Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book Review: Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze

This particular edition of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze is somewhat interesting. The book is a DC Comics trade paperback reprint of a Marvel Comics series. The strange world of trademarking and licensing brought this about, as DC now has the rights to the Doc Savage character again and was using him in their "First Wave" event, which was a re-imaging of Doc, the Avenger, the Spirit, Batman, Black Canary, Rima the Jungle Girl and the Blackhawks in the same universe. It wasn't too bad, and the nearly two-year long Doc Savage comic book that it spawned was enjoyable. Unfortunately, that stuff has all taken a back seat to the "New 52" hullaballoo.

Doc Savage was one of the first "super-heroes", appearing in pulp magazines like such early crime fighters as the Shadow, the Avenger, G-8 and his Battle Aces and even Tarzan. For those who've never read the pulps, or watched the 1976 movie, Doc was trained since birth to be a literal superhuman physically and mentally, to fight evil all over the world. His "Fabulous Five" were a group of his friends who were also the tops in their fields (law, chemistry, engineering, electricity and geology/archeaology). Doc has virtually unlimited wealth and a near-unlimited supply of technological gadgets and vehicles at his disposal.

This trade paperback reprints the eight-issue Doc Savage comic book that Marvel published in the mid-seventies, as a promotional tie-in to the George Pal movie of the same name. Unfortunately, the campish quality of that film sent ticket holders home in droves, and Doc was relegated back to the pulps and hasn't been seen on a screen anywhere since.

The eight-issues represent four two-issue adaptations of Doc Savage pulp magazine stories, beginning with the first, The Man of Bronze. The scripts were handled fairly ably by long-time comic writer Steve Englehart, and most of the art was provided by the team of Ross Andru and Tom Palmer. Andru was a good choice for the book, considering the many years he worked on adventure titles and war comics like Suicide Squad and The War that Time Forgot over at DC and handled Spider-Man in his own book and the pages of Marvel Team-Up. The final issue in the book was penciled by relative newcomer Rich Buckler. John Buscema, the omnipresent Gil Kane and Jim Steranko also supply some covers. The only bad thing about the art is that Jack Abel handled some of the inking when Tom Palmer's brush wasn't available. Hopefully his near-Vinnie Colletta lack of quality won't turn you off from the book too much.

The other three stories adapted were Death in Silver, The Monsters and Brand of the Werewolf, which was the story that introduced Doc's beautiful cousin Pat. As stated before, they were fairly good adaptations. I think one of the problems of the series, besides the lack of a decent film to draw fans from, was the way Doc himself was depicted. He always wore a skimpy blue vest, white jodhpurs and books. In the books, he was famous for wearing his vest full of gadgetry, but it just doesn't come over with the flimsy thing shown here. The first two issues were reprinted in Giant-Size Doc Savage #1 a year later and Doc's vest was redrawn to appear more like what was envisioned by most from the pulps. It's a shame that the artwork from that book wasn't substituted for the original issues here.

DC also published a Showcase Presents Doc Savage collection in which the eight issues of the black-and-white magazine were reprinted. Those are some great original stories with Doc and his team, and I hope to nab a copy soon for review.

In the meantime, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze is a good primer for the pulp adventures of Doc Savage. If you like it, try picking up one of the many pulp reprints that have been slowly been reissued over the past few years, and enter a world of adventure that predates comic books and most popular heroes.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Forgotten Comics: Tod Holton, Super Green Beret

A Green Beret comes home on furlough from the combat in Vietnam, bringing his young nephew his beret, which had been enchanted with jungle magic by a jungle wizard summoned by a monk that the soldier saved from a rampaging wild boat. Upon saluting, the young boy was transformed into an adult Green Beret soldier, and the spirit of the wizard told him to his new magical power wisely against evil oppressors in all warfare.

Yeah, I know. Sounds dreadful, doesn't it? And the old wizard, boy, and adult hero shtick? It's been done before, and better. But the late sixties saw all sorts of this kind of oddness. And Tod Holton, Super Green Beret was one of the oddest.

The comic was published by Lightning Comics in 1967. If you haven't heard of Lightning Comics before, don't feel bad. They put out a grand total of five comic books. That's only a few less than M. F. Enterprises aspired to create. Besides two issues of this title, they also published three issues of Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer, which was created by the master of the boy-into-adult-via-wizard genre, C. C. Beck, the creator of the original Captain Marvel (a.k.a. Shazam!). You might've heard that about that one, if just the absurd title.

The person who handled the scripts for both titles was Otto Binder. Otto Binder was a popular and pioneering science-fiction writer who also dabbled in comic books. He wrote stories for a multitude of features over the years: Captain Marvel, Tommy Tomorrow, Congo Bill, the Superman titles, Mr. Scarlet, Bulletman, Captain America, and Zip Comics to name a few.

Tod Holton, Super Green Beret was an adequate comic, but hardly up to the thematic standards of even the late sixties. As Super Green Beret, he could instantly "teletransport" to any site of conflict or warfare, and had magical abilities that seem to rival the Spectre, if the Ghostly Guardian had been limited by the imagination of a child. Just touching the beret allowed the kid to monitor radio broadcasts from anywhere in the world, so he could pop over to Vietnam for a quick tussle as needed. In one instance, he heard radio broadcasts from Nazi Germany and his beret took him back in time to World War Two to save some commandos from the forces of the Hun. The next issue had him going either further back in time to the American Revolution, where Super Green Beret proudly trounced some Redcoats while proclaiming "I'm from the Pepsi Generation!"

Super Green Beret did have one weakness. If you took off his beret, he lost his powers and reverted back to young Tod Holton. Not a fun thing to have happen in the middle of a South American revolution or in the rice paddies of Cambodia. That's a weakness that makes the Green Lanterns' original weakness of wood and the color yellow actually sound not so bad. Much like colorists often had problems keeping yellow things out of the way of GL's ring, the writer also forgot about that little tidbit at least once (as he was hatless for most of this adventure in the 1770s').

Both issues also had a couple of "True Combat Action" and "Vietnam Vignette" pages, in which real-life stories from various theaters of war were related. The second issue featured a group known as The Fabulous Flying Musketeers, which was an attempt to meld Alexander Dumas and Blackhawk together. Another feature told the story of the "Arizona Balloon Buster" a real-life tale that was similar to DC Comics' Steve Savage, Balloon Buster feature.

The pivotal first appearance of Super Green Beret.

The stories were okay if you consider plot development, but they were really late forties' stories and not late sixties. At least the book wasn't as racist as it could have been. Asians are drawn fairly realistically for the most part, as are other non-white characters. I was glad that the forties' caricatures of the "enemy" weren't carried over to a new era.

I think the problems with Super Green Beret were consistency and timeliness. There wasn't a lot of that. Super Green Beret can teleport anywhere on the planet, travel through time, can make things out of thin air, turn things to stone and lord knows what else. He was the Spectre, Doctor Strange and Burp the Twerp all in one. But he's gotten himself tied up and nearly blown up by explosives, and got derailed because someone took his hat.

The character was both timely and untimely in a way. Vietnam was beginning to occupy a bigger place in most American minds back then, but I think sensibilities had changed; this new enemy was more of a faceless concept to us, rather than a definite person like Hitler was in World War II. So Super Green Beret was right there on the spot, but no one really wanted him there, a special reminder to kids all over the nation that a war was going on. Especially since the character could have stopped the entire thing as quickly as Doctor Manhattan.

Tod Holton, Super Green Beret isn't as bad a comic book as you would think. It was just trying to appeal to a market that wasn't there.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book Review: Showcase Presents Metamorpho

Like a lot of folks, the first volume I purchased in DC Comics' trade paperback reprint series Showcase Presents was the first Superman book, since I saw it at the bookstore (back when we had one in this county) for only $9.99.  That was a pretty good book, so I went looking on for others, and the next one I snagged featured nearly all the sixties' appearances of one of my favorite super-heroes: Metamorpho the Element Man.

Metamorpho was part of a metaphorical second wave of creative endeavors that flourished in the Silver Age of comics over at DC Comics. The first wave had such luminaries as the Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman, and the Challengers of the Unknown joining the DC universe. I've always thought Metamorpho heralded second wave of heroes, along with the likes of the Metal Men and the Doom Patrol.

