March 2022 Books …

An amazing Hollywood bio, a trio of comics-related histories, and a small stack of graphic novels make up my March readings … a record-setting (for me at least!) ten books for the month.

Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis

We seem to be undergoing a mini-renaissance devoted to the silent film comedic actor/writer/director Buster Keaton, with two new biographies devoted to him. I’ve been a huge fan since I first discovered him as a teenager in a book called The Silent Clowns by film critic Walter Kerr. Keaton is my favorite of all the silent comedians, much better than Charlie Chaplin (too sentimental), Harold Lloyd (too white-bread), and Harry Landgon (whose appeal is totally lost on me). James Curtis’s new biography is a voluminous, exhaustive read—over 1,200 pages on Kindle and 832 pages in its print edition—and a welcome addition to the bibliography of this great (and tragic) film star. The wonderful part of the Keaton story is his rise-fall-rise, and how the final decades of his life allowed him to once again see the respect and love his work generated around the world. Curtis is at his best writing about Keaton’s work and that’s the main thrust of the book. Keaton’s sad decline in the 1930s coincided with his contract being sold to MGM, his marriage to Natalie Talmadge failing, and his descent into alcoholism, and Curtis also writes about those awful years with respect and dignity. Keaton is a once in a lifetime star, an incredible storyteller who understood film and comedy and what makes a great gag. This is another Movieland biography by Curtis, who has previously told the stories of W. C. Fields, Spencer Tracy, and director James Whale, and it’s a great book, I think the author’s magnum opus. If you don’t know Keaton, this book will make you want to discover his films and the man himself.

Amazing Fantasy Omnibus by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby

I’m not a huge fan of the Omnibus format. I think it’s a major money-grab on the part of both Marvel and DC, and I find the books unwieldy and difficult to read. But occasionally there’s a small one that interests me (and is on sale on eBay), and that’s the case with the Amazing Fantasy Omnibus, a reasonably compact (less than 500 pages) compilation of the last of the Marvel monster books. This collection contains Amazing Adventures 1-6, Amazing Adult Fantasy 7-14, and Amazing Fantasy 15, the latter being the most-valued Marvel comic of all, featuring the debut of the Amazing Spider-Man (that’s a lot of Amazings!).

The first six issues are just forgettable giant monster tales, in the Marvel manner of the late 1950s/60s. I’m not quite sure why they did yet another monster book; they were already publishing Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense, and Tales to Astonish. But Marvel (which wasn’t quite yet Marvel at this point in time) was restricted to just eight books per month by their distributor (owned by DC Comics), which Stan Lee metered out as both monthly and bi-monthly books. Amazing Adventures debuted as a monthly, and while the Jack Kirby/Dick Ayers monster tales are great to look at (and horrible to read), it’s the Steve Ditko five-pagers that have a totally different feel to them. Lee recognized this and decided to devote the entire book to stories drawn by Ditko, usually four five-page stories and one three-pager in each issue. Amazing Adult Fantasy,—debuting with #7, the December 1961 issue, just one month after Fantastic Four #1—has a totally different feel to it, unlike any other comic on the newsstands at that time. These short, punchy stories remind you of the hit TV series, The Twilight Zone, which was airing at the time. The stories also have an EC Comics/O’Henry vibe to them, but they’re short and quick to read, unlike EC’s very dense (but wonderfully drawn) tales. I remember this series fondly from when I was very young (we bought every issue off the newsstands as they came out). As a kid I hated Ditko’s art, but now I love it. Looking at the stories in this collection, they look great, pretty much the best I’ve ever seen any Marvel reprint look (and they’ve looked pretty bad in some of the Masterworks volumes).

Each issue of AAF was drawn entirely by Ditko, and included a contents page and a one-page sneak peek at the next issue. Eventually, Lee added a letters page, too. But the book was never the hit Lee hoped it to be, and that may be because of the addition of the word “Adult” in the title (the tag line for the book was “The magazine that respects your intelligence!”). And let’s face it … Adult together with Fantasy has an entirely different meaning, especially in staid, old 1961. I think Lee and Ditko did great work on this series, and the fans who took the time to write in obviously loved it. But by issue #15 (cover-dated September 1962), publisher Martin Goodman was ready to pull the plug. With the success of the Fantastic Four, Lee and Ditko came up with Spider-Man for the final issue (now titled simply Amazing Fantasy). That feature clicked with readers and the word Amazing was carried over to the new Amazing Spider-Man ongoing series in late 1962, with a cover date of March 1963.

