This King… This Kirby!

One hundred years ago today, on August 28, 1917, Jacob Kurtzberg was born in the Lower East Side slums of New York City.  Kurtzberg would grow up to become Jack Kirby, one of the most innovative, creative, prolific individuals to ever work within the comic book industry.

Jack King Kirby

There is absolutely no way that I can do justice to the memory of Jack “King” Kirby, to the literal legion of amazing characters he created over the decades, in a single blog post.  Entire books can, and have, been written about the man and his works.  The Jack Kirby Collector, published by TwoMorrows, is a magazine devoted entirely to the life, work & legacy of Kirby, and it has been in continuous publication since 1994.  If you do a Google search, you will find numerous other tributes to Kirby that have been prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

If I had to pick one piece to which I would want to direct your attention, it would be “Kirby at 100” by Mark Evanier.  A comic book writer & historian, Evanier worked as Kirby’s assistant in the early 1970s, and is one of the definitive authorities on the man.

I would also like to direct your attention to “The Top 10 Reasons Jack Kirby is the King of Comics” at Between the Pages.  In addition to spotlighting some really great examples of Kirby’s work, Between the Pages also offers up an amazing Kirby-themed cake!

Kirby’s work often had very political overtones.  Captain America’s Creator Spent a Lifetime Punching Nazis examines Kirby’s service in the armed forces on the battlefields of World War II, and his continuing struggle against fascism & injustice in his stories throughout the decades.

New Gods 7 double page splash

It is very difficult to imagine what comic books would be like without Kirby, or even IF there would have been a comic book industry today without him.  That is how incredibly important and influential he was.

Or, to put it another way, recently commenting on Facebook about Jack Kirby’s importance to the comic book biz, writer / artist Howard Chaykin bluntly stated “He’s why all of us have jobs, for fuck’s sake.”

To celebrate Kirby’s 100th birthday, I’ve begun re-reading (for the upteenth time) his astonishing “Fourth World” saga, beginning with New Gods.  These stories were originally published by DC Comics in the early 1970s, and they are among my all-time favorite works by Kirby.  Issue #7 of New Gods, “The Pact,” was once cited by Kirby himself as his favorite single issue that he ever created.  It is indeed a magnum opus, at once both epic in scope and intimate in it’s tragedy, an examination of the terrible losses war inflicts, the corrupting influence of conflict upon even the best among us.  The artwork by Kirby and inker Mike Royer is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.

Tonight I expect that I’ll dig out my copy of Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3 and re-read the classic tale “This Man… This Monster!” Kirby, working with co-writer / editor Stan Lee and inker Joe Sinnott, produced Fantastic Four #51, one of the finest single issues of that series.  One can endlessly debate “who did what” in the Lee/Kirby collaborations at Marvel Comics, but whatever the division of labor, there is no doubt that together the two men crafted some wonderful stories, including this one.  That first page splash from FF #51 by Kirby & Sinnott of Ben Grimm, the Thing, standing forlornly in the pouring rain, is one of the most iconic images in the history of comic books.

Fantastic Four 51 pg 1

Jack Kirby was a genius.  As longtime comic book writer Roy Tomas observed today, “We’ll never see his like again. But then again why should we think we would? After all, we never saw his like BEFORE, either!”

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Remembering Victor Pemberton

British writer and television producer Victor Pemberton passed away on August 13th. He was 85 years old. I was a fan of Pemberton’s work, and over the past several years I had corresponded with him via e-mail.  Based on his e-mails, and on interviews he gave, he appeared to be a warm, intelligent man.

Victor Pemberton Fraggle Rock

Victor Pemberton and Sprocket

Pemberton was born on October 10, 1931 in Islington, London. His experiences a decade later, living through the terrible events of the Blitz during World War II, were a formative influence.  Decades later Pemberton wrote a series of 15 historical novels set in mid-20th Century London.  He described these books as, at least in part, “an attempt by me to exorcise those terrible times from my mind.”

One of Pemberton’s earliest successes as a writer was in 1966, when he penned The Slide, a seven part science fiction radio drama broadcast weekly by the BBC from February 1 to March 27, 1966. This eerie, atmospheric drama starred Roger Delgado and Maurice Denham.

