Ten thoughts about Stranger Things 3

Last year Michele started watching the first season of the horror series Stranger Things on Netflix.  I was on my own laptop, doing something else, but from time to time I would turn to her and ask “What are you watching?” and “What’s it about?” and “What’s happening in it?” and “What’s happening now?”

Michele finally got fed up with this and shouted “Just come over here and watch the damn thing with me!!!”  Not wanting to argue, I did, jumping in as she was watching episode six.  I quickly caught up on what has taking place, and I really enjoyed the rest of it.  I nicknamed it “John Carpenter’s The Goonies,” and was not at all surprised to learn that both that director and that movie had been influences on the Duffer Brothers.

Immediately after that we watched Stranger Things 2, which we both liked.  So when season three came out on Netflix this month, we also watched it.

ST3 logo

Here are some thoughts on the latest installment of the Duffer Brothers weird magnum opus…

1) The 1980s Sucked

Nostalgia can be a very dangerous thing. I grew up in the 1980s. I was nine years old in 1985, which is when Stranger Things 3 is set, so I would have been a few years younger than most of the characters in the show.  Honestly, I hated the eighties.  I’m certainly not the only one.  All of the faux machismo of the Reagan years and the worship of unbridled greed was anathema to me.  I was a geek who read a lot of books and comics, and I had very few friends.  I guess I probably would have fit in with Mike and Dustin and the rest of those guys, except…

2) Puberty Strikes!

The younger characters are now in their early teens, and it shows.  Actors Finn Wolfhard and Noah Schnapp both experienced serious growth spurts between seasons!  Millie Bobby Brown also looks older.  Character-wise, all of the boys have discovered girls, except for Will, and he’s understandably frustrated that his pals are now off hanging out with their girlfriends instead of playing Dungeons & Dragons with him.

I can certainly relate.  I was definitely a late bloomer emotionally.  When most of my classmates in high school were dating and hanging out and socializing, I was usually at home with my nose buried in a comic book.  Now that I’m older, I understand why Mike and Lucas are busy trying to mend things with Eleven and Max, and why Dustin is trying to get in touch with Suzie, but I also totally relate to Will’s frustrations at feeling left out.

ST3 Mike and Eleven

This is our “Attempting to look perfectly innocent and failing utterly at it” expression. How are we doing?

3) Slow the Plot Down

Strangers Things 3 had a lot of characters and plotlines.  I think it was a bit overloaded.  The plot concerning the Mind Flayer returning and turning the inhabitants of Hawkins, Indiana into a giant monster to kill Eleven never really intersected with the plot of the Russians building a secret base under the Starcourt Mall to re-open the gate to the Upside Down, other than the fact that the Russians’ experiments are what enabled the Mind Flayer to return in the first place.

There were also new characters being introduced, primarily Maya Hawke as Robin, adding to an already-large ensemble. All of the characters had their own subplots, especially the volatile romantic tension between Joyce and Hopper that lasted the entire season.

All of this resulted in the first three episodes of Stranger Things 3 moving at a glacial place as the Duffer Brothers had to take the time to introduce and position every element of the season.  I was getting bored, wondering when something was going to actually happen.  Each time something did occur, and it looked like things were finally picking up, there would then be a switch to another group of characters, accompanied by an almost-audible sound of someone slamming on the brakes.

Once episode four began events almost immediately rocketed into high gear, and didn’t let up for the rest of the series.  But those first three episodes were a drag.  I really think that all of that could have been condensed into two episodes.  There was so much padding that I started singing the song “Slow the Plot Down” from Mystery Science Theater 3000 to myself.

4) Assholes R Us

There are a lot of assholes in Hawkins.  The mayor, the entire staff of the town newspaper, the lifeguards at the town pool, random yuppie assholes who are passing through… so many assholes!  Even the stoic, curmudgeonly Sherriff Jim Hopper, portrayed so wonderfully by David Harbour in the first two seasons, descended into full asshole-dom.  The AV Club announced “Stranger Things season 3 ruined Hopper” although there is a lot of insightful back & forth in the comments section that does shed light on why Hopper’s actions are actually all-too-realistic.

Looking back from the perspective of 2019, if one re-examines the mindset of the Baby Boomer generation, it is definitely possible to perceive the deeply pervasive presence of toxic masculinity.  That was unfortunately the norm back then, the idea that men had to be tough and ambitious and in-charge and stoic, not showing any feelings except anger.  Even a basically decent person like Hopper falls into that trap, because that’s how he was raised.

Of course, there are two characters who illustrate this even more clearly…

ST3 Billy

Hide your kids, hide your wife…

5) Helloooo, Ladies!

Steve and Billy are opposite sides of the same coin.

Back in season one Steve was the arrogant school jock, the alpha male you loved to hate.  But along the way Steve actually began to grow up.  He helped Nancy and Jonathan fight the Mind Flayer at the end of season one.

In the second year of the show, Steve became like a big brother to the socially awkward Dustin.  When Nancy broke up with him, Steve was able to recognize that he hadn’t been a very good boyfriend to her.  Now in season three he tells Robin that he wishes he hadn’t spent so much time in high school worrying about unimportant things, with impressing other people, and that his priorities were messed up.  Steve is able to recognize his past mistakes, and is working to try to be a better, more mature person.

