Sunday, February 14, 2016

Marvel Romance!

Many years ago now, 1996 John Lustig, a writer known for his work at Disney, began Last Kiss, a comic spoof of romance comics using material he had purchased outright from the carcass of Charlton Comics. Lustig bought the artwork for the issues of First Kiss comics and then proceeded to take that artwork and apply brand new and highly ironic dialogue and captions to the often overwrought imagery. It was a hoot. I've taken a look at it here before. Last Kiss has now been an ongoing internet project for many years.

In 2006 Lustig and others were invited by Marvel to take some of their vintage romance stories and pull off the same gimmick. The result was Marvel Romance Redux, a limited series of one-shot comics which poked fun at the genre and its overripe tropes. Dandy satire. At the same time Marvel decided it was only fair to reprint Marvel Romance, a collection of the same stories before they had been altered. It was really the best of both worlds, a nice collection of stories with modern ironic twists and vintage comic yarns featuring some really tasty and little seen comic art by the likes of  John Romita, Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, John Buscema, Dick Giordano, and others. For giggles the editors also tossed into the book the single Steranko love story which had not undergone the Last Kiss treatment.

Here is a cover gallery of the comics from which stories were pulled. Some had several stories taken, some only one.

Happy Valentine's Day!

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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Fireside Chats #2 - Son Of Origins!

With the second volume in the famous Fireside books series about Marvel we get a more complete reading experience from Stan "The Man" Lee as he lays out the beginnings of some more of the companies famous creations. Unlike the first 1974 volume Origins of Marvel Comics , Son of Origins published in 1975 feels like Stan had either more time or took more care in the telling of the real world origins of the superheroes who defined the company's identity.

Stan's strong and friendly persona is still very much in evidence as he continues to write with the winsome vigor that was infused in his famous "Soapbox" entries.

It's 1963 and the Stan begins with the The X-Men. At this point in 1975 the X-Men had been one of Marvel's few failures, a comic from the hands of Stan and Jack Kirby which had not held onto its audience sufficiently to warrant an ongoing comic. Of course this would soon change as a new team would become the darlings of the industry and redefine Marvel in the last half of the decade, but at this moment they seemed an odd choice to begin.

Stan does a much better job this time in sharing the stage with Jack Kirby (who he always calls "Jolly" in these books) and nearly attributes actual elements of the creation to the great artist. The book was originally to called "The Mutants" but Stan says the publisher Martin Goodman (Stan's cousin by the way) thought the title was a bit unusual for the younger audience he imagined still dominated his comic buying audience. So a new title was needed and Stan came up with "X-Men", a much better and exceedingly more memorable name.

The story turns a bit serious as Stan tries to put the creation of Iron Man into some historical context. Vietnam in 1975 was roundly seen as the toxic quagmire which had needlessly torn the country apart, a war of relative choice which was pressed with deception and far too many casualties.

But when Tony Stark, munitions maker and debonair playboy was dreamed up the war was far less unpopular and so a worthy spot it was thought to couch the origin of Marvel's "Golden Avenger" from Tales of Suspense. Stan says inexplicably that Tony Stark was to his knowledge the first rich businessman playboy in comics and I cannot doubt he speaks the truth, but it indicates he knows nothing of Bruce Wayne, a mild oversight to say the least. For the first time we read the name of Don Heck and he gets some neat kudos as does Larry Lieber who took over scripting the debut adventure.

We get a second look at Iron Man, the updated version. I suppose it was to show the hero as he looked at the current moment and not merely as the gray hulking version which began the series. The installment though is a weird one since while we do get some choice Gene Colan artwork the story ends on a bit of cliff-hanger.

The Avengers get the nod next, and to set it up Stan has to rectify his oversight from the first volume and fill in the reader on Ant-Man and the Wasp. Actually little is revealed here that would qualify as news. The Avengers was a title begun in response to fan calls for the heroes to team up.

Jack Kirby is called in to handle the chores since he was the artist in charge of most of the members in their home titles. I've always thought The Avengers shows off the weird dichotomy at Marvel which had two distinct divisions, the work by Kirby and the work by Ditko, both ostensibly written by Stan. But we see here that none of the character overseen by Steve Ditko make the cut in this  book. No Spidey and no Doc Strange.

Now comes a book about which Stan seems to really have something to say. Daredevil was created to grab some of the popularity of Spider-Man and rather failed to do it by most measures. As much as I think Stan sometimes overstates his role in the creation of some of the earlier heroes which owe a great deal to their artist co-creators, I think DD is much more a Stan production. Bill Everett was brought aboard to give us the origin tale which weirdly lacks the Marvel luster, though it's a fine looking comic nonetheless. This book feels out of place. DD of course is wearing the fighting-gear inspired costume which would soon enough be replaced when Wally Wood took over the character and really brought the true Marvel magic, albeit briefly.

