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Another Friday Rooting Through the Bargain Bin

by  in Comic News Comment
Another Friday Rooting Through the Bargain Bin

Around here, we call it “Amazon Roulette.”

If you’ve ever bought anything off of Amazon.com, you know how it goes. Every time you log on to the site, they show you a list of stuff that’s “Recommended For You!” based on the things you’ve already bought from them. Since Amazon is where our household gets most of its books, trade paperbacks, and DVDs, they’ve got a pretty good profile of us.

So sometimes, especially if I’m bored, or zoning out surfing the net, or whatever, it can be idly amusing to click the “See More Results” button on the recommendations page and see what comes up, especially after the fourth or fifth page back. Very often, if an item sounds interesting and it’s under five dollars, I’ll go ahead and chance ordering it.

We’ve had several of these items come in lately and I thought some of them were worth calling to your attention. There may even be a few of them left in Amazon’s virtual bargain bin, if you hurry.

So here’s the rundown on the loot.

Monday, a new Lone Ranger novel arrived. A while back I did a column on the Lone Ranger, and researching that column led me to re-acquaint myself with the Lone Ranger novels that were ghosted for Fran Striker by Gaylord DuBois. Since then they’ve made the short list of “items I always look for,” whether I’m goofing off online or nosing around in an actual thrift shop or bookstore. Sometimes I get lucky.

I first encountered them in paperback in the early 1980’s, when they were re-issued to tie in with the Movie No Ranger Fan Likes To Speak Of.

What I’ve found shopping around, though, is that the paperbacks are almost as rare as the 1940’s hardcover books, dealers tend to price them about equally. And the paperbacks were really crappy, in terms of binding and production values and so on — they fall apart.

So in that case, hell, why not go after the original edition hardcovers?

These are actually fairly easy to turn up, if you’re not in a hurry and you’re not being a fussbudget about condition. Originally these novels were issued as a series of young-adult hardcover books published by Grosset & Dunlap (that fine firm that also brought you the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, and Tarzan of the Apes, back in the day.) Mostly they’re out of my budget, but once in a while you see one going for five dollars or so. Usually ex-library editions.

These books fascinate me partly because when these novels were published, no one was quite sure what the Lone Ranger actually looked like. Remember, in 1941, we were almost a decade away from when Clayton Moore put on the mask: the Ranger was primarily a radio star. The look got standardized pretty quickly, but early on, the term “masked rider” seemed to confuse illustrator Paul Laune just a little. Check this one out, from the first 1936 novel:

I mean, he’s a masked rider, for sure, but there’s something very un-Ranger-like about that picture.

Anyway, there were eighteen of these books in all (Pinnacle only reprinted the first eight, another reason to go after the originals instead) and my latest acquisition just arrived.

As you can see, illustrator Pete Kuhlhoff is still struggling a bit to nail down the visual, but overall The Lone Ranger on Powderhorn Trail is a very fun book. DuBois had really hit a groove by this one, the eleventh in the series. Here’s the jacket copy —

Wanted for the murder of a Texas Ranger, the notorious “Arizona Kid” sets a desperate pace along Powderhorn Trail and into the Badlands, beyond the jurisdiction of the Rangers. But the Lone Ranger, on his magnificent horse Silver, rides in tireless pursuit, for he has sworn, with the help of Tonto the loyal Indian, to bring the outlaw back to justice.

Knowing this, why does the Arizona Kid risk capture to free old Lem and Mary Loftus from the moneylender Gorman? Why does he ask his sweetheart Abby Westerly to extend hospitality to his sworn enemy? And why won’t the young outlaw take advantage of a land slide to eliminate his pursuers?

The Lone Ranger stakes his very life on a hunch–and by swift action and fast thinking averts tragedy. A breathless tale of adventure is climaxed when the Arizona Kid reaches the end of the trail at last, and the Lone Ranger again proves himself a friend to those in trouble.

It’s a great book because it actually sets up a moral dilemma for the Ranger, something we didn’t see a lot of usually. See, the Lone Ranger has sworn to bring in the Arizona Kid, but he becomes more and more certain he’s chasing an innocent man; at one point even Tonto lets the Kid go rather than let the Ranger get him. But the Ranger can’t break his word — he took a solemn oath, and he’s the Lone Ranger, a solemn oath means something. So the Lone Ranger’s job is to not only catch the guy, but then persuade him (and Tonto, too) that the Arizona Kid can actually get real justice in a court of law… and once the Lone Ranger’s brought him in, he has to turn right around and find proof of his prisoner’s innocence that will convince even a Texas hangin’ judge. It’s a rollicking good time, even if you know it’s all going to turn out all right in the end.