In contrast we have Billy, the current town asshole.  He is a bully and a womanizer.  In season two he was shown to be abusive to his stepsister Max, as well as racist.  He spends his summer days as a lifeguard at the town pool, strutting about, seducing bored, horny housewives.

We previously learned that the apple did not fall far from the tree.  In season two we briefly met Billy’s father, who was emotionally and physically abusive towards his son.  This is further explored in season three. When Eleven uses her psychic powers to delve into Billy’s mind in order to search for the Mind Flayer’s location, she sees from Billy’s memories that he used to be a really sweet kid, but that his father’s abuse, his attempts to “toughen up” Billy, drove away his loving mother and warped him into a monster.  It’s only at the end, when Eleven reminds Billy of his happier childhood days before his mother left, that he tries to be a better person, and he sacrifices himself to save Eleven from the Mind Flayer.

Joe Keery does good work playing Steve. As for Dacre Montgomery as Billy… wow, I was genuinely surprised to find out that in real life he’s an Australian who writes poetry. He does such a convincing job playing an American white trash douchebag. Now that is acting!

6) Russian Dressing

Michele and I both wondered if the plotline with the Russians was a commentary on contemporary American politics.  In Stranger Things 3 the Russians are able to infiltrate America, build a secret underground headquarters, and cause a catastrophic crisis in large part due to their collaborating with a greedy, arrogant, loud-mouthed politician with weird hair who sells them a bunch or real estate.   Yeah, that does sound more than a bit familiar.

7) Wait A Minute… That Was Who?!?

I don’t think I even noticed until at least a couple of episodes into the second season that Joyce Byers was played by Winona Ryder.  Yes, she’s quite a bit older than she used to be.  But Joyce is also the most un-Winona Ryder-ish part I have ever seen her play.  She does really good work portraying a working class single mother who has to cope with all sorts of tragedy and weirdness over the course of three seasons.  Ryder also has good chemistry with David Harbour, making the scenes between Joyce and Hopper both poignant and entertaining… well usually.  Occasionally the “will they or won’t they” antics do get a bit tiresome.

ST3 Joyce and Hopper

No, Jim, I am NOT going to start singing the theme song from Moonlighting!

8) Turn Around, Look At What You See

I’ve always liked the movie The NeverEnding Story, and I think the theme song by Limahl is cute and catchy.  So it was sort of fun to have Dustin and Suzie sing it… except the timing was oh so horribly wrong!

You see, Hopper wouldn’t have died if they hadn’t been singing that damn song! If Suzie had just given Dustin the number for Planck’s constant right away, Hopper and Joyce would have gotten the keys out of the safe two minutes sooner and been able to shut down the gate to the Upside Down before Grigori the Russian Terminator arrived.  Others also came to the same conclusion.  Thanks for nothing, Suzie!

9) R.I.P. Hopper???

A lot of people, Michele and myself included, are wondering if Hopper is really dead, and if David Harbour is going to return for Stranger Things 4.  We never actually see Hopper die on-screen.  No body usually means no actual death.

And then there is the mid-credits epilogue, where we find out that the Russians have an American prisoner looked up in a Siberian base.  That could be Hopper… but I’ve also heard it suggested that it might be Brenner.  Yes, he was attacked by the Demogorgon in the final episode of Season One, but again we never saw a body, and it was hinted in the second year that he might still be alive.

Even if that is not Hopper in the Russian prison, it’s been suggested that he might have jumped through the portal into the Upside Down before the gate exploded, hoping to find another way out.  That’s what happened to Eleven after the first season.  I guess we will have to wait and see.  When is Stranger Things 4 coming out, anyway?!?

ST3 Hopper

What do you mean, my character dies? Oh, well, at least I still have the Hellboy movie franchise to fall back on. Right?

10) To Be Continued

There is definitely going to be at least one more season of Stranger Things.  I am looking forward to it.  In addition to Hopper’s fate, I also what to see if Eleven and Mike stay together, and if Eleven ever regains her powers.  Plus it would be nice to see Sam Owens return.  At least Paul Reiser got a cameo in the final episode of this season.

Nevertheless, I really do hope the Duffer Brothers and Netflix will wrap up Stranger Things after the fourth installment.  While I definitely enjoyed the third season, it was not without its problems: too many characters, too many plotlines, three really slow opening episodes.  Also, each season the Duffer Brothers keep upping the threat levels.  They keep going too much longer and they are going to end up with some sort of giant monster trying to eat the entire planet.

Oh, well, we’re still at the point where the show’s strengths still outweigh its weaknesses.  Fingers crossed!

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Comic book reviews: Exorsisters #1

Halloween is just around the corner, so I felt I ought to post about something that tied in to that spooky, kooky holiday.  I was at a loss, at least until the first issue of the comic book series Exorsisters came out earlier this month.  A horror comedy written by Ian Boothby and illustrated by Gisele Lagace, Exorsisters is published by Image Comics.

The protagonists of Exorsisters are Cate and Kate Harrow, apparent twin sisters who are polar opposites.  Cate is serious, intellectual and focused, while Kate is silly, wild, and flighty.  Despite their differences, the siblings work together as paranormal investigators.

By the way, I say “apparent twin sisters” because this issue strongly implies that there is actually something much more complicated, and sinister, involved in the relationship between Cate and Kate.

