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Weekend in the Mailroom

I don't get review copies of things that often, but for some reason a whole bunch arrived at once and I've been kind of letting them pile up.

Most of them are from small-press outfits or specialty houses, and I know from my own experience that sending out review copies is a MUCH bigger deal for those publishers than it is for the big guys. So I try to be conscientious about getting to them, but we've had a busy few weeks here as well and I just haven't had time. My guilt has been somewhat assuaged by Greg Burgas giving Sanctuary a thorough looking over, and Sonia reviewed the "Liberated Ladies" issue of Back Issue. So I'm going to just refer you to those reviews, since they did a much better job than I would have.

[caption id="attachment_102114" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="I got sent these as well, and I'm delighted Greg and Sonia got to them, because I really haven't had a chance. They both look really cool though and I am looking forward to reading them myself."]

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Still, that leaves a pretty fair stack of stuff. The mission statement here at CSBG is that everything that people send us gets reviewed by somebody, and I don't usually get sent enough to plead that the stack is too high to get through. So this took me a little by surprise. In addition to the digital comics and so on, there's actual print books, too.

The pile has been sitting in my office, and I could kind of feel it glaring at my back all last week, trying to guilt me into making time to read and review the books, while I was trying to get my second-semester budgets and so on pulled together.

But things have settled down. Julie's off at a baby shower for our niece-in-law today, so I have the place to myself. I decided that I would just go through the whole pile for you, top to bottom. Apologies, again, for taking so long to get to it... some of these arrived in December. (Thankfully, there's nothing about 'promptly' in the we-review-everything-sent promise. But by God, at least over in my corner, we do eventually get to everything.)

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New Pulp: Adam Lance Garcia, whom some of you may remember from his Green Lama books, apparently persuaded Tommy Hancock at Pro Se Press to send me e-copies of two new entries; I'm assuming they thought of me because of their newly-launched Pulp Obscura line.

The idea behind Pulp Obscura is very similar to other small-press pulp revivals I've mentioned here before, like the Moonstone anthologies or the books Airship 27 puts out.

The approach works like this. You start with an old pulp-hero character that's a B-lister; usually someone in the public domain like the Domino Lady or Super-Detective Jim Anthony or whoever. Then you put together books featuring new adventures of those characters, written with the added benefit of historical hindsight... and, one hopes, perhaps a little more craft than many of the original pulpsters put into it. (I can tell you that the Domino Lady never got a better showcase than the Moonstone collection Sex as a Weapon, just to name one.)

[caption id="attachment_102138" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="With all the new takes and classic reprints coming out, seriously, this may be the best time to be a fan of the old pulps EVER. "]

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This idea is gaining so much traction that it's actually being referred to now as the "New Pulp" movement (or if you really are pretentious, the "NuPulp" movement.) However you spell it, it's been great news for guys like me who first stumbled across the stuff in the 1970s paperback pulp era.

All of which brings me to Pro Se Publications and Pulp Obscura.

Pro Se has been doing all sorts of books with this "new pulp" sensibility, often with new characters. Pulp Obscura is a new imprint Pro Se is doing in partnership with Altus Press -- the theory is that Altus will reprint the original adventures of various old pulp heroes and then Pro Se publishes new adventures featuring the same characters.

The first entry stars the aviation pulp hero, Richard Knight.

[caption id="attachment_102158" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="The Altus reprint collection on the left, and the (to my mind, anyway) much cooler Pro Se collection on the right. "]

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Richard Knight was originally a character created by Donald Keyhoe for a regular slot in the aviation pulp Flying Aces. Now, I have to admit, much as I love the old pulp magazines of the 1930s, the airplane dogfight stuff usually doesn't do much for me. I'm much more interested in the Spider or the Avenger or even the Crimson Mask than I ever have been in pilot heroes like G-8 or the Sky Kings.

[caption id="attachment_102158" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Just not my thing."]

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But Richard Knight, I discovered, is kind of the pilot hero for those of us who hate pilot heroes. His adventures are just as much of the "weird menace" school of pulp fiction as they are aviation, and it's a genre mashup that's a lot of fun. Keyhoe had Dick Knight facing off against dinosaurs, lost jungle races, and all sorts of deranged and disfigured supervillains in stories like "Hell's Hangar" or "Vultures of the Lost Valley" (both of which are available as downloads from Age of Aces here, incidentally, if you are curious.)

