Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A witness to the dawn of Marvel Comics

Gene Colan | Hero Complex – movies, comics, pop culture ...
Gene Colan
The late, great Gene Colan told me this story years ago.
He was freelancing in comics, working for DC and Marvel simultaneously. Mostly westerns for DC and mostly war and “spooky” stories for Marvel (then Atlas).
Anyhow, he shows up at the office to hand deliver art pages to Stan Lee and Stan tells him to shut the office door.
Then Stan shares with him the dire straits he company is in. They lost their distributor and are having to go with another which will cost them some newsstand coverage. Sales are down overall. The margins are slim. Stan tells Gene that he’ll be cutting titles back and shrinking the staff. Part of that is taking less freelance work. He was going to rely on Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck for the bulk of the upcoming work. So, for the time being, there’ll be no more work for guys like Gene.
manga | Doctor Comics
His exact words to Gene are, “Me and Jack and Steve are going to try something. If it doesn’t work we’ll be shutting down for good.” Stan said something about editing men’s “sweat” magazines for the rest of his life. He expressed his regrets and showed Gene out.
Down on the street with his empty portfolio, Gene realized all he had in his pocket was a dime. It was enough to take the subway home.
Or he could use it to call DC editorial. Back in those days you couldn’t just show up at the DC offices.
So, he goes into the next phone booth and drops the dime. The call doesn’t go through. He hits coin return but the phone won’t give his dime back. Gene pounds on the phone but it’s not giving up that dime. Gene drops to his knees in the booth and prays to God and Jesus to give him his dime back. He makes promises to the Lord above all in exchange for a lousy ten cents. He gives the phone a few more whacks and gives up.
Downtrodden and looking forward to a long, lonely walk to an outer borough, Gene drags his portfolio down the street, eyes downcast.
And there, shining in a crack in the sidewalk is a liberty dime!
Gene plucks it out, hits the next phone booth and connects with Bob Kanigher who tells him to come over. He had a story that Gene would be perfect for.
He walked home happy with the script in his portfolio and wondering what Stan and Jack and Steve were going to come up with to save Atlas Comics.

Thursday, November 1, 2018


From a month-long series of Facebook posts:

It's time for horror movies! Watched the original THE FLY. Hadn't seen it since I was a kid and Chiller Theater showed it. Never knew it was in color and Cinescope till now. Effective movie with that famous shocker ending.

Image may contain: one or more people and people sitting

RETURN of THE FLY. Not as effective as the first. But then, what could be? Fun anyway despite sub-par effects. What is it about black and white widescreen movies I love so much?

No automatic alt text available.

Continuing on the horror binge. THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970) The first, and best, of Dario Argento's giallo films. "Borrowed" from a novel by Frederic Brown, the story is a fine, twisty-turny mystery with all the slasher movie elements that would be stolen over and over by other filmmakers from this influential thriller.

Image may contain: 1 person, text

Okay, the first SAW movie was better than I remembered. On to SAW 2 which I'll be seeing for the first time.

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting, shoes, plant and outdoor

Watched SAW 2 and SAW 3. Halfway through SAW 3 I realized that the soundtrack is CONSTANTLY there, a minor chord ambience behind EVERY scene. I like watching these franchises to see how the writers meet the challenges to keep them going. There's an internal logic to these flicks.that makes them kind of hypnotic.

Image may contain: one or more people and people standing

Watched SAW 4 and 5. I will make it to the end! Kind of fascinating watching the writers loop back on the original story to keep this franchise rolling with (some) degree of cogency. The presence of Julie Benz helps the fifth movie go better. And the five victims connected by a common story was a pretty compelling idea. Though it was easy to see their mistake early on.

Image may contain: one or more people and night

I made it! SAW 6 and 7(3D)! They managed to bring the whole, damned, mess ordeal full circle. The store window sequence in the last flick was nasty. I kept wondering just how far ahead Jigsaw planned this rampage. And we're also left to wonder where the Costa Mandylor character went to school for engineering. Or did he sub-contract? And who was paying the electric bills for all those abandoned sites filled with deadly mazes and torture machines?

