Friday, December 21, 2018

Not Your Father’s Aquaman

by Michael Isenberg.

Aquaman has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of the DC universe. He gets no respect. Born to the Queen of Atlantis, saddled with the very un-superhero-like name of “Arthur,” and raised by his human lighthouse keeper father, the goofy-looking Marine Marvel is the butt of numerous “You’re more useless than Aquaman” jokes on Family Guy, the gist of which is that the power to get fish to do stuff has little practical value.

Then in 2016, in the otherwise disastrous Batman v. Superman, we got a brief glimpse of a different Aquaman. Played by Jason Momoa (known to Game of Throne fans for his role as Khal Drogo), this buff, bearded version of the Dweller-in-the-Depths looked kind of rad.

We saw more of him last year in Justice League and discovered he’s hard-drinking and has a sense of humor. “Dress like a bat. You’re out of your mind, Bruce Wayne.” Kind of an aquatic Wolverine.

But it wasn’t until a scene early in the new Aquaman movie, which opens today across the nation, that I was truly convinced: this is not your father’s Aquaman.

It’s a fight scene, Aquaman against the father-and-son pirate team of Jesse and David Kane, aka Manta. The Kanes are attempting to steal a Russian submarine. They’ve killed the captain and many of the crew; the survivors are holed up in the torpedo room, neutralized. Aquaman bursts through a hatch, and after a quip (“Permission to come aboard”) proceeds to take the Kanes and their henchmen apart. The action ends with the crew safely evacuated and Daddy Kane trapped under a missile as water floods the compartment. “Wait!” Manta yells to Aquaman. “You can’t leave him here. Help me! Please!”

We’ve seen the scenario a million times, and the hero always rescues the trapped villain, who really doesn’t deserve it. But not this time. “Ask the sea for mercy,” Aquaman tells him. And then he leaves.

Totally. Bad. Ass.

The theft of the submarine is just the first step in a scheme by Aquaman’s half-brother, Orm, monarch of one of the seven Atlantean kingdoms. I wasn’t really sure which one; the politics of Atlantis are intricate and confusing. A clunky exposition scene tries to explain it all, but it doesn’t help much. I was reminded of the Star Wars prequels’ debates over the taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems. I’m not even sure if there really are seven kingdoms. I think some are extinct. Anyway, Orm plans to use the submarine in a false flag attack to unite however many kingdoms there are for a war against the surface dwellers. Because pollution of the oceans or something. Fortunately for him, Aquaman just abandons the still-functioning submarine after he defeats the pirates. The Russian Navy, inexplicably, makes no attempt to salvage it, thereby allowing Orm to just take it and make the movie happen.

In any case, not all Atlanteans are arming for war. The beautiful redhead Mera, daughter of the King of…one of the kingdoms, seeks out Aquaman and accosts him with a Call to Adventure: she begs him to come to Atlantis, challenge his brother for the throne, and thereby stop the war. True to the Hero’s Journey, Aquaman initially refuses. Not my circus, not my monkeys. But events conspire against him and before long he is under the sea, threatening Orm with an “ass-whooping.”

DC movies since 2005’s Batman Begins have a reputation for being grim. It even inspired a joke in rival Marvel’s Deadpool 2, in which Deadpool says to the straitlaced Cable, “You're so dark. Are you sure you're not from the DC universe?” But Aquaman has a different feel to it. Part of it is that, starting with last year’s Wonder Woman, DC is finally putting humor into its movies. For example, in one scene, Mera impulsively jumps out of an airplane—without a parachute. Seeing the shocked look of the pilot, Aquaman says, “Redheads, you gotta love them.”

But it’s not just the one-liners. Aquaman has a very different visual feel from previous entries in the DC Extended Universe. Instead of the grimy, hyper-realistic, claustrophobic urban setting of Gotham, we’re out in the open, in the vast spaces on the ocean surface—and beneath. The colors are bright. We even spend some time in a cheerful Mediterranean seaside village. The underwater CGI seascapes really dazzle.

