January 2023 Books …

Remember when 2023 sounded so far in the future we’d all be flying around in jetpacks and reading would be automatically inserted in your brain, no page-turning necessary? Well, here we are and I’m still buying books. I’ve upped my GoodReads Challenge to 75 books this year, after reading 76 in 2022 (with an original goal of 60!). So here we go … !

Illustrators Quarterly Special #14: The Illustrated History of Warren Magazines

The key phrase here is “illustrated history,” because this book is certainly filled with a lot of great interior art and covers from the 20-year history of Warren Publications. The text is a bit awkward at times and the layout leaves a bit to be desired; a little bit of space between columns of type and images would be welcome. As usual, this is beautifully printed, though. If you’re looking for a great history of Warren Publishing, I’d recommend the late Bill Schelly’s excellent biography, James Warren: Empire of Monsters, which has just been reissued in paperback by Fantagraphics Books, after the 2019 hardcover edition quickly sold out. It’s my understanding that this Illustrators Special is being reprinted also, as the first printing sold out.

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

Another in the series of “Deluxe Edition” reprints of Loeb and Sales Batman books, umbrellaed under the title “The Long Halloween,” this volume prints the three Halloween specials the duo produced in 1993, 1994, and 1995. All three were spin-offs from the Archie Goodwin-edited series Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, which DC began publishing around the time of the first Tim Burton movie in 1989. Goodwin was one of comics best editors and recognized talent; the Legends book was a hodge-podge of different artists, writers, and styles with stand-alone stories and story arcs. It was writer Jeph Loeb who suggested his and artist Tim Sale’s Halloween story should be a special, and Goodwin agreed. The three seasonal specials led to a 12-issue series, The Long Halloween and a sequel, Dark Victory. The stories reprinted in this long-winded title are amongst their first Batman tales and they are fast-moving, great stories, featuring Scarecrow, the Mad Hatter, and Joker, Penguin, and Poison Ivy (respectively). Sale’s art is a bit looser and not as good as in the TLH and DV series, but he hits all the high notes and his figure work is dynamic and all his storytelling prowess is there. I once interviewed Sale about his work for the NBC TV series, Heroes, for a publication I edited and designed, Comic-Con’s Update magazine, and he revealed he was colorblind, and did his art in gray tones and let someone else color it (it’s Gregory Wright in these specials). Sadly, Sale died in 2022. He was scheduled to do another Long Halloween special, but it never came to be. The new cover for this book, colored by Brennan Wagner, might be his last Batman piece. These new TLH reprints are pricey hardbound editions, with great paper and printing and design work. There are four in total, including Catwoman: When in Rome, the one I’ve resisted buying, since I remember it as the weakest of the bunch.

The 30 Rock Book: Inside the Iconic Show from Blerg to EGOT by Mike Roe

I read The Big Bang Theory: The Definitive Inside Story of the Epic Hit Series by Jessica Radloff last fall, and it was a great oral history of that TV show; so great I feel it has probably spoiled me for books such as this. I was hoping for the same with Mike Roe’s The 30 Rock Book, but I was sadly disappointed. While Roe did do 50 interviews with crew members and writers, the people you really want to hear from (creator and star Tina Fey, stars Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jack Brayer, and Jane Krakowski, and co-creator/executive producer Robert Carlock) are all reduced to a few quotes cribbed from DVD commentaries or other published sources. Instead we get a bunch of synopses of all of the episodes, peppered with quotes from writers mainly. Roe also brings in a couple of TV critics (who have nothing to do with the making of the show), a couple of lower-level actors who I don’t even remember appearing on the show, and a lot of commentary on what the show did wrong 15 years ago when it comes to social consciousness. Worst of all, the author occasionally inserts his own lame jokes, which, thankfully, get fewer and farther between as the book goes on. While the book is mildly entertaining, it’s only so when it’s quoting something that was said on the show. Better to just go and watch all seven seasons again. There is a great book here but only if Fey, et al are involved. Hmmm … I wonder what Jessica Radloff is doing these days …

Mighty Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange Vol. 2: The Eternity War by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

This book neatly collects the epic story of Doctor Strange’s quest for Eternity in order to save his own life and the life of his mentor, the Ancient One from Dormammu and Baron Mordu. It reprints 17 10-page Doctor Strange stories from Strange Tales #s 130-146, which is basically one 170-page story, plus the epic Spider-Man Annual #2, which teamed up Doc with Spidey. I truly believe this is Steve Ditko’s finest work at Marvel and probably his finest cartooning work ever. At one point, Stan Lee even allows Ditko to have credit for the plotting, but it was too little, too late … Ditko would leave Marvel after handing in the art for Strange Tales #146 and Amazing Spider-Man #38, never drawing his co-creations and signature characters again. The artist handles all the artwork chores on this run, including inks, and the stories are brilliantly colored (probably by Marie Severin). I have a new appreciation for Ditko after re-reading this book; it truly is—to me at least—his finest hour.

