Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Gorgo Loves His Mama

Ditko Monsters: Gorgo: edited by Craig Yoe; written by Joe Gill and others; illustrated by Steve Ditko and others (1961-64; reprinted 2013): This grand, tabloid-sized volume reprints all of comic-book legend Steve (Spider-man, Dr. Strange) Ditko's work on the Charlton Comics adaptation and continuation of the giant-monster movie Gorgo.

Gorgo was a British attempt in the early 1960's to match the success of Toho Studios' Japanese giant-monster movies, especially Godzilla (nee Gojira). Thus was born Gorgo, a giant monster with an even more giant mother. Like King Kong, Gorgo gets captured and exhibited by some remarkably stupid showmen. Unlike King Kong, Gorgo has a mother who seems to be several hundred feet tall. England takes a beating.

After adapting the movie, Charlton continued the adventures of Gorgo and Mama Gorgo. Ditko and his long-time collaborator at Charlton, writer Joe Gill, combined on several issues of the title over a three-year period, with Ditko also providing several covers to issues he didn't otherwise illustrate.

This volume really highlights Ditko's two almost paradoxically opposite skills as a comic-book artist. He's great at drawing really weird things, and he's great at drawing people and settings that look far more normal and believeable than that of any other mainstream American comic-book artist in history. Giant monsters and ordinary people: it's the Robert Redford/Godzilla movie you always wanted!

In between depopulating the ocean for their out-sized caloric requirements (Gorgo's mother can gulp down sperm whales whole), Gorgo and his mother sleep on the ocean floor and occasionally get into adventures. They're not the villains of the series -- far from it. Instead, they end the Cuban Missile Crisis (I'm not joking), save Earth from an alien invasion, rescue an American nuclear submarine from the ocean floor, and inspire men and women to get married wherever they go (again, not kidding). For giant, destructive monsters, they sure are swell.

Throughout, Ditko juxtaposes the mundane and the fantastic with the same sort of skill he exhibited on his far more famous work on Spider-man and Dr. Strange, two characters he was drawing for Marvel pretty much simultaneously with several of the stories in this volume. Ditko enjoyed working for Charlton, pretty much the cheapest of the comic-book publishers to survive through the 1960's and 1970's, because he had pretty much carte blanche. Charlton was too cheap to exert editorial control, which meant Ditko didn't have to tailor his style to the publisher or have his stories micro-managed by an editor.

It's all a lot of over-sized fun on over-sized pages. This is Ditko near the height of his mainstream artistic powers. The scripts by Joe Gill are loopy in that Silver-Age science-fictiony way. The historical material contextualizes both the movie and the comics. Really, a fine piece of work. Gorgo loves his mama! Highly recommended.

Gothic Revival

Unholy Trinity by Ray Russell (1967), containing the following novellas: "Sanguinarius" (1967), "Sardonicus" (1960), and "Sagittarius" (1962): Penguin recently re-released this slim volume of three novellas. If you enjoy Gothic fiction, you should buy it.

Ray Russell fiction-edited Playboy over its first several years. He was also a very talented writer. Unholy Trinity collects Russell's three Gothic-infused novellas of the 1960's. They pay homage to both the general tropes of Gothic and pre-Gothic texts and to specific texts within that long tradition. Stephen King once characterized the most famous of the three, "Sardonicus," as the finest Gothic homage ever written, and I don't necessarily think he's wrong.

First in the collection and last to be written, "Sanguinarius" retells the true story of the Bloody Countess, Elizabeth Bathory, who slaughtered young women and bathed in their blood to remain youthful back in 17th-century Hungary. Russell's style mimics English literature around the same time -- the diction occasionally ventures into the territory of grue-filled plays by Shakespeare, John Webster, and others from that century. The novella establishes a remarkable level of sympathy for Bathory while also bringing the reliability of her narration into question throughout. Technically pre-Gothic in literary time, it reflects the style and content of Gothic influences that include The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil, The Spanish Tragedy, Titus Andronicus, and Macbeth. Its a marvelous piece of work about a lot of dreadful people.

Secondly and first-written is "Sardonicus," adapted into a movie entitled Mr. Sardonicus in the 1960's. Set during the 19th century, Russell's novella is a brilliant whole of description, characterization, and plot: only the psychology feels a bit too modern for the tale to be a lost story from the end of the Gothic's dominance. It's an immersive pleasure, a joy to read. It also straddles the line between natural and supernatural throughout its narrative, a common attribute of the Gothic; deployed within, to fresh and startling effect, are such tropes as the sinister, wealthy male; the younger woman in terrible peril; horrifying physical disfigurement; a dark and terrible castle; a blighted landscape; torture; and many, many others.

Finally, there is "Sagittarius," Russell's tip of the hat to Jack the Ripper, the Grand Guignol, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  As with the first two, this is told as a reminiscence of horrors past, though the frame-tale now exists in 1960's New York. And, another tip of the hat, that frame tale takes place in a gentleman's club, that oft-used setting for the frames of ghost stories. It's another terrific piece, especially in its evocation of the Grand Guignol theatre in late-19th-century Paris, with its excesses of horror and titillation.

