Wednesday, July 19, 2017

My Discovery of Jason Isbell in Houston

Have you ever had an experience when you discover something new to you, it blows you away, and you look around and see if anyone else knows about it? That was me last night when Jason Isbell stopped at Houston’s Revention Center and blew the roof off.

Jason Isbell landed on my radar because of my wife. She heard a song, “Children of Children,” on our favorite streaming service, Radio Paradise, and played it for me. It’s a slow, quiet meditative song about his mother having him when she was just seventeen. That alone would qualify it as a great song, but when drummer Chad Gamble plays this one powerful beat, everything changes. Isbell drops the acoustic guitar, picks up an electric, complete with slide, and transforms the song into something wholly different. It is a sublime song and transcendent performance. Here he is performing it on CBS Saturday Morning in 2015 (The song starts around 1:45 but watch the short interview first).

He is touring in support of his new album, The Nashville Sound, with his band, The 400 Unit. My wife and I snatched up a pair of tickets and joined the intimate crowd at the Revention Center, a 3,400-seat venue that is the perfect size. It’s small enough that you’re never far away from the stage, but large enough to turn up the speakers and shake the rafters, which was exactly what happened last night.

Amanda Shires, a member of the 400 Unit and Isbell’s wife, opened the show. She plays violin—er, fiddle—like a lead guitar player. Her four-piece band ran through her songs with aplomb. The set was great. I don’t know about y’all, but opening acts are often the time where you chit-chat in the hallways waiting for the headliner. Not so with Shires. She held the audience with the charm and wit of her great lyrics, her beautiful voice, and surprising fiddle playing. My wife and I liked it so much we bought her new CD, My Piece of Land, right then and there.

Shortly after nine, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took the stage, opening with the powerful “Anxiety.” I don’t know the new album well, but if there was any question about the power Isbell brings to a live performance, the first few bars of this song dispelled all doubts. This song is a good example of how Isbell can take the listener from a quiet moment to a blasting cacophony in the span of a single beat. As a fan of loud music, I was enthralled and grinning ear to ear. Little did I know this was only a taste of what was in store.

On stage, Isbell knows he is the reason folks bought tickets, but he is an unpretentious performer. Other than Shires and Gamble, the 400 Unit contains Jimbo Hart on bass, Derry DeBorja on keyboards, and Sadler Vaden on electric guitar. They all sing backup vocals. This is a tight band, one of the tightest I’ve ever seen. Vaden is so talented he could front his own band. Some band leaders might balk at having someone of Vaden’s talent in the band, fearing the other guitar player would overshadow him. Not with Isbell. No matter if he’s playing electric or acoustic guitar, Isbell easily cedes the spotlight to Vaden. The pair make for a compelling set of dueling guitars, both frequently playing with a slide. With Shires singing backup harmony, she and Isbell often look at each other, bringing in that special something to the songs. Frankly it reminded me of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa. Not to make much more of the comparison, but Isbell on stage brought to mind Sprinsteen’s onstage charisma as he wandered the stage, standing next to certain members while others soloed, perfectly content to be in the shadows.

Frankly, most of these songs I heard for the first time (but not the last!). All were good, but three (no four! Five!) stuck out for me. “The Last of My Kind,” with its lyrics about modern society, being lost amid that modernity and wondering where he fits, was moving. “Cover Me Up” is the song he wrote for his wife. Again, having Shires on stage with him gave this performance that extra bit of specialness. The Revention Center is small enough that when Isbell sang “But I sobered up and I swore off that stuff forever this time,” many in the audience cheered him on, whether because they, too, beat ‘that stuff” or that he got his act together to make such gorgeous music, I couldn’t tell. Probably both.

The music of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit is a miasma of influences: rock and roll, country, soul, the Memphis sound, folk, and, of course, southern rock. He pays tribute to that influence with a massive cover of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post.” Actually, massive is too understated a word. The second of two songs in the encore, everyone was on their feet, arms waving, just letting the music blowing off the stage wash over them. Shires soloed, but it wasn’t just some simple fiddle thing. It was high energy, rock and roll fiddle. Vaden took over and brought the level higher. Isbell is a master at taking the listener up and down the musical roller coaster. When I thought it couldn’t get any more intense, Isbell showcases why he is likely one of the most gifted guitarist playing today. I’m not exaggerating when I say the final song left me breathless. Even my wife, who isn’t always a fan of loud music—she even commented on it earlier in the show—was smiling at the intensity of this performance.

For some unknown reason, Jason Isbell hasn’t been on my listening radar. That all changed last night. His lyrics have depth and weight. He is one of the best guitar players I’ve ever seen—and I’ve been watching live music for over thirty years. As I was leaving last night, I heard some folks behind me talk about how underrated he is. Damn right. Those that have seen him live know how good he is. I now count myself among the converted. His on stage performance and energy captivated the audience last night. Isbell is a powerful singer. He could easily fill up the Toyota Center with his voice and music. Heck, he could play at the Houston Rodeo and fill up NRG Stadium. At least there, they could open the roof.

I have a pretty broad musical palette but somehow, up until now, have missed Jason Isbell. He’s a two-time Grammy winner! How did I not know about him? That ended last night. And I’m the better for it.

He will undoubtedly and deservedly play for bigger and bigger audiences the more folks discover him. The jealous part of me kind of hopes he keeps playing in smaller, more intimate venues like the Revention, but those days are likely numbered.

I’m so glad my wife discovered him, thrilled that we got tickets to the show last night, and blown away at what a complete performer and lyricist Jason Isbell is. He is the best open secret in the music business.

Here is his 2017 performance on CBS which includes three songs from The Nashville Sound. This performance compelled the couple who sat next to us last night to drive an hour from Galveston, on a week night, to hear Isbell perform.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jared Martin: RIP

One of the many blogs I have in my Feedly feed is Space 1970. The tagline says it all: Celebrating the Science Fiction Films and Television of the Polyster Decade.

With the recent passing of Martin Landau and George Romero, blogger Christopher Mills listed some other actors we have lost this year. One of them was Jared Martin. You know his face, most likely.

He starred in the 1977 show "The Fantastic Journey" playing Varian, a time traveler. The show centered on a group of scientist who get lost in the Bermuda Triangle. Together, they meet up with other travelers and have adventures as they try to find their way back home. Roddy McDowall was in it as was Ike Eisenmann, veteran of Disney's Witch Moutain movies. One of those adventurers was a lady from Atlantis. Bermuda Triangle and Atlantis? Perfect 70s combination.

But the character that struck me most of Martin's Varian. With no makeup, he just came across as otherworldly. Probably was the eyes. He carried some sort of weapon that resembled a tuning fork. Imagine my great delight when I discovered my mom had a tuning fork! Naturally that led me to many backyard adventures in which mom's tuning fork was Varian's weapon.

Anyway, those are just a few thoughts that entered my mind when I learn of Jared Martin's passing. He later went on to star in TV's Dallas, but it will be for The Fantastic Journey by which I'll remember him. Yet another childhood actor gone.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Erle Stanley Gardner Acted Like An Independent Author

According to my Half Price Books calendar, today marks the 128th birthday of Erle Stanley Gardner. I noticed that fact yesterday while sipping coffee and thought I would commemorate the birthday with a little thought experiment.

Erle Stanley Gardner acted like an independent author even though he was traditionally published.

Let me explain, but first a bit of background.

We writers all have our list of go-to books that helped us hone our skills and learn how to be a writer. One of those books rarely shows up on when we discuss famous writing books. It’s called The Secrets of the World’s Best–Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner by Francis L and Roberta B Fugate. The book was published in 1980. It’s the story of how Gardner went from being merely a lawyer to, at the time of his death in 1970, the world’s best-selling writer. It is a fascinating book. When I first discovered it a few years ago, I checked it out from the Houston Public Library and read through it very quickly. I took copious notes. I mean a lot of notes. I ended up reading it a second time and then a third time. There is little about Gardner’s personal life; instead, this is a “biography” of how writer practiced, honed his skills, and ultimately, was successful.

The Erle Stanley Gardner papers are housed at the University of Texas at Austin at the Harry Ransom Center. When I attended school there, I never knew it and, let’s be honest, I had never read any of Gardner’s books. The two Fugates scoured through all of Gardner’s papers and pulled out a wonderful history — complete with many of Gardner’s own notes — of the steps he took to become the writer he became. The appendices are wonderful and there are even a few photographs of Gardner’s own handwritten notebooks complete with descriptions, timelines, and all the other things he needed to craft his mystery books. A particularly neat thing is the transcription of a lecture he gave to the writers of the Perry Mason TV show back in 1959. And when I say transcription, I’m talking about an 8 to 10 page block quote. He basically summed up everything you needed to know about how he wrote all his books in this single transcription.

