Friday, June 29, 2018

RIP Harlan Ellison

"Through all the legends of ancient peoples — Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Semitic — runs the saga of the Eternal Man, the one who never dies, called by various names in various times, but historically known as Gilgamesh, the man who has never tasted death... the hero who strides through the centuries..." - Demon with a Glass Hand, written for the Outer Limits by Harlan Ellison

The phrase goes, "the golden age of science fiction is 12." When I was 12, I wasn't reading science fiction. The one science fiction author who I came to enjoy - Ray Bradbury - I wouldn't discover for another couple of years. It took even longer for me to try fiction by giants of the field such as Isaac Asimov & Robert A. Heinlein. But although I didn't sample his prose until later on in my life, I was familiar with the work of Harlan Ellison - who, of course, famously derided the term 'science fiction author' because of the unspoken assumptions behind those words.

I learned of Harlan Ellison primarily through the Incredible Hulk story "The Brute That Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom," (by Roy Thomas & Sal Buscema) which was first published in 1971 but which I came to know through a paperback reprint I discovered in a used bookstore. The story concerns the Hulk being sent to a microscopic alien world where he falls in love with an alien princess named Jarella, but by story's end is sent back to Earth with no means of returning. Essentially, Ellison wrote the Hulk into a John Carter novel. Still, it's well-told and the pathos of the Hulk's plight was well-realized. The story stood out by the standards of 1971, though I suppose a contemporary reader would probably find it primitive.

I came to appreciate Ellison's work through his Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever," which I enjoyed immensely and when IDW eventually published an adaptation of his original script, I found much in his version which I liked even more. Basically, there are two great versions of that story - the one which was filmed, and the one which became a comic book. I like 'em both.

Although I had seen some of Ellison in places like his appearances on the Sci Fi Channel's Anti-Gravity Room or the documentary The Masters of Comic Book Art, time on the internet made me aware of his very thorny reputation as people online either recounted scathing accounts of how Ellison had treated them terribly, or glowing accounts of how fiercely Ellison had stood up for them. From what I've seen of him, he had a unique kind of personal integrity and a definite limit to what he would endure from others. He was probably not someone I would have enjoyed being around, but many of the online stories involve him standing up to a bigger bully, which I certainly don't object to. And despite his reputation as a curmudgeon, his recollections of Ray Bradbury in Shadow Show are immensely warm and tender-hearted.

I didn't become someone who'd consider himself a Harlan Ellison fan until I finally saw the original Outer Limits and his two episodes "Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand," two absolutely phenomenal stories which tower above the typical standards of Outer Limits (which was a quality program for its time). Despite the rough special effects - and, in the latter episode, makeup choices - there is so much humanity in these tales and that I responded to. I finally read his short story collection I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, but aside from a handful of other short stories, that's about all I've read of his prose. I intend to read more eventually, but I'm for all that I enjoyed of his work, he wasn't a high priority to me.

As someone who first discovered him through comic books, I was fascinated to learn just how much work he had done in the comics medium, from the Marshall Rogers adaptation of Demon with a Glass Hand, to an odd Twilight Zone comic, to the Epic Illustrated adaptations by Ken Steacy which became Night and the Enemy to a couple issues of Daredevil with David Mazzucchelli, his footprint in comics may be shallow but it's also mighty wide. The comics of his which I have yet to read are probably where I'll continue discovering his work; after all, that's where it all began.

Rest in peace Mr. Ellison.

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