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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Happy Birthday Jim Steranko

This year’s annual Scorpio birthday tribute goes out to comics legend Jim Steranko. Along with Neal Adams, Steranko brought a maturity to comics in the late Sixties that completely changed the way people saw comic books, Adams with DC’s Deadman in Strange Adventures comics and Steranko in Marvel’s Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Jim Steranko brought graphic style in a medium that was still mostly stuck in exaggerated, cartoony caricatures. Steranko’s art style brought comics into the Swinging Sixties, incorporating elements of Pop Art, colorful psychedelia, and cinematic images mostly influenced by Mario Bava films (ref. Black Sabbath, Danger: Diabolik, Blood and Black Lace, etc.).

A Jim Steranko comic book cover leapt off the stands every month; no other comic on the newsstand even looked like his or even came close. Steranko’s first work for Marvel was Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., a poor cash-in on the James Bond spy movie craze featuring a post-war Sgt. Fury with a few of his Howling Commandos on board (Dum Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones). The series was barely breathing oxygen providing support to the superior Doctor Strange in Strange Tales Comics. Steranko originally drew layouts for Jack Kirby in the series but eventually took over the art reins, then taking over the writing reins from Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, gaining complete control over the series and taking it places not seen in comics at the time.

One of the best examples of Steranko’s graphic genius is the legendary cover to Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #4, often imitated to the point of even The Simpsons comics doing a tribute to the cover. In addition to Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Steranko blew minds with his work on Captain America, X-Men, and a cover for The Incredible Hulk that has to be seen to be believed!

A new Steranko comic release in 1967-68 was as eagerly anticipated as a new Beatles single, in that it heralded an exciting new way of seeing things. A lot of other kids must have agreed with me because they were some of the fastest selling comics to fly off the stands. It took me years to score Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 because it instantly sold out on release.

Jim Steranko, born November 5, 1938 in Reading, Pennsylvania, grew up working in carnivals as a fire-eater, magician, and later resorted to burglary. He also got heavily into playing guitar in various local bands. After a period of commercial art, Steranko moved over to illustrating several short-lived superhero series for Harvey Comics.

Steranko’s legendary work for Marvel gave him artistic control that included splash pages in the middle and end of the comic, sometimes even taking up two pages, unheard of at the time. He also colored his own comics, a first at the time. All this artistic freedom eventually came to a head when Marvel big kahuna Stan Lee began heavily editing Steranko’s previously untampered work,creating major friction between the two men.

Steranko’s next move was to start his own publishing company Supergraphics, which produced the Steranko History of Comics in 1972, one of the earliest academic studies on the history of comics. By the 1980’s he published Prevue Magazine, an aggressively heterosexual movie magazine that always managed to plug in a few photos of Sybil Danning and Steranko clutching some hot, new young blonde action movie starlet.

Jim Steranko was inducted to the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2006, and continues to this day to be a major influence in comics art. Like a Sam Fuller film, Henry Moore sculpture, or Captain Beefheart album, once you’ve seen a Jim Steranko comic you know you’ve seen something incomparable and unforgettable.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Batman Por Vida

In his autobiography “Back To The Batcave” Adam West remarked that the three pop culture phenomena of the Sixties in America were “Bond, Beatles and Batman”. While I never engrossed myself in the marketing of the first two icons I always had room for buying all the 1966-era Batman stuff I could get my hands on.

A major factor in the Batman TV show’s success can be attributed to the way it was so deeply entrenched in the sonic boom of Sixties teen culture. Villains like The Joker and The Riddler had gang molls that looked more like go-go dancers than Virginia Hill, wriggling like they just jumped out of their discotheque cage, The Batmobile was Kustom Kar Kulture at its wildest, and Batman himself hit the discotheques in an early episode doing a bastardized Watusi called “The Batusi”. Batman showcased more teen hipness than Patty Duke, Gidget, Dobie Gillis and every teen TV show combined. The only show to match it for teenage grooviness was The Munsters, but Batman had one thing The Munsters didn’t have – COLOR.