So how do the writings of Gardner and independent authors collide?

As independent authors in 2017, we are urged to publish regularly and frequently. This helps us build up an audience as quick as possible and, if one can maintain a certain writing production, it will give our readers a constant flow of our work. There are many different definitions of “publish regularly and frequently.” Current thought is readers prefer 3-4 books a year. If you think about it, even a moderately paced writing schedule of 1000 words a day (30 minutes or less) can yield, more or less, four books a year that you can then publish.

The reason I bring up Erle Stanley Gardner when talking about independent publishing is his publishing schedule. Now, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m only talking about his novels. He honed his skill as a pulp writer in the 20s and early 30s, writing short stories, novelettes, and novellas. At one point in his early writing career, he set a goal of 1.2 million words a year. That comes out to a 10,000-word novelette every three days. I know some modern-day writers who can achieve this feat — James Reasoner being one of them — but the mere fact of writing a million words a year is incredibly staggering. That's 2740 words a day. But with the writing and publication of Gardner’s first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, Gardner turned toward writing more books and fewer short stories.

Consider these statistics. In 1933, he published two Perry Mason novels. In 1934, he published three. In 1935 and 1936, he published two each. So that’s nine books and four years. Starting in 1937, things get more interesting. In 1937, he published three novels, two Perry Mason’s and one of his Doug Selby, DA, series. In 1938, same thing: two Perry Mason books and one DA book. Now comes 1939. We get two Perry Mason books, one DA book, and the debut of the Cool and Lam series. That’s four books in one year! He tops himself in 1940: two Cool and Lam books published*, two Perry Mason books, and one DA book. So, if you do the math, in the first eight years of his novel writing career, Erle Stanley Gardner published 24 books in three different series.

*The Fugates' book was published well before the discovery of the manuscript that became THE KNIFE SLIPPED, the 30th Cool and Lam novel but the second one written. It turned out that the publisher thought the content of THE KNIFE SLIPPED too much for readers in 1939. Instead of revising the novel, Gardner simply wrote another book altogether (TURN ON THE HEAT).

And he kept writing and selling stories to the pulps, although at a slower pace than before. Just for curiosity’s sake, I extracted all the material Gardner published in 1939. Here it is and I'll leave it up to you to factor in the writing time. NOTE: I left in the January 1940 publication of TURN ON THE HEAT knowing he wrote two Cool and Lam novels in 1939. The novels are in capitals.

Published Bibliography 1939

  • THE BIGGER THEY COME (Cool and Lam #1 written and published) January 1939
  • "The Monkey Murder" Detective Story January 1939 Lester Leith novelette
  • "Without Gloves"–Clues–January 1939–Barney Killigen novelette
  • "It's the McCoy"–Dime Detective–January 1939–Paul Pry novelette
  • THE CASE OF THE PERJURED PARROT (Perry Mason #14) – February 1939
  • "Unstuffing One Shirt"–Clues–February 1939–Barney Killigen novelette
  • "The Seven Sinister Sombreros"–Detective Story–February 1939–Lester Leith novelette
  • "The Joss of Tai Wong"–Adventure–March 1939
  • "The Fourth Musketeer"–Detective Story–March 1939–Lester Leith novelette
  • "Take It or Leave It"–Black Mask–March 1939–Pete Wennick novelette
  • "The Rhyme and Reason"–Detective Story–April 1939–Lester Leith novelette
  • "The Queen of Shanghai Night"–Detective Story–May 1939–Lester Leith novelette
  • "Dogs of Death"–Clues–May 1939–Barney Killigen novelette
  • "The Eyebrow Moon"–Toronto Star Weekly–May 13, 1939
  • "The Ring of Fiery Eyes"–Detective Story–August 1939–Lester Leith novelette
  • THE D.A. DRAWS A CIRCLE (Selby #3) –September 1939
  • "Dark Alleys"–Black Mask–September 1939–Ed Jenkins novelette
  • "Lester Leith, Magician"–Detective Fiction Weekly–September 16, 1939–Lester Leith novelette
  • "A Thousand to One"–Detective Fiction Weekly–October 28, 1939–Lester Leith novelette
  • "Mystery by Inches"–Toronto Star Weekly–October 28–December 23, 1939
  • THE CASE OF THE ROLLING BONES (Perry Mason #15) –November 1939
  • "A Hearse for Hollywood"–Double Detective–November 1939–Jax Keen novelette
  • "Fair Exchange"–Detective Fiction Weekly–November 18, 1939–Lester Leith novelette
  • "A Headache for Butch"–Double Detective–December 1939–Ed Migrane, the Headache, novelette
  • "At Arm's Length"–Detective Fiction Weekly–December 9, 1939–Jerry Marr, P. I.
  • "Where Angels Fear to Tread"–Detective Fiction Weekly–December 30, 1939

1940–TURN ON THE HEAT (Cool and Lam #2 published; #3 written) – Morrow – January 1940

So yeah, Erle Stanley Gardner pretty much published like an independent author. The only difference between him and what we do in 2017 is that he had a traditional publisher who, frankly, did the marketing for him. And it was the 1930s, so things were different. And he was able to devote all his time to writing. And he dictated everything. Famously, he dictated the first Perry Mason book in three days. He said it took him a half a day to come up with the plot and 2 1/2 days to dictate the entire book. Wow. I’m majorly impressed.

And if you want one more little tidbit from the mind of Erle Stanley Gardner regarding how he thought about his readers and the editors of the pulp magazines in the 1920s, there is this: “My own approach to the question is different from that of the critic. I am a writer. I serve the reading public. The reading public is my master.” And, according to the Fugates, “After that, he became an outspoken exponent of the idea the publisher of the magazine was simply acting as a middleman in purveying merchandise — story supplied by writers — to readers, the ultimate consumers.”

Erle Stanley Gardner. He acted like an independent author when such a thing rarely existed. Now it does. I wonder how many authors can replicate his success over the nearly 40 years of his novel-writing career? I have my own answer. I aim to try.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

I know far less about Spider-Man than I do about Batman, Superman, or most of the DC Comics heroes. I was a DC-first guy growing up and I pretty much stayed that way ever since. But, of all the Marvel heroes, I know Spider-Man the most. Which is to say I’ve barely read a Spider-Man comic since the Ultimate version around 2000, but I read a lot them back in the day, mostly in the reprints of the original Steve Ditko-Stan Lee run. I watched the Tobey Maguire movies—enjoyed them, except the third which I can barely remember—and missed the Andrew Garfield ones altogether. But when Spidey showed up in Captain America: Civil War last year, I was thrilled. They way he interacted with the other heroes, the quips, the isn’t-this-awesomeness of Spider-Man being played as what he started out to be—a high school kid—was fantastic. Even with my limited knowledge of the character, I knew that, at last, we had a live action Spidey that matched the early comics.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is all of that and more. In a real sense, this is a high school movie about Peter Parker who just happens to be Spider-Man. All the teenaged angst, awkwardness, and attitude just puddles over in nearly every scene of this movie. This is a high school film, and I mean that in a good way. I saw the film with my boy and his friend. I laughed at the moments in the film because I remembered them; they laughed at the same moments because they are now living through them.

Tom Holland is now twenty-one, which meant he was 19 or 20 when filming this movie. And he looks five years younger. Pitch perfect casting. He showed, often through facial expressions, the awkwardness of being a fifteen-year-old boy in high school. His best friend, Ned, played by Jacob Batalon, is exactly how most of us would be when we discover our friend is Spider-Man. Man, he SO wants to tell everyone, and often he’s barely restraining the urge to blurt out “Peter Parker is Spider-Man!” Loved him because he is me.

But if you want pitch perfect casting, look no further than Michael Keaton. It’s be 25 years since his last stint as Batman, but he’s always played a great bad guy. Remember Pacific Heights? I loved to hate him in that movie. In this, well, frankly, his character, Adrian Toomes, does things some of us might do. The film opens with a flashback to the aftermath of the first Avengers film with much of New York destroyed. Toomes and his men are contracted to salvage, but the new Department of Damage Control takes over. He’s overextended himself, he’s got a family and employees who rely on him. What is he supposed to do? Well, he never turns in some of the alien technology he already salvaged and he and his team become weapons dealers with Keaton himself being the man who, over the eight years since the flashback, steals more tech from Damage Control.


In the trailers, Toomes talks about Tony Stark and all of his rich friends and the powerful heroes that make such destruction. Toomes is disgusted that Stark helped create Damage Control, so the very man who makes the destruction also gets paid to clean it up. He’s got a point. Going into the movie, you think Toomes is talking to fellow bad guys, trying to enlist their help to do some thievery. But no! He’s talking to Spider-Man who, at this point, he knows is Peter Parker. Nice twist there.

