Thursday, May 28, 2015

Murder By Decree!

Murder by Decree is a robust 1979 movie with an exceedingly strong cast which purports to tell how Sherlock Holmes and Dr.John Watson confronted the malevolent violence of "Jack the Ripper".

The story is one familiar to anyone who might have seen From Hell based on the work of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell puts forth the theory that the Ripper was actually working for Queen Victoria to cover up an affair by Prince Albert which produced a bastard heir to the throne. Sadly this knowledge does undermine the movie a bit, but it's clear from the beginning that both films are plowing the same territory.

Mason, Finlay, and Plummer
The most peculiar thing about the movie though is Christopher Plummer's decidedly different take on Sherlock Holmes himself. This Holmes is polite, thoughtful, emotional, and downright caring. Not the usual self-absorbed hyper-intellectual normally presented. And frankly I missed the old cantankerous Holmes. This character did not feel like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective for me despite Plummer's layered performance and despite the omnipresent deerstalker hat and Inverness cloak.

One oddity about this movie is the presence of Frank Finlay in the role of Lestrade, since Finlay had portrayed the ineffectual Scotland Yard man in another Ripper meets Holmes film, specially A Study in Terror. Watching these two back to back, it was odd to see Finlay show up again among a different cast and in a very different atmosphere.  Anthony Quayle is in both movies too, but plays radically different parts in each.

One of the delights of the movie is the portrayal of Dr.Watson by James Mason, who finds at once humor, feeling, and intelligence in the role. This Watson is no buffoon, but a man who seems oddly put upon by his friend Holmes but is very willing to support and work for him. My favorite scene in the movie might be the exchange between Holmes and Watson about the way he eats a pea. I know it sounds strange, but there you have it.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Seventh Bullet!

The Seventh Bullet by Daniel D. Victor puts the great Sherlock Holmes and his able assistant and biographer Dr. John Watson in America, prowling the dubious streets of New York City and Washington D.C.  in the early years of the last century.

The duo are investigating the real world murder of David Graham Phillips, the original "muckraker" journalist of the time who had written some exceedingly scathing exposes of corruption in Congress and who was no little responsible for the 17th Amendment to the Constitution which allowed for the direct election of Senators by the populace.

The Treason of the Senate is the work around which the "mystery" revolves. I use the quotes to indicate a weakness of this tome, the lack of a proper enigma. We get a lot of fascinating material on Phillips and his mileau and meet many of the politicos of the time, but frankly the crime's solution seems a bit too easily uncovered. There are only a few "Sherlock" moments in this one, not enough for a full novel.

I did nonetheless enjoy the book for making vivid a debate which is of great moment in the modern day, the rank corruption of elected leaders, especially at the national level. The infusion of money into the political process was somewhat abated for many decades but in recent years has become a deluge which has removed the veneer even of honesty from many of our elected leaders. They line up proudly to take vast sums which we are told over and over again are "necessary" to run for office. The corrupting influence is all too apparent.

I've even heard talk in some corners that repealing the 17th Amendment might be a good thing in this modern world of ours where folks are considered too busy to actually govern themselves. Bullshit! This novel reminded me, or perhaps illuminated what I already knew, that the drive to maintain an honest and effective government which serves the needs of all its people is a struggle which will never ever end.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Study In Terror!

As can be seen by the offbeat poster A Study in Terror opened during to crowds in that extravagant moment when Bat-mania was seizing control of the world. How else do you rationalize such a weird poster dotted with sound effects. That said, the movie, despite such exploitation, has little to do with DC's Dynamic Duo.

The "Dynamic Duo" in question here are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's duo of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson as portrayed by John Neville and Donald Houston respectively. This outing of the pair is a lurid low-budget effort which has quite a bit of verve and a decent enough mystery. They are battling no less than Jack the Ripper himself who terrifies the whores of London as Holmes tries to ride to their defense.

I knew this movie was going to be a special experience when I saw Bernard Cohen's name in the credits as producer, the notorious low-budget maven of such fare as Konga and Trog, two of my favorite low-budget movies. Now I have a third of his efforts to add to the short list. The murders, often shown from the viewpoint of the Ripper offer up a classic blend of violence and sex, but within the borders of what passed for decency at the time.

