A little of this, a little of that. This is one of those weeks where I don't actually have a WHOLE column, I've got several pieces of one. Mostly jumping off things I said I'd get around to in previous columns. So let's take care of all the odds and ends....
The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril and other pulpy good stuff: Okay, someone recommended this to me in comments a few weeks back so I took a chance and ordered it... and oh my Gawd this book is So! Much! FUN!
Seriously. Not just fun but smart fun, the best kind of popular culture. This purports to be an actual pulp-style adventure of real-life authors Lester Dent (Doc Savage) and Walter Gibson (The Shadow) but it's so much more. It's intricately plotted and meticulously researched and a hell of a good time.
The book itself is a bit like Chabon's Kavalier and Clay, if, you know, that book had included bits where Kavalier and Clay were running around trying to foil a Chinese assassination plot to unleash a poison gas cloud over Manhattan. There are a zillion Easter eggs planted for the alert reader, but you don't need to spot them to enjoy the book. I am prepared to declare this the most fun I'll have reading a book this year and we're only halfway through February. It was that terrific. I really don't want to give too much away but suffice it to say that there were lots of times where I thought something like, No way, he's overreaching here, there's no goddamn way I'm going to believe that middle-aged writer Walter Gibson is going to beat a Tong assassin who's got him cornered ... and then Paul Malmont by God figured out a plausible way for Gibson to win and made me believe it.
As luck would have it I just happened to order this other book at the same time, on one of those "if you liked this, you might also order..." prompts from Amazon -- so arriving the same week was the delightful Adventure Volume 1 from Chris Roberson and a host of other talents.
Lots of good stuff in here, but the first thing I noticed was that amazing cover. The book was published by MonkeyBrain Books, and I realized that this was the same outfit that also put out Win Eckert's wonderful collection Myths for the Modern Age, the Wold Newton book. That cover had blown me away too. That, and the clear trend towards publishing books about stuff that I think is really cool, intrigued me enough that I went looking for MonkeyBrain's backlist.
Damn, there's a lot of good stuff there. Check this one out -- they had me at hello with Kim Newman and "Diogenes Club," I adored Newman's Anno Dracula a few years back. Plus, again, amazing cover.
But the blurb was cool too: Introducing Richard Jeperson... in the 1970s the most valued member of a venerable institution, the Diogenes Club-least publicized of Britain's law enforcement and intelligence agencies. His cases involve haunted trains and seaside resorts, murders in utopian communities and London's vice district, voodoo and mind-altering therapies. His fashion sense is gaudy, his enemies deadly, and his associates glamorous.
So THAT one should be along soon as well. How could I not? Along with being a comics guy, I'm a Holmes guy, a 60's super-spy guy, and a Kim Newman fan. It's physically impossible for me to resist a book with this premise.
Hearing me raving about these COOL! BOOKS! Julie came over to see what I was talking about, and my wife got interested too. She really wants this one --
Of course, you all know that Jess Nevins is the fellow that puts out those terrific annotations of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which were already on my want list. Well, MonkeyBrain puts those out too. This was getting to the point where I felt like I should just be going down the list and saying "one of everything." How can you not fall in love with a cover like this?
Something's nagging at me though, the vague feeling there's something I'm missing, as Julie and I are looking at all these great books.
It finally dawned on me -- Chris Roberson, the editor and writer who's put all this together, is also that nice fellow that comments here every so often and gave me a shout-out on his blog the other day. So, full disclosure, you could file this plug under logrolling, I suppose; but I swear the books were already ordered before I figured it out, and the recommendation would come regardless of such flattering personal considerations. But hey, he IS a nice fella and you should buy the books.
Errata: When I go wandering off down memory lane here, as I often do, I should make it clear that it's an informal reminiscence, not a historical document. I just drop by once a week and shoot the breeze about stuff I've been thinking about. Put any more weight on it than that and I daresay you're bound to be disappointed. Nevertheless, several folks suggested to me that I made some really criminal omissions talking about the birth of the mainstream adult graphic novel last week.
First, leaving out the undergrounds. To be honest, I just am not the guy to be talking about underground comics. I was the wrong age, just a little too young for the whole Zap! crowd; and the head-shop network the undergrounds depended on for distribution was drying up about the time I started to explore comics outside the Marvel/DC sphere.
In the intervening years I've never really gotten caught up. Some Frank Stack, some Crumb reprints; but I just haven't read a lot of that stuff. I think of the CSBG crew, MarkAndrew is the go-to guy there. I would love to see Mark do a similar reminiscence about the good underground material. But I skipped it doing mine because A) I was trying to concentrate on mainstream efforts that you saw in bookstores and similar markets, and B) I didn't want to look completely ignorant. There, I said it.
Having confessed to that, I will add that there's ignorance and then there's just being dumb. It was DUMB for me to leave out Jack Jackson's amazing western comics novels.
They absolutely should have been included, those books are wonderful, and I have no excuse -- I just plain forgot them. Jaxon's been doing meticulously-researched, beautifully-written and drawn Western graphic novels since 1979. As much as I love Jonah Hex, that's kind of the training-wheels, kiddie version. Jaxon's are the real thing. And he should get more credit for breaking comics into bookstores with them and for some reason he rarely does. I don't know why we all seem to have a blank spot there. Anyway, by way of atonement, here's an emphatic recommendation. I think you'll find them at Amazon. If you like Westerns you'll LOVE Jaxon... and if you don't like Westerns, well, what the hell's wrong with you?
