Friday, April 30, 2010

Quick DVD Reviews

Torso (1973)
Italian director Sergio Martino’s tense film is a mini masterpiece of the Giallo world. Perhaps, it is not much more than a collection of set pieces, but those set pieces are incredibly striking. Martino knows how to build suspense, as evidence by the ‘kill’ in the forest. I think this must have been a very influential film for both the slasher genre, and any thriller with a cat and mouse element. It’s worth seeking out and the Blue Underground disc I rented had a terrific print, with a good dub. Grade: A-

Whip It
I am no fan of Drew Barrymore, but there were enough interesting cast members here for me to give it a try. It’s not exactly Citizen Kane, but Barrymore didn’t embarrass herself (although she was the weakest element on screen). I get a bit creeped out by Ellen Page’s Dorian Gray looks, but she can certainly act. Daniel Stern and Marcia Gay Harden were the real standouts for me, and I thought it was sooo great to see Juliette Lewis again. Overall, the movie struggle to find the proper tone, and I wish Barrymore had avoided throwing so much dumb humour into a ‘Coming of Age’ story (or is it the other way around). Nothing groundbreaking (or even memorable), but worth a rental. Grade: B-

Sherlock Holmes
Guy Ritchie finally found the right mix of style and substance. Of course, I don’t think this movie would have been much without Downey Jr. and Law but Ritchie was smart enough to take a back seat to the performers. Story wise, I feel that … well, it doesn’t really matter. Butch and Sundance proved that chemistry really trumps everything else. This is first and foremost a buddy movie and my fingers are crossed that the two main stars come back for a least one more round. Grade: B+

District 9
I wish I had seen this one before all of the hype. It just didn’t live up to expectations and I imagine my criticisms are nothing new. The concept is superb and the pseudo-documentary style format works very well. I can even live with the transition into a more traditional narrative, as it was a natural progression while following the protagonist. The real issue is with the final act, a typical overly long Hollywood ‘Shoot ‘Em Up’ battle that is so out of place that I think part of the director's credit should go to Stud E. O. Entterphearence. Like so many films - the execution could not keep up to the concept. Grade: B

Witchfinder General
I can’t believe that American International rechristened this one The Conqueror Worm for its US release, as this is such an awesome title. The long delayed DVD released actually occurred back in 2007, but I just got around to watching it last night. For a low budget period piece, this is a nasty little thing. Vincent Price is magnetic as Matthew Hopkins, the self appointed Witchfinder General. The story spins its wheels a bit, but I was happy to spend a bit of time in the Cromwell-era muck. It may come across as dated (nothing is really shocking in today’s world of torture porn) but it is quite a unique film and a must see for fans of both Price and classic British horror. Grade: B

Cheap Grapes: Marques de Valcarlos Crianza 2005

I'm always on the lookout for nice, inexpensive wines from Spain; a country that is terribly underrepresented in LCBO stores here in Ontario. This Navarra from 2005 hit shelves two months ago, and we're nearly onto our second case of it in the SOTI household. This one has something for everyone. It's medium bodied, but dark fruit flavours - mostly in the vein of cherries and blackberries than strawberries. There is also a subtle 'smoked' effect that lingers nicely. The thing I like about Spanish wines is that they often hit shelves with a couple of more years of mileage than French or Italian wines. That makes most of them ready for immediate consumption, but I think this one could handle another 2 or 3 years in the cellar. It sells for $13.95 here, so my guess is that it could be found for $10 in the US and maybe 7 or 8 quid in the UK. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Who Painted the 'Orca' Poster?