This volume also includes all of Amazing Fantasy #15 (including the non-Spidey back-up stories), all the original art for the entire book (which was anonymously donated to the Library of Congress years ago), an introduction by comic artist Steve Bissette (which focuses on the giant monster aspect of Amazing Adventures 1-6) and some historical perspective on Amazing Adult Fantasy 7-14 by Ditko expert Blake Bell. All in all, this is an entertaining and well-done piece of Marvel history, showing a publisher on the cusp of greatness, and straddling the late Atlas/MC era with the Marvel Age of Comics.

John Severin: Two-Fisted Comic Book Artist by Greg Biga and Jon B. Cooke

The third in TwoMorrow’s illustrated biographies of Golden and Silver Age comic book artists, John Severin joins Reed Crandall and Mac Raboy in this series of deluxe full-color hardcover books. Severin is one of the unsung masters of comic book art and his work was highlighted by an incredible attention to detail, an able-to-do-it-all style of drawing (action, adventure, western, war, and a surprising affinity for humor), and a strict moral code. This book strikes the perfect balance between art and text, with a thorough look at Severin’s life and a colossal amount of great comic art. I always loved it when Severin inked artists—especially at Marvel—who I felt needed a little extra push, like Herb Trimpe and Dick Ayers, to make them great. Severin’s inks on both those guys brought the Incredible Hulk (Trimpe) and Sgt. Fury (Ayers) to their absolute best. His work with his sister, Marie, on Kull is legendary, and you can almost see the ideas jumping from brain to brain between them, proving once again that when it comes to art, it’s in the genes. I predict this will be 2023’s Eisner Award winner for Best Comics History book.

Batman: The Long Halloween Deluxe Edition by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

I was curious to re-read this seminal Batman story by both its recent two-part animated movie and the fact that it’s credited as being one of the inspirations for The Batman, the new movie version of the Caped Crusader, directed by Matt Reeves. This new deluxe edition is a beautiful hardbound with a new cover by artist Tim Sale and about 40 extra pages of ancillary material, including interviews with Loeb and Sale (by letterer Richard Starkings), Loeb’s original pitch for the series, and a look at Sale’s cover art process. (An additional new deluxe hardcover has been released containing Loeb and Sale’s sequel, Dark Victory, and their related Catwoman tale, When In Rome, is also due out in a new deluxe edition, although the latter is a pricey $49.95 for what was essentially a mini-series.)

This quirky 13-part comics series was originally released over 20 years ago and DC took the unusual step of issuing it as a separate, standalone series, instead of folding it into one of its existing Bat-books, such as Batman or Detective Comics, or even Legends of the Dark Knight (where Loeb and Sale’s work had appeared previously). Sale’s very stylistic art takes a bit to get used to, but I’ve always been drawn to it (no pun intended), finding his characterizations of both Batman and his rogues’ gallery to be wonderful. The story concerns a killer known as Holiday who only strikes on major holidays and each issue is one of them. Loeb takes us on a ride through the who’s who of Bat-villains—including Joker, Riddler, Catwoman, Mad Hatter, Scarecrow, the Calendar Man, Poison Ivy, and even Solomon Grundy—something the writer would do again with Jim Lee in the early 2000s with their “Hush” storyline. Having just watched The Godfather in its 50th anniversary re-release, I was shocked at how much the organized crime family in The Long Halloween echoes that film, especially with the Carmine Falcone (“The Roman”) character and his family.

The Long Halloween still stands up as a major addition to the Batman mythos, and it’s quirky and idiosyncratic art just adds to its appeal. Last fall, Loeb and Sale did a one-issue, standalone sequel, which I intend to read next. It’s great to have them back creating comics together.

Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said: The Complex Genesis of the Marvel Universe, in its Creators’ Own Words (Expanded Second Edition) Researched, Written, and Edited by John Morrow

Who created the Marvel Universe, the series of 1960s comics that included Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, Iron Man, Avengers, X-Men, Sgt. Fury, Daredevil, and countless other secondary characters … most of which went on to become part of a financial box office force in the twenty-first century? I have always personally felt that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were the John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the comics world, a brilliant collaboration that produced some of the finest work ever in their respective fields. But I also always felt that other artists, such as Steve Ditko, John Romita, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, and Gene Colan were at their personal best in the work they did with Stan Lee. So there had to be something there with Stan, right?

