Tuesday, March 26, 2013

It's Been Sleeping For 2000 Years

Released theatrically in 1985 with the generic but evocative title CREATURE, THE TITAN FIND is one of many ALIEN rip-offs of the 1980s about gooey space monsters with big teeth that chomp on astronauts with paper-thin personalities.

The second film by writer/director William Malone (whose next film was THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL fourteen years later), THE TITAN FIND does a nice job creating a mood and delivering cheap violent thrills on a $750,000 budget. The miniature work and production design by future Oscar winners Robert Skotak (ALIENS) and Dennis Skotak (THE ABYSS) are very good, as are the many gore effects by Bruce Zahlava (DEAD HEAT). Really, the goo is the best reason to watch—faces are ripped off, heads explode, and blood splashes everywhere.

An American research team travels to Titan, one of Jupiter’s moons, to investigate some ancient artifacts that left a previous expedition dead. They discover their West German rivals have beaten them there, but have all been brutally murdered. That is, except for one: creepy Hans Hofner (Klaus Kinski, who leads the league in creepy German portrayals), who informs the new arrivals they’re being stalked by a 200,000-year-old creature that subsists on human blood and can control the dead using squishy control devices attached to the back of the corpses’ heads.

Besides Kinski (NOSFERATU), whose star-billed role as a lascivious, sandwich-chomping astronaut is really just a five-day cameo, the only satisfactory performances are given by pretty Wendy Schaal (THE ‘BURBS) as a brainy scientist (who is forced by the script to do some pretty idiotic things) and Stan Ivar (LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE) as the ship’s captain. You’ll instantly recognize Lyman Ward, who plays the arrogant corporate lackey who’s responsible for the party’s trouble, as Matthew Broderick’s clueless dad in FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF. Co-writer Alan Reed is actually Robert Short, the visual effects artist who won an Academy Award for BEETLEJUICE. The orchestral score by Thomas Chase and Steve Rucker makes the action seem more exciting than it actually is, and helps to lend a “big-budget” feel to the proceedings.

It was nice to finally see THE TITAN FIND in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, so that the Skotaks' imaginative low-budget sets and Malone's widescreen framing are shown off to their best advantage. If I understand the situation correctly, Malone was set to self-distribute THE TITAN FIND on DVD with special features. Days before he was to sign copies at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, California, it was announced that THE TITAN FIND would be postponed so it could be distributed by a major independent company, presumably Synapse. Malone's DVD signing was cancelled, but he agreed to sell the copies he had already printed and sold via pre-order through the Dark Delicacies site. Which explains why I own the DVD with Malone's autograph on the cover. I don't know how many of these DVDs made it out--Dark Delicacies no longer offers it--but it's possible I own a rare collector's item (which you can see at right).

The original negatives of THE TITAN FIND no longer exist, so Malone's personal answer print in Panavision widescreen was used to create the DVD. It looks and sounds just fine, though certainly the upcoming Synapse version will be better. It is not the theatrical cut, because trims were made to the film before it hit theaters as CREATURE, but I'll leave it to the VIDEO WATCHDOG gang to determine the differences (though I do think the exploding head is longer on Malone's DVD).

Malone could have used a moderator to help him through his audio commentary, but he has a candid memory and explains pretty much everything you could want to know about the movie. Unsurprisingly, he didn't get along with Klaus Kinski (nobody did), and tells a few stories about the mercurial actor's five days on the set. He also points out the props he borrowed from earlier science fiction movies, including FORBIDDEN PLANET, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, and THE FLY. Malone moves before the camera for a short interview segment, as are actors Diane Salinger and Stan Ivar (who have their own Kinski memories). The DVD is also loaded with production stills (including a VARIETY box office chart placing CREATURE in the week's Top 10!) and Robert Skotak's conceptual art.

Malone describes THE TITAN FIND as the movie that directors usually pretend they never made early in their careers. He's quite fond of THE TITAN FIND, however, as he should be. It's trash, but it's entertaining trash clearly made by filmmakers who cared.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Random Comic Book Splash Page: Tower Of Shadows #8

For whatever reason, Marvel was never as successful at producing four-color mystery/horror/science fiction comic books as DC was. DC's genre titles like HOUSE OF MYSTERY, TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED, GHOSTS, and WEIRD WAR TALES ran for years, but Marvel had trouble keeping alive any book that didn't have superheroes in it.

Editor Stan Lee did try, however, many times. One of his efforts was TOWER OF SHADOWS, which chugged away for nine issues and a King-Size Special from 1969 to 1971. Despite words and art by top-notch comic book professionals, including Jim Steranko and Neal Adams, TOWER was a poor seller.

Among the book's triumphs was "Sanctuary!", which was both written and drawn by the legendary Wally Wood for TOWER OF SHADOWS #8.

TOWER lasted only one more issue before it converted to CREATURES ON THE LOOSE and presented new stories featuring King Kull, Gullivar Jones, Thongor, and Man-Wolf. CREATURES was cancelled after #37, and the conclusion of its delirously insane Man-Wolf arc was described in a text page in that issue by writer David Anthony Kraft.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Dolph Vs. Stone Cold

Action heavyweights Steve Austin (THE CONDEMNED) and Dolph Lundgren (the original PUNISHER), who appeared together in THE EXPENDABLES, schedule a rematch in THE PACKAGE. Believe it or not, it actually squeezed into a single theater last month just a few days before its release on DVD and Blu-ray. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin may be a big shot in the wrestling ring, but he’s little better than a hunk of redwood on film, and he comes off even worse next to Dolph’s chiseled charisma.

Austin plays Tommy Wick, an enforcer who collects debts for loan shark Big Doug (Eric Keenleyside). Tommy’s wife (Kristen Kerr) wants him to settle down and take a job as a bar bouncer, but, Doug pays well, provides health benefits (!), and lets Tommy work off his incarcerated little brother Eddie’s (a miscast Locklyn Munro, also in Austin’s RECOIL) debt. He can settle that debt with one last job: deliver a book-sized package to The German (Lundgren), a sophisticated epicurean whom a lot of people try to kill. You and I, having seen other movies, know this job isn’t the milk run Doug promises, but Tommy somehow doesn’t. Before he knows it, guys with large guns are chasing him all over the Pacific Northwest.

