Magazine Review: Fantastic Universe October 1955

Magazine Review: Fantastic Universe October 1955 edited by Leo Margulies

Fantastic Universe was a digest-sized science fiction and fantasy magazine that ran from 1953 to 1960, originally coming out from King-Size Publications.  Its quality is considered to have fallen off after 1956, with lesser stories and more emphasis on pseudo-science articles, but this particular issue is from the “good” period.

Fantastic Universe October 1955

We open with a brief essay by Frank Belnap Long, inspired by the Kelly Freas cover and talking about the mythic figure of the Horned Man.  None of the other stories are related to the cover.

“Star-flight” by Sam Merwin Jr. concerns a young woman named Francesa Hawley-Bey, a student at a Martian university.  She’s in her early twenties, but has the physical development of a nine-year-old.  She learns that she is the product of a centuries-long breeding experiment to create near-immortality.  Why, you ask?  Well, it turns out that there’s no such thing as faster than light travel.  Humanity can build ships now that get really close to light speed (something that’s been kept from the general public), but it will still take immense amounts of time to reach the stars.

The scientist who’s been working on these new ships is being hunted because he doesn’t want to give one planet (Earth in this case) a monopoly, as their government wants to use the new technology merely to strip-mine the rest of the solar system.  He, it turns out, is secretly the only other immortal and has been waiting thousands of years for a co-pilot so he can get back to galactic civilization.

The general skeeviness of Fran having her entire life manipulated so that humanity can eventually go to the stars is overwhelmed by the particular skeeviness of the romance subplot between her (remember, physically nine) and her thirty-something college dean.  In fairness to the dean, there are hints he might have been brainwashed into this, but eww.  Also note, romance only–this isn’t that kind of story.

“The Nostopath” by Bryce Walton is about a man named Barton who is all too happy to be assigned to a remote one-man watch station during war with aliens.  He didn’t like it much on Earth, with all those people, and his annoying family.  At first, he greatly enjoys the solitude.  After some months, however, he starts craving some company, and sends a message off to HQ with suggestions.

Headquarters think that Barton’s ideas are jolly good, and soon, a small, carefully selected group of people joins Barton on the asteroid station.  This includes Barton’s wife and child, who have learned from his long absence to really appreciate him.  They all get along swimmingly, and Barton’s World is a model community.

Which is great, until the war is over, and the military wants Barton to come back to Earth.  And for some reason, the crew of the pickup ship doesn’t have orders to let anyone come with him.  Chilling ending as we learn what’s really going on.

“An Apartment for Rent” by Ruth Sterling focuses on the title apartment, which is quite nice.  However, since the sudden death of the long-time inhabitants, the rental office has been unable to find anyone who will stay in it for more than a month, despite the housing shortage.  The rental manager thinks the new couple he’s meeting might just be the ones who will fit the apartment.  They do seem rather taken with it…and might be staying forever.  It seems the housing shortage is worse than you might have thought.  Slight but amusing.

“Rafferty’s Reasons” by Frederik Pohl takes place in a dystopian future which has achieved full employment by banning most technology.  Except for teaching machines that will beam necessary job skills into your head.  Rafferty is a bookkeeper who used to be an artist (art was declared “not a real job”) and hates his boss, Girty, who is high up in the political structure of the New Way.  He’s reached the breaking point, and is determined to strike back any way he can.  Downer ending.

Girty is a thoroughly hateable character, with a combination of “bad boss” and “bad conservative” personality traits that make Rafferty’s reasons understandable.

“Hawks Over Shem” by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp is the centerpiece of the issue.  It’s a rewritten version of Mr. Howard’s story “Hawks Over Egypt” that Mr. de Camp translated into the Hyborian Age setting so he could make Conan the Cimmerian the star.

Asgalun is ruled by a king who is, well, nuts.  The main thing protecting him from being overthrown is his army, but his three main generals are feuding with each other and jockeying for power.  One of the generals, Othbaal, has a checkered path in which he sold out his own mercenaries for a massacre.

The sole survivor of that massacre was Conan the Cimmerian.  He’s finally made it to Asgalun to seek vengeance.  But as fate would have it, first Conan accidentally gets involved with an assassination attempt on a man who turns out to be Mazdak, one of the other generals.  Conan would not have interfered, but the assassins decided they didn’t want any witnesses, and our barbarian protagonist isn’t just going to lie down and die.

Mazdak is grateful to Conan, and Othbaal dying fits into his own plans.  So the pair teams up to infiltrate Othbaal’s palace so that Conan can have his revenge.  Othbaal’s concubine Rufia wisely runs away as her unwanted master is disposed of.  Unfortunately for her, it’s currently illegal for women to be out in the street at night, and she runs into King Akhirom in disguise.

