It seems like forever since I read some of these … is October really that long? I think I finished Batman in the Fifties and Countdown: Bin Laden in the first week of the month, which seems like an eternity ago. Anyway … here’s what I read in October, equally split between comic collections and non-fiction books, with a liberal taste of Hollywood history.
Mighty Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers, Vol. 1
Another in the series of re-issues of Marvel’s classic Masterworks series, this time in a more compact, affordable ($15.99) trade paperback format, with new covers by Michael Cho. I will confess to buying these primarily because of the Cho covers (since I have most of them as Epic Collections, Marvel more upscale format, which is somewhere south of an Omnibus, but contains 18-20 issues of each title). I have such a huge amount of affection for 1960s Marvels (The Marvel Age of Comics!), and I’m absolutely smitten with any new format that comes out (especially those containing the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine,” Fantastic Four). This volume covers The Avengers 1-10, with stories by Stan Lee and art by Jack Kirby (1-8) and Don Heck (9-10). It includes the formation of the original team (Ant-Man, Wasp, Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk), the triumphant return of Captain America to the Marvel universe and villains such as Loki, Sub-Mariner, Baron Zemo, and Kang. It’s primo Lee-Kirby Marvel and while I’ve vowed to buy only the first volumes of these books, I’m now leaning towards the second volumes, as Cho rolls out still more amazing covers.
Batman in the Fifties
Speaking of Cho … DC has been reissuing some of their historical reprint books. In the early 2000s, they did a series of Superman and Batman books by decade, including the Forties, Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. So far in 2021, they’ve re-released Superman in the Fifties and Batman in the Fifties, and published the first-ever (to my knowledge) similar Wonder Woman collection, Wonder Woman in the Fifties. (Both the Superman and Batman collections have Cho covers, repurposed from Action Comics 1000 and Detective Comics 1000.)
But don’t think you already have this book, if you own the original version. This new edition has 336 pages compared to the original’s 192. While DC has chosen to keep the original introduction by Batman movie executive producer Michael Uslan, some more stories have been added, and the layout has changed a bit. The Fifties are a bizarre decade for the Caped Crusader, and this volume focuses on that. There’s some great work by writer Bill Finger and artists Dick Sprang, Lew Sayre Schwartz, and Sheldon Moldoff, that include key Batman villains such as Joker, Catwoman, Two-Face, and Mr. Zero (Mr. Freeze). There’s also new members of the Bat-Family, like Batwoman, Bat-Mite, and Ace the Bat-Hound. And—for better or worse—this volume includes a concise look at the “sci-fi” era of Batman, something attempted by editor Jack Schiff to try and stem the tide of falling sales. Batman would be saved in the 1960s by the campy TV show and the title would be reinvented by the likes of editor Julius Schwartz, writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, into the 1970s, but Batman in the Fifties is a charming showcase of a very different era in a slickly-produced book.
Bandette, Vol. 4: The Six-Finger Secret by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover
I’ve been a fan of Paul Tobin’s and Colleen Coover’s Bandette since I first discovered it back in (roughly) 2014 or so. Bandette is an absolutely charming character, a French jack-of-all-thieves who loves chocolate, pastries, and animals and will always pause in the middle of a caper for each (or all) of those things. Coover’s art has a delicate but animated, watercolor look to it that makes you think she’s not drawing digitally, and husband/partner Tobin’s writing perfectly compliments the style of the artwork. I didn’t know there was a fourth volume out (the strip is published mainly online in comic book form as part of Monkeybrain Comics on comiXology, with Dark Horse Comics handling the printed versions, first in hardbound, then in paperback), so I was pleasantly surprised to come across this new edition while in a Portland, OR comics shop, which is fitting, since that city is Tobin and Coover’s home base. I thoroughly recommend this pseudo-superhero book with a totally different and totally original character and it’s suitable for all ages, too. (The online edition is three issues into a new storyline, which will hopefully see print very soon.)
Countdown: Bin Laden by Chris Wallace with Mitch Weiss
This was an unexpected sequel that I really enjoyed. I had read—and liked—Wallace’s first Countdown book, 1945, which dealt with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of World War II. Normally you couldn’t get me to touch any book by a Fox News “personality,” (and more specifically give them money) but Wallace is probably the most sane of that bunch, which is saying a lot, when you figure we’re talking about Hannity, Ingraham, and Carlson (Note: Never trust anyone who’s first name is Tucker).