But sadly, despite a very likable and kick-ass Aquaman, some funny one-liners, and stunning visuals, this movie isn’t that great. It's not terrible, there's no "Martha" moment. Just not great. The problem is the script. It just fails to sparkle in so many ways. I already mentioned the ponderous exposition and the plot hole concerning the submarine. The dialog is not up to par. What’s supposed to pass as witty, romantically-charged banter between Aquaman and Mera frequently falls flat. And once it is set into motion, the plot is entirely predictable. There is only one twist to speak of, and I saw it coming a mile away. I even knew exactly what the last scene was going to be long before the end.

Still, I hope Aquaman does well at the box office. Now that Jason Momoa has given the character a much-needed makeover, I’m eager to see him back in a better movie.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Magnificent Six

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse.
Movie Review by Michael Isenberg.

Regular readers of this blog already know that the Peter Parker we all know and love is not the only Spider-man. Through the years, many others have worn the mask. Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse, opening in theaters today, asks “What if a half dozen of these web-slingers joined forces?”

The pretext for this team up, in classic comic book fashion, is a lab experiment gone wrong. Wilson Fisk—the Kingpin—has lost his wife Vanessa and their son Richard in a car accident which he had some responsibility for. Desperate to see them one more time, the grieving Fisk builds a “supercollider” to open portals between dimensions in the hopes of finding their counterparts in parallel universes. But it’s a dangerous machine—every time he operates it, earthquakes shake New York; if he continues, the whole city is likely to collapse.

Determined to stop the Kingpin is the Spider-man from this universe, Miles Morales, a Banksy wanna-be whose 2011 comic book debut was controversial because of his Afro-Caribbean-American ancestry. As Nerds who Read Contributing Reviewer Kerey McKenna pointed out, much of the controversy came from culture warriors who never read a comic book. Miles just wants to fit in at his straitlaced new school—a magnet school for the gifted—develop his artistic talent, and not be embarrassed by his cop dad. He never asked to be bitten by a glowing spider—I think it was robotic—and bear the great power—and great responsibility—of a super-hero.

Miles is joined by five other Spider-men Spider-persons Spider-creatures who were sucked through the interdimensional portals:

  • An older Peter Parker, Peter B. Parker, sadder, but not yet wiser,
  • Gwen Stacy (Spider-Gwen), the new girl in school, the only one of Miles’s classmates to appreciate his humor,
  • from the 1930s, the hard-boiled Spider-man Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage, BTW),
  • the anime cutie, Peni Parker,
  • and strangest of all, Peter Porker, aka Spider-ham, who first appeared in 1983’s Marvel Tails alongside Hulk Bunny, Goose Rider, and Captain Americat. Yes, there was a spider-pig decades before Homer Simpson got pig tracks on the ceiling.

    Together they must defeat the Kingpin while completing the seemingly conflicting tasks of getting everyone back to their own corners of the multiverse and shutting down the supercollider for good.

    The artistic team combined multiple animation styles appropriate to the various characters. Then they added the handmade, colorful graffiti style of Miles’s urban neighborhood to the mix. The combined effect is visually stunning.

    The movie delivers plenty of the trademark humor and one-liners we’ve come to expect from Marvel Studios. As with last year’s Lego Batman Movie, all the characters’ past incarnations are “real,” even when they’re an embarrassment.


    We don’t talk about this.

    And channeling Deadpool 2, there’s an end credits scene worth waiting for in which Spider-man travels back in time to confront one of those earlier incarnations.

    It isn’t all fun and games, however. When I saw it, a solemn hush fell over the theater during the Stan Lee cameo, the first since his death last month. Very sad.

    Much as I like this movie, I have to concede it drags in places. The special effects of the supercollider are overdone and go on too long. Because it doubles as an origin story for Miles Morales, this Spider-man movie takes a while to start Spider-manning. And it faces the same problem as Suicide Squad in that it needs to introduce a large number of characters that most of the public (unlike fans of Nerds who Read) aren’t familiar with.

