Sunday, May 26, 2013

Mash Em Up!

I am a huge fan of genre mash-ups.  I think it's because they're so rare these days and also because they're almost always fish-out-of-water stories.  There's nothing wrong with a straight-up horror story or a comedy or western, or whatever.  But mix them together and the result can be very entertaining.  It can elevate a so-so story if done correctly.  My novel The Last Battleship was something of a mash-up in that I tried to blend war and horror together.  Hopefully I succeeded.  We don't get enough of these type of stories and I think we're the poorer for it.  The commercial entertainment industry is too wimpy to take many chances.  Oh, we get the sci fi/horror mash-up all the time but beyond that...not too much.   
This isn't a new idea but it's done so rarely it seems like it is.  I think that's why Cowboys and Aliens (2011)  did so well at the box office. 
The pitch must have been something like this:  "Take a western and mix in some sci fi."  It was okay.  It had some genuinely entertaining scenes.  And there's no arguing with the awesomeness of uniting Indiana Jones and James Bond to battle some ridiculous alien gold prospectors.  But from a storytelling standpoint the movie was horrible.  That didn't seem to matter and I hope its success will at least make more producers less skittish about crossing genres. 
Look what James Cameron did with Aliens (1986).  It's a sequel to one of the greatest horror movies of all time but it's not quite a horror movie.  Oh, it's scary as hell, don't get me wrong; but it's difficult to categorize it as a straight-up horror movie.  It takes place on another planet and deals with an alien adversary.  So is it sci fi?  To me it's always been a war movie with horror undertones.  I think it qualifies as a mash-up of war and horror with a bit of sci fi added in for flavor.  I mean, does this image make you think "horror" or "war"? 

For me this is a war movie that makes use of horror movie tropes.  This does not diminish anything about it as far as I'm concerned.  It's probably in my top ten favorite movies of all time.  On paper it could have been just as effective if the aliens were replaced by a superior (human) enemy force.  I don't know if that would have been as good but I can see how it could have been done.
As I'm writing this it occurs to me that, next to sci fi/horror, the next most popular genre mash-up must be war/horror.  You can make the point that all war stories are horror stories and I would not argue.  It's difficult if not impossible to watch the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998) or most of Black Hawk Down (2001) and not be scared shitless.  But those movies/books don't use supernatural horror and that's where I draw the distinction.  There are still a few examples I can point to where someone got their war mixed with somebody else's horror and discovered two great tastes that taste great together.   
In a previous blog I talked about horror comic books.  Some of these, like Swamp Thing and Ghost Rider, mixed horror and super heroes together.  There are other examples.  Sticking with war/horror one last time, DC gave us Weird War Tales.  It ran longer than I thought it did, from 1971-1983.  A solid twelve years and 124 issues.  Not bad.  I have some of them, including #1.  The issues in my collection are entertaining and I wouldn't mind completing my collection of that title.  By and large they got it right. 

I'm less enthusiastic when genres I don't care about are combined, although I applaud the creators for trying something different.  Romcoms, paranormal romance, dramedies, etc.  Not really my cup of early grey but at least someone's taking a chance.  I can respect that even if the genres don't interest me.
A couple more examples before we get out of here and hit the local watering hole. I want to mention two examples of genre mash-ups that not many people think of as such.  They're both quite famous, actually.  I'm talking worldwide famous.  The first is Superman, created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and published ever since by DC Comics. 
Of course everyone knows Superman is a super hero.  That's where the term "super hero" comes from.  You probably even knew that.  But he mashes super heroes and science fiction better than any other character in literature.  In fact, in terms of money generated over time, I'm willing to bet Superman is the all-time champion of genre mash-ups.  He is a "strange visitor from another planet!" as the opening naration in the old TV show with George Reeves informed us.  An alien visitor?  What's more sci fi than that?  What enables Superman to be super is the yellow sun of earth.  On Krypton he would have been no more super than Jimmy Olson is here.  Yes, the science is a little on the iffy side but that's okay.  So are warp drive and lightsabres and we accept those.
And the last example is one I guarantee not many people would consider a genre mash-up and I'm about to prove how wrong they are.  I'm talking about that most beloved of holiday classics, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  Stay with me.  It was first published in 1843 and it is ostensibly a story about personal redemption that happens to take place during the Christmas holiday.  But it's way more than that.  Take, for instance, the title page of the novel:

