Thursday, December 19, 2013


It's the Yuletide season and predictably, the bookstores are astocked with books cynically cobbled together to appeal to the stereotypical Right Wing, Conservative, Christian gift-buyers.  Like the shoe cobbler waking in the morning to find the elves had repaired all the shoes, we can always depend on a slew of Right Wing media darlings to slap their names on books ghost-written by other people and proudly claim authorship.  And the target audience gobbles them up, slaps wrapping paper on them, and down under the Xmas tree they go for dad, grampaw, or your looney uncle to exclaim their glorious pleasure on Xmas morning at the gift given to them. 

I happen to have a moral problem (and I know it's just me) with people who slap their names on books when they didn't actually write them.  So, today I'm going to spotlight the ghost-writers and shine the light on them.

The trend in the past has been to bury the ghost-writer's name in the "Acknowledgements" section of the book.  Isn't that classy?  "I'm going to pretend I wrote this book and get all the royalties and recognition but I'm so magnanimous that I'm going to toss an acknowledgement bone to the actual author at the end of the book at the same time I'm thanking my wife, my editor, my manager, my mom, and my dog."  Sometimes that's made it tricky for me to dig through the string of names to glean the true author, and sometimes I may have missed it, but I don't think so.

The current trend, in this mass media age of bad publicity, is to at least put the real author's name on the cover, just make sure that the font is about 1,000 times smaller than the name of the liar who's claiming authorship and getting all the attention and money.  Today I am going to spotlight 5 current books that I believe are ghost-written and shine the light on who I think was the real author rather than the one who gets sole or top-billing.

1. The first book to spotlight is RUSH REVERE AND THE BRAVE PILGRIMS. 

The description goes like this: "Join Rush Revere on exciting time-travels with his special horse Liberty! Rush Revere travels back in time to experience American history as it happens...."  I'm sorry, that's as far as I could get before throwing up in my mouth.

Anyway, nobody reading this better believe Rush Limbaugh actually wrote this book himself or you really should just leave right now.  I'm serious.  Leave.

He may have come up with this insipid concept but that's where his contribution ends if even that.  It actually sounds more like something his yes-minions probably came up with one day while clipping his nails and popping his back zits.

So, since Rush is not one for class, it should be expected that he would not have the decency to actually put his ghost-writer on the cover.  Instead he just emblazons the book narcissistically with his name and likeness and a self-gratifying note that "he" is a New York Times Best-Selling Author.   So I flipped through this nauseating piece of propaganda and murky history replete with lots of illustrations of bobble-headed Rush Revere toddling through history telling us what really happened.  Were this a sarcastically self-aware endeavor I could see how it could be hilariously rewriting history with a post-modern cynicism.  Instead, it's just more lazy pandering and continued plundering of the Conservative citizens's coffers to fill his already quite sizeable girth. 

At the end of the book we finally get to the Acknowledgments and as Christoper Schoebinger is the only person thanked for some non-specific "assistance" I am going to climb out on my Ghost limb here and point the finger at him.  I take no issue with him for getting that paycheck.  Ghost gotta eat, right?  But someone seriously needs to stick a pin in the Rush balloon of false piety and self-righteous gluttony and pop it.

2. The second book to spotlight is  KILLING JESUS.

This book is purportedly authored by Bill O'Reilly as you can see by the enormous lettering for his name.  However, in teeny tiny letters under Bill's name you can see who the actual author is: Martin Dugard.  So, while Bill is taking all the credit for this book, it's Martin who gets all the blame. 

I think this summary of the book from The Guardian puts it pretty well:  "Jesus, the little guy, is an enemy of the big corrupt tax-oppressing Roman empire, which is itself just a version of Washington, only even more venal and sexually depraved. This Jesus is a tax-liberating rebel who incurs the wrath of the Jewish and Roman powers by threatening their joint fleecing of the people. As a member of the populist right, he is not, of course, in favour of redistribution: Bill O'Reilly's Jesus does not tell the rich to give away their money to the poor."

Good Catholic Bill O'Reilly celebrates the birth of our peace-loving Savior by attaching his name to a cynical money-grab directed specifically at milking those in this country who feel their government is conspiratorily out to get them.  And what better way to do this than hang a government conspiracy around Jesus' neck on the cross.  Ho Ho Ho! Merry Xmas!


You gotta know up front that Glenn Beck rubs me wrong in every way. So the idea that he's going to slap his name on a book that purports to tell me 12 little "thrillers" as a way of learning about history turns my stomach a little. 

Since I think the man to have a messianic complex and to be a functioning delusional, his idea of what he construes as "untold" stories of America immediately make me cringe at the perverted prism of reality through which he would have directed the actual author to write through.

I will say this, though, I do think Glenn involves himself in the construction of these books with his name on them more than some of these others.  However, I don't believe he wrote the actual book so putting his name at the top in huge letters is a huge problem for me.

I noticed that the cover doesn't make any mention of anyone other than Glenn Beck as the author.  Nice to see good old traditionalists like Glenn and Rush are sticking to the olden ways.  But I look inside the book to the credits page and what I see is a book written by Kevin Balfe and edited by Glenn Beck's daughter Hannah and overseen (editor-in-chief style) by Glenn.

4.  The fourth book to spotlight is COMMAND AUTHORITY.

There is a new "Jack Ryan" movie coming out soon so, as one would expect. Tom Clancy's book publisher has to make sure we get a new "Jack Ryan Novel" out there to feed the marketing.  It doesn't matter that Tom Clancy died in October. 

Of course, I don't think Clancy's actually written anything attributed to him as author in years, so this isn't surprising.  Mark Greaney is the author of this one.  And by all accounts, if you like this kind of book, you'll like this one.  But boy, the Tom Clancy conservative readership just keeps on sucking this stuff in like powdered candy don't they?

The further adventures of President Jack Ryan Sr. and covert warrior Jack Ryan Jr. will further titillate and tantalize those out there with thrills, espionage, and politics.  And all the while reinforcing those conservative values that we all associate with such drama and without any need for deep philosophical analysis or graphic sexual content. 

