Friday, March 28, 2008

The Crimson Mask

At the coner of East Avenue and Carmody Streets was a drug store with windows facing on both thoroughfares. A rather curious place too, because unlike modern drug stores it had no soda fountain, no display of candy or coffee pots. The only way a man could get a sandwich in that store would be if he were starving, and then the owner would have sent out for it. There were even the red and green globes in the windows that indicated that this was an old fashioned drug store.

The name on the door read “Robert Clarke, Ph.G.” and it might have been expected that Robert Clarke was as old-fashioned as his store.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Bob Clarke was young, eager, and alert. He ran the drug store, in about the poorest section of the vast city, because he liked it here. Grown-ups knew him as “Doc.” The kids had coined a name for him two days after he opened the store. They called him the “Lemon Drop Man” because he kept a crystal container of candy ready, and the kids could get a handful for the mere asking.

Doc ran his business in a peculiar fashion, too. Some might have called it slipshod, and a good credit man would have promptly refused to extend any credit at all. For Doc was in the habit of compounding prescriptions and insisting that they be charged. He maintained that his customers – those among them who were pitifully poor – had enough troubles in paying doctor bills.

…Doc Clarke was the Crimson Mask. But only these three people knew that, or how and why Doc has entered this everlasting business of fighting crime, months before, and then only after a long and careful study of the subject.

The life he had chosen had had its inception when his father, a police sergeant, had been shot in the back by gangsters. Doc, a slender youth at that time, had seen his father die. He had seen an eerie phenomenon which had caused the blood to rush into the dying man’s face until it had formed a clear, vivid mask of crimson.

It was at that moment that young Clarke had made his vow to avenge his father’s death by making ceaseless war on all gangsters and crime and had taken his pseudonym and mask of identification from hi memory of the crimson mask of blood of his dying father’s face. Bob Clarke himself now had just such a mask – fashioned of crimson velvet. Although he did not have to rely on the mask to hide his real identity, since he had become an expert at disguise and mimicry.

Former Commissioner Warrick had helped him in all this. A life-long friend of young Clarke’s father, the wealthy ex-commissioner had helped the boy through the School pf Pharmacy, where he had gone with what money his father had left him. Now that Bob Clarke had graduated, and during all this time at school had been perfecting himself in all the arts that would make him a great detective, he was repaying Warrick in the one way the ex-commissioner wished to be repaid by making possible the dream of the older man’s life to wage relentless war on crime and criminals unrestricted by red tape.

(“The Crimson Mask and the Vanishing Men,” Detective Novels Magazine, 1941 by Better Publications)

And with the help of Dave Small who helped run the drugstore as well as investigating and Bob’s girlfriend Sandra Gray who he met in an earlier case, the Crimson mask does just that.

The Crimson Mask was one of several detectives that semi-regularly appeared in Detective Novels Magazine in the early 1940s. The pen-name was Frank Johnson, but the writer was Norman Daniels who was a fairly prolific pulpster back in those days. He ghosted a few Doc Savages and contributed adventures of the crimefighters the Black Bat and the Phantom Detective.

I have to confess to feeling a little guilty. I have in my collection a Crimson Mask story, have had it for years and yet never read it. This issue of HIGH ADVENTURE reprints two of the Crimson Mask’s stories and they are both good little mysteries. “The Crimson Mask and the Vanishing Men” concerns bank messengers that disappear with the money they are carrying only to be found dead some time later. Even when the police and the Crimson Mask are keeping watch, the messengers vanish without a sound in the middle of crowded streets. “The Money Trail” concens itself with armored cars. When acts of sabotage and a bungled hold-up attempt that leaves one guard dead, the Crimson Mask investigates what looks to be vast swindle and a gang that aren’t afraid to kill to reach their goals.

The Crimson Mask makes for enjoyable reading. He’s capable but not so much as to distance himself from the reader ala Doc Savage, the Shadow, and the Avenger. He’s not shy about his girlfriend but none of that “can’t be together because of the dangerous mission” nonsense of the Spider and Phantom Detective. His motivation for fighting crime is personal and understandable. And, while he operates on the outside of the law and uses a gun, he’s respected by the police as a detective and crimefighter. His charitable work as a pharmacist helps give us a bit more than the usual insight to the character, he’s big on social justice as well as criminal justice. All in all, we get a hero who comes across as a genuinely nice and affable guy. The stories don’t deal with super crooks like Doc Savage and the other big guns of the pulps combat, they almost pale in comparison. However, they aren’t pikers either, they have unusual angles and ruthless men at the heart of them.

