Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Gospel of Creativity with Kevin Smith

(The news of Kevin Smith's near fatal heart attack stunned me yesterday. He's a little under two years younger than I am. His heartfelt post about his near-death experience moved me to verify with my family if they knew how much they meant to me if I were to pass in an instant. I have grown to love and admire Smith's brand of optimistic fandom. The world needs more of what he's offering.

This is a piece I wrote in August 2015 after seeing Smith live. It was an event.

In his tweet, Smith wrote that he didn't want his life to end, but if it did, "I can't complain. It was a gift."

Kevin, your work has been a gift to us. Thank you, and get well soon.)


I went to "church" on Wednesday night and the preacher was Kevin Smith.

Some of you will probably stop reading right now. Kevin Smith? The independent director of films like "Clerks," "Chasing Amy," and "Jersey Girl"? The guy who has a few dozen podcasts and fills them with talk of film and comics and humor all laced with profanities? Yup, that's the one.

I'm unique in the world of Kevin Smith fandom. I've never seen any of his films. I know him as a podcast personality. Three years ago, while listening to the podcast from SF Signal, there was mention of "...a Batman podcast by filmmaker Kevin Smith where he talks to Mark Hamill." All I heard was "Batman" and "Mark Hamill." The definitive voice of the Joker as far as I was concerned. I listened and fell in love with Fatman on Batman podcast. I've written about it more than once. (here, here, here, and here). Add in Hollywood Babble-On and  I have some great content for the week that includes the wonderfully talented Ralph Garman. 

Cut to a few weeks ago and word came down that Kevin Smith was going to be live in Houston. I knew I had to get tickets. A couple of friends and I met at the Improv Wednesday night. We got there at 7pm for the 8pm show. It started at 8:30...and didn't stop until 12:10am! No breaks. What followed in between was one part comedy show, one part great stories, and a huge, heaping helping of a motivational speaker who preached the gospel of creativity so well that if I hadn't already started my own company and published two books would've had me going home to write a business plan.

The format was Q&A and Smith joked that he might be able to get through five, maybe six questions. I thought he was joking. He wasn't. What is great about podcast--not just Smith's--is that there is no ticking clock or commercials butting up against the host to curtail discussion. There have been many times when an interview goes multiple parts. I love it because you can really dig deep and ask questions we listeners want to know. I assumed that in a live setting, some of that would actually be trimmed.

I assumed wrong. For each question asked, Smith gave the audience member his full attention. The answers were in depth and, dare I say it, reminiscent of Garrison Keillor in that whatever rabbit trail Smith traveled, he always came back around to the question asked. And the rabbit trails were so fun. A year or so younger than me, Smith basically loved the same things i loved as a kid: Batman, comics, and Star Wars. He has made a name for himself just being himself. He just has twenty something years in the film industry to bolster his heritage.

What really struck me was his passion for independent creativity. One of the questions involved a podcast. Smith paused to give an impassioned tangent about the power one individual can have in this world through podcasting. He used podcasting as a real-world example but basically said that any art can save lives. He talked so well and deeply that I wasn't the only one who picked up on his motivational style. Heck, there were so many good nuggets that I flipped over the comment cards and started taking notes. Yeah, I know: I’m odd, but when you hear words of wisdom from a guy who’s been in the fray, you take notice. Among the things I took away, in case you can’t read my scribble, are these:

  • There’s too much ‘Why’ in the world. Go for “Why not?”
  • Find something that’s yours.
  • Don’t be afraid of your thing not working.
  • Put some ‘secret sauce’ in your project, something that just for you.
  • Ask yourself: What would make your bliss?
  • Smith made “Clerks” because he kept looking for a movie like it and realized it was never going to be made unless he made it. (Of all the things I’ve heard Smith say, this one resonates most with me.)

There were others, but those are the highlights. Oh, and he talked extensively about “Tusk,” the movie he made last year. He told about its genesis (via a podcast), how his daughter had a part (as a convenience store clerk), and how Johnny Depp got involved merely by Smith taking a chance and asking a question.

I absolutely loved the show and the message of independent creativity. I’m already doing the independent publishing thing (new western short story and new Benjamin Wade novel coming next month). Now, I just have to go watch some Kevin Smith films.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Shadow: The Black Falcon

THE BLACK FALCON is not only the fourth Shadow novel I’ve read in 2018 but my fourth one overall. And, to date, it might be my favorite for all the action, mystery, and zeal of the storytelling.

