Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Schlomo Raven

The late Byron Preiss (bless him) was always trying to find new ways to package and repackage comics, pulps and other pop related phenomena. In 1976, around the same time he was bringing out his WEIRD HEROES new pulps, Preiss also unleashed FICTION ILLUSTRATED, a brief but memorable series of near-comics done as digest-sized (at first anyway) full color graphic novels. Unfortunately, the audience wasn’t there for these one-off wonders at the time. If one remembers them at all, it’s only for Steranko’s CHANDLER, repackaged a couple of times over the years. Quite frankly though, in spite of the most new artwork we’d seen from Jim in several years at that point, I never actually cared for CHANDLER. Nor was I all that thrilled with Ralph Reese’s SON OF SHERLOCK HOLMES or Stephen Fabian’s badly reproduced STARFAWN. No, for me the winner in FICTION ILLUSTRATED’s brief run was right at the beginning—SCHLOMO RAVEN.
If there’s any doubt right from the beginning that writer Preiss and illustrator Tom Sutton were doing an "homage" to early MAD comics and Kurtzman and Elder in particular, the fact that Harvey contributed an introduction drives that home. The book is even dedicated to both of them along with their fellow EC cohorts Jack Davis, Wally Wood, John Severin and the man now termed the father of the American graphic novel, Will Eisner.
Our hero is a tiny and rather obviously Elder-esque parody of the typical tough-guy Hollywood private eye. In a series of short stories under the umbrella title, THE SHOW-BIZ JOBS, we get a Marx Brothers parody, a Karloff and Lugosi parody, a Carmen Miranda parody, a Bogart parody and finally a most delightful Orson Welles parody that plays on the actor’s radio role of the Shadow. Preiss’s skill was not really as a writer so much of the non-visual humor falls flat. For Sutton, though, this was one of his finest hours. Known for his humor work for NOT BRAND ECHH, the early VAMPIRELLA stories and a long run of sci-fi stories for Charlton, Tom Sutton was rarely given a showcase better than this and his pleasure shows in the MAD-ish gags he stuffs into the pages a’la Elder’s "chicken fat."
For me the most annoying thing about the book is the lettering, looking amateurish and sometimes hard to read in spite of being done by Kenneth Smith, known at the time for his fanzine, PHANTASMAGORIA and his amazing color work. Smith also colors SCHLOMO RAVEN but for the most part the colors are so dull and muted you’d never know it.
The miniature format (smaller than a READER’S DIGEST but wider than a mass market paperback) was hard for stores to display so many simply chose not to do so. The anthology format was not necessarily conducive to bringing in repeat readers every month and quite frankly, the material was probably a little too experimental. With CHANDLER an oversized trade paperback edition was also offered and, if I recall correctly, that was the ONLY format for the final, Sherlock volume.
As the industry slowly caught up with his visions, Byron Preiss spent the rest of his life being new and innovative (if rarely really successful) and his untimely death a few years back brought a host of tributes from friends and co-workers.

1 comment:

  1. I missed out on these series when they first came out, having to discover them in used bookstores. Over time I was able to get a complete collection of both Weird Heroes and Fiction Illustrated.

    A few misses, but a few interesting gems that, sadly, never went anywhere.

    Preiss reprinted the first one or 2 Weird Heroes books under his iBooks imprint before he died. Sadly, iBooks went under when he did, and that ended any attempt to bring this stuff back in print or see new things. Sad.