    As is often the case with ensemble casts, some of the characters get short shrift. I would have liked to see more of Spider-man Noir, thanks to Kerey’s recent review of that character. Peni Parker, sadly, gets hardly any screen time at all. And Kingpin does little more than show up, look menacing, and sometimes beat people to death. The Vanessa/Richard back story is told in a very brief flashback. This is quite a contrast to Netflix’s Daredevil, where the complexity of his character, especially his seemingly out-of-character devotion to Vanessa, is the dramatic linchpin of the series. I would have liked to see that developed in Into the Spider-verse as well.

    Still, it says something that my biggest complaint about a movie is I didn’t get enough of some things. Overall, Into the Spider-verse is immensely funny and hugely entertaining, in my opinion the best movie of the Christmas season (so far, at least). Go see it.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com
  • Wednesday, December 12, 2018

    Urb-ivores

    The Mortal Engines Quartet by Philip Reeve. Audiobooks narrated by Barnaby Edwards.
    Book review by Kerey McKenna.

    “It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.”

    It starts with one of the most intriguing opening lines in science fiction fantasy. The Predator Cities Series—also called The Mortal Engines Quartet after the first book—is a saga that always seems in motion with grand oversized set pieces.

    The world of the Mortal Engines is a bizarre post-apocalypse filled with high swashbuckling adventure. Millennia after futuristic doomsday weapons unleashed massive cataclysms on the Earth in “The 60 Minute War,” the remnants of humanity occupy a mere fraction of their former territory. China and North America are still radioactive wastelands, oceans have risen and fallen, and the earth shakes with new seismic activity. One way communities of survivors adapted to this new hostile planet was to become mobile. Using salvaged technology, cities that survived the initial Armageddon were jury-rigged into giant vehicles. Not just vehicles that are the size of cities, but vehicles with salvaged monuments, buildings, and streets that give these cities continuity with their pre-war progenitors. For example the first and oldest mobile city, London, is topped with the iconic Saint Paul’s Cathedral. These mobile or “traction cities” trundle along land on giant caterpillar treads, skate across the thick arctic ice, or float on the oceans. However some towns turned predatory. Not content to gather and cultivate resources where they could be found, large cities like Paris, Arkangel, and London took to gobbling up smaller, weaker cities and towns, chasing them down to claim their resources, technology, and people. And the towns are quite literally gobbled up, through large mechanical “jaws” that scoop them up into a salvage yard. As the system mimics many biological phenomena, the thinkers of the great predatory cities dub this system “Municipal Darwinism” and claim that this “city eat city world” is the “great game of civilizations” distilled to its most logical and noble form.

    However, to paraphrase another great tribal leader who once resided in ancient London, “The problem with gobbling up other peoples’ cities is that eventually you run out of other peoples’ cities.” With prey running short, the great predator City of London turns its hungry eyes to the Static Cities of Central Asia, a civilization of non-mobile settlements long thought safe from the predator cities due to geography and massive fortifications.

    Tom Natsworthy, an awkward orphan boy of fifteen in London’s historians’ guild (who might as well have a neon sign above him blinking “Due for a Hero’s Journey”) unwittingly gets in the way of London’s machinations to reach more prey. After Tom “sees too much,” he is cast out of the mobile city of London and into the wilderness and must survive with the mysterious Hester Shaw, a girl about his age, with a disfigured face and a vendetta against one of London’s most prominent citizens. Together, Tom, Hester, and other youths in London will discover London’s plans to break into the untapped frontier of Asia and how London’s hunger could bring new disasters to the planet. In the first book, the heroes— and the reader—will meet scoundrels, scavengers, spies, and ancient cyborg super soldiers and will travel through the mobile city of London with its literally vertical society, dangerous wildernesses where pirate suburbs roam, and the amazing floating city of Air Haven.