Exorsisters 1 cover

The first issue opens on a wedding ceremony held outside on a beautiful day; Glenn and Gloria are ready to exchange their vows.  However, before the ceremony can be completed, a horrified Gloria witnesses demons manifesting themselves to drag her fiancé off to Hell wrapped in flaming chains.  At least, that’s what Gloria sees; the rest of the wedding party is under the impression that nothing supernatural has taken place, and that Glenn has merely left poor Gloria at the altar.

Fortunately for Gloria, the priest who was conducting the ceremony has worked with Cate and Kate in the past, and the Harrow sisters are quickly called in.  At first, even to their eyes it appears that nothing unusual has taken place, although Cate soon detects “a mix of sulfur and tragedy,” indications that a demon has indeed been present.

Realizing that there’s only on way to be certain of what occurred, Cate and Kate open a portal to Hell itself and descend into the underworld, to learn if Glenn is truly being held prisoner there.

Exorsisters 1 pg 4

I am not familiar with Ian Boothby, although it seems he’s written a fair amount in the past.  He certainly does good work with Exorsisters #1, penning a story that is very humorous, but at the same time possesses some genuinely dark and unsettling moments.

As for Gisele Lagace, I recall seeing her work in the past for Archie Comics, although I never really followed any books she worked on.  She is definite a very talented artist.  Her style is cartoony, but possessed of enough realism.  It’s a good fit for Boothby’s script, with its dual emphasis on comedy and horror.

Lagace does a fine job of bringing Cate and Kate to life.  It’s clear from her artwork that they are identical twins (or at least that we are supposed to believe they are) yet she also gives each of them a very distinct & expressive personalities, adeptly rendering the reserved Cate and irreverent Kate.  She also illustrates this well on her cover for the first issue.

Looking at Lagace’s artwork, it reminds me somewhat of both Cliff Chiang and Darwyn Cooke’s styles.  I love both artists, so I’m certainly happy to find another comic book creator working within what I’d have to describe as a “noir animated” style.

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The coloring by Pete Pantazis is a fine match for Lagace’s line work, and certainly amplifies the mood and atmosphere of the story.  The scenes set in Hell especially seemed to benefit from his color work.

Exorsisters does feel like a very female-centered book.  Cate and Kate, the main characters, are, in spite of their personality quirks, depicted as competent individuals.  There is also their client Gloria.  Without giving too much away, the Harrow sisters discover that Gloria has basically been the victim of supernatural gaslighting.  Definitely unwilling to be a victim, once the truth is revealed Gloria quickly asserts herself.

The only criticism I had of Exorsisters #1 was that it was such a short read.  I guess, as with other current comic books, at $3.99 a pop I keep hoping to find issues that are more than a 15 minute read.  Nevertheless, despite the quick pace of the story, I did enjoy it, and it offered enough hooks that I am interested in picking up the next one.

Exorsisters 1 variant cover

Also noteworthy is the variant cover for Exorsisters #1 by Pia Guerra.  It’s a striking piece showing Cate and Kate Harrow in Hell surrounded by demons.  Guerra renders it in her own style, but at the same time effectively captures the tone present in Lagace’s work for this series.  Guerra has done great work on various comic book series, as well as in her political cartoons for The New Yorker and The Nib, which are very effective and powerful.  According to Wikipedia, Guerra is married to Boothby.  I’m glad he asked her to contribute a cover for this series.

Steve Ditko’s ghost stories

Last week it was announced that legendary comic book creator Steve Ditko had passed away in late June.  He was 90 years old.

Ditko is best known for having co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange at Marvel Comics in the early 1960s.  However, he was actually a prolific creator who worked on innumerable titles for a variety of publishers, as well as a number of creator-owned self-published projects, during a career that lasted 65 years, from 1953 until the time of his death.

I wanted to pay tribute to Ditko, but I never worked with him or met him, and so outside of a brief correspondence with him several years ago I cannot say I knew him.  Certainly I am ill-equipped to assemble a comprehensive overview & analysis of his career such as the one that appeared in The Comics Journal.

It then occurred to me to look at one period, one facet of Ditko’s career that especially appealed to me, and explain why I held it in such high personal regard.  I am going to take a brief look at Ditko’s work on the Charlton Comics horror anthologies of the 1970s.

Ghostly Haunts 23

About a week ago I happened to be chatting with comic book creator Dean Haspiel.  During our talk, we briefly touched on the subject of horror comics.  I broached the opinion that horror is a genre that is often difficult to utilize effectively in the medium of comic books.  Haspiel appeared to concur, and suggested it can be difficult for many artists to effectively utilize the pacing and storytelling and layouts necessary to convey true horror & suspense, with many instead relying on gore & violence.

(I’m paraphrasing what Dean said, so don’t take any of the above for a direct quote!)

Just a few hours later the news broke of Steve Ditko’s passing.  It immediately hit me square in the face that one of the few comic book artists who did genuinely excel at illustrating horror material was none other than Ditko himself.  Certainly that talent was frequently on display in his work for Charlton.

Located in Derby CT, Charlton was infamous for its low rates paid to creators and the cheap quality of its printing.  However the company also had very little in the way of corporate or editorial oversight.  This was something that appealed to Ditko, who very much valued his creative independence.