The poster from which this detail is taken appeared as part of an ad on the back cover of just about every comic book I bought as a 6 year old. For years, I was very intrigued by this image. When I finally got around to seeing the movie on VHS, I was very disappointed to find that it did not come close to living up to the drama of the poster. As an aside, could you imagine a world in which movies actually lived up to the excited of their posters and/or trailers? What I would love to know, however, is the name of the artist responsible for this painting. I've become quite good at spotting Jack Davis and Nick Cardy posters, but I don't know much about non-comic book commercial illustrators of the era, and the identity of this artist eludes me. It has the same feel as the poster for the De Laurenitis King Kong movie poster. Does anyone know? Thanks in advance.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Comic Book Robot of the Month: The Champ

One thing that is often forgotten when the origin of the Junk Heap Heroes is discussed (wait, does anyone but me actually discuss that?) is the role played by The Champ, an impressive robot built by the top secret US spy agency known as G.E.O.R.G.E. What I love most about The Champ is that he sports the trench coat and fedora look. Just how many robots have try to fool us by wearing outfits such as that? In addition, he was lucky to be design by Dick Dillin. Dillin had a lot of fun with robots, often adding very quirky component. The glowing red eyes and crab claws give The Champ some real character. His task is to defeat the Blackhawks to prove that they are washed up as heroes. He does an excellent job, trash talking along the way. Is he the first trash talking robot? I sees certain similarities between the Champ and the Construct robots created by Dillin for the JLA series in the 70s. I'll tackle those another day.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Add It To My Want List: Marvel Treasury Edition #23

OK, while I would love to have each and every tabloid sized book from Marvel and DC , Marvel Treasury Edition #23 from 1979 is right at the top of my list. It features some terrific Conan material that I don't believe has appeared elsewhere. First off, it has the "A Witch Shall Be Born" story from Savage Sword of Conan. This is the one in which our favourite Cimmerian gets crucified (on a St. Andrew style cross, if memory serves). It is all very gruesome. I've seen it via my computer, but I'd really love to see all of that Buscema/Chan artwork in full treasury sized glory. There's also a map of Conan's world - I don't know if that was produced especially for this volume.

In addition, there are some terrific full-page pin-ups produced by some fantastic artists such as Alex Nino, Tim Conrad and Gray Morrow (included above). While I'm not normally a huge fan of pin-ups, I've always thought that they were appropriate for Conan as it was the covers to those old paperbacks that attracted so many fans in the first place. What really intrigues me about this volume, however, is that it collects the Conan newspaper strip. I have no recollection of this strip, so perhaps it was not in any of the Toronto papers. Strips often don't work all that well when published in book format, as the narrative can be both choppy and repetitive but beggars can't be choosers and from what I've seen, the reproductin quality looks superb.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Charlton Notebook: Monster Hunters #6

This is an above average entry for this Charlton series. I really dig the Mike Zeck cover, as he seems to be channeling Gil Kane in his monster design. You'll note the similarity to the monster on the cover of Master of Kung-Fu #75. The lead story "Beast or the Burden" is a very entertaining Ditko-drawn Mad Scientist vs. Police Inspector tale, with a clever ending. The middle tale, "Who Prowls the Night" is the weakest, with art by the Nicholas/Alascia, but it is decent. The finale is a crazy Stonehenge based tale, wherein a couple of astronomer from Wisconsin and kidnapped and carted off to England to witness a pagan ritual that does not come off as planned. Fun stuff.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Steve Ditko Cover of the Week: Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #3

If nothing else, Ditko was the master of the 'Less is More' approach. While some of his early Charlton horror covers are loaded with detail, his covers from the late 50s onwards often focused more on the core concept and/or design. Th cover to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #3 (April, 1957) is an early example of this approach. It is a very simple set-up, and will certainly grab a young reader's attention while staying well within the parameters of the Comics Code. While may of Ditko's other covers on this title have far greater detail, they are no necessarily any more effective. By the 70s, of course, Ditko would be selling very simplistic covers to Charlton. It's hard to know how much was influenced by an internal artistic shift, and how much had to do with Charlton's lower rates. In any case, this is an interesting step in his evolution as an artist.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Singe Issue Hall of Fame: Uncanny X-Men #186

I didn't pick up any X-Men comics off the racks after 1983, so I missed most of this stuff the first time around. While I am just as likely as the next person to slag Chris Claremont these days, I must admit that he hit the ball out of the park on a regular occasion back in the 80s. This issue represents a real change of pace and give the reader the opportunity to catch his or her breath. Storm has lost her powers, and she is resting/recuperating at Forge's place in Dallas. Forge is racked with guilt as his is partly to blame for her power loss. The bulk of the issue is an engaging conversation between the two. That kind of stuff is standard fare these days, but it was pretty novel back then and it was handled very well, as Barry Windsor Smith's storytelling abilities really shine. To this day, I don't know much about Forge, but I find him to be quite intriguing and I really like how Claremont just dropped him into the X-world as a fully formed character and forces the reader to gather tidbits of information where they can. Ultimately, Storm overhears a conversation between Forge and Gyrich and the relative calm comes to an end. It was nice while it lasted. Great stuff.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Exit Stage Left: Rawhide Kid #151

