Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Loners and Solo Leveling

After a hundred years as a mercenary and bounty hunter, dwarf Jari Rockjaw has his eye on a quiet life of retirement on a homestead far away. But before he can buy the farm, he needs one last bounty: the head of the most infamous dwarven reiver in Labrys. But to cut through his target’s armies, Jari needs a company of fighters, not just the help of a few battle-weary friends. As the number of vengeance seekers, rogues, and castaways grow around him, Jari’s vision of retirement soon gives way to the demands of leadership. Can this reluctant mercenary captain lead his troop of Loners to riches, revenge, and retirement?

Loners, by D. B. Bray and Wahida Clark, may be touted as “a humorous action adventure”, but, make no mistake, the humor comes straight from the gallows. Jari’s tale swings far away from the humor of a Discworld, choosing instead the grim of a grim dark fantasy. But Loners is grim-dark with heart, focusing on the nobility of comradeship as the bonds between Jari and his mercenaries are tested and grow stronger. Hard fighting and harder perils are punctuated by soldiery banter, and the revolving door of hirings and deaths never reduces the characters to faceless names. Bray and Clark might be too fond of the rogue and hidden prince trope, but the main weakness is that Jari and the Loners are swept along by the tide of subquests from set piece to set piece, instead of active participants in their story. But the grim adventures with gold under the grime do not fall into excess, and provide a satisfying tour of an embattled yet hopeful perseverance.

E-rank hunter Jinwoo Sung may be the unluckiest hunter in all of Korea. Certainly, he is the weakest and most pitied. But when a group hunt through a rare and lethal dungeon leaves Jinwoo bleeding out, a strange voice gives him a choice and a second chance. Jinwoo now finds himself revived, with a host of new and daily quests, a stat sheet, and a sudden boost of power as he gains levels. But what will this once weak hunter do with his new-found strength? Find riches? Settle scores? Get the girl? And what new rivals might emerge from the shadows?

When released in English, Chugong’s Solo Leveling arrived with fanfare in light novel circles. Honestly, it’s hard to see why. Solo Leveling is an average litRPG in an oversaturated light novel and litRPG market. And average just is not good enough. Solo Leveling does balance the interruptions caused by stat sheets quite well, as, unlike most litRPG heroes, Jinwoo is more concerned with what power can get him instead of exploring the intricacies of the ruleset thrust upon him. As such, Solo Leveling serves as an illustration of the difference between power fantasies and progression fantasies. In some ways, the use of power for an end instead of as a means humanizes Jinwoo more than his Western counterparts, who are caught up in munchkinning their way through their stories. But the naked thirst for power and what it can seize can be cause for a shower, even if Jinwoo does not take his pursuit into the hedonistic excess so common in power fantasy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Dungeon Duel and Conquest

 March’s quick reviews cast a critical eye on Dungeon Duel, by eden Hudson and James Hunter, and Conquest: Icelandia, by Jean-Luc Isitin and Zivorad Radivojevic.

Roark van Graf’s struggles have taken him from a deposed noble fighting against a tyrant to the basest cannon-fodder in an MMO to lord of a mighty alliance of dungeons. But the tyrant’s forces have followed him through the portal into the game world. As players and NPCs line up on either side of Graf’s rebellion, the struggle spills out into our world. The tyrant has found a way to coerce the developers into nerfing Roark and his allies. Now Roark must move to save his followers across three worlds, before the tyrant–and the developers–end them all.

eden Hudson and James Hunter continue their genre-blending Rogue Dungeon series in Dungeon Duel. Here, they combine isekai portal fantasy, litRPG progression fantasy, dungeon maker fantasy, and a heavy dollop of epic fantasy into a whirlwind of trolls and angels fighting across fantastical, virtual, and present-day worlds. In that, Hudson and Hunter have solved the problem facing most dungeon makers: what to do when the hero conquers everything around him. The clever melding of the three worlds gives MMO gamers the ultimate fantasy: the ability to access their characters’ skills in real life. But even that fantasy has a price. With the stakes ramping up, the series’ goofy humor takes a back seat, and what first appeared to be the final volume spills out into more lands, pages, and books to come. As the final clash between Roark and the tyrant approaches, there are hopes that the Rogue Dungeon series can do what few have done–deliver a satisfying ending.

