An Apocalypse Ends

In 2016, I discovered the comic book Scooby Apocalypse. It was part of the Hanna-Barbera Beyond initiative, in which various Hanna-Barbera animated characters were imagined on the pages of DC Comics in darker, edgier situations than the original cartoons. In Scooby Apocalypse, the gang from Scooby-Doo Where Are You? found themselves trapped in a hellish world where a nanite plague has swept the world, turning most people into horrific monsters. Most books in the Hanna-Barbera Beyond series lasted no more than six issues. A few lasted for twelve issues. Scooby Apocalypse was definitely the longest lasting with a three-year 36-issue run.

The original Scooby-Doo Where Are You? debuted in 1969 during my preschool years. It was one of my favorite shows for many years. As a kid, I found the ghosts and monsters genuinely spooky. For that matter, the spooky space kook, a glowing skeleton in space armor with a cackling laugh still sends chills up my spine. Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Daphne, and Velma were all genuinely likable to me. I worried about them and was always relieved when they discovered the villain was just a criminal in a costume. The premise, no doubt, helped to give me some genuine skepticism, even if one of the characters was a talking dog!

As far as I’m concerned, Scooby had two really good seasons and the third season, The Scooby-Doo Movies, which went to an hour format and featured celebrity “guest stars” wasn’t too bad. As with many Scooby fans of my generation, I lost interest when Scooby’s plucky nephew Scrappy-Doo was introduced.

I did regain interest in the series when Warner Brothers started making direct-to-video Scooby-Doo stories. Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island came out in 1998 and I still think it’s one of the finest Scooby stories made. It imagined the team as adults. Fred and Daphne worked for a TV station on a show investigating paranormal claims. Velma owned a bookstore. Scooby and Shaggy were bouncing from job to job. To me, this felt like what the gang would be doing. They get together to look into claims of zombies in the Louisiana Swamp and they discover there is some truth to the claims. Now that I’ve been to Louisiana a few times, I feel like the story really captures some of the haunted mystery of the bayou country.

Now, this wasn’t the first time Scooby and the gang encountered “real” monsters, but earlier incarnations often made the “real” ghosts silly and cheesy and dropped them into the stories with no explanation. Zombie Island felt like a real continuation of the series. Other movies like The Witch’s Ghost were also fun.

Scooby Apocalypse is set in an alternate world where the gang meet up as adults. Like in Zombie Island, Fred and Daphne work for a TV station. Velma works at a research lab. Shaggy is a lab assistant and Scooby is part of an experiment giving dogs the power of speech. Over the course of the three-year run, we learn about Velma’s role in the creation of the nanites. We also meet two of her brothers. The gang gains allies in the form of Cliffy, an orphan boy with one arm and one of Velma’s sisters-in-law. We even meet Scrappy-Doo, who like Scooby is part of the program designed to give dogs intelligence and enhanced abilities. Scrappy starts out as a villain but ultimately becomes one of the good guys. One of my favorite elements was a romance between Shaggy and Velma. Watching the original series as an adult, I always felt the chemistry was there, but some reason, most later iterations ignored it.

The series also took some dark twists and turns. This really shouldn’t be surprising given that it’s apocalyptic fiction, but some moments were stunning given the source material. After three years, the series came to a generally satisfying conclusion. As it stands, it drags a bit in the middle and the ending felt a bit rushed. I think this is just the nature of comics publishing. You don’t get to plan the lengths of your story arcs very far in advance. On the whole, I’m glad I stuck around for the ride. Looking back on different incarnations of Scooby and the gang, I wouldn’t rate this as my favorite, but it’s still up in the top tier.

