Review of EC Comics

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest

Dominick Grace

Qiana Whitted. EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest. Rutgers, 2019. Comics Culture. Paperback. 196 pg. $29.95. ISBN 9780813566313. Ebook. ISBN 9780813573106.

Qiana Whitted’s EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest, the latest volume in Rutgers’s Comics Culture series, is of more value to comics scholars than to SF scholars, but it is nevertheless both eminently readable and a valuable addition to pop culture scholarship. As Whitted notes in her introduction, despite the general high regard in which EC comics are held, they have received relatively little scholarly attention. In this volume, Whitted focuses on the so-called “Preachies,” the stories in various EC titles (mainly Shock SuspenStories) that were “designed to challenge readers’ assumptions about racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice, Cold War paranoia, and other anxieties over social difference and American heterogeneity” (5). Whitted does not attempt to do a high-level survey of how EC stories addressed social concerns, and rightly notes that a great many of them have little or no (overt) social commentary. Indeed, she cites William Gaines’s testimony from the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings in 1954, in which he differentiated between the “preachies,” which carefully spelled out the messages readers were expected to receive, and stories designed merely to entertain. Instead, she focuses specifically on the more obvious examples of the “preachies,” notably the story “Judgment Day!” written by Al Feldstein and drawn by Joe Orlando, originally published in Weird Fantasy #18 in 1953 and reprinted in one of EC’s final comics, Incredible Science Fiction #33 (1956), as a poke in the eye to the Comics Code Authority. EC subsequently shuttered its comics division. While Whitted could have fruitfully expanded her study by looking more broadly at EC comics (I would especially have been interested in her take on New Direction titles such as MD and Psychoanalysis, the latter title especially, with its proselytizing for the benefits of psychotherapy), the focus on a few key stories allows her space not only for extensive and detailed historical context but also for deep dives into the stories on which she does focus.

For readers of SFRA Review, the most relevant chapter here is chapter four, “‘Battling, in the Sea of Comics’: EC’s Invisible Man and the Jim Crow Future of ‘Judgment Day!’” This famous story recounts the visit of Tarlton, representative of the Galactic Republic, to the planet Cybrinia, to determine whether its robot inhabitants, descended from (if robots can indeed descend from ancestors) robots first built on Earth. Tarlton discovers that there are two robot classes, orange and blue, and that the blues are treated as distinctly second-class, despite being identical in manufacture to the orange robots, except for the colors of their external shells. Tarlton determines that the robots are not yet ready for admission into the Galactic Republic. Probably unsurprisingly to readers today, but very much controversially when the story first appeared (this issue was the basis of the Comics Code Authority’s attempt to bar EC from reprinting the story in 1956), Tarlton, who has worn his space suit throughout the visit, is revealed in the final panel of the story to be Black. Whitted’s reading of this story is detailed, subtle, and nuanced. Especially beneficial are her detailed comments on the historical context of Jim Crow, other relevant comics stories of the time, and, most interestingly—for me, anyway—her linking of the story to Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, published in 1952, one year before this story was first printed. Whitted reads the imagery and dialogue (even its use of ellipses) closely and carefully to build a complex reading that acknowledges not only what makes the story important but also the ways in which its proselytizing intent is complicated by its own assumptions. This chapter alone makes the book of value for scholars of SF, especially those interested in issues of race and of colonialism as explored in SF.

The whole book, however, is of enormous value to comics scholars. While Whitted has little to say about the vast catalogue of other SF, fantasy, and horror stories published by EC (and there is indeed much room to consider the merely entertaining stories, as well as the “preachies,” through the lens Whitted applies), her study nevertheless engages deeply and insightfully with EC’s complex legacy as a comics publisher renowned for its overall quality while also at times criticized for its formulaic storytelling and often pat moralizing. Whitted assumes a middle ground, between EC idolatry and the tendency of some scholars to attempt to apply a corrective to the often uncritical admiration of EC via harsh critique. This book is especially valuable for comics scholars but also of use for SF scholars, especially ones interested in SF in visual media.

Dominick Grace is professor of English at Brescia University College in London, Ontario. He is the author of The Science Fiction of Phyllis Gotlieb: A Critical Reading and the co-editor of several books, many focusing on comics and graphic novels.

Review of Sideways in Time

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction

Carl Abbott

Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel, eds. Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction. Liverpool UP, 2019. Hardback. 216 pg. $120.00. ISBN 9781789620139.

Sideways in Time collects essays derived from a 2015 conference at the University of Liverpool. It opens with a Foreword from prolific speculative fiction author Stephen Baxter and includes ten essays that are bookended by an Introduction and an Afterword by the editors. With a couple of exceptions, the contributors are based in Britain or have British academic connections.

