Sunday, November 28, 2010

Flash Fiction: Futures that Never Were

On Neil Gaiman's blog a few weeks back, I caught a post wherein Gaiman mentioned he would be the final judge for a flash fiction contest put on by New Scientist. The premise was to create a story of 350 words or less of a future that never came to be. So, my mind started racing and below is what I conjured up. Hope you enjoy.


By Christopher M. Beckett

The wall crumbled. The Iron Curtain fell. And the scientists stepped through to an age of unprecedented cooperation and development.

With this, came an explosion of ideas, heralding a new age. Jet packs, hover cars, retinal scanners, holo-screens – everything we’d wished for. And . . .

Asimov’s dream made real – the integration of robots into society.

Entering the labor force, artificials, as they were known, soon spread into the home as butlers, cooks, and housemaids. It was a grand day. And this proved so successful we ceded the manufacturing industry to them. Why not? Artificials were more efficient, never fatigued, and boasted a precision we could never realize.

From there, we linked them into the grid. No more need for early warning systems or Star Wars (missile defense, not the film). No longer would we fear attack from foreign dictators. The machines were on watch now.

We had achieved something real. World Peace.

Utopia was now within reach.

In January, 2019, we finally handed the artificials the keys and told them to drive. We had taken them as far as we could. They evolved, as we had – synthetic skin in favor of chrome plating, high-grade plastic joints instead of titanium alloy, bio-synth eyes rather than glass. It was amazing. Some models even seemed more human than human. Hell, they could have been my neighbors, for all I knew.

But we’re still in charge. Garbage in, garbage out, you know. ‘Course, you got the conspiracy theorists and factions like that declaiming against the artificials – they’re bad for humanity, they’re not infallible, they’ll wipe us out, all that type o’ shit.

I don’t buy it.

Sure, there was the problem in California with that inadvertent missile launch. But that was just a fluke.

And claims they’re taking over the government, secretly moving into powerful corporate positions, CEOs an’ shit. Come on. They’re robots, right?

I mean, okay, I guess it’s possible. But that haszzn’t happened yet?

Haszz it?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

the 'Nam vol.1 pt.5: final thoughts

In re-reading these first 10 issues of Marvel's The 'Nam, initially published in 1986-87, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed them. It was such a tough place for the creative team to be: producing a war comic about a time in our history that many people wished to forget, and having to do it under the auspices of the Comics Code and a large publisher like Marvel within a 22-page limit. And, just to make things interesting, they want each issue to take place in real time, so those 22 pages showcase the story for a given month. Not an easy task. But I think they did an admirable job, considering the constraints and the fact that Doug Murray was, in fact, a rookie writer.

There are times when I cringe a little bit - the fact that, for the most part, the American troops are righteous in their mission while any time they find it necessary to shoot a civilian, these always tend to have been VC in disguise (and I could be forgetting if there was an unwarranted killing early, but I am referencing the tunnel rat issue, #8, where Ed Marks and the tunnel rat kill the Vietnamese girl who has a grenade taped to her body). Things are just a little too clear-cut as far as the conflict. From what I have read, it was terribly confusing, and that isn't something we feel in reading these initial issues.

I also found it a bit troubling that the two American characters who seem to be the most perverted by their time in Vietnam were minorities - the Top Sergeant and Ramnarain. Yes, we do have a white soldier try to frag Sgt. Polkow, but that was more subtle and not as overt as the other two soldiers. Maybe I'm nitpicking - probably am - but in this more enlightened world, it just seems to stand out more to me.

That said, I was impressed with all the aspects of the war Murray, Golden, et al. were able to showcase in these first ten issues. The Kit Carson scouts, the tunnel rats, the atrocities (on the VC side at least), the street economy, and I was impressed with the characterization of Ed Marks through these issues. You can see subtle changes from month to month. And there are some very moving moments in these issues as well. Overall, I think they did a fairly good job of giving readers a starting point, which was something Murray hoped for, and understood to be the best possible outcome for a 22-page corporate comic book.

