Byron Preiss: An Appreciation

Byron Preiss was a writer, editor and publisher of so many of the types of things that the people who frequent this site love. He was an aficionado of SF, fantasy, horror, the old pulps and comics, and he tried to innovate ways to combine, present and publish this type of material throughout his life. He unfortunately died (in a traffic accident) in 2005 at the relatively young age of 52.

The reason I’m writing this is because in the past few years I’ve realized how much of the stuff I love and consumed both in my younger days and even now has been touched by Preiss in one way or another. In that vein, I wanted to write an overview of the various books published by Preiss, mainly through the prism of what I currently have in my possession.

Now, he is probably best known for some of his projects back in the 1970s, above all the Weird Heroes and Fiction Illustrated series.

Weird Heroes was just an awesome concept, and these books have a lot of fans – meaning that they’ve been covered quite a bit in the online geekosphere. In fact, I’ve written about them before, in another “In Appreciation of…” post at the Bronze Age Babies a few years back. Also, more importantly – and this should surprise nobody – our own Greg Hatcher has covered them, back at the Comics Should be Good blog, in 2007, and he also touched on them again in 2008 (Sorry for the links to the new blingy CBR – I tried to find those posts using the Wayback Machine (at archive.org), which would also have the original comments, but was not successful.)

The other series Preiss pushed through is Fiction Illustrated, which merits a closer look. Preiss wanted to take comic books to the next level with these books; basically, he wanted to move them from the realm of exclusively “kid stuff” to something that would be bought and widely read by adults. (To be fair, he wasn’t the first to come up with the idea; Gil Kane, for example, made several attempts to do something similar, first with His Name is Savage back in the late 1960s, and then with his dystopian sword & science tale Blackmark in the early 1970s – also reviewed by me earlier, by the way).

The first Fiction Illustrated title was Schlomo Raven, Public Detective, which featured a spoof character along the lines of something found in Mad Magazine, with the titular character serving as a parody version of the hard-boiled detective. He has all the typical trappings, i.e., the setting is the 1940s, he’s kind of hard on his luck, wears a trench-coat and has a buxom secretary, but he’s only about 3 feet tall. Tom Sutton did the art, and personally that’s the part I liked the best. Sutton really seems to excel at pretty much any genre in comics: horror, SF, humor, etc. The story, and the humor, though, fell a bit short in my opinion.

The next entry was Star Fawn, a science fiction tale. Again, this is one in which the art, by Stephen Fabian, really shines, while the story by Preiss is mostly serviceable. Those who are curious and want to sample it can check it out at the blog Diversions of the Groovy Kind, where the whole thing is posted.

This was followed by perhaps the best remembered installment, Chandler: Red Tide by Jim Steranko. Like Weird Heroes, I previously wrote a brief review of this, again at the Bronze Age Babies blog. I’ll just say here that this one is my favorite, both in terms of content and the visual “packaging.” It was obviously a labor of love for Steranko, and this really showed the potential of the Fiction Illustrated concept. I mentioned it in the post I linked, but it bears repeating here: I wish this had spawned an entire series of adaptations of hard-boiled crime books (by Hammet, Chandler, etc.) with a similar page-by-page illustrations done not only by Steranko, but also, say, Howard Chaykin, Mike Kaluta, etc. (This one, by the way, was published in two formats: a small pocketbook and a larger edition which had a smaller print run – and which are super-expensive when you can find anyone willing to sell their copies).

The final entry was Son of Sherlock Holmes, with the story once more by Preiss and the art by Ralph Reese. This one was done in the larger format only – although to be honest, I think it would have looked just as good in the smaller format. The hook for this one is that there’s two parallel stories, one involving the original Holmes back in the early 20th century, and another involving a modern day (meaning, in the 1970s) London-based private detective who may or may not be Holmes’ son. It’s a perfectly solid contribution to the immense body of Holmes pastiches and tributes, but again, nothing that’ll just knocks your socks off.

Even if I was not necessarily impressed with Preiss’ writing in these books, I have to say I still like the whole project (and love having the books now). I just like what they represent, and admire Preiss – still in his twenties at the time – for his drive in writing and editing these books, and gathering top-notch artists to collaborate with him.

After Weird Heroes and Fiction Illustrated ended, Preiss continued working on similar projects.

He published a novel, Guts, based on a story he wrote for the first volume of Weird Heroes. Here, he altered and fleshed out the story and characters a bit more, and also altered the writing style into a more straightforward narrative. Preiss incorporates his love for the classic rock of the 1950s into the story, as the main character, who’s from a somewhat troubled future, travels to the past by using a time travel device he activates by strumming notes on an electric guitar. Events in his time, involving a police-state conspiracy, necessitate the trip back in time to meet up with the scientist, and musician, who invented the device, but due to some kind of miscalculation, instead of the 1950s, where he was supposed to go, he ends up in the present, i.e., the late 1970s, and has to pretend to be a ‘50s revival act musician to get by. Personally, I preferred the style of the original story in Weird Heroes, but this is still a solid read. And it includes illustrations by Gray Morrow and Michael Golden.

There was also I, Alien, written by a frequent collaborator, SF and fantasy writer J. Michael Reeves, which tells the story of, naturally, an alien who is somehow transported to Earth (LA to be exact) from his own planet, which has suffered through a war that turned it into a dangerous, post-cataclysmic hellscape. He makes friends with a local woman, who helps him get his bearings and try to figure out how to get back to his world. It’s illustrated throughout by Terry Austin (with the cover by Kenneth Smith). It’s a really engaging book, but both it and Guts suffer from the fact that they were apparently written as the first entries to what were supposed to be a series of novels, i.e., they both sort of end on cliffhangers that make you want to know what happens next, but they were never continued.

