Thursday 31 December 2020

Short Stories

Short Fiction

Various Authors

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Let’s put some clarity on this subject from the outset. Warlock magazine and Fighting Fantazine have sporadically included short stories and comic books during their runs and I think these should be regarded as relevant for discussion. To keep some structure to the scope of this post, I am including short story material that was featured in either publication (be it directly or indirectly linked to the FF canon) and serious-toned comic strips only (ie the comedy strips are excluded, that is Arkenor And Max and Derek The Troll, other than to acknowledge right now that they are both genuinely funny), but that still gives a decent amount of material to discover.

Let’s begin with Aida Rintarou’s The Book In Which You Are The Hero, only two parts of which have been published and even then in rather scattershod fashion in Fighting Fantazine Issues 4 and 8, which meant the two instalments appeared with a gap of 16 months separating them. Whilst there is very little of this available to us it is worthy of some analysis as there is a lot going on here. The concept is that each FF book is a chronicle, in scroll form, of a “brave person” vanquishing a baddie. The scroll is torn apart and reassembled in randomised numbered section order (get it?) Fast forward to New York in 2020 (shades of Highlander, perhaps) where a combat with swords is in progress: a flashback of one of the characters discovering one of the “torn apart” scrolls and completing it to be rewarded with an item for “[completing] the record of truth”. There is a wry comment in the text that “I was starved for entertainment and became enthralled by the strange book” (weren’t we all) and completing the book actually hides it inside you – a reference to FF being a part of us all, maybe? On absorbing the book and becoming one with it, Zagor’s power source passes into the reader as his cards are the power of the wizard that is inside the book. (This is all very clever stuff). Next the protagonist receives an email from “The Baron” who is described as a “super-famous businessman who had become a billionaire in the IT industry”. Hmm, who could this be then? I’ve suggested before that Baron Sukumvit is Ian Livingstone’s alter-ego and the IT industry businessman moniker certainly fits this particular un-named Baron. The Baron tells the protagonist that they must gather together all 59 books to win a $59 million reward (which, if the current soaring prices are anything to go by will very soon not actually be enough to manage to buy a set of the 59 original Puffins!)  At this point the strip becomes a bit baffling as it explodes into the usual manga muddled confusion with a final page that makes no sense at all to me (and I wish to add a caveat here that no manga or anime has ever really made much sense to me). I think it is something about the protagonist using a non-FF ability, but frankly it is anyone’s guess as to how Part 1 ends. Part 2 recaps the understandable parts of the first Part and tells us that you can manifest the power gained by absorbing each book at will and our lead seems to opt to use this power by giving herself a huge pair of tits (oh manga, you are so mauve lol). So, the end of Part 1 did just about seem to be another absorbing that seemed to be the main character’s life force (I think) and the Highlander comparison is hard to avoid again. And then this Part suddenly ends with the same large-breasted girl again and some Japanese script that may or may not a) be important, and b) shed clarity on whatever is now going on, but I can’t say as I don’t read Japanese.

This story is beautifully drawn in a classic manga style. It suffers from a few bizarre sentences and typos (written by a Japanese person presumably and in what is effectively a fanzine, so we have to forgive these niggles), but this does not make it make less sense than it already does(n’t) anyway. This seems to be FF Highlander in manga form which is an interesting mix of ideas and concepts and the whole idea of each of the 59 books forming a single text that was deliberately disordered is a neat one. The piece is not as intriguing for me as the similarly two-parts-are-all-we-have-to-go-on The Book Of Runes proved to be, but it still deserved to continue and it definitely had the potential, even though it does seem to be defunct given that there were plenty more issues of the ‘zine to appear after its second Part, without any further instalments materialising. Given that the scroll was broken into 59 parts, does that mean that Rintarou intended this to be a 59-part epic? Ambitious if that was the plan, but was that ever really likely to come to fruition? Either way this is lovely to look at and I have to applaud the ‘zine for including something very different to the usual short story submissions that appear in fanzines and reminds us that FF was/is as huge in Japan as it was in Europe.