As it happens, fleeing murderous barbarians is not a defense under the law, and so Rufia is about to be executed.  Then she gets a brilliant idea, playing into Akhirom’s delusions of grandeur, and getting him to declare himself a god (and herself his first worshiper.)  That saves her neck for the nonce, but now God-King Akhirom is determined to push the new religion on the entire city.

Chaos ensues, and Conan is recognized as Amra, the famous pirate with a reward on his head!  How will he escape a city gone mad?

Note: child sacrifice and implicit rape are part of the story.

This story has been reprinted several times as part of Conan collections, so should be relatively easy to track down.

“Pink Fluff” by Craig Rice is set in an old house that an architect and his family have recently moved into.  There’s currently some amount of marital discord, not made any easier by the appearance of the title substance, which seems to have no visible source, and vanishes just as mysteriously when you aren’t looking.  And it’s getting thicker….

It is painfully obvious to say that this is a “fluff” story, but yes.  It is.

“Run Around the Moon” by Matt Carter takes place in small-town Minnesota.  An astronaut who accomplished many great feats of exploration is retiring to his family farm.  A humble man and solitary by nature, he’s hoping to get some peace and quiet.  But Lars Hendricssen hasn’t counted on just how famous he’s become.

Lars is the biggest thing to come out of that little town, and they want to exploit it to the hilt.  Tourists and sightseers, professors and legislators, all want a piece of Lars’ time and personal space.  Plus, there’s space-happy kids trampling all over his flowerbeds and being loud and enthusiastic all day.

Fortunately, one of Lars’ old crewmembers comes for a visit, and he’s got an idea for a project to keep the kids busy for a good long time.

I’m a sucker for Minnesota-set stories, and I like the humor in this one.

“Universe in Books” by Hans Stefan Santesson is his first review column for FU.  He would later become editor of the magazine.  He likes the more intellectual sort of science fiction, rather than the space opera whiz-bang stuff.

“You Created Us” by Tom Godwin is about a secret community of atomic mutants created by the tests in the Nevada desert in the late Forties/early Fifties.  The protagonist has a metal plate in his head, and this allows him to realize that the lizard people are there, despite their mental powers.  Perhaps he should not have gone into their lair alone.

This is the sort of thing that might have been turned into an Outer Limits story back in the day.  It’s very much a product of the fear of nuclear war.

A different sort of doomsday scenario is seen in the final story, “Weather Prediction” by Evelyn E. Smith.  George is terrible at remembering numbers, particularly telephone numbers.  So when he claims to have called the weather line and been told that rain is coming, his wife Elinor and her friends laugh.  It’s going to be warm and clear!  Until it isn’t.  And then George tells them the rest of the prediction…but who did he actually call?

Some sticklers for religious dogma might object to the ending.

An interesting issue, but a couple of the stories leave a bad taste in my mouth.

 

Comic Book Review: Blue Monday, Vol. 2: Absolute Beginners

Comic Book Review: Blue Monday, Vol. 2: Absolute Beginners by Chynna Clugston Flores

Disclaimer:  I received this volume through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.


Bleu L. Finnegan isn’t precisely your normal high school girl growing up in 1990s Northern California.  For one thing, there’s the blue hair, which she’s had since at least elementary school (though it’s not clear if it’s natural.)  She’s also way more into then-contemporary musicians than the average person, and most of the people she hangs out with are equally excited about such things.

Bleu is also very typical of teenage girls, simultaneously interested in and disgusted by teenage boys, and with a schoolgirl crush on handsome Jefferson High teacher Mr. Bishop.  Oh, and for some reason a pooka named Seamus has taken an interest in her.  Maybe not so typical after all.

This was Chynna Clugston Flores’ first series, created when she was barely older than the characters she was writing.  It had a manga-esque art style back when that was uncommon and innovative.  It also had musical cues for which songs should be playing at any point in the story–I think that will be most evocative for Nineties kids, as some of the references have faded in the past twenty years.

In many ways, this is like a naughtier version of the classic Archie Comics formula; romantic hijinks, comedy and a touch of the supernatural.  The kids are rather more open about the sexual nature of their attractions, use more foul language than I am comfortable with (and yet sometimes use comic-book symbol swearing instead), and consume alcohol.  On the other hand, the teenagers are not actually sexually active (as of this volume), and the nudity tends to be peek-a-boo.

In this volume, a fancy-dress party is ruined by too much booze, which leads to a couple of the boys taking a video of Bleu bathing.  The fallout of this leads to continued embarrassment for our protagonist, as the contents of the video are vastly exaggerated by gossip.  One of the boys, Alan Jackson, finally admits he’s interested in Bleu and tries to ask her out on a date, despite the girls thrashing him in soccer.

That date turns into a disaster, largely because their friends are pulling a series of pranks on the couple.  Teenagers are mean!

