The Stories They Tell

I recently had a chance to see the movie The Kid which was directed by Vincent D’Onofrio and stars stars Ethan Hawke as Pat Garrett and Dane DeHaan as Billy the Kid. The movie is actually focused on a boy, Rio (played by Jake Schur), and his sister, Sara (played by D’Onofrio’s daughter, Leila George) who have an abusive father. One night, the father goes into a rage and starts beating their mother. Unable to stand it any longer, Rio shoots his father, but it’s too late. Rio and Sara’s mother is already gone. What’s more, their uncle (played by Chris Pratt) is as bad or worse than the father and he plans no good for his niece and nephew because of what they did to his brother.

The kids escape their uncle only to take refuge in a shack that Billy the Kid and his associates use as a hideout. Billy and Rio take a liking to each other just as newly minted Sheriff Pat Garrett arrives to take the gang in. There’s a shootout, during which Charlie Bowdre is killed. Pat takes Billy’s gang into custody, then discovers Rio and Sara. They make up a story about meeting their parents in Santa Fe. Pat doesn’t quite believe them, but offers to take them anyway. At this point, the movie essentially follows the historical story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, while Rio tries to decide which of the two to trust with his secret. Later in the film, the stakes are upped when the uncle captures Sara. Then Rio must make a decision about who can be trusted to help rescue his sister.

I first heard this movie was in production soon after watching the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. I was curious what other movies Dane DeHaan had been in and when I saw he would be playing Billy the Kid and Ethan Hawke (who had a bit part in Valerian) would be Pat Garrett, I knew I had to see this movie. It struck me that DeHaan had the potential to be a great Billy and he didn’t disappoint. Despite the Valerian connections, the movie almost crosses over more with the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven, in which Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke all had starring roles. Despite these connections and despite watching for it, the movie managed to come and go from theaters without my notice.

Overall, the movie used historical characters and events the way I try to in my steampunk and weird western stories. They became a way to ground the story in a historical reality and give it a sense of authenticity. For the most part, the history actually seemed quite good. The major events Billy the Kid’s last days played out as I know the story from Pat Garrett’s own book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. I only had two historical quibbles. First, they kept referring to New Mexico as a state. New Mexico wouldn’t become a state until 31 years after Billy’s death. Also, Santa Fe looked too much like a western boom town and not the longtime settlement it was.

The line that resonated most with me was one spoken by Pat Garrett near the end of the film. “It doesn’t matter what’s true. It matters the story they tell when you’re gone.” It echoes why characters like Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett are so fascinating. We have images and we have countless depictions, but we still want to get to know the truth of those characters. Sometimes we find new truths when we see them through the eyes of contemporaries as was imagined in The Kid. I think they did a great job of portraying Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as humans, neither totally good nor bad, but products of their circumstances. Sometimes we find truths when we put these characters into new situations as I do in the Clockwork Legion novels.

You can learn more about the Clockwork Legion novels by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Holmes, Pirates, and Cthulhu. Oh my!

Back in March, I had the honor of meeting Kazumitsu Akamatsu at Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona. Akamatsu is not only a steampunk fanatic, he’s also written for anime and Japanese cinema, he’s an artist, and he’s a SOFUBI master. SOFUBI are Japanese soft vinyl figures, often depicting monsters. Here I am with Akamatsu and one of the other vendors, posing with steampunk guns he made. I’m the one with the red hair in a costume inspired by my Captain Firebrandt character.

I have been watching Gravion, one of the anime series Akamatsu contributed to. The premise is familiar to fans of anime from the early 2000s. A team of young people fly fighter craft which can combine with a smaller robot into a giant robot called Gravion, which is Earth’s best defense against alien invasion. The show has good action and a fun sense of humor. One thing that makes it stand out for me is that we have more young women in this team than men.

While at Wild Wild West Con, my wife and I bought Akamatsu’s book, The Quest for R’LYEH. In this steampunk book, a young Japanese woman named Mari enlists the aid of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to keep evil forces from traveling to Atlantis so they can wake the greatest of the old ones himself, Cthulhu. They get help from the mysterious Lady Steam and even take a ride on the Nautilus with Captain Nemo. Along the way, they must face a menagerie of Lovecraftian abominations, pirates, and even Rasputin. The story could be the basis for a terrific anime series or even a movie.

