Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nature Heals

In the absence of Mankind wrecking the Earth, Mother Nature can move in and quickly hide the wounds. A classic example of the boom and bust of human greed and the reclamation by Her Graciousness is illustrated in the brief history of one horrible place called Volcano, West Virginia.

The town was founded on the abundant oil fields that once lay beneath the crust here. An enterprising capitalist bought up the land and began to drill for oil. Rail lines came in and soon the place was thriving. Of course the land was raped in the way that only the oil industry can commit such a crime. The town burned down not once, but twice. The first time it burned the community recovered, but the last time was it. There just wasn't enough oil remaining under the soil for any effort to be made to preserve and rebuild, and so Volcano was left to die. Which it quickly did.

Many people wring their hands over the destruction that Mankind has wrought on the natural world. And this worry is for good reason. But most of these people think that when we're done, and when we're gone, there will be no way for Nature to repair the damage.

But when we're done, and when we've killed ourselves off (which we assuredly will do), then the forests will move quickly in. Vegetation and rot and rust and rain and gravity and wind will soon scrub away all sign that we were even here.

If you don't believe me, walk the woods where once a thriving town and booming oil industry stood in a spot called Volcano, West Virginia.


Hotel, Volcano, WV.
Power Station, Volcano WV.
Interior of the power station.
Town Hall, Volcano
Residences and oil derricks.
Homes, including that of one physician.
Part of the old downtown Volcano.
This was once a thriving city. Unless you look for the hidden details, you can't tell that there were once rail stations, oil wells, opera houses, grocery stores, general stores, doctor's offices, banks, barber shops, schools, churches, mansions, and thriving neighborhoods on this land reclaimed now by the forests.

Here and there, you can see foundations and even the remains of rock-walled rooms.

To see what's left of this house, the mansion where the town's richest man once lived, see the photo below.
Here is just about all that remains of the mansion where the oil tycoon who founded the town once made his home. Later, it was sold to some suckers who were told they could make it into a hotel and turn a profit. That's hard to do when the railroad pulls out (taking even the rails with them) and 99%of the population vanishes into the hills. Later, hobos used it to take shelter, eventually burning it down (seemingly the fate of all buildings).




Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sharper Images from FF #55!

Here are some of the pages from yesterdays essay that have been scanned and cleaned up by Henry Kujawa. (Thanks, Henry!) All of these pages were scanned in by Henry, cleaned up, and color restored and sharpened. Amazing work!




I didn't post this one yesterday, but should have. It's a classic Kirby battle page. Nobody could convey the sense of power with superheroes the way Jack Kirby could.



Keep in mind that there were no scripts or story ideas handed to Jack Kirby by some "co-creator". It's true that Jack Kirby did have to put up with an editor who altered his dialog and inserted captions. But that's what editors do in comics. They were not co-creators, just worker bees who didn't create anything at all. They just did a job and, sometimes, stole the credit rightfully due to people who had talent.



Tuesday, February 26, 2013

FANTASTIC FOUR #55

FANTASTIC FOUR #55.

This was a bit of a breathing space for Jack Kirby. A moment to pause and catch his wind.

After the unparalleled explosion of creativity between issues numbers #44 and 53 of FANTASTIC FOUR, Kirby did a couple of stand-alone yarns, as if to give himself a much-needed rest. What's interesting during this time is that even his one-issue stories are superlative. Whether he was showcasing Ben Grimm (obviously his favorite character), or trying once more to make a superstar out of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch (it never worked), he was writing and illustrating some genuinely memorable stories without resorting to long story arcs.

Issue #55 brings back the Silver Surfer who we had not seen since he took his leave of the Fantastic Four at the end of the Galactus story-arc (#48-50). What had he been up to? Where had he been? Kirby fills us in, showing us what it must be like to be--for all intents and purposes--a god who is imprisoned on one tiny speck of rock when he had been accustomed to exploring the wide expanse of the galaxy. If Kirby had initially created the Surfer as a herald (Gabriel) to Galactus (God), now the Surfer was more akin to Satan, God's angel fallen for daring to challenge God.

But this was a more sympathetic figure than Lucifer. Here was a genuinely saintly figure, lost among men and feared by even the demi-gods among those men.

