Patrick Macnee: 1922 to 2015

I was sorry to learn that Patrick Macnee passed away on June 25th at the age of 93. Another actor whose work I grew up with is now gone.

Macnee was a prolific actor who made numerous television appearances over the decades.  He appeared on such diverse shows as The Twilight Zone, Columbo, The Love Boat, Nightman, Diagnosis Murder, Frasier and various TV movies & miniseries.

Macnee also had roles in a number of movies, most notably The Howling, This Is Spinal TapLobster Man From Mars, and the James Bond entry A View to a Kill.

Patrick Macnee John Steed

Amongst his various roles, Macnee will undoubtedly, and very deservedly, be remembered for his iconic portrayal of sophisticated secret agent John Steed from the British television series The Avengers, which aired on ITV from 1961 to 1969.  Macnee as Steed was instantly recognizable, clad in fashionable suits & bowler hat and toting a black umbrella.  A rather tongue-in-cheek espionage / adventure series, The Avengers featured Steed and his colleagues thwarting various outlandish (and occasionally sci-fi tinged) plots by Communist agents, mad scientists and eccentric criminal masterminds.

Macnee had several co-stars during the decade-long run of The Avengers, among them Honor Blackman and Linda Thorson.  He was especially effective in the two seasons when he shared the screen with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel (1965-67).  Macnee and Rigg possessed genuine chemistry.  The playful, witty banter between Steed and Peel was one of the highlights of the show.  Most fans of The Avengers consider the period of the series co-starring Macnee and Rigg to be the best.

John Steed and Emma Peel

I also fondly recall Macnee for his association with the original Battlestar Galactica series that was broadcast from 1978 to 1979.  He actually had three roles on that show: voicing the opening narration, voicing the Cylon Imperious Leader, and portraying the mysterious Count Iblis.

Iblis appeared in the two-part episode “War of the Gods.”  Iblis is a charismatic yet sinister figure who promises to lead the human survivors of the Cylon massacre to the long sought-after lost colony of Earth if they pledge their loyalty to him.  In a plotline influenced by both series creator Glen A. Larson’s Mormon faith and the then-popular book Chariots of the Gods, Iblis is eventually revealed to be a highly evolved extraterrestrial entity who fell from grace and was exiled by his people, becoming a force of temptation & corruption, i.e. a Satanic figure.  It is implied that more than a millennia in the past Iblis played a role in the downfall of the original reptilian Cylons, who were supplanted by their mechanical successors, hence their Imperious Leader having the same voice as the Count.

Patrick Macnee Count Iblis

Macnee played Count Iblis with a wonderful combination of charm and menace.  His performance as this enigmatic figure is a major reason why “War of the Gods” is considered one of the best entries in Battlestar Galactica’s uneven run.

Patrick Macnee was certainly a talented actor.  It was always wonderful to see him appear on television.  He will definitely be missed.

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The Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage

“Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.” – James Madison (1789)

The United States Supreme Court issued two major decisions this week.  The first of these once again upheld the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare.  I previously wrote about the ACA three years ago and my feelings remain pretty much the same.  So feel free to go to that blog post for my opinions concerning that issue.

The other decision arrived at by the Supreme Court, via a 5 to 4 vote, was to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states.  The four liberal and four conservative justices all voted as expected, with the deciding vote cast by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

In cases such as these, where the Court has been split down ideological lines, Kennedy has often (but not always) been the deciding vote.  Kennedy is something of a moderate Conservative, so it sometimes can be difficult to predict which way his swing vote will go.  There was a great deal of speculation as to whether, in voting in this case, Kennedy would maintain his long-held belief in the importance of gay rights, or if he would decide that this was an issue left up to the individual states.

In the end, Kennedy decided in favor of same-sex marriage, and he wrote the majority opinion.

