Monsters Who’s Who

It can be a mixed experience revisiting a piece of your childhood, equal parts joy and surprise.

I’ve been a fan of science fiction and horror and monsters ever since I was a kid in the early 1980s.  As I’ve mentioned before, I was definitely a geek.  I didn’t have many friends; instead most of my free time was taken up by books and movies and cartoons.

The school library at Davis Elementary in New Rochelle had a handful of books about monsters, the kinds from movies, the ones from myth, and the supposedly-real creatures hiding just out of sight.  These were a real pleasure for me, a momentary escape from the tedium of homework and book reports.

One of the books from the library was Monsters Who’s Who, published in 1974 by Crescent Books.  It was a huge illustrated encyclopedia containing profiles on a diverse selection of strange, scary beings… at least that’s how I remembered it.  I hadn’t seen that book in literally decades, but last week on a whim I decided to see if it happened to be on Amazon.  Much to my surprise there were quite a few used copies available dirt cheap.  I ordered one for a mere 84 cents… plus $3.99 shipping & handling.  You have to laugh when postage is more than four times what you’re paying for the book!

I was working in the lab late one night when my eyes beheld an eerie sight...
I was working in the lab late one night when my eyes beheld an eerie sight…

The book arrived in the mail, and with it were a couple of surprises.  The first was that it had a completely intact dust jacket.  I’d never seen the cover before; the school library copy was missing the jacket.  It’s actually a rather nice illustration.

As for the second surprise… hey, wasn’t this book much bigger?!?  When I was a kid Monsters Who’s Who seemed immense!  My memory of it was that it was a huge, thick volume.  Instead the reality is that it measures 11 by 8.5 inches and is only 122 pages.

Oh, yeah, after all these years I’ve finally learned just who wrote Monsters Who’s Who.  Seriously, there’s no author credit inside the book itself.  But the front flat of the dust jacket reveals that it was penned by none other than Dulan Barber!  Um, wait… who?!?  That has got to be a pseudonym.

Okay, putting aside my unreliable 30 year old memories of Monsters Who’s Who, it actually is a neat book.  I’m not at all surprised that I was so interested in it when I was a kid.  It contains a really diverse selection of subjects.  Yes, the write-ups are for the most part extremely short.  But the photos & illustrations are great.

Among the absolutely-fictional entities profiled in Monsters Who’s Who are such iconic figures as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Phantom of the Opera, King Kong and Godzilla.  A variety of mythological creatures including the Chimera, the Hydra, Medusa, the Sphinx and the Unicorn are also found in these pages.  Third, there are the real and possibly-real beings, such as dinosaurs, the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti.

Some of the profiles of mythical beasts are accompanied by very old artwork.  Very few of them are credited, regrettably, but they are certainly beautiful.  And occasionally you have an odd piece like this one…

Who's a good doggie? Who's a good boy?
Who’s a good doggie? Who’s a good boy?

This might have been the first occasion when I heard of Cerberus, the fearsome three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the Greek underworld.  Even at eight years old I found this illustration to be not so much fearsome as forlorn.  All three of Cerberus’ heads wear a sad expression, as if they want nothing more than to receive a nice tummy rub!

There are also a few comic book characters, specifically from the pages of Marvel Comics.  I had forgotten that Monsters Who’s Who was the first time I ever learned of the oddball Incredible Hulk character known as the Bi-Beast.  The Hulk himself also has a profile in the book.

Actually, the writer plays very fast & loose with the term “monster.”  The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man (spelled as “Spiderman”) have entries in this book.  Admittedly this does make a certain amount of sense.  The early Marvel universe devised by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko was definitely a weird, unsettling place populated by strange beings which did not neatly fall into the categories of “good” and “bad.”

Made it, Ma! Top of the world!
Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

There were also a few profiles of Doctor Who monsters!  Seriously, the timing of me discovering Monsters Who’s Who in the school library was perfect.  I’m not totally certain, but I think it was in 1984 when I was eight years old.  I had just started watching Doctor Who on PBS station WLIW Channel 21 only a couple of months before, first seeing the final season of Tom Baker and then the beginning of Peter Davison’s run.  Finding this book right on the heels of that helped me understand that the show had been around for quite a few years, and that the Doctor had fought some interesting monsters in the past.  I remember wondering if any of them would ever show up in the episodes I was now watching.

It must have been only a week or so later and I was at home one weeknight watching Doctor Who.  The TARDIS had landed in some dark caves.  A bunch of soldiers armed with ray guns were searching for something, not realizing that they were being hunted by these two mysterious androids.  Next thing you know the soldiers had come across the Doctor and his companions.  After the usual misunderstanding where they assumed the Doctor was their enemy, they joined forces when those androids showed up and started shooting.

And then the episode came to a completely shocking cliffhanger ending when the beings controlling the androids were revealed… at which point my eyes jumped out of my head.  Silver robot-like creatures with handles on the sides of their heads?  There’d been a photo of them in Monster Who’s Who, hadn’t there?  Oh, how I wished I had the book beside me at that moment!  The next day at school during lunch I broke land speed records getting to the library, grabbed Monsters Who’s Who off its bookshelf, and flipped rapidly through it.  Yes, it was them!  It was the Cybermen!

Destroy them! Destroy them at once!
Destroy them! Destroy them at once!

That was my very first Doctor Who related geek-out.  Obviously it left a major impression on me to remember it so vividly 32 years later.  I know I was equally thrilled when that night episode two of “Earthshock” aired on WLIW and contained actual clips from old Doctor Who stories.

I think that in the 21st Century we often take for granted the immense amount of information that we have at our fingertips.  Just hop on any computer, or turn on your smart phone, and within minutes you can Google any subject or look it up on Wikipedia.  You can download old movies and television shows with little effort.  It’s very easy to forget how things were in the pre-digital, pre-internet age, when discovering a book like Monsters Who’s Who was like unearthing a geek goldmine.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to start with one of those “when I was your age” tirades.  I am not that bad.  Well, at least not yet!  Nevertheless it is nice to recall some of my more pleasant childhood memories.  Just me and some monsters taking a stroll thru the past.

The Omega Men by Roger Slifer, part two

Here is the second part of my look at Roger Slifer’s run on the DC Comics science fiction series The Omega Men.  (And here’s a link back to part one.)

Previously the tyrannical Citadel, which brutally ruled Vegan star system, was overthrown in an assault headed by Tigorr of the Omega Men.  As issue #8 opens, the inhabitants of Vega’s 22 worlds are celebrating their newly-won freedom.

Omega Men 8 cover

While the various members of the Omega Men begin to adjust to the idea of victory, the enigmatic human criminal Harry Hokum is working behind the scenes to take advantage of the chaos.  He decides that the former figurehead leader of the Citidel would make an ideal puppet ruler.  Guiding him, Hokum quickly begins organizing the surviving Citadel factions, rebuilding the fallen alliance with amazing speed.

It is quite interesting to see what Slifer is doing in these issues.  It is a common theme in sci-fi and space opera to have a resistance movement fighting a desperate battle against a ruthless dictatorship.  What you see much less seldom is the eventual outcome of such struggles.  What happens after you overthrow the evil empire?

As was demonstrated on numerous occasions in the real world throughout the 20th Century, more often than not when a totalitarian regime is overthrown, it is not replaced by a stable democracy.  Instead, another dictatorship steps in to take its place.  Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran… all of them saw one form of oppression supplanted by another.  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, as the saying goes.  And in cases where that did not occur, the other likely outcome was complete disorder.  Just look at Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya within the last decade and a half.

Slifer obviously wanted to look at how the Omega Men would attempt to stabilize the Vegan system which, after decades of Citadel rule, is now in disarray.  Tigorr was so concerned with topping the Citadel as quickly as possible that he did not consider what would happen next.  The result is that the Omegans are caught completely off-guard when the charismatic Hokum begins consolidating power.

Omega Men 8 pg 18

The new Citadel is, in certain ways, more dangerous than the old one.  As was previously revealed, the First Citadelian made his regime so totally vicious because he wanted to drag the entire Vegan system down to his level of violence & ruthlessness.  In contrast, Hokum is not interested in proving a point.  He wants to rule over a stable empire.  Instead of merely relying on brutality, he also utilizes guile and deception, weapons which are much more difficult to detect and to fight back against.

Slifer addresses the question of what freedom really means.  I think that here in Western society we take for granted that freedom is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Many of us do not give it too much thought.  But for other cultures and societies, freedom is a very different concept.

In the real world the question has often been asked of what to do when a tyrant is elected by democratic means.  If outside forces disapprove and decide to overthrow that dictator, in the process are they not taking away that country’s freedom to decide its own destiny?  Slifer has the Omega Men facing that very question when several Vegan worlds voluntarily join Hokum’s new Citadel, lured by promises of order & security.

The question is also explored on a more personal level by Slifer via the character of Broot.  He is still haunted by grief and uncertainty following the tragedy he unwittingly caused on his home planet of Changralyn.  Broot realizes that the lull in hostilities finally gives him the opportunity to search for his wife Kattayan, who was taken by the Gordanian slavers years before.

Broot tracks his wife to a harsh planetoid.  It is here that all of the children seized from Changralyn by the Gordaians have been taken, to spend the rest of their lives in brutal toil, mining valuable minerals under extremely dangerous conditions.

Broot is aghast to see these children relegated to this fate, and disgusted that they have embraced his society’s religion of extreme nonviolence, passively accepting their roles.  He is also shocked to discover that Kattayan has been teaching the children to follow that faith.

Omega Men 13 pg 9

At first Broot desperately wants to take his wife and the children away from their desolate existence.  He attempts to convey to them the vast possibilities of life:

“It is easy to choose the simple path, to take the path of least resistance in living your lives. But in the end they are empty lives, enriching neither yourselves nor your spirit. Each one of you needs to learn to look beyond your present lives, to the true potentialities of the universe. And of your true potentialities.”