For those unfamiliar with the character, Rex Mason was a soldier-of-fortune who delighted in taking the money of entrepreneur Simon Stagg and then showing him up, all the while romancing Stagg's beautiful daughter Sapphire. Stagg and his musclebound henchman Java (a formerly petrified caveman) got their revenge by trapping Mason in an Egyptian pyramid. Inside, Rex was exposed to the radiation of a strange meteor, which changed him into the freakish-looking Element Man. Because of his love for Sapphire, he could wreak vengeance on Stagg, but continued to work for him while the man supposedly tried to find a cure for Rex's condition.

The series was created by Bob Haney and Ramona Fradon and Metamorpho's first two adventures were really the only stories to interrupt the long-run of team-ups in the pages of The Brave and the Bold (the team-up format ran from issues #50 to #200). This book reprints those two stories, along with his next two appearances in the title, with the Metal Men and Batman. The rest of the book is devoted to Metamorpho's seventeen-issue comic book, along with his pivotal appearance in Justice League of America #42, in which he became the first hero to turn down membership in that elite organization.

The artwork is primarily done by Ramona Fradon, a rare and talented female comic creator of the era. She had a very comical, almost cartoony style that fit in well with the camp-edged environment of sixties' comic books. Joe Orlando and Sal Trapani also take turns at the artistic helm, as does comic legend Mike Sekowsky in the team-up with Batman and the JLA story.

The stories are typical sixties' DC fare. You can really feel for Rex's predicament in the early stories, but can see him gradually get accustomed to his new abilities. The tales have just the right amount of angst-to-action. The last few tales have Rex being joined by Element Girl, his female counterpart. Element Girl went on to a much more glorious fate at the hands of Neil Gaiman's Death in the pages of the award-winning Sandman in the late eighties.

Metamorpho hasn't yet appeared in the "New 52" continuity of modern DC Comics, at least to my knowledge. Hopefully they won't completely revamp Rex Mason beyond the point of recognition when he does make that first fateful appearance.  Showcase Presents Metamorpho is a good reprint volume and a fun read for any comic fan of the Silver Age who enjoys good, reliable story telling with just a hint of comedy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: Essential Man-Thing Volumes 1 & 2

Well, just so I can let a friend of mine snicker a bit over a comic book title, I've decided to review Marvel Comics' Essential Man-Thing Volumes 1 and 2. No, that's not the snickery bit. You'll know it when you see it.

The Man-Thing was Marvel Comics' answer to DC Comics' Swamp Thing, the story and comic book that had won major accolades for creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson.  And almost exactly like Alec Holland, Ted Sallis was working on a special formula that both saved his life in a lab explosion and transformed him into the Man-Thing. Unlike the bio-restorative chemical that Holland was working on, Sallis was trying to recreate the Super-Soldier serum that empowered the Living Legend of World War II, Captain America.

The two swamp beasts have taken decidedly different turns. Swamp Thing is now an Earth Elemental, after a decidedly Gothic rebirth at the hands of Alan Moore. The Man-Thing morphed into the guardian of the Nexus of All Realities, which happened to be located in the Florida Everglades. 

The first volume of Essential Man-Thing chronologically reprints Marvel's muck monster's beginnings, starting with his very first appearance in the original black-and-white magazine Savage Tales. There are a couple of issues of Astonishing Tales with Ka-Zar, followed by the Man-Thing's short run in Adventures into Fear. The final few issues of that series, scripted by Steve Gerber, also feature the first appearance of Howard the Duck. The first Man-Thing series fills out the book, along with the first two issues (get ready to snicker) Giant-Size Man-Thing (commence snickering; end of snickers, please; it ain't that funny).

This first volume features some excellent artwork, by the likes of John Buscema, Gray Morrow, Howard Chaykin, Val Mayerik and Mike Ploog, who is perhaps best remembered for handling the character. Besides Howard, Dakimh the Enchanter, Jennifer Kale, Wundarr (later known as the Aquarian), Richard Rory and the Foolkiller are among the long-running Marvel supporting characters that got their start in the Man-Thing's adventures. Gerry Conway, Steve Gerber, and Tony Isabella handle the script on these neo-Gothic tales.

The second volume of Essential Man-Thing reprints the final eight issues of the first series,the last three issues of the Giant-Size book, the entire eleven-issues of the second Man-Thing series by Michael Fleischer and Chris Claremont, along with some pivotal appearances in Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-in-One, and Rampaging Hulk.

The reprints again feature some great artwork, with Jim Mooney and Don Perlin doing much of the second series, and John Byrne providing the pencils on the two team-ups. Marvel Team-Up #68 was also the first appearance of the demon D'Spayre, while Marvel Two-in-One #43 was the lead-in to the popular Project Pegasus storyline in that series.

Once again, the stories have the Gothic feel while still being able to be recognized as Marvel Comics' tales. The Man-Thing is a completely silent character - he doesn't even have a proper mouth - but somehow he manages to convey a pathos that was equaled only by the early adventures of the Hulk and the Frankenstein Monster.

The first two volumes did a good job of collecting all the Man-Thing's appearances, but several issues were glossed over, but since this isn't The Complete Man-Thing, I guess we have to make allowances. The stories we do get are excellent. This is one of the more accessible of Marvel Comics' horror comics, especially with it's many connections to the on-going continuity. Both volumes of the Essential Man-Thing would be excellent additions to a comic aficionado's library.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Review: Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age Marvel Comics Volume 1

We're going to go quite a ways back in time today, to the Golden Age of Comics and the very beginnings of the company that would become known as Marvel Comics. No, we're not going to assassinate Stan Lee. At least not today. We're going to look at the very first Marvel Comics' series, which oddly enough was called Marvel Comics, which has been reprinted in Marvel's Marvel Masterworks hardcover series.

The first volume of the Marvel Masterworks Golden Age Marvel Comics series features the pivotal Marvel Comics #1 and Marvel Mystery Comics #2-4. This collection marks the first time all four of those somewhat pivotal issues have been reprinted. Marvel Comics #1 marked the first appearance of the original Human Torch, the second appearance of the Sub-Mariner (who's first appearance was in a mostly uncirculated movie promo comic), as well as Marvel's first caped hero, the original Angel.

If you are not a fan of Golden Age comics, the artwork will probably a big shock to you, as it is very primitive. Until Joe Simon and Jack Kirby came along the next year with Captain America, Marvel Comics, which was then known as Timely Publications, was not the bastion of quality comics as it would later be known as in the sixties. Carl Burgos and Paul Gustavson were adequate artists for the times, but didn't have a real style to their story telling. Bill Everett, the creator of the Sub-Mariner, did have a distinct style but the reproduction back then (and in this volume) made it hard for it to stand out.

That's the big problem with this volume: The same care and diligence that DC Comics used on their high-end reprint line, the DC Archives, is not apparent here. The art in every issue reprinted is blotchy and hard to see; there doesn't seem to have been a uniform attempt to find the best source material, and that source material wasn't handled properly in any event. The artwork on the Sub-Mariner feature in issue #1 is reproduced so darkly and murkily as to be nearly illegible. I personally managed to find my copy of this volume on the cheap (under $15), but if I had paid the full $49.99 cover price, I think I would have felt pretty cheated.

Beyond the production issues, the volume does reprint four comics and some original characters that really haven't had a proper reprinting ever before. The Angel is your standard caped crime-fighter of the Batman vein, though he ran around without wearing a mask or cowl. Also featured were a stereotypical western hero, the Masked Raider, an aviator known as American Ace, and the first four stories of Ka-Zar the Great, which was the basis for Marvel's jungle hero of the early 1970s. The robot Elektro also makes his first appearance in this comic, though after a very short stint he wouldn't be seen again until the publication of The Twelve back in 2007.

I'm not rushing out to search for any of the other volumes in this series quite yet. Unless I can get one from a library to see if the reproduction values have improved, I think Marvel Masterworks Golden Age Marvel Comics Volume 1 will hold a proper but probably dusty spot on my bookshelf.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Book Review: Showcase Presents Ambush Bug

When reviewing the names of super-heroes and super-villains that everyone knows, there's a select group that comes to mind: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, Wolverine, Hulk, Ambush Bug, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the Silver Surf ... umm what? You don't know Ambush Bug? But I'm sure Ambush Bug knows you. And Showcase Presents Ambush Bug is the only collection of his original adventures that we're probably ever going to see.

