A handsome binding (regrettable use of the papyrus font notwithstanding), but I still prefer the Del Rey editions, which use Howard's original manuscrA handsome binding (regrettable use of the papyrus font notwithstanding), but I still prefer the Del Rey editions, which use Howard's original manuscripts, untouched by magazine editors or later, inferior authors like de Camp.
There are stumbling blocks for every author--we each have our crutches, our weak points, our awkward moments--but what sets a good author apart is thaThere are stumbling blocks for every author--we each have our crutches, our weak points, our awkward moments--but what sets a good author apart is that, despite these things, there is always something that carries them through it, some verve or strength that makes up for it.
This is especially true for pulp and genre authors: their work may be unpolished, even bordering on the cliche, but some aspect of their approach and vision still shines through. Lovecraft's pacing and voice often left much to be desired, but his unique vision of cosmic horror still makes much of his work intriguing. Early on, Moorcock struggled with subtlety and sophistication, but his odd conceptual approach often saved him. Indeed, for Howard, the more polished his style became, the more it lost the vitality that set it apart.
With Wagner, I struggled to find the unique aspect of voice that makes a story worth telling--and worth reading. Certainly, there are some things he does well: his writing shines when he is setting a scene, in descriptions of places, structures, weather, the tapestry of a landscape passing the lonely traveler by. There is some real loveliness there, some fine turns of phrase and genuine tone.
However, outside of these passages the style becomes finicky. The action scenes get bogged down in deliberate, meticulous description, preventing them from flowing, from being dramatic and wild. It all begins to feel like a foregone conclusion. Wagner doesn’t seem to be able to create interesting tensions within the action to keep us interested.
In actions scenes, there is always the obvious, overarching conflict that must be resolved. In combat, it is the naked question of who will prevail, whose sword arm will prove stronger. In the chase, it is the question of whether the quarry will escape, or be captured. In order to lengthen these into full scenes, there must be a sequence of smaller conflicts playing out which are progressively dealt with en route to the final conclusion.
However, it is vital that these smaller conflicts be interesting in themselves, and not just be an extension of the larger. So, it cannot just be ‘our hero sees a new foe before him’, to be cut down and defeated in a repetitious succession of thud and blunder. There must be some wrinkle, some particular that must be overcome in a way that requires something specific of our hero, that engages him. It is not enough simply to have a quick foe, or a massive one--that quickness or size must be given some particular thrust--some detail that makes it feel true to the reader, that makes it imperative to the hero’s momentary survival.
Kane is meant to be preternaturally skilled and competent--but even the most certain man must grit his teeth and will his way through at least some of his struggles. The combat often ends up lacking a sense of danger or thrill or unpredictability to keep things moving. It shows how difficult it really is to produce the kind of exciting flow that Howard seems to create so effortlessly--almost thoughtlessly--in the Conan stories.
Wagner’s dialogue likewise shows a niceness that causes it to lose much of the punch it might otherwise have. Firstly, he walks that line le Guin marked in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in that when he makes his language conversational, it can start to feel overly modern and plain in the mouths of these outlandish characters. That isn't to say that characters in fantasy should all speak like chivalric knights errant, but creating conversation that is both rough and retains a period feel is no easy feat.
Secondly, like many authors unsure of their own voice, he seems to fear being misunderstood. So, he leaves nothing implied, allows no subtle nods, instead making sure the whole is stated outright for the reader. So, if we have our hero speaking with a shady character, a dark-cloaked spy who works both sides, you can be certain that at some point, there will be an aside where he thinks to himself ‘I’m not sure if I can trust him’. If two characters are planning to break into a castle, one will probably mention that he doesn’t want to be caught and tortured.
There’s a reason that writers don’t do this: ‘While fully dressed and facing forward, he walked with his feet across the green grass lawn’--most of those words simply aren’t necessary. The exact same image is communicated by ‘He walked across the lawn’. The true job of a writer is deciding what needs to be shown versus what can be left unsaid. If our hero walked backwards on his hands while naked across a perfumed lawn of purple bones, that might be worth mentioning. Ultimately, it makes Wagner’s writing tedious to get through--less like characters engaged in conversation and more like two writers plotting the outline for a script.
The Cthulhu bits are played too straight, too matter-of-factly. Wagner isn’t adding anything or putting his own spin on it, he’s just lifting Lovecraft’s descriptions whole cloth. Indeed, the characters often speak of magic and demons with all the wonder and fear of a mechanic talking about rebuilding an engine.
Moreover, the events of the story don’t really seem to touch Kane, to change him moment to moment. Of course, his immortality would give him an unusual point of view, and it’s certainly not unthinkable that he should feel disconnected from the world--jaded and detached. But even so, this jadedness does not seem to drive him, it does not modify his reactions, it simply leaves him blank. With Moorcock's Elric, we get the idea that he has grander desires that drive him, even if they tend to be personal ones, and he otherwise feels separate from the world.
Now, if the intent were to explore the existential ennui of immortality, that could make for an interesting story, but the events of Kane’s life are very much the norm for a sword & sorcery hero--battles and demons, pirates and assassins. His own actions in this world are also very much the norm, so it’s not as if we’re being provided with some fresh outlook or approach to underscore his unique perspective.
I was excited to try this series, based on it's reputation--a darker Conan, a modern take on Eddison's and Anderson's violent, blood-and-glory tales--unfortunately, the tone, characterization, dialogue, and plotting simply weren't up to the challenge. Ultimately, though Wagner is certainly reaching for what might be an interesting vision of fantasy, he never quite succeeds at bringing it to life, on the page.
Carthage holds a certain fascination for me, as a classics scholar, in that it was an empire of power, influence, and grand personalities--and yet theCarthage holds a certain fascination for me, as a classics scholar, in that it was an empire of power, influence, and grand personalities--and yet the legacy Carthage has left to us, her history, her culture were deliberately erased, burned to the ground with nary a trace remaining, and then replaced with the politicized fictions of Rome, who destroyed her, followed in her footsteps, and replaced her. The shadow of Carthage looms large across the ancient world, but she is always a shadow: dark, unknowable, menacing, cloaked in rumor. Her real presence, her real character still remain unknown to us.
