Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction


Glass Act

Unknown Worlds
Of Science Fiction

Curtis (Marvel)
6 issues plus one annual
January 1975 - November 1976 1969


Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction was, I’m pretty sure, a failed second attempt to capture a similar market as the earlier Marvel Comic Worlds Unknown (reviewed by me here). This time, however, the stories were allowed to be more maturely themed (for the most part) as they were appearing in Marvel’s magazine arm Curtis. People may remember these various magazines Marvel used to produce, with titles like Savage Sword Of Conan and Doc Savage, as being absolutely superior to their four colour comic counterparts because they were allowed to be more subtle in the writing and they were filled with beautiful black and white artwork on a larger page. They also had a much longer page count... Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction has over 60 pages per issue, for example. It wasn’t until Marvel showed that they could do some great, mature readers colour work in things like their Epic Illustrated comic (obviously inspired by Heavy Metal magazine and definitely worth another look if you dismissed it for that reason) and their Epic label later on, publishing such beautiful works as Blood - A Tale, Stray Toasters and Elektra Assassin, that the black and white magazines started to lose a little traction, methinks.

Roy Thomas introduces the first issue with another enthusiastic but gloomy take on where the world was at in terms of appreciating and marketing science fiction. It’s a similar take on what was said in the opening issue of Worlds Unknown but I think they were hoping the change to a more mature audience would lengthen the life of the comic. Alas, there were actually less issues of this title, albeit with a lot more content. He also talks about famous science fiction writers from past and present and one of the things the comic does is to occasionally have a text interview with either a bastion of science fiction like Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Frank Herbert and others... as well as often having a comic strip adaptation of one of their shorter works housed within the same issue. There’s also the odd article about a specific event or award related to science fiction too. Most of the issues were comic strips, though... either based on works by very famous authors or written by the various Marvel employees like Bruce Jones, who seems to be quite prolific for the magazine.

This is where the comic strip adaptation of The Day Of The Triffids eventually wound up, after it was initially advertised a couple of years before as being an up and coming story for Worlds Unknown (presumably pulled to make way for the slight change in direction of the last two issues, which instead went out with an adaptation of The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad). It was obviously intended to run for two issues as it’s presented as a two parter in the first two issues here, taking up the same page count it would have had in the former title. It’s also not a bad adaptation, actually, although I prefer the look and feel of the Triffid guns in the first BBC TV adaptation of the book rather than the way in which they are presented here.

The first issue also adapts, toward the end, the Bob Shaw story about Slow Glass, an other worldly glass that absorbs the light shone into at and plays a person's life back with a huge delay, so past times and places (depending on which point in history you are in) can be viewed through it. The editor here really ran with this concept because, not only is the original story adapted... it’s also used to bookend every one of the regular six issues in the series. Each issue starts off with a new customer coming into the antiquated store which is the only known supplier of Slow Glass and then observing the stories as they appear in the comic you are reading.

During the first issue’s introduction, Roy Thomas gets himself in a little trouble with future letter writers in that he promises the stories in the magazine would never resort to ‘space opera’ tales... which he, quite rightfully in some respects, sees as just space westerns. He even runs a satirical parody of Flash Gordon in this first issue called Smash Gordon. Most of the tales in Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction don’t fall into the much loved (especially by me) space opera category but it’s kinda interesting that in one of the other stories in here, The Savage World, the likenes of Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe is definitely on the head and shoulders of one of the characters in a tale which, really isn’t that far off from the space opera Mr. Thomas seems to have gotten so tired of. I’d just assumed that this was the artist using film and TV stills as models for the characters because I’d seen a lot of that kind of ‘borrowing’ growing up with the great British sci-fi comic 2000AD and, when I showed the pages to my dad, I remarked that I hadn’t realised the American comic books had done this also. As it turns out, though, while researching this review, I found out that this story was, actually, an unused piece of artwork drawn in 1954 for an issue of the Buster Crabbe comic series, with new dialogue lettered in. It just seems a bit of a curious addition in light of the editors comments but I guess if you have space to fill and the deadline is knocking on your door, you use what’s to hand, maybe.

And it’s not a bad comic actually. It kinda falls into the obvious thing about every single story having a ‘Twilight Zone’ style twist ending and, while that does get tiresome after a while, I can’t think of any better format to replace it if you’re doing an anthology comic. Funnily enough, while there are some nice adaptations... such as Michael Moorcock’s Hugo award winning Behold The Man, the content of which, detailing the story of a time traveller who goes back in time to meet Christ and ends up becoming Christ and getting crucified at the end (something which, you can tell from the letters page, the editorial team were expecting to get a huge backlash from)... it’s usually the original stories by staff writers that are the most interesting.

I think my favourite one has to be Bruce Jones’ Preservation Of The Species from the giant sized issue, released a while after the magazine had folded but with a kind of last hurrah attempt to get better sales while finding a single issue venue for a lot of unused stories which had obviously already been written and artworked for the original magazine in, well, slightly more optimistic times.That being said, this last hurrah of an issue also contained a reprint of the Marvel adaptation of Frederic Brown’s Arena from Worlds Unknown so, maybe not a huge amount of material left unpublished. Preservation Of The Species is pretty much the only one of the many stories over the seven issues where I didn’t see the twist coming until after it happened. The writer successfully managed to distract my attention away from the real story by focusing on the peculiar ‘powers’ manifested in the main female protagonist and directing me away from the real trick of the story. So, yeah, I really enjoyed that one and, to be fair, I liked quite a few of the stories in the series but, as I said, those twist ending style reveals do get a little wearing after a while... especially when they are so obviously telegraphed a lot of the time.

And that’s that... like its predecessor, Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction didn’t have bad sales exactly... but they weren’t that good either. If only they could have held on for another year or two, they might have found their fortunes reversed by riding the magical Star Wars bandwagon but, alas, it was not to be. Still, a nice set to have a read through and, I have to say, I do kinda miss the days when you could pick up the latest black and white Marvel magazine from the shelves of your local newsagent. A good series for fans of science fiction, despite its reliance on story twists. Some lovely artwork in a variety of styles too. Worth a read if you have the time.

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