That scaffolding described, the editors deserve a shout-out for their Introduction. In eleven pages they provide a quick and clear review of the critical literature on alternate history from H to G (Hellekson to Gallagher) and make a cogent argument for simple and direct terminology that avoids awkward coinages like allohistory and in-crowd references like Jonbar Hinge. Use “alternate history” and “point of divergence” and people will know what’s being  talked about. They also make a case for considering alternate history as its own genre or category that overlaps science fiction but also draws from counterfactual history and historical fiction, attracts mainstream writers, and morphs easily into television thriller mode.

The ten essays touch on some familiar landmarks of alternative history: Napoléon et la conquête du monde (1836), The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), The Man in the High Castle (TV version, 2015-19). Other contributors treat less frequently studied texts, such as short stories by Alfred Bester and John Wyndham, as well as introducing English-language readers to a Spanish novel from 1998 and a set of twenty-first century films and anime from Japan. All of the pieces offer interesting takes, and every reader will have their preferences. One of mine is Jonathan Rayner’s “Forever Being Yamato: Alternate Pacific War Histories in Japanese Film and Anime,” which explores a fascinating set of feature films and animations. It is a good start at developing a complement to the extensive analysis of alternate “Hitler wins, or doesn’t he?” fiction by Gavriel Rosenfeld and Catherine Gallagher. A second is Chris Pak’s “’It Is One Story’: Writing a Global Alternate History in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt.” A third is Karen Hellekson’s “Agency and Contingency in Televisual Alternate History Texts,” which energetically analyzes eight separate television series and mini-series (Maine winters must be good for bingeing).  As a group, the essays raise several questions about the character and boundaries of alternate history, which the editors interpret broadly.

A first issue is the tension between “timeline stories” and “lifeline stories.”  The former explore the social, political, and cultural effects of a divergence and work in the same realm as do the more abstract counterfactuals that historians sometimes propose. The latter focus on single individuals whose personal stories change through time travel interventions or passage to a parallel world. In very rough division, the essays in “Part I: Points of Divergence” deal with timelines and those in “Part II: Manipulating the Genre” with lifelines. The point of this boundary question is whether something to be called alternate history needs to dramatize counterfactuals with implications for social groups, societies, or nations. “Straight” alternate history hews to the plausible, whether its scope is as specific as Simone Zelitch’s Judenstaat (2016) or as broad and deep as The Years of Rice and Salt. Authors who work in this vein are interested in how their characters interact with the changed society, which remains “realistic” in that we can understand how things might get from the point of divergence to the society being described.  Some of the best examples, of course—Philip  Roth’s The Plot against America (2004) or Jo Walton’s “Small Change” trilogy (2006-08)—are able to span the two interests by placing compelling characters in alternate timelines where they have to cope with very interesting dynamics of politics and power.

A second issue involves the mechanisms that generate the alternate history. Is the divergence based on an event that is conceivable within the context of the time, such as the assassination of Elizabeth I or southern victory in the American Civil War without extra weapons from the future? In contrast, does the story depend on the speculative physics of parallel worlds with convenient portals tucked away in a basement? Or on equally speculative time travel scenarios in which a Japanese warship from the twenty-first century can materialize in 1942 (the manga series Zipang [2000-09]) or a history professor (!) joins the time patrol to save the world (Michael Crichton’s Timeless [1999])? Utilization of alternate physics offers abundant options for authors to play with but may thin the “history” part of the alternative. It also brings these sorts of alternate history firmly into the science fiction camp.

On a different side of the Venn diagram are stories that fall in the realm of fantasy with fully implausible, non-scientific premises. Stephen Baxter suggests distending the category to alternate cosmologies, favorably citing the flat Earth in Philip Jose Farmer’s “Sail On, Sail On!” (1952), Chloé Germaine Buckley’s essay explores Shadows over Baker Street (2003), edited by John Pelan and Michael Reaves; its contributors imagine Lovecraftian monsters, shape-shifters, and other supernatural phenomena perplexing reimagined versions of Sherlock Holmes. La locura de Dios (1999) by Juan Miguel Aguilera seems born from a kinky coupling of H. Rider Haggard, Dan Brown, and Erich von Daniken. The analysis in these essays is interesting, but I wonder if the texts are alternate history or some other category such as fantasy, fantastic adventure, or magical realism (the latter being perhaps the best slot for Colson Whitehead’s  alternate-historyish The Underground Railroad [2016]).            

