The Horror Comic Never Dies

Michael Walton opened and operated a comic book shop in Virginia during the 1990s, and therefore bore direct witness to the impact these stores had on the comic book industry. While retail booksellers and magazine stands continued limiting their comic book sales to titles approved by the Comics Code Authority, the dedicated stores sold a wider range of comics, including those not bearing the CCA’s stamp of approval. Writers, artists, and publishers saw an opportunity to bypass the onerous content restrictions of the CCA and began producing more mature content. When sales of these titles began superseding the revenue from their Code-approved counterparts, the CCA’s influence began fading until it disbanded in 2011.

Anecdotes and insights from Walton’s shop-owner days appear throughout his 2019 history of horror comics, and my only significant disappointment with the book is that it does not contain enough of his personal stories. His history is certainly informative and well-researched, but if you’re looking to understand comic books there are better choices available. David Hadju’s The Ten-Cent Plague is a more extensive cultural history of the early 1950s hysteria over horror and crime comics, and Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation provides a better and more thoroughly researched analysis of the comic book medium. If you don’t know about William Gaines and EC Comics, or Dr. Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the 1954 hearings of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, then Walton’s book might be a good place to start; if you’re already familiar with this history, you won’t find much fresh insight here.

However, when Walton steps away from historical scholarship, his prose comes to life. His engaging sense of humor comes through in passages such as the following analysis of tie-in sales, a rumored but never proven practice of comic book distributors that supposedly compelled retailers to sell comics they found objectionable:

… if a newsstand owner decided they didn’t like the cover of this month’s Horrific comic book and kept it hidden away under the counter and not for sale, the distributor could punish the newsstand by no longer sending them more popular magazines like Time or TV Guide and thus hurting the retailer’s overall sales. Distributors were portrayed as some shadowy entity that was motivated strictly by profit. “So what if you don’t like those horror comic books,” the distributor would say, “We don’t care that they are corrupting our children. You MUST sell them or we’ll pull ALL of your inventory and then your children will starve,” and the distributor would break out in demonic laughter before vanishing in a puff of sulfur-smelling smoke.

I would have liked more of these passages, and also to know more about the actual interaction between distributors and retailers, on which Walton could have offered a unique perspective as a shop owner. The glimpses he provides of this industry are fascinating, but there are frustratingly too few of these views.

Perhaps the most valuable part of this book is Walton’s review of current and past horror comic titles. The opening sentence announces his “deep and abiding love for all things horror,” and his reading list is extensive and, based on his descriptions, often compelling; on my next visit to the comic store, I’m definitely purchasing Clean Room. Walton’s catalog of horror titles reminded me of how much I enjoyed the black-and-white magazines published by Warren in the 1970s. While not as lurid as the EC Comics of the early 1950s, they were definitely edgier than the Marvel comics I avidly consumed in my teens.

I can’t leave reviewing this book without noting some inattention to detail in its editing; Walton’s tendency to repeat phrases or ideas could have easily been rectified, and some outright errors, such as listing the birth year of Dr. Fredric Wertham as 1985 instead of 1895, should not have been overlooked. But these problems don’t significantly detract from the overall value. Anyone who’s curious about the horror comic genre will definitely appreciate Walton’s book.

***

I’m adding a personal note to this review. I met the author and purchased his book at my local library a few days before the start of my state’s COVID-19 lockdown. It now seems like his talk occurred in a different era, one which we may never revisit. I had no idea this could have been the last time I ever stepped in front of an author and had him or her sign a book I had purchased. It’s a small loss in the great scheme of things, but one that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

A Hawaiian Life, Volume 2

When George Kahumoku Jr. was a keiki kane, Hawaii was not a state, the native language of his people was not taught in schools, and students were disciplined for practicing hula. In the ensuing decades, George (once you’ve met the man, it becomes impossible to call him Kahumoku) has been at the center of the state’s cultural renaissance. An accomplished slack-key guitar artist, George has won four Grammy awards for his compilations.