Some things we do know: that she was a colony of Phoenicians who became a power in their own right, the figures of Hanno the navigator, Hannibal the general, and some other greats, mostly sprung from the grand Barca line. Yet our knowledge is always filtered through Roman eyes, Roman words--to the point that the great Roman cultural epic, Virgil's Aeneid, personifies Carthage in the figure of Dido: the angry, jilted lover intent on preventing Rome's ever being born. In the end, warmongering Cato's oft-repeated line Carthago delenda est--'Carthage must be destroyed'--was followed to the letter.
In preparation for this book, the follow-up to his acknowledged masterpiece of psychological Realism, Madame Bovary, Flaubert spent months researching, burying himself in ancient histories, trying to recover the lost empire--even visiting its former site. One can see the fruits of his labors in the book's mostly delightful details--which at their best evoke the poetic list-making of Ovid or Milton--while at other times, they run to the banal, as a certain lengthy explanation of the difference between the catapult and the ballista.
There is definitely a sense that Flaubert is working more in the milieu of history here, not melodrama--which is unfortunate, because the story cries out to be told with pathos and character, to be sung. We're never allowed into the characters, psychologically--instead of seeing their thoughts develop toward the moment of decision, Flaubert sticks us with mere descriptions of what has happened. What a Shakespearean performance this might have been--full of contentious dialogues, arguments, coercions, seductions--I longed to see these grand figures strutting the stage, demonstrating their mastery, their force of personality, their depth of emotion. It's no wonder that luminaries like Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff tried to craft operas from the tale.
Without these passionate struggles, these subtle turns and manipulations, the entire melodrama grows ever more flat, preconceived, inevitable. Yet, as the author, himself wrote:
"I would give the demi-ream of notes I've written during the last five months and the ninety-eight volumes I've read, to be, for only three seconds, really moved by the passion of my heroes."
Sometimes, alas, the work simply does not come together as we wish it might--as indeed we know that it can, for that is what draws an artist to the project in the first place: his sure knowledge that there is a story here worth telling, and the reader surely comes away with that same impression, that there is fertile ground here.
The bloody anecdotes--especially an early one about the crucifixion of a full-grown lion--are rife with opportunity for symbolism, for multilayered writing, if only it had all come together. If only. They do not work as pure history--Flaubert lacks that scholarly depth and breadth, for all his researches--but neither can he quite turn them to an artistic purpose.
In the end, the most interesting way to view the work--and indeed, likely the reason it failed--is as a grand piece of Orientalism. We do not quite get Carthage-as-Carthage, but neither do we get Carthage-as-France. Instead, we get a distancing, a view of Carthage as unknowable, as impossible to sympathize with--that same distance that the Orientalist stance was constructed to produce.
It is either fitting or ironic that we end up here, since in many ways, Carthage-by-way-of-Rome is the original example of the Orientalist posture: the foreign power is destroyed, conquered, converted, and then rewritten by the conqueror as self-justification. The voice of Carthage, its power and influence was so great that Rome had to reduce it, to transform it into something less threatening--even as Rome dutifully copied both the technology and the methods which Carthage established as the necessities of the first true maritime trade empire to dominate the Mediterranean.
Aeneas is not merely a snub to Carthage, after all--but also an attempt by Rome to rewrite Persian greatness into their empire, which was always more Cult of the God King than Rhetoric of the Demos--then, in the wake of the Renaissance and the Reconquista, the European powers once again take on the Roman cause and identity, intent on making an abused lover of Islam, which had so long dominated and loomed over them. For France, Algeria became the colonial site where they most fully explored the perverse decadence that is the ruler's right--at the same time blaming the natives for whatever was inflicted upon them, through the standard process of Orientalist distancing--a process we still use to this day, insisting that any group who cannot prevent themselves from being dominated must, in some way, be asking to be so dominated.
The most extreme example of alienation and vilification crafted by the Romans against the Carthaginians is the Tophet--a site where, it was claimed, infants were sacrificed to the brutal gods as offerings to stave off defeat, disease, and blight. Flaubert repeats this accusation in the most florid and merciless way, as the blood-mad crowd gives up child after child to the mechanized maw of their titanic idol. Recent archaeological study suggests that the Tophet was used for interring the numerous stillbirths and victims of high infant mortality in the ancient world.
Though clearly influential on adventure writers like Haggard, Kipling, and Mundy, Flaubert does not quite achieve the rollicking pace that make those stories enjoyable. Neither can he deliver upon the wild personalities which might have carried the tale as a proper melodrama--the required psychological distance between himself as a French citizen and the necessarily depraved East is too vast a gulf for authorial sympathies to bridge. Neither can it quite be called a history--it is rather too close and personal, too invested in the blood and depravity for its own sake to maintain more objective judgment.
Perhaps Melville--if anyone--could have melded these disparate types of story, through extended symbolism and precisely-constructed moments into a tale that managed, ultimately, to hang together and surpass the mere sum of assembled parts. In the end Flaubert, despite his particular skills and the time he invested, could not....more
Found this by searching for 'airship' on Project Gutenberg, where the full text is available for download. Written in the midst of The Great War, it iFound this by searching for 'airship' on Project Gutenberg, where the full text is available for download. Written in the midst of The Great War, it is a fairly standard example of Invasion Literature, featuring a dashing young aviator and inventor, his girlfriend, and his best mate trying to single-handedly fight off the dastardly German menace nightly loosing bombs over London....more
Indeed, many of our most cherished fantasies tend to relate to the place we were born--when we find ourselves defending it, or singing its praises. It's not that the details we give aren't true, it's that we have a sort of rosy-quartz view about the place that made us. It also comes out in what we dislike about our home, what tired and frustrated us--there is a whole mythology within us of what exactly we believe our provenance to be like, and it is more the truth of us than the truth of that place.
Kipling's Kim is often considered his greatest work, and as Said's introduction notes, it is one of his only works that profits from close reading. His others are certainly enjoyable, and have certain themes, but tend to wear these on the chest, while Kim presents a rather more complex relationship.
Of course, there was an uproar when it was announced that the Penguin edition would feature an introduction from Said, but as someone who has actually read his work, I was not concerned he would do Kipling wrong. Indeed, his treatment is even-handed, noting both the strengths and flaws of the text, and bringing together many interesting observations from other sources.
