Sunday, May 21, 2017

Two Interpretations of Deadly Black Goo

In 1982, the cult classic Creepshow hit cinemas. Written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero, this anthology film was designed to be an homage to the beloved EC horror comics of the 1950s, Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear. Similar to the comics, it features five unconnected stories, some serious, some darkly humorous, and some a mixture of both. Also like the comics, the theme that irresponsible behavior leads to severe consequences is prevalent. Murderers never get away with their crimes, and despicable people get what's coming to them. (Interestingly enough, King himself plays a yokel named Jordy Verrill in one of the segments, to great effect.)

Five years later, Creepshow 2 was released. Though produced by the same team, it is, like many sequels, generally considered to be inferior to its predecessor. It still packs a wallop, though, with its top-notch special effects and eerie cinematography, and features a fantastic animated frame story involving a young horror-comic fan and a group of bullies. It only has three stories (a fourth was planned but never completed), but all are arguably excellent. It takes a different approach in the way it connects to the comics, which is quite satisfying. (King has a bit part in this one, as well, as a truck driver who makes a couple of flippant remarks about a hit-and-run.)

The second story, “The Raft,” is based on a yarn that King published in Gallery in 1982 and later appeared in his 1985 collection Skeleton Crew. Four college kids are headed to a mountain lake in late September for a weekend of sex and recreational drug use. To reach the eponymous raft, they must swim fifty yards or so through icy water. Already, viewers are wondering why the hell they thought it was a good idea to do something better suited to summer weather; the only explanation seems to be that the place will be deserted, thus giving them carte blanche to party down unobserved. I have no idea what's supposed to be so special about the raft, but it's clearly a big deal to these idiots.

Once they reach their destination, they notice a black slick in the water that appears to be moving. One of the girls foolishly sticks a finger in it and is pulled off the raft and devoured. Naturally, the other three are panic stricken, realizing that trying to get back to shore is highly unlikely to work, as the thing can probably move faster than they can swim. To make a long story short, two of the others get eaten, and the remaining one, cold and exhausted, decides to make a break for it. He manages to reach shore, but the goo turns into a wave and engulfs him.

The nature of the black stuff is never explained, and it leaves viewers to speculate about what it might be. As the story ends, the camera pans over to a “No Swimming” sign hidden in the woods, which serves as a kind of catharsis. One has to wonder, though, about the lake's previous visitors. It doesn't seem as though they were eaten because it would have been a big deal, and everyone would have known to stay away. Is the sign even related to the ooze, or was there some other reason that swimming was forbidden? The sign has clearly been there for a while, as vegetation has grown around it, so what are we to conclude? It would be fair to say that the thing hadn't always been there, that its incursion into the lake is, in fact, fairly recent, and that the sign was just thrown in as a joke to wrap the story up neatly.

One of the most well-known monsters in Dungeons & Dragons is the black pudding. Not unlike the goo in Creepshow 2, it is a large, moving mass of hungry darkness. It has been a part of the game since its first edition. Incapable of thought, it is an amoral killing machine that hangs out in the shadows of dungeons and caves, waiting to devour hapless adventurers. When Paizo introduced the Pathfinder roleplaying game, it included the black pudding in its first Bestiary. After much demand from fans, it received its own miniature in the latest set; it looks about as silly as you'd imagine, but I had to have one.

I've always found it humorous that the creature is called a black pudding because that's the name of a dish popular in England and Scotland. Over here, we associate “pudding” with the sweet, creamy Jell-O stuff. On the other side of the pond, it can refer to a number of different things. Yorkshire pudding, for example, is a kind of bready thing served with beef and gravy. Pudding in a general sense can refer to dessert. (In a Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch, the quixotic Mr. Badger requests whiskey for pudding, as well as for all of the other courses, resulting in all of the actors deciding to cut the sketch short for being too silly.) A black pudding, however, is something else, which Americans are likely to find distasteful.