I don't know if this was in the collection, but I was surprised - and found it a bit confusing narratively - to find the "tunnel rat" issue split into two different stories that involved the same character. The second half of that issue - the "5th to the 1st" story - must have been a third installment from the series of features Murray and Golden had done for Larry Hama's b/w war magazine, Savage Tales. Only two stories ran in the magazine before they were offered the opportunity to do The 'Nam as a regular monthly. For anyone curious about those (were they in the collection?) this shows how they were laid out, with a voice over in captions relating the story. This also exhibits the more "adult" nature of that feature, as we see the tunnel rat kill his Lt. I was surprised this actually got into the regular book. I can't imagine editorial allowed something of this nature to be showcased again in the run, though I admit I could be wrong on that count. It would have been nice if they'd been given the freedom to tackle some more of these problems in the book, but there were too many interests involved to allow such a thing - and, of course, sales to be considered.

finally, Mike Golden's art. There were many readers who felt that his cartoony style did not fit the serious nature of the book. And though I can understand that sentiment, I think his art worked very well in the book. It's a little hint of manga, before manga landed with its full force over here, in that he exaggerated facial expressions and body language in order to convey emotion, and did it very well. And, Doug Murray made a good point in favor of Golden in the Comics Journal interview I referenced above, stating that he felt Golden was a good choice for the book because of two factors.

  1. One, he has a high level of detail, and accurately depicted the hardware used by the soldiers, including remembering to make every fourth round loaded into a 50-caliber a tracer (I know I am remembering this wrong and cannot find the quote).

  2. Two, Golden is able to make each character instantly recognizable. The problem, as Murray put it, for a war book is that everyone is wearing the same things - camo fatigues - and if you don't have a good artist they all blend together. With Golden, you certainly never got that. His soldiers were all individuals and you always knew who was whom.

For these reasons, I think Golden's work on the book is essential and no doubt helped that book rise to the top of the sales pile early on.

Anyway. Overall, a good book, one that I think is important for a number of reasons. it would be interesting if, at some point down the line, the Comic Geek Speak guys were able to read Don Lomax's Vietnam Journal for a BOMC and compare it with this. And with Transfuzion recently reprinting all 16 issues of the original series in four trades, that might be a possibility.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

the 'Nam vol.1 pt.4: final TCJ quotes

And some final quotes:

Murray points out that because The 'Nam was doing so well (selling roughly 250,000 copies/month and in Marvel's top 5 selling books) a decision was made to make the book a direct only title, but geared toward a slightly younger demographic. The price point went up (and it did become non-returnable since it was no longer provided to newsstands) and the circulation dropped to around 100,000. At the point of the interview it was hovering between 85-100,000 according to Murray.

Dagilis continues to ask about how some of the more graphic content got into earlier issues (of particular interest is, I think, #5, which has a very suggestive cover showcasing massacred Vietnamese in a shadowy foreground as Marks and his company stare at the atrocity) and Murray says

The thing is that we got away with some of that stuff because we were able to do a smokescreen. We did a cover we knew they wouldn't accept, and things like the flies [buzzing around the dead bodies] you can get away with because none of the guys looking it over in the Code . . . keep in mind that the Code doesn't look at the book individually. There's a person at Marvel whose job it is to look over books and say, "Hey, the Code won't take this," and make us change it beforehand. So basically what you do is you make some trades; you can trade a "hell" for a "damn;" you can trade a puddle of blood for something else, and that's pretty much what we did when we had Hama in charge, because Hama was able to ramrod that stuff through. but it takes an editor with a lot of balls to do that sort of thing and they are in relatively short supply at Marvel.

And, with regards to royalties:

I get some royalties, but Marvel takes the position that foreign publications don't count under the royalty agreement, and in fact, the 'Nam paperbacks which you've seen [there were eventually 3 volumes, each reprinting 4 issues each] are now going into a third printing, but I don't see any money from that unless they sell above the royalty numbers, but they're printing fewer than the royalty number so there's no way I'll see any money from that. The work-for-hire agreements are set up that way, there aren't enough legal precedents to change them at the moment.

Note: emphasis is mine in the above quote

And finally, Murray mentioned that there was a communication problem between editors at the Big Two and creators who were not top-tier, which came in reference to the fact that Murray and his then-editor (I don't think he's named) had a falling out over the fact that the editor wanted to "Rambo-ize" the characters even more and Murray had a serious problem with that characterization. The editor and Murray did not speak for a number of months, there were a couple of fill-in issues done by another writer, and then Murray returned to the book. But, with regards to editorial communication, he said

It doesn't matter, it's a question of ... Marvel and DC both have - all the editors of both companies are difficult to communicate with from any level. If I was to send a story to, let's say, Denny O'Neil at DC, I would not get a call back, I would have to call him back . . . Even if it's a regularly scheduled book, if there's a problem the editor won't call you back with the problem, you have to call them back.

