April 2023 Books …

Seven books this month, so I’m about a third of the way through my GoodReads goal of 75 this year. I’m definitely feeling like I’m slowing down a bit, but now that balcony weather is slowly coming back, maybe my books per month ratio will start to climb with some more afternoon outdoor reading time.

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

This is the second in the DI Manon Bradshaw series by author Susie Steiner and I think I enjoyed this one even more than the first (Missing, Presumed), which I liked a great deal. This book delves further into Manon’s personal life, particularly with her sister and her adopted son, Fly, who is the suspect in a murder. Manon’s sister, Ellie, had a son with a high-level financial manager who is stabbed to death while on his way to visit his son. Manon herself is pregnant in this book, longing to have her own child, while trying to forge a life with her increasingly resentful adopted son. Moving back to her old town hasn’t helped. But this murder hits closer to home than she could ever imagine, as Fly is imprisoned in a youth home and Manon is shut out of the investigation. Steiner’s characters are wonderfully imagined and her plot is intricate and compelling.

But all of this is tinged with sadness since the author died in 2022, and while there is one more Manon Bradshaw book (Remain Silent), there won’t be any after that. Manon is one of those characters you easily envision in a BBC or ITV copper series, intensely played by one of those brilliant British actresses like Suranne Jones or Keeley Hawes or Nicola Walker. I hope that can still come true, but I still miss all the great books Susie Steiner would have written had she not left us so soon.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks: Captain Marvel Vol. 1 by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Arnold Drake, Gene Colan and Don Heck

Ugh, this one’s a bit of a slog. Legend has it that Marvel publisher Martin Goodman wanted a Captain Marvel book on the stands ASAP, once he found out schlocky rival publisher Myron Fass had snapped up the hero’s name, thinking it had lapsed out of copyright after DC sued Fawcett Publications pretty much out of existence a dozen years earlier. Stan Lee and Gene Colan cobbled together a story that incorporated an existing race of Marvel aliens—the Kree from Fantastic Four—and their secret exploratory mission to Earth. Captain Mar-Vell of the Kree is assigned the task of interacting with the humans and he first appears in an issue of Marvel Superheroes #12 (formerly Fantasy Masterpieces for the first 11 issues). Mar-Vell quickly becomes known as a new superhero on Earth, Captain Marvel, and just as quickly gets his own book. Stan Lee passes this bastard stepchild to Roy Thomas who promptly passes it to former DC writer Arnold Drake. Colan leaves and Don Heck comes onboard as penciller and the book quickly becomes little more than a placeholder just so Goodman can have his Captain Marvel comic and Myron Fass can go pound salt (which he probably stole from someone else). Roy Thomas would eventually return (in issue #17) with a redesigned Captain (by Gil Kane), teaming him with Marvel’s wandering teenager, Rick Jones, and the book definitely gets better, but it doesn’t really become something extra special until Jim Starlin takes over in issue #25 and introduces his own brand of cosmic comics, including the menace of Thanos. These ten stories—Marvel Superheroes #11 and 12, Captain Marvel #1 through 7, and a parody story from Not Brand Ecch #9, are definitely not a good time to be had by all. The Drake issues are particularly bad (I was never a fan of his work) and while Colan and Heck’s art isn’t bad, the inking almost always is, by the likes—mainly—of Vince Colletta and John Tartaglione. There’s a real nice new cover by Leonardo Romero on this edition and I do kinda dig that old green costume, even if the newer version by Gil Kane is a game-changing classic design.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks: The Mighty Thor Vol. 3 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

This volume, which reprints Journey Into Mystery 110-119, is where Thor finally starts to come together. With issue #114—which introduces the Absorbing Man, not Stan and Jack’s finest moment, at least villain-wise—a long, interconnected story begins in which Thor slowly becomes more of the main character and Dr. Donald Blake starts to fade into the background, as does the soap opera-ish love story with Jane Foster. Thor starts to spend more time on Asgard in these stories, and the series is all the better for it. Unfortunately, it’s also in this volume where Vince Colletta takes over as inker, and while some people swear by his inks, especially on Thor, I just swear at them. Colletta would erase parts of the background and obliterate Kirby figures to do less work, but spend extra “loving” care on the cross-hatching on Thor’s massive arms. I hate his inking on anyone, but especially Kirby. Like a lot of the early Marvel creations, it took Stan & Jack quite a few issues to finally find their groove with this character, and Kirby’s epic storytelling starts to stand out in these issues, and continues until he leaves the book with issue #179.