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When Mars Invaded England

In the twenty years from 1877 until 1897, the planet Mars underwent a dramatic transformation in the public’s consciousness. In 1877, Mars made a particularly close approach to the Earth. The planet’s two moons were discovered and efforts were made to map the planet’s surface in detail. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli announced the presence of interconnected features that resembled channels. Over the next 20 years, astronomers would continue to study the planet and many, including Schiaparelli, would come to believe those channels were canals engineered by intelligent Martians. In 1897, Pearson’s Magazine serialized The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Wells’ novel captures an image of the Martians very close to that painted by astronomers such as Percival Lowell. He portrayed them as an ancient people using their vast intellect to survive on a desert world. Wells imagined those Martians turning their attention to their lush neighbor, closer to the sun. He then imagines those intelligent, powerful beings pitting themselves against the most powerful nation on Earth at the time. Of course, to Wells, that would be Victorian England. The novel has a timeless quality and it’s not surprising that many people who adapt the story to other media present it in a setting contemporary to the presentation. Orson Welles imagined the Martians landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey of 1938 during his radio adaptation. George Pal set his movie in the Cold War of 1953. Steven Spielberg would again update the setting for his 2005 film.

As a fan of steampunk, I’ve always been a little disappointed that none of these mainstream adaptations return to the book’s original Victorian setting. That said, I recently came across an independent film that did just that and it’s pretty good. The movie is War of the Worlds: The True Story directed by Timothy Hines. It presents the story in a form that reminds me of History Channel documentaries and imagines that the Martians really did invade England in the last days of the nineteenth century. The film intercuts stock footage with dramatizations of scenes from the novel and interview segments with “Bertie Wells,” the last survivor of the Martian War. It would be hard to imagine a film adaptation that more faithfully captured the key points of the original novel.

In addition to the faithful adaptation and Victorian setting, I loved Floyd Reichman’s portrayal of the 86-year-old Bertie Wells, supposedly filmed in 1965. I also enjoyed the depiction of the Martian tripods, which you can see in the poster. I thought they were among the coolest versions of the Martian war machines I’ve seen portrayed so far. That noted, the Martians themselves did look like they might be well at home in a 50s B-movie, but they only make a brief appearance. Also, the stock footage did seem to come from a variety of sources over a somewhat longer time period than that covered by the film. Still, as a fan of both the novel and ambitious indie films, I thought the movie did a creditable job.

I gather that this is Timothy Hines’ second attempt to adapt The War of the Worlds. The first attempt was a movie called H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and it’s a three-hour, word-for-word retelling of the novel. I have not seen this version, but I gather the “historical recreations” from War of the Worlds: The True Story come from the earlier film. Reviews of the earlier film are not kind, but I admire Hines for persevering and recutting the film into a version that, while not perfect, is a lot of fun to watch.

My only complaint about War of the Worlds: The True Story is that I couldn’t obtain a copy of the movie on DVD. I tried to order through the official website. To the credit of the people who run the site, they refunded my money when they couldn’t deliver the DVD. The only way to watch is to stream it from Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/War-The-Worlds-True-Story/dp/B00HH0VG5E

Sisters of the Wild Sage

My parents loved to watch western movies on weekend afternoons when I was a kid. As I’ve mentioned before, I never really saw the appeal until I happened upon the TV series, The Wild Wild West starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin. Ostensibly, the show was a mashup of the western with spy shows that were popular in the day, but it also introduced science fictional and magic elements to the western. The Wild Wild West was my first real exposure to the weird western genre.

Another show that changed my mind about the western was the mini-series adaptation of James Michener’s Centennial. The series and book told the story of a Colorado town, showing the continuum of history from the Native Americans who lived in the area through the fur trappers to the early settlers, the farmers, the cattlemen, and ultimately finishing up in the present day, which was 1976 when the book came out. The classic western story exists in a brief moment in history, typically somewhere between about 1870 and 1890 and tends to ignore what led up to that time and what came after.

When Nicole Givens Kurtz asked me a few days ago if I’d like a preview copy of her new weird western story collection, Sisters of the Wild Sage, I jumped at the chance. I already knew Nicole’s talent. I’d published two of the collection’s stories in Tales of the Talisman Magazine. What’s more, her story “Justice” appeared in the anthology Six-Guns Straight from Hell alongside one of my stories and her story “The Wicked Wild” is in Straight Outta Tombstone.