Of all of the super-folk that Jack Kirby created alone during this time, the Silver Surfer stands out. And he stands out because, like Ben Grimm, his misled foe in this story, he is a character packed with sadness, the very image of pathos.


My copy of FANTASTIC FOUR #55

Kirby's creation, the Silver Surfer. Stan Lee had absolutely NOTHING to do with the creation of this character. Nothing.

Superheroes in regular clothes who don't have to hide their "real" identities. Wotta world! A Kirby World!


Kirby illustrates just what it is that makes a superhero a superhero.

Dark analog of the panel of the Surfer from the previous page. Perfect storytelling on Kirby's part. You don't have to see Ben Grimm punch the Surfer. But you know it happened.

The Surfer tries to reason with the emotional galoot.

Man! Nobody drew comics like Kirby drew them! Richards the stern father figure. Grimm the petulant kid.

Again...I'm left to wonder how much Lee deviated from and mucked about with Kirby's dialog and script. That last panel just doesn't align with the story told in the previous six panels. If anything, Ben would be lamenting his behavior since the story began. Instead, his mouth is filled with dialogue of dark warning, as if he learned nothing from his mistakes and from the gracious actions of the misunderstood Silver Surfer. Grimm was no dope, so I assume Lee messed it up once more.

Monday, February 25, 2013

THE NEW ECOLOGY OF DEATH (Excerpt)



THE NEW ECOLOGY OF DEATH
an excerpt
by
James Robert Smith






My name is Alex Wenzler.

Quite that suddenly, he recalled his name.

He was in an ugly place, if somewhat safe. Why he felt it as safe, he wasn't quite sure. But he was certain somehow that he was secure. He looked around. To his left and his right there were crumbling brick walls that smelled of wet and mold. Above him the sky was slate gray and a uniform sheet of clouds hung low. The ground was mainly concrete strewn with loose rubble and soggy masses of discarded brown boxes and rotting newsprint that had blown in from points unknown to rest now as graying, sodden heaps.

There was a scrabbling sound and Wenzler looked lazily to his left to spy a gray fox nosing in the broken red bricks and pawing at crumbling concrete in search of hiding mice, or rats. The fox looked back at him, paid him no mind at all thereafter and continued to prod about, searching and searching for warm rodent meals.

From far away there were the sounds of diesel engines. Half a mile distant, maybe more, he calculated. He could hear river water sloshing against broken docks, recalling that he was near the riverfront, hiding here in the now-abandoned port where once, years ago, container ships had pulled in to unload vast tons of cargo. But no more. Now this place was abandoned and forgotten and left to the whims of Mother Nature. She had a heavy hand, and was not kind, he recalled.

What was he doing in such a terrible place?

Wenzler looked down. He was seated in a shallow puddle. His navy blue pants were not only dirty, they were wet. His legs were splayed out in front and he was sitting, his back against a cracked and ruined wall. Over his head an old sign overhung the destroyed alleyway, creaking nervously in the slight wind on rusted chains. Off in the distance a foghorn sounded, reminding one and all that there was still some traffic on the river.

What am I doing here? He wondered again.

Wenzler. Mother Nature. Safety. And then it dawned.

He was dead.

But he didn’t know for how long he’d been that way. It even came back to Alex how he’d died. He’d been bitten by one of the walking dead. The thing—one of the risen--had tottered up to him while he’d been trying to pry another one off of Mrs. Epstein who lived next door to him. It had taken a bite out of his trapezius muscle, he recalled. It had chomped right through one of his white shirts, leaving him with a hideous wound and lots of blood soaking into that starched and glaring fabric, and thereafter it had walked off with a mouthful of Alex Wenzler and a piece of fine Egyptian cotton stuck in its teeth.

That’s right. After that his wife had hidden him and tried to nurse him back to health. Everyone knew what happened to you if you went to the hospital. You vanished into government-run hostels and you never returned to house and hearth. So Beth had hidden him in her cousin Tilly’s house three blocks over. Tilly and her husband were gone—no one knew where and assumed the worst. So the house had been…well, available.  There he’d gone, Tilly bringing him food and medicine, driving up or biking over for days. She’d found penicillin somewhere. And Ampicillin. She’d stolen a bottle of Cipromax from the hospital. He’d downed it all, to no avail.