As noted, this volume now exists as a Penguin reprint under the collective banner of guest editor/presenter Guillermo del Toro. It's a terrific example of a writer conjuring up tales that seem to be from another time yet nonetheless remain determinedly contemporary in their sensibilities. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lovecraft's Book

The World's Greatest Horror Stories (a.k.a. H.P. Lovecraft's Book of Horror): edited by Stephen Jones and Dave Carson (1993/2004) containing the following stories:

Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927/1935) by H. P. Lovecraft: pretty much an essential essay on horror in literature up to the mid-1930's;

The Signalman (1866) by Charles Dickens: understated and almost documentary in its approach, with Dickens striving for an understated realism that works extremely well;

The House and the Brain (1859) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (variant of The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain): haunted house story becomes almost New Age by the end as it moves into occultism and pseudoscience;

The Body Snatcher (1884) by Robert Louis Stevenson: classic and disturbing tale of 'Resurrection Men";

The Spider (1915) by Hanns Heinz Ewers (trans. of Die Spinne 1908): really odd and disturbing tale of suicides caused by... what. exactly?;

The Foot of the Mummy (1882) by Théophile Gautier (trans. of Le Pied de Momie 1840): whimsical dream-journey anticipates similarly themed stories by Dunsany and then Lovecraft ;

The Horla (1886) by Guy de Maupassant (trans. of Le Horla 1887): a really lovely tale of madness and alien invasion by de Maupassant, who was himself suffering from mental illness by the end of his too-short writing career;

The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe: Poe's indispensable tale of rot;

The Damned Thing (1893) by Ambrose Bierce: Bierce's invisible monster in a somewhat slight tale that's not Bierce's best horror story;

The Upper Berth (1885) by F. Marion Crawford: justifiably in the running for Best Ghost Story Ever, a model of suggestion, pay-off, and chilly, water-logged creepiness;

The Yellow Sign (1895) by Robert W. Chambers: Chambers' scariest story helped set the stage for all the mysterious, forbidden volumes to come -- though his forbidden volume, The King in Yellow, is available in finer bookstores everywhere!;

The Shadows on the Wall (1903) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman: a fine ghost story, subtle and concerned with the quicksand of family grudges;

The Dead Valley (1895) by Ralph Adams Cram: Wow! I hadn't read this concise voyage into a very bad place, and it's a doozy;

Fishhead (1913) by Irvin S. Cobb: A weird bit of American regional horror that looks ahead to Lovecraft's own squirmy human/fishmen hybrids;

Lukundoo (1907) by Edward Lucas White: Africa Screams. Not so much scary as inevitable;

The Double Shadow (1933) by Clark Ashton Smith: one of Smith's many, many great dark fantasy stories isn't so much scary as it is disturbing in its description. Smith's wizards were always doing something arrogantly stupid.;

The Mark of the Beast (1890) by Rudyard Kipling: A showcase of Kipling's attention to description of foreign lands (in this case India) and the British men stationed there. As in a lot of his work, the natives are much more sympathetic than many of the British;

 Negotium Perambulans (1922) by E. F. Benson: The description of place here is top-notch, though horror is somewhat absent due to both a sort of inevitable schematicism and a refusal to make the threatened parties sympathetic in any way -- they're really just sorta dumb;

Mrs. Lunt (1926) by Hugh Walpole: OK, this is a really solid ghost story with what seems to be an extraordinarily interesting psychological study of homophobia and masculinity;

The Hog (1915/1947) by William Hope Hodgson: Hodgson's gonzo masterpiece of cosmic forces manifesting as a giant, deadly, spectral hog, with only ghost-finder Carnacki and his crazy-ass ghostbusting technology to oppose that force, at least at first;

The Great God Pan (1894) by Arthur Machen: One of the all-time ten or 20 great horror novellas;

Count Magnus (1904) by M. R. James: Almost all of James' ghost stories are terrific, and this is one of the four or five best, with its mysterious undead Count and its hapless travel-book writer.

The entire anthology: H.P. Lovecraft's essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" covers so much ground that one could easily assemble a dozen different anthologies by following its lead. This is one such anthology, and Jones and Dave Carson (who also illustrates) have done a fine job of mixing much-anthologized necessities with several stories that I haven't seen before (and I've read a bloody awful lot of horror stories). Each story comes with a relevant quotation from Lovecraft's essay, which is also reprinted in its entirety at the beginning of the book. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Death and Armageddon

Judge Dredd: The Complete Casefiles Volume 5: written by John Wagner and Alan Grant; illustrated by Mike McMahon, Carlos Ezquerra, Brian Bolland, Ron Smith, and others (1981-82; collected 2013): The saga of Judge Dredd reaches what may be its artistic peak in this thick volume of stories from the early 1980's. The peculiar mix of action and scabrous social satire that distinguishes the series reachs markedly different heights in two of the arcs collected herein.

First there's the return of Judge Death in the Dark Judges arc. Beautifully illustrated by Brian Bolland, the Dark Judges brings four judges from an alternate Earth to sprawling megalopolis Mega-City One, the city of 150-million people that occupies a swath of North America from the Eastern Great Lakes to New England and southwards down the East Coast.

Previously, Dredd and telepathic Judge Anderson had battled Judge Death. On Judge Death's alternate Earth, human life itself was outlawed because humans are the source of crime. Then he came to Mega-City One and started killing up a storm. Dredd managed to destroy his body, while Judge Anderson used her psychic powers to trap him inside her mind until Dredd could encase both of them in an impregnable sphere of Boing, a sort of super-lucite.

Now Anderson's body lies in state in the Hall of Justice, encased in that Boing. But someone manages to cut the Boing open. Mayhem ensues, and the only slight chance Mega-City One has against not one but four supernaturally powerful Judges lies with the resuscitated Anderson, who's had Death stuck in her mind since being encased in Boing, though Death has now escaped to a more suitable new body.

This arc is a delight both in Bolland's meticulous, razor-sharp art and in the writing by Alan Grant and John Wagner. It's one of the most straightforward Judge Dredd stories ever done -- the satire is muted, and the awfulness of the Dark Judges makes Judge Dredd's often loopily ridiculous fascism seem positively benign by comparison. It's a great Judge Dredd story, and one of the greatest superhero battle stories ever told (though admittedly Dredd is only very loosely a superhero).