I’ve had the privilege of attending George’s concerts on Maui for nearly two decades, but I most recently saw him perform on the mainland in the blissful month before COVID-19 lockdowns. George always holds a raffle the end of each concert, and this time my name was drawn for A Hawaiian Life, Volume 2, a collection of autobiographical stories. I have the first volume kicking around in my office somewhere, and once I stumble across it I’ll be sure to review it as well.

In addition to being highly entertaining, each of George’s tales provides insight on Hawaiian culture. When a young George and his buddy capture a large tuna in ”Million Dollar Ahi,” parts of the fish are distributed among the neighborhood; George details the unique use of each family in his multicultural community.

Many years later in “A Flat Tire Changes My Life,” George aids an elderly man whose car breaks down along Oahu’s Old Pali Road, said to be haunted by ancient spirits who harass travelers for food. George recalls an earlier incident where his family’s car mysteriously stalled on Old Pali Road while traveling back from a luau, and how his father dismissed those spirits in a way that was “indigenous and very primal.”

His teaching at Lahainaluna High School on Maui is the setting for “Three Chickens, Four Lessons,” where George uses feral chickens he’s captured to teach students about drawing, biology, and cooking. The fourth lesson, about the replacement of Hawaiian traditions by mainland values, comes when George is later disciplined for having slaughtered the chickens on school grounds.

The conflict between native and mainland cultures is also the setting for “Taking Back the Beach.” In 1974, George fishes for spiny lobsters off an Oahu beach; like all of George’s fishing stories, the details are precise, lending authenticity to the tale. Yet on returning to shore he is arrested for having used a private hotel beach. With the help of two haole lawyers, George organizes native Hawaiians and wins public access to all Hawaiian beaches.

A personal favorite of mine, a story George often tells during his slack-key concerts about his family’s overly exuberant use of a hotel room, isn’t included in this volume. I’m hoping he’ll tell that story again the next time I see him on Maui… whenever that will be. We still have much to learn about the current pandemic, and non-essential air travel is one of many conveniences we can no longer take for granted. But should I have the privilege to see him again, I’ll be sure to thank George for pulling my name during that cold night raffle.

Fatherland

I’ve been fascinated lately with novels that explore alternative histories of the 1930s and 40s. I’ve read about America being overtaken by populist tyrant , electing a Nazi sympathizer, and losing the Second World War and being occupied by the German Reich. Robert Harris’ 1992 novel is the first I’ve read where America hasn’t been the focus, and it provides the most realistic vision of what could have happened in this turbulent era of world history.

For reasons that aren’t altogether clear, Germany is able to capture both Moscow and London in this world. This gives the Nazis control of most of Europe, which is where they stop their expansion. There is no change in the Pacific war, as America defeats Japan with atomic weapons. By 1964, the year in which the novel takes place, Germany and the United States have been in an extended Cold War, similar to what actually occurred between the USA and USSR in our reality.

While the scenario leaves a lot of obvious questions unanswered (how did the Nazis discover the British had deciphered their encoded messages? why did the Russian forces collapse?), this parallel world does seem authentic. Hitler’s ambitions were Euro-centric, and launching an attack across the Atlantic would have left him vulnerable at home. Had Britain fallen, America would have no base to launch an invasion of Europe, and would have focused attention to the war in the Pacific. An extended Nazi regime makes Europe a much different world in this era, while America remains relatively unchanged; not an ideal situation by any standard, but one that seems altogether plausible.

But Fatherland isn’t an alternative history text. It’s a detective story focused on two principal characters, a German police officer with no great love for National Socialism and an American diplomat. They team up to investigate the murder of a Nazi official, and as they dig deeper they discover that the unconfirmed rumors about the fate of Germany’s Jews turn out to be very much true. The pace is steady, the characters engaging, and its conclusion leaves you satisfied yet curious to know what happens next — a rare and pleasing feat.

Of all the alternative histories I’ve read so far, this has been the most satisfying. The audiobook performance by Michael Jayston wasn’t memorable, but didn’t detract from the writing, which is really all you want from a reading.

