Sunday, August 2, 2015

Mesmerized by Many Monsters


As a small boy, I was fascinated by weird and immensely powerful beings. Mesmerized, really. Superheroes were my primary interest, but monsters are of course just on the other side of that coin, so I loved them as well.
And in 1962, a discerning child could find no better monster value for his weekly allowance of a quarter than the first Strange Tales Annual. In the company that would soon be called Marvel Comics, Stan Lee had plenty of stories to choose from, having already published a good five years’ worth of giant monster material in various titles.
Smoke monsters, shadow monsters, stone monsters, lizard monsters, insect monsters, supernatural monsters, alien monsters — the annual had them all in tales to astonish by Lee, Kirby, Ditko, Everett and Heck.
Just as the sexual revolution was unleashing shagging upon the world, we kids had “I Unleashed SHAGG Upon the World!” (reprinted from Journey Into Mystery #59).

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Audio drama: Bond's Triumph and Tragedy


While the first James Bond film, Dr. No, was being filmed in Jamaica, Ian Fleming was nearby in his house Goldeneye writing the 10th Bond novel, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
In spite of — or because of — Fleming’s popular success, some condescending critics took shots at him. Although he laughed the remarks off, they must have smarted, and Fleming continually tried to develop his protagonist and refine his writing. In OHMSS, for the first time, Bond reflects on childhood memories and not only finds a woman he can love, but marries her.
Preceded by Thunderball and followed by You Only Live Twice, this middle novel in the Blofeld trilogy would establish Ernst Stavro Blofeld, SPECTRE’s founder, as Bond’s archenemy.
Published in April 1963, the book sold more than 60,000 copies in the first month. The 1969 film version stayed relatively true to the novel, featured one of John Barry’s best scores, and has subsequently acquired a reputation as one of the best Bond movies.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Press of Danger: 007 in the Funny Papers


James Bond probably owes much of his success to the comic strips.
Before the films were made, Ian Fleming's novels were popularized in British newspaper comic strip adaptations, and composer John Barry admitted that he created the iconic music for the first film, Dr. No, based only on a familiarity with the comic strip.
“I didn’t sit down and intellectualize about it, and I've never read a James Bond book,” Barry said. “I’d only seen like a cartoon strip that they used to have in the Daily Mail in England. So I knew it was about a spy. I knew roughly what the essence was, but I never saw the movie. I just wrote the damn thing, you know.”
Remarkable, by the way, how much the comic strip 007 resembled Sean Connery, who had yet to be cast.





'Addams Family:' Making the Most of the Macabre


Pictured in “The Addams Family” are, l-r, Lexie Dorsett Sharp as Grandma, Gideon Johnson as Pugsley, Jesse Sharp as Gomez, Josh Houghton as Lurch, Emmy Burns as Wednesday, Colleen Johnson as Morticia and Tommy Lucas as Uncle Fester. Photos by Keith Stewart for a News-Progress.