5. The fifth book to spotlight is actually a couple of books together:  HAPPY, HAPPY, HAPPY: MY LIFE AND LEGACY AS THE DUCK COMMANDER and SI-COLOGY 101: TALES & WISDOM FROM DUCK DYNASTY'S FAVORITE UNCLE.

Purportedly "written" by Phil Robertson and Si Robertson, respectively, of the tv-series DUCK DYNASTY, I think the timing of these books could not be better.  With the recent controversy and removal by A&E of Phil from the show, I expect these books to be flying out of bookstores and winging their ways under Xmas trees posthaste.

I don't think I can fully express how exasperatingly horrific these books appear to someone like me. It's like someone crafted a pander stew of everything that is intended to capitalize upon ignorance, blissful nostalgia, rubbernecking, lack of critical thinking, nonsense posited as good old "horse sense", and just a putrid air of self-righteousness masking pure money grabs.

Normally I don't assign any real malice to the ghost-writers and just assume they are doing it for the paycheck.  But in my opinion, the true author of these books, Mark Schlabach, has likely carved himself out a quaint little corner of Hell for his future by tying his present-day fortunes together with this embarrassing blip in history that is currently a painful boil on humanity's ass.

If there really is a Krampus, he's got his eyes set on Mark this Xmas.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR! Interview with Tavi Gevinson of

Tavi Gevinson is a 17 year-old writer and magazine editor for an online magazine called Rookie Mag [].  Independent comics publisher Drawn and Quarterly partnered last year with Tavi to bring Rookie Mag to life as a physical book collection ostensibly like a school Yearbook.  The ROOKIEMAG YEARBOOK VOL. 1 (still available for purchase) was successful enough to make VOL. 2 inevitable.  The ROOKIEMAG YEARBOOK VOL. 2 (available now) is more than just a mere collection of blog postings.  It is 350 pages full of the best articles, interviews, collages, photo editorials, and illustrations from teens and for teens over the past year, but also includes celebrity contributions (Judy Blume, Mindy Kaling, and others). 

The book itself is an impressive production and Tavi herself may simply be the most accomplished 17 year-old I’ve ever met.  I’m retroactively embarrassed by my slothful 17 year-old self now.

Keith Howell (Me):  Nice to meet you, Tavi.

Tavi Gevinson (Tavi):  Nice to meet you, too.

Me: Well, I've read through your ROOKIEMAG YEARBOOK VOL. 2. I shared one of the articles with my 16 yr old homeschooled daughter and then posted it on my FB page. 
The "No More Nice Girls" article.

Tavi: Oh, that makes me so happy! I hope she liked it. “No More Nice Girl” is one of my favorites. That writer, Sady Doyle, is so talented.

Me: It was exceptionally sharp.  Well-written.

I appreciated her perspective.

The whole endeavor, the website and book are damned impressive work.  I hope you realize that. :)

Tavi: Thank you so much.

We all work really hard on it, it's a labor of love for sure, so this period of time when we have events and signings and can see Rookie live offline is extremely rewarding.

Me: In this day and age, where publishers are going to the web more and more, what was it within you that got you thinking along the lines of doing it reversed — taking it from the web to the printed age and doing it so creatively?

Are you a tactile learner?

Tavi: I don't know if I'm a tactile learner so much as I'm just impatient. I knew how I wanted the series to look when we started talking about doing the first one, and figured I would learn the technicalities of the process along the way.

Me: Are you the type who just says "I want it to be like this." and expect someone to just figure out how to get that done or are you more...fluid about it.  Like maybe have a generalized concept and feel it out as you go?

Tavi: My way of operating with Rookie has never been to just say "I want it this way" and let people fill in the blanks. There's always a conversation going on, any kind of disagreement never feels personal: we're all just here to make the strongest work we can for our readers.

A lot of Rookie is about using the online to get our readers to do stuff offline. We post a lot of DIYs (Do-It-Yourself) on stuff like starting a band, making a journal, all of that. And our readers respond to that, to the kind of attention to detail many of us have, that weird connection to who we used to be as they can be memorialized in tangible objects like a dress or a book or what have you.

So I knew our readers would like to have a version of Rookie they could hold in their hands, experience in a more visual way, keep on a nightstand. For this reason, it was also important to make it worth it -- not to do a copy-and-paste website-to-book.

Every spread was exhaustively decorated and thought through.

Me: Yes it is.  It's not just a reading book, it is interactive.  It's informative and interesting, but also fun.

I would also imagine that your schedule is just jam-packed most days.  Do you still find time for purely pleasure reading?

Tavi: It's nice of course when a book we read for English is also pleasurable to me. I try to make time for both but usually I can only stick with what I have assigned for school.

Me: Understandable.

What stories out there inspire you? (film, comics, books, whatever). 

Do you find inspiration in stories?

Do you have a favorite poet, for instance?

Tavi: Yes, absolutely -- even though Rookie is not the same as, you know, making a fantastical movie or something, even though it's not fiction and we are trying to be honest, I feel most inspired after reading a book or watching a movie. I think it's because they create a feeling in you that makes YOU want to do the same, and that's important to us at Rookie, inspiring our readers to be creative themselves, instead of just taking in what we do.

I love Patti Smith and E. E. Cummings and Margaret Atwood.

Most of my favorite movies are teen movies, dark comedies like HEATHERS

Me:  HEATHERS is amazing! I was there when it first came out!

How do you take it knowing that there are people (many of whom you've never met) who are inspired by you? 

Is that humbling or energizing?

Tavi: I know I can't read into it too much -- I gave a talk about “fangirling” at the Sydney Opera House and Melbourne Writers Festival in August about this -- because so much of what people love about a writer, musician, etc. is more a reflection of the person who loves it. So I'm very happy people respond to what I do or can see me as "inspiring," as you say, but I know there's a lot that goes on between my putting myself out into the world and how they receive me. I also just think it's unhealthy to take any feedback too personally, whether it's positive or not. It's just tricky territory.

