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.

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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.

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.

Alex De Campi reopens the Grindhouse

I definitely enjoyed the eight issue comic book horror anthology Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight written by Alex De Campi, which Dark Horse published last year.  So I was happy to find out that a “second season” had been given the go-ahead.  The first four issues of Grindhouse: Drive In, Bleed Out feature more excellent, unnerving writing from De Campi.

Grindhouse Drive In Bleed Out 1 cover

The opening two-parter “Slay Ride” is illustrated by R.M. Guera.  It is Christmas Eve in northwest Canada, and death stalks the countryside.  A group of malevolent spirits have taken on humanoid form and begun a killing spree.  After claiming their first two victims, the entities approach the elderly Mother Wolf, only to let her be when they sense that she is already dying of cancer.

Mother Wolf telephones Shayla, an embittered woman who is estranged from her family, to let her know that her father and brother have been murdered.  Mother Wolf convinces the reluctant Shayla to try to help the other families in the remote area before they are also slaughtered by the creatures.

De Campi is deliberately vague about the nature of these entities.  Attempting to explain them to Shayla, Mother Wolf states…

“You have to make a conscious decision to be good. It’s hard. The world wears you down. Every day, you have to start trying all over again.

“Or else, monsters like these? They tiptoe in on every hateful thought.

“If you believe in something enough, it appears. They are what we believe in now. Greed. Compulsion. Addiction.”

These beings appear to be human sin and weakness made sentient & corporeal.  Their physical “bodies” are created from snow, and although this makes them somewhat easy to disperse they are nevertheless extremely dangerous.  Even if their forms are destroyed, it seems likely that whatever was animating them still exists and has merely been temporarily banished.

Grindhouse Drive In Bleed Out 1 pg 10

“Slay Ride” is allegorical and open to interpretation.  For example, Shayla alludes to these beings having claimed members of her family many times in the past.  It is unclear if this means that they have actually manifested before, or if the vices they represent, such as lust and alcoholism, have plagued her family through the decades.

We also are never told the exact relationship between Shayla and Mother Wolf.  Is the elderly woman her aunt, her grandmother, or something else?  De Campi doesn’t specify.

While the lack of details and explanations can be maddening, this undoubtedly contributes to the unnerving tone of the story.  “Slay Ride” is a darkly surreal nightmare, and the unanswered questions compound the reader’s unease.

Guera’s artwork possesses a palpable air of twisted insanity.  The designs for the entities are comically twisted, simultaneously outrageous caricatures and grotesque phantasms.  The coloring by Giulia Brusco works extremely well with Guera’s art, and the end result is an atmosphere of oppressive bleakness and razor-taut anxiety.

De Campi totally shifts gears in her second story, “Blood Lagoon,” which reunites her with artist Chris Peterson, her collaborator on “Bee Vixens From Mars” from the first Grindhouse series.  “Blood Lagoon” features the return of the sardonic, ass-kicking Garcia, aka “that crazy, one-eyed Latina.”

Grindhouse Drive In Bleed Out 4 cover

Also making a comeback are Wayne and Sergei, the couple who helped her defeat the Martian invasion.  The two are engaged to marry, and Wayne is hoping to convince his father to attend.  Of course, this is the Deep South and Wayne’s father is a redneck of the first order, with accompanying homophobia.  Garcia reluctantly accompanies Wayne on the road trip to Alabama, although she expects it will be an exercise in futility.  As she dryly inquires, “On a scale of zero ta minus ten, how much fun is this trip gonna be?”

Not surprisingly, Wayne’s father Billy Ray provides anything but a warm welcome.  On top of that, while Wayne is happy to be home for a visit and reunite with old friends, he is depressed to see that the town is in dire straits.  Unemployment is rampant and the area is being polluted by the local slaughterhouse.

And then the aliens show up.  This time, though, instead of a hive of seductive bee-women, a horde of giant blood-sucking ticks is on the rampage.