This was really the end of an era, folks. Westerns were a dying breed and this issue represents one of the final nails in the coffin. While the Rawhide Kid had certainly had a good run, the final 6 or 7 years were all reprints. According to the Statement of Ownership, it has been selling at a clip of 89,000 per issue. Could you imagine those numbers today? This is a decent issue, reprinting a story from Rawhide Kid #99, one of the last original stories of the series. It is just a typical 'Johnny Clay trying to get a legitimate job' tale, which never seems to work out. He ends up with two broken hands. The good news is that the back-up here is a nice Outlaw Kid story with gorgeous Doug Wildey art. It's great to see Dave Cockrum doing a western cover. Man, could that guy ever draw! Overall, it is a pretty bittersweet farewell.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

You've Been Warned: Marvel Premiere #43

Marvel Premiere #43 features Paladin, the rather intriguing mercenary who first popped up in Daredevil. When I re-read this book not too long ago, I forgot to check the credits, but it didn't take me long to realize that it was written by Don McGregor, the man who still thought he was being paid by the word. What a mess! If today's generation ever wants to point to excess exposition in the Bronze Age, this is the perfect piece of evidence. The dialogue, especially that spouted by the villain, is clunky beyond belief. Now, I normally loooooove Tom Sutton's artwork, but it just doesn't work here. Perhaps it's the color job or just the shoddy production, but everything gets blurred together and it is extremely difficult to follow. In the right hands, this could have worked out as a decent story. As it stands, I can only recommend that you avoid it at all costs.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Gil Kane Cover of the Month: Supernatural Thrillers #9

Kane produced many well regarded superhero covers for Marvel during the 1970s, but many of my favourites were in other genres. The cover to Supernatural Thrillers #9 is no exception. It is a beautifully designed cover, with some nice attention to detail. We've had a bit of a discussion about Al Milgrom's inking over at Comic Book Resources, but I think he does a great job here - adding some depth to the image. I like Kane serving as his own inker, but he sometimes went with too fine a line in the 70s. Of course, this type of half-submerged cover is all about the lighting effects, and I'm not sure who colored this cover, but they did a terrific job. As it stands, Kane's half-submerged cover is right up there with the best of Bill Everett and Lee Elias. Like many Marvel covers, this one is hurt by the captions.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hidden Gems: Secret Origins #29

I largely ignored this series the first time around. That was dumb. I guess I thought it was merely the rehashing of origins, and I would have claimed at the time to know just about everything there was to know about the pre-Crisis DCU. Little did I know that there are actually jam packed with solid stories and add plenty of new layers to most origin stories. This one is no exception. The Atom story is fine. It tries to make sense of all of the nuttiness to which Ray Palmer had been subjected during the 80s. It's for Atom completists only (I belong to that group). Much better is the Mr. America/Americommando story by Roy Thomas. Thomas shows the evolution of the character and it really serves to inform James Robinson's Golden Age miniseries. It is a nice little piece in that puzzle. The real gem hidden deep in this book, however, is a 3 page Red (Ma Hunkel) Tornado story, written and illustrated by Sheldon Mayer. As far as I can determine, this was the last work done by Mayer for DC so it certainly represents the end of an era.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Trade Marks: Teen Angst

