Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Amazing Merrie Spaeth

THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT is a lovely comedy-drama film from 1964. I first caught it on television about 30 years ago. It’s directed by George Roy Hill, the man behind three of my favorite movies, 1969’s BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, 1973’s THE STING and 1979’s A LITTLE ROMANCE. As is the case with the latter, it stars two young teen stars with a legendary British actor using a dodgy accent. In this case, it’s Peter Sellers rather than Laurence Olivier and instead of Diane Lane and Thelonious Bernard, we have Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth.

The last time I watched the movie, I looked up the actresses to see whatever became of them and discovered that Ms. Spaeth had, in fact, gone on to an impressive political career that included working directly for President Reagan.  

That might have been the end of it had I not decided to watch   THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT again the other day. Afterwards, as I often do, I went to IMDB to see what others thought of it. There I saw where someone said they met Merrie Spaeth’s Uncle and that he had said she went on to write Superman comics.

Needless to say, I was intrigued. A quick check of the online databases for such things showed no mention of her. Her Facebook page hadn’t had a post in several years so I doubted I could contact her there to ask so instead I posted in a comics historians group on Facebook, asking if anyone had any knowledge of this. 

There was a lot of speculation. Perhaps her Uncle was confused and she meant she had written for the company that PUBLISHED Superman—perhaps some of DC’s uncredited mystery or romance stories from the early ‘70s.

Finally Peanuts expert Nat Gertler tracked down her business email and contacted her directly. 

Later that evening, Ms. Spaeth responded that yes, in fact, she had written comic books in her early 20s, about six years after she made THE WOTLD OF HENRY ORIENT. Not for DC, though, but Gold Key. In fact, she added, she wrote DARK SHADOWS for Gold Key.

In one of those bizarre coincidences, one of my current contractual writing assignments for BACK ISSUE is for an article on DARK SHADOWS!

Nat went on to post our discovery publicly, both delighting and surprising many an expert on comics history. Meanwhile, I continued to dig and found that, in fact, the information was hiding in plain sight all along. In numerous interviews and articles through the years, she acknowledged writing comic books. She even mentions Gold Key’s Boris Karloff and Smokey Bear!  

Ms. Spaeth has had an extraordinary career—several of them, in fact. Besides her acting, comic book writing, and various positions in the world of politics, she also has been a network TV producer and had her own show on the experimental QUBE interactive network in the late 1970s. She now heads up a consulting firm and is currently posting videos with tips for surviving Covid-19.

If there’s ever another San Diego Con—and there will be—women in comics historian Trina Robbins has already called for Merrie Spaeth to be invited.

I’ve contacted her directly about a possible interview and I’m waiting to hear back, but one way or another, we have added another female comic book writer to the history of the genre…and certainly a most unexpected and impressive one!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears-Guest Review

I've never gotten into the Miss Fisher Mysteries, myself, but my lovely wife has become obsessed with them recently and therefore was looking forward to the just premiered MISS FISHER AND THE CRYPT OF TEARS. I asked her to do a guest review. A Spoiler Alert applies. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Rene King Thompson, aka Naithom:

I only recently came to the MFMM fandom but immediately became addicted and couldn’t wait for the movie. I recognized that like most movies based on TV shows writers would take the cast and fans out of their comfort zone so I was ready for that. 

I was glad to see the beautiful costuming (tell me they put them up for an award), the wonderful cinematography, and, of course, the glorious actors we so love. Essie Davis and Nathan Page were a sight for sore eyes. Their chemistry has certainly not dimmed and is as hot as ever and the banter is just as sharp. The line about hoping she doesn’t fly like she drives left me in stitches. Davis and Page have much the same heat, heart, and humor as William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies. 

I seriously wish that we could have had more of Ashleigh Cummings, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Travis McMahon, Anthony Sharpe, and at least some Richard Bligh, Tammy MacIntosh, and Ruby Rees-Wemyss. The joy of Miss Fisher is the family she creates and we miss the family interplay. Fans are invested in all the characters. The only strong flaw I saw was the writing of the funeral scene where there were plot holes big enough to drive a 1923 Hispano-Suiza H6 through. 