As the story opens, Rowdy Kershing is at a poker game amongst his criminal brethren. When he loses his winnings, he needs to buy more chips. He does so with a fat wad of money he makes sure all around him see. What he hides is the presence of a falcon’s feather, dyed black. For Rowdy has been assigned a task: recruit some “gorillas” to be of service to the super criminal, The Black Falcon, who has already kidnapped one millionaire and taunts the police that he’ll do it again.

But as gruff a talker as Rowdy is, he pales when the Knight of Darkness enters the room. They all do. Action ensues and Rowdy squeals like a rat.

The next set piece is the preparations the police deployed to protect Elias Carthers, the next millionaire on The Black Falcon’s list. This is a great action sequence mainly for how it plays out and the clues it reveals. I know that in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, authors frequently left clues for the readers to draw their own conclusions. Pulp fiction was not too known for that, but the clues in this sequence are plain to see.

It is after these scenes where The Shadow, in disguise as millionaire Lamont Cranston, takes action not in Shadow garb. Again, I’m too new at reading these stories to know if this is normal or special, but I’m guessing it’s likely normal, seeing as how The Shadow inserts himself as Cranston into the action.

And by poking his nose into the action gets Cranston in hot water. You see, he’s a millionaire and he walks directly into the clutches of The Black Falcon. From here to the end, the action is fantastic, the revelations are eye-opening, and the ending is outstanding in a “how will he get out of this” manner.
Perhaps the reason I like this one so much is the similarities to the villains of Batman. The Joker or The Riddler rarely commit their crimes without letting everyone know ahead of time, and The Black Falcon is right in that wheelhouse. Surprisingly, the Falcon makes some deductions of his own, and that got me to worrying for The Shadow’s safety. This novel is from February 1934 so I needn’t have worried. There was still going to be another fifteen years of stories, but still.

At one point, The Shadow reveals his true face to another character…and author Walter Gibson doesn’t describe the face! He only describes the reactions of the other character. I found that simultaneously great and frustrating. Who really is The Shadow? And what must his visage look like to bring such dread?

Of the new productions by Audible, THE BLACK FALCON is not a full-cast recording but a single narrator. Thankfully, it’s the same narrator as the full-cast versions so there is continuity.
For those of y’all who have never read a Shadow novel, here is a good one with which to start. It’s got all the pieces in place for a rip-roaring pulp adventure tale.

Partners in Peril
The Shadow Unmasks
The Romanoff Jewels

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Shadow: The Romanoff Jewels

In the third Shadow novel I’ve read (actually heard; thanks Audible!), THE ROMANOFF JEWELS begins in the apartment full of wealthy men. Author Maxwell Grant (Walter Gibson) tells the reader who they are and why they’re there. One of those men is Lamont Cranston, otherwise known as…The Shadow.

Another one of those gentlemen is Marcus Holtmann. Unpretentious, Holtmann has a secret buried deep in his brain, a secret other men desperately want. You see, a friend of Holtmann’s casually let slip the hiding place of the Romanoff jewels, the very jewels seized by the Bolsheviks in 1917 when they overthrew—and murdered—Czar Nicholas II and his family. Priceless in value, nefarious men want to steal the jewels and return the czars to power. To bring out his knowledge, Holtmann is kidnapped and tortured by the insidious Michael Senov for the information.

Naturally the Shadow deduces Holtmann’s whereabouts and does his best to save the man’s life. But he was a few minutes too late. Holtmann was poisoned! With his dying breaths, Holtmann relates to The Shadow all that he divulged to Senov. Armed with that knowledge, The Shadow races across the Atlantic to thwart the attempt.

I won’t give away the ending here, but I’ll just say that a piece of information The Shadow relates I didn’t see coming…but it makes all the sense in the world.

This being only my third Shadow novel, I don’t know how prevalent it was for the Knight of Darkness to travel outside the confines of New York or even America, but I appreciated how, to the European adversaries he encountered, The Shadow was a complete unknown. At least the gangsters in The Big Apple are smart enough about The Shadow to be scared. In addition, I liked how The Shadow got injured at one point, so badly that he needed to be nursed back to health, once again proving he is simply a man.

Which leads to a question I hope long-time fans of The Shadow can answer: is there ever a novel in which author Walter Gibson relates The Shadow’s training?

I’m not sure what criteria Audible used to choose which Shadow novels they produced, but I think him traveling abroad might be high on the list. Or the great ending. PARTNERS IN PERIL is a good one because of how it was used in the first Batman story. THE SHADOW UNMASKS was a natural choice that The Shadow’s origin was reveal. THE ROMANOFF JEWELS not only had foreign travel but the revelation of a key aspect of The Shadow’s legacy.

