Monday, July 31, 2006

Recommended Books on Comedians

When life kicks you in the teeth, one of the most important survival mechanisms is to maintain your sense of humor. I can testify that it isn’t always easy. I have always loved comedians , though, and just reading about old friends has helped tremendously. Today, we offer a look at several nice books about great comedians.

THE LAUGH MAKERS by William Cahn is the earliest, having been published in 1957. It’s off to a good start with an introduction by silent film legend Harold Lloyd. Then it offers a rather scholarly overview of the history of clowns, minstrel shows, vaudeville and burlesque with rare photos of comics rarely covered in these type of books. Radio shows and silent movies get good coverage as do the early television comedians like Sid Caesar.

Leonard Maltin’s 1978 book THE GREAT MOVIE COMEDIANS offers the now celebrated author’s usual thorough job on a chronological history of comedians from silent days up through Woody Allen. One can argue possible omissions but each chapter present offers a nice look at the funniest of the funny men and women throughout film history. There are also thorough, annotated filmographies at the end of each section.

JOE FRANKLIN’S ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COMEDIANS by the legendarily quirky talk show host (who knew most of these folks personally) came out in 1979. The bulk of the book is an A-Z listing with brief career overviews and biographical bits. The folks covered in this one include a number of stand-up comics who never really appeared that much on TV or in films. Tom Dressen is a good example. Tom would turn up from time to time on talk shows and always made me laugh. Most of the time, though, he spent headlining in Vegas or opening for guys like Frank Sinatra. I ran into Tom in downtown Cincinnati one time when he was in town with Frank. He had just exited a restaurant and was putting on sunglasses. I think I startled him when I said "Hi, Mr. Dressen" and just walked on, not wanting to bother him. Allan Sherman, Roger Price and the Weire Brothers are amongst other favorites touched on by Franklin but rarely found in other books of this type.

Barry Took, himself a comic in the UK, came out with COMEDY GREATS in 1989. This one is another alphabetical listing although it offers separate chapters on funny ladies and British comedians along the way. The main attraction here is that full chapters are devoted to Peter Sellers, Jacques Tati, Tony Hancock, Dudley Moore and Barry Humphries (who, as Dame Edna, never fails to make me laugh! I couldn’t afford to see "her" when she was on an extended run in Cincinnati a couple years ago though. Sigh).

The most thorough of all of these enjoyable volumes of comedians is easily QUINLAN’S ILLUSTRATED DIRECTORY OF FILM COMEDY ACTORS. This UK book offers more than 300 pages of alphabetical tiny print articles (to squeeze more in!) on famous and lesser known comics. As you can imagine, this one doesn’t just cover the A list. Featured in the pages of this book you will find a number of folks who always, always make me laugh! Besides the obvious big names, just a few of these would be Huntz Hall, Smiley Burnette, Sid James, Jerry Colonna, Kathleen Freeman, Peter Cook, Raymond Griffith, Edward Everett Horton, Paul Hogan, Frankie Howerd, Lionel Jeffries, Don Knotts, Spike Milligan, Margaret Rutherford, Benny Rubin, Ben Turpin and Roland Young.

So the lesson learned is that if life gets you down, read about people who make you laugh. Better yet, watch a movie or TV show with them in it!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies

The mid 1970’s were a glorious time for budding film buffs with new film star biographies coming out weekly and classic movies on television on a regular basis. One of the most incredible and educational discoveries of my own formative years was the Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies. This was a series edited by Ted Sennett and published, naturally, by Pyramid Books. Eventually it numbered at least 35 titles, perhaps a dozen or so more that I never picked up. The experts writing this series included many of the cream of the crop of seventies film historians: Rene Jordan, Jeanine Basinger, Alan G. Barbour, Jerry Vermilye, Robert F. Moss and more. Although a couple of the books covered genres, most of the titles were on individual actors and actresses. The A List stars like Gable, Bogart, Flynn, Monroe and Fonda were here, of course, but the series also presented books on less covered stars (at the time anyway) including Doris Day, Ginger Rogers, Rosalind Russell and Olivia de Haviland. Each of the uniform small trade paperbacks followed a fairly standard formula. In 150-160 pages, there was a brief biography up front, followed by a heavily illustrated book-length film by film history. The back matter offered a film checklist with basic supporting cast as well as a fairly detailed index.
The movie stars that I have are: Gary Cooper, Orson Welles, Robert Mitchum, Lana Turner, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, W. C. Fields, The Marx Brothers, Boris Karloff (and the Horror Film), Marlene Dietrich, Edward G. Robinson, Jean Harlow, James Stewart, Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, Orson Welles, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Myrna Loy, Olivia de Haviland, Jack Lemmon, Mae West, Doris Day, William Holden, Rosalind Russell, James Cagney, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, Bing Crosby, Henry Fonda and Errol Flynn.
Sennett also edited two Pyramid editions of THE MOVIE BUFF’S BOOK which, although in a larger trade format, continued the layout of the series and offered a considerable amount of rare stills and trivia on classic films and their stars. Written by many of the same learned authors, a young Leonard Maltin also graced the pages of these larger books with his expertise.
In 1977, Harvest/HBJ (actually still Pyramid Books but with a name change) took over the series producing a few new additions (including Orson Welles) and reprinting some of the earlier ones but sales dwindled and they were out of print by the beginning of the 1980’s.
These things go for a song when you find them in a used bookstore (I picked up a half dozen I had missed for $1.00 each about two years ago) and are fairly prevalent on Ebay so if you love movies or the great movie stars, I strongly suggest you start collecting the Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies. Just as the movies themselves are still around, so are these marvelous, entertaining and informative books. You just need to look for them.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Good News/Update

Well, it’s only a handshake agreement at this point but as of yesterday, I have a job…finally! Actually I still don’t start until a week from this coming Monday as I have to get a security clearance. I’m scheduled to put in for that on Monday afternoon. Looks like we’ve managed to beg, borrow and sell enough old comics and videos to save the car and pay a few other bills, too. We lost one charge card bill to a collection agency but if that’s all we lose, I’ll deal.

Thanks again to those of you who took the time to donate a little to Booksteve’s Library. For hopefully the last time, I’m asking those of you who haven’t done so to consider dropping a tip in the Paypal box on your way out as it’s still going to be weeks before I actually get paid! There was no point to saving the car if I can’t keep up on gas and insurance, y’know.

In return, I will continue to offer looks at such popular topics as rare comics fanzines (THE COMIC READER from the late seventies is seen here),

movies that slipped through the cracks (ALL THIS AND WORLD WAR II, a feature length compilation of war footage edited to a soundtrack of Beatles cover tunes!)

and perennial favorite Linda Blair! Here's a couple more KINGS ISLAND pictures even, bothe featuring various Banana Splits from the first year of operation (and my dad in the blue shirt looking befuddled).

Friday, July 28, 2006

Batman Coloring Book

Here's another surviving BATMAN coloring book from the sixties. It's my recollection that this one came out a bit into the Batmania craze, probably in 1967. It's actually an oversized Paint by Numbers book with each gatefold featuring the same picture, the left page with numbers corrsponding with a color chart on the back cover. Most of the left hand pages were beautifully colored by my regular babysitter, Kathy (who seemed so old to me at the time and in retrospect was probably seventeen tops). The free-style right handed pages were done by yours truly. The back page, seen here was also completed by your humble librarian. Note the traditional comic book blue hair.