In response, the children tell him that this is the only life they have known, that in their own way they are happy here, and that they do not know how they would exist in the vast universe outside.  Broot realizes that just as he will not allow others to dictate his own individual path, neither can he force these children to conform to his idea of freedom.  He has extended to them the choice to leave, and he must respect their decision even though he disagrees with it.

Slifer also focuses on Kalista, wife of the Omegan leader Primus.  After Tigorr’s victory over the Citadel, Kalista is preparing to resume her role of monarch of Euphorix.  She had only reluctantly given up the throne as part of a deal with the opportunistic Alonzo Dulak.

In exchange for Kalista letting him assume control of Euphorix, Dulak erected an energy shield around the planet, preventing the Citadel from conquering it.  Although this has spared her world the ravages of war, Kalista is nevertheless eager to resume her role as queen as quickly as possible, as she finds Dulak untrustworthy.  Indeed, we see that Dulak is quite the autocrat.  Under his rule Euphorix has adopted zero tolerance broken windows policing, as an unfortunate pair of litterbugs discover when they are summarily vaporized.

Once hostilities break out again, and the revived Citadel attacks the now-defenseless Euphorix, Primus and Kalista find themselves at odds.  Primus is determined the attempt to salvage the peace in Vega.  Kalista, however, is now primarily concerned with her home planet.  She informs Primus that she intends to raise the energy shield again, this time permanently, and that if he will not join her on Euphorix then she is ready to end their marriage.

Omega Men 12 pg 6

Kalista is faced with a painful dilemma, between her planet and her husband.  Although her ultimate decision to safeguard Euphorix and abandon both Primus and the rest of the Vegan system seems cold, it is clear that the decision is a difficult one for her.  As the queen of Euphorix, she genuinely regards herself as the servant of her people, and perceives it as her duty to protect them, even if it means sacrificing her happiness.  For Kalista, the freedom of her people is paramount to her own.

In issue #11 Slifer looks at the origins of Harpis and her now-deceased sister, the treacherous Demonia.  They were both prostitutes in an upscale bordello on the planet Raggashoon.  Harpis was extremely good at her job, bringing pleasure and comfort to her many clients.  But her existence then came crashing down as a result of the machination of the Citadel officer Komand’r, aka Blackfire, the older sister of Starfire from the New Teen Titans.  The sadistic Blackfire forces several of the prostitutes, including Harpis and Demonia, to undergo genetic manipulation, transforming them into concubines for her various alien lieutenants as a way of cementing their loyalty.

As written by Slifer, Harpis is very much a victim.  She is constantly being manipulated, either by her sister or by the Citadel.  Harpis relies on others for strength, unable to find it within herself.  In the present, severely wounded by the bounty hunter Bedlam and learning of her sister’s death, Harpis is completely distraught.

I wish that Slifer had made Harpis an emotionally stronger character.  I feel that her backstory has not aged well, and that three decades later, when assertive female protagonists are fortunately much more commonplace, Harpis’ weakness seems even more apparent.  Perhaps it is a bit unfair to judge Slifer’s writing in this way.  After all, he did write Kalista as a strong individual.  As in real life, not everyone, be they male or female, is going to end up being assertive and independent.

Omega Men 11 pg 14

Lobo the bounty hunter returns to the pages of The Omega Men, this time as an ally of the Omegans.  Slifer appears to have recognized the character’s potential popularity early on.

Of course, given that Lobo was introduced as a brutal sadist, it would have been ridiculous for him to suddenly turn heroic.  The mercenary joins forces with the Omega Men because he feels that the Citadel did not uphold their end of their bargain with him.  Lobo also finds it highly amusing that the Omega Men, despite their disgust for him, are forced to enlist his services.  At the end of issue #9, Primus realizes that he has no idea how to effectively fight Harry Hokum’s new, manipulative incarnation of the Citadel.  Reluctantly Primus approaches Lobo and acknowledges “We need someone as twisted as they are.”  Lobo, of course, chuckles at this admission.

In these bleak stories, Slifer obviously realized that a certain amount of humor was needed in order to keep the series from becoming a depressing slog.  Lobo provides some of that humor, albeit once again of an extremely macabre type.  Slifer also continues to utilize the Omega Man known as Shlagen.  The goofy-looking yellow-hued member of the Omegans is a technician, not a warrior, and he is constantly finding himself in over his head.  Shlagen is definitely not the bravest of individuals, to say the least, and his reluctant, bumbling heroism certainly helps to lighten the stories.

Slifer also generates comedy via the interactions of Lobo and Shlagen, who are complete opposites.  Shlagen was the first character to encounter Lobo back in issue #3, and he only survived because the bounty hunter didn’t feel like killing him.  Since then, Shlagen keeps bumping into Lobo over and over again, much to the former’s alarmed consternation and the latter’s twisted amusement.

Omega Men 9 pg 9

If there is one significant weakness to Slifer’s work it is that he never seemed to find a way to balance out the huge cast of characters.  Various regulars disappear for several issues at a time.  I guess that not every writer can be a Paul Levitz or a Chris Claremont and excel at juggling large casts of characters and multiple plotlines.

The art team on The Omega Men #s 8-13 is penciler Tod Smith and inker / embellisher Mike DeCarlo.  They do excellent work throughout these issues, demonstrating genuine versatility.

Slifer’s stories featured some previously unexplored inhabitants and worlds of the Vegan system, and the art by Smith & DeCarlo really brings these exotic, alien creations to life.  They expertly illustrate the various action sequences.  They also do effective work rendering the quieter character moments.  And in the moments of comedy, they successfully bring Slifer’s humor to life.  Smith & DeCarlo are especially good at depicting Shlagen’s misadventures throughout these issues.

Slifer’s run came to an abrupt end with issue #13.  In the letter column, Slifer wrote “Because of irreconcilable differences between myself and DC, this will be the last issue of The Omega Men written by me.”

It is unfortunate that Slifer had to depart the book.  In his year on the series he did spectacular character development and world-building while telling exciting & challenging stories.  It would have been interesting to see where he would have gone from this point, exploring the fractured alliances of the Omega Men and the resurgence of the Citadel.  I wonder if he would have eventually revealed who Harry Hokum was , since the character literally showed up out of nowhere in issue #3.  At least in his final story Slifer was able to conclude the story arc he began with Broot a year earlier, providing the character with closure and peace of mind.

I regret that it took Roger Slifer’s recent untimely death to motivate me to re-read these first 13 issues of The Omega Men.  Looking through them, it is apparent that he was a talented, imaginative, thoughtful writer.

The Omega Men by Roger Slifer, part one

Roger Slifer, a writer and editor at Marvel and DC Comics in the 1970s and 80s, passed away on March 30th at the age of 60 due to complications from injuries sustained in a hit & run accident in 2012.  Slifer contributed to a number of titles during his time in the biz.  His longest run was the first 13 issues of The Omega Men, a science fiction / space opera series published by DC in the early 80s.

The Omega Men made their first appearances in Green Lantern #141-144 (1983) created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Joe Staton.  They were known as “Omega Men” because they were among the last free inhabitants of the 22 planet Vegan solar system (which is not, as far as I know, the home of the veggie burger).  Vega was ruled with an iron hand by the brutal Citadel, and the Omega Men were a desperate group of freedom fighters struggling to overthrow them.  Wolfman connected the Omega Men to some of the backstory elements of his super-successful New Teen Titans series.  Starfire’s home planet of Tamaran was in Vega, and her origin involved the Citadel’s occupation of her world.

Omega Men 1 cover

When The Omega Men series made its debut in April 1983 Wolfman served as the book’s editor.  Slifer was paired with co-plotter & penciler Keith Giffen and inker Mike DeCarlo.

I must have picked up most of the back issues of The Omega Men in the 1990s, and probably haven’t given them much of a look since then.  Re-reading Slifer’s run over the past week I was struck by just how sophisticated his writing was, how he tackled genuinely difficult questions.  I guess that the same story can appear quite different to someone in their late 30s than when they initially read it in their early 20s.

The series was published without Comics Code Authority approval.  Slifer ramped up the violence, depicting the brutal costs involved in fighting a war against an intractable, savage enemy.  The Omega Men was “grim & gritty” before that term was coined, but Slifer definitely did not glamorize violence.  He utilized the conflict to explore philosophical & political issues.

Working off the dynamics set up by Wolfman in the Green Lantern issues, Slifer quickly establishes the Omega Men as a group very much at odds with itself.  Comprised of refugees from numerous different worlds, the Omegans have different viewpoints and are frequently seen clashing over how to conduct the war against the Citadel.  The only thing uniting them is a common enemy.  They are in as much danger of collapsing from within as being defeated from without.

The internal conflicts of the group are epitomized by Primus and Tigorr.  Primus is the leader of the Omega Men, and he approaches the war with the Citadel with caution, carefully mapping out the group’s strategies, hoping to slowly erode the enemy’s strength with a series of small but crucial victories.  The feline Tigorr, on the other hand, is hotheaded, a born fighter.  He wants to throw caution to the wind and mount a bold surprise offensive against the heart of the Citadel.  Primus and Tigorr are constantly arguing over strategy.

Omega Men 1 pg 8

The thing is, both of them are correct, and both are also wrong.  Sometimes their struggle with the Citadel requires methodically-planned maneuvers, and at other times a bold charge against the enemy is what’s called for.  On occasion Primus is shown to be indecisive and hesitant, while Tigorr is capable of being dangerously rash and impulsive.  What these two men need to do is sit down and develop a plan of battle that encompasses the strengths of both their approaches.  Instead, Slifer demonstrates that both Primus and Tigorr are too stubborn to do that.  Each is convinced that he should be leading the Omega Men, that the other is foolhardy.  As a result, the Omegans are almost fatally undermined when their teammate Demonia betrays them to the Citadel and manipulates Primus and Tigorr into fighting one another.

