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Paul Buhle on Comics: ‘Lugosi: The Rise & Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula’

LUGOSI!

Koren Shadmi, Lugosi: The Rise & Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula. Foreword by Jon R. Lansdale. Los Angeles: Life Drawn/Humanoids, 2021, 160pp. $29.95.

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

It is best to admit that we live in terrible times, while we struggle to keep things from getting markedly worse, as they surely will without the needed collective effort that a large number of Americans (among others) seem not actually to want. How does this gloomy reality affect the creation of comic art, one of the more interesting artistic developments of our time, all the more important for its popularity among young people?

Horror comics once occupied the center of social controversy, along with the supposed gay relationship of Batman and Robin and other such McCarthy Era nonsense. The Congressional hearings that broke the booming comic industry of the 1940s-50s, reducing its successors to smaller fields, hit paydirt in one real way: those horror comics were indeed bloody and grim. Harvey Kurtzman’s widow Adele insisted that she and Harvey never allowed the children to read them, not even the EC horror comics whose heavy sales made Mad possible.

Did the controversy around horror comics connect somehow with the huge cult of horror films going back to the Silent days, getting hugely bigger in the 1930s and turning upon themselves as parody in the 1940s? Without a doubt. Nothing was bigger, nothing in the future of horror films all the way into the twenty-first century, could be bigger than Dracula and Frankenstein, aka Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

We have no Karloff comic yet, and we can hope that it is more politically attuned than the volume at hand for Boris’ leading role in the early Screen Actors Union, his ardent antifascism and his insistence that children watching the classic Frankenstein (1931) knew the supposed monster was the real victim of the ignorant, vicious villagers. His literary lineage, of course, traced back to Mary Wollstonecraft and the big metaphor about the degradations of modern aka emerging capitalist society with the monster as metaphoric proletarian body, both product and victim.

Dracula comes from a different place, of course, but is historically wound around a surprisingly similar character. The careful tracing in this comic of Bela Lugosi’s Hungarian background, his meteoric rise to stardom, his floundering personal life, downfall and notorious final engagement with Ed Wood, is enlivening but misses a whole lot. Hungary had a red revolution in 1919 followed by a rightwing takeover that placed the nation in a similar spot, a natural alliance, with Mussolini taking power in Italy, followed by Hitler in Germany.

What could have been….

Lugosi was not exactly a union or community organizer. But the artistic giant of the large Hungarian-American Left, Hugo Gellert, would have been well known to Lugosi, politically and culturally. Lugosi, asked by revolutionary leader Bela Kun to be the leader of the national trade union movement before his departure, seems to have become a New Deal Democrat in the US, but played a key role in the Hungarian-American Counncil for Democracy, that is, working closely with Gellart and with that other  famed  antifascist Bela: Bela Bartok. As the rampage of Fascism threatened the world, from the middle 1930s onward, the “two Belas” could be counted upon for financial contributions and public appearances rallying the immigrant communities, in wartime to raise funds and support antifascism, in this case, Russian and Hungarian in particular.

Of all this, we see nothing in the comic.  Nor the ways in which the descending Cold War moods brought depression and a sense of panic among erstwhile antifacists. Hollywood, in Lugosi’s last years, was the home of the Blacklist. He escaped by not actually belonging to any Left organizations. Or perhaps because he was already too beaten to subpoena.

All that said, the personal drama of Lugosi’s life is well told here, and the drawing is impressive. Too much seems to be about the complicated romantic life, women won and lost, the over-extended ego that seemed to take over his creative power, with too little about the complications of his Hollywood career, let alone the unique artistry with which he approached his parts.

There goes a great star…

The Black Cat (1935), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, using a title from Edgar A. Poe’s work but bearing no other resemblance, was a masterpiece of horror and a brilliantly-wrought critique of the destruction brought upon humanity by the First World War. The two old military adverseries (the other is Boris Karloff) meet, and are seen with some of the staggeringly expessionist cinematography to that point in film-making anywhere. The subtle politics of the film are entirely lost to the comic artist, but the importance for Lugosi is clear. He was already a star, but now he became a super-star.

All too soon, the moment passed. By the time Robert Lees and his sreenwriting partner Fred Rinaldo delivered the script of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein to the studio in 1947 (sadly, Karloff had been replaced by Lon Chaney, Jr., and Lugosi is strictly camp), the cliches of monster films were already being turned inside out and played for laughs. Actually, with Bud and Lou offering up the best comedy around, Lugosi and Karloff were perfectly straight-faced and perfect.

