past still work - epic story, noble characters, tremendous inventiveness.

Since I've been suffering some sort of writer's block for the past month and I don't want this site to die (of course that's not going to really happen. I'm a blathering bigmouth and am sure to find my voice soon enough), I'm going to give you some pictures for each of the trilogy's volumes.

Frodo, Sam, and the Elves by Alan Lee

The Black Rider and the Hobbits by John Howe

Fifth Day After Weathertop by Ted Nasmith

Riders at the Ford by Ted Nasmith

The Nine by Angus McBride

Khazad Dum by Alan Lee

Balrog and Gandalf by John Howe

The Pillars of the Kings by the Hildebrandts

Boromir and Frodo on Amon Hen by Ted Nasmith

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Early TSR Artwork That I Dig

Fantasy artwork has become unpleasantly slick over the past twenty or so years. That's been a primary point I've been making over the years when posting old book covers. Everything has to be so professional and sharp you could practically cut your fingers on it. There is little room for the truly pulpish, let alone the amateurish or semi-pro.

One of the things I love most about the early days of role playing was its embrace of the amateur, kludged nature of itself. A lot of the art in the original TSR booklets was used because it was cheap. It's rough, kinda lousy, and I absolutely love it. In my Black Gate article this week I wrote some of these pictures figure heavily in what I want fantasy to look like.

As D&D became more successful and professional, the art changed. Through the original AD&D books it remained very cool. So, with no more blather, here's TSR art that still strikes my fancy.

from the original Dungeons & Dragons rulebook

from the Greyhawk supplement

Some people hate Bell's art from Greyhawk, and if I looked at it unbiased, I might agree. I can't, though. These pictures conjure up memories of walking through the woods of Pouch Camp talking about the game, the smells of autumn and campfires, and the lure of role playing - they are perfect.

From the Blackmoor supplement

I don't love David Sutherland's work as much as some people, but this Umber Hulk is beyond perfection. What still stands out is its complete lack of connection with any sort of Euro-style fantasy. 

from the Basic Game boxed set

Maybe the first Trampier art I ever saw. He was the greatest of the original illustrators and the creator of the unfinished Wormy cartoon. He picked up and left behind illustrating and died a few years back.

I always wanted to play a campaign set in this subterranean world.

The first Tom Wham picture I ever saw. His art is the most cartoon-like of the original TSR artists and always makes me chuckle. He's also the designer of some terrific games, including The Awful Green Things from Outer Space and Search for the Emperor's Treasure.