Martians, Jungle Queens and a 'Little Fat Nothing'

By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

June 16, 2009 -- Some say the future ain’t what is used to be. But those folks clearly haven’t read Science Fiction Classics: Graphic Classics Vol. 17 ($22.50), where the future is just like we remember!

The Graphics Classics line of anthologies has, for 16 volumes, adapted famous works of literature to comics, including entire books devoted to an eclectic array of authors, such as Ambrose Bierce, Jack London and Mark Twain. This anthology continues that tradition, with adaptations of SF works by Arthur Conan Doyle (“The Disintegration Machine”), E.M. Forster (“The Machine Stops”), Jules Verne (“In the Year 2889”) and five others.

Where this volume differs is the introduction of color. I think a lot of art looks better in pristine black and white, so that’s not necessary for me. But in a world where entire generations snub their collective noses at classic B&W movies because they “look old,” color can be a commercial necessity.

And if that’s what it takes to get this excellent volume into eager hands, I’m all for it. The books opens with a 48-page adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, set in Victorian England. I suspect the later radio and movie adaptations are better known, but the original still terrifies. And this is an excellent adaptation: Rich Rainey’s words retain the mortal desperation and moral compromises of the original; while Micah Farritor’s art carries more than a whiff of 1800s illustration, abetted by modern rendering.

Other entries vary from cartoonish to faux woodcut, but all are professional and do justice to these famed stories. For my part, I enjoyed going back to the future.

Elsewhere:

* Sheena, the original queen of the jungle, has been revived at Devil’s Due in a series of miniseries with new art and stories. I’ve been enjoying those, but what has really been eye-opening is the series of trade paperbacks reprinting original Sheena stories from the 1940s and ‘50s.

Golden Age Sheena: The Best of the Queen of the Jungle Vols 1-2 ($18.99 each) are a fascinating glimpse into the adventure fiction of another era. Early comic books were born of the lurid pulp magazines that gave us Tarzan, and Sheena was an unapologetic distaff version, complete with her own Jane, the single-named “Bob.” And who, like her inspiration, kept tripping over lost civilizations, white poachers and really big carnivores.

Sheena, unlike her many copycats, was the real deal. She had no problem offing her opponents with her ever-ready knife or blowing them up with their own dynamite. And, yes, she was quite sexy for the time, striking provocative poses in her skimpy fur bikini and taking a lot of G-rated, but suggestive, baths.

This led anti-comics crusader Frederic Wertham to label Sheena’s adventures “torture, bloodshed and lust in an exotic setting” in his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, which was instrumental in the great comic-book witchhunt of the mid-1950s. Given how tame this material is by today’s standards, that’s almost funny.

Also disturbing. Reading these books is a time trip to a different, not-so-pretty America, where parts of the world were still mysterious, where a girl in a fur bikini was still a little shocking – and where black people were still considered inferior. Sad but true. Sheena was a product of its time, for good or ill, and these books are like strange hieroglyphics from a time and place that, thankfully, no longer exists.

* I read a few of ACG’s Herbie comics in the 1960s, but wasn’t sure what to make of the “Fat Fury,” an obese, lazy child whose omnipresent lollypops gave him super-powers. Now I’ve read the entire series, thanks to Dark Horse’s Herbie Archives Vol. 1-3 ($49.95 each), and I don’t think I missed anything.

It’s supposed to be funny. Running gags include everyone in history knowing the time-traveling Herbie; beautiful women adoring him; a lazy, staccato speaking style; and his inattentive father forever deriding him as a “little fat nothing.” He even got a satiric superhero suit in issue #8 – long red underwear with a plunger on his head – which featured in subsequent even-numbered issues.

Is this funny? It depends. Some think it’s hysterical, but I found it dreary and predictable. Po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to.

I will say ACG fiercely resisted the superhero avalanche of the ‘60s, and the “Plump Lump” was one result. So, if nothing else, it’s interesting historically as the road not taken.

And if you compare Herbie Popnecker with 1960s peer Peter Parker, it appears we took the right road.

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

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