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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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Steve Lafler’s ‘1956: Movie Star’ on Kickstarter thru Oct 31st

Steve Lafler, one of our great indie cartoonists, has a new book out, 1956: Movie Star. This graphic novella launches a Kickstarter campaign running from today until Halloween. You can read my review of Steve’s previous book in the 1956 series here.
“Fifty-Second Street crackles with electricity as midnight beckons. Limos and cabs drop revelers at jazz hotspots like Birdland and Jimmy Ryan’s, decked to the nines.
Headliners from Sarah Vaughn to the Miles Davis Quintet rewrite the rules of cool nightly in clubs packed to the gills. Enter Ramona Lopez and Nikki Garcia, brimming with intent to quit the streets and embrace the cultural ambitions–but wait, here’s Jack Rolfe and Susie Ferrari in the house. Can these fashion industry avatars help Ramona & Nikki?”
A book trade edition will ship March 2022 via Diamond Comics and Ingram, among other distribution outlets.
1956 Movie Star ISBN 978-1-7341087-7-4 / Trade Paper 72 pages $12.99
Steve Lafler is always brewing something good. Keep up with him here.

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Top 10 Manga You Likely Haven’t Heard About

Photo credit: Jeena Paradies

Catching up on obscure manga has never been easier. Nowadays, there are tens of thousands of manga titles available online through platforms like Kodansha and izneo. And if you’re having a hard time picking which ones are worth checking out, here are 10 of the best manga you’ve likely never even heard about.

  1. Platinum End

Using powers granted by his guardian angel, young student Mirai Kakehashi enacts revenge on his foster parents who were responsible for his real parents’ deaths. Mirai soon finds out that he is among the 13 candidates to replace God, who’s retiring in 999 days, and that the other 12 are coming to kill him. A gratuitous action-packed fantasy by the writer-artist tandem behind Death Note.

  1. Otoyomegatari

Also known as A Bride’s Story, Otoyomegatari is a gorgeous portrayal of the 19th century customs, cultures, and brides of a tribal town along the Silk Road near the Caspian Sea in Central Asia. A poignant romance based on real customs and traditions from the 1800s, Otoyomegatari has won several international awards.

  1. Violence Jack

Whether it’s the original 1973 manga by Go Nagai that has spawned its own anime or Yu Kunutani’s tributary Violence Jack 20XX which launched early in 2021, this title features a shapeshifting anti-hero who gets his name for his signature 40cm jackknife. It’s one of the first mangas about a weird saviour dealing out justice in the post apocalypse.

  1. Jagaaaaaan

While riding the train, bored city cop Shintarou Jagasaki encounters a monster which he instantly kills when his right hand inexplicably transforms into an energy gun. Shintarou sets out on a journey to kill the fractured monsters – former humans transformed by the same force that gave him his new powers. Every kill results in a frog, which he collects in order to be granted a single wish.

  1. Akagi

Written and illustrated by Nobuyuki Fukumoto, one of the most prominent creators in manga history, Akagi is the 36-volume tale of a Mahjong poker prodigy who gives the Yakuza a run for their money. This manga has also been adopted into arguably the most intense Mahjong poker anime of all time. While a lot of manga tackle Mahjong drama, Akagi is hands-down the best one.

  1. Poker King

Alongside his two brothers, Hiroshi Nikaido inherits 100 million yen, and whoever makes the best use of the money gets the rest of the family business. Hiroshi takes the money and proceeds to have the best time at some of the most famous poker rooms in Las Vegas, where the stakes are high, the players are serious, and 100 million yen can only get you so far. It’s one of the few mangas that explores the wild side of sin city.

  1. The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service

The five graduates of a Buddhist college – each with their own special skill or supernatural power over the dead – form a business that helps people find out and enact the last wishes of their recently deceased loved ones. In this must-read dark comedy, every chapter is named after a Japanese pop song and every story is an entertaining exploration of mortality.

  1. Buddha

This manga is a unique take on the life of Gautama Buddha by writer-artist Osamu Tezuka, the brains behind Astroboy. Winner of several Eisner awards, Buddha is a fresh and in-depth account of the Enlightened One’s well-known spiritual journey.

  1. Chainsaw Man

Human-devil Hybrid Denji merges with his Chainsaw Devil dog Pochita to kill the Yakuza members who betray him. He’s then recruited by the state’s Public Safety Division as a devil hunter, eventually pitting Denji against the legendary Gun Devil. Dark humor and creative violence abound in this insane new shonen manga.

