Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a huge, gorgeous compendium of what helps make Dungeons &Dragons so wonderful. Leafing through it brings up so many memories that I can’t gush adequately about it. The art is all so familiar, evoking the glorious campaigns our DM ran, the several editions I played, and the characters I created. I recognized the covers of the paperbacks my friends and I read, and the box art for the coveted miniature sets which I still have, and still use.
“It all started with one thousand curious boxes marked with unfamiliar symbols and verbiage.”
This is not merely a coffee-table art book. Art & Arcana fully lives up to its subtitle as a rich and thorough history of Dungeons & Dragons. Interspersed with and guided by the lavish artwork is the narrative of the rise and fall of Gary Gygax and TSR and the game’s renewal under Wizards of the Coast.
Art & Arcana incorporates the several attempts to portray D&D as some sort of Satanic cult into its history, and the changes made to the game’s art and advertising in order to counter those smears. This leads into the many attempts TSR made to branch out into the mainstream.
D&D was adapted into handheld electronics in the early 1980s, with all the wonders of that era’s graphics. Somewhat more sophisticated computer versions followed in the late 80’s. Along the way, Dungeons & Dragons ventured into records, candy, coloring books, Viewmaster slides, Colorforms, a Saturday morning cartoon that spawned a board game, and even a pinball machine.
Of course Art & Arcana is thick with profiles of the artists, from the early, often teen-aged illustrators to the professional artists TSR and later companies eventually hired as D&D grew. Some examples of my favorites include Erol Otus and his classic cover of the original Dieties & Demigods; Clyde Caldwell’s iconic original art for 1983’s Ravenloft; and Darlene’s epic map of Greyhawk. In addition to the instantly-recognized classic art, the beautifully realized D&D variations found in Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder, and Spelljammer are all included here as well.
The development of the classic sets and modules, and how the maps and character sheets became refined over time, are explained as well. Two-page spreads detail the changes in how orcs, dragons, beholders, mindflayers, and other terrible beasts were drawn over the years, from the amateurish early versions to the vivid, polished monsters of today.
Even the influence of the indispensable miniature is covered, from the first cheap plastic monsters to the original MiniFigs and Grenadier figures, and on to TSR’s own official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons figures. There is nothing about how hard it is to paint the eyes, though.
“This game lets all your fantasies come true. This is a world where monsters, dragons, good and evil high priests, fierce demons, and even the gods themselves may enter your character’s life. Enjoy, for this game is what dreams are made of!”
Authors Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer have done a spectacular job of showing the history of Dungeons & Dragons in all its colorful glory. Anyone who has played any of the editions or variations will find something in Art & Arcana to reminisce over. It is a beautiful book that I will be going back to, over and over again.
Fledgling, Octavia E. Butler’s final novel, is a disconcerting read that takes on vampires, racism, and cultural creation myths in one long gulp. Told entirely from the viewpoint of an amnesiac child of a symbiotic species, Fledgling challenges the reader to accept an alien physiology and culture and its unusual intersections with human lives. While imperfect and at times jarring, it still has vital points to make.
Butler’s version of the familiar vampire is faithful to the folklore without embracing the supernatural. Her blood-drinkers are the Ina, an ancient, separate species that are not simply predators. The Ina are nocturnal, photosensitive, and long-lived, and do require human blood to survive. But the Ina need their humans alive and healthy, for more than just food.
The connection between Ina and humans is complex and symbiotic, with the depths of it only partially revealed over the course of the narrative. To ensure a steady food supply, Ina bind chosen humans to them using the venom in their bites. After several such bites, a human becomes physically dependent on its Ina and will die if separated. The Ina’s bite also confers exceptional health and extended life on the human recipient. In return, the Ina requires an intimately physical, as well as nutritional, relationship.
Part of what makes Fledgling so intriguing to me is its in medias res quality. It begins with a mystery, and ends with potential about to be tapped.
