Friday, June 27, 2014

Roger Zelazny TV Review: George R.R. Martin's adaptation of the Last Defender of Camelot

The Last Defender of Camelot is probably my favorite short story by Zelazny, and consequently, my favorite short story, period.

(It's either Last Defender or Divine Madness, but they occupy different places in my psyche. Divine Madness, as brilliant and haunting as it is, doesn't tell a story in the same way Last Defender does.)

George RR Martin, of A Game of Thrones fame, adapted it for the New Twilight Zone in 1986.

It's not me, is it? That really is a terrible typeface, right?

How did he do?

Well...It has its problems, and there is only so much a good script can do to overcome the restrictions of 80s Genre Anthology shows, which were seldom vehicles for subtle story telling.

Exhibit A: Tales From the Dark Side, Episode #13:

I saw this one with my buddy when we were maybe 14 or 15. It's about a couple celebrating their 25th anniversary.The episode is called Anniversary Dinner, and, as if that wasn't enough of a tip, every other line is "How can such an old sourpuss taste so sweet?" or "We're having the children over...for dinner!"

Even alarmingly obtuse teen Josh was like "They're cannibals, right? Surely they're not going to drag this out for another twenty five minutes?"  (The characters stop short of saying "You might say we just ate Uter and he's in our stomachs right now!", but only barely)

Television is more sophisticated than it used to be, and modern writers understand that viewing audiences have seen the same tropes and cliches on numerous occasions, and write to subvert those expectations. Joss Whedon was likely very influential in this regard. (Look, everybody! Josh said something nice about Joss Whedon!) That kind of thing hadn't yet taken hold in the 80s. Everything was played pretty straight. expectations were not high. 

In my Damnation Alley review, I mentioned this adaption, and a friend who is also a Zelazny fan, said he immediately went out and saw it. I googled it, wondering if it was available for streaming, and found that there were several different uploads on YouTube. I've seen full length movies uloaded to Youtube and it seems like this be somehow legal, as it looks like every episode of the New Twilight Zone is on there, and whatever party owns the rights could hardly be unaware of this. None of them are very high quality, so perhaps that's a factor. 

Scene One

On screen text shown over the clock tower holding Big Ben, and we open with an old man leaving what looks like a small private residence. He's observed by a trio of punks. He beats two of them unconscious, and I like that what is done on screen actually mirrors how it's presented in the book,
Then, with an upward hook as the man doubled, he caught him in the softness beneath the jaw, behind the chin, with its point. As the  man fell, he clubbed him with its butt on the back of  the neck.
at least as much is possible. Lance captures the third mugger, who says they were ordered to bring them to her. The punk reminds me of Sting playing Feyd-Rautha in Dune.

I was having trouble following his accent, which sounded like a cross between Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins and those Cockney trolls that give Bilbo a hard time in the Hobbit,  so I turned on Youtube's automatic captions, which, based on its rather hilarious results, were also having a difficult time understanding him. I took some screen shots of those as well, and I'll put them up in a second post.

Changes: Lance starts in London instead of San Fransisco, which is fine. It's a change, but not an important one, and you don't need to spend money for two sets, and waste time explaining why he went from one place to the other. He also has a beard, and I'm pretty sure he didn't in the book. (A beard is never referenced, and there are some parts where it would have made sense to mention it if he had one.) More on the beard in the relevant scene. Tom, the punk, is a new character, presumably for audience identification, so Lance has someone to whom he can explain things. 

Scene Two 

Tom takes Lance to Morgan Le Fey. She calls Tom her "Knight in Shining Leather," which is kind of funny. Morgan is played by Jenny Agutter,  who continues to act today. Apparently she was a member of the council that oversaw S.H.I.E.L.D. in the Avengers. Huh. 

Lance offers some exposition which mostly covers the same ground as the story. She does get a new line that I liked. When Lance says "Merlin always said you had no morals," she replies "Merlin said a lot of things. Between him and Malory, I got horrible press." Heh heh. Also, I like the bit where she seems to be expecting Lance to light her cigar. When he doesn't, she asks, "What happened to Chivalry?" and he answers, "Haven't you heard? It's dead."

Changes: Nothing big. The conversation takes a different direction than it does in the book, but that's because the plots have already diverged. The encounter is a bit more adversarial than in the book, and Morgan is spunky, and a bit more colloquial in her speech and manner.

Scene Three

Lance departs with Tom to Cornwall. They talk a bit, and Lance tells Tom to wait while he goes into the cave to look for Merlin. Merlin and Raxas both look pretty silly. Raxas is forgivable, due to the limitations of budget and logistics of the show but Merlin looks like he's wearing a costume shop rental. Again, the conversation covers the same general territory in the book.

Changes: The dialogue is a good mix of new stuff ("Now there are weapons that can fire whole cities in an instant...and poison the earth for longer than you have slept.") , and lines that worked in the original. The impression I get from the original story, when Lance said he had left his walking stick in the cave, that was just a cover so he could get at the elixir, but here, when he returns to the cave, he happens upon the bottle, and only then does the idea to drink it occur to him.

