Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sherlock Amok!

Sherlock Holmes as directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law was a movie I was little interested in seeing apart from its general connection to the Holmes canon. Downey seems terribly miscast and Richie's high-octane style seems an ill fit for the material. I was wrong, sort of.

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes is not a good fit. He's too short, he's too twitchy, and in the final analysis he's too smarmy. I can  overlook short, I can absorb twitchy, but Holmes is never smarmy, maybe bitchy and cruel, but smarmy not so much. Downey winks at the camera all the time, Holmes is not focused in that direction.  I'm amazed how poorly the disguises work on him, he's always Downey Jr. regardless of what dress  (sometimes literally) they put him in. He doesn't disappear into the character at all.

Jude Law on the other hand is a dashing Dr.Watson and I enjoyed him completely. He's smart and dapper and his penchant for gambling does add a bit of pepper to a character who can stick flat to the wall if the actor is not careful. While Downey seems a 21st century man in a period piece, Law seems to fit the sets he works within convincingly.

The story is better than I expected with Mark Strong making a dandy villain who just might be more than he appears. It's that dash of magic into the logical world of Holmes that makes this one tick. You're not sure if the magic just not might be for real in this movie and that makes the whole shebang work more effectively. In the final analysis it's an entertaining movie with some wonderfully effective visuals.

The sequel Sherlock Holmes - A Game of Shadows is less than its predecessor though. Aside from the addition of Professor Moriarty who is pretty good, the movie has almost nothing new to offer and offers it up at an extended length. It's a rather boring flick despite the hectic action which dominates many of the scenes. Truly this movie lives up the maxim of sound and fury signifying little.

The wonderful atmosphere of the first movie seems often lost and Downey Jr. is even less convincing as Holmes. Law's character is played more for laughs to the detriment of the character and the movie. The ultimate plot uncovered by Holmes seems downright pedestrian compared to the exotic scheme of the first movie, and there are few is any surprises. I thought this one would be better actually, but it wasn't.

I can't recommend the second movie really, though likely you've already seen one or both of them. The first gets a mild recommendation because of the strong atmosphere and the wonderful performances of Strong and Law. For Holmes purists these are curious outings, but hardly significant additions to the broad canon. Hopefully we've seen the last of this particular Sherlock Holmes, but I fear we haven't.

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Friday, November 29, 2013


I stumbled across this simply wonderful television show last year when Season Two was running on PBS. It was the adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, arguably my favorite novel which drew me to it. It was splendid and I also caught the final episode of the second season. But that was all, a few tantalizing episodes, admittedly large morsels at ninety minutes, but I was hankering for more. Sadly the dvds were precious to buy and I just never found the impetus and the ready cash syncing up. Then a few months ago I found both seasons discounted at Barnes and Noble and with my additional discount it made bringing them home feasible. I'm exceedingly glad I did.

Season one of the series, originally aired on the BBC in 2010 and adapted three of the classic Conan Doyle stories for a new audience with a hero plunked right down in the twenty-first century. Played stunningly by Benedict Cumberbatch (also infamous as Star Trek's Khan Nonnian Singh), this Sherlock Holmes has all the acid wit of the classic character along with the arid intelligence and fundamental misanthropy which define the character for me. He is joined by Martin Freeman (now at least equally famous for being Bilbo Baggins) as a stalwart, brave, and even daring Dr.John Watson. This is a Watson with PTSD who finds in his dangerous association with Sherlock the juice he misses from his warfront days, which in a peculiar way heals his spirit.

The three tales in the first season are "A Study in Pink", "The Blind Banker", and "The Great Game". The first, clearly a spin on "A Study in Scarlet" introduces Sherlock and Watson as they meet and move into 221 B Baker Street just in time to try and solve a series of seemingly disconnected suicides.  The second has echoes of "The Sign of Four" as weird symbols left in peculiar places send a myriad of folks running in fear for their lives. Set in London's Chinatown this one has a real exotic flair to it. The final episode of the season reveals Jim Moriarty, a grinning ghoul of a criminal mastermind who openly pits himself against Sherlock by having him solve puzzles and crimes on a clock before innocents are killed.