Then we turn to one of the longest arcs in Dredd history, one which begins as Block Wars and ends in the 26-episode Armageddon War storyline. It's all an increasingly nightmarish, bleakly comic story very much of its time -- the Cold War, sabre-rattling early 1980's.

Briefly, East-Meg-One, the Soviet Mega-City, strikes MegaCity-One first with nuclear and conventional weapons. Tens of millions of people die. Then the invasion begins. Things get worse. And worse. And worse. And only Judge Dredd can figure out how to 'win' the war.

Carlos Ezquerra's squirmy, often disturbingly visceral art makes a perfect complement to Wagner and Grant's writing here. The story is propulsive. The satire is horrifyingly apt. Dredd's committment to justice had never before racked up such a body count. And it all goes on and on, for hundreds of pages.

Not many popular comic books make their star into a war criminal. But that's Judge Dredd. Even the fairly faithful movie adaptation of a couple years back made the action too straightforward by half. Dredd's only a hero in comparison to the more awful choices surrounding him. He's the action hero as an undisguised fascist. Highly recommended.

Vampires Like Us

I, Vampire: written by J.M. DeMatteis, Bruce Jones, Dan Myshkin, Gary Cohn, and Mike Barr; illustrated by Tom Sutton, Paris Cullins, Joe Kubert, Mike Kaluta, and others (1981-83; collected 2011): DC's first foray into an ongoing vampire series appeared in the soon-to-be-defunct House of Mystery back in the early 1980's. It shares a few attributes with Marvel's earlier Tomb of Dracula and Blade vampire mythos, but looks a lot more like the obvious forerunner to TV shows that include Angel and Being Human.

400-year-old 'good' vampire Andrew Bennett wages a war against Mary, Queen of Blood, a vampire he himself created just after being 'turned' himself. He's got two faithful human companions. She's got thousands of vampires and humans at her command. Fun times!

J.M. deMatteis created the character along with artist Tom Sutton. Sutton remained on the series for pretty much its entire run, but deMatteis was gone after about eight issues. The next third of the series was written by Bruce Jones, who moved the proceedings into more traditional horror and ditched the supporting cast. Dan Myshkin and Gary Cohn came on board for the final third of the series, and returned it to its original format.

Like most 'good' vampires, Andrew Bennett is a bit of a Gloomy Gus, plagued by guilt over the sins he's committed as a vampire. A host of complications would soon ensue, from a lengthy time-travelling storyline to a mysterious plague that starts wiping out vampires. Bennett keeps his personal blood supply in wine bottles. Is this really a good idea from a food-preservation stand-point?

The deMatteis- and Myshkin and Cohn-scripted portions are much stronger than the Jones section, which at points becomes one of the most depressing horror comics ever, and one that I'm surprised made it through the Comics Code Authority at points. Because nothing says Comics Code like having a normal 10-year-old boy accidentally staked through the heart.

Sutton's art remains strong throughout whether he's pencilling or inking others -- he was always much more suited to the horror genre than anything else, as he's got a decent eye for both the grotesque and the fantastic. The covers for the series, by comic greats Joe Kubert and Michael Kaluta, are terrific. Recommended.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Stephen Leacock, Sherlock Holmes, Boobies

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: edited by John Joseph Adams (2009), containing the following stories:

The Doctor's Case (1987) by Stephen King;
The Horror of the Many Faces (2003) by Tim Lebbon;
The Case of the Bloodless Sock  (2001) by Anne Perry;
The Adventure of the Other Detective  (2001) by Bradley H. Sinor;
A Scandal in Montreal (2008) by Edward D. Hoch;
The Adventure of the Field Theorems (1995) by Vonda N. McIntyre;
The Adventure of the Death-Fetch (1994) by Darrell Schweitzer;
The Shocking Affair of the Dutch Steamship Friesland (2005) by Mary Robinette Kowal;
The Adventure of the Mummy's Curse (2006) by H. Paul Jeffers;
The Things That Shall Come Upon Them (2008) by Barbara Roden;
Murder to Music (1989)   by Anthony Burgess;
The Adventure of the Inertial Adjustor  (1997) by Stephen Baxter;
Mrs Hudson's Case (1997) by Laurie R. King;
The Singular Habits of Wasps (1994) by Geoffrey A. Landis;
The Affair of the 46th Birthday (2008) by Amy Myers;
The Specter of Tullyfane Abbey (2001) by Peter Tremayne;
The Vale of the White Horse (2003) by Sharyn McCrumb;
The Adventure of the Dorset Street Lodger (1995) by Michael Moorcock;
The Adventure of the Lost World (2004) by Dominic Green;
The Adventure of the Antiquarian's Niece (2003) by Barbara Hambly;
Dynamics of a Hanging (2005) by Tony Pi;
Merridew of Abominable Memory (2008)  by Chris Roberson;
Commonplaces (2008) by Naomi Novik;
The Adventure of the Pirates of Devil's Cape (2008) by Rob Rogers;
The Adventure of the Green Skull (2008) by Mark Valentine;
The Human Mystery (1999) by Tanith Lee;
A Study in Emerald (2003) by Neil Gaiman;
You See But You Do Not Observe (1995) by Robert J. Sawyer.

Hugely entertaining and lengthy anthology, mostly consisting of reprints, of Sherlock Holmes stories from the two decades previous to the anthology's publication. Many of the stories involve either science fiction or the supernatural, hence the 'improbable' part of the title. That itself riffs on Holmes' famous quotation, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth."

