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excellent writing
exceptional art
historical bonus 3
total score 8
Sunpot Back Cover
Back Cover
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AVERAGE SCORE 7
Sunpot
Only Printing / 1971 / 32 pages / Stellar Productions
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It's very hard to do any review — and utterly impossible to recount the history — of Vaughn Bodé's Sunpot without revealing a giant spoiler to anyone who hasn't read the book. So skip this review if you haven't read Sunpot yet (read it here for free), because here's the spoiler: everyone dies at the end.

For those who have read the book, you may not realize that Vaughn Bodé didn't plan to end the story of Sunpot the way that he did. He killed all of the characters in the final chapter due to problems with censorship and distrust between him and the person who first controlled publication of the story. In other words, a feud between the old guard and the avante-garde snuffed out Sunpot. I provide (way too many) details (and my own opinions) about this history in the Historical Footnotes section below, but I'll summarize it here.
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Bodé had begun serializing Sunpot in 1970 in Galaxy, one of the most popular science-fiction magazines in the country. Galaxy published Sunpot in four-page chapters every month beginning in February, but that was on the orders of Ejler Jakobsson, the new editor-in-chief of the magazine. Jakobsson was hot for Bodé after he won the 1969 Hugo Award (one of the most prestigious science-fiction awards) for fan artist of the year. But the managing editor of the magazine, Judy-Lynn Benjamin, wasn't nearly as hot for Bodé. In fact, she hated Bodé's work and, I suspect, everything about Vaughn Bodé.
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Gallery Magazines
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Judy-Lynn Benjamin, who would soon become Judy-Lynn Del Rey and earn her own imprint as science-fiction editor at Ballantine Books, had been hired in 1965 by the previous editor of the magazine, Frederick Pohl. As editor-in-chief, Pohl had given Bodé his first sci-fi illustration job in 1966 and kept giving him commissions throughout the late '60s, but Benjamin never liked Bodé's work (she thought it was too "cartoony"). When Pohl left Galaxy in 1969, Bodé's commissions stopped coming because of Benjamin, but then Bodé won that Hugo Award and the new editor (Jakobsson), who coveted a younger audience for his magazines, wanted Bodé back on the company roster.

When Jakobsson insisted on running Sunpot in Galaxy, Benjamin wasn't happy and, according to Dan Steffan (Dope Comix, Bizarre Sex) "Sunpot was censored by her and one chapter had its pages printed out of order — supposedly on Judy-Lynn's orders." Bodé became so frustrated by Benjamin's vitriol towards him, as well as the tepid response from Galaxy's readers to Sunpot, he decided to end the story forever by killing off all the characters.

As related on the Official Bodé Archive, Bodé wrote, "Unfortunately, paranoia developed very early between me and conservative Galaxy magazine. Sunpot was just too damn avant-garde for a large portion of readers and the dusty editors. Things, like censorship, got so bad it bent my mind until the only way out of the contract was to kill myself or the feature. Alas, I destroyed my creation in the sixth installment and was promptly fired." Jakobsson and Benjamin (the dusty editors) refused to run Sunpot's final chapter in Galaxy and never provided the magazine's readers with any explanation or reason why the story had been abruptly dropped.

The following year, Bodé agreed to publish the full story of Sunpot in a deluxe comic book with Al Schuster of Stellar Productions in New York. It becomes evident when reading Sunpot that Bodé had big plans for the serial, and Bodé himself said that he thought it "would be a long, long feature with a great future." Alas, his sanity was more important than his cartoon.

So on to the review! I'm going to presume you've either read Sunpot or don't really care about spoilers in this review. (Personally, I've never given a shit about spoilers except in cases of a movie like The Sixth Sense.) In a nutshell, Sunpot is about an hyper-ambitious, artificial super-brain and a self-sufficient space ship staffed with an eccentric crew of androids.

But before Bodé actually begins the story, he provides an informational history of Dr. Electric, the super-brain. Dr. Electric was born during a secret government research project seeking to develop a man-made organic chemical brain. The project's first effort fails and the research scientists flush the leftover mess into the sewer system, where it's disgorged into a Georgia swamp. But the rejected organic mass survives in the swamp and grows stronger, developing into a self-sufficient organism that builds a protective shell around its brain, and then manages to sneak onto an unmanned NASA rocket ship that flies to the moon.

Once on the moon, the thriving brain develops additional powers, builds itself a "reptile-wasp-like body," and gives himself the name of Dr. Electric. Dr. Electric soon hatches a grand, elaborate plan designed to get himself elected as the king of the world. Hiding out in a giant underground cavern on the dark side of the moon, the megalomaniacal Dr. Electric builds a wide range of machines and synthetic assistants that work in a factory that manufactures Sunpot; a large space ship that can sustain and replenish its power source and livable atmosphere.

