Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts

Pop Diary: Reviews of "Pam and Tommy," "Box of Pin-Ups" and "Ladhood"

Pam & Tommy is too long (Hulu is frustratingly dealing out the episodes a week at the time and there are still three out of eight left) but otherwise extremely well done. 

We all know the story of the stolen sex tape, yadda, yadda, and it's a big joke because its stars are/were so tacky and dumb and who cares about what happens to famous people anyway. Except that the show does make us care, particularly about Anderson, who is uncannily and sensitively played by an unrecognizable Lily James. 

The early episodes play as parody and let us laugh at her and heavy metal drummer Tommy Lee (also well played by Sebastain Stan) as they go through a whirlwind I-guess-you-could-call-it-a-courtship and spontaneously get married. They seem to love each other but you can tell from the get-go that it's probably not a great idea. And neither is leaving their honeymoon tape in a safe where it can be stolen by a construction worker, (Rand Gauthier played by a funny, understated Seth Rogan) that Tommy treats like shit. 

Viewing the tape at home, a shocked Rand naturally shows it to his pal in the porn industry "Uncle Miltie" a.k.a. Ron Swanson's sleazy brother played by the always welcome Nick Offerman. These two goofballs then make use of the nascent Internet to sell copies for a massive profit and rest is tawdry history, except for what we start to see in the later episodes, which chart the horrible humiliation of this caused for  Anderson, contibuting to a miscarriage and derailing what might've been a career that involved more than her looks. 

All of it could've likely been done in two hours, but it's a well-told story, nevertheless, with a lot to say not just about the inherent sexism in our society, but the dehumanizing impact of fame and the lack of accountability afforded by online anonymity.

Box of Pin-Ups: The British Sounds of 1965 is an excellent three-CD compilation from Cherry Red Records' Grapefruit imprint that's been getting a lot of play around our house lately. The selection focuses mainly on the fuzzy, hard sounds that emerged as Merseybeat started to fade. 

As you might imagine, the Kinks, Yardbirds, Small Faces and Pretty Things are all on hand, but so are a host of others, including the Beatstalkers, Frays and Baskervilles, all providing punchy, rocking tunes that slot in well alongside those by the better-known acts. Early tracks featuring the likes of Marc Bolan, Rod "The Mod" Stewart and Elton John also feature. 

Buying it all on the original 45s would cost a fortune, but this set — all in great sound (some of it in the original mono), plus a 48-page, picture-packed booklet  — will only set you back 30 bucks or so and is well worth it.  

"Ladhood" is a British comedy that manages to blend the hilarious "Derry Girls" with "The Wonder Years." Show creator Liam Williams stars and narrates as the action switches back and forth from the present day to his teen years in mid-90s Leeds.

Young Liam and his mates lead funny but fairly aimless lives smoking dope, listening to hip hop and never getting girls, while also being harassed by a pair of sometimes friendly/sometimes hostile bullies, Rupert and Tin Head (an autodidact whose monotone holding forth on pretty much everything is a riot). 

Liam is a bright kid, interested in shaping a creative life and getting the hell out of town, but he's also got anger issues. The frustration of his daily life leads to much bin kicking and other forms of destruction. And when we shift to the present day, we see that not much has changed. 

Grown Liam is still frustrated and still kicking garbage cans when he gets pissed off. His failure to get a handle on things leads to the destruction of his relationship and causes trouble with his friends. It's sad, yet funny, and all very deftly handled. I'm glad to learn that a third season is planned.

Pop Diary: Reviews of "All of the Marvels," The Beach Boys' "Feel Flows," and "Trying"

What I've been reading, hearing, watching.

"All of the Marvels," by Douglas Wolk
, is an entertaining read that both longtime fans of the comics and those coming in fresh thanks to the Marvel movies are likely to enjoy. 

The book is essentially a summary of observations made by Wolk after he read pretty much every ding-dong comic that Marvel has published since the dawn of the Silver Age up.

Wolk's doesn't summarize every Marvel comic or series, but instead focuses on themes he sees running throughout everything that Marvel has published. He takes the stance that, given the shared universe that most of the Marvel characters inhabit, Marvel is essentially publishing One Huge Story. And it's an epic that's ever-growing and ever-changing. That's an interesting take and one that may lead you to read Marvel's comics in a different way. 

Personally, I've always viewed Marvel in terms of individual characters and series that sometimes overlap. Cynically, I think that some of these interactions — especially the large crossover events that have been such a fixture in superhero comics since the late 1980s — are used mainly as a way to make readers buy more comic books, and that these crossovers often detract from, rather than supplement, the storylines going on in individual books. More charitably, I see the shared universe as pretty cool, and agree that seeing different characters meeting up and interacting can sometimes be a lot of fun. But as to it all being One Huge Story? I'm not totally on board with that concept. I think that Marvel and its creators are making it all up as they go along. Sometimes the results are mind-blowing and impressive, sometimes they are just a way to gouge readers who fear missing out. 

Wolk, on the other hand, is an event and crossover fan, and he uses them to demonstrate the Big Story that's being told, and how they frequently are used to profoundly alter and sometimes reinvent characters.  As a result, the book spends a lot more time on these crossovers and big events than on particular comics creators and definitive runs on different series — an approach that would've been more appealing to me. Wolk also spends a surprising number of pages spent talking about Squirrel Girl. 

All that said, it's a smartly written and entertaining book. Even if I don't view Marvel's comics the same way as Wolk does, or share in all of his opinions about which are best, I found his take interesting and thought provoking. And that's what good criticism is all about.

Feel Flows: The Sunflower and Surf's Up Sessions 1969-71
by the Beach Boys.
Years ago when I first got into the Beach Boys and made my way through all the great Brian Wilson-led albums, I was, of course, left wanting more. So it came as a relief to discover that the Beach Boys continued to do some pretty great stuff after Brian became less involved. 

Sunflower and Surf's Up — presented here along with a generous heap of outtakes, session recordings and live tracks  — are great, if not perfect, Beach Boys albums that show other members of the group coming to the fore, particularly Carl Wilson as a songwriter and producer and Dennis Wilson as a singer and writer. 

"This Whole World," "Add Some Music to Your Day," "Forever," "Cool, Cool Water," "Our Sweet Love," "Long Promised Road," "Disney Girls," and "Til I Die" are all among my favorite Beach Boys tunes, and it's great to hear them here, not just in remastered form, but in live recordings and session tapes that emphasize their intricate instrumental backings along with a capella versions that strip away the backing tracks to let us hear only the vocals. Sure, you do have to contend, also, with multiple versions of "Student Demonstration Time," the absolute worst Beach Boys song ever, but all the rest of it is a joy.

is a British comedy about a sweet, 30-something couple in London who long to have a child. When they are unable to do so on their own, they pursue adoption, which proves to be a funny, heartbreaking roller coaster ride for them and us alike. 

