Sunday, November 9, 2014

Marvel Collectors Item Classics #27: Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction #1

by Professor Gilbert Colon

Cover by Frank Kelly Freas and John Romita

"The Day of the Triffids"
From the Novel by John Wyndham
Adapted by Gerry Conway
Art by Ross Andru and Ernie Chan

"A View From Without..."
Story and Art by Neal Adams
(reprinted from Phase #1, 1971)

"The Bradbury Chronicles"
Text by Shel Dorf

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Mongo!"
Story and Art by Frank Brunner
(reprinted from Heritage #1a, 1972)

"Savage World"
Story by Wally Wood
Art by Al Williamson, Angelo Torres, Roy Krenkel, and Frank Frazetta

"Past and Present Master"
Text by Gerry Conway

"Hey Buddy, Can You Lend Me A..."
Story and Art by Mike Kaluta
(reprinted from Scream Door #1, 1971)

"Light of Other Days"
Story by Bob Shaw
Adapted by Tony Isabella
Art by Gene Colan, Tom Palmer, and Mike Esposito

“1975: A Space Odyssey”
Roy Thomas’ opening editorial for the debut issue of Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction sets the stage for what readers can expect from this new magazine, and in the process gets high and mighty in its proclamation of what it does not want to be.  (More on that later.)  As proof of their commitment to the genre, he boasts that Unknown Worlds’ associate editor, Gerry Conway, “has already sold a couple of SF novels and several short stories…” (The Midnight Dancers in 1971 and Mindship in 1974 as “Gerard F. Conway”).  “These [Unknown Worlds] tales…have one thing and one thing only in common: They would all be SF, in its myriad incarnations.”  That was supposed to be the mandate for Marvel’s short-lived Worlds Unknown which adapted science fiction from Frederik Pohl, Fredric Brown and Harry Bates before resorting to sword-and-sorcery for sales (their two-part The Golden Voyage of Sinbad tie-in adaptation of the 1974 film) up until cancellation.  What exactly changed in the short year-and-a-half between that series and this near re-launch?  “…Science fiction has never really quite taken hold of a mass audience,” but “That…was before the Star Trek Phenomenon—before 2001—before (yes!) Planet of the Apes,” etc.  In other words, “things are changing.”  That makes no sense since Worlds Unknown ran from 1973-1974 and still failed to capitalize on the science fiction trend.  Thomas believes that “Marvel comics nearly made it, a year or two back, with a 36-page color comic-book titled Worlds Unknown.  We knew that…the real answer lay in a 75¢ or $1 black-and-white magazine which could spotlight a number of stories, reaching out in a multiplicity of directions.”  More than doubling the page count of your original premise seems hardly the solution, and going from Worlds Unknown to Unknown Worlds not the wisest marketing decision either.  Time would tell.  

Script: Tony Isabella
Art: Gene Colan and Tom Palmer

For reasons known only to Unknown Worlds’ editors comes this frame story designed to loosely connect the disparate tales of this issue.  In the “Prologue,” a couple wanders into an antique shop and discovers “slow glass…pieces of black glass…[with] pictures in them! [like] glass paintings [but with] scenes inside the pieces…moving -- changing![,] like watching a movie -- or something more real than any movie!”  Looking into the glass is a window into “all times, all places…Today and tomorrow and yesterday, here and there and everywhere…a history in glass, a heritage in light!”  The “Slow Glass” concept is credited to science fiction writer Bob Shaw – an actual adaptation of his short story comes later in this issue – but that is all it is here, a concept, not a story.  It is a clumsy, unimaginative, and unnecessary literary device that adds nothing whatsoever.  The couple gazes into the glass as they would a crystal ball and, scrying the next story, segues into…  

“The Day of the Triffids Chapter One”
Adapted by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, and Ernie Chua

