Axel-In-Charge: Unmasking the "Totally Awesome Hulk"
I’ve spoken in this space many times about the different paperback series that I loved in the mid-seventies, and how they crossed over with comics. The pulp reprint stuff like Doc Savage and the Avenger, the hardcore “men’s adventure” series like Mack Bolan and everything he inspired, and the barbarian hordes that followed in the wake of Frank Frazetta and Conan.
But there was one paperback series I adored more than any other…
…Weird Heroes. No other series even came close.
The reason Weird Heroes hit me so hard is because it featured a bunch of writers and artists I already knew from my comics and SF reading, but doing new, wildly imaginative projects. Here was Archie Goodwin from Manhunter, Elliott Maggin from Superman and Green Arrow, Steve Englehart from Dr. Strange… but they were doing these amazingly different stories, and clearly relishing the chance to pull out all the stops. For example, I’ve always been a little irritated that Elliott Maggin was rarely given the opportunity to do something as wonderfully deranged as “SPV 166.” It was ostensibly about three female genius ex-cons recruited by the federal government to fight crime in New York from their specially-remodeled subway car, but in execution it became so much more than that…. I’m not sure Maggin’s ever quite equaled that particular gonzo tour-de-force.
And the illustrations from National Lampoon’s Ralph Reese both grounded the story and made it even more hilarious at the same time.
I came late to the party– my first encounter with Weird Heroes was 1977’s Volume Six, featuring work by Ron Goulart, Terry Austin, Arthur Byron Cover, and others.
One of the great joys about Weird Heroes for me as a reader — and, I imagine, for the people who worked on the series as well– was how series editor Byron Preiss would put together writers and artists in interesting new combinations. People that you’d never see working together at DC or Marvel were suddenly collaborating on these wonderfully– well, weird– stories. In particular, the entry that jumped out at me in volume six was “Orion” by Ben Bova, illustrated by P. Craig Russell.
Now, I’d already become a huge fan of Russell after he’d knocked it out of the park on my beloved Dr. Strange in an annual not too many months before.
And Ben Bova I knew as a guy who was writing “hard” SF stories that combined politics, espionage, and adventure with great panache, and all the science and sociology impeccably extrapolated.
So I really couldn’t figure out what a nuts-and-bolts guy like Ben Bova would do that would work with an ethereal style like Craig Russell’s, but I was excited to see what it was. Turned out that it was Orion.
“I am not superhuman,” is Gilbert O’Ryan’s opening line. Then he proceeds to explain that though he is mortal and as susceptible to pain and injury as anyone, he does seem to have abilities no one else on Earth does– because he’s able to use more of his brain, his reflexes and muscle memory operate at superspeed, and he can also see further and in a wider spectrum than normal humans. Things that yogis and martial arts masters take decades to learn, O’Ryan can master in moments.
But O’Ryan is troubled by the fact that he has no memory. He seems to have just appeared in his life, with no recollection of a childhood or any background at all. He meets a man named Ormazd, who tells Gilbert that his name is really Orion the Hunter, the eternal warrior. Orion has been tasked with defeating Ahriman, the dark one. Later Orion is attacked and captured by Ahriman, who apparently plans to blow up the world’s first fully-functional fusion reactor.
At first his amnesia confuses both of them, until Ahriman realizes, “You are moving back through time towards the War. I am moving forward towards the End.” It develops that Orion has come from fifty thousand years in the future, sent to appear at key points throughout human history to thwart Ahriman’s plans. They are destined to duel over and over again, whenever humanity is on the cusp of a great breakthrough. Orion manages to stop Ahriman and save the reactor, thus allowing humanity to achieve the fusion breakthrough that is the next great step forward. He has to sacrifice his life to do it… but he will be reincarnated in another, earlier time, there to face Ahriman yet again.
I loved it. “Orion” was the kind of trippy war-of-wizards fantasy I dug in books like Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror or Marvel’s Dr. Strange, but shored up with the hard-science expertise one would expect from Analog editor Ben Bova. Clearly this was set up to be the first in a series, and I hoped there would be more soon.
There was. Orion returned in “Floodtide,” in Weird Heroes Volume Eight.
“Floodtide” opens literally moments after the first story– Orion awakens in a meadow, still shaking with the memory of what he went through in the fusion reactor. It turns out he’s been hurled all the way back to pre-history, sent to protect a peaceful tribe of nomadic hunters.
Orion has to figure out what Ahriman wants, and somehow stop him. Gradually it develops that this tribe of hunters is tired of living on the road, and want to settle in this peaceful valley they’ve grown to love. Dal the chieftain, whom Orion finds to be a thoughtful man of vision, has hit on the idea that perhaps they could stay in this sheltered valley and store food for the winter, rather than move south to warmer climates… and Orion realizes he has to make sure Ahriman doesn’t screw up humanity’s invention of agriculture.
Ahriman is planning to flood out the valley by using thermal vents to blow up a local volcano, diverting an underground river and melting the underground ice, and Orion has to evacuate the tribe.