Now I’m not so sure. After re-reading Abraham Riesman’s devastating, warts-and-all biography of Lee, True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee (see below), I’ve now (finally) finished John Morrow’s definitive “in-their-own-words” tell-all, Stuf’ Said. Published as the 75th issue of Morrow’s Jack Kirby Collector magazine, this 176-page tome (republished almost immediately after its initial appearance in an expanded second edition, adding 16 pages to the original) presents a chronological look at what both Lee and Kirby said from 1961 on until their own deaths, on the often-touchy topic of who created what. Both Riesman and Morrow point out that Lee didn’t really create anything substantial on his own, without the Marvel artists to lean on and collaborate with, and Kirby (and Ditko) did. But the magic of the Fantastic Four, et al, during the 1960s when both creators were firing on all creative cylinders, is the best superhero comics ever had to offer. So it’s difficult at best, to separate the team and decide who did what.

Morrow’s research and compilation of all these quotes over the years builds a very dense book, and it’s wonderfully illustrated and designed (in full color, too). But the entire crux of the book boils down—for Morrow, at least (and I agree)—to two quotes, one each from Stan and Jack:

Stan Lee: “The dialogue I have always felt is the most important thing. Just as in a radio show, certainly the dialogue is the most important thing. I think in a motion picture, or in a television show, it’s what the person says that matters.”

Jack Kirby: “The penciler is the one who tells the story, who visualizes it. It’s not a writer’s medium, a letterer’s medium, an inker’s medium … the decisive factor is the artist.”

Morrow writes that each man felt his contribution was key, and that the other’s could have been done by anyone. I personally think that comics are such a hybrid of storytelling that one can’t be separated from the other. Stan Lee believed that if he told Jack Kirby, “I want to do a book about a character called the Hulk,” he had created that character. But in comics, the visualization of the character is key to its presentation and subsequent popularity, so the artist doing that visualization is also the character’s co-creator, at the very least. I am now, and have always been, “Team Kirby” when it comes to who did all the heavy lifting at Marvel in the 1960s. This book all but confirms that, as far I’m concerned.

True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee by Abraham Riesman

I read this book a year ago when it was first released in hardback (I read the Kindle version), and I was interested in reading it again, especially after reading Stuf’ Said, which is almost as damning an indictment of Stan Lee’s bona fides as a creator as Riesman’s book. I will say that reading it in a printed version is very different than reading it on Kindle (this might be the first time I’ve read a book both digitally and in print), and I enjoyed it more as a physical book than a digital one, probably no surprise there. And while I stand by what I wrote a year or so ago (you can read it by clicking here), I’m still somewhat stunned about how I now feel about Stan Lee, given the double whammy of Stuf’ Said and the re-reading of this book. He called himself “Stan the Man” in his catchy Marvel Comics credits throughout his writing career. And while I have no doubt Stan Lee was a major contributor to the Marvel Universe and a co-creator, and a person who is still a major part of the Marvel characters and stories appeal and creation, maybe “Stan the Sham” would be a better nickname for him. Still, many people in the world will continue to believe Stan created Spider-Man, Thor, Hulk, even Superman, because that’s what Stan was best at: self-promotion. He was beloved for a reason, as that avuncular personage who gave us a whole Universe … and some of that is certainly true. But a lot of it isn’t. This book, along with Stuf’ Said, proves that, I think.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks: Daredevil, Vol. 1 by Stan Lee, Wally Wood, et al

Daredevil was the last solo book of the creative era known as the Marvel Age of Comics. It was supposed to be released in the summer of 1963, but artist Bill Everett (who is credited as co-creating DD along with Stan Lee) was so far behind on the book—his comeback to comics—that Lee pushed a new one out to fill the hole in the printer’s schedule. That book was The Avengers, supposedly created by Jack Kirby over a long weekend, and instead it debuted along with the other Lee/Kirby co-creation, The X-Men, in the summer of 1963 (I vaguely remember buying both of them on the same day from my local newsstand). DD was finally released in early 1964.

