Saturday, February 25, 2017

Pulpy Motifs in Pop Lit

So, I was at the comic book store and looking over the titles and the one for Hellblazer struck me as being very familiar. It probably wouldn't have been immediately recognizable if not for the fact that I got a Fantomas paperback using the image from the original cover. From the online Hellblazer previews, the story does take place in Paris so the swipe obviously is meant to be an homage or a parody. However, Cassaday does not cite from where his cover comes from. Plus, it is an image that probably only a small percentage of  comic readers are going to be aware of the reference. You know the old saying, "if you have to explain the joke..."

Astro City #41/100: I will warn you, the issue comes with two different covers. At the store I frequent, the issues with the Astro-naut on the cover all had printing/binding issues. In two different places, several pages were duplicated in place of the proper pages. I returned mine and swapped it for the one with other cover as the issues they had left with the same cover had the same errors.

Busiek has lately been knocking it out of the park using the superheroics to explore the history of music and race relations and tensions around the turn of the 20th Century. In this issue, the lead character and his story and relationship to the colorful superheroes of Astro City are definitely meant to evoke the era of pulp heroes and the relationship and popularity of them to the rise of the comic book heroes of WWII. As usual, Busiek does a great job telling a story that is meta-fictional in its use of history and archetypes but in a way that's not mocking or parodying by focusing on creating rounded characters and character driven stories. Prior knowledge is not required for the enjoyment of the stories on their own merits.

Her Dark Curiosity by Megan Shepherd. Several years ago I heard about Megan Shepherd, a new North Carolina author whose debut book The Madman's Daughter was coming out. The book features Juliet, a 16 year old girl in late 19th Century London. Juliet is strong-willed and talented in sciences despite the limitations on her due to her gender. She finds out her exiled father is still conducting his mad experiments on a secret island, the same experiments that got him exiled. She decides to find out if it is true. The catch, her father is Dr. Moreau. That story is a compelling retelling of H.G. Wells' classic tale. The retelling does take quite a few liberties beyond simply inserting the character of Juliet. It is a re-writing of the story, using it to explore similar and different themes and constructing a powerful new story that follows some of the same plot points.

For some reason, the first book was in the local bookstore and library under regular new fiction. With the second book, it was classified as "Young Adult". I also discovered at the local library that carries the book, there is a difference between "Young Adult" and "Youth" fiction which explains why I was having trouble looking for it amongst the Harry Potters and Percy Jacksons of the latter. While the protagonist is of an older teen, the storytelling is every bit of sophisticated and even moreso than much of the fiction that finds itself on the adult shelves of genre and normal fiction.

Her Dark Curiosity picks up after the first with Juliet back in London. A professor that had once been friends with her father has taken her in. Meanwhile, she is living a double life as she is conducting research in trying to find a cure for her illness and dealing with personal fallout from the first novel. There are killings occurring across the city, gripping it in terror. Juliet discovers that there are links of the killings to her own past and the methods seem to indicate that maybe not all of her father's beast men died on the island.

Like the previous novel, the story uses a pre-existing classic to explore different themes and issues of a person trying to find her own way in a highly gender divided society. In this case, it is Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Shepherd takes more liberties with the original novel and characters. But, she uses it to explore some of the same themes just recasting for a new generation. Juliet struggles with the nature of good and evil existing in the same person, from seeing the world in black and white vs shades of gray. In some people, the demarcation between good and evil are literal. But some are more successful in keeping their bestial sides hidden from view. By the novel's end, Juliet and the reader find themselves in a world where knowing who to trust is difficult and trusting the wrong person can be fatal.

The novel ends on a note setting up the third and last from the trilogy drawing inspiration from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Now, I know where in the library to find it.

Reanimatrix: The Horror of Lovecraft's 20th Century by Pete Rawlik. I am only a few chapters in to this book. The opening chapters are in the format of letters from a soldier in France in the days after WWI to his brother. Each chapter is a whole short story of horror and dread and are setting him up to be the proper character to return home to the town of Arkham, Mass. to handle crimes and horrors that the regular cops cannot.

As the novel is based on Lovecraft, I expect references to characters, creatures, and places from his works and those that continued the mythos. However, Rawlik is in full Wold Newtonian mode. In the first few chapters, there's references to The Great Gatsby, The Phantom of the Opera, Robert W. Chambers' "King in Yellow", Talbot Mundy's Meldrum Strange (who is related to a Hugo Strange, whether the superhero Doc Strange or Batman's villain is untold), the pulpish French master-villain Cornelius Kramm (, Frankenstein, works of Clark Ashton Smith (Beasts of Averoigne, events around the fictional location of Yvones) and even Bela Lugosi's Dr. Sangre from King of the Zombies. There is also a reference to the real legend, the beast of Gevaudan that served as the basis for the movie Brotherhood of the Wolf.

On one hand, once you realize the references are there to such a degree it becomes distracting from the novel. With each character or concept introduced one wonders is it from a specific source? It's akin to all the Easter Egg in Moore and O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Yet, Rawlik so far is excellent at telling disquieting stories, building a novel from short short stories. His writing skill is strong enough to override the name-dropping. As I am still under 40 pages into the book, here's hoping that he is able to maintain the quality. At the worst, he has already directed me towards some other writers and short stories to check out.

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