Many of this collection’s stories are set in the mythic old west in a fictional town called Wild Sage, New Mexico. It’s not exactly that 1870-1890 time period. Instead the setting is the very early twentieth century, around the time my own family came to New Mexico, and still a time when New Mexico was very much the Wild West. These stories often tell about African American women just trying to find a peaceful existence in the world but having to deal with men who want to pull them back into the slavery they or their parents had just left behind. Fortunately, these women are often empowered by magical gifts that help them fight injustice.

My favorite of these “traditional” weird western tales was “Belly Speaker” which provides some truly scary twists to the spooky ventriloquist dummy story. “The Wicked Wild” is also a strong story about a cleaning woman who can summon wind having to battle a demon-possessed cowboy. In the collection’s title story, men come to run a pair of sisters from their land. Fortunately, one of the sisters can control plants and the other has a magically accurate aim with her six-gun.

Like Centennial, this collection spans time, giving a more complete view of the west. Stories like “Kq'” feature Native Americans, possibly even before people of European or African descent arrived in the west. Stories like “Los Lunas” and “The Trader” feature magic in the contemporary west. Nicole even takes us to the future in stories like “The Pluviophile” and “Rise.”

I highly recommend Sisters of the Wild Sage. The anthology will take you on a tour of the weird west not only as it existed in the past, but as it might exist in today’s dark shadows and also as it might exist in the future, especially if we don’t take steps to change the world we live in now. You can pre-order Sisters of the Wild Sage at: https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Wild-Sage-Western-Collection-ebook/dp/B07PBP3S7X/

Magic and Mayhem in the Old West

This past week, I had the pleasure of reading Incident at Whisper Falls by J. Stephen Thompson. It’s a short weird western novel that opens when an outlaw gang rides into the titular town and unleashes mayhem. Meanwhile a mysterious cardinal appears to a reverend and offers to answer the town’s prayers of getting rid of the outlaws. From there, we jump ahead a few years and meet McCray, a bounty hunter trailing a conman named Spenser Townshend, a so-called Mystik who uses magic to disguise himself and cheat at cards. McCray handily captures Townshend and the two ride off together like Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in 3:10 to Yuma. In this case, McCray hopes to hand Townshend to the marshal at Whisper Falls.

Instead of Whisper Falls, they find a town called Dignity about 20 miles to the east of where Whisper Falls is marked on McCray’s map. What’s more, anyone who seems to know anything about Whisper Falls seems disinclined to talk about it to the bounty hunter. McCray and Townshend continue to where Whisper Falls should be and find that magical forces have removed the town from our plane of existence entirely. What follows is a battle between the forces of good and evil that has elements of both classic westerns and dark fantasy.

We’re accustomed to classic high fantasy being set against a medieval backdrop, but this is really something borne of fantasy’s roots in fairy tales. In fact, when many familiar fairy tales were first told, the people telling them were just telling stories about the people and places around them, or things that might have happened in their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Another strong inspiration for modern fantasy tales are the heroic quests written by Renaissance writers who, in turn, had created idealized, romanticized versions of medieval knights and clerics to tell their moral tales.

Of course Renaissance writers weren’t the only ones to romanticize and idealize previous generations. The Japanese of the Meiji era created stories about idealized samurai. Here in America, we’ve created an idealized, mythic version of the Wild West. Add a little magic and a few monsters and these times and places become ideal settings for epic fantasy stories. Other great writers who’ve used a Wild West backdrop for their tales of epic fantasy include Stephen King in The Gunslinger and Jim Butcher in his story “A Fistful of Warlocks” from the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone.

Incident at Whisper Falls tells a satisfying, complete tale, but J. Stephen Thompson left several hooks for sequels to this first book of his Mystic America series. I look forward to seeing the further adventures of the bounty hunter McCray and his allies.

Discovery

At long last, the first season of Star Trek: Discovery has been released on DVD, BluRay, and iTunes. As a result, I was finally able to watch the season. That said, I should note that nothing actually prevented me from subscribing to CBS All-Access to watch the show there before it came out on home media. In fact, a few weeks ago, I gave in and subscribed for the trial period just to check it out. What I learned was that even when I viewed CBS All-Access from the highest speed internet I had available, I still experienced pauses and video glitches that detracted from the viewing experience. Also, as I suspected, I didn’t find enough available on CBS All-Access to feel compelled to stick with the service. I decided I’m content to wait a year for the series to appear on home media.

