Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Green Leaf: The Collected Poems of Robert Nathan

I cannot let April slip past without acknowledging National Poetry Month; the cruelest month in T. S. Eliot’s words, and when grief still clings to me like a fevered dream because of recent loses, I turned to Robert Nathan, best known as the author of The Bishop’s Wife (1928) and Portrait of Jennie (1940) to help ease my troubled mind. The Green Leaf was published in 1950 and sold steadily, although I am uncertain if it made any best-seller lists. Nathan’s poetry sold at a slower rate than his many acclaimed novels, but his poetry did sell, and consistently. He was once a headline writer at Alfred A. Knopf publishers, but they have forgotten him. I will not forget him because his books mean a great deal to me. Nathan was never exalted for his poetry, at least not in the way that Robert Frost was, but he was respected, and he published multiple volumes of verse. Many of his poems rhyme, relying on a standard couplet. The Green Leaf also includes sonnets, and a sprinkling of free verse. Included here is his long poem, “Morning in Iowa” which is a descriptive narrative with wide-ranging themes, most of which is a celebration of life and the American experience.

American mountains, how they pull the heart
Into the wilderness with Indian names,
And feathered wars, and lost American sky.
Lost sky, lost earth, and lost American dream.

His lines are sometimes beautiful by their simplicity: “Topeka holds the morning like a cup and spills it onward.” Nathan was born in 1894 and witnessed extraordinary cultural changes to the American landscape. All of his work is marked by a deep nostalgia for simpler times, glowing summer days, or the contentment that comes with an autumn harvest.

Beauty is ever to the lonely mind
A shadow fleeing; she is never plain.
She is a visitor who leaves behind
The gift of grief, the souvenir of pain
-        Autumn Sonnets # 26

Nathan uses crisp, clean images, an undertone of Christian theology, and a remarkable insight into human nature that drives his poems onward. His poetry is much simpler, by his own choice, than other poets of his time, and he addresses this in the introduction: “It seems to me that our modern artists are more afraid of banality than of anything else in the world. Yet I would rather listen to something banal than to something for which the artist has had to reach too far...” Nathan describes himself as a mugwump, and that he was. Nathan’s poetry is enjoyable, sometimes enlightening, and very much the product of a writer who would be considered Old School, and perhaps stereotypical. Scholars do not discuss him in the same forum as Hemingway or Faulkner; Nathan’s sentiment and nostalgia is too far removed from their post-modern criteria. Yet he touches a chord with many readers, even now. Certain of his novels are literary treasures – Long After Summer, The Train in the Meadow, Stonecliff, and Winter in April – and I will cover some of these in the future. Many of Robert Nathan’s books are available for Kindle.

Here’s last year’s grief
In the green leaf;
And all he knows is
That time will take
All heartbreak,
And turn it to roses.
-        With a Bunch of Roses

Friday, April 20, 2018

Action Comics # 1000 Review

For all of us Superman fans, the release of Action Comics # 1000 is landmark event. From his first appearance in Action Comics # 1 in June, 1938, Superman has become the iconic representation of Truth, Justice and the America Way. I began collecting Superman comic books in the 1960s and my collection includes most everything from about 1959 to the late 1990s, with sporadic issues afterward. Readers of this blog are aware I have been vocal in my dislike for the Zack Snyder films, and I have been critical of the poor editorial choices that have plagued the series for many years.

Critics and fans alike have been united in their disdain for the way the Superman Family of characters have been handled, and re-boots, re-launches, or whatever you want to call it, are always beneficial to cash flow problems. You don’t need a slide-rule and a pocket protector to figure that out. Therein lies the heart of the problem. A continuing story arc involving crossover titles is a ploy to increase sales, but that’s not storytelling, that’s marketing. This is compounded by a focus on continuity and revisionist character biographies, which have been continuous for the last forty plus years at DC, if not longer. I don’t mind change, but what I’m really interested in are good stories. Gone are the days when a three-part story was a special event. Stand-alone stories of 23 or 24 pages are extinct. The focus has changed to a continuing soap-opera style story-arc that can be republished as a trade paperback and labeled “graphic novel.”

That doesn’t mean it’s all bad. In fact, I have enjoyed the DC “Rebirth” titles, and Superman has been handled with respect by writers Patrick Gleason and Peter J. Tomasi. I enjoy their stories much more than those of other current writers. Geoff Johns, the current president and Chief Creative Officer at DC, has also turned in some fantastic stories in recent years. His Braniac sequence in Action Comics a few years ago is a modern classic.