That’s the way it was. The fever took you. You died. He remembered the heat, his body blazing with it, his joints aching, his muscles burning, his organs frying as if someone had wired him to an electric current that was cooking him alive. He’d screamed at some point. Because he clearly recalled Beth’s sweaty palm clamped over his lips, trying to keep him quiet so that the soldiers or the police wouldn’t hear him. They were out there, constantly searching for the newly risen, for the soon-to-be-dead, for those who might be…infected.

There were rats out there, too. Citizens filled with fear and only too eager to squeal on suspected neighbors and suspicious strangers tottering through the streets, creeping around. All it took was a single phone call and armed crews in HazMat uniforms would arrive in quick order to move you away before anyone even realized what was happening. They could (and would) put you down if they felt the need or the passing whim to do so.

Alex remembered Beth talking to him about that, frightened that one of the police or soldiers would follow her and find him and take him away before he could get better. And she feared the neighbors, too. Everyone was on edge and the armed officials would descend on you and yours in a heartbeat.
He leaned forward at that thought. Until he was kneeling and could peer down into the puddle in which he was all but lying. Wenzler looked almost like a Muslim praying toward Mecca as he pushed his face toward the sheen of water. That’s a good one, he thought.

Alex had to see.

He’d died, of course, but he couldn't recall the instant of it. A dead man trying to recall his time of death--there was humor in that. Like a fellow trying to conjure the details of his birth. (In his mind’s eye, he was smiling, but he wasn’t  sure if he was actually grinning, because he couldn’t feel his face). He couldn’t really feel much of anything beyond the press of gravity and the sense of the solidity of the earth beneath him and the weight of his limbs. His hands slapped the shallow puddle and concentric circles shook the surface. His fingers were blue and black, the nails long and dirty, underlain with filth and clotted with…questionable material. Alex waited for the surface of the waters to still. His face swam clearly into view, lit by the pale, gray light of the overcast winter’s day.

His features were horrible, the pain of his death written large there.

Nothing could survive that terrible fever. But what had happened after he’d died? Had he risen only to attack his wife?  As he knew, that’s what one did when one rose from the dead, like some ravenous, murdering vampire. He blinked, peering into the dirty skein of water atop the barren concrete.

The flesh was dry. His skin was pulled tight over his skull. He was gaunt. Ghastly. Highlights of green tinged his hard and weathered features—some flora at home on his mummified face. And he was grinning, as he’d imagined, his lips pulled wide, revealing teeth disturbingly white and whole. His once blue eyes were, somehow, still as blue and as piercing as always; they were the only part of him that still looked alive. “You are the bluest eyed man in all the land,” Beth had often told him. The brown hair was still attached to his skull and hung in wet tendrils on his forehead. He had to brush it back to push it out of those blue eyes to see his hideous image vibrating in the dirty pool.

I have a son, it suddenly occurred to him. And that seemed very important. It seemed more important than the fact that he was dead, or the fact that he wasn’t sure what had happened to his wife. I have a son, and his name is Mark.

How long have I been dead? He wondered. Sitting back, he tried to piece it all together.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Working, Writing, Working. Same Thing.

Working on THE NEW ECOLOGY OF DEATH which will be my last zombie novel. Really. With that one, I'll have said everything I want to say within that sub-genre.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Realizations...

As I've been buying my Kirby issues of FANTASTIC FOUR, I've been reading them, catching up on the old memories of my youth. The older I get, the more impressed I become with the vast talent of Jack Kirby. I think he was one of the greatest comic book artists in the history of this most American art form. And he was--no competition--the greatest superhero creator to work in the field. Nobody created a pantheon to measure up to his visions.

As he progressed, spreading his wings and trying new ideas and allowing his visions to blossom on the page, I remain impressed at how he evolved as an a storyteller as he got closer and closer to the 60th issue of the book.

And something else I have noticed...how Stan Lee all but utterly fucked his stories with his often confusing dialog and captions. Now I understand why Kirby was growing angrier and more frustrated with each passing month. To see his stories butchered by this glad-handing bastard of an editor must have been utterly maddening!

More, later, as I continue to read the issues and assemble my thoughts on Kirby's stories and what the company shill was doing to those stories.



