Thursday, May 31, 2012

Book Review: STORYTELLER: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF ROALD DAHL by Donald Sturrock (Simon and Schuster, 2010)

It came as no surprise to me that Roald Dahl, as described by first-time biographer Sturrock, comes across as a "difficult" character.  Charming, generous, and convivial the great children's author could be, but also manipulative, cruel, and obstinate.  Sturrock is eminently fair in presenting both sides of the story, but I think that it is appropriate that he lingers a bit in describing how Dahl first whipped his first wife Patricia Neal into shape following the actress' debilitating 1965 stroke, then gradually pulled away from her in favor of another woman, finally divorcing her.  No incident in Dahl's life more vividly demonstrates the split personality of this complicated, frequently infuriating man.

The misanthropic bent of Dahl's stories for children and adults -- a tincture that also noticeably colors CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1964), his best-loved novel -- appears to have had many sources.  Along with the classic "bad time at a boarding school" (Repton, in his case), Dahl suffered a near-fatal plane crash as a young RAF pilot.  In keeping with his tendency to embellish the truth of events in his life, Dahl's smash-up, which was entirely due to "pilot error," was gradually transubstantiated into the tale of an heroic lost dogfight with enemy planes.  Dahl's opinion of human nature can't have been elevated by his subsequent service as an air attache and espionage agent in the United States, which gave him opportunities to both hobnob with the powerful (FDR, then Vice-President Henry Wallace) and bed-hop with willing older females.  How firmly established Dahl's jaundiced view of life had become by the end of the war is symbolized by the fate of The Gremlins, the little plane-sabotaging critters that represented his highest pre-CHARLIE flight of whimsical fancy.  Having seen the public take to the Gremlin idea and "wring it out" with remarkable speed -- so much so that Walt Disney's plans for a movie based on the creatures were ultimately shelved -- Dahl subsequently used The Gremlins as the dark-hearted, opportunistic inheritors of a world decimated by atomic war in his first, unsuccessful novel, SOME TIME NEVER (1948).  This novel was actually the first novel ever published about the aftermath of such a war; the mere fact that Dahl latched onto the idea gives us some idea of his mental state at the conclusion of World War II.  Dahl's ability to harness his "dark side" and use it to give his later, more whimsical children's tales that "cruel edge" that disturbed parents and professional do-gooders, but seemed to attract and intrigue children themselves, stands as arguably his most noteworthy contribution to children's literature.

The biography only really bogs down when Sturrock gets enmeshed in discussions of Dahl's frequent rows and disagreements with his American and English publishers.  Strangely, while Dahl felt loyal to certain individuals in the publishing business, his view of the business itself, like that of most manifestations of official authority, was extremely jaundiced.  Dahl's view of himself as the perpetual "naughty schoolboy" and rule-breaker makes it all the more surprising that, in the 1980's (his most productive decade insofar as children's novels went), he emerged as a fan of Margaret Thatcher.  Perhaps he sensed that Ms. Thatcher was, like him, something of an outsider, never really accepted by the British establishment?

My own impression of Dahl is that he was the type of man that you'd love to invite to a dinner party but wouldn't necessarily want to linger after the dishes had been cleared.  Whatever your previous impression of this significant children's author may be, you're bound to learn a number of new things about him in this well-written, well-researched biography.

RIP Dick Beals

Veteran voice actor Dick Beals passed away on May 29 at the age of 85.  The "big little man" of the business (at four feet tall and 70 pounds) was perhaps best known for his commercial voice-overs as Speedy Alka-Seltzer.  Here are a trio of vintage 1950's Speedy ads co-starring the legendary Buster Keaton.  

In the field of animation, Beals famously did the voices of Ralph Phillips, daydreaming star of several Chuck Jones-helmed Warner Bros. shorts, and Roger Ramjet's kid sidekicks Yank and Dan. He was also prominently featured in Ken Snyder Productions' earlier "educational" series, THE FUNNY COMPANY.  Betcha didn't know that he also served as a voice director for at least one PEANUTS special, that being You're in Love, Charlie Brown (1967).  Somehow, I can see him being a very effective coach for the young and inexperienced kids who made up the voice casts in the classic Bill Melendez cartoons.

Beals was still in there pitching in 1987 when he voiced an unnamed (yet still well-characterized) pigface Junior Woodchuck who is among those chivvying Doofus in the DuckTales episode "Superdoo!"  When I first watched the ep, I remember instantly recognizing Beals' voice and just as quickly wondering, "What the heck, is that guy STILL working?"

Beals appears to have been a cheerful, upbeat sort who took his "disability" (which he clearly didn't regard as such) in stride and built a 50-year career in voice acting out of it. He supplemented that by doing everything from leading cheers at his alma mater, Michigan State University, to sailing a custom-fitted yacht in his old age. Thanks for the memories, Dick.

Voice Greats "Strafe" STAR WARS at the Emerald City Con!

Many thanks to Nicky's brother Chris Caran for bringing Nicky's and my attention to this hilarious panel from the recent Emerald City Con in Seattle.  When sending me the link to the video, Nicky told me that she didn't know who these folks were or what voices they were doing, but she still found the video to be "wet-yer-pants" funny.  Kevin Conroy, Maurice LaMarche, Rob Paulsen, John DiMaggio, Tara Strong, Jess Harnell, and Billy West interpret the script from Star Wars: A New Hope in their own unique ways (heavy emphasis on the plural).