Image may contain: one or more people and people standing

Staying with the horror theme. I watched one of those UNDERWORLD movies. Which one? Does it matter? I realize now that every line of dialogue in all these movies is exposition. EVERY LINE.

Image may contain: 1 person, night and outdoor

More horror in keeping with that October spirit. The 1986 version of THE FLY. Haven't watched this one in years. For the first time I noticed how small the cast is. They really dialed the story in to just a few characters. More disgusting than actually scary. But that's Cronenberg in a nutshell for me.

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting

Thought I'd take a break from horror to watch a Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn comedy. SURPRISE! I did not know THE WATCH had a sci-fi horror element at its core. Boy, they sure didn't market it that way. Anyhow, a pretty standard rude comedy with a few laughs but mostly by-the-numbers stuff relying on the cast to provide the yuks with ad-libs pulled from multiple takes. You know the drill.

Image may contain: 4 people, people standing

Tonight was THE FLY II. Kind of spotty and VERY 80s, but with some seriously creepy moments. And, for my money, the best revenge ending ever put on film. The bad guy got just what he deserved.

Image may contain: outdoor

Tonight it was NEAR DARK, the genre-bending vampire flick that takes the bloodsuckers out of Transylvania and brings them to the Texas panhandle. Stellar cast including Bill Paxton, Lance Henrikson and Tim Thomerson. I remember being blown away by it on video back in '86. Still dig its spare style and that Tangerine Dream soundtrack.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people sitting and indoor

TENEBRAE. Dario Argento giallo starring Tony Franciosa as the world's most credulous mystery writer and John Saxon as the world's least convincing literary agent. This movie would have gone down a whole better if their roles were reversed. A fine, bloody time with some creepy scenes but not Argento's best.

Image may contain: one or more people and closeup

THE HOWLING (1981) A werewolf movie that sure seemed cutting edge back in the 80's. A new, very graphic re-thinking of the transformation scenes and a cinema verite feel to much of the shooting. Looking back, the seams show. The movie has too much on its mind as it tries to comment on the media and self-help movements. And the in-jokes, references and cameos that seemed so amusing at the time are just annoying now. Dante had an excellent script to work from and should have stayed with its lean style. Instead, he clutters the rising action and sense of dread with unnecessary asides. And while Dee Wallace is just fine as a horror heroine, she is utterly unconvincing as a TV personality. Still, it is what it is, a grindhouse wolfman movie.

Image may contain: 1 person, closeup

THE RITUAL, a Netflix jaunt. Decent enough horror story about four pals who go hiking in the woods in northern Sweden. Suffers from the overused guilt-trip trope (that was used in the similar and excellent THE DESCENT). The monster is pretty terrific and used to great effect. But by the time it shows up we've been drubbed with far too much character stuff to care. Unfortunate because it really is a well mounted production with solid acting. But it succumbs to that bland sameness of tone and presentation that is beginning to infuse way too many Netflix genre productions.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing

TREMORS: COLD DAY IN HELL Poor Burt Gummer deserves better than this. A tedious SyFy Channel level sequel. Barely any plot, suspense or character development. I actually lost count of the actresses because they all looked the same. I wasn't sure who was getting killed at any one time. The direction was spotty and the editing done with a hatchet. The story was obviously written around the fact that they had limited locations and thirty seconds of effects available. Not the usual fun time of a Tremors flick.

Image may contain: one or more people

THE CURED Kind of an after-horror movie, almost like a sequel to a movie that was never made. Though, with no changes, this could have easily been a 28 Days Later sequel. The "infected" are cured and attempt to assimilate back into society with mixed results. VERY Irish movie with its sadness and all, and all. And its firebrand politics in which the cured decide that they are being unfairly put up and oppressed and turn to (surprise!) terrorism. Still, some good apocalyptic action and scares.

