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Introduction to New Tales of the Arabian Nights

Appeared in New Tales of the Arabian Nights (1979).

Introduction to New Tales of the Arabian Nights

by Harlan Ellison

If I lucked out, and chanced to find this old dusty Moxie bottle way back up there on the last top cobwebby shelf of an abandoned malt shoppe in some exotic locale like, say, Duque de Caxias or Duluth … and I pulled it down from back up there against the wall where it had been hidden from sight for utter decades … and I blew off the shmootz and looked inside … and it looked as if something was going on in that funky old bottle … and I paused for a slice of moment to wonder, marvel, and shyly shudder at the strange, ornate seal in the wax that sealed the bottle … (wax? Where the hell’s the bottle cap? This is a crummy old bottle of Moxie soda, fer chrissakes, not Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1945) … and got out my million-bladed Swiss Army pocketknife with the built-in pineapple corer … and I worked loose the cork … and pried it up between my fat little thumbs, making certain it didn’t pop … and allofasudden there’s this I-don’t-believe-it pillar of thick, nasty smoke pouring out of the Moxie bottle … more smoke than they had at the whole damned Bel Air fire in ’61 … more smoke than any bottle could hold … and there in the dim and smelly dismal back room of that abandoned malt shoppe in Ghana or Gowan us a shape started to take form in the (kaff! kaff!) smoke … and jeeezus it’s a genie … yoiks yipe and Iemme outta here … and that monstrous fuckin’ humungus grandpa of all, the jinn reached down and lifted me up neatly between bejeweled thumb and forefinger … and held me up in front of one- of his two great green baleful eyeballs … and smiled at me, all teeth and gums and bits of unidentifiable stuff clinging to the incisors … and he said, “Okay, little putz, you can have one wish, and the one wish is that you can be in the company of any figure out of literature for one full month, which one do you pick?” … if he said that, and I had to pick someone, I don’t think I’d go for Hemingway’s Nick Adams, or Melville’s Ahab, or Kafka’s Josef K., or even Emma Bovary.

I’d pick (gulp sigh) Sindbad the Sailor.

Oh, yeah!

Because Sindbad, that canny seafarer, he really knew how to five. And I think you will join with me in thanking Rich Corben and Jan Strnad for giving him one more exquisite shot of life in this marvelous illustrated fantasy.

To be perfectly candid, I followed the magazine publication of New Tales of the Arabian Nights in Heavy Metal from June 1978 through August 1979 with appetent joy. I’m not always rapturous about the material Heavy Metal proffers; it has been my observation – no doubt influenced by the fact that I treasure good, solid writing – that the art frequently outshines the plotting. But though I contend, to the dismay of many of my friends who are artists, that too often the visual sensibility in the creator dulls the story-line logic, I have come to know and trust Corben’s sense of in terior consistency. And that, coupled with the talent of Jan Steven Strnad, promised an unusually unified myth-and-illustration interpretation of the Sindbad legend. Even so, despite my high expectations, despite my pleasure at the first few installments, I found myself actually anticipating the monthly snippets of “Sindbad in the Land of the Jinn” as Heavy Metal released them. Then beyond mere anticipation, beyond merely looking forward with a frisson of delight that reminded me of the way I had waited for each weekday’s radio chapter of Captain Midnight back in the forties, beyond all that I found myself lurking around my mailbox, disappointed each day past publication time when the new issue failed to appear.

It gave me pause. It’s been a lot longer than I care to dwell on since I’ve been excited enough about something like a comic book to hunger for more more more. But I had to cop to it, finally: Corben and Strnad were doing something rare and excellent. They were creating Art.

Look upon the writer, friends: cautious and down to his bloodied quicks at having used the dreaded unspeakable of all unspeakable – Art.

But f couldn’t (and can’t) shake off the conviction (though Allah be the wiser!) that this particular chunk of fantasy story and illustration is genuine, card-carrying, certifiable Art. Not High Art – we’re not talking Bosch’s Garden of Delights or Tintoretto’s Conversion of Saint Paul or Wrightson’s Swamp Thing here – but Art. Good, solid, memorable Art that tugs and pulls and chivvies and demands one’s attention.

