Monday, December 28, 2015

First Look - Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange

From this week's Entertainment Weekly. Not bad, definitely keeps the general look and theme of the character. I always think the movie look could be closer to the comic (except for Spider-Man, his last movie costume was dead-on), but this isn't a bad start. I hope the cape is crazy and flowing as he casts spells and fights on the Astral plane. And that's probably the geekiest sentence I'll write all week (but maybe not).

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Books - Levon Cade Series by Chuck Dixon

Levon's Trade: Levon Cade Book 1
Levon Cade is the newest tough guy on the literary scene. Cade, I think, is much like his author, ace action writer Chuck Dixon: a tall, honorable, mildly shy father who means no man harm. But, unlike his multi-talented creator, trouble finds Cade on a regular basis (or—maybe Cade is more like his creator than we thought ...). In this terrific debut of a promising new series, Cade is a retired military man, working construction and taking care of his young daughter Merry. When his boss asks him to track down his missing college student daughter, the money is good and Cade reluctantly agrees. He finds himself in a bit over his head, fighting some unsavory mob types who don’t appreciate Cade turning over the rocks they’re living under. Violence ensues.

I love the fact that, despite being a tough combat veteran and hand-to-hand combat expert, Levon is a very human protagonist. He loves his daughter, he lives by lessons taught from his fellow soldier Gunny Leffertz, and is not perfect. He makes some mistakes, and his vigilante actions cause some repercussions that will probably drive the story for some volumes to come. 

Full of driving action, flying bullets and good parenting. Don’t miss Levon’s Trade

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Levon's Night: Levon Cade Book 2
Dixon grows as a novelist with every new book. Levon’s Night is even better than the first Cade story. Due to the events in that first book, Levon and his daughter Merry have moved to a remote part of Maine to lay low for a while. They’re so remote when the snow starts falling they had better hope the larder is stocked and they have enough baloney to last until spring. Of course it would have to be the town a rich Bernie Madoff-type criminal has chosen to purchase a safe house. Or safe mansion, more like. Unfortunately, the mansion doesn’t prove to be so safe when a team of very bad mercenaries come searching for treasure that may be hidden in the house during a nasty blizzard. They’ve invaded several such mansions around the world and they’re getting tired of looking. Their M.O. is to kill everything moving, then tear the house to pieces in their treasure hunt. In this case the entire town is marked for destruction. The only thing between the townspeople and utter devastation ... is Levon Cade. And he’s all outta bubble gum. 

Levon Cade is fast becoming one of my favorite action heroes. Quiet with a generous kind streak, all he wants is to be left alone to raise his daughter in peace. But when someone—or group of someones—approach him with violence in their hearts, that person or group will be dealt with. Levon is a protector with that special set of skills you want in someone on your side. And pray Levon Cade is on your side. An action packed, snow-covered, thrill-a-minute read. Highly recommended. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars. 

Levon's Ride: Levon Cade Book 2.5
On the road after the events in Levon’s Night, Levon Cade and his daughter Merry stop at a roadside diner for a quick meal. When Levon walks outside to check his SUV, it’s gone. The stolen car means nothing to him, but the guns, cash and diamonds hidden inside are another matter. 

Using his military training, street smarts and a load of common sense, Levon tracks down the local car thieves and their chop shop, but finds no sign of the SUV. Where he goes from there is where the story really takes off. Oh, and there’s the mob hitman who’s been chasing Levon and Merry and is very close to catching up with them. A series of events converge with some very bad timing. For the bad guys. 

This short story acts as a bridge between books two and three of the Levon Cade saga. Dixon keeps the stakes high and the action tight, as Levon, who has already lost so much, stands to lose what little he has salvaged for his and his daughter’s future. It would probably be smart not to stand in his way. The novel also has spot illustrations by one of the most talented artists around, Butch Guice. At $1.99 on Kindle (and free this month on Kindle Unlimited), why aren’t you downloading it right now? Bring on book #3! 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Monday, November 30, 2015

Books – Biker by Mike Baron

Somewhere inside biker Josh Pratt is a good man. Accepting Christ in prison, Josh has bent a few rules with the help of his lawyer and become a private detective. He’s trying to keep on the straight and narrow, but when his new girlfriend asks him to find her friend’s missing son, kidnapped by his biker father shortly after being born, he reluctantly accepts. Pratt has no idea he’d be better off kicking a hornet’s nest and running screaming through the horde. Josh infiltrates biker culture and finds a lead—the boy’s father is a criminal and a very dangerous man. He is also one of the most feared gang enforcers in the world. Now Josh has to find the boy, deal with his crazy new girlfriend and protect everyone in his life from the boy’s sadistic father. And make it to heaven. All in a day’s work. 