As for the series itself, I enjoyed it … mostly. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up as a Star Trek fan. I would run home from school and anxiously turn on the TV to catch episodes of the original series. Star Trek was, in many ways, the series that’s responsible for the start of my writing career. This new incarnation of Star Trek is set about a decade before the original series and the first season tells the story of the Federation’s war with the Klingon Empire. The story is told from the point of view of Michael Burnham, who starts out as first officer of the U.S.S. Shenzhou. In an attempt to stave off war, she commits an act of mutiny and ultimately ends up being recruited by Captain Lorca of the Starship Discovery to help in the war effort. It turns out that the Discovery has a special new type of drive that utilizes a biophysical network to transport it almost instantaneously from one place to another. Over the course of the series, we get to see plenty of Klingon politics, the return of original series villain Harry Mudd, and a return to the Mirror Universe where humans have formed a tyrannical empire.

I liked how the series used the Klingons to explore issues of cultural assimilation and appropriation. In the original series, Harry Mudd was something of a comic foil for Captain Kirk. In the new series Rain Wilson managed to give Mudd a decidedly dark and sinister twist. I thought the deeper exploration of the mirror universe was pretty cool. I enjoyed all the actors and was especially pleased to see the navigator and helmsman of Discovery both played by women. I felt the season-long story arc suited Star Trek. I also really liked the almost “lower decks” approach to the show where we see the action through the eyes of people who are not the most senior officers. What’s more, this series improved on Star Trek: The Next Generation where for all their high-minded talk of equality, the senior officers often took an almost elitist approach to their juniors.

My main problem with the series is the so-called spore drive. While I don’t have an intrinsic problem with the idea of a biophysical network that spans the universe and perhaps even bridges universes, I wasn’t so keen on the idea that it would provide an almost magical way of letting you move instantly between two quite distant points. Also, while I liked the season-long story arc, I felt it wrapped up just a little too neatly in the final episode and the solution relied on the Klingon homeworld being constructed in a way that seems inconsistent with our understanding of planetary geology.

Those issues noted, I liked it enough that I’ll almost certainly be back for season two … when it comes out on home media.

As I mentioned earlier, Star Trek was responsible for the start of my writing career. My first, albeit unpublished, novel was set between the end of the original series and the first movie. When I learned that it was unlikely that I could publish that novel because I was a young, untested writer, I created the starship Legacy and Captain Ellison Firebrandt. Because Firebrandt is a privateer, he ended up being quite a bit different than Captain Kirk. Monday is the official release day for my latest book set in this universe, Firebrandt’s Legacy. The ebook is available right now for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. I can’t quite control the release date for the print edition to the same degree as the ebook, but I expect it to be available by Monday. The Amazon link should indicate when it’s live.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

As the year starts, I have the rare treat of being able to visit the Tucson Steampunk Society’s Book Club two months in a row. This month, I visited as a reader. The club’s selection is the fine novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. I’ll visit next month because the selection is my own novel, Owl Riders. It’s always a pleasure to visit the club and speak to its members about my books. This rare double visit gets to happen because my work schedule at Kitt Peak had start dates the Monday following each of the meetings.

Set in 1883, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street tells the story of Thaniel Steppleton, a telegraph operator in Britain’s Home Office who returns from work one day to find a watch in his rooms. An alarm on the watch saves him from an Irish bomb planted at Scotland Yard. Curious about the origin of the watch, he goes in search of its maker, who he suspects may be tied to the bombing. The maker is a Japanese watchmaker named Keita Mori. Not only does Mori make watches, but he makes amazing automata such as birds and an octopus named Katsu with randomized gears that make him seem almost alive.

Meanwhile, Grace Carrow, an Oxford student who anticipates the Michaelson-Morley experiment and also owns a Mori watch meets Thaniel at a party. She is frustrated by the limitations placed on academic women of her period, but she stands to inherit a house from her aunt if she can find someone to marry. She sets her sights on Thaniel.

