The Short and Episodic Origins of Apocalyptic Aardvarks

Cerebus the Aardvark, or simply Cerebus for short, is without a doubt one of the most ambitious and important works in the field of comics – especially independent comics. It began as a simple, funny parody of sword & sorcery comics, made funny in part by casting as its central hero a diminutive, grumpy aardvark (“the Earth-Pig born!”, as the narration in early issues was fond of proclaiming).

With the passage of time, it increasingly took on more serious themes, with artist-author Dave Sim shifting gear from telling short stories over the course of a single issue to telling two-to-three-part stories to, eventually, producing enormous novel-length series of dozens of issues. Sim declared his intention that the series would run for 300 issues, culminating with Cerebus’ death. Following on from its debut in 1977, the series ultimately put out its 300th issue and bowed out with issue 300 in early 2004, at the end of which Cerebus did indeed die.

In the intervening 27 years, the series managed to spearhead a major shift in comics publishing; not only was this the first time anyone had attempted a work of this scope within indie comics (or, for that matter, within comics in general), but Sim kicked all this off in a time when reprints of individual comic book issues or collecting comics into trade paperbacks was not the industry norm; the rise of the trade paperback can, in fact, be linked in part to the early commercial success of the so-called “Cerebus phonebooks”, compilations of the aforementioned novel-length storylines which ended up being literally phonebook-thick.

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Offutt’s First Effort As Editor

While I don’t quite buy John Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces theory, I do think that there are certain basic frameworks that stories can (but never must) follow, and which can yield a nigh-infinite variety of different permutations of the same basic ideas whilst leaving room for the author’s own themes and personality to shine through. The Hero’s Journey is one such case in point; another one, which through an act of epic pretentiousness I’ll dub the Traveller’s Intervention, was fleshed out by a number of authors in the early 20th Century and goes a little something like this:

A hero, often itinerant, almost always foreign, finds himself called upon to intervene in a dilemma which frequently involves the ambitions of one or more powerful individuals. Often the hero will have his or her own ambitions, which will usually involve some form of personal advancement; occasionally the hero will be unwilling to intervene, but find themselves compelled to, either by external force or their own conscience. Eventually one side or the other in the dilemma will turn out to be in the wrong; sometimes the true villain of the piece will prove to be a raging, instinct-driven beast, whereas sometimes it will turn out to be a manipulative individual who believes that they are invested with the right (whether by tradition or by occult means or by virtue of their special qualities) to do as they please to whom they please; in the latter case, this could turn out to be the person who requested the hero’s intervention in the first place. The hero eventually discerns the correct course of action and defeats the villain, and usually endures physical danger and occult menace in the process; in most cases the hero will win through by virtue of his or her wit and skill. The situation having been resolved, the hero will normally move on, although not without a certain reward for his or her efforts. The hero, in this model, is an agent of societal change, whose intervention has the effect of either breaking a stalemate or championing the underdog, but is not a part of society but exists externally to it.

This is the formula which once refined by Robert E. Howard (with the aid of such precursors as Edgar Rice Burroughs) became the seed of the sword & sorcery subgenre of fantasy, with authors as diverse as Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock making important contributions to it. As with the Hero’s Journey, of course, the above outline is only a loose and ridiculously broad framework, and most authors (including Howard) produced works that diverge from it radically, but even then it’s notable as a departure from the standard format. (For example, the Elric series by Michael Moorcock centres around a weak-willed cripple who wins his Pyrrhic victories by virtue of his soul-stealing magic sword, but aside from this the original novellas fit the above formula surprisingly well.)

A limitation of this particular monomyth is that it appears to be more suited to short stories than to novels; whilst there are a few examples of excellent sword & sorcery novels (including much of Michael Moorcock’s output from the 1960s and early 1970s), most of the foundational works of the genre are in the short story format. This may in part be due to the framework I’ve described covering only one incident of many in an individual’s life, whereas the Hero’s Journey tends to describe the most important and valuable thing the protagonist is ever likely to do. (This may be why the quest narrative is so popular in high fantasy); I think it is also due to this sort of story working best when it has a nervous, energetic, Howard-like intensity to it, with fast pacing and lightning-fast action; this is a mood which is decidedly sustainable over the course of, say, a novella, but is difficult to maintain for the duration of a novel.

