More Comics and Movies of Old

*Cinema Follow-Up Dept: You might recall a post from a couple months ago, in which I linked to a whole bunch of short works by experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Well, it’s now my duty and pleasure to inform you that The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume One is due on January 23 in the US from the redoubtable Fantoma. Restored prints, commentary by the director, a 48-page book... all the trimmings. Collecting the films Fireworks (1947), Puce Moment (1949), Rabbit’s Moon (1950), Eaux d’Artifice (1953), and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Those interested in influential, enigmatic cinema are urged to check it out.

Night and the Enemy

Sometimes I read enough older comics that I wonder how I have time for anything new. I imagine that there’s enough great stuff floating around used and reprinted and occupying dark spaces in comics shops that someone could just forget about anything new for years and still have a very satisfying time with the form. Plenty of room for the unexpected, too.

For example, I just finished with the 1987 Comico production Night and the Enemy (that’s the foil-embossed softcover version - there’s also a hardcover edition that was simultaneously handled by Graphitti Designs), from writer Harlan Ellison and artist Ken Steacy. It’s really not much of a comic, actually; while the art is generally presented as sequential images, and dialogue sometimes issues from characters’ mouths, the visuals are often very heavily captioned, sometimes to the point where it’s really just elaborately illustrated prose. Which isn’t counting the segments that actually are straight-up illustrated prose. All of this stuff originated as Ellison prose stories, which will come as absolutely no surprise; I’ve generally found some reluctance in Ellison to trust all that much in visuals when translating his own words to comics form, and there’s certainly plenty of instances here of narration describing exactly what the art is showing us, and other telltale signs of a prose/screenplay specialist uncomfortably tackling another medium.

Still, I can’t say I’ve warmed up to Steacy’s gauzy, airbrushed ‘80s visuals anyway (nice b&w work, though), so much of my interest happily wound up falling on Ellison’s words. All of the stories here concern Ellison’s Human/Kyban War, a recurring backdrop for various bits of the Ellison catalog (for example, the Kyban popped up in Ellison’s famous episode of The Outer Limits, Demon With a Glass Hand). Ellison himself characterizes the material in an included essay as one of the two linked series of stories he’s done in his career, the other being the sundry pieces of his perpetually upcoming novel Blood’s a Rover, the most famed bit being A Boy and His Dog (which, tangentially, wound up being my mother’s first exposure to Ellison’s work when she, quite without warning, decided to see what her 14-year old was reading about - she’s not a fan to this day).

Night and the Enemy presents five of the Human/Kyban War stories, with a new framing sequence that strives to graft an overarching theme onto the whole affair. This stuff is definitely not the more popular of Ellison’s two ‘sequences,’ and it’s easy to see why - it’s space-faring war material, a popular staple of science fiction literature that’s nonetheless not Ellison’s forte, and you can practically hear the writer struggling to graft layers of ambiguity and doubt onto what are also expected to act as crackling examples of the subgenre.

Sometimes the effort just fails - Trojan Hearse emerges as just the sort of heroic account of cleverly annihilative military maneuvers that might prompt an unkind essay from Michael Moorcock. Sometimes Ellison doesn’t do quite enough - Life Hutch struggles mightily to recast its simple human vs. robot story as an allegory for mutually destructive conflict, but never quite manages the impact. Elsewhere, Ellison maybe errs too much on the side of moral questioning - certainly every time an experienced military official pops up (as opposed to a plain ol’ red-blooded pilot or grunt), Steacy might as well draw them wearing a placard reading I AM A VILLAIN, which doesn't much help Ellison's ultimate message of rational personal questioning.

Yet, there are many moments of genuine pulpy power. I’ve always been partial to Run for the Stars, that nasty little saga of a forgotten, ruined person so battered by powerful, uncaring forces that he elects to rain destruction down on anything that’s not him. Ellison’s recurring theme of powerful elders/ascendants/parents creating awful pain for their ‘children’ is in full effect; the story The Untouchable Adolescents is a reversal of Run for the Stars, in which the moneyed old race becomes spiritually ruined by awareness of the damage its thoughtlessness has caused on the young and unaccounted for. Always, the hubris of superpowers causes them to forget the small and seemingly worthless, sometimes with dire consequences. While particularly thick with 'nasty warlike' and 'good thoughtful' character types, arguably as Manichaean a setup as Ellison purports to repel, Sleeping Dogs is nevertheless a potent attack on the undercurrents of ethnocentrism ('human' being the ethnicity in question, valid when the 'alien' races are characterized through human traits) perhaps inherent to this sort of stuff, as the war between Human and Kyban finally escalates to the point where a heretofore undiscovered third party jumps into the battle, obliterating all notions of what was safe and strong. Feel free to extend the message to current politics, if you so choose.

And, while somewhat ad hoc, Ellison’s ultimate after-the-fact message, that the Us vs. Them binary of space war sci-fi itself is damagingly arrogant, even absurd, does succeed on some level as a subversion of what’s gone before. Ellison's prologue presents enlightened, all-spirit beings being 'told' the book's stories, and wondering which mighty race they are decended from, Human or Kyban. In the end, the very notion of who the 'victor' must be in these circumstances is given a good tweak, as it turns out that the final survivors are something else entirely, a certain lower form of life on Earth that had the good sense to learn from the self-destructive ways of the long-gone humanity. Hence, predators are recast as downright enlightened through learning from the mistakes of others, and we are denied the assurance that even an arguably virtuous or necessary war will result in anything that will benefit us; it may be all up to the next group of fools up to bat, who maybe won't be as foolish as us.

So it’s hardly the best of Ellison, and not a particularly stellar example of comics or comics adaptations, but it’s valuable as a handy document of an author’s uncertainty about the tone of a selected genre, given his particular worldview and political outlook. Certainly a fun thing to find on a neglected shelf.