Writer Mike Baron is one of finest comic book writers the field has ever produced, creating Nexus, the Badger, the Butcher and many other memorable characters (and if you look hard enough, you can catch up with the Badger in his Biker cameo). Here he turns in an action packed novel about a conflicted man trying to do the right thing, but having to break a lot of clavicles to do it. Josh Pratt may be a Godly man, but he’s still tough as nails and will do what the situation requires. If I had one criticism of Biker, it is that Pratt needs to break a few more heads. He does diffuse a few situations by bravado alone before they get out of hand. Baron is such a great hand-to-hand combat writer I would have loved to have read a few more brawling fistfights. Still, a superb read with a fun plot, great pacing and some white-knuckle action. How many other books will you read this month where the protagonist faces off against a mountain lion with a pocketknife? I loved it! 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book Reviews

A look at some recently read books. First, two licensed novels in familiar universes, handled in vastly different manners. Then, the first in a wonderful new 19th Century supernatural series. 

Star Trek Mirror Universe: Sorrows of Empire by David Mack 

Mack knows the Star Trek Universe like the back of his hand. Here he takes a cue from part of evil Spock’s final speech in the original series episode Mirror, Mirror. He continues the ideas and events from that show. In the episode, evil goateed Spock admits to our universe’s Kirk that on its present course, his empire will fall within the next 140 years. Kirk tells him that is an illogical waste of resources and mental and physical capital. In this novel, after much consideration, Spock agrees and goes about changing things. He uses the assassination device in evil Captain Kirk’s quarters to gain mastery over the Enterprise, then uses that, guile and strategy to become the undisputed ruler of the formerly evil empire. Along the way he finds some surprising allies who support his mission, including a familiar character as a mate/partner. Of course his realignment strategy requires attitude adjustments from those presently in power, and Spock and his team have to contend with major resistance. The kind with large, destructive weapons. 

The story takes place over at least a decade, with Spock’s ultimate triumph depending on his ultimate defeat—but the timing has to be perfect. Will he end up betrayed and going down in flames too soon? Will his allies stay with him to the end despite the cost? The answers are a blast to discover. 

I actually don’t read many licensed books on any property, most of them just aren’t very good. Because I love the Mirror Universe I thought I’d try this one, and it was outstanding. This is the first Star Trek novel I’ve read by David Mack. It will not be the last. He has a real handle on the voices of the ST characters, even ones in the Mirror Universe. An excellent read. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Star Wars: Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne 

On the other hand, here is media tie-in fiction gone horribly wrong. I like Hearne’s modern urban magic series The Iron Druid Chronicles well enough, but this novel about Luke Skywalker directly after destroying the Death Star is a total loser. I feel a bit bad for Hearne, it must be tough writing a novel about this period in the Star Wars Universe. Luke has not started his Jedi training and doesn’t know his true heritage. He has only minor use of the Force, and is basically a callow, foolhardy young man. But that is no excuse for this wincing, teeth-grindingly awful story. It is in turn bland and soulless. The writing is totally generic and boring science fiction. Luke goes on a quest with a rich merchant’s daughter to find ... something, I forget what. Her father is a caricature of a character who would be played in the movie by a preening Brian Blessed. I suffered about a third of the novel, up to the point where Luke and the girl go into a fast food restaurant (yes, a Space McDonald’s), and Luke tries to move a spilled noodle on the table with the power of the Force. That was dumb enough, but the author made a big deal that Luke ordered what he called “Nerf nuggets.” At first I laughed. That was stupid but funny. But they just kept saying it. The girl said this joint had the best Nerf nuggets. Luke orders the Nerf nuggets. He proceeds to sit down and complement the chef on the Nerf nuggets. It was as if Hearne was intentionally trying to ruin the book. I finally thought, if another character mentions Nerf nuggets, I am outta here! The next sentence had an undercover operative telling Luke where he needed to go and his code words. His code words? You guessed it—Nerf nuggets. I instantly stopped reading and my teeth stopped grinding. I suggest you don’t start unless you have a high tolerance for mediocrity. Awful. 

Rating: I didn’t finish the book, so no rating. 

Things Half In Shadow by Alan Finn 

Edward Clark is an up and coming crime reporter, engaged to a fiancée from a wealthy family. He’s definitely on an upper track in the Philadelphia of 1869. At the suggestion of his editor, he decides to investigate and expose some of the more popular mediums operating in the city. Mourning their recent Civil War dead, the populace of Philadelphia have made consulting mediums a fashionable activity. When he exposes young and beautiful medium Lucy Collins as a fake, he doesn’t realize the length she will go for revenge. 

Being blackmailed by Lucy for secrets from his own past, Edward realizes she may not actually be such a bad sort after all—maybe—and they end up working together to investigate other Philly mediums. When popular medium Lenora Grimes Pastor is viciously murdered during a séance—a séance where Edward and Lucy were in attendance—suddenly both are under suspicion as suspects. Edward vows to find the real killer—no matter where the twisty road leads him. And he has no idea how desperate the killer is to keep that information secret. 