My newly acquired copies of FANTASTIC FOUR #58 and #59.



Friday, February 22, 2013

YOW!

I've told this tale before. Several times, in fact. It's one of my favorite stories and I like to return to it from time to time to see how memory effects the retelling.

Some years ago I decided to take a solo-backpacking trip into the Middle Prong Wilderness here in North Carolina. It's not a terribly popular wilderness area, which is one reason I knew I'd like to visit it. Also, it's a very high place with several peaks in excess of 6,000 feet in elevation. That's my kind of spot--high country with real solitude.

Unusual for me when I'm hiking alone, I got a very early start and arrived at my destination in quick order. I parked at the Black Balsam area where there is a big parking lot and a large and stinky vault toilet for the many visitors who park there. It's a popular spot because it's where most people leave their cars to venture into the Shining Rock Wilderness, which is probably the single most crowded wilderness area in the state. Also, adjacent to the same parking area is the high meadow just below Sam Knob where many weekend tourist go to camp without having to follow the normal wilderness rules.

So I got an early start and hit Sam Knob, taking time to climb to the summit for the views and then come back down and caught the trail to head over to Middle Prong. Unlike Shining Rock, Middle Prong does not get a lot of visitors. It doesn't have the high, open meadows that attract so many to the more heavily visited wilderness. I have quite literally seen lines of people headed into Shining Rock, hundreds of them snaking their ways to the high country. In contrast, I have only encountered a few other people in Middle Prong.

Quickly I was back down Sam Knob and headed over the Mountains to Sea Trail, across NC 215 (which separates the two wilderness areas), and was on my way. I wanted to camp near Green Knob in one of the meadows and I knew by this time that I'd have plenty of opportunity to stake out a good campsite. Along the way, though, I had to pass through several big patches of Red spruce forests.

My hiking kryptonite are spruce forests. I can't help it. Every time I walk into them I get lost. If you've ever hiked into a Red spruce stand, you'll know what I'm talking about. Most of the trees in them are so uniform that you can't tell one from the other. The forest floor there is covered in rusty spruce needles and they're generally criss-crossed with game trails. Walk any distance in there, and if you don't have a keen eye and a good sense of direction...well, you're lost!

I actually get nervous any time I have to hike through one. However, the Mountains to Sea Trail, which I was using, was blazed with white paint blotches placed on various trees and so I made my way safely through the first few plots of spruce trees that I encountered.

Then, I had to leave the MTS Trail and head off into the deeper wilderness. Most wilderness areas don't have maintained trails and most don't sign the trails. So you have to use your map and compass (or GPS device), and have some common sense. I have a terrible sense of direction, so I really depend on maps and my compass to get through tough-to-read trails when I'm hiking alone. And as soon as I had to track right, leaving the MTS Trail, I found myself walking down unmarked trails through my dreaded Red spruce forests.

In short order, though, I was out into the open meadows again with Green Knob in front of me (I'd picked it out as a possible campsite), Mount Hardy to my left, and vast views to my right. I'd stumbled upon a truly superlative campsite and I decided at that moment to go no further looking for a better place to pitch my tent, because I realized I likely wouldn't find a better spot.

Once I had my tent up and my gear stowed inside I went for a brief walk around the vicinity, taking in the views. I had plenty of time to kill. After meditating and just looking around, I fixed supper, cleaned up my cooking gear, packed away my food, hung my foodbag from a safe spot (Middle Prong is bear country), and I still had daylight left.

Sitting in the meadow, I looked around and my eye kept being drawn toward the spruce forest I'd hiked through to get to the campsite. I decided to just walk over to it and wander in a few yards and take a look. So what I then did was the following:

Since I was only going to walk maybe the length of a football field away, I emptied my pockets. I dropped everything I normally carry with me in the tent: my knife, my emergency whistle with compass and waterproof matches, my wrist watch, my keys. I didn't have a cell phone then, but if I had I'd have left it, too. I even took off my jacket (it was Spring and a warm day, but the night would be cool...I just didn't need the jacket at that particular moment) and tossed it in the tent.


Then I wandered toward the forest. And into it. My eyes to the ground, looking for something interesting, I continued to walk. Just a few yards. Only for a few minutes. I looked up.