    The Mortal Engines Quartet (Mortal Engines, Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices, and A Darkling Plain—a fifth book, Night Flights contains three short stories) are compelling adventures through a bizarre post-apocalypse, written for a young adult audience but certainly enjoyable for almost anyone. I say written for a young adult audience because of the ages of the principal protagonists in the first two books (and a good portion of the protagonists in the ensemble casts of the third and final installments), and the third person near-omniscient narration that can make the elaborate agendas and conflicts of the latter half of the quartet a lot easier to follow.

    Mortal Engines is also another young adult sci-fi fantasy series that the Hollywood machine has gobbled up in hopes of making a multi-media franchise, with the first installment landing in cinemas this weekend.

    I had read the first book in the series some time ago but with the movie coming out I wanted to catch up so I downloaded the audio adaptations, all narrated by Barnaby Edwards. Revisiting and catching up to the series, I was pleasantly surprised to see that while I could understand why Hollywood would bet on this as the next big YA blockbuster adaptation, the books themselves won’t lend themselves to being as predictable or bound to a formula as other YA franchises. There is no magical school that the characters must return to every year or singular villain behind every unfortunate event that befalls the heroes. Like one of the bonkers roving cities, the quartet stacks up machinations and history into a contraption that is always moving.

    I haven’t seen the film adaptation, but the prospect that they have translated the spirit of the books and realized some of the grand characters and set pieces of this world makes me eager to catch the movie when it rolls into town.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

    Friday, November 30, 2018

    Like a Punch in the Gut

    The Yankee Club (Jake & Laura Mystery Book 1) by Michael Murphy.
    Book Review by Michael Isenberg.

    We wrap up Noir November with a hardboiled detective drama set against the background of the Great Depression. Michael Murphy’s The Yankee Club is the epitome of noir.

    Novelist and former shamus Jake Donovan (not to be confused with Showtime’s Ray Donovan) skipped town when his childhood sweetheart and the love of his life, Broadway Star Laura Wilson, rejected his umpteenth proposal to get hitched. But after two years in Florida, he’s back in New York City and reconnecting with old friends. They’re a rogues' gallery of 1930’s archetypes. There's Mickey O’Brien, Donovan’s hard-drinking former partner, now flying solo in the private eye business; Danny, the bouncer at the Yankee Club speakeasy, who can’t get over that Donovan stole his bike when they were kids; Gino, Danny’s boss, a tough as nails Italian-American who doesn’t take guff from anyone—except his mother. Then there’s Laura herself, whose first appearance is described in true Raymond Chandler-style: “A woman stood in the doorway, her face hidden in the shadows…her white chiffon dress was backlit by the bright lights above the nurse’s station. I recognized her long shapely legs even before her face came into focus.” (Sadly, these Chandleresque passages get fewer and farther between as the novel progresses).

    Alas, some of these reunions play out like a punch in the gut. Laura is engaged now, to one Spencer Dalrymple the Third. “You know, the Long Island Dalrymples.” Donovan is floored. “The Laura I knew used to make fun of stuffed shirts like Dalrymple.” As for Mickey, he and Donovan step out for some air and Mickey is promptly gunned down. His dying words are a cryptic plea, “The key…it’s…in the ashtray.”

    When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it, and that’s what Donovan does. He owes it to Mickey. He finds the key in the ashtray. It leads him to a bus station storage locker with a bunch of newspaper clippings inside. Some of the articles are about Giuseppe Zangara, the real-life bricklayer who had recently been executed following his unsuccessful attempt to assassinate then-president-elect Franklin Roosevelt (Zangara will be familiar to fans of Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle. In that alternate history, Zangara succeeds at killing Roosevelt, the point of divergence which sets in motion a chain of events that lead to an Axis victory in World War II). But Zangara is not the only subject of the news reports in Mickey’s stash. Another article concerns a cabal of anti-New Deal bankers known as the Golden Legion, led by, of all people, Spencer Dalrymple the Third.

