A couple more books about Marvel Comics, two more movie-themed biographies, a cultural history of Britain in the early 1960s, and an eagerly-awaited mystery novel make up my February reading list …
Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge by Sheila Weller
I love a good movie star biography and Sheila Weller’s 2019 bio on Carrie Fisher certainly fits that bill. Born into Hollywood royalty—the daughter of movie legend Debbie Reynolds and semi-talented crooner Eddie Fisher—Carrie is best known for her role as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy, of course. And while many of us remember those first three films with an inordinate amount of fondness, Fisher went on to distinguish herself as not only a fine actress (When Harry Met Sally and the TV series Catastrophe are just two great examples), but also as one of Hollywood’s finest script doctors and as a best-selling author, with her thinly-veiled fiction books inspired by her real life. But boy … was she a mess, and this book tackles all of that with respect, love, and granular detail.
I’m sad that such a great wit and intellect was such a slave to so many things: Drugs, bipolar disorder, her fractured relationships with her mom and dad, and her Star Wars legacy (you can’t escape that metal bikini, even if you do kill the giant slug-like creature who put you in it—and I mean Jabba the Hut, not George Lucas). She eventually patched things up with both her parents, had a smart, funny, talented daughter with a husband who forgot to tell her he was gay, and became the toast of New York with her one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, which I was lucky enough to see in a theater carved out of the former Studio 54. While I was in the audience, Carrie pointed directly at me from the stage and mentioned that years ago, while it was the famed disco, she got laid “right about there.” I felt honored.
She left us way too early and the double blow of her mom dying the next day made it even worse. This book tells all about who she was and why we loved her, warts and all … and man, there were a lot of warts.
Funny Man: Mel Brooks by Patrick McGilligan
I didn’t set out to read two Mel Brooks books over the course of a few months, but after reading Mel’s autobiography, All About Me, I definitely felt something was missing. While it’s an enjoyable read, it’s really all about Brooks’s movies and plays, with just a bit of personal info, especially on his early years and stint in the army in WWII, leading up to his role as a writer in the classic 1950s TV series, Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar. From that point on, the book is pretty much all-career, all the time.
And boy, is there a lot missing. Let’s just say that Funny Man: Mel Brooks by Patrick McGilligan covers all the bases, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And there’s a lot of the latter two; Mel Brooks is a very complicated man who isn’t quite the beloved comedy figure we’ve all come to know—or think we know. This is definitely a warts-and-all bio, like Sheila Weller’s Carrie Fisher book, and Brooks comes across as petty, jealous, and, at times, not a very nice guy. McGilligan goes into a lot of detail on Brooks’s career and his personal life, much more so than Brooks himself in his autobiography. This is a dense, dishy book and it doesn’t pull any punches. If you love Mel Brooks, stick to All About Me, because this may change your mind about him; if you’re fascinated with a real look behind the curtain, then Funny Man is for you.
The Trawlerman by William Shaw
I was so eagerly awaiting the latest book in the Alexandra Cupidi series by William Shaw that I ordered the newly-released paperback edition directly from England … suffice it to say it was worth every penny. Shaw writes incredibly detailed and nuanced stories about his detective sergeant, who lives on the southeast coast of England, in Dungeness, Kent County. The locale may be a tad desolate but murder finds its way into this bucolic setting. In this book, Cupidi is on leave for mental health issues due to what happened to her in the previous book (Grave’s End), but still finds herself embroiled in a couple of mysteries, including the murder of an older couple whose son is in long-term critical care in a nearby facility. As usual, Cupidi’s daughter, Zoe, and fellow copper Jill, along with neighbor Bill South, are along for the ride. This one’s plot is incredibly complicated as two divergent stories merge together, and includes quite possibly the most original solving of a murder I’ve ever read. This is the fourth in the Cupidi series, but to me it will always be the fifth, since The Birdwatcher, the story of Bill South, is the book which introduced her. Sadly, it looks like Shaw’s next book is a standalone novel minus Cupidi. I dearly hope he returns to her at some point, and hey … BBC, ITV, and Sky: You all love making TV shows all over the UK … isn’t it time for one in Kent featuring these absolutely wonderful characters?