  1. Blood on the Tracks

Slow-burning thriller Blood on the Tracks has been hailed as one of the greatest psychological horrors manga of all time. Filled with unique stories tackling the mundane lives of ordinary people, Blood on the Tracks effortlessly achieves what so many horror titles aspire to but never pull off. It’s an absolute must-read for the most jaded horror fans.

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2021 Eisner Awards: The Nominees and the Winners

SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN (DC Graphic Novels for Young Adults, paper, $16.99)

The big news for the 2021 Eisner Awards at Comic-Con in San Diego is that cartoonist Gene Luen Yang was the big winner of the evening, taking home three Eisner Awards, including two for Superman Smashes the Klan (Best Publication for Kids, and Best Adaptation from Another Medium) and one for Dragon Hoops (Best Publication for Teens). That’s the big takeaway and quite a worthy one at that. Also, just as important is the news of Junji Ito‘s Remina (translated by Jocelyne Allen) manga winning this year’s Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia award. Junji Ito also won the Best Writer/Artist award for his Remina and Venus In The Blind Spot manga.

Panel excerpt from DRAGON HOOPS

While we inevitably focus on the winners–let’s also pay attention to the nominees. And then there are all the others who did not make it that far. I’ll tell you right now that these award lists are not the final word, but a great guide nonetheless. In a perfect world, for instance, Welcome to the New World, a graphic novel by Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan, would have been nominated for the 2020 book published by Henry Holt. It was nominated for an Eisner as a webcomic in 2018, so that’s a good thing. Among this year’s winners, I do think the Eisners got it spot on for Best Reality-Based book going to Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, by Derf Backderf. And it was great to give a shoutout to Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns & Moonage Daydreams byway of an award for Best Penciller/Inker to Michael Allred.

Anyway, I think it helps to make you dig around a little to see who won…you’ll see what I mean….

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William F. Nolan Dead at 93; New ‘Logan’s Run’ Remains a Mystery

From Henry Chamberlain’s graphic novel, George’s Run

William F. Nolan was one of the grand old men from the golden age of science fiction and horror spanning pulp fiction, television and the movies. Starting out as an illustrator in Kansas City, Nolan ultimately made his way to Hollywood and became part of a group of writers within the orbit of Ray Bradbury, and subsequently Charles Beaumont, all trying to break into television. As part of the inner circle of writers, casually known as, “The Group,” little by little, Nolan gained some ground.

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Review: ‘Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics’

Summer movies!

There are times when an illustration is most apt. Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics, by John Malahy and Turner Classic Movies, published by Running Press, inspired me to highlight some of my own favorites from this fun and informative book! Among a number of factoid-filled books, this one really stands out for some very specific reasons. This is not just a listing of popular titles. You will actually learn a lot here–about fan favorites and less familiar classics. I’m very impressed with the genuine attention to detail as the author invites the reader to try out some lost gems, like 1928’s Lonesome about a couple of star-crossed lovers who have a dream date at Coney Island and then, by the hard luck of fate, get lost from each and frantically try to reconnect.

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TCM Classic Film Festival | May 6-9 2021 | Interview with Mark Harris

Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris

Cinema is one of the great pleasures in life. If you love good movies, then you will be delighted with the lineup for the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (May 6-9 2021). This post will point you in the right direction as well as provide an added bonus. One of the titles featured during the festival is 1996’s Nichols and May: Take Two. I had the honor of interviewing Mark Harris, author of the New York Times Bestseller, Mike Nichols: A Life. I hope you enjoy our chat and be sure to catch all the great movies during the festival. During our conversation, I tried to fit in as much as possible regarding Mike Nichols (1931-2014), such a iconic figure in the world of improv comedy, theater and film known for such landmark films as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Catch-22 (1970), and Carnal Knowledge (1971). And those three titles are just scratching the surface!

Cast and producers including Al Pacino, third from left, Meryl Streep, third from right, and Mike Nichols, second from right, hold the award for outstanding miniseries for their work on “Angels In America,” at the 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards Sunday, Sept. 19, 2004, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Harris first got to know Nichols during his work adapting Tony Kushner’s landmark play, Angels in America. By then, Nichols was in his seventies and a master of his craft many times over. During our talk, Harris noted: “It is remarkable to me how Nichols kept looking outward during a production, while the meter was still running, finding ways to construct and to add.” As for what might be said in describing Nichols’s body of work, Harris said it wasn’t a matter of maintaining a thematic structure. It was really more down to earth. “It was about finding what excited Nichols to pursue a project: a script, a collaboration, a writer, an actor.”

NICHOLS AND MAY: TAKE TWO (1996): TCM premiere of this documentary about the influential comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Four of their radio sketches have been re-created with new animation created especially for the program.

