ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE

(Guido Nolitta/Gallieno Ferri; EPICENTER COMICS/SERGIO BONELLI EDITORE; 2017)
cover

What a magnificently bizarre book! The setting is kind of a Western thing (more on that later)… it’s sort of a tale of fantasy and magic… it’s basically your standard super-hero versus super-villain comic yarn (in a rather twisted Italian, anti-hero way). Call it what you will, from the beautiful Michele Rubini cover to the final panel, it is a wildly fun read! Even though I was totally unaware of the heroic exploits of the lead character, he’s been around since (depending on which website you’re checking out) either 1961 or 1965… I gather that he appeared in a regular comic STRIP in Italy until he was introduced into the comic BOOK world four years later. Whether it was ‘61 or ‘65, it makes Zagor a contemporary of Stan Lee’s Marvel universe (characters like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Doctor Strange) and the tail-end of DC’s super-hero universe rebirth (with updated versions of the Atom, Hawkman and Green Lantern… pretty much everyone outside the publisher’s holy Trinity). For reference points within those two publisher’s Western books, the character most closely resembles the long-running (1947-1972) DC hero, TOMAHAWK, as well as later creations like Marvel’s Red Wolf and DC’s mystical hero, the original El Diablo, both of which debuted in the early 1970s. That, however, is a rather short-sighted summation of the heroic Zagor; there are also elements of the Batman, Tarzan (or maybe Ka-Zar, Marvel’s ruler of the Savage Land), Francis of Assisi (the patron Saint of ecology, among other things) and Captain America. In other words, Zagor is sort of an amalgam of every heroic figure (both real and fictional) that came before or after… I wonder just how many American comic book heroes of the late ‘60s and beyond can trace their ancestry back to the Italian comics that spawned Zagor.

Poster included with ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE (art by GALLIENO FERRI and WELL-BEE)

Poster included with ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE (art by GALLIENO FERRI and WELL-BEE)

The massive – nearly 300 pages – ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE saga originally appeared in issues 122-125 of the hero’s book, published between September and December, 1975 and it features all of the hallmarks of every title published by Marvel, DC, Charlton and Gold Key from the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, including the artwork. Without getting into too many specifics, I can identify stylistic reference points to the highly underrated Herb Trimpe (who spent seven years drawing THE INCREDIBLE HULK), Sal Buscema (who followed Trimpe with a remarkable ten year run on the same book and is also known for long stints on THE DEFENDERS and THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, among others), Buscema’s big brother, John, DC workhorse Bob Brown, the legendary John Romita, famed SUPERMAN artist Curt Swan and Dell and Gold Key stalwart Tom Gill. That, my friends, puts artist (and Zagor co-creator) Gallieno Ferri in pretty heady company. The unidentified colorist is masterful, as well, in a retro-’70s kinda way; the original Italian books were published in black and white and this particular edition utilizes the solid bright colors of American comics of the time (as in, none of the major shading or gradation effects that have become the norm in this age of – admittedly superior – computer-generated color).

ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE, page 48 (written by GUIDO NOLITTA, art by GALLIENO FERRI)

ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE, page 48 (written by GUIDO NOLITTA, art by GALLIENO FERRI)

Guido Nolitta’s (the pseudonym of co-creator and publisher Sergio Bonelli) story is as rollicking and freewheeling as you would expect from any American-style Western comic (or movie) from the period immediately prior to such fare taking on much darker tones in story and character. In fact, the tale may have been a bit ahead of the curve, as the figure of Supermike isn’t really evil so much as he is conceited, boastful and arrogant regarding his abilities. Toss in Zagor’s frustrations and a willingness to cross boundaries he said he would never cross, committing several dubious acts that belie his humble, benevolent and utterly trustworthy nature and, suddenly, the heroic lead is thrust into the unenviable role of anti-hero; likewise, the villain of the piece takes on a more sympathetic role. These are things that I’m sure Nolitta and Ferri discussed and grappled with before (and probably, even after the story was published) going ahead with the concept. From what I’ve gathered from checking out reviews and comments online and from reading the three superb – though the translations may leave a bit to be desired – essays at the front of this edition (“Zagor Versus Supermachine,” “The Immortality of an Idea!” and, especially, Darko Mrgan’s “The Clash of Vanity”), this near-seismic shift in character for Zagor was not well-embraced at the time and continues to be debated to this day amongst longtime fans of the series. As a newcomer to the character, the shift was nearly imperceptible… or maybe it was a wholly American thought process that had me thinking, “Dude, it’s about time! I woulda plowed the guy right in his perfect mouth about 250 pages ago!” It does make for good drama, though, as Zagor and his companion, Chico (who acts as comedic foil and occasional whipping boy, much like Pancho, the Kid’s loyal sidekick in the uncompromisingly upbeat stories of THE CISCO KID), struggle with how to handle a man intent on destroying the reputation and good name of Zagor among his loyal friends and legion of protectorates. As our hero trails his nemesis, he is beaten and humiliated at every turn, losing the trust of the many Native American tribes he has vowed to protect, as well as losing face with the town folk in and around his “kingdom,” known as Darkwood Forest. His close alliance with the United States Army is also stretched to the breaking point.

ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE, page 53 (written by GUIDO NOLITTA, art by GALLIENO FERRI)

ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE, page 53 (written by GUIDO NOLITTA, art by GALLIENO FERRI)

Before delving into this particular saga, let’s take a quick look at the hero of the piece, Zagor. Born Patrick Wilding, the son of a retired Army officer, the youngster was witness to the slaughter of his parents (a plot device which also played into the development of Batman and so many other characters from the historic halls of fiction) by a rogue band of Indians; taken in by a trapper called Wandering Fitzy, young Patrick learns to wield a common hatchet as a deadly weapon. Fueled by a lust for revenge and curious to learn more about his parents, the boy soon discovers that his father’s hands were not clean of the blood of the innocent. Conflicted, the young man who would become Zagor vowed to set things right as the friend and protector of the downtrodden and misunderstood, regardless of the color of their skin. Many of his impressive athletic skills, as well as his great physical stamina, were developed through an association with an acrobatic family named the Sullivans (a nod to a certain Boy Wonder’s family, the Flying Graysons?). As the Native American tribes came to accept Wilding’s friendship and staunch support of their human rights, they gave him the Indian name “Za-Gor Te-Nay,” which translates into “the Spirit With the Hatchet.” All of this takes place, quite naturally, in the wild and wooly American west of the late 1800s, right? Well… not quite. While Zagor is considered a hero of the “Wild West,” that “west” is actually the Northeastern Woodlands of the early nineteenth century (around 1830 or so), specifically, an unsettled region of Pennsylvania. But, then, I suppose Pennsylvania is quite a bit to the west of Italy, so I’m not gonna dwell on that one too much.

ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE, page 136 (written by GUIDO NOLITTA, art by GALLIENO FERRI)

ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE, page 136 (written by GUIDO NOLITTA, art by GALLIENO FERRI)

So… anyway, here’s the basic plot of ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE: Things start off, as most good Westerns generally do, with a stagecoach barreling through a barren expanse of desert (in the Appalachian Plateau region!), our hero comfortably ensconced in the carriage. Atop the coach is an irascible driver intent on making his next stop on schedule. So laser-focused on maintaining his schedule is Buddy, the driver, that he refuses to stop even when a sharp-dressed dandy in a bowler hat (something that wasn’t even around until at least fifteen years later, but… I digress) appears in the middle of the vehicles’ path; this dandy is none other than Mike Gordon, who has dubbed himself “Supermike,” a true legend in his own mind. As Zagor, Chico and the other passengers question the driver’s motivation for refusing to stop, a very surprised Buddy comes flying past the window. The athletically gifted Mister Gordon, taking umbrage with the driver, had caught up with and climbed aboard the stagecoach, heaving the hapless Buddy over the side and, reigning in the team, begins to pummel the man before Zagor can step in and stop him. The boastful New Yorker regales his fellow passengers with tales of his expertise in many different areas, proving his point by playing a rare and expensive flute perfectly and schooling an elderly woman on the finer points of crocheting. Upon reaching their destination, Supermike makes short work of a local whose prime source of income is menial labor utilizing his exceptional strength. By that evening, Zagor has had quite enough of this Mike Gordon’s superiority complex, as he bests a table of local card sharps before returning their money and buying the entire saloon drinks. When a notorious gunfighter draws down on the town’s sheriff, Zagor is drawn further into Gordon’s web of conceit as the man makes no effort to stop the outlaw; wounding the sheriff, the miscreant is taken out rather handily by Zagor. Later, on the stage out of town, Supermike’s reason for not interfering with the gunman is made obvious: Gordon was merely setting up a confrontation for later to prove his mastery of guns by beating the unbeatable “Flash” Cadigan to the draw. For the King of Darkwood Forest, this is a step too far, leading to a confrontation with the braggadocious Gordon; a confrontation that sees Zagor losing his temper and having to be restrained, leaving Supermike battered, bloody and swearing revenge. That revenge – a total dismantling of Zagor’s life and world – takes up the remainder of the action-filled story. Without giving away any more of the story’s twists and turns, I’ll just say that ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE gives the reader everything they could hope for in a nostalgic look back at a simpler time in comic book storytelling. This digest-sized presentation is Epicenter Comics’ fourth omnibus offering of some of Zagor’s more epic adventures from this period, with more to come. I, for one, can’t wait.


AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, NUMBER 20

(Adam P Knave/DJ Kirkbride/Nick Brokenshire; 19 pages, digital; MONKEYBRAIN COMICS, 2015)

AMELIA COLE

The AMELIA COLE series follows the adventures of a young woman, raised in the magic arts by her aunt. Amelia uses her magic to cross between two separate worlds, one where magic is the norm, the other where science rules (the realm she believes to be her home world); in each world, the other discipline is unheard of. The series works in arcs of six issues each but, they are not self-contained… the finale of one arc leads directly into the plot and storyline of subsequent arcs. So, before getting on with specifics on this issue (the second chapter in the fourth story arc), let’s get a little bit of insight into the characters and the basic premise of the overarching story in this superb, tightly scripted series, shall we?

AMELIA COLE AND THE UNKNOWN WORLD (cover art: NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE UNKNOWN WORLD (cover art: NICK BROKENSHIRE)

The first story arc, AMELIA COLE AND THE UNKNOWN WORLD, introduces Amelia, a young woman who suddenly loses everything she loves – her family, her friends, her world. She then loses her beloved aunt and another world and, now, she finds herself trapped in a third dimension that may or may not be her actual birth place. She quickly runs afoul of the law for using her magic powers in an unlawful fashion and, eventually, ends up fighting the authorities’ enforcer, a dark robed mage called the Protector. Defeating the well-meaning puppet hero, Amelia now finds herself the city’s new Protector.

AMELIA COLE AND THE HIDDEN WAR (cover art NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE HIDDEN WAR (cover art NICK BROKENSHIRE)

Things really begin to heat up (as if the action in the first series wasn’t enough!) in AMELIA COLE AND THE HIDDEN WAR. As the new Protector of Otysburg, Amelia – along with her pet golem, Lemmy – goes about protecting and saving the populace, regardless of their social standing (mage protection is fine, non-mage protection is in violation of the city’s penal code), something that seriously ticks off the Magistrate, whose puppet strings are being pulled by a dark and mysterious wraith cabal known as the Council. Meanwhile, Hector Garza, the former Protector is fighting another war against other-dimensional demons with Omega Company, a military outfit he signed up with when he lost his job. Neither Amelia nor Hector realize that they are, in fact, fighting a common foe.

