HANK STEINER, MONSTER DETECTIVE, ISSUE ONE

(Scott R Schmidt/Tyler Sowles/Sara Sowles; 32 pages; SOURCE POINT PRESS; 2014)

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Hard boiled film noir detective meets things that go bump in the night in the premiere issue of HANK STEINER, MONSTER DETECTIVE; or, maybe a more apt description for the minions of the monster underworld would be “things that get bumped off in the night.”

HANK STEINER, MONSTER DETECTIVE Page 5 (Written by SCOTT R SCHMIDT, art by TYLER SOWLES and SARA SOWLES)

HANK STEINER, MONSTER DETECTIVE Page 5 (Written by SCOTT R SCHMIDT, art by TYLER SOWLES and SARA SOWLES)

Hank’s Tower City mirrors a world divided; there’s the Human Side and the Monster Side. Both communities would like nothing better than that the twain never should meet. This first issue begins with – as all great detective stories should – a body. The desecrated body of something… not human has been pulled out of the river that separates the two sides of the city. The police on the Human Side grouse and grumble about having to handle a suspicious death from the other side, especially during the playoffs; the detective in charge is not about to miss the playoffs, so he’s called in back-up from the Monster Side: “Stand down, fellas, that’s a pal of mine, Frank.” Well, close… “It’s Hank.” In true noir fashion, our hero delivers a running inner-monologue-as-therapy, beginning here: “I hate humans. Comedians, every one.” Detective Steiner quickly identifies the putrid remains: “Looks like you fellas got yourselves what used to be an imp.” Equally as quick, the human cops dump the case on Hank, telling him to “Take him with you when you’re done.”

HANK STEINER, MONSTER DETECTIVE Page 9 (Written by SCOTT R SCHMIDT, art by TYLER SOWLES and SARA SOWLES)

HANK STEINER, MONSTER DETECTIVE Page 9 (Written by SCOTT R SCHMIDT, art by TYLER SOWLES and SARA SOWLES)

Back across the bridge, we meet Hank’s operatives, including his secretary, Iris, and a human informant (and garbage man) named Gus. The garbage man’s trash talk (literally) leads the big guy to some underhanded dealings coming from the goblin underworld boss, a fat, cigar-chomping Mafioso called Madtooth. Action comes fast and furious, as Steiner confronts some of Madtooth’s underlings and a trio of vampiric babes in a pool room dive that serves as a front for the mob’s business activities. Of course, Madtooth’s intervention leaves more questions than answers, as he tells Hank that they’re merely the middle men for something far more nefarious than his boys’ illegal shenanigans. Like many of the finest films of the genre, things take a rather unexpected turn, leading to an apt justice being meted out to the criminal element; also mirroring those classic movies, that justice comes in the form of a too-quick resolution. This plot could very easily have been delivered as a multi-issue storyline, fleshing out the characters (recurring and otherwise), the historical background regarding the animosity of the two districts of Tower City and the origins of Hank Steiner’s world.

HANK STEINER, MONSTER DETECTIVE Pages 14-15 (Written by SCOTT R SCHMIDT, art by TYLER SOWLES and SARA SOWLES)

HANK STEINER, MONSTER DETECTIVE Pages 14-15 (Written by SCOTT R SCHMIDT, art by TYLER SOWLES and SARA SOWLES)

But… that’s a trifling complaint. Scott R Schmidt’s story and dialogue is fast-paced and quick-witted. One could almost envision Humphrey Bogart (well… maybe Raymond Massey) in the role of the Monster Detective. Tyler Sowles’ artwork is powerful and uncluttered, with his wife, Sara’s muted colors adding to the overall noir feel of the book (by the way, she is responsible for page layouts and lettering, as well). If Schmidt and the Sowles can deliver high quality stories like this in a consistent manner, the future certainly looks bright for the denizens of Tower City… or, at least as bright as things ever get in Hank Steiner’s world. I personally cannot wait for future installments, hopefully ones that will answer some of my questions about the whos, the hows and the whys of just what is happening in Tower City. HANK STEINER, MONSTER DETECTIVE is available at your favorite comics shop or, you can secure it digitally from DriveThruComics  or Comixology. Now… go ye forth and consume, comics lovers. The fun part of your brain will love you for it.


THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES: A SINISTER AURA

(Bret M Herholz/Rori Shapiro/Peter Simeti; 74 pages; ALTERNA COMICS; 2008) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

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In younger days, my parents and I would gather around the television on Sunday evenings to enjoy a PBS program called MYSTERY!, an anthology of murderous delights hosted by Vincent Price and, later, Diana Rigg. That sentence is relevant to this review on a few levels: First, this story is a murder mystery; second, it features artwork inspired, no doubt, by Edward Gorey, the creator of the original opening animation for the show; third, though the story takes place in Massachusetts, there is something very British – like most of the tales presented on MYSTERY! – about the style of storytelling used here. And, finally, of course, is the fact that the convergence of those first three, added to my already professed enjoyment of the MYSTERY! series, means that I really like A SINISTER AURA and would certainly like to see more of THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES.

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 1 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 1 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

The story itself is “loosely based on real events” that occurred in 1899, updated here to 1929 and featuring the fictional amateur sleuths Polly Plum and her very prim, very proper, very British valet, Montgolfier Handgraves. As befits such a tale, it is a dark and stormy night as the pair seek refuge from the inclement weather in a small town just outside Worcester. The intrigue is well underway upon their arrival, as the police have arrived at the Hampstead mansion across from the inn. It would seem that the Hampstead’s only son, Lionel, on the virtual doorstep of matrimony to Ivy Proust, the eldest daughter of the town’s other leading family, has committed suicide because, according to newspaper headlines, he was “to timid to marry.” Miss Plum is, apparently, much more than an amateur sleuth, as she begins to have visions of two men, one with a wound amazingly like the one suffered by the younger Hampstead. The visitors find the police to be vague, tight-lipped and just a bit shady. With minor subterfuge from Handgraves, Polly sneaks past the local constabulary and into the Hampstead home to investigate the scene of Lionel’s demise. Unfortunately for Polly, the one police officer who senses that all is not right, Detective Fiske, catches her moments before the man of the house walks into the room. Outraged, Mister Hampstead demands Polly’s removal. As the case moves into a second night, Polly has another dream of another supposed suicide, this time Ivy Proust’s mother; Fiske contacts her to join him at the cemetery, the scene of the… incident. Things begin to fall into place after Handgraves interviews a person close to both victims and Polly and Fiske confront Hampstead once more. The wrap up is quite satisfying without cutting any corners.

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 2 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 2 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

Herholz’ home town history and his imaginative retelling of the story goes a long way toward proving that much of the best comics and graphic novel material is coming from independent sources like the phenomenal Alterna Comics. Likewise, Bret’s art (ably aided by Rori Shapiro’s gray tones and the unique lettering style of publisher Peter Simeti) offers something beyond the Manga and drawn-by-a-five-year-old styles that are prevalent in some of the majors’ books (uh… cough, cough… Marvel!… cough). As mentioned above, his style reminds me very much of the masterful Edward Gorey; but, I also see elements of another master of the understated macabre… Charles Aadams himself (something about the eyes and the mouths and, of course, those creepy mansions). At first glance, the art doesn’t seem all that elaborate or complex but, dig a bit deeper and check out those odd perspectives and the minute details hiding in the background ink lines and cross-hatching. Miss Shapiro’s work on the original pen and ink adds a certain eerie depth to Herholz’ stark black and white art, a real plus on this particular story. Bret’s (and Rori’s) work is also on display in several other graphic novel titles from Alterna, including a Sherlock Holmes mystery and an anthology called CONFESSIONS OF A PECULIAR BOY.