Includes conversation with author Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life.

Nichols and May: Take Two

SATURDAY, MAY 8 11:45AM ET

And remember, the festival kicks off May 6th! This year’s Festival will be presented virtually and feature four days of incredible programming on TCM and within the Classics Curated By TCM Hub on HBO Max, a dedicated destination for classic movie fans within the HBO Max app.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Catch-22 (1970)

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

2021 TCM Classic Film Festival

Thursday, May 6 through Sunday, May 9 at two virtual venues: the TCM network and the Classics Curated by TCM Hub on HBO Max.

To learn more, go to the TCM Film Festival site right here. You’ll discover a unique film festival experience on TCM.

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Review: ‘1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona’ by Steve Lafler

Steve Lafler’s 1956

1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona. by Steve Lafler. Cat-Head Comics. 2020, 56pp. $9.95

Adorable Ramona is sweet down to her toes. She also happens to be a guy. But, hey, no problem there say the fellas from the Garment District. Ramon, as Ramona, is just so delightful. So, no problem. Nobody’s perfect! That’s the punchline to 1959’s Some Like it Hot, by the way. The artist and writer Steve Lafler doesn’t actually use that line. In fact, his graphic novel is completely different from what goes on in the Billy Wilder classic. That said, there are definitely some similar elements at play. And perhaps the biggest theme is one recurring in just about every Lalfer book, that of music, specifically jazz, hot jazz! Since, after all, some do indeed like it hot!

Hot Jazz!

Now, Steve Lafler turns out to be a very cool cat–and we’re about to take a deep dive into all things Lafler. Well, as much as I see fit to shoe-horn into this review. We’ll save some more for an interview with Steve Lafler next week. That sounds good, no? Lafler’s latest book, 1956, features a whole tableaux of goodfella types, all of them working various middle management jobs in the Garment biz, an industry with just enough of a glimmer of glamour to be suitable for these big city gentlemen. Lafler mixes the whimsical with the gritty. His style is clean lines in the service of a loose and street smart sensibility that brings to mind such greats as the Hernandez brothers and Kim Deitch. It’s quirky, idiosyncratic, and very much alt-comics. But that only makes sense since alternative comics are very much a part of Lafler’s scene. 1956 proves to be an utter delight.

Sweet Ramona!

The one thing I have come to understand from reading Lafler comics is that this is one devil-may-care dude who knows how to dish it out a la bohemian. I envy the ease with which he seems to glide through life. Maybe it takes one to know one. I know it’s not all peaches and cream. That’s part of the point. It’s about making the most of what you’ve got, living by your wits, and not taking anything so seriously that it hurts– except for family. You look out for your loved ones, right? Why do I digress so? I think Lafler just puts me in a very irreverent mood.

BugHouse

Now, take some of his other work and you’ll start to see some patterns. You’ll see that jazz motif bebop around. You’ll see some hard luck hound dogs–or bugs. And you’ll definitely see a lot of that joie de vivre thing we all want some of. You find it all wrapped in a bow in Lafler’s BugHouse, albeit tinged with the harsh realities of life in the big city. Yes, these bugs play a lot of jazz but they’re also prone to drug addiction. Sad bittersweet bugs.

Death Plays a Mean Harmonica

A more recent Lafler work is Death Plays a Mean Harmonica. I find this to be quite a masterpiece incorporating a healthy dose of auto-bio mixed in with everything that Lafler has learned about the uncanny world of comics. Lafler takes his own family’s decade living abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico, and turns it into the misadventures of Rex and Gertie and their two young children. Lafler let’s the good times roll with plenty of magical realism which includes a skeleton who regulars meets with Lafler while he’s asleep. They philosophize and, of course, enjoy playing music together. This serves as background for the main event. It turns out that Gertie is a secret superhero by night! Lots of fun! Bravo!

For more information, including comics, illustrations, paintings, and various merchandise, be sure to visit Steve Lafler.

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Comics Studies: Mise-en-Scene

Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field technique in CITIZEN KANE

Like any visual medium, as in painting and cinema, there are particular ways of seeing that are useful, even essential, when studying the mechanics of comics. Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field is a fascinating aspect to comics that occurs more often than you might think. Sometimes it’s done more formally and explicitly and sometimes not so much. But, when done right, it can be very striking and truly enhance the comics experience. First, consider the picture plane, an impression of space, like the imaginary wall separating the audience and overlooking the space on the stage. Then think of foreground, middle ground, and background. We are considering everything. The term, Mise-en-Scène, in French, literally means “put into the scene” but I like to also emphasize it refers to making the most of the three planes depicted in a scene.

