The Lion in the Seventies – Part 2


We resume Lion‘s story with the issue of 31 October 1970. The comic is trundling along with a set of stories evenly divided between old stalwarts that have, individually and collectively, run out of steam, and relatively recent arrivals that offer little to justify their appearing in a comic that was now running in its third decade. Lion‘s sales are in decline, it has just shed its spectacularly badly re-drawn reprints of Dan Dare, and has one new series beginning, the peg on which this latest instalment hangs. On the positive side, it is still only 7d per week, though 3 New Pence now shares cover space in anticipation of the forthcoming decimalisation, and there are 40 pages weekly.
The current line-up consisted of: Carson’s Cubs (3pp), General Johnny (2pp), Spot the Clue with Zip Nolan (2pp), Oddball Oates (2pp), Paddy Payne (2½pp), Sweeper Sam the Mild Matman (2pp), The Boy from Jupiter (2½pp), Flame o’the Forest (3pp), The Spellbinder (3pp), Robot Archie (3pp), Britain AD2170 (3pp) and Mowser (1p). Paddy Payne was a reprint, as was the ‘new’ series, which had appeared in the Sixties as the tedious and unfunny Jimmi from Jupiter, who wasn’t even renamed here, unlike the Karl the Viking reprints. Zip Nolan was either a reprint or indistinguishable from one.
The only top quality art was the ongoing excellence of Reg Bunn on The Spellbinder, the only other art of distinction being the light, cartoony style on Oddball Oates. Flame o’the Forest had good clear art, albeit too slick and uninvolving, and the rest ranged from cheap to ugly. This included Carson’s Cubs, which had never been impressive to look at and, after all this time without improvement, was positively painful to the eye.
Mowser was all that remained of Lion‘s history of purely comic one-pagers, and this had long been another strip that had the same formula week after week, hitting the same beats in the same panels over and again. The line-up this week is that of a comic that was played out.
But Flame o’the Forest and Oddball Oates, who was after all, let us remember, a multi-sport drugs cheat, had only one more episode apiece, which meant two new chances to recapture that old energy and inspiration.
But let’s not get too hasty. The first of these was another reprint, Maroc the Mighty, with prime Don Lawrence art, under the title The Steel Band but the other was at least new. The King of Keg Island was about orphan Peter Cable, who inherited an island as he was running away from the cruel and vicious orphanage owner Simon Lashley, who plotted to steal Peter’s valuable inheritance from him. With this set-up, would this be just another compilation of cliches? Probably.
Unfortunately, there was a massive wait to see how that might develop, as a ‘production issue’ killed off publication of Lion and its companion papers until 6 February 1971. This isn’t referenced in Wikipedia, but I remember the first of the power cuts striking in December 1970, so I’m going to venture a guess that it was industrial action by the minors causing electricity shortages and badly affecting the printing industry. Whatever the cause, Lion had lost eleven weeks, not that the difference was apparent just going from issue to issue on DVD3.
Though it appeared I may have been overly pessimistic about The King of Keg Island, with Peter and his three mates holding on to their independence on the titular island, and seeming to dispose of Lashley’s menace incredibly quickly. Artistically, I kept detecting resemblances in line-work and faces to the artist who had drawn Oddball Oates, now adopting a more realistic style.

But changes were once again necessary. Another of Fleetway’s new weekly comics had failed rapidly, so with effect from 20 March there was another merger, this time into Lion and Thunder. Sweeper Sam was carted off from 6 March, making room for a six page Spellbinder episode to tie up the current storyline. General Johnny got sent back to school permanently, Paddy Payne was given an extended run out to end his reprint story and Britain 2170AD was left to re-establish civilisation in peace and quiet. Lashley’s overly rapid discomfiture signalled a rapid curtailment to the Keg Island story, with a handy deus ex machina, food-wise, and the Jimmi Jupiter reprints were returned to deserved obscurity.
But the biggest shock of all was that, from 6 March, Robot Archie was no more. He, and the pals, Ken and Ted, would adventure no more, after a run of fourteen years.
The new paper was left with Carson’s Cubs, Zip Nolan, The Spellbinder (though without Reg Bunn, who passed away in 1971, aged 66, after a long and honourable association with the comic) and Mowser. From Thunder came Black Max, about a German First World War Richthofenesque Air Ace and his overly large Bats, Fury’s Family, about a lad who had liberated his animal friends from a hateful circus, Phil the Fluter, about a lad with a magic flute that stopped time when it was played, a two page strip that broke with all Lion tradition by being in full and rather rich colour, The Jet-Skaters, a bunch of kids with jet-powered skates, The Steel Commando, a Second World War story about a metal version of Captain Hurricane and The Jigsaw Journey, in which traveller Dr Wolfgang Stranger took on a quest to find a lost city whose whereabouts could be located if you assembled a map cut into nine pieces.
Also added to the title was Adam Eterno, about a gaunt 421 year old, time-travelling man who could only be killed by gold, which was written in a curiously lugubrious and stilted fashion.
It was a bit of a jolt, which was what Lion needed. But, as other mergers had amply demonstrated, which if any of Thunder‘s features would last more than a couple of months?