The author/intelligence agent W. Somerset Maugham once remarked that if you want to dine well in England, eat breakfast three times a day. The British are not known for their cuisine (which might explain why there are so many Indian restaurants there), but the “full breakfast” is exquisite. In addition to eggs, bacon, hash browns, and sausage, it also includes baked beans, half a tomato, and mushrooms, things not normally associated with breakfast in the States. I have had the pleasure of having this meal a few times. Its preparation is pretty time consuming, so it's not something one would simply whip up on a whim. The other common ingredient in this meal is black pudding, which is essentially—get ready—fried blood. Yes, sir. They mix blood with fat and barley and fry it up in a skillet. The resulting concoction is indeed black.

But enough about that.

I have read Stephen King's nonfiction works On Writing and Danse Macabre, both of which contain autobiographical information, and he never once mentions having played D&D. It seems unlikely that he ever took an interest in it, as most of his time has been consumed by writing. The game was first released in 1974, the same year that King's first novel, Carrie, was published. Its success wasn't immediate, and he received a relatively small advance, so he continued writing furiously, not seeing it as his breakthrough. When the novel was published in paperback, his work finally paid off, and once his subsequent novels 'Salem's Lot and The Shining came out, he had established himself as America's premiere horror author. Even after that, though, he continued to churn out novels, stories, and screenplays like mad. He does not appear to be a gamer.

What I'm getting at is that the thing in the lake and the black pudding have nothing to do with each other. King did not get the idea for his story from D&D. They serve similar purposes within their respective narratives, but they are unrelated. Both are derived from an idea that has likely crossed all of our minds at some point: the menace of shadows. Fear of the dark is a common thing, especially among children, and what are shadows if not fragments of darkness that constantly surround us? Light and darkness coexist, but darkness is more pervasive. You can find areas of complete darkness (inside the earth, for example), but areas of light without shadow are nonexistent. Once you introduce an object into light, a shadow is cast. And what if those shadows have the power to hurt us, devour us? It is also clearly a metaphor for the idea of becoming lost in the darkness.

In the Doctor Who episode “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead,” the Doctor and his allies are threatened by the Vashta Nerada, creatures that live in shadows and, not unlike piranha, skeletonize those who happen into their territory. This is, of course, a different concept than an ooze that devours you, but it's kind of the same thing.

In short, stay out of the shadows, and don't swim in remote mountain lakes unless you're looking to become a slime's next meal.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Comic Books: Writing or Art?

Since at least the 1960s, there has been a lot of debate about which aspect of comic books is more important, writing or art. One could reasonably argue that both are indispensable, as the medium represents a marriage of the two, wherein neither is more important than the other, but it appears that many fans fall into one camp or the other.

When comics were a new thing during the 1940s, the quality of art varied wildly. Much of it wasn’t very good because it didn’t have to be. Many publishers would hire anyone who could get the job done in a hurry. Comics were considered kids’ stuff, and kids, after all, are hardly aesthetes. By the 1950s, however, the standards began to change. In the pages of Tales from the Crypt and Crime SuspenStories, for example, readers were treated to the sensational work of such luminaries as Graham Ingels, Jack Kamen, Johnny Craig, and Jack Davis, whose art made fans’ blood run cold with their macabre renderings.

Stan Lee, a writer, felt that art was more important. He never drew a single panel, yet he worked as art director at Marvel during its early years, along with his many other duties. Despite the stories that have circulated about the contentious relationship between Lee and artist Jack Kirby, Lee considered Kirby to be the best artist around. He not only insisted that Kirby draw most of the covers (according to How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, Stan considered the cover to be the most important page of a comic because a good one increased the odds of a sale) but also strongly encouraged other artists to emulate his style. As a result, Marvel’s Silver Age aesthetic is defined by Kirby’s work. It wasn’t until after Kirby left to work for the competition and Lee handed the Editor-in-Chief position over to Roy Thomas that the “house style” began to evolve.

In A Look Back, a career retrospective of master horror illustrator Bernie Wrightson, the artist remarked that he was disinclined to read comics in which he found the artwork inadequate, regardless of how good the writing was. He went on to relate a story of how some of the “old guard” (artists who had been working in the industry for decades) were incensed by the high quality of art that began to emerge from the pens of younger illustrators, most of whom were unmarried and/or childless, during the Bronze Age because they had families to support and were concerned that the editors would make them work harder. (Why anyone would continue to work in a field of notoriously low pay when so many other lucrative options were available is a perhaps the real issue.) Wrightson maintained that this was not his problem and that he was always going to do his best work, an opinion shared by his colleagues. Despite this resistance, some of the best comic art ever produced came out of the 1970s.