The sun had descended more than I'd liked and the light was getting dim in the woods. It was time to head back. I turned around and began to retrace my steps. Several minutes passed. I was still in the woods. Stopping, I looked all around me in the fading daylight. Nothing but those uniform spruce trunks and rusty needles littering the ground.

Wait a minute. I was on the wrong trail.

Peering through the woods, I realized that the forest was a maze of wandering, twisting trails. Game trails. Hiker trails. Trails where people had looked for a private place to shit. Trails made by backpackers looking for firewood. Everywhere a trail.

Figuring I knew what I'd done wrong, I found the right trail (it was OBVIOUS!) and followed it.

In another few minutes I was deeper in the forest. I was no closer to the meadow. I couldn't even SEE the meadow. All I could see were spruce trees in every direction. It  was getting darker. I was going to be trapped out in the woods wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt with no way to make a fire and it was going to be COLD!

Fuck!

I had, by this time, completely lost my already lousy sense of direction. I glanced up at the sky, looking for an indication of the sun, but the sun was already below the horizon and it was DARK in there and GETTING DARKER. I couldn't even tell east from west. At that point I decided that the most logical thing to do was RUN! Yeah, that's right! That's right! I'd pick a trail and RUN DOWN IT! If it was the right direction I'd pop out in the meadow where my tent was, and if it was the WRONG direction I'd end up on the Mountains to Sea Trail and I could then find the trail to the campsite and follow it to my tent where all of my stuff that would keep me alive was located! YEAH! THAT'S WHAT I'D DO!

So I chose a path and ran. And ran. Until I got winded. Then I stopped and looked around. It was darker. There was nothing around me but trees. Goddamned Red fucking spruce trees.

And then...oh, then I panicked. Thinking of the temperature plunging down to 20 and me with no way to keep warm I screamed like a little girl and started running in circles. Really. Like a crazy little kid screaming and running around in ever-widening circles in the deep, dark, red spruce woods.

Finally, I stopped screaming and stopped running around. Probably because I was getting tired, but maybe because I had finally gotten control over my panic. Standing there, for the first time thinking, I remembered the scenery from the meadow. To my left had been the big cone of Mount Hardy and, beyond that, Richland Balsam. If I could make out at least one of those obvious peaks and put them to my left, all I had to do was walk in a straight line and I'd come out somewhere near the meadow. But all around me all I could see was dark forest growing darker. I couldn't even SEE the mountains.

But.

I detected a glimmer of pale light downslope to my left and so I headed in that direction. In a few yards I could see the sky and, there to my left, Mount Hardy.

OK.

So now all I had to do was turn and keep Hardy to my left. Just march forward until.

The forest broke. I was at the bottom of a meadow. The problem with these recovering high elevation meadows is that, as the forest reclaims them (they're a relic of the timber business and not natural), they get full of brambles at the periphery. Sharp, adamant, thorny brambles. And I was in shorts and short sleeves. I picked my way into the brambly meadow, keeping wonderful Mount Hardy to my left and looking ever uphill, to my right, scanning for any glimmer of my tent which I'd pitched on the top of the ridge.

And there it was. I could see my tent. Maybe a quarter of a mile away. I could either go back into the woods and pick my way back up, or I could very carefully tiptoe through the brambles and keep my eye on the tent. Since I was now scared shitless of the spruce forest what I did was run like a madman through the brambles, never taking my eye off of my tent.

By the time I got to the campsite, my arms and legs were cut by a hundred thorns. I was bloody as hell. But I didn't give shit one about that. I  was back at my tent. Back to my warm clothes and warm sleeping bag and stove and matches and.


Well, I wasn't going to freeze to death in a fucking Red spruce forest in the middle of fucking nowhere.

Climbing into my tent I got blood all over the mosquito netting. It's still there, several years later, to remind me not to be a total dumbass. Once inside I swabbed my jillions of cuts with alcohol. That hurt, but it didn't bother me. I was now safe.

I still think of myself in that forest, running around in circles and screaming like a little girl. Even while it was happening, in the back of my mind I kept thinking: "This is going to be embarrassing if another hiker sees me like this."