Slifer also addresses the question of whether or not violence is a productive solution by exploring the history of Broot, the Omegans’ massive grey-skinned strongman.  Primus decides to travel to Broot’s home planet Changralyn in an attempt to ally with the populace, despite Broot’s efforts to try to explain that he will be unsuccessful.  Primus and the other Omegans are shocked to discover that the entire culture of Changralyn revolves around pacifism.  They are fanatical in their adherence to non-violence, convinced that any act of aggression will inevitably bring about a horrible cosmic retribution.

Years before when the Citadel’s forces first landed on Changralyn the populace agreed to regularly give over a number of their children to the Gordanian slave traders in exchange for peace.  Broot, the only one to question his people’s religion in centuries, resisted and tried to prevent his son from being taken.  The Citadel responded with force, Broot’s son was killed, and he & his wife were taken along with the children by the Gordanians.  Since that day, Broot’s people have regarded him as a monstrous heretic.

Now back on Changralyn for the first time since then, Broot once again witnesses the Gordanians taking a selection of children to be used as slaves.  Reminded of his son, Broot snaps and slaughters them all.  In response, the Citadel’s orbiting forces drop a neutron bomb on the nearest city, murdering thousands.

Omega Men 2 pg 8

Slifer demonstrates that sometimes the choice between pacifism and violence is not a clear-cut one, that there can be negative consequences to both paths.  The non-violence by the people of Changralyn led them into slavery.  When Broot resisted, the result was that his people, instead of being subjugated, were slaughtered.  It is a no-win situation which leaves Broot devastated, gripped by paralyzing uncertainty.

Following on from the tragic journey to Changralyn and Demonia’s betrayal, Tigorr takes control of the Omega Men while a severely wounded Primus is recuperating.  Tigorr and his followers launch a frontal assault against the Citadel.  As word spreads of Tigorr’s battle through the solar system, revolts break out across Vega.  Most are brutally crushed, but enough resistance fighters make it to spacecraft and rendezvous with Tigorr to aid him in his assault on the Citadel’s home base.

Issue #6 sees the final assault against the Citadel.  Tigorr comes face-to-face with the true ruler of the empire, a once-living being now merged with a massive computer complex.  Tigorr then learns that the First Citadelian’s ultimate goal was not the conquest of Vega, but its corruption…

“I am the personification of aggression. Until I existed, the Vegan star system was pure, without aggression.  But I corrupted it – I corrupted it all!  Even you, who claim to want peace, have been driven to fight – to kill – for what you seek.”

The First Citadelian created a regime so unrelentingly brutal & savage that the only recourse for the inhabitants of Vega was to also embrace violence in order to defeat it.  The Citadel’s atrocities have been so horrific and widespread that the inhabitants of Vega are now consumed by hatred for their rulers, willing to go to any lengths to not just overthrow them but to achieve retribution.  The First Citadelian regards his destruction as a victory, for in order to attain it the peoples of Vega were forced to descend to his level.

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Issue #7 is by Slifer, DeCarlo and incoming penciler Tod Smith.  The First Citadelian, his computer intelligence quickly fading, reveals to the Omega Men the origins of the Vegan system, its goddess X’Hal, and the Citadel itself.  These revelations are horrific.

The First Citadelian explains that eons before the Psions, a group of scientists completely without morality, discovered there were two species within the Vegan system.  One was the Okaarans, a race to whom the concept of violence was totally foreign; the other was the Branx, who were “the embodiment of unbridled aggression.”

Fascinated by these diametric opposites, the Psions become obsessed with determining the true dominant trait in the universe, peace or violence.  They enact a grotesque plan: they kidnap the innocent X’Hal from Okaara and numerous warriors from Branx.  One by one, they set the Branx warriors loose on X’Hal, clinically observing her being raped repeatedly until she is finally pregnant, all so that they can learn whether the offspring of these two disparate species will epitomize love or war.

(I was definitely disturbed by this aspect of Slifer’s story.  It’s odd that I did not remember it from reading this issue years ago, and that it did not spur any unsettled reactions on my part.  It’s similar to what I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, how as a teenager I wasn’t especially bothered by what the Joker did to Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, other than the fact that she was paralyzed and could no longer be Batgirl, but nowadays I am uncomfortable with that part.  I really do wonder if Slifer should have approached this part of his story differently.)

To the Psions’ surprise X’Hal gives birth to two children, one that appears Okaaran, the other that looks even more grotesque than the Branx.  The once-peaceful X’Hal, traumatized by months of abuse, finally snaps and stabs the Branx warrior that impregnated her.  Before it dies, the creature breaks her neck.  The Psions are alarmed that this will mean the end of their experiment since they do not know how to care for the two infants, and they frantically attempt to revive X’Hal.

Converting X’Hal to pure energy in the hopes of preserving her mind, the Psions unwittingly cause her ascension to godhood.  The empowered X’Hal grabs hold her two children and vengefully destroys her tormentors.  She returns to Okarra to raise them, but her innocence has been lost, and she is subject to violent mood swings.  One of her sons grows to become the Omegan named Auron.  The other, a victim of his Branx nature, feels completely alienated from the Okaaran people.  This son begins to fan the flames of aggression within the Okaarans, introducing conflict the formerly peaceful world, conflict that inevitably escalates.

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Eventually the Okaarans nearly destroy themselves in a nuclear holocaust.  They blame X’Hal’s son, who they perceive as a corruptor.  Banished from Okaara, the son becomes the First Citadelian.  He makes it his life’s mission to prove that he was not unique, to demonstrate to all the races that had now grown throughout Vega that within each and every one of them was the potential to become a violent monster.  The First Citadelian is convinced that he has accomplished that.  He tells the Omega Men…

“The Okaarans sought to exile me, thinking I was the cancer that rotted their souls.  I was not a cancer but a harsh light, illuminating the lie within themselves.  And you, by killing me, showed only that you, like all the rest, want the power to decide for others.  Just like me.”

With that the First Citadelian dies.  Tigorr is convinced that the founder of the Citadel is full of it.  As far as Tigorr is concerned, he did what was necessary to finally free the Vegan system from tyranny.

Of course that was not Slifer’s last word on the subject.  In the next few issues he would examine in-depth the fall-out from the overthrow of the Citadel.

A look at the first seven issues of The Omega Men would not be complete, though, without mentioning Lobo.   The ultra-violent alien bounty hunter makes his debut in the pages of issue #3.  Devised by Slifer & Giffen, Lobo and his partner, the equally depraved Bedlam, are hired by the brutish figurehead ruler of the Citadel and his human advisor, the mysterious Harry Hokum.  Lobo and Bedlam kidnap the Omegans’ co-leader Kalista so that the Citadel can suck from her mind the knowledge needed to penetrate the energy shield protecting her home planet of Euphorix.  In the process the mercenary pair cut a bloody swathe through several of Kalista’s compatriots.

Despite the serious subject matter of these issues, with Lobo and Bedlam we see that Slifer & Giffen do have a more lighthearted side to their work, although that sense of humor is certainly very dark & sardonic.

Omega Men 3 pg 13 Humbek

Issue #3 sees the all-too-brief career of the Omegan known as Humbek, a political cartoonist exiled by the Citadel for his “subversive” work.  If Humbek’s name & appearance seem a bit familiar that is because he is a caricature of comic book humorist Fred Hembeck.  Even Humbek’s cursing is no doubt a nod to the Dateline:@#$% strips by Hembeck that ran in the Comics Buyers Guide.

Two pages after Humbeck’s debut, we are introduced to Lobo and Bedlam, as seen below.  Yes, that is Lobo in the orange & purple spandex.  What do you want?  It was the early 1980s after all!  I’m sure we all have occasions in our past when we embraced unfortunate fashion trends.  It seems even the Main Man isn’t immune to that sort of lapse in judgment.

Right from the start, though, Lobo definitely possessed his sick sense of humor and fondness for extreme violence.  Slifer & Giffen bestow upon Fred Hembeck, via his alien stand-in Humbek, the honor of being the very first character to ever be killed by Lobo in print.  Of course it is a spectacularly gruesome demines.  Yipes, that’s gotta hurt!

Omega Men 3 pg 15 Lobo intro

The artwork on these issues is certainly good.  I liked the team of Giffen & DeCarlo, who did good work depicting the warfare as well as the quieter character moments.  Giffen’s storytelling on these issues is very dynamic.  On his last two issues Giffen was only doing rough layouts.  DeCarlo’s finishes over these are very good.  His embellishment suits the high-stakes battle sequences.  Coming onboard with issue #7, Smith does good work rendering of the secret history of the Vega system.  His penciling has a rich amount of detail in these flashback sequences.  Once again, DeCarlo’s inking is strong.

Time permitting I will hopefully be taking a look at the second half of Roger Slifer’s run on The Omega Men in the near future.

UPDATE:  Here is a link to part two.

Leonard Nimoy: 1931 to 2015

Leonard Nimoy passed away on February 27th at the age of 83.  It’s odd when someone you literally grew up watching on television and in movies dies.  In the last two days others have written extensively about Nimoy’s numerous, varied accomplishments throughout the decades.  I would certainly recommend taking a look at the piece by Darren at the m0vie blog.  Darren has written some of the most insightful, intelligent reviews of Star Trek that I have ever come across, so of course he offers a worthy appraisal of Nimoy’s life & career.

For my part, I am going to just offer some brief thoughts on Nimoy’s amazing portrayal of the character of Spock on the various incarnations of Star Trek, the science fiction series created by Gene Roddenberry and developed by a variety of talented writers such as Gene L. Coon & D.C. Fontana.

