Sunday, June 5, 2016

Awesome Swords & Sorcery Covers I: Frank Frazetta's Conan

I just meant to put up a batch of my favorite S&S book covers for a quick post, and instead found myself hunting down Frank Frazetta's Conan covers. It's not that there aren't other covers I like and affected me growing up, but I suddenly realized how deeply these helped build my visual interpretation of the genre and decided to focus on them.

Part of me, the overly-intellectual part that channels dime store (really, shouldn't that be dollar store now?) Freudianism, assumes my adolescent self was jazzed by the pictures' blatant power fantasy imagery. There's Conan with a nubile woman curled up, subserviently, at his feet. There he is, teeth exposed in a primal grimace with his arm around Thak's neck and a giant dagger raised up high. With sword and shield held high, he rides through his enemies, trampling them under hoof.

The main part of me, though, says "pshaw!" to all that. I like these covers because they're cool. Yeah, there's a bit of a power trip inherent in Frazetta's artwork. Conan's the biggest, baddest guy around and nothing can stand in his way for long. What's not to like?

And they're darkly gorgeous. You can smell the smoke, gore, and sweat seeping off these covers. These are some of the most viscerally exciting S&S artworks ever done, and I am forever grateful to Frazetta for creating them.

Thak and Conan, Conan and Thak. The young Conan rampaging on rampaging monkey-man. I've always felt bad for Thak. Some priest's dank dungeon shouldn't be his home, he should be running free in the wild, plucking bananas and wooing some monkey-woman. 

Cool as this is, it always struck me it's too cold for Conan to go around pantsless. I don't demand verisimilitudinous perfection in S&S, far from in fact, but, dang, Conan's never struck me as too stupid to wear dress for the weather.

I think this is the most iconic Conan picture ever created. I can almost see his chest and shoulders heaving after just having killed all those creatures he's standing on. The swirling mists and skulls hovering behind over the flames are the forces still arrayed against him, but we know Conan will prevail.

I'm as indifferent to this picture as Conan is to the man he's throttling. That look on his face makes me thinks he's thinking back on his youth, or maybe remembering he's got to pick up milk after work.

Not the best, but the first one I saw. I first dug this out of one of my dad's legendary book boxes in the attic. I knew the name Conan, but nothing about him. Then I read "Red Nails," and was hooked for life. I assume this for "Beyond the Black River." 

UPDATE: I love this one. We don't see Conan's face, because he's too busy facing off against the world, despite being manacled in place. But seriously, what's with the peanut gallery on the steps? Are they waiting to see who wins, for scraps? What? And that snake. Seriously, it took the time to slither through the Cimmerian's legs instead of just eating him? Seems a little unbelievable, if you ask me. 

Looking at this picture with a critical eye it kinda stinks. What the heck is that Conan's wearing, a barbarian girdle? And why isn't his chest protected? Whatever. The horse, bucking and screaming as it smashes Conan's opponents is intense. I do really like the band of pink sunlight piercing the blue and black of the shadows.

Great cover for a poor book. The picture distills S&S to some of its essential salts: muscled barbarian, evil wizard, slimy, slithering monsters, and nubile damsel in distress. While I love the feeling of movement implied by the swinging censer, and bits of Conan's man-necklace, I also love it's the snapshot effect. Conan's in mid leap, one unseen foot balanced on the altar, his hands prepared to throttle the sorceror. The latter, arm outstretched is ready to swing downward, ripping open his helpless victims. Looking at all these together, this might be my new favorite.

There you go, some of the best and most influential S&S covers. I love that they are so unabashedly violent and masculine. There's no doubt what sorts of stories you're going to find behind those covers. Thank you, Messrs Howard and Frazetta (and De Camp, Carter, and what the heck, Nyberg, too).

The rest of the Ace Conan covers were done by Boris Vallejo. You can look them up on your own, because I don't like them and am not putting them up.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Hi-fi Swords & Sorcery Art

So I love the lo-fi art, the works of hand-drawn, fan-drawn pictures that graced the covers of 'zines, and the pages of RPG books. I also understand that even back in the seventies and eighties, those weren't the sorts of things that made it on to professionally published publications. 