Preiss and Reaves also joined forces again to co-write a wonderful fantasy novel called Dragonworld. First published in 1979, this is something that completely slipped past me back when at the time when I was really into Tolkien’s work and similar fantasy books. It’s more or less a YA novel, set on what seems to be a different world, populated by people at a roughly medieval stage of development living on two main land masses separated by a narrow sea. They go to war when the inhabitants of the mainly pastoral western continent, who tend to be rather short of stature, mistake the slayings of several children or youths by dragons from a frigid northern continent as attacks from the denizens of the eastern continent (who are suspected of being sorcerers by the westerners – and who tend to be tall and slim). It all comes down to the efforts of one eccentric, bookish type from the western continent, who travels to the north to see if he can find a way to stop the dragons from coming down. There are some obvious, superficial similarities to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but this is really it’s own story and just a really well-written fantasy tale. The illustrations by Joseph Zucker are lovely. This book was apparently going to be the fifth Fiction Illustrated title, but plans for that fell through for whatever reason.

And speaking of illustrated fiction, not long after the Fiction Illustrated line ended, Preiss, through his company, Byron Preiss Visual Publications, was involved in publishing several very-nicely packaged, large format books in 1978: the SF story Empire, written by Samuel Delaney and illustrated by Howard Chaykin, the Illustrated Roger Zelazny, the Illustrated Harlan Ellison and the illustrated (by Howard Chaykin) edition of Alfred Bester’s novel The Stars My Destination. I have the first two, which I consider myself lucky enough to have found for reasonable prices over the years, but the latter two have eluded me.

Empire is a really engaging space opera, although – given that it’s by Delany – it’s not just about swashbuckling  interstellar action, it has a bit more depth. And Chaykin’s painted illustrations are lush and beautiful.

The Illustrated Roger Zelazny, with all of the art by Gray Morrow, is probably my favorite of these illustrated books. Even though I usually like art by Steranko or Chaykin better than Morrow’s, I just have to say he really hit it out of the park here. And the way the whole book is laid out, with different types of illustration styles for each story, is just a visual treat. (And it makes me want the Ellison book all the more, since there’s work by a bunch of different artists in that one.)

I was also surprised to learn that a few of the books I currently have were also published with at least some involvement by Preiss and his company. The first is Dinosaur Tales, a collection of stories, and a poem, by Ray Bradbury on the theme of dinosaurs, some previously published, some new for this book. All are accompanied by illustrations from Steranko, William Stout, Gahan Wilson, Kenneth Smith, Moebius, David Wiesner, and Overton Loyd. It was first published in 1983, although I think there was a later reprint edition as well. Again, this is such a nicely packaged book, as Bradbury’s delightful prose is juxtaposed with wonderful, and sometimes absolutely gorgeous, art. There’s also a foreword by Ray Harryhausen.

When I was reading the indicia (yes, I do stuff like that) in two graphic works by Joe Kubert that I have, Yossel and Jew Gangster, I noticed that the original publication dates were listed as 2003 and 2005 respectively (I have the ones reprinted by DC at around 2010), so I did a little internet sleuthing and found out that both were also originally published by Preiss.

Besides his own publishing work, Preiss also did some comic book scripting for DC, specifically a two-part Elseworlds, Robin 3000 (which is a two-parter) with art by P. Craig Russell. Set in the far future, the titular Robin is Tom Wayne, the nephew of Bruce Wayne XX, who, as Batman, was leading a rebellion against alien overlords until they kill him at the start of the story. Tom continues the fight and picks up some allies along the way. It’s a pretty good little SF yarn (and Russell’s art is eye candy), but it basically reads like the pilot story for an ongoing series, or at least a 10-12 issue limited series.

Otherwise, from the mid-1980s through the 1990s and up to his death, Preiss was constantly working on some publishing project or another – but since I said at the start that the focus of this post would be books I actually have (and have read), I can’t really comment on them – however, there’s a lot of stuff worth exploring, like art books, children’s fiction, and a series of “ultimate” anthologies (e.g. Ultimate Dracula, Ultimate Werewolf, Ultimate Dragon) featuring stories on the titular theme.

Like I noted at the beginning, Preiss was taken away from us in 2005, and this post is just my way of saying thanks for all of the great stuff he produced over the years and for blazing new trails in the publishing of all types of illustrated books – and hopefully inspiring others to seek at least some of this stuff out.

 

4 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Preiss also put together a Valerian collection, The New Future Trilogy, which was released when Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element was in theaters. That was his aborted iBooks company, which didn’t last long.

    Chandler was supposed to be reprinted several times, in the US, but never seemed to come out. I think Dark Horse solicited it at least twice, if not three times.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Yep, Preiss had his hands in all kinds of publishing projects; this post kind of scratches the surface (albeit pretty vigorously), mainly because – as I noted – I focused on stuff I actually have.
      And yeah, that Chandler reprint will probably never happen. I remember it being announced at least twice.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Gypsy and Nightshade are two of my favorite characters from Weird Heroes, I really wish the respective authors had revisited them. Nightshade in particular had (heck, has) real potential for an ongoing series of adventures.

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