Miracleman by Alan Moore *****

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The first question you might ask is “Who the hell is Miracleman?” That is a loaded question. I will break it down as simply as I can, but the fact that there is an entire book dedicated to explaining where this character came from shows how convoluted the history is. In fact, this character has the most unique and litigious history of any superhero character ever.

1939: Fawcett Publications, in an attempt to capitalize on the success of National Publications “Superman” created a team of six superheroes each with the power of a Greek god. An executive at Fawcett suggested that the team of six should be combined into one character who would have all six of the teams super powers. Thus “Captain Thunder” was born in the pages of “Flash Comics” #1.

1940: To their dismay Fawcett soon realized that they did not have the rights to “Captain Thunder” or “Flash Comics” and had to rename their creation “Captain Marvel” and their comic book to “Whiz Comics.” Whiz Comics #2 is considered to be the first appearance of Captain Marvel, now known to us as “Shazam” which is an acronym for all of the Captain’s powers taken from the mythological characters Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. Captain Marvel is in reality 12 year old Billy Batson, a homeless orphan who is chosen by the 3,000 year old wizard Shazam “for being pure of heart” to continue his fight against evil. The wizard tells Billy that he need only say the word “SHAZAM!” and he will be given the powers of the gods.

1948: Captain Marvel became the best-selling comic book of the 1940s. Many issues sold over 1 million copies. Numbers unheard of today. Naturally this irked National (now known as DC Comics) who thought that Captain Marvel too closely resembled their hero Superman. So they sued Fawcett and after years of litigation they killed the character. Captain Marvel and Fawcett’s entire comic book division ceased to exist by 1953. DC would eventually buy Fawcett’s catalog of characters in the ’70s.

1954: While Captain Marvel sales had declined in the U.S., the character was still a big hit in England, where reprints of American comics were very popular. Unwilling to let this cash cow die out, British publisher Mick Anglo was able to make new stories by changing the character’s name to “Marvelman” and redesigning his costume. These comics were published until 1963 and were much beloved by the British audience, especially making an impression on a lower-class kid from Northampton named Alan Moore.

1982: A new British black and white superhero anthology comic called Warrior began publication in 1982 and it was decided to bring back Marvelman for a new audience. Warrior publisher Dez Skinn had a hard time finding a writer/artist team who were interested in the character. The black and white comics of the ’50s were considered to be cheap trash for children by the ‘80s. But then Skinn heard of an unknown writer who would “give his eye teeth” to write Marvelman. Famous British artists Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons (who would later go on to draw Watchmen) turned it down so the art duties went to Garry Leach and an upcoming artist named Alan Davis. The first part of what would become one of the greatest sagas in superhero comics was published as black and white serial stories in Warrior. Moore ended up feuding with his publisher (a common theme in his career) and the rights were sold off to American publisher Eclipse Comics.

1985: Eclipse reformatted, relettered, and colored Moore’s original stories from Warrior and then hired him to complete the story.  The character also got a new name to avoid litigation from Marvel Comics. He was now “Miracleman,” but in essence he was still the same Captain Marvel who debuted in 1941. Three new artists (Chuck Austen, Rick Veitch and John Totleben) were hired to complete the work. The story ran until issue #16.

1990: Writer Neil Gaiman started to write a new story arc for Eclipse after Moore’s departure but the company went bankrupt in 1994. But the fact is Moore’s arc is a complete story. There was no need to continue it. So even though Gaiman’s story ends on a cliffhanger, his run was poor and unnecessary compared to Moore’s with ugly artwork by Mark Buckingham. But it did link Gaiman to the character which lead to…

1996: Todd McFarlane purchased the rights to Eclipse Comics thinking that he would also be getting the rights to Miracleman. He thought wrong, but that didn’t stop him from putting the character in his Spawn comics and making the only Miracleman action figure (packaged with Spawn of course).

2001: Neil Gaiman formed a company, Marvels and Miracles LLC, solely to clear up the ownership of Miracleman long-term. In court it was discovered that McFarlane nor Eclipse Comics owned the rights to Marvelman, but they remained with his original British creator Mick Anglo.