Ambush Bug knows most comic book readers because he's one of the few characters that knows he's in a comic book. Before getting all meta on us, the character began as somewhat of a throwaway villain in DC Comics Presents #52, facing off against Superman and the New Doom Patrol. He was created by Keith Giffen and Paul Kupperberg. Back then he was a happy-go-lucky (and slightly murderous) bad guy who could teleport using these little bugs. It was a few months later, in #59, when Ambush Bug was steered into a more comedic role, when he inadvertently went to the 30th Century with Superman and was engaged by the Legion of Substitute Heroes. Back then, the Subs were thought of in the same vein as the Legion of Super-Pets in sheer usefulness, so hilarity reigned.

Ambush Bug made several more appearances in Supergirl, Action Comics, and DC Comics Presents before he earned his first mini-series, which was so popular he got a Stocking Stuffer special followed by a second mini, a Secret Origins origin, and a second special before comic books turned all dark, grim and serious again.

All of these funny books (and for once that phrase is truth-in-advertising) are reprinted in Showcase Presents Ambush Bug, another volume in DC Comics' black-and-white series of trade paperback reprints. The stories all have an element of humor to them, and Ambush Bug, knowing that he's in a comic book, does his best to strain all the conventions of comic books that existed back in the eighties, the era of the DC fanboy and the Marvel zombie. It's fast-paced comedy, like if SCTV was combined with Cracked.

Showcase Presents Ambush Bug is an excellent read, both as a reprint volume and just as something to page through when you're bored and want to snicker a little now and then.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Book review: Marvel Visionaries Roy Thomas

The Marvel Visionaries hardcover series features numerous volumes dedicated to the creators that made Marvel Comics into what it has become today. Or at least created what used to be good about Marvel Comics as a whole.

Roy Thomas was one of the first fan-turned-pro comic creators. I think Jim Shooter, who started writing for the Legion of Super-Heroes feature in DC's Adventure Comics when he was 13-years-old was the only real precursor. Roy has always been different in that besides being a talented writer, he also had a genuine reverence for the comics that he loved in the forties. I doubt there's any comic book writer out there who has re-started as many golden age characters as Roy did; He quite literally rewrote the book at both Marvel and DC to create cohesive histories featuring all their characters, along with the characters of other publishers that they purchased along the way (such as Captain Marvel/Shazam, and Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters) in the pages of All-Star Squadron.   At Marvel, he put the much-weaker golden age stable to good use in creating the Invaders and the Liberty Legion. Roy's versatility had him creating great comics in every genre: Super-heroes to horror to war to teen-oriented stories to sword and sorcery.

Roy was the first Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics after Stan Lee took the post of publisher. He created the silver age version of the android Vision (which a lot of folks probably didn't realize was a golden age character) in the pages of the Avengers, where he had a lengthy run with John Buscema handling the art. He was also crucial in the creation of Ghost Rider, Iron Fist, Brother Voodoo and was the original writer on Conan the Barbarian. He had an award-winning run on X-Men, which saved the book from outright cancellation (becoming a reprint title instead), and he helped Marvel get the rights to do a Star Wars comic.

This volume features a good variety of his work. It begins pretty nonchalantly with a story from an issue of Millie the Model, which was one of Roy's first published full-length stories. There's also an Iron Man tale from Tales of Suspense. His work on the Avengers is showcased by the two-part story that introduced both the Vision and Ultron, along with his first story for the title in issue #35. That one also features one of the biggest mistakes in a Marvel story: Captain America's indestructible shield is destroyed by a trap set by the Living Laser; but suddenly reappears with no explanation later on in the story. That one made the Marvel No-Prize Book back in the eighties. Avengers #100 is also reprinted in this collection, with art by Barry-Windsor Smith.

There are also excellent tales from the pages of X- Men, Sub-Mariner, Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, Amazing Adventures, Captain Marvel and Incredible Hulk. It reprints the entire story from Giant-Size Invaders #1, which featured the first retroactive meeting of Captain America, Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch. There is also a short reprint from Dracula Lives!, one of Marvel's black-and-white magazines, and a very Conan-like tale from Chamber of Darkness. There's even a Not Brand Ecch story included, with some very fandom-esque filksongs in it.

This hardcover collection features some great reproductions of the work of some excellent artists. The work of John Severin, Frank Robbins, Marie Severin, Neal Adams, John Buscema and Windsor-Smith literally jumps of the pages at you. There's a variety here you won't get with a lot of the other Visionaries volumes; since Roy is a writer, you get a plethora of pencillers and inkers to embellish his prose.

Marvel Visionaries Roy Thomas would be an great addition to any Marvel fan's collection. There's a lot of history in this book and a lot of good comic books. Roy Thomas is another professional and pioneer that doesn't get nearly the respect he deserves from today's creators and fan base. This book is a good introduction to why he helped create the comics you enjoy reading today.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Book Review: The Official Batman Batbook

There are a lot of books out there on classic television shows nowadays, but few of them are as informative as Joel Eisner's The Official Batman Batbook. There are also few that come off as such a labor of love as this little tome.

As you might guess from the cover, this book covers the heyday of camp TV that was the Batman television show, starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the iconic Dynamic Duo. It details all three seasons of the show, along with the 1966 Batman movie.

Each two-part storyline (at least for the first season) is covered in detail in terms of plot, guest-stars, background information and even a list of Bat-Equipment used in each show. There are loads of photos in both black-and-white and color, and even a list of all the sound effects that were flashed on the screen during the fight scenes. You'll also find an exacting list of every "Holy __, Batman!" utterance the Boy Wonder ever made.

The detail that Eisner goes into in this book is amazing! This man was obviously a fan extraordinaire of the program. Considering this book was published in 1986, before a lot of programs were readily available for review on video or DVD, this was some undertaking. Simply for the immense amount of trivia alone, it's worth a read. But if you want to see the creation of a popular program (the first two seasons, the show was broadcast twice a week), and the inevitable slide to cancellation, this is a perfect opportunity. Eisner includes a lot of behind-the-scenes events and information that really lets a reader into the know on this still somewhat mystifying process.

Unfortunately, the book isn't available in an electronic edition yet, but I hope that soon it will be. This is a great book to just sit down with and page through, though, so any edition is a good one. And if you remember the show as fondly as I do, you'll want a copy of The Official Batman Batbook in your library.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Forgotten Comics: Two more from the Gold Key Vault: The Owl and the Modniks

Well, I've decided to pull out a couple more comics from the old collection and favor you all with another rambling diatribe. This time, we've got two more short-lived comics from Gold Key Comics, a company that was also known as Western Publishing and under the imprint of Whitman Comics.

First up is The Owl. Gold Key never really made much headway into the super-hero market, as it was better known for the many licensed properties it handled, which ranged from The Twilight Zone to The Pink Panther. The Owl was a legitimate super-hero; in fact he was a revamped golden-age mystery man. Unfortunately, he was created right at the end of the big camp craze brought on by the Batman TV show.

The Owl was really Nick Terry, a special investigator for the police department. He must have been independently wealthy, as he had a lot of gear and a mountain top Owl Roost to keep up. Besides his Owlmobile, he had hypnotic eyes and a virtual army of robotic owls. His sidekick was Owl Girl, who was really Laura Holt, ace reporter for the Morning Eagle and fiance of Nick Terry. Most super-heroes have trouble keeping their significant others out of danger then they don't know who they are; the Owl brings his love-life with him on his war against crime.

The Owl's first published case has him trying to thwart the robberies of the Birds of Prey Gang.  Each member has a mask and criminal motif of a different kind of bird. For example, the Pelican has a Pelican-plane with a huge gullet for swallowing bank vaults whole. The leader of the organization was the Eagle. The Owl and Owl Girl were mostly battling the Vulture and the Buzzard. It's always amazing to watch these bozos with all this incredibly high tech equipment use it on paltry bank robberies when the patents could probably set them up as kings much more easily.

The second (and final) issue of The Owl had the hero going up against the Terror Twins. The two youthful maniacs were the sons of a gangster and were musically inclined. They had guitars with laser beams in them, motor scooters that could double as helicopters and a mad scientist who could dream up new gizmos for them. The Terror Twins pulled off the incredible, and pointless crime of stealing two of the faces from Mount Rushmore.  The Owl really has relatively little to do in this story, which spends a good deal of panel space focused on the villains and their dysfunctional family.

