Speculative Fiction, more commonly referred to as “Science Fiction”, has been described as perhaps the best means of conveying complex ideas. It is a broad genre that was, and for some remains pigeon-holed, like comic books, as one for lesser or childish minds. Stories filled with bug-eyed monsters (later more affectionately known as “BEM’s”), physics-defying space fantasy and, given some of the more lurid pulp covers, scantily clad moon maidens. Such themes did and continue to exist, of course, but have been pushed to the margins to the point where even the most critical of the overall genre, which includes fare as diverse as the work of Jules Verne, J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, and even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, are compelled to recognize that more substantial narratives can and do exist. There will always be an argument as to what is and is not “true” SF, just as competition exists to pin down the first true (or near as) SF; in this I am neither a purist nor a dogmatist. While there may have been acolytes and zealots who took Homer as gospel, one suspects, or at least hopes, that there were those who recognized how fantastic were those stories (I always enjoy the scorn elicited by describing the Pentateuch as history’s greatest work of SF). What began as a means of explaining the inexplicable transformed over the ages to, rather than contemplating the nature of what is in local terms, imagining what is and what might be in absolute terms; or as absolute as we know at any given moment. A more broad locality, if you will.
There is not a time when SF in some form, whether books, television, film, or comic books, hasn’t been a part of my experience. I was a little bit late for original airings of Star Trek or Lost in Space, but fondly (and less fondly) recall the dilemma of the former in syndication on CFTO (CTV, Toronto) during my dinner time, and the latter on the slightly too far to receive CKVR (then a CBC affiliate, Barrie, Ontario). Happily, CFTO somehow managed to acquire the Andersons’ UFO not long after it’s original UK broadcast. Less happily, CTV were also the production studio behind the ill-fated The Starlost developed by Harlan Ellison, who insisted that his nom de shame, “Cordwainer Bird” (as in “for the birds”), appear in the credits. Nevertheless, I succeeded in watching all of the original Star Trek episodes despite the dinner conflict. The magnitude of the show wasn’t lost on the neighbourhood gestalt such that my friends and I would play Star Trek both inside and out, assuming our favourite characters and having grand adventures, with a Klingon or Gorn lurking around every corner. Apart from play, it also informed our perspective on broad, human topics such as race and war, making us better educated if not quite better people.
Though too young (or too late) to see certain movies in the theatre, television networks were usually quick to premiere them in the pre-home video market, and despite a paucity of network choices. Therefore, it wasn’t overly long after their theatrical release that I was able to enjoy 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes (and it’s sequels), and many others on our 19” Electrohome (in colour!). The films that most appealed to me, however, were those reserved either for the late show (after the late news and Johnny Carson, old movies were virtually the sole fare prior to stations signing off for the day), WKBW’s (ABC, Buffalo) Movie for a Sunday Afternoon, and twice annual after school monster/sci-fi weeks, and the then brand new TVO (Ontario public broadcaster) with Elwy Yost’s Magic Shadows from Monday to Friday, and Saturday Night at the Movies.
Apart from the classic Toho Kaiju movies, 50’s schlock, and Ray Harryhausen stop-motion mini-epics, the films that held the greatest fascination, and often terror, were few and memorable. Ray Milland’s Panic in Year Zero! was a late night film to which I was accidentally exposed that left permanent scars, as was Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running. Both were intense psychological thrillers that would contribute to the formation of my perspective concerning nuclear warfare on the one hand, and ecological disaster on the other. Certainly other films helped to lay the framework for my world view, from Island of Terror (featuring Peter Cushing) with it’s theme of science run amok despite the best intentions, to Things to Come written by H.G. Wells’ based on his novel “The Shape of Things to Come”. The latter film, despite much of it having been lost (and some of which since restored), is so densely packed and deeply layered that I was fortunate to have it spoon-fed as a serial on Magic Shadows, with Yost contributing necessary context in his somewhat puckish manner.
The first full-length novel to which I was exposed was Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It was a gift from a Chicago police officer who was on his honeymoon, which I devoured in three days. Once home from vacation, my interest in the school library expanded, rewarding me with, among other things, a series of juvenile novels by Robert Silverberg. High school, and (real) money of my own, was years and years away, but by then I’d put Orwell, Huxley, and a fair sample of Asimov behind me, thanks in large part to the extensive library at my junior high. With summer earnings came greater freedom and while it was still a few years before the discovery of the many downtown used and antiquarian shops, I managed to plough through most of the combined work of Arthur C. Clarke and John Wyndham. Clarke’s Childhood’s End remains one of my favourite novels as is, to a lesser extent, Rendezvous with Rama. Both stories explore, generally, mankind’s encounter with something greater; greater within – the human potential, in the first case, and without – extraterrestrial wonder, in the second. One might spend years wrestling with the likes of Wittgenstein or Hume and come no closer to understanding our (relative) role in space and time than a week or so meditating over Clarke. True, it’s an apples and oranges comparison, but simple honesty dictates that we have a preference. It’s also true that I prefer John Steinbeck and Knut Hamsun (in spite of the worst about him) to any of the above, but that’s another story.
