January 2022 Books …

It’s all Marvel, Marvel, Marvel for me in this first month of the year, as I catch up with some Christmas gifts and visit some old friends … namely 1960s Marvel Comics!

When You Are Mine by Michael Robotham
This is the third year in a row that I read a Michael Robotham book to start my year and while I was hoping for another Cyrus Haven book (he’s Robotham’s forensic psychologist and has starred in two books now), When You Are Mine is a welcome one-off novel. It concerns London Metropolitan police constable Philomena McCarthy, who encounters a domestic abuse victim whom she tries to help. But the victim’s abuser is a much admired detective on the force who starts a vendetta against McCarthy for helping his mistress, Tempe Brown. McCarthy dives deep and discovers the detective, Darren Goodall, has a history of abuse, all of it swept under the rug by Scotland Yard, as he’s a decorated hero-cop. But no one in this book is whom they seem to be … McCarthy included. She comes from a family of well-established criminals, still actively skirting the law in seemingly-lawful enterprises. And after a while, she begins to play a wicked game of who do you trust …

I think the first Robotham book I read was Lost (no relation to the TV series) way back when, and I enjoy his work a great deal. His books are kind of slotted between Lisa Jewell and William Shaw, two other British crime/thriller/suspense writers that I really enjoy. When You Are Mine was a solid, enjoyable read that kept me guessing up to the end, and even though Robotham has said Philomena McCarthy’s story is a standalone novel, I’d love to see more of her.

Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather by Mark Seal
It’s hard to believe 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of Mark Seal’s new book chronicles the making of this epic film, starting with Mario Puzo’s novel, and with lots of background on all the major players: Puzo, director Francis Ford Coppola, producer Al Ruddy, studio execs Robert Evans and Peter Bart, Gulf + Western owner Charlie Bludhorn, and all the stars: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, even Lenny Montana. The struggles were epic, too, over casting (the studio didn’t want either Brando or Pacino, one a big fading star, the other a nobody at the time), the script, and with the Italian community (read: The Mob … we don’t use the other “M” word here), who first tried to stop the making of the movie and then embraced it. Seal’s reporting is thorough and authentic; the book grew out of a 2009 Vanity Fair article he wrote. Coppola and Pacino were almost fired, Evans hogged all the credit for the final film, and Ruddy expertly dealt with The Mob to get them onboard. If you think you know The Godfather, think again … this book knows and tells all.

Geiger, Volume 1 by Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, and Brad Anderson
I really enjoyed this graphic novel compilation of Geoff Johns first “Mad Ghost” title from Image. It’s the story of a dystopian (isn’t everything these days?) future, 20 years after a nuclear war that effectively ended the world. Among the survivors living in the desert near Las Vegas is “The Glowing Man,” part superhero, part myth. Frank’s art and Anderson’s coloring are both great and Johns is smart enough to sit back and let the art tell the story, which makes for a very fast read; I read this in one sitting and recommend you do, too. This is the first part of a shared universe type of thing, and it’s great to see Johns do something that isn’t DC-oriented. I hated his most recent version of Shazam (other than the Jeff Smith mini-series a decade or so ago, no one at DC seems to understand the Original Captain Marvel is a character that exists in a very specific time and place, with a very specific tone and style), and Doomsday Clock, which was just a mess. I’m looking forward to the next books in this series, including Junkyard Joe and Red Coat (with Bryan Hitch).

Ditko Shrugged: The Uncompromising Life of the Artist Creator of Spider-Man and the Rise of Marvel Comics by David Currie
I’m really on the fence about this book. On one hand, it’s an extremely rare biography of comic book artist Steve Ditko, the first to appear after his death, and apparently has the blessing of the remaining members of his family. Ditko is an artist who is almost impossible to know: He was an extremely private person and pretty much gave up on interviews and personal appearances in the 1960s (he died in 2018 at age 90, continuing to work on his comic art until the very end). As the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, he left behind a rich legacy of characters and stories which are incredibly popular 60 years later, including the blockbuster Spider-Man: No Way Home movie, which features both of his co-creations. Ditko did, however, correspond with some people, and author Currie was one of them; part of the book is built around that correspondence, which is being revealed for the very first time. That’s the good part of this book: Hearing from Ditko in his own words, however enigmatic they may be.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, the book is flawed and overpriced ($49.95 for 144 pages, with 72 color and black and white illustrations and photos). It’s indifferently edited and designed, with numerous mistakes (Stan Lee did not attend the first comics convention, New York Comicon in 1964: he sent Flo Steinberg instead; Jerry Siegel is misspelled Seigel more often than not, often in the same paragraph); the author is British and all the British spellings are left intact (colour, etc.) when it’s the norm for a book published in the U.S. to use American spellings. The design is oppressive, with text set very compactly (little space between the lines) and long stretches of pages with just text, making for a very claustrophobic read; some of the scanned art seems smeary (including the cover where the fine lines drop out). And the book is really only half about Ditko; there’s a lot about the comics industry (“the Rise of Marvel Comics”), and one chapter seems to have more about Steve Gerber than Steve Ditko.