As a dour Holmes and a naive Watson prowl the weirdly fake streets of Whitechapel, Jack the Ripper slinks about killing girls with relative aplomb. It takes a while for Holmes and Watson to get into the act, and once there they seem to take their time solving the crime, giving the Ripper time to complete his infamous list of victims. This is not a documentary about the Ripper, so the crimes are somewhat different, but certainly maintain the flavor of the classic murders.

The solution seems oddly contrived, but then it's almost by definition going to have to be. I was also more than a bit taken aback by how clumsily Holmes manages the finale, but it is certainly rousing with action.

This movie inspired a novelization, a offbeat one with a strange frame story starring Ellery Queen. It was published in 1966 by Lancer and has stumbled around in various forms for years.  For more on the book and the movie's origins check out this article.

I've been wanting to see this movie ever since I read it inspired Wade Manly Wellman and his son to write one of my favorite Holmes pastiches Sherlock Holmes' War of the Worlds. Full of robust color and ample textures, this movie is one that does indeed linger in the memory.

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Foster Child Of The Jungle!

Recently pre-ordered this gem of a little Tarzan book. These Library of American Comics Essentials volumes are dandy if a might unwieldy. I've never popped for any, but all have been handsome. This time I'm making an exception because of the exceptional nature of the material.

This is the very first Tarzan comic strip by Hal Foster, which adapts the first novel. It was done as a try-out of sorts to see if there was any marketability for the character in the format. It's been proven I'd suggest that there was. To see this work online go here.

This volume has all of Foster's original sixty strips adapting the debut novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. He then handed off the strip to Rex Maxon who is represented with several more storylines. These are the dailies, not the Sundays which Foster later turned his attention to and which are currently being reprinted by Dark Horse in gargantuan volumes.

These Brobdinagian tomes are a bit hard to handle. I just got in the second one a few weeks ago and I am eager to explore Foster's key work here.

Upcoming this November
There is one more volume to go to collect up fully these strips by Foster which are a singular point from which most comic book art extends even unto this day.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Men Of Tomorrow!

It's taken me a long time to get around to reading Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones. I've had a copy for several years and started it once a while back, but got stopped in the first chapter and never returned for some reason. Now at long last I've finished this outstanding chronicle of the earliest development of the comic book and most especially the hero Superman and the company which publishes him still, DC Comics.

Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster
Jones begins his story with an older Jerry Seigel writing a scathing press release about how DC Comics has persistantly over the decades denied Seigel and Shuster their just due for the creation of so mighty a character. In fact, not unlike Homer's Iliad the anger of Seigel initiates the story and also becomes one of its steady themes. If that story led to tragedy is what we have to learn. I was surprised by much of what I read and frankly my esteem for Seigel is much diminished by learning more about a man who was at once a victim certainly, but also a victimizer for sure. 

Hugo Gernsback's famous issue of Amazing Stories which featured a flying man (E.E. Smith's  Skylark of Space) is referenced several times in the saga and is presented as a singular point of departure for many of the creators who would make comic books into what we know today. This singular image seems to be the ember which ignited the fire which still burns slowly in print and on screen in the modern world.

Certainly Seigel and his longtime partner Joe Shuster (a much more sympathetic and passive character) are the centerpieces of this story along with Harry Donnenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, the owners of what would eventually be DC. We follow all of these men, and other significant figures, from before their births, tracking their parents who came to the United States to seek new lives. In fact that story is the root of this tome, the struggle of many immigrants, most all of them Jewish to redefine themselves inside the matrix of America.

It is to Jones' credit that he does not limit his presentation to the sometimes tawdry battle between the Superman people but spreads his narrative to encompass the broader rise of comics which surrounded that singular epic struggle. We meet many of the distinctive and often wildly colorful men and sometimes women who created the  Golden Age of comics.

Left to Right: Robert Maxwell, Paul Sampliner, Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowitz, M.C. Gaines and Whitney Ellsworth
The story also follows the development of comics in general and Superman in particular through the decades as the industry changed and eventually Hollywood came knocking. This is a story with a wonderful heft and wit and delightful details which allow the reader to come to a deeper understanding of the complicated men who crafted the heroes we still adore to this day.

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Double Life Of Lancelot Strongest!

The beautiful cover for Blue Ribbon Comics #5 showcases the great artwork of Jack "King" Kirby, the Shield's co-creator and Rich Buckler, the maestro of Red Circle Comics, the 1980's revival of the MLJ/Archie heroes.