Ghostly Haunts 23 pg 3

“Treasure of the Tomb” page 3 from Ghostly Haunts 23 (March 1972)

In my teens and 20s I had seen reprints of Ditko’s Spider-Man and Doctor Strange stories, as well as his more recent work for Marvel from the 1980s.  Though I liked it, there wasn’t anything that especially appealed to me.  At times I even found his art to be weird and off-putting.

About a decade and a half ago I was at a local comic book convention where I happened to buy a few back issues of some of the Charlton horror anthologies.  One of these issues was Ghostly Haunts #23 (March 1972) which featured a striking cover by Ditko.  Inside this issue were two stories illustrated by Ditko, “Treasure of the Tomb” and “Return Visit,” both of which I later learned had been written by Joe Gill.

Let me tell you, Ghostly Haunts #23 was a genuine revelation.  I don’t think I truly “got” Ditko’s work until that point.  His art on those two stories struck me like a thunderbolt.

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“Return Visit” page 2 from Ghostly Haunts #23 (March 1972)

Ditko’s layouts, the pacing of his stories, his heavy inking, the contorted body language & wide-eyed, twisted facial expressions of his figures, all combined to create a palpable mood of fear and anxiety and tangible horror.  Ditko genuinely excelled at generating an atmosphere of dread and suspense, of unsettling people and places that were more than slightly askew.

I also loved Ditko’s beautiful, sexy depiction of Ghostly Haunts hostess Winnie the Witch.  Ditko’s women often exuded a dangerous sensuality, and that was certainly present in his depictions of Winnie, who was cute but also possessed of a coy edginess.  Additionally, I enjoyed the effective way in which Ditko had Winnie lurking on the borders of the pages, or in-between panels, an omnipresent spectator who was almost but not quite involved in the proceedings of the narratives.

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“Web of Evil” page 3 from Ghostly Haunts #31 (April 1973)

Subsequently I began searching out other back issues of the various Charlton horror anthologies.  The prolific Ditko illustrated dozens of stories for the company in the 1970s, appearing in numerous issues of Ghost Manor, Ghostly Haunts, Ghostly Tales, Haunted, Scary Tales, and others, making his work fairly easy to locate.

Additionally, 20 of the horror stories that Ditko did for Charlton were subsequently collected together in black & white volume Steve Ditko’s 160 Page Package.  This was released in 1999 by Robin Snyder, who printed & distributed many of Ditko’s later works.

At times the stories in the Charlton anthologies were clichéd or repetitive or predictable.  Since the pay rates were so low, Gill and his colleagues often had to literally crank these things out one after another in order to be able to make a decent living.  Nevertheless, in spite of the variable quality of the writing, as well as his own low page rates, Ditko invariably gave it his best, always producing eerie, unsettling, effective work of a high caliber.

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“The Moon Beast” page 7 from Ghostly Tales #106 (August 1973)

Being exposed Ditko’s work on these books rapidly caused me to re-appraise his other material.  Soon after I re-read the Essential Doctor Strange Volume One, and enjoyed it tremendously.  It’s since become one of my favorite trade paperbacks, either to read yet again, or just to flip through to marvel (no pun intended) at the exquisite artwork.

I’ve also began to look more favorably on Ditko’s work for DC Comics in the late 1960s, where he created such unusual characters as Hawk & Dove, the Creeper, and Shade the Changing Man.  Fortunately much of this material has now been collected, making it much easier to obtain.

I serious doubt I will ever find myself in agreement with the Objectivist philosophies that became prevalent in Ditko’s later creations and stories, but I certainly appreciate the craft and talent that was on display in his artwork.

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“The Crew that was Hanged” page 7 from Ghostly Tales #122 (August 1976)

Steve Ditko was a unique creator possessed of one of the most distinctive, individual voices to have ever worked within the medium of comic books.  His work for Charlton in the 1970s represents but a fraction of his output.  Nevertheless it remains among my favorite material by Ditko, for the quality present within it, the visceral impact it delivered, and the fact that it led me to a deeper appreciation for his entire body of work.

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter rides again!

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter is an odd entry in the Hammer Studios horror oeuvre. After a couple of decades of movies featuring middle-aged scholars struggling against monsters and supernatural menaces, Captain Kronos introduces a young, handsome, aristocratic swordsman as its hero. The movie was written & directed by Brian Clements, who previously had a prolific career in British television.

Clements is probably best known for his decade-long association with the spy-fi series The Avengers, and he brought much of the energy & ingenuity of that show to Captain Kronos. The movie was a deft blending of swashbuckling action and gothic horror.  Clemens had conceived of Kronos as a possible franchise for Hammer.  Unfortunately the movie was not released for two years after its completion in 1972, and its theatrical run was limited.  Between that and Hammer being on its last legs, there would be no further cinematic adventures for Kronos.

Over the next few decades, however, the movie would go on to become a cult classic, gaining numerous fans. I saw it on television twice in the 1990s, and thought it was amazing.  I’ve re-watched it several more times since it was released on DVD in 2003.

Captain Kronos 1 cover

I definitely agreed that Kronos had the potential to helm an ongoing series. Obviously others also felt the same way, and the character has at long last been revived by Titan Comics in a four issue comic book miniseries written by Dan Abnett, illustrated by Tom Mandrake, colored by Sian Mandrake, and lettered by Simon Bowland.