But of course, this suggested a drift downward. Where to go from self-satire? Lugosi’s life was turning bad in every way. As depicted, he was addicted to drugs, unable to make a living or a personal appearance in Hollywood’s clubs and restaurants in the old way. He died too late, if earlier would have meant avoiding Ed Wood.

Paul Buhle

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Review: MORE SEASONS OF GARY by Matt MacFarland

More Seasons of Gary. Matt MacFarland. zines + things. 2021. 48pp. $7

Matt MacFarland displays a disarming charm in how he presents himself, his family, and his father in particular in his latest book. This is a little comics memoir in the tradition of auto-bio alt-comics: a self-portrait of the cartoonist, warts-and-all.

It’s interesting to note that this story is told in segments, four panels per page, comic strip-sytle. MacFarland uses the comic strip format in order to contain the narrative. What I mean is that this isn’t a collection of previously serialized work. I see part of it on Matt’s Instagram but not as being posted in a deliberate way like a webcomic. He takes a more casual approach which I really dig. In fact, a lot of what he’s posting right now are pages from his Scenes from a Marriage series which is hilarious. Matt has found a method to keep things fresh and concise by using the comic strip format to tell his story. He’s also taking advantage of the fact that we’re so used to reading page after page of comic strips that have been collected to tell a bigger story. Matt’s new book features his father, told in a series of comic strip moments. This format echoes Art Spiegelman’s own recollections of his father albeit on a small compact scale. Matt has narrowed down the stage to the most essential: fleeting moments, heavy with meaning, tied together by the seasons. What emerges is a portrait of the artist’s father, a complicated guy, both difficult and lovable.

By keeping to this comic strip format, MacFarland provides us little windows into his father’s soul, one self-contained little story per page. MacFarland has a lean and crisp way of drawing and storytelling. This series of four-panel comic strips grows on you as one detail is revealed and builds upon the next. We begin with the fall. The first two strips set the tone depicting Matt’s father, Gary, as a less than sensitive guy, with an offbeat sense of humor. The opener shows Gary as a young boy obsessed with creating monster masks. The one after that has Gary describing a horror movie he especially liked to 6-year-old Matt. After Matt screams that he wants to see it, Gary shows him a particularly disturbing scene from it on tape that leaves little Matt in tears.

Truth be told, Gary is hardly a bad guy and Matt doesn’t pick him apart. He’s not digging for dirt but for understanding about his father–and his own life. As we progress, we come to find out that Gary is an alcoholic but that is only part of his story and it doesn’t derail the narrative as one might expect. Mixing up the chronology of events also helps in letting details emerge in a less than obvious way. In a natural course of presenting anecdotes, the reader gets to see Gary interact with an array of people and circumstances. MacFarland manages to navigate a series of challenging periods: the divorce of his parents; the start of his own family; and the death of his father. I especially like a moment Matt has crafted where he’s hiding in a bedroom crying over the news of his father’s death while also calculating in his mind when the dinner guest will finally leave. Of course, when he returns to the kitchen, she’s still seated at the dinner table. That’s classic Matt MacFarland, with a dash of dry and dark humor.

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Halloween Review: MY PRETTY VAMPIRE

My Pretty Vampire

My Pretty Vampire. by Katie Skelly. Fantagraphics Books. Seattle. softcover, 2018. 108pp, $16.99.

Katie Skelly is a cartoonist that I admire a lot. I was looking over my library of books and it occurrs to me that My Pretty Vampire is just the right book for Halloween. Of course, it’s right for any season, but the point is that Katie Skelly’s uncanny work is especially delicious at this time of year. If my web presence is helpful to you, well, then I find it most rewarding to share with you fellow cartoonists of this caliber. Basically, Skelly pulls together elements from many areas, both high and low culture. Her style is very smooth and clean. If you appreciate horror in its many forms, then you know that the good stuff can get pretty deep. Well, that is absolutely the case with this book. Even if you just give it a quick casual scan, you can’t help but sense there’s more than meets the eye. Skelly’s style defies easy categorization. I see hints of Edward Gorey or Dame Darcy or Richard Sala. Ultimately, Katie Skelly has put in the time, absorbed numerous influences, and emerged with a distinctive vision.

Highbrow Meets Lowbrow.

I love the irreverent vibe running throughout this book. You aren’t suppose to take anything too seriously. At the same time, the comic casts its spell upon the reader. The reader becomes immersed in the strange and creepy narrative. The deeper one gets into the story, the reader discovers a far more esoteric world than expected in the typical horror genre.