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Harry's Hernia Huddle

Here's another cute video of Harry, keeping me company while I recovered from hernia surgery in December 2010.  Dogs simply know when their people are feeling "down" or are suffering physical

Book Review: KRAZY AND IGNATZ 1922-1924: AT LAST MY DRIM OF LIFE HAS COME TRUE by George Herriman (Fantagraphics Press, 2012)

With this release, Fantagraphics wraps up its packaging -- in this case, as in the case of the last several volumes of the series, "repackaging" is the more appropriate word -- of Herriman's KRAZY KAT Sunday pages.  The book would be thicker than normal in any case, because three years' worth of strips, rather than the standard two, are included here.  But FG also goes the extra mile and plumps the thing out to near-"brick"-like (see what I did there?) proportions by including several other previously unreprinted Herriman strip series.  Indeed, 1903's MRS. WAITAMINNIT, unearthed by Herriman's soon-to-be biographer Michael Tisserand, is a genuine find, as it appears to be Herriman's first continuing daily strip, running through roughly 20 installments in September and October 1903 in the New York EVENING WORLD.  The conceit is simple (a dithering lady unknowingly causes chaos for her hapless husband), and Herriman's figure drawing was still rather crude and inconsistent at this time (Mrs. W. never quite seems to look the same from strip to strip), but traces of Herriman's tradework verbal facility are already apparent, and the vaudeville-style slapstick gags are punched over with verve.  Tisserand provides a useful page of background text on the strip, in addition to contributing to the "Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Pages" at the back.  If this find is representative of the average level of quality of research that Tisserand has put into his Herriman biography, then that forthcoming book should be something.

Following the Kat-Mouse-Pupp-brick main event, Jeet Heer presents a complete color reprinting of US HUSBANDS, a Sunday domestic-comedy strip from 1926-1927.  This is perhaps the most "normal," not to say mundane, Herriman production that I've ever seen, spinning entire pages out of casual incidents and minor disagreements in married life.  The production was casual to the extent that Herriman didn't even bother to keep names and faces of his supposed "main characters" straight.  Just as well, as the wives, husbands, and "confirmed bachelors" here are pretty interchangeable.  In his text introduction, Heer speculates that Herriman cooked up the US HUSBANDS in order to convince the powers that were at King Features that, just in case William Randolph Hearst ever withdrew his personal "patronage" from the esoteric (and not all that popular) KRAZY KAT, then Herriman could, too, contribute more commercially "salable" material to the syndicate's manifest.  This theory seems reasonable to me, given Herriman's known level of insecurity.  (It was probably for the same reason that Herriman also pitched in to help with the panel feature EMBARRASSING MOMENTS at around this time.)  The standard "topper strip" for US HUSBANDS featured anachronistic husband-vs.-wife conflict in a vaguely medieval setting ("oh, thou rogue, thou hast snuck out to ye poker game agayne?!").  This isn't strange; what's strange is the strip's title: MISTAKES WILL HAPPEN (often with a following "." emphasized for some reason).  George, I love ya and I know that your mind worked in mysterious ways at times, but I can't for the life of me figure out how you fell upon this title for that particular scenario.  A meta-comment, perhaps, on how frustrating you found all this extra work to be as these two strips' brief lives slid by?

The end of this series is unfortunate enough, but an additional melancholy note is sounded with a tribute to the recently deceased Bill Blackbeard, Editor-in-Chief of this series from the start and so much more besides.  Blackbeard's role in the gradual, and often grudging, recognition of the comic strip as a legitimate art form -- one worth preserving, studying, and displaying -- over the last 40-odd years was immense.  He was quite literally one of the first people to bring the qualities of strips like E.C. Segar's THIMBLE THEATRE and Floyd Gottfredson's MICKEY MOUSE to the attention of the wider public.  Since a good deal of the material used to produce the KRAZY KAT volumes came directly from Blackbeard's collection, it seems a real shame that he didn't see the entire project through to this triumphant finish.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Our New Canine Shrine

Today's pickup of Harry's ashes from the emergency vet hospital led me to suggest to Nicky that we use one of the under-used shelves in our main room to display the remains of (from left to right) Harry, Bengie, Nicky's dog Paula (who died in 2007), and Nicky's beloved, "pre-me" dog Squirt.

The bone-shaped sign on Harry's container reads, "A Spoiled Jack Russell Terrier Lives Here."  Bengie "McBeasty" gets a lion statue.  Atop Paula's resting place is a dog-shaped picture frame with a pic of Paula's face in the space where the head should be.  We also kept each dog's collar and plan to display some more vintage pictures once we decide on which ones merit the honor of displayage.

Four Days at Hopkins

This is my first full day back home after spending Wednesday night through Sunday afternoon in Johns Hopkins Hospital.  I still don't feel quite "all there," but one more night of regular, unbroken sleep will probably do the trick.