This Countdown deals with the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which amounts to a countdown of 247 days from the first moment CIA director Leon Panetta gets credible evidence that the most-hunted man in the world is hiding in plain sight in a building in Abbotabad, Pakistan, more than a decade after the shocking tragedy of 9/11. While the CIA is never able to confirm the identity of the man they call “The Pacer,” who walks in the building’s courtyard each day, they go ahead with plans to get as much intelligence on the compound as possible. 246 days later, President Barack Obama makes the decision to send in an elite military team—Seal Team 6—to invade the compound and capture or kill The Pacer. It’s a thrilling story that moves along at an exciting pace. While I normally like historical non-fiction of a bit older age, this was a great read, and I look forward to Wallace (who is the son of legendary 60 Minutes journalist and much-feared interviewer Mike Wallace, so there is some kind of pedigree there) continuing the Countdown series (something he seemed surprised to be doing).
20th Century Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Movie Studio by Scott Eyman
I’ve read a number of books by movie historian/author Scott Eyman, including The Speed of Sound (about the transition from silent pictures to talkies), and his biographies of Louis B. Mayer (The Lion of Hollywood) and Cary Grant (A Brilliant Disguise). I’ve also stopped short on his massive John Wayne bio and Hank & Jim, about the friendship between stars Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart. I feel he’s one of the best and most consistent writers about Hollywood history these days. His latest, 20th Century Fox, is the story of a studio that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t really exist anymore, having been snapped up by Disney. It’s also, I feel, the slightest of his books, which doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it (I did), but after his exhaustive Cary Grant bio, it just seems like something a bit less.
You can’t tell the story of this studio without talking about Darryl F. Zanuck, a movie executive who seemed to embody the movie’s own version of the head of a studio: a megalomaniacal, jodphur-wearing despot who walked around with a sawed-off croquet mallet and an always-burning cigar firmly chomped in place. But Zanuck was, for most of his career, a true creative executive, something you definitely can’t say about Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, and Harry Cohn, the heads of, respectively, Warner Bros, MGM, and Columbia. Zanuck was intimately involved in all of the films his studio produced, from approving scripts, stars, and directors, to editing a lot of them in post-production. Until old age—and a penchant for young, beautiful women who “deserved” to be stars—caught up with him, Zanuck made some amazing films and had a second life at the studio he helped found (his 20th Century Films merged with William Fox’s Fox in the 1930s) after resigning from it, one that included his son, Richard, as the VP of the studio. He summarily fired his son without batting an eyelash to save Zanuck’s own bacon, gaining just a few more months in charge in the 1960s, but by that time, the Fox Board of Directors had lost their faith and patience with him. And like other studio execs, once deposed from their kingdoms, Zanuck faded quickly into poor health and died.
This is another Turner Classic Movies (TCM) book published by Running Press, and I am so grateful for them for almost single-handedly leading the charge on bringing movie history books back as a cottage industry within publishing. Their books are almost-always beautifully designed and printed and equally almost-always are about topics I’m genuinely interested in. So while this certainly isn’t Eyman’s best, it’s a welcome addition to my movie book collection and a great look at another almost-forgotten studio impresario in Darryl F. Zanuck.
The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family by Ron Howard and Clint Howard
I feel I grew up with Ron Howard, a fixture of television during my youth. I was roughly his same age (he’s a year older than me) and he was such a familiar face on The Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s and later (in the 1970s) Happy Days. He went on to become a Hollywood director, and while I feel some of his film directing work is uneven at best (I loved Splash, Night Shift, Apollo 13, and Ransom; hated the Da Vinci Code movies and Solo), he has always seemed like a decent human being, a nice guy, and a thoughtful and committed filmmaker. His younger brother Clint, also had a Hollywood career and was a child star on the TV family show, Gentle Ben, about a bear (not played by Clint) and his human family. The two Howard boys have teamed up to do this tandem autobiography that is definitely the story of a Hollywood family, with lots of emphasis on Rance Howard, the boys’ father. It’s very enjoyably written and a fascinating look at two child actors who turned out mostly okay (Ron, definitely … Clint had some problems before becoming a very recognizable adult character actor). As a side-note, I’m also sorta/kinda reading the new autobiography of same-era child star Haley Mills, Forever Young. I’m not sure what my sudden interest in 1960s child actor memoirs is, but both these books–the Howard boys and Mills–are well-written and fascinating.