Once again De Campi presents a story where the protagonists fall outside of what some would refer to as “traditional American mainstream.”  Garcia is an older Hispanic woman.  Even though her family has lived in Texas for generations, people keep ignorantly assuming she is an immigrant from Mexico, which understandably infuriates her to no end.  Wayne is a homosexual who grew up in rural Tennessee, and as a result had to find the ability to stand up on his own two feet and defend himself at a very early age.  Wayne’s old friend Vikki and her teenage son Darryl are African American, and Vikki proudly proclaims that her late father was a Black Panther back in the day.

De Campi humorous lampshades the backgrounds of her cast when they hole up in the town liquor store to fight off the giant ticks.  Vikki hands her cell phone to Wayne’s father and tells him “Billy Ray, you call the police. You sound white, they’ll listen to you.”  It’s a funny line, but it’s also sadly depressing in its accuracy.

Grindhouse Drive In Bleed Out 3 pg 14

It eventually once again falls to Garcia to save the day.  De Campi shows us that Garcia is tough-as-nails without making her invulnerable.

As I’ve noted before, one of the reasons I like the original Die Hard movie is because John McClane, despite the fact that he was out-fighting terrorists, very much came across as an everyman, and he was put through the wringer.  This was also more or less the case in the sequel.  But by the third one McClane had become an unstoppable action hero, and I totally lost interest in the series at that point.

Fortunately De Campi does not fall into this trap.  Garcia beats the odds, but she comes out bruised and bloody.  She isn’t given an easy victory, which of course makes it all the more compelling when she does succeed.

“Blood Lagoon” is a violently comedic farce.  Peterson’s artwork is perfect for this story.  He very adeptly renders both humorous gags and horrific gore side-by-side.

I also appreciate Peterson’s depictions of Garcia.  She is an older woman, but she is still in shape and attractive.  I think some artists are unfortunately only able to draw two types of women: young & sexy and old & frail.  Much like Steve Epting’s excellent work illustrating Velvet Templeton in Velvet from Image Comics, Peterson renders Garcia as a woman in her mid-forties who is very much ready to kick some caboose and turn heads in the process.

Grindhouse: Drive In, Bleed Out has so far been impressive and fun.  I’m definitely looking forward to the second half.

By the way, the first three issues actually sold out before I could buy them at one of the comic shops in Manhattan.  I was able to purchase all four through Things From Another World Comics, which has a section on their website for De Campi’s work.  So if you’re having trouble locating Grindhouse, head on over there: Alex De Campi at tfaw.comics

And, no, I am not getting a cut of the profits from TFAW!  I am just trying to help out and point people in the direction of some excellent comics that might have fallen under their radar.  Try some new stuff;  it’s good for you!

Comic book reviews: Satan’s Prep

It has sometimes been commented that high school is hell.  It can certainly be a very unpleasant experience; I can attest to that firsthand.  But eventually you do get out of it.  However, what if high school was literally Hell?  That is the premise of Satan’s Prep, a graphic novel written by Gabe Guarente and illustrated by Dave Fox, Luis Chichon & Tricia Van den Bergh.

Satans Prep cover

Trevor Loomis is an apathetic individual drifting through his teenage years.  He has led an unremarkable, underwhelming life.  Then one day, while plugging his guitar into a defective amp, he is electrocuted.  Through some sort of bureaucratic error his soul is sent to Hell.  There he set to spend an eternity attending St. Lucifer’s Academy for the Hopeless and Damned, aka Satan’s Prep.  His fellow classmates are other teenagers who died before their time, as well as various adolescent demons.

The torments of Hell are visited upon the human students of Satan’s Prep, courtesy of both the devil-spawned faculty and the demonic teenagers, who are the jocks and bullies of the afterlife.  Guarente’s story is rather like John Hughes meets Clive Barker.  This is a very dark comedy.

