Posts Tagged ‘Passings’

Bye, Hef

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

The recent death of Jerry Lewis is a reminder that for Baby Boomers like me, our own mortality is continually underscored by the passing of the great media figures who shaped us.

Just as Jerry Lewis had a big impact on what I think is funny, Hugh Hefner – who recently passed away at 91 – was hugely important in my life. My uncle Richard had Playboys in his basement proto-man cave that I saw when I was as young as ten or eleven, learning well before puberty that I liked seeing pictures of beautiful naked women. When I was in junior high, my father received a Christmas present of a subscription to Playboy as a gag gift in a bridge club “Secret Santa” exchange. He had no interest in the magazine and soon forgot about the subscription, because I always got to the mailbox first.

I loved the magazine. I loved everything about it, including, yes, the articles. And the fiction, and the book and movie and record reviews. There was a sophistication an Iowa kid could only dream of. As a comics fan, I was bowled over by the incredible cartoons, not just their raciness but their artistry. And the incredibly beautiful photography of the centerfolds (this is circa 1964 – 1966) defined for me what a woman should look like. I should say “could look like,” because even then I knew this was an airbrushed fantasy. Still, I knew the names of every Playmate from the ‘60s through the mid-‘70s – the beautiful woman I married was completely unthreatened by the Playboy fantasy, and the magazines never had to be hidden around our home.

I came of age in the pre-hippie ‘60s. It was a world of the Rat Pack and sick humor and Beatniks and Ian Fleming’s James Bond and the early Beatles. I still prefer the early Beatles – you can have most of the White Album. But then the ‘70s came along, and magazines that were more frank about sex in prose and in photography – Penthouse, Hustler – began to make inroads for Hefner’s fabulous brainchild. (I write about this in the forthcoming Quarry’s Climax.)

Hefner was important in loosening up the sexual mores of this (and other) nations. For good or ill, he fired some of the first real volleys in the Sexual Revolution (the most important after Kinsey). But the later ‘60s and every decade that followed were problematic for him. He struggled with feminism and self-consciously wrote progressive essays that were very smart but pretty boring. He never found a way to square the circle of a woman having sexual freedom and full human rights. The female as sex object had been defined long before he came along, and he obviously made his fortune and fame expanding and redefining that image. But it limited him and made him seen a hypocrite.

I make no apologies for considering Playboy in its prime (and even for many years after) a great publication. Until the recent revamping (since abandoned) with nudity banished, a new issue always gave me a bit of a thrill reminiscent of getting to the mailbox before my parents noticed I had snagged Dad’s copy of Playboy. For many decades I subscribed, and I looked forward to no magazine more.

For the articles. And so much more.

I always felt Hef was a kind of nerd. He was a work-a-holic who loved publishing and awkwardly took on the sophisticated sybarite persona his magazine dictated. Oh, I realize he really did become a sophisticated sybarite, but when he appeared on TV, particularly on Playboy After Dark, he seemed so awkward and ill at ease.

Somehow that was his charm. It conveyed the possibility to nerds in Iowa and elsewhere that an Illinois nerd could be the man who lived in a mansion filled with beautiful models, movie stars, intellectuals, top nightclub talent, world-class chefs and a never-ending party. I much prefer the quiet life I’ve led with one beautiful woman, but fantasy is still fun to think about.

As some of you know, Hefner was Nate Heller’s friend and there are scenes at the Chicago Playboy mansion in the JFK Trilogy (Bye Bye, Baby, Target Lancer and Ask Not). So Nate tips his fedora to his old friend, while I just say, “Goodbye, Hef.”

* * *

Here’s a nice article on the Nolan series, marred a bit by the erroneous inclusion of the first name “Frank.”

Bookgasm has a nice review of the Bibliomysteries collection that includes the Hammer story “It’s in the Book.”

Gravetapping has a fine review of my pal Steve Mertz’s new novel.

Finally, here’s a brief review of Strip for Murder.

M.A.C.

Goodbye, Jerry; Hello, Nashville

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

I already did a brief post on Facebook about the passing of Jerry Lewis. I predicted that along with the tributes there would lots of snark, as some people feel the right moment to dis somebody is right after that person dies.