But perhaps the best sequence of the film is one of the smallest, most intimate scenes: three people in a car. Peter finally gets up the courage to ask his crush, Liz, to homecoming. She says yes. She’s played by Laura Harrier, a young woman of color. The entire film, Toomes is talking about providing for his family. Keaton is no a person of color. So when Peter knocks on Liz’s door to pick her up for the dance, he, and probably the entire audience, never expected to see Toomes opening the door!

Now, my instant reaction was “Vulture found out who Peter likes and is holding her hostage!” But no. Toomes really is her dad. His wife is African-American and thus you have the best twist of the entire movie. Which leads to the best sequence in the film.

Toomes drives Peter and Liz to the dance. Spider-Man has already saved Liz’s life. Peter knows Toomes is Vulture, but Toomes, at the start of the scene, doesn’t know Peter is Spidey. In the course of the drive to school, you see, via Keaton’s nuanced acting, Toomes figure out Peter is Spidey! In a nod to what makes Keaton such a fantastic actor, he arrives at school and asks Liz to step out so “I can have the dad talk with Peter.” Keaton delivers that one line as a comedy beat, complete with a funny face. In that instant, he’s Beetlejuice. In the next, he’s stone cold bad…but with a twist. He tells Peter thanks for saving his daughter’s life, go inside and show her a good time—“but not too good”; he’s still a dad!—and forget all about the Vulture’s arms dealings.

Now, do you think Peter is gonna do that? Yeah, me neither.


There are so many good moments in the film that I’ll happily see it again. You should, too. This is a super-hero film that’ll put a smile on your face early on and it’ll rarely leave.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Killing: Season 1 Episode 1

For a few weeks now, my wife has been enjoying AMC’s The Killing. I know next to nothing about it other than it is an American remake (re-imagining?) of a Danish show called “The Crime” (I had to look up that last bit). In my walks into and out of the TV room, I’ve noted a few things, namely the actors.

As a recent fan of House of Cards, I immediately recognized Joel Kinnaman. In HOC, he plays Governor Will Conway, the man who ran for president against Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood. I also took note of Michelle Forbes who I know as Ensign Ro from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Other than those two actors, I knew nothing about the show other than my wife loved it and constantly reiterated, “You know, you’d really love this show.”

Maybe, but isn’t The Killing yet another cop show?

Well, last night, I gave the first episode of season 1 a viewing. With a title like “The Killing,” you know there is going to be one, and you see it right out of the gate. No surprise there. But you don’t know who the victim actually is. The scenes of the victim running for her life are cut in with our lead character, Detective Sarah Linden on her last day as a detective with Seattle’s police department. We learn she’s going to marry her second husband and she and her fifteen-year-old son will move down near San Francisco. She’s packing her office when Kinnaman’s Stephen Holder waltzes in to his new office. Naturally, her boss instructs her to head up the investigation until 6pm that day. She’s got a flight at 9:30pm and, according to the boss, she’s still on the city’s dime.

Along with those scenes, you see a family with Michelle Forbes as the mom. It’s no slight of hand to know that this is the family to which the victim belongs, made even more obvious by the fact that their seventeen-year-old daughter hasn’t checked in since Forbes, her husband, and their two elementary age boys returned from their weekend camping trip.

You know where this is going as much as I did. The victim is the daughter. Detective Linden will somehow not get on the plane, and her last case will be the one that’ll likely cause some domestic strife with her fiancĂ©e.

But those elements are not in this episode. What is present is one of the more agonizing scenes of parents learning their child is dead I have ever seen. My benchmark for this kind of thing is Sean Penn’s character from Mystic River. That animalistic roar that Penn spews out is heartbreaking. In The Killing, you have something similar. Brent Sexton plays the father and he’s driving out to the location where his daughter’s friend said she went. He’s on the phone with Forbes. In the previous scene, the dad said he was heading out to the island to pick up their daughter. Forbes sighs with relief as does the dad…until he sees the police lights.

At the same time, the detectives are discovering the victim’s final resting place. Their reactions—especially that of Kinnaman (who is a narc cop coming over to homicide)—are great. But what tears your heart out are the reactions from the dad and Forbes, who can only hear what’s going on via her phone. Excellent, excellent scene and it truly rips your heart out of your chest.

What began, for me, as yet another cop show transformed in that moment. I’m all in for The Killing.

Yeah, I guess my wife was right after all.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

ESCAPE is the third movie of the original five-movie Planet of the Apes saga. If I’ve ever watched it, I have no conscious memory of it, so, for all intents and purposes, this is my first time viewing it.

BTW, for those keeping score at home, you’ll likely note there is no review for Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). I wrote one for the original 1968 film. It is better this way. I just flat-out didn’t like it and was glad they went ahead with ESCAPE.

ESCAPE opens with a great shot: three astronauts emerging from the same spacecraft Charleton Heston used in the original POTA movie, except this time, when the trio remove their helmets, they are revealed to be apes! From the future! The producers, probably realizing their mistake with BENEATH, brought back the two best apes from the first film, Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and threw in a third one who dies pretty quickly and I’ve already forgotten his name. Thus, two simultaneous things are at play now: the apes can comment on modern culture circa 1971 and the producers can save a ton of money by needing only to have two actors in make up.

Zira and Cornelius are befriended by a kind scientist, Dr. Lewis Dixon, who takes them on a whirlwind tour of Los Angeles (another way to save money by shooting locally) and letting them experience everything we humans take for granted. In the meantime, the President has started a special commission to determine what to do with the pair of simians and what nefarious means they might or might not have used to overpower Heston’s character in the future.

Naturally, there are misunderstandings and imprisonments, escapes and chases. A few things struck me, however. There is a lot of talking in this film (and the previous two). Characters discuss who should live or die and what it means to be the dominant caretaker special of the planet. The humans, of course, are horrified that the future apes experimented on humans, forgetting that we humans now experiment on nearly all animals considered lower than us on the food chain. It was also nice to see the President being a voice of reason. Too often in films, this is not the case. Lastly, I find it strange that the humans of 1971 care so much about events 2,000 years in the future. We must kill these two apes now to prevent Future Apes from becoming the dominant species. Really? But it’s a decent plot point.

The ending was a surprise when I watched the film but not so much given some more time for thought. There was little where to go with the current story line so it needed to end the way it did. Not nearly as iconic as the original POTA film, but right in line with nearly every other monster movie ever made.

A little nuance struck me while watching the film. If you take the titles literally, then ESCAPE is the three Future Apes escaping back into the past in order to live. However, as the story progresses, you can also interpret the title to mean that we humans in 1971 are the “beasts” and that the Future Apes must escape from 1971. But they have nowhere to go.

Enjoyable film and I’m looking forward to the next one, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

Friday, June 23, 2017

23 June 1989: The Real Batman Day

Where were you 28 years ago today? Probably standing in line to see BATMAN.

It may be difficult to imagine now, in 2017, a year in the golden age of superhero movies, but there was a time when a single superhero film dominated everything. And I mean everything.

BATMAN, the 1989 film directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jack Nicholson as The Joker, was a cultural phenomenon in every sense of the word. The long gestating film had started production the previous year and if you thought the backlash the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman created was something, you have no idea when the casting of Keaton, primarily known for his comedies, caused. I can’t remember my own impressions for Keaton, but I remember quite vividly my thoughts on Joker. My choice, if you were going by the comic book look and feel, was Peter O’Toole. Sure, he was older, but he had The Grin. But when Nicholson was cast, I was like “Of course!”

Pictures in Starlog the spring of 1989 gave us the first glimpse of the all-black Batsuit and Keaton in it. I was sold! Then photos of Nicholson’s Joker emerged and I was so excited! I was and am an easy mark in that respect. A lifelong comic book fan, it was so cool to see Batman in real life.

Batman ‘66

Let me pause here a moment to comment on the 1966 Batman. At the time, I was 20 and had come of age just as comics realized they could be darker and grittier. I was almost the perfect age to read The Dark Knight Returns and Year One and The Killing Joke. So, in 1989, I was distancing myself from TV’s Batman, the way I was first introduced to the character. Gone in my mind was the funny Batman. Here was the grim Batman, the way he was in the 1940s comics and the 1970s comics. Ironically, 28 years later and with the passing of Adam West, I’m ready for grimdark Batman to go away or, at least, make a way for more than one version.