The novel is the story of Shori, a genetically altered Ina whose very existence is considered an abomination by certain other Ina families. Shori’s mothers, skilled scientists, inserted human DNA into the genetic code of Shori and her siblings with the hope of giving them the ability to withstand the sun and to function during the day–and to be able to pass those traits on to their own offspring.
Fledgling begins with Shori awakening without her memory, a result of an attack that wiped out her entire maternal family–mothers, grandmothers, and sisters, as well as all their symbiots. When she finds her paternal family, they are assassinated as well. The rest of the novel is Shori’s ongoing recovery and relearning of Ina culture–and how her existence threatens to change it– in order to bring her family’s murderers to justice.
A great deal of information is funneled to the reader through Shori’s inquiries and explorations. We learn along with her that Ina culture is an intricate thing, with social, sexual, and symbiotic norms that predate humanity’s by millenia. Her amnesia is a fine tool for all the exposition, and is balanced with enough recovered knowledge to keep her from being simply a babe in the woods and her relearning merely an info dump. Shori knows things. She doesn’t always remember that she knows them.
Shori is revealed as an ethical, caring keeper of her human symbiots, with no memory of having learned ethics. But even though she tells her own story, Shori remains at a distance. She is, after all, not a human, as much as she may resemble one.
Which brings me to my visceral discomfort with the novel.
Shori appears to be a prepubescent child, but that doesn’t matter to our Ina heroine or the twenty-something man she first feeds from. He wants to have sex with her, and she is happy to have him. She and her human symbiots engage freely in mutually consensual sex throughout the novel, with varying levels of euphemism to explain it. But the frequent descriptions of Shori as “a lovely little thing”, and the desire of multiple adult males to pull her onto their laps is far too reminiscent of Lolita for me.
While objectively it shouldn’t be an issue for a 53 year old child of an unrelated species to have sex with an adult human, from this adult human’s perspective it feels very wrong.
Ocatvia E. Butler died too soon, and Fledgling strikes me as a beginning to something that would have been larger if she had enough time. The novel is transgressive and open-ended, with the poisons of racial purity and prejudice laid out in clear and unsentimental language. In the end Fledgling left me unexpectedly and deeply uncomfortable. But I still wish there were more of the story.
Here are more October chills—enough to fill all thirty-one days several times over.
The Year’s Best Horror Stories was a twenty-two volume annual anthology series that ran from 1971 through 1994. Its creator, Richard Davis, edited the series from 1971-1973, with Christopher Lee himself writing the introduction to 1972’s Volume II. After a few years’ pause, Gerald W. Page revived the series in 1976 and edited it until 1979. Then, the inimitable Karl Edward Wagner took over, editing The Year’s Best Horror Stories from 1980 until his death in 1994. Since then, the series has been dormant.
The Year’s Best Horror Stories was an introduction to some of the most consistently dread-inducing authors I have ever encountered. Ramsey Campbell’s work appeared a remarkable 26 times in the 22 volumes, lending some support to my (and Mr. Wagner’s) opinion that he is one of the most frightening horror author working today. Other authors who appeared multiple times were Dennis Etchison (14 stories), Charles L. Grant (12 stories), Brian Lumley (11 stories), and Wayne Allen Sallee (10 stories). Other authors who appeared often in the series were David Drake, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Tanith Lee, David J. Schow, Robert Bloch, T.E.D. Klein, Manly Wade Wellman, Kim Newman, and Lisa Tuttle.
While there is considerable overlap of authors, only one entry in The Year’s Best Horror Stories was adapted for the previously-mentioned TV series Tales from the Darkside. That was “Slippage” (1982), by Michael P. Kube-McDowell, from volume XI, about a man whose life is slowly being erased.
