March 2023 Books …

Seven books this month, not bad considering I spent a lot of time working on a presentation for WonderCon. Between holiday gifts, my UK trip last year, and just a bad case of “Oh, this book looks good!”, I am overwhelmed right now with stacks and stacks of books and books. But don’t worry, I’m not in any imminent danger of having one topple over and kill me; I may instead trip over a low stack on the floor.

Fat, Drunk and Stupid: The inside Story of the Making of National Lampoon’s Animal House by Matty Simmons

This very slight volume (a little more than 200 pages) is entertaining and enjoyable but it’s very light on details, especially the actual production of the film Animal House, a movie that ushered in a wave of wild college movies (some good but mostly bad) and launched the National Lampoon movie franchise (also some good but mostly bad). Simmons was the publisher of National Lampoon, who also helped found (believe it or not) the Diners Club credit card and Weight Watchers magazine.

Animal House made a star out of SNL’s John Belushi (sadly, he’d be dead in less than five years), made John Landis a big-time director and introduced us to the winsome delights of Karen Allen (there are not enough movies with Karen Allen in them, in my humble opinion). I just watched this movie yet again while reading this book and it’s still laugh-out-loud funny and has great performances and wonderful characters, even if it looks a little cheap around the edges. Simmons was the producer of the film, based on Chris Miller’s NatLamp stories, and the enigmatic Doug Kenney, and Harold Ramis (who went onto his own directorial career) wrote the screenplay with Miller. The book is good on the pre-production (selling the movie, writing the script, casting) of Animal House, but kind of light on the actual filming; the longest chapter in it is a “Where are they now?” type of thing, so don’t expect a ton of revelations.

Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy by Steven Powell

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, James Ellroy was my favorite author. It was the time of his “L.A. Quartet” novels, The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz, and I couldn’t put them down once I started them. Then something happened. To me, at least, Ellroy’s way of writing—his voice—became more important than the stories he was telling, and he lost me. I found his staccato, “Demon Dog” way of writing unreadable and other than his memoir, My Dark Places, I haven’t read a book of his since, even though every time a new one comes out, I flirt with it on Kindle or in a bookstore, trying it on to see if it fits. It never does.

So it’s ironic that I would find this new literary biography by Steven Powell to be so fascinating. Ellroy’s life is the stuff of his fiction (murdered mother, tortured teenage years, alcohol and drug addiction, obsession with women) and this book reads like one of his novels, one with a particularly damaged protagonist. I really enjoyed reading about Ellroy’s life as recorded by someone other than him. It put Ellroy and his own memoirs into perspective, and brought in many other voices to help tell his story. It’s honest and forthcoming in how Ellroy and his work are perceived and all the personal bits—and there are a lot of them—are wonderful. Ellroy evidently cooperated with Powell on this, as did a lot of his former girlfriends and wife, Helen Knode, along with his publishing associates, like Otto Penzler. Ultimately, Ellroy survived his own life and it’s a great story.

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

This twisty-turny thriller really had me going. A man (Ted) and a woman (Lily) “meet” on a flight from London to New York and agree to meet again. Their eventual topic of discussion: Killing Ted’s wife, Miranda, who has been cheating on him with their contractor, Brad, as they build a new house. Eventually a Boston police detective named Henry Kimball gets involved, and that’s all I can say without ruining the numerous surprises in this book. It’s almost like author Peter Swanson sat down to write a fairly straight forward murder mystery and it took over on its own, taking him down roads unknown. I was not ready for some of the surprises, but I was totally not ready for the abrupt end of the book, although there is a sequel, The Kind Worth Saving, already available. I’ll definitely be reading that soon.

Maverix and Lunatix: Icons of Underground Comix by Drew Friedman

This is the natural follow-up to Friedman’s great two-volume set, Heroes of the Comics and More Heroes of the Comics, featuring full-color portraits of comic book creators. This volume features over 100 full-page, black and white portraits of underground comix creators, along with capsule biographies, all done in Friedman’s signature, highly detailed art style. While there’s a slight level of disappointment in this volume being in black and white, it’s certainly fitting since the great majority of underground comix were published that way. The creators are presented alphabetically, starting with Robert Armstrong and ending with S. Clay Wilson, 101 in total. I love comics history and this is an original and fascinating format for presenting it, a “Who’s Who” type of book that covers the underground world. Also included is an introduction by Marc Maron and some historical perspective by comix historian Patrick Rosenkranz.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks: Daredevil, Vol. 2 by Stan Lee, John Romita, Jack Kirby, and Gene Colan

The best thing about this second Daredevil volume, which reprints #12 through #21, is the return of John Romita to Marvel. He first did work for the company (when it was Atlas) in the 1950s, notably on Captain America when he was revived for a brief spell alongside the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. Romita then moved over to DC where he was confined to their romance books, and let’s face it … he drew beautiful people, but wouldn’t you have loved to have seen a late 1950s/early 1960s Romita superhero book, like Batman or Superman? Stan Lee beckoned him back in 1965, and Romita—who was unceremoniously dumped by Lee in the late ‘50s—came back: Daredevil #12 was his first book, featuring Ka-Zar (with Matt Murdock on an ocean cruise—in a suit and tie—that gets plundered by pirates). Jack Kirby did layouts for this and the following issue (#13), but to be honest, both issues look more like Romita and less like Kirby. Issues #16-17 are basically Romita’s try-out for Spider-Man; sensing Steve Ditko’s dissatisfaction with working for Marvel, Lee wisely got someone up and running, just in case. Gene Colan takes over DD with issue #20, but the Romita issues are great, but only art-wise; scripted by Stan, these books are amongst his wordiest, and despite the art, a bit of a slough to read, with uninspired plots and bargain basement villains, including the “Masked Marauder,” who seemingly wears a hanky over his mouth, when the colorist decides to leave the cloth partition of his helmeted mask that hangs down over his lower face, instead of the purple it was in the preceding and later issue. Buy it for the art and the spiffy cover by Leonardo Romero.

Friday, Book One and Book Two by Ed Brubaker and Marcos Martin

I first read Friday, Book One: The First Day of Christmas when it came out in December of 2021, but that’s a long time ago for me these days, so I had to do a quick refresh of it to get up-to-speed for Book Two, called On a Cold Winter’s Night, which—like its predecessor—came out just before Christmas 2022. These are enjoyable little books, reprints from Brubaker and Martin’s online strips featuring Friday Fitzhugh—home for the holidays from her first year in college—teaming up once again with her old friend Lancelot Jones, the smartest boy in the world. Oh, and they just might be in love, but probably not; it’s complicated, especially since … but that would be saying too much. Between Brubaker’s wonderful characterizations and clever plotting and Martin’s charming art (with great coloring by Munsta Vicente), this is a series that’s an absolute winner for me. Too bad it only comes out once a year (yes, I know it comes out online more regularly, but I love my comics in books that I can hold and own), especially since Book One ends on a particularly cliffy cliffhanger. Brubaker is one of my favorite contemporary comic book writers, and while I’m not onboard with his pricey “Reckless” series (sorry, four $25.00 graphic novels is a bit much for me in one year), I do like Friday a lot, and I’m looking forward to Book Three, if only because it means Christmas is near.

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