I understand Lewis was both a complicated man and an inconsistent artist. My late friend Bruce Peters used to say, “The only thing funnier than Jerry Lewis at his best is Jerry Lewis at his worst.” And there’s some truth in that. He could be such a putz when he got in self-trained intellectual mode on talk shows (Martin Short, a fellow Lewis lover, could nail that perfectly). He could be notoriously thin-skinned with interviewers and he indulged in outrageously politically incorrect humor right to the end – Barb, Nate, Abby and I saw him in St. Louis not long ago, and he told an Asian joke that was in terrible taste (but I laughed at it, because at 69 I already understand what it is to be of another era and feel the urge to make your own generation smile and younger people squirm).

But I wasn’t always 69. Once I was six, and seven, and eight, and all the ages along the way through junior and senior high school, years when at the Uptown Theater in Muscatine, Iowa, I saw every movie Jerry made. I saw many of Dean and Jerry’s movies that way, too, but also saw them tear it up on TV, manic magic as performed by no other comedy team in history. Nobody could make me laugh harder, and I still find Dean and Jerry a perfectly mismatched pair. I remember seeing Pardners and being so relieved that Dean and Jerry were obviously still pals and partners and, despite what we’d been told, would never ever split. Right up till the day Dean Martin died I was hoping for a genuine reunion of the two. They were, as I said elsewhere, the comedy Beatles.

Jerry could be cloyingly sentimental in his films. This made some otherwise interesting movies – Cinderfella, for example – occasionally unbearable. And he had a thing for clowns that misses me entirely. On the other hand, his infamous unreleased The Day the Clown Cried seems pretty good to me, based upon the clips and readings from the script that were assembled a while back, despite its legendary reputation as an embarrassing disaster. A guy who could be as overbearing as Jerry, and who represented show business at its most phony/traditional, made a great target for smug people of my generation who turned on the whole Rat Pack crowd as part of our general anti-Establishment stance.

It was easy for us to forget that Jerry was an anarchic presence in a dull decade, he and Dean perhaps the first sign of the rebellion that was to come, a bridling against the cookie-cutter post-war world that would soon know Brando and James Dean. Like Elvis and Spillane, Jerry Lewis – and in his way, Dino, too – were rebels serving up gleeful chaos even as they let us know that all was not calm beneath the pablum-paved Arthur Godfrey surface of ‘50s America.

And when the sixties kicked in – really kicked in – it was tough on Jerry. He famously considered his screen persona to be eternally nine years old, and this worked for a long, long time, because of his naturally youthful looks. But when the hippie era asserted its glassy-eyed self, and the sexual revolution changed movies, he started looking like a guy approaching middle age, and his brand of traditional show biz was soon attracting derision from the Baby Boomers who had loved him. He started making some truly dreadful movies with sex farce aspects – Three on a Couch, for example, and Way…Way Out.

And when he took on the Nazis in Which Way to the Front? (not long after Mel Brooks and The Producers), his comic timing seemed oddly off – as a director, his usual mastery of cutting was absent. And yet there are very funny moments toward the end of that generally dire film – Hitler has never been funnier, not even when Dick Shawn was playing him. Jerry’s willingness to do whatever it took to get a laugh would, even in those misjudged circumstances, shine through. Even his comeback comedy, Hardly Working, for all its sketchiness and awkward product placement, had sublime moments of Lewis hysteria, as when a porthole in an art gallery issues gushing water, with Jerry breaking the fourth wall to ask us if we’d seen that, too.

I always watched the telethons selectively. I wanted to see the parts where Jerry himself was performing or interacting with guests. (I saw the Dean Martin reunion, orchestrated by Sinatra, as it happened.) And I sat through Jerry’s excruciating yet strangely thrilling performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at least a dozen times.

So, yes, he was not perfect. But I’m here to tell you that he will join the pantheon of great screen comics. He’ll rank with W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, and Keaton. He’s already outdistanced such contenders as Danny Kaye and Red Skelton (meaning no disrespect to either – I am a guy who adores the Ritz Brothers, after all). I hope Abbott and Costello will last, and Bob Hope, too (his pre-1960s comedies and the Road pictures with Crosby remain hugely entertaining). The Stooges seem impervious, which for Baby Boomers is a sweet surprise, though when we’re gone that may not continue. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that the best of Jerry Lewis will endure.

Like what, you ask?