The roots of this incident actually go back to April, when I began to take hydrochlorothiazide as a third blood pressure medication in an effort to get my still-too-high blood pressure closer to normal levels.  HCTZ is an extreme diuretic, and I was cautioned to drink even more water than I was already doing in order to replace the extra loss of fluids.  The point was brought home to me with extreme force on Easter morning when I keeled over at the 7:30 a.m. Mass at Sacred Heart.  Nicky and I were planning to eat a big breakfast after Mass, and so I took my morning meds with only a cup of yogurt and a glass of water to "make them go down," as the singing English nanny would put it.  We had also gone to an earlier Sunday Mass than normal in an effort to avoid the worst of the Easter crowds.  All the sitting, standing, and kneeling evidently took too much out of me as I collapsed while trying to leave the pew during the Eucharistic prayer.  Luckily, a number of medical personnel who had just come off the "graveyard shift" (a rather questionable euphemism to use for people whose work is saving lives, don't you think?) were sitting in the pews near us.  They got me outside and off my feet and gave me fluids to hold me over until the EMTs arrived.  On the way to Carroll Hospital Center, the paramedics pumped in an IV.  In an hour and a half, my blood pressure was back to normal and I was able to leave.

After I consulted with my PCP and nephrologist, it was determined that the HCTZ was the proverbial extra coin that had caved in the Money Bin.  I temporarily stopped using HCTZ... but only temporarily, as I was allowed to resume using it in May with the proviso that I ALWAYS make sure to eat substantial food and drink extra water when doing so.  And I did.  I especially drank PLENTY of extra water.  As in, "running-to-the-cooler-every-time-I-passed-through-the-kitchen" extra water.  No problem there.  Water is completely benevolent, right?

Cut to the weekend of the 18th-20th, when I started to feel a strange, semi-burning sensation in my gut.  It was as if I perpetually had to belch but couldn't do so.  I thought it was some sort of acid reflux deal, so I popped some Tums, took some additional antacid medication... and, of course, made sure to drink extra water any time I could.  The problem persisted through the weekend as Nicky and I did some heavy yard work (pulling out the azalea bushes in the front of the house, then ladling in some topsoil) and brought poor Harry to the emergency vet for what turned out to be his final illness.  The reason I didn't write more about Harry on that last blog post was because I simply felt too crappy at the time to go into any more detail.

On Monday and Tuesday, the problem refused to go away.  Now I was finding it hard to eat anything, and yet I didn't really feel sick to my stomach.  Nor was I having any diarrhea at the "other end."  In fact, what did exit stage rear seemed perfectly normal.  The burning sensation and concurrent abdominal tightness just seemed to get worse and worse.  I finally made an appointment for Thursday morning at my PCP's office (with another doctor; my PCP was "out," apparently recuperating from some sort of nasty "consultation" with his backyard mulcher).  In the meantime, I was encouraged to eat some Activia yogurt, just in case something was plugging up my digestive tract. On Tuesday night, I could get only an hour or two of sleep.

Once I took a spoonful or two of Activia on Wednesday morning, the dam broke and I vomited copiously, presumably emptying my stomach of everything that had been in there.  I tried a little "tea and toast" for lunch, but back up it came.  Throughout all of this, I was continuing to drink plenty of water.  I finally decided that enough was enough when I began vomiting up water and nothing else, and the pain in my midsection still wouldn't abate.  Nicky was home from work by this time, and we discussed going to the emergency room.  Northwest Hospital was closest, but Nicky wanted to be able to visit me easily (from her lab) if she had to, and I simply felt more confident in Hopkins... especially since the Adult Emergency Center at the recently opened Sheikh Zayed Center was brand new and, presumably, spanking (in a good way).

It was a tough drive down I-83 for me (Nicky was doing the driving, of course), as the pain in my gut was getting all but intolerable.  Furthermore, I knew that I hadn't retained any of the food I'd eaten during the day and might be at risk of fainting at any time.  We reached the ER at around 7:30 p.m. and sat down to wait for an available room.  Or, rather, I tried to sit down.  I couldn't keep my head up, and Nicky finally had to ask for a wheelchair.  I almost blacked out, seemed to briefly recover my equilibrium, and then prepared to abandon chair and hit the deck.  The ER personnel quickly made room for me and got me set up with an IV.  My BP bottomed out at about 80/40 before I finally stabilized and began to recover.  It was a legitimately close call; had I waited any longer to go to the hospital, I might have been in VERY serious trouble.

On Thursday morning at about 3 a.m., I was finally admitted into the Progressive Care Unit, aka the "step-down" unit, as in "one step down" from the ICU.  The ER attendants had given me an antiemetic that knocked me for a loop, and I was pretty much "out" during the transportation process.  Nicky stayed with me until I got settled in the PCU before going home to keep Shasta company and rest for a couple of hours.  She was back by 8 a.m. as I was recovering from the antiemetic.  I vaguely remember taking two trips to get a CT scan, one for my abdomen and the other for my head (I never got the scoop on the reason for the second trip).

On Thursday morning and afternoon, it didn't take very long for the pain to subside and for me to begin feeling at least a little bit more like myself.  The saline IV's turned out to be just what I had needed.  As the in-house "kidney boys" and PCU-affiliated physicians (throw a piece of charcoal in any direction at Hopkins, and at least half a dozen doctors will clutch madly at their white coats and try to dodge out of the line of fire) explained it to me and Nicky, the level of sodium in my blood had gotten dangerously low.  I was already on a low-salt diet to begin with, due to all of my blood-pressure issues, so the excess water that I had consumed (and I really had followed doc's orders almost TOO well in that regard) had brought my blood sodium level down into the danger zone.  Plus, it is likely that I had picked up some sort of gastrointestinal bug a week earlier, which had had the effect of dehydrating me, thus encouraging me to drink more water, thus reducing my sodium level.  It was the proverbial "domino effect."