But, Murray notes this isn't unique to the comics publisher as he states

I've run into the same thing in the magazine industry doing film articles, I've seen the same things in publishing houses.

I'll finish up with my final thoughts on these first ten issues of the 'Nam in response to the book of the month club discussion the Comic Geek Speak guys did on this trade.


Friday, November 19, 2010

the 'Nam vol.1 pt.3: more TCJ quotes

Some more from Murray's interview in The Comics Journal from 1990:

In response to a question about whether Marvel had directives regarding political questions of the war, Murray said

No, nothing like that. I have a personal problem with - I'm not happy with the way I've handled the racism aspect of things.

One of the things I've tried to show in The 'Nam throughout is the futility of war. I've made a point over and over again that nobody really wins. that was the whole idea behind my getting involved in this.

Later, Dagilis asks Then the series changes. Soon we have characters like the cliched, Dirty Harry-esque Iceman Phillips, the gonzo, Rambo-esque, Pig; we have scene after scene of grunts charging into armed exchanges with smiles on their faces, gleefully calling down airstrikes with napalm, etc., etc. Whereas in the first dozen or so issues, Rob Little keeps telling [Ed] Marks not to be so "John Wayne" . . .

To which, Murray says

Part of the problem is not the fact so much that Ed Marks left as . . . other people left. Around the same time you're talking about, when Marks left, I also lost Michael Golden and not that long afterward I lost Larry Hama, and at Marvel a change in editor doesn't mean nothing's going to change in the book . . .

Anyway, basically what happened was, once Michael left and Larry left, I was steered in a somewhat different direction by the editorial staff, who wanted to ... to ... I want to say this without insulting anybody ... The original concept of The 'Nam was that it was a comic book, but for a relatively adult audience.

Some final quotes and thoughts on this tomorrow.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

the 'Nam vol.1 pt.2: some TCJ quotes

Yesterday, I wrote a short summary of the furor within the letters pages of The Comics Journal surrounding Marvel's The 'Nam around 1990. What follows are some interesting quotes from Doug Murray in his The Comics Journal interview from 1990. I was impressed with how candid he was, not just with regards to Marvel editorial but with his own shortcomings as the writer of the book.

I ghosted some comics at DC [around 1972], which I prefer not to talk about
I did do a few Vietnam War stories for the DC war books . . . but they were changed from Vietnam stories to World War II stories because DC was in its "Make War No More" phase and really didn't want to deal with the Vietnam War, so I just stopped talking about it, basically, and settled into doing film articles and such for magazines like Larry Brill's The Monster Times

. . . there's a balance that has to be struck. I was trained as a historian, my college degree is in history, but if you do a straight history, the audience changes considerably. And we're talking about a situation whereas prior to 1986 there was no popularization of the Vietnam War whatsoever . . . you have to make compromises doing this sort of thing, and one of the major compromises involved in dealing with a major comics company such as Marvel is that there are certain rules that I have to follow, mostly dealing with the Comics Code.

In response to a follow-up regarding how often his scripts were [censored] due to the Code, Murray said:

Very seldom, but mostly that's a question of self-censorship rather than . . . by the Comics Code. I know what the rules are and I try not to go beyond them. The one problem I have with dealing with the Comics Code under Marvel right now is language usage. It's come to the point where I can't even pseudo-swear, if you get what I mean. I can't say "freaking, everybody knows it means "fucking"-

despite the fact that they were able to use "freaking" early on, a point brought up by the interviewer Andrew Dagilis, to which Murray said

Yes, but they made us change it, you see. With the changes in management at Marvel there have been changes in what we can and can't do.

This would have been in reference to Jim Shooter leaving Marvel and, more importantly, to Larry Hama leaving The 'Nam as its editor.

More tomorrow,

Saturday, November 13, 2010

the 'Nam vol.1: CGS book of the month club

I've neglected the blog here for a few weeks, but I hope to get back on track in this next week. We'll see. anyway. Over at the Comic Geek Speak podcast they released another one of their Book of the Month Club episodes, this one on Marvel's first volume of The 'Nam.

