Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Rohan at the Louvre

In 2009, the Louvre Museum, one of the most renowned art museums in the world, gathered comic book artists together for a unique exhibit showcasing the breadth of contemporary art found in comic books. French bandes dessinĂ©es and American comic books featured prominently in the display, joined by panels drawn by Japanese manga artist Hirohiko Araki. While most of the featured comics used the grounds of the Louvre as a vehicle for investigating art or even as characters, Araki took one of his more popular characters, a manga artist turned occult detective, and thrust him into a mystery deep inside the Louvre’s underground tunnels, complete with all the accumulated quirks of his JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure--and a touch of body horror.
In many ways, Araki was the perfect choice for such a collection. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is rooted in both Japanese and Western pop culture, mixing Japanese punk brawlers with a love for Western music and the traditions of both cultures’ occult detective stories. The names of several characters may be familiar: Dio, Speedwagon, Red Hot Chili Pepper, Cream, Aerosmith, Green Day, Black Sabbath, etc.. The series is still going strong after thirty years, following the Joestar family throughout generations as they fight against an ancient and undead enemy of the family. To properly explain the JoJo’s series would easily require a month’s columns and the average reader might still think the plot and the setting a fever dream. Perhaps one way to think of the series is if the X-men fought each other with Pokemon, mutant powers, and their fists. And, strangely enough, it works so well that JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has been a staple of manga readers throughout its entire run.
To overcome the daunting barrier of entry that such a long-lived series creates, Araki crafted his exhibit, collected in Rohan at the Louvre, to be a stripped-down version of a JoJo story. Focusing on Rohan Kishibe, the aforementioned manga artist turned occult investigator, Araki moves the powers and other regular JoJocharacters to the background, allowing guests to the Louvre to experience this ghost story through his eyes. After a brief introduction to Rohan and his power to read people like books–illustrated with a touch of body horror as their skin peels like pages, Rohan tells his story of a search for the darkest black ever seen. And so begins a horror story worthy of mention in the same sentence as Manly Wade Wellman’s “The Golgotha Dancers”.
The tale proper begins when Rohan is seventeen, struggling to earn a job as a manga artist. He is frustrated because his editor tells him that his drawings of women are lifeless. When a 21-year-old soon-to-be-divorcee Nanase moves into his apartment building, Rohan grows fascinated with her, drawing her at every opportunity. Nanase catches him in mid-sketch and confronts him. Rohan’s explanation charms her, and Nanase’s piqued interest in Rohan’s art over time turns into romance. During one of their evenings together, Nanase mentions a mysterious painting of exquisite blackness in the Louvre. But the days of the happy couple are short, as when Nanase discovers her portrait in Rohan’s manga, she shreds the drawings and flees into the night.
Ten years later, a stray comment sparks Rohan’s memory, and he travels to the Louvre to find the mysterious painting. What should have been a denied request quickly turns into a search of the Louvre’s catacombs. Escorted by two firemen, a curator, and a translator, Rohan is taken to a storage tunnel empty of everything except for the dark painting. The search becomes lethal, as, one by one, the people around Rohan die in grisly ways as the ghosts of their ancestors display their wrath. Then, when Rohan is alone, he sees Nanase among the ghosts…
Written at a time when many of the more regrettable anime and manga tropes were being codified, Araki instead chooses to write against trope to make statements about art. When arriving at the Louvre, Rohan chastises his fans, telling them to show some respect when visiting the masterworks of grandmasters. At least wear a tie. But the real differences shine through when Rohan is seventeen. He is not the first nor the last seventeen-year-old manga artist to grace the pages of a comic book. But where many of his contemporaries played the role of the ascended fan, enthusiasts of pop culture media, Rohan instead focuses on the beauty of art itself. Rather than copying current fashions in manga, he draws from his own experiences and observations. And most importantly, his art attracts women instead of repelling them, unlike those characters who celebrate fandom before art. Rohan embodies the tropes of the struggling artist instead of the stereotypical manga artist, and thus he can show the power of his art through his romance with Nanase. Instead of a message, Araki celebrates the life behind art, a timeless subject worthy of inclusion in the Louvre. But when it’s time to set aside the conceits of arts for the demands of story, Rohan at the Louvre becomes a ghost story worthy of The Unique Magazine.
The character design in Rohan at the Louvre is straight JoJo, stylized, muscular, yet more realistic than many of Araki’s peers. The clothes, hair, and colors are trendy, if now a bit dated, and the fascination with fluorescent and paste hues seen on the covers of JoJo is carried throughout the full-color manga. If Rohan looks a bit slender and slim, he is supposed to as a contrast with the beefy punks of JoJo. After months of reading vivid four-color bandes dessinĂ©es, with stunning reds and blues, the shift to a palette of magenta, cyan, and sea green is jarring but adds to the sense of fashion surrounding the tale. It also serves to heighten the body horror to come. The backgrounds are simple, evoking memories of walking the Louvre when in the galleries. In the tunnels, the claustrophobic shelves and shadows heighten the growing anticipation of terror.
I’ve often said that the spirit of Poe and the pulps lives on in Japan. Recent forays into the direct descendants of the pulps, light novels, have proven wanting as slice of life replaced adventure and the unknown. But Rohan at the Louvre delivers on the adventure, the romance, and the fear of the unknown seen in the heyday of pulp fiction. It’s manga without the cringe I’ve come to expect in recent works, and a perfect addition to the Louvre Collection. I freely recommend this to any comic book and pulp enthusiast, not just fans of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and of manga in general.