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 3 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 3 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

As for this book, it does come with some “bonus material.” A message from Herholz regarding his desire to do something based around the 1899 murders in his hometown of Spencer, Massachusetts that became the focal point of A SINISTER AURA, in which he takes us through the creative process. Of note is the creation of the fictional members of the story, particularly Polly and Handgraves. It was always Bret‘s intent to make Polly the defacto leader of the pair, with Handgraves becoming, as he puts it, “the and… ” of the team. There’s also a bonus short piece called THE AUSTEREFIELD FAMILY REUNION, another bleak look into family dynamics. This time around, the story reads like a fairy tale and Herholz’ art is unadorned by the gray tones of the title feature, which seems to work best for this peek into the morally corrupt Austerefield clan. Unfortunately, the print version of THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES: A SINISTER AURA is no longer available but, you can still pick up a digital copy from ComiXology. Do it now… your eyes will thank you (and, by extension, me, so… you’re welcome).


TINSELTOWN: MURDER, MORPHINE, AND MADNESS AT THE DAWN OF HOLLYWOOD

(William J Mann; 463 pages; HARPER BOOKS/HARPER-COLLINS PUBLISHERS; 2014)

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William J Mann’s new book is an historical, scholarly and meticulously researched look at the earliest days of Hollywood that reads like one of the best murder mysteries you’re likely to come across this year. The story delves into the lengths that an entire industry would go to to cover up a scandal… any scandal. As “moving pictures” or “flickers,” as they were called, began to take hold of a public looking for the next new thing in entertainment, there were no rules; churches and civic groups didn’t like that and began crusades to censor the industry in hopes of crippling it to the point that it would fold in upon itself and just go away. Those moguls who were making money hand over fist were, naturally, not inclined to let that happen.

TINSELTOWN (William Desmond Taylor) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (William Desmond Taylor) (publicity photo)

Beginning in 1917, and through 1923, drugs, suicide, murder, rape and lasciviousness of every nature befell the motion picture industry, as the hard-living individuals who appeared on the nation’s silver screens carried on their private lives. In retrospect, these things were happening in virtually every walk of life but, the utility worker down the street stepping out on his wife wasn’t as glamorous or newsworthy as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s reportedly drunken soiree where a young actress named Virginia Rappe was one of the guests. Arbuckle was, famously, accused of raping the young woman in a drunken stupor, his enormous weight causing her bladder to rupture, leading to her death. The courts (and three separate juries – the first two unable to come to a verdict) eventually acquitted Arbuckle of all charges, but his career was, ostensibly, over from the time he opened the door of his hotel room to the revelers on that day in September, 1921 when Virginia Rappe took ill. He was brought back to Paramount Studios on a probationary status; the studio released one of the movies Fatty had made before his arrest and all seemed well… until the 1920s’ version of the thought police threatened to close down every theater that would show such filth as a Fatty Arbuckle comedy. The Roscoe Arbuckle story and trial play as a backdrop to the real tale here.

TINSELTOWN (BRIGHT LIGHTS title card with Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle)

TINSELTOWN (BRIGHT LIGHTS title card with Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle)

Hollywood, in the ’20s, was a very different place than it is today; the movie industry was definitely more concerned with the public’s opinions of their stars. Paying off newspaper editors to keep their stars’ names out of the headlines, covering up evidence and flat out lying to the authorities was standard operating procedures from studio heads (one, in particular, Adolph Zukor of Famous Players-Lasky, later Paramount, was especially adept at keeping the tarnish off of his stars). One of the foremost directors of this early era of movie-making was William Desmond Taylor; Billy, as the ladies called him, worked for Zukor. Sometime around eight in the evening of February 1, 1922, Taylor was murdered in his home. The list of suspects in the crime was a crowded one, including stars and former stars of the film industry, friends, employees and former employees of the deceased, the haves and the have-nots and the power players of the Hollywood movie machine. The murder was virtually forgotten until 1964, when one of the original suspects made a dying confession to the son of a neighbor; still, it took years of digging and research before a definitive answer to an eighty year-old mystery could be laid to rest. As ghoulish as it may sound, the fun of this story is wading through the murder and the depravity that led to it. Mann is a master storyteller, delivering a riveting look at the early twentieth century’s movers and hustlers, all the while never losing sight of the facts of the case; sometimes those facts and the wildly over-the-top personalities involved seem far to bizarre to be a true crime story.