Scene Four

Outside in the real Stonehenge, Merlin orders Raxas to prepare Tom to be sacrificed. Lance orders him to stop and boasts that he could take the knight apart. Merlin is considering it, and that decides that he definitely wants to see Lance hacked to bits when Morgan shows up on his side. He gives Lance the weapons and armor, but no horse. Lance says that he still needs his squire "Tom", which was a cool move. They fight, Lance cuts the head off the Hollow Knight, but he still fights on. (Also, even in the low quality Youtube videos, it's clear that they removed the head of the knight in post production, as there is a conscpicous black dot where his head should be that never quite matches the rest of the darkness.)

When Lance is distracted, Merlin is about to blast him with unconvincing 80s CG. But Morgan unleashes her own fake looking special effects first! But then Merlin retaliates and kills her. Lance destroys the knight, then advances on Merlin, blocking his lightning and cleaving his staff in two when close enough. Merlin ages to death like so many other villains have before him.

Morgan is not quite dead after all. Lance and Tom check on. She tells Lance and Tom that the right fork on the road will take them back home. But, on the left fork, they see a matte painting of a castle, and decide to walk towards that instead.


I'm pretty sure this is why they gave Lance a beard. It's the easiest way to make it clear that he's become younger. Last Exit to Babylon, the fourth volume of the Collected stories of Roger Zelazny, have little more detail on why various changes were made, such as the absence of horses, and it's an interesting read.

I think the biggest problem is the splashy, dramatic magic. These effects are simply awful, and I say this as lifetime fan of Classic Doctor Who. Martin is a canny writer,and no dummy. For the rest of the episode, he removed or adjusted whatever wouldn't work on TV. Those effects simply do not work at all. They're silly, they're fake and they take me out of the movie.

Overall? It's a decent adaptation. Better than Damnation Alley, certainly. Martin did what he could within the constraints of the medium as it existed then. This wouldn't have made me seek out Roger Zelazny, but it wouldn't have scared me away, either.

On the writing of Single White Necromancer

CFC asked me how long Single White Necromancer took to write, and I told him it was about a year, and also that I'd reply in greater detail in a post, so that's what I'm doing here.

I couldn't even estimate a number of hours spent on it. The Word file the contains the final draft says 1080 minutes of editing time, except, I would often work on the story when I was away from my computer, and would write a bit, email it to myself and then paste it into the file, so that number doesn't come close to answering the question.

The best answer I can give is that it was written in fits and starts over the course of a year. I thought of the title first, which is unusual for me, as it's usually the very last thing I come up with, occasionally well after the story is written. I think it's the perfect title for the story, and a lot of the elements present spin out of that.

It started out as a Lonesome October story that I intended for the Lovecraftzine's Lonesome October issue, but it was already over 12000 words (and growing) and it that it was just too long to be feasible. That was June or July 2013. So I shelved it and wrote something else for the zine. That turned out to be Mother of Monsters.

There is a Roger Zelazny tribute anthology in the works. I submitted a Roadmarks story to it, but it's so specifically a Roadmarks story that there is no way to rework it into something else without rewriting the thing entirely. Too many plot points hinged on too many elements specific to the setting, leaving me with an unsellable story, as I don't own the rights and it's not like I can just resubmit it to the other Roger Zelazny tribute anthology in town.

I learned my lesson from that, and kept the story somewhat modular, in that, if I had to remove the ANITLO elements, I could do it without breaking the story.  That's what I did when I returned to it at the beginning of this year. So, while it certainly shows its pedigree, it also works as more general "Crazy Cultists want to open the way for their Mad Gods" story.

That said, Zelazny has been a huge influence on my writing, and there are number of nods to his work in the story, but I don't think it contains any specifically ANITLO elements beyond a broad similarity in the plot. (Another factor he influenced was the length of the piece. It's about 33,000 words. Something I truly enjoy about Zelazny's work is that his stories are only as long as they need to be. I think the novella is the perfect length for telling a story, and that's reflected here.)

I forget who said it, but a professional writer mentioned that he wrote 500 words a day. Some time he only got 500, and other times, what he was writing caught fire, and he got much more than that. I followed those guidelines. I had an ending in March, I shelved it again. Transferred the file to a tablet and did some final editing on a camping trip at the end of May, and poked and prodded it on and off until I finally published it.

However, I think drew more on the atmosphere of Nick Pollatta's Bureau 13 novels than anything written by Zelazny. Funny books, and while absurd, not quite comedy.

All right. More on this later. If anyone has any questions about any aspects of the book, I'm more than happy to answer them here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Preview: George R. R. Martin's Adaptation of The Last Defender of Camelot

I was watching Martin's adaptation of the Twilight Zone episode on Youtube, with the captions on. I think this is one of the videos where the subtitles are automatically generated. However, the algorithms seem to be having trouble with the English accents. This is what the mugger said: "t was't any of my doin' sir! It was just to bring you to her, that's all! We wasn't supposed to hurt you."

And this is what the screen showed.

I think this is going to be a pretty great review.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Single White Necromancer Seeks Same

So, I published an e-book. I'm very happy with both the title and the cover. And the story, too, I guess. Judge for yourself at the Amazon page.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Roger Zelazny Movie Review: Damnation Alley, part II: "...I repeat: KILLER COCKROACHES!"