Carlos McKnight of Washington waves a flag in support of same-sex marriage outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday, June 26. (Photo courtesy of CNN.com)

Carlos McKnight of Washington waves a flag in support of same-sex marriage outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday, June 26. (Photo courtesy of CNN.com)

With the 2016 race for the Presidency already under way (and, oh man, the election is over a year away and I’m already getting burned out by all of this nonsense) I fully expect that this is going to become yet another major issue.  I’m sure that most of the Republican candidates (how many are we up to at this point?) are already using the Court’s ruling on gay marriage to forecast gloom & doom, fire & brimstone retribution from the Almighty, and the imminent collapse of civilization as we know it.

You know what?  To hell with them and their hate-mongering.

Honestly, why does it matter if gay people marry?  To anyone who genuinely believes that homosexuality is a sin, I ask you this: how exactly does it affect your life if two total strangers who happen to be gay choose to get married?  If you disapprove, well, fine.  You are entitled to your personal opinions.  There are plenty of things in this world that I believe are immoral.  But I do not go around legislating my beliefs.

If two people, two consenting adults, love one another, then why should they not be able to get married?  How is it anyone else’s business?

In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy states:

“The right to marry is fundamental as a matter of history and tradition, but rights come not from ancient sources alone. They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era. Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here. But when that sincere, personal opposition becomes enacted law and public policy, the necessary consequence is to put the imprimatur of the State itself on an exclusion that soon demeans or stigmatizes those whose own liberty is then denied. Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.”

Despite what some will claim, marriage is a civil institution, not a religious one.  If you want to be married legally, it must be officiated by a justice of the peace or some other agent of the state.  The Court’s ruling is not going to suddenly force priests and rabbis to conduct gay marriages in their churches and synagogues.  I expect that most gay couples are just going to head down to City Hall and tie the knot there.  So, no, this is not going to impose upon your religious rights.

Honestly, this is a country that is supposed to have separation of church and state.  All the attempts to make gay marriage illegal purely on the basis of faith are a prime example of why religion and politics should not become intertwined.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy

I find it ironic that the Republican Party of the 21st Century, the so-called “party of small government,” is so often expanding government intrusion into people’s personal lives, deciding who can and cannot marry, passing judgment on sexual behavior, interfering in the decisions that should be made between a patient and a doctor, and so on.  It seems to me that their idea of “small government” is allowing Big Business to operate in the most reckless manner with absolutely no oversight or restraint, while at the same time prying into the private affairs of citizens in order to appease the Religious Right whose votes they so desperately court.

Besides, I am sick of watching bigots cherry-pick Bible verses to justify their intolerance, forcing their narrow-minded views on the whole of society.  This is why I wholeheartedly believe that faith should be a personal matter.

There are so many problems facing the United States: massive income inequality, unemployment, racism, sexism, inadequate access to medical care, pollution, climate change, terrorism and global political instability.  Those are the issues we need to be worried about, not gay marriage.

I have met gay couples who have been together for many years, who have healthy & stable relationships.  And I have met heterosexual couples who simply have no business being married, who have gotten to the point where they hate each other’s guts, and a divorce is probably the only things that is going to keep them from killing one another.  Heterosexuality is absolutely no guarantee that a marriage will work.

My congratulations to the LGBT community on their victory today.  I hope that there be further progress made in obtaining equal protection under the law in the near future.

John Waters gets Carsick

I did not become a fan of the work of writer & director John Waters until about seven years ago.  Shortly after I began dating Michele in 2008, I finally watched some of Waters’ movies from the 1970s.  Michele is a long-time fan of the so-called “Pope of Trash” and she showed me his cult classics at the first opportunity.  I found his work both shocking and hysterical.

Last month Waters was doing a talk and signing at The Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn to promote the paperback release of his latest book Carsick.  I immediately jumped at the opportunity to meet the famed (or should that be infamous?) filmmaker.  Michele had already met him several years before at a previous book signing but she was happy to come along.

Carsick is subtitled John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, and that is exactly what it is about.  In 2012 the then 66 year old Waters came up with the oddball idea of thumbing rides from Baltimore to San Francisco, to see what sorts of people he’d meet & experiences he’d have, and then to write a book about it.

