Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Magic Places

The Magic Places
Thomas McNulty

There are enough of these magic places still that anglers speak of them with reverence. They occupy our conversation over a cold beer in a faraway lodge, or in the passing comments we make traveling the highways of this great country. They are the places that are both hard to find and right in front of us. They are the small lakes and winding rivers that intersect our lives. These are the places where the water reflects the blue sky and the summer wind stirs our imagination as we toss a line over the bow, cut the Evinrude, and drift with a yellow straight-tale grub affixed to a hook.

We are connected to these places by memories, and by this constant desire to kindle the flames of that contented feeling we first experienced on some long ago day when a father or an uncle took us fishing for the first time. Maybe it’s because of that, or maybe it’s because in those halcyon days the world seemed fresh. Keeping that sensation of freshness alive matters more with each passing winter. A canny bass fisherman knows the shoreline reeds and tall grass cast late afternoon shadows in secret coves and hidden bays across Wisconsin and Minnesota. Down deep in those shadows the bass feed on minnows; relentless shoreline hunters as the sun eases down like a molten doubloon tossed across and azure horizon. A burst of water-lilies in the shadow of an old plank pier offer the angler an opportunity for the bite of a lazily gliding northern pike.

The quiet coves and sun-splashed inlets, free of computers and the nonsense of social media, bring a solitude punctuated by the choices we make from a case of colorful artificial jig combos. Sometimes there is an urgency in our actions. “He’s down there,” a friend told me once as we fished a familiar cove, “and he’s mine today.” He was referring to a rather large northern we had seen the day before in this same spot, and we had failed to catch it. We hadn’t seen much fish in the shallows this day, but of course they were down there. They were always down there. Catching them was another matter entirely. My friend caught his northern, but in a different spot. The bounty we receive is dictated perhaps by terms we have never understood. There is skill involved, and a knowledge of fish and ecosystems, and there is luck. Fishing such magic places invokes a philosophical pursuit every fisherman knows well. Time in the boats with a line in the water gives each man or woman time to ponder the vast mysteries of life.

The night fisherman has the heavens above and myriad galaxies sweeping past in a heartbeat, the flash of falling stars a constant reminder of our mortality. How many fisherman, I wonder, have wished upon a falling star as much because of a learned cultural reflex but also in response to some atavistic desire to embrace and understand the unknown. To debate in solitude the benefits of live-bait rigging over a tackle box overflowing with colorful plastic lures is to engage the memory banks with images of crappie and bluegill, or largemouth bass and panfish. Fishing is relaxing, to state the obvious, but what is obvious to a fisherman is not always recognized in a society prone to hated-filled electronic communication. So the angler retreats and comes home simultaneously; it’s a way of driving the mind pollution away and recharging one’s spiritual battery.

The fishing pole in hand, an array of lures, and reasonable weather is all a man can ask for. When I fish I seek a familiar shoreline, a quiet place where the sun can warm my back and the scudding clouds are mirrored by the pristine depths of a sandy bottom; and then, suddenly, I glimpse the silver flash of gills as my lure strikes the water. There are times when fishing alone is vital, and yet other times when good companions are necessary. Competition is one thing, but truly admiring a fellow angler’s cast or the instinctive way he chooses the spot for his lure to drop all helps to fill the afternoon with a fraternal appreciation for the great outdoors.

Everything that we understand about ourselves can be summarized in the singular act of fishing. We define ourselves by our actions and by the lures we choose and by the sun-dappled coves we float in, with rod and reel in hand, a contented smile on our lips. The 10-20 pound monofilament line is standard issue for bass and northern pike, and in the event a record-breaker is hauled in the happy fisherman gets bragging rights on skill in handling the torque and axis rotation.  There are times where I’ve fished myself to the point of exhaustion without necessarily fishing well, and with little to show for my effort, I allowed the boat to glide into a shallow bay, the water-lilies rustling against the boat’s aluminum side. Sometimes I’ll lift the camera and snap photos, or I might just bask in the cool shadows thrown by the towering shoreline pines. If I’m especially lucky, I’ll watch an eagle swoop soundlessly from above as its talons snap a fish from just below the surface. Such a sight is awe-inspiring and not without its own irony, because the American eagle is infinitely better at catching fish than any man yet born.

I am not skilled at small talk, and don’t enjoy the chatter when it is so obviously intended as filler for a day that requires no filler. Choose your fishing companions carefully. This wisdom I have heard repeated countless times, and it should never fall on deaf ears. A lousy companion is immediately recognizable in a boat, and if such darkly comedic rumors are true, a poorly chosen fishing companion is responsible for more than one intoxicated northwoods homicide. I recall with clarity a conversation I had with my uncle who was an avid hunter and fisherman. Perhaps the moment lingered because I heard it in a Wisconsin saloon beneath the glare of a five-point buck guilty only of bad taxidermy and who appraised us with the accusing glass stare of a ghost while my uncle sipped a tall glass of cold Hamm’s beer. It was the late 1960s and my uncle, who despised the counter-culture longhairs as “aberrations,” but nonetheless availed himself of the sexual revolution by taking up with a buckskin clad girl who, in his words, was “great in bed, but lousy at fishing and housekeeping.”

When he was in his cups, as it were, and the sparkling carbonation in a cold glass of beer loosened his tongue, he casually remarked to the bartender that if the Herb Albert album spinning on the turntable wasn’t soon replaced by Glen Miller he would demonstrate a lifetime of expertise with his 12-gauge Remington. Nearly in the same breath he vowed that never again would he allow a no-good downtrodden hippie chick ever talk him into coming along on a fishing trip again. “There’s no reason to ruin a good day fishing by taking along a girl I won’t marry.”