AMELIA COLE AND THE ENEMY UNLEASHED (cover art NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE ENEMY UNLEASHED (cover art NICK BROKENSHIRE)

As the name emplies, AMELIA COLE AND THE ENEMY UNLEASHED sees the Council come out of the shadows and, after killing the Magistrate, begin to siphon off all of the magic powers on Amelia’s adopted world. Amelia (and Lemmy) and Hector (and the other two surviving members of Omega Company) team up and raise a valiant defense; ultimately, though, the two Protectors are thrown into the other two dimensions: Hector into the non-magic realm; Amelia back to the magic realm.

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 19 (cover art NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 19 (cover art NICK BROKENSHIRE)

Which brings us to AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE. With Amelia back in the magical realm, it doesn’t take long for the gendarme to come a-callin’. Hector, trapped in a world where magic doesn’t exist, is enjoying the simple life with… Amelia’s best friend from that dimension. Back in the third realm, the Council has turned Otysburg into a war zone, with Lemmy, Omega Company and their friends the only resistance. So, now you’re pretty much up to date as we move on to a more in-depth review of Part Two of …THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE.

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 20, page 1 (Written by ADAM P KNAVE and DJ KIRKBRIDE, art by NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 20, page 1 (Written by ADAM P KNAVE and DJ KIRKBRIDE, art by NICK BROKENSHIRE)

As the issue begins, Amelia is pondering the unavailability of magic tomes on audiobook; Hector is enjoying a quiet meal with Laura, Amelia’s friend; and their friends back on the blended world have come up with a plan: Since the Council are not too particular about their victims, the group will recruit the entire city – non-mage and mage alike – to wage war against their conquerors. While this issue isn’t as action-packed as most of the previous nineteen, there’s still enough action to keep things interesting: Lemmy and the rest are on the run from the Council and trapped in their own home; Amelia has a run-in with a police officer back at her Aunt Dani’s shop but, eventually, she wins him over to her cause, as they begin a city-wide search for Hector; Hector and Laura are assaulted and, while Hector ineffectively waves his wand at the guy, Laura takes control with some moves she learned in a self-defense class; later, however, Laura is amazed as Hector’s powers return full-strength and he saves a man from certain death.

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 20, page 2 (Written by ADAM P KNAVE and DJ KIRKBRIDE, art by NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 20, page 2 (Written by ADAM P KNAVE and DJ KIRKBRIDE, art by NICK BROKENSHIRE)

The rest of the book deals with how everybody is handling being in a very different world than the one they woke up in earlier in the day. The characters, the worlds and the story created by writers Adam P Knave and DJ Kirkbride are all so vibrantly real (yeah… I realize that I just said that about magicians, evil wraiths, dimension travel and golems… but, it’s true), that you get caught up in the story and the lives of these characters and can’t wait for the next issue to get here. Nick Brokenshire’s artwork fits the story perfectly… look closely through all twenty issues and you’ll see sly little nods to some of the comics greats (there are several storefronts with names like Frazetta, Toth and Eisner; the heroic leader of Omega Company is named Kubert) and some very recognizable characters from the big and small screens (Wimpy makes an appearance on a Tuesday; Shaggy shows up in a scene, as does the Monopoly dude; Eddie Murphy’s character from THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and Gene Wilder as Frankenstein appear in a research lab). The supporting cast are each drawn with a specific personality in mind, with no short cuts, especially the brilliantly conceived Lemmy. The various worlds are all familiar enough that they could be this Earth, but with enough differences to let us know that we ain’t in Kansas anymore. Nick colors his own pages (with an occasional assist from Ruiz Moreno), working with a very bright… well, actually, more of a pastel… palette that is extremely effective on this strip, proving that a book like this doesn’t necessarily need to be dark and gloomy (though there are those types of scenes, as well).

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 20, page 3 (Written by ADAM P KNAVE and DJ KIRKBRIDE, art by NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 20, page 3 (Written by ADAM P KNAVE and DJ KIRKBRIDE, art by NICK BROKENSHIRE)

And, let’s talk about the depiction of our title character. Amelia isn’t a typical female lead. She isn’t waif thin with an impossibly large bust. She’s just… beautifully average. Amelia Cole is the kind of girl next door that you always had a crush on when you were growing up and the kind of young woman that you could fall deeply in love with and want to be around as much as possible. And, that is definitely one of the things that makes this book so appealing… the fact that the lead character seems so utterly normal and approachable. With the major publishers killing off all of their characters and starting over every few months, you really can’t afford to become too invested in any of those books; the story and art of AMELIA COLE melds beautifully to create one of the best ongoing series that I’ve read in a good little while.

Individual digital issues of AMELIA COLE, as well as the first three six-issue collections are available from Monkeybrain and comixology.com; graphic novels of the first three story arcs, each with unique bonus material, are printed and published through IDW and are available there and from all of the usual suspects. I heartily suggest that you pick up this series from the beginning, in whatever form you like. As the title page of issue 19 says, “If you haven’t, read previous issues. This issue will be here when you’re done… ”


EMPIRE OF THE WOLF

(Michael Kogge/Dan Parsons/David Rabbitte/Chris Summers/Marshall Dillon/Doug Beekman; 125 pages; ALTERNA COMICS; 2014)

DIG030689_1

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF is a four issue limited series – collected here in one place – that explores historical aspects of the Roman empire, melding realities with the mythological story of Romulus and Remus, which, naturally, leads to the introduction of another European legend into the mix – the werewolf. Overall, the story is well constructed, though I did find it a bit confusing differentiating between the characters. I found myself re-reading pages and going back farther into the story to catch up on who was doing what and where they were doing it (and to whom); that problem, I feel, has more to do with the artists’ designs and execution than a jumbled script. If you’ve been around for as long as I have, then you probably remember Barry (Windsor) Smith’s early work on CONAN THE BARBARIAN, THE AVENGERS, IRON MAN and some other Marvel books, as well as Mike Grell’s earliest efforts at DC with THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES, GREEN ARROW and, of course, THE WARLORD; while I have come to appreciate the art and storytelling prowess of both of these gentlemen, those early works featured rather stiff figures, with odd angles and extended torsos and faces. Dan Parsons, who pencilled the first two issues, has those same tendencies; David Rabbitte, penciller on the final two issues, suffers the same malady, though to a lesser extent (maybe that similarity is an attempt to retain continuity throughout the series). The colorists (Rabbitte on the first and fourth issues, Chris Summers on the middle two) worked directly over the pencil art, giving the pages a cool painted look, which smooths out some of the problems already alluded to. Don’t get me wrong… while the artwork may be an acquired taste (at least, for me), it is in no way inferior. In fact, both artists prove they are not without talent, as there are several absolutely brilliantly illustrated pages in each of the four issues (plus, Parsons handled the original cover art, which is certainly of a high standard). Also, special mention must be made of the other member of the original artistic team, letterer Marshall Dillon, who was handpicked by Kogge to give the pages the look and feel of those early ’70s Marvel books by such greats as John Costanza and Sam Rosen. His work does, indeed, add a special touch to the book.

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 1 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAN PARSONS and DAVID RABBITTE)

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 1 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAN PARSONS and DAVID RABBITTE)

The first issue (or Book I, to be more accurate) is sub-titled “The Savage North” and introduces the two protagonists, centurions of the Second Augustan Legion, Canisius Sarcipio, a former slave, and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, nephew to the emperor, who are leading their forces through Britannia, convinced that the only way to civilize the Celts is to conquer them; failing to civilize the Celts, nothing less than their utter destruction will do. As their general, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, joins them, it would seem that their decision has been made for them: Genral Vespasianus has discovered the eviscerated body of a fellow soldier, the work of a Druid sect under the leadership of a giant named Caradog. As the general and centurions lead their armies, intent on destroying everything in their path, they encounter Caradog, a killing machine who quickly dispatches over a hundred Roman soldiers as well as Vespasianus, all in the name of his ancestor, Remus. As the general lies dying of his wounds, he gives his command to Canisius; Lucius and Canisius pursue Caradog, eventually catching up to… something that definitely isn’t human. At home, in Rome, Canisius’ beloved, Lavinia, a Virgin of Vesta, is troubled by dreams and visions of death and defeat. Her visions prove to be right; as Lucius is bitten by the monstrous Caradog, Canisius forces the fight, allowing his friend to escape back to the Roman encampments. Meanwhile, Lavinia, cursing Vesta, vows that if Canisius does not return, Rome will burn. There’s a lot of groundwork to digest in “The Savage North,” and much that needs to be explained. The story is off to an action-packed start but, for it to be told properly, it cannot maintain this break-neck level.

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 2 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAN PARSONS and CHRIS SUMMERS)

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 2 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAN PARSONS and CHRIS SUMMERS)

However, with Book II, “The Mark of the Beast,” even though the action doesn’t slow appreciably, the story does advance nicely… so, what do I know, huh? Canisius’ battle with the beastial Caradog leaves them dead or dying – the former from a vicious bite from the latter; Caradog from his own weapon, a mystical sword called “Moonblade.” By now, we all know what’s happening here, right? Caradog and his followers are werewolves, a fact that can only mean… Canisius isn’t dead, just weak from loss of blood, with the added bonus of the lupine infection passed on from his foe’s bite. In the meantime, Lucius (who is also infected) claims sole command of all Roman forces in Brittania, seeking the glory that will make it possible for him to ask for the hand of the lovely Lavinia; he didn’t necessarily seek the death of his friend but, he certainly intends to take advantage of it. Canisius awakens, naked and freezing, as a Druid sorceress named Ambrosia appears. Ambrosia, knowing the warrior’s fate, has purposed to bring out the beast in Canisius, thinking that he may be the chosen one, who will lead the Celts to ultimate victory. Upon Lucius’ homecoming, he is – naturally – rebuffed by Lavinia. There’s a nice bit of Royal Court intrigue, as the “conquering hero” is feted by his uncle, the emperor, and his ambitious mother. I guess if you wanna call the last few pages of this chapter a “surprise ending,” that works as well as any. Differentiating between the two primary characters is a lot easier in this issue, mainly because they’re never together. Again, the writing is crisp; the artwork features flashes of brilliance but, still, the characters occasionally suffer from a… uh… stiffness, I suppose, is the best word. Parsons’ action scenes seem to be more fluid here than in Book I, so that’s a definite plus.