The one thing that The Owl had going for it was that it was being scripted by Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman. Yes, that Superman. Unfortunately, it didn't have much else in the plus column. Even the Owl's costume was a drab grey/purple, with a dark purple cape and a mask of yellow eyepieces and an orange beak. It might've gone over okay back in the forties, but as a super-hero costume, it was a stinker in the late sixties.

I do have to say that I remember buying a copy of the second issue just because of the cover. Even back then, I recognized strangeness for strangeness' sake.

Speaking of strangeness, that brings us to our second comic book: The Modniks. This book is a fine example of what happens when old folks attempt to create something hip and fresh for the youngsters, without asking anyone what exactly is still hip and fresh.

This series seems to be half-Archie and half-Swing with Scooter. "The Modniks" doesn't even appear to be the name of the band. They sing and pontificate like beatniks and dress and drive scooters like mods. Unfortunately, the writers didn't realize that these two cultures weren't all that co-existent back in the day; they describe to fairly different outlooks on life and popular culture. But if it's good enough for Herb Caen, I guess they thought they could add "nik" to the end of "mod" and come up with a non-existent stereotype.

The only member of the band that was actually given a name in the several stories I read was the leader, Wheels Williams. The cover of the first issue refers to the band as Wheels and his Cy-Clowns, a pun that's about as close to actual humor as we're going to get here. The band seems to hang around Surfside High School a lot, but they don't appear to attend classes there. Principal Blair doesn't like them, and they have one friend there, Cube (because he's a square, get it? Oh the hilarity!), who they try to turn into a mod in the first issue, but fail, as he's more comfortable as himself. I will say that's a mighty good life lesson right there.

Other stories feature the Cy-Clowns helping out a high school drop-out, a beat poet, and Principal Blair himself, who decides to use some of Wheels' own mod methods to get kids more interested in school.

The first issue was published in 1967 and went over so well that the second one came out soon afterwards ... in 1970. If they had missed the proverbial boat in 1967, did they really think things would've changed in three years? I assume they just had some extra newsprint and printing press time already paid for at the printers and the second issue was merely an inventory comic for such an event. The second issue also had a story of Noel Talent, about a bad actor imaging his next role as a TV surgeon. That story was the highlight of both issues of The Modniks, featuring some welcome artwork by Jack Davis.

I will have to admit that I went out of my way to find copies of both issues of The Owl, but it was one of those remembrances that never comes out as good as the reality. The Modniks was something you find in the cheap bin. And leave it there.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Book Review: Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. is one of a number of biography and works that have been published over the past decade profiling the legendary "bad" movie director. Rudolph Grey's book was part of the basis for Tim Burton's Ed Wood movie, which garnered an Oscar win for Martin Landau as down-and-out former movie star Bela Lugosi. Burton's movie was more an examination of the interesting friendship that sprang up between Wood and Lugosi, dressed in the trappings of Ed Wood's peculiar life.

This particular memoir is made up of interview quotes from the people around Ed Wood, from his mother, to his wives and the many quirky actors and artists who were in his strange circle. There's no given bias for the entire book, as the reader is left to his own accords as to what Wood really was: An auteur, an amateur, a con-man or a victim of the Hollywood grind. The author obviously thinks a lot of Wood as a human being, but he doesn't scream "good" or "bad" at the reader. The multitude of quotes shows Ed Wood was, if anything, as flawed a human being as any of us, and a man dedicated to making movies, often to the neglect of everything else.

Now I personally enjoy most of Ed Wood's movies. Sure, they're bad. They're hokey and they're cheap. But they are also fun to watch, which is something that's definitely missing from today's era of mega-blockbusters. Sure, Michael Bay wows you will explosions. But even the worst Ed Wood film has more heart and story in it that any Bay movie. And Wood's films are testaments to fortitude: Ed Wood actually wrote, produced, directed, financed and sometimes even acted in many of these films. That's not a claim that a lot of Hollywood stars of today can make. Sure there's a gaff here and there that made it into the final cut or some cheap special effects or a bunch of stock footage spliced in, but Wood was a legitimate filmmaker, who fell on some hard times.

The last quarter of the book details, again through interviews of Wood's friends, Wood's descent into the less mainstream world of pornography, as he directed several X-rated films and kept him and his wife in rent and booze by writing a plethora of cheap porno novels. These also allowed Wood to also pour a bit of soul into them by writing about his life-long affectation for transvestism. The book follows the people who knew him near the end, when he died penniless of a heart attack.

The book also includes an extensive timeline, filmography and bibliography of Wood's work, including a section on his many unrealized projects.

Many people still consider Ed Wood to be the worst director in history. There are arguments that could be made for that, and many more against it. His movies: Plan 9 from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, Jail Bait and the rest, are all readily accessible on DVD today. To me, that means a lot more than any argument; Ed Wood, good or bad, will never be forgotten. Nightmare in Ecstasy lets anyone make up there own mind on where Edward D. Wood, Jr. belongs in Hollywood's pantheon.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Forgotten Comics: Tower's Tippy Teen

Well, that was my daily dose of alliteration. Thanks for putting up with that. It will get a bit worse in second, though. To be honest, I hadn't realized that Tower Comics had put out any comic books besides the legendary T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents by Wally Wood, Gil Kane and numerous other artistic luminaries. But like every company, I guess you can't stay in business just selling one title, no matter who the characters or creators are.

Tippy Teen was your standard teen/Archie-style comic. The cast of characters included Tippy Teen, the blonde teen-aged girl with the sensibilities that middle-aged men writing teen-oriented comics assumed teen-aged girls had: She was interested in boys, music, boys, clothes and shoes. The somewhat-awkward teen-aged boy who was always hanging around with Tippy was Tommy Trippit. Tommy was interested in girls and cars, and wasn't all too good with either one. The stereotypical rival was Ashley Hartburn, the dark-haired rich guy who couldn't understand what Tippy could see in Tommy when he was around. He's the kind of character you always imagine talking with a Hubert Updike/Mr. Howell accent. Tippy's best friend was the rather dippy Go-Go. There was also a somewhat dim hulking athlete named Animal, and a few other incidental characters that barely got a first name.

The only issue I've read is #4, from April of 1966. I bought it at a flea market when I saw the Tower Comics logo in the corner. The cover advertised "Star Time with Dino, Desi and Billy", which was a page featuring a brief write-up of the pop band, which was composed of the children of some famous celebrities. The stories are pretty much like reading an issue of Archie, or perhaps an Archie's Gals 'n Pals: Ashley tries to show up Tommy while ice-skating with Tippy. In a bizarre little tale, Go-Go grabs her dad's keys because it was her turn to drive the car pool to school. Go-Go has no license and apparently has never driven before. Since this is not the grim and gritty 1980's, no one is actually killed during this strange story, though a foreign car meets it's demise at Go-Go's hands err wheels. Ashley returns to try and spoil a picnic outing the gang was having with Tommy Tippy and his very ramshackle car. Tippy tries to get Animal a date, and Tippy later wants to get Tommy's attentions from the new Southern Belle in the class. Tippy tried to prevent the removal of a tree in which her new beau has carved their initials. Tommy attempts to become a cheerleader with the girls, and Go-Go has Animal find a front-page story for the high school paper.

It's all pretty tame stuff. There are the usual pages of clothing designs for Tippy and Go-Go that kids have sent in and a "Dear Tippy" page, and there's a hard-hitting feature on the delicate subject "Are you ready to wear make-up?" The stories are drawn in the standard Don DeCarlo-style, with not a lot of detail beyond the designs of the clothing the girls wear.

Tippy Teen is not a comic book that's going to blow the socks off anyone. In fact, if you are just your standard super-hero comic reader, it will never even be on your radar. But if you're the kind of comic geek that will read anything in four colors, the comic may be worth a look, just to see another contender to the title of King Teen that has been held by Archie Andrews since the late forties.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Comic Book Review: DC Comics' I, Vampire

Well, eventually I'd get around to profiling something that might interest all the vampire fans out there. I had no idea it would be a re-imaging of a late-seventies vampire comic book.