Writer Alan Finn is a wonderful new voice in fantasy. He weaves a compelling plot and vivacious characters into a novel I couldn’t put down. Edward’s life of secrets, held for the best reasons, is torn down around his ears and he could lose all he holds dear. Lucy Collins is a total fake and grifter, but does she have a reason to be such? How does her own background make her a sympathetic character, despite her sins? And was Lenora Grimes Pastor that rarest of all rarities—a person with real powers to talk to the deceased? All questions are answered in a breathtaking resolution that leaves the reader wanting to know more about these characters and their world. I did email Alan Finn to tell him how much I enjoyed this book, and he did reply to let me know there would be more in the series. I can’t wait! Highly recommended. 

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Monday, November 16, 2015

Comics Capsule Reviews

Manifest Destiny #18: Nice to see a creator owned book last eighteen excellent issues. I’m not sure a new DC or Marvel book will ever last that many issues again. Readers can also tell Chris Dingess is a writer rather than a comic book writer—that is, Dingess comes from television and has read things other than comics in his life. He knows plot, pacing and character better than anyone writing a mainstream superhero title these days. In this issue, Lewis & Clark, well into their supernatural tour of America, complete their uneasy truce with the tribe of cannibal/bird beings they discovered. They then fulfill their true mission, making the Louisiana Purchase safe for American settlement. They carry out that mission with surprising, but probably necessary, brutality. A riveting book that never fails to entertain or surprise. Matthew Roberts’ art is horrifying and tremendous, as always. Excellent. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

Miracleman by Gaiman and Buckingham #4: While Alan Moore’s Miracleman stories are among the best superhero comics has ever had to offer, when Moore left Neil Gaiman took over the title. Marvel is reprinting those stories, eventually along with some new material. I read these books when they originally came out in the ‘80s and have fond memories of them. Now I’m not sure why. 

Gaiman has a folksy, breezy writing style that runs hot and cold for me. I generally enjoy his work, at least the little to which I have been exposed, but he’s not an absolute favorite. These thirty-year old stories vary from terrible to slightly better than terrible. I appreciate that Gaiman wanted to go in a different direction from Moore, but the direction he chose was directionless. His decision to leave Miracleman out of his Miracleman stories was odd as well. He probably decided, rightly, that no one will do Miracleman better than Alan Moore, so why try? But if that is the case, why bother? It all seems like such a waste of energy and ideas. 

In issue #4, Gaiman revisits Liz Moran, the hapless wife of Miracleman alter ego Mike Moran. Mother of two of Miracleman’s wonder children, Liz is in a new relationship and raising one of her wonder girls and a stepchild. She reads them a fairy tale about her and Miracleman’s first child, Winter, now world famous and revered. This type of storytelling is Gaiman’s security blanket, as he loves writing fairy tales. It’s all so blah ... good but not great. I really wonder why I liked this back in the day. It’s also worth noting that Mark Buckingham’s art style was nowhere near as polished and gleaming as his later work in Fables. Here he is sketchy and his art is not attractive. At $5.00 per issue (for a reprint!), this book is not worth a nostalgic look into the past.

Rating: *** out of 5 stars 

Paper Girls #2: The Paper Girls are Tiffany, K.J., Erin and Mac. They are 12 years old and deliver papers from their bikes for a living. Taking place in the 1980s, one Halloween night they catch some real monsters. But what kind of monsters? Space aliens? Dimensional travelers? And what is with the familiar (to modern readers) logo on one of the monster’s strange electrical devices? With their parents missing and the town being evacuated, the girls better figure out what is going on—quickly. 

New from writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Cliff Chaing, the story puts these young girls through their paces, as they have to deal with angry parents, non-paying subscribers, villainous space-thugs and doomsday devices. Are they up to the task? I’d guess possibly not, but then Erin would hit me in the face with her hockey stick. So I say yes! An enjoyable read with an outside-the-box plot. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Birthright #11: Birthright is probably the best regularly published book on the market right now. Full of action, emotionally conflicted characters and a rollicking good story, I devour every issue cover to cover. 

Brennen is getting used to his younger brother being a now older hero returning from another dimension. He’s even helping Mikey destroy evil sorcerers hiding on Earth. But he is also aware that Mikey is not telling him the whole truth. Trying to explain his time in Terrenos, Mikey tells Brennan the story of the time he violated his trainer’s orders to rescue a young maiden slated for human sacrifice. He succeeded and learned sometimes he has to do as his conscience dictates. He doesn’t explain why he later accepted service with Lore, the evil tyrant he was sent to Terrenos to eradicate. What’s more, Brennen now has his own spirit guide from Terrenos to help him figure out if Mikey is good or evil ... and if evil, how to save his soul. A top-notch fantasy, full of twists and turns that never let up. Highest recommendation. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

The Twilight Children #1 & 2: I haven’t had much exposure to writer Gilbert Hernandez’s magnum opus, Love & Rockets. But artist Darwyn Cooke is an absolute master of the comics medium. Here they team for a new story involving a small, beachside community and some odd supernatural events. The characters are intriguing; a cheating wife, her husband, her lover, a beach bum who lost his family in a fire many years before, and three children who are friends. When large opaque orbs are seen floating on the ocean and eventually float into town, the curious villagers try to capture them. Refusing to be corralled, the orbs end up floating through homes and business in this sleepy town. A young scientist arrives to study the orbs. When the kids find an orb in a cave, they reach out to touch it. That’s when the orb explodes, taking their eyesight but leaving them otherwise unharmed. Then a strange woman with white hair appears on the beach. Is she connected to the orbs? 