Trevor becomes the unlikely inspiration of the human students, who regard his stoicism & indifference in the face of the torments of the damned as “badass rebel defiance.”  Trevor, however, thinks he knows better:

“I don’t have the heart to tell Steve and the other guys the truth. That what they took for rebellion was really cowardice in disguise. Or, if not cowardice, complacency. I was a specialist at both in my other life.”

Of course Trevor then meets Persephone Plumm, a cute Goth girl who appears to be attracted to him.  Persephone tells Steve that when she was alive she suffered from immense depression.  After running away from home she walked into the path of an oncoming tractor trailer, dying and ending up in Hell.

Satans Prep pg 33

Persephone is the first person Trevor has ever really cared about.  But she then begins hanging out with the demon jock clique headed up by Moloch, an arrangement to keep them from pounding the tar out of Trevor.  Angry, he wants to find a way to get her back.  But then Trevor’s pal Steve suggests that Persephone might not be what she seems.  Perhaps she is a succubus, a deception by Hell sent to finally cause him to finally snap out of his lethargy & resignation and actually care about someone or something, just so they can then snatch it away from her.  As Steve explains it:

“It’s genius, actually. They give you hope, only to rip it away. Much more effective than ripping you limb from limb.”

Trevor is not quite sure what to believe.  Nevertheless he cannot help but care for Persephone, and hope that she really is what she seems.  And that spurs him on to organize his fellow human students into tying to finally stand up to the demonic tormentors of the school.

Guarente’s scripting on Satan’s Prep is very good, darkly humorous & sardonic.  But his plotting of the story is somewhat uneven.  Scenes and events could have flowed a bit more smoothly into one another.

Guarente never takes the time to explain exactly how most of the human students ended up at the school.  Trevor is supposedly in Hell because of a mix-up in the paperwork.  A guy named Miles who was a stuck-up, spoiled rich kid on Earth is presumably there because he was a total jerk.  But the rest of the humans really seem like they were given a raw deal.  Guarente could have developed them more fully.

I also thought the ending was a bit weak. It felt like Guarente wanted to have a story that was simultaneously self-contained and that left the door open for sequels. But I don’t think he quite pulled it off as successfully as he could have.

Probably the strongest aspect of Satan’s Prep was the artwork by Dave Fox, who illustrated the cover and the first half of the book.  Fox is a really talented artist.  His characters are very expressive and full of personality.  He was the designer of the visuals for the book’s cast, and he draws them all incredibly well.  I was especially amused by his depiction of the school principal Cerberus.  The guardian of the underworld’s middle head is urbane and well-articulated, while his other two are savage and rabid.  And fitting a giant three-headed dog into a suit & tie is quite a sight.

Satans Prep pg 17

Fox’s use of gray tones in his artwork is very effective.  It definitely gives the story real atmosphere.

It’s regrettable that Fox couldn’t illustrate the entirety of Satan’s Prep.  Having the second half of the book drawn by two other artists breaks up the flow of the story somewhat, as well as results in some of the characters’ visuals being a bit uneven and off-model.

I certainly do not want to disparage the work of either Luis Chichon or Tricia Van den Bergh.  They both appear to be talented artists.  It is just that both of their styles are quite different from Fox’s work, as well as from each other.

I did like the coloring by Aya Ikeda-Barry on Satan’s Prep.  She colored almost the entire book (Matthew Petz is listed as the co-colorist on chapter three, so I’m not certain about the division of labor there).  Having Ikeda-Barry coloring the majority of the story probably gave it a bit more consistency of tone & atmosphere across the work of the three different artists than in might otherwise have had.

Oh, yeah, I wish the size of the lettering could have been larger.

Although a somewhat rough production, Satan’s Prep was still a good read, and it’s worth a look.  If there is a sequel, hopefully Guarente will take his experiences writing this and improve upon his craft.  His work shows definite potential.  Likewise, ideally a follow-up will have a single artist illustrating the entire story.