More Than Meets The Eye.

My Pretty Vampire is a beautifully pared-down work in comics with a unique haunting quality. Take any page at random and you can hang it up on a gallery wall. That is not an easy thing to accomplish. Some comics just aren’t meant to show in a gallery while some work, like Skelly’s, infused with such a rich assortment of elements, has the substance it takes to hold up to closer scrutiny.

When Horror is More than Horror.

Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out Katie Skelly’s most recent graphic novel, just out this month, Maids, published by Fantagraphics Books.

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Review: ‘Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter’

Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter

Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter. Written by Brea Grant. Art by Yishan Li. Six Foot Press. Houston. 2020. 144pp, $18.99.

On my radar right now is a graphic novel about a teenage girl who is a direct descendant of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and has to deal with the pressure of living up to the name. She doesn’t see a career in writing in her future, worries about what her big purpose in life might be, and then she discovers she has special powers that help heal monsters. It turns out to be a really well put together read that is suitable for any age and, of course, a perfect book as we celebrate Halloween. But, beyond that holiday, this is also a wonderful gateway book to a better appreciation of reading, writing and the joy of books so it is totally something to be enjoyed by young readers, ages 12-18.

Good things come to life!

The winning combination of writer Brea Grant and artist Yishan Li makes this book very appealing. I sincerely believe you can create magic by teaming up two powerhouse talents who are genuinely having fun. This is such a book. And why? Well, there’s an endless number of ways to create a graphic novel but the notable ones manage to grab your attention in some unusual and distinctive way. Brea Grant has a very accessible and conversational style of writing. Yishan Li compliments this with her own very warm and personal style of drawing. Both manage to welcome and engage the reader. Even a somewhat jaded middle-aged guy like me will respond positively to this kind of presentation.

A most engaging graphic novel!

The opening page grabs the reader with plenty of fun and intriguing elements. We see what looks like a spooky shrine to all things Frankenstein and Mary Shelley. A couple of more panels and we get a close-up view of an oil painting portrait of Shelley. She, of course, says, “Hello.” It’s going to be that kind of book which we love, right? Just as much as we love the creepy vibe running throughout Netflix’s Bly Manor. A few more pages in and we see that a petite Goth girl is to be our main character. We go through some family history. And then, just as we’re settling in – Zap! – Mary has somehow achieved a cosmic connection with her frog specimen for Biology class. Something very unusual is happening and that’s just the start of it. Before long, Mary is becoming acquainted with a whole universe of monsters who are all relying upon her to cure their ills!

This is, as I say, an exceptional book. I go through quite a lot of books and I really need a wow factor to get my attention. I think the main reason that this is the right stuff is the book’s originality and sense of humor. Sure, we’ve all been down many a Sabrina-like road. The thing is, there’s room for more if done right. There’s a fresh approach here that wins me over much like all the attention to detail you find in a John Hughes film. I dare you to watch the last ten minutes of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and not be blown away by the impeccable timing. There’s a good amount of that to be found in this book. I think, for example, of the banter between Mary and Polly, a very smelly and anti-social harpy. Or, I really enjoyed some of the more subtle touches like the set-up establishing Mary’s mom engrossed in work on her laptop even while supernatural laser beams are darting across. This book is hard to resist, whether or not it’s Halloween.

For more information, go to Six Foot Press right here.

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VICE Releases the New VICE Guide to Comics, Horror Edition

Dick Briefer's FRANKENSTEIN

Dick Briefer’s FRANKENSTEIN

Just in time for Halloween, VICE’s art editor, Nick Gazin, shares his list of the top five scariest horror comics. With horror comics being dismissed by many as just a junk genre, there was a golden opportunity to fill that void and create great art using strange artistic styles. Nick provides a quick history lesson, and an unexpected treat among his choices. He also wears some big toothy fangs all for your enjoyment.

VICE Guide to Comics: The Top Five Scariest Horror Comics is right HERE.

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Everyone Can Enjoy Cosplay at PureCostumes.com

Deluxe Darth Vader Adult Costume available at PureCostumes.com

Deluxe Darth Vader Adult Costume available at PureCostumes.com

Cosplay is for everyone at PureCostumes.com. It can be anytime and anywhere. If you feel like dressing up as Darth Vader, just go for it. I know I’d like to. And there’s so much more to find at this unique outlet for all kinds of costumes.