2009: At the San Diego Comic Con Marvel Comics announced that they had purchased the rights to Miracleman/Marvelman from Mick Anglo. Since 2010 they have been reprinting classic ‘50s Marvelman stories as well as Alan Moore’s ‘80s run, with improved lettering and coloring. In a bizarre move Alan Moore requested that his name be removed from the reprints, citing a hatred of Marvel Comics over past slights. So if you buy a reprint now it says merely “The Original Writer.”

It is a shame as Moore deserves credit for what is perhaps the finest superhero story I have ever read, besides Batman Year One, The Dark Knight, and Watchmen. This story was an end of innocence for superheros and beginning of what was later called “The British Invasion” of American comics. It was the most adult superhero story that had been told up to that point, making Marvel’s stuff look like low brow kid’s stuff. Moore realized that Marvelman was aimed at young children and most of the old stories could not be seriously read by an adult. The storytelling was ridiculous and over the top, yet he didn’t want to start anew, he needed to acknowledge that history.

What he did was shear brilliance. Instead of being a little boy chosen by a magic wizard, Billy Batson (renamed Michael Moran) was a guinea pig in a government experiment to create a god-like soldier with alien technology. But it was realized that he was too powerful so he was kept unconscious with all of his memories of his ‘50s adventures being implanted by comic book reading scientists.

Moore picks it up in the ‘80s where Michael Moran has no memory of his time as Miracleman and is an out of shape 40-something reporter. While at a nuclear power plant on an assignment he sees the word “atomic” written backwards, he says it aloud “KIMOTA!” and he is transformed into the 20-something god-like being Miracleman once again.

In the first arc Moore shows what it would be like if Captain Marvel never said the word “Shazam!” again and also (through the sidekick Kid Miracleman) what it would be like if Captain Marvel stayed as his superhero form, never reverting back to Billy Batson for decades. He also graphically shows us what would happen if a man with the power of Shazam was chaotic evil instead of lawful good. Moore wanted to make his story as realistic as he possibly could and there was no editor to stop him as their would have been at DC Comics.

“There is a passion here, but not human passion. There is fierce and desperate emotion, but not an emotion that we would recognize… They are titans, and we will never understand the alien inferno that blazes in the furnace of their souls. We will never grasp their hopes, their despair, never comprehend the blistering rage that informs each devastating blow… We will never know the destiny that howls in their hearts, never know their pain, their love, their almost sexual hatred… And perhaps we will be the less for that.”   – Alan Moore, Miracleman Chapter 5

In other words, Miracleman is a god, just like Superman. For either of these beings to put on a tie and glasses and go to work like a normal human being is ridiculous. It doesn’t take long for Michael Moran to completely forget about his past life. He is not a man anymore. He has the power to make the world a better place and if it requires becoming dictator of Earth then he will do it. This is a comic book that rivals Herbert in it’s philosophy, science, and musings on the human condition.

It took me until Marvel finally secured the rights to be able to read it all because it’s been out of print for years. When it originally came out I was too young to read something this adult. Now was as good of a time as any because this story is timeless. The only thing I can complain about a bit is the art. As mentioned the best artists working at the time turned it down. Alan Moore was a nobody back then. Also the first series was drawn for black and white publication. Coloring work like that is kind of like coloring an old black and white film, it’s not the way it was meant to be seen by the people who created it. But that said, much of the artwork is beautifully detailed and elegantly arranged.

Despite the fact that there was a huge legal battle for the character, nothing has really been done with him since. He is just a carbon copy of DC’s Shazam and Marvel has their own female Captain Marvel now. But the main reason, I believe, is that Moore tied up his story. There was really no where to go from there. Gaiman’s issues that followed Moore’s read like an extended epilogue more than anything. Moore’s work reached such a grand height that it makes anything that will follow it seem like a step down.

5 Miracles Outta 5

Miracleman by Alex Ross

A Christmas Memory (1966) *****

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My Xmas movie this year was A Christmas Memory based on the short story by Truman Capote. It was first aired as a 1 hour TV movie on ABC in 1966 and is narrated by Capote himself.

I didn’t even know that this movie existed until I found out that one of my co-workers is also a Capote fan and he gave me a DVD of it. It is based on Capote’s own childhood, where his parents were usually absent and he ended up being raised by his cousins. In this case, a mentally immature cousin who is about 50 years his senior. Since they are both childlike they get along famously.