Seed from a Russian experimental plant-form is spread to the wind when a smuggler’s plane crashes.  The spores take root, growing “triffids” worldwide – monstrous walking trees that attack mankind.  Shortly after, a meteor shower blinds a human race awed by the “space-faring fireworks!” show.  One man, Masen, never witnessed the “skystorm” – his eyes bandaged while asleep in the hospital – and awakes to a world “like something out of Dante’s Inferno!”  He rescues a woman, Josella, from one of the many blind brutes overrunning the land and drives her back to her father who has been killed by a triffid.  The two leave for the city where “there aren’t many triffids…most of them are grown in the country…”  The two take up residence in an abandoned London luxury hotel before spotting a beacon light.  Desperate to find others, Masen and Josella drive towards the light through a jungle of triffids only to find a Colonel and his men holed up in a fortified museum.  What seems like a haven turns into disappointment for them when the Colonel, believing “only the fit have the right to survive,” turns away the blind led by a Mr. Coker who demanded the soldiers “aid them in finding food.”  Not only that, the ignorant Colonel, dismissing triffids as “a harmless species of vegetable,” wants to leave for the country.  Masen and Josella, having no choice if they want the strength that numbers afford, join them.  CONTINUED NEXT ISSUE: THE ATTACK OF THE TRIFFIDS.  

Lovers of Technicolor triffids (in the 1962 film The Day of the Triffids) will have to brace themselves for part one of this black-and-white adaptation of John Wyndham’s 1951 novel, but there is no reason not to embrace what is more faithful to the source material than the film (fine though it is).  Wyndham’s riveting story may or may not be the progenitor of modern post-apocalyptic science fiction and horror.  Blind bands roam the landscape, more feared than triffids by some.  Replace the word “triffid” with “zombie” (or analogous words) and similar scenarios can be found in the plethora of survival “day after” doomsday fiction to follow.  The clash between the military response versus civilian is here as it is in 28 Weeks Later, Day of the Dead, and several others.  Masen wakes up in a hospital alone and encounters the beginning of the end already in progress, a scene that will not escape the notice of those who have seen 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead.  In next issue’s continuance of the tale, the finale mirrors Day of the Dead’s as a helicopter crew retreats to an island “where triffids can’t reach…”  The farmhouse in the second part is a fixture in tales like Night of the Living Dead and The Walking Dead, as it is in the apocalyptic The Birds (the novelette of which saw print in England a year after Wyndham’s novel, and Hitchcock’s movie a year after the Triffids film).  One auction catalog carrying a signed first edition calls Wyndham’s novel “Soviet-phobic,” an interpretation some hold about The Birds.  Overall, it could well be that The Day of the Triffids is the template for so many of the end of the world stories that were to follow.  

"A View From Without..."

“A View from Without...”
Written and drawn by Neal Adams

Whatever the politics of Neal Adams, they are definitely of their era as he all but calls American troops “baby killers.”  Purporting to be an “unbiased view” of the Vietnam War by an “enlightened” alien recording his observational analyses, this Phase #1 reprint (Sept. 1971) is more pure polemic than plot and fails on both levels.  

A young hiker finds a recording device and views an extraterrestrial humanoid narrating scenes from Vietnam (some have said the dramatically lit alien is Adams himself, only made up with bushy eyebrows like the Mentats in David Lynch’s Dune adaptation nine years later).  The use of photorealistic images and type fonts mixed in with black-and-white drawings produces an intriguing effect, but in the end is designed only to showcase a selective reading of history which it presents as the deductions of an unadulterated logical intellect.  Then, almost as though the story realizes its own fallacious transparency and moral dishonesty, “A View from Without…” switches gears and instead aims for the heartstrings, all without ever confronting a single communist atrocity (of which there were countless, one million murdered being one estimate, not counting Pol Pot’s Killing Fields subsequent to American withdrawal, though you would not know it from Adams).  If all one had to go by was this story, the worst offenses the Viet Cong are guilty of are getting poor hapless villagers killed for their cause by U.S soldiers, and in the history of warfare it is only Americans who are directly responsible for the tragic and gruesome deaths of innocent children.  

Adams uses words like “freedom” snidely, as though the “enlightened” are above such rhetoric, but it seems doubtful this or any other story could be written for mass commercial distribution in North Vietnam or similar regimes without government interference, let alone sold for personal profit.  The last page, of the hiker weepy upon viewing the alien’s heartrending reportage, surpasses in phoniness and cynical manipulation that decade’s “People Start Pollution” television ad wherein an Italian-American actor masquerading as an American Indian sheds a tear at the sight of a littered landscape.  As a matter of fact, the draft-aged hiker could just as easily be sobbing more for himself than the obliterated Vietnamese family as he reads his conscription letter (“Greetings…”) in the final panel.  