I didn't really have high hopes for the I, Vampire title when I saw it in the listings as one of DC Comics' "New 52" revamped comic books. I was sort of assuming it was just going to capitalize on Twilight and all the sparkly vampires that are so popular nowadays. I also held off on doing anything more than just paging through them until the first story arc was complete. After six issues, the story is still on-going, and leading into the series' first crossover (with Justice League Dark), so I decided to sit down tonight and read the series. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

For neophytes and non-fans, I, Vampire was originally a back-up series featured in House of Mystery. It told the story of Andrew Bennett, an English nobleman who was turned into a vampire over 400 years ago. Instead of allowing the passions and power of being a vampire to overcome him, Bennett instead only killed animals for blood and strove to just live what remnant of his life he could. The turning point in his story came when he transformed his beloved Mary into a vampire, so they could live together forever. Unfortunately, Mary succumbed to the lure of the power being a vampire offered and started a society of the undead known as the Blood Red Moon, becoming known as the Queen of Blood. Bennett was horrified by what he did, and swore to kill Mary and all of her followers. At the end of the series, which also featured a team-up with Batman in the pages of Brave and the Bold, one of Bennett's assistants was able to kill Mary, allowing Bennett's spirit to finally rest.

This new series is apparently close to the original in plot, but with definite stylistic and artistic differences. Bennett is still striving to kill Mary, who has plans to become the ruler of the planet and use the human population as cattle. Bennett has a professor friend who is also a vampire hunter (after Bennett saved his life), and they are later joined by a young girl who was seeking vengeance on all vampires for the death of her mother and father. The series begins in modern day Boston and heads out for Gotham City, firmly establishing the continuity in the newly-rebooted DC Universe.

The comic book is presented in a very cinematic manner. It reminds me of The Last Man on Earth in the way the world around the vampires is a very drab and grey world. Few bright colors are used, with a preponderence of greys, blacks, whites and of course reds dimly illuminating the landscapes of I, Vampire. The vampires themselves, at least the older ones, are the vampires of popular legend, turning into wolves, mists and bats. Sunlight doesn't kill these vampires; though it does removes most of their powers. The only thing that does is a stake through the heart, followed by a quick decapitation. This isn't Bela Lugosi, but it also, thankfully, isn't Twilight.

The story skillfully uses flashbacks to give us the information we need to know why things are happening. It features some very intricate page layouts, but is surprisingly easy to follow. The artwork is realistic, but the coloring and harsh shading gives it a Expressionist lean, much like the films Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  The book is a very interesting read, somewhat reminiscent of the original 30 Days of Night series. I'm not the biggest vampire fan, but the way this book has been re-imagined makes me want to keep reading it. So far, I can only say that of about a quarter of the "New 52" series.

I, Vampire #6 was a "prelude" to the crossover with Justice League Dark, and apparently will feature the Batman as well, since he was a guest star in the last two issues of this series. Considering Andrew Bennett met John Constantine a few issues earlier, I have to say that I'm looking forward to the "Rise of the Vampires" story line.

If you haven't already tried reading an issue of I, Vampire, I'd recommend giving it a try, especially if you are a modern horror or vampire fan. It might give you a little insight into the proper way vampires should be handled. Which is primarily sparkle-free.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Review: The Essential Luke Cage, Power Man Volume 1

If there's one thing that the seventies were good for, it was basic integration. There was a whole lot less of people hating each other for something as pointless as the color of their skins. And integration came to comic books in a couple of big ways. One of Marvel Comics' franchise super-heroes, Captain America, got an African-American partner in the form of the Falcon. John Stewart made an appearance in Justice League of America as the back-up Green Lantern. Tyroc made his brief debut as a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes. The Black Panther, ruler of the African kingdom of Wakanda and part-time Avenger had a feature in Jungle Action, culminating in his own short-lived series. And Marvel staffers Roy Thomas and John Romita created Luke Cage, Hero for Hire.

Luke Cage was really the first legitimate black super-hero to star in his own comic book. I'm sure it was done just to cash in on the growing popularity of the "blaxsploitation" film, just like Marvel started putting out a bevy of kung fu-related books. However,  it really was a bold move in a field dominated by pasty-white blond super-heroes with good teeth. Carl Lucas was an African-American imprisoned for a crime he was framed form, and he wasn't taking kindly to prison life, refusing to become involved with the militants in the prison, nor to get on the good side of the corrupt guards. A new warden shook things up, and the prison doctor offered Lucas a way to shorten his sentence by participating in an experiment. A racist guard tried to exact vengeance by wrecking the experiment, but Lucas came out of the test with super-strength and a bullet-proof body. He broke his way out of prison and headed off to find the man who set him up. Along the way, he stops a minor robbery inadvertently, and gets the idea to become a super-hero, but one for hire. With a costume consisting of a bright yellow tunic, blue pant and boots, a length of chain for a belt and a metal tiara on his forehead, he takes the name Luke Cage.

Cage made pretty quick work of gaining his revenge on the guy who framed him (who was now a knife-wielding maniac called Diamondback), and went on to battle numerous street-level crooks and near-super-villains, until he hit the big time in issues #8 and 9, when he battled Doctor Doom, and ended up meeting the Fantastic Four in the process. Seven issues later, Cage ended up crossing paths with Iron Man, but now brandished the new code-name of Power Man. Other highlights of the volume include a couple of issues with Power Man and Black Goliath battling long-time Marvel stalwarts The Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime, and the original Power Man, an old enemy of the Avengers, trying to get his name back from Cage. Needless to say, Cage came out on top of that particular squabble.

The artwork in these issues is pretty good by most standards. Most of the interior artwork is by George Tuska, with a variety of different inkers. Ron Wilson, probably best known for his work on Marvel Two-in-One provides a couple of issues as well. The first few covers were created by Amazing Spider-Man artist John Romita. This was in the era when it seemed every Marvel cover was done by either Romita or Gil Kane. Romita's has a forceful style, especially when his got a good colorist, but his artwork's always been a little lifeless.

The scripts were also done by a variety of writers, including Archie Goodwin, Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway and Tony Isabella. That's a lot of good talent, and they managed to keep things pretty seamless as writers changed. The dialogue is realistic and you'll end up talking aloud whenever you read Cage admonishing "Sweet Christmas!"

The Essential Luke Cage, Power Man Volume 1 is another excellent reprint collection. If you've never read this series before or heard of the character, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the book.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Album Review: The Monkees' last two studio albums

Since Davy Jones passed away a week or so ago, I loaded up the Monkees' discography on my computer and finally got around to listening to them last night. I know there's always been a modicum of controversy about the Monkees as a recording act, thanks mainly to Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, but I hardly see any reason for it in their recorded oeuvre. It's all good pop music, or at least as good as pop music can get with out being too cloyingly bubble gum. I especially enjoyed the last two studio albums produced while the TV show was coming to an end on NBC, in 1967 and 1968.

Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd. is an excellent album. I believe that most of this album (and the following one) were recorded by the Monkees separately, with only one or two members of the band in the studio at the same time. I don't think it was really a matter of egos; it was more along the lines of all of them being tired from and tired of their hectic promotional schedules and being especially tired of having to defend themselves to the music press for having used studio musicians on their albums. This was and still is a common practice. Take a close look at any hip-hop act; at least the Monkees could play instruments. Just because the Monkees had the glare of their TV series to contend with, they became bigger targets for a lot of idiots.

This album features one of the Monkees' iconic hits, "Pleasant Valley Sunday", which has always been one of my favorite pop songs simply for the thinly-veiled aspersions of discontent that pervade the number. "Daily Nightly", "Salesman" and "What Am I Doing Hanging 'Round" are also superlative cuts. Despite the cover art, the album doesn't really have anything that would be considered psychedelia.

The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees is an album of similar quality, but has a lot more cuts that take some chances. We have the standard hits, this time in the form of "Daytime Believer" and "Valleri", as well as some pseudo-psychedelic sounds in "Tapioca Tundra", "Zor and Zam" and "Writing Wrongs". The album is balanced out with the same sort of hook-laden pop that the Monkees usually made. I did feel that a lot of the songs had a little more of a personal verve to them, like the guys were trying to take more control of what they were doing. Which by all accounts is exactly what they were doing. Much to the chagrin of The Powers That Be, who even released this album with a cover that wasn't approved by the Monkees themselves, quaint though it may be.