Movies That Fell Through the Cracks # 15

Well, today we have not just a movie, THE LOVES AND TIMES OF SCARAMOUCHE, but an actor who seems to have fallen through the cracks. Unlike just about anyone who ever set foot on a soundstage, Michael Sarrazin has no real web presence-- no unofficial homepage, no yahoo fan group, and very little info about him on IMDB or similar sites.
Here’s the thing, though. At one time Michael Sarrazin was a major film star! Seriously! He even dated famous starlets like Christa Helm, seen with him below (and if you haven’t been keeping up, look up Christa in the "Search This Blog" function. We'll wait.) The sad-eyed Canadian actor that looks like his face was flattened with a few blows from a frying pan was not your conventional leading man but he worked his way up impressively until it all just seemed to stop. Oh, he still turns up from time to time, usually with tenth billing and one scene in some obscure international production or TV movie. The years have not been kind to his already less than traditionally handsome face though, perhaps limiting him to the character roles he now plays.
I guess I first saw Michael Sarrazin in EYE OF THE CAT, a 1969 Hitchcockian thriller with little really to recommend but it was so scary for ten year old me that I went back to see it a second time! Soon after, I caught him in 1967’s THE FLIM-FLAM MAN on television and began to take notice. By that time, he was appearing in the prestigious, Oscar-winning release THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? and a string of major co-starring roles followed. This arguably peaked with Barbra Streisand’s FOR PETE’S SAKE in 1974. After that, Michael was poised to get above the title roles. THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD was a high profile horror film released in the wake of THE EXORCIST and 1976’s THE GUMBALL RALLY was a less gimmicky version of Burt Reynolds’ CANNONBALL RUN. Somewhere during this period, though, Michael went to Italy (First Goldie Hawn, then Tony Curtis, now Sarrazin. Is it the lure of a free Italian vacation or what?) and made THE LIVES AND LOVES OF SCARAMOUCHE.
Costarring all-time favorite Bond girl Ursula Andress, the basic plot description seems to have little to do with Rafeal Sabatini’s classic novel SCARAMOUCHE, filmed twice before in the US with a number of European versions as Napoleon Bonaparte appears as a major character and is not credited as such in earlier versions. More than likely, the whole thing was probably an excuse to try to tap into the lucrative comic swashbuckler market created by the success of Richard Lester’s THREE MUSKETEERS films of the seventies.
With no credits in 1977(perhaps in shock after former girlfriend Christa’s murder that year?) Sarrazin was still hip enough to host SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in 1978 but his career continued to lose momentum from around the time of his Italian excursion and appearances in anything came less and less often. After LOVERS AND LIARS, Goldie Hawn made PRIVATE BENJAMIN and she was back on the fast track. After SOME LIKE IT COOL, Tony Curtis slowly settled into being a living legend. Michael Sarrazin, though, last appeared as of this writing with twelfth billing in an obscure 2005 TV movie. Michael, get yourself a home page and start a cult! We miss your quirky performances. It’s never too late for a second act!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Nintendo For Breakfast-1989

"Nintendo is for breakfast now. Nintendo is two cereals in one. Wow! Super Mario Bros. and Zelda, too. Mix 'em, match 'em, crunch 'em. You just can't lose! Fruit-flavored Marios, Mushrooms and Goombas. Berry-flavored Links, Hearts and Shields. Nintendo is breakfast news! Nintendo Cereal System-If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em." Mmm, Mmm, Mmm! Following on the heels of our "foreign" comics post on Wednesday, I just had a little Danish this morning over at DIAL B for BLOG. Since we were in the realm of breakfast, I thought I'd offer today's visitors at least a look at some very real, yet virtual cereal from 1989. I personally don't recall seeing the Nintendo Cereal System on the shelves at all but it sounds like a clever idea. Reminds me of those big popcorn barrels that have three types of popcorn seperated by a barrier. I haven't had one in years but I always used to pull out the barrier and then shake it up real good! I'm betting that would have worked with this cereal, too. "Hey, you got your link on my mushroom!" "Well you got your mushroom on my link!" Of course, the obvious question is whether mushrooms , even crunchy, fruity ones, are a good idea for breakfast cereal.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Comics in Other Lands

I used to love it when comic books would stick in a page of comics covers from somewhere other than the US. It was fun to see that other than the language, heroes were heroes everywhere. In gathering up a box of comics to sell earlier today, I came across three non US comics that I had forgotten I had. The German DC one, in spite of the seeming title on the cover, is actually just called SUPERMAN. Batman is neither seen nor mentioned in the issue that reprints some late fifties early sixties stories with art by Wayne Boring and Al Plastino. Perhaps the 1966 BATMAN series was on German TV at the time and they wanted to sell the comic with Batman even if Batman wasn't in it! The German FANTASTIC FOUR, on the other hand, does NOT mention it on the cover but features ten pages of 1968's DAREDEVIL story "The Death of Mike Murdock" along with the lead FF piece. That lead FF piece, in fact, reprints Jack Kirby's legendary unfinished "Janus" issue of FF.Marvel announced last week that it would finally be completely finished from Kirby's pencils and published. The 1973 Mexican SPIDER-MAN, which I purchased in Cleveland of all places, features all new stories and art, not reprints. Spidey has a pretty pedestrian battle with Doctor Doom (most of whose poses are John Buscema swipes) after chewing the fat with his buddy the cop early in the issue. Huh? Had these people ever read an issue of SPIDER-MAN before? By the way, the running couple who look vaguely like Peter and Gwen Stacy do not appear in the issue at all.