Esther Smith is fantastic as the lovable, goofy, Nikki, whose sense of empathy is in overdrive, and Rafe Spall is a perfect as her partner Jason, who's less certain of this whole parenting thing. There's great chemistry between the leads and they are surrounded by equally interesting and entertaining friends, all struggling/trying to work their way through marriage and parenthood in their own manner. 

In many ways — tone, setting, humor — the show struck me as a nicer, gentler "Catastrophe," another series I love. I'm looking forward to season three and watching what happens when these Nikki and Jason finally get to be parents and are confronted with a whole new set of trials.

Pop Diary: Reviews of "Asterix and the Griffin," "Hacks" and "Save Yourselves"

What I've been reading, watching.

Asterix and the Griffin
. As an Asterix fan since childhood, I always get excited about a new adventure featuring my favorite super-potioned Gauls. And new adventures is what we've been seeing pretty much annually since a new team was named to carry on the masterful, classic work of Goscinny and Uderzo. 

Those are big shoes, but new writer Jean-Yves Ferri and artist Didier Conrad have now been at it since 2011, and just turned in this, their fifth Asterix collaboration. Like the rest of the team's books, it's not bad, but it's also not classic Asterix (like I was saying, those shoes are pretty roomy...) 

Here, our heroes Asterix and his steadfast pal, Obelix, are enlisted by friends belonging to a village in the far eastern region of Barbaricum to retrieve one its members who's been kidnapped by a bunch of Romans because she supposedly knows the location of the mythical, and titular, griffin, which Caesar, being Caesar, wants to display in a circus. 

Never ones to turn down an opportunity to beat up some Romans and rescue a fair maiden, our heroes agree to the quest, which is complicated when the magic potion that provides Asterix with his superhuman strength can't be consumed because it's frozen. 

There are some funny moments - the frozen potion is a nice twist - and Conrad's art is spectacular, but overall, the laughs are lacking. Ferri likes sprinkling references to our current times into his Asterix tales and here it's a lot of joking references to Amazon and online life that aren't terribly up to date or that humorous, and will only become more dated as the years go by. That's sad when one considers that most of the original Asterix tales still hold up pretty well in terms of entertainment value. 

I hope - I guess eternally - that our Gauls' next adventure will be better.

NOTE: The translation of the book I read was published by Papercutz, which got the rights to publish Asterix in the U.S. a few years back, and I was troubled to see that they've changed the name of Asterix and Obelix's druid friend Getafix to Panoramix, as he's called in the French versions. I assume this is to avoid making a drug reference, but that's stupid. 

is a pretty much perfect limited series. In 10 episodes we learn to love two prickly people - Jean Smart as a veteran standup comic whose career is in stagnation and Hannah Einbinder is the smart, snarky young writer brought in to freshen up her act, and we're left with a perfect ending that leaves us wanting more. 

Smart's Deborah Vance isn't thrilled about having this whippersnapper thrust into her life, and resents the idea that the younger woman somehow knows funny more than she does, given her long and successful career, and Einbinder's Ava isn't crazy about having to spend time with an unhip has-been. From sparks come fire and, eventually, warmth. 

Witnessing first grudging appreciation and, ultimately, friendship develop between these two is hilarious, occasionally cringey, sometimes sad, and always engaging. 

Watching Smart's performance I kept thinking how remarkably talented, and incredibly overlooked, she is. This is a performer who really should've been making features over the past 30-plus years, not confined to TV. But TV these days is pretty great, and here she's found a part of the ages. Einbinder is one to watch, too. The daughter of SNL vet Laraine Newman, she's got great comic timing, but also real depth. 

Save Yourselves
is one of the most consistently funny comedy films I've seen in a while. Su (Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Reynolds) are hip what-we-used-to-call Yuppies who realize that phone addiction is killing their relationship and, possibly, their very souls. 

Sitting on the couch at home, they scroll mindlessly rather than communicating. When they do make eye contact it's only until the next notification dings. 

Eager to set things right, they head off to a friend's cabin in the woods with plans to completely tune out. Trouble is, that's when the aliens choose to attack. It takes them a bit to realize this, but they soon discover the entire world - including their cabin - has been invaded by surprisingly formed extraterrestrials. 

There's nothing like a crisis to bring people together, and this one does so delightfully thanks to a sharp script, originally executed plot and two extremely likable lead characters.

Pop Life: Wonder Woman 1984; Aubrey-Maturin novels; Cut Worms

What I've been reading, watching hearing, etc.

After witnessing all the hubbub about the new Wonder Woman movie going straight to TV, along with screening in theaters, due to COVID-19, and then watching that actual film, I came away thinking this thing belongs on TV.

"Wonder Woman 1984" is a small picture: Lacking in vision and execution, and failing to meet its potential. The first WW film, I thought, was great. The direction was ambitious and the story was inspiring. Gal Gadot is a charismatic star born to play this role. 

The movie presented us with a true super heroine—unlike her male counterparts who are motivated by revenge and/or a compulsion to fight for truth and justice, Diana wants to help people because she likes... people. Her approach to superhero-ing is based on compassion. The scenes of her in the first film, coming to the aid of families displaced and victimized by war were genuinely moving in a way that's extremely rare for films of this genre.

The follow-up film, sadly, pales in comparison. The plot, about a magic rock that grants wishes (for real, that's it) could've come from an episode of the actual 1970s/80s Wonder Woman TV series. Or from the 1960s Batman series. Or "Gilligan's Island." It's a dumb TV episode plot extended to two and a half hours.

And rather than pit Diana against a female villain worthy of her, the main baddie is a stereotypical businessman, Maxwell Lord (played by the should've-been-given-something-better-to-do Pedro Pascal) who simply wants to be rich and famous. Kristin Wiig is on hand as the Cheetah, but on the sidelines. In the style of the 1990s Batman films, she's the prep-villain who's given an origin story here and likely to reappear later, maybe, as the major villain of a follow-up film. In my view, it's a misstep. The Cheetah should've, could've been built up as the major foe of the film, creating a more interesting story that featured two female characters in the lead roles.

Chris Pine, who's back from the dead (magic rock—that's not spoiler, it's utterly predictable) and provides a few chuckles as a displaced dude from the Forties who gets into wearing 1980s fashions. This joke is the only reason I could figure for why this film was even sent in the 80s.

What a bummer. But at least I got to see it on HBO Max, which I already pay for, rather than spending a bunch of money on it at the theater (and maybe catching the virus).

I hope you all had some time off over the holidays to relax and read. I took an extended staycation and thoroughly enjoyed it, although I did miss time with family and friends. I'm glad, at least, that I have my wife and daughter here to keep me company!

For me, the break was a great time to dive into the utterly transportive world of Patrick O'Brian and "Treason's Harbour," the ninth entry in his series about British Naval Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, surgeon-spy Stephen Maturin, and their adventures during the Napoleonic Wars.