Set in the mid-1600s, the first issue opens with Kronos and his fellow vampire hunters Grost and Carla pursuing the undead fiend Porphyr across Eastern Europe. This chase leads the trio to the town of Serechurch, which is beset by a plague of vampirism.  The town elders ask Kronos to rid them of these monsters, and the swordsman, eager to continue his vendetta against the undead, agrees.

Abnett does a good job writing a fast-paced story. There are several exciting action sequences in the miniseries.  Much as Clemens did in the original movie, Abnett also effectively utilizes a certain amount of humor in order to offset the horror and violence of the plot.

The characterizations of Kronos, Grost and Carla are tweaked to various degrees. Clements merely hinted at Kronos’ immense obsession in one scene, and for the rest of the movie depicted him as a level-headed strategist.  Abnett, however, re-casts Kronos as a brooding monomaniac who charges in to danger.  Grost is no longer quite Kronos’ close friend, but rather a mentor who is alarmed at his protégé’s rash actions.  Carla has evolved from Kronos’ girlfriend and inexperienced assistant to a very adept vampire hunter in training.

It is certainly possible to see these as logical extrapolations of the characters. One can imagine Kronos, after repeated encounters with the forces of darkness, and the loss of a number of people who were close to him, eventually becoming harder, more obsessed and rash.  Grost, the level-headed scholar, would be alarmed to see this change, and would probably feel that stern admonitions would work better than heartfelt pleas at bringing the Captain to his senses.

Carla is the most-changed of the trio. The sweet, kind Gypsy girl has become a tough, take-no-crap fighter.  I appreciated that Abnett gave Carla much more agency in this story than she had in the movie.  At times, though, I felt perhaps he did go too far in changing her.

That said, via her dialogue in this miniseries we can conclude that Carla’s first meeting with Kronos was a transformative experience. She became aware of both the existence of the supernatural and of the wider world outside of her tiny village home.  Already cognizant of the very limited choices available to women in the 17th Century, and now awakened to the dangers posed by vampires & their ilk, Carla obviously decided that the best opportunity she had to both gain independence and acquire the skills necessary to survive in a very dangerous world was to join Kronos and Grost on their quest.

Abnett does fortunately still retain some of Carla’s innocence and inexperience. Upon arriving at Serechurch, she thinks to herself that it is the “biggest place [she’s] ever seen” and wonders “Is this what a city looks like?” In the next scene, entering the hall of the town council, Carla is awed by the wealth on display, whispering to herself “Is that gold? The ceiling’s painted with gold.”

Captain Kronos 1 pg 4

The one real criticism I have concerning Abnett’s writing is that at times his scripting is a bit too present day, especially in his humorous banter. Early in the second issue Kronos goes off to scout the town quarter occupied by the vampires. Carla, fearing that he will do something rash, tells Grost “Let’s hope Kronos doesn’t do anything too Kronos before we’re ready.”  That line feels more like it belongs in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than in a Hammer Horror period piece.

There is also a running gag throughout the miniseries where one of the three main characters will curse and another will respond with a chiding tsk tsk of “Language.” It’s funny the first couple of times, but after that not so much.

On the artwork end of things, Tom Mandrake is certainly a very appropriate choice to illustrate Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter. Mandrake has a great deal of experience working on horror-related series, such as his acclaimed collaboration with John Ostrander on The Spectre at DC Comics and his work with Dan Mishkin on the grotesque miniseries Creeps from Image Comics.  Mandrake superbly renders both the supernatural elements and the fast-paced action in Abnett’s plots for Captain Kronos.

Mandrake’s storytelling is very effective on this miniseries. It works equally well in the action sequences and in the quieter moments when characters are conversing.

One thing I noticed regarding Mandrake’s layouts is that many of the pages are constructed to contain tiers of three to five panels stacked vertically. I don’t recall Mandrake employing this device before.  I am curious if he made this choice in order to evoke the widescreen frames of a movie.  It is an interesting creative decision, one that does suit this story.

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As I have observed before in other reviews, when working on licensed properties it can be a tricky proposition for an artist to capture the likenesses of actors. Sometimes going too photorealistic can actually be jarring, with characters who look like they were traced from photographs, which can really take the reader out of the story.  It is usually more important for the artist to depict the personalities of the characters.

To wit, Mandrake’s renderings of the main trio in Captain Kronos do not look especially like actors Horst Janson, John Carson and Caroline Munro; however they do feel like the characters of Kronos, Grost and Carla, if you understand what I mean.

Sian Mandrake is obviously going to be very familiar with her father’s artwork, with knowing what works over it and what doesn’t, and she does an excellent job coloring it. The subdued palette she utilizes works well in the service of the story, with the occasional bright splash of color for blood or fire consequently standing out.

The only quibble I have concerning the coloring is that Sian gives Carla reddish-brown hair. A darker color, something closer to black, would have more closely evoked the look of actress Caroline Munro.

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Despite a few missteps in the writing, I really did enjoy the Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter miniseries. I definitely would like to see a follow-up from the same creative team. There is a great deal of potential to these characters, and to the world they inhabit.