John Waters Carsick cover

In addition to recounting his actual experiences, Waters indulges in quite a bit of fiction.  Prior to starting his journey west, Waters wrote the first two parts of Carsick, entitled “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen.”  He hypothesizes about what would be the ideal cross-country journey, as well as pondering the most horrible things that could possibly take place.

In that first part Waters effortlessly finds one ride after another and each driver is the epitome of awesome: a millionaire pot dealer, a contestant in a demolition derby, the world’s coolest bank robber, a traveling carnival, and so on.  Conversely, in the second installment the absolute most awful events occur as Waters get picked up by a succession of freaks, among them an alcoholic, a demented fan of his movies, a serial killer groupie, a militant vegetarian, and a fanatical animal rights activist.

It amazes me that a few people asked Waters if any what occurred in these parts actually took place.  He explained in his foreword that the first two thirds of the book are fiction, but I suppose some readers could have skipped that part.  However, you’d think that they would have realized that this was made-up right around the point where Waters gets abducted by a spaceship full of horny homosexual aliens!

These two segments of Carsick feel very much they could be from an unproduced screenplay.  Waters is still a brilliantly twisted writer, with a real ear for memorably offensive dialogue.  I think that perhaps the tone of his screenplays meant that they were very effective in his underground films of the 1970s and early 80s.  In contrast, Waters’ more recent movie, the over-the-top, sexually explicit A Dirty Shame (2004), did not come together as well because the larger budget, well-known actors and slick production values seemed decidedly at odds with his subversive, irreverent sensibilities.

Keeping that in mind, Carsick actually works better than some of Waters’ latter forays into motion pictures.  His wit is still sharp, his imagination as warped as ever.  Reading the book I easily pictured in my mind’s eye his vignettes as being filmed fast & loose on a shoestring budget, just like in the old days.

Anyone who has ever seen Waters’ movies is undoubtedly aware that he delights in putting his characters through all manner of weird, obscene, and just plain awful experiences.  It’s interesting to discover that he’s willing to put his fictional self through exactly the same sorts of misadventures and humiliations.  For all his namedropping and self-promotion, Waters also undoubtedly possesses a very self-deprecating wit.

John Waters Carsick photo

The third and final part of Carsick is titled “The Real Thing” and, yes, it recounts what actually took place when Waters was hitchhiking.  Real life is never all-good or all-bad, so Waters’ journey is somewhere in-between the exciting adventures he envisioned in “The Best” and the terrors he conjured up in “The Worst.”  He ends up waiting long hours at a time for rides, often while stuck in torrential downpours or stifling heat.  The drivers who do eventually pick him up are not the awesome oddballs of his fantasies, but neither are they the criminally insane motorists of his nightmares.  They were for the most part nice, friendly and normal.

So in the end Waters met some interesting people from across the country and had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  He definitely does an entertaining job recounting his journey.

If you are a fan of Waters’ movies then I expect that you will find Carsick to be an enjoyable read.  It is funny and offensive and at times surprisingly sentimental.  It has some of the feel of Waters’ early classics such as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living and Polyester.  One of my favorite lines from Carsick is “My asshole is doing a duet with Connie Francis!”  That should give you a pretty good idea of the tone of the book!

By the way, the cover artwork for Carsick is by Kagan McLeod, whose work I’ve previously seen in comic books and a number of magazines & newspapers.  It’s a nice piece.  McLeod captures Waters’ likeness as well as his larger-than-life personality.

Christopher Lee: 1922 to 2015

Veteran actor Christopher Lee passed away on June 7th at the age of 93.  Judging by the numerous comments and posts that have appeared online in the week since then, Lee had a legion of fans, many of whom grew up watching the movies in which he appeared.  And, yes, I am definitely one of them.

Christopher Lee

Lee led such a long, interesting, full life that entire books could be written about him; I am sure that at least a few already have.  There is no way that I could do his life & career justice by attempting to cover them in a single blog post.  So I am merely going to share my thoughts on him, and on the performances I found most memorable.