With Dr. Electric's history established, you'd think the story is ready to begin, but Bodé provides five more pages of data and information, including "Sunpot Facts," "Sunpot Views" and brief descriptions of Dr. Electric's companion Belinda Bump and the seven types of crew members who support Dr. Electric's master plan. The "Facts" and "Views" are somewhat superfluous, but they do provide incidental knowledge that's nice to have. The descriptions of the seven types of crew members is especially pertinent to the story and worth the time to absorb.
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There's also a 20x24-inch poster included with the book, which provides a detailed schematic diagram of the Sunpot space ship. The poster is printed with a field of blue ink on white paper, with the rendering and descriptions reversed out of the blue (see link on the right). The schematic took considerable effort and planning for Bodé to draw, is interesting to read and certainly an impressive bonus to go with the book, though I personally would have preferred a nice poster of the cast, or perhaps just Belinda Bump wielding her weapon(s).
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  Sunpot Schematic Map
Sunpot Schematic
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All of this introductory and bonus material is indicative that Bodé believed he was building an expansive universe of settings and characters that would undergo many adventures for an extended period of time...not just a hand full of chapters.

Finally, we're ready for the space adventure to begin, with Sunpot and her crew hovering sixty miles above the moon as final preparations are made for long-distance space flight. The story is presented in six four-page chapters, the first of which depicts an unexpected encounter with a manned Apollo space ship bound for the moon. After a failed attempt to shoot down the Apollo, Dr. Electric decides to fly Sunpot over to the planet Venus, where he and his crew can continue preparations in peace.

Subsequent chapters deal with a crew member who goes crazy, a wayward space pod, and a rebellion by workers in the power factory of Sunpot, which causes the ship to run aground on Venus. The ship is repaired and takes flight again, but Dr. Electric ignores advice from his director of environmental control, who says the air system on Sunpot is faulty and now all the air on the ship is badly polluted. In response to the director's plea to go back to Earth to clean up the air system, Dr. Electric has him killed.

Dr. Electric is quite the arrogant, self-centered ass, which proves unfortunate not only for him, but the entire domain he had built for himself. The last chapter solemnly depicts the aftermath of everyone on the ship having died, which is a bit depressing because we've come to know the characters well enough to care for them. It only gets more depressing when we understand that Bodé never intended for the story to end this way.