Of course, another factor has to be the origins of sword & sorcery in the first place: whilst high fantasy has its roots in novels by the likes of William Morris, E.R. Eddison, and of course Tolkien, sword & sorcery sprang from the pages of 1930s pulp fiction magazines, with a few antecedents in the form of the short stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lord Dunsany. The fact that the framework seems especially well-served by the short story format probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was devised for the short story format in the first place. But with the waning of the short story magazines as forces in SF/fantasy publishing, and with the audience’s tastes spurning most epics shorter than, say, Dune or Stranger In a Strange Land, the genre found itself in trouble in the mid-to-late 1970s. The apparent intellectual vacuity of the subgenre probably didn’t help, and neither did its undeserved reputation for misogyny and racism; both of these image problems may have resulted from oversaturation of the market by Robert E. Howard’s work, posthumously-completed Howard stories, and people writing lazy Howard pastiches. But the genre does not deserve to be written off as the disreputable legacy of an anti-intellectual, racist bigot from rural Texas, and it didn’t deserve that in 1977; luckily, a lone hero sallied forth to save the day, that hero being Andrew Offutt, editor of the Swords Against Darkness anthology series.

Anthologies of all-original SF/fantasy stories (as opposed to mere compilations of the year’s most notable output) such as Swords Against Darkness were all the rage in the 1970s and 1980s, having somewhat supplanted SF magazines; sure, if you were good with a typewriter you could get into the magazines, but if you were a real hotshot you got picked for the anthologies. The craze probably started with Harlan Ellison’s seminal Dangerous Visions, although apparently many of the all-original anthology lines of the era abjectly failed to turn a profit, and the petering-out of the Swords Against Darkness series may be a consequence of this; though Offutt would produce five such anthologies from 1977 to 1979,

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Lovecraft’s Last Apprentices

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Among H.P. Lovecraft’s more laudable qualities was his eagerness to encourage other writers in their work, a trait that would develop early in his amateur press association writings and would continue right up to his death.

Two of his later proteges were Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner, two pals who were both fans of his work. (Kuttner, in fact, would only correspond with Lovecraft in the last year of Lovecraft’s life). Though their early work involved a lot of Lovecraftian pastiches, they would each grow to be distinctive authors in their own right. Bloch is mostly famous today as the author of Psycho, whilst Kuttner would become extremely well-regarded in the science fiction, both in his own right and his creative team-up with fellow Lovecraft correspondent C.L. Moore, who he met and later married as a result of their mutual inclusion in the network of authors around Lovecraft.

Lin Carter, once again demonstrating that despite his deficiencies as an author he was certainly a discerning editor, hit on the idea of publishing collections of the Cthulhu Mythos stories of both authors. In his lifetime he did manage to put out the first edition of Mysteries of the Worm, the Bloch collection, named in honour of the Mythos tome that Bloch invented and added to the canon; unfortunately, he never got around to producing the intended Kuttner-focused equivalent, The Book of Iod.

When Carter’s friend Robert M. Price ended up overseeing Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu fiction line, he naturally made reprinting an expanded version of Mysteries of the Worm and bringing The Book of Iod to fruition an early priority. As a result, it’s now pretty easy to get a good look at this early work by both authors, with both collections putting the stories in chronological order of publication and, as a result, offering a cross-section of their early development as authors.

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It Looks Xothic, But Is Really So Thin…

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Roleplaying game publishers getting into fiction publishing is nothing new, and often doesn’t earn high praise. A major exception over the years has been Chaosium’s fiction line, which has generally been rather special. Although its pace of publications has waxed and waned over the years as a result of Chaosium’s various business troubles, it’s usually been of a bit more interest than your typical fantasy RPG tie-in fiction range.

A large part of this comes from the fact that Chaosium’s major lines have involved very distinctive settings. Their first games, including RuneQuest, introduced the world to the idiosyncratic world of Glorantha, and though they haven’t put out an enormous amount of Glorantha-based fiction those pieces they have, such as King of Sartar, is generally well-loved by fans of the setting. The cult classic RPG Pendragon, a game of playing not just single knights but entire family dynasties set against the pseudohistorical backdrop of the rise and fall of King Arthur, gave them all the prompting they needed to seek out and release some high-quality Arthurian fiction.

