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Saturday at the (virtual) garage sale

by  in Comic News Comment
Saturday at the (virtual) garage sale

Writing this column can occasionally be hard on my wallet. Reminiscing about this or that book often leads to an impulse buy. I can usually keep my impulses under control…. but a while back I discovered something deadly.

See, normally I have two impulses at war within my comics-reading self at any given time. The first will be familiar to many of you — the driven, obsessive collector’s need to own everything. This is something of a reflex for many of us and it can be a chore to keep it from overpowering common sense when I catch myself wanting to purchase comics I hate, just to fill out a run or something like that. I have managed to largely break myself of that tendency over the last couple of decades, though it still sneaks up on me every so often. (Blindly buying Judd Winnick’s run on Batman is my most recent embarrassment in that area.) The completist’s urge is always there, lurking.

Against that, though, is an equally-powerful horror of paying full price for anything, especially when it comes to shelling out for the gouger’s prices people charge on back issues of comics. Let’s not even get into what it costs to keep up with new comics these days.

So it’s usually been pretty easy to keep myself from getting out of control buying trades or back issues or anything like that; our funds for this sort of thing are limited and that generally is enough to keep my insatiable collector lusts in check.

That is, until I discovered the wiles of the online dealers. A great many of them have a search function on their sites that will sort by price and title and oh, my God, that is so evil.

Think about it. A back-issue quarter box tied to a search engine. It’s diabolical. I can’t resist that. I’m only human.

My wife loves a bargain even more than I do, so she’s no help. I will be sitting at the computer and blurt out, “Oh, my Gawd, this guy has the entire run of Flash Gordon paperbacks for 99 cents each!”

Julie will usually say, “Ooo, you should get that,” or something similarly encouraging. Sometimes she’ll add, “Maybe you can write about it in your column, even.”

And so I will. We had a bunch of these bargains arrive in the mail over the last week and a half and I figure I can justify them this way. Indulge me.

*

I wasn’t kidding about Flash Gordon.

These paperback prose adaptations came from Avon Books in 1974, and they were very cool. Ron Goulart wrote them, under the name “Con Steffanson,” with covers by the indefatigable George Wilson.

These were actually my introduction to Flash and his world. Back then, I’d never seen the newspaper strip and to this day I’ve seen very little of Raymond’s original work on Flash Gordon. (Though the Alex Raymond reprints from Checker Books are on the shopping list too; they’re still a little spendy for me to grab yet, though.) Writing about the Sci-Fi Network’s trainwreck of a Flash Gordon TV show reminded me that I’d been meaning to replace these books, and when I found that Powell’s online store had a bunch of them for under a buck, well, I was their helpless bitch, that’s all.

The books are every bit as much fun as I remembered. Ron Goulart’s no-nonsense prose keeps things moving at a nice clip, and they’re smart, funny reads. The amazing thing is that they look almost new. At that price I’d have expected dog-eared pages, spines split, library stamps, all of that stuff… but they are crisp and clean and gorgeous. My inner bibliophile is beside himself with glee. I’m still astonished at the low price. The companion series of Lee Falk’s Phantom paperbacks from Avon — also by Goulart with covers from Wilson — that came out around the same time are going for insanely high prices the last time I checked.

Speaking of old-school fantasy swashbucklers, NewKadia had the entire run of SilverBlade for about thirty cents each.

This was a 12-issue series from Cary Bates and Gene Colan that came out from DC in the late 80’s. I liked it a lot, though I can see why it really didn’t play well to a traditional comic-book audience.

It’s enormously difficult to sum up. To me, that is one of its great charms, the fact that it’s a story combining surrealism, superheroics, and a love of old Hollywood. Overall it’s more of a character meditation than a plot-driven piece. Sadly, it was a little ahead of its time; even as little as five years later I think it would have been a big hit for Vertigo. It was in the same general surrealist fantasy territory that Vertigo titles like Enigma and Doom Patrol would cover down the road, but with a Sunset Boulevard spin.

Here’s a synopsis I stole off another site:

The series centered on a fictional has-been movie star named Jonathan Lord. He had a career playing a wide variety of swashbucklers and other fantasy roles during Hollywood’s golden age, his greatest being in the film Silverblade, an Errol Flynn-type adventure story. Unfortunately Lord had become typecast as a swashbuckler, and grew too old to play such roles.