Image may contain: one or more people, people sitting and indoor

GINGER SNAPS BACK (2004) closes out this werewolf sisterhood trilogy with the unusual choice of a prequel set in the Canadian wilderness of 1815. A handsomely mounted production finds the sisters Ginger and Bridget back at the very beginning of their saga and the start of the curse that would plague their lineage for generations. As always, the two female leads make the material work. Katherine Isabelle is entirely convincing as the lycanthropic Ginger and Emily Perkins can sustain a believable level of agonized terror for an incredible length of time. And I can even excuse the girls' often anachronistic dialogue because it's all within the odd spirit of this series.

Image may contain: 2 people, closeup

SUSPIRIA (1977) Thanks to a brand new restoration this flick now matches the experience of seeing it on the giant screen at the old FOX theater in Philly. Considered to be Dario Argento's masterpiece, this slice of delirium is set at a German dance academy that conceals a coven of witches. The sets are wild and the mood of the film unsettling. This is Argento removed almost entirely from the real world and immersed in a dreamworld of weirdness and bloodshed. Released the same year as Star Wars, Fox formed a holding company to put it out in the USA because, while they wanted the money, they didn't want their name on it. The movie turned out to be highly profitable and was the real beginning of what would become a horror boom in the 80s.

Image may contain: 1 person, indoor

SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999) Just shows what Tim Burton can do with an actual story. And while the story is great ( classic), the movie is not. I can imagine the pitch meeting when one of the producers pipes up, "What if Ichabod Crane was a New York cop?" The same roomful of producers probably forced the extended action sequence ending on the filmmakers. Explosions, a fire, a fight atop a tall structure AND a chase! More is better, right? No, more is tedious. The production is handsome with terrific sets and costuming and the cast uniformly excellent. But why make an R-rated version of this? Wouldn't a PG-13 have been smarter box office? And Christopher Walken looks like he's having fun.

Image may contain: 1 person, sunglasses and closeup

So, Tim Burton without a good story or script. DARK SHADOWS (2012) tries to simultaneously be a parody, remake, re-boot and homage. It fails on every point. The "humor" arrives so late in the film it feels like someone switched reels with another movie. And there are story elements that come out of NOWHERE but do nothing to augment a story whose ending could be predicted in the first three minutes of running time. A vampire returns from a centuries long imprisonment in a grave to rescue a seafood business?

Image may contain: 1 person

RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) A not-too-serious entry into the zombie genre from Dan O'Bannion (famous for ALIEN) and contributions from John Russo, one of the writers on the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The conceit is that NOTLD was based on a true story covered up by the government who, in typical fed fashion, lost a bunch of barrels containing contaminated corpses. The barrels turn up a medical warehouse in Louisville for some reason and the dead and the infectious contaminant are released over a cemetery where zombies rise to threaten a gang of teens meant to represent the supposed demographic of MTV watchers. Fun and often silly with a few truly impressive practical effects. And this one is the source of the common zombie trope "Brains...."

No automatic alt text available.

THE CONJURING (2013) Currently my favorite horror franchise/universe. It's a haunted house mystery basically but with plenty of inventive twists and nuances. Patrick Wilson and Vera Famiga lead a great cast as a ghosthunting married couple who work as part-time lay exorcists. The chemistry between them holds the movie together. This is my kind of scary flick. It takes place in a very realistic environment rather than a world of gray delirium. That makes he horror elements all the more...horrifying.

Image may contain: 1 person, closeup

Okay, now for a haunted house mystery with no inventive twists and zero nuance. MAMA (2013) could easily have been written by an algorithm. Every moment is predictable and, while well produced, it features the same gloomy, shades-of-gray visuals as every other cookie-cutter spook movie of its type. There's no real effort to establish a base reality. Every setting looks like it could be haunted. The scares are all blocked out with the same ABC regularity and no effort made to fool or surprise the viewer. And not an iota of humor, of course. Guillermo DelToro had something to do with this and it shows. But the little girls who play the sisters are very good.