TINSELTOWN (Mabel Normand) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Mabel Normand) (publicity photo)

The suspects include the four notable women in Taylor’s life: Mabel Normand, a hard-living comedy actress (she was alternately known as was “the Queen of Comedy” and “the Female Chaplin”), best known for a series of films co-starring Arbuckle and a very public dalliance with cocaine and other illicit drugs, including bootleg liquor (it was, after all, the height of prohibition); Margaret “Gibby” Gibson, a struggling actress and two-bit scam artist who fell out of favor at the major studios after being arrested for prostitution in 1917, the first of the many scandals to hit the industry over the next six years (she tried to reinvent herself by trimming five years off her age and calling herself Patricia Palmer… she was marginally more successful); Mary Miles Minter, a teenage beauty touted as the “next Mary Pickford,” with an all-consuming schoolgirl crush on Taylor; Charlotte Shelby, a bullying stage mother who had forbidden her daughter, Mary, to see Taylor and threatened Taylor, telling him to keep away from her meal-ticket. Most of the circumstantial evidence suggested that Mary Minter’s mother was the guilty party, a fact exacerbated by a district attorney seemingly protecting her at every turn in the case. As much as the life and foibles of William Desmond Taylor are laid bare here, Mann, likewise, does his due diligence in uncovering even the minutest detail in the lives of these four remarkable women; no stone is left unturned.

TINSELTOWN (Margaret Gibson) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Margaret Gibson) (publicity photo)

Other candidates included Edward Sands, Taylor’s former valet, who was fired for forgery and other indiscretions (some believed Sands had been blackmailing the director, who’s secret life – lives, actually – would have destroyed him and embroiled the studio in another scandal); Don Osborn, “Blackie” Madsen or any of the other two-bit thugs and confidence men that “Gibby” took up with in her never-ending effort to be “somebody,” which to her, meant someone with an endless supply of cash; an unknown drug dealer that Taylor threw out of Normand’s house after the man tried to sell dope to the recovering addict; one of the many religious zealots who saw Taylor’s life and work as morally abhorrent. Some of the suspects were dismissed out of hand, particularly the cute, little eighteen year-old, Mary Minter, because… well, who ever heard of a little girl killing someone? Others were investigated and cleared, including the first suspect, Taylor’s then-current valet, Henry Peavey; that scenario seemed to make the most sense initially, as Peavy had a record (for soliciting young men for sexual purposes… not only was that illegal, it was “send-a-guy-to-Hell” immoral) and, of course, he was black.

TINSELTOWN (Mary Miles Minter) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Mary Miles Minter) (publicity photo)

As Mann relates all of the available information, peeling away the layers of cover-ups, lies, innuendo and downright fiction, he breathes life into the long-dead bones of, not only Taylor, but everyone related in any way to the concentric circle of his influence. Obviously, there is much more to this story than I’ve related here; my job is to pique your interest about the book without giving everything away. Any fan of the silent film era, of historic insights into the years leading up to the dawn of what became known as “the Roaring ’20s,” or of a good old murder mystery will find much to like about TINSELTOWN. It would have been very easy to turn this story into a boring, sterile thesis, offering the facts and nothing but the facts in a very precise, analytical fashion. But, then, who would want to read something like that? Certainly not me! Thankfully, William J Mann understood that and, without ignoring evidence and substance in favor of literary glitz, has written what is generally referred to as a “page-turner.”