I devoured I WATCHED THEM EAT ME ALIVE: KILLER CREATURES IN MEN'S ADVENTURE MAGAZINES last night in one sitting. The latest entry in the ambitious and much appreciated Men's Adventure Library, this slim volume packs a helluva punch in 103 pages. Edited by MAM masterminds Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle, this digest size/format book delivers vintage Men's Adventure Magazine covers along with five stories featuring animal attacks on humans. Deis and Doyle both provide interesting introductory material and then it's off to the land of killer crabs and vicious flying squirrels (among other dangers).
The stories feature the above mentioned crabs and squirrels as well as a randy gorilla, a mountain lion and a shitload of snakes (with a gator thrown in for good measure) as the final yarn. All of the stories follow a standard formula: start with an exciting action sequence in which the narrator is immediately imperiled, then flash back to explain how our protagonist got in this predicament, then back to present day for a thrilling climax. It's a great way to hook a casual reader from the get-go because if a reader was bored by any given story in a MAM, he'd merely flip the page and start reading the next story. This formula is a sure-fire method to keep male eyeballs glued to the adventure at hand.
The last two stories are the best. STRANGE REVENGE OF WYOMING'S MOST HUNTED GIANT PUMA is by MAM maestro, the late Robert F. Dorr and the tale vividly demonstrates why he was a master of this type of material. In this story, it's a man that's the bad guy while the mountain lion just does what mountain lions do. The Men's Adventure Library has previously published A HANDFULL OF HELL, a first rate collection of some of Dorr's best war and adventure stories and that volume comes highly recommended. You can order it at menspulpmags.com. Tell 'em I sent you and thank me later.
The grand finale, TRAPPED IN THE BAYOU'S PIT OF A MILLION SNAKES could just as easily have been dubbed the original "Snakes on a Plane", because that's exactly what happens in this totally gonzo story by the late Walter Kaylin, one of the best of all of the many MAM writers. This insane thriller pits a small plane, three men (the pilot, a prison official and a convicted killer) against a veritable army of cottonmouth snakes and a giant, snake eating alligator. Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? If this one doesn't make your pulse race, you're dead.
All in all, I WATCHED THEM EAT ME ALIVE just goes to prove the old adage about explosives coming in small packages. This one brings the dynamite in two fists along with a testosterone fuse of sweaty, desperate thrills as men battle killer animals to the death. Trust me, it doesn't get any better than this.
Greg Bear's HULL ZERO THREE (2011) is one head-scratcher of a science fiction novel. I read all 307 pages of this trade paperback and I'm still not sure I understand exactly what this one is all about. Here are the basics.
The novel is narrated by an unnamed adult, human male known only as "Teacher". He was awakened/born/created aboard an enormous star ship heading beyond our galaxy to populate an alien planet. Teacher's memories as to what's going on aboard the ship are fuzzy, hazy things and what he does recall may be entirely false, fake memories about Earth that may have been implanted but by whom and for what purpose?
But Teacher doesn't have long to contemplate this mystery because he's too busy trying to stay alive in the deadly and perilous passageways of the badly damaged ship. It's apparent that something has gone drastically wrong with the mission but whether that error occurred due to some external threat or because of shipboard war between humans and monsters, is unclear.
The humans that Teacher meet are not normal. There are two identical little girls (more, many more, of them are actually on the ship), there's another Teacher (again with others in stasis tubes/birthing cradles), there are mutated humans, designed to survive and thrive in various planetary atmospheres and environments and there are monsters, creatures designed to scour the ship and remove waste, junk and debris, who are now preying on the various human survivors.
Teacher discovers that other Teachers who have gone before him have recorded their journeys within the ship in small books. He uses one of these books as a guide and eventually joins a small band of misfit survivors including another Teacher, the two girls, a woman who has an affinity for the ship's control system, a huge man and a shape-changing monster who is actually a navigator.
The team continues to explore the mysteries of the ship's three hulls and while they discover some pretty wild, amazing stuff, the full story is never entirely revealed. As I got closer to the end of the book, I kept expecting an info dump of some kind to explain everything. But that explanation does not exist.