I've been making my way, very slowly, through these books for many years now. I'm pacing myself, because O'Brian only (only!) complete 20, and when I'm done, there ain't no more. Although, I'm hanging onto them in anticipation of simply starting over once I reach the end. In fact, I'm really looking forward to re-reading books I haven't even read, yet! That's how good they are.

If you haven't (do!), the books, of course, are full of exciting Naval battles and shipboard life and missions that mix fiction with history. But what I love most about them are the characters, who are so richly developed and real. Aubrey-Maturin are good men, but with flaws and minor foibles that amuse, disappoint and sadden us as we read about them, because they are true to life. Their friendship also is utterly real. I've never read a truer depiction of two, very different, people and the mutual respect, and necessary tolerance, that binds them together.

O'Brian's story are full of action, emotion, humor and wisdom. Reading them makes me a better, fuller, person, I think. 

And this one was a real cliffhanger! I don't know that I'll be able to retain my slow pace of reading, now.

I was fortunate to get a lot of new music for Christmas. I'm sure I'll be writing about more of it. But one album I wanted to flag is Cut Worms' "Nobody Lives Here Anymore." I discovered this music via Spotify and immediately fell in love with its blending of Brill Building pop and touches of country. I didn't know anything about the creators and figured the Cut Worms were a band. Turns out there's no "the" and Cut Worms is a guy named Max Clarke, a very talented singer and songwriter from Ohio. This is a very strong LP that holds together well, and I've enjoyed earlier Cut Worms tunes that have popped up on my Spotify playlist, too. Check him/them out. It's good stuff.

Pop Life: The Derry Girls visit Bakeoff; Matt Wilson's charming "Hug"; "The Queen's Gambit" genius chess moves; Allen and Masekela's "Rejoice"

Like most all of you, I suppose, I've been taking refuge from the pandemic by watching lots of TV, listening to lots of music and reading lots of books. 

So what else is new? If ever there was a disaster made for introverted homebodies, it was Our Year of COVID 2020. Still, I do like to get out to a restaurant and concert occasionally... 

But that will come.

Meanwhile, in the past week or two, some of things I've enjoyed most are watching members of the Derry Girls cast on a holiday edition of "The Great British Baking Show." Two of Netflix's greatest hits combined? How could it not be great? But it was even greater than I'd anticipated. 

Either Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Erin), Nicola Coughlan (Claire), Jamie-Lee O’Donnell (Michelle), Dylan Llewellyn (James) and Siobhán McSweeney (Sister Michael) showed up to bake in character, or their "Derry Girls" roles are written on their real-life selves. All were hilarious trying to keep pace with the challenges thrown down by Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith while failing miserably. It's the most I've laughed in a long time.

Realizing I'm late to the party on this one: But I loved the acclaimed "The Queen's Gambit" on Netflix. I've never understood chess—how it works, why people play it, why there are clubs for it—and still don't. But it didn't matter a bit. I was hooked from the get-go. Ana Taylor-Joy's performance is remarkable and the writing is top-notch. If it were a movie, with all the plot points compressed, I think the result likely would've been predicable feel-good fare: An underdog makes good. But by spreading it out and letting us know Beth Harmon bit by bit, learning to gauge her character and next moves as in a long game of chess, the story is addictive, heartwarming and supremely moving.

Music-wise, things have been upbeat, too. There's lots of Christmas music playing in the house now, of course. But I've also been spinning the Matt Wilson Quartet's charming Hug!—an LP that lives up to its name. The performances are charming, heartfelt and playful, ranging from soulful bop accessibly free, and funny. The title track is super-catchy in a Herb Alpert-ish sorta way, the type of thing that might've been a hit back in the more diverse days of 1960s Top 40 radio. The cover of "King of the Road" is great, too. And I love the lighthearted social commentary of "Space Force March," which interpolates Sun Ra's "Interplanetary Music." Some listeners will wish it came with a trigger warning due to the surprise vocal cameo, though.

Also blessed with an upbeat title is Rejoice, the final album—and first collaboration—by the hugely influential African musicians trumpeter Hugh Masekela and drummer Tony Allen, both of whom passed away this year. The LP is a gem, driven by Allen's insistent, always funky beat and Masekela's Miles-influenced playing over the top. Some of the tunes are augmented by chants and vocals that add, never detract, as on the tribute to Allen's former boss, afro-pop pioneer Fela Kuti, "Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same)." 

Visit Christmas past with "Holly Jolly" - a nostalgic new photo book

Christmas is a time for nostalgia—maybe this year more than most. And this book is a great tool for fortifying those feelings as we look for distractions from the crisis at hand.

Authored and assembled by Mark Voger, it's packed with photos of favorite comics, toys, movies, TV specials, holiday records and more from the past, along with detailed information about all of those topics. The book is a great guide to holiday viewing and listening, and will bring back many fond memories. It's nearly as fun to leaf through as a vintage Sears Wishbook.

But there's deeper level to it, too. Voger write about what the holidays mean to him, and shares recollections and photos from his childhood. And the early chapters are downright historical, detailing the Biblical, cultural and commercial beginnings of the holiday season and how it got to be the mixed-up jumble it is today.

From the manger, Santa and Scrooge to "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Grinch" and "The Star Wars Holiday Special," it's all here, and more.

Spend your Christmas at home this year with this book, your memories and close family, and keep others safe. Next year, we'll all be together again to make new memories.

Order from TwoMorrows Publishing.

Pop Reviews: Mac Raboy - Master of the Comics

The saying goes "quality not quantity," but that's not necessarily so. Some of the best artists in comics were also among the most prolific.

Jack Kirby, for example, could turn out three blockbusting pages a day. And he wasn't just drawing. He was plotting the stories and essentially creating the Marvel Universe at the same time.

Mac Raboy, meanwhile, could reportedly spend an entire day penciling, erasing and re-penciling one panel of a single page. Granted, they were really nice panels! But the guy was slooow and a perfectionist. That's the testament of nearly every peer of his interviewed by Roger Hill for this beautiful new book.

Raboy is likely best-known for his Golden Age work on Captain Marvel Jr. and his long run, from 1948 to 1967, on the Flash Gordon Sunday strip. He was an incredibly talented draftsman, one of those guys who could paint with a pencil. His faces and figure work were gorgeous, and clearly his true love. As Hill reports, some of his peers in comics complained that Raboy didn't like illustrating action, which, obviously, is the bread and butter of the superhero game. So, consequently, you get the sense that Raboy was one of those creators who, despite being supremely talented at what he did, didn't much enjoy doing it. Which is sad. Still, you'd never get that just from looking at the pictures.

What more do we learn about Raboy in this book? Not a heckuva lot. He was a quiet guy who didn't socialize much with his work peers. We don't get too much more information about his personal life or personality, but that's not for lack of trying on Hill's part. He includes interviews with several of Raboy's assistants and has done a great deal of research. He also interviewed the artist's son. But, for all of that, Raboy, the man, still emerges as a bit of a mystery.