More than four hundred stories appeared in the series. I recall many of them, if not always clearly. But there are a few that still stand out vividly for me (and some I read over and over for fresh thrills):
“Something Had to Be Done” (1975), by David Drake is absolutely one of my favorites. In it, a terminally ill Army sergeant pays a notification visit to the family of a soldier who “died in battle”, in order to tie up some loose ends. Short, sharp, and scathing.
“At the Bottom of the Garden” (1975), by David Campton is a slightly loopy but ultimately tragic story of a woman, her daughter, and the creature that might make things right for them.
“Undertow” (1977), by Karl Edward Wagner is classic dark sword and sorcery featuring Wagner’s antihero, Kane, in a love story gone very, very wrong.
“The Horse Lord” (1977), by Lisa Tuttle, in which a family moves to a farmhouse in the country and an old, hungry god is resurrected by the children. The imagery was visceral. I refer to this story often as an example of staying power.
“Winter White” (1978), by Tanith Lee is a dark fantasy set in a barbarian kingdom. A warrior makes his own end with a magic pipe, a silent witch, and the invisible child he fathers on her.
“If Damon Comes” (1978), by Charles L. Grant, is one of his Oxrun Station stories. Grim, and, sad, and terrifying, a winter’s tale about a poor father haunted by his dead son.
“Within the Walls of Tyre” (1978), by Michael Bishop is an unconventional horror story about a woman’s private tragedy being commercially exploited by a man she thought she could trust. There are no monsters, only pain.
“Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy” (1989), by David J. Schow is a particularly vivid gore-fest about a survivor of the Zombie Apocalypse who eats the walking dead himself, and a small time televangelist whose faith is renewed by the zombies’ resurrection.
The tone of the anthologies changed over the years, as the style of horror itself became more graphic and early, traditional creepiness gave way to more explicit shocks. What remained consistent, though, was the ability of the selected stories to make you look behind you. I have pointed out the stories that still scare me, even after all this time. I’m sure there are plenty of unmentioned others in The Year’s Best Horror Stories that will have the same effect on you.
M.R. James is perhaps the most reliably frightening author I can think of. Although Montague Rhodes James only published 34 stories over the course of his life, each one is a polished gem of unwise inquiries, lurking supernatural threats and terrible ghostly vengeance. What could be better, with Halloween looming?
Published between 1895 and 1936, James’s ghost stories are slightly stuffy, off-handedly erudite, and almost impossibly creepy–the kind of creepy that makes locking all the doors and looking behind the furniture a rational reaction. His tales were influenced by his scholarly work as a medievalist and antiquarian, with many of them featuring archaic manuscripts and bookish protagonists, with the setting being often a small village or a country estate.
M.R. James also incorporated a subtle humor into his terrors, with side comments about social obligations and domestic disagreements. The contrast between the prosaic and the threatening unknown makes the effect all the more intense and hard to shrug off.
Although there are several collections to choose from, for the full M.R. James experience the Complete Ghost Stories is the way to go. This collection, which has never been out of print, contains all but the four stories he wrote after Complete Ghost Stories was published in 1931.
Of, course, I have my particular favorites.
“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” begins with the discovery of a small flute.
It stood for the moment in a band of dark shadow, and he had not seen what its face was like. Now it began to move, in a stooping posture, and all at once the spectator realized, with some horror and some relief, that it must be blind, for it seemed to feel about it with its muffled arms in a groping and random fashion.
“Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” contains a trove of stolen, rare documents.
Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by the appalling effigy. One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: ‘It was drawn from the life.’
“The Mezzotint” is a still life that is not so still.
It was indubitable — rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.
Finally, “Lost Hearts”, which I have always found the most tragic of M.R. James’s stories.
His description of what he saw reminds me of what I once beheld myself in the famous vaults of St. Michan’s Church in Dublin, which possess the horrid property of preserving corpses from decay for centuries. A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.
