As a kid growing up in the late 80s, early 90s, I was first exposed to the great EC Comics by a limited run of reprints that, compared to the bulked out superheroes and violent war comics that were fashionable at the time, seemed almost quaint by comparison. As a lover of short stories and pulp science fiction, I was in love. Of course, there were so many different genres – horror, science-fiction, crime, etc – that collecting issues individually became too difficult, not to mention pointless as the cheap newsprint quality wasn’t made to withstand multiple readings.
Thank goodness for the enthusiasts, and for Fantagraphics. Spawn of Mars and Other Short Stories collects over thirty stories by legendary cartoonist and illustrator Wallace Wood, or just Wally Wood. Almost all stories and scripts here are by William M. Gaines and Al Feldstein, with the exception of four later inclusions that feature the equally great Harry Harrison (Flash Gordon). More than anything, it’s Wood’s artwork that gives their otherwise schlocky tales legendary status, at times helping define visuals that would become a permanent fixture in the American psyche.
Even if you’ve never read any of the stories collected here, chances are you’ve seen his work in some form or another. From pulpy science-fiction to movie posters, MAD Magazine to Marvel’s Daredevil to Mars Attacks! and so much, much more, Wood’s unique gifts would not only shape what science-fiction looked like at the time, but the very way we visualized this brave new world. Giant rocket ships, fishbowl helmets, tubular television displays – all hokey by modern standards but great stuff back when such things simply didn’t exist.
This won’t be a critique of the actual comics themselves because, to be honest, they’re all pretty awesome. Not just “early science-fiction awesome”, but just awesome-awesome. Before we get our modern scientific brains in a tizzy trying to ‘correct’ everything that Wood and his writers got ‘wrong’ with these stories of interplanetary space travel, disgusting tentacle monsters, cosmic rays and even gender-bending transformations, try to keep in mind the era they were drafted.
We’re talking post-World War II, and only just so. America was in the grips of anti-Communistic furor, the threat of nuclear annihilation a constant fear, while the race to space was in an infancy that would soon blossom into one of the most transformative periods in history. But this was still 1950s America, meaning there are no blacks, asians, or other minorities sharing the stage with the heroic white travelers, not even tokens depicted with racial ignorance. And the women – all dripping with sexuality – are mere playthings to complement the boys’ toys of rockets, monsters, and cowboy machismo.
Yes, the visual representations are dated, very much in line with 1950s-era culture norms and psychology. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the story “The Invaders”, which features a group of desperate rebels, their country just having surrounded to the enemy, hoping to avoid being conquered by blasting haphazardly out into the darkness of space in an experimental rocket ship. Captain Keve, searching the galaxy for a suitable Earth replacement, sits at his desk, paper maps and compass at the ready, a smoky cigarette dangling from his fingers…
As with any focused collection the stories tend to repeat themselves; just how many times can you replay the same idea of escaping Earth to form a utopian society on a distant planet? Plenty, it turns out, as the post-war era was an inexhaustible source of wildly innovative pulp, one that would also give us familiar names like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and countless other writers, directors, and even real-life astronauts.
But let’s talk about Wood’s artwork. The reproductions are gorgeous, rendered in beautiful black and white that makes re-reading them so much fun (yes, fun). Wood’s lines have probably never looked better, and if they have I’m not aware of it. Some will scoff at the very idea of a modern restoration job, cleaning up the original artwork while removing any artifacts and debris, but let them scoff. Unlike some other hack restoration jobs, replicating the fuzz and distortion of the original comic panels, I’ll take legibility and crisp lines any day.
I typically harp when comic collections go the bare-bones route and omit any historical linkage in their haste, but Fantagraphics has done the opposite here. This is how you honor the legacy of classic comics, folks. Not only is the volume bound in an attractive, reddish hardcover, but the sheer academic thoughtfulness on display makes the amateur historian in me giddy. Additional essays by Bill Mason and Ted White help put these comics in their rightful perspective, both culturally and historically, and are worth reading through.
Most poignant, however, is the realization in S.C. “Steve” Ringgenberg’s thoughtful mini-biography towards the end, that Wood was just a man. While we celebrate his amazing contributions to the craft, it’s critical to remember that – like so many blessed with imitable gifts – they took their toll. Suffering severe health problems, owing to a reckless lifestyle and unrealistic work schedule, Wood committed suicide in 1981. He was just 54 years old.
Spawn of Mars is how you do a classic comic collection right. Not only are the stories collected here all extremely entertaining, but they also showcase one of the genre’s most prodigiously innovative talents at the height of his powers. The reproduced artwork looks better than ever, and the included essays only reinforce what diehard fans already knew: Wallace Wood was one of the most influential artists to ever illustrate science-fiction. Fantagraphics has done the literary world a great service with their collections, this one included. Anyone even remotely interested in classic science-fiction – pulp or otherwise – will find themselves in pure heaven picking them up.