By Dan Hagen
Truth is not only stranger than fiction, but stranger even than the Addams Family.
The New Yorker magazine cartoonist Charles Addams once dated a widow named Jacqueline Kennedy, and even proposed marriage to her.
“No,” Jackie replied, adding drily, “What would we talk about? Cartoons?”
Broadway has never shared Jackie’s condescending attitude on that subject. Both comic strips and Broadway musicals are American inventions, and both display the brash energy and optimism that are part of the national spirit.
L’il Abner, Little Orphan Annie, Peanuts, Doonesbury, Superman and Spider-Man all went from four colors to footlights, and so did Addams’ series of humorously macabre New Yorker cartoons collectively referred to as the Addams family.
Colleen Johnson as Mortica and Jesse Sharp as Gomez
And rarely has that transition been more seamlessly successful than in director Therese Kincade’s production of The Addams Family, the best show of a strong summer season at the Little Theatre.
The Addams’ fogbound, cobwebbed mansion in the middle of Central Park is suggested by scene designer Noel Rennerfeldt’s series of shifting cartoonish panels under a looming moon, and the cutely creepy costumes by Jana Henry are picture perfect.
Tyler Mosier’s makeup is dramatically effective, turning the dancing boys and girls we’ve seen all season into almost unrecognizable ghosts from the Addams family crypt.
Emmy Burns is Wednesday Addams (who, come to think of it, must have been the original Goth girl). She’s in love with a boy from the Midwest (Collin Sanderson). When her parents meet his (played by husband and wife Richard and Ann Borders), it’s a marital mess mismatch as epic as the one in La Cage Aux Folles.
Ann Borders as Alice and Tommy Lucas as Fester
The proceedings are overseen by Tommy Lucas as Uncle Fester, in this case a more benevolent version of the bizarre Emcee from Cabaret. Lucas’ gliding asides to the audience are delivered with a secure stage presence.
“You're probably thinking: what could a fat bald person of no specific sexuality know about love?” Lucas asks, teasing the audience with, “So will love triumph, or will everyone go home vaguely depressed?”
Burns’ deadpanned lines hit the right comic note, and Ann Borders gets to turn her Dr. Suessical Pollyanna of a character into a wildcat after being slipped a Mr. Hyde potion. Her table-hopping lament of sexual frustration, Waiting, is a high point.
Top marks to Josh Houghton as Lurch, now the zombified opposite of the loose-limbed Scarecrow he just played in The Wizard of Oz. His precisely controlled movements and facial expressions pull and please the eye for maximum effect in a minimalist role.
Young Gideon Johnson, as Pugsley, has a showstopping song in What If? What a voice that boy has, wondering aloud who will be left to torture him to his satisfaction when his sister weds.
Colleen Johnson has played the crowd-pleasing roles of Mary Poppins and the Wicked Witch of the West already this summer, but her Morticia Addams is her best, cool and cocky and compelling, with clockwork comic timing.
A husband and wife team who are just off the 2014 Addams national tour bring a sleek assurance to this stage. Lexie Dorsett Sharp is terrific as Grandma, stooped halfway to the floor at 102 but still a cougar on the prowl for some 90-year-old hotties.
“ One sip of this will turn Mary Poppins into Madea,” Grandma says to Pugsley of her potion.
“I don't understand your references!” he complains.
“Then stop the damn texting and pick up a book once in a while!”
As the choreographer, Sharp is also responsible for a great deal of the success of the production. The dance moves are angular, exaggerated, sharp and compelling to the eye. Like much of the rest of the show, the dance moves could easily have been either overblown or underwhelming, yet they are not. They’re perfect, and you can see them just pulling the smiles from the audience. The big tango at the end is a particular delight.
Her husband, Equity actor Jesse Sharp, IS Gomez — manic, charming, passionate and witty, his every gesture weirdly and gracefully beguiling.
“Do you have a little girls’ room?” Borders asks him.
“We did once, but we let them all go,” he replies with a shy, sly smile.
Though the first act moves a little more briskly than the second, I must emphasize how sensational this production is as a whole. It’s the kind of a show that makes audience members just turn and grin at each other. The Little Theatre has done a hell of a job with the macabre.
Incidental intelligence: “The Addams Family” — a musical comedy with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice that debuted on Broadway in 2010 — will run here through Aug. 9.
The show has lighting design by Michael Cole, stage management by Jeremy Phillips and musical direction by Kevin Long. The performers include Corbin Williams, Sara Reinecke, Jordan Cyphert, Chloe Kounadis, Emily Bacino, Althaus, Brady Miller, Danielle Davila, Daniel Gold, Harrison Austin and Timmy Valentine (as the form and voice of Cousin Itt, respectively).
For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Maddox Provides Perils Unnerving and Uncanny


By Dan Hagen
In her new thriller Daemon Seer, Charleston, IL, author Mary Maddox gets just the kind of running start that I like, engaging the reader in an intriguing situation on page one.
Lu Darlington’s boss confronts her with a true-crime book, “Professor of Death,” having figured out that she was the girl stalked by this serial killer a decade before. Those are the events of Maddox’s previous thriller, Talion, but she has structured this sequel as a stand-alone suspense novel, and having Lu’s nightmarish past catch up with her makes a perfect jumping-on point.
No longer an impoverished and endangered young girl, Lu now works for a company that cyber-spies on corporate employees in a shadowy manner, even as she herself is spied upon by shadowy supernatural forces she thought she’d left behind a decade before. It’s subtle nod to the predatory nature of the universe in which Lu lives.
Tempered by her horrific childhood, Lu has grown up practical and alert, capable of facing simultaneous threats.
And like Dick Francis, Maddox is clever enough to weave her protagonist’s background skills into the plot in useful ways. Learning that her friend Lisa is being stalked by a psycho cop, Lu is able to wield her cyber-spying as a counter-measure.
I was never quite sure, in the first novel, whether the entities that haunt Lu are supernatural or manifestations of some multiple personality disorder. But now, it’s pretty clear that these daemons are independent beings. “Daemon” is a term for semi-divine beings in Greek and Roman mythology. In Lu’s world, involvement with them puts human beings in a position roughly akin to that of a small animal dashing back and forth on an interstate highway.
The beautiful Talion tells her that she must breed for him, subjecting her to pain and passion to show her he holds the whip hand. But Lu — realizing that the entity need not have told her his plans at all, but could merely have manipulated her in to doing what he wants — reasons that he therefore must need something from her, some kind of assent that she might be able to deny him if she can deduce what it is.
Behind Maddox’s narrative, but never impeding it, is a recognizable 21st century America of economically marginalized people — forced to take lousy, morally suspect employment, vulnerable to trumped-up charges. Their quiet desperation is as familiar to them as dried sweat on a Walmart t-shirt, and it’s another factor that heightens the odds against them in their struggle to survive. The very tired ordinariness of their world makes its fantastic elements seem more real.
Adding zest to the recipe is Maddox’s gift for a lyrical phrase: “Golden light stretched my shadow across the patchy grass;” “Her fear skittered through my body and became my fear.”
As Lu faces threats from adversaries both human and inhuman, both unnerving and uncanny, Maddox keeps ratcheting up the suspense. When Lu finds herself in a bidding war between daemons, it turns out that being pursued and trapped by a sadistic sex killer cop isn’t even the most serious of her troubles…
Both Maddox’s Lu Darlington supernatural thrillers are available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble Booksellers on line.