I don’t know for sure what it is about Capote’s writing but I started to well up with tears almost immediately. This story was published in the same volume as his more famous story “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” That story as well makes me strive to hold myself together for some reason. I think it’s the way Capote describes friendship and how fragile it can be. After all (like romantic relationships) every friendship will also end someday, one way or another. The narrator in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” actually has a platonic relationship with Holly Golightly in the book (as he is gay) so it’s a story of friends, not lovers, as portrayed in the film. A similar relationship exists in this movie. Buddy (a stand in for Capote) looks up to his older, wiser, more experienced female friend. But when he notices her defects and mental breakdowns he loses a part of his childhood innocence and is forced to grow up.

It’s an old TV movie so take that for what it is. My wife had a hard time getting into it for that reason. Perhaps because I am familiar with the source material, I liked it better than someone who is not. I watched the original black and white version, but it has since been colorized. Probably the only thing that has not aged so well are the sound effects and recorded dialogue. But the original music still sounds great.

I haven’t cried from a movie like this in a long time. I don’t know if that’s just me or not but if you are looking for a sentimental film to watch next December, you could do worse.

5 Paper Kites Outta 5

Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter by Michael Reaves ***

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Shadow Hunter is a prequel to The Phantom Menace and leads directly into the events of that film.

A Neimoidian from the Trade Federation has decided to betray Darth Sidious (Senator Palpatine) and sell some information about the plan to blockade Naboo. As someone in the underworld could profit handsomely from this knowledge, he escapes to the capital planet of Coruscant with a “holocron” a data crystal which becomes the MacGuffin of this tale. Sidious tasks his apprentice to retrieve it no matter the cost as the Neimoidian could spoil his delicate plans to overthrow the Republic and become Emperor.

Standing in Maul’s way is a Correllian scam artist named Lorn Pavan, his droid sidekick Eye-Five, and a Jedi Padawan named Darsha Assant. Pavan is a good character although he is too close to Han Solo in my opinion. The book itself has a problem with fan service, for instance Pavan manages to get himself frozen in carbonite, despite the fact that carbonite freezing was simply a part of Cloud City’s industrial infrastructure and Darth Vader was supposed to be the first person to try it out on a human being. Pavan uses it to escape Maul at one point in the book as he is a Sith and can detect life even if hidden. Being frozen means that Pavan was in suspended animation was able to avoid detection and escape.

The Padawan Darsha was not so lucky though as she is forced to take on Maul in a lightsaber duel. Her master already became a victim of Maul earlier in the book. It plays out a bit like Revenge of the Sith or Rogue One. The good guys fall like dominos to Maul’s double-blade. I really liked the character of Darsha because unlike the Mary Sue from the Disney sequels, she fucks up constantly. Her original mission that brings her in contact with Lorn Pavan is a complete failure. Her master has to come bail her out. So she is filled with insecurity and doubt, making her relatable. She knows that she cannot beat Darth Maul yet she has no choice but to bravely fight him anyways. How much more interesting would it have been if, even after his master is cut down, Obi-Wan still could not beat Maul in single combat and had make the most out of escaping to fight another day instead?

The book has the quality of a good horror story. It is a chase in which the heroes can only manage to stay a few steps ahead of Maul at any given moment. Not a lot of time is spent inside Maul’s head (he is portrayed almost like a Terminator) but when we learn his internal thoughts his philosophy seems to closely resemble that a of a samurai. What Maul detests most is an unworthy opponent. When he slices the head off of the rogue Neimoidian he feels a sense of disgust that his victim cowered and didn’t offer any defense. Although he hates the Jedi, he learns to respect them for their valiant but doomed defense.

I have checked out a few of the prequel books and this one is the best one I have read so far. It does help that I am a Darth Maul fan. He has the Vaderesque quality of being really scary but also really cool and intriguing. This is something that Count Dooku and General Grievous lack. Why George Lucas decided to have a new Vader for every prequel movie rather than letting it be Maul for all three, we will probably never know, but it was clearly a mistake. The fans wanted more Maul but never got him. So we read books like this instead.

If the novel didn’t have so much fan service and callbacks to the original trilogy I would rank it higher, but it’ still a very engaging, fast-paced story with tons of action. Some of the stuff that takes place in the lower depths of Coruscant’s slums was good old pulp adventure at it’s finest.