No matter who the villain was – Penguin, Riddler, Joker, etc. – they never dressed in black, foregoing it for comic book shades of purple, green and hemorrhage red. Batman’s cape and cowl was a cool midnight blue, a visual respite from the dreary black rubber nightmare he’s been draped in for the past twenty years. Next to G.I. Joe no other toy captured my imagination more in the Sixties.

I stayed away from textile based souvenirs like sweatshirts and towels and focused more on the vinyl-based toy media. There was the Batman soaky, a figurine that held bubble bath for dirty kids, the Ideal hand puppet that eerily resembled Adam West, or the vinyl Batman wallet with the brilliant Carmine Infantino artwork. There was the Colorforms art board where you could move plastic cut-outs of the Dynamic Duo around, and the great lunch box which shows Batman and Robin fighting the nefarious Penguin.

Then there were all the paperback cash-ins, some were silver age reprints and some were cheap novelizations. There was the 3D comic book, again with The Penguin seen fighting them (what’s the deal with The Penguin?). I also owned the View Master of Batman, a portable slide show you could watch, the series showing stills from the great Catwoman episode.

There were all the cool exploitation records I had, like the 45 rpm of The Spotlights rockin’ out on Batman & Robin, written, performed and produced by Leon Russell. There was the “Jan & Dean Meet Barman” album, which transposed Gotham City over Surf City (big surprise!).

Thirty years after the Sixties Batman craze died out Bruce Timm, a former animator from the Ralph Bakshi Animation studio (New Adventures of Mighty Mouse) helmed the Animated Adventures of Batman in 1996 for Fox Television and a whole new onslaught of great Batman merchandise returned. The artwork and designs were far more stylish than its earlier predecessor due to Timm’s brilliant eye for design and excellent makeover of tired and long-forgotten villains (Scarecrow, Clayface, Poison Ivy) and short-lived heroes (The Demon, The Creeper, etc.).

It was back to the toy store in the Nineties to grab all this awesome swag, which included cool figurines, a Bat signal night light, toy Batmobile and Batgirl motorcycle, plus a new Nineties soaky and Nineties lunch box. I hit the Warner Bros. store on an almost weekly basis to catch the latest merch on Batman, The Joker, Harley Quinn, and all the rest.

The ultimate book on this merchandising craze that’s spanned several decades is “Batman Collected” by Chip Kidd, (Watson-Guptil), an eye-popping collection of images and details that doesn’t leave any stone unturned on all things Batman.

There are basically two kinds of toy collectors out there: one, the kind that want bragging rights for owning a collector's item, and two, the kind that love their toys and treasure the memories that they bring. I’ve only acquired the things I really can’t live without and enjoy looking at day after day. Happiness can’t be bought but it can bring a few smiles now and then.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Man Of The Year (Brazil, 2003)

The Man Of The Year, aka O Homem Do Ano, is a remarkable film that’s equal parts crime melodrama, political satire and Brazilian erotica seamlessly combined by director Jose Henrique Fonseca. Murilo Benicio delivers an electrifying performance that stays in the memory long after the film’s bizarre climax.

Man Of The Year is the story of Maiquel, a Brazilian dude who loses a bet and pays the price by having his hair dyed bright blonde, embarrassing to his circle of pals because it makes him “look gay”. The penalty backfires because Cledir (Claudia Abreu), the colorist at the beauty salon is a hot babe and hooks up with him.

Returning to the bar where his boys hang out to show off his new locks, everybody gets a good laugh except for asshole Suel, who won the bet but resents Maiquel’s cool attitude. The next day Maiquel evens the score unfairly by shooting Suel in the back on a deserted street, the only witness to the murder being Suel’s teenage girlfriend Erica (Natalia Lage).

Suel was such a scumbag and neighborhood terror that the police refuse to take Maiquel in even after he confesses to the murder, commending him by sating “Good work taking the scum off the streets”. Neighbors and local merchants leave food and gifts at his doorstep, the ultimate gift being a pot bellied piglet Maiquel names “Bill Clinton”.