Some of the best art of the period came to us from the Philippines. The work of artists such as Alfredo Alcala, Nestor Redondo, Rudy Nebres, Tony DeZuniga, and E. R. Cruz graced the pages of Marvel and DC’s horror, science-fiction, and sword-and-sorcery offerings. Many of the stories in these magazines are forgettable, but the illustration sticks with you long after the story itself has faded from your mind. The art is simply breathtaking, and it’s impossible to consider the Bronze Age without taking the work of these men into account. I was amazed to learn that Alcala and Redondo, both of whom are noted for their amazing pen-and-ink work, were capable of completing nine pages in a day.

The 1980s was, arguably, a less remarkable era for illustration, which is not to say that there weren’t artists doing great work. John Byrne, George Perez, Rich Buckler, Dave Gibbons, and Mike Zeck spring to mind as standouts. But it was during this period that writing began to challenge art for dominance. While readers have always appreciated a good story, there were only a handful of writers, such as Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Len Wein, and Denny O’Neill, who rose above the rest (it is worth noting that Starlin, who was as an artist as well, was one of the first popular writer/illustrators). Readers seemed to be more interested in what happened rather than how it happened. In other words, events were generally considered more important than sophisticated narrative details. The death of Gwen Stacy, for example, is probably the most significant event of the Bronze Age, and some have claimed that the decision to kill her off was primarily motivated by a stagnation in creativity. Many comics were little more than showcases for the “monster/villain of the month,” which is fine but doesn’t really allow the comic to go anywhere.

The publication of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns changed all that. These comics broke new ground and attracted the attention of the mainstream media, which was virtually unheard of. Creators were galvanized to find new ways of working, and there was a real incentive for writers to produce stronger material. Despite this, much of the writing during the next decade or so was terribly uneven. Part of the problem was that some writers tried to reproduce what Moore and Miller had done without understanding what their work was really about.      

During the early 1990s, many artists became “rock stars.” When Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Mark Silvestri, et al. left Marvel to form Image Comics (for better or worse), fans really began to take notice. Though there has been a backlash against some of these creators, at the time they were the vanguard. Wizard, a trade magazine of the period, featured a top ten artists list in each issue, accompanied by photos, and for the first time fans were able to put faces with names. Of course, creators had been attending conventions for a long time, but not everyone had an opportunity to meet their favorites. There was also a similar list of writers, but it was clear that the artists were the headliners. In much the same way as artists at Marvel during the 1960s were encouraged to draw like Jack Kirby, artists in the 1990s were encouraged to draw like the Image guys. The quality of comic art suffered almost irreparable damage as a result, and it took many years for it to find its footing again. Perhaps this is why writers began to take center stage.

These days, it appears that writers are held in higher regard than artists. One rarely hears the name of an artist associated with a comic-book-inspired film or television show, but the writers are virtual celebrities (which is odd because television and film writers rarely get any credit). Almost everyone knows who Stan Lee is, but Jack Kirby, the King of Comics, is still practically unknown outside of comic fandom. There has also been a fundamental change in the way comics are drawn, especially at Marvel, and some older fans have decided that the new stuff just isn’t for them.

According to a recent feature in Bleeding Cool, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso essentially remarked that artists aren’t very important to comic sales in the current market. If the sad state of art at Marvel these days is any indication, I can believe it. I’m sure it’s become clear from this article that I am more interested in art than in story. This is, of course, not to say that writing isn’t important to me, but I look at it this way: If a comic is poorly written but illustrated well, I can at least look at the art. If the writing is really good but the art sucks, it’s no good to me. I guess what I’m getting at is that comics are, above all, a visual medium. If art isn’t important, then why have it at all? Just read a novel.

Does Alonso’s assertion mean that the institution of comic art is nearing the end of its rope? Perhaps in a sense. While there are still many seasoned fans who flock to conventions to acquire commissions and original art, it is likely that the new generation of comic enthusiasts are less interested in such things. The generation gap is widening, and those of us from the old school will have to content ourselves with the books that have already been published.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.