Chaosium’s most high-profile and widely-loved game, however, is the Call of Cthulhu RPG. On release in 1981 it became the first majorly successful horror-themed roleplaying game, and even though Chaosium themselves have had their fortunes wax and wane and wax again over the years Call of Cthulhu has retained a major following, with extensive support from fan writers and third-party publishers bolstering Chaosium’s offerings and extremely healthy fan communities thriving across the world. I could write an entire article about the secret of its success, but in summary I’d say it’s the combination of a fairly intuitive game system with a cerebral, investigative style of RPG play that instantly creates a contrast with more action-oriented games, along with the distinctive flavour offered by being set in the world of the Cthulhu Mythos.

It’s no surprise then, that out of all of Chaosium’s games, Call of Cthulhu has the most extensive fiction line associated with it – especially when you consider the simple advantage that even before the game came out there were numerous stories written in the Lovecraftian vein by a wide range of authors. As a result, whilst Chaosium have put out original collections of new Mythos fiction too, a good swathe of their Call of Cthulhu fiction range consists of reprints of classic Mythos stories, as well as tales that influenced the early Mythos writers (such as the supernatural tales of Robert Chambers). Some of the more interesting reprint collections offered by Chaosium have been the author-specific ones, which allow for a complete overview (or at least an informative cross-section) of an author’s Mythos-relevant writing to be collected between two covers.

Continue reading “It Looks Xothic, But Is Really So Thin…”

Several Species of Bizarre Racial Theories Gathered Together In a Mythos and Grooving With a Pict

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

So, at the start of this year I wrote a mammoth-sized article about Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories which attracted a certain amount of attention, including some posts by Howard’s defenders, and much earlier I wrote a review of the Solomon Kane stuff which got S.M. Stirling all hot and bothered. A few of these comments were broadly reasonable in their tone; others, well, ended up sounding a bit like this. I hadn’t really intended to return to Robert E. Howard’s work after this because I find it bigoted and amateurish and was sceptical that any of the other material out there would make me change my mind, but when I saw copies of Conan’s Brethren and The Haunter of the Ring and Other Stories going for £1 each at the sprawling used book shop in Notting Hill I swing by from time to time to hunt down rarities, I thought “hell with it, let’s go in for another round”.

A frequent complaint in the discussion on Ferretbrain provoked by my last article was that I was mischaracterising Howard based on only a limited set of his material, and I needed to read more widely if I was going to get a proper picture of his work. The complaint itself doesn’t really stand up as a counter to my criticism of the Conan stories because, well, I was criticising the Conan stories. What judgements I made about Howard’s worldview as an author and the racial theories he put forth there were based on how those stories present said subjects. If the views Howard presented in the Conan material did not accurately reflect his own views, then that doesn’t exonerate the stories at all, and it doesn’t really let Howard off the hook: writing an overtly racist story you don’t really believe in for the cash is just as odious, though in different ways, as writing an overtly racist story you actually believe in. I did, in fact, concede in the previous post that the market Howard was targeting with the Conan stories might have brought out the worst in him – a point at least one of his defenders also made – which is about as fair as I can be to the guy without saying stuff I don’t actually believe myself.

Still, I’ve got these tomes now, and I may as well put them to good use. By which I mean entertaining use. By which I mean waving them about and yelling “Look, look damn it! It’s not just the Conan and Solomon Kane stories that air these racist views! They’re not even the worst examples!”

A little word about the publications in question. Conan’s Brethren is a chunky hardback put out by Gollancz, and the selections within it are meant to be representative of Howard’s non-Conan sword and sorcery and historical adventure material – it’s part of that line of ostentatiously huge editions of Lovecraft and Howard and (inexplicably) Jack Vance they have with the ornate pseudo-leather covers so you can pretend you have the actual Necronomicon on your bookshelf (except they stopped naming the things after Mythos tomes after the first Lovecraft volume they did). Happily, my edition is a more compact normal-sized version made for Book Club Associates, so yay for not trying to read this ridiculously big thing on the train in the morning. The Haunter of the Ring is published by Wordsworth Editions and picks out stories to represent his horror output (including a cross-section of his Cthulhu Mythos stuff, written in honour of his dreamy penpal HP “Creepy Howie” Lovecraft), being part of their “Wait, we can totally do a Horror Masterworks series using solely out-of-copyright material” line.