Star Trek VI Spock

Leonard Nimoy did amazing work bringing Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human First Officer of the Starship Enterprise, to life. The original Star Trek was broadcast from 1966 to 1969.  This was an era when television series were extremely episodic, characterization was one-dimensional, and there weren’t any sort of extended arcs that developed long-term subplots or depicted the evolution of the characters over a period of time.  Within these constraints, during three wildly uneven seasons of Star Trek, Nimoy nevertheless succeeded in communicating the continuing struggles of Spock to reconcile his Vulcan and human backgrounds, to adhere to the Vulcan ideal of non-emotion while finding a place among a crew of highly emotional human beings.  Spock was in a number of ways the perennial outsider.  He was a character who I expect a great many viewers could identify with.

The chemistry between the three leads in Star Trek was very apparent.  Nimoy as Spock, William Shatner as Captain Kirk and DeForest Kelley as Doctor McCoy all possessed an excellent rapport.  Whereas Spock represented logic, McCoy was the personification of human sentiment, of acting upon feeling, and the two had a very contentious friendship.  It fell to Kirk to listen to Spock and McCoy’s two disparate world views and to strive to find the correct balance between intellect and emotion that was necessary to resolve each episode’s crisis.

Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock was often very moving.  Certain moments invariably stand out, such as from “The Devil in the Dark” written by Gene L. Coon, broadcast on March 9, 1967.  That episode was one of the best examples of Roddenberry’s hopes for a future where humanity would learn to embrace tolerance, understanding and open-mindedness.  Coon’s script sees the Enterprise crew working to prevent a mysterious, deadly alien from destroying the Janus VI mining colony.  As the episode progresses, we learn that the Horta is no savage, mindless killer.  Rather, it is a mother attempting to prevent the accidental destruction of her nests of eggs by the miners.

Spock’s mind meld with the Horta, when the truth about the entity is uncovered, is one of the most iconic moments from the original Star Trek.  Nimoy’s acting in it was an absolutely crucial component in making this scene genuinely believable, in helping to convince the audience that a living rock pile that resembled a giant pizza pie was a thinking, feeling, sentient being.  It is one of the best examples I know of where intelligent writing and quality acting more than overcame the hurtles of primitive special effects and a shoestring budget.

Just a week ago I was watching “The Enterprise Incident” written by D.C. Fontana, originally broadcast September 27, 1968.  I think that “The Enterprise Incident” is one of the most morally complex, cynical episodes of the original Star Trek.  Fontana’s script sees Starfleet sending Kirk and Spock on a covert mission to steal a cloaking device from the Romulans.  In the process they violate the treaty with the Romulan Empire and engage in overt acts of espionage.

(There are some fans of the series who believe that the sixth Star Trek movie and the 1990s spin-off series Deep Space Nine portrayed Starfleet and the Federation in an unfavorable light contrary to Roddenberry’s original intentions.  I would argue that certain episodes of the original series such as “The Enterprise Incident” demonstrated that there was always a morally ambiguous, harshly pragmatic side to those institutions.)

Star Trek The Enterprise Incident

“The Enterprise Incident” features one of Nimoy’s best performances from the original series. Spock’s stoic devotion to logic and duty is apparent in his carrying out his orders and performing Starfleet’s dirty work.  At the end you also witness the tangible regret that he feels at having been required to assume the devious role of a spy & double agent, in deceiving the Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville), who he had developed a genuine fondness for, in order to help Starfleet achieve its goals.  At the end, reflecting on how all of Starfleet’s machinations have probably only achieved a temporary strategic advantage, Spock acknowledges to the Romulan Commander “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all. I hope that you and I exchanged something more permanent.”  Nimoy’s delivery of the line was very effective and thoughtful.

Nimoy’s wonderful portrayal of Spock continued within the Star Trek movies. Spock’s striving towards the purging of all emotion, only to realize the emptiness of pure logic, was one of the few strong points in the uneven Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Although his character was not a central focus in The Wrath of Khan, Spock’s sacrifice the save the Enterprise at the end of was incredibly moving.  Under the superb direction of Nicholas Meyer, Nimoy and Shatner played the scene perfectly.

Nimoy slipped into the director’s chair for the third and fourth movies, doing quality work.  In the later, The Voyage Home, Nimoy’s performance as the resurrected Spock, once again seeking to find the balance between his dual heritages, was very good.  Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country saw the characters of Spock and Kirk at odds with one another over the possibility of a future where the Federation and the Klingon Empire could be at peace.  Once again directed by Meyer, both Nimoy and Shatner turned in solid performances as Spock and Kirk contemplated the idea of growing old, and of the universe moving on without them.

On a more personal note, as someone who is Jewish, as a child I remember being pleasantly surprised when I learned that Leonard Nimoy was of that faith.  Nimoy very much embraced his heritage, and was proud of his Judaism.  Yet he never let that pride blind him.  He recognized the importance of people from different backgrounds working to find common ground and understanding.  As the co-writer of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Nimoy was inspired by looking at the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the hostility between Israel and the Arab nations of the Middle East, and by his hope that these different peoples could one day learn to peacefully co-exist.

Nimoy’s character Spock often expressed the sentiment “Live long and prosper.”  Those are certainly words that Nimoy himself lived by.  He will be missed.

God is a jerk: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus

Michele recently took out from the library the DVD of the 2012 movie Prometheus directed by Ridley Scott.  Neither of us had seen it before, and it turned out to be quite good.  It also transpires that next month Dark Horse will be releasing the first issue of Prometheus: Fire and Stone, a miniseries which follows on from the events of the movie.  So, yeah, good timing on Michele’s part!  Since that Dark Horse comic book is in the pipeline, now is an ideal time to look at the original movie.

Prometheus is written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.  It is set in the same fictional universe as the Alien film series, the first installment of which Ridley Scott directed in 1979.  It is not, strictly speaking, a prequel, but it does tie in with some of heretofore unexplained background elements of that first film.

Prometheus poster

Set at the end of the 21st Century, Prometheus is the story of an expedition to discover the origins of humanity.  Having located identical star charts among the ruins of numerous ancient Earth civilizations across the globe, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe that these are guides to the home world of an extraterrestrial race who created mankind, beings who Shaw refers to as “Engineers.”  The two convince the elderly, dying trillionaire industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) to finance an expedition to the Engineers’ planet.  Shaw and Holloway, accompanied by a group of scientists and archeologists, embark aboard the spaceship Prometheus, named after the mythical figure.  The expedition is headed up by the icy corporate executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Weyland’s android “son” David (Michael Fassbender), and the world-weary ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba).

Prometheus addresses the relationship between human beings and their creator, an idea previously broached in Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner.  Shaw and Holloway are scientists and explorers, but underneath their search for facts and knowledge is a yearning to find the answer to one of the oldest questions in the world: Why are we here?

After arriving on the planet, Holloway is despondent to find it is a barren, inhospitable place, with all the Engineers long dead under mysterious circumstances.  He is like a man who has lost his faith, discovering his god is a falsehood, a lie.  Naturally enough, he decides to hit the bottle.  While Holloway is busy drinking away his ills, the android David approaches…

David: I’m very sorry that your Engineers are all gone, Dr. Holloway.

Holloway: You think we wasted our time coming here, don’t you?

David: Your question depends on the understanding, what you hope to achieve by coming here?

Holloway: What we hope to achieve? Well, it’s to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they…why they even made us in the first place.

David: Why do you think your people made me?

Holloway: We made you ‘cause we could.

David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?

Michael Fassbender plays a replicant in Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

A short time later, a now-drunk Holloway makes his way back to the room he shares with Shaw, with whom he is romantically involved.  Still despondent, he begins to question Shaw’s faith…

Holloway: I guess you can take your father’s cross off now.

Shaw: Why would I wanna do that?

Holloway: Because they made us.

Shaw: And who made them?

Holloway: Well, exactly. We’ll never know. But here’s what we do know, that there is nothing special about the creation of life. Right? Anybody can do it. I mean, all you need is a dash of DNA and half a brain, right?

The Engineers are, in many respects, a challenge to faith, and to humanity’s sense of identity.  Searching through the catacombs of the planet, the scientists discover stockpiles of bio-weapons and containers of mutagenic black slime.  David accesses the Engineers’ computers, and learns that the entire complex is one giant spaceship.  It was set to travel on a course for Earth, where the Engineers were going to unleash their lethal cargo.  It is Captain Janek who finally connects all the pieces and presents them to Shaw:

“You know what this place is? Those, uh, Engineers, this ain’t their home. It’s an installation, maybe even military. They put it out here in the middle of nowhere, because they’re not stupid enough to make weapons of mass destruction on their own doorstep. That’s what all that shit is in those vases! They made it here, it got out! It turned on ’em! The end! It’s time for us to go home.”

And now it is Shaw’s turn to waver in her faith.  Determined to find answers, she explains to David “They created us. Then they tried to kill us. They changed their minds. I deserve to know why.”

Prometheus Noomi Rapace and Idris Elba

Imagine having met your makers, only to find that they were seemingly complete bastards, entities who engineered virulently lethal organic weapons, who plotted genocide against the human race.  Confronted by that, you might very well ask “God, why have you forsaken me?”  Or, if you wanted to put it more bluntly, “God is a jerk!” not to mention a few other choice words, I imagine.

That contentious relationship, the struggle between creator and creation, actually plays out throughout the movie.  In addition to looking at it on the level of species, it is seen in the interaction between parents and children.  Shaw is very much motivated by the death of her parents, and by her father’s faith.  Her infertility, her inability to conceive, weighs upon her.  As someone who wishes she could have children, perhaps she is appalled at how the Engineers are acting towards their figurative offspring.