I am thoroughly enjoying these books. Next up: THE BLACK FALCON.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Eighty-five Years of Doc Savage

Eighty-five years ago today, Doc Savage landed on magazine shelves for the first time and, one might argue, helped change popular culture all the way up to the present day.

The brainchild of Street and Smith publisher, Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic, Doc Savage was the brighter answer to the magazine’s other runaway bestseller, The Shadow. But where the Knight of Darkness fought crime at night and in the, um, shadows, The Man of Bronze was a different type of hero. He strove “every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.” He was a paragon of virtue, the kind of person kids could look up to and revere.

Clark Savage, Jr. appeared in 181 adventures from 1933 to 1949, mostly written by a single author, Lester Dent. In nearly all of them, he was accompanied by his five stalwart brothers in arms: Monk Mayfair, Ham Brooks, John Renwick, Long Tom Roberts, and William Littlejohn. Each man of the Fabulous Five was an expert in his chosen discipline, but Doc bested each. Doc had trained his mind and body since birth to be a superman. He even had a Fortress of Solitude where he would retire from time to time to study. Invariably he would emerge from his seclusion with some new invention, knowledge, or something else to benefit humankind. His headquarters on the 86th Floor of the unnamed building in New York (but we all knew was the Empire State Building) was a palace of gadgets, technology, and books where Doc and his comrades planned their adventures. And his villains were trying to take over the world long before Lex Luther or Blofeld.

If you’ve read this far, I think you will recognize some names and terms. The obvious descendant is Superman himself. Extrapolate, if you will, what Superman wrought: Batman, DC Comics, other superheroes, Marvel Comics, novels, toys, merchandise, movie serials, major motion pictures with superheroes, and many other things that shape large chunks of popular culture. In fact, the biggest superhero movie to date, The Avengers: Infinity War, can trace its roots all the way back to a pulp magazine character that debuted eight-five years ago today.

I am woefully deficient in my Doc Savage reading, but then just imagine reading one novel a month at the pace Lester Dent and a handful of other co-writers drafted the books. You would finish in 2034! But these stories are fantastic to dip into from time to time for the breathless sense of adventure and wonder.

Generations of readers grew up on the original pulp magazines while other generations were raised on the Bantam reprints of the 1960s and 1970s, with Frank Bama's depiction of Doc with a widow's peak and a tattered shirt.

Nostalgia Ventures reprinted the entire run, adding historical commentary. And Will Murray has been using abandoned outlines from Dent’s personal papers to write new adventures, including one in which Doc teams up with The Shadow, bringing the entire saga full circle.

Now, in this 85th year of Doc Savage, I plan to read a few more adventures, including the black-and-white comics from the mid 70s as published by Marvel Comics. I'll be reviewing these yarns as I get to them, beginning with The Polar Treasure next week. 

What are your favorite Doc Savage stories? How about a Top 10 list?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Passing of Bill Crider

Even when you know the ending was approaching, it doesn’t lessen the impact when it arrives.

Bill Crider passed away last night. My deepest condolences to his family.

For all of us who knew him, he was a kind, honest man who warmly said hello whenever he saw you. I shared my thoughts about him back in December, which I now include here:

By the time I stuck my toe into the ocean that is blogging, Bill Crider was a veteran sea captain.

His was one of the first names I kept seeing pop up over and over again in comments. Slowly but surely, in reading his comments on other blogs and especially on his own blog, I got a sense of who Bill is and the kinds of stories he enjoys. I can tell you that the day he wrote his first comment on one of my own blogs was a great day. When he namedropped my blog on his “Blog Bytes” column in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, I knew I had stepped onto the stage. For so many of us writers who “came of age” in the first decade and a half of the 21st Century, I honestly think it’s a rite of passage for Bill to have read your blog and commented on it.

He has a kind, jovial face that radiates warmth and charm and a personal demeanor to match. Nevertheless, the first time in which I saw him in person, at Houston’s Murder by the Book, I grew nervous. I’m a fanboy in that I love seeing writers in person but, back then, reserved enough not to want to bother them. It was Bill’s easy-going personality that immediately put all those fears to rest. He greeted me like an old friend, smiled, and asked me about my writing. I found it odd that an accomplished writer would care about a newbie, but that’s Bill’s way. He cares about the genre, the writing, and the people behind the writing. At one meeting, right after hello, his first comment was to congratulate me on a new story. He was nice enough to respond to emails when I would send a few cover concepts to him, encouraging me all the way. He made me feel welcome, and I pass it on all the time to every writer I meet.