Friday, July 24, 2015

When the Avengers Met Doc Savage

"Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker" painting by Bob McGinnis. "Great Gold Steal" painting by Mitchell Hooks.
Doc Savage cover by James Bama
The first Marvel Comics novels were published in 1967 and 1968, and I enjoyed them both (their design clearly owed more than a little to the then-popular Bantam Doc Savage paperback series).
They were probably the third and fourth novels based on comic book superheroes, after the Superman hardcover based on the 1940s radio show and a Batman original paperback inspired by the 1960s TV show.
Apparently Stan Lee objected to the choice of Otto Binder to write the Avengers novel(which did turn out to be mediocre). But Binder went over Lee's head to publisher Martin Goodman to land the job. That explains the fact that Lee did next to nothing to promote the paperback in the comic books. The Captain America novel, written by Ted White in an Ian Fleming-influenced style, was better.
Oddly, although Iron Man is a main character in the Avengers novel, he is not featured in the cover art — something that would never happen today. 





Monday, July 20, 2015

The Many Resurrections of the Ghost Rider


So Ghost Rider is a supernatural motorcyclist who made a deal with the devil to save his father, and got a flaming skull-head for his trouble?
Well, no. At least, not to America’s dime-store cowboys back in 1949.
Originally, Ghost Rider was an Old West lawman turned trickster dressed in spectral white. The character’s evolution illustrates just how arcane the history of a comic book superhero can be, 80 or 90 years into the genre.
Rex Fury, the Calico Kid, was already a western hero in a backup feature in Magazine Enterprises’ Tim Holt comics. But in the 11th issue, artist Dick Ayers and writer Ray Krank upped the ante by turning him into a 19th century mystery man superhero.
Nearly killed when criminals disguised as Indians hurled him into a waterfall, Fury finds himself in a hidden cave and, like Will Eisner’s the Spirit, decides to return and ride for justice as his own ghost.
Ghost Rider’s dramatic design — a caped white figure with a full face mask, a pale wonder horse and lots of ghostly tricks — proved popular enough to propel the character into a respectable four-year run in 14 issues of his own comic book, plus appearances in other titles. He might have survived longer if the new Comics Code had not driven most horror comics out of business.
The character’s trademark lapsed and, in 1967, writers Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich joined with Ayers to bring Ghost Rider to Marvel Comics. This time he was one Carter Slade, tricked up in a costume identical to the original and fighting masked bandits instead of supernatural monsters. With westerns dying in popularity, the title ran for seven issues.
Then, in 1972, Thomas, Friedrich, and artist Mike Ploog used only the name of the character when they created Johnny Blaze, the long-running supernatural Ghost Rider who’s been featured in two Nicholas Cage films.
When the Carter Slade adventures were reprinted in 1974, he couldn’t be Ghost Rider, so — retroactively and unfortunately — he became Night Rider. Too late, Marvel realized that the white-clad, masked “freedom fighters” of the KKK had also called themselves night riders.
Oops. Another retroactive name change quickly ensued. Now Carter Slade was Phantom Rider, a title he came to share with a half-dozen successors, including one in the present day.
Meanwhile, AC Comics has reprinted the adventures of the original Rex Fury Ghost Rider, renaming him the Haunted Horseman to avoid conflict with Marvel. And the Carter Slade character even made it into the 2007 Ghost Rider movie in the person of actor Sam Elliott. In the film, the cursed Phantom Rider is a skeleton in a cowboy outfit riding a skeletal horse.
The late Dick Ayers said Ghost Rider remained his most requested art commission. Unfortunately, he saved none of the original merchandising the character inspired, as he told Comics Journal.
“I had three young sons that played cowboys, and they always wanted to be the Ghost Rider, so my sample drifted off,” Ayers said.