Image may contain: 1 person

COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) Super-cheapie production that, at the time, was kind of cutting edge in in its "modern" take on a vampire showing up in LA. Legendary for having started out as a "skin flick" until Robert Quarry urged the producers to do a straight-up horror movie. An oddity now but, believe me, it was quite effective on TV as a late-night programmer in the 70s.

Image may contain: 1 person, closeup

THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971) is more of the same. Which is the function of a sequel when you get right down to it. Mariette Hartley, in some kind of career slump, is the Count's object of affection this time out. And Craig T. Nelson makes an early appearance here. Some attempts at humor and an extended maze chase through halls crowded with big-hair vampirettes. These had to have been profitable. I wonder why the series ended here.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling

PIRANHA 3D (2010) An unapologetic exploitation film featuring prehistoric piranha let loose on a buffet of Spring Breakers in a lake in Arizona. Clothes come off, flesh comes off as this movie hits every branch of the grindhouse tree on the way down. Well done production and predictable as hell but, who cares, right? Highlight for me? Richard Dreyfuss getting gnawed to death.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor

SCREAM (1996) The surprise hit that re-started the horror movie cycle that's basically still with us more than twenty years later. Wes Craven has a fun script full of meta observations about the slasher movie genre. My favorite part (and I'm sure I'm not alone) is how much punishment Ghostface takes as he pursues his victims. A crowd-pleaser that must have been a blast to see in a theater and still a lot of grisly fun today. The thirty-second delay gag was so cutting edge then!

No automatic alt text available.

MANDY (2018) An attempt to make an arthouse/grindhouse hybrid revenge flick with strong horror elements. The results leave you wondering if the filmmakers are geniuses or morons. Often, the editing makes you wonder if someone fell asleep at the Movieola. It's all train wreck fascinating and held together by the thespian Krazy Glue that is Nicolas Cage. Say what you want about the man, he's carried more than one awful movie on his back, turning the unwatchable into the watchable by sheer force of will. Here, he is not so much cast in the role as unleashed. Do yourself a favor and watch it so that you can assure the inevitable army of cinemaphiles, who will adopt this movie as a cause, that you did see it.

Image may contain: one or more people

SCREAM 2 (1997) The franchise goes full meta with the opening of a movie-within-a-movie based on the first movie! A worthy sequel filled with soon-to-be-familiar faces like Tim Olyphant and Liev Schreiber and Portia DeRossi. More of the same, the goal of any sequel, with plenty of twists, turns and contrivances. The action moves to a college campus and, as Jamie Kennedy promises, the body count explodes. Features perhaps the longest motivation/exposition psycho monologue in horror film history.

Image may contain: 1 person

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

GORGO! (1961)

Gorgo | Gojipedia | FANDOM powered by Wikia
It's hard to overstate the impact this movie had on me as a kid. 
I was six years old when I saw it at the Waverly Theater in Drexel Hill, PA. My oldest sister and her boyfriend Rudy took me as a surprise for my upcoming birthday. The ads for Gorgo were all over TV and I just HAD to see it. I think Rudy tagged along because footage from the Cassius Clay/LaMar Clark fight was also on the bill. 

In any case the movie enthralled me like nothing I'd ever seen before. Gorgo consumed my imagination for months after. I vividly remember going Christmas shopping the following December with my parents and fantasizing that I could see Gorgo looming over the Gimbel's building and throngs of panicked shoppers stampeding down Chestnut Street. 

I drew crayon pictures of Gorgo and his mom. I imagined their further adventures, deep beneath the North Atlantic, stalking the barren shores of the Hebrides or Iceland. Holing up in fjords and feeding on pods of killer whales. 

Gorgo (film) - Wikipedia

When a comic book series came out I was thrilled. When it was drawn by my comic book idol, Steve Ditko, I was floored. When it aired on TV (rarely) I never missed it. A pretty lousy plastic figure of Gorgo came out bagged collection of monsters but I had to have one. I got one in green and he stood on my bedroom shelf through high school. 

