Thursday, 12 December 2019

Worlds Unknown (Marvel)

Adept Adaptations

Worlds Unknown (Marvel)
Eight Issues USA May 1973 - August 1974

My first and only previous encounter with the eight issue run of Worlds Unknown was when I was six years old. I remember standing on Queensway tube station with my parents, gazing down with wonder at the comic they’d bought me. It was issue eight which, I didn’t know for many years, was the final issue of this title. This contained the second of a two part adaptation of Ray Harryhausen’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and, just as I did when I’d seen the movie itself, earlier that year, I didn’t make the connection at the time between the big posters on the tube of Caroline Munro as the Lamb’s Navy Rum Girl and her starring part in said movie. In terms of the Navy Rum temptress... well let’s just say that even at the age of six I knew a fine looking young lady when I saw one.

So it’s taken me many years to catch up to the rest of the issues and read them all, finishing with the issue I first read 45 years ago, with the outstanding cover of the giant sized statue of Kali (under a different name for some reason) menacing Sinbad. I’ll get to the Sinbad stuff in a minute but... and again, I wasn’t to know this at the age of six... the two part adaptation marked a real turning point in terms of the original intention of the comic and, in a way, it’s no wonder this last thing sounded the death knell. However, with a bit of logical deduction, I can see that the comic and material ear marked for it was reborn a year or so down the line, albeit doomed to another short run. That’s another thing I’ll get to in a minute.

Now the mission statement, so to speak, as set out in the first issue, was for the comic to be a science fiction publication which would be full of new adaptations of short stories by leading science fiction writers. Plus, a few reprints of old ‘twist stories’ shoehorned in to fill space from older publications by comic companies which Marvel now found themselves in ownership of. But the main focus was one or sometimes two short story adaptations by the likes of people like Frederick Pohl, whose anti-racist story The Day After The Martians Came is actually pretty good at setting a tone but low on action. The artwork in this and other issues is all great too and I’d have to say that, from my point of view, Worlds Unknown was a good little comic which should have lasted a long time... especially since some of the stories the editors were bringing to the table to adapt were quite landmark and the Marvel versions were not always the first crack at adapting them.

For example, issue three has an adaptation of the Harry Bates short story Farewell The Master. This is, in actual fact, the short story on which the original 1951 movie The Day The Earth Stood Still was based. Now, in the editor’s column inside this issue, they mention that they have done just a few very minor tweaks to the story but more or less left it intact and what that means is... if you remember the film, then you don’t know the story. Turns out the original (and presumably the remake of the original) took huge liberties with the source material so that, most of the time, there’s not much synchronicity between the two. For example, the alien Klatuu, played by Michael Rennie in the film (or Keanu Reeves I guess, take your pick) manages to get out half a sentence before he is shot dead... and not by the army but by a lone gunman assassin watching events (and he’s not getting up from that, either). And as for the ending... well, the ending I’m still not quite sure I understand. Gort the robot, who is named Gnut as in the original here, can talk and at the end he reveals that ‘he is the master’, not Klatuu, before taking his space/time capsule away from the Earth. I am guessing my lack of clarity here may be a generational thing... perhaps the original writer was trying to make some point about the autonomy of mechanical life forms, I dunno. But it’s certainly an interesting read and adaptation, even if I do prefer the original movie’s ‘peace for all mankind’ message.

As the run of the comic goes on, actually, I see more clues that they were trying to tie it in to TV and film because, I’m guessing, sales were maybe fairly poor. They do say in the pages that science fiction is not a popular seller (and indeed, I remember the 1970s and 1980s... if you read science fiction or fantasy you were a bit of an outcast), regardless of the fact that the superhero comics which were performing so well for them were completely science fiction anyway... just not marketed like that. So yeah, on the cover of Issue 5 for the adaptation of A. E. Van Vogt’s Black Destroyer, the cover exclaims... “A monster stalks this spaceship! A marvel masterwork in the tradition of TV’s Star Trek.”