When the sun set for well and good a few minutes later, I snuggled down in my sleeping bag and went fast and completely to sleep.

Lesson learned.

Sam Knob from below the Black Balsam parking area.


Me, on the summit of Sam Knob that day.
Spruce forest on the way to Middle Prong. (Note the paint trail marking.) Everything looks the same in there!


My wonderful campsite. And the spruce forest behind me where I went to go for a "brief hike" as the sun was setting.

One thing I did right. I stood around and noted all of the big peaks in the vicinity. (See that brown stuff just downhill? Those are not just shrubs, but nasty, vicious brambles.)

This was not long before I decided to empty my pockets and wander off.
This is the nice trail I walked down to go into the forest. See how well trod it is? NO WAY you could get lost in there!
The peak that kept me from getting totally screwed. Those brambles are the very ones I ran through to get back to my tent.
This forest is in the Smokies...but you get the idea. Wander into this shit and you'd best know what you're doing and where you're going.









Thursday, February 21, 2013

Getting Lost

Thinking again of the time I got lost in the woods and panicked. I'll probably scribble up another essay on that for tomorrow.

Add screaming here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

FANTASTIC FOUR #37

I spent several years collecting all the issues of The AMAZING SPIDER-MAN that were written and illustrated by its (one and only) creator, Steve Ditko. Since then, I've been steadily assembling a collection of the FANTASTIC FOUR issues that were written and illustrated by its (sole) creator, Jack Kirby.

These two books and all of the characters connected to them were the foundation upon which the most successful comic book company in modern history was built. Without Kirby and Ditko there would not have been a Marvel Comics as we know it. And I love being able to refer to the actual issues when the urge hits me to review them.

An ingenious cover that keeps the villains a secret until the fan gets into the story.


Unusually good inking by Chic Stone.
Today I landed a copy of FANTASTIC FOUR #37. This issue came out during a relatively pedestrian period for the title, but even during this calmer time Jack Kirby was showing the kind of story-telling chops he had. This stand-alone issue features a brief adventure of the Four as they journey to the Skrull homeworld during which time they are stripped of their powers and find themselves at the mercy of enemies against whom they'd been pitted from time to time since issue #2 of their book.



Although Kirby was not introducing any major new characters in this story (or even in the run leading up to issue #44) he was still doing some amazing things. Kirby had introduced a new kind of continuity to superhero comics with the books he was producing for Marvel. The stories were all interconnected. They were connected not only between one issue and the next, but between one title and another. The things that went on in Fantastic Four could (and often did) influence the things happening in X-Men and the Avengers (and other titles).


Another of Kirby's collage pages.

This issue holds true to that form created by Jack Kirby and which was then pretty much completely unique to superhero comics. We see again the Skrull Empire. This was yet another facet of storytelling that would lend itself to the further adventures of the Kirby characters, and which other writers and artists would be able to mine long after Kirby had departed the company. We see in this book that Skrulls--while at odds with humans--are possessed of the same emotions and desires as humans. They may be antagonistic toward the Fantastic Four, but they were shown not to be without their own reasons, and not to be without compassion. Keep in mind that Kirby was creating this type of intergalactic empire building blocks long before we ever saw this method of continuity in television shows like Star Trek or motion pictures such as Star Wars.


Kirby action!

And we see Kirby using continuity and humor with the ongoing story of the wedding between Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) and Susan Storm (the Invisible Girl). As the story closes, we are left with a panel of the four going through a wedding rehearsal, a buildup for the story that Kirby would give us in FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #3 (which I covered in a previous blog).

How many superhero comics had shown a long-running romance of two superheroes culminating in their marriage?
(Chic Stone was never my favorite inker on Jack Kirby's pencils. However, sometimes he did an exceptionally good job. But this issue's work is so uneven that I wonder if it was, in fact, the work of several inkers. For instance, the first page I posted after the cover shows top-notch skill, while the work on this last page--and especially that last panel--don't seem to have been done by the same artist! I'm sure there's a comic book historian out there who knows if this issue was inked by a team of artists. To be fair, I've read that Stone was a very busy artist--taking as much work as he could get, so maybe it really is all Stone inks in this issue...some when he'd had his first cup of coffee of the day, and some when he was falling asleep at the drawing board.)