"A View From Without..."

The Bradbury Chronicles
Along with the Triffids adaptation, this exclusive interview with one of the genre’s masters is a breath of fresh air and virtually redeems the issue.  The life-affirming “candid conversation” is full of transformative nuggets of wisdom for those who care to hear, and is almost on par with Matthew R. Bradley’s most excellent OutrĂ© interview of the same subject, reprinted after Bradbury’s passing in Filmfax #131-33.  

Bradbury begins by lamenting the fact that kids are not reading (imagine what he would say today?), and when he recommends titles and authors from his upbringing that got and kept him reading – John Carter, Tarzan, mythology, Buck Rogers, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen – he could almost be recommending Marvel adaptations.  But it is not all ebullient nostalgia as he addresses the pressing issues of the day by revealing himself to be the champion of small businessmen, imaginative urban planning, and city revitalization for young and old alike (as opposed to a “generation gap” divide).  He worries for the youth – not only are kids not reading, they are despairing and turning to drugs.  “A lot of this despair comes from inactivity…”  Bradbury’s prescription to this generation?  “Find something, I don’t care what it is, to do.  The younger generation…if they’d just find that small niche for themselves.  It doesn’t have to pay much [or] anything, but it will be an activity that’s loving and wonderful and that causes them to pump their own adrenalin in their system and feel so good that there’s no way of despairing.  Because they are active within their own love, and that means pumping your own drugs into your own systems; you don’t need any outside drugs that way.  You are so high all the time on the thing that you’re doing, whether it’s acting or painting or printing your own magazine.”  

Bradbury presents examples of self-publishing labors of love with Forrest Ackerman and the Science Fiction League to illustrate his point.  “There are a lot of young publishers there with their own mimeographed magazines, and they have the right answer.  They fill their lives with criticizing and reading and illustrating and doing.  And that really is the answer to all of this.”  He could be talking about Dean Pete and his “League”!  

He attributes Botticelli, Tintoretto, Michelangelo, da Vinci, and comic-collecting for visually informing his work.  From “primitive authors—Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Sax Rohmer, and L. Frank Baum…you’re led to encounters with Aldous Huxley and Bernard Shaw later in life.  But I wasn’t ready for Shaw or Melville when I was a young child—so you go with your primitive passions.  That’s why these comic-strips and other things that are looked down on are important.  You must start with something primitive and not be ashamed of it, and you must express this passion.”  Bradbury of course not only worked his way up to Melville, but adapted his novel Moby Dick to the screen for director John Huston in 1956.  

Bradbury leaves readers with news of his Something Wicked This Way Comes screenplay for either Jack Clayton or, tantalizingly, Sam Peckinpah – Clayton would win out as director in 1983 – as well as plans to someday write a “grand opera…in the science fiction field” if he finds a composer commensurate with his hero Puccini.  At the time of the interview, he spoke of having collaborated on a cantata with famed film composer Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes, The Illustrated Man, the Star Trek films, and innumerable others).  This unnamed work was Christus Apollo, based on one of Bradbury’s poems.  Billed as a “Cantata Celebrating the Eighth Day of Creation and the Promise of the Ninth,” it sings of God’s creation of the universe and of man who takes to the stars to begin exploring that very Creation with the Apollo space missions.  (Goldsmith’s choral score was released on CD by Telarc in 2002.)  

Bradbury’s other poetry has been selling well, he informs, though what collection or publications are not specified.  (Del Rey did later issue The Complete Poems of Ray Bradbury the same year Something Wicked was released in theaters.)  His most recent sale was a bible for an undisclosed TV show (even though he reported that it was being revised by network executives).  All in all, a true Renaissance man.  The interview ends with his prediction that “by the year 2000 science fiction will dominate the mainstream literature of our time.”  If you include fantasy, horror, and superheroes in that assessment, and other media such as film and comics, Bradbury was almost a prophet, and all without any “slow glass”…  

"A Funny Thing..."