And I found it for four dollars and change. Beat that with a stick.

*

Since I finally purchased Enter The Dragon and wish-listed Black Belt Jones not too long ago — you might remember, I wrote about those movies here — Amazon has decided I must like Jim Kelly movies. And I’m finding that, damn, I really do, especially since I keep finding them for a dollar apiece. You can’t even rent a movie for a dollar around these parts any more.

Here’s a DVD I dropped a whole buck and a half on that has provided me with hours of delight.

You know, I was ambivalent about the actual Grindhouse movie, but I love that it has had this ripple effect of different studios rushing their genuine grindhouse-film catalogue out on to DVD.

This one is worth it primarily for side one, the Fred “Hammer” Williamson opus One Down, Two To Go. It’s an action movie starring Williamson, Jim Brown, Jim Kelly, and Richard Roundtree.

Which is really all you need to know. The story — something about the Mafia trying to fix a karate tournament and ripping off Jim Kelly’s dojo — is nominal, a hook to hang a bunch of fights and chase scenes on. The point of the movie is, it’s the blaxploitation JLA, the League of Extraordinarily Badass Cats. Who cares why these guys are going up against the Mafia? The important thing is that the Hammer and Shaft and Black Belt Jones get to beat on a bunch of bad guys and say lines like, “You may be good in kung fu, but I’m an expert in gun fu!”

How is that less than awesome? This is Fred Williamson’s opus, his Citizen Kane — he wrote it and directed it and produced it. All according to his movie-making philosophy: “There’s only two things that I demand of my scripts, and they’re the same things my audiences demand. First, I have to get the girl. And second, I have to win all the fights.” Rock on!

The only — mild — complaint I have about this movie is that I wanted to see a grand slam-bang finale with all four guys shooting and kung fu’ing the stuffing out of an army of dumb white Mafiosos, and sadly, that doesn’t quite happen, though there are a couple of moments that are very close. And there are lots of other fun things that make up for the lack. Check out the trailer here for a taste of this 75-cent wonder.

Side two, Brotherhood of Death, is kind of an oddity. It can’t quite decide if it’s a badass action movie or a 70’s relevance drama: it’s the story of three black brothers who go off to Vietnam and learn how to be vicious jungle guerrillas, and then they come home to Louisiana to find their hometown is being run by the Klan. So they launch a war against the Klansmen employing the tactics they learned in ‘Nam. It’s an interesting idea that doesn’t quite come off, but they get points for trying. The action-movie stuff is passable — but the ‘relevant’ moments are excruciating. Still, when you figure it’s only half of a DVD that cost a buck-fifty, I have to admit it’s not that bad a deal.

Now, bear in mind that this compilation is not something I would ever recommend spending actual money on. But for a dollar and a half? I’ve had at least five times that amount of entertainment out of Side One alone.

And the next day Take A Hard Ride showed up, a demented effort at marrying the blaxploitation genre to the spaghetti western. Cost: one dollar.

The awesomeness of Jim Kelly kicking bad guys in the nads?

Priceless.

The plot that drives the story is actually a time-honored classic — Jim Brown is on a journey to keep a Promise He Made To A Dying Man, and in the course of his travels picks up a Band of Misfits Seeking Redemption. The promise involves delivering a payroll of $86,000 back to the dying man’s family. That’s a lot of money to take across a thousand miles of badlands and naturally everybody in the territory is gunning for Jim and his little band, chief among them Lee Van Cleef at his most evil.

But, as with One Down, Two To Go, it’s not really about the story so much as it is getting all these folks in the same movie and allowing them to do what they’re good at.

Jim Brown is tough. Fred Williamson is cool. Lee Van Cleef is squinty. The hot girl is the hot girl. And Jim Kelly kicks the crap out of a bunch of owlhoots. It’s so much fun you don’t even wonder how a mute half-breed Indian learned karate. Not more than once or twice, anyway.

Check out the trailer online, here.

*

“Well, that’s great, Greg,” I hear some of you saying. “But did you get any, you know, actual comics on this bargain-hunting binge?”

Why, yes. Yes, I did.