Action Comics is the flagship title for Superman, and to celebrate the inclusion of this landmark issue in my collection I thumbed through some boxes to re-acquaint myself with past glories. Obviously, the 1960s offered a wealth of nostalgia, including Action Comics # 350 and 361, the first two appearances of The Parasite. The stories got better in the late 60s, and Curt Swan’s 1960s cover art is all classic material. Neal Adams and Nick Cardy also turned in some memorable covers. My favorite Nick Cardy cover is Action Comics # 425; an image that evokes both the nostalgia and endurance of the world’s most popular adventure character.

The release of Action Comics # 1000 was orchestrated to coincide with Superman’s 80th anniversary. On April 11th, Comic Shops received their orders of the deluxe hardback compilation celebrating 80 years of The Man of Steel. This release to Comic Shops preceded the April 17th release on Amazon and other retail booksellers. That’s a remarkably unique exclusion involving Amazon, and a coup for Comic Shops who then benefited first from selling Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman to the public. The book is beautiful. With dust-jacket cover art by Jim Lee, and a hardback embossed cover reproducing about 36 covers, the volume includes a never before published mid-1940s Superman story by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and their studio staff. Also included are some ashcan covers, and a new short story by Paul Levitz and Neal Adams. This is Neal Adams’ only contribution to the 80th celebration. Numerous covers and key stories are reprinted, including the first appearance of Braniac and Supergirl. It’s not the best anthology of Superman tales, but it makes for a fantastic celebration of Superman’s long career.
Action Comics # 1000 was released on April 17th with nine official variant covers. The basic newstand cover is by Jim Lee, with subsequent covers evoking the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and the 2000s by artists Steve Rude, Michael Cho, Dave Gibbons, Michael Allred, Jim Steranko, Joshua Middleton, Dan Jurgens, and Lee Bermejo. There is also a blank variant cover which is a longstanding and rather cheesy marketing ploy to produce an issue that fans can take to conventions and pay to have an artist draw something on it. The variant covers are all beautiful, fantastic pieces of art. However, noticeably absent is a cover by Neal Adams who was instrumental in depicting Superman in the 60s and 70s. This exclusion is baffling.  

Action Comics # 1000 is an 80-Page Giant with much ballyhoo surrounding the debut of writer Brian Michael Bendis who takes the reins as Superman’s scribe. DC Comics is betting that Bendis’ popularity and talent, recruited after a productive career at Marvel, will increase sales on the Superman family titles.

Action Comics # 1000 is a beautiful book. At every level, the design, high-quality glossy paper, and distinctive artistic styles all pay tribute to the Man of Steel and his creators. There are ten stories included here. The first by Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund reminds us why Superman is so popular; Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason follow up with a tribute to his richly textured history; and then Marv Wolman and Curt Swan offer an unpublished and slightly revamped tale. Geoff Johns, Richard Donner and Oliver Coipel tell a vital story about a car the Man of steel once lifted above his head; Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque offer some insight into Lex Luthor; Tom King and Clay Mann deliver an enigmatic homage; Louise Simonson and Jerry Ordway shine with a tale the reminds us how important Clark’s Daily Planet job really is; and Paul Dini and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez get whimsical. The Brad Meltzer and John Cassady brew reminds us that Superman may not be perfect, but he’s still Superman. There are also several stand-alone pin-up pages scattered throughout Action Comics # 1000.

These are all short tales, precisely what I mentioned have been missing for many years. They work pretty well, and while it’s true that such short-shorts suffer from a sometimes abrupt conclusion, they still work. This brings us to the eagerly awaited debut of author Brian Michael Bendis whose story is brought to life by artist Jim Lee. The artwork is fantastic, as expected, and appropriately enough, Bendis jumps right into an action-packed tale. The story is 12 pages, and mostly involves the Big Blue battling a new villain named Rogol Zaar. I am promoting a cautionary approach here, because we are a long way off from delivering a final verdict on Brian Michael Bendis. The problem is this - Rogol Zaar comes across as a roadshow re-imagining of Doomsday, and Doomsday is a character we’ve all seen too much of. DC Comics really flogged the Doomsday horse time and time again. I was hoping for a character that didn’t seem like a pastiche. We didn’t get one, at least not in these initial 12 pages.
Bendis also plays the revisionist history card, which was announced in one of DCs press releases. We don’t know exactly what changes Bendis has planned for the continuity, but I’m on record as stating how unnecessary those changes are. The last page of the Bendis story (which will be continued in the forthcoming The Man of Steel # 1... yeah, they’re doing that again), struck me as cheap dramatics.

