JSA Strange Adventures

I saw this graphic novel on the shelf of my local comic shop and pointed it out to my wife. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, I’m a fan of the first superhero team in comics, the Justice Society of America, who first appeared around World War II. What’s more, this comic was penned by Kevin J. Anderson, a writer I’ve long enjoyed and one I’ve had the privilege of working with. Not only that, but one of the truly legendary science fiction writers, Jack Williamson, both wrote the introduction and plays a starring role in the story. I was pleased when the graphic novel turned up as one of this year’s birthday presents.

The graphic novel collects comics originally released in 2004-2005. It tells the story of Lord Dynamo, an intellect with amazing powers and an army cyborgs at his command, who promises to end World War II and bring peace and prosperity if only Green Lantern will give up his power ring and Starman will give up his Gravity Rod. The Justice Society, of course, doesn’t believe things can be solved this easily and works to uncover the truth behind Lord Dynamo’s plans. In the meantime, Justice Society member Johnny Thunder, whose sole power is summoning a genie called Thunderbolt, wants to be a science fiction writer. Because the public is clamoring for Justice Society tales, famed editor Hugo Gernsback teams Johnny up with Jack Williamson.

The art in the graphic novel is beautiful. Barry Kitson and Gary Erskine did a great job of bringing the Justice Society to life on the page. Anderson’s story feels like the classic Justice Society stories that appeared way back in All-Star Stories comics during World War II. I was especially amused to see Jack Williamson ponder a trip to one of my frequent college haunts, the Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico, for a green chile cheeseburger, though it would be out of the way given Williamson’s road trip from New York to Portales!

I’ve been fortunate to know Kevin J. Anderson for several years now. Our stories appear together in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone. The photo above shows Kevin and I together at the signing event for the book in Denver, Colorado. Kevin is also the publisher of Maximum Velocity, the anthology that collects eighteen exciting science fiction stories about everything from pirates to ghosts to battles in space.

I was also fortunate to have met Jack Williamson in person. He was born in Bisbee, Arizona in 1908, but his family moved to rural New Mexico when he was young. He sold his first story to Hugo Gernsback in 1928. In the 1930’s, teenaged Isaac Asimov was one of his fans. He served in World War II as a weather forecaster, then in the 1950s he earned degrees in English from Eastern New Mexico University. He won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for his writing, was inducted in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, received the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement plus a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association.

I had the opportunity to speak to Jack Williamson a few times at Bubonicon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He liked the fact that I encouraged new writers through the magazine I edited at the time, Tales of the Talisman, and told me I was doing a good job.

The graphic novel of JSA Strange Adventures appears to have limited availability, but the individual issues are still in print and they’re available digitally at Amazon and Comixology. If you want to check out Maximum Velocity, which includes short fiction I’ve both written and edited and which is published by Kevin J. Anderson, you can learn more by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/Maximum-Velocity.html

Vintage Justice

Reading is an essential part of any writer’s life. However, sometimes, I really do feel pressed for time to read. When that happens, my attention often goes to comic books. The best comics tell really good, tight stories and are presented with artwork I really admire. Lately, I’ve been spending time exploring the adventures of the Justice Society of America.

For those not familiar with the JSA, they were the original comic book super hero team, invented during World War II. The lineup included original versions of the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom, along with heroes I’ve spoken about before like Sandman. Other members familiar to modern readers of DC comics include Dr. Fate, the Spectre, and Hawkman. Thanks to digital comics, it’s fairly easy to find their early adventures. In those stories, the Justice Society largely stays in the United States and roots out Nazi sympathizers and other criminals who want to undermine the war effort. Each hero usually receives their own assignment and we follow that hero’s story for a few pages, then move on to the story of another hero. At the end, they would come together to wrap up the case.

DC Comics has brought back the JSA in various forms over the years. Most recently at the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer presented a JSA composed of elder heroes training a new generation. These stories are a lot of fun and we get to see children and grandchildren of those original heroes. Still, my favorite stories are those actually told in the original time period. I think there’s a lot of room for these kinds of stories, especially after I read the excellent run of Sandman Mystery Theatre. I was excited recently to find the graphic novel JSA: The Liberty Files originally published in 2004, that imagined early members of the society taking a more active role in the war effort.