Red Lightning

Sometimes it pays to not give up on a book.

I won Laura Pritchett’s 2015 novel at a holiday book exchange, and began reading it towards the end of my recent vacation. Yet at nearly a quarter of the way through, I nearly decided to leave it behind for the next condo guest to enjoy. The story centers on a first-person narrator who returns to her sister’s home and the daughter she abandoned after a long absence. The narrator goes to great lengths explaining how difficult her life has been, how much she regrets the decisions she’s made, and how tragically unfair this world of ours is. Unfortunately, I found the narrator’s insights more annoying than engaging, and was never convinced she had the requisite insight for her metaphysical observations. I also didn’t appreciate the author’s numerous attempts to showcase her education and linguistic abilities. Sure, it’s kinda neat to create compound words like motherlove, but how muchcreativity does that really demonstrate? And when the author insists on using this technique oneveryfreakingpage, it soon becomes tiresome.

Yet somewhere around the one-third mark, the narrator finally revealed more information about why she’d returned to her family, I began to gain interest, and found the resolution quite satisfying.

For all its imperfections, I did find “Red Lightning” both enjoyable and insightful. I’m glad I didn’t abandon it to whoever is now staying where I had been, and just might make it my gift at the next holiday book exchange.

God Land

White Evangelical Christians voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election. Attempting to explain this odd political alignment has since become an obsession among American writers.

Lyz Lenz is uniquely qualified to comment on this topic. A life-long Christian, Lenz and her husband began attending Evangelical churches in the 1990s, and helped form an independent church in the early 2000s. This was also the time Lenz began voicing her uneasiness with the Evangelical movement’s attitudes towards women, race, and politics. Her husband didn’t approve of her positions, and in 2016 she voted for Clinton while he went in with Trump, a political split which prefigured their imminent divorce.

Lenz’ 2019 book is part investigative journalism, part memoir, with the latter being its strength. The author doesn’t reach many unique conclusions about Evangelicals — as stated earlier, the topic has been covered extensively over the past several years — but her personal journey is compelling. Perhaps the most riveting moment comes in an early chapter, when she and her husband confront a pastor about the conduct of another pastor. The pastor apologizes to Lenz’ husband, but when she insists the apology needs to be offered to her, the pastor replies “I did apologize to you when I apologized to your husband.” It’s one of several indignities documented by the author in her last ten years as an Evangelical.

Given her experience, it’s easy to see how the author would eventually abandon her faith. It’s during a Holy Saturday service towards the end of the book where Lenz finds her reason for remaining a believer:

I believe in church because whatever else, it’s an intentional community of people trying to do good in a world that could use more of it.

There are enough moments like this to make this a memorable work.

Zen in the Art of Writing

Ray Bradbury said he wrote 1000 words a day, and submitted stories on Saturday that he began drafting the preceding Monday. Judging by the sheer volume of his published work (27 novels, 600 stories, scores of plays and radio/television/movie scripts), I have no reason to doubt these claims.

While he is remembered as a master of the science fiction and horror genres, Bradbury resisted those labels during his career, as he found them dismissive and limiting. He is not known for his non-fiction, but his 1994 collection of essays on writing is a valuable read for any aspiring writer, regardless of genre.

Written over several decades, mostly as prefaces to his novels and short-story collections, the essays are more autobiographical than critical. You learn a lot about Bradbury’s career — formative childhood experiences in Waukegan (a mid-sized city in northern Illinois where, coincidentally, my wife and I owned our first house) and Los Angeles, early efforts and eventual successes at writing, investing $9.80 in typewriter rental fees while drafting the story that eventually became Fahrenheit 451 — and to the author’s credit, Bradbury’s prose rarely descends into solipsism or self-congratulation.

One of the more poignant moments in this collection comes in “Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle, ” where he recalls an experience of his nine-year-old self:

Buck Rogers arrived on scene that year, and it was instant love. I collected the daily strips, and was madness maddened by them. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips. For a month I walked through my fourth-grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone, and life simply wasn’t worth living. The next thought was: Those are not my friends, the ones who got me to tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; they are my enemies.