I was finally able to eat again on Thursday night, getting some mashed potatoes and pudding to stay down.  The meals increased in substance on Friday morning and afternoon as I started to be able to have phone conversations with my family members.  BTW, these meals should not automatically be classed with your standard, and justifiably abhorred, "hospital food," of the type that only an indiscriminate consumer like Burger Beagle would admit to enjoying.  Hopkins' food service is of the "room service" variety and allows you to pick your menu from a large list of choices (within reason, of course; I was officially on the "cardiac" diet and thus couldn't have a number of the entrees).  I wouldn't say that the food was outstanding, but, at the very least, it was... not bad.  "Congratulations, you have not done a terrible job!"  But please try to make the coffee a little warmer next time.

Due to the fact that my sodium level had recovered to normal with surprising quickness, I was moved to a "normal" Med/Surg patient unit in another building on Friday afternoon.  In my lap on the wheelchair, I carried the containers of urine that represented the combined "outflow" from my ongoing 24-hour urine collection.  (And yes, they were pretty heavy, reflecting the large amount of IV fluid I had received.)  I had this room all to myself, at least until later that evening.  At the moment, it looked as if I was certain to be released by Saturday afternoon, at least such was the impression given to me by the doctors.  On Saturday morning, they told me that I would be out by 1 p.m., and I changed into my civvies (which Nicky had brought) in anticipation of my impending release.  Big mistake.

After a couple of hours of waiting, the word came down to do one more blood draw and check my creatinine level.  It came back distressingly high (even for me), and so I was assigned to get a final "shot" of IV.  This took a while to set up as, for some reason, an IV pole proved impossible to find.  (You would think that, at "America's Number 1 Hospital"... But, apparently, this is not an unusual occurrence.)  The nurse on duty ultimately had to improvise an IV setup.  (Nurses always deserve your respect; they literally have to be prepared to do anything at a moment's notice.)  The drip took a couple of hours.  By now, it was Saturday evening and I was royally cheesed off.  Nicky (who managed, with her standard combination of good humor, loving understanding, and New Yorker sarcasm, to talk me off the ledge a couple of times) can attest to how much I hate to wait for anything.  Nicky finally had to leave at the end of visiting hours, and, at about 10 p.m., I finally decided that there was no way I was getting out that night and called her to go ahead and come back on Sunday morning.  At 11:45 p.m., the results from my post-IV blood work came back, and the nurse told me that my creatinine had "made the cut" for release.  How nice to know.

But had I missed my one and only chance to turn in that proverbial "Get Out of Jail Free" card?  One final blood draw was done very early on Sunday morning...  and, you guessed it, my creatinine was back up in the red zone once again.  The doctors had finagled with my blood-pressure meds all during this process, and I had been told that I would need to limit my water intake in order to restabilize my sodium level.  By this time, I was trying to figure out some magical combination of liquid intake that would let me go home.  One final four-hour IV drip session was set up, postponing minimum time of EVA to late Sunday afternoon... and then, the docs abruptly decided to have mercy upon my poor, ravaged system and halted the drip in mid-flow.  I was finally released shortly after noon.

As of this evening, I'm still on the water restriction (around 100 oz. of fluids per day), and I've been cut back to a single blood-pressure medication.  The thinking apparently is that I need to get back to a "baseline" situation before subsequent steps are decided upon.  I have a lab appointment tomorrow morning and a followup appointment will be set up for Wednesday afternoon.

Nicky was right by my side throughout all of this.  We had to celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary in the PCU instead of at Woodberry Kitchen, as we had originally planned.  But it was still "special" for all that.  Folks, this is one WONDERFUL and SPECIAL life-partner with whom I've been blessed.

Monday, May 21, 2012

RIP Harry Barat

In the end, we didn't get a chance to say goodbye.  As some of you know, Harry had been having heart problems in recent days; he suffered several TIA's (transient ischemic attacks) and had a buildup of fluid around his heart.  With the help of blood pressure meds, however, he was basically holding his own and seemed to have several years of life left in him, his loss of eyesight (due to cataracts) notwithstanding.  On Saturday evening, he began having some kind of digestive issue -- moaning, refusing to eat or drink, constantly going in and out of the dog door to try to go to the bathroom -- and it seemed serious enough that we decided to take him to the emergency animal hospital in Carroll County on Sunday morning.  X-rays revealed that he had somehow swallowed a metal screw, so we asked the docs to remove it from his stomach.  Given Harry's advanced age (he was already 7 when we got him from Jack Russell Rescue in 2004) and heart issues, surgery was a calculated risk, but we really had no choice in this case.  Harry had the surgery on Sunday afternoon and seemed to be doing well, and we planned to pick him up this morning.  Last night at 10 p.m., the hospital called to tell us that Harry had gone into cardiac arrest.  They tried open-heart massage, but couldn't get his heart going again for more than a couple of seconds.  Obviously, Nicky and I were both devastated that Harry had to die in an unfamiliar location, and in such a manner.  But what could we do?