The aptly-named Out Of The Frying Pan, which was printed in Fighting Fantazine Issue 2, was penned by Ian Brocklehurst who would soon after go on to write the much longer episodic Aelous Raven And The Wrath Of The Sea Witch, also for the ‘zine. Frying Pan is a taut little piece concerning a group of survivors from a Lizard Man attack on their caravan en route to Kaynlish-Ma, who descend into the forest seeking cover but find rather more than that as our hapless group blunder straight into a second ambush from Marsh Goblins. There is a certain gallows humour to this concept and the ironic early comment that “our fortunes are improving” quickly becomes Famous Last Words. It is notable that this short is contemporary with the Siege Of Vymorna (the Lizard Man presence is linked to this), which positions this story as happening at the same time as the events of Battleblade Warrior and it is always good to see fan fiction being legitimised like this by directly connecting it to canon in this way. I cannot avoid mentioning that there are some typos, missing conjunctions, and awkward sentence structure (possibly through missing and/or misplaced punctuation), but this is fan fiction so we cannot expect perfection in what is actually a very well-written story with an epic and dramatic tone and a frenetic pace that really makes you feel the desperation of the characters’ predicament. Even more so, this has to be hailed as a success given just how short it is and how much action is packed into its brevity. The text is punctuated by violent action and the constant dashing of the protagonists’ hopes of safety makes the title wholly suitable. Indeed, this is really quite a graphic and visceral piece with a tone of impending doom and a downbeat ending that neatly subverts the reader’s expectation of things coming out right somehow. The title is perfectly matched to the content, which is basically a series of instadeath situations, which just adds to its feeling of connection with FF as a concept. This story really did deserve better proof-reading but that is a minor criticism of something well worth making the effort to read. On a side note, I’m not sure I would hire the Ranger in this piece for defending me as anyone he meets (including his Bandit friends that he has a rendez-vous with) tends to die horribly!

A similarly perilous trip is described in the otherwise thematically polar Sam, Cars And The Cuckoo by the then unknown but now very famous Australian author Garth Nix. This was designed as a taster for the forthcoming Freeway Fighter, but other than involving tricked-up battle cars and a post-holocaust future (as the intro calls it), this really has no actual link to Freeway Fighter and its world is rather less decimated than in the gamebook, it seems. It does however capture the themes of Freeway Fighter, but in a totally different context. In this version of the future we have people trying to live the normal humdrum 9-5 existence of the office worker, but with the added problem of violent road gangs a la Mad Max. This is a nice juxtaposition of the real and the fantastic. A lovely little inclusion is a reference to collecting breakfast cereal tokens, but here they are redeemed against tactical weaponry! Indeed, there is a certain hilarity to the sheer amount of arming and kitting-up that the office worker of the piece has to do before commuting home in the evening, and there is also a comment about “the lunatic majority” in a reversal of the general idea of a barmy minority that would screw everything up if they were in great enough numbers. All very satirical. The cars are also very luridly named, which adds to the whole concept of the casual death and destruction that is a necessary part of your daily drive to work.

A really hilarious inclusion is the idea of the AA having wiped out the RAC in a war for supremacy over roadside repair services, and there are lots of ideas that create a viably familiar future, such as the unified car manufacturer Ford-Jaguar (a very accurate prediction of the real mergers of umpteen car manufacturers), BBC Teletext (okay, that one didn’t survive in real life), The Times newspaper, EMI, the Lloyd-Barclay Global Bank, and even the Church Of England. On the subject of The Times and the BBC, there is a wry comment about media sensationalism too for those who notice it: “streets of death… people just call it the road” we are told by the first person narrator. Other potentially very real concepts that are present include the idea of compulsory worship (history repeats itself, as we know) and the way drivers get voided warranty warnings on equipment. Satire abounds in this effort. Rather depressingly, the characters are so focussed on weapons of ever-growing destructiveness that they have to actually think to work out that something as mundane as an actual living bird has hit their car rather than some sort of missile. Even more depressingly, The Times annually reports the first accidental kill of a cuckoo as if it is a major event for celebration – this is a nice parody of disregard for the environment, something that had not really caught on in the public conscience when this story was published. In fact, your promotion prospects are actually enhanced if you get the first cuckoo kill (80s Yuppiedom in full effect and getting lampooned cleverly).

