You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


The Topps Company is best known for their annual sports trading cards which they have produced since 1938. But they have always maintained other lines ranging from current events to historical themes to novelties. They had dabbled in science fiction before when in the early 1960's they decided it was time to do a series loosely based on H.G. Well's War of the Worlds. Their initial title for the series was Attack from Space, but they wisely scrapped that for the more headline worthy Mars Attacks. They went into production with the highly regarded pulp illustrator Wally Wood as artist, but they felt his designs were too restrained for what they wanted. They brought in Bob Powell who had illustrated their Civil War series. He gave them what they wanted, lurid scenes of mass destruction balanced against more intimate human/alien encounters. He modeled his Martians on the giant-brained creature from the Joseph Newman film This Island Earth, and he set them about alternately bombarding the great centers of human population and hunting down survivors in devastated suburbs and the blasted countryside.

Management at Topps became concerned as soon as they saw early samples of the final artwork. Too violent and too sexy was their judgment. Hemlines came down and necklines rose. Aliens and the giant insects they created could die as horribly as the artists wanted, but humans transformed into flaming skeletons were a problem. The breaking point came in a scene where an alien -- the heartless, inhuman bastard -- blasted a boy's dog with his heat ray. The dog absolutely could not be shown as a flaming skeleton. For some reason repainting Rover with a full coat of fur, albeit flaming fur, passed muster.

Management was right to be worried. As soon as the first pack of five cards hit the news stands, complaints began coming in. The whole thing was too violent for kids and too suggestive for the general public. The artists began painting out some of the blood in the not yet released packs, but a call from a district attorney in Connecticut brought production to a halt. The series would be prosecuted as unfit for children. Artists experimented with toning the whole thing down, a process that largely involved replacing female victims with men. This made for inadvertently bizarre images, since the new drawings did not receive new titles. " A Prize Captive" depicted an alien abducting what looks to be a teenage boy. The man stolen from his bed in "The Beast and the Beauty" could be that same boy's father. What does this say about Martian sexual proclivities? But these cards never went into production, nor did the series ever see national distribution.

Instead it became legendary. The cards have always been on the collector's market, but Tim Burton's not very good film from 1996 gave rise to a new level of interest. A copy of card number one, "The Invasion Begins," sold in auction for $80,000. Topp's had sold off the original artwork in the 1970's for what I am sure at the time seemed like a good amount of money. Currently on E-Bay, a prototype of the unused Attack from Space packaging has been marked down to a mere $188,000. A set of cards -- missing 39 cards! -- is $11,000.

This book presents a brief history of the cards, facsimiles of the original 55 along with the storyline, some original drawings, and more current artwork created for recent spinoffs. It is a worthy 50th anniversary celebration. I especially like Card 13, "Watching from Mars." Martians kick back with red martinis and watch the destruction of the U.S. capitol on a large-screen TV. Pitchers of that red martini mixture show up later in a 1990's image of a Martian/human wet t-shirt contest. Where is that Connecticut D.A. when you need him?

Oh my God! Those aren't red martinis! It's human blood!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

MANGA MANIA: Museum of Terrors Volume 1: Tomie

On a beautiful spring day in Japan, Mr. Tanagi  takes his high school class on a mountainside hike. Tomie, the teenage hottie he's having an affair with, threatens to tell his wife about their relationship if he doesn't marry her. Fortunately, just minutes later she angers a male classmate who is also in love with her and he pushes her off a cliff. She dies. 

What to do? Mr. Tanagi tells the female students to go on ahead, turns to his males students, and tells them to take off their clothes. Here the story does not take the direction one would expect. He wants the boys stripped to their underwear so they can cut Tomie into little pieces without getting blood on their school uniforms. Problem solved. Only the next day, Tomie shows up for class, a little late but in one piece. And evil.

Junji Ito's other horror tales have cosmic themes. A small fishing village falls under the spell of spirals. The entire world is overrun with dead fish walking out of the ocean on tiny mechanical legs. Tomie seems like a regression to more mundane, traditional horror -- I noticed one reader review calls it a Japanese version of Heathers. But Ito spins the theme of the beautiful girl who won't stay dead into a series of related tales that are creepy as all get out and wildly entertaining. 

Tomie shows her practical side

Men cannot resist Tomie, yet they are driven to kill her. Stabbing her will seldom do. More often they behead her or chop her up. Beheading her makes a certain amount of sense when she is growing a second hideous face alongside her beautiful everyday visage. But the blood that gushes into the carpet takes on a life of its own and she's back. Tossing the carpet into the rubbish heap only causes an entire crop to Tomies to sprout like so many murderous daisies. Toss her bits into a deep pool below a waterfall and her spirit lures suicidal young men to the cliffs so she can feed on their bodies. It goes on and one.

There is another volume of these stores and a batch of Japanese film versions. Judging from the packaging, some of the films slip into the softcore pinkie film category. Ito's stories, so far, are a clever blend of black comedy and grotesque horror. Men just can't resist the girl. Although they know she has regenerated herself from a severed head kept in an aquarium, two doctors have this exchange.

"What an ungodly monster!"
"You're telling me. And extremely alluring one."

In the next panel the doctor is showing Tomie into his condo. Big mistake.

Tomie shows her true nature

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Since January, I have read a novel a month by one of the winners of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, given by the Science Fiction Writers of America. I thought I was about time to read a novel by the man himself. (Knight won the award in 1994. He was a founder of the SFWA and the award was named for him after his death in 2002.) Although several of the Grand Masters I have read I have been reading for the first time this year, Knight is perhaps the one I knew the least about. I would be hard pressed to name any of his books. Even though I worked around used books for thirty years, I cannot picture any of his covers or remember that he ever merited a his own shelf. Somewhere along the way I picked up the fact that he wrote the short story "To Serve Man," which became a classic Twilight Zone episode. (Don't get on that ship! The book...the's a cookbook!) And so I picked up A for Anything with no expectations.