My dream would be to see Kronos encounter the Hammer Studios version of Dracula. In real life actor Christopher Lee was an expert fencer, and so it would be very appropriate to have his iconic depiction of the lord of the undead cross swords with Kronos.  There is also the infamous Karnstein family, who were actually alluded to in the movie.  They would make appropriate adversaries for Kronos to meet in combat.

Really, there are a lot of possibilities, and I hope that the character returns soon.

Bernie Wrightson: 1948 to 2017

Comic book, horror and fantasy artist Bernie Wrightson passed away on March 18th at the age of 68. Wrightson received well-deserved acclaim for his atmospheric artwork in a career that spanned four and a half decades.

Swamp Thing 9 cover

Wrightson is probably best-known as the co-creator of the Swamp Thing character with writer Len Wein. The initial incarnation of the character debuted in a stand-alone story in the DC Comics horror anthology House of Secrets #92 (June/July 1971).  The “Swamp Thing” story was an unexpected hit, and it led to Wein & Wrightson introducing a revamped incarnation of the character a year later.  This ongoing Swamp Thing series was set in the DC universe.  Wrightson drew the first ten issues.  Issue #7 featured a guest appearance by Batman, and Wrightson rendered a stunning, moody depiction of the Caped Crusader.  He would have several more opportunities to draw Batman over the course of his career.

Wrightson was friends with fellow artist Michael Kaluta. In 1974 the two of them had an opportunity to work together on the third and fourth issues of The Shadow, which adapted the pulp vigilante created by Walter Gibson.  A year later Wrightson and Kaluta, along with Jeffrey Jones and Barry Windsor-Smith, began sharing studio space in Lower Manhattan loft, an arrangement that lasted until 1979.  Known as “The Studio,” the four artists influenced one another, each of them creating some of the best works of their careers.

Bernie Wrightson Frankenstein

One of Wrightson most stunning efforts was his illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Wrightson worked on this project for seven years years, and it was finally published in 1983.  The breathtaking, intricately detailed artwork Wrightson created for Frankenstein is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of his career.

(Honestly, I don’t think you can overdo the superlatives when it comes to describing Wrightson’s Frankenstein illustrations.)

Wrightson collaborated with horror novelist Stephen King on several occasions. In 1983 Wrightson drew the graphic novel adaptation of the movie Creepshow and provided illustrations for King’s novella Cycle of the Werewolf. The extended edition of King’s mammoth novel The Stand released in 1990 featured illustrations by Wrightson.  He also provided illustrations for Wolves of the Calla, the fifth book in King’s Dark Tower series, published in 2003.

Wrightson remained involved in the comic book biz over the years, drawing numerous covers, pin-ups, miniseries, graphic novels and short stories in anthologies. In the second half of the 1970s he illustrated a number of stories for Warren Publishing’s line of black & white horror magazines.  Wrightson also worked on a handful of projects for Marvel Comics, among them the graphic novels Spider-Man: Hooky (1986) and The Hulk and The Thing: The Big Change (1987), and the four issue miniseries Punisher P.O.V. (1991).  The Big Change and P.O.V. were both written by Jim Starlin.  The two of them also collaborated on the DC Comics miniseries Batman: The Cult (1988).

Batman Aliens 1 pg 41

Among the later comic book work that Wrightson did, I especially enjoyed the two issue Batman/Aliens miniseries published in 1997. Written by Ron Marz, this was one of the more effective of the crossovers released by DC and Dark Horse in the 1990s.  Batman is a superhero who is grounded enough in reality that the Xenomorphs posed a legitimate threat to him without having to ridiculously amp up their powers.  Wrightson’s artwork provided the story with a genuinely moody, intense tone.  As always he drew a striking Batman, and his Xenomorphs were effectively menacing.

I also enjoyed the beautifully grotesque painted covers that Wrightson created for the four issue horror anthology Nightmare Theater published by Chaos! Comics in 1997. They were an excellent showcase for his talents and sensibilities.  Wrightson also penciled a werewolf story for the first issue, which was inked by Jimmy Palmiotti.

Wrightson’s last major project was Frankenstein Alive, Alive! published by IDW between 2012 and 2014.  Written by Steve Niles, the three issue series served as a sequel to Wrightson’s illustrated edition of the Mary Shelley novel.

Nightmare Theater 1 cover signed

I was fortunate enough to meet Wrightson on a few occasions, at a couple of comic book conventions and at a store signing in White Plains NY. He struck me as a very friendly individual.  Others had similar experiences meeting him.  When the news broke that he has died, it was clear that not only had we lost an immensely talented artist but also a genuinely nice person.  Wrightson will definitely be missed by friends, colleagues, and fans.

Great Scott! Rocky Horror is 40 years old!

Happy Halloween!  Today I’m taking a brief look at the horror comedy musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which made its cinematic debut 40 years ago in 1975.

The movie was an adaptation of The Rocky Horror Show stage musical written by Richard O’Brien and directed by Jim Sharman which was first performed in 1973.  It was an homage to / parody of the science fiction and horror movies from the previous decades.  Although the movie initially bombed in theaters, 20th Century Fox ad executive Tim Deegan came up with the idea of moving Rocky Horror to midnight screenings.  In this new venue in various cities, via world of mouth, the movie became a tremendous cult classic.  Since then, for decades avid fans have shown up to either act out the movie and / or heckle at it.

