Comic Books I’m Reading

FRITZ LEIBER “Lean Times in Lankhmar.” Published in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Book Four. Epic (Marvel) Comics, 1991. Adaptation & script: Howard Chaykin. Pencils & inks: Mike Mignola & Al Williamson. Also in this same issue: “When the Sea King’s Away.” Note: “Lean Times in Lankhmar” was first published in Fantastic SF, November 1959. Reprinted many times.

   Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are a pair of adventurous rogues living day by day if not moment by moment in the swords and sorcery setting of the city of Lankhmar on the world of Nehwon, just west of the Great Salt Marsh and east of the River Hlal. Fafhrd is a tall powerful barbarian, while the Gray Mouser is a small hotheaded thief extraordinarily good at swordsmanship.

   Their first story, “Two Sought Adventure”, appeared in the pulp magazine Unknown in August 1939, but the story of how they first met was “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” did not appear until the April 1970 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

   They usually team up well, but at the beginning of this story they have split up, perhaps arguing over the spelling of Fafhrd’s name. (I have trouble, too.) Fafhrd becomes an acolyte of Bwadres, the sole priest of Issek of the Jug, while the Gray Mouser goes to work for a local racketeer named Pulg, who offers protection to “priests of all godlets seeking to become gods — on pain of unpleasant, disturbing, and revolting things happening at future services of the defaulting godlet.”

   And of course in the course of their new occupations, the two heroes’ paths are about to cross. Many consider this story to be one of the funniest sword and sorcery stories ever, and you can count me as being one of them.

   I enjoyed the comic book version, and I do recommend it to you. The structure and setting of the stories, as well as the flashing charisma of the heroes themselves, are perfect for adaptation to graphic novel format, but I kept wondering whether I’d have enjoyed it as much if I didn’t already know the story itself ahead of time.

   The art is fine, but there was a day, back into the 1960s, where to get the story told, the captions and word balloons took almost all the space in the pages of the comic books of the day. No more. The art is now supposed to tell a lot more of the story, but it takes a lot of coordination between writer and artist to make it so. It may very well be the best that could have been done, but I don’t think it happened here. There were several times when if I hadn’t know what was supposed to be happening, I’d have had no clue.

   Or maybe I’m an old dog struggling with new tricks.

STAR TREK: Harlan Ellison’s THE CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER – The Original Teleplay #1 . IDW Publishing, first of a five issue mini-series, August 2014; later collected into book form. Based on Harlan Ellison’s original teleplay, adapted by Scott Tipton and David Tipton. Artwork by J. K. Woodward.

   There’s better than even odds that every Star Trek fan reading this already knows the story behind the scenes of what was the final episode of the first season. Ellison’s original version of the teleplay won the annual Writers Guild of America Award for “Best Episodic Drama on Television.” The version that was shown was substantially different from Ellison’s original story in many ways, but it was still a sensation when shown and in fact was later awarded the Hugo Award in 1968 for the “Best Dramatic Presentation.”

   A loud and public falling out between Harlan Ellison and Gene Roddenberry ensued and lasted for many years. Ellison was not a man who took slights — real or perceived — lightly, to put it mildly.

   Unfortunately I have only the first issue of the comic book mini-series. I will either have to track down the other four or buy the complete collected version in either hardcover or paperback. The people at IDW worked closely with Ellison, and I’m impressed with the end result, the little of it that I have in hand.

   The story has to to with a majestic city on an isolated planet on the rim of the galaxy, a place where time and space converge. A portal exists there that can take those brave or desperate enough into Earth’s past. The 1920s, in fact, and in order to undo a change in the timeline, Kirk, Spock and crew must go back and make things right again. This, they discover, is not so easy to do.

   The artwork is far better than average, verging at time to nothing short of spectacular, and it’s no wonder the folks at NBC said, no, we can’t do that on the budget we have. The likenesses of the main characters, while not as consistent as I’d like, are very very close and always recognizable. The people behind the project had a good time working on it, I’m sure, and it shows.

AMAZING FANTASY #4. Marvel Comics, November 2004. Story: Fiona Avery. Pencils: Roger Cruz. Inker: Victor Olazaba. Cover: Mark Brooks. Creative Consultant: J. Michael Straczunski.

   First of all, this is not your grandfather’s Amazing Fantasy. You know, the one of which if you owned a dozen mint copies of #15, you’d be a millionaire right now, and that’s no joke.

   Issue #15, in case you don’t know, which featured the first appearance ever of The Amazing Spider-Man (cover dated December 1961), was also the last issue of that particular run. This brand new superhero took the world by storm, and he was given his own title almost immediately thereafter. The rest is history.