Austin’s dull presence aside, THE PACKAGE is an entertaining B-picture, mostly because of Lundgren’s charm, but also because director Jesse V. Johnson (THE LAST SENTINEL) keeps the action, bits of well-placed humor, and a couple of plot surprises chugging along. He favors letting large men with large fists pound them into faces, which benefits the clumsy Austin, though THE PACKAGE has no shortage of ammunition fired. Former kickboxing pro Jerry Trimble, who used to star in films exactly like this one in the 1990s (like LIVE BY THE FIST and ONE MAN ARMY), has a flashy fight scene with Austin, and audiences anticipating a showdown between the two stars won’t be disappointed.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

My Chat With Comic Book Writer Steve Englehart

Steve Englehart has earned his status as a legend of the comic book industry. He has written almost every important character—if not every important character, period—in the DC and Marvel universes. His books—just for those two companies—include THE AVENGERS, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, CAPTAIN AMERICA, DETECTIVE COMICS, DOCTOR STRANGE, and MASTER OF KUNG FU. He has written for other comic book publishers as well. Also novels, teleplays, video games, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear he’s penned a menu or two.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve on the OGR Podcast  January 31, 2012 (all episodes are now offline). He’s a very pleasant guy, candid, smart, and blessed with the patience to politely answer any silly question posed to him.

Note: I conducted the bulk of the interview, but not all of it. I transcribed the conversation during February 2013. For the sake of clarity, I’m using “Q” and “A” to indicate which “side” is speaking. Special thanks to Matt McKee, Brett Dinelli, Matt Toler, and, obviously, Steve Englehart for making this conversation possible. Material used to research this project came from Wikipedia, the Grand Comics Database, editor Roy Thomas’ essential comics history ALTER EGO, and Englehart’s personal website, among other sources.

Q: I want to first ask you about one of my favorite comic books, and I figure you’ll know the answer to this question if anyone does, since you co-created the character. Will Marvel ever reprint the Master of Kung Fu series?

A: From what I understand, they will. The deal on that was, when Jim Starlin and I co-created it [for SPECIAL MARVEL EDITION #15], all we came up with was Shang-Chi. Roy Thomas didn’t feel kung fu was enough of a draw for comics, so he wanted to put in Fu Manchu. Which was fine, but then when Marvel gave up the rights to Fu Manchu, they couldn’t reprint the comic. From what I understand, what I’m told is they’re going to go through and change Fu Manchu into the Yellow Claw, who they do own, and (Shang-Chi) will become the son of the Yellow Claw. And if so, they’ll be able to reprint it. Again, Starlin and I co-created that book, but the main run that everybody remembers was Doug Moench and his various artists, and I’d love to see all that stuff back in print again.

Q: I assume Shang-Chi was based on David Carradine.

A: Absolutely. No mystery about that.

Q: Were you fans of kung fu movies? You were fans of the KUNG FU TV series, I guess, but also the Hong Kong movies coming out at that time?

A: I was only a fan of the television series. The Hong Kong movies I didn’t discover until much later, actually. But Starlin and I both really liked the TV show. We weren’t at all being tricky about it. We said we wanna do our own version of something like that. Marvel at the time didn’t think there was enough of a market for it. Once we started the series, it just took off like crazy for the entire 1970s. Kung fu was such a big deal then.

Q: Later, when Doug Moench got a hold of it [beginning with MASTER OF KUNG FU #20], Shang-Chi became something of a Chinese James Bond with a very rich supporting cast. Was that the direction you were heading in before you handed the series off?

A: No, not at all. I just wanted to do the David Carradine character, the wandering guy. I was writing DOCTOR STRANGE, and one of the things I did when I got DOCTOR STRANGE was try to learn about magic, which turned out to be Western magic. The whole idea of doing an Eastern philosophy as a counterpart was what I was looking at. I only did five color issues and two black-and-white issues (of Shang-Chi), and Starlin dropped off after about the third one, I think. So we knew we wanted to run around with this character, but I had no long-term plan, because I wasn’t really involved in it long-term. I’m 98% sure I wouldn’t have gone where Doug went, but that’s the nature of comics. First of all, there’s no complaint involved in that statement. Doug was very interested in the whole James Bond thing, and so was Paul Gulacy, and so they took it in that direction, and, as you say, turned into this very rich series.

Q: Did you feel there was a challenge in writing a character who was basically a pacifist?

A: No, not really. I was interested in the philosophy. I was not so interested in the fighting aspect of things, although fighting was part of kung fu, at least on television and in comics. And comics, in general, has to have the fighting. I’m not saying I don’t like that kind of stuff too, but my particular impetus was the philosophy and the whole kind of esoteric approach to life. Doctor Strange had it too, but he was more of an action hero, and I kinda liked the idea of somebody who did less action up until the point that he kicked your ass.

Q: People may be surprised to learn that when you started out in comic books, you were an artist, I think doing horror and romance stories. How did you transform from penciling into writing?

A: I did want to be a comic book artist. That was the thing that I thought I was wanting to get to be. I had help from Neal Adams, I had help from Dick Giordano. There were a number of people—Vinnie Colletta, too—who helped me in my struggling days as a young artist. I ended up on staff at Marvel, where I was doing art corrections among other things. And one day Gary Friedrich, who wrote SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS primarily, but also NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. and some other books, had a little monster story that he didn’t want to actually write. He was taking the summer off. Marvel was a bullpen in those days—everything Stan Lee said about that was true in those days, it was a small group of people—and they kinda looked around and said, “You there, Englehart, sitting in the corner. Would you like to write this thing?” I said, “Well, sure,” because I wasn’t gonna turn down any chance at doing work for Marvel.