Monday, June 25, 2018

A Reading of "Song in a Minor Key" by C. L. Moore

This, unfortunately, is not a full short story, let alone a novel-- it is a vignette from an apparently never-completed Northwest Smith tale.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Wayne Shelton: The Mission

In a stray moment of distraction, a French trucker runs over the Khalakjistani Minister of Defense. His imprisonment incites his union to refuse to haul anything across Khalakjistan's roads. As the clock ticks down on an eccentric Texas billionaire's deal for mineral rights in Khalakjistan, he turns to one man to break the trucker out of prison:

Wayne Shelton.

The Mission is the first volume of the Wayne Shelton series, a 13-volume comics written by best-selling Belgian comics writer Jean Van Hamme (Thorgal, XII, and Largo Winch) and illustrated by Christian Denayer (Alain Chevallier, T.N.T, and High School Generation). In it, the fifty-year-old Vietnam veteran gathers his team together to break out the trucker. But just when everyone assembles in Turkey, a betrayal upends Wayne's plans. It may sound like a simple men's adventure story, but Van Hamme and Denayer execute it with panache, creating a best-selling comic that is still going strong today. Some English-speaking fans have compared Wayne Shelton to James Bond, but I find comparisons to Mr. Wolf from Pulp Fiction to be more apt, for Wayne is the man you pay millions to in order to do the impossible--or make the impossible go away.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Predator Editor

It has become common now to blame John Campbell and his clique of writers for many of the long-standing evils affecting the genre of science fiction. But as the crazy years of the 1970s showed, Campbell has no monopoly on the ruin of the genre. He wasn't even the first to set American science fiction's course. And at least he paid his authors.

I had long known about pulp writers' valid complaints about Hugo Gernsback and his miserly approach to payments. But thanks to a tip from Deuce at The Swords of Robert E. Howard board, I learned the effect Gernsback's greed had on the writing in the genre.

Darrell Schweitzer's "Why Stanley G. Weinbaum Still Matters" (found in his The Threshold of Forever: Essays and Reviews) begins by describing a low point of quality in imaginative fiction already in place in the 1920s. The usual suspects earn their blame, including a rise in Realism as being the only real literature. Then:
"...things got worse when the first product actually marketed as science fiction was Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, which began with the April 1926 issue. In orthodox fannish histories, this event is called 'the birth of science fiction.' The truth is a lot more complicated."
First, a little background.
"Gernsback was a strange combination of visionary, entrepreneur, incompetent, and crook. He was the first person to see some use for what he originally called "scientifiction" as educational pro-science propaganda, and he figured out how to market it. Unfortunately, he simply was not a literary person at all, and seems to have been completely insensitive to what we would today call 'literary value.' He also did not believe in paying his writers except, all too often, under threat of lawsuit. [...] How did Gernsback treat [H. P. Lovecraft]? He paid him, reluctantly, well after publication, a fifth of a cent a word, a rate so insulting that before long HPL and all his circle referred to Gernsback as 'Hugo the Rat.'"
You can imagine the effect that this had on authors.
"Unsurprisingly, the real pros, the top science fiction writers of the day, such as Ray Cummings, Murrary Leinster, Ralph Milne Farley, and A. Merrit, may have been reprinted in Gernsback's various publications, but they did not write original stories for him. Who wanted a fifth of a cent on threat of lawsuit when Argosy paid one to two cents a word on acceptance, very reliably? This was the same Gernsback who reprinted many stories by H. G. Wells until he stiffed Wells once too often and lost him as a contributor. 
"The result was that the actual science fiction magazines, Amazing and Wonder Stories particularly, were a backwater in science fiction."
Not only did Gernsback thus form the science fiction ghetto of genre, the literary quality of the stories tanked.
"Most of the non-reprint content of the early Amazing was decidedly non-pulp. The writers did not have--or need--the routine storytelling skills required by, say, a western or adventure story magazine."
Here Schweitzer uses pulp as a synonym for professional.