Perhaps I should not have read his first novel, although I am inclined to start at the first with an author. But I have to say this is the most peculiar book I have read in some time, and not in a particularly good way. Here's what happens in the first three chapters.

1) In a scene that could come from a 1950's sitcom, a retired bank president checks the morning mail and finds a package on the front porch. Inside is a Gismo, a machine that can, according to the accompany brochure, reproduce anything with no expenditure of energy. The man' wife and brother- and sister-in-law are all on hand. His son says, "Hey Dad, l know all about that electronics jazz." A simple experiment proves that machine works.

2) A undercover FBI agent comes to after a fight with the inventor of the gismo. He checks in with law enforcement officials and finds that the world as we know it is coming quickly to an end. One hundred gismos have been distributed at random. Since they can replicate themselves, that all it takes.

3) The inventor of the gismo, living on the lam in Southern California, meets up with a physicist friend who is excited about the invention. But within days, the first of the new warlords appears, his enslaved drivers shackled into a line up of cars. Things are looking bad.

For the next chapter we jump ahead a century or so and meet Dick Jones of Buckhill, an estate in the Poconos. Society is now composed of masters and slobs. People are squeamish about the term "slave." Buckhill functions as a well-furnished medieval duchy, only with lots of modern conveniences. Young Dick has reached his seniority and will soon be leaving for Eagles, a mountain stronghold in Colorado that is part military academy but exists, from what I gleaned from the book, as a finishing school where the scions of wealthy families learn to be truly horrible human beings. Once he arrives there he is immersed in intrigues and brutal initiation rites. We get glimpses of how savage life has become for those not lucky enough to be among the master class. There is some lightweight discussion of politics and sociology and an inevitable slave -- make that, slob -- rebellion.

But none of this is envisioned in a way that makes it particularly interesting, let alone coherent. Dick Jones is the most lackluster, idiotic protagonist I have encountered in some time, but I don't get the impression that Knight is purposively playing him for a fool. The book moves in such spurts that I never had a clear image of what mattered to any of these people. Knight's worldview is profoundly pessimistic, but the novel is not well-written enough to embody such darkness in a compelling fashion.

I assume that Knight developed into a much better writer. It also seems that he was known mostly for his short stories. A for Anything is not a gateway novel for anyone who anticipates getting deeply involved with this author.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Justinian, Emperor of East Roman Empire
527 - 265 CE
His nephew, Justinian, though still quite young, used to manage all the affairs of state, and he brought on the Romans disasters that surely surpassed both in gravity and in number all that had ever been heard of at any period of history. For without the slightest hesitation he used to embark on the inexcusable murdering of his fellow men and the plundering of other people's property; and it did not matter to him how many thousands lost their lives, though they had given him no provocation whatsoever... this an not a single person in the whole Roman empire could escape; like any other visitation from heaven falling on the entire human race, he left no one completely untouched. Some he killed without any justification; others he reduced to penury, making them even more wretched than those who had died. In fact they begged him to put an end to their misery, by any death, however painful... The people have long been divided into two factions...Justinian attached himself to one of them, The Blues, to whom he had already given enthusiastic support... Needless to say, the Green factionalists did not stay quiet either: they too pursued an uninterrupted career of crime... everywhere there was utter chaos, and nothing was the same ever again; in the confusion that followed, the laws and the orderly structure of the state were turned upside down.

To begin with, the factionalists changed the style of their hair to a quite novel fashion, having it cut very differently from the other Romans. They did not touch the moustache or beard at all but were always anxious to let them grow as long as possible, like the Persians. But the hair on the front of the head they cut right back to the temples, allowing the growth behind to hand down in a disorderly mass like the Massagetae do. This is why they sometimes called this the Hunnish look.

Procopius, The Secret History
Penguin Edition translated by G.A. Williamson and Peter Sarris, with notes by Peter Sarris

Sarris adds the following footnote to the above passage:

The factionalists wore what in modern slang would be called "mullets." The long hair of the tribes of the Eurasian steppes was something of a preoccupation among Roman authors of a conservative mindset; Procopius' contemporary, the poet Corippus, describes an embassy of Avars that arrived at the court of Justin II as "shabby with their snake-like hair."

The Mullet. As fashionable today as it was 1500 years ago.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Not Justinian and
Theodora me and to most of us these two persons never seemed to be human beings, but rather as a pair of blood-thirsty demons... For they plotted together to find the easiest means of destroying all races of men and all their works, and, assuming human form, became man-demons, and in this way convulsed the whole world.

It is said that Justinian's own mother told some of her close friends that he was not the son of her husband Sabbatius or any man at all. For when she was about to conceive him she was visited by a demon, who was invisible but who gave her the distinct impression that he was really there as a man giving a woman her fill. Then he vanished as in a dream. And some of those who were with the Emperor late at night... men of the highest character--thought that they saw a strange demonic form in his place. One of them declared that he more than once rose suddenly from the imperial throne and walked round and round the room, for he was not in the habit of remaining seated long. And Justinian's head would momentarily disappear while the rest of his body seemed to continue making these long circuits... Later the head returned to the body... Another man said that he stood by the Emperor's side as he sat and saw his face suddenly transformed to a shapeless lump of flesh: neither eyebrows nor eyes were in their normal position, and it showed no other distinguishing shape. I did not myself witness the events I am describing, but I heard about them from men who insist that they saw them at the time.

Procopius, The Secret History
Penguin edition translated by G.A. Williamson and Peter Sarris