The abrasive, no-nonsense Meredith Vickers is also troubled by familial relations.  We eventually learn that she is the daughter of Weyland.  And once this is revealed, much about Vickers makes sense.  It is obvious that her father views his android creation David as much more of a child and heir than he does her.  Vickers also holds tremendous resentment that Weyland desires to use the technology of the Engineers to extend his life indefinitely, thereby robbing her of her inheritance, her succession to rulership of her father’s corporate empire.  Witnessing the dysfunctional relationship between Vickers and Weyland, it is not surprising that David concludes “doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”

After I was done watching Prometheus, the wheels in my head started to turn, pondering various questions.

There is a prologue to the film where one of the Engineers is on Earth, standing atop a massive waterfall.  He opens a vial of dark liquid and drinks it.  His body begins to disintegrate and he plunges into the water, where a chemical reaction begins to take place.  I wasn’t sure what that meant, but subsequently reading over various comments on the Internet, it seems that this was supposed to be the moment when humanity’s creation was initiated, that this Engineer sacrificed his life to give us ours.

If that is so, then the title of the movie provides a possible answer to Shaw’s question of “why.”  In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole heavenly fire from the gods of Olympus and gave it to primitive man, enabling human civilization to develop & advance.  Zeus punished Prometheus for this by chaining him to the face of a mountain for all eternity, among other torments, depending upon the particular version of the myth you read.

There is a school of thought that many of the stories in mythology and religion are inspired by or based upon actual historical events.  Perhaps the Engineer who we see at the beginning of the movie was a Prometheus-like figure who absconded with the bio-technology of his people and traveled to earth, where he used it to create humanity.  If that is the case, then the remaining Engineers would likely regard the existence of humans as a mistake or a crime.  This would certainly explain why they decided to wipe out mankind.

However, a second, darker possibility also occurred to me.  What if humanity is yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers?  After all, we possess a remarkable propensity and aptitude for violence.  Perhaps the Engineers came to perceive us as much too effective a creation, one that was beyond control, one that would one day develop the technology to journey to the stars and pose a direct threat to them.  That would be a very good motivation for them wanting to see mankind destroyed.

Supposition and deduction aside, the film leaves the motives of the Engineers quite inscrutable.  But it does offer up some answers regarding the film that inspired it.

Alien Space Jockey

Anyone who has seen the original Alien will no doubt remember the bizarre extraterrestrial skeleton sitting in a strange cockpit aboard the massive spacecraft that contained the nest of eggs from which the “Facehuggers” hatch.  That unidentified mummified figure was nicknamed “the Space Jockey,” and for years many viewers, myself included, wondered who or what it was.  In Prometheus we find out the Space Jockey was one of the Engineers, clad in its elephantine space helmet.  It seems very likely that the Facehuggers and the Xenomorphs they spawn are yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers, and that the spaceship transporting them crash-landed on planet LV-426, where it was eventually discovered by the crew of the Nostromo.  At the very end of Prometheus we even get a glimpse of a creature very similar to a Xenomorph which has been created by the black slime, demonstrating that the bio-technology is closely related.

I don’t recall if it was ever stated in what year Alien took place, but it seems likely that it is set decades, if not centuries, after Prometheus.  This leads to some apparent anachronisms, as the technology possessed by humanity appears to be far in advance of what was on display in the Alien and its various sequels.  Obviously the reason for this is that the special effects that Ridley Scott and his crew had access to in 2012 were far better than what he had available in 1979!  But if you’re looking for some sort of in-universe explanation why the Prometheus spacecraft is so much more technologically advanced than the Nostromo, well, maybe there was a galactic recession or a massive war that took place between the two films.  Feel free to come up with your own rationale if you want to!

It’s worth noting that Prometheus seems to have been at least partially inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness.  That story concerns an archeological expedition of an ancient alien city that has been discovered in Antarctica.  This was once a colony of the extraterrestrial Old Ones, who had settled on Earth millions of years in the past, creating the planet’s first living organisms, as well as developing a slave race of amorphous, powerful blob-like creatures known as Shoggoths who eventually turned upon them.

While I did enjoy Prometheus, I nevertheless felt that the script was uneven in places.  The flow of action was not especially smooth, and at times it did feel like certain barely-connected scenes were only loosely strung together.  I think that the script could have used perhaps one more revision to iron it out.

Prometheus Xenomorph

That said, the performances are very good.  Michael Fassbender as David is probably the best, with his portrayal of the android ostensibly as an emotionless entity that is in fact hiding his jealousy of and contempt for humanity underneath a self-effacing, subservient façade.

Noomi Rapace is also very good as Elizabeth Shaw, giving her a real strength that enables her to struggle against both the horrific creations of the Engineers and an existential crisis of mammoth proportions.  Shaw was well written, and it is interesting to see the concept of faith addressed through her character.  I very much appreciated how Shaw was a scientist, yet she was also shown to believe in a higher power, and that she does not perceive any contradiction between science and faith.  Rapace did an excellent job bringing this through in her performance.

Also noteworthy is the always-excellent Idris Elba as Janek.  At first the captain of the Prometheus appears to be a blasé, cynical figure who is only interested in getting a paycheck.  But it eventually transpires that Janek is actually the most moral individual in the movie, as he demonstrates his unwillingness to let the Engineers’ living weapons make their way to Earth.  Elba really makes Janek a memorable character.

I will say that I found some of the accents in this film a bit variable.  Several of the characters, including Shaw, are apparently supposed to be British.  But their accents seem to veer between English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish throughout the film.  Well, okay, Rapace is from Sweden, so I’ll give her some leeway.  On the other hand, you have Janek who speaks with such a flawless American accent that I didn’t even recognize that was the London-born Elba playing the character until the credits rolled!

Despite its flaws, I nevertheless found Prometheus a compelling viewing.  Ridley Scott’s direction is definitely solid.  The script by Spaihts and Lindelof raises many perplexing questions, ones that you find yourself pondering long after the final scene.

Oh, yes, one other thing of note: with the protagonist named Elizabeth Shaw, I do have to wonder if someone involved in the making of Prometheus happens to be a Doctor Who fan!

Comic book reviews: Rocket Girl #1-5

One of the new titles that I’ve been enjoying lately is Rocket Girl, which is written by Brandon Montclare and illustrated by Amy Reeder.  Last year’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the first issue was such an overwhelming success that Image Comics decided to publish the book.  Rocket Girl #5 just came out, wrapping up the first story arc, while leaving plenty of unanswered questions hanging in the air, no doubt causing many readers besides myself very much anticipating the next installment of the series.

Rocket Girl is the story of Dayoung Johansson, a 15 year old who travels back in time from 2013 to 1986 to change history.  The 2013 that Dayoung comes from is not “our” present / future, though, but a world where the titanic corporation Quintum Mechanics has made tremendous technological breakthroughs, creating a world where glistening high tech skyscrapers, robots, and personal jet packs are commonplace.  In other words, it is a vision of tomorrow very much in keeping with the idealistic future envisioned in the pulp sci-fi novels & movies of the mid-20th Century.

Dayoung, though, is not content.  A member of the New York Teen Police Department, she sees the tremendous political and economic power being wielded unopposed by Quintum Mechanics.  And then an anonymous informant known only as “Joshua” informs her that Quintum came to power by sending technology back through time to the founders of the company in 1986.  Convinced that “crimes against time” have been committed, Dayoung sneaks into Quintum headquarters and utilizes their time travel tech to go back 27 years into the past and avert what she regards as the perversion of history.

Rocket Girl 5 cover

Brandon Montclare poses some intriguing questions in his scripts.  I constantly find myself wondering if Dayoung Johansson’s mission is justified.  Unlike so many other science fiction stories involving traveling in time to alter history, the 2013 seen in Rocket Girl is not some sort of dystopian or post-apocalyptic nightmare.  So far we have mostly just seen the members of the NYTPD and Quintum Mechanics, which makes it difficult to get a feel for what sort of life the average citizen has in Dayoung’s 2013.  But it doesn’t seem all that different from the “real” 2013.  Actually, it seems a bit more pleasant, with cool technology.  And you don’t seem to hear anyone talking about global warming, pollution or crime.

Yes, Quintum Mechanics appears to be a shadowy, amoral corporate entity with too much influence.  But what happens if Dayoung succeeds in undoing the apparent alterations to the time stream?  Rather than a world where Quintum is manipulating events from behind the scenes, we would have “our” 21th Century where the Koch Brothers and their like are pulling the strings of power.  It is not going to be a “better” world, just a different one with similar flaws and corruptions.

There is also the implication that the board of directors of Quintum actually want Dayoung Johansson to travel back to 1986, that her attempt to alter the past is a crucial part of the corporation’s rise to power.  Montclare is definitely playing around with the notion of temporal paradoxes here.  It’s mind-bending stuff.  We even see people from 1986 meeting Dayoung for what is, from their perspective, the first time, and then 27 years later running into her again, where she doesn’t know them because, in her personal time line, she hasn’t yet traveled back in time.

And that got me thinking… I would not be at all surprised if the mysterious informant “Joshua” turns out to be the 2013 incarnation of someone we have already been introduced to in 1986.  It would certainly be interesting if “Joshua” was revealed to be Annie, the idealistic pink-haired Quintum Mechanics scientist who quickly befriends Dayoung upon her arrival in 1986.  Because people do most certainly change over a quarter century, and the Annie of 2013 would not doubt have a very different view of the world than her younger self.

Rocket Girl 1 pg 9

Dayoung Johansson is a well-written character.  She is very much a teenager, impulsive and headstrong, full of a simplistic idealism about how she thinks the world ought to be, disdainful of anyone over 30.  I can look at Dayoung and recognize aspects of the sort of person I used to be when I was in high school.  Yeah, if you had given me a jet pack and a time machine when I was 15, I would probably have made a mess of the timelines in some sort of ill-considered attempt to “fix” history.