After a cataclysm has reduced humanity to five resettlement fleets, the first fleet comes across the habitable planet of Icelandia. After thawing to a disturbing number of new medical treatments, Oberleutnant Kirsten Konig leads the first contact expedition to the native tribes. But strange visions plague her, visions Konig believes are tied to the planet. As the resettlement plans fall victim to strange sabotages and alien raids, Konig finds herself in the middle of the winds of conspiracy, winds that tie the fate of the first fleet to fate of Konig’s daughter.

Written by Jean-Luc Isitin and drawn by Zivorad Radivojevic, Conquest: Icelandia is the first tale of the doomed resettlement fleets. It opens with an intriguing take on suspended animation and the recovery from it before diving into conspiracies and secret histories that show that humanity has yet to leave its destructive tendencies behind. Konig might be a glamorous fanservice fatale of a strong female character, but she avoids the waifish schoolgirl clichés. Her motivation is grounded in the most understandable and dangerous of desires, one noticeably absent from most practitioners of pixie-fu: the protection of her child. Radivojevic’s depiction of the resettlement fleet might be grounded in the same influence as Avatar, filled with powerful and boxy machine suits instead of sleek mecha. And Konig’s troop are drawn in a muscular, larger-than-life fashion. But the overall tone is melancholy, and the sequels defeatist and punishing.  At least Icelandia has the brief glimpse of hope amidst its setbacks, which elevates its moody warnings beyond crushing defeat.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Cirsova to reprint The Cosmic Courtship

Cirsova Publishing to Reprint Nearly-Lost Julian Hawthorne Planetary Romance, The Cosmic Courtship

LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Cirsova Publishing is proud to announce that it has partnered with Michael Tierney and Robert Allen Lupton to restore and reprint Julian Hawthorne’s The Cosmic Courtship, a never-before-collected pulp Planetary Romance by the son of famed American author Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Mary Faust, a brilliant scientist, has developed a machine that can allow the conscious human soul to explore the cosmos! Her promising young assistant Miriam Mayne has accidentally transferred her consciousness Saturn, where she falls under the enchantment of an evil sorcerer! Jack Paladin, her love, sets out after her on a thrilling celestial journey to the ringed planet! Swashbuckling adventure and high romance await in Julian Hawthorne’s The Cosmic Courtship!

While most are at least somewhat familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne as one of the great American authors, less well known is that his son Julian was an incredibly prolific writer in his own right. Julian published on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from literary analysis of his father's works to poetry to period romances and adventures. Late in his career, Julian even dabbled in the emerging genre of Science Fiction.

The Cosmic Courtship was serialized in Frank A. Munsey's All-Story Weekly across four issues, beginning with the November 24, 1917 issue and running through the December 15, 1917 issue. While this story has been in the public domain for some time, it has never been collected or published elsewhere until now.

Cirsova Publishing has taken on this exciting project with the aim to preserve this story for posterity and ensure that it is not lost to future generations.

Michael Tierney is a pulp historian and archivist who has written extensively on Edgar Rice Burroughs, having created the massive four volume Edgar Rice Burroughs 100 Year Art Chronology, and is currently working on another Art Chronology about Robert E. Howard. He has been involved in the comic book industry for 40 years, owning two of the oldest comic book stores in Central Arkansas until switching to mail-order only in 2020. He is also an accomplished science fiction writer and artist, having worked on his Wild Stars saga since the 1970s. Michael not only made his pulp library available for this project, he provided the photographic images of these rare magazines so that a manuscript could be produced. He has also lent his years of experience digitally restoring damaged pulp art to restore the original cover by Fred W. Small to create a unique cover for this edition.

Robert Allen Lupton is a prolific author, pulp historian, and commercial hot air balloon pilot. He has published nearly 200 short stories across numerous anthologies, including the New York Times Best Selling Chicken Soup For the Soul series, and has published several anthologies and novels. His most recent novel, "Dejanna of the Double Star" was published in December 2020. Robert has been an active Edgar Rice Burroughs historian, researcher, and writer since the 1970s, including at ERBzine, where several of his articles and stories are published. Robert has painstakingly recreated the text as it was originally published from the digital images provided from Michael's collection.