From work-in-progress by Henry Chamberlain

You are looking at a scene, in a painting, or a film, or in comics, from the close range, mid-range, and way in the back range. What you might place in these three planes can significantly move your narrative forward. A reliable trope would be to set up your scene to include past, present, and future: cast the middle as present tense for the main character, with the past set in the back; and the future set up front. That’s what I ended up doing with the above image after noodling around for a while. But it can be anything you like, anything that makes for an interesting composition.

You can call this process, “The Three Plane Method.” That comes to mind. Or you can use the term used in theater and cinema, Mise-en-Scène. In film and photography, think of this as playing with Depth of Field. In the end, you’re exploring what this technique can do for you as you compose a frame or a scene. If you want some truly riveting examples, take a closer look at how images are stacked upon each other in layered scenes in Citizen Cane to create mesmerizing montages. Some are stable landscape type moments and others are dazzling scenes which have the camera rolling for one long dizzying shot like the one that begins outside during a gloomy snow storm and snakes its way into a cozy cabin.

from The Leaning Girl from the The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.

The best comics tend to be, at least for me, thoughtfully composed. While comics has its own language and techniques unique to its medium, it does manage to borrow from other mediums–and make it its own. That said, it was interesting to go about finding a decent example in comics of true Mise-en-Scène. I think my initial impulse is proven because it wasn’t easy to just stumble upon something. Paul Pope? Nada. Blutch? Nada again. David Mazzucchelli? Frank Quitely? No and no again. You can’t ignore the fact that comics is a sequential art. In general, comics is mostly invested in a steady flow of a concise combination of words and pictures. Those visionary auteur cartoonists will, on occasion, create panels or whole pages with bravura artwork but these are usually some attempt at detailed exteriors or interiors to establish time and place. Not necessarily work making the most of all three planes. The long and the short of it is that a lot of comics involves people speaking to each other or going from one place to another and not much else. Many exceptions exist and hurray for them. I finally found  the above excellent example to share with you from The Leaning Girl from The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.

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Review: FUTURE STATE: THE NEXT BATMAN #1 by John Ridley

Batman to thugs: “Get a life!”

Future State: The Next Batman #1. DC Comics. Written by John Ridley. Art by Nick Derington. Colors by Tamra Bunvillain. January 6, 2021. $7.99

Batman, at his best, is always good as a sign of the times, right? Here is a Batman from the not-too-distant future and pointedly familiar to the immediate present. Gotham, like other big cities, has fallen under, as this comic book states, “a cloud of tyranny and disinformation.” Okay, unpack that for a little while and let me know what you get. There are so many camps people can fall into these days but, no matter the lens seen through, it seems we can all at least agree we are living through some troubled times. Note the fateful date of publication of this comic book: January 6, 2021. Coincidences can be very spooky.

Future State: The Next Batman #1

This comic book has a perfect premise: in the future, it’s legal to shoot to kill anyone wearing a mask. Are we heading towards that level of insanity? This story begs the question, Aren’t we pretty much already there? Once we have the plot in place, hey, this highly provocative Batman story has legs and can basically comment on today’s headlines, albeit in an artful indirect sort of way, thinly-veiled as it is. You don’t need to worry too much about the actual story about the mysterious Magistrate now being in charge after the “A-Day” incident. What we’re mostly after here is a mood and feeling, a certain texture. And this comic definitely has that going on.

Cities riddled with chaos from “hype soldiers.”

The Future State series won’t be around for too long so seek it out now while it’s hot. It’s an opportunity to mix things up and avoid whatever restrictions need to be respected within DC Universe canon and whatnot. There are two more stories, separate from the main story, included in this comic book and, despite the air of creative freedom, these two seem loaded down a bit from keeping track of various superhero identities and protocols. They seem just fine but may put off the more casual reader.

Wear a mask and be somebody!

All in all, it’s clear that writer John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) knows exactly what he’s doing and is having a good time with this alternate Batman feature. It’s a chance for Batman to punch out one of the urban offenders and yell out for him to get a life. It’s a chance to do a little calling out in general and state that our politics has gotten toxic and has resulted in toxic protest and honest rank and file police are all too often caught in the middle of it all. Is that too controversial to say out loud in public on social media? Maybe just enough–or a lot–but certainly reasonable too for a lot of folks. Ridley isn’t out to just push buttons as much as to do some intelligent, and balanced, shouting out from the rooftops in hopes that Batman has any good ideas. And that should work since he usually does.

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