It turned out, to my surprise—well, not complete surprise, but I hadn’t really thought about being a writer—but I liked the process of writing, and they thought the story was good enough to give me another one. In those days, Marvel had the superhero line, but they also still published romance books and westerns and horror books. Those books were used as a kind of training ground that they could let you write stuff that wasn’t as important as IRON MAN or whatever. You could learn the process of writing. They could continue to evaluate whether you actually could write an interesting comic book story. So I came through that process, and they did eventually give me the Beast [beginning with AMAZING ADVENTURES #12] and then everything came after that. I really was sorta in the right place at the right time. I didn’t plan to go this route.

Q: I love to hear stories about the Marvel Bullpen, especially from the early 1970s when Roy Thomas was the editor-in-chief. It seems like a crazy place where there were no creative limits.

A: There really weren’t. When I started, Stan was still the editor-in-chief, though that was more of a title than an actual function. He knew he was winding up his comic book career, and he was looking forward to getting out to California and trying out movies and stuff like that. In fact, I did overlap him for six months, but Roy was the de facto editor, and then he got the title, in addition to everything else.

This is something I didn’t understand at the time. When you walk into any sort of situation, you scope it out, and you have no idea what was happening yesterday. You just know what’s happening now. Roy and Denny O’Neil, when they had come to work for Stan, Stan had really taken them over the coals trying to get them to write like him. Since he had been writing everything, there was a sound to Marvel books that was very defined at that point. He wanted both Roy and Denny to be able to emulate him. I didn’t know this at the time, but when Roy took over, Roy decided on his own he was gonna let the people working for him find their own voice.

So he did give us complete freedom. You had to make sure the books sold well enough, and you had to turn in the stuff on time—you couldn’t screw up the deadlines—but assuming you did that, he did sort of let people go. When I found out about it later, I was sorta in awe of the balls that it took to say, “We’re gonna let Marvel not have to sound like Stan all the time.” There was a Marvel sound, and we all tried to work around that sound, but it did allow me to do whatever I did and Steve Gerber to go off on his sort-of quirky direction and Don McGregor and other people—Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman—everybody kind of got to do their own version of the thing. The longer we did it, the more we became less a version of Stan and more a version of ourselves. Which I totally thank Roy for allowing us to do.

Q: I love some of the crazy ideas you guys came up with. I remember a series of stories about Man-Wolf…do you remember Man-Wolf?

A: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Q: Man-Wolf is in outer space, and he’s fighting aliens on the moon

A: Yep.

Q: …and I would just think these are just incredibly crazy ideas. I love the DC comics too, especially at that time, but they weren’t doing stuff like Howard the Duck.

A: No. Howard the Duck was definitely a one-of-a-kind thing. Man-Wolf is an interesting case, because it was one of the things…when we were young comic book guys just a year or so into our careers—me and a whole bunch of other people all sort of came in in the early ‘70s. We were having a discussion one day about how Marvel books always…you’d be sitting around, and a book wouldn’t quite be doing what it oughta be doing. And then Jim Steranko would show up out of nowhere and take over NICK FURY or, y’know, whatever. People said, “Yeah, but Man-Wolf? It’s just such an awful series. How could Man-Wolf ever be anything?” And right after that, George Perez became the artist…

Q: That’s right.

A: …on Man-Wolf. I’m not sure if the stories got any better, but the art certainly did. And Man-Wolf has always stayed with me as this series that looked hopeless. And yet all you really need on any series is energy. You just have to say, “I’m gonna take this seriously, and I’m gonna put my energy behind it.” And whether you’re George Perez getting an early break drawing books or whatever it is, you can turn pretty much anything into a series.

But again, Marvel overall, the thing was, they had the superhero line, they did have monsters, they did have romance, they did have MILLIE THE MODEL, that kind of stuff. And in the early ‘70s, probably because of SWAMP THING across town, but I’m not sure…but all of a sudden, there was Man-Wolf, and there was WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, and there was Frankenstein and Dracula…the whole idea of superhero monsters, y’know?


A: Yes. (Laughs) Yes. Yeah. Well, all that, y’know, you’re back with Gerber, who had his very quirky view of life, in addition to everything else. So all of his books are kind of out in left field in one way or another.

Q: Well, the more outrageous the concept, the better I like it. A couple of weeks ago, we were talking here on the podcast about the old MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE television series, which had some incredibly way-out plots. And that’s what I like.

A: Well, it was a time of freedom in general, whether it was comics or TV or music. There’s a whole genre of movies, the whole ‘70s movies thing when Jack Nicholson was young…it just was a different time. We were lucky to be able to take advantage of it.

Q: I have to ask you about one of my favorite stories. I imagine it’s one you get asked about a lot. You wrote a story arc for CAPTAIN AMERICA about an organization called The Secret Empire that was endangering the United States.

A: Right.

Q: The head of The Secret Empire was a hooded figure known as Number One, and…explain what happened to Number One at the end of that story.

A: Well, Captain America found him in the White House and saw him blow his brains out. That was a Watergate allegory.

Q: And who was Number One?

A: It was Nixon. It was definitely Nixon.

Q: (Laughs) Does that make you a Commie pinko at all?

A: (Laughs) It does, absolutely it does. The whole Watergate thing, again, talking about the ‘70s. The idea that the President would order a burglary was very difficult for a lot of people to wrap their minds around in those days. It was treated seriously. All summer long in ’73, I think it was, maybe it was ’74. But there were hearings being held about this, and America was just riveted to it. Everybody was watching these hearings, where these Senators were investigating the President. It went on all summer, and they’d get close to him, and then he’d block ‘em, and then they’d overcome him, and then he’d…it was like this big novel being shown to America.

I was sitting there writing CAPTAIN AMERICA, and I’m thinking the Marvel Universe is supposed to be the real universe. Peter Parker lives in New York, he doesn’t live in Emerald City or whatever. So I just said, “There’s no way that Captain America could not be affected by this.” So I set out to do stuff… When I first started it, it was more of a superhero kind of thing with the Secret Empire and guys in hoods and Moonstone and all that sort of stuff. But the longer that Watergate went on, the more I got pulled toward what was actually going on. In the end, Nixon in real life was impeached or was going to be impeached, and managed to resign just before they got to that point. In the comic, we settled for something simpler: a suicide in the White House.