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Mongo!”
Art and story by Frank Brunner

Smash Gordon and Zookoff battle and slay Mongo’s monsters in true serial fashion before finally being arrested by the eco-authoritarian crew of Star Trek’s Enterprise (here named “Enterfuzz,” har-dee-har).  

This 1972 reprint from either Heritage #1A, Monster Times #17, or both is one of at least two or three Smash Gordon tales from Frank Brunner.  For a story intended as parody, there is some serious artwork going on in this silly send-up of Flash Gordon – moody charcoal shadings quite unlike Alex Raymond’s color originals, but striking nonetheless.  Those expecting swashbuckling action like the old Buster Crabbe serials or even a camp romp like the 1980 Flash Gordon feature film will, a few pages in, think they wandered into a “Flesh Gordon” movie instead.  The inclusion of characters in the Gene Rodenberry mold, “the next generation” of science fiction, literally illustrates Roy Thomas’ admission in the issue’s opening editorial that “We published [“Smash”] mainly because we think it makes a point about the kind of SF we don’t intend to carry,” though Brunner may only have meant it as little more than fun.  “We think the straight ‘space opera’ has rather run its course…”  

Thomas, however, seemed not to feel “space opera” went out of style with Marvel’s Gullivar Jones series (1972-1974), and Marvel’s own sword-and-sorcery fare – Conan, Kull, Thongor, etc. – is not far removed from space opera, a cousin genre in many ways.  Run its course?  Two years later, George Lucas would release a space opera film inspired by Flash Gordon (which he could not obtain the rights to) called Star Wars (1977), even getting pulp empress Leigh Brackett to collaborate on one of the sequels, and the rest is history.  As for this imitation Mad Magazine spoof?  Even the Contents page has to admit, “Parody with a point – we think.”  Think again.  

"A Funny Thing..."

“Savage World”
Scripter: Wally Wood
Artist: Al Williamson

Another denunciation of the human species in the “View...” vein, and another Gordon, this one not “Smash” but Larry, hero of a tale that begins in our own Atomic Age – 1968, New Mexico Atomic Test Center – before becoming an old-style subterranean adventure to a prehistoric civilization.  Here the derring-do champion must rescue the female reporter among them from forced marriage to a Neanderthal prince.  The story then turns against derring-do heroics to condemn Cold War man – though not female, whose scanned brain patronizingly registers more loving, open, and understanding – as “evil!…savages…bad guys!” compared with the supposedly progressive, peace-loving tribe below.  (At least “Triffids” critiqued Cold War man with intelligence, poignancy, and compassion.)  

The story is well-illustrated, but it is hard not to see this – along with “Smash” – as a direct attack upon Buster Crabbe and his career, or at least the type of hero he played.  Larry Gordon here – Larry “Buster” Crabbe, Flash Gordon, get it? – is the spitting image of the man who battled Ming on Mongo.  When the primitive’s mind probe visualizes his unconscious fantasies – probably the fantasies of most of Marvel’s readership – they project onto a movie screen first a gallant gentleman adventurer whisking a scantily-clad damsel in distress away to safety, then a jungle hero fighting a shark (Crabbe played Tarzan in the 1933 serial Tarzan the Fearless).  They conclude he is “very brave” but judge him “violent!…full of aggression…anger...”  Imagine their verdict if they subjected the Marvel crew writing for Savage Tales and Savage Sword of Conan to this mind probe.  

Indeed, an checklist from comic chronicler Richard J. Arndt, discovered after above write-up, confirms the Crabbe suspicion: “The ‘Savage World’ story’s art was done in 1954 for Buster Crabbe Comics but it was unused.  In [July] 1966 Wally Wood wrote a new script (the original had been lost) for the artwork and published the story in the first issue of his landmark fanzine witzend.”  One could rightly suspect that the older script was much more in the heroic tradition that Crabbe was known for instead of Wally Wood’s postmodern revisionist critique, and were the lost script to ever surface, it would make for interesting comparison how attitudes had so radically changed in little more than a mere decade.  