In issue #2, the orbs demonstrate even wackier behavior, whisking away some citizens who get too close. Some reappear naked in trees, others don’t return at all. Meanwhile, the silent, white-haired stranger makes friends with the village folks. But what is she hiding? 

Hernandez and Cooke have crafted a seriously deranged sci-fi fantasy mystery that commands the reader’s attention. Cooke’s art is wonderful. A brilliant story I can’t wait to see unfold. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Judge Dredd Classics: The Dark Judges: This hardcover graphic novel reprints two of the most famous Judge Dredd stories; Dredd and Psi Judge Anderson against the Dark Judges. Judge Dredd of course is from Britain’s weekly 2000 A.D. anthology comic. Set in a fascistic future, judges have the right to be judge, jury and executioner to a crime-ridden populace. 

The Dark Judges come from an alternate dimension. They are Judge Mortis, Judge Fire, Judge Fear and finally their leader, Judge Death. In their dimension, they have decided that all crime is committed by the living, so living itself becomes a crime. When they have dispatched all living things on their world, they find a way to Earth to finish their grisly work. Enter Judge Dredd, who finally finds harsher judges than himself. Beautiful and tough Judge Anderson, a mind reader from the Judge Psi Corps, steps in to help him. The art for the first storyline is by Brian Bolland, and the characters have never looked better. Despite causing major destruction, Dredd and Anderson finally manage to put the Dark Judges back in their bottle. This story also contains one of my favorite single comics panels of all time, as Judge Fear proclaims to Dredd: 

“Gaze into the face of Fear!” As Dredd puts his fist through Fear’s head, he proclaims, “Gaze into the fist of Dredd!” Inspired stuff! 

The second story is from Judge Anderson’s solo title. Dredd is involved, but she is the star. The Dark Judges, their bodies destroyed but their spirits clinging to life, manage to trick Anderson into coming to their dimension and freeing them. They end up causing twice the destruction to Mega-City One they did the first time around, and Judge Anderson is now under investigation and suspension for freeing them. Will she be able to fight the Dark Judges under house arrest? Let’s just say if you don't think so, you don’t know Judge Anderson. A nice hardcover package of two of the best Judge Dredd stories. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Movies – The Martian

The novel The Martian was the best book I’ve read so far this year (find my full review here), so how did Hollyweird handle the movie version? Outstandingly. 

As in the book, astronaut Mark Watney is a botanist/engineer accidently left stranded on Mars when a freak windstorm descends on his exploration team. Left for dead, Watney has to figure out how to survive on a hostile planet with little food or water for 900 days, until NASA can mount a rescue operation. How he does so, with many twists and turns and a lot of sciencey-type stuff, is as fascinating to watch as it was to read. 

Screenwriter Drew Goddard’s (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) script takes just what it needs to from the book to make a tight, suspenseful screenplay. Director Ridley Scott has unleashed his best film in years, making the science of the story work fine despite the audience’s ignorance of engineering or botany (speaking strictly for myself). Scott’s once brilliant work has degenerated to boring political correctness in recent years; it’s good to see he can still focus enough to tell a clear, agenda-free story. Casting is spot on, as the race and nationality of some characters are changed from the book, but still resonate with their literary cousins. Main character Watney is portrayed by Matt Damon, at best a flavor-of-the-day but never a great actor. Whatever he did to achieve this particular performance I hope he continues doing. Damon reflected the loneliness and humor of Watney perfectly while keeping the audience interested in the daily drudgery of living alone on an alien planet. 

The ending is a triumph (did you think it wouldn’t be?) perfectly handled by the cast and the deft hand of director Scott. The Martian movie is an excellent companion to the novel, which I suggest you read first. It’s fantastic. 

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Sports Gene

So I didn’t inherit the sports gene. Or rather, the team sports gene. Not like most men, anyway. I do enjoy watching the Bengals when I have time or can work on something else while they’re playing. I love going to any stadium and watching a live event; there is something about the energy of the crowd and the spectacle of the athletes I enjoy. But I don’t really know the rules, the stats or the players. And I don’t care. 

This may not seem like a big deal, but it does tend to block an instant common denominator in new male relationships. At parties, meeting new coworkers, even at job interviews, I’ve had folks use sports as a conversation starter. They all seem disappointed that I have no opinion on who the Reds should use as a starting pitcher next season. Luckily I’m interesting enough to guide the conversation toward other manly things I enjoy; guns, motorcycles, Steven Seagal movies. But sports just leave me cold. 