This is essentially the story of the daily gauntlet run by commuters in a post-holocaust future over-run by dangerous gangs. There is a blind acceptance of the situation by the characters and this future is devoid of any sense of humanity (people take photos of near-fatal explosions to sell as posters), yet everyone in this future just goes back to work again on Monday ready to risk life to sit in an office all day. There is so much satire going on in this story that it is quite an achievement that so much has been crammed into so few words. I suspect that this short story gets very little real attention, given that it has no discernible link to FF other than the tenuous Freeway Fighter “themes” and the fact that it got printed in Warlock Issue 2, but that should not deter people from reading it as it is a really well designed story that is full of clever nods to society and the very real possibility of how the future could turn out in a bizarre clash of mundane normality and utter anarchy.

Linked much more directly to a canon entry is The Dwarves Of Redweed, the backstory to The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, written by Andrew Jones and printed in Fighting Fantazine Issue 16. This chronicles the eviction by Zagor’s hordes of the dwarves who originally inhabited Firetop Mountain and acts as the background to the Dwarves of Redweed (as they are known), their attack by Gallon Zagor, their ousting of him, and his vow for revenge that manifested itself on Oldoron Zagor’s retaking of Firetop Mountain. Basically, this story is the lore and early history of Firetop Mountain, but it also has more subtle moments for those who like their Easter Eggs including explaining the presence of the gambling dwarves deep within the Maze of Zagor (the games room gets mentioned explicitly), and it ends with the dwarf card game that you can crash in the gamebook. It even goes as far as to tell us the names of said gambling dwarves for those who want to go through the looking glass with their lore. The comment that “to the newcomer, the labyrinth of identical-looking passageways would cause them to become lost after only a few turns” is a nice reference that is surely not lost on those who have attempted to navigate the frankly frustrating Maze of Zagor in WOFM.

Again, this is a short offering but no opportunity is lost in making the most of its low word count and the space available to create a fast-paced and well-written story in an easy to read and non-arch style that gives us some welcome background to one of the iconic locations in the FF world and its equally iconic overlord. Also worthy of mention is that Zagor can apparently walk on water so there is no end to the guy’s talents and apparent omnipotence (card deck and Eye of the Cyclops-related Achilles Heels notwithstanding). I must admit that when I first saw this story as I glanced over the contents of Issue 16 I was worried that this was going to be trite fan fiction that pays endless homage to the source material in a horribly knowing manner, but it is not and it does not – this is a genuinely very good little piece of the ever-growing jigsaw that is the history of Titan.

Not Titan-based, or if it was we never got to the point where we would find out, is Darren Chandler’s The Book Of Runes from Warlock Issues 12 and 13. When I first read this on initial release I was about 10 or 11 and found it baffling, beautiful, and fascinating, all in one. And I still do, in fact, as this really is an enigma. Where would the story have lead? What was it about? Why did everybody want the titular book? Did Chandler even know or was this being written on the fly - as it was never finished and still isn’t, I suspect it may have been written as he went along. I know from talking to him that Chandler did go on to write more of it for his own fanzine work and, having read some of the post-Warlock parts that exist, the story becomes much more ethereal and mystical, but it remains unfinished to this day, so it is anyone’s guess where it would have gone and how it would have ended. Basically, everyone wants the book but the story in Warlock stopped prematurely before it became clear why they wanted it or what it did. But the really striking thing here is the art which is very bold with strong black-white contrasts and is intricately drawn in a very different style to Warlock’s previous comic strips, which were all comedic efforts with rough Viz-style line art.

It seems like this would have been a really good strip and the art is impressive in its depth and energy, plus it is surprisingly violent and the first two parts (ie all that was published) are dominated by killings. I would love to see a completed version of this as it really fascinates me and I just find the art so compelling, in spite of the almost impenetrable story as the clarity that presumably was to come in future instalments never came. In fact, I have always been intrigued by incomplete artistic works (be it music, film, literature, art, etc) as the whole concept of where they could go and what plans the creators had for them are fascinating. As it stands, in its existing published form, The Book Of Runes suffered a premature end before anything really happened plot-wise and does make therefore for a slightly odd read as you go from killing to killing with no context or apparent reasoning, bar the want for the book itself. In many ways, it is probably of more value just admiring Chandler’s fabulous art rather than trying to work out what is going on and then giving yourself a headache trying to come to your own conclusion about what might have happened next. The plot aspect is frustrating and leaves you none-the-wiser but the art is top notch and I am surprised Chandler never got offered work in FF books on the back of this. I have however seen an advert he drew for Adventurer Issue 3 that is similarly elaborate and packed with things to pick out, incidentally.