One of Lee’s famous early roles was in Dracula, released in the UK in 1958 by Hammer Studios (titled Horror of Dracula in the States).  Lee portrayed what some would argue is the most iconic depiction of the vampire lord.  In the role of Count Dracula, Lee was suave, cultured, and sensual, yet also savage and frightening.

Playing opposite Lee in Dracula was Peter Cushing as Professor Van Helsing.  Lee and Cushing co-starred in a number of films, and they were also very close friends.

The next Dracula movie, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, was not released by Hammer until 1965, with several more sequels following in rapid succession.  Lee reprised his role of the vampire in most of these, albeit very reluctantly.  In later years he commented that he found the dialogue written for him to be atrocious and begged Hammer to utilize some of the lines from the original Bram Stoker novel.  When they refused to acquiesce Lee instead played Dracula mostly dialogue-free.

Christopher Lee Dracula

Lee’s final two performances as Dracula were in movies that I consider quite odd even by Hammer standards.  Dracula A.D. 1972 opens in the late 19th Century, with the vampire and Van Helsing, reprised by Cushing for the first time since 1958, in what appears to be their final battle.  Van Helsing once again manages to slay his undead adversary, only to succumb to his own wounds.  The movie then jumps ahead a century to present day London, where Dracula’s disciples revive him.  Opposing him is Lorrimer Van Helsing, a descendant of Dracula’s adversary portrayed, naturally enough, by Cushing.

The modern day storyline wrapped up a year later in The Satanic Rites of Dracula.  The movie cast Dracula in the role of an apocalyptic super-villain who plotted to wipe out humanity with a mutated strain of the bubonic plague.

By now Lee’s dissatisfaction with having to play Dracula was palpable.  In what appears to be an interesting piece of method acting, Lee as Dracula, contemplating the total eradication of humanity, displays a tangible ennui, and it can simultaneously be read as the vampire’s weariness at his endless cycle of destruction & resurrection and Lee’s frustration at feeling imprisoned in the role.

In any case, this was his final outing as Dracula.  The next year Lee went on record, stating…

“I will not play that character anymore. I no longer wish to do it, I no longer have to do it and I no longer intend to do it. It is now a part of my professional past, just one of the roles I have played in a total of 124 films.”

Despite his despondency as having to repeatedly reprise Dracula for Hammer, Lee nevertheless acted in numerous other movies made by the studio.  A part of that was obviously due to his desire for steady work, but he also appeared to have a real fondness, if not for the studio’s management, then for his fellow actors, and for the people working behind the cameras.

In his 1997 foreword to The Hammer Story, a look at the history of Hammer Studios by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, Lee wrote…

“Hammer inspired some superb work from a talented group of technicians and actors. Even our canteen, run by Mrs Thompson, was the best in the country. I know this has become a cliché, but, for a while, we really were a family.”

Certainly some of the Hammer movies that Lee appeared in were quite good.  One of my all-time favorites is The Devil Rides Out (1968).  In one of his all too rare turns as a hero, Lee portrayed the Duc de Richleau, an expert in the occult who uses his knowledge & abilities to fight against the forces of darkness.  The movie was adapted from Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name by another talented writer, Richard Matheson.  Lee knew Wheatley personally, and one gets the impression that the actor was keen to ensure the adaptation of his friend’s work turned out as well as possible.  Without a doubt The Devil Rides Out is an amazing movie, and it was one of the few that, decades later, Lee would look back upon with genuine satisfaction.

Christopher Lee The Devil Rides Out

Lee worked on numerous other movies outside of Hammer’s output.  That aforementioned desire for steady work meant that Lee would accept nearly any job offer.  And he certainly was offered a great many, as he was a very talented actor.  As noted by the website TV Tropes, “Christopher Lee made a career out of doing any role at a reasonable price without excessive prima-donnaism. In other words, if you could fork up the cash, you’d get a classy talent who’d play any role.”

