Saga of the Swamp Thing

11 Mar

The character of Swamp Thing, an elemental creature who shares a connection to all plant life on the planet, first appeared in 1972 but had roots in a comic published a year earlier. DC Comics’ House of Secrets #92 (June-July, 1971) contained a story by Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson, about a man murdered and dumped in a swamp, whose body metamorphosed into a muck monster that rose from the mire to wreak vengeance upon his killer. Response to the story was overwhelming, and plans were immediately made to launch a new title with a similar creature as the protagonist. Swamp Thing #1, by Wein and Wrightson, had a cover date of Oct-Nov, 1972. In the ongoing series, the man in the muck was Alec Holland, a handsome young scientist, and his first mission in hideous, shambling post-life existence was to avenge the murder of his wife, done in by the same criminal outfit that put him in the swamp. In the course of the series, he found his body had become more plant than human — if a limb was cut off, he could grow it back. He ranged far from the Louisiana swamp he’d come to call home — even had an adventure in Gotham City with Batman — and he took on a wide variety of science fiction and supernatural adversaries. The series was both a critical and a commercial success. But Wein and Wrightson were unable to stay with it beyond its 10th issue, and their replacements were not as well received by readers. The series ended with its 24th issue (Aug-Sep 1976), and the character was relegated to occasional appearances as a guest star. In 1982, Swamp Thing was adapted into a movie — not exactly a record-smashing box-office bonanza, but DC deemed it a big enough deal to warrant reviving the comic book. The new series limped along for a couple of years, then was taken over by writer Alan Moore. That’s when the character really took off.

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Realm of the Rising Sun

11 Feb

In Japan, as in China, there is a large pantheon of gods and demons, but whereas the Chinese mirror the bureaucracy of Earth in heaven, the Japanese pay homage through their state religion of Shintoism to a sun goddess, Amaterasu. Shintoists believe that almost 3,000 years ago Amaterasu sent her grandson down to Earth to be Japan’s first ruler, thus making the emperors of Japan her direct descendants – an actual divine family and not just a divinely chosen one. The persistence and survival of Shinto beliefs are remarkable phenomena in a country in which the majority of people are practising Buddhists. In part Shinto owes its longevity to political factors – it has been used periodically to bolster the authority of the state. Equally significant, however, is the way in which Shinto beliefs are meshed into the very fabric of Japan: into the physical landscape as well as the mental hinterland of traditions. For Shintoism (literally “The Way of the Gods”) has its roots in ancient nature worship: its first deities were the innumerable spirits – the kami or “beings of higher place” – that resided in mountains and waterfalls, or sacred groves of trees. Yet even now, when the emperors have renounced their claim to divinity, the gods have retained a place in Japanese affections. While, today, most these beliefs are consumed as entertainment – in manga or anime – there is nevertheless a sense in which for many Japanese they form an important part of national identity.

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Legends of the Dark Knight

14 Jan

Batman was the brainchild of the artist Bob Kane and the writer Bill Finger, who collaborated on a new character for Detective Comics in 1938. Their first sketches were a long way from the Batman image most people are familiar with today: the first drawings gave him wings and red tights. A few drafts later, a Batman who looked more like the movie version was born. He was soon starring in his own self-titled comic. From the start, Batman was unlike other heroes. His rivals, Superman and Spider-Man, are festooned in the primary colours of the American flag, whereas Batman dresses in dark blues and blacks. And no other superhero has a story quite as bleak. When Bruce Wayne was a little boy, he watched his parents’ deaths at the hands of Joe Chill, a heartless mugger, and vowed to dedicate the rest of his life to gaining revenge on the criminal underworld. Superman’s arrival from another planet is more the stuff of myth and fairy tale in comparison. To quote the film director and comics geek Kevin Smith: “Batman is about angst; Superman is about hope.” So why then do we love Batman so much?

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A Touch of Frost

14 Dec

Jack Frost is the personification of frost, ice, snow, sleet, winter, and freezing cold. He is sometimes described or depicted with paint brush and bucket colouring the autumnal foliage red, yellow, brown, and orange. Sometimes he is portrayed as a dangerous giant but, starting in late 19th century literature, more developed characterizations of Jack Frost depict him as a sprite-like character, sometimes appearing as a sinister mischief maker or as a hero. This mischievous sprite is traditionally said to leave the frosty, fern-like patterns on windows on cold winter mornings (window frost or fern frost) and nipping the extremities in cold weather. Over time, however, Jack Frost has become far less prevalent in the modern world due to the advance of double-glazing, but he remains a well-known figure in popular culture. He is a variant of Old Man Winter who is similarly held responsible for frosty weather, nipping the nose and toes in such weather, colouring the foliage in autumn, and leaving fern-like patterns on cold windows in winter. However, he also resembles other similar spirits of winter from around the world, including the Japanese Yuki-onna, Grandfather Frost in Russia and Mother Holle in Germany.