Fortunately, there's a great deal of wonderfully selected and, often, rare art on display here, too. Included are some beautiful woodcuts Raboy did for the WPA during the Depression and, of course, lots of his comics work. The book is nicely written and designed, with excellent reproduction. You can order it via TwoMorrows Publishing now.

Pop Life: Ken Burns' "Country"'; Alex Toth

What I've been watching, reading, hearing etc.

 Ken Burns' "Country Music." I finally finished streaming my way through Ken Burns' most recent portrait of America, this one through the lens of country music from its beginnings to the present.

As with most of Burns' documentaries, it's mostly well done with lots of great old photos and clips - and a few egregious flaws.

The flaws? Well, for starters, there's no discussion of "Hee Haw," the hugely popular syndicated show that, for most Americans, was THE face of country music from the late 60s through the 1970s. Noting this, along with the fact that many country musicians and fans hated the show because it presented a derogatory and stereotyped view of the genre and of rural life, would've contributed valuable perspective to why many Americans still see country music as the soundtrack of bumpkins, not as real art or music, which it most certainly is - or, at least, can be.

Also, no discussion of of Glen Campbell, one of the genre's biggest crossover stars, who also had a TV show in the late 1960s and early 1970s that was country's other major face to the world.

And, finally, what's Wynton Marsalis doing here? Yes, Burns' including him in his jazz documentary made sense, even though Marsalis was way overused there. But including him here makes no sense at all. Not only is Marsalis not a country musician (although he's performed with Willie Nelson) he's possibly the most narrow-minded musician of all time. His jazz policing of the 1980s, during which he disparaged his more progressive elders non-stop, ruined careers and led to a forgotten generation of musicians who created far more interesting music than the corporate-delivered frozen-in-time hard bop he purveyed. And here he's supposed to be the guy with open ears. Just weird.

Nearly as weird is the inclusion of Darius "Hootie" Rucker who also once performed with Willie Nelson. But why is he here? Just because he's a familiar face? It's dumb. He certainly doesn't come across as an expert and offers nothing in terms of insight.

But, like I said, there are still lots of great old photos and many great musical clips.

If you're a person interested in learning more about country, the series may expose you to artists and songs you didn't know and it will give you a basic history of the genre. But it's imperfect and only the beginning of your journey.

UPDATE: From the comments section - sounds like some "Hee Haw" discussion must've slipped by me. Apologies to moptop Ken. I'll need to go back and look. Stand by the rest of this though! In particular, the commentators. Marsalis and Rucker are odd choices when there are so many other possibilities. Marty Stuart and the other genuine country musicians featured as commentators were great, and we're fortunate that Merle Haggard was interviewed before his passing. I wonder if they tried getting Tyler Mahan Coe, whose excellent Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast present an excellent history of country music - better than Burns'!

Treasures Retold: The Lost Art of Alex Toth. After three huge picture-packed volumes recounting the life, comics and animation work of the brilliant Alex Toth, IDW follows up with a huge supplementary collection of rare Toth works - both from his years in comics and his later days working as character designer and storyboarder for Hanna-Barbera.

As you might expect - given that we're talking about Toth - it's all beautiful stuff. The comics work - in black-and-white and color spans genres, from romance and sci-fi to suspense and high adventure. There are two long film adaptations, which are a wonder to behold. This is an artist who loved aircraft and it shows in his beautiful scenes of planes in flight. Somehow, he makes the rotors of helicopters appear like they're in motion. He was a master of the form.

The book is a real grab-bag - in the best possible sense of the phrase. Along with character designs for "The Herculoids" and some storyboards near the back of the book, there are also some rare promotional/educational pieces on the history of flight and...the history of milk! Who but Toth (except maybe Jack Kirby or Will Eisner) could make something like that beautiful and interesting?

This isn't the place to start if you want more Toth on your bookshelf (I'd go with the other three books first) but it's a glorious addition, beautifully presented (although the type is a little small, and I don't think it's just because I'm getting older). Highly recommended.

Pop Life: Prince; Khruangbin; Comedians in Cars

What I've been reading, watching, hearing, etc.

The Book of Prince. Fascinating article in The New Yorker this week from the co-author of Prince's upcoming, incomplete, memoir. We get a portrait of an enigmatic and brilliant artist, thinking deep thoughts on art and race and how he might use his planned book to change the world and upset the social order. His sudden death surprised his co-author just as much as anyone.

Khruangbin - Con Todo El Mundo. Surfy/psych/exotica that sounds indeterminantly ethnic but is made in America. On repeat on the kitchen stereo. They have newer stuff. Need to get that, too.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Cruising through the new season on Netflix. The Eddie Murphy episode is brilliant. He recently announced he's getting back into standup. Judging from this he's ready.

Review - "American Comic Book Chronicles: 1940-1944"

The Sixties were nothing to sneeze at, but when it comes to American comic books, the Forties were the biggest decade of all.

Comics were new pop culture sensation of the day - selling millions of copies at the newsstand and spawning multimedia tie-ins: radio shows, comic strips, movie serials and decoder rings. Hell, who needs streaming video and the Internet? Decoder rings!

After Superman and Batman socked open the floodgates in 1939, America's corner shops and grocery stores were inundated with a flood of colorfully clad heroes with seemingly more and more of them always on the way.

From DC (then known as National, which also soon swallowed up All-American Publications), you had not just the World's Finest duo, but also Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Hawkman, the Atom, the Spectre and more.

From Marvel (then doing business as Timely Comics) you had Captain America along with fire/water sparring partners the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner.

And over at Fawcett, you had the biggest-selling hero of all: Captain Marvel.

Plus, from all over the place, you had a whole range of other heroes - some great, some terrible: Blue Bolt, the Shield, the Fox, the Green Llama (for real!), etc., etc., etc.

And that's not mention other genres (yes, there were once other genres): Westerns, jungle adventure, sci-fi, funny animals and teen humor (a kid named Archie made his debut in 1941). All in color for dime.

So it's no wonder TwoMorrows is covering this storied decade over two - not just one - volumes in its excellent "American Comic Book Chronicles" series.

This first installment, penned by Kurt F. Mitchell in consultation with the famed Roy Thomas (who knows a thing or two about comics of the Forties. Don't get him started on the Justice Society), is excellent.

Mitchell's writing is clear and engaging and his scholarship robust. He does a great job of setting the stage, detailing where America was as the decade began - just recovering from the depression with a war on the way. Comic books, along with the aforementioned movies, serials, radio shows and more,  provided a lively distraction from it all. The book chronicles the gamut, from great comics and innovative creators to the crap and the hacks.