Being prone to reflection, I seek out the same fishing spots that my uncle favored, which is easy to accomplish given I am now overseer of the property, and I think of the old days with far greater frequency than any old-timer should publicly admit. I smile thinking of his contradictory nature, and that of his brothers, and on those hushed afternoons just before summer’s end, when you can sense the coming of the season’s first frost, I acknowledge my luck to have had such good companions in the boat, and for an all-too brief moment they are with me again.

The magic places we favor are as varied as the angler himself. Because I am surrounded by some strong-willed women who fish with the same intensity as any male angler, I have broached the subject of jigs and lures in my quest to identify the best techniques. One man’s poison, I soon learned, is a woman’s cure. The many generations of knowledge passed down by fathers, brothers, uncles and sisters are on display at any northwoods flea market.

Musky lures are particularly fascinating. Hand-carved lures painted with care by some long forgotten fisherman are common enough, and sell regularly enough that most flea market vendors make a point of keeping a box of them handy. With their rusted hooks and painted eyes, they adorn a shelf or tackle box as a reminder of a bygone era before everything was made from plastic in a Chinese factory. A musky lure, carved in the silhouette of a loon hatchling, is a piece of Americana.  Any lures made by Heddon and Son out of Michigan prior to the first World War are highly prized by collectors, as are those made by the Shakespeare company. A wooden minnow or underwater spinner in its original box can be quite valuable. I’ve talked to collectors who concentrate on finding any lures from the Creek Chub Bait Company out of Indiana or any Pflueger minnows. Collecting lures is a favored past-time for the sentimental angler who will never admit to sentiment. “My pa owned one like this,” you might be told, followed by a description of some magic place where they fished on a spring day long ago.

On any of the thousands of lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin are secret coves and bays known to only the fisherman who covet the solitude. It is here that they come to fish, and while they fish to listen to the sound of the wind in the tall pines; and to smell the pines on the warm breeze. The act of fishing and their awareness and love for the outdoors is something that is sacred.  I know an inordinate number of northwoodsmen who, when they’re not fishing, haunt the antique shops looking at old lures or rummaging through moldy boxes containing dimpled copies of Outdoor Life or Field & Stream, forever in search of that one story discovered in youth but lost in adulthood. I have searched unsuccessfully for several decades but to date have failed to locate several old magazines with grizzly bears on the cover that my aunt kept at her cabin. I’ll know them when I see them. Maybe just looking for them is enough.

The labyrinthine enigmas of a fresh-water lake on a July afternoon offer a bromide for the disaffected wanderer. Each lake has its special cove, shadowed inlet or dilapidated pier where a day alone with a line in the water is like a salve on a wound. The public misconception exists that fishing is a sedentary activity and unhealthy. Ask any angler, no matter if it’s a fly fisherman, bass fisherman or deep sea fisherman, and you’ll receive a treatise on the benefits of an outdoor lifestyle.

Of equal importance to the fisherman is the boat upon which his day is measured. From a leaky bark canoe to the sleek, aluminum bass and panfish boats with bow and aft casting decks, anglers rely on their boats to get them to that magic place. I’ve fished in Jon boats and from a pontoon boat and shiny new aluminum trailer boats. Perhaps my favorite was my father’s old varnished mahogany runabout, The Honeypot, a four seater that cut like a bullet across many a lake and river.

Like most runabout owners, my father relied on an Evinrude outboard motor which helped propel The Honeypot across the surface of Lake Michigan and other waterways. Such boats are treasures, and often I spy them at anchor or resting next to a pier like some otherworldly creatures, haunted with memories and anxiously waiting to come alive with a sputtering roar. Photographs of our boats are integral to any family album, carefully pasted onto the album page as a reminder of the sunlight on our faces and the feathering spray blown out in our wake by the blazing Evinrude.

I once brought a nephew to our northwoods cabin, situated on a lake and far removed from Chicago’s neon distractions. I observed with amusement his inability to adjust to seven days on a lakefront. He discovered that although the scene was relaxing, he was in constant motion. The simple act of walking thirty feet from the cabin to the pier was, after just two days, enough exercise to cause his unused muscles to protest. Constantly getting in and out of a boat, using one’s arms with a rod and reel, and gulping down all of that fresh Wisconsin air, complimented by the occasional tick problem, resulted in a physical collapse where he was flat out and shaking the timbers with his nasal buzz-saw. Afterward, he vowed never to go fishing again.

There is an unwritten history of the magic places that can be found on the road. I have found them in Wyoming side-trails, or down in New Mexico and Arizona. These are the places off the beaten path; the small lakes and nameless rivers discovered by accident but never forgotten. I cannot stop myself from pausing at any waterway to study the curving shoreline, watchful for a glimpse of a bronze head or the silver glint of a fluctuating gill. I travel to Wisconsin most often these days, my home away from home, and there on the lake but thirty feet from my porch, the water offers up its revelations, mysteries and the endless miracles of nature.  If I am to be guilty of being religious, then it is this – a religion of pine-scented breezes and the silhouette of a circling eagle above a pristine lake as I gather my gear and trudge down to the boat for a day in a magic place. A man truly owns only what he knows, and I know such places are my remedy. I need nothing else.