Although the plot was great fun, the prose was a challenge to follow. It felt like a word-for-word translation from the Japanese, without taking into account English grammar and idiom. The cover does say “Draft” so I wonder if a more polished translation will eventually be available. That said, the real gems in this book are Akamatsu’s beautiful illustrations of steampunk gadgets and Lovecraftian horrors. As a fan of Jules Verne, and now a fan of Kazumitsu Akamatsu’s work, I would love a model of his Nautilus design.

One of the reasons I enjoy going to conventions like Wild Wild West Con is having the opportunity to meet artists that I might not encounter in other venues. Meeting Mr. Akamatsu led me to explore his work and learn more about his art. I’ve long been inspired by Japanese television, cinema, and writing. Mr. Akamatsu’s writing has already inspired me to add an airship cameo to my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m sure his work will inspire me in other ways as well.

Godzilla vs Godzilla

This past weekend, my daughter took me to see the American film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters for Father’s Day. Earlier in the week, we watched the 2016 Japanese film Shin Godzilla. Afterwards, we had fun comparing and contrasting the two films. Since Shin Godzilla is something of a reboot, it might make more sense to compare the Japanese film to the 2014 American Godzilla, but King of the Monsters is the one that’s fresh in my memory and it is a direct sequel to the earlier film.

As I understand, the Japanese word “shin” has several meanings including “evolved,” “new” and “god.” All of them could apply to the Godzilla of Shin Godzilla. The movie has occasionally been shown under the title Godzilla: Resurgence, but I like the way the audience is invited to interpret the meaning of Shin Godzilla. The movie’s plot is familiar. A giant creature has appeared off the coast of Japan and soon begins rampaging through population centers. When the creature first appears, it’s not the familiar Godzilla form, but rather a fish-eyed, gilled creatures with rudimentary forearms, more like flippers. As the movie progresses, we learn that this Godzilla can evolve to meet whatever challenges he’s faced with and eventually takes on his familiar form.

The movie doesn’t actually spend a lot of time on the monster. Instead, Shin Godzilla focuses on the politicians and scientists trying to figure out what to do about the monster. An important feature of this is how it shows the relationship between the United States and Japan. The United States attempts to control the situation and wants to use atomic bombs to destroy the monster. Of course, this doesn’t go over at all well with the Japanese, even though they see it might be the only choice. This part of the plot strongly recalls the 1954 Godzilla, but updated to reflect modern politics. One standout character is the American Foreign Secretary to Japan, who is, herself, Japanese-American and stands in contrast to the male-dominated Japanese cabinet.

Perhaps the most striking element of Shin Godzilla is Godzilla’s design. This Godzilla is lean, mean, huge and terrifying. He also strikes me as something out of H.R. Giger’s worst nightmares. By contrast, America’s Godzilla looks like he could stand to lose a few pounds. I could accept that he’s just meant to look muscular, but every time I saw his body, I thought he looked more like a large squirrel than a fearsome dragon.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is at once a loving tribute to the Japanese Godzilla franchise and an American action film. I loved the variety of monsters they portrayed. Godzilla’s nemesis is the three-headed, hydra-like King Ghidorah, who is truly ferocious. By comparison, we should have sympathy for Godzilla, so that no doubt helps to contribute to his gentler design.

King of the Monsters opens on senate hearings into the Monarch project, which monitors the monsters, or Titans, as they’re known. I began to wonder if we were going to see something similar to the Japanese version, but it soon turns into standard action fare as bioterrorists capture a scientist and her daughter to make them unleash the Titans to “correct” all the damage humankind has done to the planet.

Perhaps my biggest issue with King of the Monsters is that it follows a trope I’ve been seeing in American films of late where women sacrifice themselves so the men they’re with can succeed. There are some unique twists on this, and I’ll avoid saying more to avoid spoilers, but I still found myself predicting all too easily who wouldn’t make it to the end of the film. Immediately after the film, my daughter and I started listing off several other plot issues. Jeez, don’t bioterrorists believe in guarding their secret headquarters? That said, it’s not like Japanese Godzilla films have all been cinematic masterpieces.

So, who wins in this battle of Godzilla vs. Godzilla? Godzilla: King of the Monsters was a lot more fun on the first watch. There was a lot of action and I cared about the characters. I enjoyed going on the ride the filmmakers created for me. However, I have a sense, that the more I watch it, the more issues I’ll have with it. Shin Godzilla was a bit slow and had a lot of political wrangling, but there were interesting layers in the film and I came away having a sense that if I watched again, I would see things I missed the first time. Both held up mirrors and asked us to consider whether kaiju or humans are really the most terrifying monster. Of the two, Shin Godzilla not only gave me scarier Godzilla, it gave me the most think about on that score.

Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers

Back in March, I shared a post about an animated space western I remember fondly called BraveStarr about a Native American marshal on the frontier world of New Texas and the band of desperadoes he had to cope with. Responding to that post, Deby Fredericks recommended another animated space western from about the same time called Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. I finally had a chance to watch a few episodes and I found it to be an interesting, albeit different take on the space western.

Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers is set in 2086, a century after the show’s production. The galaxy is ruled by an authoritarian regime called the Crown. However, a handful of planets have united against the Crown and have asked Earth to help them fight for freedom, in exchange, the planets united against the Crown have given humans hyperdrive technology. The human armed forces are the Bureau of Extra-Terrestrial Affairs (or BETA). The Galaxy Rangers are an elite corps of BETA operatives. Each of the four Galaxy Rangers have bionic implants that give them superhuman abilities.

The team leader is Zachary Foxx, voiced by Law and Order’s Jerry Orbach. His implant gives him super strength and he can fire energy beams from his arm. Shane Goosman, or simply “Goose,” is modeled on Clint Eastwood. His implant allows him to adapt to dangerous conditions. Niko has some limited psychic abilities and her implants enhance that ability. She also has a limited ability to “communicate” with machines. Walter “Doc” Hartford rounds out the Galaxy Rangers. His implants give him direct control with numerous mobile AIs who can interact with computers and gather information.

Whereas BraveStarr was a literal western set in space, Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers reminds me more of Joss Whedon’s show Firefly, where there is a lot of high tech, but frontier worlds are primitive and look like the old west simply because of limited supplies. There are considerable numbers of alien races and factions including criminal gangs and space pirates. The show is best when it creates a serious situation for one or more of the rangers to deal with and lets them solve the problems posed by the situation.

It seems like it took a few episodes for the writers to hit their stride and find a good storytelling formula. Early episodes in particular seemed to break out of action and give us some “cartoon humor” such as when a space pirate captain does a spit take and his minion pops an umbrella out his headgear to keep from getting drenched. It’s cute but it does pull you out of the action and doesn’t really fit the tone of the series as it ultimately developed.

One interesting aspect of the series is that it’s an early collaboration between an American production company and a Japanese animation studio. This kind of collaboration would pave the way for some truly great series such as Avatar: The Last Airbender. The animation studio is the same one that would go on to create the groundbreaking Akira. As a result, the series has something of an anime feel. What’s more, the voice director was Peter Fernandez who voiced the American dub of Speed Racer. Corinne Orr who voiced Trixie in Speed Racer voices the Queen of the Crown in Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers.

What is odd is to realize that BraveStarr and Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers both came out within a year of each other in the mid 1980s. It’s hard to say what drove the interest in animated space westerns. The only thing I can see is the release of both Silverado and Pale Rider in 1985, which revived an interest in westerns generally, but I can’t remember either film having a strong appeal with young people at the time. Galaxy Rangers also clearly takes a lot of influence from Star Wars. Some ships resemble X-wing fighters. A space pirate has a laser sword and a village of primitives resembles the Ewok village from Return of the Jedi.

Even though BraveStarr was the show that influenced me when I first wrote my novel The Pirates of Sufiro some 25 years ago, I strove to make the space western elements more realistic as they are in Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. However, my science fiction influences were shows like Star Trek and Star Blazers along with the writing of authors like Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein. One thing that causes Galaxy Rangers to show its age is the very 1980s power ballad soundtrack. I was more influenced by the Texas blues of ZZ Top when I wrote Pirates.