Bear does manage to keep you turning the pages, with almost every chapter ending on an unresolved question. The whole idea is engaging but there's ultimately just not enough of a payoff to make the whole journey worth the trip. The characters, even Teacher, the narrator, are more vividly drawn in terms of their physical appearances and odd behaviors than any emotional depth. The visuals are spectacular and there's material here just waiting to be turned into a movie.
If so, I can only hope that the screenwriter does a better job of tying things together than Bear does here. If his goal was to leave us wondering, he certainly succeeded. But I prefer a little less ambiguity in my science fiction.
Director William Friedkin had one helluva career trifecta in the 1970s. First, there was THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) which scored eight Academy Award nominations winning five including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Friedkin followed up that classic, gritty urban crime film with the landmark and groundbreaking horror film, THE EXORCIST (1973), which earned ten Academy Award nominations (a staggering number for a horror film), but won only two: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing. The third film, SORCERER (1977) was a remake of the French adventure thriller THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953). The film earned one Academy Award nomination (Best Sound) and although it met with tepid critical and commercial reception at the time, has since undergone a much needed critical reevaluation and reappraisal and is seen as one of Friedkin's best films.
Not so his next three pictures. THE BRINK'S JOB (1978), CRUISING (1980) and DEAL OF THE CENTURY (1983) were all misfires on various levels with CRUISING being perhaps the most egregious offender of the trio. So, by the middle of the 1980s, Friedkin was in need of a hit, something substantial and solid that would redeem his reputation as one of the best American directors to come out of the New Hollywood second golden age of the 1970s.
Friedkin found inspiration in the novel TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985), which was written by former U.S. Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich (who collaborated with Friedkin on the screenplay). TO LIVE was a throwback to THE FRENCH CONNECTION in many ways. But this time, instead of the mean streets of New York, Friedkin sets the action in the sun-drenched locale of Los Angeles. Like CONNECTION, TO LIVE features an obsessed cop, in this case, U.S. Treasury agent Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) whose partner is gunned down only two days before his retirement by master counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). Chance swears to avenge his partner's death and bring down Masters by using any means necessary, even if that requires Chance and his new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow) to break the law themselves.
And like CONNECTION, the set piece of TO LIVE is a hell-and-gone car chase in which Chance ends up furiously driving the wrong way into oncoming traffic on an LA freeway. While not quite as good as the CONNECTION chase, it's nonetheless a hair-raising, white-knuckle piece of bravura action film making.
Stylishly shot by cinematographer Robby Muller, and fully utilizing a myriad of Los Angeles locations, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. is a first-rate neo noir that uncovers the darkness lurking in the shadows of the City of Angels, especially the darkness that festers in men's souls, blurring the line between heroes and villains.
My only complaint about the film is the musical score by Wang Chung. Heavy on the synthesizer, this uber-annoying sonic swill permeates almost every frame of the film. It's a sound that represents everything that was truly awful about the music of the 1980s, which was perhaps one of the worst decades for popular music in history. Truly terrible.
Bad music aside, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. is still well-worth seeing. The performances are solid, the screenplay is first rate, the action and violence well staged and effective and Friedkin's stylish direction marks a return to his previous form.
For my birthday this year, my lovely wife Judy gave me two way cool books (along with other great stuff). The books are BARBARIANS ON BIKES and I WATCHED THEM EAT ME ALIVE. They're part of the ambitious Men's Adventure Library series, a line-up of quality books that reprint stories, art and covers from classic men's adventure magazines from the '50s to the '70s.
A couple of years ago, Judy gifted me with a copy of A HANDFUL OF HELL by the late Robert F. Dorr. I posted a positive review of this two-fisted collection of classic war and adventure stories on this blog after I read it. I plan to start reading I WATCHED THEM EAT ME ALIVE later this evening. So, I have three of these incredible books in my collection with the following titles still to be acquired: WEASELS RIPPED MY FLESH, HE-MEN, BAG MEN & NYMPHOS, CRYPTOZOOLOGY ANTHOLOGY and the upcoming CUBA: SUGAR, SEX, AND SLAUGHTER. Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle are the mad geniuses responsible for these instant classics and I tip my hat to these two men who are bringing so much terrific vintage material back to life in these handsome, absolutely must-have books. For more info, check out the website menspulpmags.com and tell 'em I sent you. You can thank me later.