Rocky Horror lips

I can’t recall exactly when I first saw Rocky Horror.  It was probably in the early 1990s when VH1 was airing it.  I realize now that a lot of the movie’s impact was diluted by all the commercials.  But once some friends got it on home video I had an opportunity to watch it uninterrupted.

Back then Rocky Horror struck me as a very bizarre, nonsensical movie.  Even so, I definitely enjoyed the amazing music by O’Brien.  As with other things, as I got older I gradually developed more of an appreciation for it.  A couple of weeks ago Michele bought it on DVD, and we’ve watched it a few times.  It’s a humorous mix of geeky genre elements and campy hyper-sexuality.

The standout performance of the movie is undoubtedly the amazing Tim Curry as the bi-sexual cross-dressing alien mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter.  This was one of Curry’s earliest roles, and watching it you can definitely see why he went on to have such a long & prolific career.

When Curry is on screen as Furter, he just totally owns it.  You really need to have a genuine confidence to successfully pull off such a crazy, over-the-top role like this one, and Curry absolutely possesses that quality.  His performance is so amazing that even though Furter is a dangerous nutjob, he’s nevertheless compellingly charismatic.  Michele is correct when she states “Tim Curry totally makes the movie.”

Rocky Horror Picture Show

It’s understandable that for many years Curry was reluctant to discuss Rocky Horror.  Furter is such a larger-than-life character, and the movie has such a fanatical following, that it is just the sort of role that could easily threaten to overshadow subsequent work.  Perhaps to a degree that did occur, as throughout his career Curry has often played creepy oddballs.  Nevertheless there’s certainly enough diversity on display in his resume that it is apparent he was able to at least partially dodge the typecasting bullet.

As I mentioned, I love the music.  O’Brien’s lyrics are clever and funny.  I’ve had the soundtrack on CD for years now.  “The Time Warp” is the one everyone knows.  Myself, I’ve always had a real fondness for “Science Fiction Double Feature,” “There’s A Light” and “Don’t Dream It, Be It.”  But they’re all good.

O’Brien also plays the creepy handyman Riff Raff.  He’s another actor who grabs your attention when he’s on the screen, albeit in a much more understated, sinister manner.  It’s not at all surprising that based on his performance here director Alex Proyas later cast O’Brien in the brilliant, criminally underrated science fiction noir movie Dark City.

O’Brien has good chemistry with actress Patricia Quinn, who plays his sister Magenta.  The two of them have such a weird vibe going on between them.  You’re really left wondering if they’ve been getting up to stuff that they shouldn’t!

Rocky Horror Riff Raff Frank and Magenta

Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon play the young couple Brad and Janet.  O’Brien’s script is an interesting subversion of the tropes of mid-20th Century sci-fi and horror movies.  Brad is the clean-cut type and Janet a virginal innocent.  If this were played straight (so to speak) Brad would be the hero who saves Janet from the freaky, demented aliens.

Instead Brad is kind of an asshole (at screenings of the movie the audience frequently shouts that out at him) who is overprotective of and condescending to Janet.  As for Janet, instead of playing a chaste, passive role, she discovers that she is attracted to both Furter and his artificial man, the muscular blonde Rocky.  Furter ends up seducing first Janet and then Brad, and afterwards Janet has sex with Rocky.  At the end the couple is reduced to mere spectators of Furter’s bizarre machinations.  It is Riff Raff & Magenta who step in to wrap things up.

The costume designs for Rocky Horror were by Sue Blane.  Her work is very striking.  It’s not surprising that it would influence fashion and the punk aesthetic of the late 1970s.

Rocky Horror throne scene

If you have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, well, all this must sound really freaky and twisted.  I will be the first to acknowledge that the movie is an acquired taste.  Heck, I really like it, but I doubt that I’ll be going to the theater anytime soon in costume to toss toilet paper at the screen.

Having said that, it is always wonderful when people can find something to be passionate about, that speaks to them on a genuinely personal level.  Interviewed on The Today Show about the movie’s 40th anniversary, Sarandon stated…

“I’ve had so many people come up to me and say that film helped them through a dark time.”

Also interviewed, Curry offered his thoughts on the movie…

“The thing that resonated for me more than anything was, ‘Don’t dream it, be it,’ which was a really good idea. Really good slogan.”

Here’s to the little movie that could.  If you have the opportunity, go see it at the late night double feature picture show.

Monsters Who’s Who

It can be a mixed experience revisiting a piece of your childhood, equal parts joy and surprise.

I’ve been a fan of science fiction and horror and monsters ever since I was a kid in the early 1980s.  As I’ve mentioned before, I was definitely a geek.  I didn’t have many friends; instead most of my free time was taken up by books and movies and cartoons.

The school library at Davis Elementary in New Rochelle had a handful of books about monsters, the kinds from movies, the ones from myth, and the supposedly-real creatures hiding just out of sight.  These were a real pleasure for me, a momentary escape from the tedium of homework and book reports.