It's all heady stuff, filled with mysteries with some real twists. The stories are plotted and told with a forward-thinking sense of detail which keeps you watching for clues in every moment. The two characters of Holmes and Watson are at once hilarious and compelling as they bolt around London trying to stay ahead of the criminals they seek to uncover.

It anything the second season is even better.

The second season picks up where the first left off, literally. Then we transition to three more wonderful episodes. Cumberbatch and Freeman never miss a beat, and if anything are even more comfortable in the skins of their classic interpretations.

In the first story "A Scandal in Belgravia" (a take on "A Scandal in Bohemia" of course) we meet Irene Adler, a dominatrix who has embarrassing photos with royal interest. Sherlock and Watson are to get these back, but quickly learn there is much more at stake. "The Hounds of Baskerville" is a simply brilliant spin on classic and exceedingly familiar but in fantastically surprising ways. A young rich man comes to Sherlock to help him solve the twenty-year gone murder of his father by a giant hound and Sherlock and Watson find themselves investigating a government laboratory filled with mutant animals. "The Reichenbach Fall" (based on "The Final Problem" ) brings all of the stories to stunning climax when Moriarty returns to wreak his revenge on Sherlock, and that's enough said, save that the story begins with an assault on the Crown Jewels no less.

These are well-crafted television shows, with clever camera work and scripts which sing out with character. As it turns out, Sherlock Holmes as a modern man who texts and is adept with all things technological is still the character Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created so long ago. He was a modern man then in the waning days of  Victoria's England and he's one again in the final years of Elizabeth II.

These are must see TV.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Day Of The Beak!

Turkey is the order of the day, but it's perhaps wise to remember that despite all we've done as a society to tame and domesticate the wildlife around us, it could still rise up and demand its share. Maybe turkeys aren't as dumb as we think, maybe they are just lulling us into a false security against that day when they get their revenge.

Eat well. Then sleep well...perhaps. (Tryptophan is part of the long war they've been perfecting themselves for.)

On the other hand.

It's Thanksgiving at last and I hope one and all have a happy holiday, and I hope you don't have to work unless you want to.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The End Of The Quest?

The third perhaps final volume of The Brothers of the Spear drops today. I can't find any sign that there are plans for Dark Horse to reprint the stand alone series the Brothers had after the Tarzan license slipped away to DC. This one should finish the saga of the Brothers as told by Gaylord Dubois, Russ Manning, and Mike Royer.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tarzan In The City Of Gold!

After the great Hal Foster left Tarzan of the Apes to create Prince Valiant, the Ape Man's comic strip was taken over by Burne Hogarth, a highly stylistic artist who got the gig because he cannily mimicked Foster the best. Titan Books will be releasing four volumes containing Hogarth's Tarzan strips. I'm very much looking forward to these distinctive stories late in the coming Spring.

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Doc Savage And The Golden Key!

Until Marvel Comics got hold of Doc Savage in the early 70's, the only comic book versions had been done by Street and Smith in the 40's and a single issue by Gold Key in the 1960's. The dramatic James Bama cover art was actually part of a larger painting he created for the second Bantam paperback reprint "The Thousand-Headed Man" by Lester (Kenneth Robeson) Dent.

Seen in its proper context, the figure of Doc diminishes as the eye is unavoidable attracted to the peculiar spotted horned man and his provocatively placed snake. Doc's struggle with the constrictor which has him in its grasp is better staged and Doc looks less bemused and maybe a bit more desperate in the wider image.

I was lucky to get hold of my copy several years ago as I related here. 

This lone comic had a curious genesis, the details of which can be best read here. To read the actual story by Jack Sparling check out this inviting online location.

Enjoy and hurry! It doesn't look like Doc has much time left.

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Wild Hunt!

In the rich and vivid anthology titled Tales of the Wold Newton Universe, Win Scott Eckert's story "The Wild Huntsman" tells of a most mysterious exceedingly old man who shows up from across dimensions to see to it that time follows its pre-determined course, or perhaps not. This one goes to the core of the Wold Newton concept.

It's an exceedingly well written tale which re-introduces John Gribardson, Philip Jose Farmer's hero of Time's Last Gift, who is really it turns out supposed to be a certain rather famous Lord of the Jungle. The Huntsman himself might be someone else all together, perhaps even an All-Father figure.