When spoiled by the bounty of Weird Tales, it is easy to view Asimov's various stabs at pulp writing as the sort of chest-pounding self-promotion at the expense of the past that we've come to expect from science fiction. But after a decade of works like "The Electric Duel" preceding the Campbelline Revolution, perhaps there's a bit more truth in his claims.

Gernback's greed ghettoized science fiction away from mainstream adventure fiction, ran out the popular and talented writers, leaving only the amateurs who would write for little to nothing at all. And it's from these leavings that the first fans and conventions welled up. I can now understand the almost religious reverence given Astounding. Even before Campbell, the magazine paid more and demanded more from its writers, and served as a refuge for fans from the dreck. The problem is, Astounding was a ghetto within a ghetto, and no more the mainstream of science fiction as was Amazing.

Perhaps if Gernsback wasn't such a rat, some of the vitality and mainstream presence of science fiction might have been preserved. Unfortunately, he chose to beggar his writers while lining his pockets, and he loved writers too new and too poor to find a lawyer.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Street & Smith Sales Figures

I recently came across a article covering the 1949 death of the pulps, where Street & Smith axed all their pulps except for Astounding. It parroted the popular wisdom of the time, where changing tastes among the audience doomed the medium. However, what caught my eye was the sales figures included.

Ignore the average circulation in this, as it fails to note that two titles, Doc Savage and The Shadow, combined for 400,000 to 600,000 and more of said circulation. But there are noticeable trends in the totals. Prior to the slapdown pulp received for the excesses of weird menace, S&S had a floor of around 950,000 issues sold per month, even with the high title churn as everyone tried to create the next The Shadow.

1941 saw a dip as pulp recovered from the legislation affecting the medium, while 1942 saw a banner year for S&S. claims that S&S benefited from the paper shortage and the ensuing shrinking of titles. Even then, S&S began to shift to digest format instead of pulp to cover costs.

1943 saw the contraction hit Street & Smith, as the company started to shed titles like Unknown, and ushered in new management.

But it was in 1945 when S&S pulps started to die. Among the many incidents that lead to this doldrums was Babette Rosemund's editorship of  Doc Savage and The Shadow. Her fascination with the literary trends of academia torpedoed the sales of those two books, as she pushed hero pulps without any trace of heroism at all. As both shifted from twice a month, to monthly, and finally bimonthly, the loss of sales was felt sharply by the company.

In 1948 and 1949, Street & Smith attempted to revive interest and sales in the pulps, and actually started to turn the decline around. However, with depressingly low composite sales, it is understandable why Street & Smith focused instead on the half-a-million a month sales of Mademoiselle.

Monday, June 11, 2018

A Second Opinion on Light Novels

Benjamin Cheah talks Japanese light novels over at his site:
Light novels are short, inexpensive books on fast release schedules. Running to about 50,000 characters, they are small and lightweight, able to be carried about and read anywhere. This mirrors the pulp practice of publishing compact, fast-paced stories on equally compressed schedules. Well-loved in Japan and around the world, many LNs have been translated and exported across the world. But how do modern LNs compare to the pulps?
Consider light novels the Young Adult version of the pulps, where Japanese pulps shifted audience and added manga-inspired art to court an audience. They are very much direct descendants of the pulps, and in that peculiarly Japanese manner, freely steal and give homage to their forebears, both Japanese and American. But Cheah takes these pulps descendants to task:
Japanese light novels may mimic the format and publishing schedules of the pulps, but they do not necessarily live up to the standards established by the pulps. While some concepts and nuance may be lost in translation, if the base material is little more than dross, a translation won't produce diamonds. 
To be clear, there are light novels worthy of your time and money. JimFear138 recommended Vampire Hunter D. But by and large, even the most popular LNs today tend to have subpar writing, so much so that by Western standards they would be considered amateurish or even unpublishable. 
Why, then, are they so well-loved?
In a word, escapism. And there's an emotional need being filled, whether its adolescent power fantasies, salarymen looking back at happier and freer times, or the heady mix of spicy writing and adventure. 

Check out Cheah's article for a more in-depth contrast of LN writing to the pulp masters.