Some stories expand upon brief mentions of unchronicled cases in the original Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle ("Merridew of Abominable Memory" by Chris Roberson and "The Shocking Affair of the Dutch Steamship Friesland" by Mary Robinette Kowal both reference the original mention in their titles). Others pit Holmes against the supernatural ("The Horror of the Many Faces" by Tim Lebbon, "The Adventure of the Antiquarian's Niece" by Barbara Hambly, and "A Study in Emerald" (2003) by Neil Gaiman memorably riff on H.P. Lovecraft's brand of cosmic horror).

Writers also bounce Holmes off the works and characters of other writers ("The Things That Shall Come Upon Them" by Barbara Roden puts Holmes into a sequel of sorts to the classic M.R. James ghost story "Casting the Runes") or Doyle's own non-Holmesian works ("The Adventure of the Lost World" (2004) by Dominic Green). Mrs. Hudson and Doctor Watson get chances to solve crimes before Holmes does. Alternate worlds and science-fictional devices appear. Conan Doyle himself appears as a character. Holmes' childhood and college years are speculated upon, as is his family history. He even teams up with Stephen Leacock! In Canada!

There are a few duds here, but very few. One doesn't need to be a Holmes expert to enjoy the stories, and a concise history of Holmes included in the volume will aid those with too little knowledge of the World's First Consulting Detective. Highly recommended.

The Witchcraft Reader: edited by Peter Haining (1969) containing the following stories: Timothy (1966) by Keith Roberts; The Witch (1943) by A. E. van Vogt; The Warlock (1960) by Fritz Leiber; All the Devils in Hell  (1960) by John Brunner; From Shadowed Places (1960) by Richard Matheson; One Foot and the Grave (1949) by Theodore Sturgeon; Broomstick Ride (1957) by Robert Bloch; The Mad Wizards of Mars (1949) by Ray Bradbury.

Another of the voluminous Haining's fascinating anthologies. At his peak, he seemed to be releasing one of these a week. OK, he wasn't THAT prolific. Still, his selections are often immensely valuable because they're often way, way off the beaten path for this sort of thing.

The best character study here is John Brunner's  "All the Devils in Hell ." It's a marvelous exploration of a man in conflict with occult powers that ultimately can be opposed. Fritz Leiber's story puts a modern spin on witchcraft, while Robert Bloch's story deals with ancient witchcraft during a future era of interstellar travel. It's a solid little anthology. Also, there are naked boobies on the cover of the paperback. Huzzah! Recommended.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Past is Prologue...to Adventure!

The Shadow: adapted by David Koepp from characters and situations created by Walter Gibson and others; directed by Russell Mulcahy; starring Alec Baldwin (The Shadow/Lamont Cranston), John Lone (Shiwan Khan), Penelope Ann Miller (Margo Lane), Peter Boyle (Moe Shrevnitz), Ian McKellen (Dr. Lane), Tim Curry (Farley Claymore), and Jonathan Winters (Wainwright Cranston) (1994):

This attempt to turn the 1930's pulp and radio hero The Shadow into a film franchise like the Batman movies failed at the box office. However, it's far from terrible. Alec Baldwin is solid as The Shadow and his alter ego Lamont Cranston, and Penelope Ann Miller and the rest of the cast do solid work as the Shadow's lieutenants, associates, and enemies. John Lone plays the Shadow's greatest enemy in the pulps, Shiwan Khan, with a light touch.

Actually, the whole movie may be a bit too light, both in tone and on action set-pieces. Still, compared to most current superhero movies, The Shadow seems like a masterpiece of plot and characterization. And there's a lot of acting and writing talent here, including welcome comic bits from Ian McKellen and Jonathan Winters. The Shadow's gal pal Margo Lane even gets to do things that don't involve screaming or fainting. Recommended.

Stand by Me: adapted by Raynold Gideon and Bruce Evans from the Stephen King novella "The Body"; directed by Rob Reiner; starring Wil Wheaton (Gordie Lachance), River Phoenix (Chris Chambers), Corey Feldman (Teddy Duchamp), Jerry O'Connell (Vern Tessio), Kiefer Sutherland (Ace Merrill), Richard Dreyfus (The Writer), and John Cusack (Denny Lachance) (1986):

An almost quintessential tale of childhood friendship was Rob Reiner's first box-office hit. The fictional Stephen King town of Castle Rock (a name King himself used as an homage to Lord of the Flies) appears here, and Reiner would name his production company after it because of the success of the movie. And that's what connects Lord of the Flies to Seinfeld.

Beautifully acted by all the boys, but especially River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton, who are both beautifully naturalistic, it's a short, jam-packed movie. Of course, the secret story of the movie is that there's a killer train wandering the woods around Castle Rock. It's already killed once, and it will try to kill again. As it's a vehicle that seems to be fixated on killing children, it may be the offspring of Christine and Pennywise the Clown. It will not stop if you are on the tracks. It will not even slow down. Highly recommended.

Cigarette Burned

Tales from the Crypt Archives Volume 2: written by Al Feldstein; illustrated by Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Jack Kamen, Graham Ingels, Joe Orlando, and others (1951-52; reprinted 2010): Another collection of horror stories ranging from good to great, from the days before the Comics Code Authority lobotomized American comic books.

It amazes me how fresh and enjoyable most of the stories in this volume remain. EC had the finest comic-book artists in America for much of its too-short existence. The stories, written for the most part by editor Al Feldstein, occasionally get a bit rote (the vengeance of the dead was always an EC horror staple, along with some truly atrocious puns), but many are clever short stories in their own right.

But the art, of course, is the thing. Wally Wood is a bit out of his depth here -- he was always best on science fiction and non-supernatural thrillers, and the two covers he assays are weirdly non-horrific. But when you've got 'Ghastly' Graham Ingels, Jack Davis, Jack Kamen, and Joe Orlando on the beat, everything's going to be fine. Davis, also a long-time Mad artist, is droll and blackly comic. Orlando and Kamen are fine, moody artists.

