Bill Corbett and Len Peralta’s “Super Powered Revenge Christmas”

A scanned panel from the book.

“Like a bowl full of gelignite,” perhaps?

The premise of this Kickstarted graphic novel is, by itself, is hilarious. As far as I know, the comic book superhero take on The Modern American Xmas is largely untrodden cultural ground (cue: Comic Book Guy voice, elucidating every red-suited winter solstice hero in the Marvel and DC Canons; I seem to remember at least one such musclebound goon hoisting a mailbag on the letters page of one of my Green Lantern books ca. 1982). But even if the basic idea is not totally new under the sun, Mssrs. Corbett and Peralta’s “brooding” take on it likely is. This is not Golden Age Superman in a red suit with an elf hat—more like The Punisher meets Kris Kringle.

I think these kinds of experiments are worth doing almost for their own sake. Even if it were just a gimmmick, it’d be an entertaining one, and it’s pulled off with great skill. I’ve been a devotee of MST3K, and since then RiffTrax, since well before Mr. Corbett was involved (though I love the direction he took the show). Fans like me will recognize Bill’s comedic style here, and the comic book form shows it off well—the layout of a page in a graphic novel does things for timing that are much more difficult in straight prose, and Bill’s instincts for witty asides and sotto voce gags are of course thoroughly well honed. They shine.

As for deeper meaning and/or “significance,” well, I would first offer the “Sullivan’s Travels” defense: In a world with more than enough misery to go around, making people laugh is enough. And then I would go on to say that there really is a morsel of substance about this story, and that the comparison to Sullivan’s Travels is fair. If it must have a deeper interpretation, this is a piece of metafiction about the proper role of festival, fiction, and faith in our lives, and its message—that cynicism by itself leaves us with hollow experiences—is certainly welcome in my own. Well done, guys.

Super Powered Revenge Christmas — Amazon

Auspicious timing

Eric Darton’s Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Center was published in January of 2001, just eight months before 9/11 would deeply brand the image of the twin towers with exactly the opposite sentiment.  To right, a sparkly Dufex foil print I bought in early 2002 that recalls the mood. The reverse is marked “Dufex Prints / Printed in England / Pictures Colour Library / Reference Number 409359.”

Darton’s book is fairly well-reviewed on Amazon. There’s a new self-aware edition as of August 2011.

Book Review: The Beardless Warriors

On Friday, I finished a book. It’s a tragically rare occurrence, these days. Even more unusually, it was a novel—Richard Matheson’s The Beardless Warriors, an autobiographical bildungsroman set among U.S. infantryman fighting the Second World War in Europe.

The main character, Hackermeyer, is one of several “beardless” teenage soldiers in an infantry squad under thirty-something Sergeant Cooley, who becomes, inevitably, a father figure to the “kids” that fight and die under his command. “Hack,” whose own family background is abusive and neglectful, forms a very close bond with Sergeant Cooley, and essentially the novel is about Hack finally coming to understand love and familial belonging against the horrific backdrop of war. It’s a cliché, now, though I don’t really know enough about the genre to say whether that arc was quite so tired when The Beardless Warriors was originally published.

Cliché or no, it works for me, and I did enjoy the book. While reading, I assumed that it was Matheson’s first novel, and that he’d written it shortly after coming back from his own tour in Europe, sometime in the late ’40s. Though that may well be the case, The Beardless Warriors was not actually published until 1960. But, in any case, it reads like a first novel, to me. The prose, pacing, and dialogue are often clunky, though there are undoubtedly some very effective—almost brilliant—moments.

As an example of the former, here’s an especially clumsy paragraph from near the end of the book, during the climatic assault on Saarbach:

Hackermeyer started shooting as Guthrie and Tremont ran around the rubble heap and into the square, picking up impetus as they ran. He noticed that Tremont kept his eyes on Guthrie. The moment Guthrie buckled his knees and fell, Tremont did the same. Guthrie started firing at the building; Tremont lay shivering in the snow.

Here’s how I would edit/rewrite it:

Hack started shooting as Guthrie and Tremont bolted into the square, picking up speed as they ran. Tremont followed Guthrie’s lead, falling and covering when he did. But when Guthrie opened fire on the building, Tremont just lay there, shivering in the snow.