Godspeed, Bill. Thank you for your kind words and advice.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Night Manager TV Series

If you read the rumors about whom might replace Daniel Craig back in 2016, you would have heard Tom Hiddleston’s name bandied about. And, Daniel Craig returns for his fifth and final bow as 007, we viewers have been treated to a glimpse of what a Hiddleston-as-Bond might be like in BBC’s “The Night Manager.”

Based off a 1993 John Le Carre novel, The Night Manager has been updated to modern times. The six-episode series opens with Hiddleston serving as the night manager in a Cairo hotel during the Arab Spring. Most of the action takes place outside the doors of the hotel, but a fetching woman, Sophie, the mistress of local big shot Freddie Hamid, asks Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine to copy some documents. A former soldier, Pine is horrified to read a list of weapons, including chemical weapons, as sold by Ironlast, the front company for notorious arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). Pine sends the list up to London and where Oliva Colman’s character, intelligence operative Angela Burr, sees it and realizes this is a vital clue to bring down Roper. Unfortunately for Sophie, Hamid believes her to be the leak and she is killed.

And Pine drops out of sight for four years. When next we meet him, he is working in Switzerland hotel and is tasked with welcoming none other than Roper and his moll, Jed Marshall (Elizabeth Debicki). He can barely stomach the man, but puts on a professional face. Until Angela Burr approaches him about going under cover. To do the right thing. Of course Pine says yes or else we wouldn’t have enough to fill up six hours.

What follows is mostly standard fare for spy shows, but the three lead actors help carry The Night Manager above other movies or TV series of its type. The lengths Pine goes to in order to get inside Roper’s inner circle had me asking if I could do it. Likely not. But Hiddleston’s charm in on full display in every scene. He may not be Bond, but he would have been a decent one, probably a little harder edged than Pierce Brosnan but not as masculine as Craig or Sean Connery. Speaking of Bond, the opening title montages is straight out of the Bond playbook as is the music.

Hugh Laurie was a nice surprise for me. I never watched his TV show, “House,” or most of his other movies. In fact, the only thing I can truly remember him in is the live action “101 Dalmatians.” But he plays a bad guy very well. He’s eerie calm, which makes him all the more dangerous. And when he stares at Pine or other characters, silently studying them, it’s a penetrating, withering stare.

The Night Manager is full of tropes and, for the most part, the show steers away from all but the most obvious choice. The one trope that I constantly wonder about is the villain inviting the hero into the evil inner circle. Why do that? Is it born out of excessive suspicion? That isn’t the case with Roper and Pine but it still made me wonder.

What are y’all’s thoughts on The Night Manager? Did the tropes bother you?

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Longarm and the Border Wildcat

In the 229th adventure of Custis Long, U.S. Marshal, he acquires a partner in the most Longarm-ish way possible: a fight over a woman.

Just as the voluptuous red-headed Anne Marie is about to lead Longarm up some stairs to her boudoir, a bearded, beefy hombre questions the federal lawman about his intentions with "my girl." The brawl ensues and both men get in their licks under the man, Lazarus Coffin, produces his Texas Ranger badge. Longarm laughs and trumps the state badge with his federal one. It is only then they realize they are both in Del Rio, Texas, for the same reason: to provide security during a delicate negotiation between diplomats from America and Mexico.

This being an adult western, naturally there is yet another woman. She is Sonia Guiterrez, sultry daughter of the Mexican diplomat, Don Alfredo. She in openly wanton in her wants and desires and she teases just about every man in every scene in which she appears. Naturally, her father is unaware, but Coffin and Longarm aren't. Thus begins a rivalry between the two men to see who can bed the temptress. Guess who wins.

Another factor is at play in this story: a mysterious marauder, El Aguila. The local owlhoots who ride through the streets and shoot up the town are alleged to be members of his gang. That may be so, but if they are his men, the leader himself proves too elusive.

Longarm and Coffin chaff at the boredom of standing guard while the diplomats negotiate, but that lull is quickly dispatched when El Agulia's gang again rides into town. This time, however, they kidnap Sonia. When asked why she was out of her hotel room, Longarm doesn't answer that he and Sonia were having a rendezvous in an alley.

Naturally, the two lawmen must pursue the kidnappers and bring back the lovely Sonia. Along the way, they meet El Aguila himself, sling lead with the bandits, and uncover the truth behind the entire scheme.

As always, these Longarm westerns are fun, action-packed, and a joy to read. I especially enjoyed the interplay between the more cautious and reasoned Longarm and the brash Coffin. This one was written by James Reasoner.  I emailed him and asked if Coffin ever showed up again in a future Longarm novel he wrote. He said no, so this is your one and only time to meet the big Ranger.