One of the books from the library was Monsters Who’s Who, published in 1974 by Crescent Books.  It was a huge illustrated encyclopedia containing profiles on a diverse selection of strange, scary beings… at least that’s how I remembered it.  I hadn’t seen that book in literally decades, but last week on a whim I decided to see if it happened to be on Amazon.  Much to my surprise there were quite a few used copies available dirt cheap.  I ordered one for a mere 84 cents… plus $3.99 shipping & handling.  You have to laugh when postage is more than four times what you’re paying for the book!

I was working in the lab late one night when my eyes beheld an eerie sight...

I was working in the lab late one night when my eyes beheld an eerie sight…

The book arrived in the mail, and with it were a couple of surprises.  The first was that it had a completely intact dust jacket.  I’d never seen the cover before; the school library copy was missing the jacket.  It’s actually a rather nice illustration.

As for the second surprise… hey, wasn’t this book much bigger?!?  When I was a kid Monsters Who’s Who seemed immense!  My memory of it was that it was a huge, thick volume.  Instead the reality is that it measures 11 by 8.5 inches and is only 122 pages.

Oh, yeah, after all these years I’ve finally learned just who wrote Monsters Who’s Who.  Seriously, there’s no author credit inside the book itself.  But the front flat of the dust jacket reveals that it was penned by none other than Dulan Barber!  Um, wait… who?!?  That has got to be a pseudonym.

Okay, putting aside my unreliable 30 year old memories of Monsters Who’s Who, it actually is a neat book.  I’m not at all surprised that I was so interested in it when I was a kid.  It contains a really diverse selection of subjects.  Yes, the write-ups are for the most part extremely short.  But the photos & illustrations are great.

Among the absolutely-fictional entities profiled in Monsters Who’s Who are such iconic figures as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Phantom of the Opera, King Kong and Godzilla.  A variety of mythological creatures including the Chimera, the Hydra, Medusa, the Sphinx and the Unicorn are also found in these pages.  Third, there are the real and possibly-real beings, such as dinosaurs, the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti.

Some of the profiles of mythical beasts are accompanied by very old artwork.  Very few of them are credited, regrettably, but they are certainly beautiful.  And occasionally you have an odd piece like this one…

Who's a good doggie? Who's a good boy?

Who’s a good doggie? Who’s a good boy?

This might have been the first occasion when I heard of Cerberus, the fearsome three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the Greek underworld.  Even at eight years old I found this illustration to be not so much fearsome as forlorn.  All three of Cerberus’ heads wear a sad expression, as if they want nothing more than to receive a nice tummy rub!

There are also a few comic book characters, specifically from the pages of Marvel Comics.  I had forgotten that Monsters Who’s Who was the first time I ever learned of the oddball Incredible Hulk character known as the Bi-Beast.  The Hulk himself also has a profile in the book.

Actually, the writer plays very fast & loose with the term “monster.”  The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man (spelled as “Spiderman”) have entries in this book.  Admittedly this does make a certain amount of sense.  The early Marvel universe devised by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko was definitely a weird, unsettling place populated by strange beings which did not neatly fall into the categories of “good” and “bad.”

Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

There were also a few profiles of Doctor Who monsters!  Seriously, the timing of me discovering Monsters Who’s Who in the school library was perfect.  I’m not totally certain, but I think it was in 1984 when I was eight years old.  I had just started watching Doctor Who on PBS station WLIW Channel 21 only a couple of months before, first seeing the final season of Tom Baker and then the beginning of Peter Davison’s run.  Finding this book right on the heels of that helped me understand that the show had been around for quite a few years, and that the Doctor had fought some interesting monsters in the past.  I remember wondering if any of them would ever show up in the episodes I was now watching.

It must have been only a week or so later and I was at home one weeknight watching Doctor Who.  The TARDIS had landed in some dark caves.  A bunch of soldiers armed with ray guns were searching for something, not realizing that they were being hunted by these two mysterious androids.  Next thing you know the soldiers had come across the Doctor and his companions.  After the usual misunderstanding where they assumed the Doctor was their enemy, they joined forces when those androids showed up and started shooting.

And then the episode came to a completely shocking cliffhanger ending when the beings controlling the androids were revealed… at which point my eyes jumped out of my head.  Silver robot-like creatures with handles on the sides of their heads?  There’d been a photo of them in Monster Who’s Who, hadn’t there?  Oh, how I wished I had the book beside me at that moment!  The next day at school during lunch I broke land speed records getting to the library, grabbed Monsters Who’s Who off its bookshelf, and flipped rapidly through it.  Yes, it was them!  It was the Cybermen!

Destroy them! Destroy them at once!

Destroy them! Destroy them at once!

That was my very first Doctor Who related geek-out.  Obviously it left a major impression on me to remember it so vividly 32 years later.  I know I was equally thrilled when that night episode two of “Earthshock” aired on WLIW and contained actual clips from old Doctor Who stories.

I think that in the 21st Century we often take for granted the immense amount of information that we have at our fingertips.  Just hop on any computer, or turn on your smart phone, and within minutes you can Google any subject or look it up on Wikipedia.  You can download old movies and television shows with little effort.  It’s very easy to forget how things were in the pre-digital, pre-internet age, when discovering a book like Monsters Who’s Who was like unearthing a geek goldmine.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to start with one of those “when I was your age” tirades.  I am not that bad.  Well, at least not yet!  Nevertheless it is nice to recall some of my more pleasant childhood memories.  Just me and some monsters taking a stroll thru the past.