Q: (Laughs) Simpler.

A: (Laughs) Well, yeah, ya know, you don’t have much room in comics. And then Nomad came out of that—the man without a country. I was just playing out the whole…again, the approach I generally take to these characters: if Captain America really existed, what would he be like, y’know? To me, Captain America had to be affected by that kind of stuff.

Q: You’re the first person I’ve ever spoken to who has his own personal Stan Lee nickname, and I’ve always wondered what it’s like to have a Stan Lee nickname. You’re “Stainless Steve,” is that correct?

A: That is correct, yeah. Since I don’t work for Marvel anymore, and since Marvel kinda grew up and couldn’t use (nicknames), Stainless Steve is a name I haven’t been able to use for quite a long time. It’s very cool. I’m honored to have received it. At the same time that Steve Englehart was there, Steve Gerber was there, and he unfortunately ended up with Steve “Baby” Gerber…

Q: (Laughs) After the baby food…

A: (Laughs) …so I’m doubly pleased I got to be Stainless Steve.

Q: How did you find out you were Stainless Steve? Did you read it in the book, or is there a memo from Stan?

A: No, no, he just told me.

Q: (Laughs) “You are Stainless Steve!”

A: Yeah.

Q: There was a character you created for MARVEL PREVIEW called Star-Lord [to be played by PARKS AND RECREATION’s Chris Pratt in the upcoming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie]…

A: Oh yeah.

Q: Two things about that. Number one, are you still into astrology? And number two, what were you planning to do with the character? Because this story is basically a 30-page prologue.

A: Right.

Q: And I’m sure you had a lot of ideas that you never got to explore with Star-Lord.

A: Yeah. As I mentioned earlier, when I got into Doctor Strange, I thought I should learn something about Western magic, and astrology is one of those things that’s in there. So I was immersed in all this stuff that was new to me, and I came up with this idea. The basic idea of Star-Lord was he was a complete asshole.

Q: (Laughs) Right.

A: I mean, he was completely nuts. In the first episode, he was gonna be this totally unlikeable guy, but he ended up falling into the sun, as I recall, or something like that. And what he was gonna do then was work his way out across the galaxy, and each book was gonna be a different kind of story based on the astrological meaning of the planet he was on. So when he got to Mars, it was gonna be a complete war story. When he got to Venus, it was gonna be a complete love story, that kind of thing.

Q: Ah, okay.

A: I was gonna do a story with each one tied to the astrological meaning of the planet as he worked his way out to Pluto and then kept going. But I only got to do the first issue in which he’s an asshole.

Q: (Laughs)

A: (Laughs) I left Marvel at that point, and so we never got to see the grandeur involved in the whole guy. Later, Chris Claremont and John Byrne took a shot at doing other stuff with him, and they didn’t do what I was gonna do, so it was a different kind of deal.

You were talking earlier about freedom and crazy ideas. I said let’s do something about astrology, and they said alright, fine. So I set out to do it. As it happens, I didn’t get to finish it, but nobody was saying, “That’s a terrible idea” or “Do something else” or whatever. You had to sell it. If it turns out nobody wanted to buy this book, then it would be cancelled, and I’d have to go on to something else. But if you had an idea, you could run with it.

Q: Marvel and DC, at least during that period, never had any success with science fiction, outside of superheroes. Why do you think that is?

A: I’m not entirely sure. I wrote an introduction for the latest Captain Marvel Masterworks with the issues that I did. There was a discussion that when Captain Marvel had first been introduced into the Marvel Universe, it was more of a science fiction thing. He was a Kree spy on Earth. And I think there were problems with that—having the enemy be your lead character after we all knew the Kree was a bunch of bad guys, it was a little hard maybe to sell. Real science fiction appeals to a more sort of intellectual side of things, and comics appeals more to a colorful “let’s blow his brains out rather than explain Watergate” approach to life.

Q: That’s mature material though.

A: Yeah.

Q: The Marvel comics of that period were something that kids could read and enjoy, but you also had a college-age audience.

A: There was Killraven, which was science fiction, I suppose. It was popular, but not super-popular. I can say this to you, because we’re talking on a comic book podcast, but going to the other things I’ve done over time, I’ve run through the science fiction community, and it always seems to be that the science fiction community is primarily interested in the intellectual concept. Whereas the comic book community, there’s movement. The stories take place outside of the mind, whereas the science fiction stuff quite often takes place very comfortably in the mind. Which is not to say comic book people have no minds or whatever, but I just find the science fiction approach to be more interiorized than the vibe that makes you put on a colorful costume and go out and punch people.

Q: Do you think there’s no way to capture a cerebral science fiction premise in four colors?

A: No, I don’t say that. But the stuff that I think of—the EC science fiction books and then even later Julius Schwartz when he was doing MYSTERY IN SPACE and things with the Space Ranger. Those things were nicely done, particularly the Julie Schwartz stuff at DC. I think it’s pretty much forgotten now, but those were nice little “half-issue” stories, because they’d have two or maybe three in the book. And they would have nice little science fiction things and very proper 1950s DC art, y’know. Totally unobjectionable and unexciting in many ways, but I liked those books. They actually worked, but they were never a huge thing. Once the Flash and the Justice League came along, MYSTERY IN SPACE (got less popular). Adam Strange was probably the most popular (science fiction) character, and he was always sort of a second-rank character compared to the rest of those guys.

Q: Most of those DC science fiction stories were written by Gardner Fox and John Broome, who also wrote science fiction prose.

A: Right. And Edmond Hamilton. A lot of those guys. Well, Julie had been a science fiction agent before he became a comic book editor, so he knew those guys. He knew what they wanted to do, and they knew what he wanted. In a lot of ways, those 1950s DC comics are kind of ‘30s pulp magazines reworked. But they did work in both eras. You could say STAR WARS was science fiction. It’s not as if you can’t marry the two concepts or find some sweet spot in there. Hard science fiction has never been a big draw for comics. They didn’t sell for EC either.