While there is stuff I didn’t know (Ditko created the famous Marvel “corner box,” making the company’s books stand out on crowded newsstands; he left an estate of $1.5 million upon his death, suggesting he may have gotten some movie money from Marvel or Sony, in addition to accepting payments for reprints of his work), Ditko still remains a mystery. No one knows why he left Marvel when he did (he insisted Stan Lee knew), and his later work, mired in his personal views of Objectivism, are impossible to read, let alone enjoy. Unfortunately, Steve Ditko will remain an enigma … this book doesn’t do much to solve that.

Marvel by Design: Graphic Design Strategies of the World’s Greatest Comics Company by gestalten
This big book is a kind of alternative history of Marvel Comics, looking at its 80+ years from a design standpoint. It’s filled to the brim with artwork—some of it rarely-seen—and examines what it takes to publish a comic from the perspective of all the contributors: writers, editors, artists (pencillers and inkers), letterers, and colorists. Each discipline gets its own section and some Marvel stalwarts, like editor/artist Carl Potts and letterer/cartoonist Chris Eliopoulis provide essays. Text is kept pretty much to a minimum and each chapter has copious examples of art, logos, lettering, color work, etc. There’s also a special chapter dedicated to the heavily design-influenced recent run of X-Men by Jonathan Hickman, that includes interviews with some of the team behind that relaunch.

But the book falls apart a bit when it comes to captions for the art. Each piece of art is numbered within each chapter, primarily to correspond to a list in the back that gives art credits along with issue numbers and dates. But within the context of each chapter those numbers are largely ignored, while including them in captions would greatly help the reader understand what they’re reading and seeing. One example is a series of X-Men logos over the years, each numbered; a separate block of text explains them … however, while specific information is listed for each logo, they don’t use the numbers to tell you which logo they’re talking about. And since the logos outnumber the examples listed in the text, confusion reigns.

Despite all of that, this book is an ambitious and entertaining project and a great look at how comics are made. I would argue that a lot of the design decisions made at Marvel over 80 years were entirely organic (like Steve Ditko creating the classic 1960s Marvel corner box on Amazing Spider-Man #2) and not ones that were thought out by design consultants; maybe that’s what makes Marvel’s look so special.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks
I continued my re-reading of all these Marvel Masterworks, with new editions of Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2 (issues #11-19, plus Annual #1), Fantastic Four Volume 2 (issues #11-20, plus Annual #1), and The Mighty Thor Volume 1 (Journey Into Mystery #83-100). I had forgotten how much fun these stories were, especially the Lee-Ditko Spideys, including the absolutely bravura Annual #1 (with a 41-page story featuring the Sinister Six), and how great Ditko’s art was. His work would never be the same after leaving Marvel in the mid-60s. FF Vol. 2 includes Annual #1, a 37-page extravaganza featuring Sub-Mariner’s war on the surface world, plus more special features than you can shake a flaming Human Torch at.

Thor is the weakest of the bunch, as Jack Kirby is teamed with inker Joe Sinnott for the first time on a superhero book (the very first Thor story) in a glimpse of things to come, and Sinnott handles pencils and inks on a trio of stories, with Don Heck both penciling and inking himself and inking Kirby. Thor wouldn’t hit his stride until Stan and Jack took over the book again (including the “Tales of Asgard” back-up feature, which shows Kirby’s immediate affinity to the subject matter.), the book finally gets jump-started again, close to 20 issues into the run. The stories in this Thor volume range from mediocre to meh, with art by the above-mentioned Sinnott, Heck, and a really regrettable single by Al Hartley, but Kirby’s designs for Thor and Loki are amazing and both have withstood the test of time (although Loki’s cover is colored differently each time he appears). All three of these volumes include, once again, stunning new Michael Cho covers, too, at an affordable $15.99 cover price.

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