It is a boys' club book, about the doings of men in their 'Great Game' of death and deceit. Of women there are two: a whore and a mother figure, and neither one strays beyond the bounds of her given role. Indeed, this book was one of the inspirations for the creation of the Boy Scouts, after the romantic adventure of Kipling's young fellow.
It's also certainly a tale of privilege, as of course, that is the role Kipling himself was born into: of being free from social constraints, on the top of the heap, able to go where and when he liked, and in whatever guise, for there was none to gainsay him.
But beyond these bounds, it is certainly a wondrous and vivid tale, full of color and character, all those little details and curious turns of phrase that make a good adventure. Indeed, there is much more of the fantastical in this than in many adventure books--magic and mysticism have central roles, as do cultural dissonance, even if Kipling ultimately ignores the great and central conflict which first showed itself in the Sepoy Uprising, and grew to eventual fruition in Gandhi and at last, independence.
Rarely have I seen the Other and the defamiliarization of ideas portrayed so wholly, particularly in a colonial work--and if Kipling had used these strengths to tackle the great central conflict that looms over all, the work would have been truly profound.
The relationship between Kim and the Lama is the crux here, the deep and genuine friendship between stereotypically Eastern and Western figures, which crosses boundaries of faith, philosophy, race, and language, seeking ever for mutual ground and further understanding. Yet that the old man is a fool, and that Kim ultimately tricks him, secretly committing himself to the colonial role while paying outward respect is unfortunate.
There is a conflict between the two, but it is never allowed to come to the surface, it is never confronted and dealt with. Instead, the hope seems to be that if two disparate people can agree on the surface, that the fundamental contention between them is not worth exploring--when indeed, its usually the only thing that is, especially for a novelist, whose work is to drive to the heart of the matter.
But then, as Said points out, it was a conflict that Kipling did not see, or did not want to see, and in the end, it weakens the tale. Kim is not really answerable to the people he claims to serve, and as he tries to work for them in secret, he really serves himself. The condescension of 'knowing better' and with that excuse, keeping others in the dark is perhaps The Great Sin of governance.
But for that, it is an exciting tale, a thorough and palpable exploration of India and its people, as Kipling saw them, and brings to mind many important questions of the colonial role, Indiamania vs. Indiaphobia, and what it means to find yourself between cultures. If only Kipling had delved a bit more....more
It is not necessary to have been to a place in order to write about it--indeed, even those who spent years there, or who were born and raised there, oIt is not necessary to have been to a place in order to write about it--indeed, even those who spent years there, or who were born and raised there, or who are of that very culture can still show biases just as deep. After all, as I'm sure you're tired of hearing, The East is a fantasy, just as any unified notion of Europe or America is a fantasy--or really a collection of competing fantasies--and just because someone is born and lives in America does not mean they have an unbiased view of it--quite the opposite.
But then, Howard never pretended he was writing anything but fantasies. Certainly, he spent a lot of time reading, taking notes, getting his details down, forming an understanding of culture and history--but he could still only prevent his own view on the subject, his own experience and philosophy.
In some ways, his views could be short-sighted--particularly his views of racial and cultural 'types'--but there is also a grand thrust of the human spirit in his works which often raises him above mere prejudice--and the thrill of his prose doesn't hurt, either.
Of course, as with all his works, there are problems with his style--he is always somewhat uneven--and it's the same problems: as each short story was meant to be separate there's some recycling of descriptions, and themes, some redundancy in presentation. As always, he picks a certain animal and bases half his metaphors around it: for Conan, it's the panther, for Solomon Kane, the Lion, and for his desert heroes, the wolf.
It works best in Conan, where we can take it as a sort of 'Homeric epithet'--a nod to the purposefully repetitive cadence of epic poetry--but there is no such excuse for stories about cowboys in the Khyber. He also repeats uncommon phrases in a way that makes them stand out unnaturally--such as 'beetling cliff' or 'hell-burst' only a couple of paragraphs apart, or even using the same word within a sentence:
"with a moaning cry the Jowaki released him and toppled moaning from the wall"
And of course, there's the fact that every cliff is 'knife edged', every silhouette 'etched against the sky', every muscle 'corded'. The most frustrating part about Howard's writing is that these are such simple errors to fix--the sort of thing that would have been, if he'd had a competent editor, and that it's clear from other passages that he's entirely capable of perfectly lovely, effective passages:
"Crumbling pinnacles and turrets of black stone stood up like gaunt ghosts in the grey light which betrayed the coming of dawn."
Or this speech about a cursed ruby:
"how many princes died for thee in the Beginnings of Happenings? What fair bosoms didst thou adorn, and what kings held thee as I now hold thee? Surely blood went into thy making, the blood of kings surely throbs in the shining and the heart-flow of queens in the splendor."
It would be remarkable to see a Howard story where he maintained the care and skill he takes with such passages throughout the whole tale.
Yet his works are not just about well-put phrases, but quick and balanced plots, which Howard had a gift for. His tales are always exciting, always moving, always with some thrust of clear motivation to lead us from one scene to the next, full of odd characters and curious coincidences and hardships to test our hero.
It is interesting, as noted in the critical essay that accompanies this collection, that each of his desert heroes has a different approach to life, different desires and motivations for what he does. Some are scoundrels, some men of deep moral fiber. It's the fact that he succeeds so often in many areas of storytelling, from the prose to the structure to the characters, that raises him above other writers of the pulps--and indeed, above many modern-day genre authors, for all the sophistication of years that they can call upon when writing their story, where Howard had to make much of it up as he went along.
But then, that may also be the source of his power as a writer: that he wasn't writing a 'known subject', pre-defined and set up with a hundred different tropes that allow any hack to construct such a story 'by the book'. Howard instead had to piece his stories together from real histories, from classic adventure writers, and from legitimate authors of literature, which tends to give them much more depth and variety than simply following a standard model.
So, if the East is a fantasy, then what is Howard's fantasy? Not surprisingly, it is the fantasy of freedom, of a man making his own way in the world, unfettered by arbitrary social concerns. When the American Southwest becomes too civilized, crowding out the adventurer to make space for the cattle rancher and the homesteader, Howard's heroes go to Arabia, to Afghanistan--to places where life is not defined by train schedules and banking firms, but by will to survive, by camaraderie, and where the system of governance is the tribe and the warlord.