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King

he four novellas from Stephen King’s Different Seasons book (first published in 1982) are available as separate paperback or Ebooks. I recently re-read “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and once again thoroughly enjoyed this prison story of convicted—but not guilty—murderer Andy Dufrense and his pal Red and Andy’s eventual escape from this prison. To be honest, the movie is that rare product that is much better than the novella, especially when it comes to showing how Andy escapes and makes his way to his final destination along the Pacific Ocean in Mexico, but the book is still a very enjoyable quick (118 pages in its Kindle version) read. Different Seasons had three of its four tales made into movies, with the novella “The Body” becoming Stand By Me, and “Apt Pupil” becoming a movie of the same name. The fourth story, “The Breathing Method” was optioned for development in 2012 but has never been made. Shawshank director Frank Darabont also made Stephen King’s other period prison novel, The Green Mile, into a film, thus claiming the honor of being the official director of Stephen King prison movies.

The Black Dahlia by Rick Geary

Published in 2016, this graphic novel was the last in writer/artist Rick Geary series, “Treasury of XXth Century Murder,” the follow-up to his original series “Treasury of Victorian Murder.” This particular volume is one of my personal favorites, since it concerns a long-standing unsolved Los Angeles murder, and—as usual—Rick’s meticulous research, writing, and art tells the complete story in 80 black-and-white pages. This volume also won the National Cartoonists Society Best Graphic Novel Award for 2016.

On a personal note, I had the honor of interviewing Rick this past weekend at the Comic-Con Museum in San Diego about his career and his large body of work for San Diego Comic-Con; he created the Toucan logo and subsequent art for the Toucan Blog—which I created—on their website,. We did close to 50 different pieces together, which I commissioned directly from him and, at times, art-directed. I miss working with him, but I’ll always be grateful for all the wonderful art and stories he’s given the world.

Spillaine: King of Pulp Fiction by Max Allan Collins and James L. Traylor

I will confess to having never read a Mickey Spillane book and probably only seeing one of the Mike Hammer movies (which I think I didn’t make it through), so I’m not really the target audience for this first-ever biography on this larger-than-life writer, who was just as tough as his fictional creations. Collins and Traylor have certainly done their homework and this is an exhaustive bio, but it gets really bogged down at times in its excessive recaps of Spillaine’s books and movies. Spillaine was a mega-bestselling author in the 1950s and ‘60s (make that writer … he hated the word “author”). He came out of the comic book industry, where he wrote primarily for Timely Comics, which eventually became Marvel. He is a fascinating person, much more than just the beer salesman he became best known for later in lifef

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore, Curt Swan, and Dave Gibbons

This slim deluxe volume reprints the “last” stories of the Man of Steel from when DC ended the original runs of both Superman and Action Comics, in advance of the John Byrne 1986 reboot. Superman #423 and Action Comics #583 were written by comics genius Alan Moore, during the height of his popularity in the Watchmen era, and drawn by Super-artist Curt Swan. I haven’t read these stories in years, and boy … are they dark, as was Moore’s style in that era. Death and destruction surround Superman in these two stories (pro tip: don’t kill the dog, Alan), but there is a happy ending. This collection also includes Moore’s Swamp Thing/Superman team-up from DC Comics Presents #85 with art by Rick Veitch and Al Williamson, wherein Supes is dying from a Kryptonian fungus and ol’ Swampy cures him. And best of all, it includes what I think is Moore’s best superhero story, “For the Man Who Has Everything …” from Superman Annual #11. Illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Moore’s Watchmen collaborator, this 40-page epic features Batman, the new Robin (Jason Todd), and Wonder Woman, visiting Superman at his Fortress of Solitude on his birthday, only to find him immobilized with some kind of plant firmly attached to his chest. Seems like Mongul beat them to the punch, birthday present-wise, and gave Supes the gift that keeps on giving: the “Black Mercy,” a plant/fungus that attaches itself to its victim and gives them their “heart’s desire,” whatever imaginary life he or she always wanted. In Superman’s case, this is the survival of Krypton, but be careful what you ask for, Clark Kent. Again, this has a lot of that Moore darkness in it, but it’s also one of the best Superman stories I’ve ever read.

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