I sat down and devoured BARBARIANS ON BIKES yesterday afternoon. It's a terrific look at the bygone days when outlaw motorcycle gangs captured the nation's collective imagination through books (fiction and non-fiction), films and men's adventure magazines in which biker exploits were brought to vivid, thrilling life through lurid text and eye-popping artwork. Deis and Doyle provide a nice historical overview in their introduction while former LAPD cop (and cyclist) Paul Bishop ices the cake with a nifty afterword. In between, it's page after page of classic biker related material from MAMS.
The format is a beauty. On the left hand side of each two page spread, is a reproduction of the first page of a magazine article while the right hand side features a full-color reproduction of various magazine covers. I would have loved to see some of these stories reprinted in their entirety rather than just given a tantalizing glimpse but that's a very minor quibble about what is in every way an outstanding package of salacious and forbidden thrills.
You know a book is a good one when you look at a full color magazine cover, reproduced in all it's psychotic glory and think, "this is my favorite!" only to turn the page, see another cover and think, "no, wait, THIS is my favorite". This process was repeated for each and every of the 112 pages contained here. I don't have any of the magazines depicted here in my collection (yet), but feasting my eyes on these beauties has only served to reinvigorate my ongoing, never-ending quest to continue to acquire vintage MAMS.
In the words of General George S. Patton: "God, I love it. God help me, I do love it so."
Philip Jose Farmer (January 26th, 1918-February 25th, 2009), was, in my estimation (along with many others), one of the great American science fiction writers of the twentieth-century. I recently read three of his novels and while none of them achieve any degree of greatness, they are all interesting works that are very much worth reading by both hardcore Farmer fans and neophytes.
HADON OF ANCIENT OPAR (1974), is an adventure novel set in prehistoric Africa about the warrior king Hadon, from the ancient city of Opar. Opar, you may recall, was the fabulous lost city full of treasure, brutish man-apes and the breathtakingly lovely La, that was discovered by Tarzan in his second adventure, THE RETURN OF TARZAN (1915). Farmer borrows the city from creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, sets the action thousands of years in the past (while doing a tremendous amount of world-building) and let's the narrative rip.
The title is a bit mis-leading. While Hadon is indeed a citizen of ancient Opar, almost none of the action takes place there. Instead, Hadon and a small army of athletes set out for another city to compete in a series of games and contests in which there can be only one victor. The games become deadly as they progress until the final two contestants must face each other in a sword-fight. Hadon wins (of course) but before he can claim his prize (the throne of the kingdom and the hand of a lovely princess), he is forced to embark on an epic quest to find some legendary beings who may or may not be gods. Hadon and his companions eventually find the beings (they're only mortals after all) and return to the city. But when they arrive, they find the evil king ruling with an iron fist and the princess (his daughter), imprisoned. Hadon and his mates are soon jailed themselves and they're forced to engineer a daring escape from prison before a volcano erupts and destroys the entire city.
HADON OF ANCIENT OPAR is a good adventure novel but Farmer fills a quarter of the pages of the book with time lines, glossaries and other elements of world building that I didn't bother to read. I would have much preferred to see those pages used to give us more of Hadon's adventures, but that would have to wait until the publication of FLIGHT TO OPAR (1976) Note: I have a copy of this book and will hopefully get around to reading it soon.
Next up is VENUS ON THE HALF SHELL (1975), a science fiction novel written by "Kilgore Trout". Trout is the fictional hack science fiction author that is referenced in the pages of Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1969) as well as other Vonnegut novels. Farmer's chief conceit here is, just what would a science fiction novel "written" by Kilgore Trout actually look like? VENUS is the answer. The novel recalls GULLIVER'S TRAVELS (1726) and anticipates THE HITCH-HIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (1979) as it recounts the picaresque adventures of Simon Wagstaff, the sole survivor of the destruction of Earth, who journeys throughout the universe with this three companions, a beautiful alien robot, a dog and an owl, searching for the answer to the cosmic question: why are we born only to suffer and die? VENUS riffs on a variety of sf tropes and achieves a degree of meta-fiction when Wagstaff recounts science fiction stories written by other fictional sf authors.