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 3 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAVID RABBITTE and CHRIS SUMMERS)

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 3 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAVID RABBITTE and CHRIS SUMMERS)

An origin story of sorts opens Book III, subtitled “The Blood of Remus.” The legend of Romulus and Remus, sons of the Roman god of war, Mars, born of a virgin, unfolds in the first six pages of the chapter, offering insight into the main tale of EMPIRE OF THE WOLF. Mythology buffs will remember that the twins were raised by wolves and, eventually, Romulus’ lust for power led to the death of Remus at his brother’s hand. David Rabbitte’s art and Chris Summer’s use of subdued earth-tones to color these pages are the best of the series so far; the opening splash page alone is a thing of compositional beauty, boding well for the rest of this book, as well as the final chapter of the series. As the Druid Ambrosia relates to Canisius the legendary tale, he begins to understand and accept what has happened; his memory also returns and he is determined to return to Rome and Lavinia. Upon entering a Roman outpost, he is met by an old friend who is surprised to see him; it seems that Lucius has declared him dead and has become the cruel emperor Nero. Now, Canisius has another reason to return home: To liberate Rome and his beloved and to seek revenge on his traitorous friend. As his plans now seems to dovetail with that of the Druids, a plan is formulated and the group boards a Roman galleon returning to Rome. While on board, a Roman officer attacks Ambrosia, triggering the lupine change in Canisius. Meanwhile, back in Rome, the desire of two great leaders, Lavinia, witnesses a brutal attack by the beastial Lucius, sending her fleeing from the city. From that point, things get a bit muddled, with shipwrecks, vengeance-seeking corpses and some very confusing scenes taking place in a cave; originally, Canisius appears to be under the thrall of a sibyl who has taken the form of Lavinia but, suddenly, the scene shifts to another cave where Lavinia is hiding from the wrathful Lucius, who has managed to hunt her down. As long as you pay close attention to the captions, you’re gonna know what’s going on but, now that both Lucius and Canisius are basically in the same situation, the identity problem has, again, reared its utterly confused head. Our heroes simply look too much alike for a casual reader to browse over this part and not come away scratching their head. The pencil art throughout the cave scenes would have benefited from some inks, as the shading leaves the faces looking a bit muddy; other than that minor complaint, the artwork is, overall, a vast improvement over the first two installments. With a little more exposition mixed in with the action, Book III has set up what should be an exciting and eventful finale.

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 4 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAVID RABBITTE)

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 4 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAVID RABBITTE)

Book IV is “Empire of the Wolf,” an epic culmination of Michael Kogge’s two decade journey to tell this story. It begins with Canisius’ journey through Hades, searching for the soul of Ambrosia; the Druid, however, did not perish in the shipwreck and she – and several surviving members of the sect – are saved and brought to Rome… entertainment for the emperor. Lucius, allying himself with Lavinia’s father, has taken her as his reluctant empress and, as the brutal Nero, sends Ambrosia and her companions to certain doom, facing a menagerie of wild beasts in the gladiatorial ring. When Canisius appears from the depths of Hades, the two old friends battle for supremacy, with a fight that rages throughout the city. With Rabbitte now coloring his own pencil work, the art takes on a more atmospheric tone, especially the scenes at the River Styx and in Hades and the fight scenes. I’m really not the type of person who enjoys delivering spoilers, so… I’ll just tell you that, in this version, the historical burning of Rome definitely does not happen while Nero fiddles. The finale of EMPIRE OF THE WOLF also features reversals of fortunes, acts of revenge, scenes of comeuppance, historical references that give the story a vibrant ring of truth and a very satisfying ending. I don’t know if Kogge has any plans for a sequel, but if he does… sign me up. By the way, how about that brand new, awe-inducing Doug Beekman painting that appears on the cover of this collection? I would stack that up against any (non-Frazetta) cover to ever grace an issue of CREEPY or EERIE.


IN SEARCH OF THE COSMIC SNAUSAGE: THE GREG MCCRARY INTERVIEW

PART ONE: AN INTRODUCTION (OR, HOW THIS THING ACTUALLY CAME ABOUT)

Greg McCrary creates a unique piece for a fan (uncredited photo)

Greg McCrary creates a unique piece for a fan (uncredited photo)

Sometime after Jeremy and I launched the Mule, we wandered into Star Clipper, a great little comics shop in the Delmar Loop in the University City area of Saint Louis. As fate would have it, there were several members of the creative consortium called Ink and Drink plying their wares out front, as was their wont at least one Saturday a month. We left them our contact info and… didn’t hear anything from them. Fast forward to late December, 2014 and another visit to the Clipper. This time, the sole representative of the comics guys was Greg McCrary, creator, writer and artist of the wildly insane LASER DOG. I cornered him (actually, I walked up to his table and introduced myself) and told him that we were interested in doing a piece on the local scene. He was stoked… I was stoked and, after a couple of small bumps in the road (from both of us), we decided that e-mailing our questions and answers would be the quickest, most efficient way to introduce you to the creative side of the Saint Louis comic book scene. Somewhere in there, Greg mentions that he’ll sell you a copy of LASER DOG if you see him on the street; that’s true. In fact, he’ll draw an entire LASER DOG strip on your arm if you ask him to… that’s how much he loves to draw and create. Ya gotta like a guy like that. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the other guys of Ink and Drink are insanely talented, too. You can check ’em out here: inkanddrinkcomics.com.

PART TWO: THE INTERVIEW (OR, THE RESULTS OF PART ONE)

An original Laser Dog piece (art by GREG MCCRARY)

An original Laser Dog piece (art by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: LASER DOG is like a sci-fi free for all – a little loopy, with a bizarre sense of humor, and yet, there’s plenty there to make you think… little social commentaries rolled into the story and art. Where did the idea for LASER DOG come from?

GREG: The very idea of Laser Dog manifested itself while I was at work. I used to work at Six Flags, drawing caricatures and, during the later years, my time there was quite mind numbing, boring. On one particular day, my co-worker, a very talented artist, Harrison Weathers, was requested by a patron of the park to draw a caricature of her dog from her phone. So, Harry does so and when he was finished, the lady very much enjoyed the picture and paid and left happily. When she left, I turned to Harry and told him, “that drawing was terrible… ” Which he replied, “Yeah, I know. I’m going to try that again.” As he was beginning to draw his second attempt of a caricature dog, it was pretty much turning out to look exactly the same as the first drawing. Harry noticed this as well and gave up prematurely before filling in the eyes. When I saw the empty void in the drawing of that dog’s eyes, it hit me like a kick in the nuts. “It looks like lasers should be coming out of those eyes,” I proclaimed out loud. And, from there, my body took over and colored what has come to be known as LASER DOG. The other co-workers and I were instantly obsessed and we all relentlessly began to draw and write our very own stories of Laser Dog. However, I was the only one out of all of us who was dedicated/insane enough to follow through and make a comic about our obsession, created out of our maddening boredom. (That was very long… sorry.)

THE MULE: Were you one of those kids in school? The one that was always getting in trouble for doodling and drawing and making fart noises to make the other kids laugh?

GREG: I actually don’t recall being that disruptive or getting in that much trouble during my elementary and high school years. Although, I don’t think my teachers were entertained by the idea of me doodling during their lectures. But, I felt that I actually focused more while I was drawing and I listen better, believe it or not. But, I was definitely the wise cracking rascal out of the group and I still do make a fool of myself and love to hear people laugh at my expense.

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (cover art by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (cover art by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: Okay… here’s the major question: What breed of pooch is the cosmic hound? I’m getting the scent of a pekingese or, maybe, a bichon frise.

GREG: Well, Laser Dog is Everything. And yet, he is Nothing. So, I always say that he is Every Breed of Dog. And yet, he is No Breed of Dog (pretty much any question about Laser Dog can be answered through this motto).

THE MULE: You self-publish LASER DOG. What types of obstacles have you encountered with that DIY approach, if any? Conversely, what advantages are there to publishing the book yourself?

GREG: I think the biggest obstacle you face as an indie comic is the budget. I’m responsible for paying for everything so, unfortunately, I can’t print as many as I or the consumer may want. But as far as the benefits, there’s not much pressure. No “real” deadlines and I get the final say. Although, not putting deadlines on your project could also leave you to some serious procrastination.

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 7, by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 7, by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: There is so much happening in your layouts and art. I was concerned that the digest size may not do your work justice. However, after seeing the first issue digitally at webtoons.com, those scenes just seem to jump off the page… uh… the screen. In a perfect world, what medium does Greg McCrary feels best suits the free-wheeling style of LASER DOG?

GREG: I always imagined it as a comic, but honestly Laser Dog is very versatile. I can see it in any medium: web comic, animation, live action movie/TV show, whatever. And I encourage anyone who wants to see that happen to go ahead and do it. Laser Dog is a free marked; anyone is encouraged to make their own comic, oil painting or marble bust for Lasy-D. Laser Dog is like life, you can’t own it or take possession of him. You can only participate with Laser Dog and I welcome anyone to do so.

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 14, by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 14, by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: The covers are amazing pieces of art, as well. How do you feel about coloring the inner pages? Do you prefer leaving the inside of the books black and white?

GREG: Well, once again, this goes with budgeting mainly. It just makes more sense that I do black and white because it’s the cheapest and most affordable. I can see LASER DOG benefiting in color; however, black and white is all I can afford. But I love gray-scaling and working with black and white, so it doesn’t bother me too much. But, I can totally understand some people wanting some more visceral stimulation.

LASER DOG, ISSUE TWO (cover art by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE TWO (cover art by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: You’ve published two issues of LASER DOG and a third issue (the conclusion to the heart-stopping two-parter, “The Legion of Mullets”) is imminent. So, where does a fella pick up his very own copy of LASER DOG?

GREG: Well, you could have picked it up at Star Clipper. But, unfortunately, they’re going out of business, so you can only get a copy there before February 7th. I’ll find several locations to sell out of later this month, but you can order issue one or two on indyplanet.com and if you see me on the street, just holler at me and I’m sure I’ll have a copy for you.

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 22, by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 22, by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: Tell us a bit about your background and other projects. What drives Greg McCrary to do the things he does?

GREG: I graduated from Meramec Community College with an associate degree in Graphic Communications. I drew caricatures out at Six Flags for six years. I really honed my skills working out there, learning the art of exaggeration from a lot of great artists. So, a lot of my influences come from caricature artists: Joe Bluhm, Jeremy Townsend (aka Jert), Tomokazu Tabata. My earliest influence is Genndy Tartakovsky; DEXTER’S LAB definitely was a big deal in my childhood. But, later comic influence goes to SCUD; I love the character designs and the flow of the story and the paneling. But, as far as what drives me to draw, it’s nothing I can pin point. It’s almost as natural as breathing, I just need to do it (it’s more bordering on a curse or a compulsion). But I love drawing. I would die without my art.

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 23, by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 23, by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: There’s a small cadre of comic book creators in the Saint Louis area. Do you get together, like a support group, to work out ideas and collaborate on projects?

GREG: I’m a part of the group Ink and Drink. We get together and try to produce a comic twice a year. I sometimes get with friends and try to collaborate on a comic, either coloring or doing a cover or helping on backgrounds.

THE MULE: Aside from LASER DOG 3, what can we expect to see from you in the next few months?

GREG: I’m not sure if it will come in the months soon to come but, I’m working on two projects with a couple of friends that will hopefully be printed within the not too distant future. Marie Enger will be helping me out on a comic I’m making called SKITZO. It’s a POKE’MON clone type story, but it’s centered around schizophrenics who battle their illusions instead of creatures. And, I’m writing a story for my buddy, Michael Minter (aka Makuto) to draw. It’s called “Into the Dark.” It’s about a world of magic and three sorcerers that try to master the science that makes up the magic of that world.