Regardless of its truncated conclusion, Bodé crafts a satisfying story with Sunpot, constructing a fantastical world with a full cast of characters that could have sustained a much longer narrative if he could've escaped his contract with Galaxy in some other way. Tragic ending or not, Sunpot is still an entertaining yarn with a quick pace, once you get past the considerable introductory material.
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keyline
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HISTORICAL FOOTNOTES:
It is currently unknown how many copies of this comic book were printed. It has not been reprinted. $2.00 was a very expensive cover price for any comic book in 1971, but Stellar Productions apparently justified it due to the cardstock covers, white paper stock interior, and the bonus poster of the schematic diagram for Sunpot.
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Sunpot
was later serialized in the first four issues of Heavy Metal in 1977, after Bodé's death. Bodé had already colored some of the Sunpot pages in 1972 for his Cartoon Concert debut at the Detroit Triple Fan Fair, but those pages were not used for the Heavy Metal version. That version was colorized by Bruce Patterson, who I think did a pretty good job. But some Bodé fans thought Patterson had "brutally mutilated" the story with his color choices.
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Patterson defended himself in a letter that appeared in Heavy Metal #12, stating he "came closer to the coloring [Bodé] used than anyone else so far.... Most of the the color choices were actually taken from Bodé's "Bodé Erotica" in Cavalier, of which I have quite a collection." Personally, I think any complaints about the coloring were understandable, but still essentially pointless whining. The sample linked to the right shows examples of colorization from both Bodé and Patterson. I didn't think Patterson had seen Bodé's coloring of Sunspot pages before conducting his own colorization, but if you study the Falsie's costume color changes, maybe he did.
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Bodé v. Patterson
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COMIC CREATOR:
Vaughn Bodé - 1-32
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keyline
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The following history is partially based on Michael Ashley's authoritative book, Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines, 1970-1980 (part 3 of an amazing 4-part series), the Official Bodé Archive, and Dan Steffan's account. I also researched several other first-hand accounts and resources. I have extrapolated some facts to arrive at certain opinions, which are clearly marked as my own.
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Galaxy was one of the most popular science-fiction magazines of the 20th century, competing with—and sometimes beating—Analog (formerly Astounding Stories) for nearly three decades. The magazine was owned by Robert Guinn, a penny-pinching former printer who also owned Galaxy's sister publication If (another major sci-fi magazine). Through most of the '60s Galaxy and If were edited by the legendary Frederik Pohl, with legendary sci-fi author Lester Del Rey (Judy-Lynn Benjamin's future husband) serving as managing editor.
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Pohl had hired Judy-Lynn Benjamin as an assistant editor back in 1965. Benjamin had come straight out of college as an English major who specialized in the works of James Joyce. Though Benjamin knew nothing about science fiction when she was hired, Pohl figured he wouldn't let her make any buying decisions and he could teach her the rest. The seemingly more daunting challenge was that Benjamin was an achondroplastic dwarf, meaning that her torso was normal size but her arms and legs were about half the typical length. She stood under four feet tall and Pohl was concerned about her working in a "normal" office environment.
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It turns out that Pohl needn't have worried about Benjamin's dwarfism. She was a powerful personality and very confident in her abilities. Some years later, Pohl would recall that Benjamin "Turned out to be one of the best assistants I ever had.... Although she had never knowingly read a science fiction story before she came to work at Galaxy, within two months she was able to predict, from reading the proofs, which stories the readers would like best."
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Vaughn Bodé's rise to fame is well chronicled elsewhere, so I'll forgo his early history for this chapter of his life. He began contributing comic stories and illustrations to both Galaxy and If in 1966 and '67. The following year Bodé was even more prolific, creating art and comic stories for a broad range of magazines (including Galaxy and If), fanzines, and the East Village Other. Frederik Pohl liked Bodé's work and used it quite often.
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Judy-Lynn Benjamin, on the other hand, would have preferred to jettison Bodé from the pages of "her" magazines. As Dan Steffan stated, "The illustration assignments he did for those mags a few years earlier were killed by [Benjamin], who did all she could to badmouth him — because she didn't like his cartoony style. He still had at least four unpublished covers at the time, which she told him would never see the light of day. It was personal and he took it that way."
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Benjamin and Bodé didn't get along at all and I believe they probably disgusted each other. I can just imagine them in a room together; the pretty-boy Bodé with his cartoons of sexy, buxom broads (who appeared rather dwarfish as well) and the conventionally unattractive dwarf Benjamin with her brilliant Joycean brain and cookie-cutter view of science fiction. Her fans might argue my contention of her being narrow-minded, but she proved it a few years later at Del Rey books, where she employed the concept of "criteria novels" that forced authors to write a certain way and within established areas of content. It was nothing less than a doctrine of programmatic writing that squeezed out original ideas and creativity.
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Anyway, in the spring of 1969, Robert Guinn suddenly sold all of his magazines (there were four titles) to Universal Publishing and Distribution Corporation (UPD), with the sale becoming effective in July of that year. This came out of the blue to everyone on the magazines' staff and Pohl and Lester Del Rey both decided to leave their jobs. Pohl was replaced by UPD veteran editor Ejler Jacobsson and the 26-year-old Benjamin was promoted to managing editor. With the transition of ownership and Benjamin's greater editorial power, Bodé's commissions from Galaxy and If dried up entirely.
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But Bodé wasn't immediately aware of the change in leadership at Galaxy and If. He thought Frederik Pohl was still at the helm. In the summer of '69, Bodé, Jeff Jones and Larry Todd had a large exhibit of original art on display at the World Science Fiction Convention in St. Louis. Bodé hoped that Pohl would see it and rehire him for illustration work. At that same convention, Bodé won the Hugo award for best fan artist, which caught Eljer Jacobsson's attention.
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Around the same time, Bodé's friend Ted White, then editor of the sci-fi mag Amazing Stories, asked Bodé to draw a comic strip for his mag because he wanted to start running underground-style comics. So Bodé began developing Sunpot for Amazing Stories. But when Jakobsson heard about the deal with White, he offered Bodé more money to publish Sunpot in Galaxy. Bodé, who had just learned that Jakobsson had become the new editor, accepted the offer and (with Ted's consent) switched the Sunpot story to Galaxy.
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None of this made Judy-Lynn Benjamin happy. Jakobsson was forcing her to publish Vaughn Bodé, who she thought would never work for Galaxy again. The first chapter of "Sunpot" appeared in the February 1970 issue, but Benjamin tried to censor some of the content and may have ordered that the pages be printed out of order. It wasn't long before Bodé came to regret agreeing to switch "Sunpot" to Galaxy. It got so bad that, as described in the review above, Bodé chose to kill off all the characters rather than continue working with Benjamin. The frustration of working with her made him vow never to work for science-fiction magazines again, which he didn't.
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Ironically, shortly after the debacle of Bodé's Sunpot, Galaxy conducted a fan poll that asked a range of questions, including how Galaxy readers felt about swear words and sex in their stories. Nearly 80% of readers were perfectly okay with cussing and 91% voted for sex in a story if it was important to the story. A little late for Bodé's Sunpot, but I'm sure it came as a surprise to Judy-Lynn Benjamin.
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The interwebs have plenty of information about Judy-Lynn Benjamin after she became Judy-Lynn Del Rey and the queen of science-fiction novels at Ballantine books. There is an insightful 1975 interview by Dave Truesdale with Del Rey and her husband Lester. You can also discover other authors who had problems with Del Rey (and her husband), including Piers Anthony, who left Del Rey Books and moved to Avon Books because of Lester's editing arrogance.