Book Review: Strip for Murder

Book Review: Strip for Murder by Max Allan Collins

Years ago, Sam Fizer hired young Hal Rapp as an art assistant on his comic strip Mug O’ Malley.  At first, they were good friends, but when the ambitious Rapp struck out on his own with his new strip Tall Paul, Fizer felt betrayed.  Especially as the characters around hillbilly Paul were very similar to ones created for Mug’s supporting cast.  The two men feuded for years; but things have become especially heated now that there’s a Tall Paul musical on Broadway and Sam Fizer’s ex-wife has a big part in it.

Strip for Murder

So when Sam Fizer is found dead at his drawing board, in a particularly fake-looking “suicide”, Hal Rapp is the number one suspect.  It’s up to Starr Syndicate’s in-house troubleshooter Jack Starr and his stepmother/boss Maggie Starr to figure out who really killed Fizer and why, if they want to hire Rapp away from his current distributor.

This is the second Starr Syndicate novel, set in the 1950s by author Max Allan Collins, who is familiar with the newspaper comics business from his time as the writer of Dick Tracy.   It’s a roman a clef (novel with a key) as Fizer and Rapp stand in for Ham Fisher, creator of Joe Palooka and Al Capp of Li’l Abner fame.  Several other cartoonists also get the transparent name change treatment.  As the author mentions in the afterword, this is so he can switch things around and introduce entirely fictional elements.  (For example, Ham Fisher didn’t die the year the book has Sam Fizer doing it.)

For a huge old-time comics fan like myself, there are lots of in-jokes and references to enjoy; but there’s also a twisty mystery with multiple suspects and several red herrings for those who just want to read a book.   The experience is enhanced by the drawings of Terry Beatty, who gets to stretch a bit as he imitates the art styles of the cartoonists in question.

Jack Starr is a likable narrator, closer to soft-boiled than hard as he’s had to give up alcohol and tobacco, and drinks Coca-Cola like they’re paying him to endorse it.  (He claims they aren’t, but he’s willing to make a deal.)  He does the legwork, but it’s actually former stripper Maggie who is the brains of the outfit.

There are some outdated period attitudes, deliberately done, but still a teensy irritating.

Overall, good writing, a sense of fun, and you may learn a thing or two about the comics business.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: A Curious Man

Book Review: A Curious Man by Neal Thompson

Disclaimer:  I received this volume free from the Blogging for Books program, on the premise that I would write a review.

This is a biography of Robert Ripley (nee LeRoy Robert Ripley), the cartoonist who created the Believe It or Not! feature.  I was fascinated by the paperback reprints of the cartoons back in my boyhood, but knew little of the story behind the creator.

A Curious Man

This volume covers Mr. Ripley’s life from barefoot poverty in Santa Rosa, California, to his early career as a sports cartoonist, through his discovery of a love for bizarre factoids and the creation of his famous comic strip to his worldwide fame.    He became a world traveler, a millionaire, star of radio and newsreels and knew many beautiful women, all for doing something he enjoyed immensely.

Of course, he also had his faults; Mr. Ripley was a heavy drinker, sexist, racist by our current standards (though progressive for his time), could not keep it in his pants, and had a tendency to fudge facts about his own life the way he didn’t the stories in his cartoons.  He also became a more difficult person towards the end of his life as his health failed and his drinking and overwork caught up with him.

The story of Ripley’s life is told in mostly chronological order,  with little “Believe It!” factoids about the people and places mentioned.  There’s also the story of various supporters of Ripley; most importantly, Norbert Pearlroth, Ripley’s main research person who found many of the factoids that appeared in the comic.  (He actually stayed with the strip longer than Ripley himself!)

There is a black and white photo section in the middle, but if you have a smartphone, you can download an app with audio and video clips from Mr. Ripley’s many public appearances.  For those of you with multimedia capability, this will make the book a much better value for money.  There are extensive end notes and an index as well.

This biography benefits from the very interesting person at its center, and I would recommend it to any Believe It or Not! fans.

TV Review: Martin Kane, Private Eye

TV Review: Martin Kane, Private Eye

Martin Kane was a fairly standard private eye appearing on radio and television 1949-1951.  He was played by four actors on TV,  William Gargan, Lloyd Nolan, Lee Tracy and Mark Stevens, each with their own characterization, from mellow cynicism to outright rudeness.

Martin Kane, Private Eye

The most notable thing about the program is that it was sponsored  by U.S. Tobacco, so instead of smoking just being a habit of the characters, it was a central theme.  Kane loves him some Old Briar pipe tobacco, and there are lovingly shot sequences of him stuffing his pipe and lighting it.  In addition, there is always a scene set in the local tobacconist’s shop, staffed by Happy McMann (Walter Kinsella), who both helps recap the plot and shills for U.S. Tobacco.