Demon Biker Valentine: For Valentine's Day, a holiday husbands dread and wives live for, Julie decided she would treat me to a movie and she thought Ghost Rider was one I'd enjoy, since we'd recently acquired the Ghost Rider Essential volumes.
Now, unlike most comic-book folks, I don't get all wound up about the movie adaptations, or at least I TRY not to. I had seen all the skepticism all over the internet -- Nicolas Cage is WRONG for this, Mark Steven Johnson's a HACK who RUINED DAREDEVIL, etc., etc... except, I rather liked Daredevil and I thought this might be pretty good. The trailers we'd seen looked fun, Julie wanted to treat me to some kind of nerd thing for Valentine's Day and what the hell, it was our last real opportunity for a date night before Julie goes in for her surgery next week; so we decided, why not?
Turned out to be a really good call. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but here's the amazing thing -- Julie LOVED it.
I'm not going to give you a full-on review, there are thousands of those -- but I will say that getting Sam Elliott to be Johnny's wise mentor guy was great casting...
...and getting Peter Fonda as the Devil was genius casting.
I mean, come on, if there's ANYBODY that can tempt a guy like Johnny Blaze, it's the star of Easy Rider, isn't it? He's, like, the biker god.
Anyway, it's great fun. My favorite iteration of the Ghost Rider is the one where Johnny Blaze is riding around the southwestern desert getting embroiled in people's lives -- sort of a crazed biker-western-gothic-horror-shoot-'em-up. It's too demented an idea to take seriously. That's the tone the movie takes. The effects are really good too -- there are times where I was wishing they had dialed down the CGI a little, but that was all with the villains. Ghost Rider himself was absolutely flawless.
So if you were skeptical, well, I was too, and it turned out I was wrong. It is definitely one of the better Marvel movies, and hey, enough fun stuff that even ladies like my wife who normally would have nothing to do with a horror movie like it. No one's going to mistake this for High Art, ever, but then the original Ghost Rider comic wasn't exactly world-class literature either... considering what a musical-writers mess that book was when it came out, the miracle is that Johnson managed to pull together as much as he did into a reasonably accurate adaptation. Bottom line: It's FUN. Worth checking out.
Again With The Licensed Books: I've gone on the record here before that I quite like a lot of the licensed books IDW Publishing puts out. So I was totally on board for 24: Nightfall, the prequel story that tells of Jack Bauer's first clash with international supercriminal Victor Drazen, and even mentioned how excited I was to see it in a column here a while back.
So now it's finally here, and I find I'm... well, I like it OKAY. But that's all.
Licensed comics have a burden that other books don't have to deal with -- they essentially are pastiches, jumped-up fan fiction that HAS to evoke the original material... and with TV and movies, that means you have to somehow suggest the actors involved as well as the premise and characters. Comics have often had a hard time with this because you need an artist who can do real likenesses... and pose them and light them from various angles, which is really damn hard. You can't just lightbox a bunch of publicity stills and change the backgrounds. If you're doing it right, it's life drawing -- for comics. So usually when a licensed book feels funny it's because the art's not quite cutting it.
That's not actually the case with Nightfall. The art on this book, from Jean Diaz, is terrific and I really like it. He has the caricaturist's knack of finding the features on a face that really let you know it's that person, but there's nothing cartoony about the style itself. That's a tough tightrope to walk. The coloring on the book is occasionally a bit muddy for me, but that's not Diaz' fault.
The thing I keep tripping over with Nightfall is the story. It doesn't feel like 24 to me.
I really WANT to like this, I have more than enough continuity nerd in me to enjoy the IDEA of finding out how Jack's duel with Drazen and his involvement with Senator Palmer began... but something about the book is a little off.
I finally decided that the reason I am not enjoying this as much as I should be is the setting itself. It's on foreign soil, taking place in Kosovo, and for me it doesn't seem like 24 unless agent Bauer is racing the clock to defeat a dire threat against civilians here, in the States. This tale of Jack and his scrappy band of black-ops soldiers fighting their way through enemy territory to nail Drazen reads more like a new take on Sgt. Rock. There's no imminent danger to us folks at home, it's too small-scale. Generally by the end of a season of 24 on television Jack Bauer has singlehandedly averted an apocalypse. This doesn't have that vibe by a long shot. The trouble is, the continuity geek in me KNOWS Jack went after Drazen in Kosovo, the show established that, so we're kind of stuck with it.
So it's an okay book but I think the premise is fatally flawed as far as evoking the original material is concerned. And evoking the original material is something a licensed comic HAS to do, or what's the point?
Anyway, I'll see it through to the end... it's good enough for that. I am enjoying it. But I am a little disappointed in it, too. Note to IDW: keep future 24 projects set in the U.S. And up the ante.
Field trip: We're off to (pro)text in a while, but there's a Seattle event next week as well -- on Sunday the 25th, Steve Miner's having another one-day Comics and Card show at Seattle Center. We usually try to get the Cartooning class to these since they're a great opportunity for the kids meet real working artists... and there's lots of bargains to be had, as well. As always, we'll try to get up there at about one in the afternoon. If you see a bespectacled fellow with a walking stick and a passel of middle-school kids trailing behind, that's me. Come say hello.
And that's the last of the odds and ends.
See you next week.