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BIG RED by Jerome Charyn book review — Rita and Orsie and Old Hollywood

BIG RED. Book cover art by Edward Sorel.

Big Red. Jerome Charyn. Liveright. New York. 2022. 304pp. Hardcover. $28

Orson Welles was a magician in the truest sense of the word. He loved to dazzle an audience. And he was utterly fascinated with the process in which to dazzle. Many an entertainer and creative loves magic. To excel in this conjuring art form requires skill, passion, and no small amount of ego. And so it makes sense that such an inquistive novelist as Jerome Charyn, one who loves magic and is intrigued by magicians, not to mention movies, should pick Orson upon which to build a novel. Add to that the fact that Welles was married to one of the most beautiful and enigmatic of movie stars, Rita Hayworth, and you have the perfect framework for a tale about Old Hollywood.

The Boy Wonder

Orson Welles portrait by Irving Penn, for Vogue 1945

Throughout the novel, Orson Welles is called, “The Boy Wonder,” as much in honor of his genius as a dig at his excess. Welles was, in many respects, one of a kind, an outsized force of nature, untamed and undisciplined, and therefore an imperfect maestro. He was a masterful filmmaker, creating unique imagery, capturing compelling performances from his fellow actors, but prone to missteps in his lavish storytelling. He was also sloppy in his personal relationships, as Rita Hayworth, aka “Big Red,” could attest. However, as Charyn comes back to again and again, there was no director quite like him. This is a novel about art colliding with life and vice versa. Orson Welles seemed to be able to better tolerate the burden of celebrity than his spouse, Rita Hayworth. But even The Boy Wonder had his limits. Charyn plays with these dynamics, these contradictions, repeatedly bringing home the fact that a big, flat footed and insecure man, no matter how talented, was perpetually bending to the pressures of being a Boy Wonder. And if the pressure should prove too much for someone as flamboyant as Welles, then how must it have been for someone so shy and demure as Rita Hayworth?

The true nature of one Rita Hayworth, with her own nickname, both a tribute and a put down, gets to the crux of the matter. Charyn brings out the fact that the real person behind the name wears the name of Big Red like an albatross around her neck. In a moment of passion, the nickname can praise just as quickly as it can cut. Who can live up to all the larger-than-life expectations? Not Rita, or Margarita, the girl who lost her childhood to a father who exploited and abused her, making her his dancing partner by age twelve, the two of them working as a duo in casinos, treating her as if she were his lover. The abuse had left her with little of a voice, a life of depression and despair, even though she had honed the skills, from an early age, of a great entertainer. Charyn provides the reader with a portrait of a formidable beauty with the soul of a frightened child.

Rita Hayworth in 1946’s Gilda.

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth were married from 1943 to 1947. Much of the novel focuses on the dynamics of this mismatched couple. It was in star power that Hayworth held her own, and even eclipsed Welles for a time. But her shyness seemed to cancel out her extraordinary beauty. Charyn places a unique character, Rusty Redburn, right in the middle of the action, someone who manages to navigate her way between the two and provide special insight on them. Rusty is a young aspiring writer who stumbles into work on the Columbia lot and, by a set of circumstances, ends up working as a private secretary to Rita Hayworth while also serving as spy for studio boss Harry Cohn. Rusty learns it’s important to keep a close eye on Big Red, as well as Welles, but she does as she wants and maintains her loyalty to Rita and Orsie. Over the course of the novel, with Rusty’s vantage point, a rollicking story unfolds tracing the trajectory of two of the strangest and most magnificent of Hollywood icons.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles

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

As true to form as ever, Jerome Charyn tackles the man behind the celebrated cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane, and his power to fascinate an audience as well as hurt those he was supposed to love. Charyn, a great fan and scholar of cinema, with a journalist’s instinct for a great story, has made the most of his subject for his latest novel, filled with his signature use of imagery and metaphor. Charyn, the magician with words, delivers various breathtaking moments once all the chess pieces to his tale are in play. One of the greatest is when Orson Welles, at loose ends and in need of an adrenaline rush, mounts a full-scale circus in the middle of Hollywood. It is one of the most surreal and entertaining tributes to Hollywood and unfettered creativity you will ever read. It may seem a pity that Welles, the man, was unable to live up to the myth. It was a legend he himself helped to perpetuate and which choked him at every turn. Of course, no one, not even a magician, would ever have survived unscathed from all the bright lights, noise, and hype. Charyn brings home the point that it is this grand illusion that will forever fascinate and captivate, prone to ensnare an audience and actor alike.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Hollywood, Jerome Charyn

