When someone writes the history of superhero prose fiction, the late Byron Preiss will undoubtedly be a big part of the narrative.
During his lifetime, Preiss launched a handful of interesting projects. Weird Heroes, in particular, was an eight-volume paperback series from the ’70s that helped bridge the gap between comic books and prose.
Preiss was a tireless champion of “New American Pulp,” and Weird Heroes was a big melting pot of pulp fiction, science fiction, fantasy, sword and sorcery, adventure, comic books, and superhero prose fiction. At the time, the list of contributors was pretty impressive. Philip José Farmer, Jim Steranko, Marv Wolfman, Steve Englehart, Ben Bova, Michael Moorcock, and Ron Goulart were just a handful of creators featured throughout the series.
But Weird Heroes wasn’t his only venture. Preiss also helmed a series of original hybrid novels featuring sequential art and text narrative. Fiction Illustrated only lasted four volumes, but it was an early attempt at long-form graphic storytelling. Without a doubt, it was a harbinger of today’s ubiquitous narraglyphic picto-assemblages (i.e. graphic novels).
The second issue of Fiction Illustrated featured a 104-page adventure written by Preiss with accompanying artwork by Stephen Fabian. It was the story of a 12-man crew aboard the starship Destiny. It’s mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man had gone before.
Yes, that’s right; Starfawn plundered Star Trek in almost every way. But there was a twist. During a routine space exploratory mission, a crewmember named Shalla (not Shalla-Bal) was zapped with some sort of mysterious spectral power. Transformed into a creature of light and sound, Shalla subsequently helped resolve a sticky first-contact situation.
The story was told from the perspective of Daystar Stern (“the Anne Frank of the spaceways,” wrote Preiss). Interestingly, Daystar was in a coma for most of the book, and his log entries were filled with stream-of-conscious ramblings. Preiss stumbles a bit during these oblique passages. But in general, he was an engaging author with a flair for trippy descriptive writing inspired by the new wave of science fiction.
Likewise, the artwork by Fabian was also very good, especially the illustrations of orgasmic Starfawn. Back in 1976, he was a popular fan artist who was just starting to break into the professional ranks. His work harkened back to classic pulp and science fiction illustrators, most notably Sir Virgil Finlay. For added value, Mirthful Marie Severin colored the entire thing in her classic EC/Marvel way.
Sadly, this was the first and last time readers encountered Starfawn and the crew of the U.S.S. Destiny. Graphic novels wouldn’t attain critical mass for another 30 years, and Fiction Illustrated petered out after two more volumes. Despite poor sales and reader indifference, Preiss was clearly on the right track. Looking back, he was a man who saw the future of graphic novels and superhero prose fiction. For his service, we salute him.
[Fiction Illustrated, Vol. 2: Starfawn / By Byron Preiss and Stephen Fabian / First Printing: April 1976 / ISBN: 9780515040777]