The thing about the professionally painted (or whatever) covers of that era is that they didn't look like they could be on a romance or airport thriller. They only thing a Michael Whelan or Frank Frazetta S&S cover could be was a S&S cover. The pulp roots showed thru, loudly and majestically.

Here's four sets of covers, chosen because I love the old one, and the thematic similarity of the new one. This is not a comment on the stories themselves. I've only read (and enjoyed) Robin Hobb's writing (though not the book shown). The others are names I know, but haven't crossed my desk or caught my attention. I just know they're popular and get some pretty good notices. 

Nonetheless, their books, at least these ones, have crappy covers. In no case would I buy the new book instead of the old one based on the cover. 

Sword-wielding women with visible skin. The first, though, also hints at the world and the existence of other characters. And the woman looks like she could kick your ass. The Brett woman is a pouty girl covered in henna tattoos and probably reeks of patchouli.
Note: I know Gates is really sci-fi, but the book is planetary adventure is cast from the same mold as S&S.

I don't hate the Sanderson cover, but it just can't compare to Hodgell's. The new cover's thief looks like she exists independently of an external world, just floating there. Hodgell's heroine exists in an urban landscape of tile, masonry, and strange figures fishing the streets below. It looks interesting, it's luring me inside with the promise of the strange and weird, not just some generic character.

Yeah, no. Death Angel's Shadow is my favorite Kane cover, rejecting the fur-loincloth depiction of the Frazetta Kane and making him look like the brooding, blue-eyed killer from the stories. Stover's guy looks like David Hasselhoff in a Neil Diamond's suit. 

Of all these new covers, this one's my favorite, and not because it's simply the least bad. I the tree limbs materializing through the falling snow, looking like monstrous growths from the warrior's back. Put up next to Whelan's Elric, though, you realize it could just as easily come be on a historical novel. There's nothing that really says "fantasy," let alone heroic fantasy. It doesn't help that his expression is bland. He's looking off to the left with a little Clint Eastwood squint, but no real visible emotion. Elric is downright scary. You can tell he's a threat and that he's facing down something right now. Then there's the elaborate detail of the ship's stern and the crowd of men behind Elric, almost cowering in fear from whatever he's preparing to kill.

If I was more aware of new fantasy I could probably do this all day. I think these four sets are enough to make my point. Sure, not scientifically, but enough. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Lo-fi Swords and Sorcery Art

To continue on the discussion started in the comments on the last post, here are some of the best lo-fi swords & sorcery art I could find in a quick scouring of the web. I'd been planning to do this, but Raphael Ordonez's comment inspired me to actually do it.
I have to like the cover if I'm going to read the book. I'm embarrassingly superficial like that. I recently saw a number of old Arkham House books for sale, and I totally would have bought them for the dust jackets, if I'd had the money, which I didn't. It's interesting what you say about the amateurishness, which I've often noticed. For some strange reason that only increases the appeal for me. It seems to go hand-in-hand with their unapologetic enthusiasm.

I see nothing strange at all about liking the "unapologetic enthusiasm." That's what gets me the most about this art. It makes no bones about being done by fans for fans without the mediation of professional marketing or focus groups. It was created by artists who love monsters, heroes with big honking weapons, mad sorcerers, and exotic, dangerous worlds and know that's exactly what we S&S fans love as well. 

Other than pictures my friends or I drew, the earliest fantasy artwork that stuck in my brain were from the original D&D pamphlet my friend Densel E. used to teach us how to play. I was only eleven or twelve, so I didn't understand they were "crappy," I just knew they were cool. And I still do.

I don't hate covers that don't take the lo-fi road, not at all. There's just something cool about illustrations that don't try to include every detail, and every shade mentioned in the text. Instead, they present a picture that's impressionistic, capturing the feel and intensity of what it's depicting but leaving the details for my brain to fill in. 