Halloween spotlight on Tom Sutton at Charlton Comics

Today, to celebrate Halloween, I am spotlighting the work of an artist with one of the most distinctively eerie styles I have ever come across, Tom Sutton.  Born in 1937, Sutton had a very prolific career.  Unfortunately he is probably not nearly as well known as some of his contemporaries due to the fact that he rarely worked on super-hero titles.  His style was not particularly well-suited to the spandex set, and he himself was not especially fond of the cape & cowl crowd.  However, when it came to horror, mystery, science fiction, romance and even humor, Sutton was a perfect fit.

Sutton worked for several companies, among them Marvel, DC, Warren, Skywald, First, Eclipse and Fantagraphics. He did an especially large body of work for Charlton Comics, that third-rate outfit run out of Derby CT that specialized in low page rates, cheap printing, poor paper quality… and almost unlimited creative freedom.  As I’ve written before, for up-and-coming writers and artists who were looking to break into the biz & find their feet, or for more seasoned creators who were seeking a publisher with little editorial or corporate oversight, Charlton was the place to go in the 1970s.

Haunted 23 cover

I am going to focus on Sutton’s output at Charlton, because he did really great work there… and because I really don’t have too much of his other material readily at hand. Especially his Warren Publishing work, or his art for Marvel’s black & white magazines.  But I have at least a couple of dozen issues from among Charlton’s various horror anthology titles, many of them containing superb work by Sutton.

Interviewed in 2000 by Jon B. Cooke for  Comic Book Artist #12 from TwoMorrows Publishing, Sutton explained the appeal of working at Charlton:

“They published weird stuff, and I have always been fascinated by weird stuff, and the weirder the better….  I do owe a certain amount to Charlton, because they allowed me to write a lot of ditties of my own, to paint a lot of horrible covers, and they never, ever, ever remarked on my technique.”

Sutton’s artwork was undeniably distinctive, leaving an impression upon readers throughout the years.  The juxtaposition of a quirky, cartoony style with the use of an absolutely insane amount of detail played a significant part in generating the disquieting impact of Sutton’s illustrations. There is what I would describe as a psychologically unsettling quality to his work.  I definitely see that epitomized in his ghoulishly insane cover for Haunted #23 (September 1975) pictured above.

Haunted 17 pg 20

Sutton was an expert storyteller. He knew how to pace his layouts and position the figures in his panels for maximum dramatic impact.  In much of his work there is a palpable sense of anxiety and dread.

One of the best examples of this was the story “A Budding Evil” which he wrote and drew.  It appeared in the pages of Haunted #17 (July 1974) for which he also illustrated the cover.  I featured that piece in last year’s Halloween spotlight on Charlton Comics horror anthologies blog post.  This time, above, is a page from that story.  That wide-eyed gaze of the female protagonist in the last panel is a trademark of Sutton’s.  He very much specialized in rendering people wrought with fear & dread, capturing the quality of souls in anguished terror.

Haunted 36 pg 11

On the other hand, “The Night of the Demon” from Haunted #36 (May 1978) very much demonstrates Sutton’s versatility.  Charlton mainstay Nicola “Nick” Cuti wrote the tale of Sonya & Tanya Marcus, mother & daughter witches living in medieval times.  Sonya utilizes magic for good, and she seeks to instruct her daughter to follow in that path.  Sutton’s work on this story has a great deal of atmosphere, but in this case it is of a fairy tale nature.  Yes, there is a bit of a dark undercurrent to some of it, as Sonya lectures her daughter on the powerful, dangerous demon Ailurikos, who must be invoked very carefully, and only on occasions when he can be directed towards benevolent goals.  Sutton renders Ailurikos as a sleek, sinister amalgam of a panther and a bat.  But for the most part Cuti’s tale is one of whimsy, and Sutton’s art reflects that.  He certainly draws the young Tanya as a sweet, adorable figure.  (And quite coincidentally Diversions of the Groovy Kind is spotlighting “The Night of the Demon” as part of Halloween Week.)