While it’s understandable that Phryne would have had no idea that she was listed as deceased, her reaction when she realized that this was a memorial service should have been much more empathetic to her loved ones instead of flippant. There was no mention of alerting her daughter that she was alive or the rest of her family of choice. And her reaction to seeing Jack, the love of her life, who she asked to follow her, was out of canon and out of character. If Phryne had married someone to keep them from being assassinated she could have sent Jack a message signaling it was for a case. (At least the writers could have thrown us the bone of her sending the message and Jack not receiving it, it getting into the wrong hands and that being the cause of the Maharaja’s murder.) That way, Phryne doesn’t come across as unfeeling. This was the fault of the writers, not the actors. 

That scene aside I would give the film a strong B and pray that Every Cloud allows us to see more from the Miss Fisher universe. Trust me, open the GoFundMe and we will come. 

Naithom recommends. 

R.I.P. Albert Uderzo

Italian-born Albert Uderzo has died in France at age 92, for more than half a century the artist of the most popular comic strip in the world. Not a bad legacy. R.I.P. 

I don’t recall where I first heard of Asterix but I remember the first time I actually saw a volume was in my high school second year Spanish class. Unfortunately, the ones in the classroom were in French. I loved the artwork by Albert Uderzo, though!

That was in 1974. Not long after that, I found some volumes in English and bought one. Suddenly, Asterix was my new favorite thing! The writing by Rene Goscinny, was exciting and funny (even in translation), the satire pointed, and the artwork unfailingly charming, clever, and cute.

While I was buying up every Asterix book I could find (often erroneously shelved in the Children’s section of bookstores), there was even an attempt in the late 1970s to syndicate the strip in American newspapers, with an all-new translation and art additions. When someone wrote a letter to the local paper complaining that it wasn’t funny, I, myself, wrote a letter defending it. It was canceled anyway.

Still to come were the cartoons, the brilliantly made live-action films, the popular video game, and more and more albums, each almost as brilliant as the last. 

After Goscinny’s death, Uderzo took on the writing himself without a single misstep. Upon his retirement many years later at age 84, a great search was run for successors and the strip carries on today.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Mary Poppins Records

In the early '60s, children's records were often 78s on yellow vinyl (or plastic or whatever it was. It was harder than vinyl). Every once in a while, I'd get non-yellow 45s. Some of my earliest favorites included these two from MAY POPPINS, just spotted online. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Free TwoMorrows Mag!

UPDATE: "Due to all the abuse of our "stayhome" offer, we're ending it, effective immediately. To the hundreds that honestly stuck to the "one per customer" spirit of it, we hope you enjoy your free item, and it helps make your day a little brighter."

From TwoMorrows: 
Stay Home with a FREE TwoMorrows Digital Edition up to $4.99!
Use the Code "stayhome" during checkout and we will automatically deduct $4.99 from your order! That's enough for a FREE Digital Edition of any of our mags, for instant reading while you're stuck at home! Or use the $4.99 credit toward any print order, and we'll get it in the mail to you right away, as long as the post office stays open and operational.
So stay home, stay well, and stay with TwoMorrows over the next few weeks, as we release more great new books and magazines, including:
• Back Issue #119 and Comic Book Creator #22 (this Wednesday)
• The World of TwoMorrows 25th Anniversary book (in just 3 weeks)
• New issues of Alter Ego, RetroFan, BrickJournal, and Back Issue #120 (throughout April and early May)
John Morrow, publisher
(There's no minimum order, but the code can only be used once per customer, and is valid through March 31, 2020. We reserve the right to end this offer at any time if we detect misuse.)
Below and Above you see some of the TwoMorrows mags featuring articles by me in caseyou'd like some suggestions. :)

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Booksteve Reviews-Barbara Payton: A Life in Pictures by John O'Dowd

The story of Barbara Payton's rapid rise and fall in classic Hollywood is tragic but John O'Dowd has managed to turn her from a cruel punchline into a sympathetic woman with a riveting backstory you never saw onscreen.  In his first book, he humanized her and here, in 1000 photos, he puts a face to her story every step along the way from beginning to end. Even though you know so many of her choices turn out badly, you can't help but find yourself rooting for her. The photos are all well-captioned, each identifying those in it and not presuming you recognize them from other photos in the book. There's even some recently learned new info in some! The progression of the photos shows her rise from normal looking girl to cute model to beautiful starlet, but then you see the alcohol start to wear her down far too early, then the progression of men, then the public scandals. It's all there on her face to see and by seeing it all in order, the sadness is at times overwhelming. By the time you reach the book's--and Barbara's life's--foregone conclusion, you feel exhausted.