While M.R. James exerted plenty of influence in the literary world (inspiring H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, as well as John Bellairs, Ramsey Campbell, and Stephen King), his work had less impact on movies and television. The only full-length film version of one of his tales is the adaptation of “Casting the Runes”, filmed as Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon in the US) in 1957. James’s stories were adapted for television several times over the years, from a 1951 version of “The Tractate Middoth”, to the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series in the 1970s that used five of James’s works, to a chilling 2010 adaptation of “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” starring John Hurt.
M.R. James’s Complete Ghost Stories has no scaly cosmic horrors, no carnage, and precious little blood. What it does have is an undeniably unnerving atmosphere that has held up for over a century. And whatever form you find them in, M.R. James’s stories can be counted on to make you look over your shoulder–just to be sure.
The Maiden Voyage and Other Departures by Jessica McHugh is a collection of six loosely related stories that hinge on a promising steampunk concept. In McHugh’s take on the early nineteen-tens, the world is polluted by industrial pollen technology and humanity shares the stage with apisthropes–bee/human hybrids living in disguise among humans. There is intrigue. There are power struggles. There is still a lot missing.
McHugh’s style is vivacious and energetic, but there is no nuance to her storytelling. The hybrid idea is full of possibility. However, the driving conceit quickly loses its steam to superficial characters, thin plots, and a lack of historical context. The collection oscillates between four fairly-convincingly related tales and two weak vignettes that have to name-drop to create any connection. The big picture simply isn’t there.
This is not a particularly well-crafted book. Worldbuilding is cursory, with little detail to anchor us to the locations. The dialogue is frequently anachronistic, with profanity thrown in for shock value. And the characters are stereotypical (even the apisthropes), underdeveloped, and drawn with a heavy hand.
My two immediate issues with The Maiden Voyage are the slapdash writing and sloppy editing:
“Mama opened the door and hollered for the nursemaid, Helga, but she was outside with the butler overseeing the installation of a beeswax and jellyglass fountain the Goswick’s had rented for the evening, and it had only just given its first spurt when Edith’s Vagnerian voice tugged her inside.”
“The gentle voice that cooed from behind him didn’t look like it belonged to the raven-haired woman standing in the doorway.”
I know mistakes happen. Typos and misspellings get missed. But this inattention to detail is found throughout the book, and is the kind of distraction that keeps me from caring about the characters or their fates.
Each story in the collection happens in the same alternate past, and is meant to connect to the others if only tangentially.
The Maiden Voyage
The title novelette fumbles an opportunity to provide exposition and context for what comes after. The protagonist is a newborn apisthrope, a drone born without any memory or history of his kind. This information is bestowed by a female shortly after he is born. Apparently, apisthropes have existed for eons. But instead of giving the reader access to any background information, McHugh glosses over it.
Large Blue, Little Darling
The second story expands on another variety of hybrid creature (butterfly/human) to no real end. The piece is more a vignette than a full story, and a sloppy throwaway of a vignette at that. The editing is atrocious, with dropped words, incomplete rewrites, and muddled points of view.
There’s Nothing Between the Sky and Sea
While this moves the general storyline to America and introduces the Wright brothers (and sister Kate), the historical connection is once again tenuous and the story fails to build on what it has. The existence of a pantheon of bee-gods is mentioned in passing, as is a human who is able to channel other personalities like a medium. There is more included here than can be effectively addressed in one short story.
Pain Like Honey Wine
This introduces a tragic hero, London slums, and human-hybrid S&M to the mix without stirring many emotions. I felt as if this story could have been a broad parody, but the blend of sentimentality and undercover rebellion is too strong for that reading.
Forgotten in El Paso
This one is an inconsistently moody ghost story that neither adds nor subtracts from The Maiden Voyage’s general concept. It takes place in the West, and expands oddly on the human/spider hybrid introduced in the first tale.
America or Bust
The final piece has a preternaturally gifted teenaged heroine, incomprehensible motivations for the villains, and one character who seems to exist only to reveal that another is gay. It also revives an antagonist from the first story, and teases more to come.