He lived alone in a mansion, with only his butler for company. The butler, a former child actor named Bobby Milestone, is the Silverblade series’ narrator.

Milestone recounts how the mansion used to be a happier place, before the movie deals dried up, Lord’s various marriages failed, and the actor became a bitter old recluse. He says of Lord, “He was my hero once, a thousand reels ago. Once he was even my friend.”

One day the butler is on a shopping trip when he sees and buys a Maltese Falcon-like statue of a bird. Milestone takes the statue home hoping to make the statue part of a decorative exhibit he is building to cheer up the atmosphere at the mansion, but Lord complains about the exhibit as well. Tired of his boss’s constant complaints, Milestone flies into a rage and storms out of the house.

Shortly afterwards, Milestone is kidnapped by someone from his own past with a grudge against him. The kidnapper blames Milestone for a career-ruining injury he suffered during a movie stunt and now plans to kill him.

Jonathan Lord is left alone in the mansion when the bird statue suddenly comes to life, telling Lord he will restore him to what the star once was. Lord is immediately enveloped by a magical plume of flame. Bobby Milestone is later rescued from his kidnapper by a man who appears to be a younger Jonathan Lord, the age at which he appeared in the film Silverblade. Milestone passes out and reawakens in the mansion, where he sees it is indeed Lord, wearing his costume from Silverblade and appearing fifty years younger. Lord has been given the power to transform into any character he portrayed on film, effectively turning him into a real-life superhero.

Now, here’s the amazing part. That’s not the series. That’s the FIRST ISSUE. Take that, decompressionists.

Jonathan Lord’s voyage of self-discovery over the next eleven issues — who is he? Is he the actor or is he a man trapped behind a role? And what is his role now? Throughout the issues that follow, as Jonathan Lord tries to somehow reassemble his life and he finds himself a pawn of demonic forces much larger than himself, Bates plays with the idea of the role versus the man, fiction versus reality. Plus there are ghosts, demons, vampires, Native American mythology and lots of old-time Hollywood lore, with every issue as densely-plotted as the first. It’s a hoot.

The series was somewhat hampered by commercial considerations — I think it would have worked a little better without an obligatory action scene in every issue — but everyone involved with it was clearly having a fine old time, and I enjoyed it a great deal. This is far and away the most ambitious thing Cary Bates ever did, and it deserves a little love. This is something that’s screaming to be collected, but probably most people who work at DC these days don’t even know it exists. At any rate, I was thrilled to find it so cheap.

*

The reason I was looking up stuff on NewKadia was because I happened across a couple of other back issues that I’d inexplicably missed the first time out. I found the first two parts in a quarter box at the convention a couple of weeks ago and I was trying to scare up the third.

“Dark Knight Over Metropolis” was, I think, the second official post-Crisis teaming of Batman and Superman, though I’m sure someone will leap to correct me if I’m wrong. Anyway, it was the first real attempt to evoke the old World’s Finest feel while also serving as our first real look at the new “they’re NOT friends!” dynamic between them that DC was striving to set up. Literally dozens of stories have spun out of this one in the Superman books over the years, most of them riffing on the Kryptonite ring that plays such a large part in the plot.

I forget why I didn’t pick it up at the time, but you know, it’s a nice little three-parter. Considering I got it for less than cover price I can’t complain. I do wonder why it’s never been collected.

*

In addition to all these bargains, we keep getting fun free stuff too. I am not sure who was behind this — I think it might have been the ECCC/Comic Stop guys up north putting my students on a list for these kind of freebies — but whoever our angel was, someone sent the Madison Cartooning Class ten free tickets to an advance screening of Enchanted.

Thankfully, it was at a place and time where not very many of my kids could go, or there would have been a feeding frenzy. Usually when my students hear the word ‘free’ it has about the same effect on them that you see with sharks sensing blood in the water. Tiffany and Marcus and some of their family and friends could go, though, and there were a couple left over for Julie and me. So we went.

I was ambivalent about the premise — characters from a fairy-tale world fall into our world, and hilarity ensues. This is a well that’s been dipped into pretty often, and it often seems as though the people doing it expect the premise to be enough, so you don’t need to have a story.

Disney’s even gone there before, as far back as Bedknobs and Broomsticks, though the one people remember is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That was a fun movie, and certainly it’s a technical masterpiece, but I assure you, it isn’t a patch on the original novel.