Palmer monsters were released in 1964. These 3-inch ...Pinterest • The world’s catalog of ideas

Thanks to a pretty decent Blu-Ray restoration, I got to see it again today in as close as an experience as I'll ever get to that evening at the Waverly. 

Gorgo (1961) BluRay 720p AC3 x264-CHD | High Definition ...

And I can see what fascinated me about it. First, its running time of under eighty minutes. Perfect for a six-year-old, right? Then it included so many elements within my area of interest at the time. It had scuba diving which I was infatuated with then but the idea terrifies me now. There were references to Vikings when I was going through a heavy phase of Norse mythology. And the all-male manly cast meant there'd be no yucky girls in the story or icky kissing scenes. 

GORGO 1961 | Catherine Renée

But mostly, it's a tight little story with a clever twist at the end. See, the monster rampaging through the city actually has a compelling reason to do so in the story. And you sympathize with her, yeah her, as she crushed countless Londoners under rubble. Unlike other big monster movies monsters, this critter goes to London instead of Tokyo. 

And the rampage climax is a lulu. The editing is frantically paced and loaded with the best crowds of panicked victims ever put on film. There's mobs of folks fleeing, packed curb to curb and really looking terrified. The most motivated extras I've ever seen. They claw over each other and trample anyone unlucky enough to stumble and fall. In fact, the freaked out masses are easily the scariest aspect of the movie.I realized then and now that the most dangerous thing about a monster attack would be the risk of getting crushed by your fellow citizens. It really is harrowing the way the movie portrays that nightmarish reality. 

Gorgo Blu-ray - Bill Travers

For the time, the effects are pretty effective and varied. The panoramic shots of the monster raging over the skyline of Piccadilly look great. Scenes of Tower Bridge and Big Ben falling are shocking. To every kids' delight, the British army and RAF show up to lots of bang and boom but little effect on the monster. 
All in all, not a great movie. But I can sure see why I had so much affection for it. It was literally everything I wanted in a monster movie at that age and nothing I didn't want. Maybe the best birthday present I ever got. 
GORGO 1961 | Catherine Renée

Thursday, August 23, 2018


Mr. Dixon, I have a question about plot, mostly how to make an original one instead of digging through your brain and putting together movies, books, and comics you’ve seen and read. John Truby, a screenwriter with a big list of movies he’s worked on, says that the only way to make an original plot is to make it personal to you, therefore original.
I would like to see what you think about plot, as I’m struggling with it a little myself.