In short, I am taken with “Sindbad in the Land of the Jinn” as I have not been wooed by this kind of pop art in a very long time. Make no mistake: I am not one of your dying-to-be-hip intellectuals who deify trash on the grounds that anything the mass admires must be valuable. As a righteous elitist, I am swift to dismiss with a yechhh and a poo-poo that which is kitsch, poshlost, and meretricious flummery. (For those whose dictionaries are not handy, I eschew definitions in lieu of examples: Star Wars, Peanuts, all Disney films after Song of the South, “happy faces,” Devo, chewing gum, Richard Brautigan novels, and jogging. All of the foregoing: yechhh and poo-poo.

Thus, when I sing the praises of this “illustrated fable,” be apprised that I view it from the loftiest, as well as the crankiest, of levels from which one views Art.

On grounds of pure craftsman, I need hardly extoll the merits of Rich Corben’s skill with paintbrush and airbrush. There is a liquid quality to his art; an almost transparent, pellucid vibrancy that throws the work with three-dimensional verisimilitude. Consider, say, the long vertical panel in which Sindbad’s friend, old Judar, is wrenched from his camel by a rope noose thrown from the sky by one of Ali Ben-Abda’s army of living corpses. Look at those Oriental pantaloons, at the creases and gathers. One can almost feel the quality of the fabric. Or study the close-up panel of Akissa’s face in the sequence where she and Sindbad’s group sit smoking the hookah. The fragrant water smoke swirls arond her and one gets a real sense of spatial relationship, of depth, without recourse to overlay printing or 3-D double images. This is Corben at his consummate best.

But, no it is not Corben’s coloring or precise anatomy or cinematic framing that compell such adoration. Nor is it even Jan Strnad’s judiciously lean plotting and wisdom in selecting what to emphasize and what to omit, his pacing and bizarre sense of tolerable terror (go on back three panels from Judar’s fatal ascension and consider what sort of deranged mentality could conceive that knife tn the forehead), or his ‘tec writer deviousness in springing unexpected plot twists – case in point: Akissa’s true nature.

All of this, yet none of this, comprises the congeeled smoke of wonder that makes “Sindbad n the Land of the Jinn” the phenomenon I genuinely believe it to be.

The essence of its ineluctable pull on the senses of the reader is that it manages to capture the mystic, mythic quality the Sindbad legend has had on dreamers since Burton translated the tales of Sheherazade.

When I said, at the outset of this little tribute, that I’d select a month in the company of Sindbad rather than any other memorable literary creation, I was responding to the call of the wild-eyed child who still Jives deep inside me. Yes, of course, wouldn’t it be wonderful to roam the forests with Natty Bumppo, wouldn’t it be grand to sail to Treasure Island with Long John Silver, or walk the highlands with Lorna Doone, pole down the Mississippi with Huck and Jim … wouldn’t it be ftne and wild and sweet?! But … !

A month with Stndbad! Ah, God, the marvels I’d see, the danger I’d confront, the action I’d taste, the splendor of Basara and Baghdad I’d drink in!

But I can’t. If he ever really lived, he was probably some poor Middle Eastern fisherman with a gift for self-aggrandizement. No roc, no jinn, no Cyclopean monsters, no adventures beyond those his need for attention conjured up in his fertile imagination. And so I treasure what Corben and Strnad have given me.

They have struck to the burn ing core of the myth of desire that fires the wild child in all of us. They have added to the undying body of honest legends that sustain us in our torpid daily lives. Or as Pushkin put it, “Better the illusions that exalt us than ten thousand truths.”

I have known Richard Corben’s work for many years now. (In fact, Richard will kill me for taking time out to write this introduction when I should be going over his rough sketches for the illustrated version of A Boy and His Dog that we’ve been working on for five years now.) If he has a more admiring devotee, said party has not surfaced. Jan I know for a decade, since he first wrote asking me for permission to reprint one of my short-short stories in his very professional fanzine, Anomaly. I’ve watched him come along steadily; a pleasure.

But never before, as good as each was in his chosen medium, have they reached this lofty pinnacle of excellence. Never before, and perhaps never again will they create something so universal and so rich with the scent of permanence.

They have given us Sindbad, in all his wonder and wildness. And now, with great honor, I give them and what they have created to you. The pleasure is all yours.

Harlan Ellison
Los Angeles
4 April 1979

Copyright © 1979 by Harlan Ellison

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Created: January 11, 2020. Last updated: January 11, 2020 at 20:10 pm

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