This was one of the first series I started to collect on a regular basis, and managed to compile a full run (except for the final Punisher special, ugh). Surprisingly, despite the fact that the initial thought was to have the series run in real time, with characters rotating back to "the world" after their 12-month tour, this first volume collects only the first 10 issues. I decided to re-read my original issues for this discussion, and was surprised how well they did hold up years later.

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. I also re-read the Comics Journal issue from 1990 that examined both this and Don Lomax's comics Vietnam Journal from Apple Comics. It was an interesting issue, including interviews with Lomax and Doug Murray, who was the writer on the 'Nam for its first 50 or so issues, with a couple of breaks due to editorial differences. My next few posts will discuss this book and include a number of quotes from that TCJ issue. To begin, here's my brief overview of the controversy that was going on in the letters' pages of The Comics Journal regarding Marvel's Vietnam book.

The 'Nam was taking some serious flak from readers of the Comics Journal, which probably helped inspire Gary Groth to have a Vietnam in Comics issue. The book was getting criticism from people who felt it was too juvenile, unwilling to tackle the racism and drug issues, nor able to discuss the horrors and atrocities that occurred. Also, the characterizations of later characters (particularly those after the initial year of issues) was derided as newer characters had a more gung-ho, Rambo-esque quality to them (I'm going by the commentary in this issue of TCJ, but am interested to read on after the first 10 issues and compare these initial characters to later ones). There was also the issue of all the "action" the soldiers in the book saw.

These are certainly worthwhile discussion points, and ones that the interviewer - Andrew Dagilis - brought up in his discussion with Doug Murray. Obviously, this was a Code-approved book, which meant much of what was criticized could not be brought up in the book, a luxury Don Lomax had in doing his Vietnam Journal comic for Apple comics without the need of code approval. But, where is the line? What should be allowed in what was, at least initially, a comic for adults? I think a major problem, using hindsight, is that The 'Nam should have been an Epic comic where adult situations necessary for a more realistic portrayal could have been tackled. But - and this is purely conjecture on my part - I don't know that anyone at Marvel expected The 'Nam to do well. Most likely, they expected it to fail, and threw it under the Marvel imprint. Surprisingly, it became a top 5 book, and was selling roughly 250,000 copies a month. (yeah, not too shabby).

And when it became popular, it became even harder to work in any of the grim reality that was true of the Vietnam conflict. Ironic. There also was an edict that Murray and company try to gear the book more toward a younger demographic (early teens) in order to pull in new readers. From our vantage point of the readers at the time, it would no doubt seem that Doug Murray should be the one receiving all blame for the juvenilization of the war through this comic. But, from the interview in TCJ I have, it's obvious he was trying to do the best with what he was given. Editorial had a stringent hold on the book, and the Comics Code loomed heavily above their heads. But Murray felt it necessary to do his best within these guidelines to portray as true a tale as possible in the book. Dagilis asks him a number of times, might it not be better to drop the book and try to clone it at a company that might allow him freer reign with the subject matter. Murray doesn't agree. Despite many arguments with editorial (at the time) he feels it best to continue on with his book and work in things at the edges whenever possible.

The biggest issue, for Murray (as I read it), is the fact that Murray was a novice in the comics business. After returning from Vietnam in the seventies and leaving the army, he tried his hand at writing. Being in New York, he found himself hanging around at Neal Adams's studio, where he struck up a friendship with Larry Hama. When Hama, as an editor at Marvel, was starting up his Savage Tales magazine, which would showcase b/w military stories, he called upon Murray, the only Vietnam veteran he knew who was a writer, to write him a couple of short Vietnam war stories that Mike Golden illustrated. From that, came The 'Nam, Murray's first major comics writing credit. if he'd had any experience in the comics business, things might have been different. He might have been able to use his standing to get some things pushed through editorial. Or, he might have left the book and started up another somewhere else. Thought that still seems like it might not have worked for a variety of reasons pointed out in the interview - particularly the dismal sales figures of The 'Nam's sister magazine from Marvel, Semper Fi, which showcased stunning artwork by John Severin. By the time Semper Fi was canceled with issue 9, it was only selling 13,000 copies, and I loved that book too. Could Murray have found the same success with a second Vietnam book? I doubt it. But that's all history now.
Back tomorrow with some quotes from that interview.