The decade saw the debut of masterful visual storytellers who became giants in the field: Jack Kirby, Will Eisner (yes, we're counting his Spirit strip as a comic book), Jack Cole, Reed Crandall, Mort Meskin, Mac Raboy, C.C. Beck, H.G. Peter and Carl Barks. But the book also makes mention of oddball creators of the day such as Basil Wolverton and the bizarre Fletcher Hanks, who'd like be classified an "outsider artist" if he were around today.

Examples of these and other creators is found throughout the book, which reproduces hundreds of comics covers and art pages - it's a joy to browse.

The emerging war, and America's involvement in it, is a constant, unavoidable part of the narrative throughout the book. By 1941 and 1942, domestic gangsters start to get sidelined as villains; our heroes are now too busy fighting the Axis threat. Jack Kirby's unforgettable over to Captain America #1 depicts the star-spangled warrior punching Hitler right in the face. Violent, yes, but such comics and images emboldened young Americans and fired them up to defend what's right.

Unfortunately, the war also sidelined many top creators for a number of years. Kirby was drafted and ended up fighting real Nazis in Europe, nearly freezing off his feet in the process. Eisner also served in the military, using comics in a new way to teach soldiers how to maintain equipment. A young writer/editor at Timely named Stan Lee was drafted, too, working in the Army's film training division. Part two will presumably cover the return of those creators and others following the war and their continued creative development, which saw the rise of the romance, crime and monster comics that ruled the Fifties (an era already covered in TwoMorrows' series).

This is a vital chunk of comics history, extremely well-captured. You can order it here.

Pop Life: Game of Thrones; Ramsey Lewis; Community

What I've been reading, watching, hearing, etc.

SPOILERS: After two, super-intense, episode-long battles, I found the final episode of "Game of Thrones" a bit slow and underwhelming. I appreciate the symmetry of naming Bran heir of the (now melted) Iron Throne elegant, but also a bit dissatisfying.

There were so many spectacular female characters on this show, it would've been nice to see one of them ascend. Why not Sansa or Arya? It's sort of like a presidential primary where there are lots of impressively qualified women in the race, but then somebody's creepy old uncle comes along and becomes the automatic front runner. Not that that would happen in our word. But, low-energy Bran (seriously, he looks like he's about to doze off half the time) has mystical powers and stuff, so there you go.

All-in-all, though, GOT was a captivating series. Lot of great characters and twists and turns. Not that it wasn't flawed. The torture, violence and, particularly, the sexual violence, was often more extreme than warranted. But I grew attached to many of the characters, some of which even made it to the end!

Now, will George R.R. Martin ever finish those books...?

Ramsey Lewis - "Mother Nature's Son." I picked this one up at a record sale a while back and found it unexpectedly groovy. I was expecting Beatles covers in Lewis' soulful trio format, ala his hit cover of "The 'In' Crowd." Instead, we get a batch of hot-of-the-presses "White Album" tunes with full orchestra and lots of wild, psychedelic production touches. Very much worth a listen.

"Community." My wife and I are re-watching this series on Hulu with our teen daughter and I'd totally forgotten how brilliant it is. The ensemble - including Chevy Chase, Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, Ken Jeong, Joel McHale and a yet-to-break-big Donald Glover - is fantastic, as are the "meta" concepts. On-the-spectrum character Abed (Danny Pudi) treats life as a TV show or movie, a perspective that's reinforced by numerous concept episodes, which include parodies of "Doctor Who," a clay-animated Christmas special and, of all things "My Dinner with Andre." My appreciation is renewed - the smartest/silliest thing I've ever seen. If you haven't watched it, you're in for a treat.

Pop Life: Aretha Franklin; Corto Maltese

Stuff I'm watching, reading, hearing.

"Amazing Grace." What a perfect way to spend Easter weekend - watching the Queen of Soul belt out gospel tunes before a small, live audience in a Los Angeles church. The experience is rapturous, even if you're not terribly, or traditionally, religious. Filmed in 1972 by director Sydney Pollack and a small crew, this wasn't released at the time due to technical issues (they didn't manage to syn the image and sound!), but is now beautifully restored. Filmed over two nights, the first is the best. The second seems more self-conscious and aware - as Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones are spotted by the camera seated in the back pew - and Aretha's too-slick and creepy dad taks the mic. But when she sings, man. Even the folks in the choir, no slouches themselves in the vocal department, can't help but gasp. In good theaters now.

"Corto Maltese: The Secret Rose." I'm only now getting into this series of remarkable graphic novels ("albums," they've called 'em for decades in Europe) by the amazing cartoonist Hugo Pratt. Corto Maltese is a rogueish, sea-faring adventurer. And, from what I've seen he does have real adventures. But in this one, the adventure takes place within his mind, as he contemplates alchemy, good and evil and the Holy Grail while under the mental/spiritual influence of author Hermann Hesse, who he meets up with while in Switzerland. Pratt's art - simple and in black and white - is a great example of what's so wonderful, and achievable in the comics medium as Corto travels through the surreal landscapes of his own consciousness. I need to take a deep dive into Pratt's work - this one moved and inspired me as only the best literature, graphic or otherwise, can. Order it here.

Pop Life: "Catastrophe," "Killing Eve," "Apollo 11"

What I'm reading, watching, hearing, etc.

"Catastrophe." That was way too quick. My wife and I buzzed through all six new season 3 episodes of this brilliant Amazon Prime series in just as many days. The show is a cringe comedy, but not one that generates uneasy laughter via unlikely situations. This show's situations and dialogue are all too real. Anyone who's been married for a while will recognize how real life will never let the ideal of marital bliss realize it's just a crock. The frustrations of child-rearing, the stress of career, the anguish of loss, annoying family and friends - it's the ability to get through all this crap together, and to recognize it's absurdity, is what successful marriage is truly all about. The comic chemistry, and writing, of co-stars Sharon Hogan and Rob Delaney is brilliant. As a couple, they never seem less than real - just a lot funnier and, frankly, meaner than most married folk. There are a few moments in this short season that fall to the level of "just plain comedy" and predictability, I'd say, but "Catastrophe" set it's bar very high and, overall, this is still one of the best shows running/streaming anywhere. The last episode of this run, which serves as a tribute of sorts to the late Carrie Fisher, who played Delaney's mother, is a heart breaker for all sorts of reasons - hard to watch, yet I wanted to see more and more.

"Killing Eve." Before we buzzed all the way through "Catastrophe," we buzzed all the way through season 1 of this suspense-comedy starring the endearingly awesome Sandra Oh as an intelligence officer pursuing, and being pursued by, the terrifyingly awesome Jodie Comer as a French assassin. The two leads here are incredible. The show's suspense comes not from the situation they're placed in, but in trying to guess - usually unsuccessfully - how each character will respond. Both Eve (Oh) and Villanelle (Comer) are loose canons. Their motivations are unclear and unpredictable - not just to the view, but to the characters' themselves. They aren't quite sure, moment to moment, what they will do, or why. The dialogue is sharp - some of the funniest of seen/heard anywhere on screen in recent years. Season 2 starts April 7 on AMC/BBC America, but we're cord cutters, so hopefully it'll turn up on Hulu before too terribly long.