    Were Dalrymple and the Golden Legion somehow connected to the unsuccessful attempt on the life of Franklin Roosevelt—and the successful one on Mickey O’Brien? Donovan soon finds himself enmeshed in a sinister conspiracy with America itself as the stakes. Along the way he encounters Nazi diplomats, fascist thugs, a hooker with a heart of gold, corrupt cops who want to pin the murder on him, and scores of Depression-era celebrities. The cameos reminded me of a similar device in Brad Linaweaver and J. Kent Hastings’s Anarquía, albeit the celebrities in Murphy’s love letter to the New Deal tend to lean farther left politically than those in Linaweaver and Hastings’s libertarian utopia. They include Dashiell Hammett, Ethel Merman, Babe Ruth, and Joseph Kennedy (who’s been whitewashed of his real-life anti-Semitic and pro-fascist sympathies). Donovan is on the spot when Lillian Hellman realizes The Children’s Hour would be a far more interesting play with same-sex protagonists; he’s also there when someone tells Cole Porter, “In the old days, just a glimpse of stocking was, you know, shocking.”

    No doubt about it, The Yankee Club is fun. Well-researched too. I knew about the Depression-era shantytowns called Hoovervilles from my high school American history class. I didn’t know until I read The Yankee Club that there was one in Central Park.

    As a mystery, however, The Yankee Club leaves something to be desired. The villains’ plot was ridiculous; there was no way it could possibly work. Also, it wasn’t hard to figure out the identity of the mastermind behind it: there was only one suspect. Further, Donovan wasn’t all that instrumental in uncovering it. It turns out there was a secret service agent, Landon Stoddard, who had been working with Mickey before Donovan arrived on the scene. Although Donovan uncovered a few key details, much of his work went into uncovering things Stoddard already knew. Donovan could have stayed in Florida, washing his fedora, and Stoddard would have gotten along fine.

    At some point, I’ll probably check out the sequels to the Yankee Club: All That Glitters, Wings in the Dark, and The Big Brush-off. I do like the characters and the overall atmospherics. Combined with the right storyline, the Jake and Laura series would really have something.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

    Photo credit(s): Amazon

    Tuesday, November 27, 2018

    Not-so-friendly Neighborhood Spider-man

    Spider-man Noir. Written by David Hine and Fabrice Sapolsky. Illustrated by Carmine Di Giandomenico.
    Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna.

    As I discussed back in my Luke Cage Noir review, back in 2009-2010 Marvel Comics did a little experiment in genre by publishing short runs of comics re-contextualizing their superhero characters with noir aesthetics and sensibilities. They’re among my favorite kinds of superhero stories, the kind where a creative team takes a familiar hero and their supporting cast of friends and enemies and re-interprets them through different genre aesthetics and conventions. While many of the stories, such as Luke Cage, de-emphasized the fantastical elements of the characters, other stories kept the amazing aspects but ran things through a noir lens. One such tale was Spider-man Noir.

    The reader is introduced to this new version of the web-slinger in media res as police bust down the door of 1930’s newspaper man J. Jonah Jameson, apparently gunned down by a figure clad all in black, his face behind a mask that betrays no emotion.

    Escaping the scene by shooting webs and leaping out the window, this dark Spider-man may be a menace, or merely caught in a frame up.

    Winding things back to before the murder, the story is narrated by Ben Urich, crime reporter for the Daily Bugle in the harsh winter of 1932-1933. Ben is jaded and cynical; he would tell you his odds of dying from either the mob or the bottle are 50/50.

    The trope of the hardboiled reporter has its origins in the 1930s, so Ben fits right in. But working web-slinging vigilantes or monstrous creatures like the Green Goblin into the story is a tougher sell, no matter how many fedoras you stick characters under. Unless you strain genre conventions a bit and go into the realm of Dieselpunk.

    Yes, this Noir November I did want to get in a mention of Dieselpunk, a genre that is a form of retro futurism like my beloved steampunk. Just as Steampunk is retro-futurist Sci-Fi Fantasy sub-genre that takes its cues from the steam-powered technology of the Victorian era, so Dieselpunk gets its cues from the 1920’s to early 1950’s. Its heroes are pulp adventurers and grizzled detectives; the villains are mad scientists, gangsters, fascists, and Lovecraftian horrors. It’s a natural fit for most superheroes and is a good way to return to the early pulp roots of the genre like the Shadow or the Phantom.