The tradition of adding a comedy one pager after a merger or revamp certainly continued, with the debut of The Spooks of St Luke’s, and also of Sam, making a delayed arrival from Thunder with pure Beano style art. Sam would only ever be an irregular features at first, but after several weeks on and off, The Spooks became a weekly affair.
The issue of 24 April 1971 sees me move on to DVD4. The comic has gone decimal, and costs 3p weekly. By now, it’s possible to see where the Thunder imports are heading. Phil the Fluter’s colour was very erratic to begin with, badly off-register most of the time, but it’s there to highlight the time-stopped panels, when everything is black and white except Phil himself. However, the Jet-Skaters is risible, with the four kids spending most of their time bent over with their arses thrust out in a manner that I cannot see any other way than as obscene.
Fury’s Family is also dull, with Fury a jungle boy with no understanding of the modern world and too prone to fly off the handle, albeit with the odd beautifully drawn panel of one or other of his animal friends, whilst The Steel Commando isn’t as funny as it would like to be, and certainly not original. But the widened range of subjects at least makes this period of Lion‘s history much more palatable than was the last, tedious phase.
There was a shock on 8 May as Mowser moved into colour (off-register, naturally), replacing the back page ad, though this was just a one-off. However, the colour Mowser was repeated in August and September, and became an occasional thing. Speaking of the tatty old puss, a letter published on 3 July, advocating dropping the feature, elicited the remarkable statistic that it was 8th favourite out of 13 in Lion, the only cartoon feature in any IPC adventure comic not to be least favourite.
To my surprise, the Thunder imports proved more long-lasting that their predecessors, with The Jigsaw Journey the first to conclude on 17 July. But this just gave way to yet another return by Paddy Payne, billed as being in a new story, but of course another reprint.
The problem was that, whilst the latest merger had given Lion a much-needed kick-start, before long all the new series had become just as repetitious and unimaginative as those they had replaced. Each one just recycled the same ideas, over and over again, like the utterly hollow Zip Nolan or the increasingly ludicrous Carson’s Cubs, which really, seriously needed to ditch the two rascally Directors, Braggart and Snook, and find a new threat. But you know they never would.
Not before time, another trio of new series arrived simultaneously on 16 October, pushing out The Jetskaters and, yet again, Paddy Payne. The new series were Dr Mesmer’s Revenge, about an Egyptologist whose home, a personal museum was robbed, and who sought revenge on the crooks by raising a mummy to life, The Last of the Harkers, about a big-eared lad who set out to restore his family’s sporting honour with the aid of a ghost of his ancestor, and The Can-Do Kids, about four school-leavers setting up an any-task business to raise funds to go round the world. One drama with mystical overtones and two comedies: what difference would these make?