In the newly developed English town of Redlow, several earthquakes have occurred. This in itself is odd, as the area is considered geographically stable.  Things become considerably more unusual when a mysterious greenish-brown mud begins to ooze out of the fissures in the ground.  Not only is this mud highly acidic, it seems to have a life of its own, spreading out across flat ground, and even creeping uphill.

Called in to investigate these mysterious phenomena is Professor Josef Gomez, a South American seismologist portrayed by Delgado. Gomez previously encountered similar earth tremors in the nearby English Channel.  Assisted by local scientific authorities, the Professor makes a startling discovery.  The mud, it turns out, is not only a living entity, but it is also sentient.  And it  has the ability to telepathically influence certain individuals, driving many of the residents of Redlow to madness and suicide.  Gomez and his colleagues find themselves in a race against time, struggling to halt the lethal mudslide before it destroys the entire town.

Like so much other television and radio material from the 1960s, the master copy of the radio play was purged from the BBC archives. Fortunately, Pemberton himself recorded all the episodes of The Slide during their original broadcast.  Decades later, he discovered the tapes in his garage.  This stroke of luck allowed the BBC to restore the recordings and release them on CD in 2010.

The Slide

In 1967 Pemberton became involved with the Doctor Who television series. He acted in a small part in “The Moonbase” and served as Assistant Script Editor on “The Evil of the Daleks.”  Pemberton was then promoted to Script Editor on the next serial, “Tomb of the Cybermen,” which was written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis.

Among his contributions to “Tomb of the Cybermen,” Pemberton scripted a scene in the third episode which showed the character of Victoria Waterfield, who had joined the TARDIS crew at the end of the previous story, adjusting to her new life.

THE DOCTOR: Are you happy with us, Victoria?

VICTORIA: Yes, I am. At least, I would be if my father were here.

THE DOCTOR: Yes, I know, I know.

VICTORIA: I wonder what he would have thought if he could see me now.

THE DOCTOR: You miss him very much, don’t you?

VICTORIA: It’s only when I close my eyes. I can still see him standing there, before those horrible Dalek creatures came to the house. He was a very kind man, I shall never forget him. Never.

THE DOCTOR: No, of course you won’t. But, you know, the memory of him won’t always be a sad one.

VICTORIA: I think it will. You can’t understand, being so ancient.

THE DOCTOR: Eh?

VICTORIA: I mean old.

THE DOCTOR: Oh.

VICTORIA: You probably can’t remember your family.

THE DOCTOR: Oh yes, I can when I want to. And that’s the point, really. I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they sleep in my mind, and I forget. And so will you. Oh yes, you will. You’ll find there’s so much else to think about. So remember, our lives are different to anybody else’s. That’s the exciting thing. There’s nobody in the universe can do what we’re doing.

It is a beautifully written scene which is wonderfully performed by Patrick Troughton and Deborah Watling.

Pemberton decided to leave the Script Editor position after only one story in order to concentrate on his writing. He quickly produced the scripts for the six part Doctor Who serial “Fury from the Deep,” which was broadcast in 1968.  Regrettably only a few short clips from the story are known to still survive, along with the complete audio soundtrack and some behind-the-scenes footage taken during the filming of the final episode.  Nevertheless older fans of the series who saw “Fury from the Deep” when it was first broadcast have very fond memories of it.  Eighteen years later Pemberton had the opportunity to novelize the serial for the range of Doctor Who books published by Target.  When I read that book at the tender age of eleven, I found it to be incredibly scary.

“Fury from the Deep” is also noteworthy in that it contained the debut of the Doctor’s now-iconic sonic screwdriver, which was devised by Pemberton. The serial also saw the tearful farewell of Victoria from the show.

Pemberton would write for Doctor Who on one other occasion. In 1976 he scripted “The Pescatons,” the very first Doctor Who audio adventure.  It starred Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen.  Pemberton had the opportunity to novelize “The Pescatons” for Target in 1991.

Doctor Who The Pescatons

After he left Doctor Who, Pemberton went onto a long & prolific career working in British television and radio.

In 1983 Pemberton became involved in the British version of the Jim Henson show Fraggle Rock. The series was about a group of funny and bizarre creatures, the Fraggles, who lived in a vast, wondrous subterranean civilization.  The Fraggles and their neighbors, the diminutive builders known as the Doozers and the giant bad-tempered Gorgs, were all brought to life by Henson’s amazing Muppet creations.