There is a matter of intellectual interests behind these boundary issues, for different readers engage most deeply with different aspects of human experience. I’ve been studying, practicing, and writing “straight” history for multiple audiences for longer than I’ve been writing about speculative fiction, and find alternate history that engages the dynamics of societal change to be the most challenging and the most capable of imagining more just as well as more unjust societies. One might guess as much from the individual essays that I’ve cited. Readers of Sideways in Time whose predilection is for narratives that focus on the thoughts and emotions of individuals or that play with the weird and fantastic will have a different set of favorites. To paraphrase the editors, they will be drawn to the narratives that expand, stretch, subvert, and redefine the genre. For all of us, however, the collection is worth reading and consulting.

Carl Abbott retired after teaching Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University in five decades (but not fifty years!). His book Imagining Urban Futures was recently published in Chinese translation.

Review of Theory for the World to Come

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology

Gabriel A. Saldías Rossel

Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer. Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.Forerunners: Ideas First. Paperback. 116 pg. $7.95. ISBN 9781517907808.

Apocalypse is never singular, but multiple. This is “Wyndham’s rule,” the main premise with which Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer opens Theory for the World to Come. Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (the title of the first chapter and its contents detail what Wolf-Meyer means by the term), an interesting and thought-provoking study of the future and the conditions of possibility that make it happen.

This compact volume of just over 100 pages is, despite its brevity, is packed to the brim with contingent and at times even radical ideas on topics as widespread as catastrophe, city planning, race, human nature, and politics. This interest in seemingly disconnected topics also extends to Wolf-Meyer’s cross-disciplinary methodology, which groups speculative fiction, personal diaries, and social theory in a common effort to interrogate the many possible dimensions of our imagination about the future.

The future—and its limits—are exactly what lie at the heart of this book: the “world to come,” with all its problematic folds and inexplicable weirdness. How can we trace back the way our world has come to be, and understand its temporality as a complex continuum of historical variables? How can we develop new ways of comprehending what’s going to happen in the next few centuries if we haven’t yet absorbed the many undetermined possibilities of our present? And, more importantly, how can we deal with the idea of an “end” to what we’ve built? Can we change it, or should we resign ourselves to impending doom? These and other questions lead Wolf-Meyer to explore the ways in which twentieth and twenty-first century speculative fiction—in both literature and film—have  advanced different social theories that provide us with usually unorthodox as well as revealing answers about our past, present, and future.

The structure of the book follows a straightforward premise: if the threat of annihilation looms on the horizon, as Wyndham’s rule seems to suggest, then speculative fiction must address this notion and produce social theories relevant for a future at risk of never materializing. From this standpoint, the author identifies three different forms of narratological social theory under the guise of “future historiography” (19): extrapolation, intensification, and mutation. These modalities manifest themselves as narrative or even thematic devices designed to propel the conversation about the future beyond its commonly agreed limits and to advance discussion on alternative ways of portraying what’s to come. Accordingly, each chapter explores different fictions and ways of employing future historiography to produce coherent and relevant social theories.

The first three chapters after the introduction (“Detroit Diaries, 1992-1999,” “White Futures and Visceral Presents: Robocop and P-Funk,” and “The Revolutionary Horizons of Labor and Automation: Blue Collar and Player Piano”) deal with the idea of “intensification” (19), analyzing futures in which present issues are not really resolved, but rather expanded on, both in significance as well as spatial and social presence.

Images Wolf-Meyer brings forward during these first few pages include Robocop’s (1987) ultra-violence as an expression of repressed humanity and P-Funk’s music as an attempt to recover such lost humanity during the 80s; Player Piano’s (1952) representation of automation as a reflection on the meaning of labor, and Detroit as a city of technological promises degraded into a racially segregated sprawl. Each chapter is short and direct, not wasting any time to get to the main topics the author seeks to put into the spotlight: race politics, human nature, and the possibilities of automation in a posthuman age.

The following two chapters (“California Diaries, 2008-2015,” and “Extrapolating Neoliberalism in the Western Frontier: Octavia Butler’s Parables”) focus on extrapolation as a narrative device employed to represent present problems in scenarios radically different from our own. In his “California Diaries,” Wolf-Meyer reflects upon how living—and, particularly, buying a house—in California forced him to accept the fragility and indeterminacy of a future “so precarious, so subject to change” (53), where catastrophe is always around the corner, while his study of Octavia Butler’s work makes some interesting points about the inner logic of capitalism and its ever-consuming nature, revealed through extrapolation and a rather fascinating proclivity towards devastation and crisis, something the author also finds a characteristic feature of life in California.