Speaking of Ranger, I also got a smile on my face when Reasoner namedropped "Jim Hatfield" as one of the Texas Rangers Longarm wished had been sent to Del Rio. Hatfield was the lead character written by Bradford Scott in the old pulp magazine TEXAS RANGER. Speaking of old pulp characters, there's another one hidden in plain sight. Read this book and see if you can identify the character.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

January Reading Report

At the beginning of the year, I wrote about how well my wife read in 2017 and how poorly did I. She has a habit I called “mindful reading,” which is nothing less than reading a single book at a time without being distracted by other books. Maybe it should be called “non-ADHD reading.” No matter the term, she reads a book, finishes it, and then moves on.

Why not try it myself?

No reason at all. So in January, I set about reading mindfully. I selected a book and read nothing else until I finished it. My only bonus: I simultaneously read a physical book while listening to others during my day job commute. But the main thing was whatever book I was reading/listening to, I finished it.

And I ended up completing eight books in that single month!

Yeah, some of them were shorter pulp novels from the 1930s but they were books. And I consumed eight of them. I was really thrilled and I realized how simple a thing it is to choose a book and just focus on it. None of them were bad—because I will not finish bad books. Life’s too short to read bad books.

Here is what I read and the format:
So much for January. I don’t expect every month to be this productive but it was nice to start the year off on the right step.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Shadow: The Shadow Unmasks

Hot on the heels of my first Shadow novel, PARTNERS IN PERIL, I have now read my second, THE SHADOW UNMASKS. And I loved it just as much.

In order to kick start my Shadow experience, I decided to listen to the new productions at Audible Studios. They feature a main narrator and multiple voice actors for the cast. Both I’ve heard are fantastic and recommended. As a result, however, I’m reading these Shadow novels out of order, which means what I learned in UNMASKS surprised me.

Up until now, I’ve always thought The Shadow was, in fact, Lamont Cranston. If my memory serves me, that simple one-to-one equation was on the radio shows and it certainly was on the Alec Baldwin movie. As I started in with UNMASKS, I was expecting the same, and it started out that way until the story took an interesting turn.

The main plot of UNMASKS involves a crook named Shark Meglo (great name!). He and his gang have a straightforward plan: find, attack, and kill the buyers of some rare and valuable gems before the buyer can utter the name of the seller. For you see, the master crook behind the entire operation recycles the gems in new settings. Every three weeks or so a new member of the wealthy class dies. All of them had recently purchased gems.

Naturally, the story begins with the most recent murder. The Shadow tries to thwart Shark’s evil plans…but fails. He learns vital clues to what’s going on, however, information needed to prevent the next death. But a distant accident lands on the front pages of New York’s newspapers. A plane accident in England injured a few Americans. The story not only listed the names of the individuals but splashes their photos. There, for all to see, is the real Lamont Cranston. The problem is, especially if you are police commissioner Ralph Weston, who reads the newspaper standing outside the Cobalt Club, is that you are literally talking to Lamont Cranston. Only it’s The Shadow in his disguise. There follows a fun subterfuge as the Agents of The Shadow basically try and convince Weston that he didn’t really see Lamont Cranston but Cranston’s nephew. And the commissioner bought it.

The odd turn the story took for me was when Kent Allard, famed aviator who crashed in the Guatemalan jungle a dozen years ago, has made a reappearance. He arrives in New York to great fanfare and very quickly, we learn Allard is really The Shadow. And, lest anyone (me included) wasn’t hip on how it all shook down back then, The Shadow visits the house of an old ally, Slade Farrow (another great name!) and reveals his true identity, complete with the entire background. The reasoning is spot on—The Shadow uses the identity of Cranston as long as Cranston stays out of New York—but I couldn’t help wondering how many times in this series and, of course, the comic book masked heroes, that the characters revealed their identity to others. It also makes me wonder if, after this August 1937 issue (number 131 overall) if Lamont Cranston was ever used again. Long-time readers of The Shadow: please let me know.

Anyway, after that startling revelation, the story continued until the inevitable end. Two things struck me about this ending. One, the big finale was somewhat low key. I guess you can’t have every novel end in a big shoot-out or something. The second thing was that The Shadow is very much like Sherlock Holmes in that he knows the likely ending far in advance and just moves the various chess pieces along the way, usually with his agents none the wiser.

I’ve now read two Shadow novels and I’m not gonna stop now. They are a blast. And, as a lifelong Batman fan, I’m really fascinated to research more in depth how Bill Finger drew on his love of The Shadow and helped shape the Dark Knight Detective.

So, fellow Shadow fans, where does this story rank in the all-time list?