Fraggle Rock was broadcast in a number of foreign countries, and different framing segments involving a human character and his dog Sprocket (a Muppet) were recorded for each market. In the original American version, the human was the eccentric inventor Doc.  As a writer on the first season of the British version, Pemberton devised the human character of “The Captain,” a lighthouse keeper in Cornwall.  Pemberton became the producer of the British version from the second season onward.

When I e-mailed Pemberton in 2010 asking him about his time on Fraggle Rock, he had fond memories of his time working with the Muppets:

“It was a great fun series to do, with a lot of talent involved, something one always got from the late, lamented Jim Henson and his team. Needless to say, Sprocket, as in every version, was my hero of the show, mischievous and lovable to the last!”

One of Pemberton’s most acclaimed works was a trilogy of radio plays for the BBC based on the lives of his parents. The Trains Don’t Stop Here Anymore was broadcast in 1978, with the next two installments, Don’t Talk To Me About Kids and Down by the Sea, airing in 1987.  These three radio plays would form the basis for the first of his historical novels, Our Family, published in 1990.

Our Family by Victor Pemberton

Our Family was a wonderful book, and I made sure to let Pemberton know how much I enjoyed it. He appreciated my kind words.  In his response he noted:

“A few years ago, an historian referred to my novels as ‘archives of true family life during the London blitz of the Second World War’. I hope that’s true, and that, through the simplicity of the stories, current and future generations will have the opportunity to understand what it meant to live through those times.  After all, without knowing about the past, there can be no genuine future.”

In the later years of his life Pemberton retired to Murla, Spain. He was kind enough to autograph copies of his two Doctor Who novels which I mailed to him in 2010.  I consider myself very fortunate that I was able to correspond with Pemberton over the last several years.  He was a wonderful writer, and will definitely be missed.

Our Family by Victor Pemberton

My girlfriend Michele’s mother passed away yesterday morning. This post is being written in her memory.

May Alley was born in Liverpool, England in the 1930s. As a young girl she lived through the horrors of World War II, as the Nazis inflicted their terrifying Blitz upon Great Britain. Following the War the UK experienced a severe economic depression, and May came to the United States in the 1960s to look for work.  Living in New York City she married and eventually gave birth to Michele.

Michele and I have been a couple for almost eight years now. I was fortunate enough to meet May on a number of occasions during this time. She was a very sweet woman.

I was often reminded of May when I read the historical novels of London-born author Victor Pemberton.  I initially knew of Pemberton from his work as a writer and script editor on Doctor Who in the late 1960s.  In fact, Pemberton has had a very diverse career in television, radio, and documentary films.

In 1978 Pemberton wrote the ninety minute radio drama The Trains Don’t Stop Here Anymore, which starred Nerys Hughes and was broadcast by BBC Radio.  It was inspired by the lives of Pemberton’s parents.  The play was followed up in 1987 by two additional installments, Don’t Talk To Me About Kids and Down by the Sea.  In 1990 Pemberton was asked to adapt this trilogy into a novel. That book, Our Family, became the first of 15 historical novels, which Pemberton refers to as his “London saga.”

Our Family by Victor Pemberton

Our Family opens in London during the First World War.  Letty Edgington meets Ollie Hobbs, a soldier recuperating from wounds sustained on the French battlefield.  Letty and Oliver fall in love and, despite their very different socioeconomic backgrounds and the objections of their families, marry.  The novel follows their lives over the succeeding decades, through both good times and bad.

Pemberton invests his characters with real humanity.  They are very much living, feeling individuals.  No one among them is all good or all bad; Pemberton succeeds in finding redemptive qualities in even those people who at first glance would seem completely unlikable.  He delves deep into the minds and souls of Letty, Ollie, their families and friends, revealing what motivates their actions, giving us a real understanding of who they are.

For me, one of the most striking aspects of Our Family was the chapters set during World War II.  I am Jewish, and so when I was growing up I learned about the Holocaust.  Additionally, in college I minored in History.  From my classes on European history, as well as outside reading, I gained some knowledge of the events of the War.

But, truthfully, I never truly understood the terrible experiences on the Home Front in Britain until I read Our Family.  Pemberton’s depiction of the Hobbs family’s struggles to survive through five long years of almost-daily air raids by the Nazi Luftwaffe and subsequent rocket attacks on London, seeing their beloved city turned to rubble, watching innocent civilians die in the terrible bombings, is incredibly powerful.  Pemberton communicates all of this in a way that the matter-of-fact text and still photographs of a history book can never achieve.  I was left with a profound admiration for the British civilians who endured half a decade of the horrors of war.