Having come from a home in which a man treated him poorly, Harry was understandably skittish around me when we first got him.  Once, he even bit me on the nose when I leaned over him and accidentally disturbed him from his sleep.  But over time, we developed an... interesting synergy, I guess you would say.  Certainly, the little "howling routine" in which he and I participated was unique to us.

We'll always love you, Harry. Rest in peace.

Book Review: THE COMPLETE DICK TRACY, VOLUME 13: 1950-51 by Chester Gould (IDW Publishing, 2012)


I wish I could be as enamored of the material in this volume as Max Allan Collins, in his Introduction, seems to think I should be.  The stories and villains aren't bad, for the most part, but I can't overlook the fact that this era features what I believe to be the most unfortunate "terrestrial-based" casting decision that Gould ever made.  (I use the quotation-ringed qualifier to exempt the hare-brained "Moon period" of the 60s and 70s, about which it's probably better to simply remain silent... at least, until the reprint series gets to that point.)  By abruptly jettisoning the half-comic, half-tragic ham actor Vitamin Flintheart at the end of 1950, Gould reduced his "humorous supporting cast" to the B.O. Plenty family, which unnecessarily limited the varieties of humor that he could inject into his stories. Since Flintheart had a habit of innocently falling in with bad guys, as he did with Flattop in his first appearance and as he does with Flattop's titanic-tempered brother Blowtop here, an unknown number of opportunities for comedy-leavened adventure were probably also missed.  Amusingly, as related by Collins, Gould claimed in 1975 to have "just recently" used Vitamin and was legitimately surprised when reminded that Vitamin hadn't appeared in a quarter of a century.  In fact, Vitamin hadn't even gotten the compliment of a formal good-bye at the time; he was last seen as "one of the gang" around B.O. Plenty's hospital bed at the end of the T.V. Wiggles continuity in December 1950.  If Gould had it to do all over again, I'd like to think that he would have retained both Flintheart and the genius inventor Brilliant as members of his permanent troupe.

The ideal container for Vitamin Water?

Four-year-old Sparkle Plenty's compact little career as a ukulele-plunking, singing star of 1950 television (don't laugh -- this was the era in which desperate programmers would literally put anything on the air) has an even shorter shelf life than poor Vitamin.  This scenario provides the backdrop for the memorable story of petty-racketeer-turned-homicidal-maniac T.V. Wiggles, who tries to muscle in on Vitamin's sponsorship of Sparkle, only to ultimately try to "get rid of" her before meeting his end in the obligatory showdown with Tracy (plus, in this case, B.O. Plenty, who's nearly killed by gunfire as a result).  There are strong similarities here to the 1946 continuity featuring Gargles and Themesong, but this story features the added, extremely creepy element of Wiggles evincing what the child-protection authorities might call an "unhealthy" interest in the talented tot.  When Wiggles uses his experience as a TV wrestler to give Sparkle a deadening neck pinch, we can't help but wonder what other unpleasant "physical interventions" he might have in mind.  After the Wiggles tale is wrapped up, Sparkle and her folks have one final tubular gig, celebrating Christmas with TV Nation -- and that's the end of her "artistic career," at least until the 80s, when the grown-up Sparkle became a designer-jean modeler.  You would think that Gould would have jumped at the chance to continue to use Sparkle's well-established celebrity (she had basically been a public figure ever since she was born!) as a jumping-off point for any number of stories in which Sparkle was put in some sort of peril.  The "damsel in distress" theme might have grown tired in a hurry, but, heck, literally every major cast member was parked at death's door multiple times during the strip's lifetime, so why shouldn't Sparkle have been any different?  Instead, Gould abruptly turned his attention to the creation of Tracy and Tess' daughter Bonny Braids, who turned out to be a much less memorable and distinctive character.

The volume ends with the first part of the lengthy Crewy Lou continuity from 1951, which Collins flags as Gould's "masterpiece."  Unfortunately, I can't agree.  Granted, the wily photographer Lou is one of Gould's finest (and, arguably, most arrestingly designed) female villains, and Gould is at his ear-to-the-ground best in taking inspiration from contemporary events and getting Lou and Tracy mixed up with "Syndicate" gangsters, but I think that Gould's seat-of-the-pants compositional style betrayed him in a BIG way as this narrative unfolded.  Readers of DICK TRACY come to expect improbable deus ex machinae as an inevitable by-product of Gould's improvisational method of composition, but the abrupt introduction of Lou's "respectable" brother Brainerd is a fluke too far.  Just as Lou, pursued by both the cops and the Syndicate gangsters, goes on the run, Brainerd appears OUT OF NOWHERE (pace Greg Weagle) and vows to kill her because she's brought shame to the family.  Far-fetched, but not entirely beyond the realm of possibility... but then, Brainerd changes his mind twice and then decides to kill both himself and Lou so that he won't further sully the family name with an "additional" crime.  Uh...  so a simple murder is verboten, but a murder-suicide would be just fine?  Has TRACY just switched "moral universes" on us?  To make matters worse, Brainerd's scheme (which, to no one's surprise, ends up offing only him) turns out to be the overly elaborate cause of Lou stealing the Tracy family car and riding off into the wilderness, inadvertently taking baby Bonny Braids with her.  This whole misguided sequence climbs rarely-explored levels of "lame," and, IMHO, disqualifies the Crewy Lou story from being Gould's best.  To be fair to Collins, he does admit that his critical judgment is colored by the fact that this was one of the first TRACY tales he read as a youngster, back when Harvey Comics published a DICK TRACY reprint title.  Collins has done a great job in his Introductions to the volumes in this series, and this confession is just another illustration of his conscientiousness.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review: 1919: THE YEAR OUR WORLD BEGAN by William Klingaman (Harper Collins, 1987)

