Monday, October 14, 2019

Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC - Reed Tucker

When I was a kid, the first superhero comic books I ever read were issues of BATMAN and SUPERMAN that must have been published in the late Fifties, because this was around 1960 and those issues were old and beat up. I don’t know how they came to be around our house. Maybe they were my brother’s, but I don’t remember him ever reading comic books. Likely they were something my dad picked up, or one of his customers gave him. (He was a TV repairman.)

I read other DC comics over the next few years, including what I now know was a very early issue of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, #5, I think. I vaguely remember seeing some of the monster books published by Timely or Atlas or whatever they were calling themselves in those days, but they didn’t interest me. I liked superheroes.

Then, as I’ve mentioned before, on Christmas Day 1963, a couple of my girl cousins gave me a stack of comics they didn’t want, which included FANTASTIC FOUR #16 and #17, AVENGERS #1, SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS #3, and TALES OF SUSPENSE #42. That was the first time I knew something called Marvel existed, but as soon as I’d read those comics, I read ’em again and then as soon as possible started hitting all the spinner racks in our little town and grabbing all the current issues I could find. For years I read almost everything Marvel published, but I continued to read a lot of DC books as well, all through the Sixties and Seventies.

So Reed Tucker’s non-fiction book SLUGFEST: THE EPIC, 50-YEAR BATTLE BETWEEN MARVEL AND DC packs a tremendous amount of nostalgia value for me. I was there on the spinner rack front lines of that war for many years, allowance clutched in my grubby little paws, trying to figure out which comics I really wanted, because I couldn’t afford to buy all of them.

Tucker does a fine job of detailing all the behind-the-scenes stuff going on at the time, including chicanery and shenanigans on both sides, and as it turns out, some things that puzzled me at the time actually had hard-headed business reasons behind them, rather than being any sort of creative decisions, for example turning TALES OF SUSPENSE and TALES TO ASTONISH into split books featuring two different superheroes. He also brings the personalities involved (writers, artists, editors, executives) to life and reveals some things I didn’t know. Again, for example, I wasn’t aware that DC editor Mort Weisinger was so widely despised in the industry, and evidently for good reason. I just knew Weisinger as a former pulp editor and writer who was in charge of the Superman titles for years and years.

As SLUGFEST progresses later into the Seventies and on into the Eighties and Nineties, some of the nostalgia value goes away for me, but I still found it very interesting, because many of the people involved at Marvel and DC during that era are guys that I’ve met and like, such as Marv Wolfman. And during those decades, I was still buying a lot (but not all, anymore) of Marvel’s books and many of DC’s. It wasn’t until later in the Nineties that a long run of what I considered absolutely terrible creative decisions at Marvel soured me on comics in general and I didn’t read any of them for close to a decade.

Since then I’ve worked my back into being a sporadic comics reader, although mostly revisiting older stuff I loved back then or older stuff I never got around to reading when it was new. (Allowance, remember?) I have no desire to read any of the stuff coming out now, although I’m sure some of it isn’t bad, but Tucker’s book still held my interest all the way to the end. It came out in 2017, which means he probably finished writing it in 2016, and quite a bit has happened in the comics industry since then, very little of it good, from what I know. (And in the spirit of fairness, I haven’t read today’s books except for some independently published projects from people whose work I know and trust to be top-notch. I’m just going by the gossip I see and hear, so take my opinions for whatever they’re worth to you.)

At any rate, SLUGFEST is a really enjoyable book, especially the first half or so, and if you’re a long-time comics fan, I can’t help but think you’d enjoy it, too. It gets a high recommendation from me.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sunday Evening Bonus Pulp: Complete Detective, November 1938

It's still Sunday, right? So, very belatedly, here's another pulp cover. This painting must have been intended for a Weird Menace pulp, because it checks most of the boxes. We've got a scantily clad babe in bondage, a red-robed cultist (with a hypodermic needle, no less!), a stalwart, two-fisted hero, and some vaguely scientific-looking equipment. I don't know who the artist is, but he sure gave us a lurid cover. Inside, the lead novel is by Edward S. Ronns, who of course was actually Edward S. Aarons, author of many top-notch paperback original novels, including the long-running Sam Durell espionage series. Of the other two authors in this issue, one name (William Corcoran) is vaguely familiar to me, while the other (Omar Gwinn) is completely unknown. I'd have bought this issue anyway if I'd come across it on the newsstand. With that cover, how could I have resisted?