Some of these edits could be boiled down to stylistic differences, but I don’t think there’s any denying that some of Matheson’s original prose is just sloppy. He favors a “brutalistic,” vaguely Hemingwayesque style, but that doesn’t justify awkward, inefficient, wordy phrases like “He noticed Tremont kept his eyes on Guthrie.” The entire novel is told from Hackermeyer’s POV, after all, so “He noticed” is pretty much always going to be unnecessary verbiage. It’s no more necessary to mention Hack’s “noticing” Tremont keeping his eyes on Guthrie than it is later, in the same paragraph, to say “he noticed Guthrie started firing at the building” or, “he noticed that Tremont lay shivering in the snow.”

Here’s another paragraph, from the same scene, that could’ve benefited from some attentive editing:

Shells exploded all around. They rocked the earth and detonated Schu mines, jetted murky clouds of mud into the snow-filled air. Razor-edged cleavers of shrapnel shot in all directions, walls of concussion slammed against them. Hackermeyer trembled, helpless, cleaving to the mud as if gravity had lost its hold and he resisted being sucked into the sky. Thought was gone again. He was a mindless clump of flesh and bone, welded to the floundering earth.

My version:

Shells exploded all around. They rocked the earth, detonating buried landmines and blasting jets of mud into the freezing air. Razor-edged shrapnel cleavers shrieked in all directions. Walls of concussion slammed against them. Hack trembled, helpless, clinging to the ground as if the sky were an abyss into which he might fall. Thought and mind were gone, again, and he was just a clump of quivering flesh, welded to the floundering earth.

Again, stylistic choices. But consider, particularly, Matheson’s evocative but awkwardly-phrases simile: “Hackermeyer trembled, helpless, cleaving to the mud as if gravity had lost its hold and he resisted being sucked into the sky.” First, the homonym verb “cleaving” coming right on the heels of the noun “cleaver” (just used to describe the flying shrapnel), is repetitious, as is the reappearance of “mud,” which is both the object to which Hackermeyer clings and the substance “jetted” into the air two sentences before. Then there’s the mess at the end: “as if gravity had lost its hold and he resisted being sucked into the sky.” It is a nice image, but there has to be a more eloquent way of expressing it.

I also marked some passages that I liked. This exchange between Hackermeyer and “sad clown” squad-mate Guthrie actually works pretty well, for me, unlike much of Guthrie’s humor, which tends to fall flat (though very often, in fairness, it is supposed to):

“You’ve heard about our good Sergeant Wadley>” said Guthrie.
“Was he killed?”
“No such luck,” said Guthrie. “He ran off.”
“Yesterday during Nazi artillery practice.”
Hackermeyer frowned. “How come?”
“He was alarmed,” said Guthrie. “Threw down his gear and scooted off like Chicken Little. Claimed the sky was falling down.”

He was alarmed. Comic understatement for the win. Here’s another good Guthrie moment:

Machine-gun fire started ripping close above and Hackermeyer scrabbled for the nearest shell hole. MacFarland followed.
“What the hell is happening?” raged MacFarland.
Hackermeyer started to reply when a body came crashing down on top of them.
“Sorry, men!” said Guthrie, scrambling off them. He saluted with his left hand, his face contorted, smeared with mud. “It is a good war, men, a true war!”
“Go screw yourself!” MacFarland shouted at him.
“It is an ill-advised project, father!” Guthrie shouted back.

During the assault on Saarbach, Hackermeyer and his squad fight their way past a statue of Christ on the Cross that had earlier been identified to them, during operational planning, as a tactical landmark. In fact, Matheson does not belabor the symbol of Christ crucified amongst the desolation and horror of war, which is all for the best, as far as I am concerned, because it is not exactly subtle. The image only stuck in my mind because it reminded me of an essentially identical scene in Samuel Fuller’s 1980 movie The Big Red One, which is also an autobiographical story of infantry combat in WWII Europe. In Fuller’s movie, the crucifixion image is rather overplayed, I think, but at least visually it is quite striking: The wood of Christ’s face is bleached, weathered, and cracked, and is covered with crawling red ants. Matheson also explicitly mentions the “weather-worn face and body on the cross,” and I was led to wonder if A) the similar imagery is purely coincidental B) the crucifix in The Big Red One was borrowed, consciously or not, from Matheson’s chronologically earler work, or C) both Matheson and Fuller independently encountered a weatherbeaten statue of Christ crucified while they were actually on the ground, in combat, in Europe, and the experience made such an impression on each of them that it later, independently, found its way into each man’s art. Case (C), of course, is the most interesting, and if I had time for idle scholarship I think it’d be fun to try to run down an answer. Did they both see the same statue? Is it still standing?