Until author Klingaman tips his partisan hand about two-thirds of the way through, this is a highly readable and generally fair-minded survey of the events of one of the most momentous years in human history.  It's certainly not a pleasant journey.  After slogging through nearly 700 pages detailing the massacres, rebellions, and ethnic conflicts of war-torn Europe and the sad effects of race riots and "Red Scares" in the U.S., juxtaposed against the half-idealistic, half-cynical clown's pageant that was the Paris Peace Talks leading up to the Treaty of Versailles, the average reader is likely to feel a little like Jess Willard did after being massacred by Jack Dempsey in the July 4, 1919 heavyweight title fight at Toledo, OH.  Believe it or not, the story of this notorious bout is actually among the lighter moments of the relentlessly downbeat narrative.  

For such a comprehensive survey, there are a surprisingly large number of narrative lacunae in this tale.  Klingaman spends a good deal of time describing the "First Red Scare" in America but, for some reason, doesn't even mention the famed imprisonment of the Socialist leader Eugene Debs, who wasn't released from jail until well after Woodrow Wilson had left office.  This omission is particularly strange in that Klingaman provides us with a wealth of detail concerning the abortive Bolshevik rebellions in Germany and Hungary, to say nothing of the early struggles of the Soviet Union against the "White Russian" forces (and, lest we forget, a small contingent of Allied soldiers who were dumped into Russia with a rather vague charge to fight the Bolsheviks, and whose travails all too often go unmentioned in standard histories of this period).  If the omission of Debs' plight was a simple oversight, then it was a mystifying one.  Less defensible is Klingaman's decision to focus virtually all of the attention in the U.S. political battle over the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles on Wilson's strenuous -- and, in the end, near-fatal -- efforts to overcome Senatorial opposition with his famous whistle-stop tour of the American West.  Wilson's fate is obviously a more dramatic story than a dry debate in the halls of Congress could ever be, but Klingaman gives almost literally NO attention to the reasons for the opposition, apart from the usual boilerplate about isolationism.  It's difficult to attribute this to anything other than ideological bias.

Klingaman does leaven his narrative with occasional digressions into the fashions, literature, and cinema of the day.  Even many of these asides have their grim aspects.  Take sports, for example: aside from the Willard-Dempsey bout, the Black Sox Scandal gets plenty of space, and even the description of Babe Ruth's final season with the Boston Red Sox is likely to turn the stomachs of Sox fans.  The world of silent movies, meanwhile, is primarily represented through a retelling of the plot of the infamous horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariIt's unfortunate that 1919's introduction of the world's longest-lived animated cartoon character couldn't have at least been mentioned, if for no other reason than to soften the mood.

If you like sweeping "life and times"-style histories in the grand tradition of Mark Sullivan's OUR TIMES or William Manchester's THE GLORY AND THE DREAM, then you'll probably enjoy "1919"... that is, if "enjoy" is the proper verb to use to describe one's relationship with such a depressing catalogue of human injustice, crime, folly, and suffering.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Movie Review: THE AVENGERS (Marvel Studios/Paramount, 2012)

The arrival of this particular cinematic puppy has been heralded for a very long time, and so Nicky and I elected to avoid the crush on opening weekend and wait until yesterday to dare the trip to the theater.  Even so, pretty much all seats for the 6:15 showing were taken.  I was even willing to chance sitting in the seats up front until Nicky convinced me that the crick in my neck wouldn't be worth it and found some seats in the front row of the stadium-style section.

If you're expecting me to give out with lengthy a laundry list of the ways in which The Avengers is/is not faithful to the Marvel comics' version of the superhero team, then you're barking up the wrong blog.  I am strictly a "guest" of Marveltown, as opposed to a "lifelong resident."  I have enjoyed all of the modern Marvel movies that I've seen, though, and The Avengers is another winner, with more than enough action to satiate even the most blockbuster-jaded palate... plus a healthy helping of legitimately laugh-out-loud humorous bits.



Before Nicky and I went to see The Avengers, Nicky insisted that I see Thor first.  Now I know why.  Thor's half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is the main bad guy in this new flick, stealing a gizmo called The Tesseract from S.H.I.E.L.D. and using it to rip open a "dimensional vortex" and allow a race of aliens to pour through and invade the Earth.  (Loki expects to be the Maximum Leader of the New Order, but it's fairly clear from the off that he is something of a means to an end.  If the narrative itself doesn't convince you, then the post-movie, pre-credits teaser certainly will.)

Most of the humor in this movie, as you would imagine given that it was directed and co-written by Joss Whedon, is of the verbal variety, with a good portion of it emanating from the self-satisfied Tony "Iron Man" Stark (Robert Downey Jr.).  Though some of the jokes have stirred up unexpected controversy, they all work well in context.  The gag that got the most laughter and applause, though, had nothing to do with verbal snarkiness.  How else can I possibly describe it, but...


