Sunday 18 February 2024

Steranko Sunday: X-Men 51

Long-time readers of this 'ere blog ( pauses for hysterical laughter at the thought of such mythical creatures ) may remember I used to produce a semi-regular feature here called Steranko Saturdays, devoted to the works of that comic book maverick, Jim Steranko. In the spirit of that long-lost series, I thought I'd do a quick post about a recent acquisition: X-Men 51 ( December 1969 ), the second issue of the Jaunty One's brief, two-part stint on the mag. So, it's Steranko. On a Sunday.
To be honest, this comic was never going to win any awards. The lead strip, a 15-page story featuring the X-Men facing off against their mortal enemy, Magneto, and his army of henchmen, is a bit of a mess. Arnold Drake's script features a lot of "down with the kids", late-1960s groovy dialogue, which is often painfully over the top, but also has much heavy lifting to do as Steranko's story-telling powers seem to have deserted him, frequently leaving the dialogue and captions to fill in the blanks. This is the continuation of the previous issue's introduction of Lorna Dane's alter-ego, Polaris, who starred on the iconic cover of issue no. 50 but gets lost in the mix this time. There's a lot of mutant-on-mutant action ( spicy! ) and a minimum of coherence. Steranko's artwork itself has its moments ( he draws a foxy Marvel Girl! ) but the scratchy inking by John Tartaglione lessens its impact.
The back-up strip is another in the series of untold origins of our merry mutants, this time a Beast story by Drake, Tartaglione and long-term X-Men penciller Werner Roth. Average super hero fare which looks staid when up against the Steranko work, even if it's one of Steranko's weaker efforts for Marvel.
I've not been too complimentary about this comic, but it's still good fun and the cover is wonderful: this is what most attracted me, as I've always loved it, and I used to have a black and white copy of it stuck on my bedroom wall when I was a kid. Typically for a Marvel comic, the cover depicts a scene that doesn't actually happen in the issue, but it's a terrifically moody and atmospheric slice of Steranko goodness.

I bought this issue ( graded at VG, cost £20 ) from the amazing Out Of This World in the fair city of Worcester. I'd meant to visit this shop for quite some time and finally got round to it last weekend. The shop is a real Aladdin's cave of Silver and Bronze Age treasures and I could have easily spent hundreds of pounds in there... luckily, I reigned it in and just picked up this one comic, but I'll have to get back there for another look when funds allow. The owner, Gary, is a friendly guy, very knowledgeable about comics, and we had a lovely long chat, until Sarah arrived and reminded me I should have met her in Costa 10 minutes ago. Oops! Comic fans, eh?

Thursday 8 February 2024

Christopher Priest

I was sad to hear recently that the great science fiction author, Christopher Priest, has passed away at the age of 80. Priest was one of my favourite writers and his haunting, deceptively complex novels had a profound impact on me.

His novels were disturbing, chilly views into unreliable realities: always technically brilliant, always thought-provoking. Priest made his name as a science fiction author with such novels as Fugue For A Darkening Island and Inverted World, but his fiction quickly moved on to become uncategorisable, nearer to the "mainstream" ( whatever that is ) but, paradoxically, further away from standard literary fiction with its seemingly-endless supply of navel-gazing. Priest's characters always seemed trapped in hostile landscapes, puzzles and mental mazes, always searching for meaning which proved to be slippery and contradictory.

While this all sounds a bit dry, Priest's coolly deliberate prose allowed his characters' emotional states to slowly work out on the page, especially more so in recent novels like The Separation and The Adjacent. Recurring themes of magic, illusions, split / double personalities and, above all, the unreliability of perception gave his stories an eerie, fable-like quality. At the same time, he was unafraid to tackle such current issues as terrorism, climate change and xenophobia, grounding the fantastic in our own uncertain world. The term "slipstream" could almost have been coined specifically for his illusive, allusive work.

I don't think Christopher Priest has ever received the praise and attention he really deserved, probably because of the very nature of his work, but there are certainly a lot of fans who have enjoyed puzzling over his intriguing fiction. His passing is a great loss to the literary world, but I'll leave the last words to his partner, Nina Allan:

Chris’s physical presence may have left us, but as readers we are lucky: a writer’s soul is immortal, instantly present and accessible through the stories, essays, criticism and novels they have left for us to find. As I said to Chris many times these past weeks and months, in this most important and essential of ways, he will always be with us. The work goes on.


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