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Another Day In The Stacks- Just the FAQs Edition

For whatever reason, people ask me stuff.

I used to think it was my glasses; I had that whole Roddy McDowall-as-the-Bookworm thing going on, although I suspect I'm roughly two and a half Roddys in diameter these days.

But in recent years it has spread-- not just at work now, it also comes online via Twitter or even just random emails. I think part of it's due to being the geek nexus for my friends and family and co-workers; I'm the nerdiest person they know, so it follows I must be up on all sorts of geeky genre news. Since I usually am, well, the phenomenon feeds itself.

Anyway, I thought I'd finish up the capsule reviews from last week, but with a twist-- this time I'm going to tweak the usual format to incorporate the question I got asked into each review, too. Mostly just for my own amusement, but also so you can see the sort of thing I get asked ALL THE TIME. At work. At school. Online. At the bus stop. Seriously, everywhere.

Okay? So here we go.

*

Weirdworld: Warriors of the Shadow Realm by Doug Moench, Pat Broderick, Mike Ploog, Alex Nino, and John Buscema. The blurb: Welcome to Weirdworld, a land of legend and lore! Meet Tyndall, a lost elf on a dangerous quest - a quest to the heart of evil and beyond! One that will unite him with the beautiful Velanna, and forge an alliance for the ages. Together with grumpy dwarf Mud-Butt , these warriors of the shadow realm will brave the City of Seven Dark Delights, face the fallen god Darklens, and meet the Dragonmaster of Klarn. But will they ever find their way home?

The Question: "Did you see there's a WEIRDWORLD collection? Was that something you read back in the old days?"

My Answer: Why yes, young one, I DID read it in the old days... partly. Which is to say, I read the one story in Marvel Premiere, because I kind of liked the weirdness of Marvel Premiere-- you never knew what the hell you were getting from issue to issue for a few months there in '76 and '77. Woodgod, Monark Starstalker, the 3-D Man-- it seemed to be the anything-goes tryout book. Moreover, I knew Alex Nino from Weird Heroes and so that was enough to get me to risk a little of my hard-earned babysitting income on it.

That said, my reaction was mostly "meh." It was a nice little done-in-one thing, but nothing I'd be into if it became a regular series-- which it never really did, though it kept showing up as a feature. A couple of years later, when they launched the full-color magazine line, Marvel gave Weirdworld the deluxe treatment but I was already embarked on my ill-fated college career by then and mostly out of comics. I'd always been curious though, so when the paperback collection showed up for five dollars at a local used-book emporium I frequent, I decided to risk a fin on it. It was almost an exact replay of my teenage encounter with that issue of Marvel Premiere four decades ago.

I'm afraid my reaction's about the same, too. It was... okay. You kinda have to be in the mood for it. Marvel was pushing it hard as Tolkien-esque but really it was a lot more hippy-dippy than Tolkien. Much more in common with Vaughn Bode's stuff, or Ralph Bakshi's Wizards.

To be honest, I enjoyed the ancillary material more than the story, all the behind-the-scenes articles and so on, and I appreciate very much the fact that they are collected here as well (this should be SOP for a collected edition but almost never is.) I had no idea this was such a passion project for Doug Moench, and I admit it's improved by seeing it collected; the story makes a lot more sense when you have it all in order, all in one place. Weirdworld as a feature was hard to keep up with-- Marvel Super Special, Marvel Premiere, Epic, you never knew where the hell it would pop up.

But the real lure of this book is the art. I was originally interested because of Alex Nino, and his work is great-- but John Buscema just surpasses himself.

If it wasn't for the hideously garish coloring, Weirdworld might replace his Tarzan as my pick for the best thing he ever did. It's a crime that we can't see the linework better. But even so, I don't regret the five bucks I blew on it. I don't know that I'd have paid full price but it's certainly well worth a look if you see it for cheap.

*

Shaft: Imitation of Life by David F. Walker and Dietrich Smith.