Q: I want to ask you a bit about your time at Warren. You wrote VAMPIRELLA for awhile. I’m really interested in your interactions with Jim Warren. He was a very colorful guy. Some people got along with him, and some people didn’t.

A: I got along with him great. I liked him a lot. As I mentioned earlier, I was working with Neal Adams when I first got into being an artist. The first thing I did with Neal was a job Denny O’Neil had written for Neal for the VAMPIRELLA book. Not the Vampirella strip in the book, but one of the backup stories.

One of the very first people I got to know in New York in terms of an actual comic book person was Jim Warren. He was a colorful guy. Always wore a blue shirt. Always…I can’t remember if it was white pants or not, but he had a kind of costume or uniform, whatever, but a shirt and pants—wasn’t a costume in that sense. He had a flair. It was fun. The company was so small that it was no problem talking to Jim, dropping up there and seeing people. I really did enjoy working for him.

I was very pleased to get VAMPIRELLA, but I had to do it under a pseudonym [Chad Archer], because I was already working for Marvel. Then Marvel began giving me more and more work, so I had to drop the non-Marvel stuff. But I would have loved to have written VAMPIRELLA much longer than I did. I liked her quite a bit. I liked the artists I had quite a bit. And I liked Jim Warren quite a bit.

Q: I wanna put you in the middle of a controversy we have here at the podcast…

A: Uh-oh.

Q: I know you wrote Green Arrow when you wrote JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, and I would love to hear your opinion: are you pro- or anti-trick arrows?

A: I’m in favor of trick arrows. I like trick arrows.

Q: Specifically the boxing glove arrow.

A: Wellllllll, you know, I mean, uh, I’m not sure how well it would fly…

Q: (Laughs)

A: …but, you know, he’s very skilled.

Q: It has been suggested that it wouldn’t be very aerodynamically sound, but it’s comics, so we guess it would work.

A: Did Kirby come up with that one, do you know?

Q: I wouldn’t be surprised. I don’t know when the first appearance of the boxing glove arrow was. [Turns out it was in ADVENTURE COMICS #118, written by Ed “France” Herron and drawn by George Papp] But…the crazier the arrow, the more I like it. Did you have a favorite arrow? The handcuff arrow?

A: I don’t remember. I don’t think I did too much with the really weird arrows when I was writing him. But as a reader, yeah, I’m right with you, I like the crazy arrows. That sounds like something Kirby would come in and figure out, but I don’t know who came up with those things.

Q: Here at the podcast, we’re huge fans of Dick Dillin, who penciled the JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA issues you wrote. Any personal stories of working with Dick?

A: I’m unfortunately going to have to disappoint you in that I did not know Dick Dillin personally. I would write the scripts in advance. They were sent off to him, he drew them, and that was it. I don’t know that I ever actually met him in person unfortunately. I’m right with you in that I was a huge fan of his, and I really thought that if I was going to do the Justice League, of the options that were available at the time, I wanted to do it with Dick Dillin. In later years, DC has not always wanted to reprint the stuff that I did in those days. It’s been a disappointment to me that they’ve never reprinted the JLA run. The last time I talked to them about it, they said, “Oh well, nobody likes Dick Dillin. We couldn’t sell a book with Dick Dillin.”

Q: That’s insane.

A: That’s what I think too. I don’t think that’s entirely the reason, because their relationship with me is prickly. In any event, I was really pleased to work with Dick Dillin.

Q: Did you go directly from Marvel to DC?

A: I left Marvel…I had a falling out with them. It’s part of my M.O. is to…

Q: (Laughs) Make everybody angry and move on?

A: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s right, burn a lot of bridges and piss everybody off. The thing with Marvel, actually, was the other way around. I got burned and didn’t like it and decided to leave. I left Marvel and had no plans to go anywhere else. I didn’t have much of a plan at all, because it was very sort of sudden. I was still mulling what it was I was gonna do next when the publisher at DC called me up and said, “Why don’t you come over here and have lunch with me and we’ll talk about stuff?” I went and had lunch with (Jenette Kahn). She said, “I really like you. You wrote THE AVENGERS and you did all this stuff that really worked out well for (Marvel), and I’d really like you to come over here and write the Justice League for us and revamp all the characters. We want you to give them all characterizations and bring them into the 1970s.”

It was totally true that, unfortunately, DC had treated these guys like statues with costumes on. They really hadn’t done much to give them personalities, and she wanted me to come in and basically redo the entire DC superhero line by way of the Justice League. And I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do that, that’d be great. And, in addition, I’d really like to write Batman in and of himself.” That’s how I ended up doing the Batman stuff too. But the original concept was: come revamp the Justice League. Because of that, it became very clear to me that if I was gonna revamp all these characters—give them all personalities, give them all interactions that we had been doing in THE AVENGERS—and tell a story, it was gonna take more room than a single issue would allow. That’s when I said let’s do every book a double-sized issue. Even DC in those days, if I was willing to go for a crazy idea like that…

Q: The “novel-length thriller.”

A: Yeah, it allowed me 34 pages a month. And Dick Dillin was the kind of guy who could draw that kinda stuff. The 34 pages gave me a change to tell you a story and stop and take a look at all these different characters along the way and do the stuff that would build them into something more long-lasting. After the Ultraverse went away, Marvel bought the Ultraverse and stuck it in a drawer. In around 2001, 2002, they came to me and said, “We want you to bring the Ultraverse into the Marvel Universe. Bring over the top characters and do a series about them.”

That didn’t work out, because Marvel realized that the contracts we had at Ultraverse allowed the creators to get a cut of the profits, and Marvel didn’t want to go there. That’s why there’s no Ultraverse. But while we were talking about it, I said I wanted to do what we did with the Justice League. Explain who all these characters are and put them in context with the Marvel Universe. Give me 34 pages a month. At that point, they just threw up their hands and said, “Totally impossible.” I said, “We did it with Dick Dillin.” And they said, “No, any artist that fans really want to see couldn’t draw 34 pages a month. And anybody who could draw 34 pages a month would be some hack that no one wants to see.”

Q: Oh, goodness. You said you have a “prickly” relationship with DC right now. Is that because of the Batman movies?