Dead Like Me

Not having Showtime, I had paid less than no attention to the TV series DEAD LIKE ME until my friend Brittany got the first season on DVD this past Christmas and recommended it highly to me. Strangely enough, it quickly worked its way onto my list of all-time favorite series! Having no expectations at all, I found myself pleasantly surprised. DEAD LIKE ME is, on the surface, either a very black comedy or a lighthearted drama with fantasy elements. It is, of course, both but also so very much more. Borrowing the DVDs, we saw the unexpurgated, decidedly adult versions of the episodes but after awhile, I didn't even mind my 9 year old son watching, too. The series made more valid philosophical points about life and death and love and loss and grief and pain and strength and survival than any ten serious network dramas, all the while making you laugh at dark things you might never have found funny before. The cast was brilliant. Mandy Patinkin, although never a favorite of mine, is particularly effective in DEAD LIKE ME, holding the whole unlikely premise together while trying hard not to let his character be really open to anyone. It's newcomer and star Ellen Muth, though, who steals every scene with her deadpan narration. Looking like Valerie Bertinelli and Eddie Van Halen's daughter, her character grows exponentially throughout the series as she accepts not only her role in life (or death, as the case may be) but herself as well. DEAD LIKE ME was cancelled after two seasons but has just been resurrected in reruns on the Sci-Fi Channel. They cut some of the language and edit a few of the naughtier scenes, but they also seem to have added in some previously unseen takes and additional footage. For a show that literally reeks of death in all its forms, you'll feel surprisingly good about life after you watch it. Go here:SCIFI.COM Dead Like Me for more info on the show itself. Then go rent the DVDs or tune in on Tuesday nights to watch one of my new all-time favorites!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Vaughn Bode'

I note that Vaughn Bode was voted into the Hall of Fame at Comicon this past weekend and it’s about time. Bode died under unusual circumstances in 1975 ( In those pre-Net days, this TBG obit was the first most fans saw) just prior to attending that year’s San Diego Con. His cartoon in the souvenir book had his character Cheech Wizard saying that he would be undercover at the con. "I going as a wad of phlegm," to be exact. Vaughn Bode had been reinventing himself as a self-styled "cartoon gooroo" for several years, becoming more and more flamboyant and depicting himself in his own strips as a messiah figure. His gentle hippie surface persona was often belied by the unapologetic violence, abusive language and seemingly misogynistic feelings toward women in his comics. More and more, they had become a stark social commentary reflecting less than admirable aspects of the culture and counterculture. They were uniquely HIS comics. With an unusual, almost animation-like style that took little from other comics artists, Bode had taken an unusual route to the Underground. He, in fact, had started out in the mainstream, doing a children’s book and science-fiction book and magazine covers. He even had a long running strip (sometimes with Berni Wrightson) in the men’s mag CAVALIER. His signature comic strip, CHEECH WIZARD, had begun as an all-ages adventure in college before developing over time into the debauchery for which it became famous in NATIONAL LAMPOON. Meanwhile, with COBALT 60 and JUNKWAFFEL, Bode became arguably the most recognizable Underground artist after Crumb. Like Crumb, he even bounced back into the mainstream with the paperback seen here, BODE’S CARTOON CONCERT from 1973 (sold to me at age 14 by some progressive hippie booksellers) which cashed in on the popular slideshow presentation of the same name which he had begun presenting at various
comic conventions.

He was clearly a work in progress, a fact made amazingly clear by a posthumously published self-written piece in Steranko’s MEDIASCENE that would unknowingly serve as his own epitaph. Dated June, 1975, a month before his death, it has been called the ramblings of a drug-crazed idiot but I find it an utterly remarkable stream-of-consciousness look into a troubled but searching psyche. For three full tabloid sized pages, "Da Bode" goes on at length about magicks and light and life and enlightenment using run on sentences, sentence fragmants, random capitalization, unfinished thoughts and purposeful misspellings. His language varies from that of the gutter to that of the pulpit. This was a most bizarre but incredible thing to have just after the man’s passing.

Over the years, Bode’s relatively small amount of work has remained in print in several formats but his real legacy has been to the graffiti artists. To this day, watch any freight train passing at a crossing and you’re likely to see a "Bode Broad" or lizard or even Ol’ Cheech! In 2004, in a nice tribute to his father, Fantagraphics published Mark Bode’s full color graphic novel entitled THE LIZARD OF OZ, based on a poster Vaughn had done (and which is used as its cover). Something was missing, though. The art style is similar and the writing is equally perverse but it’s all done in loving homage. It ain’t da original. It ain’t da Bode! After all, other cartoonists may be good but Vaughn Bode’s a Hall-of-Famer!