Me: You have a healthy attitude.  Very wise.

Tavi: Ultimately, however, you know, I'm not complaining. For as much as there's no for sure way to measure the validity of every single ounce of feedback from every single person, I am pleased and flattered that the overall response to what I do has been encouraging.

Me: What has been the biggest surprise (or surprises) to you about embarking on this endeavor?

Tavi:  Hmmm. That it's happened at all, really.

I think about ROOKIE YEARBOOK VOL. 1 and it's like, HOW did we get on the phone with Drawn & Quarterly in mid-May and then get a book out by September? The ROOKIE machine is crazy and magical.

Me:  The book itself is kind of crazy and magical. I can't think of anything else out there like it.

Tavi: Thank you so much! That's so nice of you to say. 

Also, (another surprise), when I went to Fashion Week regularly and wrote about fashion and worked with fashion magazines, everyone thought that industry would like, poison my brain. Honestly, I think there is that kind of cattiness in a lot of different areas I've worked in. It's not exclusive to fashion, or any industry.

It's just that when stuff like power comes into play, people get insecure or threatened or what have you, and then they forget about what they actually love about their work, and they act out -- whether they work in fashion, publishing, film...The risk in saying this is making myself the exception, and I'm not; I get disillusioned, too.

But if you're asking what the biggest surprises have been, that's one of them: that I have witnessed more cattiness among adults with jobs than I have in high school.

Me: Thank you for chatting with me, Tavi.  You've been very gracious.  Okay.  Take care.  I hope we can talk again another time.

Tavi: Yes! Thank you!

*This interview, with slight re-edits, was originally published under my "Prof. Challenger" nom de plume at Aint-it-cool.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

CREDENCE Graphic Novel Review

Writer: Michael Easton
Artist: Steven Perkins
Publisher:  Blackwatch Comics
“Sometimes being a depraved bastard works out and you end up in bed with the only woman you’ve met in a long time that actually makes you feel something other than regret.” ~ Danny Credence
        Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
        From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
        The summer's gone, and all the flow'rs are dying
        'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.
The cover of the new graphic novel CREDENCE, by writer Michael Easton and artist Steven Perkins, sports a quote from the director of the classic BAD LIEUTENANT film favorably comparing that Harvey Keitel vehicle with this excursion into the seedy underbelly of gritty noir.  The comparison is apt.  Both stories detail a darkly disturbed police officer's spiral into self-indulgent excess of pleasure and pain and his murky pathway into a sort-of spiritual redemption.  Along the way, the reader of CREDENCE will encounter profanity, pain, sadism, sex, and death.  There's humor to be found, but it is the blackest of humor and not the type to laugh out loud at but wince in discomfort over.
I have a profound love of the medium of the comic book (or graphic novel for those of us trying to sound more enlightened).  Yes, the medium coopted by grotesquely overinflated biceps on super-heroes and helium balloons in place of breasts on super-heroines can also be a breeding ground for works that do more than excite and tittilate pubescent teens and the Peter Pan syndromed.  Telling a story with the enmeshment of static visual images and text has evolved in many quarters into literature, without any academic need for a dismissive "Graphic Novel" qualifier.  MAUS or BLANKETS, for example, are simply works of literature that succeed both textually and visually.
Now, I'm not going to go so far as to put CREDENCE into the same sphere as those two works, this is not that sort of story but it has the flavor of something seeking and achieving a deeper impact than simple escapism.  It’s just one more example of Easton pushing the medium beyond the boundaries of the box of public expectations.  His previous works have done this as well.  the SOUL STEALER trilogy is one of the most profoundly moving stories I've ever read.  THE GREEN WOMAN was a fine piece of psychological and supernatural horror (co-written with Peter Straub with painted art by CREDENCE cover artist John Bolton).  Easton excels at delivering the inner darkness of human depravity while finding subtle ways to pierce the shadow with the sharp light of beauty.
In the character of Danny Credence, we have a man who is the sum of a hard life.  Told cinematically and dramatically by beginning the story with essentially the peak of the climax of this story and then rewinding to get the reader up to speed before picking back up with the action and moving us toward the final act.  And what a kick-off. It's about as shocking as you can get for a film or a novel.  In fact, from the opening page to the final page I found myself reading CREDENCE but playing it through in my head as a film.  It delivers the goods like a solid police drama but with a deeper spiritual resonance of how the bad choices we make drive the direction of our lives.  Pay attention as you read CREDENCE and see how Danny is not as bad as he believes himself to be.  It goes back to his father and the way his father raised him with this misguided notion of what it means to be a "man" and no real understanding of morality.  To him, being a policeman makes you a "good" guy but yet he feels compelled (perhaps out of immature child rebellion) to conduct himself contrary to that very role he has embraced.  And that's the core of Danny Credence's crooked path to redemption.  He has no real sense of self.  It's why he can't really give himself to a love relationship. It's why he can't find happiness or satisfaction. It's why his job is what defines him. He is seeking himself, fearless in the face of danger but terrified of his own darkness.  As Carl Jung once wrote "The unconscious is not just evil by nature, it is also the source of the highest good: not only dark but also light, not only bestial, semihuman, and demonic but superhuman, spiritual, and, in the classical sense of the word, 'divine.'"  And ultimately, the story becomes Credence's dance with the Divine.
Credence is a cop. The best cop.  Because, as I said, being a cop is all he has to define himself.  He has a broken marriage that ended in divorce and attempts to maintain his parental relationship with his son.  His wife has gone from an emotionally abusive marriage with Credence to a physically abusive rebound. Credence's asshole father is doing time in prison because Credence turned him in. So you have these added onion layers on top of his anger and confusion as a cop.  And just when he thinks he has hit rock bottom and can't get any lower, he comes face to face with an evil that shocks even him.  It is this person that allows Credence to see past his own self-loathing to allow  his innate goodness to finally shine in most unexpected ways.
Readers aren't going to particularly like Credence as a person; this cop who indulges himself in drug, drink, and sex, but we do find ourselves coming to care for and root for him.  This is why this dense and lengthy unfolding of the story serves the character well.  By the time we return to the sequence that opened the story we now understand what is happening.  Where we began the story with suspicion and distrust, Easton has paced the story just right so that now Credence has earned our respect.  We are emotionally invested in his journey.
I'm not going to spoil the final act of the story, but it struck me quite deeply.  I interpret it metaphorically as an ending that implies some degree, finally, of eternal happiness for Credence.  However, I see in the promotional materials that this may not be a stand-alone book.  This story certainly stands on its own merits, but my curiosity is peaked as to where it could go from here because I trust Easton's ability to tell stories that resonate with me on levels that others often don't.
Steven Perkins does an exceptional job crafting the visuals for CREDENCE.  Keeping the images black and white while peppered with stylistic panache where it almost seems like every page is spattered with blood.  He tackles the feel of the darkest of film noir without going into excessive exaggeration.  There's a surreal touch to his work that serves the material well but a gritty realism grounding it as well.  Perkins achieves a balance that is not easy and especially so when telling a story sequentially.  
I enjoy peering into my own darkness sometimes.  This is where great literature is a true asset to self-understanding -- allowing us to vicariously peek into our own hidden corners of perversity and pain safely.  This is where CREDENCE works for me and if you are inclined towards these darker type of stories, I would recommend you give it a try.  
        And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me
        And all my grave will warm and sweeter be
        And then you'll kneel and whisper that you love me
        And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.
        I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.
        And I shall rest in peace until you come to me.
        Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Chasing the Bronze Knight of the Running Board