As he explains more fully in “How to Keep and Feed a Muse,” he would eventually move on from the Buck Rogers strips, but even as his aesthetic judgement matured, he saw a continuity from his early love of the comics — “The constant remains: the search, the finding, the admiration, the love, the honest response to materials at hand, no matter how shabby they one day seem, when looked back on.”

Other gems in this book include his observation in “On the Shoulders of Giants” that science fiction, routinely derided as escapist entertainment, is rather “an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way.” The titular essay is an extended and well-crafted examination of the relationship between work and relaxation, both of which are essential to the writer. Bradbury claims writers must become partners, not slaves, to their work, and that only by doing something as insane as clacking out a thousand words, each day, can writers release their inner truth: “Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.” Call it writing as metaphysics, a theory that probably wouldn’t hold up under close scrutiny, but is nonetheless inspiring.

I may never achieve Bradbury’s level of productivity, but I’m confident he would advise me not to worry about word count. His essays are about joy and discovery, and how writers, by following their passions, can realize their ambitions.

Saving Paradise

Mike Bond’s 2012 novel takes place in the Hawaiian islands, and moves at a fast pace from the first page, when a corpse drifts in to the Oahu surf. At times the pace seems a little too fast; the first-person narrator, a professional surfer and Special Forces veteran named Pono Hawkins, hops between islands with the ease of a superhero.

Hawkins is a passionate defender of Hawaii’s natural beauty, and expresses justifiable outrage over America’s treatment of the land and its people. There is a wholly appropriate disdain for the missionaries who “civilized” the Hawaiians that was sorely lacking in the James Michener and Sarah Vowell books about the state.

The plot revolves around an alternative energy project called Big Wind, which was also the name of an actual proposed project in Hawaii from the early years of this decade. Big Wind would have installed hundreds of windmills on the islands of Molokai and Lanai, and provided power to Oahu (the state’s most populous island, home to Honolulu and Pearl Harbor) through an underseas cable. This absurd idea was eventually abandoned after citizens rallied against it, and “Saving Paradise” adds sinister elements to its version of Big Wind, making it a viper’s nest of criminal business and political corruption.

And while it’s always dangerous to assign authorial intention to a work of fiction (back in my graduate student days this was called the “intentional fallacy”), there’s more than enough circumstantial evidence to suggest “Saving Paradise” is partly a personal diatribe against wind power. Enter Mike Bond windmills in a search engine, and one of the first links will be to the author’s blog, where he claims wind power actually increases fossil fuel usage, has devastating ecological impacts, and are only touted as “green” projects by politicians bought off by multinational corporations. Bond’s arguments rely more on invective and innuendo than on data — in the unlikely event of his reading this review, he’ll likely respond that my last statement shows how I’ve been brainwashed by the corporate media — and their appearance in in this novel represent an unfortunate and unnecessary distraction. Hawkins’ struggle against corruption and intimidation would have been just as poignant if the author had chosen to, quite literally, battle windmills.

Yet the novel’s positive qualities outweigh flaws such as its ending, which comes out of nowhere, as if the author was facing an inflexible word count limit. Pono Hawkins is an engaging guide to Hawaii, and his humanity and innate goodness make the reader hope for his success. His personal relationships are a mess, but he treats his male allies and his female love interests with equal respect. And the action is brisk, as stated previously, and the writing polished and highly descriptive. Overall, “Saving Paradise” is a good thriller which can be enjoyed by any fan of the genre, so long as that fan doesn’t take the author’s overt agenda against wind power too seriously.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Anyone reading a Raymond Carver story should be required to say “the end” at the conclusion. So little happens in his stories — plot summaries read like satires (the titular story of this collection could read, “four people talk around a dinner table while getting drunk on gin”) — and their climaxes so unspectacular, to give a listener a strong cue that the tale has ended. In addition to not featuring any exploding helicopters, Carver’s short fiction violates several established conventions. Many characters do not have names; hardly any backstory is revealed; very little is shown, and even less is told.