JSA: The Liberty Files is one of DC’s so-called Elseworld stories. They ask what if the heroes existed in a different time and place than they did in the main continuity of the universe. Of course, continuity in comic books is relative since many heroes rarely seem to age beyond their thirties! The first story in The Liberty Files imagines Batman teaming up with Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite to track down a real Nazi Super-Man. Hourman is scientist Rex Tyler who developed a pill that gives him super powers for just one hour a day. Dr. Mid-Nite is Dr. Charles McNider, a doctor who can’t see well in regular light but has excellent night vision. Both Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite were early members of the classic JSA.

In the second story, Batman, Hourman, and a more familiar Superman along with some other JSA members must determine who is killing American agents in Berlin. I like the dark, realistic artwork in these stories. I think they allow for a little more exploration of the characters, though I was a little disappointed to see Batman and Superman take the limelight away from the lesser known JSA members. There were also some points where I felt the JSA members could have avoided disaster if they’d been a little smarter. And really, the best superheroes do rely more on their intellect and how they apply their powers than relying on the powers themselves.

I know there are a few other modern JSA stories told in vintage style available and I do plan to look those up in the coming months. I find these appealing in much the way I enjoy steampunk and other retro-futuristic stories. In many ways, a steampunk world is like a good superhero world. It’s one where heroes use their intellect to apply science or magic to solve a problem. Like an “Elseworlds” story, steampunk is an alternate universe that asks what would have happened if different conditions were met than those which happened in the world as we know it.

You can explore my Clockwork Legion Steampunk World by reading the following books, maybe you’ll find your next favorite “superhero.”

Downtown Arts Ramble

On Friday, June 7, I’ll be at Zia Comics in Las Cruces, New Mexico from 5-7 pm, where I’ll be available to talk about my books and sign them as part of the Las Cruces Downtown Arts Ramble. The Downtown Art Ramble is held on the 1st Friday of every month.  As a self-guided tour, visitors get to explore the galleries, shops, businesses, and restaurants of Downtown Las Cruces. With refreshments and entertainment along the way, this event is a great Friday night out.

At the event, I’ll be featuring my recent titles, including Firebrandt’s Legacy, which tells the story of space pirate Ellison Firebrandt, who is already a force to be reckoned with when he discovers a remarkable new drive system and meets a woman who can help it reach its full potential. I will also have copies of Maximum Velocity on hand. This book features eighteen stories of epic space action featuring pirates, strong women, the military, monsters, vagabonds, and battles by such authors as Mike Resnick, Irene Radford, and Dayton Ward. Two of the project’s editors were nominated for the Hugo Award. Since this is a downtown event, you can bet I’ll have copies of Vampires of the Scarlet Order on hand as well, which has several key scenes set in the neighborhood right where the arts ramble takes place!

Zia Comics is one of my favorite shops in Las Cruces. They’re located at 125 N. Main Street and the shop features not only comics, but toys and games. They also serve ice cream, which is a great incentive to drop by on a warm summer evening. Once you’ve discovered Zia Comics, you may get addicted. They not only sell stuff, but they have game and puzzle tournaments to provide a chance to hang out and meet other folks who share your interests. Zia Comics is also the sponsor of the local comic conventions in El Paso and Las Cruces.

So, why would you find a novelist in a comic store during an arts ramble? From my perspective, comic books have long provided a source of fun and inspiration as long as I can remember. In fact, during college and grad school, comic books were about the only things I had time to read for fun and escape. Last week, I discussed setting mini-goals, but I also talked about longer goals such as yearly or even life goals. Well, one of my life goals has long been to turn one of my stories into a comic. Over time, I’ve been collecting information and learning things and while it’s not quite ready to be a goal for this year given other things on my plate, it is certainly a goal for the next five or ten years.

Be sure to come by Zia Comics during the Downtown Arts Ramble this Friday, see what the shop has to offer, and talk to me about pirates, vampires, or other fun and scary things I’ve written about.