Ah, yes, The Hulk.  I didn't see the earlier Hulk movie -- nor was I a watcher of the old TV series with Bill Bixby -- but, judging by all reports, The Avengers is the best media representation to date of the "Big Green Guy" and his alter ego, the twitchy Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).  Ruffalo did a great job of presenting Banner as a man whose emotions are kept so tightly under control that they're likely to suffocate.  And The Hulk himself... well, I'm not about to criticize his performance during the final streets-of-New-York battle sequence, are you?

Apart from Downey and Ruffalo, I especially liked the way in which the film handled Captain America (Chris Evans).  Any time that this character is employed, a political interpretation of his portrayal, for good or ill, is never far from one's thoughts.  Under the circs, the team of Whedon and Evans played Cap as straight as an old-fashioned hero still somewhat alienated from the times should have been played.  Granted, in the scene at the gym where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to recruit Cap for the Avengers' mission, a very broad hint is floated that the latter doesn't think much of America's recent military "adventures."  But later, Cap is told by Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- and apparently agrees -- that a good, stiff dose of "old-fashioned (patriotism)" is just what may be needed in this new fight against a would-be tyrant.  Cap also reacts to Loki's supposed "godhood" by saying that he recognizes only one God, and that Loki "doesn't dress like that."  All of these lines, to one extent or another, ring true to this challenging character's... um, character.

One fairly significant character dies during the course of the film, but, given the frequent bickering and infighting between the members of The Avengers, the reminder of that individual's self-sacrifice turns out to be one of the major spurs that goad the band of heroes on to complete their mission and gain victory.  As an accurate reflection of the classic Marvel sensibility, one could hardly do better than this.  It will be very difficult for the sequel to The Avengers to top the original, but the recent Marvel Studios track record gives reasonable cause for optimism.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Comics Re-re-re-review*: RICHIE RICH IN WELCOME TO RICH RESCUE! (Ape Entertainment, 2012)

*  No, the persona of Max Headroom hasn't suddenly engulfed my spirit.  It's much worse than that: Ape Entertainment has served up yet another reprinting of its pitifully small manifest of RICH RESCUE material.  For those who haven't been counting, that makes four such out-dishings, to wit:

1.  The original appearances in the Free Comic Book Day giveaway and RICH RESCUE #1-#4.  Only "Eruption Disruption," the Dr. N-R-Gee story from the FCBD book, isn't included in this 104-page trade paperback, possibly because the story didn't have much to do with the story arc in #1-#4... which, in point of fact, isn't a true story arc at all, but more of a collection of loosely-wound-together stand-alone stories, which I assume will be neatly chained together on that apparently-far-in-the-future day when RICH RESCUE starts publishing again.

2.  The so-called "digests," which are more like glorified pamphlets.

3.  The reprints of back-up stories that we've been seeing on a regular basis in RICHIE RICH GEMS.

4.  The present warmed-over warming-over of warmed-over leftovers.

Seriously, now, is Ape trying to piss off the people who would legitimately like to see RICH RESCUE continue?  I admit, it's convenient to have all of the stories from #1-#4 between a single set of covers, but it's almost as if Ape is jerking our chains on purpose at this point.  Come on, Apesters, get it together and get this country... er, title moving again.  (Apologies to JFK.)

Book Review: THE ADVENTURES OF HERGE by Bocquet, Fromental, and Stanislas (Drawn & Quarterly, 2012)

This project -- a sort of pictorial biography of the creator of TINTIN, drawn in a style at least faintly resembling Herge's famed "clear line" and formatted in the manner of a classic TINTIN album, right down to the page count -- is frankly a bit mystifying.  People familiar with Herge's life and work will not learn very much that is new.  At the same time, despite the presence of a helpful "cast of characters" (complete with headshots) at the back of the book, TINTIN neophytes will probably be quite confused the first time that they read it.  So who is most likely to mine enjoyment out of this?  Two groups come to mind: (1) the longtime "true TINTIN believers" who simply must own any and all Herge-related products and will thoroughly recognize and appreciate the various visual references to Herge's stories that crop up from time to time; (2) people who were intrigued by the recent feature film but aren't necessarily committed enough in their interest in TINTIN to essay a full-scale Herge bio, or even to read the albums.  For the latter group, THE ADVENTURES OF HERGE is a convenient, and highly enjoyable, "two-for-one" experience: a good place to learn a little something about Herge's life and get an idea as to what a TINTIN album is "supposed" to look like.

Artist Stanislas Barthelemy wisely doesn't essay a full-blown swipe of Herge's style.  His somewhat sketchy interpretation of same looks more like a cross between Herge's earliest work and the highly stylized approach of a John Held Jr.  This puts some useful artistic "distance" between the "hard-PG" narrative, with its scenes of nude portraiture, occasional use of harsh language, and depictions of marital infidelity, and a typical TINTIN narrative, which Herge famously said was created for everyone from ages 7 to 77.  The distinction is especially effective when Stanislas consciously parodies famous scenes from TINTIN albums.  Nowhere is it more so than in the scene in which Herge is freed from the jail where he had been held as a supposed collaborationist.  Even as Herge leaves to literally start his life over again, his cellmate, who'd also been imprisoned by the Resistance, is placed before a firing squad.  Several panels in this sequence bring to mind the scene in THE BROKEN EAR in which Tintin is about to be shot in the same manner.  Tintin famously got out of that one by getting drunk (!), with the tone of the scene strongly resembling that of the climax of DuckTales' "Allowance Day."  Suffice it to say that the denouement here is rather more sober.  The final two pages, depicting Herge's death, also make memorable use of props from Herge's stories and the opening scenes of THE SHOOTING STAR.