The cover art for this book was just a disappointing collage of movie stills. So instead I will post this amazing fan art of Maul’s final duel with Darsha Assant.

3 Lightsabers Outta 5

Solo – A Star Wars Story *

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I shouldn’t be surprised but this Disney Star Wars film managed to be even worse than I imagined. Just like the other three so far.

Lacking any originality, reason, or purpose this blundering borefest lasts almost two and a half hours. It’s difficult to finish in one sitting without wanting to punch yourself in the face. Speaking of faces, they cast a guy with a weird looking one to play Harrison Ford. He looks nothing like him, he acts nothing like him, and I didn’t think for one second they were the same guy. Chewie uses all of the recycled noises he made in previous films. He plays the exact same 3D chess game he played in Star Wars and The Force Awakens, and even the moves are exactly the same. You would think after 50 or so years he would get sick of it. Hmmm.

Donald Glover is good as Billy Dee. What a concept, get an actor who can actually ACT like the guy he’s playing! Woody Harrelson is just good ol’ Woody, but it was still nice to have another competent performance. Paul Bettany as the heavy is as good as you would expect a talented actor to be with a criminally lame script. Emilia Clarke is pretty much a non-character as the love interest. When she meets up with Han it is completely by coincidence, a common trope in Disney Star Wars films.

Speaking of love interest… sigh. This is the dreaded “SJW” part of the film. Lando’s “love” interest and co-pilot is a “female” droid. A droid that is really, really upset about “robot slavery.” The film fails to explain how a computer can be enslaved other than in some kind of metaphorical sense. The droids in Star Wars aren’t even very advanced machines. Nothing like the robots in The Matrix. Tape an iPhone to a Roomba and you pretty much have a droid. These things are tools, nothing more. They are given personalities to make them easier to use. Droids don’t actually have feelings, yet L3 is clearly in love with Lando and wants to fuck him. How it can fuck him without any sexual orifices is a mystery but the film makes a lame joke about it. Lando also clearly has feelings for it. I don’t get it. Why have a machine as a co-pilot? If that’s what he wanted to do then why not just plug it’s CPU into a USB port? Why would a computer need arms and legs to fly a ship? The droids in the Disney films, just like The Force and the Jedi, are completely different than in the original series. Those droids were built for very specialized tasks: protocol, interpreter, waiter, etc. But ones like L3 can do anything! Fight a war, have sex, fly a ship… who needs humans?

Nothing can be worse than The Last Jedi but this piece of crap is easily a worse film than Rogue One. Because Rogue One had 30 seconds of Vader slicing dudes in half. This has the Millennium Falcon being chased through an asteroid field to an oldie but goodie by John Williams called “The Asteroid Field.” Maybe I’m imagining it but I feel like I’ve seen that somewhere before. Hmmm. Yes, almost every beat and visual element in this film is a callback to something from the Star Wars Trilogy. I really did not expect it to be this bad, but Disney surprised me again. Just not in a good way.

Did I mention that it’s one of the most expensive films ever made? Even ILM seemed bored making this one.

1 Star War Outta 5

Peter The Great His Life and World by Robert K. Massie *****

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It is a dense read, slightly longer than King’s novel The Stand (and it took me most of the summer to get through) but I must say I was not bored or distracted reading this excellent and engaging biography.

Peter Romanov was Tsar of Russia (later upgraded to Emperor of All The Russias) from 1682-1725. It was equally a biography and a European history lesson for me.

The age of Louis XIV is in it’s twilight as the book begins and Russia is a not well-regarded backwater kingdom (or tsardom). Moscow or Moskovĭ was “Russia” at that time. Most Europeans referred to Russians as “Muscovites.” Massie starts off his book by describing the Muscovite/Russian character. They are not a conquering or aggressive people but rather a nation of defenders. Russia has been invaded constantly since the beginning from all directions. The fact that they are still a unified country after so many invasions, hardships, and wars proves one thing: Russians are tough motherfuckers.

Peter’s father, the Tsar Alexis, was not a bad tsar but he preferred to stay cloistered in the Kremlin and barely ever left it’s walls. But many of his policies, such as toleration of foreigners, set up the legendary reign and accomplishments of his famous son. When Peter was a child, the Streltsy, elite infantry troops with political power (think of the Nazi SS) rebelled and stormed the Kremlin. They did not like that Peter (who came from his father’s second marriage) was going to be the next tsar over his physically frail but older brother from his father’s first marriage. Peter witnessed them slaughter some of his beloved family members and he never forgot or forgave them. They would later pay for this uprising when his brother died and he became the sole autocrat… oh yes, they would pay dearly and gruesomely.