The second story for Daredevil is a true favorite of mine. One of Stan's best stories with some delicious artwork by Gene Colan and inker George Klein.

This story is ideal for a collection of this sort, a full-bodied one-off with dynamic graphics and some of Stan's best writing. Stan had a great knack for creating dialogue. I always took that for granted until some years ago I was struggling through some of  the early work of Roy Thomas (a great plotter) and found his dialogue downright tedious, especially when compared to Stan's. That's Stan's great flair, being able to make the characters sound somewhat like heightened overly dramatic but realistic people of a kind.

With the next origin story we get another flashback to one of Marvel's earliest successes, but not one of the superhero type. Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos had been a big sales success, bringing the exotic Marvel energy to the classic war comic.

Kirby's art and experience infused the book with a wildness that really set it apart from the perhaps slightly more profound war yarns from Charlton and DC. Nick Fury though was a character with heft and Stan, wanting to take advantage of the spy craze of the mid-60's, used good old Nick as the centerpiece of a whole new feature dubbed Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division) was very nice blend of spy work and marvel method. For the first time really in the series I think Stan probably got the evolution of the series correct, according himself and artist Jack Kirby the proper credit. He for the first time seems to speak of them as co-creators.

But then we get to the Watcher and things get very murky again.

Stan mentions that The Watcher was introduced in Fantastic Four #13, a side character who evoked a lot of interest. So much so that he shows up again and again.

What Stan seems to have forgotten is that Tales of The Watcher was a regular back-up feature in Marvel's comics, most notably Tales of Suspense. We get the notoriously enigmatic Watcher relating different sci-fi yarns, functioning as a Marvel Universe Rod Serling-of-sorts. Eventually the stories begin to be about The Watcher himself.

We learn the origin of the Watcher's mission in a story properly called "The Way it Began..." by Larry Lieber on script and art with Stan getting a plot credit. Strangely it's this story that Stan revised slightly and retold in the debut issue of Silver Surfer with new art by Gene Colan and Syd Shores, but for some reason Stan has completely forgotten about the earlier incarnation. To his credit here, Stan does go out of his way to laud artist Gene Colan and if you look a the whole of this trade you find a lot of great Colan artwork.

The final story in this second volume of origins is one of the best, the origin story of the Silver Surfer. And here Stan does himself proud by I think accurately relating just how the Silver Surfer came to be. He talks about how he and Jack were working up new FF stories and searching for villains when they came up with Galactus. Now I'm willing to give Stan some credit here, though I doubt he had much to do with the nuts and bolts of the Galactus. By this time Jack was throwing in stuff which he and Stan never discussed (the Inhumans a prime example) and the Silver Surfer is the most famous example. Stan says the character just appeared in Jack's pages and they figured out together what to make of him.

Stan also says that it was Jack's schedule which precluded a Silver Surfer series, though where it would've have appeared is anyone's guess. It wasn't until Marvel was able to get out of its distribution deal with National that they could expand and when that happened they did it with gusto and the Silver Surfer was first on the list in a whopping twenty-five cent extravaganza. Jack was by this time retreating, creating no new features, and so that's why Stan went to John Buscema and Joe Sinnott. Whatever the reason it was a great success, at least critically. Stan always seemed to have a greater understanding of how the Surfer might connect to the audience. Jack always spoke of him in remote terms and I suspect didn't really grok at all what Stan saw in the character.

And that closes the second Fireside book. In so many ways this is a better and tighter volume than its predecessor because it seems clear that Stan had more time to collect his thoughts and write more carefully. It's not perfect by any means as there are errors, but overall this one seems to fulfill the promise this series suggested at the time, to really give us a sense of how the heroes of Marvel came to be.

One question though. Why is the Scarlet Witch on the cover? She ain't in the book at all, not even a little bit, not as a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants nor as an Avenger. Makes me think that at some point another Avengers story might have been slated but got cut. 

Next time we examine the Marvel baddies.

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Friday, February 12, 2016

Handmade Movies - Hands Of A Stranger!

Hands of a Stranger from 1962 is another movie in the long line derived from "The Hands of Orlac". Without seeing them all, I declare this the worst one ever. I make that pronouncement on the strength of my conviction that this might well be among the dullest movies I've ever staggered through.

The story is easy enough to grok -- a concert pianist loses his hands in a car wreck and a skillful and willful surgeon replaces said hands with those of a criminal. The hands then seem to operate contrary to the wishes of their owner and people start getting hurt and worse. While this is going on the characters stand around and talk and talk and talk in scene after scene all of which feel like the total running time of the movie each.