A: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. They…really don’t want… DC has never really liked to give credit to the individual creators for stuff. DC likes to pretend that it all was just created by “DC Comics.” It was done work-for-hire. It’s not that they owe me money. The deal was it’s work-for-hire. But they sort of took it beyond that in that they really don’t like to talk about the fact that I was involved with Batman at all. They don’t reprint that stuff. Well, they do, as little as possible. The Joker stories are so popular that they have to be reprinted now and again. But in general… They called it “Strange Apparitions,” so nobody would understand what it was. (Laughs)

The latest thing with not wanting to do any more Dark Detective even before (penciller) Marshall (Rogers) was dead. I’m not looking for a million-dollar paycheck, but I would appreciate a little recognition from them. I think most people who pay any attention to comics from that era know what Marshall and I did and (inker) Terry Austin and so forth and how it played out in movies. I’d like to hear it from DC, and DC’s pretty clear they’re not gonna give me that. So I’d say “prickly” is a reasonable word.

Q: We don’t have a lot of time left, so let’s get into what you’ve been doing since you haven’t been working for Marvel and DC. Tell us about your novel series.

A: Back in the 1980s, I wrote a novel called THE POINT MAN. It was a one-shot thing. I didn’t want to continue it. But when I was kinda wrapping it up in comics, I saw a way to go back and revisit that character, basically by making him immortal. So then the fact that the character was still in the prime of his life, even though in real time as expressed in the books two decades had passed, I thought that was interesting. I thought I could do some stuff with that, and so I did.

There’s a series now of new books—THE LONG MAN, THE PLAIN MAN, and then THE ARENA MAN. In which this immortal character who’s really…the quick shorthand for comic book people is that Max August, this character, is kind of a combination of Dr. Strange and Captain America in that he’s… If you knew, for example, that you were gonna be alive a hundred years from now, or maybe 200 or maybe 500 years, you’d start thinking about the future of the planet, I think. This is not some heavy ecological treatise here. But taking the long-term view sort of goes with being immortal. That then leads you to start thinking about these guys who want to run the planet into the ground for their own personal profit. You don’t like ‘em very much. So it’s kind of a Captain America with mystical overtones through the series. Then it’s also…he’s got a dead wife who’s still alive. (Laughs) And a new girlfriend who’s gotta deal with this. So there’s a weird romance going on.

Q: A weird love triangle?

A: A weird love triangle, yeah.  Mutant love stories. It’s action/adventure, it’s fantasy. It’s the kind of stuff that I like to do. And the good thing about novels is, another thing I say is that it’s kind of like taking six miniseries and cramming them all into one package. Because there’s a lot of characters here who have their own storylines in each book. So each storyline’s got to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then they all have to fit together. It’s a real interesting set of stories, I think.

Q: Can we get those books at your website? You wanna plug your website?

A: Yes, I’ll plug my website, which is just steveenglehart.com, but I don’t sell the books. Get them at Amazon. Amazon’s fine. Or get ‘em at your local bookstore, but they’re probably more readily available at Amazon, because Amazon can have anything anytime.

Q: One more question before we wrap up. I’m curious which comic book genre you liked writing the most.

A: I liked them all. I’m not trying to be political here, but…any sort of writing is basically a guy sitting alone in a room. Sometimes, there’s two guys sitting alone in a room, but generally I stood alone. If I’m not entertaining myself while I’m doing this kinda stuff, I’m certainly not gonna be able to entertain you. Plus I’d be bored silly. So anything that I took on, I really tried to figure out how I could make it as entertaining as possible. Most of what I did was superheroes, and I really like superheroes quite a bit. But the oddball stuff like VAMPIRELLA or I did a series that nobody knows for Claypool called PHANTOM OF FEAR CITY. Very much fun. These things that were off in the corners were fun, because I didn’t do them all the time. But anything that I did, I found fun. People say, “What was your favorite character?” and I say, “All of them.”

Q: Like your favorite child.

A: Yeah, well, I pretty much liked everything that I did. Because it was up to me to make sure that I did, so that’s what I tried to do.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Gentlemen, We Are Now A Superpower

With the United States in the habit of embroiling in wars with dubious motives, director Robert Aldrich’s TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING will always be as timely as it was when originally released in 1977, two years after the fall of Saigon. It's impossible to conceive of such a sharp, angry, intelligent, cynical political thriller emerging from today's mindless Hollywood studios.

Former Air Force general Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster, no stranger to political thrillers), five years a prisoner of war in Vietnam and currently incarcerated on a trumped-up murder charge in a Montana prison, breaks out, along with three other death row inmates (played by Paul Winfield, ROCKY's Burt Young, and William Smith), and infiltrates “Silo 3,” an ICBM silo containing nine nuclear missiles.

In exchange for not starting World War III, Dell demands $10 million in cash, safe passage to another country aboard Air Force One, and, oh yes, that the President of the United States, David Stevens (Charles Durning), announce to the world details of a secret meeting of high-placed government officials that would reveal the true reason for America’s involvement in Vietnam. As President Stevens and his advisors decide how the American people will react to the shocking truth, hawkish General MacKenzie (Richard Widmark) plans to strike at Dell using military force and doesn’t care who gets in his way.

Based upon a novel by Walter Wager, the screenplay by Ronald M. Cohen and Edward Huebsch adds the political polemic that makes the film more than just a tightly constructed suspenser. What may have seemed farfetched in 1977 has become prophetic in the decades since, now that we know the U.S. Government’s decision to keep sending troops to fight in Vietnam was indeed a mistake (how much of Cohen and Huebsch’s screenplay is actually non-fiction?) The script occasionally fumbles. The base seems childishly easy to break into with just a few (not too bright) guards blocking Lancaster’s path, and MacKenzie seems too simpleminded in his reticence to take Lancaster’s threat seriously.