PULP POWER: The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Art of the Street and Smith Universe review

Pulp Power: The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Art of the Street and Smith Universe. Neil McGinness. Abrams. New York. 2022. Fully illustrated, hardcover. 352pp. $58.50

Walter Gibson was the writer behind the masked hero, The Shadow. Writing under the pen name, Maxwell Grant, he developed a character that seemed to emerge on its own, out of the confluence of pop culture media, circa 1930: pulp fiction and radio. The character was a strange mix of mystery and daring, part of something bigger, and a sign of things to come. The strangeness begins with the eerie voice warning that it sees all: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” followed by a shrill cackle. Such an otherworldly introduction to adventure was like mana from heaven for the millions of beleaguered radio listeners across the country confronting the dire reality of the Great Depression. Stranger still, at that point, there was only the weird voice to introduce the mystery hour–but the voice had become the star! Overnight, people wanted more. Who is The Shadow? Where do I get The Shadow magazine? This would lead to perhaps the greatest scramble ever to flesh out a popular character that did not yet exist!

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

The Shadow went on to become the leading product of the famous Fiction Factory, founded by Francis Street, a bookkeeper, and Francis Smith, an aspiring writer in the 1850s. Street and Smith bought the New York Dispatch, a newspaper focused on news, and turned it into the New York Weekly (1858–1910), a newspaper focused on fiction, the foundation of what was to become the Street and Smith publishing empire. It was when this publishing house decided to step into creating radio shows that The Shadow emerged out of the ether. Pulp Power covers this phenomenal enterprise providing the reader with an in depth look at the origins of America’s first pop culture icons: The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Avenger, Justice Inc., the trailblazers that would inspire Batman, Superman, The Fantastic Four, even the whole ball of wax at Marvel and DC Comics. Thanks to this generously illustrated book, with engaging writing by Neil McGinness, the original glory days of American pop culture come to life for the reader in this unique collection showcasing dazzling covers from pulp fiction, comics and movies, along with assorted ephemera.

The Shadow magazine

Getting back to The Shadow, if there is just one character to represent the exuberant creative force at play in the early years, it has got to be this strange, yet beloved, fellow. It’s fascinating to consider how much this character is so much of its time, and defies being easily bounced around various media until it finally settles into what works. Ultimately, a lot is working; it’s just a matter of doing justice to the material. You won’t be seeing a major motion picture anytime soon, until maybe you do. What you can count on is The Shadow thriving in prose and in audio. Perhaps that’s simply because The Shadow is so much a creature of the night, a mysterious force not to be observed too closely. He also has his specificity. He’s a New Yorker, and don’t you forget it. Thankfully, Neil McGinness does take a close look for the sake of better understanding the attraction. Essentially, it comes down to quality storytelling, which can’t be faked; it involves so many factors coming into place; and runs best with one determined author.

The Shadow comics

The Shadow’s original author, Walter Gibson, followed a tried and true formula, a five-point plan that never failed: a main crime; a problem arising from the main crime; a secondary crime that serves to complicate matters; an attempted third crime to thwart the investigation which is foiled by the hero; and the climax which reveals the villain, the trick, the true nature of the crime. It is a ticket to endless variations and served Gibson well as he went on to write nearly 300 Shadow novels. Not only that, Gibson was sensitive to literary refinements. In fact, The Shadow is closely based upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is a hero but a dark hero. A crime fighter as grim and merciless as the worst criminal. This is a complicated character shrouded under layer upon layer of ambiguity. . .while, at the same time, just a fun thrill.

Orson Welles portrait by Irving Penn, for Vogue, 1945

The Shadow radio show ran for 17 years, from 1937 to 1954. Orson Welles, then only 22 years-old, served as the first voice of the character in 1937. Welles was quite busy with his own Mercury Theater and would do the show with no rehearsals. He just did it and he proved to be one of the best of the actors to take on the role. This was around the time that Welles was at his hottest: a year later, he would make history with his War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938. It’s a nice touch to see included here in this book a photo of Welles at the height of his success, a portrait by Irving Penn, for Vogue in 1945. It’s a masterwork of a photograph, complete with all of Penn’s still life magic–and a fitting companion piece to the magic and mystery that is The Shadow.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Comics, pop culture, Pulp Fiction, The Shadow

Comics: David’s Dad’s Movie by Doogie Horner

The comics in the spotlight this time around are by Doogie Horner, a great illustrator who I first took notice of for his book cover design (illustration by Jeremy Enecio) to the madcap fictional adventures of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, Hope Never Dies.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

It was shortly after spotting that book that I noticed another one with Horner credited for both illustration and design, a comedy mashup of Jane Austen and zombies! Maybe you’ve seen both of these iconic covers.