But partly because they are so sparse, Carver’s short stories are some of the most emotionally powerful I’ve ever read. I don’t intend to imitate his style, but it has inspired me to trust that, with words, sometimes less is more.

“Why Don’t You Dance?”, the first story in the volume, is a great example of his work. An unnamed man puts the entire contents of his house onto his driveway; some of the possessions had been on “her side” of the bedroom, although no information about “her” is provided. The man leaves to pick up food at a store, and a young couple, referred to as a boy and a girl (the boy does have a name, although you have to be paying attention to catch it), drive past the house and, believing a yard sale is in progress, stop to investigate. The man returns, and after agreeing to sell many items for bargain-basement prices, puts on a record (the setting is late 1970s) and invites the couple to dance. Weeks later, the girl grapples with understanding the man’s motivation. The End.

We simply can’t understand the man, because we are told so little about him. But when he puts on the record and asks the boy and girl to dance, we can sense this is somehow important to him, that’s he’s doing more than trying to offload the record player. Maybe the couple reminds him of the early days of his marriage, and he wants to draw out those memories; maybe the man wants the couple to connect in a way he wasn’t able with his wife; maybe he wants one last joyful moment before abandoning his home. It’s a poignant scene, memorable not for its details (since there are none) but for the way it shows a man searching for kindness as he struggles with some misfortune.

Since I’m overly fond of superhero movies, I have to mention Carver’s role in Birdman, the 2014 dark comedy that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Michael Keaton plays an actor made rich and famous for performing as the superhero Birdman on film. (Birdman does not exist as a character, but Keaton did appear as Batman in two films.) To demonstrate his legitimate acting talent, Keaton’s character produces a Broadway adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It is the perfect contrast, the sizzle and excess of the superhero genre against Carver’s minimalism, and if that is the closest this master of the short story ever gets to appearing in a blockbuster, I’ll be fine with that.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Praising a novel nearly two decades after it won a Pulitzer Prize feels a bit irrelevant, like applauding with mittens after twenty thousand pairs of fleshy hands have ceased clapping. But since any review says as much about the writer as is does about the subject, let me declare, by way of explaining why I find Michael Chabon’s 2001 novel so exceptional, the type of fiction I aspire to in my own writing.

The novel is set during the late 1930s and early 1950s, almost entirely in New York city with a brief interlude in the most unlikely of World War II battlefields, and follows the careers of three comic book professionals in what is often referred to as the “Golden Age of Comics.” As an avid fan of the medium, I’ve always been uncomfortable with using precious metals to describe the various eras of comic book, as it proposes a hierarchy that in many ways isn’t justified. For all their innovation, the comics in the Golden Age were far inferior, in both their writing and artwork, to their Silver and Bronze age descendants. Yet the Golden Age was a time when comic book sales and their cultural impact (wonderfully depicted in David Hajdu’s excellent The Ten-Cent Plague) were at a height they would never reach again, even in today’s world of blockbuster superhero movie franchises. To his credit, Chabon hails the achievement of the era while acknowledging its inferior quality, writing comic books of this time were “like the beavers and cockroaches of prehistory… larger and, in its cumbersome way, more splendid than its modern descendant.”

The scope of the novel is ambitious, dealing with the immigrant experience of 1930s America, the global fight against fascism, and the crushing social conformity in post-war America. These large experiences are told through three main characters: Joe Kavalier, Sam Klayman, and Rosa Parks, who forms one of the oddest yet entirely believable love triangles in literature. Joe is the illustrator and Sammy the writer for the Escapist, a superhero who is part Superman, part Houdini. (The book cover image at the top of this post shows the Escapist socking the jaw of Hitler).

Chabon’s writing is excellent. What I like best are his paragraphs, which are long and meandering, sometimes containing a long passage of exposition between two lines of dialog — were I to attempt imitating this style, I’d need a much longer interruption than this (with several more variants in punctuation) — that somehow maintains grammatical cohesion. He has some great metaphors as well, such as “her eyes the pale gray of rainwater pooled in a dish left on the window ledge.”