By Keith Howell
(Tribute to Doc Savage originally published in DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE, Meteor House Press, July 2013)

I must admit that I feel out of place and unqualified to be included in this august group of contributors writing about their memories and experiences in the world of Doc Savage fandom—and especially in relation to Philip José Farmer’s brilliant DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE.  However, having been asked it falls on me to regale you with my sideways tale of how Doc Savage, and particularly Phil’s take on the character has impacted my lifelong love of adventure fiction and super-heroes.

Let’s hop into the time machine and wing our way back to the halcyon summer of 1975 on the island of Puerto Rico.  My friends and I spent a lot of our days, when not out throwing overripe mangoes at each other, watching movies at the local cinema on Ramey Air Force base.  Our favorite repeated films were the European theatrical cuts of the SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN TV-movies.  We, of course, were unaware that they were TV-movies.  We were just excited to see a super-hero on the big screen.  But come the summer of 1975 and the big budget DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE film, directed with tongue firmly in cheek by George Pal with a bombastic John Phillip Sousa score, hit our theater.  Now, I have since learned that the world of Doc Savage fandom almost universally despises this movie, and it tanked at the box office, but I am here to tell you that for this young viewer, it made a profound impact and I loved it. I thought it was hilarious, fun, exciting, and that Ron Ely made the perfect Man of Bronze at that time.  I lost count of how many times I probably saw that movie.  And I wasn’t the only one.  My circle of friends were all running around that summer playing Doc Savage and humming that ridiculous Sousa-based theme song.

When next Doc found his way into my life he showed up in a comic book where he teamed up with The Thing from The Fantastic Four.  This was my first encounter with the usual “widow’s peak” look for Doc.  Then I came across a hardback copy of DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE in the library on Fort Hood in Texas.  I was fascinated by it as I sat and thumbed through it at the table.  I was too young to quite grasp what I was skimming but I was definitely intrigued.  I didn’t actually check the book out and we moved to another town as my dad retired from the army.  A couple of years later, in junior high, I walked into my very first comic book shop and my eyes fell upon a poster on the wall with James Bama’s classic cover painting of Doc from the MAN OF BRONZE paperback.  I couldn’t ever get that image out of my head after that.

Now let’s move the time-machine forward a bit to the summer of 1990.  I’m freshly married and into adulthood when I picked up a copy of STARLOG magazine and read an interview with an author named Philip José Farmer where he discussed at length his writings.  I remember telling my wife after reading the article “Why have I never heard of this guy? Every single book he talks about sounds like something I need to read.”  And from that point on I made it a bit of a quest to track down his books and read them.  The first 3 I read were THE WIND WHALES OF ISHMAEL, TARZAN ALIVE, and DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE.  I didn’t just read them I devoured them.

I wish I had more to contribute to the broader picture of Doc Savage fandom in the days before the Internet, but I was truly walking around in a blind haze oblivious to the fact that there was an active Doc and Wold Newton fanbase publishing Xeroxed-copy fan magazines and corresponding with each other around the world.  Other than the Doc Savage comics that DC and Marvel had published, I was unaware of and had no sense of there being a larger following for the character.  In fact, most people I mentioned the character to had already forgotten the 1975 movie or, rather, that was their sole point of reference.  So, I was a fandom-base of one and I was quickly adding to my new interest (and filling my bookshelves) because a local Friends of the Library book sale had a set of dozens of Bantam DOC SAVAGE paperbacks for sale at a quarter a book.  I scooped every single one up, including a near complete set of THE AVENGER books.  I also devoured these.  Probably my favorites were FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE and BRAND OF THE WEREWOLF—the latter because it introduced me to Doc’s cousin Pat Savage.

There was something about Phil’s writing that hooked me, but I completely understand why DS:HAL grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.  He began the book with his nostalgic memory of discovering Doc and his Amazing Five.  By the time I was at the end of the book, I felt like I had to know these characters myself and not just filtered through Phil’s nostalgia, wickedly sharp sense of humor, and desire to “connect all the dots” — essentially setting forth the basic principles and approach (along with TARZAN ALIVE) for his Wold Newton Family of stories.  My heart was energized by the exciting adventure and the archetypal mythology but my mind was engaged by the interconnectedness that Phil grasped as he pulled the pieces together to form a puzzle tapestry that made these characters so much larger and more important than their pulp roots ever aspired. 