This Might Hurt a Bit

But it hardly ends there for Doogie Horner. Along with an impressive creative portfolio of graphic design, illustration and comics, he is also an author and a stand-up comedian. The great thing about whatever Doogie Horner does is that he’s very dedicated. His young adult novel has been well received, This Might Hurt a Bit. And you’ll just have to see for yourself how he tamed a hostile crowd when he was a contestant on America’s Got Talent!

Alright then, I’m very happy to bring to your attention this comic, a sweet story of a boy trying to connect with his dad. Or maybe it has more to do with the kid’s curiosity getting the better of him and his forcing his way into seeing a movie he was told would be too scary for him at his age. Yeah, that’s definitely a big part of the story. Spoiler alert, the movie was scary but not too scary. It depends upon how scary you think The Terminator is for a kid around five years-old. Okay, definitely parental supervision is in order.

The point is that this comic manages to do a lot of things right. It’s funny and engaging for any age. But, most importantly, it flows very well. This is a gentle narrative, told by a child, while maintaining a hip and upbeat sense of humor. The drawing style has a child-like, as well as elegant, simplicity.

So, this is an easygoing look and feel–and that’s actually not easy to do. It takes time to get that natural vibe going. Just ask Doogie Horner. He made it look easy to win over a hostile audience, something easier said and done, but he knows what he needs to know. Part of it is dedication to craft; part of it is learning from past mistakes; and part of it is simply not taking no for an answer. I get a sense of that spirit in this father and son story. Check it out, along with a bunch of other wonderful comics on Doogie Horner’s website.

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Interview: Comics Artist Brandon Lehmann

Comics artist Brandon Lehmann

First off, I invite you to read the review I wrote for The Comics Journal to the book in question, G-G-G Ghost Stories. That will add to the enjoyment of the following interview with the creator.

There are details in Brandon Lehmann‘s comics that will come back and reveal themselves upon another reading. Look closely and you’ll see, tucked away amid the backdrop of a mega-bookstore, copies of Brandon Lehmann’s new book, the recently released, G-G-G Ghost Storiesin the panels to his story, “The Werewolf Expert.” Another reading will reveal a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capicorn, in the hand of a child, a secondary player in this finely-crafted farce. The key idea here is the subject of creating such a thing as a “finely-crafted farce,” and why quality will win out in the end. Lehmann’s sense of humor is an absurdist and existential sensibility. Lehmann has been making comics for about fifteen years featuring observational and satirical work. In this new book, he focuses in on playful use of horror tropes. For this interview, we met at Seattle’s Smith Tower, a favorite haunt of erudite cartoonists and, of course, ghosts. We begin this conversation just as I sit down to join Brandon. I notice pot stickers have already been ordered. (We staged a bit of a humorous intro. You’ll see what I mean if you view the video.)

Hey, Brandon, well, I see you’ve started without me, as usual. Nice to run into you this way.

I just hang out up here in Smith Tower and read my own comics.

G-G-G Ghost Stories by Brandon Lehmann

So, what have we here (picking up a copy of Brandon’s book). Is the proper pronunciation just as it reads, G-G-G Ghost Stories?

When I named it, I was hoping for some awkward interactions at the sales counter. “I’ll take, G-G-G Ghost Stories, please.”

That would be a Scooby-Doo influence, right?

Yeah.

Interesting that we’d find ourselves in Smith Tower since, as everyone knows, this place is haunted.

Yeah, we saw a couple of ghosts on the way in. I was like, “Ahhh, it’s a g-g-g ghost.”

Page excerpt from “The Lfyt”

I think of a lot of your work, like the “The Lfyt,” as being mini-masterpieces. Do you sometimes think in those terms, “I’m going to create something that’s so spot on that everything works perfectly.” Does that make sense to say that?

Yeah, I always feel that when you’re working on a book, especially, you can get into this mode where everything you do just works. And then, when you finish a book, I have this period where I just struggle and I can’t seem to draw anything. But when I’m making a book, I can set a schedule, everything works on the first try for some reason. If that makes sense.

Page excerpt from “The Werewolf Expert” story from G-G-G Ghost Stories

It does make sense. I’m a certified cartoonist myself, as you know. Now, tell us about “The Werewolf Expert,” the longest work in the book.

