November 2022 Books …

Kind of a mixed bag of books for November … but I enjoyed all of them.

August 1961 and June 1962 Marvel Omnibuses

These Marvel Omnibus editions reprint the entirety of a month’s worth of Marvel Comics in the historic months of August 1961—when Fantastic Four #1 debuted—and June 1962—when Amazing Fantasy #15 (the first Spider-Man story, plus Journey into Mystery #83–the first Thor—and Tales to Astonish #35–the first Ant-Man in costume) premiered. The titles are deceptive: FF1 was cover-dated November and AF15 September; and the volumes include comics that were released in each month, even though some of them have different cover dates (for example, August 1961 includes books cover-dated October, November, and December 1961). But by referencing the publishing records in the Library of Congress and comparing production numbers, Marvel was able to ascertain which books were actually released in August 1961 and June 1962.

At this point in time Marvel wasn’t even really Marvel yet; just a tiny “MC” colophon graced the covers. Publisher Martin Goodman had made a bad deal with the distributor Independent News, which also distributed DC Comics (then known by the far more lofty name “National Periodical Publications”), a deal which restricted Marvel to just eight books per month (these books prove that rule was very slippery; there are more books released in August 1961 or June 1962 than just eight per month). Those books were mainly monster, teenage, and western titles, and when FF1 debuted it looked pretty much like just another monster book, along the lines of Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense, or Tales to Astonish. But FF1 was a game-changer and soon the Fantastic Four donned costumes (with issue #3) and the Marvel Age of Comics was upon us, with The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, and Ant-Man all jump-starting a new superhero craze.

This is a great idea, but the execution is a little flawed. Marvel isn’t known for its production values (it doesn’t even use different paper stock for the covers of its monthly books) and the Omnibus format is flawed, to be sure. But these are relatively “small” Omnibus books, less than 600 pages each, so the usual binding and weight issues aren’t problematic. A third volume, July 1963, which will feature the debuts of Avengers #1 and X-Men #1, is due to premiere in summer 2023, and will take the page count up into the 700+ range, with the addition of Fantastic Four Annual #1, which also premiered that month. The books have attractive covers by Javier Rodriguez and some background info by the likes of Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort, writer Mark Waid, and comics historian Mark Evanier, plus some reprints of earlier Stan Lee intros from other books, but the design is fairly pedestrian and the entire package leaves one feeling that there should be more historical articles. (June 1962 also includes over 45 pages of original art, including all of Amazing Fantasy #15, which was anonymously gifted to the Library of Congress). The comics themselves are a fairly forgettable bunch, indicative of where Marvel was pre-FF: Unfocused and fairly unappealing. Still, there’s a certain charm to all those monsters, kid cowboys, and teen heartthrobs, and the idea behind these Omnibus editions is near and dear to my heart: In addition to buying just about all these books off the stands in 1961 and 1962 (minus all the cowboys and Millies, Patsys, and Hedys), as an adult I bought all the books Marvel produced that were cover-dated December 1965 (there were 15 of them), so … great minds think alike.

The Charlton Chronicles by Jon B. Cooke

This definitive history of one of comics’ perennial underdog publishers is so much more than I expected: It’s a complete history of Charlton publications, not just the comics side of their operation, but everything including its rumored mob ties and questionable hiring practices. Beginning with bootleg song lyric magazines that were sold on the street—and for which publisher/founder John Santangelo did a stint in prison—Jon Cooke chronicles the history of the Derby, CT outfit, which touted itself as an all-in-one publisher: It had its own printing presses, bindery, and distribution system, so they just didn’t create the comics and magazines they published, they also handled every other aspect of getting them to the public. For me as a kid, Charltons were the last comics I bought, only after Marvel, DC, Gold Key, and sometimes even Archie and—for a time—Tower had nothing new to offer in my twice-weekly visits to my small-town newsstands. But reading Cooke’s exhaustive (and incredibly well illustrated and researched) book, I realized how fondly I remember them, especially the Steve Ditko revamps of the Captain Atom and Blue Beetle characters in the mid-1960s, as part of editor/artist Dick Giordano’s “Action Hero” line. Most of these characters ended up at DC eventually, and one of them—Peacemaker, believe it or not—became the breakout show of HBO Max, but those half-dozen to a dozen issues at Charlton back in the day have an incredible amount of charm and excitement in them, even if the printing was shoddy, the lettering was shitty (by “A. Machine”), and the whole package looked more rushed and less polished than their Distinguished and Marvelous Competitors. I was expecting this book to be a rehash of Cooke’s two early 2000s issues of Comic Book Artist, which were filed with interviews with creators, but this is so much more, the complete life-to-death cycle of an often overlooked publisher that made a real impact—or at least a dent—in the comics world and whose most popular contribution to Western culture was song lyric magazines like Hit Parader. Cooke accomplishes this with short, punchy articles, lots of reminiscences by staff members and freelancers, and tons of illustrations, many of them obscure. This is another wonderful TwoMorrows publication that delves deeply into the history of American comic books and I can’t begin to tell you how highly I recommend it … it’s the book of the month for me.