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A Charmed Life: Diana Wynne Jones

26 Nov

Diana Wynne Jones (1934 – 2011) was a British writer, principally of fantasy novels for children and adults. Some of her better-known works are the Chrestomanci series, the Dalemark series; the novels Howl’s Moving Castle, Dark Lord of Derkholm, Fire and Hemlock and The Tough Guide To Fantasyland. Together with her near-contemporaries Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Penelope Lively, she was one of the most successful and influential of the generation of fantasy writers who rose to prominence in the ‘second Golden Age’ of children’s literature in Britain. But is some ways Jones is a different and rather baffling case from these other authors. After Wilkins’ Tooth was published in 1973, she wrote some forty volumes of fantasy, almost all of them for children. Her books, which are characterized by humour, intelligence, unparalleled technical inventiveness, and a humane but unsentimental view of human nature, have long had a devoted following, not least among other fantasy writers. Yet for all this, she has not, at least until recently, enjoyed the same centrality in critical discussions of late twentieth-century British children’s literature as the other three authors. By 1981, for example, Jones was already the author of ten full-length children’s fantasy novels, including a winner of the Guardian Award (for Charmed Life in 1978). However, of two substantial critical books on the state of children’s literature published in that year, Sheila Egoff’s Thursday’s Child and Fred Inglis’s The Promise of Happiness, both of which give considerable space to Garner, Cooper and Lively, Egoff omits any mention of Jones at all, while Inglis names her just once, in passing. Nor are they by any means unusual in their neglect. As late as 2001, Peter Hunt’s otherwise admirable Blackwell’s Guide to Children’s Literature, though citing Lively’s work on numerous occasions and devoting whole sections to Cooper and Garner, makes no reference to Jones. It seems reasonable to enquire as to the reasons for this surprising attitude from critics towards Jones.

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After the King: Tolkien’s heirs

22 Oct

It is something of a relief, having looked last month at his critics, to turn this time to Tolkien’s many admirers. It would not be true to say that there was no such thing as epic fantasy before Tolkien: there was a tradition of English and Irish writers before him, such as E R Eddison and Lord Dunsany, and a parallel tradition also of American writers appearing in pulp-magazines such as Weird Tales and Unknown. The Lord of the Rings however altered reading tastes rapidly and lastingly. Several hundred English-language fantasy novels are currently being published annually. The influence of Tolkien on them is often apparent from their titles – Guardians of the West (David Eddings), The Fellowship of the Talisman (Clifford D Simak), The Halfling’s Gem (R A Salvatore) and so on, to name just a few. Most writers do better at concealing their literary ancestry, but the first works even of authors who have found their own highly distinctive voices, like Stephen Donaldson or Alan Garner, habitually betray deep Tolkienian influence. Terry Pratchett, whose works have now been reliable best-sellers for almost forty years, began with what is obviously in part an affectionate parody of Tolkien, The Colour of Magic. Tolkien furthermore provided much of the inspiration, the personnel and the material, for early fantasy games and for role-playing games of the Dungeons & Dragons type. Spin-offs from these into computer games are still developing and multiplying. Middle-earth has become a cultural phenomenon, a part of many people’s mental furniture. Any full study of Tolkien’s legacy would have to be at least book-length – and will not be attempted here – but there is some interest in recording what at least a few of his most evident emulators have found most inspirational in Tolkien.

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Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics

24 Sep

“This is not a work that many adults will read right through more than once.” With these words the anonymous reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement (25 November 1955) summed up his judgment of J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It must have seemed a pretty safe prophecy at the time, for of course in those days very few adults (or children) read anything right through more than once, still less anything as long as The Lord of the Rings. However, it could not have been more wrong: of all popular best-sellers, The Lord of the Rings is the one most likely to be read over and over again by readers eager to immerse themselves in Middle Earth. This did not stop critics continuing to say the same thing. Six years later, after the three separate volumes had gone through eight or nine hardback impressions each, Philip Toynbee in the Observer (6 August 1961) voiced delight at the way sales, he thought, were dropping. Most of Professor Tolkien’s more ardent supporters, he declared, were beginning to “sell out their shares” in him, so that “today these books have passed into merciful oblivion.” Five years afterwards the authorised American paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings was moving rapidly past its first million copies, starting a wave which never receded and has in the 21st century reached levels Toynbee could not have dreamed of. This general phenomenon of intense critical hostility to Tolkien in the face of his undeniable popularity is open enough; however, the reasons for it often remain unexpressed, hints and sneers rather than statements. Several attempts have been made to explain this deep and seemingly compulsive antipathy. This is the first of two linked posts that deal, firstly, with Tolkien’s critics and, secondly, with his legacy in the form of his many admirers and emulators.