All in all, a lot of fun and a character I’d like to see more of. I’m going to have to hunt up that pulp I have and give it a read.

Monday, March 17, 2008


I AM A BARBARIAN: This is a strange novel by Burroughs. Next to the last of Edgar Rice Burroughs full-length novels, it was published after his death. In some ways it's typical Burroughs. The story starts off establishing the narrator, a proud Briton barbarian ten-year old boy whose family is captured and he becomes the slave to a young Roman boy called "Little Boots." Thus, like many of his heroes from Tarzan to John Carter, the format starts off familiarly. We have rough hewn outsider in an alien culture/civilization, and we see through his eyes a culture with the veneer stripped away.

The similarity to the familiar action adventure novels ends there. This isn't some civilization on an alien world or lost land in the heart of the African jungles or even Victorian England. This is Rome. And, Burroughs hasn't set out to tell his typical adventure novel, but an historical novel. Through his barbarian narrator, he can hold up the rise to power of Little Boots, or as he's most commonly known, Caligula and the excesses of life of Rome and the Caesars. Our narrator is cut from the same cloth as Tarzan and other Burroughs' heroes: he's proud, brave, fiercely loyal, intelligent, moral and chaste. Yet, despite these virtues, by the dictate of the story, he's also ineffectual. He serves as witness to the depravities of Rome and the Caesars, but he does nothing. We know he's not a coward and is quick to act without thoughts of consequence, but he stands by while Caligula slaughters many of no blame. It's here where the novel falls. ERB is trying to have it both ways with his narrator. He's not the average slave, he's too heroic and epic for that, but the story dictates he be a passive watcher all too often, an ill-suited role for the character that is built.

The novel doesn't shy from hard depictions. It goes into some details on crucifixions as well as Caligula's depravities, including a passing mention of interest in boys. And when as a youth, the narrator finds himself imprisoned, there is clearly the threat of homosexual rape as two prisoners fight to the death over him. Not the type of thing that finds itself in the typical Burroughs novel.

Have to say, not the book I was hoping for as I was expecting something a little more akin to the movie GLADIATOR. Something, the excellent Boris Vallejo cover suggests. That scene is in the novel,and it's the one scene that might strike one as being very typical Burroughs. However, it comes very late into the novel, setting the stage for the end. It was an interesting read nonetheless, showing a slightly different side to the writer than one normally gets. A side that shows familiarity with the realities of justice and violence and life outside of a pulp novel, where the endings are not romantic.

I'm a big fan of Marvel's Nighthawk of the Defenders. Always have been, something about his blue-yellow-red costume I guess. Used to practice drawing him with those little wings scooping up from under his eyes forever, always trying to get it right. Ditto on the big bird emblem that spanned his torso. So, it always bugs me that he's one of those characters that every time he appears somewhere these days, it's basically in a slightly different costume than before. Sure, he has had a few costumes, but he's not the Wasp. It's indicative of the new mindset of comic creators, in this case artists often starting right off the bat redesigning every costume they can whether the costume warrants it or not and whether the artist has any kind of proven track record. It's sort of my problem with Keith Giffen as a writer. Since, he rarely ever writes or even approaches a character or project with the continuity and established characterization as a guideline other than looking at what he can change, it's hard for me to defend his work or him as being a good writer. If he cannot be bothered to even try to get the character right, then I cannot be bothered to care for his writing. While a character is more than his powers or his costume, it's still part of the character's appeal. If an artist cannot bother to draw the character on-model at least once, it lessens how much I can critically praise the artwork. They start off as already coming off either being lazy or an inflated sense of ego.

The New Defenders: Definitely was the way not to do a first issue. None of the characters are really defined as to their backgrounds, Casey relies the reader to be familiar with Nighthawk and the Defenders (as well as various past members ), the Invaders series a couple of years ago, recent
happenings in the MU (specifically: Civil War, She-Hulk, and X-men). There were a couple of moments I had to wonder, such as when and why are the X-men no more, why is She Hulk a bounty hunter, did she and Tony Stark do the nasty, when did the Flaming Skull get the ability to blast fire? The main plot makes little sense, the Sons of the Serpent are described as being a supremist organization in snake suits but how they
are being used makes no sense such as why would a supremist organization be hanging out with an Aztec god? And, then you have no less than 4 different sub-plot mysteries introduced: why Nighthawk is weirded out over the one Shield agent, what's up with Son of Satan, the Atlantean Warlord Krang, and Yandroth? A first issue should have enough mystery to draw you in, it's going to be a certain amount of set-up. The problem is, that shouldn't be confused as a substitute for telling the story though. All Casey does here is set-up, he doesn't really give us meat for the story. He relies too much on the reader's knowledge of characters and history to fill in the gaps and give the story depth instead of realizing that's his job as the storyteller.