Anyway. I’m going on to read more Matheson, I think. The same friend who recommended The Beardless Warriors just loaned me her copy of Matheson’s short story collection Duel. Will be interesting to compare.

LA tour guidebook cover featuring my photography

Jaak Treiman is Estonia’s honorary U.S. consul in Los Angeles. If I understand correctly, this position, among other duties, keeps him meeting and greeting various Estonian dignitaries, businesspeople, and government officials when they’re in LA. And, if the occasion warrants, showing them around the city. Which, I presume, is what prompted him to write a tour guide.

Back in March, I got an e-mail from Jaak asking if he could use one of the photographs from the novelty diplomatic bags I was selling on Etsy awhile back on the cover. At least at the time, this shot was one of the few decent photos online of anything even respectably pretending to be a diplomatic valise.

I said sure, man, just send me a signed copy when it comes out. And last week it arrived. A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles is on sale now, sporting my novelty diplomatic bag there on the lower-right-corner of the front cover. Looks great, if I do say so myself.

Book Review: The Keep, F. Paul Wilson

I was drawn to this book via the arty-but-incomprehensible ’83 movie adaptation directed by Michael Mann. I like “ancient evil” horror in general, and “ancient evil versus modern soldiers” especially. So the premise–which at first seemed to me rather like Nazis-vs-Cthulhu–was pretty exciting to me. The movie turned me off after about half an hour, but, intrigued, I bought the book, and read it. Or started to read it. The atmosphere is tense and foreboding and the premise artfully conceived. It all works quite well until the face of the evil inhabiting the titular Keep is finally revealed. I won’t include any spoilers, but I will say that I think Wilson has committed one of the classic horror blunders by not keeping us guessing for, well, quite a bit longer than he did. Stephen King called it “opening the door.” Wilson opens it too soon.

And too wide. The evil floating green cloud doesn’t necessarily have to have a face in it. And if it does, in the end, it doesn’t have to be just one. And it doesn’t have to be a human face. Spielberg was right about the shark: These things are scarier if hinted at, rather than detailed.

They Saved Hitler’s Hair

I very much want to ask Timothy W. Ryback what he did with the hair he found in the Library of Congress basement:

In the spring of 2001, when I first opened Osborn’s Berlin in the subdued atmosphere of the Rare Book Reading Room, with the muffled sounds of midday traffic, I discovered, tucked in the crease between pages 160 and 161, a wiry inch-long black hair that appears to be from a moustache  An extension of the Benjamanian conceit–the collector preserved within his books, literally.

I have not yet finished Hitler’s Private Library, and it may be that, by the end of it, I will learn the fate of What Might Be Hitler’s Hair, but somehow I rather doubt it.  Rybeck, a skilled humanities scholar whose talents are evident throughout the book, clearly understands the historical gravitas of discovering the hair, but so far gives no indication of having understood that the hair is more than just a symbol or a curiosity, but, like the book that contained it and the library to which that book belongs, an interesting opportunity for further historical scholarship.

Although there have certainly been dubious claims before, Rybeck seems to have at least an outside chance of having discovered an authentic sample of Adolf Hitler’s DNA.  If genuine, the hair would be over 60 years old, but preserved, like the book that contained it, in a dry temperature-controlled environment for all that time.  Does it have an attached follicle, one wonders?  If genetic material can be recovered from the hair, the resulting analysis might provide strong evidence about whether it truly belonged to “Mr. H” himself.  And if the markers are right, there is no telling what else we might learn, including, perhaps, a more authoritative answer to the question—presently hypothesized from saliva samples of a set of Hitler’s surviving relatives—of Hitler’s Jewish ancestry.