Cirsova Publishing has been publishing thrilling adventure science fiction and fantasy since 2016. They have published nearly 20 issues of their flagship publication, Cirsova Magazine. Additionally, they have published a number of anthologies, a fully illustrated edition of Leigh Brackett's Planet Stories-era Stark adventures, Jim Breyfogle's Mongoose and Meerkat, and the 35th Anniversary Editions of Michael Tierney's Wild Stars.

This collected edition of The Cosmic Courtship will be released later in 2021.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire

“Behold…the engines of death ride the sky. Every day they grow more numerous. Unless our nation bands together and ceases this endless wandering…we will disappear forever from the planet Elekton.”
 – Trigo the Mighty

In the 1930s, an alien spacecraft crashed into the Florida swamps, the crew frozen at their posts. After many years of physical examination, little was known of these men or the empire they represented. But one lone eccentric devoted his life to deciphering the texts recovered aboard the craft, until, almost in retirement, he discovers the insight needed for translation. Thus the recorded history of The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire was finally revealed to all.

From 1965 to 1982, eighty-eight complete stories of The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire graced the pages of British magazines Ranger and Look and Learn. While many writers and artists worked on the comic strip, writer Mike Butterworth and artist Don Lawrence combined their efforts on fifty. These fifty stories, doled out one full-color comic strip a week, inspired many in the British comics scene, including Neil Gaiman and Dave Gibbons. Once locked behind expensive premium collections, these tales of raygun Romans have now been rereleased in to the mass-market in three paperback and ebook volumes.

Before there can be a rise of an empire, there first must be a founding. And the nomadic Vorg were the last race anyone on the planet Elekton would foresee to rise as an interstellar empire. Mindful of the constant attacks by airfleets from the empire of Loka, Trigo has a dream of a city of culture and power from which his people can resist Loka and flourish in peace. His first attempts to build it crumble along with the city walls. But when Loka attacks the city of the Tharvs, the refugees streaming into the Vorg lands bring the knowledge needed to build Trigo’s city. From the marriage of Vorg vigor and Tharv knowledge, a new people were formed–the Trigan Empire. But Loka would not allow Trigo and his new people to live in peace, so Trigo and his brother Brag attempt to steal Loka’s airfleet and turn those terror weapons against their makers–even if it means crossing their resentful brother Klud in the process.

Such a bloodless summary for a high adventure tale filled with daring acts of heroism, stunning reversals of fortune, and crushing betrayals. But it would be the first of many in the rise of the Trigan Empire from a single city to a world government, all under the watchful eye and quick fists of Trigo the Mighty, his brother, Brag, and their advisor, Peric.

From the founding of Trigo’s city onward, the Trigan Empire and its influence comes into contact with the various countries and cultures that fill Elekton. Some meet Trigo, Brag, and, later, Brag’s son Janno, with suspicion, but the noble-minded among them are won over by the Trigans’ displays of daring and valor. The deceitful, however, get their just deserts soon after meeting Trigo. The Trigan Empire might not be a conquering empire, but it will not be conquered–as those from Loka, Elekton, and even the stars beyond have found out to their peril.

The art is amazing, and not just for that of a comic strip. Lawrence details his raygun Romans with anatomically plausible musculature, and the mix of high pulp technology with classical dress and design is charming. Each panel might well be a painting, often in bronze, steel, and imperial purple. It is an inspirational, heroic, even statuesque style that I hope to see a resurgence of.

Trigo and his companions are men of action, aspirational and noble, guided by the wisdom of the elder architect Peric, and ever on the lookout for threats to their people. And the art, beautiful, muscular, and noble as it is, only serves to heighten the heroic deeds. The Empire is a beacon of peace and prosperity because of the physical strength and character of its emperor. This is a comic meant to inspire young boys into becoming the next generation of Trigos: wise, strong, and noble. As such, the speech is formal and the action bloodless, but the clashes of sword, raygun, and fighter ship are tense and riveting. And if a young reader (or much older one) is able to pick out the obvious allusions to Romulus, Remus, Rome, and Greece, and is interested enough to try Livy’s The History of Rome, so much the better. And for all the talk of the Fall of the Trigan Empire, that disaster is still many generations from Trigo the Mighty.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Black Incal

No, John DiFool, you understand nothing! I am not a computer. I am alive, just like you! And destiny has brought us together to restore justice to the universe.
 – The Incal

The 1980s saw the pages of Metal Hurlant and Heavy Metal filled the strange allegorical journey that is The Incal. Writer Alejandro Jodorowsky and artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud mixed together Dune, dystopia, and Californian pop spirituality to create a cosmic opera. From the first moment when readers plunged into the tale alongside John DiFool’s first fall into Suicide Alley, The Incal has influenced literature, comics, and the silver screen, even influencing the visuals of Star Wars.