The artwork by Amy Reeder is fantastic.  As I’ve written before, I’ve been a fan of her work since I first saw it on Madame Xanadu several years back.  Reeder continually gets better as time goes by.  I was impressed by the Halloween Eve special she did in 2012, her first collaboration with Montclare (although they knew each other from when he was her assistant editor at Vertigo).  Reeder is now creating even more impressive work on Rocket Girl.

One of the most striking things about Reeder’s work is her stunning layouts.  She utilizes some very unconventional, dramatic storytelling techniques.  They are especially effective in the action sequences where Dayoung is kicking ass or rocketing around, zig-zagging all over the place.  Reeder definitely  imbues her still images with a genuine sense of dynamic action.

Rocket Girl 4 pg 10-11

Reeder is also especially skilled at rendering her settings.  I already knew from her work on Madame Xanadu that she excelled at depicting historical setting in lavish detail.  Here in Rocket Girl she both imagines a futuristic 2013 full of bright, streamlined technology, and she recreates the gritty urban sprawl of New York City in the mid-1980s.

Rocket Girl is briefly going on hiatus, with issue #6, the opening chapter of the second story arc, scheduled to come out in September.  If you missed the first five issues, I recommend picking up the trade paperback which is due out next month.  It’s an intriguing, thought-provoking, fun read with incredible artwork.

Comic book reviews: Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014

“There’s one thing, do you see, that’s terrifying in this world, and that is that every man has his reasons.” – Jean Renoir

When I was a kid in the early 1980s, one of my favorite television shows was Battlestar Galactica. Along with reruns of Star Trek and Doctor Who, Glen Larson’s saga of the last desperate survivors of humanity was a must see for my young self. Of course, re-watching the series a couple of decades later as an adult, I did come to realize that there was very little in the way of real character development over the course of the series. There was also some pretty dodgy plotting going on.

That seemed to be especially true of the show’s main human antagonist, Count Baltar. Although very memorably portrayed by the late, great John Colicos, from the standpoint of existing as a believable character, Baltar was quite lacking. He never seemed to really have any sufficient motivation for betraying humanity to the Cylons, other than the fact that he was evil with a capital “E.” Along those lines, he also appeared totally naïve in believing that the Cylons would hold up their end of their deal, spare his life, and install him as the ruler of his own world.

(This, of course, is one of the reasons why I really enjoyed Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. As written, Dr. Gaius Baltar was an amazing character, a flawed, morally ambivalent individual who really grew over the course of the series. And he was so brilliantly played by James Callis.)

Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014 cover

Keeping this in mind, I was very much intrigued when I learned that the Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014, published by Dynamite Entertainment, would be an in-depth examination of the origins of Count Baltar. It also piqued my interest that the story was written by Robert Napton who also penned several enjoyable Battlestar Galactica miniseries published in the mid-1990s by Maximum Press (say what you will about Rob Liefeld, but he was probably the first person to generate new interest in the property in over a decade).

So, what makes Baltar tick? What leads a man to become the ultimate traitor, betraying the whole of humanity to a race of cold, ruthless machine beings? Not too surprisingly, he is a product of his environment & upbringing.

As revealed by Napton, we learn that Baltar was born on Cygnus, a harsh, lonely tylium mining asteroid. After his mother died, young Baltar was left to be raised by his father Sela, an angry, abusive, greedy alcoholic. Unfortunately, young Baltar inherited his father’s covetous nature and, dazzled by the wealth of the mine, attempted to make off with a piece of tylium. Quickly discovered, Baltar was brutally beaten by his father. The youth came to realize that Sela cared more for his tylium mine than his son.

Baltar’s destiny spiraled further into darkness when the Cylon Empire invaded Cygnus. Fearful of being dragged into a full-scale war, the human Colonies left the tylium miners to fend for themselves. Suffering under the brutal lash of Cylon occupation, Baltar’s existing contempt for and resentment against his father grew to encompass the whole of humanity, who he regarded as having turned its back on him.

Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014 pg 14

Thus Baltar set out on a lifelong course of collaboration and deception, of treachery and avarice, fueled by a burning desire for both self-preservation and power. Baltar can be regarded as a self-made man, climbing to great financial, social and political heights. And though these many accomplishments are built upon the bones of the innocents he used and discarded, from Baltar’s perspective his actions are perfectly justified and rational. As written by Napton, it makes perfect sense that this is an individual who ended up exactly as we see him at the beginning of the series’ debut episode.

And then Napton engages in a truly magnificent mind-frack (as the characters themselves might say). Inspired by the retconned ending of the series pilot, which famously undid Baltar’s apparent death earlier in the episode, Napton suggests a horrific revelation that leaves Baltar questioning both his sanity and his very existence. In the end, we might even be left feeling sorry for Baltar. And even if we cannot pity him, then at least we can understand him, and appreciate the tragedy of his existence, the squandered potential of his life.

The art on Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014 is by Kewber Baal. I am completely unfamiliar with him, but he does superb work on this story. Baal absolutely brings Baltar to life, not just rendering an amazing likeness of John Colicos, but imbuing the character with all the arrogance, contempt, desperation, and fear that the actor had brought to the screen in his performance.

Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014 pg 3

Via some very effective layouts & storytelling, Baal also renders the Cylons as genuinely menacing, frightening figures. These mechanical tyrants truly seem like they are capable of conquering the entire galaxy, grinding all resistance beneath their heel. As opposed to, y’know, a bunch of tin soldiers who get blown to bits by a group of kids riding around on freaking unicorns… talk about an appalling example of Villain Decay! But I digress.

In any case, this was quite a good read. I hope that Napton has the opportunity to write further Battlestar Galactica stories at Dynamite. Based on the Annual, as well as his past work, he has a really good grasp of the characters, as well as some interesting thoughts on what sort of directions they can be taken in the future.

Khan Noonien Singh: Star Trek’s “benevolent dictator”

I thought it might be nice to sit down and re-watch my DVD of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan today.  As I’ve written before, it is a really great movie.  The script by Nicholas Meyer, Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards has so many fascinating aspects to it.  And then it occurred to me that it had been literally years since I’d actually viewed “Space Seed,” the Star Trek episode written by Gene L. Coon & Carey Wilber to which The Wrath of Khan is a sequel.  I did a Google search, and found that you can view it for free online at Hulu.  Yeah, okay, you have to sit though several commercials, but it’s still better than watching a grainy bootlegged version.

Viewing “Space Seed” and Star Trek II back-to-back, I realized what an amazingly fascinating character Khan Noonien Singh was.  Obviously a major aspect of this is that the part of Khan was portrayed by the amazing Ricardo Montalban, who turns in a forceful, charismatic performance.  But I think that aspects of Khan’s character also speak to a quality present in society, the notion of the appeal of the so-called “benevolent dictator.”

The idea of one unifying individual bringing order to a state or nation, or perhaps even the entire world, is certainly not a new one.  In certain respects, it is understandable.  The alternative, democracy, is an extremely flawed, messy process.  Dozens upon dozens of dissenting voices have to be heard and appeased, compromises need to be achieved that often end up pleasing no one, politicians who are supposed to be the representatives of the people are swayed or outright bought by private interests, and the entire day-to-day functioning of government can be ground to a halt by a small group of elected officials who are unwilling to participate in the process.  One needs only look at the current deplorable state of affairs here in the United States to see this taking place.

But, really, just how much better is the alternative?  Lord Acton stated that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Or, as Spock (Leonard Nimoy) observes in “Space Seed,” when commenting on the genetically engineered supermen who once nearly seized control of Earth, “Superior ability breeds superior ambition.”

Khan Space Seed

The crew of the Enterprise, having discovered the cryogenically frozen Khan and his band of followers in outer space, is of two minds about the man.  While Kirk (William Shatner) dislikes what Khan represents, at the same time, looking at the historical record, the Captain of the Enterprise sees that, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, Khan’s dominion over a major portion of the globe was relatively benign & peaceful.  Indeed, over dinner with the ship’s crew, Khan passionately argues that the Earth made a terrible mistake in driving him into exile.  He states that his rule was not tyrannical, but “an attempt to unite humanity.”  He goes on to forcefully declare “We offered the world order!”

Khan is certainly an extremely charismatic individual with a magnetic personality.  However, the man’s true side begins to come out in his interactions with Lieutenant Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue). The Enterprise’s historian is immediately attracted to Khan and what he represents.  In an early establishing shot, we see McGivers’ quarters are decorated with paintings & sculptures of men of power such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Richard the Lionheart.  She possesses a much romanticized view of these individuals, who she considers superior to the males of her time.  And Khan immediately seizes on to that.

In his actions, Khan shows some of the signs of being a sociopath.  He is driven by ego, by the belief in his superiority over others.  He values other people primarily for what they can give him.  He knows how to talk a good game.  And he is superb at reading other people.  Khan immediately identifies that McGivers has this idealized view of individuals such as himself, and that she is attracted to him, both on a physical level and because of what he represents.  No doubt he also notes that she has a rather submissive side to her personality.  He takes advantage of all this, forcefully seducing her, and then ordering her to assist him in taking over the Enterprise.  When McGivers is at first unwilling to do so, Khan then appears to dismiss her, denying her the attention & affection she craves.  It is definitely an extremely unhealthy and twisted relationship built on abuse.