The Spirit of Rebellion

This past week, I received my signed copy of the latest Boston Metaphysical Society graphic novel, entitled “The Spirit of Rebellion.” The Boston Metaphysical Society is the brainchild of Madeleine Holly-Rosing and it’s a comic and story series set in an alternate 1895 where there are already rudimentary airships and computers, but where society has not progressed as much as it did in our world. The “Great States of America” are dominated by Great Houses and people in the lower and middle classes exist to serve the upper classes. The stories focus on ex-Pinkerton detective Samuel Hunter, a spirit photographer Caitlin O’Sullivan, and scientist Granville Woods. Together the three confront supernatural mysteries in Boston. Along the way, they encounter such historical figures as Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, and Thomas Edison.

I first met Madeleine Holly-Rosing a few years ago at Gaslight Gathering in California soon after she started releasing the original six-issue miniseries of The Boston Metaphysical Society as a web comic. In the years since, she’s been quite adept at using Kickstarter to crowdfund new chapters in her steampunk world. “The Spirit of Rebellion” is the latest chapter in that series and is a follow-up to the original six-issue miniseries. This chapter focuses on Caitlin O’Sullivan and the consequences of her actions in the original series. It also moves the action from Boston to Philadelphia, giving more scope to the stories.

Even though “The Spirit of Rebellion” is a sequel, the story is self-contained and gives the reader the backstory needed to follow along. The change of setting also introduces all new characters for our protagonists to get to know and interact with. The story begins with a flashback to Caitlin being thrown out of her mother’s house. In the story’s present, Samuel Hunter takes Caitlin to Philadelphia to find a new place to live. While there, Pinkerton agents recruit Samuel to infiltrate a group of organizing laborers. In the meantime, Caitlin learns more about the extent of her paranormal powers.

This chapter has much of what I’ve come to appreciate about the Boston Metaphysical Society. It has a healthy respect and genuine love for the science of the time. Even though paranormal things happen in the story, they are treated as knowable with a suitable application of science. In earlier chapters, not everyone thinks before they apply their scientific know how, but that does sometimes happen in the real world. What I really like in these comics is the social sensibility, as Holly-Rosing looks at the role of class, race, immigrants, and women through the lens of steampunk to shine some light on where we are today.

You can learn more about the Boston Metaphysical Society and even read the original six-issue miniseries for free at the website http://www.bostonmetaphysicalsociety.com. Of course, you can also learn about my steampunk series with its own share of social sensibility and mad science by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion.

Valerian and Laureline

While learning more about the movie The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec directed by Luc Besson and the comic of the same name by Jacques Tardi, I stumbled across another French comic which was recently adapted by Besson. The comic is Valérian and Laureline written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. The movie, called Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, completely slipped under my radar. Because I love a good space opera, I immediately set out to see the movie and read some issues of the comic.

The comic started its run in November 1967. To put it in context, the original Star Trek was still on the air in the United States and Patrick Troughton was playing the title character of Doctor Who in England. It’s pure pulp action Sci Fi, reminding me most of Buck Rogers with a touch of Flash Gordon thrown in for good measure. The artwork, particularly in the first two installments, looks like it’s inspired by Mad Magazine and there is a definite satirical edge to the stories. The characters of Valérian and Laureline also remind me a little of Jamie and Zoe, the Doctor’s traveling companions at the time, but with some of their personality traits mixed up. Laureline, like Jamie McCrimmon, is from the past and doesn’t always want to follow the rules. Valérian, like Zoe, thinks highly of himself, and seems to need rescuing from time to time. I’m not convinced these similarities are deliberate. I suspect there’s an element of the zeitgeist of the period in these passing resemblances.

Fans of Valérian and Laureline are also fast to point out many similarities between the French comic and Star Wars which would come out a decade later. I gather George Lucas has acknowledged the French comic’s influence on the look of his world.

Jumping ahead to the movie, I thought Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was a gem. It captured the spirit of the comic very well and I thought presented a dandy and cohesive story with some cool science fictional ideas that made valid commentary on what can happen when indigenous peoples find themselves caught between two civilizations at war. Valerian and Laureline themselves are introduced during a special ops mission at a market that exists in a different dimension from our own. I loved the way that concept was portrayed on screen.