There’s a trope in horror movies and TV shows where someone needs to seek an expert on the occult and it’s always someone who it doesn’t make sense would be an expert. Like, you’ll have this guy who works at the bowling alley as a mechanic and, for some reason, he’s a vampire expert. In “The Werewolf Expert,” someone consults a Barnes & Noble bookstore employee, and it’s the employee’s first day. And they shouldn’t know anything about werewolf lore but part of the B&N orientation training is that they teach all about werewolf lore. That employee knows a lot but eventually he consults his supervisor and she knows even more about werewolves to a ridiculous degree. So, it just keeps building on that premise.

Desperately seeking werewolf advice.

How would you describe your humor?

It’s absurdist and existentialist. There’s a lot of gags in the book that you can repeat with a similar premise. For the story we’re discussing, there’s a gag that I use a lot. The story is progressing from one point to another and then I’ll throw a wrench into it. And it will spin off in an insane degree. For instance, the bookstore customer seeking advice has a daughter named, Shawnda. He begins yelling at her, she’s off camera. Later, we see her and there’s more of this yelling. That sort of silly exchange is something I like to do in my work.

Panel excerpt from Brandon Lehmann’s Instagram.

There’s a beauty to your work. The humor is consistent. The art is consistent. You must go through a slew of experimentation before you hit upon what works, what’s on point.

The whole concept of the book is classic ghost stories. So, that’s the anchor. We’re dealing here with stories everyone is familiar with in one form or another. The story, “The Lfyt,” we were just talking about, is based upon a popular ghost story about picking up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a ghost. Another good example is “The Viper,” another popular children’s ghost story. The tension builds as he keeps calling and announcing when he’ll arrive. In my story, it turns out that “The Viper” is a guy with a thick German accent, who is just an innocent window wiper.

I didn’t know about that children’s ghost story. The actual one, not your satire!

Yeah, it’s real. There’s also one entitled, “Okiku,” based on a popular Japanese ghost story about a woman who was murdered because she refused to become a samurai’s mistress. She had been thrown down a well and, each night, she appears to seek her revenge. That was actually the basis for the Ringu movies. There’s the books. It was also on stage, as kabuki theater. So, yeah, I gather up all these ghost stories and given them my own spin.

Well, I’m sure this will intrigue readers. Thanks so much for sharing this with us. Where is a good place to find your work?

One good place is my own site for Bad Publisher Books. You can also find me on my Instagram: @brandon.lehmann. And you can find it at various bookstores. In Seattle, there’s Fantagraphics Bookstore, Elliot Bay Bookstore and Push/Pull. Lots of places on the net, like Birdcage Bottom Books.

Thanks, Brandon!

Thank you, Henry!

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Filed under Comedy, Comics, Ghosts, Interviews, Seattle

Spider-Man and El Sorprendente Hombre Arana

El Sorprendente Hombre Arana #128

I’m eager to get a better grounding on Mexican comics. That said, I’m always up for a bit of a detour. That led me to some Mexican Spider-Man. Now, this one particular issue has grabbed a lot of attention in the last few years. Welcome to El Sorprendente Hombre Arana #128. Of course, the image is quite striking and has all it takes to stir up comics fans: Gwen and Peter getting married! Here are pages from inside the issue. But there’s more than meets the eye. . . .

Page 1 from El Sorprendente Hombre Arana #128

Page 21 from El Sorprendente Hombre Arana #128

As any comics fan knows, beware of teasers. Once you read the comic, it’s clear that a wedding is not exactly the main theme here. Not at all. Spoiler alert: truth is, this is only a dream sequence cooked up by the Green Goblin, the little trickster! For more details, I must direct you to the comics sleuthing by Marvel Comics editor Tom Brevoort. If you want a more detailed account, then go see Tom.

Jose Luis Duran

Back in the early ’70s, Marvel Comics decided to kill off Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. It sent shockwaves throughout the comics community. One Mexican comics publisher chose to do something about it. By what authority La Prensa was acting on is a mystery. Initially, La Prensa began with a licensing deal with Marvel Comics, which allowed for some additional stories from local Mexican talent. That arrangement took on a life of its own. So, the deed was done: 44 issues of an alternate Spider-Man reality, one with a very much alive Gwen Stacy! Hey, Gwen was just too popular in Mexico and Latin America for her to actually die! Marvel was unleashing the darker Bronze Age but La Prensa would hold it off, at least for a while. All 44 issues of these Mexican Spidey adventures were drawn by Jose Luis Duran.

What happens in Mexico, stays in Mexico.