Neither publisher fancied shelling out for the actual rights to any of this stuff, which meant that the collections are stuffed with out-of-copyright material. That means that there’s no collaborations (or at least no stories explicitly presented as collaborations) in the set, since the time limit for copyright expiry would run from the death of the last surviving collaborator and most of the folk who finished off Howard’s incomplete works after his suicide died long after him. The Howard material which is in the public domain for the purposes of UK law consists of everything he published when he was alive, plus any posthumously released works which were first made available to the general public 70 years ago (so, only posthumous releases from the first few years after his death are out of copyright). That represents a goodly chunk of his output, but it doesn’t actually include everything – for instance, none of the Dark Agnes stories saw print for decades after Howard’s death.

So, reader beware! It could be that Howard was actually an extremely progressively-minded sort with a passionate devotion to Minority Warrior causes, but due to the vicious market he was writing for this was never reflected the stories that were published in his lifetime; conversely, his posthumously published stories reveal an outlook distinctly at odds with the sexist, racist balderdash his editors lapped up when he was still with us.

Given that his in-copyright works include dreck like The Vale of Lost Women – yes, the one with the flappity space bat worshipped by a tribe of undomesticated African lesbians – I suspect that might not be the case.

In terms of how this is going to be arranged: I’m going to tackle the Conan’s Brethren stuff first and follow up with the horror material. This is a mildly artificial distinction in Howard’s work since there’s a substantial amount of crossover and overlap between the material, but the sword and sorcery tends to bleed into the horror more than the horror bleeds into the sword and sorcery, if you see what I mean, so by tackling the sword and sorcery material first and then moving on to the horror stuff I can better illustrate that. I’m also not necessarily going to tackle stories in the order they are presented in the collections or in the categories they’re offered up in the collections, instead bunching them together in a way which leads to a logical discussion that flows nicely. Lastly, I’m not going to cover the Solomon Kane stories because I already did ’em once.

Continue reading “Several Species of Bizarre Racial Theories Gathered Together In a Mythos and Grooving With a Pict”

We Need To Talk About Conan

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

This article is, to an extent, old news. There has been a ridiculous amount of ink spilled on the subject of Conan ever since Robert E. Howard began writing about the guy. Over and over again, people have said some variation of what Jason Sanford says here – to paraphrase, that Howard was tediously and egregiously racist by our standards, and that perhaps we shouldn’t keep loudly recommending his work as being essential reading in the fantasy genre. And like clockwork, in come the weaksauce defences. At best, you get pieces like this, in which Jonathan Moeller at least acknowledges that Howard was a racist but tries to argue that what Sanford was proposing was censorship. (It isn’t. Shunning is not censorship. Sanford never argued that Howard’s works should be suppressed or banned from publication, but Moeller seems to regard refusing to positively promote Howard’s works as being the same thing as actively working to suppress them.) At worst, you have people proposing the most incredible arguments as to why, despite all appearances, Howard wasn’t that bad of a racist, and wasn’t even a sexist either. We’ve had some of that here in the past, and I suspect we’ll see more; certainly, it seems to be a law that if you criticise Howard on your SF/fantasy website, fanzine or other forum, his defenders will manifest to wheel out the same tired arguments in his defence.

But the fact remains that the Conan stories have been skewered before, repeatedly, and by people with far more standing to complain about them than I’ll ever have. What’s prompted me to step in here?

Well, first off, it seemed timely. Having reviewed the Conan movies fairly recently, and having had exchanges about Howard on here too, the subject was on my mind. It had been a while since I had reread the stories anyway. People might be interested in a review since there seem to be several reprints making their way onto the shelves in the wake of the movie remake. Why not?