Of course, this inevitably resulted in Lee appearing in some really bad movies.  Sturgeon’s Law states that “ninety percent of everything is crap.”  Well, Lee undoubtedly appeared in a lot of crap.  It definitely speaks to his talent and professionalism, though, that he was almost inevitably the best thing in most of those awful movies.  Often his presence in an otherwise-execrable production would be the one thing preventing it from being a total disaster.

Regarding some of the less-than-noteworthy movies that he appeared in, Lee philosophically observed…

“Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.”

All of this comes to mind with Lee’s performance in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).  Lee was related to author Ian Fleming, who unsuccessfully attempted to have him cast as Dr. No in the very first Bond film.  It’s regrettable that did not come to pass, although twelve years later Lee finally had an opportunity to play a Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun.  Unfortunately it is one of the campiest entries ever in the Bond film series.  The highlight of the movie is undoubtedly Lee’s portrayal of Scaramanga, the world’s most dangerous assassin.

Actually, the cinematic version of Scaramanga is a definite improvement over the literary one.  In the novel, Scaramanga was a crude, sadistic thug whose only distinguishing quality was his incredible prowess with a gun.  In contrast, Lee’s Scaramanga was cultured, sophisticated and chilling in his casually ruthless actions.  It was a memorable performance in a somewhat mediocre movie.

Christopher Lee Peter Cushing Horror Express

Fortunately, amidst all the rubbish Lee appeared in were a number of quality films.  In 1972 Lee was reunited with Cushing when they co-starred in Horror Express, a Spanish / British co-production about a monster stalking the passengers of the Trans-Siberian Express.  Horror Express contains another of Lee’s infrequent turns as the protagonist.  Despite its low budget, the movie’s intelligent script coupled with Lee and Cushing’s performances make it enjoyable.  I just re-watched it about a week ago and it’s still entertaining.

Of course, when it comes to listing Lee’s greatest movies, mention must be made of The Wicker Man (1973).  Written by Anthony Shaffer and directed by Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man featured Lee in the role of Lord Summerisle.  On numerous occasions Lee cited it as one of his favorite performances.

I saw The Wicker Man in the mid-1990s when I was in college at Pace University. Rebecca Martin, who taught two of the literature classes that I took while I was a student there, screened the movie one evening as part of an informal series of films that members of the Lit/Com Department were presenting.

The Wicker Man is not a horror movie per se, but it is definitely horrifying.  It is a film about religious fanaticism.  Perhaps that is why I found Lee’s performance so riveting and creepy.  Unlike so many of the other antagonists he portrayed over the decades, there actually are many individuals such as Summerisle in the real world, a charismatic man who regards himself as “good” but who exhorts others to commit terrible acts in the name of religion.

Christopher Lee The Wicker Man

Lee’s career was on the wane in the 1980s and 90s, although he did pop up here and there.  However, with the dawning of the 21st Century, Lee suddenly became very much in-demand, and was once again being offered numerous roles.

Lee was a longtime fan of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.  He stated on several occasions that he re-read the trilogy once a year.  One of his longtime ambitions was to appear as Gandalf in a cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s works.  The stars finally aligned in 2001 as Peter Jackson began filming his adaptation of the trilogy.  By this time Lee was unfortunately too old to play Gandalf, but he was cast in the role of Saruman, the once-noble wizard who was corrupted by power and ambition.

I haven’t actually seen the three Lord of the Rings movies all the way through.  Like Tolkien’s novels, they are loooooong!  Actually, I never finished the original books either.  One of these days I really need to, at the very least, obtain the DVDs and take the time to watch the trilogy.  I’ve heard so many good things about them.

Lee’s old friend Peter Cushing had appeared in the original Star Wars, playing Governor Tarkin.  It was therefore quite appropriate that George Lucas cast Lee himself in the second and third prequel films, Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Lee portrayed Count Dooku, a former Jedi who had turned to the Dark Side.  He also voiced Dooku in the animated movie The Clone Wars (2008) which was set between those two films.