I also came away from Our Family with a realization of what Michele’s mother went through as a young child as Liverpool was bombed, and an understanding of how decades later May could still be traumatized by those events.

Pemberton chronicles the story of Letty, Ollie, and their children through to the late Twentieth Century. When I reached the end of the novel, it was a sort of bittersweet experience. Throughout the course of the book, I had gotten to know the characters so well, and I was reluctant to part with them.  I almost felt like I knew these people personally.

In 2011, after reading Our Family, I e-mailed Pemberton with some of my thoughts concerning the novel, particularly the chapters set during the War. He was kind enough to respond to my missive:

“As I’m sure you have gathered, I myself lived through the horrors of the London blitz, and it is a period in my life that I shall never forget. In many ways, writing those fifteen saga novels, most of them set during that war, has been an attempt by me to exorcise those terrible times from my mind, but the memories still linger, especially the dark moments of sudden death in one’s own family, and the appalling destruction wreaked on the civilian population.

“Yes, Our Family is basically the story of my own family through the ages, Letty and Oliver were my own parents, and Mick is me. Ninety-eight percent of the story is true, and I look back at it with a mixture of affection, bewilderment, amusement, and sadness, the same, I imagine, as with so many other families.”

Pemberton’s novel is a stirring narrative that left me deeply moved. I highly recommend it.

Our Street by Victor Pemberton

The second book in Pemberton’s London saga, entitled Our Street, is also a very heartfelt work. The novel chronicles the friendship between Elsa, an elderly German Jewish refugee, and Frankie, a teenage boy (a fictionalized version of Pemberton himself), in 1940s London.

Although it is not quite as easy to find a copy of Our Street here in the States, it is worth tracking down, as well.  A number of web sites have used copies for sale.

By accident I purchased two different copies of Our Street through used online booksellers. I gave one of them to May, who was a voracious reader. Michele subsequently informed me that her mother had enjoyed the novel, and that it reminded her of her own childhood. I hope that I was able to bring her some small measure of happiness with that gift.

It has been a few years since I read both Our Family and Our Street. I hope to have the opportunity to read them again in the near future. Pemberton’s rich writing is well worth experiencing a second time.

Comic book reviews: The Late Child and Other Animals

Sometimes when you read a book your initial reaction is uncertainty, and you ask yourself “How do I feel about this?”  Such was the case with The Late Child and Other Animals published by Fantagraphics.  I finished it almost three weeks ago, and it took me this long to think it over and finally feel that I could sit down and write about it.

The Late Child and Other Animals is written & colored by Marguerite Van Cook and drawn by James Romberger.  It is an autobiographical work.  The first two segments look at the life of Van Cook’s mother Hetty Martin in England during & after World War II, with the remainder of the book offering a view of Van Cook’s childhood & teenage years.

The Late Child and Other Animals cover

Hetty was a woman who had a difficult life, who had to find the strength to overcome numerous obstacles.  During World War II her husband, like millions of other young men from Great Britain, was drafted into the armed forces.  While her husband served abroad, back at home Hetty, her parents and her siblings were among the numerous civilians forced to endure the nightmare of the Blitz.  Van Cook & Romberger powerfully bring across how the horrors of the war existed alongside the mundane, how the British people strove to endure and go about their daily routines, never knowing when death might fall from above.

The end of the conflict brought little peace to Hetty herself.  Tragically her husband was killed while still stationed abroad, not in battle, but in an accident, when his truck drove off a bridge.  Now widowed, Hetty struggled to retain custody of a young child who she has recently adopted.

A few years later Hetty gave birth to a daughter, Marguerite.  The child was conceived out of wedlock, the result of an affair with a married man.  Hetty was forced to appear before a board of inquiry to plead her case, to convince the government that she should be allowed to keep her daughter.  Van Cook & Romberger render this sequence as a surreal nightmare, the middle-aged puritanical men of the Court morphing into a flock of ravenous crows.  The writing, art and coloring all work to evoke the psychological & emotional duress that Hetty endured throughout the hearing, a thinly-veiled inquisition.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 46

From the perspective of 2015, it must be difficult to conceive of what Van Cook’s mother had to go through in order to convince the government not to take her child away.  In certain respects the pendulum has swung in completely the opposite direction.  Now it often is nearly impossible to remove a child from the most abominable examples of parents.