... sorry, I tend to ramble when I'm talking about pulp stuff. Really I just want to tell you that The New Adventures of Richard Knight is tremendous fun from cover to cover. As the press release says, "Six high flying, wild and weird adventures from I.A. Watson, Barry Reese, Frank Schildiner, Joshua Reynolds, Terry Alexander, and Adam Lance Garcia!" And they truly are wild and weird, but most of all every story in the collection has that breakneck hell-for-leather vibe that made me fall in love with pulp fiction in the first place. I enjoyed them all but I particularly dug the leadoff entry from Josh Reynolds, "Hell's Hand," featuring Richard Knight versus a mad disfigured sadist (somewhat reminiscent of the Red Skull) and his zeppelin full of masked killer cultists. Really, what's not to love there? And every story in the book has that same delicious "Rationale? Huh? What? Screw that, floor it!" vibe.

The paperback edition is available for $12.00, a very reasonable price for small press publishing, but I'd really recommend the e-book from Smashwords for $2.99. They have it in multiple versions -- Kindle, Nook, PDF, whichever is easiest for you to use-- and you can't beat the price. The only thing you really miss out on with the ebook version, as far as I can tell, is the cover art (which is an admittedly awesome piece from Mike Fyles.)

Mr. Hancock also very kindly sent along another entry from Pro Se, Nancy Hansen's Tales of the Vagabond Bards. This is a sort-of-sequel to her book Fortune's Pawn.

[caption id="attachment_102158" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Usually I am much more of the Robert E. Howard school of pulp fantasy, but Ms. Hansen sold both of these to me."]

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Both books are set in a fantasy world with elves and werewolves and magic and so on, and once again I have to admit that this sort of Tolkienesque "high fantasy" is not normally in my line at all. (I'm much more about the hard-guy school of fantasy fiction like Conan or Solomon Kane.)

But Tales of the Vagabond Bards surprised me. I don't want to give too much away, but it's basically about a group of heroic folklorists who are being hunted for trying to spread literacy among the masses, in a vaguely post-apocalyptic fantasy world where the ruling class wants to keep forbidden knowledge for themselves. That premise hits an arts teacher like me right where I live.

If I hadn't liked Vagabond Bards as much as I did, honestly, when I read the description for its predecessor Fortune's Pawn I probably would have passed on it. "Prophecy foretells of a Child of Three Races who will grow up to unite the scattered protectors of the Light World in the north. In a time of great upheaval, a young woman begins a journey of adventure and discovery decreed by fate. Will she live to meet her destiny as the mother of a savior, when the forces of good and evil conspire to make her a pawn in the game of conquest?" This is usually the sort of thing that makes me groan and say Ugh.

But I took a chance because I'd liked the other one and this was set in the same universe, and also because Ms. Hansen understands the First Rule of Pulp Fiction-- Never ever slow it down enough to get boring. She keeps things moving, and rings enough interesting changes on hoary old fantasy tropes that I decided to go ahead and purchase Fortune's Pawn as well. It was a good gamble. As it turns out I think Fortune's Pawn is actually the stronger of the two but really I enjoyed both of them. Again, both are available in print or as ebooks, and again I'm recommending the ebook version from Smashwords. Fortune's Pawn is here and Tales of the Vagabond Bards is here.

So that's two from Pro Se in genres I normally avoid, that were good enough not just for me to recommend here, but even turned me into a paying customer for a third. With a track record like that, I'm definitely on board for whatever's next.

*TwoMorrows: Look, let's just say it up front-- I love TwoMorrows books. Always have. I try never to miss Back Issue and I also like their "Companion" books a great deal. I'm such a huge fan of the books TwoMorrows puts out documenting comics and their history that a review from me would normally consist of just saying, "Recommended. One of everything."

But since they started sending me actual books, I think I'd better do more than that.

First up is Lee & Kirby: the Wonder Years. This actually started life as an article by Mark Alexander for The Jack Kirby Collector and it just kept growing until it became a full-fledged book. (Technically it's still #58 of The Jack Kirby Collector, but I think it's a book and I'm calling it one.)

[caption id="attachment_102158" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="This is something no Fantastic Four fan should be without."]

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Mr. Alexander passed away just before this magnum opus hit print, I gather, which is a shame. It's a remarkable achievement, the culmination of years of research, and he deserved to see it in print for real.

Certainly, the work of Jack Kirby has been documented extensively elsewhere--including, well, the previous fifty-seven issues of The Jack Kirby Collector itself-- but The Wonder Years is interesting because it focuses exclusively on the Lee-Kirby collaboration on Marvel's Fantastic Four. It is meant to be the definitive book on those hundred-plus issues of comics. And it almost is.