It is, for Howard, a place much like the ancient Hyborean world of Conan, a pre-modern world where the industrial revolution has not reshaped everything for convenience and assembly labor. Yet he can set his stories in modern times, with guns and trains and bombs, using modern characters with modern concerns, but still able to tell the same tales of valiant personal combat, where one man, alone, can make a difference.
It is the same fantastic life that men like 'Chinese' Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, and Richard Burton made for themselves--mixing fact, fiction, and self-mythology into lives that sound like they belong in fiction, not history. Howard's desert heroes have direct antecedents as well: white men who worked as soldiers and warlords in the 'Great Game' of the colonial powers as they struggled for control of central Asia--men like Josiah Harlan and Alexander Gardner.
It's certainly not difficult to see why such tales appealed to Howard, who was fascinated by the man out of his element, the clash of culture--as well as the mutual coming together of disparate cultures. There is, of course, a less flattering tradition of such stories as delivered by writers like Haggard, of the White Savior who out-nobles the Noble Savage--luckily Howard's characters, being loners with little interest in leadership roles, are less prone to this than many of their contemporaries.
Overall, these stories possess less depth and variety than the Conan stories, but they are largely well-crafted, apart from Howard's little bad habits, and perfectly enjoyable....more
The East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and feThe East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and fears. They will create it even where it doesn’t exist, and they will believe in it despite evidence to the contrary. When a lawyer in London convinces them with words, they will call him ‘shrewd’--when a Hakim in Delhi does the same, they lay it to ‘mesmerism’. When a young thing with a bare shoulder in Paris turns their head, it is because she is a pretty coquette, no more--when a musk-scented daughter of Persia does the same, it is laid to some ancient magic.
Tales of colonial adventure in the East, with few exceptions, are fantasies--true fantasies, of magic and impossible things, of notions which spring from the mind and come to life in the world. Indeed, that is part of the charm of such narratives: that in reading Burton, we learn more of Burton than we do of ‘The East’, as his sometimes questionable translations demonstrate--but even biased as he may be, to read of a man as large and queer and self-made as he is an amusing thing.
Of course, it is also makes the narratives false, and invites us to believe that the East is real, and not merely a fantasy. Hesse writes of the tenets of German Protestantism--but because he writes of them under the guise of Eastern wisdom, they are gobbled up as if they were new. In the fascinating (and sometimes uncomfortable) documentary Kumaré, a man born in New Jersey grows a long beard and imitates his grandmother’s accent, and easily fools everyone into thinking he is some wise guru, even when his words make no sense. It is the fantasy of the East, and while it can make for an entertaining story, we must not be fooled into thinking, as Kumaré's students are, that their own notion is the real story of a real people.
Mundy’s is a better fantasy than most, relying as it does upon all those little bits of oddness, verisimilitude, and turns of phrase that gradually build into a wondrous and strange realm. But then, Mundy lived during his youth in Africa, India, and elsewhere, making his way as a con man and petty criminal, which experiences certainly give his tales an excellent flavor. It is hardly surprising that his work was an influence on authors of Sword & Sorcery Adventure, inspiring Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar--and both construct their fantastical worlds along the same lines as Mundy's.
In Howard, it is the story of the foreign man in the mystical East, amongst the arched temples, the scent of incense, the dancing girls, the wicked viziers, the brutal yet righteous warriors, debauchery, savagery, and ancient magics unearthed. For Leiber, it is the thousand-fold minarets of the eternal City of Brass: the old houses and old feuds, the corruption and tyranny of the priests, the bustling marketplace where the spoils of a hundred far-fetched lands are priced and weighed.
But then, of course, these are all traits of the great European cities, as well, which are no less ancient, no less strange and bustling--but somehow, a twisting alley in London is thought of differently to a twisting alley in Marrakesh. It is the process of showing us something old, but in a way that makes us think of it freshly, without preconceptions--a process known in literary criticism as ‘defamiliarization’. The Myth of the East is a sort of automatic defamiliarization, in that we are always primed to see its ways as strange and different, even when they are not.
This was how the Theosophists used it, to lend a sense of newness and authenticity to their own lives. Without that, they were merely eccentrics with loose morals and a dislike of honest labor, but shroud it all in a veil of pseudo-religious phrases and symbols, and it starts to read in quite a different way, altogether. It’s still how many New Agers live their lives: they do not sacrifice in order to practice a faith, they sacrifice the faith in order to practice themselves. It is just an exercise in self-prejudice.
Mundy himself was a known Theosophist, which is not hard to detect in his work. He has made of the East something like a fairyland, and espouses the same old philosophy of the stagnation of the Abrahamic faiths giving way before the more ancient (and hence ‘true’) and more infinite variety of the Eastern Gods.
In his bright and curious characters, his poetic bent, and his turns at spiritualism, he resembles that group of colonial authors whose works aspired to greatness: Conrad, Kipling, Doyle, Melville, H.G. Wells--but he never quite philosophizes the way they do. His action is planted too firmly on the ground, and his mysticism is too undefined and undifferentiated to reach the profundity of those authors. Thus he is relegated to the lesser tier of adventure writers, whose works sparkle and delight, but rarely challenge.
In style, Mundy possesses a cleverness and a passion that outstrips Haggard, though one will recognize in King--of the Khyber Rifles a story that very nearly parallels the Quatermain tale She--yet I found that Mundy’s take was more subtle, owing more to Realism than Pulp, and with greater sophistication and charm. The beginning, slowly playing out, is the superior part, introducing us to Captain Athelstan King of the Secret Service--a kind of early secret agent working for the Raj. He is an immediately recognizable type, that self-possessed, competent man who wins his way through life by wit and daring, of which the Colonial Period gave us numerous examples in the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Richard Francis Burton, or 'Chinese' Gordon.
Though in detail and subtlety, Mundy outdoes Haggard, there are some slower patches, particularly in a lengthy section of exposition about the middle which should have been the climax to the mystery that led us along the first third of the book. He begins to get bogged down in his plot, and then to make of his characters mouthpieces for his own Theosophical notions about true religion and ancient divinity.
Yet, after this stint, we're on our way again, towards the somewhat predictable climax. There is a rather delightful twist in the story that I happened to guess about the middle, due to the phrasing in a particular scene--and when I realized it, I was embarrassed not to have seen it sooner, as should be the case with a good twist. Yet, I think that without that one scene, I might not have realized it until quite a bit later, though it does grow increasingly obvious.