Having said that, the underlying forces and attitudes behind the ordeal Hetty faced definitely remain.  The moralizing, misogynistic judgments that she endured in that official hearing still exist in society, manifesting themselves in numerous other arenas.

The narrative The Late Child and Other Animals then shifts its focus to Marguerite, who grows up in & around Hetty’s hometown of Portsmouth.  Various facets of post-war British society are viewed through her young eyes.  Van Cook’s narration & dialogue is very expressive.  The art by Romberger, in conjunction with Van Cook’s coloring, evokes a variety of moods & atmospheres.  They very successfully bring to life this past era.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 80

The jump to the final segment of The Late Child and Other Animals is unfortunately jarring.  Marguerite is now a teenager in France in the late 1960s.  She is living with her friend Catherine’s family in Paris, and she accompanies them to the northern coast of France for a lengthy summer holiday.  It is never explained how Marguerite came to be in France, how she knows Catherine, or what happened to Hetty.

While on holiday, Marguerite is given a pet rabbit to care for.  At the end of the summer, though, after having bonded with the rabbit, it is taken from her by Catherine’s mother Yvonne, who has it slaughtered right before Marguerite’s eyes.  I was left pondering the motivations of this seeming act of petty cruelty.  It was one of the aspects of the book that I’ve been continually thinking over since I finished it.

Marguerite had previously depicted Yvonne as a somewhat formal, rigid individual lacking in emotional warmth.  Was the French woman merely being hurtful by having the rabbit killed?  Or was she, in her brusque manner, attempting to teach the English teenager a lesson, to show her that life is not fair, that it will often be very harsh, as well as to demonstrate the transient nature of existence?  After this incident, the young Marguerite is contemplative…

“It seems that things must change. The adult world is barbarous. I began to reconstruct my romantic exclusive view of the world, though now I was a little less pure than when the season began.”

The incident prompts Marguerite to begin experiencing some of the disenchantment that many of us go through in our teenage years as we become more aware of the unpleasant realities of the world, the ones that challenge our youthful optimism & idealism.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 168

Another aspect of this occurred to me.  Shortly before the rabbit was slaughtered, Marguerite had joined Catherine, her parents and her extended family in an enormous end-of summer feast, a culinary extravaganza containing numerous exquisite dishes and recipes.  All of this, when you think of it, came some somewhere; the ingredients did not just materialize out of thin air.

As the summer draws to a close, Marguerite has returned to Paris with Catherine and her family.  One autumn evening, Yvonne serves a stew that Marguerite finds “delectable.”  Asking what it is, she is informed that it is rabbit.  She then asks if it is HER rabbit, and the answer is yes.  Marguerite accepts this.  As Van Cook writes of her younger self, “And so it was I ate my pet and remembered all the fun times of the summer.”

Yes, this could be regarded as a rather blasé attitude.  But I recalled something that filmmaker John Waters wrote in his 1981 book Shock Value.  Reacting to viewers’ outrage that he actually killed a chicken during the filming of Pink Flamingos, Waters queried…

“Don’t most of the people who are horrified at this scene eat chicken? How do they think it gets to their plates? The chickens don’t have heart attacks, for Godsake!”

As with other elements of the narrative, I think that Marguerite’s actions and reactions here are somewhat open to interpretation, offering the reader food for thought (no pun intended).  There is a great deal of depth to the material that Van Cook & Romberger present in The Late Child and Other Animals.  This is one of those works that undoubtedly benefits from re-readings.  I look forward to finding out what impressions it leaves me with when I examine it again in the future.

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.

Remembering Doom Patrol creator Arnold Drake

Today would have been the 90th birthday of writer Arnold Drake, who was born on March 1, 1924.  Drake,  with co-writer Leslie Waller and artist Matt Baker, created It Rhymes With Lust, a noir “picture novel” released in 1950 by St. John Publications.  Some historians consider it to be the first American graphic novel.  Long out of print, It Rhymes With Lust was finally republished by Dark Horse in 2007.

