And we round out 2021 with my last book report on the books I read in December. Over the course of the past year, I read 77 books by my count, and 69 on GoodReads, which was 115% of my goal (some books, like older comics series like the Blackthorne Dick Tracy reprints, just don’t show up on GoodReads). I started with 50 books as my goal–almost one a week–which is fairly ambitious, I thought, but I didn’t think I’d go over that. Some were very quick reads (graphic novels), others like the bios of Mel Brooks, Cary Grant, and Mike Nichols, month-long events, primarily read a chapter or three at a time before I went to bed each night. Still, this retirement thing is paying off for me at least when it comes to reading.
Without further ado, here’s my short list of December books.
Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation by Reid Mitenbuler
I loved this book. It’s an amazing history of the American animation industry from its infancy up to the 1960s and the limited animation of television. All the big names are here: pioneer Winsor McCay, Max and Dave Fleischer, the Warner Bros. guys (Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, the McKimson Bros., Mel Blanc), the UPA people, Dr. Seuss, and of course, Walt Disney. It’s an amazingly thorough history, a bit on the gossipy side, and it dishes on the good and the bad rivalries of the industry and doesn’t hide the warts: Disney and Fleischer’s labor problems, Disney the WWII propagandist, the raunchy WB war cartoons, the creation of Disneyland and much more. Snow White, Pinocchio, Popeye, Superman, Bugs Bunny, Felix the Cat, Gertie the Dinosaur, and countless others all make appearances. Author Mitenbuler digs deep and creates an absolutely fascinating story arc for the industry … really great for a guy whose previous book was a history of whiskey. I have a passing interest in animation (modern TV shows like The Simpsons and South Park bore me to tears … I feel if I’ve seen one episode, I’ve seen them all), but this history enthralled me. One small quibble: Mitenbuler didn’t really do his homework on Superman in the comics. He continually calls them “Shuster and Siegel,” maybe for fairness alphabetically, but they’ve always been known as Siegel and Shuster (Jerry was definitely the dominant force in that dynamic duo), and at one point calls them both “writers.” But that’s the worst I can say about this great book. You’ve gotta love a book that has this quote from Chuck Jones on one of his rules for the Road Runner cartoons; he didn’t want to see any kind of financial dealings between Wile E. Coyote and ACME because: “It is just fun for me to imagine that somewhere there is a company that provides, absolutely free, their inventions to coyotes.”
All About Me: My Remarkable Life in Show Business by Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks’s autobiography is an enjoyable read but it could have been titled differently. “Let Me Tell You A Little Story” and “But More on That Later” are two phrases you’ll encounter multiple times in this book and both would be fitting titles. There’s very little about Brooks’s personal life in this book, beyond his childhood and army years. Once it gets into his time on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, it’s all about Mel’s TV shows (including Get Smart) and his movies. And he doesn’t waste a lot of time on his failures … there’s a one-line or so mention of his Robin Hood TV series, When Things Were Rotten, which died after a 13-episode season in 1975, when Brooks was riding high on the success of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. He does talk about falling in love with Anne Bancroft, his second wife, but his first wife doesn’t even earn a mention of her name, just that he divorced her and had three children with her (who are also given short shrift).
Brooks does treat us to an enjoyable movie-by-movie breakdown of his career, and the book ends with a long look at the Broadway smash The Producers, which still holds the record for most Tony Awards for a single show. Brooks reminds us of all the awards he’s won—he’s an EGOT: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award winner, one of just a handful of people in the entertainment world—and the accolades he’s gotten from people like President Barack Obama. But there is no personal side to any of this, save the great love of his life, Anne Bancroft. When she dies of cancer in 2005, it gets a one-line mention and Brooks acknowledges how depressed he was when it happened, and how the Broadway version of Young Frankenstein helped him back from the abyss. Brooks says he wrote this autobiography during the pandemic, spurred on by his NY Times best-selling author/son Max (World War Z), but it also seems like a reaction to Patrick McGilligan’s less than flattering bio, Funny Man: Mel Brooks, a warts-and-all (some say warts-only) book about the actor/writer/director published in 2019. If you want to know about Brooks’s career, this is the book for you, but if you want to know about Mel Brooks, the man, I think you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Starstruck: My Unlikely Road to Hollywood by Leonard Maltin
This anecdotal history of Leonard Maltin’s career—from movie fanzine publisher to podcaster, with long stints on Entertainment Tonight and TCM—is a fascinating, warm, and enjoyable read. Maltin started his career as a movie fan and took over Film Fan Monthly and wrote the first guides to movies on TV, all as a teenager. He took a side-turn into being a critic on Entertainment Tonight and a presenter and guest programmer on TCM, all the while curating and introducing a major line of Disney Treasures on home video, and continuing his work as a lecturer and educator at USC. In 2019, he debuted his own film festival in Hollywood (MaltinFest), sadly put on hold with the rest of the world in 2020 and 2021. This book covers the entire arc of his career and is especially great when he talks about all the stars he met over the years. Truly one of the most likable and respected movie critics and historians, he’s reinvented himself as a podcaster (Maltin on Movies), featuring some wonderful interviews with stars, writers, producers, directors, and fellow film historians.