It seems that whatever town Jefferson High is in, it has a high Irish-American population, though only Clover Connelly’s family appears to be directly from the Emerald Isle.  And then there’s “Monkeyboy” whose hairstyle hides his eyes at all times.

The art has been recolored by Jordie Bellaire, who did a very good job except for one obvious goof–or perhaps that happened in post-production.

This will, I think, most appeal to Nineties kids who enjoyed the series when it first appeared, but should be suitable for older teenagers on up who enjoy romantic comedy.

 

 

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups Volume 2 edited by Julius Schwartz

The dedicated rotating team-up series was a huge boon for DC Comics and Marvel back in the day.  A top-selling character anchors the book (in this case Superman) and rotating guest stars got a chance to shine.  Some appearances were to promote their own new series, others were to wrap up a plot of a recently canceled book, even more were to make sure DC kept the trademark on a less active character in house, and a few were just because the writer had a cool idea for a story.

Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups #2

Volume 2 covers from 1980 to 1982, including the first annual and issue #50.  We start with a three-parter introducing Jim Starlin-created villain Mongul and his quest for a Warworld of his very own.  One of the problems with writing Superman team-ups is creating menaces that both challenge the Man of Tomorrow and allow the guest star to contribute.  Mongul tended towards the “stronger than Superman” end, so it’s a good thing the guest stars were the Martian Manhunter, Supergirl and the Spectre.

On the opposite end of the scale is Issue #39’s team-up with Plastic Man, where they fought dueling villains Toyman and Dollface.  This one required heavy use of Kryptonite to slow Superman down.  Some nice Joe Staton art, and a Karl Malden joke.

#41 brings us the cover story, which is not so much Superman teaming up with the Joker, as the Joker wanting revenge on the Prankster after the very similar villain double-crosses him during their team-up.  The whole story feels very much like Martin Pasko took a Los Angeles vacation and decided to work the location into a paid script.  The story sidelines Batman with an injury as this is not World’s Finest.

#42 has one of the weirder crossovers, with the Unknown Soldier, a disguise expert (real name unknown) who died in World War Two.  The Paul Levitz script is based heavily on the paranoia about nuclear war being imminent so common in the early 1980s before the Soviets blinked.

The Global Guardians had been introduced in the Superfriends tie-in comic book, but issue #46 of this series brought them into the main DC continuity.  A fun issue with some interesting wizard villains from different cultures.

#47 was a crossover with the Masters of the Universe tie-in comic book DC was doing at the time.  He-Man mentions that his mother (who is originally from Earth) had told him tales of Superman.

Annual #1 has a rare team-up of the Golden Age Superman with the then-current Man of Steel.  Their versions of Luthor change places, but still fail to overcome the other Supermen; but then they head to Earth-3 and team up with that world’s evil Ultraman (who becomes stronger from Kryptonite exposure.)  Our heroes must team up with Alex Luthor, who becomes Earth-3’s first superhero at the request of Lois Lane.  (This is a bit confusing as named characters on Earth-Three have flipped morality…so does this mean that regular Lois is evil?)

And we wrap up with #50, which has Superman team up with…Clark Kent?!  Alien science has separated the two, making Superman lose touch with humanity, while Clark loses much of his timid persona.  They must work together to save an alien world and California, before finding a way to merge again.

As with all the Showcase volume, these reprints are in black and white.  This is only a bit of a problem in the Plastic Man story as one of the running gags of that character is that he can look like anything and you can only spot him by his costume colors.

Sadly, the decision to concentrate only on the Superman stories means that we don’t get to see the “Whatever Happened To…?” backup stories that gave some closure to obscure characters.  Some of these were small gems–I was especially affected by the sad yet stirring tale of the Crimson Avenger, who will remain in the Land of the Remembered.

Overall, the writing quality is good to excellent, with art to match (with a couple of clunkers.)  Worth looking into if one of your favorites got a team-up slot.

Book Review: Fresh Fear

Book Review: Fresh Fear edited by William Cook

Horror anthologies are like a box of chocolates.  One story might be crunchy frog, another spring surprise, while a more disappointing one is just maple cream.  (Seriously, maple cream?)  This is because horror tends to be a balancing act between what the writer finds scary and what the reader does.   Two different readers looking at the same story may fiercely debate whether it’s terrifying or just kind of gross.

Fresh Fear

This particular anthology is listed as “contemporary horror” which seems to mean mostly recent stories, set close to the present day.  Other than that, there’s no real overarching theme or subgenre requirements.  After an introduction that talks a bit about why people read horror stories (among other things, to feel horrified), the opening story is “God of the Winds” by Scathe meic Beorh, a hallucinatory piece that is at least partially about the tendency of white people to appropriate Native American mysticism in stupid ways.  The final story is “Out of the Light” by Anna Taborska, a Lovecraftian-feeling story about a man who gets too heavily invested in reading a horror anthology.  Hmm.