Well, while the Martin & Lewis films don’t always capture the boys at their best, a handful do – Artists and Models (the comic book movie), Sailor Beware, You’re Never Too Young, The Caddy, Living It Up, The Stooge, Hollywood or Bust and Pardners. That’s quite a few, actually.

For Jerry at the top of his game, try The Nutty Professor, The Ladies’ Man, The Bellboy, The Patsy, and The Errand Boy, all of which he directed and co-wrote. His collaborations with Frank Tashlin are mostly worthwhile: It’s Only Money, The Disorderly Orderly, and Who’s Minding the Store among them. And of course there’s The King of Comedy.

Fanatics, like myself, have everything of Jerry’s on DVD and Blu-ray – including things you can only acquire from overseas. I even have bootlegs of the two (terrible) movies he made in France.

Nonetheless, France was right: he was a genius. Not everything I’ve said here is flattering about him, but make no mistake – I loved this man and his work. For probably twenty years I’ve dreaded the day when I would learn of his passing. I knew part of me would die with him.

So I’ll be as cloyingly sentimental as Jerry and say that he won’t be gone as long as his films are with us, including moments like this:

* * *

I am a guest of honor at Killer Nashville this weekend (Aug. 24 -27). Barb will be along, and we’ll be very active, doing scads of panels. It’s our first time at this event.

I’m receiving a life achievement “Legends” award – read about it here.

Here’s where you can get more general info about the conference/convention.

And here are the panels one or both of us are on:

Friday, Aug 25
2:20pm panel: M.A.C. Bad Boys and Girls (Hickory 20)
4:40pm signing: M.A.C.
5pm Author Readings (Birch MM)

Saturday, Aug. 26
12:30pm Road to Perdition interview; M.A.C. (Birch 34)
2pm panel: Barb; How to Write Cozy Mystery Series (Hickory 37)
3pm panel: M.A.C./Barb; Art of Collaboration (Sycamore 43)
5:10pm signing; M.A.C./Barb (Azalea S8)
7pm Awards Dinner (Birch KNA)

Sun. Aug 27
9:50am panel; M.A.C. Writing the Scene (Sycamore 49)
9:50am panel; Barb One Night: Lovers, Minor Characters (Redbud 50)
10:50am panel; Barb That’s Funny (Sycamore 54)

I have been in Nashville twice before. In 1967, to record “Psychedelic Siren” with the Daybreakers. And in 1994, to scout locations for The Expert with director Bill Lustig.

* * *

Take a look at these nice comments about Scar of the Bat, my Eliot Ness/Batman Elseworlds graphic novel, with a suggestion that it should be animated.

This nice look at Road to Perdition is, as usual, based on its being derived from a comics source.

Finally, here’s a nice review of The Pearl Harbor Murders (actually of Dan John Miller’s audio of it) with an overview of the entire “Disaster” series.

M.A.C.

Goings and Comings

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

Dick Locher passed away last week.

As many of you know, I worked with Dick from 1983 until 1992, having taken over the writing of the Dick Tracy strip from Chester Gould in 1977, working first with Chet’s last assistant, Rick Fletcher. My relationship with Fletcher was occasionally rocky, due to my continuing friendship with Chet after Rick fell out with his former boss and father figure. But we did some very good work together.

I felt privileged to work with Locher, another former Gould assistant – one who went on to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist. Our relationship was generally a positive one, and we were friendly, though never really close. We lost contact when I was fired from the strip and I was somewhat resentful that he had not gone to bat for me. In my incredibly biased opinion, the strip under Dick never recovered from my exit.

A few years ago I joined Dick at Woodstock, Illinois (Gould’s home city), for the screening of a Tracy documentary we were both a part of. We re-bonded very nicely and any bumps in our past road was smoothed. It became clear he was equally unhappy with the editor who’d fired me, but as a company man he’d kept that to himself. We stayed in touch and exchanged e-mails, artwork and books. It was a nice way for our collaboration to evolve into a professional friendship.

The Tribune did a nice write-up about him, but I’m too petty to give you a link, because the Trib has conveniently written me out of Dick Tracy’s history. So I’ll give you this nice link instead.

Here’s one last fond fedora tip to my partner Dick Locher.