This is a terrific collection of pre-Code romance stories put out by Malibu in 1990. My good friend Mickey was kind enough to send this little treasure my way. It's a black and white collection of stories originally published by Avon and St. John. The reproduction is decent and the introductions are solid, even if no new ground is truly covered. Many of the stories have artwork by Matt Baker and Everett Raymond Kinstler, and those gents certainly know how to make a romance story leap off the page. I was also very impressed with the artwork of Rafael Astarita, a nearly forgotten Golden Age great. Among the highlights is Jinx Girl, about a woman whose lovers have the habit of dying just before they are about to propose. Conversely, A Dangerous Woman, is about a gold digger who marries an elderly man who simply refuses to die. Make Believe Marriage involves a woman who pretends to be married in order to land a job. Even though her lie is revealed, things end in a wonderfully neat and tidy manner. Didn't they always? This is a great sampler of pre-Code romance and I highly recommend grabbing a copy if you can find it. Trade Mark: B+

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Quick Book Reviews

The Third Man Graham Greene
The film certainly has a very memorable screenplay, so I thought it was worth checking out the source material. We have a bit of a quirk here, as the screenplay pre-dated the book – but Greene certainly handled the transition well. Over the years, I’ve run pretty hot and cold with Greene’s work. Some of it is very engaging, while others leave me with a real sense of detachment. To be frank, The Power and the Glory falls into the latter category. Much like the movie, Harry Lime is a spirit moving throughout the story. What I liked about the book is that, while Rollo Martins is certainly interested in getting to the bottom of the mystery, he remains even more morally ambiguous than he did in the movie.

Being There Jerzy Kozinski
Again, I’ve seen the movie but never got around to reading this book (novella?). The only other Kozinski book I’ve read is The Painted Bird, and this one is certainly less intense. I liked it, but it really does feel like a minor work. I can understand how people really enjoyed the satirical look at Washington back in 1971, but it comes off as a bit dated these days. All in all, it seems a bit thin and I actually think things were better fleshed out in Ashby’s film.

Yiddish Policeman’s Union Michael Chabon
Get ready for a little comic book geek heresy. I quite preferred this book to Kavalier & Clay. Like his earlier work, Chabon does an incredible job of establishing a setting. With this book, however, rather than worrying about historical detail – he allows himself to create his own universe. By the end of the book, it is hard to believe that Sitka, Alaska isn’t actually a giant metropolis. To me, K&K meandered a bit too much, and falls apart in the second half. A bit of the same thing occurs in YPU, but Chabon keeps it from unraveling completely and his work developing characters improved immensely as our hero, Meyer Landsman is a wonderfully complex and multi-dimensional character. It is almost as if Chabon was channeling Richler here.

Run - Anne Patchett
This book came highly recommend by my parents. I was immensely underwhelmed. It is lovely and polite, but it is also unbelievably bland. The plot is relatively simple, and I would be surprised if someone could not correctly guess where it was headed. Patchett makes the mistake of hinting at elements of racism and corruption but never addresses them. Her characters are also very wooden, and this leads to a drama-free dramatic novel. I get the sense the Patchett is trying to say something with this book, but she fell far short.

Girl With the Dragon TattooStieg Larsson
While The Third Man is a good book that was commissioned as a screenplay, this feels like a book written with the intention of being optioned for a movie. I have no idea how this one became such a phenomenon. As a mystery, it really isn’t very mysterious. As a thriller, the thrilling moments are few and far between. I felt as it I was treading water, turning page after page. It was overly sensationalistic at times, while coming up short in the suspense department at other times. I also think it is a shame that the title was changed from Men Who Hate Women. This one is certainly about misogyny, if nothing else – I only wish that a bit more substance could have been inserted somewhere into the 800 pages. I won’t be reading the sequels.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

R.I.P. Henry Scarpelli

It seems as though we're losing classic comic creators at a dizzying rate these days. I just read that long-time funnybook artist Henry Scarpelli passed away on Sunday at age 79. To be honest, as a child I tended to avoid most teen humour and funny animal books. They also seemed to be around the neighbourhood, because I imagine most parents felt they were a 'safe' choice. I was generally too obsessed with Batman and Daredevil to notice just how much intelligence and artistry went into most of these books. Scarpelli played a large role in those genres, and it is only within the last 10 years or so that I've come to appreciate how much skill he brought to the table. I'm still not totally on board the good ship Archie, but I have become more and more familiar with Scarpelli's work for various licensed properties at Dell and Charlton, and his contributions to a handful of DC titles. For my money, his work with Steve Skeated on the Abbott & Costello series for Charlton was simply fantastic, and I'm only sorry that I've come to learn this so late in life. Rest in Peace Mr. Scarpelli.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Highlighting House Ads: DC in 1966