Monday, July 24, 2006

DC Stamp Humor

My buddy DEREK Tague and I were talking the other day and this subject came up.Now that DC has all these nifty new super hero postage stamps, I find myself missing the days before everything was self-adhesive. If you had to lick these stamps the old fashioned way then all the pre-pubescent fanboys could truthfully boast "I licked Superman!" as in "I beat the Man of Steel!" Meanwhile, all of the slightly older comic book geeks could brag "I licked Wonder Woman!" meaning...well, you get the idea.

Our Gang

One of my favorite books in my whole Library has long been OUR GANG, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE LITTLE RASCALS , the 1977 volume by Leonard Maltin with Richard Bann. As a child, the MGM OUR GANG shorts with Froggy, Mickey and Spanky were early favorites. In later years I came to realize just how self conscious and surreally unfunny most of them were. That realization came largely to the fact that by that time I had seen the earlier, legitimately funny and creative Hal Roach shorts commonly referred to as THE LITTLE RASCALS. The big red book put it all in perspective and I was able to follow the series’ development through the years and see just how the most naturalistic movie kids of all ended up as the jingoistic flag wavers of the early forties. All the films are covered back through the silent days with Mickey Daniels and Joe Cobb. All the behind the scenes issues with family and racism are touched on in the book. In the end we read with sadness and fascination how adulthood and the real world caught up with the perennially youthful celluloid heroes. Drugs, alcohol and early deaths abound and even most of those who do well don’t stay that way forever. For every successful Jackie Cooper, Dickie Moore and Tommy Bond who kept working in the industry, there was a tragic Scotty Beckett or Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer who were eaten up by show biz.

Recently, author Maltin returned to the subject of OUR GANG with a long, informative introduction to the first of Fantagraphics’ set of OUR GANG comics reprint volumes by Walt Kelly. Little known as works by POGO’s creator and equally little known as a popular aspect of the movie series history, the comics have been unavailable pricey collectibles for decades and this series corrects that oversight wonderfully. Re-presenting the 1942 and 1943 issues, we see that Kelly, after initially adapting the style of MGM shorts (albeit with much more actual humor!) began to replace departing actors with characters of his own. Thus we lose Spanky early on to be replaced by Kelly’s "Happy." Eventually, according to Maltin’s piece, Kelly goes on to create a uniquely enjoyable kid strip much more in tune with the original Hal Roach comedy shorts. It even outlasts its MGM inspiration by several years and might have continued on if not for Kelly’s more anthropomorphic success with a certain possum and his swamp friends.

If you have this volume (which was sent to me by a reader, thank you very much!) you’ll note that it also features a nice introduction by one Steve Thompson…or should I say one OTHER Steve Thompson. Nope. Not your humble librarian, this one is, in fact, the long-running head of the official POGO fan club and keeper of the Okeefenokee faith. It probably confused the mailman too when I used to be an actual member of the POGO fan club about fifteen years back and he and I exchanged several letters.
Bottom line, for great cartooning you’ve probably never seen, whether you like the movie shorts or not, go to your local comics shop and pick up this volume now so we’ll get to see the rest of the series reprinted, too!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Looney Tunes in the Okefenokee

Here's a lovely scene from Larry Doyle and Neal Sternecky, the talented folks who brought you the wonderful POGO revival back in the late eighties/early nineties. This particular illustration can be found in the one-off 50th Anniversary BUGS BUNNY MAGAZINE put out by Time-Life in 1990. Interestingly, Sternecky went on to be a regular artist on DC's LOONEY TUNES comic in more recent times.