And Ingels remains one of the greatest horror artists to ever draw comic books. Many of his monsters are disturbingly malformed. He's the granddaddy of so many modern horror artists, from Bernie Wrightson through Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch. His grotesques anticipate both the distorted spaghetti monsters of films such as John Carpenter's The Thing and the human monsters of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. Highly recommended.

John Constantine Hellblazer: Death & Cigarettes: written by Peter Milligan; illustrated by Simon Bisley, Guiseppe Camuncoli, and Stefano Landini (2012-2013; Collected 2013): 300 issues of Vertigo's John Constantine Hellblazer come to an end in this volume, so that Constantine can continue his adventures, in somewhat altered and youthfulized form, over in a title set in DC's mainstream superhero universe.

Created by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch in Swamp Thing in the early 1980's as a sort of punk-attitude occult investigator from rust-belt Northern England, Constantine has had a long, varied, and distinguished career both in other people's comics and in his 25 years of his own title. He's even survived a completely screwy Keanu Reeves movie. And he's getting his own TV series this fall.

For me, the heights of John Constantine Hellblazer were reached early, with Jamie Delano writing the first 40 issues or so. Ably complemented by artists that included John Ridgway (understated and sinister), Sean Phillips and, in Delano's then-finale on the series, cover-artist Dave McKean doing an entire issue, Delano created a dense, kitchen-sink milieu of horror for Constantine.

Most of the humour in the title came from Constantine's sarcastic reaction to the horrors he faced. We were always meant to view Constantine through the lens of his own self-evaluation as a cursed punk, but we were also forced to conclude that he was indeed a very, very dark knight standing between humanity and the inimical forces of heaven and hell alike.

So we fast-forward here, to the end. I was gratified to discover that the Internet had as many problems figuring out just what the Hell the last three pages of the last issue mean. The whole thing ends on a note of ambiguity that may be entirely intended or may be sloppy story-telling. I have no idea.

Writer Peter Milligan gives us a 60-ish Constantine gifted with a super-hot 40-years-younger wife, a suddenly retconned-into-existence nephew who looks exactly like him, and a not-particularly imposing group of supernatural menaces to usher him out of his title. The art's generally so dark as to verge on inexplicable. Also, as some Internet wag noted, the main artists here seem to have forgotten that Constantine was visually modelled on Sting circa 1983, and not on Gary Busey circa 2013. The years have not been kind.

Stuff happens. There are a lot of sex scenes. Constantine's niece, once a capable presence when written by others, shows up as a traumatized shell of her former appearances. What's technically a demonic rape is played strictly for laughs. Did Constantine and his universe deserve better than this? Yeah. But we'll always have Newcastle. Spend your money on the John Constantine Hellblazer collections written by Delano, Garth Ennis, Andy Diggle, or Mike Carey instead. Not recommended.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Truck Monster

Duel: adapted by Richard Matheson from his novella; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Dennis Weaver (David Mann) (1971): The late, great Richard Matheson adapted his own novella for this television movie, one of the first (and best) things ever directed by Steven Spielberg. Hitched to a great script, the young Spielberg pretty much shoots out the lights in this gripping, terse tale of Man vs. Truck(driver). David Mann vs. Truck(driver), actually.

Dennis 'McCloud' Weaver plays David Mann, a frustrated California travelling salesman driving through California's scrub brush and deserts to make an appointment. He's having problems at home, centered around his wife's perception of him as something of a nebbish. Then he innocently passes a slow-moving truck. All hell follows.

You can view this a great thriller with a sub-text that deals with a modern man's battle with his own feelings of inadequacy and emasculation. You can view this as a thriller of paranoia and terror, as the early stages of Mann's battle with the truck-driver (never fully glimpsed at any point during the movie) repeatedly put Mann in situations in which no one believes that he's in a duel to the death with a crazy person.

Weaver is flat-out terrific, sympathetic and squirmy. Screenwriters aspiring or otherwise should look at this film as a model of how to effectively use voiceover narration in a movie. We're privy to Mann's internal dialogue at points, and it's beautifully done. The scenery is suitably deserted. The truck, as much a character as Weaver, is about as sinister a vehicle as one could want, grimy and menacing and way, way too fast for its weight class.

Duel taps into very specific fears related to driving, and driving around large trucks. But it's also rich and wide-ranging in its use of fear and suspense. There are moments that have the quality of a nightmare, and suspense scenes that Spielberg would never surpass in all his later years of film-making.

In a way, this is a companion piece to two of Matheson's great 1950's novels that were adapted into movies, The Shrinking Man and I am Legend. Both dealt with self-doubting masculinity left virtually alone to confront some mounting horror. Taken together, they form a triptych, though I am Legend has never received a satisfactory film adaptation in the way the other two have. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Influence of Anxiety

Demons by Daylight by Ramsey Campbell:
Star Books edition (1975, identical to 1973 Arkham House edition): Potential  (1973); The End of a Summer's Day  (1973) ; At First Sight  (1973); The Franklyn Paragraphs  (1973); The Interloper  (1973)   [as by Errol Undercliffe ]; The Sentinels  (1973); The Guy  (1973); The Old Horns  (1973); The Lost  (1973); The Stocking  (1968); The Second Staircase  (1973); Concussion  (1973); The Enchanted Fruit  (1973); Made in Goatswood  (1973).

Jove/HBJ edition (1979): omits The Second Staircase and The Enchanted Fruit; adds The Last Hand (1975), The Telephones (1976), and Reply Guaranteed (1968).

The great Ramsey Campbell's writing shifted almost tectonically between his first and second collections. And all this shifting, which took place over a decade, occurred before he was 25. Demons by Daylight is that second collection, in slightly different forms for its British and American paperback editions (Arkham House originally published it in hardcover in 1973).