The Preview

Back in those pre-YouTube days, the only way you could see a trailer was to go to a movie and buy a ticket. I’m not sure how but I learned that the Batman trailer was attached to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Boom! I couldn’t get to the theater fast enough. There it was, with no music and what seemed like unmixed sound, was Batman, alive, moving, beating up bad guys and driving a kick-ass Batmobile with fire out the back! And Joker. Heavens, how awesome he looked. And I loved the line Robert Wuhl’s reporter asked: “Is there a six-foot bat in Gotham City?” And Batman crashing through the skylight? The only question in the spring was how many days until 23 June?

The Movie

I can’t remember for sure if I went to the midnight showing or day one showing. I worked at a movie theater the summer of 1989—a great summer of movies*—so I’m pretty confident that I saw it at midnight with the throngs of other folks. Like just about everyone, I lost it. This was the movie we had been waiting our entire lives for! The Danny Elfman score. The opening scene when the mugger asks what are you and Keaton says “I’m Batman” (still my absolutely favorite part). The gadgets. Keaton doing a wonderful job. Nicholson chewing scenery. The fight in the alley with the sword guy. The Batmobile doing…anything. The menace of Joker. The reveal that Joker/Jack Napier killed Bruce’s parents. Prince’s music. The Batplane. The quotes (“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” “Never rub another man’s hubarb” “I didn’t ask.” “You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts.” “My life is…complicated.”) The final confrontation. The final scene with the Bat-signal. It was utterly awesome.

BATMAN got everyone. The hard-core comics fans flocked to see the movie multiple times. The casual viewer enjoyed it. Your grandpa enjoyed it. Everyone, it seemed, had seen the movie at least once, and chatted about it. Was it the last great common movie everyone saw? I’m not sure, but it was certainly a milestone.

Oh, and the merchandise! Good grief! Batman stuff was everywhere. And, yeah, I bought my fair share. Why the heck not? Up until then, the amount of Batman/superhero stuff available to purchase was meager at best. Nowhere near what it’s like today.

I can’t remember how many times I saw the film. Enough for me to memorize huge chunks of the movie.

Looking Back

The irony now, for many of us who distanced ourselves from the 1966 Batman in 1989, is that the Batman '89, when compared to the Christian Bale films and Batman v Superman, looks more campy than we ever saw at the time. But that’s only in comparison to what came afterwards. Sure, the immediate next film, 1992’s Batman Returns, went very dark, only to be brightened by 1995’s Batman Forever and, ahem, 1997’s Batman and Robin. When you compare those four films, Batman is the second darkest. But it’s still funny when you look at it now. Something the new Wonder Woman movie realized and got correct.

But not in 1989. In that year, we comic book readers thought our time had finally arrived. We had our dark Batman. What was next? Another Superman? What about those Marvel characters? And when’s the Justice League gonna land in our laps?

Well, we still had to wait another decade until 2000’s X-Men to kick off this current Golden Age of Superhero Movies. This current run of films has produced some truly great movies (Dark Knight; Spider-Man 2; Batman Begins; all three Captain America movies; Avengers; Ant-Man, and, in 2017, Wonder Woman) but it all had to start somewhere. Technically, the run started in 1978 with SUPERMAN THE MOVIE (Boy, am I so happy they didn’t put “The Movie” at the end of “Batman”), but the run of superhero movies started with BATMAN.

I’m so glad I was alive at the time to enjoy it.

What were some of your thoughts about the movie?

*The other movies of Summer 1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; When Harry Met Sally; Star Trek V; License to Kill; Ghostbusters 2; Dead Poet’s Society; Karate Kid II (forget the movie; love “Glory of Love”); Lethal Weapon 2; Parenthood; The Abyss.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Now Available: A Father's Justice: A Junction City Western

A man shouldn't outlive his son. Neither should his killer.

IN A SEARING NEW WESTERN FROM AUTHOR S. D. PARKER, you will discover all a father will endure to see justice done right by his murdered son.

Luke Russell was a cowpuncher, making an honest way in the world at one of the biggest ranches outside of Junction City. But he got himself in trouble over a girl, and he paid the ultimate price.

Now, a stranger's in town, asking after Pete Davidson, the man who put a bullet in Luke Russell's gut. This stranger is old, and folks realize it's Luke father, come to kill Davidson. The gunslinger is young and vibrant, just like Luke Russell was. The old man doesn't stand a chance.

Or does he?

The answer comes in a brand-new western written in the style of Robert Vaughn, Louis L'Amour, and Chet Cunningham.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Honoring Strangers

It was the fire trucks that got me.

A week ago, my cousin passed away. He was 87 and lived a good, long life. What made him unique in our family was his profession. The son of a sheriff here in Texas, my cousin worked for the Texas Department of Public Safety before becoming a Texas Ranger for two decades. And boy did he love being a Ranger.

His service was this past Saturday. As you could imagine, the folks who turned out for the service consisted of many current and former Rangers and DPS veterans. The casket even had an honor guard, complete with the changing of the guard. It was a somber ceremony punctuated with humorous moments, including one old timer who quipped that “today would be a good day for a jail break.”

The ceremony was nice, but it was the funeral procession that really got me. My first clue this was something special was the highway patrol officer who blocked traffic right as we left the funeral home. He stood there, in the early summer heat, in front of his car, and saluted until the last car in the procession had gone. From there, we drove about half an hour to the cemetery. What I saw reminded me of some good old-fashioned values that I hadn’t seen in a long time.

All along the route, oncoming cars didn’t merely slow down as the procession passed, they stopped. I live in Houston and I love living in a big city. Motorcycle police make a path for funeral processions here and cars slow, but they don’t always stop. I do because my parents taught me to show respect to strangers, and I’m instilling that trait in my son who will be driving soon. But things are different in small town central Texas. Every car stopped and pulled over. They didn’t know who the procession was for, but it was a funeral procession, so they stopped. That was awesome to witness.

By the time we reached the little town where my cousin would be laid to rest, I had become accustomed to the sight of these Texans paying their respects by stopping for a few minutes of their day. But when we reached the main intersection of that small town, we saw something even more powerful. The local lawmen and firemen had blocked the intersection with all the local fire trucks. It was our last right turn before we took the smaller roads to get to the cemetery. This is what we saw.

Man, that was a great sight. I was driving, but my eyes welled with tears. 

The graveside ceremony was somber, filled with quiet dignity and ceremony—complete with a trumpeter playing taps and the honor guard meticulously removing the Texas flag from the casket—but it will be the fire engines that stay with me. It reminded me that dignity and honor, even for strangers, is something worth taking the time to do. 

I remembered that yesterday as I walked outside around my office building on a break. When I reached the corner, I heard the distinctive “whoop whoop” of police motorcycle sirens. It was a funeral procession. Remembering what I had seen over the weekend, I stopped walking and turned off my music until the procession had passed. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Forgotten Books: The Fourth Gunman by Merle Constiner

Sometimes, a western features a guy walking, riding, talking, and thinking. But little in the way of shooting.

THE FOURTH GUNMAN by Merle Constiner is the first book I’ve read by him. It is one half of an Ace Double, the flip side being SLICK ON THE DRAW by Tom West. I own a handful of Ace Doubles and, based on the description, I chose Constiner’s book first.

The story revolves around George Netfield, proprietor of a saloon up in Kirkville, Wyoming (I think). He is what you’d typically find in a western written in 1958: tough, lean, cunning, quick on the draw, but quicker on talking. But the end of chapter 1, one of his workers lays dead. He realizes there are some bad men roaming around the county, many of them from the 7 Diamond ranch. Additionally, some of the finer men in the county are gathering up steam in a more legal manner. Lastly, a small cadre of gun totters made their presence known. I think you can guess how many there were by the title.

Little by little, Netfield seems to be the only man who discerns what’s really going on. He’s out to stop it, but roadblocks and bad hombres keep getting in his way. A rich man by the name of Crewe, old and somewhat enfeebled, doesn’t think much of Netfield’s suspicions, especially considering Crewe has employed two of the bad guys. Little by little, the noose around Netfield tightens, and he has only a few allies…if they can stay alive.

Perhaps it’s just an assumption but I’ve always thought of westerns, especially older pulp-inspired westerns from the 1950s, as action-packed romps with lots of shoot-outs and fighting. THE FOURTH GUNMAN certainly has its share of fighting, but it is few and far between. There are a few fine action sequences, one in a lumber yard that’s positively stellar. But I have to admit much of the action was over so quick that I have double-back and re-read certain sentences to verify bullets were loosed. The action was so quick that the gunshots were over in a sentence. At first I was surprised, but the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that true violence back in the old west was often swift, brutal, deadly, and over within seconds. Then my respect for Constiner’s book grew.