The Incal is divided into six issues. The first, The Black Incal, starts with mystery and peril. Who threw John DiFool over the Suicide Alley railing and why? John is rescued mid-fall, not because of any intrinsic worth, but because he has utility to the police. Through a series of flashbacks through the seedy future-noir City Shaft, John reveals he has made petty enemies. What he doesn’t tell the police is that an alien gave him the crystal entity known as the Incal. After John returns to his home to find his pet bird suddenly giving messianic sermons to crowds, the Incal charges John with a mission:

Confront the Black Incal.

Whooaa! Slow down, Buddy! I’m just a Class “R” Private Detective. I’ve got nothing to do with justice!

Yes, John DiFool, which is why you must now let me transform you.

Certain ideas get hammered home with all the subtlety of a brick. Duality. Light Incal and Black Incal. DiFool and the Metabaron. City-Shaft and Technocity. It is an endless string of foils and resonances in service to pop-philosophy masquerading as spiritualism. John DiFool starts as nothing more than a cowardly appetite amusing himself to death in an uncaring city, unknowingly participating in his own emasculation and consistently flirting with suicide. The Incal’s enlightenment sends him on a New Age version of Pilgrim’s Progress, transforming the future bugman into something more human in the process. Along the way, DiFool faces a constant stream of enemies, including the heroic and noble Metabaron, the universe’s most famous mercenary and a mixture of Superman and Doc Savage. It’s a clumsy allegory worn on the sleeve, with names like DiFool not bothering to hide the parts each character plays. Worse, it is in the service of a discredited and ridiculed spirituality long discarded, akin to a modern scientist extoling the virtues of phlogiston. The result is a story that is more goofy than profound, paired with excellent comic art, complete with the ideal that dualism is an error and embracing both sides instead of the extreme is true virtue.

The Black Incal begins to rise above this with the arrival of the Metabaron, a hero straight from the pulps, who must apprehend DiFool or watch his son be killed before his eyes. Compared to to the swirling seas of Californian crystal madness, the melodramatic trap the Metabaron finds himself in is an anchor. Yet the theme of the obliteration of dualistic distinctions is placed on the board in the Metabaron’s androgyne “son”.

I dreamed I was flying in intergalactic space. A cosmic being formed by two superimposed pyramids, one black, the other white, was calling me. I moved toward it and found myself submerged in the center. We exploded. And that’s how my subconscious mind introduced me to “El Incal.” –Alejandro Jodorowsky

I have hammered hard on the 1980s New Age silliness. To be fair, The Incal is not alone in science fiction in treating spiritual and religious matters with irreverence and goofiness. Valerian and Laureline delved into similar shallowness with its take on the Holy Trinity. But The Black Incal reads as the first book in a transhumanistic gospel intended to be paired with the dystopian world our elites are trying to create. And the stench of “As above, so below” is upon it.

As for the art, Moebius is worthy of his reputation as a master. In The Black Incal, he was in his pulp speed phase, churning out a complete page every day, as opposed to the far more leisurely pace of most bandes dessinee artists. The result is an inconsistency in regards to character models that works to the benefit of each panel. And the Suicide Alley plunge had set the standard for every hive city and megapolis since. For once, a BD looks like a comic book instead of a sequential painting, and while I am appreciative of the high artistry in bandes dessinees, Moebius plays to the strengths of the comic style.

The Incal is one of a short list of comics that serve as the high water mark of the medium. Yet it is dated by its spirituality. If your tolerance for such things is high, the full Incal saga is available on Kindle Unlimited for free. Otherwise, to read a more palatable collaboration in the same setting, check out The Saga of the Meta-Barons instead.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Obscure Cities: The Great Walls of Samaris


They told me they needed me to go to Samaris, as the rumors had been going on too long…

…and the only way to put a stop to them was to send someone there to see what was really happening.