Peter could be both cruel and kind, which makes reading about his life quite interesting. Sometimes he would resemble his ancestor Ivan the Terrible, while other times he could be kind and just. He did altogether seem to be a rather logical king and his reasons for action or inaction were usually justified. But if anyone dared betray him, there would be no mercy. For example, he had is own unfortunate son and heir tortured to death. Because of this the title of Empress would go to his wife Catherine (who came from nothing) after his death.

The title “The Great” clearly implied that Peter did some things in his life. Some of them are:

– Built the first Russian Navy, literally from a single rotting boat.
– Founded the city of St. Petersburg, giving Russia it’s first warm water port and a new capital.
– Defeated Charles XII and Sweden in The Great Northern War.
– Lead a “Grand Embassy” to all of the major cities of Europe introducing Russians to Europe and Europeans to Russia.
– Reformed the Russian educational system and calender.
– Founded Russia’s first state newspaper.
– Created the flag of Russia (still used today).
– Organized the first standing army.
– Completely reorganized the government bureaucracy, removing automatic posts by blood and instead promoted people on merit. Many of his closest lieutenants and even his wife were originally common folk.
– Instituted tax reform to pay for his many projects and wars.

While he is regarded highly in Russia today he was not very popular with the people in his lifetime. His tax burden was so heavy than many peasants and nobles fled into Russia’s vast forests and frontiers never to be seen again. However, unlike our recent American administrations which are burdening future generations with outrageous debt, he paid for St. Petersburg and his many wars in full. He never had to borrow money from a foreign country or pay for any of it on credit. So the people of Peter’s time could take some pride in the fact that without them Russia would still be a backwater.

That is what is he is best known for, catapulting a medieval “oriental” country into a modern European one. Russia as a world power can be traced directly back to Peter’s reforms and forced Europeanization of his country. This is another reason why his overtly religious people thought he may be the antichrist. They didn’t like foreigners and their foreign customs.

The book reads like an exciting novel. The pace only slows when Massie leaves Peter and segways into the “World” in the title. It’s not just a book on Russian history but a book on every power in Europe around the year 1700. Louis XIV, William of Orange, Charles XII, Sultan Ahmet III… if you don’t know these names you will know them intimately by the end. The warrior king Charles XII of Sweden is an especially interesting character. Just as the Russian character was one of defense, that of Charles and Sweden was one of aggressive war and military conquest. Hard to imagine that with the Sweden we know today.

This is one of the best history books I have ever read. The fact that I was largely ignorant about Russian history did help me enjoy it more and much of the information was new to me. Highly recommended!

5 Tsars Outta 5

War Against the Mafia (1969) by Don Pendleton ****

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War Against the Mafia 
by Don Pendleton
First appearance of Mack Bolan

There are few pulp heroes to gain traction since the 1930’s. One of those few is “The Executioner” Mack Bolan. Not only did he appear thirty years after the heyday of pulps, he became the most successful character in the entire genre with 600 original novels and counting. Writer Don Pendleton thought that there was a gap in the marketplace for principled men of action. It was this same gap in Hollywood in the 1970’s that lead to the rise of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Men crave strong role models and Dustin Hoffman wasn’t it. Bolan was different than pulp heroes who came before. Characters like Doc Savage, who at least tried not to kill, and always stayed on the right side of the law. In War Against the Mafia Bolan pretty much breaks all the laws.

I don’t need to say much about the character Mack Bolan because he is Frank Castle for the most part. The only difference is that instead of his family being targeted directly by the mafia for termination, they die indirectly. The details are grim and I could see how that experience would make any man go insane with rage. Bolan even throws his military career away just to make them pay. But Bolan is a man of principles and mere revenge isn’t a very principled stance. He is killing the mob so that they can’t hurt anyone else again. He is not content killing the few who destroyed his family, no, he must kill them all. Going from city to city, leaving a trail of bloody bodies. The story isn’t enough for one novel and Bolan’s war with the mob is not concluded until book #38 Pendleton’s final Executioner story. The rest of the series would be written by ghostwriters. Pendleton (who died in the 1995) was a Robert Heinlein/Bob Howard kind of tough guy, the likes of which you don’t see too often anymore. But the Executioners legacy lives on and you can still find out what Mack is up to at your local book store… book store did I say book store? I mean Amazon.com.