I have to hand it to La Prensa for going off in their own direction. They had an agreement with Marvel and they got pretty creative with it, maybe too creative, given how totally out of canon it was. Marvel officially kills off a beloved main character and La Prensa chose to simply do what they thought best. Perhaps what saved them was that they used relatively good judgement. It was tasteful storytelling and in keeping with readership demands. And Marvel didn’t seem to care. Anyway, only a few years later, La Prensa would go out of business. Now, we’re left with some somewhat strange Spider-Man stories.

El Sorprendente Hombre Arana #154

El Sorprendente Hombre Arana #163

So, now this very special run is a hot ticket with lots of speculation about what it’s worth these days, especially the issue with Peter and Gwen at the altar. According to comics collectors in the know: the low range: $2k; the mid-range: $6k; the high range: $25k. This gets my spidey-sense tingling all over!
  • Marriage of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy in an original story published in Mexico
  • Issues in this series divert from the U.S. storyline with Gwen Stacy surviving the events from The Amazing Spider-Man #121
  • There exists a German reprint that sells for significantly less

Issue Details

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Disney Sketchbook: Samantha Vilfort

Samantha Vilfort has been a Story Artist with Disney Animation for four years, working on Ralph Breaks the Internet and Frozen 2. In this episode of Sketchbook she draws Mirabel, the star of Encanto. (Disney/Richard Harbaugh)

SKETCHBOOK: an intimate instructional documentary series featuring talented artists and animators. Disney Plus Originals. Premieres on April 27, 2022.

Sketchbook is a new behind-the-scenes series, that features Disney top artists sharing their art process in a combination of a profile and dynamic how-to-draw demonstration. In a brief interview, I chatted with one of the featured talents, Story Artist Samantha Vilfort. She recently worked on the Disney acclaimed 2021 animated feature, Encanto. For her episode of Sketchbook, Vilfort did a step-by-step character study of Encanto‘s main character, Mirabel.

Mirabel Madrigal struggles to fit in a family where everyone has been blessed with magical powers – everyone but her. Determined to prove she belongs within this extraordinary family, she strives to contribute in meaningful ways—denying to everyone, including herself, that she feels all alone, even in her own house. Opening in the U.S. on Nov. 24, 2021, “Encanto” features Stephanie Beatriz as the voice of Mirabel and songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Mirabel is a kid just trying to figure things out, someone anyone can relate with. As a longtime cartoonist, I was intrigued by Vilfort’s very natural, careful and graceful approach to the character. This is an impressive demonstration that will inspire anyone interested in drawing, whether you’re totally new or a seasoned pro. During our conversation, I had to share with Samantha the drawing I did from following her instruction on Sketchbook.

It was a lot of fun drawing along with Samantha!

Samantha gained so much inspiration as a kid drawing from a Mulan how-to-draw book. So, it all comes full circle as she has a chance now to give back to fans and guide them on their creative journey. “I firmly believe that drawing is a teachable skill just like anything else,” says Samantha. “Anyone can draw–and not just stick figures!” This is something that I love to pass on to folks every chance I get! I encourage you to seek out Sketchbook on Disney Plus!

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Filed under animation, Disney, Drawing

Drawing the Meaning of Life

I direct your attention to a short film I made. My goal was to open things up and see what I might come up with in a day-in-life or a window into the creative’s mind. I had some hurdles to jump, namely creating some decent pieces of art on the fly while filming to actually show me being creative; and then it was touch and go as I worked my way up to a moment where I say something to pull it all together. YouTube provides the option to transcribe and create captions so I did that. Here are the words that I spoke, my grand soliloquy:

When we’re drawing, we create a sacred space. We do that because we need to do that. We need to allow ourselves that freedom, that security, to just do whatever. Just do whatever. That goes for just about any kind of activity that requires concentration and focus. We create a sacred space.

We as humans are constantly gathering information. And a lot of the information we’re gathering is just to confirm that we’re okay. Are we okay? Yeah, we’re okay. Is everything fine? Everything’s fine. That’s constantly going on.

So, we gather information. We process data. Ongoing thing. Ongoing activity. There’s a great demand for that. A great demand for collecting data and processing data. What does that have to do with drawing? Well, a lot. I think a lot because I think drawing, well, we know, drawing can simplify things, and highlight things, and bring the essential points into focus.

With clear spot on drawings and concise words combined together, yeah, the act of drawing, it’s there to help in so many ways. So many ways. It’s not just one thing. It’s a lot of things. It’s a form of self-expression and a form of making sense of the world.