The blurb: After a high profile case that put him in the headlines, private detective John Shaft is looking for something low-profile and easy that will keep him out of the spotlight and out of danger. Shaft takes a missing person case that proves to be more difficult than he initially thought. At the same time, he is hired to be a consultant on a low-budget film that may or may not be based on his life, and proves to be as dangerous as any job he's ever had. But when there's danger all about, John Shaft is the cat that won't cop out, even if it means squaring off against sadistic gangsters that want him dead.

The Question: "Is the new Shaft book from Dynamite any good?"

My Answer: Yes, it is. Good enough that I'm buying it in single issues, because I want there to be more of them. Dynamite's pretty good about putting stuff in paperback, but... you never know. And this is only four issues, it's not going to break me.

The comic is a straight-up crime book, so if you're looking for some sort of over-the-top blaxploitation piece like Black Dynamite or something, don't get your hopes up: this is not that.

This is essentially a period piece, set in the early 1970s, where the protagonist is a tough military vet who's starting out as a private detective and happens to be black. Walker is basically doing Shaft: Year One in these comics. The last series was set before the era of the established P.I. we know from the movies, and this one takes place a month or so after the first movie. Walker seems committed to his role as the new official Shaft chronicler. He's working with Ernest Tidyman's widow, and being very respectful of Tidyman's original novels, though fans of the movies won't be disappointed.

This is clearly a writer's book but that's not to slight the art. I really like what Dietrich Smith is doing here. It looks like a 1970s movie.

Somehow he's putting the look of the 1970s movies on the page without it looking affected and stagey. It is exactly the right approach for the job. Looking forward to the rest.

*

Quarry's Cut by Max Allan Collins.

The blurb: WHEN THE DIRECTOR CALLED CUT—THE KILLER DID JUST THAT! It’s normal to see bodies on the set of an adult film. But when they’re dead bodies—and the cast and crew discover they’re trapped in a house with a serial killer—Quarry’s got his work cut out for him.

The Question: "Did you see they're doing Max Allan Collins' QUARRY for Cinemax? What do you think?"

My Answer: Well, unless and until it shows up on home video, we won't be watching, because we don't get Cinemax. But Collins seems to be happy with it.

My favorite part of this licensing development, though, is that the show serves as an excuse for Hard Case Crime to reprint the whole series with these amazing new covers by Robert McGinnis. With each new one of these I see, Quarry comes a little bit closer to edging out Ms. Tree as my favorite Max Collins thing ever. Certainly, when it comes to Collins prose the Quarry books are my favorites. Even more so than his actual Spillane collaborations, the Quarry books evoke the spirit of Mickey Spillane and especially Mike Hammer. I'm kind of annoyed with myself for avoiding these for so many years... a hit man just wasn't my idea of a hero, and I figured they wouldn't be my thing. But they so totally are. Granted, he's still not my idea of a hero. Quarry's not at all admirable as a human being, but the books have that same visceral hell-for-leather drive that Don Pendleton and Donald Hamilton gave their books, with the added bonus that Collins is technically a much better writer than those gentlemen. I am really loving these older books and I am glad Hard Case has coaxed a couple of new Quarry adventures out of Collins as well. If we have Cinemax to thank for this, great, but even if our household never gets around to the TV show I'm perfectly happy with these books. Keep 'em coming, Hard Case.

*

The Girls in the High-Heeled Shoes by Michael Kurland.

The blurb: Two-Headed Mary, the philanthropic panhandler who dresses like a society matron when she approaches theatergoers for donations to nonexistent charities, is missing. So is sidelined hoofer Billie Trask, who disappeared from the cashier’s office of K. Jeffrey Welton’s hit show Lucky Lady with the weekend take. Could either of them have followed a third Broadway babe, Fine and Dandy chorine Lydia Laurent—whose strangled, nude body, accompanied by two complete suits of clothing, has been found in Central Park? If this seems like an awful lot of women in jeopardy, Two-Headed Mary turns out to have enough separate identities to populate a small European monarchy: She’s claimed under various guises by a Broadway hanger-on, a daughter, a husband, and a big-time con man, the Professor, who’s got even more cover stories than she does. Since the police are as helpless as they always are in 1935, it falls to New York World columnist Alexander Brass and his cheerfully wide-eyed sidekick Morgan DeWitt to dig up the truth.