But, for all its inevitability and a few slow sections, it is overall a delightful adventure, and reminds me once more that as a fantasist, it is important that I study not only the blatant fantasies--the fantasies that call themselves fantasies--but also those fantasies that masquerade as truth, the ones that we use as convenient shortcuts to represent the world, and to confirm our own biases, that are true only in the mind, only as symbols, and which by habit we overlay upon a world that we can never fully understand.
For you poor folks who have never heard of the Flashman series, they tell the story of your classic Victorian adventurer, a man who travels through maFor you poor folks who have never heard of the Flashman series, they tell the story of your classic Victorian adventurer, a man who travels through many lands, making his way by his wits and his skill and always being drawn into the dangers of politics, secret plots, and local politics. But the hero of these stories comes with a twist: he's an awful cad who lies, cheats, and steals his way through the world, a coward who only survives by the skin of his teeth, but who pretends the role of the brave, bluff Brit.
The books are well-researched, full of delightful details and references for anyone interested in the period, as well as a vivid reconstruction of archaic slang. However, I find I liked the first book much better than the second one. For one, the character of Flash is much more of a rascal there--many of the things he does make you dislike the character greatly, despite his forthright charm. In this one, I wondered if MacDonald might have been making him a little more heroic, a little more sympathetic.
Along the same line, most of the difficulties he gets embroiled in throughout the course of this book--the very things that drive the plot--are thrust upon him, leaving him a much less active character. He's kidnaped, blackmailed, and forced at gunpoint to take part in various plots, instead of being trapped into them by his own faults and greed, as he was in the first volume.
But then, that's part of the problem of a cowardly character: how do you make him an active agent in his own story without forcing his hand? How do you ensure that the mess he's in really is his own fault, and not merely a contrived circumstance that forces him to act against his own nature?
Without that culpability, he begins to become a victim, a lowly and sympathetic figure instead of the brash, bold personality which he is meant to be. We do get him taking a risk here or there for the sake of lucre, but pure greed isn't the most complex or intriguing of character motivations.
Hopefully in future volumes, I'll get to see him return to his old form--because other than that, this book is a delightful bit of adventure fiction....more
This one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much ofThis one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much of the time--which isn't to say childish, it's more of a young man's immaturity.
The whole premise: that a powerful terrorist force is trying to destroy all world governments is somewhat uncomfortable for a modern reader--and the fact that the terrorists are meant to be the heroes brings it to another level. However, their rebellion is a vague, nonsensical thing. The idea seems to be to destroy society, and not to worry about what the next step is until later.
I guess they've never heard of the 'baby with the bathwater' problem. I mean sure, society has lots of problems, but if you don't have something better to put in its place, then tearing it down is not going to solve anything--it's probably going to make things pretty shitty in the meantime. But then, it strikes one as being typical of a man in young adulthood: irate with the horrors and inequalities of the world, rebelling against anything society has to offer without really understanding why things are the way they are.
But conveniently, everyone just signs up and agrees that this is a great plan. There are no ideological disagreements or concerns about where this whole thing is going--everyone is stalwartly devoted to the undefined cause, and willing to die for it (whatever it might be).
There are actually a few members who betray the cause, but they always do it out of mere greed, not because this whole 'terrorism' things seems kinda shaky. They also rebel despite the fact that the terrorists have an infallible network of assassins, the only airships in the world, and a leader who can literally control men's minds with a thought. All betrayers die the same chapter in which they commit their betrayal.
I mean, I understand that this was a serial, but the fact that every problem gets solved as soon as it's introduced means that the whole thing doesn't have as much continuity as it might. Indeed, for the whole first half, they're just hanging around, waiting for things to happen, not even putting their plan into action.
Now, if this had been juvenile in a sort of fun, adventure way, that could have been enjoyable, but it's clear that Griffith is taking it a bit more seriously than is warranted. It's never a battle with a fleet of ships, it's always two destroyers, five torpedo boats, a complement of three thousand men, &c. Then there are all the wire telegrams and news stories that repeat information we already know, or just talk about various battles and parts of the war that don's seem to matter much to the story.
Then, of course, there is the titular 'Angel of the Revolution' herself, a totally gorgeous teen girl who all the terrorists want to marry, but whom they respect too much to romance overtly. She's also a crack shot, and utterly loyal to the cause, even if it means (horror of horrors) marrying someone she doesn't love. Our superscience hero, of course, does everything he can to get her, until she finally tells him that the best way to get into her pants is to destroy society and create eternal peace. Sexy.
Once again, what could have been a passable adventure story is ruined by the author's inane attempts to make it 'realistic' and fill it with all sort of unrelated details. It doesn't take much seriousness to ruin the guileless charm of a pulp romp....more
Hector France was a colonial soldier who served long in Algeria. Upon his return to France, he would regale his friends, many of them notable artistsHector France was a colonial soldier who served long in Algeria. Upon his return to France, he would regale his friends, many of them notable artists and authors, with his soldier's tales of life amongst the Muslims of North Africa. Eventually, they convinced him to try his hand at writing them down, and he turned out to have an author's talent.
This, then, is the collection of the strange and wild stories of his life as a soldier--some are his own adventures, others those of his friends and acquaintances, and littered throughout are details of the country, the people, and the politics of his time and place. Too many details, it turned out, for his Victorian audiences, as the book only received a small, private publishing, and is little-known today. I was only able to read it because it's available for free online.
France was not shy about representing prostitutes, child-brides, murderers, hashish use, and the incompetence of his colonial overseers. As his title poetically informs us, we are to expect stories of sex, drugs, and death. The collection runs the gamut from the humorous to the touching to the disturbing, as a soldier's recollections tend to do, each one a curious slice of life.
While France is not entirely free of a certain cultural bias, he is much more the Humanist than the Nationalist, often remarking on the violent stupidity of the colonials, who will start a war over nothing and whose inability to comprehend that they are dealing with another culture invariably makes fools of them.
For France's part, he is of the opinion that there is no one way to live, and that whatever lessons the Arabs might learn from the Europeans, the Europeans have just as much they should be learning from the Arabs. It is not the view of the distant Orientalist or governor who tries to deal with the whole mass of a culture without ever bothering to deal with the individual man and woman within that culture.