It says it right there:  "A ghost story of Christmas."  Since ghosts belong squarely in the horror/supernatural genre, it has just become much more than a simple holiday fable.  Scrooge is visited first by the ghost of his old partner and mentor, and then he sees three more ghosts before the story ends.  But there's more.  It is also undeniably a sci fi story.  I'll prove it. 
The three ghosts employ a plot device that is 100% science fiction:  time travel.  They take Scrooge into the distant past and the far future.  The Ghost of Christmas Present is the most sci fi of them all because not only does it take Scrooge ahead 12 hours to Christmas morning at Bob Cratchett's house, it even takes Scrooge a full year into the future to the following Christmas.  And this is where the sci fi elements of A Christmas Carol become in-yo-face.  It shows him an alternate future.  Scrooge discovers that Tiny Tim has not survived the year.  But at story's end, when Scrooge has his change of heart and joins the Cratchetts for Christmas dinner, Dickens flat-out tells us Tiny Tim will survive.  Time travel, alternate realties and ghosts define this novel as way more than a run of the mill drama.  It's a genre mash-up of the first order.  Good job, Mr. Dickens.
Now onto that watering hole I mentioned.  First round's on you. 



Friday, May 3, 2013

Funny Books? Not Always

I started reading comic books when I was 5 years-old, maybe even earlier.  I'm not entirely sure.  I also don't know which comic book I read first.  It was most likely a mainstream super-hero title like Superman, Amazing Spider-Man or maybe Justice League of America, bought by one of my grandfathers.  Again, I have no clear memory of this.  What I can tell you is whatever that first comic was it sparked an interest in the art form that has never abated.  I've been reading and collecting comics ever since.  How many do I have?  Glad you asked.  I'm closing in on 18,000.  What's the collection worth?  No idea.  I'm not interested in selling it so the question is irrelevant.  Moving on...
Comics encompass all genres.  Most people think of super-heroes when they hear the term "comic book" but that's selling the art form short.  Comics have included romance, western, sci fi, crime, funny animal, humor, war and, of course, horror.  The greatest of the horror comics were published in the 1950s by EC Comics, the brainchild of publisher William Gaines.  EC's horror output included classic titles like Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear.  Sadly, I possess only a handful of these titles in collected form.  The originals are almost impossible to find and cost more than my car. 

In 1954 the Comics Code Authority was formed.  It was a self-censorship entity that decided, all on its own, that horror comics were no longer allowed.  This was in response to charges brought by Dr. Frederick Wertham that comics caused juvenile delinquency.  His findings, compiled in the book Seduction of the Innocent, were based on nothing more than his opinions.  (He demanded to know, for instance, why Batman, Robin and Alfred lived in the same house without any female companions.  Were  DC responded by actually killing Alfred and replacing him with Aunt Harriet!  Now that's horror!)  And yet the United States Congress went right along with him.  It helps if you remember this was the era of McCarthyism and Communist witch hunts.  Americans were seeing enemies in every shadow and the rise in teen crime had to be blamed on something.  Comic books proved to be an easy target.  So the Code did away with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, etc.  It also did away with EC, more or less.  With the significant exception of Mad Magazine they were pretty much gone from the shelves.     

                                          Looks like good old-fashioned harmless entertainment to me.  
A quick digression:  The decade of the 1950s really was a great time to be a horror fan.  In addition to the brilliance that was EC's line there were literally dozens of wonderful horror movies to take in.  Most of the monsters/bad guys in these movies had some connection to science gone awry or outer space.  They had great titles like The Magnetic Monster and It! The Terror From Beyond Space and the like. We can enjoy these movies now but I wish I could have seen them first-run in the theatre.  It must have seemed like a new one was coming out every week.  End digression.