I met Maltin once at Comic-Con, when I was giving an Inkpot Award to fellow film and animation historian Jerry Beck. Beck forgot that I wanted to say a few words before he started the panel (never guessing he was getting an award) and went into a long talk about the panelists, and Maltin interrupted him and said, “I believe Gary had something to say first.” I was impressed that I met him once and he remembered my name and why I was there!
Spider-Man Blue by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
I always admired and enjoyed Loeb and Sale’s Batman work for DC (The Long Halloween, Dark Victory) and their sole Superman mini-series, Superman For All Seasons. In the early 2000s, they moved over to Marvel and did a series of single-hero “color” books: Daredevil Yellow, Spider-Man Blue, Hulk Grey, and (eventually) Captain America White. I owned these as both monthly comics and collected editions and got rid of them when I downsized, but I always pined for both the Daredevil and Spidey volumes. Sadly, Marvel hasn’t kept these in print so they’re a little hard to find; Spider-Man Blue goes for $100-120 on eBay. I was lucky to find one for much less (and the DD one for $7.99 in a sale bin at a comic shop in Long Beach). There is an Ominbus edition that collects all four mini-series, but that’s out of print, also.
Loeb is an excellent comics writer and Sale is kind of a modern-day Ditko and their interpretation of Spider-Man is very stylistic. And while it reminds me a lot of Steve Ditko’s work on the character (especially Sale’s amazing—pun intended—figure work) this series focuses on the time right after Ditko left the book and John Romita took over. It re-introduces the Rhinoceros, the new Vulture (Blackie Drago), and begins right after Spidey defeats the Green Goblin (after they learn each others’ identities). But it’s really a love story to Gwen Stacy, with Peter Parker reminiscing into a tape recorder about his love for her. It captures the energy and style of those early Romita issues. One thing Romita did much better than Ditko: draw beautiful women. Sale’s versions of Gwen and Mary Jane Watson are stunning, too. This is a very enjoyable standalone graphic novel (if you can find it) and it’s beautifully designed, with care taken in using the original covers (sans logos and text) as chapter headings and a great sketchbook section at the end. Loeb and Sale recently did a follow-up to Batman: The Long Halloween. While I have doubts they’ll be doing anything for Marvel soon (Loeb was the head of Marvel TV until Kevin Feige took it over and pushed the reset button, to much better effect), I do hope they continue to do comics. Sale is one of the great stylistic cartoonists, up there with Ditko and Mike Mignola.
Mighty Marvel Masterworks: The Incredible Hulk, Volume 1 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko
Another in the series of re-issues of Marvel Masterworks (now called Mighty Marvel Masterworks, and geared to a younger audience), this first volume featuring the Incredible Hulk reprints the first six issues of the character’s series, introduced in 1962. The Hulk didn’t quite gel in those early years, and these stories show why: Lee and Kirby just couldn’t get a handle on the character, which was born when scientist Bruce Banner was exposed to the rays of the Gamma Bomb while trying to save obnoxious teenager Rick Jones from being killed during a test of the bomb. (Stan, stop trying to make Rick Jones happen, he’s not going to happen!) First Banner transforms to Hulk each night, then a mysterious machine is built that controls when he changes … eventually, it becomes a rage thing. Sometimes he’s just a dumb brute, other times he has Banner’s intelligence. But beyond all that, the Hulk is an incredibly cocky and unlikable character; Stan and Jack made it very difficult to relate to and like the character, unlike the Fantastic Four (“Nobody like Hulk. Hulk sad.”). Call it a sophomore slump (the Hulk was the second Marvel character to appear after the ground-breaking FF), but just like the movies, this Hulk didn’t originally fly (or leap) … he just kind of floundered. (If you’re buying this new version of Marvel Masterworks, opt for the gorgeous Michael Cho covers … the original covers are included within!)