As often happens, in the course of writing a column I am reminded about something I was going to check into, and in writing about Ms. Tree it occurred to me that it had been a while since I went noodling around online looking to replace the back issues I’d lost years ago. Just for the hell of it I did a search on Amazon as well as eBay and the usual haunts, and the Amazon search turned up something called Ms. Tree (Bogie’s Mystery) by Collins and Beatty.

What was this?

A book of some kind, but I was sure I knew all the Ms. Tree collections out there and none of them were titled Bogie’s anything. It was not a terribly helpful listing: “No image available” in the slot where the cover shot normally is, no summary, nothing. However, it was listed as “Used” and priced at a buck. I decided to risk the dollar.

Turned out that was a good bet.

“Bogie’s Mystery” wasn’t the title of the book — it was the name of the publisher’s imprint, from well-known mystery mavens Bill and Karen Palmer. The book itself is simply a paperback collecting Ms. Tree #16 through #23. Good news for me on two counts — that’s a big chunk of the issues I had lost and badly wanted back, and it’s also when the comic was really starting to cook. That run includes some of the best and most-talked-about stories from Ms. Tree’s career. You get the runaway story (also known to fans as “Ms. Tree takes out John Wayne Gacy”), the abortion clinic story that managed to piss off both sides of the controversy, and the big climactic confrontation with mob kingpin Dominic Muerta.

The bad news is that it’s not a trade paperback, and having to shrink the pages down to make them fit to a standard paperback format is occasionally hard on the eyes. Publishers could get away with doing newspaper strips like Peanuts or B.C. in that size, but despite all the different companies that have tried it over the years, the bottom line is that comic book pages suffer when you try to make them work in that format. On the plus side, it’s a straight reduction, there’s none of that cutting-up and rearranging pages that some folks have tried in getting comic-book stories to fit in a standard-size mass-market paperback.

Also, this is in black-and-white, so you lose all the great color work Terry Beatty was doing with the duotone process during this period. There is a nice introduction from Max Collins, and a helpful index of dramatis personae for those who came in late; overall the book comes across very much as a sort of “Ms. Tree’s Greatest Hits.” I probably still am going to keep my eye out for the actual comics — or, ideally, a series of real trade paperbacks collecting Ms. Tree in her original glorious two-color. But in the meantime this is nice to have as a reader copy and it was great to revisit the stories again, even if I had to squint a little. I certainly recommend it to any of you out there who might be curious about the series, it really is a great little sampler despite my reservations about the format.

And since my sales profile shows that I like Jonah Hex and The Lone Ranger and Desperadoes and Bat Lash, Amazon thought I might like this one too.

I liked the cover, certainly, and as I was a fan of the Jones/Parobeck El Diablo, the name had a mild cachet with me. And the guy only wanted three dollars for it. Hell, that’s the price of a standard monthly comic these days, and this was a trade collection of the Vertigo series from 2001.

This was the only one of the bargain-bin acquisitions that disappointed me a little.

Brian Azzarello’s story is pretty good. It’s got that nasty spaghetti western vibe to it, bad guys doing bad things out on the frontier where there’s no real law to stop anybody and people are no damn good. Usually I tend to prefer my Westerns a little less grim and unrelenting, but I don’t mind this sort of thing once in a while.

But I had a hard time with the art. Danijel Zezelj has done a lot of nice work and I quite liked some of the other things he’s done for Vertigo, but here… I dunno, I think there are a few times where he’s crossing over from “moody” dark to just plain “murky” dark. Impressionism is all very well but I think it would have helped to render things — especially people — a little more fully now and again. And the coloring didn’t help. There’s hardly any palette to speak of, the pages are mostly done in varying shades of either brown or blue or red.

This is one of those times where you can see what they’re trying to do, you understand the motivation for wanting to try it this way, but in practice… it doesn’t quite work. And sometimes it even actually interferes with the storytelling — there are places where it’s really difficult to tell what the hell’s going on or who’s speaking.

So the book lost points on the art, but the story was okay. A little on the bleak side, maybe, but well-crafted.

Admittedly, for three bucks I have no business crabbing. But there’s ads on the back cover for another Western from the same crew, Loveless, and I think I’m going to give it a pass. Much as I love Western comics and want to support them, I suspect that one won’t be my thing either. But your mileage may vary.

*

So there you have it. Overall, I have to say that was a pretty fair week’s worth of secondhand scrounging.. and, as my wife likes to point out, I always get a column out of these things. You take your justifications where you can get them.

See you next week.

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