I enjoyed the performances of Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline. They’re not your usual Hollywood romantic couple. In fact, they seemed just a little uncomfortable with this whole romance thing, but it worked for me because that’s the way romance often works in real life. It’s figuring out how you each work, and not having the writer put phrases in your mouth that the other party has to be a moron to misunderstand and pout about until they make up. The film also features a truly outstanding performance by Rihanna as an alien called Bubble. I also loved the cameos by Ethan Hawke and Rutger Hauer.

As a bonus, I’ve discovered that about ten years ago, Valerian and Laureline was turned into a French-Japanese co-produced anime. From what I’ve seen so far, the anime’s story diverges from the comic’s, but it still looks fun. I definitely need to watch a few more episodes.

Of course, I’m a sucker for a good space opera. If you want to see my serialized space opera story, please drop by my Patreon site. You can read the first story of my Firebrandt’s Legacy for free. If you pledge just one dollar, you can read nine more stories right now. If you remain a patron, you’ll get each new story as its released. Stop by and check out Firebrandt’s Legacy at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Flash Gordon Zeitgeist

Earlier this year, at Wild Wild West Con, I had the opportunity to meet Sam J. Jones who played the title character in the campy 1980 film Flash Gordon. At the time, I bought a beautiful poster based on the movie illustrated by comic book legend Alex Ross. The poster was quite nice and made me curious what other Flash Gordon illustrations Alex Ross had done. That led me to discover the comic Flash Gordon Zeitgeist, which was published in 2013 by Dynamite Entertainment. Alex Ross served as art director and illustrated many of the covers. The series was written by Eric Trautmann and the interior art was by Daniel Indro.

This version of the Flash Gordon story endeavors to combine the best parts of the 1980 movie and the 1979 animated film Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All. This version is set in 1934 as World War II is getting off the ground. The Earth is being subjected to natural disasters and Dr. Zarkov believes he’s found the source. Yale-educated Polo player Flash Gordon is on a mission to find the good doctor. A plane accident strands him and cartographer Dale Arden on Zarkov’s doorstep. From there the story proceeds in a familiar direction. Zarkov, Gordon, and Arden climb aboard his rocket ship and blast off to the planet Mongo to face all manner of strange creatures along with Ming the Merciless.

In this version, as with the 1979 cartoon version, Ming is using Hitler as a puppet to aid his conquest of the Earth. A new element is that a faction from Mongo has traveled to Earth and is working to stop Hitler.

There are several elements I quite like in this version of Flash Gordon. I liked the historical setting and the whole connection to World War II. In this version, Mongo is in a different universe and Ming’s plans are being executed using beams that allow him to connect his universe to ours. There’s a nice sequence where Flash goes through some of his early gladiatorial contests on Mongo and reflects back on his athletic and academic career, seeing this as a next step in his life. Flash has never been a particularly deep character, but this little extra piece of character building was a nice touch. We get some good background on Dr. Zarkov. The machinations of General Klytus and Princess Aura were fun to watch as they worked to unseat Ming from the throne and gain it for themselves.

I did feel this version suffered from some uneven pacing. That said, I’ve always imagined that pacing comic books must be a real challenge because of the protracted release schedule. Even so, some plot lines seemed to resolve very quickly, while others were given time to breathe and develop. As happens too often in versions of Flash Gordon, Dale Arden doesn’t get much to do. Making her a cartographer was a great and interesting choice. She also has an awesome ending to her story arc in this version, but in between, she mostly serves as the eyes for Dr. Zarkov. Dale Arden deserved better, but at this point, I think the best written version of Dale is in the 1980 movie where she actually gets to do (a little) more than fawn over Flash.

Comparing all these different versions of Flash Gordon has actually been a rather interesting exercise. Alex Raymond’s original comic strip was arguably one of the earliest, popular space operas and studying what works and doesn’t work in different versions helps me think about my updated Space Pirate’s Legacy series which I hope to start working on later this year. That series was always intended to have a certain “retro-future” appeal, heroes who were larger than life, and both men and women with more than a little sex appeal.