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 24, by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 24, by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: Finally… what, exactly, is LASER DOG LIVE and where can one catch a performance of the same?

GREG: LASER DOG LIVE was an interpretive dance/show, based on the first issue of LASER DOG that my friend, Caitlin Hafer, put on in San Francisco. It was quite a show. Unfortunately, it was only a two night event. There are no plans for a World Wide Tour (at least, not yet). You can take a look at the performance on YouTube if you type in “Laser Dog Live” or, you can look it up on the Laser Dog Facebook page. I have it posted on the wall.

THE MULE: Thanks, Greg, for the peak inside your vast cranial cavity and for the insight into the world of LASER DOG.

GREG: Thanks for your interest in LASER DOG and… never forget: Laser Dog is everything. And yet, he is nothing…

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE in-house ad (by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE in-house ad (by GREG MCCRARY)


EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE

(Brockton McKinney/Larkin Ford/Jason Strutz; 129 pages; ACTION LAB COMICS, 2014 – collecting EHMM THEORY, issues 1-4, 2013)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE (from Action Lab’s Danger Zone imprint) collects the first story arc starring the recently murdered Gabriel Ehmm and his pet, a kitten named Mister Whispers, which died from starvation after Gabriel’s death. “Cat, Quantum and Contrition” starts, fittingly enough, in a cemetery filled with killer midget clowns, three days after Ehmm is shot by his jealous girlfriend. From there, the story starts to get weird. Gabriel – and by extension, Whispers – finds himself on a kinda existential journey of self-discovery involving talking animals (including the ball of gray fur sitting on Ehmm’s shoulder), murderous senior citizens, Saint Peter and his gas chamber teleportation device (except not really), deadly cyborg crustaceans, a team of oddball super heroes (who really aren’t), multiple realities and, of course, those knee-gnawing zombie midgets! In other words… What’s not to like?

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 1 cover, page 18 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 1 cover, page 18 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

After the brief introduction (which comes back around), writer Brockton McKinney brings things into focus where the whole thing started – Gabriel Ehmm’s origin story, if you like – as our intrepid hero returns home with a surprise for his girlfriend, Stacy; she, of course, has a surprise for him, too. Soon, Gabriel wakes up dead, with the adorable Mister Whispers sitting on his chest, asking “You okay, dude?” The befuddled pair are soon joined by a cigar-chomping Mafioso-looking guy, nattily dressed in white and sporting a well-trimmed white beard and perfectly quaffed and ponytailed white hair. Why would they question such a being when he introduces himself as God’s gatekeeper, Peter? Which brings us back to the beginning and the graveyard of tiny terrors. Gabe and Whispers are overpowered by the zombie horde and saved by an ax-wielding senior citizen, a woman named Alyona Tarasov who knew Gabe’s birth father and, so… the ride of Gabriel Ehmm’s young unlife is about to begin. A quick note about Larkin Ford’s artwork (and the besutiful color work by Jason Strutz) is necessary here: It is absolutely mesmerizing, especially the cemetery sequences and the murder sequence. This initial chapter (the first issue of the series) can be a bit confusing, with enough twists and turns to make your head spin but, with a promise that all eventually will be made clear, we move forward.

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 2 cover, page 11 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 2 cover, page 11 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

And, indeed, as chapter two opens, we find Gabe, Whispers and Alyona on the road, seeking the father he never knew, as the old Russian explains her relationship with Aaron Ehmm and why she didn’t bat an eye at the dead talking cat. It seems that she and her sister, Dominika, first met Aaron at college in 1982, where the brilliant young Ehmm was turning the heads of students and faculty, alike. A professor’s tale of a talking rabbit he encountered at the South Pole began to consume the elder Ehmm. Before Alyona could continue her story, the car is set upon by a giant, cybernetically-enhanced crab in another well-drawn sequence. The action comes fast and furious as, with the Russian being poorly over-matched, GODD shows up. Wait… who? The Guardians of Dimensional Defense, three super-powered beings and a pair of intelligent robots: Mindwolf, the team leader, who introduces GODD as “the good guys; the Thermal Ghost, a being of blue flame; Alchemist, who looks like a shabby, shaggy mummy; the Emp, a foul-mouthed, smart-aleck little robot, who’s kind of a cross between HERBIE (from those crappy old FANTASTIC FOUR cartoons) and Skeets (from the not-crappy BOOSTER GOLD comics), who has a serious problem with Mister Whispers (there’s a wicked funny exchange between the two); and an impressive looking female ‘bot called TAMMI (which stands for Technologically Advanced Mechanized Military Instrument). While Gabe and Whispers are dutifully impressed and more than ready to accept the team’s help, Alyona isn’t so easily swayed and pretty much tells ’em to take a hike. The final two pages of this chapter reintroduces “Saint Peter” and the true villain of the piece… ah, but that would be telling, wouldn’t it? McKinney, aside from writing a really great fight scene, has begun to unravel the plot twists with more answers promised for the third installment.

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 3 cover, page 12 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 3 cover, page 12 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

That third installment starts with another beautifully rendered sequence, as Alyona relates more of the story: Aaron, Professor Lanny Crowell (who had seen the rabbit at the South Pole), Dominika and she had traveled to the Pole in search of a possible reason for the talking bunny. What they found was a dimensional anomaly… a portal to other worlds and other realities. Again, the story is interrupted, though not in a fashion as dramatic as a cyborg crab and a super-powered dust-up. The trio has arrived at their destination: Jon Kaye Town Hospital, where an old friend of Ehmm the elder currently resides. Spoiler alert: Tym isn’t the drooling husk in the wheelchair. So, Tym joins the group on their journey and relates more of the story, with more talking critters and the introduction of Gabe’s mother, the Princess Emera, from an alternate dimension… the very dimension the portal chose to spit Aaron into. Tym’s story ended, the four arrive at the last known residence of Aaron Ehmm, where Gabe has a total meltdown at the prospect of seeing his father for the first time. From here, things are brought into clearer focus as the good guys begin to separate themselves from the bad guys, with the unexpected return of Gabe’s girlfriend, Stacy (who has, by this time, gained an “e” to become Stacey), and another wicked fight sequence between GODD and Alyona and Tym, ending in what, I suppose, would be called a “double betrayal.” Another well-written, beautifully rendered installment ends with an exploding door, an injured Alyona and a shotgun wielding Aaron Ehmm.

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 4 cover, page 12 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 4 cover, page 12 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

So, the fourth and final installment (issue four, if you’re counting) isn’t the action-packed throw down that you would expect… not to say that there isn’t an action-packed throw down, there is and, all you really need to know is this: “Robeartopus!” It is every bit as mammoth and weird as it sounds. There is plenty of exposition, explaining the whys and how-fors of everything that has happened and is happening. But, even so, you will find yourself so engrossed in the story and art that you’re really not even aware that every third panel isn’t some scene of carnage and mayhem. This issue is so densely written, with everything explained (while also setting up the next story arc), that I really can’t reveal much without spoiling the end of one of the most adventurous story-lines in comics history. Yeah, yeah, yeah… I know… hyperbole much? Well, boys and girls, I suggest you pick up this collection and decide for yourselves. Now… here’s the one problem with EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: The story and art are exemplary but, for some reason that eludes me, EVERY page from the original single issues is included here. That means that at the end of each installment, there are pages of in-house advertisements for then-upcoming Action Lab releases, including the next issue of EHMM THEORY (a total of at least 12 pages over-all). A minor complaint, but one that really seems to annoy me with all of the company’s collections. Both physical and digital copies are available at the Action Lab site, at ComiXology or, even cooler yet, visit your local comic shop.


FIELD OF LOST SHOES

(ARC ENTERTAINMENT/BOSCH MEDIA/TREDEGAR FILMWORKS/BROOKWELL-MCNAMARA ENTERTAINMENT (95 minutes/Rated PG-13); 2014)

FILS_DVD_Wrap_FM1.indd

I am a Civil War nut! I love reading and studying about the era. It is, without a doubt, one of the few truly defining moments in this country’s history. The events leading up to the bloodiest conflict in America’s relatively young past divided the Republic along, not only ideological lines, but territorial lines, as well. As the Southern States began to feel the economic pinch from the Northern States over – among other things – tariffs for their goods, states’ rights of sovereignty and slavery, plans were formulated for their secession from the Union. As has been well documented through historical records, in many instances, the actions taken on both sides of this divide led to fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins and best friends facing each other from different sides of the battlefield.

FIELD OF LOST SHOES (Sean Marquette, Nolan Gould, Luke Benward, Max Lloyd-Jones, Parker Croft, Josh Zuckerman) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)

FIELD OF LOST SHOES (Sean Marquette, Nolan Gould, Luke Benward, Max Lloyd-Jones, Parker Croft, Josh Zuckerman) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)

Over the years, there have been some really well made movies about the Civil War (SHENANDOAH, starring Jimmy Stewart, has been a long-time favorite) and some fairly crappy ones (okay… here’s where you get out your torches and pitchforks and chase me through the woods… GONE WITH THE WIND immediately comes to mind); FIELD OF LOST SHOES is poised to take its place as one of the best films ever about one of the worst times in American history. The film follows seven of the 257 cadets (all between the ages of 15 and 24) from the Virginia Military Institute forced into active service on May 11, 1864 and into the action at the Battle of New Market on the 15th. The Confederate commander, Major General John C Breckinridge (a brilliantly understated and tortured performance from Jason Isaacs), was loathe to use the cadets but, when reinforcements didn’t show up in time, he reluctantly sent them forward. Breckinridge gave orders to the VMI’s commanding officer, Captain Chinook (a character portrayed by Courtney Gains and who is, apparently, a composite of Colonel Scott Shipp and Captains Frank Preston and Henry A Wise, among others) to keep the cadets at least 300 yards behind the main force but, the might (and accuracy) of the Union’s artillery prompted the cadets to fill a hole in the Confederate lines, coming into direct musket and cannon fire.

FIELD OF LOST SHOES (Sean Marquette, Parker Croft, Luke Benward, Josh Zuckerman) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)

FIELD OF LOST SHOES (Sean Marquette, Parker Croft, Luke Benward, Josh Zuckerman) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)

Even though the creative team (headed by director Sean McNamara, of SOUL SURFER fame) went to painstaking lengths to be accurate (studying the few existing official records, as well as diaries and journals of some of the participants), with a movie based on an actual event, there are certain aspects added to the story – especially one that occurred more than 150 years ago – to enhance the entertainment factor. The fact that these enhancements meld seamlessly with the truth go a long way in making FIELD OF LOST SHOES the riveting film it is; the Captain Chinook character is a prime example. The movie opens in 1858, as Governor Henry Wise and his twelve year old son, John, are discussing events of the last several days, including John’s trip to Philadelphia with his mother, where they took in the play, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. Virginia’s chief executive wonders why the boy has not said anything about the play; “Because I do not agree with it,” comes the reply. The Governor, not holding to the precepts of slavery and well understanding his son’s true beliefs, takes John to a slave auction. He sends his child in to the “market” alone, hoping that he may better understand the true impact of trafficking in human lives, treating them as property, lower than even the animals of the field. In a heart-wrenching scene, a family is brought to the stage… a mother, a father and several children; the father, who had been hobbled with a broken leg, pleads with the “masters” to keep his family together. With the mother bringing only $400, the auctioneer asks the buyer if he will take the entire family; he says that he can’t really afford to feed the one he just bought and has no need for the husband and children, telling the mother, “You can have more children.” Young John Wise has his eyes opened as the devastated family are brutally ripped apart; their lives and his are forever changed.