France is also not quite the wild egotist his fellow adventurers, like Burton, tend to be, which means he is less likely to try to rewrite the foreign culture to match his idea of 'exoticism'. He does indulge in a bit of 'scientific racism', which was quite popular at the time, but overall his view is more nuanced than one generally expects from the soldier's memoir.
France also has a rather surprising subtle and effective use of prose--superior in fact to many similar fictional tales written up by successful authors. He has a sense of poetry, a flair for drama, and a strength of characterization that I wish more fiction authors had.
Of course, he also had the benefit of taking a lifetime of adventure, of strange people and experiences, and of reducing it down to the most unusual, touching, and intriguing examples. The amount of imagination it takes to equal the life of a middlingly interesting fellow is surprisingly great.
However, many men who lead even more remarkable lives were unable to deliver such charming and affecting stories to the page--whether it was their own bias that got in the way, or a matter-of-fact disposition, or a habit of including too much, without enough thought to what is liable to interest the reader. It is pleasant to find a more earnest and open sort of fellow--or at least a man capable of affecting such candor when it suits him....more
In the hands of its most talented practitioners, Sword & Sorcery can be thrilling, scintillating, and deeply ironic--which makes it all the more rIn the hands of its most talented practitioners, Sword & Sorcery can be thrilling, scintillating, and deeply ironic--which makes it all the more regrettable to see just how thoughtless and cliche depictions of race and sex tend to be in the genre. Part of what excited me about the prospect of reading this hard-to-find series was that it is very much about race, a self-aware deconstruction of one of the genre’s historic failings.
It is that--as well as a dip into African History, a fascinating (and vast) slice of the human story that is too often ignored and downplayed--especially in the face of the endless pseudo-Medieval setting that covers the fantasy genre like a fetid swamp. However, the parallels with modern, Colonial slavery and the complexities of identity of American Blacks born to that tradition are a bit too on-the-nose. I would have appreciated more of a Humanistic look at the role slavery has played in human history, as well as the way that racial identity is coded and manufactured socially--it’s a vast and important set of ideas that needs more than simply the xenophobia of Lovecraft versus the modern, post-Civil Rights view to encapsulate it.
It was pleasant--particularly after trying the Kane series--to read stories which are so intensely focused upon the hero's internal life: his decisions, thoughts, experiences, and emotions. Never was there that struggle to connect the character to the world and to the story--as so often crops up in tales of ‘impossibly muscled’ heroes who cleave their way from danger to danger by the sweat of their brow, but otherwise remain aloof.
Unfortunately, Imaro’s successes were too often the result of a sort of generic ‘strength’--an overcoming by gritting one’s teeth, and simply coming out the other side unscathed. It’s always a shame to see a writer give in to such a simplistic resolution--but it's very common, and not only in the fantasy genre. There are few things more escapist, more wish-fulfilling than the notion of achieving something simply by wanting it enough, willing your way through, and forcing your preferences on the world. If only the world would bend to us, recognize that we are right, and let us have our way--but such a fantasy makes for a poorer story.
I wished that these internal struggles felt as personal and emotional to the character as his motivations. Intense conflict is such a great place to reveal a character, to show how he differs from everyone else on the page--what unique approach he takes, in light of his experiences and personal style.
Of course, that requires the imagination and skill of a seasoned author, while this is only Saunders' preliminary outing. There's certainly a lot of room for improvement, but also a lot of strong elements that make the story engaging and readable. I'll have to give Imaro another try, down the road, and see how he progresses....more
One of the most pleasant aspects about reading adventures like those of Doyle, Wells, Kipling, and Haggard is the particular presence of the characterOne of the most pleasant aspects about reading adventures like those of Doyle, Wells, Kipling, and Haggard is the particular presence of the characters, their little joys and quarrels and concerns. There's this humorous self-awareness throughout the story that makes the whole thing read as if its being told, given over to the reader in a particular voice.
Certainly, this can be carried too far and made condescending, as with C.S. Lewis, but it goes to show what a winking authorial presence can lend to a work, especially to a melodrama adventure. Too often among the lesser class of 'thrilling' books, we get flat characters who are so profoundly competent and neutral that they lose any chance of possessing a personality.
It just goes to show that a good story, be it action or horror or what have you, still requires some humor, some wryness to inject suitable depth and humanity, just as a good comedy can profit from a bit of pathos and tension. Of course there are some rather insensitive colonial notions woven into it, which some readers are quick to forgive as being a 'symptom of the time', but a perusal of Wells shows that it was not an inextricable part of the Victorian man's mind.
The story's notions are delightful, made up of the sort of thing that can still fire up a young man's imagination today, and it's hardly surprising to see that they were picked up and elaborated upon by numerous later authors, most prominently in Burroughs' 'Tarzan' and 'The Land That Time Forgot'.
The latter book I actually read as a child and mistook for Doyle's work, and it was only recently that I realized and rectified my error, and I'm glad I did....more
As with all the early Tintin books, we're getting roughly the same plot over and over: Tintin is visiting a foreign country where he runs afoul of a cAs with all the early Tintin books, we're getting roughly the same plot over and over: Tintin is visiting a foreign country where he runs afoul of a criminal organization doing something wacky. He tracks down various clues as a couple of crooks try to kill him. Each time, he miraculously survives by pure luck. Then he beats a whole roomful of large, armed men to a pulp and escapes in a stolen aeroplane.
All the plot points are convenient and interchangeable, built on haphazard coincidences and luck. So, while Tintin is always charging forward, he isn't always a particularly active character, since he's not as much planning and overcoming as much as blundering through.
I know it's old and I know it's juvenile, but comparing it to Winsor McCary or Carl Barks, it's pretty tame. The backgrounds are lovely, and the character design is getting stronger--I love the ligne claire look--but it's not standing out against the competition, yet.
The whole premise of this one with the giant floating meteor made of a 'new element' that somehow causes all living things to grow--except Tintin and Snowy--is so nonsensical it was hard for me to know what to make of it. Here's a story that, on one hand, is about multinational drug cartels, where the hero wanders the streets of European cities with a drawn pistol braving very real dangers. The contradiction between these two extremes makes the tone of the work rather difficult to make sense of.