The rest of it was just mediocre. As I thought, this line-up of just super-strong tanks was boring visibly and makes no logical sense as being together. Personality wise, the Flaming Skull isn't as funny as he's annoying. And seriously, his inclusion really makes ZERO sense. The whole point of Civil War and the Initiative was to bring heroes under control and have them be licensed. As established by Casey, the Defenders is a licensed team. So, why in the world would anyone license an obviously clinically mentally unstable character as a public superhero? You'd keep him for military scorched earth type missions maybe. But nothing that didn't involve acceptable high collateral damages. The Flaming Skull's inclusion violates the very rules that Marvel in general and Casey specifically in this issue have set as the status quo of the Marvel Universe. I seem to come back to this in so many reviews, I have to wonder if so many comic writers really don't understand basic mechanics of writing, things have to make sense in the CONTEXT OF THE STORY. Not necessarily in the Real World. However, in every story, you have created certain rules that everything operates by and characters' actions and reactions need to make sense, be logically extrapolated from the context those rules provide. In a world where every team has to undergo training and evaluation and be licensed by the government and held accountable the way you'd do doctors and the police, then the Flaming Skull wouldn't get pass the front gate. With CIVIL WAR, Marvel has striven to make the way superheroes operate be more like the real world, so they have to be judged based on those rules. The only good thing is that there are indicators that this isn't going to be the final team.

The artwork was decent but very spare linework, if it werent for using gradients in the coloring, it wouldn't really have much depth. But, at least it's clear and not hard to follow.

The only people that I can see that would really like it are people already reading a bunch of Marvel comics and familiar with a lot of recent AND old history (which I'm not really) or fans of Nighthawk (which I am).

Other new stuff for me this week: JLA Classified, Amazing Spider-Girl, Abe Sapien, BPRD 1946, and two pulp reprints: High Adventure spotlighting the Crimson Mask and a Phantom Detective.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Dave Stevens RIP

It seems I write too many of these. I guess it comes from being around since the Silver Age and the fact that the comics industry has been around now for 60 years. The second generation of comics creators that came along in the 60's, well they are all now in their 60s and older if they are still around.

Still, Dave's death is a bit of a shock. He passed away at the age of 53 from Leukemia. A full account of his life and career can be found at the usual great Mark Evanier's

For once I can say I was at the right age when Pacific Comics and the Rocketeer came along. I was old enough and yet young enough to be venturing out of the big two superhero comics and trying out new books. And we had big name creators like Neal Adams, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Mike Grell, Marshall Rogers, and Michael Golden all doing their own things. Amidst all of that was this upstart Dave Stevens bringing a retro strip in the back pages of Grell's STARSLAYER. For me, a long time fan of Doc Savage (and blissfully unaware of how much pulp stuff I knew nothing about) with an intellectual interest in the old serials (as I'd never seen one at this point), it was a dream come true. Stevens dusted off the old King of the Rocketmen concept and streamlined his helmet a bit, rescued a sex-kitten model and a hulking brutish looking actor from obscurity as models for principle characters, peppered with planes, locations and people of the 1930s as well as a few appearances of some un-named pulpish characters and mixed them all together in a wonder strip. The Rocketeer was to comics what Raiders of the Lost Ark was to movies, capturing the fun of the time when adventure was always around the corner and could be had for a dime.

I remember being excited to see the movie and it remains as one of the most best adaptations of a comic character to the big screen. Despite Peter David's rather uncharitable snipe against the beautiful Jennifer Connelly. While there are specific changes to different elements of the comic series, the movie stays true to the spirit and themes of the comic. It doesn't camp things up, dumb them down, make wholesale changes to the costumes. It plays it straight and is just plain fun. Unfortunately, it opened with less than stellar numbers, unfortunately coming out as the same time as a little flick called T2.

Stevens wasn't the most prolific of creators. Nowadays, that doesn't seem to be a problem for creators. After all too few issues, the comic eventually faded from view and Stevens became known for covers and pin-ups, often of sexy scantily clad women. It was something he was very good at. For good or ill, his art sparked a resurgence in what is commonly called "good girl art" as well as a renewed popularity in Bettie Page. Without Stevens, who knows if we'd have seen the likes of Adam Hughes and Frank Cho, both artists not threatening to be accused of being speed demons themselves.