But still it seemed that Netfield did a lot of talking. The story read a bit like a detective tale, where Netfield would go here or there, gathering pieces of information, and then piecing it together. He wouldn’t always tell other characters and, thus, we readers would also be in the dark. But along the way, the cast of suspects keeps growing and  you pretty much figure out what the bad guys are up to, and then it is only a matter of time to see how Netfield would get through the book.

Whenever I read westerns—heck, any book really—I always have a pencil in my hand so I can circle or underline a word, a phrase, or a bit of history. There were few pages without a mark when I completed this novel, not the least of which was Constiner’s great descriptions of the landscape and the towns. For a genre that likes and prefers lean storytelling and descriptions, Constiner made the extra effort to color his prose well.

I enjoyed THE FOURTH GUNMAN and will certain pick up future Merle Constiner books when I see them.

Anyone else read this book? Any recommendations for other Constiner books?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Father's Justice: Excerpt

Excerpt from A Father’s Justice: A Junction City Western


Now Available at Amazon.

Chapter 1

If there was one thing bartender Hector Alonzo knew, it was trouble. And when he got a look at the man standing outside the Lampasas Saloon, Hector’s gut clenched into a tight, little knot. He finished pouring a mug of beer for the two ranch hands leaning on the bar and sidled over to where the two parts of the bar formed the crux of the L and waited. His thick fingers casually caressed the smooth oak of his shotgun’s stock, the gun within easy reach of the proprietor but out of view from all the patrons.

The stranger was tall and rangy. He looked like he spent his days astride a horse. The brim of his brown, sweat-stained hat was pulled low, obscuring all but the hard jaw, which was unshaven. The stranger’s lips were drawn into a thin line, almost like a grimace. His clothes had seen better days as well. Sweat stained his armpits, chest, and collar. His pants had patches mending the frayed fabric. His boots were well worn. A pistol, a Colt by the look of the worn handle, was slung low on his right leg, held in place by a leather thong around his thigh.

Hector recognized the type. He stood behind the bar, polishing glasses and cleaning up from the lunch crowd. The ranch hands were the only customers remaining. From the back came the sounds of pots being scrubbed and readied for the evening. The late afternoon sun slanted into the saloon from dusty windows, giving the interior a muted glow.

The stranger paused just inside the batwing doors. He turned his head long and slow, taking in the saloon. His scan paused a moment to inspect the poker tables, empty and waiting for the evening’s patrons. His eyes followed the stairs up to the second floor with the rooms that featured Hector’s other business offerings. The stranger’s mouth twitched. Finally, his eyes met Hector’s. Even though this was his place, Hector inwardly shrank a little under the steady gaze.

As the stranger entered the Lampasas Saloon, a gust of wind followed him, bringing with it the scent of horse manure, dust, and grime. He wore no spurs. The only sound he made was the soft clomping of worn heels.

“I’m lookin’ for Pete Davidson.” The stranger’s voice was old, aged with smoke, and hardened by time out on the range.

Hector knew Davidson. Everyone in town did. Hector only wondered what fresh hell Davidson had cooked up to get another man to come looking for him.

To the stranger, Hector said, “He ain’t here.”

“I can see that.”

Slowly, the stranger walked to the bar. Outside, passersby went about the business of Junction City. The courthouse lawn was free of people on this Saturday afternoon. The Gilmour children walked with their mother across the street, a rangy dog followed them. The clip-clop of hooves and a squeaky wagon wheel pierced the stillness of a late summer’s afternoon.

The stranger reached the bar and leaned on it. “Can I get a beer, please?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin. He laid it on the wood pockmarked with knife marks and carvings.
Hector retrieved a fresh glass and filled it. He slid the coin into his hands and stepped back, putting his butt against the far wall. “Why’re you looking for Pete?”

The stranger removed his hat and set it on the bar. His matted hair was predominantly gray. What color remained was brown.

“That’s between me and him.” He downed half the brew in a single gulp. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stared at himself in the mirror behind the bar.

Hector had the impression the stranger had forgotten all about him. It wasn’t until Hector fidgeted that the stranger again took notice of him.

“You ever know you have to do something but don’t know if you’ve got it in you?” the stranger asked.

Hector was used to men talking to him, giving up their secrets. But that was from men he knew. “I reckon.”

The stranger shook his head. “Bet you have more than one cuss saying something like this?”

Hector nodded. He spoke when he realized the stranger wasn’t looking at him. “Yes.”

The stranger took another swallow. He drew his attention to the bar top and the gouges in it. Knife cuts and initials coated most of the surface. Some men carved their entire names. The stranger traced his hands over one name, his fingers caressing each letter of the name. His beer forgotten, he studied each of the names carved into the wood.

Hector said, “A few boys carved their names into the wood. I used to get after them, made them fix up what they did. But as you can see”—he indicated a place nearer him—“the fix looks worse’n the carvin’. Pretty soon, I kinda liked having the names in the wood. Became kinda like a rite of passage. New man in town ain’t accepted into town lessen’ he puts his name on my bar.”

The stranger wasn’t listening. He went up one side of the bar then returned to his spot. He moved his beer glass and started reading the names and initials on the other side of the bar.

His fingers stopped on a name. A little gasp of recognition escaped his lips.

Hector moved to see the name that had stopped the stranger. “Luke.” Hector’s blood froze in his veins. He remembered the man who belonged to that name. He remembered how he died.

Realization dawned on Hector. “You kin to Luke?”

The stranger didn’t answer. “You knew him?”

“A little.” Hector shrugged. “He was new in town, got shown the ropes by the other cow punchers up on the Alistair ranch. He was a little wet behind the ears, but he learned fast.”

The stranger kept staring at the name. “How did he die?”

Hector hesitated. “Look, mister, I don’t…”

“How did he die?” the stranger repeated, this time in a forceful voice.

For the rest of the story, A Father's Justice is available at Amazon.

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Father's Justice: Description

A man shouldn't outlive his son. Neither should his killer.

IN A SEARING NEW WESTERN FROM AUTHOR S. D. PARKER, you will discover all a father will endure to see justice done right by his murdered son.

Luke Russell was a cowpuncher, making an honest way in the world at one of the biggest ranches outside of Junction City. But he got himself in trouble over a girl, and he paid the ultimate price.

Now, a stranger's in town, asking after Pete Davidson, the man who put a bullet in Luke Russell's gut. This stranger is old, and folks realize it's Luke father, come to kill Davidson. The gunslinger is young and vibrant, just like Luke Russell was. The old man doesn't stand a chance.

Or does he?

The answer comes in a brand-new western written in the style of Robert Vaughn, Louis L'Amour, and Chet Cunningham.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Forgotten Books: The Pulp Jungle by Frank Gruber

When I read Frank Gruber’s retelling of his days as a struggling then successful pulp fiction writer from the 1930s, I realized something important: I don’t have it so bad here in 2017.

Frank Gruber was one of the more well-known and prolific authors to emerge from the pulp fiction years from the 1920s through World War II. By his own estimates, Gruber wrote more than 300 pulp fiction yarns, 60 novels, and more than 200 screenplays and television scripts. THE PULP JUNGLE is his retelling of his time as a writer, how he started, how he persevered, the decisions he made, and how it all turned out.

In a word, it is a sobering read.

Like many of the successful pulp writers in the depth of the Great Depression, Gruber wrote everything. A ledger from the months August 1932 to June 1934 indicated he wrote 174 “pieces” which totaled 620,000 words, all on a Remington manual typewriter. He called himself a sloppy writer, so he had to retype everything after he corrected the manuscript. The fiction spanned the gamut: Sunday School stories, detective stories, love stories, spicy stories, sports stories, etc. Those words were not solely fiction. He wrote tons of articles often on topics he had to learn on the fly. In the book, Gruber lists the dollar amounts he earned for various pieces. Even in 1932 dollars, those meager sales didn’t add up to a living wage.

But he persevered. His move to New York in 1934 proved to be the kind of starving artist story that sounds good when you’ve made it but horrible at the time. He arrived in the Big Apple with the Remington, clothes that fit into a suitcase, and $40 after paying rent. And “I had something else…the will to succeed.” But those early New York years were bad. He “existed. Some days I had a single meal, some days I tasted no food at all other than the tomato soup at the Automat.” The tomato soup in question is actually warm water (which was free), catsup (also free), and crackers (free). That was the “soup.”

Gruber got two breaks that helped him on his way. One came from honesty. He had been paid twice for a single story and, reluctantly, Gruber had sent the second check back. That ended up paying dividends when the editor of Writer’s Digest came calling to see the man who had returned that check. The editor paid Gruber to be a contact in New York.