Though it was the least propitious of the new series, and far too reminiscent of The Waxer in having one lone Policeman suspect and be disbelieved by everyone, Dr Mesmer’s Revenge proved interesting, thanks to some clear, crisp and solid art, realistic and detailed. It was the best we’d seen since Reg Bunn and Don Lawrence. And certain panels and settings seemed very familiar, leading me to initially suspect that the artist could be David Lloyd, of V for Vendetta fame, though according to Wikipedia, Lloyd didn’t start his career until much later in the decade.
The Can-Do Kids had a certain silly charm to itself but was spoiled by giving them an adversary in the form of an ex-Brigadier, still wrapped up in 1944, intent on driving them out of his neighbourhood. A little of stereotypes like that goes a long way, and a lot gets very dull very quickly.
The Last of the Harkers was a more overt comedy, drawn in a broad cartoon style, but it was set up to be inherently formulaic, and by this time, Lion just did not need more formulaic stuff.
As the comic passed over into 1972, approaching its twentieth anniversary, Paddy Payne was back yet again, with yet another reprint. And there was an interesting touch in The Spellbinder as Nyarlhotep was used as a magic world. Given that Sylvester Turville had already referred to a spellbook by one Al-Hazred, it leads me to wonder if the editor was aware of these Lovecraftian references. I doubt very much the audience were.
Phil the Fluter was dropped at the end of the month, as was the colour centrespread, to be replaced by a horror story called Watch Out for the White-Eyes, as a strange gas affects first a flock of crows then a mild-mannered schoolteacher, turning them into superhuman aggressors.
Another passing moment of note was in the final panel of The Can-Do Kids for 19 February, when a fleeing bystander was drawn as an obvious caricature of then American President, Richard Nixon. The next issue saw the official celebration of Lion‘s twentieth birthday, and the first absence by Mowser in years.
Which is as good a moment as any to draw a line under the penultimate part of this series.

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Heroes in Crisis 3


I so looked forward to Heroes in Crisis. It’s subject seemed to have infinite potential but, three issues in out of nine, it is already both a crashing bore and a disorganised mess. Whilst there’s still ample time for it to pull itself together, at the moment I can only foresee the immediate aftermath of reading no. 9 to be the offering of the complete set on eBay: get your preliminary bids in now.

The whole series bears the mark of editorial interference, stemming, I strongly suspect, from Dan DiDio. Originally, the story was to have run only seven issues but at a late stage, too late for this to predate completion of the first couple of issues, it was announced that two ‘fill-in’ issues – nos 3 and 8 – would be added. Then, after issue 2 had appeared, it was casually mentioned that these extra issues, not drawn by series artist Clay Mann, were tie-ins that had been decided to be added to the series itself.

This comes after three pages in issue 2 having been drawn by a different artist, to insert a scene about Wally West’s death that otherwise wouldn’t have been in the issue.

What I, and many others, am smelling here is an attempt by DiDio to claw back something of the atmosphere and approaches of the New 52, his baby, that was roundly rejected in 2016 by Geoff Johns and the whole DC Rebirth saga. Though it was initially a sales boost, very few people actually liked the New 52, with its ultra grimness and ultra grittiness, its emphasis upon death and destruction, its refusal to allow marriages (because that would mean characters being happy) and its general, overall shitness.

Rebirth was a cosmic breath of fresh air, as well as being Geoff Johns’ baby, and which character was the symbol of Rebirth? Wally West. But Johns is no longer Chief Creative Officer at DC, and DiDio has room to start resweing his serpent’s teeth, and the first sign of this is inserting Wally West’s death into Heroes in Crisis.

I’ve already said I can’t believe it, and even though issue 3 features the (apparent) murder, via Harley Quinn’s sledgehammer to the back of the skull, I’m still not buying it. I’m almost certain I’ve never seen a comic book death so utterly unconvincing, and I’m convinced that’s because it wasn’t part of King’s story and has had to be forced in at DiDio’s orders: it isn’t believable because the writer doesn’t believe in it.

I also find it significant that the forthcoming Batman/The Flash four-part crossover in which the DC Universe’s two leading detectives team up to investigate Wally’s murder is being wholly written by Josh Williamson (a tie-in to Tom King’s series in Tom King’s regular title that Tom king isn’t writing any part of? And is having to announce he’s still going to write 100 issues?)

Issue 3 is a flashback issue whose cover is completely misleading. Batnan and The Flash’s faces reflect in a blood-stained, gold face-mask that reminds me of the Psycho-Pirate, but neither they nor any investigation takes place within. Instead, we see Sanctuary in operation through three figures. Lagoon Boy, a minor, pre-Flashpoint Teen Titan, traumatized by the deaths of his team around him is trying to getover his fear by continually being shot by a laser, repeating his injury until the trauma disappears (he is disembowelled by a stick and dies laughing). Wally West sits in the Chamber, a Star Trek-like holosuite, rebuilding his life with Linda and his children around him whilst a somewhat patronising system asks why (bloody obvious, I would have thought, and given he’s a superhero who’s re-emerged out of a previous reality, not something impossible to resurrect). And Booster Gold, on his first day, conjures up a snarky Booster Gold to argue with him.