These may have been the last two studio albums of the original Monkees (their last release was the soundtrack to the movie Head), but neither sounds like it was produced by a band with major internal squabbles. Each person had his own little specialty on each album and there was still a cohesion that made their music work. This was not, for example, the last album and tour by Iron Butterfly, where the band members so loathed each other that they virtually would not appear on stage at the same time. Both albums have Mickey and Davy handling most of the lead vocals, and Mike doing some of his country rock-style tunes, and Peter getting a go on a song or two as well. That's pretty much the way all six of their original albums go, and the only change is a steady progression of professionalism and a sense of being comfortable with what they were doing. I'm certain the daily grind of the show, live performances and promotional appearances took their toll on the group, as it would any in that situation. But they kept themselves professional on vinyl.

I'm not the biggest pop music fan; I prefer progressive rock and dinosaur metal music. But I've always had a soft spot in my head for the Monkees. No matter what the musical pundits would like to imply, they sounded good back then and they still do now.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Science Fiction Remembrance: The Hugo Winners Vols. I & II

I’m sure most people, not just writers, have been influenced by various literary works in their lives. Everyone’s got a story or two that inspired them. For me, I always enjoyed literary creations that made me start thinking on a slightly off-kilter tangent. Most enjoy it for a few minutes, or hours, or days, and then go back to normalcy. But there are a few that keep on that tangent for the rest of their lives. It can be a classic piece of literature or a murky pulp novel - I think it’s different for everyone. I was thinking about this concept one evening when I happened to find the oldest book I own on a shelf upstairs. Not the oldest book as in age, but the oldest book I remember getting myself that I still somehow happened to keep ahold of, after a multitude of moves since I was a wee lad (well, more husky than wee, but you get the idea). It was a dog-eared, dust-jacket-less, very beat-up Science Fiction Book Club edition of The Hugo Winners, Volumes 1 and 2. This was the book that inspired me and opened my eyes to different kinds of literature.

That book was a great find for a young science fiction fan back in the mid-seventies. I was your typical nerd/geek back then, reading comic books and watching sci-fi movies on the late show. Most science fiction TV and in the movies was reruns of late sixties shows, as it was still a few years before Star Wars hit the scene. The afternoons after school were filled with Star Trek and Time Tunnel reruns for several years, courtesy of a thoughtful programmer at WSAW-TV. The town I lived in didn’t have a bookstore, so any sci-fi books were found by chance in a grocery store, the drugstore or at our local library, which at the time wasn’t stocked well in genre titles. Hell, the library back then was two modestly-sized rooms in an old post office. They had just started stocking audio cassettes, though I had to listen to them there, since we didn’t have anything at home nearly as newfangled as a tape deck at home. One good thing that happened was that my mother joined a book club. Not the Book of the Month Club, but Doubleday, the omnipresent company known for its cheaply assembled hardcovers and usurious charges for those same books. In that first box of books, somehow, she had gotten me The Hugo Winners and a copy of Peanuts Classics. I credit both with helping me develop a better vocabulary than most folks have at that age (Charles Schulz, for all the neo-Christian influence in his strips, did write at a much higher level than the average Snoopy fan needed).  

There is some classic stuff in The Hugo Winners, from nearly all the true Original Masters of the genre: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny, Clifford Simak, Walter Miller, Harlan Ellison, Jack Vance, and Robert Silverberg. They were all in there. And it was good stuff. Every story in there did win an award that was given by other science fiction writers. It was a true treasure trove for a slightly time-displaced fan of science fiction.  This is one of those books I can still avidly recommend obtaining today, and any fan of science fiction more than likely has already heard of the series and has read quite a few of the tales contained therein.

The four stories that helped change the way I think the most were all very different types of stories.  The first was Allamagoosa by Eric Frank Russell. I have to say this was one of the first sci-fi tales that I’d read in which humor played a big part. I’m not going to reveal the big joke in the story, but let’s say Russell’s tale combines a little Star Trek with a little McHale’s Navy. You might see the punchline coming, but I didn’t and had a helluva good laugh.

Riders of the Purple Sage by Philip Jose Farmer was the next novella that I liked to read. Philip Jose Farmer became one of my favorite writers of all time after reading this tale. It’s the story of an artist in the near or far future, and his grandfather’s legacy and a world in which everything had a price. Some of the imagery is hilarious; one chapter break proclaims that God’s patent on the Sunrise expired at dawn. Farmer is truly a versatile creator, writing science fiction, pulp adventure and even erotica.

Clifford Simak’s The Big Front Yard was a fairly subtle tale, with a lot of exposition that doesn’t bog down the story. Imagine if you were an average person, say a handyman, and suddenly you became one of the most important people on Earth because you opened your door on a whole new world? One thing about this story, which I don’t think will spoil anything for anyone, was the idea that the main character had to explain the concept of paint - not what it was or how it was made, but the very idea of it. It’s been about thirty years since I first read that story and I’m still very glad something like that hasn’t happened to me because I still don’t know if I could explain it.

The final story I’d like to mention is Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Ellison was probably the vanguard of the modern (or post-modern) science fiction writer, one who was truly not afraid to write about anything. My science teacher, Steve Nyman, recommended that I read this tale, telling me it was one of the scariest tales ever written. He was right and it still is, the years not diluting the raw power of the tale. This short story is the ultimate tale of man versus machine, of technology gone wild and trying to destroy Mankind, decades before the rise of such blockbuster movie hits like The Matrix or The Terminator (the latter of which had a lot of story elements lifted from a Harlan Ellison television script). There are only five characters in the story: Four people who want to die and a megalomaniacal computer that will not let them.

Now certainly years of Monty Python, Frank Zappa and William S. Burroughs didn’t help things, but reading this collection of stories was one of the pivotal points that led me to become the person I am, and especially in the way I think. For me, inspiration hasn’t been something to make me jump up and run out the door, proclaiming “Woo-hoo! This is terrific! Listen to me!” My inspirations have always been subtle; something that makes me see a new side to a situation, or takes me a step outside the envelope and makes me want to take another step, and another.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Classic TV Review: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet

You know, I've watched most of the TV shows from the fifties and sixties that were both good and pioneering. I can sit own and watch an episode of The Honeymooners or The Burns and Allen Show and still laugh up a storm. But what I cannot for the life figure out is how The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet lasted as long as it did, for it is the most singularly boring program I've ever watched. And I used to like watching Bob Ross paint.

For those who haven't seen it, the situation comedy stars real-life husband-and-wife Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. Ozzie gained some fame as a bandleader in the forties, and both he and his wife Harriet have been singers. Joining them are their real-life sons, David and Rick Nelson. David later received acclaim as a director and Rick had success as a singer and musician. They all played themselves, with David and Rick's real-life wives joining the cast over the course of time. On the show, David ended up as the junior partner of a law firm, and Rick was a performing musician. For some reason, whatever it was that Ozzie did for a living was never revealed on the program. It seemed to have good hours, though, since he could be found out-and-about the town and virtually any hour of the day. (To be fair, the feature film based on the show, Here Comes the Nelsons did finally give Ozzie a profession. What was it? Go rent the movie or buy a TV quiz book.)

From the twenty or so episodes I've seen, there were really only three situations for this comedy: Rick or David had girl trouble, Rick or David had trouble at school or work, or one of the Nelsons or one of their friends was completely confused about something, leading to some embarrassing faux paus that had to be avoided.  Somehow, those three things got them through FOURTEEN years of shows.

Any program does have the occasional good moment. The few moments on the show that approached comedy were usually created by co-stars. Skip Young had a somewhat annoying laugh as neighbor Wally Plumstead, but he had an earnestness about him that showed he wasn't taking himself too seriously. Veteran b-movie actor Lyle Talbot appeared as Ozzie's best friend Joe Randolph, a catalyst that almost created some comedy chemistry now and again.

I fully understand that humor is relative to whatever is going on at the moment, and I've learned to adjust my own sense of humor when I watch old TV shows and listen to old radio shows so I can appreciate them more. Believe me, I'm as big a fan of classic television as you will find. But it is very hard to watch this program now and think it was funny, much less that it was funny enough to last for fourteen years. There's such a white bread blandness about the production; a lot of the dialogue seemed so forced, even though these were family members speaking to each other. Ozzie and Harriet seems to be a portrait of what TV executives and advertisers thought the perfect American family was in the fifties. I think everyone knows that particular institution was always a myth, with the appearance of Bigfoot being less shocking than finding that family dynamic in full practice.

