As promised last week, this is the next of a series of columns about various items from what I call the Shelf of Shame, and what most other people call The Nightstand Pile. Or just The Pile.
Which is to say, books bought but not read. Also movies and TV shows bought but not watched. The New Year’s Resolution in our household is not to acquire new ones until I have gone through a significant amount of these. The nice thing is that there are enough of them here that I can build themed columns out of the available selection, and when I polled on that a month or so back, this theme came in second after Michael Moorcock: Stuff everyone else got to long before I did. So here we go, by popular demand.
First up: The Illustrated Roger Zelazny.
In the seventies, Weird Heroes and Fiction Illustrated were two of my favorite book series ever, and they put Byron Preiss on my radar in a big way. This was the Preiss project that followed up those efforts. Zelazny was a major force in SF then and the book was seen as a prestige project, a huge step forward in ‘graphic fiction’ — God forbid anyone call it comics.
I saw this when it came out and I would have bought it new, except for the staggering price tag. $8.95 just seemed insane in a world when comics were going for thirty-five cents and paperbacks were ninety-five. (Although some had jumped to a buck and a quarter and I was smarting over that.) Even the Fiction Illustrated large-sized albums like Chandler and Son of Sherlock Holmes were only $4.95 and I still felt huge pangs of — well, not guilt, exactly, but more Oh my God I must be insane when I’d bought those.
So I put it back on the display table after flipping through it, and except for “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” in Star*Reach, it just kind of fell off my list.
In the intervening decades I’d always kept one eye out for it and the other Preiss productions like Empire and The Stars My Destination and so on, but for whatever reason, I never quite got to it. Until last summer, when I came across one for about ten dollars. Which was over a dollar more than the first time I’d considered it, but after some forty years of looking it seemed like a steal. It’s all in your frame of reference, I guess.
Was it worth the wait? Well, most of the stories were new to me; except for the two-volume SF Book Club collection of Amber and a short story or two in Wild Cards, there’s not a lot of Zelazny around here. It certainly came across as a greatest-hits selection of stories, and Gray Morrow did some of his best work ever for this project, I think. Here’s the problem, though– I enjoyed the stories, and I admired the illustrations… but they don’t really work together. There’s a reason comics integrated the words into the pictures. This weird hybrid of comics and prose is like trying to read two things in parallel.
Preiss was completely obsessed with the idea that adult comics had to somehow be different in format, that word balloons and captions signaled that this was a story for children. (He was by no means alone in this back then: a lot of designers fell on that sword, including guys like Gil Kane and Will Eisner, and in the end everyone kind of calmed down about it when Art Spiegelman showed it really was about the content and not the formatting.)
The work that’s original to this book, the Shadow Jack story and the various introductory notes from Zelazny himself, make it worth the purchase, I think. And Morrow’s art is very good. But it’s honestly kind of difficult to read, especially with the tiny print, and if I’d bought it when it came out I probably would have thought it wasn’t a patch on Weird Heroes. It’s just as well it took me this long to get around to it.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix. We were going to see this when it came out, because we really like the movies in this series — I’m not sure what fans call them or even if they differentiate, but by ‘this series’ I mean the McAvoy/Fassbender ones that started with First Class.
But the reviews were so scathing that we decided not to bother. I saw the DVD for three bucks at a thrift shop and scooped it up but we didn’t get around to it until a couple of days ago.
And you know what? We really, genuinely, non-ironically enjoyed it. We thought it was good.
Part of it was that we’d recently seen this documentary about Chris Claremont and his time writing the X-Men, so the original story was relatively fresh in my mind, as well as my memories of how that run just rocked my world back in 1979. (One of the side effects of the X-Men movies has been to remind me how much I really did love the X-books back in the day….I still have vivid memories of how excited I was to get the first trade paperback collection.)
So on the one hand you’ve got me, with all the history in my head, and on the other, my wife Julie who’s coming to it basically cold except for the other movies. And we both give Dark Phoenix a big thumbs-up. It honors the original story, and where it makes changes (incorporating Magneto and Genosha, changing the alien race from the punitive Shi’ar to a greedy unnamed species that, looking it up, is the D’Bari) the changes are GOOD.
They found a way to open with the space accident where Jean first confronts the Phoenix Force…
…We see Jean becoming more of a threat, putting her teammates down with ease…
…and just when we think the problem is solved, the aliens make their move.
There is heroism and nobility, tragedy and loss, love and anger and valid arguments for both mercy and ruthlessness. It’s not Claremont’s story exactly but the essence of it is, right down to the structure. The ending got us all puddled up, and I confessed to Julie that the original comics had done that to me when I was a teenager.