Once Khan and his followers, with McGivers’ aid, take over the Enterprise, his charming, civilized veneer continues to slip.  Khan realizes that Kirk and his crew are not going to easily capitulate.  He threatens Kirk with an extremely slow, painful death by suffocation, and promises to repeat this to the rest of the bridge crew, one by one.  However, if any of them swear to serve him, he will spare their lives.  In this way, at least in his mind, he appears benevolent.  As Khan no doubt sees it, he is basically saying “Look, I can be reasonable and merciful. Just do what I tell you to do and I promise no harm will come to you.”  Of course, the crew refuse Khan’s offer, and remain loyal to Kirk.  This just serves to further enrage Khan.  The more his enemies resist him, the more violent he becomes.  It is this that shocks McGivers into betraying Khan.  Witnessing first-hand the cold, hard reality of the types of men she had admired, she is repulsed, and she rescues Kirk, who organizes his crew to take back the ship.

However, Khan’s ego will not allow him to give up.  He attempts to blow up the Enterprise, wanting to take down everyone with him.  Kirk of course manages to thwart this.  Later, with the super-humans in custody, Kirk offers Khan and his followers the choice of settling on the untamed planet Ceti Alpha V instead of imprisonment by Starfleet.  He also gives McGivers the opportunity to join Khan rather than face court martial.  She agrees, and Khan declares “I will take her. And I’ve gotten something else I wanted: a world to win, an empire to build.”  There is Khan’s ego once more at work.  He forgives McGivers for her betrayal.  And he twists things around so that he can rationalize that despite being defeated he has achieved what he wanted in the first place.

Khan Star Trek II

Unfortunately, as we find out fifteen years later in Star Trek II, things turn out really badly for Khan and his people on Ceti Alpha V.  Six months after settling there, the neighboring planet in the system exploded.  Ceti Alpha V’s orbit shifted, turning it into an inhospitable desert, and for the next decade and a half Khan and his followers barely clung to existence.

When the Reliant arrives at Ceti Alpha V, mistaking it for the exploded planet, Khan instantly recognizes its First Officer, Pavel Chekov, formerly of the Enterprise (Yes, I know, Walter Koenig didn’t join the cast of Star Trek until the second season, and so wasn’t in “Space Seed.” Koenig likes to joke that his character was serving on a different part of the Enterprise at that time, and that Chekov accidentally kept Khan waiting an uncomfortably long time to use the bathroom, hence the animosity.)  Here again Khan’s ego immediately comes into play.  Instead of recognizing an opportunity for rescue, he becomes full of resentment.  Looking around at the sorry state he is now in, Khan declares “On Earth, two hundred years ago, I was a prince, with power over millions.”  He is disgusted at the notion that in the intervening years Kirk has been promoted to Admiral, no doubt seeing it as a further insult that his rival has had a successful career while Khan was off rotting in exile.  In fact, Khan places the blame for his circumstances squarely on Kirk for never returning to check up on him (which, admittedly, is a fair enough criticism).  Now Khan sees the opportunity for revenge.  He takes control of the Reliant and sets out to kill his hated foe.

It’s interesting that Khan refers to the death of his “beloved wife,” undoubtedly a reference to Marla McGivers.  I really do wonder if Khan loved her.  It seems somewhat difficult to believe so, based on their relationship in “Space Seed,” where he was manipulating her.  Maybe he genuinely did.  Then again, perhaps Khan merely convinced himself that he loved her, because it fulfilled his self-image as a good man.  Whatever the case, I think that when the opportunity arose to attack Kirk, he uses McGivers’ death as one more self-justification in pursuing his vendetta.

In watching Star Trek II, you do realize that Khan has ample opportunities to take a different course of action.  Instead, he is absolutely hell-bent on gaining revenge.  Even Khan’s utterly loyal right-hand man Joachim (Judson Scott) attempts on more than one occasion to argue that they have their freedom and a spaceship, they can go anywhere in the universe, lead their own destiny once again.  But Khan’s monumental pride simply will not allow it.  He will not let go of the idea of avenging himself on Kirk.

After the Enterprise barely survives an encounter with the Khan-controlled Reliant, Kirk bitterly notes “He wants to kill me for passing sentence on him fifteen years ago. And he doesn’t care who stands between him and his vengeance.”  It eventually transpires that this includes Khan’s own devoted followers.  He is more concerned with revenge than he is for their welfare.

It’s interesting to note that early in the film we see a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on Khan’s bookshelf.  No doubt he has had ample time to familiarize himself with the novel during his long exile.  Yet Khan ends up playing the role of Captain Ahab, the monomaniacal captain who leads himself and his entire crew to their deaths in his pursuit of the white whale.  Khan himself obviously recognizes the parallels, but he simply does not care.  As he activates the stolen Genesis Device in an attempt to destroy the Enterprise along with his own ship, he quotes the novel: “From hell’s heart I stab at thee. For hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”Doctor Doom Jack Kirby

I had never noticed it before, but Khan actually bears some interesting similarities to the comic book character Doctor Doom, who was created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby in the pages of Fantastic Four.  Like Khan, Victor Von Doom is often described as a “benevolent dictator.”  He is the absolute monarch of the country of Latveria.  In certain respects, Doom has transformed his homeland into a paradise.  There is no crime or poverty in Latveria; of course, neither is there any free will.  Some might argue that the loss of civil liberties is a small price to pay.  The problem is that this seeming golden age is dependant solely upon the whims of Doctor Doom.  Like Khan, he is a creature of immense ego, convinced of his innate superiority.  He claims to love the people of Latveria, and by granting them peace & prosperity it allows him to demonstrate to himself and everyone else that he is right, that he knows what is best for the world.

However, just like Khan, when things don’t go exactly according to plan, off come the kid gloves, and suddenly Doom is an extremely dangerous, petty, vengeful individual.  Certainly his decades-long vendetta against Reed Richards for what is, in truth, a mistake Doom made due to his own arrogance, proves that.  In Doom’s mind, he cannot be wrong; it must be somebody else’s fault.  And he’s pursued his quest for vengeance against Richards, his desire to show everyone that he is the smarter, better man, with a fanatical single-mindedness.

As for the people of Latveria, as much as Doom claims to adore and cherish them, the second they become a liability, the second they stand in his way or cease to be of use to him as a propaganda symbol or a method of stroking his ego, he will casually cast them aside or destroy them.  In the end, Doom comes first, and everything else is secondary.

And that is why, as alluring as the concept of the “benevolent dictator” appears, it is really a terrible idea.  Yes, in the short term a supposedly well-intentioned absolute ruler may be able to create order & stability.  But it is the type of progress that cannot last in the long run, and which is ever subject to the frailties of the all too human egos of those in control.

Comic book reviews: Grindhouse #1-4

I was born a decade or so too late to have been the target audience for grindhouse movies, the kind of sleazy exploitation genre films to have played in second-rate cinemas back in the 1970s and early 80s.  By the time I was old enough to explore New York City on my own, most of those less-than-venerable institutions had closed their doors.  However, I caught quite a number of their successors via direct-to-video and cable TV releases.  And in the last decade, there’s been a surge in nostalgic interest in those old cheese-fests, at least partly brought on by the works of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

Already being something of a B-movie aficionado, I’ve seen a handful of those “classic” grindhouse flicks on DVD.  Most of them fall into the so-bad-they’re-good territory.  They’re campy and violent and quite often sexist.  But at the same time, it’s interesting to see what those filmmakers working on a shoestring budget could accomplish with imagination & ingenuity in those long-ago days before anyone with access to a laptop could easily whip up some CGI effects.

So naturally my interest was piqued when the eight issue Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight series was announced by Dark Horse Comics.  Written by Alex De Campi, the series is comprised of a quartet of two-part tales, each an homage to the exploitation films of days past.  In the first four issues, we have a pair of over-the-top romps into sex, violence, sci-fi and horror entitled “Bee Vixens From Mars” and “Prison Ship Antares.”

Grindhouse 3 cover

“Bee Vixens From Mars” sees the women of a small Southern town taken over by an alien insect queen, transforming them into horny, bloodthirsty femme fatales linked to a hive mind.  With nearly everyone in the town either mutated or brutally slaughtered, it falls to Deputy Garcia and the owners of the local convenience store, Wayne & Sergei, to battle the alien infestation.

I really think that Alex De Campi’s background as a woman who has lived & worked on three continents allows her to write from a different perspective.  In interviews, she has commented that one of the more interesting qualities of grindhouse fare was that often the protagonists were women and/or minorities.  Yeah, a lot of those movies were “sexploitation” or “blaxploitation” or whatever you want to call them, meaning the main characters were probably on the stereotypical or one-dimensional side.  But it nevertheless did provide some sort of avenue for depicting heroes who weren’t white males.  In contrast, as De Campi points out, the majority of big studio action & genre pictures nowadays usually feature handsome, macho, WASPy men as the main characters.

In contrast, in “Bee Vixens From Mars,” we have Deputy Garcia, an older Hispanic woman with white hair and an eye patch, as the ass-kicking savoir of humanity.  Backing her up are Wayne & Sergei, a gay couple originally from Eastern Europe.  You have a small group of individuals who can be considered outsiders to the traditional, mainstream population as the heroes.

The art on “Bee Vixens From Mars” is by Chris Peterson.  I’m not familiar with him, but he does great work on this book.  Peterson really draws the hell out of the erotically charged, ultra-violent story.  His layouts & storytelling are extremely strong.

Grindhouse 2 pg 10

“Prison Ship Antares” is basically a women-in-prison story in outer space.  A group of hardened female convicts are sent away from Earth to settle Alpha Centauri, accompanied by their warden Kalinka and her contingent of cloned guards.  Yeah, I know, it doesn’t really sound plausible, trying to colonize another planet with only women.  But that’s the situation De Campi sets up in order to tell her second zany tale.  I’ve seen far more nonsensical scenarios in actual B-movies, so whatever.

In any case, Kalinka turns out to be insane, a sadistic religious nut who believes she is the reincarnation of a samurai warrior.  She decides to “burn away the sinful parts” of her prisoners, gruesomely killing them with acid and fire.  The convicts, led by a gal by the name of Spanish Fly, realize that they had better seize control of the Antares, and quick, before they all end up dead or mutilated.