Drake was a prolific writer in the comic book field, penning numerous scripts at DC Comics from the mid-1950s through the late-1960s.  Probably the most significant of Drake’s contributions to the DC universe was co-creating the bizarre, offbeat cult classic the Doom Patrol with Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani.  The Doom Patrol made their debut in My Greatest Adventure #80 (June 1963), a sci-fi anthology series.  Drake and Haney co-wrote the DP’s first two stories, after which Drake took over as the sole writer, paired with artist Premiani.  The characters became quite popular, and My Greatest Adventure was officially re-titled The Doom Patrol with issue #86.  The series lasted until issue #121, published in 1968.

My Greatest Adventure Doom Patrol 82 pg 1

Drake deliberately set out to make the members of the Doom Patrol the antithesis of the clean-cut, conventional superheroes DC was publishing.  Drake witnessed the early success that Marvel was already experiencing through the formula of “heroes with problems.”  With Haney and Premiani, he conceived a group of characters who were regarded by so-called normal society as “freaks.”

Cliff Steele, aka Robotman, had his human body completely destroyed in a race car accident, and his still living brain was transplanted into a clunky metal form.  Larry Trainor, aka Negative Man, had his form co-habited by a bizarre energy being which he could control, but which also resulted in him becoming highly radioactive, necessitating he be wrapped up in specially-treated bandages, looking much like a mummy.  Rita Farr, aka Elasti-Girl, was exposed to strange volcanic gasses, which enabled her to dramatically grow or shrink in size.  Although Rita remained an attractive woman, her new abilities also attracted considerable attention & publicity, and she was not happy with her notoriety.  Bringing the group together was Niles Calder, aka The Chief, a wheelchair-bound scientific genius.

(Keep in mind that The Doom Patrol predates X-Men by a few months, and to this day a hotly debated question is whether this was an amazing piece of synchronicity, or if Marvel “borrowed” the concept of Drake’s series.)

The Italian-born Premiani had an understandably European style to his artwork, which was definitely of a very high quality.  I think that this helped to further distinguish The Doom Patrol from much of DC’s other output at the time.  As Drake himself would comment to Premiani, “You draw with an Italian pen.”  Certainly Premiani did a wonderful job rendering the beautiful Elasti-Girl, giving her a look Drake described “as quite European-Mediterranean.”

Drake and Premiani also created a bizarre rogues gallery for the DP.  The centuries old General Immortus sought to maintain his longevity, regain his youth, and conquer the world.  The Brotherhood of Evil was made up of the disembodied Brain, the French-speaking machine gun wielding gorilla Monsieur Mallah, and the shape shifting Madame Rouge.  Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, as his name implies, could transform into weird, gigantic combinations of animals, plants, and rocks.

Doom Patrol 99 pg 4

Later on, in The Doom Patrol #99 (November 1965), the hotheaded green shape-changing teenager Beast Boy was introduced by Drake and artist Bob Brown.  Years later Beast Boy (sometimes also known as Changeling) would become a member of Wolfman & Perez’s ultra-popular New Teen Titans.  I actually acquired a rather beat-up copy of DP #99 at a comic show in Westchester back in the mid-1990s for a whopping nine bucks.  That was a cool find.  I still have that one floating around somewhere.

Also at DC, Drake co-created supernatural hero Deadman with artist Carmine Infantino, and the horror comedy feature Stanley and His Monster with Winslow Mortiner.

After a dispute with DC over better pay rates & benefits in 1968, Drake left that company and headed over to Marvel Comics.  During his brief time there, he worked on several series, including (ironically enough) X-Men, where he introduced Cyclops’ brother Alex Summers, who was shortly after turned into the superhero Havok by Roy Thomas & Neal Adams.  Drake, paired with artist Gene Colan, created the original Guardians of the Galaxy, who made their debut in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 (January 1969).

Marvel Super-Heroes 18 cover

Drake penned numerous stories while at Gold Key in the 1970s.  He was a regular contributor to mystery / horror titles such as Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery, The Twilight Zone, and Dark Shadows.  Having previously penned numerous humor comic books at DC, the versatile Drake also had a lengthy run writing Little Lulu for Gold Key.

One of Drake’s last comic book stories for many years was “G.I. Samurai,” which was published by DC in G.I. Combat #276 (April 1985).  I actually have vivid memories of reading this story when I was nine years old.  Drake told the story of Mike Mabuchi, a Japanese-American soldier struggling to find acceptance among his comrades while fighting in World War II on the European Front.  It was a very thoughtful piece of writing by Drake about the bigotry which was sometimes present on the American side of the conflict.