The other break—The Big Break—came in 1934 in one of those great true tales you hear. Gruber gets a call on Friday afternoon. Operator #5 was going to press the next day but was a story short. Could Gruber write a 5500-word story overnight? In his retelling, he started at 8pm and had a character. Two hours later, he had his leading lady. By 3:30am, he had his big finale…but still needed a plot thread to weave it all together. He got it, and delivered the 18 pages by 9am. He didn’t hear back for a few days. He started to worry, so he called on the editor. Oh, he was told, we pay on Friday. Pay? Yup, the story was purchased. And then he was asked for another. According to Gruber, “I was ‘in.’”

From that moment on, Gruber worked steadily and for higher paying markets. He cracked the big dog on the block—Black Mask—and kept going. The key factor here was that Gruber never stopped working. Yes he had made it, but in those days, a writer was only as good as the next sale. Not like today. So he kept working on stories, then branched out into novels, both detective stories as well as westerns. All the contacts he had made during the lean years paid dividends later on, including when he moved to Hollywood.

THE PULP JUNGLE is chock full of great little nuggets of truth. Writing to market is a growing aspect of indie writers, but Gruber and his pals did it back in the 1930s. They had to or they didn’t eat. Another modern trend is books or courses or classes on writing. Yes they serve a valuable purpose—I greatly benefited from two online courses with Dean Wesley Smith late in 2016—but constant writing means a writer is constantly improving his craft. By definition, each story or book is better than the previous. I can attest to that as well.

For any person who dreams of a full-time writing career in 2017, that dream is still attainable. But what the story of Frank Gruber’s professional life suggests is that hard work, determination, and perseverance will enable a writer to hone the skills necessary to become a full-time writer. It also demonstrates that writers must recognize and seize opportunities when they present themselves. Don’t think you could write a story overnight (or insert your own personal challenge here)? Perhaps Gruber didn’t think he could do it either…until he said “yes” and then he delivered.

You can, too.

Reading THE PULP JUNGLE is a great snapshot into the life of a real pulp fiction writer and might be essential reading for any writer who is considering the professional writing life.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Bloodline Season 3

Bloodline: Season 3

I crossed the finish line with Bloodline Season 3 last night. Perhaps that phrase will serve as a clue to what I thought of it.

This review contains spoilers so read no further if you don't want to know details.

Back in December, I watched Season 1 and raved about the series, especially Ben Mendelsohn's character, Danny. He was mesmerizing. He didn't survive to Season 2, having been murdered by his brother, John, played wonderfully by Kyle Chandler. Most of Season 2 was John and his two siblings (Kevin and Meg) and the constellation of characters around them try to come to terms with Danny's death and John trying to keep the law away. The finale of Season 2 also featured a murder and much of Season 3 was...wait for it...John trying to keep the law away from discovering *that* truth.

I'll be honest: there were certain stretches of Season 3 that were a slog. Well, not a slog, but just dull. I don't binge watch, so my wife and I watch an episode a night. Seven of the ten episodes in Season 3 typically ended with "Well, Kevin's being stupid, John's always looking like he's trying to contain his anger, lots of people are trying to talk to each other and leave voicemails like 'John, it's Kevin. I really need to talk to you.", and not much else." Oh, and a lot--a lot--of F bombs. It got to the point where I could tell, by the slightest of pauses from the actors, that they were about to unleash that word.

But the last three episodes made up for the previous seven. Well, Episode 8 was more of the same, but the last image served as a cliffhanger. So the wife and I binged the last two back-to-back. Hallelujah! Mendelsohn was back. Sure, he was still dead, but his 'ghost' kept up a running conversation with John. All that gravitas from Mendelsohn was on full display, and frankly, Chandler did some of his best acting opposite Mendelsohn. Episode 9 was a wonderfully trippy, what's-going-on hour of television that I enjoyed specifically because I didn't know what was going to happen. Might be the best of Season 3. The Finale was good, wrapped up some loose ends, but, ultimately was a little underwhelming considering how fun Episode 9 was. And the last moment, the final bit of this series, left you with an unanswered question. Sure, it leaves the true ending up to the viewer, but come on. We all want things tied up in a bow.

Acting-wise, Mendelsohn really shined in all of his parts, but Kyle Chandler I really enjoyed, too, even when he's often doing the same thing. This is my first time seeing him, and I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for his projects from now on. It was fantastic to see Sissy Spacek again, and her role and performance only gets better as the series moves on. Heck, her final scene is pretty darn brutal.

Overall, Bloodline was an enjoyable show, despite some dull parts. I could actually make a case where new viewers simply watch Season 1 and go no further. That season ended on such a high that it, frankly, never achieved again. But no one is really going to do that because of the questions posed at the end of Season 1.

Bloodline. It's certainly a recommended show despite its flaws, and I'm glad I watched it.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Wonder Woman (Movie Review)

Every Saturday night, MeTV broadcasts an episode from the 1970s TV show “Wonder Woman.” That theme song always makes me smile, as does Lynda Carter’s portrayal of the Amazon from Paradise Island. The show was cheesy, especially when they moved to the 1970s (from the 1940s of Season 1), but I always appreciated her earnestness, even if I didn’t know what that was back in the day. Ditto for Batman ’66 and Superman ’78. Somewhere along the line, earnestness in a superhero film was beaten down in favor of grim and dark and dour because…whatever. That’s more real. There are certainly elements of grimdark in Wonder Woman (WW) but it’s so refreshing to see a return of earnestness to a superhero film, especially this one.

The movie is the origin of Diana of Themyscira, the island (don’t call it Paradise Island), the only child of the Amazons set on earth and hidden by Zeus to serve as the ultimate protector against the fallen god of war, Ares. Naturally, the world of man intrudes on Themyscira when an American spy, Steve Trevor played by Chris Pine, crashes in the water. Diana sees this and, being the hero, saves him. Then you get the first bad-ass sequence in the movie: when the Germans invade Themyscira and the Amazons defend their island. Holy cow! The action was well choreographed and executed with panache. That the Amazons were all female warriors (natch) was great to watch. More importantly, to me, was that they were almost all not young. Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen, to name the two main stars of Themyscira are both 51 now, so they were 49 or 50 when filming the movie.

The plot is a natural super-hero plot: future hero wants to do something good, leaves her home to do the good thing. The fish-out-of-water aspect here is great with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. In Superman ’78, when Superman made his debut, he had grown up a human and revealed himself to the world. In WW, the Amazonian is introduced to the world of man with predictably funny moments. You’ve seen some of them in the trailers. There are more and funnier ones in the film.

Diana’s single-minded belief that Ares was behind the war and that if she merely killed him, the war would end is her guiding force. “Just get me to the war,” she keeps imploring Steve, “and I’ll kill Ares and be done with it.” But her seeing all the pain and horror of a human war—especially World War I—starts to affect her. This leads to arguably the greatest moment in the film (and it’s in the trailer so it’s not a spoiler): her march across No Man’s Land. She’s tired of hearing the world ‘no’ so she decides she’ll do something, anything, to try and help. What follows is such a transcendent moment in the movie my eyes welled with tears.

Gal Gadot is truly amazing in this role. Her nuances, whether in the quiet scenes or her determination in the action sequences, really bring WW above a mere hero in a hero film. She gives the character depth to do what she has to do in the way she does it. Chris Pine has charm dripping out of his pores. Director Patty Jenkins could have cast any hunky star to stand opposite Gadot. With Pine, you get something extra. Not only is he the stand-in for the audience (his responses to Diana’s heritage is pretty much how we’d all react), his charm helps the comedy play out better. His particular way of reading Steve’s lines ended up being something more than Hunky Co-Star. And even he has a character arc.

The film is not without some flaws. Act three is a little tedious and devolves into a typical super-hero showdown. At night of course, which brought to mind Batman v Superman, a movie I’ve tried my best to erase from my memory (save for the WW parts). The tedium of another night fight was in sharp contrast to the Themyscira battle, which was in full daylight on a beach. More of that, please.

But the quibbles are minor because the entire experience was so filled with joy. I loved watching this movie, late afternoon of opening day. It’s the way I want every DC film to be: action, adventure, a good dose of humor and spectacle, with heart and emotion.

Need any more reason to see the movie? When was the last time you heard an audience erupt in applause at the end of a movie? My theater audience did that. I enthusiastically joined in. It’s that kind of movie.