It's an uneven journey, with some of the satire and humor hitting the desired targets, while other bits of business simply fall flat. Ambitious and daring, VENUS ON THE HALF-SHELL caused quite a stir when it was originally published, with many readers and reviewers believing that "Kilgore Trout" was a real person until Farmer's ruse was eventually uncovered.
Finally, there's DARE (1965), which answers the eternal question: whatever happened to the lost colony of Roanoke, Virginia?. Turns out the inhabitants of that colony were captured by aliens and taken to another planet to live. The human descendants of the original colonists live in an uneasy truce with the natives of the planet, creatures that recall creatures from ancient Earth mythology and take the form of werewolves, dragons, satyrs and human/horse hybrids. The hero of the story, a young human male, finds himself in love with a beautiful alien woman, a love which is strictly forbidden. Before long the humans launch an all out war on the aliens only to be stymied in the third act by the deus ex machina of a star ship from Earth landing on the planet. DARE is nothing special but it's a good, quick read full of culture clashes, adventure, and undying love.
I recently finished reading THE SHADOW DOUBLE NOVEL #4 (Nostalgia Ventures, 2007) and it's a corker. This handsome trade paperback reprints two vintage Shadow pulp thrillers in their entirety, along with the original black and white interior illustrations, all beneath a gorgeous painted cover.
The two stories in this volume are THE MURDER MASTER (from February 15th, 1938) and THE HYDRA (from December 1st, 1942). Along with the pulp reprints, there's a foreword by noted cartoonist Gahan Wilson and informative articles by pulp scholars Anthony Tollin and Will Murray. No matter how you look at it, this is a can't-miss package of pure pulp magic.
THE MURDER MASTER is a mad fiend who uses the radio to broadcast a series of death threats against wealthy New York businessmen. All of the threats come true but before the Shadow can confront this mysterious foe, the radio station has been vacated, leaving the Shadow to deduce that the threats were actually pre-recorded on a vinyl disc, which leaves the criminal mastermind on the loose and ready to strike again. Another key plot element here is the idea of supposedly rehabilitated criminals being used as gang members for the Murder Master (this recalls Doc Savage's Crime College in upstate New York where Savage performed illegal lobotomies on many of his foes, rendering them incapable of further criminal action).
MURDER features a nifty escape from a venerable death trap (the walls of a room close in on The Shadow before he executes a death defying escape) and a truly bizarre scene in which The Shadow is viewed through the lens of a giant microscope, lending the viewer on the other end a cyclopean air. It's not hard to figure out who the real Murder Master is (Walter Gibson does throw us a red herring in the form of a wizened mad scientist) but that's a minor quibble in this otherwise first rate pulp thriller.
THE HYDRA starts with a bang. A fiery conflagration consumes a Long Island mansion as a means of covering up a massive theft of valuables from the home. All of this is orchestrated by the criminal organization known as The Hydra, a ruthless gang that features the old adage: when one member dies, two more take his place. Before you know it, Lamont Cranston uses an elephant gun to blow away a Hydra head in Cranston's home while The Shadow watches. What? The Shadow and Lamont Cranston in the same room? But aren't they one and the same? Not so fast dime novel breath. As THE HYDRA clearly demonstrates, there is a real Lamont Cranston who is definitely NOT The Shadow. However, The Shadow frequently "borrows" Cranston's identity for his own purposes, an appropriation that Cranston is clearly okay with. Plucky Margo Lane constantly suspects that Cranston is The Shadow but can never get any conclusive evidence to prove her theory.
HYDRA features some wild set pieces. In addition to the fiery action at the start, there's a crazy "fight" in a room full of deadly scientific marvels, machines which go out of control and menace The Shadow and a Hydra member. The climax finds multiple "Shadows" squaring off against multiple Hydras with only the real Shadow and the ultimate head of Hydra left standing for a battle to the death.