Still, I’m willing to keep an open mind. Bendis is a truly fine writer, and there is potential here. As a fan and collector, I’m only interested in seeing him maintaining Superman’s integrity as a seminal figure in pop culture, and reading some fresh and exciting stories. Time will tell if Brian Michael Bendis is yet another media event, shining brightly at the onset, but fading quickly like John Byrne before him.

Overall, Action Comics # 1000 is a great tribute, and seeing artwork again by Curt Swan, Jerry Ordway and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez was a treat. I am particularly pleased that Jerry Ordway was involved in this project.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Valley of Hunted Men by Bradford Scott

This 1960 Pyramid paperback came to me via an antique store that was going out of business.  For a span of about an hour I became a Pulp Raider and spent a small fortune on several boxes of vintage paperbacks that were discounted to mere pennies. With my pulp treasures packed in cardboard, I retreated to my northwoods cabin where I began a tentative inventory, reveling in blazing six-shooters, wild jungle tales, Doc Savage’s amazing exploits, and some saucy Longarm paperbacks thrown in for good measure. Valley of Hunted Men caught my eye and I snatched it up. I have a nice, modest stack of Bradford Scott paperbacks. I buy them whenever I encounter them because they’re good. I love the cover for Valley of Hunted Men. I don’t know who the artist is, but it’s rugged and colorful, just like Bradford Scott’s prose. In this one, Walt Slade rides into Laredo where he witnesses a murder. Things get gloomy quick when Slade finds himself the object of a gang’s murderous sport. It takes Slade a while to figure out what’s been going on, and it doesn’t help matters at all. The main thing is that Slade has to stay alive, and since this is the Old West, that means plenty of gunplay. I have come to rely on Bradford Scott for solid, Western entertainment, and Valley of Hunted Men hits the bullseye. His books are fast and easy to read. You don’t need to get analytical because Scott’s books are Old School Horse Operas, and that’s a good thing. At some point I need to give in to my Bradford Scott addiction  and track down every single book of his that I can find. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

One Bad Woman by Clay Anthony

NOTE: Cleveland Westerns (Follow this Link) are published out of Australia. The many authors use a pseudonym and I have little information on their true identities. I respect the fact that some writers prefer to use an alias. I am also in the dark as to the names of the cover artists. Should any author or artist or their fans wish to share any relevant information, feel free to contact this blog and I’ll be happy to tip my Stetson to them. Thank you!
At least two authors are verified as writing under the Clay Anthony pseudonym for Cleveland Westerns. Diane Dorothy Luckow Michel, (1942-2016) wrote as Clay Anthony and Jack Masterton; and Don Haring (1922-1981) also wrote as Clay Anthony. I’m guessing One Bad Woman was written by Diane Dorothy Luckow Michel. One Bad Woman begins with cowpuncher Dave Bracewell rounding up strays when he hears a gunshot nearby, and decides to investigate. As luck would have it, Dave sees an hombre named Henry Haywood gun down a fellow named Mobley. Haywood flees, and Dave takes Mobley’s body to his ranch where he informs his wife Cathy and father-in-law about the killing. Dave is warned not to report that he saw Haywood gun Mobley down, but Dave is an honest man and insists on telling what he saw, as he saw it. The Haywood’s are a powerful family, and even the sheriff is courting Henry Haywood’s sister. Dave would be a damn fool to say anything. To top it off, Dave rarely carries a gun. Within a few galloping chapters, we learn that Mobley, the deceased, had been making time with a new dove in town named Crystal, who happens to be the same dove that Henry Haywood fancies. All it takes is one bad woman to get a man riled up, and that’s also when the fun begins. One Bad Woman is highly enjoyable, albeit in a convoluted way. The prose is a tad less spicy than the cover, but as they say, don’t judge a book by the cover. I’ve been enjoying the hell out of the Cleveland Westerns, and I have a nice stack to pull from. It’s a good feeling to ease into a leather chair with a tumbler of whiskey and a Cleveland Western. Get to it.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Golden Age Superman, Vol. 3