The (slight) difficulty I have with this book is the authorial voice itself. I don't like to speak ill of someone no longer with us and the amount of work Mr. Alexander put into this volume is staggering -- he interviewed everyone he could get hold of, including folks like Flo Steinberg and Joe Sinnott as well as people like Stan Lee and Kirby scholar Mark Evanier. The trouble comes with Alexander's blanket assertions that are presented as fact, not opinion; and in a book as extensively researched and documented as this one, I believe authors should draw a clear line between the history being presented and the times they are personally reflecting on that history. I understand it because I occasionally do it myself when I'm talking about old books and so on, I know how that fan voice can sneak up on you ("The hell with Neal Adams! The best Batman ever looked was when the art was being done by Don Newton in the 1980s! He wasn't just doing good comics, he was an actual goddamn ILLUSTRATOR!!") But it hurts this book some.

Even so, I think The Wonder Years is an indispensable addition to the library of anyone interested in the Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby, or even just Silver Age Marvel comics in general. There's a lot of good stuff here. You should buy it. But I'd take the opinionating with a grain of salt.

Honestly, I think I prefer the simplicity of Modern Masters Volume 27: Ron Garney.

[caption id="attachment_102158" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Good stuff, whether you buy the MODERN MASTER label or not."]

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The book is about evenly split between a book-length interview with Mr. Garney (who is delightfully candid about what it's like behind the scenes at the big publishers) and page after page of really breathtaking original art, a great deal of which has never been printed anywhere else. Sketches, film design work, all kinds of great stuff along with, of course, lots of comics. Except for a few pages of glossy color inserts it's all in black-and-white but I prefer seeing it that way, myself; you can really appreciate the subtleties in Garney's layout and line work.

Aside: Speaking of fannish opinionating, you can certainly quibble over who gets to be called a 'modern master' among comics artists, and I've spent many post-convention dinner evenings having a pleasant wrangle among fellow fans over who does deserve a title like that. But they have to call this series of books something, and "Modern Masters" gets the idea across as well as anything else. I've enjoyed every one I've seen and this is one of the better ones, just because Ron Garney's a good interview as well as a great comics artist.

But I saved the best for last. My favorite of the books in the review pile is the brand-new Quality Companion.

I already said how much I like the "Companion" series of books TwoMorrows puts out, and this is one of the very best. In addition to all the great historical articles and interviews, the first sixty-four pages are actual color comics reprints of original Golden Age stories, featuring (in order) the Ray, the Phantom Lady, the Black Condor, the Human Bomb, Uncle Sam, Midnight, Firebrand, Wildfire, and Madam Fatal. Then there's an exhaustive historical overview of the history of Quality comics and its stable of superfolks starting from the 1940s all the way through the 1970s Freedom Fighters revival at DC, Roy Thomas and All-Star Squadron in the 80s, Robinson and Smith's mini-seriesThe Golden Age, even Arcudi and Mandrake's JLA: Destiny.

That by itself would be enough for a book, but there's still more -- an encyclopedia of all the creators that worked for Quality, and that's followed by another encyclopedia covering all the costumed-hero characters that Quality ever published, including their later DC Comics appearances and even covering 'legacy' characters like Iron Munro from Young All-Stars. Then there's the indexes of every title Quality published... it's an astonishing achievement. This volume is a whopping two-hundred-plus pages of pretty much anything you could ever possibly need to look up about this company, its writers and artists, and the characters that were created there. When you add in the sixty-four pages of color Golden Age comics up front from Lou Fine, Jack Cole, Jim Mooney, and other stars of the era, it's just a hell of a package.

[caption id="attachment_102158" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Never heard of any of these D-list do-gooder guys, but I enjoyed learning about them."]

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If you are at all interested in any of those things you will be entertained for days. Authors Mike Kooiman and Jim Amash are to be applauded. This is just a great comics history book, jam-packed full of interesting and cool stuff. The $31.95 price tag is a little daunting (though I think it's worth it) but if you would rather spend a little less, I believe there's a 40% discount still running on the TwoMorrows website that gets you the book for under twenty dollars, and there's also a digital edition available for download for a mere $10.95 and that's a steal. Recommended either way.

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And that's the pile. I promise not to let it get that far behind again, if anyone else sends anything my way. (Well, I promise to try not to, anyway.)

See you next week.

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