Wyndham’s legacy was more visceral than profound, with a notable exception. Though I enjoyed everything of his that I read, not least of which was The Day of the Triffids, a short story yet haunts me in an odd way. Confidence Trick (collected in the book “Jizzle”) describes a London subway ride literally to Hell. The protaganist (more of an anti-hero) is disgusted with what he finds, principally as the underworld is a cliché of itself, moving him to, among other things, kick demons in the rear end rather than be cowed or terrified. This story had a defining role toward my view of religion in general, and the afterlife in particular, as well as helping to structure my notion of Free Will. It also came with an ongoing, humourous reminder: Toronto subway cars at the time all had a small, practically unnoticeable plaque inside that read “DIS”. I’m saving Virgil for my dotage, but was familiar with Dante’s The Divine Comedy (itself a candidate for an SF label) and so wondered whether Wyndham might have been so inspired by similar plaques on the London Tube? Pity that it’s now nearly fifty years too late to ask him.
Outside of Japan, what a purist might regard as true SF comic books are something of a rarity. Indeed, from a North American perspective we find essentially everything except SF from day one. Which isn’t to say that they don’t nor never existed; EC had a pair of excellent books but they were as short-lived as the rest of their titles thanks to the small minds who so often bound our society. Other publishers have had titles come and go but the stories tended toward shocks and twists, a sort of dumbed-down Twilight Zone or Outer Limits approach of the kind appropriately derided by critics. More than fifty years on and the scarcity continues, again with exceptions, but even as a regular reader of the medium, how many SF books roll off of your tongue (that aren’t Mecha or equivalent)? We are, of course, overlooking the elephant in the room; that most typically North American comic book, the super-hero story. True, from the beginning until today, most stories have been action oriented with splashes of fantasy, drama, and romance, yet the entire notion of the “super” hero is an SF staple, including the not exactly “super” heroes such as Batman, who relies as much on SF staples as his more fantastic counterparts; he is, after all, not merely a detective, but an inhumanly gifted detective – as well as athlete, strategist, and (mostly) unarmed combatant. One might argue in favour of pure “fantasy” over SF, but that’s splitting hairs, particularly when the original “super” is an extra-terrestrial and, to reiterate, I contend that the genre includes fantasy, thus Tolkien sits at the same table with Asimov, and Iron Man or The Flash count equally with EC’s Weird Science/Weird Fantasy.
So far as mainstream comic books are concerned, I was taken with Marvel’s “Star-Lord” from day one, moreso than I was ever impressed by, say, “Adam Strange”, which was more a home to BEM’s, bad physics, and moon maidens. Star-Lord has gone through several soft ret-cons though his basic origin and premise has remained intact; half-human, half-alien, tasked with protecting people no matter the colour of their tentacles. When he was added by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning to their revised Guardians of the Galaxy milieu, the one you’re most likely to know of from the movie, we were treated to epic space opera. Beautifully illustrated epic space opera, particuarly when Paul Pelletier and Rick Magyar were involved. On the other hand, it’s no simple task to find much that resonates in those stories. Pretty and fun, yes, like many comic books, but still just nuts and candy relative to more ambitious work such as Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man. Using a global catastrophe (or not, depending upon your bent) as a backdrop, Vaughan explored virtually every aspect of humanity including the nature of the sexes, the value of life, the horror of violent death, and the promise (and futility) of hope.
Most of anything is at best average and comics are no exception. Yet the first comic I bought, Avengers #73, written by Roy Thomas, was an intense exploration of racism and black/white relations, demonstrating out of the gate the depth to which the medium can aspire and the inherent possibilities of SF across media. While Thomas was restricted by his genre, which at some point required people beating the living daylights out of one another, he was able to portray something profound with at least a measure of grace. A grace that helped to shape the outlook of a boy who at that moment was solely enamoured with colourful costumes and fantastic characters. Surely fifteen cents well spent.
With the requisite caveats in place, our premise is complete. Across media, across related genres, SF is a means to both enlighten and inform, and can accomplish this while being blissfully entertaining. It also provides a doorway to the exploration of ideas in stricter forms, whether mathematical or philosophical, through history or literature, music or physical sciences. Once the mind is awakened, possibility is limited only by imagination.