The Cleavers, the Andersons, the Stones, the Mitchells, and even the Partridges got whatever message they were espousing for an episode across to the viewers. But unlike the Nelsons, they did it with a laugh. They didn't proselytize with abject boredom.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Book review: Showcase Presents The Elongated Man

Time to pull out another reprint volume to review. This time, we've got an interesting choice, in the only reprint collection of DC Comics' Ductile Detective.

Showcase Presents is the DC Comics equivalent of Marvel Comics' Essential line of trade paperbacks: thick, books of newsprint featuring usually about 20-25 issues of continuity in a particular character or title. They're often referred to as "phone books" by both fans and detractors. The only disadvantage is that they stories are reprinted in black-and-white. But if you get that many issues of a comic for a relatively low price ($9.99 to $19.99), I personally think that's a small price to pay.

This particular edition features the lead stories from four issues of The Flash and the back-up feature from FORTY-SIX issues of Detective Comics. Most of these stories have not been reprinted anywhere before, and probably never will again.

For the uninitiated, the Elongated Man was a super-hero who gained his ability to stretch any part of his body from drinking a special elixir he concocted called Gingold. At the times of these stories, he was first based in Central City (the home of the Flash) and then roamed around the world with his wife, Sue. In sharp contrast to most super-heroes of the day, the fact that he was amateur sleuth Ralph Dibny was public knowledge. His shtick was that his nose wiggled every time he found himself on the track of a good mystery.

The character has always been one of my personal favorites, ever since I first read about him in Justice League of America #100. In these early appearances, Ralph is a happy-go-lucky kind of person, just enjoying a good mystery with his wife. He was wont to stretch odd parts of his body, like an elbow to hit a thug, or an ear down a chimney to get the goods on a crook. Heck, sometimes he even stretched parts of his body that didn't move, like a knuckle. It was goofy, but it was all good fun and great comic book reading.

Most of the artwork in this volume is the work of Carmine Infantino, who was one of the major artists who helped Julius Schwartz create DC's Silver Age of Comics. The Elongated Man is among his most memorable work, right up there with Batman and, of course, The Flash. Most of the stories in this volume were written by comic legends Gardner Fox and John Broome. Fox's name should be said in the same breath as Stan Lee, given the creative force he exerted on the media in his forty-some years as a writer and creator. Don't expect a lot of angst-driven drama in these stories. For the most part, these are just fun little five-minute mysteries that just happen to feature a guy who stretches all over the place.

Sadly, the Elongated Man and his fun-loving attitude are no longer with us. For a while, Ralph and Sue were mainstays in Keith Giffen and JM DeMatteis' Justice League Europe. Then they made an excellent guest-starring appearance in the pages of James Robinson's Starman (which if you haven't read by now, go do so now; it is the single best comic book of the past twenty years). With a promise of a new career as a protector of Opal City, things looked good for comicdom's best married couple. Unfortunately, then Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis came along. Mind you, I think it is an excellent tale. But killing a pregnant Sue Dibny was over the line. From there, Ralph made a steady fall into insanity and death, culminating in his appearance in the year-long Countdown series, where he was at least reunited, even just in death, with his wife. The current revamping of the DC line with the "New 52" books have yet (after six months) to mention anything about the Dibnys.

Still there's always hope. Elongated Man appeared in several episodes of Justice League Unlimited and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and even has a few action figures to his name. So you never know what might happen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Book Review: The Golden Turkey Awards

The Golden Turkey Awards was one of the first trivia books I ever bought. Even though I didn't know it at the time. I remember seeing it on the spinning rack at Gene's Superette grocery store in Amherst, Wisconsin back in the early eighties, when I was a junior in high school. It looked like it would be a fun read, since I loved old movies. I'd hadn't been aware of the concept of movie "schadenfrude" back then, the bastardized idea of taking enjoyment from something truly bad. But after reading the list of the hundred worst movies people had voted for in the back of the book, I realized I had already seen about three quarters of them. I was then, and forever more, a bad film fanatic! With great cynicism, comes great snark! Huzzah!

Sorry about that. Anyway, This book was written by the Medved Brothers. Harry was a film student and author of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. Michael was an author and screenwriter, later to gain fame as a movie critic on Sneak Previews. Harry seems to be the film fan of the pair, especially after reading about the egotistical goings-on backstage at Michael's TV show. Michael is also now a conservative talk show host, which somehow isn't surprising.

The Golden Turkey Awards is set up as a series of contrived awards for bad film-making. Categories include "The Most Embarrassing Movie Debut of All Time", "The Most Ridiculous Monster in Screen History" and so forth, all the way up (or down in this case) to "The People's Choice for the Worst Film of All Time". Oddly enough, the winner of the last award, Ed Wood Jr.'s Plan 9 from Outer Space, wasn't even mentioned in Harry Medved's Fifty Worst Films volume. In fact, many of the movies listed in the first book aren't up for any Golden Turkeys.

This book is written in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but unfortunately there is a lot of undeserved vitriol. Yes, these are quite often bad films. But they are films that made it to the big screen nonetheless. I always thought that counted for something, even if the ingenuity involved was just in creative financing to get the thing filmed.

I would rather watch Plan 9 at six times in a row rather than try to sit through one showing of Stephen Spielberg's The War of the Worlds. I've always thought that a bad big-budget flick should be more at fault than a movie made on the cheap. The Medveds do sort of follow that concept as well, but there really wasn't the demarcation line between your average film and the big blockbusters like there is nowadays. The fact that the categories are limited to one certain type of performance or criteria allows them to consider both kinds of movies equally, and oft times the bigger budgeted movie is the "winner".

Aside from that, the book features a lot of still photos and some good background information on a lot of obscure movies and people. Almost any movie fan will find some little gem they remember or always wanted to see. Mind you, the book was published in 1980. I'm still trying to see some of them; Norman Mailer's Wild 90 is my personal "holy grail" of movies. One of these days, I will find it though...

As I said, I consider this to be the first trivia book I ever bought. Most folks who know me know I play in an annual trivia contest (well, quite a few of them now, with the advent of the internet and streaming audio) broadcast over a college radio station in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. This isn't Trivial Pursuit or bar/pub trivia; this is hardcore stuff, about a sign seen in a movie or music playing in the background of a TV episode. Before the days of Google, the only way to get your team up in the rankings was to have a lot of good notes and a good library of reference books. I remember getting two answers from this book each of the first two years I played, so it became a "trivia book". There will be more in the future, since what comes around, goes around. Not everything can be found with Google.

If you like bad movies, The Golden Turkey Awards is definitely worth the investment. I'm certain you can pick it up for a mere pittance now, as I got a replacement copy for my duct-tape-bound copy for less than $5.00 from Amazon Marketplace, and that was including shipping. You should also be able to find The Fifty Worst Films of All Time and this volume's sequel, Son of Golden Turkey Awards similar bargain prices.

Oh, and the book has a challenge to readers in that one of the films profiled in it is fake. And because it took me awhile to find it, I'm not gonna tell you what it is. But you have to look at ALL the photos really carefully...

That's all for now, folks! Tomorrow, another venture into classic TV!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Book Review: The Essential Defenders Volume 1

I thought that for my first actual review of a Marvel Comics book or comic, I'd use one that had one of the first comics I remember buying. Way back in 1971, I remember being entranced by this fantastic cover, which had the Incredible Hulk leaping out at the reader, followed by the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Strange. It was a huge comic, too, being square-bound and costing a whole quarter. I got it from Holt Drugs in Park Ridge, Wisconsin (a sort of suburb of Stevens Point, the Trivia Capitol of the World) and was mesmerized by the tale on the ride home to Amherst. Doctor Strange and his companions battled Yandroth the Scientist Supreme. That comic book was Marvel Feature #1, the first official gathering of the Defenders.

The Defenders were kind of second-string to the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, primarily because they never really considered themselves a team ... in fact, they were always called a "non-team" on letter pages and in Marvel Bullpen. That was because they always seemed to be brought together by Doctor Strange, the Master of the Mystic Arts and Sorcerer Supreme. Eventually, everyone just hung around his Greenwich Village Sanctum Sanctorum, until the wealthy Batman-esque Nighthawk came on the scene (in the last couple of issues reprinted in this volume). 