Monday, June 5, 2017

You Can Find Great Story Structure Anywhere: Scooby Doo, Mystery Inc

One of my favorite modern cartoons was Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated. The show, which ran for two sporadic seasons, came at the perfect time for my boy, who had just discovered the original series and enjoyed it. But Mystery Inc. was something different. Not only did it issue meta commentary on the original series, it offered an excellent example of ongoing storytelling amid ‘monster of the week’ episodes.
I re-watched the first episode this morning—what else are you supposed to do on Saturday mornings other than watch cartoons? Thanks Netflix. The more I watched the breakdown of the episode, the more I realized how the scenes were actually structured. Yeah, it’s the curse of a writer always to be mindful of how stories are constructed.
Effortlessly, scenes relayed not only the backstory and current situation of our five heroes—Fred, Velma, Daphne, Shaggy, and Scooby—but also subplots and main plots. Sure, it’s a cartoon, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be built like a movie.
And this episode was. The precise moment I realized it was when Velma was about to tell Scooby about her relationship with Shaggy—still not one of my favorite aspects of the show, but I understand why—when the monster attacks the Mystery Machine. Thus, subplot averted for main plot. This subplot remerges one more time and then is tabled until the next episode. Ditto for the Daphne/Fred subplot.
The coolest thing is one of the clues. Daphne finds a key that is also a locket. Inside, there is a photo of a couple. She can’t figure out what it means to *this* episode until the end when the Bad Guy reveals he’s never seen it before.
But Fred’s dad, the mayor, has. The last scene is the gang at a local radio station and they get a call. A spooky voice says “You don’t know what you’ve uncovered: the truth of the curse of Crystal Cove.” When asked who the caller is, he identifies himself as Mister E. “And the real mystery is about to begin.” And the episode ends.
Boom! Now you’ve got an entire season’s worth of storytelling.
I really loved this show. Season 1 was pretty consistent in terms of airing, but Season 2 was sporatic. The casting was great. Patrick Warburton is the sheriff.  Each set of parents were an older reflection of the each gang member. Shaggy’s dad was voiced by Casey Kasum, the original Shaggy. The look, the feel, the vibe of the entire series is excellent. And the series finale is mindblowingly good.
Anyway, just thought I’d share some writerly thoughts about the first episode, “Beware the Beast from Below” of Scooby Doo and remind you that you can find inspiration about writing everywhere.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Forgotten Books: Return of the Rio Kid by Brett Halliday

In 2010, while vacationing in and around San Diego, I happened into a used book, as I am wont to do. I found a book called Death on Treasure Trail. It had a nice, bright yellow cover, the kind that nearly every western novel had back in the day. Erle Stanley Gardner even wrote an introduction. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the setting of the novel was in Texas’s Big Bend region.
Yet I never read the book. Cut to July 2016 and our trip out to Big Bend. I’m a fan of reading books on vacations that are set around the places I’m visiting so Death on Treasure Trail was tops on my list. But the book is pretty beat up, so I took to the internet to find an electronic copy for my Kindle. Imagine my surprise when I discovered not only Treasure Trail, but the other two Rio Kid books all available as ebooks. Well, seeing as how Treasure Trail was third of three, I went ahead and got Return of the Rio Kid, the first book in the trilogy.
The author on my physical book is listed as “Don Davis” but, in reality, the man behind the typewriter was none other than Brett Halliday, the writer who created the Michael Shayne private eye series. However, “Halliday” is merely the most famous pen name for the actual man, Davis Dresser, but that name won’t sell many ebooks, so the good folks at Open Road Media made sure Brett Halliday supersedes the title on the new covers.
When the book opens, the Rio Kid has been hiding out in Mexico after fleeing Arizona on a false murder charge three years before. Sure, the Rio Kid has killed men before, but the one that got his visage on a wanted poster was falsified. Having grown into manhood in a foreign land, the Kid wants to return to Arizona and clear his name. He chooses the Big Bend region as his crossing point, but not before trouble starts.
On the Mexican side of the border sits a small town under the thumb of ruthless hombre, Pedro. He rules the town in much the same way Gene Hackman’s character does in Unforgiven. Being a western paperback of the 1940s, the Kid gets himself in a fight when he refuses to remove his twin .45s strapped to each leg. He hightails it out of town, leaving one mess behind. He crosses the Rio Grande and finds himself in another mess, this one partly of his own making. You see, there’s a small town on the Texas side. A poker game is being played and a young man is betting when he should be folding. The Kid gets himself mixed up in the game and ends up winning the young man’s ranch. A ranch that, not coincidentally, is one of two parcels of land a ruthless (is there any other kind?) cattle rancher wants to own. Well, you can imagine what happens from here.
But you’d be partially wrong. Sure, the Kid—whose real name isn’t given—does what all flawed heroes with prices on their heads do: the right thing. Mostly. But the folks he’s trying to help and those he’s trying to stay away from, have other ideas. It makes for entertaining reading, that’s for sure. I especially liked the secret the Rio Kid uncovered and how he turned his attention to putting it to good use.
Halliday chose a curious method to get across how folks talked to each other. He spelled out the Rio Kid’s drawl phonetically. Granted, when I read the first few passages, I assumed Halliday was going to provide this kind of dialogue as an example and then revert back to standard spelling, letting the reader fill in the blanks. Nope. The Kid mutters through the entire book. Others, too. Here are a couple of examples.
“I’ll just keep my guns on, I reckon,” he drawled, “’less yo’re of uh mind tuh take’em offa me.”
“Say, yo’re jes spoilin’ fer uh six-foot hole, ain’t yuh? Yuh cain’t buck Pedro, I’m tellin’ yuh.”
Yes, it leaves the reader with absolutely zero leeway in hearing the voice in the mind, but it’s a pain to type. I understand one or two words consistently spelled like they sound, but almost all of them? Aw, shucks. Who am I kiddin’? I liked ’em all.
Oh, and all that joy I experienced when I realized I was going to read a western set in Big Bend while actually being in Big Bend? That excitement held all the way until Halliday namedropped a mountain range that, upon consultation with the internet, was actually located in Arizona. No big deal. All I had to do was look out the window of my hotel and get my bearings straight.
But don’t let that dissuade you from reading this enjoyable first book in the Rio Kid Trilogy.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Ranking All James Bond Theme Songs

I'm a tad behind on listening to the nifty James Bonding podcast with Matt Mira and Matt Gourley. In the most-recent episode, #34 (dated Dec 2016), they spend 2.5 hours discussing all 24 James Bond theme songs.

Never one to let an opportunity to make a list pass me be--especially when it comes to James Bond--I made my own before listening to the episode. You can hear their list here and mine is here. The only caveat: I didn't include the Dr. No theme because it is the James Bond theme. I put it at zero.

Oh, and I'm happy to note that their #24 is the one that immediately, without a second thought, jumped to last. Abysmal song.

0. Dr. No (James Bond Theme)

1. Live and Let Die
2. Goldfinger
3. Thunderball
4. A View to a Kill
5. You Only Live Twice
6. The World is Not Enough
7. Diamonds are Forever
8. Nobody Does it Better (The Spy Who Loved Me)
9. The Living Daylights
10. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
11. The Man With the Golden Gun
12. From Russia With Love
13. Spyfall
14. You Don't Know My Name (Casino Royale)
15. For Your Eyes Only
16. Moonraker
17. Goldeneye
18. License to Kill
19. Tomorrow Never Dies*
20. All Time High (Octopussy)
21. Writing's On the Wall (Spectre)
22. Another Way to Die (Quantum of Solace)
23. Die Another Day

*The k.d. lang song, "Surrender," heard in the closing credits, is a brilliant song. Were it the official song, it's a Top 5 song (replacing Thunderball)

P.S., I never knew Shirley Bassey contributed a song for Quantum of Solace. They play a snippet (and then I went out and listened myself) and it's another swing and a miss.

Podcasts I Like: 70s Trek

They had me at the title: “70s Trek.” 
Heck, they had me at "70s"!
I listened to the first episode, then promptly downloaded all episodes up to that point (29 at the time). I binge-listened to all of them in a week’s time, loving every minute of each episode.
I was born during Star Trek’s third season so I grew up with Star Trek. Now, I’ll admit that my memory is a tad hazy and I only came to Trek after Star Wars debuted, but that’s where this podcast comes in.
Hosts Bob Turner and Kelly Casto are a delightful pair, easy on the ears, with a warm comradery and shared love of Trek in the 70s. In each episode that averages around 30 minutes, Bob and Kelly examine some aspect of Trek. While you don’t have to listen in order, it’s not a bad idea as you’ll get a good overview of how Trek came to be and the influences that went into its creation.
The main focus, however, is the 1970s, as the tagline reads, “The decade that built a franchise.” For us, over 50 years on, Trek permeates our daily lives, from cell phones to tablet computers to speaking to our computers. But Bob and Kelly take us back and remind us what it was like to be a fan of Trek in the 70s. Fans in the 70s didn’t know a lot. They had only a few books. They had a cartoon. Heck, they never even knew if there’d be any more live-action Trek. After all, Trek was actually a cancelled TV show, but it proved to be much more than that.
One of the aspects of this podcast that remains joyful is Bob and Kelly’s sense of wonder. Often one of them will take the lead on a particular subject, leaving the other co-host the first listener. Many times, new facts will be revealed, and cries of “I didn’t know that!” are great fun. What’s also fun is their clear joy at the subject and other things in Trek’s orbit.
So far (remember: I’m still catching up) a particular favorite episode is #3 (What We Knew in 1970), #13 (the Richard Arnold interview), and #9 (Star Trek in Syndication).
This is a love letter to Star Trek, the people behind it, the fans that kept it alive in the 1970s, and everything in between.
70s Trek has now firmly ensconced itself in my weekly podcast schedule. Utterly and completely enjoyable.
Oh, they have a Facebook presence and respond personally to comments. So after you subscribe to the podcast, head over there and join the conversation.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Planet of the Apes (1968)

I watched Planet of the Apes (1968) last night. It was either the first time ever I've seen the film all the way through or the first time in decades. I have sepid-toned memories of me being a kid when those movies (1968, 1970-73) were being released. Truth be told, it's probably the TV series I remember.