This, at least, DC has done right. Volume three in Trade Paperback format continues their historic reprinting of Superman’s entire Golden Age issues. DC’s intention is to reprint all of the Superman Stories from the Golden Age, and then continue with the Silver Age. This massive undertaking has already seen 3 volumes of Batman reprints, World’s Finest, and Silver Age volumes for Justice League of America, Flash and Green Lantern. The Superman reprints will take years just to reach landmarks like Action Comics # 300 or Superman # 200. Volume 3 reprints Action Comics # 32 – 40, Superman 8-11 and World’s Best Comics # 1 and World’s Finest # 2. The reproductions are bright and faithful to the original color schemes, including errors. For example, on the cover of Action Comics # 38, the “S” on Superman’s cape was blue, and DC retained the original error in this reprint, as they should have. This volume also takes us to the eve of World War II. Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel wrote every story included here. It is also at about this time that Joe Shuster’s artwork begins to take a back-seat to other staff artists who would leave an indelible mark on Superman’s mythology. Notably, a young Wayne Boring is doing more work and Jack Burnley’s beefy style adds another dimension to Superman’s image. The series is clearly evolving, along with Superman’s “S” emblem which is still either hastily sketched or outlined and rounded for clarity. The stories are also better, and author Jerry Siegel is obviously enjoying himself. Still basically crime dramas, the science fiction elements wouldn’t appear for several years yet. Lois Lane is a vital character in these stories, and editor Perry White and Clark’s job at the Daily Planet is firmly established and serves as a starting point for many of these tales. We are still a full ten years from George Reeves taking on the role in the film Superman and the Mole Men. I recommend these volumes in conjunction with the Sunday Page reprints from IDW Books for a better understanding of the Big Blue’s development. Volume 4 will be out later this year. Recommended!

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Blaze # 1 by Stephen Mertz

Blaze is a great book for fans of the Gunsmith or Longarm series and beautifully written by veteran action writer Stephen Mertz. The author gently and correctly reminded me recently that e-books are the new paperbacks and that men’s adventure stories are enjoying a new golden age as e-books. That certainly appears to be true judging by the popularity of these titles. Blaze is published by Rough Edges Press and various authors have contributed to the series. The first entry introduces J. D. (Jehoram Delfonso) Blaze and Kate, his beautiful wife. They are a husband and wife gunfighter-for-hire team, a unique duo to be sure. They’ve been at this game for five years, and the action in this first tale is spot-on. As shootists for hire, they “never rode the outlaw trail” and hired on to ranchers, the railroad, bank syndicates and others in need of a trustworthy gun. I love that set-up. It’s fresh, it’s exciting and Stephen Mertz knows how to write a great action story. The introduction recounts their first meeting five years earlier when they’re resting up after surviving an ambush. J. D. gets to reminiscing about their first meeting, and then back to the present for their latest hot-blooded adventure. Kate is a fantastic character as well, and with the characters established readers are treated to a solid, exciting story in the grand tradition of men’s adventure pulp paperbacks. I’ve actually read a few of the others as well, and I liked them all. I downloaded them to my Kindle, but I read them on my phone using the Kindle app. I’m still trying to get accustomed to the digital world of e-books. I’d love to see Blaze in paperback on a spinner rack. Maybe someday. Meanwhile, author Stephen Mertz has multiple e-books available. Also recommended - Night Wind, the MIA Hunter series, Some Die Hard, and Sherlock Holmes: Zombies Over London (just the title on this one excites me!). Of course, many of you will recall that he wrote The Executioner # 62, Day of Mourning, a landmark entry in the Mack Bolan series. Recommended.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Killer in White by Tedd Thomey