Things get complicated when Erica shows up at his door needing a place to stay now that her thug boyfriend is dead. Erica is a steaming mass of budding nubile sexuality, staying at Maiquel’s crib and putting a cramp on Cledir’s play time with Maiquel. Cledir wants to marry Maiquel but Erica is mentally more in Maiquel’s league, showering with the door open and playing with the pig, who Cledir resents.

Maiquel caves in and marries Cledir (with Erica sulking in the background), getting a job at the local pet store. His toothache sends him to Dr. Carvalho (Jorge Doria), a dentist who fixes his teeth for free for killing that black scum Suel and makes a bizarre proposal during the dental operation.

Dr. Carvalho and his businessmen friends will pay him a huge salary if he continues killing street thugs that offend them, who not coincidentally are poor and black. Maiquel accepts and systematically killing every thug he’s contracted to kill, filling up his pockets with more money than he’s ever seen. Cledir tightens the screws on Maiquel to give her a baby and kick Erica out.

Maiquel gives her the baby she’s wanted but Erica stays, banging Maiquel when the missus is away. Meanwhile Suel’s gangsta pals get their revenge by waxing each of Maiquel’s friends one by one. The trail of blood continues when Maiquel accidentally kills Cledir shortly after his birthday.

At first Erica is remorseless about dumping Cledir’s body but finally cracks and goes to church to repent for her sins. No longer following thugs, she’s now a disciple of a young, good-looking priest. Maiquel promptly beats him up. Losing Bill Clinton, Cledir, Erica and all his old buddies from the violence that he started, he finally decides to end the trail of blood by killing off the businessmen’s committee that put him up to the hit man job he grew sick of.

The film ends with Maiquel stripping the hair color worn like a phony halo and returns to his black hair color, leaving town and the deaths that haunted him behind.

Man Of The Year is based on a novel called O Matador by Patricia Melo and never gets boring. The screenplay has deft touches of sexuality, humor and menace. Breno Silveira’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, making even the most grubby and grimy Brazilian slum look like a colorful picture postcard. If you like wild movies with guns, girls and cute pigs that eat shoes then Man Of The Year will make you smile.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

YA Noir: Teenage Wasteland Lit

One of the most exciting discoveries I’ve made in reading lately is an increase of roman noir elements in Young Adult (YA) novels. Although they’re lacking in the familiar femme fatale theme commonly used in noir, these books nevertheless play the same old themes – crime, paranoia, and soul-wrenching guilt - once mined by such noir masters as Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Cornell Woolrich.

If someone can lay claim to being the originator of this style it would be S.E. Hinton, author of teen classics The Outsiders, Rumblefish, and That Was Then, This Is Now. Rumble Fish was a cool movie that looked a lot like Robert Frank’s The Americans and had Mickey Rourke perfecting his Richard Hell impersonation with Tom Waits doing a Pop’s Chocklit Shoppe routine, whilst listening to Wall Of Voodoo and The Police jamming on the soundtrack…very new wave…totally Eighties. Then there’s the book.

S.E. Hinton writes more like a noir writer than a YA one, complete with flashbacks, delusional madness and death. Her uncanny ability to get into a teenage boy’s mind and do so with intensive insight is nothing short of remarkable.

Rumble Fish was written in the Seventies so I imagine more of a burned-out Motorcycle Boy fried by too many Boones Farm empties, dozens of Testors glue tubes, and scratchy Steppenwolf records. Whichever spin you put on Rumble Fish it’s one of the best tomes in the Teenage Wasteland bookshelf.

That Was Then, This Is Now is a coming of age story that's equal parts "The Hustler", "Rumble Fish" and the Jack Kerouac-Neal Cassady bromance legends. Two punks grow up = one goes straight, the other gets crookeder, the story's been told many times before. But S.E. Hinton gives it a fresh spin setting it in Vietnam War-era hippiedom so you get psychedelic painted Volkswagen buses and Roger Corman-style drug den crash pads. As is the case in all noir books everything explodes at the end because hip kids never win and squares always spin.