"Apollo 11." Anyone fascinated by the Golden Age of space exploration and in love with the 1960s will eat this documentary up with the spoon. The footage, both terrestrial and lunar, is vividly restored and in bright color. Maybe you're old enough to remember the first moon landing (I'm not, I was 3) but you never saw it like this. There are no talking heads looking back 50 years. The narration comes from news coverage (including lots of the late, great Walter Cronkite) and NASA personnel. The action unfolds in real time and it's scary and exciting even though you know exactly what's going to happen. The bravery of Apollo's crew and the brilliance of NASA's engineers are inspiring, yet there's also an undercurrent of sadness knowing that America is no longer as united, as imaginative and as daring as it was when the space program was firing on all cylinders. Side note: Seeing guys land on the moon was awesome, but so is seeing a young Johnny Carson in shades sauntering through the crowd watching the Apollo lift-off at Kennedy Space Center.

Review: "Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said!: The Complex Genesis of the Marvel Universe, in its Creators’ Own Words"

Ask the average moviegoer who created the Avengers, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange or the X-Men and you'll more than likely hear "Stan Lee."

And that drives some comic book fans nuts. "What about Jack Kirby?!! What about Steve Ditko?!!!," they scream.

And they have a point.

The early Marvel stories were collaborative affairs and it's hard to pinpoint when the creation of a particular character took place and who all was involved. Not only did Kirby and Ditko develop the look of many of the superheroes we know and love today, they also were involved in plotting the characters' adventures and in shaping their personalities.

To truly  get a handle on the creation of the Marvel Universe, you'd need to re-trace the steps of the various creators and characters chronologically and look for clues as to who did what and when. And that's exactly what John Morrow has done in this new book, which includes hundreds of quotes from Lee, Kirby, Ditko and others that shed light on the creative/collaborative process involved.

Over the course of the book, we come to see that, not only did these creators differ on who deserved credit for creating a particular character or writing a certain story, they differed on what terms such as "story," "script" and "plot" even mean.  For Lee, coming up with a concept for a superhero was creation. For Kirby, a character wasn't fully created until he or she appeared on paper in visual form.

It could also be argued to that a character isn't really defined until he or she appears in a story. And, in this book ,we see how Kirby and Ditko, and the other Marvel artists who followed, deserve much of he credit for the plots, and sub-plots, contained in many classic Marvel tales.

By Lee's own admission, many comics created by these two artists followed "plot conferences" in which Lee provided very few, or no, suggestions. For example, Lee might simply tell Kirby that "Doctor Doom should be in the next issue." Kirby would then plane, pace out and draw the complete Fantastic Four story that included a battle with Doctor Doom, but also a lot of other stuff he'd  come up with. And then Lee would add in finished captions and dialogue to the nearly completed result.

This practice came to be called the "Marvel Method," and Lee claimed the artist-first approach in resulted in more visually exciting stories. Which is hard to argue. But is "dialoguing" the same as "writing"? It's easy to see why the artists believed they deserved more credit.

On the other hand, it's hard to imagine classic Marvel stories without Lee's hyperbolic captions and engaging dialogue. Even if his contributions to a story may've been less than that made by Kirby or Ditko, his work was unique and vital.

Lee did sing Kirby and Ditko's praises. We see him doing that throughout this book. Oftentimes, he essentially gives them equal credit in the creative process and in Marvel's success. But then, a page or two later, Lee will say something that again puts himself in the spotlight - it's almost as if he can't help it. His gloryhound tendencies would almost be funny if it didn't come at the expense of artists who deserved at least just much acclaim as he received, not to mention a bigger cut of Marvel's profits.

Morrow has done a tremendous service to comics history here. This book is fascinating reading and should serve as a resource for anyone doing further writing about the creators it covers and the work they did.

It's nice to have all these quotes and background in one place, whether its as fodder for further arguments over whether Lee gets too much credit and Kirby and Ditko not enough (or vice versa), or to more deeply appreciate, and understand, the contributions all of these guys made. One thing that, I think, can't be argued is that Marvel wouldn't have been Marvel without all three of them.

You can oder "Stuf' Said!" here.

Review: "Aquaman: The Search for Mera"

Plots that continued over multiple issues were a rare thing in DC Comics of the 1960s. But as the publisher took on younger creators and began competing with Marvel more an older, more sophisticated readership, serial storytelling became more and more prominent.

This book, which collects a story told over nine issues of Aquaman published in 1968 and 1969, is an early example.

The plot is pretty straightforward - Aquaman's wife, Mera, is mysteriously abducted - and character development, as was typical of DC at the time, is minimal. But it's still entertaining thanks to the excellent pacing and storytelling of writer Steve Skeates and then-new Aquaman artist Jim Aparo.

Skeates keeps the suspense going and develops new challenges, include a scuffle with Black Manta and a forced battle between Aquaman and his sidekick, Aqualad, during each chapter of the Sea King's quest. There's also some palace intrigue involving the aide Aquaman leaves in charge of his kingdom while he's away.

Aparo's art, as would be expected, is excellent. His line is somewhat softer and his characters' features less angular than his later art of the 1970s and early 1980s, but still distinctively his own. The underwater landscapes are imaginative and beautifully rendered, and the action scenes intense and dynamic. Aparo uses his trademark diagonal panels to speed up the pacing of the story when warranted. Even early on during his tenure at DC, his mastery of the form is evident.

For fans of Aparo and the Bronze-Age Aquaman, this collection is a must and, amazingly, it's never been collected before. Younger readers may enjoy it, too, as there's nothing too scary going on here. They should be warned, though, that this isn't the bare-chested,underwater barbarian of the recent Aquaman movie, but the blond-haired, orange-suited guy who rides a seahorse. The Real Aquaman, as I like to call him.

The hardcover is worth springing for, in my opinion, for Aparo's nicely reproduced art, alone. All of Nick Cardy's excellent cover art is also included and the color reconstruction throughout is beautiful.

Review: "Sky Masters of the Space Force - The Complete Sunday Strips 1959-1960"

Talk about a labor of love. This first-ever complete collection of Jack Kirby's Sunday "Sky Masters" comic strips in color is truly a thing of beauty.

Spanish graphic designer Ferran Delgado spent literally years on the book, reproducing the art from the best sources he could find, whether they be printers proofs, published strips or color guides. The 54 full-page Sundays are printed in large format and are supplemented by additional material, including a detailed history of the strip, examples of the original artwork, Kirby's original color guides and 100 rare extra panels, which were discarded by most newspapers due to formatting considerations.

Inspired by the United States' fledgling steps into outer space, the short-lived "Sky Masters" strip was Kirby's most successful foray into newspaper strips, running first in daily installments starting in September 1958 and with Sunday strips added beginning in February 1959. Delgado also adds text pieces that detail some of the contemporary news stories and scientific developments that influenced the strip's storylines and artwork.