The second part of my review of Damnation Alley. The first is here. When we return after our brief intermission, Hannibal is playing a grumpy driving instructor to Stringfellow. In the other Landmaster, Perry is quoting some trivia from Car & Driver, and Keenan looks hilariously bored and miserable.

I'm not one for car porn, but I did find the passages about the capabilities of the vehicle to be pretty interesting reading. Zelazny's, presented here, was, of course more evocative, and I wish they could have found a way to work it into the movie.

There were no windows in the vehicle, only screens which reflected views in every direction, including straight up and the ground beneath the car. Tanner sat within an illuminated box which shielded him against radiation. The "car" that he drove had eight heavily treaded tires and was thirty-two feet in length. It mounted eight fifty-caliber automatic guns and four grenade-throwers. It carried thirty armor-piercing rockets which could be discharged straight ahead or at any elevation up to forty degrees from the plane. Each of the four sides, as well as the roof of the vehicle, housed a flamethrower. Razor-sharp "wings" of tempered steel, eighteen inches wide at their bases and tapering to points, an inch and a quarter thick where they ridged, could be moved through a complete hundred-eighty-degree arc along the sides of the car and parallel to the ground, at a height of two feet and eight inches. When standing at a right angle to the body of the vehicle, eight feet to the rear of the front bumper, they extended out to a distance of six feet on either side of the car. They could be couched like lances for a charge. They could be held but slightly out from the sides for purposes of slashing whatever was sideswiped. The car was bulletproof, air-conditioned, and had its own food locker and sanitation facilities. A long-barreled .357 Magnum was held by a clip on the door near the driver's left hand. A 30.06, a .45-caliber automatic, and six hand grenades occupied the rack immediately above the front seat.

However, the piece from Popular mechanics (which I, in turn, copied from Wikipedia) has its own virtues, as well, in large part because it is describing a vehicle that actually exists.

Three independent drive sources running from a gasoline power plant. Uses semi truck parts in the drive train. Can operate with the front or rear wheel trinary out of commission. Side and top hatches on the main unit and rear and top on the after section. Full running lights and brake lights for urban street use. External video camera is mounted on the forward pylon located just behind the front top hatch. Could also house the antenna. All pylons are hardened and armored. Can operate in water and will remain sealed when fully submerged. Can float while half full of water.
While the film is fiction, the Landmaster vehicle is real. In the story, the Landmaster was designed to use as many standard truck parts as possible, so that any junkyard would have whatever was needed for repairs. The real Landmaster is powered by a 390-cubic-inch (6.4 L) Ford industrial engine, and uses the rear-ends of two commercial trucks and an Allison automatic truck transmission. It features a fully functional, custom-built "tri-star" wheel arrangement, which could actually help it crawl over boulders. All 12 wheels are driven, but only 8 are normally in contact with the road surface at any one time.

I like the bit about being made out of standard truck parts. It seems like such a good, practical idea.

I'm a rebel, Dottie, a loner.
The characters encounter a storm made out of weird funnel cloud things. Perry obeys procedure and hunkers down and digs in. Stringfellow decides to outrun the storm, because he's a rebel who plays by his own rules.

Perry's wrong and Tanner's right, and Perry is killed when the storm uproots his Landmaster. They patch up Keenan, and continue on, stopping at Circus Circus in Las Vegas, and I must say, that marquee is in better condition than most of those at our local theaters.

Keenan and Tanner play some slot machines, while Denton seems to be reminiscing about happier times. I really like this scene, and I think these human moments are when the movie works best. Just as they're really getting into the nickel slots, the lady who lives in the casino shows up. I wonder if she was expecting company or what, or if she always diligently applies lipstick when she wakes up every morning in Post-Apocolypsia.

She joins our merry band. Her name is Janice, and she's played by Dominique Sanda, who is still acting today, which is pretty cool.  The team stops at a local town to refuel, but something seems off.

And it turns out that something is KILLER COCKROACHES! 

There are elements of the scene that work really well, and taken on its own, I think it's actually pretty well put together. The problem is that we're just lurching from one loosely connected set piece to the next, and, I'm not a screenwriter or anything, but a scene where the heroes meet a pretty woman living in a casino does not organically lead into a scene where Jan-Michael  Vincent rides his motorcycle up the stairs in order to escape a swarm of flesh-eating cockroaches.

 Also, I think Roger Zelazny is one of the most talented genre authors of his time. However, he missed the opportunity to include this line!
Tanner, this is Denton! This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches. I repeat: KILLER COCKROACHES!

Alas, poor Kennan! I knew him, Denton; a fellow of infinite appeal to flesh stripping cockroaches

"Hrm. Not Sweet Chariot sugar cubes, but will suffice."

Anyway, Keenan is eaten and they drive on to the next set piece, where Tanner is almost beaten up by a little kid played by a very young Jackie Earle Haley. Say what you like about Tanner in the book, he never would have been beaten up by a twelve-year old. Billy tags along as well.