In this day and age of trade paperbacks as secondary markets and habitually late creators, it's a shame that Stevens wasn't able to do more work. He'd be tailor made for limited series with minor characters, counting on long term gains on that secondary market. How much money has DC made from keeping WATCHMEN in print? And how many times have we seen reprints of the Kree-Skrull War, the Avengers-Defenders War, and the Adams Green Lantern-Green Arrow issues? It seems the companies would be wise to develop more properties geared for more long-term publishing in the trade markets. As opposed to things like 52, Civil War, etc that are dependent on being enmeshed in current continuity than able to really stand on their own. But, those are other thoughts.

Here's to ole Dave Stevens. By all accounts a helluva nice guy, a drawer of purty pictures, and a fan of those things from the age of action and adventure. I had to include the pic of the gun toting opossum for the sake of my brother, a big fan of those skittish critters.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Golden-age reviews

The Twelve: Starting with the cover, I'm assuming Legal realized that the proposed cover was all sorts of copyright and trademark infringement (viewed here). This cover isn’t really an improvement. It’s a bit iconic looking but it is ultimately a generic “strike a pose” cover that has little to nothing to do with the issue at hand. At the very least, due to being an “homage”, the advertised cover actually told a story and communicated quite a bit about the character. Overall these covers have been a huge disappointment. The text on the covers and the recap pages are a little bit of artifact creation, but these thoroughly modern computer generated/enhanced feels fight that kind of sensibility. Even if that wasn’t a factor, the style has nothing to do with the themes and sensibilities of the book inside. Reminds me a lot of the incongruous covers to the Hawkeye series a while back. The covers by Scott Kollins were bright and colorful, with a larger than life Hawkeye in full costume. The inside of the book was dark and street level with Hawkeye rarely in costume.

The book itself, JMS shows off his strengths here where we get quite a bit of character development, looking at how a few more of the characters are adjusting or not. This would be fine except for the climactic hook that bridged issues 1 & 2. That tells us there's more to the story than what we're getting but there's no mention of it for most of last issue and none this issue. It's bad storytelling structure. If he wanted to build towards that tragedy in a linear fashion as this and the last issue suggest and not flashing back and forth between the now of the Blue Blade's death and the "weeks ago" of their unthawing, then we shouldn't have gotten the "now" scene. It's bad form to introduce a major plot element like that and then proceed to ignore it as if it was never brought up. It’s one of these things that might read fine in the long form when collected, but month to month it feels as if the title is going nowhere. As a wordsmith JMS does a very good job, but the story structure needs refining, to make sure more is actually happening each issue.

Part of the structure problem this issue stems from multiple narrators. And this is actually going to harm the reading experience if you’re waiting for the trade. The inconsistencies of the last issue in trying to place at what point in time the Phantom Reporter was narrating is undone this issue as the comic expands the character scope and has us see things that the Phantom Reporter wouldn’t be privy to. So, we get to see things from other points of view, but as done here it completely disrupts the narrative flow of the story as the shifts and changes just happen.

In the end, we have a lot of what marred the first issue, for a comic book, very little actual action takes place. The much ballyhooed Fiery Mask vs zombies is a complete cheat. For one, of all of the characters involved, the Flaming Mask has probably been reprinted the most. His origin story was done awhile back, a lot of his adventures in b/w in the complete Jack Kirby volumes (by Pure Imagination I believe) and most recently in the DARING MYSTERY archives. But, even more, his big character moment is recounting his origin where the bad guy basically defeats himself? In other words, we still have the heroes basically doing absolutely nothing.

The look at Mr. E was almost as powerful as the Captain Wonder scenes last month. We find out that he was Jewish but changed his last name to avoid the racism of the times. However, his family had changed their name back and his now elderly son resents him for being such a coward. When he comes back to the compound, he’s still in denial, still more concerned with how he is seen than the truth of his life. It makes Mr. E very human. But, what we don't see is what made him a hero. We only see the condemnation of his actions but not his side of the story (and what flashback we see, it appears he not changed his name but also “covered” by sharing racist jokes). The end result is a character that is more sad and pathetic in its efforts to make the character more three dimensional. And considering the time period, the art form and characters involved, I can only wonder what Jacob Kurtzberg, Stanley Martin Lieber, and Eli Katz would have thought about the one-sided treatment here. I’m all for humanizing characters, but there also needs to be some balance to it. There’s more to rounding out characterization than just giving character flaws. Mr. E could be a really interesting character, but the efforts here between JMS’ script and Weston’s art mires the character more than letting him really explode. And, it’s funny, Mr. E. has become pretty much my personal favorite of the group, I’d like to see him take the place of being Marvel’s equivalent of the ultimate detective hero.