I was a bit disappointed that the piece by big-name author Ramsey Campbell (“Britain’s most respected living horror writer”) was a reprint from 1988.  Which is not to say that “Welcomeland” itself wasn’t a fine story.  It concerns a man returning to his home town which has been partially rebuilt into a failed amusement park.  Or has it succeeded at its true purpose?  It doesn’t feel dated.

Also outstanding is Christine Morgan’s “Nails of the Dead” which looks at Norse mythology from the point of view of a very minor character with a small but important job.  Of local interest to me is “Just Another Ex” by Roy C. Booth and Axel Kohagen.  A man is sent to find another man who may be unfaithful to his loved one.  His reward is non-standard.

There were some typos, most clustered in “Spencer Weaver Gets Rebooted” by Thomas A. Erb, about a bullied high schooler who gets pushed too far.  Because of this, and the rather immature feel of the plot points, it felt more like something a high school student would write than something for a professional anthology.  (“Did I mention the head bully has a small penis?  Well he does.”)

This is an “18+” book, which has sex, rape, foul language, torture and in some cases excessive focus on body fluids.   Happy endings are few.  But with twenty-eight widely varying stories, there’s something for almost every horror fan.   Recommended for the horror buff who wants to try some new authors.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4 edited by Mort Weisenger

Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are two of the most enduring characters in comic books, thanks to being attached to the one and only Superman.  Lois appeared in the first Superman story in Action Comics #1 (1938), a snarky but skilled reporter who initially had little use for Clark Kent but admired the mysterious superhero.  Jimmy appeared first in the radio adaptation in 1940, first as a copy boy and then as a cub reporter/photographer, being brought into the comics proper in 1941.

Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4

As popular supporting characters, they appeared often in Superman’s stories.  In the 1950s, they got their own continuing series, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane.  As you can tell by the titles, Superman was the co-star of each of these series, appearing in every story.  Eventually, the series, along with Supergirl and some other Superman-related characters, were merged into an anthology comic titled Superman Family.

Jimmy’s stories often centered around him suddenly gaining a superpower, a special advantage, or undergoing a weird transformation.   He would figure out some way of using this, until he got cocky and needed Superman to bail him out of the resulting trouble.    Other stories revolved around his falling in love with women who almost invariably weren’t going to stick around.  His most frequent love interest was Lucy Lane, Lois’ little sister, who was much less invested in the relationship than he was.

Jimmy had an ultrasonic signal watch which he could use to summon Superman in case of trouble, though the watch itself often caused trouble, or Jimmy would misuse it.

Lois also got temporary superpowers often, but her stories focused much more on her relationship with Superman.  She often tried to trick him into marrying her or discover his secret identity.  She also met quite a few men that were ready to marry her right away, though all of them turned out to be flawed in one way or another.  Often Lois was pitted against Lana Lang, Clark Kent’s childhood friend as fierce rivals and best friends.

Sadly, the period where Lois initially got her own series was also when she reached the nadir of her characterization.  Back in the Golden Age, she’d been independent and often gotten herself out of fixes before Superman could rescue her.  Her personality hadn’t revolved around her love of Superman nearly as much either.  Early Silver Age Lois was too often a “damsel in distress” and came off shrewish.  (She remained a crackerjack reporter, though.  Half of the danger she got in was because of her successful investigative journalism.)

It’s no wonder that Superman often played mean pranks on Jimmy and Lois to teach them a lesson.  Sadly, those lessons never stuck.

It is important to remember that these stories (this volume covers 1960-61) were aimed at children, who were expected to only read comics for a few years.  Thus plotlines were often recycled as the previous readers weren’t going to notice, and the status quo remained as steady as possible so that the experience was consistent no matter how many issues you might have missed.  They were never meant to be read all in a row by adults.

Some standout stories in this volume include “Jimmy’s Gorilla Identity” which has an appearance by Congo Bill and Congorilla (Bill, a “great white hunter” , could swap minds with a golden gorilla); “The Curse of Lena Thorul” the first appearance of Lena, who was Lex Luthor’s long-lost sister (and later became one of Supergirl’s supporting cast); and several “Imaginary Stories” peeking into possible futures where Lois Lane and Superman finally get married.

Supergirl and Krypto also pop up a few times; as this was during the period when Supergirl was Superman’s “secret weapon”, she has to be careful that neither Lois or Jimmy realize what’s going on or who she is.

There is period sexism (a couple of stories mention that married women are discriminated against in the job market), hussy-shaming (“slut” was a word you couldn’t use under the Comics Code), fat-shaming, and a general attitude of lookism even by the good guy characters.

All that said, these are fun stories with inventive ideas, often having more plot packed into eight pages than many modern superhero comics do in eight issues.  Highly recommended for the nostalgic Superman fan, moderately recommended for other fans (check your local library.)

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