They stop to resupply. Janice play the piano, and young Rorschach helps himself to what looks like a Tootsie Pop. A bunch of hillbilly rapists show up and briefly take our heroes prisoner, but baby Rorschach slips Tanner a handgun, and Tanner shoots one of the hillbillies in the face within the Landmaster when he's momentarily distracted by a hillbilly shooting at Janice outside. (Then he's immediately one-upped by Denton, who uses one of the Landmaster's missiles to blow up the building housing the bad guys.) It's another well constructed scene, and the effects they used on the sky, which I could otherwise take or leave during the movie, looked really nice here.

We're in the home stretch now! We get a montage on the Landmaster, which includes a scene of Janice coming her hair and I notice that Dominique Sanda is wearing a wedding ring. I don't know if that's any oversight and the actress accidently wore her own wedding ring during the scene, or something deliberate, as Tanner claimed she was his wife in order to protect her when the hillbillies were attacking.

(Though, on reflection, I don't think so, since Tanner's not wearing a corresponding ring.)

They stop for parts and chit chat, Tanner and Billy bond while Denton repairs the Landmaster. Something weird is going on with the weather. Billy has wandered off, as little kids in movies are wont to do. Tanner rescues him. This scene has zero tension. They get back to the Landmaster and Denton has finished the repairs. More 70s disaster movie scenes. A tidal wave submerges the Landmaster! But they get out! Whew!

When they open the other hatch, they see the bright blue sky above them while soft, triumphant music plays. I thought I saw Johnathan Livingston Seagull  flying overhead. (Is there room for one more wisecrack about the 70s? Josh thinks so!) If there had been a seagull and Tanner had nailed it with a cigar butt, I think that could have redeemed the entire movie.

The scene is very beautiful and pastoral.  At the end, now that the heroes are closer to Albany, they are able to pick up a second transmission, which gives them a frequency to call in.

Hey man, is that Freedom Rock?

There is a thriving population in Albany, and they're apparently amphibious as well, as they don't seem to have been at all inconvenienced by a tidal wave large enough to tilt the axis of the Earth. 

Speaking of which, it had been mentioned at several points in the movie that the earth returning to its proper axis might restore things, and also, that this might happen on its own. Apparently that's what did happen, and it makes for an unsatisfying conclusion. We get the happy ending, but it had nothing to do with anything the heroes did. What's the point?

As a film, or a spectacle for the big screen, it's not bad. There is some solid craftsmanship there, and most of the problems with the presentation are attributable to the fact that the technology wasn't there yet. (The movie had one person credited with special effects, with a handful credited with optical effects or laser animation. That's hard to imagine a crew so small on a modern movie, even one that's not a genre work.)

However, as a vehicle for telling a coherent story, it's pretty awful. I think that's why, even though there are some scenes I liked, I ultimately didn't like the movie. It's never more than the sum of its parts. The scenes never built to anything, and they certainly don't build to this ending.

Zelazny famously disliked it, though I did like his response, saying that the book was still there for those who would want to read it.

If, for some reason, you'd like to subject yourself to it, it's available on to stream from Amazon Prime.

Roger Zelazny Movie Review: Damnation Alley, part I: "Tanner this is Denton! This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches..."

For whatever reason, there have been few successful adaptions of Roger Zelazny's work. Every so often I would hear some chatter about a Nine Princes in Amber miniseries that the Sc-Fi channel was going to air at some point in the 90s, but that never came to fruition, and I now suspect it was more fans speculating about what they'd like to see more than anything else.

What did we get? George Martin adapted the Last Defender of Camelot for the new Twilight Zone.
The occasional Amber comic, the Amber RPG and computer game, the Lovecraft eZine puts out a Lonesome October tribute issue every year. Sandow's Shadow was adapted into the Chronomaster computer game, and Jane Lindskold adapted the hint book that came along with it into a novel. (I try not to rag on her because I know she's gotten some grief from Zelazny fans at conventions, but that book was just so bad.)

And of course, Damnation Alley. I wasn't a fan of the book, I don't think Zelazny's poetic style of writing was suited to the tale of the blunt and straightforward Hell Tanner.

How is it that this is the only major motion picture adaptation of Zelazny's work? In a just world, there would have been a Roadmarks movie, with Kurt Russell in the lead.

But, Damnation Alley? For starters, how loyal is it to the source marterial? My friend Frederick saw the terrible 1995 adaptation of the Scarlet Letter, the one starrring Demi Moore. When asked what he thought of it, he grimaced and said, "Well, they got most of the names right." Getting the names right puts Scarlet Letter one up on Damnation Alley. Isn't that right, "Jake"?

We open on a scene of  somebody's dad taking the station wagon to work. When my father was in the service in the Vietnam era, he worked in a missile silo. He never talked much about that portion of his life, but I do assume that security was something more than one dude manning a single checkpoint with no fence.

I don't care that you've got Hannibal Smith and Stringfellow Hawke manning the silos! Take some pride in your work, gentlemen!

The bit with the open perimeter aside, I like this opening sequence. "Jake" Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Sam Denton (George Peppard) sign in, and are issued their weapons. I couldn't help by notice that Tanner was pointing his at the small of Denton's back while loading it. Boo! I knew the characters didn't like each other, but that's some pretty poor gun handling right there.

The two men chat briefly. Denton tells Tanner that he's requested a roster change. They settle in and begin their shift. I like this part. It looks exactly like what I'd imagine an Air Force Base to look like in the 1970s. Peppard's dark mustache was distracting paired with his white hair.