Ghostly Haunts 163 pg 1

Another interesting story illustrated by Sutton was “Baku the Dream Eater.”  This story neatly straddled the genres of horror, fantasy and romance. Sutton’s beautifully rendered title splash, posted above, is absolutely amazing.  It’s another fantastic piece by Sutton, as once again it demonstrates his flexibility as an artist.  Certainly it is a very nice example of how adept he was at illustrating beautiful, sensual women, as well as his usual bizarre monsters.  I scanned this from Ghostly Tales #163 (October 1983) which was an all-reprint issue (by the early 1980s Charlton was on its last legs and recycling a great deal of older material).  According to the Grand Comic Database, “Baku the Dream Eater” originally saw print in Ghostly Haunts #55 (October 1977).

Haunted Love 11 pg 9

Speaking of romance, one of the odder Charlton titles (and that is definitely saying something) was the very short-lived Haunted Love, which lasted a mere eleven issues. As Cuti explained to Jon B. Cooke in Comic Book Artist #12, the Haunted Love series was an attempt to combine their readers for ghost comics, who were mostly young boys, and their readers for romance comics, who were young girls.  Supposedly this would result in twice as many sales.  But, as Cuti humorously observed, “As it turned out, instead of combining our two audiences, we would up alienating both audiences.”

Nevertheless, during its short run Haunted Love featured some decidedly oddball & offbeat, but still interesting, stories.  One of these was “Beware: Do Not Love Him!” in issue #10 (July 1975).  Written by prolific Charlton scribe Joe Gill, it featured gorgeous artwork by Sutton in the gothic romance tradition.

Ghostly Haunts 40 cover

Some people find spiders scary. Speaking for myself I have always thought they were pretty cool.  Plus they are cheaper than hiring an exterminator!  (I must have read Charlotte’s Web one too many times as a child.)  Having said that, I can certainly understand why a giant spider would be a source of anxiety.  Obviously so too did Sutton, who illustrated an awful arachnid in its wicked web on the cover of Ghostly Haunts #40 (September 1974) seen above.  Appropriately enough he signed this piece as “Grisly.”  That lurid green coloring maximizes the impact of this one.  Within the pages of this issue is the bizarre accompanying tale “The Game Keeper,” which is both written and illustrated by Sutton.

Charlton horror hosts by Tom Sutton

The aforementioned Tom Sutton interview in Comic Book Artist #12 contained several examples of Sutton’s Charlton work.  Among these was the above piece, a striking black & white illustration featuring several of the Charlton horror hosts which originally saw print in Charlton Bullseye #1 (1975).  Front-and-center is my favorite of them all, the lovely Winnie the Witch.  Looking over the cool double page spread drawn by Mort Todd for The Charlton Arrow #1 (order your copy now if you haven’t already) I can identify the other spooky subjects of Sutton’s illustration.  Floating above the group is Impy, standing behind Winny is Mr. I.M. Dedd, on the left is Mr. Bones, and at the right with a book of occult lore in hand is Dr. M.T. Graves (you have got to love those names).

Tom Sutton passed away on May 1, 2002 at the age of 65. He left behind him a rich legacy of distinctively macabre art.  I think that there have only been a handful of comic book artists over the decades capable of conjuring up a genuinely frightful mood though their work.  Sutton was undoubtedly one of them.  If you are not already familiar with his art, I highly recommend seeking out some of the many comic books that he illustrated throughout his career.

By the way, I bought about half of the Charlton horror issues at various comic book conventions over the years.  The others were found in the back issue bins of Roger’s Time Machine aka Mysterious Island, a comic shop that for a long time was on West 14th Street.  Now known as Mysterious Time Machine, it’s located at 418 6th Avenue, between 8th and 9th Street.  It’s a great place with a huge selection of comics, including those old Charlton books.

I hope everyone enjoyed this brief look at the work of Tom Sutton.  If you would like to see more of his awesome art, please check out Tom Sutton, Comic Book Artist Extraordinaire on Facebook.  Have a happy Halloween!