Then there’s an emergency, people die all over the place, Wally huddles over a dead Roy Harper as Harley Quinn sneaks up from behind, bang bang, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer comes down upon his head…

The truth is that in one-third of its length, Heroes in Crisis has travelled exactly six inches. It’s been distorted by a megalomaniac who’s trying to fight a battle with someone who’s only recently stopped having more influence over him, and who seems blind to the fact that his yar-boo-sucks, I’m killing Wally West, ner ner, ner ner, ner is not only pathetic and childish but fucking pointless because if someone wants to bring Wally back after DiDio’s gone they’ll do so and it won’t even be because they want to piss all over his chips. It’s like John bloody Byrne sprinting back to Marvel the moment Jim Shooter was fired so he could bomb Pittsburgh.

And I thought this was going to be better than Doomsday Clock.

Treme: s04 e04 – Sunset on Louisianne


By a mad coincidence, my two current weekly TV blog’n’watch series will be coming to an end at the same time, next week. My feelings about this couldn’t be in more contrast if I tried. I’m eagerly anticipating the end of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but when it comes to Treme, I’m diffident, even reluctant to watch the last couple of episodes, because after that, it’s over and there’s no coming back from it.

But the distinction in my feelings is inherent in the difference between the two programmes. Deep Space Nine was purely entertainment, a show based upon artificial, unrealistic settings, with a cast gathered to aim for a more-or-less cmmon goal, the achievement of which is the programme’s purpose and it’s end-point. By its very nature, it has to come to an end, in Victory, however that’s defined.

Treme was never so simple. It took a cast of people who were not so much disparayte as disconnected,sharing only a setting that, whilst extraordinary in the sense that it was the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina, was nevertheless both naturalistic and unconcerted. The men and women of Treme all have goals and reversals, but these are not part of some shared effort or achievement. They are living their lives alongside each other. And they, like we the audience, are not in control of their destinies, unlike the cast of Deep Space Nine.

To my mind, that makes the characters of Treme superior. They have lives that stretch before and after those thirty-six episodes of the four seasons it existed, whereas the characters of Deep Space Nine don’t. When it ends, they end. Whatever ends the people of Treme come to next week, when I watch the final episode, whatever wins, losses, draws or just plain every days they come to, are not ends at all, any more than that it would be the ‘end’ of my life if I were to, say, get a dfferent job.

My New Orleans friends will live on past the final episode, still going through the things that make their lives so fascinating to have watched. Being reluctant to face the last two episodes, because there are no more episodes after that and by not watching I am single-handedly keeping these people alive, is an illusion. All it does is stretch them out. They will still be there when the theme music plays a final time, they will still be doing what they be doing, only without a season 4 episode 6 to bring it to us. I don’t want to watch the end of Treme because it isn’t the end, just a walking away, not to meet again. I want to watch the end of Deep Space Nine because it is the end. One is like death, the other isn’t.

Heavy thoughts to taake into the penultimate episode. This was written by David Simon alone and, in its many ways, it seemed an episode of small movements, little adjustments, the taking of positions that might signal where people are going to stop when the roundabout takes its last spin.

Some of these implied a circularity: David and Janette are back together again, as they were when we all started this again, whilst Antoine, frustrated that the after-school programme in which he’s safeguarding his band and those future musicians, faces killing off due to insurance issues, reverts for twenty four hours to being wjat he was when first we met him, a playing musician, pushing himself round the clock. But he at least isn’t going backwards: hungover and cynical he’s back with the band, coping with their pointed laughter and still the big daddy of them all.

Elsewhere, Terry Colson’s contemplating retirement from the force, trying to get himself on the stand for whatever case the FBI are bringing against NOPD despite his vulnerability, L.P. Everett’s back in town and being approached by the FBI for contacts to the Glover case, Toni’s got a witness to the death of the asthmatic, and Everett’s bringing her word that the FBI seem to be coming iin on everything, even back to LaDonna’s brother in season 1.

