Saturday, May 10, 2008

Escapist? Me? Hell yes.

My current reading material may strike some of you as, well, immature I suppose. I'm working my way through The Savage Sword of Conan - Volume One; a massive (about an inch thick) trade paperback that reproduces in glorious black and white the stories that appeared in Marvel Comics back in the mid-late 1970s. I bought these comics as a kid - in fact I bought the UK reprints which were larger than their US counterparts and showed the artwork off to better advantage - and I'm not ashamed to say that I'm completely enthralled all over again. It was this comic, and later 2000AD, that made me pick up a pencil and draw. What's more, the artwork on Conan was always a cut above your average spandex-brigade fare. Many pages were serious works of art. It was so inspiring. Just look at this splash panel from Black Colossus drawn by John Buscema and inked by Alfredo Alcala:

It's as detailed and elegant as any 18th or 19th century engraving. And that's pretty typical of what the comic offered. Within a couple of years of first seeing this amazing stuff, I was turning out derivative toss like this (below from 1983). The underlying drawing was awful. My anatomy was, to say the least, odd. My understanding of perspective and light and shade was shameful. But the detail! I was obsessed with laying down the inks and turning out something as artful as the Conan crew were producing. All that detail made even my shoddy drawings look passable.

But reading the Conan comics was more than just admiring the astonishing art of people like Neal Adams, John Buscema, Alfredo Alcala, Barry Smith, Gil Kane, Walt Simonson and Alex Nino. I loved the stories too. Roy Thomas and those who came after him did a great job translating Robert E Howard's original Conan books into sequential art. I had all of Howard's books (mostly with gorgeous, richly-coloured Frank Frazetta painted covers) plus a few of the later books by Lin Carter and L Sprague de Camp. There was something joyous and life-affirming about Conan's simplistic world of muscle-bound, lantern-jawed heroes fighting the evil bad guys and always winning. There was treasure to be found, damsels to be rescued and kingdoms to be won if you had cunning and a strong enough sword arm. It was unashamedly faerie tales for grown-ups. Well, nearly grown-ups.

But it wasn't all blades, biceps and boobies in Bacofoil bikinis. There were some convoluted, intelligent storylines. There was political intrigue. And not all of the female characters were swooning stereotypes. There were powerful, dangerous women who could equal Conan's brawn (and definitely his barbarian brains) like Belit, Valeria and Red Sonja. There were as many witch queens as there were wizards and any number of mad or egomaniac princesses too. Robert E Howard created an entire world - the world of the Hyborean Age he called it - and peopled it with characters acting out stories with strong moral messages. In this, he was simply mirroring the vogue for romantic imaginative adventure fiction that was popular in the first half of the 20th century.

His contemporaries were people like Edgar Rice Burroughs whose many books were filled with much the same formulaic pulp fiction; heroic man/woman carves a place for him/herself in the world by being noble and strong and always gets the girl/boy. His most famous creation was Tarzan, of course, but he also created complete, highly detailed worlds on Mars (called Barsoom by its peoples), Venus (Amtor) and deep within the Earth's core (Pellucidar), and established a new genre of fiction - the so-called 'Sword and Planet' canon.

His 11-book Martian Series (which began with A Princess of Mars in 1912 and ended in 1964) starred Captain John Carter, a US civil war veteran who is mortally wounded and somehow finds himself transported to the red planet. But it's not the Mars we know; he has travelled as far in time as he has in space and ancient Mars is a world of advanced humanoid peoples, weird technologies, terrifying beasts and strange, alien races like the six-limbed warrior green men. He eventually wins his princess, often described as 'the incomparable Dejah Thoris' (seen above in another of Frank Frazetta's memorable book covers) and becomes the most influential man on Barsoom. In later books we meet another human migrant, Ulysses Paxton and the series follows his adventures. Then, the narrative baton is passed to the children of John Carter and Dejah Thoris - the unimaginatively named Carthoris and his sister, Tara. The books have slipped in and out of movie production hell for decades but I'm encouraged to read that Pixar are currently in pre-production on a film based on the series. It's tentatively called John Carter of Mars and will using a mix of live action and CGI - a new departure for them. I can't wait to see it. For forty years I've been aching to see Ulysses Paxton fighting the multi-limbed great white apes, or Tars Tarkas riding his mighty war thoat at the head of the armies of Thark, or the scary spider-like Kaldanes and their headless symbiotic Rykor bodies.

Burroughs is believed to have been inspired by an earlier story - Lieutenant Gulliver Jones: His vacation (1905) by Edwin Lester Arnold - in which the aforementioned Jones is taken by flying carpet to a less well-defined ancient feudal Mars. But just as Burroughs was inspired by Arnold, so he himself later inspired works by Michael Moorcock, John Norman, Lin Carter, Leigh Brackett and Andrew J Offutt. Even E C Tubb's huge 32 book Dumarest Saga could be said to be the natural descendant of Burroughs with its galaxy-spanning hero, Earl Dumarest, knife-fighting and romancing the ladies in his endless search for the lost planet Earth - his home world. I should also add that Gullivar Jones and John Carter both make an appearance in Alan Moore's and Kevin O'Neill's amazing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. You see? Even the talented Mr Moore recognises the value of this stuff. He'd appreciate the collections on my groaning bookshelves.

Less well-known, but just as brilliant, stories from this Golden Age of adventure fiction are the Tumithak novellas of Charles R Tanner. He wrote just four, but managed to create a fantastic, claustrophobic underground world of endless corridors and rooms. It is here that the human race fled to escape the predatory invading Shelks. All technological skill has been lost in the millennia that have passed since the invasion and, when we join the action in the first tale - Tumithak of the Corridors (1932) - the eponymous hero becomes the first human to go to the surface in thousands of years. He later kills a Shelk - an absolute first - and begins the rallying of Mankind to reclaim its planet. These are wonderful, imaginative, uplifting stories - they'd make a great film I know.

So, yes ... you can call me old-fashioned if you like but, just occasionally, it does my brain and my heart good to read something that is simple, direct, entertaining, beautifully written ... but as shallow as a politician's smile. It's the perfect escape from the real world - the scary world - of bumbling mayors, the erosion of our civil liberties, gun-toting barristers, hoodies running riot, falling house prices and idiot BNP councillors.

Conan and his big chopper are providing me with hours of mindless escapist joy. Great stories, great art, and a real nostalgia trip all in one trade paperback.

I've already ordered Volume 2.


Piers said...

I'm about half-way through the collected Conan stories of Robert E Howard at the moment, and loving them. In places they're quite astonishingly well-written.

Previously I'd read the mixed-up & re-edited anthologies by de Camp & Carter - it's great to get back to the source.

And I've got a huge love for ERB - Barsoom in particular.

Though I must admit I was hoping for a live-action Princess of Mars. Ah well.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hi Piers

Yes, they were very well-written. Roy Thomas did a pretty good job translating REH's original words into comic scripts for Marvel(he couldn't resist dropping in some literary references and in-jokes though). As for ERB - the man is a personal hero of mine, along with that other great sci-fi pioneer, John Wyndham.

As I understand it, Pixar are looking to mix live action (the humans, presumably) with CGI (Green men, banths, thoats etc.)As such, it's a dparture for them as their stuff has been, to date, 100% CGI. We'll see. Personally, I'm hopeful.

Talking to Ray Harryhausen recently, he told me that he'd always wanted to do the books too. Wow. How great would that have been?