Secondly, the series seems ideal subject matter for the Reading Canary, though in the reverse to the way I usually do these articles – rather than being an exercise in asking “where does this series end up losing what made it good in the first place?”, this has turned more into a “which Conan stories might almost have been OK if Howard had been able to shut up?” deal. A lot of the tales I simply cannot enjoy any more because of the racism and misogyny on display. On top of that, one has to confront the stark fact that Robert E. Howard just wasn’t that good of a writer a lot of the time – remember, these stories were cranked out quickly, for a market that was permanently hungry for new material, and aside from some of the longer stories there’s little sign of polish. Howard would regularly recycle plots or slap a new name on essentially the same supporting character (I lost count of the number of female leads who were Caucasian escapees from dark-skinned slavers), and generally cut corners in order to produce as much product as he could. When the stories are often shit, often bigoted, and fairly often both bigoted and shit, the question arises as to whether any of them are worthy of their reputation at all.

Thirdly, I did this because in another life I might have been one of those defenders. I can remember reading the stories as a teenager and simply failing to notice the bigotry involved; I can also remember reading them again when somewhat older, and being able to recognise the bigotry but willing to argue that people should read the stories anyway because they were so influential and the quality shone through. Both are positions I regard with some embarrassment.

So, basically I am tilting at a windmill which already has a small forest of lances poking out of its sails for the sake of self-flagellating about my former bad taste. It’s more fun than it sounds, which is good because the Conan material is much less fun than I remember it being.

Obvious caveat: I’m a white man, so I have a thick woolly layer of privilege between me and a lot of the issues I talk about here. It’s entirely possible I give Howard an easy time in some places or don’t quite cut to the heart of what’s wrong in other places. I might even flip out at parts which aren’t actually that offensive in some places.

Oh, and trigger warning: racism and sexism aplenty in this stuff. Plus there’s one story which can be summarised as “Conan tries to rape someone and fails”, so yeah.

Continue reading “We Need To Talk About Conan”

The Vengeance of Cornwall

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Michael Moorcock’s sword and sorcery adventure stories are patchy territory. As we’ve already seen, the core Elric novellas – the ones he wrote first, before he started on the prequel mill – are awesome, but the unnecessary later embellishments of the saga get increasingly tiresome. The Erekosë stuff starts out well but Moorcock seemed to lose interest in the character of Erekosë, and the less said about the self-indulgent self-referentiality of The Dragon In the Sword the better. The Michael Kane of Mars stories are silly fun in tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs with a conscious attempt to avoid the worst excesses to avoid ERB’s bigotry, and are properly entertaining if you don’t expect high art out of them. The Hawkmoon material is godawful tripe written solely for the money.

And so we get to Corum, whose novels were likewise written in a matter of days for the sake of cash (specifically, if Moorcock is to be believed, the books took about a week each, and the first trilogy was knocked off due to imminent childbirth and its attendant impact on family finances). However, there are points in the Corum series where hints of a more flavourful and interesting approach than the Hawkmoon dross peek through. As Moorcock explains it, some of the ideas he plays with in the series came to him during a long, dull holiday in Cornwall, where the weather was so bad going outside was a bad move and the only reading material to hand was a Cornish-English dictionary with the English-Cornish dictionary missing. For want of anything more stimulating to do, Moorcock set about reconstructing the English-Cornish section himself, and in doing so found himself sufficiently taken with the language that he decided to draw on it and Cornish folklore in constructing this series.

The Corum books come in two trilogies. The first set, published in a rapid-fire burst in 1971, comprise the so-called Swords trilogy because they set Corum against a pantheon of gods called the Sword Rulers; in the second trilogy from 1973-1974, sometimes referred to as The Chronicles of Corum, our man goes to the future of his world to fight the terrifying Fhoi Myore. Both have been regularly anthologised, the former sometimes under the titles of Corum, The Swords of Corum, Corum: The Coming of Chaos and The Prince In the Scarlet Robe and the latter sometimes under the title of The Chronicles of Corum or The Prince With the Silver Hand; in fact, like the Elric and Hawkmoon books, they’re some of Moorcock’s more regularly in-print material, with the Swords trilogy being honoured with a spot in the Fantasy Masterworks series (confusingly, early editions of this one had the title of The Chronicles of Corum, which is usually used for omnibus collections of the second series, but I’ve seen other versions of the cover art which use the more conventional title of The Prince In the Scarlet Robe). But are they really deserving of this continued acclaim and regular reprints?

In short, no.

Continue reading “The Vengeance of Cornwall”