Technical Difficulties Again

This time, not with the computer but with the refrigerator! After being up until nearly 2:30 watching CHILLER THEATRE, a bizarre public access horror program featuring a cheesy old black and white movie and a plumpish Elvira clone called Scarabella, a flatulant vampire in lingerie (I never said it was good. It was just so bad I couldn't tear my eyes away!) I awoke just before six to find my kitchen flooded and water from the refrigerator leaking into the basement! The frozen foods were partially defrosted so it had apparently been going on for some time. Seems to be the freezer simply stopped working! No word on whether we can salvage it yet. We certainly can't get it repaired or replaced though! After an hour and a half of clean-up and, of course, more stress added on to my other troubles, I needed a break. If my dog runs away, I think I have a hit country song on my hands! If you think you're tired of these personal problem posts, imagine how I feel! I promise I will try to post a legit piece later today. In the meantime, may I suggest you catch up on the archives. Lots of good stuff in there! Sorry for the delay.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Writer/Editor For Hire

To herald my weekly personal update, here are a couple more examples of the early 1980’s pop trivia newsletter (note the hand-colored covers) that I co-wrote, co-edited and published with my friend Terri.
Well, to be blunt things aren’t going very well. Yesterday I received, amidst other bad news, word that my unemployment claim has been denied. I’ve already filed an appeal but that, of course, will stretch things out even further and still not guarantee that I’ll see anything from it. In the meantime, I’ve posted my resumes in a couple new places this week and applied to about ten more positions. No one is calling me for an interview, however.

Not to sound too bleak but the phone is scheduled for disconnection in about two weeks, the electricity in four. The car insurance is late and the car itself faces possible repossession in 11 days. It ain’t like my Internet service is paid up in advance, either. Thus, I find myself making an appeal. Through all of this unexpected mess, I’ve worked daily and diligently on this blog for your enjoyment and I’ve only ever seen one or two bits of negative feedback. You’ve all been delightfully wonderful! I write and it’s what I love! If you have a writing, editing, ghostwriting or proofreading job for which I might at least be considered, please let me know via email. Below is a portion of my writing, marketing and promotions resume. I have 510 samples right here on my blog but additional samples can be provided upon request. I can research and write for you from Kentucky and I also have a network of experts in other parts of the country (Heck, the WORLD thanks to this blog!) for info as needed.

2005-present-Have written/published 510+ articles online at Booksteve’s Library
2002-2006-Wrote/posted 44 short stories/articles/interviews online on various sites
2006-wrote short story published in book IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN 3
2006-Sold article to be published in upcoming book, short story adapted for radio, Canadian reprint rights to short fiction
2005-Edited a chapter of the book STEPPING OUT IN CINCINNATI
2004-2006-Edited and/or ghostwrote fiction/non-fiction for 5 authors
1987-2004-Have written articles published in national magazines
Created/distributed three public and/or in-house newsletters at last job
Rewrote department employee manual and wrote employee guidebook
Designed/implemented employee incentive contests
Designed implemented multiple in-store contests/promotions
Wrote and performed in series of radio commercials
Produced comic strip for district newsletter
Arranged/promoted in-store booksignings/concert with various authors
Wrote marketing manual adopted by local district
Won national marketing contest and featured in company training film
Edited, co-wrote and published 23 issues of a newsletter tied to local radio call-in show
Was head writer and performer with two local comedy troupes
appeared on local television/radio performing self-written comedy sketches

Wrote game show questions for Warner-Amex SCREEN TEST
Wrote/co-hosted radio trivia programs on 3 stations
Co-founded G.R.A.C.I.E.-the Golden Radio Association of Cincinnati-Imaginative Entertainment
Adapted/directed and performed in old time radio scripts at local events
Performed in radio re-creations annually at Cincinnati Old-Time Radio and Nostalgia Convention
Did voiceover work for government public access television show

I’m trying hard to keep a positive attitude but days like this make it a little bit harder to do it again and again. I’m starting to think, pessimistically, that the light I saw at the end of the tunnel is that of an oncoming train. Let me again direct your attention to that Paypal donations box at the right of my main page. If you’ve already tipped, please don’t think I’m asking for more. It was GREATLY appreciated, believe me. If not, however, might I suggest that there’s a very real chance that BOOKSTEVE’S LIBRARY might at the very least be interrupted if not closed if I can’t pull out of this soon. If you can, please consider a small donation as we pass the virtual hat once again in an attempt to keep me and my blog afloat a little longer. Please also consider ordering some of our bumper stickers from BUMPS TO PROGRESS. Thanks! I appreciate all of you so much!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Ebony White

By 1975, the character of the Spirit's assistant, Ebony White, was already sparking debate in the letters pages of Warren's SPIRIT magazine. Issue number seven from 1975 was an "all Ebony issue," presumably meant to show the validity of the character in more than just a historical context. Although the magazine presented a number of classic Ebony-highlighted Spirit stories one surprising new feature in this issue was Will Eisner's own one page take (seen below) on the contemporaryrelevance of Ebony White. I guess it's all perspective. Here's Commisioner Dolan's brief talk with Ebony.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Spirit Movie

