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Spending Friday in the Storm Cellar

by  in Comic News Comment
Spending Friday in the Storm Cellar

You’ll have to pardon me if this comes across a little giddy in places. The power’s back on here for the first time since Thursday night and Julie and I are still euphoric at the return of all our various electronic devices… especially the HEATERS, thank God.

Unless you are a Weather Channel junkie, you may not have been aware that the Pacific Northwest was hit Thursday evening by the worst windstorm/monsoon in a decade. The only sensible reaction to this is to head for home and hunker down, not so much because of the dangers of wind or torrential rain (though those were bad enough — I gather there were a couple of deaths and LOTS of damage) but worse than that, the city just goes insane.

There’s a certain Chicken Little “The sky is falling!” vibe to the way we deal with adverse weather conditions here in Seattle. Remember the episode of the old Star Trek with the Landru computer, when the clock struck six and everybody ran into the street screaming “Festival! Festival!” and smashing stuff? That’s sort of how we react to storms here, except instead of “festival!” people are screaming weather terms like “Cold front moving in!”

Seriously. You should see the news media. TV is the worst. Invariably they send some poor bastard in a parka out into the thick of it, usually up to the top of Queen Anne Hill, to huff into his microphone, “As you can see, it’s sure blowing hard here! Woo!” He stumbles and clamps one hand on his head to keep his hood on. “Rain’s really coming down — awful lot of people are going to be getting wet tonight. Watch that commute! Back to you, Jean.” All I can think is that these guys must really, really SUCK at Rock Paper Scissors. Or else they’re being punished for taking the last office doughnut, or something.

Of course, when we lost power we were spared the hysterics on the television and radio, at least. The hysterics on the road driving were bad enough. Once we got home and the power went out, there was no way we were venturing out again to play chicken with all the Road Warrior wannabes careening through the dead traffic lights (note to any of those idiots that might be reading this — it’s a four-way stop sign when the light’s dead, not a no-stop freebie!) So there was nothing for it but to light some candles and read.

Fortunately, we never lack for reading material in THIS house. Going to the comic-book store was completely out of the question, but the U.S. Post Office came though in a big way, and here’s what I settled in with.

I know I plug Adventure House and their pulp replicas here an awful lot lately, but I can’t help that they have so much good stuff. It’s one-stop shopping for the aficionado. They are the outfit that allowed me to get acquainted with The Green Lama, the Phantom Detective, Ki-gor the Killer, and the Black Bat. All courtesy of the bi-monthly pulp reprint series High Adventure, which I recommend unreservedly as being as close as you can get to the actual pulp experience, they give you a little of everything. Plus they’ve been re-setting the type in recent issues so it’s much easier to read now. High Adventure‘s a regular comics-shop purchase for me; if your shop doesn’t carry it you should check online, because it’s big fun. I am about ready to just bite the bullet and subscribe, myself; the discount’s not huge but enough to be worth it.

These are my most recent acquisitions, #82 and #83. I especially enjoyed #82’s reprinting of Frederick Painton’s 1929 The Conquest of America, the tale of the deadly military genius Alexander Wufang’s effort to invade the U.S.: He gets as far as conquering New York and destroying Chicago before heroic American militiamen turn him back. It is really a remarkable novel, and though it starts out as a sort of Yellow Peril paranoiac fantasy, it’s actually a strident condemnation of the then-popular U.S. stance of isolationism. It’s an interesting snapshot of the politics of the 1930’s man-on-the-street, as well as a fun America Goes Underground SF piece. Think Red Dawn, but with Fu Manchu as the villain conqueror. This originally ran as a five-part serial in Battle Stories, so there’s lots of maps of troop movements and so on. Adding to the fun is how it takes place in the far future of… 1952!

#83 is a facsimile of the entire first issue of G-Men. This is a good time too, and though Dan Fowler is the headliner I think I may have enjoyed the backup short features even more.

The other pulp-related purchases were an eBay win of the entire run of — you guessed it — Marvel’s Amazing High Adventure, which ran for five issues in the 80’s.

This was one of those things where I was actually looking for back issues of the OTHER High Adventure, but when I saw these five issues for six bucks (including shipping!)… well, hell, I have no sales resistance in a case like that. I might as well own up.