   There was a revival of sorts between December 1995 to March 1996, when Amazing Fantasy #16-18 were published, and in which some gaps in the Spider-Man story line were retroactively filled in. Another run then began in August 2004, starting over with new numbering, the first six issues of which introduce the character Anya Coroazon, a ninth grade Latina girl who in issue #4 is just beginning to come to grips with her newly developing superpowers.

   Taking a new working alias of Araña, the character was successful enough to have a 12 issue run of her own title. Some time after that, she decided to be called Spider-Girl. I’m sorry to be fuzzy on the details. I have a lot of catching up of my own to do.

   Issue #4 is part of a six-issue sequence, but even not having read the first three, I was able to follow the story well enough to enjoy this one. To sum it up, though, she’s still in the process of learning what is happening to her — which side she’s on (The Spider Society) and who the bad guys are (The Sisterhood of the Wasp). Growing a protective metal shield on her arm during a girls’ athletic event, perhaps lacrosse, is just part of the process.

BATMAN “The Jungle Cat-Queen.” Story: Edmond Hamilton (uncredited). Artwork: Dick Sprang & Charles Paris. First published in Detective Comics #211, 1954. [Also in this issue: Roy Raymond: “Menace from Outer Space!” // Captain Compass: “The World’s Deadliest Cargo!” // Mysto: “The Forbidden Trick!”] Reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, edited by Mike Gold (uncredited), DC Comics, trade paperback, 1988.

   Batman and Robin’s adversary in this story is Catwoman, a/k/a Selina Kyle, a costumed burglar who has had a special quasi-romantic relationship with Batman for many years over many different identities, first appearing in Batman #1. As the “Jungle Cat-Queen,” she and her cat plane are followed soon after her latest robbery by Batman and Robin in their Batplane to her hideaway on an almost isolated jungle island somewhere in the tropics.

   The island is not quite abandoned, however. A pair of thuggish men are operating what they call a jewel mine there, and they may (or may not) somehow be in cahoots with Catwoman.

   In 1954 comic books were far more talkier than they are now, as I hope one of the images added to this review will show. You could, in fact, learn to read from comic books, and I speak from experience.

   The ambivalent relationship between Batman and Catwoman is fully demonstrated in this story. When Batman is sent over a waterfall and presumably to his death, it is Catwoman who makes sure he has on him a silken cord and his emergency knife blade.

   Unfortunately this was the final appearance of Catwoman for many years. Apparently the Comic Code came into effect soon after this issue came out, and portrayals of female criminals were somehow prohibited. Her next appearance didn’t happen until some twelve years later.

   The story itself is kind of silly, but back in 1954, I wouldn’t have minded a bit. And to tell you the truth, I didn’t mind earlier today, either.

SPIDER-WOMAN #3. Marvel Comics, June 1978. Writer: Marv Wolfman. Pencils: Carmine Infantino. Inker: Tony DeZugina. Cover: Not credited. Reprinted in Essential Spider-Woman #1 (Marvel, 2005)

   As I understand the story, Marvel Comics’ Spider-Woman came into existence for one reason: to make sure no other comic book company would come along and steal the name. Her first appearance was in Marvel Spotlight #32 (February 1977). This one shot appearance was successful enough — perhaps surprisingly so — that they gave her her own magazine, the first issue of which was in April 1978. There were 50 issues in all.

   At this stage of her existence — there have been several other Marvel characters also named Spider-Woman — she was named Jessica Drew, and her superhuman powers came from “…her mother being struck with a beam of radiation containing the DNA of several different types of spiders while she was in-utero.” [Quote from her Wikipedia page.]

   Not having issues #1 and 2 handy when I read #3, I did not know any of this, but did it matter? Not all that much. She seems to be wandering around trying to find herself in this one, accompanied by a Merlin-like sorcerer who shows her the grave of her father, who was mysteriously killed several months before.

   Trying to hunt to down the killer, Jessica’s path crosses that of a super-villain who calls himself Brother Grimm, who first appears at a theater where the play being performed is Hansel and Gretel. Things get suitably complicated from there, including some foreshadowing that there may be more than the one villain called Brother Grimm.

   The story doesn’t stop with just this one issue, in other words, and if I had the next one, I’d want to read it right away. Marv Wolfman does a good job melding at least two, maybe three, story lines together. I’ve always thought that Carmine Infantino’s characters were too angular looking, but inker Tony DeZugina, a favorite of mine, does well in softening them up a lot.