It's the dialogue that sinks this ship, it's ham-fisted, overwrought, with no feeling actually very being words human beings might actually say out loud. On written page they might appear okay, but placed between the teeth of a typical actor they tumble out like listless and lifeless and senseless. Long monologues on beauty and truth and truth and beauty and dry as toast homilies to suffering which invoke that of which they speak.

It's really a case of you don't appreciate what you have until you ain't got it anymore. Most movies have people talking and they almost always sound like actual people, or at least close even stereotypical facsimiles but these characters in this movie all talk like college essays. It's dreadful.

And the story is utterly predictable so there's no suspense really as you watch the pianist, a self-loving/ self-loathing and exceedingly handsome mope. He has a sister who seems a bit too invested in his care and feeding and a manager who is just plain weird. The doctor in this one seems like he'd be okay, but then you get a look at this basement and you might discover all sorts of creepy things. Others show up and talk and then die or don't but the whole magilla is a chore.

Hands of a Stranger is the handiwork of one Newt Arnold, a cinematographer of some repute, but in multiple roles here of director, producer, and mostly glaringly writer, he fails to deliver. 

Exceedingly not recommended. Get some sleep instead.

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Handmade Movies - The Beast With Five Fingers!

The Beast with Five Fingers is a 1944 horror movie which tries its utmost to cash in on the palpable creepiness of the late great Peter Lorre. It does so successfully, but it takes its time about it.

The story is about a misanthropic concert pianist (Victor Francen) who some time before lost the use of one of his arms. He has since had great fame with a one-handed musical composition designed for him by a very talented man (Robert Alda) who spends his afternoons swindling tourists. Also he has a nurse (Andrea King) with whom he has a mad obsession, as well as a longtime librarian and sycophant (Lorre). He is a cruel fellow but when he dies he becomes quite popular due to his wealth and when after his funeral it seems his hand has been disconnected from his body and his roaming the house killing off his corrupt lawyer and making attempts on others, the story really gets to rocking. Also on board is a local constable (J. Carrol Nash)  who is very entertaining when he chooses to be.

This is a handsome movie, and truth told is put together with a lot of fantastic behind-the-scenes talent (Siodmak script, Steiner score, etc.), the kind of a talent a studio could muster in its heyday. Sadly all that talent goes mostly for naught as this story lacks the one thing which makes most horror flicks succeed, it lacks suspense. The culprit behind the shenanigans is pretty obvious and the movie doesn't really work all that hard to make you think the hand is actually crawling about on its own. We sense early that it's a scam and that undermines the potential horror of the set up.

But it has moments, most all of them owing to Peter Lorre's over-the-top performance. He does madmen like no one else and this guy is right up there with his best. Nash is also a lot of fun, but he's not in it very much and truth told as good a job as he does it cuts against the horror a bit too.

I give this one a mild recommendation, if only to see Lorre chewing scenery in fine fashion.

Anther handmade movie tomorrow, but sadly no Peter Lorre. 

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Handmade Movies - Mad Love!

Mad Love (also known as The Hands of Orloff) is a dandy horror flick from the golden age of horror. It features Peter Lorre in his Hollywood debut and he is utterly fascinating in the movie as an palpably insane surgeon whose mad obsession with an actress ignites the utterly weird goings-on in this yarn. The movie also stars Colin Clive and Frances Drake in some exceedingly memorable roles.

The story is a lurid one indeed. An actress named Yvonne is the star of a Parisian Grand Guignol production and every night she is watched greedily by a renowned physician named Gogol. Her husband Stephen Orlac is a famed concert pianist and the two are finally going to have a life together after having been married for a year. But the actress's retirement is not met well by Gogol who reveals his obsessive love for her, frightening her. But fate intervenes when Stephen is nearly killed in a train accident and his hands are nearly destroyed. Using her influence over Gogol, Yvonne convinces him to operate and in a desperate gamble he borrows the hands of a recently executed knife-murderer to replace those of Orlac's.

But the hands seem to have ambitions of their own and after many months of money-draining therapy Stephen is still unable to play music but he can fling a knife with the best of them. Yvonne goes again to Gogol who has gotten even crazier and he tries to convince the world that Stephen is a murderer by pretending to be the resurrected murderer (minus hands). Stephen is convinced and so are the police, but Gogol loses control and things go awry for him.

There are lots of great scenes in this one, almost all of them featuring the boggle-eyed Lorre at his best. You can almost feel his eyes as they wiggle and wobble across his face. And it's is suffering that comes through. Gogol is a sick sick puppy, a weird man who seems to thrive on pain, the pain he casually inflicts on those around him with his often callous disregard and more intense versions. He becomes aroused by the connection of torture and his beloved Yvonne who appears ideal to him as the victim of a house of torment.

Return tomorrow for another handmade movie starring Peter Lorre.

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