McHugh clearly has a good sense of humor, and, despite the editorial issues, an engaging style. Perhaps if the tales comprising The Maiden Voyage had been played more for laughs rather than for drama, the whole enterprise would have worked. As it is, The Maiden Voyage comes across to me as a fast and loose draft of a good idea rather than a fully-fleshed world.
Jon Morris’s The Legion of Regrettable Supervillainsis a natural sequel to his The League of Regrettable Superheroes. Let’s face it: Without anyone to fight against, the superheroes are just a bunch of folks running around in funky spandex underoos. Let’s also face that very few supervillains will have the gravitas of Magneto, the moral certainty of Thanos, or the creepy menace of the Joker. Morris is here to once again tell us about all the also-rans who didn’t let their deficiencies stop them.
No matter the shape, size, or strategy of the four-color finks gracing these pages, every one of them had the potential to join the ranks of comicdom’s icons of iniquity. It was only poor sales, inopportune timing, and occasional overshadowing from bigger baddies that consigned so many of these scoundrels to the scrapheap of comic book history. Until now!
Morris documents a remarkable assortment of semi-menacing figures that are very much the products of their times. The thirties and forties saw an awful lot of gangsters and confidence men–as well as Mother Goose, Satan, and Captain Black Bunny–before the comics went to war. The fifties and sixties ushered in a bunch of do-badders like Cat Girl and Tino the Terrible Teen, who would fit comfortably in a Batman episode. The seventies and beyond took both oddly concrete and weirdly conceptual turns, with Generic Man, Captain Law, and Uzzi the Clown all serving up exactly what their monikers promise.
Several of these menaces to society did go on to have fairly (by Regrettable standards) long careers. Batroc the Leaper hassled Captain America over multiple issues. The Human Flying Fish caused trouble for Aquaman, on and off. Swarm stuck around to threaten Black Widow, Ghost Rider, and a few lesser X-Men. And MODOK became the go-to adversary for Marvel, taking on Ms. Marvel, Deadpool, Iron Man, the Hulk, and a slew of other A-list superheroes.
Nazis: Captain America wasn’t the only Nazi-puncher of the Golden Age. Nazis were a favorite–and obvious–target for pretty much everybody in the 1940s. It’s not like Captain Murder, the Human Fly, and Mister Banjo didn’t deserve it.
The Jingler: “The Jingler (aka “the Jingler of Death”) begins his career not as a vile poet, but merely a pretty bad one.”
Reefer King: “One Mary Jane-laced menace is the so-called Reefer King, a shady dealer of ‘funny cigarettes.’ (At no point in this story are the illicit cigarettes referred to as marijuana or cannabis.)”
And from the Silver Age (1950-1969):
Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man: “Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral…it’s all three! That’s some good science.”
The Human Flying Fish: “a villain so remarkable he deserves two adjectives in his nom du crime.”
Mod Gorilla Boss: “We never learn his name, nor how he discovered his transformational fluid, or even why he was into mod fashion. In fact, the story sheds absolutely no light on the backstory of this bizarre villain.”
And lastly from the Modern Age (1970-present):
Ghetto-Blaster: “Ghetto-Blaster hearkens back to a trend in comics when writers clearly named the villain after something sitting on their desks or stored in the hall closet.”
The Golden Fuhrer: Proving that Nazis never go out of style for punching–“Who knew that the reanimation of Nazi corpses could be such a good career opportunity?”
Tapeworm: “Tapeworm would be one of the most unnerving supervillains in existence even without considering that apparently he smells terrible.”
The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains relishes the inherent silliness of these awkward bad guys, but it comes across to me as less gleeful than Morris’s earlier book on superheroes. The tone may be unavoidable, though, since villains are not generally known for their fun-loving ways, and their roles are by definition dark. But there are still plenty here who are not so much wicked as just cranky and misguided. There are even a handful who occasionally turn good. Morris’s snarky descriptions of the unlikeliest criminal minds continue to be a fun read.