This progression of personal interest, and remember this is still happening without my being in contact with any other Doc fans or even realizing they are out there in the world, eventually led me to track down not only all affiliated Wold Newton books I could get my hands on by Phil but also works and characters referenced in the family trees of DS:HAL and TARZAN ALIVE.  This led me to grabbing copies of the “Professor Challenger” stories by Arthur Conan Doyle because Challenger was listed by Phil as Monk Mayfair’s uncle.  Had that connection never been made, my online nom de plume would never have become “Prof. Challenger.”  I specifically chose that name in honor of the Doyle character that I became aware of through Phil’s family trees.

As our time machine continues trudging forward, we get to my first foray onto the Internet around 1993 or so.  One of the first things I did was track down a used book service to order myself a copy of Phil’s elusive VENUS ON THE HALF-SHELL (Kilgore Trout edition).  Then I wound up searching for Phil, thinking half-heartedly that I might find a P.O. Box or something that would allow me to write him a letter.  And lo and behold I got his home address!  I decided to not only write him a letter but I also decided to draw him an original illustration utilizing some of my favorite characters from his books, including his Doc Caliban (maybe or maybe not actually the “real” Doc Savage) featured prominently.  I mailed that off and never really thought about it again until many years later when I wound up making contact with Mike Croteau and Win Scott Eckert through some Phil/Wold Newton web forum I believe—but also I think Phil had mentioned or shown the art I sent him to Mike.  Honestly, the info has been lost in the scattered ruins of my mind, but what is important is that I had quit the art profession for a few years.  I was totally burned out on the entire thing and had lost my creative spark.  So I decided to exercise different mental muscles and go to law school.  It was while in law school that I got asked if I would be interested in contributing a quick wrap-around cover for a book devoted to those crazy collectors of Phil’s work.  I was thrilled to do it even though I was severely out of practice. It was crude and done without any access to Photoshop or such programs but I knocked that out and the book was published and the rest is history.

Let’s bring the time-machine back to the present and as we fast-forward through the years we can look fondly as we pass through the now frequent contributions I have been able to make to Phil’s literary history. Let’s remember meeting Phil and Bette and spending time with them in their home.  Let’s remember designing the art and logo for DocCon. Let’s remember the thrill and honor of taking Phil’s notes and Win’s kibitzing to construct the official “Wildman” Coat of Arms – Doc’s family line. Let’s take note of how much my personal worldview expanded through exposure to Phil’s work and how many times I have gone back to DS:HAL because it holds a special place in my heart.  This book is dripping with enthusiasm and fondness for Doc and his family and friends to the point that no reader could conceivably finish it and not have a nagging desire to pull out a Doc Savage adventure and get lost in it. Yes, Phil’s love of the character rubbed off onto an adult who was prepped to receive it.  Super-heroes have always had a strong appeal to me.  I’m drawn to their innate goodness and the sense of tapping into the higher mythical archetypes that underlie all myths and heroic legends.  Doc is the precursor to all other modern heroes.  Even “Clark Kent” was named Clark in homage to “Dr. (Doc) Clark Savage, Jr.”  I’m 46 at the time of this writing and when I recently tore a sleeve on my shirt, my first thought was of Doc Savage flexing his coiled serpent biceps and tearing through his shirtsleeve.  Doc has been a part of my inner world since 1975.  He is an example of the best that a man can be. He is smart, strong, loyal, and honest. 

I will forever be incapable of listening to Sousa without singing along inside my head with:

                         Have no Fear, the Man of Bronze is here.
                         Peace will come to all who find
                         Doc Savage, Doc Savage.
                         He's a friend to all Mankind.
                         Pure of heart and mind.
                         Who will make crime disappear?
                         Doc Savage, Doc Savage
                         Part hero and pioneer.
                         Thank the Lord he's here.
Thanks to George Pal for introducing me to the character.  Thanks to James Bama for intriguing me about the character.  Most especially, thank you to Philip José Farmer for making the character real to me and igniting a spark that continues to this day.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Writer: Andrew E.C. Gaska
Artists: Gray Morrow, Miki, & David Hueso
Archaia Black Label
So, in our neverending quest to take even the most obscure forgotten nostalgic television franchises and milk them for the modern day, Archaia brings to your local comic shops a massive graphic novel: SPACE: 1999—AFTERSHOCK AND AWE.

 Now, I realize that I am literally the only person reading this who even remembers SPACE: 1999, and a lot of my interest in the show was my budding puberty and the presence of the sexy Barbara Bain (of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) fame in the cast. However, that being said, the early-to-mid-70s was not particularly notable for high-end sci-fi TV shows. Sure, we had the SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN/BIONIC WOMAN shows going. We had a quickly cancelled, and pretty lame, PLANET OF THE APES TV show. There was the also the quickly cancelled GEMINI MAN (about a secret agent who could turn invisible). In general, sci fi was not the popular thing it is today. It’s amazing what the appearance of STAR WARS could do in terms of completely shifting the entire paradigm of what the masses crave in popular entertainment. I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it was for the few closet geeks like me out there who were stuck watching chopped-up reruns of STAR TREK and LOST IN SPACE every day to find a fix of something space-related that was actually new!

SPACE: 1999 was from the same guys who brought us a show I used to watch as a wee child called UFO. In fact, it’s almost a kinda sorta sequel to that show. In 1970, they set UFO in 1980. And in the mindset of those days where we had just recently walked on the moon for the first time, I am sure the expectation was that surely we would be regularly jetting in and out of space and battling space aliens right and left by 1980. By 1999, surely we would have moonbases established with humans living and working on the moon as easily as, say, living in Arkansas or something.