Plotting is what separates the men from the boys (or women from the girls, to be very PC about it) in writing.
There are those who will tell you that there are only two basic plots. These people are idiots.
Shakespeare came up with at least seven enduring plots. Dashiell Hammett with two. Poe with one. Melville with two. TwainHugoDumas, all contributed mightily. Jane Austen was no slouch. The ancient Greeks and Chinese. And the Bible is loaded with them.
Avoid blanket statements from folks like Truby. Just because the story is personal doesn’t make it original. We could all write the story about the first time our heart was broken or the loss of a loved one and they would essentially be the same story. They could be touching, honest and revealing but by no means new.
Now personal EXPERIENCE is another matter. Hammett lived the stories he wrote; filled with gangsters, murders, shoot-outs and drunken depravity. He was a Pinkerton detective and didn’t know that the plotlines to The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest were fresh. He only knew what he’d learned as a private dick. Raymond Chandler, on the other hand, was a successful lawyer who’d never been on a stake-out or been beaten senseless in a brawl. Hence, his plotlines are a mess and he is only remembered for his deft use of language and compelling characters (no slouch in either department). He had no experiences to draw from.
So, you want to write about something but haven’t been in command of pirate ship or led a charge against an enemy machine gun nest. By Truby’s lights you’d have to give up right there. So you do as Nietzsche advised and borrow from others’ intellects.
I used to write a character called Skywolf. A grizzled WWII vet still raising hell in the skies over Texas and Mexico in the 1980s. I made him my dad. I used my dad’s voice as I heard it my head, and a lot of his tropes and mannerisms. Plotlines for Skywolf grew out of that.
Now, were any of these original plotlines? Totally original? Of course not. I was being paid low rates and had a bi-weekly deadline. I didn’t steal plots. Never sink that low. But I did rely on formula as well as the expectations of the reader. You take the standard formula of any genre then stand it on its head as best you can. The hero dies. The girl goes off with another girl. The murderer gets away with it only to be murdered himself. The magician’s magic turns out to be a hallucination in the end. Whatever. Give the reader what they expect but not in the way they expected it.
Example. In a western, ALL conflicts must be resolved in the end with violence. If you don’t do that you didn’t write a western, you wrote a period piece with a lame ending. The ONLY exception is an excellent 50s western called Warlock in which the issues of the movie are solved without a shootout at the end. The movie ends with emotional violence and thus satisfies the viewer.
So, come up with a sturdy plotline and twist and bend it. Throw in reversals that leave the reader uncertain of how you’ll proceed. Janet Leigh was the star of Psycho but is dead within the first twenty minutes. Imagine how THAT threw the audience off!
Presentation is the key. Think of Star Wars and the Vietnam movie Platoon. They both have exactly the same basic plotline. Think about it. Really think about it. The character relationships of the principles are identical to Star Wars. There’s even a Wookiee.
So pacing, characterization and dialogue all become layers under which you “hide” your plotline. Is your plotline strong enough to entertain a six-year-old as a bedtime story? Probably not. Gussy it up with repartee, reversals and strong character relationships, brisk action, a few off-the-wall surprises and you can keep jaded adults enthralled. Don’t be discouraged, Tarantino can’t tell bedtime stories either. His movies are ALL presentation.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

DRAG Cartoons

If you're a millennial comics fan all this might be news to you. Maybe you Gen X or Ys might have seen these car humor mags. I'm betting a lot of the boomers here LIVED in these comics. Created at the the height of the California car culture craze, CARtoons, DRAG Cartoons and, eventually CYCLEtoons were common sights on magazine stands everywhere. Rat Fink and the Weird-Ohs were kids kounter-kulture heroes made all the cooler because our parents didn't understand them.

To be honest, other than the gearhead kids I grew up with, mots of us didn't understand the creations of Big Daddy Ed Roth and Mouse and other CARtoonists. But that impenetrability only made them seem even hipper. The jokes were probably only funny to dedicated rodders and grease monkeys. And I suspect they weren't that funny to them.To say the humor was sophomoric is being kind. But when you're twelve, sophomoric seems pretty sophisticated. I mean, jokes about hot girls. Hee hee. 

And, looking back on these it's easy to excuse the obvious objectification of women portrayed in these magazines. The females were always unobtainable objects of desire; the heroes of these stories being either motor-nerds or simply romantically inept.

These were the handbooks for the whole fad of building custom car and Weird-Oh models and collecting oil company stickers and decals. The t-shirts, caps, key chains and all the rest of the brick-a-back we HAD to have to be perceived as cool. 

The magazines were in publication into the early 90s and I noticed that CARtoons has returned in magazine form and has survived to issue #15 at least. But, over their run, the magazines fell in quality. Particularly in the art area. In those early days they featured the cream of comics creators. Especially from the California-based talents, many of whom worked in Hollywood animation as well as funnybooks. 

Alex Toth, Warren Tufts, Russ Manning and Mel Keefer were frequent contributors. The magazine even found its own superstar in Gilbert Shelton who introduced the swine of steel Wonder Warthog in the pages of Pete Millar's publications. 

I thought I'd share a few stories from DRAG Cartoons #2.

First up is a beautiful job by Russ Manning that I suspect Russ might have scripted himself.

Next is a story by Alex Toth, author unknown. That's E.G. Marshall from a popular lawyer show The Defenders  as the prosecuting attorney condemning the hapless hero. 

And finally, a simply gorgeous piece of draftsmanship from Warren Tufts.