* * *

I think I’ve quoted this before, but where Tracy is concerned I often recall what Dean Martin reportedly said about Jerry Lewis: “The two best things that ever happened to me were meeting Jerry Lewis, and splitting with Jerry Lewis.”

I hated getting fired off Dick Tracy. I felt I had revitalized the strip. Friends, like Mike Gold, told me I should only do ten years, since it wasn’t my creation, and Chet Gould himself advised me not to let Tracy dominate my career, since he would always be the creator.

But Tracy was my childhood obsession and I would be still be writing it, had I not been fired by an editor who despised me almost as much as I despised him.

And yet, just as getting Tracy was the best thing that happened in my early career, losing it was the other “best thing.” Road to Perdition came about because I was scrambling to find a new comics project. The dust had barely settled on my Tracy firing when Andrew Helfer approached me to create a noir graphic novel for DC. Off the top of my head I pitched Gun and Son (which became Perdition), combining my love for Lone Wolf and Cub with the real-life story of John and Connor Looney and a betrayed lieutenant in Rock Island’s mob scene of the early 20th Century. The latter had been something I ran across researching my novel True Detective but couldn’t find a way to use, except in passing.

The rest, as they say, is history. No Tracy firing, almost certainly no Road to Perdition. For a lot of years, the famous thing I was known for was Tracy. Now the strip has receded into something of an interesting footnote and “author of Road to Perdition” is the famous thing.

I am leading up here to a wonderful review by that talented writer Ron Fortier about my prose novel version of Road to Perdition. You need to read this review, and if you have not yet purchased for your reading pleasure and edification the Brash Books edition of the complete version of the novel, what are you waiting for?

* * *

Yesterday Crusin’ performed for a late afternoon concert on the patio at Pearl City Plaza in Muscatine.

It could have been a nightmare. A couple of weeks ago our guitarist walked out on the band at rehearsal and I had a very limited time to decide whether to cancel our remaining two gigs of the year, or find a replacement.

My way is not to roll over and die, however, and with the recommendation of our drummer, Steve Kundel, I approached a well-known area musician, Bill Anson, to fill in. We rehearsed four times, one of them a marathon session, and Bill proved to be a great guy as well as a skilled, gifted guitarist/singer. What we do is not really his genre of choice, but I am hopeful he will stick around for a while. (I have offered him the position of Permanent Temporary Guitarist, perhaps channeling “Permanent Latrine Orderly” from No Time for Sergeants.)

How did the gig go? The audience was large and appreciative, and while there were occasional train wrecks, there were also no fatalities, and I can say in all honesty I haven’t had a better, looser time on a band job in years.

Thanks, Bill. And thanks to Brian Van Winkle, our bassist extraordinaire, for sticking with us in a sticky personal situation.

We play at least one more time this year, at Ardon Creek Winery on September 1, 6 to 9 pm. It’s a wonderful outdoor venue. Check it out, if you’re in the area.

* * *

Here’s a lovely piece on the Quarry TV series.

Here’s a nice write-up on the new Bibliomysteries collection that includes “It’s in the Book” by Mickey and me – my favorite of the Hammer short stories.

Scroll down and read nice things about the forthcoming Quarry’s Climax.

M.A.C.

Holy Supper, Batman!

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017

When the Batman TV show was announced in late 1965, I was ecstatic. It would have been a dream come true had I ever thought to dream it. In January 1966, I was the only comic book fan in my high school in Muscatine, Iowa, and certainly the only person who had been reading the BATMAN comic since around 1954.

Perhaps there were others around me, closeted in four-color shame, but I didn’t know about them. I was open about it. Everybody knew I was into comics, just as everybody knew I was a Bobby Darin fanatic. That I was driven, intense, and wanted to be a writer or a singer or a cartoonist or something in the arts. I was cheerfully humored, although I’m sure this status was no help in getting me laid.

When I got into comics – trading two-for-one at a local antiques shop, or buying them used for five cents or new for a dime – MAD was still a comic book, the original Captain Marvel was still being published, and H.G. Peter was drawing Wonder Woman in a style so eccentric even I knew something was wrong, yet very right, about it. I saw MAD turn into a magazine and the EC horror comics disappear just as I was laying hands on them. Captain Marvel just disappeared, as if a super-villain had taken him out.