I occasionally encounter an old paperback by Tedd Thomey at flea markets or in some dusty corner of some antique shop. Some collectors call these “Throw Aways” or “Bundlers” because they’ll either discard copies outright or bundle them with a dozen men’s adventure paperbacks in order to move the inventory. Thomey was a good writer, but he might be utterly forgotten today if not for Errol Flynn. In 1961 Thomey worked with Florence Aadland, mother of Beverly Aadland, Flynn’s underage companion at the time of his death. The resulting book, The Big Love, and its famous opening line (“There’s one thing I want to make clear right off: my baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn”) caught the attention of mainstream novelist William Styron who subsequently wrote an essay about the book that helped propel Thomey onto the best-seller lists. The Big Love was reprinted multiple times, even morphed into a stage production, and was, by all accounts, Thomey’s favorite book. In 1962 he capitalized upon the Flynn phenomenon by publishing a short, hacked out biography of Flynn titled The Loves of Errol Flynn. Published by Monarch, The Loves of Errol Flynn is a little scarcer than The Big Love. Thomey’s other novels are infrequently unearthed, moderate well-written examples of the post-World War II men’s paperback market. That brings us to Killer in White, a 1956 novel that qualifies as a mystery thriller. Killer in White earnestly attempts to capitalize on the suspense formulae that worked so well for paperback writers.  The set up involves a chiropractor named Doctor Webb who is young and eager to take advantage of his equally young but luscious female patients. In addition to enjoying and breaking the hearts of young women, Webb is a phony. He has no medical degree, but he does possess the ability to charm and to con his way in and out of most situations. Then one day, one of his patients turns up dead, by suicide. The plot nearly spirals out of control rather early, as the suicide is followed by a murder, and then the usual cover-up and duplicity. Thomey handles the plot mechanically, but capably enough so that it works. There is no blatant sexuality here, other than a few saucy lines that are tame by today’s standards. The cover offers about as much as Thomey’s prose, and that’s just enough to make you wish for more. Killer in White is standard fare for Thomey, which is to say it’s kitsch. I never read one of his books that was better than this, nor have I read one that was worse. I enjoyed it for what it was.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

My Life as a Painter, Part Two

Yellow came to me at midnight. It crept stealthily into the room and assaulted me. It is my sin and my happiness to tell you that I enjoyed yellow. There is nothing like yellow. The clock had struck midnight and the chimes sounded yellow; a brassy reggae melody cast into the glow of a 30-watt lightbulb. Yellow permeated the room.

So I gave myself to yellow and yellow is the best part of the rainbow; yellow is the untarnished shade of a golden coin. Yellow birds flit in and out of the trees and yellow butterflies populate poems. The skin of a corpse yellows before it decays and turns brown. Yellow is the best part of a gaudy pulp fiction magazine cover. Teeth are yellow. The neighbor’s dog is yellow and they own a yellow cat. They once owned a russet cat and I poisoned it. I only like yellow animals. A giraffe is yellow.

I created a yellow room. I call it the Robert W. Chambers room. The floor, walls and ceiling are yellow. The brass bed has yellow sheets and yellow blankets and yellow pillows. There is one bookcase, painted yellow, and the only books are dozens of copies of Dave Etter’s The Yellow House. My paintings are stacked about haphazardly. My theme is yellow. There is a painting of a yellow skull. There is a painting of a lonely man on a yellow street in sunlight, and the blue sea is glimpsed off on the left to show a little contrast, perhaps foreshadowing what comes next. My paintings of the sunset highway always have a flash of yellow. Our yellow president tells yellow lies. One of my nephews is a yellow bastard.

I went to New York, home of the Art-Speak community’s chattering pre-menstrual debutantes, where a small museum hosted a showing of my paintings. It was a great success. Everyone wore yellow. A young brunette in a tight yellow dress accented by yellow pearls, her yellow high-heels making a hollow sound as she clopped next to me, breathlessly asked: “What was your inspiration?” So as I sipped my golden wine from a glittering goblet I said, “I was on a deserted highway in Wyoming three years ago and the sky was yellow. I had not come far from Carcosa.” I loved it that she pretended to understand me.

But you can stay too long with yellow. Yellow can turn on you like a rabid dog or a film critic with a yellow spine. Yellow is the color of my true love’s panties. Mellow yellow is the new blue. Now it is April the first and the men in yellow have come. An army of men wearing yellow rain slickers and yellow boots holding yellow rifles, their visor’s splattered with yellow rain. They are lined up in the street, platoons of yellow military death come to take our lives away. Yellow is considered decadent. Fear creeps up my spine like a yellow caterpillar.

I am frightened and I am painting my room blue. I will love the blue although I know there will always be a place in my heart for yellow. Bring on the blue. Someone is knocking at the door. Is it a yellow man come to shatter my blue future? I dreamed my last painting will one day hang in a museum and it is called The King in Yellow (27 x 41acrylic on canvas) and it’s all the rage among the high-brow New York snobs.