FIELD OF LOST SHOES (Jason Isaacs) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)

FIELD OF LOST SHOES (Jason Isaacs) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)

The movie moves ahead in time five years, with John (Luke Benward) now a cadet at the prestigious Virginia Military Institute. From this point forward, the film focuses on Wise and his “band of brothers,” five fast friends – as diverse as the nation that spawned them – and a new cadet, a “rat,” as they were (and still are) called, whom they take under their collective wings, saying that forevermore, he will be known as “Sir Rat.” As the political rhetoric and the war intensify, we are privy to the inner turmoil brought to bear on these seven young men and, indeed, the entire populace of the VMI, including its instructors and staff. They are torn between their commitment and pledge to the United States military and their allegiance to their home, the Commonwealth of Virginia… a scenario that was actually played out from the very top of the Federal government to the ranking officers of the country’s military to the farmers and businessmen throughout the land, including its territories to the west. This conflict of conscience and loyalties is nowhere played out as well as a particularly touching and telling four minute scene where Breckinridge, the former vice president of the United States, meets the seven cadets on the eve of the battle. I don’t usually quote a lot of dialogue from the films I review, but this exchange is so well done and poignant that I can’t help but quote it nearly in its entirety.

FIELD OF LOST SHOES (David Arquette) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)

FIELD OF LOST SHOES (David Arquette) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)

After asking the cadets to sit, Breckinridge tells them, “Well, the purpose of this little visit is because it’s my fault you’re here. In many ways, it’s my fault that everyone is here in this valley, because when I was vice president, I tried to solve this problem and I could not. Now, good men from the North and South will die here and I will have some difficult decisions tomorrow, some of which may involve you.” He asks for the cadets’ thoughts on the war and their future plans. Jack Stanard (Zach Roerig), young Wise’s nemesis before the order to march, offers his opinion first, “We find ourselves invaded by a conquering army who I must consider foreign invaders. Defending our homeland is an imperative and I can’t understand anyone who thinks otherwise.” Next, cadet Thomas Garland Jefferson (a descendant of President Thomas Jefferson, played by Parker Croft) sums up the feelings of many of the landed gentry of the south: “My family’s owned a plantation for close to a hundred and fifty years, so I’m defending my heritage and my future. But, that ain’t the whole of it. I believe folks of a certain class have a heavy responsibility. We must use our position to see that the common folk among us are cared for.” In a line that could have been quite condescending, Isaacs’ quiet, unassuming Breckinridge replies, “Well, we common folk sure do appreciate that.” Sam Atwill (Max Lloyd-Jones) eloquently states the feelings of most men in any war: “I think war is stupid and cruel and nowhere near as necessary as those leading the fighting like to tell themselves,” to which the General asks, “I see. And do you think I can negotiate my way out of this tomorrow?” Pausing for reflection, the cadet answers, “No. Not anymore. We will stand with you and fight.” Sir Rat, the freshman cadet Robert (a fine performance from MODERN FAMILY’s Nolan Gould), tells Breckinridge, “I will fight Grant’s bullies, sir. I tell everybody that I’m going to be a farmer but, if Mister Wise will let me, I’d like to help him be governor.” “My family and my home were burned,” relates the quiet, reflective Benjamin “Duck” Colonna (Sean Marquette), “I’ll kill as many blues tomorrow as God permits, sir.” Sir Rat introduces Moses Ezekiel (Josh Zuckerman) as a “genius artist” before Moses tells him, “I would like to try my hand at sculptor.” Ezekiel’s statue, “Virginia Mourning Her Dead,” a memorial to the VMI cadets who fought in the Battle of New Market (of the 257 called up, 10 were killed and 47 wounded), sits on the academy’s campus. General Breckinridge’s final thoughts to the group relate his feelings about the situation he has put these young men in and the belief that there is a better day coming: “I know that you must be afraid and I know because I am afraid… This war will end, I swear to you and you boys… you are the future of this country and having met you, the future will be bright.”

FIELD OF LOST SHOES (Nolan Gould, Zach Roerig, Max Lloyd-Jones) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)

FIELD OF LOST SHOES (Nolan Gould, Zach Roerig, Max Lloyd-Jones) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)

The film is filled with many equally poignant moments, maybe none more so than the sight of Sir Rat and the VMI’s black cook, “Old Judge” (Keith David in a memorable role), sifting through the mud and the dead, collecting the shoes that were lost in the battle. You see, like the movie, the place where the cadets met the Federal forces is known as “the field of lost shoes,” because several days of nearly torrential rains had turned the area into a muddy morass and many on both sides sank up to their ankles in the sucking ground, losing their shoes as they advanced. One chilling scene, as the cadets charge the Union artillery positions, sees the infantry defending the position realize, “They’re just a bunch of damn school boys! Kill ’em all!” The battle scenes are especially well done, not pulling any punches in showing the brutality of long-range cannon and musket fire, as well as vicious hand-to-hand combat. In the background of a scene at a “field hospital,” a home where the wounded and dead are brought, you get a glimpse of a surgeon amputating a wounded man’s leg. The entire film is beautifully shot and masterfully staged; pay close attention as the cadets are marching toward the Shenandoah Valley and John Wise meets the gaze of a very familiar face. Heck, even the prerequisite love interest is well done (with Mary Mouser as the coy Libby Clinedinst), though, inevitably, as we know from the start, doomed. Aside from the young stars, you can look for Lauren Holly as Libby’s mother; Tom Skerritt as a particularly grizzled Ulysses Grant; and former World Championship Wrestling heavyweight title holder, David Arquette, as Union Captain Henry A DuPont. FIELD OF LOST SHOES is rated PG-13 and the only concern I would have for letting kids under 10 or so watch is the very real looking battle sequences and, especially, the resultant battlefield carnage. While not centered on one family like the aforementioned SHENANDOAH (and not as melodramatic), the film is every bit as touching and heart-wrenching in its depiction of the Civil War and far more historically accurate.


RAGE

(DVD/Blu-Ray and Digital; Image Entertainment/Hannibal Classics/Patriot Pictures (98 minutes/Unrated); 2014)

RAGE

After decades of watching THE THREE STOOGES and slasher movies, I thought I understood brutality. After living through the onset of the TWILIGHT saga, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, I realized just how wrong I was… that was true brutality. Now, along comes Nicholas Cage in RAGE and I humbly bow to the utter brutality, the unbelievable carnage of this tale of redemption lost, revenge and blind, uncontrollable… well, you read the name of the movie, right? I‘vealways considered Nicolas Cage to be the poor man’s John Travolta. As the only role I ever liked Travolta in was Vinnie Barbarino in WELCOME BACK, KOTTER (okay… maybe he wasn’t horrible in PULP FICTION, but still… ) you can understand where Mister Cage falls on my list of favorite actors. Every Cage performance I’ve ever seen is one dimensional; like Travolta (and Jim Carrey and Will Farrell), the guy plays the same character every time out! I loved KICK ASS; Nicolas Cage’s acting in KICK ASS… not so much. Having said that, even though he really doesn’t change his MO this time out, he somehow manages to carry the film in a rather impressive fashion, facial contortions aside.

RAGE (Nicolas Cage and Aubrey Peeples) (publicity still)

RAGE (Nicolas Cage and Aubrey Peeples) (publicity still)

Cage stars as Paul Maguire, a man who – though a loving father and husband and well-respected businessman – has a few dark secrets in his past. The presumed gangland kidnapping and subsequent murder of his teenage daughter sends Maguire into a spiral of grief and anger, fueling a violent rage that he thought was a distant memory, a part of his past never to be visited again. As the story progresses, we learn that the death of his first wife (and the mother of daughter Caitlin) saved Paul from himself and the self-destructive criminal activities of his youth. We’re never really sure where his money comes from (though we have a pretty good idea), but it seems that the mayor, as well as Detective Peter Saint John (portrayed by a stoic Danny Glover) know of his mob connections and his criminal past, possibly turning a blind eye, as Maguire’s company continues to bring prosperity to their city.

RAGE (Danny Glover and Nicolas Cage) (publicity still)

RAGE (Danny Glover and Nicolas Cage) (publicity still)

As the distraught Maguire continues to deteriorate mentally (and morally), he seeks out his old gang, also respected businessmen by this time, to mete out – not justice – a horrible retribution on those responsible for his misery. The “old gang” (a brooding, in debt bar owner played by Max Ryan and a troubled, womanizing drunk played by Michael McGrady) are – at least on the surface – willing to back Paul’s play, no matter what. It seems that the three had a bit of a run in with the Russian mob as teenagers and, now, it looks like someone has been talking out of class. That’s the only explanation in Maguire’s mind that makes any sense; who else would want to see him suffer? The trio go on a brutal rampage looking for the head of the Russian mafia, a man named Chernov (deliciously portrayed by Pasha Lychnikoff, the go-to guy in Hollywood if you need a cold and calculating, quietly violent Eastern European criminal type). Ryan’s character, Kane, is eventually captured by the Russians and, as he’s being tortured for information, Maguire frantically tries to contact Danny (McGrady) for help. Remember what I told you about him earlier? Booze and women?

RAGE (Pasha Lychnikoff) (publicity still)

RAGE (Pasha Lychnikoff) (publicity still)

As Detective Saint John continues to confront Maguire about his actions, it is painfully obvious that he has no clue how to bring this killing spree vendetta to an end; arrest is apparently not the answer (an officer actually has him in ‘cuffs after a car chase that results in much vehicular damage and scores of insurance claims; Saint John releases him). The body count continues to rise, as does the property damage. Maguire continues his downward spiral, reliving the incident with the Russians from his youth until the audience has the full backstory and a fairly cohesive idea of who the killers are and why. This is far as I go in revealing the plot to RAGE; anything else would ruin the whole thing for you. There is a psychological element at work here that will have you examining your own life, thinking, “How would I react if someone I loved were kidnapped and murdered? Would I go to these extreme measures for revenge or justice?” Obviously, RAGE, takes the answers to the ultimate extreme. So, let’s just say that this flick is a thrill ride of revenge and betrayal and, in the end, the bad guy doesn’t always win, but… neither, necessarily, do the good guys!

RAGE (Max Ryan, Nicolas Cage and Michael McGrady) (publicity still)

RAGE (Max Ryan, Nicolas Cage and Michael McGrady) (publicity still)

For those of you who are into such things, the DVD (and, I’m assuming, the other formats, too) has a few bonus features, including some “making of… ” featurettes, deleted scenes and an alternate ending.