 And that was the premise of SPACE: 1999. In 1975, it was set 24 years in the future in the year 1999 and Moonbase Alpha is where our intrepid team of scientists, headed by Doctor Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) and Command John Koenig (Martin Landau), live and perform futuristic experiments. When an unexpected thermonuclear explosion propels the moon out of Earth’s orbit, Moonbase Alpha is hurled along with the runaway moon into deep space. While hurtling through space, they encountered all kinds of bizarre 70’s-style aliens and monstrous threats. They had cool vehicles like the moon buggy and the Eagle space shuttle. For the times, pre-STAR WARS, they were pretty well done. I actually remember drawing the Eagle once, copying it from the SPACE: 1999 comic put out by Charlton Comics at the time.

 Which brings us to this 172-page graphic novel from Archaia. This is a very well done book, and it
is unique. One of the things about SPACE: 1999, the TV series, was that we never really had a peek at Earth. It all took place on Moonbase Alpha. And since, in the pilot episode, the moon was tossed out of orbit there really was no reasonable way for them to explore Earth in terms of stories because for all intents and purposes the relationship between Moonbase Alpha and Earth was forever severed, sSo, we never really got to see how that futuristic society had evolved or what the politics of the time were. We had some hints given, and the show itself did much of what STAR TREK had done in the prior decade and presented morality tales that touched on issues current at the time of the series. And what writer Andrew Gaska does in SPACE: 1999—AFTERSHOCK AND AWE is a three-fold stroke of brilliance. First of all, he tweaks the premise slightly to explain how we can have the events of SPACE: 1999 happen when we still have a moon and no moonbase in 2013. Gaska posits that the world of the series was set in an alternate reality where JFK was never assassinated and the space program progressed much faster and farther than it did in our reality. Secondly, he takes the original Charlton Comics adaptation of the pilot episode, in a story titled “Awe” with remastered art by the late, great Gray Morrow, and reprints that story. And thirdly, he then picks up after that with a story called “Aftershock” that picks up the story on Earth so that the reader can see the aftermath. What happens to the Earth and the people in the days, months, and even years after the moon is torn from its orbit and hurled into deep space?

 So is it any good?

 Well, yeah. I think so. I honestly think the adaptation by Gray Morrow is the superior story, but I’m biased since I’m an old-school comics guy with a nostalgic bent. That being said, the new stuff illustrated by Miki and Hueso is also pretty solid storytelling in a more current style. The two styles are not particularly compatible, but they work within this context because of how it is presented. That visual jump in styles from a classic old-school 70’s style of comic art to the more modern digitally enhanced stylings of 2013 comics art adds to my enjoyment.

 I like how the “Aftermath” story breaks it up into focusing on separate characters for each chapter so that the reader gets different perspectives as to the impact of such a cataclysmic effect. This book is solid sci-fi entertainment with a nice tinge of nostalgia. It took me awhile to read, mainly because of the density of the writing in the reprinted adaptation of the TV-series pilot. It’s good, strong sci-fi with enough to satisfy the old-school readers and younger readers if they can get past the 1999 in the title. Give it a try. I think you’ll like it.

Friday, June 14, 2013

MAN OF STEEL REVIEW ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★


Release Date: June 15, 2013
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne

Official Synopsis: A young boy learns that he has extraordinary powers and is not of this Earth. As a young man, he journeys to discover where he came from and what he was sent here to do. But the hero in him must emerge if he is to save the world from annihilation and become the symbol of hope for all mankind.

I need to get this sentence out of the way at the start because I'm going to start analyzing some aspects of this film that may come off as negative but they aren't really intended like that goes:

MAN OF STEEL is a successful reboot and reenergizing of the very dead SUPERMAN film franchise.

I was hooked from the start of the film right through the end primarily because of 2 factors: (1) it is a fantastically imaginative science-fiction action film and (2) Henry Cavill completely captures the essence of the introspective messiah archetype that they remake Superman into for this film and for the modern era.

I mentioned it to some friends online immediately after viewing the film that this really is not a super-hero movie.  This is a science-fiction movie first and foremost.  It is also a character study of Clark Kent more than Superman — yes, for purposes of my discussion here I will separate the two.  To appreciate this film you really need to check all your preconceptions at the door and stop trying to impose your idea of who and what Superman is.  This is not the social-activist arrogant brute that appeared in 1938 with no real respect for life.  Neither is this the all-powerful demigod of impossible perfection he evolved into.  This is not the smiling get-lost-cats-out-of-trees and wink at the camera Christopher Reeve version.  This is not the Clark from SMALLVILLE running around in a world surrounded by secret super-heroes and monsters.   Those are super-heroes grounded in the commonly expected tropes of super-hero stories.  This movie is more about Earth and humanity's first known encounter with extraterrestrial aliens and Clark Kent/Kal-El is the set of eyes through which this story unfolds.

Russell Crowe as Jor-El on Krypton
The movie opens on the planet Krypton, but it is not the sterile ice planet of the original SUPERMAN film.  This Krypton is full of life and energy.  There are exotic animals in a truly alien world full of strange politics, conflicts, and a science way beyond our understanding.  This Krypton is something like one might imagine Flash Gordon's planet Mongo to be envisioned through modern cgi artists.  The entire sequence clearly set the tone for the movie.  This is not THE AVENGERS or IRON MAN with a predictable balance of action and humor and pathos.  This movie is going to be serious and downright grim at times.  And it stays true to its promise.

This is not a bad thing as far as I'm concerned.

Henry Cavill as Clark Kent
Since this movie is not about how to get a guy into a gaudy skin-tight suit so that he can fight criminals, it can rightly focus on what it really is about.  This movie is about Clark's quest to discover who he is and why he is.  The messianic metaphor is even played out explicitly at one point when faced with the same decision Jesus had to make to allow himself to be arrested.  Clark contemplates his choices inside a church with a stained glass image of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemene — yes, the same moment where Jesus prayed for God to take this "cup away" from him but ultimately made the choice to see the plan through and submitted to his purpose as the willing sin sacrifice for the world.