As they progress through their shift, they learn of a massive Soviet first strike. They launch their own missiles, and there are some nice scenes of the brass, just standing there in silence, as they've done everything they can, they know it wasn't enough and they're waiting to see exactly how bad this is going to be.

We skip ahead two years. Up until this point, I thought this was a pretty decent flick. Not brilliant, but competently assembled.

And then we get this.

Mixed metaphors, tortured syntax AND you're telling us instead of showing us. There is nothing about this that isn't awful.The only possible way to have made it worse was to have used Comic Sans for the lettering.

Keegan (the guy who issued Denton and Tanner their guns) is painting when Tanner returns from  Barstow with a young woman on his motorcycle. To get back to the base, he has to run  a gauntlet of GIANT MUTANT SCORPIONS!!!

Fortunately, the scorpions are no match for Tanner's shaggy John Denver haircut, Evel Knievel stuntsmanship and day glo orange vest, so he quickly evades them and returns to the base.

Ha ha ha, guys! Bet you're wishing you'd invested in that fence for your hideout, now!

"Sunnnnnnnshine, onnnnnn my shoulders!"

He drops the woman to the scorpions as a distraction when cornered (Dick move, Tanner!) and continues riding to safety. Keegan is ready to kill him for dropping her, but when he takes a look through the scope, he sees that she's just a mannequin, which explains why she was shot with her face obscured for every previous shot.

Some thoughts on this scene.

  • The scorpion effects weren't as bad as I'd been fearing. They weren't good, but I've seen worse effects in older movies.
  • That said, the scene goes on entirely too long, and the constant keening of the scorpions was unpleasant.
  • Also, giant scorpions always seem to be the first animal to be mutated into a giant-sized version in the post apocalyptic wasteland. My guess is because they're common enough in the southwest, an area closely associated with the Cold War, they're recognizable as scorpions, but as arthropods, they look strange and alien under normal circumstances.
  • Wikipedia says that Jan-Michael Vincent did most of his own bike riding, and he's very good for an amateur.
  • Why exactly was Tanner carrying around that dummy? That seems like a needlessly complicated plot with minimal return, and any value provided by the momentary distraction is surely outweighed by the hassle of lugging it all the way back from Barstow.

Also, Keegan is Paul Winfield?! Man, this movie had some actual actors in it! What happened here? We cut to JAWS era Richard Dreyfuss being berated by the only guy still in the Air Force who still knows where to get his dry cleaning done, and then to Denton, who's working in the shop. Denton gives us some exposition, and then we cut to Dreyfuss passing out and igniting some girlie magazines featuring an extremely sullen looking model. He blows up the base, and only Denton and the guy he was talking to (Tom Perry) survive.

(Also, I know that guy wasn't really Richard Dreyfuss. No emails, please.)

I kind of like Denton in the movie. In the book, he was more an obstacle than a character. He gets his one killer monologue, gives Tanner his pardon, and that's that.  Now, he's got some motivation. Any kind of direct comparisons are mostly meaningless, as the characters and the stories share little more than a name, but it seemed that he had a reason for everything he did. Be they good reasons, or not, they were reasons.

The complex blows up over the course of about 45 minutes. This was a trifle longish, but it was a very well directed scene. I can believe that Jack Smight had a background in the Disaster movies typical of the era after seeing this scene.

Keegan, Tanner, Denton and Perry are the only survivors. Denton drives out in one of the Landmasters (only one Landmaster was built, but the movie pretended there were two, some I'm going to as well.)

He's smoking a cigar, while talking to Tanner, which gave me flashbacks to the A-Team.

"I love it when a plan comes together."

I think that's a good place to stop this part of the review. We've got the Landmasters now, which are the real stars of the movie, no matter what the publicists say. The link to part two is here.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

World's Best Dad - DC Comics Edition

It says it, right there on the mug!

Happy Father's Day, everyone!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A rebuttal to Chuck Dixon's article in the Wall Street Journal

Wanted for guest editorial: Straight, middle-class white man who has lived a slightly less privileged life than the one to which he feels entitled. Bonus for non-ironic use of Political Correctness!

To the "Liberals are the Real Racists" Signal!

"Why aren't you tolerant of my intolerance?"
And "as if in answer", Chuck Dixon is here to defend his brothers, who get, not the hero they need,  but the one they deserve. (Dark Knight shout out!)

I've never had much of an opinion on Chuck Dixon. He mostly wrote the Batman titles when I was working in the comic store, and I read them, because, c'mon, what else was I going to do, work? But they never struck as either particularly good or particularly bad. He did create Bane, whom I rank as one of the great latter day Batman villains, but his writing was not otherwise to my taste.

A friend sent me a link to the article Dixon wrote with Paul Rivoche for the Wall Street Journal (!!) The title tells you everything you need to know about the content: "How Liberalism Became Kryptonite for Superman - A graphic tale of modern comic books' descent into moral relativism" but,  here's a link to the entire piece, if you are so inclined.

