Friday, August 19, 2016

The Best of Spicy Mystery Volume 1 and 2

Editor Alfred Jan compiled the stories collected here all of which were originally published in Spicy Mystery magazine between 1935 and 1938. Spicy Mystery is legendary among pulp aficionados for stories and illustrations that often relied on naked or semi-nude women as enticements, wildly imaginative plots, and terse, hard-boiled writing. The collection was published by Altus Press in 2012. Being a fan of the pulps, I want to point out that reprint collections such as this, and facsimile reproductions of magazines such as those published by Adventure House, are absolutely vital in preserving this era of American entertainment fiction. The original pulp magazines have not aged well. Soon, they will all be untouchable, the pages too brown and brittle to handle. Reprints are vital, and they have become the new pulp collector’s items. The Best of Spicy Mystery Volume 1 is the perfect example of a modern collector’s edition. The eleven stories reprinted here (including the original illustrations) were chosen by Alfred Jan because they rise above some of the more mundane tales found between the covers of Spicy Mystery. The first tale, “Hell’s Archangel” by Henry Kuttner sets the tone for the moody tales that follow. The stories here are not only drenched in a moody atmosphere, but they clip along at a suspenseful pace. The other stories are: “Fiend’s Feast” by Robert Leslie Bellem, “Lorelei of Lynnwold Light” by Harley L. Court, “Murder from Nowhere” by Jerome Severs Perry, “The Second Mummy” by John Bard, “Mistress of Vengeance” by Justin Case, “Green Eyes” by Mort Lansing, “The Head of Mike Vasco” by Colby Quinn, “Bat Man” by Lew Merrill, “Mirror Magic” by Robert Leslie Bellem, and “Dance of Damballa” by Rex Norman. I always enjoy stories by Robert Leslie Bellem and both are good. I think the real forgotten gem in this collection is “Lorelei of Lynnwold Light” by Harley L. Court, a nifty haunted lighthouse story. The Best of Spicy Mystery Volume 2 offers another eleven stories, including two more by Robert Leslie Bellem, “Labyrinth of Monsters” and Taupoo Dance.” The other stories are “Cats of Cassandra” and “Castle Sinister,” both by Ellery Watson Calder, “She Who Was He” by Hugh Speer, “Blind Flight” by Clint Morgan, “The Secret of Old Farm” by Clive Trent, “I Must have 5 Corpses” by Jerome Severs Berry, “False Face” by Carl Moore, “Red For Murder” by Cary Moran and “Flesh of the Living” by Clark Nelson. These two volumes showcase the hardboiled allure of pulp fiction, and some of the lesser known but equally entertaining writers.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Captain America # 109 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

There are numerous landmark Marvel Comics from the 1960s that historians and fans alike applaud as groundbreaking publications. Fantastic Four # 1, Amazing Fantasy # 15, Avengers # 4, and so many others. For me that landmark moment came with this one from January, 1969. By this point I was reading The Amazing Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Man, and The Fantastic Four regularly, dependent on what money I could make mowing lawns. Captain America # 109 blew me away. This re-telling of Captain America’s World War II origin is a powerhouse story. This is the type of storytelling and artwork that distinguished Marvel from all other comic book companies. Cap has been visited by Nick Fury and reminisces about the war, how he was transformed from being a scrawny kid from the Bronx to a Super-Soldier. Most telling here is the emotional impact when he talks about losing his partner, Bucky Barnes, in combat. Page 8 is a full panel, with Cap reminiscing and Nick Fury thinking to himself: “Man! Is he carryin’ a king size chunk of memories inside’a him!Ya can almost see the past comin’ back – wrappin’ itself around ‘Im – trapping him like it always does…” This is the depth of characterization that Stan Lee and the other writers were able to create, and for Cap it was tied directly to the fact that he’s a man out of time, a relic of a bygone age and fading ideology, plunged headlong into a frightening new world of swinging 60s cultural upheaval and wildly dangerous new adversaries. Captain America # 109 bridges the generation gap. Even though Cap represented the establishment, his angst and turmoil struck a chord with readers. Cap is the unlikeliest of heroes for the anti-establishment 60s. The artwork by Jack Kirby, inked here by Syd Shores, is truly masterful. This is Jack Kirby and sequential comic book art at its very best. Captain America may have been trapped in an ice-flow for several decades, but he’s still a Super-Soldier. Look at these panels carefully, and you’ll believe that Cap can kick Superman's and Batman’s ass at the same time. It almost reads like a filler issue, something they put together simply to bring readers up to date on Cap’s origin while Lee and Kirby plotted additional adventures. This is my favorite Captain America comic book. The flashbacks to the war are stunning, and Cap is poised on the brink of adventures in a terrifying new world. Over the years, other writers and editors tweaked Cap’s origin, revised it, brought Bucky back, and in so doing diminished the carefully wrought characterization that gave Steve Rogers such complexity. See my missive in “Letters to a Living Legend” in Captain America # 221 (May, 1978) where I ranted against revisionist history. They should have left well enough alone. Still, comic books are like soap operas, and the twisted plots and dramatic changes all make for some entertaining reading. The characterization and visually stunning artwork that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created for Captain America # 109 stands as a masterpiece among many Marvel masterpieces.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

White Mercenary by Peter Saxon

This post is updated 8-8-16 with special thanks to Keith Chapman.