    Through the magic of Dieselpunk, the Green Goblin can be transplanted to the Great Depression—in the form of a gangster, Norman “the Goblin” Osborn. Not only is Osborn protected from prosecution by keeping all the right palms greased, he has a team of freakish bodyguards recruited from circus acts. Those who get in his way, like social reformer Ben Parker, are rubbed out. With the murder unprosecuted, Parker’s nephew Peter wants to become a reporter who can expose mafia bosses like Goblin. In a rare moments of optimism, Urich takes the teenage Peter under his wing as an apprentice.

    One fateful night, while tailing the Goblin’s crew trying to catch them smuggling stolen artifacts, he has an encounter with the totem of a terrifying spider trickster god. The deity bestows “The Curse of Power” upon the young man, granting him the familiar abilities of strength, agility, spider-sense and web spinning. Donning a less familiar all-black costume, a trench coat, and his Uncle’s old service revolver from the Great War, Peter embarks on a campaign of vengeance against the Goblin and his freakish cohorts.

    Unlike the Spider-man we know and love, this dark Spider-man’s desires for vengeance against criminals is not tempered by a chance of fate making him partially responsible for his own uncle’s death. This is a Peter Parker and a Spider-man of a much bleaker world. In a game of mobsters and monsters where the enemy is playing for keeps, Peter will have to decide how far he is willing to go to get revenge.

    This noir version of Spider-man has been the only character of the Marvel Noir project that has been revisited, not only in comics, but also in video games, TV, and coming next month, film. Nicholas Cage will voice Spider-man Noir in Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse. Multiple web slingers from multiple parallel dimensions will team up to solve an interdimensional emergency. I covered two of these Spider-people—Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy—in my Climbing the Walls: Other Web Slingers of Marvel last year, so it seemed only fitting to give a shout out to Spider-man Noir before the big screen debut. Despite possibly being the most grim and dour take on the usually friendly neighborhood Spider-man, in his short existence he’s brought joy to a lot of fans, myself included.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

    Monday, November 26, 2018

    Pulp Fiction on Pulp Paper

    The Jack & Maggie Starr Series: A Killing in Comics, Strip for Murder, and Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins. Illustrations by Terry Beatty.
    Book Review by Kerey McKenna.

    I am talking about funny books, kids.

    The most popular entertainment medium of all here in 1954. My city boasts twenty comics publishers putting out 600-some titles every month, selling eighty to one hundred million copies a week, reaching an audience larger than movies, TV, radio and magazines combined (they figure a comic book gets passed around or traded to six or more readers). It’s an industry employing a thousand-plus writers, artists, editors, letterers and assorted spear carriers...It’s a form of story-telling that arrays newsstands with superhero fantasy and talking ducks, through those are outnumbered of late by monsters both supernatural and humans, as well as cowboys and Indians, romance and war, and science fiction...The chief audience is kids but grown-ups indulge too, especially veterans who learned to read portable funny books, bought at the PX, in the Second World War and more recently in Korea….

    What’s important for you to keep in mind is how big, how popular the comic book industry is right now.

    And how everybody and your Uncle Charlie wants to kill it.

    What the hell...every murder mystery needs a victim…”

    –Jack Starr

    In this entry for Noir November let’s take a look at the Jack & Maggie Starr Series, historical fiction novels, written in the pulp mystery tradition that explore the formative years of the American Comic Book industry. Who better to tell a Noir style story in that time than Max Allan Collins, who twice won the Shamus Award for excellent writing in the P.I. mystery sub-genre, and has written prose novels, graphic novels, and comic books. His historical fiction gangster comic series Road to Perdition later adapted into the beloved Tom Hanks movie of the same name.