If it were the Little Prince or something where the universe is surreal and dreamlike, it would be easy to accept, but the odd combination seems to be at odds with itself. Even in Barks' work, where the characters are cartoon animals, there is a greater sense of narrative unity in what we are meant to take seriously as plot and what is light fun.
Another odd entry as I wait for Herge to hit his stride.
Like the last volume in the series, this one is another flop bearing no real resemblance to the themes, characters, or style of the later series. TheLike the last volume in the series, this one is another flop bearing no real resemblance to the themes, characters, or style of the later series. The whole thing is a haphazard cartoon filled with slapstick violence starring pugnacious jerk Tintin and his bad-joke-making dog.
Yeah, the treatment of Africans and big game hunting make H. Rider Haggard look tame and responsible in comparison, though I find it hard to argue that the stylized drawings of the Africans are racist, since it's not like the European characters are examples of detailed realism. I mean, when your main character's head is a mouthless blob with two pseudopods and tiny holes for eyes, it's hard to complain that other characters in the book are too simplistic.
But yeah, another read that's only interesting to completists and cultural historians.
It can be an odd experience to look at the early work of an author (and artist) who later proves to be innovative and masterful. The work here is souIt can be an odd experience to look at the early work of an author (and artist) who later proves to be innovative and masterful. The work here is sou rough, the plotting so silly, and the characters unrecognizable to fans of the later series.
But then, no artist emerges into the world fully formed, and even Moebius had his awkward stage. In this fisrt story, Tintin himself is less the clever, charming figure of the later books. Much like Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, the character starts off as an unpleasant prankster eager to fight anyone he meets.
The story, itself is very goofy and cartoony, full of pratfalls, one-liners, fights, and spectacular crashes. Guns and bombs are not frightening things, but tools of slapstick.
The book also has none of the painstaking research which marked Herge's later work. His depiction of Russia is simple propaganda with the Soviets as overblown villains. There is no attempt to look at any real cultural differences.
However, there are some glimmers of possibility here. The clean lines and motive sense of gesture is present, and the influence of American cartoonists like McCay and McManus are very clear. But anyone looking for a genuine Tintin story is not going to get one, here. The only reason to read this volume is for completeness' sake, for those who are curious to see the sketchy, awkward beginnings of a series that became a worldwide phenomenon.
On August 20, 2000, a man named Carl Barks passed from this world. In America, his home country, his passing went unnoticed. But that should hardly suOn August 20, 2000, a man named Carl Barks passed from this world. In America, his home country, his passing went unnoticed. But that should hardly surprise us, he was just a Disney comic book artist, after all, hardly an important cultural figure.
Yet elsewhere in the world, he was remembered and mourned. In Europe, Donald Duck comics have never been out of print, and remain popular amongst both adults and children. Though it is noted that Osamu Tezuka, the 'father or manga' was heavily influenced by Disney, it was Barks who wrote and illustrated the comics that Tezuka was reading (a fact Tezuka was aware of, since he sent this Christmas card to Barks years later). Likewise, some of the most famous and influential Franco-Belgian comics, Tintin, Spirou, and Asterix owe much of their style and content to Barks' earlier work (and those aren't the comic's only innovations).
I know many of my peers have fond memories of the Duck Tales television series, without ever recognizing that the series was the result of Barks' legacy--his stories, and his characters. Because Barks created Duckberg, Scrooge McDuck, the Beagles Boys, Magica De Spell, and others.
I'm sure many of us were thinking, at the time, that the pulp archaeology stories of that show were just piggybacking on the popularity of Indiana Jones, but actually, the reverse is true. Barks drew on the literary traditions of characters like Allan Quatermain and Doc Savage in creating his own cliffhanger stories, and his 'Duck Comics' inspired Lucas and Spielberg when they created Indiana Jones, right down to the famous boulder scene, which originally appeared in a Bark's comic.
It's unfortunate that, despite numerous attempts, Disney has not been able to keep Duck Comics in print in America for decades, and that the Animation Age Ghetto has prevented many Americans from developing an appreciation for Barks and his exciting adventure stories--but I'm not going to be one of them.
This collection has the very earliest Barks stories, which already show a sense of character and movement which became evident in later cartoons. Back when it was Disney's policy not to put author or artist names in their comics, people still recognized Bark's talent, which set him above any other artist at the time, earning him the nickname 'the Good Duck Artist', which stuck around even after Disney made him the first to be able to put his name to his work.
There's a vibrant sense of movement and slapstick here that is impressive in the still medium of comics. It is early, so it doesn't yet bear the hallmarks of his influential later work, but the roots are there, and not difficult to see. I'm looking forward to continuing what is supposed to be one of the best archaeological adventure series since Haggard and Kipling.
The role of comic books in America is in transition, and so comics hold a tenuous and unusual position in the American psyche. To some degree, they arThe role of comic books in America is in transition, and so comics hold a tenuous and unusual position in the American psyche. To some degree, they are still considered dirty and cheap, still artistically bankrupt, and there are good reasons for this. For a long time, the industry had its hands tied by the 'Comics Code', a punitive ratings system. One can realize the effects the code had by imagining what movies would be like if the government stated that all films released must attain a 'G' rating.
Imagine a G-rated Star Wars, a G-rated Godfather, a G-rated Blazing Saddles, and you may begin to understand the impossibility of trying to write quality comics under the code, which held sway over comics for thirty years. To give you an example of just how punitive the code was, at one point author Marv Wolfman was not allowed to be credited with his real last name because under the code, it was too scary.
It wasn't until the early eighties that publishers began to break away from the code, first under the daring pen of Steve Gerber, who lost his career in comics over it, and then under Alan Moore, who was made a household name for helping break the grip of the code. But comics are still fighting a bad reputation, as evidenced by the fact that the term 'graphic novel' has been coined solely so people who consider themselves sophisticated don't have to condescend to read 'comics'.
But this struggle for recognition as an art form has played out very differently around the world. In Europe, the revolution took place in the mid sixties, so that today, an individual can get a government grant to work in the field of comics, so that, instead of trying to please the narrow requirements of a multimedia conglomerate bent on cannibalizing old stories (like Marvel and DC), they can freely bring to life their meticulous, experimental visions, pointing towards a future for comics, instead of a well-thumbed past.
And it's this level of experimental artistry that I have come to expect from comics, since my experience with them has been primarily from foreign authors. Even the early books I read from the big publishers were mostly the result of their hiring British and Irish authors. After this experience, I explored the Franco-Belgian and Italian traditions, much to my edification.