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Thrilling Ranch Stories, November 1949

Sam Cherry certainly painted some pretty girls on his pulp covers, and this issue of THRILLING RANCH STORIES is a good example. This blonde looks plenty tough, too. There are some good tough writers with stories in this issue, including Nels Leroy Jorgensen, who was a regular in BLACK MASK early in his career, and Walt Sheldon, who turned out a number of hardboiled paperbacks during the Fifties and Sixties. Also on hand are Harold Preece, Cliff Walters, house-name Sam Brant, and an author who contributed only a few stories to the Western pulps but made the cover on this one, Melvin Gable.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Forgotten Books: The Vengeful Virgin - Gil Brewer

(This post originally appeared in somewhat different form on July 8, 2007.)

Originally published by Crest Books in 1958 and reprinted by Hard Case Crime in 2007, THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN is probably my favorite of the Gil Brewer novels I’ve read so far. The scenario is a familiar one: the narrator is a working man (in this case, the owner of a TV repair and electronics shop) hungry for a big payoff. He meets a beautiful young woman who’s stuck taking care of her wealthy, invalid stepfather. It’s what Brewer does with this set-up that makes this such a fine novel. Some authors would take half the book to develop a slow, psychological build-up, and that’s certainly a valid approach. Brewer, on the other hand, has his characters screwing like minks on the kitchen floor and plotting to kill the old man almost before they—and the reader—know what’s happening.

They come up with a decent plan, too, but as always, events don’t play out exactly as they’re supposed to. The fast pace continues all the way through the book as more and more goes wrong and one murder leads to another. There are some striking scenes starkly illuminating the lust and greed that are the twin essences of noir fiction. Brewer’s prose is simple but powerful and carries the reader along. There’s probably not much here that will surprise a veteran reader of this sort of novel, but I had a thoroughly enjoyable time watching Brewer work at his craft.

And aren’t those great covers? The Hard Case Crime edition is still readily and inexpensively available, and it’s well worth seeking out. THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN is a top-notch noir novel and gets a strong recommendation from me. (By the way, I worked in a TV repair shop for five years, and nothing even remotely like this ever happened to me.)

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Stillman's Wrath - Peter Brandvold

Sheriff Ben Stillman is back in STILLMAN’S WRATH, the latest installment in his adventures by Peter Brandvold. The objects of that well-deserved wrath are the outlaws who hold up a stagecoach and take not only Stillman’s wife but also one of his friends hostage, setting off a violent pursuit across the rugged Montana landscape. Complicating matters even more for Stillman is a brutal cattle baron who had a great deal of money being delivered to him on that stage—and he’ll do anything to get it back, no matter who gets in his way.

Brandvold is a master of the Western action novel, and STILLMAN’S WRATH never disappoints. This tale has a breathless pace as it cuts back and forth between the captives and the vengeful lawman who sets out to free them. There’s even a little wry humor here and there to go with the gritty action scenes. This is a great series overall, and STILLMAN’S WRATH is one of its strongest entries. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Avenging Angels: Vengeance Trail - A.W. Hart

Reno and Sara Bass are sixteen-year-old twins who live with their family on a small spread in western Kansas, but their somewhat idyllic life there is shattered when a group of ex-Confederate outlaws sweeps through the area, looting and burning and killing. Reno and Sara’s parents and siblings are killed in a raid by this bunch of renegades. The twins escape but are left to make it in a harsh world on their own, and the first task they set for themselves is a simple one.

They’re going to track down the varmints who made them orphans and settle the score.