Here's a look at the great poster shot in glorious black and white. Blue Ribbon Comics #5 reprinted in full the debut adventures of Lancelot Strong by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

When the MLJ heroes were revived in the 60's, the Lancelot Strong Shield character was not among them, rather the Golden Age Shield (Joe Higgins) took the helm of the assembled lunatics who passed themselves off as heroes in that wild and wooly run.

But in 1983 when the Direct Sales market boom made it possible for Archie to think about bringing their heroes back, they brought back The Mighty Crusaders and this time both Shields were front and center, despite the inherent confusion of that. There is no connection between the two heroes aside from their names and the patriotic gear they wear, but nonetheless they both got the nod from Rich Buckler.

Again they both show up on the second issue's wraparound action fest cover.

The next month Lancelot Strong, Shield got his own book, so he seemed to be the ascendant Shield for the moment. I really like how they call back to the classic look of the original covers from so many decades before.

Both Shields are on the cover of Mighty Crusaders #3 as well, though neither is looking particularly healthy.

But things start to get rocky as the second issue of Lancelot Strong, Shield is also the final issue, sort of. At least he looks vigorous.

That doesn't impact Mighty Crusaders, at least not yet. The knockout punch Lancelot is getting might be symbolic.

But in the newly dubbed Shield-Steel Sterling comic Lancelot Strong faces his Waterloo and passes from this mortal coil, sacrificing himself in proper heroic fashion. Apparently having two Shields was too confusing after all. Despite a few more adventures in the back pages of the Steel Sterling comic Lancelot's number was mostly up. The Joe Higgins version would get quite the push from Red Circle/Archie after the demise of Lancelot.

But for my money, Lancelot Strong has always been the strongest of all the Shields there have been.

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Friday, May 22, 2015


Guess what? David Letterman has retired from television and has ended his long-running late-night talk show. A television series ended.

But for all the navel-gazing self-important praise the show has been lathered with in the last weeks you'd think another pope had stepped down. And maybe in the ceaselessly myopic worldview of the always pungent baby boomers something akin to that did happen.

David Letterman once upon a time was an acerbic comedian who successfully rode his particular brand of gap-toothed snark to great fame and success, and at the same time, in a medium which was still barely fondling its old-fashioned ways of being a mass audience event, he was a fairly potent cultural figure.

But those days passed a relatively long time ago. David Letterman's show has not been anything other than  a late-night habit for his decreasing cadre of fans for nearly two decades. Aside from the "Top Ten" lists he was rarely if ever quoted and the show was notorious for his seemingly careless interviews. Now we hear he was a great interviewer, a skill I've never detected especially, but that certainly ain't been the case for a long long time if it ever was.

David Letterman's great talent was bringing an everyman worldview to the entertainment and sometimes political realms. He was able to cut through the cheese and get to the verve with an attitude which reflected, at its best, a real sense of humanity. And he could be snarky while he pretended to be self-deprecating. And in the early days when he was on NBC, he was really funny with a gang of writers and staff members who knew they were serving an audience which needed some titillation of a moderately cerebral kind. The show also a bit meta when it showed the halls and corridors and offices of the studio for its pranks. It was a glimpse behind the scenes, which made the material a bit more immediate perhaps.

He is still most famous for the inventive velcro-suit, a stunt I think I saw as it originally aired but I'm not sure now. It was hilarious and is still funny, making light as it did of a the "space-age substance" which was catching favor on clothes at the time. It's the late-night equivalent of Johnny Carson's famous moment with Ed Ames when he tomahawked a wooden Indian in the utes. But like that infamous TV moment it was long ago and far away.

Dave Letterman's reputation is built on what he did long ago and apparently an unusual integrity among his peers. I can respect that, but let's not kid ourselves that the show has been anything other than a relic, especially since Leno was eased out a few years ago and the famous competition between Dave and Jay was rendered moot.

Listening to one "newsman" or "sportscaster" after another try to glom onto the momentary glamour of this retirement can be hard when they wax on out of all proportion to the actual import of the event. David Letterman will go into his post-TV life with his millions of dollars and his seemingly happy family and I wish him well. Like Carson before him, I suspect we will see very little of him from this point on. His desire for privacy has always been about the most admirable aspect of his character. He will fade from memory (likely before the beginning of next week) as our rather tiresome cultural mavens find a new bauble to caress.

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