 NOTE: Thomas McNulty is the author of a biography about actor Errol Flynn and the Western Novels Trail of the Burned Man, Wind Rider, Coffin for an Outlaw and The Gunsmoke Serenade. He lives in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

Text and photographs copyright © 2017 by Thomas McNulty.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse

I am committing an injustice by penning only a few modest words about Hesse’s masterpiece. I think there are enough essays and thesis papers and even blog book reports that you can indulge yourself elsewhere. My purpose here is to look back at my first reading of the book, and understand it at a visceral level. It was no accident that I carried this book around in my rucksack with George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, and A Happy Death by Albert Camus. There were other books, the ones I call my essentials, like A Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen and Beam Ends by Errol Flynn, but Hesse was pre-eminent among my rucksack companions. Harry Haller’s tale is one of exploration, redemption, and enthusiasm. His agonies are handled systematically. The Bantam 1969 paperback is the translation by Basil Creighton. Hesse was a poet, painter and philosopher, and his command of ideas is akin to that of an orchestra conductor, waving and directing the tremolo into a syncopated whole, brimming with melody. Hesse loved music. My analogy is intentional. The Creighton translation is my preferred text. The language is ripe with themes, overflowing with images and philosophies. In his 1961 introduction to the novel, Hesse says that the book “is not a book of a man despairing, but of a man believing.” Harry Haller’s entry into “The Magic Theatre” and “For Madmen Only” struck a chord with the 1960s counter-culture youth who embraced the book. I am a child of the 60s, and I believe Haller’s suffering was seen as analogous for the turbulent era of “The Nam,” rock and roll, sex, drugs and a general refusal to participate in the global colonialism espoused by a corrupt political leadership. The wolf of the “steppes,” or the beast that is within all of us, is easily recognized in our political system today, as it was in the 60s. Hesse could not have foreseen that perception when he wrote the book, but having survived the Nazis, he would understand it. Reading Steppenwolf requires dedication, a love of language, a willingness to understand alternate philosophies, and perhaps a belief in the goodness of your own soul. Also recommended: Siddhartha, Demian and Magister Ludi by Herman Hesse.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Wonder Woman: The True Amazon by Jill Thompson

Artist and writer Jill Thompson is a 7 time Eisner Award winning artist and creative powerhouse. She is the creator of the Scary Godmother and has worked on The Sandman, and the Wonder Woman monthly series, and many other notable accomplishments. In 2016 DC Comics published her Wonder Woman: The True Amazon graphic novel in hardcover. This re-imagining of Diana Prince’s origin is unforgettable and heartfelt, a satisfying emotional journey that offers s fresh perspective on Wonder Woman’s formative years. At the heart of the story is Diana’s youthful selfishness which ultimately leads to a life-changing tragedy. Thompson wisely and effectively humanizes the goddess who will one day become a central figure in the world’s pantheon of heroes. A character-driven study and laced with the requisite mythology, Jill Thompson’s Wonder Woman: The True Amazon engages readers in a journey of self-discovery that will forever change their view of DC’s pre-eminent heroine, and that’s a good thing. Thompson’s vision of a young Diana as a spoiled brat may come as a surprise to some readers, but I felt that Thompson did her character justice and the resolution was appropriate. In one sense, the story reminded me of a traditional fairy tale, albeit infused with modern sensibilities, but wise and endearing. The artwork is great and the color palette is bright. The endpapers include sketches and a special “Pencils to Color” feature. Wonder Woman: The True Amazon will be published as a paperback later this year. I’d love to see a sequel. Recommended for readers of all ages.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Deviates by Raymond F. Jones

Raymond F. Jones wrote many fine novels, but for some reason this Beacon paperback from 1959 is the one that collectors want. For example, I own a first edition hardcover of Jones’ This Island Earth, his best known work, and collector’s rarely show substantial interest. This Island Earth is not difficult to find. I own the Science Fiction Book Club edition from Shasta publishers out of Chicago. The original owner had slipped the 1953 Science Fiction Book Club pamphlet into the book. We collector’s do have esoteric tastes at times. Anyway, The Deviates was originally published in 1956 as The Secret People. Nobody wants that edition either. They want this 1959 Beacon reprint with artwork by Robert Stanley. The Deviates is a science fiction story, published under Beacon’s Galaxy Science Fiction imprint. This paperback is widely offered on e-bay, often listed as “rare” but it’s not rare. Action Comics # 1 is rare. The Deviates is everywhere. I see this book all the time. For the record, if anyone tells you this book is rare they’re either intentionally lying or ignorant of vintage basic book collecting. It’s become the trend to list something as “rare” in order to justify a higher price. There are hard-to-find titles from this era, but The Deviates is not one of them. The Deviates is a good book, and I recommend it. This is the story of Robert Welton, Chief of the Genetics Bureau, who discovers that the genetics program is failing. There are fewer Normals each year, and most amazingly of all, he learns that not all Deviates are flawed. In fact, some of them are telepathic – like Welton himself! He initiates a plan begun by his father, to form a group of secret people who are hiding in the Canadian wilderness. Born of natural mothers and bearing his genes, the colony comes under attack when a government committee learns of their existence. The Deviates is a dystopian novel, typical of the era, and strong on characterization. Jones imagines a frightening world that promotes itself as utopian, but is actually simmering with conflict. Welton and the other characters propel the narrative. I’m a fan of author Raymond F. Jones, and in addition to The Deviates, I can recommend This Island Earth, Son of the Stars (for young readers), The Year When Stardust Fell, and Renegades of Time. I may cover some of these at a later date. Jones began his career in the pulps in the 40s. Several of his books are available for Kindle.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Curse of Skull Canyon by Peter Brandvold

Some years back, when I read my first Peter Brandvold book, .45 Caliber Revenge, I appreciated his skill in creating characters, the quick pace, and hardboiled action. Since then, Brandvold has never disappointed. His books are a blast to read. Ole Mean Pete is predominantly digital now, and I finally joined the Digital Age and bought a Kindle. Well, I’m loading it up with Peter Brandvold books. The latest I read is The Curse of Skull Canyon, a sequel to Lonnie Gentry, which I recommend you read first. Lonnie Gentry is a thirteen-year old in the Old West who cares for his mother. In his first adventure he gets tangled up with some bank robbers, a pretty girl named Casey, and a saddlebag full of trouble. Lonnie Gentry and The Curse of Skull Canyon are a change of pace for Brandvold who has made a name for himself with his edgy, adult-oriented blazing Western adventure novels. Lonnie Gentry and The Curse of Skull Canyon are coming of age stories with a homespun feel, but still loaded with Brandvold’s action scenes and great characters. Young Adult readers should find these tales at the top of their list. Brandvold’s ability to handle diverse themes and exciting plots combined with wholly original storytelling is all on display in The Curse of Skull Canyon. There’s a supernatural element here regarding the actual curse of Skull Canyon, and I enjoyed the tension as Lonnie Gentry works to extricate himself from yet another dire circumstance. The Curse of Skull Canyon is a delight. I won’t be surprised if Ole Pete pens another Lonnie Gentry adventure, and if he does I’ll be happy to saddle up and ride along.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Earthstrike Agenda by Bobby Nash