With all the hoopla surrounding the 40th Anniversary of Star Wars, one podcast I listened to quoted a review from 1977's Time magazine which said that Star Wars was, paraphrasing here, a fun movie made like they used to make. Sitting in 2017, there are plenty of movies like that--SF ones, too; I'm looking at you Guardians of the Galaxy--but I wondered why the reviewer summed up Star Wars in that fashion.

In re-watching POTA, I think I realized it. As I am wont to do nowadays, I pull up Wikepedia and learn about said movie along the way. My wife commented how good a movie she thought POTA was in addition to star Charleton Heston's role in OMEGA MAN. The third of this little trilogy of SF films with Heston was Soylent Green. I've seen bits of SG and none of OM. But there's a definite pessimism in POTA. Understandable, considering the subject matter. I can see how Star Wars was such a breath of fresh air forty years ago this summer.

The prosthetic make-up in POTA holds up very well. Only a few times was the camera directly in line with the actor who was speaking, enabling the viewer to catch glimpses of the human actor's mouth. But, really, who cares?

I loved the set of the ape village. Seems to me there was a Mego playset. I had one of the Mego POTA dolls--the one in purple--to go along with my Mego super-hero dolls.

Image result for planet of the apes mego

The movie is quite talky, with part of middle taken up with a court case. I appreciate that now. Perhaps there can be more of that in modern SF movies. I'm all for the action summer blockbuster movie, but it would be nice to sprinkle in some low-key SF every now and then.

Were all space movies of the late 60s and into the mid 70s set on desert planets? Seeing the three astronauts traipse around the American southwest made it look like western.

The scene where we first see the apes on horseback chasing the humans is a great scene. Viewers know going in there are apes, but the reveal is still powerful. And the music is really well done.

And that last shot. It is still very powerful and iconic. I know that the third film of the prequel POTA trilogy is coming out this summer. It simply has to end with the destruction of the Statue of Liberty, right?

At Houston's Comicpalooza a few weeks back, I purchased a VHS set of all 5 original POTA films for a grand total of $2.00. My intention is to watch all 5 this summer. One down; four to go.

What did y'all think of Planet of the Apes?

Western Words

I live and write in 2016, the 21st Century, and there isn’t any real way to know how folks talked in the Old West. The only way to discover what words people used in conversation is to read then-contemporary documents and glean what I can and put it in my stories.

There is, however, another way: western novels and stories. From the earliest days, authors sometimes had the opportunity to interview real old west cowboys. Or these future authors—I’m thinking of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Lester Dent—they actually grew up around some of these cowboys. No matter how the early 20th Century authors got their data, they put what they learned or knew into their stories.

Over the years and decades of western writing, a vocabulary of how writers described things emerged. A more or less common way to make these cowboy heroes, villains, and lovely ladies speak also emerged. Ever since the first western I read, I quickly realized that western writers simply had their own unique vocabulary.

So I started reading westerns with a pencil in hand.

Every time I came across some new term, I’d circle the word. Every new-to-me western I read-Right now, I'm reading THE FOURTH GUNMAN by Merle Constiner--I repeated this practice. It’s second nature to me now. Even when I read stories on my Kindle, I highlight words and phrases and collect them when I’m done.

Now, I have an ever-growing “database” of words I can use to sprinkle into my Triple Action Western  and Junction City Western stories and give them more authenticity and help the reader—and me—become immersed into the world of the Old West.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

When All the Tweaks Are Done

In a bit of a sequel to my post over on DoSomeDamage on Saturday, I experienced something kinda funny yesterday.

In that post, I commented that I've been tinkering with this blog and the blog focusing on my mystery stories. I streamlined both sites down to a minimistic look and feel. If you're reading this here, then you might want to have a look at the mystery site. I made some nifty banners over there that I'll replicate over here on the western site...soon.

Anyway, after I fixed up the mystery site, both sites were where I wanted them to be. I had this moment during a lull on Memorial Day where I walked up to my standing desk, ready to power on the PC and start tweaking...

...until I realized I had nothing left to tweak. At least not in the short-term. The only thing left to do was write.

That's a nice place to be.

Longarm and the Bank Robber's Daughter by Tabor Evans/James Reasoner

I knew about Longarm long before I read a single one of his cases.
My grandfather only read westerns. They were stacked and double-stacked in a few bookshelves throughout his house in Tyler, Texas. Most of them were the big names: Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, Luke Short, etc. I was a Star Wars kid so I paid those old paperbacks no mind. But they had great covers, including the ones for Longarm. My grandfather didn’t have many Longarm novels distinctive back in those days with a nearly all white cover and a few images, but he had a few. My dad’s recollection of why my grandfather read those novels was that he had read everything else, probably more than once. Now, I wasn’t a dummy back in the day, but a cowboy book with a pretty lady mostly undressed meant something. There was sex in them thar pages! It was a small miracle I never scanned those books on summer nights, trying to find those particular sex scenes. Heck, if I’d have actually read the books, I would have discovered just how entertaining the stories actually were.
But I wasn’t ready in the early 80s. I am ready now. So I cracked open Longarm and the Bank Robber’s Daughter. This is the 301st entry in the series that began in the late 70s and ran all the way until 2015 with the 436th installment! Custis Long, nicknamed “Longarm,” is a deputy U.S. Marshal in the old west, likely the 1880s. He is based in Denver, Colorado, and is sent all over the region to solve cases and bring bad guys to justice. And to bed women along the way.
Why this novel? I have four of them right now, three of which were written by James Reasoner. Yeah, for those that don’t know, “Tabor Evans” was a house name that many different writers used. Mainly, I wanted to see how a Longarm novel was constructed. So I opened up each one and read the opening passages. This is how Bank Robber’s Daughter starts.
Longarm jerked open the door of his rented room and growled, “What the hell do you want?”
Then his jaw tightened as he realized that Death had come knocking on this mild spring evening in Denver.
Death wore the pale, haggard face of an old man who clutched at his middle. Crimson blood welled between the fingers of the hands he pressed against his belly. He leaned forward and croaked, “G-Gold…”
Bingo! If I had picked this book up in a bookstore back when it was published in 2003, I would have walked out with it. Sold with three paragraphs. Action in three paragraphs. And that’s pretty much how this story rolls.
It turns out old man is Floyd Pollard, recently released from prison, and who shared a cell with Clete Harrington, an old bank robber that Longarm put in prison. The loot Harrington stole was never found, but Pollard’s dying words were “Sweetwater Canyon.” Naturally, Longarm is assigned the case and he’s about to head out to Sweetwater Canyon, New Mexico, when Emily Harrington shows up. She’s the titular daughter and, after a few more scrapes, Longarm agrees that she tag along.
What follows is a very good story about hidden gold, a range war, and enough clues scattered throughout the book that, upon learning the truth at the end, you realize Reasoner laid it all out for you. The action-packed structure of the book is such that, even if you get a chapter mostly of traveling down from Colorado to New Mexico with the characters talking, something happens at the end of the chapter that compels you to keep going. Definition of a page turner.
I didn’t know what to expect when the sex scenes arrived. How would they be written? How graphic would they be? Well, it turns out that the scenes were rather romantic. The action is spelled out, but the words Reasoner uses to describe the anatomy and what’s happening are euphemistic. You know exactly what’s going on and being done, but the word choices are nice. I emailed James to ask him about that and he said the descriptions were up to the discretion of the individual writer. I prefer it this way.
The ending was a nice surprise. By the time I read the last word, I was grinning ear to ear. I so thoroughly enjoyed this book that I immediately started another. But that’s a different review.