GI Samurai pg 1

After an 18 year absence from the biz, Drake collaborated with Argentine artist Luis Dominguez on “Tripping Out,” a 13 page story that appeared in the January 2003 edition of Heavy Metal.  Dominguez had previously created a number of beautiful cover paintings at Gold Key in the 1970s (I’m not sure if Drake and Dominguez worked together during this time, since Gold Key sometimes wasn’t good at supplying detailed credits).  Dominguez also painted a recreation of the cover artwork for My Greatest Adventure #80.  This fantastic piece was featured as the cover of Alter Ego #17, published by TwoMorrows in September 2002, which featured an in-depth interview with Drake conducted by Marc Svensson.

Arnold Drake passed away on March 12, 2007, at the age of 83.  I was very fortunate to have met him on a couple of occasions prior to this, at NYC conventions in the early 2000s.  He autographed my copies of The Doom Patrol Archives Volume 1 and Alter Ego #17.  The second time I met Drake, I was able to have a very pleasant chat with him that must have lasted at least 15 minutes.  He immediately impressed me as a sharp, intelligent, insightful man.

Alter Ego 17 cover signed

Drake really was one of those creators who saw the vast potentials of comic books, who wanted to see stories of a diverse selection of genres published in a variety of formats, such as graphic novels.  I definitely regard him as being ahead of his time.  He was involved in the creation of several wonderful, unusual series & concepts, and he helped to lay the groundwork for succeeding writers who sought to push the boundaries of the medium.

Liberty versus Security

If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear
If you’ve something to hide, you shouldn’t even be here
You’ve had your chance, now we’ve got the mandate
If you’ve changed your mind, I’m afraid it’s too late
We’re concerned you’re a threat
You’re not integral to the project

Pet Shop Boys, “Integral”

In the last decade, as the “War on Terror” has been raged, first by the Bush and then the Obama administrations, the question of the balance between liberty and security has been a fierce one.  This is not a new debate, though.  The questions and controversies surrounding increased governmental powers and limitations on civil rights date back to the early years of our nation.

In 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed into law as a reaction to the French Revolution’s bloody Reign of Terror.  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus.  Although Lincoln is regarded as one of the greatest of the U.S. Presidents, this is an action that a century and a half later is still hotly debated among historians.  And during World War II, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast within internment camps.

So the continuing reactionary policies of certain politicians in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, although disheartening, are anything but unprecedented.  On December 31, 2011, Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act.  One provision of the law is that it affirmed the ability of the federal government to indefinitely imprison without trial any individuals, including American citizens.  Many have regarded this as just the latest trampling of the Bill of Rights by an increasingly unchecked government.  Myself, I was very disappointed that Obama signed this into law.  Disappointed, but not surprised.  It is an election year, after all, and he obviously did not want to appear weak on national security.  Whatever else he is, Obama is a shrewd individual who wants to gain a second term as President.  He is certainly not the first politician to forsake his stated principles in order to court votes.

More recently, here in New York City, it has been revealed that the NY Police Department has been conducting extensive surveillance of Muslim-American businesses and students, even going so far as to follow them out-of-state.  There are concerns that the NYPD is not acting on any legitimate leads or suspicions, but rather engaging in racial profiling.  The Associated Press’s revelation of these actions has resulted in criticism not just from the Muslim community, but from officials in New Jersey and Washington DC.  The FBI seems to be regarding the NYPD’s lone wolf tactics as having both damaged several of their own investigations, as well as harming relations between the government and the Muslim community.  Unsurprisingly, despite all of the criticism, NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have imperiously refused to back down, retorting that their actions were both legal and necessary to save lives from possible terrorist threats.

It appears that it is within our nature to all-to-quickly give in to fear, to be ready to forsake our liberty for a comforting feeling of security.  We should do well to remember the words often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, namely that those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither.

Please keep in mind that I am not claiming that legitimate threats to our security do not exist.  They do, and we need to safeguard against them.  But in the process, it is crucial that we do not destroy the very freedoms we are fighting to safeguard.  There must ever be a balance between liberty and security.  Too much of one extreme or the other can lead to devastating consequences.