I invite you to check out my short film…

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Filed under Art, Comics, Doodles, Drawing, Graphic Recording, Henry Chamberlain

Review: ‘Camera Man’ by Dana Stevens

Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. Dana Stevens. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2022. 415pp. $29.99

Buster Keaton (1895-1966), the “Great Stone Face” of silent movies, found himself hurled, figuratively and literally, into the 20th century. And quite an impact he was to make! We often seek a way into a story through an event or a person. Buster Keaton proves to be a perfect guide in an understanding of where we’ve been, in terms of media, these last hundred years or so. Dana Stevens, film critic for Slate since 2006, gives Buster Keaton his due and even credits him with having more than a little to do with defining the last century.

It’s only in hindsight that we can see the big picture. One of the most celebrated anecdotes about the early years of cinema goes back to one of its inventors, Louis Lumiere, who is said to have declared that “the cinema is an invention with no future.” Perhaps that is more legend than true but it was kept alive by Jean-Luc Godard for his screenplay, Contempt. As Stevens points out, time and again, there was nothing certain about this new art form. It was a gamble. It was a game for risk takers. Enter Buster Keaton and his family of daredevil vaudevillians dealing in the most spine-tingling and acrobatic of stunts!

Buster Keaton set upon the stage at the tender age of five, just at the dawn of a new century. As Stevens does throughout, she connects all sorts of disparate dots to focus on a whole, while crafting a sense of the poetic, especially with her favored metaphor of Buster in mid-air. Here is an excerpt where she tightens the frame around Buster’s origins:

By the time Buster was taking his first public falls at the turn of the century, watching talented children onstage was a cultural thrill that came with a built-in moral twinge, even when those children weren’t being flung into scenery or the rib cages of hecklers by their strapping fathers. The awareness that “the cruelty” was liable to shut down the show must have added to the audience’s frisson of mingled guilt, pleasure, and suspense–the precise mix of affects Joe and Buster’s father-son knock-about act also specialized in eliciting. This conflicted cultural, legal, and psychological space, where children were at once fragile treasures to be protected, market commodities to be exploited, and private property to be disposed of at their parents’ will, was the world into which Buster found himself thrown.

Buster Keaton, in his own way, was the ultimate Everyman of the Twentieth Century, a regular fellow thrown into a suddenly faster world. In one film after another, in countless intricately plotted near-death antics, Buster Keaton is the sad sack in over his head, just trying to get by, but forced to contend with a topsy-turvy chain of events whether it was a house frame perfectly timed to fall only inches away from him or a locomotive set to just barely miss from killing him. Stevens, with great gusto, details every step of the way of Keaton’s ongoing good citizen trapped in a new-fangled pursuit of the American Dream.

Sharing similar childhood pathos and artistic achievement in adulthood with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton is among that elite group of artists that simply transcend any one medium, elevated to the level of an icon. Look to his movies and you will find gems with a distinctive Buster Keaton artistic vision. Beyond his silent movie glory, Keaton remained relevant as a character actor at the dawn of television and in movies well into the sixties. It was Keaton’s special mix of talents and demeanor, a combination of the subversive and the melancholic, that truly spoke to a new generation and remains timeless. Dana Stevens is spot on to celebrate this singular talent and her book is a most fitting tribute.

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Filed under Book Reviews, movies

Book Review: ‘American Comics: A History’ by Jeremy Dauber

AMERICAN COMICS

American Comics: A History. Jeremy Dauber. W.W. Norton & Co. New York. 2021. 592pp. $35.

Jeremy Dauber’s narrative resembles a rocket ship as it blasts through page after page which is ideal for a book covering the entirety of American comics, from its early days to the present. Arbuably, this is the first survey of its kind and it proves to be compelling stuff. For myself, a Gen X cartoonist based in Seattle, I couldn’t help but begin with Chapter 8: Between Spandex and Seattle. Dauber dutifully recreates the scene leading up to the rise of indie comics in the early ’90s and, in the process, provides a window into the ever-evolving world of alienated youth. If Andy Hardy movies from the ’30s and ’40s helped to invent the American teenager, then comics, specifically indie, played a significant role in a more recent iteration of youth culture, one with a more nuanced argument for perpetual arrested development. Why not remain snarky, callow, self-deprecating, the whole immature shebang, all the way to the grave? The work of leading cartoonists like Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns made nihilism seem cool again, picking up where the sixties underground left off. If these cartoonists never meant for anyone to take them literally, it was besides the point. The impact of comics was never in doubt.

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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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