It's funny that this article should pop up while I was trudging through a selection of current LNs. I do have my favorites, but those, strangely enough, have more literary aspirations (Bakemonogatari, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Legend of the Galactic Heroes). A few thoughts to add:

1. LNs and English YA appear to currently be playgrounds for immature 20 and 30-something adults instead of teen-oriented writing.

2. If D&D-cloned fantasy is Pink Slime, much of isekai is Blue Slime. Not because of VD's Pink vs. Blue audience mechanic, but because much of isekai patterns itself after video games such as Dragon Quest, down to the very bestiary--including the mascot blue slimes of DQ.

3. Translation matters more than Benjamin Cheah touched upon. It won't turn lead into gold, but it sure does turn gold into lead. Worse, thirty years of fan translations of anime, manga, and LNs have conditioned English-speaking fans to demand lead instead of gold. Whether poor writing or poor translations, I've learned more about what doesn't work in writing and story from light novels than other types of story.

That said, some classic anime were adapted from light novels, such as Slayers, so they're doing something right...

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Phantom, Arifureta, and Ignition!

The Ghost Who Walks returns in Hermes Press’s reprinting of the Phantom’s classic novels. In the second, The Slave Markets of Mucar, the Phantom leaves his jungle stronghold for the deserts of Arabia. Prisoners have been escaping from a legendary impenetrable fortress. So when one of the Phantom’s Jungle Patrol agents investigating the prison goes missing, the Phantom must break inside, root out the corrupt officials, and trace the “escaped” prisoners before they are sold in Mucar. To stop this slavery, the Phantom dishes out two-fisted justice with the wisdom of Solomon, accompanied by his wolf, Devil.
The Slave Markets of Mucar is a straightforward adventure through exotic settings. If it seems a little quaint today, it is because our world is sedentary and unacquainted with danger. While the Phantom as a character is a contemporary of pulp heroes such as the Shadow, his novels do not rely on the lurid descriptions of the hero pulps. Instead, the novels update the classic Argosy general adventure to the pacing of the men’s adventure stories. However, the Phantom is more force than character here, as he pulls off impossible treks across the desert to appear where no man expects him. This means that The Slave Markets of Mucar is a bit scant on characterization, but the novel is a short read designed to fill a span of idle time instead of the better part of a weekend.

At first glance, the translated light novel Arifureta, by Ryo Shirakome, follows the well-worn tracks of the isekai otherworld genre. (English language examples of which include A Princess of Mars, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Song of Albion.) Typically, the light novel isekai tale takes a loser, throws him into another world, and through abuse of a special skill, watches him rise in power, prestige, and responsibility until he saves the new world. Arifureta instead takes a normal guy ostracized by his classmates for the continued attention of the class beauty, throws him into a new world, abandons him in the middle of a lethal mega-dungeon, and watches as his drive to survive turns him into a monster, physically and morally.
Like the rest of his class, Hajime is summoned to a new world to be pressed into fighting the local supreme dark lord. But when a skulking rival for the class beauty’s attention manipulates a training exercise to trap him in the nearest dungeon, Hajime is forced to munchkin his new skills to ensure his survival. It is here where Arifureta begins to lose its way, replacing the expected heroic struggle against the dark lord with that of an underdog gone rabid. Part of this is due to the kishotenketsu structure, where the familiar pattern of rising action-climax-falling action is replaced by an episodic series of cause and effect. Unmoored from any plot arc, Arifureta wanders through a series of digressions that distance the story from the expectations of the first cause and effect cycle. Unlikable characters, intrusive litRPG mechanics, failed attempts at grimdark, and the use of hoary cliches like the blonde child vampire love interest turn reading this popular translated light novel into a grind.

Rutgers University has finally rereleased John Drury Clark’s classic Ignition!, an informal history of the chemical rocket propulsion race that fueled the Space Race and the Cold War. Clark offers views into both American and Soviet scientific efforts, as well as his own personal research anecdotes, grouped together by chemical family. Care is taken in each chapter to explain which compounds worked, which compounds were abandoned, and which compounds blew the test bench up spectacularly. By the time readers finish Ignition!, they will understand just how chemical propulsion became a mature technology so quickly.
By this point, many of you might be asking just what such an account of dangerous chemistry has to do with science fiction. Clark was one of many scientists and engineers that wrote stories for Astounding during the heady days of 1937-1943, when the physical sciences helped propel the Campbelline Revolution to the forefront of science fiction. Like many of his contemporaries, the demands of war and the laboratory diverted Clark from writing, but he remained a fan and a friend of Campbell’s clique of writers. Isaac Asimov pens the introduction, using humor to reveal Clark’s personality–and the dangers inherent in mixing volatile and reactive chemicals.
However, the true impact of Campbell and Astounding upon Ignition! remains its readability. Clark should be recognized among the early popularizing science writers. Like Feynman in physics, Clark is able to distill the complexities of his field, chemistry, into easily understandable essentials for the layman while preserving substance for the expert. A healthy mixture of firsthand anecdote and dramatic failures elevate this analysis of chemical alternatives into an engaging account of one of the few times where chemistry held the same glamour as physics.
Those interested in following Clark’s footsteps should be aware of a key piece of safety equipment–a good pair of running shoes.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