Like BraveStarr, I’m hard pressed to recommend binge watching the entirety of Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers in one go, but if you like space westerns, watching at least a few is a fun way to spend an evening or two. If you want to help me revise The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary, sign on at my Patreon site: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

Phoenix Fan Fusion

From Thursday, May 23 through Sunday, May 26, I will be at Phoenix Fan Fusion in Phoenix, Arizona. It is a major pop culture event featuring numerous celebrity guests from television and the movies including such folks as Jeff Goldblum, Paul Reubens, Nichelle Nichols, Catherine Tate and many more. There are also numerous writers and artists from the comic industry, many writers from Arizona and beyond, and a huge dealer floor where you can find toys, videos, comics, books, and much more. You can learn more about the event at: https://phoenixfanfusion.com/

I will have a table at the Amazing Wykid Writer’s Island in the vendor hall. This group is organized by talented author, artist, and jeweler, Terry L. Smith. She writes mythology/science fiction fusion, sells jewelry to match her books, and now has art. Her paintings continue the theme of space mythology fusion. Also in our group are a wide array of science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, and non-fiction writers, artists, and editors such as DuAnn Black, Dr. Bruce C. Davis, Hal C.F. Astell, Deena Remiel, K.C. Klein, Jenn Windrow, Sara Fujimura, J.F. Castillo, The Klute, Ross Caligiuri, Patrick Tylee, Joel Cunningham, Mariann Asinuma, Mark Rude, John B. Newsome III, and David Mogan. I have no doubt if you visit us, you will find a book or some art you will want to take home. Andrea Ritschoff has written a terrific introduction to all the authors and artists of the Amazing Wykid Writers and you can read that at: http://www.duncansbooksandmore.com/phoenix-fan-fusion-one-more-week/

You can find the Amazing Wykid Writers in the lower level exhibitor hall at tables A1701 through A1814. If you’re a Star Trek fan, you can probably remember that first table number pretty easily. Here’s a map of the lower level exhibitor hall. We’re the group of tables marked with the red oval.

Of course, Phoenix Fan Fusion is not just about exhibitors. Several of the Amazing Wyked Writers will be on panels over the course of the weekend. I will be on a panel from 1:30-2:30pm on Saturday, May 25 called “Global Warming and the Future World We Build in Books.” Earth is changing, whether we want it to or not. Global Warming is real, as are the consequences. As authors, have we built these changes into the books we’re writing? Probably not. Should we? How might Global Warming actually change Earth beyond what we recognize today? How might it change the populations of our world? Come listen to our authors as they share their insights, professionally and prospectively. On the panel with me are Dr. Bruce Davis, the Klute, Lloyd Pulley, Katie Salidas, and T.L. Smith.

I last had the chance to go to Phoenix Comic Con in 2015. I missed 2016 because I was in Baltimore for the release of the anthology Gaslight and Grimm. My observatory schedule prevented my attendance in 2017, and in 2018 I was attending my daughter’s graduation in New Orleans. So, it’ll be good to be back in Phoenix for Memorial Day weekend. If you’re in town, I hope you’re able to join us!

The Vampire Lovers

In my story “Fountains of Blood” that appears in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone, the vampire Marcella hands the protagonist, Billy, a copy of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla to help him understand what vampires are. I used Carmilla partly because the story my story is centered around the 1896 Albert Fountain disappearance and Dracula was still a year away from publication. I also chose it because I thought this story of a female vampire would resonate well with my vampire character, Marcella.

Because Carmilla predates Dracula, it does not contain many of the tropes we often associate with vampires. Like many vampires of folklore, Carmilla has ghost-like qualities. She can move through locked doors and haunt people’s dreams. If she’s bothered by religious iconography, LeFanu doesn’t say. I have wondered if any good films were made of LeFanu’s story and I recently discovered that Hammer Studios produced one in 1970 under the title The Vampire Lovers. Just to note, the poster reproduced on the Blu-Ray case does not reflect the film’s content. We never see a hapless male victim chained up and being ravaged by a horde of female vampires.

Overall, the film is remarkably faithful to LeFanu’s novella. The story is more linear. The novella opens when a carriage topples. The passengers prove to be Carmilla and her mother. The mother pleads with an English gentleman to allow Carmilla to rest and recover while she continues her journey. The gentleman agrees and Carmilla enters his home where she seduces the gentleman’s daughter, Laura. Over time, Laura begins to succumb to a mysterious illness. Later, we learn that a similar incident happened in the home of General Spielsdorf when Carmilla, then calling herself Millarca, seduces his ward Bertha. Over time, Bertha grows pale and weak and eventually dies. In the movie, we see the incident in General Spielsdorf’s house first followed by the second incident. For some reason, the filmmakers named General Spielsdorf’s ward Laura and gave the second young lady the name Emma.