ATLAS ERA BLACK KNIGHT/YELLOW CLAW

(Roy Thomas, foreword/Stan Lee, Al Feldstein, Joe Maneely, Jack Kirby and others; MARVEL PUBLISHING; 256 pages; 2009) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

Black Knight Yellow Claw

What we now know as Marvel Comics went through several permutations before they “Made Mine Marvel.” The publishing company started by Martin Goodman started as an outlet for pulp magazines before branching out into comics in 1939, as a way to profit from the popularity of the world’s first super-hero, Superman. The comics wing of Goodman’s “empire” was initially called Timely Comics (with several other companies under the larger umbrella of Timely). In 1951, Goodman hit the reset button as the Golden Age of Comic Book Super-Heroes came to an end, renamed the company Atlas and started throwing every genre of book against the wall to see what would stick. Ten years later, with DC Comics/National Publications again leading the way with a resurgence (and updates) of their super-hero line, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby ushered in the “Marvel Age of Comics” with the premiere issue of FANTASTIC FOUR.

BLACK KNIGHT #3, September 1955 interior panel (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

BLACK KNIGHT #3, September 1955 interior panel (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

Now, Marvel has begun to dip into that deep (if convoluted) history with hardbound reprints of, not only the Golden Age Timely books, but also the Atlas titles that straddled the Golden and Silver Ages. The “throw everything against the wall and let’s see what sticks” attitude of the publisher is certainly on display with this collection, which features the full (and, unfortunately, short) runs of two of the oddest titles ever scheduled by a front-line comics publisher: BLACK KNIGHT (five issues, beginning in 1955) and YELLOW CLAW (four issues, starting the following year). Now, let’s be clear here… “odd” doesn’t necessarily mean bad or unreadable, just… well… odd! And, as you know if you’ve ever picked up a comic book, characters and concepts never really die. The Yellow Claw character (based on Sax Rhomer’s pulp creation, Fu Manchu) made a comeback in the ’60s as a villainous foil for SHIELD and Captain America, among others. Black Knight was reincarnated as a villain (Nathan Garrett, a descendant of the original Knight, Sir Percy of Scandia) in the Giant Man strip in TALES TO ASTONISH, meeting his demise against Iron Man in TALES OF SUSPENSE.Garrett’s nephew, Dane Whitman, took up the mantle, restoring the heroic name by becoming a Defender and, eventually, a member-in-good-standing of the Avengers.

BLACK KNIGHT #1, May 1955 cover (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

BLACK KNIGHT #1, May 1955 cover (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

As was the standard during those days, comic books generally consisted of four or five stories with an average length of five pages, as well as a two-page “text” story (to give them some type of legitimacy to “grown-ups,” I assume). BLACK KNIGHT featured three Knight tales, alongside one story featuring a character called “The Crusader.” For the first three issues, every single page was lavishly illustrated by a man affectionately called Atlas’ “workhorse,” Joe Maneely. Maneely brought a depth to the medium that few artists of the day could duplicate. His work appeared in western, horror, science fiction, war, crime, satire and just about every other genre book of the time. And, without exception, each page was more beautiful than the last. He was also on hand for the first issue of YELLOW CLAW, drawing the three Claw stories there, before turning the pencil over to Jack Kirby.

YELLOW CLAW #2, December 1956 cover (artwork by JOHN SEVERIN)

YELLOW CLAW #2, December 1956 cover (artwork by JOHN SEVERIN)

The debut issues of both titles are as famous for the writers (who were rarely given due credit at Atlas) as for the artists, or for that matter, the characters. Joe Maneely always signed the splash panel of his work and, if you check closely on BLACK KNIGHT #1, you’ll see that someone else signed his name above: Stan Lee. Before comics began printing full credits, Stan was making a name for himself by letting the reader know who was responsible for what they were reading. Check out some of those Atlas monster books: Stan’s name is right there with Ditko, Ayers and Kirby (and sometimes, if the artist didn’t sign, Stan’s was the only name there). YELLOW CLAW #1 was written by Al Feldstein, a writer and artist from the glory days of EC Comics. His stories were always dark and didn’t always have a happy ending. This made the menace of the Claw’s character almost palpable and the chance that evil would ultimately triumph over good a very real possibility. Where the Black Knight stories dealt with the Arthurian legends of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table, Yellow Claw walked a fine line between horror and Cold War espionage (leaning heavily on the latter in the first issue). So… enough of the preliminaries, eh? Let’s get into the specifics about this MARVEL MASTERWORKS edition.

BLACK KNIGHT #3, September 1955 interior splash page (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

BLACK KNIGHT #3, September 1955 interior splash page (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

The first part of the book (after an insightful and entertaining foreword by the legendary comic book creator, Roy Thomas) covers BLACK KNIGHT. The Knight tales are enjoyable stories filled with swords and sorcery, lances and horses and, of course, damsels in distress. In the first story (a long, 10-page origin story), Sir Percy is chosen by King Arthur’s confidant and mage, Merlin, to become the Black Knight, a protector of King and Realm. Every good hero should have a secret identity and the Knight is no exception. In true Clark Kent fashion, Percy is portrayed as a somewhat bumbling coward. His appearance at Court is more of a foppish boob than anything else, allowing himself to be laughed at and pushed around by the evil Mordred and his loyal minions. Of course, the Knight proves his worth in battle against the evil Mordred and is knighted by Arthur. In the second story (this one runs eight pages), the Knight’s sword is empowered by the magic of Merlin… as long as he wields the “Black Blade” only in service of the King. The third story is an origin story of sorts for the Crusader, a character fighting the Saracens in the Holy Land during… what else?… the Crusades. While the length (five pages) doesn’t allow much in the way of character development or plot (or action, or story or a whole lot of anything else), it does kinda whet the appetite for future installments.

BLACK KNIGHT #4, November 1955 interior splash page for The Crusader (artwork by: JOHN ROMITA)

BLACK KNIGHT #4, November 1955 interior splash page for The Crusader (artwork by: JOHN ROMITA)

With issue number two, the stories return to the mean… nothing spectacular outside of the beautiful Maneely artwork. Each issue now features three 6-page Knight tales plus the five-page Crusader piece. For what it’s worth, the Crusader, with its continuing storyline, offers a bit more with each new episode. Does this mean that Stan Lee was only responsible for penning the first issue? It would seem to be the case, even though he may have stayed around for the Crusader. I bring up that possibility only because of the linear story-telling throughout the series’ run. By the fourth issue, Joe Maneely was gone. The Black Knight stories were now illustrated by Fred Kida; the Crusader has some great, stylized work from John Romita. Kida’s art is actually pretty good; his shortcoming – compared to Maneely – is more in composition and layout. Romita is… well… Romita! Number five has another new artist, Syd Shores. Again, Syd’s work is serviceable, maybe a step or two down from Kida. Part of the problem could be – at least on the Knight stories – is the fact that another artist, Christopher Rule, inked Shores’ pencils. On the Crusader, Syd inked himself and attempted to maintain the more stylish work of Romita’s story from the previous issue.

YELLOW CLAW #1, October 1956 interior splash page (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

YELLOW CLAW #1, October 1956 interior splash page (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

YELLOW CLAW is a completely different beast but, you find yourself immediately drawn in by that beautiful Joe Maneely art. The Yellow Claw is a 150 year old – possibly other-worldly (check the pointy ears) – scientific genius with great powers of suggestion. For whatever reason, he has a mad on for the good ol’ US of… and, seeking to overthrow all of Western civilization, comes up against FBI operative Jimmy Woo. A warning for the Politically Correct among you: all of the Asian and German (the Claw’s second-in-command is a Nazi war criminal) characters are stereotypical 1950s depictions; my suggestion: Get over it and enjoy these stories for what they are. What they are, at least in the first issue, is Cold War spy stuff with the Communists looking for ways to gain control of the American government, utilizing the nefarious Claw and his minions to accomplish that goal. The fact that they also have supernatural elements – due, no doubt, to Al Feldstein’s creative writing – only adds to the fun. The first issue features three Yellow Claw/Jimmy Woo stories (two 6-pagers and one 7-pager) and an unrelated four-page “foreign intrigue” tale, with art by Werner Roth.

YELLOW CLAW #4, April 1957 interior splash page (artwork by: JACK KIRBY, pencils and JOHN SEVERIN, inks)

YELLOW CLAW #4, April 1957 interior splash page (artwork by: JACK KIRBY, pencils and JOHN SEVERIN, inks)

If the entire concept of YELLOW CLAW was something completely different, the final three issues were something else altogether. Before the second installment of the book came out, Feldstein was offered and accepted the editorial reins of EC’s MAD, leading to the entire creative team being replaced by the immortal Jack Kirby. Now, for me, Kirby has always been hit and miss… especially his writing (I enjoyed a lot of his 1970s DC Comics stuff, particularly THE DEMON, but could not get behind his run on the Losers). Anyway, Kirby quickly turned the series in a more sci-fi direction. The stories were shorter (the second issue featured three 5-page tales and one 4-page piece), the art panels larger (partially to highlight Kirby’s pencil work, partially – and this is conjecture on my part – to hide his script-writing shortcomings) and the stereotypes intensified. “Footsteps In the Dark” is a four page stand-alone, totally uncredited spy story that kinda sticks out amidst the over-the-top Kirby pages. The final two issues follow suit, page-wise. The non-Claw tales are, respectively, “The Trap” (art by George Roussos) and “The Locked Room” (with weird, Ditko-like art from Manny Stallman). What may have been an attempt to rein in Kirby’s bizarre style resulted in the final issue being inked by John Severin. In my humble opinion, inking Kirby’s pencils takes a special type of artist; these artists are few and far between… Vince Coletta on Thor and Mike Royer on a lot of his ’70s DC output come to mind. Severin over Kirby was an absolutely genius pairing. Unfortunately, I think this may be the only time this combination worked together. As a bonus to Severin fans, he was also responsible (pencils and inks) for the covers of issues two and four. Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett produced a beautiful cover for number three, by the way.

Artist Joe Maneely, circa 1945 (uncredited photo)

Artist Joe Maneely, circa 1945 (uncredited photo)

As the incredible artwork of Joe Maneely served as a focal point to this collection, there is also a 12-page essay by comics historian, Doctor Michael J Vassallo, called “Joe Maneely: Adventure Comics,” as business cards for Maneely’s studio were printed. It is an in-depth examination of the man, his work and his life, which was cut far too short, at the age of 32, in a 1958 commuter train accident. His is one of the great “What if… ” stories in Marvel Comics history. Add this special feature to the nine issues worth of comics and this is definitely a collection worth owning.


A LIFE WELL LIVED: THE LOWELL THOMAS INTERVIEW

PART 1: THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS

COMBAT! Season 2 regulars (Dick Peabody, Jack Hogan, Pierre Jalbert, Tom Lowell, Conlan Carter) (screen capture)

COMBAT! Season 2 regulars (Dick Peabody, Jack Hogan, Pierre Jalbert, Tom Lowell, Conlan Carter) (screen capture)

I am a big fan of classic television. In many cases (oh, alright… most cases), I was around for the original airings of these shows, which includes the five season run (1962-1967) of COMBAT!, the World War II military drama starring Rick Jason and Vic Morrow. However, being quite young (at least for the first two or three seasons) and very rarely in control of the sole black and white set in the home, I didn’t see a single episode of COMBAT! during its original run. I was actually introduced to this incredible series a few years after its initial run when it was shown on a local UHF station as part of a midday block with THE RAT PACK. I would actually walk (run) home from school for lunch to catch as much of the show as I possibly could before I had to hoof it back for more learnin’ and, during summer vacation, I was glued to the set while COMBAT! was on. Of course, the program has been rerun from time to time throughout the ensuing decades and, now, you can own the entire series on DVD (no word on a blu-ray release, though).