When I first heard of this project, I was worried that we might be getting a sort of deconstructionist deboning or ideological hijacking of Herge, in the manner of Frederic Tuten's novel TINTIN IN THE NEW WORLD or the anarchist rip-off TINTIN IN BREAKING FREE.  Thankfully, Jose-Louis Bocquet, who's written biographies of other European comics figures, avoids the pitfalls and pretty much tells the straight story, albeit with some exaggerations to accommodate the requirements of storytelling and the uses of Herge characters and scenes.  If you're a comics fan unfamiliar with the world of Herge, this isn't the worst place in the world to start finding out about the man, his times, and his works.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Review: E.C. SEGAR'S POPEYE, VOLUME 6: "ME LI'L SWEE'PEA" by E. C. Segar (Fantagraphics Press, 2012)

What feeling can possibly arise upon reading the last volume of THE COMPLETE E.C. SEGAR POPEYE, other than genuine sadness and dismay that Segar was taken from his loyal coterie of readers far too quickly?  I'd hesitate to pass definitive judgment on what a Segar THIMBLE THEATER of the 1940s and beyond (as distinct from the war years, which would almost certainly have tempted Segar to make the hard-punching sailor man serve his country in some "official" capacity, much as the animated Popeye in fact did) would have looked like, but we may have gotten a hint in my favorite of this volume's continuities, "A Sock for Susan's Sake."  By 1937, Popeye had been domesticated to a certain extent, and Segar had brought the incorrigible Poopdeck Pappy into the THIMBLE THEATER cast and given the latter some of the more anti-social aspects of Popeye's earlier, rougher persona.  But it's hard to imagine that Segar would have completely drawn out Popeye's eye-teeth and turned him into the less complicated character of the later Famous Studios shorts.  The picaresque "Sock," in which Popeye brusquely assumes the role of protector of and unofficial mentor to a lovely (by Segar's artistic standards, anyway) young female vagabond with a mysterious past, points the way towards what a future Segar Popeye might have looked like.  Popeye is every bit as proactive, arbitrary, and abrupt as he was during his early career, but also evinces compassion, self-sacrifice, and a sense of higher moral good.  Fittingly, after Popeye discovers that Susan's wealthy father had thrown her out into the street, he literally drags her back to a confrontation with him, leading to the obligatory "startling revelations" and, of course, the restoration of Susan to her proper place.  It's much like the tale of Cinderella, that is, if you can imagine the Fairy Godmother employing the occasional "righteous right cross" in place of the waving of a magic wand.

The much-praised "Mystery Melody" continuity, featuring the return of the Sea Hag, leads off the collection daily strips reprinted here.  While it's entertaining enough, it isn't as indelibly memorable as the "Plunder Island" Sunday sequence, probably because of the space limitations inherent in the daily format.  Poopdeck Pappy takes the lead role in "Wild Oats," a somewhat melancholy read in that it was the last daily story that Segar was able to complete before the progress of his leukemia forced him to quit "The Valley of the Goons" and "King Swee'pea" midway through.  Those last two Segar-influenced tales, perhaps reflecting the uncertain state of Segar's health, tended to wander a bit, and so does "Oats," with Poopdeck partying wildly until he gets hauled into court for creating a (rather innocuous) disturbance.  The trial gives Segar another chance to parody the workings of the law, but the depiction of the trial in "Oats" pales in comparison to the wonderful sequence in "A Sock for Susan's Sake" in which Popeye and Susan are arrested by a gung-ho constable (whose perpetual snarl hides the fact that he's a bit of a softy at heart) and arraigned before a rural magistrate on the charge of fishing in and swimming in the local reservoir.  Even the minor characters shine in this extremely funny sequence, in which Segar both pokes fun at and shows his affection for the quirky-but-decent locals, a la Mike Judge's treatment of the residents of Arlen in King of the Hill.

The last batch of Sunday pages continue to give Wimpy multiple chances to shine (he really could have carried his own strip) and feature the last explosion of creativity in the companion strip SAPPO, as John and Myrtle S. accompany Professor O. G. Wottasnozzle and a couple of other long-bearded deep thinkers (including, oddly enough, Wottasnozzle's arch-enemy Professor Finklesnop -- does the phrase "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" come to mind?) on an epic space journey to the worlds "beyond Neptune."  I wish I knew why Segar suddenly switched back to continuities in SAPPO after ditching them for an extended period of time in favor of drawing lessons and the like.  It's almost as if he knew that he had very little time left for active creativity and wanted to expel as many crazy ideas as he could from his cranium before the end.  Short-lived it may have been, but the whole Segar POPEYE oeuvre is now between handsome hard covers, and fans of great comics will be forever grateful.