My father wasn’t a huge sports guy. He watched his share of American sports, especially football and baseball. We would go to Reds games all the time when I was growing up and I loved the Big Red Machine of the ‘70s. I always took my glove but never caught a foul ball. But strikes, ridiculous salaries and whiny player behavior eventually soured me on baseball. Add to that the fact that watching baseball on TV is like watching glaciers move. I just can’t do it. I still go to the stadium when I have free tickets—it’s just not my first choice for entertainment. 

When my relatives used to sit around on holidays and watch sports when I was a kid, especially football that wasn’t the Bengals, I was bored out of my freaking mind. I have never understood the attraction. One reason may be that I’m not a natural athlete. I played on Knothole baseball and YMCA basketball teams when I was a kid and did terribly. I was always one of the worst players on the team. Later, it was the same for the church softball team and pickup basketball games in high school. I got much better at basketball after intense practice, but nothing about team sports ever came naturally. 

I contrast myself comically to my friend Eric. Eric and I have a lot in common and we’ve been close friends for 30 years. However, he is a sports freak. His television is glued to ESPN and sports programming 24 hours a day. He knows sports stats and player private and public lives going back to the 1800s. He reads books on the histories of sports and specific teams. He has an almost photographic memory of sports stats. He constantly finds it humorous that I don’t know jack about any sports related anything. I did have a good time learning football rules from Eric. In college, we used to skip a boring night class and go to his house and watch Monday Night Football. Looking at me as some kind of medical experiment or someone who had lived in a bubble from birth, he took the time to explain obscure football rules and how a first down worked. That was eye opening and made watching football a lot more enjoyable. Nothing would make watching baseball more enjoyable. I remember one night we were talking on the phone and he was shocked I didn’t know the World Series was on, and had no idea who the teams were. Hey, I knew it generally takes place in October or November, what do you want? Eric still takes time to assure me there is no such thing as a “football bat,” in tones one would use to explain how to cross the street to a small child. Philistine. 

As for sports I do enjoy, I tend to like individual sports rather than teams. I spent many years in the martial arts, specifically Shotokan karate. Later I took fencing for several years, learning western fencing, rapier/dagger and some Japanese swordplay. Those were ten times more fun that watching or playing basketball. I still enjoy target shooting, disc golf, racquetball and weightlifting, although I have little time to indulge in those activities. As soon as my bum knee gets fixed ... 

So a little understanding out there for men who didn’t get the sports gene. We’re still manly! I don’t know the players, the rules, the stats or what teams are in the playoffs. At this point I never will. It’s not the worst thing that can happen. Can we discuss geopolitics or Batman comics instead?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Comics: The Invincible Iron Man Epic Collection Volume 1

Marvel—or rather Editor Stan Lee and his artist cohorts, was on a tear of universe creation in the early 1960s. Iron Man came into being within two years of the great Lee/Kirby/Ditko creations such as Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor and the Avengers. This first Epic Collection of the earliest Iron Man stories, remastered, recolored and in order, is a comic lover’s dream. The book covers the Armored Avenger from 1963-1965, featuring stories from Tales of Suspense #39-72.

Shellhead’s origin story from TOS #39 was astonishingly held intact, with minor tweaks, for the first Iron Man movie. Why? It works. A cool executive with a heart of steel, Tony Stark is monitoring his company’s war munitions in Viet Nam when a bomb goes off nearby, lodging shrapnel into his chest close to his heart. He wakes up in the camp of Vietnamese warlord Wong-Chu, forced to manufacture a weapon of mass destruction for Chu’s pleasure. Instead, he manufactures a chest plate to keep his heart pumping and weaponized suit of armor that allows him to defeat Wong-Chu and start his superhero career. The creative team for the first issue are not the usual suspects, as Stan only plots, his brother Larry Lieber scripts, and Dandy Don Heck does the art. The results are still outstanding. 

What I love about these stories is that the character and his look start to grow and change immediately, starting with the second Iron Man story in TOS #40. Stan is still plotting, but writer Robert Bernstein (credited as R. Berns) takes over the scripting chores. Jack Kirby takes over the art for a while as Iron Man battles Gigantus in this issue. Iron Man’s armor, already changing and updating each issue, turns from iron gray to gold. Readers get a true appreciation of Stan’s tight plots after reading a few issues by Bernstein—his dialog and characterization were throwaway nonsense for lowbrow readers and children. I realize Lee isn’t Shakespeare, but Stan had such a sharp sense of fun and witty dialog. It appears that Bernstein cranked out random words while he was working on his novel. Lee doesn’t take over full scripting until TOS #47, where he immediately whips things into fine superheroic shape. 