Those story holes and others are easily forgotten, however, amid the edge-of-the-seat suspense Aldrich (THE DIRTY DOZEN) wrings out of the script and the tightly controlled performances by the extraordinary cast. Lancaster stands out as the paranoid yet mannered terrorist, a man who wants only for the government for which he believes to stand up and admit its wrongdoing. Dell is unhinged, but respectful, intelligent, and even sensitive. He’s more than matched by Durning in the film’s best performance, an honest man who wasn’t in charge during the Vietnam years (the film is set in 1981), but is willing to accept the responsibility for the sins of his “fathers.”

Joining these men are Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Richard Jaeckel, Charles McGraw, Leif Erickson, William Marshall, Charles Aidman, Simon Scott, Roscoe Lee Browne, Ed Bishop, John Ratzenberger, and Morgan Paull. Allied Artists released this independently financed feature (the low budget is evident in the flat lighting and the well-crafted but obvious miniature effects), which was shot in Munich partially using German funds.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Defendants And The Defenders

THE DEFENDERS is the first of four tie-in novels based on the Emmy-award winning television drama THE DEFENDERS (natch). The CBS show starred E.G. Marshall (CREEPSHOW) and Robert Reed (THE BRADY BUNCH) as Lawrence and Ken Preston, father-and-son attorneys who defended clients and usually got involved with various social issues of the 1960s. For more on the TV series, see my earlier reviews of DEFENDERS novels.

This 1961 Gold Medal paperback is a little blah. Surprising, considering it was penned by the great Edward S. Aarons, author of the fantastic ASSIGNMENT spy novels starring Sam Durell. Aarons' book is the only DEFENDERS tie-in to be written before the series premiered, meaning he perhaps didn't know the show was going to be more than a standard crime drama about lawyers getting crooks off the hook.

The Prestons have two clients land in their laps on the same day. One is Jenny Scott, a friend of Ken's girlfriend who's on the hook for her husband's murder. Ken has a feeling she's being framed, even though a ton of circumstantial evidence puts her at the scene, and her husband's best friend claims to have received a phone call from the victim naming Jenny as his killer!

Meanwhile, Lawrence handles Eleanor Dunn, a rich, spoiled young woman who ran over a little boy while driving drunk. The boy, whose Fundamentalist parents refuse to allow doctors to operate, dies in the hospital, meaning a reckless homicide conviction for Eleanor unless the Prestons can create some fancy moves.

THE DEFENDERS is a fine read. Aarons has a handle on the characters, and you can certainly hear Marshall's and Reed's voices in the Prestons' dialogue. But the book, without the social commentary the series (and later books) was known for, is no more than a slight entertainment. Aarons' Sam Durell novels, on the other hand: fantastic.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Macho Man

Macho Man
January 20, 1981
Writers: Mark Jones and Glen A. Larson
Director: Gene Levitt

Birdie’s best friend Michael Prescott is murdered (Brett Clark, a Chippendale’s dancer who later starred in low-budget movies, plays Michael in photos), and the deputy (Brian Kerwin) is on the hot seat. Perkins (Mills Watson) thinks something might have been wrong with Prescott, because he finds Macho Man, a magazine with male centerfolds, in his house. It was 1981.

Thinking Michael’s connection with the magazine might have contributed to his death (for no reason I noticed), Lobo (Claude Akins) suggests that Birdie go undercover as next month’s nude centerfold. Meanwhile, Chief Carson (Nicolas Coster), discovering Prescott is the second Macho Man model to turn up murdered, sends in Brandy (Tara Buckman) and Peaches (Amy Botwinick) to poke around the magazine for clues. Tricia O’Neil (PIRANHA II) guest stars as Macho Man’s editor.

Another indication this show was telecast in 1981: the weird racial humor, mainly out of the mouth of Nell Carter (GIMME A BREAK) as Carson’s sassy black secretary Hildy (a wisecrack about rednecks, ropes, and trees seems especially shocking today). Levitt keeps the show chugging along, though there’s little mystery to the script by series creator Glen A. Larson and story editor Mark Jones. It does take steps to establish a budding romance between Brandy and Birdie though.

The Fastest Women Around

The Fastest Women Around
January 13, 1981
Story: Sy Salkowitz
Teleplay: Bill Dial
Director: Nicholas Colasanto

New producer Bill Dial, who had previously worked on WKRP IN CINCINNATI, wrote the teleplay for LOBO’s third episode of its second season. Keeping with the series’ formula of involving as many gorgeous women as possible, “The Fastest Women Around” is about a gang of sexy car thieves menacing Atlanta. As usual, Chief of Detectives Carson (Nicolas Coster) cuts Lobo (Claude Akins), Perkins (Mills Watson), and Birdie (Brian Kerwin) out of the investigation, so the trio of Orly transplants pokes around on its own.

Doing not so much investigating as loitering, Perkins and Birdie catch one of the girls (a fetching Jeannie Wilson, soon a regular on SIMON & SIMON, in boots and hot pants) and steal her stolen car. The idea is to upset the girls’ bosses and push them into doing something stupid. Of course, it works, and Perkins and Birdie are working on the inside with Lobo (in an awesome disguise as a Mafioso named Big Sal), Peaches (Tara Buckman), and Brandy (Amy Botwinick) providing support.

“The Fastest Women Around” appears to be part of an effort to make Perkins less of a cartoon figure. He’s still something of a clod—and still played by Watson to perfection—but he isn’t the clumsy, idiotic boob of the first season. Veteran Peter Mark Richman (CAIN’S HUNDRED) checks in as head of the car theft ring. Director Colasanto worked steadily in television both before and behind the camera, and is best known as the beloved Coach on CHEERS. 

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Let's Dance!

Direct-to-video stalwart Bryan Genesse—ya know him, ya love him in such classics as CYBORG COP III, PROJECT SHADOWCHASER II, and OPERATION DELTA FORCE 3—hams it up bigtime in LIVE WIRE: HUMAN TIMEBOMB (1995) as lone-wolf FBI agent Parker. His introduction finds him rappelling down the (corrugated iron!) screen of an abandoned drive-in theater, dodging dozens of bullets, blowing up rusted-out cars and oil drums (in an abandoned drive-in?), and bugging out his eyes to deliver one-liners like “You’ve blown it!” and “Ready to dance?” Considering what happens to Parker later, it makes sense for Genesse’s performance to be emotional, but neither he nor director Mark Roper (OPERATION DELTA FORCE 3 and 4!) are able to properly moderate it.