However, there is even more to the story of these Al Williamson panels.  In Dave Schreiner’s “An Introduction to ‘Savage World’” (Death Rattle #10, April 1987), found all over the place on the World Wide Web, the whole history is recounted, and a page by page breakdown of the panels is presented (Frank Frazetta “inked about 90 per cent of the heads, all the close ups of Buster,” among the several other “Fleagle Gang” contributors, their history also briefly sketched).  These panels took on a life of their own over the decades because after their witzend and Unknown Worlds appearances, they were recycled again for Bruce Jones’ Alien Worlds #3 with yet another entirely new script (and colorized art).  

The only hint as to the content of the lost old script, its author unknown, was Williamson’s quote that “…Larry and the others were not interlopers into a peaceful society.  The good guys were the good guys, and the bad guys were the bad guys…”  About the Alien Worlds script, Schreiner reports that Williamson said “he didn’t care for [it], because, in his recollection, it was not sympathetic to the characters.”  Certainly Williamson should have been perceptive enough to see that neither was Wood’s script.  Furthermore, if it is indeed true, as Schreiner writes, that Buster Crabbe in “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe…had a profound affect [sic] on a very young Williamson,” then all the more reason Williamson should have been discerning enough to recognize how Wood completely subverts Crabbe along with (to borrow part of the title of one compilation of Williamson’s own Flash Gordon strips) “A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic.”  

"Savage World"

“Past and Present Master”
Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction associate editor Gerard F. Conway interviews SF cover artist and illustrator Kelly Freas who, from a young age, aspired to illustration and cover art for Astounding, plied his trade on Analog, Planet Stories, and Gnome Press covers and then, moving from science fiction to science fact, became the “first posterist to be hung in the Smithsonian” and contributed the insignia to history’s Skylab I.  This last accomplishment especially constitutes much more of a career highlight than Freas’ famous “flying finger fracas” flap alluded to in the interview which had Adam and Eve, on an unidentified cover illustration more infantile than controversial, obscenely gesturing to God after their expulsion from Eden like a pair of spoiled brat children living rent-free under the roof of a parent they resent simply because he insists, “My house, my rules.”  

“Hey Buddy, Can You Lend Me A...”
Art and Story by Mike Kaluta

Reprinted from Scream Door #1, an underground fanzine, this giant insect story is barely worth the artist’s ink, let alone a plot summary.  Thomas in his editorial says, “…we went to the so-called ‘fanzines’ for stories on which their creators lavished time and attention over the past few years.”  (No attribution to specific fanzines accompany any of the stories.)  While it must be rewarding for these fanzine contributors to see their “labor of love” reprinted in the pages of a big name publisher, the stories simply do not live up to the art.  Thomas says about Worlds Unknown that Marvel “felt constricted by the size [and] so few pages,” but Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction could have benefited from fewer pages (in other words, less padding).  

Thomas furthermore writes, “...we’ve been planning this very issue for well over a half a year now…,” but Arndt claims that the Triffids adaptation was originally meant for Worlds Unknown #7-8 and held over for future use (in this case, Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction).  If this is true, then nothing whatsoever, except the “Slow Glass” framing sequence, is original to this issue.  Thomas boasted that future issues may include stories by Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, A. E. van Vogt.  “…The list goes on and on.  You’ll see.”  We will.  For now it unfortunately looks like Marvel wasted a full year-and-a-half pillaging fanzines for filler just because it was well-illustrated filler.  

"Light of Other Days"

“Light of Other Days”
Script: Tony Isabella
Art: Gene Colan and Mike Esposito

The encumbering “Slow Glass” frame that connects this issue’s unrelated tales gets its own story here, adapting Shaw’s original material from the pages of Analog Science Fiction and Fact (Aug. 1966).  An estranged couple drives to the country to go antiquing with the hope it might rekindle their failing marriage.  In the countryside they find a “slow glass” merchant whose memories are as stuck in the past as the images the glass captures.  The Contents page describes it as a “Nebula Nominee adaptation” and calls it poignant.  Maybe a little.  Maybe the tale works better as a straight short story than comic adaptation or framing device.  

—Professor Gilbert


  1. I don't remember this magazine at all! Thanks for the detailed and informative review!

  2. Thank you; I only ever had this single issue, it was a portal to a much cooler reality.