I watched five episodes of the TV show on DVD.

  • “Altered Will”:  A wealthy inventor is murdered, and it’s obvious his will was altered.  But the person it was altered in favor of couldn’t possibly have been the murderer.  Could they?
  • “A Jockey Is Murdered”:  Martin Kane is asked to get a loan shark off a jockey’s back.  When the jockey turns up dead after he loses a race, the loan shark is about the only person who doesn’t have a motive.  The solution depends on a trivia point about racetracks that I was unaware of, due to never having been to one.  (And I am not sure it still applies.)
  • “A Crooner Is Murdered”:  A singer is killed in front of a crowded nightclub.  Turns out lots of people had good reasons to want him dead, including the person who actually wrote all his songs.   There’s a small bit with a particularly misogynistic bartender.  (On average, Mr. Kane is condescending to dames himself.)
  • “The Black Pearls”  Martin Kane is lured down to Florida to take the rap for a millionaire’s murder, involving the title rare luxuries.  He manages to turn the tables, of course.  Has an interesting murder method.
  • “The Comic Strip Killer”:  An eccentric comic strip artist is basing his plotline on a recent unsolved murder.   Basing it a little too closely for the comfort of the real people involved in the case.   They hire Martin Kane to find out where the artist is getting his information.  Both the artist and his guru are murdered before Kane can get the proof, but comic strips from beyond the grave give the final clue.  Kane is at his rudest here, calling the guru a fraud to his face.

A sixth episode, “The District Attorney Killer” is listed on the DVD, but it turned out to be another copy of the comic strip story.

The comic strip episode is the most interesting, otherwise it’s a fairly generic show.  The audience that might be best pleased is smokers who sorely miss the sensual treatment of tobacco on TV shows.

Comic Book Review: Top 10: The Forty-Niners

Comic Book Review: Top 10: The Forty-Niners written by Alan Moore, art by Gene Ha

In an alternate America with science heroes and other weird or wonderful “characters”, it’s been decided to move everyone who isn’t “normal” to one city, Neopolis.  It’s 1949, and war veterans Jetlad and Sky Witch are reunited on the relocation train.  The new city is bursting at the seams with the continuing arrivals, and crime is on the rise.

Top 10: The Forty-Niners

Jetlad, whose real name is Steve Traynor, finds a mechanic job with the Sky Sharks, an aerial team that themselves are at something of loose ends with the end of the war.  Leni Muller, the Sky Witch (who’d defected from Germany during the war) winds up joining the understaffed police department.

In addition to the usual random street crime, there’s a lot of prejudice against the mechanical-American minority (vulgarly called “clickers”,) something is up with the Nazi scientists the U.S. has kept away from the Russians, and vampire gangsters are taking over the city’s rackets.  Although a romance is blooming, the climax is a major battle to determine just who the law is in Neopolis. and who it will serve.

This is a prequel to the Top 10 series by the same creative team, and fills in some of the background of the city seen there.  As with the original series, some of the characters are thinly-veiled versions of well-known comic book and comic strip characters.  Centrally to this volume, Jetlad and Sky Witch are takeoffs of classic characters Airboy and Valkyrie.  (Airboy was also used in the Wild Cards series under another alias.)  The Sky Sharks are the Blackhawks, and other characters are pretty obvious to fans of the original material.

Gene Ha also puts in many background cameos and sign references, readers can have hours of fun trying to spot and identify them all.  The coloring also deserves a mention, using sepia tones for a nostalgic feel.

The writing, as expected from Alan Moore, is good, but tends to dip into some of his favorite themes, which had gone a bit stale by the time this series appeared.  There’s a fair amount of seamy sexual content (including a vampire brothel) which makes this volume unsuitable for younger readers.  (I’d put it senior high and up.)

If you enjoyed the main Top 10 series, this is a good addition to that.  Otherwise, I recommend this most to older comic book fans who will get the references and are able to handle the seamier aspects.

TV Review: Dick Tracy

TV Review: Dick Tracy

Dick Tracy has had many incarnations over the years, but the actor most associated with the character is Ralph Byrd, who played him in serials, movies and eventually a television show in 1950.  Unfortunately, Mr. Byrd was not in good health by this point, and the fast pace of TV production and stunt double-less action scenes took a toll on his heart.  He passed away in 1952 at age 43, and the TV series died with him.