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Faith and Fantasy: American Gods

20 Aug

Scary, gripping and often deeply unsettling, Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods has reached a new audience since being adapted recently as a television series. Placing it in a specific genre has however proved tricky since its publication – some have described it as urban fantasy while others label it as mythic fiction. One description that is as good as any, given the novel’s subject matter, is religious fantasy. A fantasy of religion is a text that depicts or makes use of commonly understood religious tropes, but which recasts them in the context of additional fantastic narrative elements. A clear example of this approach is the satire employed by James Morrow in his 1990 novel Only Begotten Daughter. Although it has a notionally science-fictional frame, being set a few years in the future and hypothesizing some near-future technologies, the overall effect of the book is clearly that of fantasy, as was recognised when it won the World Fantasy Award for its year. The book begins by following Murray Katz, a celibate lighthouse-keeper, who discovers that a sperm donation he has made has become a foetus: an immaculate conception. Overtaken by responsibility for his child-to-be, he brings home the ‘ectogenesis machine’ containing it, and ends up superintending the birth and childhood of the Daughter of God, Julie Katz. The body of the book follows Julie’s adulthood, as she arrives at her credo despite the best efforts of fundamentalist ministers and the Devil. Of course, fantasies of religion need not be as overtly revisionist as Morrow’s. Gene Wolfe is an author primarily known for science fiction rather than fantasy. His Catholicism is also a well-known part of his worldview; it is prominent in his most well-known work, The Book of the New Sun (4 vols, 1980-83). It is set on a far-future ‘Urth’, and many of the fantasy tropes that appear – wizards, magic and so on – can be understood from the text as, for instance, aliens or energy weapons. However, it cannot be denied that the experience of reading the series has many similarities with that of a religious fantasy. The unlikely protagonist, the torturer Severian, is a Christ figure sent and enabled to achieve the task of a new sun for a dying world. The many layers of imagery this invokes – Christ/Apollo, New Son/Sun, for instance – are left for the reader to understand.

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The House on the Borderland

23 Jul

The House on the Borderland (1908) is a supernatural horror novel by British fantasist William Hope Hodgson. The novel is a hallucinatory account of a recluse’s stay at a remote house, and his experiences of supernatural creatures and otherworldly dimensions. A manuscript is found: filled with small, precise writing and smelling of pit-water, it tells the story of an old recluse and his strange home – and its even stranger, jade-green double, seen by the recluse on an otherworldly plain where gigantic gods and monsters roam. Soon his more earthly home is no less terrible than this bizarre vision, as swine-like creatures boil from a cavern beneath the ground and besiege it. But a still greater horror will face the recluse – more inexorable, merciless and awful than any creature that can be fought or killed. The book was a milestone that signalled a radical departure from the typical Gothic fiction of the late 19th century. Hodgson created a newer more realistic/scientific cosmic horror that left a marked impression on those who would become the great writers of the weird tales of the middle of the 20th century, particularly Clark Ashton Smith, and H P Lovecraft. Lovecraft listed The House on the Borderland and other works by Hodgson among his greatest influences, and Terry Pratchett has called the novel “the Big Bang in my private universe as a science fiction and fantasy reader and, later, writer.”

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The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock

18 Jun

A storyteller par excellence, Robert Holdstock wrote with considerable insight about the power of dreams, the unconscious and human desire. He began by writing science fiction, but although his early books were well received, they remain under-realised. Holdstock had yet to find his true subject and the mode that would allow him to write with passion and depth – this would occur in the Mythago Wood novels. You can find the setting of the novels on any map of England – almost. There’s Herefordshire, a peaceful little county, ‘Middle England’, as is said sometimes; looking westwards towards the Welsh border. The Ryhope estate might be approximately there, and Oak Lodge, and also the ancient forest – the primeval woodland of oak, ash, beech, and the like, with its untrodden dark interior – which gives the first novel in the sequence its magical name of Mythago Wood. Like Holdstock’s characters, we find ourselves lost in the vastness of that ancient eponymous forest when we enter the wildwood with its stench of ash, blood and animal. The Mythago Wood novels exist as a whole, and that whole is no ordinary fantasy story, with its extraordinary beauty. Rather it is about time, time solidified, death pickled, and that way we might have had to live, once upon a time.

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