I find it immeasurably enjoyable to read a science fiction novel where it’s obvious the author was having fun. Too many authors take themselves and their work so seriously, that the entertainment value is muted by their pomposity. Fortunately, that’s not the case with Bobby Nash. Here’s an author that jumps right into the tale with a gee-whiz attitude and spins an exciting Space Opera with all of the galactic world-building you could ask for. Earthstrike Agenda is New Pulp Fiction at its best, professionally written, thrilling and satisfying. The various elements of the tale will be instantly recognizable to readers, including a dash of Star Trek, Star Wars and Flash Gordon, all while weaving an original story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats. Nash creates a fantastic protagonist with starship captain Virginia Harmon who takes command of the ship, Pegasus, just as earth is about to face a threat from deep space. Nash creates a vibrant supporting cast, and devotes large chunks of multiple chapters to them. With so many players, I admired Nash’s ability to not only keep track of them, but to make them relevant. Earthstrike Agenda is decidedly Old School adventure writing, and I mean that in a positive way. The drama unfolds at an easy pace, builds momentum, and before you know it you’re racing along with Virginia Harmon, Dr. James Silver, Ensign Bailey and others as the fate of earth hangs in the balance. An expertly constructed Space Opera like Earthstrike Agenda shouldn’t be missed by any Sci-Fi fan. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Mad Shadows II: Dorgo the Dowser and the Order of the Serpent by Joe Bonadonna

This eagerly awaited follow-up volume to Joe Bonadonna’s classic, Mad Shadows, is exactly what I hoped for. This continuation of Dorgo’s chronicle is comprised of three novellas: “The Girl Who Loved Ghouls,” “The Book of Echoes” and “The Order of the Serpent.” This is razor-edged fantasy at its best. In the first tale, Dorgo has some romance going on in his life, with a witch. This is not a Harlequin romance. Bonadonna’s masterful prose is ripe with images, appropriately gothic, spooky as hell, and a delight for fans of classic fantasy-adventure fiction. I love Bonadonna’s world building. Laced with autumnal winds and lonely graveyards, Dorgo’s world is chilling and often deadly: “What little was left of Glacken lay to the south, between Widow’s Fell and Baloo Fen. The fire blackened ruins of Sahn Magnor, the old Estaerine church, stood on the outskirts of the ghost town. The cemetery lay behind the church and had been part of its once-sacred ground. I gave the supposedly haunted hamlet a wide birth, not wanting to encounter any demons or devils…” (p.30) I love this type of natural exposition where the writer can so deftly transport us into an imaginative and exotic locale. Dorgo never has an easy time of it, but I’m always rooting for him to overcome his tribulations. Bonadonna pits Dorgo against some fairly wicked creatures. In “The Book of Echoes” Dorgo learns about “The Book of Echoes” which seems to be on everyone’s mind. After being nearly killed, Dorgo learns that the book can open realms beyond time and space, and holds answers to all the riddles of the Echoverse, the secrets of life and death, and the Nine Levels of Attainment. But such knowledge has a price. Those who are pure of heart will become the Crystal Children, while those with evil intent will become Endarkened Ones. Bonadonna brilliantly structures the tale and populates it with plenty of weird characters, nasty monsters and rising tension. The third novella, “The Order of the Serpent,” ties it all together and pits Dorgo against a warlock, the leader of the Order of the Serpent. Engaging characters, artful construction, scenes dripping with mood, and a world of castles, goblins and wild monsters are all hallmarks of Joe Bonadonna’s Dorgo the Dowser tales. Impossible to put to down, Mad Shadows II: Dorgo the Dowser and the Order of the Serpent is a richly imagined collection. The great cover artwork is by Erika M. Szabo.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Writers of the Future 33

This year’s WOTF cover by artist Larry Elmore is a departure from the standard science fiction themed artwork. To celebrate the collection, author Todd McCaffrey penned a special short story inspired by Elmore’s art. This cover and McCaffrey’s tale, along with the vibrant 30-plus year history of WOTF, encapsulate the richness, relevance and excitement represented by the 17 stories and artwork included here. I look forward to this annual anthology, and always come away feeling inspired by this marvelous tapestry of tales. 

Here’s the rundown on this year’s exciting collection: Moonlight One by Stephen Lawson is a tight and thrilling science fiction mystery; The Armor Embrace by Doug C. Souza brilliantly handles the man versus technology theme; and Envoy in Ice by Dustin Steinacker is a thought provoking tale about intergalactic intelligence and issues of faith. Tears for Shulna by Andrew L. Roberts is a wonderful, richly textured tale that resonated with me long after I finished reading it; The Drake Equation by C. L. Kagmi wisely tackles some heavy themes relating to violence, decision-making and responsibility. It was at this point that I realized this year’s collection was maintaining the high standard of diversity in viewpoints and styles that have become the unofficial hallmark of the WOTF collections.

Acquisition by Jake Marley is a top-flight supernatural thriller while Obsidian Spire by Molly Elizabeth Atkins is a riveting fantasy story with great a great character in Varga, and one that I’m certain readers will want to learn more about (hint!). Gator by Robert J. Sawyer, who is one of the judges, offers up a sharp tale to demonstrate the attributes and successes that come with “spec” writing; A Glowing Heart by Anton Rose is rich fantasy tale about life and death, but mostly about life; The Long Dizzy Down by Ziporah Hildbrandt is a hard-core science fiction tale and brilliant from the first paragraph; The Woodcutter’s Deity by Walter Dinjos had me spellbound with its vibrant texture.