With a set-up like this, you might be concerned that the book would devolve into “lipstick lesbian” pornography.  But, aside from a couple of cheekily playful sequences, for the most part De Campi writes the inmates as realistic, well-rounded individuals, giving them a certain amount of personality & background.  There’s only so much development she can fit into a 48 page story, but on the whole these women come across as real people, rather than merely objects of titillation. They’re sexy, but intelligent and tough.

Simon Fraser is the artist on “Prison Ship Antares,” and I could not have thought of a better choice to illustrate this tale.  Fraser is the co-creator, with writer Robbie Morrison, of the Nikolai Dante feature in 2000 AD.  Dante was, in his early tales, sort of a ne’er-do-well rogue, a hedonistic adventurer who got involved in all sorts of wacky sexcapades.  The first couple of Dante stories I ever read were “The Movable Feast” and “The Cadre Infernal,” which were set in, respectively, a gigantic brothel on wheels and a BDSM club.  So, yeah, Fraser knows how to draw smut… and I mean that in the nicest way possible.  No, but seriously, Simon is a fantastic artist.  He really imbues his characters with a great deal of personality & individuality through facial expressions and diverse body types.

Truthfully, there is actually a lot more violence than sex in “Prison Ship Antares.”  Some of it is horrific.  Other parts are just plain hysterical, such as when the prisoners riot against the clone guards while singing the “Toreador Song” from Georges Bizet’s Carmen.  Frasier does a superb job with that sequence.

Grindhouse 4 pg 7

There is another distinct quality to both of these tales.  Since each of them are stand-alone stories, sometimes it really seems up in the air whether or not various characters will live or die.  Without a status quo to adhere to, you half-expect De Campi to bump off one or more of her lead characters.  It really does keep the reader a lot more on edge.

The covers for the first four issues of Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight are by Francesco Francavilla and Dan Panosian.  Both of them have designed a couple of nice, striking pieces, sort of faux movie posters which also have a rather retro, pulp feel.

If you are a fan of genre films and B-movies, you’ll probably enjoy Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight.  It’s a fun, strange homage to exploitation films, with something of a tongue-in-cheek feminist slant given to the old genre formulas.  I’m looking forward to seeing what De Campi and her collaborators have in store for the next four issues.  It should be crazy.

Frederik Pohl: 1919 – 2013

I was sorry to learn that the long-time science fiction author Frederik Pohl had passed away.  He died on September 2, 2013, aged 93 years.  I haven’t read a huge amount of the prolific Pohl’s work.  But I found each of the five novels by him that I do have to be very interesting, insightful, and enjoyable.

I first discovered Pohl’s work via a gift from my grandmother.  I must have been around eight or nine years old at the time, and she gave me a pair of science fiction paperbacks: The Years of the City and Midas World.  I doubt that she had any idea who Pohl was, but she knew I really enjoyed sci-fi.  In retrospect, I think perhaps she was also trying to get me to stop watching so much TV and read more books.  As for why she chose those two, they were recently published, and the cover artwork must have caught her eye.

It actually took me nearly a decade to finally sit down and read both The Years of the City and Midas World from start to finish.  But once I did, I found them really great, with an engaging style of prose, three-dimensional characters, and a unique sense of humor.

The Years of the City and Midas World are not, strictly speaking, actual novels.  Each of them is a collection of linked shorter stories.  The Years of the City, via a quintet of novellas, examines the future of New York City, beginning in the present day (i.e. the late 20th Century) and ending a few centuries later.  Each of the five tales is told via the perspective of the man or the woman on the street.  Through their eyes, we see the massive urban decline and renewal that NYC experiences over an extended period of time.

By the way, while the cover artwork is striking, the illustrator did take a bit of artistic license.  Yes, in the later installments of Pohl’s book, Manhattan Island does indeed get covered by a giant transparent dome.  Fortunately, though, the Outer Boroughs do not end up utterly destroyed!

Frederik Pohl The Years of the City

Midas World is a much more cynical look at Earth’s future by Pohl.  The unchecked spread of capitalism and production results in widespread consumerism, as people struggle to keep up with each other’s lifestyles.  Consumption has become a psychological obsession for many people.  (Hmmm, this all sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)  Meanwhile, a population of robot workers gradually gains emancipation.  As time goes by, the majority of humanity departs Earth to find a new future in outer space, leaving the planet to the robots, who are now happily charting their own destiny.

On my own, I picked up Pohl’s novel Black Star Rising.  Set in the late 21th Century, the backdrop is that the United States and the Soviet Union have wiped each other out, leaving Communist China to pick up the pieces.  And then a mysterious alien spaceship appears, its occupants demanding to speak with the President of the United States.  This is a major problem, since America has not been an autonomous nation in nearly a century.  The story is told from the perspective of Castor, a worker from a collective farm in Mississippi.  Chosen by the Communists to play the role of “President” in order to appease the aliens, Castor finds himself on a journey off-planet.  The farmer comes to believe that the aliens may the key in liberating North America from Chinese rule, but cooler heads perceive that these beings might also inadvertently cause the destruction of humanity.

Probably my favorite work by Pohl was his 1977 novel Gateway, which later became the first installment of his “Heechee saga.”  The narrator is Robinette Broadhead, who served on an ancient space station built by the long-vanished Heechee aliens.  The troubled Rob, now back on Earth, recounts his experiences on Gateway to a computerized psychiatrist who he has nicknamed Sigfrid von Shrink.

Cannibalizing the technology of the Heechee, humanity has been using Gateway as a base from which to explore the universe.  Due to the limited understanding of the Heechee’s spaceships, these are often risky, sometimes fatal expeditions, and the motivation for embarking on them is the dangled promise of great financial reward.  Pohl describes it as “the ultimate game of Russian roulette.”  Rob is a really intriguing, flawed, realistic character, and Pohl does superb work developing him.  There is one moment where Rob attempts to explain his frustration at his existence to Sigfrid:

“When I sit down to the feast of life, Sigfrid, I’m so busy planning on how to pick up the check, and wondering what the other people think of me for paying it, and wondering if I have enough money in my pocket to pay the bill, that I don’t get around to eating.”

God, this just hit so totally at home for me!  Throughout my life, I’ve always had this awful feeling of disquiet.  I am such a neurotic, always fussing about the details, about “what if” and “if only” that I can seldom enjoy the moment.  Then I read this beautifully phrased metaphor by Pohl, and it summed up all of my feelings perfectly.

Frederik Pohl Gateway

The last of the five books by Pohl that I’ve read was The Space Merchants, which he co-wrote with C.M. Kornbluth in 1952.  As with Pohl’s later works, The Space Merchants features a satirical, scathing look at a near-future Earth overrun by rampant capitalism, consumerism, and advertising.  A massive gulf of economic inequality exists between a rich minority and the impoverished majority.  (Again, sounds really familiar!)  The protagonist, Mitch Courtenay, is one of the “haves” who, in the course of various corporate intrigues, finds his identity stolen, forced to assume a subservient role as one of the “have nots.”  These events cause Mitch to drastically reconsider the world-view and principles which he previously held as sacred & infallible.

Looking back on Pohl’s work, it is apparent that he was a very prescient writer.  Yes, in The Years of the City, he did see that there could possibly be an optimistic future if humanity reassessed its priorities.  However, if it did not, and Western society continued upon a path of unfettered capitalism and rampant materialism, it would eventually lead to a very dire state of affairs.  We can certainly see some of Pohl’s fears on display in this current climate of economic inequality and the obsession with the acquisition of fame and material possessions, of coming out ahead of everyone else, no matter what the cost.

There are a number of writers, as well as artists, who I have enjoyed tremendously, but who I unfortunately never got to meet before they passed away, never got to tell them how much their work meant to me: Kirby, Clarke, Bradbury, Harryhausen, Matheson, and so on.  Fortunately, Frederik Pohl is one of those rare exceptions.

I forget the exact year, but it was probably in the mid-1990s.  I went to the I-CON science fiction convention at Stony Brook, Long Island for the first time.  One of the guests was Frederik Pohl, and I was definitely looking forward to meeting him.  At the time, I’d only yet read The Years of the City, Black Star Rising, and Midas World, and of those three books, the first two had gotten pretty dog-eared from me dragging them over the place throughout the years.  So, since Midas World was the least dinged-up volume, I brought that one along with me, hoping to get it autographed.

Once I was at the convention on Saturday morning and I looked at the program, I was disappointed.  I saw that Pohl was scheduled to do a signing on Sunday.  Unfortunately, I was only going to be there for that one day.  He was, however, also going to be on a panel discussion that afternoon.  I figured that if I didn’t get to meet him, at least I would be able to hear him talk about his work.  Regrettably, I don’t remember the details of that panel.  But afterwards, Pohl seemed to make a quick exit via the back door.  I left the building through the front entrance.  Lo and behold, a few dozen feet away, there was Pohl, standing by himself, smoking a cigarette.  I wasn’t sure if he would want to talk to me, or if he preferred to be by himself, but I decided to give it a try.  I walked up to Pohl and politely explained that I knew he wasn’t scheduled to do a signing that day, but I was a huge fan of his work, and since I would not be at the convention tomorrow, could he please autograph one book for me?  He sort of hesitated for a second, and then nodded.  I handed him my copy of Midas World, and he signed it.  I spent about 30 seconds or so telling Pohl how much I had enjoyed his various books and then said my goodbyes before I wore out my welcome.

Subsequently, I had always hoped that I’d have the chance to meet Pohl again, and let him know how much Gateway had meant to me, how I had really identified with the character of Robinette Broadhead.  That was not to be.  But I am very grateful that I did have that one opportunity to talk to Pohl at I-CON all those years ago, however brief it was.