The story takes many twists and turns and explores the nature of time, artificial intelligence, and precognition. What’s more, it’s well bounded by actual historical events. The bombing of Scotland Yard actually did happen, as did other significant events in the book. At the steampunk society book club meeting, the question was raised about whether this book was more steampunk or more historical fiction. Using my rough and ready description of steampunk as “Victorian inspired fantasia,” I call it very thoroughly steampunk in its exploration of scientific ideas and even “what ifs” through the lens of a Victorian reality.

Another interesting discussion we had at the book club was about whether or not the novel has an actual villain. Throughout the novel, we’re interested in figuring out who bombed Scotland Yard. Despite that, time itself and the time period are almost presented as greater antagonists than the actual bomber. We also discussed the characters and the characterization in the novel and we came to the insight that at this period of time, many of the people are almost treated as parts of a clockwork machine. All in all, it was a fascinating discussion.

As I say, next month, we’ll be discussing my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders at the Tucson Steampunk Society Book Club. If you’re in Tucson, I encourage you to join us. The club meets on the second Sunday of each month at 3:30pm at Antigone Books, located at 411 N. 4th Avenue in Tucson. The meeting to discuss Owl Riders will be on Sunday, February 10. If you can’t join us, The book club takes video of the meetings and they’re posted to the Society’s Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/TucsonSteampunkSociety/. If you want to learn more about the novel and where to order, visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

On the subject of schedules, I have been posting new content to this blog every Monday and Saturday. I’ve decided to make a change and start posting every Tuesday and Saturday. I’m doing this to give more even spacing of the posts each week. Also, because of her schedule, my daughter will start updating her blog every Monday. Even though our audiences aren’t identical, it does allow some more effective cross promotion. You can find my daughter’s blog about her crochet business at http://entropycreations.wordpress.com.

Squirrel Girl

A number of my birthday and Christmas presents in 2018 revolved around one of my favorite comic books, Marvel’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. For those who haven’t encountered the character, she’s a college-age woman with a big bushy tail, can speak to squirrels, and has the proportional strength of a squirrel. Her alter ego is Doreen Green, a university computer science student.

What first attracted me to the comic were the covers. Instead of the usual muscle-bound or hyper-sexualized heroes, the covers featured this rather ordinary looking girl with a squirrel-ear headband and a big tail. There was action in the covers, but it was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It made me want to learn more. I dived in and quickly discovered that the writing delivered on the promise of the covers.

What makes Squirrel Girl interesting is that she’s not your garden variety hero with a dark origin trying to fight or solve mysteries in an increasingly grim reality. She often looks for solutions that work best for everyone involved. She tries to get to the root of why bad guys are doing bad things and helps them solve that problem. The result is that she tends to make more friends than enemies. Of course, some bad guys don’t want their problems solved. In that case, Squirrel Girl has no problem kicking their butts, often with the help of an army of New York City squirrels, but also with her college roommate Nancy and fellow superheroes Koi Boy and Chipmunk Hunk. And let’s not forget Brain Drain, a disembodied brain transplanted into a robot body who quotes existentialist literature and is always there to help our heroes.

As it turns out, the artist whose work captured my attention is Erica Henderson. When I see an artist whose work grabs my attention, I like to learn more about where their work has appeared. As I followed up on her other work, it suddenly dawned on me that Erica was the daughter of long-time Tales of the Talisman contributor C.J. Henderson and, in fact, I had published some of Erica’s art in volume II, issue 3 of the magazine! If you’d like a copy, back issues are available at: http://talesofthetalisman.com/bookstore-v2.html

As for the presents themselves, among them were the graphic novels that I showed up at the top of the post. Not only did I get books but my youngest daughter designed and sewed a Squirrel Girl plush for me. Now one of my favorite features of the comic book is the letters section. You see, not only does Doreen Green try to make friends, but the letters are positive and fun as well, especially when they encourage young fans in their creativity. When Verity made me the plush, I had to take a photo and send it in. As it turns out, they just published the photo and my letter in issue number 40. That was a real delight.

If you’re a comic book fan looking for something that’s light but thoughtful, fun but intelligent, I highly recommend checking out Marvel’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.