I have a dim childhood memory of sitting in the dining room of my grandparents' apartment watching a television documentary or feature on Orson Welles's infamous 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds. I was certainly no more than five or six, but probably younger. What impressed me most of all was Welles's penetrating, even archetypal, voice. I was struck by the instant realization that he was a genius, and, best of all, a mischievous genius. Many of my childhood heroesBugs Bunny, Pipi Longstocking (or, as I knew her, Fifi Brindacier)had a mischievous, even rebellious, streak. Welles towered intimidatingly over my other heroes, however: he was real, he was someone whose accomplishments could be emulated. He has forever stayed a mythic figure for me.
Years later, on a mid-October weekend afternoon in 1985, listening to the university radio station in Québec City, I heard that Welles had died a few days before. My relationship with the woman with whom I was sharing the apartment where I heard this cataclysmic news was self-destructing with excruciatingly slowness and taking me along with it. And now the man my subconscious had somehow refashioned into some sort of god walking the Earth had died, in a shockingly mundane moment, of a heart attack. Even without invading Martians, all was not well with the world.
In Welles's honour, the station broadcast, among several other items to commemorate the great man, the Mercury Theatre performance of The War of the Worlds in its entirety, and that's when I finally heard it for the first time. God was dead and love was torturing me, but, although I could not know this at the time, the man who put together this Welles retrospective would later become a close friend. So the future was not as bleak as it appeared.
Cut to sixteen years later (fastforwarding through numerous dwellings and relationships): I receive for review Sourcebooks MediaFusion's ambitiously titled The Complete War of the Worlds: Mars' Invasion of Earth from H.G. Wells to Orson Welles. On the surface this book, which is edited by Brian Holmsten and Alex Lubertozzi, has a lot going for it. It's a handsome and generously illustrated oversize hardcover book that contains not only the complete radio play by Howard Koch of the 1938 Mercury Theatre dramatization of The War of the Worlds but also the complete text of H.G. Wells's classic scientific romance, with dozens of archival illustrations by Warwick Goble from its 1897 debut in Pearson's Magazine and frontispieces by Alvin Correco from a 1906 edition (or at least that's where the editors claim these illustrations come fromthis is probably accurate, but it will become clear below why I must be careful about any information gleaned from this source).
In addition, the book includes bookend pieces by Ray Bradbury and Ben Bova and brief historical chapters penned by the two editors: on the broadcast, on Welles, on H.G. Wells, and on the antecedents and descendants of Wells's novel. There's also an accompanying CD that includes the full Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast of 30 October 1938, and excerpts from several related recordings: Welles's press conference the following morning; a meeting between Wells and Welles that originally aired on KTSA Radio, San Antonio, Texas, on 29 October 1940; a 1968 version of the radio play staged by WKBW in Buffalo; and an undated interview from Welles's latter years. All in all, an enticing package. However, the lack of proper referencing for the Welles interview is symptomatic of the inexcusably lackadaisical research that afflicts the book as a whole, ruining what could easily have been the definitive presentation of the exciting journey of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds from its late nineteenth-century origins to the dawn of the twenty-first.
The first sign that I should be wary of this text surfaced early on: in the editors' introduction, where it was claimed that "pulp comics serialized" The War of the Worlds. Pulp comics? What did they mean by that, I wondered? To my horror, I found out on page 61, where I learned of the "1927 ... Amazing Stories comic book serials" of The War of the Worlds. This startling bit of information is emphasized and expanded upon on page 71, where Holmsten and Lubertozzi discuss the appearance of The War of the Worlds "in comic books like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories." Where did they come up with this stuff?
Now, just to set the record straight: Amazing Stories and Weird Tales were never comic books (comic books hadn't fully come into being yet in 1927, anyway), nor did either of them ever feature comics adaptations of The War of the Worlds, nor, finally, did Weird Tales ever run Wells's classic novel in any form. Amazing Stories, however, did serialize it (in prose!) in 1927.
Another completely unsubstantiated and, to the best of my knowledge, entirely erroneous assertion is that, prior to the 1938 broadcast, The War of the Worlds was "one of [Wells's] lesser-known novels" (page 21) and that "most of [its] readers ... were probably young boys." I turned to noted anthologist and genre-fiction historian Mike Ashley to shed some light on this issue; he assures us that The War of the Worlds "was a tremendous hit at the time in both the UK and US and received that most acceptable of plaudits in immediate imitation/sequels, like Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars. It was this novel more than anything previously that made Wells's name." Thank you, Mike Ashley.
Lack of substantiation and referencing is endemic in this book. Beyond the above examples, there are also many uncredited quotations and illustrations throughout. In addition, the book lacks an index. This makes the venture feel both slipshod and amateurish.
I also have a serious quibble with the use of the word "complete" in the title. True, the editors qualify it with the subtitle, which brackets a period from 1897 to 1938; nevertheless, the book still fails to fulfill the promise of its title. It does not, for example, track the various editions of the book that appeared in those four decades. In any case, the chapter "Martians, Moon Men, and Other Close Encounters" discusses related cultural phenomena that range beyond those dates, from 1835 to 1999, to be exact. However, one gets a sense that the editors simply relate what they already know, not that they made any research either to situate The War of the Worlds in its cultural context or to document the many cultural artefacts that it spawned or influenced. For example, despite the continued (erroneous) insistence by the editors that The War of the Worlds was turned into a comics serial in 1927, they ignore the real comics that were inspired by the Wells novel, such as the Classics Illustrated adaptation or Marvel Comics' Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds.
Misleading, also, is the cover, which prominently features a still from George Pal's 1953 film adaptation, which is only very briefly mentioned inside and which falls outside the book's ostensible (but not rigorously followed) parameters. Further, the editors have the inappropriately chummy habit of referring to Wells and Welles as "H.G." and "Orson"a presumptuous irritant throughout the text.
I will admit that it is convenient to have the novel, the broadcast, and the radio play assembled in one package. Beyond that, there is very little to recommend this irresponsibly edited "reference" book.