In order to do that, they’re going to have to learn to improve their natural ability when it comes to gun-handling, and for that they turn to an old friend of their father, who led a wilder early life than Reno and Sara ever knew about. They’re also going to have to reconcile their thirst for revenge with their strong religious faith, especially Reno. That faith will be tested in other ways as they continue their vengeance quest, too.

AVENGING ANGELS: VENGEANCE TRAIL is the first novel in a new Western series created by A.W. Hart, who under other names is one of the top writers in the business. It features lots of gritty action, compelling characters, and vivid settings. I raced through this one even faster than usual and really got caught up in the lives of Reno and Sara. It’s an excellent book, easily one of the best I’ve read this year, and if you enjoy Western novels with a hardboiled edge, you need to check it out. AVENGING ANGELS: VENGEANCE TRAIL gets a very high recommendation from me.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Double-Action Gang Magazine, June 1938

I've read very little from the gang pulps. Like Weird Menace, they were a sub-genre that flourished for a while and then was gone. But they had some good covers while they lasted, and some decent writers, too, such as in this issue of DOUBLE-ACTION GANG MAGAZINE which featured stories by E. Hoffmann Price and G.T. Fleming-Roberts, as well as Anson Hard, a prolific contributor to a variety of pulps, Margie Harris, who wrote mainly for the gang and prison pulps, and house names Cliff Campbell, Mat Rand, and "Undercover" Dix (really?), plus some little-known authors who may or may not have been house-names, too. I don't know who painted this cover, but I would have had a difficult time resisting it if I'd seen it on the newsstand in 1938, and the Price story would have tempted me to buy it, as well.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Wild West Weekly, August 12, 1939

I haven't posted a WILD WEST WEEKLY cover in a while. This one by Lawrence Toney uses a limited number of elements to create a very striking image. I like it quite a bit. Inside this issue are a Kid Wolf story by Paul S. Powers (writing as Ward M. Stevens) and two serial installments by Walker A. Tompkins, the first of one under his own name and the final of another under the house-name Philip F. Deere. Throw in stories by J. Allan Dunn and Chuck Martin, and you've got the makings of a pretty good issue.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Forgotten Books: Night Flight - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I’ve read a lot of aviation fiction over the years, even though I don’t fly, but most of it has been from the pulps. NIGHT FLIGHT by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is definitely not pulpish, but in a way, it is.

I thought I had read this short novel 50-some-odd years ago when I was in college, but I had no memory of it now. It’s a very simple story, set mostly on one night in Buenos Aires and in the air above the Andes, as three mail planes try to get through on their routes as a storm moves in and the people on the ground back in Buenos Aires try to help the pilots as much as they can.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a French aristocrat who gained fame as an aviator during the early days of air travel and the mail service. Later, he attained a high literary reputation for his poetry, memoirs, novels, and the children’s book THE LITTLE PRINCE. During World War II, he flew for the Free French Air Force as a reconnaissance pilot and disappeared while flying on a mission in 1944, presumed lost at sea somewhere in the Mediterranean.

With that background, it’s not surprising that NIGHT FLIGHT is written in a lyrical, highly descriptive style, and I’m sure that accounts for its literary reputation. At the same time, the whole “man against nature” theme is something that would have been quite at home in a pulp like ADVENTURE, and there are bits of fine, terse, hardboiled writing throughout the book. That’s why I say NIGHT FLIGHT can almost be considered pulpish. Its subject matter certainly is.

I enjoyed this book, and I’m thinking now that maybe it was WIND, SAND AND STARS, Saint-Exupery’s other famous aviation book, that I read in college. Maybe I’ll read it and see. In the meantime, while I wouldn’t want a steady diet of literary novels like this, it made a very nice change of pace and I enjoyed it. It’s still in print, and the copy in the scan above is the one I read (complete with Half Price Books sticker showing the two bucks I paid for it), published by Signet in 1956.

And I feel like I should point out that this may well be the only blog on the Internet where you can read reviews of novels by both Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Ed Earl Repp.