Campbell went from being a very young (16!) and gifted writer of pastiches of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos fiction to being a still-young horror writer with a prose style and approach to the supernatural that was, even with this second collection, uniquely his own.

Cosmic horrors would still appear in Campbell's work, along with ghosts and monsters and homicidal maniacs. But the description would be disturbingly off-set from the usual -- Stephen King once likened Campbell's descriptions of reality as being almost LSD-derived in their disturbing, vaguely hallucinatory quality. Everything, even the most simple of objects, has been radically destabilized and gifted with malign life. Sometimes that malign life is subjective. Sometimes that malign life is objective. Sometimes the whole matter remains unclear.

Already at work in this collection is Campbell's wedding of horror and anxiety. That anxiety usually occurs within the minds of his protagonists, and finds some answering echo from the world around them. That answer may be supernatural. It may be mundane but horrific. Or the answer may be unanswerable as to its provenance: is it real or is it entirely inside the mind? Or is the 'or' really 'and'?

Take "The Telephones," for instance. The settings are mundane: a pub, the side of a highway, a succession of phone booths. But the protagonist seems to think he's telepathic. And he may be. But he's also in the midst of a personality crisis about his sexual orientation. And weird things are happening, ultimately never to be entirely answered. It's not a great story, but it's a very good one.

Or take "The End of a Summer's Day." The protagonist's anxiety relates to her belief that she's unworthy of the love and marriage she's found relatively late in life. There's a bus tour with her spouse. There's a cave. Something happens that may or may not be real. My take is that what happens is real, in a supernatural sense, but that it also preys upon the anxieties that could conceivably reflect an unstable mind that's actually invented everything that's happened. A certain portion of Campbell's fiction exists in this gap.

But there's also the windy, twisty supernatural, overtly deployed, to be dealt with. Demons by Daylight contains my favourite dual narrative in Campbell's body of work, "The Franklyn Paragraphs" and "The Interloper"  [as by Errol Undercliffe], appearing jointly under the title of "Errol Undercliffe: An Appreciation."

Campbell himself (well, a character called Ramsey Campbell) narrates "The Franklyn Paragraphs." That faux memoir deals with (fictional) cult horror writer Errol Undercliffe, his disappearance, and the Lovecraftian events leading up to that disappearance. "The Interloper," ostensibly a story by Undercliffe, mixes the supernatural with the anxieties and fears of teenagers as related to the world of adults and authority and their peculiar powerlessness against authority figures who are not what they appear to be. It's a great duo.

The collection begins to flesh out the fictional cosmos centered around the fictional English city of Brichester that would appear a lot in Campbell's work around this time. Brichester, modelled partially on Campbell's hometown of Liverpool, would eventually be superseded by the real city in Campbell's work, though his fictional towns and cities of Brichester, Goatswood, Temphill, and others would continue to appear right up to the present day. These are places in the Severn Valley you don't want to go. But it's great to read about them. Campbell's work would continue to grow and improve after this collection. Still, this is a delight, and a sign of things to come. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Everybody was Robot-Fighting

Magnus, Robot Fighter 4000 AD Archives Volume 1: written and drawn by Russ Manning (1963-64; collected 2010): The late, great writer-artist Russ Manning did terrific work on everything from Tarzan comic books and comic strips to the Star Wars newspaper strip from the 1950's to the 1980's prior to his death in 1981 at the age of 52. But many consider the 21 issues of Magnus, a comic book he created in 1963, to be his magnum opus.

Manning's style favoured clean lines and nicely choreographed action. The art merits the term 'balletic' in a way that only a few other superhero artists truly do -- the great Gil Kane comes to mind as well. The in-panel and panel-to-panel action flows smoothly; one really races through the stories. Manning's propulsive artistic skill means that one has to go back to appreciate the non-narrative pleasures of his art, which are many.

Most notable from a design standpoint are Manning's depictions of technology, especially vehicles and robots. His robots have a wide array of designs suited to their function, while his vehicles, especially the spaceships, avoid the cliched 'V-2' designs of most comic-book rockets of the era.

The narrative is very simple. In the year 4000 AD, humanity has become too reliant on technology. And some of that technology has begun to turn against humanity, either on its own or as part of some human's evil plan. Enter Magnus, trained by an ancient robot to fight other robots with his super-strength and martial arts skills. And so Magnus does.

Pretty much every story ends with Magnus warning humanity against the dangers of becoming over-reliant on technology. This seems to have been a big deal with Russ Manning in the early 1960's. I'd love to see his reaction to today's world. Or at least Magnus's reaction.

There's currently yet another attempt to reboot Magnus on the market, but while it's skilfully done, it's not Russ Manning. And, reflecting our times, it's more like Magnus, Virtual Reality Computer Fighter. Where's the fun in that?

Magnus influenced a number of later comic books, probably none moreso than Mike Baron and Steve Rude's Nexus, which began in the early 1980's. Rude's art riffs on Manning at points in enjoyable ways without slavish imitation. And there was even a really enjoyable Magnus/Nexus crossover from Dark Horse Comics (who also issued this reprint volume) back in the 1990's. That was done by Baron and Rude, and is also well worth seeking out. So, too, the originals. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Another Atomic Superman

Doctor Solar: Man of the Atom Archives Volume 1: written by Paul S. Newman, Matt Murphy, and Otto Binder; illustrated by Bob Fujitani and Frank Bolle (1962-64; reprinted 2010): The rising tide of super-hero sales at the beginning of the 1960's (and the Marvel Era) floated new titles at companies other than DC and Marvel, though most would sink pretty quickly. Not Gold Key's Doctor Solar, though, which persisted with new issues through the 1960's and in reprints throughout the 1970's.