Dick Tracy

I watched six episodes of the show on a Mill Creek DVD.  The series was very low-budget, and it shows in the sets and attempts to keep the cast of any episode as small as possible.   There’s no Junior, and public places are eerily empty.  The writing varies vastly in quality; the Hi-Jack episode is the worst for this, with five minutes of the running time eaten up by Sam Catchem recapping the events of the previous episode for Officer Murphy.

Much better is the Heels Beals episode, which features Mrs. Varnish, an indomitable woman with a dry sense of humor.

While several villains from the comics appear, the physical deformity angle is played down; Flattop is called that in this version because he wears a stupid-looking flat cap.  Heels Beals is merely short, rather than a little person.

Surprisingly, despite the usual death toll for a Dick Tracy spinoff, there are a couple of loose ends in these episodes.  At the end of the Mole two-parter, Tracy has killed two of Mole’s henchmen, but doesn’t mention even suspecting Mole of anything, let alone capture him.  Likewise, Hi-Jack just sort of disappears from his own episode, and one of his henchmen bites the dust.

Ralph Byrd continues to be a good Dick Tracy, but the uneven writing and plot holes make this not a series I’d recommend to anyone but Dick Tracy fanatics.

Open Post: Top Ten as of Right Now

I’ll be away from my computer for the next little while, so let’s have a Top Ten list post!

Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.
Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.

These are the top ten content posts for the last year.

  1. Anime Review: Labyrinth of Magic
  2. Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 1
  3. Book Review: Good Advice from Bad People (really rocketed up the charts!)
  4. Manga Review: Ayako
  5. Comic Book Review: 47 Ronin
  6. Book Review: Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right
  7. Book Review: The 47 Ronin
  8. Comic Strip Review: Dick Tracy
  9. Anime Review: Kill la Kill
  10. Manga Review: A*Tomcat

The “all time” list is identical, except that Kill la Kill and A*Tomcat trade places.

What reviews have you enjoyed?  How’s life treating you?

Have a happy Easter!

Open Thread: 2013 Roundup

Haven’t finished reading the next book in my pile yet, so let’s have a generic year’s roundup post!

Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.
Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.

People from around the globe have looked at this blog. The top ten countries for 2013 are: United States (way out in front, no surprise there), Canada, United Kingdom, France, Australia, Phillipines, Germany, Spain, Brazil and India. Only one visitor from Jamaica though. Can anyone recommend some good Jamaican books?

The top ten posts were:

  1. Anime Review: Magi – Labyrinth of Magic (Aided by the series getting a sequel in Falll 2013, still running and fairly popular.)
  2. Book Review: Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right (This autobiography of a daughter of John Birch Society stalwarts aroused a lot of interest.)
  3. Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 1 (The story of Japanese culture hero Miyamoto Musashi by the artist of Slam Dunk.)
  4. Manga Review: Ayako (A “mature readers” story by the legendary Osamu Tezuka–It’s good, but I have to wonder how many people clicked on it because of the naked lady on the cover.)
  5. Book Review: Ghosts in the Yew (This fantasy novel got almost all its clicks in one day when the author mentioned the review on his blog. He needs more fans.)
  6. Comic Strip Review: Dick Tracy (A review of the ongoing strip, still very good.)
  7. Manga Review: A*Tomcat (Another by Osamu Tezuka, this one a children’s story about an adorable kitten.)
  8. Comic Book Review: 47 Ronin (The classic Japanese based on a true story tale, illustrated by Stan Sakai. I also reviewed a book and 1962 film version, but not the 2013 film.)
  9. Manga Review: Triage X (A medical-themed vigilante tale by the artist but not the writer of Highschool of the Dead.)
  10. Comic Strip Review: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Volume 13 1950-1951 (One of the fine collected volumes of the strip’s original run.)

Other posts did not fare so well, with only a single click so far:

  • Book Review: Waco’s Debt (Part of J.T. Edson’s Western cycle.)
  • Book Review: Blood Lance (A medieval murder mystery with a guest appearance by the Spear of Victory.)
  • Book Review: Who Died in Here? (Short stories about death involving the restroom.)
  • Book Review: Torsten (The very first gay historical paranormal romance novel I’ve ever read.)
  • Book Review: Dead But Still Ticking (Humorous murder mysterry set in Columbus, Ohio.)
  • Book Review: Journeyman Wizard (YA fantasy/mystery set in a cold land.)
  • Book Review: The Devil – With Wings (Aviation pulp action set in 1930s China.)

Please consider sharing some love with these.

I’m looking forward to reading more books and writing reviews of them in 2014! Tell me what books you enjoyed reading in 2013, and what you’re looking forward to in 2014.

Happy New Year!
SKJAM!

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