Issue #41 introduces fans to “The Stronghold of Doctor Strange,” not the Lee/Ditko Stephen Strange we come to know later, but sort of a villain prototype. In TOS #42, Heck returns to the art chores and decides to stay for a while. Issue #45 introduces two characters destined to make a huge impact on Tony Stark’s life, ex-boxer/bodyguard/chauffer Happy Hogan, and Stark’s secretary, Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Fun Fact: Potts’ look was based on the tomboy character Schultzy from The Bob Cummings Show, played by the Brady Bunch’s Ann B. Davis). 

When Stan takes over scripting in issue #47, he wastes no time setting up the action framework of the series. With Don Heck creating fun (but somewhat ridiculous-looking) villains, Lee intersperses epic superhero battles with the triangle of Stark, Hogan and Potts. Stark actually has romantic feelings for Pepper and eventually falls for her, but can’t act because of his fear of her being collateral damage of a murderous Iron Man villain (the classic hero’s conundrum). Meanwhile, Happy falls for Pepper too, but she rejects him because of her feelings for Stark. Eventually, angry at yet another frustrating rejection from Stark, Pepper agrees to go out with Happy and has a good time, which breaks Stark’s heart and riles up some hard feelings between Tony and Happy. Meanwhile, villains are infiltrating Stark International left and right (mostly left) to kill Stark and end capitalist aggression. Yes, Russian bogeymen are prominently attempting to shut down Stark’s business so America won’t have weapons to fight Mother Russia. It’s all so quaint now, but at this time in history the Red menace was real and Russia was the biggest threat to American peace and prosperity. It sure was in Iron Man tales. 

Ever changing, artist Steve Ditko (can we all pause to genuflect while saying the name Steve Ditko?) ushers in Iron Man’s classic red & gold armor as the cliffhanger of TOS #48. It’s a rather forgettable story, with villain Mr. Doll having the same powers as the FF’s Puppet Master, but the Ditko art and that gorgeous last page totally make up for it. 

Tales of Suspense #50 introduces classic Iron Man villain the Mandarin, with whom Shellhead picks a fight so he won’t become a bigger threat later (sound familiar? I knew Iron Man was a Republican!). It’s one of the best stories in the book. Mandy is clobbered, but they basically end in a draw. Issue #52 introduces the Black Widow—I’d forgotten that in her debut and for a few years after she was not only a Russian spy, but malicious and evil. Here she is a far cry from the eventual heroine of the modern Marvel movies. Issue #54 is the return of the Mandarin, where it was revealed that he has Green Lantern’s origin. I never knew that—I love reading these seminal stories! Don Heck is really on fire at this point, as general costume design gets better and Iron Man’s armor becomes more stylistic and streamlined. The art is phenomenal during this period.  

Issue #57 is huge as it introduces everyone’s favorite archer, Hawkeye. Never really a villain, Hawkeye does start out committing some minor crimes and is then seduced completely by the Black Widow. His heart is never in it and he does redeem himself, but this kind of struggle really defines Marvel compared to any of its competitors at the time. I imagine DC just didn’t know what to make of these complex (for comics) attitudes and plots. As late as issue #64, the Black Widow is still leading Hawkeye around by his ... leash, and against his better judgment he is helping her fight Iron Man. In issues #69-71, Iron Man is called out to duel by the new Russian armored powerhouse the Titanium Man. In a three-issue mountain-toppling battle, Iron Man emerges victorious, but Happy Hogan is severely wounded. Happy’s injuries, and Pepper’s devastation at them, drive Stark nearly mad. Even in victory he loses the things most precious to him. 

In the last issue of this collection, TOS #72, Iron Man takes on the Mad Thinker and his android, but Happy continues to deteriorate and Stark manages to totally alienate Pepper, by now the love of his life. Lee, through sheer force of will, succeeds in making the soap opera drama balance perfectly with the action and superhero battles. 

Iron Man has always been one of my favorite Marvel heroes and currently the only Silver Age Marvel series I have in totality from issue #1 of the regular series. But I own very few of the Tales of Suspense stories and they are a pleasure to read. The stories vary in complexity and quality at the very beginning, but once Lee takes over the plotting and writing the book shoots into the stratosphere, with epic tales of cold war politicians and businessmen, steel-clad heroes and villains, and mushy love triangles. Highest recommendation. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Con Report - Cincinnati Comic Expo

If crowded hallways and customer-filled vendor booths were any indication, this year’s Cincinnati Comic Expo was a huge success. When I arrived at the show, the first thing I did was find Adam West’s line, to get the worst of the waiting over with. Mr. West’s autograph is not inexpensive, and since Saturday was West’s 87th birthday, I’m not sure how many more public appearances are in his future. By the look of him, many, many more! Finding the end of his autograph line (halfway across the exhibit hall), I settled into what looked like an hour wait. I planned to choose a two-shot photograph of Batman and Robin from West’s table and have Burt Ward (Mr. Robin the Boy Wonder to you) sign it as well. 