Nelson Hidalgo’s detaching himself, withdrawing to Galveston, following the money. Davis is trying to enlist him to reopen clubland on Rampart Street, but that isn’t going to happen. Jazz is to be controlled in New Orleans under the new regime (they intend).

Annie T’s being pushed to the outer limits by her management, and much as she wants to stay with her band, they agree she should take the Nashville recording gig. The brass ring beckons and Annie has too much talent to ignore it, though nothing can be set in stone.

But there’s a hole in the middle of the programme and the water is swirling around it, and one of our people is being sucked down it. The beginning could not be brighter and lighter, live music in Davis’s studio at the radio station, Louis Prima’s ‘Sing Sing Sing’, as vibrant and joyful as anything in this series. I still know no more of jazz than when I watched season 1 episode 1, nor would I seek it out on disc or in real life live, unless I were to be in New Orleans, but though i have listened bemused and ignorant, I have enjoyed every moment of it and this not least.

Beginnings in life, but even here we think of death, for in a manner that foreshadows where we will go at the end, Davis is full of musings of his legacy, as in whether he has any, it being his 40th birthday tomorrow, and he full of what he or anyone else may leave behind.

And Albert, growing weaker, admitting he won’t do that walk this year, and placing it upon Delmond’s head to become Chief. Delmond, testing a composition on his Daddy, admitting it was music written for his father, who had detected it from the love in each note. Albert collapses in the night. Everyone gathers at the hospital. They let him go home, with Home Care and morphine. He lies in bed, his breathing rough and wheezy. Davina sleeps, LaDonna reads. And a moment that stabs me through the heart as the wheezy breathing stops and Big Chief Albert Lambreaux lies silent, recreating for me a moment I lived through and can never forget, because I know instantly what that silence means, and so does LaDonna, and she sends in Delmond to say goodbye and she stands outside alone, in the dawn where I stood in the dark, contemplating the world without.

One more meeting. One last passing hour.

 

Serendipity and Shadows


Funny how it works.

I was watching this item on eBay yesterday, planning to bid if I could get it near the asking price. I’d seen it offered for much higher prices, too much for my blood. In the end, I was lucky, only bidder.

This morning, off work with a stinking headache, I had an acknowledgement from the seller, asking if I was the Martin Crookall who… Well, with a name like mine, it’s obvious we don’t come in six-packs and yes, I was and am. The seller is an old acquaintance, who I first knew in the early Eighties, as a sixteen year old who had just put together the first issue of a comics fanzine called Shadows. I’d just had a letter published in Daredevil, under a gross mangling of my name (knew I should have printed it and not just signed it), and was surprised to get a letter adressed to my unwelcome alter ego, asking if I’d contribute to the next issue of Shadows.

I did, and to practically every other issue of its run, which led to me contributing to practically every other reputable fanzine of that lost, pre-Internet era, and becoming a regular in both Fantasy Advertiser (aka FA) and Arkensword, the only two ‘zines with circulations topping 1,000.

It was a fun time, making pen-friends and friends, going to Conventions, meeting writers and artists, getting recognised by Alan Moore. For about five years I was what was then called a BNF (Big Name Fan, as opposed to BOF, aka Boring Old Fart, though I’ve no doubt there were many, then and now, who thought the latter more appropriate). Better still, those years of writing and being praised did wonders for my self-confidence and represented an invaluable, indeed vital, stage in my development towards the novels I’ve written since. All thanks to Pete. Thanks, buddy, it couldn’t have happened without you.

I dropped out of fandom years ago. Prior to the messahges today, I can’t remember when I last spoke to any of the community of then. I know that Martin Skidmore and Steve Whittaker have gone ahead but I have no idea of the whereabouts or fortunes of anybody else: Pete Campbell, Fiona Jerome, Gerard Kingdom, Martin Hand, Captain Courageous, Tim Bateman, the lovely Sue Swazey, Hortense the Wonder Goose (who was also from Manchester), Paul Duncan, John Jackson, Les Chester and many more whose names won’t come out of the box immediately.

Pete sounds happy, with a large family. I hope all the others are still with us, and are doing what they wanna do and followed their intentions through (per Syd Straw’s ‘CBGBs’), and if any of them happen across this, I hope they’ll at least post a comment.

Harry Leslie Smith R.I.P.


Harry Leslie Smith was not the usual kind of person I feel compelled to memorialise on the occasion of their death. He was in no sense an entertainer. What he was was a plain-speaking, ordinary man who in the final years of a long life – he died aged 95 – began to speak out about the world he saw around him, in clear and vivid words.

Harry had seen a lot, and remembered it. In particular, he had seen medicine in Britain before the creation of the National Health Service. He knew what it meant to have to pay, however grindingly poor you were, for health, and his was a voice ofauthority standing up against the creeping eosion of the NHS, at the hands of guardians who, in the grand tradition of cheap melodrama, want to dispose of it to line their own pockets.

Harry spoke with a clean sanity and a straightforward rationalism about things important to this country. Ninety five years is the proverbial ‘good innings’ but there is still thefeeling that it is not long enough. His loss is our loss, for the world has far too few people of Harry’s quality as it is, and his passing tips the balance yet further away. But it is his own loss, not lasting to see the change of government he and I and many others long for, to end the madness and destruction of so many years.

Go in peace, Harry Leslie Smith. You will not be forgotten.

Deep Space Nine: s07 e24 – The Dogs of War


Why couldn’t they have swapped costumes?

After the tight focus of last week, the penultimate episode of Deep Space Nine was instead a ragbag of set-up across multiple plot strands, involving practically every single recurring character you could name, but not Cirroc Lofton. Only Kai Wynn and Gul Dukat failed to show their faces.

This meant a strong Ferenghi presence, and I’m hoping that the substantial amount of time dedicated to wrapping up their story will mean only a token participation in the series finale, a week from now. It was down to the usual standards. Leeta and a barely clad dabo girl demand a reduction in how much of their tips they have to give to Quark, and he’s thinking abut it when Grand Negus Zek comes on the blower to announce, through appalling static, that he’s going to retire and is appointing Quark as his successor.

Immediately, Brunt turns up to fawn all over the new Negus, and to tell him of the massive changes Zek, under Ishka’s influence, has been pushing through to turn Ferenganar from the unrestricted pursuit of capitalism. Ferenganar’s been so humonised, Quark’s disgusted enough to turn down the post, except that he’s got it all wrong: Zek’s appointing Rom instead. Quark however intends to run his bar in the old fashion unrepentantly.

There, wasn’t that worthless watching? Except for what’s probably a final appearance from Chase Masterson.

What was nearly as awful was the clowning around between Julian Bashir and Ezri Dax, one minute solemnly assuring themselves that it’s better to retain their friendship than lose it over trying to pursue a silly romantic fantasy, the next snogging each other’s faces off in a turbolift. This strand kept Worf and O’Brien in it for a couple of cameos as a Greek Chorus, looking on.

Odo is fully recovered and Bashir drops a brick in telling him how Section 31 infected him. There is a piece of what I take to be foreshadowing, as Odo reacts in disgust to the Federation’s decision not to give the cure to the Dominion in the middle of all-out War against an enemy bent on ruthless conquest (sorry, Odo, you’re being bloody naive). Given that I was not able to escape learning in advance about Odo’s final part in this series, I take it that this is a major factor in his decision.

By far and away the most important strands related directly to the War. Demar’s rebellion is betrayed and destroyed, it’s only survivors being the Big Three of Demar, Kira and Garak. They go underground on Cardassia Prime, in a cellar, to avoid capture and execution whilst Weyoun announces Demar’s death. But the populace don’t believe it, and our trio play on this to turn Demar into Legend, to raise the people.

And a new, pliant Legate takes Service under the Dominion, for whom the Female Changeling is dictating retrenchment: fall back upon a shortened, stronger defensive line, based upon the Cardassian Empire, rebuild, emerge stronger.  The Federation, being naturally timid, will settle for containment.

But Sisko argues otherwise. He has a new Defiant class ship that he’s authorised to rename Defiant, and he foresees what the Dominion expect, and urges attack: break through the Dominion lines before they can settle. Cry Havoc! and let slip the Dogs of War.

Ad a final coda, in which a hostage to fortune, and to the Prophets’ warning: Kasidy Yates Sisko is pregnant. The Emissary is going to have a baby…

A Lycanthrope in Wolf’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Wizard’


The Wizard is the second half of The Wizard Knight and in many ways is just a continuation of it: more of the same, only different. yet it is different from its predecessor, though not to such a degree that I find it more engaging.
When it starts, Sir Able of the High Heart is believed dead, having disappeared twenty years previously, by passing into Skai, the third world, that which is above Mythgarthr as Aelfrice is below it. In Skai, Able has had his memory of below removed as he serves the Valfather, and this is only returned when he is released to return to Mythgarthr. Time passes at different rates between the various levels of this seven-story world: it has been no more than a week in the world below.
The two main differences in The Wizard, largely in the first half of this book, is that firstly there are several scenes narrated that Able is not present to see, and only learns of later from a participant, usually his servant and follower, Toug (which are narrated in the third person, including copious dialogue). And secondly, there is a more cohesive and purposeful story for much of the book, albeit with a long aftermath period covering more than the last hundred pages of the story.
That story involves an expedition into Jotunland, a land of giants, led by Lord Beel, whose daughter, the beautiful and highly intelligent Idnn, is to be presented to their King as his Queen (a mind-boggling prospect given the massive difference in size between the human girl and the King’s, ah, member alone.)
The expedition fails and the Osterlings retaliate by a prolonged attack on the humans of Mythgarthr, leading to devastation and destruction and ultimately requiring Able to act as the titular Wizard, breaking his oath not to use the powers granted him in Skai by the Valfather. Ultimately, these powers enable him to turn his beloved Disiri into a human woman, and the pair retire to Aelfrice in peace, where Able is able to compose his 900 plus page letter to his brother Ben, back home in America.
He even signs the letter with his ‘real’ name, Art. Or Arthur Ormsby. Arthur, eh? Who’d have guessed?
So the second book feels more integrated and less episodic, to its credit, although the subject matter remains high fantasy, with decided overtones of Norse and other mythologies, interlaid with Arthurian notions of chivalry and honour. The problem is again mine, that I don’t find myself responding to these in the way that many others do.
I came into Fantasy via The Lord of the Rings, without any kind of hinterland in what, to me, always feels like cheap, formula heroic fantasy. The older works, the likes of Eddison and Dunsany, have never struck me as palatable: I literally couldn’t read Eddison, whilst the little I have read of Dunsany was readable but remained distant, accounts of things taking place at some point above to which I was unable to relate.
The subject of The Wizard Knight is not to my immediate interest. The things this kind of fantasy is concerned with are outside my normal sphere: I can’t help but draw a contrast with The Devil in a Forest, whose milieu is similarly medieval, but which concerns itself with the realistic lives of the lowborn rather than the stylised machinations of the seemingly highborn, and those who aspire to stand alongside them.
Like the second and third instalments of The Book of the New Sun, and in particular The Book of the Long Sun, Wolfe chooses to cast his story with multiple speaking parts, each distinguished by a separate accent, brogue or mode of speaking that enables any of them to be identified from dialogue alone. Yet like that series, the sheer profusion of characters is itself a problem, in that at least one reader finds it wearying having to deal with so many different voices over and over again, especially those who require a more extreme form of prose to specify their speech. And after a certain point in both books, the feeling creeps in that, rather than this being essential to the story, it’s an exercise in technical proficiency for its own sake.
This is especially the case with those characters, like Sir Able himself, who are prone to verbosity, and to the sin of over-explaining and over-over-explaining until there is little or no momentum in events and the story does not so much lag as encamp for a fortnight.
We’ve seen this on a minor scale in earlier Wolfe books, the competent man who reads situations and correctly analyses them from subtle cues, but who then insists upon explaining them at a length that isn’t always brief or wanted. It’s grown to massive proportions with both Silk and, in The Wizard, Able, but in this instance it’s compounded by the number of people around him who are guilty of the same failing.
Both volumes of The Wizard Knight were published in 2004, by which time Wolfe had been a professional writer for thirty five years, and was himself in his Seventies. The collected work is a book of just over 900 pages, a massive achievement for someone of his age, and simply by its weightiness, must be accounted a major work, whatever my personal response to it.
Ahead of him lay a further seven novels, only one of which I consider to be sufficiently substantial to class along Gene Wolfe’s major works, although in that I am again at odds with a considerable number of Wolfe fans and scholars who think it a major falling back from his standards. Certainly, all the rest are at best middling works, each with their merits, but not really to be set against the works of Wolfe’s prime.