Fast forward to 1971.  The Comics Code, for reasons known only to them, decided horror comics were okay.  There were still restrictions on content but the first cracks in the dike had appeared.  The two biggest publisher at the time, Marvel and DC, leaped with both feet into the horror market, with mixed results.  Since this was around the time I started reading comics these titles hold a certain nostalgic charm for me so I can't badmouth them too much.  Objectively I can say some were very good and some sucked.  It happens.  But I like them all, even the lousy ones. 
DC had titles like Swamp Thing and The Witching Hour.  Marvel countered with Ghost Rider and Tomb of Dracula, among others.  Marvel even whipped up their own swamp monster, the gloriously named Man-Thing.  In 1975 when Marvel started putting out Giant-Size issues of most of their series, we were treated to the single greatest title in the history of comics:  Giant-Size Man-Thing.  And no one at Marvel seemed to think anything of it.  Or maybe they did and laughed when no one was looking.  See for yourself:
                    Yes, that's number FOUR.  As in, there were 3 issues with the same title published before this.
Here are some of the other horror titles from the era.  Some had a superhero slant to them, especially Ghost Rider but I don't blame the publishers for hedging their bets a little.  The fact is super-heroes were selling and not many people were sure this new wave of horror titles would catch on. 

A lot of these horror-based characters operated in their own dark corner of their respective universes.  Some, like Morbius the Living Vampire, first appeared in the mainstream Mavel Universe by showing up to fight Spider-Man in his first appearance.  This was both common and rare at the same time.  It was common because Spidey was Marvel's most popular character at the time and meeting him was a rite of passage for most new characters.  It was Marvel's way of letting the readers know this character was officially part of their shared universe.  It was rare, however, because horror characters did not usually show up in super-hero titles.

                                                  Yes, Spidey has six arms here.  Don't ask.     

I don't know what comics readers at the time thought of these new entries in the genre.  Like I said I was a newcomer when these were being published.  As far as I knew there had always been horror comics.  I didn't learn until years later that they were all pretty new concepts at the time.  So my timing was excellent.  Bully for me!

Once the Comics Code Authority opened the door a little they were never able to close it again.  Horror comics didn't last too long, though.  By the late-70s most of them were already gone.  A few titles soldiered on but for the most part the horror renaissance in comics was over.  Which is a shame because the Comics Code Authority itself gave up the (ahem) ghost a few years ago.  And it couldn't have died soon enough for me.  Some of the horror characters remain and they continue to pop up in stories from time to time.  Swamp Thing has his own monthly title again but it's not remotely a horror comic.  There are, however, several quality horror comics being published right now.
Avatar has the comics rights to Romero's Night of the Living Dead and they're having a blast with it.  The cover of this issue would fit right in with what EC was doing 60 years ago:
The stories are definitely not for children.  These are as R-rated as you can get.  Nothing wrong with that, just pointing it out in case you're considering letting little Johnny or Suzi read this.  It's probably not a good idea.  There's lots of blood and gore and lots of profanity.  Just like the movies.
Of course, the current champion of horror comics is The Walking Dead.  Created by Robert Kirkman and published through Image Comics, it's the success story of the early-21st century in terms of horror comics.  Everyone knows about the AMC series but not everyone knows it's based on a comic book.  The show's credits say it is "Based on the graphic novel", as if linking it to the term "comic book" somehow diminishes it.  Nonsense.  If the comic was good enough for Frank Fucking Darabont it's good enough for you, too. 

(I'm pretty certain Frank Darabont's middle name isn't "Fucking" but I capitalized it anyway.  My editors are shaking their fists at me and twirling their handlebar mustaches as you read this.)  Fans of the show should really give the comic a shot.  It's different enough from the series that you won't know what's going to happen everytime you turn the page.  Some characters who died on the show are still alive in the comic, and some who are still alive on TV shuffled loose the mortal coil long ago.  And some characters from the show have never appeared in the comic at all.  And (GASP!) Daryl Dixon is one of them!  It's as unpredictable as the AMC series and it deserves your attention.

The good news is that most of these series have been collected into trade paperbacks.  They're easy enough to find and not terribly expensive.  Marvel publishes their Essentials line of black-and-white reprints and some of the horror series actually look better that way.  Check them out if you're so inclined.  
There is a perception that comics are an inferior form of entertainment and they are often looked down upon.  Sometimes it's deserved but not always.  While the horror comics of the 70s and 80s weren't always of the highest quality there were others that came before them and after them that are truly wonderful.  If you're a fan of all things horror you should try to track down some of these titles.  The Crypt Keeper will appreciate it.