I believe people have the right to believe whatever they want. However, it bothers me when someone uses his status as an authority in a field to mislead low-information readers, who don't know much about the topic, but are relying on the author to present it to them factually. Perhaps it's presumptuous of  me to correct the auteur who wrote the comic book adaptation of Snakes on a Plane, but it's been a while since I've gone on this kind of rant.
Chuck Dixon/Paul Rivoche:  In the 900th issue of Action Comics, Superman decides to go before the United Nations and renounce his U.S. citizenship. " 'Truth, justice and the American way'—it's not enough any more," he despairs. That issue, published in April 2011, is perhaps the most dramatic example of modern comics' descent into political correctness, moral ambiguity and leftist ideology.

Ha ha ha. I remember this. The conservatives were so butthurt. Never mind that it made sense in context. (Superman intervenes to show support for protesters in Iran, but things go badly because he is seen to be acting on behalf of the American government) Laura Hudson over at Comics Alliance said it so well that I'll quote her rather than paraphrasing. "From a “realistic” standpoint it makes sense; it would indeed be impossible for a nigh-omnipotent being ideologically aligned with America to intercede against injustice beyond American borders without creating enormous political fallout for the U.S. government."

Superman is saying that he's a citizen of the world, that he's there to help anyone who needs him. Anyway, there was a predictable outrage, and it was walked back five issues later,

This is from Action comics #904, by the way
before being removed from continuity entirely when they rebooted the universe.

Dixon is being disingenuous here. There is no way that he doesn't know the context of the remark, and the subsequent walkback.
Dixon: This story commences way back in the 1930s. Superman, as he first appeared in early comics and later on radio and TV, was not only "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound," he was also good, just and wonderfully American. Superman and other "superheroes" like Batman went out of their way to distinguish themselves from villains like Lex Luthor or the Joker. Superman even battled Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II.
All right, this is a trivial complaint, but since Dixon is presenting himself as an authority on comic books, I feel compelled to correct this. Superman didn't battle Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II. That's because, in DC comics continuity, Hitler controlled the Spear of Destiny, and any hero with mystical powers or a vulnerability to mystical powers, would fall under his control if that hero ventured too close. That's why Superman primarily battled Nazi saboteurs and fifth columnists at home in World War II, instead of, say, dropping an asteroid on Berlin. 

This is fairly well known, and it's the first entry for the Holy Lance in the Appearances in popular culture section on Wikipedia.
Dixon: Superman also led domestic crusades, the most famous against the Ku Klux Klan. A man familiar with the Klan, Stetson Kennedy, approached radio show producers in the mid-1940s with some of the Klan's secret codes and rituals. The radio producers developed more than 10 anti-Klan episodes, "The Clan of the Fiery Cross," which aired in June 1946. The radio show's unmistakable opposition to bigotry sharply reduced respect of young white Americans for the Klan. 
Superman HAS returned to the Klan-busting social justice type stories. Grant Morrison wrote Action Comics for two years after the reboot, and that told stories of Superman in his early days, before he formalized the costume, back when he was an angry young man doing exactly the kind of things Dixon wishes he still did. There is no way Chuck Dixon could not know this.

Here's a scene from Issue #1 of the 2011 reboot. Superman breaks into the home of a corrupt businessman, threatens him and then throws him off a roof before catching him.

Dixon: In the 1950s, the great publishers, including DC and what later become Marvel, created the Comics Code Authority, a guild regulator that issued rules such as: "Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal." The idea behind the CCA, which had a stamp of approval on the cover of all comics, was to protect the industry's main audience—kids—from story lines that might glorify violent crime, drug use or other illicit behavior.

Orrrrrrr...the Comics Code Authority grew out of the false comity and moral panic of the 1950s, and was strongly influenced by Seduction of the Innocent, a work now recognized to have been based on data that were almost completely fabricated.  (From the link: Wertham "manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence" in support of the contentions expressed in "Seduction of the Innocent." Wertham intentionally mis-projected both the sample size and substance of his research, making it out to be more objective and less anecdotal than it truly was. He generally did not adhere to standards worthy of scientific research, instead using questionable evidence as rhetorical ammunition for his argument that comics were a cultural failure.)

Dixon: The 1990s brought a change. The industry weakened and eventually threw out the CCA, and editors began to resist hiring conservative artists. One of us, Chuck, expressed the opinion that a frank story line about AIDS was not right for comics marketed to children. His editors rejected the idea and asked him to apologize to colleagues for even expressing it. Soon enough, Chuck got less work.

And while this anecdote is too vague to verify,  I feel compelled to point out that A.) Children are affected by AIDS, every day B.) Comics were marketed primarily to collectors in the 1990s, as my holographic cover of Magneto ripping out Wolverine's skeleton will attest, and C.) Correlation does not imply causality.

Dixon: The superheroes also changed. Batman became dark and ambiguous, 

Batman, as you probably know, and he, as a writer of Batman, certainly knows, started out straight up murdering dudes, and was probably darker in the Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams run in the 1970s (it was a reaction to Adam West series) than he was in the 1990s.

Also, as Dixon was on the Batman books when we got this, 

 he has precious little room to criticize the dark and ambiguous character Batman had become.