With the Laughing Mask we see a little more action, but it’s JMS just going the obvious "the man is a murderous psycho" route. You can have a hero be a killer vigilante and be compelling, just read the Shadow and the Spider pulps. But you lose it when you have him gun down a villain not only already defeated but actually tied and bound. Now, having read the golden-age story reprinted in the zero issue, in this particular case, this is pretty close to actually being in character. But, it doesn’t really make the character more interesting. It doesn’t even humanize the character any, he’s just reinforced as being unlikeable.

Mr. E is a hypocrite and portrayed as being a bit weak-willed in hiding his heritage, Weston draws him as balding and weak-chinned. Laughing Mask is a cold-blooded and unlikeable killer, his face is that of a brutish thug. Captain Wonder is rather white-bread and simplistic, out of costume he looks like Mr. Incredible including the massive chin.

The Atom: Ladronn’s covers for this series have been nothing short of great. I didn’t really care for Ladronn as a comic artist when he came on the screen, a little too much of just aping Kirby. His covers seem to be from a whole different artist and I love them. Here is a case that even though the cover is a bit generic and symbolic it perfectly captures the feel of the comic.

Gail Simone is gone, but this book still remains an enjoyable read. If I was Marvel, I’d be holding this book up and saying “why can’t we make Hank Pym this interesting instead of always portraying him as acomplete putz?” Even when the story is one that could have been told with Ray Palmer, Darrell Dane or Hank Pym as this one is, it’s still a very fun book. Olliffe is a good choice as artist. He manages to draw heroes very well, grounding them in reality even when in the middle of the fantastic. I loved his work on SPIDER-GIRL and I’m glad to see him on a book that I follow.

The story is even similar to one that would appear in that title as the main character Ryan Choi is a legacy hero, partly through a sense of responsibility and partly because it’s fun and he sets off to investigate something that he feels partly responsible for since he’s the legacy holder. Only, he’s a full blown scientist so we get a dose of science fiction. Gone is a lot of little personal quirks that Gail brought to the book, the story is a bit straight-forward as is the presentation and narration, giving the book a little more of that generic feel that it could have basically starred any of our shrinking scientist heroes. Still, in the sea of depressing books, this one is still good old fashioned superhero fun.

Men of Mystery #70: This particular cover as well as the back one advertising a Black Terror special are good examples of artifact creation. They are in the spirit of the books they are on while still being good clean artwork. Heike draws in an old-fashioned style, so this cover isn’t him dumbing down his work to actually look like it was done in the 40’s. He’s just trying to capture the sense of fun. Even the Black Terror piece which is done in the style of Schomburg doesn’t play up the shortcomings of the time period but more of what actually made his covers so attractive in the first place (and it’s not the yellowing, wrinkling and chips that come with the comics’ ages). Word of warning, if you regularly get these reprints, there’s a good chance that at least half of the Black Terror book will have been reprinted already by AC elsewhere.

The one bad thing is the reference on the front cover to “Major Midnight”. It’s typical Bill Black, he makes changes to things without really addressing the changes or explaining them. For some reason, Captain Midnight has been promoted to Major. I’d assume that it might have something to do with Moonstone announcing a Captain Midnight book or some other silliness. This is carried through on the inside of the book. I get a reprint book, I want as much fidelity as possible to the original stories. Especially as much as these b/w reprints cost.

Second little quibble, the title page uses Mr. Scarlet in the title logo and a figure drawing of the Harvey hero the Zebra! I might be the only person that would get excited about a Zebra reprint, but I’d never seen anything with the character beyond the odd panel here and there in reference books. Only, this is as far as he gets, there’s no Zebra story inside. What we do have are stories of Doll Man (who’s become a regular enough star in these pages that Black could probably make a trademark case with him), Cat-Man & Kitten (which he does claim trademark of, how that affects SUPERPOWERS is anybody’s guess), “Major” Midnight, the Star Pirate, the Reckoner, Crimebuster & Iron Jaw, Lance O’Casey, and supernatural detective Dr. Drew. It’s an interesting mix of characters and publishers. Of minor interest, in back to back stories of the Reckoner and Crimebuster we have villains named Skully. He’s the gang boss in the former and part of a group of villains called the Deadly Dozen in the latter. A little coincidence Roy Thomas would love.

The next issue looks promising as well as we have a team-up on the cover at least of Minute-Man, the Hood and Yellowjacket fighting off some hooded gang.