    Today much of comics IP is held by the monolithic “Big Two Publishers” who are themselves divisions of two rival large multimedia empires. On the whole comic books are now sold to “the collector’s market” of invested (adult) fans buying directly online or at specialty comic book stores. This is in stark contrast to the so called Golden Age, a wild and woolly time for the nascent comics publishing industry. Focused primarily in New York City, with a mob of small publishers fighting for space on the newsstands for an audience of primarily children, teenagers, and the emerging counterculture. The men and women of the early comic book industry managed to make a place for themselves at the end of the Dirty 30’s, fight through the war years, and arrive in the 1950’s to get their shot at post-war American prosperity. Assuming that they didn’t find themselves censored, swindled out of their royalties...or dead.

    In a New York City filled with colorful characters, both in and out of the funny pages, is Jack Starr, a tall, handsome and square jawed former Army MP and very specialized detective. He only investigates one type of crime and works for only one client: Jack investigates crimes related to comic books and the funny pages. His only client is his late father’s company, the Starr Syndicate, one of the outfits that licenses characters from comic books to newspapers to be published as comic strips. Jack is a “troubleshooter” for the syndicate. Attached as they are to the august institution of newspapers, the syndicate wants to avoid or manage scandals that would damage the wholesome image of the superheroes and cartoon animals that they sell to newspapers around the country. In addition to fearing loss in sales, the Starr Syndicate has good reason to avoid close public scrutiny. The basis of their empire of family friendly characters used to be printing race forms and “art books” (wink wink nudge nudge, know what I mean). Despite a shift to more wholesome fare in the 20’s, Mafia families bought shares of competing publishing syndicates and later comic book publishers. In addition to getting a piece of the action of sales, during Prohibition they insisted that the lumber used to print material in dry NYC be shipped on big trucks and imported from wet Canada.

    Usually Jack’s job is fairly simple: running background checks on new employees, leaning on artists who fall behind on their deadlines, and trying not to get distracted by his knockout of a boss Maggie Starr, his stepmother and father’s widow. Only five years Jack’s senior, Maggie is a former striptease artist who inherited the majority of her late husband’s comic strip empire. Not ashamed of her past, and having a keen mind for business, Maggie even became a restaurateur, opening the “Strip Joint,” an upscale Manhattan Steakhouse where patrons dine on strip steak, surrounded by wall art from famous comic strips and waited on staff that are clearly part time or former...well you get the idea.

    When their industry threatens to get ink in the crime blotter instead of the funny pages, like the murders of a publishing magnate or of a doctor who claims comic books create juvenile delinquents, Maggie puts Jack to work quickly to find the party responsible and bring them to justice to get the story out of the papers as fast as possible.

    The Jack and Maggie Starr mysteries are, in the pulp noir tradition, fun if formulaic mysteries with just enough brawling and sex to keep you going to the next chapter. Jack Starr’s witty internal narration, and illustrations at the beginning of each chapter by Terry Beatty done in a classic pop art style, add a nice touch to the homage to classic pulps. Aside from the eccentric Jack and Maggie, most of the characters of the 1950’s comic and cartoon world are clearly based on real personalities of the time but with the names barely changed in ways that would make Law & Order claims of “ripped from the headlines” blush. For example the colorful ubermensch hero “Wonderguy” was created by two naive young men, “Harry Spiegel” & “Moe Sholman” who would not get the full share of the fortune their character makes in merchandising. Other popular superheroes are “Batwing,” created by “Rod Krane,” and “Amazonia” created by a Harvard professor a bit on the kinky side. Wanting to put the kibosh on all these characters is noted child psychologist Dr. Werner Frederk who publishes a sensational book “Ravish the Lambs” and testifies before congress accusing comic books of being the key factor in post war juvenile delinquency.

    The historical fiction here is not as divergent from real life as say The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Those familiar with the history of American comics will readily catch the “Brand X” references. But if you’re less familiar with the history of the industry, don’t worry. The “Brand X” names aren’t too distracting and might even encourage you to learn more about the real movers and shakers, heroes and villains of the period, especially apropos in the wake of the passing of one of the last great living links to that time, Stan Lee.