Part of Adam West's Autograph Line
There is a camaraderie that develops with folks standing in line at cons, and immediately around me were a twenty-something man who loved Batman and an older woman there by herself. We shared our stories and hers was unique. Her name was Barbie, she was an attractive retiree from Northern Kentucky. She grew up with the Batman show and was going to the Cincinnati Oktoberfest after the comicon. She knew nothing about comics, comicons or Batman in general. But she wanted to meet Adam West. When she heard how much autographs were, she became worried and started to panic that she would be forced to buy one. I reminded her it was still America, and we’re not forced to buy anything here but health insurance. She was visibly upset and concerned that her idol would force her to purchase a photo. As we moved slowly but surely through the line, she asked each security volunteer if she would be forced to buy something. They all said no, but she was still sweating it out. She saw that West and Ward were sitting in close proximity, and hoped to talk to both of them at the same time. It broke my heart to tell her that Ward was a separate line and separate table. In about 50 minutes we reached West. She nervously stepped up to West’s assistant and explained she just wanted to say hi. He said that was fine and you could see the stress and nervousness fade a little. She stepped up to West and they exchanged some pleasantries. Mission accomplished! She walked off and I never saw her again. I guess Burt Ward’s line was too much stress to attempt. What if he tried to force her to buy a photo? 

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Monday, September 7, 2015

Comics – Doc Savage, Man of Bronze Magazine Archives

Doc by Artist James Bama
It’s a shame some of the classic pulp heroes of the past have fallen into obscurity. The old Doc Savage novel reissues in the 1970s (with those wonderful James Bama covers) hit me at exactly the right age for permanent imprinting: 11 or 12. I thrilled to the exploits of Dr. Clark Savage, Jr., the perfect man with skin bronzed by the tropical sun, and his five inseparable aides. Doc was a genius; a surgeon, inventor, detective, martial arts expert and bodybuilder. I was never sure why he needed his aides, but loved the antics of Monk the chemist, his irascible companion and foil Ham, a lawyer I can’t remember setting foot in a courtroom, Johnny, an archaeologist/geologist, Renny, a two-fisted architect and builder and Long Tom, an electrical engineer. Together, these six heroes fought secret societies, found lost civilizations and saved hundreds of damsels in distress. They made the crazy 1930s a safe place for fellow New Yorkers and the world. 

Doc Savage Movie Cast
In the mid’70s, Marvel Comics, through their Curtis magazine imprint, released eight issues of a classic Doc Savage black & white magazine. Dynamite recently collected all eight issues in a beautifully designed, long-lasting hardcover that really elevates the material. The first issue coincides with the 1975 Doc Savage movie starring Ron Ely. It was plain from the articles in the first issue the Doc movie was meant to start a major franchise, but that never happened. The movie was mediocre and part of an era where every super hero vehicle was camp, because the Batman TV show was camp. Producers couldn’t imagine taking this stuff seriously, and it was another 14 years or so, with the 1989 Batman theatrical movie, before anyone could. 

Doc Savage Magazine #3
The stories in this collection are gems. Doug Moench is the writer for all eight issues, and it’s plain he grew up with and loved Doc Savage. There are no adaptations of Lester Dent’s original novels, Moench sticks with original stories, paced and created for the comic medium. They’re wonderful. Moench perfectly captures the “voices” of Monk, Ham, Renny, Johnny, Long Tom and Doc himself. Even Doc’s equally perfect cousin Pat Savage is featured in a few of the stories, and Moench does her justice as a female adventurer. Moench puts Doc and the crew through their paces, flying to exotic locales, fighting megalomaniacs and monsters, solving mysteries and punching bad guys in the face. It’s everything you can ask of a pulp hero. 

What’s more, all of the original supplemental material is included, including editorials, articles on Doc and his aides, interviews about the movie, ads and lots of other stuff. The original magazines were obviously a labor of love, as is this collection. 

Alas, the magazine only lasted eight issues, and even though the cover says “Volume 1,” this will probably be the only such compilation. Personally, I would welcome new or reprinted Doc Savage tales in any medium. This one was a blast to read, and was reminiscent of both the 1930s when the stories are set and the 1970s when they were written. A beautiful collection. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Comic Capsule Reviews

Beauty #1
Beauty #1: Beauty has a movie-ready high concept—two years ago, a sexually transmitted disease exploded on the world stage; an STD people actually wanted. The “Beauty” STD cleared up bad skin, reversed hairlines and weight gain, and made men and women the best possible physical versions of themselves. The only downside was a constant low fever, but none of the victims seemed to mind. Perfect physical beauty was only one sexual encounter away. When a Beauty “sufferer” implodes on a New York subway train, NYPD detectives Foster and Kara are called in to investigate. Finding leads quickly, they follow the trail to an angry anti-Beauty protester. The encounter swiftly turns to violence. 