Overall, The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains serves up some truly remarkable examples of how polite society’s fears get translated onto a comic books pages. It’s an interesting, four-color peek into the back pages of history.
The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It
David M. Ewalt
Scribner: 288 pp., $26
Back in 2013, when David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men came out, I had not played Dungeons and Dragons in probably twenty years. I had no expectation of ever playing again, and only picked the book up out of nostalgia for my misspent youth. But by the time I got around to reading it, I was back in the game and stumbling my way through a new campaign, bolstered mightily by the mercy of some friends who had never stopped playing. Let’s face it, David Ewalt speaks true when he says that “the system encourages long-term engagement, and its one reason why D&D fans are particularly devoted to their hobby” (96). Somehow, despite growing up and assuming our adult responsibilities, a great many of us cannot say a permanent goodbye to D&D.
“The people you play games with become your clan. They share your experiences, know your strengths and weaknesses, and help protect you from a dangerous world.” –David Ewalt, Of Dice and Men
Ewalt describes a similar trajectory for himself, and uses that as the peg to hang his narrative on. A substantial amount of the book is illustrated with passages describing Ewalt’s reintroduction to the game, his fellow players (including both their real-world jobs and their characters’ professions), and his current, ongoing campaign. Much like Shakespeare, these passages play a whole lot better than they read. This is not his fault, nor is it a criticism. D&D, no matter the version in use, is meant to be lived.
Ewalt’s style is light, quippy and a little snarky (“D&D scenarios are the microwave dinners of the role-playing world” (100)), but he covers a lot of ground. He starts his journey with a brief history of chess and that game’s evolution into progressively more elaborate war games—from strategy-based systems to miniature-fueled reenactments. He outlines the development of a scattered historical gaming community brought together at conventions. And then he introduces us to the young Gary Gygax, who was deeply into historical gaming before he discovered the joy of gaming and turned it into his life’s work.
Ewalt also gets into the politics behind the scenes of the game at TSR, the personal and business conflicts, the royalty issues, the copyright infringement cases (both by and against TSR and Co.), and the creep toward mainstream popularity and mass-market merchandising that might ring a little strangely for the hard-core among us. He includes the financial mishandling and collapse of TSR, Gygax’s death, and the survival of D&D through its purchase by Wizards of the Coast. Of course, all this is all related in the same adventurous tone as his campaign recollections. It goes down easy.
He even touches briefly on live-action role playing, but until he needed to research it had never done it, and sees it as something ‘other’ than a traditional RPG. The friends I had who were involved in LARPs did not do tabletop games, so Ewalt may be on to something, there.
And because you cannot discuss D&D without it, Ewalt reviews the dark time in the nineteen eighties when the game and its players became synonymous with the seduction of black magic and insanity. This particular slice of awfulness was served during my prime playing days, when Tipper Gore and other parental McCarthyites became determined to save us all from the overblown, misunderstood, and purely imaginary dangers that RPGs and heavy metal music were blamed for promoting.
As a player himself, Ewalt understands very well the group dynamics that are the heart of the game. He describes familiar personality types that just don’t fit anywhere, even in the odd assemblage that is a gaming group. But he also describes quite vividly the emotional bonds that hold even the prickliest mix of players together: “even when a game is over, the bonds that have been created persist…The people you play games with become your clan. They share your experiences, know your strengths and weaknesses, and help protect you from a dangerous world” (119).
To sum it up: Of Dice and Men is a light yet reasonably comprehensive read written by a person who loves Dungeons and Dragons and always has. Ewalt hits most of the major points of the game, its major contributors, and its development without ever bogging down or preaching it. If you want a refresher course in why you also love playing D&D, this may be exactly the book for you.