If you want to check out Flash Gordon Zeitgeist while waiting for the updated Space Pirate’s Legacy series, a graphic novel edition is available in print. Ebook editions are available through Amazon and Comixology. Unfortunately, the 1979 animated Flash Gordon was never released on video, but I found it on YouTube, just search for “Flash Gordon Filmation” and you should find it.

Revenge of the Wild Wild West

I apologize for my absence from the blogsphere the last couple of weeks. I sailed into a perfect storm of writing deadlines and astronomy job responsibilities that kept me off line for much of the last couple weeks. Now that I’m on the other side, I can report that my latest wild west steampunk adventure, Lightning Wolves, is now turned in to the publisher and I’m awaiting edits. Also, we were able to test out a new high resolution camera on the Kitt Peak 2.1-meter telescope. The results of those tests look like they’ll result in a new scientific publication. So, although I’ve been absent, I’ve hardly been idle!

Wild Wild West Season 1 Fortunately, the last few days have not been all work and no play. I was able to take some time to enjoy a couple of good books and a couple of a good videos. As I searched through my video collection, I came across my set of the television series The Wild Wild West. There’s no question that the show had a strong influence on my flavor of wild west steampunk storytelling. The problem with The Wild Wild West is that while it started strong, later incarnations never really lived up to the promise of the original series. In fact, the series itself was strongest in its first, black-and-white, season. As the show went on, network censors demanded that the violence be toned down and it was played more for laughs than for action. Still, the original series did pretty well throughout its four-year run. The real problem came with the sequels.

When I speak of sequels, the first thing most people will think of is the 1999 movie with Will Smith and Kevin Kline. Thing is, I’m one of a handful of people I know who actually kind of like the film. Of course, the operative words there are “kind of”. The humor in the movie falls flat more often than not, but I enjoyed the visuals and thought when they played it for action more than laughs, it showed real promise.

The movie wasn’t the only attempt at resurrecting the series. There are two sequels that many people don’t know about. These are the TV movies The Wild Wild West Revisited and More Wild Wild West that starred Robert Conrad, Ross Martin, and a host of guest stars, many of whom appeared in the original series. These films, which were broadcast in 1979 and 1980 respectively, should have been great, but like the 1999 film were played more for laughs than action and those laughs often didn’t work out as well as expected. The thing I love most about these films is that they were shot at Old Tucson Studios near the observatory where I work. The scenery is gorgeous.

Fortunately, the Wild Wild West saga isn’t limited to film. I recently discovered a limited comic book series that was published in 1990 by Millennium Comics. 1990 was the year I got married. I was in graduate school and starting a new job. I wasn’t exactly following comics closely during that time, so it’s perhaps not surprising I missed it! I recently came across it and picked up a copy of the series and I’m glad I did.

Wild Wild West Comics

I found that the comic series did a great job of capturing the spirit of the first season of the series. Not only is Dr. Loveless here as the villain, but he’s accompanied by Antoinette and Voltaire, his assistants from the first season. One of the things I wish they had done even in the original series was to have folded in a little more real history. This comic series brings in several historical figures who conspire in an elaborate plot to assassinate President Grant. The artwork was a little disappointing at times, but the story more than compensated for it. This was nicely done and I wish Millennium had produced more of these.

What’s more, the weird western and steampunk worlds have brought us some worthy successors to The Wild Wild West. I’m currently reading Cherie Priest’s Ganymede which is set in Seattle and New Orleans. Although one might not think of New Orleans as the west, it was certainly featured in The Wild Wild West. Of course, I’ve also enjoyed the Miles O’Malley stories of David B. Riley, which are now collected in an omnibus edition entitled The Devil Draws Two.

I hope Lightning Wolves also proves to be a worthy successor. I’m still in that afterglow of finishing the novel where it all seems wonderful and I fear it’s all terrible. Fortunately, it’s now in the hands of a great batch of editors and beta readers, who will help me whip it into shape while I start thinking about the directions the next book will take.