Apparently Bradly Cooper has control of the rights to The Executioner and is finally developing a feature film about him.

4 Guns Blazing Outta 5

The Man of Bronze (1933) by Lester Dent ***

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The Man of Bronze
by Lester Dent
First appearance of Doc Savage

The Shadow became a huge hit for Street & Smith. They realized that there was great demand for exciting action/adventure heroes. They tasked Oklahoma pulp writer Lester Dent (forced to use the pen name Kenneth Robeson) with the job and Doc Savage Magazine was born. The first novel The Man of Bronze introduced Clark “Doc” Savage, the superhuman adventurer who would inspire nearly every comic book character of the Golden Age.

Unlike The Shadow, whose stories were about the realistic underworld of big city crime, Doc Savage used high tech inventions, futuristic vehicles, and unparalleled training to fight evil all over the world. He is referred to in the novel as being a “superman.” We have seen so many characters like Doc Savage in comics and films that it seems like old hat now, but in 1933 there was no Captain America or Wolverine, there was only Doc. The novel today is still very readable and fun. I think a younger person would really enjoy it. The plot has to do with an undiscovered valley in South America. Doc’s deceased famous father left clues for his son on how to get there, but an evil organization is trying to stop him. Doc dodges assassins throughout the book and then has to stop a civil war between warring factions of Mayans. As for the love of a beautiful Mayan princess, Doc will have none of it! His only love is for righting wrongs and high adventure. Doc’s companions just shake their heads, but will follow him to the grave if he asked them to.

Dent was not as talented a writer as Gibson, but what he lacked in prose, he made up for in imagination. Many action tropes can probably be attributed to him. Doc uses a fatal judo chop to the back of the neck which may be the first time that was used. One can see much of Bruce Wayne in Doc and is probably why Doc Savage comics never took off. The man in the batsuit beat him to it. Although popular in the 30’s after comic books surpassed pulps in the 40’s and 50’s Doc Savage faded into obscurity until the 60’s when his adventurers were reprinted in their entirety as paperback novels. It was the covers of these novels, painted by James Bama, that we got the well known look of Doc Savage with tattered shirt and exaggerated widow’s peak. The paperback run finally finished in 1990.

Shane Black will be directing a Doc Savage film starring The Rock as Clark Savage.

3 Pyramids of Mayan Gold Outta 5

The Living Shadow (1931) by Walter B. Gibson ***

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The Living Shadow
by Walter B. Gibson
First Appearance of The Shadow

Walter B. Gibson was a freelance reporter and crossword puzzle writer who got the break of a lifetime when he just happened to be at Street & Smith headquarters in NYC looking for reporting assignments. A radio drama called Detective Stories had an unnamed narrator who would close with the line “The Shadow knows!” and listeners wanted to know more about this narrator. Street & Smith decided to make a character out of him. Gibson was at the right place at the right moment and lobbied for the assignment. Three weeks later he had written the first Shadow novel The Living Shadow where he introduced the titular character as well as supporting characters who would appear in hundreds of novels to come. To Gibson’s dismay Street & Smith insisted he use a pen name “Maxwell Grant” in case they used fill-in writers. Of the 336 Shadow novels, only 53 were penned by someone other than Gibson. He wrote more stories about a single character than anyone else in history, including comic book writers. Gibson was a writing machine and has the world’s record for the most published words in one year, 1,680,000. He made L. Ron Hubbard look slow by comparison. He wrote two novel length Shadow stories every month and usually delivered them a week before his deadline. Gibson also wrote over a 100 books about magic.

The Living Shadow is the most reprinted Shadow adventure, not because it is the best but merely because it was the first. The Shadow barely appears and is more of a string puller, a mysterious presence, directing the action of the plot. The hero of the novel is actually Harry Vincent, one of the Shadow’s agents. We get to see the underworld of The Shadow and New York City uncovered by Vincent as he becomes more deeply involved in The Shadow’s plans. Fans of the hit radio show may be surprised to learn that The Shadow of the pulps was not the same character from the show. Lamont Cranston is not his real name is just another one of his disguises. Nobody knows who The Shadow really is. Readers would later find out that his real name is Kent Allard, WWI fighter ace turned spy. Margot Lane was also a radio invention.