Initially, scripts were provided by Dave Wood, Kirby's colleague on DC Comics' "Challengers of the Unknown" title, with inks by the legendary EC Comics/Mad Magazine artist, Wally Wood, who'd also worked on "Challengers" stories with Kirby.

The teaming of these two giants of comics art is one of the things that makes "Sky Masters" so special. Wood did classic space-based stories on his own and the blending of his rich inks on various space hardware and moonscapes with Kirby's dynamic figures is spectacular. While Wally Wood gets equal billing on the cover here, it should be mentioned that only the first 22 Sundays feature his inks. The rest were inked by Dick Ayers, or Kirby on his own with assists from his wife, Roz. Kirby also wrote many of the later strips on his own.

While Kirby takes some imaginative leaps in putting man in space, and on the moon, ahead of actual events, the action is at a human level and based on emerging or envisioned technology. As a result, it's all fairly realistic. There are no aliens or ray guns, but, as he did throughout his career, Kirby does imagine a few things that eventually became reality, such as books with electronic displays. You could very well be reading this blog on such a device right now.

"Sky" Masters, the lead character here, and his colleagues on the Space Force (yes, Kirby invented that first, too) are an engaging bunch who interact in a lively way - not unlike the Challengers, or the Marvel heroes Kirby would create shortly after this strip's demise.

"Sky Masters" ended as a result of a lawsuit filed by DC editor Jack Schiff, who claimed he'd made the deal that led to the strip being produced and was not provided a percentage of the profits as promised. Kirby denied such a deal had been made, but Schiff prevailed, gaining a percentage interest in the strip. This led Kirby to quit producing "Sky Masters"in 1961 and to his departure from DC.ultimately, to the creation of the Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the Avengers and more at Marvel with Stan Lee. In the long run, I'd say Kirby and comics fans alike came out the winners.

Copies of this English edition of Delgado's book are apparently hard to find now, unfortunately, and from his posts on the Collected Editions forums, it sounds like its very unlikely more will be published. I suggest snagging one now wherever, and however, you can.

I suppose this means hopes for a collection of the "Sky Masters" dailies from Delgado are also slim, which is too bad. Hermes Press recently published a collection of those, but I skipped it, due to being unimpressed by Hermes' work in the past. Plus, a have an old paperback collection of those. 

Sometimes labors of love, I'm afraid, don't pay off monetarily. But, man, I'm glad this book exists.

Review: "American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s"

Leafing through the pages of this latest hardcover entry in Tomorrow Publishing's comprehensive history of American comics, I kept thinking, "Man, I bought a lot of crappy comics in the 1990s."

Being mainly a reader of superhero titles, though, so, apparently, did everyone during that decade. The covers on display here made me wince at recollections of vacuous storylines; dumb characters;  exploitative crossovers; chromium-"enhanced" covers, and ugly, stiff, over-rendered artwork full of improbably grotesque and/or sexist anatomy. This stuff is so tacky it's a wonder we don't refer to this as the Spencer's Gifts Era of comics. Co-authors Jason Sacks and Keith Dallas deserve hazard pay for taking on this era, which they do with admirable objectivity.

Reading through the book, one sees that the 90s, comic book-wise, weren't all bad. Just mostly so. There was some good, interesting stuff going on -  "Batman: The Animated Series," "Bone" by Jeff Smith; "Madman," by Michael Allred; "Astro City" by Kurt Busiek; "Sandman Mystery Theater" by Matt Wagner; "Death" by Neil Gaiman; "Big Numbers" by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz - but also so much bad. The early Image Comics, Wizard magazine, the Spider-Man clone "saga," "Heroes Reborn," and stunt storytelling such as the death of Superman and Batman's broken back are all recounted here in cringe-inducing detail, with pictures that make it all even more embarrassingly painful.

Reading along, I realized that the business travails of the comics industry during this time stand out as far more interesting in my memory than any of the dreck I read from Image or the Big Two. This was the time of Marvel's bankruptcy, rampant speculation and manufactured "collectables." We see how the outsize egos and immaturity of people in the business, such as Image's cocksure founders, led to irresponsible practices that actually put comic book shops out of business.

I believe, and hope, that comics publishers and creators learned a lot during the 1990s. As a reader and fan, I learned quite a bit about what I value in comics (character, storytelling and imagination as opposed to "collectability," gloss and hype) that's me a brighter consumer more adept at seeking out and finding work of high quality. And, lest we forget, this excellent but painful history of American comics' ugliest era is recounted here to help us all remember.

Review: "The Best of Don Winslow of the Navy"

I was a bit alarmed a while back to get a package in the mail from the U.S. Naval Institute. Not the type of thing that usually shows up at my house. I thought maybe I'd been drafted and the box contained a summer white service uniform. I was relieved, instead, to find a hardcover comic book collection inside.

It turns out the Naval Institute, a non-profit that works in support of the U.S. Navy, has a publishing arm and, in partnership with comics archivist Craig Yoe, released this spiffy compilation of "Don Winslow of the Navy" comic book stories.

I'd seen the name before, but Winslow wasn't a character I was familiar with. I learned, reading Yoe's excellent and picture-packed introduction, however, that Don was quite the pop cultural phenom in his day, which stretched from 1934, with the launch of a daily comic strip, through the mid 1950s. During the war years, there was a Don Winslow radio series with associated premium toys, a number of Big Little books, novelizations, a movie serial and, of course, the comic book series.

Published by Fawcett, the first issue of Don Winslow of Navy, published in 1943, featured a cover on which Don is introduced to readers by Captain Marvel, the biggest comic book character of the day. The stories collected here, as might be expected from Fawcett, are better-than-average Golden Age fare. There are some imaginative twists and turns to the plots and the visual storytelling is solid, if not  very distinctive. These stories appeared in a time when most comic book stories lacked credits, but we know from Yoe's intro that writers on the series included Otto Binder and Bill Woolfolk, while artists included Carl Pfeufer and Leonard Starr.

Winslow's creator, a colorful former Navy and FBI man named Frank V. Martinek, evidently did little work on the character outside of coming up with the initial idea of an adventure comic strip as a good PR vehicle for America's naval forces.

Along with the expected Nazis and Japanese troops, Winslow's antagonists include colorful recurring villains such as the criminal mastermind the Scorpion; the stretchy, sewer-pipe slithering Snake, and sultry gal pirate Singapore Sal.

I found the history of the Winslow character more interesting than the stories reprinted here, which are mildly diverting but by no means classic. But if you're a Golden Age and/or Fawcett buff, you may find this book a worthwhile addition to your library. The quality of scholarship (shout out to fellow blogger BookSteve, who contributed research) and printing on display here are top notch.

