Thursday, February 6, 2014

Samuel R. ("Chip") Delany

Original Photo via Flickr user xlibber (CC BY 2.0)
I have a gay nerd confession to make.  Yes, it's a very specific confession. I have never read any of Samuel R. Delany's books.  No Dhalgren, no Nova, and no Einstein Intersection.  Delany, the latest SFWA Grand Master, is easily the most famous gay science fiction author and has been writing for half a century, so I really have no excuses.

 
Photo via Flicker user Houari B. (CC BY SA 2.0)
To attempt to make up for this character flaw of mine, I would like to present a showcase of Delany's brief forays in the comics medium.

Bread & Wine (art by Mia Wolff) 

Delany's first contribution to the world of comics is unfortunately his most infamous.  He authored two issues during the fateful Diana Prince: Wonder Woman era, when WW was stripped of her powers, secret identity, and traditional costume in order to appeal to modern readers.  The first issue (#202) is pretty standard for the time: alternate dimensions, goons, martial arts, etc.  The problems started with Delany's second issue, #203, the "Women's Lib Issue."

Wonder Woman #203
The original plan was to have a six issue arc, during which time Wonder Woman would join the Women's Liberation movement, fight for women's rights, and eventually save an abortion clinic.  Sounds awesome, you say?  Well it might have been, except for this:
Ms. #1
Around the same time that Delany's stories were being published, Ms. Magazine put out their first stand-alone issue, with Wonder Woman herself on the cover.  It turns out that Gloria Steinem was and is a huge Wonder Woman fan and wanted her to become a symbol again of female empowerment.  When Steinem found out about WW's costume change and depowering, she was angry at what she saw as DC Comics downgrading the most famous woman superhero and actively campaigned to have the changes reversed.

What happened next is a little murky, but suffice to say, the Women's Lib arc was canceled, and by the very next issue (#204), Wonder Woman was back to her usual self.  If you want a more nuanced understanding of this interesting time in comics history, check out Ann Matsuuchi's paper "Wonder Woman Wears Pants," available free to the public here.

Delany's next comic book outing was the early graphic novel Empire with artist Howard Chaykin. I have only read a preview of the book, published in Heavy Metal #20, but it does not seem at first blush to be as high-minded as his novels are reputed to be.  There's an outlaw revolutionary trying to overthrow the oppressive, titular Empire and a college student far from his Earthly home, along with a healthy amount of action sequences and chase scenes. As one Goodreads reviewer pointed out, there are definite similarities to other 60's/70's hero's quest works, like Dune and Star Wars.  Possibly worth reading just as a look into the origins of the graphic novel format.

Empire by Samuel R. Delany and Howard Chaykin
In Epic Illustrated #2, Delany worked with Chaykin again on "Seven Moons' Light Casts Complex Shadows," a short story about identity and choice.  It's a good read, and, I would argue, the first of Delany's comic works to demonstrate his brilliance as a science fiction writer.  These are some heady topics, even for an "adult fantasy" magazine.

It's not too hard to find copies of Epic on ebay and there are a few scans of Seven Moons floating around the Interwebs, and it's worth your time to try and find them.
Epic Illustrated #2
After Seven Moons, there is a bit of dead space, likely because Delany wasn't writing much fiction around that time, spending more time doing literary criticism pieces.  He made a triumphant return to comics in 1999 with the autobiographical novella, Bread & Wine.

Bread & Wine
This is a work of staggering beauty. Though it is subtitled "an erotic tale" and certainly has plenty of sex in it, all of Bread & Wine's semen and cocks serve very explicitly to convey the humanity of Delany and his partner Dennis.  They're humans, so they fuck, they get dirty, they're sometimes disingenuous, and they are capable of heart-wrenching pieces of art like this book. Without any offense intended toward Ms. Bechdel, Bread & Wine (recently republished by Fantagraphics books) has supplanted Fun Home as my favorite queer, graphic autobiography.  Go read it at once.

Okay, as far as I know, we have reached the end of Samuel R. Delany's contributions to comic books.  Let me know if I have missed anything, and let's all hope that he returns his voice to the medium again soon.

--Josh

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