This is an example of a phenomenon I’ve encountered many times over the last few months. I’ve been on a bit of a non-superhero adventure comics kick the last year or so, and what I’m finding out is that when you get the regular Marvel and DC talent off the spandex beat and let them do what they like, you get extraordinary work. The current examples would be Greg Rucka on Queen and Country or maybe Steve Gerber on Hard Time. Bill Willingham on Fables is certainly way above Bill Willingham on Robin. And so on. You get the idea.

The surprising thing was that they took a chance on publishing the book at all. But Marvel always was quick to chase trends and considering that in the early 80’s we saw a huge resurgence in retro-adventure action films, triggered by the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, it may have seemed like the time was right to test the waters with a series like this.

However, Marvel hadn’t realized just how entrenched mainstream comics fans are when it comes to superheroics: no costume, no sale. At least not in the direct market.

That’s my theory, anyway. But for whatever reason, the series crashed and burned: these five issues probably sold less combined than Brother Power the Geek when they came out, and clearly they’re not setting the back-issue market on fire… but there’s some real gems in here. The art alone is worth the price of admission: John Severin, Tony Salmons, John Ridgway, Bill Sienkewicz… all guys who’ve done superheroes but that’s not where they shine. Here, their work is breathtaking. Likewise, the writing from vets like Steve Englehart and Bill Mantlo and Louise Simonson is definitely a cut above what they were doing in the regular superhero line. If you see these in a quarter box somewhere, grab ’em.

Also arriving in the mail were a couple of paperbacks I’d been wondering about since I discovered them researching the pulp superhero prototype column I did a month or so ago. I am very fond of the Shadow stories, and of the Shadow comics, and I’m reasonably knowledgeable about the character’s history — I mean, I’m no Anthony Tollin, but I’ve got some game. So I was shocked to discover there was a Shadow series out there I’d never heard of.

I knew that Walter Gibson had done a book called Return of the Shadow in the early 60’s, the equivalent of the TV reunion movie, basically. What I had not known until I was looking stuff up for the column was that the book was used to kick off a line of NEW Shadow paperback adventures, ghosted by Dennis Lynds under the “Maxwell Grant” house name.

The thing that’s so weird about them is that they are NOT period pieces, they are set in the mid-sixties. The Shadow is still the Shadow, but he’s set in a James Bond-circa-Thunderball milieu, complete with international intrigue, evil technological super-geniuses, and covert spy organizations out to conquer the world.

There were eight or nine of these in all and when I saw a couple available used I decided to risk five dollars and see if they were any good. I have to say that they are okay, but it’s really, really hard for me to get over the setting. Your mileage may vary. But it just seems WRONG for the Shadow to be dealing with a coup attempt in an emerging African nation in 1965, matching wits with undercover Israeli commando teams. It’s too weird.

This got me thinking about the whole idea of milieu and how much it contributes to the character in a story. This is especially true in comics. There was another time someone screwed with the Shadow’s milieu and mood and Conde Nast shut them down pretty hard — as I recall, the book was canceled in mid-story.

I really like Kyle Baker’s art and I was willing to go along for the ride, but honestly, I think that book had reached the point where you couldn’t legitimately call it The Shadow any more.

Which kind of begs the question. How much can you mess with a character before it stops being that character? Here’s a version of Batman that many of us have fond memories of and regard as perfectly legitimate, though there’s also a vocal contingent that’s still pissed off about it forty years later.

And here’s the version that I think of as mine. You say “Batman” to me and this is the mental picture I get.

But for many fans THIS is the ‘purest’ version of Batman there ever was, and you can make a good case that it’s as close to the generic version of Batman as it’s possible to get.

The reason it’s worth thinking about is because this is THE argument I see fans having on the internet: purity of vision. Is it the REAL version? Is it HONORING the real version? Is it “cannon”? (That last always makes my teeth grind. It’s C-A-N-O-N, with one N. Two N’s is the big gun that fires a spherical projectile.)

So, what is it that makes a story a Superman story? A Batman story? A Spider-Man story? What has to be there? Think about that and we’ll come back to it… in next week’s column.

Barring any more Biblical weather episodes, anyway. The power’s flickered on and off twice since I started trying to polish this and post it, so I better get it wrapped up. See you next week.

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