It was somewhat frustrating that Lucas’ scripts offered very little to explain Dooku’s fall from grace.  Nevertheless, despite the limited development of the character, Lee memorably brought the Sith Lord to life, imbuing him with gravitas and menace.

(Thinking about it, I am left wondering if Lucas was influenced by Saruman when casting Lee as Dooku. There are definite similarities to the characters.)

Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings introduced Lee to an entirely new generation of viewers, and gained him many new fans.  He was subsequently cast in various high-profile projects. After decades of toiling in low-budget movies, at long last he finally gained real prominence, as well as a decent paycheck.

Christopher Lee Count Dooku

Lee appeared in 206 films made over a 67 year period.  However there were definitely many other aspects to his life.  Lee was also an accomplished singer, recording a number of albums, including heavy metal.  He spoke several languages fluently, and he was an expert fencer.

Lee was also a World War II veteran.  This was an aspect of his life that he mostly kept to himself, offering sparse details.  He was assigned to the Special Operations Executive, which was also known as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare… and what a very British name that is!  Apparently Lee participated in a number of covert operations behind enemy lines.  At the end of the war he was reportedly involved in hunting down Nazi war criminals.  In regards to the specifics of his military service, Lee would only comment

“I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read into that what they like.”

Lee also had this to say about his experiences during the war…

“I’ve seen many men die right in front of me – so many in fact that I’ve become almost hardened to it. Having seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the results of torture, mutilation and seeing someone blown to pieces by a bomb, you develop a kind of shell. But you had to. You had to. Otherwise we would never have won.”

It seems likely that during the war Lee not only witnessed but was also required to commit many deeply unpleasant acts.  I imagine that his reluctance to discuss this was motivated by the fact that he did not regard himself as a hero, but merely as someone who did his duty to help keep his country safe.

I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet Christopher Lee.  I’ve sometimes commented that he was the real life version of “the world’s most interesting man.”

Christopher Lee narrator

A number of years ago one of his Hammer Studios movies, Scars of Dracula, was released on DVD.  It is a rather unremarkable entry in the Dracula series.  Nevertheless, I purchased it because it included a second bonus disk containing a documentary, The Many Faces of Christopher Lee.  Indeed this nearly hour-long piece was infinitely more entertaining than the Dracula movie.

In the documentary,  Lee speaks at length about his career and on of a variety of subjects, including his knowledge of fencing, his spirituality, and his great-grandmother, the English-born Marie Carandini who was an acclaimed opera singer in 19th Century Australia.  Lee discussed his thoughts on roles in specific movies, and there were brief clips of these, among them The Devil Rides Out, Rasputin, Hannie Caulder, The Three Musketeers, The Wicker Man and his 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live.

If you can find The Many Faces of Christopher Lee on DVD then I highly recommend getting it.  It offers a fascinating glimpse of a multi-talented man who led an extraordinary life.

Grand Comics Festival 2015 in Brooklyn

Last Saturday afternoon I went to the Grand Comics Festival at Bird River Studios, located at 343 Grand Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  It was a mini comic book convention for independent and small press creators.  This is the third year that the Festival has been held.

Grand Comics Fest billboard

The guest I was most looking forward to meeting was James Romberger, whose work I‘ve enjoyed for a number of years.  Romberger has been a frequent contributor to the political comics anthology World War 3 Illustrated.  He his work also appeared in various volumes of the DC Comics / Paradox Press Big Book of series, including The Big Book of Death, The Big Book of Losers and The Big Book of Urban Legends. He drew several stories for the Papercutz revival of Tales of the Crypt.

Romberger has also written numerous articles about the comic book medium.  Among these, he has penned some very insightful analyses of the works of Jack Kirby.

As I was aware that Romberger was a fan of Kirby, I wanted to ask him to contribute a drawing to my Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook.  Romberger looked through it and claimed that he was a bit intimidated by the quality of the pieces done by previous artists.  Nevertheless he agreed to do a sketch.  His sketch was definitely very lovely.  I really appreciate the effort that he put into this piece.