Dixon: This would matter less if comics were fading away. But comics are more popular than ever, as evidenced by Hollywood megahits like "X-Men." One third of English-as-a-second language teachers in the U.S. use comics. If you doubt the future of this medium, look to Amazon, which bought comiXology, a company that translates comics to e-books. Or try getting a booth this July at Comic-Con, the mob scene that is the annual comics convention. 

Listen, I like the medium of comic books.  I like reading them with my daughter, and on my own. I like the stories they tell. But if you're reading this on the blog, you'll see that the tag reads "superheroes" and not "comic books". Superheroes are doing very well indeed; comic books are dying. One of the main complaints about Comic-Con (after how hard it is to get in) is that it's no longer about comic books anymore. Comic books exist primarily to generate content for movies, cartoons, toys and video games.

Dixon: As a peer of ours recently wrote on, when it comes to catching up to the left in modern comics, "Conservatives are taking the remedial course." As our contribution to that course, the two of us poured years into a graphic novel of "The Forgotten Man," conservative writer Amity Shlaes's new history of the Great Depression. But ours is one book. We hope conservatives, free-marketeers and, yes, free-speech liberals will join us. It's time to take back comics.
Well, good luck with that, but the free market of which you think so highly has spoken, and it's not looking good for you. I've heard it said that the goal of religion is to "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." I'm not a religious person, but I like that sentiment, and I think it's a reason why conservatives like Dixon tend not do well with superheroes. Real heroes look out for the little guy. They're not punching down. They fight for those who can't fight for themselves. Until he learns that lesson, Dixon is always going to be taking the remedial course.

Friday, June 6, 2014

A reply to Zach's comment in the new A Rose for Ecclesiastes review

I figured I might as well spin this reply off from the originating post, since I so seldom post about Zelazny's work any more, I might as well give it as much exposure as possible and try to get a conversation going.

Zach: However, I had a similar issue with LORD OF LIGHT: I'd read about how amazing it was before I ever read the book, so I couldn't figure out if that's why I liked it so much. But when I read it again a year or two later, I realized that, yes: the book is just phenomenal, and not because of any preconceived notions I had about it.

Josh:  It's funny. Your reply got me thinking about an old Zelazny group of which I'd been a member. (Well, technically, I'm still a member, but not even the spambots post there any more.)

The Forests of Arden Zelazny Group

Another member was Van Allen Plexico. I had no idea who he was at the time, but apparently he's a fairly renowned sf author whose work is heavily influenced by Zelazny.

I thought I remembered him saying that he found Lord of Light "turgid", but I couldn't find him saying that after I poked through the archives, so I must be mistakenly attributing someone else's quote to him. So, apparently, there is at least one person out there who doesn't like it. I don't agree with it, but I can understand why someone might hold that opinion, as it's not an easy read.

I did have fun poking through the archives, however. In 2007, everyone was really excited by the "Announcement of a multi-volume Zelazny collection" post, which was, of course, the Collected Stories.

Zach: The reverse of this is true for "The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth," which might be my favorite sub-novel-length Zelazny story. I'd never heard of that one before I read it, and I though it was FANTASTIC. Then, when I did some research and found it was one of Zelazny's more popular stories, it seemed to reinforce my opinion on the matter.

Josh: I always loved that one, and fictional Venus never bothered me as much as fictional Mars. My favorite line from the story: And I dream about those eyes. I want to face them once more, even if their finding takes forever. I've got to know if there's something inside me that sets me apart from a rabbit, from notched plates of reflexes and instincts that always fall apart in exactly the same way whenever the proper combination is spun.

Zach: As far as *my* version of "popular Zelazny story that I never really got into" goes, I'd have to go with Dilvish. I'm not sure why, exactly, but his stories didn't much appeal to me.

Is Dilvish all that popular, though? I like the stories okay, and I appreciate the variety (I loved REH's Conan stories, but I bought a big collection of them for a long plane ride, and it seemed like he only had three stories to tell), but I don't think I could ever see anyone becoming a lifelong fan of his work after reading it in the same way they might after reading Amber or Lord of Light.

Zach: And, to close on a comment that's actually somewhat related to your post, I'll say this: it's okay not to like "Rose," Josh. Especially when you're willing to analyze your opinion in an interesting manner!

Josh: :) I don't think I'll ever "like" the story all that much, but I'll always "appreciate" it, if you can dig the distinction.

Roger Zelazny Book Review: A Rose for Ecclesiastes - Revised Review

I said in April that I would revisit A Rose for Ecclesiastes, to see if my opinions on it had changed.

I had such an experience with Slaughterhouse Five in eighth grade. It had been almost universally praised. I sat down and read it in one sitting, and got up without seeing what the big deal was. When I read it again as a young adult, I found it almost unbearably sad.

I've occasionally been somewhat...glib about Rose, as some of my haiku about it show:

meets dancer. Bow-chikka-wow!
Poet needed to 
Repopulate Mars. Good work
if you can get it.
(I like the comments on that one) 

I was hoping that I might experience another such epiphany regarding Rose.

But, alas, it was not to be.

First, a couple qualifiers. From the beginning, I've always tried to make it clear that these reviews were just opinion pieces,


and I borrowed the words of Fiona to describe them as "a subjective, intuitive, and biased list." I was writing about my favorite author and what I liked (and more rarely, disliked) about each story, not whether I thought each was good or bad, a determination I'm certainly not qualified to make. The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny is a legitimate work of scholarship, and these blog posts are not.