Gary Wolf’s book was much darker and more layered; it owed as much or more to the Hammett/Chandler tradition as it did to the cartoons of the 1940’s, and all that went overboard with the Robert Zemeckis film. The difference between Disney’s Roger Rabbit and the original novel is about the same as the difference between Disney’s Pinocchio and Carlo Collodi’s, if that helps any.

But I digress, as usual. All this is by way of saying that to my delighted surprise, we loved Enchanted.

It uses the same self-aware mockery to get laughs that we’ve seen in movies like Shrek or the aforementioned Roger Rabbit, but this is much more sweet-natured. Amy Adams, in particular, is amazing, and despite Patrick “McDreamy” Dempsey getting all the press attention, it’s Ms. Adams that almost completely carries this picture on her back.

It’s easy to play a character that’s naive and a little dense that you laugh AT. It’s quite a bit more of a tightrope for an actor to walk when you want the audience to like that naive dumb girl and root for her and ache when she aches. In particular, there’s a bit where Patrick Dempsey is trying to explain what divorce is to Amy Adams, and she wells up, “They don’t see each other again EVER? But… that’s… that’s so SAD!” and it just destroys her, she starts weeping uncontrollably. You’re laughing, but at the same time you think, damn, you know, she’s right, it IS sad, that’s a sad thing, divorce, and you can see why it gets to her so. That’s a remarkable piece of acting work, there.

There are lots of other things to like besides Ms. Adams. Watching the nearly-seamless transitions between animation and live-action and back again are great fun, this is the sort of special-effects thing that Disney used to do better than anyone. Nice to see they’ve still got it.

And the actors are clearly enjoying themselves, particularly Susan Sarandon and James Marsden. I had no idea the guy who played Cyclops could be so hilarious, but his Prince Edward is fall-down funny.

Enchanted goes into general release November 21 and I recommend it unreservedly. In a way it’s kind of the anti-Shrek. You know, the Shrek movies smirk at the audience and elbow you in the ribs, saying, “Yeah, we know, the fairy-tale stuff is ridiculous.” Enchanted winks at you instead and gets you to admit that “Yeah, fairy tales are often ridiculous, but deep down, we still love them.” Certainly we loved this movie, and so did my students. Its utter lack of mean-spiritedness, more than anything else, is what makes it irresistible.

*

The tireless Chip Mosher at Boom Studios continues to shower CSBG with good stuff. Most recently he sent along 2 Guns, which apparently has been prey to scheduling issues that Chip swears are behind them.

Mr. Burgas talked about this a couple of days ago and I’ll try not to go over the same ground too much, but I have to say that I am coming to it cold and that makes quite a difference. Chip kindly provided the first two issues along with the third so I was able to read them all at once, and I enjoyed them a lot. Steven Grant knows how to do hard-boiled crime and the art from Mat Santolouco is just as cool and expressive as it was on Cover Girl. Also, I have to differ with our other Greg a little in that I didn’t notice any padding; I was struck by how dense the storytelling was, to be honest, especially in the first issue.

I do still think that this is something that will work a lot better in the trade paperback format and I hope it’s going to get one. What I’m noticing about the Boom! output that I’ve seen is that the action/crime/caper stuff — 2 Guns, Potter’s Field, Cover Girl, Left On Mission — absolutely rocks my socks. Their other books aren’t nearly as fun for me. I wonder if there isn’t a bigger audience for that; there are a lot of us that occupy the middle ground between superhero fanboy and indie snob who would welcome more of this sort of contemporary action thriller, if we knew it was there.

The trouble is that I am afraid Boom! is stuck in this specialty-comics-shop ghetto that caters primarily to superhero fans. Non-costume crime comics usually founder in that market, especially when they are shackled to this ludicrous system that insists everything be presented in overpriced 22-page installments and sell well in that format before it gets put in a book. I hope they can hang in there long enough to find the audience they deserve. The audience that loves movies like Casino Royale and Die Hard and Ronin would get a huge kick out of the crime comics Boom! is doing. If they can figure out how to put their comics in front of those people and persuade them to check the books out, they’ll be golden.

*

And that’s that. A cross-section of the deep-discounted loot that arrived in the mail the last couple of weeks. I didn’t even get to all of it — there were the Gladstone Dick Tracy reprints and the Fran Striker Lone Ranger book and the Kandor and El Cazador collections…

….agh. Somebody stop me. I’m out of control!

See you next week.

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