Grand Comics Fest James Romberger

There were so many talented creators with really interesting books for sale at the Festival.  I really wish that I’d had more money to spend, but I’d just paid the rent less than a week earlier.  Even so, I was able to make a few purchases.

I picked up The Late Child and Other Animals, a collaboration between Romberger and his wife Marguerite Van Cook, herself a writer and artist (as well as a member of the late 1970s punk band The Innocents).  The book recounts the story of Van Cook’s mother, and of her own early life in England.  I’m looking forward to reading this one very soon, and hopefully I will have an opportunity to discuss it in an upcoming post here.

It was good to see Josh Neufeld again.  I bought a copy of The Vagabonds #4, the latest issue of his autobiographical series that is now being published through Hang Dai Editions.  Over on his own blog, Neufeld describes The Vagabonds #4 as “a spicy blend of journalism, social commentary, memoir, and literary fiction.”  I’ve often found his works to be very thoughtful and moving, so I expect that this will also be a quality read.

At the show with Neufeld was his wife Sari Wilson.  This is my first time meeting her, although I felt like I already knew her.  Neufeld’s previous issues of The Vagabonds chronicled the couple’s eventful life together, including their experiences backpacking through Southeast Asia.  It was nice to finally meet Wilson, who wrote three of the stories in The Vagabonds #4.

Neufeld was selling several books by his Hang Dai studio mate Seth Kushner.  Sadly, Kushner passed away only a few short weeks ago after a long battle with cancer.  I don’t believe that I ever had the opportunity to meet him.  Judging from the reminiscences that have been written by his friends and colleagues, Kushner was both a talented creator and a nice guy.

Secret Sauce Comix #1 is an anthology that contains Kushner’s collaborations with several artists, published by Hang Dai Editions.  I haven’t read it yet, but I glanced through it and it appears offbeat and interesting.

Secret Sauce Comix 1 cover

I also purchased Mr. Incompleto, the latest project by independent creator Josh Bayer, whose work I enjoy.  Bayer has this insane, hyper-detailed yet cartoony style to his work.  A fan of the Marvel comic books from the 1960s and 70s, and filters that through the prism of underground comix, resulting in appealingly bizarre stories.

Finally, I bought a couple of issues of Tales of the Night Watchman, a mystery / horror series written by Dave Kelly published by So What? Press.  What attracted my attention was the pulpy-yet-cartoony cover for one of these, with the eye-catching title “It Came from the Gowanus Canal.”

There were quite a few other books that I was contemplating purchasing.  As I said, if I’d had more money to spend I definitely would have gotten more of them.  But I needed to save some funds to do the laundry the next day, and the need for clean socks & underwear sadly outweighed my interest in comic books.

The Grand Comics Festival was a fun, relaxed show.  I hope that it returns again next year, and that I’ll have the opportunity to get some of the comics that I had to pass on this time.

Comic book reviews: Stray “Who Killed the Doberman?”

Stray is a project that writer Vito Delsante has had in the works for a few years now.  Following the completion of a successful Kickstarter campaign, the four issue Stray miniseries was published by Action Lab Entertainment, with the conclusion released last week.

Stray 1 cover

Delsante and artist Sean Izaakse tell an interesting variation on an old superhero formula.  The protagonist of Stray is Rodney Weller.  When he was in his early teens Rodney was the costumed crime fighter the Rottweiler, partner to the vigilante known as the Doberman.  There are certainly parallels to the classic Batman & Robin relationship here, although Rodney is the Doberman’s actual son, and the Doberman did not become a masked hero until after his wife died.

Through a series of flashbacks Delsante & Izaakse show Rodney becoming the Rottweiler and fighting at his father’s side.  We also see the eventual, biter break-up of their partnership.  Rodney becomes convinced that his father regards everything in stark terms of good and evil, and is unable to recognize that some criminals are not actually bad people, but have been driven to break the law by economic desperation.