The Big Bang Theory : The Definitive, Inside Story of the Epic Hit Series by Jessica Radloff

I love a good, dishy oral history of movie or TV series and this new book devoted to the 12-year TV phenomenon, The Big Bang Theory, certainly fulfills that. Author Jessica Radloff covered the show for years for Glamour magazine (because there’s nothing more glamorous than theoretical physicists who are comic book geeks), and became friends with the stars and honchos of the show and really got them all to open up and spill the beans on more than a decade of their lives. It’s an incredibly enjoyable read (although I could have done without the chapter on Young Sheldon, a show I stopped watching after the first episode), and it’s surprising how candid everyone is. TBBT was a Comic-Con favorite and that factors into the book early on, with a chapter on their first appearance there in 2008. While none of the actors have done anything as endearing and enjoyable since the show ended, their time together was one of those happy lessons in chemistry—the chemistry of casting, that is—and like Friends and Fraiser and Seinfeld before them, this show was made so much better because of the magic created between these individual actors acting together as an ensemble. I’ve watched—and for the most part, enjoyed—every episode of this show at least three times now and I’m thinking maybe it’s time to open up the HBO Max app and start from episode one all over again, thanks to the great memories generated by reading this book.

Frazetta Book Cover Art: Complete Collection Definitive Reference by J. David Spurlock and, you know … Frank Frazetta

Buying paperback books was a large part of my growing up in the 1960s. The Edgar Rice Burroughs novels (Tarzan, John Carter, and Pellucidar) were undergoing a renaissance and ACE Books (a smaller format size, which I kind of preferred, at least as a little kid) were publishing the ERB books with covers by Frank Frazetta. These were so much better than the “authorized” versions by Ballantine Books (with art by Richard Powers, which, ironically, I now appreciate a lot more and own the complete 24-book set). I’m not sure if I knew of Frazetta from comics at that young age; he did very little comics work in his career and is most famous for a little bit of work for EC and his Famous Funnies Buck Rogers cover run. But I certainly knew him from his work on the covers of Creepy and Eerie, published by Warren.

This hardbound collection published by Vanguard collects all the Frazetta book covers (paperback and hardback) from his entire career in chronological order. It’s a nice package and the reproduction is very good. A few small drawbacks: The light brown text on the glossy paper is hard to read (at least for these old eyes); the books are presented at their actual printed size, but it would have been nice to see some close-up detail work as full-page bleed images, maybe as chapter openers and closers; and I wish there was more written material about the covers, rather than just Frazetta quotes cribbed from previous publications. Also, there’s a lot of mentions about how Frazetta reworked some of these covers when he got the originals back. I’d love to see that kind of thing side-by-side with the original printed covers, but maybe that’s yet another Frazetta book from this publisher, who seems to be riding the Frazetta bandwagon really hard (this is their eighth Frazetta book, not counting additional “Deluxe Editions” of pretty much all of them).

Desert Star by Michael Connelly

SPOILER ALERT!!! Some details of this review may include spoilers. You’ve been warned!

Michael Connelly returns with another Ballard and Bosch book, so it must be November. This time around, Ballard has gone back to the LAPD and reopened the Unsolved Cases unit. She’s in charge and the only paid copper, so she signs up a group of volunteers, including one Harry Bosch, who is no stranger to the whole “Unsolved Cases” game. But Bosch isn’t doing so good, physically or mentally. He’s haunted by an unsolved case that involved an entire family of four being murdered and buried in the desert. He desperately wants to solve that case, but Ballard wants him to work on another, which involves a possible serial killer.

This book is a typical Connelly slow-burn, engrossing as ever. While I long for the days of solo Bosch books (and I wouldn’t mind another solo Ballard one, too), I guess those days are gone. The Harry Bosch of Connelly’s books must be pushing 80 years old now, while the TV version is pushing 60. And—here’s the SPOILER ALERT part—it’s looking like Harry may be getting ready to punch out. Things look pretty grim at the end of this one for our hero, 31 books into the “Bosch Universe.” One good thing about this one is Maddie Bosch is a little more in the game, and like her TV counterpart, also a cop now. I’m guessing that maybe the Ballard & Bosch books will continue at some point with Maddie filling in for her dad, either pre- or postmortem. I’ll be sad to see Harry go, but it’s inevitable, and the cause of death has already been revealed in this book, even if the actual outcome hasn’t. Maybe next year?

Meantime, on a recent podcast interview, Connelly revealed there is talk about Renee Ballard making the jump to the small screen. I hope it’s in such a way that she can interact with the Bosch Universe, and not be like The Lincoln Lawyer, which is on another streaming service and divorced form the half-brother to Harry Bosch concept in the books. My pick for Ballard? Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She’s the right age and the right kind of quiet, introspective actress (Nikki Swango notwithstanding) for this character. Make it so, Connelly.

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