Henry Cavill as Superman
Clark is faced with a similar choice to make and this is what the film is all about.  His purpose is not thrust upon him or outside of his control.  The running theme of the film is that our purpose in life is determined by our choices.  We determine our purpose.  And Clark realizes his innate moral character is what will drive his life and create his purpose—and this moral character is not part of his genetic code.  His moral character is what was instilled in him by his Earthly father.  His genetic code gives him the power to fulfill his purpose.  There are plenty of flashbacks to his years growing up as the adopted child of Jonathan and Martha Kent.  Kevin Costner plays Jonathan and he is relentlessly gloomy.  I honestly did not like him and felt he had a martyr complex himself that was actually more damaging to Clark and probably contributed to his decade-plus wandering aimlessly around the world in search of himself.  I believe in this interpretation, Jonathan's position in Clark's moral development was more of imposing a sense of guilt upon him than anything else.  It was Diane Lane's Martha that brought the love and balance that strengthens Clark and gives him the character to discover and embrace his purpose once he identifies it.
Henry Cavill as Superman

The heart and soul of the film itself is the deep-seated integrity and inherent goodness in Clark and Henry Cavill really pours himself into the part.  Not only does he look perfect for the part, but his deep, deep thoughtful expressions and tender smile really make Superman into someone who feels real and unthreatening.  And let me tell you, when you have an alien on your doorstep with the power to lay waste to your entire planet with his bare want to feel that he is completely trustworthy and safe.  Cavill accomplishes this while maintaining an aura of strength and masculine virility I don't believe I've really seen in a super-hero movie.  Fantastic casting.  His onscreen chemistry with Amy Adams as Lois Lane is very strong as well.  Lois in this film is played very smart, feisty, and an integral part of Clark's transition into mankind's modern-day savior.

For me, this is what the movie is all about.  However, I know others want to know about things like General Zod (Michael Shannon) and the action sequences and other aspects.  So, I'm going to touch on those.  Let me start with the minor things and then build to the more important and then I'll address some of the criticisms I might have with some aspects.

Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Amy Adams as Lois Lane
In a modern reboot like this they clearly did not want to feel beholden to what's gone before but still retain the familiar check-off boxes that need to be in a Superman story.  In this case, there's the Daily Planet newspaper where Lois Lane works.  The editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet is Perry White and they cast Laurence Fishburne in the role.  Once again, like everything else in this movie he does not go for laughs or anything over the top. He plays it straight and serious, and as a result, he's kind of flat and boring.  But Fishburne is a charismatic actor with a great voice and a sense of gravitas so placing him in that position works.  I don't think it's a big deal but when he was cast there was a bit of publicity over the fact that they race-changed Perry from an old white guy to an old black guy.  Personally, I don't just think it isn't a big deal I actually think it is completely irrelevant.  They also changed Jimmy Olsen into Jenny Olsen.  I'm okay with that.  I mean seriously, of what value is Jimmy Olsen to a Superman film franchise anyway.  More power to them to amp up the estrogen level of his supporting cast.  My favorite surprise in casting was Michael Kelly as sportswriter Steve Lombard.  Most people do not know this but in the Superman comic books back during the 1970s and on into the 1980s, Clark Kent graduated up from being a newspaper reporter to being a television news anchor (yes, ignore the absurdity of Superman having to be available for broadcast every day at 6:00 pm for a half-hour). During this period of time they added Steve Lombard to the supporting cast as a dunder-headed ex-jock sports anchor who spent his time picking on Clark like a high school bully and Clark secretly using his super-powers to regularly make a fool out of Steve.  It's not a high-point for the comics, but I actually harbor a bit of fondness for that period of time because that was my childhood and so that was the Superman I grew up reading about.  Seeing a "Steve Lombard" on the big screen made me smile.

Russell Crowe as Jor-El
Antje Traue as Faora
The primary external conflict in this film is between General Zod (Michael Shannon) and Superman.  There is a serious attempt to make Zod into a much more personal enemy than has ever happened before.  The physical battles between the two characters are very impressive and well worth the price of 3D if you're into that sort of stuff.  I was more drawn to the very personal conflict established on Krypton between Zod and Superman's birth-father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) that carries over into an intense and brutal hatred of Superman as Jor-El's son and only hope of ever restoring the glory of the Kryptonian race.  Zod's right-hand man is actually a female Kryptonian criminal named Faora.  She is an old character from the comics making her film debut like Steve Lombard.  She is scary dangerous.  Zod would be more dangerous if he didn't sound like his upper denture plate was poorly fitted.  But I guess with Krypton exploding and everything, he didn't have a chance to get back with his dentist to get it adjusted.

Michael Shannon as Zod

I think the film was structured very well for telling this story.  It really did bring a new perspective and approach to the character that will hopefully clear out everyone's preconceptions a bit and open the door for a successful new franchise.  There's a bit of a lull in the 2 1/2 hours between Clark's appearance on Earth and the appearance of Zod where the pacing gets a bit stilted.  And Kevin Costner is so freaking depressing I couldn't wait for him to die.  But other than that, I thought the movie was very good.  It wasn't great.  Picking up the pace a bit and adding a sense of humor to the proceedings would've pushed it to great.  The Marvel Studios movies all have a strong sense of fun and humor to them and have just embraced the trappings of a world full of super-heroes.  This film takes the subject seriously and recognizes that this is more than a super-hero movie.  MAN OF STEEL is about crafting a myth for the modern day and it succeeds at established the first of the demigods pushed to his limits.  Oh yeah, that reminds me of another aspect of this interpretation of Superman that I really enjoyed.  He has to work at it.  His strength and even his flying is a product of his will and determination — a reflection of the strength of character and goodness within him.

Yeah.  I really enjoyed MAN OF STEEL, wish it had included more humor and fun, but I will be back to see it again probably this weekend or next week.

I give it ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★

(I know it's shallow but I would've given it ★★★★ but I'm punishing the filmmakers in my own immature way for not buying Michael Shannon better dentures so he could make his "s" sounds without making a distracting "sh" sound.)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

THE STORY OF O Graphic Novel Reviewed

In 2009, I reviewed THE STORY OF O hardcover collection of the late Guido Crepax's comic book adaptation of the Pauline Reage's classic of sado-masochistic eroticism.  I just discovered that the out-of-print collection is now available digitally at Comixology. So, I present that link here and reprint my review in full for any who might be curious.  The price for the digital is $9.99 or you can download a 10-page preview version for free.  Here's the link.