As to why it was reviewed so badly and everyone was waiting in the weeds for it? I don’t know. I especially don’t understand all the groaning about how it was poorly-written and not really the X-Men. It’s TOTALLY the X-Men, particularly the Claremont sensibility. Fans today are just spoiled rotten. A shitty X-Men movie looks like THIS, people.
But as far as I’m concerned Dark Phoenix is just fine and we’re happy to have it in the library. If it’s the end of the line for X-movies like people keep saying, this is a perfectly good one to go out on.
Finally got around to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World by a ridiculously roundabout path. Somehow, despite my love of Sherlock Holmes, and even reading one or two crossover pastiches wherein Holmes met Professor Challenger, I never got around to the book or even one of the many movies that have been made adapting the original story, until just a few weeks ago.
See, I do so much business with Amazon that we decided to upgrade to Prime; it paid for itself in about a week and a half just in shipping. Even better, though, we discovered to our delight that one of the things you get with Amazon Prime membership is free streaming of all kinds of old TV and movies. A lot of it’s crap, but there are genre things that are great fun– that’s how we got the Claremont documentary, along with this one which we also really enjoyed– and just a whole bunch of 1990s syndicated television stuff, a great deal of it from Fireworks Productions.
I confess I have a weakness for these, particularly Queen of Swords and the first couple of seasons of Andromeda.
Julie likes them too. So when The Lost World came up as an option, we thought we’d check it out.
It’s no Queen of Swords, but it’s a fun way to kill an hour. We are kind of ambling through it in between other things we are watching, and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to get to the actual Doyle novel since I was around ten years old. I found a nice hardcover for a buck or so and I just finished it yesterday.
It’s tremendous fun despite being horribly sexist in places, and you can easily see why it’s the non-Sherlock Conan Doyle work that has survived in pop culture to this day. I’m kind of amazed how much from the book made it through to the TV version, though it’s obvious why the television adaptation added the strong female characters.
I have to say I still prefer the Burroughs take on the basic idea (The Land that Time Forgot) but Doyle got there first and did it well.
And finally, The Illustrated Harlan Ellison.
Another one I saw and regretfully put back on the table back when it was new, this is the OTHER Preiss project I haven’t gotten around to for decades. But once I had the Zelazny volume in hand, this was the natural follow-up; especdially since it was the follow-up project from Preiss, as well.
Reading this one right after the Zelazny, I can see that some lessons were learned. For one thing, the extremely difficult-to-read side-by-side column page layouts are largely (but not entirely) dispensed with. The other decision was that instead of getting one artist to draw the book in a bunch of different styles, this time there are a bunch of different artists each tasked with one story; so the mix of styles is much more natural here, and it allowed Preiss to get star talent like Steranko and William Stout on the project.
The result of this is that the text and illustrations don’t seem to be nearly so much at war with one another as they do in the Zelazny book. It’s still not quite comics– Byron Preiss was utterly terrified of that classification, and in the late 1970s, he had good reason. (As it turned out, though the book sold well enough, it was still too expensive to produce and Baronet Books went out of business not too long afterward.) But it’s a lovely book just as an artifact, and though the prose is still in the maddeningly tiny micro-print, it’s not AS tiny as in the Zelazny. Overall this book’s just more comfortable to read.
The story selection is a nice mix between obscure and greatest-hits stuff, and I suspect there was more thought given this time to what kind of stories would be easiest to illustrate. I have a pretty fair collection of Ellison’s books here already, from Spider Kiss up through Slippage. So even though the stories aren’t new to me, it was very cool to revisit them in this new way. This is not to say that Preiss wasn’t still making completely deranged design decisions, like printing the illustrations for “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman” in 3-D, with paper spectacles bound in to the book itself.
Of course my copy’s pair are long gone. But thankfully Steranko was smart enough to design them in a way that the illustrations still look good without the glasses. (For a bespectacled reader such as myself, having to wear glasses over my glasses to read or to watch a movie is monstrously irritating.)
And like the Zelazny, the material original to the book is the star. This time it’s a long appreciation piece about artists Leo and Diane Dillon, who did a lot of work on Ellison’s books, and it’s profusely and lovingly illustrated with reprints of that work: both line-art illustrations and full-color paintings.
Worth the wait? Yes, absolutely, but good luck finding one at a reasonable price. They get snapped up almost as soon as they’re listed. I got mine for twelve, a mere three dollars or so above the original list price that completely horrified me in 1979, and counted it a bargain. Like I said, frame of reference.
Okay, that’s four from the pile. We’ll call it done for now.
Back next week with something cool.
Housekeeping note– if you should happen to click on one of the many Amazon links above and you end up purchasing an item– ANY item, not necessarily the one at the link — the Junk Shop gets a referral fee. If you feel a shopping spree coming on, please consider using our gateway. It helps to defray the costs around here and then we don’t have to put up annoying ads. Thanks.