“More sophisticated storytelling, including such high-profile critical successes as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, encouraged a new generation of innovative writers and artists to invent some of the most fascinating, thoughtful, well-crafted superhero tales ever produced. We won’t be talking about them, though…”— Jon Morris, The League of Regrettable Superheroes
This labor of love appears just in time for Antman to hit theaters, and reminds us that there were plenty of other righteous crusaders out there who were even more awkwardly conceived of than he. Like Bee Man. And Doll Man. And Nature Boy. There is a great spirit of throw-them-at-the-wall-and-see-who-sticks to many of these comics, and a cheerful disregard for logic and continuity. It’s hard not to feel some affection for these guys once we get to know them.
And we do get to know them, through all the profiles of poorly-conceived and coolly-received superheroes stretching from the thirties into the nineties. Some of them simply missed the mark. Many of them seem to be full-out messing with us (Mother Hubbard? Really?). The whole thing is an extremely amusing snark-fest, but it has to be. Some of these characters are so ungainly the only other option for them is tragedy. For example, there is one benighted creature called Brother Power the Geek, a hybrid hippy/Pinnochio who straggled through two issues before being put out of his misery by the publisher.
Morris, who also runs the comic blog Gone and Forgotten, shows us how all these heroes fit into the grand scheme of things. He provides us with a concise and witty history of the evolution of superheroes in the comics, and the various cultural fashion trends that they followed on the way to their flame-outs. Heroes may be more than merely men, but they don’t exist in a cultural vacuum, after all. All of them arise to face the main threats of their particular days. The early Golden Age years had gangsters and Nazis to battle, the fifties and early sixties had rogue atomic power and the Cold War, and the seventies, eighties and nineties had, well, other stuff—more Russians, and some angst.
Morris breaks his chosen heroes out alphabetically by era for ease for reference. And he does pad his catalogue a little bit by including a few characters that were actually advertising gimmicks or product tie ins, like AAU Superstar and NFL Superpro. But these shills did actually appear in comic books, making them superheroes in a very broad sense.
There are quite a few female superheroes documented here, too, ranging from the humanly heroic Pat Parker to War Nurse to the ghastly Fantomah to the happily married Pow-Girl and the cheerfully odd Squirrel Girl. They are, like their male counterparts, representative of their eras. However, in one unexpected and disturbing illustration, the 1976 character Captain Ultra shoves to the ground a female superhero who dares to flirt with someone else. I didn’t think the seventies were still so cavalier about casual dating violence, but I guess I was wrong.
The illustrations are generous, with at least one full page of each entry devoted to a cover or a representative inside page from the comic. The art, in all its four-color glory, is frequently familiar. Many of these titles came and went by way of Marvel and DC, and more than a few big names have been involved in these misfires. Even such giants as Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, and Stan Lee produced some less-than super heroes in the giddy rush of the early days and in the quest to stay relevant in the following decades.
In my humble opinion, some of the more colorful superhero failures from each era are, to begin, these three from the Golden Age (1938-1949):
Atoman: “If Atoman’s origin isn’t the first in comics that directly references Albert Einstein, it’s certainly the only one that makes mention of Nobel-snubbed physicist Lise Meitner.”
Doctor Hormone: “Apparently, eternal youth and half-animal soldiers could take Doctor Hormone only so far.”
Madam Fatal: “Resembling something like a mix of the films Taken and Doubtfire, Madam Fatal represents one of the truly unique characters in comics.”
And three more from the Silver Age (150-169):
Dracula: “he ended up clothed in a skin-tight purple bodysuit, with a broad red belt and some sort of bat-eared bonnet.”
Fatman the Human Flying Saucer: “a plump but athletic character.”
The Sentinels: “In their civilian identities, they wore domino masks as part of their musical gimmick, like a really toned-down KISS.”
And a final sextet from the Modern Age (1970-present):
Assorted lesser X-Men: Snot, who does exactly what you think he does; Maggott, “whose power is ‘being infested with parasites’”; and Beak, “He has light bones and weird feathered limbs, but he can’t really fly; his only offensive power is pecking.”