Blessed with terrific painted covers by first veteran science-fiction magazine cover artist Richard M. Powers and then George Wilson, Doctor Solar looked unusually adult-oriented for its time. And for the first few issues, The Man of the Atom doesn't have a superhero costume. He does turn green when using his powers, but there's no hulking out.

Solar (yes, that is his real name) goes by the moniker 'Man of the Atom' once he starts running around in a costume. Exposure to radiation gave him a wide array of vaguely atomic powers which tend to grow in variety and scope from issue to issue. And as he's radioactive most of the time, Doctor Solar has to avoid human contact except when he's wearing specially created clothing. It really interferes with his dating life.

For the most part, the stories here are enjoyable -- a bit staid, perhaps, both on the writing and drawing sides, but fun nonetheless. The very matter-of-fact styles of interior artists Bob Fujitani and later Frank Bolle ground the often cosmically bizarre situations in reality. At times, the comic seems more like a pitch for a live-action series along the lines of The Six Million Dollar Man, especially in the earlier, 'plainclothes' issues. Recommended.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Disco Apocalypse Now

Superman in the Seventies, Introduction by Christopher Reeve; featuring stories written by Jack Kirby, Paul Levitz, Elliot S. Maggin, Martin Pasko, Cary Bates, Denny O'Neil, and others; illustrated by Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson, Dick Dillin, Dick Giordano, Bob Oksner, Werner Roth, Jack Kirby, and others (1970-79; collected 2000):

Solid collection of mostly stand-alone adventures of the Man of Steel from the Me Decade. Arranged thematically with one-page essays introducing each section, the book covers a broad range of treatments of the Man of Tomorrow.

Stand-outs include "Make Way for Captain Thunder!", in which Superman and a thinly disguised Captain Marvel do battle (Superman would meet the real deal a few years later); "I am Curious (Black)", a Lois Lane story that aims at racism and social issues; and a couple of sympathetic treatments of Lex Luthor, never more interesting a character than he was here, willing to save Superman's life if he wasn't going to be the one who defeated him. The Jack Kirby Jimmy Olsen story is a bit of a peculiar inclusion, as it ends on a cliffhanger -- there are several other Kirby Superman stories that might have better served this collection.

Classic Superman penciller Curt Swan works on a lot of the stories included here, to great effect. He's terrific on the Captain Thunder story, and on "Kryptonite Nevermore!," the early 1970's story that attempted to modernize (and Marvelize) the Man of Steel. That latter story also ends without complete resolution, as the storyline would play out over the course of a year.

The 1970's Superman stories often move into uncharted territory for the character. Clark Kent gets moved to television and now answers to media mogul Morgan Edge for several years. He also loses his perennial blue suits for some occasionally funky 1970's business attire. New additions to the Superman cast include annoying sports broadcaster Steve Lombard, the somewhat bizarre space-cowboy Terra-Man, the ultra-powerful Galactic Golem, and a host of other new friends and enemies.

Throughout, we see attention given to making Superman and his Clark Kent alter-ego more fallible and occasionally troubled, though he soldiers through regardless. The volume also includes a nice array of classic covers from the era, including the Neal Adams gem that kicked off the "Kryptonite Nevermore!" arc and a number of great pieces from Nick Cardy when he was DC's line-wide cover artist. All in all, a nice piece of work. Recommended.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Beginnings and Endings

Cat Ballou: adapted from the novel by Roy Chanslor by Walter Newman and Frank Pierson; directed by Elliot Silverstein; starring Jane Fonda (Cat Ballou), Lee Marvin (Kid Shelleen/ Tim Strawn), Nat King Cole (Shouter) and Stubby Kaye (Shouter) (1965): A comic-musical elegy to the end of the movie Western as a viable box-office commodity, Cat Ballou was a huge hit that made Jane Fonda a movie star and got Lee Marvin a Best Actor Oscar for playing both the good and bad gunslingers.

Much of the younger male cast is weirdly bland, though they all try hard to be funny. Marvin actually is funny, as is whatever stunt man did the insane riding tricks the drunk gunslinger performs on a couple of occasions.

You could file this under the Farewell to the Western category of movies, a category that stretches from the farce of Blazing Saddles through the dramedy of Cat Ballou and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid all the way to the drama of Unforgiven, The Shootist, and True Grit. There's a lot of singing from Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole, whose balladeers serve as both narration and Greek Chorus for the goings-on. Recommended.

Stripes: written by Len Blum, Daniel Goldberg, and Harold Ramis; directed by Ivan Reitman; starring Bill Murray (John), Harold Ramis (Russell), Warren Oates (Hulka), John Candy (Ox), P.J. Soles (Stella), and Sean Young (Louise) (1981): Bill Murray's first starring role in a genuine box-office blockbuster remains enjoyable more than 30 years later. It's interesting to note how careful the movie is to avoid killing anyone in the pursuit of laughs. It's also interesting to note how ridiculous the romance sub-plot is.

John Candy is great in his first major supporting role as "New Teen Heart-throb" Ox[burger], and Warren Oates is all angry grimaces and comic menace in what was, I believe, his last screen role. Harold Ramis can't act, even a little, but he sure could write successful film comedies. Ivan Reitman directs with his usual shaggy charm. Bill Paxton gets a credit as one of the platoon, though I didn't spot him. Recommended.

American Motormouths

American Hustle: written by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer; directed by David O. Russell; starring Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser), Jeremy Renner (Camden Mayor Carmine Polito), Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld), Louis C.K. (Stoddard Thorsen) and Elisabeth Rohm (Dolly Polito) (2013): Writer-director David O. Russell has said on numerous occasions that plot bores him. Thankfully, the actors and the dialogue in his movies -- some of that dialogue improvised -- can make one forget that the proceedings are a bit shaggy at times. For whatever reason, he's also the one director who can get a great performance out of Bradley Cooper.