For a long time, I had an allowance of ten cents a week, which meant I could buy one comic book a week. Dick Tracy and Batman were the only certainties. The rest went to Dell comics like the sporadic Zorro comics and various movie tie-in issues, filled in with Superman and his “family” – Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane.

Later I bought Amazing Fantasy #15 off the stands, as well as Fantastic Four #1 and Spiderman #1, and probably the first ten years of both. Sold the valuable issues for hundreds of dollars when I was a college student because, well, I was a college student and the money I got from playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band only went so far.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In January 1966, a senior in high school, I was delighted and amazed and astounded by the prospect of a Batman TV show. To say I was looking forward to it is an understatement of super-heroic proportions.

Then a disaster happened: on the night Batman would premiere, my church group (the MYF, which I believe stood for Methodists Youths getting Effed) was throwing a supper to raise funds for something or other (certainly not the poor or disadvantaged – probably to go on some trip). I had to serve. Define that any way you like, but it entailed bringing hot plates of food to the waiting victims in the church basement’s dining hall.

Understand that there were no VCRs or any other recording devices to “time-shift” a TV show you wanted to watch. That was as far-fetched as time travel itself. For days I tried to think of a way out. I was past being able to fake sickness for my parents, and the notion of saying I wanted to skip a church function to watch a TV show was as crazy as thinking that someday I would no longer be a Republican.

So I schemed. My parents would be at the church supper, too, which meant the house would be empty. Batman was only a half-hour show. We lived across town, a trip I could recklessly make in under ten minutes. It was possible. It could happen. A laugh oddly like the Joker’s echoed around inside my brain, bouncing off the walls, currently decorated with photos of Elke Sommer.

Wednesday, January 12, 1966. Arriving early at the church, I found a parking place near the kitchen’s side door, went in, and began being conspicuously (suspiciously?) helpful. Hungry Methodists arrived. I began serving. In the kitchen door at right you would go in, pick up your food, then carry a steaming hot plate of who-the-hell-remembers out the other door, at left. Deliver food, maybe get a smile and a thanks (usually not), and repeat the process. At 6:20 P.M., I began the process, entering the kitchen at right, then – not missing a beat – slipped out the side door into the alley and got behind the wheel of my Chevy II.

Like a madman I drove across down, and by 6:29 was seated Indian-style on the floor in front of the TV. The nah-nah-nah-nah-nah theme plays over cartoon credits, my mouth drops open and stays there as I witness a comic-book world awash in color, Adam West and Burt Ward portraying Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson (SPOILER ALERT: the secret identities of Batman and Robin). Frank Gorshin appears as a manic, cackling Riddler, with whom I could identify. The Batusi is danced. Mesmerized, delighted, I watch as the comic book I had loved since age five comes alive in an amazingly deft manner that at once honored and spoofed it – I knew immediately a little kid could enjoy the adventurous, colorful surface, and an adult could enjoy the tongue-in-cheek spoof of it. Since I was both a little kid and an adult, I was the perfect audience.

As the episode (sort of) ended – “Same Bat time, same bat channel!” – I ran from the house to my car like West and Ward headed for the Bat-Pole and the waiting Batmobile, and headed back to the church, where my fellow Methodist teens (and my parents!) (choke!) awaited. I parked, ran to the side door, slipped into the kitchen, picked up a plate of food and exited the door at left, into the dining hall.

Some friend of mine frowned at me and said, “Where have you been?”

I smiled devilishly – more Riddler than Joker. “Home. Watching Batman.”

For a good 48 hours, I was legendary at Muscatine Senior High.

Then, two decades later, I would write the Batman comic book for a year and become perhaps the most reviled writer of the feature in history – because I didn’t take it seriously enough, according to fans who take it too seriously…who think the sixties TV show was the worst thing that ever happened to Batman, when in fact it was what made the (sometimes too) Dark Knight a pop-cultural phenomenon.

Who know more about Batman than the seventeen year-old who raced home to see the premiere of the TV show and risked not going to heaven for it. Or at least catching hell from his folks.

Farewell, Adam West.

* * *

There’s a nice review of Bibliomysteries, the Otto Penzler collection that includes the Hammer story, “It’s in the Book.”

Fun review of Supreme Justice here.

Here’s an interesting if patronizing review of both the novel and graphic novel of Road to Perdition by someone who loves the movie and came to the source later.

M.A.C.