THAT DARN CAT (Hayley Mills and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

THAT DARN CAT (Hayley Mills and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

I‘m also a big fan of those family-friendly, ultimately loopy Disney movies of the early-to-mid ’60s. To be more specific, I was actually enamored of Hayley Mills. I had a huge crush on her when I was a kid (and, truth be told, she stills looks amazing at nearly 70). One of my favorites from that bizarre, undoubtedly trip-induced Disney canon was THAT DARN CAT. And that, my friends, is where Disney and COMBAT! intersect. A young actor named Tom Lowell was featured prominently in the first two seasons of COMBAT! and also appeared in THAT DARN CAT with Hayley Mills (he was also in THE GNOME-MOBILE and THE BOATNIKS for Disney, as well as guest spots on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, BONANZA, THE ADDAMS FAMILY and too many others to name… for that, check out his page at www.imdb.com). I’ve been watching those COMBAT! DVDs that I mentioned earlier and, after reading of the death this past January of cast member Pierre Jalbert (he played Caje for the entire run of the series), I went looking for information about the other COMBAT! regulars. That search led me to Lowell Thomas, the very same actor from those Disney movies that I loved as a kid. Sending a blind introduction via e-mail explaining who I was and that I was interested in interviewing him about his career, particularly his COMBAT! days, Mister Thomas very graciously consented.

PART 2: THE INTERVIEW

COMBAT! (Tom Lowell as Billy Nelson) (publicity still)

COMBAT! (Tom Lowell as Billy Nelson) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Mister Thomas, you are currently the Director of Theater Arts at Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills. As a young man, what opportunities were available to you in high school and college? How do your experiences as a student affect your work as an instructor?

LOWELL: I had a very supportive family and teachers in both high school as well as college. My father was the head of the Speech and Drama Department at Cal State Sacramento, and both he and my mother were supportive.

THE MULE: For your acting career, you flipped your name. Lowell Thomas became Tom Lowell. What prompted the change?

LOWELL: I had to change my name because “Lowell Thomas” was a famous newscaster/journalist/film narrator/developer of Cinerama, who was already a member of the Screen Actors Guild, and there is a rule in the Guild that you cannot have the same name as anyone else. So my agent just turned my name around.

THE MULE: Obviously, most people will recognize you as Private Billy Nelson, a role you played for three years, in the television series, COMBAT! And, that’s what has brought us to this interview. However, you did produce a solid and memorable body of work in a relatively short period of time: guest-starring roles in several still-popular-today series; a stint on the soap, DAYS OF OUR LIVES; several movies, including four for Disney. As the bulk of this interview will focus on your days on COMBAT!, before delving into that, which of these roles stick out in your mind as particularly enjoyable, from an acting standpoint, as well as a more personal level… relating to the people you worked with.

LOWELL: There were several roles that were the most enjoyable. A couple of the GUNSMOKE episodes; THE LONG, HOT SUMMER, directed by Mark Rydell; THAT DARN CAT; but, most of all COMBAT!. COMBAT!, because of the relationship between the guys on the show – we all became family.

THE GNOME-MOBILE (Tom Lowell and friend) (publicity still)

THE GNOME-MOBILE (Tom Lowell and friend) (publicity still)

THE MULE: In the last couple of decades, a lot of actors have made the decision to make Disney or Disney style movies… family and kid friendly movies… for their children. Are you proud of your work with Disney, especially as your kids or grandchildren hit that age group that would understand and enjoy those movies?

LOWELL: I’m very proud of the work I did at Disney and, yes, those were the first films with which my grandchildren became acquainted.

THE MULE: Even though you continued to work in front of the screen, on a limited basis, you eventually moved behind the camera, working on commercials at first before working on and developing several series for different networks, stations and companies. Did you always have the desire to produce or was it something that came later? How did your experience on-screen help you in your move to the producer’s chair? What major differences do you think exist between acting and producing?

LOWELL: I became a commercial producer out of necessity – I was unable to make the transition from “teen actor” (which I played into my 30s), to adult, and had trouble finding work. I was offered a position as a commercial producer at that time and took it. But my time as an actor helped me in the production area.

THE MULE: Billy Nelson, your character from COMBAT!, died in your first appearance. Later, obviously, like Lazarus, Private Nelson was resurrected. Why did the producers, first of all, decide to make the character a one-and-done and, what was involved in the decision to bring you back as a regular?

LOWELL: Yes, supposedly, Billy died in the opening episode, with Tab Hunter. That was the initial concept. However, I had already done three more by the time that one was aired, because Burt Kennedy, the producer/writer/director who created the character, enjoyed the relationship between Billy and Littlejohn and convinced the series producers that they needed the character of Billy. Soon, Billy and Littlejohn became the “comedy relief” of the show. And yes, the camaraderie that you saw on the show, was genuine. We all truly had a great time together – hung out after shooting – had parties together and truly liked and respected each other. We all kept in touch with each other through the years. Unfortunately, there are but a few of us left. Jack Hogan (Kirby), Conlan Carter (Doc), Shecky Greene (Braddock) and Steve Rogers, (the first “Doc”). We had our 20 year reunion at Vic’s funeral (something that never should have happened), then when we had a fan-based reunion in Las Vegas, we were greeted at home by the knowledge that Rick had died. Very sad. I kept in contact with and visited with Dick Peabody often, even a few months before he died, and had kept in touch with Pierre – he and his wife would come by at holidays – and just recently, we lost him. The humor on the set was the thing I miss the most from all those guys – it was great fun.

COMBAT! (Dick Peabody and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

COMBAT! (Dick Peabody and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

THE MULE: I don’t think that chemistry within an ensemble can be faked. Likewise, I think that ensembles without a certain chemistry can’t pull off a comradeship that simply does not exist. It seems that the main group of actors on COMBAT! had a genuine fellowship on set. Am I wrong? How deep did that commitment to the core group of seven actors go? Did those relationships last past your time on the show?

LOWELL: Yes, the camaraderie that you saw on the show, was genuine. We all truly had a great time together – hung out after shooting – had parties together and truly liked and respected each other. We all kept in touch with each other through the years. Unfortunately, there are but a few of us left. Jack Hogan (Kirby), Conlan Carter (Doc), Shecky Greene (Braddock) and Steve Rogers, (the first “Doc”). We had our 20 year reunion at Vic’s funeral (something that never should have happened), then when we had a fan-based reunion in Las Vegas, we were greeted at home by the knowledge that Rick had died. Very sad. I kept in contact with and visited with Dick Peabody often, even a few months before he died, and had kept in touch with Pierre – he and his wife would come by at holidays – and just recently, we lost him. The humor on the set was the thing I miss the most from all those guys – it was great fun.

COMBAT! cast reunion, 1996 (Conlan Carter, Tom Lowell, Pierre Jalbert, Rick Jason, Jack Hogan, Dick Peabody) (uncredited photo)

COMBAT! cast reunion, 1996 (Conlan Carter, Tom Lowell, Pierre Jalbert, Rick Jason, Jack Hogan, Dick Peabody) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I’ve read and heard from several sources that Vic Morrow was one of the most generous actors that they had ever worked with. Obviously, Vic and Rick Jason were the leads. What memories do you have from your time on-screen and off of those two gentlemen?

LOWELL: Vic was a very generous actor and would help (especially a young actor just starting out) at any time. I once asked him, in my naivete, what it felt like to be a “star.” He said he wasn’t a star, he was a “comet” – that he’d burn brighter, but have a shorter life span than a star! How prophetic. Rick was a solid “movie star.” Having been raised in the studio system, he generated a great deal of respect.

COMBAT! stars Rick Jason and Vic Morrow (publicity still)

COMBAT! stars Rick Jason and Vic Morrow (publicity still)

THE MULE: The show was known for a certain gritty realism in dealing with its scenes of war, as well as moral issues and personal relationships. Can you tell us about your favorite episodes and why they stand out? How about some episodes that may stick out in your mind as clunkers?

LOWELL: I guess the most favorite episodes were those that Dick and I had some of our comedy scenes – those written by Burt Kennedy. We had several times in which the show was short, Burt would whip up a three-minute comedy scene the night before and hand it to us in the morning. We’d fool with it for an hour or so and shoot it – we knew it was good by the reaction of the crew the minute it was over – they’d break out into laughter! I also loved the ones in which I got some dramatic chops – great for the ego.

COMBAT! Season 2, Episode 1 ("The Bridge At Chalons") guest star Lee Marvin with Vic Morrow and Tom Lowell (screen capture)

COMBAT! Season 2, Episode 1 (“The Bridge At Chalons”) guest star Lee Marvin with Vic Morrow and Tom Lowell (screen capture)

THE MULE: Besides the regulars, you also worked with an impressive set of guest-stars. Who were your favorites to work with?

LOWELL: We had many guest stars but, the one that impressed me and intimidated me was Lee Marvin. In the episode, Marvin is severely wounded and Sergeant Saunders and I are carrying him on a stretcher through the woods (the back lot at MGM) when I tripped on a rock and the stretcher slipped out of my hands, dropping Lee to the ground. I’m thinking, “Oh, my God, I just dropped Lee Marvin on his head!!!!!” I thought he’d get up and clobber me, so I began to profusely apologize and he said: “Don’t apologize, kid – don’t ever apologize!” I thought that was cool.

THE MULE: Likewise, you worked with some great writers and directors, who went on to do more impressive work. Do you have any memories of working with guys like Richard Donner and Robert Altman?

LOWELL: Yes, I worked with Dick Donnor and Bob Altman, both interesting and intense directors. Donnor got me on the first day of shooting – we rehearsed a scene and he turned to me and, with a deadpan face, said: “You really gonna do it like that?!” I was stunned – then the rest of the guys burst out laughing – “Got th’ kid again!!” You see, I really was “Billy Nelson.”

Lowell Thomas (Tom Lowell) at the 2002 TWILIGHT ZONE convention (uncredited photo)

Lowell Thomas (Tom Lowell) at the 2002 TWILIGHT ZONE convention (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I know you attended a TWILIGHT ZONE convention in 2006. Would you consider doing another convention, like Comic-Con or something highlighting classic television?

LOWELL: I’ve attended three TWILIGHT ZONE conventions and they were very enjoyable… and, yes, I’d certainly be interested in doing another – Comic Con or Television classics.

THE MULE: Do you ever get the itch to get in front of the camera again?

LOWELL: Yes, I’d love to do more TV or movies. I have, over the past few years, done some plays locally and have just completed a leading role in an animated feature, HERO OF COLOR CITY. So, yes, I’m ready.

THE ADDAMS FAMILY (Tom Lowell with Jackie Coogan) (screen capture)

THE ADDAMS FAMILY (Tom Lowell with Jackie Coogan) (screen capture)

THE MULE: You’ve made a tremendous impact on people like me who remember (and still enjoy) COMBAT! But, at the end of the day, how do you want people to remember Lowell Thomas?