Frostquake: How the Frozen Winter of 1962 Changed Britain Forever by Juliet Nicholson
I am a confirmed Anglophile and this book fascinated me from the moment I discovered it on the Waterstone’s app that I regularly haunt on my phone. It’s a cultural history of England in the winter of 1962-63, based around a massive storm that occurred then. It started snowing on Dec. 26, 1962 and it didn’t stop for ten weeks; along with the storm came a deep-freeze that brought the country to a virtual standstill. Author Nicholson lived through this as a young girl and she is at her best in this book when she recounts her own life and that of her family during this period. But this huge storm—and its eventual thaw—was a metaphor for what was happening in Great Britain at the time. Twenty years after World War II, the country was still thawing out from a horrible, debilitating conflict that changed the world forever. Nicholson tells how things changed in this pivotal period, including race and gender relations, fashion, the rise of The Beatles, government scandals (such as the Profumo affair), England’s relationship with the United States, and the fall of the conservatives. As the spring thaw warms the nation, The Beatles (and to a lesser extent, James Bond) bring back some small measure of pride to the once mighty empire, and the new, more liberal government of Harold Wilson brings about much-needed change. I enjoyed this book immensely and Nicholson is a wonderful writer. Great Britain … come for the scenery, stay for the books.
Fantastic Four no. 1: Panel by Panel by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Chip Kidd, and Geoff Spears
Fantastic Four no. 1: Panel by Panel is a beautiful hardcover that showcases the comic book that started the Marvel Universe in a unique way: Just about every panel has been photographed (by Spears) and lovingly laid-out by super-designer Kidd. Yes, this has been done before, in 2005’s Maximum Fantastic Four, but that book’s fatal flaw was using a “digitally remastered” edition of the book, and not photographing the warts and all published version of 1961, featuring off-register colors, Ben Day dots, and crummy newsprint. (In other words, how just about every early Marvel comic looked from that era). The book is complimented by essays by Kidd, Marvel editor-in-chief Tom Brevoort, and comics historian and Kirby expert Mark Evanier. Brevoort does a page-by-page examination of the book, finding evidence that FF #1 could be cobbled together from two stories that may have been scheduled to be published in one of Marvel’s monster books at the time, like Amazing Adventures, until publisher Martin Goodman decided to do it as a new standalone series, which is a theory I never heard before. (Something else I never noticed before: The two spelling errors in this book, and I’ve read it countless times, the most recent being the 2021 reissue of Marvel Masterworks … and yes, they’re still in there, too, uncorrected 60 years later). Evanier talks about Kirby’s role in all of this and how different the FF was when it hits the stands in August 1961. This is an extremely well-crafted tribute to what someone called the “Big Bang moment” of the Marvel Universe, perfectly timed for the FF’s 60th anniversary.
Mighty Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange Vol. 1 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Marvel continues the reissuing of their Marvel Masterworks series in these affordable, kid-friendly, smaller volumes. This one features the earliest Doctor Strange stories from Strange Tales and includes issues #110, 111, and 112-129. It takes a while for Strange to catch on and even Stan Lee seems to be shocked at its appeal, constantly reminding readers that the new hero was “a far greater success than we had expected!” Maybe this is because Doctor Strange was created wholly by Steve Ditko. As Lee put it in a fanzine at the time: “Well, we have a new character in the works for Strange Tales, just a 5-page filler named Dr. Strange. Steve Ditko is gonna draw him. It has sort of a black magic theme. The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him. ’Twas Steve’s idea.”
The first stories, five-page fillers, are nothing to write home about. With “The Origin of Doctor Strange” in ST #115, the hero finally starts to really take shape. Ditko’s quirky art certainly lends charm to the feature, but it isn’t until the story in Strange Tales #126, “The Domain of the Dread Dormammu!” that the artist goes full Ditko on the good Doctor, plunging the Master of the Mystic Arts into other dimensions, with trippy backgrounds that make you think ol’ Steve must have been smoking something at the time (he wasn’t). As the Marvel Universe coalesces and grows, Doctor Strange would become a benchmark for creativity and incredible art by Ditko. The second volume of MMMW: Doctor Strange should include the artist’s epic 17-part storyline that would mark the end of his run on the character. Even though I’ve read it a thousand times, I can’t wait to read it again.