He gets them out, but as the tribesmen are climbing the cliffs Orion falls and succumbs to the flood himself. As he drowns, Orion knows that there will be a next time… Ahriman still lives, so Orion the Hunter must also live again…
By this time I was well and truly hooked. But sadly, volume eight was the last in the series. The characters I’d come to love, with all their unresolved cliffhangers and mysteries– Ron Goulart’s Gypsy, Reaves and Hickman’s wonderful Kamus of Kadizhar, and of course Ben Bova’s Orion– they’d all be left as tantalizing starts with no finishes. Sigh.
At least, that’s what I thought at the time.
But I was delighted to be proved wrong, in 1984, which is when Ben Bova’s Orion hit the spinner racks. The early eighties were not a great time for me but I nevertheless managed to scrape together a few bucks for this particular book. I’d been waiting almost eight years to find out what happened with Orion and the Dark One.
It was worth the wait. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone because you really should all read it for yourself, but everything was explained and paid off. Orion’s mysterious origins were revealed at last, along with who Ormazd and Ahriman really were, and the centuries-old conflict was more or less resolved. There was lots of action and great surprises to be had along the way, as well, especially when Orion found that perhaps his mission to fight Ahriman wasn’t as black-and-white, good-guys-vs-bad-guys, as he had been led to believe.
Bova had made some revisions in turning Orion into a full novel. It was also revealed that Orion has not been on his journey alone– in each incarnation he had been joined by another eternal being, Anya, and their tormented love affair was a major through-line of what was now an episodic novel. Overall, it was tremendously satisfying, especially considering it had been an itch I’d been wanting to scratch since 1977. My only disappointment was that Craig Russell wasn’t along for the ride– the visual of Orion on the cover by Boris Vallejo was a bit jarring. But that was a petty complaint.
So then I thought for sure that was it.
Silly me. There were more Orion novels to come.
Vengeance of Orion showed up in 1988, four years later… and for me, seeing it on the stand was the same delightful surprise as unexpectedly running into an old friend. Since Ahriman was disposed of in the last novel, this time Orion is pitted against the Golden One himself. He’s trying to prevent “Ormazd” from screwing with human history– in this case, the Trojan War. In this era the Golden One has taken the identity of the god Apollo and wants the Trojans to win so as to better facilitate the growth of a new Euro-Asian empire. Orion’s had about enough of being manipulated by gods who are using humans as pawns, so it is ON.
It’s a sweeping historical fantasy that ranges from Troy to ancient Egypt, with lots of action and intrigue and plot and counter-plot, and all of it with that thoroughly-researched authenticity that Mr. Bova brings to everything. Best of all, it was clear that Bova intended Orion to be in a series of novels now, and I was all the way in for that. Even with those damn Boris covers instead of something by Craig Russell.
Bova followed that up in 1990 with Orion in the Dying Time, which further explored the background of Anya and her race– “the Creators” — and pitted them against a race of hominid reptiles led by a creature named Set, who are battling humans in the Neolithic Age to see who gets custody of the planet Earth.
By this time a sort of formula had emerged– Ben Bova would take some sort of historical nexus point like the Trojan War or the death of the dinosaurs or the fall of Jericho, run it through his invented mythology of Orion and Anya and the Creators, and recount the story of what really happened and how it played out as part of the ongoing game the Creators are engaged in with humanity. Orion emerges as the champion of individual choice and letting humans make their own fate, at odds with both the creators and their foes. (Ideally he wants to settle down somewhere in the Neolithic Garden of Eden with Anya and forget the whole thing, but he keeps getting dragged back into battle.)
There were two more in the series– Orion and the Conqueror in 1994, which has Orion fighting it out with the Creators along with Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander, and then in 1995 the action moved out into space with Orion Among the Stars.
Both of them are good books but they don’t have the power of the earlier ones. Still, I’m happy to own them and certainly if you read the other ones in the series you don’t want to miss these.
Years passed and Mr. Bova wrote lots of other things and I figured Orion was done. So I was shocked and delighted just a few weeks ago when Amazon offered me this for a pre-order.
Of course I got it. It arrived a few weeks ago and it’s tremendous fun. Orion and King Arthur combines a series of short stories about Orion (originally done for Dragon Magazine) this time featuring the eternal hunter in the time of Camelot and the Round Table, with Beowulf and Grendel thrown in for good measure. And as always, despite the fantasy about gods waging war across space-time itself, Mr. Bova’s historical research is impeccable.
So that’s six books in all, from 1984 till now. Not bad for a character who started as a couple of short stories in a failed anthology series back in 1977.
Honestly, I’m just tickled there’s a new Weird Heroes story to read, after all these years. Maybe there’s still hope that Ron Goulart will come back and finish his Gypsy series.
Been waiting for the third in that trilogy since 1977. God willing, maybe somehow even coax Alex Nino into illustrating it, as long as I’m daydreaming.
But in the meantime, I’m grateful for the Weird Hero sagas that did get finished up, like Kamus of Kadizhar and Greatheart Silver…. and especially for the one that’s still going. I may be getting older, but Orion never does. It’s great to see him again.
See you next week.
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