Your mama’s Oh Wow
… was better than yours.
“Not your mama’s this-or-that” is supposed to mean this new thing is not only good, but better-conceived, effective in a whole new way, glowing with the Now – not dowdy, misguided, unaware, lame, old. It’s hipster marketing. It confirms your unthinking notion that nothing really happened until you were about twelve. That your mom never had an orgasm. That what you read and watch is necessarily smarter, more daring, and better informed.
I tell you this: you have no idea what they were doing in 1970s pop science fiction and fantasy. Exhibit A, although that is certainly not the right letter is the book depicted nearby, John Spencer’s The Electronic Lullaby Meat Market. If you were me, in your mid-teens, in that era, faced with that title and cover, your eyes would have narrowed with suspicion. Long quirky psychedelics-implying titles were a little too in at the time. Granted many of them were pretty cool and sat on the front of good work, first one off the top of my head being For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, but by the late 70s, publishers had clearly been so addled by The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test that half the new books were titled with some spin on that very phrase. Not even the boobs on this cover were enough to overcome the suspicion that inside was yet another wad of words which had not made it into Again, Dangerous Visions.
This book is no legend, no classic. No one remembers it, references it, riffs on it, draws memes from it. It is completely incidental and yet completely indicative of the best comics ever. It’s not just witty, it’s satirical. It’s not just naughty, it’s brazen. It’s not just comics-y, it is exploding with super-action. It’s not just zany, it’s flat fucking insane. Somehow it manages, and I freely admit that I cannot say how, to have a plot. It’s like A Clockwork Orange with a sense of humor and no rape-and-that-stuff. It’s like Jerry Cornelius with a brain. It’s like underground comix with no hangups. It’s like The Amazing Spider-Man with threesomes.
“My mother,” I say apologetically. “Something’s come up. Got to go.”
Behind me the door buzzed briefly, and the anti-felon bolts clicked into position. Scarlet Crimson, meanwhile, was nodding her head, admonishing me with her schoolteacher gaze. It was poor consolation that my instincts were proving to be correct. She had trouble all over her expression.
While my mind was playing with the proverbial knife-atmosphere routine, a real one appeared in her hand, and she started in towards me, sideways on, slightly crouched, knife hand held way out front. Every movement bespoke professional. One long, beautiful undulation from the tip of her cropped head down to her toes. The rippling motion of her tattooed stomach, the soft waves riding down into the fuzzy V of her pubic hair. The slight spread of her legs. I felt dizzy with lust.
Oh mother! I thought, this is going to be the death of me. And then, in a sudden rush, she was at me, the knife-point guiding her towards my throat, her breasts bouncing behind hardened nipples: an opulent apparition zoning in inevitably upon me. What a wild, ultimate swan-song. Nirvana, here I come. Oh mother, mother, don’t forget me NOW!
The room rotated once, as the window smashed, blowing a gale of rarefied air to nudge my senses. Scarlet Crimson is frozen in her blissful plunge, isolated in time and space as Snakeman moves silently across the room, right shoulder curving into and under as his fist comes up beneath Scarlet Crimson’s jaw.
That’s just a bit of the first chapter. Don’t bother to tell me about this new book or that hot author – I’ve looked, and this stuff simply isn’t there. Today’s creators don’t have the tools even to make the tools to make this thing.
Now for some intellect. OK, at that moment, comics and mass-market paperbacks were the combo that seemed so right yet never worked. Both cheap, on cheap paper, cheap to buy, easy to carry around, available on racks anywhere and everywhere. Everyone liked comics but few appreciated how much expertise was out there. Everyone liked hip-and-trippy science fiction, and everyone liked pictures in it. Why not leverage awesome comics creators into “real” book publishing?
I’m pretty sure most of you are familiar with Niven’s The Magic Goes Away, illustrated by Esteban Maroto, but there was a lot of this stuff. Gahan Wilson put scribbles into his prose stories, Kurt Vonnegut did too (especially the famous “here is a picture of an asshole” from Breakfast of Champions), and of course in science fiction and fantasy there was plenty of classical full-page illustration which had never quite died out, usually a frontispiece and two or three pieces inside. At the far end of the spectrum was merely to ‘port comics into paperback form, one of these being Gil Kane’s Blackmark.
Here, I’m talking about the half-and-half, usually with considerably more illustrations than standard work, composing a solid half of the total page count, but with complete or almost-complete prose so they were still mostly illustrations rather than text. They were all over the place for a while – just remembered Zelazny’s . Unfortunately, no one realized there’s a lower page-size limit to comics-style and pulp art, especially when sequential action is involved. Trade (6″ by 9″) is about that limit – the smaller mass-market size turns the graphics into a warped little mass.
The Weird Heroes series was a Hail Mary pass at it, conceived and organized right at the start of this whole abortive effort and released towards its end, perhaps even being its end. Byron Preiss got a whole slew of genuinely excellent and experienced writers and artist together … and maybe that was the problem right there. I can practically imagine the pros saying “But is it a comic or is it illustration?” and Byron Preiss waving his hands and saying “Both! Both!” – the result being a collection of individual examples of how the pros didn’t get it. Some of the big names like Steranko clearly pulled out in the late-stage before the first volume’s release.
The series eventually included eight volumes, for of which were novels, testament to Preiss’s determination, or maybe a deal with the devil. It sank like a rock throughout.
It failed conceptually too. Preiss was really into the plan of inventing a New Pulp Hero, not necessarily white, not necessarily male, not up against evil criminals, and (get this) not relying on that terrible same-old violence to solve things. Guess what he got? … Well, that’s not quite fair. The problem is that most of the ones which deviated from the standard model were also terrible stories, either painfully meta about the standard model, or dedicated to “oooooh, the hero doesn’t know what’s going on and neither does the reader.” The art varied all the way from crap, to phoning it in, to some gorgeous pieces, the latter typically being standard full-page text accompaniment (e.g. Stephen Fabian, the above-mentioned Maroto).
The best simply said screw you Preiss and wrote blazing action pulp with modern sensibilities and topics, plus shocking violence even by 70s standards. Ellison’s “The New York Review of Bird” appeared here for the first time, and Englehart’s “Viva” is superb, certainly in the same head-zone as his soon-to-appear I Am Coyote. Both of which were nicely but merely traditionally illustrated with a couple of pieces, and thus nothing like the intended comics/book vision at all.
The eight books are a grim slog to read all the way through, especially since the character eventually most showcased, Gypsy, is a crashing bore from the first line. The high points are a blast. Alex Nino’s “Na and the Dredspore of Gruaga” is a gorgeous nearly-wordless series of full-page illustrations telling a moving fantasy quest.
That’s a bit weird, right? The best stuff in the series is either full-on prose with a few traditional illustrations, or full-on comics with, in this case, only the tiniest bit of prose. Wait, this is really weird. Scott McCloud goes to great pains to make the case that prose-only and pictures-only are an artifact of highbrow snottery, and that the full spectrum of interplay between the two is available for creative endeavors. His views on the matter are now standard presentation material for all comics theory and production. And yet … Looking back over the whole experiment, there’s no doubt that the best comics mass-market paperback was The Electronic Lullaby Meat Market, meaning, the one with no in-text illustrations at all.
I think our understanding of just when and how comics work has a long way to go.
Next: Jet and silver
Posted on March 13, 2016, in Gnawing entrails and tagged Alex Nino, Breakfast of Champions, Byron Preiss, Harlan Ellison, Jim Steranko, John Spencer, Kurt Vonnegut, Na and the Dredspore of Gruaga, Steve Englehart, The Electronic Lullaby Meat Market, The New York Review of Bird, Viva, Weird Heroes. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.