The Question: "So did the second Alexander Brass mystery ever show up?"

My Answer: "Yes, it did, same day as the Quarry, honey." This is a little bit of a cheat since it's my wife Julie asking that one. Alexander Brass, crusading 1930s reporter, is much more in the vein of crime-solvers like Philo Vance or Ellery Queen than my usual hard-boiled tough guys, and that puts him in Julie's wheelhouse, not mine. But I did want to still mention the book here, because my recommendation on the first Brass novel, Too Soon Dead, was only lukewarm and this one is a considerable improvement. It's more evocative of the time, the dialogue is snappier and funnier, and it's better plotted. It's just a better book. Kurland found his groove. It's not something I'd have ever bought for myself, but I certainly would recommend it to my bride.... or to any of the rest of you that like that kind of thing. If you are a fan of the cleverness of Ellery Queen in his prime, the fast-talking wit of the Thin Man movies, and classic mystery in the style of S.S. Van Dine, then this is for you.

*

The Man From UNCLE with Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, directed by Guy Ritchie.

The blurb: Set against the backdrop of the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. centers on CIA agent Solo (Man of Steel's Henry Cavill) and KGB agent Kuryakin (The Social Network's Armie Hammer). Forced to put aside longstanding hostilities, the two team up on a joint mission to stop a mysterious international criminal organization, which is bent on destabilizing the fragile balance of power through the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology. The duo's only lead is the daughter of a vanished German scientist, who is the key to infiltrating the criminal organization, and they must race against time to find him and prevent a worldwide catastrophe.

The Question: "What did you think of the new UNCLE movie?"

My Answer: Swear to God, everyone I've ever met wanted to know this. I can't really blame them-- super-spy fiction is practically part of my DNA. I grew up on UNCLE, Secret Agent, The Wild Wild West, It Takes A Thief, Steed and Mrs. Peel (and Tara King)... all of those folks. The first book I checked out of the grown-up part of the library was Ian Fleming's On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Furthermore, I love all the licensed UNCLE stuff; my favorites being the comics from Millennium back in the 1990s and also the novels from David McDaniel that drew a wonderful Wold Newton-esque line from the evil mastermind Professor Moriarty to the evil organization THRUSH. The DVDs are in pretty heavy rotation in the home library, particularly the movie set from Warner Archive.

So you'd think I'd be hugely invested in a new UNCLE movie. But here's the thing. Every trailer I saw led me to believe that this was going to be a soulless, by-the-numbers origin movie with all the tropes I've grown to loathe-- the heroes bicker and have to learn to work together, the whole movie is about getting to the place that I came to see so that "the man from UNCLE" only exists as a concept in the last five minutes of the movie, no one involved seems to understand the appeal of the original, and so on and so on.

However, we had a chance tp pick up the DVD for a couple of bucks and I thought oh why not. And then came the weird part. Everything I dreaded was true. No one even says the word "UNCLE" till the end, the THRUSH organization doesn't exist, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin start as enemies forced to work together... everything that irritates me about reboots of older properties. Trading on the name while ignoring everything else from the original and writing a cliche-ridden generic buddy movie instead.

All of that, that's not the weird part.

The weird part is that we still loved it. It's good.

Technically, it wasn't really the classic Man From UNCLE, but it was close enough. It felt right in all the important ways. It was a sixties period piece...but not the real sixties, the super-spy sixties. Glamorous and urbane and full of fast cars and well-dressed masterminds and superhot women being clever and cool. Moreover, the Napoleon/Illya conflict that annoyed me so much in the trailers is largely confined to the opening scenes. In the movie itself, once things are rolling, very soon they settle into the sort of bantering rivalry they had on the show... often snarky and almost rude, but still clear there's respect and friendship underneath.