The book itself is unquestionably gorgeous to behold, big, thick, and heavy, with stylish but easy to follow layout throughout. Speaking as a 30 year bookseller, this book would be more than worth it at twice the price! Highly recommended!

Friday, March 06, 2020

Booksteve Reviews: Tarzan, Conqueror of Mars by Will Murray

Author Will Murray is a chameleon. His non-fiction writing on comics or pulp history is always detailed, impeccably researched, and immensely readable. His Shadow and Doc Savage pulp pastiches read as if they were hot off the newsstands of the 1930s. Now comes Tarzan, Conqueror of Mars, a novel in which Murray gets to play with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ characters in ways Burroughs never did, all the while writing as if he, himself, were ERB. 

I must confess to having only a passing familiarity with the original Tarzan novels but I do have several of the classic John Carter books. Who we have in this novel are very clearly the Tarzan and John Carter of those books, and not the more streamlined, less complex big screen versions.

There really isn’t much plot to the book. It’s basically the Wizard of Oz. Tarzan inexplicably ends up on Mars, meets an unusual group of friends, and heads off to try to find the one person he’s told might be able to send him home.  

Of course, that one person turns out to be John Carter, by the time of this story long established as the big muckety-muck on Barsoom. 

While “muckety-muck” is, of course, not an ERB word, “Barsoom” most certainly is. It’s what the Martians themselves call their own planet in the original Mars series. It’s also one of a great many words that Burroughs made up and his readers were expected to learn. Quite a number of those words and names can be found here in this new book as well and, presumably, Murray has added some new ones of his own along the way.

Unlike many actual bestsellers of recent years, at no point does Murray talk down to his readers here. One has to pay attention and keep up or it would be easy to get lost. The author allows for most of the unfamiliar terms to be understood in context and in fact, manages to carry off a fairly breezy reading style that keeps driving you further and harder across the Martian sands. (Hint: Use Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” as your soundtrack whilst reading.)

Best of all is the characterization of the two leads. Both Tarzan—or Ramdar as he is known for most of the story—and John Carter are shown to be unyieldingly determined men, hardened and yet dignified, both accepting of their fates and dealing with them in very similar ways.

John Carter had arrived on the Red Planet years earlier and little by little had to re-learn everything he knew as well as fight to earn his place in his new environment. All of that occurred in his own earlier books. In Tarzan, Conqueror of Mars, we see Lord Greystoke in the same position with no trace of panic, just an arrogant determination to make the best of things. 

The book is paced nearly perfectly, starting slowly and fascinatingly with the Ape Man adjusting to his new and completely unfamiliar environment. Then we’re shown Tarzan’s swift rise from meeting his first Martians to bringing together and heading up an unprecedented motley crew of all sorts of Martians who had previously wanted nothing to do with each other. Onward they marched, with Tarzan leading by sheer strength of his self-confidence, convinced there must be a way back to Earth and Africa.

When John Carter finally appears, his self-narration replaces the omniscient narrator of the first part of the book. After that, the two types of narration pop up in different chapters for the remainder of the story. While written just as well as the rest of the story, and with John Carter’s “voice” being necessarily different, I can’t get past the fact that it seems an odd narrative choice. Was that perhaps a Burroughs trope I’m forgetting?

Anyway, once the gigantic airship Dejah Thoris delivers John Carter, the two protagonists spar in the seemingly inevitable way two superheroes do when they first meet in comics books. And like those encounters, they eventually come to a mutual respect and defeat a common enemy.

It’s been years since I’ve read any Tarzan OR John Carter, in any form, but I have read lots of Will Murray since and I have to say he never disappoints. Tarzan, Conqueror of Marswas tremendous fun even with my limited background. If you’re an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, by this point, Will Murray’s name should be enough to grab your attention!

Sunday, March 01, 2020

There's One in Every Outfit-Will Eisner Productions

For the annual Will Eisner Week, here's a little seen military panel by Will Eisner Productions (although not Eisner himself) that seems a spin-off of his PS, Preventative Maintenance magazine done for the military. Only the top one cites Eisner's studio so the others may or may not be done by someone else.