Writer: Pauline Reage
Artist: Guido Crepax
Publisher: NBM Comics Lit/Eurotica

O realized that through the medium of her body shared between them…they attained something more mysterious and perhaps more intense than an amorous bond…a union of which the very conception was arduous.”

To review hardcore erotica of the sort like THE STORY OF O is a challenging task, at least for me. It is easy to approach something like this with a flippant adolescent mocking tone. But, as far as I’m concerned, that does a disservice to the artist’s intent in something like this. For those who may be unfamiliar with the story itself, the original prose version of THE STORY OF O was first published in the 1950s and was a shockingly explicit and brutal yet also sensual and erotic examination of sexual submission. The story was so shocking, in fact, that the French government attempted to suppress it. In the most graphic of details, this misogynistic story involves a man’s deliverance of a series of progressively more degrading, painful, and humiliating sexual abuses to his mate. Through these acts of bondage, pain, and shame he breaks her spirit and reduces her to his complete and utter will-less sexual slave….even to the point of having her branded with his initials.

Even in these more “open” times with all forms of pornography available to anyone with access to the internet, the story is still shocking in the extent to which the writer…a woman herself…dove headlong into the deepest parts of the human sexual dark places. It is a dirty thing to read. It is harsh and mean and twisted. After each new level of abuse that O endures, her husband makes her tell him she loves him. If she reaches a point of enjoying the pain or abuse, then the abuse is increased until she breaks again. It is a story of depravity and how such debasement can be twisted into love.

Ultimately, while the original novel itself is a classic of erotic literature because of the times in which it was first published, this graphic adaptation by Guido Crepax is a classic itself even though it was not originally published until the 1970s. Crepax, who passed away in 2003, was an amazing Italian comic artist who tore down barriers in his commitment to using the comic book form to tell truly adult stories. In his attempts to liberate the European world of comic art in the 1960s and 1970s from the emphasis on childish content, he boldly stepped up and tackled sex and pure erotica as his own emphasis. From his own original character Valentina to adapting classics of erotica in graphic form, he established himself as a master of the sexual genre and comic art medium. Crepax’s adaptation of THE STORY OF O is widely considered his magnum opus….and with good reason.

In this review, I’m not going to attempt to give an opinion on the “story” because that would be akin, in my opinion, to reviewing a Classics Illustrated adaptation of…say…A CHRISTMAS CAROL… and actually taking time to talk about Charles Dickens’ efforts in writing the original story. So, I will let the story stand on its own and I’ll let each reader determine his or her own degree of comfortability with it. Instead, let me address what is paramount in this new hardbound complete collection of Crepax’s adaptation…which was originally serialized…and that is Crepax’s efforts here as illustrator of Pauline Reage’s story.

First of all, the Eurotica imprint of NBM Publishing has done a beautiful job of packaging this book together. Crepax’s work is entirely in stark black and white, as befits the story itself, and the book designers have utilized his work in crafting an attractive black cover with a gorgeous small panel of O’s face blindfolded and with a chained collar on her neck. It is perfectly symbolic of the overall theme of the book itself and slyly provocative enough to catch the casual observer’s eye with its placement surrounded by so much blackness…once again the use of black also symbolizing the harsh darkness of the world the reader is about to enter. The subtle and unique circular signature of “Guido Crepax” is also positioned on the cover so that those who know the name also know what they are about to encounter within the pages of this book. The end papers are almost entirely black except for a series of 1” x 1 ½” panels running horizontal from end to end to where they almost look like a series of frames from a film. The panels present O performing graphic sexual acts of submission and guide the reader to turn the page where the next two pages are entirely white except for an ever so subtle profile image of O’s face with her open mouth and extended tongue directing the reader to turn the page and start the story.

Crepax is a master storyteller and he wields a lyrical brush. His style is beautiful with a nouveau tendency towards elongated bodies and necks especially…but not grotesquely so. The smoothness of his brush work just glides across the page in most instances and only in the most intense moments does he allow his work to get rough and scratchy. It usually flows beautifully and sensually…especially in those moments of tenderness usually reserved for moments of woman to woman love-making. When the misogynistic men are raping and abusing O, his work gets harsher and it makes for an interesting contrast in emotional impact.

I found his storytelling in panels to almost be a class in and of itself in how to deliver information to the reader. As graphic as he gets in showing all forms of sex and brutality, what is also fascinating are his artistic choices in what he chooses NOT to show and leave to the reader’s imagination. Such decisions are what make this work so effective from an artistic perspective. This is not a happy work. It is not a joyful work. It is something that should shock the reader’s sense of propriety and what’s right. It should even generate disgust and anger at moments. And yet, the beauty of Crepax’s art somehow makes it palatable and I found it to be something I couldn’t put down…and have gone back to a number of times to look at his approach to presenting progression and movement. Crepax uses minimal line work at times when he wants the reader to feel more sensual and then heavy and harsher linework when he wants the reader to be repulsed and shocked.

He utilizes very little actual dialogue in this adaptation; instead he delivers the narrative primarily through pictures. He takes an approach to the page that never follows the standard comic book panel format but completely shakes it up with utter inconsistency in panel choices. Indicative of the trauma that O is undergoing in her life, the reader is never allowed the reliable precision of the standard 6 panel comic book page. Through it all, however, one thing never changes and is reliable….O is never less than always beautifully sexual. Crepax makes sure that her sexual beauty draws the reader’s eye even when the heart or mind might want to pull away from the events that are unfolding.

Guido Crepax truly was a master storyteller, and while he may have focused his talents in an area that many are afraid to go, if you can handle the content, Crepax’s THE STORY OF O is actually a must-have for those who love graphic storytelling in all its many forms.