Tuesday, February 27, 2007

From off the shelf: two quick reviews

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book
By Gerard Jones

I’m probably the last comic book fan to get around to reading and reviewing this book, so I just have a few things to say.

From the many other reviews and high praise this book has received I’m sure you don’t need my say so. Simply put this is the best overview I’ve read of the rich history of the industry from which comic’s fandom has sprung. Amazingly enough it was another fandom that influenced so many of the later lights in the four-color world to begin with. It is also a remarkable look at the lives of several men whose goals (not always benevolent) shaped the four-color empire.

Much of the book centers on the lives and work of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who created a character that, would become the cornerstone for much of the industry. SUPERMAN became not only an incredibly successful marketing phenomena but one of the most highly recognized fictional characters of the twentieth century. These two kids, who came from such different backgrounds luckily found each other and together brought to the American public something which instantly resonated with millions of other kids.

From its first hesitant beginning in the time of the Great Depression to the final days of Siegel & Shuster, Jones (a comic’s writer & creator himself) demonstrates not only his wit but also a historian’s ability of research and examination. If you’re a reader of comics, used to be or just someone interested in the shaping of American public culture in the middle of the last century you really owe it to yourself to read Jones’ book. Highly recommended.

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

In this day and age of instant communication whether by telephone, television & radio or the World Wide Web, we forget that in the beginning of the last century rapid communication was severely limited. The fastest method of reporting or getting any sort of information from one point on the globe to another was via telegraph lines. While this was remarkable compared to an earlier age, there were still vast distances around the world where the hum of wires couldn’t reach. This was especially so across the vast miles of ocean around the globe. Once a ship was out of sight of land or other ships they were lost in a “great hush” separated from knowledge of the world’s events even as they were part of them.

As in his earlier works, ISAAC’S STORM and THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, Larson thoroughly brings to life an earlier age different in many ways, yet eerily similar in others. Since we were school kids we heard the name of Guglielmo Marconi, but probably didn’t really know much beyond the fact that he was credited with the invention of wireless communication. Larson introduces us to this difficult, yet brilliant man, showing us his shortcomings as well as his remarkable tenacity in the face of personal and financial hardships.

In his previous book on the Chicago World Exposition or World’s Fair, Larson followed the lives of both New York City’s Flatiron Building architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, the Fair’s Director of Works and murderer Henry H. Holmes, one of the most fiendish and brilliant serials killers in American history. While Burnham and Holmes may never have actually met the life of one might have been very different if it had not been for the other. So to in this book where Marconi’s new technology makes possible the capture of another murderer, the hardly frightening Dr. Hawley Crippen. The quiet and unassuming Dr. Crippen would have passed through the pages of history unnoted, had he not decided to end his not-so-happy marriage in a most disagreeable fashion.

As with his previous two books, THUNDERSTRUCK causes the reader to care about these long-dead people, many of whom are of note simply because of their proximity to major events. I don’t know what Larson has coming up next, but I’m sure I’m going to be picking it up.
Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

See you in the Funny Papers!

Some of my earliest memories are of lying on the living room floor, reading the Sunday comics. When I was a kid growing up in the mid-1950s my family subscribed to three newspapers. During the week we received the local Norwich Bulletin and the New York Daily News (which my father always took to work with him, but brought back each evening for my mother), but on Sunday we also got the Boston Herald-American. That was primarily so my father could keep up with the latest Red Sox happenings.

Even before I started reading comic books at six or seven, I loved seeing what was happening in those big four-color sheets. Along with such classic strips as PRINCE VALIANT, DICK TRACY, THE PHANTOM & LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE which are still going strong, you would get FLASH GORDON, STEVE CANYON and SMILIN’ JACK among others. Add to those more light hearted fare such as PETE THE TRAMP, LIL’ IODINE, MOON MULLINS and HENRY.

As I’ve said before it’s been a while since I was getting a newspaper on a daily (or almost daily) basis, so it was a pleasure to get back into reading comic strips. The Orange County Register carries a few dozen strips, most of which are of the daily gag variety. Oddly, the ‘adventure’ strips are not located in the Entertainment section during the week, but rather in the Job Classified section. There you’ll find something called “Classic Comics” along with a second crossword puzzle. What made the editors do this is beyond me, but at it’s nice to see some old favorites no matter where they are.

The five ‘classic’ strips are DICK TRACY, ANNIE (the ‘Little Orphan’ part apparently dropped since most kids and even adults are familiar with the character more for the musical & movie than the actual strip), GASOLINE ALLEY, BEETLE BAILEY (how did he end up here?) and JUDGE PARKER.

Four of these strips I’ve enjoyed since I was a kid, although I have to admit that I’m more a fan of GASOLINE ALLEY now than I was back then. Perhaps it has something to do with the characters growing older as I have, something few other strips allow. About a month ago Walt, now a widower, found himself amongst ‘retired’ comic strips characters. It was a nice kick seeing Walt along with MUTT & JEFF, THE YELLOW KID and dozens of other long-gone creations. BEETLE BAILEY is ageless, of course, and any reference to current events is rare. You won’t see him being shipped out to Iraq any time soon.

DICK TRACY just completed a silly adventure featuring a mind-reading machine, which had Tracy discovering things he might not have wanted to know about his fellow squad members. The whole story reminded me too much of the era when Tracy & Company were flying around in magnetic-force hovercraft and Moon Maid was dating Junior. Best left forgotten by old time DT fans, like me. ANNIE, on the other hand, is finding herself caught in time. Somehow transported from the Bermuda Triangle into pre-catastrophic Atlantis, our young heroine & Sandy have also encountered an earlier version of herself in WWII as she was fleeing from Nazis. The current creative team of Jay Maeder and Ted Slampyak, are doing a great job keeping Annie and her companions a pleasure to read. Heck, Ted even slipped in a reference or two to his own comic book JAZZ AGE, several months back when Annie was shown reading a comic which featured a fedora wearing gent on its cover.

I don’t know much about JUDGE PARKER, except for the fact that I haven’t really figured out who all the characters are, or why I should care. The current storyline has several American girls in Paris, where one of them may be about to inherit a large estate from an elderly widow. Created by Dr. Nicholas P. Dallis, who also created APARTMENT 3-G & REX MORGAN, M.D., in 1952, the title character isn’t seen much, although the Kings Features website implies he’ll be re-introduced soon.

If I get the chance I’ll talk about the other comics, over in the primary comics’ page in the next day or so.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Still reviewing!

For those keeping track of such things, I'm going to continue with the book reviews for the Joe Bob Briggs website. It seemed a bit hit or miss, but they now have someone who will be updating the site and posting at least some of the stockpile of reviews.

It was a nice surprise to receive a box of ten paperbacks in the mail today. Once I finish off the three books I'm currently reading (for personal pleasure) I'll get started on the stack.

By the way...Am I the only person who regularly will start more than one book and have no problem going back and forth between them?