If you’ve been cruising the Net in the last 24 hours, you’ve probably noted that one of this weekend’s big scoops from Comicon was so big that it slipped out early. That, of, course, is the fact that next year Frank Miller will direct the long-awaited feature film version of Will Eisner’s THE SPIRIT. Miller says that it will not be a nostalgia piece but that it will be surprising and scarier than expected. Sigh. Why does this bother me?
Supposedly THE SPIRIT was considered for a serial back in the forties but that never came about. By the seventies films like THE FRENCH CONNECTION offered familiar homage to Eisner’s cinematic storytelling. The director of that film, William Friedkin, not only acknowledged the influence but was for awhile expected to direct a big budget SPIRIT movie himself. Again, nothing.
THE ROCKFORD FILES on television featured James Garner as a laconic, wisecracking detective with a weakness for designing women and getting beaten up a lot. Garner’s name was mentioned quite a bit at the time in connection with the role of Denny Colt’s alter ego. I can’t find it now but it was probably in an old RBCC where Don Rosa drew a cartoon with Garner as the SPIRIT and child star of the moment Rodney Allen Rippy as Ebony.
Now there’s a problem. Ebony White. As much a part of the strip as the Spirit himself, Ebony was, unfortunately, a stereotypical product of his time. Eisner went a long way toward taking him away from the early stereotypes but the now non-PC look and name remained. Eventually his creator wrote him out, replacing him with Sammy and other less controversial kids but the chemistry wasn’t the same. In spite of his comic relief status, Ebony became a real partner and helpmate to the Spirit and his presence was sorely missed when he wasn’t there for long periods. Please don’t cast Marlon Wayans, Frank! Hmmm. Gary Coleman could probably still play it!
By the late eighties, someone finally got a greenlight on a SPIRIT movie, this one a TV pilot that aired finally in 1987. Well, not around here, exactly. Our local channel was preempting it for some reason. Luckily, my cable system had something called "network preempt" which would pick up network feeds from nearby cities when local stations chose to air something else. Unluckily, they were ten minutes late picking up THE SPIRIT so I missed getting the beginning on tape!

Starring former FLASH GORDON Sam (now with a middle "J" for some reason) Jones in the title role, it wasn’t bad. Not all that good either but not bad. The producer of the movie, perhaps not coincidentally, had produced the low-budget theatrical release of Eisner’s SHEENA a couple years earlier. The script was by Stephen De Souza, apparently a super hero fan as he had previously written THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE as well as episodes of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, GEMINI MAN and THE BIONIC WOMAN. He would go on to write DIE HARD, JUDGE DREDD, LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER and even a new, as yet unproduced version of Lee Falk’s THE PHANTOM! Director Michael Schultz had actually done an episode of THE ROCKFORD FILES (but also the dreadful SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND!).
Casting was okay with Jones surprisingly good after he mangled (in my opinion) FLASH GORDON. Ellen Dolan was played by a pre-STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE Nana Visitor and she steals the show. Garry Walberg, the cop from Jack Klugman’s QUINCY, ME, was suitably crusty as her dad, the Commisioner. Ebony, rechristened "Eubie" was played by young Bumper Robinson, most recently heard as Hotspot on episodes of TEEN TITANS.
My main problem with he film is that it’s bright, too bright. There are Eisneresque touches aplenty for those that catches ‘em but that noir feeling is almost completely missing. Sam looks great as the rumpled, sweaty Spirit in torn shirt but silly and unrealistic as the blue-suited crimefighter in repose.
Now comes Frank Miller. Just as Darwyn Cooke, currently toiling on DC’s upcoming new SPIRIT series, seems an inspired choice, so does Frank. Certainly, SIN CITY shows that Frank can, at least with Robert Rodriguez, translate stylized noir to the screen perfectly. It bothers me, though, that he emphasizes it will not be a nostalgia piece. Frank is not perfect. For every DAREDEVIL and DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, there’s a RONIN or that horrible second DARK KNIGHT mini-series that I couldn’t even finish! Please, Frank. I’ll try to have faith but just remember, if you screw it up, THIS is what people will remember and it’ll be decades before anyone else tackles the property. Give us THE SPIRIT we’ve always wanted, Frank. Give us the unrelenting do-gooder that didn’t even let "death" stop him. Plop him right down in the center of a windy, rainy Sin City night if you wish but give him his blue suit, his hat and please, no guns. Give him sexy femme fatales who’ll strip him and seduce him and then leave him to be beaten to within an inch of his life but then let him come back, like a spirit if you will, and save the day. This is THE SPIRIT’s big moment, Frank. Make Will proud of you or HIS Spirit will haunt you forever!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Time Capsule/1959