From the Editor: Broadswords & Blasters

Broadswords & Blasters posted a list of what graced their last submissions pile--and what got rejected. Good lessons here in story and submission guidelines. While they are quick to point out that these guidelines are for their journal alone, their advice for potential writers for any publication is sound. Pick up an issue and read through it, and tailor your stories accordingly.

The Guidelines Are There For a Reason (Part I)
We have guidelines on our website. They detail, in what we hope is clear and concise language, what we are looking for. They can be broken down in two parts. The first is the genres we are looking for:
  • sword and sorcery;
  • westerns (Weird or otherwise);
  • horror (Cosmic, Southern Gothic, visceral, and psychological);
  • detective tales;
  • two-fisted action;
  • retro science fiction
If you can squint real hard and fit your story into one of those buckets, yeah, we’ll read it and give it due consideration. Mash-ups of the above are also great. Here’s what we see too much of:
  1. Epic or high fantasy.
  2. Fantasy that is a reskin of a Dungeons and Dragons game.
  3. Engineering science-fiction where the hero can solve the problem with a calculator and wrench.
  4. Stories where talking about the problem somehow solves the problem.
  5. Slice of life stories that would fit better in a literary magazine. No speculative gloss at all which made both editors scratch their heads and ask “Why did they send this to us?”
  6. Urban fantasy.
  7. Allegories (religious or otherwise) where a solid chunk of the story relies on telling some sort of moral.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Trends: Trigger Warnings

In the short time since I have been posting Castalia House's weekly New Release Roundups, I have seen many authors try to stand out from an increasingly crowded pack. Marketing gimmicks abound. Sometimes these turn into trends with some staying power, such as the resurgence of the mailing list. Others last only for a season. Hopefully, this next trend falls in the latter set.
WARNING: This novel contains explicit sexuality, nudity, violence, bad language, attempted murder, actual murder, self-defense, pro-active self-defense, destruction of private property, arson, tantric magic, polyamory, mayhem, gratuitous sex and violence, littering, jay-walking, firearms, a racist goblin, an honest lawyer, and a kindly old gossip who likes to give cookies to kids.
Fresh from Tumblr and other disreputable parts of the Internet and education, the trigger warning has now made it into science fiction and fantasy marketing. To be fair, the first few times I saw it appear, the writers were winking to potential readers of books with a comedic slant. Call it more a type of content signaling instead of an actual warning. But these warnings started to spread to more serious works.
This book contains no profanity and no embarrassing sex scenes. However, if you're offended by conservative principles and references to Scripture, this book might not be for you.
Note the serious tone.

I wouldn't think that such warnings would be needed, as many of the bookjacket blurbs already inform a reader what to expect. However, a recent blog comment from Jan Stryvant, best-selling author of the Valens Legacy, disabused me of that notion. His book warnings are cheeky, to be certain, but they also reflect a somber truth, for even with the explicit description and bold warning, reviewers have protested that his magical harem adventures have harems in them.

Some people just live to be offended. Hopefully, the current versions of the Red Scare, White Fright, and Yellow Peril subside long enough that these warnings are no longer necessary. But as long as there is a review mob crying to a sensationalist media, I expect we'll see more authors resort to them.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Pulp Era Writing Tips

Those who enjoy the classic articles by pulp writers need to read Bryce Beattie's Pulp Era Writing Tips, a collection of 17 columns from the pulp masters, with commentary from the editor of Storyhack. Not only has Beattie collected a wealth of classic story advice, he's tapped a seam of writing tips outside the more popular articles that get passed around, such as Lester Dent's Master Plot. At $0.99, Pulp Era Writing Tips will introduce you to a new set of pulp wordsmiths practicing their trade for all to see.

Learn from some of the fiction writing greats of yesteryear! This book contains 17 articles on writing, written by pulp era authors, helping you learn:

- Several methods of plotting a story
- How to make your characters memorable
- How to study your genre
- How to write a fight sequence
- Tips for revising your novel
- And much more...