The final three chapters of the books (“New York Diaries, 2015-2018,” “The Nihilism of Deep Time: Man after Man and After,” and “Mutating Temporalities: Slipstream Christopher Columbus”) deal with mutation, or the speculative expression of change as a chronological and temporal construct. This section opens with the “New York Diaries,” in which the author explores life in a secluded town where the future “never seems to come” (72), thus rendering thinking and worrying about it as unnecessary exercises in frustration.

This notion of an unmanifested future, precluded from experience, is also present in his study of “deep time” (82), which posits that in the larger scheme of things, human existence and humanity’s self-made so-called apocalypse, is not only circumstantial, but irrelevant altogether. This pessimistic conviction is then contested in the final chapter of the book, which turns its attention to the possibility of alternative futures, or “mutant temporalities” (91) that would allow, at least in theory, for possible “ways out” (100) of the unavoidable apocalypse that we, as humans, seem so stubbornly obsessed with bringing about.

In the end, this is indeed a book about the future and the many natural and artificial threats it faces; but it’s also a deep and well-researched study on the expression of hope through speculative fiction and social theory during the last fifty years. Through his analyses and account of personal experiences, Wolf-Meyer provides a panoramic view of the many attitudes towards the future we have developed over time: Should we fear it? Should we try to stop it?  Escape it? Transform it? The possibilities are numerous, and if there’s something to be taken from this book, it is the idea that an undetermined future is not necessarily a bad one. Indeterminacy means possibility, and possibility means opportunity for change. For Wolf-Meyer, this is the conviction that motivates speculative fiction to represent different scenarios and outcomes to problems we, today, might see as simply insurmountable. It also helps us to understand the trends that have brought us to where we are and, ideally, to try to remediate them before it’s too late, because any theory for the world to come should at least address our experience with time and space and project it beyond our imagination into—if not better, at least different—ways of experiencing reality.

Gabriel A. Saldías Rossel is an Assistant Professor at the Catholic University of Temuco in Temuco, Chile. He holds a PhD in Literary Theory and Comparative Literature. His areas of expertise include Latin American literature, utopian studies, politics of catastrophe, critical theory, science fiction and fantasy studies. Currently he is researching the utopian implications in the representations of catastrophe in current Latin American novels. 

The SFRA Review at Fifty: Interrogating Our History

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Interrogating Our History

The SFRA Review at Fifty: Interrogating Our History

The Editorial Collective

The SFRA Review has published continuously for fifty years now. SF has grown through this period, accumulating a broad, deep, complex and sometimes problematic history of texts and films, creators, critics, scholars and fans. We here at the Editorial Collective would like to invite the creators, critics, scholars and fans of 2021 to examine, reflect upon, and interrogate the concerns and preoccupations of the year 1971, which was a very different time, especially in SF. The creators, critics and scholars who have been canonized were almost without exception white or male, and usually both. The Internet did not exist: discourse and publishing were in the hands of a few gatekeepers, who were diverse neither in demographics nor opinion on what was worthy of publication. Things we view as necessary or even take for granted today, were still unthought-of, or inchoate, or sometimes actively suppressed.

Yet the texts and discourse of 1971 are one stratum among many of our accumulated history as creators, critics, scholars and fans of SF: we ought not to dismiss them simply because they’re often unrepresentative by our own standards. The texts and discourse of that year influenced those of later years, and thus still influence, though indirectly, the texts and discourse of today. In 1971, Larry Niven’s Ringworld was the Hugo award winner. In 1971, John W. Campbell passed away while he was still the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, but as recently as two years ago, his name was still on major awards, despite his extensively documented history of problematic beliefs, statements and editorial decisions. In 1971, the SFRA and the Review were brand-new: SF as the subject of and respondent to serious scholarly criticism was in its infancy, and most theories of how we might understand works of SF yet unformed.

It is in the spirit of interrogating our history as creators, critics, scholars, and fans of SF that we at the Review invite scholars and fans of all generations to consider the history that was laid down for us fifty years ago in 1971: to critique that which deserves critique; to acknowledge that which stands the test of time, even though it may still deserve critique; to bring to light that which was ignored—or suppressed. The call for papers below encourages a wide variety of writers and a wide variety of topics, on purpose, because we wish to expand rather than limit our understanding of our own history as people who love SF. Ultimately, our goal is to create an ongoing conversation about our history: to place different generations and different perspectives at the same metaphorical roundtable, in order better to comprehend the forces and discourses that shaped and continue to shape the much broader, deeper and more complex understanding(s) of SF that we have today.

We urge creators, critics, scholars and fans of all backgrounds to visit the call for papers for this initiative and to submit a paper or abstract. We look forward to an ongoing, frank and fruitful conversation about our history.