Skateman: “one of the few street-level vigilantes in the history of comics to have taken justice into his own hands while wearing pristine white booty shorts.”
Thunderbunny: “All Bobby must do is concentrate, clap his hands, and he is transformed—into a giant pink rabbit clad in Spandex!”
As Morris points out early on in The League of Regrettable Superheroes, the overwhelming majority of superheroes have bizarre origin stories—and many of the characters he profiles here are no more or less unlikely than Superman, Spiderman, or the Flash. Many he includes aren’t really that bad at all, despite being variously irradiated, immolated, and reconstructed by aliens. Some of the “regrettable” titles were even modestly successful in their time. Surprisingly, several of the characters he pegs as failures were, by his own admission, interesting and had fairly decent runs. Some have even been revived at least once. They just didn’t strike the same chords with the American public as the ones who became the big guys did, and so fell by the wayside rather than striking gold in reboot and retcon heaven. Some of these heroes may even be worth tracking down and getting better acquainted with through the rather colorful resources of the Digital Comic Museum and Comic Book Plus.
As always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section.
Lovecraft Country starts with a fascinating premise–what would it be like as an African-American to battle the forces of darkness while also battling the rampant racism of 1950s America? Matt Ruff gives the idea a good run in his episodic 2016 novel. The interconnected stories are well-paced and well-told, and open-ended enough to justify the anticipated television series based on the book. But there are some issues with what is actually delivered.
Lovecraft Country is fast-moving and full of action, but spends precious little time in Lovecraft country proper.
Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran, travels from Florida to Chicago at his father’s request, only to find Montrose Turner is gone. With his Uncle George and his friend Letitia, Atticus follows his father’s trail to a haunted New England town. The trio rescue Montrose from the clutches of one wizard, only to have the wizard’s son continue to trouble them and their families long after they escape back to Chicago. As if that continuing menace weren’t enough, all this happens under the long shadow of Jim Crow.
The plot is loaded with mystery and threats, and each chapter focuses on a single character as part of the larger story. The individual experiences use familiar horror and science fiction tropes from Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and leaven them with touches of sarcastic humor. The world is a strange place. Might as well laugh.
However, the characters are less well-drawn than I had hoped. Atticus is the brave hero, Letitia the spunky sidekick, Montrose the prickly, righteous father, and Braithwhite the slick, heartless wizard. Wives, children, and friends have similarly distinct attributes, without great depth. The only ones I felt had adequate development were Letitia’s sister, Ruby, and Atticus’s Uncle George. The others all move briskly through the action without making a huge emotional impact. As an ensemble, they work extremely well, and are believable in the bounds of the story. But they are not characters for the ages.
And, much to my disappointment, Lovecraft Country has only the barest hint of Lovecraft in it. Ruff dwells on the occult, rather than the weird, and the mystical goings-on do not tap into any especially cosmic sense of horror. At one point, Ruff touches on the inhumanity behind canonical Lovecraftian weirdness–
“…when you invoke the language of Adam, you’re addressing nature, and nature doesn’t care, it just does what it’s told. If you garble your instructions–transpose a letter, stress the wrong syllable–you’ll get what you ask for, but it might not be what you want.”
–but he fails to capture it. The supernatural pushes in through ghosts, potions, and spell-casting. With the exception of a couple of interludes in another dimension, the tentacled horrors and amoral other gods simply aren’t here. And if Lovecraft taught us anything, it’s that there is plenty of room for cosmic dread and racism in the world.
Lovecraft Country is as fun a read as a horror novel about grossly racist Natural Philosophers can be–which is, oddly enough, very. But perhaps it’s a reflection of Ruff being white while his characters are not that the closing scene of Lovecraft Country seems too pat, like the conclusion of a Very Special Episode of a sitcom. And for a novel with such ambitious ideas, the tidy wrap-up sells the whole grand, entertaining plan just a little short of where I wanted it to be.