Parker snares a big-shot Cuban drug dealer, but is pissed to learn Treasury agent Gina Young (former Playmate J. Cynthia Brooks) plans to exchange him for an American prisoner (Gavin Hood, later the director of X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE!) on the cusp of an historic U.S./Cuba trade agreement. The exchange in Cuba is a setup though, and General Arnaz (Anthony Fridjhon) implants a chip inside Parker’s neck (without leaving a scar!) that turns him into a mindwiped killing machine. Aiding Arnaz is Price (former TV Tarzan Joe Lara), a traitorous CIA agent who has his own plans for the general’s zombie army.

Frequently hilarious in its over-the-top violence (stuff explodes for no reason…yay!), this Nu Image production is typical of the studio. It looks more expensive than it probably was, and entertains with its slick action sequences, impressive stunts, and disregard for dramatic tension and logic. One big chase, in which Lara repeatedly reminds his men to take Genesse alive, is still punctuated with gunfire, rocket attacks, and explosions (why are they still shooting at him?).

Veteran viewers of this type of low-budget actioner may be amused by Roper’s attempt to pass off South African locations as Florida and Cuba. Editing is slack, so the suspense scenes aren’t as tight as they should be for maximum impact, but Roper knows how to choreograph action and place the camera for proper coverage. Nu Image’s reluctance to hire bigger stars hurts too (it’s doubtful fans have ever argued the results of a hypothetical Joe Lara vs. Bryan Genesse fight), but LIVE WIRE: HUMAN TIMEBOMB (please, Nu Image, either would have been fine) nicely fills the need for action thrills as mindless as its hero.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Will You Believe It When You're Dead?!

MGM originally released this Japanese space opera in the United States in 1969. THE GREEN SLIME began attracting a rabid cult not long thereafter, thanks to its wobbly visual effects, corny dialogue, and hilariously silly monsters (reportedly portrayed by children in rubber suits). Oh, and its amazing rock-and-roll theme song composed for the U.S. version by Charles Fox (THE NEW, ORIGINAL WONDER WOMAN).

The story, co-written by Batman co-creator Bill Finger, is straight out of a Ziff-Davis comic book and zips through 151 minutes of ARMAGEDDON in about 25. Macho Commander Jack Rankin (lantern-jawed Robert Horton) and astronauts from American space station Gamma 3 are sent on an emergency mission to destroy an asteroid that threatens to smash into Earth. Rankin, his estranged friend Vince Elliott (SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION’s Richard Jaeckel), and the rest of the crew do the job, but a small green glob attaches itself to someone and gets loose about Gamma 3, where it expands to form a seemingly unending supply of dopey creatures that administer deadly shocks with their tentacles.

Kinji Fukasaku (BATTLE ROYALE) directs rapidly and brightly to distract the viewer from the clichĂ©d dialogue, but he can’t disguise the flab that tries to hold together the first-act action on the asteroid and the fight with the monsters in the third. The script concocts a boring and unbelievable love triangle among Rankin, Elliott, and physician Lisa Benson (THUNDERBALL’s Luciana Paluzzi), Elliott’s fiancĂ© and Rankin’s ex, that nobody cares about. It also features a fair amount of blood—both red and green—for a G-rated movie.

And that includes the actors, who aren’t exactly busting their humps. Horton, who left the TV smash WAGON TRAIN in search of greener pastures, couldn’t have been thrilled about acting in a Japanese monster movie. Jaeckel (later in LATITUDE ZERO) was a steady old pro, but neither he nor Horton has an attractive character to play, and Paluzzi was cast for her auburn tresses. Oddly for a Toei production, no Japanese actors appear. Supporting cast includes Robert Dunham (DOGORA), Bud Widom, David Yorston, and Ted Gunther (COP HATER).

Take a gander at the opening credits of THE GREEN SLIME and let the awesomeness of the theme song roll over you:

Sunday, March 03, 2013

His Eminence, Death

Early in his writing career, long before hitting it big with his 1981 novel GORKY PARK and just after penning a pair of Nick Carter potboilers, Martin Cruz Smith invited a unique men's adventure character called the Inquisitor. Francis Xavier Killy is basically a spy for the Catholic Church. Based in The Vatican, Killy is a former CIA agent who takes on missions for the Church. Because he's a Believer and a member of the Church, he must do penance after each mission: ten days on bread and water for every man he kills.

You have to hand it to Smith, who wrote the Killy novels as "Simon Quinn": it's a heck of an idea. I liked the first Inquisitor novel quite a bit, but the fourth, HIS EMINENCE, DEATH (Dell, 1974), is a bit lacking, despite one crackerjack suspense piece. The stakes are low, the action content is low, and the villain isn't terrible interesting.

Cruz sets up the story nicely. A priest is threatened by a black mamba and then shot to death. Another priest is caught in a compromising position with a sexy young black woman. A cardinal awakens in his highly guarded bedroom to discover gore and body parts strewn around.

The villain, whom we unfortunately don't get to know as well as I would have liked, is a one-armed killer with an eye patch, Klein, who is believed to be dead. Cruz spends about half the 159-page paperback setting up the plot, which is that Klein is hired to assassinate a religious fanatic, John Cardinal Mema. Killy is assigned to protect Mema, despite the fact that Mema wants to die a martyr.

Cruz does a good job with the action scenes, but the book's best part contains no "action" at all. Having been seduced into a cruise ship bathtub (see "sexy young black woman" above), Killy freezes to discover his companion is an eight-foot sea snake, the deadliest reptile of all. Instead of relying on brawns or weaponry, Killy has to think his way out of a situation that would have even the best of us frozen in fear.

Despite the good parts, HIS EMINENCE, DEATH didn't work for me as well as the earlier Inquisitor I read. A stronger plot and a beefier part for the villain would have helped, though the novel is admittedly a quick and breezy read.