I have no proof of this and have never seen it speculated anywhere else but it seems to me highly likely that THE HYDRA was read by either Stan Lee or Jack Kirby (or perhaps both) in late 1942. Why? Because the motto for The Hydra and the hierarchical nature of the criminal empire are remarkably similar to that espoused by Hydra, the evil spy organization that Lee and Kirby introduced in the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. series in mid-'60s issues of STRANGE TALES. The comic book Hydra was headed by Baron Strucker (a Fury foe from WWII) and still figures prominently in both the cinematic and comic book versions of the current Marvel Universe. Coincidence? Tribute? Homage? Who knows (besides The Shadow), but my bet is that someone in the Marvel bullpen had to have read this Shadow novel.
All in all, two terrific Shadow adventures along with great historical information make this one a winner.
A few days ago, I selected at random one of my many long boxes full of back issue comics. The comics in the box were arranged in alphabetical order and this box happened to begin with "K" comics. First up, several issues of KAMANDI, THE LAST BOY ON EARTH.
KAMANDI was edited, written and drawn by the immortal Jack Kirby (have I mentioned here before that he's my all-time favorite comic book creator?). When Kirby's Fourth World magnum opus was canceled, Kirby was still contractually obligated to provide DC Comics with a certain number of pages per month. To make up for the loss of NEW GODS and FOREVER PEOPLE and the soon to be canceled MISTER MIRACLE, Kirby delivered two brand new series, KAMANDI and THE DEMON while taking over the long running LOSERS series in OUR FIGHTING FORCES.
KAMANDI, which debuted in 1972, ran for 59 issues, before cancellation in 1978. Kirby was in complete control of the book for the first 37 issues. He illustrated scripts written by Gerry Conway in issues 38-40 before bowing out of DC Comics and returning to Marvel.
KAMANDI, is at first glance, a comic book derivative of the then popular PLANET OF THE APES film series. Yes, there are intelligent, talking apes in the series and most of the humans that Kamandi meets in his adventures can barely speak. But there's much more to this exhilarating science fiction adventure series than a mere riff on POTA.
In the world A.D. (After the Great Disaster), Kamandi emerges from the safety of the Command-D bunker in New York City to find a landscape populated with intelligent, talking animals of all species. Many of them are hostile towards the young adventurer, but Kamandi establishes friendships with some of the animals including Dr. Canus (a dog) and Prince Tuftan (a tiger). He also encounters Ben Boxer, a human mutant who can transmute his body into atomic powered steel. There's more, much more in this wild and woolly comic book series that gets my highest recommendation. If you're a Kirby fan, you already know about the wonder and awe contained within these pages. If you're wondering what all the fuss over Kirby is about, check it out. KAMANDI is available in hardcover collections from DC Comics.
I'd really like to see this material adapted to the big screen. It would work on so many levels. There's disaster porn, a bizarre post apocalyptic landscape to explore, plenty of opportunities for CGI wonders of all shapes and sizes, a plucky young hero and his brave companions and mysteries to be solved.
Granted, DC hasn't fared so well with their cinematic universe so far. With the exception of WONDER WOMAN, all of the other DC Comics films of the past few years have all been met with shrugs and a general "meh" attitude. Can anyone really claim that SUPERMAN RETURNS, CATWOMAN, JONAH HEX, GREEN LANTERN, MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, SUICIDE SQUAD and JUSTICE LEAGUE were good movies? Granted, only the last four have taken place in a shared cinematic universe but even the most die hard DC comics fan has to admit that the movies, especially compared to the Marvel films, have been disappointments. In fact, it's on the small screen where DC has done the best job of bringing their characters to life in the shared "Arrowverse" consisting of ARROW, THE FLASH, SUPERGIRL and LEGENDS OF TOMORROW. And, while not part of the "Arrowverse" the new BLACK LIGHTNING series shows promise.
I propose that DC roll the dice and produce a KAMANDI film that stands on it's own. It doesn't have to be shoe-horned into any existing cinematic continuity. Just tell a rock 'em, sock 'em big screen SF adventure film on a par with the recent PLANET OF THE APES series: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. We know that talking, intelligent apes can be done with breathtaking accuracy and believability. Let's see what the digital demons can do with some of Jack Kirby's most entertaining material.