The fact that the Defenders were second-string to the Avengers and the FF was somewhat weird, since technically, the four heroes making up the core of the Defenders were more powerful than almost any super-hero team in comics. I remember quite a few spirited debates with fellow comic geeks about the topic. The Defenders were usually debated to be among the three strongest teams out there, along with the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Legion of Super-Heroes and the original Justice Society of America. 

Essential Defenders starts off by reprinting some early team-ups between the core membership of the Defenders, from each character's own book. The first three issues of Marvel Feature are also reprinted, being both the genesis of the team and the start of one of Marvel's many attempts a comic like DC's Showcase title to showcase new features and characters. Marvel Feature only lasted twelve issues and featured three character ideas: The Defenders, a new but really self-contained Ant-Man series, and two issues of a team-up series featuring the Thing of the Fantastic Four (which soon become Marvel Two-in-One). 

The early stories of the series featured the three initial members, and added the power of the Silver Surfer and the new Valkyrie to this "non-team". Former Avengers the Black Knight and Hawkeye the Archer are featured. Hawkeye also hangs around for a brief period (as does the Black Knight, though he's a stone statue for the entire time), in time to battle his former team in one of the seventies' most memorable conflicts, The Avengers-Defenders War, in which both super-hero groups are drawn into battle with each other by the machinations of Loki and the Dread Dormammu and their quest to gain the power of the Evil Eye. The final story arc reprinted in this book features Nebulon the Celestial Man, who was sold the Earth by the villainous Squadron Sinister, a group of Justice League-inspired villains Roy Thomas created in the pages of The Avengers. 

The stories are definitely vintage seventies Marvel. There's a lot of angst, posturing and exposition. Steve Englehart, who's always been one of my favorite writers, provides the scripts for fifteen of the reprints, with Roy Thomas handling most of the rest. This particular volume features also some great artwork, including issues by Herb Trimpe, Marie Severin, Sal Buscema, Don Heck, Bob Brown and Bill Everett. 

The Marvel Essentials series reprints all the original stories in black-and-white, but luckily most of the artists here have the professional chops to withstand the scrutiny that a lack of color can incur. I purchased the first three volumes of Essential Defenders and they are all great reads, and great additions to the collections of comic fans on a budget.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Classic TV Review: Tate

I've been watching a lot of old TV shows the past few months, in preparation for some trivia contests that I play in each year. This year I happened upon an old western that I hadn't seen before but which I found quite enjoyable: Tate.

Tate has the distinction of being the first TV program to feature a main character with a physical disability. Tate (his first name was never given) was a veteran of the Civil War, and had lost the use of this left arm in that bloody conflict. He wears a special leather sleeve-like sling on his disabled arm. Other than that, Tate is perfectly healthy, which is good, since he makes his living as a fast-drawing bounty hunter. As with most bounty hunter-styled TV westerns, Tate is very particular about which bounties he tries to collect. He has no real problem switching sides when he discovers he's on the bad guy's side of the situation, that way his story can be told without interference from Standards and Practices.

David McLean starred as Tate, playing the gunfighter as a taciturn man with not only the brains and willpower to do a lot of dirty jobs, but one with a soul and a conscience. McLean had already gained fame as the Marlboro Man in commercials and advertising for Marlboro Cigarettes (a product he later was a vocal opponent of when he contracted lung cancer).

The show was definitely not wanting for acting talent. Royal Dano, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Culp, Julia Adams, Robert Redford, Martin Landau, James Coburn, Frank Overton and Warren Oates all had prominent guest-starring roles on the program. Landau and Overton were particularly forceful in their roles; Landau portrayed a sheepherder who was wanted for the wanton destruction of a town in vengeance for the murder of his wife; and Overton portrayed one of Tate's closest friends, a man with no forgiveness in his heart for even the most trivial of wrongs.  Culp also plays an excellent role as a principled but rather strange bounty hunter who tried to bring in Tate for a crime he was wrongfully accused.

A clip from "Comanche Scalps", featuring David McLean, Frank Overton and Leonard Nimoy.

The show lasted 13 half-hour episodes, all of which are now available on DVD. The show had been a summer replacement for part of Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall and apparently the ratings didn't justify a further investment by the program's sponsor, Kraft Foods.

If you have Netflix, Tate is a series that is definitely worth renting and experiencing. It doesn't have the wry humor that many good westerns, but it has a dramatic punch to it that few other TV westerns had in that era.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Forgotten Comics: Two from the Gold Key Vault: M.A.R.S. Patrol Total War and Zody the Mod Rob.

M.A.R.S. Patrol Total War was one of the better comics that Gold Key put out in the late sixties that wasn’t a licensed property, like The Flintstones or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. This comic, while well written and having good art, only lasted for seven issues over the course of about three years.

The title was originally called just Total War, probably to capitalize on a popularity spurt of war comics. The action centered on the Advanced Training Squad from the Marine Attack Rescue Service.  The squad was a multicultural group that consisted of African-American communications expert Sgt. Joe Striker, tank and weaponry specialist Corporal Russ Stacey, Asian-American underwater combat expert Sgt. Ken Hiro and the team’s leader, combat pilot Lieutenant Cy Adams. The highly-trained M.A.R.S. was under the leadership of General Kripps and had access to the most modern of military weaponry and vehicles.  The squad was on a 24-hour leave in a big city when the metropolis was suddenly attacked by a very well-equipped and manned military force. Over the course of the series, little was actually revealed about the invaders; they were bald, hairless and had metals unknown to human science. They also had various fantastic devices that were improved versions of current weapons or systems on Earth. While it was implied that the invaders were aliens, it was never actually revealed.

Given that M.A.R.S. Patrol wasn’t published by one of the Big Two, there was a surprising amount of decent characterization in the series, as several missions sent the Squad back to the home region of several of the members: Striker returned to his home in the Louisiana Bayou and Hiro met up with an old friend in San Francisco’s Chinatown. You get a feeling of the horror of war as the United States becomes one of the major battlefields in this global conflict.

Every issue but the final seventh one also had a fully-painted cover, and the first two issues had artwork by comics’ legend Wally Wood, the first I actually recall seeing in a Gold Key comic. All seven issues are readily available in the various internet comic hubs, and I think they are worth checking out for any war comics fan.

Now unlike M.A.R.S. Patrol, it is kind of difficult to know what to think about Zody the Mod Rob. This was a comic published in the middle of 1970, well after the supposed end of the Love Generation. I’m not quite sure what the single published issue of this series is trying to be; is it an Archie-style teen comic? Is it a counter-culture humor title? I’m not saying that it is a bad comic. It is actually quite well written for a “funny book” but it seems to have been published in the wrong decade.

Randy Martin was trying to get on the staff of the Tinker High Times newspaper, and was assigned to get a story from an eccentric scientist named Professor Ipsof Acto, a man who didn’t know what his own birthday was and was obsessed with horoscopes. Since Randy was an Aquarius, Acto gave him his special Horoscope Cap to wear, which endowed Randy with a level of prescience after he fell asleep outside wearing the device. Knowing the future put a crimp in Randy’s life, so he built a robot and put the cap on it. After a night being bathed in starlight through a skylight, the robot, named Zody, started talking and acting strangely, proclaiming it had an IQ of 800. The remainder of the tale dealt with Randy trying to deal with the still-prophetic statements of Zody, who was given a wig to cover the cap and dressed like a very thin hippie-stereotype.

The only thing that comes to mind after reading Zody the Mod Rob is DC’s legendary stinker Brother Power, the Geek. Here we have another attempt by a group of old white men trying to interpret a youth movement without much of a clue as to what they were doing. In both cases, at least there wasn’t a lot of vitriol and hidden agendas behind the attempts. Zody actually seemed to have some potential as a series, but I think the lack of a real direction hurt it. It’s like watching the first episode of My Mother, the Car: It’s a mildly interesting concept when you get past the blatant stupidity of the idea. Zody the Mod Rob was about ten steps above that.  This is another title that’s available digitally from various sources on-line. One issue and ten minutes at the most of your time is all it takes to give the entire saga a read. 

Later this week, some reviews of some classic TV shows!