This August, 1962 Sexton Blake adventure features cover art by Henry Fox. According to Keith Chapman, "White Mercenary was written by veteran genre fiction writer Sydney J. Bounds. For better or worse. It was put through the Baker/G. P. Mann "rewrite" process, then published under the "Peter Saxon" house-name byline. You can read more about the highly competent and experienced Syd in the articles "Detectives in Cowboy Boots" and "Farewell to a Small Giant"("

This is Sexton Blake as I encountered him in the American paperbacks credited to W. A. Ballinger; a tough yet somewhat cerebral man-of action. This time, Blake is solicited by an old friend to prevent the assassination of a political leader in the African Congo nation of Katenga. With only seventy-two hours before the assassination will take place, Blake and his assistant, Tinker, are thrown into a maelstrom of red herrings and conflicting motivations. Among these diversions are a shapely lass named Crystal, and a blonde named Angela De Villiers who keeps Splash Kirby, special correspondent to London’s Daily Post, and long-time friend of investigator Sexton Blake, occupied with their considerable feminine charms. Meanwhile, Simon Trois, a mysterious player in Katenga politics, shows up, and soon Blake, Tinker and Kirby are trying to unravel a complicated relationship that not only involves Trois, but Katenga president Tshombe. White Mercenary runs at a fast pace, with short chapters (seventeen total chapters) and most of the action taking place near the conclusion. Peripheral characters flit in and out as the plot dictates. Being a fan of W. Howard Baker and others who wrote under the Peter Saxon pseudonym, not to mention the Sexton Blake stories in the late 1950s and through the late 1960s, I enjoyed White Mercenary. The writing is strong, the tension level is consistent, and it all wraps up as you might expect. For collector’s this is Sexton Blake # 505.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Golden Road by Peter Bourne

There is a world of forgotten books and forgotten authors out there waiting to be discovered. The Golden Road came to me out of a used book dealer’s catalogue years ago. I was vaguely familiar with author Peter Bourne’s Drums of Destiny, and I was intrigued by the jacket copy for The Golden Road so I bought it for less than ten dollars. This G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1951 first edition has the slightly frayed original dust-jacket (in mylar), and the overall condition is average. The pages have begun to brown and the spine is loose. This copy was obviously read numerous times, and probably handed down and read by dozens of people. The Golden Road is well handled by Peter Bourne, dense at times, but the characterizations are realistic. I was interested in the tropical setting involving the building of the Panama railroad in 1850. The narrative doesn’t quite achieve the epic status that the sprawling story deserves. The protagonist is Boston-bred Henry Stewart and the story essentially recounts his adventures in the thirty-five miles of jungle between the Atlantic and Pacific. The sights and scenes include brothels with women of all races, murderers and bandits on the loose, and Stewart’s quest to bring an evil man to justice. There’s plenty of suspense, action and sensuality to keep readers turning the pages. Peter Bourne was once a best-selling, popular author who is forgotten. His other books all have this lush detail, and it’s easy to see why he was popular with readers. I wouldn’t rate him as great but he was capable and I found the book interesting. Peter Bourne was a pseudonym for Graham Montague Jeffries who also published under the name Bruce Graeme. The softcover editions of his novel Drums of Destiny with their sensationalistic cover imagery are sought after by collectors of vintage paperbacks.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Superman: The Coming of the Supermen by Neal Adams

This six issue mini-series created by legendary artist Neal Adams is a wild and meaningful story that should serve as an example that stand alone stories do have a place in today’s convoluted world of comic books. This exciting series takes place in a relatively traditional “universe” where Clark Kent and Lois Lane still work at The Daily Planet. Just suspend your disbelief and mentally place the story in whatever “universe” you want and go along for the ride. Long time Superman fans like myself will note that this series pays homage to Jack Kirby’s positive influence on the comic book industry.  In this story Superman is called upon to defend another world from Darkseid and the hordes of Apokolips. Meanwhile, three men wearing Superman’s costume are sent by the people of miniaturized Kryptonian city of Kandor to protect earth while Superman is busy elsewhere. Early on, Superman takes up with a little boy from the Middle East because a djinn asks Superman to protect the child. It’s all very mysterious, and complicated, but stick with it, because each issue reveals a little more, and it all makes sense in the end. By the way, Lex Luthor is in it, too. Each page is loaded with details. Neal Adams puts constant movement and action into his panels, and the effect is like a mental isometric exercise. The colors are vibrant – no surprise in this age where digital coloring and the high gloss paper have altered the texture of comic book stories. You can argue amongst yourself if that’s good or bad, but it works here. There are some really great pages of artwork that dazzled me. I want to mention an interview Neal Adams did with Jevon Philips from the L.A. Times. In that interview Adams talks about his take on Superman, Lex Luthor and more, but specifically points out his love for the late great Jack Kirby. Here is a direct quote from the interview with Jevon Philips: “I also love Jack Kirby, and I love Jack Kirby's characters, and I love that Jack Kirby could leave Marvel Comics after creating the Marvel Universe — and please excuse me folks out there, but Jack Kirby created the Marvel Universe — and came over to DC and created "New Gods," created a new universe. Bang — out of nothing.” I have met Adams several times and I admire him. I’m a Neal Adams fan, and because I’m a Jack Kirby fan, too, I deeply appreciate his comments. The Coming of the Supermen will undoubtedly be released as a trade paperback at some point, and I’m expecting this book will have a wide appeal. The strength of Adams’ artwork is evident on each cover scan shown here.