    Whether you are either an old hand at P.I. style noir mysteries or a fan of comic books I would certainly recommend giving any of these books a read.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

    Sunday, November 18, 2018

    Hero of the Harlem Renaissance

    Luke Cage Noir.
    Written by Mike Benson & Adam Glass. Art by Shawn Martinbrough & Nick Filardi.
    Graphic Novella Review by Kerey McKenna.

    I was sad to learn that Luke Cage, the bullet-proof Hero of Harlem, will not be renewed for another season on Netflix. Even if the last season did receive mixed reviews, as a whole I think it did one of the best jobs of realizing life in New York City in the Marvel Shared Universe. Hopefully Luke Cage, Misty Knight, and Night Nurse will return in other Marvel projects, possibly on the Disney exclusive streaming service coming down the pipe. In memoriam of Luke's removal from Netflix—and also because this is Noir November—I want to review Luke Cage Noir, a story that reframed him in a classic film noir paradigm, and incidentally first introduced me to him. I also want to explore some of the historical links between film noir and African American cinema.

    In 2009 and 2010 Marvel comics released a limited run of Noir-themed comics. The books were mostly standalone mini-series of four issues each that restyled Marvel Characters like the Daredevil, Iron Man, and the Punisher in classic noir and pulp settings and tones. These stories tended to de-emphasize the fantastical, and transplant characters into 1930’s and 50’s noir mysteries or adventure pulps.

    The Luke Cage story boils Luke down to his essence, a black man trying to bring justice to the people of Harlem when they have been ill served by lawful institutions and preyed upon by gangsters. The story takes place in 1930’s Harlem with Luke being released from a ten year stint at Rikers Island. Cage has become an urban legend as witnesses claim that the night of his arrest he managed to take two slugs to the chest...and get back up without a scratch on him.

    Now Luke is out to settle old scores and solve the murders of both his woman and a white socialite. Along the way, the reader is taken along a classic hard-boiled detective tale, with machine gun dialogue, frame ups, and double crosses, all playing out in the vibrant and violent environs of Prohibition Era Harlem. Which I found refreshing because you don’t often see African Americans in such central roles or rounding out the majority of a cast in classic film noir.

    It is well known that the Luke Cage character was created to chase the trend of the “Blaxploitation” films of the 60’s and 70’s. But what I didn’t know until I started researching this review is that the Blaxploitation movement itself tapped into an earlier cinematic tradition of black gangster/black protagonist crime and detective stories.

    Even in the days of silent film, there were studios, or small divisions of studios, producing films for urban black audiences. Known collectively as “Race Films,” they were silent films and later talkies that featured not only predominantly minority casts but often all-minority casts. Like so many endeavors of the time, this nascent black cinema was kept separate and unequal from the mainstream. But unlike mainstream Hollywood, Race Films gave black and mixed-race actors a wide variety of roles over as many genres as shoestring budgets would allow. And yes, there were Race Film mystery and gangster movies. Sadly, because they received limited distribution, only a small fraction of those films were properly archived and tended not to be prioritized for restoration. And all too often, being B movies, they couldn’t afford the more experimental shooting techniques that came to epitomize the film noir canon.

    With Luke Cage Noir, we come full circle. It's practically a reconstruction of the Race Film gangster noir stories. But rendered in pen and ink, rather than on the silver screen, and with the corporate muscle of Marvel Comics behind it, it is free of the earlier genre’s artistic handicaps. The creative use of shadow and color by the art team grant a style that the B movie Race Films could rarely afford. It is a great graphic novella, both for those who know The Hero of Harlem through the Netflix series, and for fans of classic hard-boiled detective stories who don’t want a bunch of garishly dressed superheroes running all over the place.

    To my knowledge, since the original launch of the noir concept, Marvel hasn’t done much with it—with one notable exception. Stay tuned for my post on the one Marvel Noir hero who continues to appear in comics, cartoons, and video games—and is set for a big screen appearance later this year.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.