Steampunk Fantasy Adult Costume from California Costumes available at PureCostumes.com

Steampunk Fantasy Adult Costume from California Costumes available at PureCostumes.com

Let’s say you’re into steampunk, PureCostumes.com has got you covered with the steampunk costumes by California Costumes. The key is in all the details and this year will see a bunch of new styles that are sure to please any steampunk enthusiast.

Pinky Pie Adult Costume available at PureCostumes.com

Pinky Pie Adult Costume available at PureCostumes.com

Keep browsing and you are bound to find something that strikes your fancy. Maybe you’re a fan of My Little Pony. Then check out all the options, from the youngest fans to adult fans, at PureCostumes.com.

Spider-Man costume available at PureCostumes.com

Spider-Man costume available at PureCostumes.com

Or maybe you’re looking for something classic, like a Spider-Man costume. You can find it right here.

Minions costumes available at PureCostumes.com

Minions costumes available at PureCostumes.com

With something for the whole family, PureCostumes is definitely your one-stop-shop. So, the next time you’re feeling like cosplay, go visit PureCostumes right here.

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Review: GHOST STALKERS: ‘The Old Taylor Memorial Hospital,’ Sunday, November 2, on Destination America

Chad Lindberg and John E.L. Tenney from GHOST STALKERS

Chad Lindberg and John E.L. Tenney from GHOST STALKERS

I love me some good ghostbustin’ TV action. If I’m going to commit some sit down time, I’m really hoping for a good effort with credible jargon and gadgets and true-believers as guides to build up the suspense. In the latest episode of “Ghost Stalkers,” we get some good stuff with “The Old Taylor Memorial Hospital,” which airs on Sunday, November 2, at 10/9c on Destination America. The title brings it home conjuring up thoughts of Scooby and the gang.

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Movie Review: ‘Blood Ransom’ Starring Anne Curtis and Alexander Dreymon

Anne-Curtis-Blood-Ransom-2014

“Blood Ransom” is a slow burn crime thriller that fearlessly takes on the whole vampire genre. As if oblivious to “Twilight,” this vampire love story is a noir-tinged offbeat adventure harking back to the ’70s. It’s got your basic adreniline-fuled plot, vampire gang vs. the one guy who might make a difference, plus a bunch of quirky twists. And much of what makes this work is a strong cast, starring Alexander Dreymon, as the lone wolf hero, in love with Anne Curtis, as the mysterious vampire vixen.

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Horror Movies 2014: THE BABADOOK Arrives November 28, 2014 (Theatrical and VOD); October 30 (DirectTV)

The-Babadook-IFC-Midnight

Editor’s Note: Read my review of “The Babadook” right here.

IFC Midnight has got you covered for Halloween and beyond with a new genre film called THE BABADOOK.

Kim Newman, of EMPIRE MAGAZINE, describes it as, “one of the strongest, most effective horror films of recent years – with awards-quality lead work from Essie Davis, and a brilliantly-designed new monster who could well become the break-out spook archetype of the decade.”

The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival Midnight Section and it absolutely terrified audiences ever since. The film is a psychological thriller in the tradition of Polanski’s classic domestic horror (Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, Repulsion). In addition, The BABADOOK just won the “Best Horror Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress” Awards at the 2014 Fantastic Fest. The film is coming out theatrically on November 28th but it also has an exclusive debut with Direct TV starting October 30th so Direct TV subscribers will have a chance to catch the film in their home on Halloween!

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Horror Movies 2014: ‘Blood Ransom’ Starring Anne Curtis and Alexander Dreymon to Premiere in L.A. on October 28, 2014

Anne-Curtis-Blood-Ransom-LA-Premiere

We all love a good horror movie. Keep an eye out for “Blood Ransom,” which will hit select theaters on Halloween in North America, Friday, October 31, 2014.

“Blood Ransom” will have its premiere in L.A. at Arclight Hollywood, 6360 W Sunset Blvd, on October 28, 2014, at 8pm. It stars Alexander Dreymon (American Horror Story: Coven & BBC America series The Last Kingdom), Philippine’s #1 actress & People Asia’s National Sweetheart, Anne Curtis.

Blood Ransom tells the story of Jeremiah, caught in the middle of an ill-fated plot to kidnap Crystal, his boss Roman’s beautiful young girlfriend. If that isn’t complicated and dangerous enough, there are some pretty fierce vampires to deal with too.

For more information, visit the Blood Ransom website here.

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