Several people have told me that the awful photshopped art endemic to modern fantasy covers are what have been proven to sell. Even though the many of these covers still contain some of the standard fantasy elements (swords, magic blasts, etc.), they seem like they're reluctant to embrace the genre. They seem to reject the pulp roots of fantasy, instead striving to look more mainstream. I get it, but I just don't like it. These pictures, I like. Can you imagine any of these being in a gaming supplement or on a cover today?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

When Covers Were Cool - Brian Lumley's covers

Once upon a time, in the not too dim and distant past, fantasy books had cool covers. Whether you went for the throbbingingly lurid styles of Boris Vallejo, or the oddly antiseptic yet still colorful Darrell K. Sweet, or the thunderous and blood streaked work of Frank Frazetta, you knew you were reading something special. And there were even wilder artists, such as those whose magnificent art graced the covers of Lin Carter's Ballantine Adult Fantasy line; Gervasio Gallardo, and Bob Pepper. Fantasy books didn't look like anything else, and that was a good thing.

At some point this changed. Perhaps it was the mainstreaming of fantasy. Maybe the triumph of the marketers. I'm not sure when, but at a point in the past decade, what I derisively call the photoshop covers started appearing. They're too clean, too similar to those of romance and airport potboilers. Even if there's someone in a cowled cloak on the cover brandishing a knife, it doesn't "feel" like I'll be reading a story rooted in pulp or heroic fiction.

I don't know anything about Paul Ganley, except that in the eighties and nineties he published several volumes of Brian Lumley's Mythos-inspired fiction. His were the first American editions of the Titus Crow, Primal Land, and Dreamlands novels. 

The thing that most stands out, I imagine, to the casual viewer, is the almost amateurishness of these covers. They really aren't that much better than something a kid, albeit a talented one, might draw on the back of a notebook. That same roughness would have kept them from ever gracing a book that got front of the store placement in Barnes & Noble. 

Even those by Steve Fabian, an artist of tremendous renown among S&S readers, while much more polished than the others, would still be relegated to the back shelves if at all these days. And that's great. These covers practically ooze fannishness. There's an utter love for the material depicted in this art that I rarely get from modern covers. The new ones could just as easily have been done by anybody or even a machine, for all the intimacy with the material they evince. Yeah, I'd go for a book with a cover like this a hundred times before some of the abominations out there today.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Once More Into the Primal Land

While I had known for a long time that Brian Lumley wrote a series of swords & sorcery stories set in HPL's Dreamlands, I only discovered his Primal Land stories two years ago. I devoured the first collection, The House of Cthulhu, and reviewed it at Black Gate (here). It's not poetry, but it is a great big helping of Clark Ashton Smith and Lord Dunsany-inspired S&S. 

Looking for some pure S&S for this week, I settled on the second Primal Lands collection, the woefully named Tarra Khash: Hrossak!. Tarra Khash is the name of an adventurer born of the stepped-dwelling Hrossak people. Until you actually know that, it's just a string of nonsense syllables, but then naming has long been a source of amusement in S&S. Whatever. So far, like the first volume, this one's a lot of old school fun.

Here's some covers where the stories in Tarra Khash first appeared

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Cirsova Review Delayed and C-SPAN is the greatest thing in the world

A family medical crisis (over and not too serious, which I guess means it was really more a scare than a crisis) resulted in multiple hour-long drives to NJ this past Sunday and Monday. That meant no review at Black Gate this week of Cirsova Magazine and Pulp Literature. Next week, though.
Cirsova is the sword and planet mag Keith West mentioned a few months ago, and while I didn't like all the stories, the good ones are very good. It's another example of a resurgence in interest in sci-fi and fantasy as it existed before the two genres were walled off from each other.

Author Raphael Ordoñez has written extensively about how his own fiction is informed by earlier writers like ERB and REH. Jeffro Johnson's recent Appendix N articles are super studies of many authors from the two genre's nascent days. And, of course, at the late, lamented (by me, anyway) Grognardia, James Maliszewski wrote many articles about pulp writing.

I think the reason stories rooted in that early tradition appeal so much to me is that much contemporary fantasy and sci-fi (especially) don't appeal to me. Either it's too dark for nothing more than darkness' sake, or it exists seemingly only to bear its author's social and political bête noires. 