Newburn Vol. 1 by Chip Zdarsky and Jacob Phillips

Newburn is the story of Easton Newburn, an ex NYPD cop who has become a private detective working exclusively with the NYC mobs, investigating crimes against them—like robberies and murders—on their behalf. He’s not the world’s friendliest guy, but he does okay financially with this set-up, making enough to have his own driver and a newly-hired assistant, Emily, who has her own history with the NYPD, and acts as the more human side of the business. Phillips is the son of artist and frequent Ed Brubaker- collaborator Sean Phillips—and his art is a bit unpolished, but better than his first work on That Texas Blood (he also is the current colorist on all of the Brubaker/Phillips graphic novels). Issue #4 in this collection shows how quickly he’s maturing as an artist, though I still can’t get used to his coloring, both on the standpoint of his palette (weird color choices that look like they were just picked to be weird) and how he places color on the page; too many straight lines and angles for me, especially how he colors people. This Image TPB collects the first eight issues of the series (which right now looks like it), and has a few related stories. Newborn investigates a series of murders amongst the NYC gangs, tracks down a killer in prison, and bails Emily out of her long-standing jam. It’s a different kind of comic book story and I enjoyed it (although Zdarsky seems to have a bit of a gambling crutch when it comes to characters’ foibles, both in this book and Public Domain).

Public Domain Vol. 1: Past Mistakes by Chip Zdarsky

Wow, a double dose of Zdarsky this month! I’m really enjoying both of Chip Zdarsky’s “mainstream” series, Batman for DC (Jorge Jimenez, artist) and Daredevil for Marvel (Marco Checchetto, artist), so I thought I’d give his Substack series a try. (Substack is a subscription-based email service that some comics creators have embraced; I am not a subscriber. I like to read comic books, not comic emails.) Without giving too much away, Public Domain is the story of the Dallas family, whose patriarch, Syd Dallas, created “The Domain,” the most popular superhero in the world. When someone finds an old document, the Dallas family fortunes change, but maybe not quite for the better. This is a story about the comic book industry and how it hurts its creators, a decades-long saga that should surprise no one. Zdarsky (who, by the way, is the CEO of the giant conglomerate Zdarsco Inc. in real life, so take that for what it’s worth) crafts a very enjoyable story about Syd getting back the most important part of his legacy. This volume ends on a high note and I’m looking forward to what happens next (but not enough to subscribe to Substack … sorry, Chip). Zdarsky handles all the chores here: writing, pencilling, inking, coloring, and lettering and the result is very pleasing. I guess he won’t have any problems with future lawsuits from his collaborators.

Peanuts Boxed Set by Charles M. Schulz

This retro collection of the first three Peanuts reprint books from the 1950s comes with a set of collector cards and a slipcase. It’s Peanuts at its earliest, and you can see Charles M. Schulz’s cartooning quickly evolve through these pages. Included are Peanuts, More Peanuts, and Good Ol’ Charlie Brown in 6 x 9” reprints that mirror the original printings from over 70 years ago. This set is a lot of fun as you see not only Schulz’s evolving cartooning style, but the evolution of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Patty, Violet, and even Baby Schroeder (Lucy and Linus make their first appearances in the second volume, More Peanuts). Great strips, lovingly presented in their original book format, from a time when major book publishers were not reprinting “lowly” comic strips.

Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-year Battle Between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker

I read this a few years ago when it originally came out in hardback and kind of didn’t like it. But I have a soft spot for trade paperbacks (Get it? SOFT spot? Softcover?) and I picked it up again and enjoyed it more this time. There are some flaws, but it’s an honest and reasonably thorough account of the half-century long rivalry between Marvel and DC, roughly from 1960 or so through 2015. All the high notes are hit: The rise of Marvel in the early 1960s, Jack Kirby’s defection to DC and back to Marvel, the growth of the Direct Market, the DC-Marvel team-ups, Shooter’s Marvel reign, the rise of “Event” story arcs, Marvel’s bankruptcy, the contentious Jemas/Quesada years, and, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC’s failure to come up with something as popular. It’s all written in a very readable style by journalist Reed Tucker, who seems to be a comics fan and not just “on assignment.” I’m glad I reread it.

Murder Book by Thomas Perry

Thomas Perry is one of those reliable mystery/thriller writers who does a book a year, and they usually hit around this time. Sometimes I really enjoy them (The Old Man—much better than the TV adaptation—and The Burglar—hoping for a TV adaptation; ditto Runner, with his recurring character Jane Whitefield, who helps people disappear; she would make a great ongoing series), and sometimes they’re just okay, like this one. Murder Book tells the tale of ex-cop Harry Duncan who is hired by his ex-wife, a US Attorney, to quietly investigate the mysterious influx of mobsters in an area in Indiana. Seems these goons are moving in and trying to extort protection money from businesses and harassing and threatening townspeople to give up their homes. Harry moves into the area and a few dead bodies later convinces his ex to start an FBI investigation, only the Feds don’t seem interested, until Harry unearths a mid-level gangster who was responsible for recruitment, and who’s willing to testify. Murder Book has its moments, and some of them are incredibly cinematic, action-wise. Eventually you do find out what the allure of the area is, and it’s a very topical MacGuffin for such an old-school thriller. I did enjoy Harry as a character, along with the enigmatic and fetching Renee Parkman, the bar owner who is an early target of the mobsters. Perry’s writing—especially his dialogue—is sometimes a bit stilted, though, and this book kind of meandersas much as it travels around its midwestern locale. Not bad, but no The Old Man or The Butcher’s Boy (his first novel).

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