But oddly enough, I had never read any Japanese manga. Here I was, searching the back shelves fruitlessly for English translations of rare European comics when every bookstore has a thickly-stocked manga section. It's partially a sense of stubborn iconoclasm I can't seem to shake, but there are other reasons I have remained wary.
Like anyone my age, I'm familiar with 'anime'--animated cartoons from Japan. In fact, I got into them fairly early, around '94, before we had the word 'anime' to describe them. So it's odd that I never became a committed japanophile like so many of my peers.
Most of the anime I've seen is just repetitive escapism, but there have been a few works, here and there, that impressed me. But then, that's true for any medium: most books are sub par, as are most movies and comics, and we hold out for the rare good one.
But there are some larger complications to get around. Firstly, America has an Animation Age Ghetto to match its Comics Age Ghetto, meaning that when companies bring in animation from Japan (or Europe), they are looking for something to sell to kids, and aren't very picky about the quality of the writing or acting.
But, even when this isn't the case, and we've got entities like Cartoon Network who are deliberately trying to bring in adult animation fare, we aren't getting the most conceptual and experimental stuff from Japan, because translating such a work is no enviable task. The wordplay, allusions, cultural content, and literary traditions are just not in the reference pool for Americans. Hence, the average American can only appreciate a story which is simple enough to translate clearly.
Even with European comics it's less challenging, because we are culturally and linguistically closer to France than we are to Japan. Unless you're willing to go in there and learn the language, culture, and history, the most complex and involved works will remain remote. Eventually, when you get a large academic community committed to the works of the culture, you can start producing expert, informed translations, but it's only recently that we've begun to look seriously at our own comics, much less those of Japan.
But there are still those stories that translate well, even across such boundaries, such as the film work of Akira Kurosawa, which I loved as a child, long before my occasional studies of Japan. But then, Kurosawa is, in many ways, reflecting our own culture back at us: he takes American film and story techniques--most notably Westerns and Shakespeare--and adapts them to his culture.
Even though the content and language are different, the film techniques and literary tropes are recognizable. But then, that should also be true for comics and animation, both of which were explored and refined in America three-quarters of a century ago. In both Disney's Fantasia and McCay's Little Nemo, we have visions of great experimental artistry in both animation and comics.
Unfortunately, the great conservative backlash of the nationalistic fifties put an end to that. The intense controls put onto films and books hurt these fledgling forms, who had few defenders in the arts and academia to keep fighting for authorial rights.
So, our comics and animation were sent out, all over the world, inspiring both Europe and Asia, where Carl Barks is still a household name. Without the same cultural controls and juvenile expectations, they thrived. And they have provided great inspiration for American authors and artist throughout the years, from the Spaghetti Westerns to Valerian and the abortive European 'Dune', which birthed Alien, Blade Runner, and Star Wars, the cultural exchange of ideas continued, though other media.
So it is far past time for me to crack open some of the great Asian works, daunting as their unfettered length might be (no thirty page issue limits, here), and see for myself how the visions of Osamu Tezuka--the innovative father of both manga and anime--have played out. After all, Tezuka based his stories off the works of Disney and Carl Barks, so in many ways, manga and anime are prodigal children, finally returning.
We should thank the Japanese and the Europeans for keeping the artistic vision alive and thriving for those long decades when we, blinded by fear and nationalism, had forgotten them. And now, they deliver them back to us, fully-formed, and I can only hope that some American artists will be able to help us get back on track, moving forward to a bright, innovative future for comics and animation.
Though perhaps I should have started with Tezuka, the appeal of the traveling ronin story was a great draw for me. As epitomized in the Kurosawa/Mifune films (Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and Seven Samurai), and also in the Zatoichi films, such stories, while straightforward in concept, allow for many variations of theme and many explorations of characters and cultural elements.
Lone Wolf & Cub takes the form of a series of vignettes: small, self-contained stories. Each one has its own theme and tone, each shows the complete arc of an idea; but, like a poetic cycle, these stories are greater as a whole than they are alone. We return again and again to concepts, and each time, a new layer is added, a new side of the story is explored.
Gradually, these small stories build up into a much larger arc. They are not related by a continuous plot, but by continuous thematic explorations. I often find such collections of short stories are much more effective in creating intriguing settings and characters than a protracted plot full of exposition. The author is free to move through time and place, exploring character and world elements as they come up, and is not forced to create tenuous, convenient connections to string the plot together. The characters and themes anchor the story more deeply than a simple sequence of events.
The art takes its cue from traditional sumi-e ink and wash painting, with the swift, decisive strokes which were so equated with sword strokes that it was said you could read a man’s fencing style in his art and calligraphy. The marriage of this style with Western sequential art is seamless, and it’s hardly surprising that the stylized forms displayed here have proven so inspirational in the visual arts.
Some of the story comes off as cliché, but it’s always difficult to say with an original work how much of that is because other artists have copied the style in the meantime. We have the amusingly esoteric discussions of styles, attacks, and schools which grew up as Japanese society formalized and striated, turning death-dealing into an academic exercise for the literate. But that’s part of the charm for adherents of samurai and wuxia.
We also have the inevitable ‘passing stroke’ which dramatically ends every battle, which might seem repetitive to a Western eye, until we recognize that every Western fight ends with a haymaker. The scenarios which play out prior to this final blow are widely varied, action-packed, and fully realized in the onrush of dark, ever-moving lines.
Many of the plots are likewise variations on a theme, presenting us briefly with a complicated bit of feudal shogunate politics which necessitate our protagonist’s intervention. Though he is an impossibly strong, invincible warrior, sometimes to the detriment of tension, his methods of solving these problems are often surprisingly insightful and subtle, showing a deep and shrewd intelligence behind his mighty sword arm.
The stories are unapologetically violent, which includes graphic sexual violence. However, the sexual violence is not pornographic: it does not linger upon carefully detailed forms, but is used to tell a realistic, if sometimes unsettling story. Nor does the book get drawn down into taking itself too seriously, as so many of its imitators have. Violence is only one part of the human story, portrayed in equal footing with love, honor, sorrow, hope, and humor. It is the nature of the story that physical conflict often takes the forefront, but never to the exclusion of other human desires.