The novel begins strong as Harry Vincent dives into a great mystery. However near the middle I became a bit lost as nobody but The Shadow knows what is really going on. It is not until the last chapter that we find out it was all about an over-complicated gem robbery. Street & Smith asked Gibson to set the story in Chinatown so they could reuse some artwork from a previous story. It would end up having a big impact on the character as even The Shadow film from 1994 featured a Mongolian villain. As this was written in the 30’s there is some dated slang and references. The word “chink” is used perhaps twenty times, which would be taboo now. Overall it was a decent mystery, but was merely a first chapter in an on-going saga of crime.

3 Crimelords Outta 5

Last and First Men (1930) by Olaf Stapleton ***

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Last and First Men is probably the most unique sf novel I have ever read. Conceived as a future history of humanity the novel features almost no individual characters, no three act structure, and little dialogue. The basic concept is that a highly evolved human being 2 billion years in the future is sending a message back in time to us, the first humans in the 1920s (when the book was written). What he tells us is the history of our species for the next 2 billion years. In that time homo sapiens eventually go extinct but not before a new species of human evolves or is created. In all of the millions of years to come 18 distinct species carry on the human “career.” Some modern critics believe one should start with Chapter 4 and skip Stapleton’s speculation about the 20th and 21st centuries but I found those early chapters to be very interesting. As this was written before 1933 Stapleton would have had no idea about the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Therefore, he thought that it would be Italy who would start World War II. It’s an interesting historical artifact to read what an educated Brit thought the world was becoming before the actual WWII changed everything.

Stapleton still got many things right. The world eventually moves towards a one-world-government, nuclear war is a real threat to all life on Earth, and humans of this age are too stupid and irresponsible to exist with such high technology. We destroy ourselves. Out of the ashes come two new species. One that is more intelligent and has larger a brain than us and one that reverts back to Neanderthal savagery. The Second Men eventually fight a brutal war with Mars. The Martians in this book are unlike any alien I have ever read about but they are clearly inspired by H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds. They are in fact so alien that the humans don’t even realize that they are being attacked from another planet but believe it is some kind of Earth born plague at first. I can see why so many have lauded Stapleton’s vivid imagination. He seemed like an interesting man. He wrote books about philosophy before being inspired by Wells to write scientifiction (as it was then called).

The only complaint I have about this bizarre yet fascinating book is that it’s too long. I thought it would be over by the evolution of the Fifth Men, but no, it goes on for another 1.5 billion years until the 18th Men are living on Neptune. Obviously Stapleton’s knowledge of the outer solar system was only as good as the scientific data of the day. Pluto was discovered the year this book was first published. None of Stapleton’s works, even his more traditional narrative novels, have been adapted into films or TV series so he is not well read these days. However his influence on sf writers who came later was huge. Of Last and First Men Arthur C. Clarke said this: “No other book had a greater influence on my life.” H.P. Lovecraft was also fan: “Last and First Men—a volume which to my mind forms the greatest of all achievements in the field that Master Ackerman would denominate ‘scientifiction.’ Its scope is dizzying—and despite a somewhat disproportionate acceleration of the tempo toward the end, and a few scientific inferences which might legitimately be challenged, it remains a thing of unparalleled power. It has the truly basic quality of a myth, and some of the episodes are of matchless poignancy and dramatic intensity.”

In the final summation it’s a unique work of imagination and speculation. It really gets the creative juices flowing and is not like anything else I have ever read. It can be challenging or even boring to read as the human race itself is the main character but I’m still glad to have read it. The influence of the book is obvious. Frank Herbert probably read it as the idea of ancestral memories brought out by the Water of Life is similar to a concept in this book. Also Herbert’s scope of time in the Dune series seems familiar to Stapleton’s idea of history repeating itself. There are so many concepts in this book that were never thought of previously. I disagree with many of Stapleton’s conjectures (such as religion still being a thing millions of years in the future) but his ideas are different and probably plausible.

So it’s really a novel for the true science fiction fan who wants to read something different, something that is more famous for it’s influence, but I would call it a good experience in the end.

