Monday, December 28, 2009

Comics and Science Fiction: I Want My Space Opera Illustrated!

The short story is the perfect medium for science fiction. Of course, the novel is also the perfect medium for science fiction. Orson Welles proved that radio is the perfect medium for science fiction. In fact, movies, television, paintings, records/CDs and model kits are all perfect media for science fiction. All of those statements are true; science fiction has worked and mostly still works in each of those media.

But today I want to explore another true statement: Comics are the perfect medium for science fiction. So why has it been so difficult to find a solid, long-lasting SF comic publication for the last few decades?

In the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a lot of SF comics action, especially following the breakout success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the box office. At the highest end, there was Heavy Metal magazine, which National Lampoon licensed from the French original, Metal Hurlant. HM was joined in 1980 by Marvel's great Epic Illustrated magazine. Both magazine-sized anthology comics mixed science fiction and fantasy, and -- let's be frank -- well-endowed women who had somehow lost their shirts. Whether it was the creative ownership granted to the artists and writers, the exhilarating experimentation with new story and graphic types, or the women -- I'm not sure -- but both magazines represented a kind of golden era of SF and fantasy comics, certainly in the magazine format.

Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, the great Warren magazine empire collapsed. As a result, we not only lost Warren's horror-themed magazines Creepy and Eerie (which occasionally dabbled in SF), but its science fiction comics magazine 1994 (which had changed its original name from 1984). 1994 played in the same sexy SF area as Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated, but it focused more on black-and-white stories.

By the mid-1980s, though, things were changing. Heavy Metal was reduced to a quarterly publication schedule, and Epic Illustrated ceased publication altogether. HM would continue with its lower profile until it was bought by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creator Kevin Eastman, who publishes it to this day. Epic continued as the brand name of a series of Marvel comics.



What else was there? When 1994 and Epic died and Heavy Metal refocused on longer stories, I don't believe there was any high-profile comics magazine featuring lots of quality short SF and fantasy. Long gone were past titles such as Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction or -- shudder -- Strange Adventures. Yes, you can still scour eBay for foreign classics such as Pilote or Metal Hurlant, but the pickings are slim. (Completists might also want to scrounge around for the three issues of Omni Comix from the mid-1990s. Or better yet, just buy anything by Moebius.)




Why is this? As editor Michael A. Burstein notes in the first (and so far only) edition of Outbound, comics and science fiction would seem to be natural partners, but they are rarely paired successfully. They should work well, because the ability to illustrate the imaginative settings of SF stories is the strength of comics; plus, of course, many SF stories have a healthy dose of action and adventure, which also make them great for comics. What might not seem to be a natural is the more intellectual, internal SF story, in which there are fewer explosions and more thinking. But anyone who's been a fan of the great Japanese manga series Planetes knows you can mix space ships, conflict, intelligent stories, and good art, and you can come up with a classic SF comic.



Outbound, by the way, is a comic-book-sized anthology published by the Boston Comics Roundtable. It features a nice variety of stories, some good original voices and art, naturally some weak spots, and, like Heavy Metal's early years, a couple stories that must only make sense if you're heavily into some sort of drug experience.


I do not know if there will be a second issue of Outbound, but I am encouraged to see someone trying to build something in this market space. It is clearly a tough niche in which to survive, but if enough people get in there and show what can be done, sooner or later some publisher will concoct the correct recipe. Then we'll get some great professional space opera, thought-provoking explorations of SF ideas, and mind-bending concepts.
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