Review: New books from TwoMorrows explore comics' Bronze Age

TwoMorrows Publishing is a boundless resource for anyone interested in the history of superhero comic books and fandom. And comics' Bronze Age of the mid-1970s to early 1980s is the focus of the company's two most-recent books.

"Mike Grell: Life is Drawing Without an Eraser," by Dewey Cassell with Jeff Messer, charts the full career of one of the era's top artists, famed for his work on a range of different series published by DC.

I first encountered Grell's work in 1974, early in his Legion of Superheroes run in "Superboy," and he may be the first artist I paid attention to by name. This was early in my comics-reading days and Grell's distinctive style stood out to me.

I was following characters, not writers or artists, at that point, yet my path and Grell's seemed to converge frequently as we both traveled through the DC Universe.

I enjoyed his work on Aquaman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow and, finally, I started collecting "Warlord," based on his writing and art. I was mostly a superhero guy, but had ventured into Conan and Tarzan at that point, and loved Grell's hollow earth, Burroughsian adventure stores.

This is the work I think of when I recall Grell. But, as he entered the 1980s, he became even better known for his high successful indy comics creation, Jon Sable, and his Green Arrow mini-series, "The Longbow Hunters," which served as the template for the current "Arrow" TV series. \

All of this work, along with Grell's brief stint illustrating the Tarzan comic strip series and some recent commission work and pin-ups is on display in this book, which is packed with black-and-white and full-color art.

If you're a fan of Grell in particular, or of comic book art in general, this is a worthy book to add to your library.

"Comic Book Implosion: An Oral History of DC Comics Circa 1978," by Keith Dallas and John Wells, meanwhile, focuses on what's often seen as embarrassing chapter of the company's history, but, in retrospect, can be seen as a story about the entire medium's survival.

Like many kids of the 1960s and 70s, I discovered comics on supermarket and drugstore newsstands. Eventually, the downtown newsstand and tobacco shop, which was outfitted with two side-by-side spinner racks, became my favorite haunt. But, unknown to me at the time, buying comics in this way was quickly becoming a thing of the past.

The pipe-smoking lady at the cash register in the newsstand seemed happy enough to take my dimes and quarters each week, but it turned out her boss wasn't seeing much of a profit off funnybooks. Not that he likely minded too much. He had a big shop, with space to display hundreds of different  newspapers and magazines. Supermarkets and drugstores, on the other hand, had only limited room. Why fill it with cheap comics books when it could be filled with more profitable magazines?

This is why DC made a bold move to both boost the price and page counts of its comics around 1978,  as well as to dramatically increase the number of series it published. Dubbed the "DC Explosion," the idea was to publish comics that were both more profitable to retailers and a better value for fans.

The plan failed miserably. DC reversed course almost immediately, canceling numerous titles and leaving dozens of stories unpublished.

As the authors detail here in excerpts of articles and interviews from the fan press of the time and later, DC was seen as making a move to denominate the marketplace, exploit fans and lock down the industry's top creators - and it all backfired.

But, as the book also makes clear, this isn't really a tale of corporate hubris, but of  comics' transition from the newsstand to specialized comic book shops. It's actually the story about how comics survived, not how DC failed. As the authors note, Marvel canceled plenty of comics during this time, too, and other publishers were either drastically cutting their outputs or leaving the business.

DC was just giving its best shot at keeping comic books alive as a viable presence on newsstands. It turns out that wasn't possible, at least not at the time. By focusing on comic shops, publishers could essentially print to order and target their output directly to fans. An entirely new comics explosion occured, featuring loads of new publishers and greatly expanded lines by DC and Marvel, which continues to this day.

Likewise packed with photos and artwork, this book will be of interest to anyone who grew up in the era covered, or who's curious about this pivotal point comics history.

Review: "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

How well do you know your neighbors?

As a pre-schooler, I knew Mr. Rogers as a friendly guy who appeared on weekday afternoons on the family Zenith. In black and white.

He'd walk in his front door, greet us with a smile while singing a cheerful, welcoming song. He'd take off his suit jacket, put on a comfy sweater and switch out of his Oxfords into what looked to me like a pair of J.C. Penney sneakers.

From there, Mr. Rogers would feed his fish and talk to Picture Picture - sort of a proto-iPad mounted on his wall, which shared pictures and information - and fire up his model trolley for a trip to the Land of Make Believe.

I always thought the trolley was the coolest part.

Millions of American kids joined Mr. Rogers in this daily routine, which continued for more than 30 TV seasons. And, fittingly, it's how this new documentary of Fred Rogers' life opens.

It's easy to make assumptions about Mr. Rogers from his show. He's dorky. A square. His TV house looks simple and cheap. The Land of Make Believe looks more low-budget than the play area of the nearest McDonalds. But, like he kept telling us, Mr. Rogers was special. And Morgan Neville's film demonstrates the many ways how.

Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who found his calling not in a church, but on children's television. And we see how he thoughtfully, and sometimes shrewdly, taught the values of respect, responsibility, acceptance and, indeed, universal love, through his daily program.

During some of the most violent and challenging moments of the Civil Rights struggle, he brought on an African American cast member and, in one now-famous segment, invited him to cool his feet in the same wading pool.

Following the murder of Robert F. Kenney, Rogers knew that kids would have seen news coverage of the event orheard the word "assassination," and he addressed their confusion, fear and questions in a segment of his show. He also helped children work through the emotions of a pet dying or meeting someone with disabilities.

The film uses vintage clips to detail these moments and includes interviews with the show's cast and crew and Rogers' wife and two sons.

We learn how Rogers went to bat for PBS funding in the networks early days and likely saved it from a budget-cutting Senate panel. We see him calmly face down the stony faced politicians, melting their cold hearts with his description of his program and why it mattered to kids.

Urban legends surrounding Rogers - that he was a Navy SEAL or an Army sniper or that he was gay - are all addressed openly in the film and dismissed. This isn't a whitewash, but an honest portrait. We learn that, despite his calm and kindly demeanor, Rogers could get pissed off. And he would sometimes doubt his abilities and effectiveness.

We see how Rogers was attacked later in life, both by the Westboro Baptist Church and by rightwing pundits who blamed him for supposedly enabling a generation of youth who had the nerve to view themselves as "special" due to his show's refrain of accepting and valuing oneself. It's an interesting perspective, given that Rogers was a lifelong member of the Republican Party and espoused Christian values throughout his decades on public television.

By saying kids were special, he wasn't suggesting that they abdicate responsibility or expect a free ride in life. He was teaching them to respect who they were in life and to respect others, no matter how they might differ from you.

That message, and this film, come at a perfect time, given the world's current political polarization and demonization of "the other." Rogers demonstrated a wisdom, patience and willingness to listen that many or our leaders would do well to emulate.

Like most TV-watching kids of the late 1960s and early 70s, I moved on quickly from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" to "Sesame Street" - a hipper, more lively part of town. But I was glad to know my neighbor, Fred Rogers, and glad to know him, now, even better.