3 epochs outta 5

Last and First Men is in the public domain.

2018 Oscar Round-up

Posted by Crow on
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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The billboards in the title say this:

Frances McDormand (famous for Fargo and pretty much nothing else) is the mother of a murdered daughter and uses her life savings to rent the billboards to light a fire under the cops. The DNA from the rape kit matches no known felon, there were no witnesses, and no suspects. It happens. But the angry mother must blame someone. She could blame herself as she is the one who brought a victim into the world.

Woody Harrelson is Chief Willoughby. A character who immediately is sympathetic once you realize he did everything he could to solve the crime. Oh he also has terminal cancer. The shitier cop is played by Sam Rockwell and he really is the star of the movie, as he is the only character who changes. But even though he goes from criminal assault to actually trying to do his job, I never felt any sympathy for him. Primarily because this film is just so badly written. I wouldn’t think that even a first year film student could write something so illogical and nonsensical.

McDormand’s character lights the police hq on fire, is not arrested or charged with any crime despite the fact that Rockwell is seriously burned. This director really doesn’t understand how the law works. Rockwell is sitting in the police station (but with earphones on!) yet he doesn’t notice the raging inferno around him. Maybe the fact that the room he is in is getting brighter and brighter would tip him off? The Rockwell cop character also beats an innocent man nearly to death and throws him out of a window in broad daylight right in front of his new captain and about 20 witnesses. He loses his job but is not arrested or charged with any crime. Is Ebbing, Missouri a town that’s in a state of anarchy or what?

This movie sucked.

2 stars outta 5

Best actress Frances McDormand
Best actor in a supporting role Woody Harrelson
Best actor in a supporting role Sam Rockwell

Lady Bird

This is another one of those identity politics movies that gets nominated for awards even though it’s nothing more than an after school special. But it’s got gay dudes, token minorities, fat acceptance, 9/11 references, girl power… it’s got all of that shit. It’s supposedly a coming of age story but the main character played by Saoirse Ronan learns nothing by the end and simply returns to being the exact same person she was before the movie started. It’s the story of a really lame rebellion phase. It’s also supposed to be a comedy but I didn’t laugh once. It’s boring, it’s set in 2002 for no reason, and nothing happens.

This movie super sucked.

1 star

So naturally it is nominated for …
Best Picture
Best director Greta Gerwig
Best actress Saoirse Ronan
Best supporting actress Laurie Metcalf

I, Tonya

Finally a watchable movie. It does help that I am a fan of ladies figure skating. I watched the entire 4 hour version of the free skate this Olympics, but not on NBC of course. They decided to show boring bobsledding and skiing instead. How many times can you watch someone slide down a hill before you get bored to death? But I digress. The figure skating in this movie is a special effect of course as Margot Robbie is no Olympic figure skater. She is also wildly miscast and looks nothing like Tanya Harding. The fact that Harding is frumpy white trash is a big part of her character arc so casting a stick-thin Australian fox seems misguided. Maybe she lobbied for the part… who knows, but it doesn’t work.

The skating scenes are still very well done as the camera gets the viewer right on the ice with her. The only problems come up when Robbie’s face has to be digitally placed on top of the face of the double. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it just looks uncanny. The way to go for this movie would have been to cast a real ice skater and just cast better known actors around her in supporting roles. The movie also strangely views Harding as a victim, as if she had no idea that her husband was going to have her rival Nancy Kerrigan attacked. But still this biopic was better than most of the other crap getting nominated for awards  this year.

3 stars

Best actress Margot Robbie
Best supporting actress Allison Janney

The Post

While perhaps a bit too long, this is heads above that other newspaper movie Spotlight that undeservedly won Best Picture in 2016. It would be quite a feat if this movie was bad considering the talent involved. Spielberg and Hanks shine as usual with beautiful lighting courtesy of Janusz Kaminski. The plot of course covers the famous Pentagon Papers which showed that the government knew the US was losing in Vietnam but kept sending conscripted teenagers to die anyways. The Washington Post thought that publishing the classified papers could potentially ruin the paper but in the end it resulted in a sales boom. Honestly my favorite part about it was just seeing how news was printed and consumed in ancient times.

3 stars

Best Picture
Best actress Meryl Streep