The Dragon Killer’s Daughter by Todd McCaffrey was inspired by Larry Elmore’s fantastic cover and adds another layer of enjoyment to this already stunning collection. Useless Magic by Andrew Perry defines responsibility and power with this deftly told tale; Adramelech by Sean Hazlett explores the nature of evil with concise prose and great insight; and The Fox, the Wolf and the Dove by Ville Merilainen is another exciting fantasy story. The final tale, The Magnificent Bhajan David VonAllmen is a wonderful story about an old wizard returning home to save the day, if he can.

Included also is the fantasy classic story, The Devil’s Rescue by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the WOTF contest. Hubbard’s tale is a personal favorite, and is included in the collection along with essays on creativity by Hubbard, Anne McCaffrey, Larry Elmore, and Bob Eggleton. Once again the annual WOTF volume refreshingly delivers a sampling of diverse and highly creative stories that I guarantee will keep you flipping the pages!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Warriors of Plasm by Jim Shooter

I’ve met Jim shooter a few times, and spoke to him only briefly. I don’t recall my exact words, but it was something like, “I’ll always love those Legion stories you wrote for Adventure Comics.” Those are words I suspect he’s heard thousands of times. His tenure in the comic book industry is legendary, from the time he sold his first Legion of Super-Heroes story to DC Comics in the 1960s, when he was just 14 years old. He went on to succeed Stan Lee as editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics where he ushered in the “New Universe”, then on to Valiant and Defiant Comics, which published Warriors of Plasm # 1 in 1993. Everything he’s touched is highly creative, sometimes controversial but imminently entertaining. I suspect Jim shooter has been publicly vilified far more than any other comic book creator. I don’t have any insight into that, and I certainly don’t know him at all. Having met and spoken a few words with someone is not the same as knowing them. What I do know is this – I know talent when I see it. Jim shooter is a creative powerhouse. If his name is on something, I’m buying it. I know I’ll be entertained. His “New Universe” series at Marvel, especially, Star-Brand, is underrated. I was thrilled when he started Defiant Comics. Frankly, Warriors of Plasm was one of the best series introduced in the 1990s, a decade now infamous for the comic book industry’s implosion, the demise of independent comic book shops across the country, and the rapid disintegration of those two major brand names, Marvel and DC Comics whose titles were so bad by 1997 and 1998 they’re still scoffed at by longtime fans and collectors. There are a lot of reasons for all of that, but the bottom line is that basically comic books sucked. The corporations had taken over; and the men in high-water pants, penny loafers and ink-stained pocket protectors had fiscally analyzed and interfered one time too many. I thought Jim Shooter and Defiant Comics would usher in a new renaissance period; an era of unbridled creativity. When I look at Warriors of Plasm # 1 today I can see how close he came. I’ll go so far as to say that he did it for 13 magnificent issues. Those 13 Warriors of Plasm issues are still better than any single series being published by Marvel Comics today. With outstanding artwork by David Lapham and Michael Witherby, a bright color scheme by Janet Jackson, James Brown and Tom Ziuko, Warriors of Plasm # 1 remains a high-octane science fiction adventure. On the Org of Plasm, the Supreme Inquisitor, Lorca, sets a plan in motion to overthrow the rulers of Plasm who were responsible for the death of his true love, Laygen. The plan goes awry, but his effort results in five genetically modified humans who then find themselves responsible for defending earth from an invasion from Plasm. The five humans are a diverse group, and ultimately dysfunctional - a grandmother, an ex-military officer, a preacher, an auto-mechanic, and a young geeky girl who works as a cosmetics clerk. The visuals by Lapham and Witherby are stunning. Warriors of Plasm is one wild, wacky, weird and wonderful series, and over twenty years later I’m still pissed it didn’t run for at least a hundred issues. Jim shooter has never disappointed me, and these 13 issues are proof of his talent. I have over six thousand comic books in my collection, but the stuff that shines the brightest are titles like Warriors of Plasm. I believe a trade paperback was published that collected all of them. This post is for you, Jim, wherever you are. And, yeah, I still love those Legion stories you wrote for Adventure Comics. Rock on.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Alvin’s Secret Code by Clifford B. Hicks

Those few of you that know me personally are undoubtedly familiar with my childhood tales of traveling the country with my parents. Those wonderful years were an education, and included a wild array of literature. Alvin’s Secret Code is a 1967 novel published at the height of the “Spy Craze” that swept the country. I Spy, The Man from UNCLE and James Bond were all the rage. It was this book and Codes & Secret Writing by Herbert S. Zim that led me to cryptology. This included my study of alphabet ciphers. I became adept at creating and using alphabet ciphers with other neighborhood boys willing to go along with the fun. Alvin’s Secret Code is silly and entertaining; and includes a thick dossier of material for any young brain to soak up. The main character is Alvin Fernald, who first appeared in The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald in 1960, and who subsequently appeared in 10 books. Hicks died in 2010 and his books remain popular. I am constantly encountering fans of his Alvin Fernald books. The premise of his Alvin Fernald stories was that Fernald would use his brain to solve problems and extricate himself from any difficult situation. His sister, known as the “Pest” and his friend Shoie serve as foils. Alvin’s Secret Code exploits the spy theme as Alvin decides to become a secret agent after reading The Great Spies of History in school. Hicks was a fine writer and takes a humorous approach to everything. The boy with “the magnificent brain” lands into trouble when he encounters a message he believes was written by a spy. Alvin’s Secret Code earned a permanent place on my bookshelf, side by side with Codes & Secret Writing by Herbert S. Zim, a 1966 title, also from Scholastic Books. There they reside still, the symbols and ciphers whirling to life out of the rainy mist of long ago Sundays when I penned a secret cipher and sat back to contentedly wait for a response from one of my co-conspirators. The code book is still hidden in the hollow part of the old oak tree in the park. A=5gt, B=u8g, C=ppl8, D=r4, E=2w, F=666, G=kkl97, H=qa, I=vh, J=3u, K=z5t, L=tg4, M=dsa, N=my7, O=6c, P=lb, Q=w9, R=zu, S=7ym, T=19j, U=f8h, V=6r9, W=9gy, X=tf3, Y=k1q, Z=8cx. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren

It sounds so bourgeois to say I take my Algren with my morning coffee. From my viewpoint, Algren is synonymous with Carl Sandburg, and even Studs Terkel and Mike Royko, the latter two being authors I met, albeit briefly. I was born in Chicago, raised on the suburban prairie, lived and walked Chicago’s streets, and recall fondly those childhood years of summer in the Windy City. I still live on the prairie, and these days I might cross Chicago’s city limits three or four times a year. Algren’s books came to me during my bohemian 1970s misadventures, and he is still part of my library. I have newer editions and some older paperbacks, vintage Algren, reprinted Algren, and a book of Art Shay’s Algren photographs. Chicago: City on the Make is that type of book that elicits admiring prose from intellectuals, effeminate reviewers, and hackneyed page eleven newspaper writers suffocating in their own egos. I saw copies for sale in the Metro train station bookstore and the O’Hara International Airport kiosk. They market Chicago: City on the Make as “Local Interest” and “Regional History” for tourists from Russia, Japan and that most exotic of locations, Pittsburg. Do they know what they’re reading? Algren is the hard-edged poet of the alleys and side-streets, social critic and political observer with an unflinching habit of telling the truth. Chicago: City on the Make is a prose poem turned essay and marked by historical commentary and a baseball fan’s bleacher seat wisdom. The hustlers and con-men, crooked politicians and semi-literate boxers with more knowledge than a tenured university professor all populate his prose. The title gives it away - City on the Make – and the current crooks in City Hall like to ignore that. Algren’s affection for Chicago is sequestered between unblemished prosody that rises up like a neon sign: “Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” The struggles of the common people, the incessant manipulation of the masses by a broken political system, and the endless dreams of a winning baseball team gone bad (The White Sox) are rendered here with anger, dismay, and perhaps a touch of hope. In Algren’s Chicago “Every day is D-day under the El.” Chicago: City on the Make is punctuated by elegiac moments, as bright as anything Carl Sandburg penned. In fact, the first edition of Chicago: City on the Make was dedicated to Sandburg. This slender volume is a raw, conversational treatise on a city and its people that Algren loved but refused to view through rose-tinted glasses. Also recommended are Algren’s Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, A Walk on the Wild Side, The Man with the Golden Arm, and The Devil’s Stocking.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ultimate Voyage by William Gilkerson

Published by Shamballa in 1998, William Gilkerson’s Ultimate Voyage is a masterpiece. To tag something a masterpiece in these cynical times leaves me open to criticism by the pundits in our ever-increasing negative culture, but it is a masterpiece. Great tales of the sea, written by knowledgeable authors are not uncommon, although finding them requires focus and determination. I don’t recall how I came upon a listing for this book, but my first edition hardcover is something I’ll never part with. Gilkerson himself is a respected artist and historian whose other fine books include Pirate’s Passage, The Ships of John Paul Jones, Scrimshander, and An Arctic Whaling Sketchbook. He was previously a feature writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Most of his books are non-fiction tiles relating to nautical topics. William Gilkerson wrote and illustrated Ultimate Voyage. This is a tale of five young mariners who build a small vessel, Alembic, and embark upon a journey of discovery. It can be interpreted as a coming of age story, and that would be correct, although Gilkerson has accomplished something that exceeds a simple analogy for youthful travails. There is that, and there is his vast knowledge of the sea, his comprehension of the human condition, and his uncanny ability to connect it all. The illustrations are stunning and complement the narrative. Shamballa did it right in their design. Inset with a color plate prior to the title page, the chapter illustrations are offset in either blue or black and white. The endpaper illustration is blue. Gilkerson’s carefully crafted prose and illustrations will transport you to a Renaissance world where the salt-spray of the sea and the cry of gulls over a harbor are at your fingertips. Gilkerson’s prose is leisurely, confident and alive with images. This is the type of story that a reader can take their time with, savoring each sentence as the story unfolds. Ultimate Voyage is a treasure for lovers of sea tales.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Batman: Odyssey by Neal Adams