The next story, also a sequel of sorts to Farmer's The Adventure of the Peerless Peer, continues the Wild Hunt saga in a manner of speaking in "The Adventure of the Fallen Stone" written by Eckert for the Moonstone anthology The Sherlock Holmes Crossover Casebook. In this one an aged Holmes and Watson must once again confront their arch-nemesis Von Bork, or maybe not. The aged man who once upon a time might have been Woden himself appears in what becomes a seemingly never ending quest for true immortality.  It's a fun story with a neat twist. 

In Moonstone's The Avenger Chronicles a story by Eckert titled "Death and the Countess" begins a curious trilogy of Avenger stories in which the machinations of this same ancient villain plays a part in the murderous plans of a lethal femme fatale called The Countess, though he is only named and  remains behind the scenes in this first installment.

In The Avenger - The Justice Files, Inc. the villain calling himself Walden now makes an appearance Eckert's "Happy Death Men"  and his previous plots become connected. In a wild yarn about murderous neo-zombies that pits Richard Benson, The Avenger and Ellen Patrick, The Domino Lady together against a revived and strangely altered Countess and the ancient enemy, there's a hint that Benson himself might be connected in ways perhaps even he doesn't understand to his persistent foe.

That idea is picked up again in "According to Plan of a One-Eyed Trickster" by Eckert in the third Avenger anthology The Avenger - Roaring Heart of the Crucible. The secret of the Countess is revealed and as it turns out calls back to a vintage Farmer story about Raffles in the Tales of the Wold Newton Universe anthology where all this started. We learn more about Waldman and perhaps about Richard Benson himself as he and the Domino Lady team up again.

The next installment in this lugubrious saga is scheduled for the upcoming Win Scott Eckert and Matthew Baugh novel A Girl and Her Cat from Moonstone featuring Honey West. I'll have to get hold of that volume and check it out.

I hesitate to say to much so as not to spoil, but I hope I've keened interest in thes Wold Newton stories. The ongoing complexity of a good Wold Newton story when it plays mostly fair can be fascinating and fun as you look for clues which point to other pop culture characters. But it's the story of the Wild Huntsman which it turns out might the spine which threads the elaborate saga together, and as you can see finding all the elements of that saga can be a rather wild hunt all its own.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Loki And The Dark Heart!

Above is the striking cover for Escape from Loki, the single full novel starring Doc Savage and his Fab Five written by the late great Doc super-fan Philip Jose Farmer. I have never read this novel. I have never seen this novel for sale in the world of flesh and blood. I want to read this novel, but beyond getting one from an online dealer  (certainly a real possibility) I've been holding off on that in hopes that a new version might hit the stands sooner than later. But I've heard nothing of that.

I did however buy and read and enjoy The Dark Heart of Time by Farmer, his one official addition to the Tarzan of the Apes canon. It's clear that no single hero dominated Farmer's imagination more than Lord Greystoke, a figure he transformed into a time-traveling immortal and who shows up disguised in assorted Farmer works. But it's been years since I read this tome, and getting to my copy might be a bit of chore, a chore I'd undertake, but again I hope that a new version might soon hit the market. So far nothing.

Given the interest in Farmer's work since his death, and the last few years of vivid Wold Newton material which has reached the marketplace thanks to Titan Books and others, I'd hope this material would find a new purchase in the bookstores.

Wouldn't it be snazzy if they offered it up in a version similar to the vintage ACE Doubles which once upon a time delivered one of Farmer's unofficial renditions of both these classic characters. That's not going to happen, but it would be exceedingly cool.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

The Monsters!

James Bama
Walter Baumhofer
 In the James Bama interview I referenced here yesterday, he also comments on the remarkable similarity between his cover for the seventh Doc Savage paperback from Bantam for a story titled "The Monsters" and the earlier 1930's cover by Walter Baumhofer for the same tale. It's only logical to assume that Bama derived some inspiration from this original pose, but he says it's merely a matter of two artists identifying the most interesting scene in the story and working to make that scene as dramatic and dynamic as possible to lure in the paying customers. There's no reason to doubt Bama on this as he is remarkably frank throughout the interview about where some of the imagery he used as reference came from. He says he never saw the Baumhofer cover and that makes perfect sense for a guy who was so in a time when finding such things was much much harder than in today's internet-mad world.

"The Monsters" is on my short list of favorite Doc yarns. I first fell in love with its outrageous scenario when it was adapted by Steve Englehart and Ross Andru for the 70's Marvel color comic. 

Gil Kane and Tom Palmer
Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia

I didn't get the opportunity to read the original pulp story until Anthony Tollin's Sanctum Books reprinted it several years ago. It's an amazing story filled with high-octane excitement, one of the most extreme Doc Savage stories ever.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Bama's Top Ten Docs!

Number 10
Number 9
Number 8
Number 7
Number 6
Number 5
Number 4
Number 3
Number 2
Number 1
In a recent re-issue of Doc Savage #18 from Sanctum Books, Anthony Tollin and the gang have added an interview with James Bama, the artist who elevated Doc's reputation with a new generation of readers in the 60's and 70's with his stunning covers for the Bantam reprints.

The core of that interview (conducted by Brian M.Kane) was Bama's picks from among his awesome sixty-two covers for his top ten. Above you see the results with volume thirty-two's "Dust of Death" winning the number one slot. Among the comments Bama added was that the number two cover "World's Fair Goblin" was his chance to do a King Kong cover.

These aren't necessarily the same covers I'd have picked. But it's interesting to read what the artist himself thinks about the work. He says now he was sad to leave the gig since Bantam left him alone to design the covers which were he said almost exclusively symbolic to help elevate Doc's mythic status.

More from this interview later.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Slight Of The Iguana?

Here's another foreign comic book cover which dips into the vast catalog of the late great Frank Frazetta for inspiration and a bit more. To be fair, they did ditch the scythe and add fangs.

Here is the image in its original usage as the cover for the eleventh issue of Vampirella in 1971.

But the critical question is left unaddressed on the Tarzan cover. Where is the iguana?

Here is another post in which I looked at how a poster made use of this same Frazetta image. 

UPDATE: As spotted by Staz Johnson (see comments section) the Tarzan figure on the cover at the top is a lift from Frazetta's rendition of John Carter on this utterly wonderful slipcase from the early 70's. Thanks for the spot Staz.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Wacky Packages!

A few days ago my beloved wife ("She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed") had a few medical appointments all inside the local hospital. That left me with several hours on my hands to wander the streets, which almost always means I end up in a bookstore. I thought the store which would do me and my wallet the least harm was Half-Price Books (my new favorite bookstore) and I spent a few hours in there plumbing the depths of the collections.

Among what I found were two volumes from Abrams showcasing the Topps 70's card phenomenon called "Wacky Packages". These are exceedingly well-crafted spoofs of then-current products. The gags were designed by the likes of Art Spiegleman (yep, that Art Spiegleman) and Jay Lynch among others. In the spirit of the heights of MAD magazine, these send-ups were clever and crude and almost always funny. The art is supplied by longtime Topps artist Norm Saunders (yep, that Norm Saunders) who gives these garish little cards their convincing oomph.

When I stumbled across this image, a send up of Warren's Vampirella magazine I knew I had to have these two handsome little volumes. There's something so inside-baseball about this selection which speaks to the interests of the creators. I don't know anyone in the broader pop culture sufficiently aware of Vampirella to imagine a spoof.

More normally, the jokes are built around household products. But the one above would certainly light a candle under the right-wing constitution-spewing numbskulls who'd find some attempt to subvert the youth to devilish non-Christian ways. They'd blame Obama most likely.

Similarly the myopic goblins of the left would pounce on this ad gag, which not only promotes violence but even a kind of reverse bullying where the kid kicks the crap out of the adult. It's empowering in one way and threatening in another, at least that's what a Pinko might say. He or she also might just blame Obama.

And one and all might blanch at this one given the gun-mad microverse we Americans inhabit. With school shootings making the news every day, a Left-winger might say such a spoof was insensitive and might negatively impact a child's fragile psyche and a Right-winger might say the ad makes light of the a citizen's god-given and constitutionally-protected right to wander the civilized world armed like a gangster.

Thanks Obama!

But I also say these mildly transgressive little parodies are funny, evoking a smile if not a laugh each and every time. To get a look at many many more see this outstanding link dedicated to the Wacky Packages phenomenon.

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