There's also a dearth of basic storytelling. Whether from lack of desire or lack of skill, too many of the stories in mags like Beneath Ceaseless Skies just drift over the page like puffs of smoke with no narrative force, no energy. Nothing happens. Say what you will about the prose of the pulp writers of the 30s, their goal was to spin ripping yarns, not create a drear, pastel smear of words.

Even more painful, as someone who has been reading sci-fi/fantasy for over four decades, I'm struck by the lack of grounding in these genres by so many modern authors. I don't expect a 25 year old writer to have read the same now ancient Clark Ashton Smith stories or Poul Anderson books I have, but I do think they should be aware of them. Ignorance of the past is not a good thing.

I know I'm painting with a ridiculously too broad brush, but it's as if the roots of much contemporary fantasy/sci-fi are planted in RPGs, TV, and comics. In of themselves, those aren't bad things, but they tend to be more concerned with the surface things of the genre. Real depth is missing.

So, when something like Cirsova comes along, I get excited. I haven't been as keyed up about a new magazine in some time. I wish them well, and am looking forward to their next issue.

Despite its title, Pulp Literature is a more refined creature than Cirsova. While there're several top notch fantasy stories, many of the thick (near 250 pages) magazine's contents are mysteries, and non heroic fantasy. I am astounded that it's been in print for two years now, and I've never heard of it. The current issue is over two-hundred pages long. At $4.99 for the kindle version, you cannot go wrong.

On a completely separate note, I've been diving deep into the waters of the US Civil War this past week. And by deep, I mean deep. Right now I'm listening to a two-hour presentation on the Battle of Stone's River by historian Earl Hess and others.

After hearing US Grant impersonator Dr. E. C. (Curt) Fields, Jr at the Civil War Roundtable of New York last week, I started dipping into my library. A chapter of Catton here, a chapter of Foote there.

Howard Pyle's Battle of Nashville

Then I found that C-SPAN has a trove of lengthy videos like the one with Hess on every Civil War subject imaginable. I've already watched a pieces about Bruce Catton, WT Sherman, Joe Johnston, JB Hood, the Overland Campaign, and Sherman's Carolinas Campaign. It's dynamite stuff, but each one's at least an hour long, and I don't see any end in sight. It just might kill me.

Battle of the Wilderness

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Can't Read

Ever go through one of those periods when you just can't read? I'm in one right now. I don't have the patience to stay focused. My mind starts to wander to anything other than the words in front of me. I don't know why it's happening now or at any other time. There's not great doom hanging overhead or stress inducing situation make my brain itch. It's just one of those things, but it really ticks me off.

In the past, I've found the easiest way to jump start my ability to read is to reread something I love. Something that won't tax my brain much because it's already familiar. 

I'm going back to Lovecraft. Or at least one of the Chaosium books. Sparked by a FB conversation with Charles Rutledge last week, I think I might return to my failed Mythos project from last year, but with a little more discretion. 

It was the collection of Lin Carter stories, The Xothic Legend that did me in.  Having come to appreciate Carter's super-enthusiastic fannishness, I went into the book hoping to enjoy it. It was not to be. Most of the stories are dull, amounting to little more than lists of names of books and deities. Suspense and atmosphere are things alien to the Xothic Legend. The California and Pacific settings are underutilized, and there's never a real sense of place. All in all, a disappointing undertaking on my part and enough to put me off all Mythos stories for the last year.

I did manage to stagger on and review The Mysteries of the Worm, the collection of Robert Bloch's Mythos stories. The stories range from good to great, and it provides an insight into Bloch's evolution as a writer. The earliest stories were written when he was still in his teens and the latest when he was in his early forties and has transitioned from pasticheur to an artist possessed of his own voice. But it wasn't enough to make me keep going. So I put away the Deep Ones and Dark Young of Shub Niggurath.

Now I'm bringing 'em back. Or at least occasionally, as the mood suits me and if the stories don't stink. It's just going to be a "from time to time" thing. Heck, I might not even read more than a single volume of the series. Right now, though, I've dived into the book centered around everybody's favorite town of inbred Massachusetts hill folks, The Dunwich Cycle. At the very least it should be enough to get me reading again.