Another major voice in YA noir is the late Robert Cormier, whose tales of teenage despair are even darker, so much so that several of his books have been banned from school libraries for their bleak vision of youth gone mad. His most famous work was The Chocolate War, but my favorite work of his is Tenderness.

Tenderness might well be the pinnacle of YA Noir with Robert Cormier holding court as its master. An amazing work, it's the story of a lovesick teen runaway who stalks an unrepentant teenage serial killer with dreamboat looks after he's sprung from juvie. Ironically they met several years previously when she caught him nuzzling a girl who was about to be his next kill.

Cormier's work is extremely dark and complex. You don't need to be a pimple popper to dig this genius murder story, in fact, calling Cormier a YA writer is a lot like calling Cornell Woolrich a crime writer. Also recommended is a strange novel called Heroes, about a teenage war veteran (in by 16, out by 18) with a disfigured face who returns to his hometown stalking the pro-war motivational speaker that talked him into enlisting and stole his girlfriend in the process, with the intention of killing him. Crazy as hell!

More famous examples of the YA Noir genre would be Paranoid Park written by Blake Nelson and directed into a motion picture by Gus Van Sant. Paranoid Park is a brilliant YA noir about a skater boi from the 'burbs who accidentally kills a security guard at a railyard. The murder ironically creates a rite of passage making him question his existence, his values and everyone in his orbit. Tightly written with no room for chaff, this is the best noir I've read in ages and could teach those fedora wearing old farts a thing or two.

Also well known is Mysterious Skin written by Scott Heim and made into a motion picture by Gregg Araki. A flawed masterpiece that continuously treaded on fragile territory, sometimes making it through the high wire act and other times falling ass over elbows into the circus net below. The fragile territory is child molestation by a Little League coach with the aftermath as told by two different boys: Brian, who grows up somewhat asexual obsessed with UFOs and aliens, and Neil, a promiscuous teen hustler.

There's something kind of weird about calling a book like this beautiful but there are passages that are downright poetic and gorgeous. It's just that there are parts that will trouble many, like the fact that Neil the Hustler had homosexual urges prior to his molestation, so it's implied somewhat that he "wanted it". Maybe Mr. Heim thought this urge would somehow take him off the hook -but the whole idea is so shaky.

I actually bought right into the whole story until the last three pages when it's revealed that both boys engaged in a certain activity that no 8-year old would agree to without collapsing into spasms of hilarious laughter. The fact that it's told in such a drop dead serious and manipulative fashion - with Christmas carolers singing in the background, even! - turned the whole ending into an unintentional parody. It’s still a great book and worthy of your attention.

Older, less popular examples of YA Noir would be “Giveaway” by Steve Fisher, an absolutely brilliant Fifties noir about a teen runaway in Hollywood who falls in with an aging hustler, her daughter, and countless Vaudeville burnouts working the TV quiz show circuit.

“Giveaway” recalls Horace McCoy at his finest in depicting small-time chiselers seeking fame and fortune at the lowest rung in Hollywood. Corruption in the game show biz is in large supply here, too. The book's ironically timely in this age of American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and all the other migraine contest shows.

You’ll have fun guessing the thinly fictionalized locations in the book like Clifton’s Cafeteria, RKO/Desilu Studios, Sy Devore, Wallich's Music City, and the Hollywood-Highland Rexall Drugs. I’d say this is the best Steve Fisher novel, way better than “I Wake Up Screaming”. Highly recommended.

Then there’s The Fourth Angel by John Rechy, the toughest book about teenagers ever written. A pack of outcast teens dare each other to play vicious games with strangers they brutalize and degrade in a haunted house. The sexual lines are crossed and double-crossed by them. John Rechy outdid "City of Night" with this one, and that's saying a Hell of a lot!

While teen despair is nothing new these books serve up something extra-intense and daring to the show, and I don’t mean a bunch of B-movie vampires and werewolves falling in love. There’s a depth and maturity to these characters and the story they tell that’ll frighten all the grown-ups, case in point Mr. Cormier’s struggle to even get his books available to his audience. When literature poses that much of a threat to American society then it’s more vital and subversive than any punk rock record ever cranked out.