With that said, I've tried to approach the process with a certain amount of intellectual rigor, laying out support for what amounts to my thesis statement with facts which were as demonstrable as possible. ("I liked Deadboy Donner because of elements X, Y and Z and these lines.")

I'll be the first to admit that Rose is a great story. (I understand that this is not a controversial statement in the world of Zelazny fandom.) It's just not a story I like, and I don't think I ever will. That's a shame, as it's one of the most beloved stories by my very favorite author.

I'm usually pretty good at articulating why I like or dislike something, so I sat down with the story with the intent of trying to isolate why I've never enjoyed it. I've come to believe that it's not any one thing, but rather a death by a thousand cuts.

The Setting

It's Mars. Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter of Mars, Mars, full of aliens who look like us, act like us and can breed with us. I'm not averse to the idea of an ancient alien civilization, or cross-fertile aliens or aliens that look like humans. It's just that the idea of Mars gets in the way. It seems so anachronistic. Certainly not a dealbreaker on its own, but it takes me out of the story every time it's referenced.

Gallinger is a jerk who is right all the time
One of the observations made about Zelazny is that his characters tend to be cast from a similar mold, that of the wise-cracking, literate superman, a Corwin by any other name (and I wish I had thought of that phrase five years ago when I was naming this blog!)  Gallinger is cut from a different cloth, smug and unpleasant in a way that Corwin and Sam and Nameless never are.

"You are undoubtably the most antagonistic bastard I've ever had to work with!" he bellowed, like a belly-stung buffalo. "Why the hell don't you act like a human being sometime and surprise everybody? I'm willing to admit you're smart, maybe even a genius, but--oh, hell!" 

That's the reason everyone is jealous--why they hate me. I always come through, and I can come through better than anyone else.
There are certainly such people in the real world, but I just don't enjoy reading about them as protagonists. Nothing wrong with such a choice, and we're shown a context for, and the roots of this behavior. I suppose the reason that I enjoy Charles Render more as a character is that his downfall is more intimately connected to his faults, whereas Gallinger is almost entirely a victim of the weight of his circumstances.

 It was a common complaint against Zelazny that he seldom wrote women. I've said this elsewhere. I think that was a combination of genre (as Amber has some deep roots in noir), the market at the time (twelve-year old boys) and possibly a generational thing.  While having so few women in his stories might raise eyebrows had they been written in 2014, he was no worse than other writers of the time, and better than most. He seldom featured women in his stories, but I felt that that he wrote them as well he wrote his male characters when he did.

Braxa is the exception. She's more a plot point than a character, and a lot of the language used to describe her ("The little redheaded doll", "She dragged me awake by tugging at my pajama
sleeve", "She seemed frightened, like a puppy dog being scolded without knowing what it has done wrong") infantilizes her.

However, I did quite like the Matriarch, and her interactions with Gallinger.


It's clearly not what Zelazny intended, but when Gallinger, who is the whitest savior imaginable, says to a group of indigenous people, "Hey, I've got a solution to your problem! I'm going to come back with a bunch of my buddies, and we're going to impregnate all your women!", it sounds a little troubling.

It's not what he intended, and nothing in any Zelazny's biographies or published works suggests that he was even slightly racist. Every account paints him as a really profoundly decent human being. But the subtext is there.

Love versus Infatuation

Gallinger is devastated by the loss of Braxa, but his feelings for her struck me as more akin to infatuation than a genuine, mature love. She's beautiful and pregnant with his child, but what connection did he have to her beyond that?

However, whatever else I think about the story, the ending line is beautiful and poignant and makes me interpret his actions more charitably than I would otherwise.  ("Blurred Mars hung like a swollen belly above me, until it dissolved, brimmed over, and streamed down my face.") I don't feel much sympathy for him being rejected by Braxa, but I will mourn with him for the life he'll never have with his child.


I think I like it a bit more than I did before, but it's never going to be one of my favorites. For me, Divine Madness is a much better story of love and loss.

I did come away with new appreciation for the language in the story, which is simply beautiful, wonderfully poetic, and distinctly Zelazny. Let's end on that note.

  • The entire month's anticipation tried hard to crowd itself into the moment, but could not quite make it.
  • The sky was an unclouded pool of turquoise that rippled calligraphies whenever I swept my eyes across it.
  • "Go, Gallinger.  Dip your bucket in the well, and bring us a drink of Mars.  Go, learn another world--but remain aloof, rail at it gently like Auden--and hand us its soul in iambics.
  • And I came to the land where the sun is a tarnished penny, where the wind is a whip, where two moons play at hot rod games, and a hell of sand gives you incendiary itches whenever you look at it.
  • The days were like Shelley's leaves: yellow, red, brown, whipped in bright gusts by the west wind.
  •  One day long before Shiaparelli saw the canals, mythical as my dragon, before those "canals" had given rise to some correct guesses for all the wrong reasons, had Braxa been alive, dancing, here--damned in the womb since blind Milton had written of another paradise, equally lost?
  •   "There has never been a flower on Mars," she said, "but we will learn to grow them."