That noted, there are more than a couple of superficial changes. For some reason, we get a lot more men in the filmed version. There’s a male vampire overseeing the Countess and Carmilla. There’s a love interest for Emma who comes riding to the rescue at the end, although he doesn’t seem to do much else in the film. The characters of Madame Perrodon and Mademoiselle De LeFontaine from the novella are combined into the character of “Mademoiselle Perrodon” and a male butler is introduced. What’s more, at the ending of the Victorian novella, Laura, Madame Perrodone and Mademoiselle De LeFontaine are all out hunting the vampire with General Spielsdorf and Laura’s father. In the movie, Emma is wasting away at home while the men are out hunting.

Carmilla is very much a story of a female vampire seducing young women and it feels like the filmmakers in 1970 were trying to imply that the victims needed real men to both defend them and show them how much better love would be with a man. It’s interesting to see that the Victorian author didn’t do this, though LeFanu often nods and winks to his audience telling us how scandalous the women’s behavior is.

If you’re as fascinated by vampire stories as I am, you definitely should not miss Carmilla. It’s a short read and available for free at Project Gutenberg. The movie is also worth a watch and features notable performances by Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla, Peter Cushing as General Spielsdorf, and Kate O’Mara as Mademoiselle Perrodon. Be aware this is the era when Hammer started undressing its female leads at any opportunity, so if that offends, you might want to skip this film. If you want to know more about my vampires and the history of Marcella, be sure to read Vampires of the Scarlet Order. You can find more details and the first chapter at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html.

Dracula: A Toy Theatre

Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, worked as the manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre for some 27 years. By the accounts I read, Stoker fell in love with the theatre during his childhood days when he would watch pantomime performances in Dublin. Because of his close association with the theater, it’s perhaps no surprise that Dracula adapts well to stage. In fact, famous film Draculas, Bela Lugosi and Frank Langella, both performed the role on stage before they performed the role on film.

Langella’s debut as Dracula came in a 1977 adaptation that used sets designed by illustrator Edward Gorey. In fact, Gorey designed his sets for a 1973 revival that began its run on Nantucket, the same island where I had my first full-time astronomy job. Gorey’s designs would be used in performances starring not only Langella, but such notable actors as Raul Julia, Jeremy Brett, and Terence Stamp each taking a turn as the famous count. As a fan of both Dracula and Edward Gorey, I was curious about whether Gorey’s designs had been preserved in photographs. It turns out, Pomegranate Press went above and beyond preserving the set designs and actually created a whole miniature toy theatre. I was delighted to learn that the toy theatre was still in print and promptly ordered one.

I soon discovered the toy theatre is not small. Assembled, it’s about a foot tall and sits on a 16-inch hexagon. I ordered my copy of the toy theatre soon after Christmas, but only recently cleared enough shelf space to set it up, because as an Edward Gorey and Dracula fan, this is something worthy of display. It shows the three sets of this stage production including some simple furniture and standup figures of the cast. There’s also a short four-page booklet that describes the play’s acts. Of course, as with most theatrical adaptations of Dracula, it simplifies the plot and emphasizes certain elements.

Close up of Dr. Seward’s study. Count Dracula meets Lucy.

Although the toy theatre is large, it was easy to assemble. The pieces are printed on light card stock, perforated at the cuts and scored at the folds. The instructions call for tape to hold it together. That does seem to be the best choice since the floors don’t have overlapping tabs to hold them together. I used a combination of light strapping tape, magic tape and double-sided tape to hold it together. I did use glue on a couple of small seams and that worked well. I do imagine the tape will eventually dry out and the poor theatre will no longer stand up, but that’s the nature of the theatre. It doesn’t last forever.

I’m sorry to say I’ve never seen an adaptation of Dracula using Gorey’s designs. The 1979 movie starring Frank Langella went for a more realistic approach. I did see a lovely adaptation of the novel performed on stage at New Mexico State University in the early 2000s, shortly after my novel, Vampires of the Scarlet Order had been released. In fact, the producers raffled off a copy of the novel and asked me to come up on stage to present it to the winner. As someone who enjoys stagecraft, it was a delight to make a brief appearance on stage. What’s more, the play was great, too.

If you would like your own copy of Edward Gorey’s Dracula: A Toy Theatre, you can find them from the publisher at: https://www.pomegranate.com/a648.html. They’re also available from many online retailers. You can learn more about Vampires of the Scarlet Order at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html. The ebook edition is available for only 99 cents, but I highly recommend the print edition which includes lovely black and white illustrations by Steven Gilberts. Like Edward Gorey, Gilberts’ illustrations are lovely and stir the imagination.