Even without the Go-Go Checks, 1966 would have been a pretty far out year at DC. This was the year they tried to get super hip with their house ads, and often tried to incorporate the letters 'D' and 'C' into the ads. This a perfect example of the kind of house ad you'd see in summer of 1966. Half page, and on-third page ads were everywhere throughout your average comic. This was a far cry from 10 years earlier when you'd be hard pressed to find a single house ad in a book. A little competition from Stand and the gang will do that to you. Of course, there is plenty of truth in advertising here -as those 80-Page Giants were plenty entertainin'.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Steve Ditko Cover of the Week: Micronauts Annual #2

Ditko would seem to be a perfect fit for the Micronauts. He always manages to infuse his action sequences with a good deal of energy and fluidity, and to my eyes that should would work great in Inner Space. For the most part, it does actually work well. This is an action heavy issue and Ditko helps to keep things bouncing along, particularly in the gladiator inspired area battles involving Bug and Acroyear. My only real problem is this cover. The figures seem incredible stiff, and the poses are quite awkward. It is especially weak when compared to the terrific covers Michael Golden was producing for the ongoing series. This 'work for hire' era was not Ditko's finest moment, but this issue is quite decent but the cover leaves a lot to be desired.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Have a Happy Easter Everyone!

Easter Island Covers

The mysterious statues of Easter Island have been great source material for comic book covers. Although it was first visited by a Dutch explorer on an Easter Sunday nearly 300 years ago, the island didn't really become comic book cover fodder until the late 50s.

Let's start with one of my favourites; Jack Kirby's terrific cover to House of Mystery #85 (April, 1959). I love the concept that the status actually have bodies hidden underneath the ground. That being said, these guys have disproportionately sized heads, and I imagine that they would be quite tippy. Truth be told, these statues are not actually on Easter Island, but rather a previously unknown island somewhat unimaginatively named Giant Island. The explorers in question do, however, compared these statues to those on Easter Island. It's a fun story, highlighted by a scene in which one statute holds a blue whale over its head. The story was reprinted in DC Special #11.

Just a few months later, Marvel would enlist Kirby to provide the cover and cover story to Tales to Astonish #6 (September, 1959). Personally, I find the colour scheme here to be quite dull as the DC 'grey' really has more pop than the darker Marvel 'grey'. There's just no contrast here - everything, right down to the water, looks grey. It 1973, this cover was recoloured and recycled for Where Monsters Dwell #24. The Easter Island statues are pretty much the perfect thing for Kirby to draw - almost as if they were created just for him.

The Duck clan has travelled the world several times over, so it should come as no surprised that they had an adventure on Easter Island. Uncle Scrooge Adventures #3 (January, 1988). The GCD tells me that this cover is by Daan Jippes, and I'll have to trust their word on that because I am far from a Duckspert. I really like this one, as the blacks help to establish a very ominous atmosphere. I'm a bit surprised that the Ducks didn't get to Easter Island during Carl Barks' day, but maybe someone can correct me if I am wrong.

Here's a really fun cover. Strange Adventures #16 (January, 1952) features a cover by the great Gil Kane and it is notable because it features a superhero-life costume on the strange alien. This happened from time to time at DC in the 50s, and you could see that aspects of some of these costumes were eventually used for Silver Age characters, but I don't think this one ever reappeared. I am not sure if the statues are actually red-faced in the interior story, but it certainly makes them jump off the cover. Edmond Hamilton wrote this story, and I wonder if he ever wrote a pulp tale with an Easter Island theme.

I'll leave off with an odd one. Right in the middle of the excellent run on this series by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema, the Hulk (and the Absorbing Man) found themselves on Easter Island. For this monumental event (or is it just a weird one?), we got a cover by none other than Frank Miller for Incredible Hulk #261 (April, 1981). For my money, Miller draws just about the weirdest looking Hulk I've ever seen, and that's saying quite a lot. I'm not entirely sure that any of the statues are near enough to each other to accommodate Absorbie's pose, but I'll allow for a bit of artistic license.