I’ll conclude with a juicy quote from one of the minor characters, an editor named George Deasey, who subtly attempts to convince Joe and Sam to be more ambitious in their licensing negotiations for the Escapist:

“There is only one sure means in life,” Deasey said, “of ensuring that you are not ground into paste by disappointment, futility, and disillusion. Ad that is always to ensure, to the utmost of your ability, that you are doing it solely for the money.”

Deasey represents the cynicism which both Joe and Sammy attempt to overcome through their work in the comics. Although not entirely successful in their quest, their journey makes for a memorable adventure.

Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction

Benjamin Percy was the keynote speaker at a literary conference I recently attended. I generally dislike these opening addresses, and fully expected him to deliver yet another self-congratulatory homily, followed by a desultory reading and a perfunctory exhortation to “believe in your writing.” Yet immediately after being introduced, Percy pulled out a dry-erase marker, went over to a white board, and launched into an informative and engaging discussion of the craft of writing fiction — creating engaging characters, building suspense, the strategic placement of scenes, alternating between action and moments of repose. After compiling seven pages of notes over the next hour, I bought his book with the enthusiasm of a Marvel fan on opening night of an Avengers film.

I won’t reveal the advice offered in Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, partly out of fear the author would hunt me down if I did (while affable and inviting, Percy can be physically imposing — broad shouldered and deep voiced, he seems capable of sprouting fangs or claws at any moment). I do feel safe in revealing his central theme, introduced in the opening essay and expanded upon in the following fourteen: the accepted distinction between literary fiction (think Antioch Review) and genre fiction (think Fantasy and Science Fiction) is arbitrary, and writers wholly committed to either category suffer from not adopting the best practices from the other. “Literary writers tend to overdo thoughtfulness,” he writes, “just as many genre writers tend to neglect interiority in favor of action.” Percy, who has published in both literary magazines and comic books, advocates eliminating this distinction, and combining “the careful carpentry of storytelling” with page-turning excitement that makes the reader want to know what happens next.

In his description of the worst qualities of literary fiction — elaborate prose, abstract ideas, and lengthy dialogue leading to underwhelming epiphanies — I recognized a lot of the problems I’ve been seeing in my own writing. To put it bluntly: Nothing happens. My characters talk (a lot, and to be fair to myself I’ve been commended for my conversations), but they live in a world where inertia is as common as air. Having recognized this problem, I’m contemplating (there I go again with the thinking) following the advice of what Percy calls The Exploding Helicopter Clause: “If a story does not contain an exploding helicopter [or similar spectacular event or character], an editor will not publish it.” As authorial recommendations goes, this sounds both reasonable and a heckuva lot of fun.

Percy is a storyteller, not an academic, and true to his calling he weaves an engaging memoir through his essays. We learn a lot about Percy — his childhood fascination with genre and later respect for literature, a wonderful marriage, early struggles and eventual successes in his writing career, unintended lessons about writing learned from his in-laws, a mortifying illness of a son that lead Percy to dread watching Toy Story, a decrepit home he and his wife refurbished — revealed not in chronological order, each anecdote chosen to underscore the ideas of the current essay. Among the more interesting facts we learn is that as a teen, Percy conducted a ceremony which failed in its stated intent to turn him into a werewolf. My trepidation around him seems fully warranted.

I was impressed enough by Percy’s keynote speech to have him autograph the book I purchased. He signed it with advice I imagine he includes with all his signatures: “Go the distance,” the title of the his last essay and a reference to Rocky, a film that inspired him through his early days as a writer. Stallone’s plucky pugilist, waking before dawn to run and beating a speed bag until his knuckles bleed, succeeds in his goal to leave his bout with the heavyweight champion standing on his feet — going the distance — and Percy sees in him a model of tenacity for all novice writers in their struggle to rise to the top of the slush pile: “you must develop around your heart a callus the size of a speed bag.” There could be no better end to Percy’s marvelous collection of essays than this eloquent metaphor based on a gritty work of pop culture.