Originally published in 13 separate issues, this magnum opus was written and drawn by Neal Adams. That’s over 300 pages of outstanding, explosive artwork combined with a wild but compelling storyline. A lifetime of high-energy and critically acclaimed experience went into this amazing graphic novel, with “novel” being the keyword here. Batman: Odyssey is unlike any Batman story you’ve ever read before, although astute readers will likely recognize traditional elements from the era of the Silver Age Batman. Adams proves himself again and again The Master of sequential art, and this sprawling epic pays tribute not only to Batman’s rich history, but to the very essence of pulp fiction entertainment. The premise is simple enough – Batman tells several stories that reinforce his early struggle but ongoing, firm belief that he should never intentionally kill a criminal. That’s the premise, but the narrative structure challenges the reader by its non-linear approach. Adams employs flashbacks exclusively, with an ongoing framing sequence that reminded me of the Greek chorus in the plays of Sophocles. In this case, Batman is providing commentary to an unknown listener who is revealed only in the final pages. Each anecdotal tale he recounts is part of the jigsaw puzzle that makes perfect sense by the conclusion. There are also plenty of guest stars. Dick Grayson as Robin (this takes place out of modern age continuity), Deadman, Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia, Man-Bat, The Riddler, The Joker, and others are featured. Superman’s appearance in the conclusion is breezy but fun. In fact, Adams seems to have enjoyed himself writing and drawing this amazing story. There are numerous references to Batman’s cultural impact, including a sly nod here and there to the famous 1966 Batman television program starring Adam West and Burt Ward. All of this is accomplished with a sense of affection for the characters and their history. Adams even has Bruce Wayne wearing a Green Lantern T-shirt. At about the halfway point, we are introduced to the Hollow Earth section of the story, and it’s here that Batman and others are flying around with dinosaurs. This is where Adams took some heat from today’s synapse challenged armchair fanboys turned critics who clearly suffer from articulation issues. There is nothing new about Hollow Earth stories, and possibly Adams takes his inspiration from Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Hollow Earth stories of Richard S. Shaver. These sequences are wacky, imaginative, and at odds with Batman’s usual turf of Gotham City. Or is it? In fact, Batman and Detective Comics in the late 50s and early 60s were overloaded with aliens and monsters from all sorts of alternate universes, and in my opinion Adams has simply re-imagined that once common plot device. Batman’s encounter with a giant cyclops monster near the end is a treat. The “Underworld” is at the heart of Batman’s odyssey, and derives from the author’s interest in the expanding earth hypothesis. Consistently throughout the narrative, Batman is exploiting this idea that he should never take a life, and it’s eventually revealed that he went to great lengths to maintain that position. What appears shocking one moment might prove to be a duplicitous red herring the next. The artwork is pure Adams all the way, fluid and detailed when it needs to be, and I have always been a fan. The pages are awesome. The story is unique and ambitious, and Adams deserves credit for his imaginative approach. Humorous at times, while confounding and thought-provoking, Adams never loses sight of the fact that sequential art is meant to entertain.  Altogether, Batman: Odyssey is a fantastic graphic novel. Kudos!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Cannibal by John Hawkes

Picture me wearing levis with long hair, a beard, and a rucksack full of books strung over my shoulder. That person, that edgy and mouthy bohemian, encountered The Cannibal by John Hawkes. This book comes back to me every few years, re-discovered amongst a stack of dusty literature, its dark visions very much alive, the prose resonating across time: “Beyond the edge of town, past tar-covered poor houses and a low hill bare except for fallen electric poles, was the institution, and it sent its delicate and isolated buildings trembling over the gravel and cinder floor of the valley. From there, one day in the early spring, walking with a tree limb as a cane, came Balamir, walking with a shadow and with a step that was not free, to fall under the eye and hand of Madame Snow. All of Balamir’s demented brothers, in like manner, had been turned out to wander far from the gravel paths, to seek anyone who would provide a tin plate or coveted drink.” The academic community has tagged The Cannibal as postmodern literature, which is a convenient and necessary way of labeling the heavy narrative. The Cannibal never follows a traditional novel format. Its parts are fragmented, and dense with analogy. The three opening sentences set the stage for a frightening vision of post-war Europe. I have read numerous theories on this novel’s meaning, and all of them are correct, but none of them are satisfying. I believe that’s because the novel itself is unsatisfying, but perhaps The Cannibal offers the strongest condemnation of Imperialism in post-war literature. What I know of the author is simple enough; a man of letters who spent his life in the academic community. I am fond of another of his books, The Blood Oranges, which is far different in structure and tone to The Cannibal. The plot switches back and forth between 1918 and 1945. Madame Snow is the only connecting character, a cabaret singer, a boarding house owner. She is everything and nothing, which might be the point. The tenuous plot of assassinating the American overseer during the German reconstruction strikes me as anti-militarism. The overseer’s motorcycle a symbol of industrial strength, at once appealing and pathetic. Germany in the wake of WWII was grimy, desperate, and murderous. But so, too, are the allied societies that rose against Hitler’s quest for global domination. How much has changed and how much is the same? In The Cannibal Germany is reconstructed and the true “nation” restored; the madmen line up and return to the insane asylum. There are many brilliantly written passages that are surreal but reflect an uncanny picture of modern life. I view The Cannibal as a piece of social criticism, satirical and unpleasant. Trust that mine is the minority view. Academicians have written thesis after thesis on the book’s meaning. I don’t have that much strength. I love The Cannibal for the quality of its writing and the relevance of its many themes, but ultimately its vision is disturbing. That’s why this book is important.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Transcendental by James Gunn

Transcendental is a fascinating book by veteran science fiction author James Gunn. I was immediately struck by the world building that went into this because it seems so natural. I don’t think it’s easy to create alien species and alien worlds, but Gunn makes it look easy. Kudos to the author for this obviously well-planned and interesting book. The story involves Riley, described as a cynical war vet, who is contacted by a mysterious group and recruited to investigate the alleged existence of a transcendental machine and the source of a new religious cult. With an unwanted computer implant in his mind, Riley has no choice but to go along with the quest. Hurtling into deep space aboard a craft populated by others seeking “transcendence,” Riley meets a cross-section of galactic beings, and one attractive human female, each of whom has a fascinating back story. Gunn introduces these characters with a deft touch. I was caught up in a web of intergalactic deceit, although about halfway through the book I suspected this volume was going to be the first of several. I was right, and the sequel, Transgalactic, has already been published. I haven’t read it yet but I intend to. If Transcendental is going to be a part of a series that’s fine with me. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. There is less action in this story, but the general flow and suspense were sufficient to keep me reading. James Gunn tells a exciting tale without resorting to an indulgence of Space Opera action, although this is still a Space Opera all the way. I have read several of James Gunn’s science fiction novels and enjoyed every one of them. Transcendental is published by TOR and available in paperback and for Kindle.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes

Shown here is the 1950 Pocket Book paperback, listed as # 666 on the upper-right cover at the logo. It’s an actual pocket size and the cover painting is credited to John Northcross. On the first interior page an advertising blurb includes a quote by author Kenneth Fearing referring to The Girl on the Via Flaminia as “A timeless story, simple, vivid, dramatic.” Kenneth Fearing is forgotten now, too, although he lives forever on my bookcase in the poetry section. I’m confident that Alfred Hayes is unknown to most of you. In fact, I might never have encountered Alfred Hayes and this book if not for a film titled Act of Love and starring Kirk Douglas who turned 100 years old a few weeks ago. I’ve met Kirk Douglas twice and I am a fan. Act of Love, however, gets little attention. Released in 1953, Act of Love was based upon The Girl on the Via Flaminia. The are several other books bearing that title that are often confused with the Kirk Douglas film, especial An Act of Love by Ira Wolfert. To further confuse matters, Act of Love changes the location from Rome, Italy to Paris, France. Act of Love is an excellent film, one of Douglas’ best early films. The screenplay is credited to Joseph Kessel and Irwin Shaw, and Shaw himself was a powerhouse writer, and another of my favorites. The trivia keeps piling up here, but please be patient. In addition to the location, there are notable differences between the novel and the film. The film has perhaps one of the best surprise endings in a piece of dialogue spoken by Douglas, whereas the novel’s ending is ambiguous.  The Girl on the Via Flaminia is quite good. Hayes wrote in a clipped style that at times comes off as a Hemingway pastiche. Hemingway’s influence on post-war literature is something I’ve mentioned before. The market was glutted with novels about soldiers, and Alfred Hayes wrote another fine one titled All Thy Conquests which I’ll cover soon. The Girl on the Via Flaminia is about a soldier named Robert who meets and falls in love with Lisa in Rome during the occupation. Lisa was played by the lovely French actress Dany Robin in the film. The prose is never lush, and perhaps simplistic to the point of becoming mediocre. Hayes is redeemed by his intelligence. At the heart of the story lies this idea that Robert is a victim of circumstances that he can’t overcome, and so is Lisa. Robert and Lisa are involved, but in some way she is also distant from him. Robert is trying to understand Lisa and the world she lives in. When he looks at her mother, he thinks: “She stands there, Robert thought, like a collection of bad knowledge.” The mother tells Robert that he is a soldier and soldiers are always innocent, and implies the girls a soldier encounters are never innocent. Robert questions himself: “How do I know who these people are? How do I know what she is? How do I know I’m not being taken?” Alfred Hayes lived and wrote in New York and Italy, and his on-line bibliographies note his poem “I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night” later became a popular folk song by Earl Robinson. Joe Hill is the final bit of trivia linked to this disintegrating old paperback, and I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to follow the trail of American history before it’s all lost like Joe Hill's ashes on the wind.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love

Deadman has long been one of comic’s underrated characters. I recall vividly the character’s initial appearance in DC’s Strange Adventures way back in 1967. Strange Adventures was one of those off-titles we kids bought only when we were bored with caped heroes (which rarely happened) or if nothing else on the spinner rack looked interesting. I have very few of these in my collection today. I loved the Neal Adams covers on just about anything back then. Adams did most of the early interior art as well. Those stories were later reprinted, and I recommend you track them down. Deadman has experienced only a modest revival here and there. When DC Comics announced the three issue mini-series, I made it a point to check in. Written by Sarah Vaughn with artwork by Lan Medina Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love is excellent. Author Vaughn remains true to Deadman’s original characterization, but better yet, she tells a fresh and wholly original ghost story. I enjoyed every gothic page. Arriving at Glencourt Manor, Deadman encounters Adelia Ruskin, a ghost, whose connection to Berenice, a visitor, drives the mystery. There’s romance and complicated relationships, (Nathan and Sam), all of which lends the tale an aura of gothic romance laced with supernatural occurrences. I loved the artwork by Lan Medina, assisted by Phil Hester, with colors by Jose Villarrubia. The great cover artwork on the three installments is by Stephanie Hans. Combining the appeal of the romance comics of yesteryear, with the moody narratives once found in horror comics, Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love is an outstanding and wholly satisfying tale. With these three issues, I am now a fan of all the creators involved. DC Comics executives are making a heartfelt effort with their entire line of comics, and the results are fantastic books like this. I believe Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love will soon be available as a collected trade paperback. Buy it, save for Halloween, and read it at midnight. Kudos!

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Love Seekers by Jay Carr

This vintage 1963 paperback might once have been described as “sleaze.” Sleaze is now called “erotica” which is the academic community’s way of applying manners to frank discussions about the horizontal bop. It’s all about sex, complicated relationships, and more sex. The cover artwork appeals to the testosterone crowd and generally gets across the book’s theme. Published by Beacon-Signal, whose phallic lighthouse logo was an indication of the lively prose one would find in their books, The Love Seekers is far less explicit than you might expect. The Love Seekers is about three girls in a boarding house – Nina, Joyce and Jerri – and the ignited passions they experience with Eddie and Martin, the two very lucky males who, if you’ll pardon the expression, come onto their radar. I think “boarding houses” must also be a thing from the past. I don’t know of any boarding houses any more (essentially, cut-rate dormitory style hotels). After reading The Love Seekers you’ll want to hitch-hike across the country, check into a cheap boarding house, and frolic with girls like Nina, Joyce and Jerri. There are worse things you could be doing with your time. Books like The Love Seekers are about desire, physical and emotional, and the trouble it causes under certain circumstances. Nina is the granddaughter of the boarding house owner and involves herself with men out of boredom; Jerri is a wealthy heiress also bored with life who finds excitement giving herself to men; and Joyce is married but unfulfilled. Martin and Eddie find themselves saddled with some unique problems in addition to their own wacky lives. The tag line makes it all clear: “An intimate glimpse of life as it is really lived behind the respectable facade of a down-at-the-heels rooming house.” Sounds like a good place to check in.