The disillusioned Rodney leaves home and becomes a sought-after organizer of parties & raves.  Along the way he becomes something of a criminal himself, peddling the addictive drug Gsmack to club-goers.

Unfortunately for Rodney his latest girlfriend kills herself while under the influence of Gsmack.  He is hauled in by the cops for drug possession and manslaughter.  At the police station Rodney then receives more bad news courtesy of Detective Brooks: the Doberman has been murdered.

Stray 2 pg 5

Although the “Who Killed the Doberman?” story arc is ostensibly a murder mystery, it is really concerned with examining Rodney and his ambivalent feelings towards his father.  With the Doberman dead, Rodney is left with a great deal of unresolved anger towards his father as well as his former allies.  He is also uncertain if he should follow in his father’s footsteps and assume the identity of the Doberman in order to track down the killer.

I know that I often complain about decompressed writing in comic books, so perhaps it’s odd for me to suggest that this story might have worked better if it had been an issue longer.  At the end of part three Brooks informs Rodney that he’s figured out the identity of the murderer.  I was surprised because I didn’t think that Delsante had presented any real clues, much less actual suspects.  When I bought issue #4, though, I first re-read the previous three issues, and this time I did notice that Delsante had sprinkled in a few subtle clues here & there.

It was also odd that Delsante never gives the murderer any sort of motive other than good old fashioned insanity.  It felt like there should have been an explanation for why the killer specifically chose the Doberman and the other victims.  There seems to be some sort of history connecting them all that Delsante just barely hints at.  Well, at least it gives him something to explore in a subsequent miniseries.

Delsante is perhaps overly ambitious in these four issues of Stray.  He introduces a large supporting cast and alludes to various complex relationships and past events without having the room to really delve into any of them.  However, Delsante is nevertheless successful in the primary focus of his story.  He develops Rodney into an interesting, three-dimensional character (although he never explains how Rodney got into dealing drugs).  And, again, all of that background material lays the potential groundwork for a number of future stories.  I really would like to find out more about all of these characters and their histories.

Stray 3 pg 9

I was previously not familiar with Izaakse.  So naturally I did the Google thing.  It appears that Izaakse is relatively new to the biz.  Before Stray he worked on Pathfinder, a fantasy series published by Dynamite.  For someone who has only been doing comics for a few years, Izaakse work here on Stray is very good.  His action sequences are definitely dynamic and exciting.  There is also a great deal of detail to his art.

More significantly, in a story such as Delsante’s, which is very concerned with character development, there are a number of lengthy scenes of dialogue.  Izaakse adeptly handles these “talking heads” sequences.  He lays out those pages very well, turning in some strong storytelling.  The narrative definitely flows well from panel to panel.

Stray 3 cover

A number of artists contributed covers to Stray.  The prolific Mike Norton illustrated the cover for the debut issue.  ChrisCross, a really dynamic artist whose work I definitely enjoy, drew the cover for issue #3.  Hold on a sec, is that an actual pit bull behind the wheel of that car?!?  Man, that’s just too cool.  Yeah, I think that future issues of Stray should have Rodney going out on patrol with his dog Sam.  Maybe Sam really can drive a car!

There were variant covers for Stray as well.  Khary Randolph, Shawn McGuan, Paige Pumphrey and Julian Lopez each drew a really cool variant, and I wish that I’d been able to get copies of them.

In conclusion, while there are several hiccups to Delsante’s writing, on the whole he does quality work on Stray.  I really hope to see more from him in the near future.  Rodney is too good a character not to be featured again.  The letters page in in issue #4 announced that Stray will be co-starring with Molly Danger and Midnight Tiger in a special scheduled for release in November, which is good news.

Stray TPB cover by Dean Haspiel

I certainly recommend this miniseries.  It’s a good read with quality art.  If you missed these issues then you are in luck.  In what is an extremely fast turnaround, Action Lab is releasing a Stray: Who Killed the Doberman? trade paperback on June 10th.  The amazing Dean Haspiel illustrated a brand-new cover for this collected edition.  So there’s your second chance to pick this one up.