In 1968, TIME put out a series of yearbooks detailing history as seen through the magazine up until that point. The only volume that I have is the 1959 volume but, since that’s the year I was born, that makes it all the more interesting. I don’t really remember 1959, naturally, but my mother always said that my very first words included "Kennedy," "Nixon" and "Playtex." Even at that early age I watched FAR too much television.
Fidel, of course, highlights the cover and there was certainly plenty of social and political upheaval going on that year, none of which falls into the pop culture purview of this blog. It is, however, interesting to note how TIME covered that year’s arts and entertainment.
They mention that TV’s SUPERMAN, George Reeves, was not so invulnerable when he hit an oil slick and was injured in a car accident. They somehow neglect to mention his controversial death that same year although they do note the passing of Errol Flynn, Lou Costello, Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer and boxer/actor Max Baer (Sr.).
CBS nixed an already filmed interview with aging sex symbol Mae West as "parts of it might be misconstrued." No mention of the real sex symbols of the day, Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield or the increasingly explicit films coming from overseas.
The MUSIC section of the book is all opera and ballet even if most of it deals with the gossipy details of diva Maria Callas and her scandalous affair with Aristotle Onassis. There is not even a cursory mention of Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon or even the DJ payola scandal that toppled Alan Freed and nearly Dick Clark. Did rock and roll exist to TIME? Buddy Holly’s tragic February death, remembered as "the day the music died" is not even hinted at!
On the other hand the TV quiz show scandal (as seen years later in Robert Redford’s QUIZ SHOW) in which popular contestants had been fed answers was big enough to rate a cover blurb and a long recap, perhaps leaving no room for the TV debuts that year of TWILIGHT ZONE, ROCKY AND HIS FRIENDS or even BONANZA which would run in parts of three different decades!
The movie section covers PILLOW TALK, BEN-HUR and THE MOUSE THAT ROARED. I guess it’s unrealistic to expect TIME to even mention the film that was arguably 1959’s biggest contribution to pop cinema, Ed Wood’s PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE!

Beatniks and Hawaiian shirts were big, Barbie made her toy fair debut and Elvis was in the army, none of which gets a mention from good ol’ timely TIME. The problem with books like these, made up as they are of the articles as originally published, is that they do not have the benefit of hindsight. Pop culture rarely was treated with respect in those days, especially in mainstream media. Surely the TIME that put WATCHMEN on its list of all-time greatest books would rethink things. While it’s interesting, if one just looked at history as covered by TIME, one might think it was a pretty dull year in pop culture. I wonder what they said about 1964?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Bill Holman and Smokey Stover

When I was young I talked my parents into buying the Sunday edition of THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS so I could get out of town comic strips, some even a week early (I never did figure that one out!). My favorite was SMOKEY STOVER by Bill Holman, a zany cartoonist who was, by all accounts, as silly and crazy as the title fireman of his long-running strip! SMOKEY STOVER was filled with endless puns and Elderesque "chicken fat." There were strange signs that simply said "Notary Sojac" or "Foo" for no apparent reason, background characters that seemed to be performing in a different strip and of, course, the ridiculous, screwball antics of ever-smiling Smokey and his boss, Chief Cash U. Nutt. The closest comparison today would be the AIRPLANE school of rapid-fire movie humor that doesn't need or try to make any sense. My own first attempt at a comic strip, circa 1968, featured a Smokey style country bumpkin with the improbable name of "Garley Gratcher." Alas, this was one of the few things from my childhood I didn't keep. Anyway, the charming bits of nonsense we have here come once again from THE CARTOONIST COOKBOOK of 1966. SMOKEY STOVER ran from 1935 until the artist retired it in 1973. It was another unique strip that should by all rights be in print in its entirety for new generations to discover. Here's a start though! SMOKEY STOVER has a great official website here at Smokey Stover Online!