Whether it was because of Everett’s slowness (he only did that first issue) or Lee dealing with some less capable “Marvel Method” artists, Daredevil in its earliest issues is kind of a mess. The scripts are incredibly talky, even for Lee, and the art is less than memorable. Joe Orlando, famed first for his work in EC Comics and later as a DC Comics editor and exec, did issues 2-4 and they’re not exactly memorable (Vince Colletta’s inking doesn’t help). DD’s original wrestling-inspired costume, in its garish yellow and red design, along with wimpy villains (Electro, The Owl, and wimpiest of all, The Purple Man,), meant the book didn’t reach its early zenith until Wally Wood came onboard. Lee touted Wood as the second coming of Christ (even giving him a cover shoutout on his first issue, #5), and his work on the title—including redesigning DD’s costume to the all-red version we know and love in a memorable issue featuring Sub-Mariner—reinvigorated it; the stories are leaner (reduced to 20 pages, when most Marvel stories were 22), flow better, and the captions and word balloons are less dense. But Wood and Lee were a bad fit. Wally didn’t really like the Marvel Method of the artist plotting and drawing the story (mainly because he was not being paid for the extra work), and then Lee writing the dialogue and hogging all the credit. Wood only lasted six issues (#5-11), all of which are included in this volume. He also didn’t exactly break the wimpy villains trend either, with the Matador, Stilt Man, and the terrifying quartet of Cat-Man, Ape-Man, Bird-Man, and—sigh—Frog-Man, who worked with the hood-shrouded menace known as The Organizer. Wood was only doing finishing inks by issue 10, handing layout chores over to Bob Powell, and he was gone with issue #11, bad-mouthing Stan along the way (to be fair, Stan bad-mouthed him back). Issues #1-11 are included in this new smaller-sized reprint with (once again) a wonderful new Michael Cho cover. They’re not Marvel’s finest 1960s’ hour, but they’re fun and Wood’s art is great. Too bad it didn’t last.

Daredevil Vol. 7: Lockdown by Chip Zdarsky, et al

Writer Chip Zdarsky’s stellar run on Daredevil continues with this volume that collects issues 31-36, ostensibly the end of this chapter of DD’s life. The art is a little uneven in this one with three different artists contributing; Marco Checchetto only contributes one issue, in preparation for the inevitable Marvel “Event” series, Devil’s Reign, which followed this volume and is finishing up now, along with Daredevil: Woman Without Fear, which continues the Elektra-as-Daredevil storyline for three issues. (Supposedly Zdarsky is relaunching Daredevil in yet another new series, but he’s also the new writer on Batman for DC Comics, so we’ll see how that goes.) This volume wraps up the Daredevil in prison storyline, sees DD and Elektra band together to fight Bullseye (with a wicked little twist), and The Kingpin—NYC Mayor Wilson Fisk—takes a bride. Still enjoyable and still Marvel’s best-written title, even if the art is a little “meh” at times.

The Fields by Erin Young

Sgt. Riley Fisher is troubled. She has a troubled relationship with her brother, a troubled niece, a troubled co-worker who thinks he should have gotten the promotion she got (and who she had a troubled, drunken one-night stand with years ago), a troubled past with two high school friends who are keeping a troubled secret about Riley … until one of them ends up dead in a cornfield in Iowa, possibly the victim of a serial killer or maybe someone else involving the upcoming election for governor, or the science behind the perfect kernel of corn that can grow anywhere. Obviously this whole book has troubled me.

Touted as “A breakneck procedural that is beautifully written and masterfully crafted, Erin Young’s The Fields is a dynamite debut—crime fiction at its very finest,” by that large multi-national warehouse website that we all love to hate, I thought this book would be right up my alley. I love police procedurals with strong female characters and I’m always up for discovering new talent, especially in the mystery genre. But Erin Young’s first book packs a dozen ears of corn into a sack that can only hold six. There’s just too much going on, from a serial killer with a storm cellar straight out of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, to big agriculture controlling the farming business in Iowa, to politics in the state governor’s race, to a secret lab and a mysterious drug and hidden patients (which may be related to rumors of a mysterious white van kidnapping homeless veterans off the street), to problems at Riley’s job and at home. Oh, and there’s a giant snake, too. Too many side plots and too many characters and yet the book still seems drawn out and long, racing from one incident to the next and colliding for a climax that takes a lot of ‘splainin’ to do, Lucy. I might give Sgt. Riley Fisher another tumble if this is, indeed, the start of a new series, but The Fields is a debut that left me out standing in my field waiting for the corn to get as high as an elephant’s eye, and not quite getting there.

Once & Future Vol. 4: Monarchies in the UK by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora, and Tamra Bonvillian (Not Pictured)

Gillen’s epic story about Britain’s legends goes on … and, unfortunately, on and on. This is getting very confusing, and I feel a need to end it at some point soon, but Mora’s art and Bonvillain’s color art are both too enticing for me to give up yet; plus I love the characters of Duncan, Rose, and Bridgette as they go on their merry monster hunting ways. Mora’s art has gotten a little rougher, probably because he was juggling this volume (which collects issue 19-24) with Detective Comics for DC and maybe even the new Worlds’ Finest book with Mark Waid. Either way, I hope this ends soon. The legends of ye merry olde England need their rest.

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