LOWELL: How do I want to be remembered – I just hope I’ve had the same kind of impact on my students that Professor Fowler (Donald Pleasance), in the TWILIGHT ZONE episode, “Changing of the Guard,” had on his.

THE MULE: Thanks you so much for your time and for all the years of enjoyment that you’ve provided to TV and movie geeks like me.

LOWELL: Thanks for remembering.


MATT MORING: PULP MASTER GENERAL

Altus Press logo

PART 1: AN INTRODUCTION

I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s. I loved the comics then, especially the early 1970s Marvel stuff. I used to make the 20 mile trip to the closest comics repository to buy every Marvel (and, eventually, every DC) title the day they came out. THE AVENGERS is and always will be my favorite book, but there was a lot of – for the time – cutting edge material being released back then, also. Some of my other favorites included books based on characters and series from the age of pulp, an art form that was – if not the father of the comic book, then at least, the cool uncle. These comics based on the pulps included Robert E Howard’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN (and, later, KULL THE CONQUEROR) and DOC SAVAGE from Marvel and THE SHADOW and TARZAN (and other Burroughs characters and worlds) from DC. During that same period of time, paperback publishers like Bantam, Ace, Lancer, Del Rey and Tor were reprinting a lot of the original pulp stories and, naturally, I had to have those, too. Of course, I knew that those few characters weren’t the only ones to ever star in pulp magazines. It was just that I had no access to any of the other stories or series. Now, obviously, I’m older, but I still love those old comics and those old pulp stories and, thanks to publishers like Altus Press, a whole new world of pulp adventure has opened up to me.

Pulp magazines were so called due to the quality of the paper they were printed on. The same paper used for comic books, by the way. The stories (more like novellas, actually) offered exciting adventures, exotic worlds, charismatic and mysterious heroes (and villains) and set the standard for 20th Century horror, sci-fi, detective, fantasy, western and crime stories. The list of those writers who toiled for the pulp magazine publishers reads like a who’s who of popular fiction: Howard and Burroughs, mentioned above, as well as Dashiell Hammett, Sax Rohmer, L Ron Hubbard, F Scott Fitzgerald, Louis L’Amour and HP Lovecraft. These men (and others like them) have placed their indelible marks on every form of entertainment since the early 1900s, from movies to radio, from television to comic books. Sadly, however, like early comics, these magazines weren’t intended to be kept and cherished by fans of a particular genre, writer or series. They were cheaply made and totally disposable. Thankfully, some forward thinking individuals saw the inherent beauty within the pages of such fare as WEIRD TALES, SPICY DETECTIVE, AMAZING STORIES, and DOUBLE DETECTIVE. Thank you, all!

PART 2: AN INTERVIEW

There are several publishers dealing in reprinting classic pulp stories (aside from the major writers, like Burroughs, Lovecraft, Howard, and others). None, however, had convinced me that what they had to offer was worth spending money on. Altus Press changed that. I became intrigued with the Green Lama when I purchased the first Dark Horse Archive edition of the character’s comic series, based entirely on the artwork of Mac Raboy. As I read the blurb on the volume’s back cover, it became evident that I would have to search out the source materials – in short, those DOUBLE DETECTIVE stories. A quick web search led me to the Altus Press site and an amazing array of some of the best characters, stories and collections of the pulp era. Obviously, I knew immediately that had to begin my relationship with Altus by ordering hard cover copies of the first two volumes of THE GREEN LAMA: THE COMPLETE PULP ADVENTURES.

Matt Moring receives the 2012 Munsey Award (uncredited photo)

Matt Moring, on the right, receives the 2012 Munsey Award (uncredited photo)

A little more digging and I had a quick history of the publisher. Matt Moring, a long time fan of the genre, started Altus Press in 2006 as an outlet for reissues of several out-of-print pulp histories and “new pulp” stories. Since then, Mister Moring has published more than 100 titles, including a very popular series of new Doc Savage novels. Matt is the 2012 recipient of the annual Munsey Award, awarded to the person who has done the most for the betterment of the pulp community and presented at PULPFEST, the genre’s equivalent to San Diego’s COMIC-CON. He will be presenting the award to another deserving person at this year’s convention, scheduled for July 25 through July 28 at the Hyatt Regency in Columbus, Ohio. The Mule is proud to present the Matt Moring interview.

THE MULE: These magazines, like comic books, were cheaply produced and deemed disposable at the time of their publication. Obviously, though, someone thought enough about them that they took care to preserve them. Now, with publishers such as your own Altus Press, many of these exciting stories are finding new life and a whole new audience. What drew you to these amazing magazines and stories and how did you become involved in the reprinting of these series in book form?

MATT: I’ve long been a fan of the pulps. I think I was first turned on to them when my parents were pushing me to start reading something besides comic books all the time. So one day at the antiquarian bookstore I bought many of my old comics, I saw a copy of this incredible-looking paperback called THE FLYING GOBLIN. That Bob Larkin cover really drew me in and that purchase really started me on the path I’m on now. It was cemented even further when I saw all those seemingly unobtainable pulps in THE STERANKO HISTORY OF COMICS. At the time, they looked so foreign, so old, that I was certain I’d never get the chance to own one. But, that eventually proved not to be the case.

THE MULE: What was your favorite pulp magazine, series or character, who was your favorite writer – the ones that made you want to read and explore more?

MATT: That FLYING GOBLIN paperback led me to eventually collect all those Doc Savage paperbacks, and the Avenger ones, too. Doc will always be a favorite, thanks to Lester Dent, but in recent years I’ve really gotten a lot more enjoyment out of the genre titles like SHORT STORIES, ADVENTURE, ARGOSY, and detective titles like DIME DETECTIVE and DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY.

DIME DETECTIVE MAGAZINE, MAY 1947

DIME DETECTIVE MAGAZINE, MAY 1947

So I’ve been buying and collecting pulp material since my teens. Of course, apart from the Doc, Avenger, and occasional Shadow or Spider paperback, there wasn’t much to buy. And in the days before the internet, it was really tough to find information on other material coming out. The only place I knew to look was an occasional article in THE COMICS BUYERS’ GUIDE, which led me to the PULP VAULT fanzine. Still, not a lot of cohesive reprints were coming out. However, I kept in touch with what fandom there was from afar.

THE MULE: For each successful pulp series or writer, there are probably three less successful or marginally successful. What and who are some of the lesser known series and writers that you discovered later on?

MATT: There were a lot of successful pulp series, but there are many more that are inventive enough or by good writers that they deserved to be returned to print. I’ve tried to concentrate on these more than anything else, so finding more gems is what I always look forward to. My favorites include Old Thibaut Corday of the Foreign Legion by Theodore Roscoe, The Griffon by Arch Whitehouse, and The Whirlwind by Johnston McCulley. I should qualify these series, though: I’d consider those series I mentioned as “successful,” as they all ran for many installments… they’re just not well-known in 2013.

THE MULE: What prompted you to jump into the publishing business?

Matt Moring (uncredited photo)

Matt Moring (uncredited photo)

MATT: Fast forward a number of years. I’d been working as a designer for a number of years, and I read an article about some low-cost online printers specializing in print-on-demand publishing. I’d long considered doing some collections of pulp material, but I didn’t want a basement full of unsold books. With this new option, I could handle all the production on my own and assemble the type of collections I personally wanted on my bookshelf. So with a few projects in mind, I reached out to some other pulp fans who were much smarter than I to help put these together. I was determined to make the kinds of books people would be proud to display on their bookshelves, and that meant not just good design, but also including new, authoritative introductions and articles. The pulp fandom world is filled with so many generous, kind, and enthusiastic members… really, these books are from them, not me.

THE MULE: How much work – editing, layout, design, etc – goes into each book you publish? Run us through a basic timeline from decision-making to publishing.

MATT: Every book’s timeline is different. Sometimes things take years; conversely, there was a recent book that was assembled in just two days. Then there are other things that take more planning… for example, when planning a complete reprinting of a series. Take Frederick Nebel’s Cardigan series from DIME DETECTIVE. It ran for 44 installments, many of which were really tough to track down. There’s that aspect. Then there’s the scanning, OCRing, and initial proofreading. Cardigan turned out to be almost half a million words, so that was a task in itself to go through all that material. Once that was done, I had a book design in mind, and I blocked that out. At about the same time, I needed to commission a new introduction. And then there was an issue of locating a quality photo of Nebel himself… all those that had seen print weren’t the best. So there’s a lot of research that goes into these, too. Once the books were laid out, I had to have them proofread by careful people who are much more detail-oriented than I. Proofreading is a really under-appreciated art. Once that’s done, then they’re ready for release.

THE MULE: More recently, Altus Press – and you – have been involved in a new series of Doc Savage adventures. How did that come about? What obstacles – licensing and so forth – did you encounter leading up to the publication of that first new story? Do you have plans for more originals featuring other characters?

DOC SAVAGE: SKULL ISLAND (cover by JOE DIVITO)

DOC SAVAGE: SKULL ISLAND (cover by JOE DIVITO)

MATT: Publishing new Doc Savage stories is a dream come true, especially when I reflect on that FLYING GOBLIN paperback. Author Will Murray had been shopping the new stories around for some time before we came to an agreement on publishing them. I’m quite pleased with how they turned out, and they’ve generally been received with glowing reviews and feedback. In packaging them, I tried to keep some echoes of the Bantam editions that most of us read, but also bring in some of the original pulps’ influence in order to play up the “wild” part of the “Wild Adventures” tagline on the series. I also got to do a new, de facto Doc Savage logo, which was a privilege.

THE MULE: Where can our readers purchase Altus Press books? What’s next for Matt Moring and Altus Press?

MATT: What’s coming up for Altus Press? We’ve got dozens of titles in various states of completion… from initial planning to actual production. We’ll continue to put them out as long as people like them.

You can always find our books at www.altuspress.com. The softcovers and e-books can also be found at Amazon.

Thanks, Matt. The man has been working overtime on a whole slew of new Altus Press titles for the 2013 edition of PULPFEST. Here’s the list of 13 books that will debut the final weekend of July:

HIDDEN GHOSTS: THE LOST STORIES OF PAUL S POWERS

HIDDEN GHOSTS: THE LOST STORIES OF PAUL S POWERS

DOCTOR THADDEUS C HARKER: THE COMPLETE TALES
ADVENTURES ON HALFADAY CREEK
HIDDEN GHOSTS: THE LOST STORIES OF PAUL S POWERS
THE COLLECTED TALES OF SANGROO THE SUN-GOD
SKULLDUGGERY ON HALFADAY CREEK
THE SAGA OF HALFADAY CREEK
DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE
WORDSLINGERS: AN EPITAPH FOR THE WESTERN
THE MASKED DETECTIVE OMNIBUS, VOLUME 1
THE COMPLETE ADVENTURES OF HAZARD AND PARTRIDGE
THE COMPLETE TALES OF DOCTOR SATAN
THE COMPLETE CASES OF MAX LATIN
THE MASKED RIDER ARCHIVES, VOLUME 1

Oh, my! Looks like I’m gonna hafta start savin’ up for some of those hardcovers… they’re looking pretty good! Keep checkin’ the Mule for reviews of these and other releases from Matt and Altus Press.