On a counter-Earth 180 degrees removed from our own, a young officer in service to the city of Xhystos, Franz Bauer, is given a mission of vital importance. He volunteers to go to the mysterious city of Samaris, thought by Xhystos to be the foreign source of the malaise affecting its culture. Many have been sent to the fabled Walls of Samaris, yet none have returned. Driven by ambition, Franz ignores the objections of his friends and sets out for Samaris.

Perhaps he should have listened.

Thus begins the first of the tales of Les Cités obscures, known now in English as The Obscure Cities, a multi-decade fantasy written by Benoît Peeters and drawn by François Schuiten. Sadly, most of the series of this classic French bande dessinee remains untranslated in English, and many of the translated volumes fall readily out of print. Scarcity has driven up the esteem of this series, both in English and in French, yet the quality matches its reputation through mixing gorgeous architecture in the backgrounds and philosophical storytelling. As Julian Darius wrote in his overview for the Sequart Organization:

But The Obscure Cities? It’s pretty much what Americans want French comics to be. Intoxicatingly beautiful. Elegant, even. Willing to experiment. And smart in a way that it’s easy to lose yourself in the rich resonance.

There is a bit of subtle wordplay hidden by translation to the title of The Obscure Cities. Like Franz Bauer, we see through to the meaning dimly, knowing and perceiving in part. While these regions are not well known, the original French has connotations of darkness, menace, and hiding. It’s a proper title for a story driven by one central, even paranoid, concern: what mystery lays in the heart of Samaris’s walls with its carnivorous plant heraldry?

Franz arrives to the wonder of Samaris, a walled city that can be seen on the horizon nearly two weeks before arriving. The city combines a vast sprawling footprint with a bizarre mix of architectural styles from different civilizations and eras. However, the high society is confined to a narrow, even homely, section of the city. Franz soon falls into a comfortable rut of socials and soirees, but little details keep worrying him.

Why were there never any children in Samaris? Why were so many doors blocked off? Why wasn’t there anything behind the shutters that I pried open?

Franz pokes and pries into these details until he breaks through the façade. Samaris is an empty mechanical city devoted to creating an illusion of civilization and society. Every single person he talked to since arriving had been a puppet or mechanism. To what end and why? Even Franz does not know. He did find a single book explaining Samaris, but much of its meaning remained obscured by metaphor. And like other forbidden books, what little knowledge Franz could gleam drives him mad. He manages to escape Samaris and return to Xhystos, however, what he finds when he returns is just as artificial and disturbing as Samaris.

In many ways, Samaris serves as a reflection of Xhystos. Whether it be the unsatisfying fakeness of high society or the impersonal mechanisms running the city, Franz finds analogues in both cities. While he is not satisfied in either location, Franz does prefer the one that casts the illusion of care, even as both cities mistreat him for their own purposes.

Franz also learns the traveler’s curse. As Sedulius of Liege wrote:

To go to Rome
is little profit, endless pain;
the master that you seek in Rome
you find at home or seek in vain.

Franz’s travels never let him escape the discontent with society that remained with him. And the constant attempts to escape thrust him into successively direr circumstances.

It is to Peeters’ credit that the investigation of Samaris provoke these and other observations about human nature through masterful use of contrast and structure. But words and dialogue are only part of the appeal of the Great Walls of Samaris. From the beginning, we are treated to wondrous cityscapes like the one below:

Schuiten’s love for architecture, instilled in his childhood, is on full display throughout the 46 pages. Instead of paintings, the illusion is of flipping through modeled blueprints on a drafting table. Straight lines and pronounced perspective abound, giving an almost mechanical feel to the clockwork city. The anachronistic European styles also add to the unsettling feel that grows throughout the story. When it comes time to draw the tracks, girders, and epicycles behind Samaris, Schuiten’s drafting-inspired art is an excellent match, and contrasts with the exterior facades. The artwork deserves lingering attention, just as the story provokes contemplation.

If you desire a tour of Samaris and the other Obscure Cities, try to find the recent IDW collections. Their translations are closer to the original French, and their version of Samaris also includes the Mysteries of Pahry, an early collection of stories from the Obscure Cities. But be warned:

Samaris has always been and will always be, like water that replenishes itself every day. It will seize the likeness of those it captures and make an effigy.