Which subject of frustratingly incomplete stories where you really do want to know what happens next brings us to Ian Brocklehurst’s Aelous Raven And The Wrath Of The Sea Witch. This is a far longer affair than any other short stories that appeared in either Warlock or Fighting Fantazine, clocking in at eight parts, and even then it is not finished. These instalments appeared sporadically in the ‘zine in Issues 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, and 13. I am slightly irritated that it did not get completed, especially as the ‘zine did not go on hiatus until after the long-delayed Issue 16 emerged, and the lengthy gaps between the later Issues were surely ample time for Brocklehurst to write the last few Chapters. But, be that as it may, this story has yet to be completed, which is a pity as it is really very good and genuinely engrossing. Due to its longer episodic format, this story benefits from being able to cover much more ground and in a more leisurely and broader fashion than the by necessity frantically-paced short subjects that usually appear in magazines of these types. There is a really epic feel to this story and it does take the form effectively of an adventure with it starting in a tavern followed by two boat trips then the real maguffin kicks in as we head away to rescue an abducted young girl from the titular Sea Witch, who it turns out is rather more than just an evil witch. Indeed the real star of the show is not our lead NPC (Aelous Raven) but Delfina Cove, the Sea Witch herself, a fully fleshed-out character with a back story, a motive, and a neat mixture of traits that make the reader both sympathise with and despise her. As baddies go she is very well designed and would perfectly suit a gamebook (which makes sense of course as this is a Titan-set story so it does need to fit with the idiom of FF).

To make this piece all the more satisfying, there are many popular culture references and the concept seems to mix H Rider Haggard’s She with elements of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth plus a bit of Harryhausen stuff is thrown in too. There is even a reference to Tomb Raider, someone named after a Discworld character (Rincewind), and a Star Wars quotation (“I haven’t gone by that name in a very long time”). Plus the story is very lurid and graphic but in a fun and appropriate way rather than for its own sake.

As with Brocklehurst’s earlier short in the ‘zine, the text is not without its problems and it does suffer from typos and strange grammar in places. In fact, there are times when you need to substitute words of your own to make some sentences read correctly or as they are presumably intended. There is also an annoying tendency for Aelous’ name to be given as Aeolus in the text, in particular when the Sea Witch is addressing him (or does she deliberately keep getting his name wrong?) I also found it slightly grating the way the word “dais” appears a truly ridiculous number of times in Chapter 4 – in fact, I have never seen it used as many times as it is in that instalment!

One plot point worthy of mention is a reference made to a previous adventure of Raven’s where he travelled through teleportation circles in the Moonstone Hills – this is so intriguing that I really want to play that adventure. Hopefully Brocklehurst will write it one day. More to the point, hopefully we will see the conclusion to this story as it is crying out to be completed, even if it means there are still several more parts to come (actually, I hope there are as there is loads of potential here) and I really do want to know how this one pans out or, in fact, just read more of this great adventure story as the position the piece was left in does not seem to me to be that close to the conclusion or, if it is, I hope the ending is not rushed as this would not be in keeping with the rhythm of the story up to this point.

So, an interesting mixture of short story material has appeared in FF’s two primary magazines. We have had violent vaguely FF-connected sci-fi, lore-expanding back stories, death-laden vignettes, complex intellectual comic strips, and a full-on multi-part epic. Some are self-contained, some benefit from familiarity with the inspiration material to gain the most from them (especially The Dwarves Of Redweed), and some were prematurely curtailed before they ever really got going. But what we are left with is an interesting and very readable body of short stories and even the incomplete ones are starting points for our own imaginations to continue or complete the stories as it is unlikely that many of those that are unfinished will be completed now, I would imagine, although I gather Aelous Raven may still get finished one day.