But the true heroics came from the actors themselves. My hand to God, Henry Cavill was channeling Robert Vaughn, he was Napoleon Solo. The moves, the body language, the verbal cadence, all of it. Armie Hammer, on the other hand, was not really the Illya I grew up with at all (originally, Illya was never a rage monster held tightly in check, he was in fact the poster boy for icy calm) but nevertheless, his stolid delivery of his lines-- complete with an actual Russian accent, something the TV verson never bothered with-- was hilarious opposite the smooth urbanity of Henry Cavill.

The real MVP of the thing, though, was Hugh Grant, who was just brilliant as Alexander Waverly.

At first Julie and I were a little horrified that we live in a world where Hugh Grant is old enough to be cast as Alexander Waverly, which makes us positively decrepit. But we were over it in seconds because Grant was so awesome. He has all the best lines, our favorites being "For a special agent, you're not really having a very special day, are you?" and "It's the Middle East; bring your twirly-whirly shoes," delivered so mildly and dryly that it was almost the Platonic ideal of British rectitude.

The movie itself is clever and fun and though the plot is loosely structured along the origin-first, bickering-duo-becomes-friends lines I usually despise, this time it works. And there are plenty of twists and surprises along the way. It was just a good movie and I'm sad there probably won't be any more; this is the kind of super-spy story I want from James Bond and haven't been getting since Casino Royale. Go ahead and spend the buck or two it'll cost you to see it. It's a good time whether you know the original or not.

*

Batman '66 Meets The Man From UNCLE by Jeff Parker, David Hahn, and Karl Kesel; covers by Mike and Laura Allred.

The blurb: Two sets of iconic television characters from the 1960s join forces. The secret organization known as THRUSH is recruiting Batman's villains to pull off their latest scheme for world domination!

The Question: "Hey, did you know there's a comic where Batman meets the Man from UNCLE?"

My Answer: YES OF COURSE I DID! FOR GOD'S SAKE HAVE YOU MET ME?? was not what I roared at the person asking this question, because it was one of my sixth-grade cartooning students and I was very moved that he would think of me for this sort of thing. He was thrilled to be able to bring something to my attention that he knew I would love. So I let him down easy, but admitted that yes, I was in fact aware of this thing.

And I am swooningly in love with it. I was -- I'll be honest-- a little dubious when I heard about this project, because the world of Batman '66 is a very fragile sort of continuum, it has its own very specific reality. Even the Green Hornet crossover on the original TV show seemed sort of awkward; the Hornet and Kato often looked out of place and it was painfully obvious to me, even at my tender age of six, that they could have wiped the floor with Batman and Robin although we were supposed to believe they were evenly matched. And UNCLE would be an even bigger needle-scratch culture clash of a crossover.

But!

You have to take into account the medium the story is appearing in. This is the magic of comics. Because in comics, the craziness of the 1966 television Batman seems more plausible and realistic somehow....

...and at the same time, in comics form, things that would have been fantastically unacceptable (not to mention impossible to depict) on the live-action UNCLE television show are totally okay in a comic book.

So the needle on each end moves just enough to meet in the middle and it ends up being exactly right. This could only work in comics, where the reader is supplying the movement and audio. If it had actually been done as a live-action crossover back in the day, it would all fall apart. Paradoxically, the reality of the story is much less fragile here, done as a comic book. It helps a great deal that Hahn and Kesel are only doing general likenesses and not trying to get closer to the real actors. I'm sure this is probably because it would have been a licensing nightmare to get all the actors (or their heirs) to sign off on it, but sometimes these budgetary decisions serve the story. The slightly cartoony look helps to make it a more immersive reading experience.

Anyway, we are at the halfway point and I am loving it. I have no doubt that Parker can stick the landing, and my only complaint is that there is now no ongoing Batman '66 title. I hope we at least continue to get mini-series events like this one.

*

And there you go. I trust everyone's questions were answered, at least for the moment. God knows there are more coming all the time... I expect another barrage now that Spectre's on DVD. (Nope, haven't seen it yet. I admit it's annoying; it's the first Bond I haven't seen in the theater on opening weekend since The Spy who Loved Me. Goddam adult responsibilities....)

Anyway. We'll get it eventually... and in the meantime, I'll see you all back here next week.

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