American Hustle, loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the 1970's, gives all of its actors something to do and, more importantly, something to say. The performances are all top-notch, especially an almost unrecognizable Christian Bale as an overweight con-man with his own code of ethics and Amy Adams as his partner in crime. The plot sags a bit in the middle under the weight of all those conversations, but regains its jauntiness as the end draws near. Someone should sign Russell and company up for a remake of The Front Page/His Girl Friday, stat. He's one of a few modern directors who could successfully replicate the rat-a-tat dialogue direction of Howard Hawks. Highly recommended.

High Anxiety: written by Mel Brooks, Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca, and Barry Levinson; directed by Mel Brooks; starring Mel Brooks (Richard H. Thorndyke), Madeline Kahn (Victoria Brisbane), Cloris Leachman (Nurse Diesel), Harvey Korman (Dr. Charles Montague), Ron Carey (Brophy), Dick Van Patten (Dr. Wentworth), and Howard Morris (Professor Lilloman) (1977): Mel Brooks is all over the place figuratively and literally in this parody of the films of Alfred Hitchcock. He sings. He dances. He stars. He directs. He co-writes. It's probably no accident that Brooks' films became decreasingly popular as his ego moved him from supporting roles in his own films to lead roles -- this is his second turn as the lead, and the rot has begun to set in, lightly but inevitably.

Still, there are some killer sequences parodying both the specific and the general in Hitchcock's films, from some complicated camerawork under a glass coffee table to a ridiculous riff on Janet Leigh's driving problems in Psycho. And there are killer performances, none moreso than Cloris Leachman as a nurse/dominatrix with truly peculiar line-readings and physical mannerisms. Recommended.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: adapted by John Huston from the novel by B. Traven; starring Humphrey Bogart (Dobbs), Walter Huston (Howard), Tim Holt (Curtin), Bruce Bennett (Cody), and Robert Blake (Lottery Seller) (1948): One of the all-time great adventure films gives us Humphrey Bogart at his grimiest and Walter Huston at a chameleonic peak that earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Gold-hunting in Mexico in the 1920's leads Bogart, Huston, and Tim Holt up a mountain and then down into the depths of human behaviour.

Great lines, great acting, fine direction from Walter Huston's son John, and the crazed jig forever after known as the Walter Huston dance. And the badges line, often misquoted. And a wild, realistic barroom brawl. One of the first big-budget Hollywood movies to be filmed almost entirely on location. If there are essential movies, this is one of them. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Spirit World: written by Jack Kirby, Mark Evanier, and Steve Sherman; illustrated by Jack Kirby, Mike Royer, and Neal Adams (1970-71; collected 2012): An oddity caused in part by DC's inability to commit to new projects in the 1970's, Spirit World was supposed to be part of DC's foray into the world of black-and-white comics magazines. And it sort of was.

But DC hedged its bets by creating a whole other shell company to have its name on the covers, constantly downgraded what the book would contain, and ultimately dumped it on the market in such a way that the first issue may have never reached most newsstands.

Jack Kirby and friends put together this magazine, along with In the Days of the Mob, which had a similarly truncated existence. Kirby's Boswell, Mark Evanier, lays out the odd circumstances surrounding the creation of Spirit World. DC comes across as even more bumbling than usual for the time period.

The stories here are a lot of fun, both from the first issue and the never-published second issue. Along with a fumetti and a prose piece, we get some horror pieces that lean on parapsychology rather than the overt supernatural. One of the ghosts is a cousin to the composite ghost-monster of Robert Bloch's classic story "The Hungry House," and Kirby's visualization of such a thing is one of the kicks of the volume. Recommended.

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze: written by Chris Roberson with Shannon Eric Denton; illustrated by Bilquis Evely with Roberto Castro, John Cassaday, and Alex Ross (2013-2014): Well, the covers by John Cassaday and Alex Ross for Dynamite's quickly cancelled Doc Savage title were great. The time-leaping, eight-issue storyline that began and ultimately ended Dynamite's Doc Savage comic was not such a great idea.

Character development of anyone other than Doc was almost non-existent as the storyline spanned 80 years of the adventures of Doc Savage, with everything tied together by an overarching plot that made Doc look like something of an idiot. The time-leaping also gives us almost no significant time with any of the assistants old or new. Simply doing justice to Doc's cousin Pat and his five original assistants in eight issues would have been difficult; the series adds a couple of dozen more assistants over the years.

Interior artist Bilquis Evely was something of an ill fit for the series -- the young illustrator is pretty bland at this point, something evident right from the first issue as Doc's assistants, very distinct physically in the original novels, become almost interchangeable on the page. He's not good with period detail, and he doesn't seem to know how to make the necessary talking-heads sequences visually interesting.

Philosophically, a story pointing out Doc's faults isn't necessarily a bad idea, but it may have been a bad idea to centre your first storyline on Doc's shortcomings. It makes for something of a depressing read, which isn't something one associates with the pulp adventures. And Doc's cock-ups are so spectacular in several of these issues that it's hard to understand why he isn't in jail. Everywhere on the planet.

Doc's next comic-book appearance will apparently be at Dynamite in a six-issue miniseries also starring fellow Street&Smith pulp heroes The Shadow and The Avenger. I still look forward to it. As to Doc, something more along the lines of IDW's Rocketeer Adventures, an anthology miniseries with several stories per issue by an assortment of writers and artists, seems to me the way to go with this. Making things fun would probably also be a good idea. Lightly recommended.