Indeed, the previous issue was an adaptation of the Fredric Brown classic Arena, which had been adapted into an outstanding episode of the same name for the original run of Star Trek on TV the decade before. Again, many liberties were taken by the writers of Star Trek and this is a completely different story using the same premise of a human and alien forced to duel to the death on an alien planet. I have to say, again, that I preferred the outcome of the Star Trek episode with its clever ‘gunpowder plot’ and the hesitancy to open hostilities but the original, or at least this comic book of it, is worth a read.

Now, there was a column inside, sometimes grouped with the letters page, where the editors would talk to the readers, tell them what they were up to and what to expect and, in the fifth issue, they definitely said Issue 6 would start off an adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids scripted by Gerry Conway (which would also tie in with the idea of pushing stories connected to TV or film adaptations). However, instead of the triffids, the sixth issue brought us an adaptation of Theodore Sturgeon’s Killdozer... proclaiming on the cover, “As seen on TV”. Now this might have been because the TV movie based on this, which I remember loving as a six year old, watching alongside my equally impressed dad, aired that same year and this was another exercise in changing the content to suit current trends and, maybe, extending a deadline if Triffids wasn’t finished yet. I can’t remember the movie Killdozer now, to say if it was very different to the short story as depicted here but, it’s an okay issue and, again, like nothing else Marvel was doing at the time.

And then comes the final two issues adapting The Golden Voyage of Sinbad which, to be fair, it says is “Freely adapted from the screenplay by Brian Clemens.” Now, these two issues have characters that, for the most part, look nothing like the likenesses of their on screen counterparts... John Philips Law’s Sinbad is passable but the drawings of actors like Martin Shaw, Caroline Munro and Tom Baker are all... no, I don’t think they were even trying. However, although the story is quite truncated here and certain scenes are merged into others for brevity, this is actually almost a much more dynamic rendering than perhaps the film was. Marvel were used to doing sword and sorcery epics by now, what with best sellers like Conan The Barbarian (based on Robert E. Howard’s famous character) and it really shows here. The language is decidedly more interesting and flowery in the context of a much more verbose sort of dialogue than found in the movie and the artwork is quite stunning in places (and those covers are awesome).

Okay though... by this point I’m chomping at the bit to read their Triffids adaptation... and I still am but at least I know where it is now. In the letters page of issue eight the person replying to the letters alludes to some boxed out news from one of the editors or writers of the comics but, alas, I’ve scoured the issue repeatedly and can find no sign of it. This was presumably to tell the people who had been writing in and saying really nice things about the comic that this was the last issue and it had been cancelled. And maybe they thought they had a reprieve just before printing it and decided not to run it at the last minute. Either way, the concluding part of The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad was, indeed, the last issue. Which is a shame... however...

Remember those brilliant old black and white magazine format comics that Marvel were so good at? The artwork was astonishing and it showed some of their regular characters rendered in a much more expressive and interesting way... magazines like The Savage Sword Of Conan, Dracula Lives, The Rampaging Hulk and, my favourite, Doc Savage - The Man Of Bronze. Well, around four to five months after Worlds Unknown was cancelled, a new comic magazine started up with the not so distant title, Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction. Now I’ve not read this yet but included in the first two issues is an adaptation of The Day Of The Triffids, scripted by Gerry Conway and various other stories also graced the pages, many of which I believe were touted in the first issue of Worlds Unknown as up and coming adaptations. So the stories did have a second life after all and, although it only lasted for six issues plus one annual this time, maybe it was thought that the audience reading the less expensive, shorter colour comics would be tempted to part with more of their hard earned cash if they gave the stories their due in loving greyscale... kind of a win/win situation for both the customer and the company, is my guess. Or at least, it should have been. Like I said, it ran for an even shorter period than Worlds Unknown did.

So, in conclusion, I would say if you are a fan of science fiction and want to see the way it was tackled head on in the early 1970s by writers and artists who were so obviously loving fans of the material they were working on, then a read through of the issues of Worlds Unknown is definitely something you should consider. As for Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction? Well let’s just say that it’s ‘on the pile’ now and I hope to be reviewing that run on my blog sometime in the new year.

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