Beauty has a unique concept, with brilliant art and an execution that pulls the reader deeply into its world. Circumstances allow the disease to affect both Kara and Foster personally. One of these incidents is the last-panel cliffhanger, which will definitely bring me back for issue #2. A captivating book with plenty of mysteries to explore. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

The Fade Out #8
The Fade Out #8: This series was a bit slow to find its footing, but since it did it has been firing on all cylinders. In this issue, writer Charlie Parish attends another soulless Hollywood party, only it’s Halloween now and everyone’s in costume. We find out more about the past of Charlie’s girlfriend, actress Maya Silver, as she hustles Charlie from the party to rescue her Mexican ex-husband from a heroin-induced haze. It’s pointed out that her ex, a talented musician, used to work with the Desi Arnez band. When Charlie drags home, a blackmail note is waiting, threatening to expose the truth about the death of actress Valeria Sommers, which Charlie has been investigating since day one. 

Questions again abound this issue. Why does Charlie receive the note? And why does he think he knows who sent it? Writer Ed Brubaker answers each question with another, more complex query about these characters and their motives, all the while examining Golden Age Hollywood at its seediest. Fantastic stuff. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Manifest Destiny #16
Manifest Destiny #16: Will this comic ever slow down? It’s easily one of the most fun and innovative books on the market. Writer Chris Dingess and artist Matthew Roberts take a fantastical look at Lewis & Clark exploring a Louisiana Purchase full of monsters and magic. Currently their exploration party is in the area now known as St. Louis. Making common cause with a sentient (and human-eating) bird tribe, Meriwether Lewis leads a band of volunteers from their exploration group to destroy a mutual enemy. They may have bitten off more than they can chew. Meanwhile, Clark stays at the camp with Sacajawea, who is pregnant and ill with visions from her Shaman grandfather. 

Dingess knows how to ratchet up the tension and make it believable that anyone in the group, including Lewis and Clark, may not be returning home from this grand adventure. And Roberts can illustrate any monster or act of magic thrown at him. Highly recommended for lovers of real and bogus history. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

Stray Bullets: S&R #7
Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses #7: Occasionally writer/artist David Lapham will go off the rails and publish a ridiculous fantasy instead of his usual gripping crime story. I love those times. Tied intrinsically to the main narrative, this issue portrays fantasy versions of all the usual main characters with Lapham’s traditional over-the-top anti-heroine, Amy Racecar. Amy Racecar stories are whimsical, LSD-daydream tales of tongue-in-cheek death and carnage. Like most readers I’m sure, I used to shake my head at Amy Racecar stories, usually appearing out of nowhere in the middle of multi-issue epics, and wonder if Lapham was having a laugh. Until I read the origin of Amy Racecar in the Stray Bullets world. I no longer laugh them off. Amy Racecar is one of the most disturbing creations I’ve ever experienced in any media. Why she was created and what she was intended to cover up is truly horrific. It makes me nauseated to think about it. David Lapham can make readers feel something, and that is a rare talent. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

Seven-Per-Cent Solution #1
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution #1: Even though I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, I’ve never seen director Nichols Meyers’ Holmes flick The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Meyers also directed Star Trek II – the good one). Here writers David & Scott Tipton adapt Meyers’ original novel of the same name into a comic miniseries. 

It turns out that the battle of Richenbach Falls may not have been so fatal for Holmes’ most enduring nemesis, James Moriarty. Holmes is obsessed with finding Moriarty and stopping him before he can return to his evil ways. He becomes so obsessed in a fog of cocaine he can’t tell friend from foe or reality from hallucination. Dr. John Watson, Holmes’ physician and friend, happens to hear about a new treatment for such maladies from a doctor ... of the mind. The most accomplished such doctor is a gentleman from Vienna—one Sigmund Freud. 

How Holmes and Freud will clash will be an interesting meeting. Despite being dragged to Vienna by Dr. Watson, I’m not sure Sherlock will appreciate having someone tramp all over his mind and explore his childhood. That should be a hoot. We’ll see next issue. 

Rating: *** ½ out of 5 stars 

We Can Never Go Home #4
We Can Never Go Home #4: Still on the run from the events of last issue, Duncan and Madison are stuck in yet another nondescript hotel room in Buttcheek, America. They have killed people, robbed drug dealers and stolen a fleet of cars in their run from authorities. After a nasty argument, Maddie storms out. She returns a moment later and locks lips with Duncan. If you think that doesn’t sound like something Maddie would do, you would be right. 

Turns out crime bosses tend to keep super-powered people around them for cases such as this; and a shapeshifter is about to end Dunc’s life on the run. She actually makes him an offer, but it looks like it’s one he can refuse, because he does. When Dunc and Maddie (the real one) are tracked down by the F.B.I. five minutes later, they get another offer. Will they refuse this one too? Or will they spend the rest of their lives in maximum security? If they accept a job, will they go to work for the bad guys or the worse guys? The huge cliffhanger ending is a clue, but I don’t think these two crazy kids have totally made up their minds either way. A fun, if amoral, read with little redeeming social value. I loved it. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars