Friday, February 28, 2014

Vagabond Heroes -- The Gold Keys!

Here we go again.

Long ago in the ancient days of comic lore Western Publishing broke away from its longtime partner Dell Comics and created Gold Key. When I was a mere youth Gold Key comics were polished looking affairs with handsome painted covers which oftentimes hid some outstandingly slick and neatly composed artwork that sadly sometimes seemed a bit static. I stayed away from them save for a little bitty book called Turok Son of Stone which somehow caught my fancy. I was too young to have caught the heyday of Magnus Robot Fighter and Doctor Solar Man of the Atom and Mighty Samson, though all of these were still very much on the stands. They were in their later more becalmed periods of reprints and pastiche. So I never truly caught the Gold Key fever, not really.

Years pass and weary of comics as I sometimes get, I was casting about for something new and found an upstart company named Valiant which was giving the vintage Gold Key characters another go at stardom. I joined up late, during the ruckus which was "Unity" but soon was a true believer in the Valiant way, just before it fell on hard times after Jim Shooter's ouster. The company continued for some years producing by and large diverting and entertaining stuff, but it lacked the  vigor and verve those earliest installments had which took the prim and proper Gold Key material and gave it a charge of the modern. Then Valiant became Aclaim and Turok becomes a video game and it all went to proper smash.

Years pass and then I hear that Dark Horse has the license, if just for the Gold Key characters themselves. The days of "Dark Key" are upon us as the great Jim Shooter is at long last reunited with the characters he sought to revive well over a decade before. Turok, Magnus, Solar, and the Mighty Samson get the nod, and some handsome books they are too. But as soon as it began it ended, abruptly. The Gold Keys were gone yet again. 

Years pass and once in a while you'd hear tell of a revival. Valiant comes back even, but no Gold Key characters weirdly, which still sat waiting for the next right opportunity. Maybe that's happened as Dynamite Comics seems to have landed them this time and is in the process right now of bringing forth a new revised and unified Gold Key universe featuring Turok (which has already debuted) and Magnus, Solar, and even Dr.Spektor this time. What they will become of these characters this time is up for speculation, but the creators seem sincere and despite my misgivings the Turok book looks okay (more later).

We'll see. I wonder what's next.

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Black And White And Red All Over!

So the producers of the next Fantastic Four movie have broken through the hype cycle with their clever casting of a black actor in the role of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. My first thought was they might be severing the family connections which form the core of the Fab 4, but then I realized my aged pre-conceptions were showing since multi-ethnic families are hardly unknown nor even especially uncommon in the modern world. So after that sobering bit of reflection, I discover I can find no objection. What would they be?

Jack Kirby and Sol Brodsky
When first revived by Stan and Jack so very long ago, Johnny Storm was supposed to be the star of the FF, the kid with the blonde locks and the good looks who was going to be the one the boys all wanted to be and the girls all wanted to date. He was set up as a bit of heartthrob, an understandably immature teenager suddenly gifted with a amazing superpower and wild celebrity. He had his Justin Beiber moments for sure, but soon was a solid member of Marvel's flagship title.

Carl Burgos

Of course being human at all was a considerable change from the original Torch, created decades before by Carl Burgos, one of Timely's earliest superstars. Despite his android origins, that Torch too was a handsome blonde man, at least in his looks, an irony given that the Torch and his colleagues at the time were pretty seriously engaged in battling the Nazi ideals of the day. There was always a bit of a two-way oddness to those earliest comics.

Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott
So changing the skin color of one of the more famous Marvel characters is no big thing after moving from machine to man to begin with. Clearly the producers are counting on the fact that when Johnny yells those famous words "Flame On!" all anyone in the audience will see is red, the good kind. And all they will see is green.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sleepers From The Past!

This House of Mystery cover is just gorgeous. Drawn by Dick Dillin and given the washtone treatment by DC production guru John Adler, it has that wonderful glow these covers often emit, a true "sleeper from the past".

Here's a look at the artwork in its rough form. For more on Adler's technique check this out. Magnificent!

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Secret Origin Of Sherlock Holmes!

1985's Young Sherlock Holmes, apparently also bearing the better title Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear, is a disappointment. Full of charming young actors and some curious and eccentric looking older actors this is a story that never achieves full boil. But there are some things to like.

This movie is clearly of its era, and the classic Sherlock Holmes environment is bonded with more over-the-top action adventure. That's understandable but regrettable as there is very little mystery here. And for a Holmes story that's deadly. From the very beginning of the movie, little is held back from the audience, and any moviegoer of any experience will spot the villains almost immediately. Arguably this was intended for a younger crowd and so it's perhaps unfair to judge it too harshly along these lines, but it weakens the effort in my mind.

Elizabeth, Watson and Holmes
The story deviates from the classic canon in that this story has Holmes and Watson meet at teens in boarding school. Holmes is already a striking figure of high intellect and driving curiosity and Watson is a younger student who wants a friend, but also a standard career in medicine. Adventure gets in the way when older men from various walks of life begin getting killed in various ways, all of them striking and out of character. Holmes tries to interest Lestrade of Scotland Yard, but this younger Lestrade seems even dimmer than usual. New on the scene is a lovely young woman named Elizabeth who has stolen Sherlock's heart and their teenage love affair is key to the theme of this tale which ends up involving the young stalwarts with a deadly Egyptian cult.

Stop-Motion Beastie?
The story could've been much more interesting if the viewer was not aware from he beginning that the old men who are killed are seeing hallucinations and not actual figures of seemingly supernatural origin. But again we know almost instantly what is afoot, even if Sherlock and the others do not. Clues such as they are, are either too obscure to convince or too obvious to miss and so not credible in either case.

This movie imagines itself to be a "secret origin" of sorts for Sherlock Holmes and we see him acquire some of the aspects of his famous figure, among them a deerstalker cap, a Calabash pipe, and an Inverness cape.
And we learn why Holmes holds women at such distance, but it's all a bit much to explain so little. There is a neat coda ending (watch the credits for sure) which gives another clue, but it's too little to late to save this misadventure.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

The Case Of The C'Thulhu Creator!

I stumbled across this peculiar piece of fan fiction as part of a slightly larger volume called The Lovecraft Papers which includes Pulptime, a novel featuring Sherlock Holmes teaming up with H.P.Lovecraft as told by Frank Belknap Long Jr. as well as some shorter tales of P.G.Wodehouse's Jeeves if the latter were involved in some of Lovecraft's more famous mysteries.

So far I've only read Pulptime and sadly I must report it was a bit of a trudge to finish. The central conceit is an attractive one as it seemingly involves the great Detective in the cosmic horror of Lovecraft in a most direct way, save that the author here, P.H. Cannon, doesn't decide to do any of that. We are instead presented with a very old Sherlock Holmes acting sometimes wildly out of character visiting New York City to pursue a case of smuggling and ends up down the hall from Lovecraft and his visiting friend Long. They get meshed up into a slight mystery which leads to encounters with Houdini and assorted other small celebrities of the time which seem of interest to Cannon.

All things considered it's a pretty slow boil as the mystery really doesn't come to much and most of the time  Long, who functions as something of a Watson narrator type for the tale, talks about the relationship between Lovecraft and Holmes and what everyone is wearing at that moment. For diehard fans immersed in the tiny details of Lovecraft's career, there are bon mots here and there, but rarely does the story really get up any steam.

One thing that hurts is that Sherlock Holmes is almost unrecognizable, rarely indulging in his classic deductions and spending most of his time commenting on his two young friends. And that's the heart of why I don't think this story works, and that's I cannot imagine Sherlock Holmes ever finding H.P.Lovecraft a bosom buddy, in fact the opposite would seem indicated to me. Cannon seems to think since they were both eccentric that proves sufficient, but Holmes to my mind would find Lovecraft's stuffy manner and high minded opinions nauseating, and likewise I suspect Lovecraft would find Holmes a tradesman type, beneath him despite his intellect. I don't see the two working together at all.

The core problem is Cannon allows himself to indulge his fanboy interests and becomes mired in insignificant details at the cost of his larger narrative, a fatal mistake which fails to serve any of the characters real and fictional at all well.

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai!

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai - Across the 8th Dimension! is a movie I desperately want to like more than I actually do. I well remember seeing this clever little science fiction adventure flick when it hit theaters in the 80's, playing one of the best art houses in the city I was centered around at the time. It's got all the elements of a wacky adventure, perfectly designed for my wheelhouse. Sadly it falls short in a number of ways despite its best elements.

The pulp roots of this movie are all too evident. Peter Weller is a dandy actor portraying a modern "Renaissance Man" in this story, a sensitive noble  genius expert in medicine, physics, and the secrets of a woman's heart. Weller brings a twinkle to the part, a gleam which helps sell what could be a load of crap for a lesser talent. This is a Doc Savage for the then modern and self-aware hip world of the MTV generation. It's got all the parts right, and Weller almost pulls it off.

Buckaroo, Cavaliers and More
The Hong Kong Cavaliers are the Fab Five of course, featuring a fine array of second banana talent (Clancy Brown - who I always like, Jeff Goldblum - who is always dorky, and other blokes whose faces are better known than their names alas). They help Banzai battle the threats to mankind when they aren't doing their Huey Lewis and News imitation in a local night club.

Red Lectroids
The threat to Earth this time are the "Red Lectroids" who came to our luckless planet from the 8th Dimension way back in 1938 and convinced media phenom Orson Welles to help them cover it all up as a Halloween prank. Hidden among us all this time as hideously stiff white men (Christopher Lloyd and Vincent Schiavelli are fun), these aliens are led by Lord John Whorfin (John Lithgow) who took over the body of a great scientist named Lizardo some years before. Now they want to return to their own planet and take over with the spaceship they've constructed here. Their enemies the "Black Lectroids" want to stop them and engage Banzai to help.

It's a whirlwind of activity from that point on, and not all of the furious motion pays off especially well. A reasonably sexy Ellen Barkin shows up as a sort of love interest for Banzai but seems hard pressed to find a role in the plot save as obligatory damsel in distress. There's much jumping and mugging and lots of overly wrought ironic dialogue for everyone. But sadly it doesn't necessarily add up to an engaging adventure, at least not as good a ruckus as it might've been.

The basic problem with this movie is it's too aware of itself for its own good. The smarmy not-so-subtle commentary on then modern life is too heavy handed to be as incisive as the creators desire. The irony drips, but not always where they'd like and often in way too much quantity. The movie is hurt too by a limited budget which saddles it with local discovered real-world sets that don't really convince. Running around peculiar factories was de rigueur in 80's movies and there's plenty of that here.

I want to like Buckaroo Banzai. I really do, but sadly I find it an uneven distraction at best.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Avenger!

Huzzah! With the most recent publication, Sanctum Books has put all of the vintage Avenger pulp tales back into convenient print ready for the eager fan to gobble down. The Avenger, the steely-eyed gray-faced crime fighter was a later attempt by Street and Smith to find the old Doc Savage and Shadow magic. It seemed at first to find the balance, offering up a strange but nonetheless heroic figure who led a motley but capable team of people dedicated finding justice in a world all too often bereft of it. To that end they dubbed themselves "Justice Inc." and for twenty-four issues they did just that.

After the cancellation of the The Avenger's self-titled magazine, short stories appeared in Clues magazine and a final novella wrapped up the saga in The Shadow.

All of those stories are included in Sanctum's reprints along with insightful background information on the stories and the people who cobbled them together. The greatest name in that list is Paul Ernst who wrote as did Doc Savage's scribe Lester Dent under the "Kenneth Robeson" pen name. Ernst wrote most of the Avenger stories, both long and short.

It's fantastic to have these stories at my fingertips, and recently I was able to locate an early issue I'd missed. So now all of the original Avenger yarns are ready and waiting. I read the first half-dozen or so as they came out, but fell off. This spring seems a heady time to dive back in and chase evildoers beside Richard Benson and his colleagues once again.

Thanks goes to the Anthony Tollin and whomever aides him at Sanctum. Soon I hope to say the same for Doc Savage, another milestone I'm eager to reach.

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